Christmas Crossword

The Globe & Mail, possibly in an attempt to keep families from fighting about politics over the holidays, puts an enormous crossword puzzle in their Saturday edition immediately before Christmas. The clues are very much general-knowledge level, so everyone can play. The challenge is more the sheer size of it – the clues for across and down each run into the 600s.Christmas Crossword

My family discovered this last year, and given that most of us are word nerds, ended up spending nearly all of Christmas Day working on it around our various festivities. We then dragged it with us on Boxing Day as well, to a gathering of my father’s side of the family. I was a teenager the last time we had this particular group of people all together in one place, and yet out came the puzzle at the end of the afternoon so everyone could get in on the action.

Between my siblings and their spouses, my cousins, their spouses and grown children, my parents, my aunt and myself, we got all but three answers. Those three we googled on the way home.

This year, we have no Boxing Day gathering. We got pretty close to halfway through the puzzle yesterday with only the immediate family (no cousins). I think the plan is to hang on to the rest until the next time we gather, which will probably be my mom’s birthday in January.

Although I might cheat and pick away at it between now and then. Because: word nerd.


Clueless in the Kitchen

I have bought – and I’m not even kidding – at least seven copies of Clueless in the Kitchen, by Evelyn Raab. I keep handing it out to friends and family because I love it so much. So now I’m going to take a minute to rave about it here.

This is the cookbook that taught me to cook. It’s aimed at teenagers heading out to live on their own for the first time who haven’t ever cooked for themselves before, so the tone is casual and encouraging. The recipes are simple, and every one I’ve tried has been incredibly tasty.

The cookbook starts with a section called “The Kitchen – A Guide to Alien Territory” that includes instructions not only on stocking your shelves, but on how to defrost the freezer and unplug a blocked drain, and the care and feeding  of your refrigerator, among other useful skills. There is also a whole section about skills for facing the grocery store.

The recipes start with “How to Boil an Egg” and “Pancakes Not from a Box” and progress from there. The cornbread, tunaburgers, and Curry-Glazed Chicken recipes are staples in my house. And there’s an Egg-Free Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake recipe in the book’s companion, The Clueless Vegetarian, that is so ridiculously easy I make it all the time.

My cooking skills have progressed beyond the basics by now, but I still go back to this cookbook again and again. After more than ten years of hard use, my copy is stained and dog-eared, but it comes with me every time I travel or move for work.

And when I went in search of links for this post, I discovered that there is now The Clueless Baker: Baking from Scratch. I’m going to have to grab a copy of that the next time I’m in the bookstore, clearly.

growing things

Today was an object lesson in why Canadians don’t plant anything in the ground before Victoria Day (May 24th) weekend. It’s May 15th and actual flakes of snow fell out of the sky. Not enough to accumulate, but still.

Being a giant dork, I’m a huge fan of the BBC’s Farm series – Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, etc. Two archaeologists and a historian live and work on a farm using only the tools and techniques of the period. All three of them are great teachers and the show is both fascinating and educational.

But I also find it hilarious when they start panicking about not being able to get their crops in the ground in February. Where I come from, you couldn’t get a back-hoe into the ground in February, let alone crops.

Despite the weather, however, I did manage to do a teeny bit of gardening. I came across, which has instructions about how to grow spring onions from the cut ends of the ones you buy in the grocery store.

Spring onions

So these little guys are now living in my kitchen window. I’m supposed to change the water every day. We’ll see how long I can remember to do that. I’ll post pictures if I actually get something to grow!

It’s possible I read too much post-apocalyptic fiction…

Recently I’ve been considering buying an apartment in Paris. Not immediately, but as a long-term goal. There are a variety of reasons why this might not be a terrible idea.

In the last few days, though, I’ve been struggling with a big item in the ‘don’t do it’ column. It’s not the exchange rate or the cost of a management company. My biggest fears are for the longer-term. What if there’s another financial crisis that tanks the travel industry? What happens when the oil prices go back up? What happens when the price of oil limits international travel to the rich few?

Basically, what if the zombie apocalypse?

And it’s a little bit ridiculous, but it’s also a little bit not. When things get worse – and the way we’re burning through the world’s resources, things are going to get worse in my lifetime – my investment will be on the far side of an ocean. Buying something local would be the sensible choice, because at least that way I would have a roof over my head.

I just… don’t want to let myself get talked out of this idea so easily. Clearly an apartment in Paris is not the sensible choice. It’s the crazy choice. The adventurous choice. That’s why it’s scary.

Maybe it’s okay to have the fears, to think the thoughts and come up with some contingency plans. The trick is to not get overwhelmed by them. That’s the part I’m struggling with this week.

that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

Crazy? Probably…

So… I’m considering buying an apartment in Paris. I’ve tried to talk about this with a couple of friends, and when I do I frame it as… a joke, or a mental exercise. A pie-in-the-sky game that’s just fun to consider.

Except, I’m seriously considering buying an apartment in Paris.

If I trace the idea back to its root, my dad is to blame. We’ve played pie-in-the-sky all my life. I learned the game from him. And then a couple of weeks ago, my 76-year-old father, who had in the recent past talked about down-sizing to a small apartment or even a retirement home, impulse-bought a 15-acre property in the countryside.

When he first brought up the idea, I thought we were playing the game again.

“Well, in that case,” I said, “I’d like an apartment in Paris, please.” Paris got into my bones when I was there this past October, and I’m planning to go back again this fall.

And then my mother called me back two hours later to tell me my dad had bought the place. He’s selling up in the city and moving out there at the end of the summer. All by himself. I have a whole separate spate of concerns about that.

Inspired – sort of – by his lunacy, I spent a couple of hours poking at my own insane idea. And it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.

As part of my where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years navel gazing, I’ve been thinking it’s time to consider buying a house. The problem with that is, due to my job, I move twice a year. In the summer I work at a large theatre in a small town, in the winter I work in television in the big city. I can’t afford to buy anything in the city – and even if I could, I’d need to sublet it for eight months of the year, which is an enormous pain in the ass. If I buy in the small town, I either have to commute two hours each way to work in the city in the winter, or I find a part-time retail job in the small town and all my travel money goes towards the mortgage.

But if I buy an apartment in Paris, I can have an agency rent it out to travellers during the high tourist season and then have a base in Europe for my travels in the winter. There are certain problems this plan doesn’t solve, but I like it the best out of all my current options.

I’m going to do some research and some math, and see if rental income would realistically cover the mortgage. I want to talk to the agency I found online and get a serious idea of the costs involved and what they charge for their services. But this might just be the five-year project I’ve been looking for.

numbers, numbers…

I made the mistake of picking up a book called 5 and flipping through it in the bookstore. And this is, basically, what has triggered my most recent bout of navel gazing.

5 is a bright, colourful picture book for adults that asks the question ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ It encourages you to think about that span of time in different ways, and to look at all the different aspects of your life, not just career or financial or relationships.

I did the math, and I will be 42 in five years. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so it feels like a good target to be aiming for. And in five years it will be 2020, which is kind of a magical number, too. So I’m starting to think about the big questions.

Do I want to adopt a child? If I do, I should start thinking about it seriously now and making plans, because adoption is not a fast process and I’m not getting any younger.

Do I want to buy a house? If so, where? The city where I live in the off season or the city where I work in the summer? In Canada at all or overseas?

I need to get serious about learning money management, now that I have the career I worked so hard for.

I want to learn to sail. And plant a vegetable garden. And continue to travel.

What does 42 look like for me? What can I do right now to set the wheels in motion? I don’t need to have all the answers right this second, but I do need to start thinking seriously about the questions. Maybe I need to sit and write about it a little, maybe creating the story of it will help.

And once I have done the research, and made the choices, I want to write my goals down. Make them concrete. Something I can refer back to. The book, 5, also encouraged readers to write a mission statement for their lives. What is the big ideal, the driving force?

It sounds a little hokey, and it’s all pure navel gazing, but I think it’s a useful exercise. I just need to follow through.

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley

This book, unexpectedly, inspired quite a lot of feminist rage in me. So this post is going to be me getting ranty-pants more than it’s actually a book review.

Nicola, the ‘protagonist’ (or, at least, the point of view character) for the modern half of the book, is a bundle of neuroses. Rob, the romantic interest, is practically perfect in every way. His job is perfect, his volunteer work is perfect, his family is perfect, his psychic abilities are perfect, his every reaction to every situation is perfect. Also, he’s gorgeous, of course. And his clothes are perfect. And his body is perfect.

Nicola does not do a single thing for herself for the first 400 pages of the book. She doesn’t drive the plot. She barely makes a choice. She’s too overwhelmed. All the time. By everything she’s encountering. She doesn’t drive herself anywhere, doesn’t open a door, doesn’t pay for a meal, doesn’t carry a bag. Ever. She doesn’t even have to think, really, because Perfect Rob is there to lead her around by the hand for the whole damn book.

It’s telling that, in one of the reviews on Goodreads, despite the fact that the book is narrated by Nicola in the first person, when the reviewer mentions the “hero” of the book, they mean Rob.

Why? Why do women – because this book is written by a woman – perpetuate the fiction that chivalry is romantic? What is romantic about being treated like a child who can’t take care of herself? Once in a while, as a game on a special occasion or something, fine, yes, I get it. But every day? Being infantilized every day? This book doesn’t even trust Nicola to walk along a coastal path by herself. Rob is right there to put himself in the way of danger, hovering in case she should fall. Like she’s two years old. There’s never any suggestion that Rob might fall. He couldn’t possibly. He’s perfect.

And what happens when someone treats you that way – and I know this from personal experience – is that you start to doubt yourself. If a person you respect, a person who cares about you, doesn’t believe you can take care of yourself, you stop believing it yourself. You become dependent. This is plainly apparent with Nicola, who started as a capable professional woman, but 200 pages in doesn’t believe she can do anything by herself anymore. Rob always has to be there to hold her hand. Literally! Like it’s her first day of school. And yet the book isn’t commenting on this, it’s saying, ‘Look how wonderful Rob is! Wouldn’t you love to have a Rob of your very own?’

In fact, no. I kind of wanted to punch Rob in the nose. Because I live in the 21st century, and I’m an intelligent adult who is capable of taking care of herself in most everyday situations. I’m also capable of knowing when I need help and asking for it. I would much rather have someone who trusts me, who treats me like a grown-up, who will share burdens with me, so we can take care of each other. If we’re walking down a coastal path, for example, let’s hold hands together so we can both be safe.

You know, like equals.

This is why I shouldn’t be on the internet at three in the morning…

I applied for a job in the circus today. It’s been eleven years, almost to the day, since I left, but I still check the job listings, daily, weekly. It was the right choice, then – when I left, why I left. Even if I hadn’t had a project to move on to, two years and seven months on the road is a long time. But I can’t get over the feeling that I left a piece of myself behind, and I can’t stop trying to go back to find it.

The circus has always been the job I would drop anything, everything for. I’ve done it once. Continue reading