January 18th, 2014

2014 Resolving

It’s been over a month–sorry, guys. I missed the holiday season completely on this blog–I hope you had an excellent one. Here at the Rose-coloured Ranch, the ice-storm left our power intact but stranded a householder in Moncton for a few days, so things were a bit scrambly. 2014 has actually been going fine for me, but my job has gone bananas, as it does a couple unpredictably timed months a year. It’s a good job and people have been kind to me there, so I try to role with the punches and put in the hours, but I really think I’m simply not cut out to work overtime. A few 10-hour-days, which is nothing to people in many other positions, and I am absolutely bonkers with nervous energy and fret. It’s not very nice to find out I have so little fortitude, but at least I’m certain I don’t now. I just want the month of January to be over, and with it this project.

I had been thinking about not doing resolutions this year–I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by simply getting through the days of late–but a few things conspired to inspire, so I figure, why not? I’m not going to get too bent out of shape if I don’t do these things, but…why not try?

1) Mini-M&Ms charity. I’ve always told people new to Toronto that you’ll make your life easier if you make a blanket decision about panhandlers. Maybe you give whatever’s in your pocket to whomever asks, maybe you never give on the street but donate to a charity that helps the homeless, maybe you stop and chat, maybe you pretend not to see. Whatever you are going to do, reason it out and stand by it–it’s the dithering that makes you crazy and sad. My usual policy is to give to charities like the United Way and local food banks, not to individuals, but to meet everyone’s gaze and apologize that I won’t give to them. This policy was born of being disorganized and not wanting to fumble in my bag and take out my huge wallet in front of strangers that may or may not be benign. Usually people who hit me up on the street for cash nod or shrug at my murmured apology; some even say something nice in return. Lately I’ve noticed a new phenomenon where I get some snark–one girl said archly, “Wow, that sounded really sincere.” I have no idea why she bothered–it’s a weird kind of pay-it-forward, because I’m not going to running back to shower cash on someone who said something mean to me, but it does make me think a bit harder about my own sincerity, and what I’m going to do the next time I’m asked.

Years ago, when my brother was living in Toronto and I wasn’t, he told me he used mini-M&Ms containers–small plastic tubes–to carry quarters in. They are just the right width for them, and you are able to fish them out without rummaging through all your belongings. You also know at a shake whether you actually have something to give or not, so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Of course, mini M&Ms disappeared from Canada years ago, a sad loss for many reasons. But beloved friend AMT brought me some from America recently and, delicious as they were, I couldn’t help but fixate on the container. It showed up at such fortuitous time, right when I was rethinking my street charity policy. As I type, it’s beside me, half full of quarters.

I don’t kid myself that 50 cents or a dollar from me is going to make a great difference to anyone at all. It’s the stopping and engaging that might matter, if not to the recipient, than at least to me. I’m worried that after nearly 12 years in Toronto, I’ve stopped seeing people on the street, despite my “sincere” little apologies. I’d like to start seeing again, and seeing where that leads me. Giving a little bit might help me do that–and I’m sure a few quarters wouldn’t hurt those who ask.

2) Learn to play guitar. I will count success as being able to play a recognizable tune on-key. I have had two lessons so far and have learnt two octaves of the B-flat major scale–progress. I enjoy the practicing well enough and am starting to develop some calluses. I’m also find that, as was true in my many years of piano lessons, and also with opening pickle jars, juggling, and holding hands with large-fingered men, my tiny little mouse hands are a handicap. One I plan to overcome, but the fourth fret poses some challenges for me.

3) Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe.

4) Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time.

5) Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I have been working on a pointless blue rectangle for more than two years.

In the number 6 slot, I could say something about my manuscript-in-progress here, but I sort of feel like at this point in the process that’s a bit like resolving to get a boyfriend. I’m going to do my best and not worry (as much as possible) about the rest. Actually, maybe that will be true on all fronts this year. That lack of worry in itself is a worthy resolution, I think.

7) Cook lots of new recipes, even ones not from the milk calendar.

8) Blog more frequently than once a month!

December 15th, 2010

What I’m up to

If you haven’t heard my voice in a while, you might want to check out a podcast of a reading I did on Hear Hear’s website. You can also hear Andrew Daley, Julia Tausch, and Adrienne Gruber, all of whom I had the pleasure of reading with that evening, and all of whom are fab. The piece I did was an excerpt from my story “The Weatherboy”–if it whets your appetite for the whole thing, you can download “The Weatherboy” from Rattling Books. That reading is done by Gerard Whelan, and is really much better than mine–warm and musical, arch in places, completely as I would have done it if I were a much better reader. Enjoy!

If you’d like to see what a bunch of the writers from the last issue of The New Quarterly (including me!) are reading at the moment, please check out TNQ’s Who’s Reading What feature. And did I mention that I wrote the letter for TNQ’s donation campaign this year? For those not on their mailing list and who are curious, I’ve copied in the text from the letter below–if it inspires you to give, hooray–but no pressure.

My second acceptance from a literary journal was from The New Quarterly. I still have Kim Jernigan’s shocking, thrilling acceptance letter from September 4, 2006. I was utterly amazed; I had sent my story off to strangers, and they liked it, and wanted to share it with more. Kim said, “We’ve all…recognized…the way [the protagonist] tries to remain aloof from the lives around her while also feeling disconnected from her own life.” It was such a joy to be so well read, so understood. I felt like I’d thrown something fragile that I loved up into the air and a stranger had gently caught it.

When I first started sending out work, I was 28, and had been writing stories for maybe 15 years. It took so long, but I had finally reached that crucial point: my terror of rejection had been exceeded by my desire to share my stories, which I loved so much, and see if they resonated with anyone else. Publication in a respected journal gave me a sudden audience of serious readers, often subscribers who know the magazine well and are loyal to the editors; they’ll take a new writer seriously because they know who chose the work, and they’ll take the time to listen for that resonance. Publication in a literary journal is an invitation to join the conversation.

But let’s back up, to before acceptance or publication or that reading audience of subscribers–it’s thrilling just to have a reading audience of thoughtful readers on the editorial board. You can’t really ask for a more attentive audience than editors, who have read 100s or 1000s of stories and devoted their time to really listening to what each story is doing and why. That attention can be terrifying, too—if something is going wrong in a story, a casual reader or even a serious one reading for pleasure might miss it. Someone with years of experience critiquing and selecting stories, and who puts his or her name on the masthead won’t. When TNQ accepts a story, you can know it’s the real deal.

When I submit to a journal I respect, when they don’t take a story I can often learn something from that too. Even if they haven’t had time to offer criticism, knowing that the editors think it’s not quite there can be enough encouragement to go back to the drawing board. The TQN eds are notably generous with their time and criticism, however, and their feedback can be so valuable when I’m searching for direction. The story “The House on Elsbeth” was rejected by The New Quarterly in the summer of 2007, but with their feedback I revised over the next six months, and it was published in the mag the following summer.

But there’s so much more than just giving us a place to publish! The New Quarterly is good reading, and a pleasure I look forward to every quarter. More than entertainment, I and so many other writers count on the lit journals to bring the news: what new things are writers doing? What new forms or adaptations of old ones have the poets found? What are ways story-writers are solving issues of style and structure? And how are the lines being blurred between the genres in ways that expand them? I’ll never forget reading Elizabeth Hay’s “Last Poems” at three in the morning and feeling like she had told the utter truth, and yet made it more than just truth. How did she do that?

Every issue of TNQ—or any worthwhile litmag—brings me 20-30 voices, that many conceptions of the universe and the written word. Not all are my cup of tea, but heaven help the writer—or the human being—who drinks only from her own cup. I like reading something I didn’t expect to read, or to like. I like to be surprised—it’s very close to being inspired, I think.

I also like feeling that I’m part of this group of surprising writers and insightful readers—the team that goes out to the readings and applauds, the team that makes comments on each issue in emails and blog posts. On the famed TNQ/CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries) tour of 2008, Kim and TNQ managing editor Rosalynn Tyo drove a few of us story-writers, plus a very little, very cute, very vocal baby, from Windsor to Waterloo in a blinding snowstorm. Some of us ate chicken with our fingers in the back seat, and everyone was in a strangely good mood, and I don’t think any of us will soon forget it.

Literary journals do so much to foster a sense that we are all—writers and readers, poets and artists, fans and friends—part of something we can work on, separately and yet together. I am so happy to write this letter for The New Quarterly, to remind everyone (including me) how much good they do.

October 21st, 2010

Julie Wilson on Richard Ford and Eleanor Wachtel

I’m having a “This file is corrupt *too*??” sort of day and no real time to spare, but no matter, because Julie Wilson can describe what I did last night quite beautifully–no need of additions from me.

So, anyway, back to the files.

July 13th, 2010

Charitable Failure

I think I am way too affected by telemarketers, because this is my second post in recent memory about one, but whatever–this incident freaked me out. If you have experience with charities or for some other reason can explain it to me, I’d be grateful.

So! About a month ago I got lured into chatting with one of those street canvassers for a charitable organization. I already knew of it and it sounded like a good group to me, so I offered to give the guy what was in my wallet, but he wanted to sign me up for a monthly donation plan with automatic withdrawals from my credit card. I said I was not going to give out my card # on the street, and he said he could take my phone number and we’d talk about it at a time I could pick, after I’d done some research and thought it over. I said ok.

They called last night. After a bit of chatter about the organization, I said I’d like to give them $100 (which is actually a lot of money to me). The very sweet, earnest young woman on the phone said they prefer to have monthly donations via direct withdrawal because processing costs are so much lower and also then they have a steady income to fund long-term projects. I didn’t see how the first worked–why would it be easier to process 12 little donations instead of 1 big one–but there is much I don’t know. Hesitantly (because I hate direct withdrawal and been screwed by it in the past), I said perhaps I could give $10 a month, and then in a year that would be just a bit more than my planned $100.

The volunteer (I asked her; that’s what she was) said that their minimum donation was $20/month and I said, “oh, I’m not going to do that.” I am worried this makes me sound cheap, but whatever, it wasn’t what I had budgeted. She suggested I just sign up for the monthly withdrawal and after 5 months I could quit. I said that didn’t sound like it would be very good for their long-term projects and she didn’t really answer, and then I said, “Let’s just go with the $100.”

This got me the spiel about spiralling processing and administrative costs again, and when I remained unmoved, a thanks for my time and honesty. “You won’t take the $100?” No, she wouldn’t, but I could always go to the website and figure it out for myself how to send the money. Politely, but firmly, she ended the conversation.

WTF? Are legit charities really discouraging modest donations these days? Was it some sort of scam operating under the name of a legit organization? Even so, it wasn’t a very good scam, since I offered my credit card number and she turned it down. Or is the entire organization (which has a *lot* of visibility in the media, to the point where even a media-loser like myself sees it) somehow less legit than I thought? Or am I just too cheap/afraid of scamsters to do the right thing?

Also, what should I do with that $100 I have now decided I want to give to a good cause? I could of course figure it out from the website–it’s not that difficult. But I am somewhat alarmed about those admin costs–what if it really *is* a waste of half the money? Also, well, my little feelings are hurt! I was feeling really good about being able to do something nice, and now I feel awful about the whole thing. I will end up giving it elsewhere–certainly, there’s no shortage of good causes. But I would still really like to know what went wrong with my sad failure to be generous.

All insights appreciated.

December 21st, 2009

Public Service Announcements

In case, you know, you need to know:

…how to cope with UPS. When you call UPS, there is no option in any menu to speak to an agent, but if you decline to press any buttons, even for English or French or to enter your tracking number (interesting: if you don’t choose a language, you get English) they will eventually tell you that you can’t speak to anyone unless you have tracking number, so call back when you’ve got one. Then a long pause that sounds like it might be permanent, then the weary voice of the autoprompt, asking “So do you still want to speak to an agent?” Say “yes” and the voice recognition software will direct you to an actual competent and (somewhat) sympathetic human. Man, that was tricky–but worth it.*

…what to give for a holiday gift. There’s great recommendations (and little bios of their sources so you can check for cred [they all have cred]> at The Advent Book Blog. I recommended a book last week, and now that the person I was giving that gift to has received it, I can link to my recommendation.

…how do something nice. Could you be persuaded to give blood? I know many people can’t because of low iron or certain prescriptions in their systems or other health problems, but if you can I think Canadian Blood Services could really use it this holiday season. I base this guess on the fact that last week, the gentleman donating in the chair next to mine experienced the briefest of dizzy spells, and *five* nurses were all over him like a bad suit–cold compresses, elevated legs, fans, cookies, ecetera! They were really really nice, but you just got the feeling they were a little underworked. A few more donators would keep the nurse/donator ratio a bit more even. I know nobody likes needles, and I personally loathe the whole process, but I feel SO GOOD afterwards, knowing I did something for someone (3 someones!), plus awesome karma for the day. I mean, just a few short hours after making this donation, I found a tambourine on the sidewalk!!!! Karmically amazing.

…describe people that are just too hyper. When someone described a potential project (going to see Sherlock Holmes on Boxing Day) as likely to be pandemonium, I said approximately, “Don’t worry, we’ll deal with the pandemaniacs.”** He responded, “That’s not a word,” but I think it is now, and it’s a pretty good one. I give it to you.

Hope that helps!

* I just received the package, so I guess this is a win. But it took a week, four delivery attempts, one formal complaint, plus me saying morosely after I’d registered the complaint, “Can you write on it that I’m very sad?” (no, they can’t), so I am not feeling very victor-like.

** What I actually said was dumber than the above, but the neologism was the same, and this is my blog and I’m allowed to edit the past if I choose…right?

August 18th, 2008

You might wanna

1) Attend the launch of the book in the preceeding post–this advertisement was supposed to come at the end of my *The Killing Circle* review, but in my excitement I forgot. See the link for full deets, but quickly, it’s tomorrow night at 8:30 at the Gladstone, and it’s gonna be awesome.

2) Donate school supplies to kids in need via the Salvation Army and Sleep Country. It’s always good to give, but this is especially fun because it enables the school-deprived to indulge in coloured pencils and theme binders, and to finally find a good home for the very expensive scientific calculators we were forced to buy in grade 11 (it’s official: logarithms are no longer relevant to my life).

We can reach the sea / they won’t follow me

November 20th, 2007

Charity Begins in the Head

As the season of goodwill towards mankind begins, there are of course more charitable appeals in the air, the mail, email, street. While in general I’m pretty sloppy about donations–I always *mean* to give more than I do–I can usually get it together in December, at least a little. My whole rationelle for being a Jew who loves Christmas is probably another blog post, but I think it should suffice to say that people *do* try to be extra nice around this time of year, and remember what they have in common with others, less fortunate or not.

I’ve been thinking about giving along a couple of lines, and the suggestions I’ve gotten have shown me that it’s not just cellphones and video games that are moving ahead by leaps and bounds unbeknowst to me. One possibility suggested as a gift to people who are anti-gift, and the Gifts of Hope. It’s a website where you can donate $$ for a specific purpose in a specific purpose–literacy in Ghana, farm animals in Ethiopa—they’ve got it priced right down to the goat, so you know that your money does not go into a pool where it is diluted by other people’s donations, you bucks go purely to one family that is the recipient of *your* goat. This is a new and, to me, somewhat humourous invention, but it’s cool and makes a cute card, and will certainly drum up investment in what is it bottom a deeply humane program to try to help people help themselves.

What’s funny about it though is that everyone wants to be *involved* it seems. Just a cheque, to assign decision-making and responsibility to the administrators of the charity is becoming passe. The Christmas drive that I’m involved in this year, as many years in the past, is not a cash one, or even just a big box of canned goods and unwrapped toys. We have been assigned families in the nearby community who are in dire straights (I’m sorry, I would normally post a link here for your interest, but it’s a corporate giving program and there isn’t one of the public) and our donations are to be specific items on their wish-list, specific to their unique needs, purchased by the donators ourselves.

The profiles we receive are incredibly detailed. We get names and ages, clothing and shoe sizes, personal preferences, and a hierarchy of needs from toys and games to sweatpants and sanitary napkins. To me, it seems dreadfully invasive and undignified. The kidstuff is fun to shop for, but I feel like it’s not fair to the parents to take away the joy in picking out the pretty toys for the kids. And the grownup stuff–knowing that mom Sandy takes three sizes different between top and bottom, knowing what basic household items are missing, is really too much for me.

I made these complaints to a colleague–it all seemed to be a bit of bourgeois mistrust, an update on “You can’t give a panhandler loose change because he’ll just spend it on booze. Better to give money to an agency, that’ll make sure it goes towards food, clothes and a sensible job-training program.” Only now, tales of misappropriation and scandal lurking in our heads (“I can’t remember when, or which one, but one of them there charities was spending like *ninety* percent of the revenue on ‘administration’, and we know what that is!”)–if you want to make sure your donation doesn’t evapourate directly into ethanol, better make sure it’s in concrete form of something practical (“Blue jeans, a teddy bear and four cans of baked beans!”) with a name and address gift card attached.

My colleague pointed out the system isn’t really all that cynical–many of these are single parent homes, and shopping with the kids, or finding time to do it at all for a working parent, might be an issue. Plus they’d signed up for the program, so they clearly either lacked my qualms or found their need to be greater them.

Fair enough. She made good points, and vehemently, clearly concerned that she not let my potential aid to these families disappear due to some semi-imagined PCness. It was good of her, and I shut up and returned to reading my list.

And quickly got sucked in. There are several toys on the list that I loved as a wee one, and I’d like to go see the updates. And there were a couple requests for “teen novels,” a category that I have very strong opinions on, and then of course there’s the vegetarian baked beans. So I made my own shopping list and that’s when I realized the genius of the thing. If I buy everything that twigged my interest, and I probably will, I’ll wind up spending sizeably more than what would strike me as a “decent donation” in cash. That’s what all these details are really about–it’s easier to give more to people you relate to as in some way just like you. And in reading the list, I found that connexion, as I suspect most people did. Everybody needs sweatpants, warm socks and novels. We’re all human, after all.

Went upstairs and had a smoke

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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