December 4th, 2015

Way back: Grade Nine Flight

I don’t usually go on about my old published work–I figure if anyone wanted to buy my books they could figure out how, and if they wanted to read a particular story they could google it or check my “publications” link above and try to find it. But there’s a few stories that didn’t get into a book and aren’t available, or aren’t easily, on the web.

Grade Nine Flight was my third acceptance ever, and my second publication (because of how speedy online publishing is. It came out in the December 2006 edition of the old version of The Danforth Review, that wonderful online mag but out by Michael Bryson (the new version of The Danforth Review remains wonderful, but does not include the archives of the old one. Rather, those archives are housed at Libraries and Archives Canada, which is a wonderful service but doesn’t appear to be google-search-able. So if you were looking for this story that way you wouldn’t find it, but why would you even be, because who has heard of this story I published nearly 10 years ago?

So here it is–the link above should work, if you’d like to read the story. I read it over lunch, and even though it’s so different than the stuff I’m writing nowadays, I still really like it. Is it bad to admit that? I feel so distant from the person I was when I wrote like that, saying I like it doesn’t even feel like vanity–that writer is another person entirely, I feel.

Yet, I know I wrote it, and I remember why: my brother was travelling abroad for a year, and I missed him. Even though none of the characters are based on anyone I know, the vibe of kids living in a house together is definitely something I am personally familiar with, and some of the games they play and conversations they have and tv shows they watch are things I remember fondly from my childhood.

It’s weird that I’m nostalgic for the person I was when I wrote “Grade Nine Flight,” but that person was nostalgic for a yet earlier period. We never get done longing for things, it seems (though I am very glad my brother lives nearby now).

If you read the story, please let me know what you think!

May 5th, 2015

The Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat

I’ve been reading a lot about writing retreats lately. They just seem so lovely and idyllic–you go somewhere really pretty and fun yet somehow isolated and silent, and you get put up in a nice room just for you and given great meals you don’t have to cook or clean up from. You’re surrounded by people who want the same things as you do–solitude and time to work yet also later on stimulating company and challenging conversations and walks and laughs and snacks. You work so hard and so purely with no distractions that you end up with amazing new pages or spot-on revisions, a raft of new people to put in your acknowledgements and a few extra pounds of gourmet food. And a million good pictures from the gorgeous nature hikes you took every day after you finished work but before the social hour began.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Except I don’t actually have a life I much need to retreat from. I have a pretty nice home office with a door I can close and window with an interesting view. Besides work and writing, I don’t have a lot of demands on my time–well, no, i have tonnes of them but they’re all discretionary. Hanging out with friends, going to shows, watching Buzzfeed videos all take a bite out of my writing time, but I think I would just find other friends at a writing retreat…and somehow find a wireless connection to watch more Buzzfeed videos. My one non-discretionary obligation: I have a job, yes, but it’s pretty flexible–however, since I’m paid hourly every hour I take away from work to write quite literally costs me money. I try not to be nickel-and-dime about this, but I also try not to waste time…or money. Flying elsewhere at my own expense, taking a travel day and then possible time to settle in, just to get a room of my own when I have such a room already…I can’t really justify it.

I am NOT belittling writing retreats, which sound like they genuinely do simultaneously stimulate and soothe people into producing some amazing work–it’s just not in the cards for me right now, though I would like to go someday. And yet, in the meantime, my apartment is pissing me off lately (constant plumbing issues, some other stuff) and if I stay here I have to do my own cooking and laundry. So then I thought of it: where do I know that is pretty and peaceful, I could get a room of my own for free, and someone would make me lovely meals and have stimulating conversations with me? You’ve read the title of this post so you know what answer I came up with…

It went pretty well, actually! Minimal travel time, low cost, and no settle-in/getting-to-know-everyone time since I lived at my “retreat” for nearly two decades and have known the coordinators my entire life. The food was excellent, the weather was lovely, and there were even some birds singing the apple tree outside my window.

The downside is that I’m probably more eager to chat with my family than with strangers, and they of course have a vested interest in chatting with me. As well, unlike at a real retreat, they weren’t hard at work on their own projects, so whenever I went to get a snack or a drink there was the potential of sitting down and having a 20-minute conversation with an eager participant–a temptation I rarely overcame. I’m also just really comfortable in that house and it was a relief not to be constantly hassled by cats whenever I lay down (not that I didn’t miss them, but…) so I took a number of naps!

So I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be but honestly I never am–this was pretty good for me, actually. I highly recommend the Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat if your folks have a location and a relationship with you that’s amenable to such things. Or I guess you could also put in an application Chez Rosenblum….

 

March 31st, 2015

The Late-Onset Adult: Tax Tips

I think late-onset adulthood is fairly common in our society now–even the phrase “live at home” has developed a meaning specific to recent times (surely we all, in fact, live at home). And frankly, at 36, I’m rather proud of all the grownup things I do–I support myself financially, I shop for and prepare healthy meals, pay bills, care for cats and occasionally other people’s children, take myself to the doctor when I’m sick, travel, even drive a car if I absolutely have to. I’ve booked hotels, helped friends in trouble, run meetings, navigated strange cities, gone to parties alone, hell, I even got married. Sometimes I add it all up (usually when I’m on the subway for some reason) I’m genuinely shocked that I’m so…functional.

But I don’t do my own taxes. I’ve always found this rather embarrassing, but every year I still bundled up the papers and trucked them off to my mom. She does the whole family, and is very very good at it. She used to be part of a volunteer squad who would go to nursing homes and community centres in low-income areas and do tax returns for whomever asked. When she wasn’t able to volunteer any more (logistical reasons), she still had us to keep her busy.

But really, taxes are stressful and I’ve been feeling guilty about putting the burden on her. Also, a bit embarrassed at not really understanding my own financial matters. So I’m on a slow, easy path to tax maturity–this is year three, and I figure there’s probably about three more in the process. I thought I’d share how I’m doing this, in case you’d also like to try for tax maturity. A few caveats…

* this process probably won’t work unless the person who is doing your taxes is doing it out of love–a parent, sibling, partner, or close friend–someone who is willing to help you however you want to be helped, and spend a lot of time with you to do it. This will probably not work with, say, a professional tax preparer.

* my taxes are semi-complex due to the fact that I have both a day-job and a small business as a writer and editor. I don’t earn all that much from my biz, but it’s all in little scraps and so are the deductions I have to take against the earnings (true fact: I got a T4A for $25 this year). Plus I’m dealing with lots of little, disorganized publications and groups, so they don’t always issue their paperwork properly–or at all–so I have to keep detailed records of what actually happened to present to the CRA. This makes my taxes more confusing, and much bulkier, than those of someone who just has a job with a single T4 and then some deductions and that’s it. So that sort of person could likely zip through the process a lot faster than me.

* I do my taxes by hand, because that’s how my mom does them. Apparently there’s all kinds of software that makes things easier, but if I used them then my mom couldn’t help me and I am only halfway through the process so I still REALLY need her help. I figure in a few years, when I’ve really got things sorted, I will try to learn the software–for now, my forms come from the post office and I mail them in a manila envelope. No online tax tips here.

Ok, here we go…

Year 0 (as many year 0s as you need): Sort through your receipts and slips and give the person doing your taxes an orderly set of papers. Sift out all the unnecessary stuff. If you’re me, you keep any vaguely important paper in a box all year–receipts for things you might want to return, vet bills, notices from your landlord–and only at tax time do you sort through and shred the stuff you didn’t wind up needing. At least, I do that now–I’m ashamed to admit there was a time when I just gave the box to my mother and let her decide to do with that fully-paid dentist bill.

In addition to simply removing the useless stuff, try asking the person helping you what categories the papers should be sorted into and then do that (the first year I also organized within categories by date, but I found out that’s pointless). This allows you to not only take some of the stress off your helping person, but also start to form a basic sense of how taxes work. I actually wrote a decent story set in a tax preparation class way back in 2007 based only on this sort of info. You can learn a lot just by making neat little piles of papers.

Year 1: Show up with your papers for your mom or other helpful soul to do your taxes, but then–this is big–stay. Don’t run away and let the tax preparation process remain mysterious–stay and watch, and hopefully your person will narrate what’s going on. I’m lucky (very lucky!) in that both my folks are born teachers and my mom is at ease not only working on the taxes but explaining what she’s doing. I wish you similar luck, but you may have to ask more questions if you’re not able to follow. Don’t be too intrusive, bring tea, offer shoulder rubs, and try not to let your mind wander. This is the last low-stress year, since you’re just absorbing the process and no one is asking any hard questions of you. But again, you should still be learning.

Year 2: Ok, this is the first scary year–show up with your papers, bring your person a cup of tea and now YOU do the taxes, with your helpful person watching. This can end up a lot like year 1, in that if you stare blankly at a piece of paper long enough the person who knows what she’s doing will probably just tell you what to do next, and if you do that enough times you’ll eventually be done the whole tax return. Try to make some stabs at finding your own next move, and trust your person to tell if you’re screwing up. Keep a copy of the Year 1 tax return handy, too, so you can imitate what worked last time around when the much smarter person was doing the return.

Year 3: Do your taxes by yourself based on what you’ve learned so far, the guidance of reviewing last year’s return, and the occasional phone call (I may or may not have called my mother 6 times in March specifically about taxes) or email. At the end of this process, give the completed return (good copy, but be prepared to make an even better copy) to your person to make sure you didn’t go off the rails anywhere. This is the year I’m just completing–I handed over my forms on Sunday at brunch, and I’m feeling pretty darn proud. I guess I should wait until I get the feedback before counting any grown-up gold stars, though…

Year 4: This is a projected year, but I anticipate it’ll be similar to Year 3 except with fewer phone calls.

Year 5: I think I’ll try to learn the software this year, which means I can call for advice during the process but I can’t  show my mom the final product (because it’ll live in the internet somehow? do I have this right?) I really should be ok with that at this point, I think–especially with the in-process phone calls.

Year 6: I’m not sure this is really as close as three years out, but eventually I want to be the sort of person my mom is, tax-wise and generous with said wisdom. My aim is to take over my husband’s taxes and save him the money he’s currently spending on H&R Block, but I’d only do that if we were really feeling confident, because I find another person’s documents trickier to understand than my own. And then perhaps I’ll go further afield, wandering the streets and helping others with taxery. I shall be beneficent and carry a flaming calculator…

Well, you get the idea! Did you come to any useful life skills at a later age? How did you do it?

August 25th, 2013

Cellphone report

Regular readers may be aware that I got my first cellphone in March, with great trepidation. I enjoyed being one of the last holdouts on the new technology, and didn’t want to be a slave to yet another form of communication–I already love too many of them. But I was also tired of not being included in last-minute fun, and not getting the message when plans went awry. The last straw was when my friend and I spent 45 minutes waiting for each other at 2 different GO stations. Enough was enough.

I’m pleased to say that no such incident has occurred since the acquistion of my new smartphone. Moreover, I am able to send word when I’m running late, picking up schwarma, or lost–this is helpful. I can check email when I’m paranoically panicking for having left work early to go to the dentist and I have discovered the lovely vice of texting.

I use texts like most people, to communicate the aforementioend useful information and to say a lot of useless things too. Such is the nature of the medium. And of course, the more communication there is the more potential for miscommunication–things go wrong via text that never would’ve happened in the first place via say, email or phone.

But on the whole, my little yellow phone is a gain and I am happy to have it. But the best possible perk (besides angry birds) is that texts are a new vehicle for hilarity. Witness below, possibly the best conversation ever had via text. It’s my brother and I making plans to attend an outdoor concert together. Be patient–it’s a slow build, but there’s some of our finest ebanter later on…

 

RR: What is your plan for Saturday??

BR: Hmmm. How do we get there? Do you know?

RR: No. The park is really big so even once we get there it will still not be obvious where the shoe is.

RR: Show.

BR: If we meet at Downsview Station by the 101 bus for 3, I think we will be OK… Sound goof?

BR: *good

RR: Ok. Check the rules on the website. Are serious. Bring empty water bottle and beach towel. No pot or tiny knife. No food.

BR: I don’t own any of those things. Can I bring a blanket?

RR: WHat do you mean you don’t have a water bottle or a towel???

BR: Hard time, friendo. Hard times, I mean.

RR: Buy a bottle of water. Drink it. Now you have an empty water bottle. I know you own towels because when I see you you aren’t wet.

BR: I air dry. I don’t believe in bottles. They pillage mother earth. I live in a barrel made from platitudes.

RR: Well then you will be thirsty and sitting on the groun at the show. No barrels.

BR: Life is a box of chocolates.

RR: No outside food, even chocolate. And you can’t sit on my towel.

RR: Also no stuffed animals???? Why??

BR: You could hid filled water bottles inside.

RR: Ah. No sharpies but that’s obvious–you could write on someon’s face while they’re sleeping.

BR: I will write on your face with a crayon.

BR: Wow, no blankets allowed. Can you bring an extra beach towel?

RR: I KNOW YOU OWN TOWELS!!!!

BR: Not beachy ones. :(

RR: Ok me neither. Towels art towels.

RR: Are

BR: Art

October 10th, 2011

Tour and Thanksgiving

So the WOSS tour ended on Friday night with a lovely reading at Cafe Bettina in Montreal, hosted by Kathleen Winter and attended by many lovely folks, including a few that maybe weren’t aware that a reading was going to take place until it actually did.

I got the train home at sunrise yesterday (a rather rosy dawn over the “Farine Five Roses” sign) to celebrate several days of Thanksgiving with lots and lots of people, and lots of food. I have to get back to that in a moment, but since I am thankful for the opportunity to go on this tour, this post fits today, so below is a picture by our loyal fan/tour photographer Ray Boudreau, of the team at the Hamilton reading:

And here is a link to a little video that was shown on Windsor Today, taken on the first night of the tour. It really amazes me that the power of video-editing has made us all look so sane and calm. Thanks, Jeff!!

It was a wonderful experience, the WOSS tour. But now for some family, some kitten playing, and (yet more) pie.

March 7th, 2011

We Can’t Help You If We Can’t Find You

I can’t believe I forgot to mention that my brother did the album art for the new Zacht Automaat album, We Can’t Help You If We Can’t Find You. Go have a look–and if you’re a fan of instrumental jazz minimalist pop prog psych rock, a listen.

December 27th, 2010

Reverb 27

Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year? (Author: Brené Brown) (www.reverb10.com)

I seriously don’t know if I have an ordinary. I have a pretty low threshold for stress, and change, and excitement. One of the nicer things anyone has said about me is that he thought I was a really “calm person.” I was so shocked by this I went home and repeated it to my roommate, who said, “You’re not not calm, you just…get a lot out of things.”

That’s a generous interpretation, but fair enough–I can’t think of the last time I had an “ordinary” day because there’s always some special meeting, or hard assignment, or a new food to eat, or I get an unexpected phone call, any of which can throw me into a whirlwind of joy or despair. I exaggerate, but only a little.

So, trying to round down to ordinary…how about yesterday? It was cold out, but my brother and I were stir-crazy from all the indoor holiday time, so we went out the rail-trail the community had built when they finally got rid of the trains that run out that way.

I’ve been in and out of that town all my life, but this was a place I’d never been before–when I was a kid, because it was dangerous (trains!) and when they finally built the trail, I was living away and didn’t really know what was going on. I would never have thought to go see; it was my folks that urged us.

It turned out to be gorgeous–so quiet, with a weird-angled view of farmers’ fields and people’s yards. The snow was very loud and crunchy underfoot, or maybe it just seemed louder because it was the only sound. We only ran into two people (plus their dogs), and that was at the very beginning of the walk. It was so great to be outside, and I was so bundled up (two sweaters!!) that I didn’t even feel cold. It was nice not to be rushing, not to have anywhere to be, and walk as long as we felt like. It was nice to have unlimited time with my brother, which is rare.

It was basically a long walk on a cold day, very ordinary, or maybe not.

November 21st, 2010

“You’re an asshole, Mittens.”

I think that is one of the most hilarious sentences ever spoken. It was so spoken by my father, when I was about 8 or 9. He had just rescued our cat, Mittens, from my clutches, removed the bonnet I had put on her, and sternly instructed me not to dress the cat in doll clothes any more. I remained blithe in my assurance that Mittens liked to wear clothes, and when I left the room, she hesitated only a moment before following me. “You’re an asshole, Mittens,” is what my father called after her–under his breath, obviously, due to young and tender ears. He just recounted the uncensored version for me yesterday–ha!

Note: I no longer put hats on cats, but sometimes I really want to.

September 3rd, 2010

Useful information

Here’s a bunch of random stuff I’ve read on the web lately that might be helpful to you:

10 Mistakes Freelancers Make: I worked freelance for a while and made many of these mistakes, which probably contributed to how miserable I was (but not entirely; some people just have a set number of hours beyond which they NEED to have a conversation with someone). Now I work with/administrate for freelancers, and I see the best ones avoid this stuff. The piece is a bit general, but if you’re just starting out, probably exactly what you need.

Definitions of Different Kinds of Cousins: I’m from a small family and can generally define everybody by pointing and saying their names, but I can see the lure of wanting to know the exact title of your cousin’s daughter or your grandmother’s cousin. The folks from the Emily Post Institute finally set the record straight.

Q&A with Daniel Alarcon: Apparently the New Yorker does these little Q&As with their fiction writers as a web-only feature now. The questions are quite generic, but the writers that the New Yorker pulls are so good that their answers are still worth reading.

The Finding Time to Write piece is part of a writing advice column the Vagabond Trust has been running every Thursday. The best piece of advice in it is this–so true for some of us, but no one ever says it: “Maybe you can have your web browser open and keep an eye on your Facebook news feed while you’re writing. Maybe you can sit on the couch with your laptop and watch TV while the kids are screaming and playing in the room and you can still get your writing done. I don’t know, I’m not you. If you feel that you just can’t stop doing something to write, to to write while you’re doing it. If it doesn’t work, you actually are going to have to stop doing whatever that is for a little while.”

Hope that helps with…something or other. Happy Labour Day, peeps!

August 24th, 2010

Collaborations I Have Loved

With all this talk about the “How to Be Alone” video, I have strangely been thinking about times I’ve worked with others and it’s been wonderful. I am fairly decent at being alone–it would be very hard to write stories and not be–but sometimes the solo, non-social nature of writing bugs me. Sure, it’s nice to have total control over most of what I write, me being a meglomaniac and all, but sometimes it is nice to have someone to talk to about how it’s all working out.

So I’ve always been in writing groups and workshops. It helps to get feedback on my own work, as well as to see what sorts of cool stuff others are getting up to. It helps to keep the conversation about writing going with smart people I respect. Of course, I listen carefully to editors and try to really engage with them on what they think a piece needs. When someone is willing to share some of the heavy lifting of writing, I let them–it’s still mine in the end, but sometimes being drawn out of my hot little skull to a fresh perspective from someone else’s skull is wonderfully liberating.

I’ve also gotten the opportunity to take the process of collaboration farther, to actual shared writing projects. One writing group I was in collaborated on a murder-mystery anthology. I felt this was a pretty brilliant idea, and since it didn’t quite work out, I’m hoping some other group will want to steal it–do you? What we did was, we brainstormed a character and a bit of backstory, and then a scenario in which she is found dead in her apartment building. Then each of us individually wrote a short story for one other tenant in the building, in which each person had motive and opportunity for the crime. Then we were going to collaborate on a final story, revealing the true killer, but the group disbanded before that happened. I’m still rather proud of my piece, though I have to admit that without the context of its sister stories, it doesn’t make complete sense. Still it was a really fun process–everyone went in such different directions that it was really entertaining, as well as instructive to hear the stories presented every meeting.

Somewhere around then, I was also writing a satirical romance round-robin style, with about a dozen other people. A round robin is where each person writes a paragraph adding on to what’s gone before. It’s like improv in the sense that you need to work with, not against, anything you are handed when you enter: if the write of the previous paragraph says that aliens landed, and you undermine it by saying that it was a hallucination brought on by bad ham, the forward momentum and structure of the piece is imperilled–you’ve just wasted 2 paragraphs, basically. But round-robin writing is, also like improv, best suited to silliness! Our love story was hilarious, but not anything anyone could actually print or publish or even read seriously. I also don’t think it had an ending.

An even simpler–and sillier–version of such shared stories is Little Papers (Petites Papiers), a game that I think Fred introduced me to (right, Fred?) in first-year university. This is a blind round robin–you sit in a circle, each writes one part of the story folds it over and passes it on to the next person to write the next bit. We always played with 3-6 people, but I think it would be fun even with 2. Our stories had a standard structure, as follows (how many great novels can you apply this structure to?)
Woman’s name
Man’s name
Where they meet
What she says to him
What he says to her
What happens next
Somehow the results were never not funny. I think you could also play it with less structure, just sentence-sentence-sentence, but that runs the risk of, like our round robin, never ending.

The round robin and little papers exercises are probably best suited to goof-off activities for word nerds, or classroom activities to teach kids of have fun with writing and enjoy working together. As serious fictional enterprises, maybe they won’t work so well (though I’d love to hear an example where 30 people wrote the great Canadian novel in round robin or some such). And also, these are a projects where collaboration is limited: everyone creates singly and contributes, rather than creating collectively. Creating collectively, as we know from marketing campaign brainstorms, focus group film endings and themed bridal showers, often ends in inane results, no results, or hand-to-hand combat.

So the only time I ever wrote something in full collaboration with someone–no “my-part-your-part”–was with someone I have always been comfortable throwing shoes at or biting*, my younger brother. We wrote three episodes of a sitcom together a couple years ago, mainly because we both laugh at the same stuff and have the same strong opinions on how sitcoms should be. Who knows it is actually a good idea to try to write something funny with someone with a similar sense of humour; certainly, not everyone agrees with us and perhaps it would help the universality of our show to have someone on the team who did not collapse in hysterics at our elaborate clowns-at-Starbucks setup.

It wasn’t all hilarity and delicious snack items, though–ok, it was mainly. We wrote it for no particular reason except it’s nice to have an activity sometimes; basically, to entertain ourselves. That certainly worked, though we did nearly come to blows about how to turn off track changes (on Word for Mac, apparently, you just never do). But I do think it was a good exercise in making a single unified work out of two disparate views (even if the disparity is only slight). Maybe next time I’ll work someone who is not a blood relative, even someone I wouldn’t chase with a stick. The sky is the limit.

But actually, I really liked working with my brother.

*What, like you weren’t hard on your siblings?

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