Category Archives: Canada

Reading Between the Lines



Today, my only job in the whole world is to make edits to an essay I wrote on Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” so I can resubmit it to a nice editor at a new journal on the study of creative nonfiction.


My. Only. Job.


I do not have to do dishes. Laundry can wait. I have no tiny noses or bottoms to wipe, and Z will not be expecting a four-course meal when he gets home from work (mainly because he knows I can’t cook). My editing projects are either done or not ready to be started.


No one is expecting me to finish a TPS report at the office. There is no office.


More specifically, this job is not even a complete overhaul of an essay. The editor said after the first five pages that my essay “roars.” I don’t exactly know what that means except “to roar” sounds like the opposite of “to suck” so apparently most of the essay is on the right track, which means 13 pages of it are okay. Maybe even good. But those first five pages? Meh. I’m not bitter about this criticism. I’m a big fan of revision. But I’m clueless as to how to fix these pages, never mind on any given day I write five page emails to Jane before my eyes are fully open. (Tuesday two weeks ago was extra easy because we had a lot to say about Reneé Zellweger’s surprising new face).


Also, I’m sitting in the café at the Elliott Bay Book Co., a place I normally delight in. Everywhere I look there is someone on a laptop that looks like mine, though with cool ironic stickers that I’m too chicken to put on my own MacBook, and none of these people appear to be blocked. In fact, right this minute, I’m just paranoid enough to believe that every one of them to a person is also writing about Joan Didion and doing it far better than I ever could.


I’m realizing now that writing in a bookstore is not good for my psyche. I can see all those books on the shelves, with all their perfectly published words, taunting me. What’s your problem? they seem to be saying. Just get it done.


But I can see this writing day for what it is: over. Instead, I’ll tell you about other words on a page that came somewhat easier and had recent fruition.


Back when I was just giving up on my quest to earn all the Girl Scout badges ever, I started reading teen magazines. My favorite was ‘Teen, which had very informative columns that offered advice on love and friendship and sex. I also read Seventeen, though I found its fashion advice dubious because it was too avant-garde for Richmond, Indiana. (Sweatshirts paired with skirts weren’t happening yet, and I could never believe that red and pink should be worn together—colors should be complements and shouldn’t be reminiscent of Valentine’s Day.) In one of these magazines, you could send in your name and address and be paired up with a pen pal.


It wouldn’t be my first pen pal. Mom had carefully arranged for me to have a Swedish one because she had had a Swedish pen pal when she was my age and she felt they were superior (and there was a lovely array of Swedish candies and doo-dads that got sent my way on the holidays from Cecelia—so, good choice there Mom)! Through a Trixie Belden fan club, I’d acquired a fun-loving girl from Colorado whose dachshund Barney I was jealous of (I lived in a “no pets” apartment with a “no pets but fish” mother). Through school, I acquired a West Indian, and two Canadians, one of whom seemed to delight in copying out sexy passages from trashy novels I wasn’t yet cleared to read and another who sent me a photo of herself with a goat. The most exotic was Glenda from Zambia, who came via the TV show, Big Blue Marble. I loved getting her thin, light blue airmail envelopes and reading about a world so different from mine that it could hardly be imagined. With Glenda, I was concerned that she was in danger of being murdered by Idi Amin because I didn’t fully understand the vastness of Africa (or even that Africa wasn’t a single country). After a few months or a few years, all of these pen pals and I developed differing interests and the letters got fewer and further between until they disappeared completely. I tried reconnecting with Cecilia a decade ago and managed to find her, but she admitted her English was not what it used to be and since I had not learned Swedish, there was nowhere to go with the old friendship except fond memories of her colorfully decorated envelopes and the Carl Larson inspired life I had imagined her living.


But my teen magazine pen pal, C., from a province in Canada that was roughly above my head (how I thought about geography in 1980, sadly no joke), was something different. We were a good pairing: both introverted, goodish girls, book-inclined, and studious. We wrote each other dutifully about the classes we were taking, the books we’d read, the music we were listening to, and for some reason a tradition that has stuck ‘lo these many decades, a list of Christmas presents received. Our letters might have become less frequent as we got older, but we both made an effort to write at least at Christmas to check-in. In retrospect, I think it was my first experience with what would later become a weird sort of computer-age norm: talking to a total stranger about your life and developing this odd sense of knowing them even though you’d never really met them.


Five years ago when Z and I were compiling our wedding guest list, I have no idea what made me ballsy enough to send an invitation to someone I’d never actually met. Who does that? But it seemed weird not to send C. an invitation when technically, she’d been my (pen) friend longer than any of my real life friends who would be there. I never imagined that she and her husband would brave the winter roads to come to our December wedding, but they did. I’d like to say that as soon as we saw each other it was like we were reunited long-lost friends, but the truth is, there were a lot of people at the wedding, my tiara was cutting off my circulation, and I’d had too much to drink to be a proper good hostess. I did, however, feel honored that they’d come, and because I am the sort of person who is often in awe of other people, during a few of my more “aware” wedding moments, I was envious of her sophisticated dress and the ease with which she and her husband glided around the ballroom. (Z and I had exactly one dance move that we put on repeat for the duration of our first dance.)


Last week, C. and her husband incorporated a visit with us into their travel plans to the Pacific Northwest. She texted me updates as they—more adventurous than we have ever been—hiked Mt. Rainier and through the Olympic National Park and ate meals that my bland, 4-year-old-inspired palate would not even consider. We met them for dinner in Belltown on the first night, and I admit while I was excited at the prospect of actually getting to spend time with the real person, I was also wishing there were some sort of pill I could take that would give me an evening’s worth of extroversion and gregariousness. C. and I are clever introverted women, however, who married men with communication skills, so they got things rolling for us, and soon it did not feel at all like strangers meeting for dinner. This night turned into two more meals together during their time in Seattle and some good conversation.


The thing that most struck me after we’d said goodbye on the last day of their visit was that I was saying goodbye not to a new acquaintance but to an old friend. C. was exactly how I’d imagined her for all these years, not because I’m wickedly intuitive but because she’d represented herself so well in the letters she’d written over three and a half decades. I knew what she looked like from photos and our brief interactions during our wedding weekend, but I wasn’t at all surprised by those things you shouldn’t be able to tell about someone you’ve only ever corresponded with: how she carried herself, how she spoke, her quiet but quick wit, the way she and her husband interacted. I felt what can only be described as deep affection for the pair of them–these “strangers”–as they walked down our steep hill towards the lightrail that would carry them  to the airport and then back home to Canada.


If you ask me, telling yourself true is the best writing any of us can do.


Travel Styles



My modus operandi when traveling for all of my adult life has been to pack as much as possible into a day. I study guidebooks and websites and make lists of the “must sees” and map out a course of action. I’m not rigid, or anything, but I’m always imagining what is just around the bend that I can observe. The most famous of these pack-as-much-as-you-can-into-a-single-day excursions was on the occasion of my mother’s 60th birthday when we went to New York City a few years ago, and we wanted to get as much of the city explored during our few days there.

On our last afternoon in New York, it was pouring with rain but we had just enough time to go into the MoMA before it closed. We both desperately needed to go back to the hotel and put our feet up because we’d started early and covered a lot of ground. But the MoMA? How could we not go? So we did, and we saw a lot of gorgeous and thought-provoking art, and I remember being there probably better than I remember any other art museum I’ve ever been in because I was in agony. If I’d been allowed, I would have curled up in a fetal position in the room with all the Joseph Cornell boxes and stared at them until closing time. By the time we left the city, Mom’s feet were bruised and raw and she hobbled through the airport like she was 90. She had to call in sick for two days because she couldn’t move. She was happy and had 8 million photos to document everything we saw and did, but I felt like a very bad daughter for putting my greedy need to see sites ahead of Mom’s well-being (and my own body’s protestations).

While Z and I were in Vancouver last Saturday, a large family was behind us, kind of pushing us along the sidewalk as we walked from our Sky Train station down to the spot where we could pick up the ferry for Granville Island. A couple of the people in the group broke free and moved quickly ahead of us, darting in and out of pedestrians, and one of the younger members of the family behind us said, “Why does Mom have us on a forced march?” A sibling, perhaps, said, “We’re running out of time in the city and she has things to do.”

It struck me how in just a few short years—and whether it is being married to Z or the icy hands of middle age, I cannot say—my traveling style has altered. Before, if there were 14 sites to see, I would, by golly, see them all in a single day even if I were miserable by the end of it. Z is not that kind of traveller. If I had to choose a single word to describe him, in this regard, I would say Z is content. He doesn’t want to get up early, he has no delusions about how his life will be better if he gets to see x, y, and z, and mostly he just wants to have fun. When the sight-seeing ceases to be fun, he’s ready to head back to the hotel, and he never has regrets about what he might have missed.

Oh, to be Z.

My body may be begging me for a rest and I may be snappish because of excessive tourism, but mentally, it goes against my grain not to do as much of everything as I possibly can. When I was younger and read “I Shall Not Pass This Way Again” by Stephen Grellet, I failed to pick up on how the poem was about being kind and helpful to those whose path crosses yours and instead I thought it was some sort of travel manifesto. I may never be here again, so I better do it all. But Z is laid back. He’s not ticking anything off a list. He’s having a good time, hoping for a nice snack, and just generally more content.  He has the Zen quality of Pooh Bear traveling, while I, instead, have a combined personality of Rabbit, Owl, and Eeyore. When I start making a huge “to see” list, he reels me in and reminds me that he likes to do one or two things only. So I push him to do more and he pushes me to do less, and we end up somewhere in the middle. I don’t put up much of an argument when he declares he’s ready to head back to the hotel anymore because I’m beginning to understand the merits of leisurely.


So our two nights in British Columbia were not jam-packed. We stayed in New Westminter at Inn at the Quay, and had a room overlooking the Fraser. It’s a working river, so it wasn’t idyllic, but it was peaceful and we enjoyed the view until later in the evenings when the fog swallowed it whole.

Other things the fog swallowed: the mountains. What I remember from my only other trip to Vancouver several years ago was the shock of such beautiful mountains being so close to a city. The views were gorgeous. On this visit, we could have been in Kansas City if there was a lot of waterfront there. Still, lovely though.

In some ways, I’d remembered B.C. and Canada in general as more perfect than it actually is. For instance, I’d told Z how amazed he would be by how much cleaner it was than Seattle, which ended up being completely untrue. I’ve never nearly stepped in so much dog crap in my life. (The upside: loads of dogs for me to oogle, one of my favorite past times.) There was litter. Some areas were sketchier than I remembered. None of it was bad, certainly none of it was worse than what we see every day in Seattle, but it wasn’t the utopia I’d remembered, which was a good realization for someone like me to have; I always think somewhere else is better than wherever I am.

In New Westminster, we explored their revitalized waterfront, sampled some of the wares at the Rivermarket, which was right next to our hotel. At the market, on the first or “hungry” floor, you could devour a variety of local foods, and on the second or “curious” floor you could take classes, including learning a few tricks at the drop-in circus school. (We ate food but did not learn the trapeze, fyi).

We were right across the street from the Sky Train—fully automated and mostly elevated—into Vancouver. It reminded me more of the Chicago El and less of Seattle’s light rail. It was clean and quick and I enjoyed peering into the apartments and condos of people as we whizzed by to see how they decorated.


On my last trip, I’d never made it to Granville Island, though several people had suggested it, so we decided this should be our destination.  I’d read about it, so knew what to expect, but poor Z was picturing a leisurely ferry ride to a wooded island like Bainbridge, instead of the half a minute Aquabus ride to what felt like the other side of False Creek. He was happy when we disembarked, however, and made our way to the public market. It was reminiscent of Pike Market (particularly in the way I got crabby after about ten minutes because there were entirely too many people there), but had more food stalls. Z was particularly pleased with the Cornish Pasty he had, and I, because I eat like a picky four year old, had spaghetti and meatballs. Delicious, but not very adventurous. (This will never turn into a Foodie blog—sorry to disappoint you.) We walked around the island for a while, investigating the artisans’ wares in Railspur Alley, and tried to investigate the little bookstore and stationery store, both of which looked delightful but were way too crowded for it to be enjoyable. Then we hopped on the Aquabus and made our way back downtown.  On the walk, we visited the museum store (and loo) at the art museum, where it was nearly closing time. The building looks lovely, even if we didn’t make it in to see the collection. We continued our walk, peering into the Fairmount Hotel, where I hoped to see the resident yellow Lab, whom I met last time I was in town, and then on to the waterfront to try to find a view through the fog.

Eventually we arrived in Gastown. It was a particular favorite of mine, before I moved to Seattle and was introduced to Pioneer Square. The two places remind me a lot of each other: both have roots to the oldest part of the towns’ histories, both fell on hard times and became “skid row”, both were on the verge of being demolished when some forward thinking person realized the value, both for history’s and tourism’s sake, and the areas were saved and revitalized. Our biggest Gastown disappointment is that we’d stuffed ourselves so full on Granville Island we weren’t ready to eat dinner yet. It niggled at me a little that we were headed back to the hotel when everyone else was just headed out for the evening, but if I’m completely honest, I was looking forward to the quiet, un-crowded hotel and foggy view.

On Sunday, before heading home, we had lunch at the Dubliner Pub, which is housed in what used to be part of the penitentiary. It was cozier than you might imagine and the brunch there was delicious. We may have stopped at the Hard Rock casino for a flutter before directing the car towards the border, and we may have cleared $33 of the bizarrely plastic-y and see-through-y Canadian dollars, which we have tucked away for our next trip north.

Are there other things on our list to see in Vancouver like the observatory or Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden (or the neighboring free park) or the scenery  we’ve been promised on the drive to Whistler? Um, yeah. But for our inaugural trip, we were content. And it didn’t hurt that we made it home just in time to see the Seahawks make it into the Super Bowl.