Monday, August 10, 2015

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As of August 11th, 2015 Starfish and Koffie posts now reside at:

Happy birthday to me...and Chris Messina.

Friday, October 25, 2013

the art of discipline

After successfully completing part one of the Wired Writing Studio -- a two week on site residency in Banff -- I am back home wondering how to continue the writing momentum I had in Banff.

How am I going to keep up with the writing practice I had there? Which was a lot, every day.

From what I have learned, it comes down to three main things:

Showing up.

There were plenty of distractions in Banff like hiking and shopping and dining and elk. At the Banff Centre there were massages and a sauna and a hot tub and rock climbing. They offered day trips to the Hot Springs and Lake Louise.

You could simply sit and stare out the window if you wanted and find nothing but breathtaking scenery in any direction.

So my approach was to employ distractions as rewards.

After a certain deadline was met whether it was a word count, a particularly tough scene, or complete story revision, I would treat myself to a hike up Tunnel Mountain, or a walk into town for a beer at the Rose and Crown.

It worked out to be a healthy balance of work vs. play, discipline at the heart of it all.

Showing up  every single day because the stories weren't going to write themselves.

A few other things that contributed to the success of the residency:


It didn't hurt that I was surrounded with a bunch of talented, like minded artists, all doing the same thing, and all (mostly) feeling the same way: insecure and neurotic about our progress, wondering how we had been chosen for the program, overwhelmed by the generosity and support of our mentors, concerned about withdrawal when re-entering the world outside the protective walls and mountains that surrounded us in Banff.


It didn't hurt that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature while I was there working on my collection of short stories. There were cheers at lunch and rounds of applause at our readings. Whispers in the hallways "Did you hear?" and "Did you see the news?"

A short story writer, like me. A Canadian, like me. A woman, like me.

Hard not to take that as a sign, a good omen.


It didn't hurt that my mentor was Annabel Lyon, whose practical feedback and thoughtful insight on my work propelled me forward with confidence and focus, allowing me to have faith in the process and trust my ability to fix the parts that needed fixing, get rid of the bits that weren't needed, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In the words of Alice Munro:

"When you're a writer, you're never quite like other people. You're doing a job that other people don't know you're doing, and you can't talk about it, really, and you're always finding your way in this secret world, and then you're doing something else in the 'normal' world." 

Back at home there are distractions of different kinds that can interfere with discipline. Cooking your own meals and doing your own laundry. Family, jobs, HBO.

So it's back to distraction as reward. Work vs. play and finding a healthy balance between the two.

To facilitate that, it calls for some late nights and early mornings. Taking vacation days to meet deadlines. Few extracurricular activities.

It's everything above combined with keeping the spirit of elk, the magic of the pine forests, and a mountain of discipline at the forefront.

Because the stories aren't going to write themselves.

Friday, September 27, 2013

World Suicide Prevention Day - fear, kindness and not being an asshole

On September 10th people from mental health organizations, the Inuit community and government officials gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for World Suicide Prevention Day.

They talked about stigma, the need for awareness and education, and fear.  Fear to talk about suicide. Fear of not having the resources needed. Fear of be judged because of the stigma attached to suicide.

Plenty of things to be afraid of.

(PHOTOS: Jana Chytilova/CNW Group/Mental Health Commission of Canada)

In the wake of Irish poet Seamus Heany's death at the end of August (of natural causes) Micheal Enright's wrote an essay titled, Seamus Heany's poetry sheds light on our modern fears.  It's an excellent read that I heard Enright read aloud on CBC Radio One's The Sunday Edition a few weeks ago.  It includes a comprehensive list of possible fears like war, unemployment, the death of a loved one, our own mortality, a poisoned planet.

Lots and lots of things to fear.

But the essay ends with a quote from Heany's Nobel Prize lecture in Stockholm in 1995, "Walk on air, against your better judgement." Which, as Michael Enright says, was his dying message to his wife and to us. 

"Noli timere - Don't be afraid."

While we're busy trying not to be afraid, maybe another way to move toward preventing suicide in our country, and around the world, is to act with more kindness.

Is it easier to be kind or mean?

Author and professor George Saunders has and continues to influence my writing.  I'm not alone in this. He is listed on TIME's 2013 annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In an interview he did with Hazlitt, he spoke about the organizing principle of his latest collection The Tenth of December

If there is an organizing principle in the stories, Saunders noticed that they seem "to be a lot about those occasions where human beings do the good things. How does that happen? What were the contributing factors to somebody actually finding the wherewithal to do the right thing in a given situation?"

This notion of acting with more kindness is also reflected in his address to grads of Syracuse University for the class of 2013. You can read the whole thing here.  

Speaking of University, it's September. 

Something that could induce suicidal thoughts this time of year is going back to school. Those of you in your twenties are maybe finishing University, or thinking about starting, or quitting and traveling through Cambodia or Argentina or wherever.

Which brings me to Cheryl Strayed, a person who doles out advice, informed and logical advice in my opinion, on life and love and generally how to be a better person and lead a fulfilling life.

So wherever you end up (if you're in you're twenties), below is some valuable advice that Strayed has for you (which is applicable at any age) from her book Tiny Beautiful Things:

" about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being.  Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particularly for people in their twenties.  Why?  Because in your twenties you're becoming who you're going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole. Also, it's harder to be magnanimous when you're in your twenties, I think, and so that's why I'd like to remind you of it. You're generally less humble in that decade than you'll ever be and this lack of humility is oddly mixed with insecurity and uncertainty and fear. You will learn a lot of about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindenss, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love."

Is acting with more generosity, more humility and less selfishness going to prevent suicide?

I don't know.

But I think it's worth a try.

A passage from Seamus Heaney's Cure at Troy, is often quoted at times where speakers want to invoke a sense of hope after a terrible event. It was coincidentally mentioned at the speeches on Parliament Hill.

Below is Heany's poem, Mint, introduced to me by a writer friend.

Check out the last two lines. "Because we failed them in our disregard"

Are we failing those who are contemplating suicide by disregarding them like an overgrown wild plant?  Do we turn against people because we are afraid?  Are we afraid of people who might in some way also spell promise and newness in the back yard of our life?

Noli timere indeed.


It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house 
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow but tenacious
Sauntered in our green alleys and grew rife. 

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against 
Because we'd failed them in our disregard.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador

In 2000, the global stratotype for the boundary between the Cambrian and Ordovician systems (circa 500 million years ago) was designated at Green Point, Newfoundland by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

In June, we went to see it.

The layers of rock look like a giant grey mille feuille pastry flipped on its side. They used to lay flat. Each layer was mud and debris that gathered and settled on the floor of an ancient ocean and tectonic forces caused the shift over millions of years, tilting the rocks. In this photo, the older layers (Cambrian) are to the right and the younger layers (Ordovician) are to the left.

It's kind of unbelievable.

The rock layers run in straight lines out into the North Atlantic.

They're different colours and shades of grey, white, orange, black. There are even some small rogue bushy plants growing in the formations. Little yellow flowers peeking through the green sticking out from a wall of rock.

While tramping around like six-year-olds, marvelling at the natural history, thin plates of shale crunching beneath our shoes, my husband and I encountered only one other couple.

"Makes you want to redo your kitchen counters doesn't it?" the woman said.

Different people see different things.

I received a variety of responses when telling people about Gros Morne. From "Where?" to "Oh, I've always wanted to go there" to "What an amazing place"

The rocks in the Tablelands are the colour of peanut butter because it is chock full of iron and actually oxidizing with the oxygen in the air. If you smash a rock apart, like I did, it's a dark green black on the inside.

The excellent CBC radio documentary, Bones of the Earth, explains the tectonic stuff with real geologists and goes into detail about the Tablelands.

A few more things about Gros Morne:

If you go to Gros Morne, stay at Seaside Suites in Woody Point. Superb hospitality and accommodation. Waterfront. The best cinnamon buns I've ever eaten. Fishing rods come with the room.

Originally the Sea Breeze Lounge, the place is also a literary landmark featured in Project Bookmark in a poem by Al Pittman.

Also of literary note, the Writers at Woody Point festival finished its 10th anniversary last week that included authors like Cathy Marie Buchanan and Will Ferguson.

The gift shop/cafe/reception at Seaside Suites offers everything from starfish pendants to books by local authors to plaid pyjama pants with Newfoundland stitched on the bum.

Fun fact: Two days in, we learned the owner of the suites was also the mayor of Woody Point.

Getting there. West Jet has seasonal direct flights to Deer Lake. On our return trip everyone seemed to know each other.  A few people were going to the same wedding in Toronto, a young family was en route to Disneyland for the first time. Or, go to Cornerbrook and drive north.

It's windy.

Greens are a little hard to come by. Foraging aplenty though, so do some research on edible wild plants if you want to go that route. And eat at Seaside Restaurant. The place boasts excellence seafood and service and features in The National Geographic Traveler's Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Where to Eat in Canada and the New York Times.

We did three hikes in four days. It would probably take a couple of weeks to get through them all. And to do the boat tour through Western Brook Pond.

Note: icebergs, in addition to the stellar Quidi Vidi beer, can been seen (a record year this year for sightings apparently) from St. Anthony, a five hour drive from Woody Point.

It's slow and relaxing and everyone says hello to each other.

There are moose. Rick Mercer did a segment about tagging moose. The woman at the tourist info desk warned us about moose. The rental car guy said, "Watch for moose." We watched, scanned the hills and trees and never saw one.

Maybe next time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

negotiation 101

In May I went to New York City to film some material for the Canadian Journalism Foundation's annual awards, the CJFs.

Part of that trip included meeting Morley Safer because he is an old friend and former colleague of Michael Maclear, who received the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the CJF.

As you can see from the video, his office is a bit cluttered.

I chose to film him at his desk because the option was either that, or the multipurpose room where he would be posed in front of a black curtain beside a plastic tree. No need for negotiation. 

"It's...textured in here," I said.

He laughed and said that was a nice way of insulting someone.

The camera guy managed to set up a light in the corner of the office on a patch of floor between a TV stand and a sofa. Neither of us could sit on the couch because it was piled with boxes and envelopes and picture frames and magazines and books and newspapers.

The room was filled with a lifetime of journalism, with no sign of it letting up. He graciously took time out to do our video while wrapping the 45th season of 60 Minutes.

Two typewriters were perched on a shelf behind his desk. 

"That one there," Morley said, pointing, "I took it to Nigeria years ago and they wanted to charge me duty when I left the country."

"For your own machine?" I said.

"That's right," he said, "The boarder guard told me it would be $100 to take the thing out of the country."

"Seems like a lot," I said. 

"So I said to the boarder guard: How about $20? And he said: Okay."

There are ongoing negotiations happening as I write this for land claims, human rights, gun control, locations of pipelines, buyouts, loans, interest rates, and more.

On a smaller scale, people negotiate all the time: prices mostly, for houses, cars, food, sex, construction, vacation packages. Parents negotiate stories for bedtimes, vegetables for ice cream, chores for extended curfews. 

I negotiate on a regular basis in my job as a producer. Rates for camera operators, studio spaces, talent, locations, editors, editing, composers, and more.

I thought most things were negotiable until I found myself trying to haggle with a priest on the amount of his honorarium to perform the service at my father's funeral last year. 

I confess, I can't remember the last time I spoke with a priest, let alone negotiate with one.

It was odd.  

Mostly because the guy wouldn't budge. I didn't think priests had statements to the press, but the line he kept repeating during our phone conversation was, "I am accustomed to receiving a certain amount."  

Turns out his "certain amount", according to both my mom and the funeral home director (who had information from reliable sources) was a little on the high side. 

After an awkward silence on the phone - often an exciting part of the negotiating process where no one speaks for a few moments and inevitably someone breaks the silence - I gave up. I told him I had to go and hung up.

It broke my heart.

If a person is that unwilling to alter their expectations, if something on this scale is not going to shift, we are in trouble. I am not saying the guy wasn't doing his job. No question he should be compensated for his work, at a fair price. Like anyone.

There was something not right about negotiating an honorarium. By definition is: a payment in recognition of acts or professional services for which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set. (

That, and he didn't seem very priest-like.  He was all business. By the book. The experience left me feeling a bit sick.  It certainly was not in line with the values with which my dad governed his life - kindness, generosity, patience, fairness.

The day before the funeral there was a huge snowstorm and Father I'm-Accustomed-to-a-Certain-Amount got snowed in and we had to call in a replacement priest from a neighbouring parish to do the service. Someone my mom knew and liked and trusted. Someone who wasn't asking for a set fee for his services.

Divine intervention?

I don't know.

I do know that a lot of things are negotiable.

But some aren't.

Weather and terminal illness and accidents mostly. Snowstorms and flash floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.  Train derailments and plane crashes. 

"Remember when that plane landed in the Hudson?" Morley said as we were wrapping up the shoot.

The CBS offices are located on West 57th Street in the BMW building and he's got a view of the river.

"I looked up to see that plane floating by with people standing on the wing. I thought they were filming a movie."


The New York Times was given an Honorary Tribute award by the CJF and here is the video I produced featuring some of their staff.

I suspect a fair amount of attempted negotiating goes on inside the building on a daily basis, no doubt regarding some non-negotiable terms, values and judgments. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

magical thinking

There is an essay in Zadie Smith's collection, Changing My Mind, called That Crafty Feeling. It is a version of a lecture she gave to the students of Columbia University's Writing Program in 2008.

Section 4 of that essay is titled, Middle-Of-The-Novel Magical Thinking.

Simplified, it's the point where, when writing a novel, or in my case a collection of short stories, something strange happens.  Everything you encounter, flows freely into your writing.

By everything, she means: your home, the street, dialogue on the bus, the newspaper, your pets, your partner. Just...everything.

Zadie writes: "...there is nothing in the world except your book. The middle of the novel is a state of mind.  Strange things happen in it." 

Here are a few strangely magical things that have happened lately:

One of the stories I'm working on doesn't have a title yet. The options, presently, are: Confessions of a Chronic Voyeur, Slash of Red, Out There, Identification, The Naming of Things.

I think The Naming of Things isn't the best choice.  

The strange magical thinking part:

I stopped to pick up some wine to celebrate a couple of well timed epiphanies after a meeting with my mentor, Sarah Selecky and found this document sticking out of the garbage (pictured above) outside the LCBO It's an outline for a film titled, The Power of Naming and Identifying Information.

The story without a title yet is, partly, about a woman who has reoccurring dreams of a plane crash. In the dreams, she sees bits of things falling from the aircraft and landing around her. A plastic glass, part of a shoe, handles from suitcases, a slice of apple. 

The strange magical thinking part:

While listening to CBC Radio One on the Saturday morning drive out to the drop zone for Safety Day, I heard a news story how a piece from one of the planes that crashed on 9-11 was found wedged between two buildings in New York City.  

After the news, I switched the station to CBC Radio 2 where Stuart McLean was doing a reading before The Vinyl Cafe.  The story was all about the Sunshine Coast in B.C. and following it, they aired the show he had taped in Powell River.

The strange magical thinking part:

The story without a title yet, partly about a woman who has reoccurring dreams of a plane crash, is set in the Sunshine Coast.

The story without a title yet, partly about a woman who has reoccurring dreams of a plane crash, set in the Sunshine Coast also involves a character who suffers severe, life threatening injuries.  To better write about her condition, I decided to make a list of "things that are watery".  I thought it might help evoke images of what it feels like to lose a lot of blood, experience weakness, be in shock, lose consciousness, etc. 

The strange magical thinking part:

Aforementioned mentor, Sarah Selecky tweets writing prompts.  Her prompt from today was: Write a list from 1-20 titled, "Things that are watery."  

In no way have we discussed this character with the injuries, or how I came up with "things that are watery" or how she did or why she posted that very  

It's got to be the magic.   

Another story in my collection has a protagonist named Val. I recently changed the name of Val's daughter from Jamie to Molly. (Molly is working much better). I did this before reading Tenth of December, the title story in Tenth of December a new collection of short stories by George Saunders. It is worthwhile mentioning I am a big George Saunders fan.

The strange magical thinking part:

In Tenth of December there are characters named both Val and Molly.

This one doesn't really fit with the others, but I'm going to include it anyway.

The other morning, I saw a photo of two newly hatched baby penguins on Facebook after several weeks of absence from the site. Rushing out to work, I quickly saved the .jpg to my computer. The next day, I realized I had not saved the image incorrectly.

There were no penguins.

I went back to Facebook to try and find the photo that I had seen it on a post via a friend of another person, or maybe it was an ad for a Japanese writer, I think, but I couldn't remember his name, even though I thought I saw him in that "The Strategist" section of the Globe and Mail last week.


Sweet little creatures lost in a virtual vacuum never to be seen again.

Look at this photo.

You see the urgency I had in finding it.

At work I googled "baby penguin images" and it gave me 28,000,000 pics to choose from.

I enlisted the help of my tech support colleague and from his computer, tried a couple of targeted searches on Facebook.


For fun, I showed him how I had googled the search earlier and...there they were.

"Quick, save it!" he said.

And there they are.
Just a couple of newly hatched Gentoo penguin chicks in Antarctica.

And they, along with a few other things right now, are most certainly magical.

Photo by Richard Sidey was National Geographic's Photo of the Day on January 8, 2013.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

how to cope

Yesterday, I met an eleven year-old girl whose life this far has been an extraordinary journey.  

Stephanie lives with chronic pain due to serious complex medical conditions. Her entire family is living testimony to strength, courage and perseverance. 

But their lives were changed, especially Stephanie's, when Flare came along two years ago.

Flare is a C.O.P.E. (Canine Opportunity People Empowerment) dog.  

C.O.P.E.'s mission is to: provide a remarkable education program that engages communities and empowers students and others in the training of service dogs that will transform the lives of people with disabilities. (

As an animal lover who grew up with pets and married someone who I think loves animals even more than me, I thought I understood the power that an animal can have.  

But seeing the relationship between Stephanie and Flare reaffirmed the fact that animals are highly intelligent, sentient beings. 

Stephanie's mother, Denise, recalled how two years ago Stephanie had essentially given up. She was in too much pain. Too tired to fight. Then they found out they would be getting Flare and everything changed, for the better.  The dog gave her hope, purpose, comfort.  

The dog gave her a reason to live. 

I've had cats most of my life and granted, you doing see a lot of working cats out there.  For one, they wouldn't wear that vest.  Cats seem to live, and give, on their own terms. The two I have now dole out their love and affection as they deem necessary. 

But they know when something is up. 

They'll come in for a pat just when I seem to need it most. They'll curl up on my husband's chest while we're watching a movie. They'll sit in my lap when I'm reading.  It's a relaxing feeling of being needed, often kneaded, and provides a soothing sense of calm.  

I see the effect dogs have on my husband, who, for different reasons than Stephanie, also lives with chronic pain. He lights up when he sees a dog on the street. Always stops to ask the owner if he can say hello.  He knows all the dogs in our building by name.  They distract from his pain, help him find joy. The same thing Flare does for Stephanie.

Although we're not in a position to own a dog, someday we might adopt a pair of rescues that can't be separated.  A couple of underdogs.  

Rick Mercer recently did a piece profiling the working dogs at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides in Oakville.  In my opinion, these animals are nothing short of genius.

The camera operator I worked with yesterday told me how he once filmed a story about a seeing eye dog.  When entering Tim Horton's the Standard Poodle knew whether to get in line or go to the cash.  The cashiers knew the dog and tapped the counter so he would know where to go to be served.  An employee brought the order to their table.  A table the dog chose.  He liked one against the wall, so he could lie against it, out of the way of traffic and have a rest.

Stephanie told me that Flare helps her with her pain.  Flare doesn't judge, or look at her funny, or question her.  Flare is a presence that helps more than she knows.

On second thought, perhaps Flare knows exactly what she is doing.

In this video life partners explain how their C.O.P.E. dog is a friend, a companion, a helper.

These dogs give physical and emotional support from a place of unconditional love without judgement or pretense.

They are trained by humans, but I think it is we who have a lot to learn...from them.