Reading and Writing

A “Taste of Home”. The man in the mural is Danny Lytton. He once came to my old farm to help round up a couple Belgian horses I was boarding for horse loggers. The Belgians didn’t want to leave. Danny was so good with horses, he managed to coax them to the trailer.

I’m sitting in my fave little local cafe (there are only two – one we call “The Dry Place” because the food is too dry for our liking and the coffee always tastes burnt, and this one my family and I call “Taste”, short for “Taste Of Home”, because we kept forgetting its real name years ago, which first was “One Another, A Coffee House”; then it was “Bicycle Tree”; and now it’s “Rise & Grind Coffee Shop”, but one of my sons calls it “the kaif”, phonetically pronouncing cafe that way because he plays with words like his mom does).

Ah, it sounds like Jim Croce (whom my son might call Jim Croas phonetically) singing over the speakers right now, something about a Georgia girl he hopes will take him back. Now Gordon Lightfoot is singing about how it would be if his love could read his mind.

While I sip a soy cafe au lait, I have been reading a book, the latest one I’ve bought. It’s a slow process because so many things I read in it remind me of points from my own Alaskan past, so I go make notes in my manuscript documents. That, and I make penciled notes in the book itself.

Here is a page from the abovementioned book, which is called “Alaska in the Wake of the North Star”. Having looked at the publisher’s website (Hancock House), I feel I should contact them about my book, as it seems to fit with a lot of what they have published.

I would love to know if anyone reading this also makes notes in the books they read. 🙂

Of A Letter To You

Wild roses by my yard gates

Fellow WordPress blogger, Beaton, at Becoming The Muse, wrote a wonderful post.

Word for word, I could have written it myself. I thank him for saving me the time.

This part especially is from me, too:

“There are some of you who read quietly and steadily, never drawing attention to yourself. You are as silent as a midnight mouse. I never know you have been here. Still, I thank you for your creepy presence, lurking in the bushes, reading every word I write. I do hope you would cough once in awhile so I know you are there. I won’t make a big deal of it. I will just casually nod in your direction and carry on as we were, even as I try to hide the proud smile from my face.”

Here’s the rest of his post:

Grad For The Uncool Girl

She was uncool and she didn’t know how to pose

Warning: This one’s a bit long – over 2000 words.

Grad seems to be such a big deal for a lot of people. I wonder if anyone actually enjoys it. I wonder if anyone looks back and says they are glad it all happened.

There’s this one girl I know who tried her best to avoid being involved in the grad hoopla. She refused to sign up for the prom dinner.

Her principal found out she wasn’t buying a ticket and asked her why.

“Waste of time and money,” she said. “I just want out of this system. I can’t handle one more minute of it than absolutely necessary.”

He tried to convince her to go, saying it was important, saying it would be fun, saying she’d regret not going. He even offered to pay for her ticket, which, in 1985, was $50 for the fancy dinner and venue in downtown Vancouver. She told him she’d think about it.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money. She was a purveyor of plant products of the illegal kind, and other substances forbidden for sale in her country. She had money.

In the end, she decided to go, though reluctantly. She can’t recall if she ended up accepting her principal’s offer to buy her ticket or if she bought it herself. She does know she was increasingly stressed as the days toward graduation progressed.

She tried on dresses at the ritzy Holt Renfrew and found one she loved. It was a strapless, shiny little number, with a white corset-like top that flowed out into layers of pastel downward-facing tulip petals for a calf-length skirt. That one was a few hundred dollars. She saw the same ones at Le Chateau for less than a hundred. Maybe they were imitations.

Either way, she knew the dress was too fancy for her. Besides, she thought, there was no point in spending money on a dress she’d only wear once, for an event that didn’t move her in the least.

Ultimately, she opted for a $20 ivory cotton gauze dress. It was of 1970s vintage. It was unearthed at a Kitsilano consignment store on West 4th. The woman who owned the shop said the girl ought to wear black underthings beneath it because the boys would go wild.

That wasn’t going to happen. Boys would not care because they didn’t look at her regardless of what she wore.

Later that summer, some weeks after grad, she cut the dress into a crop top and a skirt to be worn separately, to get more mileage out of it.

There was a ceremony that bored her half to death. That consisted of sitting in a room behind a stage with a few hundred of her peers, wearing a square cap with a tassel, and a satin robe.

Why the outfit? What did it mean, other than heat and discomfort in the month of June in that hemisphere? She had no idea, but later heard it was a tradition started of necessity during the Middle Ages, when university buildings were unheated, and students needed robes for warmth. Some sources believe its roots go back to Druidic priests and Roman Catholic clerics, with something to do with trying to create a semblance of unity. She calls it unoriginality.

Whatever the reason, it seemed unnecessarily hyped up, and her preference would have been to simply walk out of the school building after her final class and never look back.

So, there was that ceremony. She waited till her name was called in the alphabetical list of hundreds of young adults. She walked out onto the stage to get her diploma, shook the principal’s hand, received obligatory applause, and returned to the back room.

Another uncool brick in the overheated wall.

During that week, there was a party at the beach. Everyone was under the legal drinking age, but they were all drinking aplenty. When the police showed up, the guy with whom she was talking said, “If they see us making out, they’ll leave us alone.”

Before she could say “Huh?”, the guy had her in his arms and was kissing her.

It worked. But even after the cops passed by, the makeout continued. The important thing was that the police left them alone.

Maybe the cops would have ignored them anyway and the guy:

A: was drunk
B: was sneaky and not to be trusted
C: had a crush on the girl, as one of his friends had said
D: all of the above

He wasn’t her type and it never went anywhere after that evening.

The next morning, there was a grad breakfast at the school cafeteria. Hundreds of underage hungover humans showed up to eat pancakes.

The week ended with the girl putting curlers in her freshly washed hair, readying for her pre-selected “date” to pick her up (thanks to her best friend who was part of the committee who pre-selected those dates based on things like height. Her buddy wasn’t aware that the guy chosen for her friend was someone with whom the girl had shared a mutual disdain ever since they were in grade 4 together, as she had gone to a different elementary school than her friend. By the time she told her, it was too late to rearrange.)

The guy was on his way to pick her up in his dad’s car. The girl’s long blonde hair was still damp when she took the curlers out. She fluffed it up as best she could with hairspray and went out the door. She was happy to hear Dire Straits music in the car.

“Right on! You like Dire Straits?” said the girl.

“Yeah, they’re a great band. I have all their tapes there.”

He pointed to a cassette case and she saw them all in it, even the latest one at the time, Brothers In Arms.

The guy was redeemed in her mind, but still they listened in silence.

Their first stop was the high school, to gather with their class in the gym for photos. The zoo of grads were lined up on bleachers – the young women on one side, the young men on the other.

Click. Click. Click. Photos were shot for the high school yearbook. Then the grads were free to leave. Some hung around for other photos. Some never showed up at all, choosing instead to meet in a park for clandestine consumption of alcohol.

Their next stop was an hour away in downtown Vancouver. More Dire Straits tunes played, pulled out largely by Mark Knopfler’s fingers on his blue guitar and the musical skills of the rest of the boys in the band totaling beautiful sounds through the bars of a rhyme. Mark’s soulful voice spilled out words to make the absence of conversation comfortable.

The Commodore Ballroom was all set up with fancy linen on the tables and fine food for the meal. Stuffy and uncomfortable it was for the girl, but she sat through it. A moving speech by one of her classmates was heard, 1980s music she didn’t like was played, dancing might have occurred but she paid no mind to it, and then it was time to go.

Her grad partner wasn’t driving back to their hometown right away, though. He was headed straight to the roller rink in Richmond for the grad party.

The girl caught a ride home from one of the vice principals and his wife. She wished that instead of the six-pack of pear cider she lugged along unopened in her backpack she had had the forethought to bring a change of clothes for the party. At the time, though, in her preparations, she was not aware that her date would not be bringing her home after dinner.

Every time they drove over a speed bump in the parking garage, the bottles clinked suspiciously. She tried to squish them together with her feet to reduce the possibility of sound, but the clanging persisted. If the folks in the front seat noticed, they didn’t say. Like the drive with her grad partner, the drive home that night was also without conversation.

Once she got into her house, she madly searched for comfortable clothing. She fished out a pair of red and black leopard print cotton leggings and a big T-shirt from the washing machine – items that would dry quicker than jeans – and put them on their own into the dryer. Her older self would soon learn that wasting electricity on two items like that was unwise, but she was still young and (more) foolish.

Time was running out for her to catch the last bus to Richmond, so with clothing that was not quite dry, she dressed, slung her backpack onto her back, and ran as fast as she could to the bus stop a few blocks away.

She made it in the nick of time, only to learn from the driver that he was headed back to the bus garage for the night. He would not be going through Ladner, where she would need to connect with a bus to take her to the roller rink. The best he could offer was to drop her off on the side of the highway by a Richmond hotel just before the Oak Street bridge that led to Vancouver.

She was the only passenger on the bus. She sat up front and chatted with the driver. They were familiar to each other from previous trips. He didn’t seem to notice or mind that she was chugging pear cider while they drove. He wished her well as he dropped her off on the side of the highway half an hour later.

The girl climbed over a chain link fence and down a grassy hill to the hotel, where she phoned for a taxi.

When she arrived at her destination, she bumped into a few people from various crowds, none of whom were normally part of each other’s circles, but all of whom had a fine enough time sitting in a car smoking weed together and drinking their respective alcoholic beverages before heading into the roller rink.

For most of the evening, the girl sat at a table like a mafia drug dealer, quietly observing the dancing bodies on the roller rink floor, sometimes being joined by people she barely knew.

The music, which was mostly 80s songs she didn’t like, was too loud for conversation, other than by yelling, so she avoided communication unless necessary for business.

Her best friend was off with a boyfriend at the time. The guy the girl herself hopelessly liked for the past few years was avoiding her, as usual, and her other buddies were younger/older/ and therefore not in her grad class.

She was running out of mind-altering substances to be sold, and so the price went up as people vied for what was left. She knew it was unreasonable, but they were willing to pay. They were people who weren’t her regular customers. She figured they must be desperate for mind-alteration. Maybe they were as disillusioned with an existence as presented by twelve years of prison-without-bars as she was.

After the roller rink closed, the girl and a few people she barely knew – for she barely knew most of the people with whom she spent all those years in classrooms – went to Denny’s for breakfast. They had camaraderie until she walked away alone. The sun’s first light painted the sky with shades of rose as she waited for the bus.

The best part of grad week was conversation with another girl she had hitherto only vaguely known. They talked with great depth for the next hour on the bus ride home, finding that they shared a lot in common. They parted with a mutual “I wish we’d gotten to know each other better all the years we spent in that wretched school system.”

They are still friends to this day, thirty-three years later. But who knows – they might have gotten to know each other some other way, too.

The girl wishes she would have not bothered with any of the grad hullabaloo. She has never actually used the word “hullabaloo” out loud, but it seemed to fit with the ordeal. She would like to say she instead stayed home and watched Benny Hill reruns and read books that night – books of her choosing because she loved to read and not because a teacher assigned them to her.

She would like to tell others that if they don’t want to participate in grad events, they should follow through with their desire and do what they’d prefer.

Go ahead and be uncool. It’s cooler than being cool.

Epilogue: Two years later, the girl came to know and believe that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, died and rose again, to pay the price to unite her with God forever. She is cool in God’s eyes and that is what ultimately matters.

Write as if no one will read it

I write these blog entries with the assumption that nobody will read them.

I hear it in my mind in Kathy Mattea’s voice when she sang, “You got to sing like you don’t need the money… Love like you’ll never get hurt… You’ve got to dance, dance, dance, like nobody’s watching… It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”

You got to write, write, write, like nobody’s reading…

And then when you learn that somebody read it, if you did it well, you might find that the feeling is that of comfort.

Several years ago, when I was new to blogging, a niece, who was in her early teens at the time, said, “I like it when you write from the heart. You should write more of that.”

I think that’s good advice.

I’ve always felt best about writing from the heart, that is, writing without worrying how it will be taken. I do sometimes have to carefully choose my words so they don’t get misundertsood by certain people who have proven a tendency to twist my meaning, but more often than not, I just let it flow.

I know there is a risk that someone will read my words.You are reading them right now. And there is a list of people who purposely follow my blog, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they will read each entry.

But people stumble across my writing in other ways, too.

When I was 18, I was at the family home of the guy who ended up becoming my first husband. A friend of his grabbed my purse and opened it, saying, “Whatcha got in here?”

He took out my journal and I gave a mild protest, like, “Oh, no… don’t read that.”

But I didn’t really want him to not read it. He read it out loud, at first as though he was mocking me, but he kept reading long after a few sentences. And I was glad. I just sat there and smiled smugly, like, “Ha. Go ahead and read. I have nothing to hide, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the ride.”

Somebody once told me, “Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want to be seen by the whole world if it fell into the wrong hands.”

I’ve written things I didn’t want anyone else to see, and they did fall into the wrong hands, but that was before I learned that advice.

Sometimes people surprise me and say something to the effect of having read what I wrote in my blog entries or elsewhere on the internet. It’s a comfortable feeling of having unknowingly invited someone into my pointless little world, and finding that something I said stuck in their mind.

How about you? Can you relate to any of this? I’d love to hear how you feel about the production of your own writing. Leave a comment below, if you can find the elusive comment box, or otherwise connect with me.

(Kathy Mattea’s video: “Come From The Heart”)

Are there no good writers anymore?

It saddens me to have to circle writing errors in books.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life. Well, since I could read when I was four years old, thanks to my mom and Sesame Street.

My dad, whose first and main language was Serbian, was so proud of me being able to read his sixth or seventh language – and my ONLY language. I remember him grabbing the Vancouver Sun newspaper one day when a friend of his was visiting. I must have been four years old.

“C’desten!” my dad would say, which is how “Christine” sounded in his accent.

“C’mere. Read this.”

I shyly read out loud the headline at which he was pointing, followed by the first paragraph, and then I went to hide under the kitchen table, where my sister and I usually hung out when our parents had friends over, still hearing my dad bragging in the living room. The two men laughed and continued on in their regular communication.

My dad’s English writing was bad. He had little reason to write words when he came to Canada, diving straight into carpentry, which kept his hands busy with tools and numbers. When he had to spell something in English, he wrote it the way it would be spelled in anglicized Serbian, and by that I mean English letters with Serbian sounds and accent marks, not full-on Cyrillic characters.

By the way, I usually hear people pronounce “Cyrillic” as “ser-RILL-ik”. My parents and their Serbian friends always pronounced it “CHEER-litz”.

A favorite example is how my dad wrote the word “church” in his address book. I can still see his right-slanting all-caps that said “ÄŤrÄŤ”.

Maybe I have, perhaps at least in part, become such a stickler for good English writing because of the struggles my dad had with it. He used to say he had stories from the old country that would make a bestseller, if only he could write it all out. I wish he would have.

Here I sit today in my favorite little cafe, waiting for the air conditioning to get fixed on my truck at the shop up the road. I was reading a book and after three circles of my red pen I decided to put the book down and write this here in my WordPress blog.

It is a book written by a former school teacher in my area, no less. But, teacher or not, we all make mistakes in our writing. I know I do, even in these little blog entries. I correct them when I find them, usually after I publish them.

If ever you find an error in my writing, would you please be so kind as to let me know so I can fix it?

(Funny… at the table across from me, I spy one of my neighbours, another former teacher. I bet she knows the author. I will ask her later and edit this to update.

UPDATE: I greeted her and asked if she knew the author. Indeed she did. That made me smile. I love my little town.)

I won’t say who the author is, out of respect and to protect her reputation. My point, though, is: don’t people care anymore about good writing? Rare is the book I read that allows my poor red pen to have a complete rest.

Reblog: Balance showing and telling

Show, don’t tell

I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”

Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.

This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.

It’s in the prose

Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.

Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.

Dramatization versus exposition

The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.

Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.

  1. “Telling” verbs

These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.

My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.

2. Dramatize, don’t summarize

You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.

3. Balance

Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.

4. Show the one right detail

Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.

The camera trick

The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.

You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.

Showing better by stirring emotions

Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:

  1. Metaphor and simile

Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.

Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.

2.  Verbs to trigger the senses

Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.

3.  Interweaving dialogue

Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird  scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.

How to show in four easy steps

The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:

  1. Use dialogue
  2. Use sensory language
  3. Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
  4. Be specific, not vague

The great lie of writing workshops?

Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.

Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.

Mostly show but sometimes tell

Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.

Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.

Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.

Interpreting My Dad

Some of my kids used to take my Handycam and record silly videos with it, designed for me to discover later. One such video from several years ago has become famous within my family and among a few friends. In this blog entry, I attempt to interpret the inside jokes that formed the basis of this skit, borne of the various childhood stories and vignettes I’ve told my kids. After you read this, watching the video should make more sense.

It starts out with my daughter, CJ, depicting me as a child saying, “Hey… Hey, Tracy! Broooookennnn chimmmm-neeeeeeey.”

Then CJ switches headwear to denote Tracy and says, “Oh, Christine, you know that makes me scared!”

First off, I never call my sister Tracy, unless I am talking about her to someone else. When I address her, though, it is ALWAYS “Trace”.

Now that we have that cleared up, here is the story on the broken chimney.

When I was four years old, and Tracy was three, we were walking through the back alley from our old house on East 7th Avenue in Vancouver, BC. We were with our dad, heading up toward Victoria Drive, to pick up take-out at Chicken Chalet. On our left, there was a church building with a gym in the back. It had big black letters up high on it that said “GYMNASIUM”. I think that was one of my first big words to read, as I could see it from my back yard, three lots away.

That one evening, we saw that the chimney on the back of the gym was broken. Pale red bricks were smashed and scattered onto the ground. It appeared that a car must have recently crashed into it.

Later that night, after our parents said goodnight to us, my sister and I were talking quietly in our beds. I mentioned the broken chimney. My sister sounded all freaked out as she said, “I don’t like that!”

I didn’t realize it was scary to her. I dropped the subject, but thought about it for awhile.

Then a few moments later, I said, “Hey, Trace…”

“What?” she said.

In an ominous voice, I said, “Brokennnnn chimneeeeeey.”

Suddenly, my sister screamed and started crying. Our dad ran up the stairs and into our room. He picked Tracy up to comfort her. She was crying and crying, all scared. My dad was trying to find out what happened, and through sobs, Tracy said, “Christine said ‘broken chimney!'”

I was afraid that I was going to get spanked, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but giggle a little at the whole thing.

My dad didn’t find it funny in the least. My mom came in and took over on consoling my sister. My dad turned his attention to me, yelling angrily about how it is not okay to scare my sister. He dragged me by the arm as I screamed and begged for him to let me go, down the top flight of stairs, through the hallway, around the corner of the kitchen, down the basement stairs, across the cement floor, past the old wood stove we rarely got to use because it coughed smoke, and into the dark, scary, empty room with flat grey carpet. He pushed me to the floor, slammed the door shut, and left.

As I sat there crying, my dad popped the door open and yelled in, with his Serbian-accented English, “I show YOU how it feels to be scared. You stay here all night. You don’t EVER scare your seester!”

SLAM! And he was gone again.

I sat there in the middle of that rough carpet, cold, alone, and in total darkness, hugging my knees to my chin, hiding my face, crying. It felt like I was there for hours, but it was probably more like fifteen minutes. It was long enough to scare me out of ever wanting to scare my sister again.

I can’t even remember my dad coming in to get me, but how it usually went when I was in trouble – a state I was in all too often – was that he’d leave me alone for awhile and eventually return to talk to me in a calm voice, chastise me in a reasonable manner, explaining why what I did was wrong, sometimes giving advice on what to do next time, and in the end he’d hug me. That hug always made me cry all over again, albeit silently, with relief, and I clung to him.

So, that’s the bit about “broken chimney”. But it got blended in with another story, which resulted in the line, “I put you in dog house, all night, with dead bird”.

I’m not sure where the dog house came from. It might be a reference to our old black and white Sheltie, Toby, for whom my dad built a dog house. Or it might be merely an ad-lib. But the dead bird does have a story.

This was in our new house, the one my dad built for us in Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. I was around eleven years old. I wanted to wash my feather pillow, so I carefully cut open a seam and unstuffed it. I didn’t want to mess up the house with feathers, so I did it out in the carport, putting most of the feathers into a garbage bag while I laundered the casing, but a few spilled out here and there.

That evening, my dad called me to come downstairs and see something. He pointed at a few clusters of grey and white downy feathers on the ground in the carport. In a sad voice he said, “C’desten…” (That is roughly how he pronounced “Christine”). “Small burd was keel.”

I stifled a laugh. My dad asked what was funny.

“That’s from my pillow, Dad. I unstuffed it to wash it.”

My dad laughed and was relieved. He always loved animals.

It’s just a little story, but it has resulted in something my family and I often say whenever someone uses the word “small”.

One might say, “Would you like a piece of pie?”

The answer might be, “Sure. Just a small piece.

If so, it would follow with the one offering pie saying, “Small burd was keel.”

And the conversation would carry on as if nothing unusual was said.

Then there’s the part in our video where SF is pretending to be my dad driving along, talking about how when he was a kid, they played with sticks and mud. And potatoes. Supposedly he played with, or rather ate, potatoes. All day. ALL DAY.

He never actually said any of that, but the tone was about right for his basic manner. Impatient. Gruff. And he did talk about potatoes a lot. We’d be eating potatoes at dinner, and my dad would say, “I loooooove potatoes.” Just like that. Elongating the word “love”. So, that image comes to mind for me whenever we have potatoes, and I’ve told my family about it a time or two.

Then there was my dad’s frequent use of swearing in Serbian so my sister and I would not know what he was saying (though, as with most kids whose parents have a different language, my sister and I became adept at using those strings of words, and believe me, Serbian swearing is long, detailed, melodious, but nasty in interpretation.) SF made up some foreign-sounding words, but they sure weren’t Serbian. She doesn’t know how to sound Serbian, having not grown up with my dad, but her attempt sure made me laugh.

And the mention SF made of my dad saying “my old country, Yugoslavia”, yes, that was something he’d often say. “The old country” was how he referred to it.

It cracked me up that SF would pretend to be my dad turning on the radio and finding a song from Yugoslavia. That wouldn’t actually happen because:

  1. The only time I’ve ever heard Yugoslavian music on the radio was on Vancouver’s CJVB, a cosmopolitan station in the 70s, during the Saturday afternoon “Serbian Hour”, which I think was more like two hours, but whatever…
  2. My dad would not be driving while listening to that because he was usually drinking by that time on a Saturday.

Still, it made for good humour, and I also love how SF made up those strange words that don’t sound anything remotely like Serbian.

Lastly, there’s the segment at the end, where CJ is pretending to be my sister, saying, “Oh, Dad, stop singing!”

I think that part is twisted out of a story I often told that involved me, not my sister. One time, in my late teens, I was engrossed in a book. I sat in my room reading on my bed, and my dad barged in drunk on a Saturday afternoon (I know it was a Saturday afternoon, because it was daytime, and his only drinking times were Friday night and Saturday afternoon – one or the other each week, but rarely both consecutively) rambling on about something. I have no idea what it was, for I was preoccupied by my book.

I kept asking my dad, politely, to please be quiet so I could read.

My dad would say, “Oh, sorry. OK.”

He’d walk away, only to return a minute later, picking up right where he left off.

I got exasperated, closed my book, carried it with me to the living room, and sat on the green, square-edged couch to read. He followed me, talking the whole way.

“Hey, Dad, I’m really trying to read here. Can we talk about this another time?”

And again, he’d say, “Oh, of course. Sorry.”

He’d walk away, and return again, starting up the chatter. It was maddening. He was sufficiently drunk that I decided it was safe to get firm with him and say, “DAD! STOP TALKING!”

My dad was not the kind of person one would order around when he was sober, but when he was drinking, he was a whole different man.

That very last scene in the video, where CJ is back to her role of me, with blue swim goggles (not sure why the goggles, but I guess to differentiate from my sister, although we both swam a lot in our childhood), cracks me up every time as I can still hear “my dad” singing in the background: “Da doyyyyy… drrrrron ta daaaaa…”

Now, if you’ve not seen the video, and you want to, here it is:

I can’t resist finishing this with Paul Harvey’s line – hear it in his voice, if you know it:

“And now you know… the rest… of the story.”

Reading Is Escape


“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”

Nora Ephron

I receive the Quote Of The Day from Goodreads and that was one of them. This is one of the few emails to which I subscribe. They are short and often inspirational for me as a writer.