Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Puppy Love

First published in The Oxford Journal in the January 25 issue, by Sara Mattinson.

Ever since I moved to rural Nova Scotia almost five years ago, I’ve been hounding my husband for another dog. 
“Can we now?”
“Can we now?”
And so on for the past 1800 days (like a dog wanting breakfast, I don’t give up). As our dog Stella aged, my arguments for why we needed a second dog became more insistent. 
“We have 72 acres,” I said to my husband. “We have lots of room for another dog.”
“Yeah, but the house is only 42 feet long,” he countered, “and that’s where the dogs will be all the time.”
The alpha male had to accept the inevitability of the second dog when my co-worker, Jane, got a puppy last September. Truly, he was never going to win against my fervent desire to walk through the fields and woods with two dogs playing and running ahead of me. 
(I always forget the part where a dog eats something rotten and throws it up at three in the morning. Two dogs means double that fun.)
Two months ago today, we brought home a puppy and what a busy two months it’s been. In and out a hundred times day and night, cheering for every piddle and poop done outside, teaching her not to gobble her food, or the cat’s, or the other dog’s. It’s exhausting, it’s chaotic but with the extra help we’ve had, it’s rewarding. 
Our eight-year-old dog, Stella, has been a lifesaver. We knew she’d accept the new dog since she had an older sister when she was a pup, but we didn’t expect such complete tolerance from her. She puts up with not only the constant biting and demands to play but the sharing of bones and the total invasion of her personal space. Wherever Stella is, the pup is stuck to her like a remora on a shark. 
Sounds ideal so why are we so shocked? Because it’s happening to a dog who was such a monster as a puppy, she earned the nickname “Frankenstella”. Her reputation was legendary. I once chased her around the streets of the town where we lived in Ontario because she’d run off with a banana I’d set down on the bumper of the car in anticipation of heading out for a drive with her. Shortly before we moved, a neighbour said to me, “We’re going to miss you. Watching you try and train your dog has kept us entertained these past few years.”  
Stella was a nightmare of energy and intelligence and mischief; her breed’s “lifelong puppy-like quality” was going to be the death of me. It  wasn’t until we moved here that both of us could enjoy more freedom together; we calmed down together, and Stella aged like a fine red wine into a mellow body we could enjoy for her slightly fruity aftertaste. 
“You know, Stel,” I said to the old girl as we fetched the paper on Sunday morning, “the upside of all this chaos and incontinence is that it has given me a deeper appreciation for you.”
Stella has done the impossible: she has transcended her reputation. Watching her mentor this new pup has erased all the memories of mischief and mayhem from her early years. No matter how this new dog turns out, Stella will be remembered not as that terrible little monster but as a wonderful big sister. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Workshop for Better Writing

"Write the first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head."
That's another way of saying, Editing is very important.
I'm offering a three-hour Editing Workshop on Saturday, February 4th (1:00 to 4:00 pm), to help writers understand how to edit their own work.I compare it to drilling for oil. That first gush comes fast and you write quickly in order to cap all that energy, to get last drop of the idea. But that's just the crude. It's rough and unfinished. Editing is like processing that oil to make it smoother, to more marketable.
Editing is not easy but it is necessary and unavoidable. It's the only way to improve your writing. Learn not to fear your inner editor! (The one who shows up after you've written the first draft.)
If you're a writer looking for new ways to see your own work, check out the ad in the Oxford Journal, or call 447 - 2789.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Big City, White Knuckles

First published in the January 18 issue of The Oxford Journal, by Sara Mattinson

“This is just the right amount of cars,” my mother said as we drove along the Trans Canada, returning from treating her to supper. “There aren’t  a thousand cars on the road.”
No, there weren’t. There were two cars coming in the opposite direction and three cars stretched  out before us. Counting cars and commenting on traffic patterns isn’t her usual occupation but my mother was about to head south for the winter. Facing the three day drive by herself to my sister’s home in Georgia had her on edge because now, at the age of 70, three days by herself on the interstate is too much. (It’s the price she pays for taking so many books and gifts for the grandchildren.)
Two things are true: We lose our nerve as we get older, and more traffic means more close calls or outright accidents. Mum and I were in Moncton when we narrowly avoided being sideswiped while making a left turn as the van in the other left turn lane began turning into ours. What was remarkable, however, was how nervous I remained the rest of the day. I was relieved to return to Nova Scotia but not pleased with my feelings. Driving in a city is a necessary skill to keep honed and after years of carefree driving in Toronto and Vancouver, I’m worried about losing my nerve. 
When all you’re driving for weeks on end are winding rural roads, driving in the city becomes a white-knuckle experience. The one and only time I used the Armdale Rotary in Halifax, there was 20 seconds when I truly believed that I was going to be stuck there for the rest of my life. And it’s one thing to merge into light traffic from the on-ramp to the 104 at Oxford; it’s another thing to merge into four lanes of solid vehicular motion. At five in the afternoon. In the rain. 
It gives me chills just writing about it.
But like using generators, sump pumps, and snow blowers, driving in the city is a skill every country dweller needs not only to possess but also to have confidence in, and there’s more to it than remember on what level of the parking garage we left the car. Mostly we go for medical appointments, perhaps a concert or a wedding or a funeral, but driving into the city is like a flu shot: it’s unavoidable and necessary even if it makes us feel sick. 
As for my mother’s trip down south, she had three close calls on Day Three. 
“I’m never doing this again,” she told me over the phone once she’d arrived safe and sound.  
I couldn’t be her daughter for 41 years and not know what that means: There’s a three-day road trip in my future.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dinnae Fash Yerself! Slainte!

Those are the only Scottish phrases I can pull off the top of my head and since they means, "Don't worry!" and "Cheer!" (or perhaps, "Here's to your health"), they're good to know. Especially for tomorrow, January 25, Robbie Burns Day. Considering Nova Scotia is New Scotland, it's an excellent excuse to celebrate the Scottish bard's birthday, whether or not you have a little tartan in your blood and a little kirk in your kick.
Born on January 25, 1759, Robert "Robbie" Burns is considered Scotland's greatest poet and favourite son. Although he died more than 200 years ago, he is still considered The Greatest Scot. The first Burns day wasn't held on his birthday, as it is now, but on the fifth anniversary of his death. The idea caught on across Scotland until it became an annual event eventually celebrated on January 25.
Over the years, Burns' influence spread due to worldwide Scottish immigration. Intrepid Scots brought their love of Robert Burns with them when they settled in Canada, Brazil, Jamaica, New Zealand, Argentina, and elsewhere. There are so many Scottish Canadians, they are considered Canada's third largest ethnic group, and Gaelic is still taught and spoken in Cape Breton.
No celebration of Robbie Burns day is complete with a haggis. Despite what you may have heard, few people actually make the very traditional (and gruesome) haggis; now it is a delicious blend of meat, spices and oatmeal rolled into a sausage. No wonder Burns decided an eight-stanza poem to it. Here's the first verse, translated from Gaelic:
Fair is your honest happy face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race.
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

I think it's safe to say, if you can't find a haggis to eat tomorrow, a pork sausage, some ground lamb or beef in a nice hearty mince or chicken will be an acceptable substitution. As long as you serve a dram of Scotland's finest drink - whiskey - all will be forgiven. Slainte!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunshiney Day

What a gorgeous winter's day it is. Cold and sunny. So hard to stay inside and write when I want to be outside walking in the woods with the dogs. Must take down the Suggestion Box in the chicken coop, though. The chickens, desperate to be outside but hating snow, keep asking for boots.
It was minus 19 when I got up this morning at 7:30 (the dogs and cat allowing us to sleep in on Sunday). I wonder if we'll have any minus 30 nights like we did the first few years I lived down here. I remember coming home from a dance at the end of January and not being able to feel my feet, shod as they were in unsuitable little dancing shoes. At three o'clock in the morning, my husband and I were huddled under blankets in the living room, drinking tea and eating toast, watching the end of a movie on TV, as we waited for the re-stocked wood furnace to heat the house enough for us to go to bed.
It's hard to remember those deeply cold nights on a day like today. The sunshine feels so good, even the chickens are braving the snow to be outside.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Good Food, Good Friends, Good Family

First published in the January 11 issue of The Oxford Journal, by Sara Mattinson

Whether you are a come-from-away or know someone who has gone-far-away, the worst part about living separate lives is giving up the long-time activities you would do together. While the absence of familiar rituals hits particularly hard at obvious times like Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries, sometimes the simple pleasures you pursued together are the ones you miss the most. Take heart: There are creative ways to defeat the distance. 
My friend Elaine phoned on Saturday.
“Can you and Dwayne come for supper tomorrow night? Freeman and the girls are cooking supper and we need you to judge the dish.”
I anticipated a full house but it was explained to me that none of the girls - Freeman’s grown daughters - would be there. They used to have family cooking contests and guests would get to choose the best meal but now the girls are spread far and wide: Ontario, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Missing the ritual of the monthly cooking competition, they decided to try it long distance. 
It’s not as silly, or difficult, as it sounds. When I was living at home helping to take care of my father who had Alzheimer disease, my mother and I played Scrabble every night. When I went away to Georgia to house-sit for my sister, I simply called up my mother and we played over the phone. We tweaked the ritual in order to keep doing what we loved to do together (and the phone made it easier for her to cheat).
It’s not easy keeping friends and family members close and involved in one’s life when there is such distance between. A running joke: I call up someone, say my friend in Vancouver, and announce, “We’re having lobster for supper. Can you be here by six?”
Always, the friend replies, “Yes!”
 It’s part of the joke but it’s also our way of saying, “I miss you. Wish we were together.” 
Back to Freeman’s part of the long-distance supper challenge. Did he win?
“Ten out of ten,” my husband declared with his mouth full. 
“But the potatoes aren’t quite done,” Freeman lamented.
That didn’t matter to us. As the grateful judges of this cooking competition, our score reflected our delight in the tasty meal, the scintillating conversation, and the heartfelt attempt to keep families knitted together, doing what they love to do, no matter how many miles are between the main course and dessert.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Getting To Know Me (Myself and I)

There are two elements to writing that make it exciting and compelling for those of us who love to do it. First of all, there is the feeling that writing is a kind of therapy, that by writing down emotions, feelings and thoughts, we are releasing those feelings. Writing as therapy isn't necessarily good writing or writing that should be published; it's part of that free writing, that first-draft writing that we do to get started, to find the true starting point of our story.
Secondly, there is the sense that we are learning about ourselves while we write that story. Since we are in control of what we write and how it will sound in print, usually what we know and what we learn about ourselves is obvious. There are times, however, when another reader, a stranger, reveals something new, something shocking (in a good or bad way).
I recently had an editor do an evaluation on a book I've written because I needed a stranger - someone who doesn't know me or my story and has no need to be "nice" in her critique - to put a critical eye to my work, particularly the opening 50 pages. Of all the comments and suggestions she made, one is slowly working its way through my consciousness, as a writer but also as a person. When listing the parts of my story that marked my strongest writing, she included "setting". She wanted to know more about the places about which I was writing and said she sensed setting is essential to me.
I did not know this about myself. When I was living in Vancouver, I spoke to my mother almost every day on the phone and she once commented that likely I was the only person in Canada who didn't talk about the weather. Have you noticed how many conversations around here open with a weather comment? No wonder my small talk sucks! I don't mind rain, sun, snow storms, wind; it doesn't seem to affect my mood or outlook so perhaps that's why it doesn't occur to me to talk about it. But what I notice is how the snow is blanketing the field behind the house or how the mist makes the woods look so pretty, how the river winds away from the road in a particular spot (and less about how the road winds!) and how the trees in our front yard bend but never break in high winds.
when I was in Vancouver, I longed for open spaces and quiet and water. I had to move East, to the setting of my childhood vacations, to find peace. I had to be in a particular setting to be happy in my heart.
So thanks to this editor, I have a new characteristic about myself to examine. And another mystery - why don't I talk about the weather? - solved.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

February Is The New New Year

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

When it comes to resolving to do something differently, the starting point for me isn’t January first. Who in their right mind would attempt to break an old habit or create a new one while still “hung over” from the busyness and indulgences of Christmas and New Year’s? As I lay on my couch on New Year’s Day, reading yet knowing I should be going for a long, heart-pumping walk, I polished off a box of Ovation mint sticks. Now on to the rest of the sweets “hanging over” from the holidays.
January is really more of a recovery month than a resolutions month. It takes a least a week to recover from that time between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day; then there is the need to catch up on all the sleep lost through the entire month of December when we were shopping and baking and wrapping instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour. It takes a couple of weeks for some of us to get back into the groove of work if we’d had time off over Christmas, so added up, there’s most of January spent on simply catching up, in order to be healthy enough to start working on a resolution. Surely, in a 12-month year, the year is still young after a mere 31 days.
This is why I begin any New Year resolution on February first. I’m rested, I’m recovered, I’m ready to make some changes. Not only that, but consider the two major facts about February: it’s the shortest month, even in a leap year, so you achieve that first, hardest month of trying to make a change in less time. Plus, it’s the month of love. All those extra endorphins coursing through your body after the first two weeks can only spur you on to further success with whatever resolution you made. Besides, there’s that funny little b-r-u combo in the middle of the month that makes it look like you’re kissing off that bad habit. 
The key to resolving to change behaviour is to be psychologically prepared, like a long-distance runner at the start of the race. If you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t get up that morning thinking, “I’m not in the mood for this race.” The key is to use this first month of the year to establish the proper mind-set to begin your New Year resolution on February first. A positive attitude is essential. Instead of saying “I will stop smoking”, think of it as “I will start avoiding cigarettes.” Instead of “I have to lose 20 pounds”, think of it as “I enjoy eating carrot sticks instead of chips.” Remember that this is the month of love: Love eating less! Love working out! Love not smoking!
Or we could all just get off the couch and go for a long, heart-pumping walk because that will take care of a lot of problems, including at least five pounds. Another good reason to start a resolution  like that in February: It’s slightly less cold and dark than January. 

-- by Sara Mattinson

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Mind's Eye

There is a mad bull on the loose behind our house. Apparently, he escaped while being dropped off at the farm next door then crashed through the fence and disappeared into the woods. He's not just angry, he's crazy, and as has been explained to me, it doesn't take long for a cow on the loose to "turn wild" and this guy is definitely resisting capture. A farmer never takes kindly to being chased by his own cattle.
After I get home from work on Mondays and Tuesdays, I take the dogs for a swift walk along the old road leading back into the woods before it gets dark. For the first bit of the lane, the woods belonging to the farm next door run alongside the fence on my right (on my left is our field) then they pull back some to create a small field which further along opens up into a larger field. At the top of the old road,  the woods close in again on both sides. As that first break in the woods appeared this afternoon, my eyes registered something out of place along the treeline at the other side of this small field. I knew it was the bull.
How many times have I walked up and down that lane, muttering to myself, deep in thought, watching the dogs, listening to the pileated woodpecke hammering on a tree trunk, or whatever; not paying the least attention to my surroundings. Yet today, instantly, with one glance, my mind registered that there was something different. Even in a stretch of trees that includes the light bark of old poplar trees, my mind knew that those clumps of white there were new, and thus part of the bull.
This was confirmed after I kept walking. When the out-of-place white clumps moved, it was obvious they were on the bull's face and massive chest. The very large, very red Hereford bull turned and slipped back into the shadows of the woods.
The brain is so amazing. Some neuroscientist would be able to explain this phenomenon to me but even without the explanation for how neurons and connectors and blah blah blah works, it was very cool to experience it firsthand.
Although only halfway up the road, the dogs and I returned home. My brain has a strong survival instinct, as well.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Books For Long Winter Days

Here is a list of my favourite books of 2011.These aren't necessarily books that came out in 2011; they are simply the ones I read this year that I enjoyed the most and have recommended to others. They're listed in no particular order.
NF = non-fiction; F = fiction

1. Modoc, by Ralph Helfer. (NF) Fabulous story of an elephant and his human soul-mate.
2. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. (F) Set in Ethiopia. Didn't want it to end.
3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson. (F) A satisfying end to the trilogy.
4. Homer's Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper. (NF) About a blind cat. Not just another animal story. The author's story about 9-11 and trying to get back to her cat makes the book worth reading.
5. Soul of a Dog, by Jon Katz. (NF) I read anything by him and this book includes donkeys and goats. No dogs die in this book.
6. The Woefield Poultry Collection, by Susan Juby. (F) *Canadian. Great characters.Plus chickens.
7. The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. (F) Loved this book. Made me want to keep bees.
8. Poser, by Claire Dederer. (NF) A yoga book. Made me more aware of my own practice.
9. One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Divakarumi. (F) Lovely, lovely, lovely. An unexpected find.
10. Farm City, by Novella Carpenter. (NF) I learned so much from this book without it being a how-to, or preachy (now I know what to do with all my rabbit poop). Set in San Fransisco.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Back To Work

Busy day at the newspaper today, but only because we had one day to get it together instead of two. Then because we are a little short on content, it was decided to drop from a 24-page paper to a 20-page paper, pushing our deadline further into the afternoon.
We have lots of news from our correspondents but not many ads for the "Up and Coming" page. It's that time of year, when people retreat into their homes and don't make as many plans, but it's also the kind of month January is: We're in recovery mode after several weeks of going full-tilt with shopping and baking and partying and wrapping, then a week of eating and, well, eating, eating, and eating! This is the only time of year that I make Black Forest cookies and Toffee Pecan shortbread so I tend to gorge a bit. (Eating a toffee pecan shortbread with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, however, is an experience close to heaven; I was taking a well-deserved break from oatmeal.) Everyone is moving a little more slowly, and is a little more distracted by a new To Do list: Clean up, put away, start... I've been trying to clean my office for a week and can only now begin since the Christmas decorations finally were put away yesterday. Note to self: a messy desk is the sign of a brilliant mind but also a sign that you can't find the latest power bill.
So even though we only had one day to put together the first paper of the new year, it was good to have things light and easy. I wouldn't want to strain myself on my first day back to work.