Posts Tagged ‘life stuff’

The consolations of late dentistry

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

(with apologies to Boethius)

Hello, friends. Tomorrow, I am having a “part boney impaction section” – that is, a wisdom tooth pulled. Yes, at my age!

I know, I know: this is a very small thing. I am healthy, I have insurance that covers much of the cost, and I can spare the time – even if it doesn’t feel like I can. Still, I am WORRIED about the whole thing. (I don’t know how much worry is reasonable. Definitely some, since possible side effects include losing the adjacent tooth and permanent nerve damage?) Also of concern: when I asked the dental surgeon what the optimal outcome looked like, he said, “Optimally, you would hop into your time machine and travel back to when you were fifteen and have all four wisdom teeth pulled, because your young body would be able to repair any nerve damage.” Har. Har. Har.

Anyway, I have assembled the following – ahem – consolations to see me through this unpleasant ordeal:

  • Two chapters of a friend’s WIP set in the late C19, which I am to read for authenticity.
  • Coconut ice cream, made with the last of the gula malacca my mother brought back from Malaysia. (I bought the rest of the family some other flavours but I will be eating this whole batch of homemade ice cream myself. For medicinal reasons.)
  • E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights, which I bought in October but have been saving for this occasion.
  • This conversation between Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham.

And by the time I’ve recovered, it’ll be the Year of the Monkey. Huzzah! Hope you have a week that’s rich in good reading, ice cream, feminist wisecracks, terrible puns on famous philosophical treatises you’ve never actually read, and whatever else gets you through.

*Update: it went fine! No nerve damage, and the surgeon gave me the tooth in a baggie. In fact, I warmed to him even before the ghoulish parting gift. As he was getting set up, I asked him why he’d become an oral surgeon and he said his main interest is facial reconstruction. Now THAT’s fascinating!

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Introducing Mac

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Hello, friends. This past weekend, we picked up our dog, Mac! He used to live just south of Little Britain and Manilla. True story.


Things we’ve learned so far:

  • He’s a cautious soul. He was terrified on the 3hr drive back to Kingston, vomited all over the back of the car, and clearly thought he was being kidnapped. We felt utterly evil. But, as a Facebook friend pointed out, Stockholm Syndrome will kick in sooner or later.
  • He’s great with other dogs. For the first two days, he was really only happy when he met other neighbourhood dogs. The rest of the time, he had a worried/sad look.
  • He learns fast. After one walk, he understood that I was okay with him sniffing around lampposts and hydrants, but not garbage cans or recycling boxes.
  • He’s new to soccer and bravely herded the 4yo away from a Very Threatening soccer ball.
  • He’s a pro napper.



Another thing I’ve learned: dog photography is hard. I’ll work on it and have more photos next time.

Hope you have a wonderful holiday!

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Sickbed lit

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Is “sickbed literature” already a Thing? If it isn’t, it really needs to become a Thing.

I’ve been down for several days with a weird, nagging virus. (Remember when viruses used to mean either cough/cold/sore throat or gastro? Wasn’t life simpler, then?) However, the one bright side to this illness is that I’m still able to read. Here’s what I’ve been enjoying:

Palace of Spies and Dangerous Deceptions, the first two books in Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies series.

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They are delightfully lighthearted, twisty, early-eighteenth-century spy romps. Wigs and lapdogs and Jacobites, ftw! I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

Tamar, by Mal Peet. (I didn’t mean to create a spy theme; it just happened.)

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Set in Nazi-occupied Holland and 1990s England, Tamar is about wartime espionage and the long repercussions of secrecy. It’s making me think (in a really happy, productive way) about my own Second World War work-in-progress.

I’ve also read some dog-training books (we’re picking up Mac in under a week!), the most interesting and thoughtful of which are Plenty in Life is Free, by Kathy Sdao, and Train Your Dog Positively, by Victoria Stilwell.

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Both have really helped me to envision the kind of relationship I’d like our family to cultivate with our first dog. I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, but it’s good to have a plan and an ideal going in.

And that’s it for me, this week. Have you read anything particularly fine or delightful or memorable recently?

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Rhythm and celebration

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

My lovelies, it’s been this kind of week:


Miranda Zero and her baby brother, Charlie, basking by the wood stove. Set-up and photo by the 4yo; composition probably an accident.

Everyone’s wiped, but there are still 3 weeks of school left before the winter holidays. 19 days until we pick up our dog, Mac. The four-year-old is sick and I’ve been at home with her, cuddling and reading and taking 2 hours to measure and mix a simple cake.

And in this season of countdowns, we’ve just set up an advent calendar that has, most unexpectedly, helped change the way I think about December. Behold!


(I hasten to point out that I didn’t make it. I bought it from a local artisan, Sienna of Knits’n’Veggies, who also makes amazing play food, including sushi. And while I’m on the subject, I didn’t make the quilt, either. It’s a beloved gift from Chasing Lightning Bugs. And the photograph is by our dear friend Tom Pietrasik.)

But Nick and I get to fill the advent calendar, and we’ve had so much fun planning what to include. Some chocolate, of course. Ice skating. Really corny jokes. Tree-trimming. A few art supplies. And some charitable projects, to try to balance the seasonal momentum to git-git-git (à la Lucy from Peanuts).


Most surprisingly – though maybe I shouldn’t find it so surprising – the act of thinking carefully about each day, and what it might hold, is bringing me into the moment. December is so often a roller-coaster of parties and activities and late nights and germs and early mornings that feel like punishments. But so far (I know it’s early!), the advent calendar has me considering balance, rhythm, and how we want to weight our holiday season. I didn’t realize it when I bought that string of mittens, but it’s a gift to me, too.

How’s your December starting out, friends? And how do you maintain balance through the season?

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About a dog

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

This past weekend, Nick and the children and I drove 260 km to meet a dog.

This dog, to be specific.


And, having met him and lost our hearts (and probably our minds), we drove 260 km home again, phoned his owner, and asked to buy him.

He’s a 3.5-year-old smooth collie named Mac. He’s smart and serene and sweet-tempered. Every day since then, my 7yo has said, “I love Mac! I love him already, with all my heart!” My son is already planning dog parties (with all the other calm, friendly dogs in the neighbourhood) and wondering what Mac would like best for Christmas. Me, however?

I’m nervous because I know very little about dogs.

I’m not enthusiastic about doing more housework and picking up poo.

And I’m imagining what it’ll be like to welcome another personality into our family. What parts of his temperament remain undiscovered? How will we bond with him, and he with us? How will he deal with the 7yo, who already loves him with unconditional devotion, and the 4yo, who is so eager to boss him around?

It’s not all anxious foreboding, of course. I’m looking forward to getting to know this dog. I’m really curious about what I’ll learn. I know this pet will expand my understanding of the world, and my heart, too. And I am ready for that.

But I’m still nervous.

(That said, isn’t he handsome? As my friend Sarah said, he looks like a cross between a deer and a lion.)

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Past lives

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

A few days ago, I opened a box and one of my past lives fell out. Specifically, I found the papers related to my comprehensive exams, way back in the second year of my Ph.D. Without question, the seven months I spent studying for the comps was the most stressful period of my life. And long after it was over, some of those papers held an eerie, residual power over me. They were like voodoo dolls of a former self.

Weird, super-nerdy voodoo dolls, I freely admit. In the year 2000, if my apartment had suddenly gone up in flames, THIS is what I would have risked everything to save. Check it out:

Handwritten notes on every poem/novel/essay on my reading list…

comps notes

And more…


(These go on for hundreds of pages. I’ll spare you the rest.)

I even saved basic administrative memos as though they were essential legal documents.

comps instructions

And in a sense, they were. For seven precarious months at the start of my academic career, they represented everything that was official and certain. Certainties are a rare luxury in the humanities and I felt deeply superstitious about throwing these out.

As for the comps, I’ve never worked so hard or so long at something for which there was no feedback, no further steps, no discussion. After I got my exam results, that was… it. End of story. Yet the trauma around the comps haunted me for years. I even blogged about it a few years ago, and the horror was fresh and vivid at the time.

When the comps jack-in-the-boxed out at me this week, however, I felt… mildly amused.

I sifted the papers. I flicked through my painstaking notes. (I disagreed with my assessments, at some points. At others, I found my past self quite insightful.) And here’s the best part: I recycled all the administrative stuff, the stern injunctions to self (Check dates v. v. carefully! ESP. CENTURY!), the practice exams, the elaborate table I made that cross-referenced critical themes in canonical works. All that stuff? Gone.

For some reason, the comps wound has finally healed. I’m keeping my handwritten notes because they tickle me, and because I feel a distinct nostalgia for the hundreds of hours of work they represent. But they’re no longer a sinister talisman to ward off failure and ignominy and an uncertain future. And maybe that’s the point.

Fifteen years on, I’m an entirely different person. I’m happily, confidently working outside academia. I know who I am, and I like who I am.

That other, anxious, frantic Ying? I’ll keep her notes because I like her company. But I don’t need her baggage.

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Protecting our creative time

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Hello, friends, and happy belated Canadian Thanksgiving! We had a splendid long weekend with just the right proportions of feasting, sunshine, leisure and work. In fact, I am eating leftovers as I type this. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my blogging about writing habits and practices: I often talk about mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned, slowly, to work more efficiently. In the past year or so, I’ve talked about writing incentives, feeling stuck, staying focused on work, and being my own good boss. But one thing that I’ve done for years, and never really noticed, is be highly protective of my creative time.

My fiction-writing time is very clearly delineated. It starts when I drop off my daughter at kindergarten and ends when it’s time to pick her up. This year, that’s four 3.25-hour sessions a week, and that slot includes commuting time. Recently, before school, I fell into conversation with two other parents. It was a really great discussion: friendly, constructive, thoughtful problem-solving for the greater good. But when it was time for me to go, I said so without guilt: “Time to go to work.” I declined an invitation to sit on a committee: “Sorry, I’ll be working.” I said I couldn’t attend even a single committee meeting (that occurs during writing time): “Sorry, I’ll be at work.” I did this all cheerfully and without internal debate, despite being a dutiful person who was raised to please the entire world.

As I was walking out, one of the parents said, “When you say you’re working, are you talking about writing?” I felt my defense reflexes kick in. After all, there are so many people who think that writing isn’t work; that somehow it just happens effortlessly in the twenty minutes of free time between nightly chores and falling asleep.

I prepared myself to explain that writing, like all work, requires time to perform and replied, a little warily, “Yes.”

She sighed with relief and said, “That’s great. It’s really good to hear you being firm about needing creative time.”

As it turns out, this parent is an artist who also wants to make more time for her work! She was frustrated because her work time was being nibbled away by a high volume of things that were, taken individually, only small time commitments. So as we walked swiftly from the building, I laid out the realization I had a few years ago:

If I don’t respect my creative time, nobody else will, either.

Once you’ve decided to protect your creative time, it’s so easy to do. It doesn’t require a single concerted effort that will overturn your life. Rather, it requires very modest daily vigilance, sentence by sentence:

“I can’t make that appointment; how about [a suitable time]?”

“I can’t meet for coffee then, but I’m around at [a suitable time], or maybe we could [alternative plan].”

“I’m going to work now.”

And, for friends/family who interrupt you while you’re working: “Nice to see you! I can chat for five minutes [look at watch] and then I’m going to have to kick you out, because I’m working.” And then after five minutes – you’re watching the time, right? – bounce them.

Boom. Just like that, everyone else* respects your creative time, because you showed them how.

*Almost everyone else. There seems to be a special dispensation for mothers, when you’re trying to work at their house. If I find the solution, I will definitely update!

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Summer adventures

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. My family and I are presently revelling in the glory that is North Wales in the sunshine. See what I mean?IMG_20150718_134539368_HDR


Here’s some breaking news from Betws y Coed. You heard it here first.


A view from the town centre of Betws y Coed:


The three soccer hooligans in the foreground (red, white, orange) are cousins, aged 6, 7 and 8. Together, they produce an absolutely astonishing amount of dirt, noise and hilarity. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve even been able to slip away to do a little work on many days. (That sounds sick, I know. But I’m really absorbed in this project and it brings me a huge amount of peace and satisfaction to dip into it. I’m not striding ahead, but I’m keeping myself linked to it. It would be hugely stressful if I had to abandon it for the whole holiday.)

And here’s my most recent “office”!


The view from the office:


Another view from the office:IMG_20150719_150325696_HDR

I hope this post doesn’t come off as unbearably gloaty. We’re having a marvellous week and I hope you are, too.

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“I’m stuck.”

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, I felt tired. I was easily irritated. I slept poorly, drank too much coffee, and didn’t get enough fresh air. It follows that I also didn’t write as much of my novel as I’d hoped – and not for lack of honest effort.

In the past, I’d have been angry with myself. I’d have decided that I was a slacker and an impostor, and found ways to punish myself. It would not have occurred to me that a) I don’t treat others this way, and 2) I would not tolerate this treatment from someone else.

However, in a small but encouraging sign that change is always possible, I didn’t fall for the own-worst-enemy routine. Instead, I decided to be gentle with myself. I gave myself an hour off. And when that hour was over, I went to my writing shed and happily fixed a scene that had been troubling me for 2 days. It really works, not being a jerk to oneself.

In an effort to step back and protect myself in future rough weeks, I’ve made a checklist called, “I’m stuck/tired/lethargic/don’t feel up to writing, WAAAAAH.” As its name so subtly suggests, I’m aiming to train myself to refer to this list every time I feel stuck, etc.

When I mentioned my checklist on Twitter, I got an immediate response and fell into a really interesting private conversation with another writer, which made me think that I should share my list here. It’s geared to me as a self-employed writer, of course, but I think it’s much more broadly applicable.

So, on days or in moments when I feel stuck, etc., my goal is to step back and consider: why do I feel this way? Is it a) low mood, 2) mental fatigue, 3) physical fatigue, or 4) a combination (or something else entirely)?

Then, I have a list of strategies for each type of problem.

Low mood

  • Focus on self-care: go for a walk, practise yoga, or make a cup of tea and drink it while looking at the garden.
  • Do a couple of small tasks that cost little energy and are satisfying to check off on a list (viva the bullet journal!).
  • Organize something small; choose something that gives positive concrete results.
  • Think about another aspect of my life that I could change, with satisfying results, and make a plan to take care of it.
  • After an period of self-care, try slipping into a writing session. Even a couple of hundred words can be a triumph.

Mental fatigue

  • Take a short break from work.
  • Focus on something concrete and personal (NOT for the children!).
  • Maybe do something domestic: garden, bake, tidy.
  • After a break, turn towards the WIP: where am I in this project? What tweaks do I need to make? Make notes towards the next writing session. Maybe slip into that writing session, or maybe not.

Physical fatigue

  • Rest, already!
  • Read (secondary sources or go over the existing WIP).
  • Think about an aspect of the WIP and where it’s going. Once the brain is humming, slip into a writing session.

If progress on the WIP remains elusive

  • Work on a secondary project (mine is currently a picture book)
  • Make a list of scenes, flesh out in the historical detail in the existing WIP
  • Read secondary sources
  • Figure out how to start the next writing session with a sense of momentum, inevitability – map out where I need to go

That’s my checklist-in-progress. It’s far from exhaustive, though, and I hope to build on it. What do you do, friends? How do you manage work slumps and protect yourself from your harshest critic?

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Year of the Goat

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Or sheep. Or ram. Year of Some Delicious Herbivorous Quadruped, at any rate. Today is the eve of the Lunar New Year and, as my mother always points out, today is the day that counts. Your house is spotless, your hair freshly cut, your new clothes pressed, and you go back to your mother’s house for a celebratory feast. Actually, in my case, none of the above is true. Oh, well. At least I have dinner planned.

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

Because my family is (mostly) ethnically Chinese and culturally from Singapore and Malaysia, I take a pan-Asian approach to the meal. I’ll be making roast chicken with lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce; coconut-ginger rice (nasi lemak); and a simple Malaysian chopped salad (kerabu). We like to have a good stash of almond cookies on hand (here’s my mother’s recipe). And this year, my six-year-old asked, repeatedly and urgently, for char siu bao, aka Cantonese barbecued pork buns. These are crazily time-consuming to make when we live so far from a Chinatown, so they won’t happen this evening. But I marinated and roasted the pork last weekend, and froze some (I used Corinne Trang’s recipe in Essentials of Asian Cuisine). Sometime this weekend, we’ll make the bao dough together (the kids love kneading), shape the buns, and steam them. It’ll be the most time-consuming afternoon snack of my life.

It’s probably a good thing we only attempt this annually, but I’m so glad that we do. What are you up to this week, friends? How do you celebrate the New Year?

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