Yearly Archives: 2003

Nov – Dec 2003

I’m writing this as the Santa Claus Parade is going by a block away. I can hear Mums and Dads hooting their horns as they jockey for parking positions. It would seem the holiday season is almost upon us. Not sure how that happened. This year seems to have passed exceedingly quickly. Yet, at the same time, it’s been a year of major upheavals and catastrophes, so in some respects, it’ll be a good year to have over and done with. Time to start making holiday plans, baking and perhaps buying gifts for friends and family. Looking for a good book? Here are some of my recent finds.

The most exiting writer I stumbled upon this year, was British author Kate Atkinson. As so often happens, someone else found her first. My friend Peter bought me a copy of Emotionally Weird and told me I had to read it. It’s the wittiest, most intelligent, most intriguing, most closely observed book I’ve read in a very long time. I’ve since read Human Croquet, which I didn’t think was quite as good. I have yet to read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, her Whitbread Award winning first novel. The “Wonderful Unofficial Kate Atkinson Website” is available at: Click on Texts to find blurbs on all her books or get a taste of her work by following the links to Not the End of the World, her new short story collection, and read “Tunnel of Fish.” Even her titles give you some sense of what she’s playing with.

Of course I also read the new Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito, with great pleasure. Although I think it’s his strongest work to date in many ways, this book got mixed reviews. Notably, Canadian critics loved it, while some American critics were really harsh. Mr. Robbins has always been one to speak his mind in his work and here, the gloves are definitely off. He’s pushed a lot of buttons in the American consciousness and I’m sure made a lot of people very uncomfortable. As I said to someone after reading it, he’s probably got the CIA or FBI or somebody camped on his doorstep. But we figured he’s probably used to that by now. Authentic writers say what they need to say, what they feel compelled to say, and damn the consequences (which is why we need organizations like PEN). Mr. Robbins is completely authentic, gutsy and incredible fun! He gets my deepest respect and loudest laughs every time.

I recently had the pleasure of being selected to do a reading along with Andrew Pyper. I was taken with the whole idea of The Trade Mission (cyber-nerds meet harsh reality in the Amazon jungle). It’s near the top of my reading pile and I’m hoping to get to it during the holiday lull.

In poetry, I highly recommend sub rosa, the new collection by Stan Rogal, with full colour graphics by Jacquie Jacobs. A multi-layered marriage of word and image, this book is a creative, evocative hybrid, which washes over the reader. A very successful experiment!

On the children’s book front, I recently picked up Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a book about a little girl who enters an alternative universe with an alternative Mum and Dad. How to find her way back to her own reality when this set of parents wants to keep her in their universe? I have a feeling it’s going to have very interesting psychological overtones. Neil Gaiman, of Sandman comic fame, has been writing novels for the past few years, some more successful than others. My favourite is still Bad Omens, the project he undertook with Terry Pratchet (of Discworld fame). It’s a cheery little book about the end of the world. I first read it when I was feeling somewhat depressed and found it utterly uplifting. It’s one of those rare books that can radically adjust one’s perspective.

I’m also looking forward to The Morning Star, the third installment of Nick Bantock’s Gryphon & Sabine trilogy. His work never fails to intrigue me. It’s such an amazing synthesis of imagination, visual invention and compilation of artifacts from around the world. Transporting in a way that most picture books don’t manage.

With the plethora of books that are written and published each year, I’m sure there are many more out there that I’d really enjoy, that I’ve missed. They’ll find their way to me if and when they’re meant to and I’ll get to them as time allows. Please support your local independent bookstore throughout the year.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Bodhi Gaya, Eid ul-Fitr, Lux Mundi, Saturnalia, Mother Night, Winter Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, (sorry if I missed your holiday of choice) or quiet day off in your jammies and fuzzy slippers to read a good book. Wishing you safe travel, much joy and peace. I think we’ve earned it this year.

© Catherine Jenkins, 2003


August 2003

As hoped, I have taken time off this summer to do some different things. Nothing major, just a day here or there.

On July 30, I joined half a million (or so) of my closest friends and went to see The Rolling Stones at the SARS Benefit in Toronto’s Downsview Park. I got tied up with work so missed the afternoon show, however, I made it in time for the evening acts, which were of more interest to me anyway.

There were an awful lot of people. I reckon the demographic was almost as broad as for the Pope when he was here, although there may not have been much overlap between the two crowds. I could see Mick Jagger, onstage some quarter of a mile away. I couldn’t make out his face or anything, but I could match the movement and clothing colour to what was on the screen and thereby confirm who I was seeing.

We are so Canadian (I mean that in a good way!). Security wasn’t anything like what we’d been threatened. The police turned a blind eye to the dope smokers and dealers. The crowd was well ordered and well behaved. We didn’t rush the stage when we were asked not to. It was possible to travel through the crowd along rivulets of moving people, easing their way around stationary spectators. Beyond doubt, it’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever been part of, so I was glad for its calmness. An interesting experience.

August 14 presented another interesting experience. An electrical power outage blackened most of Ontario and the northeastern US. Personally, I found it quite liberating. Everyone opened their windows, so the sounds of other humans were apparent in the night. The Native drummers down the street started up before sunset and continued until after dark. It felt like a celebration of the natural state overtaking our constructed one.

From my balcony, I watched pedestrians with flashlights walking home and cars trying to navigate the streets, somehow disoriented without overhead or traffic lights. The only illumination was from a few airline warning beacons on tall structures and the Bay Street towers with their own generators. I could see stars and the milky way like I’d never seen them in downtown Toronto. I wondered how different we looked from space at that moment.

I was pleased to discover how well equipped I was, having candles, a flashlight, and a battery-operated radio (although stations kept disappearing into silence). I was quite proud of myself when, craving a comforting cup of tea, I figured out how to boil water using my stainless steel fondue pot and its methyl alcohol burner.

Somehow, it all felt very World War II, but much more placid. There were no planes flying overhead. There were sirens however, lots of them. Shortly after dark, a huge orange-red moon, just past full, rose over the darkened buildings.

In my neighbourhood (probably on the same power grid as several hospitals) the power was reinstated at 10:30 that night, so it was only out for about six hours. At the first indication of light, a joyous hooting and hollering rose from the street, like when the home team wins the Stanley Cup or something. I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I was enjoying the adventure. Many people had time off work the following day, sort of like a snow day in August. It took a full week for the system to stabilize and run normally, but now, once again, planes are flying high though the buttermilk sky.

Arguably, this disruption was in part the doing of the nearness of Mars to Earth. I’ve been tracking the red planet’s progress from my balcony and it’s quite stunning to see it so large in the night sky. When it was closest (August 27), I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Last spring, verging on a state of exhaustion, I got tickets to see The Royal Family and Happy End, so I’d have something fun to look forward to in the summer, before things got too busy again in the fall. I enjoyed both shows enormously. It was my first visit to The Shaw Festival, but it certainly won’t be my last. Maybe next time I’ll actually take in something by GBS himself!

I also treated myself to dinner at the Peller Estates Winery, where I could sit outside overlooking the vineyards, watching swallows flit as the sun set. I had the Vegetable Pavé with Crème Brûllée for desert. It was the kind of dinner one admires before tasting, initially hesitant to disrupt its symmetry, then flavour overcoming the visual aesthetic, with chaos rapidly ensuing until the plate is clean. I also enjoyed a couple of glasses of Peller Estate’s Chardonnay, having intentionally left the car parked at my B&B. I figured the chances of being charged with reckless endangerment while walking were minimal. After dinner, I felt deeply satisfied, relaxed and happier than I had for quite some time.

Walking out into the night, I went in search of a clear view of Mars. Niagara-on-the-Lake is an old town, its streets lined with wonderfully huge trees, which unfortunately make it difficult to get an unobstructed view of the horizon. I finally found Mars by walking out onto the golf course. I figured it was safe; who plays golf at night? It was an odd feeling though, walking on a golf course in the dark, watchful for flags and variations in ground shading where the greens and sand traps lie. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club is North American’s oldest, having been established around 1875. It’s trees are enormous and majestic, but there’s open space between them. I finally had my meditation on the nearness of Mars with my back to a large and ancient oak, accompanied by the sounds of crickets and a stiff breeze.

Nearing the edge of the embankment to the Niagara River, I listened to the rhythmic thunder. This is serious and powerful water, not to be trifled with, and that always seems scarier at night. This water powers huge Hydro generators that still supply a high percentage of Ontario’s electricity. I could see a few clearly defined lights offshore and in the distance, the sickly orange glow of Toronto.

I stayed at a lovely B&B, The Doctor’s House, c. 1824. It’s right downtown, easy walking distance to the theatres and everything else. It’s a lovely old sprawling house with talkative pinewood floors. Two of my reasons for selecting this particular B&B were Bill and Fred, the friendly long-haired resident cats. I had a wonderful night’s sleep and a delightful breakfast in the company of the owner and a Rochester, NY couple.

I enjoyed a wander around Niagara-on-the-Lake in the morning. I’m not sure what George Bernard Shaw (a strict vegetarian) would’ve thought of his life-sized bronze likeness situated in the fountain in front of the Shaw Leather Village, leather and fur shop. No doubt he would’ve found exactly the right thing to say.

©Catherine Jenkins 2003

June – July 2003

It’s all about balance, one of those things in which there can be an enormous gap between theory and practice, between intellectual understanding and living it. And being someone with a natural tendency to obsess on intricate and specific things for long periods of time (‘tis the nature of writers and editors) sometimes that balance can get radically off-kilter. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

By this time last year, Swimming in the Ocean, the first novel, a novel it took me ten years to understand how to complete, was out and I was in full tour mode. But by this spring, I was in a mild state of depression, a place I hadn’t been for quite some time. I think it was brought on by a series of things happening concurrently: let-down from finishing the book at long last, tour exhaustion, financial stress, too long and cold a winter, and finding several people dear to me also suffering various stresses. I was seriously considering packing my bags and leaving (Toronto, that is), not that I had any place else in mind. It was more an escapist consideration than anything else. Realizing that no matter where you go, there you are, I stayed.

Things turned very suddenly. For several weeks, I found myself overcommitted to paying work, sometimes juggling three clients simultaneously, afraid to turn projects down, getting up at five or six in the morning to start work, just to try to get it all done. That phase seems to have passed now, allowing me some time and energy to get back to what I’m really here for: writing.

Depression is a low-energy state, a state in which it’s difficult to locate creative energy; too long without a creative fix can send me into severe depression. Being overworked is a high-energy (or high-anxiety) state, a state that, while invigorating, is a difficult one in which to locate creative time. I seem to function optimally when there’s too much going on. I need a great deal of stimulation to keep from getting bored; if I get bored, I also become depressed (something that keeps me away from routine jobs). I think a period of hyperactivity was necessary to snap me out of the state I was in. Since rebounding from these two extremes (both of which had a negative impact on my writing productivity), I now feel like I’ve relocated my centre, my balance.

My psycho-emotional life is a bit of a tightrope by times, an exercise in extremes – anyone who’s read Swimming in the Ocean is probably already aware of that. You may be relieved to hear that I’m considerably less volatile than I used to be. I’ve worked to understand what to avoid and how to explore difficult emotions, which are often necessary to the writing, more safely. Which isn’t to say I don’t go out on limbs anymore; I certainly do, but I usually tie off the safety rope first.

Although statistically people are more prone to depression the more times they experience it, personally I feel that the work I’ve done in understanding my depression has made me more conscious of when I’m moving in that direction and more able to redirect my energies more productively.

Although I have been offered the quick magic of pills to alleviate the symptoms of depression, I’ve always declined. I’d rather develop my own coping strategies, no matter how rudimentary. It gives me a greater sense of control. There’s no denying that antidepressants help a lot of people, but recent clinical evidence, which agrees with my experiential evidence, supports the notion that talk therapy alone can change brain chemistry. Unfortunately, I think we as a society are too busy or too lazy or too disconnected to sit down and do the work of actually figuring out what the problem is and would generally rather pop a pill to feel better, while not addressing our damaging behaviour. While medication can make talk therapy more approachable in some instances, the drugs alone don’t fix anything. They’re a little like putting a bandage on someone’s toe while gangrene is consuming their leg.

I recently heard stats on the rapid growth in the use of antidepressants in Canada. Hopefully this dramatic increase isn’t simply the result of mass-marketting campaigns by pharmaceutical giants out to pad their earnings reports, but I’m not sure what to make of it. If we, as a society, are becoming more accepting and supportive of people with depression and other mental illnesses, I think it’s a good thing and about time too. Denial, the inability to discuss psycho-emotional problems, even among families or with friends, is damaging and has caused tragedies to be needlessly repeated. However, if the dramatic increase in the use of antidepressants points to an increase in depression in our society (and there’s a lot to be depressed about in our world), that’s frightening. Maybe we all need to take a serious time-out this summer, reassess our priorities in life, turn off the news and stop trying to run our lives around the technology that keeps pushing us to produce ever-faster. What have you done for yourself lately?

I’ve gone back to playing the piano, working primarily on Bach Inventions (for now) in an effort to get my hands and focus back. I was surprised at how much better I felt and can’t figure out if it’s the playing or if it’s the Bach (used extensively in music therapy because of the soothing effect of it’s mathematical stability). I felt calmer and more in control. What surprised me even more was that when I got busy and stopped making the time to play, a friend of mine commented on the difference. I knew playing was helping me internally, but it was helping externally more than I’d realized. So I’ve been playing again this week and now that I fully appreciate the point, I shall continue.

This is the sixth summer I’ve been in Toronto and I have yet to really engage with the city. My presence here has just felt too tentative, but that’s beginning to change. This may be the first summer I’ve really enjoyed for a long time. I have tea plans with various friends, have made note of some historical walks, have picked up tickets to see the big Rolling Stones concert, and generally I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open for interesting opportunities.

Now that the mad rush is over, I’m settling in to complete the rewrite of the novel version of Pairs & Artichoke Hearts, the gender-bender romantic-comedy screenplay I wrote in ’96. I like the idea of publishing work in the order in which it was conceived, so I want to complete this project before turning back to the new novel, which is well on its way.

I need to produce, to keep on keepin’ on. It makes me feel alive, most comfortable in my own skin. And maybe someday, if I persevere long enough, the work will provide for me and I won’t have to spread my time and energies so thinly. That would make me genuinely and deeply happy. In this life, we aren’t necessarily rewarded for our efforts, at least not always immediately or as expected, but as a music teacher of mine once said, “I find the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

©Catherine Jenkins 2003

March 2003

After much deliberation and research, I’m taking the train to New Brunswick for the mini-tour this month. It’s a long train ride, twenty-four hours, but I’ve decided to splurge and get a single room for the overnight portion of the trip between Montréal and Moncton. I haven’t been on a sleeper car since I was a kid, so I’m sure it’ll be an adventure. Some people have expressed surprise that I’m not flying, given the time and distance. I find that, especially since 9/11, the cost, inconvenience and stress of flying has turned me even more against it.

There are many more train stations than airports in Canada so the chances of finding transportation to a less common destination are greater on the train. When flying to smaller centres in Canada, it’s difficult to do much comparison shopping on ticket prices because sometimes only one carrier flies to that destination. The train could’ve been considerably less expensive than flying if I’d been willing to sit in economy all night, but having done two twelve-hour train trips on tour last year (to Chicago and NYC), I know how uncomfortable that can get. The comfort of a single room makes the price of a train ticket about equal to that of a flight, so cost wasn’t a big deciding factor. But at least on the train I know that my ticket price is going toward travel, not toward airport and security taxes, which these days can add 25% to a plane ticket. I find airline ticket prices a bit deceptive and am pleased with the recent federal government announcement to enforce new regulations governing how airlines can quote prices.

Well, what about the time factor? Granted the actual flying time (roughly three hours) is considerably less than the overland route. But one also has to add the travel time to the airport (three-quarters of an hour to an hour), waiting and check-in time (airlines request two hours on domestic flights) and travel time from the airport at the other end (I have no idea). When flying, if one considers the actual time from home to final destination, it can double the travel time. On the train, I ride the subway to Union Station (about eighteen to twenty-two minutes), get on the train and go, so my overall travel time is little more than the time on the train itself.

I also find that when I reach my destination after a flight, I’m exhausted from dealing with the auditory and visual noise of the airport, the stresses of security checks, the engine drone, the questionable air quality on the plane and the thought that I’m suspended very far above the ground and that if anything goes wrong, I’m toast. And once I’m on the plane, there’s not much to see (clouds are fun, but they get a bit tedious after a while); there isn’t room to walk around and it’s generally not encouraged. The food is, well, uneven at best. Entertainment is limited to an odd and repetitive audio assortment or a commercial film, which inevitably I’ve either seen or studiously avoided. Sometimes I can sleep or read, but it depends on the amount of air turbulence and the impact of said turbulence on my occasionally delicate stomach.

By contrast, on the train there are fewer stresses to deal with. I can arrive at the station a comfortable time ahead of departure and board without having the change in my pocket accidentally set off a metal detector. There is a certain hustle and bustle to Union Station, but it’s nothing compared to Pearson Airport. Trains do have a drone of their own, but it’s the pleasantly rhythmical, purely mechanical, rather comforting drone of something solidly moving along the ground. I wish it was still possible to open train windows for fresh air, but at least you can catch a whiff at station stops along the way or between cars. I can watch the scenery or sometimes catch a glimpse of an episode unfolding in someone’s day as we speed by. I can even take photos from the window or the glass viewing dome. If I don’t want to stay in my room, I can wander the aisles and lounges. I may enjoy a pleasant dinner in the dining car (the chowder is apparently recommended on this trip). I can choose my own entertainment and read or write in the privacy of my room. And when I’m ready, I can bed down in a proper bed, knowing that the magic of travel will ensure that when I wake up, it will be far away from where I fell asleep.

Train travel provides a very different sort of connection between the journey and the traveller. The traveller remains connected to the earth for one thing, but there’s a very different consciousness about the distance, the terrain, the event of travel. I arrive with a sense of having seen where I’ve been, of really having travelled the distance and understood what changes the land has undergone to get there. Although there is a certain excitement getting off a plane hours later and finding the air, the light, the ambience radically different, it’s also a bit disorienting. The change is too sudden.

On a train, the travel becomes part of the adventure, while planes are just a sometimes necessary evil. I’m not afraid of flying, but I can’t say I enjoy it. I’ll fly if there’s no other option, for instance to get across a large body of water, but even then, if I could afford the time and money, I’d prefer to travel by ship. This may seem rather Victorian or Edwardian of me, but it’s so much more comfortable and enjoyable; I can take pleasure in the travel as well as the destination.

The federal government has recently announced changes for VIA rail, allowing it to grow (again) and become more competitive with airlines by adding high-speed trains on heavily travelled routes. I’ve seen an increase in the number of travellers resorting to the train. Ten years ago, it seemed to be mostly students and the budget-conscious; now I’m seeing businesspeople and government employees. And the trains are full! It’s a shame that so many rail lines across Canada have been abandoned, but it’s heartening to see that they’re regaining popularity and that travellers are giving them another chance.

©Catherine Jenkins 2003