Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mary Pratt: brutal and bloody, domestic and warm

We are a family that gives each other books for Christmas. And for birthdays, Valentine's Day and anniversaries. Or for no reason or no special day.

We have way too many books already and it's awfully hard to think about parting with them, something everyone finds themselves doing at some point. Our problem is, we have no trashy books. We have the classics and books by or about people we know. We have art and history and architecture and fiction and biography. We have poetry and photographs and, of course, cookbooks.

One day I wasn't feeling well and I set out to count all the books in the house to take my mind off my illness. I was approaching 2,000 when I got distracted. I think I had to go lie down.

Even with all these books, Dan goes to the library at least once a week and comes home with a stack of books. They all get read.

One of our books from this past Christmas is the Goose Lane edition of Mary Pratt's paintings, published in conjunction with her recent touring exhibition. It's called Mary Pratt.

We went to see her exhibition when it was here in Halifax and although there are many more pictures in this book than we took with our own camera, for some reason we feel a stronger connection when we took the pictures ourselves.

I shared some of the pictures on Facebook last year. Here they are, with my comments. (I haven't reminded you for awhile to click on the photos. For these ones especially, it's nice to see them big.)

Her paintings are beyond real. They're often brutal, often bloody. If it's not blood, it's something that makes you think of blood.

She often paints food, during preparation, before or after meal-time, sometimes raw and just killed. Or maybe in a beautiful bowl or sitting on lace. Often, the food is on foil-wrap or plastic wrap or waxed paper. (The model you can see through the doorway is serious and hauntingly human.)

This is a picture of a wedding dress which was made by a friend of the bride and which hangs on the bride's bedroom door. The marriage is very happy. It reminded me of my wedding dress, also made by a friend — my friend, Joanne Lamey — also hanging on my bedroom door! (My dress is a little nicer but has a little in common with this dress.)

A large cod, in all its gutted glory, delivered to the pristine garden of her home. She liked the contrast. On the right, a butchered moose.

Pictures from the genteel home where she was raised in Fredericton.

It may be that her exhibition is still showing somewhere in the country. You could look it up. One way or another, I do recommend this beautiful book — even though I've been told that my jelly looks prettier than hers. What do you think?

I think she'd be amused at the thought.

Mary Pratt, sitting with her paintings.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It's easy as pie — and that's pretty easy

My mother was really good at making bread and making pastry. She was good at other things too — not just baking — but bread and pastry are two of the fundamentals that it's really important to master.

She taught me the basics of bread and pastry but I'm afraid one of the things I came away with was her tendency to suggest I add a little of this, maybe a little of that and when I rather impatiently asked how I was supposed to know how much to add, her famous last words were always, "You'll know by the feel of it."

It's many years later but I now know why she said that and yes, I do know by the feel of it.

I still talk to people all the time who tell me they can't make a pie crust. I understand that because I couldn't, for the longest time. I remember the tears of frustration when I was trying to roll out a sheet of pastry and it was breaking apart and sticking to the rolling pin and splitting in the middle. I remember putting it into the pie plate in pieces and splicing it together and using a wet thumb to try and patch it into submission.

What a mess. You might get away with it if you were making a one-crust pie and you were going to cover that disaster with a tasty filling but if you were set on an apple pie with a top crust, you were right out of luck.

I regularly saw — in magazines or newspapers or cookbooks — the promise of a recipe for a "no-fail-pie-crust." All fake, believe me.

But then one day, my luck changed. I was telling you a few weeks ago about a little set of cookbooks I'd found called, The Wonderful World of Cooking. Each of the four books contained recipes from different parts of the world and in this one, I found what I'd been looking for:

On page 238, with no country's name attached, is a recipe for "Pastry for 9-inch pie." There are four ingredients, such basic ingredients, they're right at your fingertips. You barely have to move five steps in your kitchen to assemble them.

They are: 1 cup flour, ½ tsp. salt, 1/3 cup shortening, 3-4 tablespoons cold water.

What could be simpler, right? How could I not do this?

The first thing I'll advise is, obey the recipe when it says "cold." Make sure your shortening is cold right out of the fridge and put an ice cube in your little glass of water.

And get one of these:

This made all the difference.

The second thing I would advise is: don't pay attention if the recipe says "blend shortening and dry ingredients until it resembles small peas." What does that even mean? Just work the shortening into the flour until the shortening is all incorporated.

When it comes to adding the ice water, this is where Mum would say, "You'll be able to tell by the feel of it." Of course, she was right. I know that now and I could say the same thing but I try to avoid it.

The recipe says 3-4 tablespoons. I sprinkle about three tablespoons over the flour mixture and mix lightly with a fork. When I suspect I'm close, I pinch a bit of the dough between thumb and forefinger. It shouldn't be sticky but it should stick together. You might have to use all four tablespoons. Remember that you shouldn't over-handle it but it should "come together" and not crumble. Recipes always say to chill before you roll and I guess that's a good idea. I don't always though — depends on whether I have time.

If you've played all your cards right and the stars have aligned, you should be able to roll your pastry into a ball, pat it into a disc, sprinkle some flour on to it, and get out the rolling pin. And let the rolling pin do the work. Don't lean too heavily.

And here's your final product.

Or maybe this. (These are apple and mincemeat.)

This really is the most basic and, I would say, fool-proof pastry recipe there is. If you think you can't make a pie, I urge you to try it and let me know it worked.

Once you've mastered it, you will know the feel of it and you can work in some variations: maybe you'd prefer lard or butter to the shortening. For a savoury pie, you can stir in some grated cheese and some herbs. You can be your creative self and feel a great sense of accomplishment at the same time.

Bon app├ętit!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The art and soul of a writer: Nora Ephron, me, our mothers, and controlling the story

I've started writing this two or three times. I keep getting stuck and then bogged down.

I think my problem is that I'm confused about whether this is about Nora Ephron or me.

I watched the recent Nora Ephron documentary Everything is Copy. Nora was an essayist, columnist, novelist, movie director and screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Julie & Julia, Heartburn, Silkwood. . .).

When Harry Met Sally

Her writing took her into the glamourous worlds of Esquire, The New Yorker and Hollywood — not to mention the worlds of "Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Steven Spielberg, Gay Talese, Rosie O’Donnell, Meg Ryan, Mike Nichols, and on and on. . .", all of whom show up in the documentary which was made by her son, Jacob Bernstein. Jacob is Nora's son with journalist Carl Bernstein.

Nora died in 2012 at the age of 71.

Both Nora's parents were screenwriters and they both drank too much. It was her mother – who died of cirrhosis – whose lifelong slogan was "everything is copy!" When you slip on a banana peel, her mother said, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it becomes your joke. "You tell the story," Nora's Mom said, "so it doesn't tell you."

Nora took her mother's advice and used her own life — and the lives of everyone around her — to fuel her formidable writing machine, often to the detriment of relationships with close family members and friends. Her first novel, Heartburn, was the thinly disguised bitter and angry story of her divorce from Carl Bernstein. Nora was seven months pregnant with her second child when she discovered Carl was cheating on her.

I could tell you the whole story of Nora's life but I don't want to ruin the documentary for you. It's running on HBO Canada and if you can't see it there, I'm pretty sure it's available somewhere. Things always are.

Nora was a couple of years older than I am. I can't help thinking that while her alcoholic mother was telling her "everything is copy!", my teetotalling mother was telling me, "Don't ever put anything in writing that you don't want to see on the front page of the newspaper." (Years later, after I became editor of my hometown newspaper, it became a bit of a joke when I would tease her if she said something a little controversial and I'd threaten to put it on the front page of the paper.)

I've always known I'd never be a great writer — first of all, I suppose, because I'm not a great writer. But mostly, I think, because there's too much I simply can't write about. I have lived — and I continue to live — a very interesting life. I've known — and I know — fascinating people. I have stories galore circulating around in my brain and I know I'll never write them down.

There was a time I thought that after my mother was gone, I'd be free to write whatever I wanted but for me, it doesn't work that way. I know I'm not going to tell certain stories because if I did, there would always be someone who felt betrayed or who would be embarrassed/hurt/ashamed/angry. I don't want people to feel disappointed with me or let down or even surprised at something I've written.

So this is really all about me but it's also about everyone else. I realized at some point that the only way I could ever write openly and honestly and without a care is if everyone I've ever known is dead. That's probably not going to happen.

As for fiction — which people often ask me about — the answer is no, I could never write fiction. I mean that literally. I honestly could not write fiction. I don't have that fiction-writing gene. That makes it easy because the same personal restrictions would apply: there are things I simply couldn't write, even if it looked as if I'd made them up.

Besides, fiction writers are always telling me that their characters run the story anyway. They have to follow where their characters take them.

This is like a nightmare to me. I have enough trouble dealing with control issues in real life; I don't need a bunch of fictional characters doing their own thing and dragging me along with them.

Which brings me back to Nora. One of the things that Jacob tries to deal with in the doc and one of the things that different people speak of in connection with her death is that she kept her illness secret. Only a very few people knew and when she went into the hospital for the last time, her husband and sister and sons were the only ones with her at the end. For someone who had lived her life according to her Mom's dictum — everything is copy! — this was not only out of character but was, in the view of many people who felt close to her, insulting. Many of her friends were angry that she shut them out of her death.

When I watched the documentary, I wasn't looking to compare myself with Nora on any level. I'm way too humble for that.

But I understood this final act. In the doc, it was the veteran gossip columnist Liz Smith who said, on being asked why she thought Nora had kept her illness a secret, "She's a control freak!" When you look at Nora's life, her work, her relationships, that seems pretty obvious but maybe no one dared say it while she was still alive.

It looks like the other side of the same coin though: she used everything that happened to her and everyone around her throughout her life to control how her story unfolded. At the end, she shut everyone out for the same reason — to control her story and make sure it was told her way.

I can see that.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I loved looking at your dishes, Your Majesty

Her Majesty celebrated a birthday today and in honour of that, I'm going to show you some of her pretty dishes.

These beautiful pieces are part of the exhibition in The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. There are also paintings, antique exotic furniture and other random beautiful things. We visited the gallery last fall and found a nice combination of art and history.

We start with a gravy boat and move on to a tureen:

gravy boat


tureen and extra pieces

I would serve tea every day if I had such beautiful tea service sets as these:


I love to set a pretty table and I don't mind being a little flamboyant but maybe this would be going too far.

What would I serve on this platter? Fruit, I guess. The nachos probably wouldn't be appropriate here although I think I see red peppers – and a tomato.

And what would I use this for?

mystery piece

Or this?

mystery piece 2

I think it's safe to say that none of these beautiful pieces is dishwasher safe so being the practical person I am, perhaps I'll just be happy to look at them and leave them on Her Majesty's shelf and let her worry about them.

Meanwhile, we're definitely art lovers but William and I always grab the opportunity to have a little rest on a comfy bench:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The ideals of the '60s meet the activism of the '80s

This is a column I wrote for The Daily News in Halifax in April, 1991 – 26 years ago. I often find it interesting to read something I wrote years ago and in this case, doubly-interesting as I have no memory of writing it. I also find it interesting when something I wrote 26 years ago is not irrelevant all these years later. I stand by most of this – maybe with the exception of Joni Mitchell.

Just recently, I was reading a feature story about the making of the film The Doors, and a not-uncommon question was raised: what happened to the idealism of the '60s? Why did all those people who wanted to change the world end up as the greed-crazed yuppies of the '80s?

These are not questions that disturb my sleep but they do cause some minor irritation – partly because they suggest such a simplistic interpretation of a very complex time, partly because a lot of what they imply simply isn't true.

The so-called counter-culture of the '60s and early '70s should, more accurately, be called counter-cultures. Many people involved in them were looking for some form of alternative values, ways to make life meaningful, anything that showed true rejection of the way their parents lived. Other people just liked the drugs and music and felt no interest in political issues of the day. And there were many young people in the '60s who embraced values every bit as narrow-minded as their parents had before them.

They were often the ones on the sidelines, throwing rocks at anti-war demonstrators.

Even the people who were looking for more fulfilling lives took many different directions: there were exotic eastern religions; there was dropping out; there was going back to the land, living communally, writing poetry, organizing happenings.

There was also a widening awareness of how poverty and racism influence behaviour, and there was a sexual revolution which, many women realized, was a (male-coined) high-sounding name for women's sexual availability.

Out of all these movements grew – not yuppie greed – but feminism, environmentalism, a strong peace movement, an expansion of civil rights movements, the founding of underground publications which exist to this day – no longer underground – or small book publishing companies to counteract the closed establishment publishers. A friend of mine started such a company to publish young writers who were unable to break through into the world of books; his company flourishes today, still publishing original, often avant-garde works, a lot of poetry, obviously books that profit-oriented companies don't touch.

In fact, as far as I know, the people I knew during the '60s who were involved in any of the social movements, embrace essentially the same values today as they came to 25 years ago. Their tactics may be different today but they work toward the same ends. I know back-to-the-landers who may live differently from the way they did in 1969, but their vegetables are still grown organically, their compost thrives, they're probably board members or otherwise active supporters of environmental organizations.

My feminist friends probably have gone back to wearing a bra (but only if they need one) but they've become lawyers working with LEAF (Women's Legal Education and Action Fund), or directors of organizations working for pay equity, or they work in support of feminist politicians or other public feminist figures. None of them is obsessed with designer clothes or has a stock portfolio.

I'm convinced that the great majority of the people who adhered to what are commonly called the ideals of the '60s, are the social activists of the '80s and '90s. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure that the people who became the yuppies were quite young during the '60s.

As for The Doors being a great symbol of the age – not for me. Lead singer Jim Morrison was described by his biographer as being “a god.” My goodness. I didn't even find him to be a decent human being.

People like Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger left me cold in the '60s and they leave me cold today. The only difference is that today, I understand why.

The music of the '60s, like the many counter cultures themselves, was wildly divergent: my taste leaned more toward Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Arlo Guthrie, Dory Previn – and old favourites like Pete Seeger, The Weavers and other folkies from the '40s and '50s.

Peter Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman – The Weavers

And I guess that's the whole point: the '60s were a time of such ferment that they can't be ignored or forgotten. It's not quite accurate, however, to make those hippy/yuppie connections.

I blame Jerry Rubin.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The best thing I ever ate. . .

There’s a television show that airs on the Food Network called The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I’ve never watched it but I’ve seen its promo, many times. It involves Food Network chefs reminiscing about something wonderful they’ve eaten while a variety of culinary samples are paraded across our screen.

I don’t think any of their choices look particularly appealing but it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Literally.

And I began to wonder what my response would be if I were asked: What’s the best thing you ever ate?

Well, let me tell you.

Years ago, on a trip to Portugal, we had landed in Lisbon late in the evening and decided to get up early and head for Faro, the capital of the Algarve, much to the south. We got to the train station just in time to be herded aboard — we heard the conductor use the word “Faro” so we assumed we were in the right car — and in spite of a crushing crowd, we managed to get a seat. A wooden seat, if I remember correctly.

We figured that once we got going, there would be some kind of vending service available — we’d had nothing to eat or drink since the night before — and we’d be able to get a cup of coffee, at least.

About 15 minutes into the trip, all the people around us began hauling food out of their bags from under their seats: spicy, garlicky sausages, cheeses, chunks of crusty bread. Bottles of red wine and water. They looked at us very kindly and offered to share their food but we didn’t really know quite what to do and we thanked them and tried to look as if we had already eaten.

The train was old and slow and a milk-run. It chugged through the Portuguese countryside and stopped at most towns and villages. If we hadn’t been in such need of food and coffee, it’s possible we might have enjoyed the scenery and the atmosphere.

At one point — I have no idea how long into the trip it was — when the train stopped, most of our fellow passengers stampeded off and returned minutes later laden with food and drinks from a platform outside the station. If only we had known what they knew!

It was early evening when the train pulled into Faro. I picture us being the only passengers getting off but we probably weren’t although many of our fellow travellers had disembarked at different stops along the way and the train had definitely emptied out. Faro seemed quiet and dusty and deserted. I felt we should have been riding in on horseback.

(This is a generic picture of Faro. It still looks quiet.)

We walked from the station to the centre of town — exhausted from sitting on those wooden seats all day and, of course, hungry and thirsty — and went into a dim little bar. The waiter brought us cold beer and we managed to communicate to him that we’d like some food too. He was solicitous but we were able to understand that the kitchen was closed. He gestured encouragingly, however, and seemed to say the equivalent of, “Just a minute, I’ll see what I can do.”

He disappeared and came back in a few minutes and placed a plate on the table. There was a crusty roll with a piece of meat inside — meat fried in olive oil and garlic. The oil was soaking into the bread — and that was it. Bread, a piece of meat, olive oil. The meat was not melt-in-your-mouth but it was not tough. It had texture and resistance. It could be chewed.

I cannot begin to describe how good that sandwich was. I can taste it to this day, as I write about it, and I can hear the crunch of that crusty roll as I bit into it. I have tried many times to duplicate it in my own kitchen but I’ve failed. I never expect to succeed.

I’ve eaten in many fine restaurants and been fed by family and friends who are excellent cooks — and I’m a pretty good cook myself. But I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything that I remember and can describe with such relish as that simple sandwich in Faro. It’s the perfect case in point for the expression, “Hunger is the best sauce,” — which I’m interested to see is usually attributed to Cervantes in Don Quixote.

*This piece is from my archives. It was originally published at Sharon Fraser and readers have enjoyed it so I thought it was time to share it again.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Male friendships: smart-ass to interdependent to gently comic

A couple of days ago, I wrote about television and published a photo of Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams who star as Harvey Specter and Mike Ross in Suits. It got me thinking about male relationships and how they're portrayed.

Harvey and Mike have a smart-ass relationship and work very hard at not showing vulnerability or looking as if they love each other. But they do love each other — as friends — and that breaks through the wise-cracking one-upmanship every now and then. It's not an uncommon type of male friendship and Harvey and Mike (Gabriel and Patrick) are very good at it.

There are a couple of other male relationships that I've observed lately, very different from Harvey and Mike's.

I started watching Community because William (my son) thought I would enjoy it. He's right. I did enjoy it. It's probably not considered to be in the top-tier of sitcoms but it has a lot going for it. When William first plopped his tablet down on my desk and said, "Watch this," and showed me a clip from the show, my first post-clip comment was, "Is that Chevy Chase?" Indeed it was but I decided to watch Community in spite of that.

The show is about a group of wildly diverse students at a community college who join together and form a study group. That's about it. Each episode involves a "situation" that the group gets into or has to get out of — hence, the "comedy." There are a few other characters — the dean, a couple of instructors, other students who aren't in the group.

But the reason it remains memorable for me is because of the relation between these two:

Donald Glover and Danny Pudi as Troy Barnes and Abed Nadir

Troy was a football star and prom king in high school and feels a little lost at community college. Abed had a difficult childhood. His father is a Palestinian from Gaza and his mother Polish American. He probably has Asperger's syndrome, reflected in his inability to pick up on social or emotional cues. He's intelligent, fluent in three languages (English, Polish and Arabic) and possesses keen observational skills.

He's been immersed all his life in pop culture and often sees things as scenes from movies or TV. He's the most interesting character in the group.

Troy and Abed have the most adorable relationship. After they get to know each other, they develop an interdependence which is cute and funny and so loving. They finish each others sentences and they understand each other in every strange situation. You know the relationship will have to change as their lives move on but you can only hope they will find a way to preserve the beauty of their friendship while moving out into the real world.

I love Troy and Abed.

Another TV show that couldn't be more different but is also about male friendships comes from BBC Four. It's called The Detectorists and it's about the "lives, loves and detecting ambitions of Andy and Lance, members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club." It's not a sitcom, by any means. I've seen it described as a "gentle comedy" and it's certainly that. There's not a lot of action but once again, there's an endearing relationship between two men.

Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as Andy and Lance.

There's a lot of lovely rural England scenery as Andy and Lance meander around farmers' fields with their metal detectors. They occasionally go to meetings of the club — the club meeting room is so true to life — and both men have lives away from their detecting. But when they're together, they talk. It's chit-chat but it's about their lives — hopes and dreams, relationships, life's frustrations. They care about each other in such a natural way.

I take an interest in male friendships because of what I see all around me. One of my favourite photo combinations is a pair of pictures I took in my own living room. I post these pictures to Facebook every now and then and without fail, the boys in the pictures show up on my Facebook page to give a "like" or make a comment. Their comments always speak of true friendship and these boys, most of whom have been friends since grade primary, love each other like brothers.

The top picture is what inspired me to take the photo. The bottom is after I asked them to turn around.

They are, counter-clockwise from left: Rhett, Sebastian C., Sebastian K., Thomas S. and our William. They're all 20 and 21 years old now. When this photo was taken, they were 18 and 19.

Life moves on.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Scott and Bailey: my new best TV friends

The last time I wrote about television, I called my piece Love and s*x on TV: bringing the chemistry.

I said this:

Where does that chemistry come from? Is it just great acting? Is it great writing? Does it depend on how the actors feel about each other and about the characters they're playing?

I have these questions because I've been watching a TV series where I find a lack of chemistry. It's a little disappointing because it's a character-driven show and without the chemistry, there's a let-down.

Following that piece, there was an interesting discussion on Facebook about it and about TV and movie chemistry in general but no one ever asked which TV series I was watching where lack of chemistry had become an issue for me. I guess I'm the only one it mattered to.

So for the record, the show I was talking about was Suits, a slick fast-moving show about high-powered lawyers in New York. In retrospect, I think I should have been more specific. My complaint was that there was no chemistry. I should have made clear that there was plenty of chemistry on the show. It's just that none of it was between the romantic couples. It was between these two:

Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams as Harvey Specter and Mike Ross

When Harvey and Mike were in scenes together, they were a pleasure. The dialogue was witty and clever, their eyes twinkled, they loved being together. They had chemistry. Their chemistry was so strong there was none left over for their girlfriends. (I just realized I'm talking about them in the past tense because I've watched all that's so far available on Netflix. They're still on somewhere though!)

The women in Suits were not strong characters. I think they were intended to be strong but — how shall I say it? — they were characters on paper only. There was something lacking in the fleshing out. The writing staff — some of them women — failed the women characters. Even their interactions with each other usually didn't ring true.

Harvey and Mike were cute and fun though. They were obviously what the show was about.

I'm an anglophile and most of my recent viewing reflects that. I seem to have zeroed in on Manchester where some of the best English programs are being made. I loved Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, both set in the north of England.

Lately, I've been watching Scott and Bailey, a cop show set in Manchester:

All three of these shows are created and mostly written by Sally Wainwright. Her women characters — funny and flawed, smart and strong — talk and act and think like women.

There's nothing self-conscious about the writing in Scott and Bailey. The women spend their days in police procedural mode, looking for murderers, interviewing suspects, supporting survivors, taking care of their families, drinking at the pub.

When I finished the series, I missed the characters and wished they lived next door.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Me and the NDP; a little bit of history

I have never been able to relate to people who — during an election campaign — say, "I always vote for the candidate. It doesn't matter to me which party they belong to — if I like them as a person and I think they can do a good job, that's who I'll vote for."

I said to Dan earlier today, "I don't care if I'm madly in love with a candidate. If he's running for the Liberals — or even the Conservatives — I wouldn't vote for him." Dan said, "Thanks for the heads-up."

I vote for a Party. I've voted for the same Party in every election — federal and provincial — since 1965. I've voted NDP in all three Maritime provinces, in Ontario and in Quebec.

More than once, I've voted for the Party when the candidate was a name written in on the ballot, just to fill the space. I remember voting in two different New Brunswick elections at the Bay du Vin Rural High School — once when the leader was J. Albert Richardson, the other when the leader was John LaBossiere. I'm sure I knew something about them at the time but I have no memory of their campaigns at this point.

We always enjoyed looking at the poll-by-poll results in the newspaper because in the poll where we voted, there it was recorded for posterity: NDP — 2.

In Prince Edward Island, I remember waking up in the morning following the election that saw Brian Mulroney become Prime Minister. I can still feel the cold chill that gripped me when I tried to comprehend a political world that already included Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Mulroney wasn't my fault; I had voted NDP which was then led by Ed Broadbent. It wasn't enough.

I moved to Nova Scotia shortly after that and have voted NDP many times, both provincially and federally.

But my very first election experience was in Montreal in 1965. I would have been 22 so it's possible I voted somewhere earlier but if I did, I don't remember it. But I remember 1965.

We were living on Aylmer St. in what was then called — probably still is called — the student ghetto. It was a lively neighbourhood with a lot of flavour, near McGill, near downtown, not that far from Park Ave.

I'm not sure how we became aware of our NDP candidate. It might have been something as simple as seeing a poster on the street. But of course it seized our interest because the candidate's name was Frank Auf der Maur. Auf der Maur was already a household name in Montreal, not Frank but Nick. Frank was Nick's older brother. When I was looking for some information about him earlier today, I found the write-up from his yearbook when he graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston:

1956 No. 3525 C.S.C. FRANK SEVERIN AUF DER MAUR D'Arcy McGee High School. On October 6. 1934, the city of Montreal delighted in the birth of a favourite son marked by the hand of destiny to become one of the honoured members of the Graduating Class of '56 at R.M.C. After a successful stay at D'Arcy McGee High School, Frank decided to abandon the worldly pleasures of city life and retire into the more ascetic surroundings of Kingston.

During his four years at the College, Frank always maintained the same happy, debonair attitude which made him many friends and a reputation for being always ready for a party. Always an active competitor, Frank was for two years a solid bulwark of the Junior Football team before graduating to the Seniors in his final years.

Frank is a devoted Chemical Engineer and his future along this line is very bright indeed in the light of past achievements. After graduation from the College, our friend talks of entering McGill and possibly U. of Alberta. It seems that the west also presents certain definite social attractions difficult to neglect. His last summer's training in Edmonton has turned his ambitions westward. The very best to you, Frank.

We decided to go to one of his campaign events. I don't remember much about it. I think it was in a community hall of some kind — it was nice, not a bad venue. There were very few people there and I think a table where there was cheese and fruit and some juices. Unless I'm remembering badly, the candidate was a little tight. I didn't blame him. I would guess that by this point in his campaign, he would have loved to disappear.

His Liberal opponent was a handsome young lawyer, often described as Montreal's most eligible bachelor, John Turner by name. His campaign was high-profile, lots of media, lots of hangers-on, big crowds. He was a star. There was no crystal ball to foretell that Pierre Trudeau would come along and wring the life out of John Turner's political future.

He won that time anyway and was off to Ottawa and later, off to British Columbia where the rest of his political career unfolded.

But I voted for Frank because I believed in his Party. I most certainly believed in his leader.

Tommy Douglas was a star too. His platform that year was pretty straightforward:

New Democratic Party:

1. implement a national medicare program by July 1, 1967;

2. eliminate university tuition fees;

3. provide grants for universities' capital costs;

4. increased funding for technical training;

5. increase the minimum price for wheat;

6.increase the old age security payment from $75 per month to $100 per month at age 65;

7. implement economic planning program that lays down guidelines for wages and prices;

8. halt unjustified price increases.

Who wouldn't vote for that?

The NDP is an organization made up of humans and it can make mistakes. Sometimes they're stupid mistakes, sometimes they're terrible mistakes, sometimes they're both.

I've written this today to assure myself that in spite of the mistakes, in spite of my shock and anger at some of the things the Party does, I'm not abandoning the NDP and I'm not going to punish it. I'll still vote NDP and I'll hope it can find a way out of the fix it's got itself into.

I am angry though.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Feline escapades: a brief, incomplete report

The cats are always happier than anyone when the springtime weather arrives and they can bask in the sun, go hunting, and they don't have to worry about their paws touching snow. These little snowstorms that keep happening take them by surprise but they do seem to understand that the end of winter is at hand.

Grizzly is the older cat and he minds the cold. In the winter, we can go for days when he doesn't go out but in the good weather, he becomes just like a normal cat. When he goes out, he has much broader scope to pursue his long-time hobby.

Grizzly loves "found water." Never mind that he has a bowl at his feeding station in the kitchen where the water is changed regularly. When he scoots out the back door, he makes a mad dash for a puddle, an up-turned plant saucer, a little patch of melting snow on the deck table. He settles in and drinks and drinks as if he's been trekking through the desert and he's come upon a life-saving oasis.

It's a pastime he enjoys inside the house too. He stalks the person who waters the plants always in hope of a little overwatering that might fill up the catch basin under the plant. And when the forsythia was brought into the house for Easter and set up in the dining room, Grizzly thought it must be some kind of a special festival for cats. Just look at the accessible water in that vase.

We indulge Grizzly as much as possible but there comes a line he must not cross.

Every night, I put a glass of water — about half-full — on a low table by my bedside. A few mornings ago, I was still dozing, still wearing my sleep-mask, when I heard an unusual sound that I couldn't identify. Is it rain? Is it a bird tapping on the verandah roof, right outside my window? It was regular, rhythmic and I suddenly realized, it was "lap, lap, lap, lap. . ." I turned over and looked and there he was — Grizzly — quite happily settled in enjoying some new water that he'd just discovered.

I had to shoo him away and from then on, I have to put a cover on my glass of water. Grizzly and I are close — but not that close.

Meanwhile, his little brother keeps busy too.

One of our friends is having problems with a few mice in her house. This past week, I wrote her this note:

We have our mice brought in from the outside. A couple of days ago, Junior scratched vigourously at the door and when I opened it, he streaked in as fast as he could. It’s not like him as he’s an ambler but I soon saw that he was bearing a tiny gift. He went to the middle of the kitchen and dropped it quite ceremoniously and said, 'What a good cat am I.'

Mice tend to play dead – that’s why I can often catch and liberate them – but it was pretty clear to me that this one was already beyond any help I could give it. It was very tiny. Junior played with it a bit, tossing it high into the air, pouncing when it landed. He put on quite a show. Then he ate it! I mean it – actually ate it! Urban domestic cats rarely eat their prey because they’re too well-fed but what do you know? It happened.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Mustard: the tangy, edgy condiment

I was born in Newcastle Creek, New Brunswick, on the shores of Grand Lake, and I lived there until I was five years old. Newcastle Creek was a hamlet. The nearest village — the place with a few stores and services and small businesses — was Minto.

When I was a tiny girl, my mother used to take my sister (she's four years older) and me to Minto on the bus — I can still smell the exhaust fumes from that rickety old bus — so she could do some shopping, get her hair done, maybe visit a relative.

Sometimes, she would take us to the lunch counter in the five-and-ten and we could order whatever we wanted. I remember Marilyn ordering a banana split or a sundae and Mum probably had some tea, maybe with a piece of pie.

I always ordered a mustard sandwich.

The waitress and/or my mother would always try to get me to add something to the sandwich but I graciously declined. I didn't want any ham or lettuce or even a piece of chicken.

I loved mustard sandwiches.

I think Mum was a little embarrassed but at least the waitress knew that I was allowed to order something else if I wanted to. I doubt that mustard sandwiches were on the menu so I don't know how they figured out what to charge. Probably the same price as a side order of toast.

I still love mustard and although I definitely have that squeeze bottle of French's, I've branched out into lots of different mustards.

When I'm in a tourist-y type town and we go to one of those lovely little shops that have local crafts and souvenirs and specialty foods, I always gravitate immediately to the mustard section. People have learned to bring me mustard as gifts too. Dan brought me this one from a trip to Saskatchewan for meetings:

The Saskatoon berry looks like a blueberry but it's related to the apple and its mustard is, indeed, fruity and delicious. I've used it in vinaigrettes but it's also good in marinades for meat or chicken or to brighten up a sauce.

Valerie brought me this one from Dijon, France:

It's mustard with figs and it's sweet and. . . figgy. I used it most recently at Easter as a base for a glaze for the leg of lamb:

It wasn't the only mustard I used for Easter dinner. The vegetables were actually called "Mustard Roasted Vegetables."

As you can imagine, the mustard — along with lemon juice and zest — added a sharp, tangy edge to the vegetables. The mustard of choice for this recipe was grainy:

I have other mustards in my pantry:

The seeds and the powder are used mostly for pickles although I have done some experimenting mixing the powder with various ingredients to make a condiment with a difference. Dan and I can both remember a comprehensive search all over town looking for brown mustard seeds. We can't quite remember what they were for but we think it must have been for a chutney and we must have decided that yellow seeds just wouldn't cut it.

I think that it's a rare day that I don't use mustard for something — sometimes just to give the boys a hot dog, other times to add an elegant finishing touch to a sauce or salad. I'm delighted to know that yellow mustard is not coloured by something awful and artificial but gets it bright hue from turmeric, a spice that happens to be good for us. I've learned — from 13 things you probably didn't know about mustard — that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used mustard. It's believed that the Romans were first to pound the seeds into a paste to use as a condiment. Trust the Romans.

And even though the mustard bottle may say Dijon, France, mustard is a plant — an herb — and much of it that's used around the world is grown in Canada.

So there you are: more than you ever wanted to know about my relationship with mustard!