August 31, 2016

In the waiting room

My first boyfriend and I got back together in university. He developed cancer, was successfully treated after surgery and radiation. It was a very rough time for him. The cancer was testicular, and aggressive, and at the outset we didn't know whether it had metastasised.

Throughout, I was not a comfort to him (our relationship was already crappy) but he got some laughs out of a book of humour for cancer patients, I think by Ben Wicks. Haven't been able to find it since.

A friend and the drummer of a garage band I joined for a little while died of brain cancer. Peach cracked a lot of jokes on the way out. Tumour humour, he called it. He would've loved that Ben Wicks book.

We have a book at home written and illustrated by a husband and wife with a daughter with autism. It's called, Don't Touch the Buttons on the Microwave: An Autism Social Story. Who knows how we got it. I buy things out of bargain bins, bring them home. The book is for insiders. It's comforting, since there's a bit of that in the house, undiagnosed.

It helps to have a picture in mind of where you want something you draw or write to go. I did my best drawing and painting when I was blogging seriously because I figured there were a few people paying attention. It felt like I was talking to someone.

Maybe my little book is for people in infertility clinics or people who have had miscarriages. For the people in their lives who want to know what they are going through. It might end up being too grim to be useful to anybody, but that might be the idea.

This is a panel from a point in the story when the couple is in the waiting room of their clinic. There's a lot of waiting on the TTC (Trying To Conceive).

August 22, 2016

A possible collaborator (sounds so Cold War) asked me about working again on a graphic novel project. This galvanised my thoughts around Engineeress, which I'd originally conceived as a short graphic novel about ten years ago. I couldn't find those pages when I looked recently - and it's probably just as well.

Working with the comic format over the last few weeks has been a revelation. The story as I wrote and re-wrote it isn't suitable for a comic. Comics let you communicate a great deal in a few words and images, like poetry. Yet they also have a lot of the same constraints of short stories. How do you get from one scene to the next, or to a new point in time - namely, plot. My little story, as I originally wrote it, was almost a prose poem. I've written in new scenes and plot elements. Because comics is a much more developed medium than what I had had in mind - a shorter short story with a few images - I'm able to explore areas that are pertinent to this story that I thought couldn't be part of it.*

On the risky side, this is a long undertaking, and longer than what I had already had in mind. I would really like to finish a major art project. I haven't done that in many years, I guess since I wrote my book of short stories in 1999.

Everything I need is in front of me. The story, the pictures. But I don't have much knowledge, time or technique. It's hard not to be discouraged. It's also one thing to do the planning and thumbnails with my bits of time sprinkled here and there. But inking and painting happen at a desk.

If you want to follow the development of this story, all related posts are labeled The Engineeress.

June 17, 2016

Some pictures that didn't make it

I've been plugging away on my illustrations for The Engineeress, and have finished or planned out all but one (maybe two) of the images. Altogether I hope to have six, and then I think I will send it to some magazines that might like to publish original writing and art together. It is an abnormal format for adult lit, and would be risky for a book publisher, but a magazine might go for it.

I'm feeling a bit sad, though, because I may need to abandon the idea of painting this project, despite having painted two already.

I have found less than two hours to paint since I moved here. I do the vast majority of the childcare, and after the kids are in bed, I still have much to do in the form of finding summer camps, children's activities, etc.

It is very challenging in an environment where you know few people, little of the terminology or customs. My time is rarely my own (- except times like when I eat too much sweet dessert while interviewing a possible new babysitter, and can't sleep from all the sugar!)

Painting is time-consuming, and can't be fitted in around other things like drawing can. And, frankly, after all these years of drawing-because-it's-portable, I'm also better with a marker than a paintbrush anyhow.

Well, whatever. I'll just do it twice if that is what it takes.

I enjoy this project very much. I have learned that in my process, the actual production comes at the end. I don't enjoy re-writing or re-painting, so I prefer to do a lot of preliminary thinking and sketching, and a bit of researching, before settling down to do one kick at the final product. I'm not one for the process espoused by many of my creative writing teachers of the late nineties who thought the story was best started right away, and re-written until it seemed done. Ugh.

The couple at the top are imagining a future baby, and it is a nice enough idea, I guess, but it is couples-oriented. As the story is about a woman and the lonely journey of infertility, it has the wrong concept. These two sketchbook pages also give another idea I had, but I decided in the end not to show the labour in the story, since again the story is about anticipation and disappointment, not the act of giving birth. The flower is a freebie, drawn at the restaurant on the corner of my street, at which I eat several times a month.

June 4, 2016


Ada, May 2016

It's often easier to express things to children visually. This sketch describes to my almost seven-year-old where she has lots of yummy germs! 

May 31, 2016


I have been working on bits and pieces of a memoir, both written and visual. A memoir is a memory. Having kids I've noticed many times what a particularly good sensual memory I have, while having lost most anything factual, such as the memory of particular teachers and classmates, of the childhood bedroom or toys, trips and such, names, dates, facts.

The apartment on Rue Sainte-Famille in Montreal - lying in front of the stereo my parents paid for to help get me out of a terrible funk. The sound was total and beautiful.

These memories must be so inaccurate, but it feels more like truth.

The smell of elementary school desks. Crying over something with my little head down, the smell of wood and tears.
Everyone leaving quarters on their desks for something, and wondering if I should steal them. Did I?
That time I stole a pencil sharpener in the shape of a globe, and my parents made me bring it back and apologise.

Le Nordic Spa, Chelsea, Quebec 2015-16

Running through the wet ferns to the outhouse behind our camp. It was an A-frame cabin on a northern Ontario lake, in the bush, reachable by boat or ski-do. I was very small, and the ferns were as high as my waist.
Diving far to avoid the leaches, swimming in the black water, and afterwards, salting each other for any unlucky leaches. Our bouncy dock. Carrying buckets of rocks or water up the hill to the camp, where my dad was pouring a concrete foundation for a new deck. The sound of the chainsaw in the bush. Swinging over the bushes and lake in our tree swing.
Lying in bed by the kitchen table.  The kerosene lantern, the sound of my father's solitaire game. Snick, go the cards on the beaten-up wooden table. The others already asleep.

Proudly displaying a little case of eyeshadow on my Grade 7 desk. My folks probably didn't know. Makeup was verboten. A guilty pharmacy purchase, sweated over, the wrong colours chosen. So proud of it, coveting it even as I already owned it.

April 28, 2016

Singing in Portomao

Portomao, March 2016

We visited Portugal in late March. We splashed in the sea and noticed yuccas. I sang many songs to the children when putting them to bed at night, where they slept easily, deeply and long, before getting up to eat sunnyside up eggs and fruit for slightly-high prices in the hotel dining room. Ada got the hang of eating with a knife and fork via a combination of sweet motherly persuasion and total war.

I made a list of all the songs I sing them (see at bottom), and it was portentous that I did so, because now they want to listen to audiobooks while they drift off instead of me. My glory has faded! Although, I still get requests from James for Baby Beluga, because singing it at least a thousand times already (I'm low-balling) isn't enough. I'm not actually sick of the song, despite my tone, which is alarming.

Jeff and I hiked in the foothills twice. Both times we heard a low humming akin to that of electrical wires, obviously easier to identify the second time around. We came up a rise and the noise was substantial. Bees. We worried about continuing on. Passing in front of us from right to left, from valley to summit, were thousands of bees. What the hell, we opted to keep going, slowly creeping through the bee-way. No stings. Around the side of an abandoned stone house, we saw a couple of dozen hives. 

Sitting a little ways away, we watched an ant slowly pull an inch-wide fuschia flower petal across the rocky path. Expecting a trudging odyssey, I was surprised it only took him a few minutes to go three feet. It's strange how much you can care about something so quickly, and for no reason. Jeff wanted to help, so he dropped a second petal for the ant. It was the wrong thing to do. Paralyzed by the choice, the ant scurried back and forth between his now-wilting treasure and the alien example of flowery perfection now lying close by. 

I at a lot of delicious fish in Portugal and bought a pair of deranged plastic sunglasses since I'd forgotten my own. If none of these items and experiences make much sense as a whole, it's deliberate. I don't know what the ant chose.

April 20, 2016

Commuting, now in Berlin

March 2016
Most days I eat lunch at a fabulous food court near my work, the "Mall of Berlin." Berliners, maybe Germans in general, sprinkle English liberally in brand names, slogans and all forms of advertising. Apparently most Germans, when asked, don't really correctly understand the ads, but this doesn't seem to be getting through to ad agencies yet.

In the food court, Mall of Berlin (January 2016)

So, advertising. My daily routine brings lots of these sorts of thoughts to mind each day. For my daily commute, I walk by a travel agency and a bank each day en route to the subway. Save your money, spend your money. One of my trains travels on an above-ground track, which makes me think of Chicago, though I've never been there. I go through the gay village on this train, and pass by a factory building that has folded up tarps next to each of its two or three dozen skylights. I always wonder what these tarps are for. Sunlight protection in summer? One large apartment has gigantic pictures on it - storeys high - of comic book faces.

Ada, sleeping at my side (April 2016)
If I drop off the kids, afterwards I walk through a sort of film and photography area before crossing a river (which has swans!). Then I pass the defense ministry and German resistance memorial museum. I don't like thinking about WWII every day.

I go wistfully then by the Kulturforum and painting gallery, which I have never visited. Then I go the edge of Tiergarten, a central park that just makes me yearn for real forests. I think, I constantly do, about Canada.

As a daily commute, I find it a bit heavy, really. I suppose as the years go by I will have time to mull over each topic. This city is very stimulating!

To dull down some of the upheaval, and to provide my kids a rhythm to our weeks, Saturdays I take my daughter to a cafe to do homework, draw or play games, and eat lunch. She is a whizz at playing Memory. I can beat her if I really concentrate.

She orders the same dish every time: eggs, bacon, fruit, bread, jam. I've started getting the pasta, after the time we saw the owner, Gina's, mom making it by hand in the back room where we like to sit. We stay for many hours. I drew the picture with the stars over several Saturdays.

Around 3 or so we go back home. I take James out for supper (it's olives, olive tapenade, olive oil with bread, and white-sauce pasta (they've never heard of Alfredo. Is that a North American thing?), bubbly juice, and a candy for this guy).

One waiter adores us, the other doesn't. He forgets to bring our olives, which everyone else gets as a matter of course. It's happened more than once, so now I just ask for them. I couldn't give a shit what anyone thinks anymore. After everything we have gone through as a family, all the pride that has been burned away - there's just dogged humility and survival left. My money's good; now please, bring my son, who is learning two languages like a boss, some bloody olives.

February 22, 2016

Screens, skates

Ada at the Arena, February 2016

Berlinale (like TIFF, but German) ended this weekend, and I have it to thank for getting to watch three hours of short films screened at my work, all by indigenous film-makers. The Grandfather Drum appeared at Sundance, too. Here is a minute from Bihttos (Rebel) and another from Nowhere Land, soon to be available on the NFB's site, along with so many others. Nowhere Land is the best answer I've ever seen to the question, "Why don't they all just move to the city?"

I learned that a lot of films made by indigenous people - films with subjects and perspectives mostly new to film, maybe totally new in many cases - are either totally Canadian, or partly Canadian. Because of the support of the National Film Board.

I met Caroline Monnette during Berlinale, but I hadn't seen Roberta or Mobilize yet, so I wasted the opportunity.

We're going to try to buy some of the films we saw for the collection at the Marshall McLuhan Salon, the digital multimedia space, film/music/video archive, all-around Canada-loving room at the Embassy. The Salon showed the newly-digitalised film Reason Over Passion, by Joyce Wieland, an early experimental film/road trip movie about Canada, and fond send-up of Pierre Trudeau. Somebody thought it would be a good film to show, given the election of another Trudeau government.

It was a great idea, and lots of people came. Though, for me it is unsettling to have a leader, whatever his strengths or qualifications or performance, who is the son of another leader. I was happy to hear Canadaland and Glen McGregor calling out the existence of an aristocracy in Canada. We should be thinking about that.

These faces and voices of ours, on the other hand, didn't have a ready-made platform, but they are also worth your time.


The first year away seems so far to be the story of missed opportunities. Finding the really good skating club for my ice-mad daughter, a week before they close for the (terribly short) season. Visiting Prague but being too worn out to care about the hand-painted facades. Giving up after three months on finding an Au pair, when if I'd only known then what I know now, because I just can't face it anymore. In small victories, Jeff repaired our broken bed (we've been sleeping on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by debris, laundry and partially-unpacked boxes for six months), and, after over an hour of searching, even found the mislaid IKEA fittings.

Maybe tomorrow we can find the time to put it together. In the meanwhile, I am eating a lot of delicious German pastries.

January 4, 2016

Starting to draw in Berlin

Labyrinth Kinder Museum, December 2015

I drew these pictures while the kids played at Labyrinth, a children's play museum that is a train and tram ride away into trendy Prenzlauer Berg. The kids and I just love the trams pulling up and down the main boulevard. Having spent several years in Westboro, Ottawa, though, Jeff and I weren't keen (despite the great services) to move back into a neighbourhood where we would rub up against conspicuously wealthy people. I always manage to feel bad about myself when I'm around people with beautiful haircuts and expensive strollers.

Labyrinth is a small version of the Children's Museum in Gatineau. There's a set of bleachers for the parents to sit on while the kids pretend to sell plastic plants and loaves of bread, or program an electrical circuit board. It was a momentary paradise for me, to draw undisturbed for an hour or so. Someone even asked me if I was a professional. Well!

We live in the sedate neighbourhood of Schoeneberg, a couple of subway stops from our kids' schools. There's a grass Platz with a fountain for kids to frolic in, and nearby pull-out-all-the-stops Germany-style playgrounds. The apartment buildings are imposing and colourful, breathing charm and history, at once beautiful - the sculpted balconies and ornate ceilings of pre-WWI, the timeless artisanal chocolate shops and cafes at ground level -- and heart-wrenching, with memorials to the neighbourhood's past as a Jewish quarter. Most buildings have little plaques outside detailing their war dead or disappeared, and corner signposts describe oppressive laws from the 1930s. Lest we forget isn't something given the nod once a year here. It is part of the fabric of life, both mundane and deeply felt.

These are my solo first drawings since landing in Berlin 4.5 months ago. Ada and I ride our bikes every Saturday to a cafe, where we do homework and draw pictures of horses and fanciful people together. She's been pretty anxious at times, and the Mommy time calms her. For two people who used to spend up to 1 to 1.5 hours alone together a day, it has been really hard on both of us to lose that abundance of time together.

I remember how Ada would bring up every imaginable subject during those long commutes in the car together. She favoured difficult topics, like crime etc., and I would struggle to answer. Sometimes I would promise to answer later upon reflection, and I would come back with a thought-out response.

Her teacher asked us for a meeting a few weeks ago. He said her schoolwork and comportment are great, and she has friends, but that she's so slow-moving between activities that he wondered if she was feeling anxious. That was easy for us to confirm. At home she also has a difficult habit of "singing" loudly or shouting when she's under pressure, in the most guttural or raspy voices she can make, combined with nervous laughter. It's deliberately provocative, and combined with my husband's tinnitus, which amplifies all noises to painful degrees, we have a toxic combination during the morning rush. She has calmed down a bit over the holidays, thankfully.

For us, the overwhelming challenge is child care, and getting through the evening and weekend. In Berlin, most women work part-time until their children are school-aged. Women also shop daily for groceries, and there are no large stores. The whole society depends on the work of the mother, and there are no structures in place for double-income families with young children like mine. For example, our 3.5-year-old son's after school program closes at 4:30, which is too early for us to pick him up from school.

We found a wonderful mom to pick both our children and her own little one up. The arrangement works beautifully. James has taken her - younger, at 2.5 years old - daughter under his wing at school, which gives him a huge, needed confidence boost, and it allows the little girl a chaperone in a classroom of older children.

James is learning French and German in the classroom, and is the only English speaker. This struggle continues to be a massive challenge, but his mood has improved. He was hitting and screaming a lot, even biting, but is coming back to himself reliably. He restarted an adorable habit about a month ago, of saying "I'm okay" after falling down or even just during the course of the day. Like an inward health check.

So both kids continue to find their new normal. Ada loves living in Germany, seems to prefer it actually (she loves our new apartment and her new school), and James is coming along. Still, they are both still showing signs of the strain. My husband and I know that if we were feeling calmer and happier, that it would be reflected in the kids.

Something that came as a surprise to us was how abnormal we would be. A family with two careers and two young children. It sounds quite unremarkable, but we are unique in my workplace, and to a certain extent in this society. And it is clear that we are solely responsible for solving any challenges arising from the fact that we both have serious jobs and that the child care and family setup in Germany are not the same as in Canada.

We are simply utterly exhausted from learning our still-new jobs, moving into our apartment and dealing with our shipment and car from Canada, getting to know two school environments, and finding childcare solutions. In the evenings there isn't a shred of energy left, and our family unit suffers for it. And we have to go get groceries and supplies 3-4 times a week, cutting down our slim post-bedtime evenings even further.

I have a simple, highly-effective formula for keeping myself in a good mood: art at least weekly, exercise 2-3 x week. I'm on my sixth month without these fail safes, and it shows.

So Jeff and I hit upon a simple solution for our woes, and that was to introduce another person to the picture, at least until we are all a bit calmer and less worn down. Unfortunately, our search for an au pair has been worse than not having one. Time and again our emails to candidates would be ignored, or we would spend too much time on unsuitable ones. We basically hired one woman, but her father became ill. A second one visited the house but her English wasn't good enough. The third actually moved in with her suitcase, only for us to discover that she had misrepresented herself and could not legally work for us as an au pair. Two months I have spent on this, all with the intent of making my evenings a little easier by recruiting someone to help with cooking and cleaning, help with dinner and bedtime if Jeff wanted to go to board game night or me to an art class, babysit for the odd date night.

I chose Berlin because it is a very green city, with a rich urban biodiversity, lots of rivers, lakes and parks. It is also an art city, with over 600 gallery spaces. So far I have visited none of these things! But Berlin continues to be an amazing place. I see bits of it on my way to meetings, or when I am walking around with James or biking with Ada. There is still plenty of time, and it has only been 4.5 months. For now, we are taking care of our kids and our jobs, and we hope Berlin's delights will still be there for us to discover in a few months when we have the heart to get out there and enjoy it.