Life choices and steering the ship


StevestonboatIt has been quite an interesting month or so.

I’ve interviewed a wonderfully quirky glass artist whose father was best friends with the former Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

I loved meeting a self taught musician who is passionate about making silent films and has made 40-50 doing everything from acting to filming, production and set building.

stevestondockI was fascinated to meet with a female real estate executive who built her career from the age of 19 and whose brokerage did a sales volume of 11 billion in 2014. She was nothing like I expected her to be. I felt as if she should have been sitting in some English country manor hosting me to tea, her refinement so much a defining feature.

DisneyshipI got a contract through a friend of a friend who connected me with a neuropsychologist, originally from New York, who specializes in concussion. She is the only person in BC with the specialized credentials that she has related to baseline testing and providing the kind of comprehensive, interdisciplinary post-injury care that, according to her, isn’t done here, even though many pretend to do it if you are convinced by their marketing.

As I was enjoying meeting and hearing the stories of these very diverse individuals, I was reminded of why it was that I was interested in journalism in the first place. It wasn’t really the writing. It was the people. Or maybe that isn’t quite right. Maybe it was both. It’s the melding the oral stories into print stories and the combination of those two realities where interpersonal and inner worlds meet. The wonder, still, of being given the privilege of asking questions of individuals whom I would never meet in my daily existence.  And regardless of whether they were incredibly wealthy or invested very little in our society’s focus on money, they were all successful to me, because of the unique lives they’ve created for themselves.


Yesterday, I was reminded, again, that we all have our stories. You don’t have to be famous to count. Someone I’ve been acquainted with for about four years in a very superficial way told me a personal story as I folded my laundry in her laundromat. She told me that when she was 16, she came to Canada and was adopted by her mother’s sister because her mother’s sister didn’t have any children. So she actually has two mothers, one biological in the Philippines, and the other, her aunt, now her mother, who took her in, raised her and legally adopted her.

“But did you want to come here?”

“Yes and no,” she said.


I was intrigued by the family dynamics that would have gone into that decision and after the fact I wondered what made her finally share that personal story with me, yesterday.

One of my interview subjects grew up in Outremont and now drives around in a rusted, dented truck in which the passenger seat doesn’t even sit upright so when you’re in it you have to support yourself leaning forward or pretend you’re a mannequin in some film noir movie where you’re leaning back, crooked and stiff.

She’s an example of how far we move from our roots both geographically and metaphorically when artistic sensibilities drive us to alternative choices than the ones our parents would have hoped for us. Or perhaps it was the tragedy in her past that has pushed her to this opposite coast, like the fallout after the storm when a rare bird ends up in a part of the world where it isn’t typically to be found.


Two of them spoke about the role of unconditional love and how that early security and attachment to a caregiver, a mother, a father, imbued in them the ability to embrace risk, confident that they could go out into the world secure in knowing they had an anchor to turn to when emotional turbulence struck. It was a theme.

Then I read a Facebook posting that introduced me to a test that I’d never heard of before called the ACE Score with ACE standing for Adverse Childhood Experiences. Apparently, your score on this test, based on your experiences in childhood, can predict a lot about your future in terms of mental, physical health and overall wellbeing.   If you feel like it, you can take the ACE test. But then what? What do you do with the result if you score 4 or higher? What are you supposed to do with that number?  It’s why some tests may be better left untaken.


A friend who always has pearls of wisdom wrote to me the other day and ended her letter this way.   “Remember that you steer your own ship, or to change metaphors, you are the mistress of your soul. So go for what, in the clear light of your present situation, you really want to do. Life is short.”

Advice we all know. The trick is to live it.

Floathome memorabilia that fits

binocular case

I’ve never been a collector. Mostly it’s because once you start collecting something then I expect every birthday, every Christmas, every single occasion, someone will give you something related to what you’re collecting whether it’s a tasteful version of what you’d want or not and pretty soon your house is crammed full of angels or elephants, owls or bird nests, robots or wooden tugboats, turning you into the next contestant on Hoarders Anonymous.

If you move a lot, the challenge is to collect as little as possible.

The two women who own the floathome that I’m staying on may or may not be collectors. I don’t think they are collectors in the true sense of that word but they do have a knack, and I’m not sure which one of them to credit for putting together the interior of this place, their West Coast home, in a way that means everyone who comes here is impressed. From the artwork to all the little touches that add up to create a unified physical space the way a painting can, or a garden, or even an office, when it’s designed with love and attention.

Last night, I had six friends over for a BBQ, and one of them asked me, “Do the people who own this place have roots in Newfoundland and Labrador?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“Oh, it just has that feel to the place.”

“Oh, I said, absentmindedly, “well, they do have a house in Newfoundland and that’s the only reason I get to stay here.”

Oh yeah! Then it all made sense.

We had been focused on familial roots, sharing how we had arrived in B.C., either by leaving Ontario or Boston Bar or Nelson and from as far away as New Zealand, so my attention had been focused on the past and family roots, not the present when I answered the question.

This person had just come back from a first-time trip to Newfoundland in June and she said the house really reminded her of being there.  Of course it would.

Here are some of the treasures I like here.

beach chairs

These beach chairs are lined up on a kitchen ledge. They are always facing in the same direction and that always bugs me. People would never sit at the beach one behind each other like that. So, I moved one. They, of course, will move it back as they should.

bathing beauties

There is a three -foot long line of bathing beauties from another time in a wooden frame in the kitchen. This is only a fraction of the bevy of beauties lined up in it. You can never have too many female friends.

painting by Bobbi Pike

Who wouldn’t want to sit outside just soaking in the scenery from the vista of this yard painted by a person named Bobbi Pike.

wooden fish

I sit in front of this fish every day and do my work on the computer. I like him.


This is actually an entire box covered in shells. Sometimes those are beyond tacky. Strangely enough, this one isn’t. It’s in front of the fireplace.

fish wall

They have a whole fish wall with fish heads and starfish. This guy facing you as you climb the first set of stairs means business. No getting away with anything around basket

It’s imperative to have a basket to put all your special things -flys and lures and bubble gum cards. Huck Finn would have had one of these.

beaver teethmarks

The wood on the bottom left has been branded by a beaver. The other morning, I was at my computer (where else?), and I heard this weird sound and when I looked out the back screen door, I saw a beaver knawing on something right out the back door. He dove under before I could photograph him. For reasons I’m not sure of, Pat likes to collect these branches that Mr. Beaver has sunk his big teeth into.

What would you collect if space and money were no object?

River rituals on Annacis Channel

Annacis ChannelSimple pleasures.

Coming downstairs into the kitchen and opening the back door onto the floating deck. Cool river air seeps in through the screen door first thing. Noticing the flow of the river and how that changes every day. A tap. A stream. A languid pool.

Of course, there’s no escaping the ever present hum from the traffic pushing towards the Alex Fraser Bridge, a deep rumble, a constant whiz, air through a wind instrument, every so often the sustained roar of a big truck rising above the steadiness, a more consistent note.

This morning, three Canada Geese flew eastward.  A Blue Heron, barely visible in the shadows, sat perched near the neighbor’s deck last night.  I remembered it from last summer. Was it the same one?

Late yesterday afternoon, I watched a massive eagle, plucking its way in the shallow waters of the shoreline across Annacis Channel. I watched him through the scope from the second floor and he spent the longest time standing in those shallow waters, occasionally dipping his hooked, yellow beak into the murky water, bug hunting I suppose.  From a distance a geometric pattern wove the dark feathers on his body together and his thick legs, feathered and strong, held his body like a cup. His eyes beady, intense, all seeing.

Later on, he was joined by two smaller eagles and they began to dive bomb into the middle of the river, swooping in a triangle, up and down, gliding, trying again,  catching nothing that I could see but converging like synchronized swimmers putting on a show. My camera lense isn’t good enough to capture them from this distance.

Back on the deck, the spiders are spinning their webs off the Adirondack chairs and I want to remove them.  I want to sit out there, but so far, I haven’t the heart to destroy all their work, rip apart their delicate homes. Their days are numbered however. I want to sit out there first thing, coffee in hand.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a big splash, and look up to catch water twisting and then the rippled circles on the river’s surface. Sturgeon? Salmon? I’m surprised that fish can live in there. It’s easy to pretend the splash is more sinister. What was that?

The river turns glassy and golden-green at night. Its flow slows as the clock ticks off hours on these long summer days.

In the morning, there are dew drops on the fanned strawberry leaves shading roots in the pot tight around their base.

Once Norman, the cat, has gobbled down his breakfast, he sits at the door waiting to be let out. Lately, I’ve been keeping him in. I saw a documentary on the disappearance of song birds and I know, if I stay strong, he’ll eventually give up, go upstairs and lay down and be quiet.  In the notes, it clearly says, “there’s no need for him to go outside.” I say, it’s not for him. It’s for me. Peace.

Small things to be noticed at the beginning of a day have a way of becoming rituals in the long run.

Staycation II: Revisiting close to home


I’ve relocated back to the float home for July. For the second year, it’s Staycation Central thanks to owners Pat and Janna who have made their annual migration back to their ocean-side home near Bonavista, Newfoundland.

As with every place we inhabit,  I have found my favorite place inside their home. It’s not, as you might expect, on the top deck, although that is especially nice on a sunny afternoon when the wind is minimal and the bees dip and settle.

For me, there is nothing better than Sunday mornings on the second level where, with coffee and fresh raspberries and yogurt, I can settle into the corner of the comfy velveteen couch, The Globe & Mail and The New York Times plucked from the old tin mailbox outside and now resting on the side table. This perfect cocoon on the comfy couch, offers a comfortable positioning to write longhand which, itself, such a rarity, feels deliciously decadent.


I can write my morning papers by hand with my favourite pen. My hand moves across the page of the large, hard covered Writer’s Way book I found for a steal ($2.50) at a recent flea market at the Westminster Quay. I can let go of all weekday worries of shoulds, musts, and ever-present wondering about redesigning my life and just relax into the moment, to feel gratitude, to just be.

From that little corner, I can scope out the entire room with all its marine-themed artifacts and allow daydreams to hover.  The olive-green river on an overcast day, like today, flows continuously past, movement as reminder of the fleeting realities we all face. The reflections of the trees off the far bank and the texture from smooth to linear, circles of tidal movement, seem like the varying thickness of paint on a canvas of abstract imagery. A fantastic creative retreat this does make. I feel a renewal of inspiration here the way you’re supposed to when you leave your familiar for viva la difference.


A tugboat chugged by yesterday. I love tugboats. No matter how large, I imagine plucking them from the river and floating them in the tub.  The blue heron squawked by its legs outstretched behind it prehistoric. The eagle, I can’t see, calls out to me with that tell-tale, identifying high-pitched staccato piping.  The swan, alone this time, floated by the other morning. I wonder like last year if I’ll see them just once? I hope not.


My return was christened yesterday. I dropped my keys into the river as I went to lock the door. I watched with horror as they succumbed to the green liquid just for a few seconds and were gone. Sucked under. As far as accidents go, a minor mishap. A walk, a bus ride, a Skytrain trip back to my apartment where, uncharacteristically,  I had copies of all of them. They were easily replaced, although I will miss my Roots lanyard key chain.

The familiarity of return. The anticipation of new finds. It’s good to be back even if it’s close to home.

Just add personality

personalityforwebsmallIt’s pretty obvious, after going to countless number of book readings over the years, that it’s no longer good enough to be a great writer.

If you’re a great writer and you’re really boring then do yourself (and the audience) a favour and don’t read in public. Bask in the book sales that your story, your intellect, your unique take on the world, or your research has garnered.  In other words, let the audience read your magic but don’t inflict yourself, in person, on them. None of us can be all things to all people and it’s good to know one’s strengths.

Not only do writers have to write a great story these days but they also have to be able to tell the interesting stories behind that story, to be equally enticing a character as the characters they’ve brought to life on the page.  Are you worthy of a paragraph or two according to someone other than your mother?

But it’s not fair, you say. Writing the damn thing was hard enough. Now you want me to be Margaret Cho as well?

A friend who was a bookseller a decade or two ago told me her Farley Mowat encounter story the other day. She was in her twenties or thereabouts. She was standing with another young attractive female employee outside the bookstore at a large department store in downtown Vancouver where Mowat was going to be reading/signing books. When he showed up and  they went to the door to greet him, he said, “I won’t come in unless you kiss me.” He was in his late 40s or thereabouts then.  I’m not sure that’s personality as much as just your run-of-the-mill randy old guy (and he wasn’t that old then) but on the wake of his death it captures an aspect of his personality that, apparently, was well known. Afterwards, he went on to write a salacious little snippet in the book purchased by the other young woman.

Of course I want to hear a bit of the author’s writing when I attend a reading but mostly I want to hear the stories behind the story. Why this idea? What prompted that plot? Your struggles with writing it. Your process. The people you met while you were standing on that desolate beach trying to get a feel for the place. All the other wannabe writers hoping one day to be on that stage where the featured writer is presenting are just as eager to receive a PetSmart-styled literary treat as well.

I think back to a few of the personalities who also happen to be able to write who are/were masters at entertaining their audiences:

Tomson Highway at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest some time in the 1980s reading from The Fur Queen.

The late Peter Matthiessen on Salt Spring at ArtSpring in 2008 because of the stories he told about the on the ground research he did in writing The Snow Leopard.

The late Maeve Binchy in the first very funny 15 minutes of her intro to the reading of her book Tara Road back in 1998. At least, I think that was the book. See. I’m a little unclear about the book, but I didn’t forget her intro at the Vancouver International Writer’s Fest.

Patrick Lane at a reading at the Sechelt Writer’s Fest introducing his new book, There is a Season: A Memoir. I now can’t even recall why but the way he was, his persona, stood out for me.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz because she is really funny and once again, I’m not positive but it may have been the release of her book Recipe for Bees, but it could just as likely have been Rhinestone Button. I don’t remember. I do remember it was at Sechelt and she kept the audience in stitches leading up to her reading.

The late Frank McCourt at the Chan Centre at UBC, in his glory, centre stage, and yet he might as well have been having a chat at his local pub with the audience sitting in the next booth eavesdropping his interaction he was that elegant in the casualness of his storytelling. Damn Irish! They’ve got an advantage.

The biggest shock to this day, for me, was probably Margaret Atwood. Maybe circa 1985. UBC. A Saturday night on a cold fall evening. She was wearing a floor-length black cloak, hood up, and when she opened her mouth to read, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the voice of the woman whose words on the printed page had kept me riveted was as monotone as white paint drying. It was almost painful/irritating to listen to her. It’s still hard for me to believe that the person I saw and heard then is the same Twitter feed personality now, and with a sense of humour. I guess she’s loosened up a bit.

You get the idea. I don’t live in New York.  I haven’t been to too many readings of the cream of the crop of glorified literati. And my choices have been limited by my ability to remember.

What about you? Any really interesting authors who are also great readers/presenters stand out for you? Do tell! Or maybe you find the whole idea of authors having to be dog and pony shows offensive. Whatever.

There is no such thing as writer’s block


Repeat after me. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is no such thing as writer’s block. Apparently this is the truth in spite of the state itself – writer’s block – being referenced notoriously throughout creative history.

There is no such thing as writer’s block when it comes to most types of writing. I can agree with that bold statement.

Just write the damn thing. You have all the info. You’re not writing the next great Canadian novel, unless of course you are.  In comparison to writing a novel, journalism is like the Pin-The-Tail-On-The-Donkey game at the kind of birthday parties my mom hosted for us as kids. It’s like those old black velvet paintings, the ones with numbers in them. Just pick the colour and move the brush. You’ve done the interviews. You have what you need. Get on with it. Not that there aren’t other problems associated with it.  Sorry to any writers who don’t agree. But, if you have writer’s block and you work in journalism, or corporate communications or magazine writing, you’re probably in the wrong profession.

But, when it comes to writing a novel or a memoir, I’m going to venture being slapped by those who have gone before, persevered, and succeeded in overcoming, but I do believe there is a thing called Writer’s Block and I think I have it right now. Give me a pill. A shot. Early onset dementia. Amnesia maybe, at least that way I could forget I ever thought writing anything other than email was a good idea. Put me out of my misery.

I know what I’m supposed to do to move through it. I’m supposed to just sit my butt down, like now, in front of the computer and just start writing whatever comes to mind. Stream of consciousness, get the fingers moving,  get words on the computer screen or the page. It was a surprise to me to learn that it doesn’t matter if your first draft is crap. If you don’t think it’s crap, I hate to tell you this but it probably is crap and you just don’t know it yet. Heck, your second draft might be crap as well. Just get the ideas/words down.

Right away I can feel my resistance to that advice. I’m wondering if that type of advice may have contributed to Dick and Jane readers being published.  Not that they didn’t work to teach us, the tail end of the baby boomers, how to read.

And, one more thing. Do no editing as you’re writing that first draft. Think of writing as the good part of what you do in the bedroom. Writing is sex. Editing/re-writing is making the bed. Do not try to do both at the same time. They are distinct activities.  Or so I’m told.

I like the suggestion by Philip Pullman that you need to substitute the word writer for the word plumber and then see if you can justify something as ridiculous as Writer’s Block.  Do plumbers want to go to work every day and deal with #@#$. Of course not! They just do. Of course fixing a drain seems a little more straightforward to me than creating something from scratch that people will want to read. I mean, you don’t want plumbers getting all creative on you now do you? But there’s that resistance persisting again.

The other surprise to me, in the process of writing this thing that I’m working on (or not working on as is the case currently) is that structure is more important than just about anything else. The foundation is important. Who knew? It’s not just for carpenters.

This is a shock to someone whose modus operandi is stream of consciousness, a way of being that seems to work well for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but not so much for the rest of us.

Structure will make the difference between helping the reader, giving them a map, comforting them, and allowing them to feel like they are a part of something or feeling, instead, like you have just led them into one of those corn mazes, they’ve been in there for hours, they’re getting frustrated, dehydrated, and bored and they can’t find their way out. Pretty soon they’re screaming or they’re wrecking the corn maze hedge. They don’t want to play. Book closed. Take it back to the library.

Readers don’t want to feel like that. I know. I’m a reader. I want to feel that I’m with my best friend and we’re having the best day of our lives, the most interesting conversations. We’re going somewhere we’ve never been before and damn it’s long overdue. Maybe we’re even learning something along the way. I want to feel like I’m on a journey. I don’t want to know all the answers up front. I want to feel a little different in some way by the time I crawl back into bed that night. I want to keep my memories that were created throughout the day, with me. I might even enjoy mulling them over again if they creep into my consciousness the next day and the day after that. That’s the experience you’re aiming to create when you write a book. Maybe not exactly, but something along those lines.

Laundry. Dishes. Grocery shopping. The Artist’s Way. Morning papers. Getting enough Vitamin D. Convincing myself to find a real job. Trying to figure out how I could move back to Salt Spring. Envisioning my probable homelessness. What to do to celebrate yet another birthday whipping around again at warp speed. Wondering if I’ll ever meet a man who’s interesting to me ever again, and vice versa.  These are all consuming my creative energy to an inordinate degree.  It’s like the blank page is trying to tell me something except I need a braille translator.

Can you relate?

Here are some suggestions by 13 writers for overcoming that non existent writer’s block thing.

Floathome Staycation Rocks but Gently


It’s been a fantastic Staycation on the river and now, boo hoo,  it is over.


As I write this, Pat is on a plane somewhere over Canada mulling over her own summer memories of Newfoundland and her other neighborhood.  She’s high above some place in this beautiful country that I’ve never seen or maybe never even heard about. Far beneath the big plane, sleepy inhabitants, like me, are waking up, making coffee, getting ready to enjoy whatever plans they have for their weekends.


I’m up early, ready to wash all the sheets and towels and try to put everything back to the state of perfection I found it in minus the Purdy’s Haystacks. Sorry Pat. I’ll get you some. Trying to test me? I failed! But, you knew I would.

So many visitors commented on how tastefully this place was decorated. A real nautical theme but not overdone.



It has been so wonderful to be here. I’ve had a lot of guests over for dinner. I’ve become familiar with a neighborhood that I’ve almost never visited prior to staying even though it’s a mere 20 minute drive from my own place. I’ve enjoyed walking down the road, a mix of light industrial and hodge podge residential and on Thursday, I finally saw a real live Canadian beaver, on the bank in front of the house. How do you know it’s Canadian? my manager asked me when I told him.  “It’s here isn’t it?”  The swans visited only twice. The blue herons at dusk.

My friends and family said to me, “You look like you belong here.”


Mostly, I’ve loved seeing what goes by on a river that has such great significance to B.C. and the history of our province. My impressions of the Fraser have been forever changed, at least in terms of how people use the part that winds through New Westminster, Queensborough, and Richmond.


I never imagined that people kayaked it and two nights ago I even saw some guy, standing on one of those flat board, in the pouring rain, exploring. Can you believe it? Don’t fall in, buddy!  It could get messy. Contrast that with some of the yachts that have glided by and even a few yahoos speeding past, purposely making waves so the float homes will rock. And all the little whatever they are called, those tiny boats with one guy steering the motor from the back, just dodging to this bank and that log boom and having fun on a summer evening. Men fish off the banks under the bridge. There’s a lot going on. The brown river with the amazing history attracts life, human and wild and industry.


I’ve bonded with Norman. Pretty much turned him into the most spoiled little kitty who thinks whining works. They’re going to hate me. Yes, sorry, I do have a habit of getting up really early and Norman just LOVES that. Don’t plan on sleeping in! Of course, Norman’s up, eats and then it’s nap time again.


I’ve enjoyed the luxury of having a built in washer and dryer and Netflix and a deck and living somewhere that people want to come and check out. It’s amazing how social life can be when you live somewhere that people WANT to see.


It’s been great to come home to a place that made me happy to just stay put.  Gratitude.  Thank you Pat and Janna.