Two 1,000-page novels at once: Kristin Lavransdatter and Ducks, Newburyport

Reading during a COVID-19 summer

This summer has been memorable in several ways, not only because it is the first (and perhaps not the last) summer of living with COVID-19.

For one, this is the first time I’ve ever read two 1000-page novels at the same time—and I finished them over a period of about six weeks. How did I get into this? It’s not as though I had tons of spare time—my editing work has continued during the pandemic.

No; it’s just that during a Skype call with my brothers, I mentioned I was looking for some new book ideas. One brother mailed me Kristin Lavransdatter, a three-book classic. The books, centred on their fourteenth-century heroine, were written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset in the 1920s. This translation by Tiina Nunnally brings them together in one volume. My other brother got me intrigued with his description of Lucy Ellmann’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport, which I found at my local bookstore.

Both books are worthy of devouring. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and won many awards and accolades. Though this Norwegian classic and the audacious, creative, and eminently modern Ducks could scarcely be less alike, I urge you to read them both!

Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter follows the life of its heroine from the time she is seven until her death ( I didn’t appreciate the spoiler about this in the Introduction). Kristin and the other main characters in the trilogy are members of the well-off landowner class. In fourteenth-century Norway many of these men were involved in the politics of the country and sometimes served the King by fighting Norway’s wars or in other ways.

The political parts of the novel are sometimes difficult to follow, but the main story is timeless because it is about the powerful sexual bond between Kristin Lavransdatter and the man who becomes her husband, Erlend Nikulaussøn. Their union leads to the birth of seven sons in rapid succession. However, despite their enduring passion, happiness eludes the couple because of their stubborn incompatibilities.

Erlend is a deeply flawed man. At the time he meets Kristin he has already been involved in several scandals, including living with a woman who is married to someone else and having two children by her. Erlend is not patient or organized or good at the administrative work of running his estate. Yet he is physically brave, intelligent, and beloved by the men he leads in battles.

The attraction between Erlend and Kristin is so intense that she allows him to seduce her very soon after they meet. Premarital sex, in Christian Norway, was considered a grave sin, and if pregnancy occurred (as happened easily and often) that meant disgrace for the young woman and her family. Despite knowing the risk she is taking, Kristin doesn’t hold back, and she believes Erlend’s promise that he will love and be with no other woman but her forever.

The catch is that Kristin is already engaged to another man. When she gets pregnant, her her fiancé frees her from her promise, but her father is deeply hurt and disappointed. He agrees to let Kristin and Erlend get married, but he knows Erlend’s shortcomings. The couple’s transgression can’t be hidden as a child is born only a few months after the marriage.

One of the striking impressions this book made on me was the way people at that time believed in God and Heaven and Hell. It’s hard to explain, but the book made me feel that at that time, God, his rules, and the consequences for breaking them were unquestionably real. The characters’ beliefs created that reality. What else did they have to explain the world and cope with its cruelty? They had no scientific understanding, no cure for most diseases (like the Black Death that was soon to arrive), and nothing to help women with the pain of childbirth or prevent them from dying from it.

Kristin proves to be a wonderful mother to her seven sons, and a most competent administrator of Erlend’s estate. Yet their powerful bond of love and sex can’t make them compatible or help them get along. Kristin’s life-changing flaw is her guilt; her inability to ever forgive either Erlend or herself for their youthful mistake. She often treats Erlend badly and speaks to him with cruelty, not giving weight to the fact that despite his faults, his love for her never wavers.

The two end up living apart. At one point, when they are almost old by the standards of their day—in their forties—Kristin visits Erlend at the crude, filthy dwelling where he has become a hermit. Again, passion overwhelms all else. They are happy together for a couple of weeks, but both are stubborn; Erlend won’t return to the estate, and Kristin is bound to return to their children. The only result is another baby, which is sickly and dies without Erlend ever having seen it.

A third main character, the man who was betrothed to Kristin, Simon Darre, adds more heartbreak and complexity to the novel but I will not write more about that here.

Ducks, Newburyport

What does that title tell a reader? Not much, other than to prepare you for a book that is unlike any other.

We are in the mind of the narrator and reading every thought, every word passing through her mind. And what a mind it is! Tormented, creative, expert at word-association and wordplay, filled with sadness, anger, self-doubt, and love. And our narrator’s mental meandering provokes belly laughs on almost every page.

It’s hard to explain this book—you just have to read it. Its flavour can’t be conveyed by telling you that the narrator is a woman in her forties, married, with four children, who bakes hundreds of pies and cakes a week to supplement her husband’s income as a university professor. She lives in a small town near Columbus, Ohio, and her recurring themes are gun violence, destruction of the environment, and how much she misses “Mommy.” The narrator’s mother’s long illness and death, occurring when the narrator was only a teenager, have left her “broken,” as she repeats over and over again.

How does Ellmann fill 988 pages with this? (The book also includes twenty-five pages of acronyms, one page with a map, four pages of quotes, four pages of laudatory blurbs, and two pages of thanks.)

Well, at first I thought Ducks was perhaps ten times too long. I found it peculiarly addictive, yet unsatisfying. I realized this was because there was no chronological narrative, and I was missing that “sense of story.”

There is, however, one conventionally-told narrative within the book, but it makes up a scant 2% of the text. It is the story of a rare Eastern Cougar mother (“the lioness”). She has three cubs who get “rescued” from a poorly-hidden den while their mother is out hunting. The cubs are taken to a nearby zoo. The lioness, relying on her instinct, goes on a long journey to find her cubs. Her story is told in sections of two or three pages separated by long sections of the main “stream-of-consciousness” text.

I looked forward to these short sections of the book eagerly, but after reading about three hundred pages of Ducks I was so frustrated that I abandoned it and went back to reading Kristin Lavransdatter, which I had just started.

It was only after finishing that massive work that I went back to Ducks. This time I enjoyed it thoroughly. I became more in tune with the narrator’s stories. Her interior monologue revealed more and more about her past relationships, her current crisis with her teenage daughter, Stacy (“she hates me”), and her recent bout with cancer.

The narrator, like so many women, is ambivalent about having four kids. She clearly loves them, but finds them all-consuming. Her doubts about her mothering abilities are just one topic in her continuous litany of self-criticism. As many people do, she worries constantly about her faults, but doesn’t congratulate herself for her successes, strengths, and heroic qualities. Personally, I was impressed by the patience and skill it would take to produce the number of pies and cakes she makes every day, in spite having four children constantly underfoot!

I found the ironic but real kind of solace you find in reading about another person’s despair. Sometimes I was reading Ducks in the early hours of the morning, tormented by insomnia yet again, when the narrator’s outpouring of negativity meant I was not alone in sinking into these irrational depths. Also, Lucy Ellmann is a genius for being able to make even depression laugh-out-loud funny.

The self-deprecation and the narrator’s endless rants about guns, shootings, toxic damage to the environment, and her mother’s death are balanced by one constant bright light—the narrator’s thoughts about Leo, her husband. It’s heartwarming to read about such a steady, staunch kind of happiness. We know Leo must have lots of reasons to love her.

Reading to the end of Ducks brings an unexpected reward. After over nine hundred pages of wandering comes a terrifying, suspenseful climax (no spoilers!). The lioness’s story, too, comes to a parallel climax. Ellmann combines both human and animal stories in a masterful way. The cougar interludes in the text, which at first seem to be irrelevant, are united to the main story by the theme of motherhood and all the passion and devotion it entails.

Both human and animal stories are resolved in ways that are happy, though not without ambivalence. The lioness’s disdain for the human race exceeds even the narrator’s distress, and both characters’ points of view make the current sorry state of humanity (especially in the United States of America) all too obvious.  

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The aging athlete: protests and silver linings

I have found that being an athlete over sixty means feeling a mixture of conflicting emotions: gratitude, exhilaration, disgust, sadness, sometimes even despair.

Then: Racing 10,000m at the 1988 Olympics. Photo copyright CP Photo/COA by F.S. Grant. Used with permission.

I wasn’t sure whether to write this post because in public we are always supposed to be upbeat and optimistic. And it is true that I could give lots of encouragement about how exercise helps us physically as we grow older, just as it helps us at any age. It also has beneficial effect on our moods and cognitive abilities.

Yet I feel a perverse desire to throw all the negative stuff out there anyway. Maybe I want sympathy. Maybe I want to reassure others who are going through this process and thinking, “Getting older sucks!” The goal is to be honest about all the negative stuff, to come to an acceptance that it’s OK (because it’s normal, inevitable), and then to remember gratitude. Gratitude is the silver lining we can choose to focus on most of the time.

Now: Acting goofy in a Mundy parkrun, January 2020. Photo by Keith Dunn.

So here comes my personal list of complaints, humiliations, and injuries I endure as I continue to run twice a week. Feel free to skip this section if you wish to go straight to silver linings!

  • My arthritic knee is an injury that limits me and it will never go away. I tore my ACL in 2009, had surgery to repair it in 2010, and surgery to remove all my cartilage in 2011.
  • My latest injury was also my first-ever broken bone! I was hit by a car while cycling in December 2019 and fractured the scaphoid bone in my right wrist. I recovered well from surgery in January but will likely never have full strength or flexibility in my wrist again.
  • I used to be a good hill runner. Now running uphill makes me aware of how weak my quads have become (despite lots of cycling and some weights). I resolved to do squats to strengthen my legs but that resulted in increased knee pain. I can’t run downhills normally because it would impact my knee too much and plus, my knee doesn’t feel very stable.
  • There is another reason why hills are hard for me. Decades ago I had bypass operations on both my left and right iliac arteries (near the groin) because they became blocked. These arteries are the giant ones supplying most of the blood supply to the legs. I learned I have a rare genetic condition called “fibromuscular dysplasia.” Without surgery I wouldn’t have been able to do any running or vigorous cycling after my first blockage at age 33. For the past few years I have been feeling impaired circulation in my left leg, and that means I have some kind of narrowing again. Thankfully, it hasn’t got much worse for several years. However, it limits me when I do intense exercise like fast running for more than a minute, running or cycling uphill, or climbing a lot of stairs. For example, when I do the ~ 500 stairs of the Coquitlam Crunch, I try to go all-out but the muscles in my left leg cramp up before my lungs reach their limit.
  • Running just isn’t easy and natural anymore, not even so-called “easy runs.” Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet given myself permission to “jog” or “shuffle.” Most of the time, in my steady runs, I’m running at a pace that I perceive as being fast—but Garmin tells a different story!
  • I’m aware that unless I have absolutely perfect footing, either pavement (which I avoid) or a well-groomed trail, I’ve become an awkward runner. Last week I did a run in Mundy Park on a rainy day. There were puddles and muddy spots everywhere. I struggled. That run reminded me that cross-country running is over for me—forever. In the face of obstacles, jumps, or rough ground I would be awkward and afraid. I couldn’t trust my bad knee or my weak legs. I would end up shuffling at a ridiculously slow pace, in true “old lady” style. Cross-country running was my first love, my introduction to running and its camaraderie, so I can’t help but be sad about losing it.
  • When I’m mountain biking over rough terrain, I notice how fearful I’ve become. My wrist fracture has made it worse. I know it would be very bad for me if I fell on that wrist again.

Silver linings

I count myself among those who are lifelong runners. No matter our deterioration, no matter how much we slow down, running is a part of us that we won’t give up until we absolutely have to.

I’m always grateful to simply be able to run. After my second knee surgery in 2011 my surgeon told me I could never run again. I’ve proven him wrong.

Yet, I know that any run could be my last run, and that makes gratefulness easy.

I’ve experimented and accepted my limitations. I only run twice a week. The rare times I’ve raced or my knee is sore for whatever reason, I back off and take a week or two off.

I know I’ve been blessed with talent and, even with limited training, I can still run well “for my age.” Genetics plays a big role: my featherweight frame probably has a lot to do with my ability to run on an arthritic knee. The late Canadian runner Ed Whitlock was a wisp of a man who, into his 70s, “floated” at speeds that were the envy of runners decades his junior. He ran under 3 hours for the marathon at age 72!

I’m grateful for the times when running is still perfect. Notice I wrote “perfect,” not “fast”! Yes, there are those rare times when I have the sense of running gracefully, when all parts of my body are in harmony and I feel the rhythm of my legs, my arms, my deep breathing, my blood coursing through every part of my body as I become part of the forest around me, a simple running creature. When the trail is flat and smooth, you can still see sometimes the ghost of the elite runner I once was, with a long confident stride, powerful arms that swing in synchrony, and lungs that are as deep as my willpower demands.

From my coach George Gluppe I learned what a critical component speed training is, even for a 10,000m runner. Doing short sprints (50―250m) with Laurie has shown me how fun it is to run fast. Maybe I’m kidding myself about how fast we’re running, but I know I’m up on my toes and pumping up my running cadence. Sprinting reminds me of being a kid, when the purpose of running was to catch someone or avoid being caught. Running meant moving as fast as possible for short bursts of time. Back then, there was no need for a warmup and, of course, no stiffness afterwards!

In Laurie I have found someone who shares my love of running. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm she brings to our workouts. We help each other. This could be another lesson about being an older athlete: never compare yourself to the “average” person of your age; seek out positive and energetic friends and training partners who share your passion for running.

Moving forward

Continuing to run as an aging athlete requires a delicate balance of gratefulness, courage, determination, and—surprisingly—a willingness to give up that was unacceptable in youth. You must recognize your limitations.

I have one final note of consolation, though—and it’s a big one! The runner’s high doesn’t go away. So go after it as long and as often as you can.

Chasing the high: running at Sasamat Lake, 2019. Photo by Keith Dunn.
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Summer at Sasamat Lake in the time of coronavirus

The short story: Important tips if you are planning a trip to Sasamat Lake

  1. You may not be able to get in to the parking area unless you go well before noon, especially on nice days. Parking is not allowed on Bedwell Bay Road as it usually is.
  2. If you see the sign says “FULL” for White Pine Beach, you may still be able to get in. I have seen the “FULL” sign on when the gate is open, and I suspect park staff are using this as a deterrent to prevent the beaches from getting too crowded.
  3. Expect lots of people on the beach. It could be difficult to maintain physical distancing. White Pine Beach is not a good place to be if you are worried about Covid-19 and are in a vulnerable group.
  4. The Sasamat Lake Loop hike is one-way only (counter-clockwise). Please respect this.

I took this photo of triathletes about to start their workout during an early-morning bike ride. This was a few weeks ago when the lake was still peaceful!

My first swim of the year at Sasamat Lake

One of the joys of summer for me is swimming in a lake. I’ve written in other posts about swimming at Sasamat Lake and the mini-triathlon course I set up for myself many years ago. At least once every summer, I do my triathlon all-out as a solo race.

This summer will be different.

I realized this last week when I decided I’d go to the lake in the morning to avoid crowds, and run a couple of laps of the lake trail to get warm enough to try my first dip in the freezing water. There haven’t been very many warm days yet.

First, I was shocked when I saw the sign saying White Pine Beach was “FULL” even though it wasn’t even 10:00 a.m.! That’s when I suspected it was a false alarm. Sure enough, the gate was open. However, I was astonished to see that the parking lots were about three quarters full, and it wasn’t even a sunny day!

I followed my plan, and ran over two loops of the lake trail. There were only a few people walking the loop. It was my first run there since last summer, and by the last 2K I was struggling with the many steps (which are tough on my arthritic knee) and the occasional steep little hills. I worked up a good sweat, though!

The beaches were crowded but I was able to isolate myself sufficiently in a grassy area. I managed to stay in the icy water for almost three minutes! I hadn’t been swimming since my last time at the Poirier Aquatic Centre, way back in February when I had my waterproof wrist cast on.

It was exhilarating to brave the water and swim frantically for a couple of minutes. I saw lots of triathletes in their wetsuits. No wonder they are at the lake—where else can they train? As for the rest of the crowd filling the beaches on a cloudy weekday morning—it shows how much people are longing for an escape from their homes. Kids haven’t been at school and all their organized sports have been cancelled, as have most trips and vacations.

We are living through a complicated medical and social experiment in this time of coronavirus. We’ll find out in the coming weeks if the crowded beaches lead to spikes in Covid-19 cases or not. If not, why not? Is the virus weakened by warmer weather, as other influenza viruses are? Will public health officials and parks officials impose stricter limitations to the number of people allowed on the beaches, or even close them altogether?

Whatever happens, I doubt that I’ll be able to swim at Sasamat Lake this summer whenever I want to. My favourite time at the lake is late afternoon, when the water is at its warmest and the sun’s rays don’t burn as fiercely. But I may have a lot of competition for my 2 square metres of beach real estate.

My first swim day was cloudy but that didn’t deter the beachgoers!
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Three unexpected gifts


For nine years now, I have been keeping a journal I call “Three Good Things.” I write in it every night before going to bed, sometimes for less than a minute and sometimes for much longer. The only requirement is that I choose three positive things from my day to note down. It can be a whole experience; a special event or time with someone; it can be something tiny—a snippet of conversation, or something I read, or something beautiful that I saw or captured with my camera.


Even on the most awful days, I’ve always thought of something to write.

Yesterday was extraordinary. When I went to write in Three Good Things, I realized what made that day extraordinary was that I received three totally unexpected “good things.” To have had these three out-of-the-blue gifts bestowed in one day jolted me into writing this piece.

A new friend

The first gift was an email. To protect privacy, let’s just say it was from someone I met and interacted with in a Zoom meeting. He had a businesslike reason for sending me an email but chose to write a lot more about his personal life and goals than required. 

Most importantly, this person revealed an astounding genius with words, which I had already gathered from listening to him in the Zoom meeting. His email was a pure delight to read. Unlike my rather simple writing style, he was consciously poetic in his language and displayed a wonderful facility to play with words. I was so taken by some of his expressions that I copied them and, in my reply email, told him which ones were my favourites.

His words were not purposeless toys, though; his story made me want to emulate his creativity and work harder at reaching my own creative potential.

The long-lasting part of this gift is recognizing that I have met a “kindred spirit,” another person who loves words. I suspect we will have a fun and fruitful friendship through sharing words.

Loads of money

I must protect my own privacy here so I will only say that I received an unexpectedly decent sum of money yesterday. Like many people, I have lost money and work during Covid-19. This sum of money will “buy me time” to search for editing work that challenges and excites me. I can also spend time learning new skills that will help me with my editing business.

Eventually, when Covid-19 is over, I might use some of my newfound money to travel. I suspect that will stimulate me to produce many new words and photos!

An old friend

Early in the evening, I got a phone call from an old friend, Hans Fenz, who used to run sometimes with the Phoenix Running Club. Hans is 84 years old now, and he can’t run anymore because of foot injuries, but he keeps active with walking. In his time, Hans was an elite runner and mountaineer.

I was surprised to hear from him because we haven’t been in touch recently and the last time I saw him was probably at a Phoenix party almost two years ago. Hans started the conversation by telling me how wonderful my photos are—I guess he’s seen my photos on Facebook even if he doesn’t post there. Hans is a serious photographer himself—a much better photographer than I am. His compliment made me feel good. Then he went on to tell me about a trip he took to northern BC a few years ago, when his group’s guide got them very close to grizzly bears feeding on spawning salmon. Hans said he would like to send me some of his best bear photos.

After I asked him some questions about his bear sightings, Hans mentioned that he had planned to go to Europe this summer to visit his brother (he’s German) and do some hiking in the mountains he used to love. Now he can’t go because of Covid-19.

I could hear the fragility in his voice, and the sadness of an old man who was once a great athlete and can no longer participate the way he used to. And he knows his time of being able to hike mountainous trails is running out.

Hans finally got around to the supposed reason for his call—he was asking me if I had the phone number of a certain sports medicine doctor. I didn’t, but I was very happy Hans had called, and I told him so. It made me reflect yet again on the long-lasting bonds of friendship that running creates. Hans and I will always share this love of our sport and our understanding of what it has meant for us.

It seemed so special to get a phone call in this age of email and social media communication.

When Hans sent me his photos, I was pleased to see that, along with four bear photos, he had included a photo he had taken of me (holding my camera) at Jericho Beach perhaps eight years ago. We would have both been spectators at some important cross-country race. I liked the photo a lot—probably because I was younger!


Me at Jericho Beach, ~2012. Photo by Hans Fenz.

Giving back

As I sat out on my balcony after sunset last night, in the lovely cool air following a heat-wave day, I reflected on the significance of the day’s three unexpected gifts.

I felt wealthy—not just because of the money part, but because I’d been reminded of the value of friendship, and of opportunities to continually grow and be creative.

I also have a basic idea about karma: that in some way, at some time, I will be returning the gifts I received. The currency of the gifts will be different. I don’t know exactly what I can give, and I don’t know for sure what my mode of giving will be. It might be something to do with writing; it might be something to do with my editing work; it will surely be about appreciating close friendships and all the other gifts that are part of my life every day.


Sunset from my balcony.

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Books for comfort: Duane’s Depressed, The Last Picture Show, and Machines Like Me

DuanesDepressedNote: I wrote this post over a month ago—before the time of coronavirus. Maybe it is even more relevant now.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post about books. Ironic, because in the past three months I’ve read many wonderful books. Books have kept me afloat during a physically difficult time. In a two-day period (December 24 and 25), I had a cycling accident that left me with a fractured wrist and came down with a horrible two-week bout of laryngitis.

Even before these two things happened, I was feeling a kind of lethargy that left me almost paralyzed during most afternoons. This lethargy may have been caused by my chronic insomnia or worsened by the season, but to me its grip seemed mysteriously strong. During that time, books prevented me from going crazy (especially during wakeful nights). They comforted me and kept me intellectually stimulated so I could avoid negative thoughts.

I’ve recently finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed and The Last Picture Show, as well as Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel. I want to write about these books because I’m surprised by the way I responded to them.

Why did these books affect me the way they did—in some ways against my expectations? I have read many books by both of these authors. What I came to realize is that our responses to books can be affected by our mental states or experiences we are going through when we read them. Books nurture us, and just as a given type of food or a certain recipe may be perfect for us during an illness or after a hard workout, books can give us exactly what will most benefit us at a certain time in our lives.

I read McMurtry’s books first, starting with Duane’s Depressed. I got this book out of the library though I was pretty sure I had read it before, perhaps twenty years ago. As soon as I started reading it, I recognized it. Moreover, I wasn’t impressed. The writing seemed superficial and casual. “This book is not worth my time,” I thought.

Yet it was easy reading—perfect for my lethargic afternoons—and I found myself being drawn in. The protagonist, Duane, is sixty-one years old at the start of the novel, and he’s undergoing a major life crisis. Abruptly, he quits his job as an oil field boss and hands the reins over to his son. He vows to stop driving his truck. He starts walking everywhere—this in a small Texas town where everyone drives, and no one has even heard of walking for mental or physical health. He walks right out of his lively home, away from his wife of over forty years, and away from the children and grandchildren who also live there. He plans to stay at his rustic cabin ten kilometres away while he thinks things over.

I soon realized that despite having read this book before, I could relate to Duane in an entirely new way now that I am sixty instead of forty. Duane is facing old age. When I was forty, old age was far away—I didn’t even consider myself middle-aged! Now, at age sixty, though my life story is completely unlike Duane’s (my education, places I’ve lived, athletic life, and social life could hardly be more different than his), I’m facing some of the same existential questions that he faces in the novel. There is a summing-up of what life has been. There may be regrets. There are things we are no longer capable of doing. It’s an age when we understand that the years are finite—what will we do with our remaining time?

McMurtry’s great achievement in this novel is the way he creates a sense of urgency despite the apparently casual, wandering tone and actions of his protagonist. He creates an inexorable psychological climax.

In this scene, Duane is revisiting a place where he used to buy fishing lures from an old man who was valued as much for his wild stories about the first oil booms as for his lures. Finding no trace of the old man or his tackle shop, Duane’s thoughts take a melancholy turn. Here, we see McMurtry’s words sing with power against the perfect backdrop for Duane’s epiphany—the mighty Red River that separates Texas from Oklahoma. Despite his deceptively simple and casual style, McMurtry is perfectly in control.

Mixed in the sudden pain was the feeling that he had arrived at the far edge of himself. The list of things he had never done was far longer than the list of things that might be considered accomplishments. All that he had done in the way of building things had merely slipped away, into the great stream of human effort, gone as silently as the sand below him slid into the flowing water. What had happened to his life? Why, in sixty-two years, had he made so little of it? He was not educated, he had not traveled, he knew nothing of the great cities of the world, he could speak no language except a crude English; he had never visited a great museum, or seen a great picture, or heard a great symphony orchestra, or read a great book.*

The above passage gives only a taste of Duane’s interior monologue during this powerful scene.

At this point, I raced through the remaining third of the book. Finishing it, I realized how thoroughly it had gripped me emotionally. McMurtry had succeeded in making me identify with a character completely different from myself, a man who had limited choices and lived his whole life in a small Texas town. In fact, I had become so attached to Duane and his supporting cast that I immediately went to the library and took out The Last Picture Show, allowing myself to read another book that I had read at least once before. I wanted to revisit Duane’s youth (this book covers his life as an 18-year-old) and rediscover the connection between the young man and the older man he became. (The Last Picture Show was made into the 1971 movie of the same name. It was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.)


I found it very satisfying to revisit many of the same characters I had encountered in Duane’s Depressed. There was sadness, too, in comparing the youthful versions of these people with their older selves. The two books made me think about the limitations of small-town life (especially in the past, before cheap air travel and the internet). Small-town people may have so few choices in life, and it is only a few gifted or lucky ones who escape from predictable and mundane lives.

Yet who am I to judge? Some, maybe many, find great happiness. Most of us live now in dense urban places with almost limitless technologies and gadgets, with vast online lives running parallel to our “real” physical lives. Yet all of this gives us no guarantee of happiness or freedom from loneliness. The complexity of our lives and the endless decisions to be made can overwhelm us.

Immediately after finishing The Last Picture Show, I started reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me. Ian McEwan is one of my favourite writers and I consider some of his books, such as Saturday and Atonement (made into an acclaimed 2007 movie directed by Joe Wright and starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly), to be masterpieces.

McEwan’s style is completely unlike McMurtry’s. McEwan has won all kinds of literary prizes (including the Booker for Amsterdam), and would be categorized as a “literary fiction” writer in contrast to McMurtry’s more “popular” appeal (though both are prolific writers with numerous bestsellers to their credit).


What I’ve always loved about McEwan’s writing is the way he seems able to capture human relationships and the human condition in all their complexity, creating characters that seem completely real. At the same time his novels are both plot- and idea-driven, always set within a fascinating or suspenseful historical or political context.


In Machines Like Me, the story is set in an alternative-reality 1980s Britain where artificial intelligence is far more advanced than it was in the real 1980s. Charlie, the main protagonist and narrator, has just bought a synthetic human, one of twenty-five “Adams” and “Eves” who possess almost perfectly human appearances, movements, and abilities.

McEwan is going out on a limb in tackling the subject of advanced AI. This is fertile ground for so many questions about the plausibility and implications of having artificial humans around. What will the role of “real” humans be when the machines are vastly superior to humans in many ways? Charlie appreciates Adam’s taking over his stock market speculations and turning him into a rich man in a short time; but he is outraged when Adam has sex with his girlfriend, Miranda. He makes Adam promise to never do that again. Charlie and Miranda learn that Adam is unpredictable in disturbing ways. For example, he quickly learns how to disable his own “turn-off” switch.

Charlie finds that even though his rational mind keeps telling him that Adam is only a machine, he’s unable to hold back his emotional responses to Adam at times, and finds himself treating Adam like a fellow human being. McEwan’s fictional version of Alan Turing, one of AI’s greatest pioneers, insists that the Adams and Eves are “sentient,” and have a “self.” Adam himself proclaims that he is in love with Miranda, and he writes hundreds of haiku poems for her as proof.

Machines Like Me becomes increasingly dark as Charlie and Adam begin to disagree with each other in more ways than being in competition for the same woman. What are Adam’s “rights”? Why are many of his fellow Adams and Eves committing “suicide”? Why are Adam’s moral decisions so radically different than Charlie’s—how did the programmers get it so wrong?

This book, in its exploration of the potential incompatibility between humans and the machines that we might create in an attempt to replicate ourselves, forces us to confront what it means to be human. How are our decisions flawed, morally or otherwise, in ways that machines’ decisions don’t have to be? Will we always prefer human companions to machine companions because we instinctively value “humanness,” no matter how flawed?

McEwan’s scenario follows the familiar theme of humans losing control of the beings they create, but he also creates a new twist: the proposition that these machines do possess consciousness, and seem to become so depressed by their “lives” in the human world that they choose to commit “suicide.” They engineer their own destruction.

I finished reading Machines Like Me almost a week ago. I see from what I’ve written above that its ideas have stuck with me and provoked a lot of thought. Yet for sheer enjoyment, I preferred the two McMurtry books. Since Ian McEwan comes higher on my list of “favourite writers” than Larry McMurtry, I was trying to figure out why, as a reader, I didn’t like Machines Like Me as much as many of McEwan’s previous books.

I’ve decided that it’s because I don’t think the human characters, Charlie and Miranda, are as fully realized as McEwan’s protagonists usually are. Charlie, especially, is not likeable or admirable, and Miranda remains somewhat mysterious. This is a novel of ideas, set in an alternate 1980s world where AI has already advanced far beyond what we have now in 2020. Although it engaged me intellectually, McMurtry’s books, with their down-to-earth characters facing crises of youth, middle age, and old age, were the books that nourished me during this difficult winter.

*McMurtry, Larry. Duane’s Depressed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 279.


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Life in the time of coronavirus


At the top of the Coquitlam Crunch. This popular hike got too busy with the fine weather and new rules were imposed to promote social distancing. Up the east stairs, down the west!

We are living in a reality that seems unreal. It’s a dystopia like something out of the imagination of Margaret Atwood or Stephen King. Those of us who didn’t live through a world war (that is, most humans alive today) have no experience of a global crisis like that caused by Covid-19.

Here in Canada, as in most other countries, we have all been affected. And the changes and restrictions have happened so quickly and relentlessly that it’s hard for us to adapt.

I remember I had a sense of foreboding two or three weeks ago, when life was still going along as usual but we were beginning to hear about the spread of the coronavirus. Then, within days, normal life got cancelled.

  • Races were cancelled.
  • Events or gatherings of over 250 people were cancelled.
  • Gyms closed.
  • Libraries closed.
  • Businesses and stores closed.
  • Schools closed.
  • Flights were cancelled.
  • “Social distancing” and “self-isolation” entered our vocabularies—not without some confusion as to what those terms meant.
  • Lineups at Costco and everywhere for toilet paper provided fodder for countless jokes on social media. But the panic shopping continued.
  • Grocery stores imposed new hours, rules, and floor markings to enforce social distancing.
  • Park facilities like soccer fields, tennis courts, and skateboard parks closed. Ironically, this happened because the lovely weather in Vancouver last week (the first week that most of the restrictions and closures were put into place) encouraged people to flock out of doors and gather in large groups in defiance of the rules and social distancing guidelines.


Lots of people, especially families, were cycling and walking at Colony Farm last weekend.

Now, most of us are quickly adjusting to the new reality. We are resilient.

It’s hit some people harder than others. Some people are overworked while others are out of work. Medical personnel on the front lines are at risk. Many people are working from home and at the same time trying to monitor and encourage their kids’ schoolwork. Extraverts may be frustrated and bored. Most people are affected financially, and we know already that Covid-19 is causing a world-wide economic crisis that may take years to recover from.

What can we do?

We have this wonderful communication system called the internet, and it’s hard to imagine how much worse everything would be without it.

With the internet, we can keep in touch although we’re physically isolated from each other. We can even have “face time.”

I am relatively fortunate because as a freelance editor, I’m used to working at home, alone, and I currently have work that keeps me busy. Also, there are specific editing and publishing skills I need to learn, and I can learn and practise these skills online.

Nevertheless, in the past two weeks I’ve seen that my mood can swing quickly from positive to negative.

I tell myself that even in the most dire situations, we can find opportunities. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust camps, wrote that even when we have zero control over our circumstances, we can always choose how we respond to them. (See Frankl’s famous book Man’s Search for Meaning.)

Just now I was looking for Frankl’s book and couldn’t find it amongst my many hundreds of books. Yet as I saw long-forgotten titles and even a few books I’ve never gotten around to reading, I was filled with the sense of abundance and intellectual excitement that I always get when I’m surrounded by books. I think about how much wisdom, knowledge, and captivating stories are contained within all those covers, and I know I could be in quarantine for a long time without running out of stimulation.

That’s without even considering all the resources available online. I can take courses, take part in webinars, listen to artists (it’s amazing what artists are sharing for free; even symphony orchestras are performing), or follow a yoga workout.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I can go outside and run or ride my bike. Last week when the afternoons were so sunny and warm, I felt the irrepressible joy of spring. I knew that the burgeoning of life can’t be stopped, no matter what the coronavirus does to human beings. Nature doesn’t care; Nature will continue her cycles, and we can’t help but respond to the renewal of life that penetrates all of our senses.


Happy about my first bike ride in months after getting my wrist cast off!

I have my down times, like everyone. There have been times in the past two weeks when I couldn’t adapt quickly enough; when I felt outraged at the freedoms that were being taken away, at the way my world was getting smaller. I felt a constriction in my chest, and a fear of what was still to come. I felt bad about the people worse off than me, especially older people who are more at risk and more likely to be completely alone. I had to cancel a trip to Toronto to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday. Now his party has been cancelled altogether.

This is a time of unprecedented events. It reminds us that no matter how much we plan ahead, and how hard we work, unforeseen and uncontrollable things can happen. Stability, orderliness, and a predictable future are illusory and temporary. What endures are the best qualities of the human spirit: the ability to adapt, solve problems, find joy, and care deeply for each other. Let’s all rise to this challenge.


Sasamat Lake. Warm sun and beautiful outdoor places raise our spirits!



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A gem about love from comic book artist Chris Ware

I was driving home on Sunday evening, listening to CBC radio, eagerly anticipating Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel—the one radio program I listen to every week without fail.

When the announcer said the upcoming interview would feature Chris Ware, comic book artist, I thought to myself, “I don’t read comic books (or, as the more literary ones are now known as, graphic novels). This week’s episode won’t interest me.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This interview stretched my mind to the limit. It absorbed and delighted me. I listened to it three times, trying to understand some of Ware’s more difficult concepts about creating comic book artwork, and how reading a book that is mostly pictures differs both from reading text and from looking at art that is purely visual.

This conversation between Chris Ware and Eleanor Wachtel was so rich, and so wide-ranging in the topics covered (in addition to artistic topics) that I don’t want to attempt to cover it in this brief blog article. (Please listen to it here!)

I’m just picking one gem that I’d like to share, and it’s from a part of the program (about 20 minutes in) when Ware is talking about his maternal grandmother, “one of the more amazing people I’ve ever met.” He relates how he spent a lot of time with his grandmother when he was in his teens. She was a wonderful storyteller. He describes this with great eloquence). Also, “. . . she made me happy, and she made other people happy . . . she listened . . .”

For me the core of this section about his grandmother comes with Ware’s statement, “I always felt more like myself when I was with her . . . . People ask, ‘What is love? How do you define love?’ . . . That’s love . . . when you feel more like yourself when you’re with somebody else than when you’re not around them.” (emphasis mine)

This idea, I understood. It struck me as being profound and true. When you’re with someone who loves you, it’s comfortable and warm, there’s no need for the effort of artifice. We feel good when someone else recognizes and understands what we know to be the truest and deepest parts of ourselves: our values, what we love, what we’re concerned about, how we express ourselves.

It’s more than that, too. A person who loves us sees our best self as well as our flaws. They accept our flaws but they encourage us to develop and express our best self. They want us to achieve our greatest potential. They don’t want to hold us back because of their own ego problems or weaknesses; they don’t try to manipulate us to gratify their own needs.

Sometimes, with this kind of love, we can feel our spirit meeting with the spirit of another. This can happen with a romantic lover or with a close friend. It’s hard to describe. It feels outside of time and beyond the limits of our physical world and our physical bodies.


I encourage all my readers to listen to the full podcast. I was reminded last Sunday of two important reasons why I love Writers and Company so much:

  1. Often by paying attention to something or someone outside of what we think is our area of interest and expertise, we leap—we discover—we stretch our minds, and this is wonderful!
  2. I am virtually always blown away by the interviewees on Writers and Company. They are geniuses: talented writers with a great variety of life experiences. They express themselves with eloquence (and often with hypnotic, compelling voices, too), and they are in the hands of Eleanor Wachtel, a consummate interviewer who is always highly prepared for and engaged with her guests.

JimmyCorriganNow I’m off to read my first graphic novel: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware.



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My son in Japan Part 2: adapting to another culture

This post continues from my previous one. In that post, I described Abebe’s ten years (so far) in Japan. He completed university there and has achieved his dream of becoming a director of Japanese videogames.

My previous post expressed my feelings about being so far away from my son for such an extended period of time—and perhaps permanently.

This post brings my readers more of Abebe’s personality than my own. It gives insight about some of the many ways Japanese culture and the Japanese psyche are different from Canadian culture and attitudes. How has one Westerner adapted to Japanese culture—and been changed by it?


Paul and I visited Abebe in Seattle when he was there on business in 2016.

Abebe is now partially Japanese—and not just by marriage

 About a year ago, my father sent Abebe an article from the website Bored Panda titled “54 Photos That Prove Japan Is Not Like Any Other Country.” (You can look at this photo article by Šarūnė Bar here.)

Abebe sent back a long email with his responses to the photos. Many of his experiences and opinions surprised me. I’ve selected some of the topics covered by the photos. I’ve added Abebe’s comments about the relevant photos. Please follow the link above if you want to view the numbered photos I’m referring to.

The Japanese work ethic (photo #20, container of Black Black chewing gum)

Abebe’s comments about this gum give a glimpse into a typical salaryman’s schedule:

I have a long and complex history with this gum. It is a brand called Black Black Gum, and I have probably chewed close to 10,000 pieces of it. 

Black Black Gum is not like other gum. It is not designed to taste good. It is not even designed to be satisfying to chew. It exists for a single purpose: to prevent an exhausted human from sleeping.

About five years ago, while working on my first game, we went through a period of crunch that lasted for almost 6 months. During this time I was generally working 7 days a week and only sleeping around 5 hours a night.

I would always have a stack of Black Black at my desk and I would pop one every hour or so. After a while I realized that it left this weird coating on my teeth that felt awful.

Nowadays even seeing the package makes me feel like throwing up.

Suicide related to overwork (photo #12, train pushers)

The photo shows commuters rescuing a person who got stuck between the car of a train and the platform. Here is Abebe’s comment:

I’m sure this kind of thing has happened, but for the most part the thing I picture when I hear “train” and “push” are packed trains with people squeezing to get in.

Although they stopped employing people to help push, people still act as their own “pushers,” squeezing into trains already at 200% capacity. 

Sadly, getting stuck under a train is not the most common kind of accident. The VAST majority of train delays in big cities are caused by people throwing themselves onto the tracks on purpose.

When I was living in Tokyo for an internship I remember this happened multiple times per week. What was scary was that by the fourth time or so, you stop caring or thinking about the person, and just feel frustrated about the delay.

Japan has a high suicide rate (though it has been declining since 2010). Overwork can be a factor in many suicides. In fact, this kind of death has a specific name, karōshi.

Cleanliness in public, in the workplace, and at school (photo #3, fans cleaning up trash at a soccer stadium after a World Cup game; and photo #8, young children cleaning the hallways of their school)

Abebe’s comment on photo #3:

The thought of bringing trash somewhere and just leaving it the floor is unthinkable. 

When you use a facility you leave it as clean as it was when you got there. This should be common sense worldwide.

Abebe’s comment on photo #8:

This is true and I think it’s a great idea. Although the rules have now changed, when I first joined my company we were also required to get to work an hour early to clean the meeting rooms, empty the trash, etc.

When you clean a space you feel a specific kind of attachment and investment in it. Despite being a bit old-fashioned, I wish we had kept that particular rule.

This comment was a shock coming from my son, who as a teenager had a typical “disaster zone” bedroom!

Useful and beautiful Japanese design and technology (photos #14, #7, #16, #17, and others)

Many of the Bored Panda photos illustrate useful and beautiful aspects of Japanese design. For example, Japanese toilets have many ingenious features. Photo #14 shows a toilet with a button you press to play white noise/water sounds. Abebe wrote:

This is very important feature. When I was in America recently for a conference I felt extremely vulnerable in the bathroom. 

It doesn’t help that for some reason the stall walls don’t go all the way down to the floor, so you’re forced to look at a stranger’s shoes while you poop.

I forgot how stressful going to the washroom was outside of Japan.

Photo #7 shows examples of some manhole covers that are beautiful works of art. Abebe’s comment:

This is entirely true. Here in Osaka our covers have an image of Osaka castle.

Among many examples of smart design illustrated by the Bored Panda article are photo #16, showing how train seats can be rotated to face in any direction, and photo #17, showing “umbrella lockers.”

Why don’t we see more of Japanese technologies in Canada? Abebe’s opinion:

Japan has many well-designed little systems like this. It’s really a shame that they are not good at patenting and exporting them. 

They tell themselves that there would be no demand outside the “unique Japanese market,” when in actuality they are just ignorant about market needs outside Japan and unable to properly communicate the value of these designs coherently.

Lineups (photos #23 and #33)

Photo #23 shows people standing in perfectly neat lines waiting for a train. Photo #33 mentions that children start learning to line up in kindergarten.

Abebe had some thought-provoking comments about this:

I honestly stared at this photo [of the train lineups] for 15 seconds before realizing what was supposed to be remarkable about it. Yes, lining up is an essential skill in Japan.

The truth is even more impressive than this picture conveys. In big stations there will be coloured areas indicated on the ground that correspond to the various trains that pass through the station.

You line up in the area that corresponds to your train. When the train arrives, it will stop so that the doors line up with that area.

There is a dark side to this propensity for lining up. Japanese people expect lines so much that the lack of a line can be seen as a lack of popularity.

Some trendy shops in Umeda will purposefully bottle-neck their shop with a single cash register to artificially create a line, and thus the appearance of popularity.

These lineups remind me of a time I was teaching at a kindergarten during university.

One of the kids was misbehaving. When the teacher scolded him she said, “What you are doing is bad. Do you want to be different from everyone else?”

This seemingly innocuous comment really stuck with me. This kid was 4 years old, and already the idea that being different is inherently negative was being drilled into his little brain.

No theft (photos #11 and #52)

Photo #11 shows a young man asleep on a train. His suitcase is upright in front of him, with his wallet on top. Abebe’s comment:

While it does occasionally happen, for the most part things will not be stolen, even if left alone in a public place. I once lost my wallet in the supermarket and someone turned it into the police station with all the cash still intact.

Sometimes people take it a bit too far. In my company they send out a company-wide email every time a new item is added to the lost and found. One day we got an email asking if anyone had lost a 10 yen coin (that’s worth about 9 cents).

As a parent . . .

Abebe’s responses to the Bored Panda photos astonished me. I was amazed by how he’s changed, and how he’s been able to adapt to a completely new culture and language. He has retained his critical view of some aspects of Japanese life, but has embraced many Japanese innovations that promote convenience, clever and beautiful design, and consideration for others living in dense urban spaces.

He may never return to Canada to live.


Abebe and his girlfriend (now wife) Chihiro at Sasamat Lake during a visit in 2011






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My son in Japan Part 1: emotions



Paul, Abebe, and I with my brother Alan and friends in 1994.

The day my son Abebe left home in September 2009 marked the end of our unconventional family. Abebe was 18 years old and he was going to university in Japan, the first step towards achieving his dream of becoming a videogame director. Ever since he was a little kid, he had been an aficionado of Japanese games and manga (comics). Now, armed with only two years of high school Japanese, he would be immersed in a totally different culture and language, far away from home.

I admired his focus and his courage. He had saved money since he was nine years old, doing hilly paper routes and cooking fries at Pajos; he had excelled at school to earn some scholarship money; and Paul and I could help him out with an RESP.

Abebe’s Japanese improved rapidly because of two things: first, he was going to a special university where foreign students were heavily immersed in Japanese language and culture courses. Secondly, he started dating a Japanese girl named Chihiro. Soon he was meeting all of her family members, some of whom couldn’t speak any English. It was important for him to impress them. I guess he did, because contrary to what usually happens, they accepted a white Canadian as their daughter’s boyfriend—and future husband. Abebe and Chihiro were married in 2018.

While going to university full-time, Abebe taught young children English two or three days a week and also worked as a translator for newspapers. In addition, he wrote articles for gaming magazines and blogs, showing his profound understanding of gaming psychology and his passion for games.

Achieving the dream

Abebe did achieve his dream of becoming a videogame director. After graduation he got a job with a small company that produced high-quality games. (For privacy reasons, I won’t name the company here.) He had a lot of respect for their key players and was excited about working with them. Initially, he was a localizer (translator). This involved not only the literal translation of the text of a game, but also doing rewrites to make games culturally appropriate for foreign markets (for example, adapting humour and idiomatic language).

After a year or so, Abebe was promoted to a position as part of the design team working on a couple of games. Now, he has a lead role in the company as the director of a team developing a new game.



Abebe and George with our kitten Bunny in 1997.

I am proud of Abebe’s success but for both him and for me there is a price to be paid. I haven’t seen my son for almost three years. His work responsibilities mean he is living in a state of almost perpetual pressure, with deadlines always looming. Any long period of vacation time keeps getting postponed.

I didn’t even have a wedding to attend! Although Abebe and Chihiro hoped to have ceremonies in both Canada and Japan, their busy work schedules meant they settled for a simple civil service. If they have children, how often will I see my grandchildren?


Abebe with nunchuks ~ 2003.

I worry about Abebe’s work-dominated life, and I hope he will find a way to have a better work/life balance soon. He has completely given up the sports that he excelled in as a child and a teenager: gymnastics, Tae Kwon Do, cheerleading, and 400m hurdles. Occasionally he works out in the gym at his workplace, but the time crunch is always there.


Nine-year-old Abebe racing 400m. He had tons of talent, but ran only a little.

I talk to Abebe on Skype (though not very often!). It is wonderful to see him. Sometimes he’s depressed—hardly surprising considering the constant work demands and sleep deprivation. He and Chihiro scarcely have a normal social life. Yet he reassures me by telling me about books he’s reading. He has time to read every day during his train commutes, and he reads challenging books by authors from many different cultures and times. In that way, I hope, his perspective won’t be reduced to the all-encompassing artificial world of his current game.

My family of 18 years is gone


Paul and I with our Little Red Devil and our first cat, Cocoa, in 1993.

For over 18 years, my “nuclear” family consisted of me, Paul, my coach George, and Abebe. We usually had at least one other person living with us: sometimes SFU students, for a couple of years Paul’s daughter from a previous relationship, and for many years our running friend Dave Reed. Abebe’s best friend Jung Dae lived with us during the boys’ Grade 12 year. I got up early every morning to cook them oatmeal and drive them to school. Jung Dae sang in the shower downstairs—it was a good sound to wake up to!


Abebe and I on a typical school morning. He’s in his cheerleading uniform and I’m in my gym clothes.

The house seemed very empty after Jung Dae went home to Seoul in July 2009 and Abebe left for Japan a couple of months later. Paul and I were already estranged by that time. I didn’t leave Paul until March 2012, though, because George was dealing with a severely arthritic hip, and later, congestive heart failure. I was his caregiver. After George moved to a seniors’ residence in 2012, I moved out too. George passed away later that year.

I rarely see Paul or talk to him now, though we are on amicable terms. When I think about Paul I feel sad. Maybe I’m not grieving just the end of a marriage, but the loss of the two idealistic people we once were. I have a somewhat similar emotional reaction about Abebe. It is a feeling of being disoriented, perplexed. How could two people who for such a long time were the centre of my world now be almost entirely absent?

In the case of Paul, I know I made the right choice. I loved him passionately, but our relationship was over a long time ago, and I need to keep myself separated from him. He disappointed me deeply. He made me question what love is and think about its illusions. I understand something now that I didn’t know when I was younger: the way love proves itself over time.

As for Abebe, he will always be my son and I will always love him. Our former family is gone, but maybe Abebe will return to Canada, with Chihiro, and a new family will begin.


Abebe and Chihiro at Kew Park in Toronto in 2011

In Part 2 of this story about Abebe’s experiences in Japan, I will explore differences between Japanese and Canadian culture, and the ways in which Abebe has “become” Japanese.







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Teasing similarities out of Swann and Suzanne: the insomniac book reviewer

Swann: A Mystery by Carol Shields and Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

The two books I’ve just finished reading, Carol Shields’ 1987 novel Swann: A Mystery and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne (published in 2015 in French as La femme qui fuit), could scarcely be more different.


Barbeau-Lavalette’s book was a sensation and a bestseller in Quebec. However, it only caught English Canada’s attention when the translation by Rhonda Mullins became a finalist in the 2019 Canada Reads contest. Suzanne is Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s novelistic telling of her grandmother’s life. Suzanne Meloche was an artist and activist during the early stages of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Her husband (and the father of her two children), Marcel Barbeau, was also an artist. The couple was part of a rebellious artists’ group called Les Automatistes.

The author scarcely knew the grandmother who had abandoned her mother when she was a small child, a grandmother who continued to shun closeness with both daughter and granddaughter right to the end of her life. Barbeau-Lavalette needed to write this story as a novel because exploring Suzanne’s inner life and her decisions could only be done through a sympathetic imaginative process.

Suzanne has been praised for its beautiful writing. It is easy to read and has an entrancing quality. The text is presented in short fragments mixed with Suzanne’s poetry. The author has said that she used this style to mimic the way Suzanne was impossible to pin down. In life she was always fleeing; she never stayed in one place very long.

In my opinion, Suzanne deserved to be the first book voted off in the 2019 Canada Reads competition; it was not “the one book to move you” that would be appreciated and understood by all Canadians. It is very much a niche work of art. Ironically, though, its greater significance became more obvious to me after reading Swann.

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was one of Canada’s best-loved novelists and short story writers, and her books won everything from the Pulitzer Prize (she was American-born) and the Governor General’s Award. Though Swann is one of her lesser-known novels, I enjoyed reading every page of it. The book displays Shields’ ability to create rich in-depth characters, and her astute (and often heartwarming) understanding of marriage and other relationships.


In many of her books, Shields engages readers by experimenting boldly with structure, and Swann is a good example of this. The story is told from the point of view of four main characters, in four separate sections, and there is a final fifth section written as a film script. In this novel Shields develops a mystery story about an uneducated woman named Mary Swann who lives on a poor farm in Ontario. Somehow, this deprived woman has managed to write many extraordinary poems, which she delivers to a Kingston publisher, Fredric Cerutti. This sophisticated European man is astonished and delighted by the quality of Swann’s poetry. However, the very day after receiving the poems, he discovers that the reclusive poet was brutally murdered by her husband only hours after he saw her.

One night soon after I started reading Swann, I had one of my terrible nights of insomnia.

The insomniac wants nothing more than sleep, oblivion, the escape from the prison of their own mind. Yet as I lay there I remembered something I had just read in Swann. Sarah Maloney, a scholar studying Mary Swann’s poetry, muses (after a reference to meditation), “I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture” (p. 20).*

“Our thoughts are all we have . . .” I tried to be grateful for my relentless insomniac thoughts. And suddenly my mind started down a fruitful path. I was thinking about Suzanne Meloche and Mary Swann, two characters from such different books, and I suddenly realized what these characters shared. Skip the next section if you want to know the answer right away.


Insomnia is a life-long problem of mine. It’s a problem rooted in the fear of insomnia itself that started during my second year of university. I had a three-day period of difficult chemistry and biology exams and could not sleep during the entire time.

Insomnia is a problem unlike most others: it can’t be cured by willpower or hard work; it can even ferociously resist positive thinking when the dark wormy thoughts of the night try to induce panic.

It demands surrender and acceptance. It becomes an exercise in tricking the mind into thinking it doesn’t care whether it sleeps or not, no matter how exhausted both mind and body have become.

I’ve become expert at resisting that panic and remaining physically calm even though I feel the anti-sleep anxiety buzzing in my brain, forcing me to endure the hateful combination of extreme exhaustion coupled with extreme mental arousal . . . for hour after crawling hour.

I do try to counter the “dark wormy thoughts” with positive thoughts as best as I can. One technique is to remind myself of all the things in my life I am grateful for, huge things like my health, my continued enjoyment of running and cycling, and the people I am close to.

I often think about the comfort of my bed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have insomnia in a setting where physical interference actively prevented sleep.

I imagine being Mary Swann or Suzanne Meloche

In my wakefulness, I started thinking about what it would be like to have insomnia in the environments that the main characters in Suzanne and Swann endure. Both live in run-down buildings without indoor plumbing. Nights in Quebec and Ontario would be bitterly cold in winter and often sweltering in summer.

The novels portray women who have good reasons to be insomniacs. They are living in dire poverty, unable to even provide properly for their children. Mary Swann is trapped in a marriage with a violent, abusive, ignorant man.

I was suddenly struck by the ways these women are similar even though Suzanne is bright, articulate, and well-educated, and Mary is uneducated and virtually unknown even to her closest neighbours. The main thing is that both are artists living in times and circumstances that gave women few choices. In fact, it’s almost miraculous (especially in Mary’s case) that they can produce art at all.

Both “pay the price” for being artists. Both are trapped by poverty, biology (children being the almost inevitable result of marriage), and the subordinate role of women. Mary can’t escape and dies a violent death at age fifty.

Suzanne, in contrast, makes the bold and socially unacceptable choice to abandon her children and husband and live as an artist. But the consequences (for both Suzanne herself and for her children) are severe: Suzanne ends up isolated, lonely, and mentally ill; her son never recovers from the abuse he endured at the hands of his adoptive family and becomes a permanent resident at a mental institution; her daughter manages to become a successful filmmaker (Manon Barbeau) and has a daughter herself (Anaïs), but she never loses her feelings of being rejected.

All in all, Suzanne is a very sad story and it seems to me that Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette wrote it in an attempt to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s actions; how could Suzanne Meloche continue to reject her daughter and granddaughter’s presence in her life after the initial abandonment? At the heart of the mystery is the artistic impulse, and Barbeau-Lavalette tries to explain and justify the actions caused by complete devotion to the artistic calling. In this she is at least somewhat successful.

Perhaps Barbeau-Lavalette could have broadened her readers’ understanding by writing more about the context of Suzanne Meloche’s story. The Catholic Church was all-powerful in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. Almost all French-Canadian women were trapped by their religion’s prohibition of birth control; biology was destiny, and women often had twenty or more children, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and lack of higher education.

* Shields, Carol. Swann: A Mystery. Toronto: Stoddart. 1987.





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