Archive for the 'author' Category


A bird in the house

When you come across a bird that doesn’t fly away, what do you do?

Today I found the most beautiful bird on our front landing. It was a small, frail-looking creature with delicate, powder-blue feathers on its head and wing, yellow on the breast and streaked with black and white.  It was awake and standing but quite still, as if it were stunned from flying into the glass.

I knew I shouldn’t be picking up a bird and bringing it indoors, but I thought if I kept it safe from a marauding feline long enough for it to recover and fly away on its own, no harm done.

As I bent down to pick it up, a line from a book we read in 2nd-year Canadian Literature class came back to me: A bird in the house means a death in the house. I’m not superstitious, so the thought was only fleeting, and besides: that was something else.  The character in the Margaret Laurence story says an errant bird flying into an open window is a bad omen.  This isn’t the same thing.  I’m bringing it inside.  It’s my decision.

I cupped it gently and shouldered the door open, noticing how still the bird was.  It wasn’t even twitching.  I wondered what kind it was, too.  Later K. told me it was a Blaumeise in German.  So much more beautiful a name than blue tit, don’t you think?

Once upstairs and inside, I set it on the kitchen table and picked at a piece of bread to make some crumbs to lay before it.  Thinking it might be a good idea to close the sliding door to the kitchen just in case, I turned around to do so and in that very moment the bird for the first time came to life, fluttering around in circles and landing atop the shelving above the counter opposite the oven.

So I stood on a chair and climbed up onto the counter with some more breadcrumbs, but just as I reached up to lay them at its feet it flew away again, this time to a far top corner of the kitchen.  Because it was so high I could no longer see it, I went downstairs to fetch the stepladder, but when I returned, it was gone.

Or so I thought.  Because as I was setting up the ladder I thought I heard a rustling sound from behind the built-in cabinets just to the left of the fridge.  Damn.  Somehow the bird had flown into a space about a foot wide and three inches deep reaching all the way down to the floor – perhaps the worst place in the house for it to go.

While angling a flashlight and mirror in an awkward attempt to find it I thought: this is the death in the house.  That bird is going to die, trapped behind the shelving because there is no way to dismantle the built-in kitchen without tearing it apart.

I pulled away the flashing that runs along the bottom of the cabinets to try to find a way up behind the shelving from underneath, but the way was sealed shut.  More fluttering and rustling from behind the shelves.  Was it going to hurt itself?

Just as I was contemplating how long I should wait before hacking through the back of the shelving to free an escape route up he flew.  He perched for a minute before flying off and hitting the window – probably for the second time within an hour – and then fell to the floor.  I picked him up, opened the window and off he flew.

I won’t be bringing home any more birds anytime soon.

Flashback: hummingbird in hands


Blogging for nothing, but the kick’s for free

Nobody likes to do something for nothing at all for very long, so it’s no surprise that most blogs peter out and die after a while.

I started this blog exactly two years and nearly 250 posts ago on January 19, 2007. Back then I had vague ideas of writing posts as if they were the letters back to my family, something to replace the emails they’d for one reason or another stopped responding to over the years.

If you subscribe to this blog in a reader, by the way, that’s the sub-heading you’ll see. 🙂

Because I quickly realised how confining that would be, after about six weeks I dropped the letters and simply started writing about whatever I was doing, thinking about or had an urge to let loose on,  occasionally indulging my wildest fantasies of being chief editor of The Onion and posting a photo or two to gussy it all up a bit.

So given the format change I suppose I should follow all the how-to sites out there and re-do everything, give it a punchy name and graphics and monetise my blog, but that whole thing just seems too much like work.  I’d just rather concentrate on writing about what interests me and perhaps a few others out there.

The thought occurred to me only a couple of months ago, but in the process I hope to have built up something that one day mybritannia-beach-sea-to-sky-highway-howe-sound-lettershometoyou daughter will be able to read, so that she can learn about her old man in a way I never got to know mine.

Still, there are times when I ask myself why I keep doing this.

And, once in a while, the answer just lands like a bird on the balcony railing:

So Ian isn’t particularly hidden.  But if you’re a fan of satire, irony, beautiful photography, a world-view wide as the horizon and occasional posts as poignant and touching as could be found,  expat Ian in Hamburg’s  point of view may be exactly what you’re looking for.  His Desiderata for Bloggers, 20 Blogging Commandments and What If the Buddha Were Just Some Guy in His Mom’s Basement are as inspirational as a 2×4 to the head.  Read him.

That comes from Linda, a most under-rated blogger who in the past nine months has not only rebuilt her life in the wake of Hurricane Ike, she’s kept her blog going and is now starting to get her writing published in “the real world.”  Linda, it really touches me to know that my writing has been an influence on you, and I hope you keep at yours as far as you can take it.

In a comment a while back the author of Deutschland über Elvis needled me as usual: Now, 2009 is the year that both of us get published thanks to our heroic blogging efforts. What’s our plan?

Good question, HB8.  We’re already getting published, aren’t we?  Or did you mean for real?


Summer reading bogged down in the Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete)

Last summer I had every intention of reading a whole stack of books.  And if it hadn’t been for a thoroughly trashy book in German thrust upon me at a dinner party, I might have got through them all by the end of holidays.  “It’s so awful, I couldn’t finish it,” she told me with a laugh and a roll of the eyes.  “I want you to tell me what you think.”

wetlands-charlotte-roche-book-feuchtgebieteCalled Feuchtgebiete – literally moist regions, but due to be released in English next April as Wetlands –  it had Germany’s entire literary scene wetting its pants for about a month last Spring.  Written by Charlotte Roche, a young woman who is also a TV presenter, singer and actor, it is the most vile, disgusting piece of muck I’ve come across in ages.

Though I’d been warned of its content, I hadn’t expected to be actually sickened by what I was reading.  It reminded me a lot of the raw footage of suicide bombings I’m forced to watch at work but know damn well will never make it to air:  gaping trunk remnants, shredded limbs and heads blown away, spatters of flesh lumped in with shrapnel, soot and dust.  There’s always enough peripheral carnage to tell the story without including the goriest segments, so editors leave them out.

The barrage of cringe material begins almost on the first page with the narrator –  an 18-year-old woman  –  in the hospital for an operation to remove her hemorrhoids.  What?  An 18-year-old with hemorrhoids?  Well, yeah. You’re asked to suspend disbelief a lot as she describes her restorative surgery in great detail, along with the sexual habits,  gross neglect of personal hygiene and sloppy pubic hair shaving which led to her situation.

She’s in no hurry to get better, though, because the longer she stays in hospital, the better the chance that her divorced parents will manage to come and visit her at the same time, have some sort of miraculous reconciliation, and live happily ever after.  Terrified that she will be released from hospital long before her parents come to see her,  she deliberately re-opens the wound to prolong her stay… I won’t go into details, it’s just too sickening.

The author says that by talking so crudely about one woman’s neglect and abuse of her moist areas, she was out to make a statement about the squeaky-clean and perfumed view of personal hygiene that marketers have thrust on women, that if they aren’t slapping hundreds of products on and in their bodies, they’ll somehow stink.  A cri de coeur against the oppression of a waxed, shaved, douched and otherwise sanitized women’s world.

But do people really stoop to such self-inflicted pain in an attempt to manipulate others?  Yes, they do – and for me, that was why I hated this book.   Far beyond feeling sorry for the plight of this character and her family situation, or getting me to think about the larger theme of how wrong it is to make women feel they have to sanitize their bodies – or even alter them – in order to live up to some marketing manager’s feminine ideal, I got the feeling that I as a reader was being manipulated – abused, even – by the author herself.

It’s like there really was nothing to this story than the shock value of its content.  I suppose in a world where the dregs of and 24/7 orifice gratification are only a click away, a writer has to scream to be heard above it all, but by the time I was half-way through I was already contemplating tossing it aside.

The only thing that kept me going was the expectation to find a little insert from the author saying: sorry, I know none of this can be taken seriously and the character I’ve created is perhaps the most unlovable you’ve ever come across.  Nobody abuses her body to such an extent and expects to survive.  This was just my idea of a little fun – hoped you liked it LOL. 😉

If you’re curious, it’s going to go on sale in English on on April 9, 2009.    I’m willing to bet it’ll be ignored in the States until some right-wing talkshow dick gets ahold of it and demand it be banned on moral or religious grounds.  Always great for a sales boost.

Distraction over –  on to that stack of summer reading:

books-lettershometoyou-bryson-dawkins-carlin-hustvedt-dobson-oates-rosnayBill Bryson’s Shakespeare was a disappointment.  There was hardly a shred of information I hadn’t heard off-hand about the man and his life at some time over the years,  so it comes off as a compilation of disparate snippets nobody can confirm or deny thrown together to help fulfill some contractual obligation, or another work to further the Bryson brood’s university education fund.

Not only that, Bryson has completely reigned in his usual wit and humour, which is a such a waste.  You have to wonder whether a reviewer quoted on the cover as calling it funny had actually said, “there’s no way in the world anyone could come to the conclusion this is anywhere close to being funny.”  Read it if you have never heard of William Shakespeare or know little about him or his times, but don’t expect the usual Bryson laughs, or much new insight.   There isn’t any, but to be fair, perhaps that’s the point.

Bryson’s Mother Tongue and Notes from a Small Island along with George Carlin’s BrainDroppings and Napalm & Silly Putty I’d read ages before, and brought them along to whip through again.   Carlin’s are the sort of books you can pick up and start reading wherever your thumb happens to open the pages, perfect for five minutes of ah-hahs and giggles before nodding off or if you’re not in the mood to concentrate on anything longer than a trip to the john.  Bryson’s pair are thankfully more true to form: funny, informative, insightful, and worth reading more than once.

When I said I was going to read Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a reader commented that she hated that book and was interested in what I thought of it.  Well Az, you and I must have the same taste, because I agree with you.  Maybe I was weaned too much on the journalistic realism of George Orwell’s 1984, but I think if you’re setting out to write about a horrible world in the future in which people are born and bred to take care of those about to have their vital organs harvested until they themselves go under the knife, then at least describe it in harsher terms.   I kept waiting for the young couple to have some sort of blow-up or at least get it on, but the book reads a like David Hamilton nude, all fuzzy softness hinting at something earthier but never quite allowing itself to go that far.   The result is unsatisfying.

I liked Sarah’s Key very much.  Set in Paris under German occupation, it is based on an actual event the French have for decades wished would just go away, because it makes them look like accessories to murder.  A Jewish girl is rounded up with her family and kept penned in with thousands of others at a cycling track before the children are brutally separated from their parents, herded on trains and sent east to the gas chambers.  In an attempt to save her little brother and not knowing she would be gone for ages, when the French police come to round the family up she locks her brother in a secret hiding place in their apartment.  The story switches back and forth to the fate of the girl in wartime and the story of the family which took over the much-coveted apartment from the Jewish family forced to vacate it.

Planet Germany I recommended last time around as a funny book about life in this country without all the usual oom-pa-pa / Lederhosen stereotypes you find crammed into a lot of other books on Germans.  It’s since been listed on Amazon, so if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, it’s never been easier.  While you’re at it, visit the author’s blog.

The two books I never got around to reading are Missing Mom and The God Delusion, but I’ve been enjoying the luxury of time lately, so their time will come.


Some are reading

Summer reading. 

Why are summer holidays the best time to have a stack of books to read?  You’d think winter would be the season for it.  Rainy, cold, windy, dreary….  

No wait.  That’s Germany this summer.

Good thing I’m well-stocked for holidays starting in only three days.  Probably too much to attack in just under four weeks, but I’ll give it a shot.  Besides, some of them aren’t meant to be read from beginning to end.

The first one I’ll mention is Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American.  After falling in love a few weeks ago with Ms. Hustvedt after reading What I Loved, her latest was something of a post-honeymoon let-down.  I guess I came to expect a book with the same depth of insight into troubling psychological themes and instead found myself getting bogged down midst a dandelion salad of intertwining relationships spanning three generations, several families and storylines.  Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention enough.

A lot in that stack I’ve read before.  Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island I’ve been through twice already, but always find a laugh from him.  Shakespeare was bought on the strength of the author’s name – we’ll see how that turns out – and as for Mother Tongue: read it!  It’s full of a-hah! No shit? moments about the language you use every day and never really thought about before.

I’m probably the last person in the Western Hemisphere to read anything by Richard Dawkins, so it’s about time.  Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go I bought for the same reason as the Bryson: my wife and I love the film The Remains of the Day and so we’ve high hopes for this one.

George Carlin’s Braindroppings and Napalm and Silly Putty, mentioned back when the great man brayed his last, is for those spots inbetween when there’s just no time to get deep into a story.  Monologues, one-liners, quips, probes, thrusts, screeds, japes, taunts, insults, musings, harangues, verbal ordeals, jokes, notions, doubts, opinions, questions, thoughts, beliefs, assertions, assumptions, disturbing references, comedy, nonsense, satire, mockery, merriment, sarcasm, ridicule, silliness, bluster, toxic alienation, joy, anger, wonder, confusion, wisdom, hostility, innocence, impudence, reflection and semantic distortion*** suitable for about 10 minutes before the book falls to the floor with a soft plop to begin a mid-afternoon sacking out in a cot somewhere, or maybe just a trip to the john.

Sarah’s Key and Missing Mom are a nod to my wife’s taste, but despite their obvious girly exterior, I always trust her judgment.  Did I ever mention that I think she’s the wisest woman I’ve ever known?

And last but not least: a recommendation to read Planet Germany by Cathy Dobson, a well-written and funny account of a year in the life of a British expat family’s attempt to fit in once and for all with their German neighbours and surroundings.   I liked it because it was both personal and refreshingly free of most of the worn-out stereotypes you hear all too often about Germans and their country.  Self-published doesn’t get much better.  You can order it by Amazon like all the books here, or just get ahold of her via her blog.  Tell her I sent you.

***Full disclosure: shamelessly copied from both covers.


Whatever happened to that floaty feeling?

You know you’re reading a great book when all of a sudden you’ll want to reach out through the pages to the author and say: YES! I know what you mean! That’s happened to me!

The passage I was reading is from What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt and it deals with a father talking to his 11-year-old son before he goes to bed. They’ve just been to a baseball game.

“You know Dad, I’m always thinking about how many people there are in the world. I was thinking about it between innings at the game, and I got this funny feeling, you know, how everybody is thinking thoughts at the same time, billions of thoughts.

“…And then I got this weird idea about how all those different people see what they see just a little different from everybody else.”

“You mean that every person has a different way of seeing the world?”

“No, Dad, I mean really and truly. I mean that because we were sitting where we were sitting tonight, we saw a game that was a little different from those guys with the beer next to us. It was the same game, but I could’ve noticed something those guys didn’t. And then I thought, if I was sitting over there, I’d see something else. And not just the game. I mean they saw me and I saw them, but I didn’t see myself and they didn’t see themselves. Do you get what I mean?”

“I know just what you mean. I’ve thought about it a lot, Matt. The place where I am is missing from my view. It’s like that for everybody. We don’t see ourselves in the picture, do we? It’s kind of a hole.”

“And then when I put that together with people thinking their zillions of thoughts – right now they’re out there thinking and thinking – I get this floaty feeling.”

This floaty feeling.

Yes! I gripped both sides of the book and shook it, as if doing so would somehow get the message across to the writer that I used to get that too.

Sometimes at night after lights were out, sometimes all alone in the forest, I could almost will it to happen. I didn’t even have to have my eyes closed. All I had to do was think of the world and everything that’s in it, every detail and that again on the moon, and the planets, and our galaxy and the clusters of galaxies beyond, and the outer reaches of the universe and all the dust motes in the infinity of space, and ask myself this: what if, instead of all this, there were nothing? What if right now, there were abolutely nothing? What if there were absolutely nothing at all, what if there never had been anything at all, and could there ever be nothing at all, and what if by defining this nothing as something, there were actually something anyway?

And while thinking this, I’d get this floaty feeling as if my body were drifting along in a current I couldn’t control. Sometimes it was accompanied by sounds, like rushing water or wind, other times it was like a piece of music, a string passage perhaps. Exactly what, I can’t recall, I just remember having the feeling.

I told some people about it over the years, but very few said they knew what I meant or had experienced it themselves.

Many years later, a girlfriend – a new-agey type who believed in chakras and energy fields and mysticism – said I was astral travelling, and that I was having an out-of-body experience.

Then again, she also spun tales of being on a mafia hit-list because she’d given the RCMP information that led to their busting a long-running heroin-smuggling operation out of Bangkok into Canada in the late 1980s and that’s why she had to leave Vancouver and go live in Montreal… Yeah right…

I hadn’t thought about it for ages before coming across that passage this morning, because by the time I was 13, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d try to will it, I’d try to make that feeling come back, but it’s gone.

What was it? What killed it in me, and could I ever get it back again?

© 2008 lettershometoyou

PS: Taking that book to Paris. See you in 10 days or so.


Learning English the Calvin and Hobbes way

I never get any peace and quiet anymore between the time the little red-haired girl goes to bed and her falling asleep, but I don’t mind at all.

“Daaa-deee,” she’ll call from her bedroom five minutes after bedding down. “What does philanthropic mean?”

So I get up out of my chair and go in to tell her.

“Well, philanthropic is being nice to other people, but in a way that benefits everybody. Like you donate a lot of money to support a hospital for sick children, or for buying space for young artists to work in. That’s being philanthropic. It has two root words in one – philo– meaning love of, and anthropos– meaning human being.








Co-dependent dysfunctionality

I’ve always spoken English with her, but she’s only 11, been taking English in her German high school for all of eight months, and I’ve never used such vocabulary in my conversations with her, so where does it come from?

Calvin and Hobbes. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, 1400 pages spread over three volumes in a boxed set covering 10 years’ worth of colour and black-and-white comics.

She’d already dog-eared the two Calvin compilations I’d given her, books from my younger days when I too was a fan of the little guy with the big ideas and his imaginary tiger. She bought another one herself a few months ago, but after also reading through that one several times  over, went on a hunt for more. After discovering the three-volume set up for auction on eBay, she snapped it up, using her own allowance and birthday money.

I know she’ll probably not retain half of the new words she comes across this way, but that’s not important right now.   Expat parents are always trying to make sure their native language gets passed on to their kids in the face of the constant bombardment of the majority language and culture they swim in.

If she’s found something in English she not only loves to read but can’t seem to get enough of, my job is that much easier.

© 2008 lettershometoyou


Metaphorically speaking, memes are like, whatever

I have been a meme avoider the past few weeks, but can wriggle out no longer.

I know I’m not alone, because based on what I’ve been reading lately, a lot of people hate memes. Hate writing them. Hate receiving them. Hate reading them. One blogger has gone so far as to declare his site a meme-free zone. In his sidebar, he writes:

Many thanks to those of you thoughtful enough to tag Deutschland über Elvis with a meme. Owing to the large number of such requests, the tedium of the subject matter (usually personal details I am loathe to disclose) and the lack of sufficient online friends to forward, this blog will no longer respond to memes. Thank you for your understanding. Now fuck off.

But before the ever-so-diplomatic Mr. Headbang8, Esq. undertook such drastic measures, he did tag me with a meme. And since I understand the well-intentioned thoughts behind recognising the efforts of fellow bloggers, and in the spirit of camaraderie, I am now going to do an all-in-one cluster-fuck meme.

The first one is for headbang and Renal Failure, who both gave me the E for Excellence writing award.


Headbang has ordained that I come up with three of my own examples based on that most likely bogus viral list of boneheaded high school essay similes and metaphors.

Here goes.

She had such a bad cold, her nose was running like water from a tap that needs fixing but nobody ever bothers to get around to it, because plumbers are expensive, you know.

Her eyes were twinkling like Liberace’s diamond-encrusted jacket used to, except that Liberace was a man, and a total poof as well, so I doubt if that counts, considering that when her eyes were doing all that sparkling, she was looking into the eyes of her man-hunk of a lover, who did have his effeminate side, but he wasn’t a poof, at least not that anyone knew at the time, though you never know for sure.

He struggled to find the right words to say, kind of like when you are uselessly flipping through the pages looking up a word in the dictionary because you already know the meaning but not the word you want, so you don’t know where to look.

I would love to stop here, but the memes and awards have been piling up and it really is time to clear the desk.

Expatraveler and Mr. Peace have nominated me for a writing award. A Lion’s Roar writing award for powerful words. An award named for the cry of an animal who sleeps all day, wakes up in the late afternoon, spends most of the evening prowling around preying on the youngest and oldest among the weak and defenceless, eating all he can before leaving the shredded scraps to the hyenas.

lions-roar.jpgOy vey! This is something to be proud of?

My good people, as much as I appreciate your recognition, can we call it the Hyena Award instead? I feel more comfortable as a hyena. The strongest jaws in nature, to match my mouth and the trouble it’s gotten me into. Happy to be who I am, if not king of beasts. Often heard laughing, mostly at myself.


There, that’s better

Photo credit: our 2006 trip to South Africa

Az over at Casa az in Sevilla has given me a Champion Blogazine Editor award, which Archie started. To quote Archie, the award honours…

Those who create an online magazine full of interesting and differing articles. Some original work and some work found elsewhere and given a personal spin. Bloggers who give us, not just the minutia of their day but add other content to amuse and educate us. Who trawl the world of cyberspace to bring us the best available news and information.


I appreciate this one very much, az. Here I was worried that all I do is throw against the wall whatever crosses my mind or field of view, and hope some of it will stick. The experts say that’s a no-no. Apparently, the rule is, you have to have a theme. Like, a blog about Stuff White People Like.

Believe it or not, another blogger gave me that Lion’s Roar award too, but I can’t find the link to it anymore. Was I de-awarded? Did the link die? If you’ve given me an award, tagged me with a meme, thought you liked this blog and told me so, and I failed to acknowledge it, I humbly beg your forgiveness. I may do it again, however. In true Canadian fashion: sorry.

© 2008 lettershometoyou

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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