(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, September, 2012. There is no separate February issue of Montage so I am resurrecting this summer article as a reprieve from the serious weather this winter.)

I am a writer of poems, fables, and experimental fiction, and a visual artist working in photography and watermedia. I’ve always been more comfortable with this kind mental absorption than with information, opinions, or entertainment.

Creating, for me, is a time of intense concentration and minute attention to detail. When not involved in an art or writing project I approach other aspects of my life with the same fierce involvement, whether or not it is warranted.

This happened last June when I was preparing for a trip to Manitoba for a family wedding. (Toronto has been home for more than 40 years, but Winnipeg, where I grew up, is hallowed ground.) The plan was to visit my sister in Brandon for a few days and then drive back to Winnipeg together for the wedding.

I travel infrequently, so I had to think the plans through carefully. My first task was packing the wedding gift, a piece of art which the bride and groom had chosen from my website. The challenge was to fit the 22 by 30-inch painting, into a 28 by 18 by 10-inch suitcase with a zipper that opened only 2/3 of the way.*

That solved, I approached the rest of my trip preparations similarly. I found out that 10-digit phone dialing had not yet come to Manitoba, and checked the spelling of “dialing” in both British and American dictionaries. On a card for my wallet I listed contact information for everyone I wanted to get in touch with and made up a separate code for each secret item. I included several packs of little adhesive flags from a stationery store to use as bookmarks, so that I could choose the right colour to harmonize with the cover of whatever book I would be reading. I remembered to empty the shavings from the pencil-sharpener I carry at all times for doing word puzzles.

At Pearson Airport, when it was too late to pack further, I discovered my omissions. I’d forgotten the little pliers I use to change the time on my watch. And I’d forgotten to pack a comb.**

Arriving in Winnipeg, I caught the shuttle van to Brandon. Riding through the familiar prairie induced my mind to wander. I found myself mentally writing my yet-unbought postcards: Yes, the prairie really is really this flat and expansive. Or, as the driver expressed it, You can watch your dog running away for three days. And then, as we approached the hills***, it came to me that I’d been collecting these bits for an article for Montage. I jotted down notes on the back of travel-related documents – I hadn’t thought to pack writing paper.

For the rest of the trip, the balance of having a creative project in process enabled me to withstand some shocks: The little cousins whose party decorations I used to make are now grey haired. And, back at Pearson, the multicoloured plastic luggage tag I’d had for decades got mangled in the baggage carousel.

At home the project continued. Here – three weeks later, in its eighth draft, with a pretentious, literary-sounding title – is the article. At this point I’m not sure which of the items I actually remembered to pack and which I’d forgotten, but all’s fair in the arts.

Footnotes:

*The painting was on a sheet of 120-pound watercolour paper, tough and flexible, which I wrapped in paper and an art-store plastic bag that fit. With the suitcase upright I curled the painting loosely into it, forming an open-sided tube into which all my clothes and other necessities could be tucked.

**It is very difficult to find just one small comb to buy. The search could have become a major focus of my trip, but I settled for a package of two uninteresting identical black ones.

*** Many people don’t realize there are rolling hills and even ski resorts in the Prairie Provinces. In Toronto I once used this as a trivia question: In what province is the Riding Mountain National Park?  Manitoba, of course.  No one got the answer, and someone went so far as to question my credibility.

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(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, January-February 2013)

I’m not sure how to handle the puzzling feedback I received from my article in the December issue, so I’ll play it safe this time and start with weather.

Leading up? down? to January

I’m writing this in November, 2012. In spite of the unseasonably pleasant weather this year, I usually find November a depressing month, with less and less daylight and the threat of snow or ice any day. One fall I did a series of watercolour paintings, all called “November,” in which I used a great deal of warm yellow, Winsor & Newton New Gamboge, to be precise. The idea was feel the effects of sunshine whether or not nature complied.

December goes fast, with its many distractions. At mid-month, though, I start to get nervous and count the days to the solstice. I think I am subject to the ancient fear that the sun will forget to turn around. So by the time the holidays arrive the sun is a few days into its journey back and there really is cause for celebration.

Ah, January! The clean, optimistic feeling of a New Year, even though this one is Number Thirteen. By January we are accustomed to winter weather. Teachers used to look forward to this term, when they could do the most productive work with their classes.

For many years in the Toronto area I taught English as a Second Language. This was before we changed to Celsius. I used to boast to my students: winters in Winnipeg, where I grew up, are so cold that it is often Forty Below, Fahrenheit. The engineers in the class would get out their slide rules to find the equivalent in Celsius, with which they were more familiar. Their results would puzzle them and they would try once or twice more. Then they would notice I was chuckling: the two scales meet at Forty Below/Minus Forty. It doesn’t hurt for a language teacher to impress people in other fields

Clothes

When I was a child on the prairie we wore heavy wool parkas with hoods. Inside the hoods we wore knitted hats with ear flaps that tied under the chin. Adults often wore fur hats with ear flaps and a folded-up strip across the back that could extend down to protect the back of the neck. But if you were a woman going out on dates in the early 1960s you had a hair-do. In order to protect your hair-do you didn’t wear a hat at all, but risked frostbitten ears.

In those days women dressed up even to go shopping. No slacks. On a date we wore nylons and high heels. Nylons (i.e.stockings, before the days of pantyhose), with their surface tension, actually afforded some protection from the cold and wind. But above the stockings, between the stockings and the girdle (yes, that was de rigeur), there was bare skin. After the theatre my boyfriend and I would walk very fast between the theatre and the car. Inside the car is was cold enough that our breath was visible. This was before the days of bucket seats: we would use the time well while the engine to warmed up so that the car could be driven home.

February

I remember the policemen in Winnipeg wearing coats made of buffalo hide, which were not replaced with synthetic material until the 1970s. My neighbour was once a cop on the beat in Winnipeg. He says that the worst time was late January and early February because of the cold.

Some people consider February the worst month, but not me. By then I am used to the inconvenience of winter clothes. There might be fresh snow on the ground, but the increasing length and quality of daylight make me positively optimistic and lyrical. A good spirit in which to greet Valentine’s Day—flirtatiousness inspired by light.

Back to the puzzling feedback I mentioned from the previous article. What feedback, you may wonder?  The publishing schedule for Montage and many regular publications means that an article for one issue has to be submitted around the time the previous one is published. Not much opportunity for feedback. Consider this literary flirting.

(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, December 2012)

 
My recent articles for Montage have morphed into a regular column. Based on the content so far I’m calling it Adventures, Opinions, and Imaginative Forays.

Distinctions

I tend to have opinions about small things. For example, the comma after “opinions” in the name of the column. This usage, a comma before the “and” that precedes the last item in a list, is now considered passé. Newspapers no longer use it, nor do literary books. However, there is a nice (in the old sense of “subtle”) distinction of meaning which I hate to see disappear. A comma before the “and” signals the implied unarticulated pause which we feel before the last item on a list. Read the title aloud and you’ll see what I mean.

My clinging to this practice may seem old-fashioned. Some readers may discredit what I write because I’ve included a comma there. So be it. I admit that if I came upon such a title without the second comma, I’d be wary before continuing to read, even though I know the piece had gone through an editorial process. (I know it’s called a serial comma. I don’t use that term because when said aloud it becomes a food cue.)

Applied Mathematics

Speaking of food, here is why I think numbers are unfair.  It’s likely that someone reading this is approaching their 64th birthday. I single out “64” because it is a milestone, a Year of the Square Cake, the opportunity to place 8 candles in 8 rows, evenly spaced. A Year of the Square Cake also occurs at one’s 4th birthday, one’s 9th 16th, 25th, etc. The opportunities for a Square Cake become less frequent as we age. That’s what’s unfair, the older we get, the longer we  have to wait for them.

I suspect this instance of disillusionment with applied mathematics occurs more in theory than in practice. Except for myself, I don’t really know of anyone who would make or have a specifically square cake for this purpose. Mostly the candles are just clumped together or else randomly distributed among the icing flowers of a bought cake. Particularly past age 36, the number of candles in a box, the total number of candles on a cake tends less and less to correspond to the actual age of the birthday person.

New Members

Aside from cake-bakers, what kind of new Mensa members do we want? Young ones, of course, for vitality. However, we also need old members, both long-term and ageing, so that we can speak to each other about our ailments. When I greet other women, after “Hello” and “How are you” we often comment on each other’s clothes or jewellery. Aches and pains are a logical progression from that, as a kind of naturally extended greeting, a personal acknowledgement. Then we talk about other things.

Ailments can be useful.  It is because of arthritis that I am sitting at the computer right now entertaining at a distance rather than gallivanting.

Hats

When we go gallivanting we want to look our best. And so, my opinion on how to look good in a hat. This applies to everyone. When wearing a fedora-type hat or any hat with an all-around brim, set it on your head so that the brim is really horizontal. That means parallel to the ground if you have good posture; otherwise, parallel to your eyes and the bottom surface of your nose. This way the hat offers maximum protection from sun and cold. And it makes you look—choose your adjective—debonair, Vogue-ish, mysterious, alluring, rakish.

There’s my word allotment, and so to bed. But first I’ll try on my hats again in front of the mirror.