Our Family Adventure in Japan

 I apologize to my readers for my prolonged absence. I’ve spent most of the fall and winter of 2013 neck deep in a fiction project. Because it’s the school holidays, I’m taking a moment to pause for breath. (Apart from reading Harry Potter with my seven-year old, doing crafts with my four-year-old, and cleaning my half of our home office, I’m taking a break from almost everything). I also made a pledge to myself to return to my blog, and here I am.

Also, an update on the aforementioned, upcoming comic strip. In the fall, my collaborator and illustrator became pregnant. Due to a difficult first term, she was unable to work. She’s feeling better, and we’re back at work! More to follow in the coming months….

Last fall, we flew the whole family to Japan. My youngest being four and a half, my oldest seven and a half, we thought it not a bad time to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country, one with a thirteen hour time zone difference. And while the experience was challenging (my son ate only rice for three weeks), it yielded numerous rewards.

For one, being in a completely foreign culture strengthens family bonds. For another, we had the reward of experiencing a country we’d wanted to go to for a long time, one rich in nature and culture.

I spent a relatively short time there, so I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on Japan—I’m not. But two things struck me: one, that Japan is parent and child friendly. I also noticed how rooted Karate-Do etiquette is in Japanese society.

Japan appears to be structured around family. Given the relatively low birth rate, I find this curious. Nevertheless, many things seemed to be made with the needs of the family in mind. The bathing culture in particular is family friendly. (Can I rave for a minute about how much I love Japanese baths. For one, I love lounging in water. I also appreciate that young girls witness women’s nude bodies in all their varieties, a healthy counter measure to media images of unrealistic women’s bodies.)

One village bath, in Yakushima (a small island south east of mainland Japan), had a wooden crib in its change room. I watched a young mother leave her baby in the crib while she went to bathe herself and her two other children. Old women gathered around the crib. The baby, who must have been three or four months old, squinted up at them, gurgling as the women cooed and fussed. In my own lonely months as a mother of young children, I would have given everything I owned for that kind of communal support. I found it hard enough to get away for a shower!

The degree to which the Japanese have solved those little everyday problems we encounter in modernized society astounds me. They seem particularly attentive to parental needs.

In many public washrooms in Tokyo and Kyoto, small, hanging booster seats are found not only in cubicles, but also beside the communal sinks. Mothers can seat the toddlers in the boosters while they themselves use the washroom or wash their hands.

Only a parent can fully understand the benefit of these hanging seats. No longer will you have to teeter off the toilet to try to grab a toddler attempting to crawl under the cubicle door, while you simultaneously try not to pee on your feet. No longer will you have to leave the sink prematurely in order to pursue a child, your hands dripping a trail across the floor, under others’ disapproving stares.

Visiting Japan, I understood for the first time where Karate-Do etiquette comes from. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful. We don’t speak a word of Japanese, but Japanese people were willing to work on understanding us.

And people bow, of course. Not only that, though. They are extremely attentive. When you speak to someone, they are fully present. Their bodies are still. They listen. Then they do everything possible to meet your needs. Everyone we met seemed to practice loving kindness, a practice undoubtedly rooted in Zen Buddhism.

I’ve often been told that Japan has a very low crime rate. I have an uncle who works in the police force in Paris. He informs me that Japanese tourists in Paris are often victims of crime, simply because, coming from a somewhat crime-free society, they’re unusually trusting.

On the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto, my husband forgot his wallet beside a subway ticket machine. Our train tickets, credit cards, and the cash we had just retrieved in preparation for our travel day (many places in Japan run on cash only) were in that wallet. Leaving us at the train station, he went back to our point of departure in the hopes that someone had retrieved the wallet. I sat the kids down on their mini suitcases at the side of an underground corridor, where thousands of commuters tripped briskly back and forth between subway and train lines. For the next two hours, we read books and, to the kids’ delight, ate vending machine chips and chocolate.

Two hours later, he was back.

He told me the story. The wallet had not been at the ticket machine, and, desperate, my husband approached the ticket collector. By dint of gestures and the Google Translate feature on his phone, he communicated his predicament. The collector pointed him in the direction of what turned out to be the Lost and Found room. There, my husband found his wallet. Train tickets, credit cards, and several bills were there, all untouched.




Surviving Criticism


For a certain kind of arty girl, reading Plath was like reading the French existentialists. She let us see that the way we felt—that ache of being alive—was something that other people felt, too.

Meg Wolitzer “My Mademoiselle Summer” (New York Times, Sunday July 21, 2013)

Several weeks back, people noticed something wrong with my technique. When I moved, the upper and lower parts of my body didn’t work together. My punches were driven by my shoulders rather than coming from my core. My techniques were top heavy when they should have emerged from the floor up. They were right. I was ungrounded: my blocks and strikes were weak.

I worked on correcting this problem. I did katas in slow motion. I practiced in front of a mirror. I started each class with a mantra. “Ground yourself, ground yourself, ground yourself,” I whispered.

No-one noticed.

“I’ve spoken about this before,” an instructor said. “You need to work on this.”

“You don’t say,” I thought.

Sometimes, when an instructor gives an instruction, other students raise their hands to give additional feedback. If we’re working on upper blocks, for example, someone will say, “Don’t forget to move your hand diagonally across your chest.” Or, “Remember to breathe.” On occasion, after a student does an excellent kata demonstration, someone will make a comment that focuses on what the student has done wrong.

I’m glad that people care about the quality of technique in our dojo. Rigor is good. In a self-defense situation, my ability to defend myself depends on the precision of my blocks and strikes. Also, karate is an art, and I strive for perfection in all the art forms I practice.

But critique can be hard to take. I started leaving classes feeling discouraged. I considered taking a break from the dojo. Most of all, I wasn’t having fun anymore.

Around the same time, something happened outside the dojo that made me reflect further on the subject of criticism. I was walking my kids to school. My daughter (age seven) had broken her ankle and was hobbling along (at a brisk pace, trying to pretend she was just fine, thank-you) in a walking cast. My son (age four) zipped ahead of me on a scooter.

On the parent monitoring scale, I’m probably smack in the middle of the “helicopter parenting” and the “laissez-faire” poles. On my book shelf, Anthony Wolf’s The Secret of Parenting sits beside Tom Hodgkinson’s (yes, the editor of The Idler) The Idle Parent. On the walk to school, while I let my kids go ahead of me, I also watched them, particularly my son, who has a tendency to forget that I’ve asked him to: “make sure you can see Mama at all times.”

Suddenly, a man in his late twenties who was walking in the opposite direction did a little sidestep and circled around so that he could start walking beside me. I flicked my eyes at him, all the while trying to see my children, who were weaving in and out Bloor Street’s morning commuters.

“You should keep an eye on your children,” he said.


“Your children.”

“Right,” I said. By now, my son was at the intersection of Bloor and Spadina. He had stopped a few meters before the street, as I had instructed him to do, and was looking back at me. “I am, thanks.” I hurried forward.

“You don’t want your daughter to break her other leg.”

“Actually,” I said. “She broke it on the playground.” I was distracted, trying to keep an eye on both kids. My daughter was now approaching her brother. Soon, the light would turn green.

“Oh,” he said, still walking beside me. “I can’t blame you for that, then.”

I turned to him. “No,” I said. “You can’t.”

He looked at my face, changed his mind about what he was going to say next, did an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction.

One way to deal with a critic is to confront him, head-on. If you think someone’s wrong, tell them so, as I started to do in the above instance, before the helpful stranger decided that he’d rather not deal with a karate-ka in a bad mood.

As for criticism in the dojo, if you disagree with someone respectfully, things should go well. Either they’ll politely disagree with you or they’ll apologize for being over-zealous in their teaching. (When it comes to dealing with a Sensei, however, you should use your discretion. Never criticize a Sensei in front of others. If you strongly disagree with him, you may want to approach him privately, and always with careful respect. My experience is that in the case of disagreeing with a Sensei, you should first address the matter with other, more senior students.)

In my case, I knew that the criticism was fair. I needed a means of improving my technique while preserving my love of karate. In other words, in my karate practice, I want to keep making room for joy.

I was once in a meditation workshop with Zen teacher and poet Peter Levitt. One of his students, a middle-aged woman, complained about her struggle to run her own business. She was sitting on a mat, her neck curved foreword, her brown hair hanging in separate strands around her shoulders. “I’m working so hard,” she said.

Peter gazed at her. “Try to work soft,” he said.

These days, I’m pursuing the soft core of my karate practice. I practice basic katas. I’ve slowed everything down and use my breath, not only to guide each technique, but to revel in it. Sometimes, I take a break from the dojo. I do other things: I hike, swim, run, play piano. Each time, I return to class refreshed, eager to meet again what attracted me to the art in the first place, and to find new ways to practice.

As for class atmosphere, my co-instructor and I have decided to focus on giving positive feedback to students. After all, educational research shows that positive feedback is more effective than negative critique at motivating students. We want to demand rigor from our students, yes, but we also want to enable them to experience the joy of practice. We want our students to have fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined instructors and students at a local pub to mark a colleague’s retirement from the dojo. People ate and chatted. Their stories often surprised me, revealing aspects of their personalities that the dojo’s conventions, which required a certain impersonal interaction, usually hid. These are nice people, I thought. They aren’t criticizing me to be mean, but to be helpful. By the end of the evening, I felt tenderness for everyone: for myself and my imperfect technique, and for my colleagues and their well-meaning criticism.

Clearly, I thought, if one is feeling bogged down by criticism, if previous strategies have failed to stem the flow of self-pity, one should break bread with one’s colleagues.

 I’ve been working on something new. Coming soon:


KARATE GIRL (A serial comic strip, in collaboration with talented illustrator Hannah Wachs)









A few weeks back, I received a compliment. I was in karate class, practicing Sanchin kata. The scene went like this:

Fellow colleague and instructor: “Ma’am: beautiful, flowing arm movements on the take-off.”

Me, flushed with pleasure: “Thank-you, sir.”

My energy picked up. I went home feeling newly committed to karate. This was in contrast to the previous weeks, during which I’d been experiencing a sense of lethargy during practice. For months, I’d been receiving mounds of (well-intentioned) criticism, and this had taken a toll in the form of my diminished drive vis-a-vis karate.

I’m not the strongest karate-ka in my school. Far from it. I have much to learn. When I tried to improve my rolls two years ago, I ended up injuring my neck and going through months of physical therapy. And my spinning wheel kicks make me look like a Weeble. You know: those egg-shaped toys that, as the Hasbro commercial says, “wobble but don’t fall down”? My average skills are probably one of the reasons why I have a complicated relationship with karate.

Although it’s not obvious to most people, I’m extremely competitive. I like to be the best at, well, everything. This has obvious drawbacks. For one, I sometimes experience an ugly hatred for those who are better at karate than me. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. It’s more like powerful resentment. Toward, for example, karate-ka who have some sort of immunity to attacks of nerves, which I experience every time I demonstrate a kata. Those are the ones who go up in front of a tournament audience so that they can show off their moves. Who are these people, I think, upon encountering this bizarre phenomenon. And why can’t they just go away? (Okay, I only think this in my very darkest moments).

In his book, Drive, social scientist Daniel Pink argues that intrinsic motivation keeps us interested in a pursuit longer than extrinsic (reward-based) motivation. Intrinsic drive also purportedly produces the strongest results. That makes certain sense to me. I’m certainly not doing karate because of my enormous talent for it: I don’t garner many compliments these days. I practice karate because I love it. This passion keeps me going back to class, week by week. As to whether my passion has improved my technique, well, I’m reserving judgement in this regard.

This morning, I came across some notes I took of a conversation I had with my son when he was three years old. I wanted him to go with a babysitter and was trying to disengage him from my leg, to which he clung, a koala to a bamboo tree.

“You will go to the park with J—,” I said to him. “We’re going to say goodbye.”

He looked up at me, serious. “Ya,” he said. “And Mama will go to karate and Abba will go to work.”

Yes, indeed. And Mama will keep on going to karate.


Risk, Part II: Deep Sea Diving


In December, I told my husband that I needed more adventure in my life.

“Fine,” he said. “You’re going to get your deep sea diving certification.”

“Oh,” I said. “I was thinking of something a little different? Like high-risk reading?”

For the next few weeks, my husband worked on persuading me to learn to dive. Our nightly conversations went like this:

“I’m afraid of deep water,” I told him. “I picture sea creatures nabbing my toes.”

“Do your mantra,” he said. “Like you do for your karate tournament.”

“What if the equipment malfunctions?”

“That’s why you do the course. To anticipate problems,” he said.

Each day, when I sat down at the computer, I struggled not to google “diving accidents.” Each evening, my husband tried to convince me that diving was a fantastic idea. “It’ll be great,” he said. “You’ll overcome a fear. Isn’t that what you want?”


I started preparing for a diving trip. If you’ve taken a deep sea diving course, you’ll know that it has two components: a written examination and a practicum. To save precious vacation time, I took the course online, at home. The course would take me approximately thirty hours to complete, including reading, studying, and writing the exam.

The questions covered various aspects of diving: equipment, underwater environment, and safe diving practices.  Studying for the exam, I faced two obstacles. One, I hadn’t taken an exam since my doctoral comprehensive exams ten years before (which I passed, but only after experiencing a near panic attack the night before). Two, I don’t have an aptitude for math, and the exam included mathematical calculations.

Here is one example of a question, designed to prevent a diver from being afflicted by decompression sickness, more commonly known as “the Bends”:

Imagine you are an Advanced Open Water Diver. You plan to do three dives. The first dive is a 25 metre/80 foot dive for 20 minutes followed by a [Metric: 45] [Imperial: 42] minute surface interval. The second dive is to 16 metres/50 feet for 37 minutes followed by a surface interval of [Metric: 62 minutes] [Imperial: 1 hour]. Your third dive is to 16 metres/50 feet. What would be your maximum allowable bottom time for this third dive?

Did I mention that my math skills are not optimal? Looking at questions like these, I thought: even if I pass the test, how will I know if, under pressure during an actual situation, I’m performing the calculations accurately? One mistake could cost me my life.

I said to my husband: “I’m going to die underwater.”

He said, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I went through the material diligently, sometimes going over practice tests several times before going on to the real thing. I passed the exam.

A few days later, my husband and I were on a rattling, twelve-seater plane en route from Belize City to San Pedro, a quiet, white-beached island from which you can access the Belize barrier reef.  My awesome in-laws, bless them, had offered to take the kids for 5 nights while we were in Belize. It was our first couple’s adventure since having kids, seven years before.

The practical aspect of the diving certification requires a diver to execute several dives, each one deeper than the one before it. While underwater, a diver is asked to perform more than a dozen exercises that simulate diving problems and how to solve them. Only once you’ve performed all the exercises correctly do you pass the exam.

Underwater maneuvers include removing your mask, letting it fill with water, clearing it, and putting it back on. All this with your eyes closed and without thinking of the fact that you are  exposed to a gigantic mass of ocean water, with unknown sea animals lurking about (It’s possible that I’m being a wee dramatic about all this).

My instructor, a chubby Belizean guy with a buzz cut named Ian, would demonstrate each exercise. Because I have long hair, some of what I did was particular to me. In order to put my mask back on properly so that the suction worked, I had to clear my hair out of the way. It made me laugh to see Ian remove his mask, close his eyes, and pointedly smooth his non-existent locks out of the way, before replacing his headgear.

Doing this practice, I was terrified. I couldn’t remember being this frightened in my life. Even the slopes of Kilimanjaro seemed tame compared to this.

In between dives, I asked my husband, “Do you think you lose courage as you age?”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “On to the next exercise,” he said.

I discovered that I’m slightly claustrophobic. Having a mask blocking my nose made me feel panicky and quickened my breathing.

“Think of it as a Zen practice,” my husband advised me. “Breathe slowly.”

“I don’t think Buddhist monks deep sea dive,” I said.

One exercise in particular terrified me. In order to simulate dropping my regulator (the piece of equipment that provides breathable air to the diver), I had to remove it, replace it, and clear it of water, all underwater. You can clear a regulator in two ways, either by blowing forcefully outward, or by pushing a purge button at the front of the regulator.

Ian and I knelt at the bottom of the ocean, in a sandy patch. My knee stung: I must have cut myself on coral on an earlier dive. Ian demonstrated the exercise: remove, replace, clear. I tried to replicate his actions. I took the regulator’s mouthpiece out of my mouth. I held my breath so I wouldn’t swallow water. I replaced my regulator and pressed the purge button. I breathed in….and choked on ocean water.

Okay, I thought, you’re a karate-ka: try again. I tried again. I tried three times, each time breathing in increasing amounts of salty liquid. Ian looked at my face and grabbed my shoulder. It’s amazing how fast you can shoot up to the surface if you need to (fortunately, this particular dive wasn’t deep, allowing us to ascend rapidly without danger). We burst out of the water.

“The regulator wasn’t working!” I sputtered.

Ian took the mouthpiece in his mouth to test it. “It works fine,” he said. “The mouthpiece wasn’t in your mouth properly. Let’s try a smaller mouthpiece next time.”

“Next time?” I asked. “What next time?”

I did take another go, later that afternoon. But only because the diving shop manager told me that they ran a tight schedule: if I didn’t dive again that day, I would not have another chance.

On my second try, armed with a smaller mouthpiece, I cleared my regulator. I went on to perform the other exercises and eventually passed my exam.

I have to admit, by the time I did my last dive, I still didn’t get what the fuss was about. Despite being in one of the most vibrant underwater locales in the world, I wasn’t experiencing the wonder friends with diving experience had told me to expect. I was a better diver, but I was still very nervous.

On our last dive we dived to a depth of sixty feet. The water felt cold. Coral swayed in the current. Groups of blue and yellow Angelfish passed us. Suddenly, a giant green turtle burst out of some rocks, its spotted, glass green flippers flapping in the current. Ah, I thought, watching the turtle navigate the water, as majestic as a bird of prey: now I get it.

On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.


I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.

The Next-Best-Thing

The following is my piece of the next-big-thing interview several writers have been participating in. Writers are using their blogs to talk about their current projects, then linking to other writers’ blogs, who do the same.

Thanks to members of the Toronto Women Writers’ Salon, who first brought this awesome project to my attention.

A special thanks to Terri Favro, who tagged me, and whose novel, The Proxy Bride, was recently published by Quattro Books.

Here’s what I’m working on now:

What is the working title of your book?

Staying in the Family, a short story collection.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

This book has been in development for years. One story, “Luck,” was published in The Fertile Source in 2010. Another story, “In the Afternoon,” was published by Found Press last summer.

 What genre does your book fall under?

Some might call it domestic fiction. Because the book includes stories with non-domestic settings (a mountaineering story I’m working on now takes place on Mt. Everest), I call it domestic-adventure fiction!

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

“In the Afternoon” is thematically linked to Eric Rohmer’s movie L’Amour L’Après-midi. If my movie were filmed in the 1960s, I would pick Zouzou, who stars as Chloé in the movie, to play Jackie. For a contemporary version, I’d love to have Audrey Tautou play Jackie. For “Luck,” I’d pick a young Debra Winger, as she looked in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Staying in the Family explores the theme of longing—whether sexual desire, envy, or a desire to escape one’s circumstances—and what gets sacrificed when you get what you want.

 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by an agency, I hope. I’m not yet an established author, so I don’t have a good sense of what to look for in an agent. However, I’m going to aim high! I would love to be represented by agents who work with some of my favourite canadian authors, including the Bukowski Agency (Annabel Lyon) or Anne McDermid (Angie Abdou, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter).

 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve been working on these stories for seven years! During this time I was fairly busy raising two young children. Since they started school this fall, I’ve been able to write more quickly than in the past. I intend to finish the book by 2013.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Sarah Selecky once compared my work to Richard Ford, which is a lovely and generous compliment. I am always re-reading Ford, particularly his collection, A Multitude of Sins. Another mentor is Katherine Mansfield. I also love 19th century French authors such as Alphonse Daudet, who writes character-driven stories. Sometimes I think my work is anachronistic!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Films, experiences, conversations overheard. Mostly my stories start with an image or a snippet of dialogue. In Rohmer’s L’Amour L’Après-midi, the protagonist says he hates afternoons, (he makes love in the afternoon to stave off a sense of despair) and his comment resonated with me. I’m a morning person: afternoons have always depressed me. In response to Rohmer’s film, I wrote “In the Afternoon.” My story “Luck” was inspired by my travels in Ethiopia, where I witnessed street children experiencing terrible poverty.

What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?

Here’s an excerpt from the collection, a story-in-progress called “Starting Somewhere”:

 My cabin had been the first of ten cabins, up a hill like a series of brown steps. Each cabin housed ten campers and two counsellors. They had been re-finished, and you could smell the addictive smell of wood stain. The screen doors were rickety and their hinges squeaked.  None of them shut properly: you had to pull hard to get the latch to click.

Each evening, Jen, my co-counsellor, and I sat on the cabin steps, and Darren joined us. He sprawled at our feet, against the bottom step, and complained.

“Suze showed me a naked chick,” he said, once. He was grinning, but his face was red.

“A chick?” I asked.

“You know what I mean.”

“I was giving a camper a shower,” I said, “and he walked in.”

“You could have warned me,” said Darren.

The camper, Betty Bernowski, was in her fifties. Her buttocks overflowed on the backs of her thighs. Her forearms were pockmarked with insect bite scars. Darren had knocked on the washroom door. I told him to walk in, and he did. “Jesus,” he said, and tripped on the way out.

“What,” I said loudly. “Can’t handle it?”

Playing Darren was fun. He was fifteen, a virgin, and he liked me. Plus I’d had a bad time with the girls at school. I’d slept with most of eleventh grade guys but had no real girlfriends. Teasing Darren made me feel a whole lot better.

“And thanks for the little present,” Darren said. Betty had soiled herself on the bench outside the dining room, and I’d left the mess for Darren.

“That’s your job,” I said, though it came out a little shaky.

“Is seeing someone naked wrong?” Jen said. “Fundamentally, I mean.” It always gave me a jolt, seeing someone with purple hair consider things seriously.

“Wouldn’t you care?” Darren said.

“No,” Jen said. She tugged at her tank top and made as if to flash him.

“Oh lord,” said Darren.

I could do it, I thought. I could pretend that my body means nothing more than a collection of skin cells, that my nipples are just a tagged on, dark conglomeration.

“Society has to start somewhere,” Jen said.

Thanks for reading! Now, over to some of my colleagues, some amazing writers. I hope you visit their blogs too.

Julia Zarankin

Sarah Sheard

Phil Dwyer

Margaret Webb

Standing on One Foot

Are you a woman, or a mouse? (Annie Dillard The Writing Life)


When to practice karate? This is always the question. I’m constantly trying to fit in all the things I enjoy doing, things that define me.

I finally have the time: since September, my children have been enrolled in full-time school. Ah, the joy of experiencing, for the first time in six and a half years, a long stretch of time: the hours between 9:30 and 3:00 (or, more realistically, between 10:00 and 2:00, for I need time to clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, prepare meals. Not to mention the time needed to eat that indispensable second breakfast.) But seriously, I’m convinced that every stay-at-home parent remembers that first day when their children stay away from the house for an extended period. I mean, a WHOLE DAY!

My main problem is that once I start doing something, I don’t want to stop and move on to something else. Do you know “Eureka,” that 1980s TVO cartoon on the Laws of Physics? There was one called Inertia. Inertia: that’s me. I always picture myself as the pebble in the cartoon: once you give me a push, I keep on rolling.

In practice, that means that if I start my morning off by writing, by afternoon I’ll still be writing. On the other hand, if I start my day seasonally categorizing my kids’ clothes, by the afternoon I’ll still be kneeling on my daughter’s purple rug, sorting through an unholy mess of bottoms and tops (my mother-in-law, bless her, is a passionate shopper who raised three boys, and is therefore thrilled to overbuy for her granddaughters), trying to decide if the hole in the bottom of her tights can actually be seen if she’s wearing a skirt over top, and, if so, if she can get away with wearing the tights another season (I’m the opposite of my mother-in-law – I dislike shopping and I hate throwing things out.)

Also, if I start my morning doing karate, hours later I’ll still be doing karate. After finishing last year’s summer day-long karate training, I felt primed to continue training for three more hours.

Because of my innate inertia, I make it a point to begin each morning by writing. Since September (not counting Jewish Holidays – why oh why are there so many darn holidays, and why, again, are we sending our kids to a Jewish school?), this has been my schedule: return home from school drop-off; eat a second breakfast; drink a caffeinated beverage; write for three hours; and eat lunch. The afternoon is a mixed bag of reading, meal prepping, grocery-shopping, tidying our narrow front hallway (ancient Victorian houses, sheesh), and doing anything else that needs to get done. All this to prepare for that moment when my lovely, high-energy children crash through the house, demanding that I fulfill their urgent needs. Yesterday, while I sat by the local pool watching my eldest take her swimming lessons, my three-and-a-half year old tried to get my attention by poking my, umh, chest, a practice I put a stop to immediately.

I am not like the extraordinary Carrie Snyder, an inveterate multi-tasker. Last spring, I read in awe that she was entertaining a sick kid (one of four), meal prepping, and proofing her latest book—simultaneously. (The Juliet Stories is nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. You can find Carrie at http://carrieannesnyder.blogspot.ca/.) I could never do this kind of multi-tasking. Never. For one, I hate interruptions. For another, there’s that small problem of inertia.

I’ve somewhat come to terms with the fact that I’m a long-distance runner, rather than a sprinter. And I’m embracing my inertia. I’m also starting to think that a much nicer way of talking about my inertia is by referring to it as my aptitude for intense focus.

All this to clarify why I start off each day by writing.

But where does karate fit in? I have three priorities in my life: family, writing, and karate. The order I put these in depends on mood and need, either mine or my loved ones. But how to include all three, more or less on an equal basis?

And how do I fit in all my other passions? I’m an exercise junkie, and I love running, swimming, doing yoga, and muscle training. Above all, I love walking. When I was little, my dad and I used to take long walks through Toronto ravines, and I’ve kept the habit of doing these walks. On these walks, my mind works out all sorts of problems, particularly those related to writing.


At the moment I’m managing to fit in karate practice twice a week, always in the afternoons, on no fixed day (this is in addition to two, formal evening classes). On other days, I go to the Yoga studio. I swim. I walk.

Yesterday, in one of Toronto’s ravines, I stopped walking and let loose some punches, for practice. Just a few moves: I was wearing my long, wool fall coat, probably the most expensive item I own (bought three years ago on Boxing Day), and I was nervous about tearing it. I was also embarrassed, and surreptitiously looked around the ravine to make sure that no one was looking. Would someone, seeing me, assume I was not in my right mind, someone who, in my husband’s words, was “reacting to internal stimuli?”

Then I remembered my old Sensei, Konzak Sensei, speaking about courage. “Are you a man, or a mouse?” he would ask. I’ve always amended this to “are you a woman, or a mouse?” (Yesterday, I was thrilled to come across this same aphorism in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life.) So I kept throwing out punches. Then, noticing my shoes were caked in mud, I stopped punching and continued walking.

I’d love to hear from all of you—readers, mothers, karate-ka—about how you include exercise in your routine. And how you manage your numerous passions. In the meantime, I’m embracing something my friend and skillful career coach, Ayelet Magen, says. Balancing is like standing on one foot, she notes: you wobble, move from side to side as you struggle to stay upright.