Category Archives: General Musing

Edging Toward Normalcy: The Healing Continues

It’s been half a year since I last blogged about my struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and perhaps some of you are wondering whether my situation has improved or whether I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. Yes, I’m still alive and kicking and still very much in the editing game. This fall I completed two 100,000+-word novels without wearing myself out (it really helped that both books were well written and thoroughly absorbing, and their talented authors lovely to deal with). Six months ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking on such lengthy projects.

I continue to pull myself up from the depths of CFS after having been mired in it for a good couple of years (see previous post for a taste of what having this illness is like). In an early-morning burst of optimism, I nearly called this blog post “Hurtling Toward Normalcy,” but the reality is that my progress has been a steady stroll instead of anything as dramatic as hurtling. So “edging” seemed more accurate.

One day last week, I realized how amazingly close to normal I was feeling. I was lunching with a friend in a place with a small-town diner feel. It was busy–lots of people, lots of animated conversations going on around us. All that stimulation usually exerts a powerful effect on my nervous system, and I feel over-the-top wired, as if I’m buzzing inside. The sensation is anxiety-provoking–I just want to flee to quieter quarters–and exhausting. You see, with CFS your nervous system is already stuck in fight-or-flight mode, so any added stimulation easily overwhelms you.  Lights seem too bright, sounds too loud, and you feel these sensations wearing at you, draining away your energy. This aspect of CFS is one reason I’ve socialized only rarely over the last couple of years; it’s just too difficult. But last week in the restaurant, I felt calm and relaxed and barely noticed the presence of all the other people around me. It was a breakthrough moment, and I took the time to savour this victory. I’m still celebrating it.

Overall, I’ve started to feel physically stronger, especially in the last couple of months. What can I attribute the improvements to? In August I began a healing program, ANS Rewire, that’s specially designed for people with CFS/fibromyalgia. It’s based on the premise that both these illnesses are rooted in a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and that correcting this dysfunction eliminates the symptoms and restores our health. The man who developed the program, Dan Neuffer, is a physicist who became ill with severe CFS/fibromyalgia and was determined to get well again. He applied his talents for scientific research and discovered that the symptoms of these illnesses pointed to an unbalanced autonomic nervous system that flip-flops erratically from one extreme to another in attempts to find equilibrium. Searching for a solution, Dan was led to the concept of neuroplasticity and developed a technique for rewiring the brain to create new neural pathways to replace the old ones that maintain the ANS dysfunction and therefore our illness. The rewiring technique, or neural retraining, is one of the pillars of Dan’s program, but he also includes many supportive strategies. Indeed, ANS Rewire is the most comprehensive neural retraining program I’ve seen, as apart from the central rewiring technique Dan teaches mindfulness meditation to bring down brain arousal and includes strategies to improve nutrition and sleep and cope with pain. As well, he addresses how to use exercise–perhaps the biggest bugbear to those of us with CFS/fibromyalgia–to steer us toward recovery. Because of ANS Rewire, I began to view my illness differently, realizing I could impact it through how I thought of it and myself and how I acted every single day. Dan’s program has put me in the driver’s seat.

Even with such powerful and easy-to-use tools at my disposal, a robust recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and I’m still inching my way there. But I’m participating more fully in my life again and feel less isolated than I used to. In September, just a few days after completing ANS Rewire, I attended my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party out of town, and despite challenging moments during the trip and exhaustion afterwards I bounced back more quickly than I imagined I would. In November I started attending a gentle exercise class, Feldenkrais, which enhances body awareness–a key component of the rewiring process. And things just keep getting better: early in the new year, we’ll be moving to another apartment–one that’s smaller, cheaper, brighter, and free of the mould that’s plagued one of the bathrooms in our present apartment. Six months ago, I couldn’t even contemplate moving because I didn’t have the strength to sort through all my possessions, let alone pack anything.

It’s been a tough road to travel, and although I’m not where I ultimately want to be, my destination is beginning to feel as if it’s right around the corner.


A Different Kind of Tired

I’ve written the following post to recognize International Awareness Day for ME/CFS, and dedicate it to all my courageous friends who struggle every day with CFS. 


Anyone who visits this site regularly will have noticed a dwindling of blog posts over the last couple of years. I’ve never thought of myself as a blogger–I lack the dedication. But more than that, I’m mostly too tired to blog. If it sounds like a lame excuse, it’s not. I have an illness called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME for short).

“Yeah, I’m tired a lot too,” I can almost hear some readers saying, though I know that wouldn’t be you. Allow me to be perfectly clear: CFS involves a different kind of tired. What sets it apart from everyday tiredness is that we, people with CFS, don’t recover our energy and strength after a good night’s sleep (which, paradoxically, is difficult for us to obtain). One of the defining characteristics of the syndrome is exertion intolerance. Instead of feeling invigorated by exercise, it drains us, and for long periods (so please don’t tell us we need to exercise more). Recently, it took me three weeks to recover from a three-hour lunch and shopping outing. This hallmark of the illness, exertion intolerance, has spawned a whole new name for CFS, systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID), a moniker that hasn’t really caught on yet even though it more accurately captures the complex nature of the illness than “chronic fatigue syndrome” does.

CFS is also about so much more than being tired. Apart from exertion intolerance, a host of other symptoms afflict us. My symptoms include persistent muscle pain and weakness, unrefreshing sleep, and light-headedness. The combination of symptoms we experience can knock us flat; approximately a quarter of us are bedridden for months, sometimes years. The rest of us limp through our days feeling  debilitated but somehow managing to live half a life. Someone’s pulled the plug on us, and the outlet is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes we slide into CFS gradually, but often the onset is dramatic, preceded by a virus or a traumatic event like an accident. For me it was a virus, and I remember all too vividly the exact day–March 27, 1998–when CFS disconnected me from my power source. After a couple of years, it gradually went into remission, and for several years I enjoyed good health. Unfortunately, it re-emerged in 2014, following a period of intense work during which I was writing a novel in addition to taking on too many editing projects.

I’m managing half a life now–on good days, three-quarters. Even with my Jell-O legs, I can go for a walk with the dog once a day; I’m up to forty-five minutes reliably and sometimes make it to an hour. Occasionally, I’ll take public transit for a short jaunt somewhere. I still work as a freelance editor. If I take at least three horizontal rest breaks during the day, I can work at the computer for three,  sometimes four hours a day without completely burning myself out. Although my world has narrowed because of CFS,  I’m doing better than I was a few months ago and am sure I’ll continue to improve.

There are scores of people out there with this illness–some 400,000 in Canada, at least a million in the US, and 250,000 in the UK (and these numbers are on the conservative side).  More of us are female than male. CFS can hit at any age. I was thirty-four when I was diagnosed with it, but I’m alarmed to see how often it strikes young people who are only just starting to find their way in life.

Sadly, CFS is often a wholesale wrecker of lives; careers and relationships can be destroyed by this illness, which may be misunderstood by those around us. We look perfectly healthy and sometimes encounter skepticism from our friends and families. To the ignorant, we may appear bone-lazy, but many of us previously led active lives and had a strong achievement orientation, a tendency that, if continued, perpetuates our condition. The lack of sensitivity and support from others is hurtful and isolating for those with CFS.

Some doctors are skeptical too, but those who don’t dismiss our illness often don’t know how to help us because CFS is so challenging to treat. They commonly prescribe cognitive behavioural therapy, graded exercise, or symptomatic relief in the form of antidepressants and sleep aids. These measures often don’t get at the root of the illness and may even set us back (our bodies are very sensitive to medications, and exercise programs are something we should undertake with the utmost caution). Many of us find some relief in alternative remedies. For me, a good naturopath is essential, but I’ve had bad ones who have made me feel worse.

I paint a bleak picture, but at the same time I’m optimistic. Why? Because it’s entirely possible to recover from CFS; I put it into remission once before and expect I can do it again. I’ve also read countless recovery stories in which people go on to lead active lives. But there is no easy or universal solution for those of us with CFS; we must each find our own recovery path. Nonetheless, it’s possible to make a few generalizations about what helps.

Because we usually have food sensitivities, we tend to improve by cutting out dairy, gluten, and other harmful foods (once we are tested to determine the culprits). It’s also essential to find a way of calming down our nervous systems, which get stuck in a fight-or-flight response. Calming is a prerequisite to being able to heal, as I learned in the excellent online program, Secrets to Recovery. I use guided meditation and visualization daily to achieve this calming effect. Avoiding stress is critical for people with CFS, as it causes flare-ups of the illness. There’s no question in my mind that experiencing both a concussion and horrible side effects from  adrenal supplements I was prescribed last year greatly exacerbated my CFS. We must carve out tranquil time in each day to rest and devote ourselves to getting better. Pacing ourselves and not pushing beyond our activity limit is also vital to our recovery. Determining precisely where that limit is can be frustrating; it often seems like a moving target, and inevitably we exceed it at times.

I’ve also benefited from IV nutrients such as Myers’ cocktails (no, they don’t contain alcohol or come in a martini glass) and Bach flower remedies. Supporting our recovery often requires solutions outside the mainstream, and for me these unorthodox remedies have had positive results. As people with CFS, we each have our own list of what’s most effective for us. Certainly we can heal, but doing so takes compassion for ourselves, time, patience, and–perhaps more than anything–a generous helping of hope.


Headache Begone: Preventative Strategies for Fellow Sufferers

Editors, writers, and others who spend long hours working at the computer seem particularly vulnerable to migraines and tension headaches. Perhaps more than any other group of people I know, editors frequently commiserate on Facebook about headache hell. Personally, I inherited a predisposition toward migraines from my mother and have suffered from them since I was fourteen. Although my headaches have abated recently, under severe stress I still sometimes get three-day episodes; these start on one side of the head and slowly migrate to the other, causing severe pain not just in my head but also in my eyes and jaw. Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to be happy or productive under such circumstances.

Several years ago, I attended a workshop on natural headache prevention and wrote an article about the techniques I gleaned. I’ve adapted the article for this blog and hope you’ll benefit from these suggestions I present below.

If your pain is caused by either muscular tension or blood vessel dilation—as in migraines—a daily exercise routine can alleviate existing headaches and prevent them from recurring. The routine is rooted in the principles of energy medicine, which postulates that energy must flow harmoniously within the body; if it fails to do so, pain and illness result. These exercises are designed to move around the stagnant energies that induce headaches.

For maximum benefits, perform them slowly and fluidly. Rushing through them or making sudden, jerky motions will diminish their effectiveness. You might even strain yourself in the process. Also breathe deeply and exactly as instructed. Let’s get started.

While in a comfortable sitting position, relax your shoulders. Tilt your head toward your right shoulder. (Do not bring your shoulder up toward your head.) Place your right palm on the right side of your head. Inhale as you press your hand and your head against each other for a few seconds. Exhale slowly while dropping your hand into your lap. Stretch your head further to the right, inhale, repeat the isometric press between your right hand and your head, and exhale as you let your hand drop. Stretch your head as far right as you can, and perform the sequence a third time. Finally, reach across your head with your right hand, resting it on your left ear. Allow the weight of your elbow to pull your head over further. Repeat the entire sequence on your left side.

Next, find the two indentations between the two ridges of the base of your skull; these indentations are known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the headache points. When stimulated, they relieve pain. While tilting your head back, inhale and press your fingers into the headache points while pushing against your fingers with your head. Drop your hands into your lap while returning your head to an upright position. Exhale slowly through your mouth.

The next step takes some getting used to, and since you’ll look really silly doing it, you might feel more comfortable without an audience. Inhale through your mouth as you thrust your lower jaw out and pull it up toward your upper jaw. Now exhale and allow your jaw to relax. Repeat the inhalation and jaw-jutting exercise, and as you exhale, let your head drop toward your chest.

Now you’re in the home stretch. Inhale and press your fingertips up into the middle of your forehead while pushing your head down. As in the previous exercises, you’re pushing against yourself. Release your fingers as you exhale, and let your head drop down further. Repeat the inhalation, fingertip press, release, and exhalation before dropping your head further toward your chest again. Repeat the sequence a third time, and as you exhale, lock your fingers behind your head and gently pull your head down.

After performing this combination of simple isometric exercises and deep breathing, you’ll feel deeply relaxed. The exercises sweep away the cobwebs by removing energy blocks. You’ll feel refreshed and alert as energy begins to course freely through your body again. If you’re experiencing a headache before you start the exercises, it should start dissipating as you continue. Perform this easy sequence of exercises religiously every day, and you should find they go a long way toward alleviating your headaches.

New Year, New Look

Happy new year! If my greeting comes rather late, it’s because life has been unexpectedly eventful in recent weeks, and not necessarily in the most positive way. I’ve needed to spend a little time just catching my breath.

There have been some exciting new developments. Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I never thought I’d finish, finally went to my colleague Irene Kavanagh for a manuscript evaluation in December, and I’m eagerly (but patiently, I should emphasize, since I don’t want to rush things) awaiting her feedback so I can resume work on it. Based on her reactions so far, it seems the novel has provided her with a few good giggles, but I expect I’ve still got plenty of work to do. As well, I’ve recently finished editing the first in a series of thrillers featuring an investigator with a wonderful canine sidekick.  Any book featuring dogs as characters is always a delight; this series is right up my alley.

If you’re familiar with my website, you’ll notice it has a fresh new look that I hope you’ll see as an improvement over the old version. I hadn’t actually planned to make any changes; I don’t know my way around WordPress that well and was content to just let things be. But I discovered four days before Christmas that I could no longer add new material to my site. A friend put me in touch with a WordPress specialist, who would ultimately end my frustration and update the look of too.  But fixing my broken-down site would have to wait, as Toronto was struck by a devastating ice storm unlike anything I can remember.


Toronto Ice Storm, December 22, 2013
Toronto Ice Storm, December 22, 2013


Overnight, everything was glazed in a thick coating of ice, and I could hear ice cracking and cascading from enormous branches as they crashed to the ground. Sadly, Toronto lost an estimated 20 percent of its tree canopy. Our building lost most of its power, and we had no heat from the radiators and no hot water. We toughed it out for a couple of days, boiling water, running a couple of space heaters, and praying that the power would go on in time to make a turkey dinner. But when the temperature dipped to -10C and the dog began shivering and whining, it was time to go. We were fortunate to be able to drop Trinka off with a caring friend who had power (and a boisterous wire-haired dachshund for her to play with), and we also managed to find a hotel, which was where we spent our Christmas. It was four days before we could go home. Yes, we were a lot luckier than many people who had no friends or relatives to depend on, but it still made the festive season a bit dismal. In truth, I felt a bit numb from the ordeal–and not just from the cold.

Thank goodness all this is behind me and that 2013 is gone at last. By all accounts, it was a challenging year for many. The destructive energy of that year lingers on, however–it’s still the year of the snake on the Chinese calendar, and will be until January 31st. But I for one will be awfully relieved when that old serpent hisses its last and gives way to the year of the horse. Happy 2014, everyone.


Lumbering to the Editing Phase: Draft Four of Virginia’s Ghost Begins

I recently finished my third draft of Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I can believe. Without a doubt, I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer, as my first draft was a bare-bones one and came in at a very slim 30,000 words, while this most recent draft is an impressive (to me, anyway) 61,000 words. I printed it out and discovered that it’s got physical heft if nothing else.

Seeing my book all in one big pile almost made me weak at the knees, and in a reckless moment I almost passed the thing on to one of my trusted editor colleagues. But after rereading it, I realized that it’s almost where I want it to be, so I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet to editorial scrutiny. Almost isn’t nearly good enough for me, nor should it be for any author. I refuse to embarrass myself.

So what’s my next step? Instead of diving directly into Draft 4, I decided to write a summary of each chapter. It’s my way of stepping back into a more objective mode of thinking and ferreting out all the things that need to be fixed: the little timeline glitches, the things that are missing, the events that don’t quite add up or that feel contrived, and the stupid things that sometimes come out of characters’ mouths when you least expect it of them. I’ve written suggestions as to how I’m going to fix these things at the bottom of each chapter summary. The blue writing identifies my main storyline, while the red is a second storyline. I’ve also done some hard-copy edits right on my draft.

Chapter summaries for Virginia's Ghost

But aren’t you supposed to do all the outlining and summarizing stuff at the beginning? Certainly a lot of writing books suggest drawing up an outline well before you write the book, and I often suggest it to clients who seem to be struggling with an unruly plot. But I began writing the book well before I knew very much about outlines, but more importantly, I think that my initial outline probably would have been nearly as skeletal as my first draft. In other words, my writing process doesn’t seem to lend itself to the outline-before-you-write approach. I find myself layering new stories into each successive draft, adding richness and complexity (I hope) to the storylines. There are things going on in the third draft that would have seemed inconceivable to me when I was writing the first or even second draft.

All this reminds me that there are probably as many ways of going about writing a book as there are writers. We each find our own way of getting from that first blank page to the end of that final draft. Our path may be straight, swift, and sure as an arrow heading toward a bull’s eye, or it may be more like that of a meandering, lumbering bear apparently not heading anywhere in particular. The choice is ours, and there is really no right way. The only thing that matters in the end is that the book itself is everything we want it to be.


Gifts My Father Gave Me

As some readers of this blog will already know, I lost my father, Lawrence “Larry” Kaiser, on February 2nd, just a little over a month ago now. He was 87 and ailing, so his death was not unexpected, but it’s true that nothing can ever truly prepare you for the loss of a parent. Of course, Dad lives on through my memories of him, and as a number of people have pointed out to me, he also lives on through whatever unique qualities he passed along to me, his youngest child.

Lawrence Reide Kaiser
Undated photo of my dad, Larry, looking very dapper, probably around 1950

When I was a child I felt closer to my mother, Shirlee. She was a stay-at-home mom, so we spent more time together than I did with my father, who was busy simply trying to earn a living and support a wife and four children. But as I was growing up, I was often told I was more like my father’s side of the family. Dad was soft-spoken, easygoing, slow to get angry, and unlikely to hold grudges, all qualities that I inherited. He could also be quietly and stubbornly persevering in the pursuit of what he wanted, which is something I’ve also been quite rightly accused of (as character traits go, it’s not a bad one to have). As a young person, he loved to draw, which was an interest I shared with him (though in time we both grew out of this). He was a navigator during WWII on a Lancaster bomber, and I treasure the pencil sketches he did–character studies, really–of his flying crew during this period, as well as some later sketches he did of my mother.

Of course, we also differed in some crucial ways. Unlike me, Dad had a engineer’s mind and had been crazy about airplanes since childhood. He almost certainly would have become an aeronautical engineer if the war hadn’t intervened; when he came back from overseas, he had a young wife and soon a growing family to support, so he carved out a career in industrial sales, which seemed to suit him just fine, making use as it did of his technical knowledge and his relaxed, easy manner with people.

The Kaiser family: parents Larry and Shirlee and their four children.
My parents, Larry and Shirlee, with their brood of four in 1965. I'm the wee one in the white parka.

Neither of my parents had much formal education, but both were avid readers who educated themselves on the numerous subjects that interested them. Later in his life, Dad became quite a chatterbox about many topics, and that was when I started to feel I really knew him at last. He would have laughed if I’d ever called him literary, for he had no serious literary aspirations. He did write many letters in his distinctively graceful, artistic script, and he tried his hand at whimsical light verse about family members. He was a very modest man and always called these efforts “doggerel.” No, he was not particularly literary, but he was certainly literate: he had an eloquent and precise way of expressing himself in both speech and writing, and I never knew him to make spelling and grammatical errors. Given his example, it’s probably no great surprise that I’m an editor.

As for where his way with words came from, I have reason to believe that it came from his mother, my grandmother Florence, who I’m told I greatly resemble in both looks and mannerisms. Florence, a native New Yorker, had been a legal secretary, but I learned from a cousin recently that she had literary ambitions and was writing under a nom de plume. What she was writing remains a mystery. My aunt tells me that Florence was delighted by the theatre and could quote extensively from the works she loved, so perhaps she was writing a play. Whether she ever finished what she was working on or pursued publication is also up in the air. My guess is that as a wife and the mother of three young children, she simply put her writing aside, perhaps hoping to get back to it one day. I’ll probably never know. I’m just glad that she and my father were the sort of people they were, and that they passed down something of their wonderful gifts to me.

My father Lawrence Kaiser with his parents, Jesse and Florence
Dad in 1925 with his father, Jesse, and his mother, Florence.

Overcoming Tendinitis for Writers and Editors

Occupational hazards would seem to be few and far between for writers, editors, and others who spend long, solitary hours tapping away at a keyboard. Some would say that we have it easy; as an editor, I’m not exactly out there risking my neck by fighting crime (unless you consider grammatical errors to be criminal acts). Loneliness–the deep kind that is best alleviated by face-to-face interaction, not chatting on social media–is a risk and certainly affects our emotional well-being. Another obvious threat is gaining weight. The unfortunate truth is that the refrigerator cannot be locked and is always much too close at hand. And we sit entirely too much, so we don’t burn off as many calories as we should. Apart from that, are there really that many occupational hazards that can befall us?

Starting back in July, I experienced tendinitis for the first time in my life. The inflamed tendon was near my elbow, but the pain also radiated into my wrist. The inflammation was so severe that for a number of weeks, I couldn’t twist a lid off a jar or turn a key in a lock without experiencing excruciating pain. Everyday activities that I’d taken for granted became hellishly difficult, and that included working at the computer.

I started to assess my behaviour at the keyboard, and I noticed a few things. First, I was using the mouse much more than I needed to, so instead of using it to move up and down through a document (a bad habit I’d somehow got into), I switched to the arrow keys. As well, I was moving away from the keyboard inadvertently; my chair is on casters, and because of a slight incline in the hardwood floor, I was rolling away and straining to reach both the keyboard and the mouse. I slipped a carpet under my chair, and I’m now sitting more snugly up against the keyboard. I always check that my hands are centred precisely over the keyboard before I begin typing, rather than at an awkward angle to it.

All this was helping, but the inflammation was still so severe that I needed medical help. So I visited my acupuncturist-chiropractor, Dr. Z. Worried that tendinitis might put an end to my editing activities, at least temporarily, I asked him what the chances were of recovering from my affliction. He said that for some people, especially those who don’t actively try to do anything about it, tendinitis becomes a chronic condition. I knew I wasn’t going to be one of those people; I was definitely willing to put in the work to overcome it. What choice did I have?

Because my tendinitis was a repetitive strain injury, Dr. Z. advised me to take as much time away from the keyboard as I possibly could and simply rest the tendon. Otherwise, the inflammation would never come down. I would also need to ice it three times a day for a few minutes at a time. As well, I applied Traumeel homeopathic cream a couple of times a day. Dr. Z. taught me stretching exercises that I could do daily, and I went to his office once a week for acupuncture treatments. After he removed the needles, he also did some deep muscle massage on my arm. I started taking a supplement called SierraSil Joint Formula 14. Before long, I turned the corner and the severe inflammation died away. Dr. Z. told me I could start strengthening exercises, as keeping the muscles strong would prevent a recurrence of the tendinitis.

Cumulatively, all these measures worked; it wasn’t any one thing that solved the problem. Now I can work away at the keyboard for hours pain-free, and I’ve even been able to go back to knitting (although Dr. Z. cautions against doing it daily, as I used to). I still try to take entire days away from the keyboard, if I can tear myself away from both work and the allure of the online world. If you have severe tendinitis, it’s all too easy to give in to despair; but given enough time, effort, and patience, you too can overcome it.

Is Pointing Out Errors in English Just Plain Rude?

I hate to admit to such poor taste, but recently I was watching a certain TV show in which brides try on wedding dresses before an entourage of friends and family members who often seem all too eager to rip their self-esteem to shreds. If there’s anything good to be said about this show, it’s that it provides valuable lessons in how not to behave. All that aside, I was horrified the other night when the mother of a hapless bride criticized her dress, saying that it needed more embezzlement. “Embellishment!” I shouted to the screen. “Embellishment, not embezzlement!” The usage crime went unnoticed by the bride or anyone else for that matter, and I wonder what I would have done if, God forbid, I’d been sitting in that bridal salon with that unpleasant family. Although I wouldn’t have shouted the way I did to the TV, I would have been awfully tempted to say something, even a meek and mild, “Um, did you happen to mean embellishment, perchance?”

Outside the context of teaching or editing, is it ever all right to point out errors in English? Being a polite Canadian, I seldom do it. But being an editor, I’m always dying to. Honestly, I hate to see the English language abused, and I think it’s vital that people make the effort to speak and write correctly. If I didn’t think this way, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. As well, when you edit people’s writing for a living, it’s sometimes hard to fall out of the habit of pointing out mistakes. And so my polite Canadian self is invariably at war with my editor self, generating a lot of inner turmoil whenever I hear someone mangling the language. Of course, in this matter of correcting versus not correcting, context is everything. I’ll tactfully point out errors to my Russian friend at the dog park because she’s told me before that she wants to speak better English. She’s never taken offence, so no harm done. But you’re really putting your neck on the line when you choose to correct people you don’t know all that well, no matter how politely you do it.

Recently, I attended a networking event and was sitting beside a woman I’d chatted with perhaps once or twice before. She was promoting a book she’d written and showed me a postcard that summarized the plot. She knows I’m an editor, and she pointed out an error in the postcard to me. I read the rest of it and noticed an ungrammatical, wordy sentence that was actually much more of a heinous crime than the typo she’d noticed. Hesitantly, I told her it was ungrammatical and then went on to suggest a better sentence she could use in its place. With this act, I extinguished all joy. She just looked at me grimly, and a profoundly awkward silence passed between us. In her mind, I had committed a serious faux pas, and we barely spoke another word to each other for the rest of the event.

The way I see it, by pointing out the first error, she opened the door for me and I merely walked through it. And I said what I did in the spirit of helpfulness; I could see how the postcard could be improved, and thought I should take the opportunity to tell her how to do it. But perhaps I’m wrong about the appropriateness of my actions. What would you have done if you’d been in my situation? Have you ever pointed out someone’s error to his or her face, only to have it backfire? Is it ever right, outside the context of editing someone’s writing or teaching them about the language, to point out errors?

Summertime . . . and the Livin’ Is Easy

This post has absolutely nothing to do with editing or writing–mainly because last week’s adventures on the shores of Lake Huron had absolutely nothing to do with editing or writing either (but plenty to do with reading novels of the page-turner sort). I’m not ashamed to say that I really ought to title this What I Did on My Summer Vacation, and I’ve even included nice photos designed to make you wish you’d been there enjoying the sights with us. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about what to expect.

Below is the cozy, wee cabin we stayed in for a week in MacGregor Point Provincial Park. Yes, it’s completely adorable and bursting with cottagey charm, and I love the spacious deck, the fact that one of the bedrooms had bunk beds (just seeing them made me feel like I was ten again), and the assortment of mismatched but homey mid-20th-century dishes in the kitchen. We do not own the cottage but were renting it. The park has a number of beachfront private cottages within its boundaries, as well as hiking trails in the woods that are not exactly taxing for non-athletes like me.

The beaches of Lake Huron are quite rocky and rugged, as you can see below. Unfortunately, due to lack of rain, the waterline was disturbingly low, and no matter how far I waded out, the water would not come up much above my thighs. I envisioned having to walk halfway across Lake Huron in order to be able to swim, so lacking sufficient ambition, I gave up on that idea and contented myself with wading close to shore and wandering the beach to watch herring gulls, turkey vultures, common terns, and double-crested cormorants in flight.

Apart from my meanderings along the park trails and across the beach, my entertainment consisted chiefly of lazing in the sun on the deck and watching the ruby-throated hummingbirds jostle each other for the best position at the feeder. I also passed the time by reading suspense thrillers by Peter Robinson and Nicci French in a delightfully dozy fashion, my facial expression no doubt resembling that of our dog Trinka below as I nodded off now and then.

Occasionally, we went into town (the town being Port Elgin) and drank strong coffee, and one day we drove north to the picturesque, touristy town of Southampton, which boasts its own lighthouse on nearby Chantry Island. Once there, we met a dear old friend for lunch, which consisted of curry wraps followed by a luscious slice of homemade lemon poppyseed cake. Every night, we had a barbeque on the deck; I can still taste the mouth-watering halibut steak with blueberry and mango salsa that I enjoyed. Then we watched the spectacle of the sun going down. The shores of Lake Huron are famous for dazzling sunsets worthy of the pages of National Geographic, and I was not the least bit disappointed by the sun’s glorious performance.

Nothing much really happened up at MacGregor Point, but that was precisely the idea. In the end, I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing escape from reality. I even rediscovered that almost forgotten artifact of my past, the afternoon nap. And after enduring several weeks of apartment building destruction/construction–not to mention a painful root canal procedure I had just before we went away–a whole lot of nothing was the very thing I needed. I highly recommend it.

What I Love about Old Books

Eleven years ago, I went on a road trip to the Finger Lakes district of New York with two friends. Happening upon a dusty second-hand bookshop in Ithaca, I discovered a 1919 copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, a novel based on the life of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. I’d read the book a number of times before, but the price was a mere six dollars, so how could I pass it up?

It isn’t a fancy edition by any stretch of the imagination, but in its simple way, it’s a lovely object. I love the bold graphic of the palm trees on the cover and the graceful illustration of the Tahitian beauties on the inside cover. I adore the way the title of the book has been designed, with the linking o‘s in Moon. A fascinating little detail is the embossed publisher’s insignia on the front cover that features a peacock (visible in the bottom right of the photo).

My edition of the book is battered, so it’s not worth any more than I paid for it. One corner has been banged up, water spots speckle the cover, and the edges of the pages have yellowed over time, but this just shows that the book was read and enjoyed by many people over time, as any good book deserves to be. As well, there’s the intriguing inscription, which appears to be as old as the book itself, in well-formed script inside: “Happy Birthday Hugh. Frances.” I can’t help but wonder what Hugh’s relationship to Frances was. Were they siblings? Lovers? Husband and wife? Was she trying to impress him with her good taste in literature? I can’t help but wonder if he liked the book. What happened with the two of them after he received it? There’s a story there that we’ll never know, but we can always invent something.

With old books, the story within the covers is augmented by the story of the book as a physical object, passed from one person to another over time. Of course, there’s a lot of mystery about a book’s previous owners, hinted at only by things like inscriptions, notes in the margins, and passages underlined. And what does such a book say about the time in which it was produced? To me, my copy of The Moon and Sixpence speaks to a more elegant and serious time in which books were considered objects of beauty and thought of as items to be treasured for generations.

I have quite a number of battered volumes that bear the stamp of my grandfather, Jesse Kaiser, a World War One veteran who died when I was just eight years old. I have only vague impressions of him as a kindly but sombre man. Photographs of him, and his collection of books–mostly war-related novels and poetry from the teens and twenties–are just about my only link to him and hint at a preoccupation with events that were undoubtedly burned into his psyche for the rest of his life. Having his books gives me a sense of connection to him and to the past that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

In our world of disposable culture and e-books, hard-copy books have lost the sense of being significant objects in and of themselves, and I think this is a shame. Although I have an e-reader and find it handy for travelling, I still much prefer curling up with something made of paper than with a cold, hard, electronic screen. But I wonder how many people like me still roam the earth. Although I may be a dinosaur, give me my old books with their dog-eared pages and their whiff of the past any day of the week.