Scrapbook #9: Repetition


My birthday is coming up, and the week around it is all flooded with music. I’ve already spent one evening watching Marie Chouinard’s bizarre and amazing modern dance interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice – all half naked, gyrating bodies and music composed more of singular sounds than songs – wails and bells and distorted lyre strums (thank you, Caro, for the ticket!). I’ll spend another night watching Anton Kuerti play songs on the piano (thank you, Andrew!) , and then another with the Pixies making their way through Surfer Rosa (thank you um, me!).

So I’m thinking about music and about getting older.

The other day I went searching for some songs I thought I’d lost on an old hard drive, but found other mp3s instead, these little, teeny tiny songs I wrote at the height of a time where I felt most serious about making music, not just listening to it, around 2001/2002. Listening to these songs was a like meeting an old friend I used to know well, but lost touch with for awhile.

The One That Got Away.mp3
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These songs are so strange to me! And embarrassing! I apologize for the painful hissiness of them, like they were recorded in a room with a tin roof on the rainiest day of the year. This was before the ease of digital recording, recorded on two-track cassette player and then painstakingly wired to a computer. Lo-fi still felt kind of charming back then.

All Those Years.mp3
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I wanted to write songs like Lee Hazlewood, full of heartbreak and regret and swagger, but these songs are nothing like Lee Hazlewood. I never really had the stamina or music vocabulary for songwriting, either – these barely scratch the 2 minute mark.

I Only Stay.mp3
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But I’m grateful to that younger version of myself who had the arrogance and the ego to commit these half-formed songs to tape. It’s a nice reminder from my 22 year old self to my (almost, practically) 32 year old self to do these kinds of things, even if they’re a little raw and out of tune. Also useful: my 30-something self plagiarized the lyrics from one of the songs in the novel I’m working on.

I remember learning how to play the guitar when I was 16, before I took any lessons or knew how to form chords, just sitting with a nylon stringed classical guitar and plucking out songs I knew note by note. The same songs, the same notes, repeated. And then I learned chords and soon my parents got a dial up connection and I would print out pages and pages of guitar tablature, punch holes in them and keep them in a fat green binder. All these songs I could play, a new kind of freedom.

There is something about playing music that feels, for me, like the most tangible expression of learning, like I can feel my brain processing, chugging along while I do it. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a brilliant musician – it’s too clunkily attached to my physical self; I can’t really noodle around or god forbid, jam. (Unless you need someone to play G and C chords over and over? Then I’m your girl.) Writing, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It comes from somewhere I don’t understand. For me music is comforting because it’s nice to know that dogged repetition is how I go from not being able to do something to being able to do it.

Junk shop in Vermont

I try to apply that principle to writing: repetition works. (I try to think this when I psych myself up about jogging too, but I’m still not there yet, probably because I can sit at home in my PJ’s to play the guitar, but have to get dressed, wear running shoes, go out into the world, etc. if I want to run. Laziness sometimes trumps other pleasures, and the older I get the more I’m okay with that.) But still, the act of doing the same thing over and over makes that thing, whatever it is, easier, and I also know that the more I remind myself of that, the more I’m likely to believe it.

Scrapbook #4: In Praise of Breakfast

I’m writing this on a quiet Saturday morning. Everyone is asleep. I peeked out onto Laurier and there was no one walking by, and even the cat was sprawled out and snoring. I wanted to sleep in this morning – preparation for tonight’s Nuit Blanche (Montreal’s city-wide all-night art festival) – but found myself wide awake at 7 am. I read for awhile and then I gave up and went to the kitchen. Last night I’d put a cup of oats into a bowl and covered them in buttermilk for this oatmeal pancake recipe from Orangette. Maybe I woke up because I was excited about pancakes? The batter’s mixed, but I’m letting it sit. I like the way pancake batter gets kind of bubbly when it rests, but I’m also waiting for a more reasonable Saturday morning brunch hour to start making them.

Breakfast at Naz Wooden Inn

So many of my favourite travel memories center around breakfast. This picture was taken in Istanbul. Our hotel was a wooden inn on the edge of the tourist district, next to the railroad tracks. By the end of our stay we’d figured out the best route to take to avoid store owners trying to lure us into their shops with persistent Yes please‘s. We’d eat breakfast on the roof: boiled eggs, dried apricots, simit, a ring-shaped sesame bread. And then we’d venture out into the city, stop for tea, set out for the day.

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The Perils of a Split Sauce

After some lacklustre eggs benedict at a restaurant last weekend, I resolved to make my own at home. The last time I’d attempted a hollandaise sauce was a few Christmases ago, but it was a bit of a disaster – the sauce split and I’d decided to poach the eggs using a method I’d read about online, by cracking your eggs into twists of saran wrap so that the whites wouldn’t disperse and the eggs wouldn’t have the hockey puck shape you get when you poach them in an egg cup. This trick would’ve worked brilliantly if I hadn’t used cheap plastic wrap that melted in hot water upon contact. Oops.


A few weeks ago I saw Sofia Copolla’s latest movie, Somewhere. I was disappointed by it (I tried hard to feel something for the main character, but whatever I felt was closer to irritation and boredom than sympathy.) My favourite scene, though, is when his daughter wakes up early and makes them the most gorgeous eggs benedict – there she is in the picture above, fishing out the eggs. It was immensely satisfying to watch her as she snipped chives over the pale yellow, creamy sauce with kitchen shears.

So, hollandaise sauce. I would try again. In the meantime I’d made mayonnaise, crème brulee and lemon curd, and they’d turned out okay, so why couldn’t I do this? The recipe is simple enough: you whisk 3 egg yolks and a little lemon juice over low heat until it thickens. You whisk in some melted butter (by “some” I mean an entire cup of it). Ta da.

I’d blocked out the exact details of how a sauce splits, what it looks like. I whisked the egg yolks frantically over gently simmering water and kept wondering if it was happening. If it was splitting. There’s this magic moment when you’re making a sauce when you realize that it’s thickened into something that, as the recipe says, coats the back of your spoon or ribbons away from your whisk. Whenever this happens to me, I feel like I’ve done something alchemical, like I’ve conquered a complex physics problem. It’s more intense than the feeling I get when I bake – with a cake the magic happens while it’s shut away in the oven; I don’t see it before my very eyes.

The egg yolks finally thickened and I cheered and then I had to dribble in the melted butter, which was more awkward than I thought it would be. I was whisking and dribbling, and the bowl was spinning in circles. I persevered and there it was – a hollandaise sauce! A little too lemony (I enthusiastically squeezed the lemon directly in instead of measuring), but it was still pale yellow and pretty. I’d been so focused on the sauce (and also afraid that it would fail) that I hadn’t bothered preparing the rest of the meal, toasting the English muffins or cooking the ham or poaching the eggs, so by the time that part was done, the sauce had cooled down. I reheated it slowly and spooned it over the first plate of bread, ham and eggs. I set the bowl aside above the pot, and made the plate look pretty. I admired it and patted myself on the back and felt as accomplished as Cleo in Somewhere.

And then I went back to the sauce and realized that resting the bowl above simmering heat hadn’t been a very good idea. The image of a split sauce came flooding back and I grabbed the whisk and started stirring, but it was too late. A split sauce looks like the worst parts of what it’s composed of – oily fats and spongy yolks. The reality is that you are coating your eggs in more eggs and lots of butter. It’s like eating bacon with a side of bacon. The rest of the bowl went in the trash, and Andrew and I shared the first plate, which despite the half-success of the meal, was still delicious. Ta da.

Welcome, 2011

Finished productOne recipe turned out better than the other.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you had relaxing holidays, that you ate and drank well, that you spent an entire day in your pj’s at least once. I was in Toronto over Christmas, and did exactly that, which meant that I didn’t see much more than my parents’ house and some close friends. I came down with a cold, but luckily (or not?) it was the kind that didn’t affect my appetite, so there was lots of baking too. Lesley gave me a copy of the Gourmet Cookie Book, and it’s full of interesting recipes – not one single chocolate chip cookie! – and I would like to bake my way through it. It’s an interesting read, too, since it picks one cookie recipe per year, so you can see the progression of cookies in America from 1941 onwards. Continue reading