Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've been the Markin-Flanagan Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary since mid-August and I've had a fabulous and productive month. From my 11th floor office I managed to complete a handful of freelance pieces for magazines and, more importantly, another chapter in my Walls project. A first draft of my Ceuta and Melilla chapter is now in the proverbial can.

I am both thrilled and startled at my productivity here. It makes me wonder why I couldn't get so much done at my office at home. (That office is now a nursery - my next 'project' is a collaboration with my wife and will be released in the next few weeks.) Perhaps I've gotten so much work done here at the University because the writing has never felt so much like a job. I get up in the morning, tuck a sandwich into a Ziplock, and head to the office. I have business cards and an office phone number. I have regular hours in which I do manuscript consultations, an online calender, and - miracles of miracles - a salary.

I already worry what will happen when this delicious gig ends in June. I hope I can keep up my momentum.

I am an alumnus of the University of Calgary and a former member with the varsity wrestling team. I stopped being a competitive wrestler when I graduated in 1996 - though some of my teammates, and certainly some opponents, might say I stopped being competitive long before that. I returned to the wrestling room for a few months in 2003 and 2004 as part of my the preparation for my book Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran. The book chronicled my travels through Iran in search of Persian poetry and traditional wrestlers. I planned on wrestling in Iran and wanted some mat-time back home to get my body fit enough that I wouldn't end up hospitalized.

Now I am back on the mat again. Since I spend most of my day on campus, and since I really miss the sport, I am taking advantage of my proximity to the old wrestling room. Last night was my first practice. It hurt.

There was something intensely satisfying about the rituals of a wrestling practice. The give of the mat beneath my boots. The warm-up stretches. Bending knees and bumping foreheads. Then, on the ground, pressing your body into to the mat to fight the strain that turns to pain before the turn. The familiar feel of ribs against wrist, of fingers on forearms. The slow soak of sweat and knee-pad stink. The brief camaraderie strangers share in combat. I was the oldest wrestler on the mat by at least 15 years, easily the slowest and most likely the weakest. Still, it felt good. Really good.

I am curious to see what effect these tri-weekly battles will have on my writing. In Poets and Pahlevans, I traveled through Iran looking for the connections between combat and creativity. Now I will do the same here on more familiar ground. I just hope I survive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Great Home Chefs

My freelance writing career has been typically feast or famine. This September I am feasting.

In addition to the Maisonneuve piece I mentioned in my last post, and a story about Tangier in this month's Westworld Magazine, I wrote the cover story in today's Swerve Magazine. In it, I profile five great amateur chefs of Calgary and attempt to understand what motivates them to make magic in their home kitchens. The photos, by Marc Rimmer, are marvelous.

Since any discussion of great home chefs has to include someone's grandmother, I thought I might as well include my own. That's her holding the giant meatball.

The story is titled "From their kitchens with love."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Biography of a Café

Earlier this year I had the great honour to read at a Jerusalem café-bookstore called Tmol Shilshom. (I mentioned this in a previous post.) I'd been wanting to read at the café for years, and it was a fabulous night.

Tmol Shilshom has a fascinating history. The café's opening night event in 1994 featured the beloved Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and granted the café a literary cachet. Since then, the café has become a place for authors to both read and write. Some of the world's most celebrated writers have graced the lecturn at Tmol Shilshom: Amos Oz, Yann Martel, Frank McCourt, as well as lesser scribblers such as myself. The café is a centre for Jerusalem's contemporary culture, and one of my favourite places in the world.

I wrote a 'biography' of Tmol Shilshom two years ago, and the story has finally has seen the light of print. The piece is called "Book not Bombs" and it appears in a fine Montreal magazine called Maisonneuve. You can find it on better magazine racks in Canada.