Tag Archives: Writers

The columnist versus the commons

All who have written for the newspaper editorial section know what readers know, that theirs is a strange and, in some respects, ridiculous task. We understand how tedious it can be to discover us, once again, with our opinions of the moment. In the defence of editorialists, however, I’ll note it’s simply the case that someone must fill the area between the ads, and a fellow with something to say about the President’s latest tweet (or whatever) is a cost-effective proposition. Not only this, comment sections are as a rule popular features of a paper. As a result you are probably stuck with us, as we with you. This being so, isn’t it time we confessed to some unspoken truths of editorial, opinion, or political writing?

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The Ottawa Book Awards and new work from Chelsea Vowel


I’ve been working away these past months at the 2016 Ottawa Book Awards reading list. One of three jurors in the non-fiction category, I drew up my list of finalists this past week, along with my colleagues. I’m pleased to say there was consensus on three of our top five selections. Early in June, I expect, we’ll sort matters out.

There’s an opportunity cost to a commitment of this scale. I agreed to read 21 books in about as many weeks, some of them rather hefty and dense. That’s a lot of hours I could have been doing many other things, but I did enjoy the labour and along the way discovered some books I might not have found otherwise.

Now I have a smallish library of book award books I will be passing along. Only a couple weeks ago I (once again) thinned out the over-flowing shelves, and I’ve no desire to go backwards. Already I have specific books in mind for specific people. And I wish I could tell you what I’ve read and what I thought about it, but until the requisite announcements have been made, I’m keeping my reading list and my thoughts private.

In the meantime, here’s a book I’m looking forward to reading, to recommending, and to giving away. It’s by Chelsea Vowel, more widely known by the name âpihtawikosisân. The book will be released in September but is available now for pre-order.


Uncle Al

Uncle Al

HE WAS, quite simply, one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known.

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The Cree should have a flip-chart easel ceremony. No, just kidding.


THERE’S AN EASY WAY to tell you’ve been spending too much time with the Cree, and it’s this:

When you find yourself saying, “No, just kidding” every time you are just kidding.

As in, “Three guys walk into a bar. No, just kidding.”

If you know any Cree people, you know what I’m talking about.

And speaking of the Cree…

…a long, long, long time ago, the indigenous people of this land had an important right of passage.

When a young man, or a young woman, reached the ceremonial age, all of the people in the community would gather at a sacred spot.

Maybe in the woods, or at the centre of the village, or in the longhouse near the fires. Every nation had their own, sacred spot.

They would call the young man, or young woman, before the gathered community.

It would get very quiet. Electricity would pass through the crowd. Everyone would watch transfixed.

Because the special day had arrived to present the young man, or the young woman, with his, or her …

very own flip-chart easel.

Okay, I made this up. But the point of the story is that today I bought a flip-chart easel.

And owning my own flip-chart easel makes me feel all grown up, or something.

It’s not my company’s flip-chart easel, or my team’s, or my business partner’s. It’s MINE.

And there are so many uses for a flip-chart easel that I can’t believe everyone doesn’t have one of his, or her, own.

I think that’s because there are no decent flip-chart easel ceremonies.

Anyway, from now on I’m going to do everything by flip chart.

Christmas cards, love letters, and tax returns can all totally be done on a flip chart, and why they aren’t already is truly a mystery to me.

You can even set it up on the bus, during the ride from Staples to the subway home, and do a team-building workshop. Trust me, I thought about it.

Here’s just the first of many uses I have found for my flip-chart easel.


So, yeah, I think I’ll do only flip-chart-Twitter from now on.

And here’s another use, which will finally resolve something I’ve been meaning to tell my son.


No, just kidding.

Is one of these your perfect journal?


Yes, it’s true: I have a lot of blank books

DOZENS OF THEM, tucked away in a drawer, waiting to be filled with the URLs of websites I’ve discovered, lists of books to read, ideas, things overheard on the subway, recipes, interviews, and other ephemera.

If there was a TV show about people with a lot of blank books, I’d probably be on it. Not that I’m a hoarder. I try to keep my stationery fetish in check: for every blank book that I buy, there are at least ten I would like to buy but don’t. And I fill these books up pretty quick.


They come from all over the world, in many sizes and shapes and textures and colors. Some blank books are almost too beautiful to write in. I’ve coveted, but have never bought, a Cavallini Roma Lussa journal. This week I saw one at The Paper Place, here in Toronto. These journals are works of art, more suitable for use as a Downton Abbey prop than for defacing with my prosaic grocery lists.

Roma Lussa, a journal good enough to eat

Roma Lussa, a journal good enough to eat

What makes a blank book great?

I look for specific qualities in a blank book. To be great, the following criteria must be met.

Good binding. I want my books to lay flat. If I have to use a hand to keep it open while I write, I’m probably going to pass. Although ring bindings are best for books that open and lay flat, my preference is for stitched bindings. Rings add bulk and also can get caught on clothing or the lining of a satchel. Glue bindings can come loose, so I look for paper that has been gathered into signatures and threaded with a quality material.

Proper lines. By this I mean the lines should give me enough room for my writing but not be so generous that I can’t get a decent amount of text on the page. As I get older, the balance changes. I now look for more line height, since my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Also, I pass on a blank book if the lines don’t go to the edge of the page. I don’t have a good reason for this: I just think that lines which go to the edge of the page look nicer. It’s probably just me having an OCD moment.

Good paper. Again, this is objective. Because I write with a fountain pen, bleeding can be an issue. Also, the paper should take up the ink without feathering. Nowadays most journals pass these tests, so really what I’m looking for is a paper that feels and looks decent. Like most of these criteria, this is subjective. Over the years, I’ve learned which journals provide for the best writing. More on that in a moment.

Good covers. Have you ever bought a shrink-wrapped journal? Then, after a couple weeks of use, you discover that the covers curl? I’ve had this experience enough times that I now usually avoid anything shrink-wrapped. A cover should feel good in the hand, protect the pages, and keep its shape. I also prefer that it not have writing. So I mostly avoid journals that say JOURNAL on them, or that have inspirational quotations. An embossed logo is fine, since it’s subtle and blends in. Other than that, the plain old cover is for me.

Pockets. This one is optional. I won’t pass over a journal that doesn’t have pockets, but if it meets all the other criteria and also has a place to tuck receipts and lists, then bonus points. The Moleskine notebooks have a cover flap which serves this function, and I love it.

Here are some of my all-time favorite journals

You can’t not mention Clarefontaine. They make great papers. You can throw anything at a Clarefontaine journal, no problems. The most saturated ink will not bleed or feather. They come in a huge variety of formats. There are pockets. The covers have a great hand-feel. They stand up well to abuse. And Clarefontaine is a well-priced product, aiming at the practical rather than the precious. This was purchased at the most excellent Paper Papier in Ottawa, my 3rd fav stationery store in Canada. Buy something there and say Hi to Gary.

I had no idea until this week that Coach House Press made blank books. I don’t know why every publisher doesn’t make a journal that conforms to its book specs. I would definitely buy a Penguin or Random House or Oxford University Press or Anansi blank book that looked and felt like their paper backs. Especially Anansi. (P.S. I found this at Wonder Pens on Dundas West.)

This is the Moleskine large notebook in the new Cranberry color, purchased at Valhalla Cards. I have already put a big thumbprint on it, and I guess that’s my only complaint about these. For some reason they seem to attract stains. I have these in three colors: Black is business, grey is personal research, and kraft is scribbles. I don’t know what cranberry is yet, but this is an unlined journal so I may dedicate it to sketches, mind maps and planning.


Another Moleskine, in landscape. Like the journal below, this can be used as a reporter’s notebook, and that’s what I’m going to do. (Found in Vancouver at Paper-Ya.)

Most journals are standard book format, so I’m always on the look-out for something unusual. I like the A5. In fact, I really like European paper sizes. For some reason that tiny difference of a few millimetres, between Letter and A4, really works for me. So I’m looking forward to opening this A5 journal and using it with my interviews. (Also from Paper-Ya.)

SQUARE NOTEBOOKS! They are so, so hard to find, and I really like them. Rarely do I pass up a square notebook. The Pocket Dept. notebooks are pretty decent. Nice laid paper, solid bindings. This one is the perfect size: 6X6. It’s called the Backpack, and that’s probably where it will go. Love it! (Bought at Valhalla Cards, Queen Street West, Toronto.)

Ah, Pressbound. It’s the brain-child of Melissa Gruntkosky. I’m an Art Deco junkie, and so her vintage designs paired with quality hand-made paper is irresistible. I love everything about Melissa. On her About page she gives her grandma a shout-out and says she loves beer. Grandma-shout-outs+beer+top-quality-journals=big win. What are you waiting for? Go buy something.

This Rialto Books “Venetian hand-bound” leather journal, by Darren Cole of Toronto, was a gift. Again, almost too nice to write in. But one day soon….

I found this Rustico felt journal cover at Paper-Ya in Vancouver, my second-fav stationery store in Canada. (My #1 fav is the mind-blowing Papeterie Nota Bene, in Montreal. It’s so good I’m scared to go there.) The refills are hard to find here in Toronto, but fortunately a Moleskine (just barely) will fit.

Here’s a Senfort ring-bound journal from Wallack’s. I like the heavy plasticized cover. This is one rugged journal. The paper is also very nice.

Last, but not least, Twin Ring. These are great, and they seem to be everywhere. I bought this one at a now-defunct Ottawa stationery store. They come in a variety of formats and colors. They really do provide satisfaction, as the cover states. By the way, does anyone know if the text is Engrish? Or maybe even faux Engrish? It’s just “off” enough that it kind of makes you chuckle. Anyway, Engrish is brilliant.

How about you?

Now it’s your turn to tell me about your great blank books!

Find me on Twitter. Check out my latest book.


Dear Mister Captain—please let me on the life boat


NOTE—This piece is based on a writing assignment in the book 642 Things to Write About, published by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto:

“Only ten people will fit in the life raft. Convince the Captain that you should be one of them.”

MR SMITH? Hi!—sorry about the mister. I realize I should have said captain. I know it’s not the best time, with the boat sinking and all, but I’ve been meaning to say that’s a nice uniform. The contrast of black and gold is masculine, audacious even, and conveys authority—while also being stylish. So often these days dress is nothing but function. Or you have uniforms like on the Love Boat, which have no gravitas whatsoever. I mean, short-sleeves? Really? Captain Stubing was no Mr. Smith, if you ask me. Sure, he was pleasant, but is pleasant really what you want when the ship is going down? Which brings me to what I was hoping to discuss with you, and I know you’re a busy man. All I’m asking for is a minute of your time and that you’ll consider letting me on the life boat. This is my story.

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I am fighting the war for freedom on eBay


YEARS AGO, I bought the 1929 Elgin art deco watch pictured above. Recently the crystal fell out and the minute hand caught on my jacket sleeve and was pulled off.

Off I went to the neighborhood repair person, an old-school Eastern European who I’ve done business with before. Our conversation went something like this.

Can I has more? Click for more!