Thursday, February 28, 2008


Over the past two weeks I've been doing a lot of reading and just plain chatting with children learning English as a second language. Last Thursday a little boy and I were reading a book together about lizards. Half way through, he stopped to tell me something very important:

"In my house in Istanbul the lee-sards made a nest but we couldn't find it. My mom was so mad. She hates lee-sards. Me, I like to catch them."

"That's not easy. What do you do with them once you catch them?"

"I take them outside and let them go."

"That's kind of you."

"I like catching snails, too. My sister, she likes to step on them. I think she likes the way it sounds. CRSPLTCH!"

Some things require no translation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


"Look at all the hair!"

I don't know who said it first--the doctor or Daddy. You see, your big sister, Emma the Brave, was born bald. In fact, she stayed bald for almost a year. We assumed you'd be the same. It never occurred to us that you'd come out with a full head of hair and hollering like you did. It was like you wanted Daddy and me to know that you weren't just another girl-- you were Mighty Mouse.

Later that day, you met Emma and Granny. Granny gave you a nice cuddle. Emma gave you a kiss. And someone--your Nanna and Poppa, I think--gave you Pink Bear, the love of your life.

That night I laid awake beside you, watching you sleep. Now that you were out where I could see you, I could barely close my eyes. And you think you're excited about your birthday! Mommy was more.

Today you're five, sweet pea, and I can't help but wonder how that happened so fast. Know that Mommy loves you for a million-and-one reasons. You're smart and patient and kind and generous. You love to dance and sing and draw and dream. You can even burp like a pirate! But never forget the most important reason of all: Mommy loves you because you're Mighty Mouse.

Happy Birthday, baby girl!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams

I just finished reading The Night of the Iguana, a play by Tennessee Williams. Actually, I read it twice. The first time through I played Charlotte Goodall, the lusty 16-year-old in love with the wanton minister-turn-tour guide, Reverend Shannon. The second time I was Hannah Jelkes, the virginal artist-spinster traveling with Jonathan Coffin, her grandfather and world's oldest living and practicing poet. It pains me to admit that I made a better Hannah. I think my Charlotte days are over. Pity.

But seriously, the real pity is that plays don't hit the bookstores like their prose counterparts. Theatrical writing, when done well, is truly impressive. It amazes me how much can be conveyed about the human experience using only a thin web of dialogue and the odd stage direction. I came across this particular copy of the script because the Geneva English Drama Society had posted an audition call. Had I not toyed with the idea of auditioning, I have no clue how I would have come across a copy, particularly here in Geneva. It's true, I haven't lived in North America for a while, so maybe the bookstores are packed with the works of contemporary playwrights, but I have my doubts.

So, what is my opinion of Mr. Williams' The Night of the Iguana? It's certainly worth seeing performed. Will I attend the auditions? Maybe, but only as a spectator. I think my life has enough drama for the moment without an iguana.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Blogging My Novel: Week 15

If there is one thing I've come to know about myself it's that, like a fly to a lightbulb, I am drawn to drama. Just when I've finally gained more time to myself than I've ever wanted or needed, I've gone and given a huge chunk of it away. This past week I started volunteering at a private English school not far from here, spending two full days surrounded by five- to seven-year-olds.

Do not interpret this gesture on my part as an act of martyrdom or self-flagellation. I have a purely selfish reason for this burst of melodrama: I want to know, for once and for all, if a career in teaching would be right for me. When I applied to physiotherapy school, I had to include a second choice on my application. It was teaching. As fortune would have it, I got into physiotherapy school on the first round so my fall back choice wasn't necessary, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Oh, there's no doubt that children are benefiting from this mostly introspective experiment. In only two days on the job, I've spent hours listening to children read in what, for some, is their third or fourth language. But, truthfully, it's already been enlightening. Even if I never pursue my teaching certification, I've discovered that helping children learn to read is immensely rewarding.

And what about writing, you ask? The novel? Michelle? Clarissa? What about them?

Well, I've had to switch gears, writing at night after the girls are in bed. Historically speaking, this is not my best time of day, but I am determined to plug on. I've arranged to exchange manuscripts with another children's writer on March 15th and I'd like to be as close to finished as possible. With the new time crunch, I've had to become more organized, taking time to plan in advance what I want to write before I actually sit down to do it. So far, so good. I'm 1000 words further than I was last week, which is better than nothing.

Back when I was revising The Odd Chicken Out, I asked a good writing friend how to best tackle the task. She said, "Take it one bird at a time." I did and it worked. Here's hoping I can do it again!

Simple Pleasures

Tulips by Migros. Photo by the Captain.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Odd Chicken Out

You were warned: I told you I was not above writing stories about talking animals. Here is the first chapter of a 'chapter book' I've written. I'd say the target audience is 5 to 8-year-olds. I know it's not the 15th of the month but I couldn't resist letting Clarissa fly. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Clarissa never thought herself to be anything but ordinary. She'd been hatched in a large metal incubator surrounded by dozens of other chicks identical to herself. Once they'd all dried out and were sufficiently fluffy, she and the others had been plopped, one by one, into small pink and yellow cardboard boxes lined with straw and sold as Easter presents. Of course, when she started to look more like a hen than a chick, she was packed up again, this time to live with The Farmer. But despite all this moving about, Clarissa felt herself to be nothing unusual. That is, until she met Dorothea.

Dorothea was the largest and whitest hen in The Farmer’s coop. She came strutting over the moment Clarissa arrived.

“I didn’t know they still made brown chickens,” said Dorothea, looking Clarissa up and down.

“Well, I-I-I’ve never seen a white one,” said Clarissa.

A nervous giggle burst from a flock of six white hens clustered near the henhouse door.

“And so small,” Dorothea continued, “I bet you don’t even lay yet.”


The flock giggled again.

“Eggs, you ninny,” said Dorothea, rolling her bulging red eyes.

“Well no… Not yet,” said Clarissa, stooping to eat some feed.

Suddenly Clarissa felt a sharp peck on the head, then a shove that sent her tumbling across the yard.

“Until you lay, you eat last,” said Dorothea. Now the cluster of white hens was silent and staring, their beaks wide open.

Slowly Clarissa picked herself up and limped into the henhouse. She was no longer ordinary. She was the odd chicken out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Going Local

It will soon be four years that we've lived in Geneva. When we arrived, the girls had been one and three years old respectively and Mighty Mouse, the youngest, had been sick. I, myself, had been recovering from every '-itis' known to man. Unlike Captain Kirk, who had spent most of his life in bilingual Montreal, I spoke just enough French to get through the grocery store unscathed. But, when we made the decision to come, it was with the intent to live here, meaning we planned to integrate and, as much as possible, live like locals.

As you can well imagine, this was no easy feat. I can't tell you how many times people frowned as I tried to speak French or switched to English to put us out of our collective misery. But I persevered. I came to know the shopkeeper at the Corsier boulangerie and the vendors at the Friday marché. Like so many locals, they all spoke a smattering of English, but I stubbornly stuck to French and invited them to correct me. I scanned the Corsier phone book to find a doctor for me and a vet for Honey, disregarding the well-intended recommendations from other expats of professionals who spoke English. I knew if I had the choice to speak my mother tongue, I would. I secretly prayed that neither Honey nor I would become acutely ill before my French came up to par.

Don't get me wrong--I didn't shun the expatriate community. On the contrary, they were my life line. Spouses of my husband's English-speaking colleagues became fast friends. I knew if I ever got in a pinch they would be there to help me, no questions asked. They recommended bilingual play groups for the girls and took me to those first doctors' appointments so I wouldn't have to risk getting lost. On my own, I sought out the Geneva Writers' Group, the Library in English and the Geneva English Drama Society. Knowing that I could come up for some 'anglo' air every once in a while was an immeasurable comfort.

When it came time for Emma, my oldest, to start school, we considered the private English schools in the area, but, in the end, chose the local school in Corsier. Had we stayed in Canada, we would have, at the very least, sent our girls to an immersion program where the majority of instruction would have been given in French. While this simplified our decision, it didn't make it easy. Emma was intensely shy and reluctant to speak. She chewed holes through the cuffs of her shirts for the first five weeks. In Canada, she would have had the respite of speaking English on the play ground, but not here.

It wasn't easy for me either. At 11:30 each day I joined the other mothers in the school yard who, too, were waiting to bring their children home for lunch. For months, their rapid-fire French swarmed beyond my slow comprehension. On parents night, I could barely understand the teacher. When notes were sent home, I had to break out my dictionary every single time. It was lonely and frustrating and incredibly slow to change--but it did.

Emma received extra tutorials at school along with some other non-francophones. I signed up for French lessons, even learning the slippery subjonctif! I read my first novel in French, le Petit Prince, and then my second, Oscar et la dame rose. But, most importantly, I made friends--locals who were patient enough to speak slowly, listen carefully, and let me into their world. For them, I am so grateful.

Going local isn't for everyone. It takes an incredible amount of time and patience. Would I have done the same if the language had been Hindi or Cantonese? Good question. After almost four years I can't say I'm truly 'there'. I might never be. Like so many things in life, it's a journey, not a destination. I'm just glad I got on the bus.

Monday, February 18, 2008


I asked the girls to draw themselves. They decided to draw themselves as teenagers.

Emma , age 14

Mighty Mouse, age 12
(Emma wouldn't let her be 14, too. "That would be impossible!")

Handbags, a mini-skirt, and a hippie dress--I think I'm in trouble.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Simple Pleasures - Macaroni Monday

I have a confession: I love Kraft Dinner. I blame it on my mother.*

It's not that our family never ate macaroni and cheese. We did. Every few weeks, Mom (read 'Mum') would buy an authentic Kraft kit. Of course, it wasn't the classic version with the unmistakable school-bus yellow cheese powder and straight noodles, but rather the deluxe kit containing veritable elbow macaroni and sauce à la Velveeta in a can. It was not so much the upgrade I had issue with; it was the corruption: she flatly refused to serve it without mixing in ground beef and stewed tomatoes. Oh, the horror!

So now I'm a grown woman using sketchy importation practices to maintain my private stash of KD in Switzerland. Supplies permitting, these delectable, almost phosphorescent noodles are on the menu every Monday midi. At least half the children of Corsier vie to be on the guest list on this, the ultimate lunch day at chez Miller. And here it is served as KD was meant to be eaten--with all vegetables and rogue sources of protein on the side. (Evelyn sometimes adds ketchup--it gives me chills.)

For the past three weeks, the girls have had to endure my homemade version, complete with minced onions and Gruyère--recipe below. Poor souls. They've braved it well. Then yesterday, under the guise of a late Christmas present, our stash was replenished. Alleluia!! We're good for another couple of weeks, at least.

So there it is, my first electronic confession. I feel better now...and a bit hungry. Too bad it's not Monday.

Melissa's Macaroni and Cheese
serves 4
2 tsp butter
2 tbsp minced onions
2 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp each dry mustard, salt, and paprika
1/8 tsp pepper
1 1/4 cup milk
3 ounces shredded Gruyère
1 ounce shredded pecorino romano
8 ounces macaroni noodles cooked according to package directions
  • Melt the butter in a sauce pan.
  • Sauté onions until sweet and soft but not coloured.
  • Add flour and spices and cook, stirring, for 1 minute
  • Whisk in milk and heat until bubbling and thickened.
  • Add cheeses and stir until melted.
  • Toss with cooked pasta and serve with a side salad.
*Just checking if you're reading, Mom! Oh, could you send me some more KD, please? I love you! : )))

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blogging My Novel: Week 14

It's vacance de février here in Geneva. Most everyone has gone to the mountains. Not us, of course. We got that out of our systems a few weeks ago. Instead, it's been me and the girls from the moment they've woken to the moment I pass out after tucking them in. Don't get me wrong--it's been wonderful. We made apple crisp one night, and chocolate fondue for Valentine's Day. I taught them to play Crazy Eights. They let me win the first hand but have been merciless ever since. We've swum, gone scootering, and tomorrow we'll ski. It's been a fabulous week.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with writing a novel?

Not a blessed thing. Too tired to novel.

So, without further ado, my first chapter.

Read while I weep.

Gone: A Novel for Middle Grade Readers

Chapter 1

Cooking spray on the girls’ bathroom toilet seat requires payback. Period.

That’s what I was thinking as I spread the last of my glue stick over Joey Singh’s desk chair.

“Oh, man! I’m out,” I said, shoving the empty glue tube into my coat pocket, “Quick! Give me yours.”

Katie looked away from her post at the classroom door. Her normally almond-shaped eyes were as round as two jawbreakers. “You’re kidding, right?” Still bundled in her parka and toque, sweat was beading on the bridge of her nose.

“Quick!” I said, “We need to get back outside before The Beetle notices.”

Katie ran to her desk and lifted the top. A pile of papers sprung loose sending pieces drifting to floor. For Katie, this was normal. She kept everything.

“Hurry!” I whispered. Outside, kids were yelling like crazy. Someone playing kick ball must have scored.

Katie finally pulled out her glue stick and tossed it to me. “Don’t use it all,” she said, running back to the door, “It’s brand new.”

I popped off the lid and cranked it up. There was enough to do Sebastian’s seat, too, if I worked quickly.

I had just finished off Joey’s seat back when Katie said, “Uh, Michelle…”


“I think she wants to tell you I’m here.”

Uh oh.

Mrs. Bee filled the classroom door wearing the long, black leather coat that had earned her the nickname ‘The Beetle’ from the entire 6th grade. A new hat made of what appeared to be the pelt of a full grown beaver sat on top of her head.

“The two of you will clean up the mess you’ve made of that chair, then go straight to Mr. Bruno’s office.”

Luckily, wet paper towels and hand soap from the girls bathroom were enough to make Joey’s seat clean again. I have to admit I was relieved. If we’d had to bother Claude the Creepy Custodian during his lunch hour it would have been worse than three trips to Mr. Bruno put together. With that done, Mrs. Bee marched us to the front office.

“Is Howard in, Marjorie?” asked Mrs. Bee. Marjorie Dugan was the school secretary. Every one said she’d been here when Mr. Bruno was a student. She had to be at least a hundred but you’d never guess. She could see and hear things better than Grandma Louise, and that’s saying something.

“He’s in, but he’s on a call.” Mrs. Dugan pointed a crooked finger at the little orange light on her phone.

The Beetle flicked a leather-gloved hand toward the waiting area, implying we should sit. Katie chose one of the four wooden chairs that faced the secretary’s desk. I sat down next to her and counted the number of times Mrs. Bee sighed as she paced back and forth across the room. I was up to thirteen when Mrs. Dugan said, “He’s off now.”

The Beetle spun on her heel and rapped hard on Mr. Bruno’s office door. Without waiting for an answer she went in and closed the door after her. I listened hard but could only hear the odd word over Mrs. Dugan’s typing.

“…do something… property… stop…”

I stole a look at Katie. Her face was snowball white. This would be twice in one week for her. On Monday she’d been caught sending me a note during French that was written in English. Apparently Mrs. Bee wants us to keep to the curriculum even when we’re breaking the rules. Katie’s dad had threatened to take away her phone if she got in trouble again before Christmas, so this could be it.

“How come you didn’t hear her coming?” I whispered.

Katie kept staring at her hands that were folding and refolding on her lap. “She got mukluks.”

“No talking, girls,” said Mrs. Dugan, not missing a beat.

Sure enough, when Mr. Bruno’s office door opened, The Beetle reappeared wearing the furry brown Eskimo boots in question. Her steps were silent.

“You girls can go back to class now—,” said Mrs. Bee.

Katie let out a huge sigh as we both moved to leave.

“—Someone will come get you when your parents arrive.”

Back in class, Mrs. Bee started teaching fractions. Math is not one of my better subjects and the current situation didn’t help. It was my turn to do a problem at the board when there was a knock at the classroom door. For a split second, I was almost relieved.

“Never mind, Michelle. You and Katie go with Mrs. Dugan. Joseph, let’s have you try this one.”

“No problem, Mrs. Bee.” Joey slid out of his seat, two back from mine, and nudged me on the shoulder as he strutted toward the front of the class. Sometimes I hated him so much my teeth ached.

“Now, Michelle!” Mrs. Bee’s voice was so needle sharp I think half the class jumped.

Five words ran laps through my head as I followed Katie out into the hall: Please let it be Dad. Please let it be Dad. Please let it be Dad. Please let it be Dad…

When we got to the office, my mother and Katie’s father were already seated in the two arm chairs facing Mr. Bruno’s desk. Mom’s eyes were closed and she was pinching the soft spot between them the way she does when Grandma Louise calls. Next to Mr. Wu is his fancy grey suit, Mom looked tired and thin and kind of old still wearing her uniform from the restaurant. A blood vessel, pale and blue, twitched near her temple. This was new.

Suddenly I felt bad. Really bad, like when I accidentally dropped Nana’s gold brooch down the sewer. It didn’t matter what Mr. Bruno was going to say. I was sorry already.

Read Chapter 2 here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Change Crusader

"I'm pregnant!"

"Me, too."

It should have come as no surprise. We'd lived our lives that way, my cousin, Sherry and I. We'd discovered our first strands of gray hair within days of each other. Our first apartments had been only floors apart. Born with only four months between us, our respective graduations, weddings and babies occurred so close to the others' that our hairstyles barely had time to change between photos. But then, on March 27, 2005, our lives parted company: Sherry's third child, Ashley, was born and nearly died the same day.

Almost three years later, Ashley lives on. Her story is Sherry's to tell. She's started a blog that I hope soon she will be ready to share. For now, Sherry has become a Change Crusader, raising money for The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto where Ashley was saved. Children from all over the world are brought to this incredible center for care they would never be able to receive or afford anyplace else. If you have means, please click here and give what you can.

Miracles can happen. I know one named Ashley.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Apple Seeds

"Look at them all, Mighty Mouse! We're going to grow tons of apples."


The girls stand over a plate piled with apple seeds, ones they've dug from the cores themselves.

"Can we plant them now, Mommy?'

"Uh, I don't know." And that's the truth. I have no idea if you can just plant an apple seed. It sounds too easy. "I need to look it up."

I head to the computer and, within a few clicks, enter the world of plant propagation, a world complete with it's own vocabulary: words like rootstock, scion, hybridization and pollination are everywhere.

It would appear that modern day apples, the ones we buy at the grocery store are hybrids. This means they are the result of two or more types of trees that have been grafted together. There is only a 30% chance of a seed germinating and growing to full size, and that's assuming the seed is not sterile to begin with. Even then, there is only a 5% chance that the mature tree will bear fruit and it could take up to 10 years to find out. It is almost definitive that the apples will not resemble the fruit from which the seed came from, and, in fact, may be completely inedible. Add to this the pollination wild card (i.e. tree sex) and you've really got a crap shoot.

I never imagined I'd ever be so disillusioned by an apple seed.

"So, Mommy, can we plant them?"

"Yeah, can we?"

I look at them, their big blue eyes so hopeful. I shut down my browser and push my keyboard away. "Come on. Let's do it."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Book Review: The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

During a blizzard in 1964, Dr. David Henry is forced to deliver his own twins. His son is born normal, his daughter, with Down's Syndrome. He asks the nurse in attendance to bring the girl child to an institution, telling his wife that their daughter was stillborn. The nurse disappears with the child and raises her as her own. This is their story.

Let me begin by saying Kim Edwards is a fabulous wordsmith. Her imagery is fresh, yet doesn't jar the reader from the story she is telling. She creates a sense of place and mood as completely as Dickens. And the story's premise--how a monstrous secret can infiltrate and destroy a family--compels the reader right through to its final pages.

Let me qualify my next comments by a little self-disclosure: I don't have a particularly long attention span and, at this time of year, I get about ten minutes of reading in each night before I find myself drooling on the pillow, my book on the floor. That said, I found the pacing of this novel a bit slow. By the end I found myself skipping from one burst of dialogue to the next, too eager to reach its conclusion to appreciate the authors undaunted descriptive skill. I suppose therein lies my draw towards children's literature. Kids are ruthless: get on with it or I'm going on the computer.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter is a beautiful study of human nature. Every expecting parent prays for a healthy child. The consequences of a child born with illness and/or disability are life changing. This story is the result of one father's decision, one he lives to regret. I'm so grateful to Barbara, my mother-in-law, for the gift of this book. It deserves a second read in the summer when I'm not so darn sleepy.

Buying Local

Distance terroir to table: 1 kilometer.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Poop Patrol

You can't say we didn't give her fair warning. Emma was told three months ago about one of life's indisputable truths, that seven-year-olds pick up poop.

I thought it best to break her into the task on the backyard. To her credit, she didn't complain. She even seemed a little excited. Honey had been back from the kennel just three days, so there were only six surprises to be found. A half hour later we were treated with a fresh one. I wish you could have heard her surprise.

"Mommy, why's it so warm?"


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

House Envy

For years now I've experienced house envy. Perhaps it's because I've yet to own one--a classic case of 'the grass is always greener.'

My first symptoms presented shortly after we moved to Vancouver. Having just bought Honey, I found myself roaming Kerrisdale at puppy pace on a regular basis. Not accustomed to exercise that didn't achieve a target heart rate, I was in sudden awe of my surroundings. There were buildings beyond those sidewalks and front lawns--and people lived in them!

It quickly got to the point where our route was determined by where my favourite houses were situated and which gardens were in bloom. Come Christmas, we would stray somewhat to accommodate homes that had perked up with a little seasonal attention. I was discrete, though I admit there were times I was tempted to peek in their windows.

So here is my latest affection. I never thought myself the 'rustic' type until moving to Switzerland. Modern construction in these parts is far too boxy and sterile for my tastes. I doubt this rustic treasure has a closet to speak of, but it's charming and, in my mind's eye, I'm curled up before a well stoked fire and no one's asking me for anything.

Hmm...perhaps it's not the house I'm craving...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

He Has a What?

We're driving to the gas station after school when Emma says, "Luca's daddy has a bomb."

"A what?" I look at her in the rear-view mirror. She's staring out her window at the Jura.

"A bomb. He told the whole class. He says it's big enough to blow up a house."

While this reeks of childhood fabrication, I can't help but try to remember which dad is Luca's. "Really? What does he use it for?"

"Luca says he uses it if someone kicks him."

I bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing out loud. "Kicks whom-- Luca or his dad?"

"I don't know."

We're both quiet as the wheat fields between us and the Tamoil station slip by. I'm tempted to let the conversation end. Kids lie for all sorts of reasons and this one of Luca's is a whopper--at least I hope it is. But curiosity gets the better of me and I ask another question. "So what do you think about that?"

Emma looks at me in the rear-view mirror and smiles. "I don't want us to ever have a bomb."

"Me neither. Do you want to know what I think?"

"What?" She's looking out her window again.

"I think Luca doesn't want to be kicked."

Emma nods. She already knows.