Posts Tagged With: writing

The Year of My Content

Cat crap coffee.

Worms and lime Jell-o.

Eggy burps and frog legs.

Boy/goat oral sex.

Derriere facials.

These are actual “search terms” that people have used, and in turn, have been directed to my blog because of. I will blame (and credit) my Africa posts for the landslide of readers wanting to learn more about parasites, diarrhoea, gin and snake bite remedies.

It’s been a year. A whole long-winded year of blogging. Rona Maynard, former editor of Chatelaine insisted I get my act together last April and take my Facebook community stage performance to a wider audience.  And what does she know? Well, when it comes to anything literary, writerly or necessary, she would be the woman I would choose to represent me for the Double Jeopardy question in any of those categories.  So I did.

“You really MUST have a blog (I say for the hundred and 99th time).”

–Rona Maynard, April 25th, 2009

Rona had been following my colourful (profanity-laden) posts of life in Uganda, when I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute. The graphic tales of nearly being shot, shitting my pants, mystery bites, eating termites with piss-warm beer  aged my parents about 20 years.

My blog evolved into an uncensored postcard. We all know letter carriers read our postcards—and with a blog, I was posting postcards to the world, essentially. Now I get immediate disclaimers from my parents and close friends: “Do NOT put that in your blog!” They’ve learned that if there’s no disclaimer, the material is fair game.

Last week, when my brother and I were particularly smiley from drinking old-fashioned whiskeys, we had a revelation. The blog had evolved into another purpose—it was my data bank–the hard drive of my mind! Dax and I were trying to remember my mother’s famous quote about boredom. We struggled for a good five minutes, trying to assist each other’s memory. Dax finally wisely said, “Oh, just look it up on your blog tomorrow.”

(And I did. I knew exactly where to find it. My mother had said, “Only boring people get bored.”)

Writing a weekly blog is self-indulgent. I get to explore all my passions without worrying about parameters (with only my fear of being boring in mind). Readers can tune in or be turned off in mere sentences. I’ve written about many controversial topics (Chaz Bono and her “gender variance”, the bushmeat trade in the Congo, Abbotsford gangs). I’ve detailed the side effects (read: toilet visits) of living in Africa and what happens when one eats fly-infested meat that has been hanging in the equatorial sun for hours.  


There have been posts that I’ve written with tears running down to my collarbones from start to finish (when Mila was dying of cancer). In the Congo, I funnelled rage and sadness into a post about Ikia, the chimpanzee who died in our arms 12 hours after arriving at the sanctuary because of governmental delays.

With my writing, I’ve convinced more people NOT to go to Africa than I have convinced to go. All that was raw, unsettling, dusty and disturbing, I included.  A foodie review of pan-fried goat testicles and crispy frog legs didn’t come across as I intended. I thought I was living high off the hog in the Congo. Or, high off the goat, at least. Noelle from P.E.I. thought otherwise: “You scare the shit out of me, yet make me laugh at the same time. As much as I love Africa and dream about going, the more I read your stories the more I think….yeah, I’ll stick with my Animal Kingdom.  You’re brave and you do belong to Africa.”

The year in review saw posts from Uganda, Kenya, Banff, the Congo (pit stop in Zimbabwe), Amsterdam, British Columbia, Toronto, Nashville, Venezuela and the dozens of places my restless mind travelled to in between. There were tributes to my nearest and dearest, nostalgic excerpts from the diary of my 13-year-old self (that was an out loud love letter to my grade 8 fiancee, Robert LeBovic), fried grasshoppers, Thai cooking classes, bitching about moving across Canada, corrupt Congolese police tales, musings on love,  lost in translation stories, half-marathons…sigh, there was a lot.

I woke up in so many beds, under so many mosquito nets and starry hemispheres, after so much gin and tonic with four Q-tips worth of safari dust in my ears. I packed up a life in BC and unpacked one in Toronto. I quit jobs, found new ones, had fecal-oral contamination, went piranha fishing, had Banff ticks that I flew home to Abbotsford with via Westjet, itched for nearly six months due to something else, and fell in love with the charms of Nashville and the chimps of the Congo.

And you followed me, like shadows, to the corners of the earth, and the corners of my mind. Which puts me in an odd place at times. Is there any mystery left to me? I’ve put it all out there. Strangers know me better than my non-blog reading co-workers. Is this a good or a bad thing?

I’ve spent tonight reading through 60+ of my favourite glowing comments that I’ve saved in my inbox in response to the blog. If I include one, I have to include them all. If  I quote my mom, then I have to have a dad quote, and then I’ll feel awkward and like I’m playing favourites if I don’t include Dax and Kiley. Then there’s Suzanne, and her sister Jo, Kay, Connie, Heidi, Kelly W. Leslie, Wendy G., Mag, Jann, Kristyn, Jules (not me), Wendy M., Rona (of course!), Rodney, Sass, David, Carol, Karen, Carol (another one, I’m not repeating myself), Kim & Kim (not together), Steph, Lynne (and Al who gets the postings read to him by Lynne on drives up to the houseboat)…I’m forgetting important people here—Farrah, Kaitlin, Chantal, Martine, Pamela, Toni, Nunavut Michelle, Karen of way west Queen west (the Nunavut of Toronto), Karin, Martha, Kathleen, Babysnooks, the ever-breeding Twitter population, Andie, my Body Blitz fan club, Rose, Nancy, Corie, Denny, Jennifer Aniston (oh, are you still paying attention?)…

Thank you to all my dedicated and drop-in readers for your rallying cries, support, chides, type-o alerts and genuine blog love. And a special thank you to my parents for not cutting me off the Christmas card list for all the Torti secrets that I have spilled.

The moments we most remember when we look back are the ones that made us feel more deeply than usual. Feel pain, feel elation, feel despair.  There’s a Feist song I like that says, “I feel it all, I feel it all… wings are wide, my wings are wide.” So great.—Staci Frenes

And so another year begins, with wings as wide as an albatross (that’s a 2.4 meter wingspan).

 Join me?

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

It Began on a Biplane

At age 8 I was invited to a week-long writing workshop at the Farringdon Hill Enrichment Centre. Ostracized by my elementary classmates for already knowing the difference between pair, pear and pare, I found my people at Farringdon. The first day of the workshop we were buckled into biplanes and flown across the frozen corn fields of Brantford, Ontario and later encouraged to write about our mind-enlarging experience.

The following morning, an eccentric local chef dominated the classroom and demonstrated how to make perfect “Eggs in a Nest” (two slices buttered bread, use wide-mouth glass as a cookie cutter and create a ‘nest’ by pressing top of glass into centre of the bread. Remove buttered bread circle cut-out. Fry bread in pan with Ina Garten-amounts of butter and crack egg in centre of ‘nest.’ Allow egg to poach, salt and pepper accordingly. It’s still my dad’s favourite thing that I make).

On day three, John Lee, a loopy Brantford poet arrived with Hugh Grant –tousled hair, an ascot and Colonel Sanders eye glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He read from his latest published work–quirky poems about shitting in a farmer’s field, and his shit being the colour of black licorice. “The clouds appeared like an old woman’s sagging breasts in the sky.” Protective parents were outraged! He shouldn’t have been reciting poems about shit and breasts!

I loved it.

After that initial plane-ride-fried-eggs-poetry-about-shit stint I was selected to join the full-time enrichment program and was mentored in writing an autobiography over the course of the school year. The secretary transfered our tell-all’s to hard copy (via a typewriter of all things), and was diligent in tabbing and entering enough spaces to allow for family photos to be incorporated into the final work.

My grade 3 autobiography was far from epic, largely chronicling Friday Gigi’s pizza nights and Chinese food Sundays at Nan King (where my siblings and I were high scorers on the 2-man Pac Man arcade game in the bar area). Not surprisingly, my blog, Twitter and Facebook posts are still all about what decadent things I’ve eaten.

I’ve kept diaries since too, although not consistently. But Africa, the Galapagos and a three-month sojourn in the jungles of Costa Rica are as well-documented as my 13-year-old crush on Robert LeBovic.

In those days, I fancied myself to be a professional birdwatcher a la Roger Tory Peterson, with my very own indispensible bird guide. But writing has always been my constant.  At times I think that I should drink more scotch, or wear an ascot and have a more miserable demeanour to channel the writer’s life, but I’m content with my edginess (and gin).

At 18, when I was as gay as a peacock and strutting my gay self up and down Davie Street in Vancouver, I  actually landed my dream job—freelancing at Cockroach magazine (almost as popular as Chatelaine!). I wrote about grizzly bears being caged and exploited for their bile, about how Barbie kick-started bulimia and raw protest pieces about the deforestation of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. My poor mother was certain I would be arrested and dragged away from some logging road. I earned $400 a month, and thought I was truly living the bohemian life. I was a freelancer! I lived on buttered garlic bagels from Seagels and skipped dinner to collect sand dollars from Jericho beach. I made arty things from bald eagle feathers and exoskeletons of crabs. I drank coffee that arrived in care packages from my parents, sweetened with melted cinnamon hearts because I refused to spend money on real sugar. 

My first real confirmation of writing being in my blood and breath was when I left Vancouver (and that not-so-high-paying dream job)and voluntarily transplanted myself in Costa Rica for three months. I volunteered with Youth Challenge International in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, mapping the trails and illustrating a flora and fauna guide. In the second phase of the project we travelled to a remote village called Alto Cuen, far from any flight path, phone booth, chocolate bars or appliances. I didn’t bother to write home about the drug runners that passed by me on a daily basis with AK-47’s and flour sacks full of marijuana from Panama. I was living in a hut with a palm frond roof, no walls and a tree bark floor.  My dreams were coming true faster than I could create them.

What I did write about Costa Rica, was the harrowing rescue at the end of our stay. Relentless February rains had flooded the area and the Cuen River was like a roaring beast. Rocks rolled along the riverbed at night, slamming into each other at such a decibel that we could hear the fury a mile away. The angry river water was the colour of chocolate milk with the skeletons of entire trees floating by. Our group of 12 had to be helicoptered out of the jungle as the footbridges had been washed away and local villages were receiving emergency food supply drop-offs. When the Panama army happened upon us, subsisting on flaccid carrots and marmalade, they promised to return at day’s end to fly us to the naval base as half the group was immobile with malaria.

Despite sitting in my cushy Victorian flat on some fancy Italian stitched-leather bar stool with a glass of merlot beside my laptop in the dead of downtown Toronto—I can still hear the thunder of the Chinook blades as the helicopter landed by the river that evening. The palm trees splayed, the children ran far from the whir and commotion, and we piled in, terrified and grateful, following the commands of the GI Joe-like crew.

In that moment I knew I was having a Reader’s Digest Drama In Real Life moment. It had to be written about. What I did write, oddly, won me a trip back to where I had come from—a return flight to Costa Rica, but the gentler side of it. It was a sparkly resort with a resident sloth in the treetop just an arm’s reach from the balcony, with hot black coffee, pastries and mango in the morning– and all the pleasures that my previous volunteer stint lacked. Like running water, electricity, dubbed Baywatch and appliances.

It’s been 15 years since that double-bladed Chinook pointed northeast and sped like a bullet along the coast of Limon, just like the opening scene of China Beach.

 But when I write, the jungle days always present themselves. I am reminded of how words provide vicarious experiences across the miles. It’s a great responsibility when you travel, in how you have to accurately convey a place for those sitting in such a radically different landscape. Like capturing the squelch of the mud as it sucks the boots off your feet, the sting of the blood oranges on chapped lips, and the awe of a dozen toucans landing just above your head in a noisy riot. And what does the jungle smell like? It’s hot and wet, salty and fermenting.

When I returned from Costa Rica I had an insatiable need to write about all that I had seen and felt. I signed up for a course through the Ottawa Writing School that promised a lucrative career and Atwood-esque fame. I thought I wanted to write whimsical children’s books about jungle adventures, but after I submitted a profile to my instructor, he asked, “so you’re gay, do you mind exploiting your sexuality?”

I didn’t mind. I was as gay as Liberace and eager to share all my innards with the world. I went from Jungle Jules Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life to writing lesbian erotica in a snap. My first published piece was a dirty bedroom scene with Marge Simpson. She let down her tall, blue hair and slipped off her slinky, avocado dress—and I went from there like a Californian forest fire. It was printed in Karen Tulchinsky’s anthology, Hot & Bothered and earned me a huge pay-out of $50 CAD(plus two copies of the book!).When Karen toured in Ontario, she asked if I would like to do a reading with her—of course! Imagine the whole Torti family at the Hamilton Women’s Bookstop. They brought flowers in cellophane and champagne, and stood amongst a crowd of 50 hairy-armpitted dykes while I read about having sex with Marge Simpson. Yes, even my dad was there. And I said a lot of words that don’t normally constitute a father-daughter conversation.

Bravery and pig-headed confidence gets you everywhere. I was so confident with my publishing success in the erotica field, I sent jumbly work to Chatelaine and Maclean’s—the target audience my mom was hoping I would write for. I was rejected flat-out by both for very good reason, but rejection is admirable too. As long as it doesn’t happen at the bar from the foxy girl you buy a drink for.

When I lived in BC, I boldly signed up for writing courses at Douglas College, “to hone my craft.” The first day of class, my instructor, Joe Wiebe, said my verb was doing something I had never heard of. He talked about bildungsromans, and I thought it might be best if I snuck out of the classroom, unnoticed, while I could.

I was transported back to my first day at the Farringdon Enrichment Centre, before boarding the biplane that would inspire my future writing ambitions. Marg Simpson (not to be confused with the same blue-haired lady aforementioned)had  asked me to pass her the “acetate marker.” What the hell was an acetate marker? Clearly I didn’t belong. Richard Nott, the smartest person in the world, pointed to the overhead markers and my face stopped from almost catching on fire.

I’ve taken several courses since, even at George Brown in Toronto where I was positive the instructor had it in for me because I didn’t want to write about transsexual druids or zombies. I’ve had minor successes and cocktail bragging rights for book reviews in The Vancouver Sun that I secretly had near Chernobyl melt-downs over. But if you march in to the editor with the confidence of Sidney Crosby with a puck at the blue line, by god, they believe that you have what it takes!

I still don’t know what an “independent clause” is, and don’t particularly care either. That was on the Douglas College program entrance exam. I thought for sure it was a reference to Mrs. Clause on Christmas Eve. My participles probably still dangle, and I have run-on sentences of marathon proportions.

I have blog cheerleaders (thank you!) and the odd naysayer (boo).  My favourite comment though? It came from a reader who I will allow to remain anonymous. He responded to my post “Jann Arden Attacks the Architecture of the Human Heart.” In particular, he was up in arms with the sentence “It comes as no surprise that I love well-crafted stories and lyrics that are as layered as Jennifer Aniston’s hair.” Mr. Blog commenter responded: “No offence meant, but that was an awful, awful metaphor.”

Which brings me to this. The audience who (in my imagination at least), waits with unbridled anticipation for my latest blog post. Thank you for reading my ramblings and outpourings which just earned me the feel-good designation as one of the Top 100 Growing Blogs at (even though I come up with awful, awful metaphors. Surely the Aniston hair comment can’t be worse than clouds that look like saggy breasts and shit that resembles black licorice?)

We all have stories, and thank you for taking dedicated  interest in mine.

For more on the Robert LeBovic Affair, chronicled in my 13-year-old self’s diary:

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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