Thursday, July 27, 2017

New York New York

At one point, I said to myself, Never again! I found London crowded, but New York defies belief; not only are certain parts nearly impassable, but it's sticky hot, the traffic is overwhelming, the garbage is monstrous, and everyone is very, very noisy.

But then I had dinner in a gorgeous room with my family and saw a brilliant play and zipped home on the subway and remembered why I love this city of my birth. So - confused as usual.

First, the landing at Newark Airport was much worse than it has ever been; their hideous president and his policies have made the immigration people even more suspicious and surly. The lineup was endless, and in the line I was in, the guy just decided to shut up shop and go for a coffee or something. Eventually he returned and when he got to me, he glared at my Canadian passport. "It says here you were born in the States. Have you renounced your citizenship?"

I wanted to say, No but I'd love to, but I just said No. So he sent me to the special room for suspicious people, because as a dual citizen, I am supposed to enter the country as an American. My American passport has expired, I told them, and I always travel as a Canadian, the country in which I've lived since I was 3 months old. They were very nice about it, no problem. In all my years of travel here, that has never happened before. Welcome to Trumpland.

I made it to my cousin's, dumped my bag and set off to take care of business - TKTS in Times Square to see if I could get a ticket to the show I wanted to see - success, a half price orchestra seat for "A Doll's House, Part 2." I then slogged through a million Times Square tourists ogling the novelties on display there, including naked women with painted bodies, to the Music Box Theatre to pick up the tickets for "Dear Evan Hansen" tomorrow night, and as I entered the lobby, a woman shrieked, "That was Warren Beatty!" He and Annette Benning had just seen the matinee. "He looks terrific!" she said, and the woman with her said, "He looks old."
"Well of course he looks old, he is old, but he looks good for his age," she said. I missed him.
And then I went to the Belasco Theatre where Michael Moore is starting previews on Friday night for his show attacking Trump, and got a ticket for Saturday. A tiny island of sanity in the surreal circus that is this country right now. There was a small demonstration in Times Square against Trump's transgender ban. "Trans rights are human rights," they chanted, holding signs that said "Resist." I joined them briefly, but with all the myriad things going wrong here right now, this is just one more.

I sat in the oasis of Bryant Park behind the library, watching the parade of humanity carrying disposable cups and yelling into cellphones, a fascinating diversity of humankind. Then went to meet Ted, my second cousin or first cousin once-removed, I forget which, at his club, the Century Club at 43rd and 5th, a gorgeous old building, incredibly quiet, cool, and calm with high-ceilinged rooms full of books. A wonderful place for people to sit and read or have drinks and dinner, as we did. Cousin Lori came in from Connecticut, where she lives part-time, posting daily pictures on FB of her early morning runs, kayaking, her enormous garden. But she also still has an apartment in Manhattan, so she goes back and forth. Her grandmother Belle was the sister of my grandfather Mike and Ted's father Leo, 3 of the 7 Kaplan siblings. Family. I don't have much, so these people are precious. And then Henry, Ted's spouse, arrived, a dear dear man. He lives at their country house in Northport, Ted lives at his apartment at 77th and 3rd during the week, working at the family law firm Kaplan and Fox, and then on Thursday night goes to Northport for the weekend, where they have a beautiful house by the water and entertain lavishly.

So the Manhattan apartment is empty all weekend. Unless an indigent relative has arrived to occupy it. Hence - moi.

Ted and Henry went to see Bette Midler in "Hello, Dolly!", Lori went to get her train back to Connecticut, and I went to "A Doll's House, Part 2," which is a stunning play, set 15 years after Ibsen's original "Doll's House," dense with ideas about marriage, love, commitment, freedom, women's rights ... The tug between Nora's need for autonomy and her daughter's need for a mother - very moving, made me think about my own divorce. The best kind of theatre, I am sure this play will live long around the world. And then home on the new 2nd Avenue subway, a blessing, right from the insanity of Times Square to 72nd and 2nd.

On the way in from Newark, we passed the Dakota. I miss John Lennon. I miss my grandparents Nettie and Mike, Uncle Edgar, my New Yorker father, Bill and Chet, Leo and Hazel, Vera and Ben. NYC is full of ghosts. But at least Ted, Henry and Lori are here, and today, lunch with my father's cousin Lola, who's 94 and lives near here, and her daughter Patti, who also is coming in from Connecticut.

The air is foul. At one point, I wrote in my notebook, I wouldn't condemn my worst enemy to live here. But today, I'll see more relatives, go to a museum, see another brilliant work tonight. The city is a marvel, and I will stop whining.
 Home just before I left, a last view of tranquillity
The trans protest in Times Square
The graceful plane trees of Bryant Park, an oasis
 The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building
The noble lions of the New York Public Library
The gracious reading room of the Century Club
Sign in a side room.

And now, out into the madness.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Write in the Garden, summer 2017

It seems they liked it, they really liked it. The day dawned drizzly, everything was wet as usual during this exceptionally wet summer, hard to imagine spending the day in the garden. But we sat first on the deck, sheltered, and then it cleared up and there they were, in the garden, nine writers writing. The sound of minds at work, churning, pens scratching - magical.
It's a lot of work, advertising the event, cleaning the house, getting the garden and garden furniture welcoming and ready, cooking, serving, and clearing away a big lunch, planning the writing prompts, guiding them all through the day. I am spent by the end, and yet exhilarated, because it IS magical, listening to stories that have flowed out just a few minutes before, beautiful work, honest, funny, moving. One said, at the beginning, that she liked the writer inside herself, she just didn't know how to find her. At the end, she said, "She came out to play." One wrote, "Thank you so much for giving me a privileged glimpse into your lives, your stories, into your happiness and pain. I came away a better person for having met you, heard you, spoken with you. Beth, I'm so grateful I was able to participate in this wonderful excursion of the mind in your magical garden which brought us all 'home.'"

Another, "It felt marvellous to use my writing brain again by composing under a time line, and sharing with others on the spot. Felt like a workout! What an interesting, diverse group of women you assembled."

And another, "I am so inspired and feel like I can now write about anything. I will never forget this very special day we shared. Beth, you rock! We all do!"

And a fourth, "When summer winds down, I am sure this day will count among those rare single perfect days. Thank  you Beth. Thank you writers. Magic like that? I’m hoping my lucky streak continues into tomorrow."

So glad it worked. So glad it's over. Now what I'd really like to do is nothing. Instead - New York.

P.S. Happy discovery #629: it's easy to kill slugs in dishes of beer. I finally got around to trying it, as the slimy creatures were munching through the basil. Now I go to the veg garden every morning to count the dead slugs, who died happily slurping Molson's Canadian.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

the big city

Yesterday's plan: a sleepover with Eli; Ben was going somewhere for a sleepover too, so this would be a much-needed night off for Anna. I slogged across town - this city is impassable, especially on a boiling day, with construction and street repair everywhere, and furious drivers. I made it to Eli's day camp to bring him back here but found him in tears - earache. Change of plans - he, his brother and mother are flying on Sunday to Boston, to spend ten days in Rhode Island with Edgar and Tracey, and for Eli to go to day camp for a week with his aunt, Greta Lee, who's three years older. So a cure was urgently needed.

Eli and I went directly to St. Joseph Hospital's "Just for kids" clinic. What a marvel ten minutes from Anna's place - a bright space, the examining tables hippos and other friendly animals, a great staff. Anna joined us as soon as she could, to cuddle her miserable son, who was diagnosed with an ear infection - aka swimmer's ear. He wouldn't take the Advil to take away the pain; that was a 20 minute, very loud struggle. He is as stubborn as his mother was; payback, for sure. I told him when his uncle Sam was a kid and refused to take important medicine, his dad and I sat on him and forced it down his throat. But Eli's mother is more patient than I was. He finally took the Advil, and by the time we got home was bouncing off the walls, demonstrating how he'd learned to somersault and do jumping jacks. He showed me his painting of our planet on a round paper plate. "There's Canada," he pointed out, "and there's Ottawa and there's Rhode Island." The boundaries of his world this month.

So, no sleepover for me, no day off for Mama.

Just as well, as I'm getting ready for my big workshop tomorrow - ten writers for the day in my humble garden, part of which looked, ten minutes ago under a rainy sky, like this:

I love how the rudbeckia unfurl, like tight fingers loosening their grip.

Last night, awake at 4 a.m., I marvelled that I could not hear a single thing - not a distant car or siren, a voice, a dog, nothing. Even this morning, as I sit under the pergola, protected from the drizzle, there's not much - someone is roofing, a dog is barking, the rain is pattering. I just picked two cucumbers and a boatload of cherry tomatoes from the garden. City living at its best.

Speaking of which ...
Woo hoo!

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Two things I'm going to print and hang on my wall. First, from an article in the Star:

The Pope has posted a red-and-white sign in Italian on the door of his frugal suite in a Vatican residence. Adorned with the international symbol for ‘no’, a backslash in a circle, it was given to him by an Italian psychologist and self-help guru. This is what it says, in translation:


Violators are subject to a syndrome of always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humour and capacity to solve problems.

The penalty is doubled if the violation takes place in the presence of children.

To get the best out of yourself, concentrate on your potential and not on your limitations.

Stop complaining and take steps to improve your life.

What a fine man. Yes, I should take it to heart, me going on and on about a COLD. Get a life, woman. 

The other is a saying the courageous writer Rachel Carson adopted from Thoreau's "Walden" after finding out she had breast cancer, to spur on her writing of "Silent Spring."

If thou art a writer, write as if the time were short, for it is indeed short at the longest.

Now you know what will be inspiring me next week. At least, until I fly off to New York on Wednesday.

FYI, I am taking a break from the memoir. That doesn't mean I'm not writing as if the time were short, I am - I'm writing the NEXT memoir. This does make sense, believe it or not; I'm stuck, unsure how to proceed, so I need to keep going on something that will help break the logjam, until I can see clearly. That's the plan. I ran it by the very wise Rosemary Shipton, editor extraordinaire, and she agreed it was a good idea. I know. Time is short at the longest.

Just watched the next in a great BBC doc series, "Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds" - it's online, if you want to catch it yourself - in which the young host, Dr. James Fox, takes us to 3 great cities in 3 great years: last week, 1908, the Vienna of Klimpt and Freud, among many others. Today, Paris in 1928 - surrealism, Mondrian, Hemingway, Le Corbusier, Cole Porter, jazz, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and so much more.

Next week, New York in 1951 - Brando, the Beats, Jackson Pollock. And I was there, almost - we left New York in November 1950. Yes, I was a newborn, unable to fully appreciate Brando, Pollock, and the Beats, but I was there. And next week - I'll be there again.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

thank God for Jane Jacobs and David Sedaris

Still sick. I spoke to my doctor, who's sympathetic but can offer no explanation or cure. And in fact, though I had a dreadful night of coughing, I am getting better. It's ridiculous to have a bad cold in July, but there it is. My doctor did say the frequency of illness might have something to do with consorting with pre-schoolers. IT'S ALL THEIR FAULT, those adorable boys. So I might as well resign myself to years of coming down with something.

A long conference call - a Skype call with five participants, a first for me - a few days ago; I'm on the conference committee for the next Creative Non-fiction Conference to take place for the first time in beautiful downtown Toronto next May. We had to negotiate time and place and other issues, including sensitive ones about programming and activities to recommend to our attendees. I wonder if I'm becoming a crabby right-wing old woman, or if I'm just sensible. One member suggested organizing a tour for our members to an out-of-town indigenous museum which has preserved a residential school, to show people what this horrendous experience was like. "Save the Evidence," is the museum's campaign. I had to speak as someone who will not watch a movie about the Holocaust or go to a Holocaust museum: I know it happened and it was unimaginably horrific. It was also decades ago and I do not wish to relive it. What good comes of immersing yourself in human vileness? Increased sensitivity and empathy, I suppose is the goal. I feel sensitive and empathetic enough without travelling for a day to witness the monstrous cruelty inflicted years ago on indigenous children. I just can't imagine offering this to our members as opposed to the cultural treasures of this fabulous city. But perhaps I am in the minority.

The issue of bending-over-backwards political correctness and the politics of grievance are rampant. I remember when June Callwood, that magnificent woman responsible for so much good in the world, was fired from a charitable organization SHE FOUNDED and was co-running and fundraising for because she spoke impatiently to a woman of colour and was accused of being racist. No one, not one of her colleagues, came to her defence. So these issues require very careful handling. Like June, in the interests of getting things done, I have a tendency to be impatient. A mistake for a white middle-class middle-aged cisgender woman of privilege. Guilty as charged.

Okay, that's my rant for today.

Saw a documentary on another magnificent woman - "Citizen Jane," about Jane Jacob's campaigns to save cities from Robert Moses and his ilk, who smashed through communities to build expressways and tore down poor enclaves to build soulless high-rise jungles, actions which were imitated all over America and in Toronto - just down the street, as a matter of fact, is the former high-rise jungle of Regents Park. The doc shows the disastrous result of these decisions made by bureaucrats theorizing in offices, whereas Jane was on the ground, in the streets, watching and listening to human beings as they walked and sat, shopped and played. How proud I am that she moved to Toronto and stayed here for the rest of her life. Brava.

Last night when I couldn't sleep, I stayed up till 1.30 reading David Sedaris's diaries. It's still an odd book, skipping through little snippets of his life, but it gets stronger and funnier after he and Hugh go to France. He writes about his French class, Today I turned in a paper about social customs. In it I wrote that on the eve of an American man's wedding, it is customary for his parents to cut off two of his fingers and bury them near the parking lot. The groom has eight hours in which to find them, and if he does, it means the marriage will last.

I'd tried to buy some bandaids at a pharmacy last year, but my French was so bad I couldn't even describe them. In the end I drew a picture and the woman looked at it, responding with what I guessed was "This is a drugstore. We have no surfboards here."

Today the teacher called me a sadist. I tried to say that was like the pot calling the kettle black but came out with something closer to "That is like a pan saying to a dark pan, 'You are a pan.'

A year ago I would have begged Hugh to accompany me to the hardware store, but now I go on my own. Yesterday I said to the clerk, in French, "Hello. Sometimes my clothes are wrinkled. I bought a machine anti-wrinkle, and now I search a table. Have you such a table?"
The fellow said, "An ironing board?"

Thank you, David, I needed that. We all need that. B.C. is burning, Trump and his family, incomprehensibly, are still there, select Conservatives have been churning up rightwing American airwaves protesting Omar Khadr's settlement, it's 30 degrees but feels like 38. I'm in here, eyes damp, laughing.

Wayson, who is healthy if getting frail at 78, came over for lunch today and at one point said, "I'm going to die soon. And I'm fine with that."
"Not if I have anything to do with it, you're not," was my reply.