Sunday, September 22, 2019

the life of a writer and the Exodus

This is I think a first - it's Word on the Street, and I'm at home, will not be trekking around listening to writers and trying to claw my way through the crowds to look at books. I'm thrilled the event is such a success - but not for me today, with my cold, and also - with a kind of sadness about my profession. An article in the NYT: Since 2009, when eBooks and book piracy became a phenomenon, income for authors has declined 42 percent, according to a 2018 Authors Guild income survey, with the median income from writing now so low — just $6,080 a year — that poverty level looks like the mountaintop. By contrast, a 2017 Nielsen survey found that people who admitted to having read a pirated book in the previous six months tend to be middle class, educated, female as well as male, between the ages of 30 and 44 — and with an income of $60,000 to 90,000 a year. 

I have to say that $6000 US a year from writing sounds good to me; almost all my money, as you know, comes from teaching, editing, and renting rooms. Mind you, I've been anything but singleminded in my pursuit of an income from writing. A former student of mine has a book being launched at WOTS today; she HAS been ferociously focussed, I've watched her progress upwards, and there's no question she will make a success of this business. But I know few as fiercely relentless and singleminded. And certainly not me.

Anyway, I'm still recuperating and coughing and snuffling, though better. Seeing a movie with my son tonight, have not seen him for weeks and am anxious to connect, so will rest today to be in the best possible shape, not to mention well enough to teach tmw night.

The work on my parents' letters proceeds slowly. They were both vivid, fluid writers, so I'm able to piece together parts of their lives I knew little about - my mother after the war, for example, working in northern Germany with the IRO - the International Refugee Organization - with refugees from the camps and other Displaced Persons, trying to find them permanent dwelling places. 95% want to go to the States, she tells my dad who's in New York, but can't get visas so end up in France, Australia, Canada, even South America. She was there when the Exodus, the ship packed with Jewish Holocaust survivors trying to land in Palestine and turned away by the British, was forced to land in Hamburg. My mother, among the many trying to help those on board find refuge. It was a terrible mistake to force them back to Germany, she knows, and the British are hated; she has to hide her nationality. Almost all, she says, will continue to fight to get to what they consider their homeland. It's so very complicated, she sighs. If she only knew.

But now, I know so very much more than I did. It's a thrilling exploration, even if sometimes, what they write about their children hurts. I can take it. I'm a writer, though I don't earn even $6000 US a year at my job. My job is to figure things out and write about what I find. The pay is abysmal, but - it's not just a job, it's my life.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Band's Visit - and I will proudly defend Trudeau to the end

Months ago, I was thrilled to see that the musical The Band's Visit, which I'd tried to see in NYC but was sold out, was coming to Toronto. I bought a ticket for this Saturday's matinee. On Thursday afternoon I had a runny nose and by that night a full-blown cold. Friday, self-pity and coughing, filling an entire waste paper basket with Kleenex, tossing all night long. Today I was sure I'd be too sick to go to the show.

But - it's hot out! It's like a gift, the sun, the whole city out soaking up every moment. My upstairs tenant Robin went to Cherry Beach to sunbathe and swim. I sat out baking the germs in the sun, took an Advil and lots of throat lozenges and hopped on my bike. Luckily my ticket was on the aisle at the very back, so as I coughed discreetly and sipped my water I didn't bother anyone.

It's a gorgeous piece of work - haunting, slow, quiet, the antithesis of what you think a Broadway musical will be. I'd loved the movie and I loved this theatrical adaptation, would gladly see it again. The music is wonderful, the setting, the actors, who are also all musicians - and the story, not about Israeli and Egyptian tensions, as you think it will be - this story of an Egyptian orchestra stranded by mistake in a small Israeli town - but about how difficult it is to be alive, how much we all want to be loved and heard, the deep wound at the core of us all. Profoundly moving, the best kind of theatrical experience, that sits forever inside your soul. Deep deep respect and gratitude to all involved. Ten Tony awards rightly given.

Thank God for something beautiful, because these past days have been devastating. Even people I consider friends have turned into self-righteous judges; Trudeau is attacked viciously from both right and left. He should have known better! He's a hypocrite! Etc. Etc.

Look, we know he's a lightweight. We know he likes the limelight, selfies, maybe he's vain, a show-off. But can we please remember he has done lots of good things? Can we look at who is waiting to replace him if we all throw up our hands because he's a flawed human being? The very soul of my country is being tried right now, being weighed in the balance, and the other side, the bad side, has a huge amount of far right money pouring in from the States and Alberta to make sure our decision goes their way. The relentless pile on from media and social media is beyond appalling, JWR all over again. Hyenas. Vultures.

What decent human being would want to be a politician in the world now, with every event of a life, past and present, under a microscope, with every pundit presenting an opinion about everything? I think of FDR with his crippled legs and his longterm affair, protected by the media. Despite his brilliance and powerful social conscience, I'm sure he'd take one look at the disgusting scrum of the current political climate and choose to do something else with his life.

So I'm heartsick but not too physically sick. A one day bug, I hope. This weather is due to continue all week. They're warning of a long hard winter, but right now, we're living under a blessed sky. May the hearts and minds of my fellow citizens also see the light.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Trudeau's Blackfacegate: moving right along

You know me - I'm going to wade right in about Blackfacegate. I've spent two days defending Trudeau on FB, as people I consider friends, people on the left, howl in outrage. Maybe it's because I was once an actor and put on other people's clothes and faces for a living, but once again, as with JWR, I cannot understand the level of vituperation. He did a foolish, even offensive thing, yes. It was a time ago and he regrets it deeply. 'Nuff said.

Which of us has not done things we regret?

I wrote this on FB:

Times change; people change. In a letter my British aunt wrote to my mother in the 50’s, she describes someone as looking “like a Jew,” she wrote, “short, fat, and greasy.” My mother, married to a Jewish man, didn’t even notice her sister’s casual anti-Semitism. Aged twelve, I wrote in my diary, “There’s a coloured girl in our class now! She’s nice!!” I had not a single thought about racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or, for that matter, what was happening to our planet. Times change; people change. What matters is to acknowledge mistaken assumptions and hurtful stereotypes and make sure they don’t happen again. Please, in your haste to condemn a young man’s foolish mistakes – yes, a man who should have known better and has apologized — don’t condemn this country to the unforgivable racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia of Andrew Scheer and his party. Voters decided to hate and turf the good-hearted if flawed Kathleen Wynne – and how did that turn out, Ontario?

Here I repost:

Quoting Catherine Barroll: At a time when the world was turning them away, Trudeau invited 25,000 Syrian refugees to settle here in the first year and met some at the airport personally. Since his election, 60,000 Syrians have found a home here. He appointed the first Indigenous female Attorney General. He has a Sikh Minister of Defense. He marches in the Pride Parade. The idea that a Conservative party that has tacitly encouraged White Supremacy advocates as representatives and even leaders, which is anti LBGQ, anti feminist, and anti choice, is calling him a racist for this, is beyond ridiculous.

And one more, sorry, can't help myself:

 I keep wishing Canadians knew a bit more about politics in other countries, where there are real scandals, really appalling, disgusting things that politicians get away with. They've had centuries of it, whereas we throw our hands up in horror when we realize that the politician elected to govern this country is actually a politician. Of course he attacks when he has to, as they all do. It's horrible, but it's what's done. Again, I know he is far from perfect. But he's so much better than the alternative. We all know May and Singh are not going to form a government, but the more of us who vote for them in this crucial election, the closer Scheer comes to being elected. And I truly think I'll have to move if that happens, because just looking at his face turns my stomach. (But move where??) You talk about hypocrisy - Scheer condemning Trudeau for racism, he with a good friend of Faith Goldy's running for office! This country will be unrecognizable if he and his Koch-supported friends get in. Which is why I'm begging people to keep things in perspective instead of piling on.

I have a cold, the first one in a long time. Maybe it's the stress of watching the ghastly Andrew Scheer leer on the horizon. But it's glorious out, so I'm on the deck with a head like a pumpkin and a nose like a waterspout, taking in the last blaze of summer - roses, rudbekia, hydrangea. It says in the paper that millions of birds have disappeared in the last 50 years, but I can hear the busy cardinal, the sleepy sparrows. Others are protesting climate change, but our big march is next Friday; I will be there, with my daughter and grandsons.

We do our best in our tiny ways to support our battered planet. And one way I do it is by responding on FB and sharing my thoughts with you. What ARE your thoughts?

PS Got involved in another fight on FB - this time a young woman posted several times about exactly what white people are and are not allowed to say and I simply asked how she had come to appoint herself the political correctness police and why she was so angry. The response ... oh my. Among other things, she accused me of being "racist, like your prime minister." Before it went on much longer, another person wrote to me, "Don't feed the bears." So right. It's scary out there. Lots of screaming.

PPS Picture from my friend Chris's blog. What to say, the guy just likes to play dressup! He was a drama teacher once.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

mother-in-law in the sun

Beautiful days, what a blessing - hot, gorgeous. Tho' cooler in the evening, there's nothing but sun predicted for the next while. Yesterday I just couldn't sit at the desk opening dusty old letters, had to go outside and work in the garden, cut down a huge thicket of Golden Glow, which was ten feet high and blocking sun to the second Rose of Sharon, the one that's white with a delicate red centre. Hacking and hewing in the hot sun - I felt like a farmer, a child of nature. Briefly. Today I went back to chat with the Rose, tell her how beautiful she looks in the sun, please try to get rid of the bug that's spotting her leaves.

Monday night, walking to Ryerson, I thought, I should calculate how many times I've made this hike, since as of this September I've been teaching there for 25 years. Shouldn't there be a gold watch or something? (Quick calculation - 9 classes a term going back and forth = 18 times a term x 3 terms a year x 25= 1350 hikes back and forth. There were a few years I taught twice a term, but then I've missed a term or two, so I figure that's about right.) Walked into the classroom, 17 nervous interesting faces - registration is closed at 18, but 17 is big enough. And I have to say - I know you've heard this before - that one of the great gifts of my life is that after all these years I know what I'm doing in the classroom and enjoy doing it. It's a good show. I see tentative people relax, there's laughter, camaraderie, everyone gets a chance to talk, my eye on the clock so we get all the way round by the end. It's hard work, and I love it. And it does work for some: one of my students from years ago is on the short list for the CBC nonfiction competition, with a beautifully written story. When I wrote to congratulate her, she replied, You deserve some credit, you know. You kept asking: Where are you in all these stories? Be careful what you wish for! :) 

The same competition, I might add, that did not find my own essay worthy of inclusion. I've read all the finalists and a few are wonderful and some ... need to come to my class. I do not understand all their choices, but what the hell.

Another great blessing: this $7.95 Spanish red, the famous Toro Bravo, that I'm drinking now. A really good red for less than $8 - I may survive the winter.

Many emails going back and forth about Bob Baker and his expulsion from Equity. Others have stories to tell. I wonder how it feels, hunkered down wherever he and Tom are, to have their behaviour exposed at last. Pariahs in exile? Or, like Trump, oblivious? Surely not.

Thomas came over today to ask me to be the guarantor on his passport application. I must be a respectable person, at last. The form asked my relationship to the applicant, and we figured out that I should say "mother-in-law." He and Anna are not legally bound but they're bound in every other way. I'm a mother-in-law! Someone should write a song. Oh yes, someone did. 1961.
Mother-in-law (mother-in law), mother-in-law (mother-in-law)
The worst person I know, mother-in-law, mother-in-law
She worries me so, mother-in-law, mother-in-law
If she leaves us alone, we would have a happy home
Sent from down below...

Let's hope not. Just a little bit of nagging, guys. Not too much, I promise. Sort of.

Monday, September 16, 2019

fall beauty and the pain of old letters

Today is what we actors call "a show day." I have a show tonight - actually a class, but it's a show to me, which means gearing the whole day to the energy I'll need tonight. 15 registered so far, which may mean it'll be full by class time. It's funny that at nearly 3 hours, a class is as long as most plays. But curtain is earlier, thank god - 6.30 p.m., not 8. I get to be in bed by 11, when in the old days, I'd just be hitting the bar.

Immersed in the treasure trove of mail left by my mother - a heartbreaking letter in 1944 thanking Mum for her kind note, from the mother of a friend of Mum's, an RAF pilot missing, presumed killed; telegrams and cards on my birth; a note in May 1958 that she was going to see "My Fair Lady" in the West End which, I looked up, had the original cast - Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway. Snippets, fascinating and upsetting, about me at 7, whom my parents found difficult, and my 4-year old brother, whom they both adored. Dad is in Halifax and we are in London, England while my mother finishes some courses:

Michael is back at school and beginning to bloom again – he seems to be going thro’ a gorgeous phase, unless it’s because his hair is longer – I just can’t take my eyes off him – he’s all twinkles and fun and humour and so adorable. How could there be such a contrast between 2 children? Beth is honestly so impossible at times. She seems so totally lacking in any sympathetic response to anything and is completely subjective about everything.

In another letter, she writes about my brother, He is a gorgeous little boy and we are so lucky to have him, I think. It is so difficult to hide this feeling from Beth, who is so different. He has a dreamy quality I adore (you know it, of course) and the smiles he gives to greet you when you go to pick him up are absolutely shattering. …

And then, about me: I’m giving her more and more little jobs and getting, of course, more and more protests. She has no idea of giving out of the pure joy of it.

I was seven.

I read these bits to Jean-Marc, who had a clear vision during our renovation last winter of the more neurotic side of my personality and found them hilarious. But it does hurt, even after all these decades, because that disparity - difficult, adorable - continued for a long time, if not forever.

Pieces of the puzzle, falling into place. How to turn it into literature? Sorry if this seems to be dripping with self pity. Actually, for a moment or two there, it was; I feel sorry for that little girl who didn't sob over everything the way her mother did and thus was perceived as unsympathetic - and was insanely jealous of her brother, with good reason. This was NOT what I was expecting when I began opening those envelopes but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Notes from Anna about her kids' school - the principal said to her, today, "Last year I made something from nothing, but this year they expect miracles." The school has heard about a school in Etobicoke which has even fewer resources, and though Parkdale is definitely a have-not place, they are going to send some of what they have to Etobicoke. This is a wonderful community that will be sorely tested in the days and months ahead.

Yesterday morning, Ben McNally's Books and Brunch with two of my creative nonfiction colleagues at the King Eddy - four wonderful writers, including the extraordinary Jesse Thistle, once a homeless First Nations crack addict, now a York University professor and author of a successful memoir, From the Ashes. Inspiring and beautiful.

Fall is moving in, the days shorter and greyer, though still warmish. The garden at its most beautiful, because we know how soon the end is nigh. How it feeds my soul, this beauty.

And now, because it's a show day - time for a nap.