Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Great Idea

Here's a suggestion for you: if you want to avoid the stress, expense and sheer hard work of the Christmas/Hanukkah season, just arrange to get the flu the week before. Suddenly, the season whizzes by with little expense and effort! 

I sent this suggestion to my friend Nancy White, who wrote back that at one point, she considered remaining pregnant to avoid getting migraines, but decided against this. And perhaps, at further remove, I will reconsider my notion that getting the flu before Christmas is a great time- and money-saver.

But that's how it was this year - no messy tree. Christmas lunch - Chinese take-out - was delicious, no clean up at all. And the weather has been so atrocious that it made sense to stay in bed. I did venture down the street later on Christmas night, to join my neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard and their neighbours Andrea and Victoria and other friends for a full Christmas dinner on the best china, with the silver all shined. We laughed and told stories and ate magnificently, and at the end, I said, "I'm not related to one person at this table. What a relaxed evening!" 

I actually watched "It's a Wonderful Life" all the way through this year, for the first time - hard to believe that I only discovered the full impact of this classic at the age of 58. And "Citizen Kane," and "City Lights" with Charlie Chaplin, and for something completely different, the rented DVD "In Bruges," violent and hilarious. I watched it thinking of the great playwright Harold Pinter, who had just died and whose influence, with that of his colleague Samuel Beckett, was evident in every line of dialogue.

Otherwise, I'm hard pressed to tell you what I've been doing for the last week, except reading newspapers, eating leftover Chinese food and blowing my nose. Today, I did start work on a piece again. I'm better, definitely - actually getting dressed at some point in the day, even venturing out briefly, getting groceries, standing up sometimes. But mostly, I'm still lying down and coughing, a Cabbagetown Dame aux Camelias. I will be happy when my lungs return. 

By the way, the pageant was fine. A neighbour showed me a photo of the tableau at the end, beautiful and nearly perfect. There were the parents sitting in the straw with sweet babe, the little angels with halos and wings, the Wise Men, the shepherds, the star.  But the new producers had forgotten to remove the sign that normally hangs at the back of the stall, so behind the tranquil scene is a large blackboard that reads, "Our goats: Pretty, Scrabble and Gretchin."


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Xmas Eve continued ...

It's surreal, that's the only word.  6.45 on Christmas Eve - everyone is gathering at the farm, and I am lying on the sofa. Late this afternoon I lit the menorah and listened to most of Handel's Messiah at top volume, celebrating both of my halves.  At one point during the Hallelujah Chorus my speakers crackled as if they were going to explode with so much magnificent sound. More friends waded through the slush with presents.  Now I'm going to eat my chicken soup and listen to the last bit of the Messiah - "I know that my redeemer liveth." I don't know if my redeemer liveth, but I do know that spending the evening with George Friedrich Handel by the light of menorah candles is heaven.

And by the way, more heaven - the pictures of chiselled Obama in Hawaii which appeared today. As someone said, "Merry Christmas, Michelle!" 

A Christmas to remember

First, the weather, everywhere in Canada - my friend Chris sent amazing photos of Vancouver buried in snow; and right now, Toronto is suddenly mild and rainy like Vancouver, with mountains of fresh snowfall being melted into slush.  

Usually at this time - 3 p.m. on Xmas eve - I, along with most of the women in this country, would be frantic. The tree would be decorated, the presents mostly ready; time for a trip to Mark the butcher to pick up the turkey, cross off a hundred last minute things, phone calls, errands; friends are dropping in to say hello, do I have their presents, do I have something for them to eat, I who used to do my Xmas baking at Mark's and Spencers, when we had that fine store in Canada?

But for nine years this family had a little something extra to do at 7 p.m. on Xmas Eve - help produce a pageant for 450 people or so at Riverdale Farm. So there were also many last minute details - was the camel assembled? Were the holy family still healthy, and the choir leaders in good voice? Where were the shepherds' crooks? One year the baby got sick on Xmas eve and there was a crazy search for a family with a new baby who wanted to spend the evening sitting in the straw at the farm being gawked at by hundreds of people. And such a family, at the last minute, was found. 

At a little after six I and the three others of the producing team would be over at the farm, checking the set up, helping get the shepherds, the wise men, the innkeeper and wife into costume. A team of volunteers would be giving out programs, collecting food bank donations, lighting candles. And then through the chaos, somehow at 7 p.m. sharp, Bernie the narrator with her glorious mahogany voice would welcome the crowd, the carol singing would start, and the whole thing would unroll around the farm until the final moments in Francey Barn, with hundreds of people gazing at the tableau - a couple in the straw with their child surrounded by neighbourhood angels. And on the periphery, the wise and beautiful faces of Rooster and Dolly the Clydesdale horses, Dusty the donkey, the row of cows, the pens of sheep and goats. The smell of life. 

But early this year, the team who did this work handed it on to another team, so my neighbour across the street, Lesia, will be over there at six - which is lucky for me because I will not be going anywhere. I am still in sickland - struggling to get out, but it'll be awhile yet.  I feel like my head is a balloon on the end of a string, floating somewhere above my head. Since I've been bedridden for days now, there's no tree, no decorations are up. But somehow, once again, that's okay, because for the first time in decades we're not hosting Xmas anyway - Sam is in Florida, and Anna will be leaving to join him and many other Dobies on Boxing Day.  So it's just she and I on the day.  We've received invitations from neighbours for Xmas dinner, but I won't be up to going out.  "Mum," Anna said, "instead of cooking just for the two of us, why don't we have Christmas like the Jews? Chinese food."

She's a girl of many good ideas; this is one of her best. On Christmas day, we'll be ordering take out from her favourite Chinese restaurant, Rol San on Spadina. We will both be happy. Instead of rushing around in a tizzy of tension and excitement, I will have done exactly nothing this Christmas except try to breathe and re-attach my head to my shoulders. And my daughter will be eating her favourite dumplings. 

I'm in bed now, writing to you, watching the rain, waiting for my friend Norrey to arrive with her annual gift of baking. Neighbour Richard just came over to fill the birdfeeder for me, and to take back the big pot which arrived at my front door last night filled with fresh chicken soup. I am living the spirit of Christmas, my friends, right here, from bed.  

I send my love to you all, with wishes that you too may have an unforgettable Christmas. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

the miracle of the left nostril

I write to you today from a place I have been blessed, so far in my life, to rarely visit: sickland. I hate it here, but I'm going to try to relax and take whatever good I can from the experience.  

Which is what I just told my son to do, too.  Sam was due to fly out at 11 a.m. today to begin a visit with his dad in Florida, but called at noon from the airport.  He said that the plane had taxied to the runway, about to depart. And then, he said, they all watched in horror as a baggage truck drove into the wing. So now Sam is standing in a long line of furious people trying to be rerouted, no idea how or when or where their bags are - a small kind of hell. 

One day it'll be a funny story at a dinner party, but right now it's just a mess.

So here's a flu story. It will never make funny talk at a party but I'll tell it anyway.

I should not have stayed up as long as I did yesterday, as sick as I was. But it was the Sunday before Xmas; friends dropped in to visit, and then the kids came over for our long-scheduled early Xmas -- because of Sam's departure, we were going to have our turkey dinner last night. That ended up being me lying on the living room sofa watching as pizza and wings were devoured in the kitchen by my own two children, 3 of their friends and our friend Dave. I gave the kids "The Simpsons Monopoly", and after eating they all sat down to play. It was so great listening to the banter, the bargaining and jokes that I couldn't bring myself to go to bed. 

By the time I did, I was in worse shape than ever - headache, body ache, general misery. My nose was so stuffed up that I couldn't sleep, but certain drugs make me speedy not drowsy so now I just use nasal spray.  I was propped up, nearly vertical, struggling to breathe, for hours. I thought about the pioneer wives, those women getting through the winters with babies, no drugs or doctors. I thought about my friends with cystic fibrosis who fight all their lives for breath. These thoughts did not cheer me up.

Finally my nose was blocked solid; I had no choice but to lie down and breathe through my mouth.  But that's so uncomfortable, my mouth got dry... flailing and cursing - I actually said, "Shoot me now," though I did not mean it - and then suddenly, my left nostril cleared. Just like that, I could breathe through my left nostril. Oh the bliss, oxygen moving through that small open passage.  I took a sleeping pill at 5 a.m. and slept till 9. 

Why did my left nostril suddenly open? How could a baggage truck driver not see the extremely large airplane right in front of him? Who can explain these mysteries? 

Friday, December 19, 2008

white out

My friends, do not ever again listen to me complain about the frustrations and lack of remuneration (i.e. no $) in self-employed writing. Today after a long, stuffy, sleepless night, I got up with a fever, laid low by a bad cold or flu, and found the city paralysed by a blizzard. Howling winds, a foot of snow climbing up the door.  So many of my friends, so many of you, I'm sure, had to get dressed and out the door, no matter how sick you might have been or how difficult the going. 

I have spent the day lying under blankets on the sofa in the kitchen. I edited a student's piece and sent it back, I responded to emails, read the New York Times on-line and the newspapers on paper - my heroes, the newspaper delivery men who make it through the snowbanks at dawn - and dozed when I felt like it. And then my son, who sprained his ankle falling down some dangerous stairs at work yesterday, hobbled through the snow to keep me company and bring me sinus-opening, fever reducing drugs. We lay together on the sofa as the white sheets washed by the windows, watching "Burn after reading" which was extremely stupid and "Lars and the real girl" which was very beautiful, a lovely film featuring some fine Toronto actors including the wonderful Nancy Beatty, an old friend. The wind howled, my eyes ached, Sam's ankle throbbed, and we lay tranquilly, watching movies. 

The average writer, I just read somewhere, makes $35,000 a year. I make considerably less than that, and some of that income comes from renting out rooms in my house. But today, all the money in the world would not have dragged my aching self into that blizzard.  I have eaten all my own chicken soup so now, I am about to have a big bowl of my neighbour Monique's, delivered through the snow to my front door, and get a pizza out of the freezer for Sam. How lucky can you get?

My friend Chris in Vancouver is distraught today. Vancouver is suffering very bad weather too, unusual for that city. A homeless woman whom he passed regularly, who lived on a corner near his home, was offered shelter last night but turned it down three times. She died today, right there on the street under his windows. All I could say to comfort him was that she lived as she wished, and died that way too. 

May all of you be safe and warm and blessed, on this cold night.  Please, keep safe and warm. And may you be blessed. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

catching up at Christmas

Just came back from a five day whirl in Ottawa, visiting my mother, aunt, brother and nephew with my own kids in tow for part of it - an overdose of family, with all the joys and frustrations normal at such times.  Moments when you're overwhelmed with love for these hilarious, beautiful people with whom you share so much genetic material, and then other moments when you wonder how in God's name you, in all your sanity, could be linked to this flagrant group of lunatics. Does this ring a bell?

However, it was a great visit. Anna asked her grandmother to teach her to knit; the two of them sat side by side, one with thick black curly gypsy hair, the other with a neat grey bob, and important knowledge was successfully transferred with a clicking of needles. Sam watched "Guys and Dolls" with his grandma and 88-year old great-auntie, checked his Facebook page during the sappy love bits, returned for the gambling funny bits, and at the end said, "I'm a better person for having seen that." We all helped give baby Jake his dinner and put him to bed; Anna does this all the time and loves nothing better, I by the end was grateful my time with the very very young is over forever.

The minute I got home, I came down with my first cold or flu in a year and a half. Not coincidental, surely - the exhaustion of family stress - fifty-eight years of it, all piled up - plus the fact is that right now my calendar is relatively clear. I am seeing a few students privately, but teaching is over for the term, so if I'm sick, I'm not missing any work. I think I gave myself permission to go under. And here I am, well under. Luckily I had made a huge pot of chicken soup to pour into bottles and give as Xmas presents - so there is some in the freezer for me.

I went on-line this morning - being sick is so different now, with the entire world still available even when we're prone and achy. I found out that my book was chosen as the April 2008 selection for the Glimmerglass Opera Book Club - the company produces operas during the summer in a spectacular building in Cooperstown, New York, and in 2008 did five operas based on Shakespeare plays. Hence, the reading of my book. And I found a very nice Vancouver review of the book and my talk there, by the very nice Faith Jones, who is not a relative:

 Among other things Kaplan told a sold-out crowd in Vancouver, she aimed to figure out why Gordin has been so neglected in contemporary theatre and in literary studies. Kaplan’s theatre training stood her in good stead as she read from the book and answered questions about her research. A witty and entertaining speaker, she clearly captivated the crowd with her lively and illuminating anecdotes. 

I also found out that on a site called "Goodreads," in which people discuss the books they've read and would like to read, "Jewish Shakespeare" is on the "to read" list of ... two great readers. Go for it, I say, you lovely people.

And that Jacob Gordin, who died in 1909, is on Facebook. That's wierd. He lives in B.C., whoever he is, and he's young. A relative? Maybe. And in Season 6, Episode 16 of "The Sopranos", an actress called Tracey Silver played a character called Beth Kaplan. Do you think she was a gangster's moll? Oh, daydreaming again ...  

As for work, Christmas of course lands a heavy foot in the middle, but my dear Wayson's viciously thorough edit ("OUT! OUT!") of my pen-pal essay was one of the most valuable writing lessons I've ever had. Get on with it, is the message. Launch the story and keep it moving; otherwise, why should they turn the page, those restless souls out there who haven't even got to their "to read" list?

Monday, December 8, 2008

great new review in time for Christmas

Today's treat: I just checked my book on the Amazon website and found this. Whoever this fine gentleman is, he has my thanks.

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Special BiographyOctober 17, 2008
By Mark A. Stein (Washington, D.C.) - See all my reviews
This biography, written by the great-granddaughter of the most reknowned Yiddish playwright, is an extraordinary work. Through her meticulous research, Beth Kaplan provides a vivid and multi-dimensional portrait of Jacob Gordin. Moreover, through the lens of Gordin's life, she provides an insightful view of the world in which he lived: the stars of the Yiddish theater, the Lower East Side in which it was situated, and the larger society that surrounded them all. What makes this work particularly special is that Kaplan includes views of Gordin through the lens of a great-granddaughter via his impact on his offspring and the family mythology that has surrounded him, thereby bringing his life and era right up to our doorstep.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

the critic speaks

Today's lesson: Never believe the praise of your dearest friends. I sent my new essay, the one I'm so proud of that my dearest friend thought was the best thing I've ever written, to another dearest friend and sometime editor Wayson. And this was his response:

Yes, this story has its flesh and bone - dynamite if you cut about half.   You wander into details that tell the same thing over and over again.  Cut.  Restructure.   The beginning is too chatty, little resonance or foreshadowing.  Don't lose focus on the haunting and the wonderful way you have ended it - very moving.   We'll talk about this.

And today's other lesson - one we've had before, class - is: The lucky writer has a cold, clear, trustworthy editor. 


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

coalition fever

Who said Canadian politics is boring? Wow - what a time! It's hard to believe that cold-eyed Mr. H. has been, as they say, hoist with his own petard - undone by his own vindictiveness and arrogance. Instead of getting on with the huge and vital job of helping us through this economic mess, Harper went about settling scores, with the help of his nasty Chief of Staff, former Mike Harris gremlin Guy Giorno.  

Who can believe what happened next, that the hapless Mr. H. and Mr. G. united the opposition into one angry and powerful voice? I know a functional coalition government is probably a pipe dream.  Something will happen; the unity of the opposition parties will fall apart, Harper will find a way out, something. I know Canadians don't want Dion as PM, and even now, although I approve of his platform, I am impatient to hear his mangled English.  But still, this is democracy at its best. Canadians are engaged in their political process at last. And surely Mme. Jean will do something wise. 

For more info, please go to It lists rallies in support of the coalition all over the country, one in Toronto this Saturday December 6th at noon on Nathan Phillips Square. I haven't been to a good rally since the anti-Harper one in support of the arts ... two months ago. Hooray, more rallies!

Speaking of rallies, there's a fascinating article about our own Naomi Klein in this week's "New Yorker."  She herself doesn't like rallies and marches, finding them embarrassingly earnest unless there's satire and humour involved.  Okay, organisers - let's have some coalition humour on Saturday!

Went to see the extraordinarily powerful "Slumdog Millionaire" the other day. Even in the midst of our recession, this film gives an unforgettable perspective on the luxury and ease of our Canadian lives.  Haunting.

And for those of you who've been following my on-going struggle with my own work, I'm happy to say - we're off! I sent a draft of the current essay to my friend Bruce, who called to say that it's the best thing I've ever written. I don't know about that, but I do know it feels mighty good to feel it all working again, that flow from brain and heart and gut down through the arms and onto the shiny white screen. 

More rallies, more writing, more democracy, more stunning films.  Despite the freezing dark of winter, it's an exciting Canada today.

Monday, December 1, 2008

World AIDS Day and Chris Tyrell's essay

Chris Tyrell has been my best friend since we met backstage at the Arts Club Theatre in 1975, I an actress and he an assistant stage-manager. We connected instantly then, and still connect, at the deepest level, despite his eventual gay marriage and my straight one, my moving east and having two children, he staying in Vancouver, suffering heartbreak and contracting AIDS, downgraded to HIV. Through the years, the calls and emails, the mutual insults and great love have never stopped.

One day last month he was complaining to me in his usual intense, dramatic way about the fact that whenever he connects with interesting men and hopes for a relationship, eventually he has to tell them about his HIV status, and they disappear. He is extremely healthy and his viral load is nearly invisible, but still, he's treated like a pariah - ironic in the very community that purports to support men with AIDS or who are HIV +, but rejects them as lovers.

I said, don't complain to me about this - write it as an essay for the "Globe." So he did, and two days later he sent it in and sent a copy to me. I have to tell you, I was horrified and wrote back to say so. "It's too raw!" I said. "It covers too much ground, it's all over the place, it's too emotional." Oh well, said Chris, the worst that can happen is that they won't run it.

They ran it today - with a few excellent edits by Lori Fazari the "Globe" editor, but mostly it's just Chris's piece as he wrote it. So much for my editing sensibilities. The piece is like Chris - startlingly open and honest, compelling you to respond.  When he woke up this morning, there was already an email message waiting, and there have been scores of responses on the "Globe" website.

You can read and respond on the "Globe" website too, at "", under Facts and Arguments.  Read what happens when a brave, open man simply tells the truth as honestly and passionately as he can. Knock your socks off.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

an amazing and beautiful story

Here, my dear readers, is an early Christmas and Hanukkah present: an amazing and beautiful story.  

I've written here before about my pen pal Barbara who died during a heart operation when she was sixteen, in 1966, and how early this year I suddenly felt it was time to write about her. I got out all her letters and decided to try to contact her family, whom I'd lost touch with forty-two years ago. I especially wanted to talk to Barbara's mother Elsie, to tell her how much Barbara still means to me. 

I had no luck Googling Elsie's name, so I went through Barbara's letters for information about her brothers and sisters. She mentioned that her brother Peter had graduated from art school, so I Googled Peter's name and "artist" in various permutations, and found someone I was sure must be him. There was even a photograph that looked a bit like Barbara, though now Peter is in his late sixties. 

The next day I found a London number I thought might be his and called several times, but got a non-committal answering machine and knew this was far too complicated a message to leave. So I emailed my friend Christina who lives in London and asked her to call Peter and explain about me and my quest to find Elsie.  She emailed a few days later.  "He was a bit hostile, but I think I know why," she wrote. "When I asked about Elsie, there was a pause and then he said, 'She died a week ago.'" What a coincidence.

Recently, as I worked on the story about Barbara, I wanted more information about that coincidence. I looked at my phone bill and found out that I called Peter on February 12th. Then I emailed Penny, Barbara's sister and my new dear friend in England, and asked her what day her mother died. 

She wrote back, "February 11th." 

The day I decided to write about Barbara, forty-two years after her death, was the day Elsie died.  

I do not think this is coincidence.

Wayson Choy believes that we all have at least two ghosts with us at all times. I believe it now too. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

writing in November

The dark days of November are here - snow and sleet with an occasional glimmer of sun luring me outside to be sure it's real. And yet despite the cold and dark, on this terrible day in the world, with bombing massacres in Mumbai and the world's finances exploding too, I am profoundly happy just to have a roof and a furnace and food in my fridge. How lucky we are to live in a relatively safe and stable country. How lucky I am to have a job that won't vanish in a recession. I'm talking about teaching, of course; writing has never had much to do with the finances of the real world. (See last post re frugalista.)

I have been having a tough go of my writing job, however, this last while. For so many years I was the writer of a very long book and of very short essays. Now, trying to do something in between - either longer essays or a shorter book - I keep running out of steam, or charging down dead ends. I pick a good topic and then throw the doors open to include every aspect, every event, the entire world view of every character, with the result that the piece becomes overloaded and waterlogged and drowns in its own good intentions. As I bemoaned all this yesterday to my friend Bruce, he said, "You need to take your own course!" 

And he's right. I glibly tell others, "Less is more," "Show don't tell," "Paint one picture with depth," but it's not so easy to do these things myself. Which is why all writers need editors, and also, if possible, writing groups or coaches or regular readers, to help them see what they simply can't, so close to the work. 

I talked about this with Wayson, how I rush into things and swamp the work, and told him I'd written the word "Slow" in big letters by my desk. He said, "No, not 'slow', that's the wrong word. The word is 'essential.'" So yes, "essential" is written there now. My writer friend Patsy, with whom I also regularly discuss these creative dilemmas, sent me this quote recently, which has joined the others on my study wall: 

"Write a little every day, without hope, without despair."
Isak Dinesen.

Gotcha, Isak.  Here goes: a topic that matters deeply, explored as deeply as I can, but just one aspect, one time, one event. Let's see if little miss Letmetellyoueverything can manage to tell only the essential. Slowly. Stay tuned.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Frugalistas unite!

Forgive me if I gloat - I'm not used to being so ... so right on, so au courant. It was thrilling this morning, reading the New York Times, to discover what was chosen by columnist William Safire as the word of 2008:

, defined as “a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc.” 

Frugalista, c'est moi!  And not only because, with a writer's income, I have no choice. I can't imagine changing my second-hand ways even if the lottery came calling. We've had enough of "fashionistas," the army of women scouring Vogue and rushing out to do its bidding.  The absurd list of "Must Haves," the obscenity of ditching last season's two thousand dollar handbag for this season's.  Now we just can't live like that any more. 

Brava to Michelle Obama, stylish and gorgeous without, to my knowledge, wearing a single visible label or ostentatious garment. 



Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bob Rae and Iggy controversy

I've been pondering an issue on the Canadian political landscape that's wreaking havoc in the Liberal party - why did Michael Ignatieff, writer and intellectual, suddenly decide to muscle into the political arena that had for decades belonged to his university roommate and putative best friend Bob Rae?  It smacks to me of "Anything you can do, I can do better."  And as someone who's allergic to that kind of competitiveness, I have been feeling sorry for Rae, who's a compassionate and capable man.  I sent the following email today to Judith Timson, the "Globe" columnist who recently wrote an article about the two men:  

Ms. Timson, I'm a fan of yours from way back.  But I don't understand why you and other commentators remark on the Rae/Ignatieff battle as if both men are equally responsible.  The fact is that Ignatieff made a very successful life for himself as a public intellectual, professor and writer.  Bob was always the politician.  What prompted Ignatieff to look at Rae's life and say, "I want that"?  Most writers wouldn't want in a million years to become politicians, but Ignatieff then suddenly returned to Canada to embark on a career in direct competition with his so-called friend.  Bob Rae did not announce that he would write books or try for Iggy's job at Harvard; it's Ignatieff who made the aggressive and competitive move.  

It would be a nightmare for me if my best friends from university, whom I love and admire, decided to throw themselves into my exact line of work in my home town.  I admire them because they're smart and energetic and talented women - the last thing I want to see looming on the horizon of my job.  I feel for Bob. 

There's way too much winter here already.  I heard one guy say to another this afternoon, "It's too #$% cold.  Who's the guy who called this in? I'm going to have to kiss his ass!" I agree.  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Excellence from the snow zone

It snowed the other night.  Toronto was wintery yesterday, and no one was happy about it except the snow removal guys who arrived with their hearty banter and extremely loud scraping machine at 4.15 a.m., to clear the courtyard of the condos next door.  They prefer 4.15 a.m. - it's their favourite time to tell a few jokes and move piles of snow around with a tractor. I'm sure if they knew that right there, overlooking the courtyard, are the bedroom windows of a formerly sleeping woman, they would move stealthily and wait to tell their jokes till daybreak.  But unfortunately they do not, and I have never, in all the years of our 4.15 a.m. trysts, felt like getting up to inform them of my whereabouts.

Interrupted sleep or no, that first snowfall was beautiful this morning as it always is,  the icing sliding along the trees and piled on the last hanging baskets outside - the cold kiss of death. 

Luckily I didn't have to stray far from home today.  I found a treasure at the Doubletake second-hand store - E.B. White's "One Man's Meat," one of my favourite books, in a big print edition.  So I can not only read his lucid, humourous prose again, but will be able to for many years to come, even without bifocals.  

"When a glass of wine is poured," writes Mr. White, "a wine fly appears promptly - but I never see him at any other time and wonder where he keeps himself in the meantime and what he does for a drink." 

"When a gentleman came to adjust a compass for me the other day," he writes from his farm in Maine, "he noticed how good the potatoes looked and asked me what date they were planted.  I had to admit that I didn't remember the date, and he seemed surprised and mystified, and wondered what sort of disorderly place he had got into."

My Thursday group came over last night with essays in hand, and we got warm with tea and wine and chocolate cake and then jumped into our favourite activity, talking about writing and reading some.  The importance of deadlines; how easy it is to write with a topic and a time limit in a group and how hard it is alone, how easily the muse vanishes.  How to let ideas and feelings pour out into a first draft, and then what to ask: What is this about?  Why am I telling this story?  Does it start and end where it should?  Is there a moment of change and connection? And then the fun of the next 46 drafts, trying to answer those questions while other questions arise.  

The joy is in the journey, as I keep reminding myself and them.  This is what is printed above my desk: "Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.  Robert Collier."  And below it, the same idea but older: "We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.  Aristotle."  

And nearby hangs a picture of E.B. White sitting at his desk, with only a typewriter, a pencil, an eraser, and a very large wastepaper basket.  

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I love Paris in the springtime

I spent time this morning looking closely at a map of Paris, locating the address where I'll be living next year.  Hard to believe but true: I have arranged to take the spring 2009 term away from teaching, my house is sublet between April 1 and September 1, and late on April 1 I fly from Toronto to Paris, to a small apartment that belongs to a family friend.  It's near the Jardins du Luxembourg, one of my favourite places in the city, and will be my home till mid-May - six weeks.  Paris in April.

I was born in 1950, that tidy mid-century year, and in my adult life, big changes have always come at the turn of the decade.  In late 1969 I became a professional actor, which was my work through the seventies until a trip in 1979 convinced me to change my life.  In 1989 I was unhappy in my marriage and thinking about therapy; a few years later I was divorced and in life-saving psychoanalysis.  And on December 31 1999 I deliberately spent New Year's Eve alone - years of therapy over, teaching a joy, children growing up, my book underway, the chaos at last beginning to settle.   

As 2009 approached and the cusp of my 60th birthday, it was important to mark the change between my previous life and the one to come - the old one as a single mother of two living in a time-consuming old house working on a time-consuming book, and the new one: two adult children living their own lives, the book out and about, and the house - well, decisions to be made there.  A new life of writing and travel.  Things fell into place for this dramatic five month trip to Europe to work and to play, partly because I want to write about the year my family lived in Paris, 1964, and will be able to revisit old haunts.  And walk and walk and walk.  And eat and eat and eat.

Then to England for around two weeks, and then to the south of France, to live with my friend Lynn and her family.  Lynn's daughter and my goddaughter Jessica, who's 29, has decided to get married in July, so I'll be there for a joyful family wedding.  And my children will come at some point to visit, walk and eat too.

One of the Irish writers who spoke at Harbourfront talked about his own exile from Dublin to Paris, where he lived for ten years.  "I was at an ideal distance from my own past," he said.  "I went there to find anonymity and detachment.  It was personally hard but artistically liberating to be completely alone and detached like that."  

Artistically liberating - that's for me.  And, of course, vast quantities of cheese.  

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I've just seen an excellent film - "Happy-go-lucky," from the director Mike Leigh.  I knew of Leigh many years ago because he started in the theatre, writing plays after intense periods of improvisation with his actors.  He then moved on to film where he works the same way with spectacular results, as in, for example, the moving "Vera Drake" or "Topsy Turvy," a beautiful film about Gilbert and Sullivan.

"Happy-go-lucky" is about a good person, Poppy, a woman without a cynical or sarcastic bone in her body who chooses to approach life openly and cheerfully.  The film explores the courage it takes to be the kind of person who doesn't just chat sweetly with a grumpy storeowner who refuses to chat back, but who sits down to talk to a terrifyingly incoherent street person who has probably not felt that kind of attentiveness for years.  Poppy approaches her work as an elementary school teacher with joy and deals empathetically, lovingly, with the problems that arise there - a child who bullies others, who she finds out is being bullied himself, at home.  

And for those of us who are single women happy in their lives, it shows us a single woman profoundly happy in hers.  She has, as she points out to her neurotic pregnant younger sister, a job she loves and a roommate she adores.  "I love my freedom," she says.  When she finds a man to love, she is on just as even a keel as when she finds a crazy man stalking her - she takes it all in her stride, love and fury and even finding that her beloved bicycle has been stolen, as I did a few months ago.  It's a film about the courage and effort it takes to be open in a mad world, and to choose, despite everything, to be happy.  In the bucolic final moments, Poppy says to her roommate, "We are lucky, aren't we?" 
"You choose your luck, don't you," Zoe replies. 

After the film I walked down Yonge Street to the College streetcar, thinking, as the wildness of the street roared around me, What kind of courage would it take for me to be open to this particular madness?  I am inspired by the film and its heroine, but perhaps I won't start practicing my new openness on Yonge Street late on a rainy Thursday night.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

the Giller Prize and my beloved Anne

The Giller Prize for best Canadian fiction was given out last night.  Like every year, I was at home in front of the TV, Cinderella in rags with cinders in her hair, watching the literati elite at the ball. When oh when will I be invited to the Giller Prize soiree?  Never, because it is an evening celebrating fiction, not non-fiction.  At least now there are prizes honouring non-fiction, the Charles Taylor Prize and the Writer's Trust Non-fiction Prize, though these are not televised. Non-fiction is beating fiction by a mile in sales, but the buzz is still for the weavers of tall tales, not true ones.  

That's all right, because we don't write for honour or money ($50,000, in this case) or prizes, we write for the bliss of it. Right, writers?

I love watching people who spend their lives rummaging around in their own heads and then, on Prize night, who have to get dressed up and mingle.  Hari Kunzu, a writer I heard at the Writer's Festival last week, said, "Writers were left alone until about 15 years ago.  Now they have to have a public persona and go on book tours.  But writers are the opposite of performers - they're people who have a high tolerance for being alone for long periods, who shout Go away! when visitors show up.  Now you have to perform, be a version of yourself on stage."

Of course, for some of us who are both writers and performers, this is not a problem.  In fact, the problem is the being alone for long periods, when you're used to the fraught closeness and instant feedback of the theatre. 

As I watched the Gillers I flipped around, as usual, for something else to watch during the commercials.  A new British version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" was on TVO; I missed the beginning but saw bits and pieces and the last half hour.   What I saw was stunning, conveying so well the claustrophobia, rage and terror of eight people shut up in a tiny space for two years.  But what it showed most clearly was the power of Anne's personality and drive - the selfishness and self-centeredness necessary for an artist to emerge.  Anne was not perky and sweet.  She hurt her parents, her sister, the vulnerable Peter, in her struggle to become an independent creator, to find her writer's voice.   

The ending in this version was heart-breakingly anti-climactic - not Nazi storm troopers bashing down the door, but two normal-looking men, efficient civil service Nazis in raincoats. "Here's another one, a young one," said a raincoat, as if Anne trembling in her bedroom were a cockroach.  

"To be a writer," said Hari Kunzu at the Festival, "you have to have an insane sense of self. A strong belief in your own interestingness."  All those writers last night did.  Anne did, and changed the world.  

Saturday, November 8, 2008

floating down to earth

My friend Bruce has just sent the following link to a funny video about the aftermath of the election: Obama supporters having difficulty adjusting to an incomprehensible new world.

This has been the first election fought as much on the Internet as anywhere else; so much interesting, clever, moving material emerged.  I won't forget a gorgeous little movie about the respect both ordinary and important Israelis felt for Obama; it made me weep.  And of course, the endless blogs.  All of us are alone out here with our little clicking machines, tuning in to site after site, posting our reactions to each other - entering, navigating this strange new world-on-a-screen that is so very noisy and at the same time, completely silent.

The weather these post-election days has been stunning - yes, even Mother Nature approves of the election results and has sent a November sun to reward us all.  Well no, on second thought it has been pouring in Vancouver and my friends Sarah and Ben just went to the Cayman Islands in time for a hurricane.  But here in Toronto, the skies are smiling Obama-like, even as leaves shower down with every breeze.  

So an intelligent, humane, thoughtful man will soon be running the most powerful country on earth. As the video says, we're a bit shell-shocked out here that for once the good guys won.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mr. Obama, Sir

I did reprint Obama's victory speech here, but it was too small to read.  It's a masterpiece, writers - I urge you to find and read it. 

Oh, and Mr. B. Obama, Sir - you can come and organise my community anytime. 

7.45 a.m., November 5, a brand new world

I just wrote this to all my relatives in the U.S.:

Dear American family, you know I am given to hyperbole.  But this morning feels like the moment in the Narnia books when the Ice Queen is killed, the terrible cold ends and spring returns to the land.  Or like "Sleeping Beauty" when the handsome prince hacks through the brambles and wakes up the sleeping princess.  Or any fairy story or movie where the forces of evil are defeated and the people are freed from terrible oppression.

America has found its spring and is awake, and the whole world rejoices with you.  

The funny thing is that Canada now has a right-wing government and you have Obama.  I'm moving.

It does feel like a nightmare has ended, doesn't it?  A dark time of torture, deceit, greed and corruption and foul stupidity.  There were three sublime moments last night: when the Obama victory was finally confirmed and the planet, with the exception of the Biltmore Hotel where the Republicans had gathered, erupted with joy, and when John McCain returned to the decent person he once was and made a gracious concession speech.

And then, of course, when that graceful young man kissed his wife and children and then turned to speak to us all.  I wondered if he's superhuman.  Think of what the last year has been for him, the last month, the last few days.  And yet he looked as if he had just returned from a retreat: relaxed, thoughtful, direct.  He was honest about what America faces.  I loved "I will be your president too," to those who did not vote for him.  

Just to hear an American president speak with such eloquence, warmth and honesty - well, Dorothy, this is not a dream, this really is Kansas. Even if the citizens of Kansas voted the wrong way. 

He will be their president, too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes we can, yes we will, yes we are right now

It's 6.45 p.m. on a most important night for our planet.  I have absolute faith that right at this moment, history is being made by American voters, and the world is about to change.  Change FOR THE BETTER, I mean.  For the much, much, much, much better.  

Obama as President would be phenomenal enough, a man of his intelligence and grace, and, of yes, he is half African-American, that's pretty incredible though it just shouldn't matter one bit.  Maybe race will matter less after this.  But to have him and his fantastic wife in the White House after eight years of George W. and the anaesthetised Laura - is it a dream?  When I listened to Obama in the debates, rolling through statistics, ideas, profound knowledge of so many things, I thought, how did W. even get through his debates without people screaming with laughter?  Did he make a single salient point?  I can't remember. Perhaps he didn't, and voters just liked the way he looked in his jeans, as people like the way Sarah Palin wears her hair and those stylish glasses.  Perky plays big down there.

Anyway, the TV goes on in only a few minutes and the countdown begins.  There's a good bottle of Proseco chilling - can't afford Champagne in this recession - and snacks and popcorn waiting for neighbours and friends to come by.  Soon we will toast the beginning of the next, better phase of our world.  Yes, he's not a saint or a miracle worker and will have the worst imaginable mess to clean up.  He will disappoint in some ways, I'm sure.  But right now, I'm crazy about this handsome, thoughtful man.  When I saw the picture of him yesterday, weeping over the death of his grandmother, I just fell in love. 

A toast to you, Barack Hussein Obama.  Long may our love last.    

Friday, October 31, 2008

a fizzle on Friday

After that rant yesterday, I began work on an essay that was half done, and sat for six hours rewriting, shaping, adding, moving a line from here to there.  The deadline for the CBC Literary Competition is tomorrow; I've entered before, though not for a few years, and have been shortlisted three times.  A deadline is a very good thing for a freelance writer.  So I wrote and rewrote till after midnight (taking a break for Jon Stewart), felt good about the work, printed it and went to bed.

Reread it first thing this morning.  It doesn't work.  Way too big, once again - I cannot resist the panoramic sweep, the vast vista, rather than the small, telling moment that, explored in detail, actually means much more.  I am cramming in one of the huge stories of my life; the reader is exhausted by far too big a story to fit into a 2500 word essay.  And other stories I've considered for the competition are too small.  If you're entering a competition, you have to choose a  story that fits the allotted word count.

So is that six hours - plus the many other hours spent getting the piece underway - wasted? Well, for this year's competition, yes.  For my life as a writer, not at all.  I've got the basis of a much bigger piece and have learned yet again to slow down, shrink the scope, focus.  And all that work with words is pure pleasure.  What else would I have done with my evening?  Well, if someone had given me a ticket, I could have seen Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Canadian Opera, that would have been a great use of my time.  I could have gone for a long walk or visited a friend.  Instead I wove words.  The tapestry isn't ready for viewing yet.  But it will be. 

Today is bright and not so cold, so I'll go out and get my face in the sun.  And then I'll sit down with the bloody thing and start again.  Or maybe start another.  Back to the loom.   

Thursday, October 30, 2008

How I Write, by Beth Kaplan

This is what happens to me when I sit down in the morning, after breakfast and coffee, to write: if I’m not in the middle of a project, I cast about for ideas.  I try to relax and think, okay, what matters most right now? What should I tell about?  Some important anecdote?  No, some lesson.  Usually, it’s a lesson – life is about learning to relax; let your children go; diaries are important.  I start to formulate a story about how I used to be in a mess but fixed it, whatever it is. 


Then I realise – sometimes after the story is well underway - no, stories shouldn’t be lessons.  So I rethink.  But by now something has interrupted – for example, right there as I was writing “lessons”, my tenant came into the kitchen practically on top of me and started doing distracting things, so I had to close the computer and walk away till he was gone.  There’s a phone call, there’s email, someone’s at the door – Jean-Marc as he’s walking by stops in to say hello, Dave appears in the garden and needs me to consult with him, the homeless guy wants work – the mail arrives and there’s something to be followed up or a New Yorker to flip through, just flip through to see what’s in it, mind, I won’t stop to read it now because I’m working.  But first there’s laundry to put in, dishes to wash, groceries to get, one of the kids calls, my mother calls and talks for almost an hour, the cat has peed on the carpet, the raccoons have scattered garbage all over the yard, plants need to be watered and pruned, the garden and birdfeeder need tending, some bit of officialdom needs to be seen to, Wayson calls and says let’s have lunch. Not today thanks, I say, I'm working. I eat a bit more, wash, get dressed – while getting dressed, become preoccupied with a skirt – does it need to be hemmed? Let’s pin it and look.  This pair of beads that should be shortened, who does that, let’s look in the Yellow Pages – and mmm, should do more laundry, need underwear, or maybe I should buy some, put it on my list, where’s the list?  These shoes need to be stretched, this sock drawer needs to be organised, that lightbulb is burned out, find the list.  And while we’re at it, let’s take the tweezers to the facial hairs and do a thorough job, fifteen minutes of close inspection.  And as I pass by the kitchen table there are two newspapers waiting to be read, the comics at least.  More coffee.  A snack involving yogurt.  Check TV guide – nothing on tonight, as always.


And let’s not forget Google and Safari, things to look up – flights to price and book, names to check on, information to seek, the New York Times always interesting and informative. Students emailing work that needs to be read and often edited.  Then back to creative work.  Where was I?  Oh yes, what’s meaningful now?  What stories do I love to tell friends?  A story about my past – being in the theatre.  What it was like to be in the theatre, that’s a good story.  I pick up the pen to start.  But – I have diaries, tons of diaries. Shouldn’t I check in the diaries first?  There will be such valuable research material in there, authentic, vibrant.  I’ll just check in the diaries.  Where are they, the ones for my acting life?  Let’s look.  Hmm, here are ones about the kids, that’s another important story.  Oh my God, I’d forgotten how lonely those days were.  Divorce, the worst thing … No, theatre, we’re looking for …


It’s noon, time to go to the Y.  Quick, jump on the bike, get to the Y, do the class, shower, on the way home drop into Doubletake, the secondhand store around the corner, right on the way.  Get home, if I’ve bought something at Doubletake try it on, make and eat lunch.  Listen to messages.  My mother, definitely now if not before.  The kids.  A good friend needs a hand, needs advice, has an idea about tonight. 


Sit down again.  Just do it.  An idea comes, and a line.  Two lines – a paragraph.  Two paragraphs, and it’s time to go back and fiddle with them, make them better.  Half an hour writing the two paragraphs, and half an hour to rewrite them until they flow well.  I will only realise later that they’re dull – that when I sit to write I lose my natural, energetic, lively voice and turn into someone pedantic and stiff.  I suck the juice out of my own material.  I read other writers endlessly, admire their natural voices and flow, but when I sit to write, I turn into someone boring.  


And now it’s five sharp – time for the first glass of wine.

P.S. I'm exaggerating, of course.  But you get the general idea.      

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

words are now

It's 7.50 p.m. and I'm waiting to hear what Obama has to say at 8 o'clock.  While I wait, the computer's on my lap like a purring cat, and I am reading blogs, including the always interesting Andrew Sullivan's.  He wrote a column about why he writes a blog, and finishes like this:

"In fact, for all the intense gloom surrounding the news-paper and magazine business, this is actually a golden era for journalism. The blogosphere has added a whole new idiom to the act of writing and has introduced an entirely new generation to nonfiction. It has enabled writers to write out loud in ways never seen or understood before. And yet it has exposed a hunger and need for traditional writing that, in the age of television’s dominance, had seemed on the wane.

Words, of all sorts, have never seemed so now."

putting the champagne on ice

Only a few more days until the world changes, my friends.  Let us pray that Al Qaeda does not decide to get involved in the American election.  A neighbour suggested we gather on November 4th and drink a lot of champagne.  That's the best idea I've heard in ages.  

It's winter already, not even November - white pellets of hail or snow tumbling down as I write.  It feels colder when you're not ready for it - I hadn't even taken my winter coats out of storage yesterday, but there was such a bitter wind, I went back home and got out one of my warmest, with a giant hood.  Strange to be dressed like an Inuit at the end of October.  Time to take special care to fill the bird feeder.

We had an extraordinary class at Ryerson this week - midway through the term I give an assignment to push writers to be brave with their stories, and they all came through.  One after another, powerful, beautiful stories.  I marvel, as I always do, at the painful secrets we all carry.  

Many of the stories, as usual, were about fathers - absent, neglectful, distant, judgemental, abusive fathers, and one wonderful father tragically dead too young.  I tell classes that if I want to make people cry, I ask them to write about their fathers.  Because in general, so much is unresolved with Dad - Mum is there, for better or worse, and believe me, I've heard about plenty of terrible mothers, bad parenting is not the exclusive territory of men.  But at least she and her flaws are familiar.   So many of us didn't know our fathers well, had never really talked to them, had no way of telling them or asking for any kind of truth.  And sometimes that void haunts us forever. 

This financial meltdown is quite something to watch - articles in the paper about living frugally, buying second hand clothes, not using your car - well, some of us have been living that way for a long time, so we barely notice that there's anything different now except that food prices have gone up.  I've been an actress, a wife and mother, a single mother and a writer - so there was only one period, briefly, when I had a husband with a real job and we were actually solvent. Even then I often bought second-hand clothes, though in a designer resale store, not Goodwill which I frequented after my divorce.  Now the nearby Goodwill and Doubletake stores are more crowded than usual.  People are discovering the joy of poking through other people's castoffs for something that more or less fits, doesn't smell or have noticeable holes.  And of course, for the occasional treasure - "I can't believe someone gave this away!"  Like my Chanel purse ($3.00) and Balenciaga ballgown ($18.00), which I am longing for a place to wear.

I would never complain about living outside of the mainstream.  Here I am on a bitterly cold morning, on the sofa under a blanket with the crabby cat at my feet, writing to you.  There is no money from this activity, not one penny.  I cannot even really afford to live in my house.  But I have managed for years, somehow, and so have most of my friends.  

Though it's harder to be outside the mainstream, or outside at all, when it's so cold.  


Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Own Private Editor

A new calm settles into our Canadian lives, or at least into mine - I heard our Prime Minister on the radio this afternoon and didn't rush to turn him off.   The next excitement: the U.S. election, which looks as if it will have an extremely happy ending.  Someone sent me pictures of Obama with his children, bending to listen gravely to one daughter, grinning that spectacular grin while driving a bumper car with the other ... 

If Hollywood had invented him, we wouldn't believe him.  In fact, Hollywood did, or New York - remember when "The West Wing" depicted a brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, plainspoken, left-wing outsider, a Latino, running to replace the heavenly Jed Bartlett as president?  "If only," we all sighed, or at least I did.  And only a few years later, here he is, and he's almost too good to be true.

He will inherit such a phenomenal mess - why does such a fine man want that job?  

Well, no more obsessing about politics: back to work.  I regularly check out the periodicals for writers at my local magazine store (while also pawing furtively through the fashion mags and today through Brad Pitt's pictures of the mother of his children in "W" - how close to those plump lips can the camera go?  Find out in "W" but here's a clue: pretty damn close.) The new issue of "the Writer" magazine was titled "MEMOIR - FIND THE RIGHT APPROACH" so I bought it and am reading an article about structuring your memoir.  The problem with writer's magazines, and with all the great books about writing too, is that those of us in permanent avoidance mode can spend lots of time reading about writing instead of actually writing, and still feel as if we're working.  As I am right now.

Only joking.  It's Sunday, my reading day - I actually take a day of rest, at least from writing, in order to read.  Last week I also took a break from my own memoir - for which I am trying to find the structure - to work on a shorter essay I pulled from my files.  It's about my life as an actor, and I did a first draft five or six years ago.  I'm not sure if it's harder to take the bones of an old piece and pull it apart, or to start fresh, but this time I did the former.  

After a few drafts, I did what I often do when a new piece reaches a certain stage - I emailed it to my friend Margaret Davidson, an editor who lives in Vancouver.  What a valuable gift she gives me each time she reads.  Just mailing it off helps - as soon as I've sent it, I read it again, trying to see it through her eyes.  And then a response comes, often within the hour, with her thoughtful analysis of what I'm trying to do and where I'm going wrong (and, once in a while, where I'm doing something that works.)  This time she sent it back with giant chunks highlighted in orange which she suggested I cut, and other parts underlined in blue which needed fixing.  And I agreed with every cut and fix.  

Many drafts to go, but I've had a great boost.  A student told me last week that she'd always thought you should just get on with your writing and not need an editor's help.  But at last, she said, she realised that there was nothing wrong with needing an outside viewpoint.  Not only is there nothing wrong with it, but it's essential.  We often have no idea how much good editors have helped cut, shape and refashion famous manuscripts, propelling them to success.  

Here's to the unsung heroes of the writing trade: the editors.  Thanks to you all, and thanks particularly to Margaret, my very own set of intelligent eyeballs attached to a precise and invaluable brain.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wow, that election was so like really worth it!

That was fun, wasn't it kids? 

Or not.  I could hardly bear to watch the first election returns, afraid of a Harper majority - but soon calmed down.  How crazy is it that after that colossal expenditure of time, money and effort, we have almost exactly the same government we had before?  And then Harper tells us he always knew he wouldn't get a majority government.  So this whole exercise was really just his idea of a jolly way to spend the end of summer.

Well, the results could have been so much worse.  Sensible, cautious Canadians come through again.  They too took note of those cold blue eyes; no one was taken in by the photo op of Stephen in a cuddly blue sweater, hugging an Oriental child.  Next time, the Liberals will have a stronger leader and platform, and let's hope the landscape looks much different when it's over. The good news is the gains made by the NDP, the sad news the complete shut-out of the Greens.  So frustrating to have three parties battling each other on the left, while the Big Blue Machine marches along alone on the right. Marches along without Newfoundland, Quebec or a single city.  How I love the mottled maps of Canada's electoral patterns - all fascinatingly unpredictable, except Alberta. How grateful I am to the Quebecois, who objected so strongly to Harper's arts cuts and proposal to sentence minors to adult prison, and shut him out.  How I love this crazy country.

As opposed to the one to the south, which is truly, terrifyingly crazy.  It's surreal to watch a highly intelligent man like Ari Fleischer, once George Bush's press secretary, telling Jon Stewart how much he likes and admires Sarah Palin.  Or last night, watching the last debate between Obama and McCain - why are these men even on the same stage? - and then hearing the pundits declaim that this was McCain's finest hour, he came on strong, he was aggressive and on target ... He was at times barely coherent, is what he was, with Obama making point after point with extraordinary intelligence and clarity.  Is there any choice here? 

At the workshop on Tuesday night on memoir writing, I was introduced by "On the far left is Beth Kaplan, our first speaker."  That's where I was sitting, but it made me laugh.  I spoke about the importance of craft, technique, honesty and courage in memoir writing; Sarah Moore from "More" magazine about the "Memoir" section which accepts personal essays; Lindsay Michael, a young woman from the CBC, introduced us to "Out Front," a fifteen minute documentary segment produced for radio by ordinary Canadians.  And Dr. Ross Pennie spoke about his memoir of being a doctor in Kuala Lumpur.  A full spectrum of memoir activities.  

Speaking of the "far left," a few days ago a response was posted to my previous piece here, calling me "one scary lady" for my highly negative views of Mike Harris and Harper.  It was the first time I had a real sense of what it means to be present in the blogosphere.  It has always seemed that friendly people, if not only actual friends, were reading, but that is not always the case, and I have to be prepared for that.  I do think the guy was right to challenge me for using the word "loathe."  I tend to overstate, and the world does not need more hatred.   

But if you don't like my beliefs, please don't read them.  As Albert Einstein said: "I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist.  I am willing to fight for peace." 

Monday, October 13, 2008

nightmares of Stephen Harper

10.45  a.m. on Thanksgiving Monday.  O glorious day.

I slept badly, tossing and turning with nightmare images of Harper's smug face.  There's an article in the "Star" today about what strong dislike he provokes, like his  Conservative predecessor Mulroney, and I can certainly agree; I have rarely had such profoundly visceral negative feelings about a politician. I can't bear to look at him, he makes me so angry.  Perhaps he evokes something very deep, very far back - a playground bully or a nasty, heedless teacher. Even former Ontario premier Mike Harris whom I loathe as much as any human alive, even George Bush and Sarah Palin do not provoke me to a dislike as strong as that I have for cold, glib Stephen Harper, who will soon be ruling my world once again, sending young war resisters back to prison in the U.S. and sentencing 14-year olds to life in prison here.

I think the wily Conservatives called the election for the day after Thanksgiving so the sleepy electorate will be full of turkey and sweet potato on voting day, all those soothing chemicals, and will opt for the status quo.    

But I have to keep things in perspective: this is Canada.  Even if Harper wins a majority, Canada will not invent a pretext to invade another country.   To the planet, that other election matters far more.  

And on this Thanksgiving Monday, the weather is stunning, warm, sunny, peaceful.  I give thanks for the bounty of this life.  Thanks for this country even if sometimes it disagrees with me; thanks for this city which Mike Harris tried to destroy; thanks for this garden in which I'm sitting at this moment, despite the trampling and scavenging of the raccoons.  

Most of all, thanks for the family and friends who will soon be here, who are not perfect, who are so much loved despite, or maybe because of, their flaws.  As am I, I hope.  Can I try to love Stephen Harper for his flaws?


There is no point losing sleep over something I can do nothing to stop.  This is a down cycle for my beloved country.  That will change.  In the meantime, it's time to stuff the turkey.  

I beg you, those of you voting tomorrow - don't let the nice fat turkey lull you to passivity and sleep.  Look into Harper's icy blue eyes, please, and consider the heart that's attached.   

Saturday, October 11, 2008

upcoming seminar on memoir writing

I'm blogging at my kitchen counter.  I'll get used to this.  Now I can receive junk mail from everywhere in my house!  Yay!

This is a reminder about the seminar workshop on Tuesday October 14th : "Telling Individual Tales: How to craft compelling memoirs and personal essays" presented by PWAC and Ryerson.  There will be four speakers: moi, Sarah Moore, editor-in-chief of the excellent "More" magazine (no relation), Lindsay Michael, producer of Outfront on CBC Radio One, and Dr. Ross Pennie, author of the memoir "The Unforgiving Tides," about his time as a young doctor in Papua, New Guinea.  

So all facets of memoir writing, editing and selling will be covered.  

It's on Tuesday October 14th at the World's Biggest Bookstore at 20 Edward Street, one block north of Yonge and Dundas.  Registration 6.30 to 7, seminar 7 to 9 then a Q and A and light refreshments.

I know it's election night.  This is for those of you who vote early then can't stand the suspense and would rather spend the evening discussing something important. Hope to see you there.  

giving thanks for health and technology

My technical genius friend Bruce has just set up wireless internet here - so I'm sitting in the backyard as I type.  Earlier he Skyped our mutual friend Chris in Vancouver; they both have webcams so Bruce was walking around the house carrying his computer and gossiping with Chris on the screen.  Recently I decided to look for a Belgian friend I last saw in 1964 and found her instantly on Google and Facebook, though she hasn't written back yet.  I can't get over these extraordinary innovations, which bring the whole world to our kitchen table.  Though I still don't know how they cram all those tunes into that tiny iPod thingy.  With a special funnel?

I am heartsick that Stephane Dion's misunderstanding of several badly-phrased questions has renewed doubts about his leadership abilities.  Can one tiny mistake decide the future of a country?  The thought makes me ill.

However, on a cheerier note, Bruce took me to a preview of "The Sound of Music" last night, starring the lovely young woman who won the televised competition.  There are some casting oddities - Captain von Trapp is old enough to be Maria's father and the eldest Trapp daughter is too old and tall for the role - but the fresh and pretty Maria is lively, honest, open - in a word, adorable.  I'd forgotten how gorgeous the music is and how important the story - not only the importance of standing up to Nazis, but about the necessity for joy and song and play and loving your children.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  

But I am enjoying even more sitting in my garden writing to you, my unknown readers, while the sparrows chatter nearby in the ivy and at the feeder, and the sun shines on my face.  In the midst of two ghastly, terrifying election campaigns, let us take time for these moments of sheer pleasure, especially when the weather is so helpful.  And many thanks, many thanks, many thanks, for the health of my family and friends, and your health, and my own.  

And thanks to Bruce for this magic.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Anybody But Harper

My friend Margaret emailed from Vancouver today that she was going away for Thanksgiving weekend but would be back "to vote ABH."  I asked what that meant.  
"Anybody But Harper," she wrote back, and sent me the following link to a superlative short piece made by the daughter of a friend, about some of the things the Conservatives have done since elected.  I urge you to watch and if you agree with it, send it on to your friends.  More importantly, send it to any undecided voters you know.

I pray that momentum is building on the other side, as the media is saying, but I fear it's a myth.  Let's make it real.

A heavenly day.  I woke at 7 to the dawn chorus, the dozens of sparrows and finches who nest in the ivy near my bedroom window all squawking at once - the sound of life.  I read recently the explanation for it, something to do with testosterone - but anyway, I lay in bed waiting for the magic moment, which came about 20 minutes later - suddenly, silence.  I imagine the head sparrow bringing down his wing, meaning "cut!"  How do they all know to shut up instantly, at once?  

Another sound of life, last night - I was the guest of my friend Eleanor at the opera, to hear Mozart's  "Don Giovanni."  I kept thinking of the word "elitist" which is used sneeringly now as a weapon, and how glad I am to be invited to join the elite every once in a while - Margaret Atwood and her husband were there and many media types, in the elegant new Toronto opera house with its walls of windows and clean, simple lines.  The production wasn't so good, actually, but it didn't matter because the singing was heavenly and the music - well, what to say?  One masterpiece after another.  To think that this sublime, incandescent genius died in poverty.  With an arts grant or two, he might ... no.  Let's keep Mozart out of the election campaign, shall we?

May you hear your own sounds of life today, and get your share of sun.   

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ordinary Canadian artists unite!

What a great way to spend lunch hour - standing happily in the spitting rain with hundreds of my fellow artists.  There was a rally in support of the arts today in front of the CBC, and I went praying that it wouldn't be just a pathetic handful of starving types.  Instead, I was swallowed by a huge crowd waving signs and placards.  I held one aloft: "Ordinary Canadian Artist Against Arts Cuts." C'est moi and proud of it.  

I saw actors, dancers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists - what a funky, lively, engaged bunch.  The atmosphere was sombre and joyful at the same time.  The obligatory earnest woman was handing out flyers in support of the Communist party.  Mark McKinney of The Kids in the Hall spoke wonderfully, and so did Eric Peterson - he donned the hat of his character in "Corner Gas," turned into the curmudgeonly Oscar, and read a letter to Stephen Harper "from one jackass to another." 

It seems utterly impossible to me that anyone could support that man and his policies. Did you read the list in the paper yesterday of all the people who've been denied entry into Canada recently?  The issue came up again because a master musician from Kenya, a married man with a university job in Africa, was denied a visa to enter Canada, to which he'd been invited for a series of music workshops, on the grounds that he would probably want to stay.  A complete embarrassment.   A Canada I don't recognise.

Last night on Jon Stewart, a young American writer called Sarah Vowell told Jon that she couldn't bear to read the newspapers any more, it was all too negative and depressing.  Instead, she said, she went on-line to listen to Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats during the Depression.  He was helping Americans survive a dark time, she said, and is just as relevant today.  

I know how she feels.  I tried to watch the American debate last night, but McCain literally turns my stomach.  Seeing Harper's cold, bland face does the same.  This is the most important election I can remember, and as far as I can see, millions of people are going to be making this decision for me for the flimsiest reasons - Sarah Palin's hairdo or Harper's scaremonger ads. 

Oh well.  Thanksgiving is coming, and I will give thanks for all that's good in the world, including that wonderful motley crew outside the CBC today, standing in the rain to support each other and the wise magic they must continue to make.   

Monday, October 6, 2008

out of the blump

I hit a blogger slump last week, which I've named a "blump."  Couldn't get up the focus to write here.  Perhaps it was the scary and/or absurd political and financial landscape, or being home after the high of Washington and New York, or the onset of autumn. The cold is a shock - turning on the furnace, getting out the coats, hats and gloves, beginning to put away the garden. But as I look out of my office window right now, the sun is shining on masses of green. We have many days to go and a lot of raking to do before it all shuts down out there.

On the good news front: I am thrilled to have replaced my stolen Bluebird with a beautiful bicycle from Craigslist.  I was lucky enough to contact an honest young man, a bicycle mechanic who'd fixed up a thirty-year old but almost never used family bike. A brand new Kryptonite lock cost $85 and the bicycle only $40 more.  Her name is - that is, everyone knows her as - Nancy.

More good news: my son's battered face has healed except for a red bump still on his forehead.
My cheerful friend Bruce is visiting from Vancouver - my own personal techie, who will show me how to work my DVD player properly, help renovate my computer, and just generally do complex manly things about the house.  What a treat.  
Friend Margaret was also here last week, also visiting from Vancouver - she and I were pregnant at the same time, gave birth to our first and second children only months apart, and so as you can imagine, have lots to talk about, lots of mutual worrying and reassuring.  Margaret also works as my editor - hmm, is there a pattern here, of me putting my friends to work?  Yes.  While we ate lunch, we edited a personal essay of mine that will appear in More magazine in February.  Well, I can't help it if I have skilful friends, can I?

I won't even think about Stephen Harper, the timber wolf in sheep's clothing - oh, the fake friendliness of that soft blue sweater, reflecting the ice in those eyes - or mention the appallingly shallow and inept Sarah Palin.  Because then all my good feelings would vanish and the blump might pull me down again.  

I'm embarrassed to say that I missed "Nuit Blanche."  I intended to go out and explore my arts-ravaged city, but it was cold and dark and I was sitting at the computer working and suddenly it was 1 a.m. and I just went to bed like the fogey I am.  Next year, without fail, I will be out there to see what my artist colleagues have done to transform our concrete home for a night. 

But Nancy and I did go for a long ride on the Don Valley Trail on sunny Sunday morning - Michaelmas daisies and scarlet sumach in the sharp, diminishing light of fall.  Just happy to get my face in the sun.  Happy to get past the blump.  Happy New Year to my Jewish friends, and happy sunny day to everyone.  

Thursday, October 2, 2008

nixing the debates

The debates are on right now, both Canadian and American.  I watched a bit of both, and now I can't watch either.  Unfortunately, Sarah Palin has been well enough coached that she isn't hilariously inarticulate, like she was with Katie Couric; she's just mean and small-minded with a giant sparkly smile.  What kind of moron voter is warming to that fake folksy manner, I don't even want to imagine.

And up here, I think Dion is doing a good job of overcoming his accent, trying to connect with the public and get vital points across, which is hard when your English is barely comprehensible and you are small and nerdy.  Elizabeth May is a breath of fresh air, Jack Layton is a pit bull, Harper is a timber wolf in sheep's clothing, pretending to be just a nice aw shucks guy with the coldest blue eyes on the planet.  And  what the other guy is doing there, I have no idea.  Unbearable.

On Vision at the same time, there's a program on the Kindertransport - Jewish children shipped out of Germany before the war, to save their lives.  I watched a bit of that to give me perspective, and found it beyond unbearable.  The thought of putting my children on a train to God knows where ... what selfless courage.  What agony.

So much for tonight's television.  I'll have to wait for Jon Stewart to be able to watch something that doesn't hurt. 

Sunday's Write in the Garden workshop has been cancelled.  My writing friends have more sense than I - today was, in fact, freezing, so a day in the garden in October was not one of my best ideas.  I do, however, have four people working on their memoirs one on one with me - indoors.  Where it's warm.  If you have something you'd like to work on in my toasty office, let me know.

Today I had a call from my dear friend Lynn in the south of France.  She has had such bad laryngitis that she's been unable to speak for a week.  Today her voice was so growly and low, she sounded like a man.  But then she'd laugh and I'd get the hint that it was indeed my friend, not a manly baritone-voiced guy pretending to be her.

The same laryngitis hit an actress at the Shaw Festival today.  I know, because I was in the audience of "The President" at midday when someone came on stage to tell us that one of the actresses couldn't speak.  Instead of cancelling the show, they went ahead - the actress did her role, that of a very efficient secretary, with another actress who plays a second secretary standing behind her, saying her lines for her. It worked perfectly. 

Sarah Palin as a ventriloquist is not that good.  It's impossible to forget that a month ago she knew absolutely nothing about the wide world; that she couldn't tell Katie Couric a single newspaper or magazine that she reads; that her lines have all been fed to her by someone else. Impossible to forget that somehow, in this new surreal world, we are meant to take her seriously as a politician.
The comic Bill Maher, in a rant against religion, said that "praying is talking to your imaginary friend."  I am asking my imaginary friend, fervently, to make sure American and Canadian voters listen carefully to the voices jabbering at them tonight.  Listen closely.  Choose wisely.  

Monday, September 29, 2008

updates and events

I am part of a panel, organised by the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and Ryerson, which will be held on Tuesday October 14 at the World's Biggest Bookstore.  It's called "Telling Individual Tales: How to craft compelling memoirs and personal essays," and will feature also Sarah Moore, a very fine editor at "More" magazine, and an editor from CBC speaking about essays for radio.  It starts at 6.30 with Registration and then the event is from 7 to about 9 with "networking and light refreshments" afterwards.  For non-PWAC members the cost is $10.  

PWAC is running a whole series of seminars through the winter which might be of interest - on breaking into the business, financial management, "the new media landscape" etc.  A full calendar will be available at the seminar.

There is still room in my own "Write in the Garden" creativity kick-start workshop this coming Sunday.  Listen to your powerful hidden voice and experience "Magic in the City" for yourself.

Next Saturday is Nuit Blanche, an entire night given over to the arts throughout the city, so - old folks - let's get some caffeine into our systems and try to stay up till the wee hours.  Or at least till midnight, if we possibly can, and see what's going on out there.  

And the International Festival of Authors is coming up in October, tickets selling already - a delicious event featuring the best writers in the world, here in Toronto to talk to YOU.  This is why we Canadians don't notice winter on the way - because there's so much to do in the fall.


words on the street

The maple tree outside my study window is still green, but the light around it is metallic and harsh.  "Word on the Street" yesterday, that great celebration of the printed word, takes place on the last Sunday in September, and so is a celebration, too, of the last warm days of summer. Queen's Park was packed, as always, in the hot sun, and as always I marvel at the outpouring of print - mags, newspapers, books big and small, hard and soft, manifestos, chapbooks, t-shirts and flags. 

My students - what I realised, looking at those mountains and miles of books, is that the only difference between those writers in print and you is that they have pushed through.  They learned what was needed to get the story down and edited; they finished, found an agent or publisher or even simply self-published and got a final product out into the world.  There's an issue of talent, yes - but also perseverance, humility, self-confidence and guts.  You have those things.

I am also talking to myself.  I was working at the Ryerson table yesterday when a woman with a familiar face came up - a student in one of my very first classes at Ryerson in 1985, there with her son, who then was a newborn and now is a young adult who has written a 500-page novel. She has been working as a freelance writer.  "I remember the class so well," she told me, "You talked about the book you were going to write on Paul McCartney."

A jolt in my heart.  I didn't realise I was talking about that material back then, and now, more than 20 years later, I am still talking about it - still labouring to find a voice in which to tell that story, with fifty different beginnings in my files and still no push through to the end.  So I need to tell myself, also: perseverence, humility, self-confidence, guts.  And that final but so important necessity for a writer: BOC.  Bum On Chair.