Thursday, December 30, 2010

loving Jane, with sand

And now for something completely different … here I am in chilly, cloudy Florida. I’ve rented my house in Toronto for a week to three couples who flew in for a local wedding, so here I am in my mother’s condo north of Sarasota, listening to people complain about the record cold. Indeed, crops have been damaged by frost. But to a Canadian in December, it’s still a steam-bath around here. About 15 degrees now, but it will go up to 20 tomorrow, they say. I enjoy the neon snowflakes and electric wreaths attached to the palm trees, the waterfront bungalows covered with sparkly lights and Santas. There was a picture in the local paper of a classic snowman, with button eyes and stick arms, made on the beach out of sand.

I came down to do some business for my mother, and for a reading week for myself. If you can believe it, I came down without any keys, a long story, so yesterday, my first full day here, I spent the morning trying to get my mother’s spare car key from the super. Then I was able to drive to Publix and get some groceries and to the Chamber of Commerce to email. (The super can pick up someone’s free wifi in the building, but I, for some reason, cannot.) I walked on the beach shivering in a hoodie.

And then I began to read “Pride and Prejudice,” which – a collective gasp of disbelief – I’ve never read. It’s true, I admit it shamefacedly. I’ve read “Emma,” and that’s it. Getting my English degree involved spending far too much time with gloomy Thomas Hardy and hardly any with sparkling Jane.

Once I’d started reading, I couldn’t stop, so that was it, my heavenly day in Florida, reading bundled up by the water, reading at the dinner table (I cobbled something together; I think it involved peanut butter), till finishing just before midnight - laughing out loud sometimes and talking to her as I read. “Oh Jane! How could you do that?” I groaned at the end, when Elizabeth and Darcy FINALLY confess their love, and the author discreetly moves back so, for a bit, we can’t hear what they’re saying to each other. But I understood – she was protecting them. It was a very private moment, after all.

What a fabulous book. Colin Firth’s stunning Mr. Darcy was in my mind, and many others of the perfect cast of the recent dramatization, though not their Elizabeth Bennett, who was lovely but just not right; I created my own, sharper, faster and leaner. There are many joys in the book missing in the film, of course, including the whole last bit where the engaged lovers lovingly review their foibles and mistakes. And mostly, what’s missing in the film is Jane Austen’s voice, the welcome intrusion of her sharp sense of humour and keen satirical eye. Here she writes of plain Charlotte Lucas, preparing to accept an offer of marriage from the bombastic, dreadful Mr. Collins.

Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meeting him accidentally in the lane … In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of them both; and as they entered the house, he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men … The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature, must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

In other words, I think, she will marry him for his house but, though she doesn’t want him courting forever, is in no hurry to get there. Here’s another fantastic passage, after Elizabeth and her aunt Mrs. Gardiner have visited Mr. Darcy (who we know is in love with Elizabeth, though she does not) at his mansion, setting off the jealousy of Miss Bingley, who wants Darcy for herself. She recalls how poorly Darcy once spoke of Elizabeth.

“But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth talked of all that had occurred, during their visit, as they returned, except what had particularly interested them both. The looks and behaviour of every body they had seen were discussed, except of the person who had mostly engaged their attention. They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit, of every thing but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs. Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs. Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject.

End of chapter. It was their discussing of his fruit that made me laugh out loud. Those people were so bloody discreet, incomprehensible! Oh, it’s all delicious. I join the legions in love with this extraordinary writer.

So now I settle in to a quiet few days, more reading, editing and writing work, a bit of barefoot running on the beach. I'm posting now from an ice cream store at the nearby mall, watching the supersized and the elderly (and the supersized elderly) stroll past. At Publix, I loaded up with good cheese and extremely cheap good wine, and interesting things like sushi, edamame salad, noodles made from quinoa. But no bread - not a decent loaf of bread in the place.

The first night, I turned on the TV (just to make sure it works, you understand) and found the White House arts honourees on PBS. I watched a tribute to Merle Haggard, and then – just by chance – one to my very own Paul McCartney. What are the chances I’d turn on just in time for that? Didn’t even know it was happening. I have to tell you that though I adore the man’s music, he shouldn’t stand near President Obama, who is still, despite his travails, the handsomest man on the planet.

Last night, no TV, only Jane. Tonight: “The Rachel Maddow Show” which we don’t get, and a documentary about Jerusalem.

Unless I rustle up another great book. Who needs the sun when there’s Jane Austen?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

DONE! Ho ho ho.

We survived another one, the crabby cat and I. She hates Christmas because the house is full of smells and noise, and all her favourite sleeping places are occupied with human beings making merry. And that is exactly why I love the day. But the rest, the pressure, the exhaustion, I am doing my best to bypass, which is only possible, of course, when your children are adults. And even then ... my daughter is nearly 30, but I still want her to be pleased with her gifts, to feel special and loved, to sit amidst an increasing mountain of paper, as she used to when she was small.

We all got through with grace. Sam gave me a gift card for four hours at a spa, which is going to feel mighty good in February. Anna gave me what I'd asked for, a big beautiful jar of homemade vegetable soup, a pot of her homemade salsa and other treats, a book of Provencal cuisine from which she'll make the recipe of my choice, other books. Holly, who knows me well, gave me a Beatles t-shirt and Beatles playing cards. A lovely fundraising calendar of naked women on Gabriola Island, from Patsy. Oh, and my favourite gift, from Anna - a "Pinko bike rider" button to wear proudly on my coat.

And then, Sam went to get the turkey from the fridge in the empty basement apartment, where we'd stored it overnight, and discovered that the departed tenant had set the fridge to its coldest setting, and the 20 pound bird, fresh the day before, was frozen solid. I emailed our guests to delay their arrival an hour, the bird spent some time under running water, and in she went at last, fully stuffed if a bit colder, wetter and later than usual.

In the afternoon, while the roasting bird filled the house with the familiar smell of Xmas and Thanksgiving, we watched "Despicable Me" which I'd rented for just this occasion. Sam however was really sick with a wretched chest cold and went to lie down; Anna went to email and Facebook on my computer, so finally it was just 60 year old me, watching a children's movie - and enjoying it thoroughly. Highly recommended, even for those of you over eight.

Then time to make the rest: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, green beans, bread sauce, gravy, peas, cranberries. My daughter is a forceful presence with very strong opinions about how kitchens should be run, which is unfortunately not the way I run mine. She took over, did a thorough clean, organized everything, and got us in gear. There was only one meltdown, a tiny clash, shall we say, of tiny personalities, and then, yes, there was the minor accident described below in a note from my Turkish friend, who celebrated his first Christmas dinner with us:

Thanks a lot for having me and sharing the Christmas spirit with me.

I still can't believe how you cooked all that food. The turkey looked and tasted amazing, so all the other food. Your teamwork was impressive. While Anna and Sam was cooking and preparing food like pros, Beth was drinking wine and experimenting with burning the house.

Yes, there were flames shooting up on the stove, at one point, so I grabbed the nearest glass of water and threw it. I don't do fire well. As those of you who follow this blog can understand.
Then, guests there, everything ready and the blessed moment, six people sitting down with heaping plates, clinking glasses, good wishes, and an enormous quantity of disappearing food. Stories, laughter, dessert. Sitting around bloated and warm. The clean-up, so fast with my professional team that I didn't lift a finger. Then the gradual departures, loaded with presents and leftovers, except for the coughing boy who went upstairs to his old bedroom to sleep, as he had the night before. It was weird, he said, waking up on Christmas morning in my old room.

Not for me, it wasn't.

Today, a slight hangover for me and a heaping plate of leftovers for us both, loading him down with more to take home, admonishments to drink juice and take care of himself, and off he went. Empty house; Xmas over. So I did what any normal red-blooded woman would do on Boxing Day under the circumstances - I went shopping for shoes. I'd seen a pair in my vast size the other day and rode my bike over in the bitter cold to see if they were on sale today. You'll be happy to hear that they were! And they're the prettiest and yet most comfortable shoes I've ever owned. At least, they are today. And then a new lipstick almost free with my discount card at Shopper's, and back to dismantle the hibiscus, put away the cards, take down the stockings, store all the bells and whistles.

Wearing my elegant new shoes, my luscious lips silent, I'm stroking the sleeping cat beside me and listening to the birds settle for the evening. Thank you to the universe for health, family and friends. Christmas 2010 - over and out.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Forget your perfect offering

It's nearly midnight; a quick note before my Neo-Citran and I snuffle off to bed. Tonight began another Xmas tradition; from now on, I want to spend the evening of December 23rd with Leonard Cohen, locked in a passionate embrace.

Tonight I decided to lie low and wrap presents while watching the DVD my dear friend Annie gave me for my birthday - Leonard Cohen, live in London in 2008. What a treat! The man is gorgeous, his voice mesmerizing and soul-shivering, and the new Buddhist Leonard is so humble and sweet. He grinned at the audience like a gleeful boy, he kept saying, "It's an honour to play for you tonight," he spotlighted the extremely talented members of his band over and over. And he struck a final blow for ageists everywhere - the man is 75, he looks not like the wild man of Canadian poetry but like John Kenneth Galbraith, but when he sings "I'm your man," those lines of furious sexual passion rocked me to my slippers. He is the sexiest 75 year old man alive. Holy God.

"I did a long study of religion," he said, "but then cheerfulness crept in." "So long, Maryanne," heaven. "Suzanne." "Sisters of Mercy," one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Another of his songs had lines that seemed particularly relevant to Christmas.

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

I wrapped and watched and sang along and, of course, had a tear or two at the end. Thank you, beautiful Leonard. Now everything is wrapped, and I'm almost done. A friend visited this afternoon and remarked on how relaxed I was, and I can tell you, it has been many, many years since I was relaxed on December 23rd, if ever. We have old videotapes of the family at Christmas, and I'm so unlike my real self in them, that thirty-something woman dealing with the demands of young children, parents and other relatives and a husband who wasn't around much and her own soul that had not yet had the gift of many years of psychiatric explanations ... Incredible tension and sheer exhaustion, trying to be and do everything for everybody, feeling responsible for every bit of it, wanting it all to be right, presents, house, tree, food, everybody's happiness. No wonder she looks and sounds as if she's underwater, trying to surface.

And then divorce, the horror of the children having to go back and forth and all the other wretched rips and tugs of this time of year for the divorced. And then, for a bit of added stress, I undertook to produce the local Christmas pageant for 9 years, so this day was spent making last minute calls, planning and preparing the event, with all the rest still to do.

Now someone else produces the pageant, the children are adults, and I have partially resigned from Christmas. Most of what's wrapped under the tree is second-hand, with new books and a few other needed items. It looks great, lots of wrapped packages, but there's not much money invested. There are many ways I want to spend money on my loved ones; rushing out to load up on December 23rd isn't one of them.

Somewhere, I have always been afraid that the kids would not forgive me if their dreams didn't come true on Christmas morning. Well, now we know - I can't make their dreams come true, and I think they've forgiven me for that. We've forgiven each other.

Two friends have just come through serious operations and are well again; that's what's important. We're together, that's what's important.

Let's eat.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A bribe and a red harangue (PUN!)

It's here, my Christmas cold. I am snuffling my way through the merriment. Despite Cold FX and much hand-washing, it hit last night, and today I've been through half a box of Kleenex. But luckily - and not coincidentally, I'm sure - I have no teaching, nothing more than Xmas errands and visits with friends to force me to haul my bones from home. So I'm staying put.

As I snuffle, I have been thinking. It's time, my dear friends, for me to find someone to travel with. Some compatible person or persons. In all the years since my divorce, not a single friend has said to me, there's someone you should meet. So I am offering a bribe.

My dear friend Nicky, when she was living with a long-term boyfriend, told me once that when she wanted to have sex and he didn't, she'd offer him $65. She'd get up and write him a cheque, and usually he'd give in, laughing, and they'd do as she wished.

So here's the bribe: the person who introduces me to someone I enjoy talking to, and might even eventually enjoy travelling with, will be rewarded with $65.00. Sixty-five smackeroos, cash or cheque, made out to that perspicacious soul. I would like to meet someone - male or female but preferably male - who might be fun to hang around with and who might want to go places with an interesting middle-aged woman addicted to red wine, cheese, chocolate and books.

Though I can sense you all rushing to your address books (or whatever passes for them these days) in order to earn yourselves this windfall, please do not contact me in the next few days, because my nose is red and I'm sneezing too often to be my usual sparkling self.

Speaking of sparkling selves: my daughter had a great adventure on her journey to Ottawa last week. She flew Porter the day after I did, and was in the lounge waiting for her flight when she realized that right across the aisle from her, also waiting and alone, was our federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.

It may surprise you to know that my daughter feels strongly about things and is not shy about expressing her opinion. Her dislike for Mr. Flaherty, a neo-con former Mike Harris henchman, is as intense as mine. She decided she should speak to him, but didn't know how to approach him or what to say. Finally she realized that she'd be filled with regret if she didn't; she went to the bathroom to compose herself and figure out her speech. "I thought I should be quick," she said. "I didn't want to get arrested and disappoint Grandma," whom she was flying to visit.

So she came out of the bathroom, smiled at him and shook his hand. "I may never have this chance again, Mr. Flaherty, to tell you what I think," she said. "I think that you and your dear leader will never be forgiven for your inaction on climate change, your unCanadian policies towards immigrants, and your utter neglect of anyone in this country earning under $100,000 a year."

She turned to go, leaving him speechless, and turned back. "And speaking of legacies, how's Brian Mulroney playing out these days?"

WOW!!! What a girl. Am I proud or what!

Monday, December 20, 2010

"I have a voice!" shouts the King.

I am a list-maker. There is no situation, I'm sure, that could not be improved with a list or two. How I survived before the invention of stickies is a mystery, but the second I saw one of those little yellow squares clinging to a wall, my list-making assumed a whole new dimension.

But there is nothing like Xmas to provoke the frantic making of endless lists. Who's coming for dinner, what we need, when we should get it and how (without a car); lists especially, of course, of people who need presents, people who might need presents if they appear on the doorstep with one for me, people who should have a present whether they give me one or not (the women at Doubletake.) People to phone and write to, the Xmas letter to write and email, the house to decorate. Etc. You know all this, because you're reading this while taking a break from your own lists.

This year, something different - we're not going to buy a tree from our neighbours the Kims on the corner. Instead, I'm going to move the giant hibiscus that lives inside in winter into the living-room, and hang lights and baubles from its sturdy branches. A hibiscus doesn't smell piney, no. It doesn't look remotely piney. But it's big and green, and that will do.

This Xmas, my daughter is leaving on Dec. 26th to visit her father and his extended family in Florida, and as of Dec. 28th, I have rented my house for a week to a family celebrating a wedding in the neighbourhood, and I'm using the money and the excuse to go to my mother's condo in Florida, to begin preparations for its sale this coming year. So we'll be dispersed right after the day. No one needs a tree hanging around, dropping needles and getting in the way. This year, at least.

Since if you follow this blog, you know my second-hand shopping habits, it'll be no surprise to you that I do Christmas that way too. Usually, if I find something for one of my kids or friends in Goodwill or Doubletake or the Sally Ann, I give it to them right away - but starting in about August, I hang onto it all. There are big brown bags upstairs, labelled with the names of the recipients, filled with the bits and bobs I've been procuring for months - sweaters, funny things, stocking stuffers, a treasure or two. I'll go out to buy new books, and socks for my son, and perhaps a gift certificate to something - movies or the Y or something useful. And I'll give them some money. I'll do anything to obviate the need to go into a store at this time of year and shove through the crowds looking for some way to spend money while trying not to hear "The Little Drummer Boy" for the thousandth time. This is the antithesis of Xmas, to be avoided at all costs.

How people do this year after year, I don't know. Why do we equate the spending of money with caring and love?


Great joy yesterday - I saw a truly superb film, "The King's Speech." It was everything I'd heard it to be and more, a fantastic treat, acting, directing, cinematography, and script. To be savoured. I loved it especially because it's about my work too. When the King shouts, "I HAVE A VOICE!", that is what I hope for every one of my students. "Find your voice and trust yourself to use it," says the Ryerson blurb for my course. The film shows you much about that process. I suggest you see it immediately, if not sooner.

I'm finishing Christopher Hitchens' memoir today - it's acerbic and often bitter, a great antidote to Xmas, but I've had enough. He's terribly clever and articulate, but it's far too long. I greatly enjoy his turns of phrase. He calls televangelists like Falwell and Robertson "tethered gas-balloons of greed and cynicism once written up by Martin Amis as 'frauds of Chaucerian proportions.'"

Here is what he - delightfully - says about Ronald Reagan:

I did not at all like Ronald Reagan, and nobody then could persuade me that I should ... There was, first, his appallingly facile manner as a liar. He could fix the camera with a folksy smirk that I always found annoying but that got him called "the Great Communicator" by a chorus of toadies in the press, and proceed to utter the most resounding untruths...

Up close, at press conferences, the carapace of geniality proved to be flaky: I was once within a few feet of his lizard-like face when he was asked a question he didn't care for ... and found myself quite shaken by the look of senile, shifty malice that came into his eyes ... Nobody was less surprised than I when Reagan was later found to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease: I believe it will one day be admitted that some of his family and one or two of his physicians had begun to suspect this as early as his first term.

If the image of the leader of the free world in power while suffering from Alzheimer's isn't an antidote to the glib, saccharine side of this holiday, I don't know what is.

Friday, December 17, 2010

home again, home

Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, pecking at my feeder along with the plain brown sparrows. What an extraordinary flaming colour he is - a bird that glows. She keeps her colours hidden.

I'm back from a trip to Ottawa to visit my family. My mother, 87, and aunt, 90, are lively and well, and my daughter spent an entire day there cooking for the ladies and my brother and family - buckets of soup and chicken pot pies for them all to take home, and a massive dinner one night. But to tell the truth, it was not an easy or happy trip. I can only say that there are times when being with family feels like home, and there are times when it does not.

Last night, back in Toronto, I welcomed most of my Thursday home writing class at a potluck Xmas dinner, ten of my favourite people along with our esteemed guest W*yson, and I thought, this is what's so wonderful about friends: I've chosen them, and they have chosen me.

So yesterday was spent cleaning and cooking for the big party, at which we feasted first on a grand repast and then on words. A gathering of fine storytellers, full of turkey, cakes and wine on a snowy night - what pleasure. Today, my student Sarah King has an essay in "Facts and Arguments" in the "Globe;" she brought it to class a few weeks ago, we all agreed it was ready to go and she should send it in, and here it is, a funny, wise piece about bedbugs. Her first publication, the first of many, I'm sure.

This morning, in a private coaching session, student Arlene told me that she enjoys my blog and the blog book because "I feel I'm walking along beside you, and I'm seeing what you're seeing." I was grateful to hear that - because I guess that's the most we can ask as writers, that when we embark on our journey, you agree to come with us.

Right now, Arlene, what I'm seeing are a few soft white flakes spiralling down, and the flash of a scarlet bird.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

a last message

Awoke this morning to a long discussion on CBC radio about the difference between freezing rain and sleet, and what exactly is a "weather bomb." Only in Canada, you say? In any case, the rain out there looks pretty damn cold, and I'm just heading out the door, to Ottawa for my Christmas visit. If I don't get there, I love you all, but especially the two people who, lucky sods, will carry my genetic material on into the future.

P.S. An hour later: Don't tell my downtown friends, but I'm at the Porter airport, which is politically incorrect but so extremely handy for visiting Ottawa. Sure enough, the flight is delayed. If any of you needs to reach me, I'll be picking up email and phone messages from there, and Susan and Jenny will be keeping the home fires burning. Not literally, I hope.

I had an idea at 3 a.m., about being a tour guide in Paris, to which I'm thinking of returning next April - would you like to come to Paris for a few days and have me shepherd you around for a small fee? All my favourite museums, restaurants, shops, being escorted by bus and foot hither and yon ... At 3 a.m., the name PARIS @ BETHED seemed like a good idea. Not so much in the daylight, at the airport. Think about it and let me know. Merci.

Friday, December 10, 2010

warm thoughts on a cold day

The round of Christmas parties has begun, I'm just back from one, and with weeks to go, my pants are too tight already. Drinkies and snackies and merriment - mmmm. And a merry swelling in the waist region to you too.

Saw the new Harry Potter movie a few nights ago. This film is meant for children?! Please do not take a child to see it. It's about Fascism, the takeover of the world by the dark forces of hatred and the vilest intolerance; good people of whom the authorities do not approve are dragged off for torture and death, lovely Hermione has "mudblood" carved into her flesh like an Auschwitz tattoo ... it's powerful stuff and I love all the actors, but ye gods, it's not for children.

And continuing in that serious mode - I just watched Paul McCartney on YouTube, singing the original version of "Yesterday," entitled "Scrambled Eggs," with Jimmy Fallon on his show. Jimmy Fallon is a comic who used to be goofy and now has his own show and is wearing a very expensive suit - that's all I know about him. I know a lot about dear old Paul. What I do not know is ... why is he doing this stupid @#$#@$? Apparently tomorrow, he's hosting "Saturday Night Live." He doesn't need the money or the exposure, so why?

A wonderful dinner on Wednesday night with some of my oldest friends from university days in the late sixties - and speaking not about myself, of course, but about them - what a vibrant, accomplished, interesting and attractive bunch of women they are. One of life's great gifts - old friends, people who were there decades ago, who've followed you through all those stages, transitions, crazy times and hairdos, and are still, for some incomprehensible reason, there. A blessing.

And speaking of blessings ... this week our charming and debonair new mayor was inaugurated by the dignified hockey commentator Don Cherry, who spoke of his love of this city with such depth that I had tears in my eyes, liking especially his warm embrace of the opposition - i.e. the "left-wing pinko weirdos" he mentioned with such tenderness. I hear there are "pinko cyclist" buttons available now. Please, if any of you finds one, send it to me. Send me fifty; I'll wear them all. Let's all wear pink from now until this band of barbarians has been sent fleeing back to the outer circle of hell, i.e. Etobicoke, from whence they came.

Speaking of tears in my eyes - I just finished "Must you go," the book Antonia Fraser published about her extremely happy marriage to Harold Pinter. This is the book of which both Eleanor Wachtel and Michael Ondaatje disapproved but which I thoroughly enjoyed. Two hard-working, well-known Londoners found a very great love in their forties, and lived it to the hilt until his death not long ago. It's a great joy to read about a rarely happy marriage .

One entry especially hit home with me. Antonia is speaking with an old friend, who has known her since childhood, about the fact that she has fallen in love with Pinter and will leave her husband.
"You have a special problem," says the friend to Antonia, who is from the British aristocracy, very well-educated and the author of several books. "You are a woman and a strong character, yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem."

I understand this problem, and I think my daughter does too, the particular problem of a woman of strong character who would like a mate to be as strong, if not stronger, but not in a domineering way. Hard to find. Lucky Antonia found such a man in Harold Pinter. Who would have thought that the acerbic author of "The Homecoming" could write streams of sweet love poems to his bride?

And finally, with all the bad news, Mayor Ford and Don Cherry, Obama wavering in the wind, Haiti and London exploding, and winter - oh God, winter, bitter and grey, it's so hard to get out of bed - here's something amazing: to quote the "Star," "Another 17 U.S. billionaires have pledged to give away at least half of their fortunes in a philanthropic campaign led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. A total of 57 billionaires now have joined The Giving Pledge, which was launched in June."

The Gates, it says, have given away more than 28 billion dollars. Hard to comprehend. 57 billionaires pledged, and the Giving Pledge was only launched in June. Well, in these cold, dark times, if the giving away of billions isn't a warm light, I don't know what is.

If you want to send just a tiny bit my way, guys, just the teensiest fraction, I promise to share it with everyone I know. Address on this website.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ol' man whatever

Folks, playtime is over; the serious business of winter has begun. Windy and cold, fat flakes tumbling and staying on the ground. Now my bird-feeder comes into its own, hosting a great flurry all day. I don't know how those tiny birds keep warm during these bitter months, but at least the ones around here can find something to eat.

I went to One of a Kind for the first time on the weekend, to troll through the overwhelming assortment of crafts, but mostly to visit an old friend with a booth there. About 15 years ago, when I went back onstage to do a show in Vancouver, Wendy van Riesen was brought in as a replacement for an actress who'd gone off to do a movie. Wendy and I had several long scenes together, and as we worked, I remembered what the theatre is really about - sharing, expressing, giving. She gave that to me with her passionate honesty and generosity. When the former actress came back again into her role, I had changed so much on stage that we could hardly work together. She wanted laughs. I wanted truth.

Wendy too eventually left the stage and created a company called Dahlia Drive. She creates one of a kind dresses out of slips - old slips, black and pink and white, that she hand-paints and cuts and shapes. They're lovely and unique, like Wendy herself. We had a grand reunion. Check out her website

This week, too, a parade of successful students came to visit: Laurel Croza's gorgeous book "I Know Here" is on quite a few Top Ten lists, and the fiendishly energetic Louise Binder came by with the first half of her memoir that we've been working on for nearly two years. On Saturday night, I went as every year to the tree lighting at Riverdale Farm - a gathering of neighbours to sing carols with the Cabbagetown Community Choir, and then to gasp when someone illuminates the lights on the big pine as we sing "Oh Christmas Tree." And cocoa.

It's looking mighty Christmassy out there right now. Time to put my head under the pillows, and hide.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fox News yuck

More shenanigans from the Fox News North people. Please download and sign to prevent them from removing our brains and substituting a pile of viciousness and slime. Many thanks.


If writers were good businessmen, they'd have too much sense to be writers.

Irvin S. Cobb, author and journalist (1876-1944)


a literary soiree

Now I know what Cinderella would have done, if possible, as soon as she got home from dancing with her prince - she would have opened her MacBook and told all in her blog. ("It was great, yeah. But where is my @#$# Manolo???")

Last night was a marvel; this morning, in my dressing gown, I wonder if it was real - yours truly in the bar at the Four Seasons, part of a stellar group that included Michael Ondaatje. But it must have been, because though I still have both my shoes, here beside me is a notebook with some scribbles.

Last night's event was sponsored by the Toronto Public Library, part of their speaker series at the Toronto Reference Library: a celebration of 20 years of "Writers and Company," with Eleanor Wachtel, the best interviewer of writers in the world, being interviewed herself by Michael Ondaatje. It sold out fast, so Eleanor kindly procured me a ticket. Several mournful people were hovering around the door as I went through, hoping for returned tickets. "After so many years of leestening to the program," a woman with a strong Russian accent told me, "I vant to see her."

Inside, a crowd of book-lovers of the most fervent sort - i.e. the best people on earth. I had a glass of wine with friend and U of T colleague Alyssa York, whose new novel "Fauna" has been on several recent Top Ten lists, and her husband Clive, watching the literati of Toronto stream by. I found a seat in the second row, behind the Eleanor claque, which included uber-editor Ellen Seligman and uber-publisher Louise Dennys.

What a treat was in store for us all - two hours of laughter and fine conversation. In the introduction, Eleanor spoke of how welcoming Ondaatje had been to her after her tentative arrival in this city from Vancouver, and he said how lucky we are to have such a resource on national public radio, this woman who is "curious, intelligent and alarmingly well-read." And then he proceeded to interview her. Eleanor has a wonderful sense of humour and perfect comic timing, so there were many laughs; some of the greatest ones came when she couldn't help herself and turned the tables back, asking Michael questions about his own life. But he resisted.

She told us that in childhood, though her older siblings were an academic inspiration, there were few books in the house; that, hard as it is to believe, she loved to read books like "Sue Barton, Student Nurse" and later, "The Magnificent Obsession." "Reading," she said, "is company." (Michael asked her if she ever wanted to read trash. "Life's too short to read bad writing," she said. "I have too many great books to read, including the books by dead authors that you only read in the summer.") She told us that for many years, she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life; she started in print arts journalism. "I never wanted to be a writer," she said. "I subscribe to the obsession theory of creativity; you have to be so driven, work so hard to do it well. I was never driven enough."

And they were off, telling stories, these two phenomenally accomplished Canadians who are comrades, and discussing writers. Eleanor talked at length about J. M. Coetzee, the South-African Nobel Prize winner and one of the most difficult of her interviewees, who insisted on writing down all her questions before he'd answer them and later who agreed to be interviewed as long as she did not ask about his work, his life, or South Africa.

They discussed a mutual favourite, W.G. Sebald, who spoke, in a clip that was aired for us, about "the weight of memory" that "might sink you." Physical pain can be controlled, he said, "but mental pain is without end. I have no great desire to be let off the hook. We have to stay upright through all that." Of all his melancholy, mysterious and beautiful books, Michael O's favourite, FYI, is "The Rings of Saturn." And Eleanor's favourite poem is Ondaatje's own "The Cinnamon Peeler." Michael quoted bits of many of her interviews; he too spends an hour in his kitchen on Sunday, listening to the world's writers on CBC radio.

Eleanor spoke with affection about writers as diverse as Oliver Sacks and Jim Harrison, and told us how, though she'd dreaded interviewing Philip Roth who could be sharp and dismissive, he was warm and open with her. But as the 500 faithful fans in the audience know, that is no surprise, because he was being interviewed by a master. At the end of this feast of talk and laughter, the elderly woman next to me, who was dressed from head to toe in leopard print, said, "There's something in her beautiful voice that makes people want to tell her the truth."

The interview will be edited down to an hour - how, I can't imagine - and aired soon on the program. Don't miss it. Sundays from 3 to 4, CBC 1. Let me say that again: Sundays from 3 to 4, CBC 1. Don't miss it.

After Eleanor and Michael had signed books, the gang decided to go for a drink. Which is how yours truly, Cinderella, ended up at the Four Seasons with Eleanor Wachtel, two CBC producers Mary Stinson and Susan Feldman, Eleanor's friend the Montreal academic and writer Sherry Simon, my old friend the actress Nancy Beatty, who's a good friend of the Ondaatje's, and Michael and his wife Linda Spalding, co-founder and editor of "Brick" magazine.

As you can imagine, the conversation among these ho-hum people was profoundly boring. Nothing to talk about, no new ideas, no sense of humour. I didn't sit entranced as they talked about the raft of books they'd just read and about famous writers who are close friends of theirs. I didn't argue with Michael Ondaatje about the Antonia Fraser/Harold Pinter book, which I'm so enjoying and which is despised, it seems, by most writers.
"But it's romantic, they're so in love and he writes poems for her," I said.
"Terrible poems!" said Michael Ondaatje.
"No they're not," I said.
"Terrible," said he.

Or maybe ... could it be? ... I did.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

snowless in Toronto

Just had an email from Penny in Sheffield, England - the city is paralyzed by snow, schools cancelled, streets impassable, neighbours chatting as they shovel. Lots of snow last week in balmy Vancouver. Whereas here in snowy Toronto, a flake or two. I'm looking out at the yard - the grass still green, the parsley, rosemary and thyme on the deck still alive, despite the frost. Soon, yes, it'll be our turn. No rush, weather gods. No rush.

Teaching is winding down - U of T and Ryerson and one home class end-of-term feast over, another last class feast next week. One U of T student just sent me an email: I will contact you about coaching. Because you are so generous and smart and talented! And I trust you completely.

I thank you for those very kind words. If only! I am working privately with eight memoir clients, who astound me with their courage and dedication. And FYI, yesterday, my blog book went on sale at the gift shop at Riverdale Farm. It's a beautiful shop, perfect for that beautiful place - full of local crafts and tasteful, quirky things relating to animals, the country, farms, this neighbourhood ... highly recommended.

Some good television on Bravo these last few days (looking at a fat blue jay on the deck - what a huge bird, swaths of grey and bright blue and black) - "The Genius Within", about Glenn Gould, and last night, a dance piece about Nureyev. The Gould documentary was extremely moving, showing him as both a man and a genius - how his increasing eccentricity destroyed his life, his loneliness, the tragedy of the far-too-early death at fifty that he had predicted. What a legacy. I've made it a project, for my next vacation, to listen to both his "Goldberg Variations," the early one and the late, to follow the journey of his soul. And to immerse myself, too, in the heavenly soul of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I was angry at myself last Friday - missed out on getting tickets for the debate about religion between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair, which sold out instantly. A friend reported:

It was blatantly obvious from the beginning that Tony Blair certainly is not an intellectual. I had to remind myself of that continually. In all fairness, he is a politician, and a successful one at that. But Hitchens wan't sufficiently challenged. Blair's arguments wore very thin after they were repeated over and over, whereas Hitchens still dazzles with his remarkable depth of knowledge and ability to bring it to the fore, so quick "on his feet", despite the fact that he is so terribly ill. As you know, his Cancer is terminal and he probably won't live too much longer.

I was sorry to have missed it - the triumph of the atheist. So when a few days ago, I phoned to get tickets to the event tonight celebrating Eleanor Wachtel and the 20 years of her "Writers and Company," I was furious with myself again to find out that too was sold out. I wrote to Eleanor to inform her of my despair, and she called last night to tell me there'll be a ticket waiting for me. Lucky me!

She'll be interviewed tonight by Michael Ondaatje, in front of 460 of her most ardent fans. Including moi.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

thoughts about writing, writing about thoughts

Important message for today, my writing friends: W*yson was just over for supper, and we were discussing his on-going struggle with the new manuscript. He has been slaving, going backward and forward and ripping it apart and starting again, for well over a year. "God, it doesn't sound like much fun," I said.
"Oh, it's never fun," he said. "Writing isn't fun."
"But there's some joy, isn't there?" I said, the idealistic girl child.
"There's joy when it's published and people like it," he said, "but writing isn't joy. It's work."

I knew that.

Still, it's nice to pretend otherwise. But he's right. My own current project is neither fun nor joy, but, indeed, work. Exciting and necessary, but for fun, I'll eat a lot of cheese.

Speaking of work - an article in the "Globe" the other day about Jane Austen's prose. Apparently this great genius of English literature was poor at punctuation and owes a great deal to her editor, who "polished the manuscripts, regulating her haphazard regulations, introducing the trademark semicolons and eliminating surplus dashes."

The message there is: if you're a lousy punctuator, make sure you have a good editor. Or else get a good book about punctuation, of which there are many now. On Friday, I spent some time browsing at one of my favourite places, the local library, where in one small section of new non-fiction, I saw these titles: "Fix your feet;" "Classic cocktails;" "I want a baby, he doesn't;" "Kung fu for girls;" "Stop being your symptoms and start being yourself;" "So it's hard to love you;" "The happiness advantage;" "Playing with paper;" "Understanding the universe;" and, my favourite, "Gay and lesbian weddings: planning the perfect same-sex wedding." What an amazing world.

And there was a new book called "Good Punctuation," by Graham King, just published by HarperCollins. A gift for Jane Austen.

Finally, an article in the "Star" about the young man who grew up in Riverdale, mere steps from my front door, who started the blog, which "has piled up nearly 75 million hits, in the process spinning off a best-selling book of the same name" and now a new book, "Whiter Shades of Pale."

75 million hits and a best-seller. What am I doing wrong?

He is asked, "What's the secret to your blog's successful migration to traditional publishing?"
Of interest to me, obviously, author of "True to Life: the book of the blog," which so far has sold an astounding 17 copies.

"For a blog to become a good book," he replies, "the blog really needs to reflect the writer, not an aggregation of content. The ones that work well for books are the ones where there's a single voice and where the posts are long form, like 400 words, which is 'War and Peace' for the Internet."

All right, Mr. Goldwyn, I'm ready for my close-up. I know that writing is not fun but work, I'm really good at punctuation, and in my blog posts I easily write, like, 400 words reflecting the single voice of the writer. Tolstoy, 75 million hits, joy - here I come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marilyn Monroe and Maf her dog

I'm on my way, in the snow, to return two library books: the moving "Cigar Box Banjo," by Paul Quarrington, and the astonishing "The life and opinions of Maf the dog and his friend Marilyn Monroe," by Andrew O'Hagan, whom I heard at Harbourfront in the program celebrating Eleanor Wachtel. I liked him a great deal and ordered his book immediately, and now will have to take it out again and read in more detail, as there's too much to take in on first reading.

It's quite brilliant, narrated in the voice of the small dog given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra (Maf, short for Mafia.) O'Hagan has recreated the Fifties, the narrative peopled with the famous of that time, fully alive and talking non-stop. I don't know how he managed to incorporate so much research and bring the era and its phenomenal personalities to life; the book is not only clever in that way, but the dog himself is incredibly well-read, highly educated and fascinating. He speaks of the "mannered simplicity" of Hemingway, the tiresomely "infinite prettiness" of Renoir.

Here are a few passages:

'To thine own self be true,' said the bard. Yet in all the animal kingdom, only humans consider integrity to be a thing worth worrying about. I grew up in the golden era of existentialism, so you'll forgive me for finding the whole idea of a self that one must be true to a little ridiculous. We are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the supreme fiction.

Good human relationships depend on an instinct for tolerating and indeed protecting other people's illusions: once you start picking them apart, taking down their defences, reducing their plan for survival, making them smaller in their own eyes, the relationship is as dead and gone as the Great Auk.

I wondered whether cats weren't really the most intelligent of creatures. Sufficient unto themselves, they turned solitude into a great and sustaining thing, while dogs and men, in order to be happy, needed each other.

'Dr. Kris once told me about a letter she got from Anna Freud,' [Marilyn] said. 'I distinctly remember a phrase Kris quoted from it: "One never really loses a father if he was good enough."'

My owner hugged me and looked into my eyes. I was still thinking of Milton. 'Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,' I said. 'Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.'
'Good dog,' she said.

Highly recommended.


The first snowfall of the season. I sit in my dressing-gown watching the garden turn white, the flakes, lashed by the wind, teeming down from an aluminum sky. What a show, and the crabby cat and I share a front-row seat in front of a wall of windows. The birds and squirrels at the feeder are enjoying a treat - black sunflower seeds mixed with their regular seed. I am trying to remember my birthday party in August, which took place right here, where now it's cold and colourless.

A mountain of newspaper awaits - the "Star" and the "Globe," the usual fat Saturday editions stuffed with Christmas hype. I imagine the store owners rubbing their hands in glee, as they too watch the picturesque snow fall, accentuating the buying season. Doubletake, my local second-hand store and the only store I frequent, started playing "Jingle Bells" a few weeks ago, so as of today, I won't go out without earplugs at the ready.

My friend Lynn cannot understand why I revile Christmas music; she loves the excitement of this time of year. Perhaps in the south of France, this is a time of innocent preparation for joyful familial gatherings and spiritual celebration. Here, it's a celebration of the frantic buying of crap, spurred on by treacly music. Put in your earplugs, friends, and don't be sucked in. Give meaningful gifts made by local craftsmen, or donate to favourite charities. GIVE BOOKS! Bought at small bookstores!!! Give handmade food. Fight them. Don't succumb to the pressure. (Easy to say, sure, as I get out my list and begin to fuss.)

It's really falling hard now. Time soon to bundle up and go for a walk. The birds and I will not be stopped by the white stuff. Next to me, as I stroked tentatively, a morsel of striped fur just let out a small noise that sounded surprisingly like a purr. Another miracle of the season.

P.S. Ten minutes later - the snow has stopped already. Show's over.

Friday, November 26, 2010

John and Paul, again

November 26th - my father's birthday; he would have been 88. He was 65 when he died of stomach cancer, just 5 years older than I am now, but I don't have trouble imagining him as an old man, because there are so many pictures out there of the aging Mordecai Richler. My dad was much handsomer than Richler in youth, but as Dad aged and grew more jowly and wore bi-focals, he looked a great deal like the Montreal writer.

I miss you, Dad. Wish you were here to talk to; to share my world. But you are still here, in me.

Just saw "Nowhere Boy," the John Lennon bio-pic. It's all right, but it doesn't soar. Of course, it's hard to imagine a picture involving the Beatles, at any stage, with only one single note of their music. It's interesting to see how the filmmakers imagined the band began, and fun to watch the British upper lower middle-class, of which my mother was a part - and see Liverpool, which I visited last year. But ...

First, director Sam Taylor-Wood and her much-younger star Aaron Johnson fell in love during the shooting, and they've been a couple ever since. Does that explain why the camera's close-up lens almost never leaves the actor's face? We practically live up his nose and have to fight our way through his eyelashes.

Second, does their affair also explain why all the actors playing Lennon's mates are so plain? Johnson is handsome and charismatic, but the actor playing Paul McCartney, who was adorable from day one in photos, is a scrawny little thing with the face of a weasle. Stu Sutcliffe, John's friend, was in life the handsomest of the lot, James Dean stunning - but not in this movie. Only Lennon is tall and vibrant and good-looking. Phooey on that, I say.

And finally - despite absolutely terrific performances from two actresses as John's aunt and his mother, I got impatient with the poor sad John scenario. He had much love in his life, a nice place to live, was neither neglected or abused. I've heard a hundred sadder stories in my work. It's tragic that his mother was killed when he was 17, no question. But as for the implication that his aunt and uncle raising him while his mother lived nearby was a life-scarring tragedy - well, he wrote a song or two about it, but I imagine would not have cared much for the film's depiction of the wailing and bemoaning he's supposed to have done.

While we're on this topic, I'd like to point something out to you Lennon fans, who love to sneer at my dear Mr. McCartney. The paper recently printed a list of the top ten Beatle songs just downloaded from the Internet, now that the Beatles' list is available on-line. One is "Twist and Shout," not their composition; two of the rest of the ten are by George, two by John, and five by Paul.

Just sayin'.

I wish Paul Quarrington were still here, so I could argue with him. I'm reading and enjoying Paul's "Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on music and life," published after his recent, too-early death from lung cancer at the age of 56. But I did not enjoy reading, "Here's my very unpopular stance. I think the Beatles, with their unprecedented popularity, did more than anyone else in their early days to deplete the music coming out of our radios of any remaining meaning or significance."

Hah! Them's fighting words. The chapter ends, "And now you know why some of my acquaintances refer to me as 'Paul Quarrelsome.'"

You too are missed, Paul. Quarrelsome or no.


P.S. Too bad the colourful Danny Williams of Newfoundland is leaving politics. I have the greatest respect for a Conservative premier who understood just how destructive our Prime Minister is. "I can only say this," Williams said in September 2008, "and I say it with all sincerity and genuine concern for our great country: a majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history."

May I repeat that? Would you mind? A majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history.

Thanks, Danny. I'll keep that in mind, and let's hope the country does, too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stephen King on J. K. Rowling and adverbs

A treat today: a handwritten 2003 review by Stephen King of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." See the explanation below and don't miss reading King's work - beautifully written, warm words of praise for Ms. Rowling, except for her excessive use of adverbs. He gives the perfect putdown of adverbs, which my students know is one of my bugbears too.

For the July 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine, the editors asked Stephen King to review the fifth ''Harry Potter'' book. 'We knew we wanted to do something special with J.K. Rowling's fifth book, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.' So we decided to approach the OTHER most popular author on the planet, Stephen King, who agreed to take the assignment.

''King didn't have much time to read the 870-page book -- even he couldn't get the publisher to cough up an advance copy -- and he worked on the review while in New York City doing publicity for his 'Dark Tower' fantasy series and casting an upcoming film project. Moreover, he told us that he'd left his PowerBook back in Maine and declined our offer to borrow a laptop.

''Instead, he delivered a spiral-bound notebook with the review written out in his distinctively neat handwriting."

King took a shining to the book and gave it an A.

Download the review (1.2 MB)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Social Network

For the first time, as I started this post, I thought, Who are you, you boring old bag, to blather on? What the hell new do you have to say?

I've just seen "The Social Network."

I emerged feeling energized by this fantastic film, but also old, poor, slow and stupid. Why haven't I invented anything that earned - okay, not billions of dollars, but even a paltry million or two? Why, you total loser? Because you're not nearly young or fast or smart enough, but also ... you're not enough of an obsessive asshole. That's a message in the movie too. The nice guy gets shafted; the relentless, conscienceless assholes win. Except, of course, that they don't.

See it immediately if you haven't already; it's stunning, Shakespearian, gripping from first to last, the performances and direction superb and the writing even better. The story of why and how Facebook got started at Harvard and how it grew is fascinating enough, but in the end, what's moving and beautifully portrayed are the eternal stories: the outsider wanting in; the genius losing perspective and humanity; the snake in Eden cajoles, the apple is devoured and a soul is lost. Not one moment feels false or dull. Well, maybe a cheap joke or two, a bit forced, but Sorkin is forgiven because of the extreme cleverness of his script. To me, the writer has done the equivalent of what his protagonist Zuckerberg, the Facebook guy, did - he has created something vital, current, necessary.

Aaron Sorkin is a writer, so he won't emerge with endless bags of dough as a result of this film. But if he doesn't win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, I'll eat my hat, and I have quite a few of them, so it'll take me awhile. I was a huge fan of "The West Wing" and I'm a huge fan now. Even though he makes me feel uplifted, but also weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a tiny bit of snow

Last night, what a treat - Marilyn took me to the ballet. "Everything/was beautiful/at the ballet," goes the song from "Chorus Line," and it couldn't have been more beautiful, this production of "Cinderella," with music by Prokofiev, put on by the National Ballet with panache and a great deal of humour. Sets, costumes, dancers and especially that glorious music. How do those people do what they do with their bodies? Legs up to there, leaps, twirls, extensions, jumps ... Utter delight. Especially, as my neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard, whom I ran into there, pointed out, the handsome Prince and all his tight-wearing friends. Delicious.

I've just had an email from dear friend Penny, in Sheffield. I'd sent her my blog book, in which she plays a significant part, and here, in the "blowing own horn" department, is what she just wrote:

I have read and reread your words and am now tracking the days with the calendar - two years behind time. 20th November 2008 - Excellence from the snow zone.

"... 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."

I shiver for more reasons than the chill wind of the coming winter.

You give your readers a tantalising glimpse of your life and your mind - slipping from the moment to the memory, from your reading to reflection. The everyday sits beside the events of the century, and your friends and family stroll casually through the rich story of your world.

Always nice to hear that someone besides my mother has enjoyed the book. It's cold, and the dark days are closing in; this morning, I pushed back the bedroom curtains to see the first swirls of snow. That wonderful feeling, lying warm in bed looking at the icy wind shoving at the trees outside. But the flakes vanished immediately, not like November 2008.

BUSINESS: My basement apartment is available for rent January 1. Please keep it in mind if you hear of an extremely nice person who needs an extremely nice place to live in downtown Toronto.

I hope you are warm and dry, in a very nice place of your own.

Friday, November 19, 2010

the lady and the playwright

It's dark by 5 p.m. now, as winter sidles in. I think of the pioneer peoples in log cabins - how did they survive month after month of snow and wind and vicious cold? Nothing to complain about, here in the warm house, looking out at the still-green garden, the birds pecking at the feeder, the cat curled up, asleep as always, beside me.

Wonderful news: my friend Bill, a neighbourhood handyman with long grey hair and very few teeth who rakes leaves, shovels snow and washes windows all over Cabbagetown, has found me a bicycle. Someone gave it to him. It's an old Raleigh woman's bicycle with 3 magnificent speeds and a huge front basket, exactly the right height, with the high handlebars I wanted. All that was needed was a bell. Bill asked for $20; I gave him $50. I feel marvellous pedalling along upright, with books and handbag in the basket, knowing that when I lock the fairly tattered and rusty bike, she won't be a thief magnet as a new bike would have been. Her name, incidentally, is Chocolat, with the French pronunciation, because she's a rich brown. I look forward to many happy years, Chocolat and I, together at last.

So to those who gave me money for my birthday towards the purchase of a new bicycle, I will put those funds instead towards my travel vacation next April. Many thanks, once more.

Since returning from New York to this sweet little city, I've taught 2 university classes, 2 home classes, seen 5 private memoir clients and started the 697th draft of my own memoir. Sometimes I think that so much energy goes into other people's work, it has become harder to throw myself into my own. But I'll get there.

I know I'll get there because I'm inspired by a fascinating book - "Must you go?" by Lady Antonia Fraser, about her love affair and marriage with Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. It's a fabulous book for anyone interested simply in the time and place - this couple consorted with famous actors, politicians and personalities around the world, casual mentions of lunch with Samuel Beckett, dinner with Steve McQueen etc. There's the delicious story of their relationship - their incredibly romantic meeting and love at first sight, with some of the gorgeous, heart-melting poems he wrote to her.

But most importantly for me, there's the image of Lady Antonia herself, the mother of six children, getting a divorce and marrying a brilliant writer while keeping her own writing career in full gear. She still had teenaged children at the time, though not, I think, living full-time at home, and undoubtedly she had a housekeeper and perhaps a cook - it's hard to imagine Lady Antonia hopping onto her bicycle to get a load of groceries, or dashing down to the basement to do the laundry, as some other writers who shall remain nameless have to do.

But still, she was writing and Pinter was writing while they jetted off to openings of his plays and meetings with movie producers and other writers - and television interviews of them both and vacations in Italy with "the children," his one and some of her six. She produced murder mysteries and lengthy works about history, a biography of Charles II, a history of 17th century women, while living an exotic life with a genius who adored her. Who took her to luxury hotels, wrote her passionate poems and bought her outfits at Yves St. Laurent in Paris.


Okay, no, I don't. I love my solitude and tiny little Toronto. I don't want to write about 17th century women, and Pinter does sound like a handful, a bit neurotic and ferociously opinionated. In one moving bit, she tells us that after his death, among his things, she found a place card of her name from some dinner party, on the back of which she'd written, "You're absolutely right, darling. Now shut up!" and passed it to him. He'd kept it for decades.

But I so admire her drive, focus and professionalism. Yesterday, discussing the writing life with students, I told them that when I attended the Humber summer program, I'd noted something the Welsh writer D.M. Thomas had said: "Cultivate the garden that has been given to you."

You cannot write someone else's stories, only your own. So write them.

And my student Wendy told of the American humour writer Bruce Jay Friedman whom she'd had as a mentor at Humber. She told him she was stuck on a piece of writing, what should she do? He looked at her impatiently. "Write the next fucking line!" he replied.

That's what my hero Lady Antonia Pinter, despite her great romance and very busy life, continued to do. And that's what I'll do too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

baby musicians

I photographed this on the wall of the John Lennon exhibit at the Museum of Radio and Television - the first photo of the Fab Four together. Children.

a few NYC shots

Broadway is closed at Times Square, and you can sit at the tables or on the red staircase. At night, the view of the crowds and lights from the top of the staircase is spectacular.

Bruce in the park.

Beth - no, not in the Muskokas, but in Central Park.

The construction at Ground Zero. Bruce showed me the nearby cemetery iron railing, which after 9/11 was covered with photos of the missing. Just standing there makes you want to cry.

New York New York

"I've never been so glad to be home," I said to my daughter last night, back in my own quiet kitchen after the flight from NYC, back in serene Toronto.
"You say that every time," she replied. Maybe, but it's sure that I felt it more, this time. This time, New York seemed sour, angry, people swearing and shouting, the honking of horns, the surliness of bus drivers, the screaming of children - it knocked me over. I found the canyons of concrete soulless, even frightening, and when, on Saturday, I went to that heavenly park to recuperate, I found it jammed with people; just in one small section, a clown was joking at top volume and a saxophonist and two separate accordionists were playing for change. Noise noise noise.

I'm getting old.

No, there was tons of good stuff. Bruce and I spent a great deal of time in the line-ups at the half-price ticket booths, very worth the effort for half price seats to marvellous theatre. I saw four shows - clever, funny "La Bete," starring the supreme Mark Rylance whom I fell in love with in "Jerusalem" in London this spring; "In the Heights," a fantastically fresh, energetic musical about Latino life in north Manhattan; "Next to Normal," and who but the Americans could make a hit musical out of the suffering of a bi-polar woman and her family - and make it work; and "A Little Night Music," by the great Stephen Sondheim, which I hated. Enough said.

I gratefully stayed, as always, at Cousin Ted's at 77th and 3rd, had a brief visit with Ted and his partner Henry, who were leaving town for a family bar mitzvah; spent a lot of time with Cousin Lola, who at 88, after a bout with cancer, is as full of energy as ever, taking classes, seeing every show she can through a website that gets her tickets for $3.50; she had just been to the Village to see a production of "Hamlet"- in Japanese. I took her to "Normal," the bi-polar musical with very loud rock music, and she loved it. We had a great time together.

And with my dear friend Bruce, strolling in Central Park and along the High Line gardens built on an abandoned highway; he took me to the Met to show me his favourites, bought me some beautiful earrings as a birthday present, and we lunched in a new space in a sun-filled atrium, surrounded by masterpieces. And did I mention that the weather was perfect, sunny and warm?

A few things:
- "In the Heights" had a full audience of Latino kids, shouting approval, a lively open bunch, perhaps their first time in the theatre. Joyful. There is no energy in the world, I thought, like an American musical going full bore.

- I talked to one of the kids selling programs at the intermission, and when I thanked him, he said, "You got it! Have a good one!" Lots of people said "Have a good one!" Every time you enter a store, no matter how small, someone is there to say hello. Their eyes may be dead, but their mouths are smiling and greeting you. I thought about the stores in France, and laughed.

- How proud I was to see Canuck actor Stephen Ouimette in "La Bete" - one of the 3 stars. He was perfect. Have a good one, Stephen.

- An article in the NYT on new training for priests on how to deal with requests for exorcisms, which apparently are going through the roof.

- A few Lola quotes: "I hate stupid dialogue, like at the opera."
"The only interesting men are pains in the ass. The nice ones are boring. Warn your daughter."
At the Booth Theatre, she said, "I saw Helen Hayes at this theatre. Gertrude Lawrence. Did I tell you about the time I said hello to Martha Graham? Did I tell you about the time your dad was forced to take me to his high-school graduation, and Ethel Merman came to sing?"
And as we approached our seats, loudly, "Oh my God, I hope I'm not behind that GIANT!"

- I happened on the Museum of Radio and Television, which had an exhibit about John Lennon's youth in Liverpool and a Mayles brothers 80 minute documentary called "The Beatles in America," in which their cameras followed the boys on that first trip in 1964, even in their limos and hotel rooms while they sat around joking with each other, and through an extraordinary train ride from New York to Washington in which they were riding with everyone else and making their fellow passengers laugh the whole way.

- Central Park, when Bruce and I went during the week, was beyond beautiful - once again, I was aware of it as the sanity and soul of the city.

- an after theatre drink on Friday with Bruce, his friend Myriam who's a voice coach, and Bill Millerd, the artistic director of the Arts Club Theatre where I worked for many years in Vancouver. We met at 11 p.m. at a secret place on W. 46th, without a name, just a number, and inside, a little bar and club, where we talked about the theatre, and Americans, and the dicey future of the planet.

- A Canadian presence in the "New York Times" - an editorial about Omar Khadr, saying that his eight years in captivity is enough, and yesterday, an article on the front page about the tolerance for immigrants in Canada, particularly in Manitoba. I guess they weren't following Rob Ford's campaign too closely. "Shake Hands with the Devil," the film, opened a few days ago, and under the photo was the caption, "Roy Dupuis as Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian."

- People were eating everywhere, eating and drinking large quantities from disposable containers. I noticed it more after my time in France. A woman on the morning subway downtown breakfasted on her briefcase, spreading her bagel with butter and drinking a large coffee.

- I was early for the theatre at one point so wandered into a store, ended up sitting in a massage chair with my feet in a massage machine, being ... massaged all over. It was wonderful.

- Consuming. Consuming. People will never give this up, I thought. There was a sale at Macy's, and I confess I went, clawing my way through the masses for the two things I wanted, warm wool tights and a pair of pants. The pants were reduced from $89 to $28. What can I say? I was judging everyone else, all this senseless buying, I scolded hypocritically, as I emerged with my trophies. I went to New York with a list of the three things I needed, and found exactly what I'd wanted at much less than I expected to pay. Every step you take, there's a shop winking at you. BUY! "Buy more and save more," shouted the sale signs. Body Shop had a special deal - you buy a cloth bag for $5 and then everything you can cram into it is 30% off. How much more do we need? How can we stop?

- Bruce and I talked a lot about the sour mood of America; the impossible demands on Obama and the rise of the fanatic right. "Americans are feeling diminished in the world - the end of empire," I said.
"Just like the Germans before the second war," he replied. "That's when fascism arises."

In the cab to La Guardia at dusk, I looked back at the skyline, beautiful, black silhouettes against a dark rosy sky. I was born in this city, most of my family is there, I love it. But it's impossible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

off again

Okay, crazy - it's a beautiful sunny Tuesday and in an hour I'm leaving for the airport, to fly to New York. Why? you ask. Well, why not? There is no logic to my life.

No, that's not true. My dear friend Bruce is in New York right now, and we've met there before - we have similar tastes in art and enjoy each other's company. "Come and play," he begged. I like to go once a year to visit Cousin Lola, who's now 88, and Cousin Ted and other cousins, not to mention the theatre and everything else NYC.

So I got a cheap fare on some flybynight airline and am off for a few days. Just trying to pack the minimum in a carry-on - for someone who took 100 pounds to Paris last year, you'd be amazed at how little I'm taking, all of it black, with lots of bright scarves so I don't look like an Italian grandma. No definite plans, except to see relatives and spend time walking around with Brucie. And the weather's supposed to be wonderful. Woo hoo!

My new tenant Susan will be keeping the hearth flame alight, feeding crabby cat who scratched her the other day, and taking in the stream of newspapers and magazines that flood in here daily. I hate to leave this lovely day to spend hours at Pearson being tested for explosives, but a few days hit of NYC is always a treat. So ... you'll be hearing from me, probably not from there, but once I'm back, with lots and lots of Noo Yawk stories.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

good and cold

When I last wrote, the air was mild and the sun was bright, but those fine days are over. Fini, no more Mr. Nice Guy, that bitter bite is in the air and the sun is already much further away. Baby, it's cold out there.

My new tenant, Susan from Germany, arrived just in time to get hit with a big blast of Canada. Poor girl - I took her for a walk around the neighbourhood her first morning, and she nearly froze. Her first purchase was a pair of nice warm slippers. She's 25, doing cancer research at Princess Margaret and curious about everything. Her ordinary home south of Berlin has its water heated with solar panels - so we're a bit behind in some ways. But so far, she really likes Toronto. She hasn't seen a picture of Rob Ford yet.

We had a fantastic celebration for Patsy on Wednesday night with some of her oldest friends, two of whom flew in for the event. As I told them, she threw my 20th birthday party in 1970, so I threw her 65th in 2010. (Where does that expression come from, to "throw a party"? I imagine trying to explain it to Susan.) The guest list was a who's who of Canadian acting and directing talent, besides the guest of honour, once renowned as Mrs. Donnelly in James Reaney's The Donnellys, and Wayson Choy meeting everyone for the first time.

There was a mountain of food and much joyful reuniting and reminiscing; some hadn't seen each other for 30 years. Her East Coast friends brought produce from their farm in Nova Scotia; I have two fat garlic bulbs I can't wait to squash, and the birthday girl got a big jar of honey.

On Friday, Patsy and I, critical former actresses, went to see The List, a one-woman show by a Quebecoise writer. It has received very good reviews, and I was interested simply because it's about a woman who makes compulsive lists, and I am a woman who makes compulsive lists. Well - the two former actresses were mighty disappointed. It's a heartfelt but flawed play clumsily, no, badly directed, as far as we were concerned. It closes tonight so I don't have to write SPOILER ALERT: translated from French, it's about a snobbish woman, called The Woman, who moves her family to a rural community and disparages the locals. Despite that, Caroline, a local woman with many children, befriends her. When Caroline becomes pregnant once more, she asks her wealthier friend for the phone number of her doctor, because Caroline's own is incompetent. The woman puts "Find doctor's phone number" on her list, transfers it from list to list for many months and keeps forgetting. Finally, Caroline has her baby with her own doctor and dies as a result.

The Woman is portrayed as someone who is obsessively neat; her kitchen is a caricature of pristine white tidiness. Yet the plot hinges on the notion that she has absolutely no idea where to find the phone number of her doctor. Absurd. And once again, as so often in North America, the actor was directed to convey every emotion at top volume. With many British actors, less is more, and much less is much more; they draw us in with subtle intensity, with stillness and quiet ferocity. Instead, here, actors are directed to shriek and bellow and pretend to cry.

MEOW, as a friend would say. Well, I'm an opinionated bossyboots. When have I ever not called it like I see it?

And right now, I'm calling it winter.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hallowe'en delight

My close relative, Sarah Palin, with her tiny shotgun and her best friend Raggedy Anne (?)

a friend's visit

My friend Patsy is here, visiting from Gabriola Island. She and I have had the same trajectory in life, from actress to writer, teacher and editor, only she on a remote B.C. island and I in downtown Toronto. We met in Halifax in 1970; Patsy threw me my 20th birthday party that summer, and we have never lost contact since. We talk endlessly not only about our lives, but about the word business.

On Sunday we shared a few special treats, besides our pleasure in each other's company. A friend had given me two tickets to the Toronto Art Fair, so we went to spend a few hours at this unbelievable show, bursting with the talent of visual artists from around the world. I was able to see the work through Patsy's eyes as well as my own, discovering, for example, that she likes blurry canvases, and I do not. Perhaps that has more to do with our eyeballs than our aesthetic sensibilities. (A conversation overheard as we walked past, between an older man with a distinguished grey ponytail and a younger man all in black with pointy shoes, the young man drawling, "Well, I was going for a more ... contemporary aesthetic." Meaning, was my guess, I was trying to be really, really hip.)

Later, we huddled in the house avoiding the Hallowe'en hoards. As I've written before, Cabbagetown is Hallowe'en Central - the man on the corner had a thousand little chocolate bars and ran out. I feel that after 20 years of shovelling out goodies, I've done my bit, and now I go out or hide until it's over. It was great to take Patsy for a walk around, though, on the perfect crisp, clear night - swarms, hundreds of children, many with parents in saris or headscarves, chattering in Mandarin or Urdu, princesses, ballerinas, vampires, and monsters flooding the streets, and my neighbours, some of them in costume themselves, standing at doors lit by pumpkin flame, handing out the goods. I wondered what a Martian would say if he landed on Carlton Street and saw the scene, hundreds of tiny people in makeup and strange clothes, going door to door for sugar.

Then down the street to Jean-Marc and Richard's annual Hallowe'en bash, with JM's homemade pizzas, and as usual, handsome Chuck is some sort of military garb - last year, a sailor all in w hite, this year, an army outfit with a jaunty cap that belonged to his grandfather. The fire was burning and it was warm, welcoming crowd for the visitor from Gabriola.

It's cold here, now; the reality of the season is settling in, though my God, we've had a long run of mild weather, all of October really. The furnace is bustling regularly for the first time, and the impatiens in the boxes outside are finally melting from the frost. Time to get out the mittens. Ah - I hear footsteps. My friend is coming downstairs, and the talking will begin ... now.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jon's rally YAY!

My dear Jon Stewart, I love you even more, if that's possible, after hearing you try to sing during your rally today. It was painful, yes - but you said so yourself afterwards, and apologized. Even your most vicious opponents cannot nail you on questions of ego. You must have one, a big one to be able to do what you do, and yet you are the most self-deprecating and gracious of men.

There is a god, and she made sure that Jon's rally had glorious weather today. How I wish I'd been there. Yes, the American political landscape is not mine, and yet this week in particular, after the election of a petty small-minded blowhard as Mayor of my city - "a big, beefy white guy," as George F. Walker wrote in one of his plays - I felt at one with them all, that vast American crowd just wanting some civility in public discourse, some rational thought and reasonable debate. Not so much to ask, surely, but now in Toronto, we're going to be begging for it too.

There's a wonderful article in Friday's "Star" by Charles Pascal, the best analysis I've read yet about the mayoral upset. His premise is that Ford's victory is "a serious and obvious message that the many who are not doing well with the status quo simply do not trust the 'establishment' to come through for them any more." Ford was appealing as a fellow outcast, Pascal posits, his wealth notwithstanding. "Things are just not working for too many of our neighbours."

"While it is true that you can't be angry and smart at the same time, the anger of many, including many who feel disenfranchised, produced this electoral result. To vilify Ford while ignoring the underlying reason for his success is to miss an opportunity for all of us to be smarter about doing something about those being ignored or left behind."

My hope," he concludes, "is that Ford himself understands who put him over the top."

Sir, dear Mr. Charles Pascal, with this wise and reasonable assessment, you should have been in Washington this afternoon, standing beside the wise and reasonable Mr. Stewart.

Friday, October 29, 2010

great finds

This is the kind of thing that gladdens the heart of this old rag picker ... Last month at my local second-hand store, Doubletake, I found a nice long Jones New York sweater in maroon, which I have since worn several times with pleasure. Today, as I zipped in for a quick scour, there was a short-sleeved Jones New York dress in a similar colour. At home, I saw to my amazement that the dress is the exact same material as the sweater; they're a set, obviously were bought together. What are the chances of my finding the sweater and a month later, the matching dress? For a total cost of $10? Be still, my beating heart.

It's events like this that keep me hooked. Yes, I'm an addict, my friends. I went to the Eaton's Centre on various errands today, and found my jaw dropping at the prices. In fact, the spectacle of all that stuff turned my stomach. But easy for me to say, when I can afford the time and effort to hunt for spectacular deals second-hand.

Cold today - definitely fall. The garden is shrivelling, the last blooms wrapping up, the ground piled high with yellow leaves. My friend Lynn in France read my despairing post about Rob Ford. "That's the trouble with democracy," she wrote. "Stupid people get to vote too."

Speaking of stupid people, my daughter is going out for Hallowe'en as Sarah Palin. She's looking for a snappy red jacket and little rectangular glasses. I suggested she complete her outfit with a snappy shotgun. "Great idea!" she said.
"And maybe a dead moose," I added.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alice and Beethoven

Mon dieu, today I can't stop sharing with you every single interesting thing that comes my way. This is sublime - a stunningly moving 12 minute film about a joyful musician, aged 106. Makes you glad to be alive, with her. Please watch and be transported.