Friday, August 31, 2012

ranting about Republicans, adoring Jon Stewart

In praise of the kindness of handymen: 33 degrees out there, and there are two sweating men on my roof repairing windows, painting, filling with wood filler ... while up there doing something else, they noticed other disintegrating bits of this poor old wreck of a house and are fixing them. While putting up new walls upstairs, John took it upon himself to repair a chip in the bathtub and replace the sink stopper. Now Kevin is sanding the last replacement wall and John is doing something invaluable, somewhere.

I know you'll find it hard to believe that something else in my life could go wrong at this fraught time, but - woo hoo! - a large piece of my lower left molar just fell out. Yes, it's true, and at 1 p.m. on a Friday before a long weekend. I called immediately, but my dentist had already left. I can go to an emergency clinic or see if I can stand the hole and using only the right side of my mouth, and hope Dr. Kreher can squeeze me in on Tuesday morning. Crisis and disintegration: we are falling apart here.

At least this gives me something to think about, so I don't have to pay attention to the Republican convention. Because what I've seen so far, in flashes on TV, is stomach-turning - politics so debased, so venal, false, conniving, disingenuous, cynical, loathsome. Samantha Bee, interviewing on the convention floor - people saying, America is about individual freedom, everyone free to do exactly as they want without interference!!!
Except for abortion, she said.
Yes of course, except for abortion, they said, smiling, without comprehending the concept of hypocrisy. So my uterus is public property, she said, and they stopped smiling. Ryan's speech full of blatant lies, and the few seconds I could stand to watch of Romney, with his fake folkiness and his paeans of pap - America, the greatest country ever etc. etc. Finger down the throat.

You know that I adore Jon Stewart. But this week, he's more than just the smartest, funniest, handsomest man on television. He and his team, in Tampa and at the convention, are the clarion voice of honesty and insight. They're COMEDIANS, and they're the only people making sense within a thousand miles of the convention centre. How does Jon manage to stay friends with renegade Republicans like Michael Steele and give them a forum on his show? Last night, the film clip they showed of the hidden reality of folksy Romney's incredibly privileged life - brilliant. I hope millions watch it on YouTube. Lefties are clinging to Jon Stewart and to Colbert, too, as to life rafts. Save us, Lord, from sanctimonious, deluded morons.

Okay, got that off my chest. Didn't think about the throbbing hole in my mouth once while I did. Hammering - sanding - a heat wave - a tiny sensation in the molar region - Republicans. But HEY, I'm alive, and if you're reading this, so are you. Aren't we lucky!

A New Yorker cartoon in last week's issue: a man with his arms tightly around a tree trunk. "It'll never work," he says. "You're a TREE."

I know how he feels.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

chez moi

 On a walk, I saw maple leaves starting to turn. Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver ...
 Home. The shining grey of Toronto.
Incredible - the rebuilt bedroom, now green. No bugs chewing their way through the walls. Just moi.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Van Gogh's cherry blossoms

It's been a summer of tossing and turning through the night; I know these times of extended insomnia as the shifting of internal tectonic plates. A grandson who has overwhelmed me with love, a mother's slow and painful fade, termites eating their way through the bedroom, my own work in confusing stasis ... no wonder I have put a call through to my old shrink, to see if she'll talk to me sometime in September. A great blessing to have someone on planet Earth who knows me so well and has such a soothing voice.

But in the middle of all this, there's one memory that will keep me warm forever. Last month I booked a timed ticket for the blockbuster Van Gogh exhibit at Ottawa's National Gallery for 10.30 Monday morning, after seeing that the bus from Montreal got in to the Ottawa terminal at 10.20, so I'd dash over in a cab. I told my brother that if he bought Mum a ticket for the same time and she was up for it, I'd be happy to take her through; she has often talked about seeing this exhibit, even as she lay in a hospital bed.

On the weekend, my brother mentioned it to her and, frail as she is, she leapt at the chance. But he had not bought her a ticket, and this was the last week the show would be on, hence packed. Oh well, he said, she's a senior and a member of the gallery, we'll get her in somehow. More difficult, however, was the issue of when exactly I'd get there from Montreal, and when he'd manage to get to her place and then downtown. How to coordinate? We discussed general plans and left the rest to the gods.

Who were with us on this one - it went like a commando raid. I realized that the bus stopped first at the U of O downtown, got off there and hoofed it across the Byward Market to the gallery by exactly 10.30, where sure enough there was a massive crowd in the line for tickets that were not pre-booked. I stood in the much shorter pre-booked line, intending to beg for Mum when I got to the ticket seller, when out the window I see my brother's Volvo pull in, and there, staggering into the gallery, was my mother. Just as I made it to the head of the line, she hobbled up beside me, and when the woman saw my lovely old mum, whose membership expired last year and who had no ticket, she sold me one. So the two of us whisked past the hundreds, straight into Van Gogh.

Well, whisked is not the word - I was pushing her in her walker. But we went straight in. And it was glorious. The first room was worth it all, let alone the rest - they'd blown up a canvas to massive height filling three walls, so you could see, huge, his slashes and dabs and globs of paint - the brilliance and courage, the struggle. Room after room of beauty - this time, for both Mum and me, it was his white branches of cherry blossom on a greeny-blue background, painted in celebration of his nephew's birth, that brought tears. What a soul. I couldn't help but think of Picasso, the blockbuster I saw last month in Toronto. No comparison, for me - Picasso brilliant, no question, and brave too, but without a quarter of the humanity of the simplest Van Gogh canvas.

Most thrilling of all, to be there with Mum, whom we thought we'd lost several times already this year. She loved it all, though by the end was drifting off - so we revived with lunch in the cafeteria atrium. A cab home and a long nap for her, while I watched her sleep. A tribute to my brother, who told me that when he ran in to hustle her off to the gallery, she was sitting in her underwear. He got her dressed and there, so that we could weep, together, in front of the cherry blossoms. Never to be forgotten.

My last day here - so much to be done, her bills, her finances in chaos, huge decisions to be made about the future. My brother's coming to the residence and we're all having lunch together, and then I'll spend the rest of the day until my flight with her. Each moment to be cherished.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

the meaning of old

Writing from my mother's room at the "retirement residence" - which was called in my youth an old folk's home - as she sleeps before dinner. She slept after breakfast and again after lunch, did not have the strength to go to dinner without another sleep. I went to Mountain Equipment Coop while she slept this afternoon - it's just down the block - and bought her a fleece jacket. It's Polartec, designed for bitter cold, and though we are in the month of August, she has not taken it off. She's always cold.

It's brutal, this journey into aging. On top of her physical and mental struggles, just to survive - oh the state of her legs - my mother cannot accept that she will never cook again. She has cut a recipe from a Martha Stewart magazine, and wants us to make it. But there's no stove here, I say. Let's just go to the dining room.
It's expensive, she exclaims. And I've bought fresh corn. I love fresh corn.
Perhaps I'll try to wrestle her back to her condo tomorrow, and cook corn, and eat a homemade lunch. I hope this will set her mind at rest.

But we have met wonderfully heartening souls here - two Audreys, one at dinner last night, an artist, a mere 86, newly widowed and newly arrived here, still trying to figure out how this place works, and another today at lunch, a remarkably feisty and cheerful old woman whose macular degeneration appeared last year, she said, as she was driving home, and in 20 minutes she was nearly blind. Eventually her son moved her from Windsor, where she lived, to Ottawa, where he does, and she began her new life at Amica. "A new chapter," she said confidently, squeezing my mother's arm.
"If I may ask, Audrey," I said, "how old are you?"
"I don't tell people usually," she said. "I'm 97."
97, nearly blind, a new town and residence and chapter. I want to be like Audrey when I grow up.

How will we age, we boomers? I was in the elevator at 4.30 today and nearly got trampled by walkers, because that's when dinner begins. 4.30. I just can't see my cohort aging in the same way - but when the time comes, will we have a choice? Today for Mum, just staying awake is a battle. And yet yesterday, at the Van Gogh exhibition, she, a painter herself, was marvelling at colour and brushstrokes and beauty.

I can tell you one thing: ca brise le coeur. It's heartbreaking.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

eating, drinking, talking, walking

The poor man on the left has a hand growing out of his shoulder.

Those of you who follow this blog know, perhaps, that my dear friend Chris, who was adopted as a baby in Vancouver, found his birth mother in his forties - to his delight, she was a French-Canadian actress. This man who grew up anglophone on the West Coast, but had felt compelled to go to France to learn French and was making his career in the theatre, discovered a whole artistic Quebecois family. Today we went to meet his cousin Jean, who works in the post office but is really a composer; he brought us a CD of some of his compositions and told Chris about his grandfather.  What a story.

As usual, we ate outside and watched the people parade - the most interesting of any city I've ever visited. The same at lunchtime; we ate with Glenn in the gay village. Fascinating.

Very very hot. We had to go into stores to cool off. Mr. T. has increased his collection of shorts and t-shirts, and I simply had to buy, on sale, a pair of sandals for my aching feet and a pink rain poncho, ideal for the bicycle. Fun.

Ottawa tomorrow. Not fun. But important.

more Montreal

Sunday in Montreal

Chris and I had not factored in a heat wave. The weather reports did not warn us that it would be 32 degrees in Montreal, feeling like more. Yesterday, in Old Montreal, there were hordes of tourists on the shady side of the streets, and no one on the blazing side.

We ducked into air-conditioned shops and galleries, admired the beautiful historic buildings and streets, and finally took a chilly cab home. But first, we'd met friends of Chris's - a woman who was his roommate on a francophone tour of India he took years ago, and her gay best friend, a tour guide who knows the entire world. We met at Chris's inn and they drove us to Old Montreal where we had a wonderful lunch, alternating French and English. And then Chris and I continued to wander about on our own. There was a street fair and market, a fun event with people dressed as 17th century settlers, traditional crafts, lots of music and food - and some shade. It was, as is so much in Montreal, bursting with energy and life.

We couldn't get into the Cathedral because there was a wedding. There were weddings all over Old Montreal, in fact, all over Montreal, bells ringing, brides in their whipped cream garments and lines of women in very high heeled shoes and shiny matching dresses, being photographed. Later, as we went for supper on the rue St. Denis, there was an about-to-be married man being humiliated, led about in prison garb and beaten with a fly swatter. Odd, these strange humiliation rituals pre marriage that I've seen often in France - and nowhere else.

I also marvelled once again at Parc Lafontaine, one of my new favourite places on earth, packed again yesterday, morning and night, with picnickers. I realized that in Ontario, public places are also full of picnickers - but they're all immigrants, people from India, the Caribbean, the Middle East. WASPS do not take themselves in large numbers to public places to dine. Perhaps it's because they've lived there longer and have bigger backyards. Or perhaps they're just too snooty.

CT and I did not picnic, we dined again outside on the street; this time I'd brought rosé with me, and it was he who dashed to the SAQ across the street to buy a half-bottle of champagne. That's how affected he is by Montreal, a man who mainlines diet Coke drinking champagne with his scallops. It was thrilling. We do not stop talking, ever. Kindred spirits, he and I, in so many ways. Watching the bicycle stand across the street in constant motion, as people arrived, returned their bikes, others arrived to take them out. Whoever invented this bike system is a genius. Hire him to fix Toronto.

Chris has happily spent mornings walking, and I doing very little. I spent a tranquil morning yesterday, and today, reading "The girl with the dragon tattoo." Just finished it. Yes, I skipped a few hundred pages in the middle, which I should not have done. But I got the gist, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Who knew it wasn't just a thriller but a critique of the world banking system and the journalists who give it a free pass? Terrific work. I also enjoyed Nora Ephron's satiric take, "The girl who fixed the umlaut," in the "New Yorker." As usual, she has perfect pitch.

Now, out into the broiling sun to - guess what - walk and eat and walk and look at things and walk. This must be summer vacation.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

summer pix

The stripey twins at Schwartz's on the Boulevard St. Laurent - Mr. Diet Coke -
And Ms. Smoked Meat. And below, what I left behind:
bedroom reconstruction,
and the cutest baby in the history of the universe.

Friday, August 24, 2012


This is it, my summer vacation - three days in Montreal with almost no agenda, away from chaotic house, family, work. And what better place - how I adore this fabulous city. Chris and I landed here early, got the bus in from Dorval - speaking both French and English to the helpful bus driver - I was dropped where I'm staying, with my friend Glenn, and Chris went on to his Inn nearby. We're in north-east Montreal, the Plateau, a wonderfully diverse area. I had barely greeted Glenn and unpacked when Chris appeared, anxious to begin our day.

Which consisted of walking, walking, walking. Boulevard St. Denis, St. Laurent, Mont Royale and all around. There was a street festival on St. Laurent, the street closed to traffic and packed with people, and - what joy - Schwartz's, the famous smoked meat deli, had tables outside on the street. A long line of foolish people stood in the broiling sun waiting for a table inside, while Chris and I sat under a tent with the smart folk. Schwartz's is a ritual in Montreal, particularly for anyone with Jewish blood, aka moi. Chris hardly eats meat so he just drank his habitual ghastly gallon of diet Coke while I ate a large smoked meat sandwich with a pickle, and we watched Montreal stroll by.

And then we strolled by too, walked all afternoon, up and down and around, I bought - of course - a purple disposable fountain pen and a Clairefontaine notebook. We stopped in Jean Coutu, a completely French store, and I asked the young woman with the piercings for "sun block." "Quoi?" she asked, puzzled. I explained, la creme to keep from getting burned. "Oh!" she said, the light dawning. "Le sun screen," and led me there.

We went home to rest - Glenn has a tiny pool and I had a swim while we chatted, and a snooze - and then I walked to meet Chris for dinner. He took me around Parc Lafontaine where he'd spent an hour, a big central urban park, what Toronto lacks, full of people sitting on the grass, picnicking with glasses of wine, making music, sleeping, partying. He said he'd sat next to a group playing guitars and lutes and then near two women singing French-Canadian folksongs in perfect harmony. A great place.

This is a city of bicycles - I am so envious, safe car-free bike lanes, rental bikes on every corner, everyone cycling.

We wandered, watched, admired. We stopped at the window of a hair salon to ogle the extraordinary spotted cat in the window - a Bengal cat, the owner said, part leopard cat and part domestic - looking like a very small cheetah. "Catvertising," he said, handing out cards. Chris adores animals, so we stopped numerous times to pet and stroke and chat. It was, incidentally, broiling hot all day. Finally, we found the perfect restaurant for dinner on St. Denis - elegant but not expensive, inside and cool but with the whole front open to the street. I ordered wine, and the waiter explained that I had to bring my own, but that there was a SAQ to buy wine nearby. So after ordering, with Chris contentedly sipping his diet Coke, I went to the SAQ to buy a half-bottle of white. The store was full of people doing the same thing; every second person on the street was carrying a bottle of wine. So CIVILIZED. So much cheaper.

Our handsome young waiter told us in French, at the end of the meal, that he was from the small northern town of Val d'Or, and that he'd never expected to meet people from Toronto and Vancouver who spoke fluent French. We were honoured to be ambassadors for anglophone Canada.

We walked back. Everything - the relaxed pace of the city, the architecture - silver mansard roofs, winding black stairscases stuck to the front of houses - the looming presence of the Catholic church, the French language everywhere - made us feel, I hate to say it, that we were not in another province, but another country. People walking out of the corner store with a litre of milk and a six-pack of beer. A young man cycling along with his baguette - like France, except so much more casual. People so friendly, in both languages. Parc Lafontaine, at 9.30 at night, full of people, children playing, long picnic tables with friends and families celebrating, candles, barbecues, fancy fare - making their own restaurants in the park.

Now back at Glenn's, my feet aching, beginning, at last, to relax. No walls coming down, no infestation. Though funnily, Richard the termite man was at the island airport on his way to Halifax, so we had a brief discussion about the situation at the house. I've checked in by email - all seems to be well.

I am happy to be here and not there, for a while. Je suis tres contente d'etre ici, dans la belle province.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

busy busy busy

I have to say that this week has been, perhaps, particularly stressful. I know, not ill health or family emergency, far from it. But today - mon dieu. My best friend Chris has arrived from Vancouver for a much-awaited visit. Early tomorrow, if I can drag myself out of bed, we leave for Montreal for the weekend together, then I go on to Ottawa to visit my mother - a long talk with her today, as she tried to figure out what day it was today, what day that meant I was coming. And I, trying to remember where I'd put the keys to her condo, where I'll stay.

John and Kevin arrived at 8 a.m., as they always do, to begin sanding and plastering. I need to leave detailed information for the painter, and took Chris with me to the hardware store to decide about colours. Dan has at least two days of painting while I'm gone. The sanding and plastering went on, dried by hairdryers and fans. I had seventeen phone calls to make about work, to the homeless guy Bill who'll come and water while I'm away (who came over to borrow $10 beforehand) and to the other John who'll come and feed the cat.  I went to pick up my neighbour Monique's mail because she's away too. I tried to pack.

Anna came over with the baby, who melted all hearts, mostly mine; he needed to be fed - three times - and his mama wanted to go to Star Nails to get a manicure, which we managed while the baby bounced in the Jolly Jumper and then slept on my chest. A blessed lull. Jean-Marc and Richard came for lunch, which somehow we managed to put together, with their help, though I'm leaving tomorrow for nearly a week so am trying to clear out the fridge. The roofer arrived twice, to finish bits and pieces and to propose various finishings for the roof. We talked to the termite guy to confirm his next visit and what needed to be done. I was making a doctor's appointment, checking in with New York, asking Chris to water the garden, trying to get to the bank and the dry cleaner, watching the new walls and ceiling of the bedroom emerge amidst showers of dust. John took out the upstairs bathroom toilet because it was in their way. For a week now, I've washed my face and brushed my teeth in a bathroom without a door, and now without a toilet, with 2 or 3 guys working feet away.

At a certain point, Chris asked me why I was so tense. He advised me to relax and let life flow over me.

We walked from here to my son's restaurant for dinner, leaving Anna and the babe on the couch, the roofer in the yard and Kevin and John upstairs still in the bedroom. The men assure me that when we get back, next week, it will all be done. I'll believe it when I see it.

We had a wonderful dinner. Now to finish packing, to print the boarding passes, to clean the cat dish, to water the plants. And then - onward. It'll be good to get out of here for a while.

P.S. The cat just puked.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

missing and found

I consider myself much of a Luddite, technologically; I don't have an iPod, can't understand how an iPad works, can barely use the cell phone I've had for only a few months. And yet, on this sunny morning, without even thinking about it, I've just texted my daughter, phoned my mother, checked people I know on Facebook and people I don't on Twitter, did some on-line editing work and emailed Chris at the Vancouver airport on his way here and various others around the world. Luckily some old fashioned technologies hang on; the prehistoric mailman just delivered the "New Yorker" to my mailbox, and upstairs, John and Kevin are still wrestling ancient demons, in the form of tiny nearly invincible insects.

It's a beautiful, warm, breezy morning, still except for the drill and saw in my bedroom and the twitters - real twitters - from the bird-feeder. Yesterday evening I went out to the airport to meet my daughter and her son, returning from 2 weeks in Vernon, B.C., with the other side of the family. They went boating and floating many times on Lake Okanagan, danced at Caitlin's wedding, visited everyone. The wedding favours given to all the guests were jars of homemade blackcurrant jelly from Denise's garden; Anna brought one for me. The boy is bigger and more solid now, laughs constantly and chatters. Yes he does, I know those fluid gurgles are saying, Glamma, good to see you, I missed you.

Boy, did I miss him. How good to hold that sturdy body. At just 3 months, he wants so much to stand, almost more than he wants to eat, which is really saying something. His whole face is alive with interest and excitement. Apparently his great-grandma Connie did not take her eyes from him. She said he was the cutest baby she'd ever met, which made Roger, one of her sons and father of two girls, comment that she was losing her longterm memory. But no, she's not. She's right.

I'm on my way to Nathan Philipps Square, to remember Jack Layton. Talk about being missed.

Monday, August 20, 2012

from the Stella Adler Studio Facebook page

    • The Jacob Adler Center
      Finding the Jewish Shakespeare

      Author Beth Kaplan will speak about the life and legacy of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, once the greatest playwright of the Yiddish stage, with special focus on his stormy relationship with the magnificent actor Jacob Adler, father of Stella Adler. The evening will include a reading from Gordin’s and Adler’s first huge hit in 1892, The Jewish King Lear, featuring Michael Howard, Rachel Caplan (Conservatory ’12) and others.

      Thursday, September 13 at 7pm

      FREE and open to the public.

      The Stella Adler Studio of Acting is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.

    31 W. 27th St.New York, New York 10001


six writers writing

Somehow, in the chaos, tools and debris got cleaned up, the house was tidied, the garden readied, the food cooked, and Sunday morning, six writers arrived to spend the day. The weather could not have been more perfect, nor the ambiance, nor the company. I managed not to photograph the piles of roofing materials on the path and sheets of lumber leaning against the ivy.

This is what MJ emailed afterwards:

Thanks for a fantastic day writing in your garden. The setting, the retreat from daily life, and your inspirational exercises work together to create a perfect storm for creativity. I wrote pieces that I did not plan, from angles that I did not foresee, and generated material that came as a delight and a surprise! My next project is off to a roaring start, thanks to you and your workshop.

And Sherry wrote:

Thank again Beth for a wonderful day in your garden ... you are, as always, a supportive and inspirational guide to me in my writing. 

Happy to help, writers. It's a pleasure for me too. And now - back to hammering and chaos. An article in the "Globe" last week said that there are "10 quintillion insects of Earth." That means that there are 1,428,571,428 - or 1.4 billion - insects for every person on earth.

Most of my 1.4 billion are in my walls, right now. DYING, I HOPE!

PS. Wept this morning, reading an article in the "Star" about seven Canadian veterans of the nightmare of Dieppe - Aug. 19, 1942. They're in their nineties and they've travelled back to France to pay homage to fallen colleagues and to remember. The streets of the town were lined with thousands of people to greet and thank them. 900 killed immediately on the beach, nearly 2500 wounded or taken prisoner. Lest We Forget. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

fixing things

My left arm hurts. I've just returned from a walk-in clinic and am now protected from polio, pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus, yay. The doctor, a stunningly beautiful East Indian woman, told me that I won't actually have antibodies floating through my system for 2 weeks - but since I cleaned the wound thoroughly and it's relatively shallow, she thinks the chances of my jaw locking are slim.

That's a relief.

Last week I wrote, I have termites but not breast cancer. Today, there's the same noise as all week, Richard hammering on the roof and Kevin and John sawing in the bedroom - but I probably do not have tetanus. Richard the poison guy injected his termite killer yesterday. It's a stunning, fresh summer day. So much to be thankful for.

On the way home from the clinic I cycled by the new Loblaws, decided that since I missed the market this morning, I should go in for some peaches, and somehow, God knows how, ended up with a basket of Ontario peaches and a pair of gorgeous burgundy corduroy pants. $19. Joe Fresh. Another addiction on its way.

Friday, August 17, 2012

a brand new disease

I just needed a tiny bit more stress, didn't I, lord? Tonight, coming home after a haircut to find my house blessedly empty, no Johns, Richards or Kevins, no hammering, ripping or smashing, I poured a glass of rosé, kicked off my shoes, and went out to the deck to sit in the dusky sun and read the newspaper.

And stepped on a nail. Carpenter John had ripped up bits of the deck today for Richard the termite man. He'd carefully put the planks back afterwards, but had missed, obviously, this nail.

My foot was bleeding. It was a rusty nail. All I wanted to do was sit and drink a glass of wine and read the newspaper, but my foot was bleeding and the nail was old. When was my last tetanus shot? No idea. I washed the cut and went on-line, to read that tetanus is almost always fatal - lockjaw etc. What to do? The very last, last, last thing I wanted to do on a Friday night at 6 p.m. was to go to Emerg with a little puncture in my foot.

I called my friend and student Liz, a nurse, left her a panicked message, and went upstairs to check my files, pulling out the file folder marked "Medical." Wonderful - my last tetanus shot was in May 2002. If your shot was within ten years, you are safe. Mine was within ten years, 3 months. Am I safe?

I call the Ontario health line. Liz calls from her car and advises me to soak my foot in soapy water and see what the Teleheath nurse says. The nurse calls. I'm sitting on the deck with my foot in a bowl of soapy water. After many questions, she tells me to get a new tetanus booster within 24 hours. That's okay. That's tomorrow. I can deal with that.

I have drunk 3 glasses of wine in quick succession. Will that help? Certainly. Termites and tetanus, my friends, that's the subject of today's lecture. Disease and pestilence. We're getting biblical here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


 My bedroom yesterday - the temporary open air skylight.
My bedroom this morning - a certain amount of clutter. Must de-clutter.

I have to say that it has been a long time since so many men flocked to my bedroom.

Another good thing - this extremely noise, messy and invasive event is happening in August when most of my neighbours are away. I've dropped notes in their mailboxes, literally or on-line, to apologize. They are a fine, forgiving bunch.

More importantly, my brother called yesterday to say that Mum is back in Emerg. Her legs were swollen again. He's hoping they will put her on an anti-water-retention drug and she'll be home today. We don't know. I'm on call.

The baby boy is far away, in B.C. with his mother for a family wedding. I miss him very much, need to squeeze him for comfort at this stressful time, and he's not back for a week. My son just texted from the airport - he's on his way to the same wedding, only has 4 days off, the flight is oversold and there's no seat for him. Endless hammering overhead, my garden a pile of lumber and rubble.

It's a beautiful day.

There is some metaphor here, but I'm trying not to wonder what it is.

Just heard from my brother - Mum is back at Amica with a prescription for Lasix. Sam texting - he's in line, still no seat. There are 5 men in my bedroom and on my roof. It's 9.30 a.m. Please lord, I would like a little less excitement in my life. Think boring. Boring is good.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Picasso's sex life

Never have I watched the sky with such apprehension. Today my entire bedroom ceiling is off. Ah, such fresh air and light! Such dark clouds above! They have discovered even more rot. The scaffolding outside my back door shakes as they climb about, sawing, hammering, smashing. The sawdust is cascading down. But the rain has held back.

My home is chaos and noise. But it could be worse.

Yesterday, great pleasure - the Picasso exhibit at the AGO. On the streetcar there, I read an article about David Rakoff, the pessimistic humorist who just died. He wrote:

The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out: a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.

Not a happy picture.

And then I stepped into Picasso's world - to be confronted with a spirit so overwhelmingly vigorous, so supremely social and self-confident, not just as an artist but as a man - just another planet than Rakoff's. Picasso's work is joyful, sexual, the incessant outpouring of a powerful, implacable soul; it seems effortless. A lot has been made of him as a devourer of women, and that side is certainly on display, as he wore out one lover and moved right along to the next - women as mollusks, fruit, jugs, as holes and slits - and of course, as themselves, like Dora Maar, bright yellow with jagged edges and claws. In later work, we can see the influence of Matisse, but there's none of Matisse's sweetness and warmth in Picasso. Energy, sex, power. Get out of my way! The word that encompasses this man is thrust.

Something else the exhibition makes clear - his incredible skill as a sculptor, rivalling his work as a painter. A stunning goat; the famous bicycle seat bull. What a talent.

At exhibits and museums, I wait for the moment when something hits me in the gut, and here, nothing did until the very end. I was full of admiration and wonder, but unmoved, until the last two canvasses, painted in 1972, the year before his death, when he was in his nineties and still working constantly. There's a landscape that's wild, free, pulsating, as if he's relishing every shred of life - and then, last, a simple portrait of a child/man in a big hat with a paintbrush. I went back to the beginning of the exhibition to see a portrait of Picasso at 14 - yes, the same jet black round eyes as the simple face painted when he was 91. "This is all I am," he seems to be saying, "a boy with a brush, who sees." A ferocious boy; a brilliant brush; eyes that mesmerize.

I paint the way some people write an autobiography, he wrote. The paintings ... are the pages from my diary.

Finally I stepped from Picasso to the gallery of the Group of Seven and other Canadian artists. What a shock, all those trees and lakes and leaves and villages in the snow. Where are the penises? Where are the breasts and bellies and mouths? Did these painters not have lovers? Canadian art at the AGO is beautiful and serene but utterly asexual.

It took a priapic Spanish genius to point that out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

let the sunshine in

My bedroom this morning - wooden pillars to hold up the ceiling and a brand new new skylight - aka "hole in the roof" - thanks to John, Johnnie and Kevin. You can see some of the termite party room, top left. Now, of course, it's teeming with rain, so they're working under tarps and plywood. My heroes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fifty Shades of Not Much at All

One reader wrote to ask if I'd read the S/M bestseller, as I'd mentioned someone lending it to me awhile back. Yes. I disliked it. I have nothing against good soft porn writing. Anne Rice has had a lot of fun with S/M in her "Beauty" books, which are absurd but very honest about what they've set out to do. (I bought one at Goodwill for 50 cents - they thought it was a children's book - and found it ridiculous but - well, strangely stirring, even in its excess and silliness.) As a young teen, I used to delve into my father's library - "Lady Chatterly" et al - in an attempt to understand what all the fuss was about. Those writers bravely dove into the "dirty" stuff that society did not want explored or exposed.

But this book is neither honest nor brave; it's just timely. I skimmed through it in half an hour. It's badly written, the characters are wooden, the plot contrived, the sex scenes embarrassing. At least, to me; obviously not to the millions who've bought ALL THREE. This writer's timing was perfect; the world was ready for something new and naughty, and exploring a woman's need to be dominated sexually by a man - and yet, subtly, to dominate him in return - is obviously it. Surely, this has something to do with our on-going confusion about the new roles of men and women. Women have taken over so much - including many sports at the Olympics, it seems. Men in our western world don't know now where they fit. In this fantasy, they are extremely rich, handsome and tormented, and they need to tie up and spank.

But only with a signed S/M contract. I wonder if they sell those along with the do-it-yourself divorces and wills.

I've just skimmed another, much more valuable book - "The Drama of the Gifted Child," a psychological self-help classic by Alice Miller. It's full of "psycho-speak," but what it says, fundamentally, is vital. Children who have been abused - even just by neglect or manipulation, in the service of their parent's needs - will play out childhood roles throughout their lives, in one way or another, until they learn who they really are. Therapy, she says, is about acknowledging the abuses of childhood and mourning them, so that we can move on.

The true opposite of depression, she writes, is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality - the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings. It is part of the kaleidoscope of life that these feelings are not only happy, beautiful or good, but can reflect the entire range of human experience, including envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, despair, and grief. But this freedom cannot be achieved if its childhood roots are cut off. Our access to the true self is possible only when we no longer have to be afraid of the intense emotional world of early childhood.

She writes later: Probably the greatest of wounds - not to have been loved just as one truly was - cannot heal without the work of mourning. 

Today's extreme haters, she writes, dictators and extremist religious leaders, were formed by these wounds. Are far-right Republicans and suicide bombers simply damaged children? I don't know. But I appreciate her brave, honest attempt to address a world that, God knows, badly needs a helping hand.

The mighty termite hunter

"It could be worse," he said, pointing his powerful flashlight into the hole cut in the floor. "It could be so much worse."

Today I met the Indiana Jones of Toronto termite hunters - Richard. My new hero. He is the creme de la creme of his kind, so much so that he's on the Pest Management Advisory Council of Canada. You didn't know there was such a thing, did you? Well, now you do. And Richard is their termite guy.

So here's the thing - decades ago, we cleverly built a cedar deck on the back of our house, tilted slightly toward the foundations. Perfect for termites, who have built mud tunnels through the damp wood, and up into the walls and ceiling of the back bedroom, the roof of which was not properly ventilated and so nice and damp and welcoming. For years, as I slept tranquilly in my little bed, a joyous termite fest was going on just above and beside me. Creepy!

The very, very good news is that they are not in the foundations, and they are not in the structural beams. Richard told me that one of my close neighbours had to spend more than $50,000 when it was discovered that her house, the same vintage as mine - 1879 - was built on wooden foundations that had been completely chewed through. Richard has seen walls ready to fall down from the damage these minuscule insects can inflict - and, by the way, that includes condos built a few years ago. They love blue insulation, it turns out. "Downtown Toronto is Ground Zero for termite damage," said Richard. "But your house is solid."

The roof still needs to be stripped and rebuilt, the walls and ceiling of my bedroom too, then Richard comes to inflict his death rays, and then when the house is beginning to recover, we need to rip out the deck and replace it with stone or brick. Anything but wood.

"We're thinking of a reality TV show," said Richard. "Termite Hunters." A fascinating new world opens up - Pestworld. Listening to John the carpenter/plumber and Richard talk joists and grading and beams was like watching astrophysicists discuss Higgs-Bosun. My friends, if you need a termite man, if you need a great plumber/carpenter, just ask. As I said before, my two handymen are both John, with one son Johnnie, and now Termite Richard joins Roofer Richard. There's a Kevin working here too. So my house is in the strong, skilful hands of John, John, Johnnie, Richard, Richard, and Kevin - the best of the best.

As all this was going on, a little old grey poodle wandered into my front yard and stood, trembling from head to tail. I brought him in and called the number on his collar, but there was no answer. Then Johnnie remembered seeing him on the steps a few houses away, so we took him home. They hadn't even noticed he was gone.

Truly, Lord, I do not need a dog in the midst of all this. Thanks for thinking of me, though.

P.S. I happened to catch a tiny bit of a TV interview with Mr. Republican and his new running mate, Mr. Ur-Republican. It made me ill. I believe in the presence of evil, and I do think such wilful mendacity and such cold self-righteous blindness to the human condition is evil. The "Star" had an article about their good chances for winning, and on the same page, a piece about the cutting off of rhinoceros horns in Africa. I had to turn the page quickly. Can't face it, don't want to think about it, makes me sick.

Then I laughed. The fact is that we stupid human beings don't matter a damn. When we're all dust, when we've consumed ourselves right off the face of the earth, who will take over? Now I know the answer. Termites.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

love the Who

Exhausted! Just saw the evening replay of the closing ceremonies. Could the British pull out any more stops? Well yes, there were no Stones, no Coldplay, no Adele. But mon dieu, props, costumes, fireworks, supermodels, dancers, film, many lively singers, Annie Lennox on a pirate boat, Eric Idle shot out of a cannon, Mrs. Beckham teetering on a London cab, the fabulous Who or at least its 2 remaining members - and the beautiful face and voice of John Lennon, haunting us. Can't beat that.

My mother watched it this afternoon. "A bit all over the place," she said, "and I didn't know who the singers were." Well, Mum, I didn't either, many of them. My daughter just texted: "Meh." But I thought it was fun. Earlier, I found moving the faces of the marathon medal winners, those 3 lean racing machines from Kenya and Uganda.

Much discussion from the Canadian commentators, in the boring bits, about the mediocre Canadian showing - world champions flubbing it at the Olympics. Perhaps our teams need training in handling pressure - there seemed to be an awful lot of whining and tears. But I hardly watched and don't care, to tell you the truth.

This afternoon, my own tiny Olympic event - my friend Douglas held a recital for his singing students and asked if I wanted to perform a short excerpt from my storytelling 60's memoir-in-progress. Nerve wracking, trying to stick to my own script - I completely dried at one point and felt I'd flubbed the thing entirely. But afterwards, people came up to tell me their own 60's stories and said they'd enjoyed it. One said, "It's the universal story of a young person opening up." Very heartening. So I say, "Onward," yet again.

Last week, a 70th birthday party; last night, the 40th birthday party of Jason, one of my long-term writing students. I finally met his family, about whom I've heard so much over the years. I was happy to tell them that many of my students have dark stories to tell about their childhoods, but not Jason. His was one of the happiest I've ever encountered, and meeting his cheerful, accepting parents last night, I saw why.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Then and now

A friend just sent me this pic of moi, taken at the picnic in Quebec. This young man was sitting reading a physics textbook in the middle of the party, so I talked to him. I figured, no one really wants to sit in the middle of a party reading a physics textbook. But he had himself convinced that he did.

The rains continue; now one of the carpets in the basement suite is soaking wet. My stomach is in upheaval; I am worried about many things - well, things and more importantly, people. Time to look at the "NOW" watch.

Friday, August 10, 2012

40 days and nights

All summer long, no rain. Now that there is urgent roof work to be done, a solid week of rain is predicted, including torrential downpours today. Let us give praise for one of God's great wonders - tarpaulins. My bedroom wall has been demolished, rebuilt, reshingled and closed up. Now for the ceiling - we await the roof guy Sunday and the termite guy Monday. It's possible that my kitchen ceiling will have to be smashed too, to further my delight.

BUT - my mother is out of hospital and back at her new home at Amica! Amazing. She sounded joyful if vague. Overheard today, at the Y, one woman telling another, "I'm a mess today. My mother just died."
"I understand. Mine died twelve years ago," said the other, "and I'm still dealing with it."
All to come. NOT YET.

Eli and his mother are in Vernon, B.C., for a family wedding, and the little man continues his campaign of charm and seduction. His B.C. great-grandmother considers him "the sweetest and most attentive baby" she has ever met. There you have it, from someone, like me, completely objective and cool. Anna just texted me a photo of her boy on his first boat ride, right now. What a surprise - he's laughing.

I was interviewed yesterday by Bill Gladstone of the "Canadian Jewish News," in honour of the paperback. Bill's rave review at the time of the book's original release meant a great deal, back then; it was good to tell him how much in person. He is a big fan of the book, and a fine piano player to boot.

Ah, I can hear the cat puking. Reality. I recently saw a watch, apparently designed by Julian Lennon. On the face, just the word "NOW." Every time you look at your watch, it says, "NOW." I'd like that watch.

P.S. In the interests of research, I have just watched Peter Sellers performing the Beatles' "She Loves You" as Dr. Strangelove, an upperclass twit ("She loves you, Nigel,") a Cockney ("She luvs ya, Bert,") and an Irishman. And "A Hard Day's Night" as Laurence Olivier as Richard III. It's all on YouTube. Wondrous.

There's still room in the writing workshop. Termites not invited.

Write in the Garden - August 19

A one-day writing adventure.

Inspiration, structure and support for those with lots of writing experience and for those with none.

Spend a summer day learning to trust your voice and tell your stories. Listen to your creative self. Gain confidence and perspective from friendly contact with other writers. Write in the garden and enjoy positive feedback, bushy perennials, and lunch.

Who: Writer and teacher Beth Kaplan has taught writing at Ryerson for 18 years and at U of T for 6.

When: Sunday August 19, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m
Cost: $155 for the day, including food for thought and actual food, and wine. Register early; limited to 10.

Where: Beth’s secret garden in Cabbagetown.

Laughter, camaraderie and insight guaranteed.
For more information -
To register –

“I’d like to express my deep appreciation to you, Beth, for making your garden workshop so memorable. You have a special gift for creating a safe learning environment, with a well of positive things to say without passing judgment. It was a joy to be there with you and the others. Your garden is magical, and you created a magical day for me.”  Ann C.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

the 10 most difficult books, and a few of the easiest

A literary website called The Millions has compiled a list of the ten most difficult-to-read English language books of all time. Here it is:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes;
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
The Phenomenology of Spirit by GF Hegel;
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf;
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson;
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger;
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser; 
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
and Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.

Their question was, How many have you read? Well - this coming from someone with a B.A. in English literature - I had a plant once named Djuna, after Djuna Barnes. I have read some Joyce, though not that one, and "Mrs. Dalloway" and a bit of Swift and "Clarissa" - yay! - for English 201. At least, I'm pretty sure it was "Clarissa," though maybe it was "Pamela." I've walked by Gertrude Stein's house in Paris and have heard of Hegel, Heidegger and Spenser but have no idea who McElroy is. Though I do have a lot of opinions about women and men. 

Not so good a score. How did you do? 

Dear Wayson was just here. "Love your mother utterly," he said, "even when you want to push her down the stairs. Love her utterly - and THEN push her down the stairs."

I have read all of Wayson's books. But then, they're not hard, they're a pleasure to read. I get 100% on the Choy test.

Another article explores the value of children's books to adults. The writer looks at one of the easiest to read, and also best, books ever written, "The House at Pooh Corner," and analyses the lines that express my philosophy of life. 
"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," Piglet asks him as their adventures near an end, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" Pooh answers. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" responds Piglet.
Pooh thinks it over. "It's the same thing," he says.