Saturday, January 19, 2019

1979 in the snow

My idea of heaven: listening to Randy Bachman in my warm kitchen on a cold snowy Saturday night, with good TV coming up and an interesting library book waiting. No electricians, no Kevin or Ed or JM, just me in my beat-up house with its new electric lights and its new electric doorbell that's so faint I can hardly hear it, but it's there. At least 3 things on TV coming up at 9. Just had to get up and dance to "Operator" by Manhattan Transfer, an old fave.

This afternoon, I went to see a play called 1979, by Michael Healey. I knew it was about Joe Clark's brief government, but since my memoir takes place mostly in 1979, I thought it might have insights about that time. Well, it was about Joe Clark's brief time in government, and most upsettingly, it features an actor portraying a politician for whom I have a particular loathing, Stephen Harper, as a young man. The play wants to show us that Clark, in some ways, is our Jimmy Carter, a man almost too good to be a politician, with too much decency and integrity to survive the venal corridors of power. It brings back Flora MacDonald, John Crosbie, and Pierre Trudeau and mourns the end of the red Tories, Progressive Conservatives who were probably to the left of many Liberals today. With discussion about the huge recent victory of Margaret Thatcher and the rise of the far-right looming in the distance. Poor Joe - so untelegenic. Remember Diefenbaker? Imagine him being elected these days? I don't think so.

Anyway, rather depressing, especially because even hearing the name of S. Harper makes me want to take a shower. But I walked home in the falling snow, going via the library to return the disappointing Beatles book and getting out one I'd ordered, Out on the Wire: the storytelling secrets of the new masters of radio, by Jessica Abel.

So much to do, so little time. Did not go to the women's march, did no work today at all, just enjoyed being alone in my house in the snow. And that's enough.

Friday, January 18, 2019

protesting the NYT Book Review on behalf of Leonard Cohen

You know I am a kind and serene person. But on Monday I wrote an angry note to the editor of the NYT Book Review, Pamela Paul. They recently printed an appallingly personal and mean-spirited review of a posthumous collection by Leonard Cohen. My note to her:
I’m sending this protest as a Canadian, but also as a music lover, a poetry lover, a writer, and a decades-long reader of the NYT Book Review. 

I’ve rarely read a review that made me as angry as the one by William Logan of a posthumous collection of the work of Leonard Cohen. It was vicious, and it was unforgivable. 

I have not read the book in question, and it may be that this posthumous collection of scribblings is weak. But Logan makes a point of denigrating every facet of the man’s talent. Most of Leonard Cohen’s songs are glorious, musically and lyrically. He was a superb performer; his concerts were unforgettable, magical. He was generous and wise. It's no wonder women adored him, which also is something Logan holds against him. 

I’m surprised you would assign this book to a critic known to be petty and vindictive. But perhaps that was the point? 

Today she sent a nice note in reply: 
Beth, thank you for feedback, even if critical. I will pass along your note to the editor who handled this assignment. Know that you are not alone in your happiness with Logan's review.

Now that's impressive!

You know I'm a good-natured and generous writer. God forbid I say something negative about another writer or her work. Except for this: I heard about a novel published this year called "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah," about a girl's obsession with the Beatles, specifically Macca, in 1966. So, since this sounds a teeny tiny bit like a certain memoir I know and love, I got it out of the library.

I submitted my memoir "All My Loving: Coming of age with Paul McCartney in Paris" (which is not specifically YA, perhaps to its detriment) to several small publishers and was turned down. This YA novel was published by Penguin Young Readers Group. Penguin! And I have to say, I hated it. Well, I guess I would, wouldn't I? Is it just jealousy? The narrator is annoyingly blinkered, limited, whiny, and the whole scene about American high school and BFFs and cheerleaders and the laboured setup and the denouement - she and her friends meet George Harrison and Paul McCartney outside the hotel where the Beatles are staying in Boston after a concert - oh sure. Paul signs a picture for her that urges her distant father to cherish her. Oh sure.

Okay, yes, I'm jealous. Penguin. My memoir I think is more real and more gritty and more immediate and a hell of a lot funnier, plus you get to go to Paris! It was published by BPS Books, partly paid for by one Beth Kaplan.


Moving right along.

The usual chaos here. The electricians still have not finished, a week after they were supposed to be done. Kevin wants to get to drywall today but all kinds of other things are in the way.
Kevin in my bedroom
The spare bedroom

JM and I are constantly renegotiating our marital relationship. I am at the moment in the sun in my office, though my desk is covered with dropcloths and dust and soon I will be pushed out. But all this is not making me sick, as it did in December. I'm listening to Bach through my headphones. I'm sitting in the sun. I finished an essay yesterday. May you live in interesting times. Onward.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

working in chaos: it's fun!

Electricians still here, poor souls - I think they're afraid they'll never get out. Always some new complication. That's my house for you.

It's almost comical, the scene here - the chaos upstairs, the shouts and drilling and hammering - today, Kevin and Ed putting in insulation and sound-proofing around the 4 electricians on ladders, JM dashing in and out, and in the middle of it all, two huge boxes from Wayfair with bedside lights I'd ordered a few days ago and hated on sight, needed to be repacked to be returned.

Somehow in the midst of all this, I sit in the kitchen wearing my noise-cancelling headphones, as I am now, and work. I've almost finished one essay and will soon finish another. For some reason, the noise and mess has spurred me on - perhaps because there's nothing else I can do here, not even take a nap, so there's no choice but to work. Hooray!
My bedroom
The second floor landing. Nice furry stuff in the walls, and next, drywall. Oh the excitement of drywall. Can't wait.

And now - 4.55 p.m. - my reward for being alive: Wine Time.

PS Is it POSSIBLE Trump does not know what those things McDonalds sells are actually called? He tweeted about serving "hamberders." Why are we surprised? I have one word for you: covfefe.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Good Place"

Last night was a Monday in January, and I was not teaching. I've been teaching on Monday nights January through March for many years. This term, my course is being taught by the estimable Sarah Sheard. It felt good but odd to be taking a break. I'm back in May.

Still, upstairs, shouts in Cantonese. The job of rewiring my house is, of course, taking much longer than the electricians expected. It's 5 p.m. on the third day and they're still wrestling upstairs, pounding and drilling, with more tomorrow. However, soon I will have the perkiest, prettiest wires of any house in town.
I'm getting used to it now - the disruption, noise, mess, teams of men hither and yon. C'est la vie. C'est la renovation. It'll go on and on - and then, as my friend Valerie assures me, like childbirth, once it's over, I'll forget the pain.

Finished "The Business of Being a Writer," by Jane Friedman. Intimidating. I wonder when younger writers, who are busy building a platform and being visible on social media and being "good literary citizens," have time to write. This is a problem. But I've taken notes and will do my best to be a good literary citizen, ancient scribbler though I am.

On Sunday, I heard an interview on CBC radio's "Tapestry" with Michael Schur, creator of a TV series called "The Good Place," which I'd never heard of. He talked about being positive and uncynical, and the show sounded interesting. Wayson came for dinner, and after, we watched FIVE episodes of "The Good Place" on Netflix. Entertaining and even important - it takes place in heaven (or, I gather, not) and though absurd, it's about what it takes to be a good person, among other things, while making us laugh.

Today - a special treat, my friends. I went to see my beloved psychiatrist, the one person in the world who is always, 100%, on my side. Yes, I pay her for it, but still, she listens and she's there and I thank the great lord in the skies above that she's still practicing and I can see her once or twice a year. A check up. Yes, still sane, relatively. Still functioning, more or less. Onward.

My backyard is surreal - full of insulation. My grandsons would like to bounce on it, I'm sure. See how green, in January?! An amazing winter so far.
The electricians discovered this in the floorboards - part of an Ontario license plate from 1925.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Hannah Gadsby

Have you watched the Australian comedienne Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette" on Netflix? I'd started some months ago, found her amusing but light and a bit one-note, was interrupted after about 15 minutes and didn't think it worth going back to. But friends insisted and so I did - and wow, what a knockout punch she delivers, suddenly veering from amusing anecdotes about being gay in rural New Zealand to telling the truth about how heartrendingly hard it was, and is, to be different in a nasty, judgemental world - and then to find a way to make her story funny. Truth - that's my business, and I loved, just loved watching this brave, intelligent woman deliver hard, honest truths after making us laugh. "I need to tell my story properly," she says. "Stories hold our cure."

Gotcha, Hannah. Highly recommended.

It's Sunday, so there are no men in my house, thank God. The last few days - a horde of electricians chattering, sometimes shouting, in Cantonese, as they attempted to figure out the arcane wiring of this house. I just went upstairs, a bare skeleton with tangles of wires everywhere and holes in the outside walls; at this stage, it's hard to believe anyone will ever live up there again. But Kevin is ordering drywall, and next week, apparently, it'll start to go up.
 My bedroom yesterday
A few of the wires
The second floor looking west

I've been reading this "The business of being a writer" book - and though I am attempting to take it seriously, am putting in sticky notes to go back to, still, I wonder if it's a generational divide. What are Influencers? People with blogs or websites with lots of Likes, I gather. Content strategies? I think that means what you write about. Yes? No? No idea. But I'll try to develop some Content Strategies, though my days of being an Influencer are long gone, now that my children, whom I desperately attempted to influence, have left home.

My current Content Strategy: I am rewriting two essays for literary competitions. Though I was long-listed for one a few times, I've only ever in my writing career won one prize, was co-winner one year, in a not-too-crowded field, of the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition. I stopped entering competitions years ago, focussing on books but also thinking that my writing was not the kind that shines in competition. Well, that is undoubtedly still true, but a competition provides a deadline and a word count, so I'm off. Yesterday, I took a piece written years ago and cut more than 700 words so it'll fit the 3000 word limit. It hurt and yet was surprisingly satisfying to see how much the piece could lose and still stand. At the moment, it's 2995 juicy, delicious words.

One problem these days, as I join more websites connecting writers and about writing, is that I could spend my entire life reading about writing. And that's not books and articles, just what's pouring out online. Some limits needed.

More coffee and toast and a fried egg needed.

From my little life to yours - Happy Sunday.

Friday, January 11, 2019

men in my bedroom

I'm squeezed into a corner of my sunny office, which is packed to the rafters with stuff. Outside, much going on - four Chinese electricians are here today and will be here tomorrow. Much noise, chatter, drilling, pounding, explaining.

Here is JM explaining the many charts he has posted on every wall:
And yes, this is more men in my bedroom than have been there for many years.

Today, a surreal moment - I asked my neighbour Monique if she would keep my ballgown safe. Years ago, in a transcendent moment I'll never forget, I found a Balenciaga ballgown at Goodwill. It cost $18.50, and it's magnificent, simply and beautifully cut in heavy maroon silk with a long train and a huge detachable bow at the back. It fits me nearly perfectly - a bit big. The occasions to wear a Balenciaga ballgown are few, and so I have never worn it. And now, there is absolutely nowhere safe in my house to keep it; every closet is jammed, and every surface is covered with dust. So today I took it next door where it will be dust-free, until my house is fixed, and then until the Oscars calls. Or perhaps, more realistically, until my 70th birthday, which will be a picnic in the garden. Perhaps I will wear the Balenciaga then.

Can you imagine the person who gave this ballgown to Goodwill?

Last night, I managed to tidy the living room and my home class gathered. Normally I'd be preparing for the term to begin at Ryerson and U of T, but this term, nyet. So it was wonderful to gear up my editing/coaching chops for a class of dear friends and colleagues.

My God, that sun feels good.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Reno-land report and Roma

A moment of peace - 8 a.m. Thursday, a light dusting of snow outside, the ground shining white, but there's lots of green still. An exceptionally easy winter, so far. But we have miles to go...

And so do we here, in Reno-land, but our way is considerably lighter too. Yesterday, the city inspector came to check out our work. I'd been worried about it, because of course, this being my renovation, nothing was being done strictly according to the book. But he was open, thorough, fair. He asked for another beam here and there, more support up there and also there; he checked the sites for plumbing, poked into drywall, saw it all, and said, Fine.

Fine. Full steam ahead. We're on the move. Incalculable relief.

Friday the electrician comes for the huge job of re-wiring four floors, new smoke detectors throughout, a heater or two. Then the drywall starts to go up, and soon, this house will start to look like a home again.

Speaking of home: On Tuesday I went across town to my son's apartment. When the movers came from Ottawa in December, they left 3 suitcases full of Do's things at Sam's, and this is the first opportunity I've had to see what was in them. I packed most myself in a blur after Do's memorial, but Pat, her caregiver, had repacked and added stuff. It gave me joy to see Sam's place - Do's Danish teak sofa, coffee tables, chairs and lamps, her dishes. He has my dad's U.S. army picture on display, lots of other family stuff. And he took the silver - trays, tea pots and creamers and all the rest of Do's silver that no one else wants. It's a wonderful thing to have a son as sentimental about all that old stuff as his mama is.

Then we went to Anna's, where his adoring nephews tumbled about him like puppies
and we all ate dinner on Do's dining-room table. She lives on in Toronto, appreciated and remembered.

I unpacked my own treasures when I got home. Here - a ridiculously delicate glass, carefully wrapped and labeled as was everything of Do's - "1 WINE GLASS - SPIRALLED STEM. G. GRANDMOTHER'S?" I imagine my great-great-grandmother in Northampton, sipping sherry from this glass. Another impractical thing I'll be stuck with and cherish for the rest of my life.
In my kitchen, and across town with my kids, the welcome weight of the past. Upstairs, on the second floor about to be rebuilt, the promise of the future.

Last night, feeling queasy perhaps after the tension of the last few months, I watched the movie Roma on Netflix. It's had major buzz and I've been meaning to go to TIFF to see it, but there it was, on my lap. It's so beautifully shot, it should be seen on the big screen, but on a cold night, with a heaving stomach, it was sheer joy to watch on my own personal screen. I understand the critics - the main character is a cipher without agency - and yet, based on the director's own childhood memories, it's a wondrous film, gloriously filmed, moving and intensely real. Autobiography and memoir rule!

Monday, January 7, 2019

"I think you've been looking for me."

What a difference a few days can make. The reno is progressing; all of us feel the momentum. Today they removed the odd third floor walkway that hung over part of our second floor hall; it was a platform for a loft bed when that room was a teen's bedroom, before we moved in, but it was a useless path that never made sense for us. Today, it was taken down, and the ceiling soared.
From the landing looking west, to the door of my office; the platform was above. The window above will be replaced.
From the door of my office looking east. Space and light.

Again, I feel as if I've moved out from under a dark cloud or emerged from an illness. Though in fact, I felt terrible today and did nothing but sit in my chair with aching bod and work on essays and read websites. Hope that helps head off whatever it is that's trying to get in. I sent an essay to my new editor, Laura Cameron, yesterday, got it back today with helpful comments, rewrote. God I love this.

Last night, I turned on the Golden Globes, but it was so anodyne, so tedious despite Sandra Oh's heartfelt speech about diversity, that I switched channels and ended up watching a Canadian documentary called "I think you've been looking for me." And, to my surprise, I ended up weeping. A tremendously moving story, a young man telling us about his mother, in her seventies, who'd been withdrawn and depressed during much of his childhood and that of his two older siblings. She reveals her secret: as a teen, she'd been a victim of date rape, though, she says, those words did not exist in the Sixties. She'd become pregnant, and as a young Catholic girl, was sent to a home for unwed mothers, where she sat for months in isolation, eventually giving birth alone. Her baby boy was shown to her once and then she was not allowed to see him again. She went home, and the baby was given up for adoption.

She says that as each of her 3 children were born, she felt nothing. It was only when caring for them that she began to feel like a mother. She felt that the terrible pain of losing her first child was punishment for her sins.

O the sins of the church and of that repressive, woman-hating, profoundly dishonest time.

Through the magic of the internet, her son is found, and to the joy I'm sure of the filmmakers, he's handsome, open, and kind; he had a happy childhood but is anxious to meet his birth family. The reunions, the first online Skype conversation of mother and son, their reunion at the airport - oh the strength of that hug - the eventual meeting of all members of the family, the adoptive parents, the son's wife and kids, all the siblings meeting their half-brother for the first time - extremely moving. The power of blood, the desire to know our roots - such a deep-rooted need. The last shot - spoiler alert - the mother holding and gazing at her daughter's firstborn baby boy, blissfully absorbed in his tiny face, all her losses put to rest, her heart at ease. I'm the luckiest person in the universe, she says.

Sometimes, television is a great, great friend.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

coming home

Today was sunny and not too cold, a lovely bike-riding day. I went to the Y to get stoned. Yes - I watched a doc about the body, and one point they made was that exercise produces the same chemicals - cannabinoids - as weed. I texted my weed-smoking daughter that in fact I go to the Y to get high.

And I do.

My friends, I feel I'm returning to myself after an illness. In fact, I have been in the throes of an extended panic attack brought on by the renovation. It terrified me, pushed me into paranoia and resentment. December was a hard month. The fear does feel as if it's fading, though, and I'm regaining perspective and a sense of humour. The reno is an adventure, and I know it'll be worth all this disruption and expense. She said bravely.

Also, the sister of an English friend emailed when she heard about my misery, and she told me hers - she and her husband, with little money and six small sons, bought a wreck to renovate. She raised her boys in a house that had a plastic sheet for a wall and no roof at one point, had no hot water for years, no indoor toilet. When the house was fixed up, they sold it at a great profit and bought another wreck - and then her husband left her. She was left with six boys in a falling down house, and then suffered a life-threatening illness. But she came through it all magnificently, sent a picture of her grown sons visiting with their children - her many grandchildren.

Talk about gaining perspective! Thanks, I needed that.

I've started writing essays again - haven't written in that short form for years, after doing so throughout the early years of my writing career in the 90's. It's fun. Once I started focussing on books, I decided essays were a distraction and I'd have to leave them behind. But now that the memoir is on hiatus, essays are another way to say what I want to say. Or to find out what I want to say, perhaps.

Just came back from having Sunday dinner at Anna's, giving Ben and Eli their baths - well, watching them splash and shriek and squirt bathwater from their mouths - and then, while Anna put Ben to bed, I played Go Fish with Eli. I haven't played Go Fish for decades. I'm happy to say he won, 5 games to 4, but it was close. My daughter's house is a miracle of order and cheer. She had made a warm, safe, stimulating home for her family. She is a homemaker.

Is there any blessing greater than that? No. None.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

apartment for sale in Ottawa

Know anyone who wants to buy an apartment in Ottawa? A bright, convenient, and open but unrenovated two-bed two-bath apartment in a highrise on Regina St. near Britannia Park. New windows, partially furnished with 60's teak shelving. Belonged to my dear aunt Do. Please get in touch if you know someone who might be interested. Many thanks.


It's nearly time for the teaching term to begin, and for once, I'm not checking numbers at the universities and dry-cleaning my teaching jackets. That side of my work won't resume until May.

As I wrote last week:
I will be running this note regularly to be sure potential students checking this blog know: I AM NOT TEACHING THE WINTER 2019 TERM AT EITHER U OF T OR RYERSON.

My U of T class Life Stories has been cancelled for January through March 2019. At Ryerson, True to Life is being taught by the terrific writer Sarah Sheard.

I WILL RESUME IN MAY AT BOTH UNIVERSITIES: Life Stories Tuesday evenings starting May 7, and True to Life Wednesday evenings starting May 1.

Please write if you have any questions. Thank you and Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

the view from here

It snowed in the night. I was up at 4 a.m., and this is what I saw through my kitchen window:
And I thought, that's why I'm going through this @#$@# renovation - so that I can keep looking at that. Or this, a few hours later:
That's why. Also my beloved kitchen. Also my neighbours and the whole neighbourhood. It's good to remember why I'm doing this, because when a fit of despair hits, I forget.

Anna found a place in Muskoka that rents rooms and cabins winter and summer, so she rented a room with two double beds, and she and the family went. They made snow angels, skated, snowshoed, warmed themselves by an outdoor fire - a real Canadian winterland. Rosy cheeks.
Whereas I'm happy to sit in my kitchen with my noise-cancelling headphones on, listening to a Schubert piano sonata. As I did this morning, while the crashes went on above.

Doing errands later, saw these signs that some wag had put all over the fences nearby, outside the Regent Park buildings slated for demolition:

And there were more. Fun.

Otherwise, not much fun over here. But it's nearly wine time. Things are looking up.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

putting demons to rest

Friend Chris has kindly been listening via email as I howl about renovation misery. He pointed out that though after years of therapy I boasted about being psychologically healthy, even serene, I seem during this process to be fraught with tension and anxiety. And he's right; the reno has brought out all my demons. I see the potential for disaster everywhere. This does not help anyone, not the men doing the work, and certainly not me.

So I will work to stop. As I pointed out to Chris, I have a natural pessimism. When as a child I was asked how exams had gone, I'd always say, "They were terrible. I'm sure I failed." I meant it and believed it, and then I'd win a prize. Year after year, predicting disaster, winning a prize. The pattern never changed.

So I'm a pessimist, always seeing the worst case scenario. Is that from the Jewish side? No, because my British mother also was terrified of everything. Until the worst case scenario actually came, my father's terminal cancer diagnosis, and she just went through it. Because she had no choice. Here, I have no choice but to go through it. Yes, there are men in my house ripping things apart every day - stressful. But it's to make things better, and they are nice men. So relax, baby. Relax into the blow.

Easy to say.

I'm reading a very good book which will only interest a few of you: "The Business of Being a Writer," by Jane Friedman. Full of the kind of practical stuff creative writing courses don't teach you and that really, these days, we writers need to know. With the publishing business exploding all over the map and nobody making any money anywhere, we need to know what's going on and how to cope with social media and all the rest. Brands! I'm taking notes. Am also reading "How to behave in a crowd," a novel by Camille Bordas, entertaining, about a very eccentric family. And of course, 56 websites, FB, Twitter, newspapers, the New Yorker, and now, seven decorating magazines that someone just left in the Little Free Library.

Speaking of the library, it's almost always empty because of the horrible crazy man - or men - who empty it regularly, stealing every book. But yesterday, it looked like this. Thank you!
Here are some pix from upstairs today.

This will be a new source of light on the second floor when it's finished. For 31 years it has driven me crazy that there was a gorgeous skylight in a small closet. Now the closet has gone and the skylight will illuminate much of the second floor. So much light - a dream come true. Let's focus on that instead of what might go wrong, shall we, you crazy woman?
A gift from Ken - freesia in a cut glass wine glass.

It's 3.45 and the men have just left. I can go and play the Moonlight Sonata and remember what my afternoons used to be, and will be again, one day. Happy 2019 to you all. May you find peace and put your inner demons to rest. And may the light pour in.