Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - a tour de force

I hasten to write today, lest you think I am wallowing in the Slough of Despond. For today has been so full of blessings that I'm floating, and it's still only 5.15.

A gorgeous Saturday - fall is always iffy, and it's been cold and wet and hot and sticky - today, breezy sun. Off on the bike to the market, where the plenitude is overwhelming. I bought a big basket of peaches since this is probably their last week. Had a long talk with old friend Duncan, a banjo player who sells real estate and whose daughter was in kindergarten with mine.

Home for an enormous lunch of fresh everything, where an email awaited from Pamela, a blog follower I've never met, writing with kindness and eloquence about yesterday's rant.
As you are probably not aware, I greet my day with you and a cup of Joe. Your latest post touches on a theme that is dear to me. To sum it up, you are a writer, and so you write. It is your gift. You were probably taking notes in the hospital nursery and editing them in the crib as your parents tried to catch up on some sleep. As for the commercial success of your writing, you have earned your living and supported your family by the power of your pen. How many people can claim that? In your work you touch countless people, and help them to improve their ability to write well. There is power in that because there is power in words. 

Write, and keep on writing.There is no "someday" in the world of art, there is only the beautiful now of writing. The beautiful now of being asked what you do for a living, and the powerful ownership of being able to say I am a writer. People will either step away, because words and writers are powerful, or they will draw closer and warm their hands by the gift you so freely give to the world.

Wow! Thank you, Pamela. She's a writer too, whether she knows it or not.

Got another email, this one from Marsha Lederman of the Globe in Vancouver. She told me the director Bob Baker, whose work for decades involved demeaning, insulting, and crushing actors, has recently been expelled from Actor's Equity for abusive practices. Unfortunately it comes too late, he retired or was forced to retire a few years ago. Bob is the reason I quit the theatre; my experience working with him and his partner Tom Wood was so excruciating that I decided I needed to find another way to make a living. So of course I chose something as lucrative as acting - writing! Way to go, girl! Marsha interviewed me about Bob; unlike many colleagues, I'm able to speak freely because I'm no longer in the biz, and so is my friend Chris, whom I asked to speak to her as well. At last, after nearly forty years, justice.

Another email from my new writer friend Caitlin, sending links to some of her work, which is beautiful and wise. And from Anna, a picture of her boys fishing with their dad in Lake Ontario. (I hope they don't eat what they catch!)

Then the big treat - off to see The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre Live at my local Cineplex, eight minutes away by bike - a masterpiece, a tour de force, an extraordinary piece of theatre, a 4-hour world vision created on stage by 3 actors in a glass box, with a piano playing live beside the stage. Directed by the brilliant Sam Mendes, it's breathtaking, the story of 3 penniless, hardworking, clever immigrant Jews from Bavaria who open a small cloth shop in Montgomery, Alabama, eventually become cotton traders, then bankers, then move to New York where their sons and grandsons take over - until the company becomes simply a money machine run by cold outsiders and collapses in 2008. So besides the story of one family, the play is also the story of immigration - what happens to values from one generation to the next - and of modern capitalism, as all values are lost. A director of marketing arrives, late in the game, to show the partners that what needs to be done is to persuade everyone to BUY.

Two intermissions, the first I ran into old friend Ron Singer, who gave me a Best Performance award in a drama festival when I was 18, in 1969, and launched my acting career, the second spent with a glass of cab-sauv. I emerged, blinking, from this very long production to Yonge-Dundas Square, to be engulfed in crowds of people in a frenzy of buying.

The play tells the story of one side of my family, my father's side, my grandfather born to poor Jews from Minsk; Pop found a way to buy a dress company that was going bankrupt and make it profitable again, and always spent hours a day poring over the stock market. I never found out how he survived the Depression - my father would have been 8 and his brother 5 - but he did and prospered, helped my dad buy a house in 1956, as my dad and uncle helped me in 1986.

As always after a magnificent piece of theatre, I feel bigger and wiser, as if I understand something I didn't before. Last night, Michael Moore spoke to Bill Maher about this being an era of "cruel capitalism." This play shows how that came about.

Now it's  6, the sun is shining, there's a freshly-picked cucumber in the fridge - the biggest one yet - and I don't care, right now, whether I can be called a successful writer or not. I know how to relish the  hell out of a day like today, and isn't that what matters?

Friday, September 13, 2019

the writer's lament/manifesto

This is not something I do easily - but I'm going to divulge here my bewilderment at the lack of success I am having right now as a writer. People are full of praise for my teaching; the things I do and say as a teacher obviously work. But my writing seems to be going nowhere, and I'm sharing my despair, right now, with you.

I've been trying recently to get more work out there and last winter entered the CBC non-fiction literary competition with what I thought was a powerful story about the fire that nearly destroyed my home. Yesterday the long list was published: 31 writers, not including me. For the first time in years, I sent a story to the Globe, a story I thought was moving; not a word. The proposal for the memoir I've been working on for 3 years has been turned down by 2 publishers and went out this summer to 4 more, plus a query about an article. So far, nada.

Am I delusional to think I'm a clear, honest, interesting writer with something to say and a modicum of style? I realized a long time ago that something about that style doesn't work for competitions; though I did try again this year, I won't waste time with competitions any more. But even the Globe, where I have published scores of essays, is not interested now.

I know publishers are slammed; the business, always erratic, is incomprehensible right now, and they're overwhelmed and underpaid. And I know the lack of interest is at least partially because I'm an aging middle-class white woman, the least interesting demographic as far as they're concerned, though it seems to me that demographic is also who's buying the books. I don't have a name, no huge social media following, no Twitter followers, so what do I offer them? Simply a story, written with all the craft and skill I can muster, that matters deeply to me and, I hope, would matter to others if they had the chance to read it.

But in every artist's heart there lurks what Wayson called the devil - the voice that says, Why bother? No one cares, and you're wasting your time and theirs. You're just not that good. So go do something useful, like the laundry. Or I know what would be fun - an hour or two leaping about on the Internet! Let's start now!

And, often, I do.

Just had lunch with a writer friend who's similarly down, waiting for her agent's feedback on the latest rewrite of the fantasy novel she's been writing for nearly 4 years. Why do we do this? we asked each other, this hopeless business of little money and few readers, endless waiting for pathetic returns. Why? Because we're writers. Because we'll keep trying no matter what. I have a friend in the ad business who thinks writing for no money is crazy and self-indulgent. But there you go. All it takes is one nice word about the work, and we're back at it. And often, not even that.

All right, thanks for listening, enough venting. It's 3 p.m. and I'm going up to my desk now to figure out where to go with the latest material, the stacks of letters. Perhaps one day the essay or book will be finished and find readers. Perhaps it won't.

But sitting there thinking and writing and reading, mad as it may be, is what I do.

the Democrats - hope for humanity

A glimmer of light on the horizon - I watched most of the Democratic debate last night, and my hopes for the future of our planet and our benighted species began to flicker again. What an intelligent, compassionate, articulate bunch they are. I don't understand why Biden is the frontrunner, except for name recognition and association with Obama; he's often almost incoherent, and he said something that put me off instantly: when Bernie actually brought Canada and Scandinavia into the health care debate, Joe snapped back,"This is America." As if the experiences of another country are irrelevant to his exceptional country. How stupid is that.

Bernie had a passionately articulate explanation of Democratic Socialism, but tho's wise, he's shouty, irascible, and hoarse. Two definite no's: Castro was vicious, and Kamala Harris seemed to feel she was at a casual lunch with friends and kept laughing at her own jokes, perhaps trying to set herself up as relaxed and open as opposed to Warren, the quivering bundle of intensity next to her. Klobuchar is just not enough. Mayor Pete and Beto are good men, I loved them both, but I can't see either of them with enough momentum or a broad enough appeal to win the Presidency. Corey Booker is amazing and possible.

But at the very top - it's Elizabeth Warren all the way. She's a taut, concentrated fighting machine, fierce and focussed but likeable, on message, with warm, relevant personal anecdotes that didn't seem forced or folksy. Go Elizabeth. Save the world.

The difference, the chasm, the Grand Canyon between even the weakest of these candidates and the man currently running the country, and his party, is so extreme as to be laughable if it weren't so tragic. There is another America full of brilliant principled people desperate for change. It is beyond heartening to be reminded of that.

P.S. My cousin Ted the New York lawyer wrote, about all these Dems I admire, "None of them is electable." My heart sank, but then my spirits rose. I have two words for him, and those words are: BARACK OBAMA.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

mothers and daughters and hoarders

The shock - that this person came out of my body! Today my daughter came over to help me organize my office, which is buried under snowdrifts, an avalanche of paper, especially now that I'm digging into my mother's bulging bags of letters. Help! I cried to Anna. For example, I said, showing her an adorable letter I wrote to my father when I was just six and my parents were separated, what should I do with this?
Throw it out, she said.
I recoiled as if she'd hit me. But it's adorable! I was 6! It's to my dad!
How many letters do you need to remind you that you loved your father and were a good writer at six? she answered calmly.
Every single one! I answered internally but not out loud.

But she's right. Because, as she so sweetly pointed out, if I don't throw it out, someone else will, and we both know who that person will be.

My mother was a hoarder - not pathological, just a "born poor lived through the war" hoarder. I had to get rid of her decades' worth of Bon Appetit magazines and her lifetime collection of knee-hi stockings among many other things, including a phenomenal pile of paper and plastic bags, and let's please not mention her freezer. She kept almost every letter ever written to her, especially from her lovers - the ones before Dad, then Dad, then the one in 1956 who wrote her nearly every day for years, it seems (care of a romantic family friend sympathetic to the cause), and the one in 1971, when I was 21 - they're all there. Mum knew who I am, a delver, an investigator, a family chronicler, and she knew I'd find them and read them, as I am in fact doing now. That eventually, perhaps, I'd tell the story.

But my own daughter is the opposite. She's busy living her busy life with no interest in delving into the past, in the mystery of who those people with her genes were back then. She honours family - she has read my Jewish Shakespeare book though not the others or the articles and certainly not this blog - but she's not interested in reams of old paper, in the letter I wrote to Dad when I was six, what that says about me, about him, about our life then.

So my job now is to deal with it all and then get rid of it so she doesn't have to.

She also enjoys mainstream films I wouldn't go near, like superhero movies, and TV shows too; she likes soft drinks and junk food and gooey desserts, and she is the most sensible, wise, grounded person I know. I turn to her often now for advice on simple matters. She listens, she advises - as I do, occasionally, for her. She never forgets that I'm her mother, as my own mother, anxious to tell me her secrets, did to me; there are no secrets here. And despite the fact that she wants me to throw out precious letters and sometimes drinks Coca-cola, I adore her.

She told me what's going on in her sons' school because of Ford's cuts to education - for example, there is now one educational assistant in a school of 700 children, many of them recent immigrants with poor or no English language skills. A nightmare which will only get worse. The strikes will start soon.

Annals of modern life department: at the playground on the weekend, as Eli played, I listened to a bunch of pre-adolescent girls who'd draped themselves over the climbing apparatus. And then one howled, "Olivia, PLEASE don't post that!" Olivia must have taken an unflattering photo. And I realized the horror for kids of this social media age - your friends are there with their phones ALL THE TIME, as are your enemies. They can photograph, even film you whenever they want and put it up for millions to see. Another kind of nightmare.

Advantages of being old department.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

information on Beth's courses at U of T and Ryerson

Dear writers, how things change - last term I had very small classes at both U of T and Ryerson, to the point that I wondered if memoir was starting to fade as an interest among student writers.

This term, I'm happy to report, my class at U of T is completely full more than 3 weeks before term begins. The cutoff number at Ryerson is 4 or 5 more students per class than at U of T, but my class there, starting next Monday, is nearly full too.

I just watched a moving documentary about Warren Buffett. It was moving because at least partially a love story, a tribute to his wife Suzie who, he says, helped make him the humane man he is - a man who has given away many billions of dollars and taken great pleasure in doing so. In the film he speaks to a group of high school students and tells them, if they can find work they'd want to do even if they didn't need a job, they'll spend their lives skipping out of bed in the morning, as he does.

And I thought, lucky me, Warren, I'm one of those. I love the job I've been doing for 25 years at Ryerson and 12 years at U of T. Though I don't often skip out of bed, and it's likely I won't tomorrow morning - see today's post about body pain - still, I am energized and fed by love of my work.

As my dearest Wayson would say - Onward.

In which she comes in sixth and looks for cottages in Nova Scotia

Oh my, she said ruefully, I'm not the woman I once was. This weekend is the Cabbagetown Festival, the once-yearly event when my 'hood is taken over by garage sales, street food, arts and crafts, music - fun. This morning was the fundraising mini-marathon, a 2 k. fun run through the streets which I've done nearly every year since we moved in in 1986. At one point, when I moved into the Senior Women's category, I actually won. Twice. The first time I stopped to tie my shoelace and still won. But I'm years older now, and anyway, despite my classes at the Y, am simply not in shape any more.

Eli was here for a sleepover last night but did not want to run with me, so I left him briefly to the good graces of TVO and my tenants, and ran. I took it slowly, walked a few times, finished, and went home immediately, where the results were already posted online. It took me 11 1/2 minutes to finish  a 2 k. race, so managed the less-than-stellar pace of more than 5 minutes per k. And yet I came sixth in my category.

And have been in pain from neck to knees ever since. Poor Eli - I did manage to go around the 'hood with him on our bikes, and we bought little presents for his parents. Yesterday he bought himself a magnificent diamond necklace for $2 which he wore all weekend, and I got things for the kids - 2 MEC sleeping bags, a snow-racer. A whole weekend where your neighbour's crap is exchanged for yours, and vice versa.
Would have bought these but couldn't bring them home on the bike - giant charts for English composition teachers. Would have been fun for my gang.
Hand in the cookie bag and diamond bling around the neck.

God, my body hurts. At home, I offered Eli $2 if he'd do a puzzle, and then another $2 if he'd do it again. $3!, he replied, but he took my offer and I got to lie down for a bit. After his dad came to get him, I rode to Parliament Street to buy some pad thai and mango salad and came home to recuperate. Sorry for my aching body, but still - the sixth fastest old lady in C'town.

Have not mentioned last week's social events - the Word Sisters here for dinner on Tuesday, a gathering of fabulous women in the word business; the C'town Short Film Festival on Wednesday, a selection of films under 15 minutes from around the world, also fabulous; and the launch of term event at U of T on Thursday, good food and drink and meeting colleagues.

Usually I start teaching the Monday after Labour Day, but not this year, not for a whole other week. I'll do more transcribing of my parents' letters. In one letter, Dad mentioned our family vacations at Toney River; I remembered, vaguely, tiny cabins near a beach, and Googled. I'd proposed renting a cottage in Muskoka for my 70th next year, but my daughter had a better idea - a cottage in Nova Scotia for a family getaway. She went to StFX and loves everything Nova Scotian, as do I, plus I grew up in Halifax and still have friends around the province. It suddenly seemed a great idea. So I've been online for hours, checking cottages on the water - near Toney River.

Perhaps you CAN go home again.

People have been kindly asking about my son. He seems to be recovering from the hideous trauma inflicted on him. Thank you for caring.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

my mother's lover

Some beauty for you - a fall bouquet picked for the dinner table tonight...
... and Macca, taken by his daughter Mary. He's 78. May we all look so good. He looks a bit like my mother, in fact. Yikes. Let's not go there!

Here is something my mother's lover wrote to her in September 1956. Dad had given Mum an ultimatum - he would not negotiate the future of our family with her lover, once my father's good friend, in the country (we were in England.) And so the man was forced to leave her side, temporarily, they both thought. Incidentally, he was married with two children, as was, of course, my mother. Mum and I were living with her parents in west London, and my dad and brother in north London.

I shall keep in touch with your mother, darling, until I leave; and after that I shall write to you through her. Please read my letters, love, although if you cannot bring yourself to do so, that too I shall understand. Please oh please write to me soon and tell me what is happening to you and the children, and how you are. And if and when you need me, darling, cable or telephone and I shall come—I shall come with all speed and with my heart so full of happiness that I shall burst. For with all this, my Sylvia, and whatever may come, I shall love you more and more each moment. And darling, if things become more desperate that your thoughts turn to suicide, then call me too, that I may die with you. If it should be that we cannot live together, then let us at least die in one another’s arms. This too I ask you to promise.

He had it bad! And he was a good writer, if a bit verbose - there are scores of letters, all as impassioned as this one. Odd, and sometimes shocking, to delve into these more than 60 years later - but what the hell, I'm a writer, that's what I do.

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives; even the air feels different, crisper, more businesslike. My young tenant went off with shining face to his new job this morning, and Ben went off to JK. A bit reluctant, but there were no tears.
The serious one in the middle in the hat.

May your hat and shoes be as splendid.

Monday, September 2, 2019

"MIracle of Miracles"

A beautiful holiday Monday, the city tranquil, the weather temperate; it's 7 p.m. and all's well.

Sunday was a productive day; I submitted two essays to different places for consideration and sent a query about another.  They were in my Documents files, things I'd written years ago and left to moulder. So, some editing and cutting and out they go.

The new tenant arrived, a very nice young man who'll be working at the symphony. So the house is full once more. And last night, three hours - three solid hours - of a remake of Little Women on PBS. It was too saccharine, and why, why, do they cast a beautiful actress as Jo and then have her sister say that Jo's only beauty is her hair? Do they think we don't have eyes? But still, I watched the whole thing, because - because it took me back to those heavenly hours sitting in my dad's big chair in the living room (that's in my living room today and not nearly as big somehow), reading and reading and weeping.
The actual copy, unfortunately without its bright yellow dustjacket.

Unlike it seems all other writer women of my age, I did not then identify with Jo. I was Beth, and not just because we share a name. I've never understood why until last night, because Beth is passive and shy and selflessly sweet, nothing like me. Last night I thought - I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn't remotely fiery and rebellious like Jo. I wanted to be loved. Beth was much, much loved. That's who I wanted to be.

It took a few years, but I got there. And I didn't have to die like she did, to boot.

Today's treat - meeting Ken to see Miracle of Miracles, a documentary about the making of Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem, the writer of the stories on which the musical is based, was a contemporary and rival of my great-grandfather's, though it's not sure they ever met. It's my great sorrow that Jacob Gordin didn't write humorous warm tales about his people that would make such a great musical that it's still iconic more than 50 years after its opening.

The doc is fantastic, showing how such an unlikely piece came to be - a musical about shtetl Jews, oh sure, said one sceptical producer. What will you do for an audience when all the Hadassah ladies have seen it? They show some of the many productions from around the world, including Japan, Thailand, and one done by African-American teenagers. There's something universal in the story of poverty; the fight against and yet the need for the suffocating comfort of tradition; the disappointments and love of parents for their rebellious children; and finally, the victimization of helpless people. As Tevye and his neighbours are being exiled from their village, the film shows us heartbreaking footage of modern refugees from Syria, from Mexico and Central America. Ken cried.

And then dinner at the pub across the street, as usual. Ken has lost two dear friends recently and is, he says, sick of death. But we cheered each other up. I gave him a magnificent cucumber, one of three fresh picked today, that he found a way to transport home on his bike.
I feel I should be gearing up for work but have another almost two weeks to go, a great gift. Lots happening - tomorrow someone coming to begin transcribing my parents' letters and then 8 women in the publishing business are here for a potluck dinner; Wednesday the Cabbagetown Short Film Festival; Thursday the huge back-to-school gathering for the Continuing Studies profs at U of T, where I get to meet my colleagues amid food and drink; and then all weekend is the Cabbagetown Festival, where the 'hood goes nuts.

Summer's over. But still - good times.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

cool, and "My Favourite Shapes"

It's nearly September. Though the weather is temperate and lovely, everything is shifting, cooling down, even me - for the first time in months, I had red wine, not rosé or white, with my dinner (tho' cucumber-based.) I'm now wearing a sweatshirt, this morning wore socks on my way to the market. The corner garden store has chrysanthemums. The garden is overgrown with stuff falling over and starting to fade, though still, I hasten to say, gorgeous and lush. But, except for the cucumbers, slowly dying.

Aren't we all?

I had work this week, had to put on respectable clothes and a bra to go to a meeting at U of T about a student's work on which I'd worked as an editor. It went well. There are already 13 in my course there, with a month to go, and 11 at Ryerson with just over a week. Funny, last term there were so few.

Last night I watched something really fun and interesting on HBO: My Favourite Shapes, by Julio Torres. It's quirky, unique, and hilarious, with a very clever young man actually showing us the shapes he loves, bringing them to life as they move around him on a conveyor belt - well, impossible to describe. I loved it.

Tomorrow, a new tenant moves in upstairs, so I've been cleaning and prepping; there's a vase of garden flowers up there, mixed with sprigs of lavender, mint, and oregano. Too much to do, as always, including the nonfiction conference, which needs us to come up with a suggested list of presenters to contact; figuring out new things to do with cucumbers; work on my parents' letters, which had me phone my shrink to ask for her help to process what I'm learning; and planning for next year, which includes the San Miguel Writers' Festival in February and some kind of event for my 70th birthday in August. Yes. 70. As I said to Lynn today on our Skype call from Provence to Toronto - once you turn 70, it's only 20 years to 90.

Ye gods.

However. We're here. Dark times on earth, but young Greta is there banging the drum in NYC. Could the situation in Britain and the U.S. get any worse? Yes, it seems, yes. But Ben starts school on Tuesday. He can't wait.

In only 20 years, he'll be a grown-up of 24. And, if I'm still around, I'll be 89.

Hope so.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

trip to the country and "Nathan the Wise" at Stratford

Back from a jaunt to southern Ontario, to visit friends and see theatre. Anna and I rented a car and set off Monday - first to the dentist in Mississauga, where Eli had a tooth out and the dentist told him he was braver than most adults. And then on to the very small town of Ingersoll, to visit old friends Lani and Maurice. Maurice survived deadly throat cancer, with his taste buds and some of his jaw gone, but he has recovered magnificently and spends his days in one of his two crowded workshops, carving, inventing, fixing. Like Lani, he has one of the most interesting, quirky minds I've ever met; Eli and he got along wonderfully and soon were out skateboarding, with Lani muttering darkly, trying to get Mau to stop. He also showed Eli new techniques in frisbee throwing and how to make a piercing sound with the top of an acorn. Truly, a most useful, fun friend for a 7-year old boy. As we were pulling away, Eli said from the back seat, "I'll never forget that guy."
We arrived late in Stratford, to spend two nights with more old friends, Anna (known in our family, for obvious reasons, as Big Anna) and Tom - she a film producer and he a painter and sculptor, who moved 3 years ago from downtown Toronto to a fabulous house in Stratford with a big studio at the back for Tom. It's a brave pair that will invite not just a woman and her daughter (whom they've known since childhood) but her two extremely lively grandsons to stay. Luckily, though, they have grandchildren of their own and love kids. Still, my guess is that they were not sad to see the hurricane duo depart today.

The reason for the trip was that I bought a ticket to see Nathan the Wise at the Stratford Festival, and so thought we should make it a family road trip. My great-grandfather did an adaptation in Yiddish of this play written by Gotthold Lessing in 1779, set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, and so I thought I should see it. An amazingly topical play about intolerance among Christian and Muslim extremists toward each other and especially toward Jews, it could almost have been written yesterday. An excellent production, well-cast with one notable exception. The lead role of Nathan, a clever, humane Jew and father, was played by the actress Diane Flacks, I guess in a noble attempt to provide more lead roles for women, who knows. Instead, the stunt casting almost ruined the play, as instead of absorbing the play's ideas and ideals, we were distracted by the spectacle of a woman pretending to be a man. Sometimes cross-casting opens up a play and sometimes it defeats it. This was one of the latter times. We need a play like this, about a good, wise man defeating murderous intolerance. I kept trying to imagine what it would be like with a fine actor bringing those rich lines to life, not watching an actress, even a good one like Flacks, struggle to inhabit the part.

But I'm glad I saw it, and I'm glad we all went to the country together. Though yesterday, when it dawned pouring with rain, predicted to last all day, and us with the Wild Bunch - there was despair. How to pass the time and burn off steam in the rain? We went to the Stratford museum which has some interesting stuff including - scream! - the Justin Bieber collection. We went shopping at Giant Tiger, one of Anna's favourite stores, which killed an hour. Anna took them to a train museum in St. Mary's while I was at the play. And finally the sun emerged and the beasts were unleashed. Their energy is almost frightening, especially Ben's, as his is not just physical, it's verbal. He never stops talking at top volume. He's very interested in death these days, and the word 'hate,' testing the word constantly. As we were looking to buy a ball, he said, "I hate balls!" Or even, to me, "I hate you."

It takes some getting used to, but mostly, he is sunshine itself. When we got back, he exclaimed at the top of his lungs to his dad, "You should see their house, Dad. IT HAS STAIRS!"
Bieliebers, not so much. But Justin is a talented young man, no question. We saw video of him drumming and playing the guitar with skill at four.
Throwing stones into a body of water - what makes this such a compelling practice?

And now, back to reality. A few more weeks of summer. What day is this? I'm lost.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Saturday night, no fever

Suddenly it's cooler, though they say September will still be hot - needed a warmer comforter on the bed last night. Just had supper (cucumber based) on the deck, marvelling, once more, in the extraordinary quiet - no neighbours out jabbering for once, nothing except an occasional plane and lots of birds. I can't even hear traffic. The gardenia has produced a new bloom and the lavender abounds, wafting scent into the air; the Rose of Sharon is exploding with bloom and bees - well, you've heard it all before. Plus cucumbers.

Another of the blessings of my life, besides my own personal very small park, is having friends of many different ages. Last week, I had lunch with two dear friends and writing students, Ruth and Merrijoy, one 80 and the other nearly 91, both recently widowed. How lively and beautiful they both are, Merrijoy just back from a trip to Croatia, Ruth just back from an evening of experimental opera in the Globe and Mail building. Between them they know just about everybody who's anybody in this country. May we all age with such eager curiosity, dignity, wit, and sagesse.

So then I called my father's cousin Lola in New York, exactly the age he would have been if he hadn't died long ago - nearly 97. Though her body isn't doing what she wants, her mind is as sharp as ever and her sense of humour acute. I asked her about my parents; she knew my father as a small boy and connected with my parents and New York grandparents throughout their lives. What treasure. I took notes. But mostly, we gossiped about family and laughed a lot.

The good news is - my back is better. I think the pain came from the way I was sitting, endlessly; am trying to stand more and sit straighter, and it's helping. The bad news is - that my body is still disintegrating. I went for a jogette today and was appalled at how little I could do. I used to be able to go at least a few blocks before stopping for breath; today, half a block. Everything hurts. NEED TO UP MY GAME. Or I will not be marching about Croatia in a few years.

Still reading my parents' letters when I can get to them and have found someone who's coming to transcribe, which will speed up the process. Found a vicious letter from my American grandmother Nettie to my mother in 1951; Nettie came to visit us in Halifax while my father was in hospital recovering from polio and complains that my mother was not friendly and did not have on hand white bread and eggs, which apparently was all she could eat. My mother, of course, dealing with a desperately ill husband and an adorable one-year old - moi - who my grandmother describes as "a cute trick."

She writes about the day in New York, shortly after my birth, she "came to see to see the baby with your permission. I came laden like a truck horse with a completely cooked dinner. I stopped at Schraffts for cake for you etc. Your reception of us was something I've never seen in my life. No welcome, no pretense of friendliness ... I think you're very fortunate and very rich in having my Gordin for your husband. His warmth and good cheer is surely enough for you both!"

Can you imagine writing this to a daughter-in-law, on and on? It's 10 handwritten pages long!

"Oh, Nettie was prepared to be negative about your mother before they even met," Lola told me. "Can you imagine - her Gordie bringing home a great big shiksa?"


Thursday, August 22, 2019

the Israel dilemma

The hurricanes continue. Yesterday my brother came for lunch with his nice new girlfriend and his 12-year old son, on their way back from a trip to Israel. He is exactly as Jewish as I am - not, since our mother was not, or 50%, if you go by my dad's Jewish blood. But he feels much more connected to that side and has always been an unquestioning anti-Palestinian supporter of Israel, which has led to many disagreements in the past.

He went to Israel to see the situation for himself, he said, and I urged him to keep an open mind and try to speak to or visit Palestinians as well as Jews. He said he would. Anna, preparing for our lunch, said she knows he likes to bait people, so "I will not be baited," she said. My leftie daughter of course has strong views on Israeli apartheid and a good friend who's Palestinian.

But she was baited. He launched into a diatribe about the wonders of beautiful Israel, "like a breath of fresh air" surrounded by murderous Arabs. "Your Islamophobia is showing; you should be ashamed," Anna said. And the shouting began. He yelled that she "should take care of your own backyard first, before criticizing Israel." What did that mean? That First Nations people are as badly treated as the Palestinians and she should focus on that situation rather than the Middle East. (Which in fact, if he'd cared to listen, she already does.)

I told her to ignore him, and his son urged his dad to settle down, but the fight escalated, got very loud, until I shouted at him, "How dare you speak to my daughter that way?"

Needless to say, it did not end well. Unfortunately, the French conversation group I was once part of broke up for the same reason - one of our members was blindly pro-Israel, the left-leaning side could no longer abide his views, which were pro-Trump also, and vice versa. We had to stop meeting because somehow we always landed there and the arguments grew personal and ferocious.

Happy families, indeed. It has always made me sad that he and I, sharing DNA and upbringing, are so far apart on so many things, this being only one. I celebrate that we managed to take care of my mother and my aunt for years without much disagreement. But perhaps there's not much keeping us together now.

Ironically, I'd just finished a marvellous book, The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong, about her journey from the convent, which she entered at 17 and left 7 or 8 years later, to becoming one of the world's major writers about religion, especially about Islam. The book ends with her talking about compassion - that every religion at its core is about compassion, and any adherents who twist their faith to divisiveness and violence are deeply flawed. All that matters is leaving the ego behind and feeling compassion for the other.

But then that's the polarized world we live in now - really a lot of people screaming at each other, in person or on the screen.

The treat of my work life, when I can get past family trauma to get there, is exploring the past lives of my mother and father through their letters to each other. What a gift to discover the lively engaging letter writers they both were, my dad especially writing with humour and warmth, at least, in these early ones. I am getting quite a different picture of their courtship and our early years as a family. Later we were not happy, but at the beginning, it seems, there was laughter and love.

Though not always. Here's a very short letter written by Sylvia in London to Gordin in New York, both aged 25 in October 1948. They'd arranged for her to sail over, to visit her sister Margaret who'd emigrated the year before with husband Stephen, and to visit her Yank. I sense my dad was getting nervous about the impending visit, perhaps prevaricating about the paperwork she needed for her passage, and so she sent him this:
London 19.10.48
Wot the heck are you doing? If all the form-filling’s too much for that brain of yours, send it on to Margaret and Stephen – otherwise how the blazes do you think I’m going to get a passage before next summer while you go on like this? Or do you think I can anticipate with a thrill visiting some non-existent body who may not even be in the States for all I know?
            There’s not enough of my mind in this letter to warrant 20 cents postage, but there are times, Gordin Kaplan, when – to coin a New World phrase – you make me real mad – and this is very definitely one of them. Now for Pete’s sake pull a finger out and let’s have the score.

You tell him, girl! He did what he had to do and she was there by Christmas; they lived separately, then together, and got married during a camping trip in August 1949. But luckily for me, Dad travelled, and then they separated in 1956, and so there were letters. I am uncovering fresh facts about my family's past as I read them, and I wish I could share what I'm learning with the person who shares my DNA. But I doubt I will. As important as compassion is, we appreciate very different things.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Heart full. My ex-husband just left to go across town. As he pointed out, his travel style has changed. Usually he'd get a taxi to the airport, but today, he'll be with Anna, Ben, and Eli, taking the streetcar to the UP Express, which is Ben's idea of heaven. Ben will be calling out all the stops along the way.

What a gift this visit has been. Our marriage did not work out, but our friendship is deep and strong; he is a fine, fine man, and there is a great love between us. And thank god he was here at this particular time, to be so present when his son needed him most. He spent yesterday with Anna and the boys doing what they'd requested, going up the CN tower for exploring and lunch, then the double-decker tourist bus around town under the broiling sun.
Then dinner with Sam, and both of them over here after. We watched Lincoln. What a fantastic movie - incredible script, direction, acting, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the all time great performances on film. And watching this superb film with my two favourite men in the world - unforgettable.

This is what Sam texted this morning: Great that I can watch a movie with my divorced parents in the house I grew up in ... after I witnessed and was a part of the aftermath of a Mafia hit... Not to mention my sister with two kids from different fathers. Fuck, we're a very interesting family. HBO in real life. Love you. 

As people like to say - You got that right.

Sam was given a few days off work after the horror of last week; he'll go back tomorrow. The owners of his bar took him to lunch yesterday and gave him a cheque for the days he wasn't at work, plus an envelope of cash - the regulars at the bar had taken a collection to reimburse him for his missed hours. How kind. He's not sleeping well but is better. The paper today reported that the murder was indeed a Mafia hit. Not something you expect right next door, on a regular Toronto street on a sunny Friday afternoon.

It's a beautiful day, with a heavenly breeze. Time to make yet more gazpacho.
What I need most.

Saturday, August 17, 2019


A nightmare on a Toronto street in the middle of Friday afternoon. Sam was at work in his bar on Roncesvalles when he heard a loud noise outside - as he told us later, PAM PAM PAM PAM PAM. Gunshots. People ran from the window of the bar, but he went towards it and saw a white car speeding away and the owner of the restaurant next door, Paul, slumped, toppling, on the staircase of his place. He told us they'd suspected the place had Mafia connections.

He ran to Paul - there was a handgun on the ground near him. It was horrific, what he saw - four or five bullet holes in his back, his chest exploded. Sam knelt, held him, pressed his waiter's cloth to Paul's back, he said, in an attempt to keep his insides in, talking to him, telling him he'd be okay, hang in there buddy. Someone else came over. Paul struggling to breathe. And then he died, in Sam's arms.

Years ago, my son's best friend died of an accidental drug overdose in an apartment where Sam was sleeping. He woke up and his friend was ice cold, his face blue. He went through a day of questioning by police to make sure he was not implicated. I was in London at the time, distraught at not being able to help, but Anna and others stepped up and looked after him. He has always blamed himself for his friend's death, was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. And now this.

He said what was truly appalling, after Paul's death, was people coming over with their cellphones to take pictures. It was a Friday afternoon; the street was crowded.

The police came and Sam spent hours telling them whatever he knew, which was not much.

He came over here late last night. For once, for blessed once, both his parents were here to be with him. His dad is quiet and solid and kind; we heard his story spill out, over and over again. We told him what a good thing he had done, to accompany this man in his final moments. Finally, I gave him two of my sleeping pills and made a bed for him on the sofa. When I got up this morning, he'd gone home.

The worst part of being a parent is not being able to stop life from devastating your children.

Friday, August 16, 2019

SNC yadda yadda

I cannot resist putting in my two cents worth, as it's hard to believe this appalling hooha continues. So our prime minister pressured a cabinet minister, encouraged her to fine this company - for an ethics violation nearly twenty years old! - rather than risk losing many thousands of Canadian jobs ... that's a horrifying breach of the law? No, that's how the system works, and a more experienced, or perhaps more loyal, politician would have known that and said either yes or no, which she was never denied the option of doing, rather than risk destroying her party with a self-righteous betrayal.

No question, huge mistakes were made, and Trudeau and others pushed too hard. But what harm would have been done by fining this company, which now, because of the ongoing bad press, risks going bankrupt? Look at the world, at what goes on politically in I'd hazard to say every other country on earth - and you really think "inappropriate pressure" is bad? How - dare I say it - Canadian.

The outrage is insanely overblown, and yes, it might give us the total, unthinkable nightmare of Andrew Scheer, though I like to think, I pray, that many Canadians look at this overblown, overwrought "scandal" as I do - as a complete waste of time. For a little perspective ...

If Andrew Scheer is elected and proceeds to smash everything worthwhile about Canada as Doug Ford is doing to Ontario, I will hold Jody Wilson-Raybold personally responsible.

Sparrows are bathing in the birdbath on the deck railing, actually just a ceramic plant base filled with water - they plunge in and shake and wiggle and flap. Now that's pleasure.

Now we are six

Very emotional today. Yes, pain - now self-diagnosed as sciatica, which will pass by itself and requires medication and stretching. But for now, it's constant.

More importantly, my dear ex-husband is here to stay for five nights. We had a family meal here last night, Uncle Sam tossing the boys into the air and playing badminton in the garden, Ben opening and closing the screen door, calling out the subway stops and chanting, like the TTC lady, "The doors will open on the right." Eli with a pack of cards wanting in the chaos to play Go Fish. Anna trying to become invisible so they'll leave her alone for a few minutes, which they did. And the grownups finding great pleasure in conversation, which mostly was apocalyptic, the end of the world, climate change, Trump etc. But still, there we were. Edgar and I were married for ten years and have been divorced for nearly 20. After the kids left, we sat for hours getting caught up - his family and mine, our many old friends. It's treasure.

He's off today for a work appointment and then to the Toronto Islands with the gang. I'm taking the day off.

Have been delving into a box I inherited from my pack rat mother - thank God for pack rats. Just discovered some of the cards and telegrams she received on my birth, including from my New York grandparents: Heartiest congratulations all concerned trust Gordin recovers fondest love. (Interesting that their main concern, though humorous, was for my father!) There's a telegram dated Sept. 1950 from Dad to Mum: Job mine return delayed perhaps two days plane seat unavailable. She was living with my grandparents in their Upper West Side apartment; I was a month old, and he'd gone to Halifax to see about the job at Dalhousie. We moved there a month or two later.

Here's a piece of paper with my weight and lists of when she breastfed. She told me that in the Polyclinic Hospital in August of 1950, among the many women who'd just given birth, she and one other woman were the only ones trying to breastfeed, with no support from the staff, who thought the practice was vulgar. I'm happy to see I did ingest a little healthy breastmilk, though she started me on the bottle also right away.

There's the menu from the Queen Mary, Saturday December 18 1948 - she's on her way to NYC to see if it'll work out with the handsome Yank she met during the war. She went of course Cabin class, the lowest - I have her battered suitcase - but was invited at some point to dine with the toffs above deck. And here's a resumé she drew up in 1975, in which she writes "1943-45: Naval Intelligence work on breaking of enemy codes, Foreign Office, London." Even decades later, she did not write "Bletchley Park." She hardly ever talked about her work during the war, it was so ingrained that it was top secret. And yet there she is on their website and engraved on their wall: Miss Sylvia M. Leadbeater, Block D Hut 8.

Here on their second date, November 1944, both 22, my mother with what I call her 'Lauren Bacall smoulder.' Not inherited by her girlchild.
So this is why I'm emotional - family family family, the ones close to me and here, the ones now gone and yet so present in my heart and soul. Tears.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

student success story

What joy to receive this from a former student. She ran a parish in Hamilton and invited me to lead a writing workshop there. Wonderful to be a positive voice in someone's head!
Hi Beth, I'm happy to report that my first spiritual memoir, Even the Sparrow, has gone to print! It's being released mid Oct in North America and the UK and we're presently working towards a German translation as well. I'm not going to win any Booker prizes, but it's not bad for a first book. It's got some 'teachy' bits, which I know you won't like (sorry!), but hopefully some courageous storytelling as well.

I would love to send you a copy once I get it - is there an address I can send it to?

I'm presently writing the next, and spending time before writing each day reading True to Life. I like having your voice in my head as I write. Thanks for sharing your gift with the world, and helping us to find our voices.

With thanks and affection,

Jill Weber

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

celebrating Canada once again

I should have known not to encourage you lot - my friend Carol today sent me a poem, set to the music of "We love you, Beatles," about chatting with her vagina. LOL. So then, for the edification of my FB friends, I shared this wonderful picture of a time when men were men.
They just don't make 'em like they used to. Just look at those beefy thighs and FINE ties. (Incidentally, these luscious dudes with rad fashion sense are from Australia.)

A gorgeous day here, perfect. The good news is - after testing at Mt. Sinai this morning - I do not so far have glaucoma. My father and grandmother did, so I need to be tested regularly; thank you Tommy Douglas. The back on the other hand is still crapola. I had to take two extra-strength Tylenol to get to sleep last night. Pain is tiring, draining, tedious, and I just cannot understand why it's there. But this too shall pass.

A lovely thing: this evening my old friend Angus, who lived on the top floor for two years before the fire, 2003-2005, is visiting from Vancouver and came for dinner. After, we went for a walk in the 'hood, and I took him down to Regent Park, which he had not seen in its renovated state. It turned out to be a big night on the common - they show movies Wednesdays at dusk, so there was a big portable screen and many gathered on blankets in front, but also people were roasting corn to sell, selling other kinds of food, music playing, people eating, talking in big crowds and small groups, children running everywhere, the playground jammed - the whole big green space was packed. And of course need I say, almost every one of those celebrants was a new immigrant to Canada, most of the women swathed in many layers of colourful cloth. There was a gang of boys, 16-year old Somalis, just the kind of young men who are getting into gun trouble in the nether reaches of the city. But here, they were in a clump with their parents, grandparents, and siblings nearby, surrounded by community.

It was a glorious scene, a tribute to what's best about our fine nation.

I also had the best news about a young friend with cystic fibrosis who is on an experimental drug trial which has had a miraculous effect - his lung capacity improved hugely almost overnight. It's fantastic news. Science! Making miracles.

Monday, August 12, 2019

the vagina painting party and other wonders

An article in the Star today is entitled "Five easy ways to a happier, healthier vagina." It begins, "We often ask ourselves, 'Am I happy?' But when was the last time you asked your vagina the same thing?"

The millenial writer describes going to a "vagina painting party," where women gathered to evoke their own vaginas in paint, papier maché, and other media. She kindly offers a colour photograph of her own fine effort, looking like a gash on canvas displayed in her living room between two potted plants. When visitors comment, she replies,"Yes, that's my vagina. Isn't she beautiful?" She suggests we host our own party and that we get an app that helps with kegel exercises. "All you do is insert the sleek device and connect the app on your phone. Anytime you squeeze your pelvic muscles, a little gem on your screen moves up and down."

Okay, so there are times when I feel REALLY OLD, and this is one of them. An app for when you squeeze your pelvic muscles? And can you imagine a "penis painting party"? Men gathered to celebrate their penises? One on display in the living room, with the man saying, "Yes, that's my penis, isn't he handsome?"

Ye gods. Of course, we could say that the entire planet is built on our admiration for penises, one way or another. Or for the region's by-product, testosterone.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, where the owner of his particular vagina has not spoken to her nether regions in many a moon - sorry, girl - it was a difficult 24 hours. Anna was in Nova Scotia, so Eli spent much of Sunday and today here. But I was not feeling well, with both back pain and a nascent cold or flu, aching limbs and scratchy throat. Dealing with his phenomenal energy is hard at the best of times, but when not up to the task - really hard. And he had a blister on one hand which made playground time, which wears him out, painful.

However, stories, tons of salmon, rice, and avocado, and ice cream, and pancakes, and the movie "Detective Pikachu" with a trillion special effects which is really about how much we miss our fathers, especially when that dad turns out to be (spoiler alert) Ryan Reynolds, and best of all, a Lego firetruck I'd bought at Doubletake and stashed away - it took us both a concentrated hour or more, following the chart and putting on little bits and pieces, he methodical and quick, like his dad - saved the day.
Mama is back now, pining for the fresh air of Nova Scotia; the boys are safely back at home, and I wonder if my back pain is going to go away. Was it related to anxiety about my daughter's absence or Eli's stay? Or the fact that my ex-husband is coming to stay here for five nights later this week? Or my ongoing debt from the reno? I have no idea where it came from and why it lingers, only that it can't depart soon enough. My poor neglected vagina needs a good talking-to.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

the sanity of the garden

Bill Maher was particularly dark last night. It does look sometimes like right now is the end of the world - the unleashing of angry violent men, the triumph of moronic far right political leaders - Trump's approval rating at 42%!! - the melting of the glaciers. Possible war with Iran. One of his guests (EXTREMELY HANDSOME American journalist Richard Engel) pointed out that we often see viral photos or videos of racist events on FB and Twitter - a video, say, of a white woman shrieking at a black child who has set up a lemonade stand - that lead us to fulminate in rage. After they're posted, these are guaranteed to go viral thanks to algorhithms designed by the Russians, who are doing everything possible to divide western society and make us hate each other. With ease and great success.
(Here's Richard Engel. See what I mean? Very smart, lefty, nice on the eyes. Sigh.)
See how shallow I am? Simultaneously horrified about current events and admiring cute men. Yum.

My back still hurts a lot, sharp burning shooting down my right leg. Yesterday, several friends in another kind of pain came over, separately, for comfort, one who's been diagnosed with a dreadful auto-immune disease, another who's a recent widow. So we were all in pain.

However - the weather could not be better, mild with a breeze. And this, also nice on the eyes, is what awaits me and my guests when we go outside. So I try not to despair. There's great beauty out there. And there are grandchildren. We have to hope for sanity, for their sake.
One more - Richard Engel with his 3-year old son, who has a rare neurological disorder. What the world needs now is MORE GOOD MEN.

Friday, August 9, 2019

taking a break

Chatted with a woman today at the Y - one of the great joys of the Y, these conversations between semi-naked women becoming friends. She and I change in the same locker area but don't know each other well. She told me she has just turned 90, and I exclaimed that she looks wonderful. "For 90, you mean," she laughed. I knew her husband of many decades had been ill for a long time. "He died, " she said. "I'm not grieving, because he wanted to die. But now I have to learn, for the first time in my life, to be one."

She told me she'd shared her childhood bedroom with her sister, left home to get married, had six children. She has never, ever, lived alone. And now, at 90, she has to learn how. I told her I'd be happy to give lessons. She's fiercely independent and strong, but, she said, "When your spouse dies, the part of yourself you shared with him is gone. Part of me is just gone."

She nearly made me cry, as we stood wrapped in towels. I told her I would be 70 next year. "70 is nothing!" she exclaimed, which cheered me immeasurably. I suggested we get together soon for a glass of wine. "I'd love that," she said. And so would I.

I was feeling old today, despite her kind words, with sharp pain - back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain. I don't know why. But I always associate back pain with stress, so I'm wondering what is causing me so much. Nothing much that I can see, except life. Went for a therapeutic massage today, which helped - "It's very tight, not like you," she said, as she hammered those muscles.

Maybe it's the world. I've decided to take a week-long break from FB and Twitter, see if that helps. Leave the poison behind. Well, not completely, as I'll still read the paper and listen to CBC's The World at Six. But in truth, leaving FB for a week will be hard. I enjoy sitting in my comfy chair travelling around the world, catching up with friends and family (my brother, today, posting pictures from Tel Aviv, my daughter, who's in Nova Scotia, exclaiming about buying oysters at the local Sobeys), hearing from people I respect, blocking out those I don't. Not YOU, though.

Last night, on the news, they interviewed a young man who became a Beatlemaniac at 17, ten years ago, and this week, he travelled to London to be there at Abbey Road on the anniversary of the day the iconic photo was taken. I was so charmed by what he said - speaking of how the Beatles had always been there for him, their message of peace and love and hope - that I got in touch, told him how moved I was by what he said, and offered to send him my memoir. "Your message almost made me cry," he wrote back. A kindred spirit; a fellow weeper.

My boss at U of T wrote; my class there already has nine registered. Nine, with eight weeks to go! Last term, there were five. Who can understand these things? No complaints from me.

The garden, oh, the garden. Made a sublime watermelon gazpacho with THREE cucumbers. A gorgeous week ahead - cool and windy and fresh.

70 is nothing, so 69 is just a kid.  As the poet Sara Teasdale says:
When I can look Life in the eyes, / Grown calm and very coldly wise, / Life will have given me the Truth, / And taken in exchange -- my youth.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

musical storytellers and sharks

A mild, murky day, and I have nothing scheduled except Carole's class, writing work, and dealing with the five cucumbers in my fridge. So - lots to do.

First, and most importantly, as soon as I wrote in the last post that I was stuck in my writing, it began to flow. A voice came, a starting place, and I was off. No idea if it works, but it's there. Before, for weeks, I was discouraged, wondering why I bother when there are so many interesting, fun ways to spend time that are not sitting at a desk poking myself in the gut. Why put myself through it, when 17-year old "influencers" have hundreds of thousands of readers, and only a handful of people read what I write?

But some do. And even if they don't, I need to write things down, have needed to write things down since childhood. So here we are on a lovely morning, not working in the garden or doing the laundry or making gazpacho, things which need to be done, or exploring the city, fun things - no, sitting at the desk working out how to tell a story. Taking a break to talk to you.

Speaking of telling stories, last night I went to the folk club Hugh's Room to hear Shari Ulrich in concert. I do not usually head clear across town at night and had some trepidation about being there alone. Immediately, people at the table where I was placed as one of Shari's guests invited me to join them, and we chatted for the whole night, interesting, nice people and great fans of Shari's. I thought, as she sang, how wonderful it is that story and music combine in this glorious way unique to humans. I guess birds as they trill and call are telling stories, and whales, and other musical creatures. But we write and sing songs. As I wrote to Shari afterwards, I am jealous of how disgustingly talented she is, playing many instruments, writing the pieces, singing them beautifully with two fabulous women accompanying her. Thrilling.

Yesterday morning, I took Ben to the aquarium for his birthday present. It's a gift to see the world through the eyes of a 4-year old. The aquarium is too crowded and noisy, but still, it's very well set up for kids, with an amazing passageway where fish, sharks, and manta rays swim not just beside you but over your head. It was feeding time - men in wetsuits fed shrimp to anemones (!) and in another pond, to rays, which circled around like huge grey underwater birds. Ben and I were very lucky with the weather - it poured while we were inside, stopped as we left to go to lunch, started again as we ordered our burgers, and stopped just as we finished. Ben likes meat. He doesn't even bother with the bun.

In the meantime, my daughter was dyeing half of her long hair bright red. She is off for a well-deserved vacation, to visit her best friend in Nova Scotia and go to the Stanfields' annual weekend-long bash The Blacktop Ball. The Stanfields are a Nova Scotia rock band and dear friends of hers - when they toured to Toronto, in past years, they all crashed with Anna, all five of them. So off she goes, for four days. There will be music. There will be stories.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Shari Ulrich Back to Shore

This is the place to be during the August long weekend - right where I am. There is no sound coming from the empty city, hardly any traffic, no sirens, nothing. Silence. Even Monique's noisy A.C. she just turned off for me. Just birds, sweet air, flowers. And, of course, cucumbers. How good to be alive.
Today's crop. They're big.

Yesterday, I took the streetcar across town with my bike, got Eli, and rode back with him along the lake. It's a long ride for me, let alone for someone much smaller, and yet when we got here, he was raring to go to the basketball nets and the playground. So we did. It was hot, though, so we did play a number of games of Go Fish and read some stories. And then his mama came with Ben and we had dinner - for Eli, the usual, 3 helpings of the only things he'll eat, salmon, avocado and rice, and for Ben, meat, just meat.

My old friend Shari Ulrich is staying at the house, in Toronto to launch her new CD on Tuesday at Hugh's Room. We met in the mid-70s and have been friends ever since, she pursuing her music, singing with various bands big and small, then and now, though increasingly with a solo career. She and I, almost the same age, talk a lot about where we are in life with our careers and our families. I just sent her this quote from Abigail Thomas, that kind of sums up what we were saying about being single:
I’m okay alone. I don’t always want to answer a question about why I’m coughing if I’m coughing. I like falling into a book without being asked what I am reading. I appreciate not being interrupted in the middle of thinking about nothing. Nobody shoos my dogs off the sofa or objects to the three of them with sardine breath farting under the covers in bed at night. I like moving furniture around without anyone wishing I wouldn’t or not noticing that I have. I like cooking or not, making the bed or not, weeding or not. Watching movies until 3 a.m. and no one the wiser. Watching movies on a spring day and no one the wiser. To say nothing of the naps.

Us too.

Shari's new CD is gorgeous. And so is she.

For me, however — I'm stuck in my work. Perhaps it's discouragement - if no one wants to publish the memoir I've spent 3 years writing, why write something else? Perhaps laziness - there are always more fun things to do. I know what I want to get down, just have to start, find the way into the story, unpack. One two three go.

Instead - I'm watering the garden. Which also is necessary.

Lynn sent these pictures from a lifetime ago - the two of us at my wedding party in 1981, when Anna was 3 months old, and me with Denis in Toronto maybe 15 years ago. Who's that young woman?

Happy August long weekend to you, wherever you are. May there be silence. May the birds sing in your ears and the wings of butterflies make you wonder about the existence of god.

Friday, August 2, 2019


I've been 69 for hours now, and it feels fine. A bit of a slow day, but that's because of the amount of food and drink yesterday.

A fine party, very small, just family and people who are like family - Ken, Carol, Anne-Marie and Jim. Sam barbecued a vast quantity of meat and I made three cucumber-based salads which were terrific, one of which called for my son to strip two pomegranates of their seeds to put in. Delicious. There were toasts, and mostly, there were two little boys, playing badminton with a giant shuttlecock and making us laugh. Ben pretends that the kitchen screen door is a subway door and he calls out the stops. We were all mellow and fine, there was a breeze, and the guests got a door prize: a freshly-picked - you guessed it - cucumber!

This afternoon I went to the dermatologist who confirmed that the white bumps on my face were called milia and got rid of them. It cost $100 and I'm thrilled - tiny wounds on my face but soon, no bumps. Only I'm sure they will soon be replaced by others. Annals of aging #842.
Badminton with Uncle Sam
The cake Sam bought for me - peanut butter and dark chocolate. Not quite rich enough. LOL.
 A favourite spot.
The girls - Carol, Anna, the old bag, Anne-Marie. And the cheese tray.

The Americans have backed out of the nuclear treaty with Russia. Beyond appalling. Please God, give that man a heart attack. Please make the Democrats stop battling each other and get on with saving the world. Please. For my birthday. Because I'd like to make it to 70.

Thursday, August 1, 2019


Birthday report tomorrow - I'm too tired and much too full to think. But - it could not have been nicer.

This morning, though, I had a god moment. A monarch stopped on this plant - I don't know what those flowers are - and stayed for a long time, long enough for me to get my phone and take a picture. And then it stayed some more. I was mesmerized by the wings like stained glass windows. And as I stared, a bird was singing, and the scent of flowers was drifting by, and I thought - Who invented butterflies and painted them so beautifully? Who invented birdsong and lavender?

If I'd been religious, I'd have answered god. But I am not, so I guess it's just natural selection, genetic mutation, evolution etc. I can see why religion is a comfort - how much more comforting to imagine a benevolent spirit brought us these wondrous things, rather than random forces of nature.

But one fact remains, god or Darwin or neither - the wings of the butterfly are a fucking miracle.
And then it was time to get ready for the party. Here is a 69-year old woman in her apron, with her cucumber collection. More anon.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

a mere 68

Tomorrow I turn 69. Hard to believe. What, lithe, youthful moi? The nice woman doing my eye tests this morning noticed the date on my chart and asked if I was excited about my birthday. Well - I'm excited to be alive. I'm excited my family is gathering tomorrow for a barbecue, plus a few beloved friends. This will be my first birthday in more than a decade without Wayson. He will be missed.

I have told the guests it will be a cucumber-based menu. Because just like last year, fat, straight, delicious cucumbers are dropping from the vine. I am definitely the cucumber-whisperer; there are five in the fridge right now. Not to mention Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes, and basil. I've got a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe for "Quinoa and grilled sourdough salad," and Nigella's recipe for "Chopped salad," both with lots of cukes. Sam is going to barbecue meats. There will be corn. And - because grandsons - cake.

The rose of Sharon has started to bloom just in time for tomorrow. Chris sent a wonderful YouTube interview with the cast of Grantchester - I could watch those actors forever, even without James Norton.
Lani sent a hilarious card. Jean-Marc brought over the Sunday New York Times. Carole tortured us all as usual, nicely, at the Y. My second cousin, or first cousin once removed, I forget, in New York sent snippets of interviews with her mother Lola, my father's cousin who's now 97, as Dad would have been if he hadn't died 31 years ago. She told once again the story of being forced to go to her first prom with my father as her date; Ethel Merman was the entertainment. She also mentions chatting, later, with Bette Davis and Frank McCourt. An interesting life. What a great idea to tape her talking about her past.

So, dear friends, it's 5.45 p.m. so time for aperitif, a nice cold glass. My baby blue toes and I will forget for a bit about the horrors that are happening to our planet and simply celebrate being here, mid-summer, a mere 68 for the last time tonight. I will eat cucumbers and watch TV, including Samantha Bee, and read the new New Yorker. 


Monday, July 29, 2019

summer joys

 When I went down to the kitchen this morning, I thought about February. Today, the world was alive with colour, sound, and scent - flowers, birds, green, yellow, pink, red, purple, orange, and more green, the smell of lavender, phlox, gardenia, rosemary, jasmine. Sparrows and cardinals chatting. In winter, grey, brown, white, no smells, almost no sounds. Toronto in winter is a sensory deprivation tank. But we are Canadian, we get through, and here we are, in the richness of high summer.

Annals of aging # 647: two medical appointments this week, one with the supercilious and unpleasant Doctor Khan to check for glaucoma, and with the dermatologist to inspect and I hope remove white bumps on my face. Today's pains: the left foot, some ongoing unidentified ache; in the left side of my mouth, a nerve issue under the teeth getting more acute. The rest - back, hips - the same. Lucky. My friend John, who has hip and knee issues, goes up my stairs on his hands and knees. I went to a yoga class today to try to keep the joints well oiled. I'm reading the obituaries more regularly now - two deaths close to me so far this year.

Blistering heat - 29, feeling, they say, like 38.

Sent the manuscript to two other publishers today. One I sent to last month has already written a polite no - miraculous that it came so quickly. He wrote very nicely that the nonfiction at the press is mostly focussed on political and social issues, not on memoir. Phooey. To cheer me up I had a pedicure. My toes are now light blue.

Supper - the garden's cucumbers are beginning to pile up, so creamy cucumber salad. Fresh corn with lime. Salmon. Peaches. Rosé. Summer! Thank you.

The other day, I took a bunch of old books I wanted to sell to Acadia Books, a used bookstore on Queen Street East. What a lovely wonderful place. There are several homeless shelters nearby, so the street outside is very rough. Inside, a haven of old books, posters, maps, cherished paper of all kinds. It belongs now to Rochelle, the daughter of the man who bought the shop and ran it for decades. Can't imagine it'll last - who is buying old books on the roughest part of Queen Street East? And yet there she is, buying some of mine: a collection of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, ten small volumes, inherited from Great-aunt Helen; a Beatrix Potter from the 1920's, and more. My latest attempt to tackle debt.

If you're in Toronto or nearby, please make sure to visit Acadia Books. It's like the film Being There but in reverse. Peter Sellers leaves a sheltered environment for the madhouse of the real world. Here, you leave the madhouse and inside is tranquillity, books and art and kindness.

Grantchester last night: no one seems to note the absurd supposition that the handsomest young men in England in the early sixties are becoming vicars. Have you ever seen a minister as divinely handsome as James Norton? I think not. Now, the new guy, also a cutie though not quite like James. Absurd that these gorgeous virile studs would enter the Church of England to spend their lives as men of the cloth. But fun to watch. And then John Oliver came on at 11, excoriating Boris @#$# Johnson, a shyster since childhood. Ghastly. What did the poor planet do to deserve these guys?

Sweaty, very sticky and sweaty. Where is that lake?

Saturday, July 27, 2019

peaches and time

Where does time go? Why do the days disappear? I saw an explanation on TV, where else? It said that when our brains experience something new, our neurons are firing and lots is going on in our systems, so as we process it all, things seem to take a long time. That's how life feels when we're young - when everything is new.

And then we get older. We've done it all before. No neurons are firing. And so time seems to vanish, because nothing is slowing it down.

Makes sense, no?

This beautiful Saturday vanished. I'd done it all before. No, that's not true, let's slow down this narrative. When I got to the market on my bike, there was my dear friend and handyman John, sitting outside waiting for his wife to finish shopping. John spent yesterday morning lying on my bathroom floor with his head under the sink, replacing the faucet. Yes, another of the only things that didn't get renovated during the winter broke. Thank God for John. I sat with him awhile and watched the market goers. "There's peaches for the first time today," John told me, "and corn for the second week." I bought both. The first peach of the year! Took a long time to enjoy it properly. Neurons were firing.

Later I submitted my manuscript to a publisher; hadn't done it exactly that way before, so that was new. Made various arrangements for various social events and gatherings and a road trip, new but not really, have done it all before. Thus, my afternoon flew out the window.

I pruned my raspberry bushes, also something I'd not done before. I've been worrying they're not fruiting as they should, so went online and saw what to  do - prune the woody stuff. So my snippers went to work, clearing the underbrush. I love feeling like a gardener, though I hardly know what I'm doing.

And later I watched one of my absolutely favourite programs, Upstart Crow, a moving and very clever comedy that brings Shakespeare hilariously to life. I've seen most of the episodes twice but this one was new, starring the divine, the always sublime and very funny Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth I. Perfection. Now I'm watching a CNN documentary about films of the 2000s and making a list of ones I still need to see: Lord of the Rings, Almost Famous, Lincoln, Chicago. Black Panther.

Here, in photos sent by his mother, is what it feels like to be young, with those fresh neurons relishing every moment. 7 years old, on his way to the Raptors. Hope you had a nice slow Saturday too.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

summer rhapsody

My heart overflowing this glorious morning - we've had a few days respite from the heat, it's fresh, light, clear. The garden is nearly at its peak; the pale mauve phlox are out, delicate and tall, and so is the jasmine, scenting the air. The raspberries are in profusion and the cukes too. It's quiet, and after a few busy days, I've little on today - an editing client coming at 2, that's it. My own very long list of things to do, of course, including, most importantly, my least favourite job, back to trying to find a home for my memoir.


On Tuesday, a shocking encounter; a woman I'd never met, an old friend of a recently deceased friend, came for coffee and told me that things I'd suspected but did not know for sure about my friend's living arrangements were true. That he lived, by his own choice, in a near abusive situation. The profound injustice of what happened. It made me sad and angry in equal measure. But when people make their choices, she said, there's nothing we friends can do. And I know that's true. Still. There are bad people in this world.

As if we didn't know that, with the spectacle in the news every single bloody day. Including a nauseating story in the latest New Yorker about the pillorying of Senator Al Franken, victim of the excesses of #Metoo, a principled hardworking man who lost his job for the flimsiest of reasons, while the pussygrabber-in-chief reigns supreme and threatens to obliterate Afghanistan. But stop. The morning is too beautiful to let him in.

Yesterday, a gathering here of runfit friends, the group of us who've been going around in circles together on Wednesdays for years, led by our inspiring Carole, the marathon-running grandmother of three adults who looks no more than 50. We had a potluck feast on the deck and got to know each other a bit better, as we have only the briefest of conversations as we puff and sweat. It's thanks to Carole that we're all even a little bit fit, though I least of all, the slowest of the bunch. And yet, as we always say in the gym, we're here. The miracle is, we're here.

I read somewhere that the main predicator of happiness is the ability to be grateful. I guess that's why, despite the news, despite Boris Johnson and global warming, despite my own debt and doubt and disappointments, I call myself happy much of the time. Right now, I am grateful for the sweet scent of jasmine and phlox, and much much more.
And now, up to the office, to work.