Sunday, January 29, 2023

A Girl's Story, Stolen Focus, a gratitude letter

Recently, because of the hoo-ha around looking for a new doctor, I thought back to our first family doctor in Toronto when we rented a house in Riverdale; she worked at a clinic on the Danforth and I liked her a lot. Though when we moved to this house we switched to a local clinic, I turned to this doctor when my marriage was falling apart a few years later and asked her to recommend a shrink or counsellor. She gave me the name of a Dr. O'Neil and told me, "You'll like her. She's fast."

Remembering her words made me laugh, as I lay on Dr. O'Neil's couch four times a week for four years and continued consulting her irregularly for decades. Not so fast after all! But extremely effective - a wonderful doctor who helped me survive a tumultuous time and figure myself out, my past, my parents, my ex.

I thought, I should thank that doctor. Googled - oh, the miracles of modern tech. She's now living in rural Ontario; there was an address. So I sent her a letter, saying of course she wouldn't remember me, but I wanted to thank her for giving me a name that changed my life immeasurably for the better. 

Only a few days later, I got this email: It was wonderful to hear from you. Such a thoughtful thing to do. I remember you quite well. I wish you’d been a friend instead of a patient. I see you’ve gone on to do such interesting things.   

I left Toronto in 2003 to work in a rural area.  I’m sitting in my cozy farm house in my little town watching the snow come down today. Different places - different spaces.

So kind of you to remember the tiny input I had to your life. It would be fun to see you if you are ever by this way. Let me know.

Beth - thank you.  

There's a new friend out there. Hope we connect. Always take time for gratitude. 

I'm reading a phenomenal book that also might be life-changing — Stolen Focus: why you can't pay attention - and how to think deeply again, by Johann Hari. I saw him interviewed and immediately ordered the book from the library. It's wonderfully written, vivid and engaging, but with a vitally important message about how social media is colonizing our brains in many ways. I'm only a third of the way through and am riveted. Will report when I've finished. 

Just finished Nobel winner Annie Ernaux's A Girl's Story. She writes with excoriating honesty and clarity about her 17-year-old self, a sheltered convent girl arriving as a counsellor at a camp, subjected to a degrading sexual assault she not only allows willingly but is desperate to repeat. Reading it brought me back to several episodes from my own youth that I've consigned to the junk-heap of memory - frantic obsessions on the least likely candidates, abysmal insecurity and yet loud showing off, oh God, she brings it all to the fore. Gripping writing so candid, it makes a reader uncomfortable — unlike anything I've read before. 

Helena Bonham Carter, asked in a recent interview about her "issues," replied, I’ve got so many issues, but as you get older you go: “Whatever.” The curse of being young is you take your complexes too seriously. Or you take your opinion of yourself too seriously. As soon as you’re older, you tell the demons to shut up because they’re boring.

Absolutely. Whatever. Shut up, YOU'RE BORING! 

A quiet Sunday ahead - snow is falling. Tiggy is sleeping nearby. I'll dance with Nicky and gang at 10, finish this draft of the essay book, clean up my office, edit student work, cook with Eleanor at 3, and sit by the fire to watch PBS at 9. Touchstones. 


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Everything Everywhere — no, not so much

It's 5.30, and I'm drinking a small glass of pinot. Life-threatening, I know, but I like to live dangerously. Will I have another small glass with dinner? Probably not. Because. But maybe I will. 

So, a few disappointing things these days. First, I got the results of recent blood tests. They said I'm pre-diabetic and have moderately high cholesterol levels. WHAT?! I'm more or less the right weight, eat more or less healthily, exercise more or less regularly - so what's going on? I know, I boast about my mayonnaise-based diet, but still, I don't eat much junk food, my sugar is mostly dark chocolate every day... Who knows? Maybe genetics - my uncle Edgar had diabetes. Here are the symptoms of pre-diabetes:

  • unusual thirst, frequent urination, weight change (gain or loss), extreme fatigue or lack of energy, blurred vision, frequent or recurring infections, cuts and bruises that are slow to heal, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, or trouble getting or maintaining an erection.
  • Well ... None of the above. Though some of the symptoms could also be from Covid or winter. It's true, I do have trouble getting an erection, but that's caused by something other than imminent diabetes. 
Not sure how to fix things, except take another test in awhile and hope things look better.

When I heard about the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, I thought it sounded goofy and not for me. But there's been so much ballyhoo, including a ton of Oscar nominations, I decided to see it. Well - may I announce the minority position? It's goofy, not for me, and not that good. Yes, extremely imaginative, crazy, over the top. Offensively over the top, I thought, including butt plugs that give superpowers - I imagine the two director writers stoned and giggling as they came up with that one. 

I have no idea what it was about except an overloaded immigrant mother raised by a critical father who's too critical with her own daughter, who learns to value herself, to relax, see, and love. An important topic that could have been conveyed without a million speedy special effects and a ton of kung fu fights, endless fights, again, many stoned giggles as they planned. Sophomoric - which means pretentious and juvenile. Ingenious, with marvellous performances from a skilled, courageous Asian cast, wasted on an absurd plot, including a religion that worships bagels. Or something. Let me know please what I don't get. Maybe I'm just too old. 

Incidentally, when I told Anna about pre-diabetes, she said, "Well Mum, you're 75, that's just what happens as you age." Imagine, my own daughter! 
"I'm not 75, I'm only 72!" I shrieked. "And these things do not just happen to me!"


And finally, I followed the recommendation of a friend who had a haircut at the Vidal Sassoon Academy, which trains hairdressers. I knew it would take three hours, so was prepared with editing work, books, and sandwich. Hoped it would be worth it because it cost $27. Well - you get what you pay for. It's the worst haircut I've ever had. Luckily, I don't care what I look like. Much. It'll grow.

And an op-ed essay I sent to the Star about the idiot politicians in this city and province has been rejected. At least, the editor simply did not respond, as he hasn't several times before. Phooey. But perhaps what I wrote is summarized by this person, on Twitter, about violence on the TTC: The TTC isn't the problem. housing is the problem. public washrooms are the problem. lack of mental health supports is the problem. funding the police is the problem. John Tory is the problem.

But — big snowfall yesterday, and I got to sit by the fire. So, lucky. Still coughing, but mostly better. 

Just got a library book I'd ordered: Stolen Focus: Why you can't pay attention and how to think deeply again, by Johann Hari. Heard a terrific interview with him and had to get the book. Maybe my thinking will deepen. Maybe with deeper thinking I'll understand the movie. Stay tuned. 

PS Had a SECOND small glass with dinner. The Evil Knievel of drinkers. Actually, that flirting with danger turned out to be true. I defrosted a small pot of my pesto from the freezer to have with pasta and fish, but as I ate, I felt something hard. And then something else. I found a tiny screw, and then a second, and then a small nail, about ten in all. I remembered that a small, very old picture frame came apart years ago; I must have stored the hardware from it in the jar and then filled it, somehow, much later, with pesto.

I think I swallowed at least one. If this is my last day on earth, at least I had a very nice pinot to go out on. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Turn Every Page: the adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb: must see

There were four people in the tiny Carlton Cinema viewing room yesterday, including moi. While waiting for the film to start, I asked the woman in front if she was a writer or an editor. She's a retired journalism professor. Of course.

The film is Turn Every Page: the adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, and it's glorious, I loved every minute. Filmed by Gottlieb's daughter, it's about two giants of the American literary scene, Caro, 87, author of five massive books, almost 5000 pages, his entire life's work — all those books and hundreds more edited by Gottlieb, 91, spry, witty, generous, sharp. The film explores their lives and decades of working together, bitter fights about commas and semi-colons. As Gottlieb says, "A semi-colon is worth fighting a civil war over. We read with our breath. With a semi-colon there's tension; you know something's coming." (Yes, I took extensive notes all through. And I've wrestled with proper use of semi-colons myself; they're important.) (Does that work?)

When Gottlieb undertook to edit Caro's first book, the enormously influential The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, he told the writer they'd have to cut 350,000 words - not because the words were bad, far from it, but because the book was simply too long to be contained within covers. Caro says about the gruelling cutting process, "I don't think anything in my life was harder than that." We see a meticulous man, cautious and stubborn, who must do incredible amounts of research but whose wife is his only research assistant. 

"He does the work, I do the cleanup, then we fight," says Gottlieb. Caro has a marvellous Bronx accent: "I awlways type with a cawbin." (He types on a Smith-Corona and makes a carbon copy.) Lawng, awfice, tawk. (long, office, talk.) 

Gottlieb, who like Caro had an unhappy childhood with an angry, judgemental father - is there an important pattern here? - read as a boy to escape home, and knew he'd be a great editor because he was a great reader. He boasts that he's very fast at his work and tackles new projects immediately. "Not reading a manuscript as soon as it arrives is like cruelty to animals," he says, with his usual twinkle. 

How I loved both these men. I watched as both a writer and an editor, but also as someone familiar with their milieu, the Jewish intellectuals of NYC, which includes some of my family. And I have to say, watching Caro at work brought back my own massive research project, my first book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare about my great-grandfather, which I undertook with absolutely no idea what I was doing. And yet I did what Caro does, interviewed important parties, travelled to dig up raw material, somehow cobbled it together into what I hope is a compelling narrative. 

Most moving is the idealism of both men. Caro wrote his books about the powerful but unelected Moses and the consummate politician Lyndon Johnson so Americans would understand the machinations of political power and be able to make informed choices, Gottlieb because editing is about making books better, helping writers achieve their vision. They're spectacular human beings who both, incidentally, are in happy longterm marriages. 

Anyone interested in words and the creative process, I hope you can see this film. 

 Caro, left, and Gottlieb.

The sun is out! I'm at my south-facing desk absorbing those rays. This weekend, I'm ashamed to say, I barely moved from my kitchen chair except to go to the film. As I listened to CBC's Cross Country Checkup, which was about the evils of drinking, I had a sip of wine. Lynn wrote from France that my last post was wrong, French authorities recommend drinking far less, but that in a country where people still haven't made any obvious link between smoking and lung cancer, even with warnings on cigarette packages and increased prices, there is absolutely no chance  we will ever be advised to drink no more than 2 glasses a week. 

I drink so little now, but something odd: I slept really badly all through my Covid time and the weeks after, my Dry January. Since I started drinking a bit of wine a few days ago, I've been sleeping wonderfully. Hmmmm.

"Every subject is interesting the deeper you get into it," says Gottlieb.

PS Just found out that my cousin, a New York lawyer who specializes in artists, represents both Gottlieb and his daughter the filmmaker. Had no idea. Woo hoo! 

PPS He sent Lizzie, Gottlieb's daughter who made the film, this blog post, and she wrote back, Aw. Thank you for sending this! It makes me so happy to know the film is reaching people and affecting them. Hope you are well! 




Friday, January 20, 2023

Bill Nighy's Living and Beth Kaplan's drinking

I'm sorry, but the new rules about alcohol strike me as absurd overkill. No amount is good for you?! I mean, people in France often drink several glasses of wine with every big meal. Are les fran├žais keeling over from cancer at a rate far greater than in North America? Surely we'd have noticed. Despite their regular wine intake, the French are just as healthy and alive as we are, if not more so because generally slimmer and fitter. Or am I wrong?

As someone with a son in recovery, I understand the difficulties and excesses, even sometimes the horrors of alcohol, and I do think emphasizing moderation is a very good thing. I myself have been doing Dry January, started on Dec. 25 because of Covid but continued to give my liver a rest. It's been a month without wine, so tonight I broke the fast and sipped a bit. I'll start again slowly, but a glass of wine just makes the meal more of an occasion.

And I believe in occasions. Today's: seeing the movie Living with Ken. The film is slow, a bit laborious, but that's not a problem because we get lots and lots of Bill Nighy, a closeup in almost every frame. The director was I think in love with Bill's face, and so are we. An actor like no other - incredibly British and restrained, especially in a role like this, when the whole point is British and restrained, but sensitive, open, thoughtful - a beautiful human face, a beautiful human soul. 

A haunting film with many great performances and one spectacular one.

Very good news: Yesterday I went to see my doctor probably for the last time, because, as you know, she dumped me and my daughter, but not my son, randomly from her case load before Xmas. She explained that she'd thought when she took over the practice a large group would jump ship, but almost no one did. She couldn't cope, so she had to throw some of us out. "There's a chronic doctor shortage in Ontario," I said. "Did you really think a lot of patients would leave?" No answer. Nothing to be done. 

But here's the lesson: the receptionist at this family health clinic is a calm, sensible woman with whom I always chat when I'm there; I've thanked her often for her skill at keeping the place functional. This time, I confided my grief at being kicked out after 35 years at the clinic, and when I was getting ready to leave, she told me she'd spoken to the longterm doctor there, who'd agreed to take me on. 

I have a doctor! Incredible relief. Anna still does not, but I think I can help her with that.

Always pay attention to the receptionists, the secretaries, the gatekeepers, who have far more power than we know.

After the doctor, across town to get the boys from school, give them a snack, and read the first three chapters of the marvellous Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, which grabbed them immediately - a boy surviving a plane crash who must survive alone in the bush. We got the bus to their swimming lessons in a nearby high-school — a hot, very noisy room with scores of kids of all ages, Eli in one group doing a good crawl up and down, and Ben in another, mostly cannonballing into the pool. He's compelled to jump. Anna has a fat futon in the middle of the living room floor, so Ben can hurtle and somersault and crash onto it upside down. 

I'm glad that if my boys ever have to swim to safety from a plane crash, they'll be good at it.

To complete my joy, I received a rave review for the essay book from Kathy, one of the beta readers, who noted all my favourite lines because she liked them too. And then my doorbell rang and it was dear Nick with a jar of homemade soup. 

So many mitzvahs. Thank you, Kathy. Thank you, Nick. Thank you, Dr. Davis, and all the very young swimming teachers. Thank you sublime Bill Nighy, and the people who invented wine. 

RIP David Crosby. "Sweet Judy Blue Eyes." "Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now."

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

geeking out over documentaries, and a poem from a friend

Nerd excitement here: OMG! I can't wait. There's a documentary called Turn Every Page: the adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, about the relationship between the fantastic historian Caro and the best editor of his generation, Gottlieb. It's about two brilliant men fighting over semi-colons and commas. Could anything be more delicious and compelling? I must see it this weekend!

Friday, though, the plan is to see the new Bill Nighy film, Living, with Ken. I'd follow Bill Nighy anywhere. And tomorrow, getting the boys after school and taking them to their swimming lessons; their mother is at work.

It's gloomy and mild again; I rode my bike to the Y, where I was wheezing and coughing, but at least there. I definitely had a bad version of this thing. But more excitement: both U of T classes are launched. Monday night, the first level class, full again with a waiting list, one student in Dublin and another in - yes! - Bali. It was 8 a.m. in Bali, and there she was. Tuesday night, seven writers who've taken my class before coming back for more punishment. 

How I love my work. My daughter who listened to the audiobook of Harry's memoir Spare, which she loved, wonders if I'll get even more students because the entire planet is absorbed in a memoir. But I told her, the classes were already full. Still, it's amazing; apparently his book is the fastest selling of all time. 

Like with Justin T.; we watched these young men grow up and feel invested in them, somehow. At least I do.

Good news today: I want to use nine of the essays I wrote and performed for the CBC in the nineties in my new essay compilation, but there was concern I'd not be able to, that they own copyright. It has taken a month to find out: yes, they do own copyright, but they've arranged to allow me to use them. Thank you, gods that be and CBC rights department.

Back to the drawing board.

I watched a repetitive but still interesting doc on Leonard Cohen and his famous song Hallelujah on Monday, and one last night on Zora Neale Hurston, a powerful writer ahead of her time. More documentaries, give us more! "I'm seventy," growled Cohen at one point, "which is the foothills of old age." I don't have much time to finish these songs, he went on. And write them he did, putting out his last album a month before he died. Inspiring. 

I am in the foothills, Leonard, and must get busy.

My dear friend Nick Rice is also in the foothills. Nick and I were actors together, and ever since, for some reason, we call each other Nickynicknick and Bethy Beth. He's a blog reader who sends me letters and sometimes poems, always connected to Beatle songs, and last month, when I was really sick, I received this. 

Among life's great blessings: work we love, documentaries, and dear creative friends.