Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Mahabharata, Part One: thousands of years ago and today

I gather things are no better in Paris — protesters burning garbage still, and now, Lynn tells me, because the refineries are on strike, the possibility of no gasoline and a food shortage. I do regret that today I'm not in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Musée d'Orsay, and my favourite shop, Monoprix, with my dear friend, but I don't regret avoiding subjecting myself to the anger of the French.

I've been gradually sorting out my life, unpacking, filling the empty fridge, indulging in my favourite Sunday night activity: instead of scrunched up on a jumbo jet trying to sleep, I was watching PBS by the fire. Call the Midwife provoked tears, as it always does, as did a second watching of the documentary Come From Away, about Newfoundlanders on 9/11, the power of human goodness, a marvellous, not-to-be-missed doc. Last night, an excellent doc about Arthur Miller, one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, filmed by his daughter. 

Yesterday was the best day of the year so far, 12 degrees, melting the snow. I went with my other dear Lynn to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see an extraordinary production, the first half of the Mahabharata, a many thousand-years-old Indian story. A show full of music - musicians with tabla and sitar on stage - and dancing and so many gods! Characters sprung from the headlines: petty, destructive Trump-like men fixated on personal gain and revenge, good men struggling with their demons, women struggling against the terrible power of men. At the end of the first half, a senseless war provoked by resentment, aggression, and greed is about to erupt. Where have we seen this before? Thousands of years ago and now. 

Lovely to drive through the Ontario countryside, stop in the small town to buy Damson plum jam and have lunch at Lynn's sister's house, where, because NOTL is in its own eco-zone, there's no snow and the gardens are in early bloom: snowdrops, hellebores, croci, aconite, such welcome colour. We'll get there, Toronto.

Today, Carole's class, of course. As I was grunting my way through her gruelling regime, she said, with her usual beaming smile, "Isn't this better than Paris?" Oh yes. 

So — back to work. But first, joy: son and grandsons. 

With his best friend Vince
At the hotel on the drive home from Washington. Be still, my beating heart. It was when I saw French Lynn's children asleep that I decided I wanted kids of my own. Can you blame me? When they're asleep, they're angels. They do, however, wake up. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Instead of Paris: family, theatre, "Four Thousand Weeks — Time Management for Mortals"

Please forgive the endless boasting in the last post. But the things people said were SO NICE.

So normally I'd be rushing around, cleaning, leaving last minute notes, last minute checks before heading off to the airport - well, over to Anna's first for a quick hello and goodbye, because she's driving back from Washington today - and then off to Paris. But no. And boy, am I glad not to be heading into the war zone. I was wrong, though, about the benefits of living in France; their university is not free but very cheap, they do pay for certain health benefits etc. But still, I don't think there's another western country with so many privileges, and the retirement age so low. 

Instead, I will have a relaxed visit with my family across town and fill my weeks here, have already booked a bunch of things — going with Toronto Lynn to see Part One of The Mahabharata at the Shaw Festival on Tuesday, a huge event about to begin a world tour; to the theatre with Ruth on Sunday, and the week after to hear Bach's B Minor Mass that I was sorry I was going to miss and now won't. Hooray.

As I said to Ruth on our morning walk today, I am schepping naches, a wonderful Yiddish expression that means bursting with parental pride. A Thai lunch yesterday with Ken and Sam to celebrate Sam's first year of sobriety (and Ken's sixteenth), what joy. Ken brought photos of the first time he met Sam, when our mutual friends Lynn and Denis were visiting from France, summer 1985. We took them to see "Cats" that Edgar was producing, and then to Ken's for dinner. Sam was 10 months old. 

Sam chewing on the playpen, Anna in red behind, Lynn and Denis with their kids Christopher, Sarah, Myriam, and Jessica; Elissa not conceived yet. L and D now have eight grandchildren. 

Sam posted on IG afterwards: 

Today our dear family friend, Ken, joined my mother and me for lunch in Cabbagetown.

1 year no booze deserves a ceviche.
He gave me a photo he had taken years ago.
I love it.
I’m not surprised by his thoughtfulness or that he would possess something so dear.
My Ma’s friends have helped me over the years, with bits of advice handed down over plates of food at dinners or lounging out back in the garden. Anna and I knew her friends were cool as hell from the get-go, as her house parties were better than ours.
Thank you, Ma, for the gift of your friends and of course for lunch today.

It's true, my friends are massively cool.

And Anna and her boys had a wonderful time with their dad in Washington; he sent me a series of photos of visiting the train museum, having a skating lesson from an Olympic champion, and more I'll hear about very soon. 

But also, I have just finished a superb life-changing book: Four Thousand Weeks: time management for mortals, by Oliver Burkeman. He is simply saying, if we live to be eighty, we have four thousand weeks on earth, how can we best use that time? He's urging us to forget out endless to-do lists and drive for achievement and "success," and now our helplessness before media distraction; to focus on the few things that are fulfilling and let ourselves be. One task: to go to an art gallery and spend three hours before one painting.

I'm a very impatient person, a trait that has caused me endless grief, always thinking I should be elsewhere, doing something more important — the opposite of the mindset Burkeman is advocating for. This is how the book ends:

You have to accept that there will always be too much to do, that you can't avoid tough choices, or make the world run at your preferred speed. That no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well, and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it's all over, it won't have counted for very much anyway. 


And in exchange for accepting all that, you get to actually be here. You get to have some real purchase on life. You get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter to you in themselves, right now, in this moment. 


Because now is all you ever get. 


... Precisely because that's all you can do, it's also all that you ever have to do. If you can face the truth about time in this way, if you can step more fully into the condition of being a limited human, you will reach the greatest heights of productivity, accomplishment, service, and fulfillment that were ever in the cards for you to begin with. 


And the life you will see incrementally taking shape in the rear-view mirror will be one that needs the only definitive measure of what it means to have used your weeks well: not how many people you helped or how much you got done, but that working within the limits of your moment in history, and your finite time and talents, you actually got around to doing — and made life more luminous for the rest of us by doing — whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was that you came here for. 


So, my friends, off we go, into doing all the weird little things we're here for. For me, this blog is one of them. Cheers!

Friday, March 17, 2023

In which, in the absence of anything else, she lauds herself

Okay, it was another gloomy wet day. Honestly, can't a girl who gave up Paris catch a break? I did go to my happy place, the Y, to see friends, do a class, and loll in the hot tub, aka paradise. Otherwise, am adjusting to my change of plans. And to cheer me up, I'm going to post nice things about myself. So just delete right now.

A woman I met recently wrote: I am still reading your memoir and must tell you how much I appreciate not only the lean, honest and unfettered immediacy of your prose but as well the maturity and deep feminism underlying the whole text. I gave a copy of "True to Life" to a younger artist friend who is grappling with a memoir. The "Scars not Wounds" chapter really resonated with her and has made a difference!

Thank you! Glad to hear it. 

The teacher feedback report came out for my advanced Life Stories class at U of T. Have to say, they're not usually this unanimous; this is the best ever. Glad it all worked so well. 

Not for sissies! Beth is is a gem! If you are not afraid to challenge yourself and listen to constructive criticism in a relaxed, safe environment, you will emerge a richer person.
Beth Kaplan has been very supportive in class as well as through written communication. She proved to be masterful at providing suggestions and corrections while remaining encouraging and supportive.
Another wonderful growth experience. I have the confidence to take the stories I have written so far and now work on turning it into a memoir. Thank you Beth!
What were some of the most positive aspects of this course?
Challenging, encouraging, stimulating, Insightful feedback from students and instructor. Beth Kaplan prods us to go deeply into darker areas of our lives and to mold and structure our pieces into o works of art.
Writing every week, and hearing the different perspectives from listeners on everyone's pieces
The feedback was on point and useful. I found myself utilizing it as I continued writing during the course. It helped me to improve my writing.
The teacher creates a positive, safe environment for receiving and sharing feedback.
And finally, as a woman who wears size 10 1/2 shoes, meaning a lifetime of not being able to find nice styles, this article really heartened me. Tiny Audrey Hepburn wore shoes the same size as mine! All these stars with big feet - who knew? If only my poor mother, with her size 13's, were around to see these lovely women with extreme extremities.

So, I'm cheerful. Imagine, coming up, two whole weeks with nothing planned, already starting to fill up. Whoever has time to travel?

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Cancelling my trip - and ChatGPT, cancelling writers?

How fast things change. I have just cancelled my trip to Paris. I hated to do it, but there's unbelievable chaos there, including tons of garbage festering on the streets, with ongoing social unrest and violence because Macron just pushed through his reforms. 

The rest of the world gazes in incomprehension; the French have fabulous free healthcare, free university, free daycare from a very early age, free three-course hot meals in the schools, and a month off in the summer. But they're going to shut down the county because they can't retire at 62. 

It boggles the mind. But it's France. Take to the streets! is the default position. 

When I told Anna I was thinking of cancelling, she said, "Paris with garbage is way better than Toronto. Shut the window, woman, and eat cheese!" But, I wrote back, you go to Paris not just to eat cheese, though that's a major reason, but to stroll along the beautiful streets admiring the beautiful vistas. Hard to do if the streets are piled with garbage and obliterated by tear gas. Plus, Lynn who's coming from Provence to see me isn't even sure the trains will be running. 

I'm packed; the cat and house sitters have the keys and extensive lists, everything's ready. But now is not the time for a trip to Paris. 

What should I do next week? Any ideas? A friend suggests I do things I never do. Maybe I'll rent a car and drive around. Yay. 

Plus: A professional engagement has also caused great stress these last few days and a little bit of heartbreak. Stay tuned. 

PLUS: Jean-Marc just came over and showed me ChatGPT. He thinks it will replace writers within a year or two. It is indeed phenomenal; I asked it to write a difficult letter for me, and it did a credible job. Then I asked it to write the same letter as a poem, and the results were respectable if hilarious. JM has colleagues who are not good writers or aren't fluent in English, who now write well and fluently. 

JM said, Ask it what it knows about you. Instantaneous long response - a few things wrong, but this: 

Kaplan's writing often explores themes of identity, family relationships, and personal growth. She has been praised for her honest and introspective approach to memoir writing and her ability to weave together personal experiences with larger societal issues.

Incredible, no? Terrifying. 

So not my best few days on planet earth. BUT the boys seem to be having a wonderful time in Washington, and my son was over today in great spirits, much recovered from his concussion. We celebrate his one year of sobriety on Saturday. Much to be joyful about. 

Plus the sun was shining today. 


Wednesday, March 15, 2023

it's winter and it's the Oscars

Just so you know, the road to a published book is rocky and long. Despite goodwill on all sides, problems abound, and nothing is guaranteed. Stay tuned.

On Monday, the first day of March Break, my grandsons came over for the day, as their mother was at work and then preparing for their massive trip the next day. They left at 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning to drive in a rental car to Washington, D.C., to visit Anna's dad. A very long drive. So it was my job to keep the boys happy and fed while she prepared. She is a phenomenally organized woman.

We went to the toboggan hill, expecting it, on a sunny day with fresh snow, to be packed with kids. 

Not a single one. Where was everyone? I assume on their way to Florida or else at home playing video games. Shocking. These two, however, wore themselves out screaming down the hill. 

And then came home and destroyed my house, as they do. Tiggy watched from a safe distance under the dining room table. After their mama came to get them and they drove away, I found this on my desk.

There must be a note leaving gene. When my parents were out late, I always left notes for them before going to bed. My kids used to leave notes for me, and sometimes Sam still does. And now the boys are note-leavers. Hooray!

They arrived safely by mid-afternoon, and an hour later were in the pool at their dad's building. More hooray.

Watched some of the Oscars, which was less tedious and embarrassing than usual — in fact, which was enjoyable and sometimes moving. After an hour, I taped it to watch later. Sarah Polley! Giant hooray. Women still torturing themselves in absurd shoes they can hardly move in and ridiculous dresses with their breasts hanging out — Florence Pugh in a voluminous pile of cloth that split to reveal a pair of black shorts. Sarah, in tuxedo with flat shoes — perfect. 

It's very cold, the real winter we didn't have in January. Hard to believe I'm flying off on Sunday. Much to do; several cat- and house-sitters to show the ropes. My poor Tigs knows something is afoot and never lets me out of her sight. So far, the word from Paris is — the strikes are ongoing, another huge one tomorrow. Danger music. Sanitation workers are on strike, Paris is full of garbage, and there are rats. Cross your fingers for a hapless Canadian who just wants to eat some bread and cheese and see some paintings. 

When I leave Monique's sister's flat, I'll leave a note.