Monday, July 28, 2008

The Carless Weight Loss Plan

I've been getting a good response to the article in the Star today.  In it, I mention that since selling my car, I have discovered the Carless Weight Loss Plan, which involves getting fit by walking and biking.  One man wrote to say he was interested in the diet and had Googled it but couldn't find anything.

Herewith: THE CARLESS WEIGHT LOSS PLAN, by Beth Kaplan

1.  Sell your car and buy some good walking shoes, a backpack and a bike.  
2.  Walk or ride the bike (carefully) whenever possible.
3.  Eat lots of vegetables and fruit, locally grown if possible.
4.  Eat fewer refined, processed foods, less pop and sweets.
5.  Have a glass of red wine and some dark chocolate every day and enjoy every sip and bite.

That's it.  Those of you who lose five pounds or more, please send $25 to the address on this website.  

One of the great things about fruit and vegetables is that they're a lot lighter, except for watermelons, than cans and packages, so you'll even be able to carry more home in your backpack.  

Someone has written a negative response on the Star website, pointing out that thousands have lost their jobs at car plants.  I am very sorry that car plant workers have lost their jobs, just as it's hard that, if we turn into a non-smoking society, people who plant and harvest tobacco might have to find another way to make a living.  As the wheels of progress turn, some are crushed.  But turn they must, especially if we are to continue breathing.  

Sunday, July 27, 2008

FYI - I have been told that the Toronto Star will run my piece on selling my car and riding a bike on the op-ed page tomorrow, Monday July 28.  Four days later, on August 1st, it's my 58th birthday. These things have nothing to do with each other, but there they are.

I'm still singing Beatles's songs, folks.  It'll stop, but the songs have lived inside for so long, they are taking the opportunity to come out and dance.

People are complaining about this incredibly rainy summer.  My poor daughter is at a cottage with the small children she looks after, improvising indoor activities.  My son works at the outdoor restaurant on the island, where people won't come if there's even a threat of rain.  But I love it, because the garden loves it.  Now, 9 a.m. Sunday, it's the most perfect, fresh, quiet, sunny morning.  The huge lilies, marroon and white, are out, blasting the air with scent and colour.  The jasmine on the deck is so sweet, it's overpowering.  Roses, hydrangea, tomatoes, thyme and basil, goldenglow, black-eyed Susans, echinacea, dahlias - thankful for the gift of free and constant water.  And, apologies to my children, so am I.  

Friday was a big day: the Goodwill on Parliament Street finally closed its doors forever.  Most of the stuff disappeared last month, but people kept bringing donations and the staff kept putting them out, so right until the last day, I was still finding treasure, including a pink Celine Dion t-shirt that will thrill Anna's best friend Holly, a Celine fanatic.  On my desk now, my last purchase at this favourite store: a glass paperweight full of bubbles.  How did they pour molten glass around bubbles?  There's symbol and metaphor here.  On the last day, I took in a bag of cookies and cakes for the staff's farewell party and took pictures and we all hugged.  I started going regularly in 1991, and have been going daily for more than a decade.  I'm joking that I'll go into Goodwill withdrawal.  But to tell you the truth, it's a relief that this phase is over.  My house is full.  Enough already.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paul McCartney and I in Quebec, only 150 metres and forty security guards apart

I was there, my dear friends.  Your faithful correspondent was actually there, on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City on Sunday, at the free Paul McCartney concert.  You have undoubtedly seen the pictures of the audience members sprinting to get a place near the stage, of the massive crowd spread as far as the eye could see.  The event was one of the most gruelling and the most uplifting experiences of my life.  The concert of a lifetime.  I would never do it again.  

It's a long story, one I have written up in detail, so if any of you are interested, just write to me at, and I will send you the essay.  But briefly, my friend Monique and I went to Quebec to see the concert and also the city's 400th birthday celebrations, which were superb. What an extraordinarily beautiful place it is, elegant and historic, more European than Canadian in many ways.  We spent Saturday afternoon and evening exploring the city, but also sussing out where the gates for the concert were and where was the best spot to enter.  

We ended up arriving at Gate C at around 12.30 Sunday afternoon and camping there with the hundreds already in place, an amazingly diverse group, men, women and children ranging from toddlers to seniors, whole families identically dressed in Beatles t-shirts and jeans.  When the gates finally opened at 5.30, we sprinted, yes, ran at top speed to get a spot maybe 100, 150 metres from the stage.  Not as close as those who'd been camping at Gate A since 5 a.m., but a good spot, dead centre and right by a safety barrier that was also a corridor.  When you're surrounded by 200,000 + people, it's good to know you can get out if you need to.  Because otherwise, once we got to our spot, that was it.  No food, drink, bathrooms, barely any movement of the arms; we were surrounded, locked in.  By then we had already been waiting for five hours, and Paul not due for another four.  You see what I mean by gruelling.

But we made many friends - everyone was chatting, sharing food, singing Paul songs. "Il est le plus grand star du monde," said Gina from Lac St. Jean, and we all agreed.  It got darker, we heard two Quebecois acts, and then finally, at 9.30, Sir Paul and his band appeared and more than 200,000 people screamed a welcome.  And I began to cry.  

It was sublime.  So many of the greatest songs, Let it be, Lady Madonna, Something that he dedicated to George, Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby, Sergeant Pepper, A day in the life and Give peace a chance dedicated to John who got a long ovation from the crowd, a few true oldies like All my Loving, and I'll follow the sun that he told us he wrote when he was very young, in Liverpool - and some of his newest stuff ... he sang for nearly three hours, nearly forty songs - Michelle, of course, Yesterday, of course.  He bantered with the audience, chatted in French, appeared waving a Quebecois flag. He was charming, generous, indefatigable - the man is 66 years old!  And almost at the end, he sang Hey Jude, and then stopped and came to the front of the stage to listen, and we sang to him.  More than 200,000 people, singing to him.  It was incredible from where I was - must have been pretty great from his vantage point, too.

Finally he sang, "And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make," and that was it.  It was after midnight, he and the band took their last bows, and the vast crowd made its way slowly home, carrying sleeping children, still singing.  I confess that I have tears in my eyes right now, as I write.  For some reason, the event moved me so deeply it is still making me cry. The songs haunt me.  "You say it's your birthday," I sang all day.  "Got to get you into my life."
"Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean ..." 

Paul said in an interview in  Quebec, "I'm just a lad from Liverpool doing his job." He does his job well.  How lucky we are. 

"One day, you'll look, 
to see I've gone,
for tomorrow be rain, so
I'll follow the sun." 

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sunday August 24, Write in the Garden

Writers, I have changed the date for the August workshop.  It will now be Sunday August 24th, from 9.30 (gathering, coffee, chat - work starts at 10) to 5.  Every other particular remains the same.  Registration is limited to twelve, and we're more than half way there already.  If you don't get in or can't make that date, there will be on-going workshops on the last Sunday of the month in September, October and November. 

And by the way, I will confess that as I was writing that Paul piece, I had a fantasy that it would be published and that he would read it and ask, at his concert, to meet me.  We would have dinner and become friends.  People would want to know about me, and I would talk about buying second hand clothes, riding a bicycle, telling the truth.  

The main thrust of my fantasy was that I wouldn't have to wait, ever again, for an editor to open or slam the door.  No, once Paul McCartney and I became friends, my work would be welcome wherever I wanted it to go.  There would be a bidding war for my next book.  That, not romance or wealth or glamour, was the most wonderful fantastical outcome that I could imagine.  

Always the dreamer. 

open letter to Paul McCartney, from an old love

My friends, the message of today's post is: get your good ideas in advance.  I suddenly realised yesterday that I should write about my teenaged love for Paul, as he is now front page news.  So I scribbled a piece and sent it to the Star, where the op-ed editor had recently bought a piece of mine.  But this one, sadly, withered and died.  

So now I am sending it out into the world "with love from me to you," as my darling once sang. And yes, for those of you in the know, it was Eric Clapton's Yardbirds.  Little did I know, or care.

Hi Paul:
Welcome to Canada.  I'm so excited about going to Quebec to see you.

You might not remember, Paul, but you and I have met before.  Well, "met" isn't exactly the word.  In 1965, I was fourteen years old and living in Paris with my family for a year, when it was announced that the Beatles were going to play the Palais des Sports in June, twice in one day.  I used all my savings to buy tickets, expensive ones ($6) for the afternoon - in the eighth row centre - and cheaper ones ($2) on the side for the evening.  As a deeply committed Beatlemaniac, and in fact Paulmaniac, I didn't sleep for weeks.

It was lonely living in Paris, and so that year, Paul, I kept myself company writing stories about the two of us, you and I.  The tales started with you helping me with my math homework and progressed to us dating, falling in love and marrying. We liked to drive around Europe in your Jaguar XKE.  In my favourite story, you were dying of pneumonia and John, Cynthia and I were hugging each other in despair, until I asked to be allowed to hold your hand under the oxygen tent.  Suddenly, colour came back into your cheeks, and you revived. "It's a miracle, Mrs. McCartney!" the doctor cried.

And then, in June, you were coming to town.  I dressed in my best dress, a baby blue shift with a teardrop cutout at the front where my cleavage would have been if I'd had any.  I arrived early, bought the souvenir program and turned to the page with the huge photograph of you. There was a terrible group on first called the Yardbirds; I couldn't wait for them to be over. When they took the piece of paper off the drum kit and revealed the words "The Beatles," the screams began.

And then there you were, all of you dressed in snazzy grey suits.  I jumped up and down waving my picture, screaming, crying, laughing and, when the music started, singing along, all at the same time.  You were the only one who tried to speak French.  You were adorable - bouncing, smiling,  singing "Till there was you" in that soft, sweet voice.  And then, a heart-stopping moment, Paul - do you remember? - when you looked down at the audience, you saw a girl in the eighth row centre in a baby blue dress with a teardrop cutout waving a big picture of you, and you smiled right at her.  You did.  I have carried that wondrous moment all my life.

In those days, you were with Jane Asher, who appears in my stories as a vicious alcoholic from whom you were freed by a nice, much younger Canadian girl.  And then there was Linda, with whom you made a long and happy family life.  Then, unfortunately, there was What's her name. And now you are single again, Paul.  So I am going to Quebec to take up where we left off, forty-three years ago.  I'll be the middle-aged one with the short hair, dancing and singing and waving to you.  You can't miss me.
with love

Thursday, July 17, 2008

the stupidity of artists

I went to a chichi fundraising event yesterday with my old friend Ron.  For $50 a head, we got to stand in a crowded, noisy room with drinks, smoked salmon and fresh, raw oysters which smelled of the sea.  Somewhere behind the talking was music, played by three lively young East Coast men with fiddle, mandolin, guitars.  

Ron and I shouted at each other until our voices gave out.  "Are you going to blog about this?" he yelled, at one point, and I shouted back, "No! " but here I am.  I felt so sorry for those musicians, who were giving their utmost to a crowd of upscale Torontonians, not a single one of whom was paying the slightest attention, that I went over and stood in front of them smiling and tapping my toes.  After filling up on oysters, I came back to my post.  I had a job to do: toe-tapping, head nodding, listening.

There's an article in a recent New Yorker about John Keats the poet, whose poems were received with universal and often vicious scorn when they first came out.  He died of TB at a very young age, feeling that his life had been wasted.  Only after his death did the world come to know him as one of the greatest poets of the English language.  He kept writing because he had to write, just as those musicians played while no one listened.  There's always hope in an artist's heart that someone out there, somewhere, sometime, will pay attention.

A friend defined stupidity to me once as doing the same thing over and over with the same result, each time expecting the results to be different.  I am thankful for the stupidity of artists, who keep doing what they do whether anyone pays attention or not.  Otherwise we would not have "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and last night, my toes in their fancy high-heeled shoes would have remained untapped.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Writing Diet

My friends, it had to happen.  I was at the library this morning and as always went over to the New Books display section.  And there it was, a new book by Julia Cameron, famous author of The Artists' Way and inventor of the famous Morning Pages now scribbled by countless fans of hers - three stream-of-consciousness pages every morning.  

Now Julia has written The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size.

I got it out.  There's no doubt it has a sensible message - write instead of snacking, keep a journal, take long walks etc.  But it follows that for her readers, writing becomes not creative self-expression and exploration of the world, not even therapy, but self-help with over-eating, that particularly Western obsession. I wonder what Virginia Woolf would have thought of the Writing Diet, or Jane Austen.  Writing is writing and eating is eating, different activities, not much related.  Some of us write about food, and some of us write to earn our daily bread and eat it too, larded with carbs though it be. 

This past Sunday, for lunch at the garden writing workshop, we had my daughter's delicious rich quiches and potato salad.  Maybe next time we could, as Julia suggests, have diet Jell-O instead, and instead of exploring the heart and soul, we could write about melting away fat. Visualise a new, slimmer you, she says.  You'll be more creative when you're thin, she says. Instead of sitting still, we could jog up and down the garden.  There is money to be made.  


please forgive tooting of own horn

I will try to keep my head in proper proportion to my body, but the testimonials I've received from the Sunday group are making that difficult.  Herewith:

Kathryn: "I was thrilled with the whole day, even though I felt a little intimidated by the calibre of the writers attending.  However, you made me feel that I was in a safe place and able to participate.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to future opportunities.  The venue was good for me creatively, and I found the format to be extremely well organised and polished. I don't think there's anything you could have done better."

Brad: "Yesterday was like a one-week holiday.  I was lost in the collective creativity of everyone there.  It was magic in the city.  I have 4-5 beginning stories that have come out of it."

Gerry: "Truly a beautiful day.  Exhausting, but fantastic being in your garden.  I loved hearing everyone's stories."

Kelsey, writing to another former student about the day: "It's the middle of the night and I'm typing up some of my stories and notes.  The workshop was fantastic and Beth is holding another one August 10th.  If I were sure of being here then, I would sign up for a second one.  It was glorious, wonderful stories being made, a beautiful setting, great food, a garden to die for, and of course Beth who is a jewel."

All righty then.  What I want to know is - what kind of jewel?  Definitely not a diamond, hard and glittery and stunning. Not sapphire, too blue.  Emerald, green in the garden?  Perhaps golden topaz, or changeable opal.  Thank you, Kelsey, this is an image I can work with.  

Many thanks to all of you for those kind comments.  After the August 10th session, I am going to hold workshops on the last Sunday of the months leading to December: September 28, October 26, and November 30.  Magic in the city.   

Monday, July 14, 2008

workshop and book report

The first Write in the Garden workshop is over, and I am pretty sure, judging by the response of the participants, that it was a hit.  (I asked them for a critique on what would have made the day better, and the reply was, "Nothing.")  I was on edge for this one - thirteen writers for almost eight hours in my house and garden felt like a huge responsibility, and such diverse writers, too - some I'd worked with for a term, some for years and two I'd never even met, ranging in age from mid-twenties to eighty, and with other kinds of diversity - one blind, one from a Sri Lankan family and one, O rare specimen, a man.  I wasn't sure about the timing of it all and if the topics would work. 

It all worked.  The day began rainy and turned hot and sunny, the garden is in full bloom, the group relaxed into friendship and got to work immediately.  Wayson appeared at just the right time, as we broke for lunch, to talk about the writing process and show them his butterfly trick. Lunch, catered by the talented and beautiful Anna Dobie, a close relative, was delicious, and then we were back at it, writing writing writing, the sound of brains at work, then laughing, frowning, a tear or two, gathering to read at various spots around the garden, and finally all 14 of us clustered in the shade around the bird feeder while the birds chattered their disapproval from the trees.  Even the women who had never done this kind of thing before flourished and did strong, beautiful work.  Each writer let go, dove into the stories, brought out something new.  I had no idea how powerful communal writing can be, when you know you will be listened to, not judged.  Unforgettable moments.   

So I will definitely continue to share my garden this way.  Stay tuned. 

I've just finished a wonderful memoir, The Florist's Daughter, by Patricia Hampl - about her parents and upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota.   The kind of writing that nourishes, like a rich meal.  At the end, I felt I knew the senior Hampls and their daughter and their town, but also, I knew myself a bit better, too.  The best kind of book.      

Friday, July 11, 2008

book learning

The one week intensive course at U of T ended today with a bang - a series of student readings in the Faculty Club dining room, as we all ate our last meal together.  The joke in my group was that I had made almost everyone cry at least once.  No, not by my harsh commentary on their work - in fact, with one student it was the reverse, I had to ban her from denigrating her own work as "shit" or "my little piece."  But instead, somehow, I drew tears by touching a nerve about the importance of the story they were telling.  That's how I know it's working - when the writing is going that deep and matters that much.  Amazing how well you get to know someone when you bare your soul in a small room for hours a day.  

I am indebted to the Pat Schneider book and teaching style Wayson introduced me to, emphasising the positive over the negative - praising what works much more than tearing down what doesn't.  It was thrilling to see the difference between the essays at the beginning of the week and at the end.  We all learned what cutting and confidence can achieve, how clarity and courage can elevate a piece of writing, and that simple language, emotional truth and narrative tension - narrative tension again - make a reader want to follow and read more.  

Anyway, on to the next project, the Sunday workshop, and then a breather.  I'll be able to clear off the rubble on my desk and hang up a few clothes, maybe.  Watch Jon Stewart instead of reading manuscripts.  I'll miss them, those torrents of student words pouring through my computer every evening.  But now, I'll be able to get back to my own.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

about my father Jacob Gordin Kaplan

I went to Ottawa last weekend, to see my mother and her sister, who are 84 and 88 respectively and as lovely, alert and independent as ever.  And to see my brother, who's 54, and his spouse, who's 30, and their extremely cheerful baby Jacob Misha, who just turned one.  So it was a celebration of the many ages of Kaplan.  

But also - it was a memorial, because Sunday July 6th was the 20th anniversary of my father's death.  He died of stomach cancer in 1988, at the age of 65.  That early morning, we were all there with him - I was holding my mother who was holding him, and my brother and aunt were nearby.  The gift he gave us at the end was to tell us he had had a glorious life, that he was grateful for every moment.  And we, to him.

I almost thought, last weekend, that it's good he wasn't around this last decade, to see what has become of his country, the United States.  Living through George Bush, not to mention genocide, torture, the environment, wars and disasters, would have killed my dad.  At least, I thought, he missed these.

How foolish.  My father would have taken everything, years of George Bush, for more time on earth with his beloved wife, his daughter and son, his grandchildren, his friends and wines, his Mozart.  How I wish my children had known him better.  Anna remembers playing checkers with him when he was dying and she was seven.  He tried to beat her, and he did.  But Sam was only three and remembers little.  We have video's though, and there's one of Dad carrying baby Sam around the living room, showing him the art on the walls.  

I miss you, my father.  Wish you were here. 

singing about love, singing about loss

I've missed you, my blogosphere readers. The last weeks have been busy with work and travel, but at the back of my mind is the nagging voice: "Must ... write ... blog..."  

Perhaps, like me, you read in the paper a few weeks ago that Paul McCartney was going to give a free concert on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City on July 20th.  "How nice," I thought, and read the rest of the paper while eating my porridge.  It wasn't until my friend Margaret, who knows my Paul-loving past and my current Beatle project, emailed from Vancouver, "Are you going?" that the thought occurred to me.  Paul played right here in Toronto not long ago and I didn't go.  "The tickets are so expensive and I'm a grown up," I thought then, no longer madly in love with the cute Beatle, the genius of rhythm and melody whom I saw with his band twice in one day in Paris in 1965, when I was 14.  

But now, as I am about to turn 58, Margaret's words cracked in me like a starter's gun.  Why not?  It's summer, work is almost over, I'm not travelling much the rest of the year.  So I booked a flight to Quebec.  Just like that.  And then tried to find a cheap bed and breakfast, but when I found out how full everything is, I grabbed a room at an inn.  A lovely old inn near the Plains, at full price.  Have I ever done this in my frugal life before?  No.  Have I ever been able to do this in my starving-writer-single-mother life before?  No. But now I can, and now I will.

So when you see footage of the free Paul McCartney concert on the Plains of Abraham, that wild-eyed middle-aged woman grooving in the front row will be me.  Well, me and many thousands of my new best friends.  This trip is my 58th birthday present to myself and the beginning of a new way of life.  No time to waste.  No time to waste.  Let's GO.

(In any case, says my grown-up side, since I am writing now about Paul and the Beatles, the trip is tax deductible. Worth a try, anyway.)

I'm teaching this week at U of T, an intensive one-week course dealing with non-fiction manuscripts, with the usual wondrous range of material and students.  The other day, we did an in-class writing assignment.  One student, a reserved gentleman in his seventies who had said little, sat writing with the others.  Afterwards all were free to read or not; he volunteered to do so.   He read in a few simple paragraphs a most heartfelt, moving essay about loss.  When he finished, we all sat in silence for a bit, tears in our eyes and in his too.

His version of "Yesterday," and just as haunting.