Monday, September 29, 2008

updates and events

I am part of a panel, organised by the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and Ryerson, which will be held on Tuesday October 14 at the World's Biggest Bookstore.  It's called "Telling Individual Tales: How to craft compelling memoirs and personal essays," and will feature also Sarah Moore, a very fine editor at "More" magazine, and an editor from CBC speaking about essays for radio.  It starts at 6.30 with Registration and then the event is from 7 to about 9 with "networking and light refreshments" afterwards.  For non-PWAC members the cost is $10.  

PWAC is running a whole series of seminars through the winter which might be of interest - on breaking into the business, financial management, "the new media landscape" etc.  A full calendar will be available at the seminar.

There is still room in my own "Write in the Garden" creativity kick-start workshop this coming Sunday.  Listen to your powerful hidden voice and experience "Magic in the City" for yourself.

Next Saturday is Nuit Blanche, an entire night given over to the arts throughout the city, so - old folks - let's get some caffeine into our systems and try to stay up till the wee hours.  Or at least till midnight, if we possibly can, and see what's going on out there.  

And the International Festival of Authors is coming up in October, tickets selling already - a delicious event featuring the best writers in the world, here in Toronto to talk to YOU.  This is why we Canadians don't notice winter on the way - because there's so much to do in the fall.


words on the street

The maple tree outside my study window is still green, but the light around it is metallic and harsh.  "Word on the Street" yesterday, that great celebration of the printed word, takes place on the last Sunday in September, and so is a celebration, too, of the last warm days of summer. Queen's Park was packed, as always, in the hot sun, and as always I marvel at the outpouring of print - mags, newspapers, books big and small, hard and soft, manifestos, chapbooks, t-shirts and flags. 

My students - what I realised, looking at those mountains and miles of books, is that the only difference between those writers in print and you is that they have pushed through.  They learned what was needed to get the story down and edited; they finished, found an agent or publisher or even simply self-published and got a final product out into the world.  There's an issue of talent, yes - but also perseverance, humility, self-confidence and guts.  You have those things.

I am also talking to myself.  I was working at the Ryerson table yesterday when a woman with a familiar face came up - a student in one of my very first classes at Ryerson in 1985, there with her son, who then was a newborn and now is a young adult who has written a 500-page novel. She has been working as a freelance writer.  "I remember the class so well," she told me, "You talked about the book you were going to write on Paul McCartney."

A jolt in my heart.  I didn't realise I was talking about that material back then, and now, more than 20 years later, I am still talking about it - still labouring to find a voice in which to tell that story, with fifty different beginnings in my files and still no push through to the end.  So I need to tell myself, also: perseverence, humility, self-confidence, guts.  And that final but so important necessity for a writer: BOC.  Bum On Chair.



Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Writers, if the weather continues like this, we will be more than happy in the garden on October 5.  That Sunday, I am running another of my one-day rev-up-your-inspiration workshops. For those who haven't been following my blog, this is what it entails:

Writers arrive between 9.30 and 10 for coffee and muffins and chat, and then at 10 we begin - I give a getting-to-know-each-other writing exercise, and then a topic, and people disappear to the four corners of my big garden and write on the spot, whatever comes.  We gather to read and tell each other what works, what triggers interest and imagination, and then another topic, more writing, and LUNCH, a great meal cooked by my daughter Anna.  We have had guest artists join us for lunch the past two times - Wayson Choy and Alissa York - so I hope to repeat that treat.  

And then, more interesting topics, more intense and powerful writing, and a glass or two of wine, till we finish at 5.  If you go back far enough in my blog, you can read what people have said about the day, but if you don't have time, I'll summarise: people let me know that the writing, company, garden and food were great.  The cost is $125 for everything.

If you're interested, please write to me at and let me know.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Noo Yawk report

You'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit foggy - back only a day and a bit from my three days in New York - marvellous, maddening, unbelievably exhausting and enriching New York.  I'm overjoyed to be home in the sweet fresh air of tiny, tranquil Toronto and may never leave again.  (Note to students: never use as many adjectives as I have in that sentence.  This adjectival excess shows how tired I am.)

This time I found my beloved NYC overwhelmingly aggressive and manic, even more so than usual - perhaps because the financial meltdown and the election were happening simultaneously, though what I overheard people talking about was not politics but money. Constantly - money.  And real estate.  

But as always, NYC was fascinating and full of riches.  I wondered why I haunt art galleries there and not here, and made a new resolution - that I will actually go to art galleries in my own home town.  And also walk more here - I walked endlessly in NYC - so much to see. 

I saw two special exhibits at the Met: the Italian painter Morandi, whom I fell in love with - Google him to see his tranquil vases and bowls, so simple, calm and profound.  And then the priceless "pietre dure" objets d'art - semi-precious stones and jewels set into tabletops or artefacts, incredibly beautiful.  I also visited the Vermeers there, and the three at the Frick Museum. And I went for the first time to the Morgan Library, the mansion where J. Pierpont Morgan's stunning collection of books is kept - saw his beautiful library and the room where his own personal librarian sat, and also the three Gutenberg bibles kept there and a wonderful special exhibit on the art of Babar.

I took my father's cousin Lola, who's 86 as my dad would have been, to Lincoln Center to see glorious "South Pacific." I had never seen either the movie or the play, and yet I knew every song.  Lola took me to see a one-act play about cloning by Caryl Churchill.  She subscribes to a site that sends out regular emails on available cheap seats - our date cost her $7.  And I saw "Equus" with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, a fantastic production of a very good play about the human need for gods and ecstatic ritual.  Yes, friends, I have seen Harry Potter's penis.  Radcliffe spends most of the second act naked.  I think the nudity is gratuitous, but I found it extremely brave of this excellent young actor to bare himself, literally and figuratively.  

And that's just the art and theatre!  I visited my beloved uncle Edgar, who died in 1997 but is still very much present in my life.  His bridge partner Sidney and I scattered his ashes on a rock at 94th and Central Park West, near the house where he had spent most of his adult life with his wife Betty, so I walked across the park to the rock and had a chat with him, brought him up to date.  He was the most brilliant man I have ever met, full of erudition, humour and wit, knew everything about history, Baroque music, wine and food.  I adored him and miss him daily, as I do his brother, my dad.  

I walked along W. 94th to #39, his house where I always stayed when I visited NYC.  It's utterly unrecognisable - renovated, gussied, respectable.  I miss the West side too.  (My cousin Ted, who generously lets me stay at his place, lives at 77th and 3rd  on the East side.  Foreign territory.)  My wonderful uncle used to hand me his charge cards for Bloomingdales and Sak's, which I, the impoverished country mouse from Canada, would enter trembling with anticipation.  These days I can't afford to go near them, though this time I walked through the main floor of Sak's on my way to the theatre. It used to be so interesting, full of scarves and gloves, sunglasses and chachka's.  Now it's only makeup and handbags, handbags, handbags. Boring and expensive.  I shopped instead at my new favourite store - the Housing Works Thrift Store across the street from Ted's, where I bought a pair of suede boots for $30.  My kind of shopping.

And finally and most interestingly, I met Tom Oppenheim, who runs the Stella Adler Acting Studio and is the superb actor Jacob Adler's great-grandson.  Adler and my great-grandfather Gordin became friends and colleagues in 1891; Tom and I became friends and colleagues in 2008.  We are both interested in some kind of project about that great century-old collaboration.  I had lunch with him and his mother Ellen, who is the daughter of Stella Adler and Harold Clurman, the producer and critic - true Jewish theatre royalty.  Walking through the crowded halls of the Studio brought me back to my own theatre school days, aged 21, in London, England.  Mon dieu, that was a long time ago.

And there was Central Park, and the German Day parade on Fifth Avenue, and happening upon a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" outside in a community garden on the West side, and ... But that's enough.  I hope you can get there yourself, and be overwhelmed and enriched and happy to get home too.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

on the road

I am in Washington, D.C. right now - not just another country but another planet. There's a glossy magazine on display at my inn called "Gardens and Guns." Here, that's not an anomalie, and it's not a joke.

But here at the Jewish Community Center, where I have borrowed a computer, all is happy and busy as the stockmarkets melt around us. My talk - well, may I boast? (I can't hear you if you say no.) You know that I am a humble sort, but I have to say that it went extremely well. The Wexler Lecture has been going on for 11 years, and I was told that my talk was the best. It was also the best attended - we had over 80 people and sold out of books afterwards. The play readings by the actors were terrific, and I relaxed in front of a big, receptive crowd and told my stories. Afterwards, as often happens, many people came up and told me their stories - about their family's immigration trials, about their great-grandmother who was in the Yiddish theatre. I loved it all.

The next day I discovered a great bookstore, Politics and Prose, left them a copy of my book, wandered around trying not to buy a ton, and had lunch with a fellow writer. Then my intention was to go to one of the Smithsonians and see some culture, but my bus passed close to ... Filene's Basement, and I was lured to my doom. What a great store - if you want to buy retail, instead of second-hand which is how I acquire most of my stuff, Filene's Basement is the place to do it. I am wearing a new pair of shoes and a new cardigan right now. The sweater is light green cashmere and was 75% off. Mmmmm. All day I proudly wore my Obama button, and in Filene's, I made a secret friend with a saleslady who whispered that she was not allowed to wear hers at work. We shook hands. Let us pray, my friends.

Last night I had dinner with my first cousin once removed George, and his two handsome young nephews whom I'd never met, Zack and Jake. We had a drink at George's apartment first and admired his superb art collection, so I did get my fix of art and culture. And then we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant and ate vast quantities, while I found out about the lives of these young Americans. Not so different from my young Canadians, except that Jake is a 20-year old art student driving his dad's old Lexus. I don't know too many of those in Toronto.

And now, on to NYC on the $20 bus. The weather is great, my work is done and playtime begins. And where better to play than the greatest city in the world? More anon. I'm waving as I whiz by. My best to you all.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

off into the wild grey yonder

These have been dark days.  One of my dearest friend's husband died on Friday, of complications after an operation for lung cancer, at the age of 55.  I was at the hospital with her, watching the machinery of death move into action - the hospital extraordinarily efficient, setting aside a room for the family, the arrival of the social workers, pastor and counsellors - and my friend in shock.  Such a young man.

But then - the best of human nature, the outpouring of friendship and condolence, people bringing food, family dropping everything to run to be there.  I missed a wedding this morning to help my friend write the obituary.  The vital rituals of human life - coming, joining, and going.

This after my son's attack, his poor battered face, and the two ghastly risky elections, and the incessant rain - all could have conspired to make me gloomy, but no.  Tomorrow I am leaving for Washington, D.C., where I will have dinner with my only two first cousins on Sunday and deliver the Wexler Lecture at the Jewish Book Fair on Monday.  Two actors will read excerpts from my great-grandfather's plays during my talk, and afterwards there's a book signing and reception. On Tuesday I'm meeting with a writer colleague, perhaps dashing to a Smithsonian or two, and having dinner with my first cousin once removed, a dapper Washington lawyer in his eighties.  

And on Wednesday I get the so-called Chinese Mafia bus - $20 from Chinatown Washington to Chinatown NYC - to stay at my cousin Ted's at 77th and 3rd and partake of the riches of the metropolis where I was born.  Which includes taking my father's cousin Lola, another first cousin once removed in her eighties, to see the much-heralded "South Pacific" with house seats provided by my ex-husband.  I'll also see "Equus" starring Harry Potter, and have a meeting with Tom Oppenheim, who is the great-grandson of the superb actor Jacob Adler, my great-grandfather's most important colleague.   So the great-grandchildren will meet 117 years after their ancestors formed their influential friendship, in 1891.  This will be an interesting get-together.

And perhaps there will be shoes.  Shoes are the new handbags, they say, which means I won't be able to afford them.  But in any case this trip will be full of family, and I love family, even the crazy ones, of which there are a few.  Perhaps especially the crazy ones.  If only it stops raining.

I will tell you all about it when I get back.  In the meantime, I urge you to think of my friend's husband and go out right now and do something you wouldn't normally do that will make you laugh and feel alive.  Go.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

moving right along

I'm happy to report to all well-wishers that the young man has regained his famous sense of humour, if not his handsome face.  The police called to tell him that they had two guys in custody who had attacked someone else just for fun.  But they bit half of this victim's ear off. Happily my son has both his ears intact.  He has to identify the two, but he thinks from what the cops have said that they're not the same guys.  Pretty scary - gangs of punchers and ear-biters roaming the mean streets - shades of "Clockwork Orange," in sweet little Toronto. 

Speaking of films, the Film Festival continues out there, and all I know about it and its hundreds of films are the pictures of movie stars in the newspaper.  In my many years in  Toronto, I have never even figured out how to get tickets, let alone lined up for hours to see things.  To me, it's too much like work.  But my dear friend Suzette gave me two tickets to a gala on Sunday night, to see "The Duchess," with Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightley and the fabulous Charlotte Rampling.  

The gala part was fun, getting all dressed up and tottering in my high heels down the path to Roy Thompson Hall surrounded by the plebs who couldn't get in - ah, the good life.  And Keira and Ralph were both there - Kiera the definition of "a slip of a thing," weighing about 17 pounds with no breasts at all, and fans screaming her name as she hid behind her hair.   

But the movie was far, far more than I expected.  Truly stunning - a feast for the eye, mind and heart, beautifully written, shot, directed.  It's a complex story with echoes of Diana, Princess of Wales.  I'd see it again just to look at the richness of the fabrics - the curtains, furniture, rugs, clothing.  But the writing and acting are superb too.  

I am wearing socks!  And a sweater, and gradually moving my skimpy linen things to the spare closet, piling on more blankets, closing the bedroom windows bit by bit, wondering where the air conditioner cover is, things like that.  BUT - I am also still eating peaches.  At the Riverdale market, one farmer is still selling them, the last ones.  I'm desperately hanging onto summer. 

But teaching has begun too, the final sign that the reality of fall is here: my Ryerson course started on Monday.  A full, full class of eager writers - always a joy to see.  Because of them, I don't mind socks.  And yesterday, at No Frills, I bought a can of peaches.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the reality of bullies

I've discovered that I don't need to watch Harper and Palin to bemoan the presence of bullies in our midst.  My son called me yesterday morning to tell me that the night before, at 11 p.m., he was beaten up as he walked home from work   He was crossing the parking lot near his downtown apartment building - "It's Frosh Week," he said, "drunk kids everywhere," - when an "ordinary young white guy" tapped him on the shoulder.  When Sam started to take off his iPod earphones to hear what he wanted, the kid punched him in the face.  Taken off-guard, Sam fell heavily - he's six foot nine, as perhaps I have told you before - and as he struggled to regain his balance, another ordinary white guy kicked him hard in the forehead, and the first one smashed him again in the face.  

Luckily, there were others around who began to shout, and the perps took off.  Sam tried to stand up and had to sit again.  The police arrived and took statements and descriptions from witnesses, though the chances of them finding the guys are nil.  The men hadn't even tried to steal the iPod. They just wanted to hit somebody, and the tall guy looked like the right person.  

He came over here the next morning, his knuckles and elbows bloody from where he fell and tried to hit back, and his face like a prize-fighter's - eyes black, huge purple lump on forehead, bruises on both cheeks.  He's a waiter, so he can't go to work for a while, and because his restaurant is seasonal, he's looking for a new job - can't do that either.

As the mother of this boy, and, yes, as a peacenik, I can tell you that if someone presented those ordinary young men to me, I would not be responsible for my actions.   

The good thing was that my 23-year old boy and I were able to spend the day together, as he stretched his lean frame out on the sofa and watched "The Sopranos" and "South Park," as he has on so many other sick days.  I got to make huge bowls of pasta and bring him juice.  He was embarrassed to be a grown man receiving TLC from his mother, but grateful too.   And I was profoundly grateful that the event wasn't worse, and that I was here.  How glad I was to be here.

He gave me a gift.  He told me that before he went home to get jumped that night, he and two friends had been discussing their childhoods.  "They both told me that they hardly ever talk to their parents," he said, "that they didn't like their parents and couldn't talk to them.  And I told them that we talk all the time,  that a conversation doesn't end without us saying 'I love you.'  I realised that I had a 'Leave it to Beaver' upbringing, only with divorce."

Well, maybe not quite "Leave it to Beaver" - I'm not sure if he has actually seen the show, with Walt and ... what was the wife's name?  Of course I've forgotten.  But I guess what he meant was, well, ordinary, in the best sense of the word.    

Sunday, September 7, 2008

doing something about it

My best friend, Chris Tyrell in Vancouver, has developed a new policy - he won't listen to complaints.  When friends and acquaintances are moaning about health, work or the state of the world, instead of offering sympathy, he simply says, "What are you going to do about it?" It's annoying, and it's effective.   

So I realise that I can't complain about the American election because there's not much I can do about that, except wear the "Obama for President" button and put up the Obama sign that I bought from the "Democrats Abroad" table during the Cabbagetown Festival yesterday.

And I can't complain about the Canadian election unless I'm willing to do something - give money, which is hard for a writer, or give time, which is always hard but not impossible.  I must stop moaning about Stephen Harper's cold timber wolf eyes and the fact that citizens mistake bullying for leadership,  unless I'm willing to do even one tiny thing to make sure that he and his Bushian band don't win a majority government and destroy this country.  

I did something yesterday, a tiny thing.  I was watching the wonderful little Cabbagetown Festival parade, which features Chinese drummers, South-Asian dancers, a bagpipe band, a Caribbean band, gay flag twirlers and Hakim the Riverdale Farm farmer in a tractor filled with hay  - is any neighbourhood in the world as diverse as mine? And there were the politicians - Bob Rae, our M.P., the local Greens and NDP's, whom I applauded.  And then there were the Conservatives, smiling and waving - our equivalent of George Bush's Republicans.  So I booed. I booed in a Canadian, polite way, but I made as loud a disapproving sound as I could.

Perhaps now I should consider doing a little more, so that I have the right to complain.    

Friday, September 5, 2008

biting the apple and telling it like it is

I have one word for you today: apples.  How could I forget, in all my mewling about peaches, the power and glory of that hard fruit?  Yesterday I bit into an apple from the farmer's market and nearly fell over - so much crunch and flavour.  Forget namby-pamby peaches.  Apples are a much more practical fruit, anyway - try throwing a peach in your handbag on the way out.  As I did, once.

Time to move right along.  Instead of mourning for summer, I'm celebrating what's to come: apples, sweaters, raking, glowing cheeks, the first frost, and then the gentle closing in of snow.  

Today's rant: the politics in the air are so foul, I'm going to move to a remote island for the next few months, or at least cancel papers and pull the plug on the TV until the Daily Show at 11 . Cold fish, no, timber wolf Harper and his gang of thieves and thugs, already running attack ads though the election hasn't even been called.  I loved the photo of him the other day taking his daughter to school, with his face frozen in a semblance of a smile.  You can be sure that his party has hired a smiling coach for him, to teach him how it's done.  "You see, the mouth turns up, like this.  Give it a try."  And the man is trying, but it just doesn't work.  His eyes give him away.

And the Republican convention - thank the lord, once again, for Jon Stewart, who makes the viciousness of that world bearable and even funny.  It's pure joy to see the fun he and his team are having this week with the hypocritical gang in Minnesota, rushing to the defence of a pregnant teen and her mother.  Booing the words "community organiser" and laughing with derision at the words "Security Council."  I try to repeat a saying my mother-in-law taught me: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how wrong they may be."  But I don't really believe it.  

The thought that Obama might lose in the States - it's truly unthinkable.  Unthinkable.  And that Obama might win in the States and Harper might win a majority in Canada - well then, we'll all have to move South till the next Canadian election, when perhaps we can move home again - if there's a recognisable Canada to move home to when those guys are finished with us.

On that note, this morning I was happy to see half a page of letters to the editor of the Star decrying the trendy changes at CBC 2 - firing the knowledgeable old hosts in favour of bright young things.  I turned it on by mistake the other day, and the host of the short new classical program told me we were going to hear Beethoven "tell it like it is."  I turned it off.  I'm trying not to be an old fogey - I'm as open to change as the next person, if not more - but the destruction of something that worked so well so that I can hear a kid speak to me in kidspeak - okay, I AM an old fogey.  And proud of it.  

No matter how wrong I may be.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

OF PEACHES and a change of date

Dear friends, these are hard days for a lightoholic like me - even though it's gloriously hot outside, I sense the dimming that's around the corner.  At the Riverdale Farmer's Market today, there were almost no peaches - we have moved on to apples and pears.  I'm not ready to say goodbye to peaches!  

Oh well, apples are good too.  But the end of this flood of light - that's the hard part.  Not to mention watching the garden shrivel, bit by bit.  I want to be out there all the time, drinking it in, light and colour and scent, because in a few months ...  

Mon dieu, enough of this mournful talk.  I have made a terrible mistake in the scheduling of my next Write in the Garden workshop.  It was the same day - Sunday September 28th -  as Word on the Street, one of my favourite events in the Toronto calendar, and I hope yours too, Toronto-ites.  An entire day dedicated to celebrating writing and publishing, when Queen's Park is taken over with talks, readings, tons of books and magazines for sale in great special deals, and small stalls where you can actually talk to publishers, editors, and writers.  

I don't want to deprive my students - or myself either - of this uniquely literary event, so I am changing the workshop date to Sunday October 5.  I'll personally contact those of you who have registered; this is for any of you thinking about it.  I say, come to Word on the Street and be inspired, and then come to my workshop and feel the joy of pen on paper. 

I went this morning to the warehouse where the Toronto police are storing all the recently-found stolen bicycles. There are thousands, arranged by alphabetical order, so I looked, not for my lovely Bluebird that wouldn't be there yet, but for the three other bicycles that have been stolen in the last ten years - the Sekine I bought in Vancouver in 1975, and the two Raleighs, gifts from my dear friends Ben and Sarah after my first bike was stolen.  They had stopped riding theirs, so I rode Ben's until it was stolen from this house while it was under renovation after the fire, and then Sarah's until it was stolen, ironically, from outside Ben and Sarah's house while I was visiting them.  But those fine old machines weren't there.  

What was really disgusting in the warehouse were all the children's bikes - stacks of them. People who steal a child's bike are in the same category - schmucks - as people who don't pick up after their dogs in parks where children play.    

Okay, I've stopped ranting for today.  Now I suggest you go and eat the last local peaches. Drink in these last days of summer.   And unroll the bottoms of your trousers, while you're at it.