Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Great Idea

Here's a suggestion for you: if you want to avoid the stress, expense and sheer hard work of the Christmas/Hanukkah season, just arrange to get the flu the week before. Suddenly, the season whizzes by with little expense and effort! 

I sent this suggestion to my friend Nancy White, who wrote back that at one point, she considered remaining pregnant to avoid getting migraines, but decided against this. And perhaps, at further remove, I will reconsider my notion that getting the flu before Christmas is a great time- and money-saver.

But that's how it was this year - no messy tree. Christmas lunch - Chinese take-out - was delicious, no clean up at all. And the weather has been so atrocious that it made sense to stay in bed. I did venture down the street later on Christmas night, to join my neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard and their neighbours Andrea and Victoria and other friends for a full Christmas dinner on the best china, with the silver all shined. We laughed and told stories and ate magnificently, and at the end, I said, "I'm not related to one person at this table. What a relaxed evening!" 

I actually watched "It's a Wonderful Life" all the way through this year, for the first time - hard to believe that I only discovered the full impact of this classic at the age of 58. And "Citizen Kane," and "City Lights" with Charlie Chaplin, and for something completely different, the rented DVD "In Bruges," violent and hilarious. I watched it thinking of the great playwright Harold Pinter, who had just died and whose influence, with that of his colleague Samuel Beckett, was evident in every line of dialogue.

Otherwise, I'm hard pressed to tell you what I've been doing for the last week, except reading newspapers, eating leftover Chinese food and blowing my nose. Today, I did start work on a piece again. I'm better, definitely - actually getting dressed at some point in the day, even venturing out briefly, getting groceries, standing up sometimes. But mostly, I'm still lying down and coughing, a Cabbagetown Dame aux Camelias. I will be happy when my lungs return. 

By the way, the pageant was fine. A neighbour showed me a photo of the tableau at the end, beautiful and nearly perfect. There were the parents sitting in the straw with sweet babe, the little angels with halos and wings, the Wise Men, the shepherds, the star.  But the new producers had forgotten to remove the sign that normally hangs at the back of the stall, so behind the tranquil scene is a large blackboard that reads, "Our goats: Pretty, Scrabble and Gretchin."


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Xmas Eve continued ...

It's surreal, that's the only word.  6.45 on Christmas Eve - everyone is gathering at the farm, and I am lying on the sofa. Late this afternoon I lit the menorah and listened to most of Handel's Messiah at top volume, celebrating both of my halves.  At one point during the Hallelujah Chorus my speakers crackled as if they were going to explode with so much magnificent sound. More friends waded through the slush with presents.  Now I'm going to eat my chicken soup and listen to the last bit of the Messiah - "I know that my redeemer liveth." I don't know if my redeemer liveth, but I do know that spending the evening with George Friedrich Handel by the light of menorah candles is heaven.

And by the way, more heaven - the pictures of chiselled Obama in Hawaii which appeared today. As someone said, "Merry Christmas, Michelle!" 

A Christmas to remember

First, the weather, everywhere in Canada - my friend Chris sent amazing photos of Vancouver buried in snow; and right now, Toronto is suddenly mild and rainy like Vancouver, with mountains of fresh snowfall being melted into slush.  

Usually at this time - 3 p.m. on Xmas eve - I, along with most of the women in this country, would be frantic. The tree would be decorated, the presents mostly ready; time for a trip to Mark the butcher to pick up the turkey, cross off a hundred last minute things, phone calls, errands; friends are dropping in to say hello, do I have their presents, do I have something for them to eat, I who used to do my Xmas baking at Mark's and Spencers, when we had that fine store in Canada?

But for nine years this family had a little something extra to do at 7 p.m. on Xmas Eve - help produce a pageant for 450 people or so at Riverdale Farm. So there were also many last minute details - was the camel assembled? Were the holy family still healthy, and the choir leaders in good voice? Where were the shepherds' crooks? One year the baby got sick on Xmas eve and there was a crazy search for a family with a new baby who wanted to spend the evening sitting in the straw at the farm being gawked at by hundreds of people. And such a family, at the last minute, was found. 

At a little after six I and the three others of the producing team would be over at the farm, checking the set up, helping get the shepherds, the wise men, the innkeeper and wife into costume. A team of volunteers would be giving out programs, collecting food bank donations, lighting candles. And then through the chaos, somehow at 7 p.m. sharp, Bernie the narrator with her glorious mahogany voice would welcome the crowd, the carol singing would start, and the whole thing would unroll around the farm until the final moments in Francey Barn, with hundreds of people gazing at the tableau - a couple in the straw with their child surrounded by neighbourhood angels. And on the periphery, the wise and beautiful faces of Rooster and Dolly the Clydesdale horses, Dusty the donkey, the row of cows, the pens of sheep and goats. The smell of life. 

But early this year, the team who did this work handed it on to another team, so my neighbour across the street, Lesia, will be over there at six - which is lucky for me because I will not be going anywhere. I am still in sickland - struggling to get out, but it'll be awhile yet.  I feel like my head is a balloon on the end of a string, floating somewhere above my head. Since I've been bedridden for days now, there's no tree, no decorations are up. But somehow, once again, that's okay, because for the first time in decades we're not hosting Xmas anyway - Sam is in Florida, and Anna will be leaving to join him and many other Dobies on Boxing Day.  So it's just she and I on the day.  We've received invitations from neighbours for Xmas dinner, but I won't be up to going out.  "Mum," Anna said, "instead of cooking just for the two of us, why don't we have Christmas like the Jews? Chinese food."

She's a girl of many good ideas; this is one of her best. On Christmas day, we'll be ordering take out from her favourite Chinese restaurant, Rol San on Spadina. We will both be happy. Instead of rushing around in a tizzy of tension and excitement, I will have done exactly nothing this Christmas except try to breathe and re-attach my head to my shoulders. And my daughter will be eating her favourite dumplings. 

I'm in bed now, writing to you, watching the rain, waiting for my friend Norrey to arrive with her annual gift of baking. Neighbour Richard just came over to fill the birdfeeder for me, and to take back the big pot which arrived at my front door last night filled with fresh chicken soup. I am living the spirit of Christmas, my friends, right here, from bed.  

I send my love to you all, with wishes that you too may have an unforgettable Christmas. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

the miracle of the left nostril

I write to you today from a place I have been blessed, so far in my life, to rarely visit: sickland. I hate it here, but I'm going to try to relax and take whatever good I can from the experience.  

Which is what I just told my son to do, too.  Sam was due to fly out at 11 a.m. today to begin a visit with his dad in Florida, but called at noon from the airport.  He said that the plane had taxied to the runway, about to depart. And then, he said, they all watched in horror as a baggage truck drove into the wing. So now Sam is standing in a long line of furious people trying to be rerouted, no idea how or when or where their bags are - a small kind of hell. 

One day it'll be a funny story at a dinner party, but right now it's just a mess.

So here's a flu story. It will never make funny talk at a party but I'll tell it anyway.

I should not have stayed up as long as I did yesterday, as sick as I was. But it was the Sunday before Xmas; friends dropped in to visit, and then the kids came over for our long-scheduled early Xmas -- because of Sam's departure, we were going to have our turkey dinner last night. That ended up being me lying on the living room sofa watching as pizza and wings were devoured in the kitchen by my own two children, 3 of their friends and our friend Dave. I gave the kids "The Simpsons Monopoly", and after eating they all sat down to play. It was so great listening to the banter, the bargaining and jokes that I couldn't bring myself to go to bed. 

By the time I did, I was in worse shape than ever - headache, body ache, general misery. My nose was so stuffed up that I couldn't sleep, but certain drugs make me speedy not drowsy so now I just use nasal spray.  I was propped up, nearly vertical, struggling to breathe, for hours. I thought about the pioneer wives, those women getting through the winters with babies, no drugs or doctors. I thought about my friends with cystic fibrosis who fight all their lives for breath. These thoughts did not cheer me up.

Finally my nose was blocked solid; I had no choice but to lie down and breathe through my mouth.  But that's so uncomfortable, my mouth got dry... flailing and cursing - I actually said, "Shoot me now," though I did not mean it - and then suddenly, my left nostril cleared. Just like that, I could breathe through my left nostril. Oh the bliss, oxygen moving through that small open passage.  I took a sleeping pill at 5 a.m. and slept till 9. 

Why did my left nostril suddenly open? How could a baggage truck driver not see the extremely large airplane right in front of him? Who can explain these mysteries? 

Friday, December 19, 2008

white out

My friends, do not ever again listen to me complain about the frustrations and lack of remuneration (i.e. no $) in self-employed writing. Today after a long, stuffy, sleepless night, I got up with a fever, laid low by a bad cold or flu, and found the city paralysed by a blizzard. Howling winds, a foot of snow climbing up the door.  So many of my friends, so many of you, I'm sure, had to get dressed and out the door, no matter how sick you might have been or how difficult the going. 

I have spent the day lying under blankets on the sofa in the kitchen. I edited a student's piece and sent it back, I responded to emails, read the New York Times on-line and the newspapers on paper - my heroes, the newspaper delivery men who make it through the snowbanks at dawn - and dozed when I felt like it. And then my son, who sprained his ankle falling down some dangerous stairs at work yesterday, hobbled through the snow to keep me company and bring me sinus-opening, fever reducing drugs. We lay together on the sofa as the white sheets washed by the windows, watching "Burn after reading" which was extremely stupid and "Lars and the real girl" which was very beautiful, a lovely film featuring some fine Toronto actors including the wonderful Nancy Beatty, an old friend. The wind howled, my eyes ached, Sam's ankle throbbed, and we lay tranquilly, watching movies. 

The average writer, I just read somewhere, makes $35,000 a year. I make considerably less than that, and some of that income comes from renting out rooms in my house. But today, all the money in the world would not have dragged my aching self into that blizzard.  I have eaten all my own chicken soup so now, I am about to have a big bowl of my neighbour Monique's, delivered through the snow to my front door, and get a pizza out of the freezer for Sam. How lucky can you get?

My friend Chris in Vancouver is distraught today. Vancouver is suffering very bad weather too, unusual for that city. A homeless woman whom he passed regularly, who lived on a corner near his home, was offered shelter last night but turned it down three times. She died today, right there on the street under his windows. All I could say to comfort him was that she lived as she wished, and died that way too. 

May all of you be safe and warm and blessed, on this cold night.  Please, keep safe and warm. And may you be blessed. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

catching up at Christmas

Just came back from a five day whirl in Ottawa, visiting my mother, aunt, brother and nephew with my own kids in tow for part of it - an overdose of family, with all the joys and frustrations normal at such times.  Moments when you're overwhelmed with love for these hilarious, beautiful people with whom you share so much genetic material, and then other moments when you wonder how in God's name you, in all your sanity, could be linked to this flagrant group of lunatics. Does this ring a bell?

However, it was a great visit. Anna asked her grandmother to teach her to knit; the two of them sat side by side, one with thick black curly gypsy hair, the other with a neat grey bob, and important knowledge was successfully transferred with a clicking of needles. Sam watched "Guys and Dolls" with his grandma and 88-year old great-auntie, checked his Facebook page during the sappy love bits, returned for the gambling funny bits, and at the end said, "I'm a better person for having seen that." We all helped give baby Jake his dinner and put him to bed; Anna does this all the time and loves nothing better, I by the end was grateful my time with the very very young is over forever.

The minute I got home, I came down with my first cold or flu in a year and a half. Not coincidental, surely - the exhaustion of family stress - fifty-eight years of it, all piled up - plus the fact is that right now my calendar is relatively clear. I am seeing a few students privately, but teaching is over for the term, so if I'm sick, I'm not missing any work. I think I gave myself permission to go under. And here I am, well under. Luckily I had made a huge pot of chicken soup to pour into bottles and give as Xmas presents - so there is some in the freezer for me.

I went on-line this morning - being sick is so different now, with the entire world still available even when we're prone and achy. I found out that my book was chosen as the April 2008 selection for the Glimmerglass Opera Book Club - the company produces operas during the summer in a spectacular building in Cooperstown, New York, and in 2008 did five operas based on Shakespeare plays. Hence, the reading of my book. And I found a very nice Vancouver review of the book and my talk there, by the very nice Faith Jones, who is not a relative:

 Among other things Kaplan told a sold-out crowd in Vancouver, she aimed to figure out why Gordin has been so neglected in contemporary theatre and in literary studies. Kaplan’s theatre training stood her in good stead as she read from the book and answered questions about her research. A witty and entertaining speaker, she clearly captivated the crowd with her lively and illuminating anecdotes. 

I also found out that on a site called "Goodreads," in which people discuss the books they've read and would like to read, "Jewish Shakespeare" is on the "to read" list of ... two great readers. Go for it, I say, you lovely people.

And that Jacob Gordin, who died in 1909, is on Facebook. That's wierd. He lives in B.C., whoever he is, and he's young. A relative? Maybe. And in Season 6, Episode 16 of "The Sopranos", an actress called Tracey Silver played a character called Beth Kaplan. Do you think she was a gangster's moll? Oh, daydreaming again ...  

As for work, Christmas of course lands a heavy foot in the middle, but my dear Wayson's viciously thorough edit ("OUT! OUT!") of my pen-pal essay was one of the most valuable writing lessons I've ever had. Get on with it, is the message. Launch the story and keep it moving; otherwise, why should they turn the page, those restless souls out there who haven't even got to their "to read" list?

Monday, December 8, 2008

great new review in time for Christmas

Today's treat: I just checked my book on the Amazon website and found this. Whoever this fine gentleman is, he has my thanks.

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Special BiographyOctober 17, 2008
By Mark A. Stein (Washington, D.C.) - See all my reviews
This biography, written by the great-granddaughter of the most reknowned Yiddish playwright, is an extraordinary work. Through her meticulous research, Beth Kaplan provides a vivid and multi-dimensional portrait of Jacob Gordin. Moreover, through the lens of Gordin's life, she provides an insightful view of the world in which he lived: the stars of the Yiddish theater, the Lower East Side in which it was situated, and the larger society that surrounded them all. What makes this work particularly special is that Kaplan includes views of Gordin through the lens of a great-granddaughter via his impact on his offspring and the family mythology that has surrounded him, thereby bringing his life and era right up to our doorstep.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

the critic speaks

Today's lesson: Never believe the praise of your dearest friends. I sent my new essay, the one I'm so proud of that my dearest friend thought was the best thing I've ever written, to another dearest friend and sometime editor Wayson. And this was his response:

Yes, this story has its flesh and bone - dynamite if you cut about half.   You wander into details that tell the same thing over and over again.  Cut.  Restructure.   The beginning is too chatty, little resonance or foreshadowing.  Don't lose focus on the haunting and the wonderful way you have ended it - very moving.   We'll talk about this.

And today's other lesson - one we've had before, class - is: The lucky writer has a cold, clear, trustworthy editor. 


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

coalition fever

Who said Canadian politics is boring? Wow - what a time! It's hard to believe that cold-eyed Mr. H. has been, as they say, hoist with his own petard - undone by his own vindictiveness and arrogance. Instead of getting on with the huge and vital job of helping us through this economic mess, Harper went about settling scores, with the help of his nasty Chief of Staff, former Mike Harris gremlin Guy Giorno.  

Who can believe what happened next, that the hapless Mr. H. and Mr. G. united the opposition into one angry and powerful voice? I know a functional coalition government is probably a pipe dream.  Something will happen; the unity of the opposition parties will fall apart, Harper will find a way out, something. I know Canadians don't want Dion as PM, and even now, although I approve of his platform, I am impatient to hear his mangled English.  But still, this is democracy at its best. Canadians are engaged in their political process at last. And surely Mme. Jean will do something wise. 

For more info, please go to It lists rallies in support of the coalition all over the country, one in Toronto this Saturday December 6th at noon on Nathan Phillips Square. I haven't been to a good rally since the anti-Harper one in support of the arts ... two months ago. Hooray, more rallies!

Speaking of rallies, there's a fascinating article about our own Naomi Klein in this week's "New Yorker."  She herself doesn't like rallies and marches, finding them embarrassingly earnest unless there's satire and humour involved.  Okay, organisers - let's have some coalition humour on Saturday!

Went to see the extraordinarily powerful "Slumdog Millionaire" the other day. Even in the midst of our recession, this film gives an unforgettable perspective on the luxury and ease of our Canadian lives.  Haunting.

And for those of you who've been following my on-going struggle with my own work, I'm happy to say - we're off! I sent a draft of the current essay to my friend Bruce, who called to say that it's the best thing I've ever written. I don't know about that, but I do know it feels mighty good to feel it all working again, that flow from brain and heart and gut down through the arms and onto the shiny white screen. 

More rallies, more writing, more democracy, more stunning films.  Despite the freezing dark of winter, it's an exciting Canada today.

Monday, December 1, 2008

World AIDS Day and Chris Tyrell's essay

Chris Tyrell has been my best friend since we met backstage at the Arts Club Theatre in 1975, I an actress and he an assistant stage-manager. We connected instantly then, and still connect, at the deepest level, despite his eventual gay marriage and my straight one, my moving east and having two children, he staying in Vancouver, suffering heartbreak and contracting AIDS, downgraded to HIV. Through the years, the calls and emails, the mutual insults and great love have never stopped.

One day last month he was complaining to me in his usual intense, dramatic way about the fact that whenever he connects with interesting men and hopes for a relationship, eventually he has to tell them about his HIV status, and they disappear. He is extremely healthy and his viral load is nearly invisible, but still, he's treated like a pariah - ironic in the very community that purports to support men with AIDS or who are HIV +, but rejects them as lovers.

I said, don't complain to me about this - write it as an essay for the "Globe." So he did, and two days later he sent it in and sent a copy to me. I have to tell you, I was horrified and wrote back to say so. "It's too raw!" I said. "It covers too much ground, it's all over the place, it's too emotional." Oh well, said Chris, the worst that can happen is that they won't run it.

They ran it today - with a few excellent edits by Lori Fazari the "Globe" editor, but mostly it's just Chris's piece as he wrote it. So much for my editing sensibilities. The piece is like Chris - startlingly open and honest, compelling you to respond.  When he woke up this morning, there was already an email message waiting, and there have been scores of responses on the "Globe" website.

You can read and respond on the "Globe" website too, at "", under Facts and Arguments.  Read what happens when a brave, open man simply tells the truth as honestly and passionately as he can. Knock your socks off.