Thursday, December 31, 2009

Senior's Day at Shopper's

Grey, gloomy drizzle out there - mild, though. In a bit, I'll put on something sparkly and, carrying champagne and chocolates, walk over to Bill's Lobsters on Gerrard, to pick up some live lobsters. Then I'll cab to Louise Binder's who will cook them for herself and friends. I'm such a hypocrite - I hate carting these creatures to their deaths so am telling myself that their lives aren't worth living in that crowded little tank. Being eaten by an appreciative crowd is better? I guess I could take them to Lake Ontario and set them free, but that wouldn't make me very popular with Louise.

Watched the annual Kennedy Center Honors the other night, which gave recognition and a medal for lifetime artistic achievement to Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Robert deNiro and Grace Bumbry. I haven't watched the event for years because it meant having to look at George Bush, who wouldn't understand an artistic achievement if it bit him in the butt. But the beautiful new couple - they understand. What joy to see them there, elegant and appreciative, Michelle sitting next to Springsteen, nodding and clapping, Obama moving his head to the music.

It made me proud, for the first time in decades, to carry an American passport as well as a Canadian. All of those great artists are uniquely American, could not be from any other country. What other country could produce the broad and goofy Jewish comedy of Mel Brooks or, especially, the downhome honesty and ache of Bruce Springsteen, working class rocker hero?

The speech honouring Springsteen was given with meaning and grace by another uniquely American artist, our beloved Jon Stewart. Springsteen is a man, he said, who in every performance "empties the tank" - for his family, his audience, his country. And I thought, even praising an artist for emptying the tank is particularly American. Springsteen's handsome, weathered face, with his earrings, soul patch and jutting lower jaw, was so beautiful, shone with such empathy and gravitas as he listened to Stewart and then to musicians like Sting perform his music, that it was hard to look at him. Michelle Obama didn't have any trouble looking at him, though.

And below, in the audience, a relaxed Meryl Streep, Donald Sutherland, Alan Alda, Philip Seymour Hoffman and many others - artists who must feel they've crossed an endless desert to the Promised Land. A troubled Promised Land, but my God, so much better than the desert. The best event of 2009, for me and IMHO for the planet - the election of President Barack Obama - and his wife and children and mother-in-law, and the dog too.

Last night on PBS, I watched another mundane, flat little trifle - Tosca, from the Met.

Today, you will be happy to know, is Senior's Day at Shopper's Drug Mart. What a way to bring in the New Year - shopping with my elderly neighbours, even though I'm much, much too young to get the 20% off. They gave it to me anyway, for French anti-ageing moisturisers and a heating pad. It makes me feel 100 years old just thinking about it. But there's a racy new lipstick, too, for tonight's lobster.

It was a good year for me, with short trips to Halifax, New York, Florida and Ottawa, and my spectacular journey through Europe. Not so good for my children, especially my son. I hope his star is in the ascendant, and his sister's too. Am I allowed to hope, selfishly, that mine continues its steady upward course? And that yours does too, my dear readers? One of you sent me this very nice message the other day, as a welcome New Year's gift:

I take a drink daily from your blog, and enjoy the words you choose to share with people like me who you don't even know. I have had more fun reading your blog than I can say. Thanks for all you share ... I count myself lucky to be included.

And another wrote, "I'm really enjoying your recent instalments and wonder whether you could turn your blog into a book. Could be the makings of one anyway. You just need a central dramatic event or spiritual awakening around which it could revolve."

I thank you, Pamela and Ellen. Thank you all for reading. As my beloved Wayson likes, often, to say: ONWARD! Onward into 2010. Happy New Year. Even to the crabby cat lying curled up beside me, who has barely moved a whisker for all of 2009. Happy New Year to us all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Sometimes, in years past, my mother and aunt have flown in for Christmas. How grateful I am that they didn't this year, because, thanks to the new terrorist bomber, their way back would have been excruciating. The reports from the airport speak of eight hour line-ups, infuriated passengers weeping on the counters, exhausted children falling asleep on their suitcases in the lines.

But it is terrifying to think that in this day and age, someone could have entered a plane carrying enough explosives, apparently, to knock it out of the air. There's a picture of Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab in the paper this morning, a cheerfully smiling, handsome, bright-eyed young man. And a fiend. There's another article in the paper about anti-Muslim prejudice in Canada, how hard it is for immigrants from Muslim countries to get jobs. It will be even harder now, with this fresh wound.

Read a review of a new book called Hell, by Robert Olen Butler, in which a reporter goes undercover to Hell, to interview the people there. He is chauffeured around by Richard Nixon in a 1948 Cadillac. Satan himself, wearing Armani jeans and packing heat, speaks to him. "Everybody down here has father issues," he says. One day, Umar Farouk will join them.

At the end of Hell, the reporter concludes that life is "Hell for everyone. We are all utterly alone, but we are alone together."

Bitterly cold out there, with a layer of new snow. I was alone with much togetherness yesterday. Friend Anne-Marie came over to bring me the first CD from Flashlight Radio, Nancy White's daughter Suzie's band. Now that's a thrill, if another indication of our age - our friend's children becoming rock stars. Sam came over for another Xmas dinner and to take away his container of leftovers, mostly mashed potatoes; Anna came over ditto, her container mostly stuffing. She helped me - hooray! - take down the tree and sweep up needles. Put away the stuffed Rudolph and the little carved Ark, the Xmas books piled on the coffee table, the Messiah CD, the Noels hanging in the windows, the pine cone wreath at the centre of the dining table, the rows of cards on the sideboard. It's over. I've left the wreath on the front door and the lights on the eavestroughs, so I don't seem like a total Grinch; most of my neighbours leave their decorations up until Valentine's Day. But I am moving briskly along.

My usual television dilemma last night, two very good programs on simultaneously, and because I didn't get the handyperson for Christmas, I've no idea how to save programs on my DVD player. (Sorry, Bruce. I know you set it all up for me, but you're not here to show me again.) So I flipped back and forth between the classic Arsenic and Old Lace, which I'd somehow never seen, with Cary Grant doing a delightful comic turn - George Clooney really is the Cary Grant of our age, it's startling to see these incredibly handsome men eager to make fools of themselves and do so skilfully - and a documentary on Little Women's Louisa May Alcott on PBS. Loved the movie but luckily, when it ended, got a full half hour just of Louisa's amazing story. She was far more successful financially than the renowned male novelists of her time like Henry James and Herman Melville. She lived all her life at home. And she died within a day of her adored father.

Maybe souls in heaven have father issues, too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

and now, a few words from our entertaining readers

Bruce emailed indignantly to complain about my Xmas day blog, in which I described our "Vancouver Christmas here in Toronto - pouring with rain, chilly and sodden." Apparently their day was actually cold and very sunny. I wrote back that we Easterners need to think that it's always raining in Lotusland, because otherwise, why aren't we living there?

Penny wrote from England about her Xmas, driving around England to visit family, on ...

The M6. Worst motorway in Britain. It took nine hours to do a journey that should have been no longer than three. There were so many cars. They said on the radio that half of the population was on the move at once. They were all on the M6. I know. I was there too.
But it was worse for those stranded under the channel when six consecutive Eurostar trains stalled and broke down in the tunnel because of the abrupt change in temperature, and for those people marooned at airports, stuck on icy hills with no grit or snowed in at shopping centres. The excuse this time was that our climate is normally so "benign" that it is not worth the investment to prepare for bad weather.

You'd think we were the tropics, not the land where Charles Dickens invented Christmas.

Penny and I rode the M6 during our summer trip together. I read an entire history of England out loud to her while we sat.

Mr. Choy wrote from Vancouver, where he is working and visiting family, including his aunt Mary who is suffering from Alzheimer's and in a home:

We share a dining table with a new friend of hers - a gentle and loving soul like Mary, also ravaged by Alzheimer's but who is less chatty and much more sensitive (a cantakerous elderly lady with a twisted hawkish face had scorned her at another dinner table, "I don't like you" - and Doreen left and could not stop her own tears.)

Family visitors to this place look sympathetically towards each other, as if we belonged to some kind of secret society. Thank heavens, almost every one of the staff here are carefully trained and behave professionally towards their charges. As for me, at odd times it feels like the Chinese Water Torture, each endlessly repeated question, one drop at a time, or it seems with great hilarity that Mary, Doreen and I take part in an animated conversation, a brilliant rerun of "Who's on third?!"

I keep sane each time I recall what Karl said to me when I was short with my father (at 85), "Wayson, you're going to be worse!"

I don't think so. Not a wonderfully vibrant mind like that.

A quiet, solitary Sunday for moi, though the day was so mild, I could not resist riding my bike to Laywine's, one of my favourite stores, to see if their pens, papers, notepads, organisers and calendars were on sale. They weren't, but I bought a new notebook anyway. Not that I don't have a stack of notebooks, but this was a new kind, with dun-coloured pages and WHITE LINES. Very different. Perhaps different writing will emerge upon it.

Then couldn't resist popping into a store or two on Bloor, but it was just too silly. I don't need anything. Well, I'd like a spiffy new bike, that would be nice, and a new roof, and a woman can always use a new handbag and shoes. But mostly, I realised yesterday, the greatest gift I could receive would be a new handyman or handywoman. A person who understands plumbing, wiring, electrical devices, major appliances, remote controls, computers and everything else, who'd come over at a moment's notice to fix and set up and sort out. That would be a true present. Had a long talk with my daughter yesterday, and she wants one too.

However, none of those were for sale at the Gap on Bloor.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day rain

We had a Vancouver Christmas here in Toronto - pouring with rain, chilly and sodden. Pretty miserable. A perfect day to stay home, welcome friends and prepare and eat an enormous quantity of rich food, so that's what we did.

And now, all I want to do is take down the tree and move right along. It's done, it's over, we got through another one without killing each other ... No, it's not like that any more, we all get along now. Christmas used to be a mountain I had to climb, an enormous, month-long hurdle of present finding, choosing, buying, wrapping, then cards, food, making arrangements for family members, ensuring that everyone, from young to old, was as happy as possible - no wonder my uncle thought I was distraught. I was exhausted, frantic, unable to enjoy the festivities as I worried about everything. Crazy. No more.

But still, I want to take down the tree RIGHT NOW, reclaim my living room and my life. What a sourpuss. The two of us are lying here on the kitchen divan, side by side, the sourpuss with whiskers, claws and fur, and the pink one without.

It's dark and gloomy and pouring with rain. Time for a large plate of leftovers. That will cheer me up.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's a Wonderful Christmas Pageant

Merry Christmas! It's 9.20 a.m. There was a time when we'd be knee-deep in wrapping and ribbons by now, excited children dancing around with empty stockings and new toys, me trying vainly to calm them down and keep the house in order, to get ready for the big meal to come. In our Christmas box are little notes I wrote after each Xmas in those early days: "Greetings from Xmas 1986!," one says, describing who was there and what was happening. I wrote that my uncle Edgar, who'd flown in from New York, scolded me for being so tense. "Stand outside yourself," he said, "and ask, 'Who's that silly woman getting so distraught?'"

A silly woman with a difficult family, two small children, a house full of leaks and very little self-confidence, that's who she was. She was 36 that year and had noticed a few grey hairs. Yesterday, I needed some things at Shopper's Drugmart, and the woman at the cosmetics counter advised me to wait till next Thursday. "It's Senior's Day," she said. "You'll get 20% off."
"I'm only 59!" I wanted to shout, but didn't. I'll gladly take the 20%. Not "that silly woman" any more, not distraught, but considerably older.

Last night, the oddest thing happened - I had my own George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life moment. As I've mentioned here repeatedly, for nine years friends and I ran the Christmas pageant at Riverdale Farm on Xmas Eve, an exhausting but very rewarding endeavour. Last year, the first year we handed it over to another group, I was sick, so yesterday was my first time going as an audience member to an event that matters deeply. It's not the birth of Jesus that's important for me, it's the community gathering, the singing of beloved hymns, and especially the moment when the barn doors open. We enter that pungent, hayseed room filled with animals, to find a family with a baby sitting in the straw, behind them angels, shepherds, wise men, the star. Last night, I was going to see another team pull it off.

Suddenly by my watch it was 6.40; the pageant starts at 7, so I pulled on many layers and rushed off. Nearing the farm, I couldn't understand where everyone was - usually, the audience is streaming in. The main farm gate, open during the pageant, was locked, so I went around to the other one. No one in the courtyard; the drive-shed, where the event begins, was also locked. Everything silent, dark and empty. My watch said 7 p.m. What had happened? Had they cancelled, for some reason? This is what the Farm looked like on Xmas Eve, I realised, before our community pageant filled it with song and neighbourhood.

Stephen appeared. No, everything was on track; I was an hour early. It was 6 p.m. I looked again at my watch, which now said 7.05. It was running perfectly, just an hour fast. How can a watch suddenly be fast? I set it back, went home, and came back an hour later to be part of the huge crowd - perhaps 500 people or more this year, from babies to the very elderly, from people in fur coats to our neighbours from Regent's Park, there to sing and celebrate together.

All kinds of things went wrong, as usual, but it didn't matter. It was a perfect night, calm and bright, everything shining with a dusting of new snow. The baby in the barn was particularly beautiful and serene. When I left, I watched two grandsons with their arms around their frail, very old grandmother, helping her up the snowy path.

My watch is working perfectly. 10 a.m., it says now. Sam is asleep upstairs; Anna landed safely and will come over before noon. The presents are waiting. Time for another cup of coffee, and then I'll stuff the bird.

Joy to the world.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Michael Ondaatje buys fennel and wins my heart

Okay, right now, full on Christmas spirit. Just stood in the kitchen making the stuffing so I can get the bird in early tomorrow, listening to Michael Enright's program on CBC. He played Martin Luther King delivering a sermon in 1967, and I wept salty tears into the breadcrumbs, adding a touch more flavour. The most inspiring, magnificent speaker I have ever heard, bar none. "We are bound by an inescapable network of mutuality," he said, telling his audience that by the time they'd had breakfast, they had used the services of countless people around the world. He spoke about justice, liberty, brotherhood and peace. 3 weeks later, he was gone.

Then Enright played Alan Maitland doing readings as Fireside Al - that marvellous, so familiar voice. He read Samuel Pepys, keeping track of his Christmasses, enjoying his roast beef and the company of his poor wife, who didn't have nearly as much fun. When the program ended, the stuffing was made. The CBC has changed a lot, but I'm grateful for the times when it is just as much the dear, fascinating companion it always was.

My excursion this morning took me to Mark the butcher, where I ran into a neighbour who has been fighting cancer but, happily, looked healthy and well, and then into another neighbour, one of the handsomest and most talented men in all of Canada. Michael Ondaatje, who lives nearby, came into Mark's looking for fennel, among other things. I greeted him cheerily and he back to me - we've met several times though I'm sure he has no idea who I am. But I know who he is - a literary rock star and major crush. Mark loaded up my backpack with the 20 pound turkey and 2 pounds of sausage meat for stuffing, and Mr. Ondaatje, he of the god-like beard and deep smouldering eyes, helped me put it on and, wobbling, stand up. If that didn't make my day - my entire Christmas - I don't know what would.

Except running into Stephen on the way home. Stephen has taken over the running of the Christmas pageant at Riverdale Farm. Oh, the blissful calm of Christmas Eve for me, now that I don't have to run around checking on the health of the baby, the whereabouts of the wise men, the frozen paths and risers at the Farm! Stephen was out looking for something for a new shepherd to wear. Would I have something? I unearthed a long, very shepherd-y coat. Costumes are my middle name.

And then going into Doubletake where the ladies were getting ready to close and enjoy their Xmas party, including the goodies I brought in yesterday. "God bless you," one of them said, and I was reminded, again, that giving gives the most enormous pleasure.

As we speak, my daughter is flying home from visiting her father and new baby sister in Florida; I think Sam's face has healed enough that he is at work. Soon, I'll go to the Farm to be in the audience of the pageant, this year, just to follow and sing. And then to Mary's for the best party of the year, beside the fire. I could not be more grateful for this moment, my life this very moment, for the voice of Martin Luther King, the smell of sage, the importance of neighbours, the squabbling of sparrows at the bird-feeder, Michael Ondaatje's smile. And though Eckhard Tolle might disapprove, I look forward to the moments shortly to come, tonight and tomorrow.

The link below is to a beautiful worldwide musical moment. Let's forget that Starbucks' name is on it. More tears. Beatles forever. The greatest good joy, this moment, to you all.

Xmas Eve, 2009

Christmas Eve - no snow in Toronto, just grey skies and bone-chilling cold. Spent last night wrapping presents while watching a production of La Boheme on PBS. Too bad, I thought afterwards, that those Italians are so undemonstrative, so placid and passionless and dull.


Yesterday, one of my own Christmas rituals - I took a hamper of food treats to the kind women who work at one of my favourite shops, the Doubletake second-hand store on Gerrard. They are from India and Pakistan, and they put up with a lot with sweetness and grace. Rusty, a local young man who does the carrying there, lost his mother this year and was muttering, "Humbug," to his co-workers the last time I meandered around looking for treasure. So I hope some treats from a grateful customer will bring him cheer. It brought ME cheer.

Then to No Frills for a mountain of groceries, but even with all that, I forgot the sour cream for the mashed potatoes and we don't have enough onions. Must rush out now and get last minute things, then to Mark the butcher for the turkey and sausage meat for the stuffing. I know, I'm not eating pork, but this is for my kids and guests. And I'll just force myself to eat it too.

Heard a woman on CBC radio reviewing the year's records; she especially recommended a local group called The Wooden Sky and played a cut from their CD. "It's breaking up music but also joyful," she said. I liked it a lot and thought my son might like it too, so decided to hike over to to Mike's Records on the Danforth, a terrific independent store which somehow has survived, though the independent video store nearby has gone bankrupt. Sure enough, they had it. I love this store, despite the enormous tarantula encased in plexiglass on the counter. I also tried to find crackers for our festive table but they were sold out. Enough. There's that lethal impulse to rush out today and get more, to make sure people are happy. MORE STUFF! Must curb that impulse.

On the way back, walking on the bridge over the Don Valley Parkway, I looked over the side at the cars bumper to bumper trying to get home. Most of the cars held one person. Why have we not fixed this? A massive hulk of steel and gasoline transporting one small person, the same route every day - one day, surely, this will seem the most insane of our many insanities.

George Strombolopolis showed an excerpt of a past interview with Eckhart Tolle the other night. Such a funny little man with such a wise message. He said he thought only a few hundred meditation devot├ęs would buy his book, now a worldwide bestseller thanks to word of mouth and Oprah. He advises us not to dwell the past or live for the future, because our life is right here, right now, this very moment we are living. This is what we have. He laughed about a sign in a pub: "Free beer, tomorrow."

Right now, I am on the divan at the end of my kitchen looking out at the grey garden, the crowded bird-feeder. I'm still in my pink nightgown, empty coffee cup beside me, the London Review of Books, a yellow notepad, a snoring cat. I can hear the furnace chug and the click of my fingers. You are out there somewhere, stopping for a moment in your busy day to check in on mine. It is Christmas Eve. Here we are. This moment we are sharing is your life, and it is my life.

Free beer tomorrow. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I called my son before writing that last post, by the way. "May I write about your experience for the blog?" I asked. "Blog away," he said. My daughter has learned to preface some things with, "This is NOT for the blog."

I also realised, after a week with someone from Vancouver, just how gruelling cold weather is. Poor Chris ended up wearing his own coat under an old, too-big duffel coat of mine, its huge hood falling over his face, looking like a strange medieval monk in green Doc Marten's. And still he nearly froze. I, meanwhile, am feeling more and more sedentary and sluggish, wanting to lie around eating toast and snoozing. And winter just began yesterday! The bears have the right idea.

fun and fear

From Sunday - a story of seasonal celebration, and the same old violence.

Sunday evening, Chris and I went to an Xmas party at the home of my old friends Jessica Bradley and Geoffrey James. Jessica and I have known each other since 1967; she went on to become a professor of art in Montreal, then the Curator of Modern Art at the AGO, and now owns her own gallery; Geoffrey is a superb photographer of landscapes, Italian gardens, slag heaps, cities, trees. Their two sons have been friends with my son for many years; all three performed as Wise Men in the annual Christmas pageant I helped run at Riverdale Farm, three teenaged boys with dishcloths on their heads, giant Nike's sticking out from under their cloaks, standing on a picnic table holding gifts for the Christ child.

The family holds an annual Xmas party, where someone from the worlds of writing and theatre, like me, can meet visual artists, people who make their living mostly wordlessly, with colour and shape. And sure enough, there by the fireplace was Michael Snow, who at 81 has a smashing new show at the Power Plant, and many others. So we drank and talked and got ready to eat Geoffrey's spectacular ham. I was able to congratulate Ron Graham, an old friend of theirs, for his superb Walrus article on Michael Ignatieff, mentioned a few days ago in this blog. Mostly the feedback has been good, he said.

Then the door opened and a very tall young man entered - my son Sam. A new experience, to be at a grown-up party with my offspring, there to celebrate with his own friends. He did meet Michael Snow, and I was able to whisper that this was the man who'd created the Canada geese instalment at the Eaton's Centre, among many other famous works; Sam was suitably impressed. At 11 or so, Chris and I, full of dinner and drink and interesting talk, bade everyone goodbye, including a roomful of laughing young men, and left.

My phone rang at 3.45 a.m. It was Sam. After midnight, he had gone to a pub with Jessica's sons and at 3 was walking the few blocks to his own place, when suddenly, he was struck hard from behind. He fell and was surrounded by 3 guys, kicking and punching. They stole his hoodie and his money and ran away, leaving him on the ground with a black eye and many cuts, bruises and lumps. And much rage and humiliation. When he got home, he told me, he looked in the mirror, and there was a boot print on his face. I told him this was his "annus horribilis" but he didn't know what that meant.

Sam recovered, I think, more quickly than I did. In the morning, after talking to his doctor and calling work - he has just started a new job as a waiter/bartender, but couldn't go in because of his battle scars - he came across town to the home where he once lived. There's my baby at the door, limping, with a battered face. I was very glad to be here, glad his godfather, Chris, was here too. At times like this, being a single mother is especially hard; oh, for someone around to pat me and say, "Don't worry, he'll be fine." I can say it to myself but am sick at heart. "Get a cab late at night!" I nag him. "Don't wear headphones on the street, you need to hear what's happening." But he is 25 and invincible.

What kind of stinking jerk wants to fight 3 to 1, to hit someone from behind and hurt them for $27 and an old black hoodie? What kind of city do I live in where these things happen on a regular basis? This has happened to Sam before, the first time much worse. Is he a target because he's so visible at six foot nine? Chris and Sam talked and concluded that I worry too much. Gosh, guys, thanks for that. I'll just stop worrying right now. No problem.

Chris flew back to Vancouver late that afternoon, and Sam went home. Gradually, my own shock level decreased. At least, the young man had a place to go to find empathy and, even more importantly, a big, hot lunch. But how do we keep them safe, our young ones? How do we still the fear in our own hearts? Nothing to be done. That night, I turned on the television, to see YoYo Ma and James Taylor playing "Here comes the sun." So beautiful and serene, guitar, cello, Taylor's familiar voice strong and clear. I counted my blessings - friendship, family, health. A few glitches here and there, yes. But we're all still here.

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday rebuttal and "Every Little Step"

A reader in Lubbock, Texas just sent a response to my mini-review of (aka "mouthing off about") A Single Man.

You have to read the book to understand they didn't change the ending. Not something Mister Ford just decided to do out of the clear blue. Making a film from a narrative inside someone's head is not an easy task, either. Perhaps you missed something and perhaps you don't understand Mister Firth's greatest talent as an actor. IMHO.

Which I gather means "in my humble opinion." And my opinion, God knows, is humble too. Thank you for writing. I have not read the book, and think I shouldn't have had to to understand and enjoy the film. But I've been told that the suicide which drives the entire movie is an invention of Tom Ford's, thereby entirely changing not only the story but our feelings about the ending. (Trying not to give it all away here.)

And as I said, I was a huge fan of Firth's Mr. Darcy, but I do not find this character as convincing. Something is missing. IMHO.

Compare this film to Departures, the Japanese movie about a man who learns to deal with life through learning to deal with death - in some ways, a topic similar to this film. But it's moving, joyful and messy, and I left heartened about what it is to be alive, about the bonds we share as human beings. I do not ask a film to have a cheery ending. I ask it to deliver something that makes me feel connected to the planet on which I live and my fellow beings there. A Single Man did that to a certain extent, but not nearly as much as I'd been led to believe. My core was unmoved. And believe me, my core is not hard to melt down.

On our way home, Chris and I ran into Jean-Marc and Richard, my dear neighbours, and ended up having dinner and watching a fantastic documentary with them - Every Little Step, about the casting of the recent Broadway remount of A Chorus Line. Highly recommended for anyone interested in show biz. I was an actress in Vancouver when A Chorus Line first opened and the cast album was released, and for months, every party ended with us all dancing around the living room to those wonderful songs, while Bill Millerd conducted with a butcher knife. "I really need this job!"

Though most of my thespian friends weren't song-and- dance people, we felt the musical was about us too, about the hard life of performers, the irrational drive which most of us felt in childhood that led us to the stage, the ecstacy when the work goes well. The documentary shows singer/dancers auditioning for a part in a musical which is about singer/dancers auditioning for a part in a musical. And what amazing creatures they are, these young Americans who dance brilliantly, sing marvellously and act too. Dazzling - with a combination of talents that is specifically American.

Whereas the greatest acting of depth and feeling, IMHO, comes so often from British actors. But not always.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Midday yesterday, Chris and I were sitting in the kitchen when there was a flash of wings, and an enormous young hawk landed on the fence on my deck, just a few metres away from us. He sat staring at the ivy - where the suddenly-silent sparrows live - and swivelled his head 360 degrees, like Linda Blair, to check out everything in the garden. We sat marvelling at his long claws, raptor beak, piercing eyes - and then, with a whoosh of wide wings, he took to the air and vanished.

It worries me - why is a hawk flying into a downtown garden? Is he hungry? The sparrows and squirrels sure weren't happy. But my friend and I felt blessed.

Doing errands a bit later, I ran into a friend, the father of two young sons. He mentioned that he was taking his daughter to have her ears pierced. "I didn't know you had a daughter," I said.
"I didn't either," he said, and told me that his elder son had decided to become a girl. So now he was learning about his brand-new teenaged daughter, her new name and new habits. I thought he was coping wonderfully. Who knows what surprises are in store? Assume nothing.

In the evening, Chris and I went to see A Single Man. On the way into the cinema, I ran into a former student who was on her way out. She had just seen the same film. "I'll be interested in your opinion," she said. "I'll check your blog."

Okay, here it is, Georgie - yes and no. I liked it much less than I thought I was going to, especially after the infuriating last five minutes. With his surprise, unwelcome ending, I thought the director was showing us his pretensions and insecurities - an art movie cannot have a happy ending, too bourgeois, too common. Cut that cheer off at the pass. Must have inexplicable sadness.

I agree with the world that Colin Firth performs wonderfully and so does Julianne Moore. Every single person and every set in the film is gorgeous. "You look terrible," people keep saying to Colin Firth, who looks fabulous. There are some beautiful moments - my favourite, the scene where Firth sees a dog like the ones he has lost and pets it through the car window, finally burying his nose in the dog's fur. But I have to conclude that there is something bloodless and airless in this film. It's not generous at heart. We do not walk out much richer, as with some films. A bit richer, yes.

Colin Firth may win an Oscar because he can cry on cue, has powerful eyes and admirable restraint and is straight but can play a convincing gay man. There are worse reasons to win an Oscar, but there are better ones, too. And this, from one of the greatest fans of his Mr. Darcy.

It was great to see this film with my gay best friend, since the film is also about the love between a straight woman and a gay or tentatively bisexual man. At the end, Chris said to me, "On the way home, I'll buy the gin and you buy some eyeliner and let's go home and make out." He loves to talk that way, but it does amaze me that Chris and I have been best, intimate friends for 34 years and, unlike Julianne and Colin, never felt the slightest flicker of sexual desire for each other. Just love.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Morris, Ken, King Tut and George C.

Bitterly cold here - a wind to cut through your ribs and freeze your eyeballs. And I'm with a man from Vancouver who only has a short leather jacket to keep his skinny old body warm. Have to keep him alive.

Last night was stellar. Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald, who came for dinner, are spectacular. In fact, we hate them. They are not only good-looking and extremely, desperately talented, they are successful around the world. Even though they've been together for many years, are now married, and often work closely together with Morris as writer and/or director and Ken as designer, they get along well. They enjoy each other's company. It's disgusting.

And what makes them truly unbearable is that they are also funny and nice. Nice. They talked about when they were moving from Vancouver and decided not to move their Jessie awards with them, but to donate them back to the Jessie committee. The Jessies are the Vancouver theatre awards. Most people are thrilled to win one; two would be a great honour. Between them, for writing, acting and design, Ken and Morris had around 32 Jessies. 32. Morris has won the Governor General's award as a playwright TWICE. The only indication of their phenomenal success was the very good bottle of wine they brought, and that Morris's grey striped sweater looked awfully soft, and Ken had the latest iPhone. He draws on it, like a sketchbook.

This morning, Chris and I managed to get to the Art Gallery of Ontario without freezing to death, which was already an achievement. We saw the King Tut exhibit which was, in the old sense of the word, awesome. Stunning artifacts - statuary, jewellry - from thousand of years ago. There were hoardes of school children there and it was crowded, but I was glad all those kids were getting a good look at how old our planet really is, and at the artistry of 3000 B.C.

One grouse: There were large explanatory panels everywhere, welcome and readable. But on one, about Howard Carter who discovered the Tut tomb, was written, "Overwhelmed, the contents of the small chamber came into focus for him." That means that the contents of the small chamber were overwhelmed. I'm sure they were, to be suddenly uncovered after thousands of years.

Perhaps it meant that Howard Carter was overwhelmed, but that's not what that sentence, with its dangling participle, says. Don't you think an exhibit that must have costs many thousands to put together would make sure it had proper grammar on its signage? I think it's shocking.

Then we toured some of the rest of the refurbished AGO, the bright halls newly designed by Gehry, the wonderful David Milne room, rooms of Impressionist art. I've spent the year touring museums in 3 of the great cities of the world, and yet hardly ever go to the marvellous gallery in my own home town. Great to see it with a friend. He was impressed, even though this is Toronto and he's from Vancouver and so is obligated to put us down.

Tonight, Chris, my son Sam and I went to see Up in the Air, directed by Canadian Jason Reitman, starring, as I'm sure you know, the most charming man on earth, George Clooney. It's a good film. Yes, we did pick apart plot inconsistencies, things that were simply not believable - we each had at least one big one - but Clooney and the other actors - and especially the two actresses - were very good, and the film does the important job of putting a moving human face on the cost of downsizing. Two thumbs up.

Then we all managed to get home without freezing to death. This is serious cocooning time. Best not to emerge till May.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday report

Chris Tyrell is here, visiting from Vancouver. I've written about my beloved Chris often before - we spent part of a week in Provence together this past July, and have been best friends since 1975 - through the enormous ups and downs of our adult lives, the end of his long-term partnership, my own divorce, his HIV diagnosis ... letters, phone calls and now email and Skype have kept us in almost daily touch since my move from Vancouver in 1983.

Together, we fall into a companionable Darby and Joan rhythm - he thinks I am too speedy and Toronto, so I try to slow down to his Vancouver pace; I think he's a crotchety old fart who's also one of the most sentimental, emotional men I've ever met. We argued almost instantly upon his arrival - he told me that though he loved the movie of Charlotte's Web, he would never read the book. "Ugh," he said, "too syrupy." I nearly smacked him.
"It's written by E.B. White!" I shouted. "One of the best writers ever! It's not syrupy, it's brilliant." No, he would have none of it. Infuriating and wrong. As I am, often, to him. Thus, our friendship is always interesting and endures.

I think what's going on in Copenhagen is hopeful - that the whole world and its most important leaders are paying a great deal of attention, finally, to global environmental issues; perhaps true progress will be made. Chris says it's all nonsense because they're not dealing with population growth. What's the point of regulating global warming if people keep having big families and swamping the planet? he says. Okay okay, a point.

We agree 100% in our opinion of S. Harper, our representative of Canada at Copenhagen - our dear country, which has always thought of itself as one of the good guys, now shown to be one of the baddest. Sad sad sad.

Am I getting into the Xmas spirit? My son is coming over tomorrow to help pick a tree and put it up, so I guess so. There's a wreath on my front door, stockings hung up in the kitchen and baubles strung on my indoor hibiscus, which is suffering from black spot and almost leafless - does that count?

Tonight, the playwright and actor Morris Panych and the designer Ken MacDonald - who got married in 2004 - are coming for dinner, to see Chris. What illustrious company, such tremendously talented, accomplished and interesting men. Chris has cooked potato chickpea masala dhosa for dinner; the house smells like New Delhi. We went yesterday to Little India to get ingredients - outside, a bleak December day, little puffs of snow and feeble grey light, inside, the rich spices and bright bangles of India. I'm looking forward to tonight.

And tomorrow, I'm going to go to a small independent bookstore to do some Xmas shopping - including a copy of Charlotte's Web, one of the most beautiful books ever written, for Chris.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday night

The merriment has begun - holiday festivities, parties, events, trying not to drink and eat too much, to no avail. Went last night to a concert by newchoir - "Toronto's community rock pop choir," a non-auditioned choir of close to a hundred voices, including my dear friend Lynn. Their great idea this year was to feature only Canadian hit songs, and what a stellar gathering - from Gordon Lightfoot to Alannis Morrisette by way of the Arcade Fire, Sarah McLachlan, Nickleback, Rush, and my own favourites, Blue Rodeo.

Best of all was the supreme Leonard Cohen song, Hallelujah - goosebump-making when belted by a hundred voices, auditioned or no - and the foot-stompin' beat of No Sugar Tonight by the Guess Who. It seems a very, very long time ago when I loved the Guess Who. Ah, youth. Oh, Canada.

Then to an annual neighbourhood gathering where we all gabble and get caught up - the little girl down the street is now taking a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Calgary, that sort of thing. Days, now, spent trying to avoid spending money, trying to avoid line-ups at cash registers and the post office - ah, I'm doing my Grinch thing again.

Watched a very little bit of Oprah's special tonight, Christmas with the Obamas. Two extraordinarily accomplished, beautiful and successful women, the two most important women, perhaps, in all America, meandered, chatting, through the halls of the White House. They are both compassionate, highly intelligent and using their enormous power in the best possible ways. Even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that they both happen to be women of colour.

As I write, I am listening to Abbey Road. Because the sky is blue, they sing, it makes me cry. Four brilliant musicians at the top of their game, making their last music together. There is something so tender and crystalline here.

One sweet dream/came true today
Sunday's on the phone to Monday/ Tuesday's on the phone to me ...
Once there was a way/to get back homeward/
Boy, you're gonna carry that weight ...

Makes me cry.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Nick writes about Goldie

My old acting buddy Nick Rice has just written to me about Goldie. He too was in the production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in 1979. Doing the very long show was heavy going - like marching through Siberia. Nick and I cheered each other up by going on stage before the show and singing at the tops of our lungs. He played his guitar, and we made up a song that went, "Oh I really don't want/to do this show tonight." That was the Nice Rice Band. He writes:

My two sweetest memories of
Three Sisters (aside from the pre-show antics of the Nice Rice Band) are...

You comforted me in the dressing room one night. I was distraught, telling you I felt totally at sea. "Nicky-Nick," you said, your eyes brimming with compassion, "what would Toozenbach really like to say to Irena at that point?" "Please," I said, "touch my cheek." Whereupon I burst into tears -- knowing that with you it was safe to do so.

Then one night early in the run, I had been killed in a duel, and I was sitting in the dressing-room, doing the crossword with a kid I was convinced had no future in show-business (Colin Mochrie). Suddenly, just before she went out on stage to do her plaintive speech about the 'happy birds', Goldie came up behind me, put her arms around me, and said: "This is like hugging an old blanket when you know you have to go and do something scary."

Has anyone ever said anything so sweet to me? Well, sure -- every now and then, someone does -- but oh G-d, how I wish I could have been there to soothe her in these last few weeks.

Goldie was right: Nick is like a warm blanket, one of the nicest men in show business. He's been having his own health battles recently, getting through with his usual wry humour and grace. And Colin Mochrie, for those of you in Kuala Lumpur, is now one of the best-known improv comedians on the planet. I guess playing one of the young soldiers in Three Sisters with us was not one of his star moments.

getting a table

Just received another note from a blogee called Rose who, like Lynn, couldn't respond to a post. Luckily my dear friend Chris is coming from Vancouver on Monday to stay for a week. Like our mutual friend Bruce, Chris is a geek of the highest order. I hope he'll take a look and maybe fix some of the bugs. My blog needs a good facelift anyway; there's lots more stuff to add. The blogee, whom I don't know, wrote:

Once again, cannot overcome the technical hurdles to comment on your most recent post about your class dinner. Thought I'd finally been able to log in but nooooo. Below is the comment I attempted to post till my weary fingers failed -
Trying to understand why these blog posts always find me sayng, 'yes, o yes!' and responding. They are always accessible and ready to be jumped into, roomy with take-off points. I had just been mini-essaying my husband on the need for us to sit facing each other when we 'talk,' though for years it's been side by side chairs, facing the fireplace. Something about eye contact and conviviality. That does it! This Christmas I'm getting a table.

Love "roomy with take-off points." Many thanks. I wish you joy at your festive board, eye to eye with your husband.

Those who've been following my financial woes - are there no boundaries in this blog, girl? - will be happy to hear that I've rented both the downstairs flat and the upstairs room until the summer. A very nice guy who's in town only 2 or 3 nights a week, a friend of a student, has rented up, and a very nice quiet young woman down. Plus I have two new clients for writing coaching - so there will be Christmas on Sackville Street after all. Except that I've just noticed some tiles looking pretty banged up on the roof, and have called my roofer ... so we may be cancelling the festivities once more.

It was bitterly cold last night, but Alissa York and I found a pub on the Danforth and talked about writing and teaching and teaching writing over red wine and French fries for a few hours. Bliss. Alissa is a fellow teacher at U of T and a brilliant novelist, whose last book, Effigy, was nominated for a Giller award. She writes fiction. This means that she delves deep and invents a planet and all its people and everything that happens there.

I marvel at this. Effigy was extraordinarily inventive, about Mormons in Utah the last century - how did she come up with those ideas, especially as someone who's never been to Utah, is not a Mormon and is writing more than a hundred years later? She did because that's her job. She's what I think of as a real writer - someone who spends countless disciplined hours getting the words out and down. She said that sometimes it literally feels as if she's dragging herself by the hair, pulling out the pages. She does not get up every seven minutes to answer the phone or check her email, unlike some people I could name. Ah well. That is why she has just finished a new novel which will come out next fall, whereas my memoir is a work-in-progress bunch of bits. Still, she was very nice about my book. My one book.

Our conversation was roomy with take-off points.

Friday, December 11, 2009

the importance of sitting down

It's as if bitchy Winter said to herself, Enough fooling around, let's show these idiots a thing or two. Suddenly, overnight, we're in the dead of it - nine below, wind chill of minus seventeen. It feels worse because we haven't gone gradually into the deep freeze. Just whammo. But hey, we're Canucks, we can take anything she can dish out. Can't we? At least, until we have to call the army to dig us out.

A wonderful event last night - a Christmas pot-luck here with my home class students. I cooked chicken and ham, and they all showed up with gorgeous goodies. The star, as always, is Pat's husband's smoked salmon; he actually buys a salmon and cures and smokes it himself, and then BAKES THE BREAD to go with this unbelievably delectable treat. What, he doesn't catch the fish himself, what kind of sluggard is he?

The rest was fabulous too, sweet potatoes, fruit and green salads, cheeses, molten chocolate, decadent cake, accompanied by Prosecco; we were all groaning by the end, and yet working too - there were stories to read and critique, and I dug up a Christmas story I read on CBC's "Fresh Air" in 1997. So we groaned and we worked.

What was different about last night was that before the guests arrived, I dragged my breakfast table over to the dining-room table to make as big a seating area as possible. Before, people took their plates wherever they wanted, so there were little groups here and there. But last night, we were a family, with Jason, our man, at the head. Dad, we called him. The importance not just of communal feasting but of sitting down at table together is something I learned from the Blins in France, this past summer. Even when there were 35 people to feed, in the days before and just after the wedding, the family insisted on setting the table, and we all sat down at once. I resisted, in my efficient North American way - so much easier to pick up a plate, fill it and just go eat somewhere for God's sake! But no, we all sat. And talked and laughed and drank and ate and argued and made friends, for hours.

Of course, that's easier to do when you have an extremely long garden under the green oaks and hot sun of Provence, and an army of assistants to get food out of the kitchen and onto the plates. But what mattered most was conversation and community, at table. So from now on, unless there are an enormous number of people who simply cannot be accommodated all at once, we're sitting down. With real plates and glasses and cutlery, too.

Because we spend our time in class reading personal essays about our deepest thoughts and feelings, all of us at the pot-luck were already close. Still, by the end of last night, we were closer.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

mourning Goldie Semple

Many tears today - mine, and those of my friend Chris Tyrell, who called from California when he heard the news, and I'm sure tears from everyone who knows something about the theatre in this country. One of Canada's most beautiful and accomplished actresses, Goldie Semple, died yesterday at the age of 56. Unbelievably - no, not unbelievably, if you knew Goldie - she was on stage all summer long, working at the Shaw Festival where she'd spent many successful years. As ill as she was with cancer, nothing kept her from her work.

Goldie and I worked on three or four shows together in Vancouver in the 70's, including the musical comedy "The Club," in which we played men in a turn of the century men's club, dressed in tuxedos and top hats, I with a moustache drawn in with eyeliner and Goldie with a distinguished 5 o'clock shadow. She was impossibly beautiful even as a man, tall, elegant and expressive, carrying herself like royalty, always. Later we performed in Chekhov's "Three Sisters," she as the unhappy Masha - "I am in mourning for my life" - and I as the vile wife of brother Andrey. Goldie was unforgettable, so intelligent and desolate, tossing her books aside in despair, then wracked by her illicit love. In rehearsals and at each performance, she was the essence of professionalism. I don't ever remember her getting sick or forgetting a line; she was dependable, solid, 100% engaged.

I left the stage not long after that, and along with many other Vancouver stalwarts, Goldie left Vancouver for the east - Stratford and then Shaw. She was that rare actor who, I think, was never, not once, out of work for more than a brief hiatus. We met on occasion after shows, had lunch or dinner together, talked about our children and our work, now so different. What a pleasure to watch her on stage through the years, statuesque, regal, the way she turned her head, the flash of her eyes, the perfect gesture of a hand - just, simply, her astounding beauty. She made me want to go back on stage, to work with her again.

Goldie Semple was a kind, loving woman and a wonderful actress. We are in mourning, now, for her life - for what was, and for what might have, should have, been.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

another report from New York

Had to share this - I just received a note from Nina Capelli, the Director of Development for the Stella Adler Studio in New York. She did a great job making a flyer and programs and getting a good, full audience. And her note here is a great gift to me.

It was a wonderful evening and I am so glad that I was in the audience. Your talk is fantastic – warm and intimate and educational and inspirational. I hope our paths will cross again soon some time. Thank you for joining us and for bringing such a special evening to the Studio.

Many thanks, and a Merry Christmas to you too, Nina.

a guest blog

Slush. Actual slush today and high winds. We're in for it now.

My dear friend Lynn has just emailed from the south of France. I'll leave you to enjoy her note, just as she sent it.

I tried to respond to one of your blogs; but after 20 minutes of changing my password and copying out 10 different codes I gave up. So I'm copying it here. ( It was the blog where you complained - yes, yes, I know. It's hard to believe, but you actually complained about something!) and I'm responding to the complaint:

I love these weeks before Christmas. I love hearing 'Little Drummer Boy", and "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" as I walk along the streets of Montpellier in 18°C weather under a bright blue sky with a mistral blowing. I love the smile on the girl at the cash desk at the 2 euro store because she's already getting into all the joy of the people buying 2 euro junk to decorate their places for Christmas.I love all the hope there. It is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. No earplugs for me. But then again, I live above a bar. But you know that. lynn

My friend does occasionally rub it in that she is in the south of France and we are knee-deep in slush. We forgive her because she allows us to stay with her on occasion, even though, as she says, she lives right above a bar. But the bar is in Montpellier, which is one of the nicest places in France.

Lynn, thank you for giving me a glimpse of someone who actually enjoys that syrupy Xmas music. Mind you, it helps that, perhaps because of your years dedicated to Motown, you have obviously gone slightly deaf. This isn't surprising, given that you are that much older. But even so, a remarkably hot Ph.D. and living in the absolutely right place on earth for your best, much younger friend to visit.


As I mentioned in that same complaining blog, there's an interesting discussion going on in the Globe and Mail's book pages on-line about the fact that Canada Reads, which happily has chosen Wayson's Jade Peony among others, has never selected a non-fiction book. Here's what I posted in response:

Just to expand the discussion a bit, as readers like MelissaW are limiting non-fiction, in this discussion, to mean mostly journalistic or informational writing - non-fiction includes memoir, of which there is a great wealth in Canada, also always ignored. Wayson Choy, for example, whose "Jade Peony" is now being honoured yet again, wrote a beautiful memoir called "Not Yet" this year, which despite rave reviews has been shut out of non-fiction awards.

Other personal favourites, superb books all: "The Danger Tree," by David Macfarlane; "Belonging," by Isabel Huggan; "The Way of a Boy," Ernest Hillen; "Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje; "Memoirs of Montparnasse" by John Glassco; "My Turquoise Years," by M.A.C. Farrant.

Even other non-fiction writers sometimes dump on memoirs, presuming them to be self-indulgent attempts at therapy, and some of them are. But books like these are rich and wise and will endure as long as any novel. Give me a true story, any day.

Someone has written in to say that with all the suggestions, they now have their Christmas book list. You can't go wrong with these. I am buying Not Yet for everyone. I beg you, please buy books as gifts this year, and buy them from a small independent bookstore - in Toronto, a place like Ben McNally's downtown, or Nicholas Hoare, or This Ain't the Rosedale Library - struggling to survive, all. You can pass on the joy of a good book - think non-fiction! memoir! - and support those brave booksellers at the same time.

And to my dear Lynn in Montpellier - I think I'll send the new C.D. of Bob Dylan singing Christmas songs. What a joyful, tuneful sound for her. She'd better turn it up loud, though, so her poor deaf ears can hear.


PS Sorry about the confusion of sixteen different fonts today.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December cold

It's cold. November was a dream, but now here's the real thing: a few snowflakes yesterday, and today, frost in bristly patches on the ground. You can feel the city, literally, turning inward, huddling, hunkering - it's here, will be here for months, all we can do is put our heads down and get through. I made sure my bird feeder was filled, and dug the next level of warmth in coats, boots and gloves out of storage. I have my own cold, too; December has settled, coughing, in my chest.

Was at one of my favourite annual events tonight - each year, Continuing Studies at U of T has a night honouring five teachers who've been nominated by their students for a teaching award. The wine and food flow, and the five receive plaques and make short speeches. As usual, but even more so tonight, the individuals honoured - a teacher of grammar, of Dutch, of poetry - were warm, funny, fascinating, especially the little woman in a short red velvet dress and high heels, a history teacher who'd brought a tiara for herself and her boss. It's easy to see why their students love them. I'm proud to be part of this team, proud and happy to be a teacher. The food's good too.

A Hard Day's Night was on TV tonight, and I watched it yet again - not for pleasure of course, no no no, merely for research, because I'm trying to understand the power of those four men. How unique they were, cheeky and yet safe, and what a marvellous balance they had. You can see how necessary it was for the survival of the group that George and Ringo be quiet and easy-going, allowing the huge talents and egos of John and Paul to bloom. They sang "If I fell," which has the most perfect harmonic arrangement between the dark steadiness of John's voice and the sweet balladeer lightness of Paul's, and I swooned all over again.

I saw, this time, why in 1964 I didn't fall in love with John but with Paul - Paul was a boy, still, a baby-faced cherub with long curly eyelashes. John was a man. He had a warm, lively manner and smile, but there's something menacing about him too, as he stands planted at the mike, as he surveys the idiots around him and grins. At fourteen, I was not ready for a man.

And they, young young men in their early twenties, bursting with talent and energy, going along for the ride with great good humour, thinking it all might end tomorrow. My favourite line from the movie: a supercilious journalist asks George, "And what do you call that hairstyle?"
"Arthur," replies George.

I've just read an article in the New Yorker about "The Milkmaid" in New York. Vermeer was about 25 when he painted it - just a little older than the Beatles are in the film, the age my son is now. 25. I look again at the reproduction of the painting in the magazine - she stands beneath the window to her right, as so many of Vermeer's subjects do, carefully pouring milk from a pitcher into a pot. How much more humdrum can an activity be? And yet she's so beautiful, so true, so perfectly there in her white cap, yellow bodice with green sleeves and blue overskirt with red below, that countless admirers have stood still to watch her. The Dutch milkmaid is composed of little dabs of paint put on canvas in 1657, yet she breathes so nearly like us that she brings tears to the eyes. What a marvel.

The prize-winning Dutch teacher, in her speech tonight, reminded us that it was the Dutch who bought the island of New Amsterdam from the native peoples. If their colony had not been overthrown by the British, she mused, perhaps Dutch would be as common a language as English or French. Of course then, no one would need to learn Dutch at the U of T, she said, and I'd be out of a job.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

for Canadians: Ron Graham on Ignatieff

I have just read the most spot-on, brilliant, and highly enjoyable piece of political writing: Ron Graham's piece about Michael Ignatieff in the current Walrus. I could not recommend it more highly; it's a must read for Canadians, no matter what party or what part of the country you're from. Even as someone utterly uninterested in Canada's political manoeuverings, I've always been aware of the smooth Toronto Liberal machine, Bay Street making decision for the party and the country based solely on their own needs and values. I was in Ottawa when, thanks to the Toronto smoothies, Jean Chretien was passed over and John Turner, smart with a good jawline and hungry for power, chosen for the leadership of the Liberal Party. We all know how that turned out.

And, says Graham, the same thing happened with Ignatieff. A small group got the idea to play kingmaker, and reality played no part - the fact that the man had been out of the country for nearly 3 decades and knew nothing about politics - didn't matter, he was smart with a good jawline and hungry for power. And now we are on the verge of a Harper majority because of it.

The piece is precise and pointed, knowledgeable and funny. At one point he says that Ignatieff produced "no new reasons why the Thinifer should replace the Fattypuff." Fattypuff is Harper - the perfect name. Wow. Ron Graham, my nominee for writer of the year. I urge you to read it, and then let's rally behind finding a new Liberal leader, one who can lead this time, to make sure that the current dreadful bunch of out-of-touch hypocritical bandits don't get a majority.

Okay, that's my gentle political analysis for the season, let's move on to Christmas, where I'm also in full battle mode. On entering my favourite place of retreat, the women's health club at the Y, I was blasted with Jingle Bells - they had installed a sound system just so we could enjoy loud Christmas music. Because we don't get to hear it anywhere else. No! I screamed, out loud. Please God, no. And eventually, they turned it off, at least while I was there. I absolutely hate these weeks before Xmas, with exhausted people rushing out to buy more stuff and the air thick with those now-meaningless saccharine songs over and over and over. I carry earplugs and put them in before I go inside, anywhere, because if I hear the Little Drummer Boy one more time I'm going to start smashing things.

I love Christmas - family and friends gathering for a meal, a tranquil day together, small quantities of reasonable gift-giving - my favourites are home-made gifts or promises, as my kids know. "I'll make you five meals," they write on a card. That's what I want for Xmas. I think my horror in NYC this time, much more extreme than in the past, was because the pre-Christmas rush felt like some kind of bloodletting or feeding frenzy. It was frightening. Accompanied by huge doses of - what else? - the Little Drummer Boy.

Every year my friend Ken goes on a silent retreat to a monastery for the two weeks around Xmas. I may join him.

And finally, two other beefs - today is the last day for the Carlton Cinema. I was going to go see a film, any film, to celebrate this important space, but the cold I was fighting in NYC has caught up with me and I'm staying put. How we Toronto'ites will miss this multiplex specialising in arty, foreign, independently made films and documentaries not shown elsewhere. Let's just hope that some intrepid entrepreneur is planning, right now, to open a replacement. I am, as the kids say, so there.

And ... the Globe is currently hosting an on-line discussion in its internet books section on why, in 9 years of the Canada Reads series on CBC honouring and publicising Canadian books, there has not been ONE single non-fiction book. I've made my own contribution to the discussion; you can log on and make yours.

Gosh, lots to bitch about today. My cold can't be that bad. What fun. Time for another glass of wine.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

wrap up, NYC

Dear Beth: I can’t tell you what a strong impression you made on our students. We have had an enormous number of very impressive speakers and artists of other kinds. Rarely have I heard so much excitement or enthusiasm.

Well! That email from Tom made me happy. I also just received an email from a member of the other Yiddish theatre in NYC, which I didn't even know existed - the New Yiddish Rep Theater. He praises the book and is interested in some kind of event. Another possibility in New York. It's all good, as the kids say.

I am home. So good to be home in tiny little Toronto. I have never left New York with anything but relief, I have to say - just to flee that intensity, the relentless crush and pace, the energy, the non-stop hurtling. It's mind-boggling, the number of fabulous things to see and do. But there's something dehumanising about the city too, something debilitating. The most discontented, sour faces in the world live in New York.

Yesterday, Wednesday, I went to the Morgan Library to see a wonderful exhibit on the work of Jane Austen, with some of her manuscripts and letters on display. Did you know that all Jane's novels were published anonymously? That she never made enough money from them, despite their success, to support herself independently? That means a lot, coming after the recent arguments in this blog about writing for money versus writing for truth. In a film commentary at the exhibit, one of the speakers says, "The timeless writers, the ones who do not date, stay with us because they have told the truth." Whether they made money during their lifetimes, or not.

I learned that Jane wrote some 3000 letters (of which only 160 survive), and that she also wrote poetry, her final poem three days before she died at the age of 41. It's fascinating to see her letters, mostly to her sister Cassandra, from which she has carefully edited an occasional sentence by snipping it out with scissors.

The library also had on display the original manuscript of Dicken's Christmas Carol, written in six weeks in 1843. Lots of editing there, lines scribbled out - a story written fast, expressly to make money. Which he did, and good for him. And I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles, with no editing whatsoever.

It poured with rain in the late afternoon. I hauled my stuff from Ted's, six blocks down 3rd Avenue to Lola's at 70th. As I've said, Lola is my father's cousin and exactly the age, 87, that he would have been. She has defeated cancer and various ailments and still works as a jewellry artist, producing rings and bracelets, besides seeing everything worth seeing in New York at a vastly reduced senior's rate. She lives on very little money in a rent-controlled studio apartment - one big room, packed with books, family photographs and art, including oil paintings and ceramics by her mother Belle, my grandfather's sister and an accomplished artist. She told me that the other two apartments on her floor have been knocked into one big place that rents for $18,000 a month. Yes, that's the correct figure. $18,000 a month.

The local deli had poached some salmon for her for our dinner, and then we set out for our adventure - getting down to the theatre on W. 45th in the rain with the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting, a major NYC event, going on at the same time. Earlier, I'd seen hundreds of NYC policemen on 5th Avenue, and asked a couple of cops if they were there just for the tree lighting. Yes, they were. One asked where I was from and when I said Toronto, he said, "I'm nearly Canadian. I'm from Buffalo." Nearly Canadian, indeed!

Of course, Lola had a plan - the Lexington Avenue bus down to 42nd Street and across on 42nd and then walk up to 45th so we'd avoid the tree, at 50th, altogether. We were at the theatre in plenty of time, to see Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts who made such a splash with August: Osage County, that Lola and I saw last time I was in NYC. These tickets were a gift from my ex-husband, who picked the play for us and provided house seats. Donuts was produced by the Steppenwolf Company from Chicago, and it was superb. A classically well-made play, a wonderful company - great writing, direction, acting, just a perfect evening at the theatre, except that I wish the theatre had been full to support this fine work. It wasn't. Perhaps because there are no big stars in it. Jude Law is on Broadway in Hamlet, Cate Blanchett about to open in Streetcar, and Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in something or other that's had bad reviews but is packed anyway. (Mind you, if I'd had more time, I wouldn't have minded seeing those talented hunks...)

Lola and I got the bus home just before a major rainstorm, chatting with the bus driver and the one other passenger as if it was a limo just for us. In fact, we chatted to people all evening - on the busses there and at the theatre too. New York can be so friendly and warm, with an openness that would be unusual in London and Paris, another NYC paradox. A woman and I had such a good talk in Lola's elevator about her labradoodle, a lab/poodle cross, we were practically best friends by the time I got out.

This morning, a gorgeous day - 65 degrees, so mild and sunny, a young woman was walking around in a short-sleeved dress, bare-legged. I walked back to the Met to see the Robert Frank photography exhibit. He was a Swiss photographer who documented the America of the 50's and 60's - black, white, rich, poor, he captured them all with empathy and so much candour that when the book of his shots first appeared, he was accused of being anti-American. Jack Kerouac wrote the foreword to Frank's book and said, "Robert Frank ... with that little camera that he raises and snaps in one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world. To Robert Frank, I now give this message: you got eyes."

But that was all I could stand. A vast museum, one of the best in the world, but I'm overloaded this year, after London and Paris. I know how spoiled and absurd that sounds - too much art! Can't take it any more! But it's true.

Lunch was a big bowl of chicken vegetable soup, delicious, for $2.99. Yes, that's the correct figure - $2.99. It's incredible that everyone here isn't fat, because there's cheap, delicious take-out food on every corner. New York is the most absurd juxtaposition of incomprehensible expense and cheapness. Exhausting. Every possible thing that you might want is out there, somewhere, and the only way to survive is not to want anything. Nothing at all. Once you start, it's endless. David Suzuki, we're doomed. No one in New York is reducing consumption. Rapacious consuming is the main activity, perhaps the only activity, besides an occasional walk in Central Park. Amassing stuff and throwing out other stuff.

A few other observations: Tantrums. I kept hearing children screaming with tantrums. These are the kids who are going to be paying for our pensions. Not good.
Saw a kosher Dunkin' Donuts. And tons, now, of comfy shoe stores. If there's a need - and we're all aging and our feet hurt - New York will instantly provide.
Every young person seems to have a journal. On trains, busses, subways, they're scribbling.
On the streets, black doo-wop singers doing dance routines in four-part harmony. Extremely good.
The anonymous big-footed woman let me down this trip. She gives her large shoes to the Housing Works Thrift Store, and I buy them. But she hasn't been clearing out her closets recently. A great disappointment.
Lola showed me her favourite New York holiday decoration - a giant sparkly thing strung above Fifth Avenue. It could be a snowflake, or it could be a star, depending on your orientation.

Glad to be home. But it was a very good trip.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

the morning after

These days, when I start a formal talk about my book, I quote my French friend Daniel, who told me that the book “is part of the battle against amnesia.” The book fights to uncover and respect the past and understand its legacy. Last night, an audience got that exploration of legacy as never before.

What a thrilling event. I had no idea what to expect – perhaps a handful of people, as has happened in some of the other places that sponsored a talk – about 20 at the Stratford Festival, which got around to publicising it late; about a dozen at the Jewish library in Toronto. About 30 came, including five relatives, to the 92nd Street Y the last time I spoke in New York; I was hoping for at least that but prepared for far fewer.

I got to the Stella Adler Studio early, to work, as Tom Oppenheim the director of the Studio had asked, with the actors. It’s exciting just walking into the acting school, its cramped, busy space on West 27th crawling with intense young acting students – there, a huge bust of Stanislavsky, and there, portraits of Tom’s grandparents, the great actress and teacher Stella and her husband Harold Clurman, the influential director. “The theatre is a sacred space,” said a sign on the door of the small theatre where I was to speak and an assembly of actors to read excerpts from the plays. Marvellous actors – Betsy Parrish, who teaches at the school, read from Mirele Efros, Adam Gerber and Danielle Rabani, graduates from the school, read from the Kreutzer Sonata, and Michael Howard was the Jewish King Lear. We ran through their pieces, set up the space, and retired to the Green Room to chat.

From there, we heard a noise, growing – the sound of a lively audience. Michael said to Adam and Danielle, “May you hear that sound every night for the rest of your lives. Except for your day off.” Tom began, speaking with his usual eloquence about building a meaningful theatre, a theatre of social relevance, and then he introduced me. A joyful moment, to step onto a stage with fine actors behind me waiting to work and in front, a full house. The space was packed – standing room only. Maybe 70 or more, some of them young students from the school sitting on the floor at the front. “This is a friendship,” I said, hugging Tom, “that started 120 years ago.”

I told stories about Gordin and my search for him for almost an hour, then the actors did their magnificent readings – I had goosebumps, they were so good - and I finished off. The audience liked it. Some of the young actors, paupers though they undoubtedly are, bought the book and had me sign it.

Then adults, a whole group of Adlers, including Tom’s mother, Stella’s only daughter Ellen, and Josie, daughter of Tom’s aunt Lulla Rosenfeld who wrote her own book about the Yiddish theatre and helped me with mine. Josie reported a conversation. Ellen, at the end of my talk, asked Josie, "Are you going to say hello?" And Josie replied, "Say hello? I’m going to move in with her!"

They were so warm and generous, this bunch of descendants of Jacob Adler’s, to this descendant of his colleague Jacob Gordin. We must have lunch, Josie said. I’ll make dinner, said Ellen, who has incredible stories to tell. The Studio should help you sell your book, said Tom. And so I must come back to New York sooner rather than later, to greet my new family. Because that’s how it felt.

On the subway home, a group of women opposite were talking about the reading at the Cooper Union with Tony Kushner et al. Apparently Kushner was fabulous. I’m sorry I missed him. But my own small event was pretty fabulous too.

This morning I've received a very nice note from the Artistic Director of the Folksbiene, saying it was all a misunderstanding, he is very interested in the book and my work. That's great news. Perhaps we can work out an event of some kind.

I have been fighting a bug with massive doses of Cold-FX, but now that my talk's over, miraculously I feel healthy again. Half a day, now, to explore NYC - late afternoon I move from my cousin Ted's to Cousin Lola's and take her to the theatre tonight. She's 87 and it's supposed to pour with rain, so there are logistical problems, but she is the feistiest 87-year old in the world, so we'll make it. She has a plan. You don't go anywhere with a New Yorker without a plan.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

discovering The Moth

The sky is sunny again, and so am I. My friend Lynn, who taught high-school and several times took her classes on trips, told me she'd always instruct the kids at the start, "Stop complaining. The first day is always hard. Wait till the third day to tell me your problems." I should have heeded her advice.

Last night, a grand adventure. I first heard about "The Moth" a few years ago and have been following its progress on the internet. It's a storytelling forum, founded in the south where moths would beat on screen doors at night as the storytellers recounted their tales inside. It now sponsors evenings of storytelling and "story slams," highly competitive events, in New York and L.A. Sometimes famous people, Garrison Keillor types, are involved, but mostly, it's amateurs - you put your name in a hat when you arrive, and if your name is drawn, you have five minutes to stand at the mike and tell a great story. Ten people have their five minutes, are judged, and the highest score goes on to the national competition. There are topics. Last night, at last, I was in town on a Moth night, so was thrilled to be able to go. The topic was "Nerve."

But first, I should tell you another reason I was sad yesterday. Last night, there was another event here in New York. The Folksbiene Theatre, the Yiddish theatre, held a special evening last night in honour of the hundredth anniversary of my great-grandfather Jacob Gordin's death in 1909. They showed a film of one of his plays, and an elderly Yiddish actress was the guest of honour.

I do not know why this theatre has no interest in the author of a book about Gordin, one of the best-known Yiddish playwrights whose plays have been produced in this very theatre for decades, and who is, incidentally, Gordin's great-granddaughter - but it doesn't. I have written letters, emailed and left phone messages about coming to speak there, or even just to speak to someone about my book. I have never received a response. One of the reasons I'm here this weekend is because when Tom Oppenheim, head of the Stella Adler Studio, heard about the Folksbiene event, he said in his usual enthusiastic, open way, "We should do something together!" But the Artistic Director, apparently, had no interest. Still, until yesterday afternoon, I thought that they might try to contact me.

So yes, I was hurt. But at the same time, I was glad. I've given my life's blood - more than 20 years of research and writing - to Jacob Gordin, the book and the Yiddish Theatre, and now want to move forward. One thing that interests me is stand-up storytelling, so The Moth is something I've been keen to see. And happily, I was free to go.

The event last night - the venue shifts constantly - was at the Bitter End, the famous club on Bleeker Street in the Village, home of so many musicians in the Sixties. I stood in a very long line outside for half an hour, amazed by the popularity of the event, especially among the younger crowd - I'd say the average age was 32. It was packed inside, but I managed to find a seat at a table of young people, and ended up in a fascinating discussion with Nathan, sitting next to me, who's 25, a freelance writer and peace activist who often comes to The Moth and gave me his card at the end of the evening. Nathan is a keeper.

The M.C. was Sara Barron, a stand-up comic who at first I found almost offensive, her stories were so personal, honest to the point of embarrassment, not only about herself but about her former boyfriends whose names she gave us, various friends and family - a long riff on her father's impotence. In the end, though, she won me over - she is relentlessly honest about herself most of all, and she is funny and brave. I would not, however, want to be a friend of hers.

The names were drawn and the stories began, one terrible, several not so good and a few pretty fine, almost all entertaining. There wasn't one I thought was superb, but I agreed with the winner, a thirty-ish woman who told a story about connecting with a man over the internet who turned out to want to be her love slave. It was funny but also moving - in the end, she realises she doesn't want a love slave, she wants love and sends him away.

I'd thought of trying to start The Moth in Toronto - why isn't it there yet? But last night, I realised that I hope someone else does, but it won't be me. I'm interested in developing my own stories and in teaching others to do so, but the amount of work to get this event going would be prohibitive for an old bag like me. Any takers, youths out there?

Today it's chilly but bright. It's World AIDS Day, and I'm thinking of my many friends who died of this plague over the years, but also of the many who are living healthy lives with AIDS or HIV, thanks to science. And mostly, I'm getting ready for my talk about my great-grandfather's life and my connection to it, tonight at the Stella Adler Studio. I just read in the Times that there are two other tiny, boring literary events tonight, which will be no competition at all: Salman Rushdie, Tony Kushner and Siri Hustvedt reading and Olympia Dukakis reciting at the Cooper Union, and Katha Pollitt and Ron Padgett, two marvellous writers, in a series called Poems and Pints. I myself would gladly go to either. Ah well.

Tom had hoped Tony Kusher would come to meet me, as he quoted my book in his recent work about the Yiddish Theatre. But he'll be busy. However, last night I relearned something important: the world is hungry for stories. And tonight, to however many hungry people are there, I'll tell mine.

Monday, November 30, 2009

New York in the rain

I'm in an Italian cafe on Second Avenue, listening to a French chanteuse on the soundtrack and watching the cars zoom endlessly by in the rain. New York takes an enormous amount of energy, and I just don't have it today.

I did yesterday, which was a glorious sunny day. Here's what I wrote this morning, Monday, about Sunday:

"The little Porter airplane coming into Newark allowed us a fantastic view of the distant island – still, after all these years, like something out of a dream. Like a child playing with blocks, trying to squeeze as many upright rectangles as possible into a small space. The famous spires – the Empire State, the Chrysler - pierced the morning mist. Impossible not to notice the absence of the two biggest rectangles of all. And at the bottom, barely visible and all alone, the lady and her torch.

Each time I come in, there’s a frisson – like all my great-grandparents on my father’s side, I am an immigrant to this island. And yet I’m not, because I was born here. This metropolis is my birthplace. We moved from New York to Halifax when I was two months old. I carry the passport both of this country and of the country that is mine, that is my true home.

I am proud to say that I’d packed so little, I was able to skip immediately from the plane to the shuttle to the train and thence into Manhattan. 6.30 a.m., wake up in Toronto; noon, eat soup at Cousin Ted’s at 77th and 3rd. Cousin Ted has a place in the “country” – Northport – to which he goes every weekend, leaving his two-bedroom apartment for a steam of visiting friends and family. Without Ted, I would not have been able to write my book; I would not feel as at home as I do in this city.

Here is how to do Manhattan on the cheap: First, have a Cousin Ted in a perfect location. Second, a week-long subway pass costs a mere $27 and is good for both subways and busses. Even though I’m only going to be here for 4 days, by Day 2 the pass will have paid for itself; I haven’t taken a cab for years. I browse at the Housing Works Thrift Shop right across the street – this is not Goodwill, this is a New York thrift store with high end goods and extraordinary prices. My meals are takeout from the nearby Chinese restaurants or Citarella’s, the fish store and gourmet supermarket, and eaten at home. And, unless there’s something I absolutely must see, I get my theatre tickets half-price from the TKTS booth on Times Square.

Since during this amazing year I have visited both Paris and London, I must of course compare. This city is on a grid! You always know where you are! It’s not a rabbit warren, an ant’s nest of meandering streets, ancient medieval pathways, alleys and dead ends worn for a thousand years – well, it’s a bit like that downtown, in Chelsea and Soho, but the rest of the city is snappily efficient and organised. People are bigger here in every way – not just fatter, which of course they are, amazingly so, but taller and far, far louder. They take up a lot of space; there’s a confidence and swagger, a sense of entitlement. And yet they’re friendly, chatting openly with strangers in a way unheard of in European capitals.

At Ted’s I unpacked, called Ted and Henry in Northport and tried with Henry’s help and to no avail to get my computer hooked up to their internet, and called second cousin Lola who’s 87 and knows everything that’s worth seeing in the city. "Don't miss the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA," she said. "Go early. It'll be crazy." It's still Thankgiving here. I changed into my walking shoes and set off for the Met, where Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” was spending its last day. Thanks again to family, I know where the side entrance is to the Met, avoiding the crowds, and headed straight for my favourite painter. Though crowded, it was a fabulous exhibit – the “Milkmaid” had been sent from Amsterdam in memory of the discovery of Manhattan by Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch, and was shown with the other Met Vermeers and other paintings of the genre and era. Sublime. This has been a banner year for me - eight Vermeers! "The Lacemaker" was not in the Louvre but in Japan or it would have been nine. If I go to Frick Museum while here, I can see their three. But maybe I should stop; how many Vermeers can a person absorb in one year? There was a wall showing all 34; I decided that my favourite is "The Astronomer" which is at the Louvre. Which is yours?

Rather than more Met, it was such a heavenly day I took the bus straight down 5th Avenue to get tickets for the night's viewing. Time's Square is completely changed - they've turned some of it into a pedestrian mall and parkette, with little tables and chairs and a big staircase to nowhere to sit on - amazing, in the middle of the craziest intersection on earth, to have this little oasis. I lined up at TKTS and was happy that the show I wanted to see, Fela!, about a Nigerian activist, was on offer. I asked for the best single seat and the guy said, "Center orchestra." Great. It turned out to be center, all right - dead center of the very first row. I was so close that when the star bent over to bow, his sweat droplets landed on me. I'd like to see the show again from a bit further back, but no matter, it was fabulous - Fela was the founder of Afrobeat, there was an incredible band onstage and tons of beautiful black men and women dancing, singing, and acting. Full of energy. I could not have felt further from Paris or London.

But I carry those cities with me - walking around in my silk Paris scarf, my TopShop shirt. It is fun to be in New York wearing Paris and London. Though of course I could not compete with the stylistas here, nor ever want to, in their Prada and whatever. I meandered through Sak's on my way to the theatre. More expensive than is decent. But lovely to look at."

This morning, in the rain, I went to MOMA at Lola's command and did see Tim Burton. It's an exhaustive exhibit of his life's work - sketches, notebooks, sculpture, amateur films, stories, an amazingly creative guy exploring the grotesque and horrific since childhood. Much is made of his suburban childhood in Burbank, California - he was obviously an outcast, outsider, a geeky kid with vicious fantasies who has found a way to make a fortune playing those out for the world. If he'd had a best friend, or grown up in Manhattan, the world might not have those nightmare images - Edward Scissorhands, the Nightmare before Christmas, Beetlejuice. He needs some good buddies, I thought. This is what he wrote as a character study for Edward Scissorhands: "His hobbies are making ice sculptures and playing the steeldrums. Someday he hopes to vacation on the Caribbean Islands." He wrote about Little Dead Riding Hood and is fixated by dead dogs, eyeballs, skeletons, Martians, death, blood, gore. Here's an early poem:

My girlfriend is a statue/I don't know when I noticed it/but I think it was last year/I think it's when I noticed/That crack above her ear.

I had an ambitious plan for the afternoon but the rain and my own fatigue defeated me. I came back to Ted's and to this cafe. Tonight I have more plans, and tomorrow I do my talk at the Stella Adler Studio. At the moment, I am just grateful that I do not live here in this madhouse. A marvellous, thrilling madhouse, but mad nonetheless.