Tuesday, February 24, 2009

teaching and being taught

Lynn, a keen-eyed former student, just wrote to point out in the politest possible way that I'd made a spelling mistake in the last blog - "envelope" instead of "envelop." I had actually sat looking at "envelope," at that extra "e," and had decided it was right. Thank you, Lynn. Usually it's my friend Bruce in Vancouver who catches my shortcomings, but he's in rehearsals right now. When he went through the "Jewish Shakespeare," in all its fact-packed 288 pages, he found only 2 major errors. I had a superb copy-editor then, but not now, relying on my keen-eyed friends.

Yesterday was my long teaching day, U of T in the afternoon and Ryerson at night. I got home as always, exhausted and exhilarated.  How lucky I am to have a job I love so much. We had a difficult assignment at Ryerson this week; the result was one extremely moving essay after another. How hard it is to tell the truth, and how much I admire those who take that leap. The first two weeks of class, as I approach the classroom there's silence, students sitting alone with their thoughts. After that, if as I draw near I hear chatter, laughter, and intense discussion, it's clear they're off and running. 

Only five weeks till I leave for Paris. Panic button. Where to start?

And incidentally, in the photograph below, the sign I'm standing beside is NOT indicating my age. I am not 67. Not bloody yet. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hugh Jackman rocks

Okay, let's get right to the Oscars - what did you think? Wayson and I sat eating apple pie and enjoying the whole thing. The show had an intimate, theatre-y feel, even to the way they shrank that vast stage to a small set every so often. Loved the chatty banter from stage to audience, and having the former winners honour this year's nominees. And India - India everywhere, how amazing is that? Of course, when an Indian movie won, the stage filled with a vast crowd. And the speech of that beautiful young screenwriter of "Milk." And finally, Sean Penn mentioned America electing "an elegant man as President" - the only word about that vital sea-change the whole night. And Hugh Jackman and James Franco - mmmm. Mmmmmmmmmmm. I could go on.

It was fun and we indulged in a minimum of catty talk, though I did think that it's time for Sophia Loren to relax and let it all go, and Goldie Hawn's dress showed just a tad too much, didn't you think? And I didn't like how they did the obituary segment, you couldn't see half the names. But it was classy and self-deprecating in just the right ways, and for once, I didn't turn off the TV much too late and wonder why I'd wasted all that time.

My friend Nick called yesterday to say he's home from the hospital and doing fine. Nick, one of the sweetest, kindest men you will ever meet, and I were actors together in Vancouver in the seventies; he is still acting and supply-teaching, he has a black belt in karate and is also a singer-songwriter. When I visited him in hospital after his operation, he sang a blues song he had just written, which ends, "As the clock proceeds to tick/ and time does what it pleases,/ you just might wake up sick/ with some unfortunate diseases./ So I wish you all the best/ which is what you would expect of me/ 'cause the PSA test, just might suggest/ you get a prostatectomy!"

He was very proud to have found several rhymes for "prostatectomy." What a joyful soul. A young writer friend asked me recently, "How do you handle depression?" I had to think for a moment and then replied, "I don't get depressed." She looked amazed. I explained that I used to, I suppose, when I was younger - certainly I was hit with PMS, when a great dark cloud would envelope my head. But now - my God, who has time for depression? I told her that I love coffee so much that I'm overjoyed to get out of bed in the morning because I'm going to drink coffee. And then there's so much else to look forward to. 

Perhaps this is a factor of being in your late fifties rather than in your late thirties - the sense that time is a'wasting. There are rhymes for "prostatectomy" to find, and beautiful women in long dresses and Hugh Jackman to watch. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

social whirl

A few social events to report on today, as the snow of desolate February whips by my study window once again.  On Friday night, a dinner party gathering here of writers who are also writing teachers - Alissa York and Kathryn Kuitenbrouer, fine novelists who are also fine teachers of fiction writing at U of T, and Wayson, lifelong master teacher. We three women, poor as church mice from our writing, are thankful to the university for providing a paycheque. A study came out last week stating that many Canadian artists live at or below the poverty line; the average female artist earns $19,175. Canadian. A year.

(A segue into why church mice are poorer than other mice - I suppose because no one eats in church and so there's nothing for them there. Do you think?)

Our conversation was rich and wide-ranging, with much discussion of creative endeavours - "What's your process?" Alissa reclusive and single-minded when writing a first draft, Kathryn raising three sons, teaching and grabbing any spare moment to work. We talked a lot about how to handle events in the classroom, such as writing students who don't listen to critiques or want to rewrite. For artists who work in solitude inside their own minds and imaginations, the companionship was a treat, and so were the lasagna and honey balls.

Last night I went to the home of my friend Suzette who's a screenwriter about to head to L.A., with a mutual friend Jessica who owns a gallery of modern art. We met as teenagers in university days and have much to discuss - stories of our other friends and classmates, and of course house prices and how to survive the recession.  We were going to see "Defiance", aka "Jews in the Woods," but the snow was tumbling thick and fast, so Suzette, who's a member of the Writer's Guild of America, played us her copy of "Milk" on widescreen TV while Jessica and I luxuriated in her leather reclining chairs. Now that's the way to watch a movie, particularly one as superb as this. A terrific film - highly recommended, for its skilful presentation of historical reality but also for the fantastic performances. 

I spoke to the kids in Halifax about the time in 1959 when my family was refused entry into the Waegwoltic Club because my father was a Jew. Hard to believe now, just as it's hard to believe a time when there was such rampant, violent, overt prejudice against gay men and women. And yet - not that long ago and bubbling beneath the surface, still. 

The whole time I was writing this, I could hear that very Canadian sound outside - a shovel, over and over, lifting snow. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Halifax report

February is not the best month to visit anywhere in Canada - except perhaps Victoria - but I had the best time in sunny Halifax nonetheless.  It was extraordinary to go back to old Tower Road School, where I first landed in 1958 when I was eight, and see this sign outside. What a welcome!

I was born in Manhattan but in one of the luckiest moves of my life, was taken to Halifax at six weeks, to grow up till the age of sixteen in that small, sea-rimmed town (with a few years in London and Paris for a big city hit.) This trip, as I always do, I went to look at my childhood home, still a lovely old house though the big trees behind it are gone - the hurricane? - and strolled down Spring Garden Road, along Barrington Street and down to the harbour. 

I had a quick walk in Point Pleasant Park too, jealous of the Haligonians with a huge, wild park so near, damaged though it is after the hurricane - walking their dogs or children or jogging or sauntering through. This city is just the right size - lots going on, lots of creative, accomplished, busy people, but it's still easy to get around, still human scale. The waitress in the restaurant where I was taken for lunch was so affectionate, so free with her "darlings" and "dears" that I felt like close family by the end of the meal.  By some miracle, Halifax has managed to preserve some of its finest old buildings, and the residential streets make me lust - rows of lovely wooden houses painted rose, orange, blue, green, with contrasting trim.

I visited old friends: Gay Hauser, a fellow thespian from high school days in Ottawa, and her family; Ian and Donna Thompson who are my heroes, Ian a friend since, I hate to say it, about 1961 and a dear friend since our year at the Grammar School together in '66; Kevin and Donna Ball and Ian Ball, whose mother Dorothy was my mother's best friend, and Ian Slayter, another good friend from the Grammar School year. As someone who keeps diaries and letters, to whom the past is a living place to be re-explored, these meetings are treasures.

My hostess Gay Silverman treated me royally, lending me her car on Tuesday so I could get around - went to Halifax West High school to talk to the kids there (though I got completely lost on the way and ended up on the road to Peggy's Cove - or maybe all the roads out of Halifax are headed to Peggy's Cove.) Anyway, I did get there and spoke to a class of kids doing special projects on the theatre for their drama class. My hostess was Jennie David, who is doing her project on Jacob Gordin's "The Jewish King Lear." I could hardly believe that a high school student in Halifax was interested in what I had learned about the man and the play, and that my trip to her town came by coincidence at exactly the right time. 

And then I spoke to about two hundred kids at the Grammar School. How I wish, as I told them, that my father were alive to be there too - his beloved school fifty years old now, and what a marvellous school. I ached that my own children had grown up in Toronto, subject to an education system smashed into oblivion by Mike Harris, while these lucky Halifax kids bloomed in this school founded by my dad. The old Tower Road School rooms, which were dark in my time, the walls a muddy green, the floors dark wood, are now bright and open; there's a vast art studio, room for music and drama, lots of debating and tons of sports. One girl told me that she had wanted to be a criminal lawyer but, she said, after a stint building houses in El Salvador with her classmates and Habitat for Humanity, she now wants to be a human rights lawyer.  Another girl told me she wants to go to Harvard to study either engineering or science. How proud Dad would have been to hear that! He was very much alive there; people spoke often to me about him. He made a big impact in that small town. 

I am grateful that he opened this door for me - the chance to go back to childhood places as an adult, to share some reflections with a bunch of kids now, to be given so much back, including a billboard with my name on it. Why didn't I find a way to get back here? I wondered, as I left. How can I live in a place without a wild park and the sea?

Perhaps I can't.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lobster tales

To yesterday's blog about the New York Times columnists, I'd like to add the great work of Nicholas Kristof and Bob Herbert. A friend told me he'd heard that the Times was a billion dollars in debt and would go under. Surely this would be the end of civilisation as we know it. If the paper's in trouble, I'll start to BUY it, I promise, and nag you to do so too.

Tomorrow I'm off to Halifax till Wednesday night. The Halifax Grammar School, which was founded by my father with a few friends in 1958, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary since last year and has asked me to speak about the early years of the school. I remember when Dad came running home to say they'd found a building to use and we all went over to see a little white house on Tower Road.  The wives got together to clean and dust, desks and blackboards were found and so were teachers, and presto, a school that fall.  And now it's monumentally successful, with 500 students and a huge  academic program with lots of arts and sports and two campuses ; I will get a tour of both. If only Dad were with me.

I'm visiting old friends too - with a promise of lobster - and hope to see Muriel Duckworth whose hundredth birthday party I attended last summer. Must be something in the Halifax water.

While I'm away, both my son and Wayson will be here at the house. Wayson is using my place as a quiet study place; he arrived today with six big bags of books, reference materials and desk props.  Now my dining room table looks like a desk at the New York Public Library. For the next few days, if any of you wish to contact Wayson, you know where to find him.  And you'll know where not to find me. I'm somewhere in Halifax with a lot of lobster on my face.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

the joy of newspapers

Up and at 'em: Saturday morning at 8 a.m., pumped with coffee (espresso this morning, so especially pumped) and here I am in my dressing-gown writing to you as the morning sun lights up my east-facing study. The sun, yes - good to see you, old friend, welcome. The snow is mostly gone from the streets, so the city looks almost passable, for now.

At some point today I will give myself the treat of reading the New York Times on-line.  A media expert told Jon Stewart last week that the newspapers made a huge mistake in the nineties in offering their wares on-line free of charge. I agree - why should I be able to read this great newspaper for free? Surely at some point they're going to have to factor in some sort of charge, but in the meantime, I can simply log on and read some of the finest columnists in the world. This is a golden age of political column writing. The quality of the prose and the depth of analysis of Thomas Friedman, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman and especially Frank Rich - and others (with the exception of William Kristol, whom you should avoid if you care about your blood pressure) - are superb. If you haven't been reading them, I urge you to start - particularly while it doesn't cost a thing.

A friend has exacerbated my newspaper addiction by telling me about a website: www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/flash/. Here you can read the front pages of newspapers around the world, and if you want more, you can click on the website address at the top and get the whole paper. Talk about a global village - what heaven to be able to read the great British newspapers the Manchester Guardian and the Times any time, on my little screen.  

I've always been a newspaper junkie, a magazine junkie, a devourer of print. I thought for years that it was more satisfying to hold the actual paper in my hands, and in the case of the local papers, it's still true - love that advertising. But now that we pay for recycling, I'm just as happy not to fill my recycling bin with former trees.


Further to my battle over my natural gas rates: my friend Ellen Roseman - another fine columnist - has sent me some of her columns about the subject. Those of us foolish enough to get trapped by these companies have to read the fine print in order to get out. After another conversation with a man in Bombay, I learned that in order to escape from Direct Energy, I have to inform them I want out 60 to 120 days before the end of my contract. They say it takes at least two months for them to cut off the service - what a scam. If I miss the deadline, I'm automatically signed up for another year and it will cost hundreds of dollars to get out. In the meantime, I am paying an extremely high rate for my gas, so now keep the heat down and huddle over the little oil heater next to my desk. I make mistakes, therefore I am.

Only six weeks till I take off for Paris. Hard to believe. Nothing is ready, but it'll get done, and you know what? Even if it doesn't, I'll leave anyway. 

At 8.30, the sun is still shining; my neighbours are out jogging and walking their dogs. Quick, must get outside and feel that thing called air, before it freezes again.

Too late. I'm still in my dressing gown at 9, and the sun is hidden behind clouds. Great to see you! Come back soon.   

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

natural gas

Urgent business first: my son is looking for a bachelor apartment or an apartment with shared accommodation. He is not rich but he is charming, funny and a great cook, and I say that objectively, not just because I'm his mother. (Ha ha!) If those of you in Toronto hear or know of anywhere that might house a very tall 24-year old waiter/bartender/funnyman, please contact me asap and I'll pass on the information.

And second, my dear Vancouver friend Bruce, Mr. Grammar Stickler, emailed to correct my last post: it's "Beatles' " and it's "Paul is marrying someone other than ME." No matter how you say it, the sad fact remains.

It'd be easy to be gloomy today. The day is gloomy enough - though mild, it's dark and pouring with rain, the black snowbanks slowly melting, garbage strewn everywhere. My mouth aches after two and a half hours at the dentist yesterday, while he prepared an upper left incisor for a crown. I had a fight this morning about natural gas prices with someone in Bombay, before paying a bill for over $600, which was what the dentist cost too. Yikes. Those costs hurt more than needles into the gums.

And our beloved Obama is beleaguered, poor man. Does he have the stomach for the grotesquerie and viciousness of American politics? Imagine, the Republicans, who torpedoed the economy not only of their own country but of the entire world, have the nerve to complain about the rescue proposals. And even more incredibly, they're still whining about tax cuts! You'd think they'd have the decency to skitter away like clouds of cockroaches, never to return, but no such luck.

So that's the gloom, or some of it. On the other hand - it's mild, not bitterly cold. My dentist is a very fine man, a Quaker who volunteers during the summer at dental clinics in South American villages; I know he is charging a fair price, and the fact is, I looked pretty horrible with a big chunk of tooth missing. And it's my fault I locked into a contract with Direct Energy - was I in a fog? I had no concept of the rise and fall of natural gas prices until today, but from now on, I'll be watching and when my contract runs out, I'll have some options. 

Yesterday, Wayson gave me a great book about editing - The Artful Edit, on the practice of editing yourself, by Susan Bell, which I can't wait to read and put into practice in my classes and my own work. CUT! My son came over yesterday, too, to hang out, and my daughter is coming over tomorrow.  I love this new phase of our lives, where they come and we talk and I do my best to fill them with as much love, support and food as I can, and then they leave and our independent lives resume. 

What else can I be cheerful about? A high school student emailed me from Halifax, Nova Scotia - she's doing a project for school on The Jewish King Lear, one of my great-grandfather's plays, could she ask me some questions? I wrote back that by a wonderful coincidence, I'd be in Halifax next week, and now I am not only meeting her, I'm speaking to her entire class. That will be fun, talking to young people eager to know all about the theatre. As I was, once, a very long time ago. I'll probably tell them about some of the now-famous people I've known or worked with, because kids love that - Dan Ackroyd, Michael J. Fox, Kim Cattrall, Halifax's own John Dunsworth, the repellant Mr. Lehy on Trailor Park Boys. It's always interesting to think about the ones who became famous and the ones, equally talented, who didn't, and why.

I also went to the Y, I ate lots of dark chocolate and drank lots of red wine which are my medicines, I talked to my best friends Chris and Wayson, and I worked on an essay which I simply cannot figure out how to make work. Maybe my new book about editing will help. And tonight - a new Law and Order, and as always, Jon Stewart with a pussycat on my lap. Who could be gloomy with riches like these?

There's always hope - even in mid-February, as the rain continues to fall and the black snow melts.


Ooo - how pretty is that? Besides correcting my grammar, Bruce suggested a delineation in these posts when I'm veering off into new territory, and there it is. 

I made a mistake about Wayson's appearance in the spring, which will not be at Ben McNally's bookstore but at one of his Books and Brunch series. So you'll get Wayson AND food, and then get to go to the beautiful bookstore later. 

I love stars.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mrs. Paul McCartney, again

A friend just emailed to let me know that today is the forty-fifth anniversary of the Beatles's ("Beatles' "? These confusing apostrophes!) appearance on Ed Sullivan. I simply do not believe that forty-five years have gone by since I sat spellbound and hyperventilating in front of our very small rented television, rushing off during the break to phone my friend Lea, who was similarly incoherent. She was a John girl.

My friend also let me know, gently, that it is more or less official that Paul McCartney will marry his new girlfriend, Nancy. (Does everyone, I want to ask, know her as Nancy?) This friend has heard about my past adoration of Paul, and felt it necessary to point out that this is the third time that Paul is marrying someone other than I. 

Very true. I loved Paul so deeply in my youth that I have sometimes wondered if the reason I'm divorced and have not remarried is that no actual man could live up to the fantasy man I created. But truly, I never really wanted to marry Paul, then or since. I wanted to love him and make up stories about him and listen to him sing love songs to me, but I can't say that I wanted to wash his socks and make him scrambled eggs. The fantasy did not extend that far.

These days, I would very much like to be his friend; how wonderful to engage with a mind that energetic, creative and musical, with a man who continues to plunge joyfully into the musical mainstream no matter how old he gets.  Seeing him in Quebec last summer was one of the great highlights of my year and even of my life. (For those who weren't reading the blog last year, scroll back to July 2008 for my ecstatic report.) 

But marry him? Nancy looks like a very nice woman; she is rich, which means he can put his mind at rest about certain issues that arose with What's Her Name. I am not rich, and I'm not vegetarian and I'm not good at sitting sweetly beside the king.  I saw them together on the Grammys last night, and she looks perfect by his side, dignified, poised and serene.  I am thrilled that this dear man has found love again. Though it's unlikely that she, either, will wash his socks or scramble his eggs. I wish them, and their plentiful household staff, many years of the greatest happiness. 

And if he's looking for a really, really nice person to talk to about his work and his life and about what it was like to be a Beatlemaniac in the Sixties who loved him with every breath, I'm his girl.

By the way, re Ben McNally books, I have just learned that Wayson Choy will be reading there on May 24th. I sadly will be away, but those of you in Toronto on May 24 can have the enormous pleasure of hearing the master read from his new memoir in one of the most beautiful bookstores in Canada. Don't miss it. Not Paul McCartney, but just as good. 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

cool eyes on a warm day

Just now, as I was logging in, I saw my face reflected in the computer screen - and it was my father's face. Oh, these miracles of genetics, when sometimes you catch, in a glimpse of yourself or a loved one, an image of someone else, some relative. I feel for my adopted friends who never have the sudden awareness of being tethered to and anchored by the past, on and on back down the line.

A mild Sunday in Toronto - record-breaking highs, they say, at a few points above zero Celsius. I ran into a British neighbour yesterday, gingerly picking her way over over the filthy snowbanks, and we spoke of the warm day. "I guess this is it for snow?" she said hopefully, and I laughed. "It's only February!" Poor innocent.

Less than eight weeks till I fly to Paris, unbelievable as that sounds. It's surreal - here in Toronto in February wondering what to pack, trying to imagine Paris in April, London in May, Provence in July. A very important question is preoccupying me: What will they be wearing in Paris this spring? If you have a crystal ball and can answer this question, please put me out of my misery and let me know. Not that I have much choice - I can only pack what's there in my closet, bedragged - no, the word is ... funky! - as it may be.

New excitement: I have been invited to speak about my book at the famous Yiddish cultural centre, the Medem Library, in Paris. In French - now that'll be a challenge. "Mon arriere-grand-pere..." If you're going to be in Paris on April 4th, come to the Medem Library and hear me stumble through.

I cannot help but signal - hoping not to sound bitter because I'm not, no, I was once but now I really am not - that the Toronto Jewish Book Fair, which brings in speakers from all over the world to talk about their books, had absolutely no interest in mine. Nor, despite two years of effort, can I interest a single venue in Montreal, home to many of Canada's Jews and Canada's only Yiddish theatre company. I have been invited to speak, among other places, in New York, Washington, Paris and the University of Oxford, but not where I live or in the other obvious city nearby. It's classic. 

But moving right along ... another Wayson story.  I was so honoured - last week he sent me an essay he'd written for an anthology, asking for my editorial comments.  So I gave them to him, right in the kisser. Too preoccupied with beautiful language, was the thrust of my critique, and not with meaning - we can't see the story for the words. I did a line by line edit and sent it back. 

Generous man that he is, he emailed both the original and the rewritten version, saying that I should read both to my classes to show the difference editing can make. So I read them to one class, full of trepidation - what if they liked the first version better and all I'd done was bludgeon Wayson's lyrical language? But they agreed wholeheartedly that it's better to understand the story than savour the words - though in Wayson's masterful rewrite, of course, we can do both.

I then gave a piece of mine to him, and, picking out a line right at the end, he said, "Here's your essay, right here." The rest was just the runway, or, as my students know to call those preliminary, tentative pages, the logs. I was getting rolling, but it wasn't until the last few lines that the true topic of my story came in. So now I'm starting again, throwing out all the rest - "No tension!" cried my editor. "No motive! I don't have time for all this!" - and starting there at the end, where the tension and motive begin. 

My point once again - the Joy of Editing. It doesn't matter if your writing has been anthologised thirty-six times and won major prizes, as Wayson's has - you still need that pair of cool outside eyes to take a look.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ben McNally's beautiful store

Quick, my fellow Tdot citizens - get outside! It's warm today in Toronto - well, a bit above zero Celsius - and Torontonians are outside blinking like bears in the unaccustomed warmth. What a treat. The giant piles of snow are melting into puddles, and it feels like you could get a tan if you tried hard enough. Cold is returning any second, so hurry.

Yesterday my dear Mr. Choy had to pick up some books he'd ordered from Ben McNally Books, so I went with him because I'd never been inside the store. It's gorgeous. In this financial climate, brave Ben has opened a stunning new bookstore in the heart of the financial district, at Bay and Richmond. It's palatial - spacious and elegant with lots of wood and the books displayed covers out - a great feast of books, with leather club chairs for relaxation and staff who know a great deal about what they sell. 

While we were there, a Dutch businessman came in - he flies regularly into Toronto and always comes here, where Ben McNally picks Canadian novels for him to read. "I luff Toronto," he said. "A vunderful city." Among others, Ben picked "The Jade Peony," which Wayson signed for him and told him it has just been translated into Dutch.

I told the businessman that I'd spent the other evening watching some of his countrymen who were doing a show outside at Nathan Phillips Square. But he looked as if he just wanted to go back to his hotel and start reading. I don't blame him - it wasn't warm yesterday, like now.

If you need a book, or just want to wander around and revel in the best books in the world, go to Ben McNally's great old-fashioned bookstore downtown.  Satisfaction guaranteed.