Saturday, October 31, 2009

All hallows eve

It's Hallowe'en, a perfect evening for it - blustery but not too cold. Outside my office window, the gold leaves of my front yard maple tree are showering into the air. I don't know if it's all the rain or just that I was out of the country so long, but the leaves look more spectacular than usual this year, especially the red of the Japanese maples - scarlet, blood-red, unearthly.

On a walk around the neighbourhood this afternoon, I marvelled at how much effort people put into this festival - gravestones, giant spiders in vast cobwebs draped on trees, skeletons looming at windows, ghosts hanging from balconies, soundtracks of groans and screams ready for the first visitor. Dora has made a low passageway from the sidewalk to her door out of orange webbing with ghastly creatures hanging inside; Mary has a dummy with crazed blinking eyes perched on her veranda. It's just before six, and very soon, about a thousand children will begin their door to door march, opening their bags - Trick or Treat!

Yes, a thousand, at least. They come north from Regent's Park, the huge housing project nearby, and south from St. Jamestown, the big high rises. Our first Hallowe'en here, no one had warned me and I'd run out of candy by 6.20. Each year we needed more, until I had six hundred little candy bars waiting by the front door. Once the kids started coming, it was a continuous flood for about two hours, until the candy had run out, and I'd turn out the lights and hide.

But tonight, I'm hiding already. I've done my duty with Hallowe'en - more than 15 years rushing around at the last minute, trying to get some food into the kids as we applied fake blood, black eyes, sparkles and fangs, and then dashing to the door to begin the distribution. Tonight, across town, Anna is going out as a ho train - don't ask - and Sam as some sort of greaser. Last year he was a porno star with a huge black moustache and aviator sunglasses. I remember when he was a spaceman, a fireman, a clown, and Anna a princess and a Care Bear. Then one year she wanted to be a dead bride or Madonna, and I knew that life had changed.

Jean-Marc and Richard down the street are having everyone on the block over once the candy has run out - 7.30 or 8. We are encouraged to go in costume and I couldn't resist, since I happen to own a plastic Viking helmet with giant horns. So I'm going in the helmet as a Viking, with a shield made out of a garbage can lid covered with tin foil, a spear that used to be a curtain rod, and my mink coat flung savagely across my shoulders.

Fun. As a former actress, I always pooh-pooh Hallowe'en - I used to dress up in other people's clothes for a living, I'd cry - but actually I love it. Why else store a collection of vintage treasures from Goodwill? Anne-Marie came over today, desperate to find a costume for a party tonight - everyone has to go as their "future fantasy." Her husband has borrowed a friend's sheikh robes and headdress and is going as an oil magnate. What could we come up with for Annie? She mentioned Coco Chanel, and I was off - red braided jacket, ropes and ropes of pearls, big sunglasses and big black hat, Chanel purse with gold chain, red leather gloves, Chanelly shoes - she looked chic et fabuleuse. Next year, maybe that's what I'll be, and she can borrow my plastic horns.

Out my window now, squeals and shouts, the first arrivals ringing the doorbell across the street - a little rabbit with pink nose and white ears, a witch with a big black hat, a fairy with little pink wings - how great is tradition! - holding orange pumpkin bags for their treats. Time for mine - a big glass of merlot in the dark. Happy Hallowe'en to you all, from one happy, mean Viking.

a letter with a fringe on top

It's 7 a.m. During my usual middle-of-the-night musing, I thought of the last post and said to myself, "Have you actually been emailing for 20 years?" I couldn't remember, though I have a vague idea I didn't even start using a computer regularly till about 1989, 20 years ago. It just doesn't seem possible that there was a time within memory when this machine wasn't the centre of all our lives. During the lecture about my book, I like to remind people that when I began research in 1982, in order to access information stored in New York, I had to write letters, telephone, get on an airplane, take a cab to the library in question and sit waiting for the boxes to be brought out. Now, in three seconds, all the information you need is on your desk.

I just went to the basement to check a big box of correspondence from my two most regular correspondents, Chris and Patsy in B.C., and it looks like emails don't start till about 2000. Not even ten years ago. Before that, in the files, were letters - typed or handwritten letters. Only 9 years ago, they wrote long letters just to me and I to them, and we put them in an envelope and mailed them. It seems impossibly quaint, like getting around town in a horse and buggy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

re the dangers of blogging and pity for pigs

A certain writer friend of mine got into trouble recently, and it was my fault. His agent has his name on Google Alert, and so every time I write here about him coming over to give me advice or have dinner, she reads about it. "Who's that woman who keeps blogging about you?" she asked recently. "And why weren't you writing?"

So you'll understand why, from now on, my friend will be referred to as W'sn Ch*y. FYI, W'sn Ch*y and I had dim sum today with Almeda from Paris and Lesley from across the street. A man, even a writer with a deadline, has to eat, mon dieu.

There are no secrets any more. Even though I post my life on a blog, it surprises me when someone has read it. A student coming into my house recently cried, "Let's see the mink!" referring to a purchase mentioned on a recent blog. When I first started to use email, about 20 years ago - was there ever a time before email? - it felt as if the world had shrunk into a series of village huts, and we were all standing at the door of our own hut waving and calling to our neighbours. But now, we're all living together in one gigantic electronic hut, constantly checking up on each other with the internet and cell phones, tweets and blogs and Facebook and Skype and cameras everywhere. There's a wonderful new New Yorker cover of parents taking their children trick or treating, the kids at the door asking for candy and the parents lined up on the sidewalk, faces lit by the glow of the Blackberries and cell phones they're staring at.

Crazy. I am so far out of the loop, with no cell phone, barely knowing how an iPod works or even, despite Bruce's help and quickie notes, how to use my DVD player. I'm not proud of it, but sometimes, when I watch people staring at a minuscule screen as the world goes by, I'm glad.

Another issue to deal with: in the Star last week was an article about an Ontario pig farmer who was having trouble paying his electricity bill. A picture showed him in his barn, standing in front of hundreds of small metal pens, inside of each of which was a pig. The pens were barely big enough for one; no question of movement. Horrifying. Is it possible that this animal, which has been proven to be loyal and loving with the intelligence of a three-year old, is being raised in this profoundly inhumane way?

I went to Mark my local butcher, a friend for many years, asked, "Do you know where your pork comes from?" and told him about the picture. He said he'd ask. "Are you sure," he asked me a few days later, "they weren't farrowing pigs?" I know that pigs with newborns are put in special pens to protect the young; they do it at Riverdale Farm. No, there were no young in these pictures. He told me that his pork comes from a depot. So, probably from a farm like the one in the picture; perhaps that very one.

Another meat group hit the dust - veal and lamb almost completely off-limits and now pork, unless I can find a place which certifies that they are raised in a relatively humane way. I'm not a vegetarian; I want to eat small quantities of meat, though I do prefer mostly vegetables and legumes. Being a vegetarian simply takes too much time and energy, not only at home but when visiting. Plus I like meat. I especially like pork. Liked. I just didn't want to know how it got to Mark's store.

And now they tell us that many fish are endangered, mercury levels etc.

Do any of you know anything about pig farming, or where to buy ethical meat? Is there such a thing, or am I just grasping at rationalisations and straws? Can anyone enlighten me?

Time for a peanut butter sandwich. I'll call W'sn Ch*y and see if he wants one too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

tips for a visit to Paris

My dear friend and hairdresser Ingrid and her partner Donny were planning a trip to Paris, so I quickly jotted a few notes for them. Thought some of you might be interested, though those who followed my Europe blog will have heard it all before.


Check museum opening and closing hours and closed days – they’re all different. Some have a time during the week when they’re free, and on the first Sunday of the month, almost all of them are free, though very crowded. The big ones have at least one day with extended hours. On those days, suppertime is a good time to visit. If you’re only in town for a few days and want to see a lot of museums, a museum pass is the best bet, because you save money and by-pass line-ups. But if you get your money’s worth, you’ll be tired.

On the top floor of the Pompidou is a chic café/bar with a panoramic view of Paris. You don't need to eat, you can just have a glass of something.

The velib bicycles are marvellous but it took me ages to figure out how to use them. The posts with the instructions and slots for credit cards are often far from the bikes themselves. Finally, I just walked everywhere.

The tabacs are very useful places, selling newspapers and mags as well as transport tickets and phone cards. You can get single or a stack of 10 bus tickets there, or an Orange pass if you’re going to be around long enough. You can use one bus ticket to transfer to other busses for up to one and a half hours, but you can’t get onto the metro with it. The busses are formidable and give you an eyeful of the city while you’re getting to your destination. (Occasionally, when I was too tired to walk, I just hopped on a bus going anywhere, and then hopped on one coming back.) The bus routes are mapped out on the shelters, and the key destinations are printed on the sides of the busses. Though I always had a map and bus guide with me, I also kept my eye open for a bus that might be going somewhere fairly close to where I wanted to go, and regularly found one, just by watching the names on the sides as they went by. You can get on the busses at the front or, often, in the middle, and punch your ticket in the machine. It’s done on the honour system, though tickets are occasionally checked.

The French never, ever, it seems, get taxis. At least, the people I met.

Always bring a snack out with you, preferably a picnic, so when hunger strikes, you’re not held hostage to expensive, crowded tourist cafés. I always brought a ham sandwich and water, and once had a secret picnic sitting in a window well in one of the little side rooms of the Louvre, another sitting on a rock in the "jungle" outside the Musee de Quai de Branly, listening to the Tarzan noises of the exhibit inside. On the other hand, it's wonderful to stop at a sidewalk cafe mid-morning to watch the world go by. Very few French walk around with coffees, as we do here. They sit down and enjoy the event.

Speaking of cafés, the tip is always included in French restaurant bills. People generally round the number off and leave a little extra, a bit more extra if you’re very happy with the service, but there’s no obligation to. Waiters are paid well and receive government pensions and health benefits.

Try not to eat anywhere with English on the menu. And if you want to eat with the French and not with the tourists, do not dine before 8.30 and preferably 9.

The most important thing you can bring is a pair of extremely comfortable shoes. By your second day of walking, you will no longer care about style.

Check the dates of French national holidays, and also keep an eye open for imminent strikes. Strikes can only be held with permits, believe it or not, and apparently a daily local newspaper, le Parisien, lists the strikes that are scheduled each day. A strike can seriously impair travelling around the city and be a major headache, so it’s a good thing to try to be aware of them. Ask at the tabac. Also get Pariscope, if you speak even some French – it comes out on Wednesdays, costs pennies and lists absolutely everything going on in the city that week, including the museums with their hours.

French Elle magazine is not only great for fashion but for what’s on in France generally, particularly in Paris, in art, literature, theatre etc.

Speaking of which, do not go to the theatre in France. Period. Unless you wish to explore in depth the meaning of the word “boredom.” Be cautious about concerts in churches; they’re generally aimed at tourists and often not of very good quality.

If you buy lots of stuff, the French Post Office is amazingly efficient and not that expensive. It sells ready-made boxes at so much per kilo. Better to mail yourself a box of stuff than lug it around. One box I mailed arrived in Toronto four days later.

The website, if you have access, lists the day’s and the week’s weather.

Monoprix is a fantastic store – once like Woolworth’s, now it has amazingly good fashion for very reasonable prices, but also food (not at all but at most), toiletries, cosmetics and housewares. For general groceries, Franprix is great. And for an eye-popping array of frozen foods, if you have access to a stove or microwave, go to Picard. For the best selection of exotic foodstuff in the world, perhaps, go to Bon Marche’s Grand Epicerie. Incroyable. The Nicholas wine shops can help you get a great bottle of wine for 7 euros or less, or, of course, much more.

If you need an Internet café, try to find one with a choice of keyboards. The French keyboard is infuriating.

Favourite places:

The Sainte Chapelle, but only on a sunny day when the light pours through the stained glass. Get there early, before it’s crowded. A truly mystical experience.

Four smaller museums: La Musee de la Vie Romantique is very small but lovely and has a beautiful little café outside in a rose-covered bower; the Carnavalet – a free museum of Paris history, fascinating and extensive; the Cluny Museum of medieval history on the Boulevard St. Michel, and the Rodin Museum, which also has a very nice cafe in the huge garden full of sculptures.

The street markets are terrific and all over the city daily. Ask which morning your local market is held. They sell food, clothing and the usual stuff and are lots of fun. The big flea markets are worth at least one visit. La Rue Mouffetard is an ancient winding street with a food market and a row of small stores – beautiful. Many artists once lived there.

There are small parks and big all over the place, to provide respite. My favourite is the famous and often crowded, always interesting Jardin du Luxembourg. A great place to rest your feet, eat your ham sandwich and watch both tourists and the French.

A few stores: Colette on Rue St. Honore is supposed to be the epicentre of trend. I thought it the epicentre of expense, but worth a look, as is the whole street. Galeries Lafayette, the big, main store, has great, solid stuff and is absolutely spectacular. You can drink champagne and eat caviar, but you’ll be too busy shopping.

Shoes: I loved comfortable, stylish Arcus, 97 rue de Rennes.

Books: the fabulous and famous Shakespeare and Company, 37 rue de la Boucherie facing Notre Dame, for English books. There are readings every Monday night. For French books and everything electronic as well as tickets to concerts and museum exhibits, FNAC.

Famous old restaurants, besides the famous cafes: Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie and Brasserie Lipp on the Blvd. St. Germain.

Poilane bread at 8 rue de Cherche-Midi, which is a very chic little street.

Second hand: a terrific store full of second-hand designer stuff: Embellie, 11 bis rue Vauquelin in the Latin Quarter. I left a pair of shoes and a blouse there on consignment. If you buy them, I get a few Euros towards my return trip.

Clare Piller

It's always hard when a friend dies, but particularly hard when that friend is much too young. The lively, beautiful blonde Clare Piller and I worked at the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1972-73, organising conferences with government officials and artists to make sure the arts in Canada were well funded, or simply funded at all. Clare was vastly more mature and worldly-wise than I - she had a husband and small children and wore panty-hose and eyeliner, whereas I - no surprise - lived in a communal house, wore Goodwill sweaters and Converse sneakers and worked with my feet on my desk. We got along famously. Lots of crazy funky wonderful people worked at the CCA then, including Terry, Nancy and Anne-Marie, and before the memorial yesterday, we gathered for lunch nearby, to get caught up with each other and to commemorate Clare. We've all been friends for 35 years and call ourselves the Crones. We believe in Crone Power. One day I'll write about why.

Our friend Clare, with her classy blonde hair and great wardrobe, cared desperately about the fate of the arts in this country and worked to support them her entire adult life, as well as raising 3 children and looking utterly fabulous the entire time. Yesterday, at her memorial service, I found out that she was only 63 when she died - 4 years older than I. In a slide show of her life, the heartbreaking last shot showed her, hair short and grey, hugging one of her grandchildren.

Though I hadn't kept up much of a friendship with Clare, I was deeply affected by the loss of someone so committed to artists, so vital and young. The rest of the day I felt like I'd been smacked with a baseball bat; teaching that night was harder work than usual. I just can't imagine what it would be like to have to say good-bye, in the prime of life, to your children, your brand new grandchildren, your husband of many years and the work you love. Until then, Clare had what looked like a charmed life - a childhood of wealth and privilege, a solid marriage and healthy children, a farm in the Ontario countryside, a house in a Nova Scotia cove, work that mattered. But at the end, Clare, who had given so much, was dealt the worst blow possible. Unfair.

But then, it's never fair, is it? Life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

peaceful Sunday

A stunning Sunday, warm and sunny. I went for a bike ride on the Don Valley Trail, a marvel of wilderness in the heart of the city, where the copper and pumpkin and scarlet of the leaves was dazzling. Spent some time shutting down the garden - covering the garden chairs with a tarp, putting away the clay pots, bringing in the ceramic Japanese lady who sits all summer under the ivy. She'll keep warm inside, now, until the end of April. And so, I hope, will we all.

It said in the paper a few days ago that a thousand people in Montreal paid good money to go and hear George Bush speak. They ran a gamut of protesters burning Bush in effigy, and when the former president appeared, they gave him a standing ovation.

Who the hell are those people? How can there be even ten people obtuse and blind enough to give the time of day to a man who wrought such destruction not just on his own people but on the entire planet? Surely the only good thing about George Bush is that he was so incredibly awful that Americans entertained the radical idea of a black man as President, a man as unlike his predecessor as it is possible to be. We have George to thank for that. Thanks, George, for being the worst president ever and opening the way for Obama. Otherwise, I wish you would stay in Texas so we never have to think about you ever again. Oh - and take those thousand people back with you, please?

I had my usual schizo evening with the television, watching first the marvellous British series "The Choir," about a conductor who changes the lives of people and communities by getting them to sing together. Just after the show began tonight, my mother called from Ottawa to make sure I was watching. By the end, when the disparate group had their grand finale and their entire town came out to see them, I was in tears, and I knew my mother in Ottawa was too.

Then, on one channel, "Endgame," a superb British docudrama about the tense months leading to the end of apartheid - I'd never thought about how it was actually done with little bloodshed, the months of complex negotiations, the complex personalities involved, and through and above it all, the calm wisdom and shining grace of Nelson Mandela.

And at the same time something completely different, a documentary about Monty Python, interviews with all the guys and clips from the show. What delight still, after all these years - the upper class twits, the silly walks, the parrot, the cheese shop, the utter balmyness of it all. My favourite skit no one mentioned - a game of soccer between - do I remember correctly? - the Bournemouth gynecologists and the Neasdon Long John Silver impersonators. The doctors were in long white coats with stethoscopes, kicking the ball madly about because the pirates, with their peg legs, were all stuck in the field, immobile. I mean, who would think of that? And the one with the charladies visiting Jean-Paul Sartre.

Friend Bruce wrote today that he thinks I'm a bit down because my trip is really and truly over, back to the grind and winter coming in. It's true that for about a month there, after my return, everyone was telling me how young and rested I looked, but no one has said that for quite some time. I guess young and rested is over, haggard and ancient is back. Ah well. I'll just sink into the sofa until April, and turn on the telly.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

lighting the world with words

What can I do? This neighbourhood is determined to defeat me. I have sworn to quit buying tons of second-hand clothes. And yet Friday, when I went to my local shoemender to get a bag repaired, I could not help but notice that the small shop, usually decorated with pots of shoe polish and toys from Guatemala, the shoemender's former home, now contained a big rack of leather jackets and another of old fur coats. He explained that a friend had gone out of business, so he had bought the stock.

There was a mink coat.

I have never, of course, owned a mink coat. The very thought is ... well, unthinkable. But this was obviously a vintage mink coat from the early fifties, with big round buttons and very wide old-fashioned sleeves. I tried it on. It fitted perfectly, the mahogany fur gleaming and soft. I know that in February, when the wind is screaming along the wind tunnels of downtown Toronto and the snow and ice are a mile high, nothing is as warm and comforting as fur. The First Nations people taught us that.

I would never buy a new fur coat, not that it's an option but even if it were, I wouldn't. But this was an old fur coat. These minks had died for someone else. Surely I would only be honouring their memory, their brief lives, if I kept warm under their beautiful fur. Is this a grotesque rationalisation? Too bad. Reader, I bought the coat. It cost $69. At the shoemender! I am doomed.

Today, a busy schedule: protesting and celebrating. I went with my friends Anne-Marie and Jim to a rally at Queen's Park, organised by the 350 campaign protesting global warming and the Canadian government's lack of response. It was not a big rally - apparently the real politicos had gone to protest in Ottawa - and for a few minutes it made me sad. Some idealistic young people, just like us when we marched against the Vietnam War, and some old people, including a few die-hard Quakers whom Annie said had been at every peace rally since the dawn of time. The Raging Grannies, God bless them. Someone in a polar bear suit. And of course, Olivia Chow and Jack Layton, who always manage to be where they should be, though surely sometimes they just want to sit at home with their feet up and watch reruns of Law and Order.

We heard from a union or two, the Clean Train Coalition, the moderator of the United Church of Canada and a young folk singer singing about paving paradise. We heard about social justice, environmental sustainability, job equity, environmental degradation. We signed petitions. I stopped being sad. The fact is that during the Sixties, I went to plenty of rallies just like this, hopeless, bedraggled groups of do-gooders. But the Vietnam war did end, and we ended it, or helped to. Perhaps it's not too late to make a difference here too. Though we're mostly older now - not so keen and hopeful. Still. You never know.

I felt a sharp moment of guilt about my mink. I would not have worn it, vintage as it is, to a rally like this. There were "Close the island airport" placards, and I confess, the island airport is one of the great pleasures of living in downtown Toronto, with efficient service and the quietest planes. Even at a rally for the best imaginable cause, I could not quite go along. There's an ornery writer for you.

Off to the action-packed International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. I'd wanted to attend the tribute to the musician, writer, poker player and crazy character Paul Quarrington, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer, but it was sold out. I went to the Brigantine Room anyway, just in case, and ran into beautiful Ellen Seligman, one of Canada's best-known editors and certainly the most stylish. Just getting over the flu, she'd found the room too cold and was on her way out, so she gave me her ticket! What a treat - I heard the great Roddy Doyle, surely one of the best speakers the writing world has ever produced, and came up with a new life rule: never, ever, allow yourself to be on a speaker's list with someone from Ireland. Because no matter how clever and funny you are in your Canadian way, you will look like a boring idiot after the Irish. Doyle was hilarious and moving in his tribute to Paul. Margaret Atwood followed with a wry memory, and then David Bezmogis, who's a good writer but not ... not Doyle material, shall we say. There was a great blues band, more interesting speakers to come including Wayson, but I had to slip out and head to ...

The Fleck Dance Theatre, to meet old friend Eleanor Wachtel who'd invited me to accompany her to hear A. L. Kennedy, a Scottish writer. Warning: do not speak after a Scot either. Kennedy is a youngish prize-winning novelist, but this afternoon was doing a stand-up comedy routine called "Words." She's a gamine, a short-haired waif of indeterminate age, painfully honest about her childhood, her awkward entry into the world of literature, her involuntary lack of a sex life - yes, she was clear about that. But she was also lyrical and inspiring, speaking with passion about the power and beauty of words, at the end urging us to fill ourselves with the light of words and the books they fill. "Light yourself with words," she said. "Words can hide you, save you, keep safe your joys, lift you up to the love of your own life."

We writers write to get it right, I thought. And because we love the light.

Here's to words.

Friday, October 23, 2009

my sugar bowl on TV

Such excitement! A woman was arrested in my kitchen tonight and escorted, in handcuffs, out of my front door. The camera hovered over a lovely butcher block counter, a tasteful green sugar bowl, a spiffy microwave. And then the front door, the street number, the front walk. The house was on screen for about twelve seconds, which took two days to shoot. And now, praise be, I do not ever have to watch Flashpoint again.

It was fun, though, to see my sugar bowl and front door on CTV. The house was rented for the TV shoot while I was away, but at least I caught a glimpse of it tonight. This is the third episode I've watched in my vigil, and my God, the show is exhausting, all stress and tension and macho cops in black. It's actually set in a recognisable Toronto, not masquerading as Chicago or Milwaukee but with streetcars and CN Tower yet also with guns, everyone has guns, which is just not the Canadian way. Street gangs in Toronto have guns, but not young housewives, not crazy radio hosts, not yet. Americans have guns.

The lady in my kitchen did not have any guns, I'm happy to say.

Went last night to see Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll at Canadian Stage. It's always strange for me to enter this particular theatre, because once upon a time, my husband ran it. Then it was a workplace for me, I was the Mrs., there to help him work the room. Hard to believe this was once my role, but true. Now I'm just a theatregoer arriving half an hour before the show, hoping for half-price tickets.

Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a marvellous play, and I would have given anything to get to New York to see his recent The Coast of Utopia, but this play ... hmmm. I said to my friend Lynn afterwards, it's not his fault, it's his job to write a very long play full of every single thing he wants to throw in. It's a dramaturge's job to say, now Tom, it's lovely and clever and we're going to cut out at least three quarters of an hour. No one did, and the play is very long, very very wordy. Lots of interesting stuff, no question, about the reckoning of a life-long Communist as reality sets in; about the influence and importance of Western rock music on Eastern bloc political life, and life in general. But he throws in so much more that your head is reeling - Sappho! The responsibility of newspapers! Syd Barrett's entire life! Stop, Tom, the dramaturge should have said. Less is more. Let's not overload them, okay?

The play did make me realise how much pop music I missed, in the seventies when I was working as an actress - wasn't I listening to the radio? - and in the eighties with 2 small children. Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, Guns 'N' Roses, even U2 - I'm ashamed to say they just passed me by. Sometime I'll hang around YouTube calling up the past and make up for lost time.

The lady in my kitchen didn't have any roses, either.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

All you need is love and writing

Such beautiful days, wet, mild autumn days with flashes of sun on the leaves as they fall. Spent hours Tuesday in the garden; my new friend Scott, a gardener and writer, came with his pruning shears to give my yard a much-needed cut. Short back and sides please. He snipped and snapped, and I followed behind bagging and bundling. There's a bouquet of bright red leaves in my living-room, and a garden ready to hibernate for winter and emerge again, neat and clean, next year.

Scott is a wonderful gardener, reasonable and skilled; if you need some help in your Toronto yard, let me know and I'll pass on his contact information.

I thought of Scott and his sharp shears as I sat in my Tuesday evening Ryerson class. This is the advanced group, men and women of all ages and backgrounds who've worked with me before and come back for more punishment. No, to go deeper, to write longer pieces and see what comes. And somehow, they have coalesced into a tight-knit group, good writers but also thoughtful, sensitive critics of each others' work. They have learned the value of one of the most important skills for a writer - pruning. Cut out every word that is not needed, they've been told, and now they do, bringing in work that is spare and focussed and in some cases, like last night, inutterably moving.

Even after that exhilarating day, I woke Wednesday morning feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes I suffer bouts of insomnia and this is one of those times, linked, I think, to the lack of light as the days get shorter - I am a lightoholic, always starving for more - and also to my return from a lengthy jaunt to a ton of responsibilities, which sometimes overwhelm me. At 3 or 4 a.m., my head is flooded with frantic worries about fixing the house, renting the apartment, food, bills; more urgently, about my children, my book, money, the future, and about the lack of time.

So I grumped off into my day, cloudy with lack of sleep and many concerns. But it was Wednesday, so there was the usual midday class at the Y - not Carol, who's running a marathon in boring old Florence, but Brian taught, and sweating was still great. I've made a new friend there, Alanna; before we began to chat, I could tell by the way she ran and her workout gear that she was not a civil servant, as many are at the downtown Y. Sure enough, she's an artist. We two self-employed junk- and New York-lovers have a great deal to discuss as we run around.

On the way back, I did my usual zip into Doubletake where I found a mauve silk and cashmere sweater for $2.50 - woo hoo! - and then, for the rest of the afternoon, shut out everything else and sat at my desk. I struggle, because it's hard to shut everything out in a house full of things to do, as opposed to the place is Paris, where all I had to distract me was Paris.

Made a late supper listening to the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," which I'd dismissed in memory as one of their more feeble efforts - wrong! The sublime "Penny Lane" made me stop and listen again, closely, to the power and push of Paul's bass guitar; I suggest you listen again too, it's brilliant. The album ends with "All you need is love" - John's great voice in front, the others behind, Paul's melodic bass line but also George Martin's trumpets and orchestra, the cheerful background cacaphony, the flow of poetic lines and John repeating "All you need is love" at the end while the others go wild behind him. Paul sings, "She loves you yeah yeah yeah," as if reminding them, and us, where they came from, how far they'd come. The balance and musicality, the sheer joy of that song with its sweet message made me weep.

As I was about to leave the kitchen, CBC's "Ideas" came on. Paul Kennedy interviewed Mark Rowlands, a philosopher who lived with a part-wolf pup for twelve years and has written a book called The Philosopher and the Wolf: lessons from the wild on love, death and happiness. Rowlands spoke of himself as a simian, a clever ape, an animal no better and no worse than his brother the wolf. Other animals have not developed the ability to deceive and make bargains, he said; they are unaware of their mortality. But they have many skills far more developed than ours. He feels that the meaning of our ape lives is in the moments, the best times when we rise and flourish, and he regrets that religion emphasises the hope that we will have a life after death. "We're all doomed," he said. Better to live with that knowledge and make the most of the best times.

Eyes still pink from "All you need is love," I stood swabbing at my kitchen counter for the fortieth time while I hovered around the radio, listening to a deeply spiritual conversation about the friendship of a wolf. Outside, in the soft dark drizzle, the raccoons were on the hunt and the leaves continued to fall.

Didn't sleep well.

Wayson came over today and gave me a lecture, his usual wonderful slap and kick to get me going. He told me a fable about a man who had tons of worries going to a guru for advice. The guru told him to write down his worries so the man did, pages and pages, and gave the list back. The guru put it aside without looking at it. "Why didn't you read it?" asked the man.
"Because I know what's in it," said the guru. "You have 83 worries."
"Why 83?" said the man.
"Because everyone on earth has 83 worries. Except that there are some who have 84."
"Who has 84?"
"The people who worry that they have too many worries."

That's me. 84 worries.

Wayson talked about the IFOA event last night with Alice Munro and Diana Athill, which I'd meant to get tickets for and didn't until it was too late - another worry, idiot that I am to miss the literary event of the season. The two were marvellous, he said. I hope that the interview will appear on CBC or somewhere, so that we can all enjoy their interchange about writing and so much more. But the most important thing they said, said Wayson to me, giving me my message of the day, was this: We write to get it right. That's all. Not for readers or to be praised or to be famous or for money.

We write to get it right.

You don't need to be in Paris or Banff, said Wayson, about my other favourite writing retreat. This house is where you write.
But when I walk in here, my 83 worries fall on me like a heavy cloak, I said.
Don't put the cloak on, he said. Put your worries aside when you can and write what is vital, write with passion.

Write to get it right, he said.

the boys and the girls

The boy turns twenty-five, with a little help from his friends.

The cooks do it again.

How that for a turkey? My great-uncle George wrote to say he'd celebrated 83 Thanksgivings and never seen a turkey that big.

Yet he lives in Washington, D.C., which for eight whole years hosted one of the biggest turkeys of all time!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

a Canadian scene

Late on Sunday afternoon I explored the two solitudes of Toronto - not French and English, as in the Canadian novel of that name, but rich and poor. Invited to a friend's in midtown for dinner, I walked along Bloor Street, a walk which began with popping into one of my favourite stores, the big Goodwill at Bloor and Sherbourne, where you can get a pretty good handbag for $5.00.

Then proceeded past all the construction to Diamond Row, Bloor from Yonge to Avenue Road, Canada's Fifth Avenue with all the snazzy shops, many more now than last time I walked here -Cartier, Dior, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Escada et al, plus all the chichi American chains, Williams-Sonoma, Williams-Sonoma Kids etc. One of those places recently advertised a dog mattress in the paper, a small one at $378 and a bigger one at $478. And of course there's Holt Renfrew, where you can get a pretty good handbag for $5000.00.

I was tempted, of course. Usually I swing into Holt's just to smell the thickly perfumed air, but not this time. I bought a little pot of lip stuff at Body Shop and went into the famous Lululemon to look longingly at their workout wear. My daughter tells me their stretchy pants make one's butt look awesome, but my butt will have to make do with our ratty stretch pants rather than $100 worth of awesomeness. A quick look in Winner's, another favourite store, where I could not believe the line-up of 15 or so women, standing waiting to pay, as if paying were a privilege they had to wait for.

I turned up Scollard Street, an extremely snazzy street with lots of art galleries. There was an opening at one, obviously, lots of expensive people inside in sleek, glittery black, sipping white wine. Outside, a group of what looked like homeless people, street people, dressed in jeans and plaid workshirts, sitting on the steps smoking cigarettes. Why are they allowed to stay? I wondered. Then an expensive woman in black came out, leaned over them and said, "Roger would just love to take you all for dinner," and one of them began to translate into a strange language, all "shhhs" and "chhh's," for the others.

I peered in the window at the art. It was Inuit, stunning, glowing embroidered blankets, paintings, sculptures - caribou, seals, sea birds, bears, people, winter - made for the expensive people in black. The folk outside were the artists, exiled not because they were badly dressed but because they all smoke.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To life

It's funny that this theme this week has been Thanksgiving, because at reader Stan's suggestion I just listened on YouTube to Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa, heavenly voices singing "Gracias A la Vida" - thank you to life. Thanksgiving for life, for love, for words, ears, feet, a heart.

I could not agree more, particularly on this bright Sunday in October, my favourite time of year, when the sun is hot but the shadows are dark and cold. So much to be grateful for, as winter shuffles in. Health health health health health. Children work friends family a roof a garden a voice.

A voice.


Friend Kate brought me old photos the other day, my daughter Anna about 7 years old, outside at a birthday party, in a pink party dress, a lovely red coat and shiny patent shoes. I cannot ever remember pulling together such an ensemble for her, and yet there she is, perfectly dressed for an outdoor birthday party, warm but pretty. All those childhood years have vanished, two decades that I barely remember. As the leaves float in the air, so does my nostalgia. It's the right time of year.

On my walk this morning, no baseball players but lots of men playing football. The hot scarlet of the sumachs is extraordinary, the intensity of the oranges and reds and golds. I am in love with my country all over again, despite another sleepless night - an article in the paper yesterday about how Canada is now a pariah in the world because of its current anti-environmental policies - Canada! Unimaginable! - and about the Conservative Party's truly vile new endeavour - putting its giant logo on government payout cheques, even though they're paid with taxpayer, not party, money. Absolutely reprehensible and if not illegal, it should be.

Beth, on this gorgeous day, put all that nastiness out of your head. I'm off to heat up the last, the very last Thanksgiving dinner, and will give thanks for democracy, even though some of my fellow citizens can be so mistaken and blind. As my ex-husband used to say, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how wrong they may be.

I give thanks for peaceful days like this, for health. Gracias a la vida.


Just finished reading 84, Charing Cross Road, the witty and moving correspondence between an American writer and a British bookseller. The writer Helene Hanff produced the most succinct praise of non-fiction ever, when, in her usual lower case way, she ordered a book that another writer recommended.
"anything he liked i'll like except if it's fiction. i never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."

I wouldn't say "never," but most of the time, me neither.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

autumn rolling in

A beautiful day here - fall at its best, sunny with a nip. I went for a jogette, relishing the Canadian scenes along the way - the team on the baseball diamond at Riverdale Park, half men, half women, all heavy hitters. "Run, run for home!" shouted the team coach after a great hit, and I thought, how primal are those words.

Are there public parks in France where men and women play team sports together? I don't think so. There's boules, I saw an occasional woman hefting a boule. But few.

Then I trotted up Riverdale Hill on the Broadview side and happened upon Riverdale Environment Day - all the city experts and local activists with booths and bins, a place to dispose of Hazardous Waste and broken electronics and advice on composting and solar panels. I asked what plastics can be recycled and what can't, what the trucks will take away and what they won't. It's a complex business and I want to get it right. Bought an apple from a Boy Scout and went back down the hill, up through Riverdale Farm where the maples were shining red and gold and the Clydesdales were getting their lunch of hay, and where I bought four eggs fresh from the chicken barn from the farm shop and was asked by the attendant, a boy I've known for decades, about my basement apartment. Which is NOT RENTED YET.

Ran into a writing student on the way home, a talented writer and neighbour who has missed a few of my home classes, and gave her the lecture I gave her classmates Thursday night - we have made a commitment to this work, you and I, and just kissing it off because you're tired is not an option. Talented young Jason wrote me on Thursday morning that he was tired so wouldn't come, I wrote him back a stern lecture about commitment, and so he showed up. After the class, he sent me an email. "Thanks for confronting me today. I need it sometimes. And yes, we all do. I came begrudgingly and left wondering how I could have possibly been anywhere else tonight."
"Your stories matter," I told them in class. "That's why we're here."

This fine sunny afternoon I rode my bike to the Wintergarden Theatre feeling like Jason - that I'd rather be elsewhere, but felt obligated to see Laughter Through Tears, a one-man play about the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem written by and starring Theodore Bikel. At the Thursday class, student Amy told me the show was heart-warming and I should see it. The word "heartwarming" often means my heart will be feeling anything but warm, but this time, it turned out to be just so - a lovely show, dignified, moving, and, yes, heart-warming. Afterwards I went to the Stage Door and left my book for Mr. Bikel, with thanks. Perhaps - dream on, sister - he can make a one-man play about my great-grandfather and the Yiddish theatre. Why not? It's a great story. Steven Spielberg did not respond to the copy I sent him; maybe Theodore Bikel will.

Last night old friend Kate the actress came for dinner - leftover Thanksgiving again, and she didn't even mind. Kate and I have been through the hurricane together - marriage, divorce, single motherdom, frantic worries about kids, money and work; she has had frightening health scares and a difficult time in a most demanding profession. Now she has landed, a soft landing for once; there is love, security, lots of work, her extraordinary daughter moving onward and upward. What joy to see someone so deserving of good fortune, after a long hard climb, actually achieve it.

And now suppertime. Thanksgiving dinner again. Soon I will be giving thanks that there's no turkey left.

Friday, October 16, 2009

apartment and room to rent

According to his response to my last post, Stan, one of my most faithful bloggees - no, let's say readers, bloggees sounds like some strange aquatic creature or Sri Lankan dessert - and I were watching the same two television programs at the same time on opposite sides of the country. You're out there, you're really out there! As I have said before. Recently, someone in Yemen logged on, but only stayed for a few seconds. Not interested in my ramblings in Yemen, I guess.

This is a business blog, not a musing blog. I have an apartment and a room to rent asap, before the foreclosers come (joke) (foreclosers a joke to me though not, unfortunately, to many.) So if you know any extremely nice, responsible people moving to or within Toronto, please let them know. There's a bright furnished bachelor basement apartment with private entrance and use of the magic secret garden. Those who've followed this blog for awhile know that there was a water problem which has been fixed, and the floor too. It's all being painted right now and will be spanking clean. (What exactly does spanking clean mean? Sounds a bit twisted.)

And there's a third floor attic room with skylights and its own two-piece bathroom for some wonderfully quiet and self-contained person who'll share the shower and kitchen with a wonderfully quiet and self-contained writer, aka moi, and also with her crabby cat.

It was minus 1 this morning with a wind chill of minus 4, but the sun is warm this afternoon and it's supposed to go up to 15 by mid-week. This is winter in Canada, testing, testing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

weather and TV report

The house is getting back to order after our Thanksgiving events - good dishes put away, large serving bowls washed and stored, my grandmother's damask tablecloth ready for the dry cleaner - though I'm still behind on chores like laundry and bills, let alone my own work. There's a reason today's busy families just can't go the whole hog, so to speak, (the whole turkey?) on these occasions - there just isn't time or energy. We only managed it here because of so many willing helpers. However, I'm still eating leftovers and enjoying every bite.

It's cold, feeling not just like fall but like winter already, a vicious bite to the wind. Got my potted plants inside just in time, the hibiscus and jasmine looking grey and withered, perking up again with some indoor shelter. Only the cheerful geraniums seem to flourish through just about anything. But now they're safely inside too.

Last night was veg out TV night - the finale of the British series "Doc Martin," which was a delight, and then a dilemma - a retrospective on Joan Baez on PBS, or a documentary about Prokofiev on Bravo? I did what I usually do and flipped back and forth, though stayed mostly with Joan. What a generous, brave, gorgeous woman, still stunning, still singing and socially active in her sixties. I spent countless hours of my adolescence with my Joan Baez songbook and my guitar, singing soulful folksongs ("The river is wide/ I cannot get o'er,") and pretending to be her.

She said that her son Gabriel, as an adult, told her that he'd felt left behind by her career, that he didn't see enough of her - she would be reading him a bedtime story when a call would come to join another march, and off she'd go. There she was, saving the world and neglecting her son. "I wish I'd been there more. I'd do things differently if I could," she said with regret, and someone else replied, "So would we all."

It comforted me to think of a woman so vastly accomplished and admirable, aching with that mother guilt we all feel. "I wish I hadn't ...", "If only I had ..." We know there's no point, but we do it anyway. As I watched my son turn 25, I thought about all the mistakes I made during his childhood. I was there, yes, but making stupid mistakes nonetheless. I wish I hadn't. If only I had.

I wish I'd done more to save the world and could sing like Joan Baez.

In the Thirties, Prokofiev was safely settled in Paris but decided to go back home to the Russia of the Soviets, where eventually his music was censored and his wife was sent to a gulag; he died while she was imprisoned there. What a mistake to go back! And yet much of his most sublime music was written back in Russia, including Romeo and Juliet. Would we have had these if he'd stayed in Paris?

His son and grandson were interviewed. My guess is that of all the things Prokofiev might have regretted, neglecting his son was not one of them. That kind of guilt, I think, is the exclusive territory of mothers, even the wise, famous and beautiful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

thanks, and concern for my country

Phew! Merriment and feasting over until Xmas; back to gruel and solitude. Yeah, right. There are enough leftovers for me to gobble Thanksgiving dinner for the next week. And turkey soup too, to be made today with the giant carcass of the 23-pound turkey.

My children and I are very different in many ways, but one thing we have in common is the love of gatherings - meals, parties, any excuse for a celebratory event with food. Anna and her best friend, my other daughter Holly, spent Sunday afternoon bustling in the kitchen, cooking and listening to Beatles, while Sam made our guests welcome. His roommate Chris, whose parents are living on their boat in Italy, made his famous garlic mashed potatoes. Chanel, whose parents are in Jamaica and England, arrived with the obligatory homeless waif Dennis, a colleague of hers whose family also lives too far away for him to go home. My childhood friend Ron arrived with pumpkin pie, and of course my mother and aunt and the spectacular Wayson Choy.

We ate turkey, stuffing and gravy, squash, sweet potatoes, garlic potatoes, brussels sprouts in a leek-cream sauce, peas (Sam's festive meals must have peas), cranberry sauce, and English bread sauce, made of bread, milk and onions, a novelty for non-Brits. We call it "library paste" and it's a must. There was, you might say, enough to eat. Ah, that euphoric moment when the food bowls are all lined up, steaming, on the kitchen counter, and the guests start moving down the line piling food on their plates. Somehow it all got peeled, chopped, mashed, basted and sliced - cooked, hot, ready. How much organising and time it takes, not to mention the cost, to buy and prepare and serve.

Worth every moment. At table, beloved faces and new friends ranging in age from almost 25 to almost 90, eating, talking and laughing. What is more important than this? And somehow - are we that much older and wiser? - there is no longer the undercurrent of anger or disappointment that used to flare up with its sour taste, me nagging, the kids squabbling, my mother saying something innocuous that would jab me to the core. Not any more.

Monday we did it again, only a much smaller table and most of the food already cooked. This time only Sam, the two ladies and our guest Ben, who pointed out that the turkey was so tender he didn't need to ask for help, he could cut it with his one arm.

Ben's an engineer who founded a small engineering firm that became one of the biggest in the world; when he talks, he sometimes mentions millions, even billions of dollars, and our eyes cross. He told us a story about his engineering company getting involved in the building of a highway in Ontario. He negotiated with then-Premier Bob Rae, whom he found to be highly intelligent and sensible, thoughtful, fair, and honest. Ben, a firm capitalist with four homes including a huge estate in the Cayman Islands, is a big fan of Bob Rae's. "He did a great job as Premier," he said, "but because of the world economy, unfairly got stuck with a bad reputation."

And then, he told us, Mike Harris was elected, completely reversed the deal, made some extremely poor decisions and ruined the whole thing not only for Ben's company but for the people of Ontario. No surprise there, since he also ruined the education system, the City of Toronto and much else.

Despite the joy of our gathering, I was haunted by what is happening in our country. The horrifying spectre of Stephen Harper winning a majority because he acted like a nice man for a few minutes and crooned a Beatles song. Canadians falling for it! With daily reports in the paper of Canada's bad behaviour on the world stage and at home - refusing to take Gitmo prisoners, to follow through on the Kyoto Accord - yesterday in the Star, a story about a walkout of other nations from the conference room because of a retrogressive Canadian proposal. Imagine, our country hurtling backwards with human rights and climate change, taking the place of the retrogressive Americans on the world stage.

And at home, the evisceration of the surplus and the creation of a giant deficit. And yet, choose the right song, a Beatles' song O my poor beloved band, and suddenly Canada loves the man with the eyes of a timber wolf.

And on the other side, the Liberals getting what they deserve. They know better than anyone that politics is like hockey, fast, ruthless, relentless, with slapshots and offsides and bitter fights, the instinctive figuring out of where the puck is. What the puck is, today. Yet the Liberals quailed at the past of brilliant, skilful life player Rae and chose a granite-jawed intellectual with a great deal of ambition and almost no experience. We are now watching Michael Ignatieff wobbling around the rink in his beginner skates, taking swipes in the direction of the puck, while the mean-spirited, cynical Conservative machine swerves and scores and laughs out loud.

That was on my mind, as we laughed and ate - fear and pain for my country.

Enough of that; that way madness lies, moving right along. Yesterday, my son's 25th birthday party, at his apartment above a dentist's office on Dundas West. A collection of his best friends since Grade 9 - Dustan, the two Matts, Triz, still as close as brothers. They all spent countless teenaged hours in our home and call me Mum. Plus a group of Sam's new friends from various workplaces. The average age before I arrived: 26. But they made me comfortable and welcome, even after I put my wine glass down on the lip of the bar where it spilled, splashing red wine all over Dustan's new white vest and t-shirt. There was an assortment of delicious food brought for the pot luck, including oxtail soup, eggplant Parmesan and homemade macaroni with 3 exotic cheeses. A lot of these young people are in the restaurant business. Lucky hungry me.

I decided to try not to worry, for the moment, about the future of my country, or even the future of my son and his friends, many of them with no fixed course and very little money. The evening was simply the pleasure of watching a good-looking, kind, funny and generous young man in his own home, hosting his own crowd. I tried to pretend that this job, at least, was done - my son raised and out in the world, free of me. When of course, no matter how much we both pretend otherwise, he never will be.

Three things are certain for parents: death, taxes, and concern. And now, more than ever, for Canadians too. This Canadian, at least.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thksgvg. weekend report

Go, Barack! What a thrill to hear about your peace prize. Your enemies on the right will instantly, in their hate-filled way, work hard to turn this grand honour into something dishonourable. I know how vile the level of discourse is down there thanks to Jon Stewart - though these days I can hardly bear to watch even him, because of what he shows going on. Almost beyond bearing, that sentient human beings can be that mean-spirited and crass. Mr. Obama should walk right out of that big white house and never came back. But he's not that kind of guy.

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, cold and rainy but it doesn't matter because we're all going to be inside eating. My mother and her sister Do arrived from Ottawa today; the kids came over and the five of us ate stew. I wish the ladies lived closer so my kids had more contact with their elders. My mother reminisced about when she and my dad came came to visit us 25 years ago after Sam's birth, and Anna came running down the street to tell about her new baby brother. Do recited a poem that won her a prize - a fountain pen when such things were novelties - when she was seven years old, eighty-two years ago.

The kids showed us photos on their cell phones and pulled up Facebook pictures on my computer, and we looked at a 3D image of their baby sister, their dad's daughter who isn't due to be born until November 21st, but whose photograph in utero is on the internet.
"She's got my nose," said Anna, and she does.
"Do, our age is showing," said my mother, who can barely comprehend all this technology. Mum was aghast at Sam's new tattoo all down his arm, but when he explained that it was a line in his dead friend's handwriting from a poem by Lord Byron, she was mollified. Both ladies admonished Anna to change her blonde hair back to its natural auburn, which she was intending to do anyway. It was great to relax and leave the nagging, for once, to someone else. All I had to do was cook. It was Mum's 86th birthday yesterday and will be Sam's 25th on Tuesday. Both Libras - cheery and nuts.

I give thanks that my mother, who has had open heart surgery twice and is getting thin and frail, is here to enjoy her grandchildren's sense of humour, and so is her nearly ninety year old sister.

A beautiful day, warm and sunny. I thought warmth had gone for good - for this year, anyway -but not yet.

I don't understand how, while I was wandering around Europe, unable sometimes to find internet access, I still posted regular blogs, whereas here, at home, I am so fraught and exhausted, days go by without a post. I'm aware that you're out there, my reader friends, and I want very much to write more often to you. But perhaps all the mundanity, the ... excuse me while my eyes close for a minute because I'm putting myself to sleep - zzzzzzzzz - okay, up and at 'em - perhaps the pressure of the day to day just drains the juice out of me, and out of you too, I bet. I had not realised before how crazy busy it gets here, how much just getting through the day, scratching things from the To Do list of life, takes out of a girl. It doesn't leave nearly enough time for the fun things like this.

If I can prop my eyes open long enough to finish, I'd like to tell you that things are going well on our multigenerational weekend. Mum and Do actually tottered with us through the chaos of Yonge Street to that tranquil place of repose called the Gap, where Sam bought his birthday jeans and sweaters, and then we all tottered back. On the way, Mum bought a wondrous gift for me - the Beatles boxed set. All the Beatles albums in a neat box, with special DVD's about the making of the music, apparently. My Sergeant Pepper's album vanished years ago as did Let it Be, and my other discs are old and scratched. So here they all are, sounding better than ever. I leaned on the counter during "When I'm 64," one of the best songs ever written, to hear the intonations, the harmony - the "hoo!" Paul hoots at the very end. That music is like food for me, a banquet of brilliant words and melody and my own past.

Tonight we were all here for dinner - Mum and Do, Anna with the four-year old she babysits on Saturdays, Sam and his girlfriend Chanel, and I. Mum had offered to pay for take-out so Sam ordered Swiss Chalet. I didn't care what we ate as long as there was food on the table that I didn't have to cook. The nicest part of the evening, though, was afterwards - Sam put on Revolver and we all cleaned up and then made stuffing for tomorrow morning - the 23 pound turkey has to go in early if we want to eat before midnight - while singing and dancing along to the best band in the world. Everyone went home happy. And I tried to write something, if not riveting, then at least coherent for you, though I'm ready to fall over.

And now ... over I fall.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

an early giving of thanks

Grocery shopping as life lesson - welcome to Cabbagetown. The first time I ventured into the Parliament Street No Frills, in 1986 on our arrival here, I thought it must be like a shop in downtown Beirut - chaotic, bombed-out, abandoned. It has since become more upscale, but not much. Today, with my basket of French cheese, fresh raspberries, garlic, pork chops and endive, I stood in line behind a First Nations man and his silent, hooded female companion, who were buying one box of Kraft Dinner and a small carton of milk. I stood there for quite some time, because they were paying in carefully doled-out pennies and nickles, plus eleven cents for two plastic bags - "one for the garbage," he explained to her.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, it is always good to be reminded, once again, of just how much we have to be thankful for. There's a woman in my Tuesday Ryerson class who fled Iran with her husband and two boys during the revolution. They gave their life savings to a man who promised to ferry them immediately to Canada, and ended up living for 27 months in a village in Turkey, wondering if their money would last or if they'd starve, and if they'd ever reach the promised land. In yesterday's essay, she wrote about gazing through the window of their tiny room, imagining that she was looking out at Canada, walking for the first time in snow, seeing her footsteps imprinted behind her. Finally, she and her family made it here.

"Did Canada live up to your expectations?" someone asked.
"Oh yes, yes," she replied. "I love this country. This is a beautiful country."

With thanks to Canada, which for once, since the advent of the piano-playing grinch Stephen Harper, did the right thing toward its refugees and let this family stay. Even if it has not helped to provide more than Kraft dinner for my friend at No Frills.

I have ordered a twenty plus pound turkey from St. Jamestown Steak and Chops on Parliament Street, where we've been buying turkeys, and much else, since 1986. My mother and Aunt Do are coming for Thanksgiving from Ottawa, my kids from across town, various friends of mine and theirs. They'll all take away a little packet of leftovers. How I look forward to this gathering, the first since my mind-altering journey abroad - family and friends gathered around our table to eat a fine Canadian meal with a bit of No Frills French cheese afterwards. It doesn't, as I am wont to say, get better than this. Lucky, grateful, blessed.

P.S. Speaking of lucky, grateful and blessed, I bade farewell yesterday to my dear friend Bruce, and now am bereft. Hurricane Bruce, as he has been named, forced me to completely excavate and rearrange my office, so now it's a decluttered sparkling new workplace. We spent a glorious evening listening to his favourite selections from Bach's B Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion. He bought me new RAM and installed it, and crossed off a long list of technical things to do with the computer, the TV and the DVD player. This is a man who enjoys reading electronics manuals. Can you imagine? So he reads them and fixes things up and leaves little notes with a simple explanation for my moron mind on how things work.

He says when he retires from his job as Musical Director for the Art's Club in Vancouver, he is thinking of travelling around, staying with friends in exchange for technical expertise. Book your time with Hurricane Bruce now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nuit Blanche

Bruce and I made a foray into Nuit Blanche last night. Whoever had this idea (did it start in Paris?) is a visionary - the entire city turned over for a night into a giant artfest. Bruce had the best line; whenever we saw something that looked vaguely interesting, "Is that art?" he'd say. "Have we found some art?"

We started right here in Cabbagetown, where there were various happenings on Parliament Street between Carlton and Winchester, closed for the evening. There was bicycle art, kids and adults running their bike wheels through a trough of colour and then riding, weaving as much as possible, over a huge sheet of paper. "That's how I think modern art is actually made," snorted Bruce, and we speculated that they'd sell the resulting canvases of tire-track squiggles for thousands.

Gina from up the street had created a sound-and-slide show on the wall of the liquor store; we sat in the parking lot watching as powerful images of the First World War - a bombed-out Frenchwoman sitting on a park bench with her cow on a leash - clicked by with a reading of letters from the time. Our local representative George Smitherman, whether he's running for mayor or not, had turned his riding office into party central, with a cross-section of my diverse neighbours - Sri Lankans, Jamaicans, middle-class WASPs, homeless men and women - eating pizza and cake and looking at murals and paintings created by neighbourhood schoolchildren and First Nations people. So far, we thought as we headed off towards downtown, so good for Nuit Blanche.

We got off the subway at Dundas along with thousands of others; I've never seen the downtown core so jammed. Famed American Jeff Koon's gigantesque silver bunny balloon with carrot we found floating near the ceiling in the Eaton's Centre - amusing, but what did it MEAN? "I like the geese more," said Bruce about the work of Canadian artist Michael Snow, a flock of Canada geese flying above the capitalist fray of the mall, and so did I.

And at City Hall we watched the "4 letter word machine" by D. Therrien, an American artist, which had F A T E in very bright lights suspended above the crowd. We waited for the giant letters to change - weren't they supposed to be changing rapidly? And when eventually they did - anti-climactically, to F A E - everyone cheered and clapped.

One of the best things about the night was the easy friendliness of the good-natured crowd, strangers chatting with strangers. As we got into the elevator to see an installation at City Hall, a man getting off said, "You'll find it scintillating. Scintillating." He laughed, and his wife smacked him on the shoulder. We thanked him and indeed it was, as he'd implied, less than scintillating, though an interesting idea - someone had filmed a corner very near here, in Regent's Park, for an entire day, rotating around and around, and the day was being shown in fast motion by a projector revolving around the chambers of City Hall. It was fun to see my neighbourhood wheeling by, but more fun to see where the portentous room where the decisions affecting our city are made.

Though the afternoon had included a violent thunderstorm, the evening was dry but cold, so we began to meander home up Bay Street. We were going to see the installation inside Trinity Church but there was a long line-up, and the same for the blindfolded wrestling match in the Greyhound bus terminal, though that looked like a lot of fun. Films were being projected on various building walls, including the Canadian Tire store, which was open. Helpfully, many stores had remained open, so you could consume some goods along with your art.

The city had sponsored events far and wide, including a midway in the financial district and a huge Monopoly game with real money. If you were organised - apparently you could track the night with various electronic devices, far too high-tech for us - you could see most of the night's offerings before they closed down at 7 a.m. Bruce and I ended our night back in the 'hood at Riverdale Park, where someone had set up a twinkling enclave filled with kissbotts - little robots made of popsicle sticks with big lipsticked lips - and a tunnel where a strange creature with fiery eyes lurked, and then we saw a cube covered with projected films down Riverdale hill.

As we were making our way there, I could see large fuzzy shapes inside the fence at Riverdale Farm. Though it looked like Dusty the donkey and the Clydesdale horses, I found it very strange - they are always inside the stable at night, and now they were against the fence in the cow pen rather than their own for some reason, and utterly motionless, like ... like statues, I realised. "It's art!" I cried. "Someone has created furry sculptures of the animals, and they're so realistic no one has noticed."

However, when we got close, we saw that the sculptures were in fact Dusty the donkey and his two Clydesdale friends Dolly and Rooster, who were in the cow pen at night, for some reason, and remarkably still. But very real. Still, they looked like art to me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

so it's cold, whaddya want, it's October!

It's freezing! What makes the bone-chilling damp worse is that I Skyped with friend Lynn in Montpellier yesterday; it's 30 degrees in the south of France, she said, she's wearing little tops and going to the beach. Ah well - this is the price we pay for living in this fine country. As I've always said, if the Canadian climate were better, we'd be overrun. Only the brave survive here, even in early October.

Bruce and I had an impassioned discussion about the New Yorker today, as he was installing my new external hard drive which is named MacSwell, and I was still going through files and throwing out 35-year old bits of paper. I told him I'm so swamped by the New Yorker that I'm considering letting my subscription lapse. I adore this magazine, but there it is, once a week, shouting, "Read me, read me!" while seventeen back issues, eight other magazines, three newspapers, twenty-two backed up internet sites and twelve books also shout.
"What is wrong with our lives that we don't have time to read the New Yorker?" cried Bruce.
Time time time. Where does it go? Wednesday was Carol's class at the Y; a week had gone since the last class, but it seemed like a day at most. Time is the greatest luxury, it seems, at this stage of life.

Someone has created a four cornered box to show our life choices, with, at each corner, Work, Family, Health, Friends. If you want "success," it posits, you can have three of the four, but not all of them. If you want "real success" - fame, I guess, or wealth - you need to give up two of the four. And I know that I have put my family and friends first and spend time at the Y at the expense of my work, whereas others have kept family and work at the expense of health and friends. Is this a particularly Toronto/big city pattern? In small towns, are the choices as stark?

And what about Angelina and Brad, or Stephen Lewis and Michele Landsberg, who seem to have all four? Is this because they are cyborgs? No, come to think about it, we don't really know about their health ...

All I know is that I feel myself running, running on the spot with my lists clutched in my hand, as if I'm on a conveyor belt moving in the opposite direction. This is crazy. Stop and breathe, girl. Bruce is having a nap right now. That sounds like a good idea.

Tonight some television, for once. A new Law and Order at 8, and later, the Flashpoint episode which may feature my kitchen. TV is the greatest time-waster of all, but sometimes it's a luxurious necessity, and a new Law and Order, especially when it's cold and dark outside, is definitely one of those times.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Greetings, my forty readers

You're out there, readers, you're really out there! To paraphrase Sally Fields.

Bruce, my own personal organiser and techno-geek, is visiting from Vancouver, and the other day he set up Google Analytics on my website. We waited 24 hours, then clicked on it and wow, I found out that about 40 people a day are actually reading what I write here. Terrifying. Mostly from Canada, but also from the Netherlands, Switzerland, England, France, the U.S. and one unnamed country. Gazanfer in Turkey, maybe? Anita in Finland? Hello! Welcome! Come on in, grab a coffee, let's chat.

Milk? Sugar? Hmmm. What should we talk about? Suddenly I feel shy. Writing into a void was fine. Writing to 40 expectant readers is different. No, no it isn't, get over it, on we go. Though I'd love to know who you are and what you're doing right now. How's things in Switzerland these days?

Right now I'm in my office surrounded by files and papers, but in a good way. As he always does, Brucie has forced me to get organised, and this time we tackled my office. Unlike my friend Mr. Choy, who works in a rabbit warren stacked ceiling-high with papers, books, collectibles and souvenirs, I work better in relative emptiness, hence the joy of the serene Paris apartment which contained almost nothing. Here, through the years, my hoarding nature has led me to open countless files - Books to Read, Articles of Interest, Great Writing to Keep, Nice Postcards to Look At Again in 40 Years, etc. I'm drowning in files and papers to file and things to read, including two bulging files entitled Papers to File and Things to Read.

Bruce and I reduced the mountain into recognisable piles and then moved most of them to another room, where I don't have to look at them. "But, " I protested, "I should sort them out first, read them or whatever."
"You're never going to do it," said Bruce, "so let's just put the stuff where it won't make you feel guilty."
And you know, he's right. It's in another room, stacked neatly in labelled boxes, and perhaps one day, who knows, after my prefrontal lobotomy when I need something mindless to do, I'll sort it all. Until then, I don't have to look at it and can get on with my work. Though Bruce left yesterday for Stratford and I unearthed more paper which is now spread on every surface, waiting for a decision. When Bruce gets back today, I'll let him bundle it up and move it on out. Hooray for Bruce! I'm cooking him a pork roast and sweet potatoes, right now, as a reward.

It's cold out there. The weather switched so fast, it was bewildering - one minute hot sun and t-shirts, the next blistering wind and freezing rain and hauling the heavy jackets up from the basement. That's Canada. I love Canada. I have never loved Canada more than now, right after my long stay in Europe. Brucie has just reappeared from Stratford with a box of Rheo Thompson chocolates for me, wonderful man. "Let's have one right now," he said.
"No," I replied. "In France you have chocolate after a meal, with coffee."
"I hate France!" said Bruce, but of course he doesn't mean it. We both love France but are happy to live in Canada where you can eat chocolate at any time of the day or night.

Except, even if you've put in a Herculean effort in the office, when you're visiting me.