Sunday, January 31, 2010


Further to my posts about the lack of remuneration in my business, I'd like to tell you about the end-of-the-year royalty statement I just received my from Syracuse University Press, my publisher. I don't think the taxes will be too devastating on last year's royalty payout, which amounted to 74 dollars and eight cents.


Good thing the book only took me twenty plus years, not more.


Went last night with my friend Anne-Marie, who worked previously with Development and Peace and is now with the Jesuit Forum, to an event full of good people doing work on social justice issues, like her. We ate an enormous potluck feast, and then an activist priest nicknamed Hobo reported on a recent trip to Cairo with a group of Canadians, to an event organised by an American feminist action group called Code Pink. In Cairo they met up with activists from around the world, determined to march through Gaza to demand peace and freedom for the area and its people. He showed slides and talked about the trip, which didn't get out of Cairo - only a few were permitted by the Egyptian government to get as far as Gaza. So they demonstrated and made speeches about freedom for the Palestinians in the Egyptian capital. Hobo spoke with admiration of the Jews who were part of the campaign, including a rabbi called Lynn who did much of the organising.

I understand and support their concern, 100%. Terrible injustice is taking place, Israel is behaving like a vicious bully, and I am grateful, as a human being and a half-Jew, for those who are trying to bring light to the issues and demand justice for the oppressed and dispossessed. But when they passed around flyers asking for support for "Israeli Apartheid Week," demanding that Israel be sanctioned and isolated as was South Africa during apartheid, I felt defensive and angry. Apartheid was hideously unjust and many aspects of Israeli behaviour are similarly indefensible, but the black population of South Africa was not supported and supplied with tonnes of weapons by wealthy Arab states, was not sworn to obliterate the white population, did not deny its right to exist. There is a vast difference in the cases.

Another man began to talk about how some Jews have claimed the word "genocide" for themselves and try to prevent Armenians or Ukrainians from using the term. What an irrational and foolish statement. What a complex issue, where to criticise a nation's behaviour is also to sound as if you're attacking a people who have been attacked enough. Insoluble, I think.

Enough already. Obama did really well in his State of the Union address. That's my boy. Stephen Harper's poll numbers are down. That's my Canada.

P.S. JUST FOUND MY EARRING! What are the chances of that? The tiny diamond stud could have fallen out of my ear anywhere, on the street, at the Y, on the streetcar. Instead, I just bent down to feed the cat and there is was, without its butterfly backing, beside the cat dish. It must have dropped out when I bent to feed her the other day.

Once again, thank you, universe. To celebrate, I'm going out to buy daffodils.

Friday, January 29, 2010

O lucky day

Just got home and found a message from one of the lawyers handling the rights claims. The deadline has been extended two months.

Thank you, universe. I promise to start paying attention. I will fill in those forms today and read all business mail assiduously from now on. Because I am a grown-up and can understand big words.

Perhaps my diamond stud is lying on the floor somewhere, or stuck in my beret. I'm going to keep my eyes peeled. But a silly earring doesn't matter, O vanity thy name is woman. It does matter to be recompensed for this work I love so much, that recompenses so poorly.

The neighbour who called the tow truck is still a jerk.

terrible horrible very bad day

Annals of moronic stupidity, heartsick department: Wayson asked me yesterday if I'd made sure to sign up for the Writer's Union payout for magazine and newspaper rights to written work. There had been a lengthy court case, I knew, that writers had won, something about being paid for rights, something like that, what do I know, I'm just a writer. I had received notices from the Writer's Union of which I'm a member, but they were COMPLICATED, you know, you had to READ them and figure them out and so I paid no attention. I was away, too, strolling the Champs Elysees rather than sorting through email from the Writer's Union of Canada.

I woke up at last at Wayson's urging, logged on, found out that I am eligible for compension for over forty articles for the Globe and other papers and magazines. And that the deadline for the applications for compensation was last week.

Wayson said the payouts might be in the thousands.

There is a slight possibility of an extension of the deadline, for @#$%^&* morons like me. I have written to the Union asking if I may boost that possibility by falling to my knees and begging. No response.

No sympathy for this cretin. It simply did not occur to me that I had written enough to make a difference. I'm so used to assuming there's no money in this business that I ignore any possibility that might lead in that direction. Unbelievable. Beyond stupid.

Then, later yesterday, I reached up to my right earlobe and discovered that one of my little diamond stud earrings was missing. They were a Christmas gift from my mother years ago and I almost never take them off. One has gone. And then after my home class last night, one of my students came back to the house, frantic - her car was missing. She had parked it slightly jutting out into the very wide driveway of the condos next door and, we discovered on phoning the police, one of my neighbours had called a towing company and had her towed. She's in her eighties and it was minus sixteen last night.

I battled rage at myself, at my neighbours and at the universe, but only briefly. Another student in class read a piece about a mutual friend of ours, a talented writer younger than we are who is losing the fight with a virulent cancer. I remembered what matters and put my miniscule woes to rest. A waste of valuable time and energy to fret about money and things - earrings, a blue Honda Civic that was reclaimed, a neighbour's intolerance.

Lesson learned, however. From now on, you may be sure that I will be reading business emails with a great deal of care. If you see someone on her knees, praying in some public place, it will be me.


One of my most feverish Grade 13 essays is still stored in a box, somewhere around here. It's about J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. That year, 1965-66, was my big Salinger year. Was there an intense artistic kid anywhere in those days, busy defining him or herself as a sensitive outsider battered by the System, by the Man, parents, school, the crazy capitalist phoney goddamn world for Chrissakes, was there a poor crazy screwed-up teenager anywhere in North America who did not absorb Salinger's opus at one gulp and live Holden Caulfield for months or even years? I loved that book so much I wrote a very long handwritten essay about it, then moved on to all his other books, some of which I did not understand. I did not understand why Seymour was so goddamn sensitive he had to shoot himself because his wife was so crass. How did suicide help anyone? The Glasses were so perfect and the rest of the world so ugly. Where did that put me, intense, sensitive 15-year old Beth Kaplan in Grade 13 at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa? Living with my crazy parents who did not understand me in a world that wanted to bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age?

It may be a cliché to call Salinger the voice of a generation. But he was.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best of Born to Blog?

My friend Margaret in Vancouver echoed the other day what friend Ellen had previously suggested - that I turn excerpts of this blog into a book. "Best of Born to Blog," said Margaret. At first I dismissed the idea - who would want to pay money, even not very much money, to buy a book of these ramblings? At least the writer of Julie and Julia had a goal that readers could get behind and cheer - what is the goal of these posts? To get through life with a bit of grace, humour and fellowship, I suppose.

Well, I thought, perhaps that's enough of a goal. So I'm going to take a look at what's there and see if it's worth putting it on paper as well as on the shining screen. I believe in books. After the apocalypse, when Canada has reinstated the death penalty and the streets of Toronto are desolate with savage gangs, the wealthy driving by huddled in tanks, when the tsunamis of global warming hit even here, where will our computers be then? Useless bits of junk. What will still be useful? Low-tech paper, pens, pencils. Books.

Oh oh getting apocalyptic again. Bad days for us lefties - Harper does whatever he wants and only a small band of concerned citizens notices or cares, and poor Obama is getting smashed on all sides. Very depressing.

On a cheerier note - PLEASE! A cheerier note! - I made a wonderful discovery yesterday. Rooting in my shelves for memoir material, I came across the baby book I'd forgotten my mother giving me years ago. Luckily for me, she is a hoarder, and what I found was a treasure trove of my own past. The bill for my birth, for example, at the New York Polyclinic on West 50th - only blocks from Sak's Fifth Avenue, I'm proud to note, and a few more to Time's Square. My parents paid $1.00 for the baby bracelet and $1 a day - $7 for a seven day stay - for a "Flat rate maternity hospitalisation without caesarean section." $55.15 in all. What a deal! For $55 they got me! Does it get better than that!

A list in my father's handwriting of names considered: Nadia (his mother's name), Wendy, Elizabeth, Julia, Madeleine, Nina, and Cynthia, and for a boy, Neil, Gregor, Terence, Eric, Michael (his father's name and the one they chose nearly 4 years later for my brother). Among the names crossed out, thankfully, are Cornelia and Astrid, Hector and Denis. Hector! Dad named all our pets after Greek heroes or gods. I'm sure we had a cat named Hector, at one point. My cat was officially named Ariadne, but I called her Wussoo.

My mother has kept her notes both before and after my birth: "August 1st, 1950. It's now 7 a.m. - we just arrived from Great Neck and it seems like the day! I can't really tell how often I'm getting pains now, but I think about every 10 minutes. G. was magnificent driving in, altho' we overshot a turn or two." My father arrives with some things for her - undoubtedly a cup of tea. "We should have got notepaper too," she writes on the back of a Packard Motor Car Company service manual. And a mere twelve hours later, there I was, though she was out cold and didn't see me till the next day.

Most thrillingly, she has written down and counted my first words - nine at 13 months, including, "NO!", 56 at 16 months, 103 at 18 months and at 22 months, I have mastered the useful sentences, "Gone office in car," "Duck open the mouth," "No like it," and "Leave me alone Mummy." You can get far with those.

What a gift. Many thanks, my mother. I have been the same kind of hoarder and obsessive note-taker for my own children, but as far as I can see, they are not writers, so all that stuff is just amusing and mildly interesting to them. But for me, this is rich, invaluable material. On this bleak, snowy morning, I am on the trail, nose to the ground, sniffing for clues.

Monday, January 25, 2010

say it ain't so, Canada

A gloomy, dark, rainy Monday, and I confess to feeling a bit gloomy and dark myself. This was the headline in an article in the Saturday Globe: "Canadians take fresh look at capital punishment." 62% of Canadians, apparently, at least according to this poll, support a return of the death penalty.

To say that this news makes me sick at heart would be a major understatement. You know, I don't believe it, not a word of it, but what I do believe is that poisonous messages coming from the thugs in Ottawa are working. Simple answers to complex issues: frightened by international terrorism and local gangs? Just "get tough on crime" and build more prisons. Lock 'em up, no, better yet, kill them, that'll solve the problem! Look at how well it has worked in those peaceful, crime-free United States.

We're watching Canada change before our eyes.

Okay, time to stop before I get apocalyptic. The article did make me envision a Mad Max scenario for Canada - a vicious dog-eat-dog world, you against me, the laws of selfishness, greed and violence prevailing, and a Harper majority government to start it off. Who ARE those people out there supporting Harper and death? I realise again what a marvellous bubble I live in, surrounded by the "liberal elite" in downtown Toronto. Though there is even a risk right here and now - the right-wing mayoral candidate, who opposes limits to development and hates - get this - bicycle lanes, is apparently gaining force. Down with those lawless bicycle lanes!

No no time to stop. It's the lack of light outside, that's what it is. Instead, I turn to this short email I just got from my dearest friend:

Lunch felt so good, seeing your smile and the light criss-crossing across those winter branches waiting for spring. x0x0 Wayson

Even if we elect a mayor who stomps out our bicycle lanes, friends will get us through. But if Canada reinstates the death penalty, I will have to move. And take Wayson and the rest of you with me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

happy Saturday

Three, count them, three great treats on this bitter winter Saturday. First, my beloved Wayson is back from Vancouver, and we have had two catch-up visits already. But he is in serious writing mode now, under deadline for his next novel. He was also scared as he watched a dear aunt disintegrate with Alzheimer's and by the too-early, too-fast death of his good friend Paul Quarrington. A man who's had two near-death experiences, as he likes to point out, lives close to mortality's edge in any case, but now he's in a hurry. Got to get those stories out. So though he wants to see several of the same movies I want to see, we won't go skipping off together, as we used to.

The good news: he'll keep MY nose to the grindstone, as well as his own.

He drove me downtown to the demonstration - Canadians Against Proroguing had organised rallies across the country this afternoon. I was concerned that the much more vital issue of Haiti had perhaps wiped this event from the map, but there was a very solid turnout - a few thousand, anyway, and a very satisfying march down Yonge Street and back up Bay. People carried signs like "My Canada includes Parliament," and we chanted. "Hey hey, ho ho, Stephen Harper's got to go." Classics like that. "What do you want? Democracy. When do we want it? Now!" Took me right back to the anti-Vietnam rallies of 1967, 8, 9.

There was one chant that bothered me. "The people/united/ will never be/ defeated." First, it is, unfortunately and sadly, wrong. The people are often defeated, united or no. But second, it doesn't scan. It should rhyme. I thought they could try "The people/united/will always get excited." Or "The people/well-treated/will never be/defeated."

But they didn't ask me.

Anyway, I love a good demonstration and march. These are my people, I thought today, these brave idealistic souls out in the freezing cold and biting wind. A young woman in a power wheelchair, an elderly couple in homespun clothing who were obviously at Woodstock, a stylish Asian couple with a baby in a stroller, two semi-naked young men with helmets, spears and cloaks, a woman behind them carrying a sign, "Spartans against tyranny." Though I nearly froze to death, I loved every minute of it.

And then tonight, I got to watch my handsome son and his handsome friends on television. A show called Cash Cab, on Discovery Channel, sends a camera-equipped taxi around Toronto. Random customers are given the chance, while being driven to their destination, to answer questions and win money, on film. Sam, Matt and Joe got into the cab and had the most wonderful time answering. They got every one right. Matt, in the very back seat, got the first few, and Sam said, "He's a back-seat game-show answerer." At the end, they had a choice: to leave with $750 or answer one last question and double or lose their money. They took the chance. The question was about an island prison in the U.S. ... "Alcatraz!" shouted Sam. "I know it's Alcatraz." They yelled and smacked hands when handed their $1300.00, and went off with their arms around each other. Smart, funny, nice, those boys. Did I mention handsome? I knew them when.

Friday, January 22, 2010

humanity wins out, tonight

This may be a surprise to those of you who know how jaded and cynical I am, but tonight I'm feeling very good about being a human being. (That's a joke, for those of you who don't know me ...) The TV telecast raising funds for Haiti is on right now - some no doubt famous country western singer is singing a song for Haiti. I've been begged by Wyclef Jean, Halle Berry, Leo Dicaprio and the glorious George Clooney to donate; Coldplay, the glorious Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, so far, have sung. When the camera flashes by the phone banks taking donations, le tout Hollywood royalty is on display, including, strangely, Mel Gibson, not noted for his empathy.

Earlier we saw the Canadian version on practically every Canadian channel, with Canadian royalty on display - Strombo, Ben Mulroney et al, with our Governor General and famous Geddy Lee and the glorious Celine and others exhorting us to give. I do have to wonder at the extent of this involvement and compassion; though the tsunami evoked a great deal of empathy, there wasn't this level of support. Was that because that disaster was on the other side of the earth, whereas Haiti is so close to North America? Or is it simply that our global media network is now so incredibly expansive that everything that happens becomes worldwide instantly? I wonder, when the next disaster happens - a crop failure or terrible drought in Africa next week, for example - will we see this outpouring again? With so much going to Haiti, when there is such incredible need all over the planet - what will happen to the others?

Oh well - at least our world has jumped on this very good bandwagon. Jon Stewart, my most beloved, is talking now. I have already donated (to Development and Peace), or I would be picking up the phone.

Earlier, I listened to CBC radio replay a broadcast of a beautiful story by the greatly-mourned Paul Quarrington, while reading a long, affectionate obit of him in the Globe. Canada is a small country that honours its fallen, even mere writers and musicians.


And on a merrier note - imagine my joy on seeing an article in the Star today headlined, "If the bigger shoe fits, wear it." It's about - be still my beating heart - how women's feet are getting bigger. Several well-known fashionistas are quoted as saying they wear size 11. Size 11! Is it possible? What alternative universe have I fallen into, I of the big feet, sometimes, occasionally, size 11 too? (Usually much, much smaller, 10 1/2 sometimes, and even, on a few occasions, a tiny tiny 10!) I who have spent an adult lifetime unable to buy fashionable shoes for my giant awkward feet, have just read an article about how big shoes will soon be more available for us big foots. In all of this darkness, a little light.

Okay, I shouldn't be flippant. But big shoes are no small matter to me.


Back to the telethon: My God, Morgan Freeman, whom I just saw as Nelson Mandela, was speaking to me. Steven Spielberg chatted with a Presbyterian Minister from Wyoming. Bill Clinton! I have to tell you that I've been near tears a few times. The Americans have organised the most stunning star-studded evening, flowing seamlessly from famous people making music to famous people speaking to us, telling us stories from the rubble, to shots of famous people taking pledges. And all I can think, besides how wonderful this is, is ... if only it happened every week. Even once a month, for God's sake. Let's just keep this going, please. It's wondrous.

Madonna, with a choir of millions. Backstage must be unbelievable. What is beautiful is that at the end of each song, there is not the usual screaming accolate - there is silence. Ben Stiller. Okay, I'll stop my chronicle.

Tomorrow, the demonstration against proroguing Parliament. There are more than 210,000 members of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Okay, it's not a global disaster, but it's a small meaningful fight for our country, and I'll be there.

Justin Timberlake singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Never thought I'd see the day.

Okay, real tears, I can't help it - someone very talented singing "Let it be." Gets me every time. Over and out, before I get any more maudlin.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

dancing to Paul Quarrington

Today's tears: standing in the kitchen in front of the radio, swaying to "Gotta Love a Train" by Porkbelly Futures. The song's sad, sweet vocals and words are by Paul Quarrington, who died this morning at the age of 56. How many good writers have beautiful singing voices and a band? How many men can be successful at both the solitary work of the writer and the extremely social work of the lead singer? Well, there's Paul.

I met Paul Quarrington at one of the high points of his amazing life - at the Humber School of Writers first, and I think only, autumn workshop session in Siena, Italy. Paul was there with his beautiful true love, and he explored all things Italian with the gusto and good humour that were his trademark. Then, I knew him just as a writer and writing teacher. It wasn't until I went to the dance at the end of the Writer's Union of Canada AGM that I heard him sing with Porkbelly Futures, raunchy, hard rockin' songs, many of which he wrote himself. The dance floor was packed the whole time, and writers are not usually given to wild flailing of the body.

I knew, partly because Paul and Wayson were good friends, that there was sadness, the failure of relationships, and then the horrifying diagnosis of incurable lung cancer. I attended the first part of the event held in his honour at the Writer's Festival last October, during which one famous Canadian scribe after another, including Margaret Atwood and Wayson himself, spoke movingly of their love and respect for Paul. When he played and sang, the whole room wept.

His death is a great loss for the arts in our country. No, a great loss just for our country; for us.


My children came over yesterday, both arriving at the old homestead at nearly the same time, which usually only happens when a large turkey is in the oven. Sam cooked our dinner, Anna cleaned up, both spent time Facebooking on my computer, Sam flipped through 56 channels on TV, Anna talked and texted to 56 people on her cellphone, they spoke long-distance to their grandmother in Ottawa, and they were gone. While here, they remained in constant contact with their own planets, but I did get a glimpse of them.

As always, as you've heard before, I feel the dilemma of the parent of adult children who have not yet really set up their own homes and lives: how to be there, available, helpful or comforting, yet not obtrusive? There, yet not too much there? It's a balancing act, one which I sometimes feel I've aced and then, when one or the other pulls back and away, I know that I have not.

And more re aging: yesterday I was at Shopper's, where only the other day I was looking at anti-aging creams. This time I was looking at pimple medication. How unjust, that we should be afflicted with crevices in our faces and, at the same time, acne. Enough already!
There's a pimple on my chin the size of a meterorite, I swear, now being plied with the 5% stuff the druggist gave me to make it go away, just as I did with Clearasil when I was 15.

I wonder if the lovely Carol Burnett has pimples.

PS I have just tried to simplify, yet again, the process of responding to blog posts. So if you'd like to give it a try, to write and say hello and give me some feedback, be my guest. I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"I know here"

A wonderful visit this morning: Laurel Croza came to show me her book. Laurel took my Ryerson class in 2003, and as she did the first writing exercise, she tumbled into vivid memories of her childhood in the northwest of Canada. One of her stories was about a girl who's being forced to move from everything she knows in the north to the big city, and how she copes.

I'm proud to tell you that Laurel's story is now a haunting picture book published by Groundwood, one of Canada's best young people's publishers; it's called I know here, it's beautifully illustrated by Matt James, and it's coming out in March. Laurel is the most unassuming person, full of self-doubt but also brave and persistent; she stuck to her work, to her need to be heard, and here is her book. With more, undoubtedly, to come. Brava, Laurel.

My first home class was last week, a group of writers who've been working with me for some time, gathered in my living-room. Afterwards, Liz sent this.

Of everything that I love about this class, I marvel most at the honesty. It is not brutal honesty, but gentle, thoughtful and genuine honesty, spoken with the best intentions to create not only superb writing but to preserve the heart of the writer. What can be better than this?

And another:

It was, as always, an evening of sharing and caring and some beautiful writing---mixed in with your sensitive and insightful comments. A terrific group!!

I guess it is my calling, and it's certainly an honour, to be a midwife of life stories.

Busy yesterday - the first U of T class of the term in the afternoon, and the second Ryerson class in the evening. When I got home that night and turned on CBC radio, "Ideas" was presenting an in-depth documentary about Yeats, interviewing other Irish poets about his life. I'd walked in stuffed with words from two classes, but found that sitting with a glass of wine, listening to Irish voices tell about the great William B. Yeats, I had room for lots more. Thank you again, CBC, for assuming that there are intelligent listeners out here with patience and curiosity.

Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I did a bit of surfing to check on the Golden Globes. I'd turned the show on briefly and then turned it off. Life is too short, I thought, to sit here for hours watching screaming people in sparkly dresses and suits hug each other. Now, with a bit of surfing the next day - the best dressed, the worst, various gossip mongers - I got the gist in ten minutes of reading instead of hours of watching. Another little victory for sanity. Not sure I'll be able to do the same for the Oscars, though every Oscar night, by the end of that marathon, I always ask myself, "Why the #$%&* did I waste my night?" So maybe I'll give this new way a try.

And a final word on the joys of aging: it has been my privilege, through the years, to have been compared to various actresses. Charles Bukowski the poet, whom I met in Vancouver when I was 25, told me I was a "young Lauren Bacall" - though as he was trying to seduce every nymphet in the room, that might have been a much-used line. (Though I was flattered, it didn't work with me.)

Later, my mother-in-law thought I looked like Natalie Wood, at least, she did before the divorce, and I was regularly compared to Vanessa Redgrave, which I also found highly flattering if absurd - we are both tall, but she is beautiful with cheekbones and I am interesting with none. But the other day, as I walked into the Y, a man doing push-ups outside stopped and said, "Wow, you look so much like that actress ... what's her name?"
I stood, smiling in a gently self-deprecating way, waiting for "Vanessa Redgrave" and wondering who else might come up ... Catherine Deneuve?
"Carol Burnett!" he explained. "That's it. You look just like Carol Burnett!"
"She's funnier than I am," I replied with just a touch of bitterness and went into the Y.



Dear readers, if you know anyone who might need a 3 bedroom plus office house and wonderful garden in Toronto for the month of April, please let me or them know. If I can rent my house for April, I will be travelling again, just for the month.

Former student and blog reader Norma read that I needed a tenant for my top floor and thought of her friend Charles, who needed a pied à terre in Toronto. Voila - two happy campers. So perhaps one of you can help with this difficult assignment - do you know someone whose house is being renovated? A tourist family? Please put on those thinking caps so this footloose blogger can make you drool again with much talk of cheese.

I thank you in advance.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the adventure of following the line

Here are more of the essays that came out of the in-class writing assignment, "I write because ..." These are students who had five minutes to write without thinking, just to let the words flow out, and not to think or to edit. I think they just about sum up the journey of writing.


I write because I want to reveal myself to me. I want to understand why I am who I am and how I came to be.


I write because I think I'm funny, that I have something to offer someone, somewhere.

When Amelie pushes her open hand, splayed fingers into a burlap sack of beans, it speaks to me.

And when David Sedaris as a child sings car dealership radio commercials from the 60s in Billie Holiday's voice, it speaks to me.

Me, ten years old and wanting nothing more than to meet Dolly Parton.

Me, at eleven, doing a science fair project on the White House, making a cardboard model of it to show to class and never quite feeling like it was good enough, or perfect enough, or that I was smart enough.

Somewhere, there's a kid who needs to read something and hear my voice speaking directly to him.

Or her.


I write because I love to see the words come together and tell a story, to create perfect sentences. I write to increase my skill with the English language, to play with the words, to learn new words and resurrect long forgotten ones, to paint a picture that tells my story.

I write to challenge myself, to express myself, to feel like an artist when I have never thought of myself as one.

I write to challenge the young girl who hated art class except when I could copy what the teacher put in front of me, to defy the girl who could never imagine a story to write, who was terrified when the teacher said, "Write about whatever you want!" I write to tell my story, to give something to my children to tell where I came from and where I am going.


I write because I think there is a story to tell that goes beyond my own particular life, I have lived through so many changes in the larger world, as well as in my own personal world, that my story can portray a picture of how things have developed over the past 50 years. When I was young, changes didn't come along so quickly; things just seemed to amble along until the second World War, But since then, life has become so much more complicated. We are more prosperous, we've learned to want many more material goods, sexual norms have changed completely, the role of women has altered dramatically and the world seems to have become a scarier place.

I want to show all this by telling the story of my own life.


I write because it feels good and helps me feel connected to my own self, my own way of seeing and experiencing the world around me.

I write because I want someone to listen to my stories, no razzle dazzle. It’s another way to razzle dazzle others and look like someone.

It makes me more than a stone.

I write because I can, because I am, because I can make something with my words that I can eat myself and that I can feed you. And I can go to sleep on it and feel content, and I can get energized by it and it’s like taking a good crap to get it out there. That’s why I write.

I write because I promised myself I would – for each day this whole year and for the first time I wonder if I’ve created a prison to put myself in – but, oh well, it’s a year of it!

I write because the letters take shape on the page, curving, jumping up to dot and cross, and the page is evermore transformed with my thoughts, and the images we have just put into our minds. We are affected by the writing. It’s an adventure to follow the line.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

development and peace

Here's a bit of advice that perhaps you didn't know - if you spray juice on your laptop, turn it upside down immediately so the liquid doesn't get to the motherboard. How I love that word, motherboard, the mother of all boards. The central control panel, as we mothers fondly imagine we are for our offspring.


MacZine is back and none the worse for wear, I hope. I didn't suffer too much in her absence; I wrote with paper and pen - what simple yet effective technology, it has a real future - and went out last night to the El Mocambo, or the Elmo, as we aficionados have always called it. The Elmo was my hangout in 1972 and 73, when I lived in a communal house on Markham Street. Often, I went to dance and sing there with my friend Nancy White the musician; she and I had done a school tour together in 1971, when I was twenty. Nancy, a few years older, wrote and played all the music.

Last night, I went to hear Nancy's two daughters, Suzy and Maddy, in Suzy's band Flashlight Radio. Suzy writes the music with her bandmate Ben Whiteley, whose father Ken and uncle Chris are also well-known, superb Canadian musicians (whose childrens' records were the favourites in this household, when my two were small.) Suzy and Ben grew up immersed in music, and there they were, both in their early twenties yet playing and singing with immense professionalism and ease, along with other bandmates including Maddy, Suzy's sister. Maddy, at 20, was playing keyboard, singing harmony and looking just a bit blasé about the whole thing.

They were really good; really, really good. Wonderful tuneful songs, expertly performed. What a thrill. Nancy was there, of course, as was the girls' father Doug, both taking pictures and tapping their feet, Nancy next to me strangling her need to sing along. It was thrilling to see the next generation of talent take wing. There's no question they'll go far. In fact, in a few weeks Flashlight Radio is part of a Neil Young tribute at Hugh's Room - they sang some Neil Young to show us they were ready for prime time. And they are.

Looking at them, I asked myself, as we all do - was I ever that young? That unaware of my beauty, the wonder of the future stretching out, infinite, before me? One of the joys of old friends - perhaps when Nancy looks at me, it's still the 20-year old girl she sees, a girl the age of Maddy, and looking at her, I see the young woman she was, Suzy's age. Now we sit and clap for them, and watch them soar.


I have not mentioned the disaster in Haiti. I don't know what to say about the disaster in Haiti, except to feel, to the depth of my soul, the hideous injustice that those who have so little should be so appallingly afflicted. I asked my friend Annie where I should send my donation; Annie now works for the Jesuits but was before with Development and Peace, a Catholic organisation with a fantastic track record of grass roots social justice work. "Send it to Development and Peace," she said, telling me that they have people right there on the ground now, and the most effective system to get help where it's most needed. So my contribution will go to Development and Peace.

It is good to watch the world rally, to see millions of citizens doing, in a big or small way, what is most important, what Miep Gies did in 1944, what makes us most human - giving help where help is needed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

MacZine is sticky

Last night, in a careless moment, I was shaking a plastic jug of cider when the top came off and splattered about, including on my keyboard. I feel as if my small daughter has fallen and skinned her knees. Taking her to the keyboard hospital shortly and will be without a computer for an indeterminate time. Will be going crazy. Will be talking to self, fingers twitching.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I write because ...

No more complaints about winter - well, hardly any. I'm into it now. It's here, now deal, as my daughter says. It just take some getting used to, the coats, the cold, the shovelling and colourlessness. It's not fun. But neither is listening to someone complain endlessly about something we can't do a thing about. So enough, or, as the Jews say so much more vividly, dayenu.

Anyway, today was mild and sunny. Well, mild ... zero celsius. Practically bathing-suit weather.

Doubletake, my local second-hand store, had a nice old swivel armchair the other day, so I bought it - for one of my kids, I thought, but then I found a perfect place for it in the kitchen, next to the divan by the back window. After more than 23 years in this long narrow kitchen, I finally have what I've always wanted - a place for 2 or 3 people to sit comfortably, with a small table in front for drinks and snacks, and the bright vista of the garden stretched out in front. At last, I rejoiced.

The problem is that the crabby cat immediately claimed the new chair as her exclusive resting spot. Today, when my friend and writing client Louise actually sat down in it, Mewmew was outraged. She prowled around, sat in front tail twitching, staring furiously; she kept climbing onto the arms and eventually curled up precariously on the back, behind Louise's neck. Warning: if you come to sit in my new old chair, be prepared to battle a small piece of fur with very sharp claws and a capitalist sense of private property.

Last night, a date with a much younger man, very tall, very handsome, extremely nice, who happens to carry a great deal of my genetic material. I made a rich beef stew to fill his skinny form; after dinner, while I got ready to go out, he did all the dishes, thereby winning my heart if he had not done so already. I had suggested An Education, but instead, at his request, we went to see Invictus, a perfect mother/son date movie, soul-stirring with absolutely nothing to embarrass either of us. Clint Eastwood did a great job telling a vital story, and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were impressive. You cannot tell the story of Nelson Mandela's heroic forgiveness, show his wise, kind soul at work, often enough.

Tonight, my home class, ten hard-working writers in my living-room, luckily far away from the back window and so no one had to battle the cat. We got caught up and read and critiqued, and at the end, we all did a five minute in-class writing exercise. The task is to write flat out for five minutes without stopping, and then to read, if you choose to, with no editing. I asked them to start with the words, "I write because ..." They all wrote and read profoundly moving pieces, very different and yet fundamentally the same, about what writing means to them. Here's what came of my five minutes:

I write because I need to breathe. Writing is breathing. My mind churns and bubbles and whatever it comes up with flows out, down my arm if it's a pen or my arms if I'm using a computer, into words.

I type all the time. My children know that my fingers twitch constantly, making words. Words are breath. They are how I make sense, make pictures, make friends. Everything I am is transmitted into words, transformed into words on a page.

I write because I am a human being with a heart that loves and a mind that wants to understand. And to me, the only two ways to understand are to talk and to write. But especially to write. Writing. The word is engraved in my soul and has been since I was six years old, when I learned how to join the letters together, to fit them together to make words that flowed along a line.

May they never end, may that joy never end, until I do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

saluting Miep Gies

Cuteness alert: just came back from a visit to Riverdale Farm, where the Francey Barn, my favourite place in Toronto, is now housing two three-day old lambs in the sheep pen with their very curly mother and all the other warm, wooly sheep. Mum is a dirty white and the lambs are black with dustings of white on body and head - as if someone with floury hands had held both up and dipped the ears of one in sugar. The kid triplets in the next stall kept standing on their hind legs to peer over the divide and check out the cuteness competition. Just what the soul needs in January - new life at the farm. Highly recommended.

I learned in the paper today that a great hero has died, at the age of a hundred: Miep Gies, one of the righteous Gentiles who helped keep the Frank family alive in the "house behind" in Amsterdam until, tragically close to the end of the war, they were betrayed and hauled away to die. Miep gathered the papers left behind in the house, including a red checkered notebook belonging to young Anne that she refused to read, hoping, I suppose, that Anne would come back to claim it and want all her secrets intact.

Instead, Anne's father published the diary in 1947 (after it was turned down by several publishers as too banal and childish); it has since been translated into 65 languages. I talk about Anne to my classes, reminding them, when they're discouraged about the unimportance of their own stories, that Anne Frank was a small girl with a notebook who believed in writing things down and who changed the world.

Miep risked her life daily, bringing food and news to the Franks. She is quoted as saying that she did not want to be considered a hero, because people shouldn't think you have to be a hero to "do your human duty." "Who is a hero?" she said. "I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary."

Oh, for more ordinary housewives and secretaries of limitless compassion and courage. She was indeed the best kind of hero, and I salute her.


My Ryerson term started last night, all those brave souls out on a bitter Monday night, and coming back for the next nine, to learn how to tell their own stories. Thrillingly, one of them reintroduced herself, telling me that she'd taken my course in 1995 or 6, my first or second year of teaching. I've learned so much since then about both writing and teaching that it's hard to imagine what I actually said and taught in those early days. But she assured me that she learned a great deal back then and is back for a refresher course.

The membership count for Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament is now 171,307. Though it's growing so fast, that count is not nearly enough in a country of almost 34 million people. To a hide as thick as Harper's, it's a laughable mosquito bite. How how how can we get through?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

self-improvement 101

Idiot woman, what century are you living in? Just because you want to go to bed before 11 doesn't mean you have to miss Jon Stewart - he's available on-line and without commercials! (I know, Bruce is shaking his head, because during his visit here, he spent a lot of time setting up my DVD player to record the Daily Show. The trouble, Bruce, is that I still have to do things with buttons - turn things on and press this and that. I hate pressing this and that; usually, by the end of all that button-pressing, I've completely dismantled my cable connection and am watching confetti. So when you aren't here, dear Bruce, I am lost. Please move.)

Now, the new anti-insomnia watch-Jon-on-line me turns the computer off at 9 and TV off as early as possible, which usually is no problem as it's not on in the first place. Tonight the drama Cranford is on PBS again, though, with its heavenly cast - can't miss that, but it won't get me jazzed up before sleep the way Jon does. And also a special 20th anniversary Simpsons is on - can't miss that either. Life is full of such mad excitement!

I watched the new CBC show the Republic of Doyle the other night. Why hasn't someone made a television program set in Newfoundland before? Just for the sets alone, the rows of multi-coloured wooden houses by the sea, let alone the generous, earthy humour of Newfoundlanders. The basic culture of my beloved country, despite years of immigration, is one continuous flow of whitebread blandness from sea to shining sea, with two huge exceptions, Quebec and Newfoundland. With the Republic of Doyle, the culture of Newfoundland is there for us all to enjoy.

Not that I'll continue to watch. Friend Lynn in France says, "The thing about television is that if you decide to watch, don't feel guilty, just admit that you're going to sit down and waste time." Though there is of course some stuff on television that isn't a waste of time, I think it's true for most programs, and certainly most programs in France. After watching Doyle, I thought, if I were a lonely person, this would fill a happy hour with a funny hero and his quirky friends and family.

But I'm not lonely. And anyway, I'm too busy watching Jon Stewart on-line.


141,700 members.

The admirable political analyst Jeffrey Simpson, in Saturday's Globe, wonders what we're getting all het up about; Harper doesn't give a #$%& what we think of proroguing or of him, for that matter. He's a superb political machine back by a superb political machine. "Every step he takes," writes Simpson, "is calibrated to present a manufactured image to the voters, as in the endless series of photo-op announcements of government spending, the meticulous preparation of his every step of every trip, his scripted speeches, his very methodical way of proceeding. It is a government of Sparta and Prussia, not Athens and the Rhineland."

And, concludes Simpson, the opposition is so hopelessly divided and Canadians are so complacent and easily fooled that a Harper majority is just a step away.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Aging, sleepless and cold, yet perky

Today is Joan Baez's 69th birthday. She's one of those impossible human beings - brave and smart, stunningly beautiful and talented, politically on the side of the angels. More lovely as she ages. Gives us all something to aim for. Happy Birthday, Joanie.

I had a strange dream about ageing the other night - I was doing something in the dream with my son, and thinking to myself, How amazing that I am exactly double his age, he 25 and I 50. I don't know if it was still in the dream or as I woke up that a voice interjected, sharply, "You're not 50, you idiot. This year you'll be 60." And all I could think, as I stumbled into consciousness, was, "It's not possible. Sixty!" I have a lot of friends who are now 65, and my dear Muriel Duckworth, after all, was 100. In light of all that, 59 sounds young. But 60. 60 does not.

I spend way too much time inspecting my skin in a magnifying mirror, checking out the deep groove - the Grand Canyon - between my eyes, the lines etched vertically above the eyebrows and lips and down the cheeks. Isn't there a magic remedy for these? Yes, yes, warble the cosmetics companies like the sirens to Ulysees, luring us as we navigate the rough seas of ageing. I did, I confess, go this week to the special gift offer day at Clarins and buy a lipstick and a pot of creamy magic, to get my free little bottles of something or other. One of them is "morning wake-up serum" - I don't even know what it's for. Maybe you drink it, like Alice, and suddenly you're a sparkly 12 again.

I ran into a friend at the Y today who'd just spent 2 weeks in Costa Rica; she was glowing all over with sun. We Torontonians are mushrooms already, pasty, sickly, shrouded in black. Oddly, there's a cold snap around the world - minus temperatures in Florida, in England, snow in the south of France. Everyone's cold. Dear Penny in Sheffield, Michele south of Paris, Lynn in Montpellier - if you need tips on surviving the cold, just ask your Canadian friend. The answer is Costa Rica.

Not even much TV to report on these days, because in order to combat my customary January insomnia, I'm trying not to compute or watch TV in the late evening. No Jon Stewart! I suffer in January from light deprivation, not enough light, air, sun, activity and garden, which leads to poor sleep. Research shows that limiting light in the evening helps, which includes computer and television screens.

So - wrinkled, insomniac, shivering and starving for the Daily Show. But even so, happy. I'm already planning my 60th birthday party in late July or early August. It will be hot, there will be a house full of friends, food, music, celebration. Let's embrace this 60 thing head on, since there's no avoiding it. If Joanie can look that good 9 years on, so can we.

If only there were a better magic cream out there, somewhere.


PS As of a minute ago, 132, 533 members. The Toronto demonstration is Saturday Jan. 23 from 1 to 5 at Dundas Square. Other demonstrations across the country. Ignore at your peril, Mr. Recalibration.

PPS I have kept exactly none of my New Year's Resolutions. Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

info for students

The count is nearly at 93,000! Be there or be square.

For anyone interested in taking my courses, here's the latest: True to Life at Ryerson begins this coming Monday at 6.30, and at last count, there was room. The advanced section of this course, scheduled for Tuesdays, has unfortunately been cancelled.

I am teaching an advanced course, however, at U of T, starting the following Monday. It's the same approach to the work, taught in the same way in a different part of town and called Life Stories. Please see this website under "Teaching" for links to both Ryerson and U of T.

Or else, please contact me. I'm available to work one-on-one on memoir, personal essay, family history - getting you going, guiding you along the way, and editing.

Just came back from a photography gallery opening, the friend of a friend's shots of Venice. Made me want to jump instantly on a plane and into a gondola, though I do realise that, in fact, I've only been back a few months from my grand European adventure. It seems a long time ago already. Perhaps you, my readers, miss that adventure nearly as much as I do, as I drone on and on about films and TV programs and horrible Harper. I apologise if it's dull. But this is Toronto in January. Films and television and the anti-proroguing movement are as exciting as it gets.

So, for today's excitement, let me tell you about the tail end of a program about happiness that I watched last night on PBS. I didn't turn it on earlier because I was busy and also thought, I don't need that, I'm pretty happy already. But it was so interesting I was sorry I'd missed the first bit. The show talked about the contagiousness of happiness - that it's been proven that the happiness of one person spreads manyfold through his or her acquaintances.

They showed "forgiveness courses" - designed to teach how to let go of pain, resentment and anger, and move on. Another example of moving on showed a couple whose 17-year old daughter, their only child, was among the scores of kids murdered at Virginia Tech. Their daughter used to work as a volunteer, helping to repair homes in Appalachia. What her parents do now, to keep the memory of their child alive, is to regularly take groups of teenagers to Appalachia to do the same thing. That way, they have young people in their lives, and they are visiting people she used to visit. It was a very moving segment.

The show presented research that's been done on the brains of Tibetan monks, intense and motionless while meditating; the scientists had presumed their brain scans would be pretty flat but instead found a great deal of activity, primarily in the part of the brain where happiness resides. So - meditating makes you happy, having happy friends makes you happy, forgiving makes you happy.

And, amazingly, so does getting older. Getting old. Young people think that the elderly are miserable because of ill health, the death of loved ones and the other misfortunes of aging. And these things are saddening and difficult. But the measurements of relative happiness, apparently, are lowest in young people and highest in the elderly. Aware of mortality, the old have a sense of perspective and truly relish what's important, in a way those younger do not.

In the end, was the conclusion, the most important prerequisites for happiness are our social networks and relationships, whatever those may be. We need each other. Even if, in these modern times, we make many of our bonds with invisible strangers through a computer screen, they're still bonds.

These days, what makes me happy is my connection, not just with all of you out there reading this blog, but with my 95,429 (I just checked) brethren who also want the Canadian government to get back to work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

a reader's glass regularly half full

Dear Beth: Have adopted your wise idea of drinking wine from a small glass and

would like to point out its secondary advantage--the regular exercise involved in

getting up to refill the small glass......

Cheers! Elizabeth

PS 10.30 p.m. 76,356 members. I'll stop doing this soon. But it's so much fun.

onward and upward

Since this morning's post, ten thousand more have joined the movement - how amazing is that? Membership is now at 68,372. It makes me feel warm just to think about it. And feeling warm, right now, is a very good thing.


This is a story about how the right friend at the right time can save your sanity. I was sitting at my desk two mornings ago going nuts, papers piled high, struggling with reams of material. I used to compare writing my Jewish Shakespeare book to wrestling with an octopus, and the memoir was starting to feel the same way, always one snaky tentacle or two around my neck. How to make this work? I'm dealing with two interconnected but separate stories, one all the tales of childhood up to 1964, and then, just as I hit adolescence, the story of the Beatles arriving in my young life, how they transformed everything, how my love for Paul was the sustaining fantasy for many years.

But these two strands, no matter how hard I tried to weave them together, were not working. As I told you a while ago, I showed Wayson some of the Beatles material, and he dismissed it in seconds. A light, humourous take on teenaged angst and fantasy romance in the Sixties is not what he wanted to read. But it's one of the things I wanted to write.

I thought, I need help, and though it was only 9 a.m. her time, I called Patsy in B.C. She's one of my dearest friends; we've known each other since 1970, when she was already a professional actress and I an aspiring one. Through the years, we both moved from the stage into writing, teaching and editing, though I did so in downtown Toronto and she on a remote Gulf Island. Patsy is a superb teacher and script editor (and writer and poet too.)

After listening to my sad tale of confusion and despair, she said, "Beth, you say you're dealing with two separate stories. So why don't you tell them as two separate stories?"

I am embarrassed to say that this most obvious of solutions had never occurred to me. I'd spent endless hours trying to jam together two things that do not fit. Separate them, said Patsy. You have a fine journalistic voice, the relaxed, chatty voice you use in the blog that details the ephemera of daily life. That's the voice for the Beatles' saga. The childhood memoir voice is deeper and darker, different altogether.

The skies cleared and the birds sang and from one moment to the next, I saw what I had to do. Praise be.

This is a story of how we make life so much more difficult and complicated for ourselves than it needs to be. However, if we're lucky as we flounder and sink, a dear friend is out there with a life preserver.

Later that day, I spoke to Lynn in France. "I've been thinking," she said. "Your voice in the blog really works. Perhaps that's the way you should tell your stories."
"Funny you should say that just at this moment," I said.

Once more to quote my beloved Wayson: Onward!


Just checked again - in the half-hour hour it took to write this, almost 1500 Canadians have joined the fight. Membership now at 69,848. I love them all.

Canadians against proroguing Parliament

A call to arms, my fellow Canucks. A young man in Alberta created the Facebook site Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament only a few days ago, and at last count, there were 58,205 members!

I beg you to join too. Log on and sign up, and while you're there, read Rick Mercer's brilliant rant, pointing out that if Karzai, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, decided to cancel his parliament for two months, there would be a worldwide outcry. Five young Canadian soldiers are the latest in a list of hundreds of Canadians who've given their lives trying to bring democracy to that country.

And yet in their own country, elected officials have been given two months off to twiddle their thumbs and watch the Olympics, so that the Conservative government does not have to answer questions about detainee torture and much else. It's appalling, and the outcry is growing. This is the thrilling spectacle of true democracy in action.

There will be demonstrations across the country on January 23rd. See you there.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

classes starting next week

The word of the day is "hunkering." As in, down. That's all a Canadian can do in the snow and pale grey light of January - hunker in the lair and try to keep sane. I think of my neighbours from Sri Lanka and India, from Jamaica, lands of vibrant colour, rich in smell and community, people living their lives in noisy abandon outside, under the sun. Here the world is white and grey, outside is bitter and unwelcoming, people huddle in their black parkas with faces swathed in scarves and vanish as quickly as possible. No colour, no smell, no sound - no faces, even. If it's hard for us, Canada in winter must be a frozen hell to those from warm places.

The good news: I gather protest is growing about Harper's arrogant dismissal of Parliament, and there may be demonstrations. Hooray! Nothing like a good demonstration to brighten a dull January day.

Tending to business: first, FYI, my Ryerson "True to Life" classes start next week, Level 1 on Monday and Level 2 on Tuesday. If any of you are interested, the time to register is NOW. Level 2 is undersubscribed at the moment and will be cancelled unless some keeners appear. I also have a Level 2 at U of T, starting the following week. So, keeners - let's get through winter together. Here's an image stolen from the latest New Yorker - a can has just been opened, the top pried up, and lots of worms are spilling out. Another worm hastens toward the open can. "PAR-TAY!" he cries.

Winter term 2010 - we'll open cans of worms and partay.

Also, I've had a few emails from regular readers about how difficult it is to respond to this blog. I don't know why - last year there were lots of responses, so something in my set-up must have been switched without my knowing it. In any case, I have tried to change the settings to allow you to post a reply more easily. Please feel free to give it a go and let me know if it works.

Twice yesterday, even in the fog of winter, pure joy. I grabbed the new New Yorker before heading out the door, opened it on the streetcar and read a poem by Donald Hall. Instantly, I was no longer on the grubby streetcar surrounded by black parkas. I was immersed in my own "unforgettable detritus," of which there is so very, very much. This poem is particularly meaningful to hoarders like me, but I hope the rest of you normal people enjoy it too.


When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
-de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore -
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial: a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy - valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.


Somehow, in so few words, he gets right to the heart of something so moving and human - dealing with the past, with memory, with loss, and, of course, with death. How can we forget good old death, in January?

Then, last night, I watched a documentary called "How the Beatles rocked the Kremlin." A Liverpuddlian called Leslie Woodhead, who filmed the Beatles in their earliest incarnation at the Cavern Club, went to Russia to chronicle what the Beatles had meant to people there. The premise of the film, coming from those interviewed, is that the Beatles had more to do with destroying Communism than Gorbachev - that they started the process of, as one said, "alienating kids from the Communist motherland."

Woodhead shot the crowd in the Kiev Kavern Club - one man wearing a t-shirt with "still pissed at Yoko" printed on it - and in the Kiev Beatles Museum, and at McCartney's concerts there in 2003 and 2008. The Beatles playing in their land was, one said, "a holy day. There were rivers and waterfalls of tears." In the early Sixties, kids were not allowed to listen to pop records or even to grow their hair; embracing pop culture was done in secret, and so the revolution began. A Deputy Minister in Putin's government remembered with glee that listening to bootleg Beatles taught him English. "'Dragged a comb across my head,'" he said. "I learned what 'comb' meant." Hair was a huge issue. "I was always trying to stretch my hairs," a woman solemnly told the camera.

Over here, we just had to save enough babysitting money to buy the latest LP at the mall. Winters may be terrible and our current Prime Minister too, but we've always had freedom, blessed freedom in this marvellous, frozen land.

Time for wine in a small glass, more spaghetti and chocolate, and a taste of "Rubber Soul."

Monday, January 4, 2010

news of the world

From the "Yo Ben, welcome to the real world" department, a headline in today's Star Business section: "Fed Chief Ben Bernanke says stronger regulation would have curbed excess speculation in the U.S. housing market."

Gosh. You think? No wonder this insightful, perceptive man is Time magazine's Person of the Year.

The Globe, on the other hand, really knows how to cheer a person up. Just wanted to leap for joy after reading this front page upper: "Costs to soar as aging Canadians face rising tide of dementia."

A riding tide of dementia, how's that for a sweet image? In case you can't quite visualise it, there's a colour picture of a demented brain.

Okay, here's something to cheer us ALL up - an article in the weekend Globe on Le Whif, an invention produced, of course, by those crazy French. Actually, I now see, it was developed by an American working in Paris, which makes sense, because it's something that smells good but you don't actually taste, like most American food. It's shaped like a lipstick tube, but inside is the smell of chocolate. You put the tube in your mouth and inhale, tiny, calorie-free particles fall upon your tongue, and voila, you taste chocolate but have eaten nothing. I really like the idea of a constant supply of imaginary chocolate in my purse.

But I like another idea better - taking a dark brown piece of an ancient and cherished foodstuff, placing it in my cakehole, and eating it. Obsolete technology, but so delicious.

I am merry today, forsooth. The gym at the Y has been closed for 2 desperate weeks, and today it re-opened. Despite the bitter cold, I ventured forth to sweat. They've painted it a trend-setting grey, there are sexy new transparent curtain dividers between the halves, but in the class was the same motley band of stragglers, and very good it was to see them, too.

One day, I'm sure, we'll be able to take a spray can and spray on some fitness. Until then, for us old-fashioned types, there's nothing like popping a large piece of chocolate into the mouth after some hard time in the gym.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

today's rant

PS. Just a bit of a rant, though I am full of peaceful peanut-butter stir-fry. Unfortunately, I just read Rex Murphy's piece in the Saturday Globe, full of hateful scorn for Obama and praising Time magazine for not naming him as its Person of the Year. I should know not to read the blowhard Mr. Murphy, who writes that during the election campaign, the American press was too easy on Obama; that "the ferocity they applied to Sarah Palin, in contrast with the timidity they brought to [Obama's] campaign, will in time come to be seen as one of the most shameful episodes in American journalism."

Oh my! Where to begin with that one? I guess Mr. Murphy does not watch Jon Stewart, who delighted in showing us the extreme viciousness of the attacks on Obama, and Fox News's fawning adoration of Palin. Not to mention the unbelievably idiotic things that issued from her lipsticked mouth from the beginning of the campaign to the end. (And still, unfortunately, do.)

Shameful? What was shameful was that a woman with absolutely no intellectual or international qualifications was considered for one of the highest offices in the land. Sarah Palin makes Stephen Harper look good, and that takes quite some doing in my book.

Stop now, Beth. Best not to waste energy on this one, or I'll start to chew my mouth. Let me just say, "You, sir, are an idiot," and leave it at that.

resolute in the snow

Snow has been falling all day, just stopped a few minutes ago. In the Maritimes, they're expecting up to 60 centimetres; here we've had just a fraction of that. Outside is now muffled and quiet, except for the sounds of shovelling, of course. It was a good Sunday to stay in and enjoy the company of my little white box, MacZine. How can I be lonely, even on a grey snowy solitary day, with the whole world waiting on the other side of her screen?

But today, it was the radio that made the best companion, for an hour anyway. From 3 to 4, I chopped and sautéd a big stir-fry while listening to Eleanor Wachtel interview a Scottish writer, Willian McIlvanney, of whom I'd never heard. As usual, I had the impression they were sitting at my kitchen table, chatting while I cooked them dinner. Such a warm, lively conversation - truly, Eleanor is incomparable.

About writing, McIlvanney said that he had an epiphany at the age of 14 that he would be a writer. His parents walked into the house and he was suddenly aware of them, of really seeing, for the first time, how young his mother was. "What writing does is make you notice and appreciate the ordinary," he said, and later quoted Balzac, who opined that a writer finds out who his characters really are by depicting them "at the edges of themselves" - that is, in out-of-the-ordinary, even extreme situations. And your friends too, Mr. Balzac, I thought. When they're at the edges of themselves, or you are, you find out who your friends are, too.

He spoke about Scottish and world politics, with enormous scorn for Margaret Thatcher and what she did to his country (and, IMHO, to the world, she and her buddy Ronald.) McIlvanney loathes the "despicable political philosophy" of trickle down economics. "Money," he said, "defies the laws of gravity. It flows UP. Once people have money, they want more and find a way to get it." I've never heard it put so well. There are two ways to deal successfully with poverty, he said - to get out of it by getting money somehow, or to develop values that make living with it possible. His country has done the latter. "We value life," he said. "We are impressed by the size of your humanity, not the size of your bank account."

I was impressed by the size of his humanity. To check out the interview, listen to the podcast at

By then my stirfry was done. (It's made with peanut butter. Can't wait for dinner.) I'm lying on the divan in the kitchen, my usual perch, looking out at the stillness of the snow and listening to the new Blue Rodeo CD, "The things we left behind," which was my Xmas present from my son and is gorgeous. Time to think about resolutions. January 3 2010, a good, snowy day to make some. What are mine?

Hmm. Can't do this without a glass of wine.

Okay, that's one resolution: I am drinking, now, from a smaller, narrower glass in which less wine looks like more. So that's easy - I resolve to drink from smaller glasses.

I resolve to make more time for reading, not magazines like the New Yorker (and Paris Elle, I confess) and newspapers and sites on the Internet, but books, actual thick books. I'm back to ordering books from the library and skipping over there to get them when they come in, the call from the library like a gift from the city. Just got Lorna Sage's well-reviewed memoir Bad Blood, haven't started it yet.

I resolve to stop chewing the inside of my mouth before all my teeth fall out. One of the great quests of my life has been to get rid of the tension and neurosis with which I've always lived, and to a great extent, with a lot of high-priced help, I've done it. But there is still constant tension in my shoulders, neck, and especially, my mouth, which is often twisted in a grimace as I gnaw from the inside. I will be conscious of that tension and make it go away.

My friend Chris thinks I'm too speedy. Last night I watched 3 things on TV simultaneously - the films Lolita and Love Actually and the comic George Carlin - and at slow times, read the New Yorker too. But unlike Chris, aka Mr. Vancouver, I don't think that's a problem or a flaw, it's just how I function. It was great to see Love Actually again and, during the commercials, to watch something else.

The movie renewed my respect for the sublime Emma Thompson, who in one small scene - where she confronts at Xmas proof of her husband's infidelity - elevates a rather formulaic romantic comedy into something much greater. One of the secrets of the great British actresses - they don't let glamour get in the way of acting and truth. If a dramatic scene requires them to weep, with resulting red eyes and dripping nose, they don't hesitate. Hollywood women must weep beautifully. A great handicap.

Should I resolve not to pontificate, as I just have, about things about which I know very little? No, because that is also who I am.

Most importantly, I resolve to sit in my office chair, or somewhere else, for at least three hours a day, five days a week, and produce page after page of the memoir and other work too. That is the resolution to which you must hold me, the one I must hold myself to, dear readers. The one that counts.

As I write, I am chewing the inside of my mouth.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

flexitarian time

Functional central heating: check.
Long underwear: check.
Gloves, mitts, hats, puffy coat, snow boots, scarf to cover face: check.

I think I'll survive. But boy, it's hard work. Today - minus 13, with a wind chill of minus 26. At the streetcar stop, two minutes without gloves while I got out my wallet, and my hands hurt. Not for sissies, this country, except for the softies out west in Lotusland. And Toronto has an easy winter compared with the Maritimes or the Prairies or even Montreal. Today there was a winter storm in the Maritimes with winds of more than 100 k. an hour. So a wind chill of minus 26 is nuthin'. We can take it.

It's impossible, though, not to gain weight during the long Canadian winter. Just so difficult to exercise and find fruit, and anyway, the body wants to protect itself with whatever layers it can find or create. I had spaghetti and chocolate for supper. Bring on those life-saving layers.

Neighbours Sally and David have a New Year's Day party every year, a chance to connect with the people who live all around us. I had a talk with the ubiquitous Pam McConnell, who has represented this riding at City Hall for many years; whenever she ventures out, people corner her and grouse. So I did too, not about vital issues like housing and homelessness, but about garbage. I know, litter is not that important. But a Tim Horton's coffee shop moved into the area a few years ago, and the amount of trash scattered about has quadrupled. This neighbourhood, and the city in general, is a giant garbage dump, strewn with coffee cups, plastic bags, cigarette packets, everything dropped in the street and left to pile up and blow in the wind. I think it's hard to build civic pride for a garbage dump. So I told her about the handy green garbage bags all over Paris. She filed the information away, I'm sure, in her "crackpots to avoid at neighbourhood parties" file.

Then I talked to Elizabeth Harris, the most energetic volunteer in the city, who has lived in Cabbagetown since 1975 - one of the real old-timers here, I thought, until she told me about little old Pat who lives across the street from her in the house where he was born. Elizabeth is the founder of the wonderful Farmer's Market that operates from May to October outside the Farm. She has heard my concerns for humanely-raised meat products and knows exactly the farmer I should meet. I've been reading articles about "flexitarians" - a new word for people who are mostly vegetarian but aren't rigid about it and do sometimes eat meat. So now I have two new 2009 words to describe my lifestyle - I'm a flexitarian frugalista, happy to wear second-hand clothes to eat my broccoli.

Speaking of vegetables, Sally makes delicious marinated mushrooms every year; this time I asked for the recipe. If you'd like me to pass it on to you, just ask. We flexitarians need to inspire each other to keep the taste-buds happy, and we frugalistas need to eat lots of mushrooms so our clothes still fit when winter is over.

Friday, January 1, 2010

twenty ten

Awoke this morning to fat snowflakes spiralling past the window, sparrows squawking in the ivy - January 1, 2010. Twenty ten - easier to say than the OO years.

Louise, my hostess last night, was diagnosed as HIV positive more than 15 years ago. "I didn't expect to see the millenium," she said, "let alone still be here a decade later." Not just "here" but thriving and impossibly energetic, she zooms around the world as an AIDS activist, has a cheery Xmas card from the Princess of Norway (also an AIDS activist) on her mantelpiece, speaks of her recent travels to Rwanda and Rio and her upcoming trip, not for work but for pleasure, to Mongolia - and cooks a mean lobster. In her spare time, she is writing her memoirs with me as editor and coach. We and another friend sat by the fireside drinking wine, dined on lobster, asparagus and champagne, and were watching Away we go, the new film by the admirable Sam Mendes, when midnight struck. A great way to see in the new decade.

The film has inspired such mixed reviews, some hating it and others admiring it greatly, I was curious to see where I'd fit on the spectrum. I liked it very much - a warm, humourous story of two decent and rather lost human beings who love each other and want to make a good landing for their unborn child. Because most of the characters they visit on their journey are hilariously dysfunctional, critics feel that the writers are setting themselves up as judges of others and morally superior themselves - there's "a malodorous whiff of self-satisfaction," one wrote. I don't agree. They're enjoying the spectacle of human selfishness and stupidity, yes, but more importantly, giving actors like Allison Janney, Catherine O'Hara and Maggie Gyllenhaal delicious parts to dive into and nail. The work of all the actors is superb; it's clear how much they trust the director. It's an honest, moving and wise film. Isn't that enough?

Reading the "Tomatoes" reviews on-line led me to other sites listing the top ten films of the year and of the decade. With my sieve-like memory, I can't remember all the movies I enjoyed this decade. But for what it's worth, here's a list of some of my favourites. This doesn't include documentaries, which I adore.

The Lives of Others - perhaps my most favourite, except for #2 -
and also loved In America
The Barbarian Invasions
Slumdog Millionaire
The Last King of Scotland (though I couldn't watch a lot of it)
The Band's Visit
Caché (though I didn't understand some of it)
Etre et avoir
Entre les murs - The Class
Spirited Away
The Son's Room
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Bright Star

Do any of you agree or disagree with one or more of these choices? Let's argue.

I took a weekend-long screenwriting course once, where the teacher spoke with respect of hard plots and with scorn of soft plots. Hard plots can be described in a few words, he said; producers like that. Soft plots cannot. As in: Aliens attack the earth and are defeated. As opposed to: a Palestinian brass band visits Israel and gets lost, and all involved, especially the band leader and the Israeli woman he meets, learn a great deal about humanity and grow into bigger human beings.

Waaaay too soft.

There are more great 2000-2009 films buried in my memory bank. But this has taken much more than an hour and two cups of coffee. It's still snowing. Time to go for a walk, blow the cobwebs from my misty brain, and jump into the new year.

P.S. Films I've heard a great deal about, which might be added when I've had a chance to see them: An Education, White Ribbon, Summer Hours, Gomorra, Anvil, Last Station, Invictus. What fun!

The New Yorker, in its list of the ten best artistic events of 2009, put as #1 Alice Munro's new book of stories, Too Much Happiness. Way to go, girl.