Sunday, February 28, 2010


Could I be more Canadian than this? I just turned on the hockey game, the gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada - five minutes to play and the Canadians one up. Most of the nation is glued to the screen. It had occurred to me that this would be a great time to go to the art gallery or the museum, because both will be deserted. No, here I am, Canuck that I am. But, I confess, I just turned it on for the last five minutes, which means 15 or more. Too much speed and tension. I can smell the testosterone and machismo from here.

It's so silly - most of the American players are undoubtedly Canadian, and the U.S. team is being coached by the Toronto Maple Leafs coach - but it has become the match of a lifetime. Crosby just missed getting one in. Lord, it IS exciting. The sound from Vancouver is deafening.

Please don't let them pan to a picture of our unctuous prime minister giving his wife a high five. At the Y yesterday, they were showing the Olympics in the snack bar, and there he was with his dead, frozen smile; CTV kept panning to him. I booed out loud, very loud, right there in the Y snack bar. That's his majority government, him fake smiling as Canadians win gold. It makes me physically ill.

I was at the Epicure Deli on Parliament Street this afternoon when a local man came in, a man without many teeth ... excuse me, it's one minute 30 seconds, I have to watch ... holy @#%^, it's quite something. One minute seventeen seconds. Does this matter, in the scope of things? Not for a second. Are the homeless still homeless? Have the arts been cut by 70% in B.C., partly to pay for these games? Yes. Ye Gods, I have never seen so many maple leaf flags in my life. And I confess this too - it is moving, it is thrilling, my heart is racing.

Time for a glass of wine. 54 seconds remaining, the crowd is hysterical. I should be in a bar. My son is working right now - it must be crazy in the pub. 40 seconds. 32 sseconds. 25 seconds. Score!!!!!!! Game tied!!!!! Oh my God, that means it goes on. I can't stand it.

There are more important things in life. A Canadian kid - sounds like Zack Parisé - scored for the U.S. I can't stand it. I'm turning it off.

As I was saying, I was in the Epicure and a man came in carrying something strange, a long white and silver twisty thing, and showed it to us - it was one of the Olympic torches. He carried it for a bit when the torch came through Toronto, and was allowed to buy one afterwards. He was told that this is what he should do - carry it around and allow others to hold it. So we all held it, I buying whole grain sourdough bread, a neighbour buying coffee and cheese, we held the unlit torch and admired it - it was really heavy - and handed it back. Not bread but circuses, that's what the Olympics is, but marvellous too.

The TV stays off. My mother is going to call me when it's over.

P.S. I couldn't not watch. Too exciting! So glad it was Crosby, one of the nicest guys ever. Loved the shots of Cole Harbour, the very small Nova Scotia town Crosby is from, screaming with joy. Glad we won even though it's meaningless, even though the guys we beat were mostly Canadians, even though it's good news for Harper.

My daughter called, euphoric, and when I started to moan about these things, she said, "Tomorrow, Mum, okay? For today, let's just celebrate." Not only this gold medal, but the fact that Canada has won more gold medals than any country ever has in a winter Olympics.

Okay. Just for tonight. Because tomorrow, reality dawns. But tonight - great going, boys. We're very proud of you.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

dear diary

Carol Shields was once asked if she had kept a diary. "No," she replied, "and it's one of my great regrets." Carol is one of the writers I admire most, because she managed, somehow, to raise five children and maintain a happy marriage while writing well enough to win a Pulitzer prize. I, on the other hand, managed to raise two children as a divorcée while hardly writing anything at all. But I did do one thing Carol did not: I kept a diary.

And last night, I decided, as I do periodically, to take a look. I'm thinking about a new project and wanted to know what was in those pages. From the boxes and suitcases of notebooks all over this house, I got out the ones from the late sixties and early seventies, ages sixteen to twenty-one.

It's an amazing gift, to re-encounter your very young self. Omigod, I thought, I'd forgotten just how agonising that crush was. Or that one - my God, there were a lot of agonising crushes. There was a lot of agonising, period - page after page. She was so articulate and so tortured, that girl, notebook after notebook of suffering and wondering why. The why is clear to me now, after my years of psychiatry and just plain living - certain profound insecurities based in childhood. What an interesting, infuriating companion she must have been, the tall girl with long straight hair, bouncing back and forth between ecstasy and misery, between celebrating and excoriating herself. I was exhausted just reading her. But I found some of the things I was looking for, which I'll tell you about in due course. What a vast resource of scribbled research awaits, stuffed in boxes under my bed. Pace Carol Shields. Lucky me.

I've copied and sent bits off to friends, that they might also enjoy a glimpse of our shared past - a diary entry from December 1967 about the death of my pen pal Barbara, which I just emailed to her sister Penny; some Leonard Cohen-inspired poems I at 19 wrote to my housemate Patsy:

oboe lady
tries to make a golden net -
but her hair is mahogany, candle-lit
she is tall
has sunbrown hands
cannot make nets

This is the same Patsy who, forty years later, just sent me a poem for Valentine's Day, now reprinted on this blog. She still cannot make nets.

My first diary dates from 1959, when I was 9. Now, 59 in this age of blogs and email, I don't keep a diary any more. Also - now I am a professional writer. I don't write, any more, just for myself. I write for you.

Found a poem Patsy wrote for me, that wonderful summer of 1970 when we were living on Pinehaven Drive in Dead Man's Cove outside of Halifax, she an actress, I working in the box office and assisting the director with whom I was, of course, hopelessly in love. She gave me four joints wrapped up in this:

For Beth

because she is
and does
and tries to smile -
because she fits
inside this world
and does not know it -
because her hands
are always open
giving, but needing
to be held.


I'm fed up, and ashamed too, of this Own the Podium stuff. An editorial from the Guardian was reprinted in the Globe the other day, complaining of how chauvinistic and impolite the Canadians have been during these Olympics, with their new-found jingoism - including, possibly, restricting the practice time granted to non-Canadians on the bobsled course and making the course too dangerous, resulting in the tragic death that has overshadowed everything. "Own the Podium" is an American, not a Canadian, kind of meaningless hype, said the article, and I agree 100%. It's absurd, all the shrieking about gold, the gold medal, must win the gold - when just being there means being one of the best in the entire world.

Thanks once again, Mr. Harper; this imitation-American in-your-face chauvinism and bombast has your mark all over it. I hope we settle down to being Canadian again soon, with the best that that entails - yes, a certain amount of apologetic self-deprecation, and with it, politeness and good manners, kindness, generosity, humility and graciousness.

Now that's gold.

An article in today's Globe makes me understand, if I needed another reason, why I am going back to Paris. Independent bookstores are disappearing from high rent Parisian neighbourhoods like the Latin Quarter, the little shops bought up by name brand stores. The French government is concerned that that the Quarter will lose its identity as a centre for students, artists and intellectuals, a place where bookstores matter. It is now running a bookstore rescue program. It buys a failing store and leases it back to the bookstore owner at less than market price, just to keep the store open. And "the terms of the lease specify that the space will never be used for anything other than a bookstore, no matter who leases it."

Can you imagine? A bookstore rescue program. My kind of town.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

off again

Here is a highly recommended list of rules for writing fiction, almost all of which are true for non-fiction as well:
On Wayson's recommendation, I got the short stories of Katherine Mansfield out of the library. They're superb! Like Alice Munro, she captures an entire life, a whole society and era, in a few pages. Heart-breaking and crystalline, especially masterpieces like Miss Brill, The Doll's House, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, and Bliss. She died at the age of 34 and left so much brilliance behind.


My friends, I'm getting out my very large travelling shoes again. My horoscope for the year in Elle magazine ordered me to. Mars usually stays in Leo every two years for seven weeks, Elle informs me; "this year, it's staying until June - half the year! This totally amps your energy, ambition and sexual desires. Goodies are going to spill ... into your pocket. Yay!" it says.

My mantra for the year, according to Elle: "I welcome the abundance coming my way!"

Yes I do.

In order to encourage this abundance, I have decided to celebrate my 60th birthday a little early. Both my employers kindly agreed to move the dates of my spring classes by one week, giving me the entire month of April off. The apartment I rented in Paris last year was free, it turned out, for almost 2 weeks at the end of that month, and my friend Christopher, who if you recall lives in central London right by Carnaby Street, is going away over the Easter weekend at the beginning.

And so the plan formed and has taken shape. I leave March 29th for Paris, will spend 2 days there getting over jet lag and falling into the cheese, then I'll take the Eurostar to London to stay at Christopher's over the Easter weekend and fall into the theatre. After that, I have nearly 2 weeks when I'm not sure where I'll be - stay tuned - then back to Paris, where my daughter will join me for 8 days together. I have invited my son too, but so far, he has said no. He's sorting out his life, getting on with his job, too busy landing to take off again. I understand.

Bringing my kids to France, I decided a few months ago, would be my birthday present to myself. Soon they'll be joined at the hip with partners or work they can't leave; right now, they're both fairly footloose. I want to share France with them, especially as they're both foodies who love cooking and entertaining. Anna wants to take a cooking course while she's in Paris, specifically sauce-making. Great idea. I hope Sam changes his mind, but if he doesn't, we'll do it another time, I hope.

Several people will rent rooms in the house while I'm away, and once more, I'll do this as cheaply as possible, spending most of my time sponging off those poor friends who live in desirable places. You only turn sixty once. I will be here at home in August for my actual birthday, but the celebration will begin in Paris, Anna and I arm-in-arm on the Champs-Elysees, thinking about sauces.

I welcome the abundance coming my way.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

news report

From these recent posts, you wouldn't know that the winter Olympics continue in my dear country. I'm sorry, but I just can't get excited. Yes, it's too bad we lost to the Americans in men's hockey, my poor children suffered mightily - but there you go. It's thrilling that so many are discovering the beauties of Vancouver, that young people are achieving and excelling and inspiring. But I can't watch that stuff, it makes me too tense. I'll watch the Canadian ice dancing team on-line, now that they've won gold and all that remains is to enjoy their work.

It's infuriating to hear the Canadian press whine that we don't have as many medals as the Americans. They have a population ten times ours, doesn't that make a tiny difference? We are doing extraordinarily well, and all you hear is how we don't own the podium. That's silly, totally unCanadian talk. Absurd.

Today at my Y fitness class, the teacher was Olympics mad, kept exhorting us to work harder, so we'd get thighs like the 15 k. cross-country skiers, balance like the luge athletes, speed like the downhill skiers. But the room was filled with wheezing middle-aged women. Not great material for this particular Olympic coach.

Good news in the news department: The nearby Carlton Cinemas are going to reopen! I have had a pang of sorrow every time I walked by that shuttered door, and now, Rainbow Cinemas is apparently refurbishing the place. Once again, people who like obscure documentaries and foreign art movies, in fact, anything with with subtitles and/or donkeys, will soon have somewhere to go once more. Sheer joy.

The Globe wrote today about research showing that wealthy people lose the ability to take pleasure in the small things of life, like the taste of chocolate. It's true that every day, I, the poor writer, eat a large chunk of dark chocolate and rejoice in every bite. But you know, if someone out there feels like testing me, donating, say, a million dollars to see if all that money diminishes my pleasure, I would be more than willing to be a guinea pig. Though it's pointless: a mere million dollars would not affect a love that great. As the plaque above my kitchen stove reads: "Chocolate is the answer. Who cares what the question is?"

And a snide Globe piece from Sarah Hampson about Annie Korzen, a Hollywood "frugalista" who has just published a book called Bargain Junkie. I should have written this book! I ran into a friend today who said, "I was just at Goodwill, Beth, and thought of you." So many people, every time they go into a second hand store, think of me. What an honour.

Hampson sneers that Korzen is not just frugal, she's a "cheapaholic" when she says she doesn't shower every day and serves her dinner guests lasagna instead of steak. I'm with her in every detail. In fact, my friend Kate is coming over for lunch tomorrow and there's a Daniel et Daniel lasagna defrosting as I write. What - buying the lasagna at a gourmet take-out place negates the frugalista aspect? Are you crazy?! Do you know how long it takes to make a good lasagna?

Hampson finishes the article with an anecdote about Korzen's experience on Oprah: "She couldn't resist all the free food and ate so much she was sick for days. She actually thought she might vomit on the show in front of 22 million people."
"I have a compulsion about not wasting things," says Korzen.

Anyone who has heard my cheese tray story knows how very much I sympathise.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday, getting caught up in the sun

Just got a terse email from Bruce, who's in Florence. "Not since Wednesday," he wrote. "Need I say more. Not to put any pressure on you, but..."

So sorry, blogees, I have been remiss. When I don't post, a nagging sound at the back of my mind bothers me, though at the same time I feel free, as if playing hookey. But now here I am, Bruce, in the front row of class with my pencils all sharp.

Last night was the comedy and music extravaganza organised by and starring Nancy White and Stella Walker, with a very brief appearance by yours truly. There were maybe a hundred people, come to forget February and the Olympics, and laugh until they cried at the divas. Which we all did. Stella paints, sings, writes, teaches, makes films, is studying cantorial music and sings in a synagogue choir - an extraordinarily broad set of skills. Nancy has made a living, all her adult life, from her wit and her music. They are brave, generous, crazy women, and I admire them both enormously.

Last night, Nancy sang some hilarious new songs, including one about an artiste who believes the world revolves around her, one about washing her sidewalk with a hose, and a torch song about a bad man. She played the guitar, the banjo and the piano, wore a stunning evening gown and was her usual sharp, hilarious self. Stella spoke of her attachment to sprats and unveiled a painting of a can of sprats; she read from her elementary school report cards, sang a Gilbert and Sullivan duet in Yiddish, and other madnesses.

In the middle, I was invited up to tell my embarrassing cheese tray story again, the one I told, with some apparent success, at Nancy's birthday party. But this was different - here were a hundred people who had paid money to be amused by professional comediennes, and here was I telling a small, true tale. I did my best; I had worked hard to keep myself as relaxed as possible, but as I stood at the mike, I knew it wasn't working quite as well as it did last time. I was stiffer, found it harder to reach the audience. I wondered afterwards, calming my heaving insides, if I really do want to explore the possibilities of performance again, as I've toyed with doing. Part of me loves that face-to-face contact with a crowd, and part of me wants nothing to do with that kind of tension and pressure, would prefer to sit at a desk in a quiet room. May the best Beth win.

Anyway, people were very nice afterwards, including a woman my age who wanted to tell all about her youthful adventures with cocaine. Most of all, I loved being in a room full of the kind of people who'd come and pay money to hear two unique, eccentric, fiercely talented women do their own peculiar and crazy thing. Brava to the ladies for carrying it off.

A particular thrill for me last night was encountering several former students, who had come to the event after reading about it in this blog. Elizabeth was there with her husband and a friend, and Irene and Pearl too. All said they feel they know me well because they follow the blog. It's an odd thing, this openness. It's Sunday morning, and I am sitting in my nightgown in a patch of sunlight in my bedroom, composing a report on my tiny life to send out into the electronic ozone. Where an assortment of people actually read it, including impatient Bruce in Florence and former students in Toronto. Hello to you all. Thank you for being there. On we go.


I want to share a story that's not so happy - so that you know I am telling the truth here, and also that not everything is rosy. A friend and I had an awkward split a few years back, a clash of personalities, misunderstandings, perhaps unavoidable conflict. We've had little contact since, but recently I missed her so much that I emailed to ask how she was, and she emailed back her news, including the fact that her daughter was pregnant. I was thrilled for her and bought a pile of baby clothes at Doubletake, my local second hand store - after seeing the quality of what's available there and at Goodwill, for very little money, I cannot imagine buying new clothes for babies. (Both my friend and her daughter, incidentally, know of my second-hand proclivities and share them, though much more out of necessity than I.) I put the clothes in a mailing envelope and sent them, emailing her to let her know. She wrote back to say that she was very busy, didn't even know where her local post office was, and if the package was returned, she was sorry if it seemed rude.

Sure enough, six weeks later a notice came from Canada Post that a package had been returned. I went to the post office to pick it up and had to pay a $9 fee to get it back.

Lots of thoughts. I must really have offended this person. Were the gifts a bribe, to win her back? Am I an obnoxious Lady Bountiful, showering people with unwanted stuff? Or is my former friend simply stubborn, proud and closed? Some combination of all of the above, perhaps. Because of the amount of time I spend in second-hand stores, I am famous for giving gifts of clothing. There are some people who don't appreciate that part of me, I guess.

I'm telling you this little story ... why? Because it shows a loss on my part, a failure of human relationship which makes me sad. Mistakes are made; feelings are hurt. Nothing to be done except to learn from what goes wrong, and to try to live with care.

Now the sun is hot through my bedroom windows and I must go for a walk. One last thing: a few nights ago, I'd just finished dinner with my visiting son when the phone rang - a neighbour calling from the opera house just before the curtain rose, saying she'd just been given a better ticket so hers was free, did I want it? In twenty minutes, I had changed, kissed my son goodbye and rushed to the opera house to wait for the end of the first act, which luckily was only half an hour long. So I got to see Otello, by Verdi, from the gods at the very top. It actually was not a great production, but that didn't matter - there were still those phenomenal voices soaring to the ceiling, those grand emotions, that very sad story, not to mention the pleasure of looking for my student Peg in the chorus. Another joy of living in downtown Toronto - being able to get out of sweatpants and to the opera in 20 minutes.

There - my conscience is quiet. You know the latest. Now out into the day, and may you, my dear curious friends, enjoy yours.

P.S. The late afternoon of a heavenly, spring-like day - five degrees or more outside, almost as warm as was Florida at its coldest! And I just back from Doubletake, where for $18 I bought a red Olympics sweatshirt for my daughter (the 1998 Olympics, but it still has a big CANADA across the front - she is desperate for a current one, but this is close), a little summer dress for her best friend, a book for my ex-husband and a pair of Calvin Klein pyjamas for a male friend. I almost bought a black Calvin Klein winter coat for my friend Lynn, but it was a little too worn around the collar and, at $35, too expensive.

So - my addiction is still in full swing. Too bad if some don't enjoy my offerings. The pleasure for me is in the giving; if there's no pleasure in the receiving, then give whatever it is back and I'll pass it on to someone else. Speaking of which ... there are some baby clothes here, ready to go. Just ask.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

leaving the south

I'm in a bar at the Sarasota Airport with hours to kill - I arrived, as always, early, and the flight is an hour and a half late. Luckily there's wifi and a big glass of wine. The very cute waiter, after taking my order, told me that according to the regulations of the state, he'd have to see some I.D. before bringing me alcohol. "You're joking, right?" I asked, thinking, what flattery, is he flirting with me?
"No ma'am, "he said. "It's the regulations." So I handed him my passport, saying, "I'm sixty this year." He checked it out and, as he passed it back, said, "And a very good sixty too." Ah, these brief romantic moments, ships in the night ... And there, on a screen on the wall, the very great thrill of Olympic curling. Closeups of the rocks. Be still, my beating heart.

Even though I'm anxious to get back to cold, drizzly, hideous-in-the-filthy-snow Toronto, I am sorry to leave my mother and aunt. Today, a scare - it was actually warmish out, so I persuaded Mum to come down to the pool with me to sit in the sun, and then I decided, bravely, to strip to my bathing suit and sit in the 88 degree hot tub. As Mum walked over with me, she tripped on the step up to the tub and fell. Her knee was badly cut and bleeding profusely, and later we discovered her elbow was skinned and bloody as well. Thank God, she did not break anything.

I was cleaning my mother's cuts, putting on Polysporin and big bandaids, just as I used to with my children and as she used to with me. It's so complicated! My children are adults but still, in some ways, children, and my mother is also an adult and also a child. Last week my giant son with his flu was lying on the sofa waiting for soup; today, my mother, who used to be six foot tall and is now five inches shorter, was sitting like a little girl, waiting for a bandaid. And yet these grownups live independent lives and need me rarely. I like to be needed; I resent being needed. Thus - drama.

A very good glass of cabernet. Very boring curling. A thrilling Canadian gold medal yesterday, though - snowboard cross, whatever that is. The American headed straight into the fence and the Canadian soared through. God, we love those moments. The cute waiter just came back to check on me. "Everything okay here? You all right?"

Rachel Maddow last night interviewed Gail Collins of the New York Times - here were two of my favourite American women, funny, warm, clever and wise, talking about the madness in Washington. I have met so many warm, funny, clever Americans. Who are the idiots who are paralysing government? I guess the same kind of people as those who vote for Stephen Harper - i.e. - people I do not know.

7.20. Still two hours. In front of me: the computer, today's New York Times, seven New Yorkers, a notebook and a book. The wine glass is empty, but somehow, this not-bad almost-sixty grown-up/child will survive.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

still chill

Great was the excitement in the condo living-room last night. Yes, the Westminster Dog Show was on TV - both ladies here are lifelong dog lovers, so there was much delighted oohing about the various breeds, the Puli like a curly black floor-mop, the Lhasa Apso like a floaty white floor-mop. Then I insisted on tuning to the Rachel Maddow Show since we don't get this smart, funny, left-wing TV pundit in Canada. And a treat it was, although she was announcing the bad news that a moderate Democrat will not seek re-election, decrying Washington's partisan politics. Maddow's perspective, that he was shafting his own party and also his country in its hour of need, was good to hear.

And the Olympics were on part of the time, though I can't bear to watch a lot of it - I can't take the tension of the figure skating, or the endless repetition of the same moves on the ski hills, the excited American commentators pointing out their countrymen among the competitors. But also because things keep going wrong and it makes me writhe. How can the ICE go wrong, for God's sake? Surely ice is something we Canucks know quite well. But it did, yesterday.

But no, the greatest excitement yesterday was because Do started to do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle and was actually filling in a few, and then we all joined in and were plowing through, and I was thinking, either this has dumbed down a hell of a lot or we have all gained 20 I.Q. points overnight. We'd almost finished it when I noticed that it wasn't THE NYT crossword but one sponsored by a drug company. The NYT crossword was at the back as usual and was, as usual, nearly impenetrable. So much for our new I.Q. points.

News for you birders: yesterday I talked to Jim who lives across the way and by whose pool we saw a great blue heron and an egret, waiting side by side. He told me they've been coming for years, the former called Big Foot and the latter, Slim. Jim feeds them cocktail sausages. Slim, apparently, is so bold that he taps with his beak on Jim's screen door and several times, when the door was open, he walked into the house in search of dinner.

We have been seeing herons and egrets in the strangest places - the other day, at a small outdoor shopping mall, there was an egret outside the shops, stalking up and down. I wonder if habitat destruction has driven them inland? Like these two elderly sisters with whom I've been living this week, they're dignified and beautiful, frail but determined. In fact, I could call my mother Big Foot and her sister Slim without any stretch of the imagination (my mother takes Size 13 shoes and both women are slender.) I don't think they enjoy cocktail sausages, though, and are not good standing on one foot, or even, sometimes these days, on two.

We went to see An Education on a cold, rainy afternoon, like seeing Stuart MacLean, the perfect thing to do with my dear companions, who were also sixteen-year old British schoolgirls at one point, some time ago. We all liked the film enormously - superb actors and direction, an extraordinarily deft adaptation of a non-fiction essay. I now must redouble my memoir work, in the hopes that Nick Hornby will adapt one of the stories of my life as he adapted Lynn Barber's. I wonder if the stunning Carey Mulligan ... Nah, that would be too much to ask. Anyway, I was never that cute.

Peter Sarsgaard was perfect in a difficult role, odd, charming and warm, even sexily vulnerable, and yet creepy. What a tightrope. What a grey, boring time in England, just waiting for the Beatles to burst into song.


Several Floridians have said that these last weeks have been the coldest they ever remember here. The fruit and vegetables may be seriously affected. As we go about in our jackets and hoods, we are constantly aware of the lunatic right of American politics. A huge truck driving in front of us yesterday had a bumper sticker, a mockery of the one that reads I Heart Manatees - the big, blobby sea mammals that need protection here. His sticker read I Propeller Manatees. The Times has a major article today on the all-white Tea Party people, who think that their greatest enemy is the government.

And yet I also marvel at the relaxed friendliness of strangers, the bright politeness of servers in restaurants and shops. "Y'all have a great day now," they say with unforced cheer, as if they really mean it.

I'll be happy to be home soon in freezing egret- and manatee-less but not cheerless Toronto.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

a Valentine from Patsy

It's Valentine's Day here in chilly Florida. I brought my old ladies a tub of daffodils, and Mum bought some fresh scallops for us to cook for supper. We three have spent a happy day doing not much of anything; I bundled up and walked twice on the beach, picking up and admiring shells, particularly, today, the liquid glint of mother-of-pearl inside abandoned oysters.

When the sun came out, I persuaded Mum to come and sit outside with me until the clouds covered the sun again; we sat by the water looking at the boats go by and the noisy sea birds, and talking about raising children, her mistakes and triumphs and mine. Nearby, a great blue heron stalked about, then stood motionless on one spindly leg while I took his picture. He seems to live in the backyard of the neighbour Jim - someone told us that Jim feeds both the heron and his friend the egret, who is often there too. But today the heron was alone, not at Jim's but near us, dignified and still.

A calm, loving Valentine's Day, made even better by an email from my beloved friend, writer, actress and poet Patsy Ludwick from Gabriola Island, sending me an exquisite Valentine's poem, freshly hatched - a poem that urges me to look back again on the small, perfect moments of this day. It is my great pleasure to share Patsy's beautiful gift with you.


after all the lovers have departed

to other arms or the deep embrace of death,

another awareness arises

a drift of snowdrops, scatter of daisies, shine of dandelions,

a rush of wings, skirl of cloud, tilt of sail, splash of ducks,

a whiff of seaweed, tangle of driftwood, ripple of sand,

a bend in the trail, slant of sunlight, patch of dappled shade,

a solitary heron standing on one leg, a cat asleep on a windowsill,

frogsong all night long, glimmer of moon, dream of mother of pearl

in such a world,

how would it be possible to fall out of love?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympic report

My mother's condo, I've just discovered, has wifi! I don't have to drive out to the café - I'm in my nightgown still, the ladies murmuring their crossword nearby. "Plastic something band." "Home finisher." "One hose vehicle." "Wichita neighbor." "A kind of yoga beginning with h."
"Hatha," I say.
"51 down - old Greek colony."
"Ionia," says Do, after flipping through the Crossword Dictionary.

They are saying this is a record cold and snowy winter in the U. S. - snow fell yesterday in 49 States, including Florida. Snow fell in Alabama for the first time in decades, and yet there is hardly any snow in Toronto. Today's low here in Florida - 39 degrees. However, late yesterday afternoon, the rain stopped and I went for a walk on the beach, watching the streaks of pink and gold on the horizon as the sun got ready to drop out of sight. The scene was as beautiful as ever, even if I was wearing every bit of clothing I'd brought with me, including my winter hat and gloves.

And then ... we sat in front of the television, as American broadcasters celebrated Canada. They ran a film about us, first, how with 33 million people, we live in the second largest country in the world but 90% of us live near the American border; that the record cold was in the Yukon in 1947 - minus 81 degrees. But then after the clichés of cold and closeness came much praise. "The Canadians entered World War 2 before we did," said the narrator, going on to talk about Canadians honouring their Afghan fallen on the Highway of Heroes, Ken Taylor rescuing six U.S. diplomats, and the thousands of passengers who were rescued and taken care of in Canada on Sept. 11th, when their planes made emergency landings. "Our relationship with Canada is close, productive and peaceful," the documentary concluded. "We share a continent and so much more."

"There are more people in California than in all of Canada," said the commentator.
"And the Canadian economy is stronger than ours," replied the other, before going on about the beauty of Vancouver.

And then the ceremony. The ladies and I loved it. I loved the front and centre presence of the peoples of the First Nations and the relative simplicity of the event, especially the young man soaring above projections of prairie grasses and the gorgeous power of k.d. lang. I do wish there had been more readings from Canadian writers and much more about the culture of Quebec.

Loved the faces from countries who'd sent one athlete - Algeria, Armenia, Bermuda, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal - countries which have never won anything in winter but are there anyway. The minute of silence for the dead Georgian athlete, 21 years old. The face of Michaele Jean, our GG from Haiti. (Too bad about the PM with his face frozen in an approximation of a smile, as always - what is wrong with that man? Does he feel anything genuine, ever?) Great to see Gretsk, Rick Hanson, Betty Fox and the others. On Facebook this morning, some of my friends are already critical, hating the sparkly polar bear, the hokeyness of the native dances. I don't want to criticise. We loved it and so did the American commentators. "Canadians are the friendliest, most welcoming people on earth," said one. Yes indeed.

"Something Barrett of Pink Floyd," says my mother.
"Syd," I say.

Friday, February 12, 2010

dark and rainy down south

A friend flew down at the same time I did for her stepdaughter's wedding today - the girl is from Toronto but scheduled the ceremony in Sarasota, Florida, to make sure the weather would be good. Today is the worst day I've ever known here - freezing, black clouds, black skies, and an almost hurricane-strength rainstorm. Poor young woman. So much for her wedding on the beach.

Last night was wonderful - Stuart MacLean and Dan Hill playing to a a huge crowd of Canadians in downtown Bradenton. What is it, I said to my old ladies, about Canadians? How can we tell with such certainty that these are not Americans, besides the fact that they're here, of course? We decided that first off, it's women's voices. American women speak louder with, sometimes, a harsh nasality in their tone; Canadian women in general have softer voices. I'd venture to say that Canadians of both sexes, in general, have softer voices - and attitudes. There's a deference, a self-deprecating sweet humour and lack of pretension ... it was great to be surrounded by it, here in the bastion of Jeb Bush.

Stuart was hilarious, telling his stories and - what I didn't know about him - weaving and ducking and flailing his legs and arms about. Dan Hill sang sad and meaningful songs, including several about death, maybe an odd choice in a Florida audience where the average age was 75 or more. (Stuart gave a prize to the oldest audience member, who was 93, from Montreal. Do, at nearly 90, was disappointed. "Maybe I came in second," she said wistfully, but looking around, I thought, she has lots of competition.) My mother, who knew nothing about Hill, whispered to me as he came out to sing once more, "I hope he doesn't sing another tearjerker." He sang "Are you ready?", a song about death he wrote with and dedicated to Paul Quarrington - definitely a tearjerker, but very beautiful.


The ladies and I marvel, as visitors from other countries always do, at the phenomenal obesity in evidence here. "All U can eat" signs all over. We have eaten lunch out twice and watched as massively obese people order waffles loaded with syrup or giant burgers with fries; today the woman nearby, about 300 pounds, ordered for dessert the chocolate-chip pecan pie. Just the thought of that much sugar makes my fillings ache. Hooray for Michelle Obama, undertaking to change this unfortunate, in fact tragic situation.

When we asked where to sit yesterday, the waitress said, "Just make yourself comfy wherever, sweetheart," and I laughed to think about a French restaurant, where not in a million years, even in the most casual place, would waitstaff address a customer that way. I'm not offended by that casualness at all. I think my French friends might be, though.

Tonight we are watching the Olympic opening ceremonies - I hope we get to see other teams besides the Americans. Here's a note from Chris, who in downtown Vancouver is in the epicentre of Olympic activities:

I have been TOTALLY confused by the enthusiasm for the torch relay. I just could not understand why thousands of people have been attracted to the route to cheer on the torch. And I mean THOUSANDS of people! What the hell is the big deal, I have been wondering. Geez, you stand around for ages and then someone you don't know comes by and in seconds it is over.

But the runners are preceded by endless cops and trucks with speakers and music. And it gets the crowd going. Still, what's the big deal.

So I watched the crowd gathering right outside my building and then I thought, I'll go down and see it for myself. Right out in front of my place, someone named "Terry" was getting ready to run. He was Chinese, and there were TONS of his friends around me to cheer him on. And as the torch approached, I was touched by the unmitigated pride and joy exuding from everyone around me. And everyone, the cops included, were in SUCH a kind mood and so very friendly. And then this blonde woman came around the corner with her torch aflame and up to Terry to light his torch.

And I have to admit, I was moved.

And in another email, he wrote:
Every bus is blaring with messages. There are LED signs on them saying "Go Canada GO" or "Go Team Canada."There are lineups to get into the Bay!!! to buy Olympic swag. Buildings are covered in signs. There are fireworks every night and the sky dances with searchlights. And gigabillions of people on the street. We have 2 stadia downtown and there are eight events per day in each one. That means some 80,000 people at a time. Can you believe that?! And while some 80,000 watch one event, the 80,000 waiting to see the next event are going through security and waiting outside.Then, at a given hour, 80,000 people leave and another 80,000 go in. So, every few hours, some 80,000 people are disgorges onto our streets.

It is like I am living in the middle of a world's fair. It is exciting. Time is flying. But the best part is that the daffodils are blooming.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

freezing in Florida

And now for something completely different - I'm in an internet café in Florida. Arrived yesterday to spend a week with my mother and her sister Do, to find Florida gripped by cold. The average temperature this time of year is 74 degrees, the record high is 86, and today, it's in the mid-fifties, with a sharp cold wind.

When the weather in Florida is bad, it's as if the giant playground that is the outdoors has been declared off limits. The beach is cold, the gusts of wind by the pool are freezing, and in any case, they have torn down the old house next door to my mother's place and are building condo's, with much machinery and noise. I'm glad to see signs of financial life in Florida, I'm sure the work is most welcome for the men doing it, but I'm sorry that the egrets and cranes that used to fish those waters, standing silent and motionless on one leg or moving with immense dignity through the water, have vanished.

It's a great pleasure, though, to see my mother and her sister still going strong at 86 and nearly 90 - this morning, the usual soft murmuring - "a word for 'wide sleeves', but batwing does not fit" - doing the crossword puzzle together, as they have for so many decades. We have a possible activity for tonight: Stuart MacLean was on my plane down, and I just saw in the local paper that he's doing his Vinyl Café tonight nearby, with the music of Dan Hill. Just the sort of thing to do with two elderly Canadian snowbirds, don't you think?

Getting to the plane was gruelling, and, I learned from a frequent traveller I chatted with, it's far better now than it was just after the Xmas bomber incident. Still, they opened every single thing in my carry-on bag and handbag - wallet, makeup, every container - and then tested everything for explosives. I guess on the one hand we should be grateful they're so thorough - but it seems so absurd. How many middle-aged white half-Jewish Torontonians are members of Al Quaeda?

On the plane I tried to watch movies, but gave up partway through all three - A Serious Man, Where the Wild Things are, and Amreeka. All absolutely depressing, full of angry children, dysfunctionally divorced, helpless, selfish adults, and worse. Perhaps I should have stuck with them, but Wild Things was a marvellous book not made one bit better by the addition of a lengthy psychological introduction or big hairy costumes, I could see that the family in Amreeka was going to get more and more unhappy - perhaps there's a happy twist at the end, that I didn't wait to see? Unlikely, but maybe? - and as for A Serious Man, I couldn't bear one more minute of a nice, passive man being abused, humiliated and tormented. There's a dybbuk at the beginning - are we meant to believe he's cursed? Well, I did not wait to find out. If you know how these movies end, please let me know. You've saved me a few hours.

Now - to find the New York Times and test the ice-cold American waters. My cab driver from the airport last night was a Haitian called Larry, a wonderfully wise man. He didn't lose any family in the earthquake but his siblings lost everything. "Americans have no idea how fortunate they are," he said. "If only they all could spend 2 weeks in a third-world country, they'd think differently. The Republicans are just about selfish corporate greed. Nothing for working people, everything for their big business friends." Let the Tea Parties grow, he said, so that moderate Republicans are alienated from their party and the whole right wing implodes from within. Something like that. Sounds good to me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday report

Take five minutes, my friends, to see a delightful little film that packs a punch. Go to my friend Chris's blog, and scroll down to Friday January 29. The film is called Get out! I've seen it 3 times. A treat.

Deadly cold today, but not like Washington, D.C. How extraordinary that we have no snow here and they are buried in a giant storm. I just wrote anxiously to my cousin there, who emailed back that there's more snow than she has ever seen in her life, and she went to school in the midwest. The world is topsy-turvy, no doubt about it.

Spent my usual hour cooking and listening to Eleanor Wachtel - today she talked to the extremely interesting David Hare, playwright extraordinaire. Riveting - about U.S. politics, the tragedy of Tony Blair's need to be aligned with powerful people, the responsibility of playwrights, the dire lack of accountability and conscience among the world's bankers. He spoke of his own background, saying that his father was like the lead character of Mad Men - a Fifties man who would talk to his children for two or three minutes for entertainment, and then tell them to go away; the profound insecurity that has produced in his adult life. Highly recommended.

Lots of company today. I Skyped with Lynn in the south of France, she five hours ahead drinking wine and eating cheese after dinner, so I opened a bottle and had a mid-afternoon glass too, and the two of us sipped, laughed and chatted as if we were sitting at the kitchen table and not thousands of miles apart. My old friend Louise came down from Ottawa yesterday and stayed here last night, today came back after a memorial service to be joined by our mutual friend Jessica. So I Skyped Lynn again so she could talk and laugh with Louise and Jessica too. The four of us first met at Carleton University in 1967, and were reunited today through the screen of my little Mac.

All of us so very, very young.

And then my son, who has a terrible 'flu, took a cab across town for some motherly TLC. He's moaning on the sofa now, plied with tea, toast, Tylenol and consommé, but managing also to flip the remote from the Superbowl to the hockey game to the Simpson's. Even though he's so ill, his remote finger works really well, so I know he'll survive. Very reassuring.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

paper stories

Front page story in the Star yesterday, about a half-Japanese half-American CEO called Jonathan Schwartz, who resigned from his position as CEO of a vast Japanese computer company by tweeting a haiku. His poem:

Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more

I was going to say, as nicely as possible, Please don't quit your day job, Jonathan, but he already has. And he will receive 12 million dollars in severance. Should fund quite a few creative writing and poetry classes.

And in the Globe, my friend and student Liz Clarke had another of her wonderfully sharp letters to the Editor published. (Liz is making a career, not of haiku, but of Letters to the Editor, including a long one in Vanity Fair last year.) The letter she actually wrote, about Harper's demand that, following his three month extremely unpopular proroguing of Parliament, now the MPs must give up March Break with their families, is as follows:

To the Editor:

Twenty years ago I was forced to abandon a family vacation because my boss guilted me into it. From the moment my husband and daughters boarded the plane to this day, I have regretted the decision. I never had to be reminded again that family comes first. Now, just weeks after our Prime Minister comes down from the hill in Davos, where he declared women and children first, he's putting our parliamentarians in the same position I was in for no other reason than political gamesmanship. It's a pathetic strategy that reveals, yet again, his true nature. The man has no scruples. God forbid he should get a majority.

In the printed version, the Globe cut:

comes down from the hill in Davos,
It's a pathetic strategy
The man has no scruples. God forbid he should get a majority.

They published the nice version. It's good to know that our national newspaper is so solicitous of the Prime Minister's feelings. Thanks for telling it like it is, Liz. (That rhymes. I will turn it forthwith into a haiku.)


Yesterday I rented an AutoShare car and drove across town, to the wilderness of the far west, on a mission of mercy - delivering the heavy Christmas presents she received in December to my daughter, who with her roommates has just moved to a new address. And very nice it is too; from her front window she has a distant view of Lake Ontario. It's so easy to forget, because the city has done such a good job of hiding it, that Toronto is built on a lake.

We bought a huge load of groceries, heavy things for both her and me, and then picked up her brother, who also lives in the far west, had lunch together, and then I drove home. It is a fine thing to be able to pick up a car when needed and then leave it behind. Like being a grandparent, I should think - lack of ultimate responsibility. Welcome contact, and then peace.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Olympic report

Chris Tyrell, who lives in the heart of downtown Vancouver, is watching the Winter Olympic preparations with growing excitement. The event starts less than a week from now, and it's spring in Vancouver, the warmest winter on record; the croci are out, Chris reports. This is what he said about the city after his walk yesterday. It was 13 degrees outside.

I walked over the Cambie Bridge and could easily see into the Athletes Village. The Olympic Village has identifying flags and HUGE banners indicating where different national teams are staying. People all over downtown are wearing access badges. There are bizillions of people downtown, and there are teams all over. All the people are in their national colours.

I did not realize that part of the Olympics is pavilions just like at a world's fair. There are international and provincial pavilions. Also, there are national recreation centres; there are temporary buildings and huge tents on every empty lot downtown and many, many parking lots. Every single bus and billboard is used by an Olympic sponsor. There are Olympic busses everywhere. At night, the sky is FULL FULL FULL of dancing lights; in some places, walls of water are used for projections. There are projections everywhere.There is a zip line downtown over Robson Square. There are concerts everywhere—free ones I mean. The pedestrian zones get set up starting at midnight tonight. That is going to bring more changes; Robson and Granville Streets and all streets around the two downtown stadia, are closing.

It is all rather exciting to me, regardless of all the naysaying.

I like to tease that Toronto is the centre of the universe and Vancouver a pretty but flaky bauble way, way off to the side, but not these days. By the way, I'll ask Chris what a zip line is, and report back.


The "if only" department: There was a by-election in my neighbourhood yesterday, to replace George Smitherman who is running for mayor. My riding is one of the most diverse in the world, encompassing the housing project Regent Park, the new immigrant high-rises of St. Jamestown, the vast wealth of Rosedale and the gay ghetto around Church St., not to mention my own little Victorian enclave. For us, homelessness and hunger are a community issue; for the Rosedalians, the fact that garbagemen don't put the bins back tidily after emptying them.

The Libs parachuted in Glen Murray, former mayor of Winnipeg. He's good-looking, openly gay, 100% a political animal. Cathy Crowe, his NDP opponent, is a passionate local icon and hero, a savvy street nurse who has worked with the disadvantaged for many years. I'm sorry to say that Murray won 47% of the vote, Crowe 33%. Still, for a first try in the political maelstrom, 33% is a fantastic showing. The Conservative, let's not even mention her name, got 15%.

Murray will not be bad. But Cathy Crowe would have shaken up the whole building, the process, the province.

P.S. This just in from Chris:

Two major bridges close today. The rain is back. A zip line is a suspended wire that links two downtown locations. You attach yourself to with a harness into which you are strapped, to slide down it over a part of the city. It is a thrill ride like bungee jumping.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


A marvellous visit yesterday to a most original woman - Stella Walker makes a living painting, teaching music, and singing in synagogues. She has a rich operatic voice and is learning to sing cantorial music, but she's also extremely funny, does a lot of comedy - and is a fantastic painter to boot. She and Nancy White are putting together an evening of music and comedy, called "PLEASE GOD MAKE IT STOP!"

With pianists Bob Johnston and Waylen Miki and guests Mike O'Hara and Beth Kaplan
Featuring: A Cardboard Box. Introducing: A Can of Sprats.

Saturday, February 20 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7.
Women's Art Gallery,
23 Prince Arthur, Toronto
(TTC St. George Station)
General admission $15 shmoozers $12 losers
(Please bring your 2008 tax return for our accountant.)

These two women together will be uproarious. As you can see, yours truly is on the bill ... Nan and Stella asked if I would do a reprise of the humiliating cheese tray story I told at Nancy's birthday party (which is on this site as a podcast.) I get in free in return for my five minutes; now that's a deal, 85 minutes of laughter in return for five minutes of humiliating story.

Today's quotes:

"All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." E.B. White

"[Books like Ulysees and Metamorphosis] showed me that it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice." Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And here, Spalding Gray talks about his "auto-fiction," a blend of fact and fiction:

"I am not anti-fiction. Some of my favorite writers write fiction. I am just more comfortable with the experience of grounding myself in my actual personal history. Staying with the actual is not only a confirmation of my life but through the constant retelling of the story it is often a way into personal insight. I know I have lived when I have told you my story ... We try to make sense of what happens to us and of who we are in terms of stories. For me, meaning only exists in a story."

And for me too, Spalding. "I know I have lived when I have told you my story." That's why you made such great, haunting art out of your life. And that's why I will take five minutes of the audience's time, one Saturday in February, to tell them about my humiliating experience with a cheese tray.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

snow walk

Why I Love Cabbagetown, #6742: I couldn't resist going for a walk at 10 last night. There was the puffiest little snowfall, soft silent flakes, a fresh glistening coat over everything ... so pretty, so quiet. I love walking around my neighbourhood in the evening anyway, a glimpse of golden light and life inside those Victorian houses, but more importantly, a chance to spy on how they're renovated and decorated ...

On the next block my neighbour Stephen was putting out the garbage. Stephen used to be the science writer for the Globe and has written numerous books on arcane but fascinating subjects. He read an early draft of my own book and had recently emailed to say he'd reread the published version and liked it very much - thought it should be turned into a screenplay. So there I was, bundled up in the falling snow, out for an anonymous stroll and instead discussing the wonders of my book with one of the smartest men in Toronto. "It would make a great movie," he said, "like the Godfather, those scenes of arriving in America, then flashbacks to the old country. Lots of intrigue and sex. Not much violence, though."

Wow - imagine my book like the Godfather. Too bad Marlon isn't around to play Jacob Gordin. And remember, there's always Carol Burnett to play me.

So right now, looking out at the pristine snowfall stretching to the end of my yard, not even little raccoon footprints marring it yet. The birds cluster at the feeder. My summer table is covered with snow, but just an inch, not the foot or two that's normally piled on top by now. We've had almost no snow this year - like Vancouver, which is having to truck in snow for the winter Olympics next week. Says my Vancouver friend Margaret, "This is the 'Bring your own snow' Olympics."

Went on Sunday night to see the newest George Walker play at Factory Theatre. It was in previews so I won't comment till it opens. The experience did remind me of how many factors go into the making of a successful night at the theatre, and how easy it is for any or all of those to go wrong.

And - I mailed my claim yesterday to the lawyers handling the copyright dispute. Forty articles possibly eligible for some kind of payout. I'm off to the dentist right now, for inspection of a top left molar possibly eligible for a root canal.