Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunny Sunday on the Toronto islands

Sunday suppertime, after a wonderful day... Penny and I were out the door on our bikes at 9.05 a.m. to make the 9.30 ferry to the islands. Ran into a roadblock - they were filming a chase movie with Colin Farrell on the Gardiner, no one could cross. We made our way through various side streets, rushed to the docks, and made our ferry with one minute to spare.

Meandered about in the nearly empty space - it sprinkled with rain so we stopped under shelter to eat a sandwich, ended up at the end of Ward's Island admiring the beautiful island houses, and went to the Rectory for lunch. I introduced myself to our waiter as the mother of Sam, who worked there for years, and I do think we received extra-special treatment. Lunch was superb. And then the sun came out and - the beach, lying in the sand, swimming, hard to believe, as Penny said, that it's not the ocean, except that it's not as cold. Perfect, in fact.

On the ferry back, we saw the jam-packed hundreds in the line-ups to go over and were glad we'd had the place to ourselves.

Yesterday - Harry Potter. Oh my friends, what a wonderful film. Yes, I confess, I wept. There were many moving scenes, but the one that hit me hardest was when Harry is preparing to die at the hands of his great enemy (Ralph Fiennes in a most thankless role, among the many superb British actors who bring such talent to these films). He finds himself in the midst by his dead loved ones - his mother and father, his godfather, his beloved teacher, surrounding him with love and strength. He asks his mother, "Will you be with me at the end?"
"Always," she says, beaming with love. "Always."

I thought, what a beautiful message for anyone, especially a child, who has lost someone valuable - the sense that that person is always, always, beside you. Very beautiful. But the whole thing was terrific. I'm glad they showed a bit from an earlier film, so we could remember Harry when he was a small boy. We have watched these kids grow up. I adore them, and I adore J. K. Rowling for bring all this to us.

When Penny arrived and was standing at last in my kitchen, she cried, "I'm here. I'm in the blog. I'm in the blog!" I think she is enjoying herself. If you want to find out for sure, you can follow HER blog, at

Duelling blogs.

sunny Sunday on the Toronto islands

A typical shabby unattractive island abode

My city from afar (well, not that afar)

Friend Penny at the Rectory Café

Saturday, July 30, 2011

kill the tension music

I have very few secrets from you. Okay, a few. But I was not shy about telling you a few days ago that I'd had a mammogram; I have them every year as a high-risk woman, because of my mother's history. At the time, the technician had to do the left breast over because "there's a fold or something," she said. And then she said, "You should hear in about a week."

The next morning at 9 a.m., my doctor called. Something in the left breast. Could be dense tissue or a cyst. No need to worry yet, she said, way too early. But they'll call you back for another mammogram, maybe an ultrasound.
"Wow, that really made my day," I said. She knew I was joking. I was joking.

Immediately, the melodramatic brain kicks into high gear. I love my life! Yes, there's pain in my left breast! No, can't be. Forget it. When will they call? Let's get this over with. I'm too young to die.

To cut a long story short - when I hadn't heard by the next day, I called them. I have an appointment in mid-August. That's the soonest they can see me - weeks away. So then I really spiralled into freaking out-dom. And then, luckily, I went to get my hair cut. Donny, my hairdresser Ingrid's partner, is an eccentric very interesting man and computer geek. Of course, I told them all about it; Ingrid and I have known each other for decades, I spoke at her first husband Harvey's funeral. Harvey, an extremely sweet and handsome man who cut my hair for years, used to have a cigarette after every haircut. He died of lung cancer at the age of 48, leaving Ingrid and 2 young children. But I digress.

Donny looked at me and said, "I'm psychic about these things. There's nothing wrong with you. You'll be fine."

And right then, I decided not to worry any more. I don't know if Donny is psychic. I do know that it's useless to worry about something you can do nothing about. So I'm not going to worry one tiny speck, any more, until I really have to.

Which is great, because I have a very busy time until my appointment - friend Penny has just arrived from England, and it would have been too bad to have overshadowed her whole visit with my moping. She is a keen traveller who has never been to Canada before and is interested in everything. We started off early the day after her arrival, with a 10 a.m. ticket to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Of course, the Gallery itself is one of the main attractions, and Penny ended up spending the whole day there, but the special exhibition was terrific, especially an entire room of sublime Mark Rothko's, those giant rectangles suspended in space. Then I made a special visit to my favourite, David Milne. It's ironic that in Paris, London and Madrid I'm an art hound, and at home, with this wonderful gallery under my nose, I hardly ever go.

Today Penny and I went to the market and did errands and tonight we're going to see the Harry Potter movie - exciting! The garden is gorgeous, my birthday is coming up and life could not be better. Long may that be so.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Summer is the time for renewing friendships; my newest best friend Penny is flying in from Sheffield tomorrow, and yesterday, I saw my oldest best friend Ron. Ron spent his entire school career at the school my father founded, the Halifax Grammar School, where we ended up in the same class in 1965. We met again thirty years later in Toronto.

Last week, he invited me to dinner at a French restaurant as my birthday present. I love dinner, but I love stories even more, so I suggested that we see a film instead and have a bite somewhere around the cinema. We saw "Beginners" and both loved it, a beautiful film - first and most importantly, it stars Ewan McGregor, say no more. What I'd really like for my birthday is Ewan McGregor. But it's also a moving, well-told story with marvellous performances from all the actors and an excellent script, beautifully directed. Sheer pleasure. But especially Ewan. My God, he's got a great face, sensitive and alive, and the rest of him isn't bad either.

(One small negative about the film: Ewan suffers, can't love, is closed and frightened because, the film makes obvious, of various factors of his childhood. Oh go see a shrink, for God's sake! I wanted to cry. No, Ewan - let ME help you!)

Ron now lives right across the street from the Varsity, so we went up to his place on the 22nd floor - he has an incredible vista of downtown Toronto, not just to the lake but as far as the American side on the horizon, and a wide-open sky for sunset viewing. He opened a bottle of Moet et Chandon and we drank Champagne and nibbled from his fridge and got caught up. He has had more careers than anyone I know, from oyster farming to film script writing and much in between, with a genius for making money. He owns a low-rise apartment building in Rosedale. Say no more.

It's perfect again today, mild and cloudy, the breeze wafting in the scent of jasmin. After Carole's class at the Y, I went to Women's College Hospital to have my breasts squashed between two pieces of glass. My mother had breast cancer, so I am happy to do so. And now it's 5 p.m.; time for rosé. Can you hear me sigh with pleasure?

PS Thrilling that the Toronto International Film Festival has chosen, for its Opening Night Premiere - a documentary. Unthinkable only a few years ago, as unthinkable as a huge prize for Creative Non-Fiction. The times they are a'changing. Good news for us faction writers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I have a personal connection to the mind-numbing horror unfolding in Norway, beyond the fact that the madman actually mentioned Ryerson University in his ramblings, as a centre of Muslim domination. But also, the young Ryerson student who has rented my top floor from September on is a Norwegian of Somali descent, a beautiful young woman with gorgeous brown skin. She left some things here in June and went home to Oslo for the summer. Praying that she was not part of the youth wing of the Labour party, I've emailed to ask if she's okay. Have not heard back.

Reading about the coverage - I can't bear to watch the TV news - I wonder, where were the killer's family and friends? How can a man turn into a murderous lunatic and no one notices? I guess it will all come out. Perhaps someone so unhinged has no friends.

And then we read about Amy Winehouse murdering herself. Idealistic young people, slaughtered without mercy; a talented young musician, condemning herself to death. Infinitely sad.

And, too, the news about Jack Layton, a fine politician, a fine man at last at the peak of his very long career, now haggard and debilitated in his fight with cancer. We need every decent politician, cannot afford to lose one, let alone one of his stature, in this time when men with mean and shrunken souls are in power - the mayor of our city wanting to cut libraries, night transit and Christmas charities for needy children; the would-be premier suggesting chain gangs. Chain gangs!

We desperately need your vision and compassion, Jack. Please get well soon.

Sadness all round, not alleviated, right now, by this perfect day with a soft heedless wind.

P.S. I just heard from my young Norwegian friend.

The last four days have been truly testing times for Norway. One man terrorized our country and killed 76 innocent people. Thankfully, my family and I are fine. Some of my friends were injured. Though traumatized, I think they will be just fine. I must say I am very impressed with my fellow countrymen who have met this hatred with love. Not anger, rage or vengeance. Last night more than 200,000 people gathered downtown to show their respect to the victims. It was amazing. We cried together, we held hands, we stood together. Our little country stands united and I have never been more proud to be Norwegian.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

sublime sweet Sunday

Sunday morning, in a state of extreme bliss - the heat has broken, the rain has left the air fresh and new, there's a sweet breeze, and it smells so delicious out there - of rain, mint, basil, lavender, life - that I'm paralyzed with pleasure. Except for my fingers, pattering on these new black keys.

Chuck arrived yesterday morning, and because he had set things up so well, with my computing life stored in the Time Machine, all he had to do to transfer everything was click a few buttons. Now the new girl is fully loaded and I'm learning to use her - things are a little different and much faster. And spiffier and more stylish. Poor MacZine's touchpad is completely broken; she can only be used with an external mouse. But I'm keeping her, just in case. You never know.

Then beautiful W*yson came over with a writing student who needed guidance and a consultation, and stayed on in the air-conditioned cool, the two of us side by side with our MacBook Pro's, comparing notes. He has of course customized his with sayings and stickers. My friend will be away for the entire month of August, and I miss him already.

In the evening, to Annie and Jim's for dinner with friends - trout barbecued on a cedar plank, tasting as if it had come from a First Nations smokehouse - and then a walk down to the Beaches Jazz Festival. What a fantastic event - Queen St. shut down and bouncy music on every corner. And then it rained; some bands kept going but most sheltered their instruments, and the music stopped. We went to other Beach friends to sit on their front porch and eat raspberry/blueberry shortcake with lots of whipped cream.

The summer is flying by and days disappear. Today there is absolutely nothing on my calendar, except sitting around sniffing the air, tapping on the silver machine, talking to family and friends, gardening, walking, cooking - oh yes, listening to Eleanor Wachtel at 3, maybe a jogette, three library books to read, not to mention the classics I want to tackle this summer, "Madame Bovary" and "The Great Gatsby," neither of which, I'm ashamed to say, I've yet read.

So - already, the day is beyond full. I'd better get cracking.

summer miscellaneous

Backhoe in the front yard, and after-
lots of water

Bicycle protest - a thousand bikers
gather to ride down Jarvis Street to protest the cancellation of the bike lanes

At last, the black-eyed susans emerge

The secret garden from back to front

Friday, July 22, 2011

my new love

I'm writing on an extremely beautiful piece of machinery - my brand-new MacBook Pro. Happy Birthday to me! Oh the tidy patter of these crisp black keys, the lustrous glow of the shiny aluminum body ... I must think of a name for her. I did immediately, however, screw her up - following the machine's instructions, I installed my email, which immediately proceeded to download every mail I've sent for months - thousands. My guess is - that was not meant to happen.

Amazingly, as if in protest, the instant this spiffy beauty entered the house, MacZine stopped working. I mean, the instant - she was working this morning, and when I returned from the Mac store, she stopped. Her space bar has frozen, her screen is a disaster - if I try to scroll, things move about randomly if they move at all. Until the invaluable Chuck arrives tomorrow to help me transfer - how will we transfer if MacZine is frozen?! - I cannot access any of my files. Maybe that's a good thing. The new girl is making me think about new work.

I'm sorry, MacZine - you were invaluable for more than five long years, my lifeline to the planet. And now there's someone else in my life. Que sera, sera.

Today's heat not so terrible - hooray for cloud cover. My scarlet hollyhocks are popping open, the goldenglow and the black-eyed susans, even as the tiger lilies and the clematis sigh their last. Ebb and flow. One computer out, another in.

And ... to stop navel-gazing for one tiny moment, I am so appalled by what's happening to this city, I've just written a letter to the Editor. Why are we even deigning to discuss cutting libraries, night busses, WheelTrans? Inconceivable, that we've sunk so low. The barbarians are not at the gate; they're sitting in City Hall.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


This brutal, sweltering day was about survival. When I checked on-line at one point, it was 36 degrees, feeling, with the humidity, like 48. That's 48 degrees. Record-breaking - the hottest Toronto has ever been. Outside the front door was a radiating wall of heat - you had to push your way through. The air felt like fur, and it was hard to breathe, even for someone like me with good lungs. As I said - brutal.

And yet - on we go. For the first time in many months, I rented an AutoShare car this morning - it was a Honda hybrid, sleek and silent - and did errands, which included checking out computers at a Mac store on Queen St. East. MacZine, my beloved trusty MacBook, is on her last legs. Even as I type now, the cursor is jumping around with a mind of its own. Pages open and close, things vanish and scroll and move - perhaps she has been invaded by poltergeists. Or perhaps she's just five years old, with a crack in her side held together with scotch tape, and she has had it.

So, after much consultation with my personal genius Chuck, I have decided on a MacBook Pro. It's silver and black; that's all I need to know. AND it's available at a store that is not the Apple store at the Eaton Centre, where a thousand teenagers go to play, the noisiest, most chaotic store on the planet. I hate that store. So tomorrow, I'm going to a nice quiet shop and will return with a new computer. Be still, my beating heart.

And then I bought a ton of groceries, heavy or bulky things I can't carry on my bike, bird seed of course, kitty litter, laundry detergent ... So exciting, tooling around in an air-conditioned hybrid car, just like a grown-up. And then shoved my way through the air and came home. Spent the afternoon huddled, the AC blasting, every curtain and blind closed ... rushing out to water the plants, feed the birds and leave them a bowl of water, rush back inside. And read.

Jean-Marc and Richard called - off to the beach, hooray. Today we caught the 6.30 ferry; I had my bathing suit on under my dress, and as soon as we got to the beach, I rushed into the water. Absolute heaven. It was jam-packed, no surprise. We were on the "clothing optional" side this time - many people were clothed, many were naked, many in-between ... women in bottoms but not a top, men in t-shirts but no bottoms - and everyone else in the water. Richard and I walked along the beach, passing at one point two pretty young girls with beautiful breasts. When they came close, we could hear that one of them definitely used to be a man. In transition.

We ate a picnic of cold chicken, arugula salad and pinot grigio, watched the sunset again - hated to leave. Even just on the other side of the island, the air was a blanket. We were going to stop at the Asian Night Market on Cherry Street on the way home, a new open market of Chinese food open from 6 p.m. to midnight, but were too tired. We've got a date to go soon, however. As we rode across the Distillery's ancient cobblestones, a great blues band was playing to people sitting at a pub, outside in the dark.

Wonderful Toronto. Even in a heat wave.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

water power

We're in the middle of a brutal heatwave - apparently it might go up to 35 tomorrow, with humidity making it feel like 40. I leave my air conditioner off as long as possible, just close every possible blind and curtain, but eventually, unless I want to spend the day in the basement, the AC goes on. It's like hiding from the Huns. Only it's the sun.

However, work goes on. Yesterday was a very busy day, despite the heat. I rode early across town to meet with Barbara, an esteemed freelance editor who had agreed to talk to me about my memoir, where I am, what's there and what's not. This is what I do for others but cannot do for myself, and what a relief it was to spill to a pair of informed ears and a fine brain, and get her feedback. We decided that she should read the whole ms., which I reread and printed up later that afternoon and delivered to her this morning. I feel better already.

When I got back from "coffee with my editor," how great that sounds, a giant machine was in my front yard - the city had arrived to replace my water pipes. The foreman told me that old pipes are generally half an inch wide - mine weren't even that, they were 3/8ths of an inch - possibly the original pipes from 1879. "It's amazing you got any water in there at all," he said. That's 25 years of lousy water pressure, folks, something that should have been resolved YEARS ago. However, it is now - they dug a huge hole, put in new copper pipes, and suddenly my watering system in the yard actually works and the shower is wondrous. Thank you, powers that be.

Immediately after that, my internet went down. Amazing how that happens, no? You fix one thing and another thing breaks. After much time on the phone with Rogers, resulting in nothing, we made an appointment for today. How I dislike being disconnected. Like being locked in the Tower - what's going on out there? Help!

Luckily, as I was drooping about wilting - so hot!! - and moping, my dear neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard called. "We're going for a picnic and a swim on the Island," they said. "Come with us." I was packed in five minutes - bathing suit, water, towel and chocolate for dessert. We hopped on our bikes, stopped at a souvlaki place en route to buy dinner and caught the 7 p.m. ferry. What heaven - we were just about the only people on the whole huge beach at Hanlan's Point - the clothed side for us - and we immediately plunged into the cold fresh lake. Then Richard opened his picnic hamper backpack - plates, cutlery, napkins - and we drank Chardonnay and ate souvlaki, salad, peaches and chocolate as the sun went down and we admired the incredible view of the city with the fiery ball behind.

After the 9.45 ferry back, we took the long way home, around the new Sugar Beach area, through the fantastic new water treatment centre which is a piece of gorgeous exotic sculpture, up through the Distillery District and through the new Regent's Park to home - and the boys let me check my email on their computer. A day transformed from hot to heaven. I go so rarely to the Islands, but will change that - it's so easy to get there and is another planet, not like Toronto at all.

Today, the Rogers man arrived. I knew immediately from his accent that he was from Turkey - in fact, from Istanbul. He got out his big ladder and changed all the old cable wires into the house, gave me a new modem into the bargain ... and now we're up to speed. Water! Internet! All the mod cons. And now off to the Riverdale farmer's market for fruit.

My cup runneth over, literally and figuratively.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

great grammar book, petition and misc.

In class, we talk often about grammar; students are confused or leery, because it seems so complicated and they were taught nothing in school. At last, I've found a wonderful book that makes everything clear - it's beautifully written and often uses funny examples, so as you're reading about subordinate clauses, you're chuckling out loud. At least I was. Highly recommended.

GRAMATICALLY CORRECT: The essential guide to spelling, style, usage, grammar, and punctuation

Anne Stilman, Writer's Digest Books, 2010

And today's petition is begging our benighted mayor and his minions not to interfere with our libraries. Please PLEASE sign and pass on.

AND I'd like to share a culinary tip: yesterday, I made something new for my dinner guests, a rhubarb-gooseberry crumble, with rhubarb from the garden and gooseberries from the market. Oh. My. God. An avalanche of flavour.

AND: an exchange from "Bridesmaids", that is the story of my early life:

Annie: You read my diary?

Brynn: At first, I did not know it was a diary. I thought it was a very sad, handwritten book.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Yesterday, I stood in the produce department of my local No Frills, gazing in disbelief. Almost everything, the fruit, even the corn, was from the States. I've battled with them before about this; all I can do is to buy nothing. This morning I zipped down to the market and returned with raspberries, blueberries, cherries, and corn - the first fresh local corn, the crunch of summer - drool worthy.

Luckily I am having friends over for dinner to share the bounty, and to help me devour the leftovers from Thursday night's feast. Two months ago, friend Marilyn, now a literary agent, had 10 women freelancers in the book business over for dinner; we decided to meet regularly, so Thursday was our second meeting, here. I barbecued chicken and two large pieces of salmon, baked on a cedar plank, and made some veggies; they brought the rest. Something wonderful happened - what started as a businesslike networking group dissolved into a bunch of very interesting women finding out what they had in common and becoming friends. Work was barely mentioned; sitting in the twilight garden, we talked about children, gardens, health, projects, summer plans ... Much food and wine vanished, but there's enough left for tonight's dinner.

Luckily, the garden is showing off for my guests. The echinacea is out, the black-eyed susans nearly, the rose of Sharon on its way, the clematis still vibrant, the gardenia bush (not a camellia as I'd thought, one of my guests enlightened me) wafting divine perfume ... well, you've heard it all before. Neighbour Jane offered me a large mock orange bush she didn't want, so my gardening friend Scott dug it up and we found just the right place for it here. It looked feeble the first day and now - glowing a hearty green. Welcome to paradise.

BUT ... not all is paradise. Several people have written to ask about the new direction for the memoir, and I have to tell you - right now, I have no idea. So I have done for myself what others do with me - I have asked an editor to help me sort it all out. I'm lost. There's so much material and I still don't know how to thread it together. What's the spine? Or, as I always ask my students, what is this piece really about? What is the journey? What is the moment of change? I think I know, but I'm not sure, so Barbara, one of the dinner guests on Thursday and a very experienced editor, is coming to the rescue. Pray for me, and stay tuned.

Hot date on Wednesday night, with a smart and gorgeous young woman genetically linked to me. We went to see the American flick "Bridesmaids," which I expected not to like but did, a lot - it's far more weighty and moving than they admit - and then we came back here to, of course, barbecue and eat. I've invited her to dine with me on a regular basis, so I can try to keep up with her life and thoughts. My beloved first born, dropping in from the other side of town.

Last night, neighbour Monique's Francophone soirée - yes, I know, this is more social life in one week than I've had in months - woo hoo! We had our usual fascinating free-ranging discussion, this one about Freud, what still is relevant and what isn't. But Jack and I ended in an amicable argument - he is a very wealthy developer and I the socialist artiste - I saying that increased taxes on corporations and the rich are the way to save the economy, that Ronald Reagan began the trend to selfishness and the indulgence of the super-rich. And he saying that cutting bureaucratic inefficiency and waste is the way to save the economy, because gazillions are wasted, and he feels justified in trying to safeguard his money rather than throw it away. But, I said, that's an excuse the rich use not to pay taxes. Bureaucracies are inherently unwieldy. What's the solution? Denmark and Sweden, he said. They hire very good people for the civil service and pay them very well, and things run beautifully. We hire far too many people, many of them dishonest or incompetent, and pay them poorly so they're open to bribes. He talked about Toronto's developers, how the whole system is rigged, palms are greased and deals are done in back rooms, just like in Russia.

Jack thinks our economy will nosedive when American soldiers start to come home from overseas; that unemployment, already at 10% because there are no jobs, will skyrocket, and we will all be in big trouble. Because every economy in the world, now, is linked to every other. It was depressing, and not even the delicious food and wine cheered me up. Until I got home and stood in my garden and sat and listened and smelled.

The garden is more than a lovely place - it's family, a replacement for my children, something to care for and nurture. It keeps me company and rewards hard work. And it's a life saver.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


A coolish evening after the first really scorching, muggy day. I use my air conditioning only in emergencies, and today was one: oh, the pleasure of closing curtains and blinds and huddling in the artificial breeze. I had to buy a great deal of salmon today for Thursday night, so rode my bike early to St. Lawrence Market. Such a pleasant place, full of good things - had a long chat with the fishmonger about cedar planking and gravlax, bought some divine bagels and cream cheese, a lot of Quebecois cheeses, veggies, cycled home before the sun was high.

To the dentist - a piece of molar fell out last week, part of the general disintegration of aging. My dentist is as fine a man as you could find, but - what a job, I thought, always associated with pain and discomfort. He inserted more filling, and my jaw ached for the rest of the day - aches still. Luckily, after a visit with #1 Son, I had a date to look forward to - seeing the film "The Names of Love" with my friend Oksana. Carol, a student in the U of T workshop last week, wrote to all of us in the class and insisted we see the film. "The movie blew me away, she wrote - it picked up right where we left off - identity, race, belonging (and not) love fear heartache resolution ...

I was still a bit dubious because many of the reviews on-line were lukewarm. Well - the reviews were WRONG. It is an unforgettable, marvellous film. I could not recommend it more highly. And it is about all the things Carol mentioned and more, very funny, very sad.

My friend and I had a drink in Trendytown - Yorkville, another planet - and now here I am, as dusk falls, cooling off in the tiny breeze, spending the evening reading a fantastic book - Grammatically Correct, the essential guide to spelling, style, usage, grammar and punctuation, by Anne Stilman. It's Wayson's, and I have to give it back to him, so must read it tonight. A joy only a writer could understand.

Oh, how could I forget? Sunday, something amazing happened. I suddenly, out of the blue, realized what the memoir I'm working on was about. Not quite what I've been writing, no. Just as my father the biologist and researcher spent a long time doing experiments on something that turned out not to prove what he hoped it would, I have recently written more than 60,000 words, and in previous years 60,000 more, of a memoir that turned out to be going in the wrong direction.

Well - that's life. That's art. It's compost, and you have no choice but to move forward. So Monday I moved forward. One of the bits of research I needed to do was to check my childhood books, stored in a box. One, a child's dictionary, said in the front: August 1, 1955 - for Beth, for her 5th birthday, with love from Auntie Do.

So I called her, yesterday, to thank her again for the book she gave me almost 56 years ago. She laughed with delight. A great moment for us both.

My jaw hurts. It's dark and cool, and the air smells of jasmine and lavender. I know what the memoir is about and where I'm going with it, more or less. More or less. Soon I'll read more about correct grammar. But right now - the recycling has to go out, and the cat just threw up.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My own private Giverney

Not boasting, no. Just sharing.

Well, maybe just a little boasting.

on hiatus

Watched a great nature documentary just after dawn yesterday morning - the local raccoons coming home after a night of mayhem. Just outside my window at 6.30, four young raccoons were cavorting in the ivy, play fighting, climbing to their perches; as the ivy branches shook, I could see little feet, tails and black mask eyes, clambering up and down. And then, at the far end of the yard, I noticed the neighbour's raccoon family, four of them climbing around his giant maple. As the sun tinted the world pink and gold, I watched 8 raccoons settling in for their day-long sleep. Ten minutes later, all was still.

That was Saturday morning, when I was hoping to sleep in after a very intense week, and instead, was perky at dawn. The writing workshop was exhausting and utterly joyful. On our last morning, one of the students brought two bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne in a cooler, another strawberries and a third chocolate chip cookies. And they all brought rewrites; each one took a flying leap into a craft and truth that made us marvel. All of the writing classes had to chose one participant to read a five minute segment after our group lunch, as representative of the work done that week. Our choice was unanimous - the last 5 minutes of Mary Jane's moving piece. I can't do it, she said. I can't read about my father's funeral in front of a hundred people. So we arranged that if she really couldn't, I would.

But when the time came, she read magnificently. And the rest of us sat at our table like parents, glistening with pride.

Came home in a daze - like after a show closes in the theatre, you've had this powerful rapport with a group of people and suddenly, they're gone. I relish, cherish the thought of the solitude ahead, for my own work, and also, just to have some time without other people's stories. I am a magnet for other people's stories. Even at the pub afterwards, where some of us went for a celebratory drink, I ended up listening to the life stories of the poetry students. They were, of course, fascinating stories. But I am full right now. I can't take any more.

Now it's really summer. We've been so lucky - the days hot and sunny but nights and mornings fresh and breezy - perfect. It's 7 a.m. - missed the raccoons this morning, I was already downstairs drinking coffee. Yesterday I went to my yoga class; we do a meditation at the start, lying on the floor, and I fell asleep. Later, friend Annie came over for supper in the garden, and then we went to see "The Trip," a marvellous British movie about two comedians on the road. The two men are hilarious, the vistas of Britain are wonderful, and there's even a message of sorts. Very enjoyable. Afterwards, we strolled down to Queen's Park to take in a bit of Afrofest - suddenly we could have been in Addis Ababa or Port au Prince, music, drumming, a teeming crowd and faces of every colour. I love Toronto.

Suddenly in the distance, on this still morning, the angry whine of the Indy race cars, revving up for their day of screaming around the track. One kind of pest is sleeping, another, much noisier, is just waking up.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


A reminder - this is coming up soon. Reserve your place now!


A one-day writing adventure.

Inspiration, structure and support for those with lots of writing experience and for those with none.

Spend a summer day learning to trust your voice and tell your stories. Listen to your creative self. Gain confidence and perspective from friendly contact with other writers. Write in the garden and enjoy positive feedback, bushy perennials, and lunch.

Who: Writer and teacher Beth Kaplan has taught writing at Ryerson for 17 years and at U of T for 5.

When: Sunday August 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: $150, including food for thought and actual food (and wine). Register early; limited to 10.

Where: Beth’s secret garden in Cabbagetown.

Laughter, camaraderie and insight guaranteed.

For more information -

To register –

“I’d like to express my deep appreciation to you, Beth, for making your garden workshop so memorable. You have a special gift for creating a safe learning environment, with a well of positive things to say without passing judgment. It was a joy to be there with you and the others. Your garden is magical, and you created a magical day for me. Ann C.”

not a bomb

The McCartney mavens are on the move - writers in the U of T program who heard my reading on Monday keep coming up to tell me their Paul stories. One woman named her son after him! To think - I didn't.

The week is going wonderfully - but exhausting. I'm just not used to long regular hours, like a normal person with a normal job, and in any case, the work itself is extremely intense. Plus today, there were two fire alarms in our U of T building, much milling about and firetrucks. Nothing like yesterday, mind you, on Parliament Street when I was out for a walk - a whole section of the street blocked off with police cars, about seven firetrucks and ambulances and news trucks, uniformed personnel milling about, crowds gaping, and 3 or 4 people in full bomb-defusing gear fiddling on the street with something. Wow, what a show! "A suspicious package," said a handsome policeman.

It says in the paper today that someone left an envelope filled with white powder in Bob Rae's office on Parliament, and people inside started sneezing with watering eyes. So, obviously, the only thing to do is to call out the entire Toronto Emergency Task Force. Who will eventually deliver a report on what the powder was. Bob Rae, that major threat to the world.


Back to contemplating the garden. The tiger lilies are out and the black-eyed susans and echinacea will be next. Thank you, O creator of flowers and green.

Monday, July 4, 2011

sweet Monday

Another sublime summer eve. Just took a walk over the Don Valley, to sit high on the hill on the other side and take in the sunset view. Dusk falling, three teams playing baseball on the Riverdale Farm side - oh the whap of a hard ball smacking into a mitt, is that not the sound of summer in North America? - and on the flat expanse on the other side, many teams, soccer, frisbee, joggers, dog walkers, and one man with an exquisite battery-run airplane, diving and weaving and flipping round and round, silently soaring over us all. Impossible not to feel joy at the scene, with the giant towers of money glinting in the distance downtown, and the frantic movers on the highway, zooming in and out.

An exciting day, starting an intensive week of teaching, eight students stuck in a small room with me and lots of words. Wonderful, though I did think wistfully that it would be nice to have a window, the day was so heavenly. But we were busy, no time for gazing out of windows. After a morning of work and a communal lunch sponsored by the department to bring us all together, all the instructors were asked to read for five minutes each, to show the range of genres covered. Mon dieu - it was startling. The Historical Fiction teacher read about a gypsy being tortured to death in 16th century Hungary, the Dark Fantasy teacher about a man being ripped to pieces by black dogs, the Detective teacher about his detective saving himself from a murderous chambermaid (shades of Dominique Strauss-Kahn!) by drowning her in the bathtub.

I felt pretty dull, I can tell you, getting up to read about Paul McCartney! There were other less gothic readings, wonderful fiction from Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Alissa York and humour from Erika Ritter; Karen Connolly read a great poem about Canada, Norm Snider from his new bio-pic about Lady Gaga, Ken McGoogan from his new book about the Scots in Canada ... etc. Dizzying. Helps you see the wonder of the imagination - Norm, an older man, writing in the voice of young Stephanie who will become Lady Gaga, these normal nice-looking people reading this incredibly lurid, bloody stuff ...

A woman came up to me afterwards and told me that she and a friend were recently in New York and her friend grabbed her arm and said, "That's Paul McCartney!" She went over and said, "Is that really you?" and Paul, out with his Nancy, said, "Yes, it's me." The lady said, "He was so sweet - I even took a picture of him with my friend - his arm around her."

Jealous, oh yes, jealous. But then, thanks to my imagination, I was married to him for a year or two.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

no Trip today

I had arranged to go with a friend today to see "The Trip" - nothing is funnier than a good British comedy, and this is about two very funny men driving around England eating and imitating people, sounds great to me - but phoned to cancel. I just couldn't bear to leave the house and garden today, the Sunday of a long weekend, when, even with the crazy parties and parade of Pride on the horizon, the whole neighbourhood seems drunk with quiet sweetness and bees. And birds, and camellias, and now the tiger lilies are out as some of the roses fall back, the purple clematis fantastic, the little cherry tomatoes coming fast and furious - leave? I think not.

But also, I did have lots to do today, editing and organizing, because next week is particularly busy, with the U of T Summer Writing School starting at 9 a.m. tomorrow. I have a week with 8 people to teach what takes 8 or 9 weeks in my other classes, so it's intense. Plus tomorrow there's an "instructor/writer reading" - we teachers have been asked to read from our work for only five minutes. With much effort, I have isolated a five minute segment of the memoir that I hope will intrigue and delight. Or at least, not have them dozing in the aisles. But you never know.

What I bought second-hand this week: a "Hello Kitty" sleep mask - "Simply a must-have fashion item!" it says; "Heat," by Bill Buford; an adorably soft Ty leopard for some lucky child; a floaty silk dressing-gown and white silk pyjama pants; a long sweater for my long son that I'm sure he won't wear but it's worth a try; and best of all, 3 Beatles Anthology DVD's for $4 each. I was afraid they wouldn't play on my machine, and I was right, they didn't, so I took them to a store selling DVD players, where we discovered that they had subtitles in Russian, so were a different format than North American DVD's. BUT - they play on the computer.

So I sat yesterday on the deck with computer and earplugs, going through, once again, the early history of the band. I can never get enough. Hamburg; Pete Best; Ringo's childhood health problems; Paul's trumpet, John's Aunt Mimi - and beautiful George, my, what a wonderful face that young boy had. What joy they all took in music, and in each other.

I've lost track of the royals, but my mother hasn't - and I have to say that they're worth their weight in gold for that fact alone. She is thrilled with it all, the documentaries flooding the airwaves about the family - er, the Family - the sightings and reports of Kate's naturalness and Will's manliness. Apparently, some Quebecers held up "Parasite" signs. It seems to me that they may be very rich but right now, they are working extremely hard. And they're making my British mother proud and happy. I ask no more.

Poor Vancouver has had dreadful weather, while so far, we've had the perfect summer. Well, it's their fault if they will live in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. They get beauty and rain. We get an occasional glimpse of something lovely, and lots of sun. Deal.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Vive le Canada libre

The most gorgeous Canada Day imaginable - hot, bright, breezy. I just called my mother who was, of course, watching the events on the Hill, so I turned it on, to see the beautiful Kate wearing a little red maple leaf hat. What a cutie. Hundreds of thousands wearing red and white on the hill, waving flags and cheering. The Air Force Snowbirds doing a flyover, thrilling. And then a little girl came out to sing O Canada, and alone in my living room, I stood up and sang along and had a little cry.

I was not born in this country, but I have lived here, with a few breaks, since the age of 2 1/2 months. And how glad and grateful I am for that.

I am a sandwich today - a mother and a daughter. After a month of homelessness, my son moved to his own place across town this morning; my friend John and I drove him across with his entire worldly possessions in the back of a small van - a mattress, a bunch of boxes, and a bag from his mother with ketchup, eggs, tuna fish, mayonnaise, chocolate chip cookies and a lasagna. And then home, to do piles of laundry left by him and by the upstairs tenant, to water the garden, to call my mother, and to watch a handsome, shy prince and his lovely princess wearing a little red maple leaf hat.

Too bad we also have to look at that frozen hunk we call Prime Minister. He just got up to speak, and I just got up to turn off my television.

And of course, on this stunning holiday, my neighbour has all his renovation machines out in full force. Sometimes, even on a day full of brotherly love, like today, one longs for a tranquillizing dart gun.

P.S. Here comes the cup runneth over department: a friend just called. During our many talks, I found out that over forty-five years ago, when she was 16, she gave up a baby boy for adoption. She had never considered trying to find him. I urged her to think about it, if not for herself, then for him; if he had sent out a message that he would like to find his birth mother, didn't he have the right to know something about his genetic past? Let alone get to know her, an amazingly accomplished and fascinating woman? She was dubious but did think about it, and eventually let me know that she'd decided to go ahead.

She just called. "I'm with my son," she said. "He came over yesterday for a quick first visit, and he hasn't gone yet. He may never leave. He's just like me. And," she said, "it's all thanks to you."
"Yeah, thanks a lot," I heard a male voice saying something jokey and sarcastic in the background, and they both laughed. If my father were here, he'd say something about the miracle of genetic continuity.

Yesterday, I read again the quote I printed here last month, about the importance of living a useful life. When I hung up, I thought, well, you've done one useful thing, that's for sure. Happy Canada Day to the reunited mother and son. And to all of you, as well. Go find someone you've lost, and say hello.