Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy 2014 bloggees

Spending a quiet New Year's Eve with some of my most talented friends: Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and their colleagues in "That's Entertainment" - and Marvin Hamlisch, the great American composer, especially of one of the best musicals ever, "A Chorus Line," in a PBS documentary. "Kiss today goodbye, the sweetness and the sorrow ..." And with you.

It was a busy day - Booboo came to visit - to play in the snow and paint. Well, not quite paint, but do some interesting scribbles. And wreak havoc, amazing havoc for such a small person. Wayson came to visit, Monique came to visit, Lynn sent New Year's wishes from Kathmandu - I called Auntie Do but she was out gallivanting. It's 11 o'clock, and I am going to bed. Hooray.

I wish you a joyful 2014, one and all.


Monday, December 30, 2013


Ads all over town for Lampe Berger, a classy air purifier, which claim it "cleans and fragrances your air."

"To fragrance" - that's a new verb. I guess if you squirt perfume on someone, you are fragrancing them. I guess to complain would make me an old fogey; English is an ever-renewable resource. But seriously - "fragrances your air" is going too far.

It's bloody cold out there. How lucky to be self-employed. I spent the day reworking an essay I have spent days reworking before, but this time, I think I might have solved the puzzle/cracked the problem/made it work. Sent it out to a couple of readers to check, because I can't tell any more. I didn't know before where it started or where it ended. Now, I think I do. Maybe. We'll see.

There was a vigil at Church and Carlton at noon today for a homeless man called Richard, who recently died there, on the street, right in front of one of the biggest grocery stores in the city. By the time I got to the vigil, there was only a handful of folks, a billboard with photographs of Richard as a smiling young man, lots of candles burning. No one should die on the street in one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

P.S. “I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go.” —Jean Rhys

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Punctuation saves lives

That dog does look delicious.

And ... heaven, science forces me to drink.
Wine: The Depression-Fighting Depressant

Philomena and the nuns

From my years teaching memoir, I know the big stories students need to get out before they can tell any others: stories of physical, psychological or sexual abuse; the story of atypical sexual orientation; and stories of confused parentage - being adopted, having put a child up for adoption, finding out one of your parents is not who you think s/he is. Along with a death in the family and a devastating diagnosis, those are the big, big tales that block the others, until they're freed.

Went to see "Philomena" yesterday, and thought of all the students who've told tales of adoption, especially the women who gave away a child and want to find him or her now. I thought especially of Debbie, whose whole adult life was geared toward connecting with the son she had to give up at sixteen. How incredibly cruel we were, as a society, to blame young women and steal their children. And now, my daughter the mother is happily unmarried and no one gives a damn.

I think of my friends too, Chris and Paul, who were adopted as toddlers and lost not just their birth mothers but their birth languages and names, losses that leave a permanent hole. Oh, it's a lovely film, thoughtful, funny and moving with beautiful performances. Do not go if you are a fan of the Catholic Church, however, because its portrait of Ireland's mendacious, life-denying nuns is horrifying.

A quiet Sunday. 6000 people still without power, and tonight the temperature will plummet and the sidewalks will be sheet ice. Quite a hefty load of winter and it's not even January.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

RIP Ben Torchinsky

I was lucky enough to have been befriended in the Eighties by Sarah and Ben Torchinsky, two extraordinary Canadians - generous art lovers, kind friends, fabulously interesting world travellers. They were that for all their friends, but for me, a special bond - for 20 years, Sarah was my Yiddish translator. Without her, my book on my great-grandfather would not exist. And for her, I think my work was a connection to her childhood and its haimish language. We even met several times in New York, to go together to the YIVO to hunt down material - and on one unforgettable occasion, Ben, the international engineering tycoon, came with us and was relegated to xerox duty. Sarah died on my birthday, August 1st, in 2009; I miss her and her unsentimentally affectionate friendship deeply.

And then yesterday, Ramon called to tell me of Ben's death in Miami. What isn't mentioned in the obit is what Ben suffered when Sarah died - not only the loss of his dearest friend since early childhood, his life partner in every sense of the word - Sarah while raising their sons was also an integral part of Ben's business from the start - but also, at the same time, the loss of his right arm to cancer. Suddenly this powerfully independent man was not only alone for the first time in his life but physically incapacitated. He sank, briefly. And then he rose, and fought, and lived a vibrant life, travelling, entertaining, visiting friends and family, until only a few weeks before his death.

Ben saw through people in an instant; it could be frightening. One of the things I will never forget is him talking about his dealings with two premiers, Bob Rae and Mike Harris, on various highway projects. You'd expect him as a very wealthy businessman to respect Harris and despise Rae; in fact, it was the reverse. He had enormous respect for Bob Rae and none at all for Harris.

My condolences to his children and grandchildren, and my thanks to them for sharing these wonderful human beings with the world and with me.


Announcing the passing in Miami, Florida on December 23, 2013 of Benjamin Torchinsky, born on September 24, 1926 in Calgary, Alberta the son of Max and Rose Torchinsky. He leaves behind his sister Ethel Wiss; two sons, Alan and Raymon; two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Christine; and four grandchildren, Miriam, Joseph, Abraham and Sasha. Ben was predeceased in 2009 by his beloved wife and most trusted advisor, Sarah (Pearlman) Torchinsky.

Ben's affinity for engineering began in his youth when he took advantage of the many opportunities offered by his father's used parts business for creative improvisation, like building a motorized bicycle from a washing machine engine. His career in civil engineering began with a stint as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was privileged to teach many returning veterans the principles of civil engineering and particularly the emerging field of soil mechanics, which was Ben's passion. Teaching gave way to Ben's desire to put geotechnical theories into practice. He began with Torchinsky Consulting, which soon morphed into Western Caissons, specializing in state of the art geotechnical work in heavy foundations. As the business grew across the country, Ben's belief in good people and good ideas and the need to take a risk on both came to the fore. He moved his thriving engineering company into new and diversified fields, under the banner of Agra Industries, and became a pioneer in vegetable oil processing, cable TV, medical diagnostics and recycling. "I came from Western Canada", Ben said," I believed in being diversified. I've grown up in a country where the main economic strength depended entirely on farming, and if there was a good crop year it was good for everybody, and if there was a poor crop year it was bad for everybody." 

The engineering core of the business continued to be Ben's passion and it grew to encompass many major projects worldwide. Agra contributed to the design and construction of rapid transit systems in Vancouver and Washington, DC; the Three Gorges dam in China; the Hibernia, Sable Island and Terra Nova oil and gas projects off Canada's East Coast; the Alliance gas pipeline in Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest; Highway 407 in Ontario; the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories and the building of nuclear reactors for South Korea. By the mid 1990's Agra's reach had expanded to employ 6,500 people in 24 countries. Ben became personally involved in Agra's development of a major hotel and real estate project in the Cayman Islands, and he and Sarah decided to make it their home.

With the merger of Agra and UK Based AMEC in 2000 Ben retired from one business only to keep on pursuing many more as a mentor or active partner. He travelled frequently to the UK to promote Seacore, a marine construction company involved in building offshore wind farms in Europe. As a resident of Grand Cayman, he became the trusted partner to many local entrepreneurs. 

Ben and Sarah loved art and music. They helped to support many artists and music societies, beginning in Saskatoon when Ben was an engineering professor and continuing in the other cities his business took them. 

Ben's awards for his engineering accomplishments included the 1997 Sir John Kennedy Medal from the Engineering Institute of Canada, the 2001 Beaubien Award presented by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada and an Honorary Doctorate in 2003 from his alma mater, the University of Alberta. Ben's most treasured recognition came from the many young engineers and entrepreneurs that he mentored throughout his life. If there is a fitting epitaph, it is in Ben's own words: "I really got a kick out of helping someone with an idea, who could make it into something worthwhile. If it worked, the whole thing was a lot of fun and very satisfying. And that works out to a good life."

Ben will be buried beside Sarah in the West Bay Cemetery, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 

Published in The Saskatoon StarPhoenix on Dec. 28, 2013.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Note to self: appreciate daughter

Just got a great idea for the title of my next memoir: "Note to Self." Went immediately to Amazon, looked it up and found a whole page of books called "Note to Self."

Back to the drawing board. This is how writers spend time - doodling, dreaming, thinking of brilliant titles. In earlier times I wanted to found a girls' group called the Moist Towelettes. But that did not happen, and neither will "Note to Self."

It's over! Woo hoo! That's how much I love Christmas - to everyone, I'm saying, "It's over!" I stripped the tree today, took down the stockings and the lights from around the windows, put away the farm/creche. Hooray! Not that it wasn't fine, it was. But it's hard work and time-consuming, fun while it lasts but then it's time to move right along.

And there's collateral damage - at the Y today, I discovered I've gained 5 pounds. And we didn't even eat turkey or Christmas cake! Everyone there was saying, "How was your Christmas? Did you have power?" A woman changing in my row told of freezing in the dark for 4 days, and then when power finally returned they switched on their dishwasher, which broke and overflowed. Many stories of misery, many still without power. Anna hopes the only upside of this is that perhaps, at last, "Mayor" Ford's supporters will be fed up with him. Don't count on it, though. They're always willing to blame someone else and cheer for him. Whoever they are.

So - a week to get back on track, and then I'm off to Florida for ten days, back the night before the Ryerson term starts. I know, it's a hard life but someone's got to live it. My brother and I are selling Mum's little condo on Anna Maria Island this year - do you know someone who wants to buy in Florida? So this is my last visit to her sanctuary, four blissful days on my own, quiet time for work and thought, and then Anna and Eli come to stay for a week.

After Anna went home Xmas day, I found a piece of paper she'd dropped. It was her Christmas to-do list, a scrupulously neat and organized day by day chronicle of what she had to do when - when to wrap the gifts, when make the quiche for me, the cookies for others. On the back, her shopping list for No Frills and Dollarama. This almost penniless single mother managed to buy and wrap gifts for eight children plus friends and family and make huge batches of cookies and other culinary gifts while sheltering four people who had no power.

She's my hero.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

16-year old Christmas essay

I just remembered an essay I wrote and read for CBC and dug it out. 16 years ago, it was unimaginable that my mother would die on Christmas Day. That my grown-up children and I would celebrate by eating take-out Chinese. And, though I wrote about the possibility, that I would actually become a real live grandmother. Talk about ebb and flow.

CBC, Fresh Air, December 21, 1997

As this time of togetherness approaches, I think of one Christmas, a long time ago. At the age of twenty-four, I moved across the country to Vancouver where I knew no one, and so found myself alone, on Christmas morning, cat-sitting in someone's apartment. The little box my mother had sent sat under the rubber tree in the living room; opening it, slowly, was my festive activity for the day. Luckily, in the evening, I was invited out for Christmas dinner. Still, it was a long quiet December 25th.

In subsequent years, I had friends to help make an occasion of the day, and then, suddenly, I had a life's partner, someone to spend Christmas with forever and ever. And then, just as suddenly, we were expecting a baby. That year we joined my parents in Edmonton on Christmas Eve. With great ceremony, my father opened the bottle of 1959 Burgundy that he had stored in the cellar for just this occasion – to toast new life in the family.

The following Christmas, there was a busy seven-month-old in residence, and from then on, the holiday was buried under snowdrifts of paper, boxes and ribbons. When the next baby came, a few years later, our Toronto home became the centre of the family. My parents flew east for the celebrations. Auntie Do drove down from Ottawa with my brother and two dozen freshly baked mince pies. After his wife died, my bereaved uncle flew up from New York for his first visit ever, to be with us. The house was really full then – my husband and I, our children, my parents, all those other relatives – one year my in-laws too, from B.C. – and always, in memory of that lonely day in Vancouver, a few people who didn't have anywhere else to go. Homeless waifs, we called them - a fixture, a necessity at our festive table.

After the groaning excess of dinner, my mother would pound out carols on the piano; we'd stand around singing in the paper hats we'd pulled from Christmas crackers, the table behind us strewn with plates, bottles, tangerine skins and nutshells. As he sang, my father loved to offend with his own irreverent lyrics; "Deck your balls with cloves of garlic," was his favourite. Later, the children would settle down to read with him or do a puzzle with Grandma and Auntie Do. It was exhausting, and there was always a familiar family tension under the cheer. But this, I felt, was what Christmas was really meant to be.

The summer my first-born turned seven, my father was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  That year, we went to Edmonton for the holidays. Our plates at Christmas dinner were piled high, as usual. In front of him sat a small bowl of turkey broth, which he couldn't finish.

Next year was very hard. There was an unbearable silence at the centre of our gathering, though we were all aware of the irony of our grief – my father, an atheist and a Jew, had never really liked Christmas. At least, the religious, manger part; he loved feasting and giving gifts. The rest of us mourned and drank a good bottle of wine in his honour. After that my uncle, his brother, decided he didn't want to travel at such a difficult time of year.
"If I'm ever in Toronto, though," he deadpanned, "I'll be sure to look you up."

One bleak November not long after, my husband and I separated. Though we struggled, in the end successfully, to remain friends, each year there was a painful tussle over the children at Christmas – who would be where when, for what. My aunt announced she could no longer manage the journey to Toronto; she and her mince pies would stay at home. My brother bought his first house and decided to stay at home too. I was grateful to our homeless waifs for filling out the table.

Last year was a celebration of another sort: the guests included my ex-husband and his girlfriend. It was good to see him at the head of the table again, carving the turkey in his yellow paper hat. This year, though, he's overloaded with work and can't come. My mum has just bought a condo in Florida, so she'll be staying south. This year, on Christmas morning, it's just the kids and me.

They're teenagers now, leaving home before too long. I find myself wondering – will I end up once more alone, with a small present under a large plant? I don't think so. I think these children will keep coming back, if they can. They seem to feel that there's only one place to wait for the feast – at home, even if the dog and I are the only ones here.

One day, our ranks will swell once more. Perhaps I'll marry again, who knows? My kids will find partners. Maybe one day they'll make their own joyful announcements, and with great ceremony I'll open the bottle of 1982 Burgundy I have stored in the cellar, to toast new life in the family. On Christmas Day, the children of my children will settle down to read and do puzzles with their grandma. That'll be me.

And once again, there'll be a big turkey and the best tablecloth covered with debris and bottles and chaos and carols and paper hats. And always, homeless waifs on a solitary leg of their own journey, invited to join us at the ever-changing banquet table of life.

From the ebb and flow of my house, to the ebb and flow of yours – Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

celebrating chez nous

 The Plasmacar that Janice gave us with other stuff her kids had outgrown - the best gift of all
The yahrzeit candle we burned for Mum all day - burning still
 Trying on Mummy's new rubber boots
NOT a bong - a broken solar light, one of his favourite toys, as is his uncle
 On our way to the Necropolis with the ashes of my parents - small, medium and tall. It snowed lightly all day, big fat flakes, a classic white Christmas
 At the beautiful old Necropolis, after scattering my mother and father, and a few tears (mine). I saved a bit of Dad to scatter in Paris.
And then a nap
And then Christmas dinner from Pearl Court
A final hour or two of riding around the kitchen and living room with Auntie Holly, who arrived from her own family event. We spoke to Auntie Do in Ottawa and to the kids' dad who's with his family in Vernon, B.C. Anna read us an email she'd received: "Until I spent the holidays with my entire family, I didn't understand the true meaning of alcoholism." Got that. After our beautiful boy departed, Glamma, for some reason, was depleted. Happy, but very tired.

As, I hope, are you. If you have an ounce of energy left, please click on my friend Chris's blog, to the left, the one marked "THE Canadian voice." It's Joni singing about Christmas and skating, haunting and lovely. A merry Boxing Day to you all. The madness is over!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

heat and light

Anne-Marie, who lives in Scarborough, called this morning to tell me their power had just gone back on. They'd been without for 3 days - not just without heat and light, but their phone and even cell phones were useless. Complete blackout. Luckily, they have a fireplace, but soon ran out of wood and there was none to be bought. They managed with Prestologs, boiling water on top of their gas stove for tea, huddling in layers of clothing - last night, she said, she and Jim got out the rulebook and played Crazy 8's by candlelight.

But now, hooray, they can get warm again and cook the turkey for the family as originally planned.

Cabbagetown is such a diverse neighbourhood, with so many income groups living in close proximity, that I never, never forget how lucky I am - not just to have had heat and light through the ice storm, but to have a roof, family and friends, a job, my health. My sanity, more or less. I am surrounded, on the streets, by people who are barely clinging on; I see it in the grocery line before and after me, my neighbours buying sliced white bread, baloney, the cheapest juice. And I, with my hothouse tomatoes, Brie, paté.

Paul McCartney's latest album has a song with the lines, There but for the grace of God go you, and I. It's a cliché. It's also true. I am now going to the Y to sit in silence and be thankful for this fine, rich life. And then, into the thick of it again.

I wish you joy, my dearest friends and readers.

P.S. 5 p.m. For years, right now was the most frantic time of all - preparing not only for Christmas with two kids, but also for the Riverdale Farm Christmas pageant, that my friends Mary and Stephen and I produced for nine years. Right now we'd be rushing around doing last minute preparations, before heading out to the Farm - Sam to be a Wise Man, standing on a picnic table wearing a bathrobe with a dishcloth on his head, Anna to be the Star - walking ahead of the crowd, holding up a large wicker star on a pole. And I to fret hither and yon about costumes, cues, and the animals - why can't the donkey be in this stall rather than that? And then, after seeing hundreds of people follow the star and sing carols and admire the baby in the straw, after packing it all up and unfreezing at Mary's gorgeous Xmas party, home, to make up stockings and get everything under the tree for the morning.

Now that was a busy Xmas Eve.

Now - all is calm, if not so bright. Thank you, Lord.

Monday, December 23, 2013

the ice storm

Backyard - icycles and ice coated over everything, the trees and bushes so brittle, I wonder if they'll make it. The streets are sheet ice - impassable. Yesterday was disastrous - streetcars abandoned in the middle of the road, the subway stopped by fallen branches on the tracks - trees are cracking and there are branches down on all streets, several piled up near here. People's cars have been crushed - luckily, so far, no one has been killed. Many broken limbs, however, and the power out all over town - hundreds of thousands without.

But here in Cabbagetown, where we have heat and light, life goes on. The plan for yesterday was for me to go to Anna's for lunch, to see Eli and also my computer genius Chuck, who lives nearby. He was going to set up my Christmas present to myself, a MacBook Air, and bring his wife Kelly and their 6-month old Emerson, whom I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. I had a huge load to take over, two computers and equipment, some food for our lunch, a big bag of stuff for the baby, and party clothes, wine and presents for the Christmas party I was going to later. Luckily I got a cab almost immediately and we made it across town.

Anna, ever generous and kind, had posted a notice on Facebook, telling her friends who had no power that they were welcome at her place. So pretty soon, one of Eli's father's sisters and her husband and 3-year old arrived with an overnight bag and a case of beer - their power was out, no heat, light, hot water. They're there for the longterm, with others arriving. Anna's refugee camp, she was calling it by the time I left at 5. Eli's dad Thomas was there too, and we had a Christmas hug. I was thrilled to hear his son call him "Dada."

I had a great time with His Deliciousness, who practiced first fully clothed and then DID A PEE IN HIS NEW POT! Merry Christmas, Mama!

And then I staggered off across the ice, along a laneway hanging, hand over hand, onto a fence, to Jessica and Geoffrey's annual Xmas bash, full of the most interesting artsy people. Their fire was burning, the ham was baking, and though some cancelled, many friends arrived and great was the cheer.

Today the city is calmer, the streetcars are running, but it's still treacherous. I heard Jian tell Canada this morning that his power in the east end of Toronto was out. Well Jian, if you'd stayed put next door and not moved further east, you'd have power. How lucky we are. The giant boy has arrived to spend his few days off in the warmth; his sister and her babe are going to Thomas's family and will arrive tomorrow evening. We will not cook Xmas dinner, for the second time - we didn't last year either. The death of my mother at 3 a.m. last Christmas morning is a heavy weight. Anna said, Mum, let's celebrate like the Jews - let's go to a movie and eat Chinese food. So that's the plan. What a good plan.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Blue is not so warm, thank you very much.

It's after midnight on a hideous night, freezing rain, treacherous after a long dark day. I spent the whole day doing yet another edit of the manuscript and emailed it to a man whose business is self-publishing. So we'll see. Jean-Marc and Richard appeared, we had a glass of wine, and they proposed that we see "Blue is the Warmest Colour," the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes and subject of much buzz - "let's go watch lesbians make out," as they said. I ignored my natural caution where modern French theatre and cinema is concerned - the reviews were raves, the Palme d'Or ...

Well, that's three very, very long hours of my life I won't get back. Endless. Interminable. The camera thrust so close to those women, it was practically up their noses. And up other parts of their bodies too. Why why why do French theatre directors and filmmakers believe that if one scene in a classroom is good, fifteen scenes in a classroom are better? If one scene where the heroine weeps so much that snot rolls down into her mouth is good, then five of them will move us so much more? And as long as possible, please. In case we don't get it. In case you don't get it, audience, let's film it again.

Bedtime. Alone. Hooray.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Par Tay!

Yours truly, the hostess centre right, seems to be quaffing - gosh, what a surprise. Yesterday was the annual potluck Xmas party for my home students, some of whom have been working with me for years - we are familee, as Sister Sledge says. In the forefront, my version of a creche - a farm from Doubletake, with a Virgin from Ecuador giving birth in front of horses, pigs, sheep and cows, and a llama lying down with a lion on the roof. We ate, drank, celebrated creativity, worked after dinner on our essays despite the wine - perfect.
Roast free-range chicken covered with lemon juice, butter, garlic and rosemary. Can't go wrong. There were two. They vanished. Chicken soup cooking as we speak.

It's a hideous, dangerous day, freezing rain and more to come. Many thanks to the powers that be that no one I know is travelling today. Thanks for my roof, which is stronger than the roof of the Apollo Theatre in London, and for the strong roofs of my family and friends. For warm dry boots. For a sleeping cat, whose tiny snores assure me that we are warm and dry here, and this is home.

And ... here's my idea of the perfect Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

E. B. White on "Charlotte's Web"

People keep sending me wonderful things. The Gertrude Stein letter came from Richard, and this was just sent by Patsy. It's from my favourite writer ever, the great E. B. White, who many do not know was in his time a famous and brilliant New Yorker essayist. He was asked about his most successful book.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write "Charlotte's Web." Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did. 

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of "Charlotte's Web" is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect. 

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else---the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful. and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider. 

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte's daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show. 

At the present time, three of Charlotte's granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is. 

I haven't told why I wrote the book, but I haven't told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze. 

Mark and Macca

From an article in the NYTimes - Mark in part makeup as Olivia. He floated around the stage in his beautiful dress as if on wheels, and was as feminine and girlish, as sweetly vulnerable and yet greedy and strong, as any woman I've known. From the L.A. Times:
Rylance's characterizations are the product of a remarkable theatrical intelligence able to translate complicated poetic language into human need and desire. The former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, he not only knows how to handle Shakespeare's verse but has an acute understanding of what it means. Language guides him toward consciousness, which has been defined as the meeting of intellect and emotion.

A special "Collectors edition" aka "Money grab" from Rolling Stone. Macca's album "New" was voted the 4th best of the year by this mag. An article in this week's New Yorker, about a new Beatles book called "Tune In," says "The size of Paul McCartney's gift is ridiculous, and as mystifying as such gifts always are." The article is a rave about the boys I've loved since January 1964. Rock on, dear 71-year old. Show us how it's done.

Noo Yawk recap

Home to reality - a snowstorm, Rob Ford not apologizing and being, still, the butt of Jon Stewart's jokes, my tenant Carol upstairs, sick with flu. No red wine here when I got in at 6.30 p.m. Monday! Had to go down the street to procure a bottle from dear neighbour Richard. The crabby cat, almost glad to see me for a second or two. Home.

I've not told you everything about my trip, especially the not so great stuff, the difficulties with family, and believe me, there are difficulties. What I will carry forever is the joy, especially at the end of both Shakespeare shows when the urbane New York audiences erupted into raucous cheers, leaping to their feet - I've never seen anything like it. At the first curtain call, Mark Rylance, who had just played the exhausting role of Richard III with another show that night, bounced into the air himself, jumping up and down with glee like a small boy. A moment of communion between audience and actors, the whole thing, bliss.

After seeing the Vermeers and other faves at the Frick - the Velasquez portrait of hideous Philip of Spain reminded me of laughing about him in the Prado with Bruce - I was about to leave when I saw another gallery, one I've never seen before, a long windowed corridor with a special exhibition of clocks, brilliant, ornate gold and jewelled clocks from the 1700's.

At Sotheby's, noticing the wine up for auction, including bottles of Cheval Blanc, my uncle Edgar's favourite, and Hermitage, my father's. My brother there, moaning with pleasure as he looked at the bottles, just as my father would have.

At the Zwirmer gallery downtown, where we did not leave the painting, the young woman with us asked if we wanted to see the installation. People were lined up outside in the freezing cold, but we were ushered in in front of everyone. The artist is a Japanese octagenarian who'd created a wonderland in the darkness, rows of coloured sparkling lights increased to infinity by mirrors and water on the floor. For the first time in many years, I wanted to be stoned. Far out, groovy, man.

At the Belasco Theatre, in keeping with the Globe company's "just like in Shakespeare's time" theme, there were rough wooden seats right on the stage. And in those seats at "Twelfth Night" I noticed the comic John Hodgman, a favourite of Jon Stewart's, and his young daughter. Many of the actors stopped to banter with him as they got into costume before the show. His girl, I'm happy to say, was about as engaged as any nine year old would be - that is, somewhat.

And more, and so much more. Mostly the conversations - with the man I asked directions of in the subway, who turned out to have just retired from twenty years with the U.N. in Ukraine - "How we'd like to be there now, to give support to our Ukrainian friends!" With the man during the theatre intermission who told me how to get cheap seats through tdf.org. With Donna the saleslady at Bloomingdale's, with the woman I sat next to at "Twelfth Night" who was there with her Scottish stepmother and who didn't stop knitting through the entire show (unlike the man next to me at "Richard III," who fell asleep as the first actor spoke and didn't awake till the intermission. Sheesh.) Getting the addresses of my Israeli relatives from Lola, for the next time I'm in Tel Aviv.

Now, at home, a pair of good boots wait in the closet for the snow to go away, and a reproduction of Vermeer's girl with her spectacular earring and of the little goldfinch sit on my office shelf. And right now, there's a pair of pretty shoes, carefully stretched yesterday by my shoetrees, on my tiny little feet. I will not go hiking in them, no. But they're beautiful and wearable and size 9 1/2. Welcome home, princess.

P.S. Full disclosure alert: there's now a tiny tear in the left shoe, made perhaps by my tiny toes. I will wear the shoes nonetheless. Only God is perfect.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

saying no to Gertrude Stein

Here is a letter sent by publisher A. Fifield to Miss Stein, turning her down in the most delicate way. Makes me feel better about the publisher who turned me down by saying that there were many Beatles' memoirs, that mine wasn't different enough to stand out and would get lost in the crowd.

Monday, December 16, 2013


My job here is done. In past years, I would have rushed around this morning, squeezing in a last museum or family visit or, yes, a bit of shopping - but not today. I am back here packing, will make my way slowly, by bus and subway, to Penn Station, and off to Newark and home. Grateful for everything life and art have to offer. And for the sunshine on this not so cold day, even if not much get in to my cousin's apartment.

Went back to the French bakery this morning, after Sotheby's, for a pain au chocolat and another baguette. Superb. If I can't have Mark Rylance, at least I can have bread.

Au revoir.

NYC miscellaney

 My sister-in-law in Times Square
I turned a corner and there it was - the famous tree at Rockefeller Centre
Do nothing by halves
 My New York home in the snow
 The beer cooler at the local drugstore
The auction room at Sotheby's - where the drama happens
 Meghan at Sotheby's departing with Dad and a copy of my book, so the buyer knows who he is and where he comes from. I cried. But also felt lighter.
Love this - a notice put up by "Friends of East 72nd Street Trees." Amazingly, in New York's concert of concrete, trees, and the birds in them, seem to do just fine.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mark Rylance, Peter O'Toole, New York

I have visited New York almost every year of my life - so, more than 50 times, besides, of course, being born here. But I do not remember a trip as replete as this one. Perhaps there will never be another visit like it. Something is different, and it's not New York, it's me.

Before, I was anxious, hurried, overwhelmed - and also greedy for the riches this city offers. This time, for whatever reason, I was not. And so the city and its people opened. I have talked and become friends with just about every shop clerk I've dealt with, waiters, people in theatres, in the streets. Yesterday, as I squeezed my way through the mess in Times Square, a smiling woman tapped me on the shoulder. "I saw you in the subway yesterday," she said.
"I'm following you," I said, we laughed, she vanished. On Friday, a woman in a black mink coat standing with an elderly man stopped me. "Do you live around here?" she asked.
"No, sorry," I said.
"You were walking with such authority, I assumed you were local," she said.
"Perhaps I can help you anyway," I said, and she asked if I knew somewhere nice for lunch nearby. And, as it turned out, I did - Lola had taken me once to the little restaurant in the Asia Society a block away, very quiet in a lovely atrium, so I told her about that.

Today, I had the choice of going to the Metropolitan Museum, which is my Sunday morning ritual here, or going to Bloomingdales. Because you know I am a shallow person, you also know which won. I got the Lexington Avenue bus to 50th and ventured into Bloomingdales not long after it opened, before it got crazy. I wasn't expecting the tribute to Nelson Mandela just inside the front door:
In the shoe department, there were boots on sale, in my size. Donna, the saleslady, thought I'd be crazy not to get them; when I said I'd prefer a pair that were a bit tighter to the leg, she said, Sure, we've got those, they're only $500 more. When I appeared at the cash register, she said, "Hooray!" They were half price, and then further reduced - $67. $67, for a pair of knee-high leather boots that fit my awkward feet. Oh, I could love Bloomingdales if it weren't such a lunatic place. Every single salesperson you encounter in this city, in every store, even if you're just wandering through, smiles at you. Take that, France!

Back up 3rd Ave. to Citarella's, a fantastic gourmet take-out place, to buy a big lunch for me and Lola, and to a new bakery on 3rd, Maison Kayser, with the best baguettes and croissants in NYC, easily as good as Paris.

We had a great time as we ate, my 91-year old first cousin once removed and I. Her mother Belle was my grandfather Mike's younger sister. Lola loves to tell stories about them all, about my dad, who was two months younger, my grandparents, her parents. I learned that it was her mother and father who took Mike to the Catskills to recover from his broken heart - the woman he loved had been forced by her parents to give him up because he had a lame leg - and that's where he met Nettie, my grandmother. And so I owe my life to Lola's parents.

And then walked - IN MY NEW BOOTS  - in the sun, because though yesterday was a blizzard, today was sun and melting snow - downtown, from 70th to 44th, to the theatre, to see my beloved Mark Rylance yet again, in Twelfth Night. And once again, tears of joy. Stunning gorgeous theatre.

So - Mark Rylance. Watching him is a master class in art. The man is a technical wizard, his voice, body, movements and line readings, he is in complete control of his craft - and so he can let loose. He makes hard work look like play. And I wondered if perhaps all great artists do that - they have such technical mastery that they make work look like play. Before the show we watched the actors, again, get into costume, and as his dresser fussed, Mark was getting into his feminine role as Olivia, waving his wrists loosely, softening his body. He fluttered about the stage with tiny steps as this confused woman, again turning to the audience, including them, again, that ridiculous laugh. Almost everyone, it seems, prefers the Twelfth Night to the Richard, but I am the opposite. Yesterday, he said a line about nobody loving Richard, and broke my heart. Today, he made me adore him all the more, but my heart did not break.

Another star of both shows - a young actor called Samuel Barnett, playing women both times, only in Twelfth Night, as Viola, a man playing a woman playing a man, a feat he carried off with skill and stunning grace. A great actor. As were they all.

At the end, after the curtain call with all the actors on stage, a transcendent moment: the magnificent Stephen Fry, who'd played Malvolio, called for quiet and told us that Peter O'Toole had died. He told a few funny stories about Peter, told us how much he was adored by his peers, and there we were, a great crowd in New York, silent, mourning with a group of British actors the death of a great artist. I will never forget it.

Home via Citarella, to buy some soup and salad for dinner here, to wait for Cousin Ted to return to the city. Tomorrow, back to Sotheby's with Dad, and then home. So so so much richer, stuffed with family, kinship and great, great art.

And, yes, a $67 pair of boots.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

my three favourite men right now - Mark Rylance, Vermeer, and my dad

So in the snow this morning, I decided to go downtown to go to the only chain store here that we do not have in Toronto - Uniqlo, which sells extremely light down vests and coats. The fantastic 6 train down Lexington Avenue was packed but steady, as usual; I walked over to Fifth Ave. and wished I hadn't - of course, a Saturday just before Xmas, a zoo. Unbelievable. I found the shop, tried on vests. If there is one piece of clothing that essential for me, it's a vest. Keep that back warm! Had a lively conversation in French with a woman from Belgium who was also trying on vests. She liked the black on me more than the grey. Merci, very helpful. The black, and a little jacket for my grandson.

With two hours before my Broadway show, I had intended to wander, but the weather was so bad and the streets so crowded, I just walked over to Lex and got the 6 train back home, had some chicken soup and cheese, rested, emailed and read the NYT, set off on the 6 train back downtown. This time I got off at 42nd Street, intending to walk to Times Square, when I saw a sign: Times Square Shuttle. And discovered a little subway that just runs from Grand Central to Times Square and back. How brilliant. The transit here is superb, embarrassingly so for a Torontonian. I paid $30 for a 7 day pass, which though I'm only here 4 days has already paid for itself in limitless busses and subway.

I arrived at the play early as we'd been asked to do, because the actors would be on stage and there'd be music. I was there to see "Richard III" by London's Globe Theatre, an all-male company starring my favourite stage actor in the world, Mark Rylance. They were indeed all on stage, getting into costume and warming up, while listening to Elizabethan music played on period instruments. And then it began. I've never seen "Richard III" - "Now is the winter of our discontent ..." "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" - and now, I never need see it again, this was a definitive version - and it was a comedy. Rylance, as Richard, is hilarious, as usual, taking the audience into the palm of his hand and never letting us go. But the other actors are superb too, particularly the young men playing the royal women. Breathtaking. Weeping moment #2, at the end, just so thrilling, a brilliant play brilliantly brought to life - how grateful I am to be alive. And tomorrow, the same troupe doing "Twelfth Night," Rylance apparently the best Olivia ever.

Out into the snow, to get the 6 train back home. Toronto friend Ellen Roseman and her husband Edward, coincidentally in NYC at the same time, made their way here, and we went out to dinner, just around the corner on this very snowy night. I so rarely eat in restaurants in NYC, this was a great treat, to be complaining about Rob Ford over a delicious bit of red snapper, surrounded by le tout New York.

Weeping moment #1 was at the Frick on Friday morning, seeing "Girl with a pearl earring." I fell in love with Vermeer in Amsterdam in 1979 and go out of my way to see his works; the Frick has 3, but this was a special exhibition of Dutch art. The girl is in a room all on her own - in the other, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and even Fabritius's little goldfinch that is so famous now because of Donna Tartt's book. But it's the girl, that luminous young woman, the perfect sheen of her skin, the drop of moisture at the edge of her luscious open mouth, her expression - slightly wary but open, looking at us from more than 350 years ago -

I stood in front of her and I could not stop the tears rolling down my silly cheeks, for the miracle that is art. 

Then the rest of the Frick - my favourite Bellini, St. Francis in the desert, with his Birkenstocks kicked off under his desk and his perfect little donkey. Many other portraits, including the wonderful Holbeins, but none of them as engaging, as engrossing, as Vermeer's girl. The blue, someone said nearby, was made of ground lapis lazuli. 

And then - business. I had an appointment at Sotheby's, to show them the portrait of my dad and see if they were interested in taking it at auction. My brother and his wife, flying in from Ottawa to meet me there, were so delayed, they missed the meeting. Which went well. They are interested. It's a very impressive place, is Sotheby's.
The 7th floor showroom 
Mike, his wife Emilie and I went after that (on the 6 train) to an art dealer on West 19th, which was packed and busy and crazy. Mike and I had to make a decision, and luckily, we both felt exactly the same way - that our father would get lost in this trendy place. We both voted for Sotheby's. 

But we had thought we'd be leaving the painting at the dealer. There we were on W. 19th, needing dinner and with theatre tickets for a few hours hence, with a large art carrying case containing a portrait of our dad, and their overnight bag since they hadn't even checked in to their hotel yet. 

So we just had dinner with Dad leaning against a wall nearby, and went to the theatre where we put him and the bag in the cloakroom. We saw "A gentleman's guide to love and murder," which is the kind of show called "a romp," a spectacularly well done musical romp, to be sure. (In fact, watching "Richard III," today, I thought, this is another version of that show, about a power-hungry man killing the people in his path.) We had a great time. They left to go to their hotel, and I picked up Dad and walked a bunch of blocks to 3rd Avenue to get the bus home. Just me and Dad. This was his city; he was born here. And he has been with us all weekend. It's been a wonderful weekend so far, even in the snowstorm, and part of that has been - Dad.


OHMYGOD I love this city! Sometimes I am overwhelmed and cannot deal with the intensity. This time I love everybody and everything. I keep meeting interesting people, and I've wept with joy twice. So we're doing okay. 

So much to tell, so I'll start with the most recent events - today. Snow. Not just snow, but a blizzard, New York coated in thick white and yet chugging on, everyone wearing Canadian goose down black puffy parkas. Or sometimes grey, but the winter dress code is grey or mostly black down. There's some sort of Santa event, kids get dressed up in red suits and go downtown and do something, I don't know what, but they're everywhere. 
 Family in Sak's - Dad, of course, on cell phone.
The metro. And now the captions have taken over and the spacing is weird and anyway, I've just come in from a few glasses of wine at dinner, and so will start a new post.