Saturday, June 29, 2013

Happy pride, Bert, Ernie, Chris, Bruce, Wayson, JM, Richard et al.

My neighbours are getting ready to go out and celebrate on Church Street. I'm still in bed. My son just called - he too, after spending time with Eli, caught a bug of some kind. Kids today! Germ-ridden!

But what joy - today he moved into his new apartment, which he just timed is three and a half minutes from his sister's. He's at her place now, helping her with something. They fought bitterly as kids, but always, underneath, they'd take on anyone to defend the other. Now more so than ever.

Just have to stay awake another hour before I can take a sleeping pill and knock myself out. Yay. Happy Canada Day and Pride weekend, everyone.

PS Friend Theresa Kishkan, who is blocked from adding comments to my site for some reason, sent this through email: I love this cover -- so human, if that doesn't sound completely weird (when one is speaking of Muppets).


A cool grey Saturday of a long weekend, and it's so quiet, it's scary. No voices, no traffic, no sirens - just birds, and the fluttering of rose petals to the ground as the flowers end their glorious lives. For a bit there, I feared that zombies had devoured the city, and only I was spared. That wouldn't make a very good movie. Brad Pitt = better.

I'm a zombie too, however, sick with flu and sore throat, probably the baby's bug. Didn't sleep and am zipped into a fog blanket today. So my aching bod is in bed with coffee and computer. There's some soup in the freezer, a bottle of wine in the cupboard, and in the garden, the first tomatoes, beans and peas and more rhubarb and lettuce. So if the apocalypse has come, I'll be able to scrounge for a bit. Come on over. No, on second thought, don't. If you're fighting zombies, you don't want this bug.

The good news is: I'm a writer. So if I can screw my brain to the sticking place, I can lie in bed and work.

We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable. -Alexander Solzhenitsyn, novelist, Nobel laureate (1918-2008).

Yesterday's Facts and Arguments in the "Globe" was moving, I thought - a bit messagey, but a message we can all stand to hear again, every so often. Here it is, for your thoughtful Saturday reading. 
Read this on The Globe and Mail

Friday, June 28, 2013

Rules for Writers

A dark and rainy day - paradise for a writer, no temptation to go outside. I went to visit old friends this morning, came home at 1, sat in my chair and worked. It's now 10. My bum hurts. But I read this draft and am satisfied enough to go forward. It is coming together. I've said this before, in fact, more times than I care to remember. This time, it actually is. I know it.

But this aching bum makes for a boring blogger. Yesterday, I went across town to help out - the baby still had a viral fever and his mother had cabin fever. So I took over while she had a sleep. Even sick, his energy level is phenomenal. When he's finished with his bottle, he hurls it across the room. Bored with his book or a toy, he throws with extreme force, and if it hits you, it hurts. The Blue Jays had better get ready for a fine pitcher.

Wednesday, the best class so far at Ryerson, truly thrilling, to feel them opening up, the stories ringing hard and true. Perhaps you don't know that I love my work. But I do.

Speaking of which - my student and friend Chris sent me a link to a great website for writers: Below is a post on that site. I agree with every rule - though I don't follow them all, especially the one about the internet ... And here's an article by famous writers on rejection. Painful but true.
Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers

10 June 2013 — 5 Comments
Zadie Smith's Rules for Writers
1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.
Zadie Smith was one of a number of high-profile writers asked by The Guardian in 2010 for their best tips for writing fiction. The series was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. Read more writing tips from Jonathan Franzen, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood.
About Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith was born in Northwest London in 1975 and continues to live in the area. She is the author of White TeethThe Autograph ManOn BeautyChanging My Mind: Essays and, most recently, NW which was published in September 2012. Follow Zadie Smith on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

c'est moi la terreur

Bilingual already. In this shot, believe it or not, he is spiking a fever, though his mother and I just thought it was the heat of the day. It went up to 102 degrees that night. And we were upset that he wouldn't eat lasagna.

It was a hard afternoon for me, his visit, because with my neck still healing, still a bit rocky, I didn't have the level of energy needed for this guy, whose idea of fun is clambering up and down the stairs fifteen times, even when he's sick. I pray to stay healthy, so I can be the Glamma he deserves.

This week has been about teaching - Monday night one of the final home classes, and last night and this the second-last classes at U of T and Ryerson. And again, I say - how much I love my job. What a joy it is to watch writers bloom and to hear their courageous stories.

Though I do feel swamped sometimes, overwhelmed with other lives. And when I came in from work last night to hear that my grandson had a high fever and my son might lose the apartment he's moving into on Friday because of a screw-up at the bank, I felt ... battered. At least I am not also frantic about my mother's health - though I do still worry about Auntie Do. Anyway, today, all is well. But for a bit of perspective - last night, I watched a mother and five little kits - baby raccoons - climb straight up my fence and clamber along the top and up into the ivy. Now there's a single mother with a big job. Five!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

what is a story?

Good old Toronto - from spring to blazing summer in 60 seconds. Today, 31 degrees, "feels like 36," they say, though it didn't to me, I didn't even turn on my air conditioning. Definitely hot and muggy, though, and the sky is rumbling and clouds are moving in. Loud cracks of thunder. My neck is okay. It has made me conscious of mortality.

I've resolved to make Sundays a day for reading, clean-up and research instead of writing work. Taught a make-up class this morning, and then dove into some of the stacks of letters I inherited from Mum. I just can't throw them away till I check them out - for example, a series of flirtatious letters written in 1948 from my mother working in post-war Germany to the handsome Yank she'd fallen in love with four years before, who was back in NYC about to launch a Ph.D. She assures him that she is surrounded by adoring men ("We had quite a party last night and I played Gin Rummy till 3 a.m. with a Czech and a Pole") but that she is waiting for his letters, and then, eventually, that she is going to sail to New York for a short visit to him and her recently emigrated sister - and, incidentally, that she'll need to borrow $100 when she arrives. Thank heavens he lent it to her, and she stayed!

A 1949 letter from my British grandmother to her daughter, who has announced that she might stay in New York and marry the young man in question. "I don’t care for the idea and nor does Pop," she writes, "of a Jew and an American – the latter because it means your home will certainly be so far from us always, and two gone is a bit much! The former because you might at some future time become one of the “stateless” ones – we none of us can tell how politics, wars etc. are going to affect us, but it is a fact that in times of stress, the Jews seem fated to become someone’s scapegoat."

My grandmother was not anti-Semitic. She simply didn't know any other Jews, and was worried about her daughter - this was just after the horrors of WWII, after all. I found out that in 1950 my safely married and now pregnant mother considered leaving NYC to sail home to London to have her baby there. I wonder what my life would have been like with a British passport instead of an American?

And so it continues. A chore and a gift, all this paper. 

The wonderful Ian Brown has an article in the 
Saturday "Globe" about the fate of photography in this world of ubiquitous camera-phones - he was asked to judge a photography competition with hundreds of entries and found not a single winner, because though the shots were technically good, none told a story. "A story," he informs us, "is a cohesive account of events in which something is at stake - a beginning, middle and end tied together with characters, scenes and details (long shots, mid-shots, closeups) that lead to a climax and resolution (or not.)"

That's about as succinct a definition as I've ever read, and one I'll pass on to my students. That's exactly what we're looking for, both Mr. Brown the photography judge and I, the memoir teacher. 

And here, from the same "Globe," is Neil Gaiman from his latest novel (which sounds wonderful) "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" - "Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good."

Good to know. Of course, losing childhood memories is not so much of a problem for those of us blessed (cursed) with a mountain of archival paper, illuminating the past.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

speaking about failure

Free Luminato arts festival events all weekend, including a Literary Picnic at Trinity-Bellwoods Park today, sixty writers reading and meeting - and the forecast is for thunderstorms. It has already poured once today. There's such severe flooding in Alberta that thousands have been evacuated.

The upside, she said with blithe selfishness, is that I won't have to water the garden.

I'm feeling a bit more solid today, though sleep is still elusive. I was given a list of the symptoms of hyperparathyroidism, which is what I had: depression, tiredness, nausea, muscle weakness, poor memory. Though the other symptoms eluded me, that explains why I couldn't remember anyone's name or where anything is. Now I will be even more full of energy, good cheer and muscle, and I'll remember everything. Can't wait. Hope also that I will sleep.

Today, another quiet day of reading and trolling the internet. Just watched Chelsea Clinton interview Stella McCartney, a marvellous moment where they discussed being the children of famous parents and growing up in the public eye, how much they have in common and how they should drink together for a week to discuss it. Thank you, Facebook and Twitter, for making sure, even as I sit here with my little wound, that I'm connected to this fascinating planet.

And here, for your inspiration, is an article: Seven writers telling us cheerfully about failure.

Friday, June 21, 2013

two out of three ain't bad


As Jon Stewart would say - not so much.


Still on the deck, after a day of not much - mostly mooching around. Slept poorly, feeling discomfort not from the incision but from a mouth like sawdust. Finally fell asleep, to be awakened by beloved daughter at 7.30 a.m.; before going away to a friend's cottage for the weekend, she called to make sure I'd lived through the night.

I did, in fact, get my will out before going to the hospital, and left it on my desk. I know, ridiculous for routine surgery. Now I'd better read the thing and see what it says, before putting it back again.

Last night, through my woozy haze, I had a long talk with my son, something we've not had time for in ages, or perhaps inclination. And then his girlfriend came over with a big bouquet of sunflowers and we all talked some more. I am not sure I made much sense, but it sure felt right.

Today, the powers-that-be blessed us with a perfect summer solstice, a light warm breezy day. I went for a slow walk to buy myself a treat - almost bought a rich blue delphinium at the corner garden store but heard my gardening mentor Dorothy's voice: They're lovely but impossible. So instead, I bought a Dufflet lemon tart at Epicure. Lovely and possible. Mmm.

So, a day spent reading, including two French "Elle" magazines. I've been reading Montaigne in bed, but he was too heavy for last night, pulled out David Sedaris instead, one of his most moving stories, "Repeat after me." Today, 3 library books: "Great Works: 50 Paintings explored," by Tom Lubbock; "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending," by Dunn and Norton; and "There but for the" by Ali Smith, recommended by Patsy. The painting book is especially interesting, a new angle on how to look at art. Friends Bruce and Chris are talking about organizing a trip for the 3 of us to Italy next year; we were the Musketeers in India, had a wonderful time; Italy would be heaven.

Today, coffee and wine felt great, and walking too. Tomorrow, after a good sleep, I hope the rest of me has bounced back, and I can get on with living.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

getting my brain back

7.20 p.m. I'm on the old chaise longue on the deck, beside me a wine glass full of ginger ale, a cup of tea, a glass of water, and a small bit of chocolate that I can't finish. Liquids is the order of the day; my mouth feels like a gunny sack. My son has just taken the evening shift; Anna was there at the hospital when I woke, brought me home and fed me chicken soup. There's an ugly bandage on my neck and a bottle of Tylenol 3 at the ready; my brain is fluffy with fog, and I am alive. (What IS a gunny sack?)

The hardest part of the day was not the fasting, though as you've heard, I am addicted to my morning brew, and my blood sugar insists on being replenished regularly. It was not the waiting that's such a big part of this kind of experience; I of course had the latest "New Yorker" with me, and when I began to fear I'd finish it, a nurse produced the recent Hollywood issue of "Vanity Fair" with spirit-boosting pix of handsome men. It was not the incessant cheery chatter about Toronto real estate and where to get the best croissants, which was painful to my hungry belly only briefly. There was one shock, the entry into the chilly operating room, the light blindingly harsh, the table and scary equipment lying in wait, and hordes of people in blue or white uniforms and face masks sizing up my neck, literally and figuratively. But the nurse spoke soothingly and covered me with warm blankets, and I was soon out cold.

No, the worst part were the flashbacks of my mother, hospital aficionado. The feeder needle taped to the hand, how many times did I see hers so adorned; the blue gowns, the ridiculous slippers and shower cap, the wheelchair, the team of experts peering intently, the smell of hospital and the sounds, curtains being opened and closed, the squeak of rubber shoes - it all brought back the nightmare of my mother's many crises. Anna even said that as I was waking, the droop of my mouth and the nodding of my head were just like her.

My mother was a happy hypochondriac whose paranoia was bolstered by many bouts of actual bad health - heart problems, cancer. I do not want to turn into her.

But there is one essential difference. As she checked my chart, the nurse said, as no one ever said to my mother, "I see you're a very healthy woman." Touch wood touch wood touch wood.

Tomorrow coffee! Wine! Movies and magazines! Thank you St. Michael's Hospital and Dr. Anderson. And thank you to my well-wishers, every one. Your good thoughts - and the medical system put in place by Tommy Douglas - got me through in a snap. When can I sing?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

the operation

I have to be at St. Mike's hospital at 8.45 tomorrow morning, for surgery at 10.45. There is a benign growth - repeat, benign - on one of my parathyroid glands that needs to be removed. It's day surgery. But it's still surgery. I have never had surgery. My mother had had practically every gland in her body removed or modified in some way by the time she died - including, her sister told me recently, her parathyroid. But I pride myself on my independence and health. So being helpless tomorrow will be hard.

Tonight and tomorrow morning, I have to shower with a special antibacterial soap; usually, I shower once every two weeks whether I need it or not. After midnight, I have to stop eating and drinking; usually, I eat and drink every two hours whether I need it or not. So tomorrow morning, without vital coffee or breakfast, ohmygod without coffee, my very clean self will go in and become a slab of meat to be carved.

I'm profoundly grateful that they caught this problem, which is affecting the processing of calcium in my body. I would like my bones to be stronger than they are, and this may help. At times like this, I always think of pioneer women isolated in the bush a hundred years ago or more, with not a single resource except their own courage. My own journey to health is a snap, in comparison: a bit of exercise, a few vegetables, no smoking, meditation, gazing at my roses, regular check ups. But still, things go wrong, and this tiny thing in my throat has. Thank you, whoever you are, that it's just a benign growth on an obscure gland. Think what it might have been. My poor father, diagnosed with stomach cancer at 64, which I will be next year. Dead at 65.

I was thinking of him today, of the tragedy of his too-early death, after reading an obit in the NYT of one of the founders of Second City, born a few months before my father, who just died. Imagine, he had 25 more years of life. 25 whole years. Thinking these thoughts in my usual Wednesday class at the Y, I was joined by a neighbour whom I've known for decades but don't really know, who had decided to try this class. And then she said, "You know I'm a biochemist. And I've been wanting to tell you that when I was studying at the University of Ottawa, your father taught me a very difficult class, physical chemistry. He was the best teacher I ever had. He was so charismatic and handsome, and he made it all accessible and interesting and fun."

What a joy to hear that, to listen to someone else who remembers him. And to reflect that one of the ironies of our story, his and mine, is that to a non-science artsy-fartsy like myself, he could make nothing of his work accessible and interesting and fun. I didn't understand a single thing he did, and I still don't.

I just came in from teaching and perhaps you can tell that I have drunk a few glasses of wine - white, because it was there in the fridge, and there's only one bottle of red which I hope to crack open when I get home from the hospital tomorrow. I have no idea how I will feel, if I'll be a mess after anaesthesia, or if I'll bounce back. My daughter is leaving work to help me get home, and my son has asked for the early shift so he can be here in the evening and spend the night. I am grateful for everything, everything. And yet, right now, I am swamped with grief. A minuscule speck in the vast solar system, thinking about the cut in her throat.

Okay, snap out of it. In half an hour I'll watch John Oliver, who is doing a superlative job replacing the irreplaceable Jon Stewart, and then I'll have a last snack and the shower to kill my germs, and set the alarm. I want to remind my children where my will is, but that's silly. It's routine day surgery. And yet.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


There are aphids on my roses. Death will rain down upon them, horrible green things feasting on the buds. Not to mention the scale on the oleander and the slugs munching the basil and hostas. Oh yes nature is red in tooth and claw. The fight is never-ending.

My handyman John was here today for the first time in ages, and many were the jobs awaiting him. It took us most of the day, including a trip to the Merchants of Green Coffee for beans. My fence is power-washed, the difficult lights in the kitchen and the doorbell are working again, the birds have birdseed, and the lovely portraits of my father and uncle, taken in 1930 with them both in sailor suits, are up, measured and with proper hooks rather than a random nail, which is how I put up pictures. We tried to figure out my air conditioning, which does not work until it does; John has no answers either, so we'll just wait and see if it decides to turn on. Now John has gone, and the internet is wobbly. I wish he lived next door. I am sure he's glad he does not.

Sunday was a joyful day - first I had a singing lesson, and oh, I am enjoying raising my voice in song, though I am sure, once again, that my teacher's neighbours are not. Then it was the 60th birthday of dear friend and stunning actress Kate Trotter, and the 30th of her daughter Kathleen, who may be known to some of you as the fitness columnist for the "Globe." I've known Kathleen since babyhood, and now she's a gorgeous six foot tall triathlete. I brought them a big bunch of my roses in a hand-crafted vase. There were lots of other exotic bouquets there, but not many, I'll bet, handpicked from the garden just before the event.

Kate has an amazing group of friends, gathered to eat and drink in the garden of her partner's house in Rosedale. I ran into an actor I had a desperate crush on in 1974, an actor I had a brief fling with in 1979, the director who awarded me "Best actress and best human siren" in 1969 (I played an ambulance, among other things), the director who hired me and Lani in 1977 to play bank tellers for a film about unionizing banks, my only film work, shot at 6 a.m. in a little bank somewhere in Vancouver - at that hour of the day, I had no idea where. Old friend and wonderful actress Clare Coulter. The founder of Tarragon Theatre Bill Glassco's beautiful daughter Bryony. I told her I think of her father every day, when I look at the Quebecois wall hanging he gave us. There was marvellous food, drink and music. A perfect celebration of two magnificent women, who came through a great deal to get where they are today.

And now on this magnificent late afternoon, time to get ready for work.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Writing Life: routine

I speak often to my students about routine - that it can be an artist's best friend, so that you don't have to fight to find a time to sit down and write, you just slide into your routine. Easier said than done.

This was sent by friend Bruce today, a great quote from Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life":
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
As you can see, I have learned, thanks to my friend Chris, to post other blogs on the side, so you can check out the ones I like. Theresa, whom I know only through her profound and poetic blog, tried to post a reply on mine today and was thwarted by technology. So she emailed instead. 
 A lovely and moving post, Beth. I do like to polish silver (and my daughter certainly doesn't...). A few years ago, on a winter road trip, we found a blue-wax encrusted candelabra in a junk store in Falkland. When we got it home, I scraped off the wax and used the silver creme my mother gave me (along with her wedding silver, never used; I use it all the time) and that dark tarnish disappeared to reveal such beautiful silver. I think of it as our Ian Tyson candelabra because we'd been listening to "The Road to Las Cruces" on that trip: "Does the wind still blow out of New Mexico?/Does the silver candelabra still shine?/Is Kathryn still queen of El Paso?/Never to be yours, never to be mine..." And like the wedding silver, we use it all the time. 


the genius of Frank Loesser and Oscar Wilde

Two recommendations for you today. I've just finished reading "The Book of my Lives," by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer who's been a resident for some years of Chicago and who now writes in English. In beautiful English. His first non-fiction book, this is listed as a memoir, though it's really a series of non-fiction articles he has written through the years that, put together, detail a life. He writes with precision, depth and dark humour - his description of the feelings of a child shunted aside by the birth of a sibling are priceless. There's a chapter about his early time in Chicago, when he was lost and alone, and what happened when he found a group of fellow immigrants who played soccer. It's the best of memoir - a small story of a small group of men playing soccer in Chicago, which is really the universal story of the stranger in a strange land finding a foothold, a way to feel at home. Beautifully done.

The last chapter, about the mortal illness of his ten month-old daughter Isabel, I had read in the "New Yorker," but reading it here meant much more because I felt I'd had come to know him. Devastating.

And ... spent yesterday at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. My student Tanya is the costume mistress there and got me and my friends Annie and Jim comps for two shows. We drove down, had a sunny picnic in the grass outside the Festival Theatre, saw "Guys and Dolls" in the afternoon, had dinner with Tanya and costume designer Sue Lepage, an old friend of the 3 of us, and then went back to see "Lady Windermere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde. Got home at 1 a.m.

"Guys and Dolls," for those of you who live not too far and love musicals, is a must. Glorious. Paradise. Beautifully directed and acted, and that music - well, just the best musical music of all time, every song a finger-snapping winner. I sat at the end of our row so I could bounce and hum and not disturb anyone. The director says in the program that they have not cut a single word, which is amazing - this show appeared the same year as my decrepit self, 1950. It's dated, sure, and has some flaws that you'd think would be fatal, most particularly the role of Sky Masterson, played by Brando in the movie. Sky is supposed to be the savviest gambler of all, a roaming ladies' man, and yet to fall madly in love with the Salvation Army doll. The character can either be a realistic gambler, like Brando, in which case the love story is fun but nonsense. Or he is believable as a lover, in which case he just could not be the cold-blooded gambler described by his peers. Yesterday's Sky was a lover. And that's okay.

Here's one of Sky's best speeches. (As my friend Jim said, just take out the contractions, and you have Damon Runyon.)
Sky Masterson: When I was a young man about to go out into the world, my father says to me a very valuable thing. He says to me like this... "Son," the old guy says, "I am sorry that I am not able to bank roll you to a very large start, but not having any potatoes which to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice. One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice, brand new deck of cards on which (Sky snaps fingers) the seal has not yet been broken. This man is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of that deck and squirt cider in your ear. Now son, you do not take this bet, for as sure as you stand there, you are going to wind up with an earful of cider."

I sang my way into the Oscar Wilde, where promptly my voice was replaced by Rufus Wainwright's, not an obvious choice for the soundtrack of a Wilde play, though in fact, Wainwright is the sort of gay dandy Wilde would have adored. It's a good production, as solid as we expect productions at this fine festival to be, though not the groundbreaking wonder Richard Ouzonian described it as in the "Star." But then, I almost never agree with Ouzonian. It's a good evening of theatre with gorgeous painterly scenes out of Whistler and Mary Cassatt - a very good play full of some of Wilde's most famous aphorisms.
I can resist anything except temptation.
In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
And this Oscarly thought:
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

A toast to you, Oscar; would you could have lived to read the story in the paper today, about a gay man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple, fell in love on sight with the baby boy they produced, and now is completely involved in the life of his child, a dad to their two mothers. 

How times change. And sometimes, that is a good thing. And sometimes, you end up with an ear full of cider.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Go home to Mama

Today's tears - I'm listening to the tribute concert to Kate McGarrigle on CBC, and it's Anna McGarrigle singing the last song her sister wrote, about Greek goddesses; it's calling young Prosperina to go home to her mother, Hera. "Go home to Mama," wrote the dying musician, and Anna, about to sing, said, "It's for all of us who go home to our mothers."

As she spoke, I was standing at the kitchen counter polishing a silver necklace I just inherited from Mum - a simple chain she often wore. I never used to polish silver; my mother spent many hours polishing hers, and this morning, I went to a hardware store and bought silver polish. So at that moment, as the song began, I realized that I was turning into my mother. Going home to her, in a sense.

And then I thought of the bond shared with my beloved daughter, with whom I spent the morning again. I took Eli to the park while she tended to some legal business downtown, and then the 3 of us went to the Y. He played happily for 2 hours in the playroom while I did a class and Anna read the "Game of Thrones" book that she can hardly put down. Then the 3 of us had lunch and did some shopping. That boy gives me such a smile when he sees me, I feel like a fountain of molten love.

I wonder if my daughter will turn into me. I know for sure, she will not be polishing silver.

Okay, stop weeping now. There are scores of frilly peach-coloured roses out on my garden fence, on this hot afternoon. And the silver chain around my neck is shining.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

of Julia Child and Justin Bieber

I watched a Helen Keller "water" moment yesterday ... My daughter had important business so we met downtown and she handed her son in his stroller off to me. Instead of walking to my house, which is not baby-proofed and thus open to complete destruction, I took him to the Y. Heaven, for us both. We played first in the babysitting room, full of toys. There were two babies there, 3 and 5 months old, which fascinated him - he kept going over for another look. It seems beyond belief that only a few months ago, he too was a helpless infant flailing about in a car-seat. And now here's a sturdy young man wobbling on two feet, gazing with curiosity at those strange little moon creatures.

We went upstairs where the kindergym was set up, mats for climbing and tumbling and hula hoops. And then they opened up the storeroom and took out balls, 20 balls of different sizes, and scattered them across the flood. Eli's jaw dropped. "BAW!" he said joyfully, pointing. "Baw!" And off he staggered to round them up. Those millions of synapses firing to produce his first word - as thrilling for his glamma as for him.

Two treats today: one this wonderful video of Julia Child as a rapper. Sublime. Made me hungry.

And two, this hilarious piece by Canadian New Yorker writer, Bruce McCall. No ribaldry here!

MAY 31, 2013


The Governor General’s Medium-High Court of Pretty Obvious Anti-Canadian Behavior has found the teen pop idol Justin Bieber guilty on all counts of more than just casually damaging the reputation of his native country by willfully and repeatedly acting in a manner sure to make people think he isn’t even Canadian at all but maybe American.
In a stirring summary, the Queen’s Chief Complainer described Master Bieber’s activities since leaving his Stratford, Ontario, home for the world stage five years ago as “a headlong dive into a lifestyle that has turned a normal Canadian lad into a smart aleck who thinks it’s ‘fun’ to make money, stay in four-star hotels, and ride around in big limousines. He probably doesn’t even keep a piggy bank in his bedroom for a rainy day. Though, of course, I could be all wet and would be glad to be corrected, because, after all, fair’s fair.”
A jury of the most ordinary Canadians available deliberated between the first and second periods of a nationally televised playoff edition of “Hockey Night,” and rendered their unanimous verdict well before the action on the ice restarted. The foreman did add that he “sure hoped this decision wouldn’t cause anybody any trouble.”
The nineteen-year-old international music phenomenon was found guilty of six offenses against Canadian behavioral norms—actions that probably would not even be noticed if he were American:
  • Allowing himself to be photographed nude from the waist up, in clear defiance of the 1905 Flannel and Wool and Earmuff Act banning any immodest public depiction of the Canadian body.
  • Arriving two hours late for a recent U.K. concert performance, in so doing violating the Canadian Punctuality Code, which confirms anyone who is more than five minutes late for any public appearance as rude, selfish, not very nice, and undoing just about everything for which the late, great Lester B. Pearson stood. Although putting it this way might be seen by some as verging on the “semi-hysterical,” so apologies in advance if it seems so.
  • Gross negligence in his informal role as a goodwill ambassador representing Canada and all Canadians in a foreign country, thereby staining a national reputation so carefully cultivated over time by Mr. Paul Anka, the late Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian women’s national curling team, and others. Is this overreaction? Canadians are invited to comment.
  • Recently being ejected, with his entourage, from a London night club. Master Bieber was convicted on four additional charges resulting from this breech of Canadian good manners: Master Bieber, the Court ruled, “almost pretty surely knew, or at least we think so,” that it is, one, an offense against the Canadian Way for a Canadian to frequent night clubs; two, to do so way past a decent bedtime; three, to have an entourage; and, four, to make loud noises while probably engaging in ribaldry. Ribaldry was outlawed in Canada in 1956, after the comic team of Wayne and Shuster told a marginally tasteless joke, concerning a naked Doukhobor, on TV.
  • Leaving his pet Capuchin monkey behind in Germany after recently visiting that country for a concert performance, then failing to retrieve the animal before the government of Germany’s thirty-day deadline. This violates (a) the Canadian Cruelty to Soft-Bodied Dependent Creatures Act, (b) the Canadian-German Simian and Marsupial Affairs Protocol of 1954, (c) the Governor General of Canada’s (1919) etiquette guidelines for dealing with a foreign government, and (d) Article XII of the Medicine Hat Summit, i.e. Putting the Welfare of Others Before Oneself. Is this a case of “throwing the book” at the defendant? The Court is willing to tone down its criticisms if enough people think so.
  • Finally, Master Bieber was found guilty on the most important charge of all: thinking he is so hot. Cited as evidence were his blatant modishness, as exemplified by a pompadour hair style; his eagerness to give autographs; an annual income greater than the annual earnings of the Musical Ride of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; consorting with flashy female persons without introducing them to his family; and lastly—and most inflammatory to all Canadians—showing off and liking it.
Canadians convicted of thinking they are so hot are barred from taking advantage of special sales events at Canadian Tire, purchasing more than two dozen Tim Hortons donuts at a time, and entering any Canadian Legion hall on a Friday night.
Master Bieber, who was not in court due to a reported body-waxing mishap in Los Angeles, was tried in absentia. If apprehended on Canadian territory, he faces an immediate good spanking and either four hundred hours of community service in Sudbury, Ontario; forty-eight hours of partying with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford; or watching fifty National Film Board documentaries with titles featuring the words “Inuit,” “Wheat,” “Louis Riel,” or “Niagara Falls” twice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

bloggers unite

The rain has stopped briefly, though it's still murky. Things in the veg garden are growing beautifully; I had stewed rhubarb for breakfast and will have fresh lettuce with dinner. And the roses are finally bursting forth. Perfection.

And more perfection: John Oliver last night on the "Daily Show." He handled the transition from Jon to John with his self-deprecating humour and quick wit. Something new.

In this endless maze that is the internet, it's a treat to stumble on kindred spirits. I don't know how to list other blogs at the side of the page, the way some websites do, but I would like to share two new discoveries with you. A friend sent me a link to Carrie Anne Snyder, a Canadian writer of phenomenal energy: she has a successful book of short stories and four young children; she also runs, does yoga, cans and bottles, and will soon be teaching creative writing. I'm exhausted just thinking about what she accomplishes - and then finds time to blog about it all. She writes with power, honesty and grace about her life, and includes brave thoughts about writing. Check her out:

And here's the website of old friend Shaena Lambert, who took her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC at the same time I did, in the early eighties. She has just written the most breathtaking story, "Oh My Darling," for the Walrus, and has a book coming out by the same name. Check out her Thoughts on Writing.

Shaena Lambert

And now I'm back to contemplating my roses.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Quotes from writers

Here's a quote from John Vaillant, non-fiction writer and the judge for this year's Constance Rooke Creative Non-fiction prize:

I wanted to ask you one last question I ask just about every writer I meet. Sometimes when I write it’s painful. Progress is agonizingly slow and doubt about my abilities (not to mention my sanity) creeps in with every word. Has writing ever been like this for you and, if so, have you found a way to transcend, or at least manage, these kinds of feelings?
Mostly, what I feel is fear, which is a terrific motivator. But when I get past that, I find myself in a place of exalted stillness where all the negative comparisons and nattering voices that say you shouldn’t, you can’t, you suck, are silenced. In that sense, writing is my querencia. I cannot explain the source of this confidence because I felt it even as an unpublished and rejected writer, but I think it is founded in joy. With very few exceptions, writing is simply my favourite thing to do.
I love the concept of "exalted stillness." Here's what Wikipedia says about the word he uses:
In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one's strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as "an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like 'the place where you are your most authentic self.'"[3] It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.
And here's what the hilarious Lewis Black has to say about playwriting: 
I describe playwriting like this: If you had a 1,000 piece puzzle of a blue sky, what you get done first is the edge, which takes about six months. Then you spend the rest of the time trying to put the inside pieces together. Eventually you borrow a hammer and start smashing until the pieces fit.
It's frustration, on all levels. It's difficult. It's endless. And you get paid in cans of vegetables.

I think not just playwriting, Lewis - all kinds of writing. Well, nothing wrong with a few cans of vegetables. 

Beth's summer garden writing workshop

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 19 years and at U of T for 7.

When: Sunday July 21, 10.30 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 –

“Beth has 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 her and the others. Her garden is magical, and she created a magical day for me.”  Ann C.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


First, a prayer for Nelson Mandela, who's in serious condition in hospital. Mr. Mandela, we need you on this poor battered earth; please stick around. I know you're very old and very frail, but we need you. And I have a dinner party to arrange, with you and many other good men.

So stay. As long as possible. Please.

Second, my grandson has reportedly said his first word. What could it be - MAMA? No, he's a boy. His first word is BALL. That was my son's, too. Followed by his second and third: MAW SOOP. And his fourth: FUCK. Which referred to those big machines with big wheels that he loved so much.

At 8 a.m. this morning, I took my cereal and coffee and newspaper to the end of the garden, where for nearly a blessed hour, there was no sound except city and birds. And the buzz of sunshine. Perhaps we will have a summer after all. I've been busy - walked across town last night to Factory Theatre, to see a workshop of Daniel MacIvor's new play, "Who killed Spalding Grey?" I have a particular interested in Spalding, as those of you who follow this blog will know. Well - the play is interesting but not yet there. Fascinating to watch a great performer and writer like MacIvor work through something new.

And today, I rode across town to the Bloor Cinema to see a documentary, arriving on Bloor St. to find it a pedestrian mall because of a street fair. Lots of fun, music, food, stuff, but I ploughed through to the cinema. I was there to see "Free the mind," a documentary about the use of meditation on American army vets and damaged children. The theatre, amazingly, was full on this perfect afternoon. However, I have to say again - interesting but not quite. An extremely important topic and a brave and often moving attempt to deal with it, with the most annoying sound track in recent memory. Still, if you are skeptical about the power of meditation or just generally curious about the brain, go see it. Hot Docs. Go see anything at Hot Docs. Coming up, a doc about B. B. King.

In an hour, it's the Tony Awards from NYC, which I may or may not watch, as I'm working and excited by the work. The garden blooms, the sun shines, I am grateful to draw breath. Yesterday was my brother's birthday and we had a long talk. Today is the yahrzeit - the death day - of my great-grandfather the Jewish Shakespeare. I would have lit a yahrzeit candle but I couldn't find them. Next year.

A few days ago, I posted a rather self-pitying bit about blogging, and yesterday, I received a most welcome reply. Generous Carole from northern England sent this, just when I needed a boost. Thank you, Carole!

Just to let you know that your blogging is not in vain. I regularly read your blog with its comings and goings, family (gorgeous baby) and (exotic well connected) friends, outings and holidays, issues and opinions (my life seems soooo mundane in comparison!)

I love your openness and honesty (something we repressed Brits find quite difficult ) and can empathise with many of your life experiences as we're about the same age. I have an elderly mother who is in ill health, declining badly, bless her, after a busy,ordinary, but full life. I have also just recently become a grandmother for the first time (twin girls); like you I'm enchanted by their beauty and have the photos to prove it! Ah, the joys of being a grandparent, all the cuddles, smiles and fun and none of the sleepless nights, highly recommended! 

So we're at about the same rung on the ladder, often contemplating the past , wondering where it all went and, in my case, wondering what the future holds...trying to pack as much as possible in whilst still hale and hearty. A strange time of life,as I can't quite adjust to the sight of the old crone in the mirror whilst still feeling 25 in my head! How did that happen?!

So please keep blogging Beth about your colourful life in Toronto and beyond, for all of us old crones out there!

Will do, Carole. Who cares about your mirror - you sound 25. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jon Stewart, Macca and the gorgeous men brigade

First the bad news: Jon Stewart is gone for three whole months! He said the sweetest goodbye last night; I miss him already. If I tell you that I feel a great and genuine love for this man, you have to understand that this comes from someone who has loved Paul McCartney for 49 years, since February 1964. The two of them, my guys, overflowing with talent, social conscience, kindness, and fab good looks. Good taste in men, no?  My ideal man-only dinner party would include those two, Pierre Trudeau, Paul Newman, Nelson Mandela, and ... hmm. How big can this dinner party get? Maybe Bill Clinton to pull it all together, and of course my funny, welcoming son. And my Uncle Edgar and my dad. A girl can dream.

Ewan McGregor. Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Leonard Cohen. Oh stop. And to add some gay class and colour, my best friends Wayson, Chris, Bruce, JM and Richard ... Positively No Girls Allowed in This Club. Except Moi.

Here's the good news: the rosebush on the fence outside the kitchen has more than a hundred buds, I counted, and they're just starting to open. That mass of peachy blooms is going to be glorious, and I can just sit here, out of the rain, and watch the show. Feeling the need for a treat on this, yet another damp, chilly, gloomy day, I just went to the Epicure and bought $62 worth of cheese, including a new Quebecois chevre. And I'm off in a bit for my singing lesson. How good is life?

Jasmine, who works at Doubletake, is being let go at the end of August, and told me recently that her English has not improved because she's too shy to speak and gets little chance in any case. I offered to help her find ESL classes, and after trolling the net and a visit to the Newcomer's Centre at the Y, I am gratified to find a huge number of resources for foreign language immigrants to this city. Am also thinking of setting up an English conversation group chez moi, where Jasmine and her Bangladeshi friends can chat casually with Canadians. Anyone interested in joining us?

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Wondering as I sit here this rainy afternoon - why do I blog, why do I take the time to do something time-consuming that pays nothing and has no visible rewards? Well - I can't help it, is the answer. I have been a storyteller and a writer all my life, so this is the latest incarnation of obsessive lifelong chronicling. I have spent countless hours writing diaries and letters, and blogging is writing a diary and a letter at the same time. Others seem to be able to turn their blogs into a business, becoming famous with millions of followers, selling the rights to Hollywood, or at least getting on Huffington Post. Whereas my obscure blog serves to keep my friends, and some unknown others - HELLO YOU ALL - up to date with what's going on in my corner. Is that enough?

Well, it'll have to be for now. My son and I were joking the other night about the word 'monetize.' How to monetize this writing? I don't know, and unfortunately for my bottom line, I don't care.

So, what's going on in my corner? It's the most miserable spring in memory in Toronto - cold, dark and pouring again today. I have the heat on, for God's sake, and it's June. I had to get my winter bathrobe back out this morning, and put on many layers before going out. It's June. Somebody alert the powers-that-be, would you? They seem to think it's early April.

I went in my layers to St. Mike's today, for "pre-op" before my parathyroid operation in two weeks. What an efficient medical machine. Enter, fill out the forms - which is easy for me, it's all about what medication and diseases and allergies you have or have had, so I just tick "no" all the way down. Then to a little cubicle, where a parade of people checked me out - a nice woman to go over all the forms and tell me what would be needed when I come back - "You're on NO medication?" she kept asking. "Even Advil, aspirin, no?"; then another nice woman to take 3 vials of dark blood, a doctor to tick off boxes, someone else to do an ECG of my beautiful steady heartbeat, and finally smiling Juliet to tell me I could go home. Get me out of here, was my thought. My mother spent a great deal of time in hospitals and felt safe there; she had ECG's for breakfast. For me, deeply healthy person that I am - touching wood wood wood - I want to escape as quickly as possible to air, light, and the busy bustling noisy germ-ridden world.

At my meditation group this morning, we talked about the marvel of what we are doing together - a bunch of middle-aged or elderly women sitting in a circle with their eyes closed, learning to relax their bodies and their minds, to breathe and be present, to leave anxiety and bad old habits behind. Life is so short. I focus on family, friends and health. And, occasionally, on the weather. And, when I blog, on entertaining you.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

weighing in on "Book of Mormon"

Went to see "The Book of Mormon" last night, with my kids. From its debut years ago in NYC, I've had doubts. How could they turn the Mormon religion - Mormon missionaries going to convert in Africa, no less - into entertainment? Would it be full of the crass, mocking satire I dislike in some modern comedies, Sacha Baron Cohen I'm thinking of you? And set to MUSIC? Despite its rave reviews worldwide, I continued to be dubious. But my offspring have always adored "South Park,"  the "Mormon" creators' claim to fame, even managing to show me its merits, its powerful wit and slapstick humour, though it remains a bit too adolescent for my taste. (But still, the "Tom Cruise in the closet" episode was hilarious and clever, as were many others.)

So I got tickets for the 3 of us to see the show, largely because it takes a big event like this, or a birthday, to bring my adult children together, away from their busy lives - and now, for Anna, away from her baby. The three of us had dinner before and then sat expectantly, waiting - Sam in his seat nursing a free scotch, because of course one of the bartenders at the theatre was a friend of his.

Before I tell you what I thought, here are two reviews I took from the web, to show you the disparity of the critical response.

The talented and energetic cast does its best to breathe life into this potty-mouthed mash-up of juvenile cartoon comedy and unimaginable Third World danger and despair. God bless them, at times they even manage to infuse real humanity and hope into a puerile book and lackluster score.

If you're lucky enough to somehow have a ticket for this, the most cryingly good night out to have come along for years, and are by any chance looking forward to a smug few British-liberal hours sneering at the mad imbecilities of self-righteous Americans and organised religion, I have to tell you that you'll be disappointed. The Book of Mormon is far, far cleverer, far kinder, far more nuanced than that, and one of its many surprises is that it sent an enraptured, ecstatic audience home with an odd sense of having come, somehow, to really like Mormons… a night of unalloyed joy. The Observer

As for me - I agree wholeheartedly with the "Observer." I loved it. It brilliantly walked the tightrope of satire, managing to show the absurdities and yet innocence of the religious faithful, the blind arrogance and yet endearing optimism and generosity of Americans in general and Mormon missionaries specifically ... and in the bargain, we laughed like crazy and enjoyed absolutely fantastic music and dancing. Some of the best musical numbers ever. The whole thing had an inexplicable sweetness and, yes, sheer joy, even with, as the guy says, its potty mouth.

I can understand how a grownup who has never seen "South Park" would be unprepared for a musical in which one number involves Africans singing "Fuck you, God," or for jokes about female genital mutilation and baby rape, or for a spectacular number about Mormon hell featuring Hitler, the murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnny Cochrane, O.J. Simpson's lawyer. But it works a treat. Highly recommended - though that won't do you much good, as I think it's sold out for its entire run. We got tickets through the company manager, who's an old friend. Lucky us.

Afterward, my son invited me for a glass of wine, so we went to Hey Lucy, a trendy bar on trendy King Street. I was amazed that we've come so far, this young man does not mind being seen in trendland with his old mother. We had a great talk about the show, about life. Lucky me.

And lucky me, again, this past Sunday, after my ride on the Don Valley trail, to spend the rest of the day blissfully alone. The usual - cooking while listening to Eleanor Wachtel, working, fiddling in the garden as the weather went hot, cold and wet, back and forth, all day long. In the evening, I watched one of my favourite programs, which was also my mother's - "The Choir," an English choirmaster (as was my mother's father) in this episode organizing workplace choirs. The finale showed 3 choirs, one made up of nurses, doctors and office workers from the National Health, the second bosses and mail carriers from the Royal Mail and the third all levels of staff from the British Water Board (one bass, they told us, was a "leakage engineer,") singing their hearts out, hugging each other afterwards in ecstasy. It made me sob, for the power of music to unite, inspire, infuse with joy. And also because not long ago, I would have called my mother afterwards, and we would have sobbed together.

The next day, I emailed my friend Douglas, who gave me a few singing lessons last year, and asked to come back.

Last night, Sam said, "Mum, hurry up and finish my inheritance, I mean, your memoir. And make sure to put in some wizards and some Mormons." Will do. Maybe I'll turn it into a musical, with a singing part for myself. Happy Old Bag #1.