Sunday, August 31, 2014

first drafts

An interesting article refuting the premise that you should spit out a first draft without doing any revision and then go back and polish. This writer suggests a new way to think about the process. Food for thought.
And - can you believe the words "Stephen Harper" and the words "Nobel Peace Prize" are being uttered in the same breath? A sign of the insanity of our world. 

Open Streets Toronto

Rode my bike around this morning - wonderful to have the streets dedicated to pedestrians and bikes, even if briefly - from 8 a.m. to noon today, Bloor St. from Parliament to Spadina, Yonge from Queen to Bloor. Yay.
This is the corner of Bloor and Yonge.
The ROM.
Kids playing drums outside the Royal Conservatory of Music. Autoshare was giving out chalk for people to draw on the streets, and people were playing hopscotch. In typical Toronto fashion, there was a timid reluctance to really take advantage of the event, but hopefully if it happens again next year, there'll be more involvement. Holt Renfew was giving out free coffee - that's a start. What about choirs, bands, theatre groups? Thank you to the hoards of young volunteers at every corner.

More open streets, please.

master chef chez sa mere

The chef at work, decimating the fridge. He doesn't cook as I do, that is, pick a recipe and get the ingredients. He opens the fridge, sees what's there and improvises.
My contribution to the repast
Hors d'oeuvre: endive filled with guacamole mixed with smoked bacon, grilled onions and cherry tomatoes
Second hors d'oeuvre: grilled peppers filled with couscous, tangelos, my garden tomatoes and basil.
Main course - roast pork with garlic and rosemary, barbecued new potatoes with grilled onions, roasted eggplant with tomato sauce and peppers
Let me at it!!!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

She likes it, she really likes it

Just got this from friend and student Mary-Jane - "laugh bombs" - who knew?
Hi Beth,
I read True To Life in one sitting and I loved everything about it. The logical structure, the friendly tone, laugh bombs, its simplicity while at the same time, its depth, well...everything!!!
Mostly, you've made me want to sit down and write something. So I'd say that's about all you could ever ask for. Right? Of course right.
Well done, teacher. 
Oh, and it looks so pretty too!!
Cheers! I toast you with my glass of wine! Right now!!

The Lanyard

The other day, my new friend Piers told me I should send my memoir to our Prime Minister. "He's a huge Beatles fan," he said. "I sent him my book and he sent me a nice letter back."
"Over my dead body," I said.

Yesterday, I was on the 506 streetcar home from the Y when the driver turned on his mike and spoke to us all. "At the next stop," he said, "when the new people get on, I want you to shout 'Good afternoon, passengers!' and applaud. Okay?" And we did, to great hilarity. Instantly, a streetcar was turned into a friendly if narrow and mobile neighbourhood gathering spot.

I haven't told you some news - I'm going to take piano lessons again. When the piano tuner told me that there's a piano teacher just up the street who specializes in adult learners, I took it as a sign from God and went to see him. Will start in October. Now I try to play a few times a week, very simple pieces from my youth. When I quit at 13, my mother told me I'd regret it for the rest of my life. You were right, Maman. Now making up for lost time. Just listened to Mozart's piano concerto #23. It is to weep.

And then listened to a CD of Billy Collins reading his poems. Just played a few for my son, especially his hilarious, beautiful poem "Lanyard." You should hear Billy read it; look for it. I wanted to hang onto this sublime moment: a sunny Saturday of a long weekend, the city quiet (except for the @#$# air show), the garden glorious, my son cooking a huge meal for us and Wayson, and the two of us stopping to listen to a great and funny poet. It doesn't get better than this.

Good afternoon, passengers.

Spoke too soon. The big burner on the stove just broke and won't stop clicking. It's Saturday of a long weekend, and the stove is broken. Onward.

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the "L" section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
"Here are thousands of meals" she said,
"and here is clothing and a good education."
"And here is your lanyard," I replied,
"which I made with a little help from a counselor."
"Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world." she whispered.
"And here," I said, "is the lanyard I made at camp."
"And here," I wish to say to her now,
"is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even."
-- Billy Collins

lovely long weekend

The bougainvillea wintered in my bedroom and was so scraggly by late spring, I wasn't sure it would survive. Then that it would bloom. Now - let's pretend we're in Mexico.
One of the reasons I fell in love with this house was the mass of black-eyed Susans in the garden. I tried over the years to grow them with no success. Now here they are. A garden can never have too many of these hardy souls.
The Star says to take your tropical plants in soon, including this one. Surely not, I can hear the dipladenia cry, so happy in the sun.

And ... getting back into work mode, I read in an internet guide to productivity that you need to see your year at a glance, so I got some bristol board and made myself this: from Sept. 1 to the middle of April, when I'm away. Work in red, non-teaching times in blue. My God, so organized. Scary.
My Saturday visitor, come to cook for his mama and read "Game of Thrones".

Thursday, August 28, 2014

summertime and the livin' is easy

Summer is vanishing. Days are whipping by, the garden is in free fall, there's a real chill in the air. And yet today was sublime. Wayson arrived unexpectedly as I was working outside, and we ended up taking sandwiches for a picnic by the lake. The original plan was the Leslie St. Spit, but there's so much construction, it's impossible to get to it. As there is construction, it seems, on every @#$#2 Toronto street.

So we ended up at crowded, chaotic Cherry Beach, ten minutes south from where we live.
The spot upper right is not an eclipse of the sun, it's a flaw in my camera lens.

Now that I'm on Twitter, I have instant access to important world news, such as that Angelina and Brad got married! In France! With their hundreds of children present! Thank you, Twitter, and mazel tov to a most spectacular - socially engaged, responsible, gorgeous and admirable - couple.

On a more serious note - yes, we must, it's going to be winter soon - the Star printed a moving and important article, "Israel must grapple with uncomfortable truths" today, by an Israeli academic. The Star is a newspaper that does its job.

Time for me to stop trolling around on this mesmerizing machine and do mine.

Geist's Postcard competition

Geist magazine, a terrific literary magazine from Vancouver, runs a competition where people are asked to pick a postcard and write a story that explains the image. This is the wonderful first place winner this year.

- See more at:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

back to school in 1970 and 2014

A funny comparison between parenting in the 70's and now. Have to say - viz last post re neurosis - that I was more like the modern mother than the old one. Never fed my kids Pop Tarts and never listened to Barry Manilow. But God, these poor women today - I don't think this is far off the mark.

right now

Snapshot: It's 8 p.m. and I am, of course, sitting by the open back door in my kitchen, my belly full of dinner, which featured cherry tomatoes from my garden. There's a beautiful breeze. Yesterday was what summers usually are: very hot and muggy. Today, back to perfection - sunny and cool, with a hint of fall. It has been a fabulously cool summer.

I have to be careful when I deadhead the luscious Rose of Sharon bush - the huge mauve blooms, even when they're spent, are often inhabited by a drunk bumblebee staggering around inside, rolling in ... rolling in ... okay, I've forgotten the word for the yellow stuff on the pistils and stamens. How can I remember pistils and stamens, words I almost never use, and not -



Rolling in pollen and very very happy.

I guess this is going to happen more and more, so get used to it, be grateful for Google, and try not to think about the fact that your grandmother had Alzheimer's and liked to chat with Guy Lombardo when his band played on TV.

Very scary but let's not go there. Pollen it is.

Open on my computer right now: a short piece I'm writing for a Beatles book by my new friend Piers Hemmingsen; a new course description I'm writing for U of T; a NYT article entitled "The Drinker's Manifesto", of interest for some bizarre reason; an article by speech-writing expert Nick Morgan; and as always, checked a hundred times a day, my mail.

Around me as I sit are: the new New Yorker, where I'm reading a memoir excerpt by Lena Dunham. My new Letts of London daytimer from Laywine's. Various library books, including "A Field Guide for Immersion Writing," by Robin Hemley. An empty wine glass - dinner is over, though I may have another little tiny teeny bit as I read "The Drinker's Manifesto". And three notebooks with scribbles about various things.

Today, my friend and student Carol came over to teach me to tweet. I've been signed up for Twitter since 2011 but have never figured out how to use it - have sent 11 tweets in all that time, mostly to say "Hello, here I am, how do you use this thing?" But today, after an hour with Carol, I sent two firm, focussed tweets into the Twittersphere. We'll see if I ever do it again.

Yesterday I had coffee with Piers Hemmingsen. He's a banker with an MBA, but much more importantly, he's a kindred spirit Beatle nut who does a great deal of research on arcane Beatle related  things and writes books about them, his new book coming out in the fall. He has figured out, for example, how the OPP badge got onto the Sergeant Pepper's album cover. Things like that. He likes my book a lot, he says, though he is only on page 179. "It's important, it's funny and well-written, and it's unique," he said. "There's nothing else like it. And it's all correct!" That means a lot - this is a man who knows his stuff. Maybe we'll do a project together. But in the meantime, he says he'll write a review for a popular Beatle site. Music to my ears.

Beatle music.

Pollen. How could I forget pollen?

Over and out, as I fret. But I am not fretting as much as Lena Dunham when she was a kid. Hoo boy, she was neurotic. I'm just a little tiny bit, in comparison. And now for that glass.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

information on my upcoming writing courses

Dear Grace, the very young woman who is helping me with social media and computer stuff in general, came this morning, and now I'm going to practice what she taught me - HOW TO MAKE LINKS. The secret is: Control K. Who knew it was so easy?

My evening course at Ryerson, True to Life, starts Monday September 8th from 6.30 - 9.15. Click here for more information.

It runs for nine weeks, till November 10. So if you're interested, register now before it fills. 

My U of T course, Life Stories, runs during the day, Tuesdays 12.30 to 3, starting October 7 and running 8 weeks:

and then click on Non-fiction and Life Stories. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Ha! LINKS! Oh life is exciting.

PS Recently I received this card from Mary, a student who was part of the So True readings in July:

You are a tireless champion of the best in your students. We are coddled, nurtured, pushed, cajoled and lifted up to the podium as you help us to seek our true stories and pull them out from within. I for one appreciate being in that circle.

Rich Hill

I admire, honour, and cherish the work of documentary filmmakers like Tracy Droz Tragos, who was on Jon Stewart's show a few weeks ago speaking about her film Rich Hill. Ken and I saw it this afternoon at the Bloor, a stunning, unforgettable piece of work, and afterwards Ken said, This film puts me beyond tears.

Rich Hill is a very small town in Missouri; the film delves deeply into the lives of three boys from the wrong, the very wrong side of its tracks. The filmmakers know the town and so were trusted, entered and followed these boy's lives, their families, schools, after hours activities. The boys live in extremely difficult situations - parents feckless, mentally and/or physically ill, hopeless dreamers, in prison, and one mother abusive and lost, her son and his siblings living in appalling filth - and yet, always, there are moments of tenderness and love. Everyone smokes and seems to live on pop and to have not a single practical coping skill. While the boys struggle to get an education, eat and survive, America celebrates itself with 4th of July fireworks and parades. The film is not self-righteous or exploitive; it's a generous, heartbreakingly honest view of America's invisible poor. Highly recommended.

Afterwards, when I got on my bike, I realized it was 5.40 p.m., the liquor stores close on Sunday at 6, and I had no wine at home, not a drop. Could I survive? Yes, I said to myself. One evening without wine will be good for me. But it just happened that I rode fast and got to the Loblaws at Carlton and Church at 5.56, and managed to speed up to the liquor store and get two bottles of wine one minute before they closed.

I'm not an alcoholic, no no no, as Amy Winehouse might have said. But I sure do like my wine. Particularly after a harrowingly moving film on one of the most beautiful nights of the summer. This summer which is nearly over, already. Incomprehensibly.

becoming a writer

Here's a wonderful quote about writing memoir, from an article in the NYT: About 10 years ago, in graduate school, I was talking to an older poet. He told me about his childhood, which had been as “other” as my own. Glimpsing the bewildering strangeness of his formative years, I was suddenly struck that he had had to become a writer — or suffer the consequences.Recognizing that necessity in him, I recognized it in myself, too. What else could one do with such a tangled formation but transform it into writing? Not in order to untangle it and tie up loose ends. Not to say, neatly, “This is who I am, and that is why.” Not, finally, to reduce experience to a formula, but rather to convert confusion into curiosity, to face questions that don’t have easy answers, and to create spaces in which others, be they students or readers, might do the same. 

The Chelsea Smokehouse woo hoo!

There's a new business in the family: my brother Michael has bought one of his favourite places, an artisanal salmon smokehouse near his home in Chelsea, Quebec, and has spent months learning how to smoke. Salmon.

They'll be opening in a few weeks. Imagine, we now have limitless supplies of delicious smoked salmon in the family! I'm happy and proud - wish my parents could be at the opening. If you're in Ottawa, take a quick ride over the bridge to Quebec and give yourself a treat.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


The Stratford farmer's market
 Maurice in his workshop
One corner of that workshop - among a million other things, he carves canes
 The beautiful Bourbon, who had five owners before Lani and Maurice
We are fond of each other
 Stratford is ridiculously pretty
And the theatre is fantastic, something to be very proud of.  And proud I am. This afternoon I saw
Crazy for You, a pastiche of brilliant melodic Gershwin songs in a silly, wonderful musical. Ridiculous and full of joy - major fun. Someone to watch over me, Slap that bass, Embraceable you, I got rhythm, They can't take that away from me, Nice work if you can get it ... those nice Gershwin boys from the Lower East Side could sure write. And then I could have stayed and watched a very well-reviewed King Lear.

Instead there was the bus right outside the theatre, and now I'm home, waiting for my new tenant to arrive from Quebec City and listening, of course, to Randy Bachman. Soon - time for chocolate.

A Chamber "Dream" at Stratford

I am in beautiful downtown Stratford, Ontario, a lovely town surrounded by shoulder-high cornfields and giant hog farms, home to one of the great theatre companies of the world. And also home to my beloved friend Lani and her man Maurice. Tiny fierce foghorn-voiced Lani and I acted together in many plays in Vancouver throughout the Seventies. We did the Helena/Hermia fight scene from Midsummer Night's Dream for a tour of the Kootenay Mountains, performing outside in fields and in community centres. How I loved speaking these lines as Helena to Lani's Hermia's furious face:
O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school;
And though she be but little, she is fierce.

So I took her last night to see a "chamber" version of Dream, directed by the well-known Peter Sellars in a small new performance space. It's controversial, and Lani, who is a zero tolerance kind of person, was not looking forward to sitting for more than an hour and a half of weird avant-garde theatre. At the end, she said, "I didn't hate it, and I'm glad I saw it." Which is saying a lot.

It IS weird, a deconstruction of the play - what a dangerous word that is. Done on a bare stage by only two couples, one white, one black, the play is stripped down to its essence, which you realize as you watch is far darker than other productions usually show. Love is savage and tortured, the woods are dark and dangerous, the fairies are toying with humans, the humans are lost and bewildered, blind, foolish and cruel.

There was some unnecessary "theatre school stuff," as Lani called it, too much shouting, fondling and scratching at the walls with fingernails, and there's no humour at all, which is a great loss. But I liked very much the opportunity to delve into the mind of that most brilliant of poets, to really hear his words flowing through the mouths of four talented actors, who were working very hard, with nothing to hide behind. Definitely worthwhile, if not pleasant or easy.

I got here midday Friday on the new direct Stratford bus, $20 roundtrip, about two hours in a comfortable bus with wifi - what a great thing that is. I got in early yesterday to spend the afternoon wandering around with Lan, doing my favourite things - looking at spectacular old Ontario houses and shopping. Went to my two favourite stores, the shoe store on Ontario St. where I've always found a pair, and this time was no exception. And then to the chocolate store Rheo Thompson's, for a lot of my favourite dark chocolate smoothies. The other joy of being here, besides visiting dear friends, shopping and seeing great theatre, is dog hugs - Lani's wise calm Bourbon, whom she calls a "borderline retriever" - part golden retriever and border collie - loves hugs. So we just sit and hug.

This morning we went to the farmer's market, where I bought fresh peaches, raspberries and apples which I have to haul back - and this afternoon I'm seeing the Gershwin musical confection Crazy for You and catching the bus back right afterwards. Home full of fruit, friendship, theatre and dark chocolate mint smoothies.

PS Lan and I just ran into a former actress colleague at the liquor store - she's in the current season here. And she hated the "Dream." "Back to the experimental theatre of the Seventies," she said. "'Those poor actors." So there you go. Take your pick.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

a ticket for Jon Stewart's movie?

A request and a report: First, the request. I do not ask much of my friends and readers (except of course their undying devotion). I am now. The Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, is a bewildering maze, too much like work - I have never tried to figure it out. But now there's something I'd like to see. If any of you knows how I can get a ticket to the TIFF presentation of Jon Stewart's new movie Rosewater, please let me know. It's on Tuesday September 9th at 12.30. I know this because my friend Richard told me all about it, and also that he can't get me a ticket. There's a splendid gala sometime before, which will probably be attended by the beloved and very short director and is limited I'm sure to rich and important people. But I would love to see his film at the other showing, though I know it'll be released to the public before long. If you have a spare ticket, I'll ... I'll edit for you. I'll dedicate copies of my books. I will be grateful.

Okay, enough grovelling. It's worth a try.

I saw a documentary the other night on George Martin, the fifth Beatle, the brilliant producer of their music and the Goons and many other musicians. Boy, some people in the world are simply blessed, and George Martin is one of them. He's tall, slender, sharp and handsome, even now at nearly ninety. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, at the centre of that joyful explosion of music. He's been happily married for decades to his second wife and works now with his son. It all looks pretty damn good. A clever and hardworking man with a great sense of humour. A lucky man.

On another note, I just saw a bit of Suzuki's The Nature of Things about the Black Plague, which showed a guy in Oregon who caught something bad from his cat and nearly died. He caught ... the Bubonic Plague. His fingers and toes turned black and had to amputated. This was not hundreds of years ago, this was RECENTLY. Ye Gods.

An unlucky man. Except that he's alive. Who needs fingers?

Gratitude wins

Friend Carole in England just sent me the link to this beautiful post. I love every word.

Aug 112014

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau
So why not just laugh now? – G
“If we do not feel grateful for what we already have, what makes us think we’d be happy with more?” — Unknown
- See more at:

thank you Rita Davies

The oddest summer ever - damp, grey, cool. I like it - much better than the boiling mugginess we sometimes get, and the garden is greener than green. But I don't envy people organizing day camp programs for kids, or those performing outside in the parks. Poor sodden souls. Apparently, I hear from my far-flung friends, it's the same in Provence and Ecuador, but hot and dry in Nova Scotia, where it is usually damp and wet. Go figure.

Tonight for those who are interested I will be at Ryerson's student information night, manning the creative writing table from 6 to 7. Come say hello.

Received this note yesterday from the indefatigable Rita Davies, called by the Star "the visionary queen of culture in Toronto for more than a decade" as Executive Director of various arts councils. She is reading "True to Life: Fifty steps to help you tell your story."

You’ve done an amazing job of creating a reference work for aspiring writers.  The information is so clear and, together with your encouragement, it is highly motivating.

I was going to start on the first exercise today, but the book fair has claimed my day. As I said, that’s going to continue through to November. I look forward to taking your course in January.

She is organizing a huge new book fair that launches in November. Exciting! If you're nearby, don't miss it.

Toronto International Book FairToronto Book Fair

Here's a marvellous article in the New Yorker by memoirist Dani Shapiro that I'll be handing out to my students - this means you, Rita, in January.

In the middle of my writing day, I sometimes take a Facebook break. I know I shouldn’t do this. I counsel my writing students not to do this. But writing is a solitary business, and—well, let’s face it, Facebook is tempting. It’s right there. A lonely writer can be...

Continue reading at 

Gardenia, jasmine, mint wafting in on the cool morning breeze. The world outside is a blank pale grey, and I'm in my warm housecoat. August,where are you?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

On Turning Ten

Thought you'd enjoy this beautiful, haunting poem by America's former poet laureate. 
by Billy Collins
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

consumer's report

Now, before the Ryerson term begins, I have a few weeks to work and get my house in order, metaphorically and actually. But today, after some work this morning, I had an exciting errand. My friend Bruce the wizard sent me an email - he'd noted that my brand new luxurious TV was now on sale at another store in Toronto, and that Future Shop, where I bought mine, guaranteed they would not only match a cheaper price within 30 days, they would reduce it by 10%. I did some research and printed out the proof - there it was, my very TV for which I'd paid $830, now for sale at Leon's for $640.

On the way downtown, I stopped at Doubletake, where I found a blue 100% cashmere Talbots sweater for $8 and an adorable $2 Gund Pooh bear to give to some lucky child, and then cycled on. At Future Shop, I presented my information to the young woman, certain she'd poke a hole in my claim, imagining this scene in France, where the concept of this kind of customer service would be met with derision and disbelief. After looking online and checking with her supervisor, she smiled at me. "You're getting $237 back," she said.

Incredible. My brand new 51 inch Sanyo plasma TV cost $630, which, with the $500 my aunt gave me for my birthday, means I paid almost nothing for this giant extravagance. Amazing. A big thanks to Brucie and to dear Auntie Do.

I had to buy groceries so stopped at the huge Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens, and while there, just had to go up to check Joe Fresh. A skirt, yes, a brand new pencil skirt with exotic zebra stripes in a lovely stretchy material that will work perfectly on the bike for $39. Some groceries and another divine purchase, a garlic press with the sharp little tongs to clean it built right in. On the way home, I stopped at José the shoemender to pick up a leather bag he was mending, and noticed - José sells all kinds of interesting things, I bought my 50's mink coat there for $70 - a pair of high leather Ecco boots. Reader, they were $45 and I bought them.

So here's my day's haul -
Soon I will be wearing my fall outfit, a cashmere sweater, glam skirt and boots - both the sweater and boots a bit big, but who cares? - for a total of $92. Oh little things bring joy - and much of the refund money is still in my wallet. Then while listening to a decades-old CBC podcast of Peter Gzowski interviewing Alice Munro, which was breathtaking - like sitting at the kitchen table with them while they chatted - I made a recipe from today's NYT for "Lemon and garlic chicken with spiced spinach", squeezing the hell out of fresh Ontario garlic. And ate and drank and toasted life.

For a dose of reality, here's Gerry Caplan's wise and heartbreaking piece from the Globe online:
No matter what leaders do, there won’t be peace in the Middle East Add to ...
Special to The Globe and Mai

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Octopus, Bestellen, The Trip to Italy

So here's one of those sentimental moments that you're used to with me: it's 7.30 p.m. on Sunday night and I've been dancing around the kitchen to Randy Bachman. I've just pruned the garden which is still exploding with colour, this afternoon I saw a fabulous movie, and this morning I said goodbye to a very dear friend who happens to be my ex-husband.

So it's my-cup-runneth-over time, yet again. Life life life - oh Robin Williams, how I wish you could have seen the glass half full, the glass overflowing with the love and family and beauty which undoubtedly was coming your way.

As, in fact, my wine glass is, right now. Chilean merlot. Very affordable and delicious.

We had the best visit ever. On Friday, we all had dinner together at one of Sam's favourite places way in the west end, a small restaurant and bar with the succinct name Food and Liquor. Hilarious when we saw the menu - we needed Anna to explain that these days, the hip thing in Toronto restaurants is to use parts of the animal body no one wants to know about. Beef heart, duck tongue etc. Radishes and goat butter. We all gazed at the menu wondering where the food was. But it was great fun, especially watching Eli, utterly unfazed, eat octopus.
Then the big boys went to play pool, and Eli's momma and I, armed with blankets and snacks, took him to the Molson Amphitheatre to see Blue Rodeo. Happy to be there for Eli's first real rock concert. He danced, and he fell asleep with his earphones on.
Before the concert began. It was wonderful. We grooved. What a fine fine band. At one point, they stopped singing and the audience simply continued for them, at full voice, for two verses.

Poor Edgar was here for the worst weather in the history of August, surely. He had brought t-shirts, and it was freezing and rainy. But we were fine. We had a visit with the babe here on Saturday morning; he spent the afternoon enjoying "The Trip to Italy" with his son, and then the greatest treat of all, dinner at the restaurant where Sam now works: Bestellen, on College St. We had a superb meal in this open, beautifully designed and warm restaurant. Loved everything - decor, service, wine, food. As we sat, I felt Ed's parents and mine there with us - my father's love of good food, drink, friendship and conversation, Ed's parents' loyalty, kindness and work ethic, and everyone's sense of humour - all there, the parade of generations, and Eli at home nearby so treasured by us all, even those no longer here.

Anna went home to relieve her friend who was babysitting, and Edgar, Sam and I walked along Queen West, where it seemed Sam knew most of the people in every restaurant we passed. It was joy to watch our son in his element. It was a joy throughout the weekend to talk to the father of my children. He spent the morning today with Sam, the afternoon with Anna and Eli, and flew out tonight, back to his wife and four year old child.

And I went to see "The Trip to Italy" - and loved it too. They go along the Amalfi Coast and to Capri and Pompeii and Rome and Naples, where Bruce and I were only a few months ago. Though not in those stunning hotels and eating those glorious meals. It made me want to go again, instantly. But more than a funny bantering improvised film about two comics eating in Italy, in the end it is about being a man, I think - combative, endlessly competitive and lonely. Somehow, after all the hilarity, it's quite sad. A very good film, highly recommended.

It's getting dark, and the house, for the first time in awhile, is quiet. My heart is full.

Friday, August 15, 2014


If you ask what I am proudest of in my advancing years - besides my children, books and students, my friends and garden - I would perhaps answer, "My divorce."

Not the original divorce, which was the most excruciating event of my life by far. I still feel guilt and grief that my kids grew up in such chaos. But even at the worst times, my ex and I continued to parent together; we went to school meetings side by side even when we were fighting each other in court. When things got resolved, we began to email each other and talk about what was going on at each end. Frustrations didn't stop. I still disagreed with a lot, and I'm sure he did too. But we worked together, and we never spoke ill of the other to the kids.

Now, almost 25 years after our separation, here he is staying in my basement suite; we breakfast together, and then either the kids come over here or we go over there. We spent yesterday, a freezing rainy day, with our daughter and her son. They're all with Sam on the other side of town now, after Anna, Eli, Ed and I spent the morning wandering around downtown - the Railway Museum, who knew? Tonight we'll have supper together, and then the boys will play pool, and the girls and Eli are going to a Blue Rodeo concert at the Molson Amphitheatre, the $20 tickets on the far edge. What fun. Tomorrow, more of the same. Family time.

My ex-husband is a good man, he just was not the right husband for me - if there is such a person, which it looks highly doubtful after most of my life lived in single bliss. He is now remarried with a 4-year old. He's a wonderful grandfather, and to me, he's a cherished old friend. We talk about all the people we know, our parents and siblings - all that would have been lost if we'd lost each other. So I am proud of that.
What grandpas are good for - shoulders!
An honorary grandpa visited too - Wayson.
Three generations of the same nose. Looking at a crane. Amazing.

PS. Just got this from a friend - proud of this too:
Yesterday I finished your True to Life. It's great, Beth. I hope it will sell millions! I've really enjoyed turning to it often, for another few chapters of nuggets. I had to slow down because I was getting through it too fast. Many of the corners are now turned up and down, not my usual practice but I didn't have a pencil. I didn't break down and do that until page 86; then I went crazy. 

I like the size of your book. Nice and compact, so one feels there is actually a chance to get a grip on it, to remember its points. Being the person I am, I am looking forward to reading it again and summarizing it into the lists that are the keys which unlock my brain. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RIP Robin Williams

Just laughed till the tears ran watching the best of the best - Robin Williams and Carol Burnett. Stay till the end, when they do the skit again.

And this, breathtaking, beyond brilliant:

I don't understand, I just do not understand how people can want so desperately to get out and leave it all behind. This extraordinary man, his God-given talent, his children - it makes no sense. I do not understand how a man who gave so much pleasure to so many and made it look so effortless could be in such pain himself. Maybe pain is harder to deal with when you're beloved, successful and rich - pace Phillip Seymour Hoffman and so many others. How profoundly tragic.

My son is dealing with the loss of a friend, not successful or rich but no less beloved, who jumped in front of a subway train last week. My heart is broken, Sam says. And that's what we're saying, too, about Mr. Williams.

Suicide is an issue dealt with obliquely in a film I saw this afternoon with my friend Ken: Calvary. It's a powerful and dark film about the legacy of the Catholic church in Ireland - for good, yes, in the way people turn to priests for counsel and comfort, but more visibly for bad, in the haunting aftermath of the sexual abuse of children. There's a mention that Jesus "committed suicide", and the intimation that dedication to the church demands literal self-sacrifice. Ken is Catholic and was non-plussed; it's not a film you'd tell your friends to rush out and see, and yet there's beauty, humour and honesty. And a great deal of anger. As I walked home, everyone I passed looked like characters from the film struggling with their own particular demons.

Or not.

PS. Pictures of wounded Palestinian children in the "Star" today, so devastating I had to quickly turn the page. The other day I heard Hilary Clinton say "Israel has to defend itself", and that all the casualties were the fault of Hamas. And that was the end of the considerable respect I once felt for Hilary Clinton.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

oh my Federer

Trolling through the "Sent" messages on my email for an address when I came across a huge collection of emails from my mother. Including the one below, the year of her death, which made me laugh. Like hearing her voice, after so long:

On 2012-03-18, at 4:14 PM, S Kaplan wrote:
dezr we are having a learning session onf the computer.
lobr,  your aman.   
She signed herself Maman, and I sometimes do that now too, as I continue the inexorable journey into becoming my mother.

Or not.

A great treat yesterday - dinner here in the garden with old friends, and then we all went to see our mutual friend Nancy White perform in the cabaret space at Soulpepper. She is always topical, sharp and hilarious, with the bonus this time of a fabulous young Acadian accompanist, Ghislain Aucoin, her daughter Maddie doing harmonies, and the wonderful Frank Moore as special guest. No singer I know can, as Nancy does, make an audience weak with laughter one moment, nod their heads in political agreement the next, and then weep, as she goes from comedy to satirical political insight to songs that are simply beautiful and moving, as is the one about the stars over Manitoulin. Brava to her, a national treasure. Long may she sing.

Very hot and lovely out. Went swimming at the huge Summerside pool yesterday with my grandson, who was a fish in his past life. ME DO IT, he kept saying, insisting on swimming, with life jacket, on his own, madly kicking his little legs. This morning when I talked to his mother, he was making her breakfast of IKEEM. "Ead it," I heard him insist.

And now - rosé and a tiny bit of the Rogers Cup - Federer and some Frenchman who's winning. My Mum would have been watching; her sister Do, whom I just talked to, is. Also called Lola today, my father's cousin, who's a mere 92 and unstoppably active and sharp. Hooray for unstoppable.

PS Just watched two minutes of tennis and that's it. It's heartbreaking to watch Roger struggle with Tsonga, who's a human tank. Imagine being a grand old man at 33. On the other hand, soon AMC is running hours of "Breaking Bad", of which I've seen only a little bit. On this very hot day, with rosé in hand, I might allow myself to watch just a tiny bit. Or not.

PS And then life intrudes: I am holding my will, which my lawyer just sent over with the powers of attorney for health care and property. A shocking reminder that one day, if all goes as it should, I will not be enjoying beautiful August days but my children and grandchildren will.

And then I have to go and dig raccoon shit from the shoe that stepped in it this morning. Ah, reality. When will we be friends?

Friday, August 8, 2014

True to Life, Step 39: wounds and scars

An interesting article by David Brooks in the NYT:

Introspective or Narcissistic?

The answer to that question might be found in whether you keep a journal.
Or, copy and paste this URL into your browser:

    But this is exactly what my book on memoir is about: the fact that in telling our story - with distance, honesty and skill - we allow others to see themselves in our tale. We paint the small picture so well, our work illuminates the big picture.

Here is one of the most important steps of "True to Life: 50 steps to help you tell your story":


Write from scars,
not from wounds

ome years ago, I participated in a month-long workshop for non-fiction writers at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a glorious place and an invaluable resource for artists (suggestion—check it out at In our group was a gifted young writer with a huge vocabulary and a unique style, but whose essay about her dysfunctional childhood was a hard-to-read cry of pain. She had opened doors; in fact, her doors were hanging off their hinges. We didn’t know how to handle her agonized work. One colleague simply prepared a list of books for her about childhood abuse and therapy.
Our brilliant head editor explained that despite the writer’s obvious talent, her pain had not healed enough for her to process the past and turn it into literature. She was writing not from scars, but from wounds.
When a student describes a powerful experience in an essay in class, we the listeners can sometimes fit ourselves right into the tale. We not only understand what the writer has been through, we feel we have, in our own, very different way, been through something like it as well. And other times, when a student presents such an experience, we shut down, because we can’t tell what the story has to do with us.
The first writer has been able to stand far enough back to turn the experience into good writing. Raw emotion has healed enough to become a scar. The second writer is still coping with an open wound. We don’t see or hear the pictures, the characters, or the story. We register only the intensity of the feelings.
A writer cannot create literature while dealing with strong emotions that have not been processed.
It’s not just pain a writer needs to stand back from, but also love. If you rhapsodize with gooey ardour about your adorable children or your faultless parents, I’ll close the book. I want a reliable narrator, not one swimming in out-of-control, over-the-top feelings, whether negative or positive. When emotion overwhelms a writer, he or she has proven to be an unreliable narrator. Readers are not sure they can trust such a narrator to lead them safely forward and tell them the truth.
Some do get away with writing from wounds. In By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart uses her fury and grief to create a masterpiece about the madness of obsessive love. Many readers admire the book; others, including me, do not. It’s true a writer needs to mine that intense place of unprocessed emotion. But it’s only later, when the rawness has healed enough for the emotion to be digested, that great writing for other eyes can emerge. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, writing just after the sudden death of her husband, evinces searing pain, but her expert clarity and skill as an essayist pull us into the cool clear heart of her loss.
When experience is new and burning, a journal is a most satisfactory friend. You are writing to understand, perhaps to heal, comfort, and validate yourself. But to write successfully for others to understand, you’ll most likely have to wait until your wound becomes a scar. When will that happen? There’s no way to know. Some wounds heal quickly; others take a very long time.
So how do writers move in close enough to their rich, emotional raw material to recreate it with genuine feeling and flow? And yet not move in so close that they are capsized by the original emotions all over again? How do they withdraw far enough to write about their most formidable experiences and yet still bring them vividly to life? Negotiating this precise distance is one of the memoirist’s greatest challenges.
And what about other kinds of fiercely personal expression: ranting, musing, and confessing? How do we fit them into our work?
A rant, as CBC’s Rick Mercer has shown us, is a relentless discourse, an objection to something or someone. It is often eloquent and entertaining, especially if we agree with it. But a rant on paper can produce the same reaction as writing from emotional wounds: All we can hear is fury, sarcasm, loathing.
Musing is an exploration of ideas, thoughts, dreams, fancies, memories—ideal for your journal and wonderful raw material for later work but often too unformed to be read by others. Essays and stories are crafted for readers; musing is not.
Again, beware abstract words: glory, loneliness, peace, heaven, heartache. They’re powerful words, but I can’t see them. A sudden kiss, a solitary walk in the woods, a break-up done by e-mail: These are concrete. They show where the abstract words of musing only tell. Pull me in with specifics and detail.
What’s the difference between a memoir piece that tells the truth and a confession? Once more, it’s the issue of wounds and scars, and also of craft. Many confessions are soul-wrenching truth-tellings, blurted outpourings that are undigested and unshaped. Good for diaries, good for spiritual counsellors, best friends, and shrinks, but not for readers. Not yet.
In your early drafts, pour out all the emotion you want and need. Later, pare back and prune. Remember that, when you are dealing with huge issues, the drama is there in the action on the page; you don’t need to hit us with it. The more powerful the story, the greater the need to temper your tone. Keep your language spare and simple. Don’t tell us what to feel. Make us see.
When you begin to write, ask yourself, “Do I feel in control of the material, or is the subject controlling me?” That might give you a hint about how far you have come and how far you have still to go.


There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.
Harry Crews

If you have no wounds how can you know if you’re alive? If you have no scar how do you know who you are?
Edward Albee

Ursula K. Le Guin, when dealing with painful subjects, makes a distinction between “wallowing,” which she says she writes but does not share publicly, and “bearing witness,” which she does.
Judith Barrington