Monday, July 31, 2017

Michael Moore forever

Saturday in New York - not too hot, thunderstorm predicted that never arrived - lucky indeed. I walked to the Met, was there as it opened, and once more - as with the British Museum this spring - was grateful to know of the alternate entrance. A huge lineup of people at the main doors, but at the ground level doors to the south, almost no one. Straight to the Irving Penn exhibition. I would never have known about this gifted, sensitive photographer, who worked for Vogue for years photographing models, one of whom he married, but who also made stunning portraits of the indigenous people of Mexico, tribal people in Africa, working people in France, England and the U.S., and cigarette butts looking like sculpture. Once again, as with writing, I note that great photography is all about paying attention.

Walked around the museum, saw the giant altarpiece on loan from Mexico - hard to image transporting it, it's two stories high - and many favourites. Did not go to see the Vermeers this time. Instead, I left and walked a bit further north on Fifth Avenue to find the NYC address of one Paul McCartney. Yes, I admit, I went to find it. It's under renovations. His apartment cost 13 million dollars. Big windows with a nice view of the park.
Down - via, second confession, the Mephisto shoestore on Madison Ave. that was having a sale and where I managed to buy a pair of walking shoes, much needed for my throbbing feet - to Times Square for the matinee of an extraordinary show, Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 1812. If someone told you they wanted to do a musical adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace in the round with some twenty or more actors weaving their way through the audience, much of which would be sitting at tables onstage, you'd tell them they were crazy, right? But there it is, unlike anything I've ever seen, wild, nutty, and yet - there's Tolstoy's heroine, sweet Natasha, about to throw her life away, there's poor Pierre, suffering in his study, there are all the others, dancers, musicians - one of them tossed me a warm perogie in a take-out container - a mesmerizing spectacle, very enjoyable, if a bit too frenetic to be moving.

With 3 hours to kill in the area until Michael Moore at 8, I went in search of something important - my birthplace. I was born in Manhattan's Polytechnic Hospital, but until recently, information was scarce about a hospital that had closed down. This time I'd searched for the exact address online and found it, in a section of NYC called Hell's Kitchen - amazingly, an area once full of poor Irish, as was Cabbagetown, where I now live, and then an area popular with actors. The hospital is now an apartment building. I stood outside, imagining my panicked young parents rushing there during a heat wave on August 1 1950, in a car they'd borrowed from one of Dad's uncles. Dad dropped Mum off and sped away to get drunk, as men did. After my birth, he rushed back, parked, opened the car door to step out - and the door was smashed clean off by a passing auto. I was almost fatherless at an hour old. Mum was one of only two women in the entire ward who breastfed. I cannot tell you what it meant to stand on West 50th and feel, in a very strange and distant way, that this was home.
Nearby was a quiet open space and restaurant patio, so I sat outside and ordered - O America! - a beer and a burger. The waitress, embarrassed, said she had to card me. Thrilling.

Afterward I happened upon the 7th Avenue street fair, just closing down.
Wandered down to Bryant Park, where a young troupe was performing outside on the grass - why not? - Twelfth Night. Watched a bit and headed for Michael Moore's second preview of his show, was excited to see a huge lineup, all kindred spirits. The woman next to me was a musician from New Jersey, a cancer survivor who visited Banff last summer. The women next to me in the balcony of the theatre were living in a conservative enclave of Long Island where their neighbours were Trump supporters. We were all soulmates, united in solidarity. 

The man of the hour walked out in front of a set that was a giant wooden American flag, a portly schlub in a loose shirt, jeans, sneakers, and baseball cap. He looked at us and said, “How the fuck did this happen?!” and we were off. It renewed my faith in humanity, this show, in which he urged all of us to get involved, showing that even small individual actions can have a huge impact, telling stories of his own activism, starting at age 16, and of others who've made a difference. It was very funny - especially for me, a segment called "Stop the Canadian!" about the debasement of the American education system. There was a long segment on what happened after he denounced the Iraq war from the stage of the Oscars, the death threats, including from right-wing radio nutbars. Throughout, his ease, honesty, sense of humour. I left deeply grateful, with renewed energy and joy.

Sunday morning, I tidied Ted's, admiring his incredible collection of antiquities from around the world - like sleeping in a  museum -
and walked along Third Avenue to Lola's for a last visit, before taking the subway to Grand Central to find the Newark Airport shuttle. As I waited, I noticed the decoration on the building opposite. Thanks to Irving Penn, I was paying attention.
And so - home. As the plane crossed the great lake into Canada, I felt the tension ease from my body. This city is a miracle of riches, I'd thought - but get me out of this country before Trump bombs North Korea and starts the next world war.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Friday July 28

After an hour of more fiddling with the internet box, to no avail, I went out to the park, the pressure cooker release valve for this madhouse city, 843 acres, 500,000 trees, and I appreciate every one of them.

A slow walk across to the west side, where I feel more at home than on the east – funkier, more artistic, more young people and Jews. On Columbus Avenue: a storefront called Animal General advertises Bereavement Counselling and Puppy Playgroup. A few stores down is Upper Breast Side, a store selling nursing supplies. Yuppyland. Someone had left books on a wall, and I picked up “The Wind in the Willows.” Perfect reading for a stifling Manhattan day.
 Seen in a store window. Every writer's dream!
 Another shop - selling clothes by Vermeer.
A newstand featuring two of my fave men - Macca - three whole magazines! - and Justin, an article wondering why he can't be President. If only. 

To Harry’s, a vast shoestore which carries lots of large sizes for the big-footed woman. A sale! But the shoes on sale in my size were execrable, the only word for them, and once I saw the sale prices, no way would I buy a pair at regular price. So, onward, the bus down Broadway to Lincoln Centre’s new TKTS booth. Heaven, despite the long lineup, not to have to battle Times Square to get a reduced price for seats. I got tickets to both shows I want to see: Indecent tonight, and Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 tomorrow matinee. I’ve already got a Michael Moore ticket for tomorrow night. The rest of my weekend is planned.

A bite to eat in a cool atrium, then a walk back across the park to the east side and the long slog home, stopping at Citarella to buy supper. Very hot and muggy and my feet are swollen. Here, I am without internet. Withdrawal. I may start to shake. Except of course for my phone.

11 p.m. Saw Indecent tonight, one of the main reasons I came to New York, about the play God of Vengeance by Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch that shocked the world when it was first produced in 1907 by its cast of prostitutes and a tender lesbian love scene. I wrote about it in my book on the Jewish Shakespeare. Paula Vogel, to whom I’ve sent the book, has written a drama about the difficult history of the play – including an arrest on obscenity charges in New York in the Twenties - about the tortured Mr. Asch, and eventually about the destruction of the entire Yiddish world. The director Rebecca Taichman has created a musical landscape with whirling actors, musicians onstage dancing among them, and powerful images, especially dust pouring out of the sleeves of her actors, first as a symbol, I think, of dusting off the play and history, and later, as a reference to the ashes of the Holocaust. People have asked why I didn’t write a play about my great-grandfather, so I was interested to see what Ms. Vogel had done with this story. It’s terrific.

An underlying message of the play is about intolerance – toward artists, Jews, homosexuals, and especially immigrants. What a timely moment. I keep seeing headlines as I walk – the latest, Trump telling police not to “be nice” to suspects. The whole scene grows more appalling day by day, and people here, it seems to me, are fiddling while Rome burns - shopping and eating and jabbering while the planet disintegrates. The extremes of poverty and wealth on the streets is more egregious than ever. The ride home on the subway tonight – sheer exhaustion in the air. The whole system is so deeply wrong, it hurts to walk through it.

I’m sorry to sound crabby - and hypocritical, in fact, as I swan about to shoe shops and shows complaining of social injustice. But I am profoundly uncomfortable here. Grateful to be seeing brilliant theatre in a land with great artists, grateful to be staying in the comfortable home of my cousin, grateful I only have one more day before I go home.

"Dear Evan Hansen" - wow

New York saga catchup: Thursday July 27. 

Went to the Met Breuer, a newish museum I’ve never visited before – an exhibition of the work of Ettore Sottsass, an Italian designer famous for his Memphis collective, his lipstick red Olivetti typewriter and quirky shelving units. The exhibition reminded me of my dear friend Robert Handforth, the first person who taught me to think about style and who undoubtedly knew of Memphis and Sottsass. Bob died of AIDS in New York in the late 80’s, another beloved New York ghost.

Lunch at a lovely Italian place on Lexington with my father’s cousin Lola, who’s exactly the age he would have been had he lived – nearly 95 – and her daughter Patti. Patti is an art restorer at Yale, and Lola is an artist herself, as was her mother Belle, my grandfather’s sister. A great lunch with much juicy family gossip. Lola, like my Aunt Do, still lives alone in her apartment.
Home to change and prepare for the rest of the day. Wanted to go to the actual Met but Ted said we’d meet at six for dinner in Times Square, so rather than hustle, I decided to make my way slowly downtown. Somehow – how did that happen? – I landed at Bloomingdale’s. Last time I was here, two years ago, I got a great pair of black pants so wanted to try again – bingo, same make, Gerard Darel, same fantastic sale. Making my way through this crazy store, I ended up sitting in a chair having my face cleaned and moisturized by a nice lady from South America. She thought I needed to fill in the gaps in my eyebrows. Did not buy her products and wiped off her eyebrow enhancement asap.

Walked down hot, sticky, packed, frantic Fifth Avenue, ducked into Sak’s for fun. I looked at a nice backpack and enquired the price: $1285.00. I laughed out loud. So - fun. It was nearly six when Ted called – he couldn’t get away. I was on Fifth Ave. with two hours to kill till the theatre, no idea where to go or what to do, when I had a brilliant idea and went to the Algonquin, a hotel with a famous bar where Dorothy Parker and other New Yorker writers used to meet at their Round Table. I met with a New York editor there once, intimidated and thrilled; what a pleasure to walk again into this elegant, old-fashioned place, suffused with history. I had a glass of white wine and a delicious crab cake, tended by kind, attentive waiters, and felt like a true New Yorker.

Met Ted and Henry to see “Dear Evan Hansen.” It won the Tony for Best Musical, the young star, Ben Platt, won Best Actor in a Musical and it’s sold out for months, so I treated my cousin and his spouse to house seats rustled up for us by my ex. After only a few minutes, I thought, this is why I’m here, this is why people come to New York. It was simply superb, incredibly moving and well done. Ben Platt gave one of the best, most overwhelmingly honest performances I’ve ever seen. Even hardened New Yorkers Ted and Henry were thrilled and moved, and that’s saying something. It’s the story of a quasi-autistic high school student who gets embroiled in an internet deception involving a fellow student’s suicide. But mostly it’s about family – his mother is struggling, his father remarried and far away, the boy lonely and lost. The music is gorgeous, and Ben Platt and all the others are not only fabulous actors but great singers too. Spectacular. All teenagers should see this play. "You are not alone" is one of the beautiful songs.

After we’d finished rhapsodizing and dabbing our eyes, Ted and Henry left to go to Northport, and I took the Q train to 72nd and 2nd. It’s a new subway line up 2nd Avenue. What a blessing to get out of Times Square so easily.

At home, however, not so easy – as I walked in the door, there was a loud beep. If there’s one thing I dread, it’s the loud beep, indicating some battery somewhere, at my house a smoke alarm, is failing. Here it was the Verizon box, requiring me to get dressed twice to go down and get the doorman, both of us struggling to disconnect the @##@ thing. It took an hour, with several tries. No internet. If it weren’t for my phone, I’d go mad.

Friday, July 28, 2017

No internet

The internet at ted's is down. I'll post from home Sunday. It's hot.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

New York New York

At one point, I said to myself, Never again! I found London crowded, but New York defies belief; not only are certain parts nearly impassable, but it's sticky hot, the traffic is overwhelming, the garbage is monstrous, and everyone is very, very noisy.

But then I had dinner in a gorgeous room with my family and saw a brilliant play and zipped home on the subway and remembered why I love this city of my birth. So - confused as usual.

First, the landing at Newark Airport was much worse than it has ever been; their hideous president and his policies have made the immigration people even more suspicious and surly. The lineup was endless, and in the line I was in, the guy just decided to shut up shop and go for a coffee or something. Eventually he returned and when he got to me, he glared at my Canadian passport. "It says here you were born in the States. Have you renounced your citizenship?"

I wanted to say, No but I'd love to, but I just said No. So he sent me to the special room for suspicious people, because as a dual citizen, I am supposed to enter the country as an American. My American passport has expired, I told them, and I always travel as a Canadian, the country in which I've lived since I was 3 months old. They were very nice about it, no problem. In all my years of travel here, that has never happened before. Welcome to Trumpland.

I made it to my cousin's, dumped my bag and set off to take care of business - TKTS in Times Square to see if I could get a ticket to the show I wanted to see - success, a half price orchestra seat for "A Doll's House, Part 2." I then slogged through a million Times Square tourists ogling the novelties on display there, including naked women with painted bodies, to the Music Box Theatre to pick up the tickets for "Dear Evan Hansen" tomorrow night, and as I entered the lobby, a woman shrieked, "That was Warren Beatty!" He and Annette Benning had just seen the matinee. "He looks terrific!" she said, and the woman with her said, "He looks old."
"Well of course he looks old, he is old, but he looks good for his age," she said. I missed him.
And then I went to the Belasco Theatre where Michael Moore is starting previews on Friday night for his show attacking Trump, and got a ticket for Saturday. A tiny island of sanity in the surreal circus that is this country right now. There was a small demonstration in Times Square against Trump's transgender ban. "Trans rights are human rights," they chanted, holding signs that said "Resist." I joined them briefly, but with all the myriad things going wrong here right now, this is just one more.

I sat in the oasis of Bryant Park behind the library, watching the parade of humanity carrying disposable cups and yelling into cellphones, a fascinating diversity of humankind. Then went to meet Ted, my second cousin or first cousin once-removed, I forget which, at his club, the Century Club at 43rd and 5th, a gorgeous old building, incredibly quiet, cool, and calm with high-ceilinged rooms full of books. A wonderful place for people to sit and read or have drinks and dinner, as we did. Cousin Lori came in from Connecticut, where she lives part-time, posting daily pictures on FB of her early morning runs, kayaking, her enormous garden. But she also still has an apartment in Manhattan, so she goes back and forth. Her grandmother Belle was the sister of my grandfather Mike and Ted's father Leo, 3 of the 7 Kaplan siblings. Family. I don't have much, so these people are precious. And then Henry, Ted's spouse, arrived, a dear dear man. He lives at their country house in Northport, Ted lives at his apartment at 77th and 3rd during the week, working at the family law firm Kaplan and Fox, and then on Thursday night goes to Northport for the weekend, where they have a beautiful house by the water and entertain lavishly.

So the Manhattan apartment is empty all weekend. Unless an indigent relative has arrived to occupy it. Hence - moi.

Ted and Henry went to see Bette Midler in "Hello, Dolly!", Lori went to get her train back to Connecticut, and I went to "A Doll's House, Part 2," which is a stunning play, set 15 years after Ibsen's original "Doll's House," dense with ideas about marriage, love, commitment, freedom, women's rights ... The tug between Nora's need for autonomy and her daughter's need for a mother - very moving, made me think about my own divorce. The best kind of theatre, I am sure this play will live long around the world. And then home on the new 2nd Avenue subway, a blessing, right from the insanity of Times Square to 72nd and 2nd.

On the way in from Newark, we passed the Dakota. I miss John Lennon. I miss my grandparents Nettie and Mike, Uncle Edgar, my New Yorker father, Bill and Chet, Leo and Hazel, Vera and Ben. NYC is full of ghosts. But at least Ted, Henry and Lori are here, and today, lunch with my father's cousin Lola, who's 94 and lives near here, and her daughter Patti, who also is coming in from Connecticut.

The air is foul. At one point, I wrote in my notebook, I wouldn't condemn my worst enemy to live here. But today, I'll see more relatives, go to a museum, see another brilliant work tonight. The city is a marvel, and I will stop whining.
 Home just before I left, a last view of tranquillity
The trans protest in Times Square
The graceful plane trees of Bryant Park, an oasis
 The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building
The noble lions of the New York Public Library
The gracious reading room of the Century Club
Sign in a side room.

And now, out into the madness.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Write in the Garden, summer 2017

It seems they liked it, they really liked it. The day dawned drizzly, everything was wet as usual during this exceptionally wet summer, hard to imagine spending the day in the garden. But we sat first on the deck, sheltered, and then it cleared up and there they were, in the garden, nine writers writing. The sound of minds at work, churning, pens scratching - magical.
It's a lot of work, advertising the event, cleaning the house, getting the garden and garden furniture welcoming and ready, cooking, serving, and clearing away a big lunch, planning the writing prompts, guiding them all through the day. I am spent by the end, and yet exhilarated, because it IS magical, listening to stories that have flowed out just a few minutes before, beautiful work, honest, funny, moving. One said, at the beginning, that she liked the writer inside herself, she just didn't know how to find her. At the end, she said, "She came out to play." One wrote, "Thank you so much for giving me a privileged glimpse into your lives, your stories, into your happiness and pain. I came away a better person for having met you, heard you, spoken with you. Beth, I'm so grateful I was able to participate in this wonderful excursion of the mind in your magical garden which brought us all 'home.'"

Another, "It felt marvellous to use my writing brain again by composing under a time line, and sharing with others on the spot. Felt like a workout! What an interesting, diverse group of women you assembled."

And another, "I am so inspired and feel like I can now write about anything. I will never forget this very special day we shared. Beth, you rock! We all do!"

And a fourth, "When summer winds down, I am sure this day will count among those rare single perfect days. Thank  you Beth. Thank you writers. Magic like that? I’m hoping my lucky streak continues into tomorrow."

So glad it worked. So glad it's over. Now what I'd really like to do is nothing. Instead - New York.

P.S. Happy discovery #629: it's easy to kill slugs in dishes of beer. I finally got around to trying it, as the slimy creatures were munching through the basil. Now I go to the veg garden every morning to count the dead slugs, who died happily slurping Molson's Canadian.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

the big city

Yesterday's plan: a sleepover with Eli; Ben was going somewhere for a sleepover too, so this would be a much-needed night off for Anna. I slogged across town - this city is impassable, especially on a boiling day, with construction and street repair everywhere, and furious drivers. I made it to Eli's day camp to bring him back here but found him in tears - earache. Change of plans - he, his brother and mother are flying on Sunday to Boston, to spend ten days in Rhode Island with Edgar and Tracey, and for Eli to go to day camp for a week with his aunt, Greta Lee, who's three years older. So a cure was urgently needed.

Eli and I went directly to St. Joseph Hospital's "Just for kids" clinic. What a marvel ten minutes from Anna's place - a bright space, the examining tables hippos and other friendly animals, a great staff. Anna joined us as soon as she could, to cuddle her miserable son, who was diagnosed with an ear infection - aka swimmer's ear. He wouldn't take the Advil to take away the pain; that was a 20 minute, very loud struggle. He is as stubborn as his mother was; payback, for sure. I told him when his uncle Sam was a kid and refused to take important medicine, his dad and I sat on him and forced it down his throat. But Eli's mother is more patient than I was. He finally took the Advil, and by the time we got home was bouncing off the walls, demonstrating how he'd learned to somersault and do jumping jacks. He showed me his painting of our planet on a round paper plate. "There's Canada," he pointed out, "and there's Ottawa and there's Rhode Island." The boundaries of his world this month.

So, no sleepover for me, no day off for Mama.

Just as well, as I'm getting ready for my big workshop tomorrow - ten writers for the day in my humble garden, part of which looked, ten minutes ago under a rainy sky, like this:

I love how the rudbeckia unfurl, like tight fingers loosening their grip.

Last night, awake at 4 a.m., I marvelled that I could not hear a single thing - not a distant car or siren, a voice, a dog, nothing. Even this morning, as I sit under the pergola, protected from the drizzle, there's not much - someone is roofing, a dog is barking, the rain is pattering. I just picked two cucumbers and a boatload of cherry tomatoes from the garden. City living at its best.

Speaking of which ...
Woo hoo!

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Two things I'm going to print and hang on my wall. First, from an article in the Star:

The Pope has posted a red-and-white sign in Italian on the door of his frugal suite in a Vatican residence. Adorned with the international symbol for ‘no’, a backslash in a circle, it was given to him by an Italian psychologist and self-help guru. This is what it says, in translation:


Violators are subject to a syndrome of always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humour and capacity to solve problems.

The penalty is doubled if the violation takes place in the presence of children.

To get the best out of yourself, concentrate on your potential and not on your limitations.

Stop complaining and take steps to improve your life.

What a fine man. Yes, I should take it to heart, me going on and on about a COLD. Get a life, woman. 

The other is a saying the courageous writer Rachel Carson adopted from Thoreau's "Walden" after finding out she had breast cancer, to spur on her writing of "Silent Spring."

If thou art a writer, write as if the time were short, for it is indeed short at the longest.

Now you know what will be inspiring me next week. At least, until I fly off to New York on Wednesday.

FYI, I am taking a break from the memoir. That doesn't mean I'm not writing as if the time were short, I am - I'm writing the NEXT memoir. This does make sense, believe it or not; I'm stuck, unsure how to proceed, so I need to keep going on something that will help break the logjam, until I can see clearly. That's the plan. I ran it by the very wise Rosemary Shipton, editor extraordinaire, and she agreed it was a good idea. I know. Time is short at the longest.

Just watched the next in a great BBC doc series, "Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds" - it's online, if you want to catch it yourself - in which the young host, Dr. James Fox, takes us to 3 great cities in 3 great years: last week, 1908, the Vienna of Klimpt and Freud, among many others. Today, Paris in 1928 - surrealism, Mondrian, Hemingway, Le Corbusier, Cole Porter, jazz, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and so much more.

Next week, New York in 1951 - Brando, the Beats, Jackson Pollock. And I was there, almost - we left New York in November 1950. Yes, I was a newborn, unable to fully appreciate Brando, Pollock, and the Beats, but I was there. And next week - I'll be there again.