Sunday, September 22, 2019

the life of a writer and the Exodus

This is I think a first - it's Word on the Street, and I'm at home, will not be trekking around listening to writers and trying to claw my way through the crowds in the hot sun to look at books. I'm thrilled the event is such a success - but not for me today, with my cold, and also - with a kind of sadness about my profession. An article in the NYT: Since 2009, when eBooks and book piracy became a phenomenon, income for authors has declined 42 percent, according to a 2018 Authors Guild income survey, with the median income from writing now so low — just $6,080 a year — that poverty level looks like the mountaintop. By contrast, a 2017 Nielsen survey found that people who admitted to having read a pirated book in the previous six months tend to be middle class, educated, female as well as male, between the ages of 30 and 44 — and with an income of $60,000 to 90,000 a year. 

I have to say that $6000 US a year from writing sounds mighty good to me; almost all my money, as you know, comes from teaching, editing, and landladying. Mind you, I've been anything but singleminded in my pursuit of an income from writing. A former student of mine has a book being launched at WOTS today; she HAS been ferociously focussed, I've watched her progress upwards, and there's no question she will make a success of this business. But I know few as fiercely singleminded. And certainly not me.

Anyway, I'm still recuperating and coughing and snuffling, though better. Seeing a movie with my son tonight, have not seen him for weeks and am anxious to connect, so will rest today to be in the best possible shape, not to mention well enough to teach tmw night.

The work on my parents' letters proceeds slowly. They were both vivid, fluid writers, so I'm able to piece together details of parts of their lives I knew little about - my mother after the war, for example, working in northern Germany with the IRO - the International Refugee Organization - with refugees from the camps and other Displaced Persons, trying to find them permanent homes. 95% want to go to the States, she tells my dad who's in New York, but can't get visas so end up in France, Australia, Canada, even South America. She was on site when the Exodus, the ship packed with Holocaust survivors trying to land in Palestine and turned away by the British, was forced to land in Hamburg. My mother, among the many trying to help those on board find refuge. It was a terrible mistake to force them back to Germany, she knows, and the British are hated; she has to hide her nationality. Almost all, she says, will continue to fight to get to what they consider their homeland. It's so very complicated, she sighs. If she only knew.

But now, I know so very much more than I did. It's a thrilling exploration, even if sometimes, what they write about their children, about their young daughter and son, hurts. I can take it. I'm a writer, though I don't earn even $6000 US a year at my job. My job is to try to figure things out and write about what I find. The pay is abysmal, but - it's not just a job, it's my life.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Band's Visit - and I will proudly defend Trudeau to the end

Months ago, I was thrilled to see that the musical The Band's Visit, which I'd tried to see in NYC but was sold out, was coming to Toronto. I bought a ticket for this Saturday's matinee. On Thursday afternoon I had a runny nose and by that night a full-blown cold. Friday, self-pity and coughing, filling an entire waste paper basket with Kleenex, tossing all night long. Today I was sure I'd be too sick to go to the show.

But - it's hot out! It's like a gift, the sun, the whole city out soaking up every moment. My upstairs tenant Robin went to Cherry Beach to sunbathe and swim. I sat out baking the germs in the sun, took an Advil and lots of throat lozenges and hopped on my bike. Luckily my ticket was on the aisle at the very back, so as I coughed discreetly and sipped my water I didn't bother anyone.

It's a gorgeous piece of work - haunting, slow, quiet, the antithesis of what you think a Broadway musical will be. I'd loved the movie and I loved this theatrical adaptation, would gladly see it again. The music is wonderful, the setting, the actors, who are also all musicians - and the story, not about Israeli and Egyptian tensions, as you think it will be - this story of an Egyptian orchestra stranded by mistake in a small Israeli town - but about how difficult it is to be alive, how much we all want to be loved and heard, the deep wound at the core of us all. Profoundly moving, the best kind of theatrical experience, that sits forever inside your soul. Deep deep respect and gratitude to all involved. Ten Tony awards rightly given.

Thank God for something beautiful, because these past days have been devastating. Even people I consider friends have turned into self-righteous judges; Trudeau is attacked viciously from both right and left. He should have known better! He's a hypocrite! Etc. Etc.

Look, we know he's a lightweight. We know he likes the limelight, selfies, maybe he's vain, a show-off. But can we please remember he has done lots of good things? Can we look at who is waiting to replace him if we all throw up our hands because he's a flawed human being? The very soul of my country is being tried right now, being weighed in the balance, and the other side, the bad side, has a huge amount of far right money pouring in from the States and Alberta to make sure our decision goes their way. The relentless pile on from media and social media is beyond appalling, JWR all over again. Hyenas. Vultures.

What decent human being would want to be a politician in the world now, with every event of a life, past and present, under a microscope, with every pundit presenting an opinion about everything? I think of FDR with his crippled legs and his longterm affair, protected by the media. Despite his brilliance and powerful social conscience, I'm sure he'd take one look at the disgusting scrum of the current political climate and choose to do something else with his life.

So I'm heartsick but not too physically sick. A one day bug, I hope. This weather is due to continue all week. They're warning of a long hard winter, but right now, we're living under a blessed sky. May the hearts and minds of my fellow citizens also see the light.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Trudeau's Blackfacegate: moving right along

You know me - I'm going to wade right in about Blackfacegate. I've spent two days defending Trudeau on FB, as people I consider friends, people on the left, howl in outrage. Maybe it's because I was once an actor and put on other people's clothes and faces for a living, but once again, as with JWR, I cannot understand the level of vituperation. He did a foolish, even offensive thing, yes. It was a time ago and he regrets it deeply. 'Nuff said.

Which of us has not done things we regret?

I wrote this on FB:

Times change; people change. In a letter my British aunt wrote to my mother in the 50’s, she describes someone as looking “like a Jew,” she wrote, “short, fat, and greasy.” My mother, married to a Jewish man, didn’t even notice her sister’s casual anti-Semitism. Aged twelve, I wrote in my diary, “There’s a coloured girl in our class now! She’s nice!!” I had not a single thought about racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or, for that matter, what was happening to our planet. Times change; people change. What matters is to acknowledge mistaken assumptions and hurtful stereotypes and make sure they don’t happen again. Please, in your haste to condemn a young man’s foolish mistakes – yes, a man who should have known better and has apologized — don’t condemn this country to the unforgivable racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia of Andrew Scheer and his party. Voters decided to hate and turf the good-hearted if flawed Kathleen Wynne – and how did that turn out, Ontario?

Here I repost:

Quoting Catherine Barroll: At a time when the world was turning them away, Trudeau invited 25,000 Syrian refugees to settle here in the first year and met some at the airport personally. Since his election, 60,000 Syrians have found a home here. He appointed the first Indigenous female Attorney General. He has a Sikh Minister of Defense. He marches in the Pride Parade. The idea that a Conservative party that has tacitly encouraged White Supremacy advocates as representatives and even leaders, which is anti LBGQ, anti feminist, and anti choice, is calling him a racist for this, is beyond ridiculous.

And one more, sorry, can't help myself:

 I keep wishing Canadians knew a bit more about politics in other countries, where there are real scandals, really appalling, disgusting things that politicians get away with. They've had centuries of it, whereas we throw our hands up in horror when we realize that the politician elected to govern this country is actually a politician. Of course he attacks when he has to, as they all do. It's horrible, but it's what's done. Again, I know he is far from perfect. But he's so much better than the alternative. We all know May and Singh are not going to form a government, but the more of us who vote for them in this crucial election, the closer Scheer comes to being elected. And I truly think I'll have to move if that happens, because just looking at his face turns my stomach. (But move where??) You talk about hypocrisy - Scheer condemning Trudeau for racism, he with a good friend of Faith Goldy's running for office! This country will be unrecognizable if he and his Koch-supported friends get in. Which is why I'm begging people to keep things in perspective instead of piling on.

I have a cold, the first one in a long time. Maybe it's the stress of watching the ghastly Andrew Scheer leer on the horizon. But it's glorious out, so I'm on the deck with a head like a pumpkin and a nose like a waterspout, taking in the last blaze of summer - roses, rudbekia, hydrangea. It says in the paper that millions of birds have disappeared in the last 50 years, but I can hear the busy cardinal, the sleepy sparrows. Others are protesting climate change, but our big march is next Friday; I will be there, with my daughter and grandsons.

We do our best in our tiny ways to support our battered planet. And one way I do it is by responding on FB and sharing my thoughts with you. What ARE your thoughts?

PS Got involved in another fight on FB - this time a young woman posted several times about exactly what white people are and are not allowed to say and I simply asked how she had come to appoint herself the political correctness police and why she was so angry. The response ... oh my. Among other things, she accused me of being "racist, like your prime minister." Before it went on much longer, another person wrote to me, "Don't feed the bears." So right. It's scary out there. Lots of screaming.

PPS Picture from my friend Chris's blog. What to say, the guy just likes to play dressup! He was a drama teacher once.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

mother-in-law in the sun

Beautiful days, what a blessing - hot, gorgeous. Tho' cooler in the evening, there's nothing but sun predicted for the next while. Yesterday I just couldn't sit at the desk opening dusty old letters, had to go outside and work in the garden, cut down a huge thicket of Golden Glow, which was ten feet high and blocking sun to the second Rose of Sharon, the one that's white with a delicate red centre. Hacking and hewing in the hot sun - I felt like a farmer, a child of nature. Briefly. Today I went back to chat with the Rose, tell her how beautiful she looks in the sun, please try to get rid of the bug that's spotting her leaves.

Monday night, walking to Ryerson, I thought, I should calculate how many times I've made this hike, since as of this September I've been teaching there for 25 years. Shouldn't there be a gold watch or something? (Quick calculation - 9 classes a term going back and forth = 18 times a term x 3 terms a year x 25= 1350 hikes back and forth. There were a few years I taught twice a term, but then I've missed a term or two, so I figure that's about right.) Walked into the classroom, 17 nervous interesting faces - registration is closed at 18, but 17 is big enough. And I have to say - I know you've heard this before - that one of the great gifts of my life is that after all these years I know what I'm doing in the classroom and enjoy doing it. It's a good show. I see tentative people relax, there's laughter, camaraderie, everyone gets a chance to talk, my eye on the clock so we get all the way round by the end. It's hard work, and I love it. And it does work for some: one of my students from years ago is on the short list for the CBC nonfiction competition, with a beautifully written story. When I wrote to congratulate her, she replied, You deserve some credit, you know. You kept asking: Where are you in all these stories? Be careful what you wish for! :) 

The same competition, I might add, that did not find my own essay worthy of inclusion. I've read all the finalists and a few are wonderful and some ... need to come to my class. I do not understand all their choices, but what the hell.

Another great blessing: this $7.95 Spanish red, the famous Toro Bravo, that I'm drinking now. A really good red for less than $8 - I may survive the winter.

Many emails going back and forth about Bob Baker and his expulsion from Equity. Others have stories to tell. I wonder how it feels, hunkered down wherever he and Tom are, to have their behaviour exposed at last. Pariahs in exile? Or, like Trump, oblivious? Surely not.

Thomas came over today to ask me to be the guarantor on his passport application. I must be a respectable person, at last. The form asked my relationship to the applicant, and we figured out that I should say "mother-in-law." He and Anna are not legally bound but they're bound in every other way. I'm a mother-in-law! Someone should write a song. Oh yes, someone did. 1961.
Mother-in-law (mother-in law), mother-in-law (mother-in-law)
The worst person I know, mother-in-law, mother-in-law
She worries me so, mother-in-law, mother-in-law
If she leaves us alone, we would have a happy home
Sent from down below...


Let's hope not. Just a little bit of nagging, guys. Not too much, I promise. Sort of.

Monday, September 16, 2019

fall beauty and the pain of old letters

Today is what we actors call "a show day." I have a show tonight - actually a class, but it's a show to me, which means gearing the whole day to the energy I'll need tonight. 15 registered so far, which may mean it'll be full by class time. It's funny that at nearly 3 hours, a class is as long as most plays. But curtain is earlier, thank god - 6.30 p.m., not 8. I get to be in bed by 11, when in the old days, I'd just be hitting the bar.

Immersed in the treasure trove of mail left by my mother - a heartbreaking letter in 1944 thanking Mum for her kind note, from the mother of a friend of Mum's, an RAF pilot missing, presumed killed; telegrams and cards on my birth; a note in May 1958 that she was going to see "My Fair Lady" in the West End which, I looked up, had the original cast - Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway. Snippets, fascinating and upsetting, about me at 7, whom my parents found difficult, and my 4-year old brother, whom they both adored. Dad is in Halifax and we are in London, England while my mother finishes some courses:

Michael is back at school and beginning to bloom again – he seems to be going thro’ a gorgeous phase, unless it’s because his hair is longer – I just can’t take my eyes off him – he’s all twinkles and fun and humour and so adorable. How could there be such a contrast between 2 children? Beth is honestly so impossible at times. She seems so totally lacking in any sympathetic response to anything and is completely subjective about everything.

In another letter, she writes about my brother, He is a gorgeous little boy and we are so lucky to have him, I think. It is so difficult to hide this feeling from Beth, who is so different. He has a dreamy quality I adore (you know it, of course) and the smiles he gives to greet you when you go to pick him up are absolutely shattering. …

And then, about me: I’m giving her more and more little jobs and getting, of course, more and more protests. She has no idea of giving out of the pure joy of it.

I was seven.

I read these bits to Jean-Marc, who had a clear vision during our renovation last winter of the more neurotic side of my personality and found them hilarious. But it does hurt, even after all these decades, because that disparity - difficult, adorable - continued for a long time, if not forever.

Pieces of the puzzle, falling into place. How to turn it into literature? Sorry if this seems to be dripping with self pity. Actually, for a moment or two there, it was; I feel sorry for that little girl who didn't sob over everything the way her mother did and thus was perceived as unsympathetic - and was insanely jealous of her brother, with good reason. This was NOT what I was expecting when I began opening those envelopes but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Notes from Anna about her kids' school - the principal said to her, today, "Last year I made something from nothing, but this year they expect miracles." The school has heard about a school in Etobicoke which has even fewer resources, and though Parkdale is definitely a have-not place, they are going to send some of what they have to Etobicoke. This is a wonderful community that will be sorely tested in the days and months ahead.

Yesterday morning, Ben McNally's Books and Brunch with two of my creative nonfiction colleagues at the King Eddy - four wonderful writers, including the extraordinary Jesse Thistle, once a homeless First Nations crack addict, now a York University professor and author of a successful memoir, From the Ashes. Inspiring and beautiful.

Fall is moving in, the days shorter and greyer, though still warmish. The garden at its most beautiful, because we know how soon the end is nigh. How it feeds my soul, this beauty.

And now, because it's a show day - time for a nap.


Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - a tour de force

I hasten to write today, lest you think I am wallowing in the Slough of Despond. For today has been so full of blessings that I'm floating, and it's still only 5.15.

A gorgeous Saturday - fall is always iffy, and it's been cold and wet and hot and sticky - today, breezy sun. Off on the bike to the market, where the plenitude is overwhelming. I bought a big basket of peaches since this is probably their last week. Had a long talk with old friend Duncan, a banjo player who sells real estate and whose daughter was in kindergarten with mine.

Home for an enormous lunch of fresh everything, where an email awaited from Pamela, a blog follower I've never met, writing with kindness and eloquence about yesterday's rant.
As you are probably not aware, I greet my day with you and a cup of Joe. Your latest post touches on a theme that is dear to me. To sum it up, you are a writer, and so you write. It is your gift. You were probably taking notes in the hospital nursery and editing them in the crib as your parents tried to catch up on some sleep. As for the commercial success of your writing, you have earned your living and supported your family by the power of your pen. How many people can claim that? In your work you touch countless people, and help them to improve their ability to write well. There is power in that because there is power in words. 

Write, and keep on writing.There is no "someday" in the world of art, there is only the beautiful now of writing. The beautiful now of being asked what you do for a living, and the powerful ownership of being able to say I am a writer. People will either step away, because words and writers are powerful, or they will draw closer and warm their hands by the gift you so freely give to the world.

Wow! Thank you, Pamela. She's a writer too, whether she knows it or not.

Got another email, this one from Marsha Lederman of the Globe in Vancouver. She told me the director Bob Baker, whose work for decades involved demeaning, insulting, and crushing actors, has recently been expelled from Actor's Equity for abusive practices. Unfortunately it comes too late, he retired or was forced to retire a few years ago. Bob is the reason I quit the theatre; my experience working with him and his partner Tom Wood was so excruciating that I decided I needed to find another way to make a living. So of course I chose something as lucrative as acting - writing! Way to go, girl! Marsha interviewed me about Bob; unlike many colleagues, I'm able to speak freely because I'm no longer in the biz, and so is my friend Chris, whom I asked to speak to her as well. At last, after nearly forty years, justice.
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/article-bob-baker-ousted-from-canadian-actors-equity-association/?utm_source=Shared+Article+Sent+to+User&utm_medium=E-mail:+Newsletters+/+E-Blasts+/+etc.&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links

Another email from my new writer friend Caitlin, sending links to some of her work, which is beautiful and wise. And from Anna, a picture of her boys fishing with their dad in Lake Ontario. (I hope they don't eat what they catch!)

Then the big treat - off to see The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre Live at my local Cineplex, eight minutes away by bike - a masterpiece, a tour de force, an extraordinary piece of theatre, a 4-hour world vision created on stage by 3 actors in a glass box, with a piano playing live beside the stage. Directed by the brilliant Sam Mendes, it's breathtaking, the story of 3 penniless, hardworking, clever immigrant Jews from Bavaria who open a small cloth shop in Montgomery, Alabama, eventually become cotton traders, then bankers, then move to New York where their sons and grandsons take over - until the company becomes simply a money machine run by cold outsiders and collapses in 2008. So besides the story of one family, the play is also the story of immigration - what happens to values from one generation to the next - and of modern capitalism, as all values are lost. A director of marketing arrives, late in the game, to show the partners that what needs to be done is to persuade everyone to BUY.

Two intermissions, the first I ran into old friend Ron Singer, who gave me a Best Performance award in a drama festival when I was 18, in 1969, and launched my acting career, the second spent with a glass of cab-sauv. I emerged, blinking, from this very long production to Yonge-Dundas Square, to be engulfed in crowds of people in a frenzy of buying.

The play tells the story of one side of my family, my father's side, my grandfather born to poor Jews from Minsk; Pop found a way to buy a dress company that was going bankrupt and make it profitable again, and always spent hours a day poring over the stock market. I never found out how he survived the Depression - my father would have been 8 and his brother 5 - but he did and prospered, helped my dad buy a house in 1956, as my dad and uncle helped me in 1986.

As always after a magnificent piece of theatre, I feel bigger and wiser, as if I understand something I didn't before. Last night, Michael Moore spoke to Bill Maher about this being an era of "cruel capitalism." This play shows how that came about.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/theater/the-lehman-trilogy-review-sam-mendes.html

Now it's  6, the sun is shining, there's a freshly-picked cucumber in the fridge - the biggest one yet - and I don't care, right now, whether I can be called a successful writer or not. I know how to relish the  hell out of a day like today, and isn't that what matters?

Friday, September 13, 2019

the writer's lament/manifesto

This is not something I do easily - but I'm going to divulge here my bewilderment at the lack of success I am having right now as a writer. People are full of praise for my teaching; the things I do and say as a teacher obviously work. But my writing seems to be going nowhere, and I'm sharing my despair, right now, with you.

I've been trying recently to get more work out there and last winter entered the CBC non-fiction literary competition with what I thought was a powerful story about the fire that nearly destroyed my home. Yesterday the long list was published: 31 writers, not including me. For the first time in years, I sent a story to the Globe, a story I thought was moving; not a word. The proposal for the memoir I've been working on for 3 years has been turned down by 2 publishers and went out this summer to 4 more, plus a query about an article. So far, nada.

Am I delusional to think I'm a clear, honest, interesting writer with something to say and a modicum of style? I realized a long time ago that something about that style doesn't work for competitions; though I did try again this year, I won't waste time with competitions any more. But even the Globe, where I have published scores of essays, is not interested now.

I know publishers are slammed; the business, always erratic, is incomprehensible right now, and they're overwhelmed and underpaid. And I know the lack of interest is at least partially because I'm an aging middle-class white woman, the least interesting demographic as far as they're concerned, though it seems to me that demographic is also who's buying the books. I don't have a name, no huge social media following, no Twitter followers, so what do I offer them? Simply a story, written with all the craft and skill I can muster, that matters deeply to me and, I hope, would matter to others if they had the chance to read it.

But in every artist's heart there lurks what Wayson called the devil - the voice that says, Why bother? No one cares, and you're wasting your time and theirs. You're just not that good. So go do something useful, like the laundry. Or I know what would be fun - an hour or two leaping about on the Internet! Let's start now!

And, often, I do.

Just had lunch with a writer friend who's similarly down, waiting for her agent's feedback on the latest rewrite of the fantasy novel she's been writing for nearly 4 years. Why do we do this? we asked each other, this hopeless business of little money and few readers, endless waiting for pathetic returns. Why? Because we're writers. Because we'll keep trying no matter what. I have a friend in the ad business who thinks writing for no money is crazy and self-indulgent. But there you go. All it takes is one nice word about the work, and we're back at it. And often, not even that.

All right, thanks for listening, enough venting. It's 3 p.m. and I'm going up to my desk now to figure out where to go with the latest material, the stacks of letters. Perhaps one day the essay or book will be finished and find readers. Perhaps it won't.

But sitting there thinking and writing and reading, mad as it may be, is what I do.

the Democrats - hope for humanity

A glimmer of light on the horizon - I watched most of the Democratic debate last night, and my hopes for the future of our planet and our benighted species began to flicker again. What an intelligent, compassionate, articulate bunch they are. I don't understand why Biden is the frontrunner, except for name recognition and association with Obama; he's often almost incoherent, and he said something that put me off instantly: when Bernie actually brought Canada and Scandinavia into the health care debate, Joe snapped back,"This is America." As if the experiences of another country are irrelevant to his exceptional country. How stupid is that.

Bernie had a passionately articulate explanation of Democratic Socialism, but tho's wise, he's shouty, irascible, and hoarse. Two definite no's: Castro was vicious, and Kamala Harris seemed to feel she was at a casual lunch with friends and kept laughing at her own jokes, perhaps trying to set herself up as relaxed and open as opposed to Warren, the quivering bundle of intensity next to her. Klobuchar is just not enough. Mayor Pete and Beto are good men, I loved them both, but I can't see either of them with enough momentum or a broad enough appeal to win the Presidency. Corey Booker is amazing and possible.

But at the very top - it's Elizabeth Warren all the way. She's a taut, concentrated fighting machine, fierce and focussed but likeable, on message, with warm, relevant personal anecdotes that didn't seem forced or folksy. Go Elizabeth. Save the world.

The difference, the chasm, the Grand Canyon between even the weakest of these candidates and the man currently running the country, and his party, is so extreme as to be laughable if it weren't so tragic. There is another America full of brilliant principled people desperate for change. It is beyond heartening to be reminded of that.

P.S. My cousin Ted the New York lawyer wrote, about all these Dems I admire, "None of them is electable." My heart sank, but then my spirits rose. I have two words for him, and those words are: BARACK OBAMA.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

mothers and daughters and hoarders

The shock - that this person came out of my body! Today my daughter came over to help me organize my office, which is buried under snowdrifts, an avalanche of paper, especially now that I'm digging into my mother's bulging bags of letters. Help! I cried to Anna. For example, I said, showing her an adorable letter I wrote to my father when I was just six and my parents were separated, what should I do with this?
Throw it out, she said.
I recoiled as if she'd hit me. But it's adorable! I was 6! It's to my dad!
How many letters do you need to remind you that you loved your father and were a good writer at six? she answered calmly.
Every single one! I answered internally but not out loud.

But she's right. Because, as she so sweetly pointed out, if I don't throw it out, someone else will, and we both know who that person will be.

My mother was a hoarder - not pathological, just a "born poor lived through the war" hoarder. I had to get rid of her decades' worth of Bon Appetit magazines and her lifetime collection of knee-hi stockings among many other things, including a phenomenal pile of paper and plastic bags, and let's please not mention her freezer. She kept almost every letter ever written to her, especially from her lovers - the ones before Dad, then Dad, then the one in 1956 who wrote her nearly every day for years, it seems (care of a romantic family friend sympathetic to the cause), and the one in 1971, when I was 21 - they're all there. Mum knew who I am, a delver, an investigator, a family chronicler, and she knew I'd find them and read them, as I am in fact doing now. That eventually, perhaps, I'd tell the story.

But my own daughter is the opposite. She's busy living her busy life with no interest in delving into the past, in the mystery of who those people with her genes were back then. She honours family - she has read my Jewish Shakespeare book though not the others or the articles and certainly not this blog - but she's not interested in reams of old paper, in the letter I wrote to Dad when I was six, what that says about me, about him, about our life then.

So my job now is to deal with it all and then get rid of it so she doesn't have to.

She also enjoys mainstream films I wouldn't go near, like superhero movies, and TV shows too; she likes soft drinks and junk food and gooey desserts, and she is the most sensible, wise, grounded person I know. I turn to her often now for advice on simple matters. She listens, she advises - as I do, occasionally, for her. She never forgets that I'm her mother, as my own mother, anxious to tell me her secrets, did to me; there are no secrets here. And despite the fact that she wants me to throw out precious letters and sometimes drinks Coca-cola, I adore her.

She told me what's going on in her sons' school because of Ford's cuts to education - for example, there is now one educational assistant in a school of 700 children, many of them recent immigrants with poor or no English language skills. A nightmare which will only get worse. The strikes will start soon.

Annals of modern life department: at the playground on the weekend, as Eli played, I listened to a bunch of pre-adolescent girls who'd draped themselves over the climbing apparatus. And then one howled, "Olivia, PLEASE don't post that!" Olivia must have taken an unflattering photo. And I realized the horror for kids of this social media age - your friends are there with their phones ALL THE TIME, as are your enemies. They can photograph, even film you whenever they want and put it up for millions to see. Another kind of nightmare.

Advantages of being old department.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

information on Beth's courses at U of T and Ryerson

Dear writers, how things change - last term I had very small classes at both U of T and Ryerson, to the point that I wondered if memoir was starting to fade as an interest among student writers.

This term, I'm happy to report, my class at U of T is completely full more than 3 weeks before term begins. The cutoff number at Ryerson is 4 or 5 more students per class than at U of T, but my class there, starting next Monday, is nearly full too.

I just watched a moving documentary about Warren Buffett. It was moving because at least partially a love story, a tribute to his wife Suzie who, he says, helped make him the humane man he is - a man who has given away many billions of dollars and taken great pleasure in doing so. In the film he speaks to a group of high school students and tells them, if they can find work they'd want to do even if they didn't need a job, they'll spend their lives skipping out of bed in the morning, as he does.

And I thought, lucky me, Warren, I'm one of those. I love the job I've been doing for 25 years at Ryerson and 12 years at U of T. Though I don't often skip out of bed, and it's likely I won't tomorrow morning - see today's post about body pain - still, I am energized and fed by love of my work.

As my dearest Wayson would say - Onward.

In which she comes in sixth and looks for cottages in Nova Scotia

Oh my, she said ruefully, I'm not the woman I once was. This weekend is the Cabbagetown Festival, the once-yearly event when my 'hood is taken over by garage sales, street food, arts and crafts, music - fun. This morning was the fundraising mini-marathon, a 2 k. fun run through the streets which I've done nearly every year since we moved in in 1986. At one point, when I moved into the Senior Women's category, I actually won. Twice. The first time I stopped to tie my shoelace and still won. But I'm years older now, and anyway, despite my classes at the Y, am simply not in shape any more.

Eli was here for a sleepover last night but did not want to run with me, so I left him briefly to the good graces of TVO and my tenants, and ran. I took it slowly, walked a few times, finished, and went home immediately, where the results were already posted online. It took me 11 1/2 minutes to finish  a 2 k. race, so managed the less-than-stellar pace of more than 5 minutes per k. And yet I came sixth in my category.

And have been in pain from neck to knees ever since. Poor Eli - I did manage to go around the 'hood with him on our bikes, and we bought little presents for his parents. Yesterday he bought himself a magnificent diamond necklace for $2 which he wore all weekend, and I got things for the kids - 2 MEC sleeping bags, a snow-racer. A whole weekend where your neighbour's crap is exchanged for yours, and vice versa.
Would have bought these but couldn't bring them home on the bike - giant charts for English composition teachers. Would have been fun for my gang.
Hand in the cookie bag and diamond bling around the neck.

God, my body hurts. At home, I offered Eli $2 if he'd do a puzzle, and then another $2 if he'd do it again. $3!, he replied, but he took my offer and I got to lie down for a bit. After his dad came to get him, I rode to Parliament Street to buy some pad thai and mango salad and came home to recuperate. Sorry for my aching body, but still - the sixth fastest old lady in C'town.

Have not mentioned last week's social events - the Word Sisters here for dinner on Tuesday, a gathering of fabulous women in the word business; the C'town Short Film Festival on Wednesday, a selection of films under 15 minutes from around the world, also fabulous; and the launch of term event at U of T on Thursday, good food and drink and meeting colleagues.

Usually I start teaching the Monday after Labour Day, but not this year, not for a whole other week. I'll do more transcribing of my parents' letters. In one letter, Dad mentioned our family vacations at Toney River; I remembered, vaguely, tiny cabins near a beach, and Googled. I'd proposed renting a cottage in Muskoka for my 70th next year, but my daughter had a better idea - a cottage in Nova Scotia for a family getaway. She went to StFX and loves everything Nova Scotian, as do I, plus I grew up in Halifax and still have friends around the province. It suddenly seemed a great idea. So I've been online for hours, checking cottages on the water - near Toney River.

Perhaps you CAN go home again.

People have been kindly asking about my son. He seems to be recovering from the hideous trauma inflicted on him. Thank you for caring.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

my mother's lover

Some beauty for you - a fall bouquet picked for the dinner table tonight...
... and Macca, taken by his daughter Mary. He's 78. May we all look so good. He looks a bit like my mother, in fact. Yikes. Let's not go there!

Here is something my mother's lover wrote to her in September 1956. Dad had given Mum an ultimatum - he would not negotiate the future of our family with her lover, once my father's good friend, in the country (we were in England.) And so the man was forced to leave her side, temporarily, they both thought. Incidentally, he was married with two children, as was, of course, my mother. Mum and I were living with her parents in west London, and my dad and brother in north London.

I shall keep in touch with your mother, darling, until I leave; and after that I shall write to you through her. Please read my letters, love, although if you cannot bring yourself to do so, that too I shall understand. Please oh please write to me soon and tell me what is happening to you and the children, and how you are. And if and when you need me, darling, cable or telephone and I shall come—I shall come with all speed and with my heart so full of happiness that I shall burst. For with all this, my Sylvia, and whatever may come, I shall love you more and more each moment. And darling, if things become more desperate that your thoughts turn to suicide, then call me too, that I may die with you. If it should be that we cannot live together, then let us at least die in one another’s arms. This too I ask you to promise.

He had it bad! And he was a good writer, if a bit verbose - there are scores of letters, all as impassioned as this one. Odd, and sometimes shocking, to delve into these more than 60 years later - but what the hell, I'm a writer, that's what I do.

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives; even the air feels different, crisper, more businesslike. My young tenant went off with shining face to his new job this morning, and Ben went off to JK. A bit reluctant, but there were no tears.
The serious one in the middle in the hat.

May your hat and shoes be as splendid.

Monday, September 2, 2019

"MIracle of Miracles"

A beautiful holiday Monday, the city tranquil, the weather temperate; it's 7 p.m. and all's well.

Sunday was a productive day; I submitted two essays to different places for consideration and sent a query about another.  They were in my Documents files, things I'd written years ago and left to moulder. So, some editing and cutting and out they go.

The new tenant arrived, a very nice young man who'll be working at the symphony. So the house is full once more. And last night, three hours - three solid hours - of a remake of Little Women on PBS. It was too saccharine, and why, why, do they cast a beautiful actress as Jo and then have her sister say that Jo's only beauty is her hair? Do they think we don't have eyes? But still, I watched the whole thing, because - because it took me back to those heavenly hours sitting in my dad's big chair in the living room (that's in my living room today and not nearly as big somehow), reading and reading and weeping.
The actual copy, unfortunately without its bright yellow dustjacket.

Unlike it seems all other writer women of my age, I did not then identify with Jo. I was Beth, and not just because we share a name. I've never understood why until last night, because Beth is passive and shy and selflessly sweet, nothing like me. Last night I thought - I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn't remotely fiery and rebellious like Jo. I wanted to be loved. Beth was much, much loved. That's who I wanted to be.

It took a few years, but I got there. And I didn't have to die like she did, to boot.

Today's treat - meeting Ken to see Miracle of Miracles, a documentary about the making of Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem, the writer of the stories on which the musical is based, was a contemporary and rival of my great-grandfather's, though it's not sure they ever met. It's my great sorrow that Jacob Gordin didn't write humorous warm tales about his people that would make such a great musical that it's still iconic more than 50 years after its opening.

The doc is fantastic, showing how such an unlikely piece came to be - a musical about shtetl Jews, oh sure, said one sceptical producer. What will you do for an audience when all the Hadassah ladies have seen it? They show some of the many productions from around the world, including Japan, Thailand, and one done by African-American teenagers. There's something universal in the story of poverty; the fight against and yet the need for the suffocating comfort of tradition; the disappointments and love of parents for their rebellious children; and finally, the victimization of helpless people. As Tevye and his neighbours are being exiled from their village, the film shows us heartbreaking footage of modern refugees from Syria, from Mexico and Central America. Ken cried.

And then dinner at the pub across the street, as usual. Ken has lost two dear friends recently and is, he says, sick of death. But we cheered each other up. I gave him a magnificent cucumber, one of three fresh picked today, that he found a way to transport home on his bike.
I feel I should be gearing up for work but have another almost two weeks to go, a great gift. Lots happening - tomorrow someone coming to begin transcribing my parents' letters and then 8 women in the publishing business are here for a potluck dinner; Wednesday the Cabbagetown Short Film Festival; Thursday the huge back-to-school gathering for the Continuing Studies profs at U of T, where I get to meet my colleagues amid food and drink; and then all weekend is the Cabbagetown Festival, where the 'hood goes nuts.

Summer's over. But still - good times.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

cool, and "My Favourite Shapes"

It's nearly September. Though the weather is temperate and lovely, everything is shifting, cooling down, even me - for the first time in months, I had red wine, not rosé or white, with my dinner (tho' cucumber-based.) I'm now wearing a sweatshirt, this morning wore socks on my way to the market. The corner garden store has chrysanthemums. The garden is overgrown with stuff falling over and starting to fade, though still, I hasten to say, gorgeous and lush. But, except for the cucumbers, slowly dying.

Aren't we all?

I had work this week, had to put on respectable clothes and a bra to go to a meeting at U of T about a student's work on which I'd worked as an editor. It went well. There are already 13 in my course there, with a month to go, and 11 at Ryerson with just over a week. Funny, last term there were so few.

Last night I watched something really fun and interesting on HBO: My Favourite Shapes, by Julio Torres. It's quirky, unique, and hilarious, with a very clever young man actually showing us the shapes he loves, bringing them to life as they move around him on a conveyor belt - well, impossible to describe. I loved it.

Tomorrow, a new tenant moves in upstairs, so I've been cleaning and prepping; there's a vase of garden flowers up there, mixed with sprigs of lavender, mint, and oregano. Too much to do, as always, including the nonfiction conference, which needs us to come up with a suggested list of presenters to contact; figuring out new things to do with cucumbers; work on my parents' letters, which had me phone my shrink to ask for her help to process what I'm learning; and planning for next year, which includes the San Miguel Writers' Festival in February and some kind of event for my 70th birthday in August. Yes. 70. As I said to Lynn today on our Skype call from Provence to Toronto - once you turn 70, it's only 20 years to 90.

Ye gods.

However. We're here. Dark times on earth, but young Greta is there banging the drum in NYC. Could the situation in Britain and the U.S. get any worse? Yes, it seems, yes. But Ben starts school on Tuesday. He can't wait.

In only 20 years, he'll be a grown-up of 24. And, if I'm still around, I'll be 89.

Hope so.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

trip to the country and "Nathan the Wise" at Stratford

Back from a jaunt to southern Ontario, to visit friends and see theatre. Anna and I rented a car and set off Monday - first to the dentist in Mississauga, where Eli had a tooth out and the dentist told him he was braver than most adults. And then on to the very small town of Ingersoll, to visit old friends Lani and Maurice. Maurice survived deadly throat cancer, with his taste buds and some of his jaw gone, but he has recovered magnificently and spends his days in one of his two crowded workshops, carving, inventing, fixing. Like Lani, he has one of the most interesting, quirky minds I've ever met; Eli and he got along wonderfully and soon were out skateboarding, with Lani muttering darkly, trying to get Mau to stop. He also showed Eli new techniques in frisbee throwing and how to make a piercing sound with the top of an acorn. Truly, a most useful, fun friend for a 7-year old boy. As we were pulling away, Eli said from the back seat, "I'll never forget that guy."
We arrived late in Stratford, to spend two nights with more old friends, Anna (known in our family, for obvious reasons, as Big Anna) and Tom - she a film producer and he a painter and sculptor, who moved 3 years ago from downtown Toronto to a fabulous house in Stratford with a big studio at the back for Tom. It's a brave pair that will invite not just a woman and her daughter (whom they've known since childhood) but her two extremely lively grandsons to stay. Luckily, though, they have grandchildren of their own and love kids. Still, my guess is that they were not sad to see the hurricane duo depart today.

The reason for the trip was that I bought a ticket to see Nathan the Wise at the Stratford Festival, and so thought we should make it a family road trip. My great-grandfather did an adaptation in Yiddish of this play written by Gotthold Lessing in 1779, set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, and so I thought I should see it. An amazingly topical play about intolerance among Christian and Muslim extremists toward each other and especially toward Jews, it could almost have been written yesterday. An excellent production, well-cast with one notable exception. The lead role of Nathan, a clever, humane Jew and father, was played by the actress Diane Flacks, I guess in a noble attempt to provide more lead roles for women, who knows. Instead, the stunt casting almost ruined the play, as instead of absorbing the play's ideas and ideals, we were distracted by the spectacle of a woman pretending to be a man. Sometimes cross-casting opens up a play and sometimes it defeats it. This was one of the latter times. We need a play like this, about a good, wise man defeating murderous intolerance. I kept trying to imagine what it would be like with a fine actor bringing those rich lines to life, not watching an actress, even a good one like Flacks, struggle to inhabit the part.

But I'm glad I saw it, and I'm glad we all went to the country together. Though yesterday, when it dawned pouring with rain, predicted to last all day, and us with the Wild Bunch - there was despair. How to pass the time and burn off steam in the rain? We went to the Stratford museum which has some interesting stuff including - scream! - the Justin Bieber collection. We went shopping at Giant Tiger, one of Anna's favourite stores, which killed an hour. Anna took them to a train museum in St. Mary's while I was at the play. And finally the sun emerged and the beasts were unleashed. Their energy is almost frightening, especially Ben's, as his is not just physical, it's verbal. He never stops talking at top volume. He's very interested in death these days, and the word 'hate,' testing the word constantly. As we were looking to buy a ball, he said, "I hate balls!" Or even, to me, "I hate you."

It takes some getting used to, but mostly, he is sunshine itself. When we got back, he exclaimed at the top of his lungs to his dad, "You should see their house, Dad. IT HAS STAIRS!"
 
Bieliebers, not so much. But Justin is a talented young man, no question. We saw video of him drumming and playing the guitar with skill at four.
Throwing stones into a body of water - what makes this such a compelling practice?

And now, back to reality. A few more weeks of summer. What day is this? I'm lost.