Sunday, May 31, 2020

an only slightly bitter rant about publishers

After the sweltering heat of last week, today there's sun and a chill breeze. The city is still; I'm hearing birds like never before, exotic new trills, wish I knew what song belongs to which bird. The Gardiner Expressway is closed this weekend for repairs, and Bayview is closed for "Open Streets Toronto," so I took a long quiet bike ride almost down to the lake, surrounded by bikers, walkers, runners, skateboarders ... a vision of what this city could be if they ended their worship of the bloody car. It's so quiet and the air so sweet, it's hard to believe this is the heart of a metropolis.

I have started a chronicle I'm calling The Journey to a Book, about my efforts to get this memoir published, to share with students and any CNFC colleagues who might be interested. So I made a list, just of what I remember of my efforts over the last two years to get the book into the world.

Since 2015 I have worked with 5 editors, 4 of whom I paid, including a copy-editor at the end. (Rosemary, dear friend, read and commented for free.) After thousands in expenses and many drafts, in  2018 I started to try to find a publisher.

I contacted 4 agents, 2 of whom are friends, all of whom said no.
Over a year and a half, I sent either a query letter or a full submission, which is a convoluted lengthy process as they all want something different, to 20 publishers, big and small. Sometimes submissions, written specifically for a certain press, are many pages long.
I received a no, eventually, sometimes after months, from 10 of them.
I received a maybe from 2, one finally saying no, the other nothing.
I heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my query or submission, from the 8 others.

Fellow writer Judy urged me to be patient; "This is an important book, surely someone will want it," she said. @#$# that, I replied, though more politely. Enough. I understand that publishing is in dire straights, especially now after Covid. The one publisher who got back to me promptly to say, "I like your book" and express interest in publishing it, took five days to think about it and finally tell me the pandemic has so crushed his business, he can't take on any new projects.

So this list is why I'm going with a hybrid publisher who's a respected editor. I will pay for the process, have artistic control, receive much of the royalties if there are any, and most of all, will hold the book in my hands before I die.

As for much more important matters: the protests continue, as they should, and my family is doing its part.

Friday, May 29, 2020


Oh this is needed today! Every article spot on. Thank you, universe. Ah - just tried to post it but can't, so here's a screenshot. Hope you can find the whole NYT parody - it's hilarious (all but headlines in Latin. Click to enlarge.)
And this - heartbreaking, as Anna's kids get ready for the demise of their beloved cat Naan. "I love you a lot Naan. We all do Naan but I love you the most. You are moving on to a batr place."
And this - a screenshot of me yesterday, on Zoom, about to start the class and admiring my new long hair. Ten students, eight beautiful stories in nearly 3 hours - Zoom works.
Okay, time to get busy - did the Zoom line dancing class with Gina - at the end of this pandemic, I will be a skilled line dancer! Then a mutual support Zoom meeting with Judy, she reading my stuff and I reading hers, priceless. Now a quick piano practice, especially because my tenant Robin has gone to the office today - he has been home for 10 weeks, and I'm shy to make noise on the piano when he's here. But today he's not and I can pound to my heart's delight. And then, lots and lots of work. It's hot. The garden is joyful. And I'm not bad myself.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

"Being Canadian" and "Mrs. America"

Another long silent day punctuated by contact: Robin my upstairs tenant, a hello and a chat; a phone call with a writing student wanting direction with her memoir; a chat with another wanting to buy the writing book; tonight, a Zoom class. Plus email and text messages, replies to this blog, all the Likes on FB and Twitter - for people sitting alone at home, we sure are dealing with a lot of voices.

The rain is just beginning. I went down the street first thing to get more plants from Jay's and got them in just in time. What a gorgeous smell. Today's garden joy: the delicate puffball magnificence of allium.
Sadness across town: Naan, Anna's beloved cat, has cancer and is scheduled to meet her maker on Saturday. She's a marvellous creature who has had a great life, coming in and out the window, being fed and petted by neighbours as well as her own family, and putting up with a remarkable amount of roughhousing from two small boys until they went too far and got a quick swipe of the claws. Anna wrote, "We're feeding her all her favourite things: eggs and ham last night, smoked salmon this morning, fried chicken for dinner; tomorrow she'll get her own can of tuna and some butter for dessert. I haven't told the kids yet."
I don't envy her that. I remember going through it with several cats here, especially Snoozie, our beloved Persian; Anna liked to dress up the poor creature and push her around in her doll carriage. Ten years later a vet came and administered the injection while I held her in my arms. Oh these pets whom we love so. My mother said, after the death of her beloved beagle Tippy, that she would never get another dog, the loss hurt too much.

Last night I watched the amusing documentary Being Canadian - Canuck comedian Robert Cohen who lives in L.A. crossing Canada to understand this country better. He interviewed many well-known Canadian comics, and one question dealt with was: Why does Canada produce so many world-class comedians? You could ask that question, and many have, about Jews, and I put it down to the same issue: when you're dealing with bullies, you learn to be funny. Canadians are powerless outsiders, living beside the biggest bully in the world. Make 'em laugh is one way to survive.

Then I watched the next episode of Mrs. America, which is extremely well done, about the early years of the feminist movement and the rise of right-wing anti-feminists, starring the fabulous Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. It's very fair, not demonizing the appalling Schlafly even as it shows her narrow-minded nastiness as she uses lies and propaganda - and members of the Klan - to further her cause, and her hypocrisy as she fights for women to stay in the home while she herself is out campaigning, leaving her own home and children in the hands of her Black maids. It's painful to watch the birth of the Tea Party, and I may have to stop; in the end, Schlafly and her minions defeated the ERA. But not the feminist movement. A fascinating docu-drama.

Lots of rain now, a gentle, welcome sound, the heavenly scent of growth and green. Onward.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Cynthia Nixon in the heat

Just watched this marvellous 9 minute playlet starring Cynthia Nixon, had a great laugh, and emerged more glad than ever that I am not suffering through this pandemic in a small apartment with a spouse.

It was unbelievably hot today, and I think of parents in apartments with children - no splash pads are open, no pools, no playgrounds. Brutal. Cathy, who's a nurse, said she thinks the mental health issues we'll have to deal with later will be as devastating as the physical effects of the virus.

I will not turn on my A.C. in May, that's ridiculous, and the fan stored in the basement now does not work. So it was just sitting around being hot for much of the day. I did make a suicidal run to get a few groceries - line up, mask on, rush about, get out! - and for the first time in months to Shoppers, to mail my writing books to Lani who is giving them to three would-be writers of her acquaintance. That's a friend for you.

Importantly, Anna came with her friend and did more heroic clearing out downstairs. It's now starting to resemble a habitable apartment. A lot of stuff needs to be trucked out, maybe on the weekend, and then it can be cleaned and the repairs can begin. My shoulders lift a bit more.

But there was a big disappointment about the manuscript today - a vague hope I'd had that in the end was for naught. Nothing new there.

And another disappointment from my longtime hairdresser Ingrid. Ingrid and I have been through a lot together over decades; I was thrilled when she and her new partner moved their business to Cabbagetown and then bought a house up the street. It took me 3 minutes by bike to get to my hair appointments. I just wrote to ask if I could be on the list for when she came back to work, and she said she's closing the salon, at least until there's a vaccine. I will miss them both a great deal. And I will be hairy for some time, until I find someone else.

At day's end, the big treat was to welcome Monique and Cathy for rosé at the bottom of my garden. It's cool and shady back there, and quiet, and they told me it's the most magical place in all Toronto. The cardinal even dropped in for a bit.

Wish I could end on a cheery note. Hmmm. Nope, I got nothin'. Sorry.

Oh yes, there is something cheery, for me at least - I'm not sick. Anna bought me a thermometer, and I'm fine. A bit of a summer cold. Maybe I'll live till my 70th birthday, which is coming right up. Impossible as that is to believe.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Good People: Mark Sakimoto

Oh joy! My friend Marisha came today; she has cleaned my house and kept me sane for at least 15 years but has not been here since February. She was due to come in March when ... well, you know. I've managed to keep the dustballs from taking over, but barely, and today, there she was, six feet away and smiling. Her family is well. Her husband the truck driver is not driving long distances so is home more; she groaned, and we laughed.

At the same time, a miracle - my daughter appeared with her old friend who used to live with her family in my basement apartment, and they started to sort and clean. When they left, 3 hours later, there was a giant pile of toys and clothes in front of the house which we hope people will cart away; you can't donate to charities right now, they're all closed, but people around here do a good job of carting. There's a ton more to be done so they're back tomorrow, but the process has at last, at very long last, begun. See the writer's shoulders loosen slightly. My girl really came through.

So I cleaned with Marisha and kept an eye on downstairs, and then I started the "Marketing for creatives" course that I signed up for through the CNFC website. It says you should really consider keeping a blog. As they say on The Simpsons: Okeley dokeley.

Oh, and I'm better but not 100%. It must be a summer cold, a little bug with a bit of throat and body ache, but of course these days, any twinge leads to sheer terror. OMG THIS IS IT I'M DEAD.

Not. Thank you very much.

Today, extremely hot, and tomorrow, 31 degrees. It's July, and I'm not dead. Yet.

Yesterday I watched more episodes of Good People on CBC Gem, with the handsome talented empathetic Mark Sakimoto exploring our country's great problems and highlighting possible solutions. In my vivid dream last night, I was backstage at a concert with a man I really liked, and it was not - gasp! - Paul McCartney. I think it was Mark Sakimoto. Now going to watch more episodes. We'll see what tonight's dreams bring.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

hot hot hot

Hard to believe yet not, because we are Canadian: it is now high summer, nearly 30 degrees and sweltering, sweat dripping. I always joke that there's winter, and then spring happens on Tuesday between 2 and 5, and then it's summer. Not true this year, it was a long confusing spring, some heat, then cold, then hail and even a sprinkling of snow, then heat. And now - HEAT. The great wardrobe shift has begun - wool to the basement, shorts and tank tops out.

I have a sore throat. Usually that's something I'd ignore, but now, not. So I am sticking close to home. John came over to do some repairs and I kept far away and made him wear gloves. Otherwise, no one is coming close to me. Yesterday Jannette came to help me garden, but she always wears a mask. We planted like crazy, and my body hurt afterwards, but the veggies are mostly in. There's more to do, but then there's always more to do.

Right now, sore throat or not: rosé. Because nothing says summer like a chilled glass of rosé, on the deck, under the umbrella. And since I'm not feeling great, I will drink it alone.

A lovely animated essay about playing the piano at a late age - I identify completely.

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 21, Claim your truth


Claim your truth

once wrote an essay about visiting my grandparents in their dark, stuffy apartment in New York. My father—allowed to read the piece late in the process—protested. “There was nothing dark and stuffy about that apartment!” he said. “In comparison with the others, it was flooded with sunlight.” My childhood home in Halifax with its huge windows was the opposite of my grandparents’ flat on West 79th with its dark shroud of curtains. But my dad grew up in places with fewer windows and heavier curtains.
It’s your story, so you get to tell it your way. If my father had written the story, the apartment would have been bright.
I also believe you can, within sensible limits, change slightly or “recreate” the truth in order to fashion a better tale. Two friends were with me when a fire broke out in my home, but in writing the story, I didn’t need two bystanders to bring the drama to life, so I left one out. Her absence does not change the fundamental truth of the story: There was a fire and no one was hurt. Without an extra person, it’s a cleaner, clearer tale. But that’s as far as I would go with changes.
Beware of the pitfalls of fudging the facts. In 2006 James Frey’s forced admission that his memoir A Million Little Pieces contained blatant exaggerations caused a huge controversy about the issue of truth in creative non-fiction. Frey originally wrote his book as fiction but was persuaded by his editors to call it a memoir. If they’d printed a brief disclaimer—“Parts of this story have been embellished for effect”—Oprah and a million readers would not have felt cheated.
There is no universal truth. Ask your siblings to describe a dinnertime or holiday ritual from your childhood; their memories and yours will be so different, you could have come from different families. In fact, you did. (See Mary’s story in Step 19.) If they read your memoirs, they might be outraged. “It wasn’t like that at all!” they might say. No, it wasn’t, for them. But you are the one writing the story; your experiences and insights are unique. And you might also be reimagining the truth slightly to fashion a better story.
But only slightly. Beware of veering into fiction, a.k.a. making it all up, a.k.a. lying. And tell your siblings to write their own version.
After calling for honesty, I hope I don’t bewilder you when I say writers can be too honest. I don’t remember exactly, but I think my mother worked in a circus when I was young may be truthful, but it’s also opaque. If you can’t see the picture clearly, how will I? Do not tell me what you don’t remember (unless the whole point of the story is that you don’t remember). Contact someone who does know or do other kinds of research.
Without a way to ascertain something, you can make it up in the interests of a good story, but only to a certain point: only if it does not change the fundamental truth of your tale. If you have a general but not a specific memory of what you’re writing, like dialogue between your parents when you were small, make it up. Those memories are buried in there somewhere. I’ll bet what you write will be pretty close to what was actually said.
Be aware that this is controversial: Non-fiction writers who feel we should stay as close as possible to the strict letter of the truth will be outraged.
I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s. But behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.
flannery o’connor

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.
tobias wolff

Si non e vero, e ben trovato. (Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story.)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Sam Heffer on CBC, Michael Moore, Roz Chast

It is the most sublime day - will be 26 later, but right now sunny, fresh, sweet. Has the air ever been this fragrant, the city so still, the birds so happy? I was awake at 5 and up at 6 again, and at the market by 7. We lined up outside but only for a few minutes and all wore masks. The nut lady was back - the best crunchy almonds ever - the Mennonite butchers, the Merchants of Green Coffee, tons of asparagus, leeks, two pots of leafy basil to plant, $3 each. Only my favourite bread guys were not there.

Today I garden in the jungle of green awaiting me outside. Also lilac, lilies of the valley, viburnum, and Wayson's gardenia - the smell!

Last night, Michael Moore on Bill Maher was apocalyptic. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HIM! he told us, straight to the camera. "He knows his base. He could still win the electoral college. We must mobilize."

So, moving on to the good news: longtime home class writing student and friend Sam Heffer wrote a beautiful piece for our first Zoom class last month, about teaching children online. We gave her our critiques, she rewrote for the next class, and we said, Send it now to Karen Levine at the Sunday Edition. She bought it instantly, and Sam taped it in her basement.

Yesterday, I received this. Hope you give it a listen. It's powerful and moving. Brava, Sam!
Hi Beth,
I hope you’ve enjoyed this gorgeous day! 
So, when Karen emailed me back about my essay early on, she said she wasn’t crazy about the last two sentences, but could live with them. And that’s when I “heard” you asking me, “Sam, what’s this story really about?” Lol. That’s when I added some things - wrote more about grieving, getting outside, and missing the kids; the stuff that makes the piece matter, I think. And if you hadn’t scheduled our first Zoom class, I may not have found time to write this essay at all. So, thank you Beth. 
I hope you like the final version.
xo Sam 

Friday, May 22, 2020

26 degrees and all's well. No, Joe Biden is not a racist.

Long silence - three whole days! It's 26 degrees and glorious in Toronto right now; you can see and hear the plants grow. Yesterday, Sam and my toothless and very strong helper Bill moved all the big plants - giant oleander, hefty jasmine, gardenia - that wintered indoors out to the deck; I'd already moved the small ones. Flourish, my friends, and thank you for providing me with much-needed green through the long winter.

So - a lot going on, and I cannot report on it yet. You'll just have to wait, as I do, for Monday or Tuesday. In the meantime, things downstairs will also start to move around then. The young tenant just wrote to say they'd be there soon to continue clearing out, and he also apologized for the hole in the bedroom wall, which I have not even noticed yet.

The important event was Eli's 8th birthday yesterday. I took my life in my hands many times. John my handyman friend drove me over; I asked if he was riddled with disease and he said no, I should sit in the front seat with him. While I was there, he COUGHED. Do not cough!! I said. As soon as I got to Anna's, I asked for hot tea, because I was told if you suspect you've been near the virus, drink something hot and it will be washed from your throat to your stomach. That's what I heard. So I did.

Anna had only a few kids there yesterday, not the usual 19 or 20, so it was manageable and lovely; the mothers, Anna's old friends, were there, Sam arrived, the boys played basketball with a very tall man, they splashed in the wading pool, there were screams of laughter, and there was cake.

Sam and I Ubered back - nobody wearing a mask, yikes!; he spent the evening here cooking for me as always, and then we watched much of Season 2 of Ricky Gervais's After Life which is good but annoying, because his character is such a sad sack you want to shake him. And there are scenes with a psychiatrist which are 100% grotesque; this man would be disbarred or whatever they do to shrinks in any jurisdiction, so his portrayal is offensive. However, there are the usual fabulous British character actors.

I heard an interview on As It Happens with Rev. Rob Shenk, one of the anti-abortion zealots who was part of the team that manipulated and paid "Jane Roe" - Norma McCorvey - of the famous case Roe v Wade, to say she regretted her abortion and was now anti-abortion. She was paid! There's a new documentary. The reverend now regrets what he did and said. "The decisions around having a baby or not are deeply personal, painful, and enormously complex," he said. "A woman needs to make that decision as best she can; I can't impose it on her because I will never sit in her place." Imagine! People can change.

On the other hand, I am reading an article in the New Yorker on Mitch McConnell, and each time I finish another few paragraphs I want to go take a shower: a portrait of pure evil, a man without even a shadow of conscience or ethics or basic decency, interested only in power and money. A hideous human being.

Today, checking in - a long Skype with Lynn in France, which is still more strictly locked down than we are, and a Zoom with Judy in Vancouver. Yesterday, a Zoom board meeting for CNFC, and Wednesday, a Zoom movement class with Jane.

My son just texted, "Joe Biden just fucked up so bad." I do not want to hear this on such a beautiful day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

way better, thank you very much

Well, it's true what they say: what a difference a day makes. I woke as usual at 5.30 a.m., but instead of getting up way too early, I stayed put and eventually drifted off for another hour, was not waterlogged by too little sleep all day.

The sun was shining - that alone was enough to help the day take off.

And there was an email in my inbox about the manuscript - the publisher wants to move on it and quickly. So suddenly, after months - well, more than a year, really - of either nothing or NO, there was talk about the title, the subtitle, the cover, the pictures. Lots to decide, but it is moving through the birth canal at last. Thanks to the gods. Let the pushing begin.

Downstairs, they were supposed to come move out more today but did not appear or get in touch. That's nothing new. The clearing will be endless. But the family member and I are emailing again.

Had a coaching/editing client come over for a distanced meeting on the deck - a student ten years ago, a beautiful, vibrant woman now back for more punishment. And another friend wrote asking for my editorial services. Since I've lost teaching and rental income, coaching and editing is vital work for me. And of course, soon, there will be a fortune to make with my book. I've registered for an online course called "Marketing for Creatives"... A fortune, I tell you!

LOL. Onward.

Had a Zoom piano lesson at 2 which was mostly chatting about life because I haven't had much time or inclination to practice. But Peter is wonderfully kind and supportive. And then wine with Monique at 5 and banging the tambourine at 7.30. Chicken sandwich for lunch and roast chicken with veg for dinner. And thou. Another busy day.

Sometimes I feel simply insane with the limitations of this new life. WHY AM I STUCK IN HERE AND WHEN CAN I GET OUT? WHERE IS EVERYONE? And sometimes I marvel at how well we've all adapted to the new normal, the masks and hand sanitizer and constant hand washing, the steering far around each other on the sidewalk, the lack of touch and face to face contact, the underlying paranoia and concern about loved ones and the world. While, as we have for over three years, we watch with horror and disgust what is happening in the country to the south. Sometimes - a report on the Rohingya - I have to turn off the news, I cannot bear to listen. I know, that does not help.

All I can do, we can do, is to give what we can, to be kind, to care for each other. To nurture the green. And for me right now, yes, to learn some marketing for creatives and get my book into the world.

Sure. Just what the world needs. Another book.

I'm going to ask my body nicely to give 5.30 a.m. a miss tomorrow morning. See if that works.

Monday, May 18, 2020

sad today

Today is the first day since this crisis started that our new solitary, silent life has weighed me down. I'm usually a resilient, cheerful person, but today, not so much. It may have to do with waking at 5.30 and getting up at 6.30, having one nap at 8 and another at noon and eating at miscellaneous times. It's a heavy grey day, not actually raining but no sun - damp cool heavy grey. I just looked at the clock and couldn't believe it's still only 2.30. It feels like the end of a loooong day.

But there's also, believe it or not, still stress with the tenant situation. They have moved out but their many many possessions have not. Yesterday there was light; the father of one appeared on the scene and if there ever was a knight in shining etc., it was this man, who filled his truck with just some of the mountain of stuff that is still crammed in downstairs. I have not elaborated and cannot, but what was a newly painted and furnished apartment in no way resembles what it did a year ago. The move may take another week, the clean up and repair and replacement of damaged and broken things much longer than that. And through all this, a member of my family insists that I was wrong to ask these people to find a safer, healthier, more suitable place to live. We're not speaking at the moment.

So my heart is sore today, and my head feels like it's stuffed with cotton balls, and maybe it's time for another meal.

Wait, though. This morning I did a Zoom exercise class with Carole, my Y teacher every Wednesday for the last 30 years. What a treat to see her face - and also that when she and her very fit friends were on the floor, out of camera range, doing many pushups, I was in the child pose thinking about life. Yesterday, in the middle of more basement sturm and drang, I retreated to my bedroom and did Jane Ellison's movement class, which felt like a literal lifesaver; thank God for her calm voice and face. Then went for a walk with Ruth, who was celebrating her 81st birthday with many Zoom celebrations, including one with former colleagues wearing party hats. "It's been one of the best!" she said. Had the usual drink with Monique, who is an anchor. 60 Minutes was all Covid. Finding the Midwife was moving and marvellous, as always, though it too made me sad - it's over for the season. All those women, and Fred, feel like friends.

Saturday I walked to Mark the butcher's, picked up the chicken I'd ordered online, and cooked a fragrant roast chicken and veg dinner. Food in the fridge for days.

Friends, faces through the screen, texts on the little phone, matter so very much. And the green outside, every possible shade of green, beyond beautiful. I was up very early yesterday too, went to the garden store on the corner, have a tray of veg ready to plant soon. Got the plants that wintered over upstairs down and out and spent more than an hour cleaning hated scale off the leaves and branches of the gardenia Wayson gave me years ago, that is now blooming with the sweetest scent. When it blooms, it always make me think he is here, keeping me company, cheering me up. And then I weep, because he is not.

Spring is glorious, and my heart will lift again. Just not right now.

Here's a little film to bring you joy:

Saturday, May 16, 2020

soupe au pistou

BTW, I forgot to do a bit of boasting about my students earlier this week: Margaret Lynch, who'd never done any creative writing before taking my class, went on to do an MFA in Nonfiction at King's and is now on the short list for the top prize for that year's grads. Brava, Margaret, who has an incredible story to tell. Sam Stanley-Paul wrote a story for class about being an online teacher in the pandemic. After our comments, she rewrote and read it again, and we urged her to send it to CBC's Karen Levine who bought it. Sam taped it in her basement; it will air on The Sunday Edition on May 24. (She's read an essay on the program before, as have many of my students.) Ruth complained that she had nothing to say and then wrote a moving piece for class Thursday about her life in isolation; she rewrote and sent to me for editing, and now it has gone out to a newspaper.

Proud of you all! And of everyone else - all ten who came to class Thursday and the five who read, who have not been stopped by the strange state of the world.

It's a glorious sunny Saturday morning of a long weekend, not that that means anything to most of us. I can see streams of people heading to the garden centre on the corner. Several readers have asked about my tenant issue; happy to report that though it's far from over, it is slowly resolving, thanks for asking. I am no longer losing weight thanks to stress, I am now gaining weight thanks to cheese.

Spent time in the night trying to figure out where the time goes, adding up the (too many) hours on social media, blogging, and email; food; home, garden, and self maintenance; walking or exercise classes; aperitif with Monique (an hour a day); television; teaching and editing; reading newspapers, the New Yorker, and books; and - oh yes - writing. It still didn't add up to the 14 or 15 hours a day I'm awake. Where does the time go? we ask plaintively. And the answer is, No @$#@ idea.

Dear friends Cathy Smalley and Christopher Banks (whom I met when I was a tour guide at the National Art Centre in 1969, the summer it opened), sequestered in Nova Scotia, wrote a few days ago attaching a recipe I gave them years ago. "As you can see by the amount of spillage on every page, this recipe is well used." I'd completely forgotten it but will give it a try soon. Hello to Nova Scotia. We were supposed to be there this summer but now - who knows? Hope to see you soon. Sending love. (PS. I demand billing.)
(Click to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Montfort cheese, Zoom, and the Moth

Sometimes it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by our current circumstances. Because of the cruelty of the asymptomatic time lag - we can be infected with the virus for days before manifesting symptoms - we profoundly social animals now need to look on everyone we meet as possible carriers of death.

Horrendous. But we are making our way through nonetheless, some of us with greater openness than others. It's hard not to cower at home, avoiding all contact, but at the same time, we have to live our lives. So - the uneasy balance between calculated risk and the safety of isolation.

Last night, a Zoom version of The Moth, the foremost storytelling event in the States and perhaps the world. 3000 people bought tickets for last night, including moi. I have to say - and yes, I'm a tiny bit prejudiced - our So True event is much better. Their stories are good, yes, though certainly no better than ours, not in the slightest. But they are told, not read, meaning that sometimes the speakers flounder for the next word. The host was annoying, storytelling on and on herself; she has often hosted, and it felt as if she'd told all her good stories and was scraping the barrel for these ones. And the boring music - I've never understood why they feel the need for music. We're there for stories.

So True for the win!

Today, a walkabout with Ruth, who stood under a magnificent magnolia and pointed out, when she saw the picture, that she is leaning one way and the tree the other. (click to enlarge)
My Mother's Day present from Anna arrived - a box of superb gourmet cheeses from the Montfort Dairy in Stratford. Oh she knows me well, my girl.
A calculated risk trip to the LCBO for more wine before aperitif with Monique and Cathy, to share my cheese treasure with them. It was raining and Monique did not want to come inside, so we sat on the deck under umbrellas. I drank tea, because I was teaching later.
Cathy's dog Finn sheltered inside.
Class tonight - it's miraculous that one by one, just as they walk in the door here, my student friends enter the Zoom space. We chat, just as we do here, and then we start reading, commenting, critiquing. It's rich and warm and magical and means the world to me and I hope to them. Something is continuing in its own way, bringing us together despite the fear, the uncertainty and chaos,

Onward, my friends.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Wednesday's thrilling report

A gorgeous day - you can hear the leaves growing. What day is this? I only know it's Wednesday because I do Jane Ellison's Zoom movement class Wednesday and Sunday, and I know it's not Sunday.

Monday morning, the heart-pounding excitement of a trip to the big Loblaws to buy my special peanut butter and lemon yogurt and other things I can't get at No Frills, including Girl Guide cookies. Yesterday, as the weather improved, gardening to the point of pain, scattering fertilizer under the growing plants and digging up the veg patch, ready for planting in a few weeks. Anna's Thomas told me he put out some seedlings a few days ago - and they all froze.

Last night, watched The Miracle Worker again - what an amazing story and performance by Patty Duke. When she learns the word 'teacher', I - guess what - teared up.

This morning, a huge treat - Thomas and Eli rode over for a visit. Anna packed them a picnic and I had my own, so we sat and had lunch on the deck in the hot sun - distanced, except for this picture. No hugging, which was hard. Girl Guide cookies for dessert and the rest went back with them.
Glamma is hairier than she has been in a long time. I like it.

Tonight, a special treat - I've bought a ticket to a Zoom Moth storytelling event. Jane's class and the Moth are two things I love and cannot usually attend. One plus of this pandemic.

And so - another day, another not a dollar.

Monday, May 11, 2020

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 22


Unpack your suitcases

student began to read her piece. Excited about the prospect of going away to camp, I ran around getting my gear ready. As I searched for my sleeping bag, I wished that Mum hadn’t left us and that she was there to help me. When the camp bus pulled up, I was first in line, eager for adventure …
Wait a minute … what did you say? We’re listening to a tale about going to camp and then suddenly there’s a mother who has disappeared. Which is the more interesting story? Right there, in the middle of the paragraph, is a closed suitcase, a giant mystery waiting to be unpacked. We want to hear about Mum and won’t be satisfied with zooming right by her off to camp.
The writer will have to unpack that suitcase right now, which means opening up the hugely important subject of a mother’s disappearance and writing about it—if not in depth, because you don’t want her to take over the camp story, then enough to explain. The reader needs to be enlightened and will fuss until you explain. Or else you had better leave your vanished and intriguing mother out of this story altogether. She probably deserves one of her own.
Sometimes we’re so accustomed to lugging our suitcases around that we don’t even recognize them. This writer was so used to missing her mother, it was natural for her to bring up that loss when recalling her childhood. She didn’t realize how curious we’d be about such a tantalizing subject. Often, in fact, the whole point of the essay or story is the suitcase; the writer has that topic pressing on mind and heart but, because it’s so fraught, prefers to put it down, unopened, and rush on by. Perhaps secretly hoping that we’ll notice it and ask. Perhaps not.
But if we’re reading with any kind of attentiveness, we will notice. So you’d better have an explanation. (See Step 37.)
Good personal writing is about the process of discovery. The narrator is grappling with a problem, a pain, a life-changing moment, something that needs to be explored and understood before the journey can continue or end. That’s why we read: to find out how the issue is resolved.
If you are busy hiding a key part of your story, you’re not telling us the truth. And if you don’t think enough of your readers to go deeply into the truth, why should we stay with you?
What are your suitcases? Are you trying to conceal them in the middle of your essays? Your readers are pointing at them and saying, “Open that! Now!”
When I start something and an instinct in me is saying don’t go there, don’t go there—that’s where I know I have to go.
wayson choy

Your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element of your style. 
kurt vonnegut

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Happy Mother's Day

Thinking of my mother today - gone more than seven years - and Auntie Do. Sending love to my daughter today, who's been at home nonstop with her two fireballs for almost two months. Sending love to all mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sons.
Visiting Mum in July 2012. She died that Christmas, at 89. Do - two years ago, aged 98. This year I will be 70. Anna just turned 39, Eli is about to turn 8. Moving right along.

saving the day

Yesterday morning there was a Rogers bill in my Inbox. The charge was surprisingly low, so, thinking that nice old Rogers was giving us a break this month (LOL!!!) I entered my password and tried to log into my account. Couldn't get in. Tried twice, and then, ten minutes later, my tiny brain clicked and I checked the return address: some OMG - I'd been hacked. Immediately my email stopped working.

Usually it's easy to tell the fake ones because they're so badly done with poor, often hilarious grammar. This one was a perfect replica, except for the return address.

Total panic. If there is one thing that is keeping me, all of us, sane right now, as we sit in isolation at home, it's the internet - email, social media, our links to the planet. Yes, it's also making us all crazy with an excess of information, though better too much than too little.

I deployed my secret weapon: Matt Shorter, my tech guy, who answered my panicked phone call in five minutes, had me immediately change my password, deleted and reloaded email on both computer and phone - and that was that. Saved from destruction. Beyond grateful. So here I am.

Friday night, Bill Maher had as one of his guests Justin Amash, a Libertarian candidate for President. I had to mute him. How is it possible for Americans to go on and on about the evils of government at a time like this? Their quest for individual liberty as the greatest good will kill them all, with their millions of free-ranging guns and the virus they're determined to ignore. They have no curiosity about how any other country in the world works - and works better than they. Nonsensical.

But then, my dear friend John, who came over to repair something the other day, is an anti-vaxxer who thinks the search for a Covid vaccine is a plot by Bill Gates to further enrich himself. Makes me sad.

Plus it's the polar vortex here - yesterday a sprinkling of snow, then hail twice, all of it vanishing instantly when the sun came out. But Jay's garden centre down the street has started to open and I was able to buy three bags of fertilizer; that felt like spring.

Just to cheer myself up some more, I received Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and am now reading about daily life in Auschwitz.

Friday, May 8, 2020

WISEST and Bletchley Park on VE Day

Both my parents are with me today. An Ottawa man who has spent a great deal of time chronicling the history of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, who interviewed my mother and made sure she received the Bletchley medal, sent me this today, dedicated to the veterans of Bletchley in honour of V.E. Day:

I look for Mum among the photos of young women inputting code and imagine her listening to these VE Day letters. Weeping for joy, for sure, a habit she passed on to me, though it meant the imminent end of her job. I wonder if she was thinking at all of my dad, perhaps the favourite of her wartime boyfriends, stationed with an American army MASH unit somewhere in eastern France. What a glorious day for them all. Thanks and all praise to the coalition, including so many Canadians, whose bravery defeated the very definition of evil.

And then the man who was President of the University of Alberta when my dad was the Vice-President Research through the eighties sent me this, about WISEST, Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology, founded by my father in 1982 to encourage women and girls to enter these male-dominated fields. It has just won a citizenship award.
Dad came late to feminism, but then he jumped right in. Very proud of them both.

Nothing much to report, which is wonderful for a change. Lost pounds are coming back. The difficult situation is not resolved but looks like it will definitely get there, all I ask at this point. Yesterday, during aperitif, Monique invited Deborah to join us; she's a lawyer who has lived right across the street since 2004 and to whom I've never spoken. So thanks to Covid we're getting to know our neighbours. Today, line-dancing with Gina and my Friday Zoom chat with Judy in Vancouver, who was cruel enough to swivel her camera so I could see her phenomenal view of ocean and mountains and spring. Here they're talking about a polar vortex with possible snow, though so far, it's just chilly. We can live with chilly. Though it is indeed really, really chilly.

I did some writing work. I ate, drank, and read, stayed alive for another day and thought and wrote about my extraordinary parents. That will do.

And now, 7.30, time to go bang my tambourine in the street with Monique and Deborah and other neighbours. It doesn't signal the end of a war, but it is a joyful noise.

And now to Google "How to cut your own bangs."

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 15

Last year I learned a simple way to express the vital truth written below: every good piece of writing is about the thing, and then it's about the other thing. There's the story on the surface, and the deeper, more universal story below. My students have heard it a million times: What is this story REALLY ABOUT?


Make it matter
One of the most common sentiments of beginning memoir writers is, “Who’ll be interested in MY story? I’m not famous or interesting.” That was the attitude of Grace in Step 1, presenting what she thought was a boring, mundane saga of adoption, which I heard years ago and have never forgotten. Think of high school teacher Frank McCourt, who decided to write a memoir of his Irish childhood. He didn’t know if his story would interest anyone, but he had a moving tale and told it well, with detail, dialogue, humour, and skill—and also, considering what a painful story it was, with great compassion for his hapless parents. Angela’s Ashes became a huge bestseller (suggestion—read it).
The beautiful irony of our work is that the more honest, direct, and passionate we are in telling our own stories, the more our readers will connect to us. This is hard to believe, but it’s true, no matter how specific your story is to you, how quirky and unusual. My parents were not alcoholic or Irish, but because McCourt wrote with truth, wit, and daring, I connected on a deep level with the rich humanity in his tale. I don’t have a sister, but because Grace told her story with such genuine emotion, I understood something new about the power of the loyalty and concern we feel for our own flesh and blood.
This kind of writing means telling the small story so well, with such focus and heart and skill, that the big story inside it will shine through, though sometimes we don’t even know what the big story is. If what you choose to write doesn’t matter to you, the writer, it won’t matter to your readers. Trust your important stories and trust your voice to tell them.
To become better writers, we must work on two fronts. On the one front, we need to summon the courage, depth, and honesty to dig up and recount our most important stories. On the other, we must develop the patience, humility, and dedication to learn the craft and technique of good writing, so that we tell those vital stories well. Craft and courage—that’s all you need. If you have lots of courage but no craft, people will be eager to read your honest tales but won’t be able to penetrate your prose. If you have lots of craft but no courage, your stories will flow beautifully with rich vocabulary and good structure but may not find readers, because nothing is at risk.
Risk is key. Something must be at stake. Otherwise, why should we care? (Risk is an important topic; see Step 37 and on.)
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
robert frost

The literary non-fiction writer recreates the narrative so that it becomes resonant. She uses her imagination, but the story is based in fact and emotional truth. She tells her own truth so fully that she enables her readers to remember theirs. An honest story opens others to the possibility of their own humanity. It opens us up, teaches the heart how to manoeuvre and think. We touch a human, visible part of each other when the story rings true.

from wayson choy’s notebook

Thursday, May 7, 2020

joyful noise: Once Were Brothers and banging pots

I may be one of the only people who has actually lost weight during the pandemic. Four or five pounds shed, so far. But I'm happy to tell you that the major stress is over, and so the appetite will return. My son came over yesterday; as a bartender, he has dealt with all kinds of difficult situations and is the most street-smart, savvy person I know. He gave me the best advice, and I felt instantly calmer.

So then we ordered steak/frites from our favourite local resto the House on Parliament - they're doing take-out - and had a feast with a glass of red wine. A true celebration. And then Anna texted that she's coming over tmw. It's not over, but it's ending, and by next week all will be calm. I think. But even if it's not, my team is on the case, and a finer team you could not ask for.

So this little sailboat is on smoother waters. Bring out the cheese and chocolate.

There are lessons here. I overreact, I act impulsively without enough thought, I want to fix things that I cannot fix, and I also accept blame where there is none. You'd think, by age 69, I'd be smarter. But I guess we go on learning about our flaws until the day we die. Hooray!

Tuesday - Once Were Brothers, a doc about The Band. The name says it all. Canadian Robbie Robertson, half-Indigenous and all talent, found out as a teenager that his birth father was a Jewish gangster who'd been murdered on a Toronto street but whose family encouraged his musical ambitions. It's a moving story of the flowering of an extraordinary group of men, what happened in that pink house in Woodstock, and how it all eventually turned sour, as these things so often do. But their unique music lives forever. Up on Cripple Creek ... Time to get out the record and put it on the player.

Last night, with Sam, Spy in the Wild: they put cameras into clever replicas of animals and birds, even fish - a baby bear that actually turns its head and grunts, a fake stork, a fake hummingbird, a fake beaver - so the camera can get close to the action. And what incredible footage we get. Sam was hilarious - George, have you noticed there's something strange about your friend? - as we watch a weird bird with glassy eyes that doesn't move its wings. But there we are, in the middle of the flock.

Tonight, after aperitif at 5, the next treat is at 7.30 - Monique and I go out into the street with our neighbours and bang pots - I the boys' tambourine - to give thanks to the frontline workers. There's not much else we can do to show our appreciation, and I doubt any frontline workers are walking by at 7.30, but we are together making joyful noise, and it feels good.

CN Rail just cancelled the exciting, much anticipated trip Anna and the boys were to take on the overnight train from Montreal to Moncton in July, in preparation for my 70th birthday gathering there. Some rethinking of the summer is in order. Careful, calm thinking. My new modus vivendi. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

in the storm

I thought my difficult issue was being resolved but in fact, I feel like I'm in a sailboat in a hurricane. However. It's a sturdy boat, and I have faith we'll get through. At some point. I do have friends who are aware of the situation and are giving support and counsel. Thank the very good lord for wise, solid, caring friends.

Otherwise - it's spring, the world is stunningly beautiful, I don't think it has ever been lovelier because we need it so much - flowers, green, buds, birds. Birds. Green. Magnolia trees. I walk the same route in the 'hood every day, just looking and breathing.

Monday night, two superb programs - one on CRISPR which I began, barely, to understand - the genetic sequence they've discovered will repair itself when damaged, and so they're hoping they can use CRISPR to repair genetic flaws like sickle cell anemia and Huntington's. Again, I wish my dad were here to watch these incredible genetic innovations. And also to debate the scary, risky side of all this - the selection of characteristics for babies, the end of Down's Syndrome, where is it all headed?

And then the finale of My Brilliant Friend, ending with Lila - spoiler alert! - in a version of hell, a salami factory with dead pigs and a river of blood on the floor. A shock for Lenu and for us all. But also a loving friendship with a kind man, a healthy happy son, a bright tidy apartment - she has created her own life. Such superb drama. Can't wait for Season Three, though - can they top this, or even keep up?

So, another day. A Zoom stretching class at 1, a talk at 3 with my tech guy about an important issue, aperitif at 5, and my son coming for supper. In between, what? No idea. My little boat and I sail on.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 14


Complete your baggy
first draft
You sit staring at the page or the screen and, finally, an idea comes. You begin to write tentatively, then with more confidence. The words start to flow, and the pages take shape. Then you stop and read what you’ve written, and you want to throw up.
Congratulations! You’ve done exactly what you’re supposed to do. You have written a big fat baggy first draft.
Inexperienced writers think that writing is like laying an egg. You begin by gathering your thoughts, fashioning a nice warm nest. You sit in it, gestate, strain—and voilà, you produce a perfect, shining, egg-shaped piece of writing, a gift to the world all set to go.
But that is the furthest thing from what writing really is: a process, a journey, endless stumbling along a confusing trail. Beginning somewhere, figuring out where you want to go, trying to get there, trying again this way, trying again that way, finishing somewhere and then starting again. This messy, frustrating process is what writing really looks like.
A first draft can and indeed should be awful. In her diary, Virginia Woolf spoke of her first draft as a chaotic handbag into which she threw everything. Try not to edit or stop as your first draft emerges. Let the ideas, thoughts, and scenes pour out until that bag is bulging. You are writing a big fat baggy first draft, wearing your writer’s hat (throw all the ideas in) not your editor’s hat (weed many ideas out). You can’t work with a few tentative lines; you need pages filled with words. When you stop and read your draft, it’ll be too terse and constrained or, more likely, way too rambling and long. It’ll be full of bad grammar, digressions, and clichés. “All over the place!” you’ll say. “So dull. Abysmal.”
Forgive yourself. Because now the next part of the work begins: editing, shaping, and improving the baggy first draft.
My first drafts are turgid, unfocused, and lacklustre; they make me think I’m a lousy writer. But I am, I like to think, a good REwriter. Once the first draft is down, I work it over and over into something better—as I’m doing right now, over and over, in this book for you. Some believe getting the first draft out is the hardest part of writing; others love the initial burst of creation and hate the fiddly editing that comes next. Use different techniques to help launch yourself—perhaps drawing or creating mind maps, talking out loud, or making lists and pinning them on the wall.
Writing is more like working with clay than we realize at first; when you’ve got a lump of raw material, you have to figure out what to do with it, what its final shape should be, and how to get it there. But first, unlike potters or sculptors, you have to produce the raw material yourself, unearthing it onto the page from your own memory, heart, gut, mind, soul.
Delve into your topic, let yourself go, and write a clumsy, bulky, meandering, lousy first draft. Keep writing, keep your writer’s hat on, and keep putting in what comes to you until you have enough content to really rewrite. Only then should you put on your editor’s hat and begin to redraft, polish, and cut.
When I used to write more at The New Yorker, there were two or three Polish cleaning women who came in late at night, and I was always afraid that they would find my early drafts and read them to each other, howling with laughter, slapping their brooms against the desks like hockey players do: Ha! He calls himself a writer!
calvin trillin

The first words down are like a block of marble for the sculptor: raw material. The content, or much of it, comes blurting out in the first draft. (Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that this appalling stuff sounds as if it were written by someone named Philboyd Studge.)
junot diaz

Let it pour out. Surrender to the story. Write too much so you have something to work with. Don’t worry about who will see it; write for yourself. Don’t hold back and be discreet. Don’t cut yourself off from the story.
wayson choy

Monday, May 4, 2020

Call the Midwife: sob! And Shelter.

It's possible the stressful tenant situation has begun to be resolved. My stomach was heaving again today, until about an hour ago. But I won't hold my breath until I'm sure.

Let it be so.

Last night, Call the Midwife - and as usual, I wept. I mean, they showed us a baby born with a terminal heart condition, not to mention the on-going plot points, the good-hearted handyman with his Down's Syndrome son who's one of the stars, the sweet nun midwives and the sweet not nun midwives, the final tableau of all the recently delivered babies arrayed on a blanket, and in the middle, placed carefully in a pot of flowers, a picture of the dead baby.

It's not maudlin, though it may sound so, just very real. But still, every week, Heidi Thomas the writer makes me - makes all of us, I'm sure - cry.

And then the second season of the terrific TVO show, First Contact, about a group of ordinary Canadians who have prejudices and preconceptions about Indigenous people being taken into First Nations homes and communities to meet individuals and hear their stories. It's superb.

It's destination television, at 9 on Sundays. My tech guru Brad wrote to say, why don't I show you how to access the shows you want to watch on HBO and Crave so you can watch them whenever you want? But I don't want to watch them whenever. With a few exceptions, like a few things on Netflix, if a show I want to see is on Sunday at 9, that's when I'll sit down and watch it. I won't sit down at 3 on Monday afternoon, it just doesn't occur to me, and so I just won't get to it. That's the kind of dinosaur I am.

I think things are different for couples; they need to find things they can do together, like watching shows whenever. But I am happier reading - these days, too much online rather than books or mags, but still, the solitary act of reading - than tuning in to something that aired 6 weeks ago.

Tonight, the finale of My Brilliant Friend, which has been renewed for another season. On Mondays at 10.

My friend Julia sent me this: Shelter. Beautiful. Dancers. She's a former student who just had a great piece in the Globe about the importance, especially now, of birds.

Today, I finally started work. That is, not editing and teaching, not running this complicated house and garden, not keeping up with friends and family and the world, but writing work. IT'S ABOUT TIME, a mere 7 weeks into this thing. But everyone is saying, cut yourself some slack. It's stressful. Yes, it is, and I the lucky landlady had a little bit extra just to keep me on my toes.

But it's spring, and today another heavenly day. Here, from today's walk by the Necropolis, an amazing magnolia:
And here, Anna's 39th birthday party, the usual feast only with a small, select crowd, including Sam and friend Nicole. It's Eli's birthday in 3 weeks, and I want to be there. I need to hug those boys. Or at least sit 6 feet away and gaze. A destination birthday.