Wednesday, April 21, 2021

justice, blessed relief, and snow

Anna and the boys were over yesterday; we were about to go to the playground when she checked her phone and said, "The verdict's coming in soon!" TV went on; the boys swirled around us while we held our breath and watched - and eventually wept. We had to try to explain to two small boys why a police officer had been convicted of murder. It was not easy.

Thank god, a moment of justice in an unjust land. It's hard to imagine, given the cellphone footage, that the verdict could have gone any other way, as countless other verdicts have in the past. The blessing of cellphone cameras and the courage of witnesses. 

Like Harvey Weinstein and others trapped by the march of time and social change, Chauvin launched his career in a certain system, where white policemen could do whatever they wanted, including murder, and get away with it; he's the first to publicly find himself in another. It will not be easy for him in prison, where I assume he may be surrounded by men he helped put away.

Eli had brought homework, so while he did it, Ben did some careful, laborious writing of his own. He asked for the spelling of NO CHICKENS, followed by NO ROOSTERS. Not sure why, but definite rules have now been made which I'll do my best to obey. I'm blessed to be able to spend time with my grandsons and give thanks that this pandemic, unlike polio, spares children almost entirely. One of the greatest blessings of all. 

I sent this picture to Ben's grandfather in Washington, and he replied, Always nice to have clear rules of engagement, especially concerning poultry. 

Snow! Very pretty. It won't last, in fact, it's melting already. Just a reminder of where we've been. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Couples Therapy - if you're a couple, a must see

Oh this is such a strange time, these long solitary days, everything closed, the air full of fear. Online petitions for Doug Ford to resign. Somehow time vanishes, swallowed up, another day gone.

Today would have been my penpal Barbara's 71st birthday had she not died after a heart operation in 1966 at the age of 16. It was that plus other stuff, one of those @#$@ days; I badly needed a walk so went to the Necropolis to commune with the Cabbagetown dead. But it's spring, hard to be mopey for long.

My house, hidden by forsythia. What a colour!
The magnificent magnolia outside the Necropolis

Sunday night is TV night - 60 Minutes along with The Eighties (flipping back and forth during commercials), The Simpsons, Us - which shows us the fabulous European cities - Paris, Amsterdam, Venice - we might never see again; a new Netflix series, Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet as an exhausted, angry cop, which was so relentlessly depressing, I stopped after half an hour - the small town underbelly of America, hopelessly dysfunctional people who eat absolute garbage throughout - the ghastly food a subplot, along with poverty and murder. 

And then, a standout: Couples Therapy on Crave, fascinating, reality TV, real couples seeing a very wise, patient therapist. You watch them in their entrenched positions, not listening, feeding their resentment, and her attempts to pry them loose and open them up. Fascinating. 

Today the long list came out for the Stephen Leacock Award for humour writing; I'd entered with the faintest hope, and sure enough, Loose Woman was not on the list. All but one on the long list are men. Writing competitions these days are predominantly women, by far, except for humour. Does this mean we don't have a sense of humour? No, but it does mean - I know this from my classes and from my men friends - that for men, humour is a powerful defence mechanism which allows them to tell their stories without seeming vulnerable or weak. And more power to them, God knows, we need to laugh now more than ever. Bring it on. Please.

On the other hand, here's another fan of the book, a student from at least a decade ago: I finished reading Loose Woman last night and had to write to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Such a riveting read, and the sentences so well-crafted, just leapt off the page. I felt like I really got a peek into that young woman's mind and heart. I have recommended it to others, some of whom, like me, are former students of yours who I've kept in touch with over the years.

I needed that today. Thank you!

Oh, and I finished a longish article and sent it to a magazine. It's not funny enough either, but luckily, that's not what these people are looking for. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

in the doghouse, but busy

From my old friend Susan Mendelson, founder of the Lazy Gourmet in Vancouver: I really enjoyed Loose Woman! It was a wonderful read and I couldn’t put it down. Also took me on a trip down memory lane. Have told everyone I know to get it!

Thank you, Susan, and thank you for many meals through the years, not just from the LG, but from your famous cookbook. The pork chops with red peppers in a sauce of white wine and ketchup - as you say in the book, it sounds terrible but it tastes divine.

And this from my new fourth cousin Lesley: I loved Loose Woman on several different levels. First, as a very honest, plain-speaking autobiography. Second, the description of your summer in France and work at L’Arche, and how it transformed your life. The book also evoked my own memories of the roller-coaster emotions of being a twenty-something in the 1970s, searching for love and security, but often finding only disappointment, humiliation and despair. 

Thank you, Lesley, and for the fascinating genealogical info you sent: there's a line in Loose Woman where I mention a vocal exercise we did at theatre school to loosen the lips: "Billy Bunter bought a broken buttered biscuit." According to Lesley, the actor, Gerald Campion, who grew famous playing Billy Bunter on television is a relative of ours! 

I sent this info to my friend R.H. Thomson, who was my classmate at LAMDA. He laughed and sent back a wonderful pic of us in "The Recruiting Officer," me in what's called a trousers role, a woman dressed as a man. Spring, 1972. 

Just watched a doc called "The Book Makers," about craftspeople who make handmade books, artists, paper makers - and the huge Codex Book Fair in San Francisco, where they all gather. My people. Crazy and wonderful.
Won't mention Doug Ford and what he has done to Ontario. But if you want to know, look at the front page of the Toronto Star today. Howls of outrage. Well deserved.

Like Doug Ford, I'm in the doghouse today. I can't really talk about it, except to say that yesterday I hit "reply all" by mistake and should not have. Beware "reply all"! Someone may be on the feed who should not see what you've written to the others. That's what happened. I'm sorry for my carelessness, but also that the person I offended was unable to see that an honest and not very serious mistake was made. 


It happened partly because I've spent two days doing nothing but sit in my kitchen chair tapping on this machine, banging out quick replies. I'm dealing with various issues, including a request from a Washington theatre to see the play I wrote years ago about my great-grandfather, so was re-reading and doing rewrites of that, got it out today. The emails keep coming in. Sometimes I feel the process is like pingpong or tennis - the ball comes at you and you have to hit it back. Requests come in, or notes that need replies, one thing after another. Tap tap tap - hit that ball back. 

But do not hit "reply all." 

Funny that weeks, even months go by when I hardly write, and then the floodgates open. I've been working on an essay to send out soon, plus the play, plus other things. Plus income tax and life. Busy. The bum is numb. But how I enjoy this, when it's flowing, when there's too much rather than too little.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

showing a slick chick how to eat watermelon, 1944

On another gloomy day, thought I'd share with you a bit from one of the letters I've just transcribed. This is from my mother's then-fiancé Len, who spent 1944 in Florida training to be a pilot for the British navy - how to land planes on aircraft carriers, among other things. He includes a sketch of a piece of watermelon and another showing how to eat it. Learning the ways of the natives, including the lingo. 

School House is my mother's home in the village, where obviously she liked to escape chores by playing the piano. 


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

beautiful things

My friend Chris, in his blog to the left, posts a series of pictures of beautiful things nearly every day. So here, on this lovely Tuesday morning, are a few random beautiful things from me:

One of the best men ever - generous, loving, talented, gorgeous. Did you know he was half-Jewish, like a close acquaintance of mine? 
Yesterday at the Kim's garden centre just down the street - ranunculus, one of the best flowers ever.

Another of the best men - on the right, my ex, who with the artistic director beside him, turned the vast Arena Stage theatre complex he runs in Washington D.C., closed for a year and into the foreseeable future, into a vaccination centre. They will help vaccinate many thousands. I wrote to him, It's called turning on a dime, which is his family's specialty. Bravo. 

The sun is shining. I just went to the Y, which also will not open in the foreseeable future, to rescue my good running shoes from my locker. Will she actually use them, readers? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

excavating my mother's passionate past

What would you do? On this drizzly grey morning, I just lifted a bag marked "Letters to Mum" from one of my storage boxes. Inside, various piles, including a huge one, "Letters from Len." Opened it. NOOO. Hundreds of letters, 1942-45, from Oxford where he was studying, from around Britain after he enlisted in the air force, then from Ottawa and Pensacola, Florida where he was in flight school - though luckily in '44 and '45, too late to be killed in the war.

As a teenager, Len was evacuated from London to the countryside during the Blitz and was lucky enough to land in the rustic village of Potterspury, where he met the 3 beautiful Leadbeater sisters, the youngest Sylvia in particular, with whom he fell desperately in love. Mum and Len were engaged by 1942 and almost married in '43. He continued to write love letters to her daily until 1945. But after the war she left England, first for northern Germany where she worked resettling refugees, and then to New York to see if things would work out with the handsome Yank she'd met in 1944. And luckily for me, they did. So much for Len. 

So should I just throw all these out? Of course not. You might; it would be a sensible, time-saving thing to do. But I am detective here, trying to see if there's stuff to be gleaned.

For example, I've found letters from someone else, Kenneth, who was crazy about her and wrote almost daily through 1945, until she dumped him. Later she never once mentioned poor Kenneth, who was competing not only with the abject Len but with my father and a Scottish airman called Jock. Was my mother hedging her bets? 

People WROTE in those days. The letters go on and on - about daily life but also about how much they worship the divine Sylvia. "Don't ever think there's any part of you I don't adore, physically or otherwise," wrote Len, after detailing every single part of her that he adored. Have to say, I feel deprived. Nobody ever detailed in a letter or even a postcard every single part of ME that they adored. Romance is dead. 

Of course, it was the war — feelings were urgent and extreme.

The sheer volume of these letters, almost one a day from Len for years, requiring sitting down with fountain pen, unearthing thoughts on paper, putting in envelope, stamping, addressing, mailing. 

Mum and Len wrote fitfully through the years; unlike her daughter, she was not a good correspondent. He married, not happily. After my father's death in 1988, Mum got back in touch, they wrote and telephoned, and finally, with his wife's approval, Len flew to Edmonton to reconnect with the love of his life. It was a disaster. He chain-smoked and was as insecure as he'd been as a young man. I gather they even tried to make love - Mum with her one breast and scar from navel to sternum from open heart surgery - but Len, Mum told her friends, could not. He returned to England and that was that.

I can't help but feel that she devastated him twice. He wasn't strong enough for her. My father was, in spades. They were well matched, powerful ego to ego. She needed that.

So, back to the pile, scanning for clues, and then throwing in recycling. Done. Only, in the storage box, there are more bags from others, more letters, more excavating to be done. Exploring the eternal mystery: who were those mysterious people, my parents?

PS True confession: I did the same thing to my first boyfriend who adored me, though he wasn't as literary as Len. After our summer together - I just turning sixteen, he seventeen - my family moved to another province; he wrote desperate letters and came to visit, but it just didn't work and I wrote a letter breaking up with him. Twenty-five years later, after my divorce, I got back in touch, we connected deeply by email and telephone, and he was ecstatic to have me in his life again. He flew in to visit, and I flew to where he lived. It didn't work, we didn't have much in common, and I broke up with him again. I feel guilty to this day for hurting someone twice. 

Love and war.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

"Misbehaviour" on Crave, and Beth moves on

Yesterday, rode in the sun to the farmer's market for the first time in months - a heavy loaf of oatmeal raisin sourdough (devoured instantly), almonds and mixed nuts from the nut lady ("I've missed you," she said, and the feeling was mutual), meat from the Mennonites, Empire apples, local garlic, all my favourite things. But today, after many days of heaven, it's dark and wet. How lucky we've been. My friends in B.C. and Newfoundland have had little but cold rain, and we've been basking in unusual heat for April. I put some of the wintering plants out on the deck and had to bring them back in for fear of burning their leaves. 

A long solitary Sunday ahead - Jane's Zoom class at 1, some TV tonight, otherwise, silence. We're not allowed to go anywhere; the province is in crisis, hospitals overwhelmed, variants stalking us. So - talking to you. 

Yesterday, I witnessed sexual congress in the garden - the female cardinal was on a high branch singing an insistent song, and then the male flew over, mounted her for 3 seconds and flew away. Mission accomplished? She sat ruffling her feathers, no song. Sex in the afternoon. Baby cardinals! 

A realization: a number of interesting craft websites post daily or near daily to my inbox - LitHub, Advice for Writers, and others. They pile up; I can't delete until I read them but reading them takes time, not to mention the other sites for writers I follow on FB and Twitter. I've also been going through many pages of notes taken at writing conferences. Yesterday, I unfollowed several sites and have resolved: no more writing conferences except, of course, CNFC's. I've spent decades compiling information on how to write. I know how to write. What I need to do is stop reading about how to write and write. 

Revolution! Stay tuned. 

My students, however, are writing. Brad keeps getting more stuff published. A U of T student from the class that just ended wrote that one of the stories we workshopped in class is to be published. Thank you for all your guidance in making this story happen - you suggested eliminating the "runway" which made a huge difference in the flow of the story.  You also made me feel confident in submitting, by saying it is ready and suggesting where to submit it.  I really appreciate all your help and support.


On one of the sites I read, writers were asked what they'd like about a world without the internet. One said he'd like to go back to actual newspapers, write real letters, and have an answering machine, so people could call and leave messages. I have never given up any of those things, internet or no. Dinosaur alert!

Last night, an unexpected treat: the film Misbehaviour on Crave. It's a true story set in 1970 at the dawn of the feminist movement, when a motley group of angry young women decided to disrupt the Miss World pageant in London. Hard to remember how unapologetically sexist was our world fifty years ago. What's great about the film is that it portrays all sides: a moving scene where a fierce feminist's mother (the superb actress Phyllis Logan who played Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey) struggles to understand a new way of being a woman in the world; the beautiful woman from Grenada who won that year, telling a young white protester what this win means to her, giving her choices she wouldn't have otherwise. Not a polemic, just a well-written, produced, and acted (except for Keira Knightly, as wooden as ever) exploration of a dramatic moment in time - my favourite kind of movie. At the end it shows the real women on whom the characters are based, now. Strong, beautiful old faces. Tears.

Going through files: Anna drew this when she was 6 or 7. Agreed.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Anna makes a speech, and Hemingway and the weather bewilder

Where am I, the Côte d'Azur? It's 20 degrees here today, on the 8th of April! Bewildering. Hard to complain when it's so hot and sunny, daffs and forsythia in full bloom, and since we're back in full lockdown, outdoors is a welcome option. But it's not normal.

Speaking of not normal, yesterday I went to No Frills, and while in the produce department suddenly felt so dizzy, hot, and queasy, I thought I'd fall over. Had to prop myself against the potato shelf and breathe deeply through my mask. Headed home asap and lay down, was better in a few hours. Dr. Google says it could be many things. If it happens again, I'll call my doctor's office. I know, that was the lesson of my appendix - don't ignore pain. This wasn't pain, just lightheadedness. 

Getting @#$% old. 

Yesterday, I Skyped with old friend Richard Fowler, fellow actor in Vancouver in the 70's, who had a fascinating alternative career in Europe and ended up in an aerie, a fabulous little house he had built in the mountains high above Positano on the Amalfi Coast. It has the best view of anywhere on earth, but Richard, who has severe vision loss, cannot see it. Still, he has a wonderful life there, regularly taking the bus down to Positano to swim in the sea; he speaks fluent Italian of course and has many friends nearby.

Richard took me on a tour with his iPad; this is a screenshot of his terrazza

Last night, the last episode of the 3-part doc on Hemingway by Ken Burns. Oh, the glamorous life of the writer, I said out loud, watching the excruciating disintegration of this Nobel-prize winner, who after a lifetime of alcoholism and a series of head injuries descended into terrible paranoia and depression before, like his father, committing suicide. One of the most interesting points made was Hem's interest in androgyny. This ur-"masculine" man fought in several wars, slaughtered scores, perhaps hundreds, of animals and adored bullfights; over and over I had to hide my eyes so as not to see the violent images, bullfights especially, the cruellest, vilest "sport." Yet Hem liked his four wives to have short hair and dress as boys, and with one played sexual games where she called him Catherine. His youngest son Gregory actually was a cross-dresser who, despite being married for years and fathering many children, eventually became a trans woman named Gloria. Fascinating.

What I hope this superb series triggers is respect, once again, for simple language that gets to the point and stays there. Language has become more and more ornate over the past years, dripping with metaphor and simile and adjectives. I've thought, reading writing competition winners, that simple language doesn't stand a chance and have swum against the tide with my students, warning them against "five dollar words," when "50 cent words" are clear and get the job done. 

I just found my copy of A Moveable Feast which I look forward to rereading; I remember liking it a lot though he gets nasty about his friends. It starts, "Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves in the Place Contrescarpe."

Been there. Felt that. 

Tonight, a great thrill - my daughter has been asked to give a speech nominating her friend Paul Taylor, whom she met in Grade 6, as the NDP candidate for Parkdale-High Park. She sent me a draft of her talk this morning for editing; I had barely a thing to do. It's superb. I will watch on Zoom tonight. One proud mama. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Hemingway, and a neglected pandemic essay

The fight with Rogers continues, but it turns out, it's a neighbourhood issue. Their technicians are on Spruce Street right now "looking for a loose connection." Phooey. I expressed my displeasure at all I've been through over the past weeks, and they took $80 off my bill. Not enough, but a start. 

On Sunday Anna and family came over. I hid ten small chocolate eggs in the garden just before they arrived, and by the time we got out to hunt, the squirrels had made off with half of them. All we found were scraps of shiny paper. I'm not sure chocolate is good for squirrels, but I guess they'll find out. Otherwise, a most successful Easter visit, and even better - so far, all of us are still alive. 

Speaking of being alive, people keep telling me appendix horror stories, people who died of peritonitis. I was very lucky.

Two seasons.

Last night, I watched the first part of the Ken Burn's doc about Hemingway. Fabulously told, of course, and thrilling to watch him develop as a writer, including an extended time at the Toronto Star. He and Hadley lived near where I did in Paris; I used to pass the plaque outside their home. 

Speaking of development as a writer, I'm back at my desk dealing with stacks of paper. What I note, to my chagrin - and I'm pretty sure I've noted this before - is that I wrote and write a lot. What I do not do is send stuff out. Or if I do, and it's rejected once, I don't send it out again. There are so many essays now outdated that I read and think, that's good! It should have found a home, you idiot. 

Here, for example, is the start of a piece I sent to the Star in December, my own take on pandemic fatigue. They didn't reply and I did nothing further with the essay. Infuriating. Send it out again, moronface! It may not be Hemingway, but then, who is? 

And here's what I scribbled in the notebook Sam brought to the hospital, the start of something. 

What should it be?

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Shtisel: terrific drama portraying religious absurdity

On Parliament Street, as often happens, I ran into a neighbour, Stephen. I love your blog, he told me. I'm always amazed at the diversity of people who follow my life. It's not a big crowd - from 40 to 70 people a day, 350 to 450 a month, though when I travel the numbers go up a lot. 

I just checked the overview and saw a startling thing: March goes along with the usual numbers until March 24, when it jumps up to 349 readers. On March 25, back to 43. 

March 24, I'm writing about finding British relatives. Does that mean hundreds of new British relatives are checking in? Mystery.

Anna called this morning; she and the boys were doing a tour of favourite playgrounds on the east side, would I like to meet them? I certainly would. Hopped on my bike and off to the playground at Allen Gardens, a good one. The boys and I played our favourite game - Glamma as the big bad wolf monster chasing them with teeth bared - while Mama went to Loblaws and managed to deke into Joe Fresh and buy a spring sweater. And then they took off for another playground and I staggered home. 

The Rogers technicians came. A nice man with a rolling Russian accent checked out my systems inside and out, thinks he fixed what might have been the problem but will ask the maintenance guys to check also. My TV box, however, is now attached by cable rather than by wifi, so I hope that's fixed. We are so dependent on these devices, more so than ever before — frantic without them.

I wrote about it to Brad who helps me with tech problems. He wrote back You know your Russian “cable guy” has routed your signals back thru a basement in Moscow. There will now be subliminal  pro Russian messages in the next Stanley Tucci episode. That’s how they do it.  


Last night, I watched 3 episodes of Netflix's "Shtisel," a dramatic series about orthodox Jews in Israel, but really about love and confusion and betrayal among human beings anywhere, though these ones live by a stringent set of rules and wear strange clothes and hats and hair. The actors are magnificent, so is the writing and filming - all excellent. Recommended. 

However, it's hard not to chafe at the absurdity of the stifling religious regulations portrayed, the arranged marriages, the women in their wigs and scarves loaded down with hundreds of children. I'm not tolerant of conspicuous religiosity. I was at Riverdale Farm once when two busloads of schoolchildren arrived - one a group of Muslim children and one a group of Orthodox Jewish boys. The Muslim teachers were in niqab but the children looked like children, whereas the Jewish boys all had the payot, those ridiculous dangling side curls, and kippehs. I thought to myself, It's child abuse to inculcate children into a cult so young and brand them as religious weirdos. How can they ever make friends with the outside world? They can't, that's the point, as "Shtisel" shows. 

Will turn on my fire and watch more tonight. And perhaps my TV is actually working now, routed through Moscow though it may be. Pleasure is. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

keep on keeping on

Oh sad. The husband of one of my closest friends died of a heart attack this morning. She brought cups of tea up to bed; they drank and talked, and he rolled over and died. He'd been having chest pains but tests were inconclusive and he refused a few days before when she wanted him to go to Emerg. I know how he felt. Another casualty, in a way, of Covid; in normal times, he might have gone. But then again, he might not. He had a peaceful, painless death in his own bed next to the love of his life. But he was only 71. 

Monique's closest sister also had a heart attack and died suddenly last week, at 78. Monique can't stop crying. I think it's not only the loss of a beloved sibling, and the fact that she can't go to France to be with family, but a renewed reminder of our own human fragility. Any time, it might come.

So we live as well as we can, right now.

On the other hand, to descend to the pits of pettiness, some of us have to spend many hours - days - battling with our cable provider. Curse you, Rogers! After upgrading my modem I've had nothing but trouble - internet going on and off, and the TV too; I'm watching something and the screen goes blank, then comes back half an hour later, then freezes or goes black again. Many tortuous phone calls, and it's still the same. A technician is apparently coming tomorrow to check wiring, which should have been done ages ago. My son made me laugh, though. When I texted him about my fury, he replied, "In situations like this I like to take 10 deep breaths. I've got a few articles on breathing techniques I've clipped, next time you're here I'll give them to ya."

He is mocking his mother who clips articles on health issues incessantly and presses them on her children. Who throw them away.

Groundhog Day continues - is this Tuesday? Saturday? I guess Easter is meaningful for some, not for me, though I think Anna and fam will come and I'll hide eggs in the garden. So that will be Sunday.

Our incompetent premier is floundering and so is our province. Restaurants had just opened and now have to shut again. Sam was working and now is not, or maybe he is, maybe they'll figure something out. Anna is still cooking for many elders. In here, nothing is new. It may be isolated, quiet, and sometimes dull, but it beats the alternative. 

A friend sent this from her cell - six years ago or so, Eli had a fever and Glamma was on call. My baby.