Thursday, April 28, 2022

remembering Wayson

Today is the yahrzeit, the anniversary of death, of my beloved friend Wayson Choy. In his memory I've lit one of the special candles that burns for at least 26 hours, and while it's burning, the spirit of the departed is with you. I was just deleting old text messages and found a Valentine's greeting from him just two months before he died on April 28 2019. The Covid restrictions and lockdowns would have been very hard on him; he lived in a small, extremely cluttered attic space in a small communal house, and with his severe asthma and heart issues and diabetes, these two years would have been long, lonely, and full of risks. We all miss him; my kids loved him and he them, and even Eli, only six when Wayson died, remembers his playful friend. He found a small red and gold paper envelope and said, Wayson! He loved to give out lucky money. 

What a long spring this has been. Each sunny day I set out bravely and discover it's colder than it looks. Yesterday I started to bike to the Y; it was so cold, I parked the bike on Parliament Street and got the streetcar. Today again looks warm but is not. Not complaining; usually we have a ten second spring before it's far too hot, so let's enjoy the welcome chill. 

Today's excitement: reading in the New York Times terrific Wirecutter section, which finds the best price and quality for everything, about their top recommended bike helmets and discovering my local bike store, a block away, sells them. I now have a spiffy very safe helmet. My kids have lectured me for years about wearing a helmet and will be relieved. 

My friend Antoinette, a poet and musician who was my mother's piano teacher in Edmonton and who's become a dear email correspondent, just sent me a poem. She incorporated a line from one of my emails. 


What an honour. Thank you, Antoinette. I'm not sure about "never waned" but let's go with that.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

letters

Boasting: today I received not one but two actual in-the-mail letters: from John Sugden, nicknamed Sugdoon, writing from his home in Shropshire, and Nick Rice, nicknamed Nickynicknick, from his supply teaching post in Scarborough. Sugdoon, a red-bearded Brit and friend since 1973 when we shared a communal house on Markham Street, visited TO recently. Nick, friend since 1975 - we were in my first Vancouver show together, and afterward several more - writes regularly; he's a faithful blog reader so always knows exactly what's going on in my life. Well, not exactly, but close. Good to hear from you, guys. 

Going back a bit, Sunday night's TV was full of ridiculous cliff-hangers, including from the marvellous Call the Midwife - are they killing off those nuns? And Sanditon, a disappointment, come on, get the sweet heroine hitched to that absurdly self-pitying and misguided man and let's finish up. No, another silly season on the way. 

On Monday over to Anna's for supper with the boys, Sam, and of course Bandit. What joy to watch three puppies, two with two legs and one with four, chasing each other about the place. My son and his huge new responsibility are getting on fine. But now I remember why I never let us have a puppy. 

Today I'm as always in pain from Carole's bootcamp class at the Y. Carole is nearly 74 and looks 50, as lithe as a gazelle. I myself prefer not to move for the rest of the day. 

In the Blowing Own Horn department: From Daniel: I was so moved by your piece in the Queen’s Quarterly! You tell a story we have all, in one way or another, experienced, and there is a valuable lesson to be shared. Too often l have procrastinated, and you help illuminate the effect. Gutsy stuff. 

And from Curtis: I finished reading “Solo Woman” last evening, and I wanted to tell you again I think the book is a magnificent work and a true pinnacle in your impressive career. You write about a huge diversity of experiences and situations with such intelligence and compassion, for yourself and others, that the specific becomes universal and the reader responds with genuine empathy - and sometimes humour. You’ve ended several of the essays with phrases of such profundity and power that the words stay with us long after the essay has been read. 

So kind of both, although what and where is this "impressive career" to which you refer? Unfortunately, neither sent a publishing contract, but that's okay, I'll take nice words any day. 

At Indigo on Monday, buying The Art of Training a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete for a dear friend of mine, I saw these by the cash. And they wonder why there are so many alcoholics. Really?!

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Bandit comes home

Our new family member is here. Such an emotional day yesterday — I was remembering the births of Eli and Ben, a vivid memory since I was Anna's labour coach and actually cut the tough rubbery cord tying Ben to his exhausted mama. Yesterday was much easier; Anna, Sam, and I just had to rent a car, drive north of Hamilton, and wait for the pup to arrive with his foster family. After many road trips during their childhood, it was the first time the three of us have driven together for decades — so much laugher and reminiscence. Sam is a born comic, Anna a steady driver; I sat in the back and enjoyed.

Southern Connection Dog Rescue takes abandoned pups and dogs from reservations up north to foster families in the south and then finds permanent homes for them. The application tests for adoption and care for the dogs are rigorous. Bandit, his brother, and their mother lived with a foster family until yesterday when both went out for adoption. 

We loved him already from photographs, but - that face! Those paws! The softest sweetest pup. We are all besotted, but especially his papa, who held his dozing new baby all the way home. We brought Bandit and all his equipment up to Sam's small apartment, including a lot of great doggie stuff brought over Friday by my longtime neighbours Judy and Charley, whose own dog died last fall. Sam was ready with crate, blankets, bowls, toys. 

Man and pup went later to visit Anna and the boys. Sam sent a video of Bandit chasing his ecstatic cousins around. This morning he wrote that the pup whimpered a lot at 4 a.m, so Sam lay on the floor with him until they both fell asleep. "Then up at 7 for brekkie," he wrote, this man who used to work till 4 a.m. and sleep till noon. 

People who've not had pets perhaps can't understand the force of tenderness they provoke. How important it is to share your life with another species, who force us to reconsider our human-centric ways and look at the world through different eyes, ears, nose. To learn to care for a small creature who cannot speak but has powerful ways of communicating. 

It's a beautiful fresh sunny Sunday. Birds are mating and building nests. There's new love in the air. How welcome, at this dire time on our planet, to feel the heart expand.

Bandit and Levi
Papa and pup
Home.

Cousins.

Joy.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

nightmares, art, pansies

Couldn't sleep last night, playing nightmare images of the soldiers and citizens of Mariupol, huddled in a steel factory, awaiting the monsters. As the neighbour I ran into this morning said, I feel guilty my life has been so easy. The Ukrainian people living calm lives just like ours, now plunged into inconceivable horror. How to understand that scope of evil? 

My daughter would say, It has happened here. Not the same way, not to the same extent, but yes, we are guilty of violence and destruction too. But here, now, life continues as before, only things are a bit more expensive. But there's peace. 

For now. 

Friends are travelling - Monique to New York, Gina to Portugal - but for me, the thought of being anywhere other than at home as the world disintegrates feels frightening. I must force myself to travel again at some point or I truly will be stuck to this chair forever. But not now.

In the meantime, there's art to illuminate our days. George F. Walker's entertaining, powerful play was  about the violence and corruption of the Russian state in 1905 - prescient, no? — and notable for having a blind character played by a blind actress. Annie, her son Nick, and I went to The Library at Night, a fascinating event directed by Robert Lepage. We entered a replica of book-loving Alberto Manguel's actual library, a cosy room stuffed with books, where we were given instruction in how to use the virtual reality glasses, and then in the next room we put on the goggles and headphones. Amazing - as we sat be-goggled we explored in detail the insides of ten libraries around the world. My favourite was Ottawa's parliamentary library, an ornate Victorian wedding cake made of wood; our visit there included birds flying about the room. 

SPOILER ALERT: The season finale of My Brilliant Friend, which had me shouting at the TV, "No no, Lenu! Don't do it!" But she did, she left her marriage. Brought back haunting memories.

Last night on The Agenda, an interview with Jean Charest, who said he wants our politics to be Canadian and civil, not to be a vicious American-style attack dog like his competitor PP. He sounded like an experienced, thoughtful grown-up. How many of those do we see in politics these days? And then a discussion about Sweden's catastrophic Covid decisions, leading to one of the highest death rates in the world. Bested by far, of course, by our freedom-loving friends to the south. Funny how the Repugs love freedom and yet also love Putin. Strange.

And a terrific documentary on Socrates. Please don't ever tell me TV is crap. So much good stuff. Especially for those of us who live alone - we have a fascinating companion hanging on the wall.

Several have written lovely things about Sam, and Chris wrote, Only two more sleeps until Bandit! A neighbour wrote that after their dog's death they put all his things in storage and are now going to donate them to Sam. 

So many people are kind and good. So many are not. Humans have been wrestling with this dichotomy since Socrates, and before. 

I needed to cheer myself up, so: 

And now a nap.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A vital journey to sobriety: month one

My son told me he'd be honoured if today I'd write about his journey, which I've not done so far. My blog readers know not much in my life is private, but the lives of my children are. I've had a lot of difficulty with some of the choices both have made, although I realize, with enormous pride, that they're stellar human beings, generous, kind citizens of this city and this planet.

Sam has struggled with alcohol for a long time — in fact, he confided recently, since his teenaged years, when he and his high school friends consumed a ton of whatever they could get their hands on to party. At 19 he went straight into the restaurant business, where drink is the vital core of commerce, and drugs keep an overloaded staff going. His dad and I have known for a long time that there was a big problem. I was a classic enabler — unwilling to admit the seriousness of the situation and confront him, for fear of driving him away or hurting him. 

He was born anxious, took our divorce hard, had learning difficulties in school. In his early twenties, while I was in Europe, he was hit with a catastrophic tragedy: a dear friend of his died of a drug overdose in the night as Sam slept nearby. My son, in shock, went through a grilling by police. He has carried this death like a huge weight, blaming himself. Then a few years ago while he was at work, shots rang out in the street. Sam ran out to find the owner of the bar next door, a man with Mafia connections, had been shot. Sam ran to him, pressed his bar cloth into the man's wounds, cradled him and tried to keep him alive. The man died in Sam's arms. 

So - trauma, PTSD. His business depended on him being up, cheery, speedy, keeping everyone happy, remembering people's names and the problems they confided in him. He was very good at his job — winner of a cocktail competition that meant a free trip to Barbados, voted Now magazine's Second Best Bartender in all Toronto. But at a huge price. And of course the pandemic made everything worse, and at the same time, better. He was out of work but also away from the bars. 

Early this year, it all came to a head for both him and his parents. His dad and I had several talks with each other and two long, vital meetings with him on Zoom. He was amazingly honest and open, told us he has wanted for a long time to get out of the business, but was not ready. Working this past St. Patrick's Day, serving crowds of drunken, loud, aggressive bar-goers, he realized, That's it, I've had it. He walked out and quit the bar and restaurant business. 

Today, after twenty years of pretty hard drinking, he hasn't touched alcohol for a month.

He's a different man, who wakes early to work out and go for long walks by the lake and in the park. He speaks regularly with a terrific social worker expert in addiction. He cooks healthy food, is more available to help his sister with her beloved boys; he says walking the Parkdale streets, people greet him instead of being surly, and he realizes - he's not hungover and crabby, he's wide awake and cheerful. He has wanted for years to have a dog but could not because of his insane hours; we go to get his rescue pup Bandit on Saturday, and all summer he's taking outside work - landscaping, house painting - to be with the pup. He's producing Trivia nights and has joined a baseball team and other neighbourhood ventures. 

What's next? He isn't sure. But he's liked and respected by a lot of Toronto people in various businesses. Something really interesting will turn up.

In a month, he has effected an astonishing transformation. At the same time, it's only a month of sobriety; we all realize that. There's a long road ahead. But right now, he is a wise, grounded, healthy, and contented man. Nothing matters more to a mother than that. 

And incidentally, as a result of recent reading about alcohol, I'm limiting my own daily dose of wine. Drinking alone each night, it was easy to keep pouring. Now, on a pretty glass jug I've drawn a line at 5 ounces, and at drinks time I pour wine to that limit, which means a small glass before dinner and a small glass with. And that's it. So my son's journey to health is also my own.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Spring!

Happy camper here. I've been kind of down the last few days - well, not down, just listless - literally. Usually I have lists of things to do to spur me on, but recently I had nothing but the usual - cook, eat, clean, sit at the desk and fiddle. Hardly moved and felt like a barnacle stuck to a rock, like I've spent two years sitting in this kitchen chair staring at the garden.

But today! It's a true spring day, brisk but sunny. I joke that usually at 9 a.m. on a Monday it's winter and by noon it's summer; spring was a few hours that morning. But this year, day after day, we've had a real spring, warm, cold, drizzly grey, hot sun. The garden is springing into green. I've forced some forsythia and cut some daffs along with the mums to bring such welcome colour inside. At last. 

The vase was a hand-crafted wedding present from my beloved Patsy in 1981. I feel her here.
Last week - already there are more green shoots
Soon. All that's there, waiting. What a miracle! 

The first bike trip in months to the farmer's market this morning, most people in masks, some not. Home to dance on the deck with Nicky's Zoom dance party. This afternoon, off on the bike to Crow's Theatre to see a matinee of George Walker's new play Orphans for the Czar, which has had rave reviews. Then to walk and have leftover Passover dinner with Ruth. Could that be a better day? 

Wednesday Thomas power-washed the deck, which now is almost its original colour, not a dirty green-brown. I signed up for a week's free Apple TV so I could watch CODA, a beautiful film that made me, of course, cry. People say the plot is obvious and clich├ęd, but who cares? It's worth it just for the powerfully moving face of Troy Kotsur, the deaf actor who won the Oscar, let alone the others, all wonderful. 

Thursday teaching one of my home groups and my son over for a visit and to go out for dinner, what a pleasure. We're such good friends, so much to talk about, including the New Yorker, which he reads as avidly as I do. It's his last week without his pup, whom we go to get next Saturday. 

Yesterday, nothing. Tried to find other stuff on Apple TV but gave up on Severance, Ted Lasso, and Macbeth. Fussy fussy. Just not in the mood. 

The world is dire. It hurts to read the news. Talk about going to hell in a hand basket. Planet earth is doomed. 

But it's spring. I'm reading essays by Terry Tempest Williams and Margaret Atwood, but someone with fantastic taste left this pile in the Free Library and I took them all inside. So much to read, so little time. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Zelensky for the Nobel peace prize or some *&#$^ prize

60 Minutes featured an interview with Zelensky on Sunday. Never in my lifetime have I encountered a politician or leader I'd call noble, but it's the word for him: articulate, clear-eyed, courageous, decent, yet capable of power and anger. Noble. This Jewish comedian is the very definition of a mensch. How many are there, on the world stage? Jacinda Ardern is a mensch. We'll see about our own Chrystia Freeland, who has exhibited menschy qualities but hasn't been tested yet. Macron, Biden, and Trudeau are decent men with bits of menschness but nothing, nothing like Zelensky. 

All fingers crossed for the next round of the French elections. God help us if a fascist is elected there. 

It's the most stunning day of the year so far, even better than yesterday. But there's an unfortunate issue to interfere with my pleasure. Yesterday I was up at 7, drinking a tranquil cup of coffee, when at 7.05 there was such a violent noise, I thought the Russians had given up on Ukraine and were attacking Sackville Street. No, it was a giant cherry picker arriving in the condo courtyard only a few metres south of me. The units are having all their many windows replaced, which means hacking out the old ones with drills and hammers and inserting the new ones, with the picker constantly beeping up and down. The noise was infernal. I gardened anyway, for two hours, with earplugs, because it was too beautiful not to.

But I did write to the condo people, suggesting that in future, it'd be nice if they'd let neighbours know before extensive noisy work begins. They apologized, and today it's a bit better. I can't stay in and work, it's too gorgeous, so I've been out doing yard cleanup again, with earplugs. Life in the big city. And in comparison with what's going on in the rest of the world, I'm embarrassed to complain. But you know me. Complain I do.

My fingernails are filthy. It must be spring. 

I have lost my dear handyman, who's been my right hand here for more than a decade, an invaluable help with everything, including hauling heavy bags of birdseed and advising me on insurance and many other issues. My home is filled with his creative solutions to the problems of an old house. His lovely wife, who was also a good friend and liked to give me her delicious jams which still fill my fridge, is, it turns out, not only a fierce anti-vaxxer but a conspiracy theorist, Bill Gates implanting chips, it's all a plot by Big Pharma, support the nice peaceful truckers etc. I tried not to bring it up but eventually we had an exchange via email, and that was that, they're not speaking to me. Makes me sad to lose good friends for such a foolish reason. This pandemic has wreaked havoc in many ways. 

So I need a new handyman, Toronto people. Please let me know if you have a candidate. Preferably one who believes in science and can put up with a crabby old lady. My need is great. 

Today's smile: I just got my income tax forms back from my friend the accountant. My income as a writer for 2021 was minus $4109.16. Good thing I'm not writing for the money, just for the many perks, especially the fame and adulation. Especially the adulation. Bring it on. Adulate away.

I leave you with this photograph of my children doing something weird on the deck with a cow cutout behind them, in about 1991. I try to remember that time, but cannot. Luckily there are diaries. Or maybe unluckily. These two were a force of nature. How I survived them, I'm not sure. 

Friday, April 8, 2022

puppy love

OOF - under the weather today. Yesterday I got the first of two shingles vaccines, and boy, did it pack a punch; I'm achey all over, very sore arm. The second dose I get in the summer will be much worse; the druggist said the side-effects could last a week. Better than shingles. 

Spring is unfurling slowly; there are purple croci in the garden. I came down the other day to find Monsieur Cardinal having his morning bath in the saucepan on the deck. What a fuss - he splashes and ruffles. I wonder - does he sense how magnificent he is? Can he tell that the sparrows he's surrounded with are so ordinary in comparison?

We're going as a family in two weeks to pick up Sam's pup in Oshawa. He bought Bandit from a group that rescues dogs from northern reservations and keeps them safe until adoption; he had to go through a rigorous vetting process. We're especially eager to welcome this pup because Anna's beloved cat Naan is definitely on her way out, and Eli is heartbroken. He told his mother he'd never love another pet because it hurt too much when they go. He's nine! Perhaps he'll change his mind.  
I apologize in advance for the upcoming avalanche of puppy photos. Can you blame me?

My writer friend Antanas kindly wrote that he'd enjoyed "Correspondence" in Queen's Quarterly. Writers so appreciate readers who take the time to write. Your piece was lovely in itself and in particular the way it all seems so unlikely and yet the elements fit together so well - touchingly!

Curtis who's reading the essay book wrote more nice words: "I was struck by the incredible diversity of subject matter — to experience through your eyes and sensibilities the range of experiences you chronicle, through your compassionate, sometimes humorous or self-deprecating but always wise, enlightened and intensely human voice. Your humanity shines through. And that's what makes all these stories interesting and relevant to a wide audience of readers, both men and women.
 
Let's hope! Thank you very much, Curtis. 

On my way to the library; I'm devouring essay collections these days. Taking back Ross Gay's The Book of Delights - fun, a bit too quirky for me - and picking up Terry Tempest Williams and Margaret Atwood's new book. Grateful to have a library two blocks away. Not to mention a No Frills, two deli's, and a Shopper's a block away, the LCBO and butcher two. Who needs a car? Quick, the sun is shining before the rain comes back. I'll walk slowly. Just don't touch my arm. 

PS Just went for a walk with Ruth. Waved to the mailman, Nick; chatted with my piano teacher, Peter, and with Mrs. Kim, who has just re-opened her family's garden store after their winter break. I used the Merlin app to identify birdsong pouring out: dark-eyed junco, Northern cardinal, robin. Ruth was depressed because of the state of the world - last night's Agenda on kleptocracy and the coming food crisis. But spring is also coming. Let's hang onto hope.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

My world bridge champion, and Benjamin Franklin

Sitting at my desk, in tears. I've been trying for a long time to figure out how to write about one of the most important men in my life, my uncle Edgar, famed in certain circles as a world bridge champion, an expert and witty commentator on the game, owner and editor of Bridge World for thirty years. I have boxes of material: scores of articles, his Waterman pen and some silver trophies, the high school yearbook of which he was Editor-in-Chief, many photographs. I was going through them when I came upon the one that made me cry: my parents with Edgar and his wife Betty in Paris in 1974. All of them magnificent, all of them gone. 

Edgar is a rare name, yet there are three in my family: my ex-husband's father, my ex, and my son who has it as his middle name. Betty's married name was Elizabeth Kaplan, which is my name. So there were two Edgar and Elizabeth couples in the family. 

I have the letters of condolence that were sent after his death from President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, Mayor Giuliani. How to tell the story of my bond with this brilliant, difficult, extraordinary man? He was a musician too and travelled with mix tapes he made of his favourite classical music, mostly Baroque. I have a few of them and was just listening to Pergolesi's glorious, exalted Stabat Mater. More weeping. Not tears of sadness, just tears. For loss, for gratefulness to have known them all. 

Last night, on the other hand, pleasure - three hours of superb television. The first half of Ken Burns's doc Benjamin Franklin, about a fascinating man with a nimble mind and phenomenal drive who rose from poverty to become writer, printer, inventor, a leader of his colonized people. And, it turned out, a slave-holder and lousy husband and father. Two more hours tonight. 

And then the next episode of My Brilliant Friend, surely as profound an exploration of the intricate complexities of female friendship as has ever been filmed, or written. What an infuriating pair they are. Fabulous. 

A few things not so pleasurable: discovering that my lovely wool living-room rug, bought from a local shop only four years ago, had been devoured by moths. They chewed a long trench but it was under the coffee table so was invisible until much too late. Had to throw it out. Also, royalties. Royalty statements are coming in, reminding me how absurd this business is financially. Absurd! And yet we do it. Jean-Marc is helping me prepare an actual print book of my blog posts from 2007-2017. He said a hundred years from now, a student writing about the 20th or 21st century in downtown Toronto will use it as a resource. There's 1.2 million blog words covering those ten years. Quite a lot for that student to wade through.

Through right now, it's not looking as if there'll be much of a world in a hundred years, if any at all.

Put that thought away. Time for lunch and coffee, and back to work. No more tears. 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

A full life: hair, essays, pup, "Julia"

Such a busy day. I took a webinar this morning, rushed off to get a haircut by a hairdresser for the first time in many months, rushed back for another webinar, this one three hours long. And heard from my son about another family member on the way - my first grand-pup.

This morning, it was a seminar on growing vegetables, gave me some good ideas, raised beds particularly. WORM CASINGS! Then rushing on the bike to the World Salon at Adelaide and Jarvis to meet Brian; my old friend Isobel, who's known him for many years, introduced us. The place is wonderful - bright and open, exposed brick, lots of plants and interesting things everywhere. Brian is very cool, wanted to talk writing while he did an incredible job on my hair. He barely seemed to cut and yet it's shaped and shiny! 

This woman does not know how to smile for the camera. She looks marginally better in black and white.

Then rushing back for a 3-hour webinar in how to put together an essay collection, a little late for me as my collection is now circulating to publishers, but I was left with much to think about, especially from the main speaker, Rebecca McClanahan. And now there's another LONG list of books to order and read. 

Sam has left the restaurant business and is figuring out what's next. But whatever it is, it will incorporate his dog; he has wanted to adopt for a long time. He went through a lengthy and very thorough vetting process before being accepted by a dog rescue place. His pup was born on a reserve; Sam'll pick him up in a few weeks. If Sam is thrilled and Glamma is excited, imagine what Eli and Ben are feeling. What a joyful arrival for us all. Sam now picks the boys up from school once a week or more. When he goes with a puppy, he'll be like the Pied Piper, with a trail of kids following him home. 

Part husky and shepherd, maybe? Could he be cuter?! I'll be showing everyone pix of our new arrival. 

Two nights ago, on Sam's recommendation, I watched the first seasons' 3 episodes of Julia, a Netflix series about Julia Child, starring the wonderful Sarah Lancashire, who's British and yet pulls off Julia beautifully. It's so good, so warm, about the love between Child and her husband Paul, about her cold judgemental father and the sexist studio execs who did not believe a cooking show done by a tall awkward middle-aged woman could be a success. But, you realize, she changed the way America ate - at least, some of America. I treasure my Aunt Betty's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a fifth edition from 1963, the spine broken, Betty's notes throughout - "Less mustard, more tarragon. Delicious." Thank you, Julia!