Sunday, November 28, 2010

thoughts about writing, writing about thoughts

Important message for today, my writing friends: W*yson was just over for supper, and we were discussing his on-going struggle with the new manuscript. He has been slaving, going backward and forward and ripping it apart and starting again, for well over a year. "God, it doesn't sound like much fun," I said.
"Oh, it's never fun," he said. "Writing isn't fun."
"But there's some joy, isn't there?" I said, the idealistic girl child.
"There's joy when it's published and people like it," he said, "but writing isn't joy. It's work."

I knew that.

Still, it's nice to pretend otherwise. But he's right. My own current project is neither fun nor joy, but, indeed, work. Exciting and necessary, but for fun, I'll eat a lot of cheese.

Speaking of work - an article in the "Globe" the other day about Jane Austen's prose. Apparently this great genius of English literature was poor at punctuation and owes a great deal to her editor, who "polished the manuscripts, regulating her haphazard regulations, introducing the trademark semicolons and eliminating surplus dashes."

The message there is: if you're a lousy punctuator, make sure you have a good editor. Or else get a good book about punctuation, of which there are many now. On Friday, I spent some time browsing at one of my favourite places, the local library, where in one small section of new non-fiction, I saw these titles: "Fix your feet;" "Classic cocktails;" "I want a baby, he doesn't;" "Kung fu for girls;" "Stop being your symptoms and start being yourself;" "So it's hard to love you;" "The happiness advantage;" "Playing with paper;" "Understanding the universe;" and, my favourite, "Gay and lesbian weddings: planning the perfect same-sex wedding." What an amazing world.

And there was a new book called "Good Punctuation," by Graham King, just published by HarperCollins. A gift for Jane Austen.

Finally, an article in the "Star" about the young man who grew up in Riverdale, mere steps from my front door, who started the blog, which "has piled up nearly 75 million hits, in the process spinning off a best-selling book of the same name" and now a new book, "Whiter Shades of Pale."

75 million hits and a best-seller. What am I doing wrong?

He is asked, "What's the secret to your blog's successful migration to traditional publishing?"
Of interest to me, obviously, author of "True to Life: the book of the blog," which so far has sold an astounding 17 copies.

"For a blog to become a good book," he replies, "the blog really needs to reflect the writer, not an aggregation of content. The ones that work well for books are the ones where there's a single voice and where the posts are long form, like 400 words, which is 'War and Peace' for the Internet."

All right, Mr. Goldwyn, I'm ready for my close-up. I know that writing is not fun but work, I'm really good at punctuation, and in my blog posts I easily write, like, 400 words reflecting the single voice of the writer. Tolstoy, 75 million hits, joy - here I come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marilyn Monroe and Maf her dog

I'm on my way, in the snow, to return two library books: the moving "Cigar Box Banjo," by Paul Quarrington, and the astonishing "The life and opinions of Maf the dog and his friend Marilyn Monroe," by Andrew O'Hagan, whom I heard at Harbourfront in the program celebrating Eleanor Wachtel. I liked him a great deal and ordered his book immediately, and now will have to take it out again and read in more detail, as there's too much to take in on first reading.

It's quite brilliant, narrated in the voice of the small dog given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra (Maf, short for Mafia.) O'Hagan has recreated the Fifties, the narrative peopled with the famous of that time, fully alive and talking non-stop. I don't know how he managed to incorporate so much research and bring the era and its phenomenal personalities to life; the book is not only clever in that way, but the dog himself is incredibly well-read, highly educated and fascinating. He speaks of the "mannered simplicity" of Hemingway, the tiresomely "infinite prettiness" of Renoir.

Here are a few passages:

'To thine own self be true,' said the bard. Yet in all the animal kingdom, only humans consider integrity to be a thing worth worrying about. I grew up in the golden era of existentialism, so you'll forgive me for finding the whole idea of a self that one must be true to a little ridiculous. We are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the supreme fiction.

Good human relationships depend on an instinct for tolerating and indeed protecting other people's illusions: once you start picking them apart, taking down their defences, reducing their plan for survival, making them smaller in their own eyes, the relationship is as dead and gone as the Great Auk.

I wondered whether cats weren't really the most intelligent of creatures. Sufficient unto themselves, they turned solitude into a great and sustaining thing, while dogs and men, in order to be happy, needed each other.

'Dr. Kris once told me about a letter she got from Anna Freud,' [Marilyn] said. 'I distinctly remember a phrase Kris quoted from it: "One never really loses a father if he was good enough."'

My owner hugged me and looked into my eyes. I was still thinking of Milton. 'Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,' I said. 'Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.'
'Good dog,' she said.

Highly recommended.


The first snowfall of the season. I sit in my dressing-gown watching the garden turn white, the flakes, lashed by the wind, teeming down from an aluminum sky. What a show, and the crabby cat and I share a front-row seat in front of a wall of windows. The birds and squirrels at the feeder are enjoying a treat - black sunflower seeds mixed with their regular seed. I am trying to remember my birthday party in August, which took place right here, where now it's cold and colourless.

A mountain of newspaper awaits - the "Star" and the "Globe," the usual fat Saturday editions stuffed with Christmas hype. I imagine the store owners rubbing their hands in glee, as they too watch the picturesque snow fall, accentuating the buying season. Doubletake, my local second-hand store and the only store I frequent, started playing "Jingle Bells" a few weeks ago, so as of today, I won't go out without earplugs at the ready.

My friend Lynn cannot understand why I revile Christmas music; she loves the excitement of this time of year. Perhaps in the south of France, this is a time of innocent preparation for joyful familial gatherings and spiritual celebration. Here, it's a celebration of the frantic buying of crap, spurred on by treacly music. Put in your earplugs, friends, and don't be sucked in. Give meaningful gifts made by local craftsmen, or donate to favourite charities. GIVE BOOKS! Bought at small bookstores!!! Give handmade food. Fight them. Don't succumb to the pressure. (Easy to say, sure, as I get out my list and begin to fuss.)

It's really falling hard now. Time soon to bundle up and go for a walk. The birds and I will not be stopped by the white stuff. Next to me, as I stroked tentatively, a morsel of striped fur just let out a small noise that sounded surprisingly like a purr. Another miracle of the season.

P.S. Ten minutes later - the snow has stopped already. Show's over.

Friday, November 26, 2010

John and Paul, again

November 26th - my father's birthday; he would have been 88. He was 65 when he died of stomach cancer, just 5 years older than I am now, but I don't have trouble imagining him as an old man, because there are so many pictures out there of the aging Mordecai Richler. My dad was much handsomer than Richler in youth, but as Dad aged and grew more jowly and wore bi-focals, he looked a great deal like the Montreal writer.

I miss you, Dad. Wish you were here to talk to; to share my world. But you are still here, in me.

Just saw "Nowhere Boy," the John Lennon bio-pic. It's all right, but it doesn't soar. Of course, it's hard to imagine a picture involving the Beatles, at any stage, with only one single note of their music. It's interesting to see how the filmmakers imagined the band began, and fun to watch the British upper lower middle-class, of which my mother was a part - and see Liverpool, which I visited last year. But ...

First, director Sam Taylor-Wood and her much-younger star Aaron Johnson fell in love during the shooting, and they've been a couple ever since. Does that explain why the camera's close-up lens almost never leaves the actor's face? We practically live up his nose and have to fight our way through his eyelashes.

Second, does their affair also explain why all the actors playing Lennon's mates are so plain? Johnson is handsome and charismatic, but the actor playing Paul McCartney, who was adorable from day one in photos, is a scrawny little thing with the face of a weasle. Stu Sutcliffe, John's friend, was in life the handsomest of the lot, James Dean stunning - but not in this movie. Only Lennon is tall and vibrant and good-looking. Phooey on that, I say.

And finally - despite absolutely terrific performances from two actresses as John's aunt and his mother, I got impatient with the poor sad John scenario. He had much love in his life, a nice place to live, was neither neglected or abused. I've heard a hundred sadder stories in my work. It's tragic that his mother was killed when he was 17, no question. But as for the implication that his aunt and uncle raising him while his mother lived nearby was a life-scarring tragedy - well, he wrote a song or two about it, but I imagine would not have cared much for the film's depiction of the wailing and bemoaning he's supposed to have done.

While we're on this topic, I'd like to point something out to you Lennon fans, who love to sneer at my dear Mr. McCartney. The paper recently printed a list of the top ten Beatle songs just downloaded from the Internet, now that the Beatles' list is available on-line. One is "Twist and Shout," not their composition; two of the rest of the ten are by George, two by John, and five by Paul.

Just sayin'.

I wish Paul Quarrington were still here, so I could argue with him. I'm reading and enjoying Paul's "Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on music and life," published after his recent, too-early death from lung cancer at the age of 56. But I did not enjoy reading, "Here's my very unpopular stance. I think the Beatles, with their unprecedented popularity, did more than anyone else in their early days to deplete the music coming out of our radios of any remaining meaning or significance."

Hah! Them's fighting words. The chapter ends, "And now you know why some of my acquaintances refer to me as 'Paul Quarrelsome.'"

You too are missed, Paul. Quarrelsome or no.


P.S. Too bad the colourful Danny Williams of Newfoundland is leaving politics. I have the greatest respect for a Conservative premier who understood just how destructive our Prime Minister is. "I can only say this," Williams said in September 2008, "and I say it with all sincerity and genuine concern for our great country: a majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history."

May I repeat that? Would you mind? A majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history.

Thanks, Danny. I'll keep that in mind, and let's hope the country does, too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stephen King on J. K. Rowling and adverbs

A treat today: a handwritten 2003 review by Stephen King of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." See the explanation below and don't miss reading King's work - beautifully written, warm words of praise for Ms. Rowling, except for her excessive use of adverbs. He gives the perfect putdown of adverbs, which my students know is one of my bugbears too.

For the July 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine, the editors asked Stephen King to review the fifth ''Harry Potter'' book. 'We knew we wanted to do something special with J.K. Rowling's fifth book, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.' So we decided to approach the OTHER most popular author on the planet, Stephen King, who agreed to take the assignment.

''King didn't have much time to read the 870-page book -- even he couldn't get the publisher to cough up an advance copy -- and he worked on the review while in New York City doing publicity for his 'Dark Tower' fantasy series and casting an upcoming film project. Moreover, he told us that he'd left his PowerBook back in Maine and declined our offer to borrow a laptop.

''Instead, he delivered a spiral-bound notebook with the review written out in his distinctively neat handwriting."

King took a shining to the book and gave it an A.

Download the review (1.2 MB)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Social Network

For the first time, as I started this post, I thought, Who are you, you boring old bag, to blather on? What the hell new do you have to say?

I've just seen "The Social Network."

I emerged feeling energized by this fantastic film, but also old, poor, slow and stupid. Why haven't I invented anything that earned - okay, not billions of dollars, but even a paltry million or two? Why, you total loser? Because you're not nearly young or fast or smart enough, but also ... you're not enough of an obsessive asshole. That's a message in the movie too. The nice guy gets shafted; the relentless, conscienceless assholes win. Except, of course, that they don't.

See it immediately if you haven't already; it's stunning, Shakespearian, gripping from first to last, the performances and direction superb and the writing even better. The story of why and how Facebook got started at Harvard and how it grew is fascinating enough, but in the end, what's moving and beautifully portrayed are the eternal stories: the outsider wanting in; the genius losing perspective and humanity; the snake in Eden cajoles, the apple is devoured and a soul is lost. Not one moment feels false or dull. Well, maybe a cheap joke or two, a bit forced, but Sorkin is forgiven because of the extreme cleverness of his script. To me, the writer has done the equivalent of what his protagonist Zuckerberg, the Facebook guy, did - he has created something vital, current, necessary.

Aaron Sorkin is a writer, so he won't emerge with endless bags of dough as a result of this film. But if he doesn't win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, I'll eat my hat, and I have quite a few of them, so it'll take me awhile. I was a huge fan of "The West Wing" and I'm a huge fan now. Even though he makes me feel uplifted, but also weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a tiny bit of snow

Last night, what a treat - Marilyn took me to the ballet. "Everything/was beautiful/at the ballet," goes the song from "Chorus Line," and it couldn't have been more beautiful, this production of "Cinderella," with music by Prokofiev, put on by the National Ballet with panache and a great deal of humour. Sets, costumes, dancers and especially that glorious music. How do those people do what they do with their bodies? Legs up to there, leaps, twirls, extensions, jumps ... Utter delight. Especially, as my neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard, whom I ran into there, pointed out, the handsome Prince and all his tight-wearing friends. Delicious.

I've just had an email from dear friend Penny, in Sheffield. I'd sent her my blog book, in which she plays a significant part, and here, in the "blowing own horn" department, is what she just wrote:

I have read and reread your words and am now tracking the days with the calendar - two years behind time. 20th November 2008 - Excellence from the snow zone.

"... that first snowfall was beautiful this morning as it always is, the icing sliding along the trees and piled on the last hanging baskets outside - the cold kiss of death."

I shiver for more reasons than the chill wind of the coming winter.

You give your readers a tantalising glimpse of your life and your mind - slipping from the moment to the memory, from your reading to reflection. The everyday sits beside the events of the century, and your friends and family stroll casually through the rich story of your world.

Always nice to hear that someone besides my mother has enjoyed the book. It's cold, and the dark days are closing in; this morning, I pushed back the bedroom curtains to see the first swirls of snow. That wonderful feeling, lying warm in bed looking at the icy wind shoving at the trees outside. But the flakes vanished immediately, not like November 2008.

BUSINESS: My basement apartment is available for rent January 1. Please keep it in mind if you hear of an extremely nice person who needs an extremely nice place to live in downtown Toronto.

I hope you are warm and dry, in a very nice place of your own.

Friday, November 19, 2010

the lady and the playwright

It's dark by 5 p.m. now, as winter sidles in. I think of the pioneer peoples in log cabins - how did they survive month after month of snow and wind and vicious cold? Nothing to complain about, here in the warm house, looking out at the still-green garden, the birds pecking at the feeder, the cat curled up, asleep as always, beside me.

Wonderful news: my friend Bill, a neighbourhood handyman with long grey hair and very few teeth who rakes leaves, shovels snow and washes windows all over Cabbagetown, has found me a bicycle. Someone gave it to him. It's an old Raleigh woman's bicycle with 3 magnificent speeds and a huge front basket, exactly the right height, with the high handlebars I wanted. All that was needed was a bell. Bill asked for $20; I gave him $50. I feel marvellous pedalling along upright, with books and handbag in the basket, knowing that when I lock the fairly tattered and rusty bike, she won't be a thief magnet as a new bike would have been. Her name, incidentally, is Chocolat, with the French pronunciation, because she's a rich brown. I look forward to many happy years, Chocolat and I, together at last.

So to those who gave me money for my birthday towards the purchase of a new bicycle, I will put those funds instead towards my travel vacation next April. Many thanks, once more.

Since returning from New York to this sweet little city, I've taught 2 university classes, 2 home classes, seen 5 private memoir clients and started the 697th draft of my own memoir. Sometimes I think that so much energy goes into other people's work, it has become harder to throw myself into my own. But I'll get there.

I know I'll get there because I'm inspired by a fascinating book - "Must you go?" by Lady Antonia Fraser, about her love affair and marriage with Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. It's a fabulous book for anyone interested simply in the time and place - this couple consorted with famous actors, politicians and personalities around the world, casual mentions of lunch with Samuel Beckett, dinner with Steve McQueen etc. There's the delicious story of their relationship - their incredibly romantic meeting and love at first sight, with some of the gorgeous, heart-melting poems he wrote to her.

But most importantly for me, there's the image of Lady Antonia herself, the mother of six children, getting a divorce and marrying a brilliant writer while keeping her own writing career in full gear. She still had teenaged children at the time, though not, I think, living full-time at home, and undoubtedly she had a housekeeper and perhaps a cook - it's hard to imagine Lady Antonia hopping onto her bicycle to get a load of groceries, or dashing down to the basement to do the laundry, as some other writers who shall remain nameless have to do.

But still, she was writing and Pinter was writing while they jetted off to openings of his plays and meetings with movie producers and other writers - and television interviews of them both and vacations in Italy with "the children," his one and some of her six. She produced murder mysteries and lengthy works about history, a biography of Charles II, a history of 17th century women, while living an exotic life with a genius who adored her. Who took her to luxury hotels, wrote her passionate poems and bought her outfits at Yves St. Laurent in Paris.


Okay, no, I don't. I love my solitude and tiny little Toronto. I don't want to write about 17th century women, and Pinter does sound like a handful, a bit neurotic and ferociously opinionated. In one moving bit, she tells us that after his death, among his things, she found a place card of her name from some dinner party, on the back of which she'd written, "You're absolutely right, darling. Now shut up!" and passed it to him. He'd kept it for decades.

But I so admire her drive, focus and professionalism. Yesterday, discussing the writing life with students, I told them that when I attended the Humber summer program, I'd noted something the Welsh writer D.M. Thomas had said: "Cultivate the garden that has been given to you."

You cannot write someone else's stories, only your own. So write them.

And my student Wendy told of the American humour writer Bruce Jay Friedman whom she'd had as a mentor at Humber. She told him she was stuck on a piece of writing, what should she do? He looked at her impatiently. "Write the next fucking line!" he replied.

That's what my hero Lady Antonia Pinter, despite her great romance and very busy life, continued to do. And that's what I'll do too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

baby musicians

I photographed this on the wall of the John Lennon exhibit at the Museum of Radio and Television - the first photo of the Fab Four together. Children.

a few NYC shots

Broadway is closed at Times Square, and you can sit at the tables or on the red staircase. At night, the view of the crowds and lights from the top of the staircase is spectacular.

Bruce in the park.

Beth - no, not in the Muskokas, but in Central Park.

The construction at Ground Zero. Bruce showed me the nearby cemetery iron railing, which after 9/11 was covered with photos of the missing. Just standing there makes you want to cry.

New York New York

"I've never been so glad to be home," I said to my daughter last night, back in my own quiet kitchen after the flight from NYC, back in serene Toronto.
"You say that every time," she replied. Maybe, but it's sure that I felt it more, this time. This time, New York seemed sour, angry, people swearing and shouting, the honking of horns, the surliness of bus drivers, the screaming of children - it knocked me over. I found the canyons of concrete soulless, even frightening, and when, on Saturday, I went to that heavenly park to recuperate, I found it jammed with people; just in one small section, a clown was joking at top volume and a saxophonist and two separate accordionists were playing for change. Noise noise noise.

I'm getting old.

No, there was tons of good stuff. Bruce and I spent a great deal of time in the line-ups at the half-price ticket booths, very worth the effort for half price seats to marvellous theatre. I saw four shows - clever, funny "La Bete," starring the supreme Mark Rylance whom I fell in love with in "Jerusalem" in London this spring; "In the Heights," a fantastically fresh, energetic musical about Latino life in north Manhattan; "Next to Normal," and who but the Americans could make a hit musical out of the suffering of a bi-polar woman and her family - and make it work; and "A Little Night Music," by the great Stephen Sondheim, which I hated. Enough said.

I gratefully stayed, as always, at Cousin Ted's at 77th and 3rd, had a brief visit with Ted and his partner Henry, who were leaving town for a family bar mitzvah; spent a lot of time with Cousin Lola, who at 88, after a bout with cancer, is as full of energy as ever, taking classes, seeing every show she can through a website that gets her tickets for $3.50; she had just been to the Village to see a production of "Hamlet"- in Japanese. I took her to "Normal," the bi-polar musical with very loud rock music, and she loved it. We had a great time together.

And with my dear friend Bruce, strolling in Central Park and along the High Line gardens built on an abandoned highway; he took me to the Met to show me his favourites, bought me some beautiful earrings as a birthday present, and we lunched in a new space in a sun-filled atrium, surrounded by masterpieces. And did I mention that the weather was perfect, sunny and warm?

A few things:
- "In the Heights" had a full audience of Latino kids, shouting approval, a lively open bunch, perhaps their first time in the theatre. Joyful. There is no energy in the world, I thought, like an American musical going full bore.

- I talked to one of the kids selling programs at the intermission, and when I thanked him, he said, "You got it! Have a good one!" Lots of people said "Have a good one!" Every time you enter a store, no matter how small, someone is there to say hello. Their eyes may be dead, but their mouths are smiling and greeting you. I thought about the stores in France, and laughed.

- How proud I was to see Canuck actor Stephen Ouimette in "La Bete" - one of the 3 stars. He was perfect. Have a good one, Stephen.

- An article in the NYT on new training for priests on how to deal with requests for exorcisms, which apparently are going through the roof.

- A few Lola quotes: "I hate stupid dialogue, like at the opera."
"The only interesting men are pains in the ass. The nice ones are boring. Warn your daughter."
At the Booth Theatre, she said, "I saw Helen Hayes at this theatre. Gertrude Lawrence. Did I tell you about the time I said hello to Martha Graham? Did I tell you about the time your dad was forced to take me to his high-school graduation, and Ethel Merman came to sing?"
And as we approached our seats, loudly, "Oh my God, I hope I'm not behind that GIANT!"

- I happened on the Museum of Radio and Television, which had an exhibit about John Lennon's youth in Liverpool and a Mayles brothers 80 minute documentary called "The Beatles in America," in which their cameras followed the boys on that first trip in 1964, even in their limos and hotel rooms while they sat around joking with each other, and through an extraordinary train ride from New York to Washington in which they were riding with everyone else and making their fellow passengers laugh the whole way.

- Central Park, when Bruce and I went during the week, was beyond beautiful - once again, I was aware of it as the sanity and soul of the city.

- an after theatre drink on Friday with Bruce, his friend Myriam who's a voice coach, and Bill Millerd, the artistic director of the Arts Club Theatre where I worked for many years in Vancouver. We met at 11 p.m. at a secret place on W. 46th, without a name, just a number, and inside, a little bar and club, where we talked about the theatre, and Americans, and the dicey future of the planet.

- A Canadian presence in the "New York Times" - an editorial about Omar Khadr, saying that his eight years in captivity is enough, and yesterday, an article on the front page about the tolerance for immigrants in Canada, particularly in Manitoba. I guess they weren't following Rob Ford's campaign too closely. "Shake Hands with the Devil," the film, opened a few days ago, and under the photo was the caption, "Roy Dupuis as Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian."

- People were eating everywhere, eating and drinking large quantities from disposable containers. I noticed it more after my time in France. A woman on the morning subway downtown breakfasted on her briefcase, spreading her bagel with butter and drinking a large coffee.

- I was early for the theatre at one point so wandered into a store, ended up sitting in a massage chair with my feet in a massage machine, being ... massaged all over. It was wonderful.

- Consuming. Consuming. People will never give this up, I thought. There was a sale at Macy's, and I confess I went, clawing my way through the masses for the two things I wanted, warm wool tights and a pair of pants. The pants were reduced from $89 to $28. What can I say? I was judging everyone else, all this senseless buying, I scolded hypocritically, as I emerged with my trophies. I went to New York with a list of the three things I needed, and found exactly what I'd wanted at much less than I expected to pay. Every step you take, there's a shop winking at you. BUY! "Buy more and save more," shouted the sale signs. Body Shop had a special deal - you buy a cloth bag for $5 and then everything you can cram into it is 30% off. How much more do we need? How can we stop?

- Bruce and I talked a lot about the sour mood of America; the impossible demands on Obama and the rise of the fanatic right. "Americans are feeling diminished in the world - the end of empire," I said.
"Just like the Germans before the second war," he replied. "That's when fascism arises."

In the cab to La Guardia at dusk, I looked back at the skyline, beautiful, black silhouettes against a dark rosy sky. I was born in this city, most of my family is there, I love it. But it's impossible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

off again

Okay, crazy - it's a beautiful sunny Tuesday and in an hour I'm leaving for the airport, to fly to New York. Why? you ask. Well, why not? There is no logic to my life.

No, that's not true. My dear friend Bruce is in New York right now, and we've met there before - we have similar tastes in art and enjoy each other's company. "Come and play," he begged. I like to go once a year to visit Cousin Lola, who's now 88, and Cousin Ted and other cousins, not to mention the theatre and everything else NYC.

So I got a cheap fare on some flybynight airline and am off for a few days. Just trying to pack the minimum in a carry-on - for someone who took 100 pounds to Paris last year, you'd be amazed at how little I'm taking, all of it black, with lots of bright scarves so I don't look like an Italian grandma. No definite plans, except to see relatives and spend time walking around with Brucie. And the weather's supposed to be wonderful. Woo hoo!

My new tenant Susan will be keeping the hearth flame alight, feeding crabby cat who scratched her the other day, and taking in the stream of newspapers and magazines that flood in here daily. I hate to leave this lovely day to spend hours at Pearson being tested for explosives, but a few days hit of NYC is always a treat. So ... you'll be hearing from me, probably not from there, but once I'm back, with lots and lots of Noo Yawk stories.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

good and cold

When I last wrote, the air was mild and the sun was bright, but those fine days are over. Fini, no more Mr. Nice Guy, that bitter bite is in the air and the sun is already much further away. Baby, it's cold out there.

My new tenant, Susan from Germany, arrived just in time to get hit with a big blast of Canada. Poor girl - I took her for a walk around the neighbourhood her first morning, and she nearly froze. Her first purchase was a pair of nice warm slippers. She's 25, doing cancer research at Princess Margaret and curious about everything. Her ordinary home south of Berlin has its water heated with solar panels - so we're a bit behind in some ways. But so far, she really likes Toronto. She hasn't seen a picture of Rob Ford yet.

We had a fantastic celebration for Patsy on Wednesday night with some of her oldest friends, two of whom flew in for the event. As I told them, she threw my 20th birthday party in 1970, so I threw her 65th in 2010. (Where does that expression come from, to "throw a party"? I imagine trying to explain it to Susan.) The guest list was a who's who of Canadian acting and directing talent, besides the guest of honour, once renowned as Mrs. Donnelly in James Reaney's The Donnellys, and Wayson Choy meeting everyone for the first time.

There was a mountain of food and much joyful reuniting and reminiscing; some hadn't seen each other for 30 years. Her East Coast friends brought produce from their farm in Nova Scotia; I have two fat garlic bulbs I can't wait to squash, and the birthday girl got a big jar of honey.

On Friday, Patsy and I, critical former actresses, went to see The List, a one-woman show by a Quebecoise writer. It has received very good reviews, and I was interested simply because it's about a woman who makes compulsive lists, and I am a woman who makes compulsive lists. Well - the two former actresses were mighty disappointed. It's a heartfelt but flawed play clumsily, no, badly directed, as far as we were concerned. It closes tonight so I don't have to write SPOILER ALERT: translated from French, it's about a snobbish woman, called The Woman, who moves her family to a rural community and disparages the locals. Despite that, Caroline, a local woman with many children, befriends her. When Caroline becomes pregnant once more, she asks her wealthier friend for the phone number of her doctor, because Caroline's own is incompetent. The woman puts "Find doctor's phone number" on her list, transfers it from list to list for many months and keeps forgetting. Finally, Caroline has her baby with her own doctor and dies as a result.

The Woman is portrayed as someone who is obsessively neat; her kitchen is a caricature of pristine white tidiness. Yet the plot hinges on the notion that she has absolutely no idea where to find the phone number of her doctor. Absurd. And once again, as so often in North America, the actor was directed to convey every emotion at top volume. With many British actors, less is more, and much less is much more; they draw us in with subtle intensity, with stillness and quiet ferocity. Instead, here, actors are directed to shriek and bellow and pretend to cry.

MEOW, as a friend would say. Well, I'm an opinionated bossyboots. When have I ever not called it like I see it?

And right now, I'm calling it winter.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hallowe'en delight

My close relative, Sarah Palin, with her tiny shotgun and her best friend Raggedy Anne (?)

a friend's visit

My friend Patsy is here, visiting from Gabriola Island. She and I have had the same trajectory in life, from actress to writer, teacher and editor, only she on a remote B.C. island and I in downtown Toronto. We met in Halifax in 1970; Patsy threw me my 20th birthday party that summer, and we have never lost contact since. We talk endlessly not only about our lives, but about the word business.

On Sunday we shared a few special treats, besides our pleasure in each other's company. A friend had given me two tickets to the Toronto Art Fair, so we went to spend a few hours at this unbelievable show, bursting with the talent of visual artists from around the world. I was able to see the work through Patsy's eyes as well as my own, discovering, for example, that she likes blurry canvases, and I do not. Perhaps that has more to do with our eyeballs than our aesthetic sensibilities. (A conversation overheard as we walked past, between an older man with a distinguished grey ponytail and a younger man all in black with pointy shoes, the young man drawling, "Well, I was going for a more ... contemporary aesthetic." Meaning, was my guess, I was trying to be really, really hip.)

Later, we huddled in the house avoiding the Hallowe'en hoards. As I've written before, Cabbagetown is Hallowe'en Central - the man on the corner had a thousand little chocolate bars and ran out. I feel that after 20 years of shovelling out goodies, I've done my bit, and now I go out or hide until it's over. It was great to take Patsy for a walk around, though, on the perfect crisp, clear night - swarms, hundreds of children, many with parents in saris or headscarves, chattering in Mandarin or Urdu, princesses, ballerinas, vampires, and monsters flooding the streets, and my neighbours, some of them in costume themselves, standing at doors lit by pumpkin flame, handing out the goods. I wondered what a Martian would say if he landed on Carlton Street and saw the scene, hundreds of tiny people in makeup and strange clothes, going door to door for sugar.

Then down the street to Jean-Marc and Richard's annual Hallowe'en bash, with JM's homemade pizzas, and as usual, handsome Chuck is some sort of military garb - last year, a sailor all in w hite, this year, an army outfit with a jaunty cap that belonged to his grandfather. The fire was burning and it was warm, welcoming crowd for the visitor from Gabriola.

It's cold here, now; the reality of the season is settling in, though my God, we've had a long run of mild weather, all of October really. The furnace is bustling regularly for the first time, and the impatiens in the boxes outside are finally melting from the frost. Time to get out the mittens. Ah - I hear footsteps. My friend is coming downstairs, and the talking will begin ... now.