Sunday, September 25, 2011

Word and Iphigenia

Your faithful correspondent was a happy Torontonian today, even snuffling, with wheezing lungs. I've been riding my bicycle to Word on the Street almost every year since its inception, decades ago, on Queen Street. And today, at Queen's Park, it's bigger and better than ever. Someone somewhere has said that print is dead, but you'd be hard pressed to believe it today, looking at the countless actual dead-tree books, mags, newspapers for sale, the publishers and editors, the number of tents with writers reading and signing books - it's a marvel. In all those years, I can remember only two with bad weather - and today did not break the record, a perfect day of hot sun with a breeze. Heaven - many books, much sun.

Every year I try not to buy and every year, I cannot resist. Couldn't pass by Groundwood Books, had to buy a few kiddie books for my nephew, and my friend Laurel Croza's prize-winning "I Know Here" again, though I have several copies already. Couldn't pass "The Master and Margerita" that I've been meaning to read for years, and a few bookish gifts for my kids. The "Dummies" series was celebrating their 20th anniversary; I brought home their catalogue and a free Dummies pen. Among their subjects: Judaism for Dummies, Parkinson's Disease, Weight Loss Surgery, Autism for Dummies; Knitting, Happiness, California Wine, Holiday Decorating, Fishing, Biochemistry, Quitting Smoking for Dummies. The catalogue is 144 pages long. This is known as a successful franchise.

Had to tear myself away, because, sigh, I had to go to the opera at 2. My student and friend Peg is in the chorus and periodically shares in-house offers of orchestra seats for $22. Yes, $22. Hopped on my bicycle, down University Avenue in the sun, my backpack loaded with books, off to the opera: "Iphigenia in Tauris," by Gluck. Omigod. Breathtaking.

This dysfunctional Greek family - the House of Atreus - makes any other family look like the happiest of munchkins. Father Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods, but she is rescued by the goddess Diana. Iphigenia's mother Clytemnestra does not know the girl has survived and avenges her death by murdering Agamemnon. Their son Orestes feels he must avenge his father's death by murdering his mother. Orestes, pursued by furies and ravaged by guilt, is shipwrecked on the shore of Scythia, where his sister lives in exile as a priestess whose job is to make human sacrifices to the gods. Of course, she must sacrifice Orestes - and yet, must she?

Believe it or not, these tormented souls end happily. The heavy black scrim lifts, and there is light. The music was heaven - the chorus gorgeous, the leads, especially Susan Graham as Iphegenia, which has apparently become her signature role, spectacular. What an afternoon. The best in books, music and sunshine. Thank you, Toronto.

P.S. An opera joke: As I left after the last act during which, despite its happy ending, many people were killed and there was much, much angst until the darkness lifted, a nice older man with whom I'd been chatting said wryly, "This is the only opera about Seasonal Affective Disorder." Made me laugh out loud. Maybe you hadda be there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

moving along

My French neighbour Monique has a group from France visiting, drinking l'aperitif on her deck - overhearing from next door is like being in France. Makes me want to go out and buy cheese. Especially as I bought a Paris "Elle" today and am reading it as I listen.

So, my friends, I'm a bit better health-wise - I got out of bed for a bit today, got my face in the gorgeous sun. And I'm a bit further ahead with the cell-phone, because my daughter came over this morning to get me started. I can do basic things; she sent me a text saying, "Welcome to the 21st century!" and we've been texting all afternoon - at one point, I was on Parliament Street and had to sit on a bench to respond. My son called as I was buying cold medication in Shopper's Drug Mart. I'm one of them! I thought, the people always jabbering on the phone or concentrating so hard on texting that they walk into walls. Anna and I are texting as I write now. Thrilling.

The first time I encountered this new technology was about seven years ago in London; I was riding on the tube with my goddaughter Jessica, and watched her communicating with her boyfriend, who was miles away, by tapping on her phone. I was mystified and impressed. It has only taken me 7 years to begin to do this myself. Oh, she's a fast learner, folks.

This phone, however, is way too complicated for me - I took it in to the nearest Roger's office and they couldn't figure it out either. I just downloaded the manual on the LG website - it's 80 pages long, with stuff about video conference calls and music sharing. When I'm just trying to input numbers and a little message or two. But then, I also have a stunning silver MacBook Pro, and use about 5% of its capacity, I'm sure. My stove, even, has all kinds of amazing possibilities, including - believe it or not - a kosher component that lets you turn it on and off remotely, so it can cook your shabbat meal without you defying the word of God. I myself can set the temperature, and that's it; it took me 5 years to find out where the timer was.

All this fabulous technology, in the hands of a clueless luddite. What a waste.

I walked home this aft with my cellphone in one hand and my take-out tofu noodle soup from Ginger's in the other, feeling, yes, very 21st century. I guess that's a good thing. Is it?

Friday, September 23, 2011

missive from bed

It's 11.30 on a Friday morning, and I'm in bed with a cold - stuffed up and achey, after a night of not much sleep. Phooey. This is one of the times when I am powerfully grateful to be self-employed, and particularly, that I am not an actress any more. The few times I had to drag myself from sickbed to stage were a nightmare. What a blessing to stay in my cosy bed. It's dark and raining, so I'm especially safe and warm in here - with my MacBook Fleet, two newspapers, piles of research - I just printed a calendar for 1964 - and the box containing my new cell phone.

Yes, I've just bought a cell phone, my first - mostly because I want to be sure my mother and my brother in Ottawa can always reach me. The stylish little black thing is an LG with a keyboard, which I can't even open. Another learning curve coming my way - there's a CD I'll have to watch. As usual, I'm ten years behind the rest of the planet.

But sometimes there's a benefit to my slow ineptitude. I didn't bother to shave my legs in adolescence, for example, and by the time I got around to thinking that I should be like everyone else and do so, there was no hair to shave. I attribute the fact that there are three measly hairs on each leg to my failure to shave in my early teens.

This may be utter nonsense, of course.

Last night, dinner with the group of 10 or so women who've started to meet regularly - all free-lancers in the world of publishing, agents, book publicists, editors, copyright lawyers, and one lone writer, moi - now called the Word Sisters. We all bring something for the meal, and the conversation is wide-ranging and always rich. Somehow I forgot my cold during the festivities, but it came back when I got into bed.

Just went downstairs to get a fresh cup of coffee. I wish I could figure out how to open this phone. The rain falls, and I am safe, warm, and bewildered.

1.30 p.m. I've figured out how to slide out the keyboard and install the Sim card and the battery, and now it's charged up. But I still don't know how to turn it on. I've pushed every button, but the little screen remains black. Also inserted the helpful mini-disc that came with it into the Mac DVD drive, and now the disc, which didn't open, is stuck in there.
Leg-shaving was never like this.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Writers, this is to let you know that my course at U of T, Life Stories, begins Monday October 3, from 12.30 to 3, on the U of T campus. It runs 8 weeks till the end of November. It's a wonderful pleasure, to explore words and stories as the old trees turn red on that beautiful campus. JOIN US!

And here, in a brief clip, is the most passionate and succinct case for taxing the rich that I've heard in a long time. It's astonishing it has to be repeated - but it does. Watch it and cheer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

open letter to Mayor Ford

The "Star" just responded to my submission to their Op-ed page - they "don't publish open letters." Anyway, the Farm is spared for now - the community is going to come up with a viable business plan. The instant rallying of support, the hundreds of yellow 'I support Riverdale Farm' signs that sprouted up, not just around here but all over the city - truly heartening. Most of us know what matters, even if the fatheads at City Hall do not.

Maybe I'll rewrite it and try again. In the meantime, though "Star" readers won't see it, you can, if you're interested. Here's the letter:

Dear Mayor Ford:

I agree that on paper, it must look pretty impractical, the little place in my neighbourhood called Riverdale Farm. A municipally-owned replica of a 19th century working farm, it’s seven acres of prime real estate in the heart of the city, and what happens there? Not much. A bunch of animals – a few horses, cows, goats, sheep, ducks, chickens and pigs and a lone donkey - live out their lives, standing around and chewing a lot. They give birth, they play with each other and roll in the grass and mud; they die. It must cost the city quite a bit for all that hay.

And then there are flowerbeds and vegetable gardens, ponds and woods, and many kinds of children’s programs, all free. The city provides hot cider during the Christmas celebrations, the scary Boo Barn at Hallowe’en, the craft materials for children at Valentine’s Day and Easter. I can understand why a practical man like you thinks Riverdale Farm, like so much else, is an unnecessary frill, a drain on the city that should be cut.

I was over there recently, on a sunny weekday afternoon, with the usual assortment of visitors – parents with little ones in strollers, a few busloads of school kids, and a wheelchair van, unloading a group of seniors with picnic baskets. Not much money being pumped into our economy from those sources, particularly because the place is open every day of the year, and there’s no admission charge. Crazy! What kind of business is that?

The excitement the other day was that the ferrier had come, in his horseshoe van, to check the hooves of Rooster the Clydesdale and Dusty the donkey. Rooster stands alone now, because his mother Dolly died in August. These two massive, magnificent horses stood side by side in that paddock for decades, showing countless children and grownups what a horse is, the size and strength, the power of those legs, the utter beauty of those faces. That’s all.

As you can perhaps tell, I like the place quite a bit. During my 25 years in Cabbagetown, I’ve volunteered at the Farm in various ways. I must’ve gone over hundreds of times, for many years with my children and now by myself. It’s a tranquil haven, an oasis of sanity enjoyed by everyone, equally by my neighbours from Regent’s Park to the south and my neighbours from Rosedale to the north. Every demographic visits, all ages, including many new immigrant families.

During my visit, I asked one of the farm workers if they were going to replace Dolly. “We can’t think about that,” she said, “when our future is so uncertain.” As I walked home, I remembered the last time I felt this kind of sadness and rage for my beloved Toronto. It was when Mike Harris was Premier, a heedless man who slammed this city so hard, it has not yet recovered. And now, if you’ll forgive me, Mr. Mayor, it seems to me that you, too, have no understanding of the kind of long term vision and support that make a city great. Or of the many factors that make this one, this unique city, not only great, but liveable for all.

I thought about your proposed cuts and wondered why so many of them will have no effect whatsoever on my neighbours to the north but will deeply harm my neighbours to the south. Subsidised day care, night busses – who needs and uses those? How is it possible that we live in one of the wealthiest societies on earth and want to balance our books by cutting public transportation for night workers and cheaper day care for low-income families? How can we not feel shame at the profound injustice of these proposals?

I’ve spent time this past while in New York, London and Paris. Of course, these cities have vibrant arts scenes that draw millions of tourists to their theatres, museums and galleries. All three, Paris particularly, enjoy an efficient, modernised, well-funded and maintained public transit system. What they don’t have, what I bet not a single metropolis has at its heart anywhere in the world, is a farm full of animals, providing an honest whiff of horse manure only a stone’s throw from City Hall.

Come on over, Mr. Mayor. Hop on a Carlton streetcar (unfortunately often delayed, but be patient) or a Wellesley Street bus (it might be late, but it’ll eventually come) and stroll around the farm. Drink in the pungent air. Listen to the wind in the trees, the bleating of the goats. You could give your condolences to Rooster, whose mother just died. Just stand and look at him for awhile. It’ll do your heart good.

Some things, Mr. Mayor, simply don’t make sense on paper. Just in life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

gorgeous Tuesday

Mind-bogglingly beautiful today. These are the best days, the beautiful sad days of fall, because we know how rare and precious they are, how soon they'll vanish. As I write, I can hear Mary Hopkins sing, "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end ..." But we know they're going to end. We're Canadians.

I just came back from the little market by the Farm - unfortunately, most of the produce is just too expensive these days, the last blueberries and tomatoes, like gold. As always, I bought luscious bread, a whole-wheat sourdough and a walnut-raisin, and had ripped off huge chunks even before paying the vendor. Bought a slice of vegetable pizza from the Farm booth - baked an hour ago, in the brick oven, sublime - and some meat from the small butcher at the end. Came home to stuff my face. It seems that our neanderthal mayor has spared the farm for now, and has also spared libraries and daycare. Why this was even a discussion is beyond me, but there you go - someone voted for the man and now we're stuck with him.

Today's cheery news: clever American writer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote "The West Wing," a terrific TV show that presaged the arrival of Barack Obama, and "The Social Network," broke his nose recently in a writing accident. Come again? He was apparently staring into a mirror while working on some dialogue, and he butted his face into his own reflection. Hmmm. Hard to visualize. You sure you weren't trying to give yourself a big kiss, Aaron, and your nose got in the way?

I've never tried writing in front of a mirror, but I won't start now - too dangerous.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


More TIFF excitement - my friend Gretchen offered me a ticket to see "Pina," the Wim Wenders' film about the great German choreographer Pina Bausch. I was thrilled to go, as the film was on in France when I was last there and I'd tried, and failed, to see it. Apparently Bausch and Wenders had begun making the film when she died suddenly in 2009, one week after being diagnosed with cancer, at the age of 68. So he went ahead anyway.

It's shot in 3D, and it's absolutely extraordinary. Unfortunately I've never seen her troupe in the flesh, but the film gives you breathtaking close-ups of her most famous pieces, and of the stunning members of her troupe, an international crowd, each one more beautiful than the last - and quite a few much older than normal dancers are. She creates scenes of power and violence, tenderness and fear - one dance choreographed around a huge rock, where the dancers are eventually submerged in water; in another, her "Rite of Spring," they dance on a stage covered in peat and grow filthy, and in another, they crash blindly into walls, tables and chairs. They hit themselves, fling themselves about - one dancer says Bausch told him, "Scare me," and you can see how much her dancers give of themselves - almost an unbearable amount. But then she did too, you see in the bits that actually show her dancing, her intensity is mesmerizing. Apparently an American reviewer called her work "the pornography of pain," sometimes almost too much. But always honest and moving.

I asked the man sitting next to me how many films he'd seen at the Festival. "When today's over," he said, "I'll have seen fifty." Fifty films! He dashed out the second this one was over. But how can he relish and review a good film if he's rushing off to another? Ah, the issues of our society - quality versus quantity.

Before the film, I spent the morning walking on the Don Valley trail, in the quiet - the Parkway still closed till tomorrow morning, the whole neighbourhood suffused with silence. And after the film, I went back with Gretchen for another long walk, though we both felt we should be leaping about, dancer-style, instead of marching sedately in the sun. It's a perfect day, hot and sunny and breezy - and it's so beautiful down there, I didn't want to leave. But even now, as I sit in the sun at home with a glass of wine, the constant background thrum of engines that we live with here is absent.

I ran into a friend down on the trail, he just setting off for a jog. When I mentioned why I was there, he looked up from the Blackberry he was checking and said, "Oh, the Parkways's closed? Is that why it's so quiet?" And I, quivering with joy. I guess that's why he's a successful businessman, and I'm a humble writer.


Riding my bike along Gerrard, saw
some excitement outside the
Ryerson theatre - there
were hundreds of film buffs lined
up to see the next show, and a crowd
surrounding the star of the last one -
Bill Nighy, who was signing autographs. His handler told me to move along. This is as close to a star
as I've come during TIFF. Not Brad or George or Angelina. Bill Nighy.
Is he single?

Saturday, September 17, 2011


A sublime day, sunny and breezy. As you can see below, I rode my bike on the Don Valley trail this afternoon - with the Parkway closed, all you can hear down there are birds and crickets and a few small planes, buzzing aloft. I stopped and sat on a rock in the sun in a field of goldenrod, asters, Queen Anne's lace ... and the smell of autumn, of plants and ripe earth getting ready to power down and sleep. True happiness.

Earlier, I went to a Tafelmusik concert. Someone left a ticket on the bulletin board at the Y, with a note: "I can't go, please help yourself." So I did, with thanks. They played Lully, Corelli, and others with their usual extraordinary precision, but the Bach double violin concerto I thought was too fast. It rushed away with them - how can you hurry Bach? I have a great recording by David Oistrakh and his son Igor, that I'll listen to tonight.

Speaking of listening, at Doubletake today, I found a record I used to have in childhood - "A Child's Introduction to the Classics," put out by Childcraft Records in the late fifties. Peter and the Wolf, The Nutcracker, The Sorcerer's Apprentice - I'll listen to those tonight too. Perhaps it's thanks to my early indoctrination, with records like these, that I enjoy classical music so much today.

But I enjoy riding through quiet woodland only five minutes from my front door even more.

a pastoral Saturday

The last bouquet from the garden ...

A "Waiting For Godot" tree
on the
Don Valley trail, the sumac just
beginning to turn

The lovely Don River herself

The Don Valley Parkway
just the
way I like it - abandoned

A gift from Central Park to moi, found under a bush - a hippy Dinky toy

Friday, September 16, 2011

silent weekend

Woke up at 4 a.m. this morning, writing an article in my head about the proposed cuts to the city budget, especially the closing down of my beloved Riverdale Farm. Got up to make two pages of notes and spent this afternoon writing the piece - most of it word for word what came to me in the middle of the night. It's hard to rise from a warm bed when the notion strikes, but worth it, much of the time, for us crazy scribes. Emailed the piece a few hours ago to the Op-ed page of the Star.

It's COLD. Well - 15 degrees today, warm in the sun but brisk in the shade. I'm shutting windows, getting out jackets, sweaters and socks, letting the garden go. We've got a few months before everything shuts down, and surely at least one more burst of heat. But the end of this year's sun worshipping is nigh.

And I can only say, in rhyme, sigh. Vive le Canada et l'hiver.

Saw a very affecting movie on Tuesday - my friend Suzette gave me two of her TIFF tickets, and Wayson and I saw The kid with the bike, a French/Belgian film by the Dardennes brothers. It's a harrowing drama about a boy who's abandoned by his only parent, his callow father; the boy desperately seeks to get his father back but ends up, almost despite himself, winning another protector. In the typical European way, there is no sentimentality, no easy answer, and yet, we witness the uplifting miracle of how children survive even the most terrible abandonment and abuse. Quite beautiful, with every so often a stunningly evocative bit of Beethoven to really grab your throat.

Much teaching underway - both a beginner's class and an advanced at Ryerson on Monday and Tuesday, and my home class on Thursday, all full speed ahead, with U of T due to start in 2 weeks. Thank the lord for teaching. And what a pleasure it is too, meeting new students and reconnecting with old ones, including some who have returned after years. We'll get each other through the on-coming cold.

The Don Valley Parkway is closed all weekend, both ways, so I know what I'll be doing with at least part of my time - riding my bike or walking on the trail, which will be so quiet, it'll be like being in the country. One of my favourite events - the closing of the DVP. Ah, she's a simple girl, it take so little to make her happy - a $4 Missoni sweater, a silent Parkway. The crabby cat is purring beside me, squashed in as if she actually enjoys my company like a normal cat - though of course it's a mirage, soon she'll turn and hiss.

The two of us, though, at the moment, enjoying the chill sun through the back window, the birds, the imminence of silence.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

what I bought and where I walked

At Doubletake - a genuine Missoni Sport sweater, in my colours and my size, $4. Am I shallow? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

These folks were at Riverdale Farm today - they're travelling ferriers. They drive up with all their horseshoes ready to go. If you need horseshoes, these are the people to call.

Autumn has come to the Farm gardens.

I love walking in the Necropolis - William Flight died in 1857. So many of the graves, including this one, include the names of dead children - one couple I visited today lost six of their children in infancy. So so much to be thankful for in 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2011

picnic in Times Square etc.

Home to the loveliest quietest garden in the world. That's how I always feel, coming back from New York. But particularly this time, because I flew back on September 11th.

That Sunday morning, church bells all over the city rang four times, at exactly the times the planes hit. It was very moving. The cab driver to Penn Station told me that the whole lower end of the city and various roads in and out were shut down for security reasons, and in the station, young soldiers in camouflage were on guard, holding assault rifles, AK 47’s, terrifyingly huge guns. There is a great view of the New York skyline from the Skytrain to Newark Airport; that morning, I confess that it was a relief to see the metropolis at a safe distance.

I shared the train compartment out with 3 insurance adjusters from Pennsylvania, going home. The men wore jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, the woman a sundress and flipflops; they sipped their giant coffees and conversed so loudly, one of the men with the relaxed drawl of Jack Nicholson, I now know a great deal about the insurance business. I couldn’t help but imagine a group of French insurance adjusters on a train. America is surely the most casual society on earth. People walk around in their skintight gymwear, and the preferred summer footwear, for everyone, is flipflops. Just try to imagine a French person on the street in gymwear and flipflops ... Impossible.

Further to the fashion report, women of all ages, but especially the young, specialize in winter boots and tiny shorts or dresses, worn together. In fact, nearly every woman in New York was wearing either boots, flipflops, or towering spindly stilettos. I was wearing my Mephisto sandals, so was able to walk comfortably and fast. Which used to be the point of shoes.

There was a grand reunion on Saturday night of a lot of the Kaplan family, at Cousin Ted’s 70th birthday extravaganza at the Century Club on W. 43rd. We had cocktails in the library room and then went upstairs for dinner with 150 of Ted’s closest friends and family. I chatted with Cousins Debbie, Susan, Dick, Lori and Robert, met some of Ted’s friends, met Ted’s spouse Henry’s family, and hugged Ted and Henry, who were married yesterday after many years together. Dick told me I look just like my father, which made me very happy. I ate and drank too much and enjoyed it all.

It had already been a busy day - I walked from the East Village at 1st Ave. and 9th, right up Broadway to meet Lola at a theatre at Central Park West and 63rd. It rained partway on my journey, so I scampered into Macy's and entertained myself watching capitalism at work. I'd brought some sushi with me, had a picnic lunch at one of the little tables right in the middle of Times Square. Lola and I saw a marvellous play, "Freud's Last Session," which posits that Sigmund Freud, dying of cancer in his 80's, met C. S. Lewis, half his age and a Catholic convert, to debate the existence of God. It was funny, beautifully acted and stimulating; Lola and I both loved it. We went back to her place on the East Side, where we strolled around the 3rd Avenue Street Fair and then she showed me her latest creations - Lola is a jewellery artist, still, at 88; I have three of her beautiful rings. And then I walked back down 5th Avenue to celebrate Ted.

A few last observations about life in NYC: Air conditioning - what's wrong with these people, are they all in menopause? Inside, almost everywhere, was freezing. The theatre was like a meat locker; I wrapped myself in the program for additional warmth. What a waste.
There are more babies and children per square foot than I've ever seen in NYC, all with their own enormous conveyances, of course.
I walk around with a half-smile on my face, and it's amazing how many people smiled back, how many actually spoke to me. At the same time, there's a New York kind of sour, sulky dismissal that's repellant. I saw a young couple at an outdoor restaurant, and the expression on her face as she looked at the menu - I wouldn't be him for the world.
I wandered around the Strand Bookstore, one of the best anywhere; there was a $2 table and I cast a hurried look, terrified that I'd see my book there. Did not.
In Union Square Park, a man let his pet bunny out of its carrier for a quick hop on the grass. When I stopped to look, he said, "Only in New York, right?"

For the first time, I came back from my trip energized, not utterly exhausted - because I didn't try to do too much. New York is so rich with possibility, there is so @#$#% much going on everywhere, that trying to see even a minuscule percentage is an impossibility. So I did less than usual - and, incidentally, bought very little, a few t-shirts on sale - and was able to hang onto my sanity.

But what joy, to land in my own lovely city - yes, being battered to bits by its neanderthal mayor - and then my own garden, my oasis and shelter. Home home home home. Home.

P.S. For any of you interested in Fashion's Night Out, the inimitable Bill Cunningham has done one of his video pieces about it, in the current NYT. I gather that I saw only a tiny bit - it was uptown as well, and certainly a vibrant affair. Just a little too manic for this old bird in her sensible Mephistos.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

more NYC

"Encounter baskets" in Times Square.

The happy couple - Cousin Ted and
Henry, married on Friday, at Ted's
birthday celebration on Saturday -
their wedding announcement is
in today's New York Times

HOME! Does it get better than this?

NYC pix

The Law and Order shrink in plainclothes
Fashion's night out
Caravaggio at the Met - the most beautiful Mary and son
Central Park. This is New York???
Yup. This is New York.

Friday, September 9, 2011

NYC Day 2

I've just walked home from the Public Theatre along St. Mark's Place, which is what 8th Street is called down here in the East Village. What I've been missing, all these years I've been stuck uptown! It's incredible, the number of kids on the street, the life, the shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, even hairdressers and tattoo parlours open and teeming at 10 p.m. America may be in decline, but you'd be hard pressed to notice on St. Mark's Place on a hot Friday night.

Because it's hot. The weather, so far, has been sublime. And I am having a fantastic time. That's a pome.

The first thing I saw today, when I walked out into the morning, was a black man wearing a snazzy business suit and waist-length dreadlocks. Only in America, you say? Took the freezing subway up to the Metropolitan Museum, which has several interesting though small special exhibits; I went to Frans Hals and European Cabinets, Caskets and Cases 1500-1900. Both wonderful - the Hals showing me about the importance of brush strokes - and I remembered that yesterday, in the List exhibit at the Morgan, one artist had painted pictures of all his different paintbrushes. I'm still not a huge Hals fan, all those laughing ne'er-do-wells, but now I appreciate his craft.

And then, after the gorgeous boxes (I have a minor collection of boxes, because you can PUT THINGS IN THEM) and a great lunch in the sunny sculpture atrium, I went up to the European masters galleries and visited my old friends: Cranach, whom I know better now from an exhibit in Paris this spring, Caravaggio, whom I know from the exhibit I just saw in Ottawa with my mother; the Spaniards Goya and Velasquez and the almost-Spaniard El Greco, whom I know so much better after my trip to Spain in March. Now when I see the work of these geniuses, I understand more of what I'm looking at. It's thrilling.

I really missed my friend Bruce, my art smart friend who took me around the Prado in Madrid showing me what I should look at, who took me to Toledo to see El Greco and to some godforsaken palace to see a rare Velasquez. The last time I sat in the Met sculpture atrium, it was with my beloved Brucie.

When I emerged, replete, it was so gorgeous out that I had to walk in the park, so I strolled to the west side. A man was playing "Somewhere over the rainbow" beautifully under an archway in the middle, so I sat to listen to his echoing notes, and was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude - for the day, for the city, the art, for my own DNA, because I feel it everywhere in New York, my own family on my father's side around every corner. For this beautiful park, the great green safety valve for this insane city. And then as I walked under the trees, I saw something half buried in the dirt, a Dinky toy of a 60's VW bus painted with psychedelic colours, Peace on one side and Love on the other. It had obviously been there awhile, so I took it - a gift from the city of my birth. Peace on one side and Love on the other.

Walked south through the park and bussed back, rested and read. I gather that Obama did well with his speech - that there was some fire, at last. "The Onion," a satirical newspaper, had as its headline today: NEW GOP STRATEGY INVOLVES REELECTING OBAMA, MAKING HIS LIFE EVEN MORE MISERABLE. It says the Republican strategy is to make sure he's re-elected so they can make "his life even more of a living hell than it already is.
'For 3 years, the Republican Party has coalesced around the single goal of making Obama's every waking moment sheer and utter torture,' Senate Minority Leader McConnell told reporters.'" And it goes on from there - see if you can find it on-line. It would be funnier if it weren't so true.

Further to that, I saw a play in preview tonight at the Public Theatre, called Sweet and Sad. My ex-husband's ex-artistic director is now the Director at the Public, so Edgar got me a comp, the best seat in the house. Like many events happening now in NYC, it's about 9/11, about a family gathering the day after tomorrow, in fact - it's set on Sept. 11, 2011. The playwright Richard Nelson is very good at capturing family dynamics, the subtle digs and needling that have obviously been going on for decades among these siblings, but also their great love for each other. Many questions are raised, about the future of the country, the political system, the tragedy itself. "Why are the victims called heroes?" one asks, and another, "Why did the government compensate the families? When someone is shot during a robbery, the government doesn't compensate the family." They reminisce - maybe a bit too much - discuss - maybe a bit too much - but the ensemble acting is very good and sometimes, the discussion hit the audience so hard, the room was absolutely still.

And then I walked home through the circus that is St. Mark's Place. The papers are talking bomb threats; my mother had left several anxious messages, so I called her to reassure her. If people here feel threatened, they're sure not showing it.

P.S. Just before bed, I read today's Times, which lists the highlights of things to see in the city - on and on and on, overwhelming. They list 3 things at the Met - different from those I saw, that I didn't even know were on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

NYC Day 1

It's 9 p.m., and your faithful correspondent is ready to pack it in. Well, I did get up at 6 this morning, and this is New York, which exhausts me just to think about it.

The flight was great; I sat next to a man who has an art gallery on Ossington. At Newark, he was picked up by an artist he manages, a giant in a cowboy hat, and I got on the train and made my way to East 9th, the East Village, where I've rented Gail's apartment for 3 days. She too is in the visual arts, a painter, but makes a living as a bartender and by renting out her flat. I knew it would be small, and it is small, funky, interesting, with a Mona Lisa beaded curtain, vintage lamps and furniture. It's a 4th floor walk-up, no microwave or TV or bathroom - there's a toilet in a tiny room, and a shower booth in the kitchen that you climb on a stool to enter. You wash in the kitchen sink.

Hey, it's an adventure, it's a great location, and for the next few days, it's mine. And best of all, I'm connected to her cable and so to you.

I set off to walk to 26th, the Stella Adler Studio, where I had an appointment with the Director Tom Oppenheim. A leisurely stroll up through the buzzing Village to crowded 5th Avenue. Popped into a store or two that had "Sale" signs and found out that today is Fashion's Night Out, the start of Fashion Week and a huge event all over the city, stores putting on entertainment and having ... sales. Yes, sales. "The centre of it all is tonight, " said the young man, "in Soho." I was glad I hadn't booked a theatre ticket, and decided I'd wander with the crowds in Soho instead.

As I stepped out of the elevator at the Studio, I saw a face I recognized immediately - the actress who plays the psychiatrist on Law and Order. So exciting. I went over and said, "I expect you to tell me what's wrong with me." She laughed.
"Nothing, I can tell," she said. We had a chat about how devastating the cancelling of the show has been for NY actors. Her name is Caroline McCormick and she's about 8 feet tall.

Tom and I had a great talk about the theatre, particularly about his friend Mark Rylance. Last year, Tom sponsored a talk and reading at the Studio about my book, which seemed to go over well with the students. The great news is that he has offered to throw a book launch for the paperback edition of the book, which comes out next spring. We talked about getting actors to read excerpts of Gordin's plays, as we did last year. It was a thrilling encounter, worth the trip just for that. A good friend on West 26th. Two of them, in fact - his wife Nina, who also works there, is wonderful.

A deke into the Morgan Library, one of my favourite places in NYC - and this time, they have a special exhibit on LISTS. As a 100% list-mad person, I needed to see these lists, mostly by relatively unknown artists. There was a "self rating chart" drawn by one, where he marked himself day by day on "appearance, industry, neatness, loyalty" and many other criteria, and always found himself wanting. There was a list of Things to Do made by the architect Eero Saarinen two weeks before he died - and it's 3 long yellow pad pages long! My favourite was H.L Mencken, the humour writer, who in 1927 was asked to send some information about himself, and sent a list of 29 things, including #20, I believe the U.S. will blow up within the century, and #26, I drink exactly as much as I want, and one drink more.

A long meander home, buying groceries and wine. And then I set off again, to Soho for my fashion adventure. Mistake. Well, no, now I know it's something no one under the age of 23 should attempt. The streets jam-packed with little fashionistas tottering along on sky-high heels; Japanese shoppers laden with parcels shoving through the crowds with lists on their Blackberries of the next best place to go - thousands and thousands of people. A zoo. Get me out of here.

Home, to climb up into the shower and get into the blessed bed.

By the way, the weather report on-line indicated that the chance of thunderstorms for the whole day today was 80%. So I carried umbrella and rain jacket. Guess what? The storms were in the early morning. The rest of the day was perfect, warm with a breeze, not even a drop of rain. Merci, weather gods.

en attente

Dawn breaking over downtown Toronto - not a sight I often see, pewter skies, thickets of skyscrapers with their windows dark. I'm here at 7 a.m. at the Island Airport - all flights to New York cancelled for now due to thunderstorms. Luckily here's the Globe, and I have the latest New Yorkers and there's free coffee and cookies - and thou. Picnic!

P.S. 7.30. As I sit here drinking my latte, surrounded by businesspeople in snazzy suits huddled over their iPads and Blackberry's - how proud I am to be tapping on my sleek silver companion Fleet. RIP MacZine. (Have I told you, my new Apple computer has her name? The long version is Fleetwood Mac. But she's Fleet for short. And she's beautiful.)

The sky over Toronto now silvery white, and Newark may be opening up.

Noo Yawk!

PPS. Last night my friend the wonderful writer Alissa York and I went to the launch of the latest Granta magazine, their 9/11 issue. Several Canadian writers have pieces in the mag, and so far, I've found the reading powerful.

I'm watching a woman teetering along on very high black patent heels. All that body, dependant on a square inch of sole and a spindly bit of heel. Looks like misery to me, modern footbinding. Ha! I am in dishing mode. Time to read the newspaper and settle down.

My flight!!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

pendulum wave

Watch this, my friends - it's a pendulum wave, and it's stunning.

Noo Yawk again

It's fall already, surprisingly cool and grey, but summer will be back. Hear that, summer??

I'm preparing to leave very early tomorrow morning for a trip to my birthplace, New York City, or Noo Yawk Noo Yawk, as we New Yorkers prefer to call it. No, I'm not going for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, though that will be looming heavily over the next few days. Or to Fashion Week, that goes without saying. On Saturday, my cousin Ted is celebrating his 70th birthday with the usual intimate NYC gathering - a sit-down dinner at his club, the Century Club, for 150 of his closest friends and family. Among whom is moi.

This is the first time I've had to pay to stay in New York. My beloved Uncle Edgar, on whom I used to sponge, is gone, and Ted's place, where I usually stay, is full of out of town guests, there not only for the birthday party but for Ted's wedding the day before. Ted and Henry have been together for decades; many of us were teasing them about getting married long before New York State legalized gay marriage. They'll be married not in town but in the garden of their waterfront house in Northport. This actually IS a small affair, and among the guests will not be moi.

I instead have a very long list of Things to Do during my 3 days, which includes, of course, the Met, the Frick, the Morgan Library, as much theatre as possible, and endless walking. I have rented the small apartment of the friend of a friend of a friend (for $125 a night, a bargain but still ... not free, as before.) It's in the East Village so I'll be in new territory, the fascinating old streets of lower Manhattan - I'm used to staying uptown. I'm booked to see a new American play at the Public Theatre, close to where I'll be living, with a comp courtesy of my ex-husband who used to work with the Artistic Director (and who, incidentally, will be in Toronto while I'm away, and so will be staying here, in what used to be our house. I am very happy about that. Except that he is an exceptionally neat person, and I'm more aware than usual that I am not.)

I'm also booked to take Great-aunt Lola, who's 88, to see a matinee of "Freud's Last Session," which is apparently an argument between Freud and C. S. Lewis. Can't wait. And for Thursday night, I'm playing it by ear - maybe TKTS, the cheap ticket booth, maybe one of the other shows I've circled in New York magazine, which includes an amazing Montreal dance troupe called 7 Fingers. Ah, the moveable feast.

What I will be trying not to do is shop. Yes, those of you who know me are laughing out loud. But truly. Packing is a test in itself - a small carry-on bag has to include chic clothes for 3 days, including a fancy party, with the weather predicted to be very hot and muggy but thunderstorming every single day. How to finesse that? Linen is the answer, and, as always, layers. But I can't buy much, because there's nowhere to put it, let alone that I don't need it etc.

It's just that NYC is an overwhelming banquet. Here, I keep away from stores, except second-hand ones which are my downfall. But there, every inch of space is retail, hundreds, thousands of shops, crowded together, full of the latest and the most interesting.

Luckily I was at the library yesterday to pick up The Three Weissmans of Westport, an entertaining novel recommended by my friend Isabel Huggan - and happened upon a book called Lost and Found: unexpected revelations about food and money, by Gineen Roth. She's a writer who lost her entire life savings with Madoff, and is writing with deep honesty about her conflicted relationship with money. There's a wonderful scene in which she convinces herself, broke as she is, that she needs a pair of thousand dollar glasses; she obsesses - life will be better, she'll be sexier and smarter with the glasses - and finally remembers that she HAS nice glasses. She realizes that, rather than remembering the beautiful jacket she has in her closet that she hasn't worn in a year, she's focussed on getting a NEW jacket.
"But I have enough," she says. "I have more than enough. And yet it's never enough; I always want more."

Wow - that hit. It's a very interesting book. She quotes a finance writer as saying, "Insofar as there is a lesson in history, it's that human beings are not good with large sums of money, anything over $136."

Well, that's good, because that's what I can afford to spend in New York - $136. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Hello writers, this is to let you know that the Ryerson term begins next Monday, September 13th, with "True to Life," and continues Tuesday, September 14th, with "True to Life 2," the advanced section, for students who've already worked at least once with me.

There is room in both. For more information, please check this website under "Teaching."

The U of T course "Life Stories" begins Monday afternoon, October 3. So if you'd prefer a daytime class, this is the one for you.

Hope to see you there.

"All art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end."

God's punishments and Michelle Bachman

My friend Liz posted this on her Facebook page, and I'm stealing it for you. Hilarious.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

It's the Labour Day weekend and the city is deserted and very quiet - except for King Street West, crowded with uber-trendy people getting ready for the film festival that opens next week. Just came back from seeing an extraordinary documentary at the TIFF cinema there - "the Cave of Forgotten Dreams," written and directed by Werner Herzog. It's about the Chauvet cave in southern France, discovered a few decades ago, its walls covered with drawings around 30,000 years old - the oldest cave drawings in the world. And stunning they are, cave bears, cave lions, bison, rhinoceroses, and especially horses, beautifully evoked by our artsy Cro-Magnon ancestors.

These images were especially moving to me because I remember clearly a family visit to the famous cave at Lascaux, the first great public exhibition of prehistoric cave art - I was 4 or 5 in 1955 or 56, when my father made sure we visited as we travelled through southern France. Young as I was, I have never forgotten the thrill. Lascaux was closed to the public a few years later, forever.

The film is a bit irritating, though shot in 3-D, my first experience of such and breathtaking at times. Herzog has layered over a very insistent soundtrack; by the end, I had my hands over my ears. He gets carried away with poetic metaphor and doesn't explain basics, like the difference between Neanderthal (not artistic) and Cro-Magnon (artistic) man. Still, it's thrilling to see close-up the brilliance of this artistic work, powerful bulls like Picasso's, other drawings with the delicate simplicity of Japanese line drawings - they had vision, talent and skill, these artists, drawing right on the walls of their gallery.

An archeologist plays "The Star Spangled Banner" on a 25,000 year old flute made from vulture bone. Surreal. And a scientist says that he thinks calling us "homo sapiens" is wrong - it means "man who knows" and, he says, "We don't know anything." He thinks we should be called "homo spiritualis." Spiritual man. Lots to think about.

The film is over at TIFF - maybe will reappear at a cinema near you. If you want to gain perspective on just how callow our civilization is - highly recommended.

And now, from the sublime to the utterly appalling - even at this quiet time, your faithful reporter is on the case.

A friend gave me the two most recent "People" magazines, and I have, yes, I have read them. Just for research, you understand, so I am in tune with the zeitgeist. I now know just how Angie and Brad manage their large brood, who only, ever, are photographed smiling and happy; they manage because they are the best parents in the world. It's true. And more power to them.

Further on in the mag, we see the bedrooms of the children of stars, and detailed analyses of their clothing choices. "Best dressed," the headline blares, and there are six pictures of Halle Berry's 3-year old Nahla in overalls, boots, "babyGap floral sundress" and face paint. "Accessorize like Nahla!" it says, showing her Snack Bag ("Skip Hop 'Mouse' Zoo Lunchie, $14) and her Twinkle Toes sneakers, Sketchers, $45.

Shuddering, I turned the page - and there are the fashion choices of Gwen Stefani's children Kingston and Zuma, 5 and 3. "Accessorize like Zuma!" And on and on.

Horror. Except that this minute, as I write, my neighbours are out with their 3 year old, and her uncle is saying, "I love your cute shoes. But you're a big girl now, time for you to wear high heels. Where are your high heels?"

In the next "People", Kim Kardashian's wedding. I have no idea who these Kardashians, except that they were invented in the United States specifically to fill pages of a magazine like this, and also thousands of hours of television. Anything to do with real life is strictly accidental.

Still, I confess, I do like to look at pictures of Brad and Angie with their lovely multicoloured family. My ex and I looked a lot like them, relaxed, glamourous, laughing and confident, as we went around the world with our two.


But rather than waste my time with "People," I prefer to watch a film that takes me back 30,000 years.

Oh, and the New York Times has an editorial about Canada's refusal to ban the exportation of asbestos, entitled "Boneheaded politicians." I couldn't have put it better myself.

Friday, September 2, 2011


I'm giving in, once more. Those of you who follow this blog know that my relationship with the Globe and Mail is mercurial - love it, hate it. When they endorsed Stephen Harper in the last election, I once again cancelled my subscription in fury. But I continue to read it at the Y and, often, to buy it.

Today, at the Y, I read a front page article on Doug Ford's appalling plans for the waterfront - as Adam Vaughn said, "building a big, huge, honking mall" on the water - unbelievable. A suburban mind forty years out of date. The Globe reported on the secret meetings the mayor's brother has held in order to come up with this great "vision." It's a good article. There are good columnists. Jon Stewart is on vacation. I'm gonna subscribe again.

Further pleasure of the page - I had resolved to read some classics this summer, and, as usual, my reading is way, way behind schedule (and soon another newspaper will be added to the pile!) But I did read Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I'm ashamed to say for the first time. I've been meaning to read it for years, but it was Midnight in Paris that made me pick it off the bookshelf and place it beside my bed.

What a suberb work - voted by the Modern Library as the second best English-language novel ever. (Joyce's Ulysees is #1.) Heart-breaking and beautifully crafted. I did find a few plot points a bit forced, the whole ending, for example, depending on convoluted decisions about who is driving whose car. And ... can I be petty here? At the very end, Gatsby is in his pool on an air mattress when he is shot several times. The narrator Nick finds "the laden mattress" moving around the pool, tracing "a thin red circle in the water."

Beautiful writing. But if bullets pierce an air mattress, does it continue to float? Just asking.

Classic bits of writing gave me goose bumps. "It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made ..."

And the very last line, stunning: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Sigh. And to think this man drank himself to death. What a waste of a stunning talent. Now - to tackle Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

While reading Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels, I also read their list of the 100 best works of Non-Fiction, and was pleased to see that a book by Sir Peter Medawar, a scientist friend of my father's, was #26. When I was about three, my parents left me in London with the Medawars for a week, while they went on vacation to Spain. Jean Medawar called me "Little Miss Peanut Butter." And I still am.

I found a list of Sir Peter's best quotes. Here's my favourite:
The USA is so enormous, and so numerous are its schools, colleges and religious seminaries, many devoted to special religious beliefs ranging from the unorthodox to the dotty, that we can hardly wonder at its yielding a more bounteous harvest of gobb.”

You go, Sir.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

birthdays, passing

It's Ganesh's birthday for the Hindu community, and since there's a temple just around the corner on Parliament Street, the parade goes right by my door. Here it is last night, with a great deal of music, a "float," and many participants ...
And again today in daylight - women in their finest saris, children all dressed up, loud drumming and horns, offerings of fruit to the god. Right outside my front door. Welcome to downtown Toronto.
Great sadness - I found out today that Dolly, one of the Clydesdales at Riverdale Farm, died in August at the age of 27. I've visited her countless times at the Farm. When I saw the notice on the fence, I wept.