Wednesday, October 31, 2012

hiding from Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en means two things in Cabbagetown: one, a massive flood of kids. Unbelievable as it seems, each house gets 800 or 900 trick or treaters. Once the rush begins, after 5.45, it doesn't abate until 8.30 or 9; useless to go inside, best just to stand on the porch and keep doling it out. The experience is marvellous, because many of the visitors are small new Canadians, done up in some kind of costume, open-mouthed at receiving candy from strangers.

We get such crowds because there are so many kids in Regent Park and St. Jamestown, and because the houses are packed tightly together here and many in the neighbourhood go all out with screaming and moaning sound effects, witches hanging from trees, giant spiders ... And also, I gather, because kids have heard about all this and come here from their own neighbourhoods because it's better here.

Well, as I've said before, I did my bit for 20 years, while my kids were home, and now I'm done. At 5.45, this Hallowe'en grinch turns out the lights and hides at the back with a book, until the storm passes. Then, around 9, all on this block gather at Jean-Marc and Richard's for drinks and pizza. Most come in costume. I have a pink pig hat, so I'm stuffing a pillow under my t-shirt and going as Mayor Ford. On the other side of town, incidentally, my grandson apparently is dressed as the child Pugsley from the Addams Family. I don't quite know what that means, but I'm sure it's really cute.

The other thing that Hallowe'en means around here is that my favourite second-hand store Doubletake is crowded with ... amateurs. All those people in there joking around as they look for costumes, getting in the way of those of us who are really shopping. Out go the bride's dresses and the goofy dated dresses, to be ripped up and splattered with blood. Tomorrow, all those once-a-year shoppers will be gone, and only us serious folk, hunting daily for the deal of the century, will be picking through the remnants of other people's lives.

Speaking of other people's lives ... spent an hour today tracking down longterm nursing care facilities in Ottawa and calling them. Mum is vaguer and weaker all the time, and yet still has a ferocious will. My brother and I are the parents now, but none of us wants to admit it, especially Mum. How to preserve her dignity and autonomy while making decisions for her safety and our peace of mind, whether she approves or not? Difficult and sad.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ira Glass on storytelling

A student, after hearing me go on about Ira Glass, sent me a link to a series of four interviews with him, some years ago, about storytelling. He's speaking about broadcasting and radio, but almost everything he says applies to non-fiction writing too. Very interesting and fun. #1 and #3 are particularly good.

We've survived! Yesterday, the huge maple tree in my neighbour's yard was a sky-high mass of yellow leaves, and this morning was nearly 100% denuded. That's the force of the wind and rain overnight. But nothing here compared to the eastern seaboard in the States. I'm waiting to hear from my cousin Ted, who lives in upper Manhatten during the week but has his real home on the water on Long Island. I hope his house, full of the antiquities he has collected in decades of world travel, came through.

My poor brother is burning out in Ottawa, so I'm on my way again this Friday. But for now, sitting with yet another glass of maroon liquid, listening to dire news on the radio and looking out at the incessant rain. Tonight - the Giller Prize on TV, hosted by my neighbour, that best-selling author Jian Ghomeshi. Every year as I sit in front of the TV, I always feel briefly like Cinderella, in my rags watching famous writers at play. But then I remember - they're celebrating FICTION. What a waste of time.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

It's apocalyptic out there - lashing winds, torrential rain in the darkness. Friends have emailed that their fireplaces are stoked and sleeping bags piled in front, they've filled buckets with water, have their flashlights and candles and vats of chicken cacciatore at the ready ... Hurricane Sandy is making her rounds. Not nearly as bad here as in the Eastern U.S., but still, amazingly fierce. I ended the class at Ryerson 20 minutes early tonight, so the 11 brave writers who made it there could get home before it got worse, as it will tonight.

I wish the roofer had finished my flat roof and re-installed the downspouts. But he hasn't. I left several messages this week, but no answer. I guess a roofer is particularly in demand before a catalysm. Of course rainfall fills me with terror, because of my oft-flooded basement. But I checked the drain to be sure it was clear of leaves, and that's about all I can do, except pray.

The crabby cat is unsettled, always a sign of God's wrath. I wish I had a fireplace. And a sleeping bag.

To make matters worse, still loose in Cabbagetown somewhere is a psychopath who last week stabbed a defenceless woman to death with a serrated knife.

But - my doors are locked. A few candles and flashlights are on the counter, lots of food in the fridge; CBC's "Ideas" is nattering about something about God right now, I don't know what. "How is God in Himself?" he asks. Who the hell knows? The glass beside me seems to be filled with a burgundy-coloured liquid. My mother is safe in her retirement residence; I hope my kids are dry. I hope everyone is dry. Stay dry, people. Ira Glass would make a great story out of this crazy hurricane, and we can too.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Ira Glass menagerie

Pardon the pun. Yesterday night, as I headed out the door to walk in the rain to Massey Hall, I wondered if the hall would be nearly empty. Who, I asked myself, besides a few storytellers and story encouragers like me, would want to pay money to hear Ira Glass, the man who developed National Public Radio's "This American Life," talk about the power of stories on radio? I expected a smattering of earnest CBC types.

As I approached, I saw the line to pick up tickets curved all the way around the building. By the time the man bounded on stage with his glowing iPad and talked in the dark for the first five minutes, the place was packed to the rafters. A mixed age crowd too, though I was most amazed at how few people my age were there and how many twenty- and thirty-somethings. Huge fans, it turns out, of an American radio program celebrating ordinary life. Who knew?! Ironically, though I've known of the show for at least a decade and have always wanted to contribute, I've never heard the whole thing, only excerpts. I knew CBC had started to run it but have never tracked it down. FYI, I found out it's on CBC 1 at 11 p.m. Sundays. Glass made a sarcastic suggestion that the CBC put it on at a decent hour, with which I heartily concur.

Ira Glass was a marvel - stand-up comedian hilarious, then quiet and moving, as when he talked about Canadian comic writer David Rakoff, a frequent contributor who died earlier this year, or about one show that portrayed the on-the-ground human reality of the American withdrawal from Iraq. He told us he began clumsily in radio, but rather than take courses or a degree, he produced material and then  found mentors, professionals whom he offered to pay to listen to his work, tell him what was wrong and how to fix it.

He talked about what makes a good story, the kind they use on the show. "Every story is a detective story," he said, "raising questions and then answering them along the way or at the end." One of the most important structural elements, he said, is forward motion - action, suspense, movement, even of the most banal sort. Cut out all the stuff that isn't moving the story forward.

And - "What is the universal something we all relate to in the story?" On radio, he said, we spell out the meaning - the interesting idea about the world - that's the core of a good story. A good story has a moment that allows us "to imagine being them" - the characters.

And - vivid writing: dialogue, which moves the story into real time, and visuals - descriptions. Characters, conflict, action, ideas. And something indefinable called charm.

Figuring out what your stories are about, getting ideas for new stories, is a JOB, he said; discovering what interests you is part of your work. Surround yourself with stuff that amuses you, set aside time to follow your interests aggressively, abandon the ideas that don't work. Follow your obsessions. Write about what you care about. Amuse yourself.

Most of this is exactly what I teach, said in a different way. What pleasure to be surrounded by kindred spirits, the witty, open man on stage, the huge crowd - people who love stories. My people.

Speaking of which - I've been hearing a lot from former students, including a woman now living in Tel Aviv who has finished a book of stories and another from Hamilton who wants me to teach a writing workshop there. Brava to a student who has continued to work privately with me for years and has almost finished an autobiography that is not only the story of her own life but a political history of the last half century in the Philippines.

And bravo to the talented Rob Delaney, my student at U of T last fall and this spring, who entered his memoir material in U of T's Random House student story competition and came second. It's time to start a radio program called "This Canadian Life." In my files are the names of thousands of storytellers to get it launched.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nighisti Semret

Dark and very, very wet. I gather some sort of storm is about to explode over the East Coast, which worries me. It's like the Jewish joke, how every bit of news gets the response, "But is it good for the Jews?" When I heard about the storm, I wondered, "But will it be bad for Obama?" The Republicans will find some way to blame a storm on him.

Tragedy only a few blocks from my home in Cabbagetown - Nighisti Semret, a woman from Eritrea, on her way home in the early morning from her job as a hotel cleaning supervisor, was brutally assaulted from behind, stabbed multiple times and left for dead, apparently in a random attack. The whole city has convulsed with shock and horror, but this neighbourhood especially - peaceful little Cabbagetown no more. My women friends are afraid to walk alone at night or in the early morning, at least until the guy has been caught. What kind of loathsome psychopath is loose on our streets? I walked over yesterday to the memorial that's appeared in the lane where she died, messages of sorrow and condolence written on cards and scrawled in chalk on the wall.

Her death has shone a light, if briefly, on the invisible lives of the immigrants who work like slaves in our city. Nighisti lived in a rooming house for women and worked seven days a week, saving to bring her four children over to Canada. How many live as she did? For a few moments, her fellow immigrants appeared on television and radio, talking about their compatriot and her life, their lives.

Now, the hunt for the killer goes on, and for Nighisti's neighbours, it's back to work as usual, keeping us all comfortable and clean.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

cashmere, coffee and anxiety

A savvy, wealthy, conservative friend of mine told me yesterday that  Romney is going to win. He's glad, because his partner is Syrian, and "Obama won't arm the rebels but Romney will." That was enough for a sleepless night, tossing in misery at the thought of that band of heartless thugs, and their Fox allies, once again occupying the White House. The "nice" Romney with the sweet sad smile, or the callous Romney who snidely dismissed the 47%, which one? And Paul Ryan - let's not even begin to consider self-righteous, bulgy-eyed Mr. Ayn Rand. The horror.

But this afternoon, I ran into a neighbour in the produce department at No Frills, and we ended up in heated agreement for 15 minutes beside the cauliflower. She says that the statistician Nate Silver, who's been startlingly right in past elections, predicts a narrow Obama victory. I'll go with that, for now, if only to enable me to get some sleep tonight. Please. Please.

A great discovery the other day, which I'd like to share with other Torontonians - the Merchants of Green Coffee. I'd seen them selling their beans at our local farmer's market, but assumed the name meant that somehow I had to roast my own beans, and ignored them. But no - they roast. A student wrote a piece about her addiction to coffee and these vendors in particular, so before I returned the rental car on Monday morning, I sought them out. They have a wonderful big funky café just east of the Don Valley and south of Dundas - old tables, big windows, wifi, people sitting quietly with computers, and the divine smell of the freshest coffee. I bought a bag of Ethiopian, and it's superb. I look forward even more to my mornings now. And to going back one day to that lovely hidden space, to drink their brew and sit with my computer.

There's a great French word - "frileuse." It means tending to be chilled. I have always been frileuse, wearing three layers when others are in t-shirts. For a frileuse comme moi, there is one important word, and that word is cashmere. The most important item of my winter wardrobe is a black cashmere turtleneck. Softness, utility, style and warmth, in equal measure - but also expense, and the decimation of downy little goats, I gather. My old t-neck is worn out, and the new ones are prohibitive and politically incorrect.

Which makes me especially grateful that my favourite secondhand store Doubletake produced, today, a black 100% cashmere turtleneck for $5. I may not take it off until April. Tomorrow morning, I will be wearing black cashmere and sipping pungent Ethiopian coffee, well rested because Obama is going to blow that out-of-touch faker right out of the water.

Well, at least two of those three are guaranteed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

let's get this election over with!

The third campaign debate over, thank the lord. This time I watched it on CNN with the squiggly lines - incomprehensible. Are they attached to the voters' foreheads, is that how they work? Anyway, I have to say that Romney just does not quit; he's slow, steady, relentless. I hate that sweet sad smile and the fact that suddenly he is the kindest candidate the U.S. has ever known. How do you wrestle a chameleon with a sweet sad smile? Very difficult. And it's clear that the Republicans have set the bar politically - Obama, sadly, sounds as much a hawk as any Republican.

But he did extremely well, steady and relentless too, in his way. How I wish he could laugh a bit more - though the line about bayonets and horses was great. But to me, no question that Obama was way, way stronger and clearer - more so, in some ways, than in the last one, because he was forceful but calm.

And then David Shields, a right-wing columnist commenting on PBS, said he thought Romney portrayed himself as a solid commander in chief and came out ahead. I am as usual in an alternate reality. Or else David Shields is high on Bullshit Mountain, as Jon Stewart says.

I'd just come in from Ryerson, where we had one of the most spectacular classes of my entire 17-year teaching career. Tonight's was a difficult assignment, and every student tonight dug deep, with honesty and clarity. But tonight was a first - after a young man read a beautiful story about his mother's death, everyone in the room was in tears, including me. He told me afterwards that he was glad he'd taken the course because the supportive environment freed him to tell the most painful story of his young life. And I thought, if I've done nothing else as a teacher, I've helped this happen.

Go Obama.


 Five months and 89.
Eli gnaws on Great-grandma's knuckle
Extraordinary beauty

 First encounter with beets

The boyz and Great-grandma.

We are family, thanks

Overload, almost - a weekend in Ottawa with my entire close family. The Toronto contingent drove up in a small rental car on Friday morning, a glorious drive with fall colours exploding along the highway, forests of gold, scarlet and orange in the sun. The baby is a great traveller; we stopped only once, when he'd had it, to let him stretch his legs and to have a bite to eat; otherwise, if he got fussy jammed in his car seat, we put on Michael Jackson, and he listened and grooved. Much loud Michael Jackson on the 5 1/2 hour drive.

But the stress was incalculable for me. I don't drive that often now, particularly long distances, and here in this little tin can were my most precious people on the planet, all of them. I wanted to go slowly, to be safe, but had to drive at a good speed to get there before we all went mad. So, stress.

We had supper Friday night at Amica, the residence where Mum lives now. She is extremely frail - slid off her chair last week and has bruises on her face. But she loved seeing the baby; he is such a laugher, exudes such pleasure in living that his joy is infectious.

That night was a challenge - my mother's condo, where we were staying, has only two beds, and much of the furniture, including the TV and radio, has been moved to the residence. My kids are screen people. Luckily I'd brought my computer and they'd brought DVD's, so we all 3 - or 4, when the baby was up - squeezed onto the sofa to watch "The Wire" on a MacBook. 6 foot 8 inch Sam slept on the sofa.

Saturday, to celebrate Thanksgiving, my mother's 89th birthday and my son's 28th, we had her and her sister Do, my brother and his son and spouse - all of us serene, of course, no issues, no problems, only peace and love - over to Mum's small condo for a late Thanksgiving dinner. A day of cooking and preparation in a cramped kitchen, where when we went to make gravy, we found that the bin marked "Flour" was full of bags of brown sugar, as was every other bin. Anyway, we managed to pull together a great meal - thanks especially to the gourmet cooks my children have become, and to the vast organizational skills of Anna, who had her son bouncing in his Jolly Jumper in the doorway as she cooked.

God, it's intense, that kind of scene. My brother's rambunctious five-year old understandably had enough of sitting and climbed on his father's back during dinner; Mum was nodding off, the baby was hungry, I burned and ruined the bread sauce. Yet here is what family is meant to be - a group of people linked by DNA, four generations ranging in age from 5 months to 92 1/2. Heartening and necessary, if exhausting.

On Sunday morning we visited Mum again. It was hard to leave her, so vulnerable and weak, but she's in good hands with my brother, who is endlessly patient, and her caregiver, and I will be back soon, alone, to spend more time with her. We ate leftovers with feisty Do and took off, for the scenic and stressful Michael-Jackson-laden drive home.

Thanksgiving. Two of the greatest gifts - seeing my mother and her great-grandson beam at each other, and watching my giant son, his face tender as he played with the baby and helped his grandma walk and sit. And his older sister, a wise and skillful mother with the happiest baby any of us have ever met.

As Mum and I sat watching her, I said, in my hyperbolic way, "Isn't she the best mother the world has ever known?"
"Yes," said Mum, and then, after a pause, "Except for me."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

God, Man and Devil, and Damien Hirst

One of my great-grandfather's plays is opening tonight in New York. Well, in Brooklyn, which is where he lived, though in his time, his plays were all performed first on the Lower East Side, before travelling around the world. "God, Man and Devil" is,  as you can tell by the title, one of Jacob Gordin's light-hearted romps, written in Yiddish but playing tonight in translation. The actress Donya Washington was interviewed for Target Margin Theatre's blog.
TMT: God, Man, & Devil was written by Jacob Gordin in 1900. Is there a truth in the play that 112 years can’t obscure?
DKW: The play centers around the question – is it better for a man to succeed as an individual, even at the cost to his family/community; or is it better for a man to sacrifice personal success for family/community success? That was an important question then, and an important one for us to spend time with during this election season.
The old man would approve. Break a leg, JG. Wish I were there.

An article in the Star says that British bad boy artist Damien Hirst has been accused of massacring 9000 butterflies during the span of his installation at the Tate. I saw the exhibition, I saw those poor butterflies, the live ones fluttering around a room, the dead ones with magnificent wings he glues in interesting patterns under glass. Hated it all. This man has made a fortune creating medicine cabinets lined with artistic arrangements of drug boxes, and selling them as art to very rich people. Hooey, I say. Or maybe phooey. Or hogwash. Something along those lines.

My mother fell asleep in a chair yesterday, slid off and banged her head. All 4 of us, daughter, son, baby, moi, are driving up on Friday to spend the weekend visiting her, to celebrate Sam's 28th birthday and Mum's 89th birthday and Eli's five month birthday and Thanksgiving. There will be food. I am anxious to see my mama.

dwelling on the debate

Couldn't stop myself from doing a bit of trolling just now in the NYT and the Washington Post. But I need to stop this. My friend Richard is an American politics junkie, and now I can understand why.

One final note: after the debate, the candidates were left for some time in the room with the audience, the cameras still running. Obama waded right into the crowd, shaking hands, listening, and by the end, signing autographs. Romney headed straight for the phalanx of his sons, four tall white pillars of protection, clones of their father, enclosing him. What is wrong with them, I couldn't help but think, they're grown men with families and jobs, why are they always, all four, stuck together rootin' for Dad?

It's grey, cold, raining, wet leaves toppling from the trees. I'm coughing and shaky but better. And down south, there's a race again. Yes, Obama is vague on many policies and has been a disappointment in many areas. But last night, he was a man of steel and grace.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Oh my. Oh my my. Gladiators, circling in the ring with their mighty swords. OBAMA - all is forgiven. YOU ROCKED. And what joy it was to follow it on Twitter. I laughed often, whereas the debate itself was 100% unfunny. But the binder thing was the best. Romney talking about wanting women in his Mass. cabinet and being handed "a binder full of women," and instantly, two seconds later, there was a Twitter site. From Twitter tonight:
We welcome all immigrants into my binder.

It's as if the Romney from the first debate is tied up in a Scooby-Doo warehouse somewhere.

Romney: "Obamacare is by far the worst idea I ever had."
Romney's Libya comments display the patriotism of someone who keeps his money in Switzerland.
Romney: "I would work to replace the culture of violence with a culture of unshackled greed."
Better parenting will totally stop a semi-automatic weapon.
Working moms and single parents are responsible for gun violence???? Disastrous answer!!
Obama has done very little on guns. Sad. Romney would do less. Sadder.
Regulations have quadrupled? Really? Over to the fact-checkers.
AnnDRomney Well, I still have my horses.

And finally, a few minutes after: Clearest sign of an Obama victory: Fox news calling it a draw.

Obama's debate strategy by Andy Borowitz

Half an hour to go, and I just enjoyed this:

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—With his polite and well-mannered performance widely panned in the first Presidential debate, President Barack Obama is under mounting pressure to prove that he can act like an asshole in the second debate tomorrow night, a campaign aide confirmed.
“In America, we demand that our President remain cool and calm in a crisis but go batshit in a debate,” the aide said. “Tuesday night is all about that second piece.”

Rather than unspooling a laundry list of facts and numbers as he did in the first debate, this time Mr. Obama will focus on tearing Mr. Romney a new one.

Unfortunately, the aide acknowledged, such classic dick moves as dismissively interrupting an opponent and laughing over his answers do not come naturally to Mr. Obama: “That’s why we’re having Joe Biden work with him.”

But even as Mr. Obama worked around the clock to practice being a douche, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, doubted his efforts would succeed.
“Being an asshole isn’t a skill that you can just pick up overnight,” Mr. Rhoades said. “Mitt Romney’s been working on it all his life.”

debating debacle

In advance of tonight's earth-shattering Presidential debate - I do feel that the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, but then I am a drama queen - I have come to a sorry conclusion about Obama's last performance. I think we were witnessing, not fatigue or lack of oxygen, but a tantrum. I think he had dismissed Romney as a fool far behind in the polls, and resented taking time from his busy life as Leader of the Free World to have to endure this debate. Obama barely showed up because he didn't want to be there and didn't think it mattered. He didn't care.

I hate to be biblical, but talk about "Pride cometh before a fall." Talk about hubris, and a learning curve. We'll see tonight how much he has learned. Nerve-wracking. I watched a superb edition of Steve Paikin's "The Agenda" last night, (a program that is, actually, always superb), with various pundits from the U.S., China and Canada talking about the place of the U.S. in the world today. The woman in Washington said that Obama had proved to be such a hawk that there wasn't much difference between him and Romney on the substance of many issues, just a difference of style. Pretty harsh, but - Obama has not been the overwhelming force for love, peace and good we fantasized about. I know, look what he was up against - slavering human hyenas with an entire TV channel as a megaphone. Still. A certain disappointment, perhaps inevitable when I remember the euphoria of those first days.

No question, however, that he's a million times better than the alternative. GO OBAMA. The pundits last night concluded, to a man - and woman - that almost every leader in the world is praying for an Obama victory, with the exception of a handful of countries, most of all, of course, Israel.

Talk about ironic and sad.

Now full of antibiotics, I am better. Not hugely better, but better, on my way up. It is such a waste of time and energy, being sick - I'm lucky it doesn't happen very often. TOUCHWOOD TOUCHWOOD TOUCHWOOD. When my beloved friend Sarah Torchinsky was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in her eighties, she refused to talk about it. Until the day she died, on my birthday in 2009, she never complained or discussed her illness, at least to me. And I mewl about a bit of a flu. Well, there was something up there about a drama queen.

Speaking of which, a friend wrote from B.C. He is adapting the movie "Whatever happened to Baby Jane?" for the stage, featuring the divine Nicola Cavendish in the Bette Davis part, and wondered if I'd be interested in the other role. He wrote:
Wheelchair work and a cooked parrot for din-din? I hope this does not insult you, but you are a dead ringer for Joan Crawford...

That's a new one. Imagine! And I was such a nasty mother, too.

Swinging my coat hanger, I had, regretfully, to decline.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The brilliance of "Seven Up!"

According to Blogger, as of today, I have posted 1300 times. Someone, shut this woman up! No, never, because blogging benefits me in so many unexpected ways. Today, I came home to find an email from my friend and student Liz, a nurse who writes beautifully about her extraordinary childhood as the second of 15 children, and about her adult life as a nurse. She wrote:

By the sound of your blog, it's time to visit your doctor.  Seven days is long enough, you should be getting better by now.  You may need a steroid inhaler to settle the irritation in your lungs and/or a powerful prescription cough medicine.

My own personal health consultation, through the blog! I will indeed call my doctor tomorrow, thank you Liz. This has gone on, in fact, for nine days, and enough is enough.

I just came home from a movie which I didn't feel well enough to go to, but when I saw it mentioned in the paper as showing only this once, absolutely could not miss: "49 Up." And sure enough, it was as powerful a piece of film as I've ever seen, just like all the others. For those who don't know about this brilliant series, filmmaker Michael Apted, in 1964, picked a diverse group of British seven-year old boys and girls and made "Seven Up!", a documentary showing how very sure of their future lives were the wealthy ones and how very insecure of theirs were the poor ones. He has continued to film them every seven years since; I've been watching every 7 years since "21 Up."

It's enthralling, moving, sensational, unforgettable - of course, about much more than class expectations - about life itself. We watch these kids grow up. We learn, watching, that we are all more or less beautiful, open and confident at seven, blotchy and incoherent at 14, completely lost and hideous at 21, and, often, found and on solid ground at 28. A surprising number were married with children by then. Others have taken longer, but they're almost all married now for the first or second time, with children, and, newly, with grandchildren, whom they enjoy just as much as I enjoy mine.
It's like going to watch a film about old friends; I feel great affection and have huge respect for their courage and openness. Rich or poor, they're trying to be happy and loved and to take care of their families, like the rest of us. An amazing privilege, to watch the span of their lives go by like that. 

Ah ha! Typical of my math: If they were 7 in 1964, they can't be 49 in 2012, you idiot! I see looking at the Hot Docs program that this was a weekend-long retrospective of all the films, in advance of the new one, "56 UP," coming out this December. I didn't even know I'd missed this one, made in 2005. I'll be first in line at the next.

"49 Up" ends, as usual, with Neil, the most startling of the group - the most beautiful of all at 7, with a face as innocent as an angel's; by 21 he's living in a squat and by 28 he's homeless, hitching in the rain. It's clear he has considerable mental problems. By 35, miraculously, he's on the local town council, and at 42, we can hardly believe our eyes - he's staying with another of the film's participants in London and on another local council. But still a bit shaky. 

At 49, he's back north, again on a local council, living in a nice little council flat with a view of
 luminous green fields and puffs of sheep, with a volunteer job at the Oxfam shop and friends in the church. He bicycles through glens and dells, his face stronger and calmer than it has ever been.

And he tells a story, of watching a butterfly land near him on the grass and open its perfect red wings to dry in the sun. "Perhaps that's all life is," he says, "our moment in the sun, to spread our wings." And the film cuts to him as a seven-year old, running joyfully in the schoolyard with his arms outstretched

the Sunday Time

Wish I had something perky to report. It's a cold, grey, rainy Sunday; the terrifying political battle to the south drags on, Stephen Harper is making speeches in Africa, and my lungs still hurt. I coughed so much during a talk with my friend Chris yesterday that he said I was putting him off his dinner. Worse, I cannot sleep - all of last night wide awake, the light finally on at 3, making lists. I took sleeping pills for a few nights to knock me out, and always pay a steep price in insomnia when I stop taking them.

I did get to the Y yesterday, not to work out, but to spend a long time soaking my aching limbs in the hot tub and breathing in the mist of the steam room - paradise. And I weighed myself. My appetite has been so poor that I had images of fading away romantically, like the tubercular heroines of the 19th century - pale, thin, coughing. Images of fitting, even briefly, into the pair of jeans I bought at some ridiculously thin moment a few years ago, so the money wasn't wasted ...

Nyet. Maybe half a pound. I guess all the toast, dark chocolate and honey, and the fact that I haven't moved for four days, keeps this fine body as solid as ever. Thankfully.

My son started a new job yesterday and had a great time. My daughter has invited me over twice to visit her and Booboo, as he is now called, whom I can always hear in the background squealing with joy. He has discovered pumpkin pie. Just think of what other wonders await. But I cannot see my baby till I'm better.

While waiting to become myself again, I am working - reading, pecking at my own material, almost caught up with a pile of editing work. Just read a review of a new book called "Time Warped: unlocking the mysteries of time perception" in the Globe. It ends with some advice. How to get more done in a shorter period of time? Don't watch TV. How to stop worrying about the future? Visualize your problems as a cloud that you let float away.

It ends with a quote from Proust.
The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it; those that we inspire contact it; and habit fills up what remains." 

Time to drum up some passion in this limp rag of a human being, so that time, on this gloomy Sunday, expands with interest. May yours, too.

Friday, October 12, 2012

recovery mode for Democrats and me

It's 9.30 a.m. and I am excited to report that Joe Biden got through the night pretty well, and so did I. It sounds like it was a good debate in which he got in some good whacks. Doing his best to right the sinking Democrat canoe. Gail Collins urges Democrats in the NYT this morning to stop moaning and get a grip - it ain't over yet.

And as for moi - preparing for bed at the fashionably late hour of 10 p.m., I took a bunch of Vitamins C and D and a big swig of the powerful and vile Benylin Night, and then, best of all, one of my miracle sleeping pills which I usually cut in half but didn't.

Incidentally, according to my student Liz who's a nurse, this is not the flu. There's no coughing with flu. It's a "flu-like condition" which is afflicting many, apparently. They don't know what to call it. I know what to call it, but not in a family blog.

Drugged to the eyeballs, I got into bed, coughed my lungs out for a few minutes, and went to sleep. Did not awake till 8 a.m.; pushing back the curtain, saw my favourite tree, the giant Norway maple of my neighbours to the west, glowing gold in the morning sun. Came downstairs and made, for the first time in days, a cup of coffee. Coffee. Oh, I have missed you, dear friend.

My lungs still feel like two porous and flimsy cheese graters. Still wobbly with throbbing head. Cough hangs on. But the sun is shining on my tree, the coffee is strong and hot, and life begins again. I will make a list; then I'll feel really human. #1: Must rescue the rest of the plants on the deck - my son brought in the oleander, the gardenia and the geraniums yesterday, just in time, but the poor bushy jasmine suffered through a very cold night. Hope she survived. It's getting cold out there.

Through it all, comfortably beside me here on the kitchen sofa, the crabby cat sleeps on. You know, if you really think about it, maybe she's the smartest of us all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

all you need is soup

The Vice-Presidential debate is on now, and I am lying on the kitchen sofa writing to you. I can't bear it, I can't take it. Finally, in the middle of last night, as I was fretting about this Libya thing, the American ambassador who was killed and whose fault was it - I made a decision: I have to stop caring so much about what goes on down there, or I'll go mad. Take ten giant steps back. Yes, I think the fate of the planet hangs in the balance; that if those intolerant, smug, unbelievably narrow-minded, lying cretins win, we are all in big big trouble.

But there's nothing I can do about it, and all my fretting just makes me crazier than I already am. So my resolution is to remain calm. And pray. After my students left just now, I did turn on and take a tiny peek, saw the two combatants, heard a sentence from Paul Ryan blaming Obama for something, and turned the TV off. Nope. Not for this sickie.

Managed to hold my Thursday home class tonight, though I was pretty croaky - but these writers are like family, it's always so good to see them and they're pretty forgiving. I'd spent the afternoon falling in and out of sleep in the kitchen, while my sick son fell in and out of sleep in the living room. He came over this morning; I'd asked him to please come and buy me some soup at Daniel. Instead, he began chopping onions and garlic, and he made, over several hours, the most delicious French onion soup I've ever tasted. If anything heals us both, it's that soup.
"I read somewhere that what is most wonderful about cooking is that it's done out of love," I said to him, as we ate. "Cooking is love. I am eating love."

He didn't say anything because he's a guy. But I think he liked that. And then we both went to sleep.

I might just take a tiny peek at Twitter.

Ten minutes later: Okay. It sounds like it's going well for Biden. GO JOE! No, Beth, you do not care about those people any more. Go to bed.


Chuck Close on Vermeer

Bruce just sent me this from the Guardian - he and I adore Vermeer, but he is a dedicated Vermeer hound and has gone around the world in a quest to see each and every painting. A beautiful tribute below.
Vermeer's The Milkmaid. Photograph: Krause, Johansen. Click to enlarge

Chuck Close on Johannes Vermeer

Ever since I was a student, my favourite artist has been Johannes Vermeer. I understand, or can intuit, how every painting ever made, from the Lascaux caves to today's most cutting-edge work, was painted. Information about a piece's creation – touch, hand, process, technique – is embedded in the paint, like a Hansel and Gretel trail.
Vermeer, however, is the only artist whose paintings I cannot readily deconstruct. Other than the fact that they were all made with a camera-obscura-like contrivance, they remain impenetrable. The paint appears to have been blown on by divine breath. Neither opaque nor translucent, it does not seem to function as a film of pigment, but as light itself.
While most people only notice the subject matter and marvel at the verisimilitude, time spent with a painting like The Milkmaid, painted in the 1650s, is time spent communing with an image so sublime that it transcends its physical reality (mere paint on a panel) and becomes an apparition worthy of creation by the gods. Such sophisticated and remarkable paint handling – all for a plain and ordinary-looking Dutchwoman with sleeves rolled up revealing a farmer's tan. The foodstuffs that surround her are so naturalistic, a passing fly might try to land on them, while the pail and the basket that hang on the wall are, in terms of perspective, perfect.
On the floor rests a foot-warmer which, despite the abundant light flooding through the window, speaks to the unmistakable chill in the air. Chips of plaster are missing from the rough and cruddy surface of the wall, which is much in need of a paint job.
So much information and compressed energy is packed into such a small painting. Inch for inch, The Milkmaid is one of the most remarkable achievements in art.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

the flu chronicles

Worse. I don't know how it happened, but rather than better, I am sicker. Perhaps this is what it is to be a teacher and a former actress - the show must go on. I had to teach yesterday afternoon, so I got dressed - very warmly - rode my bike to U of T, had an absolutely wonderful class with eleven fine writers, and rode back, stopping at Daniel and Daniel to buy a large tub of chicken soup, which just may save my life. It felt good to be in the fall sunshine.

Bruce brought take-out Indian food for dinner, delicious though I couldn't eat much. I insisted on making him watch a re-run of "The West Wing" at 8, since he had NEVER SEEN IT - such brilliant TV, could have been written yesterday. And then we watched the previous day's Jon Stewart and Colbert on his computer - Jon interviewed the legendary Pete Townshend of the Who, a wise and witty man in grey cashmere who has just written an autobiography, hard to imagine him smashing guitars - and by then, I was feeling really lousy.

Then followed the coughing night from hell. 2.30 a.m., staggered to the kitchen and made tea with lemon and scoops of honey. Nothing has ever tasted better.

This morning, my voice is so low that on the phone, my mother told me I sound like a gay man. I ache all over and look like ... well, just not so good. This is a first, this flu. There is no mucus in this illness, just aching and a vile dry cough and exhaustion and sore eyes. And lack of appetite, that's the real shocker. I am not hungry. It's so unusual, it's disturbing.

Sorry, this is the most boring post I have ever written. Enough. A decision has been made - our trip to Ottawa Friday has been postponed a week. I will cancel various things, inform various people, and sink with relief back into my Dame aux Camelias pillows.

And now, my Brucie has just departed - on his way back to Vancouver. I am bereft.

Aaah. Dark chocolate. Some remedies never fail.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Eli listening to his favourite Michael Jackson mix tape. When he arrived, he was wearing a tie and bluejeans with that nice shirt, gradually discarded, as he was chewing on the tie and impatient with the jeans. He enjoyed our potatoes and carrots, mushed. His first Thanksgiving.

But my son was sick and I was feeling dreadful, and yesterday whatever it is hit me full force. It must be a flu, with aching back, legs, eyes, head and wobbly stomach. I was not hungry! I am never not hungry! Did not drink wine! So I must be really sick. Sam came over again and is here now, the two of us coughing and snorting. The House of Sick. Really gross. Poor Brucie has remained cheerful throughout, and our iPhone 5 seminars have continued.

It's a beautiful day, sun shining, brisk. All I would like to do is take a walk and kick up some fallen leaves. But methinks, not today.

Bruce the newshound says that Obama's poll numbers have dropped, and he and Romney are neck and neck. It does not seem possible. But then, I've said that before, and yet somehow, the most unthinkable things are possible.

And, from another kind of Bullshit Mountain, in the "Jerusalem Post"

Rabbi strikes against iPhone

09/14/2012 06:06

Bnei Brak rabbi holds iPhone-smashing ceremony: "A religious person who owns impure device is an abomination, disgusting."

Apple's iPhone 5

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Rumble 2012: Jon Stewart debated some silly man tonight

Where to begin? What a night. We had our Thanksgiving dinner, which was a little crazy with a nearly 5 month old and a nearly 5 year old and a group of hungry grown-ups. Delicious, all of it, when the Yorkshire pudding was finally finished, with its golden peaks. We gave thanks. Thanks. Thanks.

And then we gathered around, not the roaring fire, but the little computer, to watch Rumble2012, Bill O'Reilly from Fox "News" and Jon Stewart debating, livestreamed for $5. Stewart was delicious, brilliant, to the point and moving (literally, sometimes, with his funny platform that went up and down) and yet hilarious, making one sensible, hard-hitting point after another. O'Reilly was condescending with his stupid placards, and had hardly a rejoinder. It was barely a debate. But it wasn't unpleasant, like some of the others recently, because both men have a sense of humour, and because it gave Jon a chance to say some vital things. Especially his bit about Bullshit Mountain, where O'Reilly and the Republican party live and work and have constructed their own reality that has nothing to do with real life.

Here are some quotes posted on the Twitterverse:

"You can't privatize your profits and socialize your losses" - Jon Stewart on corporate welfare

Jon Stewart, about Romney's plan to cut funding to PBS: "Give me my money back-- the $800 billion for the Iraq war-- and children's television is on the house.” 

"Bill O'Reilly: 'we shouldn't have gone into Iraq.' Stewart" 'somebody live-tweet that!!!' Done! 

"I don't want government gone, I want it better: more efficient, more accountable." - Jon Stewart 

"Why are we holding two presidents to different standards? This is not ancient history. This is just 8 years ago." - Jon Stewart to O'Reilly's complaints that we are still blaming Bush for the deficit

And then there was the debate on health care, in which O'Reilly went on and on about how government can't handle such a thing - and brought up the horrors of England and Canada as an example. "You can't get an operation in Canada!" he shouted. Come and visit my mother, you idiot, I wanted to say. Free market all the way, with the Fox people and their party way up high on Bullshit Mountain. 

And then there's my Jon. As a woman said on Twitter, "Jon Stewart is a genius. That is all."

The Clock and other treasures and trash

Friends, something has invaded my body if not my soul - something that makes me ache all over, but not so badly that I'm helplessly sick, just sort of sick. Interesting. Is it a reaction to Obama's performance in the debate? Surely not. Actually, that could have been worse, in the end - even the right-wing hyenas seemed to be marvelling at his bad night. He has two other nights. Let's see if his fire returns. And mine will do, though mine is not as important as his.

Though it is, of course, to me.

My dear friend Brucie and I are having adventures. On Thursday we went to see "The Clock" at the Power Plant; what an amazing, brilliant piece of art. It's a 24 hour film showing clips from countless movies and the occasional TV show in which timepieces of various kinds are shown, from Big Ben to miniature watches, at the exact time you are watching. Bruce and I entered the spacious room and settled on a comfortable white couch at 10.18 a.m. A watch indicating 10.18 was on the screen. And then the minutes went by, one by one. There is incredible tension - so many movies involve just making a train or plane or escaping at the last minute or bombs ticking down. But there's comedy too, John Cleese on the wrong train, and there's sweetness and pathos. It's especially exciting as you approach the big turning points - 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and most of all, noon. Lots of excitement at noon. I left at 1.18 and can't wait to go back, if I can, to see the afternoon. On the weekends, the film runs for 24 hours; you can stay all night. I will have, with some regret, to miss that.

On Friday night, Mr. K. and I went to the opera. He has never seen the new opera building and was suitably impressed. My student in the chorus periodically passes on an offer for $25 tickets in the orchestra, so we went to the opening of "Die Fledermaus" by Strauss. It's a wonderful confection, said Bruce.

Not this production. OMYGOD. The first act was all right, though a bit weird - people in strange bat costumes, a giant watch overhanging the stage and a huge crack that appears in the set for no appreciable reason, requiring the singers to step through and over it. But the singing and the music were sublime.

Then the second act - interminable, joyless, offensive. One poor lead singer spent the act suspended above the stage, hanging from the watch, wearing a bat costume. There was an intimation of Nazi guards in the prison scene. I hated it and would have left if I could, sensing the cold dead hand of a director who hates actors, singers and life. And sure enough, when I wrote to my student, she replied that everyone had had a terrible time in rehearsal as he screamed at them.

So - if you go, leave at the intermission. I wrote a letter to the opera, suggesting that they not hire this director again. And then Richard Ouzonian gave it a rave in the "Star." So there you go. Believe whom you will.

More excitingly, Bruce always helps with my technology - on previous visits he has rearranged my office, taken me to buy a scanner and various other necessary machines. This time I told him my phone is substandard, I need a new camera and have never had a little thingie for listening to music. The conclusion - of course, how logical - was that I should buy an iPhone 5, the new phone from Apple, much in demand. Bruce is an Apple freak, with an iPad, IPod Touch, a Mac Air etc. etc. But the iPhone 5 is his objet de désir at the moment.

After various calls to Mac stores and to Rogers, my service provider, we discovered that in all of Toronto, there were only a few iPhones left at the Apple store in the Eaton's Centre. So we rushed off - and the last one had just been sold, no idea when more would appear. My despair was great, because the whole point is that Bruce is here to show me how the @#$#@ thing works, something I'm incapable of figuring out on my own. Many tears, without Bruce.

Long story short, we found the very last one in existence at a Rogers store nearby, got an amazing deal, got set up, and walked out with this incredible piece of technology. It's mind-boggling, what it can do, including transcribing what I say, finding information that I ask for verbally, downloading books - Bruce downloaded "Pride and Prejudice" for me, in case I'm bored on the streetcar. I can barely comprehend this thing. Plus it does make phone calls and texts and the simple stuff which is probably almost all I'll use it for.

Thank you, my Bruce. He also went out today as I lay in bed aching, to buy a giant roast of beef, potatoes, veggies - because the gang are coming for our Thanksgiving dinner tonight. We're not cooking turkey because we're making one next weekend in Ottawa, for my mother. So beef and Yorkshire pudding tonight for my kids, Eli and his cousin Dakota, other daughter Holly, Bruce and the feeble one. I can smell it now.

I give thanks for health, for family, for friendship, and for the artists and inventors who keep our world interesting. And my love to you all, on this day of various kinds of feasts.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

disaster, nausea, the presidential debate

The U.S. presidential debate has been on for fifteen minutes, and I'm feeling sick. Three of us had dinner and gathered in front of the TV together, but now my friend Richard is watching alone in the living room; I'm hiding in the kitchen, and Bruce has gone upstairs. For some reason, it seems that the Romney robot has learned his lessons and is speaking well, whereas Obama seems wooden and uses too much math and looks down too much. He's just not a sleazy fighter, he's a thinker; this is not his forum. He looks and sounds tired. Romney is smiling sweetly as if he's a kind person. Did the Dems not prepare their guy?

So I'm in here, trying not to listen. It's excruciating. Please God make it go away. I can't bear to hear it; it might mean the end of the world. I'm going to go upstairs too.

No, Richard kindly offered to go watch the debate at home, just down the street, and I instantly changed to a TVO documentary on young American kids trying to farm. Exhausting, but not like watching that debacle. Richard assured me that debates don't change that much, though they do make it a tighter race.

How can Obama not tromp all over that hypocrite? Brucie and I are now in the living room with our computers and the TV off, he checking Andrew Sullivan and I the same guy and others on Twitter periodically - the consensus, that Obama has gone down in flames. Tragedy. Horror. In this very room, Richard and I and others watched, weeping with joy and drinking champagne, as Obama won the presidency. I can't bear to think about it.

Life rolls along. As you can see, my grandson was here yesterday for a visit; I wish he were here now, to remind me of what really matters. Friend Bruce is visiting for a week. All four classes up and running now, with the U of T one starting yesterday. Fall is marching in, red leaves tumbling, frost on its way - the potted outdoor plants will need to come in - and all the summer clothes have been put away. We're closing in, closing off, shutting down the outside to animate the inside. There will be reading.

I feel sick sick sick sick sick sick sick.


Saw this scotch-taped to a lamppost - "Look at this picture of a pickle ... for no reason at all. From Olivia."
 The boy is keen.
 Glamma is keen too.
 The little market by Riverdale Farm, on its second last day of the year.
Brucie with baby.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Half the Sky

Got home from Ryerson at 9.30 tonight, immediately switched on PBS and flung myself on the sofa to watch "Half the Sky," a PBS documentary, made by Nicholas Kristof of the NYT, about women's lives in the developing world. The second half is on tomorrow at 9, and this time, I won't miss the first half hour.

What a beautiful and moving film - I could not recommend it more highly. Tonight it took us to Africa, Cambodia - a story about the rescue of sex slaves - and Vietnam, about Right to Read, the foundation that is helping to educate thousands and eventually millions of third world children. The stories from Cambodia especially, of the rape and mutilation of girls as young as three, was beyond horrifying, except that the film focuses, thank god, on rescue and redemption and the future.

Talk about giving us westerners a perspective on our unbelievably easy, safe, comfortable lives. DON'T MISS IT.