Sunday, March 31, 2013

And more depressing Harper to bring you down

And more terrific men, for your viewing pleasure

your lord is risen

My Easter present to you - Ryan Gosling, Canadian extraordinaire, in a cuddly Gucci suit. As someone recently wrote, "Does this guy have any flaws?" Not to these ancient rheumy eyes.

And here's another cuddly and flawless guy in black, though in white tie and with fewer teeth:
As Wayson would say, "Heartbreakers."

Speaking of heartbreak, here's the gorgeous Nicholas Hoare bookstore on its second last day:

 The front of the store - as it always was ...
The back - fireplace cold, shelves bare. And yes, a tear formed in my eye as I browsed, listening to Leonard sing "Suzanne" - o song of my youth! - on the sound system. I bought a few books - Phillip Lopate's "To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction," as if I have not read enough on the subject, and "Why We Write: 20 acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do." I could have bought scores more. Left a bottle of fake champagne for the staff, with a thank you card.

Then home, to marvel - friend Bruce, who's currently in Florence, sent a video of a famous 15th century Easter tradition there, where a "bird" is fired from inside the cathedral to ignite a cart and tons of fireworks in the town square. You are there, in downtown Florence, in film shot by his phone. Amazing. Here's YouTube's version:

This day means nothing to me, except, usually but not this year, a turkey dinner with family. My lord is not risen. But it's a very quiet day in which to get a lot of things done. To those of you who are celebrating, however - a very Happy Easter to you. And especially to our beloved Mandela, in hospital with pneumonia, at 94: our thoughts are with you, great man. Get well soon.

Friday, March 29, 2013

the storytelling animal

If my mother hadn't died, I'd be in Ottawa this weekend. We'd be cooking a dinner for my brother and his family, maybe my kids if they'd come, Auntie Do. I'd be fussing because Mum's toppling piles of newspapers and bills and junk mail, her collection of plastic bags and white blouses and silver spoons would be driving me crazy. But we'd be laughing, even as we argued about how to cook the turkey or how my daughter is raising her son or a million other things.

But she's not there. Her apartment has been emptied, painted white, and sold; the deal just closed yesterday. My bank account is healthier, with my share of the proceeds, but my heart mourns. I had a long talk with Do today, and she is bewildered, exhausted, bereft. My mother and I talked almost every other day, but Do and Mum saw each other and talked daily. And now, at nearly 93, she's alone. She complained that her apartment is a mess, and I offered to fly up on Sunday to help her sort things out. No, I don't want to see anybody, she said. My apartment is in too much of a mess.

We're all in a mess, Do. And yet - it's a lovely day, and I am listening to Bach and reading a fine book, "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human," by Jonathan Gottschall. He's putting into words what I've known since childhood and what I now teach - the power and importance of stories. The cat is sleeping in a patch of sun, my tenant Carol has just returned from her other home in Ecuador, and in my fridge is a superb dish I made for my friend yesterday, soba noodles with eggplant and mango, from the cookbook "Plenty" by my favourite chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I love his name, as well as his food. I ran into neighbours on the way home from my walk, a couple I've known since moving here in 1986, and we stood for ages catching up on our adult children - one of their daughters is legally married to a transgender woman, and "they're happy as clams," said her mother. We stood commiserating about our poor city with the idiot mayor from hell, our poor country under Harper, who, my neighbour posited, is a high-functionning socio- or psychopath.

And yet - here we are, alive and thriving in the sunshine.

And yet - I miss you, my mother. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.

endorphin patrol

Release is nigh! According to the weather site on-line, it's 11 degrees outside, but according to my mother's old  British thermometer hanging beside me here on the deck, it's 75 degrees. It sure feels like it, hot, full sun, me out here in a short sleeved sweater and skirt. I just came back from a walk to Riverdale Park, where Toronto is out in force - the Farm crowded with Easter celebrants looking at lambs, kids in the park running in the mud - for there is a lot of mud - and a man with a yellow paraglider jumping off the hill.

The cold will come back, it always does, on and off until mid-May. But today, a hot holiday, is a gift.  I hope even those mourning the death of their lord can enjoy the sun.

I recently watched a British science program on TVO during which the host asked random people on the streets to clench a pencil sideways in their mouths, and to report how they felt. Silly and cheerful, were the replies. He pointed out that the pencil forces your mouth into a kind of smile, and a smile releases endorphins into your brain, actual chemicals that make you feel cheerful. So it's true that simply putting on a happy face, even a fake one, makes you feel better. And if you simply can't smile, reach for the nearest pencil.

Hard to smile, though, when I read Joe Fiorito's column in today's "Star," about the closing of the beautiful bookstore Nicholas Hoare on Monday. What a loss for our city, that warm room with its armchairs, golden wood, bright light and acres of good books. They kindly hosted my book launch in 2007 and I'll be forever grateful. I'm going down there tomorrow with a good bottle of wine for Chris, to thank him and the others. And to have one last long lovely browse.

An accomplished and extremely sharp lawyer friend came for dinner last night; since she is in semi-retirement, she has decided to become a troublemaker, and what welcome news that is. For example, she is taking the Canadian government to task for allowing Conrad Black to retain his Order of Canada, when as a convicted felon he is the embodiment of everything the award is not. And, I added, they have taken back Garth Drabinsky's and not Black's? She got me riled; I'm going to write to them myself, and I urge you to do so. He's particularly on my mind because his loathsome wife Barbara Amiel has just written the most appalling column in appalling "Macleans" magazine, blaming the girl who was sexually assaulted in South Dakota for drinking too much and not wearing enough clothing. It's the most vicious, small-minded bit of writing. The two of them are disgusting.

My friend is also researching another beef. She says our western world is no longer divided into left and right but into entitled and not entitled. Even before today's release of incredibly high salary details - read them in the "Star" - she was on the case of public servants making vast salaries with vast benefits and vast pensions. She's not complaining of poverty herself, just imbalance and injustice. In an email, she wrote: send a note to young people looking for a career - train as a plumber; work for the School Board, and earn $127,000, plus terrific benefits and pension.

And now - I have to go inside, it's too hot here on the deck. Repeat: it's TOO HOT. Where am I?

PS. Speaking of mud puddles - the little video below is sheer joy.

Such Is Life

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

the great E. B. White

You'll be relieved to know that though I am listening to CBC radio, I am not at this time crying. My memoir, to be entitled "Sobbing to the CBC: the Beth Kaplan story." No, Jian is playing a pleasant French band and I am quite calm.

On my way to return a book to the library: "E.B. White, Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976." He is so spare and precise, not one extra word, and so witty and dry - inspiring. Wanted to share a little piece or two with you. The book explains that he was forced to use the royal "we."

Published the 29th of October, 1949.

A Dane told us the other day (and he seemed neither melancholy nor wholly cheerful) that Denmark has two moose. Denmark used to have only one moose (a bull), but a second arrived - swam over from Sweden, or took the ferry. The Danes were worried lest the new arrival prove to be a female. "Denmark is such a small country; we cannot have it too full of mooses." The second moose, however, was another bull. People felt relieved, but they know that it is only a question of time before some Swedish cow moose learns that there are extra men south of the border. 

And here's another, much sharper and more political, written in July 1944 as WW2 wore the nation down.

The thing we remember of the Republican keynote speech, as it came over the air, is the summer heat in the long grasses of the June night outside the window, and our own feeling of sin and futility. It was the same feeling a boy has at the country fair, on the hot midway in the suggestive summertime, as he pauses before a barker outside a girl-show tent, with the smell of fried food in his nostrils and the enticements of girls in his mind, lost in the immemorial sheepishness of humanity and its deliberate exploitation by the ancient devices of oratory. The keynoter in Chicago indicated that the Republicans were against aggression, New Dealism, and the man-eating shark. There was to be no more aggression because Republicans do not tolerate any evil thing like aggression. The speaker gave no indication that the reorganization of a shattered world would require anything more than a mere extension of American culture and habits, as exemplified by past and present Republicans. In the summer night, we felt that we were a million boys, armed, bloody, and tired, standing and listening to this slick spiel, outside this gaudy and unlikely tent - listening and knowing all the while that we were about to be taken.

Plus ca change, as the French say - nothing changes. Nearly 70 years later, Republican hucksters are still the same. What an eye, what a voice, had this writer.

P.S. As the U.S. Supreme Court tackles the issue of gay marriage today, this beautiful essay is making the rounds of the internet again. It's about great love - of a father for his son, of his son for someone else's son. And it's about very good writing.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

O happy

Listening to the meaty voice of Aretha - "A change is gonna come." Tonight Randy Bachman's show is on the spirit and whatever creator you believe in. And ten minutes ago, your correspondent was listening to the Edwin Hawkins Singers sing "O Happy Day," dancing around her kitchen, as usual, with tears pouring down her stupid sentimental face. And just before that, "Let it be," with my beloved Paul.

O I had just had a happy day, with my grandson and his mother, and the hint of spring in the air. The chaos that boy leaves behind is mind-boggling - he enters like a hurricane, crawling everywhere, pulling things from shelves and tables, bashing, hurling things about, and when eating, scattering food to the winds, though an enormous amount gets into the right place. He had brunch - sausages, scrambled eggs, broiled tomatoes - and then snacks, including mandelbrot made by my student Ruth and some chocolate ice cream from indulgent Glamma. And then we all went out for a meal! He was wearing a Size 4 pair of long shorts. That is, his waist is the same as a kid who's Size 4, and the shorts just fit his fat little legs. He is ten months old.

The best - when we'd run out of things to destroy down here, Anna suggested that I take him up to my bed and play there. Well. A good half hour of wrestling with pillows, pulling himself up to look out the window at squirrels and the sky, then flinging himself onto the pillows again and being tickled and turned upside down by Glamma. His mother finally came up to see the fun and there we were, the 3 of us in the afternoon sun, surrounded by pictures of family - her, her brother, her father, my parents and grandparents, and of course, Eli. O Happy Day.

Unhappy - the crabby cat, who had fled the kitchen for my bedroom when the enemy arrived and then had to flee again. Ah well. She's having a good wash now, to recover.

Last night, my Francophone discussion and dinner group, a most interesting discussion and a most delicious dinner. We talked about the future of the world. Jack grew up in the gulag, his Jewish family a victim of both Nazis and Communists. Though he is now a wealthy developer, his impoverished, persecuted past haunts him. He spoke about his nightmare - that China and Russia will bond to conquer the West. He spoke of the combined number of soldiers and warheads, and the relentless totalitarian vision behind both countries.
But, we said, they're different visions. No, he sees them as able to combine in a Communist tsunami, while the U.S., he says, is now too weak to repel that force.

It is a nightmare, certainly, and I thought about my grandson confronting such terror. But I do not, I cannot believe in that kind of evil, in that kind of apocalypse. And anyway, I remembered the special back door at Galeries Lafayette in Paris specifically for Chinese and Japanese customers, and the tons of wealthy Russians buying labels there too. If that's Communism, I'm a monkey's uncle. Meditation teaches us to let go of the past and of the future, both of which we can do nothing about. Jack told us he is often awake at night with his fears. I am awake enough, with my own small day to day worries, without adding a Russian/Chinese takeover of the world. Let that one go.

Today on the news, it said that many thousands marched in Paris against gay marriage, and even more, gay parenthood. Yesterday, in the Star, was a TD ad for a new mortgage feature, and below is the picture accompanying it. Imagine that image for a BANK even five years ago, let alone ten. Society can change and grow. Two people of the same sex who love each other can become parents and grandparents, just like everyone else. That pink little girl will make a spectacular mess and wear them both out. I wish them the greatest joy.

When Jesus wash ... O when he wash ... when Jesus wash ... he wash my sins away.

P.S. And not only are they gay, but half of this couple is Asian! Way to go, TD.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

to the glory of J. S. Bach

Sound the trumpets, bang those keys, shout for joy - for today is one of the most blessed days in the history of humankind. On this day, in 1685, was born the magnificent, the sublime Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of all time, IMHO.

So here is your correspondent in her kitchen, in heaven, as she sometimes is. I am looking out at the snow falling, yes, the snow falling on this cold, cold spring day, while the smell of roasting chickens and vegetables fills the room; my Thursday students, who are like family, are coming for dinner to celebrate the end of our winter term, if not the end of winter. I'm watching the thickly falling snow turn my garden into a Christmas card, I'm smelling the rich plenty of our food, and I'm listening with all my heart to the piano concerto in D minor by the greatest musician who ever lived. A young Quebecois, Alexandre Tharaud at the piano, with Les Violons du Roy. After this I will put on Glenn Gould's first Goldberg Variations, a record that belonged to my parents.

Too much to be grateful for, all at once.

Oh, and about thirty sparrows are clustered at the feeder, I'm wearing a just-bought $9 dress from Doubletake, have just had a snazzy haircut, and am about to pour myself a glass of merlot. Talk about runnething over. It is to weep.

PS. Just got out the flour bin to make gravy - and it's my mother's old flour bin, just arrived from Ottawa - the one that was in the kitchen of my childhood. The first time I've used it in my own. So now I am weeping. I'm always emotional, but this is ridiculous.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring forward

This is us in Toronto, today, on the first day of spring - it's minus 3 with fresh snow and more expected. Sigh. Luckily, we're Canadian and ready for whatever they throw at us. Including coyotes. Big issue at city council today - how to deal with the coyotes who live in downtown Toronto.

To those of you who think I spend my life listening to CBC radio and sobbing - I have not cried once today. Well, a bit, but that was because my eyes are red and irritated, I think by the wind. The pharmacist at Shopper's recommended drops called Refresh. I thought of that great button on the computer - how in life, sometimes, we want to hit the Refresh button and start again. Can't do it with life. But at least I will try to refresh my poor eyes. Or ... is this just aging? Something else dropping through the floor?

Speaking of CBC - Jian did an extraordinary interview yesterday with two sisters, the granddaughters of the head of the Westboro Baptist Church in the States, which is famous as being the most hateful - literally, full of hate - of any of the fundamentalist American churches. One of the girls was searching for Jews to convert on-line - having been taught that God hates Jews and they need to repent - and encountered the founder of the website Jewlicious. They began a dialogue; the Jew did not take offence at what was said to him, on the contrary, he responded with humour and gravitas, and eventually, this young girl had an amazing revelation - if the Bible and Jesus speak about forgiveness and love, why was the church run by her parents and grandparents preaching hatred and death? (Again, literally - the death penalty for fags, as they put it.) And she and her sister took themselves out of the church, leaving behind their entire lives. The friendship with Mr. Jewlicious continues.

What courage. What one sweet man with a sense of humour can do on Twitter. And then an article in the Star today - the singer Michelle Shocked has become born-again, and recently shocked crowds at a concert with a rant against homosexuality. Apparently she said that gay marriage would end the world and "God hates fags," a line taken directly from the Westboro Baptist Church. Funny - they lost two of their own but gained Michelle Shocked.

Oh for Jon Stewart and his team's take on this. On the new Pope. On Obama in Israel and everything. Going through serious, painful Jon withdrawal. When, O Lord, will we get him back?

PS Just looked it up. He's back March 25. There is a god. And she LOVES Jews.

Monday, March 18, 2013

that is the question

And ... check out this little excerpt of a scientist's talk about equality and inequality. It's hilarious - and frighteningly relevant.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Stories stories stories

What an emotional day! I've hired Nicole, a friend of my daughter's, to help me delve into the pile of my mother's stuff, so we spent 3 hours sorting - the tip of the iceberg. Later, I turned on Eleanor Wachtel's "Writers and Company" to listen to while cooking, as I like to do on Sundays. Eleanor is running a series on memoirs - YES! - and today's interview was with Paula Fox, author of many books, including the memoir "Borrowed Finery." It's the unforgettable true tale of a baby abandoned by her unloving mother, raised in a series of eccentric homes, many years later giving birth to a daughter herself whom she similarly gives up for adoption and eventually seeks out. In an interesting twist, her daughter had given birth to another daughter - rocker Courtney Love.

I urge you to find this moving interview on the CBC website - it's a treat to listen to Ms. Fox and Eleanor laugh together, though the stories the writer tells are heartbreaking. After nearly four decades of estrangement, Paula Fox was summoned to her 92-year old mother's bedside; she reads from the memoir that when she had to urinate, she went outside and peed in a field because the thought of using her mother's bathroom was so repugnant. When informed of her mother's death two years later, she realized that she "had lost out on a daughter's last privilege - I couldn't mourn my mother."

As I listened and cooked, I thought, of course, of my own ambivalent mourning of my mother - grief and relief - and it struck me to the heart. Once again, powerful radio.

And also, once more reaffirming what I teach, I read the following article in the New York Times, about how affirming the family narrative strengthens the family. Again I felt, there are so many things I did not do for my children. But this - this, for sure, I did. They know where they came from; they have family stories galore, with more to come. I am grateful for that, grateful to know how important it is.

As you read this, know that right now I'm listening to Randy Bachman on CBC, his tribute program to the greatest dead rock and rollers - John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Elvis. Dancing around the kitchen.
March 15, 2013

The Stories That Bind Us

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.
Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.
Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.
Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.
“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.
“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”
But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?
It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.
Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.
The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.
After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.
I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.
“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”
Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.
“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.
Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.
Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.
And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.
“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”
Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?
“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.
Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.
First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. ...”
Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”
Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.
Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.
Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.
The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.
Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Commander Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.
Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.
“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.
Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.
The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

“This Life” appears monthly in Sunday Styles. This article is adapted from Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

Learning, as usual, from the CBC

Sitting in my kitchen with tears rolling down my cheeks - listening to Michael Enright's "The Sunday Edition" on CBC, an interview with Sonali Deraniyagala, author of the book "Wave." Sonali was on vacation with her parents, her husband and their two sons in Indonesia when the tsunami struck. They all were swept away; she was the only survivor.

Four years later, she finally went back to the family home. An excerpt was read on air, describing her at first as a "howling heap on the floor;" that she could not touch her sons' red schoolbags hanging on the door, "each one a scalpel."

Now she has written a book about her unimaginable loss. She told Michael that at first she wanted to put the memory of her family away; that the breakthrough was to bring them back in memory.

Trying to remember is a much better quality of agony than trying to forget, she said. The key to my recovery was allowing in memory, allowing in memories and details of them as much as I could. The writing has been my way of bringing them close. Writing has been my survival. 

That is what I teach. Reach into the past and bring it into the light and make sense of it with words. I will be ordering this book from the library, and expect puffy eyes for some time.

I also heard the heroic David Suzuki on CBC last week, speaking in Calgary, fascinating and moving - about the world's crazy push for economic growth. He reminded us how much the world has changed in the last hundred years, that now the vast majority of us live in big cities, "a world in which nature is not an obvious part."

Why has the economy, he said, been elevated above everything else, above the very things that keep us alive? We never ask - what is an economy FOR? We're told that the economy needs us to buy things. George Bush, right after 9/11, urged Americans to shop. 97% of modern American teenaged girls, apparently, say that their main hobby is shopping.

What about the state of the biosphere? cried Cassandra Suzuki. The laws of physics dictate the limits of what we can do. We can't change the laws of nature. We need air. We use the air as if it's free and we dump toxic chemicals into it. We use water as a toxic dump, and soil too. Those are our most fundamental needs. But we put the economy and government desire for economic growth first. 

We have to build a new society to protect these things. We have to change the way we live. Don't expect governments to change until you do. 

Hooray for CBC radio, battered but so very much alive.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

to friendship

Because everyone knows I'm a lover of vintage, they bring things for me to see. My friend Mary, who's a lawyer, recently settled an estate and found several fur coats, which she is having evaluated. One of them is this - ocelot, maybe? Heartbreaking to think of the stunning beasts who first wore this. Incidentally, it fits me perfectly - and I couldn't wear it to save my life.

I'd invited Mary and her husband and another long-married couple for dinner yesterday, to thank Mary for the work she did on my mother's estate, which meant that dealing with it was remarkably easy for my brother and me. We drank a bottle of Dom Perignon and conversation bloomed. It's always a treat when one set of friends becomes friends with another set of friends. We discussed many interesting things, including hearing aids. Sign of the times.

Speaking of the times - I just found in one of my mother's scrapbooks a Macleans magazine from 1961. There are a phenomenal number of ads for cigarettes and for scotch and rye, showing rock-jawed Mad Men knocking it back. For women, softer stuff - two women joyfully sip Coke as they rest, wearing little hats and surrounded by packages, after a shopping expedition. A joke - two women in hospital, one plain, the other young and blonde. The plain one says, "I'm glad you're my roommate; now my husband will visit me more often." 

The world was ripe for change! 

I'm still in a fog - my house buried in stuff, me making stabs at figuring out what to do with it all. Periodically I am hit with sadness - a scent of lavender, a radio program Mum would have loved, an unexpected cache of her watercolours suddenly appearing - and I ache with longing. But mostly moving on, things to do, places to go. Today, across town to visit Anna and Eli, then to Hugh's Room to meet a group of friends for a St. Patrick's Day party and band. It snowed again this morning, putting to bed any thoughts of an early spring.

I hope you'll forgive all those shots of my grandson in the last post. I am so very in love.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Booboo comes to visit

 Ten months old and into everything. Like his mama's Blackberry - mmm, delicious.
 Even better - Mama herself.
 With cousin Dakota and big Uncle Sam
 His own workbench with drill. Already!
He is my sunshine.
Come back soon, Booboo. But give me a chance to pick up all those books on the floor first.

Monday, March 11, 2013

on Catholics and cats

It's so unfair! There's a story in today's "Star" about a couple who own a foul-tempered cat with an expressive face. They posted pictures on the internet, the cat became a superstar, and the family of 3 has been flown to Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival on there now. Phooey! I have a VERY crabby cat, as you all know, but no one is flying US to Austin; I will have to pay to fly there myself in only a few weeks. Should get pictures of this beast on the 'net. But she doesn't frown like that one; she mostly sleeps, and then casually slashes the hand that strokes her. Practically ripped my thumb off last week. She's giving me the evil green eye right now. If we had our act together, El Crabbola, we'd be on our way to Austin!

Pardon me if I continue in this whiny tone, but I simply do not get all this @#$# fuss about the Pope. On and on, the radio obsesses, the TV - the cardinals are eating breakfast! They will thread their votes together with a golden needle! The world awaits with breathless anticipation ... not. Who cares that a bunch of old white men - well, there's a brown face or two - are gathering in Rome to decide which old white man will take over from Ratzinger? I've been singing his name recently to the tune of "Goldfinger."
"Rat-zinger ...
He's the man, the man with the bright red shoes ...
He's got the blues..."

I know, irreverent. But I have no respect for an institution which sits on billions, condemns women to hordes of children and illegal abortions and then protects child-molesting criminals. Sorry to my intelligent Catholic friends, all 4 of them - Lynn, Denis, Anne-Marie and Ken - but I think the Catholic Church, except for people like them, sucks.

Ooo. I bet that really hurts, Church.

And then I opened the Star to find a chart of the world's religions. Guess which is by far the largest? Christianity, 32% of the world's population. 2.2 billion people, 50% of whom are Catholic. So I guess there are quite a few people who care about the Pope. 23% of the world is Muslim, 15% Hindu. 16% are my people - "atheism, agnosticism, or no religious affiliation." 1.6 billion people, including 700 million Chinese. And way at the bottom of the list - 0.2% of the world's population, or only - this is unbelievable - 15 million people - are Jews. They make a lot of noise and take up a lot of space, those measly 15 million Jews. My father liked to count the number of Jewish Nobel prizes. Proportionately - out in space.

Big news: this half-Jewish atheist is going to have a garage sale soon. Get rid of stuff. Lots of stuff. You can all come and buy my stuff, and then perhaps one day, you'll have a garage sale, and I can come and buy it back. Deal?

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Just watched the Jack Layton biopic. I felt very connected to this film - as did we all, surely, even those who did not agree with Jack's politics. Just so cruel, for a man who fought all his life to make a difference, to be struck down just months after he finally climbed to the pinnacle. My neighbour Richard sniffed, "It's too soon. It'll be a hagiography." Well, maybe and maybe. But so what? We need heroes, and this man's very public struggle with death was heroic. There was something magnificent about his exuberant idealism and giant heart.

They did a great job of squashing a man's entire life into an hour and a half, interrupted by a zillion commercials (luckily there was a special on Ed Sullivan's comics on PBS to watch during the breaks), and not boring the pants off us with internecine Canadian politics. They brought Jack Layton back to life, reminded us of what he cared about and how he lived. Bravo to the CBC for that.

Speaking of Canadian heroes - here's another of mine, CBC's Eleanor Wachtel, with some woman she interviewed recently in New York. 


I am writing to you sitting OUTSIDE on the deck, can hardly see the screen for the hot sun on my face. Thank you lord for this most amazing day. No, let me quote exactly from the great poet e.e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

The trees aren't leaping greenly just yet, but what a joyful yes to feel life returning, the snow melting, though my yard still covered in thick mounds of white. Two bluejays at the bird-feeder. This morning, so glorious, I decided not to go to the Zumba class at the Community Centre, but to do something different - what? My neighbours have been raving about the new Regent Park Aquatic Centre, so I set off to do something I never ever do in winter - go swimming. Why, I used to reason, get cold and wet inside when it's cold and wet outside?

Well, folks, my life has changed. A five minute bike ride from my front door is the most stunning new facility, vast and light-filled with huge pool, hot tub, kiddy pool and water slides. The change rooms are integrated; I'd read about it, but still, it's a shock to open the door and see semi-naked men. But you do the actual removal of clothing in private cubicles. Then it's into the pool, which isn't cold as indoor pools often are. I'm not much of a swimmer - did some lanes, sat in the hot tub. But I loved it and will go regularly. I think. And incidentally, it's free. Just wrote to Anna to tell her, come quickly with Eli. She sent back a picture of him eating rocks at the beach.

Yesterday, a huge treat - "Searching for Sugar man," a documentary I will not forget. Beautiful, haunting, funny, with great music and an extraordinary story - I could not recommend it more. I won't give away the mystery, but in the end, for me, the film explores what an artist does - that as you create what you create and send it into the world, 
you never know where it will end up, whom it will touch. And for a marvellous twist, the heroes of this story are white South Africans. 

Seeing it has left me feeling uplifted today, though with the sun and the bluejays, the swim and the rest of the day unfolding - errands in shoes not boots, cooking a roast for Wayson, watching a biopic about Jack Layton - I am just about afloat. 

Friday, March 8, 2013


"Your new old things look great in your new old house," wrote my friend and student Jason after yesterday's class. I've managed to fit a bit of Mum's stuff into the living room, dining room and kitchen - chairs, pictures, miscellaneous tables and dishes. It looks civilized. But the basement is the Dorian Grey of my house, where everything else is stacked up and strewn. Where will it all go? Maybe I'll just leave it down there in piles. Stay tuned.

Another friend and student, Chris, wrote to correct the poetry quote a few posts back - "Home is the place where/when you have to go there/they have to take you in." It's by Robert Frost. Patsy from Gabriola also corrected me, and sent a link to the poem, "Death of a hired man," which is beautiful and moving. Don't miss it.

On Wednesday night, I watched the first episode of "Homeland", the hit U.S. show about the CIA and terrorism. Amazingly skilful writing - instantly, we're drawn into personality and suspense, fascinating characters, frightening events, horror, mystery, tense family dynamics - in the background of a huge security issue, the familiar battle between a sullen teenaged girl and her tightly-coiled mother. The show made my heart race. I thought it was terrific, and I'll never watch it again.

Why torment myself with fictional mysteries and strange characters and deep-seated terrors, when real ones are all around me? It's not like watching "Downton," which is like sipping fine champagne, a pleasure in itself. "Homeland" is a challenge, and good as it is, I don't need another challenge. So I went on-line and tried to read up on what happens next. Pretty convoluted. Enjoy.

I didn't tell you about something important that happened last week, and now will try to do so without getting too personal or weird. Maybe I mentioned that my brother and I have had our problems getting along, through the years. We're in some ways opposites, and we carry the difficult legacy of a difficult childhood, a challenge to harmony that seemed insurmountable. Despite managing without conflict to produce a perfect memorial event and embark on the huge job of clearing out Mum's condo, there was still some disagreement, issues niggling and nagging, making me furious. I was dreading my visit there last weekend.

I brought this up with my meditation group, and we discussed how we expect so much more of family members than of others in our lives - unrealistically, destructively so. "That's the reason so many marriages fail," said Wayson sagely. The most important thing we learn in the group, over and over, is to let go. Let it go. "Leave your worries and burdens," says Wayson, "by the river." And for some reason, this time in Ottawa, something extraordinary happened - I let it go. My lifelong resentment of my brother disappeared. I put down a load of pain I'd been carrying all my life and left it by the river.

This doesn't mean we'll be best friends. It does mean I can see him as an ordinarily flawed human being, just like everyone else. He does his best with the tools he has, as do we all. On Sunday, we got through choices and decisions with mutual respect and humour. Something cold inside me melted. It feels miraculous.

So, mortgage paid and an old wound made better. A plateau of calm. But as my wise friend says, "When all is well, look behind you." Good times don't last, just as bad times don't. Change will come. So I take nothing for granted, appreciate every moment, like this one: Friday night, silence, sleeping cat, furnace humming, belly full of soup and, of course, wine. The breath comes in, the breath goes out, and my heart is, for now, at rest. I ask for nothing more.

Well, world peace, a cure for disease, and a rich, fulfilling life for my family. But otherwise, nothing.

Well ...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

a toast

I'd like to share with you a beautiful note sent by my friend Patsy, from Gabriola Island, about dealing with the death of a parent, and about being just a guest in the world.
One of the hospice nurses who came to the house when my father was dying, advised us kids, all six of his grown children who were tending him through his last five days, to sit with him and thank him for something he had done or given or said to us, to forgive him for something he had done or neglected to do for us, to ask his forgiveness for something we had done or failed to do for him, and to say goodbye. It was good advice, and it still is.  
In the Awakening Joy course, we're advised to write a letter to someone to express our gratitude to them - a friend, a mentor, a colleague, a child - whether the person is living or not, and to read it aloud to them. I find that there is something in the act of finding words that frees something, helps me to understand it better. 

You've been very articulate in your blog during this last passage, but I wonder if there is something below the surface that hasn't yet found its true expression. Give it space, and time, and solitude, and a place of refuge that is your very own: you have made a home, for yourself and your kids and their friends, and a community in which you are known and valued, and an extended family of friends who celebrate with you. You've done that yourself; it's your true wealth and achievement and the legacy you leave to the world. You are not simply a guest in this world: you've made connections of many kinds, which will endure. That, surely, is what is meant by a home.

The luck to have such a wise friend, who also happen to be a writer, skilled in the act of finding words.

Speaking of connections of many kinds, Severn Cullis-Suzuki was in Toronto last weekend and stayed here. My father and David S. were great friends and colleagues, scientists in the fight for peace and justice, and David's accomplished wife Tara and I have continued the friendship. I honour the entire Suzuki clan, tireless in the good fight. Severn was here with her 13-month old for several speaking engagements; my daughter brought Eli to play with Tiisaan while his mother was out encouraging young people to join the struggle to save the world. It's the first time I've seen Eli with a companion, and it was hilarious - two very small young men trying to figure out - who's that other creature at eye level?

Severn is as fine as a human being can be - kind, open, engaged, beautiful. And her younger sister Sarika is as well. Thank you to Tara and David, not just for the work they've done on behalf of the planet, but for providing another generation to keep going.

And then, yesterday, the moving truck arrived from Ottawa with my share of my mother's possessions. It was recycling night, and I became obsessed with getting everything out of the boxes so I could recycle them. Now there are stacks of dishes, pots and pans, bowls, framed art, books and records, in my already full house. I spent hours moving pictures and rugs and lamps around; my body aches from head to toe. And my heart too - important bits of my mother's life, now infused into mine, and one day, into my childrens'. I now own the set of dishes given to my British grandparents on their wedding day in 1918. Among many other things.

Joy: some inheritance money came in today, enough to do what I have long dreamed of doing. I went immediately to the bank and paid off my mortgage. This house is now entirely mine and not the Royal Bank of Canada's. Thank you, Uncle Edgar, for not having children of your own, and being good enough to leave some money in trust, after my mother's death, for me.

A toast to family and friends, to writers who find the words, to the magnificent young people who fight to fix our world, and to my very own house, overflowing with very old stuff and a crabby cat. From one very happy writer, on her third glass of wine.

PS. Speaking of which - I just found a greeting card in my mother's papers. Over a drawing of a smiling woman holding two large bottles, it says, "Focus on the important decisions: red or white wine?" Inside: "You're my kind of friend." On the envelope, she'd written my name.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

my parents

 The last remaining wines from Dad's cellar. Unfortunately, my mother kept them in her storage closet and they're undrinkable. But beautiful to look at.
 Mum's last shoes. Size 13.
Recently received, for her work at Bletchley Park during the war. A great thrill for her.

winter whites

 Stuff, ready to leave home.
 Is a beach.
 That is a separate strip of snow hanging between these birch trees.
Bob's garden, asleep.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


It is 10 p.m. on Saturday night. I've just come from dinner with one of my oldest friends, Louise, from Grade 13 in 1966, and her new husband who was her childhood cello partner. And Auntie Do. We talked a lot about the past. But also about now - Louise had just come from the "Met Live" series at Cineplex, where she watched "Parsifal," a five hour Wagner opera. She was overwhelmed.

It was a lovely dinner with old and good friends. But now, here I am at Mum's. This is my last night, ever, in the home of my parents. From August 1950 till I left to go to university in 1967, I lived more or less at home. From then on, I visited when I could, sometimes quite often, sometimes only once a year, when I lived in B.C. But they were always there, my parents, as was their hearth, always there to welcome me. After Dad died in 1988, my mother was always there, more eager than ever for my visits. The bed was always made beautifully, there was a little vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table, she had bought some treat especially for me.

Now - boxes in the living room, piles of dust and garbage in the corners, empty cupboards, one coffee cup left, one cereal bowl, to be packed tomorrow. From now on, wherever in the world I go, it will be as a guest, even with my closest friends and my remaining family. Whereas here - even though I never lived here, even though my relations with Mum were often strained and she exhausted and infuriated me - here was home. Home - was it Phillip Larkin who said so? - is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Now, no one, anywhere, has to take me in.

This death is a liberation. I am untethered, and that is a good thing. My mother did not protect me from the elements; on the contrary, she hurt me more than anyone on earth. And yet, she was beautiful and open and very good company. She loved me, and she was my mother.

mucking out

The internet here is very slow so I can't Google this - but in my recollection, one of the labours of Hercules was to clean out the Stygian stables, a massive dump of @#$. Is that right? And right now, I feel a bit like Hercules.

We're nearly there. Dealing with the last chock a block boxes of photographs, including one where Mum had thoughtfully put lots of photos of other people's weddings and babies, and many more blurry travel shots, shots so bad you can barely make out what they're of, and yet she kept them all. All thrown out. Went through the photo albums with Auntie Do - she pointing out my British great-great grandparents and all the Brits - all the Nellies and Sams - and then the other album, the Kaplans, including a shot from the 1880s in Russia, Kaplan great-great grandparents. The diversity of my background on stark display. Wonderful, all of it - it's just a shame I've never seen many of these before, because Mum had them all stashed away. There are photos of my father as a baby with his grandmother, Jacob Gordin's wife Anna, that I might have put in my book about him - one of them, with my grandmother, at the beach. Must be Coney Island.

The heavy weight of heritage - and yet the joy of knowing one's roots. Right now I feel rooted as never before. And in another way, I'm doing my best to yank up those heavy bonds to the past and move some of this stuff to my house, so I can dump it on my kids.

Tonight, my musician friends are coming back to look at the records - so many great ones, Pablo Casals, string quartets. Mum's stamp collection - new stamps, hundreds of them, bought as an investment, I guess, both here and in the States. Sheets of Elvis stamps, anyone? Are we rich yet? Dealt with her Christmas card collection - two under the bed storage boxes plus a desk drawer, full. Mostly new, but also ones sent to her. There are still file cabinets full of papers. And my father's ashes, which have sat in her closet since 1988. My brother and I are making a deal - we're dividing and mixing Mum's and Dad's. I want to scatter my half in the Necropolis, with my kids. So I can go and visit my parents a few blocks from home.

Going out to dinner tonight - getting out of the dust. Getting out of the stables. And on Tuesday, it all arrives chez moi, where the unpacking begins. As Charlie Brown says, Good grief.

I ache, and not just physically.

PS Just went for a walk. It's minus 3 with a wind, the kind of cold where your hands hurt if your gloves are off for long. Stumbled through the snow down to Britannia Park and the Ottawa River, where the guys were out - what's it called, snowboard sailing? They have snowboards attached to giant colourful kites; they lie on the ground until the wind catches their sail, and then they're skimming over the frozen snowy river at great speed, one doing leaps and twirls. It was beautiful and even more importantly, silent, except for a few shouts and laughs. WINTER! White as far as the eye could see, white white. I'd forgotten how lovely real winter can be. It's just not a good time to live in a big city - makes you realize how filthy cars and human beings really are. Out here, there were snowshoe and ski tracks in the snow, dogs bounding, a park bench buried right to the very top - in white.

It looked so dead, the landscape, the trees grey and bare, Bob's community garden below the condos, where Mum had her own patch, completely covered. But soon it'll all spring to life again. How amazing is that? Hard to believe. Just as, though all those scores of relatives whose pictures I looked at today are dead, I go on, and when I'm dead, my children will go on, and Eli. Eli will go on. It's almost enough to make an agnostic half-Jew believe in God.

But not quite.

Friday, March 1, 2013

moving out

Once more at the island airport, waiting to go to Ottawa, 10 a.m. on a cold, sunny Friday morning. This is my last trip to my mother's condo; I'll pack up my pile of stuff, do the last few divisions with my brother, and set things up for the movers who are coming on Tuesday. My brother has already moved his stuff out, so the place will be half empty. This will be my last farewell, not to her, but to her physical reality.

I helped her move in about 1994, from the five-bedroom house in Edmonton where she'd entertained for my father and where he died, to this three-bedroom condo on the western outskirts of Ottawa, in the building adjoining the one where her sister lived. She agonized for months about buying it, didn't want to live out there, wanted to live downtown - and for a long time after she moved in, she still complained about the mistake she'd made. Just like, during her marriage to my father in 1949, she wept throughout because she was so sure she was making a mistake.

It was a wonderful place for her, with its huge community garden below and its vista of the Ottawa River.

My God, they're calling my flight! So efficient. Okay, the end to this musing. I am coming, Mum, to say goodbye.