Saturday, January 31, 2015

the best city in the world!


Toronto ranked the best city to live in the world

Posted by Derek Flack / JANUARY 29, 2015
toronto safest cityToronto has been ranked the best city to live in the world by the Economist. The ranking aggregates Toronto's performance across a range of indexes, which include safety, livability and cost of living. National level rankings like the Economist's Democracy and Global Food Security Index were also factored into the overall rank. So, like, we're the best. Give yourself a pat on the back.
The overall rankings come as part of a new survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit that ranks cities based on how safe they are. According to this report, Toronto is the safest city in North America and eighth-ranked city in the world, trailing Tokyo, Singapore, Osaka, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Sydney, and Zurich. The safety index is ranked according to the following criteria: digital security, health security, infrastructure and personal safety.
In the overall rankings (what the Economist calls the "index of indexes") Toronto has only one category in which it doesn't rank in the top 10 globally. Can you guess what it is? Yep, cost of living. In this category, our city comes in 70th place. That's not really surprising, and for what it's worth, most of the other cities in the top 10 of the overall rankings are deemed to be more expensive than Toronto.
I guess we should remind ourselves of how good we have it the next time we're inclined to complain about tough commutes and winter weather (yeah, right -- like we're going to stop complaining).
economist city rankings
Especially now we have a mayor who isn't an international laughing stock. Yes, he's a boring right wing guy, but at least he's not a crack addict. Bravo, Toronto! 

room in lovely Cabbagetown house for rent

So - further to the post below - if you or someone you know needs a temporary room in downtown Toronto, mine will be available from March 20 to April 25, by the week or the month. My friend and tenant Carol will be here keeping the house running, but I hate to see my comfy bed with its view over the garden go empty.

You'd have your own private full bathroom, use of the living room and ridiculously large flat screen, and share the bright kitchen and gorgeous deck and garden with Carol.

Marketing is not my strong point, but I hope I'm convincing.

my travellin' shoes - Ferragamo?

Okay, now it's real so I can talk about it. You know I usually go to Europe between terms, at the end of March through April. My beloved, inexpensive and perfect apartment in Paris is being sold, so I wondered if I'd still be able to go - the fact that I could afford Paris opened all of Europe to me.

But Annie, a woman I met by accident my first year in Paris, 2009 - the midwives were on strike and paralyzed public transit, so a kind woman at the bus stop offered to help me figure out how to get where I was going; she was going the same way, and we walked and talked and have been good friends ever since - Annie put me in touch with a friend who lives in Turin but has a pied à terre in Paris. It's in the 14th, not as great a location as my last place a stone's throw from the Pantheon, but it's also very affordable and I have booked it sight unseen for two weeks.

So then I planned out the rest. I always go to vibrant fabulous London to see theatre, and coordinate with my young friends who travel at Easter and leave me their central apartment. The trouble is they never plan in advance, so I'm never sure when - or even if - they're leaving. But I go and eventually, they leave. So we're trying this again this Easter. I do have a friend who lives on the outskirts in case, for some reason, they don't go away. I won't be wandering the streets.

And then - oh my dear Bruce, who goes to Italy every spring and seems to enjoy my company. Last year, he guided me on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Rome, Naples, the Amalfi Coast. This year he proposed Sicily, but we decided that was a bit far. So instead - a week in Florence, with day trips to the surrounding towns, and then Cinque Terre. Be still my beating heart. I have just booked an amazingly reasonable boutique hotel in central Florence for a week, and see on Google Maps that there's a Ferragamo store right across the street. Luckily they have no big sizes. Brucie and I will go to Siena, to Lucca. And then two or three days and nights hiking the small coastal villages of Cinque Terre.

From there, a long train ride along the coast to Nice. And in the south of France, I'll meet my friends Lynn and Denis for an unspecified visit - either to their home in Gordes or Montpellier, or a drive into the French mountains. When Denis read my memoir, he told me the place I described camping with the Belgian Girl Guides, Vallouise, is close to his parents' ski chalet, and he offered to take me there, to revisit the scene of that unhappy time. Yay. And then the train to Paris, and home April 26.

I know, lucky lucky lucky. But it's work. Truly. I write in Paris, where it's quiet and I know almost no one. I am also visiting old friends as research for the new memoir - here's a photo one of them just sent of his wedding in Carcassonne in 1979, the year I'm writing about, which my parents and I attended. That's me in the background, on the left. That's the bride in front with her dad.
I'm spending time with friend Penny in London - we have an idea for a book to write together. And in 1979 too, I visited Florence and took the train to Nice and Provence. So this trip is purely research, my friends. The pleasure involved will be incidental to the work.

And if you believe that, I've got a prime minister to sell you.

garden writing workshop - in the house

I know this is short notice, but I'll post anyway - for those of you living in the Toronto area who would like to discover your inner writer - here's your chance. Tomorrow, Sunday, is my day-long write-on-the-spot writing workshop for anyone and everyone who wants to jumpstart the writing process. Absolutely non-threatening as there is no obligation to share a single word of what you write - though I'll encourage you to do so.

The group who met in my garden in July liked the day so much they asked to come back in six months. Hence, tomorrow, when my garden will be replaced with just about every room in my house. I've just had a cancellation so am writing to let the world know there's a spot available. We start at 10.30 and go till 5 with a break for lunch (Super Bowl chill, just made), and costs $150 - inspiration, food for thought and actual food and wine included.

Go on, spend the day getting to know yourself on paper, I dare you.

Friday, January 30, 2015

the comforts of storytelling

An interesting Atlantic article, forwarded by Juliet in Paris, again outlines the importance of narrative to the human soul. Especially the list of seven major plots...

Author Christopher Booker claims there are only seven basic plots, which are repeated over and over in film, in television, and in novels with just slight tweaks. There is the “overcoming the monster” plot (BeowulfWar of the Worlds); “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre); “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings); “voyage and return” (OdysseyAlice in Wonderland); “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol); “comedy” (ends in marriage); and “tragedy” (ends in death).

Write yours!

Oscar's short films

Bitter out there - oh my God Canadians are brave. We survive. With two months to go, at least.

Last night, my home class was here, wonderful writing, people sitting in my living room telling their most important truths. Particularly two students, one of whom is 87 and the other 89, strong, vital, beautiful, fascinating women in the thick of life, both writing about facing death. As inspiring as it gets. I love my job.

Today, after various errands in the freezing wind, I went to TIFF to see the Oscar nominated Live Action Short Films. I love short films and had heard several of these were worth seeing. And they were - so different, when I emerged, I felt I'd been around the world, following the drama of an Afghani girl in Switzerland, an Israeli woman meeting a Danish musician, a pair of adorable northern Irish children, an outdoor photography studio in Tibet, and a woman (the great actress Sally Hawkins) manning a crisis hotline in England, which will probably win. I liked all of them except, unfortunately, the Israeli film, Aya, which I hated, found interminably self-indulgent, slow and dull. I even texted a few times while it meandered on, because the theatre was not full and I wasn't bothering anyone. But - watching real Tibetan families pose for a camera in front of a phoney backdrop, while behind them loom the actual Himalayas - beautiful.

Then I came home to the news that Harper is fanning the flames of paranoia and hatred and extending the powers of CSIS. When he starts to speak, I turn off the radio as fast as possible because I want to throw up if I hear his voice. A loathsome human being who has done his best to destroy everything good about my country, and is still doing so.

Here, thanks to Facebook, is a fabulous bit of rock and roll history: when the musicians of Led Zeppelin were being honoured by the White House, the sisters of Heart did a cover of "Stairway to Heaven." Fabulous on a cold day especially. Will warm you right to your toes.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

the Beatles outside my door

Right now ... and very welcome they are too. Have to get some boots for my Paul, though.

a student success story

A student worked with me at U of T and then privately, labouring on her memoir. She's in high level finance, a Vice-President who'd never done any creative writing, but she had a powerful story she wanted her children to know, about growing up overseas, her charming but neglectful and sometimes dangerous father, and later her charming but neglectful and sometimes dangerous ex-husband. As we worked together, she told me the pages beneath her pen were often sodden with tears. But she finished, edited, rewrote, rewrote, rewrote. It took years.

She self-published this well-written, thoughtful and moving work as a memoir, but though people appreciated her honesty, she felt terribly exposed. So - she reworked the memoir as a novel, which didn't take much effort - she changed all the names and a few of the places and self-published again under a pseudonym - and that was it. Otherwise, it's the same story. And a beautiful story it is too. I'm sorry she can't just own her story - but I understand the need to protect oneself. 

She's going home for a high school reunion next month - and has learned that most of her old friends have read her novel and are full of admiration for her writing ability and courage (because of course, they know exactly who it's about). And now, a professor teaching a course in the history of that country has put her book on the curriculum. As I wrote in the last post, we never know where our work is going to land, but we do it anyway.

She just sent me this very kind note:
Please remember that I'd never have come up with this book if I had been left to write on my own. I needed you! To squeeze the truth out of me, to unpack and keep unpacking, to frankly tell me what wasn't working, to form the nebulous nightmare into something that others can easily understand - although not a few of those who've read it say it's a painful, difficult read, in spite of the fact that they couldn't put it down. I'd never have thought!

And what I say to that is BRAVA.

a writer talks frankly about money

At the bottom is an important article by Ann Bauer about a writer's finances. There's a chapter in "True to Life," my how-to-write textbook, about money - how incredibly little most of us make writing, and how so many of us are sponsored by our loved ones, or grants, or else take other jobs to pay the rent. I respect Ann Bauer for finally bringing it up publicly.

The problem is that we have J. K. Rowling in view - a madwoman who used her welfare cheque to pay for babysitting so she could sit in a café and write about wizards. Obviously, a lunatic who took an enormous gamble not just with her own future, but with her child's. And yet now, with talent, hard work and, yes, luck, the wealthiest writer in the world.

But a vast percentage of the time, that's not how the story ends. I was just thinking about this, because there was an event at U of T's University College yesterday celebrating U of T teachers who published books last year. There was free food and drink, so a disproportionate number from the creative writing department were there.
My two books were on display, and I was proud. But that's not to say they've made money. Neither of them had a single review in a newspaper. A linguistics professor at the event said to me, "I wish I'd known about your writing book, I needed it while writing mine." And I thought, I wish you'd known about my book too. Almost no one does.

Now I'm going to spend countless hours producing another one, with no guarantee of any more attention or remuneration than the last. Because I'm a gambling lunatic too. In other words, a writer.

Here's her honest article. A recommended reality check.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Cathy Gildiner on writing memoir

A terrific piece from today's Globe - though it fizzles at the end, perhaps was cut? - about the importance, the difficulty and the pleasure, of writing memoir.

I'm especially interested because I recently - thrillingly - found someone, one of Canada's best editors, to coach me through the writing of my new memoir. Though she has edited famous peoples' stories about the great things they accomplished, she has never edited a "nobody memoir," as "All My Loving" was and as the new one will be. But she had valuable comments to make on the Beatle story, and I can't wait to work with her on this one.

When I told her about the new work, which is about the life-changing year 1979 when I was 28, she wrote back, "I think you’ll be writing four or five memoirs in all, Beth. You’ve already dealt with the young girl through the Paul lens.  Now the young woman, adrift, but finding her anchor. And next? Wife and mother, until the separation. And then the brave mature woman, fashioning her life in new ways yet again as teacher and mentor, landlady and friend, grandma and ?. Finally, reflections from the wise old dame, sometimes crabby but always astute, building bridges to all those, regardless of age, around her."

And I replied, "Good God, I think not. After two books, people will start paying me to shut up!" But reading about Cathy Gildiner with three memoirs, I started to think ... Hmmmm.

Here's another writer's view. Well, that's where my new editor comes in.
Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. 
-Colette, author (28 Jan 1873-1954)

And for those of you in the west end needing peace and quiet, there's a wonderful new place, High Park Commons, which rents out a tranquil room with desk and coffee. If only I'd had that when my kids were little ... no, nothing would have changed. But for those of you more productive and focussed than this scattered and restless writer, check it out:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Are you gay?

I've been mad busy - no time to write. Nothing spectacular to tell you, just life rolling on. I'll be back soon. In the meantime, here's your daily smile:

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ira Glass cheers us up

Ira Glass, host of This American Life on American Public Radio, explains the discouragement that comes with creativity and how to view it. Wonderful.

No Jets T.O. meeting tonight

For anyone in Toronto who cares about the waterfront, PLEASE attend this meeting! I teach Monday nights so cannot be there. It's vital that we be heard. Our lake is already subject to a constant stream of airplanes, and now they're begging for more. Grotesque.

View this email in your browser
Hi Beth,
The Port Authority is forging ahead with its study of the airport expansion – and what we saw at Saturday’s presentations was worrying to say the least. That’s why you should speak out at tonight’s TPA feedback session.

Monday, January 26, 6:30 - 9:00 p.m.
Metro Toronto Convention Centre - North Building, Room 106
255 Front Street West

Tons of unanswered questions, misleading slides and most troubling a study scope that’s too narrow marked Saturday’s TPA event - check out the TPA-hired consultants' presentations here.

Tonight is your chance to stand up for our waterfront.

Let us know you are coming and invite your friends via Facebook.

If you need more reasons to come: the TPA still hasn’t granted any participant funding for the community to hire independent experts. And Porter is mobilizing their list to attend tonight's event.

See you at the convention centre,

Tim Ehlich
NoJetsTO Vice-Chair

PS: if you can’t come tonight, see the TPA study website, review the documents and fill out the “EA scope worksheet” that is posted there and send to the facilitator team via by Friday, January 30th.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

There's a sucker born every minute

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Friday, January 23, 2015

today's message about writing

stories about stories

Health! The greatest blessing. Thank you, universe. I'm SPUNKY!

Yesterday, beloved friend Ken came over and we walked to Daniel's Spectrum on Dundas East. He'd heard an interview on CBC that morning about a Regent Park storytelling event on immigrant life in Canada; it said on-line it would start at 5, so we got there at 4.55. I'm all for storytelling of all kinds. There was a nice warm room in that fabulous building full of chairs and empty cups for tea, but nothing happening. Oh, said someone, the stories won't actually start till 5.45.

Ken and I went home and had tea (him) and wine (guess who) and congratulated ourselves on not waiting around for 45 minutes. I'm furious at people who assume audiences have all the time in the world. If the website says an event starts at 5, then start by 5.10 or have a pretty good excuse, or I'm outta there. It won't surprise you that I did tell someone that before we left. She agreed and said she would pass it on.

Ken and I told our own stories. He told me about quitting his job as a teacher and going to L'Arche in France in 1970, and I told him about my own experience at L'Arche in 1979. In fact, our talk changed profoundly the way I see the memoir I'm writing, which involves L'Arche. So - a very valuable walk out.

The other night I invited Wayson over to watch a film I'd taken out of the library, Woody's "To Rome with Love." It hasn't had rave reviews, but how can you go wrong with Colin Firth and Rome?! But I couldn't get my DVD player to work, infuriating, enraging, my technological incompetence. Luckily, between Bruce in Vancouver, who told me to try switching the TV to channel 3, and my son Sam, who reminded me the DVD remote was on the bookshelf - the DVD remote I'd completely forgotten existed - it works perfectly. So now I'm going to make popcorn and Carol and I are going to watch.

Happy chilly Friday night, everyone.

TWO HOURS LATER: Well, as Theresa pointed out below, I had the wrong film! It's "Magic in the Moonlight" that's got Colin Firth and is set not in Rome but in the south of France. That said, Carol and I did enjoy it - some hilarious stuff and beautiful Rome - except that nearly the entire film is in Italian with subtitles, which were below the frame of my TV screen. So we were struggling to translate and figure out the plot. But otherwise ... well, it was Rome.

And I'm healthy. So no complaints about NUTHIN.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

the miracle cure

This week reminded me why I'm glad no longer to be an actress - when you're sick in show biz, you still have to do the show. Sick schmick, on you go. Once I had the worst flu, had to go onstage and merrily sing and dance and then lie down just offstage, shivering with fever. Teaching - not so much.

On Sunday evening, I thought I was going to have to cancel my upcoming classes. I had a heaving stomach and a band of pain behind my eyes that left me unable to read. My friends JM and Richard came over to watch Downton, took one look at me and turned around to go home.

When Downton came on, I almost couldn't watch. But also couldn't miss it. So I lay on the sofa under many blankets and turned it on. Became completely absorbed - the Russian revolution, that annoying Bolshie teacher again, the tedious Bates story, poor frantic Anna, the nice new ladies' maid, poor sad Edith, racy Mary, stuffy Lord Grantham and his wife the naughty Cora, O the seductive power of Italian art ... Laughed out loud at the last scene, Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager, those two superb actresses - and turning it off, realized that my head and stomach felt fine.

Was I cured by fine British drama? Or was it the 2 aspirin I took before the show? Whatever, it was a miracle.

So I got through the big class Monday night and the smaller advanced class this afternoon with no problem, because I love my job and was happy to see all those faces and get on with the work. But now that teaching is over for now, I have collapsed in bed. It's rest time.

Here's the link to a wonderful article in the NYT that proves writing about your life makes you happier - something I've known since starting my first diary at the age of nine.

And a link to an exciting announcement: the Moth storytelling event is finally coming to Toronto. I've managed to catch it twice in NYC and am thrilled it's going to be here. Except - two big caveats: the host is one of their American regulars, not a local person - I sure hope the storytellers will be from here. And it's expensive - $45 if you're not a member of the Bloor Cinema. In the States it's ten bucks. Why are we paying far more? Phooey.

The Moth is a great addition to the city. Hope they find a local host and drop the price, then my excitement will be unmitigated.

More soup.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where are the editors?

Not perky, but human - I actually got dressed this afternoon for a meeting here, a review of the Babe in the Barn pageant with suggestions for next year. But I will take it very easy until class tomorrow evening, with only Downton on tap for tonight. It's a flu bug, I think, fended off before it dug itself in too deeply. Ah, the power and glory of chicken soup and rest.

Spent last evening in bed reading Plum Johnson's memoir "They Left Us Everything," which I was happy to learn has been nominated for the Charles Taylor Non-fiction Prize, the biggest non-fiction prize in the country. Happy - because it's a personal-type memoir as opposed to the fact-heavy non-fiction books about politics or history that have dominated the list other years. This year there are several memoirs on the list. THERE'S HOPE FOR US YET.

But I had problems with the book. Mostly - as so often - I was left asking, "Where was the editor?" The book is a fun, lively and often moving saga about the last years and deaths of her very strong elderly parents, and the herculean task of clearing out the family home, a lake-side Oakville mansion packed to the rafters with stuff. The writing was fluid and vivid, the story entertaining, at least for those of us who've been there and done something like that - and she has a fascinating family to boot.

But the book was much too long, lengthy descriptions of the lake, many many family gatherings, many openings of boxes and meanderings off into other issues which are touched on lightly and then vanish. Wayson was here recently with a book written by the daughter of a very famous Canadian author, a novel that has achieved great reviews and international distribution, but which he said was greatly over-written. He showed me - from the first page, sentences sagging under the weight of adjectives, often five in a row, viz, "Her expression was calm, unruffled, serene, placid, unemotional ..." Etc.

The writers I edit for know the wrath of my red pen. CUT! PICK ONE! LESS IS MORE! I repeat. But no one did for this novelist, and no one did for Plum Johnson.

Of course, I know how it happens. It happened to me during the last So True event - I'd decided to talk about being an actress, I'd practiced my riveting talk which, it turned out, was way too long. Tedious. I will try not to make that mistake again. It's our job to come up with a lot of stuff, then to try to see what doesn't work ourselves and take it out, and then to turn it over to someone who will help us cut a great deal more. As I say to my students, there are two important parts of a memoir: what you put in, and what you leave out. Which is just as important.

While we're on the topic of self-editing ... a New Yorker article on Beethoven quotes his negativity about his own life and work. "Everything I do apart from music is badly done and stupid," he once wrote, and later, about his late string quartets which many feel are the pinnacle of Western civilization's creative achievements, he wrote only, "Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before."

That was as much self-praise as he could muster. Let's remember, when we get discouraged, just what Beethoven means in the world today.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

a student story

I heard recently from a longterm student, a woman I admire deeply. She's a busy professional with a family and a painful background - an abusive father, a passive, ill mother. Her stories are often funny, about her job and day to day activities, but sometimes she has written about her despair at being helpless to protect her sick mother from her dad; how she was excluded from all family activities and had not seen them for a long time.

She found out recently that her parents had decided to move to assisted living, and the staff at the residence saw immediately that her father was a bullying abuser and separated them. Her mother and father now live in separate rooms, and their time together is strictly regulated. For the first time in years, last week my student was able to visit her mother, spend time with her and not have to deal with her father. It's a new life for them both. She wrote a stunning essay about it. And then she sent this to me:

Thank you for giving our writing, and me, a safe haven in which to grow. 

Beth, do you remember when ... wrote (in your day class at U of T years ago) a piece that closed with the image of him walking down a corridor with his back to us, holding the hand of his child self, and promising to look after him? You wrote to me afterward that we all need to do that. I have thought of that image so many times this week. I can see my hand reaching out to the little girl who has felt abandoned and hurt her whole life, by the "blood family" she tried very hard to please and love. I write about my mom's freedom. But Beth, "What the story is really about" is, I think, the dawning of my own freedom, and being able to reach out to that little girl and save myself.


my turn

Oh dear it's a hard life. I'm in bed with a bit of a bug, as well as my computer, the Saturday Globe and Star, my writing notebook and my cell phone. The fridge is full of leftovers from Thursday's student potluck, and there's a chicken soup simmering on the stove. It's supposed to go up to plus one today or tomorrow, but I will not be out revelling in the balmy breezes. I need to make sure I don't get really sick, as I've a very full class to teach on Monday evening and an almost full one on Tuesday midday.

Cannot get sicker. Not possible. So - soup, rest, zinc, vitamin C. Oh - and watching the few sparrows who've returned to the feeder. Perhaps the seed they've been avoiding all week might pass muster after all.

How grateful I am that my calendar lists exactly nothing for today. If I were well, I might go to the market, to the Y, for a walk, to visit friends or family, to a movie - Wild! Selma! Two days one night! Citizenfour! I'm falling behind. (And furious that Mr. Turner was not nominated for best pic, director or actor... ridiculous. My guess is that it's because Mike Leigh will not suck up to Hollywood. Ridiculous that Selma's director and lead actor were not nominated. I know, nothing new here. It'll be an interesting night that I'll do my best to avoid and probably not succeed. But - Keira Knightley in Imitation Game? She's sweet, but Best Supporting Actress? Come on!)

Instead of catching up on my movies, I'm lying here with my butt starting to fall asleep and snacks nearby.  I don't believe in starving a fever, but I very much believe in feeding a cold.

Just spent an hour in 1979, working on the memoir. Yesterday - as happens often - I lost heart. What's the point? I thought. No one will want to read this boring self-centred drivel. Today I re-read the draft, all its tentative 18,000 words in 50 pages, and I can see there's something there. What, I'm not sure yet, but something. Have to push through to some kind of ending and then go back and figure it out.

That's what I tell all my students all the time. Not so easy, though, when it's my turn. Just got this from Bruce the professional pianist - it explains a lot about us all.

Friday, January 16, 2015

message for Ryerson's True to Life class

Writers, they've given us a new classroom which is bigger, has moveable desks - and maybe even windows! The height of luxury.

Still in the VIC building on the second floor, but Room 201. There will be a notice posted on the old door in case you forget. See you Monday. With room to breathe.

And while I have your attention - with regards to the homework that perhaps you've embarked upon by now - remember, you're just putting something on paper to get started. Remember that a first draft is always flawed, clumsy, all over the map. But try, even with only 500-600 words at your disposal, to write about an incident or a sense memory that matters to you.

I keep a notepad by my bed for those middle-of-the-night flashes of inspiration or lists or craziness, and this morning I woke to last night's scribble: "imposing coherence on the world." And I remembered - that's what, at 3 a.m., I decided writing was - a way of imposing coherence on the world. Mine, anyway. In order to understand the world, I need to write about it.

Baby it's cold outside

A quiet day. Some bug is trying to get into my system - this happens on a regular basis, doesn't it? - and I won't let it. Begone, scoundrel!

Yesterday, what joy: first, a piano lesson and some new pieces to learn, and then my Thursday group's potluck celebration - 8 student friends, some of whom have been coming for years, and I, feasting at my dining room table. We usually celebrate in December, but this year I said December is so crowded, why don't we switch to January when we really NEED fellowship and food? Last night, an outpouring of warmth, words and foodstuffs, a fabulous dinner followed by a series of very moving stories. For some reason - January, I'm looking at you - everyone was writing about dark topics. The one that started us off was specifically about death, from one of our two 87-year olds, elegant, beautiful, still at work and in love, contemplating what is to come.

January, I'm looking at you.

Still no birds at the feeder.

However, to cheer you up - at least if you're in Canada, not sure you can access outside the country - here's Canada's Academy Award nominee from the NFB, a beautiful animated short film about children and parents:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Brian, who plays the Innkeeper in the Christmas pageant at Riverdale Farm - an innkeeper with a very large camera slung over his biblical robes - has just sent the photos he took of the event. Here, to remind you of the Christmas spirit, is the final tableau in the barn, with the Farm's new horse Ringo on the right, and on the far left, my neighbour, Juliet, the angel:
On the other side, sheep and goats, and a large crowd singing "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger." Adorable. If I say so my half-Jewish self.

Good news from the Toronto Public Library: the renovated reference library has a special space for writers!

Finally, an article in the NYT about a psychologist's exploration of how people fall in love. He asks a newly-introduced couple to ask themselves 36 profound and interesting questions, and then ... well, read the article and you'll see. I was most interested in the questions and tried answering them myself.

But on another note - I am really worried. There are no birds in my yard and have not been for several days. The feeder is full of seed. I just went out to check and nearly cried - where are they? There's usually twittering and flittering, fluttering and perching and pecking going on, sparrows on all the branches, cardinals, an occasional blue jay. Could a sparrow hawk have scared them all away? But they live in the ivy, so that's where they sleep. Or at least, they used to.

I can only hope they've found a feeder with much better seed, maybe wifi and a heated pool, and are vacationing there. Come visit sometime, my friends. I miss you.

There's one! One sparrow, at last! All is not lost.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

sandcastles in the snow

On Sunday, I wanted to go to the rally here in Toronto in support of freedom of speech - what a day in the world, especially in France - incredible passion and heart. But my daughter was recovering from a bad flu and needed a hand, so instead I went across town to wear out her son. We walked a long way up Roncesvalles to Another Story bookshop - what a lovely place - and bought some books for him, including "The day the crayons quit," delightful - and then over to a playground where he pretended it was August and made sandcastles. It was a tough slog to get him home - both of us chilled to the bone, but only one of us acknowledging it. But he slept that night from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next morning. Mission accomplished.

That night - the délice of Downton. Loved it! So much sex - and a radio. Here's a hilarious article in the NYT for those of you following the plot.

Monday, the first class of term at Ryerson - 18 keen writers, a full class, what a treat.

The other day I saw a wonderful child's play kitchen at Doubletake. I photographed it but did not buy it, though when I showed the shot to Anna, she adored it and was sorry I hadn't. Why didn't I? I asked myself, and realized - because it's a kitchen. Because to me, feminist of the early Seventies, a kitchen means not play but drudgery - why encourage children to cook?
And then I realized - my son is in the restaurant business, my daughter is a homemaker, both of them love nothing better than to cook! One of Anna's school friends, Grant Van Gameren, is a rock star in Toronto, the city's best known young restauranteur. Cooking is hyper-cool for this generation.

I'm sorry I didn't buy this little red kitchen, which had disappeared by the time I got back to the store. I'd like to play with it myself. And I hope that despite not having a red play kitchen, my grandson turns his love of making mud pies into making real pies. I'll be first in line, with a fork.

The final word from one of my great heroes, J. K. Rowling:
"Maybe most Muslims are peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible."
-- Rupert Murdoch
"I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I'll auto-excommunicate...The Spanish Inquisition was my fault, as is all Christian fundamentalist violence. Oh, and Jim Bakker."
-- J.K. Rowling


Dear readers, a few bits of business:

1. WRITE IN THE HOUSE SUNDAY FEB. 1: After my summer Write in the Garden workshop, the writers who'd spent the day scribbling in my garden asked if I'd organize the same event again six months later. So on Sunday Feb. 1, almost all of them are returning to write not in the garden but all over my house. There are one or two spots still available. The joy of on the spot writing is what I call memory work; with the challenge of putting stories down quickly, without mulling, come impromptu memories and thoughts, often startling the writer. And there is no obligation to read.

We start at 10.30 a.m. with coffee and writing prompts, eventually gathering to read - or not read. Then lunch and a bit of wine, more writing and reading and a bit more wine, till about 5.30. If you're interested, please let me know. The cost for the full day of writing, food and beverages is $150.

2. SO TRUE READINGS: Please note that on Sunday March 1 we are holding the next in our So True reading series at the Black Swan - information at Please consider attending - and if you've worked with me before and are interested in participating, please send me a dramatic essay of 1200 - 1400 words on the topic Epiphany by the end of January.

3. ROOMS FOR RENT: I am going away as usual, from around March 19 to around April 23. My tenant and friend (and former writing student) Carol will be here in her attic room keeping the house running, but my bedroom and the spare room will be empty. If you know anyone coming to Toronto - or who wants to come to Toronto - for a few weeks at that time and would like to live in a huge and beautiful (if I say so myself) house downtown, please let me know.

4. COTTAGE WANTED: And - looking WAAY ahead - I would like to rent a cottage in August for a week, for my family - preferably less than 3 hours from Toronto. If you have a cottage or know of a cottage that would be suitable for my decrepit self plus my daughter, her new baby and 3 year old son, please get in touch.

Thank you for your kind attention. Over and out,

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lynn was there, in Paris

A thoughtful and moving FB post from my dear friend Lynn, a Canadian who has lived in France since 1970:
I have never been a fan of Charlie Hebdo. I must admit to not getting the humour and not being able to identify the genre being used as satire as I understand that genre to be. There is surely a cultural dimension to this, as there is to all things dealing with humour.
However, Wolinski, and Cabu, two of the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were an integral part of my initiation in understanding French culture (and perhaps understanding why I can never become 100% French). Bernard Maris, the left-wing economist who each Friday morning debated economy with the (much) more conservative Dominique Seux, was pure joy to listen to. And so it is with overwhelming sadness and a sense of very personal loss that I have spent the past few days.
As chance would have it, I was in Paris, staying at a hotel near the Place de la République. How to describe the feeling of solidarity in this city I love so much? The “Je suis Charlie” signs on every Metro station, on every street corner, or hanging from the Mairie of each arrondissement. Or Thursday evening, Place de le République, about 50 young people making their way up to the top of the statue of Marianne, under the attentive eye of the CRS (the National Police Force), who were looking on in what seemed to me to be a spirit of solidarity. They were obviously following instructions, but instructions that clearly pointed that though the terrorist threat is very real, it did not come from these young people, brandishing slogans calling for brotherhood and acceptance of the Other.
My friend Stéphane told me she had spent the past 48 hours literally throwing up. Claire, the very staid and dignified President of the Agrégation Jury who was presiding the meeting I attended yesterday, nearly broke down when she evoked the massacre. My overwhelming sadness is shared by the nation.
This afternoon I will be marching here in Montpellier with the millions of people all over the country. The real question now, is how we are going to use this momentum of solidarity to really make space for the Other. Oui, je suis Charlie. Je suis, moi-même, l’Autre.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Searching for Mozart, and warmth

Headline I just read: "It's colder in Canada than it is on Mars."

Well woo hoo, ain't that grand. All I could think today, as I picked my way carefully along the frozen streets, is how stoic Canadians are. No choice. How foolish it would be if Africans always complained about the heat. That's where they live - it's hot. And where we live, it's as @#$# cold as Mars.

Movies. The escape. Today - heaven - Searching for Mozart, a documentary about the man's life and music. I wept and wept - my eyes are still puffy. What a story; what a score. It was heartening to know that the movie Amadeus distorted many facts and invented more. Mozart's scatological references were normal in his family and at his time, he wasn't a cackling idiot savant. He wasn't poisoned, didn't die a pauper. He did have money troubles toward the end but was becoming more prosperous in his last year. His marriage was a happy one, except for the tragedy of dead children - he adored Constanze and she him. He died probably of a combination of rheumatic fever and kidney failure, struggling in his dying moments to finish his Requiem. He was 35 years old. He started composing brilliantly at five.

The last shot of the doc was the stack of his compositions - up up up, reaching to the ceiling. A sublime and hardworking genius of the highest order. It made me glad, once more, to be a human being alive on this earth where such glory exists. The same planet where lunatics and fanatics slaughter their fellow men. I'd rather focus on Mozart.

One nice moment for me particularly - the doc interviewed all kinds of experts about his music and life, often watching them play his music. One, talking about Mozart's professionalism, said, "It's like Lennon and McCartney in the Sixties - the reason they were so successful was that like Mozart, they took the writing seriously." John, Paul and Wolfgang ... works for me.

Guardian cartoonist's response to Charlie Hebdo

Juliet has just posted on her blog, to the left, a thoughtful and moving response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, from a cartoonist at the Guardian. In case she has posted something else, here it is again:

What is most heartbreaking and appalling about Charlie Hebdo, beyond the horror of the actual event, is that enemies of civilization will use this new atrocity to further their goals. Stephen Harper has of course been banging his drum, announcing new "anti-terrorist measures" - which you can be sure will affect us all. You can also be sure he has his eye on re-election this year and will use whipping up hysteria and hatred to the utmost advantage. Netanyahu also.

I fear, I fear for our world.

In my world, my daughter was so ill yesterday that she went to Emerg to be sure it wasn't pregnancy-related, so there were a few tense hours. It's a bad 'flu. Our friend Holly is looking after Eli today so I'll take tomorrow's shift. This summer, Anna will have a baby and a toddler. Sometimes I am filled with anxiety, not just about the world, but about my tiny corner of it.

And sometimes I put anxiety aside and breathe and look at the sky and move on.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Into the Woods

When the weather is this cold, all that makes sense is to hunker down and eat a great deal. Meat. Cheese. Bread. Lots and lots of chocolate. And - of course - to drink red wine, though merely for one's health. If I roll out of winter, healthy but extremely round, you'll know why.

Another way to escape the howl of the winds - the movies. This afternoon I went to "Into the Woods,"  the Sondheim musical made into a film. I wasn't expecting much - I am not a huge Sondheim fan, much to the dismay of my musical-loving friends. He's an undisputed genius of musical theatre but too cynical and intellectual for me, too cold and clever. At least, that's what I've always thought.

But this film - I loved it. It's full of heart and wit and wisdom, not to mention Meryl Streep having a grand time as a wicked witch who's really a forlorn mother and daughter. Sondheim takes famous Grimm's fairy tales - Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and weaves them into a morality tale about issues that concern us all: weak sons anxious about the legacy of their flawed fathers, young women overpowered by romantic fantasies, mothers who are selfishly overprotective, mothers who are loving but overly critical ... been there, done that.

All this with groundbreaking music and lyrics, wonderful settings and cinematography - and mostly, again, superb performances. I am seriously in love once more. No, not with Johnny Depp as the wicked wolf, not James Corden, adorable as he is, as our hero the baker who learns to be strong and take charge, or with either of the handsome princes.

Emily Blunt. I now have a serious thing for Emily Blunt, who plays the Baker's Wife. She's stunning, sings like a dream, and is just - glorious. I remember her intelligence and grace from "Young Victoria" but here she soars.
The musical has been criticized for the "second act," where the sweet soufflé of fantasy and happy endings takes a dark turn with the arrival of an angry giantess. But that's what makes it worthwhile - that it resonates deeply.

The NYT talked about "the gospel according to Sondheim," which appears in his song "The Children are Listening":
Careful the things you say/ children will listen/ Careful the things you do/children will see/ and learn. /We are listening.

When you hear about Sondheim's own childhood, with a mother so vicious she told him once her main regret was having him, the song is more moving than ever. Highly recommended.

red wine=hour at gym:YES!

Joy! I love science. A new study proves just how good red wine is for you. Thank you, dear lord.
Unfortunately, the last line of the article is not so good. Working on that.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

the power of pencils

Ran into a friend at Shopper's today - she had lost so much weight, I hardly recognized her. When I exclaimed, she said, "I have cancer. I've lost 40 pounds. We're hoping for the best."

What to say except - I give you all my love, I hope for the best with you? Be safe, be well. A reminder that what matters most is health.

Fantastic moving images today of the outpouring of support for France. Who would have thought the entire planet would one day focus on a few French cartoonists? Jon Stewart was particularly fine last night on the subject - how, as a kind of cartoon himself, to speak about the murder of funny men? He did it beautifully and ended with a piece about Nazi cows, which turned, subtly, into a musing on extremism. 

Juliet who lives in Paris has mused in her blog, at the left, about the fact that the Charlie guys did provoke deliberately, and often published really offensive cartoons about other people's cherished beliefs. No reason to be murdered, it goes without saying, but courting anger from the least rational people on earth nonetheless. Not my kind of humour. But the beauty and sensitivity of the cartoon images coming out is stunning. Like this one:

Here's a bit of wonderful Canadian humour to leaven this dark freezing day - FREEZING! -

I have to tell you that while waiting for an appointment this morning - my shrink, if you must know - I went into Starbucks to kill time. First, I ran into an old friend, one of my favourite people, the actor and singer Brent Carver of the luminous and expressive face, who's a great person. So it was good to see him. But I also ordered the new Starbucks offering, Flat White. God knows what that means, but it's stronger than their regular cappuccino, with whole milk, and it's absolutely delicious. I HATE to advertise for any brand. But seriously good coffee... I'll be back.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Beth's writing courses: update

Dear writers, who can explain these things? For two Januarys in a row, my course at Ryerson, True to Life 336, has been cancelled because not enough people registered. It was disheartening and made me sad - and poorer - but such is life. I thought maybe winter was the problem.

Today, I discovered that True to Life is now full. Five days before the course starts, registration is closed, and I've already had an email from a student who was turned away, begging to get in. I wrote back that 18 is the maximum for a reason, and it wouldn't be fair to those already registered, or to her, to let in more. It's not a lecture course which can hold limitless attendees. Each week, every student writes and reads, and so 18 different essays a week is enough of a challenge.

I am sorry if you were intending to take the course and left it too late. The good news is that I teach 3 terms a year, so you can come back in May - when the course is on Wednesday evenings - or in September, when it's back to Mondays. Who knows, perhaps next year, the numbers will vanish again and I'll be unemployed. But right now, I feel like the high school girl who couldn't get a date and suddenly is besieged with cute guys.

I like it. It feels good.

If you want to branch out into fiction, my colleague Ann Ireland is offering course # 410, Short Fiction, via email - she's highly experienced and skilled and a great teacher.

The U of T course, Life Stories II, is open only to students who've worked with me before and runs during the day so is not an option for many. It's getting more full but there's still room. Links on this website under "Teaching."

Frank Zappa and his mum and dad

Brutal, brutal out there. Minus 18 but apparently minus 35 with the wind chill. I walked from the streetcar two blocks to the Y and my eyeballs hurt. Stay inside, little Canadians. Even the birds are ignoring the feeder today and hiding at home. I don't blame them.

So to cheer you up, as you huddle together for survival, please contemplate these heartwarming pictures - especially Mr. Zappa with his folks in the purple haze room, too wonderful. Funny how much young Eric Clapton looks like young George Harrison - maybe Patti Boyd, who left George for Eric, thought they were the same guy.

PS Hideous, tragic news from Paris. Murderous lunatics full of hatred - is there no escaping them?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mr. Turner and "The sun is God!"

Bitter out there today and worse tomorrow - punishingly cold all over North America. A good day for taxicabs.

Yesterday, Eli and his mother visited. Here is my advice to grandparents of young children: acquire something called a Plasmacar. Ours was given to us by generous friend and former student Janice, along with a huge bag of clothing and books her kids had outgrown; it provided great joy last Xmas day and has continued to do so. It's a stable four-wheeled contraption that's strong and big enough for two - and my grandson decided yesterday that he wanted to play chauffeur. On his way into the living-room to get more books - "Come, Blamma," he said, patting the back of the seat, and I lowered myself onto the back of the vehicle and he drove us into the living-room to get books, steering magnificently. Four times, four trips.

Getting off the Plasmacar was difficult. This is why I go to the Y, was my main thought as I struggled creakily to my feet. The best ride ever - being driven by my grandson from the kitchen to the living room, replete with vroom vroom and screeching brake noises made by Blamma. I wonder if one day I'll embarrass him as I embarrassed my children. Let's hope not.

Today I went (by cab, and not a Plasmacab) to see Mr. Turner. In 1981, when my ex-husband and I were newly together, a friend of his visited, a young British director writing a book about someone we'd never heard of called Mike Leigh, whose work in the theatre involved lengthy improvisations. Now Mr. Leigh is a film director of great and well-deserved esteem - his Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy are wonderful films.

And so is this one - indisputably great, perhaps the most beautifully shot film I've ever seen, only right in a biopic about a master of light. It's long, perhaps a shade too long though I can't think of a scene I'd cut. And it's odd in that it deals with a genius who is a rough snorting boor with few social graces who treats his wife and children and his housekeeper poorly. And yet also a sensitive, successful, respected man and a courageous, ground-breaking and hard-working painter. Fascinating.

The film provides a series of character studies, too, of names we know, like Constable and Ruskin, and others we don't, like the crazed egotistical painter Haydon - all so real because Mike Leigh continues to improvise with actors, who are all as solid and comfortable in their roles as it's possible for an actor to be.

For me, it's a film about a golden age in England, just as the railway is arriving and the country is about to change forever. References to the slave trade and the Napoleonic wars, and a brief encounter with an unappreciative Victoria and Albert, situate us in historical time. The interiors are breathtaking and full of artifacts of British life I know my mother would have wept to see - vases, jugs, pewter plates and mugs, platters and dishes, she would have recognized them all. The countryside is a pastoral dreamscape, the seaside is so vivid you can smell the air and the fish - Britain of the early to mid-1800's lovingly recreated, seamless, nothing out of place.

Confession: I've never liked Turner's work - too wishy washy, all those filmy pink, brown and gold skies and seas. After the film, I still am not crazy about his paintings, but I understand much more about the man and his times. I loved this film.

PS Just saw that a dear friend I've not yet met, Theresa Kishkan, has also just posted a review of the film on her blog, to the left. As sensitive and thoughtful as ever, Theresa.