Tuesday, April 29, 2008

different strokes

The treat this past Saturday was riding my bicycle down to the overwrought Paramount cineplex, to go to the opera.  I was lucky enough to get a returned ticket to this sold-out event: Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment," in a brilliant production from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Live, on screen.  

You sit in the movie theatre in Toronto - and all around the world - as the stage manager on the giant screen says, "Maestro to the pit, please."  And watch the conductor stride through the backstage halls of the Met, emerge into the pit, acknowledge the applause in that vast glittering hall, and then turn to the orchestra.  And we're there, in the pit with him, watching the faces of the oboe players and the cellists as they play the overture.  

And then the curtain rises and we are practically on-stage, watching the singers in close-up.  It was spectacular, especially in this production, which was brilliantly directed, acted and sung. At the intermission - after we've had the treat of Renee Flemming interviewing the stars, literally as they walk off the stage - I saw an elderly European couple unwrapping giant sandwiches.  We all had a breathtaking artistic experience for $20.  What a fantastic innovation this is.

Later that day I confronted another artistic experience, which took my breath in a different way.  My son decided to show me his new tattoo, his fifth.  It covers all of one side of his right leg from knee to ankle.  I reeled backwards in shock.   It was the most hideous thing I'd ever seen.  "How can you mutilate your body in this way?  Carve this into your flesh?  How are you going to get rid of it when it's an embarrassment you no longer want to live with?"

He was hurt and angry.  "Tattoing is a culture and an art form," he said.  "It's artistic expression and I love it.  This isn't the last."  And we left it there.  It's his body.  To mutilate as he sees fit.

You know, the cinema was packed for the opera but there was almost no one under the age of 25.  I guess the kids are all out pursuing their own forms of artistic expression.  And ironically, my bet is that my son's was a great deal more expensive, on Saturday afternoon, than mine.

Friday, April 25, 2008


It's spring, and a middle aged woman's thoughts turn to ... income tax.  Ah well, a quick hard sting and it's over, whereas the blooming outside the window, the forsythia and daffs and cherry blossom and magnolia - oh, the magnolia ... these will last for at least a week or two.  It's hard to sit inside working on the perfect days, which my Canadian bones know are short-lived; I unsuccessfully fight the urge to slip out and potter in the garden.  Luckily I can unplug my laptop and move around the house following the sun - even sit outside tapping on the deck.  Hi my name is Beth and I am a lightoholic.

A few days ago I went to my local copy shop - on the way in, passed my Cabbagetown neighbour the magnificent Michael Ondaatje, on the way out - and copied all of my penpal Barbara's letters from the early Sixties, to send to her family in England.  Her sister Penny wrote today that they had arrived - 78 pages worth - and she's almost afraid to read them.  She's waiting till the weekend when her older sister arrives, and they'll go through them together.  Barbara was 12 when our correspondence started in 1962, and 16 when she died at the Mayo Clinic after an operation to repair the hole in her heart.  I marvel that somehow, through all those years, I knew the worth of her letters and kept them safe.  Even as I xeroxed, I was eating an apple and to my horror, the dampness on the counter smudged a few lines, written with a fountain pen. 

As I wrote to Penny today, nothing except the health of my children matters more to me than saving stories, than listening to the voices tell their tales.  One of my life's jobs is not only to chronicle my own life stories, but to encourage others to do the same.  

I opened a dusty box last night that has been on a bedroom shelf, undisturbed, for years, "letters, souvenirs" marked on the side.  Inside I found files: "Writing 1967-74," "Letters by me," "Letters to me," "Souvenirs 1989-95,"  "correspondence," "friends."  I found an envelope marked "Anna's hair, May 9, 1981," snipped when my daughter was six days old.  High-school and university essays on "Jude the Obscure" and "Salinger's Opinion of American Society." High school marks.  A letter my partner and I wrote to my grandfather one weekend in 1980, to tell him that I was pregnant and he would, at last, be a great-grandfather.  It was never mailed because my mother called to tell him the great news on a Friday and, though he wasn't ill, he died on Sunday.  His message to her, to pass on to me: "I am beyond thrilled.  Get married immediately." 

Some people leave the past behind and march on.  Others keep looking back.  No accounting for it; it's just a way some of us live, keeping a paper trail of the heart.   

Sunday, April 20, 2008

in praise of Eleanor Wachtel

Sunday afternoon of a perfectly beautiful day.  Last Monday, at 10 a.m. it was winter, and by noon, it was summer.  That's how it is in Toronto - one hour of temperate spring.  Suddenly you throw off your winter coat and scrabble in the closet for sandals to put on your pasty white feet. We've had such a heavenly week that Torontonians are desperate for something to complain about and have settled on a possible transit strike.  

This was a typical Sunday, more or less, though I didn't go for my usual Sunday morning walk. It was my friend Gina Dineen's 50th birthday last night, which she celebrated in her usual dynamic fashion - in a local community centre with pot luck food, a cash bar with profit going to an Afghani school, and a D.J.  My only New Year's resolution this year was to dance more, and I kept my resolution admirably last night.  So, no walk. 

But my afternoon was like all other Sunday afternoons - tethered by CBC radio.  I listened to part of Tapestry, the excellent program about spirituality at 2, though phone calls and errands got in the way.  But at 3 every Sunday, my job is to find something boring to do with my hands - cooking, ironing, dishes - while I listen uninterrupted to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers from around the world, on her program "Writers and Company."  Today she was in Mexico City talking to Mexican writers.  As usual, she was gracious, intelligent, informed, warm, humourous, thoughtful - and as usual, we her listeners entered another world and learned a great deal.  One writer had difficulty with  English and said, at one point, "We Mexicans are not bictims.  We are not billians."  I myself might have had to suppress a chuckle, but not Eleanor; the interview proceeded with gravitas. 

The minute it was over my phone rang and I knew who it was - my mother, who called from Ottawa to talk about the interview.  "She's marvellous!" she exclaimed, as she always does. "What a wonderful ambassador for this country."  And as always, I agree.  Eleanor and I have been friends since the mid-seventies in Vancouver, when she was a theatre critic and I an actress. She is in person just as thoughtful, warm and wise as she sounds on the radio.  And fun, too.  

As I sit here drinking a glass of wine and watching this lovely day begin to fade, I celebrate a friend who has found the perfect job and does it perfectly.  

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Theatre people

Yesterday night Philip Clarkson, a set and costume designer and an old Vancouver friend of Nicky Cavendish's, threw a small party to welcome her to Toronto.  It was a treat for me to be part of a group of theatre people once more.  Except for nine weeks doing Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig" in Vancouver in 1996, I have not acted onstage since the fall of 1980, when I discovered I was pregnant and transferred my energies to writing (and babies).

I lived in the theatre for a decade; it's a language I still know how to speak and don't have much chance to use, but did last night.   At the party were actors, designers and a dramaturge, who embarked on fervent discussion and gossip about Stratford and Canadian Stage, the emergence of "artistic producers" in Canada, the lack of money and vision and Canadian plays; about Nicky's exhaustion in a much too-short rehearsal process.  How heated, how energetic and out-going they were.  Theatre people are theatrical even when not at work; they do voices and perform with perfect timing; they're hilarious, melodramatic, riveting.  I miss the warmth of that contact and immediacy, sometimes, in my new desk job.  I miss the camaraderie of the troupe and the instant feedback from an audience.

Writers sit alone in a room.  They're as crazy as actors but in a different way - committing thoughts and words to paper in the hopes that one day, maybe not until years later, someone will read.  Someone, perhaps, if they do their work well enough and are lucky or wise or talented or timely enough to get it out into the world, will listen.  Actors know instantly if something is working or not; writers may never know.  And yet, though writing is hard and lonely and pays just as poorly, I think it's much easier than performing.

At an opening once, an old theatre friend introduced me to a cast member. "Beth used to be an actor," he said.  "She got out."  


Friday, April 11, 2008

a cacaphony of Kaplans

This was taken after my talk in NYC.  A family of determined chins.  

minus hairbows

Here's Vermeer's "Lady, Writing," the beauty I fell in love with in Washington.  We modern lady scribes do not often go to work in satin, ermine and hairbows, and our implements are different, but the result is the same: something is on paper that wasn't there before. What is she writing, do you think, with her fine little hand?

And here's a story about the wondrous ways of the world: I wrote here about the Adlers who came to my talk at the 92nd Street Y, and how I would have liked to meet them.  The very next day, the "New York Times" featured an article on a man called Tom Oppenheim, Stella Adler's grandson, who runs the acting school named for her in New York.  When I got home to Toronto, I googled him and wrote to introduce myself. He wrote back within an hour that he had read and enjoyed my book and was as interested in talking to me as I to him.  

So the great-grandson of Jacob Adler the actor, and the great-granddaughter of Jacob Gordin the playwright, will begin a dialogue.  Tom is convinced, as am I, that Stella's theories of acting, so influential to countless important American actors including Marlon Brando, were learned in the Yiddish theatre, in the plays of Jacob Gordin where her career began. 

I did one last book talk, at least for now, at the JCC last night.  In the audience was my old friend and former colleague, actress Nicola Cavendish.  Nicky, who is funny and kind, is here rehearsing the role of a psychotic killer and writing fan in a stage adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery." "How was my day, you ask?" she said.  "Well, I smashed Tom McCamus's kneecaps with an 800-page manuscript and tried to cripple him, cracked his head on the floor several times, and went home for a grilled cheese sandwich."  

She looked exhausted.  I was grateful this cold, wet morning that rather than racing off to a rehearsal studio, as I did once, my job involved sitting at my desk in imaginary ermine and satin, actually sweatpants and a t-shirt, digging inside for gold. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

facing Kaplans

I did my best to relax and have a good time during my talk at the 92nd Street Y.  That's not easy to do when, facing me, were around 25 keen, critical New Yorkers including the keenest and most critical of all, my own family, six Kaplans in a row.  However, dear friend Bruce beamed at me from the back until he saw that I was doing fine and let his smile slide a bit.  Also there was Andrew Arkin, a childhood friend of my father's.  He is in his mid-eighties and very frail; he warned me that he might not last.  But he did.

I talked for just over an hour, almost getting through it without consulting my notes.  The audience asked good questions; some had even read the book.  A group asked specifically about Jacob Adler, the great actor, and I realised afterwards that of course they must have been Adlers; I was sorry that we didn't get a chance to talk.  I signed some books, embraced my family - Ted had a few corrections, of course, but was positive in an unprecedented way.  This is not a family given to praise, but to my amazement, I received some. 

Getting out of New York this morning was deadly.  I was getting the shuttle bus from 41st Street near Grand Central Station to Newark Airport, which should have been straightforward, but of course they started road work this very morning and closed some streets and no one knew where the bus was going to stop.  I rushed back and forth dragging my bag along the backed-up streets, everyone honking even more madly than usual, the men with their drills, the unbelievable noise, chaos, fumes, crowds, dirt ... Please, get me out of here, was my only thought.

But the flight home was sublime - Porter Air from Newark to the Toronto Island airport.  It left twenty minutes early, we had our bags and were through customs - two cheery guys - in five minutes and on the ferry to shore.  What a wonderful way to land in the city, and on top of that, a hot sunny day.  Home in beautiful downtown Toronto.  The snow has almost gone, the air is sweet.  It may not actually be sweet, but it's sweeter than New York's.  

I do my talk all over again tomorrow, at the Jewish Community Centre here - but it will feel like chatting in my living-room after last night.  

Monday, April 7, 2008

a wunnerful town

I've just read in the "Times" that "August: Osage County," by Tracy Letts, the family drama that Lola and I saw a few nights ago, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Richly deserved.

Among the many fantastic things about this metropolis are the armies of marginally employable men picking up garbage, so that the jam-packed streets are clean.  And the $25 weekly transit pass for all transportation.  I haven't taken a single cab, I've just been swiping my pass on the subway and busses.  The system is a marvel of efficiency, and how I love not standing in the street, desperately waving my arms to compete with armies of New Yorkers wanting cabs, a terrifying prospect.  Once during a snowstorm here, when I was six months pregnant, a man shoved me out of the way and took the cab for himself.

Last night, I saw Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," almost forty years after performing in it in 1969 as a 19-year old university student.  It's quintessential Pinter, full of menacing silence and infuriating pauses and mysteries; you're never sure who are these wierd people and what the hell is going on.  I wondered - how did we, a bunch of kids, manage such a difficult play? How did I play an erotically enticing siren/hooker/wife when I was a teenager who had had exactly one steady boyfriend?  I wish I could remember.

The performance was a benefit for the Actor's Guild; I was sitting in the same row as the beautiful Laura Linney and the even more beautiful Angela Lansbury, only I was way off to one side and they were at the centre, where they should be. 

I have also visited my favourite flea market at 67th and York, bought two pairs of shoes at the great thrift store across the street from my cousin's, seen the very silly but delightful new musical "Xanadu," and spent a few hours rambling in Central Park, which is on the verge of flowering but not quite there.  I am going soon to the Met for the Poussin and Courbet exhibits. But this is an unusual trip, a working trip in which I am not rushing madly about seeing everything and everyone.  I am preparing for my talk tomorrow and sheltering from the cold and the crush outside.  

Funnily, this kind of hibernation reminds me of my years staying with my beloved Uncle Edgar on West 94th, before his death in 1997.  I would arrive eager to dash out and partake of the great riches of New York, and he was just as eager to go nowhere, to stay at home, cook a gourmet meal and watch the world on his giant TV screen.  When we did go out - to the theatre or a concert or once, unforgettably, when his cancer was in remission, to the luxurious and beautiful Le Bernardin restaurant - it was a special occasion.  This relatively sedate trip has made me feel like a real New Yorker. 

As, oddly, I am. 

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Noo Yawk Noo Yawk

This is the city where I was born - in mid-century, in mid-summer, in midtown Manhattan - and lived for only the first six weeks of my life.  Coming in from Philadelphia on the Chinese Mafia bus, suddenly as we charged down the New Jersey Turnpike, there was that glorious skyline in the distance - tragically minus two distinctive rectangles, of course.  The Empire State instead is restored to its former eminence.  I felt like I was coming home - a home I am happy to visit and happy to leave behind, after a week at most.

I'm lucky that cousin Ted Kaplan, who lives at 77th and 3rd, goes to his country home every weekend, generously leaving his apartment available for visiting Canadian relatives and many others.  I always visit, too, my father's cousin Lola, who though 85 and recovering from cancer, is still a ferocious force of nature.  She took me to a free string quartet concert at Rockefeller University Friday lunchtime, and on Friday night I took her to the theatre.  She told me about the famous people she has gone up to in public places and thanked: Jessica Tandy, Dudley Moore, Martha Graham whom she watched dance in her youth.  My father, who was exactly her age, took Lola to one of her school dances in the late Thirties; she remembers him as charming, funny and devilish, and so do I.

My friend Bruce has flown in from Vancouver, so we met to tour the exquisite Frick Museum together - we are both in love with Vermeer, and also the entire Frick Museum - and today we walked all over Chelsea, talking, eating, admiring.  I saw the quintessential New York scene: a couple with a baby in an expensive stroller and a very small boy by the hand, both bending anxiously down to him as he stood bewildered.  "So what do you want to eat?" they were asking.  "Italian?  Do you want Italian?"  Yesterday on Madison Avenue I saw another small boy, maybe five years old, dressed like a Ralph Lauren model in preppie perfection with loafers and a little jacket, holding his African-American nanny with one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other.  That, combined with my little tour through Sak's Fifth Avenue today, where the main floor has been taken over by handbag madness - the cheapest about twelve hundred dollars - and I'm beginning to see the end of civilisation here, the Decline and Fall. Lola saw a Sak's ad for a pair of Hermes boots - $24,000.  It's beyond absurd. 

And yet ... last night we saw "August: Osage County," a family drama that came in from Chicago with the Steppenwolf Company, and a first class bunch of actors they are too.  It's like "Long Day's Journey" with a laugh track, it's more than three hours long, and it's exhilirating.  The Calder String Quartet that we saw Friday, four young American lads, superb.  The energy of this city, vitality, the surprising friendliness and courtesy alongside the mad honking, impatience, homelessness, and nauseating consumption - it's a rich rich stew, and I'm feasting.  

Tonight's plan, perhaps the greatest luxury of all in New York - doing nothing with nobody, in silence.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

the streets of Philadelphia

It's hard to walk around Philadelphia without hearing Bruce Springsteen in your head.  But I don't think Bruce was singing about the quaint, beautiful streets in the historic district, like "Elfreth's Alley," built in the early 1700's, and others like it - rows of tiny perfect houses with very small doors.  

I stopped here to sightsee and visit my friend and former writing student Jess, a young writer and sculptor studying at art school.  She told me that where she lives, in the north of the city, it's very different from here, downtown.  "The poverty and hopelessness are overwhelming," she said.  The high school dropout rate for Latino students is more than 70%. The primaries are happening here right now, and many windows display posters of Obama with one word, "Hope," underneath.  I haven't seen a single one for Hilary.

There's a stunning Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Frida is particularly interesting to non-fiction writers because she is the painter equivalent of a memoirist; as some write, she painted her life in spectacular, graphic and, sometimes, excruciatingly honest detail. My heart went out to her in admiration and respect.  

And then, I came back to my room and plucked my eyebrows.