Sunday, October 22, 2017

home, still hot

The weather is mind-boggling - have I said that before? Hot hot sun, breezy, sublime - not just in Washington but in Toronto, since I came home this afternoon to the same gorgeous weather.

Friday afternoon I went to visit old old friends Judith and Leon Major - Judith's parents were my parents' great friends in Halifax in the Sixties, and so I've known Leon and Judith all my life. They've lived in Washington for decades, Leon teaching opera production. Judith told me that in 1965 my father called them to ask their advice - his daughter loved the Beatles and not Mozart, what should he do? Poor dad. (And now, Dad, I love both. You needn't have worried.)

That night, a family dinner at Barbara's. Her second husband Dan had two adopted Korean children when he married Barb; their daughter Mia came with her Swedish husband and two sons, just a tich younger than my grandchildren. The air rang with the voices of little boys and new family for me. Heaven.

Saturday Barb, Dan, Barb's younger sister Francey and I went for a hike on the Billy Goat trail at Great Falls, on the most glorious October 21 in memory. (click to enlarge)
 Not that far from the White House.
Cousins squinting in the sun. Matching chins.
My Washington family on my mother's side. After the hike, I said goodbye to Barb and Dan, and Francey drove the two of us to Frederick, a hip town in northern Maryland, full of antique and record stores, where I treated her to lunch - the best crab cakes I've ever had and a local hoppy craft beer - and then we drove to her isolated house in acres of woods on top of a mountain. She's a recluse who has an amazing list of hobbies; she's a master knitter and a harpist and pianist who is teaching herself the viola da gamba; she and her husband raise big dogs, right now a wolfhound and a borzoi, and she is very serious about calligraphy.
A concert on one of her four harps.
Brianna lounging. An enormous wolfhound.
Practicing her letters. I spent the night there in the tranquillity of this mountaintop home where, however, the nearest neighbours are rabid Trump supporters. I myself would not want to live so far away from everything, but it suits Francey. Joe her husband was in Japan receiving an award for his work as a physicist. We sat in tilting leather chairs drinking American champagne and watching their giant TV screen - Francey's favourite program about British people who want to move to the country, and then the first episode of the new American series Mindhunter. Disturbing and terrific.

This morning Francey drove me to Dulles, an hour and a half. Luckily she likes driving. I had bought new sunglasses which have magic lenses - everything looked stunning, the colours much more vibrant than they actually were on another heavenly day, as the leaves slowly turn, a month late. We talked too much about You Know Who. Of course.

At Dulles, in the bookstore, a whole section for religious books and various bibles. They are not like us.
A painless fight home - in fact, wonderful, I sat next to a young red-headed Quebecois man who was deaf and covered with tattoos, wearing an anti-fur-trade t-shirt in French - we wrote messages to each other. He was adorable. Home through the usual traffic jam - maybe Toronto traffic is as bad as Washington's.
My tenant Elodie had left me a gift - she's a florist and had bought and arranged these beauties. So good to be home! Pray I sleep tonight.
Gifts from the trip: Francey did some calligraphy for me,
and Barbara gave me these - part of a tea set belonging to my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Bates in Northampton. So many gifts from both sides of my family. And then I went for a walk in my 'hood, gearing up for Hallowe'en - this is just up the street. Glad to be home. It was a superb trip.
Randy Bachman is blasting on the radio, the back door is wide open, soon there's great Sunday night TV, and then I'll be in my own bed. And what I'd like to say to that is: YES.

Friday, October 20, 2017

after the talk


 Sasha Olenick, who brought to life some of my great-grandfather's great characters, including the grande dame Mirele Efros.
New family - Becky, Jill, Robert, moi, Peggy, Barbara - I'm loaded with cousins all of a sudden! And behind us, the man himself, great-grandfather to four of us.
At dinner that night - exchanging many family stories. So much pleasure.

Washington

Where to start? Well, here - leaving my fair city Tuesday afternoon by the island airport, on a stunning day.
Landing in Dulles Airport, Washington, where my cousin Barbara was waiting. Barbara, who's a year older than I, and her sister Francey, a year younger, are my only cousins, daughters of my mother's oldest sister. We haven't spent much time together, but Barb and I like each other a lot, so it has been a treat to get to know her better. Her hospitality - offering to put me up and chauffeur me around - made my speaking trip here possible.

She lives in Bethesda, a leafy suburb of pretty colonial houses amidst old trees, where the only drawback is that you have to drive everywhere; there are no amenities for miles, and the traffic in Washington, apparently, is worse than Los Angeles. From what I've seen of it, that's true. The only other negative about my trip, so far, is that for some reason my brain decided to go on high alert and refuse to shut down, so my first two nights here were almost sleepless, a kind of torture. I haven't used my sleeping pills for so long that I didn't bring them with me. Mistake. But I got through.

On Wednesday I took the metro downtown and walked to the National Gallery of Art.  Ran right into a protest outside the Trump Tower - NO MUSLIM BAN.

I joined them for a bit - hooray for democracy! - then went on to the museum, which is spectacular - in two parts, classic art and modern art. Bathed in the Italians, saw the Leonardo and all the Madonnas, right up to the Impressionists - Van Gogh's thick cream roses. Glorious. Then down to the concourse for lunch and up to the other side, to bathe in the Rothko's. Enjoyed the blue rooster on the roof.
A long walk to Arena Stage, the theatre run by my ex Edgar. I had no idea it was such an enormous, spectacular, modern place, with 3 theatres and many open spaces designed by Canadian Bing Thom. Part of the inside looks like the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, with totem pole-like panels. Below, the front.
Barbara and Dan met us there, the four of us had a superb dinner together nearby - Edgar has been Executive Director at Arena for 8 years and knows everyone, including all the staff at the restaurant - and then he gave us tickets to see a play, Native Gardens, by Karen Zacarias, a young woman who's their resident playwright. Remember that name, because she's going to go far - the play was hilarious and yet profound, an exploration of current American issues of entitlement, racism, classism, even ageism - not didactic but funny. Very hard to pull off.
Edgar met us afterward and gave us a proud tour of the vast backstage; here we are on the set of the show. It was a perfect visit with an old friend, who happens to be the father and grandfather of four human beings very dear to my heart.

One of the joys of my visit here is mornings - Dan puts on the coffee and we all sit, reading both the NYT and the Washington Post, two of the finest newspapers in the world, bemoaning the latest Trumpian horrors. Today, an unbelievable headline in the Post: "Study ties loose concealed-carry laws to higher gun death rates." Amazing - they needed a study to show that if it's easier to carry guns, more people die! Imagine that! Ils sont fous, ces Americains. 

Off to the Jewish Community Centre of Fairfax, Virginia, for my talk on the Jewish Shakespeare. It was all set up - tables for lunch, which was provided free for me and Barbara and included a smoked meat sandwich and a knish, and I was happy to welcome three first cousins-once-removed, whom I hardly know though our grandparents were siblings. Then I spoke to an audience of about 50 about my great-grandfather and my book. In the middle, a fine actor, Sasha Olenick, read excerpts from Gordin's plays. Sasha, it turns out, is best friends with one of my ex-husband's ex-girlfriends. Small world etc. It went very well, it seems; the organizer was rapturous. Luckily, however, I'd only brought 3 books to sell, because I sold 2 - and gave one to Sasha. People may love a book talk but that does not necessarily lead to the sale of the book. Pictures in the next post.

Home in a traffic jam to rest before dinner in downtown Bethesda with my new relatives, this time not from the British side - my mother's - but the Jewish side of my father - Robert and his new wife Becky, and his sisters Jill and Peggy, who all grew up in Virginia. I have relatives who speak in a Southern drawl, are almost as leftwing as I and very nice. New family. Makes me very happy.

That night ... some actual sleep. I guess it was my talk keeping me awake. And yet I've done it many times before. Neurosis!

Today another perfect hot day; I'd considered going back downtown to more museums, but I often see museums and rarely see my cousin so decided to stick with her. Barb, Dan and I walked to the local Y, not far from their home, for a Y Fusion class Barb had heard good things about. It was tough and fun, a dance class with fab music, the 3 of us stumbling about at the back. Loved it. Back home in a day so hot, it was like July. Lucky lucky lucky.

Monday, October 16, 2017

John Dunsworth RIP

A quick word - tomorrow I'm off to Washington D.C. till the end of the week, leaving quantities of instructions for Elodie, my tenant. Winter is coming, so part of today was washing pots and moving plants inside. And yet it's supposed to be warm all next week - 25 maybe, in Washington, if not more. Confusing.

John Dunsworth has died at age 71. Oh that makes me feel old. He played drunk Mr. Lahey on Trailer Park Boys and was a stalwart, apparently, of the Nova Scotia film scene. I knew him way way back; we lived on the same street in Halifax; his father was a child psychiatrist, and, briefly, when I was 9, MY psychiatrist. I did not like him one bit. He had many children - 11 or 12, and I think John was the oldest. One of our family friends knew the Dunsworths well, and when in high school at 15 I was complaining about not having a date for a dance, she called and asked John if he would go with me. He did. He was charming - he was 19, FOUR YEARS OLDER, impressing everyone. Thank you again, John. I wrote to him a few years ago before a trip to Nova Scotia, reminding him of it and thanking him, wanting to meet, but he didn't remember who I was. Obviously our date was not seared onto his memory as onto mine. When my kids were teens and big fans of Trailer Park Boys, knowing that I had once dated Mr. Lahey was my great claim to fame.

Last night, four good shows were on between 8 and 10. Weeks can pass with nothing worth watching and then everything good comes on at once. The Durrells, so entertaining, but at the same time as Suzuki's Canadian seasons show, magnificent footage of Canada's animals through the year - stunning. And then The Life-Sized City, a fabulous Canadian doc about how cities are changing and adapting, at the same time as another fabulous Canadian doc, very beautiful, Sickboy, about a young man with cystic fibrosis who has started a podcast about illness and is now seen and heard around the world. And somewhere in there was Poldark. Thank god for the channel changer.

So - Washington, home of the looney tunes. Staying with Cousin Barbara, seeing lots of family and speaking about the Jewish Shakespeare. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

publish a book and grow rich - lol

In two weeks, there's an event in Toronto you won't want to miss. It's called "Publish a book and grow rich." It teaches you, apparently, how to write a book in a month and then reap vast profits. And if ever there's a truth I subscribe to, it's that books are easy to write and lead to easy and incomprehensible wealth. God knows, just look at my own life, my books flowing from publisher to best seller lists, my mansion, my Maserati. So don't miss the ...
Publish A Book & Grow Rich Weekend Bootcamp

On the other hand, here's a humble event coming up on November 5 that will lead to riches for no-one, except to reveal the wealth of the human spirit. Stories that took a great deal of time to write and edit and rehearse, for nothing. Just because - because writing the truth is hard and important, and telling it out loud too. If you're in Toronto, why don't you join us?

celebrating Sam

It's the morning of October 14th. 33 years ago today I was on my way home from the Ottawa Civic Hospital with a blue bundle in my arms, born at 11.30 p.m. the night before -  a baby boy we called Samuel Jacob Edgar: Sam after many men in my family and his father's; Jacob after my father and great-grandfather; Edgar for his dad and his dad's dad. Much history in those names. His 3 1/2 year old sister was waiting at home, impatient to see who would be coming for her to play with.

Last night, there was big sister with her own son, Eli, at Sam's 33rd birthday party, a joyful event Sam organized in the back room of his restaurant for about 30 of us - family, his oldest friends from high school, close friends from his business, and, simply, people who adore him, including Wayson and a middle-aged couple who've adopted him as another son; he's a big brother to their teenaged children.

We sat at long tables, moving around to talk to different people, and the food kept coming - oysters, salads, dips and bread, pasta, small burgers, steak, all gourmet and delectable - and then a decorated chocolate cake made by Eli with a little help from his mama. Sam was his usual open and funny self, moving around to keep company with everyone, including his 5-year old nephew and his high school friend Dustin's 3-year old daughter, imperious and beautiful in her cornrows.

Outside it was mild and grey; inside it was warm and full of love. Every time I pass the Civic Hospital - and I pass it every time I go to Ottawa to visit my aunt - I think of that night, the morning after, the blue bundle taking his place in our lives, the pictures of my parents holding him. And I think of my mother, who died 28 years later in the very same place.
Sam met Matt his first day at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts. Matt and his longtime girlfriend Maxine are like family.
With Amy. Also, already, like family.

Friday, October 13, 2017

moving right along

Not much to tell you but I have to move on from the gloomy last blog. Hit a bad patch there, some worries rearing up, c'est la vie. I make sure to include these things lest you think my life is all ... well, sunshine and roses. There is thunder and rain, there are thorns, there is fear and guilt and grief. But also, there is MOVING RIGHT ALONG. Comme ├ža...

Had a great conversation circle Wednesday - TEN women, more every week, it's wonderful. Again, a woman came in shrouded in cloth, sat for awhile without removing her veil, and I was concerned, how could we make cheery conversation with someone whose face was completely covered, even her eyes, with glasses? At last she removed her veil, to reveal a lovely, friendly, eager face, and she turned out to be the most interested in what we were talking about, asking questions about vocabulary, jumping in to contribute. It's thrilling to be in that room. In two weeks, Ashrafi has arranged an excursion to the Royal Ontario Museum; we're setting off by bus and streetcar, and will spend some hours at the ROM together. Now that will be an experience.

My friend Wendy, an ESL teacher, came over Wednesday to discuss ESL techniques and ideas, which was valuable, as Linda and I have no idea what we're doing. What we found out is that we're instinctively doing a lot of the right things, but Wendy suggested, for example, a whiteboard to write down hard words. Great idea.

Yesterday, a home class, seven women with nary a veil in sight except perhaps a veiled reference in their wonderful, vivid, accomplished writing. This morning, dragging Wayson to the Y to find him a personal trainer. He needs to move his body and stubbornly prefers not to. We're working on that.

An editor at a publishing house is reading a chapter of my memoir this weekend. I await the inevitable no, but can't resist a tiny glimmer of hope. And then I remind myself - J.K. Rowling was rejected many times. Not that that cheers me up at all.

The world is too much with us, so depressing, so utterly horrifying to see that hideous monstrous man stamping on our planet - and then Harvey Weinstein, depraved, appalling. Must think good thoughts. Must think good thoughts. Here's one:

Today my son is 33, and Wayson and I are going to his party tonight. There will be a lot of food and laughter and many young people. What a journey, my beloved boy, you crazy man. Thank you for being who you are.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

P.S.

So sometimes I get carried away with the sunshine and roses. And sometimes, life feels like that. And then sometimes, it doesn't. Demons came out yesterday, and what began so well did not end so well. Isn't that life? You think you're out of the woods. But you're not.
A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life. -R.K. Narayan, novelist (10 Oct 1906-2001)

Monday, October 9, 2017

giving thanks

Happy 77th birthday, John Winston Lennon. Much missed. I can only imagine what songs you'd be writing today in your adopted home, a country more murderous and mad than ever.
And Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians today. It's warm and wet here in Toronto. Anna and family are on their way back from the country, as four small boys in a field in the the rain is not so much fun. Sam spent yesterday making marinades for fish and meat and preparing a vat of his spectacular French onion soup, which is resting on the stove now.

Yesterday was my mother's birthday; she would have been 94. How I wish she could see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren today, and for that matter, her profoundly grateful daughter. We'll drink a toast tonight to her, to Dad, to Edgar's parents Connie and Edgar Sr. and to his brother Don, to our much-loved ones now gone. And yes, to John Lennon, almost family, too.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rosedale Heights celebrates

The most beautiful weather - how lucky we are, October and yet warm, like summer. These days are doubly precious because we know what's coming. My daughter and her family, plus Thomas's mother and two nephews, are spending Thanksgiving more or less camping in the country, four little city boys running wild in the grass and woods. Heaven. So we have deferred our dinner till later. Fine with me - I've cooked enough turkeys for a lifetime.

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Sam's high school, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts; I'd been invited, as one of the founders of the Parents Arts Council and a parent deeply involved with the school, to speak. I wrote and practiced; it's funny, after many public speaking engagements, I'm still nervous about the task. Just walking into the school brought back those years - 1998 to 2003 - when Sam was growing from normal size to 6'8" and I was trying to get a reluctant scholar through high school. We all were. What a wonderful school it was and is, thanks to its indefatigable principal, Barrie Sketchley - a welcoming, warm environment bursting with creativity, an incredible dance and music program - fantastic. Yesterday, when the alumni and the current kids had assembled in the auditorium and Barrie stood up with the mike, he got a long, loud standing ovation. As I said at the beginning of my talk, "Try to imagine any other school on earth where the man who's been principal for 25 years gets a standing ovation."

Okay, hyperbole - I'm sure there are a few. But this school is rare. My main objective during my talk was to make the kids laugh and not to embarrass my son, and I gather I did and didn't. Sam was sitting with his friend Tristan who in 1999 lived in our basement for months and was so skinny and pale, I called him Ratboy. He graduated, went to art school, and now is a phenomenally successful graphic artist about to move to New Zealand to work with one of the world's most famous film directors. He drove me home in his BMW. Ah life, what a mystery.
 Mr. Sketchley with an alumnus
Miss Snider, English teacher, with Tristan aka "Ratboy."

Today, a gorgeous Sunday, I got up at 8 to find my new tenant, the young Frenchwoman, had taken over my kitchen and was busily cooking. Carol, my former tenant, usually uses the kitchen to make meals when I'm not home; I'm not used to sharing my favourite space with such a fervent cook. So I went to the Y, where the mixtape for the class was all oldies, Beatles, Beach Boys, Elvis - loved every minute, singing and loping along. And when I came back, I was given a plate of freshly-baked madeleines. The giant boy is asleep upstairs, will shop today for a grand dinner he's cooking tomorrow for me and for his girlfriend, whom I will meet for the first time. The adventure continues.
Marcel Proust here, over and out.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

a big decision

Swamped. Periodically I have to stop and sit and take a breath, because the world seems to be hurtling at me, at us all, out of control.

First, of course, our neighbours to the south. To think that not long ago, Canada and the U.S. felt like kin, similar English-speaking McDonald's-eating Breaking-Bad-watching Western democracies. Now, increasingly, theirs is a society of maniacs, insane, incomprehensible. A student read a piece in class on Monday which mentioned her father keeping a loaded pistol in his top drawer, so I knew she was American before she clarified that fact. Canadian fathers, with I'm sure a few exceptions, do not keep loaded pistols in their top drawers. Madness madness madness. Then the country's reprehensible vote at the U.N. about capital punishment for homosexuality; Trump, more vile and disgusting day by day, something that seemed impossible to achieve, and yet achieve it he does. Unbearable, watching a country hurtling off a cliff.

Okay, enough of that. I'll go back to the beautiful memory of the Invictus Games. And today - the English-conversation group, so lively, so much chatter. At the end, Razia, small and brown and swathed in colourful cloth, beamed at me. "Thees," she said, waving her hands at the group, "thees group - talk - I LOVE it!" She hugged me, and then she flipped down the veil to completely cover her face and was off. I love it too. Today we talked about holidays and festivals, and they were asked what their favourite holiday is. "Eid," they all to a woman replied. We have a lot more choice in many things. But they are not unhappy women, for sure. It's extraordinary to get to know women who, according to our rules, are so severely limited in dress, in society and work, in choice. And yet they do not seem to feel limited.

On Saturday afternoon, a huge treat - I rode down to Soulpepper in the Distillery District to see their production of "Waiting for Godot." And felt, as I often do, so immensely privileged that I could zip off, ten minutes from home on my bicycle, to see a fine production of perhaps the greatest masterpiece of 20th century drama - for their last minute price of $25. Oh Sam, Sam Beckett, what a dark and yet comic vision you had. At one point, one of the tramps - Vladimir, I think - is spewing a list of insults, and then comes the worst: "CRITIC!" he shouts. I'd seen it in London a few years ago, an all-star cast - Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart - and didn't like their rather jokey interpretation; it seemed to me the actors, described in a NYT review later as "a little too adorable," were having entirely too much fun at the expense of the play. This production was solid, with a haunting Lucky, very tall, ghostly, with a pale face and long white hair.

Some people regularly reread Jane Austen or George Eliot. I think I must see a production of "Waiting for Godot" every decade or so.

That night was Nuit Blanche, the whole downtown packed with young people and many quirky art installations. I stayed home.

Sunday, not one but two new tenants moved in; Hadi who lived downstairs two years ago wanted to move back and now has, and upstairs, Carol's room is now occupied by Elodie, a young French florist who is here for some months to learn English. Carol is at her other home in Ecuador till March. Elodie is paid by the French government to work for a florist here, and in the evening, she goes salsa dancing.

Tuesday, after my U of T class, a long Creative Non-fiction Collective meeting, many decisions to make, and hours later, off with four other non-fiction writers to Hemingway's in Yorkville for drinks and writing talk. Now that's my idea of fun - not art installations, but drinks and writing talk.

However - back to being swamped. This year for the very first time, as I rode off to the first class at Ryerson, I felt tired. And I realized that I've been teaching since 1994 almost without a break - just took two terms off in 2009 to live in France. Perhaps inspired by my friend Chris, who completely transformed his life in a MONTH, I in my more cautious way made a momentous decision: I am going to take 2019 off from teaching. Born in 1950, I always make some kind of switch in the last year of the decade.

It's okay with my bosses at U of T and Ryerson, who have more than a year to find a replacement. How I will pay for this and what I will do that year, I have no idea. Focus on my new book. Travel. All I know is that for one year, I won't have the treadmill - that I love, still love, will always love - of three teaching terms.

Maybe I'll take up salsa dancing.