Tuesday, August 15, 2017

a chuckle in the rain

I could not help myself - "Eight Days a Week," the movie about the Beatles' touring years, was on the movie channel last night, and I had to watch for the third or perhaps fourth time. Each time, I find something new to celebrate. So so joyful at a time when the horror in the news is almost unbearable. A resurgence of fascism, how is this possible? No, let's focus instead on singing along with Carole King and the Beatles. I want to hold your hand.

It just started pouring - this has been the wettest summer on record, nearly, not complaining as it's been good for the cucumbers - and Anna is at the zoo with the usual passel of children. I'm sure they're all huddled in McDonalds.

So here are a few laughs for today, one courtesy of the blog of my dear friend Chris. Who, incidentally, continues to visit Bruce almost every day in the rehab hospital. Our dear Bruce, according to a recent long phone call, is recovering miraculously from his stroke. He went home overnight with his sister and on Thursday will go home for good with no follow up appointments! An absolutely amazing recovery.

 And, below, gluten free art...
Yesterday, the dentist; today a facial - teeth and pores sparkling, spiffing up this old bag of bones. But mostly, I'm in the obsessive stage of writing, not wanting to leave my beloved ms. for long. I'm getting there. Yes I am. So, goodbye, I'm busy.

Five minutes later - rain over, hot sun. What a summer.

Monday, August 14, 2017

a successful student

Can't help blowing my own horn a bit today, especially after the week I've had ... Sarah Meehan Sirk, who took my course some time ago and then took a number of other writing courses, was given a two book deal by a major publisher and has just come out with her first book of short stories, "The Dead Husband Project," given a rave review in the Star yesterday - half a page!

I wrote to ask her if she'd write a blurb for the Ryerson writing school website, and she sent this. Very nice to read. What she says about perseverance is very true. I can't tell in class which students are going to bloom, as she has, and which are not. Talent has little to do with it, because without perseverance, all the talent in the world is useless. So, brava, Sarah, for sticking with it.

In my early twenties, I knew I wanted to write, but I needed help. I needed feedback, I needed direction, I needed deadlines. I needed to know if I was any good. I enrolled in Beth Kaplan's True to Life class at Ryerson's Chang School of Continuing Studies - which became the first of many writing courses I took at the school - and found what I was after and more: the honest feedback, the direction, the deadlines, a writing group, and the help I needed to start becoming a much better writer. I still think of Beth's advice often. She assured me that writers blossom in their own time, at the right time for them. She encouraged me to abandon a flowery, polysyllabic writing style in favour of a clean, honest one. I doubt I showed much promise in those early days but there's something to be said for perseverance, and for great teachers.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


God, a day or two without blogging and already, too much to tell you. A stunning peaceful Sunday here. Time to pick some cucumbers. By September, I won't be able to look a cucumber in the eye.

On Saturday, there were two - two! - reviews in the Star of books by former students - "Dr. Bartolo's Umbrella and other tales from my surprising operatic life," by Chris Cameron, that I'm reading at the moment and thoroughly enjoying - the story of the trajectory of his operatic career, a very funny, beautifully written book - and "The Dead Husband Project" by Sarah Meehan Sirk, another former student who has gone on to fame, glory and good writing. Bravo to you both.

Went Saturday morning to St. Lawrence Market, heaven in summer, came home loaded down with way too much - blueberries, peaches, salad, corn, hot bagels, smoked salmon, cream cheese, other cheeses ... not just for me, but because an old friend was coming to visit. Harriet and I were at theatre school in London together in 1971, and now she's Dame Harriet Walter who had a recurring role in Downton Abbey and has most recently played several male Shakespeare roles, like Prospero. In fact, she told me that not long ago, for some weeks, she was required to do three different Shakespeare plays in one day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. The force needed for that seems superhuman, but she did it. We sat and ate bagels and talked shop, the kind of theatre talk I don't get to hear often enough. "My friend Alan Rickman, God rest his soul," she said at one point. "And then there was the time I met Paul McCartney backstage after a show I did with Twiggy's husband, a good friend of his. He came to say hello with Linda, Stella and Mary. I noticed that he has small feet," she said.

Scream. What a treat.

And then work, till 11, and again this morning. It's coming.

This aft, another huge treat - "Beautiful" at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, which used to be the Pantages, the theatre renovated beautifully and with enormous effort by Garth Drabinsky and my ex-husband for "Phantom", which played there for ages. The whole place is filled with bittersweet memories for me. But today, nothing but pleasure - a fabulous musical that tells the story of Carole King's early life and career, from selling her first song at 16, writing hit songs for the Shirelles, and on to the breakup of her marriage to her lyricist and "Tapestry," the album of the decade. The star, Chilena Kennedy, is perfect, simply stunning, the music is glorious, the whole thing spectacular. If you're in Toronto or New York, don't miss it. You make me feel like a natural woman. You're beautiful. You've got a friend.

And now - rosé, corn, gazpacho, cucumber salad. The cicadas are buzzing. Time to water the garden, and Sam may come later to watch "Game of Thrones". It does not get better than this. Except that neo-Nazis and violent white supremacists are newly empowered - have there ever been such reprehensible losers? what exactly do they have to complain about? - and nuclear war is looming between two spoiled lunatics who might destroy the planet, it doesn't get better than this.
Except for this - Madison Square Gardens, 1939.

Friday, August 11, 2017

moving right along

Oh my friends, what a difference a day makes. Early this week, I was ready to give up, not just my current book, but perhaps as a writer. I was profoundly discouraged. A writer I respected highly had given me a pretty harsh critique of something I'd been working on for years, and with my tendency for self-defeat, I believed him. It seemed pointless to continue.

And then a friend's perspicacious note pointed out that the writer's style and mine are very different, perhaps he simply wanted to read something resembling what he himself would write. My writer friend agreed completely and apologized. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.

That writer friend, Wayson, had already asked to read some other pages from the memoir, the ones I was in any case much more sure about. And after reading, he wrote a warm note full of praise for those pages, how much he liked them, how powerful was the voice, how completely he'd been captivated. Okay, I thought with a touch of skepticism, there's a happy medium between this radiant encomium and "flogging a dead horse," but still, it was lovely to read.

And then I got notes from my editor, Colin. I'd sent him the first 50 pages which I'd recently rewritten, the ones Wayson had so much trouble with. Colin had trouble too, had done a lot of editing with a lot of suggestions, but they were purely technical. It was a blinding revelation. He adheres to a method of storytelling, "The Three Act Template," with fancy technical names - Act One, the Call to Adventure, the Intervening Mentor; Act Two, the Ordeal, the Mid-Act Breakthrough etc. Too coldly technical for me, I'd thought, but this time, he showed me how moving stuff around to even minimally follow the pattern would make the story stronger and guide the reader through the journey. Plus, he insisted I cut unnecessary stuff, even one long scene that has been in the manuscript from the beginning. And I did.

It's now nearly 10 p.m. I have spent the entire day, except for a half hour class at the Y and a meal or two - and an emergency rosé run to the LCBO - sitting in this chair, chopping, hacking, moving chunks of text around. Yesterday, I was going to apply for a job at McDonalds. Today, there's the semblance of a book.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


One of those moments of sheer joy an hour ago: picking cucumbers - ridiculous, seven big ones -
then making gazpacho in the kitchen, chopping cukes and my own pungent garlic with peppers and tomatoes, Side Four of Macca's compilation, Pure McCartney, playing, his sublime genius with instruments, singing, composing, such a diversity of sound, I'm dancing and singing along; the sun is hot, new blooms on the rosebush once more, a white load of laundry hanging outside to dry - and one more thing to add to it all, I do not have glaucoma according to the surly ophthalmologist who tested my eyes yesterday. My father and grandmother had it so I need to be tested regularly. So far so good.

It's all good.

Importantly, Wayson and I had it out today. Other friends wrote with encouragement after reading the blog, but I was most helped by my dear Chris, to whom I'd sent the story of what happened Sunday night, Wayson reading some of my pages, as he often does, and giving me quite a severe critique, as he often does. I know he does it out of love, because he cares for me as a person and a writer, he wouldn't bother otherwise. But on Sunday night, I felt obliterated.

Chris sent the perfect note.
Is he accepting “your voice?”
It seems to me he uses very literary language. Your style feels less formal, more colloquial. Your style feels to me like it comes from a writer with both feet on the ground. You are like a reporter. He strikes me as a memoirist deeply invested in the emotional. His pages bleed. Your work feels like you: we (readers) are rushing through an incredible landscape of events and people. We are on a train rushing through a story whereas with Wayson we move SLOWLY VERY SLOWLY, observing and feeling everything.

Does he want to turn you into him? How is a man of his style expected to react to a writer of your style?

I read this to Wayson, who agreed 100% that he wants to see in my work what he likes to write, what he likes to read. He needs to step back, and I need to keep going in my own flawed way. 

And I realized - to get all psychoanalytical on your ass, as my son says - that my parents were extremely critical, and I grew up thinking that nothing I did was good enough. And I think Wayson and I reproduced that, in some ways. Not in our wondrous friendship - he is family to us all - but in our mentorship. It has to stop, because it doesn't help me any more. In fact, it hurt so much Sunday, I felt like giving up. What's the point of slaving over another book that's not very good and no one will read? 
Enough mewling. Onward. By the way, this doesn't mean that what he said isn't right, because it partly is. Something isn't working and I need to figure it out. So that's the job.
I made guacamole too, with my garlic, tomatoes, and of course cucumber, so now I'll have a glass of rosé with guacamole and then gazpacho with smoked salmon and thick slices of sourdough bread from the market and the rest of the cheese my daughter gave me for my birthday, and I will be thankful for every bite. 

Let us pray that two insane and loathsome creatures don't blow the planet into oblivion. I'm going to go out and smell those roses. 

Any good cucumber recipes? Please send.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

high summer

The other day, I was at the Regent Park playground with Eli when I looked around and thought, here it is, the best of Toronto. On one side was a transgender parent with his kids, a man, indubitably once female, with hairy legs and a beard and a woman’s demeanour and voice. On the periphery nearby was a woman – I assume a woman – completely covered, head to foot, including her eyes, with black cloth, like a black ghost. There were others walking past in niqab, covered but with eyes showing, or just in hijab, with heads covered; there were Somali mothers wearing long robes but with faces revealed, and Caribbean mothers wearing almost nothing. There were Oriental children, black children and brown children, indigenous children, and even a few white children, like my grandson. Who went right up to a multicoloured group of boys playing on a roundabout and joined them. And we were off.

Thus began the latest sleepover with Eli. We had Sunday dinner on the deck with Eli’s extended family - Wayson and Carol, my tenant and friend. In the morning, he woke me at 7.15, got into my bed and slept for another hour, giving me time for peace and coffee before the fun began again – Snakes and Ladders, books, watering everything in sight, playing hide and seek, always hiding and waiting, with screams of pleasure, to be found. And stories, tall tales of things he has seen and done (not). A trip to the farm, ice cream. When we finally left to go back across town by streetcar, he sat on his own in the single seats on one side, while I sat on a double seat across the aisle. He sat alone the whole way, looking out the window and studying the Pokemon cards a friend had given him. He’s growing up too fast!
Then off to another treat for me – to TIFF, to see “The Trip to Spain” with Sam. We’ve seen the first two in the franchise, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, British comedians and actors on the road, staying in heavenly hotels, eating fabulous food and doing ridiculous impersonations at each other – Michael Caine is their favourite, though this time, they both did a perfect Mick Jagger. It’s silly and gets tiresome and yet is compelling, scenery, cuisine, and skilful comedy combined, the perfect film for Sam.

We walked to Terroni, one of the best restaurants in Toronto where Max, a good friend of his, works, and sat at the elegant bar in this beautiful restaurant eating pizza and ravioli, drinking rosé and talking with each other and with Max. It was like being in the movie.
It has been the strangest summer – some days hot, some chilly, almost every day with a bit of rain, then perfection like right now, then rain again – even a tornado out of town and a sun shower sometimes. No complaints, as the garden is flourishing – my cucumbers are enormous and plentiful – but my friend Rosemary is frantic, trying to plan a wedding luncheon in her garden next weekend.

However. Into each life. After dinner on Sunday, Wayson read some pages of the memoir, the new stuff I thought finally might be working, and had some harsh words for me. Not going deep enough. Too flat, cool, distant. Reporting not recreating, summarizing not showing. Etc. etc. etc. It was brutal, and it hurt, especially when he said that with this memoir I might be flogging a dead horse. A dead horse – just what I wanted to hear about three years of work. I need to stand back, take some distance, work on something else for a bit. In any case, luckily, I had already arranged to send a few of the new pages to Colin Thomas, my editor in Vancouver. I hope he’ll be able to give me some perspective.

So, up and down, but mostly up, very up. I am proud to announce I’ve become a major killer with the saucers I put down in the garden, not of milk for kittens, but of beer to murder slugs. When I come outside and see the saucers full of little dead slugs, happy in their beery death, I feel triumphant – basil, tomatoes, saved from their munching jaws. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

This does too:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

love is ...

... a boy and his mother in a selfie at the market. If this were on iPhoto, I'd rub out that line between my eyebrows, maybe soften those deep, deep brackets beside my nose. But I can't, so there it is. The unvarnished truth.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

you're gonna have a good time

This was the menu for my birthday dinner yesterday, prepared by the master chef, my son: hors d'oeuvres included tomato/mozzarella/basil rounds, to be eaten with the fingers. For the main course, all from St. Lawrence Market to be cooked on the barbecue - except the green salad and the cucumber salad (my own cukes!) made by me - and sprinkled with my very own garlic: marinated arctic char and salmon, and shish kebabs. Grilled corn, grilled peaches, grilled fingerling potatoes, grilled green beans served with goat cheese, grilled mushrooms, and grilled zucchini. I think that's all, but there may be more, I can't remember, it's a blur.

An hour before guests were due, I was frantic - people would soon be here and nothing was ready except the salads I'd made. All the food had been prepped by my staff:
it was sitting in packages of tinfoil, marked, on the kitchen counter and the chef was sitting with Wayson watching Game of Thrones. "Ma," he said patiently, "I know what I'm doing, it'll all be ready in time." And it was, all of it, even the fish that barely needed to be cooked, and the corn and potatoes that needed a lot of time, it all appeared at once and was perfect.

The day was beautiful and hot, and I had got the 3 tables all ready and set outside.
Then it started to pour so we moved everything inside, and then it got hot and beautiful again and we moved back. Old and dear friends appeared, and family, and we drank a lot of rosé and beer and ate a lot:
and enjoyed watching the little boys. Ben was delighted with everything, pointing ecstatically as the solar lights flickered on at dusk. How blessed I felt.
Today, in Carol's class at the Y, she announced it was my birthday and every time the exercise was particularly hard, she said it was specially for my big day. She herself will be 70 next year and looks 50. A true inspiration. How I love the Y, which feels like another family.

It's incredibly hot and Sam and I are both exhausted and hungover, so not much is happening today. He's watching last week's John Oliver in the living-room, and I'm waiting for today's thunderstorm to begin. But I have to tell you this: I went to the end of the garden to work this morning and found a new beginning for the memoir. I know, you've heard this before. Have faith in this ancient, lucky 67-year old crone: she'll get there.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

they say it's your birthday

I think of my father today - hard to believe he was only 65 when he died, and today I am 67. Strange to be older than your parents. But here I am, carrying him with me forever.

My son is asleep upstairs. He came over last night bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm - he loves his new place of work, five of his expressly-designed cocktails are now on the menu, and the day he opens his own restaurant or bar is getting closer. On Thursday, he told me, he's going in on his day off to learn how to shred duck. Yes, my son will know how to shred duck.

But best of all, he'd just come from a movie and dinner with his sister. They drive each other crazy and will have each other's backs always. Nothing could give me greater joy than to know that. Later this morning, he and I will go to St. Lawrence Market to buy provisions for tonight, a dinner my son is going to cook for twelve or fourteen of my closest friends and family. We'll eat in the garden, if possible, where the Rose of Sharon, the goldenglow, the hydrangeas, the phlox and rudbekia and echinacea are ridiculously bright.

I picked two huge cucumbers, some tomatoes, and some flowers for our feast. Have received notes from distant friends, including Lynn in Provence.

The only thing to say is - I'm grateful for every minute. i thank you god for most this amazing day.  I'd like a few more of them, if you don't mind.

Just before my father died, he said, "I have no regrets. I've been given so much."

Me too, my father. Me too.