“That’s a lovely skirt. Tell me, is it difficult to iron all those pleats?”
In the green room of the North York Centre for the Performing Arts, I’m keeping Alice Munro company until it’s time for her to step on stage for her rare double-bill appearance with Robertson Davies. I’m not sure who’s minding Mr. Davies, but I definitely got the good gig!
Of course, I want to gush to her about how Friend of My Youth (her 7th and my cherished title) changed my life, about how her writing is such an inspiration and how reading it makes me somehow feel less alone. But she wants to talk about something… anything else, as a way to calm her nerves. I’m happy to oblige her every need. In fact my job as the publicist for the Harbourfront Reading Series which is presenting the evening’s event, depends on seeing to her comfort. So, we talk about the challenges of keeping well-formed pleats in my skirt.
When she’s sufficiently relaxed, I shyly ask her to sign my copy.
That was in 1994. I declared my PR career could end then since I reached the ultimate goal of meeting and chatting with my favourite author.
Fast forward to 1998, Ms. Munro is up for the coveted Giller Prize for The Love of a Good Woman. I’m production coordinating the live-from-the-cocktail party portion of the Giller Prize broadcast on Bravo! where I work as PR director. Of course, the producers and hosts want to talk to her, but knowing as I do about her shyness and reluctance to be in the public eye, I keep telling them she will likely not show up until the absolute last minute. Sure enough, she sneaks by all the cameras into her seat in the Four Seasons ballroom.
Her acceptance speech is a very humble few words about how maybe now the short story will gain acceptance as a legitimate form of writing.
I didn’t speak to her that night, just simply basked in her graceful, winning aura.
In Vancouver in 2005, I get to talk to Alice Munro one more time after she accepts the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in the atrium of the beautiful Vancouver Public Library main branch. I line up to congratulate her and to my absolute astonishment, she remembers me from those many years ago in the green room at the North York arts centre. I wish I could tell you what we talked about that day at the library. I think I was overwhelmed knowing she could recall ever meeting me! She invited me into the small private gathering inside the library.
What I remember most is her warmth, grace and the generous way she spoke to her fans and colleagues that day.
I’m so pleased she’s won the Nobel. I can’t think of a more deserving or worthy Canadian writer whose first thought, when accepting this honour, was directed to those for whom she’s set the trail.
“I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”
Sadly, Alice Munro has announced her retirement from writing. But then again, she’s put so much of her singular talent out into the world, we can only be happy and grateful for it, and for her.
Every year for the past six I’ve written a fall books preview for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s labour intensive in the sense that I have to research all the fall offerings from the many large and small publisher catalogues (most are online now, which helps) then write a succinct few sentences on a variety of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction, lifestyle to memoir, biography, food, sports and Young Adult/Kids books. Since I’m writing largely from marketing copy with so few books actually finished or even in the advance reading copy stage, it takes awhile to come up with something new, fresh and lively to say. The task takes me awhile to research and a longer while to write.
Still, I love doing it because a) it introduces me to the new exciting list; b) I get boxes of books, the equivalent of Christmas morning to a book-lover; c) it’s become an annual assignment that I can count on.
Last week I renewed my delight and relief about my local Toronto Public Library branch (High Park) when I found the exact books I needed on the hottest few days of the year. I can’t always afford to buy books, and I certainly can’t afford the luxury of air conditioning, so to kill two birds with one stone was fantastic.
I hadn’t been for almost a year and was surprised to see that there’s a new self-serve check out. Signing out my books, I had a strong impression of working at the checkout at Albion Library when I was 14. Then we used an electric machine called a “recordak” into which we fed a library card, the book index card and a due date card which we then fit into the pocket at the back of the book. No email reminders of due dates back then!
Being back at the library reminded me of my Toronto City Hall deputation in 2011, when Mayor Ford sat, reluctant and restless, listening to “tax payers” speak on proposed cuts to some of the most important and beloved city programs and organizations.
Over 300 of us gathered at City Hall at 9 am on July 28th. So many enthusiastic defenders of public programs that Ford cut our original time of three minutes to only one and announced we’d be there through the night. This meant that many people left City Hall because they had to work or look after their kids, etc. (the media reported a 50% drop out rate – a result of the last minute decision to keep proceeding going through the night, and not because of lack of resolve or passion for the topic!) Those of us who stubbornly stayed through the night bonded in our conviction to see this mini-protest through.
Finally, at around 4 am, I heard my name and I nervously sat down to address our Mayor and the committee. I’ve spoken in public and in front of cameras, but it’s not everyday you come face to face with the Mayor to tell him you think he’s wrong.
Here is my original speech, which I had to edit for time, but I hope not for effect.
Libraries Matter – Toronto City Hall, July 28, 2011
I’m a writer, broadcaster and book critic. I’m not here as part of a “special interest group,” or because of any mythical library union pressure. I’m here as a citizen of Toronto and as a regular user of the Toronto Public Library.
My first-ever job was at Albion Library in Etobicoke where I worked as a “page,” shelving books on the main floor and if I was really lucky I got to organize old magazines in the basement stacks. It was dusty down there, but the reading rewards were worth it. I had shifts on the checkout and sometimes conducted a story-time in the kids section, reading picture books to the littlest library users. I was grateful for the opportunity to pass on to the kids a love of reading, and a fascination with the worlds inside books.
I worked there from the age of 14 to 17 and what started out as earning my keep at the library around the corner in the confusing time after my parents broke up became the spark that lit my career in writing and around books. It’s the same for a lot of my writing colleagues, who sight trips to the library as kids as the very reason they became writers. It’s important to note that many of us are not just “artsy” writers, but make part or all of our living doing corporate writing for various Toronto businesses.
From the first time I stepped into a bookmobile as a kid to my days working at the library, until this very day, the library is not only a vital resource but a place where I feel a necessary sense of community and belonging.
There’s this idea that everyone has computers at home and that the almighty internet can give us every little piece of information we need. But it’s just not true. Many individuals and families don’t have the money and that’s where libraries save them.
At the library everyone has access and therefore everyone is equal. Our most vulnerable citizens rely on libraries; low income individuals and families, new Canadians and seniors, people living by no fault of their own on the margins.
A kid having trouble in school but whose parents cannot afford a tutor can get help with their homework at the library. Kids having trouble reading or struggling with a learning disability can sign up for help. Seniors can brush up on their computer skills; freelance or contract workers who struggle with precarious income can book time with a computer or use the free Wifi.
I’ve interviewed new Canadians who have learned to read by checking out books in English, but can also happily borrow books in their own language among the many foreign language collections available. Seminars that help them learn about settling in Toronto and look for jobs are more than just helpful, they are vital to the success of immigrants in our city. People living on the margins or the many lonely people in our society find connection and community at the library. This is important for the overall health of the city. And isn’t it better to have a place for teens from priority neighborhoods to hang out instead of the street or local malls?
The Toronto Library system is one of the most used in the world. Some branches more than others, but low circulation should not be a factor in potential library closings – esp. the ones in at-risk neighbourhoods. If one person uses the library, that’s reason enough to keep it open. Not everyone can always even afford the bus ride to get to a library out of their district. Libraries help kids stay in school, they help steer our newest citizens in the right direction. They give seniors and other people a place to go, a reason to join in.
The benefit of libraries is long term and never-ending. They not only facilitate and foster learning. They introduce us to people, places and ideas we might not otherwise know about. They give people a vital sense of community and for some, a reason to get up in the morning and continue to strive to be contributing members of society.
For all these reasons and more libraries need to remain open, accessible and free.
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
In honour of Kate’s 31st birthday today, here’s a piece I wrote in July 2011, just after the newlyweds took their first trip abroad to Canada.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM KATE MIDDLETON
The other day I tripped on a busy city sidewalk and fell in plain public view. I can only hope my skirt didn’t fly up as I landed. At the time I was too busy trying to buffer myself from too much injury to notice. Now, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m clumsy, so tripping and falling is not all that unusual; the one and only time I’ve ever broken anything – my foot – was during a fall from two harmless and not even steep concrete steps.
But, my recent tumble is different. It happened because I was trying to BE Kate Middleton.
One day after the Duke and Duchess left Canada, and following days of my obsessive royal watching, I tried to emulate Kate’s flawless, confident walk. Instead of the normal cautious stride of a serial klutz, head down, carefully watching my step for any potential risks, I breezed along, head high, looking forward. I wish I could tell you my heels were too high, or my shoes were too tight, but no – nothing. Just klutziness and, well, the sidewalk might have been uneven. Something the Duchess likely never has to worry about, what with all the planning and inspections and all the practicing and coaching that goes into being a royal on display to the fawning public and unforgiving media.
So, why had I taken up the mantra of “what would Kate do?”
Well, because there’s a little bit of Kate Middleton in all of us, isn’t there? Sure, she’s a Duchess now, married to a prince who will one day helm one of the most influential monarchies around. She’ll likely produce a child who will also one day inherit the throne. Her parents are now millionaire entrepreneurs, but at the time of her birth in 1982, they were airline employees. She’s what is known in British circles as a “commoner” – not so different from the women in the crowd that lined the royal wedding route with signs on their backs reading “it should have been me.” It well could have been.
Kate’s 29, born in 1982. I’m 50, born in 1960. There’s no way I could ever be her at this point in my life, but watching her reminds me of the promise that life holds in your 20s, when anything is possible, everything achievable. Life before too much heartache; thwarted dreams, lost jobs, men, parents, friends; events that can affect even the way you stand, and walk in the world. I realized, watching Kate, that I’ve developed a hunch – part weariness, part self-protectiveness. It’s been awhile since I approached my life with the confidence I once exuded, with the poise my mother insisted I learn, with the spark constantly remarked upon and admired. And, I honestly never thought life could drag me so far down that it would show in my countenance. In fact, my mantra has always been, “just keep moving forward.” Yet somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it, no matter how often I give this advice to others.
Of course it didn’t immediately occur to me why the royals gripped me so strongly. But now I see that they look exactly like I used to feel. Happy, friendly, looking out, focused on the moment, ready for anything, generally game for life.
Prince William is compelling enough on his own – born and bred to one day be King, adored and protected by his mom, Diana, Princess of Wales, he was probably one of the most photographed babies ever. Who can forget his silent, heartbreaking walk behind his mom’s coffin after her tragic death? We felt invested in his growing up, his success at school and his struggle to learn to live within the stricture of his destiny. We watched and waited to see who William would choose for a partner. And though we saw all the tabloid “waity Katy” fluff, depicting her as a woman he trifled with and didn’t intend to marry, when they finally became engaged after eight years of dating, living together and one very public break up, everyone began to focus not just on what Kate wore, but on who she really is. Who is this steady, calming influence on our beloved Wills?
We caught glimpses of her on their wedding day – elegant and glowing, she looked to the entire world nothing but ready to become the Duchess of Cambridge, with all the attention – positive or negative, and service that is involved in being a member of the British royal family.
But, it wasn’t until she stepped onto Canadian soil for her first official Royal trip abroad with her husband that we saw her true nature. Leading up to the wedding I wrote a number of feature articles on the plans and preparations and I’ll admit it, I kind of fell in love with them. Now, since I’m a journalist I’m supposed to be naturally wary, or jaded or something that I can never quite pull off. So the thing is, they looked and seemed so down to earth, that I believe I was seeing one fairly normal human being, who just happened to be born Royal and bred to be King. And one natural beauty that just happened to appear in his sphere and become the object of his affection.
Some have said Kate Middleton quite strategically became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. That she set her sights on William at St. Andrew’s university where they both studied, and manipulated her way into his heart, that her mother helped her come up with ways to ensure she’d one day marry that prince.
Tell me, though, what teenage girl doesn’t dream of marrying a prince, real or figuratively? And if you happen to live in England and are around the same age as him, sure you’d have his photo on your wall. “Harry Hunters” have had the “spare” prince squarely in their sights for years. These are girls, mostly from abroad, who enroll in British universities and then track down Prince Harry in clubs for a chance to meet him.
At 20, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, the younger Prince Andrew attended an Ontario boy’s school in Lakefield, where my best friend lived. We weren’t aristocracy like Diana, but we felt sure we had a chance with him. We may not have had the breeding but we did have the poise, the manners and, most important, pureness of heart. The princess dream starts early and dies hard, or never.
Now, I’m not looking for a prince. One good man will do. And that’s something else about Kate and my sidewalk tumble. The dapper Prince is entirely protective of his bride. Never too far from her side, he often extends a reassuring hand to her back. Since royal protocol restricts too much, or any PDA, this is his way of letting her – and us avid watchers looking for signs of affection – know how he feels (I don’t want to even talk about the adoring and knowing looks that pass between them). They are obviously in a true partnership. They are clearly there for each other.
Since stumbling is par for the course for me, I’m usually pretty good at catching myself before I fall. This time however, I walked beside a male companion – someone I’ve spent a good deal of time with, whom I trust and care for. As I began to fall, I reached out for assistance, grabbing his arm with my hand as I went down. He let it go. He didn’t catch me; he said he thought I would catch myself.
Come to think of it, if there’s anything strategic about Kate Middleton’s behavior it’s that she was smart enough to leave a man who exhibited ambivalence about her. And he was clever enough to look inside his heart and out at his options, and see he had a good thing going and went back to get her.
So, what I learned from Kate Middleton is something I used to know. A little thing called confidence goes a long way to achieving the rewards you want, and deserve.
I’ve been telling 1st person stories for most of my writing life. I can’t help it, it’s my strongest voice. Which isn’t to say that by reading something I’ve written, that you will know everything about me. I get some criticism, but mostly praise and sometimes awe for having the so-called courage to put my life out there and myself on the line. The stories I choose to reveal my life through are the ones I think are the most relatable and the least told out loud. An example is my continual return to my feelings about being childless – I just think it’s a taboo topic that needs to be made a little more visible in order to be understood. Another is my struggle with loneliness, a word and state still so feared. Yet, another is my interest in fatherless sons and the voids in their lives because of it. Not my story to tell, but the topic of my upcoming book because of the many men I know who have suffered in silence. When we reveal ourselves in the most vulnerable ways we show how connected we really are by the condition of life. It can only help.
That’s why I’m so interested in a new show on OWN Canada (Oprah Winfrey’s network) called Life Story Project. My friend and colleague, the talented Dale Curd is a creator and co-host. Armed with deceptively easy to answer questions (“what was your most memorable 1st?” or, “what was your moment of truth?” and, “what does it feel like to fall in love?”) the two hosts – one a life-coach, the other a seasoned men’s counselor- invite random passers-by to sit on a purple couch and chat. What ends up being revealed is often a surprise to them, even though they have so much experience listening to “truths” from their clients. The show is not over-produced or stylishly edited. Participants have not been cast, though I’m sure the footage has been picked over for the best, most moving or entertaining stories. That’s just TV. The result is a fairly authentic representation of the powerful stories we all have living inside of us. People seem immediately to go to the crux of their pain or joy. One woman revealed how an accident she had caused resulted in her child’s eye disease which meant he couldn’t recognize her until he heard her voice. When asked if she had regrets her answer was a thoughtful and very raw, “I don’t know.”
Life’s just like that. It’s not always possible to wrap it up with a pretty bow and that elusive thing we love to say we’re seeking… closure.
While watching the debut show, I shared my experience of it with other viewers on twitter. Some of the comments surprised me. More than a few people said things like, “you never know what the person next to you is dealing with.” Really? Do we not know? Are we so caught up in our own private dramas that we can’t imagine others are having their own versions?
With all the soap boxing that’s available on television where people are continually revealing their issues to Oprah et al, how is it possible to still not realize we all have emotional confusion, pain, loss, doubt just as much as happiness, joy, contentment. You can’t have one without the other. Just because our minds return to the place of hurt when asked a simple question does not mean we haven’t processed it and moved on. Resilience is one of our finest qualities. But, why are we still so afraid of the dark side, even when we know experiencing it has certainly shaped our lives?
I think the beauty of this show is two- maybe even three-fold. 1) it’s local – the purple coach was placed on the Kew Beach boardwalk, in the middle of the Distillery district, and at Sunnyside Pavillion, so there’s always a chance someone familiar will show up. Not only that, but it’s much easier to relate to people nearer to us than on talk or reality show taped in some remote American city. 2) People seem to need a reminder that we all operate along the same thin emotional thread, though the manifestation may be different, and 3) Even the more empathetic of us who regularly tell the powerful stories of others, and our own, can be further moved by these ones, and also appreciate the skill of the hosts in drawing them out.
I recommend the show, especially if you need a reminder of the vulnerability of and the triumph over being human. Here’s the broadcast schedule.