Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A legendary ball-player and a memorable song

I had worked late and decided to stop for a drink on my way home. I went to my usual hang-out. I sat on the last stool on the short end of the L-shaped bar. I was facing the door from there.

I knew most of the people coming and going. Some stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Others waved as they made their way to a table where they were meeting friends. I was tired. I didn't feel like talking and was happy to keep the encounters short and simple.

One of the people who came in that night was Billy Daley. He was a star baseball player in our baseball-mad town, an outfielder and slugger with our beloved Chatham Ironmen.

(This photo was taken by my friend, Edward O'Reilly.)

I had been watching Billy play ball since we were both young kids — back as far as bantam, through midget and then — skipping juvenile and junior — straight to the Ironmen of the senior league. His throwing arm was legendary but it was at the plate where he excelled. He hit for both power and average and is still remembered for his 58-game hitting streak — two games longer than Joe DiMaggio's streak. He was dependable; when he came to bat, you could almost feel the fans breathe a sigh of relief.

Billy and I knew each other the way you do when you grow up in the same town. We didn't go to the same school, we didn't hang around with the same people — he was a little younger than I — but we were Chatham-ites and we knew each other.

When he came into the bar that night, he smiled and waved as he passed me by. Of course, he knew — and was known by — pretty much everyone there and he made the rounds of the tables, stopping and chatting, occasionally sitting down and joining various conversations.

It got late and I was just about to gather my things and leave when Billy came over and sat on the stool next to me. We chatted easily about nothing; we flirted a bit and enjoyed a few laughs. He ordered another beer and ordered a glass of wine for me.

At a certain point, he swivelled our two bar stools so we were facing each other. He held my two hands, looked into my eyes, and began to sing quietly. He sang Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. He sang the whole song, from beginning to end, every word. When he had finished, he laughed a little, leaned over and kissed my cheek, and then left.

It was a sweet moment — quite an intimate moment although we were neither friends nor lovers. We were just two people who knew each other because we grew up in the same town.

But it's a sweet memory also and when you have a sweet memory, you should just hold on to it, enjoy it, and not try to explain it. That's what I'm going to do.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Efficient and organized? Or messy and cluttered?

I was having a discussion a few days ago about small kitchen appliances. My only contribution was that I don't want small appliances unless I can keep them all out on the counter where I can see them and where they're instantly accessible. I don't want to have to go routing in a low cupboard, behind pots, pans and skillets trying to find the food processor.

And when you find it, the attachment you need is not with it. By that time, everything is pulled out on to the floor and you can't remember what you were going to use it for anyway.

No thanks. Even though we have a kitchen that has limited counter space, the only small appliances I have live out on the counter, ready for immediate use.

I won't consider any new appliances unless I can figure out how and where they'll fit into the available space.

Over the last few days, I've used two out of three of these appliances. I used the big mixer to make two loaves of bread. It has eliminated the need for kneading but it suits me right now. I can go back to kneading any time I want.

I used the food processor to make bread crumbs and the next day, using the slicing attachment, I sliced potatoes for a potato scallop. Using the slicer has cut the time it takes to make potato scallop by at least half. (I also have a mandoline — the slicing tool — but I haven't yet figured out how to use it. I'm a little afraid of it too. It's very very sharp.)

My need to have everything be accessible and to be able to see everything is evident elsewhere in the house too. If I can't see all my clothes, I might forget that I have them. I have a unit just like this (although this isn't it) in my bedroom:

Here, I hang and stack pretty much everything — jackets, blouses, sweaters, trousers — that I might want to wear on any given day. On the very top, I put the purses, gloves, accessories of various kinds. On the bottom, in storage boxes, are the shoes. (I honestly don't have many pairs of shoes but I have flip flops and sandals that need a home during the winter and I have a couple of pairs of dress shoes that only come out on special occasions. But I'm no Imelda Marcos.

Imelda's shoes

You can probably guess that it doesn't stop there. I have something that looks a bit like this where I keep some jewellery and odds and ends on my bureau-top:

Mine is a little bigger. You can see it was intended for screws and nails and nuts and bolts and washers — but it works for me.

I obviously think of this method of keeping track of stuff as efficient and organized. I'm sure to other people, it looks messy and cluttered.

I'm going to stick with it for now — at least until the next great organizing fad comes along.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Beyond the basics: the cookbooks that took me there

A few days ago, I wrote about vinegar — not vinegar as a cleaner or purifier as you so often see, but vinegar as an incomparable flavour agent. I mentioned one of my favourite cookbooks — Oil and Vinegar — and offered some of the ways I use vinegar.

I have lots of cookbooks, as you probably do too. I have other favourites — some that I use regularly, others that I just like to see sitting there on the shelf, looking beautiful.

I wasn't always a good cook. As a young woman, I guess I knew the basics — how to cook some veg and fry a pork chop, or bake a potato and stuff a chicken. Most people did "plain cooking" in those days — the word "foodie" hadn't been coined as far as I know and the herbs and spices and condiments that are commonplace today were probably still mostly used in the land of their origin.

I can remember almost exactly when my cooking skills changed for the better. I had been browsing in a bookstore — this was in Montreal in the late 1960s — and I was just leaving when I stopped to look through a bin of books that were marked at 99 cents. I poked around and near the bottom of the bin, I found this:

A set of four paperback cookbooks — the size of book that used to be called a "pocketbook" — in their own little cardboard case. I don't think I even pulled them out of the box. There were four books there for 99 cents and they were called The Wonderful World of Cooking. Each volume covered a different part of the world: Volume I is the Far East and Near East; Volume II is Italy, France and Spain; Volume III is Northern Europe and the British Isles; Volume IV is the Caribbean and Latin America.

I took those books home and began to read. I was enthralled. I had never considered cinnamon and cloves — Christmas baking ingredients — as spices to be used in savoury meat and poultry dishes. My days of going to Spain were still ahead of me but I came across a recipe for paella a la Valenciana long before I ate my first paella on a Spanish beach. I discovered the magic of saffron and beauty of that golden rice. I found out that in Venezuela, cabbage rolls included capers, olives, raisins.

That was only the beginning.

The apartment we lived in at that time was in an old mansion in downtown Montreal that had been divided into fairly bizarre apartments. The kitchen was, quite literally, in the bedroom. It had been, I imagine, a small closet. It really only consisted of a stove and a sink and about six inches of counter space. The fridge was right there but not in the closet. It was just outside, in the actual bedroom.

The stove had two burners and a small oven. Only two out of the three elements would work at any one time so if you were using one burner and the oven, you couldn't use the other burner until you turned the oven off.

One evening, the even-then-well-known journalist, Peter Desbarats and his then-spouse were coming over for dinner. I had already told him, in an earlier casual conversation, about the stove and when he accepted the invitation to dinner, he feigned hesitation and said he didn't know whether he should accept, knowing what he knew about my cooking circumstances. But he was good-natured about it and we set up the date.

I made a Pakistani chicken dish — all in one skillet (therefore, one burner) — full of chopped veg, bay leaves, exotic spices, served with a fragrant rice and a cucumber and yoghurt salad. The dinner was a big hit and my little set of cookbooks was the unheralded star.

Forty years on, many of the recipes are dated now but there are still some that I use regularly: one of the books taught me a no-fail pie crust recipe that I used for years. Now that I have more experience, I can add variations to that recipe but it's still my go-to. The German cookie called fruchtplätzchen that I make every Christmas comes from these books.

The books are falling apart now and have been taped up quite a few times (the photo of the books above is borrowed from Amazon) but I consider them an essential in my cookbook library. They're not as pretty as some of the others — no colour photos here — but they've played such an important part in my culinary journey that I think they've earned a safe space on my shelf.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Answer me this

Just a few questions. Routine, nothing serious.

Were you the one, in the last little while, who made a statement something like this?

"When I heard that, I spit my water out all over my keyboard."

Did this really happen? When it happened, did you realize that you had probably ruined your keyboard? How long did it take before you noticed you were typing gibberish and the reason probably had something to do with all that water dripping down between the keys? Did you have to call the computer repair place?

Moving on: Were you also the one who said:

"I was laughing so hard, I snorted my tea up my nose."

What kind of distress did this cause? Did you choke? Was there anyone there to pound you on the back as you tried to catch your breath? Did the tea leave a stain on whatever clothing you were wearing?

You probably realize I'm being facetious and asking these stupid questions because I don't think these statements are intended to be taken literally. At the risk of sounding too proper and fastidious, I find them to be quite nauseating images. I think they have a very strong eww-factor.

I haven't looked for an illustration for another revolting declaration that shows up way too often:

"That bothered me so much, I threw up a little bit in my mouth."

I have heard/read this many many times. I wish I hadn't heard it the first time and if I ever hear it again, it will be too soon. I would love it if you would keep that sentiment to yourself.

But. . .it's a free country and you can say whatever you want. I know it's not a very important thing to complain about and it probably won't bother me so much now that I've shared it.

I feel better already.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Yarmouth to Bar Harbor: the ideal cruise

There's a news story in Nova Scotia that won't go away about ferry service from Yarmouth to Maine. The latest ferry — a fairly large ship that offered a mini-cruise experience — was the Nova Star. She ran for two seasons and wasn't very successful in attracting passengers. She won't be back this season. She lost money, quite a lot of it provided by Nova Scotia taxpayers.

The number of passengers wanting to travel between Nova Scotia and Maine has been decreasing over several years and no one seems quite sure who needs the service and whether there's any way to get those travellers back who seem to have found some other mode of transportation — driving around through New Brunswick, for example, or crossing the Bay of Fundy from Digby to Saint John and then, on to Maine.

I don't have all the answers to this complex problem but I do have one small contribution: The Nova Star travelled from Yarmouth to Portland. Yarmouth to Portland is too long! Even for a mini-cruise, it's at least two or three hours more than is comfortable. The theory is that getting off in Portland puts you closer to Boston — which is, of course, true. But it's never really been clear to me that landing in Maine and being close to Boston is always the traveller's desire.

The second last passenger ferry to run from Yarmouth (I'm going to ignore The Cat which was a high-speed ferry whose function was speed, not pleasure) was the MV Bluenose. (Yes, the Bluenose as a big ferry, not the schooner that's on the dime). The Bluenose sailed between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor.

When Dan's and my relationship was young, back in the '80s, we took a few summer trips to Maine and New England. We both had busy and quite stressful jobs, the kind of job that it's hard to shake off even when you leave it behind, and I still remember leaving Halifax in the morning and heading down the South Shore toward Yarmouth. The further we got from Halifax, the less tension we were feeling and by the time we reached Yarmouth, our vacation had truly begun.

The Bluenose sailed at 3:00 p.m. We'd be in the compound by 2:00 p.m. at the latest — time to stroll around, watch the inshore fishing boats coming into port, maybe chat with other people waiting to board.

By the time we were settled in the lounge with a cold drink, Halifax and our jobs were the furthest things from our minds. We had time to sit and relax, read and chat, watch for whales and seabirds, and just generally luxuriate in our freedom. By 6:00 p.m., we were ready to make our way to the dining room where the food — usually a hot and varied buffet — was good and enjoyed in lovely ambiance.

We would drive off the ferry around 9:00 p.m. and after a short stop to go through Customs where they asked if we had any firearms or green apples, we'd be free to go. (One year, it was quite funny, we had grabbed some fruit off our kitchen counter as we were leaving; it would make a good snack and it would just rot if we didn't take it. You guessed it — green apples. They were confiscated but we didn't get in any trouble — unless the FBI has a Green Apple File on us. We're been very careful ever since.)

We always thought ahead and had our room reservation made in advance. So we would drive from the ferry pier straight to the Cadillac Motor Inn and be ready to check in about an hour after we'd docked.

It's such a warm and neighbourly place that the office was often closed by the time we arrived but the front door would be unlocked and our key would be on the counter with a note, telling us which room to take. I think maybe we'd lock the office door after picking up our key.

The point I'm making here is that a six-hour cruise is much more enjoyable than a 10- or 12-hour cruise. You're going to be driving when you get off the ferry so you can't sit and drink for several hours. Not everyone likes to gamble and many people are just a little impatient with all that down-time. I'm pretty sure that at the six or seven-hour mark, people are checking their watches and tapping their foot and sighing. It's too long.

Besides that, if you get off at Bar Harbor — even if you don't want to stay and visit that sweet little town and the surrounding area — there's a very efficient highway system and you can make it to Portland or Boston without too much grief.

So that's my solution. It may be that there won't be ferry service in the future. Bay Ferries is supposed to be taking the route over but they haven't got a vessel yet so things are still up in the air. If they do get it going though, my vote is for a run from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Michael Caine: Still at the top of his game

I have never walked away from a Michael Caine film and not said, "My, he's a splendid actor." He's been in a lot of movies and I've seen many of them — too many to remember and to name. He's been in good, mediocre and bad movies and people make jokes about his choices and how he's never turned down a role.

It may be that he plays on that. I read a good little story about him recently. He said someone asked him how he chooses his parts and he said, "When they give me a script, I look at the first page and the last page. If my character is on both pages, I accept the part."

I loved Educating Rita. It's one of the movies I go back and watch every so often. I looked it up recently and was surprised to see that it came out in 1983. 1983! It's aged well.

Julie Walters and Michael Caine in Educating Rita. (I saw Julie Walters just a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn.)

Today, I saw Michael Caine in Youth. Also Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano with a cameo by Jane Fonda. I don't want to tell you too much about it about it because maybe you'll go see it. I will say that, on leaving the theatre, I said my usual thing about Michael Caine's acting and I also said, "This film should win all the awards."

I'll tell you this much:

Septuagenarian best friends Fred Ballinger and Mick Boyle are on vacation in the Swiss Alps, staying at a luxury resort. Fred is a retired composer of classical music; at the hotel, he is approached by an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II to perform his popular piece "Simple Songs" at Prince Philip's birthday concert. Fred turns down the offer, claiming he is not interested in performing anymore – although he still composes pieces in his head when alone.

Mick is a filmmaker, and is working with a group of writers to develop the screenplay for his latest film, which he calls his "testament". Also with them is actor Jimmy Tree, who is researching for an upcoming role and frustrated that he is only remembered for his role as a robot. The hotel is inhabited by other quirky individuals, including a young masseuse, an overweight Maradona, and Miss Universe.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel

I was interested to read that a theatre-full of critics saw it in Cannes last May and when it was over, half the theatre boo-ed and the other half bravo-ed. I suppose there's no accounting for taste. I would have been in the cheering section. I can't even imagine what people found to boo about.

The scenery was beyond spectacular and I say that even though I don't like mountains. And Jane Fonda, known most recently for her vocation in non-aging, showed her age — and then some — playing a part that gained her some award nominations and lots of critical acclaim.

Michael Caine has won two Oscars, both in the supporting actor category. I hope he lives many more years and plays many more parts and I hope he'll win an Academy Award for Best Actor. I'll be cheering him on.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Outsmarting the cats — or so we think

The cats have had their flea treatment. They're supposed to get it once a month but we're usually not quite so conscientious.

It's not a pleasant procedure although there are plenty of things that are a lot worse. Taking the cats to the vet, for example, is a nightmare. Every time we do it, I swear, "I'll never do that again! Someone else will have to be responsible!"

They're both big and they're both ornery — when it comes to the vet — and they have to be transported in separate carriers. Unfortunately, getting either one of them caged up can't be done in secret so someone has to catch and hold one of them while the other is being wrestled into the carrier. Once one is confined, the other — by now in a state of extreme hostility — knows his fate but he doesn't surrender easily.

Oh, it's awful.

Look at those faces. It hardly seems possible to believe what they put us through.

These are rare pictures from last year. Because they don't like each other much, it's unusual to catch them together like this.

Doing the flea treatment isn't nearly as torturous but it's no fun. First of all, those cats are smart and they have long memories. The treatment is kept in a small drawer in the dining room, a drawer that isn't opened often. When the drawer is opened, four kitty ears perk right up and suddenly, in a streak, they're gone — upstairs or to the basement or somewhere out of reach. We know that now so we outsmart them by taking the treatment out and unwrapping it the day before we plan to use it. No auditory clues.

We do Junior first. He's younger and in some ways, more easily handled, but he really minds this procedure. He takes it as a personal insult and he holds it against us for a day or two. This treatment is administered by breaking a small vial and letting the fluid make contact with skin on the back of the cat's neck. If you could see the amount of thick fur on the back of Junior's neck, you'd understand the challenge of finding skin under there.

It's my job to hold the respective cats because I have the stern resolve. No, you're not getting away and that's that. I hold the front paws and the back paws together tightly and that does seem to render them immobile. Dan parts the hair on the back of the neck and administers the fluid. William was here this time so he was available to talk soothingly and be reassuring. You can tell the dose is complete when the cat can taste the medicine and that's almost instantly.

Grizzly was pretty good this time — he accepted the medicine and acted almost normal. Junior disappeared. He reappeared briefly when he heard me dispensing kitty treats but he declined to take part in the late evening ritual. He stood in the hall scowling at me and made it very clear that he did not want to be friends.

However, things are getting back to normal. We had a snowstorm today so the cats didn't go outside. I had a cozy fire burning and they both happily curled up near me and every now and then, one or the other would start to purr. Just long enough to remind me they were there and then back to dozing off. They feel good.

The treatment they get, recommended by their vet, is called Advantage.

Friday, January 15, 2016

And the Oscar goes to. . .

I have a love-hate relationship with award shows. It's in that context that I'm writing this.

Last year, 2015, the list of films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar were: Birdman, Selma, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.

I had seen four out of the eight. I would never have gone to see Whiplash or American Sniper. I was iffy about Birdman. And I felt guilty about passing up Selma because it's the kind of movie I find so painful.

I thought I was pretty well covered, however, for the major categories. Boyhood was considered to be the film to beat, the front-runner, and I was feeling confident.

I thought Boyhood was brilliant. I had spent weeks in advance of the Oscars defending it from certain naysayers. There were people who sneered that the 12-years of filming the same actors to tell the story in "real time" was a gimmick.

I even had to defend the movie from one viewer who said she didn't like it at all because she'd rather have seen the story of Mason's sister. I said maybe she'd have to wait for a movie called "Girlhood" — a movie I'd be happy to see but it wasn't this one.

There's a feeling around awards and there's a point where you begin to sense where things are going. Once Alejandro González Iñárritu won the best director's award, I was starting to feel uneasy. I think people there, in the theatre, sensed something happening also.

Sure enough, Iñárritu's movie Birdman won the best film award and I felt very disappointed. I usually don't mind that much; I usually go along quite docilely with whatever the Academy decides but last year, I was still feeling let down the following morning. Boyhood was such a singular accomplishment, a film that can never be duplicated, a one-of-a-kind achievement. It seemed so wrong that it had been passed over.

This year's nominated films are The Big Short, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Room. I've seen three of them.

(The stars of The Big Short.)

When I read a review of The Revenant, I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction. You couldn't pay me to see that movie. But it's Alejandro González Iñárritu again and this year, he's getting all the buzz. He's not the underdog and I predict he'll win best picture, best director, best actor — Leonardo DiCaprio — and probably plenty of others. You can tell when things are moving in a certain way.

Before The Revenant came along, I had chosen a few strong contenders for Oscars.

(Bryan Cranston as Trumbo.)

After we saw Trumbo, I felt sure that Bryan Cranston would win for best actor for his portrayal of the black-listed writer, Dalton Trumbo, during the McCarthy era. We didn't feel the screenplay was strong enough to carry a best picture nomination but the acting truly was phenomenal. I'm pretty sure now that he doesn't have a chance against Leo.

Likewise Spotlight. As we were leaving the theatre after seeing it, I predicted it had a chance for a few awards. Since The Revenant, Spotlight too has slipped a few rungs down the awards ladder.

Finally, my biggest disappointment this year is something I can't blame on The Revenant. Lily Tomlin was passed over for a nomination for her role in Grandma.

It's a tough old business. Sometimes, it's just not your year.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Vinegar to make your tastebuds sing

This is one of the loveliest photos in all my albums. This is chive flower vinegar.

If your garden — or weed patch, as the case may be — is anything like ours, you can't keep up with the chives. They're the first welcome little green things as the snow disappears (around the same time as the crocuses) and before you know it, they're a runaway crop and try as you might, you can't think of another way to use them.

Then the beautiful flowers appear.

It's time for you to act.

Pack some of the beautiful flowers into Mason jars.

Pour white vinegar into the jars to fill them up.

When it's a gorgeous pinky-red colour, strain it through cheese-cloth into pretty bottles.

It has a chive-y, onion-y flavour and so goes nicely in any vinaigrette or simply drizzled over your fresh salad. It can be used in all sorts of creative ways as, of course, all vinegars can. And certainly, if you make a lot, be sure and offer a bottle to your friends.

I love vinegar. I have a pretty little shelf over my stove and although I've tried to keep just the coarse salt cellar and the mortar & pestle up there, this is what it looks like now. It happens, gradually:

The vinegars that didn't make it for the photo shoot but are in regular rotation are the apple cider, rice, plain white, malt and sage — which we've made the same way we made the chive flower: stuff sage leaves into Mason jars instead of chive flowers.

I'm pretty sure I use vinegar every day, in one way or another. Some of the obvious uses — pickles, for instance. . .

. . .are just once or twice a year.

Other obvious uses are in salad dressings and marinades. But just as I agree with that TV chef (I can't remember which one it was) who said there's almost nothing that won't be improved by a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, I also think that a splash of lovely vinegar brightens up any dish and makes the flavours pop. I use it to de-glaze a pan. I add it to onions, celery, carrots and garlic as they're softening to begin a sauce. I use it when the drippings are simmering down during the gravy-making. I use it making the base for soups and stews. The dinner I made today (a biscuit-topped pasta casserole) used tomato sauce I had made earlier in the week — a tomato sauce that had vinegar as one of its secret ingredients.

Often when you use vinegar like this, it will need a little counter-acting. You can throw in a bit of brown sugar or maple syrup. And if you look back at the bottles above my stove, you'll see a bottle labelled "Clic." It's pomegranate molasses — it was bought by mistake, I think — and a dash of it in with a tasty vinegar is a lovely combination.

Some of the ways I've described using vinegar are also the ways you probably use wine in cooking. I use wine also; it adds a deep rich flavour but there are times I prefer the effect vinegar has. It just really wakes up your tastebuds.

This is a favourite cookbook. It has good reading in it as well as recipes. I hadn't looked at it for awhile and I'm happy to say I've just seen a new recipe for peaches — which, by late August, I'll be looking for again if our peach tree has its usual good yield. I'll go right now and mark it on the calendar.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wonder of Wonders (Part Two)

Wonder of Wonders Part One is right here.

After I wrote Part One, I was feeling dissatisfied and I think it's because I started out and ended up without really knowing what I wanted to say. It was as if I had an assignment but no one had told me precisely what was expected of me.

I didn't manage to make the connections between the musical and my patients I had hinted at when I wrote Miracle of Miracles a couple of days ago although I guess it's obvious. The story of Jews being forced from their shtetl in Russia into the diaspora is a pretty specific connection.

But the universal message of the musical is not only literal, it's also symbolic. It's a story of oppression and deliverance and that's why it had — and continues to have — cultural repercussions around the world.

That message is seen so clearly in the story of the junior-high school production in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1969. It was a time of school strikes, of bitter battles between the school boards and the teachers' unions, and of black-Jewish tension throughout the neighbourhoods and the schools. I remember the unrest of those times. The story of the school's production of Fiddler on the Roof was new to me, however.

The drama teacher in charge of the production was Richard Piro. He believed that working on this show would give his black and Puerto Rican students a more sympathetic understanding of Jews. It was a controversial choice. The principal of the school wanted to do Guys and Dolls.

As told in The Jewish Week:

While many in the school and the community tried to stop the production, Piro and the students persevered, rehearsing in his Manhattan apartment during the teachers’ strike. Sheila, the young woman who played Chava, Tevye’s daughter who falls in love with a Ukrainian, felt her character deeply, as her own parents wouldn’t let her date, and her brothers kept an eye on her.

Many of the students had witnessed evictions, and understood the sadness as families left Anatevka. Like many high school plays, the production became their own Anatevka, a small shelter of warmth and family, before they too must move on.

There were still people in the community who wanted to stop the show and their final move was to alert the Broadway producers because the student production hadn't got the authorization they needed to perform. It brings tears to my eyes to think about it but the show went on for the brave students and their wonderful teacher, Mr. Piro, when the Broadway producers granted them special permission and when producer Hal Prince, Jerry Bock (composer), Sheldon Harnick (lyricist) and Joseph Stein (librettist) travelled to Brownsville for opening night! It's an unforgettable story!

The true story of Richard Piro himself, a music-drama teacher, who worked in a junior high school where black and Puerto Rican students put on a Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It is about the tragic realities he had to combat: black anti-Semitism, the fear of Jewish teachers who believed the children would ridicule them, the anger of black militants who did not want excellence to be shown in a ghetto school.

It is the story, too, of how the Jewish principal and black parents and leaders joined with Piro, a gutsy and deeply devoted teacher, in the battle so that the show would go on. The youngsters' production was so successful that it was nationally televised. And finally, and most important, it is about children, their humor, their passion, their despair, and their triumph.

When I started reading Alisa's book, I was just interested in the simple story of how the musical came to be. By the time I read the story of the junior high production, the open-air production in Poland and the making of the Norman Jewison-directed film, it turned out to be so much more than that. Fiddler on the Roof is a phenomenal work on so many levels — literature, music, community, politics, oppression, fear and courage and hope.

Because it's all of that, it's life itself.

To Life!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Wonder of Wonders (Part One)

I first read about Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof on Facebook. One of my Facebook friends knows the author personally and he congratulated her on winning an important award for this book.

I took an immediate interest for three reasons: first, I love musical theatre and I've loved Fiddler on the Roof many times; second, I've always made a connection between the fictional characters in Fiddler and the patients at Maimonides that I wrote about yesterday; third, the author is Alisa Solomon.

Alisa was a theatre critic and general reporter for the Village Voice from 1983 to 2004. I remember her work well. We used to subscribe to the Village Voice and there was a time when the stack of Voices in our house was almost as tall as I am. When I began to read her book, I felt as if we were getting reacquainted.

Years ago, I had read the short stories of Sholem-Aleichem, including some about Tevye the Milkman. I don't really remember them as stories — more as images. It's fascinating to look back at them though and consider the journey that Tevye has made — not just from Anatevka to America but to the Broadway stage and from there, around the world.

The first long chapter of Wonder of Wonders is the history of Sholem-Aleichem and his stories and his struggle simply to make a living as a writer of Yiddish stories. This chapter took me longer to read than the whole rest of the book. I might have decided to skim over it except for this: I was so impressed by the depth of the research that had gone into it, I simply was incapable of showing that kind of disrespect to the writer. A review in The New York Times said:

In my family, we have a ritual. (Tradition!) After a particularly wonderful Shabbat or holiday dinner, we channel my great-grandmother Pearl Gottler and chant in unison, “Ach, I’m stoffed. I’m bloated. I couldn’t eat another bite.”

That’s what reading “Wonder of Wonders” is like. It is as rich and dense as a chocolate babka. Delicious, yes, but so crammed with tasty layers you have to pace yourself. You appreciate the gazillion buttery striations while wondering if there had to be quite so many of them.

In the end, I'm glad I persevered because the strength of that foundation was what raised the content of the book to such an impressive height.

The book is about the making of the musical — the writing of the book, lyrics and music (Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the direction by the legendary Jerome Robbins and the production by Hal Prince. Before I read this book, I couldn't have imagined the process and in fact, I'm pretty sure it's different with every production. But if you've ever wondered how a song like Tradition! or If I Were a Rich Man comes about, here's where you'll find out.

I've worked in some pretty bizarre situations over the years but I can't even imagine what it must be like to work with temperamental ego-driven artists like Robbins and Zero Mostel and others in the production team. The world of show business is rarely glamourous; it's eccentric at best, soul-destroying at worst.

Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel as Tevye. It ran for 3242 performances, then the longest-running show on Broadway.

Since then, there have been four Broadway revivals, most recently in 2004 with Alfred Molina and then Harvey Fierstein playing Tevye. The 1971 film directed by Norman Jewison, was also a huge success.

Alisa Solomon's book doesn't end with Broadway. There are a couple more stories I want to tell you about Fiddler on the Roof and that will be a story for another day. Tomorrow, I hope.

Part two is right here.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Miracle of miracles

In the late '60s as a young nurse, I worked for a few years at what was then called Maimonides Hospital and Home for the Aged. It was in Côte Saint-Luc — still on the Island of Montreal but a good long bus ride from where I lived in downtown Montreal.

I don't really remember how I came to be working there. Did I answer a newspaper ad? Did someone tell me about the job? I can't answer that but there I was — head nurse on the fourth floor. This is how Maimonides looked then. (It has since been topped up with two more storeys.)

Geriatric nursing is not for everyone but I was good at it. As always, I was much better taking care of my patients (and my staff) than taking care of my paperwork. Priorities, let's say.

My patients were mostly all in their mid- to late-80s. Some were in their 90s. They had all, without exception, come to Montreal from Eastern Europe (mostly Russia, Poland and Romania) around the turn of the last century, many fleeing pogroms and other persecution in their home countries. They covered the whole range in religious practice from orthodox, conservative and reform. At least a couple were secular Jews although they didn't broadcast that.

They all spoke Yiddish and although their English was good, it was peppered with colourful Yiddish expressions and their inflection was text-book. Kosher dietary laws were all practiced in our dining rooms and regular worship was offered in the beautiful Synagogue.

On my floor, there were two men who spent much of their day in the Synagogue, praying and studying the Talmud and the Torah. They would leave the floor right after breakfast, wearing the prayer shawl and the tefillin.

Tefillin are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. . . The arm-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm/hand, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.

The orthodox men were uneasy with us but they were not unkind to the nurses. It was clear though that this would not have been their ideal living situation and I encouraged my staff to respect their religious privacy.

Our oldest patient was Mrs. Kimmerfield (the rest of her family went by the name Field) — she was 98. She was a tiny little woman and never said much. She gave the impression that she had already said everything she had to say. One day, I went into her room and she was sitting going through her photo album. I sat down with her and looked at some of her photos and heard some stories. As so many of us lament about our own parents and grandparents, I wish I had paid more attention to the stories I heard at Maimonides. I passed up a lot of social history.

When she had closed her photo album, she sighed a little sadly and said, "You know, there's no one left who calls me by my first name." I asked her if I could and she happily said, "Yes." Her name was Leah and from that day on, we were Leah and Sharon. We had made a real connection — and I have never forgotten how important it was to her to hear the sound of her first name.

One hot summer's day, I had a phone call from Leah's daughter with a message. I went down to her room and said, "Ruth called to say she's not coming this afternoon because she's playing golf. She'll probably be here later." Leah asked me what the temperature was and I said it was hot — it was in the high 80s. "Playing golf," she scoffed. "The old fool." What a good laugh we had together.

We had two husband-and-wife couples on our floor and thankfully, they each had their own double room. The Steins were a fractious couple although that's probably an unfair description. Mr. Stein was grouchy and Mrs. Stein had to spend a lot of time pacifying him. He took a lot of his grouchiness out on her and although we tried to act as a buffer, she was stoic and for sure, truly believed that he was her duty. He had certain lovable qualities but he wasn't an easy husband.

The Herers were entirely different. Mr. Herer was grumpy (it's different from grouchy) but no one could ask for a more devoted and tender husband. He got Mrs. Herer out of bed in the morning, helped her get dressed and settled in her chair, brought her breakfast and sat with her while she ate and then left her with her radio and reading material while he went off to his daily routine. He spent much of his time in the art/craft room and I was honoured — really I was — when he presented me with one of his mosaics. That was almost 50 years ago and his creation is still with me and is in regular use on special occasions.

This is it. (Don't forget to click on the picture.) I'm still so impressed by the meticulous artistry:

I started writing this because I was going to tell you about a book I've just read called Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. The book "traces how and why the story of Tevye the milkman, the creation of the great Yiddish writer Sholem-Aleichem, was reborn as blockbuster entertainment and a cultural touchstone, not only for Jews and not only in America." (Amazon says.) It made me think about my years at Maimonides and my beloved patients there — so many things in the book reminded me of them — and it made sense for me to reminisce a bit before I told you about the book.

Obviously, I'll have to come back tomorrow to tell you about Wonder of Wonders.

(*The painting at the top is by a current patient at Maimonides, Jack Inhaber. This was painted in 2009.)

(The two parts of Wonder of Wonders are here and here.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tell me a story. . .

When we lived in Ottawa, I took William — then a toddler — to the theatre to see Robert Munsch. The theatre was full of parents and kids, kids ranging from babes-in-arms to 12-year-olds. It was mostly pandemonium with a high-decibel count but it was great fun. My own toddler contributed his share — and more — to the racket and my only regret about the afternoon is that he was too young to remember it.

He loved Robert Munsch though and Robert was very adept at getting the attention of his audience and we all enjoyed the participatory elements.

William's favourite Munsch story was Mortimer. . .

. . .as so often with Munsch, a subversive story in which the kid outwits the grown-ups and kids, of course, find this most satisfying. At the concert, Robert asked all of us in the audeience to sing "Clang clang rattle-bing-bang" in the tune we used at home. We all sang as loud as we could — kids too — and of course, everyone's tune was different and it couldn't have been funnier.

Clang clang rattle-bing-bang

Gonna make my noise all day!

I enjoyed seeing what Robert said about Mortimer:

Once I was telling stories at a school in Toronto. It was not a fun school. The principal ran around looking very mean; the teachers ran around looking very mean; and the kids ran around looking very unhappy. I don’t think anybody got along very well in that school. At the end of the day I told stories to all of the kids and when I was done the principal got up and started yelling at the kids, telling them how they were going to be quiet and go back to their rooms and not cause any trouble. When he was done talking all the kids were silent for a second and then they all started to sing, “Clang, clang, rattle-bing bang.” Well the principal was really freaked out. I decided it was time to go.

Robert asked the audience to sing together again, this time, the mother's song from Love You Forever.

I’ll love you forever,

I’ll like you for always,

as long as I’m living

my baby you’ll be.

Once again, everyone sang with a different tune but the atmosphere was much different. Many of us acknowledged that we simply couldn't read Love You Forever without dissolving into tears before we finished the book. The kids weren't impressed and didn't understand but maybe they will someday.

Living in Ottawa, we had access to TVO and it was there we became acquainted with another fellow who became a favourite: Fireman Sam. Sam seemed to be — and was — a very simple and innocent guy. The stories were straightforward and suited a small person and who wouldn't enjoy becoming familiar with a village called Pontypandy?

At that time, Fireman Sam books were not available in Canada and we had to order them from the UK. We still get an occasional email letting us know when a new title comes out. That makes us all feel a little sentimental.

In Halifax, we lived on a busy downtown street where traffic passed our front windows day and night. One of our favourite books from that time was Night Cars.

It is late at night in the city. From his father's shoulder, a sleepless baby watches the snow drift down from the sky onto the busy street below. What are all those noises? What are all those lights? His tired but patient father explains everything, from the bustle of taxis swishing through the slush to the grinding and slamming of the early-morning garbage trucks.

The book had a very moody quality and was lovely to read. It was written by Teddy Jam, the pen name of author Matt Cohen.

And there were Goodnight Moon and The Velveteen Rabbit and Katy and the Big Snow and any number of books about trucks, diggers, bulldozers and all manner of heavy equipment. Not to mention sports, fairy tales, fables, legends and the classics.

Nothing though took over every room in the house like the little blue engine called Thomas.

We first saw him on TVO as well. His ascent had begun but at that time, he was still a fairly unknown little engine. The first books we got were still the small oblong hard-cover books by The Rev. Wilbert Awdry and many of the engines had not yet made an appearance.

Thomas did get very big indeed but at our house, after the books, the trains and the tracks were all that were needed.

(We had lots more tracks than are shown in this Internet picture.)

Every day when William came home from school, a new configuration of tracks would begin to take shape. The tracks ran under the chairs and around the legs of the coffee table. They often straddled two rooms and we all learned how to get around the house without disrupting the goings-on on the Island of Sodor. In short, Thomas, Percy, Edward, Gordon, Henry, James, Emily, Rosie and Sir Topham Hatt all became valued members of the family and they all had their place.

Most of the childhood books have been given away to other children or sold at book sales for good causes. Not the Thomas books though. William decided at a certain point that he would keep them and they would accompany him on his life's journey, wherever that may take him. The books are carefully packed into a box with the trains and tracks, a few videotapes and maybe a CD, and the beautiful Thomas the Tank Engine bedspread that he slept under for much of his little boyhood.

On our recent trip to England, we were passing through the village of Stroud in Gloucester on one of our day trips with The English Bus. As we passed a row of modest houses, our guide pointed out one of the houses and said, "That's where The Rev. Wilbert Awdry lived. Some of you may have heard of him."

Oh yes. If only he knew.