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An evening with Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow looks small, probably from being weighted down by his achievements. I went to see him last night at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Front St. in Toronto, in conversation with no-slouch of a journalist herself, Robyn Doolittle of the Globe and Mail. He was late and it was great, because Doolittle had time to answer questions on the award-winning Unfounded series she wrote for the Globe and Mail about police power to decide hundreds of women's claims of sex assault did not happen and they did not need to investigate them.

Farrow is the New Yorker investigative journalist behind the uncovering of Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator, which lit the fire of the #MeToo movement and has led to abrupt disappearances of other powerful men in media and other industries. Among the scarier costume T-shirts for Hallowe'en this year was "There's a call for you: it's Ronan Farrow.” He said so, laughing about the absurdity of it.

Farrow is also the author of a book, The War on Peace, an account of his years with Richard Holbrooke of the State Department and the shift from diplomatic to military solutions to world problems. He has just submitted his Ph.D to Oxford University, where he was previously a Rhodes scholar. In 2009 he graduated Yale Law School. From 2001 to 2009 he worked for UNICEF and the Genocide Prevention Network. He was an advisor to Hillary Clinton and worked for the Obama administration in international affairs. He has hosted his own news series on television, written essays for most major international newspapers and done voiceover work for animated films. He was voted one of Time' most influential people in the world this year. 

 He is 30 years old.

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He was sometimes hard to watch. Not him, personally, but in front of us at the Bluma Appel Theatre was an infatuated couple that could not keep hands off each other. A woman next to them rearranged her coat rather obviously, hoping to alert them that they were at a public event. Others of us looked at one another, including my daughter, who mouthed Oh My God but prevented me from finding a cup of cold water to accidentally throw over them both. Finally I covered the eye that couldn't avoid watching his hands and watched the stage with the other. 

It was an exhilarating discussion. Farrow and Doolittle exchanged serious talk about ethics and investigation which made us former journalists very proud, and bantered over what to do about interview subjects who a) hate you, b) ignore you or c) phone you up every week a couple of years after your story has been published just to say, "Hi Ronan! How's it going?" He spoke of the affairs of the world with compassion and clarity, although I could only see him from one eye.

Lest you hate him for being superhuman, Farrow is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, who caused pain and suffering for the family in all ways from selfish to hideous, including his marriage with one of Farrow's sisters. In June of 2012 there was a small glimpse of that in Ronan Farrow's tweet: “Happy father's day -- or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law's day.” But for the most part, he just goes about his outsized life and, last night, seemed grateful for it.

On December 19 he turns 31. Happy Birthday, Mr. Farrow, or as they call it in my family, I really could be doing more with my day.

Your film is about to start. Really.

Zip Tanner is interviewing some B-list actor from some B-list movie who will coincidentally be the answer to a Game Play trivia question as well as the the Turn Off Your Cell Phones Now announcement. Zip says goodbye, the popcorn bag contains only the orange kernels that break molars, and we move on to the trailers demographically designed to appeal to the audience that paid tickets for the movie about to see. Mine are a succession of British historical costume dramas/comedies/thrillers in country estates/gardens/London flats starring Kit Harington or Richard Madden.

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And on to our film! No, wait, first there are self-indulgent mini-movies we must watch. A small animated box moving at high-speed through grass for Bad Robot. A rooster mobile for British Pathé. A bunch of flying stars dip into a lake like Princess Jasmine did with her fingers from the magic carpet in Aladdin. Today’s movies cost so much to make you may see four or five vanity plates before — wait, there’s the production company’s name again in the opening credits! — The. Movie. You. Paid. $15. To. See. Starts.

In the business they are called vanity plates for obvious reasons. Producers’ vanity plates reflect their sense of themselves and their power in the film world. Watch this YouTube video https://youtu.be/HaOmp140NvU to see the most powerful. It was, however, recently edited to exclude an earlier company owned by the Weinstein brothers. Mira and Max are no longer quite so proud.

Poppin’ freshwater

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On Sept. 22 our family drove to the shore of Lake Ontario to perform the ceremony of tashlich, where you think about what you did wrong in the previous year and then throw your sins into the water. Breadcrumbs stand in for your sins. Throwing stands in for their release from your conscience. Seagulls stand in for the wrath of God.

I had got rid of my sins the week before, so instead I went swimming. My parents camped with me hundreds of years ago on the shores of Lake Ontario hundreds of miles away in Kingston, but the waters in 1964 were filthy with green slime and dissolved sewage. Today is one of God’s and humanity’s great miracles, that The Lake Where No One Swims, as a local poet described it, has become fresh and clear again through a lot of work. It is too amazing to stay dry. Too chilly for just swim gear, though, so instead I wore a wetsuit.

The swim lasted 15 minutes and was delightful, with a view of the islands on one side and my husband and daughters fighting off hordes of seagulls on the shore.

Taking off the wetsuit in the women’s washroom involved flailing one arm towards the other until I could grasp an edge of wetsuit and peel it back, an inch at a time, while the compression in the suit slowly cut off my air supply. Too late I discovered it was inside out. The zipper was stuck. A woman came in to use the bathroom, heard a strangled grunt from my stall and left, the door slamming behind her. I considered heaving my torso against the ledge of the sink to crack myself open like a cylinder of crescent rolls, but in the end, gasping, I emerged from the washroom with the carcass of a wetsuit, as renewed as a newborn. I tried to explain myself but there was no need; selfies were being taken and compared. Next year’s sins were already in progress.

Fantastic beasts and where I find them

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We live downtown in a city of millions of hurried people, but there are stranger kinds of life to be found in our own back yard.

In the spring I bought cheap wooden birdhouses at a craft store to decorate a theme party and afterwards hung them in the gazebo to add a little effect to summer evenings. Summer passed without effect, since the bugs were out and it was hot. At the end of August a yellow-bellied sapsucker hopped into one of the birdhouses to check out the real estate; it was so thrilling I hung up on the person I was talking to on the phone. She disappeared completely, but the birdhouse bounced a bit while she checked its dimensions for a couple of minutes and peeked out the hole. Then she flew off. Fingers crossed she comes back for brooding.

The raccoons -- there's no point in getting rid of them and (like human babies) they're lucky they're cute. In the middle of the night they dig small, round holes in the grass to pry out grubs, then visit the small pond in the back corner to wash them before they eat. In the morning the lawn looks like a putting green for a cheap miniature golf course. Once a mother raccoon with two kits the size of Beanie Babies waddled across our front garden in broad daylight. She took one in her teeth, climbed a yew bush at my study window and stuck it to a branch as if it were a Christmas tree ornament. She did the same with the second and then hurried off.  The kits stayed there all day as I worked and watched them from a foot away. The mother fetched them around five o'clock and off they went to their new nursery, probably somewhere in our roof.

Another time when I was reading in the garden a dart of movement on the stone deck turned out to be a three-inch, ruby-red salamander that must have hitchhiked in on a planter from Fiesta Gardens. It shimmied around the plants for a few minutes and disappeared.

We kept a bird feeder for a few winters to welcome sparrows, bright red cardinals (I prefer the female, actually, which is a more subtle orange), finches, and squirrels. College-age kids hired to clean the deck one spring disturbed a family of rats under the porch that, unknown to us, had moved in to eat the buffet of corn and seeds that fell below the feeder. When half-a-dozen rats scurried out into the garden a girl from the crew shrieked, ran to her car and refused to come back. She cried in the passenger seat, arms folded on her chest like a protester against the one percent. We don't have a feeder anymore and hired a pest controller, but it would be worth another family of rats to watch that drama again.

So many birds come to visit: the red-tailed hawk snacking greedily on a poor sparrow, sitting on the fence. A majestic peregrine falcon, its wings outspread as if it were the Phantom of the Opera, hopping down the roof and taking wing towards the pigeons next door.

Speaking of sparrows, they are around both summer and winter, hopping back and forth in the garden in a group as if doing committee work: evaluating the food supply or checking the fitness of the laundry exhaust for winter housing and holding a meeting to discuss their findings with cheap cheeps. They still chatter in the branches of the yew tree beside the kitchen during minus 25 degree winter weather, convening, wasting precious calories. I never find any sparrow bodies and wonder if they are incorporeal, feathered fairies.

In recent weeks it has been both uplifting and heart-breaking to observe a hardworking, distraught female robin that has built two nests for two eggs each and lost three of four fledglings. From the first hatching one was eaten by a raccoon, which left a stripped-clean feather on the porch like a used toothpick. Another died a quiet death next to the pond due to some kind of internal illness and was buried in the grey bin.

This frazzled mother then made a second nest in the crabapple tree near the front bay window, oblivious to the chaos of cars, construction and cyclists ten feet away. Me, however, she glared at whenever I peeked from inside to check on the progress of her second set of fledglings. When we returned from holiday the nest was deserted and I thought she had abandoned it because of Hydro workers digging in a corner of the garden. 

But on the last day of summer I saw her under the bushes in the back, leading the last fledging of the four -- bigger than she was, bratty, insistent, following her on a worm-hunt and demanding its dinner. The fate of the other one is a mystery.

 

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