Beautiful Joe

Joe was just a pup when his owner starved & beat him then cut off his ears & tail. His plight gained worldwide attention when a Canadian woman wrote a novel about him called “Beautiful Joe”. Soon after the horrible mutilations, the pup was rescued by a kindhearted minister & lived out the rest of his years with the minister’s loving family in Meaford, Ontario.

In 1914, Margaret Marshal Saunders, the woman who wrote “Beautiful Joe”, lived in the flat directly across from mine in an historic housing complex in Toronto. Once known as Riverdale Courts and now known as the Bain Co-op, it is here that Saunders penned another novel: “Boy, The Wandering Dog”.

I look out my window at her former residence & imagine Saunders sitting at a lace-curtained window, pen in hand, thinking up dog thoughts, because “Boy”, like “Joe”, is told from the dog’s perspective, a literary device that took off after the publication of “Black Beauty” in 1877.

Published in 1894 under the name Marshal Saunders, “Beautiful Joe” would help lead the charge for the humane treatment of animals everywhere. I often contemplate Saunders’ good works, both as writer & animal activist, as I tread the very ground she must have walked with her own dogs. This is the same turf where I now walk my dog Nixie. Or did until a few months ago, when suddenly she started having trouble climbing stairs. My apartment is on the second floor & she weighs a hundred pounds so our walks became less frequent, even though she is only five years old.

Marshall Saunders owned a lot of pets in her lifetime. A number of them were strays which she named for the places where they were found. She once owned a bird named “38 Front Street”. Nixie is grateful we didn’t christen her “Kijiji”. Nixie (pictured below) looks like Joe except her ears are intact. But she does get the same frightened ears-flattened-back look that Joe has in his portrait whenever she is in pain. The vet said she would need an MRI for a diagnosis at a cost of twenty-five hundred dollars. This pup has seen me through some hard times. I was not about to let her down.

And so, inspired by her trusting eyes & the courage of Beautiful Joe, I launched “Beautiful Nixie”, an online fundraising campaign. Due to the generosity of people everywhere, a month following the launch, Nixie got her MRI.

The imaging showed a protruding disc, & surgery was prescribed. Cost: Five thousand dollars. Nixie’s love & devotion once again catapulted me into action. I hit the campaign trail & a month later, she had her operation, in part because the vet kindly arranged for me to pay half the cost upfront & the other half thirty days following surgery.

When I look at this photo of Beautiful Joe, which was reproduced as postcards back in the day, it gives me the fortitude I need to carry on & raise the last instalment of money, the last half owed to the vet. Despite Joe’s slightly fearful look (a result of missing earflaps, I think), the portrait is a record of great hope. The pure sweetness & strength, the downright goodness, of that dog catapults me forward in my fundraising efforts. I do it for Beautiful Joe & Beautiful Nixie & for all the beautiful dogs in the world.

Thanks to all donors, the campaign goal is in sight! If you wish to help, you can donate here:

Beautiful Nixie on Facebook:

Contact me here:


Beautiful Joe – Osborne Collection, Lillian H. Smith Library, Toronto.

Pink Sky with Windows – Aaron Schwartz

Bain Co-op in Bloom – Aaron Schwartz

Nixie – Marie Wilson

World’s Most Amazing Dog

All through her childhood, my youngest daughter wanted a dog. I finally said yes when she was 15 & she wasted no time finding a pup on Kijiji. The owner was asking $100, so my daughter & her friend pooled their cash & went to meet the dog. It was love at first sight.

The owner told the teenagers to keep their money, saying he only advertised that amount so he wouldn’t get irresponsible people picking up a free dog for who knows what purpose. That first night in her new home, we made every effort to make the confused pooch feel comfortable. Pretty soon she was wagging her tail & settling in. Her name is Nixie.

On the couch in our sunroom, Nixie used to sit like a person gazing out the window. As far as we’re concerned she is a person! But in the dog park, she’s all dog, playing with a ball or other dogs & running as fast as possible. Her favourite game has been to lead other dogs on an obstacle race, charging around logs & under picnic tables, performing quick turnarounds & tricky deeks. In all seasons, the fun never stops for her in the park.

Until recently, that is. A couple of months ago she started refusing to go up stairs, which was challenging, as we live in a 2nd floor apartment. Then she’d yelp with pain when jumping up on the couch or bed. She is only 5 years old. She’s been homebound now for almost 2 months and stays almost all the time on her blanket on the floor. We hoped the rest would lead to healing. But it hasn’t. She’s seen two vets but they can’t diagnose without an MRI.

MRIs are expensive. And so, a fundraiser! I am so grateful for all who have donated to & shared our campaign to help Nixie thus far. To us she is truly the World’s Most Amazing Dog. Let’s keep this funder going and get Nixie a diagnosis & on her way to better health!

City Saplings, Urban Ancients

For many years, this tree has given shade to sinners & angels alike, judging neither. Churchyard trees bear testimony, provide shelter, give life. Children who’ve hopscotched beneath their boughs grow up & go away but still the tree stands, noble & uncomplaining. Its leafy past commingles with the ancient moon & the old church & together they form a trio of historical importance on First Avenue.

We revere the ancient & pander to youth, often forgetting how important the latter are to the planet’s future. Like a gangly but bright child, this sapling might go unnoticed by passersby. But to those who stop to take note, it may remind them of the great cycle of life. Its presence enlivens the solidity of the great wall on Bain Avenue near Withrow School.

Like pigeons, urban trees hang in there despite all the concrete & pollution. This maple thrives in a laneway near King & Yonge, just around the corner from the Beer Bistro. It reaches up to the sky-scrapered sky with leaves of almost-impossible-green and beckons to the rush hour traffic to slow down & take a breath of the air it helps supply.

The Rooster Coffee House provides field glasses for anyone caring to play spy or ornithologist while sipping java on Broadview. With or without binoculars, you get a vast view of Riverdale park & the downtown core (this must be how the street got its name!) Front & center is this grand old lady – her natural splendor compliments the unnatural splendor of the city beyond: in summer her emerald finery blots out buildings but in winter she welcomes the great grinding metropolis into her boughs; woven throughout her majestic branches are bank towers, City Hall, the CN Tower.

Photos: Aaron Schwartz

Words for a Wedding

Just before Anna was born, I was reading “Anna Dostoyevsky’s Diary”. It was a good book, and it inspired me to name my first born…Anna.

When she was 2, and we were in the playground, Anna used to point and say: “Wings! Wings for Anna!” She meant “swings”.

And when she was 3, she invented a magical land called “Pink World”… and she named all her dolls after food. My favourites were: “Tapioca-Lisa” and “Pear-Cherry”.


At age 11 Anna filled out a questionnaire that asked:
“How do you picture yourself five years from now?”
She answered: “With a perm.”
Another question asked: “What do you value in life?”
Her answer: “Art and Love”.

As a teenager she grew taller than me. She helped care for her brother and her sister – both who turned out just as amazing as she did – and one morning, teenage Anna tucked my hair behind my ears and asked if I wanted tea. I said: “We seem to have switched roles today: you’re the mom; I should go to school.” And then, we laughed.

We shared a lot of laughter.

Anna once wrote: “Real love can be measured by how many jokes you can share with another person.”


In her book “Cake Secrets” Anna put together these words: “There was that link between cake and the spiritual world again. I could not ignore it.”

When Anna was 7 she created a booklet of drawings and words titled “A Dash of Special Magic”. In it she wrote a story. It was just three sentences long. Here it is:
“She had a husband. She didn’t know his name. She called him ‘Handsome’.”


On her blog, Anna wrote: “Life has a funny way of surprising you and pretending to be magic.”

Tonight, on the occasion of Anna and Gabe’s wedding, we think the magic is real and the love is true. And that Gabe is Handsome…and wonderful, and that – Anna. Has. Wings.

Also, there will be cake.


Photo Credits (top to bottom): “Fairy” by Marie Wilson; Headshot by Tim Leyes; “Up on the Roof” by Scott Monroe Baker; “Dorothy Parker Party” (Anna May Henry installation) by Anon; “First Dance” by Aaron Schwartz.


Diamonds & Coffee

5:45 a.m. The deserted streets of New York City. A lone yellow cab approaches along Fifth Avenue to the melancholy harmonica & strings of Moon River. The cab stops in front of Tiffany & Co., & a lithe young woman steps out. As the car pulls away she looks up at the iconic clock; her sleek black gown & stunning pearl & diamond necklace are as gorgeous from the back as from the front. She walks to a display window where glimmering things float in reflective surfaces, including her own early morning image: oversized sunglasses & swept-up hair adorned with sparkling ornament. From a white paper bag she takes a pastry & a cup of coffee: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One of the best opening credits in movie history.


And then two scenes in, Mickey Rooney spoils it all with his monumentally ill-conceived portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Worse even than his Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935),  Rooney’s racist mugging in Breakfast makes me want to hit him over the head with a champagne bottle (empty, of course); catastrophic casting in a flick that is full of missteps. So we look for the gems, both literal & figurative: a mailbox perfume atomizer, jewels in earrings that sparkle for miles, the fire escape crooning of Moon River, purple tasseled earplugs, turquoise eye mask with gold eyelashes, more Givenchy frocks, a few elegant hats,  Audrey.


And then there’s the charming feline star, Orangey, who won a Patsy Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), for his performance as Cat. Meow. The world would not tolerate a remake of Breakfast but if such a thing could ever happen Holly would be more fucked up & Paul would be gay, just as Capote wrote them & hoped they would appear on screen. They could still wear spectacular clothes & dig NYC but the pain & grit would be more evident & ultimately more satisfying.

She Gets Too Hungry…

…for dinner at eight… So my beloved cooks earlier than eight & it’s always sublime. First a glass of pink champagne. Then, a plate of pickles and chips. Aaron pickled these beets. And then he pickled the eggs in the pickled beet juice (the chips are out of a bag)


Chowder with baguette & olive oil…




I’m also very hungry in the morning and so he makes this…


Or this – star fruit, dragon fruit, prickly pear, yogurt with good stuff on it!


And that’s why this lady is devoted to this guy (or one of the reasons anyway).

Next up: Snacks!

Sketches of Aaron

To converse with Aaron is to have doors flung open in your brain that you didn’t even know were there. His mind never ceases to amaze: original, insightful, educated, open. But be sharp; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly (genuinely humble fools exempted). Prepare to be challenged. And to laugh.

AS portrait 1 MWjpeg_phixr

Aaron and I met 13 years ago at a Valentines Day party given by our good friends Tony and Phillip. After midnight, we bid our hosts adieu and walked home together. That was the start of something beautiful. These days we meet at a sort of secret getaway for a drink after completing our day’s work. We listen to music, sometimes we dance. He has a martini, I have pink champagne. And we talk. The way he sees the world, in all its stunning complexity – the good, the bad & the beautiful – enlivens me day after day.

AS portrait 2 MW_phixr

When Aaron is interpreting the law, his wisdom will shake your snoozing mind awake. If he’s discussing art, his perspective will bust your pea-brain notions wide open (also your highfalutin concepts). You grow. Everyone should be so fortunate as to sit and talk with Aaron.

AS portrait 3 MWjpeg_phixr

PS. His grey matter is not the only thing I love about him!

If I Ventured in the Slipstream



1969. I’m sitting on the floor of my high school gym with my friends, wishing we were outside skipping the light fantastic. Yawning at the monotone promises of Student Council candidates and picking the neon-pink polish from my nails, I glance up at the clock. Time never crawled so slowly. My stomach growls.

And then, a young bearded man dressed in white robes takes the stage. He is presidential hopeful Timothy Treger, and I am suddenly alert. A restless murmur goes up in the audience as he announces he will be reading from John Lennon: In His Own Write. This is no usual campaign speech, this is a nonsense story called Snore Wife and Some Several Dwarts, and mere words into it I’m rolling on the floor with laughter. (I mean, I really did roll on the floor with laughter: the story was funny, and if my friends and I found something funny that’s what we did –  even if we were out walking we’d stop and fall to the sidewalk to split a gut.)

Timothy did not become president of Centennial Senior High in the sleepy suburban land of Coquitlam, B.C. Jocks and preppy kids were not ready for this peacenik with the long hair and flowing robes. I voted for him of course. And the day after his speech I spotted him in the cafeteria, incognito in jeans and a T-shirt. I introduced myself and he invited me over to his place after school.

Tim had his own apartment in the basement of a house and there on a hotplate he cooked brown rice and vegetables. A vegetarian with his own pad, how utterly new all this was to me and how very cool. Tim told me that out of respect for the earth and the people who grew the rice I should eat every last grain in my bowl. I did. And afterwards, he lit some incense and put Astral Weeks on the turntable. I’d never heard Van Morrison’s first solo album in its entirety. Now, as Van growled and whispered and cajoled out the title cut, I sat in silence, my eyes closed. I was floating “in another time, in another place” and Van’s sensual swirling utterances were taking me there.

“Got a hormone high,” I heard him sing over and over again. Years later I would discover the lyrics are “got home on high”. In keeping with the musician’s oft repeated theme of transcendence, “home on high” connotes a place above the throng: “We are goin’ to heaven.” But “hormone high” is what I heard back then. It is also what I felt, at age fifteen, as I tripped out in my crushed velvet bellbottoms and love beads. And the mounting intensity of the seven-minute-long Astral Weeks track was a sublime musical accompaniment to my coming of age. The song reaches ever so sweetly for climax then upon arrival sustains the ecstatic mystical moment with shimmering instrumentation wrapped in soft spiralling vocals.

This was the time of free love but Tim and I were never lovers, at least not physical lovers. We went on peace marches and attended sit-ins together; shared wine and cheese and bread with other protesters; rubbed tiger balm on our temples. At school we started our own chapter of SDS without really knowing what it was. I wrote angry missives for the school newspaper and Tim booked Big Brother and the Holding Company for a school concert.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world”, Van croons in Astral Weeks. Those lyrics cut deepest for me, floundering in a sea of adolescent insecurity as I was. But the day Timothy Treger walked into my life, dressed like Jesus and reading comical stories out loud at sombre events, was the beginning of the end of my strangerhood. Some people shrink your world, others expand it, Tim did the latter in spades in one exciting eventful year in my life, a year that confirmed for me that rolling on the sidewalk laughing was better than staying in your room crying and that being kooky was better than being cookie-cutter.

Morrison was twenty-three when he put Astral Weeks out. It arrived at the end of the sixties, the end of an era to be sure but simultaneously the beginning of something fantastically new for me. That visit to Timothy’s place with the grains of rice and quivering music, heralded a new dawn: I was stepping out into the world and I was doing it to a soundtrack played by the one and only Van Morrison.

I never saw Timothy after that school year ended. He was moving in universes I was barely aware of at the time. I bumped and banged my way into the seventies and university, went from ragged patched jeans to corduroy hot pants, from psychedelic light shows to discos with revolving coloured lights; David Bowie and Lou Reed took the spotlight. But there was always Van the Man, transporting me, transporting a generation. And every time I hear him sing “We are goin’ to heaven” I am reminded of the man in the white robes who, just by virtue of being who he was, gave my soul permission to fly.


Photo: left: the author (age 15) with her friend Suzanne & some cats. In the rockery at 616 Rochester, Coquitlam, B.C.

Title: from Astral Weeks: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaduct of your dreams…”

Wardrobe: Dress on Suzanne created for the author by Terrill Marlow, big sister extraordinaire.


The Bain Push

Jake Gittes leans on a doorbell button but, inside, Ida Sessions won’t hear a sound. She’s dead. The “push” pictured below is just like the one Gittes was pressing but it isn’t L.A. circa 1938 and it isn’t the movie Chinatown. This push is in the Bain Co-op (Toronto) which was built in 1913. The Bain has a variety of pushes, as they were first called…


The ancient and non-functioning pushes reside next to the more modern and sometimes-working renditions. Two  varieties from different eras pictured below – two, because the postman always rings twice.


The old buttons – dead as Ida Sessions, dead as a doorbell – are covered in layers of paint. Two more varieties, below.


Joseph Henry invented the doorbell in 1831. The push later became known as the “push button”.


Bells, buzzers or chimes for your home or office, doorbells became de rigueur, hitting their stride in the postwar 50s. No doubt my co-op had doorbells from its inception, as some units are located on the 2nd floor with their front door at ground level.


Pictured below is my neighbour’s push from the 1960s.


Just kidding. I did this in post but if it were real wouldn’t it be groovy, even not working?

Burning the midnight oil I look out my window & see these little glow-spots on my neighbour’s stoop. They’re threatened by encroaching light pollution and occasionally rivalled by a cigarette flaring up as some insomniac takes a drag in the shadows. “Forget it, Jake. It’s the Co-op.”


Merry Christmas, Baby

“Shipping and mishandling,” Martini says, lifting packets of broken gingerbread out of a dented box. “Geez. All the Grande Dame had to do was get the kit home from the store.” Martini gets an idea as Fizz pokes listlessly at the rock hard fragments.


“Hey, Fizzy, let’s make it look like Santa’s sleigh crashed into the roof.” The suggestion puts the Christmas pizzazz back into the nine-year-old Fizz, who immediately decapitates one of the gingerbread men then runs to the kitchen for red food colouring.

As Martini looks for tin foil for sleigh building, their mother’s voice cuts through the air like a sharp shiny blade: “No, Virginia, there most definitely is not a Santa Claus!” The siblings tiptoe from the kitchen to stare silently at the door to the den. The Grande Dame is in there talking to herself.

Her name is indeed Virginia, although no one calls her that anymore. As a child she was Ginnie; as a teenager she became Gin. No one is quite sure whether the sobriquet begat the drinking habit or vice versa but – Tanquiri, lemon or bathtub – Virginia took to the juniper infusion at an early age, like a rat to garbage.

When she was twenty-one, a forty hour labour produced her first child. Before she asked to see the baby she asked for a drink; under the influence she named him Tom Collins. Eventually his name got shortened to TC because calling him became tiresome: “Bedtime, Tom Collins!”

Three years later, following a blessedly easy labour, her second child arrived and got named after Gin’s favourite cocktail. The name did not get shortened, as “Marty” sounded too working class (an impression Gin got from the movie of the same name). So how many times had the wee one come running at the bark of “Martini!” only to find Gin was actually ordering a drink? Eight years after Martini, Fizz was born, an afterthought, an aperitif, a nightcap, with a name so short the child hardly heard it sometimes.

Now the Grande Dame sweeps through the living room in a long black velvet dress and her seasonal scowl, leaving in her wake the mysterious scent of Shalimar. Her kids scurry back to their project, and their mother stops to look at the gingerbread catastrophe as Fizz splashes food colouring on the mangled cookies.

“Is this what the birth of Christ has come to mean?” Gin hisses. “Broken gingerbread houses and blood-spattered gingerbread men?” Martini looks at Fizz and sees the merriment drain out of the little girl’s already too pale face. The last vestiges of Christmas spirit are crumbling like so many assembly-line gingerbread houses and Martini feels the desire to run away from the circus.

For years Martini has longed to leave the Grande Dame far behind and find an exciting life that she can’t rain on. But leaving Fizz alone in the downpour would be out of the question. TC got out, fled two years ago without regard for siblings. Of course, it helped that Gin banished him; no one remembers why anymore, except perhaps TC, whom they haven’t heard from since.

Martini stares into a silver ball hanging from the Christmas tree and sees the distorted reflection of a changing face: one moment the mirror image echoes a glamorous movie star, the next it suggests a wounded six year old. Just what is in store for Martini, the alleged son of a wastrel who split years ago and a gin-soaked mother who also seems to have split years ago, is uncertain – he could kiss his mirror self with its evolving identity or crush the emerging authenticity under his shoe.

“What would Kate do?” Martini asks his silver ball self.

Every birthday Martini adopts a new celluloid role model then watches all her films, plucking lines and bits of business to use as life hacks. Last year for sweet sixteen the model was Anna May Wong (“I dance in that – or not at all.”) This year it’s Katharine Hepburn.

“The calla lilies are in bloom again.” These words have brought many an argument with Gin to a sudden end. Oh the argument is never really over but this scrap of dialogue resonates with his mother just long enough for Martini to make a quiet exit. Stage Door, the flick from which the line is lifted, holds special meaning for Gin, echoing as it does her own youthful love affair with the theatre. She has been left muttering “calla lilies” beneath her lethal breath more than a few times as Martini escaped the contretemps du jour.

Martini’s favourite Hepburn flick is Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant and Kate sing to a leopard named Baby in order to calm it: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby…” This movie suggests a useful bit of business for Martini’s purposes now.

Gin is mixing her favourite cocktail at the kitchen counter when her second born sidles up and spears an olive. She glares at this complicated teenager of hers as he balances the olive on the back of his hand. With a slap to his fingers the olive is catapulted into the air. Dipping with open mouth to meet the airborne garnish he misses and it lands in the cat’s water dish. Fizz lets out a yelp of laughter at the tiny plop.

Kate couldn’t catch the olives in Baby either, resulting in Cary slipping on one, landing on his ass and crushing his top hat. It’s a hilarious scene that the whole family has laughed over in countless screenings. But that was before TC left. Things have taken a sour turn since then: Gin Sour.

Martini flips another olive, this time catching it and provoking a howl of laughter from Fizz. Gin fixes her youngest with a steely stare that could bring the Grinch to his knees. Then, scooping her drink up, she vanishes back into her lair, slamming the door behind her. Christmas always did this to her. Ah, life always did this to her.

Martini chews on the salty catch as Fizz picks at a blue Smartie from the gingerbread wreckage. The clock chimes seven. Christmas eve. The siblings are about to give up on the cookie fiasco and go play video games when from behind the den door comes the sound of their mom’s voice, not talking to herself this time but singing: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”

Martini and Fizz stare at the door. The disembodied voice chirps: “That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.” The sibs look at each other, count a beat, then sing: “Dream awhile, scheme awhile…” The door opens a crack, Gin’s auburn head pops out: “We’re here to find…” Martini and Fizz take a step closer: “Happiness, and I guess…” Gin steps outside the door and the three harmonize: “…all those things you’ve always pined for.” Musical pause, then all together: “Gee but it’s good to see you looking swell, baby.”

Gazing at tinsel and ornaments on the tree the three croon like the chorus from an MGM musical: “Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby…I can’t give you anything but love.” Christmas has arrived in the Frost household.


First in the Frost Family series.

Photo by Aaron Schwartz