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TV Stuff

Last night I watched a show called Shameless on Netflix. My sister had suggested it, saying it was based on a British prototype. In the story, a drunken father,William R. Macy, and motherless tumble of children fare for themselves, the eldest in charge. The pilot I viewed was racy , with bare bums, oral sex performed on two brothers by a fifteen year old, the father brought home by cops, the discovery of pornographic material hidden under a pillow. It conjured for me books that I adored as a girl, those tales of family in which the mother was dead or missing and the children had to find their own way.Of course, back then, there were no episodes as vivid or glaring as what I observed yesterday, but there were the perils of surviving, finding your own way without any adult direction.

Although the sex is expected, it is made contemporary as one brother has homosexual leanings with his married Muslim boss who owns the local grocery. In spite of the caring next door black neighbour lady who happens to be a nurse, her live-in boyfriend and she enjoy kinky sexual relations, and the full frontal nude of him, privates splayed is no longer taboo. Yet these lower class barely surviving characters demonstrate cooperation, caring and deep consideration, even the family of children expressing outright love for the useless father who spends his disability paycheque endlessly drinking or sleeping in the middle of the floor. Simply put, he’s a brute and I doubt I will continue to watch this series.

The story of the destitute children is the same but pushed forward generations made modern through the addition of sexual innuendo and nudity, events made so commonplace and normalized that we hardly blink at the eldest sister -ersatz mother who dancing at nightclubs in a” borrowed dress” makes love with a boyfriend of an hour or so in the messy cluttered kitchen. She works umpteen jobs and watches over her sibs. Into this mess comes her Prince Charming who noting the broken washing machine delivers a new one.

I turned to Netflix because I was bored with the offering on the regular channels and here in San Diego there are over 5144 channels, in which you can watch in Spanish, give yourself a facelift, learn about cancer, dogs, stingray Jazz Masters,Buy a Bride, Eat a Bulaga, ( whatever that may be), catch up on Oregon ladies basketball and more useless esoteric matters that I doubt anyone truly cares about. And because we do not get Outlander here I will have to wait months to follow Clare’s travails between her loves separated by 400 years.

Here we finished The Crown, now knowledgeable about Jackie Kennedy’s apologies to Queen Elizabeth regarding her thick ankles. It was thrilling to see Elizabeth working out a way to avoid Ghana’s relationship with Russia by dancing with the president. More than a mere lover of her corgis, she is portrayed as thoughtfully grappling with political issues. She is direct and not moved by her prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden.She does manipulate her sister Margaret’s life to Margaret’s unending scorn and resentment of her meddling sister. The very stylish Margaret careens from one bad choice to another. Yet we do empathize with her as artist Tony Armstrong’s mummy issues are revealed and his wild lifestyle is vividly presented.Philip as well shown is a recalcitrant philander, a good ole boy, but his treatment of sensitive hapless Charles is heartbreaking, particularly in Philip’s blackmail insistence to Elizabeth that his son endure the same rigorous horrid schooling that he did in Scotland. In spite of Philip’s own harsh and tragic family background, his demeanour was all ready coarse enough to triumph over difficult situations. Sadly, poor Charles succumbed, recalling his schooling at Gordonston as “ prison” and “ hell ”: as it is well depicted.Elizabeth stands by, unable and unwilling to change Charles’ circumstance.

The wonder of some shows is the new information the audience is now privy to. In deed when I googled the Jackie-Elizabeth dinner, I observed that the cast wore exact replicas of the original designer gowns and the conversations the tv viewers witnessed were pretty much the same although “ creatively” imagined. Certainly Elizabeth is humanized in these episodes, the problems and restraints of being a royal revealed. Claire Foy does an admirable job of presenting the tangle of a job few desire. Yet times change, and with the marriage of Harry to Meaghan Markle, one would love to be a fly on the flocked wallpaper, overhearing the discussions the dead- eyed Philip must be entertaining with his wife.

My children laugh that- give me actors in period piece costumes and I am happy. I’m only happy if the story is good and something new and interesting is revealed( OK, I do love lavish brocades and fabrics and styles, fashion ). When I saw Amistad, Borghum ,John Adams( with Paul Giammati), the Burns documentary on Vietnam Nam, Genius, stories that pierce the veneers we have been fed in the news – it’s as if I have discovered a delicious secret and that information now colours, explains, deepens or changes what I thought I knew. It’s the same in books when new information is disclosed.

Now I realize networks like Netflix do play fast and loose to attract viewers, events or details unearthed through research, diaries, memos, whatnot, previously not readily known: that intensifies the narrative. And truthfully I like that.

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Another Golden Globe Rant and Ramble

These are such confusing times.Our grandchildren growing up must feel themselves on trembling ground. I cannot get the image out of my head of my own grandson going to bed the night of the U.S. presidential election, excited at the prospect of the first woman president only to awaken to his dismayed father who had to break the news: that the abusive host of the tv show, The Apprentice, the loudmouth insensitive lout, the one his brother cutely dubbed Donald Trunk had won. Incredulous, C.J. wondered why.

Similarly persons one has learned to trust, those granted authority and power are now brought to their knees for their abuse of power and people. Not just trusted doctors or CEOs, but the gods of movies who have inspired and defined what is altruistic, good and human on screen have been revealed as willing to subvert and ignore the values they have espoused in the best of drama and media. That talk of the casting couch was not a hidden secret or that factory foremen took advantage of their immigrant workers was just accepted and acknowledged as part of the work world: people seemed to know, but perhaps believed it a small part of the dirty gossip that was perpetuated to entice an audience in show biz , but even should it be likely true in other industries and institutions, it was the price of a job, the ticket to success or security. We always knew of bosses who took advantage, who spoke down and worse from their own tenuously elevated vantage points, but most of us workaday mortals in our ordinary places, even should we criticize, felt embarrassed to speak out, challenge and confront, except to one another, shaking our heads in mortification and helplessness. And do not forget, those scorned who were sufficiently brave to speak out, the Hester Prynnes ridiculed, ostracized, branded liars or paid off.

Yet truly there has always been right and wrong behaviours. We tell our children, don’t hit, don’t hurt, don’t bully, care and support your sister, your brother. Only when miscreants are called out into the public domaine, do they protest, grabbing at some excuse or absurd rationalization to excuse odious actions. As long as they could maintain their behaviour unaccosted, they persisted, even bragging at the outrages committed. And some even as lately as Jian Ghomeshi or Albert Schultz protest at the unfairness, at being misinterpreted or misunderstood, that their partners were willing, complicit, actively participating in the deeds.

But lately there has been a barrage of perpetrators whose accusers have bravely come forward. And been heard! And even taken seriously. Yet, in many’s disbelief, the head of state, Trump, has been shown with his own words to describe his own unconscionable immoral behaviour. Strange incomprehensible times for those growing up seeking role models, and learning what is acceptable or appropriate in society when such activities go unpunished.

Discussing the Metoo campaign, Howard and I wondered why now, how had the tipping point occurred so that women were no longer silenced, willing to grin and bear it. In deed at a New Year’s Eve party here in San Diego, one older man queried without any sympathy or empathy, why did they( those women) wait so long , some seventeen years to come forward; other men in the group shaking their bald heads in agreement. Brie Simpson, editor of The Jewish Journal dismissed those weak unfeeling comments in her December editorial. In fact, she wrote, every woman she knows has had a confrontation . I absolutely agree. If you were a woman, you were free game, a moving target under someone’s telescope, especially if you were cute, sexy, smiling, attractive or not, naïve…

We talked more about women in positions of power willing to speak out now, exposing more regular everyday relationships in which they were unwilling to accept disparagement or worse –and in spite of Margaret Wente’s column in which she differentiated diverse treatments by salacious men, as if a wink, a squeeze, a grope, a pinch, a hug, a kiss, could be tallied more or less against forceable sex, ignoring any unwanted touch is an invasion.

We considered our present day society where a person might be willing to walk away from a job, go hungry and just hang out, rather than tie themselves to indignities. In the old world, you worked, you worked hard, no matter what. You had responsibilities that had to be seen to, children to feed and because you believed yourself lesser than the boss, you just took it.Often you were an immigrant person, relieved to have escaped the perils of your country; congruently, if you were a woman, you had been schooled on being subservient, knowing your place, being sweetly accommodating accepting the crumbs off a man’s plate, not causing a scene. Today there is pushback, equality between men and women, races, genders, etc. so people reflect,” I have choices”( even if you do not). There is a feeling that you deserve more.As truthfully, we all are due respect. And no one should be put in that position, between a rock and a hard place in order to survive any relationship, in or out of the work place. As well, the understanding that the personal, the “I” is as worthy a voice as the omniscient “one, “or the impersonal “they.”And stories do possess truth, often conveying more than objective facts, speaking to a truer reality, one lived by an individual whose voice quakes, cries, shouts, and wants to impart authenticity.

As always I return to the postmodern death of the paternal , the concept of nation, the rise of the individual, the interest in self versus the group and/ or the country. I do not say the post modern is a bad thing, and in deed instead of blindly following, questioning the rule or reign of dictatorships and monarchies it is a very good thing to think independently. But here is the rub: we talk of co- operation, but how often are our colleagues too busy to help us out. We talk of multiple intelligences, but give standardized tests or underfund programs or access for the disabled.We do put ourselves first, thinking we are special. So the women’s night at the Golden Globes was a spectacular moment for women to stand together.

And as always, it is not an either- or split, us or them. The solution is a balance of consideration of personal needs along side the needs of our community, for we do not live in this world by ourselves. Metoo. What we propose for our family, should be the same values we espouse for our neighbours. Far from joining arms and swaying to Kumbaya, I am suggesting that tired old Golden Rule of do unto others ,choosing respect and responsibility over pride, money and the sweet surge of power should not guide our behaviour, and should have been the mantras of the men, men who definitely knew better, but wanted to take advantage of vulnerable, tentative situations, in order to satisfy a base need or desire. But as in all things, what is clearest and simplest morphs into something twisted and complicated as we listen to the cries of the accused, refusing to accept the indictments of those they have victimized.

The Golden Globes was, I hope , a line in the sand, Howard noting how radiant the women were, shining in their stunning black dresses, a true feeling of solidarity in speeches and close clasping, with even women leaders of agriculture and unions accompanying the stars. And Oprah was the star, incredibly beautiful in presence and her speech washing away all others, including Elizabeth Moss’s reading Margaret Atwood’s words by Offred, no longer willing to be in the margins of pages. Oprah was a show stopper, the focused moment befitting her work, her image, her story, her journey.

However, Oprah, readying a campaign for the presidency and all ready supported by her fellow Americans is an entertainer- unlike but as unqualified as the man in power now. Unlike Ronald Reagan, also a media personality, she has not been a governor, and her work – in Africa, with the poor, in many causes does not sanction her as a viable candidate. Does anyone recall her call out to the base instincts of “ a car for you..” or providing Jenny Mc Carthy a platform for her incredibly unscientific views on medical issues I too was awed by Oprah, her brilliant delivery and presence , but The Rock also is contemplating being on the ticket. Neither, of course ,has cut their teeth in political circles. And I say this with respect that glittering Oprah in her grass roots ways has improved the lives of thousands, but I want someone who has been educated and knows the halls of power intimately. But I am a Canadian, with our own showy prime minister, dawdling over our physical assisted dying law, doing photo ops with the rich and newly released from captivity, so although in comparison Trudeau appears to shine, he, unlike his father, has not moved the country forward .

As Gary Mason in the The Globe wrote in The Globe, along with a string of others, Where does governmental experience, actual participation in the realm, the know how of politics occur? Why do we go to college if not to prepare for our future professionals.Where is the role of experience, preparation, research, investigation , etc.? And yet in this confusing world of fake news, such a man as unqualified was elected – no question, Oprah might have been a wiser choice. In this new world, should we not at least, some of us laud the age old values: attempting to build a renewed world that melds some from column A , some from Column B. Where is the wisdom that comes from living, honouring and acknowledging the mistakes of the past: to avoid redoing them in the future?

And we cannot forget or dismiss those like Governor Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania who has stood with women to vote against ridiculous repressive abortion laws, or Governor Jerry Brown of California who openly decries the building the Mexican wall and environmental destruction and Elizabeth Warren…There are , I have to believe good people who have dedicated their lives to working in politics, fighting the good fight, upholding the values I want my grandchildren to emulate.

It is perplexing even for oldsters such as myself, but what of future generations of children, what will they say of these times? Stranger and stranger “, quipped Alice.

A Birthday Holiday

Holidays are the spaces between, yet as one ages ,retires from work, life becomes in a way, a holiday. Without the demands of bosses, assignments, prescribed hours, one is freer to chart their own course. For me, the transition between work and “ holiday” was difficult as I had anticipated that I would ease out of my work world, work part time because I enjoyed the sphere I was in: it was exciting to present internationally , write policy and impact on the lives of many. But choosing between a rock and a hard place, I finally decided to take retirement, searching for some consulting gigs, hoping that writing might take me into a new career- and it did – but only briefly.

But life offers surprises and a windfall wound up propelling me into a new phase, and so I was able to move my winters to California. California has been three years delicious. Having scouted out the environs for my Christmas birthday last year, we selected Palm Springs, anticipating warmer and hopefully drier weather than San Diego had experienced in the previous two years. Although extreme sickness almost prevented one part of our clan from gathering, our littlest rallied at the last minute, her sweet smile re- emerging sufficiently to endure a five and half hour plane ride.

We have never rented a cottage so I imagine this time together resembled a summer in Muskokoa by the water up north. In Palm Springs, by the heated pools and backed by mountains, we slept, ate and played together, three groups related by Howard and myself and marriage. It is a task to remain considerate for an extended period, but two wings of the house provided early morning quiet. Food choices varied, with vegans, picky eaters, gourmets and gourmands😜, but somehow we managed to find meals that seemed to meet most tastes from roast beef to pizza. We had incredible takeout freerange chicken( apologies to Paul who thought that all the white meat was gone), amazing burgers, the Russian lady’s premier attempt at roast beef delivered on our first night as holiday traffic took four tedious NEVER- ending, not two hours of travel to gather us all at our location; and Jordan’s most valiant attempt that night to scurry back and forth to numerous stores endlessly collecting each family’s emailed list: from cherry coke to cream cheese to lactaid milk.

Cooperation is always a key, and children were parented by those other than their own. We had a jigsaw puzzle by Florine Stettheimer of silly salesgirls tending their clientele at Bendels in the 1920’s so random people stopped and placed pieces at their leisure, satisfying a need for order and calm. On the tv, my son projected group games that incorporated group drawing and concocting huge lies, so we, attended by the oldest grandkid delighted to be up late late with the adults, giggled uncontrollably at outrageous answers.We gave ourselves outrageous aliases too.Early morning swims, occasional naps, impromptu meals, and of course, glomping around the damn IPad. So it went for five days, some family members dispersing to Joshua Tree National Park, the Annenberg estate, or dinosaur parks, tennis volleys, or Howard and myself disappearing to an art museum: interested in glass works by women. We wandered and walked, coming together and being apart, moving to our own individual beats.

It makes one wonder about the notion of a family, more than just being joined by blood lines, how caring and cooperation and respect play into a group. I suppose we maintain our ties because it is more or less expected in a family, but often we reflect that we have no choice over family ties, and would we in deed bond with the people with whom we are related. But as in any relationship, there will be aspects of people we admire or really annoy us and the challenge may be to dig deeper or merely keep one’s mouth shut to avoid confrontation. Sometimes difference of opinions does arise, but during our little respite, my family was, as they say “ chill”; several sulkily cooling their heels or tongues before flames destroyed the unity of the group’s dynamics, consideration for another’s view, thoughtful of avoiding danger of sparking a momentary destructive flame.

As a parent, I listened to the resurrection of childhood memories, of trips we took together, shared accounts, both good and bad, laughter overflowing, retrieved secrets revealed by now older adults, as a special times of foods and adventures, pinches and parfaits, Prague and Montebuono, not totally consumed in their memories in the blaze of days. As a parent, you watch, you stand aside and hope you prepared the ground for their experiences, sowing seeds so some might germinate into the people you aspired they might be, reinforcing the values you deemed the right ones. “But you never know”( as my wise mother used to harp) if what you have done made sense to a certain burgeoning personality, or if life has unwound its numerous perils and unexpected twists to allow for the implementation of lessons.

A book on Mindfulness I read awhile ago softly suggested that we did what we thought best years previous- so let it go, forgive yourself for what you now understand to have not been the wisest direction or action. This is easier written than accepted, for one thinks of situations inadvertently created or words shouted or conversely not spoken that might have made a difference. These are the barbs that in your quieter moments ping your heart, too late to remedy, reminding you of a person you don’t much like. And so, cowardly here, I do apologize for those times. One hopes that with age comes wisdom.

Yet in our home, we tried to foster the growth of critical, thinking, independent souls who would make their own way in the world. So in spite of Howard and my desires, admonishments( don’t run with scissors), our children insisted on and charted their own courses. All hardworking ,admirable professionals of whom we are extremely proud, I might add. And because they are my children, and I did not want to make a speech on my transitional birthday, I will tell them how now and here how deeply I love you all, “in my bones,”again as my mother would say. And thank you for all coming together, being together, on this special occasion, hoping that these five and more days will live in their heads as they will in mine: flowers that will continue to appear from time to time, reminding us that- when we’re back in our separate lives- that we are endlessly connected, cherished and always loved- each and everyone of us.

Reunion

Last night my California cousins breezed into town. Leaving the raging fires behind, their arrival heralded our first serious snowfall as they continue on their way to treacherous Jerusalem for a family celebration. We gathered at my sister’s for the visit. Good souls that they are, my cousins reconnected with relatives, the last surviving of their ( and my mother’s )family: one past 90 in a hospital, the other close to 90 as spry and interesting as she always was, barely a year ago setting off by herself to India. I always figured because she was French, she had a lot of style- and obviously longevity . And actually Berthe is family by marriage, and she has the edge. Still it is wonderful to hear that people of her generation are mentally and physically alert, vital and engaged. Gives one hope.

When we get together with the cousins who departed for warmer climes when I was 10, whether here or in California, our shared past inevitably comes up, but interestingly new stories are often added: or perhaps I’ve forgotten them- such as actually knowing that my eldest cousin accompanied my grandfather to the theatres where he designed the stencils for their walls. Maybe I knew, but forgot, that beside the swing in their house on Atlas south of Eglinton, there were troves of paint. I certainly remember Buddy the dog. And maybe even, I had heard about the pizza delivery man passing the forbidden treat to nephew and uncle through the basement window to avoid my grandmother’s detection. I guffaw to recall that my grandfather actually tasted and enjoyed shrimp, a most unkosher delight.

I recall to my other cousin the terrible purple and black check coat and beret type hat complete with hideous pompon that I loathed to wear to school, trudging resentfully in my cousin’s handmedowns to WestPrep. And perhaps that was the reason I vented my misery on my younger sister whom my mother finally agreed to allow walk herself to school so I wouldn’t use a scarf to lasso her around her head, and drag her here and there on that perilous journey. As I sit here maybe 60 some years later, I can feel the anger in my body of having to shepherd my sib in that ridiculous clown coat. I suppose even then, I was aware of the importance of pretty clothes uplifting the spirit.

We review our shared past, the stories distorted or believed true by individual members of the family. We laugh, shake our heads at the incongruity of the narratives my cousins are privy to during this brief stay. In our postmodern world we now realize that each storyteller believes his or her perspective of abuse, inequalities or slights to be the correct one, their particular bias informing their view on familial relations.We chortle at the realignments that we think bear no resemblance to the ones we have grown up and old on. Still we laugh, open- mouthed at a tall tale about an apartment building.

My sister produces some of my mother’s old photographs: first husbands and wives are recalled, and we debate who the little boy might be held by the neck by our grandmother in a shapely brocade dress and hat with a veil in a formal bar mitzvah picture, but even the names of Uncle Abe( who lost a leg when it was run over on a Brooklyn Bridge), and his second wife Ethel do not shed light. For the very first time I see Uncle Marks who came first from Europe, went to Boston and became a senator, his wide white moustache suggesting a bandito. I mention the family star, a second or maybe third cousin, definitely removed😜,Howard Shore, international musician, composer of numerous films scores, but he is discussed without surprise or envy, just another relation, son of Bernice and Mac , sister to Frances, Thelma, Irving and Sylvia. My sister contributes,” Terry just died”; who is Terry? I ponder. I recall my mother telling me Mac and Bernice started “ Gift’o’Fruit” so many, many years ago.

When the original family name is recalled, I explain that in fact, we are pronouncing it in correctly, for our explorations at Pier 21 to discover the true dates of our family’s arrival were futile. Futile until a Nova Scotian librarian activist produced a book that inventoried Jewish Polish names so that we could identify through the ship’s manifest the boat, the SS Amsterdam, our grandmother, mothers and aunt’s names and descriptions that had been tallied eloquently in fine penmanship. To this documentation, I remember my mother relating how painful the metal combs pulled through their hair were, digging deeply into scalp as the guards checked heads for lice. But as well, she would recall the red, red tulips they glimpsed at the port of Holland.

We note the number of cousins intermarrying in the shetl in Poland, responsible for the disease of “ the shakes” passed on even into this generation. We collectively shudder at what might still await us by this incestuous gene pool. Hopefully marrying beyond the village gates in Canada and the US has weakened the passage of such diseases.

But if the old or regenerated tales are the sand through we sift to find our common shells, we only begin in this way to rekindle the feeling we shared as energetic cousins thrown together because of blood, strange in a way because our mothers were not close at all. And yet the strong bonds developed as kids are real, we still wanting to be in each other’s lives. The famous stories of Sunday visits or Passover hoopla in the basement while grown ups droned on upstairs are legend, Allan the leader of the kids, commanding the battles between stuffed animals and rubber soldiers, the rest of us , rolling on the floor or jumping up on the bar. My visits to LA as a grade 10 student alone , changing trains in Chicago , with my lacquered hair and pink polyester pants newly purchased at Eatons ,still sharp in my head, and with the languid days roasting in a yellow pockadot two piece on Hermosa Beach, or riding on the backside of a motorcycle were the stuff of adolescent dreams, rescuing me from my dreary life where my existence of nose cosies, and shapeless winter wear dragged me down.

Best of all, we continue where we left off so many years ago. As we survey our wrinkles, curly hair, grasping one another close, we re view the past but also look forward to continuing our presence in one another’s lives. In an art review today a critic refers to Shari Boyle’s “ bridge art”, saying “[i]t’s work that identifies and reinforces our connections; ancestral legends, family histories, psychological landscapes, our struggles, fears and desires: The stuff of being human”( Chris Hampton, the Globe and Mail, December 14, 2017). These meetings with people we love and happen to be related to are like that, part of our personal tapestries bound by the the shared, lost and retrieved narratives- precious and binding ribbons. How lovely to be related to these treasured personalities.

Grappling

With the advent of my birthday celebration in Palm Springs, I’m trying to compose a little speech, but all that comes to mind are the usual platitudes: I’ve lived a good life, pretty well done whatever I desired, travelled, had an excellent marriage, and am exceedingly proud of my offspring; and what matters most is my family, the love I feel for them. Although timeless and true, pretty boring stuff.!The people at my dinner, I hope, will all ready know that I express these truths in my own unique way.

When my elder daughter had her bat mitzvah, I could discourse on her talents and how like a seedling that is cared for, offered environments, opportunities, nutrients and love, she had blossomed. When my son was married, I used the metaphor of a string of pearls-that there are the momentous times that stand out like the gleaming lustrous gems that draw attention, for example, the day you fall in love or are married-but the strands that hold the necklace together, the everyday events are likewise significant, and we need both to keep the necklace together. Perhaps my best oratory was my mother’s eulogy in which I surveyed her life as an immigrant girl chased down the streets with the incantation,” green horn, tin can, five cents apiece” to her fortitude when my dad succumbed to polio along with her roasted chicken loving prepared on Friday nights. After the funeral, someone told me he had heard JFK debate, and my little speech only came second to his remembrance. Incredible praise. The attending rabbi who tried to calm me before I spoke, nonetheless at my conclusion demurred,” You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

My work at OCT involved presentations and I worked extremely hard to craft them, some lasting two days . I drew on a variety of techniques to engage my participants: from examples of paintings to closed eye visualization and response writing to direct talk. And although I am a shy, reticent and a somewhat withdrawn personality, I could perform like an actor turning on , heightening, even dramatizing key issues, with an aim always of engaging my audiences in my presentations. I could tell by the way I held their eyes whether I had been successful or not. If I am boastful, I can attest that my work at the College, particularly in working with the faculties was well done. And I am proud of those days: prompting them to make a connection with their own experiences, encouraging their reflections and offering new information for their consideration, as well as interactive activities in which they could relate new information. It was exhausting but stimulating work. In New Brunswick once, a government official remarked how different my private and public personas were.

Hardly surprising, I recoil from attending holiday functions , for I do not know how to make cocktail chatter chatter, and should an unfortunate guest decide to converse with me, I will not move away from their side, stuck like glue, babbling away, just to avoid not having to begin the process all over again.My mind flies back to those lunchtime tea dances in junior high, a single wallflower unable to vacate my spot in the gym, totally exposed in embarrassment as a misfit.

But at my tiny birthday soirée, I will ,of course , I hope be familiar to my small guest list, delighted to be with those I cherish most on this planet so I shouldn’t worry about a speech. , to pass on wisdom?, to say something they will recall when I am gone😳.In deed as it is being held in a restaurant, it might be too noisy for a few words to be heard anyway . Yet, there is a need to express in a memorable way something of import, as words whether written or used in my professional life, speak to the essence of who I am, and who I have been. Yet, perhaps because what I feel is so deep, I am unable to dislodge the entrapping emotions and put them out into the light of day. Still I fret for providing a way of sharing in speech and elevating it to suggest my heartfelt meaning.But likely, my contribution will be limited to A nod, a hug, a glance, a smile, a way to convey what is at the core of me that frankly eludes me in my imagined speech.

I am reminded of my parents’ childhood admonishments, “You don’t have to say EVERYTHING you know, Pat,” particularly when I divulged family secrets.” Think before you speak,”I was reminded often- as if my loose lips could sink ships. Ironically my work was to commandeer words to my students, and later at OCT in the formation of policy and the development of the standards into clear, concise language with words that ultimately conveyed meaning. And now as I write my blog, I describe events that as a boomer I continue to note on an ongoing basis.

Still, I am bereft of words for my own special occasion, and maybe that is the way it should be, for I hope I am more than just words, good or bad, some thoughtless , I admit. but a being who has tried to touch the lives of those who have granted me access to their souls here and there, allowing me to share their space, their dreams, their thoughts. No words can approximate.

In the end, love takes multiple shapes.

Times- are they a- changing?

When my cousin was a young man, he came back to Toronto from California to visit his girlfriend. The family was beside themselves because he wore white pants in winter, obviously contravening the unbreachable rule that white could not be worn after labour day. It was the cause célèbre back then, all shaking their heads at that affront to civilized society. We should have know he was a trail blazer.

When I read that Prince Harry was marrying his divorced sweetheart, I thought of poor Princess Margaret, the Queen’s harassed sister prevented from marrying her heart’s delight, Peter Townsend, because he had been previously married. Later Prince Charles and Camilla both sheared of former loves were eventually allowed to marry, the first royals allowed to divorce, Henry viii and Anne of Cleves in 1540. Perhaps for to grab at a few vestiges of prior days, Meghan Markle who attended a Catholic high school will actually submit to baptism in the Church of England.

How things change over time. From clothes to technology and mores . And what of the shame and disgrace brought on to a family should a child be conceived out of wedlock. In deed women years back were not even allowed to teach school if they were in the family way. And early paintings hid the improper condition by the empire line dress that allowed for the fabric to billow over the stomach disguising the body shape.

Michael Adams the president of the Environics that surveys, researches and consults with leading thinkers on public opinion, demographics, and trends, spoke in a forum for University of Toronto’s continuing education classes, addressing how Canada has changed as well :perhaps as a response to the country’s population that is now compromised of 40 percent of first and second generation newcomers to Canada. He postulates that around 1970, with the rise of Quebec Nationalism, Canada gradually began to embrace a new ideology of integrating foreigners into our society : one that still had considered Sunday as the Lord’s Day and hence no Sunday shopping- until 1992. How well I recall my mother telling me she, a newcomer to Canada, had been chased down the street with taunts of “tin can, popcorn, five cents a piece.” From our imperial traditions of moose, Mounties and maple syrup and the tight lipped British, we too have altered our attitudes over time. Jews recall the attitude of None is Too Many, the turning back of the ship of refugees on the St. Louis , eventually contrasting it to the acceptance of 60,000 boat people from Viet Nam years later. And ironically too,we learn that most Christmas songs were penned by Jews, reinforcing idealized traditions that never were, as they fled Russia, Poland for America, that mythic land of equality.

What a difference a day, a month or a year makes…

Adams listed our Canadian values of tolerance, respect, the desire for gender equality and acceptance of paying taxes because we trust in government to better our lives. As well, our country has, two official languages.My children in the 70’s attended a duo school that taught both French and English, but many French Immersion schools sprung up over the city. Our thinking was guided by a sense of a broader world space and although Canadian children, unlike their American counterparts, tended to return home after their college educations. But with the purposely widening of a cosmopolitan outlook and view towards the world, we foresaw that our children might permanently leave the nest and locate their futures in places where French might be spoken. I’ve often told the story of our own children’s ease in Paris where they effortlessly slipped into conversations with locals, being accepted as competent speakers of French, worthy of a dialogue. And in fact, a former childhood friend of theirs eventually became a foreign correspondent in Morocco. In considering how we differ from the United States, Adams cited , as well our healthcare and an educational system pretty well equal across the country, again unlike that great gap between public schools in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Ironically to possess the American Dream, one must come to Canada, we believing government in its power to ameliorate our lives. The Americans still debating health care, demonize ours lauding theirs. Yet just last fall, we waited for almost four hours to be seen in Emergency in California.

Maybe because I am almost 70, I can take the long view, comparing life then and life now. It is a truism that people are people and for the most part, we are still built the same with skin, bones and emotions, but we are set, as our ancestors were into changing times, lingering prejudices and a requirement to adapt. Unlike our grandchildren, we did not grow up with iPhones and IPad. Years ago when we visited Disneyland’s Futureland, the question was posed : if you could augment your knowledge with a computer chip placed in your brain, would you? I imagine soon we will.

Cars that drive themselves may appear on the roadways before boomers die. We all ready have vacuums by Dyson who replace Molly Maids. Sadly, kindles replace paper books yet paper proliferates.And the internet through email speeds messaging. New developments and greater research have increased life span. Just read the obits to see how many lives have been prolonged have into the 90’s.

Exposure of male abuse of colleagues is openly condemned, the hypocrisy of it previously known but allowed to persist, an open secret. Pushed into the light of day prior assaults are now being contributed by victims. And truthfully, I believe almost every woman has experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour . I remember arguing with one of my girls about a top I felt too provocative and she asserting, even 20 years ago, she had a right to wear what she wanted. Because I anticipated the impact of said top, I countered her sense of emerging self , but as raging adolescents will do, she prevailed. Years later with more experience of the world, she understood the need to modulate her clothing to avoid those lascivious looks, calls or grabs.. .( obviously not her fault) .Ironically Trump’s own words of pussy- grabbing did not stop his election to the position wherein exemplary behaviour for the nation should be modelled.

Here also, we support the battlecry of the abused, note our radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, accused but released for his unwanted predator behaviour. Unlike his brothers in the US, his case could not be proven, and he has slinked away from society. And although there is the condemnation and chastisement for Lindsay Shepherd, a lecturer at Laurier University reprimanded for showing a video debate on the use of sexist pronouns by a U of T professor. As Alice might murmur, life gets stranger and stranger. We seem to push and pull away and towards, unable to find as Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others preached, “the middle road.” But even as I watch Outlanders and protagonist Claire’s return to 300 years earlier in Scotland, and her knowledge of who will succeed and who will fail, I am caught as we all by the evolution and its backward thrust of society that steadfastly maintains people in its maw, twisting and turning them as the world responds to the wisdom or folly of those making and enforcing the rules of civility.

Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

Last Week in Washington

Although it was freezing cold wandering the streets in Georgetown, one cannot help but be inspired by Washington, obvious in its fantastic architecture, cobbled streets, parks and historical sites. Best of all for me were the free museums on the Mall. At least the city’s poor have access to the cultural benefits, not worrying that the cost might mean less food, clothes or necessities for families. In Toronto, the AGO, Aga Khan, Science Centre and even the ROM preclude a wander after 4 pm when most parents are struggling after a long day’s work, contemplating what’s for supper or how to get the kids to do their homework. It certainly drives me crazy that the advantages of dawdling in a gallery is not available because of the prohibitive price point.

In Washington, we asked taxi cab drivers if they had noticed a change since Trump had become president, an incomprehensible affront to this great city. Most only volunteered that it was more expensive to live and work there now. So fortunately- so far- these institutions of culture and learning are still possible retreats for anyone who chooses. And in deed the fabulous newly opened National African- American Museum of Culture and History was filled with families, sitting, chatting and viewing the powerful exhibitions.

Interestingly at the Hirschhorn Museum, we were able to view Ai Weiwei’s “Trace, “an exhibition of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, activists and dissenters. Constructed by hundreds of volunteers in Lego bricks, the entire installation was originally housed at Alcatraz Prisoner in their New Industries Building where prisoners once worked washing off-shore laundry and making cargo nets for the navy, among other jobs for a few cents per hour or timeoff their sentences.

So, unlike Washington’s solo presentation of “Trace”, Alcatraz’s the first room of the installation at Alcatraz housed “With Wind” which contained an enormous colourful and traditional flying Chinese dragon. Formed from smaller kites, the airy sculpture loomed from the ceiling, filling the enormous space. As well, scattered throughout the room were representations of birds and flowers. Contradictions between the freedom of the art and the building that was once used for prison labor and now hosts a bird habitat are obvious. In an adjacent room “Trace” was shown. And finally, the third part of the exhibit “Refaction” was constructed to be peered at through windows.Here Weiwei located a huge wing spread structure resembling an enormous truncated bird, feathers replaced with reflective metal panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.

This reminded me of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen’s work in which he arranges golf bags, broken plastic chairs ,Nike running shoes and contemporary items to suggest the sacred elements of Canada’s native peoples. Like Jungen, Weiwei highlights cultures that have been used and abused by governments, and in the actual Weiwei location for ” Trace”, the impact of capitalism and slave labor to produce goods, all addressing concerns of freedom and the loss thereof.The scale of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island itself being 22 miles ,has detained everyone from the Hopi to Al Capone to “hard-case” military prisoners; therefore, because of the prison’s mammoth size , it is no surprise that the Hirschhorn is representing only a segment of the entire production.

Yet, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has criticized the exhibit saying it was “ blunt and provocative”, also suggesting it could be taken in at a glance.At the Hirschhorn’s entrance is a wall of decorative design, actually wallpaper, that could easily be a print for a Hermes scarf as the clarity of objects and even the bronze colour scheme appear well drawn, nicely laid out , and well! pretty. Looking closer, the viewer recognizes these depicted symbols are instruments of oppression such as observation cameras and handcuffs that in Weiwei’s hands are refigured, overlapped and lose their menacing intent as restricting forces by authoritarian governments.The repetitive recognizable bird in the wallpaper is symbolized by the Tweet, and evenly interspersed with these other means of repression, making clear that Weiwei’s active protests, is his voice in his tweets : impossible to ignore worldwide. And much like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, his “Readymades”, in particular the urinal or “ Fountain” focus on ordinary objects that have been liberated from their commonplace surroundings, changing and neutralizing their impact on the audience, here isolating the intrusive objects that spy and pry, removing their claws. The Surrealists knew that dislocating an object from its home context did just that: rendering the ordinary extraordinary and altering the intent and purpose of the object.

Yet walking through the rooms of the Hirschhorn, if form, function and content can combine, they do so here, for the simple Lego brick, ubiquitous, stands for outrage all over the world, of the abrogation of human rights, straight forward, simple. It is not a message that requires much unpacking. The process of identifying the prisoners took six months and each Lego portrait required about 10,000 blocks, the design process also complicated by Weiwei’s being detained in China.And although one might walk through the installation in a half hour or so, the faces not realistic are the purposely blurred images associated with subjugation, mugshots for dossiers.

The grandmothers who marched daily for the release of their children and grandchildren in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo also stood as a crowd of indistinguishable faces too, chanting with one demand. Here Weiwei gives these people in the “Trace” Lego portraits , most names previously unknown, voice. In the Alcatraz catalogue, @ Aiweialcatraz, Weiwei comments on the relationship of the individual to the collective, one person subsumed by their community, long championed by the Chinese. And so, whether in captivity or freedom, the artistic knife cuts both ways, attesting to the need for global support for the individual, and the importance of putting a single name, a separate portrait to the community of dissidents presented here who are hidden, locked away, banished or disappeared forever. The intent of the installation exhorts and communicates the importance of communicating this message to both individuals and groups, by twitter, exhibitions, social media, whatever in order to change , stop and shut down suppressive act by authoritarian governments , their spies and agencies.

I’m sensitive to Kennicott’s criticism as I think of flashing neon art by Tracy Emin, or most art that is perceived at an obvious level, but deeper analyses engages the mind further. For example Sol Le Wit, Judy Chicago, or even Rothko’s tonal paintings. As well the 48,000 handmade pieces that comprised the Aids Memorial Quilt or All Hands on Deck by activists Davis and Scolnik are stark and forthright, the message uncomplicated as art is used as protest for societal issues.That “Trace” was originally shown “ “With Wind” and “Refaction” at Alcatraz does bolster the metaphor and makes for more interesting connections to the realms of the artistic and aesthetic And similarly, Soleil Levant, Weiwei’s exhibit of 3500 salvaged life jackets of the 8,000 refuges who died or disappeared en route to the Greek Island of Lesbos speaks to the human desire to be free, the dangerous failed attempts and inclement sanctuaries. This exhibit observable from the street in Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Harbour was mounted for World Refugee day, and “Trace” continues to maintain dialogues that revolve around and are centred on loss and deprivation of human rights.The purpose is- after all- to commandeer art to attack, protest and change attitudes.

From this blog entry, it is obvious how charged I felt about Weiwei and Kennicott’s criticism. Above all, a backdrop of fantastic Washington with its strange president felt an affront to artistic sensibilities. But, in spite of the critic’s right to express his personal views,and exert his freedom of speech, at least art of protest can be displayed and shown here, even inhabiting a federal penitentiary ! Perhaps small comfort to those incarcerated around the world, but an acknowledgement of the struggle that has cost lives and an active attempt to put pressure on governments to respond. Thanks too to Amnesty International who compiled the list to Weiwei that continues to be the world’s watchdog.

But even in ” Trace”, we witness disparities, for Aung San Suu Kyi is memorialized as an advocate of human rights ( portrait created before the world knew of the Rohingya deportation) along side Nelson Mandela, Rwanda’s Agnes Uwimana Nkusi who alleged corruption in the 2010 election, Omid Kokanee , 2014 Sakharov Prize winner, whose family was threatened unless he contribute to Iran’s development of Nuclear program….and so many many more….

And I think of the interview in Washington with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who commented on her lifelong friendship with now passed Anthony Scalia, explaining they were working towards the same objective, withholding the constitution, different views but one purpose.

At least , the children of Washington are free to look and think and enter museums and cultural institutions and reflect on the stories, the history and narratives compiled by artists like Weiwei whose protests sprouted long long ago, providing artists a means to counter the workings of their systems that would strip the rights and freedoms of citizens worldwide.

From an interview with Douglas Gillies, December, 1994, he quoted Diogenes who said,

“The most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.”Gilles continued,”…for me, free speech is not a tactic, not something to win for political…free speech something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is….that’s what marks us from the stones and the stars…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

A Sobering Blog offering

When I write my blog, believe or not, I try to be upbeat and positive- in spite of my children’s comments of ‘ oh mom” as I somehow continually revert back to my halcyon baby boomer days ( hey, the title is of the blog is blogging BOOMER!) of shaking my love beads, chatting in UC’s grassy quadrangle or reflecting on some aspects that tend to focus on the march of time. Last week stymied by their criticisms, I figured I would not deal with the overwhelming thoughts that have dominated these last few days. Yet, Sandra Martin’s presentation at U of T’s lecture series about a good death seemed an apropos jumping off spot and so I gave in and could not resist my penchant towards a glass half full, or perhaps in this case, one might say, one emptied all together.

After describing how Canada has approached a new and lack of clear fulfillment towards physician assisted dying, Sandra Martin invited the assembled to talk with their friends and family about how and when they would choose to end their lives. She proposed for herself a Victorian styled farewell surrounded by loved ones in a cosy bed, a fireplace and maybe even a cat brushing her knees. Her thoughts concerned what had been considered a” good death” triggered by her own mother’s passing, but upon deeper reflection she attested to too many years her mother spent suffering and an end that came with rasping breaths and frequent moans of pain in a hospital bed. Juxtaposing this struggle to choosing our own finalities, she cited Oregon, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Quebec where people thoughtfully cogitate and make that difficult decision. Stipulating the progress of Canada’s law with the Kay Carter law, Sue Rodriguez cases and others she spoke patiently, identifying Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of the tipping point , and when the implausible can and does become real. It was a serious and engaging lecture, particularly as the audience attending are moving not away but towards this final frontier.So it matters muchly, even for those of us who can at the moment move freely with merely achey limbs and appear to have thoughts and memories if waning, still more or less with the exception of the forgotten name or misplaced link in a conversation, in tact.

It is a sobering thought to ruminate on our final moments.Supportive of palliatives care and the fine work of health care professionals who ease patients into the next stage, Martin nonetheless proposed we should have control over our bodies. And why should we not?

I thought of my good friend’s husband this week and her note, telling me, we lost X tonight.” He passed very peacefully”, she wrote. She, as another friend last winter, never expected their partners would not return home after a successful operation or procedure. But complications from degenerative diseases seemed to combine, deepen and override any success of recovery. And so, these women returned home by themselves to sort through their beloveds’ things, replan their lives and plod along without their dear ones who had accompanied them, raised their children with, grown old with and like worn but comfortable shoes, had walked with through their days, both sad and happy.

AND then there was Doc Halladay’s untimely death as he plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. Only 40, a true hero with not only exemplary work habits, prodigious skill as a pitcher for the Jays, but also a true heart that was demonstrated in his charity work for sick kids.He too was waylaid by Death. So terribly unfair to lose the good guys, our heroes big and small, and a reminder we were headed towards Remembrance Day overloaded with the dead in Flanders Field. How well we know that Death spares no person and we all must go to our graves. Not a sports fan, I cried for Halladay, a” gitta neshema” as Jews would say : “ a good soul”.

Sometimes such as in Halladay’s death, it is inexplicable why, an exemplar to all, is snatched from life. We like trusting children want to believe in some kindly Power who protects the just, but even my friends’ husbands, hard workers, fathers and grandfathers, who might have lived at least 10-15 years longer met their final destination. Authors toy with the idea of an afterlife, fantasizing green hills and angels, and religions of course propose – or not- where we might wander in bliss after the years of living are terminated here on this inscrutable planet. But in spite of the glowing light some have reported at the beckon of the long tunnel or the cloud of butterflies that descends or follows mourners, we simply cannot know if we will be greeted on the other side . But more likely, it is a dreamless forever sleep. It is in deed the last frontier from which few ever return.

In the obits last week too, in The Star’s Birth and Death notices, someone had written, “On November 6, a date of her own choosing, Ronni had ended a five- year struggle with Multiple System Atrophy.” I was struck by that introductory phase “ of her own choosing” asserting it was her choice. This weekend with a battery of lawyers, I was also informed that nurses too aid in assisting the process.

As Sandra Martin said, “ Encourage the communication. Talk about what you would like and how you desire to finish off your days, especially while you are lucid enough to make the decisions.” Although these are not the talks we relish, they are necessary ones: in order to maintain control over our bodies.

So although this may not have been an uplifting blog, it nonetheless speaks to an issue raised last week and exemplified by Halladay’s, my friends’ husbands and all who went to fight and die in war, their choice or not.

Welcoming del Toro’s Monsters

An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.

But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.

My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.

Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.

 A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called  monsters  have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh  bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.

On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking  essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.

My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s  well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor,  all he has stored and read,  leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.  

And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.

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I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students  at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
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Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will  understand what I mean.

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