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Archive for the month “December, 2013”

California Story: Ghosts in the Glade

Ghosts in the Glade

A small girl in a bouffant ballet skirt darts in and out of the shady glade. I watch her dance with her shadow, lost in the patterns her tiny feet create. She appears and disappears into the green shadows, moving in and out of the sunshine. If this were a movie, she might re-emerge as a grown woman. We are, after all, in film country, for this is L.A.

I am here, again, after more than thirty years for the occasion of my second cousin’s wedding. Like a moment from a Hollywood story, every detail from the Jackie-O dresses to the Spanish-style mansion and embroidered chuppa (wedding canopy) is picture perfect. The flowergirl‘s twirling is a blur of frothy white, a snapshot of innocence that transports me back to the best time of my adolescence. I am fifteen again, excited about my trip to California. In spite of restrictive, worrying parents, I have been allowed to travel to Los Angeles. With the promise, “She’ll be safe”, my aunt reassures my parents and I am catapulted into a sanctioned summer vacation at my favorite cousins far from home.

My cousins have recently moved away to Los Angeles so that my uncle can work with his brothers in the hotel business, but the other story is that the family wishes to start a life away from the domineering Buba. She is a distant, once beautiful woman, a true matriarch dethroned by the move to Canada from Poland: from butchershop heiress to bathroom cleaner. Her overt favoritism for my aunt is legend, but we are all summoned on the holidays to appear at her house where dinners are prolonged for hours around the “good” dining room table; ancient white tablecloths and sparking new dishes. I have celebrated so many holidays with my cousins that I ache at the loss of my cousins’ move to the United States.

I think of my cousin Allan’s hundreds of tiny, rubber soldiers and how he organizes them, and arranges them for battle, and then, hurls them off the bar ledge after Passover dinners in my grandparents’ recreation room. We fight stuffed animals; we jump on overstuffed furniture; we sneak my Buba’s delicious dung-colored raisin wine; we play tricks; we hoot; we whoop; we play hide and seek, knowing Allan will always find us. We fall into delighted bundles of legs and arms, and we topple over one another in heaps of enduring affection and boundless energy. We would die for Allan! Our parents in lacy shawls and Borsalino hats gather us up at 10:30 and carry us home exhausted.

“Besides,” my mother persuades my unconvinced father, “The grandparents will soon be visiting California, too.” So the wild, careless ways of American Jews will be mitigated Or at least, so my parents are lead to believe. I hear the sound of discussion in the night, the volley of voices back and forth between my parents, my father’s voice, dark, intimidating, but in the end, my mother prevails.

As a family, we had once traveled by plane to California when I was 7 or 8. Perhaps it was the Miami-like weather or promises of the golden land ( golden medina) that had entreated parts of our family to move there from frigid Canada With always the hope for a better world, to move from the tailoring factories and sweatshops, and begin a fresh, open future, immigrants like Daddy’s Aunt Annie, Aunt Dora, Uncles Max and Aunt Dora had departed for the better, sunnier climes of the South. But there are scary stories, too, of polio epidemics that caused some relations to retreat back to Canada.

I recalled being welcomed by my father’s loving family to the land of palm trees, and my sister celebrating her fourth birthday in an amusement park in San Fernando Valley. We were allowed endless rides on merry-go-rounds of large-eyed horses, and on my sister’s birthday cake with white icing stood perfect tiny multicolored paper umbrellas. The relatives’ names, sons and daughters of the whole mishpocha, were Kim and Julius and Maurice and Annette and Frances, and Harry’s son, Steven, had even produced a record with promises from New York of a contract. And Maurice, a blurry fellow, was a film extra. Steven drove us, without our parents, through the Hollywood Hills at night in a stationwagon and paid us attention, even though we were just little girls, my sister and me.

And crusty old uncle Joe from Las Vegas, the auctioneer with no wife or children, rumored to live with showgirls from time to time, took us to a special restaurant where the trout we caught were prepared for our supper. In Los Angeles, my father refused to try Chinese food, sure that he would be eating kidnapped cats. He left L.A. early because the smog made it difficult for him to breathe and caused his asthma to act up. Perhaps this memory causes him to disapprove of my trip to Los Angeles. My mother reminds me of these facts as admonishments, facts that I must have heard, but have chosen to forget as if they might somehow temper my fascination with this American Eden. Showgirls, trout, tiny umbrellas and never ending sun do not provide indictments rather incentives to return to California.

Now an adolescent, I prepare carefully for this new odyssey to the world of Walt Disney and loose living. My hair is lacquered straight at the hairdresser’s and my mother allows me to buy a cottoncandy coloured polyester outfit from Eaton’s. I note it pulls at my hips, but I look away from the bulges. Almost the minute Grade 10 ends, I run home to pack. I am so excited that I can barely control the delight that threatens to spill over and explode in my quivering body. Instead of last year’s summer job stuffing envelopes for a family friend, I am free.

I ride, sitting up, for three days, only changing trains once when I, a person often lost in local streets, boards the connecting train to L.A: how exotic to refer to a place with only its initials. It’s like a sexy nickname that only hints at what is hidden.

In Chicago where I change trains, I overhear a Texan, in a huge cowboy hat ,proclaim in a deep throated voice, “We eat steaks for breakfast.” I giggle to myself at this foolish outburst. Does he also eat French fries and ketchup with his steak? In Cleveland, a gaggle of rabbinic boys with dangling sidelocks and skullcaps board the train. Their seat numbers are next to mine. They share their smelly delicious meat sandwiches with me at the back of the car. I have never even spoken with any really religious people, let alone boys like these.

Later, I wonder if my female presence has contaminated their special sanctity, yet in my memories I recall their bobbing, hobnobbing heads, friendly, affable, laughing interchanges-just like regular kids. Still, I must have intuited this meeting as a forbidden pause in the life of the orthodox, for I do not collect Isaac and Moishe’s phone numbers in my little address book.

The train passes through a place called “Needles” and the air conditioning breaks down. It is 92 degrees. It is impossible to sleep because of the heat. But I never sleep anyway, sitting up. It does not matter because I am on an adventure, entering a new world.
I arrive in Los Angeles, disheveled, askew, bleary –eyed, but full of anticipation. More than a journey alone by myself, it is in Los Angeles, that my real life will begin as I descend down into my cousins’ waiting arms. I hear the Beach Boys in my head, crooning “Little Surfer Girl” and I wonder if in my bold yellow pockadot 2-piece ,I could ever be that surfer girl…little surfer girl…

Although I am shown the regular haunts of Disney, La Brea Tar Pits, Knots Berry Farm and the Farmer’s Market, I soon discover that parents inevitably disappear and play almost no role in this place: they are merely smiling props, unheeded, background noise. Once the introductory phase of seeable sights and entertainments ends, my aunt and uncle rarely intrude. There are no regularly scheduled meals here. We just float to our desires. My cousins become my guides and take over my initiation. Even my grandparents’ arrival produces no ripples to our lifestyle. They are working hard at trying to convince my aunt to return home to Canada.

My cool cousin Allan has a separate space attached to the house. He is the king of kids and he presides over a boisterous crew of Jewish club kids who worship him along with my very favorite relation in the entire world, his sister, Shelley. Their brothers, Robin and Ken, are too young to hang out with us and so, are swallowed up by the television shows they watch continuously somewhere deep in the house. Occasionally I see them on the street, playing catch. I wave to them in the distance: they could be in Canada for all the connection I have with them.

To the jokes and monologues of the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin and Bill Cosby on the record player, Allan holds court. We eat potatoes chips non-stop, play monopoly or cards late into the night and no one even notices. There are late night dances at the Jewish Centre. Shelley laughs because I wear a girdle under my pedal pusher pants. Allan really listens to me and we have real conversations. This is heaven. Viet Nam is far away for Allan. Later when he returns to Canada to deliberate about serving his country ( even though he has never taken out American citizenship),the Canadian clan is aghast that he would wear white pants in winter. They say he has “gone American. ”, but Allan decides to go to war anyway, saying he feels a responsibility to the States.

We say he has been brainwashed, even though he has refused to pledge alliance to the flag with his hand over his heart every day at school. For this, he has been labeled a “trouble maker” when they call home from school to report his lack of conformity. Sadly, the experience of friendly fire will cloud much of his later life.

When I am 15 and talking with Allan, he is the coolest dude, ever and I am, too, his loyal follower. In this place, I seem to belong, not set apart from the popular girls at school who either ignore me, or gab and cluster in cliques in their pearls and poodle-skirts. They speak another language that makes me feel my hips are gargantuan, my nose huge, my clothes ridiculous. When I knit a nose-cozy in the winter, they laugh uproariously. I pretend that I do not care.

But here, we dream on the beach all day, lifting our bronzed heads only to sip cherry cokes or lazily roll onto our backs, and await the sun to lick our tanning bodies. We spend all day in the sun. We go grunion hunting at dusk. I’m part of my cool cousins’ crowd. I am accepted in a hub of friendly faces. Someone asks, “Hey, do you live in an igloo? Do you drive a dogsled?” I think this is a cruel joke, and I bristle a bit, but the faces are serious, not mean. ”Are you crazy?”, I blurt out, amazed at their ignorance. Richard raises his tousled blonde head and says, “ My mom’s from Canada and she told me summer’s hot like this.” There are guffaws, easy laughter, relaxed acknowledgements that my difference, in spite of my accentuated syllables is just fine- cool.

I am gradually transforming. I learn how to outline my eyes in black liquid. My cousin takes me to a place that will burn off my split ends. My bangs lay flat. I no longer wear a girdle under my pedal pushers. I smile at myself in the mirror. My beautiful cousins, their friends and I: seamless. The beach where we lounge and bake is even called Hermosa: beautiful. I am floating in happiness.

We rise early and slip from our beds to scale high hills in the pre-morning fog and watch the sun rise, then trundle off to gorge ourselves on blueberry pancakes with whipped cream and nuts. I eat my first Big Mac here, washed down by a chocolate shake, feeling somewhat guilty that I have consumed both milk and un-kosher meat- together- but it is the most delicious meal I have ever tasted. I ride on the back of motorscoters and cruise dangerously through traffic, my curly hair unfurling like a flag of freedom. My mother would kill me if she knew, but she doesn’t and no one will tell. Kids feel protected, empowered and impervious here, blissfully so.

When I must leave for home at the end of the summer, I cling to my cousins, weeping because I know I have been exiled from paradise.

My grandfather recalls such weeping when families were torn apart in Europe, the old country. He shakes his head in disbelief as he relates this to my mother later. He cannot imagine that in six short weeks such bonds could form.

I return home, more confident, relaxed, but when I use the new words “ bitchen” and “boss” my new summer vocabulary, my few friends turn away in disgust. My parents too censor the way I speak. They disparage my “wild summer” and my father regrets ever letting me go. He looks darkly at my mother. I wonder which parts were wild: the potato chips, the beach, the split ends burnt off my hair?

I return to the lone girl I was before my trip.

* * *

So after thirty years, I have returned: Allan now married to Shelley’s best friend, Kathy, has three kids, Shelley divorced, presently a Buddhist and a landscape architect; my aunt, uncle and grandparents now dead; the club kids dispersed across America, or grown into middle age here in L.A.

This time I am accompanied on my trip by my mother and daughter. I recognize the old faces: wrinkles at the eyes, baldheads hidden beneath baseball caps, welcoming smiles of recognition. My memories recalled, I again ponder why those days had been considered “my wild times”. The old gang says, “You haven’t changed.” I am as surprised as I was at the mention of dogsleds. Rich says, “ Your daughter looks just like you at that age.” I know this is not true. Erica glides, has confidence and style like a real “surfer girl”, but I am comforted that a memory of me might be like my dazzling girl.

Even now, I am transfixed by Allan anew, and again, I am swept away by my love for Shelley.

Like the twirling child in the wedding party who seeks the cool enchantment of the trees, I continue to long for summers in California. I wonder how I would have grown up without those days where I too twirled and pirouetted-like the flowergirl- out of the shadows into the sunlight-even briefly.

Lesson from Ladies at 90

When I went back to university to continue my studies in Art History, I had a friend who had started out in chemistry. She had even obtained a degree but had decided what she was really interested in was art. I always admired the fact that some people have both right and left sides to their brains as I am a possessor of only the right-side. ☹

I could not possibly imagine switching from art to science. Throughout my entire life, it has been books and pictures. If I had been a sufficiently serious student first time round, I would have gone directly towards art history.

Perhaps it would not have made a difference back in 1968 because even in 1980 when I did receive my Masters, there were few women with whom to study. At University of Toronto, I the talented accomplished wives of art history profs were permitted a course here or there on the main campus, but for the most part, they were assigned to classes in Scarborough or at other locations, then far from the downtown action on St. George.

The only shining light was Bogmilia Welsh-Ovcharov who dazzled on Van Gogh when her time came to finally teach on what was known as “ the main campus”. She was later responsible for the brilliant show on the birth of Cloisonnism at the AGO . I recall a derisive attack made on a critique of Van Gogh years before by Griselda Pollock because of its Marxist leanings, and yet years later the AGO adopted it as the official one for viewing the exhibit! How times and perspectives change. Suffice it to say that 1840 was considered modern in the 80’s at U of T and I hardly shone in my Giotto classes nor with my stodgy instructors.

But I always loved the visual, maybe what Paul Klee called ” taking a line for a walk.” I always drew-mucka-pucka, as my parents called my doddles. My father’s intricate circuits that covered every margin or cakebox surface were real explorations of electricity, but my sketches were frivolous. Still I scribbled and my parents- although lovers of music- must have endured my delight of crayon, pencil and paper.

My first painting in kindergarten displayed an acrobat in a progressive series of movements throughout the air, thought quite original for my age. And my teacher of an afterschool class on Wednesdays ( spoiled because I had to display my underpants to a threatening small boy in order to pass on the street to get home) lauded my pictures of Jack and Jill as they climbed up their steep hill.

One of my treasured memories is of my father somehow managing to procure Andrew Loomis’s art book for me on Queen Street. This was a time before there were broken down curbs or parking spaces for the handicapped and he was a polio victim, having to use braces and crutches. How he parked and carried the rather large book home and even remembered that I longed for it is a mystery. Later I wrote an article in Ars Medica on how much that gesture by my father meant to me.

Throughout my university years, I would attend Central Tech high school at night for figure drawing or in the summer where I enrolled in their evening art classes.

Interestingly enough I had wanted to go to Art School but fortunately my parents did not approve. I say “ fortunately” now because eventually we discover our true talents, not places we just visit dally. Reproducing Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra , badly I might add, or other movie stars does not indicate great talent. In retrospect I now understand I would not have been an artist, perhaps an art historian or critic, but although I have the passion I do not own the talent.

So the wisdom of parents set me on the right path. Even more importantly, I eventually met my husband, the enduring love of my life. Had I gone another route, perhaps, another door would have opened, but I can look back at my studies and my path as successful and rewarding.

This is a very long way of introducing today’s topic: the 90 year old ladies at my drawing class. My son would roll his eyes and say, Just get to the point. OK, I know I am a lateral thinker who feels I must not ignore any morsel of context. ( apologies to readers.)

I draw at a community center every Thursday afternoon. By serendipity, someone I barely knew told me there was an opening in her group. I must admit being surprised when I climbed the 2 flights to the room the first day to encounter these more than senior citizens.

I am a rather introverted person so I barely speak but over my 2 years as participant, I have begun to discover the stories of these very, very talented women:

There is Rose, likely the best drawer and certainly the most consummate portraitist of the group. I’m not sure of her exact age but she is likely in her late 80’s. She appears every class perfectly coiffed; I couldn’t look more grubby in sweats and unwashed hair. She has an elegance about her.

She confided that many years ago a teacher encouraged her parents to allow her to enrol in an art program because she had all ready revealed her ability. Her parents did change her school to Central Tech, and she hoped to continue on with a life in art; however, when her father needed a new factory worker, she was pulled from the program. In a quiet voice, Rose stated simply, “I’ve forgiven them “.

Eventually, she acquired a directorial position in a well-known arts association in the city, a job she loved because she could take as many arts classes as she wanted. She was radiant as she told me this. Her point was that you can follow your dream if you really want to.

Then there is my little Scottish friend Muriel. I know she is at least 90, and attends regularly. She has strong opinions on absolutely everything. She much prefers a clothed costume model to the nudes the rest of us want.

I think of her as a small twisted nut, wearing a little hat. Her life too contains a story : as after her first husband was killed in world War 1!!!!, she remarried an engineer from South Africa and came to Canada. She tells me she brought podiatry to Canada.

And I believe her.

She reveals that her aunt went to university in Scotland and it sounds as if she and her sister were raised in wealth. Her unmarried son lives with her. And she has a daughter pursuing a doctorate in B.C. She’s craggy and cranky. But, there is something about little Muriel, a tenacity, a clear-thinkingness, a stick-to-it-ness, a to-hell-with –the –rest of –you that attracts me. Of all the ladies in the group, I was most drawn to her and spent the first year conversing only with her. Last week, she said, as if we were real buds, “ Call me up during the holidays”. Me and a 90 year old hanging out!

I love Joan as well. She does both soft and strong watercolours of the models and their props on tiny bits of paper. The colours she uses are lush and luminescent. She drives quite a distance to attend and she has two granddaughters with the old fashioned names, Pearl and Rose. I imagine Joan teaching the girls how to paint while drinking tea from tiny childsized cups. I don’t know much about Joan’s background but once, slightly down, she revealed, “ I decided to take Joan to lunch”, and I thought why not? Treat yourself and feel special. Lovely Joan , I think, is only in her late 70’s.

Because I don’t talk much, I haven’t spoken to many although just last week I did chat with Anne whom I discovered is from Queensland, Australia but has been here since the 60’s. She said, “ You never think you will stay, but you do.”

There are some younger? members and I’ve just discovered that Maxine has 3 children like me, some grandkids and shares some of the same views we have about the younger generation, laughing at the phrase used for our grandkids by their parents, for example “use your words”, or pondering why we can’t have regular weekly suppers with the family (they are too busy with the numerous activities, of course).

But it is the spunk of the older women to attend regularly, to seriously approach their work and produce, and produce and produce excellent work. That fills me with pride and hope for old age. And this group has been together than more than 18 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these women have read Marilyn French’s (1977) The Women’s Room , Simoine de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), or Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) . Last week Anne suggested I read Keith Richards’ autobiography and we both laughingly agreed that Mick Jagger is very sexy on stage.

These ladies remind me of my Auntie Marion who was a kind of mentor for me. She in a lofty manner discoursed on books, film and we shared a love of art. She bought me my first set of oil paints although I had no idea how to use them. (Presently I’m learning). She took me to Europe when I was 18 and so began my summer trips to view the originals I had studied in my art history classes. She had sparse hair and wore extravagant hats like Auntie Mame. She went to university in her middle age and knew about all things new and trendy.

My father hated her pomp, how she looked down on him as coarse and not knowledgeable in the arts- even though the work of his life was music.

Still I loved to drop by her house on Forest Hill Road, be served tea, be included in her soirees and feel grown up.

I did love her and maybe even saw her as a role model.

Until I wrote this just now I had never connected my Auntie Marion with this group of ladies. It is like John Polyani the Noble Prize writer (1986) who wrote: we know more than we think we know. Polyani’s obit reveals he considered becoming a poet, but decided to work with chemical reactions in Chemistry. I’ve almost come full circle in my praise of those lucky individuals who can commandeer both sides of the brain.

I’m interested in my revelation about my aunt, or maybe I’m only just connecting the dots of old ladies and myself.

Animal Stories, Groupon, the Gardiner and I

Good for Groupons

Several months ago I bought a Groupon voucher. Who could pass up an admittance to the Gardiner Museum of ceramics for only  $5.00, so I bought two. The problem is that these Groupons have a shelf life and I knew that somewhere in November they would come due. I checked the programing for the museum and noticed that their yearly decoration of Twelve Christmas Trees by designers was beyond the date of my tickets.  L What was on was “Animal Stories”.

Number #2 daughter has way too many cats and dogs for my liking, but I do enjoy reading my grandson’s stories that use animal personae in their themes. Just recently I’ve discovered “Pete the Cat” who sings in his school shoes, among other things. And do any of you remember that Beatrix Potter’s animal stories in tiny format, collectibles when you purchased gas! A small collection of those animal stories still lives in one of our children’s bedroom upstairs.

Thinking about animals prompts thoughts about Siegfried and Roy and the tiger attack that ended their career in 2003, Babar, dogs both big and small captured in family portraits with American presidents, zoo structures, circuses like Cirque de Soleil that does not use animals, alleycats…

Not really overwhelmed with the theme but refusing to forgo my coupon of $5 whole dollars ( perhaps a boomer trait?), I decided to invite a friend I hadn’t  seen in quite a while and  make a day of  it.

Besides, this museum is a jewel and from time to time I do check it out – with or without coupons. The Gardiner’s promo read  “ From household pets to mythical beasts, animals have forever been an active part of human existence, an inexhaustible trigger of the imagination.”  And I, of course, am a big fan of imagination.

In the elevator en route up to the exhibit, a volunteer volunteered, “This is the best curated exhibit I’ve seen here and I’ve worked here for five years.” Her words were prophetic.

Quickly taking the exhibit in in one encompassing sweep, I note that besides gleamingly beautiful pieces artfully curated, the story of animals in art suggests an educational experience and the role of animals in research and society and how on our daily lives have been impacted by those trends over centuries.

At the entrance Five Liters—Avitus, Reptilis, Domesticus by Canadian artist Wendy Walgate initiates this idea as multicolored reptiles, farm animals and birds are contained in lab beakers, superficially looking like plastic toys that our children might arrange in play. Her message is anything but playful.

A small plate depicts the ordinance given man over animals in the Bible. This motif is subtly threaded throughout the show as an underlying message of societal relationship to animals.

Continuing on, the exhibit highlights the search for other worlds and discovery of  new worlds by Europeans explorers like Columbus and Vasco da Gama who brought back strange fruits, wares, animals, but especially birds from the Asia and India.

Later in the 1700’s, the continued penchant to conquer and build power by empires fostered the wealthy’s fascination of the exotic along with the aristocrats’ delight in exhibiting precious objects, rivaling collection after collection with bizarre, colorful and intriguing animal representations in porcelain, ceramic and clay.

I gawk at a soup tureen of a perfect boar’s head, life-size and complete with nostril holes to expel the boiling soup. Our docent explains that the diners at the table would have become aware that their meal offered boar before they were served: not so subtle menu suggestions.  On table, instead of melting wax figurines, marzipan delights and ice sculptures lit by candlelight at sumptuous dinners, ceramic leopards and wild animals were solidly incorporated into table designs.

Similarly the hunt played such a role in the lives of the rich that they would imbibe a hot drink from a rabbit or hound-shaped head vessel that required no handles as the servants would await their return  with these drinking vessels, no doubt in their shivering hands . I think of the 15th Century Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, the Limbourg Brothers, for example, but it is simple peasants and their domestic very un-exotic animals that I picture in my head.

I turn my attention back to the exhibit, but quick on the heels of the arrival of parrots and elephants to Europe are the observant naturalists such as George  Edwards in the 18th Century revered as the father of British ornithology. As well Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière establish a backdrop of illustrations that circumscribe these walls in the Gardiner : one of the most important works published in France in the 18th Century. These drawings while portraying animals in their natural habitats occasionally veer towards the designer’s imagination as we note that camels do not reside on grass with evergreen trees.

Not completely accurate, they, at least, describe an animal world emerging in its own right.

In the 19th Century, John James Audubon would also turn his desire for identifying and categorizing birds into illustrations, conducting the first known bird-banding and creating his own museum in the United States.

A black and white funeral urn inspired by Charles Darwin reminds the viewer of the connection between life and art.  Complete with a brain as stopper that is surrounded by four forms that evolve from crouching monkey to upright moving man, this piece speaks to Darwin’s discoveries and theories that continue to be widely debated event today. Small tea paraphernalia set beside the urn play on these ideas as the handles are formed by monkey and the decoration is jungle-like. Where there is levity in the large urn, these pieces feel ironic and playful as social commentary.

The desire for the rich to create their own menageries and later zoos is again documented in clay and porcelain. There is Jumbo, the beloved elephant from the London Zoo sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882 and whose sad death struck by a train occurred near our own St. Thomas.

And Clara, one of three rinocheroses in Europe at the time, owned by Sichterman the director of the Dutch East India Company in Bengal, later toured many towns in Europe.  She is immortalized in porcelain here, distorted with an added spine outcropping, and an armourlike covering based on a 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Durer. I am reminded of the Dutch’s love of the material, especially mercantile goods as loving displayed in the 17th Century portraits by Chardin, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals.

Clay depictions of bears whose noses were pierced and treated as oddities for exhibitions reinforces for the viewer man’s decision for dominance over animals that have been domesticated for profit and ridicule. In this way, the Gardiner museum chronicles the treatment of animals throughout time.  Included in the exhibit is the taxidermy of a stuffed pug by a famous Englishman. Damien Hirst ironically gives us two large rabbit vases, again slyly commenting on what we transform into “cute” or kitsch, trivializing objects that have become mundane in our world.

Also on display to work with the overriding theme, children’s storybooks such as Franklin and The Wild Things anthropomorphize animals for the edification of children and parents.  But rereading the beloved Babar also reminds of the struggles and freedoms behind the stories as Celeste and Babar dressed in human clothes and eating delicious sweets stand at their windows and mourn for heir homes far away.

The social commentaries contained in the Babar stories may be lost on children , but are replaced by the surface delight in seeing the familiar humanized antics of the elephants. This brings to  mind the learning stories of morality, behavior and such as dramatized in  Corduroy, Clifford, Spot, the Runaway Bunny not to mention those tedious Berenstain Bears.

There are many levels to this exhibit. The mastery of the clay work, the stories that the objects hold and the history remembered. What hits me most directly is that these pieces reflect the times and historical contexts in artform whether in teacups or table decoration.

Instead of outright sculptures like the clay squirrel that stands alone here as a contemporary sculpture covered with a diatribe of restrictions that squirrels must endure today( as their natural habitats have been usurped by highways-poor things), many pieces in times past were incorporated into people’s daily rituals  – of aristocrats at least- as continuing commentary . Everyday these images as a kind of propaganda made art part of everyday life, not something to be stored in a museum.

I reflected on how our generation might be immortalized: a tray covered in texting teenagers?  I considered what it is about our world at this time that would be caught in clay and exhibited in the future.

TV and Podcasts as Pleasures, Guilty or not.

I used to feel that somehow television was an embarrassment, that only the uneducated or dull watched tv. However, I am admitting that besides my guilty pleasure of The Young and Restless, I do spend time in front of the tube.

Part of its legitimization arrived again- through my daughter. She is a writer, a most down to earth, erudite and knowledgeable, an every new- trend- kind of person. She was aware of NPR, Mark Maron and his WTFers, This American Life, The Moth and many other shows even before my husband. (These, by the way, are podcasts or what used to be called radio shows).

Because of her, last year I went to Massey Hall to hear Ira Glass from This American Life Show.  As stated on their web site: ”  There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. For example: 477:

Getting Away With It

OCT 19, 2012Stories of people breaking the rules fully, completely and with no bad consequences. Some justify this by saying they’re doing it for others, or for a greater good. Some really don’t care. And, unlike the mealy weaklings you usually hear on this program: None of these wrongdoers seem regretful about what they’ve done in the slightest.”

Glass or another interviewer begins with the context, the overview, highlighting the theme that will pervade the three stories that will unfold. In each, a person retells  their narrative that develops in some way the underlying motif for the episode. Sometimes the interviewer poses questions; sometimes not.

The results are often funny, witty, insightful, surprising and it makes you remember that life is, in deed, stranger than fiction.

So, back to Ira Glass at Massey Hall.

Glass regaled his listeners with amazing stories of the people he has culled for the show, almost like a Ripleys Believe It or Not. Wonderfully and unexpectedly, he begun this show  at Massey Hall in total darkness, reminiscent, I suppose, of the old days of radio where the family gathered around the talking box  in murky light.

But I can also imagine the power of FDR’s fireside chats between 1933- 1944 as people awaited some news or expression of hope to keep them going  during black days.

Or maybe this is a television or movie- induced image I have incorporated into my fantasies.  Likely not though, as even my parents remembered the impact of these communications between the cheery-voiced president and the fearful public.

At Massy Hall, I was amazed that there were so many young people in attendance and it was full to the rafters. Yet it should have come as no surprise: considering this younger generation lives with earbuds firmly attached like electrodes to their heads.

Nowadays of course, with technology stopping up their ears, they/we are multifocused, on hearing, seeing, walking or involving themselves/ourselves in athletic and aesthetic endeavours: we can exercise or via iphone, receive a description of a painting . It’s as if all of our senses are lit up at once, not only one sense focused and receiving full attention.

In any case, daughter #1 was listening to an Ipod discussion that featured well respected and well- known critics who were being asked who, in their opinion, was the most evil person ever. One said Hitler, the usual, but one actually contributed “Victor Newman”. For those who scorn Y&R, Victor is the archetype of evil, not of the Joseph Campbell variety exactly, But Victor does mangle, manipulate and manoeuver his kinfolk, especially his rival in Genoa City, Jack Abbott.

The others on Ipod radio show laughed, but all were quite aware of the name Victor Newman. I considered that if this high class group admits their awareness of the lowly soap opera, then who am I to demure, “Who?” and play innocent.

And just like being unable to eat one piece of chocolate cake, I opened the refrigerator door to other delicious and forbidden treats.

But I am not alone. Downton Abbey has been accepted as something people do and converse about, scurrying home from a family supper on Sunday nights, to ensure they discover what bon mot Maggie Smith will emit.

And that’s another validating point, MAGGIE SMITH, as in Dame Maggie Smith, British actress- and as we always take our theatrical leads from London who has legitimized base popular culture ( you baby boomers may remember her from “ all of them are Brodie girls”, especially hapless Mary MacGregor)– even in the privacy of our own homes.

So we pretend that fancy costumes, elegant abodes and the gift of the British actor elevates the lowly conflicts ( think of Lady Mary’s  bed indisgression with Mathew’s friend from the middle east in one of the early shows) of a higher class of television show. Truthfully, popular culture has been infused with some great acting and excellent stories.

Last year Treme exposed corruption in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. The performances were heartfelt and the jazz, especially the music by Elvis Costello, Kermit Ruffins the Marysalas and many other greats provided superior and entrancing viewing. The politics, the impact of the storm seen in various locales, the smell of the cooking, the buoyancy of the city and lesser environs to cope were all educational and riveting.

Of course, it is a show, not real life, but all the same, enough pieces are true enough to patch together a verisimilitude, a cross quilt of better understanding and exposure of issues and people.

And although Dexter was gory and double-edged as a serial murderer of only those who deserved death, there was a fascination with him as a character. Unlike the bang-bang way too much killing and violence on say, Boardwalk Empire where so much blood , bullets and babes become so de rigueur that the viewer becomes ( hideously) inured to the killing ( well, ho hum) as perhaps Bonnie and Clyde did along with  Reservoir Dogs, the complexity of character, the Jekyll and Hydeness of Dexter’s torment as a feeling  psychopath was, for me, intriguing.

My friend who gives the book talks hated Dexter and would not participate in watching the show.  Like the holocaust books that I sought out as a child, the pull of the shivers, the capacity of people to commit evil drew me in. Will we ever forget John Lithgow’s mesmerizing Trinity Killer and not tremble at his coldness? I was transfixed by the ghastly as I awaited his nemesis and the denouement to remake the world in smiley faces and inflated pink hearts.

Perhaps that is why I am always disappointed as I anticipate that evil / the bad in the world will be avenged by the good as the merciful angel slays all the wrongdoers and justice will be done.

And Charlotte Rampling, that once gorgeous film actress as Dexter’s haggard psychiatrist Dr. Vogel who had developed  Harry’s Code for good and evil? Even the once- so- sexy Charlootte Rampling reminded me again that time passes, and all things and people change and wither as they must. That baby boomers like  Rampling will be ravaged by time, and that even ironically the most beautiful icons we revered in our youth will succumb, but also-

that personal and professional are distinct;

that hate and love are interwoven;

and that too often bad things happen to people who want to bring or are good.

Silly me. I find comfort in the Y&R. With my cup of herbal tea, I visit ,am often bored with, but still  indulge my guilty pleasures.

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