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Archive for the month “August, 2014”

The First Class

My parents drove me to Oshawa and dropped me at the YMCA. I paused in the doorway of McLaughlin mansion that once belonged to the founders of General Motors in Canada. I felt like some wayward teen to be whisked away into the depths of the musty residence. With its crystal chandeliers and circling staircase, that were no doubt once elegant, I might have been some “bad” girl in a sepia-toned movie.

In reality, I was only a student teacher.

When our practice teaching assignments had been posted, we demanded to know one another’s placements. That day, our names were aligned with schools whose names like St. Mary’s, Oakwood, or Summerview revealed no information about the students, associate teachers or even the communities into which we would be hurled like too rapidly formed snowballs. Those first assignments before Christmas were only two weeks long; three longer ones would follow. I pondered that someone had decided that these sojourns might magically transform us into professional teachers.

Beside my name, I read O’Neill Collegiate. O’Neill sounded Irish although I doubted that Oshawa boasted a large Irish population: I had no reason for this assumption. In any case, the only O’Neill I knew was Eugene O”Neil and his saga of the dysfunctional alcoholic family who spat words at one another in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Was the playwright’s name an omen to prepare me for my own journey into teaching?

Someone from the cluster of would- be teachers slipped me a phone number, shouting over the din that she was from Oshawa. I pocketed it, thinking, maybe I would call. We were allotted a stipend of $50.00 a week to cover costs and given a list of guest homes.

My “teachables” were art and English, mainly because I liked to draw and read. Once I had stumbled into art history, it had become my mission to see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls, year after year. I was mesmerized by sumptuous details and intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded the painters. I wondered by what foul deed had the fingers of saints been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of noses or toes were authentic?

I pursued art in Europe: a girl from Toronto, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads presented themselves. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of the strange to the cold touch of people.

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the Limbourg Brothers. I learned many medieval artists had been trained in cloisonné, a multi-step enamel process that resulted in fabulous decorations for the rich. Had eyelashes of peasants been plucked to form microscopic paintbrushes to paint individual blades of grass? Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted my prying eyes.

I searched the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to contemplate the numerous paintings Rembrandt had chronicled of himself as he aged. I didn’t much like his portraits of his three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. Sometimes I sketched, too, but my work was weak, a diversion from traveling and investigating the work of real artists.

At university, I flitted and flirted and flung myself about, unconcerned about much more than satisfying my own passions.Too many late nights and late essays precluded a future in art history. Did anyone really care that I spent nights in third class trains, tracking down lost etchings by the blind Goya? Did tipping my head backwards for hours in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel render me a scholar? My grades deemed me only a voyeur, a tourist in the realm of art, not a serious graduate student. But in the end, the future of girls had usually fallen under the headings of nurse ( I had no science) or teacher ( I did have a B.A. in Arts). So, I applied, at the besieging of my mother, to be a teacher.

At the faculty of education, I doodled during classes on John Dewey, and slept open-eyed through policies and procedures and practical tips on classroom management. Often I imagined myself back in Provence or Heidelberg, unraveling some hidden clue, an artistic gumfoot, hot on the trail of some lost artist’s technique.

Only in my English instruction classes was I alert. My professor instructed how poems and novels sparked paths of adventure into words, format or hidden stories. Words evoked pictures in my head as I imagined images captured by the stiff staccato sounds or cadences of beautifully narrated prose.

I taught my first practice lesson to the other student teachers on “The Naming of Parts”. When I drew the flower in the poem, “Japonica” on the blackboard, I was inside the story of a recruit who wanders- in his head- out of doors on a spring day rather than listen to his commander name the parts of a gun. I must have been passionate or at least, diverting because thirty eyes smiled approval, caught in my presentation, that made meaning for them, connecting them with their own experiences, sustaining their interest to probe the recruit’s psyche through discussion and discourse that was only terminated by the bell at the end of class time.

And for me, it was an invigorating class as we were all participants, driven with the joy that occurs when learning excites personally, extending beyond the self to join in the collective.

In Oshawa, I called the number passed to me from Barbara McFarlane. Previously a face in a class, I soon realized we shared more than just the teachable of English: we were both neurotic, our fingers constantly combing through our hair. I could already see some bare patches on her scalp as she twisted and untwisted bits of hair. My own hair, I assured myself, was still thick, so no one knew my guilty secret. Yet I, too, yanked out those miscreant strands, as ruthlessly as Barbara. We laughed about our obsessive natures, wondering if teaching would be a panacea, finally making us fit with the rest of our smoothly coiffed classmates who seemed so certain of their fate as teachers. I pondered if we would be always be like the recruit in my teaching poem, dreaming of escape, or finding ours in the classroom.

When morning arrived at my first practice teaching assignment, I followed Barbara’s directions and arrived at O’Neill to teach art. My associate teacher seemed young, anywhere from 25 to 40, I thought. He was, smiling, laid back, and said, “You can watch me for a few days, and get a sense of the class. When you are ready, say, on Wednesday or Thursday, you could teach a lesson.” My knees knocked together as I grinned foolishly back at him.

Liam Johnson shared the students’ space naturally and with ease. It was apparent the kids liked him. If the teacher is like Liam, learning really occurs as problem-solving becomes explicit and part of an intriguing game that kids clamor to play. Stretching your brain in innovative ways feels so good. I had experienced that with my peers that day I had taught “The Naming of Parts”.

Yet, Liam was not really their friend, but more like a mentor. He spoke respectfully to students, and they, too, were respectful. He listened; he observed; he taught in a manner that demonstrated he enjoyed what he was doing. He never condescended or patronized, intuitive to the styles and needs of each individual. “No rowdy kids or classroom management problems here,” I jotted in my journal. Even at 20, I knew that Liam Johnson was someone who peppers your thoughts with choices and you want to emulate him as a role model.

Eventually I would learn that art is an easy sell . Kids actually choose art; they work at their own pace; they can be creative; art is an oasis and a relief from the hard seats from which they are not allowed to move in other prescribed classes, or the voices that drone on about subjects for which they care little.

I shadowed Liam until Wednesday, when he inevitably posed the question, “Ready to teach?” Actually I would have been quite content to watch him teach-forever.

What could I mumur, but “Yes”?

He paused, “The kids are ready to begin lino-cutting. You could spend about 20 minutes, explaining the process to them. “ Another silly smile.

That night at the Mclaughlin mansion, I began my research. I read “Lino cutting offers the older child endless scope for individual, creative print making. Linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum (sometimes mounted on a wooden block) is used for the relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal (mirror image) of the parts to show printed. The cut areas can then be pulled from the backing. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller (called a brayer), and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a press.” (Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia)

I already knew this; I had dabbled in printmaking and every grade school kid has made a Christmas card from some kind of print relief method. I just wanted to be sure that I had not missed anything.

In deed, I had carefully laid out pieces of tan linoleum on the desks of the thirty students in the chemistry-style setup room before leaving O’Neill the night before my presentation at 6:00. And I knew that placing linoleum on the radiators at the sides of the room would warm the tough leathery slabs and make the cutting easier. I worried, of course, that the students would cut towards themselves, not away and slice into their skin, even severing an artery that would require doctors and stitching. I could even hear the screech as an ambulance pulled up to the front door of the school. I shook my head, allowing the screams to dissipate.

Now for pedagogy. I wrote out the steps on little cards, a card a step. I even created diagrams. I found quaint examples in old art books in the musty McLaughlin library.

I approached the mirror in my bedroom and grimaced. So far at O’Neill I had only moved around the classroom, offering positive comments to the students deeply involved in their artwork. To them, I must have been a minor annoyance as they returned my courtesies, letting me admire their work, or nodding to suggestions made in the form of superficial critique. I saw them laugh with Liam and enter into real conversations that lasted for maybe 10 minutes. I saw trust in their eyes and interchanges that looked meaningful.

I re-examined my reflection in the bedroom mirror and said “Good morning class” , commencing my presentation to my bedroom of silence. I paused to ensure the imaginary students were paying attention. I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly, practicing in my best voice, (that was nonetheless quaking), over, and over again for just the right stance, the supportive appearance, the knowing and intelligent mannerisms. I thought and rethought my 10 simple steps in lino-cutting, reviewing my notes, reorganizing my visuals, and deciding where to punctuate my carefully planned talk for questions.

It must have been midnight and I was soaked with perspiration, but I finally decided that it would be just fine.

I arrived early the next morning, and Liam was already in the class, to welcome and encourage me, “ I’ve seen you with the kids. You will be fine.”

Absolutely. It would be fine.

“Good morning, class, “ I began, just as planned. I even paused in the right spot to turn my head, right and left, to acknowledge all of the boys and girls with welcoming smiles.

“Today, we will do lino- cuts…”

I continued to speak… and I heard my words, but my sentences seemed to pick up speed with every carefully rehearsed phrase. Like a train on the tracks that gathers momentum as it moves from the station, I heard my words accelerate as I began to rush through the steps, one through ten. My tongue, disregarding my brain, had a conductor of its own. My head, then my body were mere attachments to a mouth that was hurling itself at breakneck speed, never pausing for periods and pauses. I stood outside of myself and watched as the student teacher at the front of the class held up visuals, words spewing faster and faster from her mouth.

In spite of my racing words, I still managed to demonstrate how to hold the knife, attach the various blades, draw the image, paint in the negative parts with India ink- at the side of the class- warm the lino, cut the lino, print the image.. .

But, I was held captive by my tongue, that rambling purple snake I could not control. How had an alien invaded my mouth, taking my tongue as ransom for pretending to be a teacher? In horror, I performed robotic-like, a slave to the words that continued to race.

The faces of the students, not two feet away, their cool detachment had turned to amazement. Incredulous at the teacher-impersonator whose words seemed propelled by some wicked spirit, they turned to one another, unsure of what to do, of what to think. They remained glued to their seats, too dumbfounded to move. Perhaps they were awaiting a shapechange or transformation into something more terrible than a rambling student teacher.

I completed my lesson: albeit in 3 instead of 20 minutes!

As if my spring had been totally unwound, I was now depleted and wordless: the train had not gone off track, only driven at breakneck speed to arrive back at the station, its cargo erratically cast off Dejected, embarrassed, eyes focused straight ahead, tears barely contained, I made my way to the back of the room. Heads twisted; unblinking eyes followed me. There was silence in the room. I wanted to flee.

But shortly, the students picked up their tools and started to work.

From a fog of tears, I saw Liam approach. Before he opened his mouth, I surmised my teaching career had ended. I was about to plead.

He said, “ You did very well to-day”.

I knew it was a lie, but it was what I needed to hear.

The Motherlode

Last week a newspaper article poked me in the direction of a documentary about women’s rights. I recognized the name of a former student so I set the timer for the show. Women from Ottawa, Windsor and Washington described how difficult it was to be a mother first and a professional person second, often citing that they have not risen professionally because of having to attend to their children’s needs. They lamented that roles for women had not really changed since the 70’s and queried why. Here’s how The Motherload produced and directed by Cornelia Principe began in a voice over:

Dads were supposed to carry more of the load. Motherhood was not supposed to become so idealized. Employers were supposed to be more flexible. Women were supposed to climb higher up the ladder, but feel less guilty. Society was supposed to live up to the promises our mothers made. From single moms to CEOs – a generation of burnt-out, disillusioned moms are waking up and smelling the coffee. Forget having it all – today’s working moms are doing it all.

Although I cannot disagree with the idea that women are still primarily the ones who must leave their jobs if junior gets sick, my years as a woman and an observer of gender equality lead me to alternative considerations.

First, I do observe many more men are staying home and taking MAT leave- AND actually having the opportunity to do so, pushing carriages, playing with the kids in parks and being mother. My own son will interrupt his workday if a child needs to be seen by a doctor. As well, he does the runs to hockey, some drama and other activities for the kids. I think this arrangement is now pretty typical- likely for middle class or upper middle class families, fathers not patting the kid on the head and only sitting down at dinner to enquire how little Johnnie’s day was. I believe couples are balancing responsibilities better than in the past.

When my children were young, my husband walked the kids to school, was there for pick ups early evenings, and even when our first would not stop her screaming, he sat up with her all night. When I returned to school for a doctorate, he manipulated his schedule to ensure that he was able to manage supper at St. Huberts chicken deli, the family in the window, a squabbling group who vented their post- school frustrations openly and loudly at the table. However, I see my son and his ilk doing as much or more these days.

Yet this generation as shown in The Motherload wants it all. They seem unable to accept that there are consequences for choices, and if you decide on bringing three children into the world, that are three times as many mouths to feed, bodies to navigate, personalities and needs to fulfill, and someone must do it. The mothers in the film descry, “ …but why is it me?” Just because you want three doesn’t mean you abrogate your responsibility and yell that the system is not working.

Should more workplaces have daycares? Absolutely.

Should there be more care options for families with kids? Again, yes. However, children are not little clocks to be wound up, set on the shelf and stay there uncomplaining. Little humans have needs to be satisfied and like it or not, it is usually mommy for whom they yell for first. Accept that, and comprehend what that means.

No person in society is provided with everything they want or need: the perfect job with the perfect hours and the perfect pay. Truth be told, the system does not work completely. And I sympathize with Cathy, the single mother from Windsor in The Motherload. She was a nurse’s aid who lost her job and now maintains two jobs, as a receptionist and a driver and support of children with special needs. From the segments I saw ( and I admit turning it off about ½ way through), I could empathize with her dilemma- not because she was the mother, but because her life is confounded by her work situation that does not support her properly, financially, intellectually or socially. That her life has been made more difficult by the fact that she is a single parent without the kinds of benefits that would make life easier. Yet Cathy’s attitude differed from the lawyer’s in Ottawa, not suggesting she had entitlement, but perhaps sadly, a rather a dogged acceptance to get on with life and try and make things work.

Who should not cry out for a system to help us, all genders, through the constraints and dilemmas on a daily basis?

In some ways, there have been changes that speak to the needs of parents, not only women, but the poor, immigrants, for example. I believe that part of the reason for all day kindergarten is to provide the poor with professional competent daycare for their children. And in spite of the costs being high, at least we know a safe and supportive environment for these kids may render them better educated, healthier and happier humans than if they were dumped at Aunt Sally’s daycare until mommy gets home from work.

In this way, better educated kids take the burden off welfare lists. And yes, I know of the studies that trump all day kindergarten because the gains supposedly even out after grade 3, all day programs or not. Ah, but we can do what we wish with statistics to prove any point. I query, “Has the benefit of the stimulation factor, positive attitude, camaraderie, collaborative experiences, lifelong learning also been taken into consideration?” I imagine Charlie Pascal nodding his head in agreement!

Ontario’s Early Learning Study 3 in 2011 stipulates that “…by broadening education’s mandate to include younger children, we can bridge the gap between parental leave and formal schooling. By including the option of extended-day activities for families who request it, Canada can have its long-demanded early learning and care program..[which]includes better parental leave, income support and family- friendly work environments( McCain, Mustard and McQuaig, Introduction, Chapter 2; Also see Chapter 1, Closing the gap between rich and poor.)

McCain, Mustard and McQuaig put forth this scenario, albeit using the “dad-parent”, to demonstrate the reality of today’s childcare situation,

Michael arrives at the centre with 2-year-old Cleo. As they enter the playroom Cleo turns to her father, clings to his leg and begins to cry. Michael picks her up, strokes her back and talks softly to soothe her. As Cleo’s crying slows down, Janette, the early childhood educator, approaches and talks quietly to Michael. Their conversation begins to interest Cleo as Janette tells Michael how much Cleo enjoys the playhouse. When Cleo stops crying, Janette suggests she show her dad how she makes cookies in the play oven. After a short demonstration Cleo is ready for her day and kisses Michael goodbye. (Early Learning Study 3, 2011 Chapter 3,p. 50)

Chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” trumpets how not to give in to your female fears, accept compliments, and climb that “jungle gym” to success. She need not worry; she can delegate to others. And that is not to say, she does not worry about her children.

Ironically Susan Faludi sees Sandberg’s tome as making women “marketable consumer objects” ( See Faludi, Susan. “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not”. The Baffler. Baffler Foundation, Inc.) just adding to their worries of depersonalization and feelings of un-worth. Ironically Faludi reports Tina Brown’s Lean In moment: getting her parents to move from England to “the apartment across the corridor from us on East 57th Street in New York,” so her mother could take care of the children while Brown took the helm at The New Yorker.

Read Faludi as she describes the rise of the women’s movement from Lowell Massachusetts in 1834 if you want an understanding of what I think my former student and The Motherlode really want to attack. These are the collective issues that women face daily, and my former student’s life does not stand in as an example of how tough it is, although nurse Cathy’s might.

I am not saying women should not have babies because it will prevent them from rising on the corporate ladder. I’m saying that biology has perhaps saddled you with an extra burden, and that is, if you succumb to maternity, accept you must learn to juggle and hopefully with your partner or partners, or best yet in a job that will provide you with a sustainable routine and reasonable income.

It has to do with priorities and context. Would the “mill girls” agree? I’m not sure.

Facebook and such

I freely admit being a Luddite. Much to my father’s disappointment I possessed absolutely no technological acumen, no understanding of how things fit or should work. My 5 year old grandson comprehends Legos much better than I ever could- not to mention the internet. I guess it’s that part of my brain that owns weaker synapses and prefers the flash of colour to the driving pursuit and ability of putting things together and making them actually perform. I belong to the observer set, the passive enjoyers, not the active engagers. That’s just me.

Day long sessions at computer schools were wasted on me. I most often lost one thread of sequencing and was set adrift on the wild seas of information.I was thrown back on the pile of self-incrimination and embarrassment, clutching for a familiar word to ease me back to port and complete the action. Others seemed safely involved in their lifeboats, continually and competently dipping their oars towards the targeted goal. I would smile vaguely, pretend I was yawning, resting, whatever, just wanting desperately to get out of the so-called learning situation where all I knew was that I was incompetent.

The wisest tutorial came from a co-worker at OCT who demonstrated one single function of the computer and then disappeared. Thus I learned, used, and made the function my own.

Years later, others confided they had taken those beginner computer courses several times : Ah, how wise, particularly when the company is footing the bill.

Similarly even when I was attempting to learn to crochet, I overheard class participants also explain this was not their first kick at the can. I should have figured it out earlier because as a believer in Multiple Intelligences, I do know that we all learn in diverse ways and one instructor or teacher may or may not enlighten us in a way that makes sense to our variously- strung brains,others only reinforcing our foibles and being unable to throw us a life preserver.

In a nutshell, I’m no fan of computers. I don’t find them helpful or fun or intriguing. In fact I am infuriated by their correction of my spelling that I do not want corrected as in names that are close to nouns. As well, I fear pushing the wrong button and either losing my work or signing up for offers that will cost me a small fortune. I’m aware of “cookies” collecting data on me to be sold and meant to manipulate my daily life. Yuck.

So it will come as no surprise that I had resisted enrolling on Facebook’s site. However when number #2 daughter wanted me to vote for my gorgeous grandbaby, I had to belong to the Facebook crowd. So reluctantly I joined. I voted often, but the link on Gerber baby foods only circled round and round to bring me back to my “homepage”. And now I am stuck. Without even one vote for the most beautific child in the world. So much for Facebook.

It is a phenomenon of the times. Email replaces letter writing and phone calls and puts up for examination small bits of conversation for other Facebook joiners. I am wary of all the participants who live on or in Icloud or inhabit evanescent spaces. Some grownups embarassingly using baby pictures to indicate who they are.

There are so-called “ friends” who post “ selfies” of themselves continuously as if their incremental portrait changes reveal something new about them. Some post pictures of ads or things they find interesting and await others to comment. There is quite a bit about diets and friends of friends. Why would anyone tell you that they have visited store X three times that week or won a scrabble challenge or visited their sister in New York? Like really, does anyone really care? Apparently so!

Perhaps Facebook will eventually replace newspapers that are said to be dying. Although I cannot imagine a Saturday morning without a cup of coffee, perusing the paper by my window in my sunny kitchen. Recently in The Globe an article on Carl Klaus, a 19th century Viennese critic, decried journalists because of the spin they put on the reporting of events that removed any chance of viewing it through one’s own imagination, and fresh eyes. He was referring to the manipulation of the press. Rather, the author of the article suggested- technology provides more opportunities for diverse perspectives by individuals -as in Facebook to comment.

I think there is always a bias. Anyone who has taught English or even read a book knows a first person narrator is unreliable and even the omniscient voice moving like an angel gathering a multiplicity of views exudes a point of view in spite of pretending equanimity – written ironically from the perspective of one author who imagines what it must be like to be many, not just one voice.

When I taught Post-colonial Literature, I purposely engineered a discussion between two students to whom I deliberately assigned arguments that went totally against their loudly proclaimed personal views in class: the die hard conservative and the bleeding heart liberal on human rights issues. Apologizing first, one pleaded “Miss, I really don’t believe in this stance, however…” . Each debater was required to walk in the other’s shoes a la To Kill a Mockingbird. Even if the forceful interchange lasted only ten or so minutes, each had experienced a new way of thinking about an issue.Were they changed? Likely not, but perhaps some new angle or perplexity had permeated their thinking to encourage possibilities .

Besides locating a certain community with apparent friends whose faces, not pictures, we might better respond to with a laugh, wink or touch, Facebook provides a static interchange that does not really flow as good conversations should. It puts out random thoughts and expects quick responses. Sound bites with stunted communication. I really don’t get it. But then I belong to the Boomer generation that grew up and old before computers.

And although I am a worrier- that has nothing to do with computers, the Christmas storm showed us that everything that runs on power SUCH AS COMPUTERS can be wiped out. And if you do your banking on line, list valuable information such as phone numbers or email addresses, and your computer receives a bug, mysteriously goes off line, inextricably has not been updated or your system has been hacked, you may find you have lost valuable information, not to mention your identity. Not being able to vote on Gerber is small potatoes.

A recent documentary, “Goggle and the World Brain “ by Ben Lewis explained how Goggle was saving for our use all the books in existence, touted as “ The most ambitious project ever conceived on the Internet”. Although Google maintained they were building a library for mankind, it’s easy to imagine their purposes were not as forthright as it appeared on the surface. What if, an interviewer queried “Google wanted to sell the information in those books, that was compiled from 2002-2005 more than 10 million books? “

Big surprise that copyright laws by authors and permission to scan was overlooked or even “forgotten” by the esteemed Oxford –Bodleian and Harvard libraries. Only the skepticism and chagrin of a French librarian who did not believe that Goggle was being totally altruistic instigated a law challenge to stop the compilation. The end result yielded a mere $60 per author per copyright stipend.

What we would like to believe is good often is underpinned by less than honorable intentions and although sometimes good things come from the bad, thanks Donna Tartt, I have my druthers.

Still one must reluctantly move with the times, even if it means using technology.I guess I can use it to shop!


I could say it was the unexpected Christmas ice storm that provoked my behavior: but that would be a lie. I think we recognize aspects of our behavior, aspects that we control or control us, depending on circumstances.

But last night after minus 26 degree weather and comfortably tucked into my sofa under a chenille afghan, I had to admit that every aspect of my evening existence screamed : binger.

Binging Behaviour One:
I love anything chocolate and although I had purchased chocolate popcorn to share with my husband that night, the bag was being steadily emptied from noon onward. I rationalized that the 2 second walk to the kitchen was burning some calories. Did I really believe that closing the bag with the chip sealer would somehow deter me from finishing them?

Funny how we can delude ourselves when we want to: imagining, bargaining, making deals, whatever. I admit the delectable savouring, the prolonged sucking of the chocolate bits off the popcorn, very slowly to sustain the moment when the hardness softens and then melts dreamily on the tongue- is tantalizing.

So being drawn back to the kitchen over and over again to scavenge for- just a few more handfuls is like a siren’s call to hit the rocks no matter what. Interestingly, I did not feel guilty in the slightest, each grabby searching handful re-establishing the lure of my addiction. So much better than just regular popcorn, or whole chocolate bars, although Cadbury’s fruit and nut hits the right note sometimes; however, this popcorn satisfies me. It has the crunch, the velvet texture, the crispness, the nubbly feel on the tongue and the noise I love that usually comes from stomping on chips- to my family’s annoyance, but fulfills my aesthetic need. I think as well it’s the uneven textures of chocolate on popcorn as I hold it in my mouth. It invites me to continue on until the bag is empty, even turning it over to seek for crumbs.

Binging Behaviour Two:
Frustrated as I await two shipments of wool from the UK, I needed something to do with my hands. I finished the wonderful Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, appreciating her thought that we seek beautiful things because it leads us on to bigger beauties, and her understanding that art is a midpoint between reality and illusion, perhaps a hiding place when life becomes really too hard to bear. The book recalled for me the rapscallions from Dickens’ streets, the Oliver Twists in the memorable abused character of Boris. I thought The Goldfinch a good example of the picaresque, a genre that depicts realistic episodes as the protagonist travels through multilevels of society: from New York to Vegas to Europe, scams and relationships and lost boys in search of identities. Throw in art work and I am happy. Binging again as I cannot move from being ensconced in my couch unable to tear my eyes from the page, except perhaps to snatch popcorn from the near empty bag.:-)

Cathy Tile’s book group’s next book, The Watch about an Iraqi woman with no legs coming to bury her brother’s body in Iraq is a pretty grim read, echoes of Agamemnon. As antidote, I take out the yarn to knit my grandson a new sweater to distance myself from the ugliness I know that pervades the world, particularly war stories. Thus, calling a hiatus from my binge behavior.

Binging Behaviour Three:
Most people knit a bit, leave a bit, resume whenever. Not I. I am so obsessive that I do not stir for hours until the garment is almost finished. No matter tearing eyes, I am driven to complete, breathlessly pursuing a sleeve, a design, a cable pattern to its end.

Last night I completed an entire back. To put it down is so difficult as I almost hear it entreating me, to complete me, make me whole, scream the elves locked inside the garment, get on with it., win the race and scream success. In my closet there are umpteen knitted projects in a variety of colours. I fantasize that I am problem-solving by following a pattern, making it look as it does in the patternbook picture.

Yet quite often, I concoct solutions to puzzles that are not really there , for I do not read ( former English teacher that I am!) properly, quickly scanning the instruction and then having to tear back because there is a hole where no hole should be. My addiction is balanced by a belief that my fingers are being kept supple as they race back and forth over the lines of craft . Yet for me, there is much that fascinates me because of the interweaving of colours and textures, thick and thin, variegated and soft, that sets my mind on fire, satisfying that aesthetic call.

Binging Behaviour Four
We were even binge watching. This new term we recently discovered in the newspaper this holiday describes exactly our- at least my viewing habits. Netflix runs great stuff: from House of Cards to Orange is the New Black, Hannibal and now Weeds. Weeds is old stuff but this holiday, we have been truly watching show after show, often 2-4 a night of the 25 minute variety.

The characters as discussed in previous blogs are immoral. In this case, Nancy in Weeds is a widowed mother selling pot- to the destruction of her two sons, Silas and Shane. She momentarily feels compunction, but not enough to get an ordinary job as most of the population must, to survive. The people she interacts with and that includes her creepy brother-in-law should never be around children.

I imagine we are supposed to think this plucky skinny woman who always has a plastic drink container complete with straw in her scrawny hands ( “This woman has balls,” says a biker pot dealer) is impressive and the equal of any guy. And so she may be, but she pushes her family over and over again to the edge of danger, involving herself in crimes beyond drug dealing.

I know it’s only a show and yes, I binge on watching it. Maybe like the knitting and popcorn to get to the other side of it; the end ( ironically to start all over again), but the show presents a morality that has become more and more acceptable to kids because it is constantly dramatized, de-sensitizing the issues that provoke outrage not acceptance. As in the humanization of the mom who goes to great lengths to provide for her family, just as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, maintains his bilking people of hard earned funds to make money is justifiable,we are shown the tough resilience of keeping the course, fighting off bigger fish so these anti-heroes can be successful in their quests and triumph over difficult odds. Even some softening of their characters is included : “ as your mom” in “Weeds”, the horrible mother murmurs, as she kisses Silas’ head. Feh.

It’s true that there would be no story if Nancy kept her pants on and went to church and chose to sell purses at the Bay. The anti-hero, the trickster gets the space and like the Perils of Pauline, we are transfixed by her penchant to survive at all costs.
Yet, our society has lauded so many bad heroes that we become junkies in our need to watch and cheer them on. From video games to reality shows, these examples cannot be good for teaching values, and instructing good from bad.

Although Orange is the New Black presents a plethora of humanizing narratives, the protagonist Pyper on furlong for her grandmother’s funeral is shown wrapped around a bottle of booze, at least admitting she is a changed person to the one she was when she entered incarceration. She boldly informs those who have maintained her image that she is no different from the other inmates, white colour crime or not, and that she has succumbed to doing bad things and she understands how similar she is to the rest of the inmates.

Someone, also a former jailed inmate, wrote to say that although the show brings attention to incarceration, the show is glamorized and unlike Oz ( strong revulsion on my part as I used to say, “ It’s like being inside a toilet bowl) it does not reveal the reality of jail.

Yes, I am a luddite, grown up in other times and I know that life will continue as it does shaped by the contexts that continue to change and reflect the mores, advancements?, sadly technological advances in society.

Do I enjoy my binging?

Yes, I do.

Fortunately I have learned that I must not keep the house stocked with chocolate, especially chocolate popcorn. My husband has become the gatekeeper of addictive shows. But unfortunately the store of sweaters continues to tumble from my cupboard and as long as there are beautiful wools with great textures, fabulous colours or pattern books that call for me, I will respond, lead by the lure of their song.

Well, what to do while the husband falls asleep in his chair?


En route to visit daughter# 2 several months ago, we turned on Marc Maron’s WTF and listened to two interview/ conversations. One was with Ivan Reitman of Meatballs and Ghostbusters fame and the other was with David Bronner scion of a famous German-Jewish family whose soapmaking tradition began in 1858. Each man spoke about relationships with family. Most specifically father and sons.

Ivan’s son, Jason, went on to produce less funny films than his father such as Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. In the conversation that highlighted Reitman’s early work with John Balushi Howard Shore ( actually a cousin on my mother’s side!), Martin Short and others, Ivan Reitman displayed a kind of humility and forthrightness about his directing career and what he suggested triggered Saturday Night Live’s emergence into comedy programming, My interest wasn’t so much on what Reitman said, but how he said it. Touching on a plethora of topics that eventually veered towards Jason, he displayed great affection and respect for his son, without being saccharine, or over the top. I flashed to a loving portrait I had seen the day previously at the AGO of the artist Henry Moore and his mother reading to him as he curled into her body. They were shown caught in a personal moment. No words, but the loving relationship was clear. Here in the podcast, it was the timbre of the words that responded to Maron’s questions and encouraged Reitman to carry on as long as he chose.

The second interview revealed that David Bronner ( whose “ magical” soaps are sold at Whole Foods) great grandfather who had had visions and was even locked away in a mental institution. On his soaps’ wrappings were printed such thoughts as “If I am not for myself, who am I for?”, from Rabbi Hillel as well as other messages to promote self-reflection into unity, collaboration and world peace. The soap business passed to David ‘s father and uncle who appeared to have followed a more conventional style of soap wrapper. Eventually David who had scorned any previous links to the business, took over: working for a year with his father who eventually passed away.

Here the conversation came alive as David Bronner presented his own mission: to wrestle from Monsanto harmful agents, and to work towards foods that are not genetically -altered as an impetus to maintain a healthier environment. He even sowed actual seeds on the White House lawn. David obviously hoping to garner attention to his causes, locked himself in a metal cage outside the White House, protesting the illegality of growing hemp, one of his soap’s main ingredients. The mantle had been passed to the grandson from his father, grandfather and great grandfather into this generation.

Bronner seems to have almost unconsciously inculcated the visionary spirit of his ancestors: towards improving the world. He spoke with such passion, explaining that only enough money to run the company is taken out and additional profits go towards charities. I was reminded of Albert Barnes, American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the company that produced Argyrol : silver nitrate antiseptic solution for the treatment of gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrhea blindness in newborn infants. Philosophically, Barnes believed in profit-sharing with his workers and promoting diversity. His collection of mainly Impressionist art at the Barnes Collection ( a must-see for all art aficionados) is housed in Philadelphia. Mentored by John Dewey, Barnes was considered a rebel.

Both the Reitman and Bronner families had escaped oppressive regimes, Russians in Czechoslovakia, and Nazis in Austria, risking everything when they arrived in their new countries of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps having lost family or striving to establish themselves in foreign places had refocused parental energy towards demonstrating love and relationships in tangible ways, proving to their children that values live in people, not places. By the way, on September 8, the day before 2010 TIFF opened, Ivan Reitman and his sisters christened Reitman Square, the new headquarters of the Toronto festival’s year round administration on the property left to them by their own parents. Rather than parents being just a footnote or a passing comment, the interviewees revealed a real connection to the driving forces of their forbearers, paying more than just lip service.

As a parent and grandparent myself, I segued into how I and my husband will be remembered: hopefully more than our son’s lament that he was stashed with friends on his 5th birthday and pushed down hills because we were at work; or anger at being forced to share a bologna sandwich with his sisters. Hopefully it will be a memory of a trip where he consumed a delicious pizza outside Rome in an ancient castle aptly called Il Castello. Will he recall Howard and me dressed as maid and butler serving his friends at a celebratory lobster dinner for him , all of us consumed with laughter at each courteous course.

Maybe it will be our daughter’s birthday in Montebuono during Howard’s sabbatical; or perhaps a family boat cruise to Rio or watching the Cubs in Chicago all together. Maybe it will be revisiting our faces charged with pride and happiness at a graduation here or away; or Howard’s chaperoning the CCOC to Salt Spring Island. More likely it will be a resurgence of annoyance at the overwhelming deluge of toys loving bestowed to grandkids on my birthdays that riled my children into suppressing anger; or the “horrid” bulgur chicken or “healthy” spaghetti served to them as children. I hope it will be a mixture of some things good at least.

As the years go by, I actively try and make those moments with my own parents resurface, recalling more of myself; and with myself, them. Like buds from trees, we are parts of a whole, that continue to bloom and carry on, even when the branches have withered .

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