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Archive for the month “December, 2015”

Myanmar from April to December

I read today ( April 10, 2015) about free political elections that may come to Myanmar,, formerly Burma. Throughout its long winter of repression,     Aung San Suu Kyi has stood fast, and much like a Gandhi sit-in, she has refused to depart her country, eschewing her children and even her dying husband, to remain a landmark of refusing to be moved, and therefore a living monument to a cause, most often fraught in the midst of the military government’s desire to oust her physically. Open elections are supposed to occur this fall and hopefully Ms. Kyi’s lifelong struggle, a Nobel winner, will continue her father’s legacy.

Yet, even winning will be a tough struggle in face of the narcotics, poverty, ethnic struggles and tight rein of the military.

Years ago I was sent a book to review when I wrote for Multicultural Review. The author posing as a travel writer was in Myanmar in fact noting the abuses of power. From tea boys who slept beneath the tables at night to the weeping ex-patriots abandoned in the country to discrimination of mixed blood people to the banning of books and the spies who followed foreigners, the author decried of the one of the most literate countries ever that had been destroyed and forced back into the dark ages. Although I cannot remember the name or author of the book, I have never forgotten the images, that unfortunately-even now- cause me to doubt the possibility that the government is changing its attitude: towards opening up the country to the brightness of a democracy.

Added to this, when we traveled to Thailand and purchased silk, as most tourists do, our delivery person, a young 23man from Myanmar related a sad tale. He told us that as his military time was approaching, his father begged him to leave the country. The man confided,” I walked for three days, without food, without water, through the woods. … trying to avoid the police who would send me back.” Without providing too many details, only the emotion quietly caught in his voice, he explained how difficult it had been for him and many others to illegally leave family and home.

In the Golden Triangle that connects Thailand, Laos and Burma ,as well, we were admonished by stories of tourists who were trumped by the military police and spies from Myanmar, of roadblocks, double dealing agents; and encouraged not to purchase any goods should we decide to cross the border and enter Burma.

I confess that all of these events have biased my attitude towards Myanmar. I see Aung Suu Kyi’s now withered once beautiful face in the newspaper and ponder her ability to withstand her confinement, her love of country that has taken so much from her. With the military generals unwilling to bend on constitutional change and their past unsavoury practices, I am cynical. Although journalists now proclaim that the country is “ open”, tourists welcome, I fear this is merely icing on the cake. I ardently hope for free speech and a change, but perhaps I worry that even San Suu Kyi is being set up for failure in an impossible situation.

When we visited Southeast Asia less than 5 years ago, we sat in the Saigon Bar overlooking the central square; we observed a landscape of Louis Vuitton, Gap, Juicy Couture and its ilk, in an area where streets were barely passable for all the one, two, three and four- wheeled vehicles overloaded with humans and cargo, and we wondered at the political trajectory of the Viet Nam War where its underlying raison d’être had been to keep western culture at bay. What was the point of the gassing, mutilating and destroying the lives of people and the landscape so that the West’s “best” in terms of buyable goods could eventually filter through to these teeming streets?

How does a country maintain its independence from the seepage of the commercial to their shores, rejected for its symbolism that connotes a greater Evil , and how does the presence of goods sit with policies that once were set out as battle cries for all out destruction? Are tourism and the acceptance of the vacuous and worst of Western culture embraced as mantra now able to erase years of turmoil and pain for the killing fields and its misguided leaders?

Kim Echlin’s novel, The Disappeared, although told between the cities of Montreal and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, connotes for me narratives of suffering.  The vicious despot Pol Pot finally retreated to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Even so from 1979 to 1997, he and some of the remaining militants of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they attempted to cling to power. We visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that describes through photographs of the country’s Disappeared and the actual maintained rooms of torture a testament beyond words of the valiant courage of a population decimated by a tyrannical reign.

This vote for Myanmar’s independence on November 8 proclaims the country’s first national vote since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending nearly 50 years of military rule. Likely I am naive about these matters, but as a foreigner sitting in the Saigon Bar, it is a troubling thought: that so many have died for a cause that appears to have been rubbed off the chalkboard. So I must query, what was it all for?

Precious indigenous culture is just that: precious and historical, reminding one of its beginnings and growth, but should not be preserved not as an artifact- but as a living fact, a bud that unfurls in many ways when fed and tended properly.

With Myanmar, even if San Suu Kyi wins and champions democracy, will it only be the lip service that brings Coach bags and casinos to their country , or will it be something more, as Suu Kyi, herself says, “[ hers is]… a very clean party. Poor, but clean. That people do understand that. That’s a first step towards good government” ( The Globe and Mail, Friday, April 10, 2015, p1.) Of course, that is the hope: for individual and collective freedoms.

Presently as I edit this, it is December, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has won a huge and impressive victory. However, she cannot become president because of Article 59F of their constitution that states that if one of your “legitimate children… owes allegiance to a foreign power” you are disqualified. Both of her sons hold British passports.

In an interview with the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that although there were “ areas of intimidation’, the elections were “largely free”. But maintaining its hold, the military-drafted constitution provides for guarantees 25% of the seats of unelected military representatives with a veto over constitutional change. This is what the generals call “disciplined democracy”. ( http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34774469).

Aha.

It will likely take until March 2016 for us to see what the composition of the government will actually looks like.

Last week, the second week in December, 2015, I read of “&Beyond in Benguerra Mozambique” that has managed to combine tourism with respect for unspoiled tropical life in Africa, and so I speculate on the marine park kept pristine- for the moment. And I reflect on the future of Southeast Asia already overcome with materialism. The author of the “&Beyond” piece, Chris Johns, also ruminates on his concerns that ’’a developer has been granted rights to explore the building of a newer, larger facility that would undoubtedly change the character of the island” (Sleepover, The Globe and Mail, Saturday ,December 12, 1215, T4).

So I ponder those jarring shops in Saigon’s square, the clatter of coins, the museum’s haunting eyes of the disappeared, the bleeding feet of the silk salesmen escaping from Myanmar’s militia training, the mixture of spicy food smells, the markets- and the rush of the West that overturns the sanctity of a country that will may likely pander to a system where the underpinnings have little to do with freedom, but much to do with money.

 

Around a Round Table

Years ago when I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, we talked about physical structures that resemble certain ideologies. For example, a tall skyscraper usually contained the office of the most important CEO : at the top with the best views that overlooked the city below. Lofty, in the sky, above, imposing: all associated with being at the tippy top of the ferris wheel . Similarly a circular seating arrangement where all sit equally around a table connotes co-operation, looking people directly in their eyes, not down on them. Collaboration versus coercion, perhaps.

Thinking about that shape reminded me of our dinner table when the kids were young. It was a loud and boisterous place, each one vying for their chance to be heard, to argue, to explain or expound on an idea, or just to relate the day’s happenings at school. It was raucous and understandably rather intimidating to their friends who might drop in for dinner, their heads swinging from speaker to speaker who had seized the moment to proclaim his or her views.

When I visited my cousins in Los Angeles some summers when I was young, there was no definite time for supper where we all gathered. We grabbed something from the frig, found a spot , often with friends or siblings and “hung out”. I delighted in munching bags of chips in my oldest cousin’s room, a cubbyhole at the front of the house, The Smothers Brothers a backdrop to our chats. It was “ cas(ual)”, no one requiring attendance at a particular time or spot. As a teenager, I didn’t mind as lessening of rules and protocols fit nicely with my explorations as a burgeoning adolescent.

One woman I knew had her kids in so many activities that supper time occurred in the car, driving around in circles, dropping off or picking up kids. The story followed that the children had to be awoken at 4 am to do their homework as the preponderance of after school enrichment classes left no time for formal eating. She reported that they ingested so much lettuce that their skin actually moved towards that sickly shade- until she augmented with carrots. Might I add this woman who was at the cutting edge of most trends was a bit!!!!compulsive and obsessive; but I suppose she felt a supper in the car with all the kids was better than not gathering them all together.

But for me, there is something wonderful about gathering at a table for a meal. Sitting at the table, exchanging thoughts, listening to one another, offering conjecture promotes thoughtful dialogue and teaches respect. Where else is there a place to share the problems of the day : that someone had gotten under your skin; or conversely, to express the excitement at learning a new skill: a recognition of a talent; help, support, an encouraging nod; or simply a smile. To sit quietly and observe the fleeting expressions that glaze over your children’s eyes or notice a new habit or meme. The table is a spot for observation and interaction and response to those you love as you push away the rigours of everyday work.

The rise of cooking shows suggests a return to delight in contemplating, preparing, sharing and consuming a meal with others. Although often focused on competitions such as in Chopped or Master Chef, the end result, nonetheless, is an edible treat composed and created for the pleasure of someone or self: in design and taste and texture. As well, the attention to foods that have been overlooked, forgotten or smothered in sauces is illuminating. Not to mention the attention given to expanding the knowledge of our taste buds as cultural accents and spices are infused to augment the routine into extraordinary.

When I was young and pregnant, I followed Adele Davis who was an early guru for healthy eating. Later, when I was married and entertained, I drew upon Julia Child’s recipes, especially her wondrous coco vin which required easily a day of finding the special required ingredients and preparing every element just so. Course upon course was created and balanced in accordance with the recipe and I recall being exhausted by the time the evening was done, but feeling triumphantly proud at the results. And usually the kitchen smells that laced our apartment prolonged the sensibilities of Saturday night guests. Great satisfaction for the cost, work and attention to detail!

At holidays or birthday celebrations, there is nothing so wonderful as the combined presence of family around a table set with my grandmother’s china and silver, bright flowers centring the chaos of children talking, eating, demonstrating the latest school song or dance routine in the midst of serving course number three or four. The food in a sense becomes redundant as the family sits together and communicates and gossips and jokes with one another, recalling for me the days of their childhood so many years ago. Grievances, laughter, squabbles all combine into the symphony where the food is only the backdrop, the occasion for purposefully coming together.It is no wonder that Joseph Campbell lauded the need for rituals that mark significant moments in our lives. Here too exists the paradox of the mundane establishing a corner stone for something greater than itself.

Although I must now always apologize for a not perfectly seasoned dish, a slightly askew pie, the bitterness of a vegetable, it matters little. The purpose has been served and I imagine all the dinners where lit by candlelight or electric light bulb, my relations also came together and conversed over a meal. As a child, I did not know that the meal was merely a prelude to play with my cousins whom I adored, especially the older boys who knew how to tumble and yell and avoid the scourge of parents and grandparents upstairs. We were forging pleasurable memories that lit up my childhood and dug  deep feelings of love for some of my cousins.

As a grandmother now, at my birthday table, I savour these moments with my children and grandchildren, wanting the feeling to last like chewing as long as possible on some delicious morsel so it will not disappear down my gullet. I want to take it all in, enlarge it and hold on to it tightly – as they all go their separate ways, only reuniting for a meal now and then.

A New York State of Mind

 

We used to frequent New York every year or so, but lately our visits to the States go west towards California or to our daughter in Philadelphia. But this year determined to avoid birthday drama, we returned to the city that never sleeps. At first the overwhelming sea of people in Manhattan threatened to absorb and drown us, but very quickly we adjusted and remembered why we are drawn to the hubbub of this place. For me, the best part of New York is the visual art, whether in the shops, the galleries, or walking on the streets. It reminds me of my previous trips and how my desire for travel was first engendered.

When I lived with my parents as a girl, we could not afford much, but every summer we would set out for a destination, usually at the end of July. There was one particular trip to Florida where we all got sunburned and ate only pink watermelon to cool our burning bodies, wearing as few clothes as possible; we were so scorched that even light garments seared our delicate bodies. The other road trips were targeted towards children’s museums, specialty toy shops, or some specific landmark of interest such as the giant Paul Bunyon Statue or Ausable Canyon. But my father possessed a predilection for all things electrical, moving and complex :trains, planes, vintage cars, electrical contraptions, things that whirled fascinated him.

Before he was stricken with polio, he and a load of guys would almost annually head for New York usually Times Square to discover the newest in technology, gadgets and machines that were yet to be revealed in Canada. I imagine a clutch of cool types, my father the coolest in a worn brown leather jacket and fedora that framed his dark good looks, deep eyes and hair, looking much like a young Brandon.

As kids, we, too, were packed in the car and driven to New York. By this time he had endured polio and its accompaniment of crutches and braces, refitting the drive shaft with a hand control. He could not feed gas because the muscles in his legs had been ravaged by the disease. For some queer reason, I recall staying at a tiny dusky hotel named The Oliver Cromwell in downtown Manhattan, that a bell boy actually carried our bags to my father’s disgust because he would have to tip him, that there was a tiny elevator, and that my father was disgruntled by the choice of the hotel as he usually chose motels like the Howard Johnson, teasing me that it was because of my aristocratic taste. We certainly would never reserve. Likely his annoyance was due to the cost.

In any case, my mother took my sister and myself to see the leg-swinging Rockets at Rockefeller Centre and there is a faint memory of a long line of high kicking gals in little hats and bathingsuit costumes. As my father was no fan of musicals ( a trait I share with him) although his avocation was music, he did not accompany us. I wonder now where he might have been? Maybe sitting in his car with a Popular Mechanics magazine or drawing his endless circuits for improved high fidelity on small bits of paper in the dingy hotel room.

He did accompany us to the Hayden Planetarium where we all tilted back in our seats so we could take in the night sky and listen to the thundering guiding voice, likely of Lorne Green or some other actor who explained the stars and constellations. But I wonder where did he park or did he lumber on his crutches for blocks? After all, this was New York, downtown New York with no broken down curbs for the handicapped or delayed crossing or permits that considered a man with sticks might not be as fast as the rest of the population. To my parents’ credit, they never complained of the inconveniences, the bumps and pitfalls of his disease. We might catch a look of frustration, despair or plain anger on his face, but they did not speak of his limitations out loud. He resented being referred to as “ crippled”, preferring the term “handicapped”.

As I age and especially on this past New York trip jostled by the endless crowds, I reflect on his bravery, his stick-to-it-ness to accomplish what he did, with only the support of my thin and determined mother.

I returned to New York when I was older in my teenage years and then, after high school. My aunt and uncle who had been imprisoned on Ellis Island for seeking to help the Rosenbergs, so the story goes, primed me for my first unchaperoned visit to the Big Apple. They told me I must stay at the Barbizon Hotel for Young Women on Lexington. The cell-like rooms had one tiny window, and with barely enough room for a suitcase which might be pushed beneath the bed, but the location so close to 5th Avenue was glorious. I roamed the streets, tossed the phone numbers of far flung relatives I should contact for help. My eccentric aunt had sat me down in her Forest hill home and explained in detail what I should see and do, most included galleries and museums, but she also gave me a list of three items to retrieve for her.

Not unlike Theseus, I wanted to keep my word, but my aunt who spoke long and with great detail in her monologues on travel reassured me that her items were not available in Toronto and so requested bizarre trinkets. The one I recall was a spool of a particular red thread. I did go to Woolworth’s and perhaps Macy’s, but finally decided the quest was not only futile, but ridiculous. However, she had helpfully related that on Broadway there were Chock Full of Nuts restaurants where a delicious sandwich of cream cheese on datenut bread could be purchased- at a reasonable cost. No longer on street corners, these iconic coffee shops were memorialized on the internet,

“Like any respectable coffee shop, they also served food along with their drink: a modest menu of dishes like lemon cream pie, whole-wheat donuts, and green pea soup. One of their offerings, however, would become a signature—a dish so deliciously simple and practical that it would nearly eclipse the coffee in nostalgic (if not retail) value: date-nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches.( Leah Koenig,Politico Pro, August 25, 2015)”

It’s funny today to think of hotels for ladies, or “respectable coffee shops” or even Woolworth’s but that was part of my context in the 50’s and 60’s. So my memories of planetariums, even from long exhausting car rides as a child where I would announce every 15 minutes “I’m bored,” and query, “ when will we get there?”; and those delicious free jaunts by myself on the stylish streets of New York fostered my desire for that city.

On this recent trip with my husband, we also experienced new and wondrous events: the first lesbian protagonist in Funhome ; and the amazing state of the art staging of The Curious Event of the Dog in the Night time. These productions were breathtaking, raw, but also polished with talented casts. They provided their audiences with dialogue and ideas that extended far beyond the performance , addressing weighty and confounding issues about life and living in the 21st century.

We saw the famous Gustave Klimt painting Woman In Gold recently popularized in the film in which Helen Mirren starred. We discussed and considered the legal ramifications of repatriating war goods, ascendancy, inheritance, survivor claims and public enjoyment. We went to the Met and viewed paintings of JJ Sargent’s friends, Baudelaire, WB Yeats, and others in styles that moved from classical portrait painting into the Impressionist genre. We found that attempting to see everything at the New Whitney was an impossibility: a reason to return.

We walked, we talked, we talked, we discussed, we debated, we were silent with thought, we walked long walks, we rambled in Central park, we waited unsuccessfully for taxis, we ate, we rested. We were hardly sated with questions and concepts and one another.

As I write this, I think that New York was, IS, a stimulus for thinking, for looking and pondering, for stimulating your senses to be a more sentient person who not just moves through the world, but someone who can be truly engaged experientially, not just washed over or washed away. New York taps you at the side of your head and makes you cogitate. It wakes you up, with a slap or a caress, and brazenly invites you respond. It is that assault on your senses and your mind that stimulates talk that means something so you engage with it, with others: through the arts, in the streets, tempting you to return and return: to see what it’s new, and different and interesting and bubbling up.

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