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Archive for the month “June, 2016”

To condo or not: when a house is a home

Yesterday as I sat savouring a chocolate almond croissant in the window of Petit Thuet, I was spied by old friends. We gesticulated through the window pane until I finally invited them into the tiny space between the cash register and the window. We quickly caught up on kids, travel, old friends and then R. said,” We’ve moved into the Ports Condo.” My mouth dropped open as I loved their former house, spacious with a big yard in North Toronto.  

 I nodded that I knew The Ports and recalled my epicurean initiation with my aunt and uncle, both now dead, who introduced me to gastronomical treats at The Ports of Call when I was barely out of adolescence I recalled valet parking at a huge location at Summerhill -divided into four or five dining rooms, each suggesting a different cultural food offering venue. I seem to remember vermilion silk curtain, suggesting perhaps an invitation to Far East experience, but I’m not completely sure. It was a hopping night scene, most unusual for staid Toronto 50 or so years ago. I conjured even then that this might be a replica of New York or LA’s dining scene. I had no actual factual knowledge but gleaned it was a place where the rich, glamorous and elegantly dressed would dine, especially on Saturday nights.  

My Aunt Marion always felt she should extend my education, particularly in matters of art and taste. I would make my first travel trip outside of Canada and the US with them: touring Scandinavia, Finland, Amsterdam and London the summer I turned 18. We visited hospitals and mixed age homes, all with a view their socialist leanings. We wandered through ramshackle synagogues barely subsisting. My aunt would lapse into a kind of perfect Yiddish and exude a warmth reserved for me, but not my parents at home.We dined in fantastic restaurants and to this day I recall the scrambled eggs at Madame C- something in London which must have been so expensive to make my aunt gulp; and humungous strawberries eaten with a Voice of the Women advocate in Oslo. We wandered in Vigeland Park in Norway, pausing to seriously discuss the sculptures, and we noted how Rotterdam was modern and industrial as opposed to quaint Amsterdam.  

But the subject with the old friends was condos. They had a particularly long closing, their house snapped up almost immediately and now they were praising the ease with which they walked out and down town. I think you do live in your neighbourhood and certainly when I left the College of Teachers, located on Bloor, I almost begrudged dragging myself back to St. Mikes for my hearing aids or my shopping through Hazelton Lanes once within easy lunchtime walking distance. Now it seems I hardly trek downtown anymore, preferring not to pay for parking or become delayed or entangled in the rhythms of trafficStill vestiges remain- of relationships, rituals and certain services, so I do return. 

But running into this couple did trigger thoughts of location. At present we are committed to staying where we are until we cannot manage our two cluttered stories. It’s convenient when grandkids come to play, me introducing them to our space with treasure hunts that cause them to discover our dark unfinished basement, peruse my cluttered art room, or investigate beneath the table in the extra bedroom. There is room to hide and be alone and store all those unnecessary books, memorabilia I cannot bear to part with such as the X-rays of my daughter’s fractured arm when she was in Grade 8, my notes from Peter Melon’s art history class in second year university, the animated books created by my students in that Postcolonial class and my portfolios from international presentations when I worked at the College. I keep them because as Jean Paul Sartre taught: they are pieces of ourselves and we shared a relationship with them, intuiting that those now forlorn pieces helped us to know ourselves, to grow and evolve. To those who would downsize, I say bravo…but of course I know that eventually we will have no choice but to toss those dusty mementos and move on. But for now, they provide comfort, an expanded sense of our own trajectory and evolution. They are like the extra layers that keep us warm, arming our souls. Perhaps they are psychically necessary, or others might conjure, just crutches.  

For the time being, I cast my eyes at the bird feeder loaded with Muskokoa birdseed that has attracted cardinals, goldfinches,blue Jays and a woodpecker with a huge wingspan.Although the garden never replicated Virginia Woolf’s Sisinghurst all in white: that was my intent. If I squint a little I can even relive the tents and all female musical assemble that held my friends and colleagues one perfect spring night to celebrate my doctorate in 1996. I think of the surprise( and not )garden parties to mark birthdays and marriages and my elder girl’s wedding in our living room, intimate and cosy on a snowy day in January. Even my scowling mother at her 80th , angry at me for now a forgotten reason is part of the tapestry held within these walls. As an extension of one self, I think of the monochromatic colour scheme of our den and my own paintings based on our trips to China and Peru that add to a presence and make a house a home.  

ith our place in San Diego, it too is being layered with items of love, designing a space that speaks of us and to us when we excitedly burst in. But its size us small, a condo, and likely a forerunner of a place we may retire to – if or when we do depart this sanctuary where our children were raised and formed into extraordinary humans. Littered with toys, music, and the need of growing children, our kitchen table in our nook was/is the centre of discussion, and coming together as a family.  

I guess that is it and as John Polyani might agree- as I write this I discover what I did not know I knew- my attachment to my house resembles another family member, more than a space, it symbolizes who we were and are as a family. Its four walls more than restricting have embraced us, kept us and our secrets safe, connected us,entwining us with love and shared memories. When we leave we take all that with us, our house gently removing itself from us physically . 

But not yet and hopefully not for some time to come.

Revisiting The Little Prince

“Taming means more than the literal act of domesticating an animal; it’s about experiencing , be it romantic or platonic, and the perils and rewards that come with it. Once you grow close to someone else, you risk experiencing loss, “How the National Ballet brought Le Petit Prince to life. “Globe June 4, p 1.

The widespread attention to Antoine de Saint- Exupery’s novella seems to have burst everywhere this spring- from movies to games and ballets. Martha Schabas’ criticism in The Globe and Mail of the performance suggested a commercialism as opposed to a focus on the ballet, akin perhaps to the National Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland ( also  revived everywhere in film and theatre) which there was an emphasis on entertainment, surprise contraptions rather than highlighting the pas- de- deux. Setting and costume were lauded, dancing as well, but this season I cannot know.The ticket prices soared to $175 for Prince and the actual availability was sparse, so I will have to await responses from friends fortunate enough to have seen the production to speculate.


I do know and cherish the book. It was a mantra that caused me untold happiness because it was introduced to me by my first real friends at university.It fortified an emotional girl often ridiculed for being “ too sensitive”: that only with the heart that one sees correctly. It designated that one must meet on a regular basis to truly engage in the process of knowing someone else, setting out specific parameters and demands. It disparaged the pursuits, ignorance and arrogance of diverse classes of people; and it encapsulated what I had always believed,cementing my philosophical view on life. I had read Machiavelli, agreed with Pascal’s Pensees, even been enamoured by St. Augustus; however, the simplicity of The Little Prince, seared my soul in a way that no other had. It was my cadre’s secret book in the 60’s a guide against the rich and snobbish.mIt just cut through so directly to what I recognized to be wisdom. 

Much like coveted books,there are those phrases and sentences we make our own through reading, or possibly bon mots from films, and we keep them close, sharing them when they are suggested by events or scenes in our life; they resonate and actually echo in our heads, enlivening and enhancing the moments that stand alone and provide pause.The lovely Philip Roth sentence regarding surface is one , my husband treasures.  

That is the way with poetry too. As elementary school students, poetry was intended to test our memories so, in grade 4, we had to accumulate a certain number of lines by the end of the year, practicing out loud in front of the class, allowed to select long passages or several rhyming couplets as long as we fulfilled the magic number. To this day when I see a grey squirrel, the image that jumps at me originates from those days and reminds me that the grey squirrel is like a teapot, ( although he is NOT).. Similarly a loud noise evokes Vachel Lindsay’s”Boomlay, boomlay,boomlay,boom…”. And the sweet delicacy of Louis MacNeice’s “spit the pips” from his poem Snow are the bits that flutter into my consciousness,totally unbidden. 

When I had to select a poem to teach as a beginning teacher I had vague memories of Henry Reed’s Naming of Parts and the contrasts of the recruit enchanted by flowers in the midst of having to memorize the names and functions of gun parts. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the lank and gawky body of a languid boy gazing at japonica outside his window on a spring day. Reed laces killing and procreation as the juxtaposition of bees and swivels, slings, bolts and safety- catches, underlining the contradictions to be faced by the youth. 

Throughout life, William Butler Yeats’ lost love of Maude Gonne and Pied Beauty  by Gerard Manley Hopkins have been my companions reinforcing some of life’s lessons: beauty in difference ; we will not always be loved back by those we desire; and there is an intrinsic beauty between form and function . Poets and artist give us the handles, providing us and expressing our emotions bigger and best than we mere mortals could.They wrestle with to commandeer the words to describe and symbolize what we hint at and feel, making them loom larger and helping us put outside our mere selves the ideas. I never thought while daydreaming in those stodgy leafy classrooms that I would be so imprinted by images that have become my walking companions. They have spoken for me, held me up, given me a place to hear what often were tangled, confused and painful emotions. 

Alternately they have been a way to sing out, a catalogue of people and observations, a stream of delight. Best of all, I loved Walt Whitman’s words”Do I contradict myself? Very well,I contradict myself…” for, as we are all full of opposing views,contrary notions, complicated cares, thoughts and emotions that do not coalesce, we often do not make wrongs into a right.So if I contradict myself, well, so be it. 

As the years flow by, we stand on the shores surveying what we have collected over time. The possessions that have contributed to our sense of self, taught and reassured us- often as we have stood against a popular tide. Once we looked to the books that lined our shelves that reflected where we had gone and what had contributed to our growth. Today those tomes are dwindled as Kobo and Kindle give us a page that disappears once our eyes have passed over it. The evidence rests in our hearts and minds and if we want to revisit, we must search on Google, should we be able to pinpoint the phrase, the word, the idea.  

Life changes, but the longing to hold a book in one’s hand and escape somewhere new or different does not. I assume Gatsby also yearned for the multicoloured backdrop of books, even though his were covers with blank pages. I suppose he felt they attested to his character. Perhaps now the reverse is true; however, coming upon a line that has demarcated in an old book or noting a comment beside a sentence brings one back to a time and a place we might have truly forgotten. I think that making a mark is important , the actual act of stopping, considering and responding before the thought has slipped away meaningful.Perhaps that is why I love art. Making the mark records and connects a person to something else and that connection can spark a revelation. 

For me, I will always treasure the words of the The Little Prince- and welcome its journey back from the shelves where it was not lost, but hiding. 

What we thought we knew

Our perspectives on life often seem fixed. We have sorted out our thoughts and reactions as we have followed issues, engaged in dialogues, asked questions, studied, opened ourselves to new trends and innovations and integrated our reactions and responses into new mindsets.  

Last week as I watched Bryan Cranston portray LBJ, I experienced a relocation of ideas that had accompanied my comprehension of JFK’s successor.

As an adolescent, I like my peers , was totally enamoured with the myth of Camelot and the fantasy spun of the square- jawed tousle- haired president. In deed we loved the image we saw, imagining ourselves part of the family football on the sunny beaches, shopping with the stylish Jackie, even fantasizing that one day we might travel to Africa as part of The Peace Corps in pursuit of a better world .We believed ourselves a kind of extended family member attached to a presidential lifestyle that formed part of Photoplay or Seventeen magazine in the 60’s.We could be the brightest and the best, exceeding our grasp( what’s a heaven for?). Kennedy’s murder shattered our naivety, distorting a fuzzy dream of ourselves as blossoming boomers, making us cynical, disapproving and angry, no longer anticipating what could be . For after all, because he had been the first Catholic president , we anticipated that since he had cracked open that door, maybe women or black people might enter too. The world had felt rich with possibilities. But perhaps that is the illusion of the young- in any case.  

His death was a blow. I was exiting my Grade 11 French exam when I wondered why there were so many huddled together in corners, weeping, engulfed in tears. 

To take his place was the crude,rude, overbearing Lyndon Johnston. We would recall the pretender to the throne as hovering beside the courageous dazed Jackie as he was sworn in on Airforce One : when Kennedy’s brains were laced across his cavalcade. So my attitude towards the new president was something of resentment. 

He looked too anxious, so patronizing, so patriarchal, hovering. 

However, the LBJ, an adaptation of the Robert Schenkkan play “All the Way,”(2014) on Broadway, resurrects LBJ and for those who are not political aficionados and have not dived beyond the image we thought we knew of the man- the truth is staggering- and impressive. Observing his manipulation of the Southern Democrats to ensure Congress pass legislation for equal rights legislation in 1964 is spell binding. Unafraid to move towards what is right, to coddle, to befuddle,to coach or even demand in a booming voice took savvy and stratagem as he moved the country forward. In days of lynching, false arrests, colour bars, differentiated toilets (some things never change), the man stood strong. His own life from rural poor, teaching Mexicans with no future, and navigating the system with the “ good old boys” from Down South fortified his understanding of how to work the system. In spite of those good ole boys,LBJ began to overcome racial bias. “But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans”, stated Bill Clinton,May 2, 2012, in discussing Seat of Power, Robert Caro’s book , The Passage of Power in New York Times Review of Books.   

Although this production for television reveals that often money to fund campaigns was the motivation that initiated bold steps, LBJ knew who, where and when, pressing into action without fanfare or niceties what needed to be accomplished. Not cultured, groomed or attractive, LBJ was a role model in crashing barriers. Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s introspective,also driven, contrast. Quiet almost patronizing, Humphrey worked long hours to fulfill LBJs requests and carry out initiatives. LBJ’s small, closed circle of supports included Walter Jenkins, whom LBJ embraced as a son, found guilty of sex crimes in a YMCA bathroom, and as so a gay man, dismissed from his post. An interesting conversation between LBJ and J Edgar Hoover suggests that perhaps LBJ had suspicions about Hoover’s sexuality as well.

Much like Ken Burns’ work on the Roosevelts, LBJ illuminates political endeavours removing them from back rooms to simplify and demystify for the viewing audience, the inner world of negotiations that are self-seeking, petty, ego boosting but eventually light the way to improved lives. My cynicism re- enforced, I can at least live with the results of the 1964 rights bill and the downfall of George Wallace.Watching the remake of Roots this week substantiates the need for a strong moral conscience to have begun to attack the evil perpetuated on the slaves in the south. Yet many proclaim that bigoted attitude in those parts has been maintained. It’s the truly exceptional person willing to forego popularity and easy relations “ with the fellows” to push forward through the darkness of ignorance. LBJ appears to be one such remarkable politician.

In a nutshell, educating through the media can be an enlightening tool that aids in changing perspectives. Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin,Arthur Schlesinger, many other authors and presidents themselves write and extend our understanding, yet television makes history accessible as popular culture often trumps reading as the images presented and set in real chambers complete with contextual and even human contexts (such as wives, gardens, etc) go beyond to dramatize events: that we need not imagine and perhaps distort through our unknowing or previous biases.

And that is not to say any production is not shaped by the bias of the production or philosophical bent of any team. What I am saying is that the scenes made vivid, compelling with the heard interchange of the spoken word can engage us in a way that extends meaning. Maybe these visual journalists, the filmmakers of these “ docu dramas “ can propel our learning and re- educate our knowledge of days passed, essential days that turned the world around.

Years back when I taught at Northern Secondary, we chose for the final exam essays that were used to demonstrate students’ ability to apply critical thinking skills. One such piece dealt with “edutainment”, pondering the need to package learning as entertainment thereby appealing to students through funny monologues, jokes, media, etc. I recall scoffing that education might be devalued or made palatable for the sake of the presentation. In my head I harboured the long staid image of the professor at his podium, the students, nodding solemnly, busily scribbling down notes, the room silent, deep in thought. Now I know better: that learning can take place in innumerable venues and of course, in a plethora of ways. Eventually I ascertained this fact from Sesame Street where every minute, Grover, Elmo or Big Bird amazed and pierced our consciousness. No matter the flash of colour, the mispronounced phrase, the juxtaposition of milieu, we were transported to the land of learning and we were tickled enough to hold on to that fresh information. When viewing can be exciting and informative, we might just put down our IPads, watch, listen and THINK about issues that are more than entertainment.

How ironic that in the midst of all that, Donald Trump, first reported in the entertainment section of The Huffington Post, has become the entertainment without the “ edu-“- cation portion; “We announced our decision to put our coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign in our Entertainment section instead of our Politics section. “Our reason is simple,” wrote Ryan Grim and Danny Shea. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.”

Irving, Marra and Ma: some travels through books

Some books take you on a road trip to places you may or may not have been, but offering you new vistas and experiences.
The John Irving book Avenue of Mysteries did that for me. Having traveled in Mexico in the 70’s, I bummed around Mexico City, Guadalajara and Cuernavaca, doing the touristy thing, particularly fascinated by the skullies and macabre heads of the  dead,offered in sticky candy form on local stands. I bought exquisitely and multicoloured shifts and shirts in marketplaces that teemed with flies circling the carcasses of dead cows and flirted wildly with dark eyed fellows. I swayed to the music.But John Irving does not give us tourist, he gives us that under layerof a culture which is often hardly sweet. He gives us the children in Oacaxca who play near and in heaps of garbage, the smells of burning tires, the mysterious eyes of the statutes that track your footsteps. He gives us friendly prostitutes and parent less children and he weaves a story of an usual boy, Juan Diego, who attains success in spite of his background. Because it is John Irving, we have a background of outcast people,( here Flor and Edward, a cross- dresser and a priest)misfits who eventually find their fit, no matter how perilous that may be. We have literally circuses as the strange limitations crossing into adulthood where we are introduced to protagonists who have always had to be adult- like. We have children who must joust with windmills, and a clairvoyant younger sister, Lupe, who speaks her own language.Truly Irving gives us a gritty world as the backdrop for his hero, his books as saving  graces that have established his passport from and away from this downtrodden world. He wants and needs his memories and fears that his beta- blockers are blocking them.

 Then we have Anthony Marra’s The Czar of Love and Techno, nine related stories  of characters that are funny, ironic and bizarre but provide insight into a place whose knowledge has only been filtered by the news. Chechynia is the central character, complete with a forest cut out of metal and plastic,air so thick with refuse that it appears as snow, and lakes prohibited to swim in because of the very apparent dangers to one’s health. Amidst the rubble is the story of a swan a, ballerina, her lover, and her daughter. We follow the rise and fall of talent, the gossipy baboushkas, the secret police, the heavy watchful eye of Stalin’s government, and those who attempt to escape the webs set to ensnare any opposition. An art student turned censor adds and subtracts faces in official photographs, chronicling the life cycle of his brother; Kolya,  who becomes a contract soldier;Sergei, a teenage grifter. Marra’s language is fresh and brilliant as he describes a smashed head as a pot of borscht and observes the changes in the bodies of older women that resemble melting snow as the sun stretches their forms into shadows.  Many of ironic comments make you chortle to yourself such as” The heat- seeking desire flowing from my heart via my south- lands was indiscriminate in its aim.”
We always knew books could inform of new countries and introduce us to new protagonists.And there are memorable characters we will always carry with us: such as the knitting Madame Dufarge the observer; the runaways, the unloved or troublesome children such as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,  Pip, sly- eyed Lolita, and Holden Caulfield who have been rendered real and recognizable to the reader.

Katherine Ma’s The Year She Left Us may or may not people our world where others have built a home in our conscious; however, I think I will always associate  Ari ( short for Ariadne) with feelings of trouble and displeasure. She stands out because although the themes of identity and loss are not new, they are taken into a new subset of themes: being an  adopted Chinese girl in the 90’s.

 Ari — her full name Ariadne Bettina Yun-li Rose Kong — grew up in the Bay Area as a member of the Whackadoodles, a collective of “Western-Adopted Chinese Daughters.” More than 80,000 Chinese children — most of them girls were adopted in the mid- 90’s because of China’s infamous one-child policy and a cultural prejudice that favors sons.What differentiates Ari  from other  protagonists is her Chinese mother so some of her disconnect with her identity should not be more than any other  motherdaughter relationship. Ari hears this again and again. She admits,“It should have been easier, but it wasn’t,” and she thinks. “I felt stupid, alone and defective.”  Obviously she resembles her adopted mother so she would not be immediately identified as adopted. Interestingly her closest friends, A.J. whose parents are Jewish, appears to acculturate herself much easier than Ari. That is not to subjugate the trauma of adoption, and referred to as the big A, abandonment, in the story. Just looking similar cannot mask problems, but it does provide one less reason to feel different in society. Her other close friend Wei-Wei creates siblings and finds fleeting acceptance in the world of entertainment, a mentor, a guide, but eventually she too is revealed as likewise troubled.

 Unclear as to why Ari’s angst has germinated, she struggles and worries before her initial trip , The Finders Trip, to China at age 12 to seek her cultural connections. Ari resents that her mother will not allow her to dress as the other girls in the final ceremony, scoffing at the picture perfect scene of red silk pyjamas, and flower entwined hair as all the adoptees preform a dance for a take home picture moment. Her encounter with an unknown man is traumatic, and perhaps builds into her emergence of self doubt and despair.

 Previously she is described as happy, intellectually challenging and well loved by her strong matriarchal family. As a baby , she is “as light as a teacup, with a big cartoon smile,”and rosebud mouth, transforming into an 18-year-old who drinks, smokes, sleeps around and has tattoos and a “metal shank” piercing her eyebrow. Exacerbated by that  unsettling event in China, Ari begins her descent into misery and eventual separation from the only family she has known. She is especially loving to Gram who in spite of her initial misgivings loves Ari. She

Gram believes the return to China is unnecessary .Ma’s portrayals of  her women are fair, but complicated, some  Americans quite accepting of their identity as  U.S. jurists and judges. Ari’s mother and aunt support causes associated with their careers, certainly striving to represent themselves as honest and just but avoiding any overlay that speaks to a Chinese bias. Not surprisingly Gram does not support Ari’s trip of identity solidarity. Her own secrets , she feels, were better left hidden back home. She has no desire to return and unbury a painful decision made there.

 Ari’s separation from her family is extreme: particularly one rather violent act that symbolically represents her split . Yet as an adolescent and young woman, Ari should not, I feel, be represented as the Chinese adoptee, but rather any young person with identity issues. Her search stands symbolic and particular at the same time. In deed, Ma reminds her readers of this fact in an afterward in her novel.

What perplexes me is Ari’s quest for her ersatz father, possibly a substitute for the man who abandoned her. Resentful and connected by a similar name, Ari’s need for this man takes her to locate his life in Alaska, place of difficult landscape, cold, uninviting weather, rigorous life challenges. Maybe again, a desire to overcome the trials one must encounter on the archetypal search towards self- knowledge( see Joseph Campbell).

The novel populated by positive , strong, supportive women is cast aside as Ari obviously  requires a male figure to ground her. This for me is the rubbing point. I do reflect that Ma’s populating her book with so many dominant females may for some cry out for balance in equalizing the genders; however, in contemporary life, many others would strongly  disagree.

Ari’s behaviour towards her mother is as well hard to swallow although, as I say, not all daughters love their mothers or treat them well; however Ari does connect and confide  in her aunt Les and the bond between grandmother and granddaughter is true and loving.

 Although the Chinese adoptee theme is central to the story, perhaps Ma is discounting it by presenting the reader with a confused hero who might just be Chinese or Vietnamese or Rumanian. Reading responses from GoodReads by adopted mothers suggests that Ma has raised an issue of pain mainly unrecognized by this group. That racial identity is an issue cannot be discounted but I do ponder that Ma has used a Chinese adoptee to a Chinese mother to showcase the girl’s angst and presented her objective to locate a man in her life – as arising topics for debate.

For all the above reasons, I have always loved books for the ideas, revelations and journeys they offer through the printed word.

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