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Archive for the month “October, 2017”

The Meaning of Life

Here I sit at the Bloor Cinema( still a dump) awaiting my lecture. As part of a continuing education class, the program offers a range of topics: from bootlegging( yes, Hamilton had their own little mafia ) to parenting by the Royals so there’s little commitment but to arrive on time and listen, and hopefully glean some new information.

On the heels of a return from San Diego and still in the throes of three hour jet lag, I head for today’s topic: the meaning of life. Instead of a lumpy Einstein or wizened sophisticated Georgia O’Keefe, on stage struts a lovely young thing in a pencil skirt with luxurious dark hair. It’s not that the young cannot be insightful and sensitive, but the first few waves at the audience make me wish I had taken an afternoon snooze. She speaks directly to the assembled, most recognizable before class as they stop at Starbucks or Aroma for a pre class chat with friends. Some, like me, seek out deals at the dollar store, others merely meander slowly towards the class. Many  stride strongly with purpose, not wanting to be late for the lunchtime presentations. We are recognizable. The boomers, the oldsters, wearing comfortable relaxed clothes, greyed or dyed hair, faces that reflect numerous years of living. The point is that we have a wealth of experience, stories, encounters, lives lived- most I would venture teeming with meaning.

But I try not to judge as our presenter attempts to engage her listeners: as I did my classes once upon a time- at high schools, at universities, at conventions. She poses her question directly and asks what experience in our lives stands out most dramatically. Good question and an important one, but unlike my talks, the listeners here have not been softened up, invited to participate in a” get to know you game”, or even been provided with a reason to share significant facts from their lives. She expects a response, but not one single hand in the sea of participants goes up. Beside me, a frazzled white haired oldie engages me briefly, and I whisper,” I’m not about to reveal myself here.” She nods and then adds”, My memory was awakening up after a suicide attempt” .I visualize magenta blood pumping furiously through her wrists against a hospital bed of white sheets.

 I’m not about to contribute that I was thinking of my glossy wedding day more than forty four years previous. I’m not sure what to say to a stranger who has decided to share this life- changing moment, but I smile weakly and tun my eyes back to the lithe young thing prancing about on the stage.
She has no prepared slides or PowerPoint , but merely an outline on several crumbled sheets on her podium. Apparently negative or bad memories  were the answers she was seeking to her initial prompt so I’m not sure which my seat mate’s would qualify for: she did afterall, wake up! I close my notebook where I usually make notes as I’m pretty sure little will merit being recorded. She begins her ramble while ceaselessly moving back and forth along the edge of the theatre, referring to the famous names of Maslow, Victor Frankl, short and long studies from Romania and Australia, most published as pop news over the years and well known I would expect by this august group. But she bounces from topic to topic, creating, spinning, unwinding her own” I believes” and it’s a tumble from hunter- gathers to women’s fear of rejection to percentages of reclusive populations to unconscious minds to why many in the audience dream of their teeth falling out. I’m not impressed as she navigates the length of the stage; while walking, she appears to be structuring an argument.


This recalls for me my son’s frantic call from university in his very first year when his literature prof stipulated that the essays they were required to write must possess NO thesis. I could not help him.


Throughout this woman’s loosely structured ramble, I am aware that the emperor does not wear clothes, and were we sitting side by side in a university common room, I would be challenging the ideas she is contemplating, presenting the rational, the flip- side, the antithesis, the common sense, pointing out the ludicrous arguments she is proposing.Or more likely, I would be stifling a yawn or a disparaging look. Hers is a naivety of a student whose thoughts are roughly plumbed. The question, the absurdity of a young person addressing this huge talk is ridiculous. 
Not that

A. Youth cannot pose ( and answer or even address) significant questions

B. These questions should not be discussed

C. That an attempt to untangle even a millisecond of this conjecture is not important. But the person addressing them seems so light, so lacking in world vision and experience, and so underestimating her audience( first question to consider: who is your audience) .

Truly, I had half expected an unsanctimonious diatribe, something irreverent, funny at least to make me laugh; or conversely- something wildly thoughtful.
I do recall that I did guffaw when I noted the name of the talk, but anticipated some enlightenment or at least a serious attempt.Stuck here much like a butterfly at the edge of a pin, I am unable to navigate over the knees and feet of the crowd in my row, resenting the presenter’s lack of depth, a put together( for her other wide eyed students,perhaps? ), her mere sport of such an immense question.

So I do not think it is mere jet lag or even bias towards a young person that is making me fidget in my seat. It is the ease with which her topic is handled in spite of the back and forth sashay at the front. It is the lack of piercing analysis replaced by studies that are flaunted and left to dry on a rack as if name dropping bestows validity to any talk She is stabbing at a theme that gnaws at you as you age: Why am I here? Have my years been worthwhile? How do I stand accountable to myself? To my peers? What does it all mean? The topic is not just a ramble where a traveller traverses, picks up a few blueberries from the bush or scatters breadcrumbs along the path. It is a momentous question that dogs and slows the feet of certainly, this aging group. And might I  add great minds over time.  

Did others react as I did? I cannot know as even those at the very edge of the theatre did not rise to leave and there were actually questions at the 40 minute conclusion. Finally I propel myself over the outstretched limbs to depart. Maybe as an afternoon out, the others had found morsels upon which to chew or heard something fresh and did not respond as I did, hoping for probing thoughts to take away or even jot down. Worse yet as I return to my car, I discover a yellow ticket tucked beneath window as I had parked in a taxi stand. Perhaps my car knew more than I, waiting for a quick drop off and hop back in. 

But I am still grumbling: Did she offer a philosophical grounding like Tikkun Olam( Hebrew repair the world. See Mishna), as novelist Nicole Krauss does in her Forest Dark? Her thoughts on the infinite and the finite, filling void with presence, the give and take, the ying and yang, the emptying out and filling up in a desire to recreate what has been lost?Thoughts about time as TSEliot ( Do I dare to eat a peach?) or even a passing glance at Rene Descartes or Steven Hawking. Often literature, science will make meaning…  

When I pondered later, I realized why the lecture, if I can call it that, why it had so angered me. And I knew: I had been that girl, at a different time, carefree, merely toying at the big questions, charmingly taunting and dabbling, eyes large, but only poking here and there without real and deep concerns.No Blake’s Book of Thel , not even a serious student back then, unless you consider daydreaming in UC’s quad with illusions of romance and travel qualifies for broaching the big questions or writing a major thesis paper for a bespectacled prof. Yes ( and my daughter is thinking this if she is reading this,” Not again, mom”. I wore the love beads, but was superficial in my thoughts, not to mention my actions in making the world a better place, unless you discount welfare rep in high school. But more humble, I never imagined that a tossed salad of ideas might qualify as a lecture, particularly to those who had tasted meaning in a real sense.

Sitting there in that darkened room,  a boomer no longer young, this topic  was no longer passing conjecture, or unbridled trajectory. Years of living with no acceptable answers rattled and shook me as I recalled myself at that age, unshackled by the burden of years wherein all innocence is lost. So maybe I grieved and judged because the presenter had once been me, stepping lightly, twirling attractively, touching lightly on the very essence of things.
The meaning of things with little meaning. 

Ridiculous Things

This morning , Tuesday October 16, in The Toronto Star, in preparation for Halloween, they display on the front page “the Anne Frank costume”, complete with a charming green beret, little girl coat and a destination tag at the neck. You have to guffaw at the bad taste, and as editor Emma Teitel comments, the cute model smiling might be a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Casa Loma. Truly absurd. But much today , it seems to me, lives in bad taste, thoughtless display, ignorance or ridicule of the past. With a similar thought, we observed the memorial for the dead in Berlin used as a backdrop for baby pictures or a labyrinth for adolescent hide and seek : as the tortured ghosts of the dead hovered above. By the way, I am not suggesting that adoration for Robert E. Lee or proponents of racism, colonialists, etc. be maintained. My quarrel here is with inappropriate appropriation of injustice, not the victimizers.

I’ve always wondered about the crossing of the line into taboo. Lenny Bruce did it. He did not accept society’s margins nor political correctness and by speaking ethnic stereotypes out loud, he forged a way to deal with bias and discrimination. Humour as social critic and commentary can go far in dealing with phobias and prejudice. Yet I do not find the misogyny dished out by certain comics the least bit funny at all. Yet it seems in my headspace that analyzes social issues there is a way to attack that goes beyond educating into ridicule or pain: for the comic’s own misogyny or racism delight. Larry David recently , irreverent always, tackled the fatwa, and made me laugh at him and by extension, ponder the extent to which a governing body will go. Truly he takes taunts and terrors to an absurdist perspective, perhaps making us wonder if we are sitting on the bench, also perpetually waiting for Godot. 

But the Anne Frank costume prompts an analysis of how and why anyone deems any aspect of her holocaust story might be acceptable for children pranking. The detailing of the felt tag is particularly hilarious: is there a choice of Auschwitz? Bergen Belsen, or Terezin, where 15,000 children passed, and the home of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  

Ok, maybe, it reminds us of a scary story of war where little children can be lost, butchered and murdered. Pretty, pretty funny stuff. But of course, Halloween is not for the sake of laughter, except if you are so scared, you might laugh as a nervous reaction. So maybe after all, it does fit in the same way: prisoners in striped uniforms or the crushed skulls of the dead and skeletons are also resurrected for the night. They can terrify. My goodness, even a misshapen paper mâché head of Big Bird can be haunting. 
However, Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. So ironically Anne Frank is cast by the business community as a bad and scary ghost to be kept away, only allowed to prowl on the 31st, like other unwanted and unnecessary Jews as believed by the Nazis. So unless you concur that little girls and Jews are terrifying, she is an aberration. Similarly if she is a character to scare away ghosts, a child with a pen and a book, looking adorable in her beret, little Anne doesn’t really fill the bill either. I suppose she must exist in an space between the reality of cruelty and death in war and persecution while still being commemorated in plays and books as an unbloomed flower and an icon of innocence.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Eventually the evening before was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Well, an Anne in the concentration camp might need beg for food or bits of candy. Not so sure about the pumpkin carving though as those activities were not part of her confinement back then.

Yet exploiting the death of an innocent appears to be a cheap way to sell merchandise although I suppose it is done all the time. It’s not too far from torn jeans that the poor have had to wear because they cannot afford new clothes, accepting the handmedowns of sibs and cousins and thrift stores so threadbare that their skinny limbs protruded. Years ago, a friend remarked that this was the first time in history that we’ve tried to emulate the poor, turn our eyes downward rather than upwards towards the finery of the rich. But as marketing will do, those torn, ragged jeans are paired with designer labels on the ass or carefully placed decoration to entice the buyer. Not exactly Anne Frank although one wonders if a line of holocaust dolls or little girl clothing is too far behind this offering. Complete with those funny destination tags. Maybe a board game too? 

The whole notion of the costume is interesting. The idea of the pirate or ghost easily constructed with an eyepatch or a sheet. The concept of princess, now disparaged as a fitting role for little girls, remains no doubt an expensive and still well sought out Disney product. Incredibly, even after the lambast of role choice, the National Retail Federation reports 2.9 million will dress as princesses this year. Transformers, pop culture, little heroes popular, but according to the NRF, 2.2 million will also be animals. Cute. Gentle. And as I write this, 13 days to the holiday.

Still the insensitivity of the Anne Frank costume sticks in my mind as a symbol of a society that is out of touch with certain values. I conclude I’ve gone like the costume beyond absurdity to unravel the possible meaning of said costume. But really, not only the creator, but the designer, manufacturer, stores on line and beyond accepted Anne Frank as part of their merchandising inventory. It does boggle the mind.

And if not, that’s really scary.

Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

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