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Archive for the month “February, 2018”

Addictive Behaviour

I openly admit that I, like my peers, am addicted. Especially as I am on my own in San Diego, I use my IPad for a plethora of things: from checking the daily weather to reading Toronto’s newspapers to playing games to checking my email continuously and even reviewing great buys. In these ways, I stay in touch when I am away, happily exiled from the brutal cold of weather of my home. The tablet is my friend, bringing me news, information and even stimulation.

This past weekend a discussion between Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and Jim Basillie ,CEO of Blackberry, in Ontario’s Globe and Mail reminded me of how once more, my place in the world is not as a citizen but as a mere customer to be manipulated by those whom I am allowing to use me, a pawn in the commerce of the world. Doidge and Basillie query, why do we share our private thoughts and finances on line with ubiquitous anonymous entities?

Unlike most of this generation, however, boomers were not brought up with computers and digital technology. Basillie points out,” CEOs of big tech companies are simply capitalists doing what capitalists are supposed to do: maximize…. And of course if you lobby those legislators you get rules and regulations hat help you increase profit. In an economy of intangibles, the market¬place frameworks are everything absolutely everything . These companies benefit enormously from addictions so they build it into their products wherever possible.”

And so, we willingly savour being flattered and courted and duped into addiction. Like my students long ago who missed an episode of ER or The Cosby Show, we want to belong to the greater fabric of society, speak the lingo, possess insider information, be in the know because this “ intel” puts us ahead, glamorizes us so we strive to participate in the latest trends: now overwhelmingly, social media fascinations with all its permutations, combinations and glitter- purposely engineered to suck us in.

A friend remarked likewise. We had been reading an article the week before about why we seem unable to read for long periods of time, about how our brain synapses are actually being altered by constant time spent clipping and surfing , searching for the next “ like”, or fix that will boost the chemicals in our brains, making us easily bored or unable to focus for more than a few second before flying off towards. a new site on our electronic devices. Because our brains can change themselves, altering structure and function in response to mental activities, “ neuroplastic”, Doidge explaining, “[d]igital technologies are uniquely compatible with the brain, because both are electric and also work processing at high speeds”. Along with brain alterations comes our bodies, especially necks that bend to screens, and rival the time we once swung our arms and legs in movement as opposed to being curled up with an Ipad or locked to a computer desk, all impacting badly on bodies that should be twisting, stretching, etc.

Even my son getting close to 40 who thankfully still enjoys an engaging read and born before the advent of addictive technology, years back, when given a choice to write a law exam on computers or not, he and his classmates definitely rejected the offer, weary of the pitfalls. Now I doubt there would even be a choice. And certainly his cadre would at present demonstrate preference of machine over hand written exam, cramping fingers replaced by other corporeal maladies.

Jim Basillie in the article describes the discomfort of a teenager whose parents take his device( Smartphone) away at a dinner in a restaurant , commenting on inappropriate table manners. The adolescent fidgets, squirms and Basillie observes his pain, a kind of withdrawal. No wonder fidget toys and spinners have found a market. We know through studies that young boys, even before the arrival of tablets found sitting still almost unbearable, now sadly that body unrest is exacerbated by minds that crave a fix. And how often do we notice parents providing tablets and phones to even babies at table to KEEP THEM QUIET.

Scientists note as well the role eye contact plays in a baby’s development, learning appropriate social and emotional cues by mimicking their mother’s ( or father’s) response by looking directly into their eyes. Remember “play -based” learning? How too do people complain of the lack of that eye contact of their companions as eyes across the table search for a place to land, to focus, to avoid, perhaps the gaze of another, or hunger for the blue light of the screen to satisfy a need. The Ipad exudes no judgment, just “ likes”, approvals whose goal is not your growth as a human, only as a purchaser, a source of profit.

Neuropsychologist are being paid to play into our addictive tendencies, aware of how to attract our brains through the rewards, novelties and even colours that render us as rats in the maze : our prize, the compulsion to spend money for a superfluous good that makes us believe it will satisfy, makes us feel better and happier about ourselves. And while we hunger to hold the tablet, we have no meta- awareness, only the driving desire.

Working with the concept of self, Doidge and Basillie discuss that adolescents require time for reflection, to decide, away from their peers, grow their fears, dissect their own arguments, weigh how to take a stand, defend and build a sense of self , evaluating what they believe is important :what works for them. But with the constant steam of voices readily available on the devices and the seemingly constant need to be validated, rather, than actually working out an issue, they inevitably turn to group voice, allowing the mass response to override or even negate their own. In this way, their weak and evolving sense of protest, outrage, and individuality is lost.

I’ve often worried that even knowing how to form words in print will return the population to illiteracy, lost by allowing Siri or Alexa to speak for us, voice and write down our thoughts. And then there are those strange abbreviations of eclipsed words ,OMG, WTF that not only abort language but shorten it to a few letters like grunts from animals. As we write, so we form or extrapolate our thoughts. John Polyani has described how the act of writing allows for more than what we superficially thought we know: to appear on paper, extending the thoughts we weren’t aware we had, that accumulated stream of consciousness based on experiential data that unravels and delightedly surprises us as it appears on the blank page before us.

If we simply speak our words to Siri, rather than engaging in the path that takes the thought from our head through to the fingers in our hands that holds the pen, things change. Our brains adapt differently and not only our meanings may be misinterpreted, nuance lost, but our ability to communicate as we intended will vanish as well. So too Basillie acknowledges that parents in Silicon Valley promote time away from the screen for their own offspring, encouraging Waldorf methods of being in nature, knitting, woodworking, using minds and bodies, reminiscent of John Dewey’s concept of the school where there are no barriers between the walls and the landscape wherein it is built.

Think this “addiction” is far fetched? Today’s Star Life Section entitled “Your house is going to get a lot smarter”. Rachel Tepper Paley describes how we will become more dependent on technology, more seduced ,although she seems to write with the wonder of it all, even allowing there were no refrigerators before 1913:

“[Smart time clocks will] sense when you’ve reached your sleep cycle’s lightest point and release a wake-up scent of your choice.

Once you’re up, it’s time to get dressed… with clothes you don’t just wear — they will interact with you, tracking health markers and habits. Among them: …smart gloves, which promise to detect skin temperature and provide heat accordingly. Your clothes might even change shape or colour based on your feelings, as will the Sensoree mood sweater, now available for preorder…And if you want a new wardrobe, you won’t have to even leave the house to find the best-fitting clothes: Amazon’s patented mirror will let you virtually try on outfits from the comfort of your own bedroom..”

She mentions too that your purchases will not be left at the door, but verified delivers will enter your living space, “your hub” so you need not even move from your couch where your television can effortlessly be rolled up and out of sight. Your home will be fit with numerous speakers that will control your everything from your light bulbs to your thermostat to your front door.

And dare I say it?. As we all ready know, televisions not only broadcast out, they also can spy on you in your home as those nasty Samsung ones can, garnering and collecting your life’s moments, piercing your privacy as cookies do on the internet. Nor surprising, some of us like Thoreau will want to escape to our own Waldens, eschew these devices, talk to one another, make eye contact, read and think and write down for future generations what it is was like back before technology went mad.

Interestingly not one person commented on the editorial page in The Globe after last week’s article by Doidge and Basillie.Are we so inured, so aware that this trend is coming, that we have totally accepted and normalized it?

A Day in the Life

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a number of books, but out walking this morning I was thinking about his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and I seem to recall the story had to do with Ivan walking either up or down eight steps.And as my thoughts rambled through my head, I was feeling what an emotional week it has been, with my granddaughter’s first walking steps, being separated from Howard, especially on Valentines- but made more emotional by the individual photos displayed of the lives taken of the adolescents murdered in Florida by a disgruntled student,

Yet as I am always aware, there are threads of good and evil everywhere, and the heroism of the teachers shielding their students and dying in their place makes one gasp: that in those ultimate terrible seconds, they reacted, ignoring demands for self preservation to shield others: defiant acts to counteract the overpowering presence of horror.

Last night I went with friends to watch a film called Act of Defiance. It centred on an unsung hero too, Bram Fischer, the legal defence for Nelson Mandela and nine other defendants at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 in South Africa. Discovered at the trial was that the well respected counsel Fischer was , as well, the head of the SACP ( South African Communist Party). On the surface, this Afrikaner lead a life of privilege from a distinguished family, his wife the niece of Jan Smuts who supported discriminatory acts. Yet Molly, Fischer’s wife, and Fischer himself worked tirelessly towards the implementation of a better world. He wrote, “

What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred…”

Although the movie by the Dutch filmmaker Jan Van de Velde garnered many awards, it moved – for me- almost laboriously to present the story. Yet there were scenes that fleshed out the Fischers’ characters with their children, revealing a depth of moral feeling in both public and private situations that illuminated the deep love the couple shared for state, justice and one another. Fischer’s double life could have been the topic of a Jean LeCarre novel: from courtroom to collusion with anti- apartheid groups and arrangements to procure passports out of the country for dissidents to dinners at the bar association and country club. My friends and I had never heard his name although we were familiar with Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman and Nadine Gordimer. I had read Andre Brink’s A Chain of Voices years ago and heard his intensely emotional interview about returning home to vote against apartheid. As many films do, this one expanded our education, filling in gaps, amplifying events, detailing historical information, providing a semblance of the times, struggles and persons.

And when I taught my post colonial literature course I had shown my students Dry White Season and Cry Freedom that focused on Steve Biko. I have written about experiencing first hand the photos of the open fire on school children protesting against sub standard education and books written in their own language in the museum next to Hector Pieterson’s Memorial in Soweto. One has to marvel at children and all of the people of conscience who defied the laws of their country when the majority of the population submitted. Of course, included in these brave behaviours are those who hid Jews during the holocaust, putting themselves and families at risk.

The questions regarding freedoms and rights and justice become more twisted in regard to Israel. A second film I viewed this week, An Israeli Love Story by Dan Wolman , bases its story on another important struggle, but moves the conflicts into a romance between a rising actress and her kibbutznik boyfriend Eli, son of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s 2nd president. In 1947, the Jews were finally allowed a homeland; armed resistance against the British and the Palestinians substantiates the political backdrop for this awakening of first love. In both films, Wolman and Van de Velde’s, the protagonists fight for justice not readily espoused or accepted by the status quo. In both films the people caught up in politics decide to choose to overthrow societal rigours and proceed to change. If we are honest, we will admit the difficulty and pose the question,”What would I do?” After the fact and the struggles, it is easier to cheer those who have participated. But truly, how far would you go to alter circumstance? With the “Pussy”and #MeToo marches and rallies, there is communal support, groups standing with linked arms, challenging and demanding. And so we have seen, finally, charges brought against offenders.and better late than never…

I’m thinking about what each person needs. (My grandfather used to say you could only wear one suit at a time) . But terribly at present, South Africa heads towards a country without water, a country emerging from years of corruption, and discrimination, a country so beautiful with its vistas, landscapes and natural wonder it dazzles the mind and gives one pause, pondering the disconnect between the physical beauty and the ugliness of most men who have governed there.

And the number of students gunned down in the states makes one shake at the madness of the world to allow citizens to carry guns for their own protection. On 60 Minutes, Kristen Gillibrand who replaced Hillary Clinton as senator for New York, actually voiced awareness that after speaking with and listening to victims of violence she had changed her mind, out right admitting she had been wrong to support laws allowing people to carry guns. To hear a politician opening admit and publicly change a stance was mesmerizing. So everywhere there have been and are tiny rays of hope peeping through the darkness.

As I write this after the movies and the killings, I wonder at myself to seize the good in the midst of doom:for I am no Pollyanna, much more glass half- empty than half- full. I surprise myself that I focus on the heroes not the villains. But if our children and grandchildren are to persist in a world, we should turn our eyes to the possible. With the incredible feats of the Olympics( although set in a landscape that could be Post- nuclear with its crags, cold and bareness!), especially the prowess and elegance of the skating pairs, we can imagine better and beautiful, what is good in the human, echoing the child Anne Frank.

My husband upon watching our grandsons, reflected that he wished we would be around to see how their stories end , where their lives will take them, what kind of men they will become, what paths they will follow. My son countered, “ The stories never end…” Let’s hope so.

Las

Family Reunion

He was always Jon, never John, differentiating him from the common John, my eldest cousin Jon, his second name Howard, given him as a cover should he need to hide his Jewish last name.

It had been years and years since I’d seen him, but by chance he and his engaging wife Elaine were in San Diego so we were able to reconnect.

In the spaces that often separate people by year and location, we had heard the odd story of moves from Charleston to Nashville, job promotions, the family expanding: the kind of chatter old aunts discuss as they contemplate the “ what if’s” had the family stayed in the home town. Jon, the first born, had lived in the flat on Brunswick Avenue above my parents and the grandparents as people did, years and years ago, so his earliest days from the outset of my parent’s marriage had been entwined in my own history, but mostly my recalling his odd dinner with us as a student at U of T.

So an opportunity to meet, have conversations as adults was truly an event to be anticipated with excitement. And my cousins did just that, filling our time that expanded into hours and more pleasurable hours, together, recanting family stories, providing missing pieces, retelling the tales I had thought I knew, some tweaked, some only partly remembered, revised- and I sat in wonder at the recollections. There were additions and reworking of the strange and the bizarre, guffaws, noddings of agreement, some with open mouth surprise and sweet smiles of acknowledgement over the two days we walked, and talked, and rambled, and discoursed and wandered into one another’s lives.

These memories would not have been complete without focus on our shared aunt, Marion.Our Aunt Marion and Uncle Sid were in deed a most peculiar couple. They were the first ever in Canada to import baskets from Eastern Europe, building over time a lucrative business, Bacon Basketware, particularly known for their willow sewing baskets lined in silk, usually bright red: before anyone else had considered how these goods might enhance or improve one’s living space. Yet Sid, our aunt’s second husband, who stood according to my mother “as tall as an arrow” , according to Jon, fancied himself a acome again Fred Astaire , dancing beneath the stars with a new paramour, his hair slicked back, smoking marijuana every night before bed. Marion and Sid’s marriage was superficially a romance, a rags to riches in Forest Hill, but laced with my uncle’s many betrayals that ended in divorce.

Although now described by Jon as not particularly generous, to my mother Sydney ( as he romantically referred to himself) was something of a godsend, rescuing her from days of drudgery by whisking her off to see a ballet once or maybe twice a year, my aunt always blamed for any impecunious attitude. Now it seemed, Sid was non too generous either, denying them a small amount when needed. He was a world federalist, a real communist, even briefly detained on Ellis Island for protesting the Rosenbergs, but later in life one of Moses Znaimers’ speakers in his extravagant symposiums. In deed, even as the last holdout at Sutton Place Hotel, Sid was an unforgettable character, his grand flourishes, whether purchasing Picassos or commandeering great pianists to perform at his extravagant birthday parties.

I was tarnished by my aunt’s favouring me : especially an extended trip to Europe when I was eighteen, travelling first class on The Queen Elizabeth to England and all over Scandinavia, exposing me to the life of culture and expense, yet also visiting day cares and synagogues. My father despised his sister’s “airs” so any similarities between aunt and niece were not to his liking. Yet I was invited to her soirées with film and television celebrities, and hours spent discussing the styles of artists formed a core of love deep in me for her as she made me feel special, even smart. Sid, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, both of them eccentric, but he given to such exaggeration that he did not figure in my appreciation of them. Their daughters too were irrelevant to me as well, only my aunt special.

Still Marion’s return from an exotic trip was an opportunity for her to expound and explain at length on Sunday afternoons, describing in inflated minute detail the gifts she had chosen for us. Gathered at her feet, we were required to hear an unending provenance on some trinket whose story was not at all in proportion to what she was bestowing. But we sat quietly, her performance essential to her presentation. My father, barely able not to scoff, resented losing an afternoon that didn’t include music or cars.

During our reunion with my cousins in San Diego, there were threads about other members of the family, questions concerning why the family had returned from California: worries of polio or my grandfather’s involvement in unions. We brought Uncle Joe, my grandmother’s brother, back to life, the flamboyant auctioneer in Las Vegas, dying a pauper in Florida. But he too had dazzled me, showering us with gifts and those jewellery boxes with tiny spinning ballerinas. Mine still in my bedside drawer at home. Once I had even penned a poem to him. Jon mentioned Mimma Dvora and another Mimmas( aunts), only distant whispers and blurs from my past, he able to put a face to the person, no doubt even wizened even then.

And my grandfather Zaida Sam’s furious Romanian temper… chasing Jon around the table, Jon’s eyes lit with remembering Zaida’s face red hot and I too recalling how he had taunted my father into giving me the only slap I’d ever received from him; Jon’s own father’s deep relationship with my father’s: “ like brothers”, we knew. Some saying he preferred my father to his wife, Goldi credited with being an outstanding cook (although both Jon and Elaine did not support that pronouncement) and the eye witness accounts that I had heard told by my mother of the Friday nights of Zaida Sam’s family shmisses of cackling women, card games, all but blood relatives forbidden to attend: my grandmother Molly derided for her desire to be “ modern”, wanting a washing machine; my father’s potency questioned when polio had destroyed his limbs. Then memories of our cousin C. who when manic, broke into a government building late one winter night, seeking to know her “true” paternity; her stoic solid frumpy sister cutting off all communication with the rest of us when her mother, our aunt, set out her will.

We asked why Jon’s family had fled Toronto and I was reminded of the anti Semitic stance of the school board for hiring Jews. The quota filled, an opportunity for a music teacher at a school in Windsor had determined the fate of the family. Jon’s father was so loved by the community that Inuit sculptures were donated in his memory to the museum. But always memories of my parents’ big smiles and easy welcomes should Jon’s father come to visit. He and my dad became two boys huddled over some new piece of electronic equipment, scratching their heads, consulting consumer reports, searching out the cheapest avenue for purchase, consulting one another, dialoguing, engulfed in their company, enjoying their time , laughing- where my father hardly ever laughed. I always remembered Jon’s father not walking, but almost skipping along to the sound of the music in his head he conducted in the navy. My father adored him.

And new stories that revealed more of my cousin to me, such as moral dilemmas he faced as a doctor, making choices where although the answer might have been clear, the paths towards resolution not so much. He was always the premier contact, the scientific perspective before my parents sought medical advice elsewhere: “Call Jon”, someone would insist. Now too, I could talk easily with his wife, sharing creative pursuits, mother’s fears and wisdoms, a closeness never imagined previously.

These were stories like spider webs of people attached to our central core, relevant but several times removed or connected through marriages, stories that stranger than fiction concerned cartels, extravagance, and peril in South America, almost trysts. And to be sure we chased down the facts on Google, our eyes wide with amazement, thinking how our lives are inadvertently tied to bigger stories: as ours were when we stumbled into The Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard and sat at the table across from Bill Clinton, Hillary, and friends. Or the night we dined with Charles and Diana on The Royal Yacht Britannia. Our tales lucky ships that passed in the night;, theirs permanent couplings of trains headed in the same directions.

There seemed a well of bottomless narratives that might dry up with the passage of time, tangled family bits one wanted to dislodge from the skein of years, untwisting them to locate personal relevance, a bit of me, a bit of you unknown or rediscovered in the tight tie of family history. All these stories in Jon’s head revived in two days to amplify and modify my own.

I cannot end this piece here because I anticipate that will continue…

Family Reunion

He was always Jon, never John, differentiating him from the common John, my eldest cousin Jon, his second name Howard, given him as a cover should he need to hide his Jewish last name.

It had been years and years since I’d seen him, but by chance he and his engaging wife Elaine were in San Diego so we were able to reconnect.

In the spaces that often separate people by year and location, we had heard the odd story of moves from Charleston to Nashville, job promotions, the family expanding: the kind of chatter old aunts discuss as they contemplate the “ what if’s” had the family stayed in the home town. Jon, the first born, had lived in the flat on Brunswick Avenue above my parents and the grandparents as people did, years and years ago, so his earliest days from the outset of my parent’s marriage had been entwined in my own history, but mostly my recalling his odd dinner with us as a student at U of T.

So an opportunity to meet, have conversations as adults was truly an event to be anticipated with excitement. And my cousins did just that, filling our time that expanded into hours and more pleasurable hours, together, recanting family stories, providing missing pieces, retelling the tales I had thought I knew, some tweaked, some only partly remembered, revised- and I sat in wonder at the recollections. There were additions and reworking of the strange and the bizarre, guffaws, noddings of agreement, some with open mouth surprise and sweet smiles of acknowledgement over the two days we walked, and talked, and rambled, and discoursed and wandered into one another’s lives.

These memories would not have been complete without focus on our shared aunt, Marion.Our Aunt Marion and Uncle Sid were in deed a most peculiar couple. They were the first ever in Canada to import baskets from Eastern Europe, building over time a lucrative business, Bacon Basketware, particularly known for their willow sewing baskets lined in silk, usually bright red: before anyone else had considered how these goods might enhance or improve one’s living space. Yet Sid, our aunt’s second husband, who stood according to my mother “as tall as an arrow” , according to Jon, fancied himself a acome again Fred Astaire , dancing beneath the stars with a new paramour, his hair slicked back, smoking marijuana every night before bed. Marion and Sid’s marriage was superficially a romance, a rags to riches in Forest Hill, but laced with my uncle’s many betrayals that ended in divorce.

Although now described by Jon as not particularly generous, to my mother Sydney ( as he romantically referred to himself) was something of a godsend, rescuing her from days of drudgery by whisking her off to see a ballet once or maybe twice a year, my aunt always blamed for any impecunious attitude. Now it seemed, Sid was non too generous either, denying them a small amount when needed. He was a world federalist, a real communist, even briefly detained on Ellis Island for protesting the Rosenbergs, but later in life one of Moses Znaimers’ speakers in his extravagant symposiums. In deed, even as the last holdout at Sutton Place Hotel, Sid was an unforgettable character, his grand flourishes, whether purchasing Picassos or commandeering great pianists to perform at his extravagant birthday parties.

I was tarnished by my aunt’s favouring me : especially an extended trip to Europe when I was eighteen, travelling first class on The Queen Elizabeth to England and all over Scandinavia, exposing me to the life of culture and expense, yet also visiting day cares and synagogues. My father despised his sister’s “airs” so any similarities between aunt and niece were not to his liking. Yet I was invited to her soirées with film and television celebrities, and hours spent discussing the styles of artists formed a core of love deep in me for her as she made me feel special, even smart. Sid, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, both of them eccentric, but he given to such exaggeration that he did not figure in my appreciation of them. Their daughters too were irrelevant to me as well, only my aunt special.

Still Marion’s return from an exotic trip was an opportunity for her to expound and explain at length on Sunday afternoons, describing in inflated minute detail the gifts she had chosen for us. Gathered at her feet, we were required to hear an unending provenance on some trinket whose story was not at all in proportion to what she was bestowing. But we sat quietly, her performance essential to her presentation. My father, barely able not to scoff, resented losing an afternoon that didn’t include music or cars.

During our reunion with my cousins in San Diego, there were threads about other members of the family, questions concerning why the family had returned from California: worries of polio or my grandfather’s involvement in unions. We brought Uncle Joe, my grandmother’s brother, back to life, the flamboyant auctioneer in Las Vegas, dying a pauper in Florida. But he too had dazzled me, showering us with gifts and those jewellery boxes with tiny spinning ballerinas. Mine still in my bedside drawer at home. Once I had even penned a poem to him. Jon mentioned Mimma Dvora and another Mimmas( aunts), only distant whispers and blurs from my past, he able to put a face to the person, no doubt even wizened even then.

And my grandfather Zaida Sam’s furious Romanian temper… chasing Jon around the table, Jon’s eyes lit with remembering Zaida’s face red hot and I too recalling how he had taunted my father into giving me the only slap I’d ever received from him; Jon’s own father’s deep relationship with my father’s: “ like brothers”, we knew. Some saying he preferred my father to his wife, Goldi credited with being an outstanding cook (although both Jon and Elaine did not support that pronouncement) and the eye witness accounts that I had heard told by my mother of the Friday nights of Zaida Sam’s family shmisses of cackling women, card games, all but blood relatives forbidden to attend: my grandmother Molly derided for her desire to be “ modern”, wanting a washing machine; my father’s potency questioned when polio had destroyed his limbs. Then memories of our cousin C. who when manic, broke into a government building late one winter night, seeking to know her “true” paternity; her stoic solid frumpy sister cutting off all communication with the rest of us when her mother, our aunt, set out her will.

We asked why Jon’s family had fled Toronto and I was reminded of the anti Semitic stance of the school board for hiring Jews. The quota filled, an opportunity for a music teacher at a school in Windsor had determined the fate of the family. Jon’s father was so loved by the community that Inuit sculptures were donated in his memory to the museum. But always memories of my parents’ big smiles and easy welcomes should Jon’s father come to visit. He and my dad became two boys huddled over some new piece of electronic equipment, scratching their heads, consulting consumer reports, searching out the cheapest avenue for purchase, consulting one another, dialoguing, engulfed in their company, enjoying their time , laughing- where my father hardly ever laughed. I always remembered Jon’s father not walking, but almost skipping along to the sound of the music in his head he conducted in the navy. My father adored him.

And new stories that revealed more of my cousin to me, such as moral dilemmas he faced as a doctor, making choices where although the answer might have been clear, the paths towards resolution not so much. He was always the premier contact, the scientific perspective before my parents sought medical advice elsewhere: “Call Jon”, someone would insist. Now too, I could talk easily with his wife, sharing creative pursuits, mother’s fears and wisdoms, a closeness never imagined previously.

These were stories like spider webs of people attached to our central core, relevant but several times removed or connected through marriages, stories that stranger than fiction concerned cartels, extravagance, and peril in South America, almost trysts. And to be sure we chased down the facts on Google, our eyes wide with amazement, thinking how our lives are inadvertently tied to bigger stories: as ours were when we stumbled into The Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard and sat at the table across from Bill Clinton, Hillary, and friends. Or the night we dined with Charles and Diana on The Royal Yacht Britannia. Our tales lucky ships that passed in the night;, theirs permanent couplings of trains headed in the same directions.

There seemed a well of bottomless narratives that might dry up with the passage of time, tangled family bits one wanted to dislodge from the skein of years, untwisting them to locate personal relevance, a bit of me, a bit of you unknown or rediscovered in the tight tie of family history. All these stories in Jon’s head revived in two days to amplify and modify my own.

I cannot end this piece here because I anticipate that we will meet and continue,  my cousin and me…

 

 

The State of the Union and other stories

Years ago Jerry Lewis used to host the Muscular Dystrophy Telethonon labour day weekend. Stars, celebrities ,sports people, big contributors would make their pleas to the audience, and we would be tied to our screens for hours on end. For some reason that weekend was almost always a rainy one so there was little to do but watch.

My father was taciturn and not given to outbursts , his strong opinions easily read in his handsome face. Yet inevitably ,he reacted to the telethon almost spitting out his contempt, for he despised the segments, the heart wrenching vignettes of children twisted and wasted by the disease. Not particularly sensitive, yet he was infuriated by the use of children to tug at viewers’ heart strings. He felt it was cheap and ignoble to use the frailty of others to raise money- no matter the cause; the end, in this case, not ever justifying the means. And sadly after so many years, still no cure.

I recalled my father’s revulsion at the exploitation of children watching The State of the Union last night as the stories of unfortunates, from welders to policemen to the parents of servicemen were commandeered for Trump’s political edification of self. Now more than ever is the age of individuals and their narratives, a way to open out the inner workings of persons who are different or special. People/ viewers/ readers are more tuned into first person revelations, considering experience almost as valuable as fact for research or decision- making: at least there is an acceptance, particularly in journals that these accounts can provide validity and credibility.

And truthfully The State of the Union, made for a good “ show” , a way to connect with the hearts and minds of an audience, for this person called president. Mindful of my father’s reaction and my own sensibilities to difficult passages in a life, I felt it embarrassing and demeaning to watch someone paraded out for reasons that did not know involve the person themselves. During this scripted for television affront, a small baby, the child of a drug addict presumably, conveniently named “Hope” was abruptly woken from her sleep, her cover pulled down to expose her as artifact, to thunderous clapping. She screamed, rudely brought out from the security of her mother’s chest ( who did look uncomfortable) used for unsanctimonious purposes: votes, popularity, the edification of the demigod.

In Hebrew school or history classes where the horrors of the past were included in the curriculum, we could turn our eyes away from the human skeletons, the naked starving children running from the hideous intrusion of napalm, the huddled, the dead laid out prone and butchered in fields and in the streets, the starved, the slaughtered…; however, we were being educated into the evils of the world, that never again would or should we have to confront the terrors and stupidity of the past, the wars; and the photos were burned into our consciousness. These to which I refer were photos and movies, and often ,too, in forums survivors of holocaust and genocide, although objectified in the former, did speak for themselves in the later, the stories from their own lips, relating the atrocities of their own lives. They sat with their audiences or if they stood before them, they, the subject or focus of their own stories, not a sideshow for the gratification of another- but last night, the false self congratulatory moves of a person who cares more for gilt than race, colour, infirmity or need, yet attempting to pose as empathetic, a caring human,( in between clapping for himself), using the pain of others for himself.

Of course, these “ special guests” last night were not forced to appear, to stand, to wave, to have their stories shared. Note, however: they did not tell the tales in their own way, in their own time, they allowed Trump’s speechwriters to frame their pain, their endurance, their American triumphs for his purposes. Most held back tears as they waved or involuntarily, a tear escaping from a tightly clenched smile. And perhaps most ironically with my mind returning to the scenes of the devastated in WWII, was it to watch the young North Korean man, his eyes overflowing, brandish his wooden crutches. And I pondered that these crutches are like a red flag, a provocation to another crazy dictator, igniting another reason to let flourish nuclear genocide on the world, causing the death, destruction, the need for more crutches for more amputees among fields of the tortured and dead. Such a circus, such a ridiculous game, such a cruel terrible provocation by a stupid stupid man- who will be locked safe in his golden cage as the bombs fall and destroy, lauding the need for smaller weapons of destruction. A utopian dream, he falsely dismisses.

Not surprising that most events today are showcases, the CNNs of catastrophe of the week- from the Las Vegas shooting to Hurricane Harvey: opportunities for hyperbole and the manipulation of human tragedy for money and political obfuscation. The human stories are in deed human, but just as Facebook makes every personal detail public so too the boundaries are crossed, putting out there to the millions who gawk and could care less the private stories of people who have suffered. Unlike Metoo, where the voices of all sing together, in protest to end human tragedies, what we witnessed last night, was used to fan the flames of an egomaniac who cannot be trusted to keep the world safe. These narratives were mere chess positions appropriated for the biggest and most terrible show on earth.

I believe in stories. I believe in people telling their own truths. I believe in the multiplicity and authenticity of voices that can rock the world, not their usage for a showmanship’s ulterior motives: one of destruction that although inspiring the façade of hope, momentarily and superficially, is beneath the surface, a tottering rotten platform for manipulation.

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