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Archive for the month “March, 2018”

Words and such

Never really a history buff, I have nonetheless been surprised and fascinated by The films Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour. In Dunkirk, the filmmaker makes the overall specific by all of the protagonists appearing so similar, one might mistake one for the other, features and speeches almost interchangeable. Rather than distancing the viewer, the opposite is true and so one’s interest, compassion, involvement occurs. I don’t think I’ve ever viewed this phenomenon so expertly executed so that the hero is the collective not the individual with battles, successes, triumphs and defeats rendered universal.Truly it is beautifully accomplished.

In The Darkest Hour, the audience glimpses the bumbling, unsympathetic and bawling Churchill, the filmmaker portraying Winston’s spirit and mind set as unrealistic and refusing to grasp the fatality of Hitler’s onslaught on Britain, on the screen. And like Dunkirk where the an overall combat of the historical event is out for our scrutiny, here it is Winston’s elegant words- caught in the taping typewriter by Miss Layton, his secretary . As he fashions alliteration, hyperbole and metaphor, the prime minister digs deep and knits together phrase and sentence that cause parliament to rise and cheer. That such a toadish carbuncle of a man is the author of such joyous, indefatigable paragraphs underlines his prowess, not just to spout but to cogitate, form and craft masterpieces.Politician Hugh Dalton, offered this particular line, repeated in the film, “if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” How wonderfully tactile, elegant, inspiring but concrete, evoking a Shakespearean appeal to fight on till the end! Churchill, in his memoir, claims this was followed by a standing ovation. Apparently not, according to the critics. As in Dunkirk, there is an underpinning, a gritty humanity displayed, honouring the ordinary common person’s willingness to stand up for values that are worth dying for.Ironically, with changing times, one cannot help but wonder if today’s young, those not enlisted in military activities, feel likewise. In a post post- modern era, although certain strong sweeps of right and wrong( good and bad) may be apparent, dying on the battlefield for just causes may not be one of them. I’m not sure if the fervent reaction to sacrifice is still maintained, should the government attempt conscription. Well, maybe in the Middle East…

And although the scene in which Winston descends to the underground and listens to the subway riders who vow never to give in and fight on against Hitler cannot be validated, documentation reveals that Churchill did in fact, disappear for periods of time. In The Darkest Hour, the citizens of London are particularized, holding babies, given names, made individuals; and so , apparently, support the prime minister’s resolve not to cave to “ peace talks”with Mussolini. That Britain survived is somewhat a miracle as Belgium,Denmark and Holland had fallen and France was on the verge and the channel only a few miles across to theNazi’s victory.

But throughout the film, slow moving panning of the UK’s people’s, walking, headed toward their daily obligations, under umbrellas, clothes in monotones, observed by Winston from his car’s window, creates almost a painting like panoply of people, going about their daily work amidst the terror of war, solid, moving forward, individuals yet presented as groups distinguishable yet unidentifiable.

In substantiating the mounting evidence of war in Europe that should have resulted in defeat for England, but thankfully did not, I read too in Hamilton by Ron Chernow of America’s battle against the mother country and that also somehow in spite of the overwhelming number of Britain’s troops in Philadelphia, Washington, etc on both land and sea, the fledgling colonies survived.

Alexander Hamilton also was a master polemicist with a “slashing style” who turned out wonderfully astute and well phrased letters, dictums, tomes on battle and political manoeuvres.As an adolescent,Hamilton’s take on Alexander Pope’s poetry and his later responses to war skirmishes evolved into wonderful oratories that eventually drew George Washington to hire him as aide de camp. An autodidact ,Hamilton was pronounced illegitimate, and forbidden Anglican schooling in Nevis because his parents had not been married. Self- taught and receptive to studying the lessons of the Greeks and Romans, especially in regard to warfare, and mentored by other intelligent men, he eventually attended Kings College( now Columbia) although unlikely he graduated because of his military involvement after Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party cemented the surge towards revolution.

Hamilton, age 19, anonymously published his first political essay in 1774 in defense of the Boston Tea Party, giving a speech that turned him into a hero of the cause.In 1775, his anonymous essay “The Farmer Refuted” described how the colonists could win. Hamilton, bright, out spoken and apparently self- confident to speak out, drew attention to himself as a military leader, both in deed and word, often barely escaping the cannonball in the field.

Still, it was his command of language, his mesmerizing, and what we might consider today, his overblown and flowery words that drew attention. Interestingly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s focus transforms the words, the language of the story from then into the hip hop beat of today, bringing the story of the unique individual forward into contemporary time.

When everything crumbles and passes away, words remain, the best caught and written down, or repeated in oral storytelling passed from generation. The most beautifully constructed monuments or feats disappear. I think of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias ,

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Pyramids succumb, the bridges rust, railways are covered in grass ,” but words spoken remain… not as mere relics, but with all their pristine vital force”, noted Churchill himself on15 May 1938, in News of the World.

Interestingly that at present, debating circles continue, students still required to present and craft speeches, the focus on the power of language to provoke, incite, soothe and instruct. I was fascinated yesterday as a friend a semi retired professor from UCSD described his essay exam question to be hand written! In three hours: to my mind worthy of a thesis. His topic examined contrasting imperatives from the great Greek philosophers and the Bible. In the same way, Hamilton, in his attitudes towards heroic battles during the American Revolution, reached back to the wisdom of the Greeks, appropriating their strategies in 1776.

Contemplating survival then, and even now , I wished my own education had examined some of those old prophets still applicable today. As once admonished, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it- with all the battles, shortcomings and consequences. I am not suggesting being foolishly stuck in the past to doggedly repeat it, but the long view of consideration: juxtaposing and making workable the past in contemporary times, reviewing, discussing, dialoguing to note where the historical might be applicable. Without the past, the contextual background, we continue to spin in circles, unable to step outsides of ourselves and reflect beyond our own noses. Horrorfully,Trump does not, would not, cannot, is incapable of stepping back, surveying past battles with a wise eye. Terribly with the peril of China, Russia, North Korea, in tender precarious tipping positions, we are all held captive, holding our breath: the Churchills and Hamiltons, names to be ignored in these times of blunder, arrogance and ignorance.

Relationships with Food

While visiting my younger daughter in Philadelphia, we had a lovely lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Southampton. Food, fresh, interestingly imagined and created, tingled our taste buds so our conversation veered towards eating. We agreed that we often finish whatever is placed on our plates, whether we are full or not.Howard contributed that he had read that while eating, one’s body “ sighs” to indicate the tummy is full. I recalled that boomers, growing up, were often taunted with “ Children are starving in Africa( or India), so eat up” ; or perhaps Jewish culture that is subsumed with food remains the culprit in encouraging the clearing of plates of every morsel. And how often have we contrasted our heaping excessive groaning tables to the dainty food offerings of perhaps a glass of wine and a tiny tray of artful appetizers that suffices at weddings or engagement parties for other religious groups. Yet, both my daughter and I concluded what we really enjoyed was the snap, crackle and pop of textures, the combinations, contrasts and qualities that tantalize both the pallet and the eye. As well, sitting down together encourages dialogue, to chat and extend views , a natural conversation opportunity, but food the rallying point and reason.

My mind sought precedents of my children’s earliest eating days, and their predilections. Remembering her sister as a fussy eater, I recalled seeking temptations for her tastebuds. Over forty years ago, I had sought out sweetbreads for her, peeling the membranes, and dismissive of the cost, purchased them at a high end food boutique,Neal’s, – way before Whole Foods or Pusateris were on the horizon. But even earlier I had consulted food guru Adele Davis whose insights were truly the backbone of conscious eating before foodies erupted into waves of cognoscenti of where and what to eat healthy.

I’ve tried to resurrect from my mind favourite dinners as we had, over the years, sought out Michelin meals , mouth burning offerings in Thailand, macaroons in France, Peking duck in China, thick pea soup on the cruise deck of an Alaska ship while watching the ice bergs crash into the water, seafood on the shores of Hawaii(soft winds seductively blowing), sophisticated and smart lunches and dinners in almost impossible- to-reserve locales in New York, Chicago and LA, along with the iron chef properties from San Diego and Las Vegas, those homemade pastas from Zucca and Tutti Matti in Toronto: where they really know how to turn out perfect pasta…and my mind like a spinning wheel could not land on which I loved most.

What does stand out,however, is the marriage of meal and atmosphere, especially an evening under the velvety sky of Ayers Rock, Uluru, sampling alligator and Barramudi, in the darkness so thick you could feel it wrapping itself around you, the sprinkling of stars turned upside down from our home in Canada.My mother’s roasted chicken surrounded by perky orange carrots and perfect little burnished potatoes still simmering in its tomatoey juices while we pulled over to a cool roadside for a lunch under shady trees. Or my husbands 70 th birthday at On the Twenty in Ontario wine country, tables overflowing with flowers, all of us attired in white: cottons, ruffles, buttoned downs, embroidered, a room separate from the dining hall, our own guitar musician, and the children and grandchildren bopping during courses, food individually selected for each participant for the evening feast along with non ending wine, a perfect evening where the rain and humidity cleared so the event could shine ( and my hair not frizz).But the entrees, grown locally and lovingly cooked.

To celebrate an event, the food must, of course be delicious, but the beauty of the setting, the attitude and warmth of camaraderie must also coalesce. I’m thinking too of my backyard garden party when to formally present myself as a doctor of education, I planned a dinner with a three woman band so we could dance at the edge of the pool under the awnings of pristine tents. The array of white flowers winking on the table, an assortment of food choices, attentive waiters, the relaxed conversation and laughter of friends and family that stretched into a night of speeches and casual chatter. My kids were young and funny and the night swelled with love.

Behind these self directed events are often months of planning, for me, intrinsic to the meal. I relish the background search, deciding which textures of blooms and arrangements will highlight the tables just as I settle on which dress will make me feel special. For Howard’s 70 th, I surprised myself by choosing a dress that I had actually bought years before for another event. It was chic, beautiful, comfortable and also housed delicious memories. Even writing or choosing a perfect invitation for the event is a pleasure, a meaningful compliment to all the details. Each detail contributing to the climax: a perfect meal.

For the house party for our 40 th anniversary at my son’s, I knew my elder daughter had spent hours on the phone with the caterers ensuring a meal non pareil. And although I regretted how stiff my hair was that night, the interplay of family, food, photographs was celebratory and unforgettable.

I’m trying to recollect the many meals eaten with and without family, but quiet dinners at specially identified and researched locales and although I do review them now, they appear to me as fresh uncut pages from a new book. Allo was exceptional with multilayered and unique combinations of flavours( a birthday treat arranged by my son, requiring three months of reservation), but so too was George’s pizza on DuPont or College with my uncle so many many years back when I was still a teen in oversized glasses- different firsts for experimenting with untried tastes and trying new things.

But then too, guests of my famous great uncle Joe the gambler-auctioneer, my family vacationing in California, was treated to the impossibly posh Sportsman’s Lodge where I tiny on a tiny bridge caught a trout in the stream beneath that was immediately cooked and presented to the table for dinner. And will I , an untested taster of 15 who had never eaten in a restaurant in Toronto, let alone non- kosher food, ever forget my premier ( and last) MacDonald’s burger and milkshake so thick it could barely be sucked up a straw, after sunning with my cousins on Hermosa Beach in California?

And how can I forget my first Risttoffle feast in Amsterdam with my aunt and uncle when I was barely 18, followed years later by my daughter’s obsession with fries, gleaned at Little Pissing Boy, somewhere near Dam Square, she maybe five then?Or the three month sabbatical where we frequented Il Castillo for Sunday night suppers in the hills surrounding Montobueno in Italy where The Red Brigade was rumoured to hide?

And this European adventure recalls Berlin last summer where the chef with the man bun opened the door a smidgeon at Nobelhart and Schmutzig and we were served ten impossibly fresh specialties such as raw eel and liquorice ice cream, shaved pine cones…

I suppose I am concluding that there are the unusual moments, the firsts that catch in our mouths , that cause us to stop and savour something exceptionally unique for its flavour, its awakening or piquing or even confounding our senses, pondering how does this vegetable, this lowly single egg( from True Foods), this combination of flavours makes me arrest my salvaging, my chewing, my swallowing, my mastication to really parse and reflect on what is being ground to pulp between my teeth- and years later, search for evidence in my head full of so many meals.

But underlying all of this eating and dining business is the presence of not just an enhancing milieu but a milieu rendered enhancing by those ones best loved, and being able to share over a meal time that stretches and clothes those moments with being together, chattering, coming together, gazing and observing how life goes, how those persons relate to you, how they are faring in life, and seeing the food before you as a rallying point for exchanges that continue to bind.

But hey, tasty food helps immensely.

Time to leave- well, almost

So the winter back home is supposed to be drawing to a close, and soon I will be packing up and returning home. As I get older, unlike the childhood summer days that used to seemingly stretch long and forever, the months here fly by. And my respite in sunny San Diego allows me to move about in the weather, swinging my arms, stretching my legs daily because I do not have to worry about slips and trips on patches of ice or cars that slid through stop signs. Neither do I have to shake and shiver in numerous layers of clothes that boast warmth but rarely do.

I am no fan of the States, laughing along with Stephen Colbert at the ridiculous Donald Trump, his reign that brings the world, not just America, closer to nuclear disaster, his insensitive, stupid outbursts that belong to another time and place-a throwback to the gorilla man thumping his chest-while incredulously the people, both men and women together, gather, march and protest in the streets .As the Globe lists CEOs who happen to all be women, it does not surprise; that Hollywood showcases its presenters in all shapes, sizes and colours and abusive behaviour is less likely to be tolerated, these are the new norms: phoenixes rising from chauvinistic anachronistic times.

Concurrently the president’s supporters rage on, unable to empathize or even consider that guns kill and more guns will kill more children. I stand back holding this strange kaleidoscope and view from afar too at home, in Ontario, the cowardly clad in Hamilton that attack “ gentrification” as they resent Locke Street in that city becoming too fancy. Like the Rob and Doug Fords who would have us believe that speaking low class and hanging with the guys at the corner should be a societal norm for the working(?) stiffs, this disingenuous behaviour undermines those who do work hard such as, the little doughnut shop, attempting to build a business. To try, to dream, to build up- in all endeavours : those are the goals we strive to incorporate into our youth. The beastly behaviour of thugs and gangs who believe themselves disenfranchised or mesmerized by ignoble leaders who in faceless groups destroy and undermine is intolerable, hiding behind bellaclavas, terrorists in the streets. So I do not suggest that living close to lalaland has made me less unaware of the issues that unfortunately run rampant in both our countries.”Sad!”

Recently I sat beside another Torontoian at a film event and as people of a certain age do, we commiserated, looked for connections at home, tinkered with the political scene, she wisely offering that most people just live their lives, that even with such an embarrassment for a president, most people go on with their lives, not really interrupted by the changing flow of good, bad or ugliness at the top.And although I do agree that we all, whether here or home, do carry on, there is an impact by leaders who can shape laws, creating a climate of distrust or security, breaking down the barriers that have helped maintain climate control, messing with procedures that ensure women’s access to abortion, loosening the positives hard fought, etc. In short, they shape the world and our optimism or its reverse towards our place in it. Unmistakably there was a buoyancy, a feeling of promise when Obama held the stage. Likewise, it was momentarily and tentatively hopeful with the young Trudeau- who really must put away his dress up clothes and act, not just pose for the camera, – not realized. So it is, those we would trust to move us forward are stymied by a cracked and self serving vision.

My mother’s father , an immigrant from Poland, who seemed to glide on the floor, always cupping his cigaret in his palm, built a painting business that stretched to include the States with his fantastic creation of art nouveau stencils for theatres, used to ponder,”How many suits can a person wear at one time? , addressing the greed of most to want a cupboard full of suits and all the luxuries to accompany them. But how much do we truly need? To be happy? What fulfills our spirits?How do we live, satisfied with our situations and perhaps even, make a difference- even in small ways?

So I go back home in a week or two to tend my own garden, enriched by my time away here with activities and friends and Donald Trump will arrive in San Diego to check out the proposed wall exemplars threatened to demarcate Mexico and keep his world safe from foreigners. Hopefully his suit against California will be quashed by higher powers as Jerry Brown, governor, meets the rants eyes to eye. And what of the meeting with Kim Jun I? Will it put a plaster on a dangerous situation or will the situation be furthered exacerbated by these two strange and terrible men?

What we all really want: is to live in safety, secure in our daily wants and needs.May it please the gods to allow it.

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