A fine site


This week I was fortunate to be able to see two Hot Docs films- free in the afternoon for students and seniors. One was the Oslo Diaries by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan that through the personal diaries of both Palestinian and Israeli participants we relive the possibility of moving towards a peace accord. Although both sides feel antagonism and distaste for the other, the two sides are able to sit down in secret and work through towards a plan that will eventually return Gaza and Jericho to the Palestinians :for assertion that Israel will be recognized as a Jewish state. In the midst of focused serious talks, one man relates his revulsion of being kissed on both cheeks Palestinian- style. On going talks engender relationships among the participants who begin to view each other as human and eventually friends as partners. ( perhaps it was all initiated by that kiss?😘) The process is long culminating in Bill Clinton bringing Rabin and Arafat together to sign the accord. Arafat is revealed as wily, careful, able to withstand his people’s abhorrence to the deal and therefore towards him as their leader.

Years back when visiting the old section of Jerusalem,I could actually feel the palpable hatred of each quadrant in the Old City and I despaired of any negotiation wherein the emotions were so very very strong that even an exuberant tourist could became strongly aware of the fierce antagonism that required no cordons to mark them off. Yitzchak Rabin as well as Shimon Peres at his side are reviled by their own countrymen as traitors and murderers with Netanyahu leading the insurrection and warmongering .In the end with the assassination of Rabin, the workings of the Oslo Treaty are never put in place: peace still- even now-a distant cry. Arafat tells us that the bullet was meant to kill the deal, not just Rabin. Yet the film also relates that the individuals from both sides of the negotiating team had grown close, losing their antipathy to one another, remaining in touch until their deaths. I would call this a kind of endurance, a quest for peace that overcame all reasons that might have kept the two factions apart.

In the second Hot Doc entitled This Mountain Life by Grant Baldwin, a daughter and her 60 year old mother, Tania and Martina Halik, decide they will travel through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, commencing in Vancouver to Skagwag in Alaska on foot and ski. They know it will consume maybe 5- 6months of their lives. They dehydrate enough food that will be airdropped at various locations, but must travel with all else such as bedding, a small stove, etc. with them. It will be the coldest winter in years often dropping to -25 degrees. To ensure we realize how arduous this task is the film begins as a photographer on a day of fun with friends is suddenly caught beneath a small avalanche that buries him in more than four meters below the surface of the mountain.

With glimpses of artists who have chosen to use snow and wood as their media, living on and off the mountains, the filmmakers take us into mountain life, ensuring that we gape in awe at the dancing lights of the mythical aurora borealis, the majestic views that recall Lauren Harrison at his most mystical, mesmerizing glassy blue ice fields ,the slop and curve of the snow that catch the mom so off guard that she weeps, humbly celebrating,”This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. “

It is the mom who in her words also acknowledges that when you think you can’t go on, you can, underlining that we hold more endurance in ourselves than we believed possible. In spite of the protracted time together, we get small information about the two women, save Martina’s comment that her mother’s feet really stink! Yet we are told of this woman’s escaping Czechoslovakia under Russian control through snowy mountain paths, freezing streams eventually arriving in Switzerland and being given refugee status in Canada: the one and only pathetic detail of the mom placing her tuque over her pregnant stomach in an attempt to keep it warm in the formidable mountainous conditions.

I thought of course of this notion of endurance , attempting to measure myself and my family by the yardsticks offered in each film. I thought of my mother when my father’s diagnosis of polio required she meet and exceed her own fragile strength and the thought must have been daunting: to be in your early twenties with a young child( me), and an unknown future; no help or support offered by family and like a crazed Jean of Arc, facing your own demons and striking out on your own mountain path, your sword drawn to ward off the words, warnings and warfare to be encountered. And with your armour barely covering, you forge ahead unable to turn back. In Oslo Diaries, they reasserted they could not think of the terrible past in the Middle East, of bombings, fights, confrontation, murders, explosions, and blood. They had to dismiss a past of terror as they sought a means to forge forward for their children and the future.

In this Mountain Life, I suppose the participants wanted to prove they could overcome physical hurdles. For me this felt like madness, being controlled by the whim of temperamental Nature, impersonal. At least in combat among other humans who would make sport of our desires, the volley is personal. Like the frigid trees that eventually turn to green in the continuous turn of the seasons, the impartiality of the landscape adds to the stress or indifference towards these two women in the film as we wonder will they surmount or succumb on their momentous journey. I suppose some people insist on climbing every mountain and as I comprehend the need for some for personal best, this 6 month test against all odds . When I retold this quest to my Pilates instructor, she innocently queried, “But , where did they shower?”

That they survived may have been due to guardian angels who did in fact vouchsafe their journey. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing not to tempt fate, or push beyond reasonable limits. And I imagine a cynical joke by a swarthy comedian about there being enough “suris” or misery in the world without going without matzoh balls for more than a few weeks. And all jokes aside, the opening sequence in the mountains that dramatizes how the capricious nature of the terrain almost costs the photographer his life reveals, reinforces that this was no walk in the park – and had not his friends not been trained in avalanche recovery, his story would have ended tragically.

In the end, we all climb our own mountains- whether in the quiet of our homes or out in the frosty streams and majestic topography of Alaska.


This Week

What a week this has been. After the terrible ice storm and lingering winter, finally sunshine on Monday that brought people to the street, to walk, to dawdle, to stroll, to grab a coffee and feel themselves like buds begin to open and bloom again. And so between Sheppard and Finch those mothers, grandmothers, shopkeepers, dads, visitors to Toronto, those walkers found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time: cut down on that glorious day by a van whose driver could not be awakened by sun on his face. In deed he commandeered a van to efficiently murder innocent people who were out, minding their own business, just participating in the throbbing life of the city- on the first sunny day in quite some time.

Amidst gossip of who the driver might be, the back story hinted at a terrorist, but eventually revealed one motivated not by political ( as per the dictionary definition), but personal reasons, just as the ones who had ploughed through unsuspecting crowds in Cannes and Vienna, scattering and killing, using a van to maximize the death and to assuage his own misery.

The media described the van’s driver as continually employed in tech firms, living at home, but with a background of antisocial behaviour. One former classmate from high school relayed that ,Alek, the driver, used to meow like a cat and did not interact with his peers. Another article did not refer to him specifically as having Aspergers Syndrome, although his mother asserted it, but listed him within the autist spectrum disorder (ASD), underlining that people with autism are not dangerous.

This discussion reminded me of my early work at OCT, my first assignment to revive and rewrite the Special Education AQ, the AQ, being the additional qualification courses required for teachers to teach particular subjects, enhancing their pedagogy and acquiring new understanding and knowledge. For more than three years( while I was also involved in rewriting other AQs, and developing the College’s first set of ethics and standards with a team), I acquired more knowledge into what teachers needed to know about Special Education that ran the gamut from Giftedness to Autism. We interviewed specialists in the field, researched, looked at stats, did comparison studies, attended conferences, sat in on high school classes, dialogued with teachers, parents, and student teachers, visited special schools, private facilities, consulted students themselves, read Temple Grandin and poured over information from the Geneva Centre…: in an attempt to comprehend the topic from the inside-out, for every school offers or integrates special needs students in their classrooms.

I recall our wonder at learning that from 10 or so identified children with autism in our schools , the number appeared to suddenly catapult to thousands in Ontario and we ruminated on whether students had not been properly identified, ignored, or whether the sudden rise was due to environmental conditions such as “ something in the water”. What we knew was that teachers must prepare in a meaningful way. I recall our first drafts, eventually learning the lexicon so that the guideline would speak to and respect the intricacies of language that explained the autism spectrum disorder : as the variation among children with autism was wide and as in most cases, one hat does not fit all. Certainly we were aware that our guideline would be taught by experienced teachers who possessed both theory and practice in working with this speciality . Their expertise would make the guideline come alive with personal anecdotes regarding behaviours and assistance for their students. As well, the guideline- which originally comprised barely a few paragraphs on a single page- almost 20 years ago- would be reviewed and made current every three or so years.

So when reading about Alex Minassian, 25 in the newspaper, I noted his community help had ended. Perhaps that would not have made a difference as his deep issues of built up grievances caused him to be linked to the other misguided persons whose rage and anger and despair are so great so that they turn their belligerence outward, onto innocents who happen to be out strolling on a spring day: 10 dead, 13 more in hospital .In the split behaviour of one so overcome by emotions of hatred and intent to murder, he still was able to create a plan, rent a van, decide on a particular area in North York, both parts of his brain coalescing on Monday last. Ironically, as Sylvia Stead in today’s Globe points out,“… people living with mental illness or autism are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators…” As he threatened the police office with a fake gun, taunting, he was likely calling for his own death. To the credit of the force, both training and procedures,Ken Lam, the police officer did not respond in a volley of fire, he took down the assailant without gunfire. Were Minassian’s actions copycats of earlier attacks fortified by the Incel chatter on Facebook? How long had he scanned the net, searching for means and ways, looking to perform his own personal attack? What goes on in any troubled mind and how much pain makes a person plot such a horrendous crime?

We, the others, after mourning and laying flowers at the makeshift memorial, will return to our lives, more cynical and jaundiced by the actions of this man and the sadness for the families of those cut down , no matter the age. A little boy has lost his single mother, Renuka Amararasingha from Sri Lanka, who newly hired as a cafeteria worker at Earl Haig Secondary School was hurrying off to Scarborough to pick up him up from school. And for one student at Earl Haig who writes he may have been the last to see Renuka at lunch: a chilling memory to keep him up at night. The Globe in publishing narratives describing the murdered has made them much more than ciphers, facts or statistics. They have rendered them as living humans with details: such as Geraldine Brady, a Cancer survivor with a reconstructed jaw; the image of Ms Forsyth’s abandoned walker, and recalled as being lucky on casino night; Anne Marie D’Amico who loved to travel and volunteer; grandfather Muniz Najjar, a Jordanian citizen, here to visit his children, but also depicted as one day savouring ice cream in Unionville and on another amazed at a. “blast of snow weeks later”…just a few stories to contemplate, along with the rest.

After a week or month, we may cease to notice a white van moving rather quickly on the streets, but we will reflect that no one is truly safe in society, but life will more or less return to normal- until another such incident somewhere else occurs. For those who no longer pass us on the street, nameless, and for their loved ones, lives have been forever altered. And the wonderful helpful bystanders who immediately responded by reaching for the hands of the dying, performing CPR , fixed in their seats at Starbucks, or miraculously just grazed by the speeding van, all traumatized and made immobile, new terrible realities have been instilled as well.

Yet, we must in this instance acknowledge reporting in our publications that is kind, accurate and fair. In a world of so- called fake news, we must continue to look at the rapidly declining newspapers and remember the significance of a free press. In the flow of everyday, we might try to focus on the positive life- enhancing behaviours that make life worthwhile and overcome the evil in our streets.

Morning Rituals

When I was employed, there was no choice, but to rush through breakfast and prepare for the workday. Now in retirement, there is more leisure to beginning the day.

I want to at least see my husband at breakfast as he proceeds into his tumultuous workday wherein his Fitbit can track 20,000 steps so I raise early.

My day begins by perusing the two newspapers, the Globe having restylized itself into fewer sections with print so tiny you must practically push it to your nose. Knowing several of Howard’s cases have been either reported so badly or the point missed, I almost must agree that what we are reading is practically fake news. I’ve disparaged reporting in the past few weeks because of an explosion of meaningless words that confound rather than elucidate the stories and I wonder at journalists who are either clueless, missing the point, or merely going for sensationalism. So, not surprisingly, my eye alights more often than not on headlines or even photos. At least, some articles are still properly structured with the first sentence of the paragraph previewing the thoughts developed within. Others merely ramble.

Today, April 17 which should showcase spring is still awash in the weekend’s torrent of unbelievably terrible weather. For our part, a tree we have routinely reported as dying but deemed healthy by the city, fell on my neighbour’s brand new Subaru, putting out the back window.Neither did her husband’s van escape scrapes , scratches and destruction when that severely rotted tree was pushed by wind, ice and snow to fall on their driveway. Two perplexed robins with ice on their feathers land on our ledges so confused about the arrival of spring that they flutter in circles. One attempts to perch on the bits of brown clematis tendrils tied to our garage, but falls back to the ground. The bread we scatter for them gets covered by more heaping snow. Yet like lost travellers, they continue to go in circles, returning to where they had begun their hapless search. Fortunately the ducks who arrive in our swimming pool ever year must have had advance warning as they -at least -have not reappeared.

The story regarding the sale of Chagall’s Eiffel Tower is perplexing. Ostensively straight forward that the Jacques-Louis David of St. Jerome has greater significance for Canada, the Chagall is in deed a crowd pleaser, its colours, imagery, fantasy more recognizable to the viewer. One wonders about the politics behind the auction. In today’s Saturday paper, one writer, KateTaylor, ridiculously reduces the battle to religious battlegrounds, as in “imply[ ing]that this Catholic painting is somehow more important than one by a Jewish artist” .( Saturdays Globe) No doubt the flamboyant Chagall draws more interest although if you are a student of art history, you will know the realist David owns an important place in the annals of developing art history. Still from my limited perspective, to sell off a world class beauty when our collection is so limited appears rather narrow. As letters go in both newspapers, even readers who announce they have taken art classes in world art have no knowledge of David. Time again it speaks to a rather poor representation of the evolution of the metier as David’s work is significant although like the Poussin versus Rubens debate, I go for the artist who knows how to arouse by colour: bringing joy and happiness through their work.

The John Oliver story, Oliver, himself, a hilarious critic of world affairs, especially Trump, draws my eye. On his show he had introduced his children’s book, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, that mocks the one created by Mike Pence’s family. Brilliantly satirical, Oliver’s parody positions his bunny as looking for love with other non- sanctioned bunnies.The Globe reports it as a top seller on Amazon. Yet in this topsyturvy world, Trump with his lies, strange bed fellows in and out of office, still maintains approval ratings. But scarily enough, his second man, Pence, is as well, no winner: his past lives and passions dating him to the Salem witch trials, almost: Oliver has shown. More gloom in my worldview this week.

This world, this wild world where seasons are corrupted, glaziers dissolving, climates perverted, and dictators still poisoning and putting their people and others at terrible mortal risk makes me aghast. Here in the 21st Century, I feel I mimic Chicken Little that the sky is falling: which in deed it is. How can we understand that progress, improved health, more scientific research, better technology that has returned us to the dark age of superstition and ignorance. As always , it is the closed minded, self- propelled , egocentric worst version of mankind that has lead us – again-to the brink of disasters. That John Oliver and Steven Colbert rant and we laugh, it recalls the doomsayers of time past. And yet Kim Jun I talks of quietening down, even halting nuclear tests.

I want to see the beautiful, the good in life so I turn to the children. And so I find some hope in the James Comey interview with Colbert wherein he speaks of the positive, the good that has come from Trump’s bad, the dark hole in the demagogue that requires filling:Trump not possessing an exterior goalpost with which to measure his actions. Comey comments on the rise of the children from Parkland who inspired March for Our Lives against guns in Washington to change and counteract: the ministering angels.

In Comey’s interview with George Stephanopoulos , he said: “A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it: that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.”

If morality is back in style, I approve of a stance that is self- reflective and aimed at the good of the people, not just one entitled individual. One does wonder how America, those who still maintain and cheer on the president, became so morally empty as to support Trump. And like Trump, they just don’t see it! With Colbert, Comey suggests there will be a backlash to making the presidency stronger. However, he also contends that like small brush fires, much damage can ensue, destroying what has been built up.

Strange times, in deed. Yet finally spring comes to Toronto so perhaps “ hope springs eternal”. I reserve my judgment.

Josh and The Tree

Yesterday was an interesting and very busy day for me, but at the centre of it was a tree being torn by its roots from the ground. Although it looked resoundingly healthy, two men were labouring to pull it, this way and that, from its place in an raised garden, the tree appearing to have been interspersed in a landscaped pattern with several other similar fir trees. In fact, just beside that lush vibrant one being forced from its spot was a decrepit brown thing of a ragged shrub that no one would have missed: but why had the exuberant green tree been the object of removal? I wondered why something so obviously healthy and green was being tugged, twisted and yanked with the aid of shovels and two labouring strong men. Was it obscuring the view of the window behind? Was it going to be repositioned a foot to the right?It felt incomprehensible that such a beautiful living tree was being wrestled and removed.

Later that day I attended a shiva. I’m not one for funerals or their aftermath, but I felt there was no choice but to hike up to Thornhill to honour the memory of cousin Josh. Because I am perceived as not very friendly, taciturn, aloof and self absorbed, even when I make these kinds of gestures, I am sometimes rebuffed so I quake even before entering the homes of the dearly departed. But I was welcomed and the visit reminded me of that tree. Josh and his brother Velvoo had endured during the holocaust( from the stories told second hand by my mother) as hiding and barely surviving in the woods in Poland, eventually playing minor roles in the French resistance until transported to England. As the years pass, I am less certain of details, even wondering why I was named for Josh’s mother, unclear about the familial ties, particularly as so many years back first cousins had intermarried one another so the Ash, Labor and Guttmann families resembled balls of twisted wool whose strands cannot be separated.

Certainly I knew a homeless Josh was taken in by my grandparents and raised as their own son in Canada. Later, married and with children, he was always at the Rosh Hashana, Passover and weekly Sunday gatherings. But to my mind, I will always associate him with doing a mean kazutska, or one of those Russian dances where armed crossed on the chest, always performed by a male, drops to the ground, then springs back high into the air, much like a Jack in the box, arms spread wide.The highlight of every bar mitzvah, the nibble Josh could continue in his drop, pop and stretch, propelling himself upward for almost 10 minutes. And we would gather round in a circle, our mouths gaping in awe : that the wild coordination of arms up, legs out, bum just missing the floor could be accomplished- and in time with the music. But as life goes on, families drift further, only coming together on simchas or shivas so my last brief encounter with Josh was at my mother’s shiva where I think he was reprimanding me for something. Whatever it was, it ended with a smile and I think I lied by saying, “Sure, we’ll visit you when we’re in your area, “maybe even believing momentarily we would.

At his shiva, his children related that Josh at almost 92 had had a good death and all the numerous children and grandchildren had gathered at his bed hours before his passing and he smiled and squeezed hands, a tear in his eye, but cognitively aware of the situation, accepting, even joking his wife Malcah had better ditch her boyfriend, because he was coming. A shiva is a bittersweet thing, laughing and enjoying the memories of happier days, but bereaved that no more memories with the departed are possible…no matter the age of the age of the person passing.

And later still that day, a small dinner party with people I hadn’t seen in years. Lovely, quiet, thoughtful with interesting conversations. And I thought about how all of us had been buffeted by time, our edges made smoother, rounded, our faces and bodies altered and shaped by dislocations, the pull and torments of life, loss and change. In deed, our own leaves having turned or dropped, but still we were all more or less recognizable as the saplings we all had once been too, resembling that robust tree being yanked earlier, fighting to hold its ground.

My mind flew back to that silly Barbara Walter’s interview with Katharine Hepburn when Walters queried,” If you were a tree, which would you be?”

And I thought I would be one of those dazzling magnolia trees with huge splendiferous white and purple blooms that cannot help but draw your attention on one sparkling day , but only for a day or so, but then reverts back to its quiet unnoticeable state, just playing its role in the role of trees, doing its treelike things. Like Josh’s famous celebration dance, I wonder how I will be remembered, what image will be associated with me, when I am pulled from the ground to return to the ground.

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.

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.


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…

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