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Ridiculous Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if not, that’s really scary.

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Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The Roosevelts and Me

Like most of my generation, I hold a special place in my mind for FDR. The Boomers growing up and away from the shadow of war were familiar with the name of the disabled president, studied him in history class, later heard rumblings of his foibles and love affairs, but overall, considered him a persistent star that had lit the way back from the Nazi threat and on towards the free world.

In high school classes, we absorbed the names of Harry Hopkins, Louis Howe, Frances Perkins and the New Deal. Learning that a woman had been placed in his prestigious cabinet and that artists like Thomas Benton, Diego Rivera and so many others had been given jobs in the WPA made us feel proud. The Depression known through stories like The Grapes of Wrath imparted a whiff of those hard dark days and what it must have meant to truly not know where your next meal would arrive.

My father would retell how his own mother left the door ajar at night because she felt that if anyone were poorer than them, they deserved to come in- and even take what they needed. My father longed for brand new drafting tools, not broken, like inaccurate second hand ones that he had no choice but to use.

The symbol of those days seemed to me to be men riding the rails from town to town, seeking employment so they might support their families. Little blips in the world after the war overshadowed by the Cold War, but a world where a sanctuary meant ostensible things and trips and people with flashy money and few thoughts of destruction in spite of nuclear bombs.

Our teenage focus on Kennedy was all flash, big teeth, great hair and smiling extended families romping on the beach, footballs tucked into armpits: a beacon of security for teenagers who danced along with Dick Clark’s rock after school or hugged their pillows when Elvis sang Love Me Tender or madly screamed and fainted in their rapture of the Beatles. It was the light to the years of darkness where we chose not to ponder the piled high stacked bodies at Auschwitz or mountains of children’s forlorn shoes

Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelt, An Intimate History puts meat on the bones of the history classes and recollections of our grandparents; and so brilliantly teaches this generation the power of film and media as a supreme tool of education, one that is not dull, boring or patronizing. With experts such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough , the commentaries on events aid in explaining the Roosevelt presidents we thought we knew.

And our knowledge is deepened in a human way. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, fifth cousin of Franklin’s and the brother of Eleanor’s father, Elliot, was a sickly asthmatic. We are apprised that his prognosis for surviving beyond his baby and early years is grim, that his father carried him in his arms night after night as Teddy struggled to breath. We learned that all the Roosevelts fought depression : that Teddy’s way was what he called “ action”; and FDR’s was a false face to hide his true emotions.

The documentary pierces the real lives of the real people, rendering them less symbolic icons and more flesh like like us -with fragilities and doubts and loves lost and illnesses.

For me of course, the story resonates more personally painfully because of FDR’s polio. My mother once told the story of how they had asked my aunt for help so that they might go to Warm Springs, FDR’s place in Georgia so that my father could take the curatives of the spa waters and maybe regain some of his mobility destroyed by polio. The film reveals how passionately FDR worked towards creating a haven for children and adults, bringing physiotherapists, doctors, all manner of support and encouragement for those afflicted like himself. He interacts personally, listening to the stories of others. I think that, like FDR, my father never truly accepted that he would never walk unaided again. My aunt said no to the request and that was that.

My mother who left no opportunity to build my father’s resolve :whether a magical drug from Russia that claimed to restore muscles and nerves reported in the newspaper, or a stationary bicycle that promised to strengthen the destroyed muscles in his legs. She too, never really gave up on a way to improve his condition and build on the altered state of his ravaged body: likely her “ action” to slay her own personal demons. However, she deeply resented my aunt’s refusal, and my father even more so. No possibility of restoration, they must have thought, betrayed by his own family.

The documentary revealed that FDR threw himself into Warm Springs. It stated that he loved being in the water because he could stand without the crutches. My father built a small swimming pool in his house for the same reason. As well when Post-polio hit, he frequented the Sunnybrook pool where a contraption raised and lowered him into the water. I occasionally wondered how the slippery floors were managed by his crutches to avoid the wet that could cause him to loose control and fall, but I preferred not to know. So I never inquired, only happy he had had some time to stand and move without his crutches.

Burns’ film tells of FDR en route to nominating Wendel Wilkie and how he is somehow jostled and falls, unable to get up, and requiring many others to right him. My father occasionally tumbled as well, but determinedly refused the help of strangers, only accepting my frail mother’s assistance if she were near. If not he would crawl towards a wall, any upright structure so he could maneuver his dissipated limbs and prop and somehow push himself upwards.

We never saw our father fall although I do carry memories of him crawling occasionally. He was a proud man, a very handsome man who believed in his dark looks and brought up, a bit like FDR’s adoring mother Sara Delano, his mother Molly had told him he could do anything, favoring him with affection and special treats like sardines when he was a cocky kid.

Watching The Roosevelts, I am enlightened and gratified that such fine men with future looking policies lead the nation. From Teddy’s invitation to Booker T. Washington to the White House to FDR’s secret correspondences with Winston Churchill and his Lend-Lease plan for arms to battle Hitler, both Roosevelt men were unafraid to challenge their opponents.

Yet, I cannot help but watch with the eye of the daughter whose father was encased in those rigid braces and the gloom that spread over his face when he had to combat icy winters or a fight a flight of stairs with no bannister.

As a kid, you want to believe that your parents are invincible, no different than anyone else’s parents and you protect yourself by ignoring the realities of life that make every move difficult and challenging. Maybe you turn sarcastic or turn away from that parent and you feel their scorn that you do not excel at their expectations or that you cannot even communicate for more than a few minutes before an argument erupts. Maybe like two similar magnets you repel one another although beneath there is attraction more than just a familial one and a deep desire to be loved and understood and hugged. As a child, you cannot know or even try to break the bridge that connects them with the other sibling. You merely scoff and turn towards the other parent, sad, mad, longing for more, but not knowing how to facilitate a better interaction.

My sister says that when there is illness in a house, dynamics alter and change. I believe that is true. My mother was often reprimanded by my aunt for trying to pretend our life “ normal” when it was not. I think I must have followed in her footsteps, not giving an inch to my father’s disability. FDR is shown cutting himself off completely from his children after his polio. He turned outwards towards remedying the evils in the world. He turned away from Eleanor, too, but consulted her in matters of state and importance , however gaining emotional sustenance from Lucy, Missy and Daisy.

Eleanor grew in her own stature and FDR respected her, even having her give the speech in his place to nominate his vice president during his third term. Her words so powerful that his Liberal choice, formally rejected, was accepted after she spoke. My mother too was a giant who managed life much better than might have been expected. Roosevelt trusted, and believed in Eleanor but as known now, they lead parallel lives. FDR was father to the country, yet his own family was bereft: 19 divorces, 2 children who espied university education, one son even working in Filene’s basement.

In contrast, my mother kept our family together, my father adoring her always, even on his last stay in the hospital unable to speak, his eyes following her as she moved near his bed ( he was 68 when he died) and so our fortunes as children of a polio victim prospered: my sister a doctor, I a teacher;our family intact.

The Roosevelts open old wounds for me. In the Infatuations by Javier Marias, the protagonists laments that the dead do not stay dead, that they haunt us.

Yes, it is true. We carry such burdens from our past lives that can be easily awoken, actively bidden or not. I suppose this is the case for all: a tune, a smell, a photograph all remind us of past histories and catapult us to a place we would rather not be, yet remembering allows us to revisit lost memories and emotions-hopefully that can be unburdened when we let them go.- as here in my blog with you.

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