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Archive for the tag “Camelot”

Reading Swans on the Beach

We’re back in San Diego , our oasis and we are being revived: the weather of 70 plus the blue skies have mitigated the greys of Toronto and its sudden spark of unbearable heat. Although referred to as” May greys “ here, we are greeted with California brightness. 

Back to our routines almost immediately, we walk up to Bristol’s for lunch and then traverse the mall to see what new shops have been brought by construction promised to be finished by October. Well, maybe. Supper at Tender Greens reveals the harvest salad with the sunflower seeds, citrus and local offerings has been removed.☹️Still the falafel is still good, but I am disappointed. Yesterday at Solana Beach the tide is far out and the sand is perfect for walking as minuscule red crab limbs are washed up along with tiny opalescent shells. This time we can meander almost to Dog Beach but I decide I’ld rather spend my time finishing up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the fictionalized description of Truman Capote and his fascination with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, founder and magnate of CBS, in years that preceded Andy Warhol in New York. So I hurry back to my chair to read on the beach, crashing waves my backdrop to the lurid tale.

It is a mesmerizing narrative of Capote’s magnetizing force on the societal elite. In the afterward, author Melanie Benjamin reflects on her own growing up in a place far from New York.She peruses the pages of Vogue and The New Yorker, and all the celebrities pictured in an extreme unimaginable lavish lifestyle. Writing her book, her search back into Capote is very different to the image she had previously held in her head: the short pudgy myopic lisping one- that I admit I also carried with me. The creature who captured and held Babe’s attention was lithe, handsome, charming and witty – before his plummet that coincided with the publication of his In Cold Blood and The Black and White masquerade Ball he designed to out- ball all New York Balls ostensively to honour Washington Post’s Editor Kay Graham, but really to showcase his connections to the richest and most famous that selectively included Sinatra, Bacall, the Kennedys, along with the detritus of Cold Blood.

The focus of the neurotic Capote is the pursuit of beauty and recognition. Winning the trust of Babe and her famous friends, the Swans, he betrays their confidences. When unable to produce good copy, he reverts to revealing their secrets. Although foreshadowed by his irreverent game of gossip into the lives of high society others as diversion at lunch at the Ritz, he nonetheless is trusted. But Capote succumbing to alcoholism and drugs and his inability to follow up In Cold Blood, rationalizes that he is a storyteller. So what did the Swans expect him to do with their stories?

Worse he hurts Babe, the person Capote loves best. She is surface upon surface, never allowing herself to be seen without makeup, even waking before Bill to arduously apply layer upon layer of moisturizer, coverup and false teeth. Also the product of a driven mother, Babe is enchanted by Capote, opening herself to him as to no one else. She angel- like even understands and forgives Capote’s open revelations of Bill’s discretions in Capote’s piece La Cote Basque while the others openly reject him. However, she too will never speak with him again.

The relationship between Babe and Capote is the stuff of fairytales, her even sleeping chastely beside him and willing to confide her fears. While Capote values her as perfect, he also has gained entry into Bill’s inner circle as friend. Originally repelled that Bill asks him to set him up with a blonde woman he spies, Capote later decides he will procure an arrangement , afraid he will be ousted from the inner circle, rationalizing his betrayal of the one he apparently adores the most in the world. Constantly in search of his mother’s praise and acceptance, Capote can never satisfy his desire for not being accepted or as an insider to the wealthy and famous.
Like the worm that burrows deeply into the apple, Capote destroys the paradise he has been privileged to breach:

 “Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”

The world Benjamin reveals is of course a façade for loneliness and true commitment to love; however, it is postwar fabulous , a gem of extravagance , polished manners, excess and air kisses. Just as Capote, we are drawn in and fascinated by the players photographed as living the existence of princesses, the illusion of an exclusive life. The Swans, carefully coiffed wearing gems as big as eggs, swathed in furs, dining and drinking and laughing at 21, are eventually rendered as human as the rest of us: hung over, stringy hair, set upon by the ravages of not just age, but as Babe, set upon by a fatal illness. For one brief shining moment for Capote and the Swans it was Camelot, unmindful that eventually facades crumble, and behind it all: only the fable of the gloriousness endures.Benjamin keeps us riveted and exhumes the names that marked the days of rosebuds.

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What we thought we knew

Our perspectives on life often seem fixed. We have sorted out our thoughts and reactions as we have followed issues, engaged in dialogues, asked questions, studied, opened ourselves to new trends and innovations and integrated our reactions and responses into new mindsets.  

Last week as I watched Bryan Cranston portray LBJ, I experienced a relocation of ideas that had accompanied my comprehension of JFK’s successor.

As an adolescent, I like my peers , was totally enamoured with the myth of Camelot and the fantasy spun of the square- jawed tousle- haired president. In deed we loved the image we saw, imagining ourselves part of the family football on the sunny beaches, shopping with the stylish Jackie, even fantasizing that one day we might travel to Africa as part of The Peace Corps in pursuit of a better world .We believed ourselves a kind of extended family member attached to a presidential lifestyle that formed part of Photoplay or Seventeen magazine in the 60’s.We could be the brightest and the best, exceeding our grasp( what’s a heaven for?). Kennedy’s murder shattered our naivety, distorting a fuzzy dream of ourselves as blossoming boomers, making us cynical, disapproving and angry, no longer anticipating what could be . For after all, because he had been the first Catholic president , we anticipated that since he had cracked open that door, maybe women or black people might enter too. The world had felt rich with possibilities. But perhaps that is the illusion of the young- in any case.  

His death was a blow. I was exiting my Grade 11 French exam when I wondered why there were so many huddled together in corners, weeping, engulfed in tears. 

To take his place was the crude,rude, overbearing Lyndon Johnston. We would recall the pretender to the throne as hovering beside the courageous dazed Jackie as he was sworn in on Airforce One : when Kennedy’s brains were laced across his cavalcade. So my attitude towards the new president was something of resentment. 

He looked too anxious, so patronizing, so patriarchal, hovering. 

However, the LBJ, an adaptation of the Robert Schenkkan play “All the Way,”(2014) on Broadway, resurrects LBJ and for those who are not political aficionados and have not dived beyond the image we thought we knew of the man- the truth is staggering- and impressive. Observing his manipulation of the Southern Democrats to ensure Congress pass legislation for equal rights legislation in 1964 is spell binding. Unafraid to move towards what is right, to coddle, to befuddle,to coach or even demand in a booming voice took savvy and stratagem as he moved the country forward. In days of lynching, false arrests, colour bars, differentiated toilets (some things never change), the man stood strong. His own life from rural poor, teaching Mexicans with no future, and navigating the system with the “ good old boys” from Down South fortified his understanding of how to work the system. In spite of those good ole boys,LBJ began to overcome racial bias. “But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans”, stated Bill Clinton,May 2, 2012, in discussing Seat of Power, Robert Caro’s book , The Passage of Power in New York Times Review of Books.   

Although this production for television reveals that often money to fund campaigns was the motivation that initiated bold steps, LBJ knew who, where and when, pressing into action without fanfare or niceties what needed to be accomplished. Not cultured, groomed or attractive, LBJ was a role model in crashing barriers. Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s introspective,also driven, contrast. Quiet almost patronizing, Humphrey worked long hours to fulfill LBJs requests and carry out initiatives. LBJ’s small, closed circle of supports included Walter Jenkins, whom LBJ embraced as a son, found guilty of sex crimes in a YMCA bathroom, and as so a gay man, dismissed from his post. An interesting conversation between LBJ and J Edgar Hoover suggests that perhaps LBJ had suspicions about Hoover’s sexuality as well.

Much like Ken Burns’ work on the Roosevelts, LBJ illuminates political endeavours removing them from back rooms to simplify and demystify for the viewing audience, the inner world of negotiations that are self-seeking, petty, ego boosting but eventually light the way to improved lives. My cynicism re- enforced, I can at least live with the results of the 1964 rights bill and the downfall of George Wallace.Watching the remake of Roots this week substantiates the need for a strong moral conscience to have begun to attack the evil perpetuated on the slaves in the south. Yet many proclaim that bigoted attitude in those parts has been maintained. It’s the truly exceptional person willing to forego popularity and easy relations “ with the fellows” to push forward through the darkness of ignorance. LBJ appears to be one such remarkable politician.

In a nutshell, educating through the media can be an enlightening tool that aids in changing perspectives. Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin,Arthur Schlesinger, many other authors and presidents themselves write and extend our understanding, yet television makes history accessible as popular culture often trumps reading as the images presented and set in real chambers complete with contextual and even human contexts (such as wives, gardens, etc) go beyond to dramatize events: that we need not imagine and perhaps distort through our unknowing or previous biases.

And that is not to say any production is not shaped by the bias of the production or philosophical bent of any team. What I am saying is that the scenes made vivid, compelling with the heard interchange of the spoken word can engage us in a way that extends meaning. Maybe these visual journalists, the filmmakers of these “ docu dramas “ can propel our learning and re- educate our knowledge of days passed, essential days that turned the world around.

Years back when I taught at Northern Secondary, we chose for the final exam essays that were used to demonstrate students’ ability to apply critical thinking skills. One such piece dealt with “edutainment”, pondering the need to package learning as entertainment thereby appealing to students through funny monologues, jokes, media, etc. I recall scoffing that education might be devalued or made palatable for the sake of the presentation. In my head I harboured the long staid image of the professor at his podium, the students, nodding solemnly, busily scribbling down notes, the room silent, deep in thought. Now I know better: that learning can take place in innumerable venues and of course, in a plethora of ways. Eventually I ascertained this fact from Sesame Street where every minute, Grover, Elmo or Big Bird amazed and pierced our consciousness. No matter the flash of colour, the mispronounced phrase, the juxtaposition of milieu, we were transported to the land of learning and we were tickled enough to hold on to that fresh information. When viewing can be exciting and informative, we might just put down our IPads, watch, listen and THINK about issues that are more than entertainment.

How ironic that in the midst of all that, Donald Trump, first reported in the entertainment section of The Huffington Post, has become the entertainment without the “ edu-“- cation portion; “We announced our decision to put our coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign in our Entertainment section instead of our Politics section. “Our reason is simple,” wrote Ryan Grim and Danny Shea. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.”

JFK and Roads not Taken

Several months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Everyone in my generation remembers where we were when we heard the news that the president had been shot in Texas. I was told this is referred to as a “flashbulb” memory that stands out like no other.

I was exiting a Grade 11 French exam and was confronted by students frozen in wailing tears and silent sobs. To many, he was our beacon of hope then, young, handsome, energetic, the quintessential role model. The Peace Core, striving for a better world, civil rights, corralling nuclear bombs made us feel that our generation could finally shake off the doddering Eisenhowers and the scary Hitlers. We would eventually be tagged the baby boomers in love beads and long hair, and we would be young and free forever, dancing our way into the future. Or so we thought.

When news of Kennedy’s indiscretions were revealed, we were all ready living in a world of birth control, free love and we were maybe a bit miffed, but cool. The icon, the image of the man overrode our criticism although it did give pause as we hadn’t really intuited the cracks behind the carefully presented façade. We hadn’t seen him hobble on crutches as FDR had; we didn’t know Dr. Feelgood was pumping him full of vitamins and amphetamines so he could confront Nitika Khrushchev and stand his ground during the Bay of Pigs. Maybe we were vaguely aware of his response to Soviet tanks that instigated East Germany’s erection of the wall that divided East and West in Berlin. The gossip about Addison’s disease was disabused and he shone before us: the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, graciously reflecting her luminescence; and the adored father who even encouraged Caroline and John-John free reign in the presidential office.

The phrase coined after his death by Theodore H. White and prompted by Jackie Kennedy was “ Camelot” and we clung to that, wanting to believe that the man behind the smile was mythic, able to drive evil away and stand up for good.

Watching American History ( television show) over the last few days provided a balanced overview of the man and his times. Perhaps because I am now so much older, I can appreciate the reality that was once overblown into fantasy. Without smudging from the truth, the documentary presented Kennedy’s naivety as he wrongly accepted the advice of his chefs of staff and so-called specialists in the CIA during the Cuban debacle, positioning the world on the brink of war.

For my family, growing up, it was one of the few moments we huddled around the television and I truly comprehended that my parents were afraid. And that it had to do directly with the televised message the President was solemnly intoning.

The American History show explored the lies and half-truths self-righteously proclaimed in the local and foreign press that were fed to the public during his administration: Kennedy’s original disinterest in the first bus bombing of civil rights in Alabama was disheartening; Kennedy’s decision to go into Viet Nam to turn American minds away from domestic turmoil and stop the further advance of Communism disingenuous, aligning himself with a weak and corrupt head of state. The show did not flinch from presenting the facts as they were exposed. They were laid out without rationalization, without nostalgic explanations or pandering. Bare, and ugly, they spoke to a badly informed, young and unwise leader.

However, Kennedy was also portrayed as the hub of a great constantly turning wheel who absorbed information from the multi-spokes. Responsible for making the ultimate decisions, Kennedy’s demeanor and decision-making processes exposed the paradoxical nature of the man. On the one hand, arrogant and self-contained to make those decisions by himself; on the other, willing to listen to diverse views but taking responsibility as he navigated the hot seat of his presidency.

However, as bad decisions accumulated and the pitch towards war mounted, Kennedy began to grow into the man we had imagined he was. To his war-mongering chefs, he stood alone in saying NO. To Khrushchev’s reneging on his private promise of continuing to build missiles in Cuba, he said, No more. He trusted that Khrushchev felt similarly : about the threat of actually engaging in nuclear warfare and the real fear of annihilation, granting him the empathy Kennedy himself was experiencing.

From Joseph P. Kennedy’s dominating wings, the son emerged, thoughtful, taking his time, cautious, weary and willing to weigh the consequences of his actions that would impact on every single person in the country.

In spite of his initial reluctance and motives, Kennedy announced the bill to end segregation. On June 19, the president sent that bill to Congress. If you listen to Kennedy’s address on the occasion of University of Washington 100th Anniversary Program, November 16, 1961, you will hear in stunning rhetoric an appeal for peace, acknowledging that America is neither ”omnipotent nor omniscient”. He speaks for diplomacy and defense, explaining that there are two dominant groups of citizens: those who call for appeasement; and those who are warmongers. He quotes Winston Churchill and reaches out so that any agreement or compromise provides an acceptable solution for the countries involved. Given at the university, the goals of Kennedy’s speech are aptly lofty as he addresses the challenges of defending freedom while maintaining peace as a world power. It is compelling as he describes the state of American international relations. There is empathy as he displays a willingness to collaborate and compromise, ensuring a livable result for all players. It is a stand down from war and a deep understanding of what is at stake. It is brilliant.

Watching the television production, I felt this is the best of reality TV. I respected the thoughtfulness and honesty enabling me to re-evaluate the man. Once drawn into the magic and glamour, maybe too young to be critical; then scornful and dismissive at Kennedy’s womanizing and treatment of domestic issues, now I could look at the entire man, and consider the complexity of parts.

I admit to being impressed.

I could applaud the growth and the acceptance of responsibility. I could acknowledge an understanding of peril, the awareness of reaching out with an olive branch, working towards compromise, and reconciliation and not allowing himself to be pushed towards war.

Exposing the human sides of his flaws made him more human, less godlike. Brought down to earth, the glitter now worn thin, he provided us, I think, with what is best about people and in some cases- if we are fortunate- leaders. He was finally capable of listening to informed perspectives of others as well as his own quiet voice within that moved him towards what he believed was right.

We became the baby boomers who heard his drumbeat as we wove our flowery mantra around a man who was both buds and weeds. Perhaps not considered by history as one of the greats, he has- for me- been re-established with the respect and magic with which he originally dazzled.

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