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Summer Jaunts

My son writes from Chicago, describing the activities of his family on one of their first summer trips with their young sons. I read with relish about the foam pit, exploring museums of technology and science, the planetarium, doing selfies at the shiny bean in Millennial Park, boat cruises on the historic river cruise, Beethoven in the park( no doubt in that wonderful, Gehry structure that resembles kettle drums askew), an eyepopping Broadway production of Aladdin with a real flying carpet. Even a few lines in an email crunched after an exhausting day and random photos extend the enthusiasm and joy of the family. I feel their excitement.

I’m reminded of the forays we took with our kids and try to recall the first. Was it to Boston and Tangelwood , lounging on the grass, listening to the Boston pops, and was there a star performer? I reflect that it was likely the same time we confused Sturbridge and Stockbridge, our plan to visit the historical children’s village nearby. I ponder, Was that the same time we also spent happy hours engaged at the kids science museum in Boston? I have memories of an entrance all shiny and metallic. Funny how time clouds it all. 

As a girl in the summers in Toronto, I’ld volunteer at the day camp at my school, a loose tangle of kids with nothing much to do, the rich kids all ready away in Muskokoa, but at least a handful of us organized to keep us outside in the sun and away from our homes.But for two weeks or less, usually, mid or late July , my parents would take us out of the city, usually sweaty and breathless car jaunts that we could afford, more I believe for the sense of freedom my father felt as he drove the open road, the equal of all drivers on a quest. He searched for trains, science museums, antique cars- hardly of interest to me, but fascinating to him. No tripadvisor then, just paper maps, free from the gas station, used to consult for highway routes.

I was bored, trapped in the car with my sister who was occasionally carsick and puked. We stayed at Howard Johnsons then, believed to be pretty spiffy by my parents, my delight the magazine stand where sometimes we were allowed to purchase a chocolate bar and a book. For some unknown reason one summer, we drove to Florida, one unbearably hot summer, burning our skin and indulging in pink watermelon to cool us off, my father disapprovingly admonishing my mother, sister and me about sun exposure. My father never sat in the sun, always in the shade pouring over Popular Mechanics, Consumer Reports, never a real book. I wondered why as I devoured book after book, having discovered fanciful tales and interesting people therein.

 Several times a year, we also drove to Buffalo and purchased our Susan van Husan shirts for $2.98 and if we were really lucky- on to Batavia where the toy store of our dreams existed. These were memorable excursions for setting the tone for being together, extending our boundaries, learning new things and being educated in how different life was outside our own home. In spite of my thorough dislike of the backseat ride, there was, as well, a thrill about travel, packing up, crossing borders. My mother always cringed at the US’s custom’s inquiry, afraid her folded green paper documents that did not resemble our small plastic rectangles signifying we were born in Canada, might identify her as an imposter. She carried childhood memories from her entrance to Canada at Pier 19, Nova Scotia as a five year old. She would retell stories of lice- inspection in Holland with steel combs that deeply penetrated her tender scalp, the looming imposition inquisition of guards, her quaking fear.

Yet our forays from the summer heat, these brief excursions set the model for the trips I would take with my own children years later. I never really considered whether we would go , but where. Others might plant their children with relatives or at camp, preferring alone- time with a spouse, but never my husband and me. We were a unit , adults revealing the wonder of the world to our kids, becoming kids again ourselves as we shared in their new experiences. Fresh eyes provided new perspectives and unexpected revelations from the innocence of a child’s purview. Besides, loosened from home rules, there was a certain freedom being on the road, away from constricting boundaries. That was invigorating too.

What stands out in my mind is New York when I was a girl. I must have been incredibly bored on the long drive, every few minutes, driving my parents crazy with my interminable “ When we will get there?” Their response was always maddeningly the same” Look out the window, Pat, “punctuated by The Alphabet and I Spy Something with my little eye games. Still I remember the Oliver Cromwell hotel, really a little dump, not that I judged it that way back then, but my parents’ reactions to the drab brown interior, likely way too expensive, pervaded my sensibilities. We were treated and awed by the Hayden Planetarium and Radio City’s the Rockettes. Knowing New York as I do now, I have no idea how my father on crutches manipulated this trip, his car, or us. My mother, impressed with herself, often repeated how she as an 8 year old girl had been charged to take her brothers by subway alone to the World’s Fair so many years back. Never allowed to take buses or subways by myself at an early age, I could not imagine her immigrant parents letting her!

Mentored by Sid and Goldie, my father’s sister and idolized brother in law , we were instructed into the educational possibilities of every trip, searching for the events and opportunities to extend our learning. My mother especially was in awe of their knowledge, names such as child psychologist gurus Piaget , Gesell, or even Dr. Spock, the lords of child- rearing. My cousin Jon was considered, in spite of the bragging rights of Goldi’s cousins, the infant terrible, the first born, the wunderkint, worthy of special schooling such as Dr. Blott’s school for the gifted, and obviously one reason for my aunt and uncle’s deep research into all books and things educative. Which obviously they must have communicated to my parents.

My other aunt, Marion ,considered herself the elite, the diva, particularly in all knowledge worth knowing. But her realm was theoretical, divorced from the practical and certainly the useful: wherein my parents actually excelled. And so we benefitted from all, although much of Marion’s insights were disregarded as high falutting fluff, worthless, but my mother’s talent in singing, her practicality, my father’s work in hi fidelity coupled with both his and Sid’s love for anything musical shaped our world. Unable to afford concerts, we were nonetheless surrounded by radio and records both classical and big band. Yet later, I found Marion a kindred soul, for her interest in the visual, for unlike the aurally- focused of my family, I could not discern the beauty of sound, discovering my solace in prints and pictures.

So we followed in the mould set out by my parents, taking our kids away for three months in Europe, staying in gites or homes, rather rentable cottages, that were close enough to castles or attractions I had pursued in Michelin, Fromer, travel,guides…Our children 10, 8 and 5 sprung from school for three months were exposed to art and churches, not the science my father had preferred because of my passion veering towards the visual and I wanted to share the stained glass, the sculpture of the medieval, the painting collections that had inspired me in the darkened rooms at university. As well, there were the hikes into mountains, the tasting of new foods and adventures we deemed specific to the children’s evolution as sentient beings. In Montebuono, we sweltered in the heat, but escaped to a nearby modern swimming pool where kids had to squeeze their heads into green Alia caps and after splashing wildly in the sanitized pool, munch pizza in the outdoor café; in Dordogne, Madame Bourret would bring us freshly baked pastries by her husband who strangely wandered the property in his underpants; in Brittany we shivered in a house recommended by Howard’s colleague where we drank cavaldos to warm ourselves in the drizzling rain in an unheated house ; in Paris, we needed two tiny rooms to house our group of five, Howard and Jordan sneaking out to ferret Chinese food, the girls and I watching those shows where people do outrageous things such as trying to grab balls the size of a house and swinging from obstacle to obstacle. I chortle to remember our son’s first tears upon having to leave his friends in Toronto brought full circle as he cried again to depart our European adventures.

Best of all was the kids’ exquisite use of language as they easily slipped into conversation with local people in France, we, the adults knowing to keep our garbled tongues to ourselves.I recall the look of the townspeople impressed by the confidence and ease with which all three communicated: the result of French immersion, that in spite of negatively impacting their Math skills, heightened their abilities to think and speak in a language different from their everyday one. In those days, with the father Trudeau, we conceived ourselves as both English and French, and a future for our children that might necessitate their knowledge of French should they travel far from our shores to pursue an international profession. There was a pride of having a dual citizenship of both founders of our country.

The years traveling with our children were some of the richest moments in my life. Surveying my life and examining it from the viewpoint of accumulated years, I can review the good – and of course the bad, the unintentional mishaps caused by stress, lack of information short sightedness, reacting too quickly, not listening properly: myriad reasons. However, we did hand down a daily pattern of living and vacationing, and a way of approaching life, gleaned from my own wise parents.

We eventually discover that one never has total freedom to choose and set their own path, yet we can set up small diversions, those family jaunts where alone and on the road, you see and hear and experience special relationships of warmth and wonder: that do endure a lifetime. At least ours have.

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Chicago, Part Two

Why go to galleries, I ask my husband? I accompany him to sports events because I love him, not them- although every once in awhile I am raised to my feet in ecstatic jubilation, surging with a crowd astounded by a great baseball play. He responded that he likes to see the famous pieces he has read about. 

Back in art history class forty years ago, that was my reason to hitchhike throughout Europe, desirous to see the originals paraded in the dark in my university classes at U of T. I sat with my friends, devouring those honey buns sold outside of Sydney Smith, knitting, chortling ,having a blast. But somehow these works – by Gauguin or Titian or Rembrandt worked their magic and my quest was to see them- for real- in their European homes.

I always drew, and maybe it was my aunt -who gifted me with oil paints that I wasted because I had no idea how to use them- who stimulated my interest. But every June, having worked two jobs to pay for my trips, I would set off in search of the originals I had glimpsed on the screen in those darkened halls, one quick flash one after another.And at night after class, during the school year I found my way to a life drawing class in pursuit of understanding line, colour” form and shape.
But recently even I ponder, as I asked my husband, why do I come ? 
I look at art differently now, not trying to ingest an entire gallery. I look and choose. For me, it is years of study, but more importantly looking. So I see connections, chronologies, resonances, echoes, symbolism, trends, themes. Maybe as Albert Barnes did in trying to educate his students so many years ago. But when I had sat in the dark, scribbling madly to record the dates of paintings to regurgitate on tests, a kid in the 60’s, one studied the slides by looking within the frame, identifying those formal elements of line, colour, shape… Years later my daughter at Queens University explained how her art profs placed the painting within the context- of a society, a movement, a place. Making so much more sense. 

In Chicago, we stand before La Grande Jatte, and all the critics flow into my head. I’m thinking about the women in Les Poseurs, the hard working models accompanied by their umbrellas and hats exhausted after a long day of posing. Now I see them in La Grande Jatte reproduced in the cylindrical figures here. There’s an exotic pet, a monkey on a leash, a dog. And in my head from parts unknown I ‘m drawn to the comment that men in the painting are not really interested in fishing for fish but finding a prostitute along the Seine. In the background the huffing industries, in the foreground the workers in their finery seeking a Sunday repose . Seurat the champion of democracy painting in dots, pointillism, each one an identical dab. Talk about form and content coalescing.I’m admiring and noting the frame made especially by Seurat for the painting. It is huge. But I also notice some very large and beautiful Maurice Denis’s and wonder about the over sized canvases. Wondering if there is a story here. So much eye candy.

And too many people taking selfies in front of the masterpieces. Been here. Done that:they must be thinking. Collecting selfies like so many baseball cards. Maybe to document a vague notion of something famous.

Later I wander over to The Museum of Contemporary art. A guide says there is a huge Tiffany lamp on the second floor, but I’m too embarrassed to ask: maybe I’vemisread or in the wrong museum. First there’s an exhibit on fugitives highlighting Angela Davis and Patty Hearst, from my past. Interesting challenging ideas, some captured in photos.Then there’s a room focusing on the theme of witness, prurient, hidden, taboo topics that include hands mangled and cut, a Parisian woman stripping in an elevator, victims of race riots…a Cindy Sherman dressup and photographer Walker Evans people watching people. So many questions to reflect upon that span time, place, gender and society

But the tickle for me is a travelling show by Los Angeles artist, Marilyn Thater in her exhibit Sympathetic Imagination that spans several halls: projected images on the wall create mini ephemeral scenes. There are daffodils, grassy molls , bee hives and I can walk into the scenes , become part of the art. Or disrupt them, creating new shapes.

Two monkeys chatter and scratch as someone leaves her seat and the theatre. Are we also the observers, or participants within someone else’s movie house. I love the temple that reminds me of Spain’s Elhambra. I notice I can be like Alice as tall as the arches or small enough to fit through the keyhole. I stretch my arms and eclipse several walls. I tuck my purse behind me and create a new boundary or barrier. I am part of this piece, changing it-just as the other viewers who stroll into the room.

I laugh out loud. I had not expected to be part of the artist’s oeuvre that day.

Maybe that is why I love art: it can demand or elicit or evoke a response, creating something unexpected , a new way of seeing or experiencing life.I’m an adult playing like a child. Serious play.

Hardly beautiful

My dear friend Anne tells me she wants beautiful. This is now my mantra as well.

At this point in my life, I passionately want it. I’m not just thinking rich embroideries, silk, soft to the touch or pretty pictures by Picasso and Matisse; or even cheerful stories than end with heroes riding off into the sunset with faces turned towards the twinkling stars. Beautiful becomes a mental shield, a metaphor for what is good and sustaining in life as well as a place to rest one’s mind and heart in the midst of turmoil and crises.

For example, I am so sick of that stupid Rob Ford debacle. In my oil painting classes, in the press, on street corners, everywhere I turn, someone has something to say about that useless creep. Before he was elected, my husband and I happened to be in the small plaza at the corner of Bathurst and Lawrence, and Howard pointed out this fellow, standing by himself, alone, shunned, a Willy Loman type in a shapeless beige overcoat. We chortled a bit, thinking this is no man for the mayor of our great city.

Obviously the laugh was on us.

I used to find Mel Lastman and his pants-pilfering wife an embarrassment, but Ford makes Lastman look like a debutant. Besides Ford’s abusive behavior as he carelessly knocked over Pam McConnell in City Hall chambers, the drivel that comes from his mouth: not only the gravy train slogans and his excuse for apologies that are really not apologies at all – are all slobber. I will never forgive Jimmy Kimmel’s kindness when he interviewed the hulking excuse of a man, Ford, well rehearsed so he appeared not-so-bad.

No surprise that Ford’s attitude towards the arts is a nightmare. I shutter to think that Lord Associates based in Toronto is working on Chicago’s arts in schools and on promoting art on the streets there while our city is bereft of that necessary support. There is no place for art or culture here unless it is football, in Ford’s life. His attitude towards Gay Pride is clearly evidenced by his avoidance of the parade. And there is so much more, so un-beautiful, bullish about Ford and his brother. I cringe to think of Ford’s attitude towards the 14 year old who waited till early in the morning at City Council to plea for maintaining library services. The only person unmoved was Ford.

Recently Dougie in his car as he exited a parking lot almost ran over Howard who retorted that Dougie should slow down. The response: a finger pointed upwards. Seems the finesse runs in the family, but we all ready knew that.

But now I have become one of those I have deplored who has wasted even a second’s thought on the lout, giving Ford space and time in my life.

This is exactly why I want and need beautiful, a place to rest my head from the discrimination in India, the Putin power takeovers, the plea for Christmas dinner for poor children, the federal payoffs to people like Duff and Wallin, the senseless murders by gunfire on the streets, the corruption in Quebec, the impossibility of banning firearms, Sandy Hook: one could go on endlessly, targeting the lack of care and morals and self-satisfied politicians and false facades that circumscribe our world. No wonder we become Scrooges, crying out Humbug! and feeling helpless and powerless in a sea of awful :what is the point.

Last weekend we babysat Grandchild #1 and watched the Boris Karloff animated Grinch who stole Christmas created by Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). In spite of feeling overcome with the lack of beautiful in the world, we had to smile at the Grinch and why his heart grew two sizes. Simple and clear, the idea of giving was beautiful. Similarly, as we lit the Channukah licht (candles) , chanted the prayers and observed the glowing dance of flames illuminating our grandchildren’s faces, we had a moment where the pure and truly beautiful shone out.

We have to believe that somewhere there is light in this muck of the world, that there is beautiful : otherwise what is the point?

Please note that I develop a germ of an idea and write throughout the year, but edit these blogs when I publish them, therefore, the reference to December’s Channukah. As well, Ford is finally in Rehab as I review this. Well, maybe he is and the province although deep into election slogans has replaced one kind of noise for another.

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