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Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

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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.”

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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