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iPad Annoyance

iPads are frustrating, especially for Boomers, those who have not grown up with the technology, not to mention those of us who never felt truly comfortable with more than pen and pencil. Perhaps that is one reason I love to draw: the sweet comfort of a piece of wood held gently against my fingers or a lovely Montblanc nestled in my hand, appreciative of its design and feel: the birthday gift of a beloved son.

This morning I push the “ reply” button on my email and the responding alphabet splits into two. I’m not sure why. In all the years I’ve commandeered the tablet, this has never occurred. Has my finger slipped? Has the tablet elf decided it’s time to add a new element or prompt the appearance of an underused feature?Are you listening to me and playing with me, machine? I feel the sheer scorn of all the Millennials and their quick- fingered ilk.

I look for a way to undo this annoyance, but the arrows that go both ways only work if I want to erase or remove entire words? I write in this irritating configuration to my husband shivering in Canada, inviting his counsel. He suggests turning the machine off and on. I move to another area of the Ipad, hoping that perhaps the dreaded overused incomprehensible machine will forget that change of alphabetic setup, return to default( does it even have a default position?),hoping this pain-in-the-ass new combination will magically disappear to allow me back to the original configuration I’ve used forever . But NO! It remains fast even having spread its infestation of trouble to other locales where I must write or communicate. I return to my email. Maybe if I jump up and down three times, wish upon a glittering star, cast omens, think pink thoughts, but it’s still there. Grrrrr.

Somehow I “ wipe” the two sections together and bravo! they coalesce but into a new formation in the middle of the page, not sitting neatly at the bottom as they once did.

When I worked at OCT and even as far back as Northern Secondary School, my colleagues suggested my

perfect job would be to make things disappear on the computer because I was really really good at that. Even my tech wizard boss would scratch his head in awe and wonder at my talent, unable to retrieve documents, programs, whatever because poof! all had vanished. I made sure I had a paper copy of my thesis, fearful that this “ skill” might unexpectedly and unbidden banish years of focused research.

What also perturbs me is the Ipad’s “ thinking” that it knows the word I intend to write, not just suggesting, but obliterating my thoughts. Sometimes it provides me with unwanted suggestions, or a variety of verbs in multiple tenses. I punch in my correct word to the sneaky little demon who would usurp my machinations, but still, it insists upon actually replacing my chosen word , causing me double effort to extricate its permutation from my own. This makes me furious. It’s as if we are playing” choose a word” and the IPad not ME is in charge, reprogramming me with some rubbish expression that has nothing to do with my context or intent. And because it’s a damn machine,I cannot yell or curse at it because some moron has programmed the first three letters of pro-, for example, to give me “protest, protesters, proactive, prototype, probable, procrastination… “whatever- that slows my thoughts and interrupts my intent.

And who too taught this jerk, this computer whiz about apostrophes, the difference between its and it’s, and that every proper name also requires an apostrophe? What lessons has the programmer forgotten from their year of failing Grade 9 English on the proper use of grammar.

And even now, having at least made those two sections come together in one swoop, I must have commandeered some other feature for as I type this, those damn bars are preventing me from seeing what I am writing . Double Grrrr.

And now – alas again-it’s a fight between me and the machine as it hides what I am writing. My only recourse is to keep typing behind the encroaching alphabet bar because it is obscuring my view, yet I refuse to stop, to bend, to give in to this annoyance, this shape shifter. I pull the bar down; it stubbornly bounces back to block my view, mocking me by refusing to move. I touch the screen gently, whispering terms of endearment, wink provocatively, suppressing the desire to smash it to smitherins ( a word with which it is unfamiliar. Only that recognizable red underline used on students forever to indicate error. Mea culpa) No improvement.

Now I notice the words, my words are emerging beneath the obscuring bar. So hello!, I see you and can make my own corrections. Brave stupid word- wherein the machine can order and rearrange my concepts, blocking or reinventing what I am trying to communicate, causing me to type and retype ( not “ restyle” the word this stupid thing just replaced, and so I must retype “ retype”).

I know I am not slick, admittedly backward in fact in technology and I acknowledge some leaps and bounds in this advance in computers and iPads afford us- from Scrabble against an invisible “intermediate” opponent , Lumosity, on line meditation and new language learning, but those are the things I trigger for myself, not the remedial restorative programs all ready living in this device sitting on my lap. I want to trigger my thoughts, not request corrections or reinterpretation from a blockhead god whose “mind” has all ready been set, set to react to a few incipient letters of a word not fully formed, prefixes of a handful of consonants and vowels. When I put something down on this ersatz paper, I don’t want it interrupted so that my consciousness must correct another’s versions of what I am going to say, arrest my flow, yes my flow of verbiage that I may decide to correct, but I want to own that privilege.

I suppose there is some way to unprogram and rebuke this expensive piece of trash that apparently knows my thoughts better than I, attempting to obliterate my writing persona. But should I turn this bad boy upside down, shake it, bang at its buttons, scream at it( totally useless), it may make everything disappear and perhaps, only perhaps I might be worse off. Of course, I could retire to my desk with luxurious pen and pencil once again, but then, aside from snail mail, how could I tell my followers about my weekly rage?

And now that we know early use and exposure to this kind of technology will in deed impede the development of young children, how too it is not raising the blood pressure of the boomers, extending a reason to delegate this invention to the closet with our old shoes and retro clothes?. A strange contraption this and yet I reluctantly admit I have become its slave as I constantly seek its company, like a friend I’ld rather drop and yet to which I am attracted by what they offer in the way of entertainment, puzzle and stimulation, enlarging my world while captivating me with its charms, an evil witch full of tricks and tribulations, bamboozling, erasing my thoughts with their own. Moving forward we are drawn back into the realm of the shamen( no Ipad, not “ shaken”), my plural for shaman. Or does no word exist for you?

More magic , less reason and razzledazzle from the creators who spawned us. What else does the future hold to control and perturb us?

Those Moments

When I lectured to groups, I’ld begin by asking my participants to close their eyes and attempt to recall a moment from their earlier lives. What always emerged, without any prompts, concerned a birthday, a family gathering, a funeral, an event detailed with sense experiences, a visual- perhaps of a glowing candlelit cake, the sound- of sweet laughter or the rub of a cheek against their own. I could see the faces of people transported, actually reliving those moments.We would discuss that it was impossible to remember every single day of a life lived, but those heightened by extreme happiness or sadness did in deed reside in our heads, available for easy recall.

When I taught high school previously, I also posed questions to my students,”How are you similar or different to your ancestors.” It was a postcolonial literature class and I was teaching books from Africa, India and the South America: the point being to bridge worlds and diversity, reminding the classes that we all came from somewhere and our own progenitors were once immigrants too. Moving from themselves through personal anecdotes to first person narratives by authors to indigenous cultures and novels gently lead them into a process that erased the demarcations of me and them. But once again, it was asking them to search in their heads for that special shared time with a loved one.

Often I used Margaret Laurence’s personal essays in Africa, a middle class Canadian herself, moving on to Rohinton Mistry or China Achebe or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In deed, One Hundred Years of Solitude is so full of magic, surreal situations of exaggerations and fantasy to delight and confound even Harry Potter fans. There are people in the book who can fly, others who literally shrink in old age, suggestive of a fairytale but based in actual horrendous events, reminding the reader that truth is often stranger than fiction.

To my initial prompt, student Rebecca had written about a yearly visit to her grandma in Germany who had grown up in wartime, a grandma who penny pinched, reused, recycled. Rebecca was not enamoured of the summers because she felt her Oma stingy. In a moment of revelation, the granddaughter realized that in her own eco saving moments, she too had disparaged the waste of disposables and had emulated her grandma’s stance of thriftiness, even organizing recycling groups. There were other stories that connected personality traits and role models, shuffling bubies who had lived in Kensington and kept fish fresh in their bathtubs until it was time for dinner. And with a self conscious guffaw and some amazement, the students comprehended that they might have inherited more than their names from their progenitors.

But what interested me was the moment, the flash, the epiphany and why certain memories had been retrievable while others languished with the business of daily routines. Of course, I intuited the memorable event was flagged by the emotion surrounding it, but true enough, our lives are filled with so many experiences conceived in or surrounded with joy, delight, anger or distress, times we wish we could hold on to, renewing them when we need comfort, or resurrecting them to better understand ourselves. Why did certain moments rise to the surface of consciousness , while others were lost deep in our heads?

Last night while attempting to sleep , I combed through my own life, searching for those episodes that still continue to haunt me. For the most part, there were single flashes: a grade one teacher who wore shiny brown oxfords along with a look of disdain for me, and a class in which unable to cut out leaves for the construction of leaf people, the boy who sat in the seat ahead turned with a soft smile to surreptitiously perform the act. And I in present time, re- experienced the relief of not enduring my teacher’s scorn and my gratitude towards him. But why had this small event of maybe 2-3 minutes persists and, I, still able to feel the embarrassment and relief of maybe 60 years ago?

Rummaging through my head again, I recalled a Halloween, married with a three year old, me intent on creating a big bird mask for her, spending days with papier mache, the result looking a bit like big bird on crack for the features although were distorted. When she saw it, she loved it: the essence of Big Bird obvious to her. However on the walkabout that dark night, other children spying macabre eyes too big, an oversized mouth, a lolling tongue, festooned with shaggy ocher bits of floating feathers of their favourite character, she began to shriek and cry out. My poor daughter, not understanding that she herself was NOT the cause of alarm, fused momentarily with her mask and terrified, refused to go out on all subsequent Halloweens for years. I can relive this event in full as if it were occurring before my eyes even today.

But not just the moments of extreme emotion rise in my memory, pictures of festivities such as backyard parties with friends interacting at tables set with golden decorations, lavish drooping white flowers, glittering glasses of wine, soft music and the happiness of celebrations marking transitions. Were there other scenarios that have not lodged, found a niche, a dark corner in my brain, but not eclipsed or overcrowded by other similar moments? Surely so.

As I get older and want to piece together what has contributed to being me, I am frustrated at not being able to locate other small gems that might provide insight. Hardened like tiny crystals, so many other experiences do not come forward, even in whiffs of dreams. What I have is a broad outline perhaps that is composed of the basic person I am: the art, the books, the teacher, the mother, the planner of events that afforded me pleasure, the broad strokes of a life. It’s a bit like Sisyphus climbing the rock over and over again, except I wish I had a small awl or hammer to claw away at the rock in hope of dislodging some fragment forgotten.

Lip Service and Children

My father used to scold me,” Don’t be so sensitive Pat”. And so I was, and am, now accepting my emotional responses are who I am.

But this week has been a strange and terrible one, one that actually caused a change in policy decreed first ,but later denied by Trump. Well at least it was reversed. The one about tearing children from their parents, recalling images of the holocaust, the gas chambers… where the separation ended in tragedy and death.

Recently I read an article by motherless Rwandan refugee Clementine Wawariya and although now living in the States, she has a problem with the words we use such as genocide. She writes,” I hated the word immediately. I did not understand the point of it then. I resent and revile it now.. it is tidy and efficient. It holds no true emotion. It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate: cold and sterile when it needs to be gruesome. It’s hollow, disingenuous, the worst kind of lie.The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt in Rwanda. The way I felt in Burundi….it’s not like the holocaust…the killing fields in Cambodia…ethnic cleansing in Bosnia…There’s no catchall term…You cannot line up atrocities like a matching set. You cannot bear witness with a single word.”

One might say we should celebrate the power of the people to protest, who caused the President to reverse his ruling, but ironically, I suppose, the entire horror show makes me feel helpless.As all of those victims of holocaust, genocide and autocratic societies must have, the words cool containers for the lives destroyed . In wondering what these victims could do, they must have experienced that knowledge that they were helpless, their fates determined by others or one other, and they played no role in choosing their own fate, changing the outcome of heedless power.

The images of children, the detention centres, the callousness and ease with which the proclamation came down takes one ‘s breath away. It’s more useless talk about a kinder society and instead of living out those values, the words are given lip service. Just yesterday I was told a story of school bullying where in spite of parental attempts to diffuse the situation and even direct appeals to a principal and the perpetrators’ parents, the victim was continually shadowed with whispers of ‘ loser’ from October to June, until that school year ended. How did she manage?, I asked . The mother reliving that agony related, “ therapy.” In spite of a year of torture, the mother quietly asserted she did not think much of the school. And again I thought, everyone has made such a big deal about bullying and when the beast is identified, it is ignored, the jeers and guffaws, silent looks, threatening calls and vicious silent attacks that erode children’s confidence and never ever leave them.

I taught at Northern Secondary and one year we had a principal Jim MacCarron. He was a big guy, over 6 feet tall and almost that wide. It was the years of burgeoning gangs, and I was told as well, that at the south doors, if you wanted, you could get any drug you wanted, but no one stalked or bugged you. We had kids from all over at that school, close to the size of a small city- someone said 2100- maybe, some came to play football, the so- called gifted hung out there, learning disabled and hard of hearing adolescents, regular kids, all co- existing in a dilapidated school , truly much like a community of diversity. Anyway, big Jim got word of a race riot that was building on the grounds. He did not wait. He waded right into the thick of it, right dead between the thick bodies of gangs ready to fight, and guess what?It dispersed, the rats drew back, and the scene fraught for explosion disappeared. I’m not saying Big Jim was perfect, but on that day, he demonstrated to the school, he was a person who took action.

Today it feels like the talk is just talk and while it is great that issues are out in the open, it seems to be more of the same, little change and improvement. All that is booming is technology that has created its own set of problems .

And how scary is it that my four year old grandson must be instructed how to play dead should a gunman enter his classroom, so I worry there is more talk than role models who lead by example.

And the despicable Corey Lewandowski aid of repulsive Trump mocked a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who had been separated from her mother as she illegally crossed the southern border. He, in his stupidly and display of callousness, brazenly and embarrassingly cried out, “Wah- Wah.Wah.” What a world. You can put a child’s picture on a Gerber package, but obviously it holds no impact on adults with no values, morals or compassion. There are no words for that low level piece of trash, representative and extending the American government. Mrs. Trump’s Jacket from Zara said it all.

The values we once strove to uphold are mocked: honesty, compassion, goodness have been trampled upon and the leader of the free world deplores sharing, support, only intent on self- proclamation, self- serving politics. Who cares if human rights are ignored or dictators who have their own families murdered are lauded and exulted as being smart or good guys?. How is it possible that our own little Fords with scant knowledge and little apology for their ignorance have been elected here? Crass and repugnant. And even our own Justin Trudeau has promoted a pipe line that will destroy aboriginal lands, pollute the environment when two- faced he has pronounced he is for the reverse. Where have the people of honour gone?

Perhaps these are just some of the reasons I deplore politics. It’s so easy to say the right things, to stroke the consciences of the world, but double deal. And of course in Trump’s case, he just lies, not bothering to even give mouth service to what we had once been taught was for the good of others and the promotion of a just and humane society. The beast has been let out of the cage and the world has been darkened . Yeats wrote,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Our good friends in La Jolla say they are embarrassed to be Americans with Trump at the helm. And yet people still support him, do his biddings. And the little weasel Jeff Sessions quotes from the Bible for rationale of separation of parents and children . With an arrogant smirk. And as in the crusades, the mindless find words to back up their idiotic stance, fundamentalists well versed in twisting whatever is available to toughen their stand, even though separation of state and religion is the rule. From homosexuality, abortion, child marriage, child abuse, slavery, terrorism, some advocate chants a verse , believing he has legitimized his horrendous argument. How hideous is all of this.

And yes, people are standing up. Even Stephen Colbert who nightly shines a light on the evils of Trump in the Whitehouse encouraged his viewers to call and protest the degradation of children to their representatives. And perhaps the photo ops of the distraught children helped so the policy was reversed. Well, at least that. And as brash as Robert De Niro twice affirmed at The Tonies, “F**k Trump.”

My mother used to lament that she hoped that she would leave the world in a better place for her children than she had found it. I too have that wish for my grandchildren, but I fear it will not be so.

The Royal Wedding and Us

Who could not be charmed by the celebration in Windsor this past weekend? Besides picture perfect weather, the couple’s eyes appeared to be overflowing with love. The cathedral almost bending beneath the cascading flowers, Meghan’s veil and train, truly the storybook romance provided an extended reverie of illusion for a world beset with war, ignorance, guns and horrors. We want if not to believe in the power of love as Meghan’s pastor sang out at least its transformative possibility.

No doubt the colonial kingdom of the queen in her trademark hat must have gasped- at least privately- that the colonialized were now part of their extended family, incorporated into the kingdom as the gospel singers rocked the hall and the pastor, Michael Curry, the Afroamerican leader of the Episcopalians Church verdantly stressed the power of love,( “There is power, power in love,” he sang out.) echoing Martin Luther King. Like Barack Obama, Meghan does not shy away from her mixed heritage, obviously secure in who she is. The quiet elegant presence of her mother at her side seemed to reinforce that strong sense of self. In deed, an article in the weekend Guardian focused on her mother’s presence as a rebuttal to all that had preceded former slaves.

But why do we stay glued to the screen, some even journeying far to observe the spectacle? Part has to do with seeing ourselves in the royals, especially the Canadian part . Similarly my mother would relate that my father’s mother used to comment,”Well, he’s Jewish, you know,” referring to Edward R. Murrow and other pleasing celebrities of the day, making a connection that identified said party as part of the extended family and therefore worthy of pride. And we too want that connection, that identification with those we admire, are proud of and desire to hold as our role models: such as Meghan’s involvement in causes that target poverty, women’s right to self determination. Our fascination with the toothless Mulroney twins carrying the bridal train, the couple’s first date in Toronto make us feel somehow we are part of their love story, claiming them as if we actually knew them ,that we possess a part of the journey, not to mention our formal relationship with the monarch, our? Queen.

As a commoner, a divorced one at that, Meghan becomes an icon of rags to riches, securing the top job of Duchess. But we do not forget she once lived and prospered in our city, connecting us to the story. And having taught her suitor English in his final year at high school on Suits, Patrick Adams at Northern Secondary School, I supposed I have a vague point of reference to the narrative too. Even in the stuffiness of the fascinators and extravagant headpieces in the cathedral, we were well aware of the ordinary people , some Canadians who slept outside with their garish shirts and ludicrous clothing garb, even camping four nights on the pavement in order to secure a viewing point when the Cinderella carriage passed.That is not to mention the dressed- to- the nines people at home who toddled off to The Royal York or Princess of Wales theatre to watch full screen the marriage and sip tea.

Reminiscent of Grace Kelly and Wallis Simpson, Meghan pierced the crust of this extraordinary family. And like those commoners before her, she has entered a strange sorority of manners. Yet, she appears to have been embraced, the 21 st Century more accepting of her status and heritage, and perhaps not ignoring but politely trodding her own pathways: as in walking part way down the aisle herself, introducing elements of her own heritage into the ceremony with the pastor and the gospel choir rocking the usual unflappable scene. That she is beautiful, down to earth, espousing good causes like her mother in law once did certainly helps. In deed one can imagine Diana, a twinkle in her eye, rejoicing at the marriage, warmly embracing her new daughter in law.

Meghan certainly has style. Although her dress was understated, rather safe, the 16 foot extreme veil with 53 embroidered flowers of the commonwealth( who knew Canada’s was the bunchberry?)provided the showpiece, her borrowed tiara from 1893 worn when Princess Mary married Prince George , exquisite to light up the elegant if overwhelming understated gown. And the arbours of peonies, roses, foxgloves were enchanting. Not to mention her bouquet of myrtle, forgetmeknots and freshly picked wild flowers by Prince Harry the day before at Kensington Palace.

In her dash to the after party, her Stella McCarthy halter gown felt more like the “ real” Meghan described in the papers, more a statement with flair, class, perfect to be zoomed away by her prince in the silver blue jaguar. That the former chaste outfit worked with the solemnity of the vows is understandable although some had wished that like her white Like coat by the Canadian designer, the dress of the day would have been designed by another Canadian, bringing us deeper into the drama.

And that the toothless twins’ mother had the choicest seat and her hubby the son of our former prime minister again gave us a mythical stake in the proceedings.Yet those boys did us proud that they held that magnificent veil well, high and wide.

But a wedding is a wedding and it brings out, after the lavish negotiations, overwhelming costs, nights of worry over the perfect cake, carrot or elderflower, and who will be axed from the list( Justin Trudeau!), the sweetness of a union between two lovestruck puppies whose eyes are focused deeply on the other, contemplating that Nirvana will continue. And as the New York pastor reminded us intoning, remember when you first fell in love and everything was turned to love. And the choir sang out,”Stand by me”.

And In the tradition of stories we desperately want to believe in fairytales.

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.

Eli Wiesel and Stories

As been noted by many newspapers, Eli Wiesel, was a very special human being. He felt that having survived Shoah, that he had a profound responsibility to speak out for all those who did not. He broadened his insights from Jews to all those oppressed. Interestingly Rick Salutin in The Star newspaper last week presented another opinion, in spite of Wiesel’s Nobel Laureate award, an unflattering observation of an aging man whose views did not champion all people or nations.

At Northern Secondary,our enlightened department head, Harold Lass, put into place an incredible curriculum of literature even before Margaret Atwood became a house hold name. In OAC( Ontario Academic Credit for graduating students in the 90’s), our students studied the imposition of tyranny on women’s bodies via The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage that examined the Noah story from the bible.

In Grade 11, ours students studied Night, the autobiographical time captured in Wiesel’s novella, describing the holocaust victims’ marches wherein mates had to bargain, or steal bits of bread, where beloved parents were either dragged or laid down by the roadside, where random individuals were executed by brutal guards. Anyone who has vicariously endured the torments of the camps through Wiesel’s adolescent eyes will never forget them. In my years of teaching, many moments persist: one being a young girl who insisted Night, like most books, was only a story and that it was made up, just a story. It did not touch her. No matter what was taught or explained, she and some of her North Toronto classmates vigorously refused to accept Night as actual events. I don’t recall any expression of horror or even surprise, but continual affirmation that books tell stories that are conceived in the heads of writers, and therefore, are untrue. Maybe because they were teens, they rejected everything or maybe they felt the incidents so bizarre, too painful to be possible.

As adults, we understand that a tale may be shaped or conceived in the imagination; however, there may be , and in historical fiction especially, remnants or morsels of truth to be shared with readers. My students’ responses were problematic in several ways: Yes, It was Wiesel’s story and a story by definition is filtered through the mind of the teller. It is unverifiable. We cannot observe it first hand with our own eyes, and every second hand narrative may be circumspect, particularly in a cynical society; however, the darker issue resides in the refutation of genocides and fascist events that have plagued individuals and negators such as the Jim Keegstras of the world who actually taught that the holocaust did not occur and that Jewish conspiracy controls world events, his hate mongering harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Needless to mention, even the filming of hideous events such as the Nice murders or Turkey coup are passed through media in the hands of the camera person whose eye lights upon the tragedy of the horrendous scenes. Yet, we do accept the veracity of these unfolding events.

But my student, the strong denier who forthrightly rejected the holocaust as/ is in deed troubling. As years lengthen from the heinous event, grandparents or aged friends who lived through the wars or worse, and even our own children are distanced, obviously not experiencing the same horror we did growing up in a post- war environment. The survivors who can still relate the atrocities are dwindling, and more criticism is heaped on March of the Living. My own father born in Canada felt it not a wise thing to visit the gas chambers, explaining there is enough misery in the world without burdening our children with images that cannot be erased and will form intrinsic signposts in their lives.

In the 70’s I travelled by myself in Europe and my experiences in Austria and Germany were all good, even crashing in a bed in some dorm when I flew in at 3 am, offered up by a kindly passenger. Or walking with a map in Munchen, a man in a long black coat with no other motives but to help me find my location insisted on accompanying me by streetcar and subway safely to my destination. So my memories even before the Berlin Wall came down caused me to ponder this society that was unfailingly helpful, kind and even raucous in the beer halls. ( Remember I was in my early 20’s)

I had planned on visiting Dachau , but was shocked to observe the immaculate camplike bunks and neat unadorned walls. Except for a horizontal sculpture of twisted bodies at the entrance,, there was little evidence that this camp selected gypsies, Jews, music aficionados, homosexuals, politicos who disagreed with party policy silenced by deportation.This was the very first of the camps. But as I recall it, there were no statements to the flogging, the hangings, the sadism , brutality, death marches or the deprivation of humanity that consumed its inmates.

Americans visiting that day I heard kept demurring, “ It’s not so bad”. And truthfully had I not been fascinated with stories of Nazis gouging out luminous eyes of little girls or dogs set on prisoners tearing them apart like turkey legs, I, too, might have cast my eyes on the whitewashed walls and nodded in agreement. Many many years later,I reflected on Yad Vashem’s Memorial that tenderly and painfully evoked the loss of life through The Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem or the heaped mountains of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And Yes, resting on a park bench back in 1970 at the schloss in Heidelberg, I did overhear some kerchiefed women mutter,” Ah, if the fuhrer were only alive…”

Even as we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and admitted war torn Syrians to our own borders, the Canadian government was not kind or generous to Jews during those terrible war years of 1933-48 as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s None Is too Many. In Toronto, Centre Island boasted signs comparing dogs and Jews and quotas for Jewish entrance to universities and the professions were tightly reined in.

Watching Eye in the Sky last night brought  home the value of a single person. Helen Mirren as the colonel must decide on whether to fudge a percentage   point to to save possible catastrophic explosions. The image of the lovely young girl innocent of war and crime and mathematical magical calculations twirls in her hoopla hoop. She is at the centre of a dilemma. The Talmud states,”, Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.)

In these days of terrors, we think of Wiesel, Dachau, Nice, Turkey and wherever souls are destroyed. How troubling that wars continue to plague us, and people continue to deny that we are locked into a pattern that never seems to end.

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.”

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