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Handmaid’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

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

Fates and Furies

It seemed that everywhere I turned, someone was reading or talking about Fates and Furies. So I too began the book, but was soon put off, feeling it resembled light porn – or what I imagined “ light porn” to be. I complained to my friend Anne who lectures to a book group in Rosedale . Anne my dearest friend whose earlier career demonstrated that she could enchant the dullest student with her classes in literature. So if Anne found merit in the book, I too would persevere, grin and bear it as the couplings continued- on sweaty breasts, on exposed bums in uncomfortable locales, in closets,well you get the idea. So I continued and admit in the end,I did enjoy it.

In a NPR interview with Terry Gross, critic Maureen Corrigan suggests that Lotto and Mathilde , the dual parts of the marriage in Fates and Furies are “ not fully realized”. And although I admit that I eventually found the book a page turner, I stood at the doorway, and detachedly observed them through a windowpane or a mirror perhaps, their liveliness refracted, distorted. Only when Anne sent me this quotation regarding the writing did I relax and NOT expect them to be“ real”.  

Anne wrote ,

            “….except from the NYTimes review which attracted me ( Anne) to the novel in the first place:

Groff — — displays an exquisite sense of how best to use literary (and other) traditions and ­predecessors. Not only does she prominently rely on the classical concepts of the Fates and the Furies…”

And so the romp with Lotto and Mathilde became something very differently than first anticipated from the initial encounters of flesh and blood characters . The story of the Satterwhite marriage from each member’s perspectives becomes a created piece where first, the husband, the golden boy , the quester, destined for greatness, even the presidency, has been foretold in the stars– or at least by his father, Gawain. He begins the narration in Fates. Eventually the wife, Mathilde, reveals her part in the relationship. Groff foreshadows that the marriage will be the real story here: 

 …He imagined a lifetime of making love on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat…. Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for the slick of sweat, now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.

 
Lotto’s thoughts of a future, love, sex and a sense of the romantic work towards understanding his idealized view, even as the couple will harden into little nuts intertwined in a marriage that will be more than a thought, but an actual living presence that maintains them as a couple for decades.Endowed with the stereotypical characteristics of the hero, Lotto, short for Lancelot, our Prince Charming, is taller exceeding 6 foot, and more charming than most mortals, heir to a fortune, excelling in sports and academics as an adolescent. He stands above the crowd, especially women,who are drawn to him like fireflies; he shines. 

He has the feel of Jay from The Great Gatsby, ripe for the American Dream to propel him into greatness .Made rich by his father bottling Florida’s water, even the metaphor works for Lotto himself who is perhaps more package than essence.Yet, soon he is disinherited by his mother who does not approve of his marriage. Riches to rags, Lotto is forced to find his own path to success. With the grand support of his wife, they live on barely nothing, church mice who make do with crumbs but are buoyed by their love, their marriage. 

Although mediocre as an actor and often depressed, Lotto apparently excels as a playwright, drawing on his own Tennessee Williams’ background of overstuffed “ Muvva” as fodder for his brilliance. Entitled The Springs, his first play connotes for images of freshness or beginnings along with hints from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, 

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 

Man never is, but always to be blessed

 Cliché meets cliché. To the depiction of Lotto depicted as “ loud and full of light”, my response catapults to Macbeth’s line 

…a poor player upon the stage

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Although harsh in my reflections, nonetheless my mind sketches in the looming presence of the charismatic dramatist whose bright largeness hides gaps, particularly when he cannot actually substantiate the completion of his first ground- breaking play; as if the elves had come in the night to transform it, he acknowledges that he cannot remember, for dozing off from a drunken stupor. 

And yet, our boisterous hero rises.  

Supported by the startling Mathilde who appears to sacrifice herself for the brilliance of her hubby,washing, scrubbing toilets, supporting him in a very un- feminist manner, happy to be in love, she seems a cipher of self sacrifice. Much like Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist, Mathilde has an background of occluded abuse and alienation in society. Without explanation only a maudlin innuendo of a past and obscured by Lotto’s fame, Mathilde is merely backdrop. Occasionally, she retreats, appears passively aggressive as she sulks, but always returns to the side of her man. A tabula rasa, perhaps, but we let it pass because we don’t feel passionate enough about the so- called ice queen, often dressed in white, to stop and ponder. Besides which, Lotto drinks up all the light. 

However, throughout their telling of their tale, one feels caught in a fascinating web of narrative  much like the plot driven Iliad or the rise and fall of a Dickensian plot. Susanna Rustin calks Groff , “ a manipulator of information”. We silly mesmerized mortals trust and float on and above Lotto’s words, not questioning his manner of relating his triumphs because he is so obviously a narcissist, a man who does not ever cheat on his wife and who maintains loyalty to his friends.  

The story speeds on throughout his life, the reader barely able to remember the names, the places, even his well received plays that are responsible for his success. Throughout the trajectory of his good fortune, he remains unbelievably loyal to his gal, never straying. To him, she is the purest of the pure . To us, Mathilde is a pretty or interesting wallflower, easily overlooked. 

In the beginning of the novel, Mathilde is associated with sexual acts, a willing partners in the abundance of sex that becomes tedious: she, at first, remaining pure before actually committing to the act, prior to their marriage. Only when Lotto literally falls (or was he pushed?) from an airplane, does the book thankfully depart from that lightweight genre and veer into more interesting tracks. 

Although sex is pervasive throughout, it becomes more than one note after our hero’s plunge. Sex has been established as constant motif throughout Fates and Furies and naturally in marriage, its presence plays a major role. Lotto’s first real sexual encounter with Gwennie in the shadows of a fire! albeit overladen with drugs and alcohol is the reason he is dispatched to a cold New England boarding school where his life is made miserable. Even here, sexual comfort is provided by his drama teacher: a random act that perplexes our lad. 

Later with Mathilde when the continuous sex of the early days falters somewhat, the intimacy of their love continues to bolster and keeps them together much as glue that underpins badly matched parts. Their friends throughout take bets on whether the marriage will endure. It does. That the sex does not produce children wrinkles Lotto’s broad forehead, but Mathilde easily dismisses it. Explained away as a matter of luck and timing, we also accept Lotto’s buoyant delusions. 

Throughout we are aware of the meddling of gods, the Fates, who manipulate Lotto for their sport and he continues to claim the American Dream accoutrements of fame, fortune, personality cult. Hubris lays in wait. Inside the story Lotto himself commandeers the tragedies and mythologies of the Greeks, perhaps openly challenging them,even calling on Telegony and Telemachus, openly appropriating the names of the gods and their victims,and citing them as sources for his genius. His masterpiece based on Antigone will be called Antigonad. Leo, Lottos’s personal muse, and Lotto jokingly refer to their heroine as “Go”. 

Groff boldly juggles literary traditions both in and out of the narratives  and plot lines. Along with illusion, confusion, deception, disguise, misappropriation of identity that recall Shakespeare, she preloads the telling of her protagonists’ takes with the advent of irony. However, it is the stormy vacillating fickleness of the Fates that control the roller coaster ride.The presence as well of the Greek chorus in parentheses who comment for example when Lotto considers suicide, “[ True. It was not his time] “does not surprise as we have been attuned to the multiple voices, within and out  of this book. And much like the Greek chorus , we have been watchful of Lotto’s hamartia, blinding trust, awaiting the fall of our victims dangling from Groff’s pen.

And in deed, the serpents in the nest reveal themselves to be those closest and most trusted by Lotto: Chollie, brother of dead Gwennie; and the beloved wife, Mathilde. Lotto’s relationship with Chollie from Lotto’s early years stands as the gargoyle to the prince, we often wondering why the closeness endures once boys become men and the travesties of the past are quieted by Lotto’s brilliant life of international success. Consistently described in repulsive terms of behaviour, clothing, demeanour, Chollie might have slipped away to return later to deliver his horrifying revelations to Lotto. Instead he steadfastly  clings to Lotto’s side.  

The one other “ true” friend is Leo Sen, the young genius, compelling, but strange. He too will disillusion Lotto. Wounded by Sen’s misunderstanding of the music to be set to Lotto’s opera, Lotto retreats to drink and ponder. When Lotto reveals to Leo that the music is all wrong, Leo is shattered. He leaves. He dies. Lotto returns to the arms of Mathilde for comfort. When Chollie confides Mathilde’s terrible past, the Fates smile their terrible smiles and we, readers, await the final blow to their hero who purged of his illusions must comply with his fate and die. 

The second part of the book, Furies, gives us ‘Mathilde’s ( born Aurelie) life, truly an ugly fairytale. At her core, she is ice, responsible for inflicting pain and possibly death. I even wondered if she had wrecked vengeance on poor Leo for disappointing Lotto. Like Moll Flanders and many other hapless heroines such as Julia Roberts in Pretty woman before her, she prostitutes herself in order to go to Vasar. A witch, a siren, never an innocent, she is surprised by the true passion and love that wrench her heart for Lotto. She can rationalize that she has not lied to her love, just never filled in the holes of her entire story. 

Yet when Chollie reveals to her that he finally unburdened himself to Lotto about her position as sexual protégé with Ariel,  her twice over employer who funded her education, she is furious, vengeful. Lotto is dead but she hates that he has died, the blinders having been removed from his eyes, their dream of a perfect marriage dispelled. She has become a hermit, ragged, rude, only leaving the house to engage in sexual acts with strangers. Again pervasive sex is at the heart of the theme that winds in and out of this marriage. When Mathilde hires an attractive private detective to discern how Chollie has so quickly amassed his fortune so she can ruin him, Groff’s description foreshadows that a sexual encounter between them will occur. 

In a not very convincing manner, Mathilde’s desire to ruin Chollie for destroying Lotto’s sense of their perfect marriage dissipates: and again the Greek Oedipus fate of sleeping with both one’s spouse and child is evoked as the reason for appeasement. That the person’s name is Land feels about the same as someone whose name is lotto, all connotations begging to be acknowledged. 

 
For me, this book was obviously not believable, but fun to read. Like Romeo and Juliet, these “star- crossed lovers” have a marriage that was far from ideal. The disparity between reality and illusion is vast,yet isn’t that where love lives?:in our illusions ( likely and hopefully not as vast as in our protagonists’).Here it is the blindfold obscuring both fate and furies, allowing for a marriage that has endured and must have provided succour, keeping them together during the better and worse parts of their vows. Had our Lancelot lived, we wonder if the marriage would have endured now that his illusion of perfection had been pierced? And would discovering that he had a son made a difference? Unlikely . For the gods must have their due. Perhaps swallowed in a dreamy stupor, or afflicted with an( other) injury to his head, the story might have rambled into Lotto erecting a new castle.  

But Groff’s story  must culminate with the death of our hero.

It’s a fun read. Just get past the beginning sex! 

My Father’s Daughter: Mac Rant

I could scream or cry I am so frustrated. How is it possible to be my father’s daughter and yet be so incapacitated when it comes to technology. I take my cup of tea, proceed towards my couch and am unable to manipulate the television. At first I laugh, but quickly realize how embarrassing this is-I must call my husband who tries to lead me through a variety of steps using two of the four remotes, but to no avail. He finally says, “ You must have done something”.

I did nothing.

He suggests I go upstairs because there is another television. I turn it on and great, it works. But when I fumble with the sound and touch the channel indicator, I again lose the picture. So here I sit again, feeling stupid.

Today has also been useless in trying to also drag photos to the desktop: I had planned to do a surprise photobook for my newest grandson: something I have successfully completed, believe it or not, several times previously. But again, I cannot manage it.

I decide that since a Mac- so they say- is for people like me, supposedly creative, there must be another door that will open to allow me to complete my task. So, I reread the instructions that remonstrate that I must select the photos from my desktop. I go to my photos highlight them, put them in an album but they will not move to the desktop. Grrrr. Rules of transfer, by the way, change should you use your Ipad. But doesn’t everyone know that? In the process, I somehow discover how to change my screensaver.

It is the technology that befuddles me and I do not possess a simple bone in my body or thought in my head that assists me in my travails. I overthink, I jump to step D from Step A, I attempt to outthink the computer or cogitate like a computer. I am anxious and angry at a piece of hardware that is unable to care for my assignations. Yet apparently it can anticipate my moves and correct my spelling even when its corrections do not align with my thinking. My emotions do not know whether to boil, to scream, to laugh, or to whine like a child in distress. Maybe thumb sucking would soothe.

How was it possible not to have inherited the mechanical savvy insight of my father who understood condensers, wires, pulses of electricity and connectors? Sadly my thinking was so much more like my aunt’s who also possessed no affinity for the mechanical or technical. She denigrated the trades because her intelligence did not take her there, but I am in clear awe of them, those thoughtful lay brothers and sisters of bonecrackers, and my electrician son-in-law who can figure out anything

I endeavoured to understand: to speak the logical language of my father so he might have found pleasure in my smarts. I wanted desperately to be able to communicate in a way that did not irritate. His attempts to teach me chemistry, physics or even driving always resulted in my crying and his frustration, yet with my sister there was an ease, a collegial respect and admiration that they maintained eternally. Mine was a scowl. Yet, sometimes I played along with a thin veneer of superficial nodding, pretending I had a glimmer of insight into symbols, signs or sign posts.

He musty have scratched his head in wonderment at how a girl who resembled him in demeanour and outlook might have intellectually been on Mt Kilimanjaro in problem solving, frankly clueless, lost and confused about the simplest of propositions, equations, logical solutions…

I did not know the questions to ask which might breach the limits of my unknowing, throwing open doors to meaning. Similar to teachers with whom I would later teach, he did not attempt diverse and alternated measures, strategies or pedagogies to enlighten. What was resoundingly clear and simple for him was a cave of cobwebs for me. After a while, sitting next to him on our maroon couch, I could fathom exasperation in his voice and I turned resilient. Side by side, a rock and a hard place, with me feeling disparaged by my stupidity in areas that were his passions.

When I worked at the College, they planned all day instruction sessions on computers and bravely I attended However five minutes into the presentation, I had all ready lost my way, unable to follow the instructions of the leader. Being ashamed at my ineptitude where my colleagues were happily clicking and moving things around on their screens, keeping time to the leader’s timely beat, I felt myself shrinking under the desk, hoping the instructor would not notice my incompetency, look askance beneath befuddled brows as if to suggest any child can perform this task.

With false laughter and finally revealing my exasperation to my peers, I ascertained that some people often took the same course many times over. At my work as a program officer at OCT, I had concocted powerpoints to dazzle importing photos or pictures from a variety of sources, animating words, even co-ordinating funny sounds to underline bullets. Likely, this sounds like the abc’s to most people now. And I possessed THIS knowledge before attending the seminars that nonetheless set me adrift with no lifeboat during those days of intense instruction.

What I discovered usually worked for me was learning one new task and repeating that task over and over again until I was able to move on to a second. Small successes that built basic building blocks absorbed and demonstrable.

But here I presently sit at my computer, pounding out a few sentences, gratefully knowing how to use spell check, but not much else. And yes,I did take classes reasonably priced for new Mac owners with those nerds who blankly ran on for several minutes on the workings of the computer -for which I could care less- or who provided unrequested information that only muddled my original queries. When I pondered why no capitals on first words in emails, I was told to get another program because no one had thought that all first letters in first words in sentences should appear with caps? Most strange, I reflected. And why can you not insert boxes or diagrams into emails directly, and why does Pages behave so differently to Word? And why can you not “command-tab” between Safari and Email? ( I understand they belong to different genres and are not even distant cousins? But can’t we all just get along ???? Not even in the world of computer silos!)

We purchased the Mac because it was supposed to work for so-called “ creative” types, but I have not found it any better than the clones. Although it does not pick up viruses! Many people express undying love for the machine and a friend even does something magical by linking her sewing machine to it. Even now, I’m having to separate my words as the machine ( inspite of the space bar) is slurring them together in one word unless I POUND.

Maybe it is a network thing.

Once I called Rogers repeatedly, entreating them to address a problem. I received no satisfaction, being sent to websites with loops that did not help one bit. Finally a friend arrived and he called Rogers. Maybe it had been my language or lack of lingo to express the issue because we found the problem originated with them , not me. Was the technician not listening, did not want to hear me, did not want to engage with an old bat, what? My friend is in fact a male and very conversant in computer, riding every new wave with aplomb, bravado and unending explanations as he comprehends the reasons. It is easier, of course, if you speak the language. I thought I communicated quite finely.

We are so dependent on others and when the damn internet goes down, we are medieval travellers back in the dark, banging our heads against the walls until a candle is lit and points us on our way. People like me, a boomer who possesses a penchant for the written word, the telephone, the mail are out of touch. Just yesterday, I was delighted to read an obituary in which the notice proclaimed that the deceased used only pen and paper, foregoing all technology. It made me recall a letter received from an acquaintance- on parchment- from which dried rose petals gently fell. The information was inconsequential, but the fact that someone had selected lovely paper and matching envelop and actually written a note: tactile and beautiful amulets of things past and to be cherished. Much like the handknitted sweaters from my mother, chosen materials that demonstrated a human’s touch to communicate more: each stitch a stitch of love, she would tenderly whisper.

For some, technology comes easily; for others, it is a pain, making one feel out of control, victimized by their own stupidity. Times change but not necessarily for the better. I wonder if by just TALKING to the new IPhones, we will return to the state of the Illiterati :in which we will not need to know how to write as we will speak our intent to Siri or some other robot who will record and track our requests through more “cookies”.

Schools no longer teach cursive writing, but why writing at all if we need only speak to initiate our communication via technology. Schools of the future may teach computereez, likely with no real humans in the classroom. E-learning is all ready the norm in many places. I envision control by those elite who will continue “writing” only for themselves and program what must be shown to the rest of us, the ordinary folk who will have no need for writing. Then we can be told what to do, what to think, where to go, or where to sign. Maybe we will be allowed an “x” or “o” to sign our names to computer agreements or perhaps we will return to reading pictures as people once did, now words made unnecessary.

Shakespeare in writing the seven ages of man ( All the World’s a Stage monologue) penned “ sans teeth, sans sight, sans…everything.”

How utterly true.

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