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Reading Swans on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why California?

 

Kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”.

Said “California’s the place you outta be”.

So they loaded up the truck

And they moved to Beverly.

Hills that is, Swimming pools, movie stars.( Flatt& Scruggs, Metrolyrics)

So sang Jed Clampett and Elly May when I was a girl. Followed by Green Acres, these TV shows introduced new worlds to their viewers When I was 15, I boarded a train one night, changing at midnight in Chicago, and sat in the back row of a train headed for LA and my cousins who had recently moved from Toronto. Surprisingly I was befriended by boys with dangling ear locks and skullcaps who shared their meat sandwiches with me during that long ride.

Arriving dishevelled , I was greeted and hugged by my cousins who introduced me to the world of teenage freedom. I learned that parents existed in the background of adolescent activity, that kids ruled, especially at hunting grunions at night and at loud dances, that mountains were for purple sunrises, that something called Big Macs were the food of the gods if paired with chocolate shakes too thick to suck up in a straw, that motorbikes were the best method of transportation to the beach-and that Americans really believed that Canadians lived in igloos and drive dog sleds to school. Oh Well, that was 50 years ago.

So, it was no,wonder that when my mother left us an inheritance that I wanted to return west.

Even as an aged baby boomer, California still stirs my soul. Like the immigrants who came here in the 30s and 40s, believing that the sidewalks were paved with gold, I too am enveloped in this golden landscape. In spite of being informed that San Diego is fourth in the nation for plastic surgery , few of my cohorts here wear makeup or even dress up.

Sometimes in Toronto I find this annoying as when we venture to a more upscale restaurant or a play and the cool people are wearing torn designer jeans and je ne sais quoi shirts that might have been scavenged from a second hand shop in India.Besides which, owning a lovely frock or carrying an interesting bag provides delight to the owner, and feeling a little dressed up somehow smoothes the laugh wrinkles in one’s cheeks or directs focus away from a less than taut tummy. Yet, it is always the case that eyes that smile and nod, that acknowledge welcome can brighten up the dullest outfit so in the end, clothes do not make the person. Still the wise words of Dolly Parton sing in my head: even an old barn looks better with a coat of paint.

There is truly the lotus land vibe here of those who imagine that they will live on forever, extending their days. I hear of magic operations that will restore ruined and herniated disks and whippets that forestall the spread of disease and even drugs that ( although symptoms name include blindness, impotency, sudden death, permanent loss of sensation…) that will terminate cancers.

About twenty years ago and fresh from white water rafting on the Truckee River in Lake Tahoe, I found myself with terrible back pain. A friend knew someone who knew someone who had a friend whose issues had been resolved by a doctor in Santa Monica Beach. Unable to even perch comfortably and as luck would have it – invited to a cousin’s daughter’s wedding in LA, I sought out the much praised healer. The waiting room reeked of pot and the seats were overflowing with clients, many with little dogs, all looking relaxed and far from suffering. As we waited our turn, we observed the doctor float in and confide to a grinning patient, “ Yesterday I discovered the cure for prostate cancer. Would you like to try it?” The fellow, pupils large, nodded agreeably and clapped the good doctor on the shoulders, wildly grinning.

For me, he suggested we fly our own doctor down from Canada and he would teach his technique that included daily ultrasounds. He shared a phone number of a producer from SNL who had been successfully cured by his technique. Fortunately for me, I had begun Guy Voyer’s Eldoas that target every vertebra by creating tension between leg and arm positions and wrest tortured nerves from between punishing disks. Thus, stretching the spine. And I was beginning to experience some relief so I decided to forego the opportunity. 

But the feeling was similar: everything is possible in California, even cheating pain and death.  

We have been introduced men here in their 70s who bicycle cross country from the Atlantic to the Pacific and even falling from their vehicles and breaking ribs, resurrect themselves and continue on to successfully finish. No less than Olympians, I think of Pascal’s Les Pensees: of the importance of the journey as opposed to achieving the destination. 

Strangely, here few wear hats and I must look rather peculiar trying to keep the brilliant rays off my thin skin. Still eccentricity rules in la- la land and just last week while munching my harvest salad at Tender Greens, one very weird lady emerged from the crowd, swathed in scarves and carrying an umbrella to shield herself from the sun. Finding a cool spot, she arranged her bags and unwound some of her outer cocoon.. She appeared to be selecting with her fingers something from cardboard containers A and B. On closer scrutiny, I could discern her delicate manipulation of peanuts as if they were fragile treasured gems much like cultured pearls or tiny diamonds. So engulfed was she in her process, she had no awareness of my prying eyes.The young girls at the table in- between us cast one look and then returned to their self- absorbed chattering conversation, hands and eyes flying towards one another in animation. Although alone, I did not feel, but more part of the fabric of this patio of people, different but the same, sane, insane, quirky and unique. 

But this is California, where even the impossible is possible, and I am no longer the awkward adolescent, happy to be me at any age. 

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