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Moving to Canada

Just last week I read that Frank Gehry was seriously considering returning to Canada after years in California. He’s in his 80’s and his anguish must be pretty intense if he is thinking that he might leave this beautiful climate for the cold north. But people always say that: “Oh, I’ll move to Canada”- and in the last two weeks, friends have insisted that if Trump is elected, they’ll pack their bags and hightail it out. 

During the Vietnam war in the 60’s, we actually got our slew of draft dodgers. I was at university and there were protests,meet- ins, teach-ins, demonstrations, marchs, musical emissaries and Timothy Leary and pacifists all uniting against their government’s actions. Most recall potently the use of Napalm, attention elicited primarily by the naked child Kim Phuc who ran screaming through the streets. She was sadly the terrible precursor of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child washed up on Turkey’s shore after fleeing with his family for his life. The light of the disenfranchised recalled for me,None is Too Many, the Abella- Troper book that chronicled the fate of holocaust victims not allowed to our shores. Images in both written but printed formats stick, provoke, shame and induce the public to put pressure on governmental policies. So frustrated by policy and terror, some victims eventually arrive here, motivated by preserving limb and life. But I truly wonder if those threatening migration will actually take the next step; or is it merely idle jib jab to verbally take a stand. 

(Strangely enough, I chatted with a woman yesterday who told me that fearful of radiation thirty or so years ago, she, young and determined, left for New Zealand, but returned years later to the states. Maybe the 60’s were the years of the zealots.!)

 Watching Borgen, Denmark’s answer to  an intelligent television series, we observe how deals among countries are made. The fictional character Birgitte Nyborg is likely based on Denmark’s first female prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt,although Thorning-Schmidt had not been elected until after the second series of Borgen. Adam Price, the creator of the series, stated, “I definitely want [ viewers] to believe there is a shred of idealism in Birgitte Nyborg that is real”.( Wikepedia) Although Nyborg possesses strong moral incentives, she learns what to trade or what incentives she wants to promote as representative of her Moderates party. She discovers the dirty little secrets, the huge mismanagement of funds, the soft spots of countries and their powerful politicos.. 

I do believe she acts for the best interests of Denmark ( in the show) in demonstrating fairness, thoughtfulness and increasing savvy, exploring, probingand heeding the voices in her country and outside of it. At great cost to her personal life, she dedicates herself to a job,her success due in large part to an image fostered in the news and television. Of course, it is fiction but the series makes us long for the lofty intentions and inspiring acts of a Roosevelt with his new deals or a Kennedy with his establishing The Peace Corps. ( 1961). And although much is created in the media for the candidates in any race towards influence, we long to believe that behind the façade there is substance :that the person in the glossies is more: better, smarter, kinder, more thoughtful and has gathered the crowds and re- instituted a belief that society can be  and should be good. 

 
Yet unfortunately, we are downcast and as Philip Roth once quipped of one of his literary characters,“ Beneath the surface was only more surface” in political hopefuls.

We hope for investigative and critical news journalists, uncoverers of the truth such as Katrine Fonsmark in Borgen, to dialogue with those who aspire to the highest throne in the land. In the real world, I miss Tim Russert from Meet the Press who really knew how to dig deep beneath the persona of his guests. 

Incurable my harangue today goes to Donald Trump. I scoffed because I recalled Toronto’s crack- smoking , bigoted mayor Rob Ford who was once a fat guy in a non-descript raincoat hanging around the parking lot in a plaza where my husband first indicated that that that guy was running for election. I guffawed. He won. So anything is possible in our world of sideshow mirrors. 

Huffington Post rightly posted Trump in entertainment. Then they recanted saying, 

“Back in July, 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.’ 

Since then Trump’s campaign has certainly lived up to that billing… it’s also morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics. So we will no longer be covering his campaign in Entertainment. But that’s not to say we’ll be treating it as if it were a normal campaign. 

Our decision in July was made because we refused to go along with the idea, based simply on poll numbers, that Trump’s candidacy was actually a serious and good faith effort to present ideas on how best to govern the country.” 

How do we fathom the television showman whose lack of knowledge, experience and credibility has garnered support? How can we support media that did not immediately cut off his personal attacks on Rosie O’ Donnell at an early Republican debate or refuse to debate in the GOP Iowa caucus? Although some might not see a connection with the right to bear arms in America, I see it as part of the same fabric: of those petulant grown up children who use freedom of this or that for their private disregard of the safety and fair play to others. 

Certainly free speech should not embrace and allow the hateful harangues of spewing hideous garbage  from the mouths of candidates. That the news industry permitted and has provided time and platform for Trump’s antics is inexcusable. 

But that he continues to grow support, most recently in Nevada, makes no sense and should shame all citizens who support his buffoonery. Tragically, the other candidates are no better.A recent article by Margaret Wente in the The Globe and Mail discussed this uneviable state, opining that Hilary Clinton, a manipulate and deceitful politician, must be the victor. 

Here in Canada, especially after watching terrified at the possible candidates who are in the US. race, we must, at least, appreciate Justin Trudeau, for his impetus towards making our world safer.He is young, not an intellectual like his father, but fumbling, learning, in a way that we can respect. 

I’m afraid that moving to Canada is not a possibility for those disenchanted with American politics. And I worry that the disenfranchised can somehow imagine that the likes of Trump will create a better world for them. It is as Alice once fretted, “ it is curious and curiouser. “

And truly terrifying. 

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An evening of civility

Just when you fear that life has been overrun with madness and the forces of evil intend to swoop down and crush life from all things, destroying the magic of possibility, you are included in a supper of celebration for a very special woman who will now head up an important professional group. You, a gloomy Gus, by nature, are given a reprieve and can re-imagine places of civility, rationality and good conversation that can wipe out the blackness of everyday events.

So I found myself in the backyard of a house on Roxborough, led through rooms where stained glass stands in for walls and into a garden so wildly tamed that pasteled lilies barely contained by strings are easily 12 inches across; and birds and bees feel so totally at home, that their presence feels natural in mid-town Toronto.

I am the “wife” of one of the invitees, an added presence requested by the lady herself. Perhaps because we have briefly discussed William Blake and Mary Pratt, or more likely as a thoughtfulness to my husband, I have been included in this evening. Unlike many gatherings for this profession, I am anticipating this one so I can see this woman again. From my perspective, I believe she is the right person to head the group although my knowledge of her to this juncture has been second hand. That she loves art and ballet, I believe, are a bonus. Not affected add-ons, she is as passionate as I am about the arts. I reflect that her commitment to her work will be likewise. I surmise that she is an authentic soul in whatever she takes on. I am drawn to her, and not just because of her rich laughter that is deep and full, but because of her humility, her humbleness. These are the qualities I adore.

The garden makes me think of Peter Pan and Wendy, and as the sun goes down, the twinkling candles might be Tinkerbell’s friends who have gathered near the table to cozily and quietly add sparkle. Talk at cocktails has encompassed those foibles of aging as we are all past our physical prime: memory loss, love of travel… One of the guests has recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with 12 others, decrying that it was not that tough. ( He is the baby of the group at barely 60. Ha!) He adds,” Of course we had 52 sherpas to cook us wonderful meals.” He chortles.

I try and remember the name of the park in Italy that plagued my falling asleep the night before. I try out “Bernini… Bulgari”, sensing they are not what I am searching for. When I tap my husband, interrupting his conversation, he immediately remembers, “ Borghese”. Ah, relief to find the word that fits that fuzzy space left wanting in my head. A friendly engaging guest describes how she has read that it is names that are the first to go and how embarrassing it is not to come up with the moniker that matches a familiar face.

Somehow I veer into the description of the chuppa that my husband and I designed for our son’s wedding, explaining we needlepointed from September to May and how the piece has travelled to New York and beyond. I laugh that its end may be at the bottom of a closet, the food of moths, but admitting it is a project I am glad we had undertaken, amazed that my husband would have laboured for hours with needle and wool in hand. But that is the trajectory of light conversation that encourages diverse topics that easily bounce from topic to topic.

At table that is nestled in front of a small pond and surrounded by trees and more beautifully encroaching flowers, the talk turns to legal politics- of Mike Dufy and his love child. The hostess produces the article in Macleans to substantiate the claim; then on to the provincial budget’s money for legal aid, veering towards stories of Montreal school days where one public school’s teachers were all Jewish refugees from WWII, to Quebec’s townships where flowered paths replaced roads, on to ordering dinner in Moosonee, to “ bare-naked’ postings on the internet. No one raises an eyebrow or scowls. We are no longer surprised, almost accepting of these lapses of adolescent judgment that occur before one realizes they are more than lapses, omissions because hormones rather than rational thought govern giggles.

One invitee tells of a soldier who confided his terror in a foxhole: fearing at 16, he would experience death before being laid. Another suggests that the author of Flanders Fields, John McCrae was gay. And still another offers that Harold MacMillian spent hours every night reading Aeschylus in Greek before he entered parliament each day: a quilt of varying textures, times and traumas.

The main discussion concerns WWI, Dieppe. One woman relates that some tombstones’ epitaphs read “ Know only to God”, tears arising from the corners of her eyes . A publisher reminds us of the veterans with lungs like jelly as no one considered that in gas warfare, the wind might change, and blow its deadly fumes into the faces of the Allied Forces. Another asks, ‘Guess who refused to allow Jewish graves to be destroyed?’ We are incredulous that sentiment is attributed to Adolf Hitler. But perhaps, it is reminiscent of the cache maintained in Prague where Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts in his Museum of an Extinct Race. Still the narrative feels unlikely.

The publisher brings up Viet Nam and the trauma of returning home without the support of the general populace. But the talk returns yet again to World War I, the casualties, the deaths, the graveyards. I mention Pat Barker and her sensitive, human portrayal of the times, but perhaps I say it too quietly or more likely, the hearing of the group does not reach to my whispers. They are eagerly planning a service with an engaging speaker for Remembrance Day.

More loudly, I offer into the conversation Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and her description of the alarmed soldier befuddled on a bench back from war. They nod.

I tell them that when I taught Eli Weisel’s Night, the kids did not believe it was true. They are surprised, but the talk reverts to a reverie that concerns more days torn away by slaughter. I want to interject again that it is the future, the present of our protégées who must never forget. Even the books, historical retelling in novels of real events take on a mustiness, a fairytale quality that does not truly connect with our technology savvy youth whose truths live on screens – not in distant reality.

Some of the guests are over 80, memories much more vivid than mine and I admire the clearheadedness of their interchange. But it seems to me that we have veered into memory, not just for memory sake, certainly not for nostalgia and there is a desire beyond the words to keep those times alive. My mind flashes to Gaza and the Crimea, seething that nothing much ever changes, pondering the airplanes that will be downed, ever so many more lost boys and girls.

Yet, the evening is so still, so perfect as we sit wrapped in the darkening velvet of enchanting green foliage. The setting evokes for me other kinds of soirees, of salons where talk and poetry and politics have been eternally viewed through a veil of civility, concern and language,determined not to embellish or distort. Experiences, here this night, as morsels of ripe fruit are nibbled on, tasted, savoured, and presented to others for their consideration and consternation. All the while there is a palpable respect: for others, for words, for events that exist before us or in memory, both lived and shared.

A wonderful dinner concludes with pound cake, raspberries, blueberries, salted caramel and pistachio ice creams. When I discover the sudden stream of sugar on the cake, my senses light up, and I know I have been privileged to be among these thoughtful men and women.

JFK and Roads not Taken

Several months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Everyone in my generation remembers where we were when we heard the news that the president had been shot in Texas. I was told this is referred to as a “flashbulb” memory that stands out like no other.

I was exiting a Grade 11 French exam and was confronted by students frozen in wailing tears and silent sobs. To many, he was our beacon of hope then, young, handsome, energetic, the quintessential role model. The Peace Core, striving for a better world, civil rights, corralling nuclear bombs made us feel that our generation could finally shake off the doddering Eisenhowers and the scary Hitlers. We would eventually be tagged the baby boomers in love beads and long hair, and we would be young and free forever, dancing our way into the future. Or so we thought.

When news of Kennedy’s indiscretions were revealed, we were all ready living in a world of birth control, free love and we were maybe a bit miffed, but cool. The icon, the image of the man overrode our criticism although it did give pause as we hadn’t really intuited the cracks behind the carefully presented façade. We hadn’t seen him hobble on crutches as FDR had; we didn’t know Dr. Feelgood was pumping him full of vitamins and amphetamines so he could confront Nitika Khrushchev and stand his ground during the Bay of Pigs. Maybe we were vaguely aware of his response to Soviet tanks that instigated East Germany’s erection of the wall that divided East and West in Berlin. The gossip about Addison’s disease was disabused and he shone before us: the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, graciously reflecting her luminescence; and the adored father who even encouraged Caroline and John-John free reign in the presidential office.

The phrase coined after his death by Theodore H. White and prompted by Jackie Kennedy was “ Camelot” and we clung to that, wanting to believe that the man behind the smile was mythic, able to drive evil away and stand up for good.

Watching American History ( television show) over the last few days provided a balanced overview of the man and his times. Perhaps because I am now so much older, I can appreciate the reality that was once overblown into fantasy. Without smudging from the truth, the documentary presented Kennedy’s naivety as he wrongly accepted the advice of his chefs of staff and so-called specialists in the CIA during the Cuban debacle, positioning the world on the brink of war.

For my family, growing up, it was one of the few moments we huddled around the television and I truly comprehended that my parents were afraid. And that it had to do directly with the televised message the President was solemnly intoning.

The American History show explored the lies and half-truths self-righteously proclaimed in the local and foreign press that were fed to the public during his administration: Kennedy’s original disinterest in the first bus bombing of civil rights in Alabama was disheartening; Kennedy’s decision to go into Viet Nam to turn American minds away from domestic turmoil and stop the further advance of Communism disingenuous, aligning himself with a weak and corrupt head of state. The show did not flinch from presenting the facts as they were exposed. They were laid out without rationalization, without nostalgic explanations or pandering. Bare, and ugly, they spoke to a badly informed, young and unwise leader.

However, Kennedy was also portrayed as the hub of a great constantly turning wheel who absorbed information from the multi-spokes. Responsible for making the ultimate decisions, Kennedy’s demeanor and decision-making processes exposed the paradoxical nature of the man. On the one hand, arrogant and self-contained to make those decisions by himself; on the other, willing to listen to diverse views but taking responsibility as he navigated the hot seat of his presidency.

However, as bad decisions accumulated and the pitch towards war mounted, Kennedy began to grow into the man we had imagined he was. To his war-mongering chefs, he stood alone in saying NO. To Khrushchev’s reneging on his private promise of continuing to build missiles in Cuba, he said, No more. He trusted that Khrushchev felt similarly : about the threat of actually engaging in nuclear warfare and the real fear of annihilation, granting him the empathy Kennedy himself was experiencing.

From Joseph P. Kennedy’s dominating wings, the son emerged, thoughtful, taking his time, cautious, weary and willing to weigh the consequences of his actions that would impact on every single person in the country.

In spite of his initial reluctance and motives, Kennedy announced the bill to end segregation. On June 19, the president sent that bill to Congress. If you listen to Kennedy’s address on the occasion of University of Washington 100th Anniversary Program, November 16, 1961, you will hear in stunning rhetoric an appeal for peace, acknowledging that America is neither ”omnipotent nor omniscient”. He speaks for diplomacy and defense, explaining that there are two dominant groups of citizens: those who call for appeasement; and those who are warmongers. He quotes Winston Churchill and reaches out so that any agreement or compromise provides an acceptable solution for the countries involved. Given at the university, the goals of Kennedy’s speech are aptly lofty as he addresses the challenges of defending freedom while maintaining peace as a world power. It is compelling as he describes the state of American international relations. There is empathy as he displays a willingness to collaborate and compromise, ensuring a livable result for all players. It is a stand down from war and a deep understanding of what is at stake. It is brilliant.

Watching the television production, I felt this is the best of reality TV. I respected the thoughtfulness and honesty enabling me to re-evaluate the man. Once drawn into the magic and glamour, maybe too young to be critical; then scornful and dismissive at Kennedy’s womanizing and treatment of domestic issues, now I could look at the entire man, and consider the complexity of parts.

I admit to being impressed.

I could applaud the growth and the acceptance of responsibility. I could acknowledge an understanding of peril, the awareness of reaching out with an olive branch, working towards compromise, and reconciliation and not allowing himself to be pushed towards war.

Exposing the human sides of his flaws made him more human, less godlike. Brought down to earth, the glitter now worn thin, he provided us, I think, with what is best about people and in some cases- if we are fortunate- leaders. He was finally capable of listening to informed perspectives of others as well as his own quiet voice within that moved him towards what he believed was right.

We became the baby boomers who heard his drumbeat as we wove our flowery mantra around a man who was both buds and weeds. Perhaps not considered by history as one of the greats, he has- for me- been re-established with the respect and magic with which he originally dazzled.

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