Monday, November 8, 2010

Back to School!

My family chipped in and bought me an iPad for my 'special' birthday this month.

I haven't talked to anyone since. Or puttered around the house, or gone to a movie or even cooked a meal.
(Well, maybe one, when some special friends arrived from across the continent and I picked my head up to make an effort).

I even wake up in the middle of the night to play with it. It gleams in the darkness, lighting the way to knowledge. It also has terrific solitaire games!

Along with the new iPad came lessons at the local Apple store. I was very wary. I had taken 'computer courses' before, in my previous incarnation as an educator.

They were terrible. And I should know, because I know about learning.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be a corner in Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement' reserved for computer classes. What could be a more brutal torture than to find yourself sitting for hours looking up at a large, blinking projection at the front of a lab while the teacher/facilitator (there's an oxymoron) stammers and apologizes,
"I don't get it. This worked before. Wait a minute. No, ignore that....sorry." etc., etc.

To cover the instructor's tush, in one such week-long course on photoshop, everyone was given a certificate of proficiency anyways, even though none of us could demonstrate anything of much competence. Since many of my classmates were actually paying big bucks for the course (unlike moi, who, in the interest of full disclosure, was subsidized by my board) it was the least the 'school' could do.
And...after all, if people didn't pass, where would future clients, oh, excuse me, students, come for?

It's strange to admit this, especially since I spent the last 25 years teaching others, but I actually hated school.
Most of the time. Once in a while, especially in the primary years, I managed to enjoy myself and pick up a few things, but later on, I cringed. I was educated in the days of what they used to call 'teacher-centered learning', so much depended on the competence and personality of the teacher. The pickings were pretty slim. Do I really have to expand on this?

We had no 'google', of course, so our curiosity was severely hampered. Oh, we could visit the local library, undergo a background check, get fingerprinted and be allowed to take out a couple of dusty books for a week or two from their limited and highly guarded resources. Or, if we were lucky enough to find one in our family, we could try to eavesdrop when the occasional intelligent person was expressing a new idea, but the opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion was often curtailed by the universally-held belief that children should be 'seen' but not, of course, engaged in actual conversation.

So I've spent a lifetime being a self-taught kind of learner. And I believe I've leaned a lot.
(As a matter-of-fact, I have heard myself flatteringly referred to as a Miss Know-it-All on many occasions!)

And I just love learning. I can't stop myself. For me, the best thing to come along since my university stack pass has been the internet. The concept that I can have a question about something, anything, and touch a couple of keys or a pretty glass screen and 'ta-da' there is the answer, or a link to it, is mind candy for me.

I'm actually quite addicted. To wondering about stuff. And then, finding out. If I had my way, school would be kids with wireless laptops searching for answers to facilitator-posited questions on a variety of subjects. The questions would not be things like, "If Johnny has ten candies and three friends, how many candies does each friend get? but rather, why/why not should he give them any? or, how many are left for him and how will he console himself with the remainder? Answer with reference to at least three religions. Then, are you satisfied with these explanations? If not, why not? Suggest an alternative for bonus marks!"

So the chance to expose myself to more school was a little unsettling. But one of my friends, who had skipped many a boring class with me in high school, a retired teacher of gifted nerds and a formerly very late adapter, assured me that going to the Mac Store school was a completely different learning experience and that I'd love it.

Although 'Trust' is not my middle name, I decided to give it a shot.

More on this later. I have to drag myself away from the keyboard and get dressed. I have another lesson in half an hour.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Those Who Can - Waiting for Superman

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new film documentary, “Waiting for Superman” lays most of the blame for the current crisis in education at the feet of teachers and their horrible unions. According to filmmaker David Guggenheim (whose own offspring, he confides, are safely ensconced in private institutions) they are sucking all the money out of the system for living wages and harboring tenured reprobates in their bosoms. Without them, we could just get on with the joy of infusing the young with intelligence, proficiency and skills for success in life, just like we used to before they took over.

(Who ‘we’ are is never really disclosed).

It’s an easy shot. Who, among us, hasn’t had at least one (or ten) teachers we didn’t like, who made us suffer, picked on us just because we didn’t do our homework, made us throw away our gum, took away that note passed across the desks from the friend across the room, or, worst of all, gave us a detention for speaking out of turn? Depending on our own ability to adapt to the classroom, we might easily look back and recall a few names we’d like to see scratched out of the ‘Book of the Living’.
And yet, here many of us are, relatively well-educated, competent, at least, in what is referred to as ‘Basic Skills’, ‘Literacy’, ‘Numeracy’ and acceptable table manners, able to earn a living, manage a mortgage and raise a family and even survive the little challenges of life, like divorce and taxes, without too much calamity.

Casting his eyes around for a suitable subject for the successor to the controversial but highly popular sensation, “An Inconvenient Truth”, Guggenheim tells us he was struck by the sad state of the local public school he passed by daily when carpooling his kids to a much better private school. The fact that the American middle class (and increasingly the vanishing middle class up here, in Canada) has, over the years, withdrawn its support for, participation in and commitment to public education, like he has, himself, is a logical point he never acknowledges. There is an uncomfortable condescension to the ‘disadvantaged’ in the thesis of this film, which the nobody in the media seems to be noticing or commenting on as they hop on the bandwagon of praise for its shallow analysis.

Checking all this out is a big job…..say, it’s a job for….wait for it…..”Superman”!!!

Leave it to Mr. Simpleton, make that Guggenheim, to choose, as a name for his movie, a popular iconic metaphor, where kids are rescued by a ‘deus ex-machina’, instead of plain hard work. Everything about this documentary screams shallow cliché, from its throwing around of random statistics projected on the screen (in case you want to jot them down for future reference), tacky graphics, and the corny, time-worn doc convention of following a selection of sad-eyed child-contestants as they vie for some prize or other. In this case, unlike the excellent film “Spellbound”, which unfolded in a charming narrative structure accompanied by clever visual design and delightful music, where the parents and kids actually exhausted themselves working for their reward, or the outstanding documentary of several years ago, “WarDance”, which unfolded dramatically in the most gorgeous footage ever shot, the child/victims and their hapless parents in “Waiting for Superman” suffer under poor lighting, sitting passively by, waiting for their fates to be randomly decided in heartless lotteries while the cameramen hover like vultures, picking at the corpses.

You have to ask yourself why, in the course of this movie, no one asks the obvious questions….who thought this ridiculous system up? Why hasn’t anyone rebelled? You might also ask why there is no honest examination of the majority of those Charter schools which fail to measure up even adequately, or which narrow their curricula solely to readin’ and math and teach only to the test or hire (and fire, as needs be) uncertified, underpaid ‘teacher-facilitators’?

With all this emphasis on testing, what happens when a school does really well, year after year, scoring so well that there is no dramatic ‘improvement’? I’ll tell you. First of all, the school administration cannot draw favorable notices from on high, since their scores are static. They get less support, which, in education, means money and staffing. Resources are thrown down the bottomless pits while the tall poppies, as they are called, get lopped off. I taught at such a public school and the pride we felt for the success of our students was quickly shifted over to the parents and the community. After all, how could we teachers take any credit, when they gave us such excellently raised and motivated kids to work with? (But never seek to blame a community for poorly prepared pupils, on pain of PC death!)

There is no question that all is not well in the American educational system. In “Waiting for Superman”, most of the people with all the answers, have never really taught school at all, or if they have, it was brief step on the way up to academic bureaucracy, well above the ‘fray’. Some authorities are, themselves, the products of private education with ingrained prejudices about public schools. The irony is that a few, who pulled themselves up with hard work, now believe they must work outside the system. For profit, by the way. (There is no mention that the private sector must generate a profit or else it goes out of business!) This film would like you to forget about the many dedicated and sincere public school educators trying their best, every day, to make things better for their students.

Putting the blame for society’s educational ills mainly at the feet of the teachers’ unions and mocking due process for grievances is disingenuous, to say the least, especially when you can’t resist editing in some archival footage you’ve dug up showing ‘olden days’ schools and tell the audience that unions were first a ‘good thing’ since most of the staff were mere women who were being terribly exploited. (Hey, Mr. Guggenheim, that’s what usually, happens when workers have no contracts or agreements and can be terminated at will. Brush up on your Woody Guthrie songs). A highly respected, award-winning Science teacher I know was terminated at a prestigious private school because they could hire two starter teachers for the salary they were paying her! At another private school, a teacher/friend was told to keep her big mouth shut about how the sociopath in her Grade 9 class was interfering with the learning of the other high paying students. When she insisted his removal be considered, she was told, "You don't have a Private School mentality, my dear." She was 'let go' shortly thereafter.
Let's not even start about the 'credit mills' that popped up everywhere as soon as private school tuition became deductible. One of my students told me his father was told if he paid a little more, the marks might be more impressive!

Nothing is perfect, but to suggest that employees have a nerve to expect to be paid a living wage, have some job security and work in safe and decent circumstances is very 19th Century, if you ask me. Especially when you are entrusting, to them, the care and education of your most precious possessions.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ here is that when you insist on using a business model, refer to students as clients and treat staff as expendable if they don’t generate a ‘profit’, (ie. high test scores) no matter how poor the raw materials might be, you are setting yourself up for failure with a capital ‘F’.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Festivus for the Restivus

Once a year, Toronto springs to life for the fall film festival called TIFF.

This year, it falls between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur, an unfortunate bit of timing, considering many of the participants on both sides of the screen are 'chosen people'. This puts a lot of pressure on serious attendees who have a lot of cookin' and prayin' to do on choice screening days, but as a casual participant, I have been able to sandwich in more than enough movies to satisfy my appetite for standing in long lineups for hours and chatting with total strangers as if we've known each other forever, comparing notes on obscure foreign films that will never be released in the Cineplex.

I will review a couple of films in future posts, but for now, as I take a well-deserved break for a couple of days, I will make a few observations about the Festival itself.

You either get it or you don't. Or, like me, you sort of get it but then you sort of don't get it at all.

If you are the kind of person who would wake up at dawn and stand in a line at 7 am. for a couple of hours in hopes of getting the last ticket to the new Mike Leigh movie, then you amaze me.

If you can't wait to utter a growly 'arrrgh' as soon as the anti-pirating slide appears on the screen, you are obviously, a regular.

If you have driven up from Toledo for the past 8 years, toting your bicycles on your car roof so you can dart quickly between the Scotiabank Megaplex on Richmond St. and the Isabel Bader Theatre across from the ROM, to get a good spot in line for the next film, you've earned your tee shirt that says "I like to sit in the dark with strangers".

If you like to see five or six movies a day for ten days and don't care if you remember anything about them, enjoy hanging around Yorkville hoping to see movie stars and like living on popcorn and Lindt chocolates (the only food allowed in theatres), you are not alone. You are in good company.

I may join you, once in a while, in that long lineup, to converse for a few hours, take turns going on coffee runs and let in our friends, but just our best friends, while we wait for the chance to see a shiny new movie and maybe, if we're really lucky, have the time to stay for Q and A with the creators before we dash out, unceremoniously, to the next one.

For the Birds

“Black Swan” is one of the creepiest movies I have ever sat through. I’m not exactly sure whom Darren Aronofsky had in mind as the audience for this overwrought poultrypalooza, but it sure isn’t middle-aged Jewish mothers of young women. Anorexic and self- harming teenage girls, perhaps, but are there enough of them out there to fill the mega-plexes? How much popcorn would they buy? Would their boyfriends join them? I doubt it. They’d have to sit through a lot of port des bras and plies before the not-so-hot, skinny girl-on-girl sex scene and that is, thank god, fleeting. If that’s what they’re looking for, they can find it elsewhere for a lot less trouble.

Too artsy to be a horror film, yet still pretty horrible. Certainly, the film is not for balletomanes, like moi, who come for the dancing but soon find out that they have to shut their eyes quickly on too many occasions.

And not for naps.

The dancing, (and editing), is, admittedly, quite well done, even better than in other dance films where movie stars pretend to be dancers. Ms. Portman trained for many months (which is supposed to be impressive, but I thought ballerinas trained for years). She does an acceptable job of twirling around in the close-ups and you can keep yourself quite busy trying to figure out who’s arms and legs those really are, flapping around on the stage in the long shots. There is, however, something missing, as her “artistic director-on-the-make” (Vincent Cassel) constantly reminds her. He calls it passion but we aren’t fooled. We all know he just wants to get into her tutu.

What’s really missing, from my perspective, is an inability to convey the pleasure of dancing. The tortured look on Natalie’s kisser in every shot strips away any enjoyment you have watching her graceful movements from the neck down. Granted, this is endemic to the character she plays, who never has any fun, or cake, but it gets pretty tough to watch after a while.

Apparently, what she and of course, we, must learn is that what is actually required to interpret the role fully, is not dedicated hard work or excellent technique. The story, and the ballet director, both suggest that her innocence (ie. virginity) prevents her from fully interpreting the role of the seductive black swan. This is the greatest come-on rationale I’ve heard in a long time. Even Natalie knows to resist this line, at least for a while. When it takes hold, however, it lures her right off her perch into a downward tailspin of insanity.

It seems our little dancer must incinerate her stuffed animals, trash her ballerina music box and leave her mother’s suffocating nest with her 'dark-swan side', Mila Kunis, who has just flown in from San Francisco, (boy, are her arms tired). Mila can afford to arrive late to class with no need to ‘warm up’, go clubbing the night before a performance, wash assorted drugs down with hard liquor, flirt with boys and still compete for the lead role because she has a big black tattoo of wings on her back.

And, it goes without saying, she has had S-E-X.

It turns out, however, that what's good for the goose, isn't necessarily good for the other goose.

There isn’t a female in this movie, be she human or avian, who couldn’t use a decent meal. I know ballerinas are supposed to be thin, but if Natalie Portman hasn’t been digitally altered, then she needs to ask herself how much she really needs to suffer for her art. Why is it that when male actors have to adapt their bodies for ‘a part’, they invariable get to beef up, while females have to waste away? I acknowledge the rare exceptions of Tom Hanks in ‘Swept Away’ or ‘Overboard’ or whatever the movie was where he ends up talking to a beachball on a deserted island and Rene Zellweger in the Bridget Jones epics, where everyone fretted about her transformation into what used to known in the culture as a woman. In most cases, you hear about guys like De Niro fattening up as Jake LaMotta or Stallone chomping down the steroids to bulk up for his customary oeuvre.

Of course, there is Oscar buzz for Natalie, who gets to starve, fret, self-mutilate AND experiment with her sexuality, not to mention that great indicator of real acting chops, yell at her horrible mother. She also gets to dance up a storm, looking about as carefree as Moira Shearer at the end of ‘The Red Shoes’, another dancing film that traumatized me as a child and convinced me to give up my ballet classes.

The rest of the cast also pecks at the scenery with relish. I saw the film cold, so to speak, at TIFF, knowing only that it was by Aronofsky and with Portman. I'm a sucker for dance movies. There were no credits at the beginning, so it took me quite a while to realize I was watching what was left of the formerly beautiful Barbara Hershey as the mother hen, alternately smothering or pushing her fledgling from the nest. I recognized the voice, but was thrown by what passes, in Hollywood, as cosmetic enhancing surgery.

You shouldn’t really be feeling sorry for the bad people in a movie. It distracts from the plot.

The presence of Winona Ryder escaped me completely until I saw her name in the credits. What a comedown. Not only is she the older washed-up dancer, but she gets shunted off her perch pretty early in the plot. No Anne Bancroft scene-stealing for her. Unless it ended up on the cutting room floor. If they still have cutting rooms.

The leading man, Vincent Cassel, was, to be gracious, not my type. He is very strange looking. Kind of ‘beaky’. You might think this fits right in with the bird imagery, but even though he thinks he's the cock of the walk, he's not conventionally appealing. But then, I have to admit that no man, in my humble opinion, will ever outdo the magnificence of Barishnikov in ‘The Turning Point’ - a much better ballet movie. When he seduces the lithesome young ballerina in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ both en pointe and au lit, it is a much more enjoyable transition from innocence to experience for everyone.

Granted, there are some stunning effects and powerful avian images and sound effects, most of which I am hoping will eventually dissolve from my memory with the passage of time and leave me with few permanent emotional scars.

I won’t go into them here, since I’d hate to spoil their shock value and deprive your own eyes of the opportunity to bleed, like mine and Ms. Portman’s, for themselves.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Golden Fake Lake

In an effort to Pepysify this blog and give it some historical context, I will reflect on the effect on my life of the recent G8-20 Conference held here in Toronto this past week.

I report these events as a former 60’s activist, of sorts, having participated in the very first ‘sit-in’ held in Toronto to protest the Viet Nam war. That protest, like the ones held here, was organized mostly by outsiders, too, come to think of it. A few draft dodgers and their friends joined together to get things rolling. Canadian students had very little to complain about, in those days, tuition being all of $420 a year, but being empathetic and incredibly bored, a group of us jumped on the bandwagon to see what it was like to be part of a ‘demonstration’. We were to meet up in Convocation Hall on the main campus and march together down University Avenue to the American Consulate where we would occupy the sidewalk until hell froze over. (I didn't think it would take too long, seeing as how it was winter).

To illustrate how politically astute I was at the time, I didn’t even know there was an American Consulate on University Avenue, but I had nothing better to do, so I joined in.

This is the primary qualification of most demonstrators, of course.

One of my girlfriends, a very wealthy young woman with her own car, fur coat and a ton of Jewish middle class guilt, was one of the ringleaders. In her persistent attempt to bond with the downtrodden, she later invited Stokely Carmichael, himself, to dinner at her family mansion when he came up north to address members of SNCC - an acronym that stood for ‘Student Non-Violent Co-coordinating Committee’, which it certainly wasn’t for long. She was appalled that he had the nerve to insult her parents during the evening and soon after, turned her focus from student protests to selecting china patterns at Ashley’s. He was so shaken by the occasion that he went on to found the Black Panthers.

So there I was, traipsing down past the Mount Sinai hospital, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ or something similarly appropriate when all of a sudden everyone around me collapsed to the ground. We had arrived at our destination and the ‘sitting in’ part was to begin. I carefully inspected the ground before settling down for what I hoped was a brief occupation. Unlike my friend in her raccoon coat, I had but an insubstantial cloth pea jacket and no hat or scarf, this political opportunity having come upon me so suddenly. My friend, who folded like her Bubi’s maj jong table in front of me, bundled up in her pelts, was prepared for a longer haul. The police quickly circled around us and then went about their business, smirking at our efforts.

After a while, I got cold and went home. Later, that evening, I saw the event covered on the evening news. This was the crucial political awakening for me. There, in the front lines, was my friend, being dragged along by her furry sleeves, smiling at the camera. The opportunity to be on TV had completely escaped me at the time. This was what it was all about!

In later years, I met a young American couple at a Caribbean resort who regaled us with stories about how they’d demonstrate on their college campus all day and then run home at night to watch themselves on Walter Cronkite. Those were the days, they fondly recalled, sipping their Pina Colladas by the pool.

I haven’t felt the need to protest publicly about much since those times. Occasionally, though, I get roped in. One time, early in my teaching career, I was strongly encouraged to attend a rally at Maple Leaf Gardens (or else!) to support contract negotiations with the local school boards. It was a very big deal and all the teachers from the city packed into the arena. In happier times I had seen the Beatles concert, a circus or two, the Ice Capades and a Maple Leafs hockey game on a date with a guy who drove me crazy all night with his Shelley Berman impressions. This crowd of educators was so unruly and hysterical I flashed on a movie I’d seen about the Nuremberg rallies and fled for my life.

I hate crowds, especially screaming ones.

The fuss that was made about the fuss that was made was completely out of line, if you ask me. Once again, I feel it is the failure of the educational system to make people aware of how these events have been handled throughout history, so they don’t embarrass themselves.

For example, doesn’t every English castle have a special suite of over-decorated rooms designated for the day when the King and his court pop in for a visit? Have you ever seen the extravagant film ‘Vatel’, where a French prince tries to impress King Louis XIV by having him up for the weekend to his chateaux to curry favor by putting on the ritz? Read a little of ‘A Distant Mirror’ by Barbara Tuchman, if you want get some ideas for your next conclave. I seem to remember her gossiping about a series of pre-nuptial fetes held in the 14th C. when an English princess came over to marry a French royal offspring and almost everyone died from nibbling on the gold leaf icing ostentatiously gilding the goodies on the buffet. A fake lake and a few waffles with maple syrup certainly seem almost pretentiously modest, by comparison, to what used to pass as hospitality for heads of state.

So here are my astute personal observations about the G8-20:
(Keep in mind, I wasn’t actually invited)

Except for the few blocks tied up by demonstrations, the rest of the streets in the city were, for the first time in years, passable. I could get around town in 10 minutes. There was no traffic on the parkway.

It was like they’d dropped a neutron bomb.

I didn’t go to the St. Lawrence Market on Saturday morning. I
missed my annual Delphinium and Peony fix. I am hoping my
Mennonite flower grower will be back this week with double
the blooms. My husband had gone there a few days earlier and
had to wait behind a long line of Mounties to pick up his
lunchtime back-bacon-on-a-bun at the Carousel Bakery.

My friend and I were enjoying a cuppa at a cute teashop at Bathurst and Dupont on Sunday afternoon and heard sirens. Looking out, we saw the advance escort cycles of a huge motorcade rushing by. We ran out on the street to see a long black limo followed by lesser vehicles full of Middle Eastern minor potentates in full white headgear (the bigger-wigs were obviously in the stretch limo with the dark windows). They were on their way up Bathurst Street, a route which goes directly between Forest Hill and Cedervale, past the Beth Tzedec, Holy Blossom Temple, Nortown Kosher (style) Meats, Shaarei Shomayim, the bakeries Hermes and Haymishe, the Boat Shul, Shaarei Tefillah, The Baycrest Jewish Home for the Aged, the Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto, Pancer’s Delicatessen, Earl Bales Park, Bathurst Manor and the Lipa Green Building for both Jewish Community Services and the Holocaust Centre of Toronto, to name just a few institutions of the ‘Hebraic persuasion’ this convoy would be passing by.

And that’s just up to Sheppard Ave. Don’t even start me north of Steeles!

We waved and they spontaneously waved back. I couldn't imagine why the drivers were taking that street, unless someone wanted to show them where to find all the Jews in Toronto. For some reason.

Locavore colour: A friend, who was covering the event, got a media tour of the notorious ‘Fake Lake’ installation. He thought it was very nice, although he didn’t check to see if it had a rocky or sandy bottom. He got to sample some Muskoka treats and reported that the butter tarts being handed out to foreign journalists in the Media Pavilion at the Ex were, in his expert opinion, “the best I’ve ever tasted! And they had raisins, too!!!”

Friday, June 25, 2010

More Plumage

I have found this time of life to be akin to a second puberty, only in reverse. I wake up each morning, squint in the mirror and discover that overnight, something has drastically altered my appearance.

Only, unlike before, it’s not for the better!

Rather than list these alterations, since we all either know what they are, or would rather not, I will spend my time more usefully to encourage you to turn away from the mirror and that compulsive concern that the world is looking at you and concentrate, instead, on looking out at the world.

It’s a lot less expensive. Resisting the inevitable is very costly. And useless.

Have you noticed that the women in ads offering sage advice on lotions and potions are 25 while you and all your friends look like crumpled up paper bags? Maybe we’d look even worse without the ablutions, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we do not look young, no matter how we rationalize and delude ourselves.

I have taught high school for over 25 years, and I know what young looks like. I looked at it every day. Except for the few pimply ones, (fewer now than when I was a teen, for some reason) there is smoothness which no amount of surgery or retinol can replicate. There is whiteness, not only of the teeth, but also the eyeballs. The muscle tone and solidity of flesh is completely taken for granted, not worked on and for with hours in the gym or by going under the knife.

This seems to be the natural time and place for this sort of thing in the scheme of life, since the young are expected to play sports, lift heavy things, and attract each other quickly before they mature and learn better.

Of course, it’s wasted on the youth, as they say, since I have rarely met a teenager who appreciates his or her (or their) appearance. They all think they are grossly unattractive and malformed, too short, too tall, too dark, too light… name it. Who can blame them? They get these messages bombarded at them from all sides. And their unformed brains are misfiring constantly, so who knows what they see when they look in the mirror at themselves?

In previous centuries, the belief was circulated that beauty was what beauty did. Or that it was more important to be good than attractive. Now you have an ideology that tells beautiful young people that they are unattractive and withery old folks that they have a moral obligation to try to be more youthful.

No one can win.

Meanwhile, guess who’s making piles of money driving everyone crazy?
I’m not telling. You have to guess.

Instead of fretting about it, you could try to squeeze in a little fun. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, trying to stave off the inevitable, by walking around in leggings and dying your hair the color of a South American parrot. (Why is it, I wonder, that women of a ‘certain age’ suddenly think hair the color of a baboon’s tush is the answer to all their aging problems?)

Put away the mini skirts, ladies. You had your turn 40 years ago. Once is enough.

Speaking of the 60’s, (the decade, not the age) a wise, hypocritical woman once wrote, at the personal request of her more stunning friends, a hilariously insightful article in Esquire about the tragedy of ‘losing one’s looks’ when one turns 30. Her interesting take on this tragic fate was that since she hadn’t been blessed with much in the way of ‘looks’ to lose in the first place, she had concentrated, instead, on developing her intellect, personality and interpersonal skills instead of resting on her physical laurels. She had no sympathy for women of 29 who had neglected these traits and now, as their looks faded, had nothing to fall back on.

(We are talking here about 30. Over the hill? Times were ever harsh).

The woman who was bragging about her non-pulchritudinous qualities was none other than Nora Ephron, who somehow, in spite of being what they used to charitably call, plain, went on to great success in life, both personally and professionally. However, in an appearance on TV last year, (Oprah, where else?) pushing her latest humor book, “I’m Not Happy About My Neck” she suggests, by its very title, that she has changed her mind about the importance of youthful beauty. Even though she felt she could get along without it when it was age-appropriate to be concerned, she apparently now feels the need to desperately strive to attain everlasting, elusive youth.

She actually declared that the greatest invention, in all of history, for women, was hair dye.
Not the birth control pill.
Or, come to think of it, the washing machine.
Hair dye.

I’m pretty sure she was being completely serious. Although, for a source of humorous material, women fighting the ravages of time and gravity is what one of my teenage best friend’s mothers used to call a ‘shmaltz grebe’ (translation: a pit of golden chicken fat, used primarily to describe the snagging of a fiancé who was the son of a wealthy family, as in: “Sandy just got engaged to the Pomerantz son. Oy, did she fall into a shmaltz grebe!”), you could tell she was completely serious. Her own raven locks attested to her addiction to the bottle.

Nora wasn’t kidding around.
It was as if she couldn’t even smile.

When I think of how I personally (along with a Betty, Gloria and a few others) struggled to emancipate women from these frivolous concerns, it makes me shake my graying locks.

Yes, graying.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beautiful Plumage 4 A Head of My Time

It has taken me a few months to return to the topic of hair and aging.

But I feel the time has come when Oprah, no less, has a show on ageing gracefully, starring the extensively-freshened Raquel Welch, and both of them sit there, side by side, on camera, in a well-lit studio, representing thousands of dollars of nips, tucks and ‘products’ (not to mention millions of dollars lavished, over decades, on personal trainers and hair dye), admonishing the rest of womankind to drop everything and ‘take good care of themselves’.

This embrace of ageing gracefully is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it doesn’t surprise me, coming, as it does, just as the world’s largest (speaking population-wise) demographic enters its 60’s. Wherever we have gone before, there has been big money to be made so why should this stage of life be any different? As a generation encouraged by advertising to think that the whole world is watching its every pore, appearances have often been an uppermost consideration. And there she is, Oprah, queen of the self-involved, leading the way. Although she purports to care a lot about things like her ‘spirit’, let’s not kid ourselves.

With all her money, she’d still sell her soul, if she could stay thin. We all know that! Being spiritual is definitely runner-up.

So at a time of life when people have the opportunity to turn to introspection and maybe, a little philanthropy, we are now being advised that, for the sake of humanity, it would be wise not to give up on our appearances or ‘let ourselves go’. As if we have a choice. Letting ourselves go is the inevitable and ultimately conclusive result of a life lived, well, or otherwise. Unfortunately, you cannot stay at the party forever.

Some, of course, have tried, to varying degrees of success.

A digression with a point:

The best depiction of the consequences of eternal existence at the final frontier, so to speak, is the one presented by Jonathan Swift, a man more remembered for the first two chapters of his ‘oeuvre’, wherein his hero, Gulliver, an early frequent cruiser, takes voyages to two islands no longer featured on the Royal Caribbean itinerary, Lilliput and Brobdingnag. In these places people are either too tiny or too huge, giving Swift the opportunity to mock the pettiness and then galumphing coarseness of person-kind to the delight of readers of all ages for over 300 years and to the chagrin of Walt Disney, when Max and Dave Fleischer jumped the gun and animated the first chapter in 1939 as a full length feature before he got his mousey little hands on it.

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ has been done several times since then, of course, most recently in the mid-nineties, by Ted Danson and his wife, the lovely Mary Steenburgen. That TV mini-series won many awards, mostly in the categories where nobody gets to go up on the stage to claim them. Artsy stuff like design and technical work which, unfortunately, is of no interest to the viewing public. I did not see that version personally, so cannot attest to whether or not Larry David’s buddy visited Luggnagg, a port to which I will refer shortly, but I highly doubt it. At least, it’s not in the synopsis, which is rife with ‘spoiler alerts’ as if anyone alive doesn’t already know the outcome of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. (Neigh!)

Another digression, another point:

In my passion for semi-thorough research and just plain curiosity, I have been able to discover, for you, dear blogfans, that a brand new version for a new generation will be released this Christmas starring the versatile and strangely repulsive, Jack Black, whose physical stature puts him somewhere between the two nations.

It might be interesting. (The lovely Emily Blunt and the even lovelier Billy Connelley co-star, which shows someone was paying attention).

But somehow, I doubt it. It’s being marketed with the tagline,
‘BLACK IS THE NEW BIG’, so you understand why I worry.
(Chris Noth had better move over).

“All that narrative and no rights to pay make for many incarnations”.
(Old Hollywood saying)


It’s this island of Luggnagg which everybody ignores in their movie depictions, which is of special relevance to my topic today. It is populated not by giants or little people, as they like to be called in their Reality TV series, but struldbrugs, humans who seem normal but are, in fact immortal. The catch, and there’s always a catch, is that they continue to age indefinitely, with all that entails. I'd list the symptoms, but it's too depressing.

Good old Wikipedia, (which you should never use, we tell our students), tells us that they develop normally until they reach the age of 30 and then become ‘dejected’. No surprise there. They know, unlike Oprah and Raquel, that it’s only downhill after 30. At 80, they are declared legally dead, quickly divested of their property by their children (unlike today when they use up all their assets supporting their medical and social needs) and are pretty much left to stumble around blindly, on a small allowance, hoping for visitors who never come.

(With or without money, they never come. Especially if they've already got their mitts on the money).

Is it any wonder that Ted and Mary decided to skip this part? Who wants to watch them creaking around the ‘home’ with even more wrinkles than usual? At least in ‘Benjamin Button’ Brad Pitt had the decency to age backwards and give us the relief of some buffed abs before he finally perished.

So my point, such as it is, is this.

Actually, I don’t remember what it is. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Play’s the Thing – Part 2

After we married, my husband and I continued to migrate to central Ontario each summer to visit Stratford and see his old school buddies strut and fret their hours upon the stage. Over the years, we saw an amazing array of shows, some plays many times, each one fresh and different in its interpretation. I loved the elaborate costumes, fantastic sets but, above all, the actors.

It has always amazed me that people can learn so many lines, let alone remember where to stand and deliver them. Oh, sure, I went to school in the days when ‘memory work’ was de rigueur. In public school we were required to memorize 500 lines a year, from any selection of poetry and keep track of them in a little booklet. We never knew when the teacher would pluck us out of the crowd and put us on the spot in front of the whole class. To this day, although there isn’t much call for this sort of thing, I can recite the entire poem: 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix', by Robert Browning, although I have no idea where Ghent or Aix are, nor do I recall what that good news was.

But to be able to memorize dialogue, which goes back and forth, and to have to act it out effectively, is quite another matter. I stand in awe. I have absolutely no talent for this kind of thing whatsoever. I harbor no illusions. In university, the closest I ever got to the stage was helping out behind it, painting a lot of scenery and designing programs. Once, I was asked to fire a starter’s pistol backstage, at a crucial moment in a play, and I was a complete wreck during the entire evening until I finally got to press the trigger. With what I went through, you’d think I had sung an entire aria at the Met. (I’m sure Renee Fleming knows whereof I speak).

Over the years I have sat in the Avon or Festival theatres and enjoyed Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford bantering Noel Coward’s dialogue in 'Private Lives' and Peter Ustinov not going gently in 'King Lear', Bill Hutt as a man or woman in everything from Shakespeare to Wilde, the young Christopher Plummer, and now, the eminent senior trodding the boards, this very summer, as Prospero. Maybe next year he’ll be back as King Lear, himself, a part that all great actors tackle before they shuffle off their mortal coils.

If you are interested in checking out the list of astounding actors who have put aside their film careers to spend a summer up in rural Ontario exercising their chops, check out the list: You won’t find Maggie Smith on it, but don’t worry, I have already written to their archivist to correct this serious omission. It might shock you to learn which TV actors and movie stars either spent their formative years on those stages or, later, came back to remember why they became actors in the first place!

And the productions! Was there anything as gorgeous as the Stratford production of ‘The Mikado’? As hysterical as ‘Satyricon’? As magical as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? (Pick a production, any production of this fantastical play…..they all delighted and entertain over the decades, although I must reserve my highest praise for the Peter Brook version, which breezed through the O’Keefe Centre in the early 70’s and changed theatre, and Shakespeare, forever). 'Into the Woods’, a musical which I had seen so many times I thought there were no more surprises in store for me, was astounding. I loved being wrong. And this year’s production of ‘The Tempest’ not only brings back the imperial Plummer but includes an Avatar by the name of Julyana Soelistyo for whom the role of Ariel was obviously created. Shakespeare must be dancing in his grave.

Admittedly, over the years, he might also have had a few spins there, too. Sometimes they miss the mark. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not crazy about Fascist footwork in the midst of a 1920’s interpretation of a 15thC. comedy pretending to take place in the forests of ancient Greece, but that’s just me. A lot of the modern dress versions don’t appeal to me, come to think of it. Hearing all that poetry pronounced by people traipsing around in track suits just doesn’t make sense to me, although I do recall a charming production of “Much Ado” set in pastoral England of a more recent century, so it’s not that I need to see a lot of farthingales and doublets to get the point of the play. It’s just that are they are so much prettier than tee shirts or Nazi uniforms, especially when they are velvety and lacy. What can I say?

I also hate when all the costumes are brown.

While I’m talking about costumes, as an added treat to seeing a performance or two, you can book a tour of the costume warehouse, a building only slightly smaller than an airplane hangar, on the outskirts of town (ie. two blocks from the main street). It is something to see, filled with racks and racks of outfits, hats and props from every century from over fifty years of productions. I have taken my high school field trippers there many times and the kids go crazy trying on the outfits and taking pictures of each other dressed as King Henry the Vee-Eye-Eye-Eye or Ophelia. It’s quite shocking to see the physical and even emotional makeover that a young boy goes through when he dons a doublet and plumed hat and regards himself in a long mirror. His right foot juts out, he leans his shoulders back a little and cocks his head jauntily. The centuries fall away and he is instantly transformed into Romeo right before your eyes. (And before the eyes of the girls in the class, who formerly thought he was a nebbish). Clothes do make the man!

If you want to get a real feel for what this place is all about, you should watch the excellent TV series, 'Slings and Arrows', created by the adorable and talented Canadian actor/writer/producer Paul Gross. The English department teachers at my old school used to sneak off into a darkened classroom on Fridays, at lunch, to watch it on the VCR and delight themselves at the end of a typically bleak work- week. Mr. Gross, a noted Stratford Hamlet, in his day, swaggers around impressively through three seasons, which parody the goings-on-about a small town and a festival that seems suspiciously familiar. It deserves a wider audience.

Every year, the company at Stratford tries its best and often succeeds beyond my wildest expectations, which is why I keep going and going, I guess. There’s something so profoundly moving about sitting in the dark at an excellent production of a play that has meaning for all times, with the real live actors working right in front of you in real live 3-D, breathing and sweating and even sometimes spitting on you, that simply cannot be compared to the silver screen stuff. The energy is right there in the space, all around you.

Lest you think, perforce, that I do not hie me to other theatrical venues, for to make comparisons, let me correct that impression. I sometimes think I have seen it all, even too much....including an interminable preview performance of 'Les Mis' (or is it Miz?) in Toronto, where the entire audience thought the show was over at intermission, or wished it was. (Intermission didn't come till 10:30 p.m., so the mistake was understandable). My extensive repertoire also includes such hits as 'Homer, Sweet, Homer' which starred Yul Brynner and the wife of the producer (don't ask), 'Two by Two' (feh by feh) with Danny Kaye and Madeline Kahn, and 'Phantom' to which I was dragged when I knew better. 'Cats', seen twice, with assorted felines, which is one more time than necessary, haunts me to this day....not in a good way..jellical cats, jelli-cal cats, oh jellical cats, etc....oy! My husband and I knew we were meant for each other when we discovered we were the only two people on the planet who didn't enjoy 'Man of La Mancha', a musical without a much-needed intermission. So I could leave.

On the other hand, I have also been fortunate enough to have been dating the theatre critic for the U of T Varsity paper the year both the National Theatre Company of England and the APA Rep company from the States competed for audiences and I had to see ALL the plays. One day, Laurence Olivier in 'Dance of Death', another day Helen Hayes in 'School for Scandal'.

Have you ever seen the phenomenal show 'Pantaglieze'? With Ellis Rabb? I have! Three times. They had to 'paper the house' at the Royal Alex and I was a piece of paper all week. Memorable.

"She's got a blue tattoo,
Right on her 'you-know-who',
She's got a blue tattoo.
When she gets through with you,
You'll have a blue tattoo there, too!"

How about Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in 'No Man's Land' by Pinter? Together! Those were the days.

A little loftier than these days, when audiences flock to enjoy 'My Mother's Gay-Lesbian-Wickken-Wedding' for a night on the town and think they've gotten their money's worth. Oh well. They'll never know. But I'm a good sport and have tried to lower my standards on occasion, if only to support an actor/friend in a questionable production.
I'd mention the names but have mercifully forgotten them.

Unforgettable, however, is my favorite, all-time theatrical experience, the Peter Brook 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at the O'Keefe Centre in 1970 or so. I am not alone in noticing its significance as a 'major influence on the contemporary stage'.
Here is a link to the review by the critic, Clive Barnes, from its opening night at the other Stratford-on-Avon, the one in England:
I don't know how to make it link automatically, so you'll have to copy into Google, but it's definitely worth your while. Too bad you can't see the play. I wish they'd revive it. Exactly the same way. (I often think it's experiences like this that make it so difficult for me to be impressed by things like 'Avatar'. Sorry, but that's the way it is).

Like the audience way back in Shakespeare’s day, I love to be surprised and delighted.
For me, the play’s definitely the thing!

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Play’s the Thing - Part 1

Over the past 50 years or so, I have gone to the Stratford Festival here in Ontario almost every summer. I have had the privilege of seeing, as they say, ‘the greats and the near greats,’ performing onstage in the finest plays written in the English language and I can still actually remember a few of those performances.

As a former English teacher, I also arranged countless field trips in order to expose my students to something a little more substantial than the work of that other Brit, Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose populist oeuvre has never been presented at the Festival until this year, a decision obviously driven by the desperate financial circumstances that many cultural institutions find themselves in these days. I guess it was inevitable. Years ago, the annual treat of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or a little something by Wolfie was replaced by flashy revivals of standard Broadway musicals, to attract the American audience, held in intellectual contempt by Canadians, so who knows? Without that generous government subsidy, we might all soon be lining up to see ‘Cats’, god forbid.

Wait a minute. On second thought, you can go by yourself, to that one.
I’ve suffered enough.

The first time I went to the Festival was when both it and I were a lot newer.
My summer camp had lofty cultural pretensions and chartered a bus for a day to transport the senior campers to the little town of Stratford, Ontario, to see a Shakespearean play. In those olden days, we studied one play by the Bard each year in our English Lit classes, so we were adequately prepped . I had already digested ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and, for some reason, ‘Henry the IV…Part 1’, the sanitized version, at my high school. I say ‘sanitized’ because one of my fellow students, Mona, brought a copy of the play from her home library, having lost the school version, and was fortuitously asked to read the part of Falstaff in a little classroom dramatization. Our school texts apparently omitted some of the more salacious lines Mona uttered that day. When the students collapsed in hysterics, our teacher quickly caught on sent her and her unabridged copy, quickly, from the room.

It was right then that I learned the valuable lesson that there’s a lot more to Shakespeare and, of course, to life, than first meets the eye, although I’d had my suspicions for a while.

On this maiden trip, we were to see ‘Othello’ with the Douglas’s Campbell and Rain and the elegant Miss Frances Hyland. After a lengthy journey through beautiful countryside scenery, which none of us noticed, we arrived in town. We had two hours to walk around (it takes about 10 minutes) and have lunch before gathering for the performance at the new Festival Theatre with its distinctive zigzaggy roofline. After taking turns posing provocatively for our Brownies astride the canon in the tiny WW1 memorial parkette, we loaded up on BLT’s and chocolate milkshakes at ‘Elams’, a run-down diner, which maintains, to this day, its shabby prominence on the main drag (not to mention the same menu and worn leatherette banquettes). We were too poor to enjoy the tempting Chinese banquet at the venerable Golden Bamboo, where all our counselors dined. I believe it also had a liquor license, but I could be wrong. Let’s say, the staff was a lot happier after their meal than we were after ours. (For the past few years, the restaurant and its large sign have been abandoned, but each time I drive past it, which cannot be avoided since it is right on the corner of the street you take a right at to get to the main theatre, I think of those ‘Golden’ years when people actually thought it was a great idea to go for Chinese food in Stratford).

To my chagrin, I drew a seat right next to the camp director, a raging intellectual and professor from NYU, who promptly nodded off as soon as the lights dimmed. My singular memory of the play was how high he jumped up from his seat when the Moor went in for the kill and Desdemona started screaming, in vain, for her life.

On my next visit, I was on staff and could afford the luxury of dining at the renowned Victorian Inn’s ‘all you can eat’ buffet. For a princely sum, you could line up at the trough as often as you liked, which for one of my friends, a young man with a prodigious appetite and very sparkly blue eyes, was an irresistible option. He had been barely surviving on camp food for weeks and was eager to top himself up. He went back so many times, that a waitress asked him if he had a twin brother! I don’t remember the play we saw, but we all had a great time posing for pictures with the vicious swans, that were probably paid more than the actors, to spend their summer by the Avon River attracting the tourists.

The following year I met my husband at Stratford, but I didn’t know it then. I was strolling around with a couple of girlfriends and we bumped into a skinny guy on a bike who one of them knew from school. She was very excited and immediately turned her back on the rest of us to chat with him. After he wheeled away, she disclosed that he was now a student at the National Theatre School in Montreal and was working at Stratford for the summer.
She was very impressed. I was not.
Little did I know.

A few years later, I met him under completely different circumstances, that is to say, at another summer camp, where I was a lowly counselor and he, the head of an elaborate drama program. As a ‘specialist’ he was free to dine anywhere he liked in the entire mess hall but chose, instead, to join me at my table of pubescent girls. There were no teen vampire TV series or movies in the 60’s, but these girls were the role models for all vixens to follow. Their manners left a lot to be desired, but everything else was up for grabs, you might say. Everyone at camp gave them a wide berth, except, of course, after ‘lights out’, when they would sneak outside the cabin and go on the prowl. One day, someone muttered to me that the Drama Head must really like me to sit at my table and put up with these piranhas at every mealtime. I felt flattered. Unlike other self-absorbed swains of his generation, he was a lot of fun. We hung around all summer and when we returned to the city, one of our first dates, as we used to call them then, was, of all things, to Stratford! He and his old NTS roommate had been invited to a party following the marriage of a couple of actors in the company and would I like to go for the evening to celebrate at ALAN BATES’ FARM?

Would I????

It is important to understand that in the year 1967, Alan Bates was pretty famous and extremely appealing, having just wowed the world (and me) in a sweet film called ‘Georgy Girl’, with the recently deceased, pre-weight-watching actress, Lynn Redgrave. I suppose that’s why he was invited to Stratford in the first place, following, as he did, in the footsteps of other great English thespians like Sir Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield, and setting the stage, so to speak, for renowned actors like Dame Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford to cross the pond for many summers to indulge their souls in theatrical bliss. It was Sir Tyrone Guthrie, himself, who created the Festival, in the first place, so it had a pretty strong reputation among those who mattered, dramatically. So here it was, one of the most popular movie/theatre stars of the time was having a party a mere few hours away from Toronto and I was invited!

I had a lengthy conversation with my father, who did not see the wisdom of hopping in a car with a strange boy (not that strange, in my estimation) and driving all the way to Stratford and back in one evening. (The ‘and back’ part completely goes without saying. It was 1967 in Ontario, not California, for goodness sakes! Sex hadn’t been invented, at least, as far as I knew at the time). I kept repeating the justification, “But it’s at ALAN BATES’ FARM?!” as if that would make the entire difference. In the end, we agreed to disagree and I escaped, taking my whole life in my own hands for the very first time. As you can see, I lived to tell about it, although it has taken a few decades.

It took a while to get to Stratford from Toronto in those days before the Kitchener bypass went in. The friend was driving, and his fiancée sat beside him in the navigator’s seat. We drove through the deserted town and got lost on the remote rural side roads, peering at mailboxes for the right address. After a while, we came upon a small man, leaning on a fencepost at the edge of a misty field. No kidding.

Our driver, an imposing young actor with resonant consonants, rolled down his window and boomed,

“Do you know the way to Alan Bates’ farm?”

“Yes, I do,” replied the mysterious little stranger.

“This,” he said, gesturing grandly towards the laneway, “is Alan Bates’ farm.
And I am Alan Bates! How’d ya do?”

Well you could have knocked me right over with anything that came in handy. This was the famous Alan Bates? I was not half as disappointed as the fiancé in the front seat. She was an imposing woman of considerable height, and I could see that Mr. Bates was immediately scratched from her ‘to do’ list. I was what was soon be known in fashion circles as ‘petite’ so I was able to cling to my faint hopes that he might fall instantly in love with me. It didn’t work out that way. (Bates was a ladies' man only in appearance). That was not my first brush, that evening, with the contrast of illusion and reality in show biz.

The farmhouse, itself, was quite a dump, disheveled as it was from the orgy that had been going on all day and night. Giant pots of crusty Chinese food lay strewn all over the kitchen. (It’s my guess that the Golden Bamboo had take-out back then). Used stemware and empty bottles of booze cluttered all horizontal surfaces. Also strewn all over the living room sofas and chairs were several actors, suffering from the consequences of binging and reveling. Among them, on the largest couch in the room, entwined in each other’s arms, were a young and not-dashing-at-the-moment Christopher Plummer and his leading lady, Zoe Caldwell. They were starring in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, although not right then. Their present state resembled a tacky production of ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’.

We couldn’t find the bride and groom at all, so we turned around and exited, stage left.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dress This House -5 All the World is Staged for TV

Once upon a time, a couple of weeks ago, in an upscale urban neighborhood, a truck pulled up in front of a house in the middle of the night. A curious woman rolled out of bed to peek out of her bedroom window to see what was going on across the street at such an hour. There seemed to be something mysterious going on at her neighbors’’ comparatively run-down house. During the night, other, smaller vans appeared, unloaded and disappeared. For several hours, a great deal of activity ensued, strange objects were moved in and out of the big truck by busy elves until, at dawn, they all drove off into the sunrise.

Suspicions were aroused. They were confirmed after a few more nocturnal visits, when a ‘For Sale’ sign went up on the lawn. When the house sold two days later after a frantic bidding war for a hundred thousand dollars over ‘asking’, her suspicions were totally confirmed.

“Staged!”, she reported to me, with complete confidence.

In the sprit of “The Show Must Go On”, many sellers have succumbed to the requirements of ‘House TV’ by re-decorating their homes just before they sell them so they’ll look good to the viewers (buyers). It seems it’s no longer enough to just make the beds and bake some cookies to sell your house.

What’s unfortunate, to me, is that we are being brainwashed into believing that we are not the only one(s) living in our homes anymore. We are being coached into thinking that every decision we make regarding home décor, renovation or repair must be carefully considered and designed not to please not just us, but the next buyer, as well.

Above all, everything must be as neutral as possible. In order to ‘bang’ our ‘bucks’ to the ‘max’, we must choose paint colours, tiles, flooring, window treatments and appliances that will have the widest appeal to the next owners, regardless of our own requirements or taste. It is no longer our nest, but a ‘stage’, properly set for a performance of life lived for others.

I know whereof I speak, having fallen for that ‘swing-in-a-tree’ lure in my last money pit. I have definitely learned the hard way that if you fall for the décor, you are in for a rude shock when it all gets carted away before you take possession.

As I said, I put this at the doorstep of what I call ‘House TV’ and all the decorators, agents and other 'stars' that serve up this conformity daily. Viewers are distracted from the important but less photogenic considerations, like operating costs, by trivialities, which are easily changed or adapted, just to serve the dramatic needs of the program.

That’s fine, for TV, but for life, it’s not as successful.

While it doesn’t take a genius to put a pot of posies on the coffee table, it does take someone with common sense to see past the fresh, damp paint and the new duvet in the master (largest) bedroom to the cracking foundation, the low-efficiency furnace, plastic plumbing, aluminum wiring, shabby shingles and fuzzy stuff on the basement walls to realize that there’s a lot more to worry about than the colour of the kitchen cabinets when buying a house. Figuring in the actual carrying costs, things like taxes, hydro, gas, water, cable are not seriously considered since they don’t make pretty pictures on TV.

I have actually seen people (they may not be real since they are on TV) reject lovely, affordable, well-built, excellently located homes because they didn’t like the dining room chandelier or the purple bedroom. Neither did I, but those could be easily changed. This does not occur to them.

Removing the effects of the owner and ‘neutralizing’ the space with a cursory coat of cream latex hides more than you think. Its natural state tells you a lot about how the property has been maintained and lets you see how people actually lived in it. If they cluttered (the new ‘C’-word) their coffee tabletops with books or, god-forbid, pictures of their grandchildren, they might also have been nesters who took considerable pride in their homes, keeping everything in good repair over the years. But if the house is 'staged', you'll never know.

For example, an agent recently told my friend that she would have to rent a locker, empty all her stuff out of her condo, crash with her friends for a few weeks and pay thousands of dollars to stage the rooms to make her place saleable. I took umbrage, and not just because I am the friend with whom she might crash. Really. This has gone too far.

I can’t help but think the real estate agents are in on all this. After all, it’s a lot better to list a house that quickly sells itself than one with idiosyncrasies. It doesn’t cut into their commission to convince the sellers to spend a fortune bringing their place up to snuff. It adds to it. But times change. After all, it was that same agent, ten years ago, who urged me to look past the hideous flocked wallpaper, cheap sconces dripping off every wall like the candelabras in Bunuel’s “Beauty and the Beast”, worn down linoleum flooring in the shabby dark kitchen with the Harvest Gold appliances, and miles of powder blue broadloom which stretched right up to the emerald green shag, orange Berber and stained beige pile in the bedrooms, to see the possibilities. I had never been surrounded by so much bad taste and ugliness in my life, and I travel occasionally on public transportation!

With her help, we were able to get the place for an amazing price. It definitely had what used to be prized as ‘potential’.
The house had huge picture windows shrouded by the heavy brocade drapes, which were easily removed, by me, the very first moment we took possession. The living room overlooked a large green park, not rows of cramped garages and laneways as is typical in this city. The house had been built over 30 years before by a reputable builder and had, what used to be called ‘good bones’, a terrific layout, double the square footage of newer models in the ‘hood’ with their 1” granite countertops and fake crown moldings. I wonder why agents have changed their tune about potential? Could they be on the take?

A few thousand dollars and a lot of peeling later and we had the décor we wanted. I doubt that it would pass muster with the design police, since we do have a lot of books and ‘art’, but we find it comfy and quite livable.

I guess I will have to empty it out, paint it beige and come live with you when I want to sell it!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dress This House-4 Hunting the House

If you can buy a house after only looking at three alternatives, like they do on TV, you’re a better House Hunter than I am, Gunga Din.

I will readily admit: I am a Real Estate Junkie. Although I’ve only purchased four houses in my life, I have spent way too much time looking at ads, fondling floor plans and touring open houses than is probably healthy. But in this, I believe, I am in good company. (If not good, than certainly populous, or there would never be such a huge audience for TV shows that dwell on this very subject).

As a seasoned ‘looker’ I have pretty much seen it all, contemporary split-levels decorated in late Italian Palazzo, Tudor side-plans done in baby-Bauhaus and of course, the typical Loire Valley chateau, ever-popular in my own city, Toronto, decorated in early French Revolution. Fortunately for me, I can see past the paws on the coffee table feet, the damask wallpaper clinging to the stairwells and the sheer tie-backs shrouding the bay windows to the hardwood floors hiding under the broadloom, to determine what real estate agents used to call ‘possibilities’.

Not to brag, but I also have the ability to visualize how floor plans will take shape, and more importantly, size, unlike the rest of the house-looking population, who seem a little taken aback when the 8’x10’ master bedroom in their new luxury condo finally takes shape, resembling a cell in medieval prison, and they discover it won’t hold their king sized bed and a dresser and two night tables. And them.

Lately, there comes a new phenomenon to help these architecturally-interior decoratedly-challenged house hunters. The void has been filled by what are now referred to, in 'professional' real estate circles as ‘stagers’. (This is not to be confused with ‘fluffers’ who I believe have entirely different chores to perform). These people sweep in to your house and sweep out the detritus of your entire life, replacing it with a few charming pieces of neutral furniture (more charming than yours, that is, and certainly more neutral) to ‘depersonalize’ the space, making it easier for the emotionally-stressed and mentally-challenged buyers to fall in love at first sight with the cute sofa cushions they will never own or the elegant dining room set that is not staying with the house. Any splashes of colour, on the walls or, god forbid, in your ‘art’ are repainted or removed, as are all the pictures of your vacations and family. The cranberry glass collection must go away, in a box under the bed. A few shpritzes of Febreeze cinnamon spray and some fresh bouquets arranged here and there to attract the eyes away from any uneven floors or broken tiles, and you are ready for the over-bidding to start!

The goal (besides the obvious one of enriching the stager) is to distract the buyer sufficiently by the décor and aroma so that he/she/they lose all sense and reason and immediately offer you thousands of dollars over ‘asking’. The secondary goal is to get an offer that at least covers the cost of the stager.

When the real estate market ‘tanks’, as it has south of the border….condolences to my American friends, it might be understandable that you have to make a serious effort to palm your property off on the few stray buyers in the marketplace. Whatever it takes. But, up here, up north, as we say, on the other side of the Peace Bridge, where we still have a few rules, the centre still holds, so you might ask yourself why, in an overheated housing market, when people will pounce on anything with or without shingles, it is necessary to go this extra trouble and expense?

I believe, I, as usual, have the answer. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dress This House - 3 Form Follows Function

A great man once coined this phrase, and, although very few people in the decorating/renovation game give it any credence, I, for one, heartily agree.

I have learned the hard way, of course. Like many young people in a decorating frenzy, I fell, more than once, for a pretty tap or sink or other decorative object and have had my heart broken when it failed to perform.

(This is not an extended metaphor about finding true love, but the feelings are similar, I concur).

For example, right now, in my bathroom, I have a gorgeous rectangular sink which narrows at its base, like a funnel. This tapering design makes it impossible for it to empty out as fast as it fills from the lovely and powerful chrome single-lever tap arching gracefully over it. It’s a daily contest, to see if I can wash my face quickly enough to beat the rapidly rising tide. I often give up and remove the drain-plug-thingie altogether.

It doesn’t look so gorgeous lying on the countertop but it alleviates a lot of stress this way.

Back in the 80’s, a friend once hired a very famous and flamboyant decorator to ‘do’ her master bedroom. Among other things, he raised the ceiling up to the inside of the roof in a Baroque vault and painted it with angelic cherubs resembling her three rambunctious children, floating in clouds above the bed. I said he was flamboyant. I don't know how she ever got a good night's sleep, or anything else, with those kids hovering overhead, watching her and her husband, ready to pounce.

This designer created a glass-walled master bathroom. He positioned the shower heads in the shower in such a way that whenever they were turned on, the water sprayed out past the glass door onto the floor. He also installed the very first on-the-counter vessel sink that anyone had ever seen. It took months to come from Italy. She had to wait till the St. Lawrence River thawed! It cost a fortune, needless to say.

Whenever she turned the fancy tap on, the water poured down the back of the bowl and shot up the opposite side nearest her midriff and sprayed water all over her. The sink looked terrific, though.

My favorite, among many disasters in this vein, were my Kohler bathroom fixtures in my last house, the one with the island. The previous owners (P.O.’s) had apparently spared no expense when renovating this house I was to fall in love with. Well, as it turned out, they had spared a lot of expense by dodging the city inspectors and doing a lot of the work themselves.

But, as soon as I saw the swing hanging from a tall tree in the enormous backyard I was a goner. For some reason, it reminded me of the happily-ever-after house in one of my favorite movies, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and I made an immediate connection. But the house had ‘issues’ and, like Santa Claus, himself, was destined to disappoint.

Strangely, the ‘house inspector’ we hired, who gave the place an expensive once-over, failed to notice there was no structural support for the floors in the family room. He also missed the live wires masking- taped to the insides of the bedroom closet. It also turned out that there was absolutely no insulation in the bedroom walls, a definite convenience in a Canadian winter. We were all fooled by that huge island in the new kitchen, of course. So after a fairly brisk winter, we decided to renovate the bedroom. Since the P.O.’s had decided to knock down the walls between the bathroom and bedroom creating a unique open-concept space which didn’t ‘work’, especially if you wanted any privacy when bathing or attending to your ‘toilette’ or, even more importantly, your toilet, it was necessary to re-arrange the master bathroom, too.

Our friend, the architect, cleverly designed a spiffy new layout, which included doors. Rather than going to the additional expense of buying new plumbing fixtures, we decided to keep the relatively new and very expensive ones we had. The shade was something called ‘Desert Sand’ or ‘Sandstone’ and I picked a unique peach and caramel Italian marble to match. It, too, came all the way from Italia and much of it, to my horror, crumbled in the hands of the tile-setter.

The bathtub was the size of a swimming pool. I couldn’t stretch out in it at all for fear of drowning. It sat on a platform under a huge skylight and was surrounded by mirrors, a mistake I will never make again. In the vanity, I had a large, square sink with a spray showerhead in case I wanted to rinse any vegetables, and stunning square-topped taps with interchangeable inserts in case I wanted to change the accent colors on a whim.

Best of all, there was a very large ‘excusado’, (don’t bother to look it up… means toilet, but it sounds much nicer) low slung and sexy. As good as it looked, it could never bring itself to flush in one go, so to speak. It took at least three or four turns to get even the merest wisp of toilet paper to vanish completely. When I complained to the plumber, he confided that Kohler toilets never flushed properly.

But it sure looked terrific!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dress This House - 2 Castaway

Islands belong in a stream, not in a kitchen.

During my most recent kitchen renovation, I was told by every kitchen designer to put an island right in the middle of it or I’d be hopelessly out of date. The implication was that my property values would wither if I went without, at the very least, a peninsula. Since I had already had an island the size of a small landing field in my former kitchen, (with a white Corian counter which I had to take better care of than my own children…never mind what they say in the brochure), I was not interested.

Islands are impediments. They get in your way. You have to go around them. Constantly. That is, of course, if you are planning to use the kitchen to cook in and not just look at. I firmly believe that unless you are using your kitchen to teach a large class, which, understandably, you’d want to keep on the other side of an immovable barrier, you’d be much happier with a regular table and chairs.

They can be moved around, put against a wall or even stuck in the middle of the room.

Like an island!

And while we're on the subject of kitchens:

Perches are for birds, not for people.

At my age, I am not interested in mounting a shaky stool to eat my breakfast, drink my homemade coffee and read the morning paper (all culturally doomed activites). I am short and it requires a great deal of effort for me to climb up and down from a stool.

I sat in a high chair when I was a baby and that was enough for me.

No one I know, who has kitchen stools, actually uses them. Children can fall off them. No one ever sat at the four that I had to buy to adorn the island in my former kitchen, unless, of course, I was having a party and they wanted to blockade the hors d’oeuvres from the other guests.

Islands always have stools around them.

I think I mentioned that I hate islands.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dress This House-1 Future Shock

Back in the nineties, a soothsayer named Faith Popcorn predicted that the coming decades would be devoted to something called ‘cocooning’. After some ‘splainin, it was ascertained that this had nothing to do with spinning pupas. She really meant that those among us with plans to live in the future would be concentrating a lot more of our efforts on our immediate surroundings than we had in the previous part of the century, when we were just too busy fighting world wars, breeding boomers and growing our hair really long.

She turned out to be right…..a fine soothsayer she’d be if she were wrong!...(apologies to Larry Gelbart who should, in turn, apologize to Plautus).

It didn’t seem to make much sense at the time, especially for women, coming out of an era that was obsessed with shoulder pads and bashing through glass ceilings. Faith, like other ‘predictors’, also made other wild forecasts, which, like 'Houses That Clean Themselves' a prediction made in a 1960 Look Magazine article which I happen to have saved, have yet to catch on.

At least at my house.

Martha Stewart, for one, paid attention and led the way. She intiated what was to become a torrent of television programs devoted to feeding our fledglings and feathering our nests, so much so that entire channels were eventually created and filled with 24 hours of advice on buying, selling, repairing, renovating, cluttering and, more recently, de-cluttering our dwellings.
The characters on these shows were not actors, but real people.

Well, sort of real. They let producers into their homes and their lives, to construct mini-realities filled with catastrophes and crisis that are easily solved in half an hour, unlike in real life, where I live, and the plumber has yet to install the matching plug in my bathtub after two years of nagging. The ‘stars’ were the decorators, renovators, agents and therapists who pretended to care for the duration of the makeover, and then vanished, like all contractors, into the vapor, leaving us to wonder if there might be the possibility of some new program to deal with the fallout of all these renovations and impulsive house purchases.

Naturally, I have gathered some wisdom from watching these shows and, not incidentally, from actually living in the real world of home renovation and decoration and would like to take this opportunity to pass along some observations for you to consider or to ignore, at your peril.

First of all, and most importantly, things that look pretty on TV don’t necessarily function well in the real world.
And visa versa.

We all know that goes for people, too. Or there wouldn't be any celebrities, would there?

Most of the star/decorators on TV are relatively attractive and, like therapists, may have lousy personal lives, but I am only going to talk about ‘housey’ stuff at this time. On a recent show, par example, the ‘star/decorator’ admitted to compromising her perfect choice for upholstery fabric because it wouldn’t ‘read’ well on TV, so her clients were stuck with something far less desirable but more photogenic. Of course, they still had to live with these shmattas long after the cameras went home, but that’s the way it is in TVland.

To maintain their pristine appearance, those white marble or black granite counter tops that everyone salivates over when 'house-hunting' need more care than the average person might care to take. Look at Michaelangelo’s David or Venus de Milo if you don’t believe me. In spite of claims to the contrary, everything scratches, stains and deteriorates after a while, including you.

In real life, it’s just the way it is.

And while I’m at it, crystal chandeliers were never really meant to adorn a kitchen, at least, not mine, where actual cooking takes place. Unless you are merely warming up leftover takeout food on an occasional basis, the grease that hovers in the air after you fry up a batch of bacon or sear a rack of lamb on the cooktop, is going to fly right up and attach itself to those sparkly babies like glue.

Stock up on the Windex at Costco because you, or your maid, if you are fortunate enough to have one, are going to need it!

The Return of the Native

Hi! I'm back!
Did you miss me?
Like all teachers, I'm in the habit of taking 2 months off. Hope I didn't lose everybody.
It's been a hectic Spring and I have been trying to make some money so I can indulge my blogging.
Looking forward to sharing thoughts with you again.
Hope to hear back from you, too, when the spirit moves.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It’s For You-2: The Call from the Wild

Times in my life when a cell phone would have come in handy:

1. When my tire flattened on the 401 and no one would stop to help me.

2. When I grew weary fending off an over-amorous blind date at a drive-in showing “55 Day at Peking” and wanted to be rescued - immediately!

3. The one night of my life when I was actually enjoying myself so much on a date that time dissolved and I didn’t get home till 4am and my parents were worried. (If you knew me, back then, you’d know they had nothing to worry about).

4. Whenever I forgot my shopping list at home. (This happened more often than you’d think, even before I became chronically forgetful).

5. When, as a young mother, I stood at my suburban window, staring out at the snowy night, wondering if my husband was going to make it up the Don Valley Parkway at 1 am, after a long day’s work on a late-night TV show.

The occasions that really stand out in my mind, though, are the many dinnertimes, when I stood anxiously looking out yet another kitchen window, positioned, as it was, to give a panoramic view of the entrance to a different little townhouse development, wondering whether or not to serve dinner to my hungry child or wait just a few more minutes, in case my husband really left the studio when he said he did and was about to walk in the door and we could dine together like those families on TV and in Norman Rockwell paintings. You see, if he’d have had a little iPhone (or even a Nokia) back then, he could have reported any little frequent distractions that often caused a delay in his departure, or informed me of his progress through the rush hour traffic, and my fears of his demise would have immediately been allayed. True, they might have been replaced by anger and frustration, but those are a lot healthier than morbid fantasies of car crashes and ‘what-to-wear-to-the-shiva’ concerns.

Instead, many an evening would find me banging my head on the Cuisinart, while a small, starving boy clung to my ankles, begging for nourishment.

Nowadays, with our matching iPhones, my husband and I keep pretty close tabs on each other. Believe me, it’s a matter of necessity, not trust. I still forget my shopping list at home and he is always on duty, wherever he may be, to report any items I may be forgetting to pick up. Since he cannot be trusted to stay within sight, even if I am talking to him (especially at Costco), I find a quick call, to ascertain his whereabouts, is immediately reassuring. It saves hours of searching. (I never have to worry at a mall, since he can always be found at the Mac store!)

I suppose the day will come when he will be found snoozing on a bench under a potted plant, mid-Galleria, with the other male senior spouses, but hopefully, that day is still far off….although, you never know.

All this reminiscing has a point, besides the obvious therapeutic one. How can ‘society’ demonize a device that has given me such peace of mind? What parent hasn’t heaved a sigh of relief after reaching their mindless teenage daughter, who reassures them that she is, indeed, over at her friend’s house researching the 'Causes of the French Revolution', and not running amok in the big city? (The French Revolution should be an immediate tip-off that something is fishy, since it vanished off the curriculum decades ago, to be replaced by the 'History of Rock and Roll', but that’s another story).

This reminds me, who among us, still lucky enough to have them, hasn’t rejoiced in the hourly calls of an elderly parent, wondering where the hell we are and why haven’t we called? You can roam but you can't escape!

Sure, the cell phone has gotten a few people into trouble.
Tiger Woods, most recently, springs to mind. But that was mostly about texting, which is another matter, entirely. Leaving a written trail of guilt like that has driven the wiretappers out of business!
NB People who like to text: There is a very clever saying that goes,
“He’s as dumb as a bag of hammers” or something.
You know who you are!

Just like everything else in life, there’s a good side, and a not-so-good one. Fortunately, the people in charge are ever vigilant. Back in the 15C, it didn’t take the Church long to realize that they’d better sew up the rights to the printing press or people would start thinking of other things to publish besides Guttenberg Bibles. Remember the funny stories about how, when the first automobiles hit the streets, someone would have to walk ahead of the car, waving a red flag, to warn pedestrians away? Doesn’t everyone of my generation glow in the dark because we sat too close to the TV in our childhood? (Well, maybe that one is a little too close for comfort).

I imagine that when the wheel was invented, some old bureaucrat decreed all this rolling around must stop because someone could get hurt! (This probably led to the invention of brakes, since all efforts, throughout history, to shackle the progress of man and womankind simply encourage even greater creativity to get around the rules.)

When I was a young woman, barely out of my teens, as they say, I trotted off to Europe for four months after second-year university, as we call it in Canada, (sophmore, to my U.S. readers) I toured with a gaggle of girlfriends. During that entire time, roaming all over Europe and the Middle East, yet, not one of us ever even considered placing a long distance telephone call home, even though we were desperate to know of our scholastic results and wondered if our families were still well and intact and thinking of us. More to the point, some of us fell ill at various times and even got attacked (the seriousness depends on whether or not you think rubbing and pinching on the Madrid transportation system was alarm-worthy or just another day on a “Streetcar Named Desire”, as my friend called it). A few airmail letters, picked up at local American Express offices, kept us somewhat informed. Those on the other side of the vast ocean had to be satisfied with tissue-paper ‘aerograms’, posted home from various remote locations. At the time, no one thought much of it. Weeks went by, with limited communication, and life went on. This certainly was an improvement over the days, a century before, when wagon trains lit out for ‘the west’ from someplace called St. Joe, leaving relatives for years, without any contact, unless the Pony Express happened to ride by your homestead.

Of course, all this has changed completely. Because they can, people must now be in constant communication. You’ve heard all this before, so I won’t bore you, or myself, about the pathetic nature of the socially-challenged, who have to be reminded to turn off cell phones in movies and restaurants. (Remember the days when, if you heard a buzz and saw someone jump up and quickly squeeze by everybody in his row, you knew it was a doctor getting a life-saving emergency call and proper deference was shown?) It certainly didn’t take long until the joy (and relief) of this possibility turned out to be ‘a bad thing’ (apologies to Martha Stewart….do I even have to add the ‘Stewart’ for you to know who I mean?)

There was an automatic assumption that students carrying the first cell phones were, obviously, drug dealers, who needed to keep in touch with their ‘clients’. This replaced the previous notion that pager-carrying pupils were the drug dealers, and not future doctors. More often than not, the caller on the other end of any device was a mother, bypassing the school office to inform her forgetful child that she was dropping off the bag of lunch left on the kitchen counter and to meet her out front NOW!

In the last few years of my teaching career, I enjoyed participating in a special ritual, devoted to this new invention. Students would be reminded, at the beginning of the day on the P.A., to leave their cell phones in their lockers during class time….or else! (This kind of threat had no ‘teeth,’ as they say, since there were never any ‘elses’ to breaking the rules anymore. Besides, as everyone knows, a locker is the least safe place in a school. Any drugs you hide in there will be sniffed out for sure. Your lunch, should you remember it, will be eaten by ants or mice. One of my students had her fur coat swiped. It was stolen right out of her locker. Apparently, no one noticed.
The only things that can be stored safely in school lockers are books. No one wants them.

At the beginning of each class, teachers would proceed to remind their students to make sure all such technology was ‘turned off’ (which proves my thesis that no one ever expected the kids to obey the first command from head office). It wouldn’t take too long into the lesson before some wacky musical tone would emit from a backpack and an embarrassed student would admit to possession of a weapon of personal destruction, which would then have to be confiscated for the time being, to be returned at the end of class. (No one felt confident enough to actually take the phone, permanently. Who could afford the ensuing lawsuits?)

Further along in the period, usually at a crucial ‘teachable moment’, a student would leap up in the air, as if electrocuted, and subsequently raise his hand and ask to leave the room. If a test was returned and someone didn’t like the mark she received and ran out of the room in tears, without permission, you could bet that when the classroom phone rang, two minutes later, it was the Principal calling you down, after class, for a meeting with the mother of said child, who had somhow miraculously learned of her daughter’s disappointment and needed to speak to you right away to renegotiate.

Yes, technology has a way of speeding things up, in life. It changes our concept of time.
No more life-threatening treks across the continent before getting in touch.
No more hopeless worrying over late night commutes or questionable exam results.
And no more uninterrupted romantic evenings that last until dawn.

It’s definitely now or never.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's For You!

Like any romance, an interaction with new technology begins with an irresistible attraction, followed by infatuation, a honeymoon period, a relatively content period of adjustment, then, the inevitable taking-for-granted phase which descends into constant criticism before the inevitable demonization and outright rejection. Think about it. Didn’t you love your first computer enough to tolerate, if not completely overlook its many shortcomings? Was it more than a couple of years before you were cursing the very qualities that made you fall in love in the first place? How long did it take you to start sneaking around behind its back, popping in to the Mac store to check out the prettier, shinier models with the bigger ‘hard drives’? And where is that big hulk of plastic and wires now? On some container ship, traveling across the Pacific to a scenic dumpsite in China? ….on a vacation? Shame on you!

Today, I would like to trace the history of another modern piece of technology that changed everything humankind ever knew or did before it showed up. For the record, it’s a Canadian invention, even though many Americans have tried to take credit, as they often do in such circumstances. Therefore, you won’t see Ken Burns making any tedious, albeit, thorough documentary about it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

I am speaking, of course, of the telephone. That little device now condescendingly referred to as a ‘land line’ by the latest generation of users (we are long past the honeymoon phase) has, in a little over a hundred years, changed everything that went before, from where, why, when and how people communicate with each other to our entire sense of time and place. What used to be totally inappropriate or even, alarming behavior, has become commonplace.

Think about it. A few years ago, if you had seen someone walking down the street, babbling away in an intense conversation with himself, what would you have immediately concluded? Wouldn’t you have crossed to the other side of the road, just in case? These days, do you bat an eye? If you tsk, tsk, you have already joined the ranks of the demonizers, proving my thesis!

We all know how excited old Alexander Graham Bell was to get a response to his first call to a Mr. Watson, and some of us have even visited his house/museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, while others have been right there but didn’t even bother, opting, instead, to go for a lobster dinner, but to get a really clear picture of how exciting this miracle of human interaction was to the general populace, watch the opening scenes of one of my favorite old movies, “Meet Me in St. Louis”. At dinnertime, the entire family gets to anticipate and then listen in to a ‘long distance call from New York’, placed by a swain calling the eldest daughter (the one who’s not Judy Garland). The reason they can all eavesdrop is because the machine, cumbersome and enormous and encased in mahogany (like all first models of any new technology) hangs on the wall in the main hallway. No one ever uses the phone again, during that entire movie. Judy still gazes across her vast lawn, longing for that ‘boy next door’, but she never phones him. Or he, her. God forbid! Teenagers have yet to discover the urgency for constant verbal contact and besides, in is original form, the telephone just too ungainly to sneak into your sleeve so you can lean on your wrist and secretly communicate with your boyfriend during your math class. In “Meet Me”, a telephone call, from New York, no less, was a big deal, treated with appropriate respect and awe. It raised the social standing of the daughter considerably, instead of being the cause of a visit to the Principal’s office for a reprimand. (Notice I didn’t say ‘detention’ since that device, like that old wall phone in the hallway, has also long-gone on some slow boat to China).

Back in the days when I first noticed the telephone, it continued to hold a place of conspicuous honor in the front hallway. Although some of my family and friends still had to reach up high on the wall to converse into older models, my family, newly ensconced in bungalownian splendor in suburbia, had the latest design, a shiny black upgrade. It still sported that huge circular dial, the bain of every manicure. But who knew about manicures unless you were a perky secretary moving to New York to work on Madison Avenue, sleep with the boss and never even get engaged, in a Rona Jaffe novel? The phone perched on the little shelf attached by wrought iron to an upholstered seat. Right under the telephone was a specially designated opening which accommodated something called a ‘telephone book’ in which were listed all the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone in the entire city! If you had any need for privacy, you could, if the cord was long enough, carry the contraption into the front hall closet and bury yourself beneath the winter coats for sound insulation. But long cords came much later. As did my need for them.

Technologically advanced neighborhoods had already dispensed with the ‘party line’, a feature which required next door neighbors to share the same input wire, enabling them to hear the ‘party’s’ ring and surreptitiously pick up and listen in to each others’ conversations. Since there wasn’t a lot of entertainment around the house, in those years, this was pretty exciting!

There was no ‘call display’ either, so there was a great deal of anxiety and anticipation whenever the phone rang. You were taught to answer, “Gordon residence, to whom do you wish to speak?” That’s how the Andersons and the Cleavers did it. Nothing less than a polite, “Hello” would do at our house, since my father received his business bookings on our phone. Without answering machines, it was crucial to inquire if the person “wished to leave a message” and to write it down, legibly, or else. When you placed a call, you would say something like, “May I please speak to Marilyn?” instead of “Yo!” since, without ‘call display’ you never knew who would answer on the other end. The sound of the busy signal was frustrating and you knew you were in for a long wait if there were teens in the house.

Speaking of which, we were the exception in that department, too. Our calls were strictly limited in number and volume for at any moment of the day or night, my dad might get a call for work. You might wonder why, in a household of three women, two of them at prime phone age and one trapped in suburbia taking care of them, why my father didn’t just install a second line and solve a whole lot of aggravation. Well, things like that weren’t so simple. Like a lot of things people used to do which now seem so ridiculous and self-defeating to us. in these more enlightened times, it seemed to be a better idea to see the phone as an opportunity for deprivation and a source of punishment rather than as a simple means of communication. How far we have come! Not! (A little current jargon injected here to give this rant a little historical accuracy).

I think the 50’s and 60’s were the ‘Golden Age of the Telephone’. The phone was the favorite technological device of the adolescent ‘baby boom’ generation and, as such, was ripe for diversification. In a few years, it went from being the weighty, black clunker moping in the hallway to being redesigned as a slim, dare I say, cute, pastel plastic oval, small enough to fit on a young girl’s night table IN HER BEDROOM! It was called, in a brainwave of brilliance, “The Princess Phone”. If you managed to get your parents to ‘coronate’ you and rent one from Bell (monopolistic behemoth), you would henceforth be known in your circle, as royalty, due the deference and respect that rise in status entailed.

The brilliant creation of the teenage demographic required the creation of products for that ‘sector’ and this one was the biggest hit! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but if you had been a teenage girl, like I was, during that era, well, you’d understand the enthusiasm. No longer a child, but not yet allowed the privileges of adulthood, we early teens wandered, undefined, until this little baby was created just for us. I have a reprint of a behavior guidebook, written during that era, which instruct teenagers on the niceties of living, (how to entertain without alcohol, how to ask for and accept a ‘date’, no petting, how any sexual conduct which ‘goes too far’ is always the girl’s fault, etc.) which devotes an entire chapter to how to use the telephone in a respectful and appropriate way. (As a teacher, I used to read it to the class to cheer them up near exam time. I liked to see them fall off their chairs in convulsions of laughter and disbelief, their cell phones spilling out of their pockets).

Suddenly, ‘The Princess” was on every female bedside table. There was no corresponding brown model for boys, of course, since even back then, young males were not disposed to talk much, either to each other or anyone else. If you had your own number, you could talk all night and day. One of my friends and I used to have a rule, to which we religiously adhered, that we could only end our conversations on the stroke of the hour….a kind of ‘talk around the clock’. If that minute hand slipped past the twelve, we had to keep chatting until it made its way all the way around again. We never had any trouble filling in the time. And that was when there were good shows on TV!

This cultural behavior was celebrated, at the time, in the opening number of a huge Broadway hit called, “Bye, Bye Birdie”. The song is called, “The Telephone Song” and in it, the huge cast of teens, take turns phoning each other with the compelling news that Hugo has pinned Kim. You might not think this is much of subject for a hit song, but first, familiar ‘Br-r-r-r-ing!’ of the telephone, breaking the silence in the theatre, sent shockwaves through the audience. The second call provoked a burst of applause. By the time the third kid answered the third ring, the house was brought down….as they like to say in the theatrical world. This was big.

This celebration of the telephone gave it it’s due, both as a communication instrument and a cultural landmark.

(I don’t recall anyone writing a song about the pager or the cell phone. Is there a ditty about plasma TV’s? “You Got Mail” just doesn’t raise the hackles, although you could make a case for “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson, I suppose).

So where else did the telephone have to go, but down?