Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Mind/Body Problemo

Philosophers have toyed with the duality of our mental and physical ‘essences’ forever and you can check out that
mulling-over-stuff yourself, on Wikipedia, if you have a mind to (ha!ha!).

Watching, and especially thinking about the Olympics this week has prompted me to offer another level of interpretation to this whole concept as it applies to competitive sports.
There are those who see such endeavors as a form of physical effort, engaging things like muscles, balance, co-ordination and strength in stunts of daring-do. To me, this clearly demonstrates a complete absence of the more analytical and contemplative aspects of human nature. Hence, when watching these ‘sports’ others, (like me) who posit their existence between their ears, when observing their opposites luging, moguling, skelling, crossing and lutzing, can be frequently heard to to utter the expression, “Are you out of your mind?”

In spite of occasional fruitless attempts at exertion (I once bought an exercise bike, recumbent, of course, and looked at it for several months before admitting defeat) I have always leaned towards a life ‘of the mind’. This does not eliminate me from having an opinion about sports, since this is a democracy and anybody with a mouth, brain or brawn dominant, is entitled to that. Just watch a little Fox News and you'll see what I mean.

Credentials are very important when commenting on or participating in all aspects of competitive sports, so over the next few entries, I will present mine.

Keep in mind that, although born in the land of ice and snow, I was discouraged, from an early age, from actually going outside during the winter months, unless absolutely necessary. In such emergencies, I was bundled up in a one-piece snowsuit with a zipper that traveled from my ankles to my chin; my feet were stuffed into ‘galoshes’, which were snapped tightly with clips, cutting off the circulation below my shins like a tourniquet. Hand-knit mittens, strung through my sleeves, dangled just out of the reach of my frostbitten fingers. This getup was topped by a woolen hat, pulled down snugly over my ears and eyes, drastically limiting visibility. That didn’t really matter so much, since once shoved out onto the verandah (a word that conjures up images of wicker rocking chairs and mint juleps, but in reality meant drifts of icy snow and treacherous stairs) there was nothing to see but white.
Besides, I couldn’t move, anyways.

In fact, the idea that you could actually physically move your body around much at all, during those months, was foreign to my generation. Trudging back and forth to school, heaving a few snowballs a couple of feet (or meters, if you prefer) and falling down on patches of ice and lying as helpless as a beached whale were about as athletic as it got. I speak, of course, from personal experience. The most vigorous movement I experienced on those cold days, was the frantic rubbing of my tingling extremities to bring back circulation after an hour of outdoor play.

But then there was the winter 'of the mind’.

Wintry Sunday afternoons would find me lying on the living room floor in front of the TV, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The blurry black and white images of skiers barreling down Swiss mountains, banging into gates or flying off jumps into the air, filled me with the ‘thrill of victory’ without actually having to suffer any ‘agony of defeat’. By the time I reached adolescence, there were rumors that people actually went to exotic far-away places like the Laurentians, to participate in this activity, for fun! After all the hours spent observing, I was confident that I could schuss with the best of them and began to campaign for permission to go on a little Christmas break with my girlfriends to Ste. Agathe. I was shocked when my father, the original Nanook of the North, absolutely refused to allow this adventure.

He had no concerns that I might run amok in the mountains. He knew I was too much of a stick in the mud to get into any trouble. He spoke from experience as an avid skier, himself. In his heyday in Timmins, tramping around in what he nostalgically called ‘the bush’, he practically lived on skis eight months of the year. His old skis and poles were gathering mold in our basement. They were very long, thin and made of wood and hides, just like him. (One time, my sister and I snuck them out into our yard, which had a tiny hill over the sump pump, stuck our boots into the leather bindings and slipped down the incline to see what we were missing. Unwaxed, or ungreased, or whatever it was they weren’t, they stuck persistently as we tried to get some slippage. I was not impressed and was left with the feeling that there was more to it).

No, he objected, he said, because of the danger of getting killed. He claimed that unless you were skiing every single day, your chances of getting fatally injured were extremely likely. He was probably right, since, in those days, no one wore any kind of protective gear, head or otherwise. Somehow, I think the exorbitant price tag of a hundred bucks, all in, factored heavily, too, but he would never have admitted that. So my friends went off without me and I never got the chance to develop my innate athletic ability. Mind you, neither did they, since it rained the entire week and there was no snow, an occurrence that happens in Canada more times than our reputation might have you think, eh, BC?

A few years later, I managed to join a day trip, with a couple of guys, to Barrie, where a molehill had recently been christened a mountain and you could rent the necessary gear and pay a fortune to spend hours standing in long lineups for the single t-bar lift up the frosty incline. Once at the top, I took one look down the steep slope, hitched my rentals over my shoulder and trudged down the hill to the ‘lodge’ to spend the afternoon nursing a hot chocolate.

I had come around to my father’s opinion. As far as athletics went, mine was destined to be a life of the mind.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brushes with Fame – 2 "Tobi or Not Tobi"

In my last year of university, in the nick of time, I finally met a young man who caught my fancy. I won’t go into the details now, but suffice it to say, we began to enjoy each other’s company. We shared many interests, but unlike me, he didn’t hover around the backstage of life, he was right out there trying everything. He dragged me along with him, for the time of my life.

He directed the college’s annual musical comedies, wrote and directed the annual school review, ‘U.C. Follies’, a forerunner to SNL, and had actually attended the National Theatre School in Montreal before his mother put her foot down and made him come back home (in those days few Torontonians of our religious affiliation left the city to attend university unless their marks were too low for them to get in to U. of T. Jewish parents did not like their children leaving home before they got married, and sometimes even afterwards, too). In his spare time, he led the little Gourmet Club, a group of young gourmands who dined together weekly at whatever exotic eateries they could find nestled between Toronto's delis, pizzerias and the ever ubiquitous ‘Fran’s'. He also wrote the theatre reviews for the Varsity, the U. of T. newspaper. It was in his capacity as a budding Kenneth Tynan (in a good way) that he invited me to share his pair of centre orchestra seats to the opening night of every theatrical event that occurred in Toronto that year.

And, as the song says, “It was a very good year”, for theatre in our city.
A little background:
In those days, Toronto was on ‘the tour’ of every major pre and post- Broadway road show and many international companies paid visits, too. In 1960, ‘Camelot’ had tried out in our new O’Keefe Centre (now a condo). It was about five hours long before they trimmed it down. I had seen the whole thing and it was worth every minute. This new, ultra modern theatre and the refurbished Royal Alexandra put Toronto on the theatrical map. There were also several smaller venues, like the beloved Crest, (now a grocery store) which put on excellent local productions of the classics. Burned into my memory, is the infamous sleepwalking scene in their production of Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth, following a bizarre stage direction, climbed a high, centre-stage platform, (without tripping, even though her eyes were closed) but then got her flowing nightgown caught on a nail (oh, those unions) and had to multi-task a little, improvising the shlepping of the chiffon and the hand washing to sensational effect, for a student audience.

In my last year of high school, there were several productions of ‘Hamlet’ in town, lucky for me, since I was studying the play in English Lit. We could compare the recently filmed version, “Hamlet at Elsinore” which was actually filmed in Denmark at the genuine castle, starring Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine and Canada’s own, Donald Sutherland, in the small role of “Survivor Fortinbras”, with many real live stage productions. I didn’t have to choose, I got to see them all. There was a memorable locally produced version starring a teenage Richard Monette (later the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for many years). My girlfriend still treasures the coveted autograph she received from the other ‘Hamlet’ production in town. Richard Burton headed the cast for a modern dress version of the play before it opened in New York. As if that wasn’t enough, he was deep in the throws of a torrid affair with Liz, at the time, holed up in a local hotel suite, and the city (nay, Nation! Continent!) was in hysterics. And yet he still found the time to pen personal responses to the love notes of a gaggle of adoring fanettes! He was pretty good as Hamlet, too, as I recall.

So you see, unlike today, when a hit is constructed, branded, packaged, cast locally and played to death for the tourists who bus into the ‘big city’ from Cleveland, in their polyester leisure pj’s, to fill out the audience for months until the last cent is squeezed out of the scenery and the Four Seasons have come and gone several times, back then, the original stars hopped on the plane, truck or train with their genuine scenery and moved into town for a few weeks to give the local a taste of the Bard, Strindberg or Neil Simon.
Something for everyone.

There I was, going to the theatre openings like a miniature Dorothy Parker (that may not be accurate since I think she was even shorter than I was), and enjoying the finest productions of that era. Want some examples? How about the legendary Helen Hayes in the A.P.A.-Phoenix production of “The Show-off” (yes, she really was amazing), Eva Le Gallienne in a charming little confection by Ibsen called “The Wild Duck” and Peter Brook’s astounding interpretation of “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” which managed to ‘stone’ an entire audience without the benefit of hallucinogens. Chita Rivera ‘wowed’ us with her version of “Sweet Charity” and, for good measure, we managed to squeeze in to the Imperial Room to see Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee (excuse me, Miss Peggy Lee) and Joe Pass. Oh, yes, and Duke Ellington came to town, as did Count Basie, for dessert! Got to meet them. What can I say?

It wasn’t “Mama Mia”, but then, you can’t have it all or you’d get spoiled.

The highlight for any theatre snob was, of course, the British National Theatre, and they were to visit with three shows, “Dance of Death”, a rollicking romp through the ups and downs of a typical marriage, a forerunner to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” without the laughs, by that cheerful guy, August Strindberg, Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear”, where I got to actually see what an audience ‘rolling in the aisles’ looked like and which spoiled me for farce for evermore, and Congreve’s elegant “The Way of the World”, which happened to be on my English course, how fortuitous.

The thread linking these tremendous productions together was the towering presence of Sir Laurence Olivier, the Artistic Director and the greatest actor of his day or any other as far as we were concerned. “Heathcliff” in Canada! He shook us to our cores in the lead role in the Strindberg and yet took the small part of a butler in the farce, to great effect, without hogging the stage or competing with the other actors, Geraldine McEwan and Edward Hardwicke (both with hysterical speech impediments that added greatly to our amusement and would probably be excised today, for fear of hurting feelings).

So it was with great anticipation that my not-insignificant other accepted an invitation to the big press conference with Olivier, at the Presidential Suite of the Royal York Hotel. I don’t remember whether he asked me to join him or I withheld affection until he agreed, but on the day, I trotted along, carrying his little tape recorder, to the big event, beside myself with excitement. The hotel is one of the illustrious chateaux of ‘railway hotels’ built across Canada in the previous century, that resemble castles, full of palatial lobbies, ballrooms and impressive suites, one of which we were ushered into for the event. It was packed with reporters, both theatrical, news and weather, from all the papers and networks in the region, all eager to meet the great man. The more fortunate among them squeezed onto velvet sofas and stools in the centre of the room, while others lined the walls, jockeying for a good view of the chair set up at the front of the room where the guest of honour would preside. My friend quickly wove his way through the crowd to the front table and with the excuse that he needed to plug in his tape recorder behind the chair, managed to secure a place at what would soon become the feet of Olivier, himself. I was left to my own devices, so shoehorned myself between a couple of journalists standing on the perimeter.

At this point, it is significant to mention, that all the reporters were men. Those were the good old days before equal opportunity and gender equity hiring, when girls could not yet dream of becoming doctors (or journalists) but could still marry them. I was given the fish eye by a few of the fellows, but was generally ignored due to the anticipation of much bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

Sir Larry (he wanted us to call him Larry) finally entered, playing the part of a gracious, elder statesman, and was politely ushered to the throne waiting at the front of the throng. Before sitting down, he smiled generously at everyone, casting his 'baleful eyes' back and forth over the crowd and noticed me standing at the back. He nodded graciously and stood and waited. And stood and waited. No one moved. Then, a PR flunky came over to him to see what was holding things up?
With a sweeping wave of his hand, he gestured towards the multitude and said:

“Gentlemen, there is a lady present and she is standing. Who, amongst you, will offer her your seat so we can continue?”

There was a resentful flurry of chairs moving in my general direction, accompanied by a lot of dirty looks.
I chose a perch.
Life resumed.

The bigger they are…..

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

High School Hijinks

During my adolescence, it wasn’t too difficult to maintain my anonymity (or, as I preferred to think of it: exclusivity) in a suburban high school with an enrollment of over three thousand students, which isolated academic, commercial and technical programs in separate sprawling wings. It was the heyday for such educational innovations as one way halls and up and down staircases, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to be in the care of a system that thought it was a good idea to require me to take a left turn out of my English classroom and force march me down a packed corridor past a ‘down’ staircase, further along to an ‘uppie’, back across the second story hallway to another ‘downie’ to reach my Math class, just next door on the right. The only time I went to the Guidance department with a timetable conflict, I was told, point blank, by a very harried secretary (or, as they are now called, Office Administrator),
“You can’t possibly expect us to care about one student (that would be me, I guess) in the midst of 3000!” I never returned, which was probably just as well, when you consider all the self-esteem slaughtering that usually went on in those places.

In ‘Secondary School’, as it was called, I never distinguished myself, either academically, extra-curricularly or, especially, socially. I simply tried to fly under the radar and escape with my life.

Right away, my misguided predilection for literature and the arts landed me in an inferior stream of classes, since it was predetermined by those who have crystal balls, that such bluestockings weren’t destined for the right kind of greatness so why waste the good teachers on them? Nein, it was the ‘German’ students who were considered the cream of the future crop-to-be. Kind of ironic, given the post-war time period, but I guess it was thought that anyone who could master its delightful utterings had the makings of…..well, I can imagine what, but don’t really want to say. So the kids who chose German were in 10A, 11A, 12A….you get the idea, with the other geniuses, where they could be carefully groomed to capture the most scholarships when they eventually graduated.

The dabblers in music and art fell somewhat lower in the alpha pecking order for all eternity. In peripheral classrooms and crumbling portables, we were sent off to fool around under the scant supervision of semi-retired Board retainers and incompetent eccentrics to our hearts’ content. This is where I learned to smoke in the girls’ bathroom (but not inhale) skip class and head to the local plaza for coke (-a-cola….it was the 50’s) with the bad kids.

There was still a lot of learning going on. We were required to sample the usual menu of subjects like English (Comp and Lit), History, Geography (remember that?), French (Comp and Lit) Sciences, Phys Ed and Latin (yup! No kidding.) Oh, yes, and Math. How could I forget Math? We learned a lot….nine subjects every day, every year till we were full. Without the technological advantages of today, we were forced, like prehistoric hard-drives, to memorize and regurgitate vast amounts of useful information which we were assured would come in handy ‘one day’.

(I hate to show off, but did you know, for example, that a wrestler by the name of Maurice “The Angel” Tillet suffered from a disease known as Acromegaly? You might want to text that on your keypad for future reference. You never know when it might come up. If you forget, you can always Google it. There are 818,000 sites where you can admire pictures of the symptoms, which I can tell you, aren’t pretty. My twenty pound Biology text, which I had to shlep back and forth to school in my aching arms, each day, only had one tiny photo, but it obviously made the desired impression).

The only clubs I joined were the Film club (all meetings were held in a dark screening room) and the Philosophy club. Both of these very selective organizations (the same twenty students were in both of them) were led by our beloved English teacher, a man, who it was later discovered, had more than a passing interest in some of the prettier girls in the group. None of them was I, however, so there are no juicy stories of seduction during the sinking of the Battleship Potemkin on this Blog. That is someone else’s story. However, to his credit, he did take us on a very enlightening field trip in our senior year. We went downtown to the campus at the University of Toronto to sit in on a Philosophy lecture given by one of the more famous professors on staff, a Dr. Marcus Long.

As I sat there, attending to his every wise word, I realized that if I could survive High School, my suffering would soon be over and I would, once again, find myself among worthy minds.

In the meantime, I channeled my creativity and love of drama (plays, not tantrums) into painting backdrops of the Emerald City, watching my friends chew up my scenery as they pranced around onstage as an esteemed members of the Lollipop Guild. There was a lot of talent at that school, it turned out. A future distinguished theatre critic and dramaturge, a personal favorite of the staff director, both of whom shall remain nameless, won the part of the Cowardly Lion, much to the disappointment of another student, a soon to be big-shot Emmy-Award-Winning TV Comedy Writer and Blog-friend, who has never gotten over it. High school scars us all.

I went to one basketball game, something lame called a ‘Pep Rally’, and one sock hop for fifteen minutes. To me, high school in Toronto was a total disappointment, both socially and academically. It bore no resemblance to what I had seen in movies or read about in Archie and Veronica, not to mention what my friend Geraldine was enjoying in her all-American teens on Long Island, New York, where I visited her one Christmas holiday and realized what I was missing. She took me to a high school basketball game where the pompom girls and cheerleaders rivaled anything seen today on the Superbowl. The game was good too. Just like in the movies. Not like our school’s useless attempt to provide diversion at the Grey Cup game that year, when the field was completely socked in by dense fog and no one could see the ball let alone the singers and dancers.

Socially, things couldn’t be worse. Since my frugal parents would not indulge me in the fashion requirements for popularity - finely pleated reversible plaid skits and matching twin sets or even the imported (from Buffalo) white wool socks called ‘Adlers’, I was definitely not going to stand out as one of the girls with a future. My dates were few and so far between that I can count them and recount them on the fingers of one hand. My personal favorite was from a ‘lovely boy’ who made it clear, after I accepted, that he only asked me to a Segovia concert because I seemed to be the only girl in class who might appreciate it. Instead of being flattered, I, of course, totally missed the point and felt quite insulted that he hadn’t simply found me too stunning to resist! I refused to hold his hand, even though the seats were very expensive and afforded a clear view of the old maestro’s picking, and thereby lost my chance to become the wife of a future Doctor of some kind of medical research contributing to the cure of cancer. (I am not being sarcastic!)

Before I leave this close encounter with past lives, I must tell you a funny story. Back in the days before computers and databanks, student records were kept on this stuff they call ‘paper’ and they were separated into folders called OSR’s, one per kid, which followed you all your school life. Where they went after you left school is anybody’s guess, but there must be some stockpile of carbon-copied report cards, health charts and mug shots holding up some building foundation, somewhere. Well, it seems that one day a group of senior boys got it into their heads that it would be fun to create a mythical student and surreptitiously get his name on their class rolls. Once done, they could easily take turns responding ‘present’ during attendance checks and hand in assignments with his name on them. They even went so far as to create an OSR for him in the Guidance Department. They agreed that this new classmate would be known as Anthony Stunning. Anthony became quite a source of amusement as his identity crept out to the rest of the student body. No one gave him up. The staff became quite confused and flustered. No one could get to the bottom of it. It drove them crazy.

Finally, the Principal was called in to address the senior assembly. With all the dignity and ferocity a man five feet tall could muster, he wagged his fist at the suspects and shouted,

“This Stunning business has got to stop!”

High school wasn’t so bad after that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Brushes with Fame - 1

My 15 Seconds

It takes a whole lot of celebrity to impress me.

Since my dad was a relatively well-known musician, in his day, and played in the orchestras of practically every live TV show produced at the CBC in the 50’s and 60’s, I had first hand experience with that notion that ‘everybody puts on their pants one leg at a time’. Many times, during my childhood, my sister (the pretty one) and I accompanied our mother to various studios to pick up the old man after a rehearsal or show where we were fussed over for our adorability by the likes of a pre-Lancelot Robert Goulet (who wore platform shoes long before Elton John but for different reasons) or the nationally renowned comedy team of Wayne and Shuster. Johnny Wayne was a close friend of my father’s for decades and never got above himself, even after appearing on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ a million times, while Frank held a special place in my trauma-bank from that day he told my mother, right in front of my eight-year-old newly-bespectacled face, that it was a terrible shame that I had to wear glasses and spoil my looks! He was especially proud of his own gorgeous daughter, Roz, later Rosie, who didn’t need to wear glasses and therefore grew up to be Lorne Michael’s first wife. So what goes around, comes around, I guess.

(Excuse me, please. I have to take a break for a few minutes to feel sorry for my little self before I can go on).

There were definite advantages to being the daughter of a show-biz parent, don’t get me wrong. It’s not every child who gets to go backstage at the ‘EX’ to personally meet Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, not to mention Trigger and Buttermilk, (eat your heart out E.P.) but there were disadvantages too, especially for someone as shy and personally averse to the attentions of the public as I was. These were the days long before "YouTube" or "Idol From Every Country", so people were still somewhat modest and reluctant to display themselves if they didn’t actually have any talent. While I didn’t mind being the center of attention in my family, or among my friends, I suspected I was not yet cut out for the world stage.

And so it was that I found my brush with national stardom to be simply too much to handle.

It came upon a midnight clear, so to speak, when, one Christmas, an enthusiastic producer at what was affectionately known as ‘the Mother-Corps’ (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), decided it would be a fabulous idea to create a show-stopping number featuring the sons and daughters of the performers on the "Jack Kane Music Makers" . The centerpiece of this weekly program was a large jazz band composed of the best musicians in the country. (Moe Koffman sat to my dad’s right in the woodwind section, for example, and if you don’t know who he is, you are probably very young or maybe an American with no interest in jazz, no offense). This seasonal showcase Finale would gather together the progeny of the cast of musicians around a spectacular Christmas tree where they would be admired by the Thursday night audience. Each child would hold a tiny version of the father’s musical instrument and pretend to play it for Camera One while Camera Two would inter-cut to the beaming parent, who was actually tooting real notes on full sized saxophones, trombones, trumpets, and so on. Johnny Niosi’s lucky kid got to pound away on a miniature drum. Jack Kane’s daughter, a real trouper, stood in front of this miniature orchestra waving a baton, anxiously staring off camera, at her mother.

My father, who, as I have already mentioned, gave us no encouragement to pursue careers in the arts, went along with this concept, probably because he loved Kane and would do anything for the show. (The musicians were frequently conscripted to kibbitz around in skits. He once donned a football uniform and sang, “You’ve got to be a football hero, To get along with the beautiful girls,” around Grey Cup time, to my everlasting shame. On National TV!) At first, my parents had to console me with the bad news that I was not going to be the one to ‘go out there and become a star’, because the powers that be wanted my cuter little sister, instead, just like in a fairy tale. It turned out that I was simply too old for the job. They wanted kiddies, still small and doe-eyed, not jaded preteens in glasses and braces. So I graciously gave up this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity but with few regrets, to tell the truth, since I understood the requirements were definitely beneath me. My relief was short-lived, however, when, the day before the program, my sister simply collapsed with nerves at the anticipation of the chance to humiliate herself nationally, and was ‘unable to go through with it’.

I was called on to save the day, the show, and our family honor. So me and my glasses and braces went down to Studio 4 on Yonge Street (now a Staples) and, along with a bunch of toddlers and pre-schoolers, crammed into the Green Room, desperately clinging to whatever dignity I had left. Of particular notice, among the children, was an irrepressible boy who chased around like a maniac, defying any attempts to improve his behavior by either his mother or the Director. As it turned out, he was Moe’s son, Herbie. Who knew, then, that he would grow up to become a celebrated jazz musician himself, whose own son would, one day, appear in my media classroom? Talk about your six degrees! However, on that day, Herbie frayed a lot of nerves, since these were the days of LIVE TV and it soon became apparent, that anything could happen.

Herbie definitely claimed his fame, swinging his piccolo at the scenery, while most of the kids mimed their playing acceptably, looking up at the gigantic looming camera like deer in the klieg lights. Trying to remain inconspicuous, I clutched my tiny horn as close to my blouse as possible, my eyes shifting from side to side, searching for a place to hide, until the Director finally cut to my father, riffing on his tenor sax with such a big smile, he could barely keep his ‘embouchure’.

The candies and presents showered upon us at the end of the program did nothing to compensate me for my embarrassment. I prayed that no one had seen me and that it would all be forgotten soon. It was, for a few decades, but no good deed goes away forever, even in the days before the Internet.

Recently, someone did me a big favor and unearthed a tape of this program from the archives of the CBC and presented it to my father, who basking in nostalgia brought it over to show everyone. Seeing myself once more, cringing on the screen, was enough to reassure me that I hadn’t made a mistake not going into show biz.

I simply didn’t have a slice of ham in my repertoire.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oy Canada: Opening Ceremonies

In an effort to ‘Pepys-ify’ this blog for posterity, I shall endeavor to file a little report on a current event happening in my country this month.
I am referring, of course, to the Olympics.

Let’s start before the beginning. In an effort, perhaps misguided, to focus the nation’s attention on Vancouver, about as far away as you can get in this country from Ottawa, its capital, our minority Prime Minister looked at the lengthy list of bills waiting to be passed during the current session, quickly closed up shop and brought the business of government to a halt. Much more efficient than the filibuster, the ‘proroguing’ of parliament is such an unfamiliar tactic that it doesn’t even appear in the Encarta dictionary which I just accessed to check on its spelling, to no avail. This move enabled our elected representatives to take a break for a couple of winter months, to stick their toes in the hot sand on a Caribbean beach before migrating north to the festivities in Whistler. Canada is way ahead of the States in this sort of thing, when you think of it. Those poor U.S. Senators and Congressmen are freezing off whatever appendages they haven’t sold off to the highest bidder, in one of Washington’s worst winters, and seem to be making about the same legislative progress, that is to say, none.

The fuss over all this didn’t last too long. Nothing really important ever does these days. It didn’t take long for the anticipation of the event took over, as it usually does in the so-called ‘host country’, an old native term meaning ‘stuck with the bill’. (And we have lots of old natives in this country, as witnessed during the big Opening Ceremonies). As I settled down to watch this much- heralded extravaganza, I could not help but recall previous displays, those both over and under the top. My memory fades in and out these days, but I do recall millions of Chinese people conscripted to dance in a synchronized fury a few years ago. And something about ten thousand white grand pianos hovering over a huge Los Angeles colosseum in another season. Then, of course, there was the quaint and curious collection of gremlins prancing around Lillehammer, so I never knew what to expect.

Canada, I figured rightly, could be characteristically counted on to come out somewhere in between the extremes. It is in its Charter of Rights, Freedoms and Political Correctness. The first thing I see is this crazy snowboarder jumping off one of our highest Rockies to barrel down the slopes at full speed, reminding all of the nation’s Jewish mothers why they can’t sleep at night. His timely entry into the venue sets off a flurry of fireworks and we are introduced to the platform party, most of who are not there yet. Poor old Michal Jean, our Queen-designate, stands pretty much alone amongst the empty chairs, sans tiara, without even a parka to keep her warm, waving at the disinterested crowd. She is dressed for a sophisticated cocktail party, in a silvery grey suit, which blends completely into the background. We Canadians don’t make a fuss over our figureheads of State, even on special occasions, it seems. Eventually a few dignitaries show up, none of them recognizable, except for the aforementioned PM, Mr. Harper, off early from work, accompanied by his lovely wife who has the decency to wear a red dress.

The revels begin. Before the march of the athletes, the TV world is introduced to peoples of Canada in the form of Native Tribes from the four corners of the country, hauled off the reservations and casinos for occasions such as these, dressed in full battle regalia, down to the furs, feathers and sequins made popular during the days before Confederation. Not having enough indigenous peoples left in the country, a few pale-faced locals snuck in, conscripted to fill in the moccasins, here and there. This crowd hopped and hooted enthusiastically the entire time the athletes from the various nations paraded into the stadium, causing my husband to look up from his iPhone and comment at their amazing stamina.

Of course, we all know there is something in the water in British Columbia! (And it ain't the salmon).

I could not help but wonder where the millions of ‘New Canadians’ were. No one who came over during the past five hundred years or so apparently qualified as Canadian, in the eyes of the producers. To me, it seemed like a missed opportunity to show our inclusivity as the great ‘tossed salad’ nation that we have become. (For my American readers, this is the metaphor that is pounded into the kiddies’ heads in grade school, to distinguish us favorably from the American ‘melting pot’ archetype). Imagine the arena filled with exotic immigrants, fleeing to Canada to urban ghettos, from around the world, dancing up a storm in their national costumes, which they are, of course, entitled, even encouraged to wear, unlike in France.

And where, pray tell, were representatives of the countless civil servants who slave away, quietly, in our nation's capitals? Whither the Bay Street Bankers, farmers and fisherfolk? By the way, if you need any further evidence that Vancouver hates Toronto, you have to look no further than this total shunning of the country's (ahem) financial engine.

When we wonder why Americans think of us only as a country of icy igloos, whales and polar bears, we have only to replay this spectacle to remind us of our own complicity in the circulation of this clich├ęd notion.

All the Canadian greats and near-greats, who might be recognized by Americans, were shlepped out for the entertainment portions. Some were curiously missing. I guess Celine has an exclusive with Vegas. Unfortunately, I nodded off during the East Coast/Quebec Irish/Scottish fiddling conclave, which was the noisiest portion of the evening, but I was able to catch it later on ‘time delay’ and was very impressed with both the high flying kilts, cool tattoos and my ability to sleep through such a racket. I was especially delighted to see Donald Sutherland, hoisting the flag, in the flesh, after hearing his disembodied voice about a thousand times a day on every media, as the spokesman for the games. I think his mellifluous tonsils deserve a rest now.

We certainly showed that we, too, could put on a super-duper bowl event to rival any gladiatorial slaughter in history.

Let the games begin.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Just Plain Folks

Living for Dummies

Is it me, or has anyone else noticed how, in the past few years, this word, “folks” has dominated American political parlance with a vengeance?
If I had a nickel for every time....
(So far, in spite of the inundation of U.S. media, the term has not yet made significant inroads in Canada, where candidates, once elected, have no further need to ingratiate themselves with ‘the folks’ who put them there).

I scour my memory for earlier usage and can only come up with words like “folksong” or “folksy” (a description not always meant as a compliment).
OK, I admit I used to “folkdance” a little in my youth.
“Old Folks at Home”, of course, has been around for over a century, but is rarely sung anymore.

Did Woody Allen refer to Annie Hall’s family as her ‘folks’? Nope.
Did Gloria Steinem ever use that term?
As rarely as she would have said ‘gals’.
Folks used to be the people Woody Guthrie sang about, the ones who followed that long dusty road to nowhere.

So what the ‘folk’ is up?
These days, everyone from the President on down to politicians, talk show hosts and news broadcasters (often the same thing) cannot resist the urge to ‘folk-around’.
And I think I know why.

I think it’s all part of that ‘dumbing-down’ phenomenon we were warned about in the early 90’s. That’s when the natural order of the universe did a handstand and everything fell out of its pockets. Instead of being aspirational, people lowered their gazes to ground level and decided it was much easier to lie back and wallow around instead of trying to climb the old ladders of self-improvement, intellectual development and edification. Veneration of the capable and talented changed to adulation of the inept and amateurish so that now, instead of TV variety shows starring Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand warbling duets, we can be smug in the knowledge that Simon Callow’s American Idol losers are no better than any of us. If we could be bothered.

And in politics, it’s even worse. Bumbling, good ol’ boys and ditsy air-heady women take the lead while intelligent and articulate leaders are regarded as pompous and uppity. So they lower their level of discourse to accommodate the masses rather than 'rise them up' with their eloquence. Shame on them for selling out.

Minds can no longer digest anything bigger than a sound bite. People are eagerly taken in by a pretty face or glad hand. We celebrate celebrities who have accomplished nothing. Centuries of the rise of civilization, reduced to dust.

We are all just ‘folks’ now, a simple, unsophisticated nation of dummies.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adventures in Middle School: A New Best Friend

Some children make friends easily. Others have lonely lives full of isolation (can you be full of isolation?) fear and despair. Somewhere between J. Alfred Prufrock and Little Nell. They seem to attract misery like a magnet.
Fortunately for me, I fell into the first category, but not without a little trepidation.

The first day at a new school can be unnerving to anyone. This is especially true if the only person you know is your little sister and she is going her own separate way into another grade. Our mother, to give her credit, tried her best to get us switched to the school where everyone else in our former school was assigned, but then wisely backed off when she came up against bureaucratic indifference and, thus began her campaign to make the inevitable more attractive.

At least once or twice a week she would find a reason to detour on our way home from the plaza and drive by the building site of the snazzy new Junior High we were to attend in the fall, pointing out the architectural advantages, like three stories, special music rooms and a huge gym with spotless change rooms and individual shower stalls (a big plus for preteen girls, no matter what their physiques). We would be getting different teachers for each subject and there was the probability of what was called ‘rotation’ of classes, the actual opportunity to move from one room to another for different subjects. And there would be something called ‘lockers’. The opportunity to put an actual lock on a specially designated compartment, ensuring privacy, definitely had its allure to a girl forced to share a small bedroom with her sister. Not to mention the back seat of the family car.

This may sound rather banal, now, but in the mind of a twelve year old, it seemed rather risky and exciting. The fact that this new edifice was ensconced in the heart of one of the most notorious neighborhoods in the city gave it an additional element of risk and excitement, but Mom promised to carpool us to and from the front door every day so the chances of abduction, molestation and murder were considerably reduced. Our anxieties, and hers, now that I think of it, were somewhat abated.

Like many things in life, the experience proved better than we feared. The building was stunning. Those were the days when the education system had money and vision, unlike today, when decimated budgets and political policies have led to the impoverishment of facilities and ideas. The teachers were terrific. They were all experts in their areas of instruction, not just 'diversity' wallpaper, and they were thrilled to be part of this exciting experiment from ‘the States’. The Oral French teacher was especially stunning. From her perch, on top of her desk, with her long legs seductively crossing and uncrossing like a brunette Sharon Stone, she had at least one half of the class hanging on her every ‘mot’.

Although I was not in the market, still gripping bitterly to my indignation at being separated from my childhood buddies, I was singled out from the herd rather quickly by one of the other new girls, who quickly saw something in me that seemed to scream 'potential best friend'. I had to pass a rigorous interview during a long lunch break in the Cafeteria, a place where you could buy your lunch, if only your mother didn’t insist on sending you damp salmon sandwiches every day. I must have passed with flying colours, because from that day on, Cheryl was at my side. (For those younger readers, Cheryl was the name of every other girl in my day. The name has fallen out of fashion, but will probably return with a vengeance as all things do, sooner or later).

Cheryl was a bright girl with even more opinions than I. She had no hesitation in expressing them, either, while I kind of kept my big mouth shut (a skill which I had been developing since that Grade 3 report card). She was the first person my age that I had come upon who was completely certain about everything. She was the youngest in a very large family of five older siblings; a kind of afterthought, or maybe even accident, in those days before the pill made such exotics somewhat extinct.

(These days, if you have more than three children, you get a reality show!)

Cheryl was also a religious fanatic and a budding fascist. (Those were the golden days of public education. Such individuals are now safely tucked away at private and parochial schools). She had an inordinate need for rules and structure, perhaps coming from her lowly position in the family. Imagine having so many people telling you what to do all day! So Cheryl quickly lay down the rules for our friendship. We could only get together at her house since she was strictly kosher and could not take a chance at contaminating herself at my residence, which, I was forced to admit, had the milk right beside the meat in the same fridge. If she had pulled out another fingernail, I might have given up the BLT’s and take-out Chinese food eaten on our regular dishes, not the customary paper plates favored by what I thought were the hypocrites in my social circle, but would never say so to their faces. She seemed satisfied that she had made her point before that was necessary.

Cheryl had a big brain. She liked to astound the teachers with her vocabulary. It was from her lips that I first heard the word ‘intangible’ inappropriately used. The teacher was not impressed, but I was. Cheryl was also devout. A lot ‘devouter’ than I was. My family came from a long line of skeptics and practiced no rituals that didn’t involve the intake of large quantities of ethnic delicacies. Cheryl shut up shop at sundown on Friday night and I couldn’t even dare to reach her until sundown the next day. No calls. She announced to me that she would, in the future, refuse all dates (and there seemed to be many in her plans) until the end of the Sabbath. I worried that she might be taking a big chance, especially in the summer, but, as it turned out, she eventually abandoned this goal when she became a cheerleader in high school and had to compromise her principals due to her popularity.

I was fascinated by this phenomenon. We were quite ‘tight’ for a few months, but then our romance began to fade. The cause of her disillusion with me had something to do with marks, the great leveler in the education game and the game of life, come to think of it.

Junior High afforded us the first opportunity to write formal exams. On foolscap, extra-long sheets of lovely white paper with pale blue lines for inscribing pages and pages of lengthy responses to complex questions, handwritten in legible writing, to be read and graded by our very own teachers.

I explain this because today, no one bothers with this kind of physical/mental exercise anymore. First of all, students, today, cannot write legibly. Some can print a little, but since cursive writing fell out of fashion in the primary curriculum, and kids spend their days texting and typing on computer keyboards, you can forget about deciphering any handwritten material coming from your students. Data cards are the solution. The kids pencil in the dots, the machine marks them in a few minutes. So tests are mainly box-checking affairs, multiple choice, true/false all the way up through university.
For example:
1. What colour is the apparel of Gainsborough’s famous painting “Blue Boy”?
A_Red
B Green
C Blue
D All of the above
E None of the above

Aside: I will address the problem of the dumbing-down of education in a future post, but for now, let me admit my prejudices. I never figured out how to set up tests with ‘objective’ answers so I could use this easy-peasy method myself. The countless hours spent trying to decipher the hieroglyphics penned by my students have brought me to this point in life where I am shut up in a little room with only my MacBook for a friend.

On the day designated for the returning of the examination papers, Cheryl called me over to her locker.

“Who do you think will stand first?”
Her confident tone suggested that she had no doubts. I had plenty. For one thing, I had no idea what she was talking about. Not having been brought up in an English boarding school, this concept of ‘standing first’ didn’t click with me in any way. I didn’t want to disclose my ignorance, so I just shrugged. In our first class, our teacher cleverly created a lot of suspense and psychological damage by handing back the papers in reverse order, from worst to best. Only I didn’t even understand this pattern until the end, when he held my exam up over his head and called my name. I felt like one of those long-shots at the Oscars who can barely stand up and retrieve the award. Thank goodness I didn’t have to walk far since I always sat right up at the front. (No smirking please. I was very short and quite visually limited, not just a suck). Of course, in this case, there were no warm handshakes or kisses on my little victory march. Just glares and stares as my status quickly shifted from somewhat popular to social pariah in a single moment.

Especially from Cheryl, who ran a distant second.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beautiful Plumage 3 – The Proust Effect

They say that the most evocative of our senses is the sense of smell. I can attest to that!

One whiff of a glass of beer and I am instantly transported in my mind to the summer of 1960 when I spent much of my grooming time at summer camp, combing the pungent beverage through my long, rapidly darkening hair before carefully sectioning it and wrapping it tightly around rollers the size of soup cans. A colorful scarf covered the head giving me (and my friends) the appearance of a bevy of hydrocephalic Martians. This was the daytime 'look' for most of the young ladies of an uncertain age, still too young to legally drink the stuff, but not unwise to its 'fringe' benefits. We girls brought cans of beer to camp and parents replenished the supply on Visitor's Day without a moment's concern about anyone imbibing the ale, itself.
It was far too precious a commodity to be wasted as a drink.
To this day, I have never found a better all-in-one hair conditioner and mousse at any cost.

Unfortunately, thanks to these fragrant memories, I've never been able to get a glass of the stuff past my nose for internal use.

During my teen years, weekly visits to the hairdresser were de rigueur for most women. In my neck of the ‘burbs, the doors to the salon were flung open by dawn on Friday mornings, to accommodate our mothers and grandmothers, who, pressed for time on the busiest day of the week, nevertheless, had to get their heads teased and sprayed into solid helmets. Their hair may have looked soft and fluffy, but, like their personalities, the softness was buried deep beneath a carapace so firm, you could break your nail on it. It was a tribute to the strength of the frantic backcombing and the potency of the chemicals in the spray cans that even a long day of cooking for the family Sabbath gathering made no visible impression on the 'do'. Nor did a week of sleeping in, what I assume must have been a reclining position, budge a single kiss curl. At bedtime, these arrangements were carefully preserved beneath cocoons of toilet paper held firm with little silver clips. Nothing moved till morning. I don't think women could possibly have had conjugal relations in those days.

Except, maybe, on Thursday nights.


Younger females visited the beauty parlor on Saturdays. That is, females with dates for Saturday night. Needless to say, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate this rite of passage on a regular basis, like my glamorous Auntie R. who had dates coming out of her ears. She patronized a shoppe called 'Caruso's' (weren't they all?) and turned her head over to a genius named Dino (weren't they all?). Some weeks she would return a redhead, some weeks a platinum blonde. She was one of the first to succumb to the Italian poodle cut made famous by the sultry 'Lollabrigida'. One never knew what to expect. I couldn’t wait for my turn.

When I was about sixteen, I actually had a date to a big event, which would definitely require some extra expense and effort in the coiffure department.

Like almost everything else in life, I had to initiate the whole thing. There was a big Conclave in town in October, for a youth organization, which I had been persuaded to join in order to 'meet people' (my mother’s term for meeting ‘nice’ boys – ‘nice’ was a killer adjective when applied to the male gender, take it from me). It was a girl-ask-boy kind of thing and several of my friends put me up to asking an Adonis we all had a crush on at summer camp. It was still close enough to the end of August to entertain the possibility that he might remember my name. I had nothing to lose. I stole off to my parents’ room, the only place in the house where there was a phone which afforded some privacy, and dialed the number obtained for me with a great deal of subterfuge.

I don’t remember anything else but his reply. “Yes, I’ll go. Are you surprised?” (Now there’s a confidence builder, a little something to chat about with the therapist in years to come). With that ordeal out of the way, I made the crucial appointment at Caruso’s for my makeover.

On Saturday morning, my mother dropped me off and I descended the stairway to the basement where this hairdo heaven was located (nothing but the best, even then). I was very nervous, but not so much about being alone. I’d learned that it was better not to include my mother on such trips, ever since she’d made a secret pact with another hairdresser behind my back, so to speak, to lop off my ponytails instead of just giving me a trim. I emerged with a 'pixie cut'. (It's still too painful for me to remember the details). Now, I had my own ideas of how I wanted to look, dancing around the room in the arms of my prince. I was thinking maybe Cinderella at the ball, not Tinkerbell.

I sat in the crowded waiting area, flipping through well-thumbed hairdresser magazines, waiting my turn at the hands of the Houdini of Hair. Suddenly, the manager came over to me and asked if I was interested in letting a potential hireling do my hair instead of Dino. He wanted to see what she could do. I was confused until he uttered the magic words, “No charge”, and then I decided to take the leap. My parents would be so proud of me for saving the lousy two bucks! I held out for the condition that she was not to cut my hair, just style it. (The ponytail incident was still very fresh).

This young stylist really let herself go. Intent on impressing the boss, she set my hair on about a thousand rollers and stuffed me under a dryer hood for about an hour and a half to cook. She then proceeded to backcomb my entire head of hair to create the necessary volume. Leaving the top part pushed over my face (I couldn’t see anyways since I am virtually blind without my glasses, which had, of course, been taken away so I couldn’t protest), she lightly brushed the surface of the back pouf over to one side and anchored it with a vertical line of fifty 'bobby pins'. She then swept it all back the other way, twisted it into a French roll, as it was called, and poked me with another fifty pins to keep it firm. The top was then sectioned off and wrapped around and around in whirls till it reached a good two feet over my forehead in what was accurately described as a “Beehive”. A serious dose of hairspray cemented this edifice for all eternity. Voila!

When I put on my glasses, I nearly fainted. I was so gorgeous; I couldn’t believe my four eyes. And for free!
(I didn't realize then, that I my hairdo would become iconic, thanks to Marge Simpson).

The boss was happy and so was I. My mother came to pick me up. She could barely contain her shock. The hairdo, itself, being in the height of style, in more ways than one, obviously made a great impression.
By itself.
But perched on the head of a young girl who had yet to attain a five-foot tall benchmark, (and, sadly, never would) it seemed a little disproportionate, to say the least. I was thrilled and considered having to bend in half to get in and out of the car, a small price to pay for such utter sophistication.

In fact, I was so taken with my elegance that I refused to wear my glasses that night. Why ruin the effect? So don’t ask me anything about the evening. I think the right guy picked me up. He was so tall, I couldn’t see his face, it was so far away. There may have been some people there that I knew. I don’t remember a kiss goodnight, although, in those days, that usually didn’t happen for a few dates. I never got that far.

The fact is everything went by in a blur.

That night, I carefully wrapped the toilet paper shroud round and round my hive and secured it with long clips. I placed my head carefully on my pillow and didn’t move a muscle all night.

Thus, I preserved the sanctity of my updo for many nights, until it began to itch.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Girls in the 'Hood

I grew up in a part of Toronto called North York, a borough that cut a vast swath of land across the northern border of the city. It was exploding with new tracts of houses made of ‘ticky-tacky’, and something called ‘plazas’ but there were no trees. We lived on a street ploughed out of a former farm, bordering on a wide field full of what was left of nature. The pond behind our backyard was gorged with tiny tadpoles in the spring and noisy mallards in the summer. It froze over in the winter, making a lovely skating rink, upon which my father, in yet another failed effort to pretend that he had sons, tried to teach us some rudimentary hockey plays. (We never got past the 'face off' part, to his chagrin).
Pheasants strutted through our backyard every morning.

Everyone is tired of hearing it, but what can I say? In those days, children played outside all day, all year round. We had no choice. Our homes were tiny with unfinished basements. There were no dens or family rooms with plasma TVs and game consoles. The television was ensconced in a mahogany (if you were rich) or walnut (if you weren’t) cabinet in the living room. You had to get up from the couch to change the channel…yadda..yadda.

The living room was where we all ‘lived’. It was the only place to sit, entertain guests or gather behind TV trays each evening to watch the best entertainment in the history of the world. Bedrooms were barely large enough for beds and dressers. No one I knew had a desk in their room, let alone a computer with Facebook or internet porn to wile away the hours.

The only piece of technology available, to grace the bedside table beside a lamp, (required for something we used to call ‘reading’) was the highly coveted pastel Princess phone. This required what was called, an ‘extension’, which was unaffordable and way too luxurious for my father to contemplate, until, weakened by the years of our incessant whining and nagging, he indulged us in this adolescent frivolity.

So we had to get out of the house. Without protective headgear, knee or elbow pads or electronic tracking devices, we roamed the neighborhood for hours, unsupervised, returning home only at mealtimes for refueling. None of us had watches, but we instinctively knew when it was time to head for home in the evenings....when it started to get dark! The evening cries of mothers on verandahs, up and down the street, calling out for their young, was another signal not to be ignored.

Down the road, there were several unfenced construction sites with huge mountains of loose dirt and bottomless foundation pits. They were the closest approximation of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley as we were going to find in what was essentially a prairie landscape. This was where the kids in the ‘hood gathered daily to play cowboys and indigenous peoples. I yearned for a Davy Crockett hat of my own. I pined for a pair of shiny six-guns in a red leatherette belt or at least a box of caps to smash with rocks of a lazy summer’s afternoon. All I got was the admonition that those sorts of things (like the shimmering electric trains in the Christmas display at Eatons) were for boys! As a consolation, my father gave me a book about Annie Oakley, which only served to frustrate and confuse me further. I longed to stand tall in my stirrups (the pedals of my no-speeds two-wheeler) and pick off the hostiles. If he was so easily impressed by Annie’s exploits with a rifle, why would he curtail my dreams of markswomanship with silly social proprieties? Gender equity was an idea whose time had not yet come.

When there was no one to play with, I would take a matching pair of red, white and blue rubber balls and toss them alternately against a narrow piece of flat wall at the side of our house.
For hours. I could even juggle them with one hand, but unfortunately never really mastered the 360-spin-around move required to go to the playground Olympics.

Speaking of which, I was the local master (mistress?) of another game which required the kind of flexibility I can only dream of today. I am speaking of that great sport of Yokey, wherein two girls of relatively equal height stand a few feet opposite each other clutching a length of manually conjoined elastic bands, scrounged from the depths of kitchen junk drawers around the neighborhood. As they position this ‘stretch’ firstly at the ankles, then to the knees, hips, waist, underarm (there were no breasts, yet), shoulder, earlobe, head and finally, at ‘arm’s length’ as high up as they could reach, it was the goal of the contestant of the moment to sing a little nonsense-song and dance a little dance, lifting the right leg back and forth over the elastic ‘bar’ a few times, finishing with a two-legged hop over and back. This may sound easy, and it was, around the knee-level, but as the elastic band went up and up, you had to reach further and further with that first kick until, by the end, it looked like a contortion from Cirque de Soleil.
Like many of our playthings, it was cheap, had no sharp edges and encouraged the development of co-operation, co-ordination and agility.

To this day, I can’t figure out why Fisher-Price hasn’t market the hell out of this ‘toy’.
(As I write this, I realize that it is now probably reincarnated as a $200 add-on to Wii, or will be by the time I’m finished).

All self-respecting little girls could skip rope, either alone, for many hours, or, even better, with a couple of friends, hopping up and down or running in and out of the quickly turning rope, with incredible timing, to a ditty called, if my fading memory serves me: “Apples, peaches, pears and plums, tell me when your birthday comes.” My poor sister was born in December, and so, had to wait eleven hops before she could enter the fray, squeezing herself in at the dangerous periphery. Since the rope only touched the ground in the middle of its arc, which was, by then, crowded with earlier-month-skippers, she had to hop twice as high, because the position of the rope at that point was raised up to curve into the turner’s hand.
(I’m sure there must be some mathematical formula for this to spoil the fun).

Then there was Double Dutch (no offense! I have no idea why the Dutch are singled out here, but I am pretty sure, given the high degree of enjoyment, there was no intent to disparage). There was a very narrow window for pre-teen girls to master and enjoy this sport, which, to me, should definitely have been considered for the summer Olympics, never mind Skateboarding and Beach Volleyball. The complex choreography and incessant hopping required to skip rhythmically, between two alternately turning red plastic ropes, necessitated a certain physical balance that could be completely thrown off by any subtle change in weight distribution, an increasingly impending threat, especially in the ‘chestal region’, during these pubescent years.
(Same thing holds true for Gymnastics, I believe).

While old guys may still get together to toss around a ball, there is a good reason (or two) you don’t see fuller figured women running out to the driveway to play pick-up Double-Dutch!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Is anybody out there?

Just a quick reminder that your comments, or other signs of life, are entirely welcome, hence the little 'Comment' thingie at the end of each piece. (I am dispensing with the customary use of technical jargon for those among you who feel challenged in such areas, which would be most of the people I know, especially the panicky ones who keep phoning me for advice about the do-hickeys on their iPhones)!!!
You should be able to post anonymously, if you choose to ignore that golden rule: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

Beautiful Plumage – Part 2

Do Blondes have More Fun?

In the Fabulous Fifties, blondes were purported to ‘have more fun’. Than whom, you might wonder?

I was to be living proof of the success of this clever scam to sell peroxide to the nation. My own golden hair began to fade as I inched up towards adolescence. It no longer made any difference to me that my ponytail was the longest if it was turning brown at the roots! My sister hung onto her yellow curls longer than I did, but by Grade 10, I could see that all was lost and I was going to have to do something about it, if I were to move on from that perky ‘Gidget’ image, held so highly above the increasingly shallow waters of 50’s teen life.

When I was growing up, ‘blondeness’ dominated the culture. No one was interested in ‘Raven-Haired Beauties’ anymore. Snow White, with her ‘hair as dark as ebony’ and her insufferably squeaky soprano, never came close to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, my own earliest role models. Later, came the years when Marilyn, Jayne and Anita held considerable sway. These impossibly voluptuous, platinum-haired women with huge breasts, tiny waists and full hips became the only desirable female archetype, much the way boyish, bony girls with lanky hair extensions prevail, today.

I’ll grant you Audrey Hepburn, (since you insist) but did you ever hear her referred to as a ‘woman’? Nope. Her adjectives leaned toward ‘waifish’ and ‘girlish’, never seductive or sexy. In the memorable words of Zsa Zsa Gabor, another famous glamourpuss of the era, “Nobody likes a bone but a dog!” Besides, Audrey was never blonde, so she doesn’t figure into this equation, although I admit, I did fringe my bangs to within a half an inch of their lives after seeing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. To no avail.

Anyways, back to Grade 10. To restore my former golden-haired beauty, I decided to sneak a bottle of Clairol rinse into the shower. I won’t go into the many promises made by the commercials on TV, except to say that they didn’t exactly deliver. I emerged from that attempt looking more like Carrot Top than Monroe. There was nothing I could do to hide the disaster. I had to pretend that I meant it, all along. I carried my burnt-out head proudly, consoling myself with thoughts of my literary heroine, Anne of Green Gables. (At least my hair hadn’t turned green, my mother commented, in an attempt to make me feel better, as she quickly averted her eyes. To her credit, I could barely detect her laughter.)

Yes, I was the source of great amusement for all who beheld me for many months. Vanity, as Anne would tell you, if she were real, is quite a character builder.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Beautiful Plumage – Part 1

If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde!

What do you mean, ‘if’?
Isn’t that a given? (unless you believe in reincarnation, of course).

That ‘curly-haired moppet’, Shirley Temple, was a lingering icon in our childhood, influencing countless mothers to reinvent the beloved captainette of the “Good Ship Lollipop” in their own homes. Besides the rigorous dance training, there were stories of mothers actually bleaching their daughters’ tresses the same honey blonde that cascaded from Shirley’s crown in luxurious ringlets.

Our mother didn’t have to go quite so far. My sister and I were still natural blondes, in those days, but there definitely was room for improvement. My hair hung in irregular, stringy waves and my sister’s locks were completely out of control, a veritable frenzy of frizz surrounded her tiny face like a halo on a cherub in a medieval painting. For some reason, it was decided that the only way to whip us into shape for an upcoming dance recital was to give us matching Tonette home permanents. The logic of this escaped me then and even to this day. I cannot fathom why anyone in her right mind would think that adding an supplemental layer of curls to my sister’s head would be an improvement. It only illustrates the seductive power of advertising, even way back then.

I am not saying this foray into fashion created long-lasting problems, but let’s just say that it probably formed the basis of chronic PTSD in each of us. (If you don’t know what that is by now, google it! Have you been living in a cave? Have you never had teenage daughters?)

My sister and I had joined the local chorus line and spent our Saturdays at Mrs. Ospenskaya’s, an ex-chorine who gave ballet and tap lessons in her remodeled garage. (The name has been changed to protect the woman, who is probably shaking the blues away in her blue heaven, by now. As everyone knows, the real Mrs. Ospenskaya, to whom I pay tribute, is the witchy ballet mistress who drummed poor Vivien Leigh out of the corps de ballet for dating, forcing her into a life of prostitution and despair, in one of my favorite tearjerkers, “Waterloo Bridge”). But I digress. As usual.

We hoofed and pirouetted in that converted studio with all the little girls in the ‘hood. Although none of us progressed far enough to give Shirley any concerns, we were quite adorable, if memory serves me. Even at our present advanced age, when called upon to liven up parties, which isn’t often, my baby sister and I can still offer a passable time step to ‘East Side, West Side, All Around the Town’.
(We are also known to shuffle off to Buffalo, although lately, it’s more likely to be in the direction of the Outlet Mall).

The pictures of us, from that event, show lines of little girls in series of stunning costumes, handmade by our devoted and talented mothers: little swans with arms aloft wearing white satin tutus edged in silver sequins, gypsy-girls shaking ribbonned tambourines, spinning around in circular tarantella skirts, and, my favorite, a chorus of hoofers in red satin-pleated skorts and white tee shirts with perky scarves tied around our necks. Hot-cha!

Although we usually danced beside each other, in all these shots, my sister poses at one end of the line and I am placed at the other end. I assume this change became necessary when our ‘Tonettes’ produced, not the sausage ringlets of Miss Temple, but rather three explosive poufs of fluff, one pom-pom on the top of each of our heads and another over each of our ears, leaving us to resemble a pair of finalists in the Westminster Dog show (poodle division).

So I guess this new arrangement balanced the on-stage visual symmetry.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Junior High 1 – Whither Thou Goest

By the end of Grade 7, school was my element. I loved my teacher, the flaymboyant Mr. A., and the feeling was mutual, I had mastered the highest leaps in ‘Yokey’, at recess, no mean feat for such a vertically challenged pre-teen. and was particularly adept at labeling every country on the world map (there were fewer, in those day, I admit, especially in Africa) and filling them in with little logos for sugar beets and wheat, wherever appropriate.
I had quickly memorized the required 500 lines of poetry;

“John Gilpin was a citizen, of credit and renown,
A train-band captain, eke, was he, of famous London town”, etc.

I had also learned the meaning of the word 'eke'.

I had done a massive research project on ‘Indians of North America’, supported by information gleaned from my father’s vast collection of National Geographic magazines and our own personal set of Encyclopedia Britannica, all displayed with pride in our living room, a decorating decision which, no doubt, would horrify anyone working for HGTV these days.

My little world was about to come apart…split in two by one of those typically arbitrary bureaucratic decisions made on high, without any thought to the little people affected. In the mid-fifties, hot winds of educational change were sweeping the country, blowing up from south of the border, as they usually did. The pattern is familiar to anyone involved in education…..Americans develop a wacky idea, try it out for a few years, ruining countless lives, admit failure and move on to the next scheme. But before they do, they present it at some educational conference or write a book about it, market it to the Ontario Ministry of Education, and run off with the profits, laughing into the night.

The scheme, at this time, was to separate pubescent children from the pre- and post- adolescent demographic and provide a protected and specialized program, more suitable for their impressionable age. I suspect the real motivation was to remove us from the most vulnerable of the school population in the lower grades and protect us from the most dangerous, in the senior levels, but this could not be openly acknowledged. Besides, in the Fabulous Fifties, as they were called, there was lots of money to throw around, in education. So two Junior High Schools were to be created, on opposite peripheries of our district, and I was to miss the final reward, so to speak, of finishing off my primary years in Grade 8, in the large classroom next to the Principal’s office, where, so it was rumored, you could hear the bad kids being strapped, when occasion required.

This was not the worst part, however. Word got out that a line was being drawn through the neighborhood, five houses away from our bungalow, and all the students to the east of it (that would be all my friends) would attend Ledbury Park, a former public school being tarted up to accommodate them, while all the kids to the west (that would be me and my sister) would traipse miles away to a brand new edifice being created in our honor.

You can bet that the appeal of new gyms and freshly tiled cubicle showers, special music rooms and even a cafetorium, was completely lost on us. We were devastated. Unlike today, when the slightest whine from a parent sends administrators running to accommodate their every wish, the bureaucracy was completely disinterested in my mother’s anxious inquiry about bending the rules a little, to quiet the hysteria in her household. She would go no further, since there was no further to go. No one sued the school for trifles like this in those days. Not like now.

Our fate was sealed and we would go our own way, alone, together, in the fall.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Man Who Would be King

This is not going to be a piece about Barack Obama, although he might do worse than to look it over and pick up a few tips. But let’s face it. It seems no one ever learns anything from history or literature. No one in power, that is.

A long time ago, in the latter part of the 19th Century, a British writer, born in India, by the name of Rudyard Kipling, (who is known to the present generation only as the hack who inspired the great Walter Disney to animate “The Jungle Book)”, wrote a short story about two ex-army ‘detriments to the British Empire’ who bum around the “Jewel in the Crown” long after their military services are needed, smuggling, gunrunning, and blackmailing the Rajah of Degumba to make ends meet. If this great story were to fall into the hands of a modern day filmmaker, the leads would, no doubt, be played by Owen Wilson and Seth Rogen. Thankfully, the great director, John Huston, had this project in his sights for most of the last century and when he finally got it together, his original choices, Bogie and Tracy were gone to that great Kafiristan in the sky, so he was forced to settle for Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the heroes (or were they heroes? This was the dilemma I put to my classes for many years and they had various and heated opinions about the matter).

Why do I bring this up? Well…a lot could be learned from this tale about getting involved with that part of the world, both geographically and culturally. There are secret societies, if you can call the Masons, to which my uncle has belonged for many years, a secret, raging rivers, avalanches, rubies as big as your fist, rope bridges suspended over bottomless canyons and even a crucifixion, thrown in for effect. All other adventure films made since that time have borrowed heavily from its plot and images. If movies had footnotes, this one would be referenced in every one from "The Jewel of the Nile" to "The Mummy" to the Indiana trilogy, which even uses Connery, for a double whammy of recognition. I leave out a few thousand, but you get my point. This is probably why I find so many of them dull. The original outshines them in all respects.

It is also a terrific study of all things military, from the rigorous training of the foot soldier to the importance of ‘bluffing it out’ to achieve victory over vicious opponents. When teaching the ‘ignorant Kafiris’ how to properly do the British Manual of Arms, Daniel Dravot, played brilliantly by Connery, who is at the height of his post-Bond powers, promises to teach the locals ‘real soldiering’ how to fight like true Englishmen, the method that won the British a lot of global real estate, if the pink parts on the World Atlas given to school children in the 1950’s were any indication . ‘Left right, left right, marching into battle’. One of my favorite lines, among many in the film, is his admonition that they must learn to ‘stand up and kill their enemies like civilized men’ or something like that. It’s basically a textbook on how to take over a nation and what to watch out for, once you succeed, hence my hope that the President of the not-so-United States take a look at it, soon.

Aside: (I often use Peachy’s (Caine's) mysterious announcement, “I have urgent business in the South,” whenever I need to go downtown on an errand).

This all rushed back to me the other day when watching the mellifluous Lara Logan on 60 Minutes as she interviewed a team of furry-faced Green Berets who are over in Afghanistan passing along what, so far, has not been as successful a form of ‘soldiering’, as did Danny and Peachy, to the local inhabitants. Apparently, the rigid discipline of the British Colonial army has been replaced by a kinder, gentler form of free expression in its American counterpart, hence the privilege extended to these contemporary warriors of cultivating unruly beards. They would do well to imitate the extravagant and dignified mutton chops framing Connery’s noble face rather than descend to the appearance of homeless street people, if you ask me. As the show followed them along on their training mission, I could not help but recall the fate of Kipling’s heroes when their loyal trainees suddenly turned on them with their own weapons. Doesn’t anyone in power pay attention?

Another one of the big themes, ‘different countries/different customs’ shows an early sensitivity to multiculturalism and the trouble you can land in if you foolishly assume your customs will naturally prevail. And as in all great life-lessons, there hovers over the entire enterprise the hackneyed warning that beautiful women are nothing but trouble and will inevitably lead to a man’s ruin, if given half a chance and a lot of drugs.

The greatest life-lesson of all, never throw anything away, haunts me to this day. In the 60's, I, like many other budding fashionistas, possessed a lavishly embroidered Afghan coat, complete with fur-trimmed sleeves and collar, which still retained the delightful aroma of the sheep from whence it came. Where it is now, who knows?

There is so much to be learned from this short story and the subsequent film, about life, about men at war, about the nature of loyalty, about the powerlessness of law and reason in the face of brutality but most of all, of the hopelessness of getting involved in the misguided attempt to try to bring ‘civilization’ to a place in the world where it is unwanted and not understood. It seems the only person to have any success in this region in a couple of thousand years, both in real life and the movies, was Alexander the Great (‘Secunda’, a name whispered with great reverence by the ancient priests, many of whom are played by actors who look old enough to have known him personally). And good old Secunda knew how to go when the going was good. He stuck around only long enough to marry the gorgeous Roxanne, a romantic gesture duplicated by Michael Caine, who married the actress Shakira, who played her rabid descendent in the movie.

I am still haunted by an image on the front page of a newspaper in 2002, of Afghans on horseback, looking much the same as they have for hundreds of years, (and in several scenes of the movie), when they celebrated the triumph of battle by batting around a huge polo ball made of the head of the defeated king. I don’t think there was an actual head involved in the 2002 game, although I can’t be sure. But I wouldn’t get too confident, if I were up against this way of life.

Just because you can grow your beard as long as you like, doesn’t give you the game.

If you think I sound cynical, check out the over 2 million
‘Googles’ out there on the net, related to this topic. For years, there was nothing more that the IMDB reference, but now there are many scholarly articles, which expand on this subject, so it seems I am not completely alone in my fearful comparison.

See you later...."I have urgent business in the south. I have to see a man in Mahwah Junction!"