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…..you 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: http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/about/impact.aspx?id=1673 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: http://www.alanhoward.org.uk/dreamnytimes.htm
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…..it 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.