Blog # 89…January 2019
Impression Sunrise
Claude Monet 1872

It’s good to find something comforting at this time of year and in this sort of world.  I love the Impressionists; it always seems to comfort me to look at people enjoying picnics by the river, harbours bathed in light at different times of day, even lovers sitting glumly at a cafĂ© table. 

But sometimes, I also like to mix it up a bit and look at art that upsets my equilibrium, makes me wonder or think or just be uncomfortable. 

It seemed to start with William Hogarth, the first artist I know about who used his lively perceptions of the world around him to paint the vitality and despair of ordinary people on the streets of London in the early 18th century. Berthe Morisot, a century later observed the personal world of women, tending babies, hanging out laundry. And our own Mary Pratt took us into the ordinary, sometimes lonely world of women. Maybe it reflects the more egalitarian lives of the cave dwellers that their artists portrayed mostly animals and abstract designs…simpler times.

I met John Waters on the walls of the Baltimore Museum of Art last year. His work is a cheeky, in your face series of comments on our society as it’s unfolded over the past half century. And although it speaks to Baltimore, where he was born and lives, it applies widely…kind of like The Wire. I enjoyed the show and might have thought he was just an amusing iconoclast if I hadn’t seen Kiddie Flamingo, a table reading of his best known film Pink Flamingo by a group of young child actors  with Waters providing direction off stage. It combined two things kids love – dressing up and swearing and was handled with great sensitivity so, although the kids were obviously enjoying it, there was nothing that could frighten or harm them. 

Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman jiggles our sensibilities too with his paintings of Canadian historical events and people, poking gentle fun at the Daddies of Confederation and bringing tears to our eyes with the children being captured in the Sixties Scoop.

Curious to think that the Impressionists were considered wicked and disruptive in their day, wonder if today’s disrupters will turn into providers of comfort in the future???

A very happy and healthy New Year to you all.

Blog # 88…December 2018

Christmas is coming with its usual cocktail of sentiments and behaviour: bittersweet memories of times and people long gone and sadness about the obvious gap between haves and haven’ts...over eating and drinking, forced conviviality and obligations. And yet, and yet, it’s also the season of office parties, family dinners, and other celebrations to brighten the darkness.  And it’s a reminder to communicate with people even if only an annual phone call or Christmas card.

I’ve been struck lately by how a number of features of our human condition are being explored in books, movies and on stages - addictions, depression, cancer, loneliness and alienation, all with their attendant difficulties in communication.  

Autism has had its fair share of attention with some sensitive looks at people who inhabit that world (usually on the end of the spectrum that used to be called Asbergers) hoping to promote some understanding of how they perceive and relate to the world and communicate with it and us.

Oliver Sacks introduced us to Temple Grandin in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat…if you haven’t ever read this book, rush out immediately and get it.  Temple is a scientist, famous for developing humane ways of handling livestock.  She manages her life in an unorthodox but very effective way and was played by Claire Danes in a prize winning biopic.

I haven’t seen The Rain Man, but I did read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon (then saw the play) and was highly amused by The Rosie Project by Australian writer Graeme Simsion. Both books successfully placed the reader in the position of a person with difficulties interpreting and responding to their surroundings and were executed with great humour, affection and respect.

People with autism may seem as if they’re not interested in connecting with others, but some of their apparently unsociable behavior may be when they’re trying hardest to engage. They may look as if they’re not paying attention because it’s difficult to concentrate on what someone’s saying while also making eye contact. 

Not expecting the usual social conventions and accepting behavior that may seem a bit bizarre and difficult to read can open us to the possibility that people may be trying in their own way to connect.  And that’s not only people on the autism spectrum…how about trying to meet people half way? Words I’m trying to live by in this season of good cheer.
A very happy holiday season  to you and yours dear readers, see you in 2019.

Blog # 87…November 2018

Our hands are fascinating... what they represent and what they can do.  The Current had a piece a while ago on the function of hands and how robotics are being developed to replace that function…hmmmm, not so fast.
Will they be able to fashion something with the grace of Rodin?
Will they be able to replicate a mother's touch on a child's brow?
Or know the right pressure to lift a feather or a bowling ball?

Our hands are our most personal interface with the world and with our bodies. We caress our children and our lovers, pat our animals, bathe and scratch ourselves. We sew, paint, cook, drive, hold a tennis racquet, a hand of bridge or raise a bottle of beer to our lips. Walking has always been a huge priority in rehabilitation after illness or injuries, but for me, getting hands to work is the big thing and an incredible work of art.

Think of how often we say hands…hands up, or down, hand held, give me a hand, hand it over, hand made, tip your hand, hand over hand , put your hands together,  hand to mouth, hands across the ocean - next time conversation flags at a dinner party, suggest finding expressions containing hands.

Poet Robert Priest devotes a 1998 collection called The Mad Hand to “plaster the propaganda together into mad tirades of affection…reactivate old hopes…sending out these bleeps with love…hoping for the best.”  Thirty years later, these words resonate on many levels. I remember meeting Robert playing the guitar with a bandaged hand from an industrial accident - there are two poems about this in the collection. Attacks on people in the press who use language to keep us informed, the confusing proliferation of language online and a general loss of interest in precise and beautiful language in the public sphere makes me hugely grateful to people like Robert, guardians of our tongues.

I also  have memories of my colleague therapists in the Hand Program at Toronto Western who performed miracles instilling function into reconstructed hands, and helped people accept the new hand that did the work but seemed a foreign part of their body. One of them told me patients often came in holding the reconstucted hand out in front as if it were an object on a platter. 

Modern medicine with all its technical wizardry poses some large questions about altering the human body…where’s the point in the process where we lose our essence of humanity?  Words help us explore and make sense of our world, let's not lose them either.

Blog # 86…October 2018

I just returned from Washington where I saw a t-shirt that read Make America Kind Again. I’m sure I'm not the only one finding the world a more turbulent and meaner place than usual.  The social stability in the US seems seriously damaged and, as well as sharing the continent, we suffer some overflow through the insistence of CNN.   So much to catch our attention and raise our anxiety level.

I was particularly attracted to a couple of recent newspaper headlines (I still prefer to digest material that way) Maybe Girls Will Save Us, and Two Cheers for Feminism.  I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about boys lately and intending to explore their world. Now it seems more interesting to look at both girls and boys and how the stories children read and hear give them hints, maybe even rules, about who they are and will be and how they’ll make their way in the world and change ours.

Although, up to a certain point, both boys and girls seem to express themselves pretty equally (allowing for personalities and situations) at some point most girls are encouraged to express their emotions - and focus on their appearance - by stories and what they see in the world around them. Rage Becomes Her, and Good and Mad have both appeared in the past few weeks, giving us a picture of women’s anger, how difficult it is to express, how it’s interpreted and the conflicted reception it receives. Girls (and women) face pressure to be popular, pretty and successful, in a system that still discriminates against their ambitions - lots to be angry about.

A couple of months ago, a piece by Rachel Giese in the Globe and Mail read Fears for Tears, referring to her book Boys: What it means to Become a Man.   The pressure for males not to show emotion in public is crushing and the roles they're assigned limiting.  As they grow up, boys get stories of action and the value of physical strength, not much about the consequence of their actions or encouragement to look at the future... I sometimes wonder if re-introducing some of the primitive rituals of entering manhood might be healthier than the drinking games that have taken their place with many teenagers.

Snakes and snails and puppy dogs tails … sugar and spice and everything nice - time we left those images behind; neither captures the complexity of kids’ identity or equips them for the world they’re entering. We’re all being confronted with shifting images of gender identity – our own and others. I’ve been in many discussions, you probably have too, about the relative influence of genetics and environment, as if either nature or nurture were more important...not that simple is it?  Roles are shifting too, women are working at all kinds of jobs, men are taking care of households and children.  But, in general, we’re still stuck in some old notions of what males and females should look, act and sound like. An uneasiness with change pervades us at the same time as we welcome it. Some people handle it better than general we prefer predictability, uncertainty can make us mad as well as uncomfortable.

So, what’s my point here?  Stories are important. People are different. Listen to each other and be open to differences. Don't just think binary in any realm. Take a deep breath rather than leaning on the horn. Take a screen holiday.  Don’t be afraid of your anger if you’re a woman, or to be tender if you’re a man.  Keep calm and carry on.

I wish I’d bought that t-shirt

Blog # 85…September, 2018
“A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness”  Opening words of  Bonjour Tristesse, which I read first when Francoise Sagan and I were both 18.  They’ve lingered with me all these years and capture what I usually feel at the change of seasons - particularly summer to fall - a strange melancholy.  It often takes the form of missing people and looking for ways to keep them in my thoughts. 

Priscila Uppal, Canadian poet, novelist, teacher and brilliant spirit died a couple of weeks ago, on my birthday. Her first novel The Divine Economy of Salvation and Winter Sport, the collection of poems written during her time as poet –in-residence at the Vancouver Olympics are two of my most precious  volumes.  Priscila and I met a number of times, at book launches, hers and others, at several readings she did in my Canada Council series, and most delicious of all we used to meet in the locker room of the Athletic Centre where I swim and she took diving lessons. We had many of those spontaneous conversations that undressing seems to provoke…about art and exercise and sport and other things that struck us at the moment. I value that connection enormously and am grateful for the memories that her work evoke.

On August 25th this year Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 and although he died almost 20 years ago, his presence is still, well present.  An inspired composer and conductor, he could knock off a Broadway tune as well as a funeral mass for JFK;  conduct Brahms as well as Berlin.  I was lucky enough this summer to see a film featuring The Royal Ballet performing to three of his  very different compositions. The middle one The Age of Anxiety, based on WH Auden’s long poem, not only was a fore runner to West Side Story, but captured the angst of the day as well as of the composer.

The most difficult part of aging for me is the death of people I care about, whether they are public or private figures. In those internal conversations I have in the middle of the night, I remind myself of two things…to pay attention to present friends and relish their company, and to appreciate the creations of artists who have given us their work to enjoy.
See you next month

Blog # 84…August 2018

Museums connect us with the past: dinosaurs, native artifacts, Egyptian mummies - all fascinating glimpses of what the world was like before we arrived.   Increasingly, they also interpret our present with displays of fashion, media stars and social issues. Right now, a small gallery just inside the front door of the Royal Ontario Museum looks at the role of museums in the issue of artists and sexual harassment, called, predictably, #MeToo and The Arts.

Last Fall, at the Met Breuer in NYC a performance was staged by Jaishiri Abichandani at Raghubir Singh’s show Modernism on the Ganges. Abichandani alleged that Singh sexually abused her when she travelled with him as a young student of photography in the 90’s. Singh, who died in 1999, pioneered the form of colour street photography and a show of his work opened at the ROM on July 21.  Comments on his show and the demonstration at the Met Breuer form part of the content of #MeToo and The Arts at the ROM.

What should be done about the work of artists accused of sexual abuse reaches across all fields...should books be removed from libraries, films from festivals, canvasses taken down?  It resonates a bit with the issue of statues of Sir John A McDonald and other tarnished heroes who abused power. 

Should we remove the reminder of harmful acts from our past or use them as painful memories that make us consider present actions and shift thinking.  The Jews value Yad Vashem as a memorial to victims of the holocaust, honouring Jews who fought the oppression of the Nazis and the Gentiles who aided and protected them.

Our ability to forgive but not forget is complicated and individual, depending on how directly we've been affected. I'm always amazed by Izzeldin Abuelaish's ability to write I Shall Not Hate after the murder of his three children in the Israeli  invasion of Gaza.

There's also a continuum of offences...easier to forgive Al Franken than Harvey Weiinstein. 
I recently saw An Ideal Husband, apparently Oscar Wilde's favourite play.  It's about a wife forgiving a husband's secret... Wilde knew all about that.

Social media has gingered up feelings, getting the information out to us which is important, but often presenting it in a black and white, unconsidered form.  It's not that simple to line up villains and victims. Pointing fingers distracts us from focusing our energy in the right direction...and finding that direction isn't simple either.

News just broke of a noted feminist scholar being found guilty of sexual abuse of a male graduate student. Making the situation  slightly more complicated - the man is gay and married to a man, the woman is lesbian. It points out that there are challenges for all of us, feminists or not, male, female, gay straight or trans, old, young, whatever colour or income level, well you get my drift. We're all together in this struggle to make sense of life. 

I've just finished a wonderful book by Swedish physician and professor of international health Hans Rosling called Factfulness: Ten reasons we're wrong about the world and why things are better than you think. It's an interesting and important read, helped me on the road to looking at the world with more understanding and less anxiety and hopelessness. And that includes what I began with - art, artists and museums, Things are bad in many places, power differentials exist, but at least there is some movement towards looking. seeing and talking.

See you in September...

Blog # 83…July 2018

National Gallery
I’d never given much thought to Ottawa except as it appears in  some political context in the news…until I started going regularly about 10 years ago to visit a friend who relocated there. I was pleasantly surprised to find a transformation in the city. It now looks and feels like the capital of the country, representing us culturally as well as politically…not to mention in our national sport !
War Museum

Museum of History

 Three prominent galleries downtown, all cleverly placed on the river, are the works of Canadian architects: Moishe Safdie,  Richard Cardinal and Raymond Moriyama.  (Congratulations if you know which is which, if you don't, Google immediately.) All three have generous collections of indigenous art, proudly placed front and centre along with art from around the world.                   

There’s a new jewel in the city's crown with the recently opened Ottawa Art Gallery.  On the site of the former smaller gallery, it's a smooth blend of old and new, cultural and commercial.  The tower on the right features a small restaurant and display area connected to the gallery with a boutique hotel and condo development above. Next door, a marble staircase from the Firestone mansion in Rockcliffe takes visitors up to the second floor of the gallery (known affectionately as The Cube) where a home has been created for the family's collection of Canadian art. Space has been assigned for special exhibitions and for buying and selling art, workshops for kids and adults and for films, lectures, and classrooms for the University of Ottawa's theatre program. As with the other galleries, there are wonderful views of Ottawa to be had from several terraces and rooftops that serve as space for events or just a moment's rest to reflect.  On a wall beside of one of these views was an invitation to post responses to the question "If your life was a story, what would the title be?"  My favourite was "At least I tried."...words to live by.

Another recently opened and cleverly conceived space is the Wabano Meeting and Event Centre, available for rental and which can accommodate meetings and events from a dozen to several hundred people.  Rooms are simply decorated with aboriginal themes and equipped with the latest technology. The facility capitalizes subtly and effectively on the interest in approaching and understanding aboriginal culture and heritage that emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation committee. Since much of the Parliament Building space is undergoing a long term renovation,, creating space for meetings large and small is smart in practical terms as well.

Grand Gathering Space
So, next time you're in the market for a holiday and don't want to venture south of the border, think of our nation's capital, it's something to make us proud.
See you in August.