If it stars Helen Mirren, it must be good

AdekeWhenever the names Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith or Judi Dench appear to be starring in a new movie, we can be pretty sure the movie is going to be worth the price of admission. Woman in Gold is based on the real experience of Maria Altmann played by Helen Mirren, a wealthy Austrian whose aunt Adele was the model for Gustav Klimt’s famous painting (originally titled  “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,”) which was owned by the family and hung in their home. When the Nazis illegally seized the family’s Vienna apartment and its contents at the beginning of the war, Altmann and her opera-singer husband managed a complicated escape from Austria to join an uncle who had emigrated earlier to California. The rest of the family died during the Holocast.

Decades later, in a public relations gesture to appease the thousands of Jewish families who had been robbed of their homes and belongings during the war, a tribunal was set up to review claims to recover personal possessions. By now, Woman in Gold had been hanging in Vienna’s National Gallery for several decades with a status equal to that of France’s Mona Lisa. Obviously, the Austrian government and its representatives were reluctant to give up what they considered to be a major treasure.

With the help of a young, inexperienced and somewhat dull lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, played by Canadian cutie Ryan Reynolds, a case was presented for returning the painting to Altmann. Overcoming various obstacles and acts of greed by the Austrian government made the claim increasingly more difficult and they were often tempted to give up. But persistence and justice prevailed. For the full story and how it unfolded, I recommend you go see the movie. There are no high-speed chases, thrilling action characters or scary zombies. In fact, the script is not particularly well-written (same problem I had with Monuments Men) and the characters could have been depicted with more depth but the story deserves to be heard. And for that reason it’s worth the price of admission.

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This parrot is definitely not dead

Cleese1John Cleese may not technically be a Baby Boomer (he was born in 1939) but his entire life’s work reflects the Baby Boomer’s credo of challenging the status quo and turning the mirror on our idiosyncrasies. I read his new autobiography, So, Anyway” with a smile on my face the whole time. Not because every line was a joke but because I understood and appreciated his evolution. The book was a joy to read and reminded me very much of David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon” written many years ago.

As the only child of an anxious, detached mother and a loving father, Cleese’s early years were marked by delayed maturity caused by spending most of his early life in boys’ schools with hardly any exposure to girls and women. As a result, he was awkward and misguided about how to become involved in and maintain healthy relationships with women. One particularly tender part of the book was his description of losing his virginity while touring New Zealand with a troupe of BBC performers. Unlike today where young people are blasé about their sexual experiences beginning at a shockingly young age, those of us growing up in the fifties and sixties were more circumspect about this big step. He was nearly twenty-five when he was invited by a lovely young woman to experience carnal delights for the first time. When he met the woman again in 2006, he was still awed by how special and memorable he remembered the experience more than fifty years later.

Monty Python's irreverent sketches appealed to Baby Boomers and no one does drag humour better than the Brits.
Monty Python’s irreverent sketches appealed to Baby Boomers and no one does drag humour better than the Brits.

Like many Boomers, John Cleese bumbled along in his early years with no great ambitions to become what he ultimately became, which is one of the great humour writers and performers of our time. As part of the Monty Python troupe and as an individual performer, John Cleese has created some of our most memorable points of reference for contemporary humour. I’ve always been a huge fan of British humour with its brilliant use of irony and reading this book helped explain how it was born and grew in spite of the perceived uptight attitude of British society.

Cleese's early education in boys-only schools had a profound affect on him.
Cleese’s early education in boys-only schools had a profound affect on him.

Cleese dedicates a fair amount of print space in his book to his school years including grammar school, public (high) school and university at Cambridge. These experiences would be of particular interest to teachers who read the book because he was strongly impacted by his teachers, both in terms of their effect on him and the effect the profession had on their individual personalities. He recalls a particularly beloved teacher whom he felt was very poorly served by an egotistical university professor who utterly crushed the spirit of the teacher when he was a young man. Many of his experiences were fodder for later comedy sketches.

As I read the book I found myself thinking that the career path that developed for John Cleese resembled that of most Boomers, that is, there was no grand plan. He had an aptitude for and studied maths and sciences but for various reasons was forced to switch to the study of law when he entered university. Not being particularly ambitious or talented in any obvious way, he simply followed the path of least resistance and life happened. Like so many of us Boomers, he simply wanted to graduate, get a job at a bank and get on with life. There was none of the intense aptitude testing, career counseling and specialized academic channeling typical of today’s young job seekers.

pythonAs I finished the book, I was struck by how much he did not cover and can assume perhaps there’s going to be a sequel at some time. Cleese has been married several times and mentions only his first wife, Connie Booth with whom he co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers. He also makes no mention of his lucrative work in the seventies producing and starring in a series of motivational business films such as Meetings, Bloody Meetings or Close the Sale. The book covers his work until the end of his Python years, then jumps ahead to their reunion show in 2014.

So, Anyway was an enjoyable read. There’s plenty of anecdotal material about such British entertainers as David Frost, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and of course his Python co-stars. His has been a life well-lived and I’m so glad he shared it with us. And on that note, here’s one of my favourite Python sketches:


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Is God really the way?

The April 13, 2015 issue of Maclean’s magazine features a cover story that is both thought-provoking and brave. Entitled “Jesus Saves!” the article written by Brian Bethune puts forward the theory that religious faith may ultimately prove to be the key to happiness. Since my own feelings on organized religion have undergone a major change in the last few years, I approached the article with a degree of skepticism.

Research by Lisa Miller, Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University in New York has shown a direct connection between the presence of religious belief or spiritual values in individuals and the lowered incidence of depression and risky behaviours, particularly in teenagers. While the article goes into detail about the definition of religion and spirituality, the ultimate conclusion is worth considering.

Church attendance and Sunday school were part of regular life for millions of Boomers growing up in the fifties and sixties.
Church attendance and Sunday school were part of regular life for millions of Boomers growing up in the fifties and sixties.

As Boomers growing up in the fifties and sixties, most of us went to church, synagogue, Sunday school or whatever our family’s religious background dictated. I clearly remember our Sunday school being packed with children every week and after I reached a certain age I became a Sunday school teacher. That’s just the way it was. Today, churches are being torn down or converted into condos due to a lack of attendance and I’ve often wondered whether this phenomenon is related in any way to the breakdown in family life, the increasing incidences of bullying, drug abuse and other social problems.

A spiritual life does not have to mean adhering to religious dogma and attending church.
A spiritual life does not have to mean adhering to religious dogma and attending church.

The Maclean’s article clearly addresses the many short-comings and hypocrisies of organized religion and Miller’s research confirms that a spiritual life does not necessarily include regular church attendance or literally adhering to religious dogma. A positive spiritual life can be as simple as meditating or practising positive values in everyday life. There are even atheist churches that support this philosophy.

Being a teenager is never easy but perhaps there’s merit in exposing young people to a value system that helps guide them through the difficult years. This sets the foundation for becoming a strong adult capable of making better lifestyle choices. Many Boomers have chosen to reject formalized religion as adults but we retain the inherent understanding of right and wrong, the value of community and the ability to explore our own minds for strength.

charityHowever we practise it, humanity is better served by each of us having a positive value system to guide us through life. It may involve organized religion but that’s not a requirement. Maybe those atheist churches have the right idea. Whatever path we choose, the work begins at a young age and it’s incumbent upon Boomers and other adults to ensure that young people receive whatever guidance and support they need to become better human beings whether it’s within organized religion, or not. We have the freedom to choose how to make this old world a better place for all of us.


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Can we afford to go on living?

Should I be worried about outliving my savings?
Should I be worried about outliving my savings?

Two unrelated incidents this morning have given me cause to question the viability of life itself. At the risk of over-stating the cause for concern, please remember that most Boomers who are not already retired and living on a fixed income, will soon be doing so and should also be concerned. We did the best we could to save our money during our working years and now that our income is fixed and limited, I’m very worried that it’s not going to be nearly enough to last us until, you know, death do us part.

This morning as I was standing in the grocery store contemplating the purchase of toilet paper (or bathroom tissue as the ads euphemistically call it) I was overcome by how expensive it is. While trying to do the unit cost calculation per sheet or roll of toilet paper, I found myself wondering how large, low-income families ever manage to keep themselves supplied with this necessity. Even at four dollars off the regular price, I still paid $9.99 for nine rolls of Charmin’ which amortize out to $1.11 per roll not including sales tax, which as we all know must be levied because our omnipotent governments do not consider such things as feminine sanitary products or toilet paper to be necessities. All I can say is I’m certainly glad there are only two bums in our household that need use these products or we’d never have any change left over for wine.

The second item that set me off was the discussion on the radio about the monthly cost of accommodation in an assisted living facility now averaging more than eight thousand dollars a month per person. Who on earth has that kind of money? That’s nearly two hundred thousand dollars of after-tax income every year for my honey and me, before I’ve even had my monthly mani-pedi.

As retirees we like to be close to our friends in affordable condos with access to yards.
As retirees we like to be close to our friends in affordable condos with access to yards.

My friends and I have frequent and heated discussions about how and where we’re going to live when the time comes that we need a little help. Ideally, we’d like to be in our own little commune of sorts (our experiences in the sixties weren’t totally wasted). We envision about a dozen single and married residents living in a campus-style complex with private living spaces and shared areas for socializing and perhaps having some meals. We’d like a driver on call to take us to the mall, grocery shopping and for the numerous medical appointments looming in our future. Someone to do our cleaning and perhaps some meal preparation would also be required. But paying sixteen thousand dollars a month for this privilege is absolutely out of the question.

I think these buildings have a lot of potential as retirement communities.
I think these buildings have a lot of potential as retirement communities and could be refurbished to meet the needs of Boomers.

As we drive by the abandoned Ontario psychiatric hospital buildings in St. Thomas, Ontario, I can’t help imagine that facility being beautifully converted into what we’re looking for. Balconies could be added to the small, individual buildings so we could get a bit of air and sit outside when the weather is conducive. Underground tunnels or covered walkways already connect the buildings and some of the space could be converted to dining rooms, variety stores, hairdressers and other amenities. We could bop around in golf carts in good weather.

Even prisons are getting smart about what kind of accommodation is needed to warehouse those of us who need a little help. Bungalow townhouses spoked out from a central caregiver’s pod would give us a degree of independent living, a patch of grass for sitting outside and the ability to be close to our friends. Each pod could accommodate several units and a shuttle bus would get us around town as needed. I’ve written before about the scary shortage of accommodation being built to satisfy the needs of Baby Boomers as they age. When is someone with some money to invest going to listen?

This is one possibility.
Is this what we can look forward to in our retirement years?

So, between the high cost of toilet paper and exorbitant assisted living fees, I’ve had my share of stress for the day. Short of stocking up on free supplies of mail order catalogues and flyers for the former and parking a trailer in the Walmart parking lot for the latter, I’m open to ideas. Or maybe I’ll just pour a glass of wine, cut back on fibre and que sera sera. I’ve made it this far so I figure I can handle whatever lies ahead – with a little help from my friends.


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Wally Lamb comes through again

waterWally Lamb certainly knows how to tell a story. I thoroughly enjoyed She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, both of which I read several years ago so I was optimistic I would like his latest novel We Are Water. The meaning of the rather cryptic title didn’t become evident until nearly the end of the book and I found the explanation a bit unsatisfactory. That could have been the publisher’s fault rather than the author as the authors do not always pick the title of their books.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of several key characters in the story. Each character, as in real life, is broken in some way. The interplay of the characters’ personalities and the plot is intriguing and for the most part we sympathize and empathize with their various issues. Annie Oh is a complex, uneducated artist married to a complex educated professor of psychology named Orion. Each has abandonment issues that complicate their married life. After their children are grown, Annie and her agent begin a lesbian relationship that results in marriage leaving Orion confused, angry and lost.

We Are Water tells how the characters come together, come apart and come together again. Subplots involve racism, sexism, abuse, and survival. Its a good read. Much better than John Grisham’s Gray Mountain that I’m going to give up on as soon as one of the other books I’m wait-listed for at the library becomes available. That’s the joy of a library card.

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Chick lit by Liane Moriarty

liesIf you like to read about bitchy women, you’ll love Australian author Liane Moriarty’s new book, Big Little Lies. Even if you don’t like to read about bitchy women there are lots of other things to appeal to you in this story such as, love, adultery, murder, mystery, domestic abuse and the complicated job of raising children in today’s world. And there’s a scene in the book where one of the characters describes erotic asphyxiation that prompted me to think about what the accusers of Jian Ghomeshi might have experienced. While this may sound like a downer, the book is actually quite engrossing. I found it hard to put down until I knew how all the pieces of the plot fit together.

Having read Moriarty’s earlier book, The Husband’s Secret a couple of years ago, I was confident I would enjoy her latest work.  The author clearly understands what she’s dealing with when describing life in the coastal town of Pirriwee, a microcosm of any neighbourhood we are probably all familiar with. The book opens with mothers preparing their children to start Kindergarten amidst the swirl of mommy cliques, economic disparity and complicated family issues. Modern women will relate to many of the scenarios described in the book and the author approaches her subjects with intelligence and empathy.

Moriarty’s books are not serious literature but Big Little Lies is a fun read and I got through it fairly quickly. It reinforced my own belief that living a life of truth is ultimately the better way. I have always found lies to be contemptible and require a trail of further lies to sustain the narrative, which rarely has a positive outcome. But you’ll have to read the book to discover the truth.

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