The road to love from Murphy Brown to Candice Bergen

candice1Boomer gals universally looked up to Murphy Brown as our hero and inspiration from 1988 to 1998. She was gorgeous but consistently dateless; smart but frequently inept; strong yet oddly vulnerable; in short she was an interesting, flawed and relatable character. Much like ourselves. Candice Bergen, who played Murphy Brown possessed some of these characteristics but playing Murphy with all her faults and fabulousness was the definitive role for which she will always be remembered. A Fine Romance is Bergen’s account of her life as a mature actor, her courtship and marriage to award-winning French movie director Louis Malle, motherhood, being widowed and building a new life, then marrying again later in life.

Born to a beautiful young mother and Swedish father, Edgar Bergen, who was famous himself in the entertainment business as the ventriloquist who brought us Charlie McCarthy, Candice Bergen grew up in a privileged environment. As a young woman she modeled, worked as a photographer for Esquire magazine and played supporting roles in several movies. It wasn’t until she was cast as Murphy Brown that she hit her stride and became the touchstone for a generation of Boomer women.

A Fine Romance is a fascinating read by a woman who is honest, intelligent and self-deprecating. Bergen is forthright in admitting to her shortcomings and mistakes. She suffered serious empty-nest syndrome when her only child, Chloe went off to college, acknowledging the value of her supportive network of girlfriends. “And thank God for my friends. Mothers in their fifties—running to beefy now, the traditional thickening through the middle—we clumped together in our middle-age camouflage: black pants, long sleeves. . . . compensating with wit, attention, intelligence, experience. Bringing to bear not the extra fifteen, twenty pounds we all seemed to be packing but our confidence in who we were. The sizable weight and force of our personalities.” We all understand the importance of girlfriends.

It was Murphy Brown's flawed character we loved the most.
It was Murphy Brown’s flawed character we loved the most.

Bergen is also a dog lover which endeared her to me even more. In fact, she acquired one of her dogs, a Golden Doodle named Jerry, from a Mennonite breeder near St. Jacob’s west of Toronto, driving up herself to pick him up and take him home. What further impressed me was the opening paragraph in one of her later chapters: “Let me just come right out and say it. I am fat. In the past fifteen years, since I’ve married Marshall, I have put on thirty pounds.”  She also mourns the loss of her once-luxuriant full head of hair, “because if my hair isn’t fluffy on this pea-sized head, I look like a golf ball on an enormous buoy.” It seems I’m not the only Boomer woman who worries about getting fat and going bald. Who can’t relate to that and admire her honesty.

Daughter Chloe works as an associate editor at Vogue magazine.
Pictured together with daughter Chloe who works as an associate editor at Vogue magazine.

In describing her marriages to Louis Malle and later to Marshall Rose, Bergen is frank in describing the high, lows and in-betweens. When Malle died, she devoted herself to being the best mother possible to their daughter Chloe and is justifiably proud of the fact Chloe grew into a caring, smart and capable woman in her own right. Many of the struggles Bergen endured are not that different from what each of us has experienced over the years with career, aging parents, loss of a partner and life’s disappointments. While she moved in socio-economic circles very different from most of us, her story confirms that life is complicated for everyone, including Murphy Brown and Candice Bergen. The book was an absolute joy to read. Although it seemed a bit slow at the beginning, once she got into the specifics of her life and its various iterations, it was totally engrossing. I highly recommend it.

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Both my left and right brain say ‘go for it’

Sure.This may look easy to left-brainers.
Sure. This looks easy to left-brainers.

Leah Eichler’s article in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, August 15th  entitled Should coding be compulsory for kids? got me thinking. Is this another flavour-of-the-month idea along the lines of learning Mandarin? There are plenty of “tiger parents” out there who will do anything to ensure their young geniuses acquire whatever skills are necessary to give them a leg-up in the academic and eventually the business world. Is learning how to code one of those hair-brained ideas that will soon die on the vine to be replaced by new-newer-newest math?

As a confirmed right-brain thinker who occasionally questions whether my left cortex is even still operating, I naturally have an opinion on the issue. And, of course, I have no qualifications in education or anything else remotely relevant but here’s what I think. Math, science, physics, chemistry and all those logical left-brain subjects I was forced to suffer through in school were extremely painful experiences for me. My marks were consistently atrocious as I simply could not grasp the concepts. On the other hand, ask the class to write an essay and I soared; to me, that was heaven. Each of us has different abilities and aptitudes.

Math and science classes always gave me lots of time for more creative pursuits.
Math and science classes always gave me lots of time for more creative pursuits.

Despite my hatred of maths and science and corresponding poor performance, however, I am glad that I had some exposure to these subjects. While I retained almost nothing of what I learned, I still have a vague recollection of what an algorithm involves; I can recognize a table of elements; I understand the process of osmosis (although this is more the result of sticking the nib of my fountain pen between the fibres of the mohair sweater worn by the girl sitting in the desk in front of me, and watching the ink spread, a.k.a. osmosis). I studied Latin for a year and a half; I studied French for five years. I only wish that after all that time and effort I could actually speak and understand French. History, which is now a favourite subject and hobby of mine as an adult, was rammed down my throat for years in a very painful and unsatisfactory manner in school. The teaching methods have a lot to do with our level of comprehension and retention.

Setting up and launching my own blog without any help was extremely hard work without coding and other technical skills. But I persevered and now you can't shut me up.
Setting up and launching my own blog without any help was extremely hard work with no coding and other technical skills. But I persevered and now you can’t shut me up.

The lesson from these experiences is that although we don’t always like to take our medicine it ultimately does us some good. Learning to write code for me is like having pins stuck into my eyeballs. It’s painful for right-brainers to understand and execute this skill but eventually has some payback. Two years ago I attended a one-day Saturday seminar in coding put on by a dedicated non-profit organization called “Ladies Learning Code”. By 11:30 in the morning I was completely overwhelmed and lost. Because of my deficient left brain equipment, I had a great deal of difficulty understanding and performing the basic skills being taught. So I reverted to my high school math class M.O. and day-dreamed through the rest of the day. But the lunch was good—I remember that.

Now I’m a blogger, happily sharing my right-brain fantasies on a software program called WordPress. If I could understand and practise coding, I could now do so much more with BOOMERBROADcast on the WordPress software, but because I failed my opportunity to learn code I’m stuck in the last century. Just like learning to type, oops, keyboard, I think there are certain skills that should be included as mandatory parts of school curriculum long enough to give students a basic understanding of the theory and practices that will help them in the working world. And like it or not, keyboarding and coding are skills can make life so much easier in the real world. When I was still working, I could have easily manipulated the custom marketing software I used had I known basic code instead of waiting forever to find someone else to do it when and if they ever had time.

If I could just get my left and right hemispheres t communicate, I could be so much more productive.
If I could just get my left and right hemispheres to communicate, I could function like a normal human being.

In grade eleven I dropped Latin to take typing and short of reading and writing that  turned out to be my most valuable job skill, one of the best things I ever did. I was unsuccessful at learning how to code and I regret it. There are many other practical skills that could be taught in school to help young people cope with everyday life. I’ve never run across a Roman on the street to impress with my fluency in Latin. Nor have I ever needed to calculate the liquid displacement factor resulting from a chemical reaction in a beaker. While I did once know how to use a slide rule, it has now been replaced by a gadget called a computer and if I only knew how write code, I could set the world on fire. I already know how to type, er, keyboard, so I’m making progress. All I need to do is drill into that remote, mysterious, never-used left side of my brain and start ‘er up. Yep. It’s that simple. Just give me the secret code.



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In praise of older buildings

I agree with Prince Charles. It looks like a prison, complete with guard tower.
I agree with Prince Charles. It looks like a prison, complete with guard tower.

Prince Charles and I have something in common. We’re both interested in architecture and have no professional qualifications or particular expertise in the field to back up our opinions, but we have very strong opinions. He once described Mississauga’s new city hall as resembling a prison and I’m inclined to agree. I’m a huge fan of old buildings being restored and recycled into new retail or residential space. My husband was saddened to learn recently that the old United Church he attended as a boy in St. Thomas, Ontario has been torn down from lack of use. In Toronto we have seen many old churches reborn as condos incorporating amazing gothic architecture and other unique features.

The Distillery District reborn. Well done, Toronto.
The Distillery District reborn. Well done, Toronto.

A recent newspaper article described the refurbishing of an abandoned nineteenth-century knitting mill in Hamilton into a residential and arts complex. The Distillery District in downtown Toronto is a wonderful example of bringing these old buildings back to life and generating new communities around them. Europeans respect the remains of previous buildings, often incorporating a section of historic Roman wall as an architectural detail in new usable space. Many of the homes and buildings destroyed in both world wars were faithfully restored to their original glory. We saw this firsthand in northeastern France and Belgium where entire villages levelled by bombs and artillery were faithfully and lovingly rebuilt in the original style on the original footprint. One of the most memorable examples is “Canada House”, the bombed-out duplex made famous in film of the D-Day landing of Canadians on Juno Beach in France.

In the late sixties, I dated a guy who worked as a bouncer at the "old" Drake Hotel.
In the late sixties, I dated a guy who worked as a bouncer at the “old” Drake Hotel, before it was trendy.

The refurbishment of industrial and warehouse space in former urban industrial neighbourhoods has resulted in community rebirths. Liberty Village in the King and Dufferin area of Toronto is a perfect example. When I lived a rented one-bedroom apartment in that neighbourhood in the late sixties the area was considered a tad unsavory. Flop houses and beer halls were common sights and nearby Parkdale had not yet achieved gentry status. One of my old boyfriends at that time worked as a bouncer at the original Drake Hotel on Queen Street West where a country and western band played in the main lounge and local beer drinkers could pass the time by entering through the “Men’s Entrance” at the side door. Today, The Drake Hotel is a popular landing spot and place to be seen for hip and happening artists and musicians.  A block west of The Drake is The Gladstone Hotel, another former watering hole that has been respectfully restored and reborn under the direction of the Zeidler family.

Industrial space beautifully reborn as a restaurant.
Abandoned industrial space beautifully reborn.

Building code requirements and labour costs often push the costs of renovating old buildings beyond that of new construction so deep pockets and a genuine appreciation for old architecture are required to make the financial and time commitment. But when it happens and it works, the result is glorious. Last year, when I visited Sirius Satellite radio’s studio in Liberty Village, I witnessed the rewards of this effort. I was interviewed about my book, BOOMERBROADcast on What She Said on Channel 167 by Christine Bentley and Kate Wheeler in a building that had formerly been a carpet manufacturing factory. The renovated office spaces were surrounded by similar old buildings that had been converted into residential, artists’ and commercial space that was a wonderful merging of living and work space.

It involves a lot of work and a lot of money but the results can be spectacular.
Renovations involve a lot of work, patience, skill and plenty of money but the results can be spectacular.

I recently stayed overnight in a beautifully restored farmhouse B&B near the town where I grew up. When the owners bought the house, it was derelict and occupied by an assortment of racoons, skunks, snakes, mice, rats and all kinds of creepy crawlies. The new owners gutted the interior to the studs and started over. Original doors were lovingly sanded, their hardware cleaned and restored and doors re-hung. Woodwork beyond repair was replicated by millworkers in Cobourg; floors were replaced; a new wrap-around veranda was built to replace the original that had been torn down years earlier and the home was generally re-built to twenty-first century building codes and standards with respect for the original design. Whenever I drive by deteriorating old Italianate or Victorian homes in small Ontario towns, I mourn what they once were and could be again if someone had the cash and the time to bring them back to life.

Boomers are getting similar retrofits with hip and knee replacements, injectable fillers, dental veneers and other cosmetic modifications aimed at making everything old seem like new again. Unfortunately we will never have the staying power with the patina and lasting beauty of old buildings enjoying a rebirth. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on old relics. With some TLC, a major infusion of cash and respect for the beauty that once was there, past beauties can still be appreciated.

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My shame and sorrow have an upside

Bless the organizations that put our mistakes to good use.
Recycled clothing benefits a wide variety of recipients around the world.

I was shamefully reminded again this week of my wanton ways. It’s that time of year when many Boomers are cleaning out our closets and trooping off to Goodwill or the consignment store with green garbage bags full of our mistakes. We try to justify our shopping follies with excuses like “as soon as I lose ten pounds it’ll look great” or “but I paid so much I hate to just get rid of it”? Some of the things have never even been worn. Perhaps they were on sale and we couldn’t resist or those shoes just reached out and made us buy them. Every time I’m tempted to drop my credit card on the counter for another white blouse or black jacket, I force myself to walk away, go home and reconsider the purchase. Usually, common sense wins out and I forgo the purchase. But not always.

Bless the good people at Goodwill for turning my mistakes into something good.
Bless the good people at Goodwill for turning my mistakes into something positive.

After slugging that giant green garbage out of the back of my car at Goodwill the other day and dropping off an armload of clothes at the consignment store, I came home and found even more things for “recycling”. So, if you see pictures on television of a woman in some third world country wearing that pink animal print sweater with sequins around the neck that once hung in my closet, I will feel vindicated. Our sins aren’t without an upside. Someone’s benefiting from my mistakes.

Growing up in a home built in the 1880’s with no closets whatsoever, my entire wardrobe as a teenager hung on three hooks on the back of my bedroom door. Is it because we managed with so little back then that we’re so voracious for fashion acquisition now? shopper4After all, nothing makes an old woman feel better than a new pair of biker boots. In fact, our entire economy would collapse and malls wouldn’t exist if we weren’t so profligate with our fashion dollars. And recycling of clothing has created an entire industry that benefits others. So, the logical conclusion is we have to keep shopping so we can support the economy, clothe women in the third world, supply an entire industry of charity shops with our donations and provide others with cost-effective, barely-worn fashion and accessories. How can that be anything but a good thing?

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Kevin O’Leary’s advice is blue-chip

kevinSome people are natural-born entrepreneurs. There’s a particular strand of DNA that uniquely equips certain individuals with the ability to spot an opportunity and commit the required amount of time and energy and take the risks involved in capitalizing on the opportunity. Personal motivation often stems from necessity. Such was the case for Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary. When he realized, after completing high school, that he could never make a living doing what he enjoyed most, being a self-employed photographer, he resorted to Plan B, which meant getting a post-secondary education. Despite having dyslexia and not being a particularly exceptional student, O’Leary finished university and earned an MBA giving him the tools he needed to create the life he envisioned.

Worm-picking was not of my most profitable enterprises but it did expose me to the value of earning my own money at a young age.
Worm-picking was not of my most profitable enterprises but it did expose me to the value of earning my own money at a young age.

In Cold Hard Truth written by O’Leary about four years ago, I could relate to the value of his message of being a self-supporting, independent and financially secure entrepreneur. When I was a young girl in elementary school, I was always scheming ways to make money, with me, naturally as the boss. Whether it involved picking and selling dew worms in front of our house for a penny apiece in the summer or setting up “Freshie” stands, I was constantly on the prowl for ideas to improve my financial situation. As the bossy older sister, I’d make my younger brother round up his little friends and charge them each an empty pop bottle for admission to watch me put on song and dance shows on our back porch. Sometimes those shows would net me as much as ten or twelve cents (each pop bottle could be redeemed for two cents) which would buy me a five-cent bag of chips and an ice-cream cone. That’s good business in anyone’s books. Earned money is infinitely more precious and meaningful than a handout.

Over the years, my entrepreneurial ventures varied according to my current fiscal state. In 1967, to help earn money for a trip to Europe, I offered my services to other girls in my residence providing a manicure for fifty cents or sewing a simple A-line shift dress for two dollars. One very sympathetic friend (who is still one of my oldest and dearest friends) was my one and only customer, taking advantage of both offers adding two dollars and fifty cents to the coffers. In the nineties, during the recession while I was self-employed, I ordered five hundred tee shirts imprinted with the message “Taxed to the Max and Rae-ving Mad”. I planned to make a tidy profit selling them for ten dollars each at a Queen’s Park rally protesting the destructive anti-business policies of Bob Rae and his NDP government. That venture was not particularly well thought-out and for years all my friends wore my excess inventory of “Taxed to the Max and Rae-ving Mad” tee shirts.

Success in business requires a complete toolbox of skills.
Success in business requires a complete toolbox of technical and personal skills.

Kevin O’Leary has also had his share of failures and successes over the years. His little book (just over two hundred pages) is chock full of great business advice for anyone with an urge to start their own business. He stresses the importance of hiring the right people. There was no tolerance for people who didn’t contribute to the bottom line or caused trouble.  “I went to school with guys and gals who were brainiacs with the books, but utter zeros when it came to making money and building a business. They had no people skills and no ability to forge valuable relationships, proving that in the real world, interpersonal skills often trump academic achievements.” When I was in the corporate world I also found that top marks didn’t always guarantee business success. A high energy level, the willingness to work long hours, often at the expense of family life and strong interpersonal skills are essential. He stresses the importance of stocking your toolbox with valuable skills and learn to make money from it. Hire others to do what you’re not good at.

His evolution from being a self-involved young jerk with a giant ego to becoming a billionaire business success story includes realizing the importance of failure in the learning process. Despite early missteps, O’Leary credits his frugal, fiscally-savvy mother and wise step-father with being instrumental in guiding him through bad decisions. It’s also worth noting that O’Leary’s career path did not follow a carefully layed-out plan. Circumstances and missteps that at first appeared as setbacks, ultimately led to opportunities. I think this is something young university graduates should pay attention to. Keep your options open and don’t restrict your future to preconceived educational constraints. Lessons learned the hard way, on the job, and the experience of having been there and done that are valuable advice not only for would-be entrepreneurs but any business person. I enjoyed the book; it was honest, easy to read and inspiring.

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