Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bubble Speak and Stuttering.

1910 aeroplanes and blimps

Today I was working on a Nicholson Family Saga letter from June 1911 where Flora Nicholson fails French in her last year of Academy, but still gets into Macdonald Teaching School. That's because, as I explain in the footnotes, they desperatedly needed teachers in Quebec in 1911.

That was a big relief for the Nicholsons, who were struggling financially.

Then I went out shopping with a friend of mine, Lise, who is French Canadian- but one of those French Canadians who is fluently bilingual and who has floated effortless all her life between Quebec's 'two solitudes'.

Lise was telling me about her mother, who is 92 and who has advanced dementia. Her mom, she says, can't remember much of anything, but she can still understand both languages and beat her daughter at cards, Hearts or Cribbage.

The brain is a funny thing.

Anyway, my friend was also telling me that she went to see the movie the King's Speech this week. I was surprised. I hadn't bothered to ask her to go with me, assuming she would not like it. (And I would like to see it again.)

She went with a group of French friends, two of whom had already seen the movie once. "You have a rival," she told me. "Rita can't get over how handsome Colin Firth is. Maybe you should go to her house and play her my favorite DVD."

Lise was being ironic. One Saturday evening a few years ago I brought my copy of Pride and Prejudice over and we watched it in lieu of the hockey game. Wet shirt or not, she wasn't impressed. She has called Colin Firth "That guy who doesn't smile," ever since.

Yet everytime she sees Paul Gross on TV she remarks, "Quel bel homme."

Lise enjoyed the King's Speech, despite the fact Colin doesn't smile here either. But she was really surprised how much her French Canadian friends liked the movie. One other friend was seeing it for the second time because "she cried all through it the first time."

Now, I didn't cry through the King's Speech. I thought it was a funny film, for the most part. (Lise remarked, "OK, they had it bad, but that's their job.")

And I think I know why I chose not to cry. Because when I got home from my shopping excursion my husband was watching the CBS magazine Sunday Morning on tape and, as it is topical, that show had a feature on stuttering that showcased kids.

And THAT feature made me very sad, in a big punch to the stomach kind of way, because I 'suddenly' remembered that my twin brother used to stutter and that my father sometimes used to make fun of him.

I had repressed that in my memory, I guess, while watching the movie the King's Speech and focused instead on the history and elegant period piece elements.

The brain is a funny thing.

My father, who was born in 1922, the year that Bertie and Elizabeth got married, had had a cruel Edwardian upbringing himself. His own father, a Malayan planter, used to lock him in a cupboard when he was bad.

That had once been a common Victorian practice, I have since learned.

Anyway, my father was sent away from Kuala Lumpur to Cumberland at 5 and hardly saw his mom and dad again. (He may never have seen his father again, although I'm not exactly sure.) That, of course, was a typical British practice among the upper classes and those in the middle classes who aspired to more.

He went to a public school, St. Bees in County Durham and lucky for him, he excelled at sports. He was Captain of all the teams. He told me that one day another student came up to him and said admiringly "It must be wonderful being you."

"Yea, right," he thought at the time.

Anyway, Sunday Morning also had a bit with fun visuals on the Wright Brothers that explained that Wilbur died in 1912 of typhoid fever.

Yesterday, I edited a letter from 1911 where Norman is worried for his wife Margaret, who is tending a relation with typhoid.

And then that same Sunday Morning show had a piece on Geoffrey Rush, who is going to be bringing Gogol's Diary of a Madman to New York. That's one of my favorite books, or stories, as it is very short. I love Gogol. He's my favorite Russian writer.

A few years ago, I recommended Diary of a Madman to my bookclub and another person in the club, the widest read of all of us, objected passionately to its theme. She had a schitzophrenic sister and said that she found nothing funny about mental illness.

I don't quite see this story that way, despite the fact that my twin brother, the one who stuttered as a child, also has severe mental health issues.

Anway, the final bit on Sunday Morning was the most interesting of all. It was a seemingly glib little animation describing how the brain works with respect to FEAR. In short, it showed that if a scary belief, however erroneous, gets into someone's brain, it is next to impossible to remove it.

The brain is a funny thing.

The animation used the recently debunked autism/vaccination connection as an example, but I know it was really addressing the entire culture of fear in the US.

I've written extensively on that topic. And in this Flo in the City blog I've discussed all the fears rampant in Western Society at the turn of the last century: the white peril (tainted milk); the yellow peril of malaria; the social evil (prostitution); the evils of the Nickelodeon!! Aeroplane deaths. The Housefly. Typhoid. Immigrants. It was a true age of anxiety.

Fear is the key emotion underscoring the Nicholson Family Saga and it is in all the letters, either written flat out or lurking between the lines: the fear of destitution, primarily. The middle class generally lives in fear and flux as it is positioned between the poor and the rich. In good times, the middle class feels it can have it all. In bad times (or times of severe flux) it fears falling into the abyss.

In 1910, The Nicholsons were a middle class family on the bubble.

Today, 100 years later, most middle class families are on the bubble, whether they feel it or not.

So we go to see movies about rich, privileged people who are miserable, because it makes us feel better.