Tuesday, June 27, 2017

CBC Canada 2017: Maintaining a 60 Year Friendship

How do you maintain a 50-year friendship? 6 pro tips from Expo 67 staffers

'Support the supreme organizer' — and other keys to a lasting bond

The former staff of Expo 67's Ontario Pavillion have been friends for five decades — and counting. They share some secrets with Canada 150 staff and volunteers. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)
When Alena Schram looks at the friends she's known for 50 years, she still sees them as they were in the summer of 1967.
Schram was among an elite group of young men and women hired to run the Ontario Pavillion at Expo 67 — the marquee event of Canada's centennial year.
She and her fellow hosts and hostesses recently reunited in Toronto, celebrating their 50th anniversary on another big year for the country. The tight-knit group of friends are now in their 70s.
"I still see their '67 faces, and I sort of put up with their current ones," says Schram with a laugh.

The 'Dos and Don'ts' of keeping in touch

If Schram is any indication, good humour is one key to lasting affection.
But how else does one maintain a multi-person, multi-decade friendship? Despite long distances, busy schedules and diverging career paths, her group has found a way to hold four major reunions and several smaller get-togethers over the years.

As a new generation of Canada 150 staff and volunteers bond across the country, we've fashioned some friendly advice from Schram, and some of her peers, into a short list of dos and don'ts.

1. Do appreciate your moment in history.

Several Expo 67 buildings, like the geodesic dome that housed the United States Pavilion, remain key features of the modern Montreal landscape. (Library and Archives Canada)
Dubbed Montreal's world fair, Expo 67 attracted more than 50 million visitors, including the Queen and several global celebrities, from over 60 countries. Spectacular visions of the future were featured in dozens of national and international pavilions — including the Ontario Pavilion, where Schram and her peers worked.
"We understood that we were in a special place at a special time," says the retired teacher, ambassadorial spouse and author.
"It was different than other Canadian anniversaries in that the world came to our shores that year," adds Gary J. Smith, who went on to become Canada's ambassador to Indonesia.
"The international nature of it fused us together."

2. Do figure out what makes you special as a group — and as individuals.  

'Fifty of us were chosen from 2,000 applications. We were interviewed twice. We all spoke a second language, and some a third. This alone put us in a rarefied group for the 1960s.' Alena Schram. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)
The Ontario Pavillion hosts and hostesses were hand-picked from thousands of applicants.
The result? A group of high achievers who shared many beliefs and values. The great foundation, says Schram, was that they all felt they were part of something truly great for Canada.
"Many of our professions reflected that concept: judges, diplomats, senior civil servants," she says, adding that the group also produced artists, CEOs, lawyers and a film producer.
"I think one of our strengths is that we were equal numbers of men and women," adds Eva Innes, who went on to become president of her own consulting firm.
Notably, the men and the women in the group were paid equally. "This was a cutting edge approach in 1967!" says Schram.
And at the individual level, everyone played a role — from cheerleader to naysayer to "ideas person" to "sounding board."
Over the years, many have confessed that they once thought they were the "surprise," the "outlier" or the "odd man out." As it turns out, each person in the group brought something unique to the bond and dynamic.

3. Don't leave it all to one lead organizer.

Lucky groups have at least one person with enviable organizational skills. For the Ontario Pavillion, that person is Laird Saunderson, former right hand to Ontario premier Bill Davis.
Laird Saunderson, second from the left, has been dubbed the supreme organizer of the group. Here she, Eva Innes and Bridgit Neidre pose with late MPP John Yaremko. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)
Saunderson calls the group "a source of support and comfort over the years." She, in turn, has been making calls, sending emails and otherwise corralling her friends for decades.
But every friend group should bear in mind that no one person, not even the extremely competent, is all mighty.
"Support the supreme organizer," says Schram, noting that Saunderson has needed the backing of co-chairs, Eva Innes and Jocelyne Côté-O'Hara, and a little team to get their group together over the years.

4. Don't over-reunite.

Schram has heard that some groups try to meet annually to mixed results. She advises small gatherings as often as convenient and bigger events with the whole group every five to 10 years.
"These events are better held infrequently," she notes, adding that the rarity motivates those who have to travel long distances.
"It's surprising how meaningful such reunions can be."
John MacNaughton, Dorinda Brunst and Terry Tyers, seen here at the group's 45th anniversary, showed up in their Expo 67 uniforms. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)

5. Do take on new projects.

Although the group enjoys getting nostalgic, they've also taken on new projects hinged on their shared values.
For instance, since their youth, they've believed in the importance of learning French. Schram says this was "unusual amongst Ontarians" in 1967.
In 2002, some members set up the Ontario 67 Scholarship at Glendon College, York University's bilingual campus. Since then, they've helped several Québécois students pay for their studies in Ontario. 
"We have such wonderful memories of those days we experienced firsthand and of the fair's phenomenal success," Smith, a Glendon alumnus, said at the time. "This is our way of saying 'thank you.'"

6. Don't take your friendships for granted.

The gang recently reunited in Toronto. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)
Keep in touch. It's a hopeful statement after a shared experience — one more often expressed than honoured. With Canada 150 volunteers and staff in mind, Schram warns: "Make sure you don't take your friendships for granted."
Her group's reunions have been getting smaller over the years. On the final pages of their 50th anniversary memory book, twelve names are neatly printed in memoriam.
"I don't know who the last man standing will be. Probably a woman — still organizing!" says Schram with a wistful laugh.
It's a fact of life and friendship, one that should remind us that all shared time is precious.
Looking back, Schram is proud of her peers and five decades of keeping in touch. 
"I think we all turned out better than we thought we would," she says.
Here's hoping bonds formed in 2017 are as durable as this special centennial friendship. (Ontario Pavillion Staff Expo 67)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Dark Underbelly of Being a Hostess at Expo 67 (from the Kingston Whig Standard 15 June 17)

“Come a little closer….” he whispered urgently in my ear.  “A little more….”

I was shaken.  A respected familiar public figure, now leering at me as we sat side by side in the theatre.  Was nothing sacred?

But this was 1967, decades before such apparent behaviour was labelled inappropriate, and so I simply squirmed and smiled more brightly than ever, anxious not to give offence.

Then, with deep frustration in his voice, he said, “I’m really hard of hearing.”

Whew!  I thought, and immediately re-hoisted Jack Benny on his pedestal.

The iconic comedian had come to Montreal along with the whole world that summer, to visit Expo 67.  And I was the Ontario Pavilion hostess assigned to accompany him and the still super-elegant singer-entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, as they watched our Oscar-winning film, “A Place to Stand”.

With Benny on one side and Chevalier on the other, I sat star-struck while the multi-screen scenes unfolded dazzlingly in every direction. The following afternoon a column captioned “Mother Will Never Believe This”, appeared in a newspaper, alongside a dewy photo of me.  A small but irresistible taste of fame set in……

Those were truly halcyon days for the 50 young men and women that made up the pavilion hosting staff.  In those six months from April to October, we squired the famous, hosted all-pavilion parties that put Ontario’s name up in lights, and watched as millions descended on tiny reclaimed Ile Ste Helene.

In preparation for this once in a lifetime job, we’d memorized detailed facts and figures about Ontario.  We needn’t have bothered. No one ever asked us anything more consequential than: “Where’s the bathroom?”  “What time’s the restaurant open?” “When’s the next movie showing?” and “Where’s the Stanley Cup, the Coupe Stanley?” The Cup, won by the Leafs that year, was displayed in a bulletproof case, an OPP officer proudly and perpetually by its side.

To relieve our resulting boredom, we would often stand stock still, frozen, with our eyes fixed, our mouths agape and our arms unnaturally outstretched, until some baffled visitor would inch closer and lay a timid finger on an arm or a hand.  Then we’d suddenly spring to life, to great shock and amusement.  It definitely helped to pass the time.

We hostesses were kitted out in natty khaki and white uniforms – white gloves (the only part of my outfit I can still slip into) forever covering our hands -- with toupee hats made of some ghastly synthetic material.  Those white domes, which trapped heat and humidity and left our Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdos wet and straggly, turned out to be the perfect camouflage for brush hair-rollers.  By wrapping hanks of hair around five or six of these prickly little beautifying rods, and securing them with pink plastic sticks, we could – with a bit of brushing and a lot of teasing – appear presentable at the end of our shifts.  There was always a party somewhere and we were always invited.

Along with the hats, we were issued high-heeled shoes made of Corfam, a new man-made material that had two shortcomings:  it didn’t breathe; and it crippled.  After an hour or two on our feet we all hobbled to a standstill.  Leather replacements were soon found.

The white go-go boots we wore in rainy weather were no better.  Equally air tight, they gathered moisture, etc.  It was the etc. that was immediately and pungently noticeable if one of the hostesses took her boots off in a confined space.

Before Expo actually opened, we were given basic beauty lessons by Eleanor Fulcher, owner of the eponymous Toronto modelling agency.  She encouraged us to be bright-eyed at all times, a look she insisted would be enhanced by false eyelashes.   

I apparently was the only one that believed her and was accordingly known all summer long for the distracting pair of tarantulas that flapped untethered on my eyelids.  I was never without them.  I would apply them at the start of each week, and for the next five days would simply stub them down whenever they threatened to escape. Peeling them off and re-installing them was a major undertaking involving glue and a steady hand.  Getting them on straight – especially on the clacking Montreal-Toronto train – was particularly hazardous.  But the eyelashes made quite an impact, and defined me in a not-altogether-flattering way.

Each of us spoke several languages – more or less – but apart from the Franco-Ontarians among us, fluent French was not generally one of them.  Products of Ontario secondary school language classes, we did our best to muddle through, and fortunately no comments were made nor incidents kindled, though several harmless and humorous misunderstandings resulted.

It was the best of times and……well…...the super-best of times.  As one of our hosts later wrote: we had the pre-eminent jobs in Canada that year and were part of the luckiest generation on earth.  We were on the cusp of life, ready to launch at the end of an enchanting summer.  Our opportunities seemed limitless. 

I still boast about that magical period in my life.  But over the years I’ve noticed my audience’s eyes start to glaze over.  Somewhere along the line, listeners started to say in wonderment, “My parents took me to Expo in a stroller!”   About five years ago I met a young man who told me his mother was taken there in a stroller!

I guess that’s possible.  It’s been fifty years after all.  Hard to believe.

Alena Schram is the author of The Opinionated Old Cow:  Ruminations from the Field.  She lives on Amherst Island near Kingston with her husband, John, a retired Canadian diplomat.  Her white Expo gloves have been useful in cleaning out bird cages and in rubbing shoulders with royalty at three Buckingham Palace Garden Parties.  They may be viewed by appointment.

Monday, February 6, 2017

CBC Canada 2017: A Letter from Mandela

What's Your Story

A personal letter from Nelson Mandela to two Canadians who helped fight apartheid

"You have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada."

John and Alena Schram leaf through a book that has come to mean the world to them. The dedication has deep personal significance. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)Imagine a museum filled with artifacts of deep significance to living Canadians — a collection that contains the strongest feelings, most personal histories and most vivid memories of our diverse population. As part of CBC's What's Your Story campaign, we're inviting Canadians to tell us about the one object they would submit to our collection of national treasures, and how it connects to their perspective on Canada. Email us at 2017@CBC.ca.
The first story in this series comes from retired diplomats Alena and John Schram of Amherst Island, Ont.

Few Canadians are aware of how Canada helped bring about the collapse of a morally repugnant system. They should be.

In 1988, my husband John and I were posted to the small team at the Canadian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, with the following mandate: to test the outer bounds of acceptable diplomatic activity in support of South Africans working to bring down apartheid.
John was in charge of the embassy's political work and I ran the Dialogue Fund, a unique instrument devised by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark.
While John and his colleagues attended every political trial, protest, and rally in those dark days, I delivered funding to anti-apartheid and human rights groups, and the alternative media.

Alena Schram (right) poses with Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General of the African National Congress in 1992. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)
Before the advent of smart phones and internet news streams, we helped draw the world's attention to the inequalities of the South African health care and transport systems; the suffering of political detainees; the gross injustice of political trials; and the often-murderous excesses of the security forces of the white South African government.
Did you know? The Constitution of South Africa, signed into law by Nelson Mandela, came into effect 20 years ago on 4 February 1997. The milestone came just two years after Mandela — who spent 27 years in prison for resisting apartheid — won the country's first democratic election.
We worked to foster a spirit of understanding, especially among the youth, by bringing together members of all races — usually for the first time.
And later, when the evil pillars of apartheid had crumbled, we funded initiatives to further constitutional reform, women's and workers' rights, education, access to land and housing and a peaceful transition to black majority rule.
Now our memories of those days, and Canada's noble support for a just and multi-racial society, are represented by a very important gift that we received in 1992.

Much more than a memento

It was at the last of our farewell parties, as we reluctantly prepared to leave for Ottawa, that Gill Marcus — then the African National Congress's chief spokesperson — stepped forward with a gift: a large and weighty coffee table book. I looked at it warily, wondering how we'd manage to jam it into our bulging hand luggage.
"I'd like you to read the dedication aloud," she said, handing the book to John and me.
John nudged it into my hands and I began what I assumed was a farewell message crafted by some ANC member of staff assigned to the task. But something about the round, even, determined script and the cadence of the sentences made me slow down. And as I got to the end, I burst into tears.
The beautiful message and the signature beneath were Nelson Mandela's own.

A copy of Mandela's letter to the Schrams. (Transcript below.) (Courtesy of the Schrams)

Dear John and Alena,
During your stay in South Africa we have come to know and respect you as people who care about South Africa, about our trials and tribulations, our setbacks and victories. Through your warmth and understanding and positive contributions, you have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada. You have touched our hearts, and will be sorely missed. Best of luck in your new posting.
Nelson R. Mandela
1 August 1992.
The book now sits respectfully in our living room, unknown to all those many Canadians who actively participated in South Africa's fight for democracy, and for whom Mandela's message is really intended.
Occasionally we bring it out for interested guests — generally those old enough to remember that odious system of "apart-ness". Then we slip it back into its box for safekeeping.
For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.
Our years in South Africa proved to us that saints and heroes can live alongside evil and expediency, even in the most sophisticated societies. But a brave band of men and women determined to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost, no matter how dim the prospect of success, can ultimately triumph.
For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.
Canada did the right thing. Our national moral compass, predictably, pointed in the honourable direction, as has so often been the case.
Let us hope we can continue to be a just and ethical nation in this increasingly confused and troubled world.

John Schram stands beside anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)
Alena Schram has taught in international schools and written columns and articles for Canadian and overseas newspapers and magazines as well as for international NGOs and UN agencies. She is the author of The Opinionated Old Cow: Ruminations from the Field.

After 36 fulfilling and exciting years in Canada's Foreign Service, John Schram retired to share his experience with students at Carleton. He also lectures at Queen's University, where he is a senior fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Googling - My Trivial Pursuit

I’m enchanted with Google. It’s so versatile: You can research your ailments and discover that every one of them is potentially fatal; and you can check on snopes.com and then ignore the warnings that service stations are fiddling with their pumps.

You can also Google yourself. I’ve done that but the results have not always been satisfactory: of the eight pages of entries under my name, 2½ are filled with background checks. I won’t go into detail but they involve a notorious namesake, a Texas Court of Appeals, and a gun.
Google allows me to see whether the person I met at a party is really as interesting as I thought he was. Or as he wanted me to think he was.
Last week, after a wonderful dinner party, I rushed upstairs to the study – yanked off my Spanx so I could think and breathe simultaneously – and hit the Google Search button on my laptop.
"What did I tell you,” I yelled down from what John calls my control panel – the desk from which I issue proclamations, edicts, and orders – “that fabulous young bartender tonight was not the star of Billy Elliot! Must have been Moira’s younger brother. The one that’s always hoping to be discovered by some talent scout.”
"I didn’t notice him, I’m afraid,” answered John, who was still contemplating the conversation he’d had with a guy from the World Bank.
What’s not to notice about a guy mixing martinis in a tutu and ballet slippers, I wondered.
Occasionally, just for recreation, I google superfluous facts. Were you aware that King Edward VIII’s proper given name was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David? He abdicated more than 70 years ago so you can be forgiven for not knowing. But with Google’s help, I’ve memorized every syllable of his moniker. I just know that one of these days someone that’s seen the recent film The King’s Speech will stop me in the street and ask, “Do you happen to remember the proper name of King Edward VIII?” and I’ll make my public debut by rippling off this useless bit of trivia, insouciantly.
It’s tricky trying to slip such random bits of Google-gleaned information into ordinary conversation. For example, the late Pamela Harriman, America’s English-born ambassador to France, and courtesan extraordinaire, was actually Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, thanks to a number of advantageous marriages and some nimble sexual activity.
Yet inserting these details about Pamela – and her remarkable horizontal ascent – into commonplace discussion requires unique conversational contortions: “According to Google, a bar of soap tucked between the sheets really does stop night-time leg cramps, but I’m sure Pamela Harriman didn’t need such devices in bed…”
It’s not only people I look up, but unfamiliar words as well.
Homunculus!” I cried out late one night recently, yanking off the duvet.
"No. Water softener,” mumbled John from a deep sleep, anxious to allay any fears I might have.
I dashed out of the bedroom, still clutching the book containing that mystifying word, and clicked on Google. Instantly www.homunculus.com, appeared in the search results. I clicked on it. And what I got was ‘The Iconophile: an angry web geek’s multimedia reliquary of the lesser, hard-to-find goddesses and saints of the celebrity pantheon’. The site offered, helpfully, ‘Profane Images’.
"Ohmygawd,” I whispered aloud to myself, “I think I’ve hit porn!”
I slammed the computer shut and rushed back to bed.
"Porn!” I exhaled as I slipped back into bed.
"Yup," murmured John groggily, "and it backwashes every Thursday night.”

And - marvelling at how betwen John and Google - I manage to stay pretty well informed, I turned out the light.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Desperately Seeking a Specimen

Years ago, when you returned from a third-world posting, the government would generally agree to let you undergo a tropical medical examination. This was to make sure you weren’t harbouring anything sinister in your system; that you presented no danger to your friends, family or the public at large; and probably so you couldn’t sue anyone when, twenty years later, you discovered something unfortunate hiding in your liver. 

We’d been living in Lagos, Nigeria for three years. Our daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine, were tiny and vulnerable; we’d had amoebas a number of times (something caused by a microscopic creature that leaves you feeling as though you’d had a bicycle pump applied to your intestines); and John and I had travelled all over the country under dubious hygienic conditions.  We therefore thought it wise to take advantage of this entitlement and the government’s generosity.

At the time, the Toronto General Hospital was the only place in Eastern Canada able to run these tests.  Appointments were generally arranged for the morning, presumably because patients were more likely to produce the required specimens at that time of day.  

We arrived for our appointment at 8 a.m.  The waiting room -- essentially a long narrow hall with wooden chairs arranged in a row on the left, and two doors leading to the all-important toilets on the right – was already full.  There were only two unoccupied seats and John and I each took one, perching a small daughter apiece on our laps.  Within an instant of sitting down we heard our names booming out the length of the hall.


Nonplussed and with considerable embarrassment, we headed in the direction of the voice.  There, at the end of the long hall, behind a desk, sat a grim looking nurse, an array of what looked like Chinese restaurant take-out boxes arranged before her.

“TAKE ONE OF THESE VESSELS EACH AND GIVE ME A URINE SPECIMEN,” she announced to everyone in the room, her voice echoing off the walls.  Thirty pairs of eyes seemed to follow us as we made our way back to our seats.

No problem.  The girls and I walked through the door marked “Ladies”, did as we were told, and walked out again triumphantly, lids on our little boxes.  We handed in our specimens and sat down again. 

Then we waited.   And we waited.  And we waited, as John sat quietly with his own lidless box on his lap.  Five minutes passed.  Ten minutes.  The box stayed put.  We were prepared to sit there all day if need be, but clearly the nurse wasn’t.


Heads turned.  John’s ears went pink.  A sense of failure seemed to surround him.  And another five minutes passed.


John got up, walked miserably the length of the hall, past the nurse who seemed to be smirking, and off to the soft drinks machine.  He returned a few minutes later, presumably better prepared for the task.

In some seven minutes the Coke had worked its magic and John too was able to produce a small, lidded container for the insufferable nurse.  Even Elizabeth and Katherine looked relieved.

Next the crucial stool specimen.  Don’t ask me how, but the girls and I were somehow –inexplicably -- able to produce something on demand.   Once again, within moments, we emerged from the ladies’ room victoriously, our boxes sealed.   You could see the pride in our steps as we marched towards the desk and plunked our boxes down.

But John was neither so fortunate, nor so glib, and again we sat there, expectantly and supportively, together.  Once again long minutes passed.  And then the inevitable reproach:


Now if there’s anything that’s going to produce constriction of sphincters in a patient it’s this ultimate and public humiliation.  Unable to endure another, John submitted immediately and, like a schoolboy going for a failed test paper, he approached the gorgon in starchy white, wordlessly took the two items she seemed to be waving about, and with his box and lid, entered the Gents’.  The waiting room seemed to go silent.  An air of expectation hung heavily.

Let me just say that he eventually appeared looking mortified, furious, but noticeably pleased.  The girls and I waited for the round of applause we were sure would follow. With something of a swagger, John carried his contribution to the desk, set it down resolutely, and strode out of the room.  In fact, he strode right out of the hospital.   

When I eventually managed to catch up with him, he turned and snapped, “Alena, you and I eat together, drink together, and travel together.  Whatever I’ve got, you’ve probably got too.  So next time we need one of these things, YOU go alone and bring me back all the same medicine!”  And, of course, we’ve never been back.

Coming soon:  "The Opinionated Old Cow:  Ruminations from the Field".  It will be published in paperback the end of October and available simultaneously as an eBook from Amazon.