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Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

Mathew 7:29 states that Jesus of Nazareth “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The description has stayed with me despite my agnosticism, and I take it to mean that he had original thoughts and was not just copying what others had said. Over the years, I’ve taken to using the description for gifted poets, so, after reading Cathoel Jorss’ comb the sky with satellites it’s still a wilderness, I want to say at the outset that she has authority and does not sound the least like a scribe.

The title of her book is a typical example of what I mean. If you stop and think, the statement in the title is not particularly profound – something like “despite everything, the wild still exists.” However, what would be an ordinary thought sounds fresh when expressed in her words, making you notice what you might otherwise ignore.. The same is true of an almost throwaway statement like “silence is snorkelling in God’s own pond,” which also has a flippancy that calls renewed attention to it, as does Jorss’ description of what is evidently a trip to England as “Nasty, British, and short.”

A major part of Jorss’ expression is an aptness for metaphor. In one poem, she describes the sea simply as “the largest wilderness.” Another poem that compares men and women includes the comment that men “improvise, like actors / making up their lines.” Still another describes removing cobwebs from her face as “you may kiss the bride / over and over again,” and talks about “my favorite mole, a blarney stone for silence.” Some of these metaphors may be obscure at first glance, but their originality encourages you to slow down and consider them – and, with one or two exceptions, in context they are not hard to figure out.

Jorss’ tone has a formality about it most of the time, so much so that at times you might wish for a change of pace. However, when Jorss provides one, it can be arresting. Sometimes, it is just the use of “fuck” or “pee” that brings you up short, a sudden reference to Star Trek or a brief descent into the simplest of word choices. At other times, it is unexpected humor or flippancy, or a Sylvia Plath-like bluntness, or all three at once, as when she comments, “I was born old and it’s only gotten worse.” In some of her most arresting poems, she veers back and forth between these extremes so rapidly that the shifts can dizzy you:

so if I choose to believe in love
as a verb (in which a noun can dwell)
I am the last remaining member
of an ancient guild eroded
as polar shelves peel back to reveal the shanks of bone

for I have looked into the darkness so long
it seems to be streaming with light
I whistle while I work and never examine the other side
of the glass, for love is extinct, they say
it is being rebred in captivity

Jorss is not afraid to take chances with language, and if you start by half-expecting her to fall flat on her face, she never takes a serious stumble, and succeeds so frequently that much of the pleasure of her collection is seeing her carry off her audacity.

All these comments are not to say that comb the skies…. is flawless. In a few places, Jorss focuses on language so intensely that her narrative structure is weakened. Personally, too, I would like to see how her generally formal tone fares in structured traditional verse. But free verse relies on diction, tone, and metaphor, and these are all elements of writing in which Jorss shows originality and skill,

I have only read this collection twice, so at this point, all I can say is that Jorss’ work lingers with me. However, I have the strong suspicion that in time it will also pass the ultimate test of standing up to many more readings over the year.

When I was young and innocently idealistic, you could always infuriate me by quoting an aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill (as well as about a dozen others): “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” I didn’t like anyone claiming they knew better than me, or implying that my beliefs were a passing phrase. Yet at the same time, I worried that the quote might be right, and I was doomed to become conservative. Consequently, it comes with considerable relief, now that I am well past forty, to realize suddenly that my core beliefs remain the same as they were when I was sixteen.

What that says about my intelligence, I leave for anyone who wants a cheap shot to suggest. But in retrospect, I should not be so relieved. The beliefs I assembled into a world view in my teens were not the product fashionable thought; I may not have read as much of Karl Marx or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as I should have, but I definitely read about them, and thought about what I read even more.

Nor was there any question of just mouthing memorable quotes. I called myself a feminist, so when the time came, I attempted to construct a feminist marriage. I wanted work that was meaningful and useful, so when I was free enough of necessity to choose, that was the kind of work I chose. My adult life has not been a clean break from my teens – instead, it has been an attempt to carry out the beliefs that my teen self developed. I suspect I have fallen short of my youthful idealism, but the point is that I am still trying to live up to my long-ago conclusions, and so long as I try, the odds of me turning conservative are not going to be very high.

That is not to say, though, that how I hold those beliefs remains the same. In my teens, I was passionate and I thought a better world was only a matter of time. All that I and people like me had to do was explain our positions to gain supporters. It was only ignorance that made people oppose us.
Now, I am less passionate and more disheartened. I know, too, that people cling to outdated ways of thought for countless reasons: for power or convenience, or out of fear or a dislike of thought or a discomfort with conscience.

An even harder lesson has been that some of those whom my younger self would have identified as part of the problem can be loyal friends so long as you avoid provoking them in certain ways. Sadly, I know, too, that some of those who claim to be on my side are immoral and unpleasant people that I would prefer to avoid.

In fact, there are moments when I regret my lost conviction and feel that every cause is a collision of half-truths. But then I tell myself that, even if that is true, I still have an obligation to take a side, and that the world view I formulated decades ago is still true –even if applying it to what is happening around me is more complicated than I once imagined.

In other words, I believe less intently, but more deeply. More importantly, because my views take in more factors and reflect reality better than they did when they were new, they are truer than they were then. I guess you might say that my heart is still that of a twenty year old, and if my brain is not, it is still as far away from being conservative as it was then.

For the first couple of days after Jian Ghomeshi’s story became public, I was divided by disgust for his alleged abuse and distaste for the public shaming. However, I soon became less neutral. What changed my mind was partly the number of women telling their stories – too many, I suspected, for a conspiracy based on imaginary events. But what really convinced me was the news that women around Ghomeshi had been warning each other about him for years. In my experience, those kinds of whispers have always been true.

An individual woman making such claims is one thing. Some feminists maintain that those making such claims never lie, but that position is over-compensation for the many years in which victims were never believed. A woman who has worked in battered women’s shelters tells me what common sense would suggest – that is, that women can and do lie about such matters when the stakes are large, especially in separation or custody battles. Granted, only a minority lie, but enough do that you cannot automatically accept that anyone is truthful — a state of affairs that is unfortunate for the true victims.

However, when numerous women are saying the same thing, and exchanging information for the purposes of self-defense, you can be confident that they are telling the truth. Over the years, I have heard just enough to know that, when women talk about men, they don’t just discuss looks, the way that men tend to do when discussing women. They discuss behavior too, which makes perfect sense, considering that men generally weigh and out-mass them, and are more comfortable with violence.

They may rarely file formal complaints against the men they are discussing, but so far as I can figure, making other women aware of the possibilities is simply part of being a woman in our culture. It’s the equivalent of looking in the backseat when you get into a car at night, or carrying your keys between your fingers for self-protection – the kind of automatic behavior that most women are familiar with, and only some men are even aware of. The very fact that it is so routine makes what they say credible.

I first came to this position when I was in high school. Among my fellow athletes was a young man who was always quick with the sexual innuendo. He had a habit, too, of grabbing for girl’s crotches and breasts – or whatever body part was closest – and stopping just short of actual contact. Even in the confusion of puberty, I thought him crass, and tended to avoid him, although that was hard to do, since we were often on the same sports teams.

Then, one night, I was walking home from the ice rink with two young women from my class. I interrupted their discussion of this young men, and was allowed to hear the rest of it. With growing incredulity, I learned that they agreed that they did not want to be alone with him, that in private, he went beyond his public feints, often squeezing painfully. They said, too, that according to those who had gone out with him, that he took their break-ups ungracefully, making obscene phone calls and sending them parcels of excrement.

I was surprised that even he would act that way; I wanted to believe that he would only push the boundaries and not cross them. Yet, at the same time, I had no doubt about the essential honesty of the women with whom I was walking. I started watching him more closely, and, when I heard him boasting about things he had done, I was left in no doubt that he was doing exactly what my informants claimed, and sometimes worse

A year or so later, I heard similar stories about an athletic coach from girls on the track and field team. A couple of decades later, I heard the female staff of a company warning each other against being alone in an elevator or closed room with one of the company’s major clients. Just as with my fellow student, in my naivety I had trouble believing such behavior was possible in either case, but, in both cases, I eventually saw enough to know that the warnings that women were exchanging were grounded in fact. If anything, the warnings were understatements.

Many times since then, I have wished that I could have done something about the situations I observed. But I didn’t fully realize that the things I learned about were criminal, which left me uncertain about who I might tell. I doubted that the high school would fire the coach, or that the company’s CEO would support the female employees over a client, and, quite possibly, I was rationalizing.

Still, thanks to these circumstances, when I heard how women were talking about Ghomeshi, I had no trouble believing them. As I write, he has yet to be charged or convicted, and perhaps he never will be for lack of evidence. But, like I said, in my experience, women don’t lie when they warn each other about abusive men.

Dinner with the mob

Have you ever sat down to eat outside at a park or public market, only to be mobbed by seagulls looking for a handout? Change the species, and that scenario has become the norm for my dinner – and don’t tell me that two small parrots can’t be a mob, because my first hand experience proves that they can.

For years, I used to eat dinner with Ning and Sophie, and our cripple bird Ram with Trish. Since the deaths in the flock, Ram has taken to eating with me. I scoop him up on to my left shoulder as I come in from the kitchen, and almost before I sit down, he is rappelling down my arm after whatever has caught his attention on my plate – usually, potato, rice, or a piece of chicken. If his target is healthy for him, I put a small portion aside for him, and, when he is temporarily sated, he wanders around the table, pausing for a drink of fruit juice before clambering back up on me.

Beau, my other remaining bird, was a neglected bird, and, for years lacked the confidence to compete with the others – especially Ning, who had him thoroughly mentally dominated. Usually, I tried to make it up to him by offering him some juice before I sat down, but even that made him nervous.

Suddenly, two weeks ago, Beau suddenly found the courage to see what he was missing. He landed on the table with a thud and a small squawk (like most parrots, he is not the most graceful of landers), and started waddling towards my plate.

About thirty-five centimeters from the plate, Beau paused and retreated, keeping the diameter of the plate between him and Ram. With his head down, Ram was so busy making delighted noises and cramming his crop full that I’m not sure he even noticed Beau.

Moving slowly, I broke off a piece of roast potato and offered it to Beau. He grabbed it and retreated to the far end of the table. There, he adjusted his beak’s hold on the potato, and leaped as much as flew to his cage, retreating to its depths where he could enjoy the spoils of his raid undisturbed.

The next night, he repeated his visit. I could tell his growing confidence by the fact that he actually took my offering from the plate, and only retreated as far as the top of a Windsor chair to eat.

Since then, Beau hasn’t missed a night. It takes some alertness on my part. If I am slow to put aside Beau’s portion, he sometimes ventures to help him himself, always with a nervous air as if he is not sure of his right to be there, or as though he anticipates catastrophe if he puts a foot wrong.

At other times, however, he will show his impatience by trying to take a bite out of my book. And should the phone ring or some other unexpected event happens, both Beau and Ram take to the air, forming what the old Elizabethan madrigal described as “a shipwreck in the sky.” Since they both tend to take refuge on me, that usually means that sharp beaks and strongly flapping wings are all uncomfortably close to my face, and both reading and eating a hot dinner have to wait as I try to play peace keeper without one of them striking out at my fingers.

Dinner used to be a quiet time for me, but I’m not complaining. Beau and Ram are edging slowly to detente, and I’m happy to see Beau overcoming his timidness enough to claim his rights. Sometimes, I am tempted to put them in their cages for the night and have a quiet midnight supper, but that seems so lonely compared to dinner with the mob that, so far, I haven’t actually done that.

An audience’s response has two sources: what is actually said, and what the audience brings to the hearing. In the case of Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of popular culture, I can only conclude that only a fraction of the hostility comes from what she says, and most of it from those opposing her.

Sarkeesian’s critiques are easily identified as being grounded in mainstream feminism. Her perspective is nothing new, nothing bizarrely novel. She says nothing that has not been said constantly for the past three decades. So far as theory goes, her main contribution has been the relatively minor one of naming tropes, which is useful, but hardly revolutionary. In fact, although I might have missed something – the anti-Sarkeesian responses being far too numerous for anyone to be familiar with all of them – even her opponents adopt her coinings without objecting to them. Her opponents may refer ironically to Damsels in the Refrigerator or Ms Male, but they use the terms all the same, helping them to become part of the accepted terminology for talking about women in popular culture. Nor should that be surprising, because most of the names she gives tropes are colorful and instantly identifiable.

However, essentially, Sarkeesian is a popularist. She is less notable for adding to feminist theory than for taking academic discourse and translating it for a general audience. This is a difficult accomplishment, and should not be under-estimated, especially since few people are capable of it. Except in some of her conclusions, Sarkeesian generally minimizes jargon, and, when she does use an academic term, she is careful to explain and illustrate it before developing her argument.

Personally, as a former writer of software documentation, I find the ability to explain important, yet it seems, in itself, an unlikely source of controversy. After all, she is only giving a specific examples of a critique whose general outline is familiar in contemporary culture.

Ordinarily, the responses you would expect from work like Sarkeesian’s are queries about her interpretations, and the pointing out of omissions and inaccuracies in her analysis. For instance, her Straw Feminists video can be criticized for its characterization of the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars, which mistakes the depiction of feminist activists as flawed and opportunistic – a perfectly appropriate depiction for the show’s noir world where everybody is untrustworthy – as anti-feminism.

Yet this is rarely the kind of criticism she receives. More often, reactions to Sarkeesian are intense and hostile out of all proportion to anything she says.
Perhaps, part of this reaction is due to her critics feeling that something important to them is under scrutiny. This uneasiness is probably all the stronger because Sarkeesian is hardly a participant observer in the best sociological fashion. Even though she is a popularizer, the fact that she speaks from an academic background tends to cast her as an outsider, noisily entering the scene and dispersing judgment from a superior position.

But, whatever the reason, the responses to Sarkeesian are almost never examples of valid arguments. Much of the time, they are personal attacks, accusing her of being a front for a behind-the-scenes lover, or the public figure for some unfolding conspiracy, and at times accompanied by threats and personal, even sexual insults. She is faulted for having a Kickstarter campaigner that resulted in twenty-five times what she asked (as though success was proof of dishonesty), for not being a “real gamer” (as though only a member of the gaming sub-culture can observe it), for turning off comments on her postings (as though the Internet doesn’t have plenty of room elsewhere for responses), and for turning her harassment to some advantage (as though she should simply endure it). Less specifically, she is accused of lying or being evasive. Yet even if some or all of these accusations could be proved, none of them have anything to do with the validity of her arguments. The accusations express hostility, and nothing more.

In fact, attempts to address Sarkeesian’s observations are rare. When they are made, they generally fall short of logic. For example, while she is often accused of cherry-picking her evidence, her attackers fail to explain what else someone with as narrow a topic as Women in Video games is supposed to do. Similarly, complaints that she does not mention the broader context – for example, that only a minority of a popular game’s missions take place in a strip club – fail to address Sarkessian’s basic point of why such missions are included at all.

At other times, efforts to address Sarkeesian’s argument can only be described as willfully blind. One critic, for instance, faults Sarkeesian for mentioning a scene in which players can kill strippers and hide their bodies on the grounds that the game penalizes players for doing so. Yet how many gamers do not carefully save so that they go back and explore the paths not taken? Although the scene is not part of the main storyline, it is still part of the game.

The critics do have one point: Sarkeesian can be careless about citing sources. In response, Sarkeesian cites fair use, and I would add that popular and informal works (including this one) are more casual about sources than equivalent academic works. However, even the validity of this accusation is soon overshadowed by the quickness with which it is inflated to proofs of duplicity. Someone without a grudge would be more likely to attribute careless citing to nothing more sinister than inexperience.

What is troubling about such responses is not that they attack Sarkeesian. She is not, and should not be immune from criticism. However, when the responses attack Sarkeesian as often as her arguments, and employ such tormented logic the few times that they do discuss her arguments, they can hardly be called responses in good faith. They are not interested in discussing her argument to get closer to the truth, and would probably not concede that she was valid on any point whatsoever. Their goal is to deny or silence by any means at hand, no matter how irrelevant or illogical.

Add a sneering tone, and overt sexism, and they can hardly be called responses to Sarkeesian at all. Instead, they seem more projections of what the commenters bring to viewing Sarkeesian’s work.

Fear of feminism or women? Denial and doubts about what effects video games may have? Not being telepathic, I cannot presume to say. But, to all appearances, if Sarkeesian did not exist, at least some of her attackers would need to invent her.

Yesterday, Steve Bougerolle tagged me for the meme of listing “ten books that stayed with you in some way.”

Considering I’ve been on a diet of three to ten books per week (depending on their density) since I was eight or nine, confining myself to ten is a bit of a challenge. Nor did I simply want to name without commenting, or to bother other people with the meme, which is why I am blogging rather than just answering on Facebook.

Still, here is my list, in no particular order:

  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: I’m one of those who think that Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. The story of several couples in a small industrial town, the novel has a psychological depth that is unequaled even today. I’ve read it three times, and can easily imagine me reading several more times, each time finding something new to admire.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I started reading the first book of the trilogy one Saturday in the summer between Grades Four and Five. I spent a very long Sunday evening waiting for Monday so I could get the last two volumes from the store. The experience was overwhelming, and gave me a life-long taste for fantasy and science fiction.
  • Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Although I have been an agnostic since my mid-teens, I always assumed that a historical Jesus existed. But when I read this plausible case for the non-existence of Jesus, I was shocked for one of the few times in my life. I felt cheated that so much history and art had been founded on nothing. The book itself is obsessive to the point of unhealthiness, but worth wading through for its ideas.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign: I read this fragment of the Vorkosigan Saga for the first time a few months ago. Two weeks later, I read it again – something I almost never do. A mixture of space opera, Shakespearean comedy, and Regency romance, A Civil Campaign is one of the funniest books I have ever read, with a cast of characters that you can laugh at while still identifying with.
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays: This collection features not only the calm clarity of Orwell’s writing, but also the best record of what it was like to be an English intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I finished it for the first time, it had had a permanent effect – for the better, I believe – on my prose style by making me much more aware of what my goals in writing were.
  • Wilkie Collins, No Name: A young woman is declared illegitimate, and seeks revenge and justice in Victorian England. Of course she has to repent at the end, but watching her get to that point is so much fun it hardly matters. This is one of the lost classics of Victorian literature, and deserves to be better known.
  • Susan Faludi, Stiffed:, The Betrayal of the American Man: I had read Backlash and admired it, but Stiffed, which was relatively ignored, is even more monumental. Feminists often say that men suffer under patriarchy as well, but, so far as I know, Faludi is the only feminist who set out to examine and prove this contention. It’s a book that every feminist should read, and every anti-feminist as well, and establishes what Backlash first suggested: Faludi is one of the great modern American journalists.
  • Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, The Pragmatics of Human Communication: This classic textbook applies system theory to psychology. For me, it was a gateway to the works of Gregory Bateson, Jacques LaCan, and Anthony Wilden, and, as such, a lifelong influence on my habits of thought.
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works (in English): I worked steadily through these thick volumes as I was writing my thesis. Jung is not an easy read, but he gave me the intellectual framework for studying fantasy and proved to me the importance of symbols in people’s thinking. If I seem eccentric, one reason is that I am more of a Jungian while most people are Freudians or anti-Freudians.
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book: As a boy, I loved the deliberately archaic language and the poems between the stories, as well as their genuine pathos. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Cubs as long as I did, except I loved the fact that the rituals were based on Kipling’s poetry.

Give me another five list items, and I would include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which started me reading anarchists, and the collected works of Shelley, which taught me most of what I know about poetry and kept me sane during my warehouse job between high school and university. But give me another five, and I would undoubtedly want space for another five, and five more after that. For me, books are not just ways to kill time, but some of the main building blocks of my psychology (most of the rest being music and people). So when I’m asked to list influential books, in an indirect way, I’m really telling my own story, which to me seems endless.

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