Most people have the vague understanding that writing their name entirely in lower case characters is a claim to being avant-garde. However, few people have any idea why this connection is made, or exactly what it supposed to signify.

The practice dates to the 1920s. Back then, Germans had a bewildering selection of alphabets to write in, including Roman and Italic characters, cursive characters for handwriting, and black letter characters, all of which used both upper and lowercase characters. Black letter characters, or fraktur as they are sometimes called were especially popular because of the growing German nationalism, because they originated in Germany. However, they were the least legible of the selections and made for old-fashioned, often cluttered page designs.

In this situation, a small group of German typographers rebelled against the layout conventions of their day, advocating designs that were simple and minimalistic. Their ideas were codified in Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book The New Typography.

These ideas included the elimination of all the alphabets available to German typographers except lower case Roman. This choice was made because lower case Roman characters are not only simple, but also distinctive. Unlike with any upper case characters, lower case Roman characters have more distinctive characters, so much so that even if you only see an outline of a word, you can often make a good guess about what the word is.

Today, this idea seems trivial. But in the atmosphere of Germany, which was sliding towards Nazism, all the New Typography’s ideas seemed unpatriotic, even treasonous. In fact, under Hitler, Jan Tschichold was accused of “cultural Bolshevism,” and fled Germany one step ahead of his arrest to exile in Switzerland, and, after World War 2, in England. In other words, using only lower case Roman was daring and progressive, and both an artistic and a political statement.

As the New Typography became known, its ideas were adapted by Modernist designers of all sorts, even among those who had little idea of the justification for using only lower case Roman characters. By the time the idea reached the English-speaking world, only the practice was left, and its justification totally lost.

Today, using a lower case name still has the reputation for being avant-garde, even though after ninety years it is hardly new or daring, let alone any kind of political statement. In fact, ironically, many of the ideas of the New Typography are so far from the cutting edge that they are the nucleus of orthodox design and layout today.

However, one of the ideas that did not become standard was using only lower case Roman. By the mid-1930, many of the leading New Typographers had relaxed their original aesthetic position, falling into practices similar to those used in the English world. Tschichold himself eventually became the lead designer for Penguin Books, producing gem after small gem of typographic excellence for popular use – a worthy accomplishment, but hardly a radical one.

This history is mostly unknown, partly because typographer is an art that most people know little about, including many graphic designers. Even more importantly, although the English-speaking world was influenced by the New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s manifesto for the movement was first published in an English translation in 1998 – seventy years after its German publication.

However, when you know the story, one thing becomes clear: those who insist on only lower case are following a practice that is behind the times instead of ahead of ahead of them, and taking no political or aesthetic position where once the practice could actually be dangerous to their freedom in some places. Whatever meaning the practice might once had, for all they stand out as artistic or political radicals, they may as well be wearing black T-shirts and jeans.

The Hobbit movies

At the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, Gandalf describes Bilbo as a small fellow in a much larger world. The words are Tolkien’s, but while Tolkien has Bilbo reply, “Thank goodness,” making the description an indication of the self-knowledge he has gained, in the movie, the line does nothing except express Gandalf’s fondness for the hobbit as they part company. This false note is typical of the mis-steps that the movie makes, again and again.

As a writer and a producer, Jackson is at his best when he follows Tolkien most closely. For instance, in The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo’s return home in the middle of an auction of his goods to discover he has been declared dead expands Tokien’s brief description of the scene while preserving just the right comic touch. The unexpected arrival of Gandalf and thirteen dwarves at the start of the first movie also works, although Jackson’s version drags because he is less skilled at exposition than Tolkien.

Unfortunately, most of the time, Jackson seems to neither trust nor understand his source material. His favorite mode seems to be Grand Opera, full of world-sweeping events and high dramatics. This tone works in Lord of the Rings, partly because much of the trilogy has the same tone, and partly because when filming Lord of the Rings, Jackson still had the sense to include small intimate moments, and even to invent such incidents as the four hobbits silently toasting each other in the pub after they arrive home.

But The Hobbit is all about intimate moments. The whole point of The Hobbit is that Bilbo is not a hero, and takes a long time to achieve the small heroism that he eventually accomplishes. Jackson, though, ignores most of this tone to replace it with Grand Opera. Almost the entire third movie is Grand Opera, in which a battle that Tolkien barely describes occupies the entire movie to the point that it becomes a kind of fantasy war porn, a tiresome collection of scenes that add up to nothing. Compare The Battle of the Five armies to the Rohan’s arrival at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King, in which the ensuing battle is about defining moments for several of the characters, and you see the lack of purpose in The Battle of the Five Armies immediately.

Part of the problem, of course, is that one movie of material has to be stretched to fill three – a mistake so basic that it should have been restrained regardless of commercial motivations. Some of this expansion is legitimate, although the expulsion of The Necromancer / Sauron from Mirkwood take place in a way that is far from the spirit of Tolkien. However, most of the filler material does not work even so much as that episode manages.

The trouble is, much of the filler is thin to start with, and Jackson seems unable to invent enough to make it interesting. For example, he adds an orc chieftain’s feud with Thorin, the leader of the dwarfs, but fails to flesh it out, leaving the orcs to thrust themselves into already dramatic scenes, with the chieftain shouting such redundant device to his cohorts as “After them!” and “Kill them!” (as though orcs would ever invite Bilbo and the dwarves to tea).

Other pieces of filler are so bizarre that they become ludicrous. When I saw the first movie, the entire audience burst out laughing at Radaghast’s rabbit-driven sled – and it was not a good-humored laugh, but a laugh of rejection. Similarly, when the elf king shows up in the third movie riding what is either a moose or a horse with decorative antlers, I felt the movie had degenerated into a Canadian beer commercial. By the time I saw Dain arrive on a giant pig, or watched the dwarfs clinging to armored mountain goats as they bounced up a mountain, I was throwing back my head and laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.

Somehow, I don’t think that was the reaction that Jackson intended. But it was an indication of how much his judgment has slipped in recent years.

Another major mis-step was the introduction of the elf woman Tauriel and her love for one of the younger dwarfs. What Jackson seems to have missed is that The Hobbit is a children’s story, so the fact that all the main characters are male tends not to matter. Love and sexuality simply don’t enter into the plot. You don’t watch Tolkien movies for the love scenes any more than you watch Marx Brother movies for the inevitable lovers’ sub-plot.

Nor is Jackson’s effort to fix what doesn’t need fixing particularly skillful, since, despite the hints of a love triangle with Legolas, Tauriel remains a flat character so defined by the men in her life that she is more insulting than the absence of women could ever be. Unlike Arwen, whose appearances in Lord of the Rings made for the slowest parts of the movie trilogies, Tauriel is not even allowed to be the tragic figure of an immortal in love with a mortal.

All this would be bad enough by itself, but Jackson’s storytelling seems to have deserted him as much as his invention, leaving him to repeat himself endlessly. Just like the first Lord of the Rings movie tantalized with only glimpses of Gollum, so the first Hobbit movie tantalizes with glimpses of the dragon. All the underground battles involve collapsing bridges and violations of the rules of physics. Main characters fall, are loomed over by a foe, and are saved at the last second by the approach of another character. Gandalf duels with a figure of evil, and is imprisoned.

Jackson’s repertoire is so limited that, near the end of the third movie, he even has the orcs tunneling with giant worms, as though that had somehow drifted into the movie from some forgotten footage of Dune. Jackson’s repetition of tropes is so predictable that he seems an honorary member of Bilbo’s expanded family; while Tolkien describes the Bagginses as being so conventional that you could tell what they would think on any given subject without the bother of asking them, so you can tell how Jackson will develop a scene without the bother of watching it.

Such shortcomings might matter less in any other film adaptation. But The Hobbit is both a classic and a cult book, and another version is unlikely to be made any time soon. Under these conditions, Jackson has an obligation to be true to the spirit of his source material. He should not be expected to use all of the book’s dialogue or events, movies being different from novels, but he can be expected to be true to the spirit of the book, and not just borrow its highly marketable name.

But Jackson only intermittently connects with the spirit of the book. Instead of producing movies that can stand beside the book, all he manages is overblown and easily forgotten nonsense.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 208 other followers