Archive for October, 2009

One of the pleasures of buying work from beginning artists is watching them fulfill their potential. Last January, I saw enough promise in John Wilson’s work to buy one of his masks. Now, in masks like “Shaman and His Helpers,” his work has reached its first maturity.

Compared to most of Wilson’s earlier works, “Shaman and His Helpers” is a busy piece, both in subject and execution. It benefits, too, from Wilson’s study of traditional masks through pictures, the most obvious benefit being the use of eye holes instead of painted irises and pupils.

The mask depicts a shaman and his spirit helpers. One of the spirit helpers sits in the shaman’s mouth, as though resting after a long climb up his esophagus. The other sits in the middle of his forehead like a frontlet. Both these positions suggest that the helpers are indicators of the shaman’s true nature.

The helpers look more or less human, but the one in the mouth is in a vaguely frog-like position, while the one on the forehead is round enough to be a moon. While the shaman’s eyes are narrowed as though he is entering a trance, both helpers have closed eyes, as if asleep or focusing inwardly.

One way or the other, you sense, the shaman’s and the helpers’ eyes are going to be in the same state shortly: Either the shaman is about to enter their world of perception or else the spirits will come into his. No matter which happens, the result is a mask of a half-realized transition.

Interestingly, too, the spirit on the forehead is painted similarly to the shaman, while the spirit at the mouth is left unpainted. That may be an artistic decision made because any paint would be overwhelmed by the red of the shaman’s lips. But the effect is to suggest that the spirits are in some ways opposite.
Are the spirits different aspects of the shaman’s nature? Or perhaps the helper in the mouth is unrevealed, a creature of the dark, and the moon-like one on the forehead is a creature of light? At the point portrayed in the mask, they do not seem at odds, so perhaps they are opposites needed for balance and insight. Whatever the case, a moment of magic and transition is depicted.

The awe of the moment is heightened by the design of the mask. Tall, thin masks are common in the northern tradition, but in this case, the physical dimensions suggest a lean asceticism that seems fitting for a shaman. This asceticism is heightened by the high cheekbones and the deepness of the eye sockets near the nose, which suggest that the shaman might have been fasting. The black eyebrows reinforce this sense of gauntness, especially in a bright light that emphasizes the cheekbones and eye sockets.

At the same time, the mask carries a hint of menace or pain. Especially from a distance, the hands of the spirit in the mouth suggest fangs. Similarly, the unusually bright red used in the mask leave a half-unconscious impression of blood, as though the shaman’s trance is accompanied by a nosebleed and his biting of his own lip. Or perhaps the redness of the lips suggests that the shaman is giving a sort of birth to the spirit clinging to his lips. The suggestions are understated – there are no blatant riverlets of blood trickling from the nostrils or down the chin – but they are only more effective for being subtle.

And always the grain, which Wilson has carefully matched to the contours of the face, stands out, suggesting a movement or fluidity just below the skin. Influenced by his teachers at the Fred Diesing School, Wilson has always shown an awareness of the grain as a finishing detail, but here that awareness is not just a reflection of technical skill, but also an addition to the design.

When this mask first went on the market, I missed the chance to buy it, and cursed my slowness to make a decision. Luckily for me, the first owner changed their mind, and I was able to buy it after all. The more I study “Shaman and His Helpers,” the more I think it is Wilson’s best mask to date. At the same time, knowing that he is a constant carver and likely to have decades to continue his learning of his craft, I can’t wait to see what levels he will reach next.


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Because I have been in business for myself during much of my adult life, people occasionally call me an entrepreneur. They mean it for a compliment, so I try to hide the fact that I consider the term an insult.

I can see why they might apply the term to me. I’m rarely at my best in a 9 to 5 job, and I maintain a sole proprietorship called Outlaw Communications that I occasionally remember to declare my GST on. Once or twice, I’ve even created jobs by sub-contracting.

Still, there is a fundamental difference between an entrepreneur and me. An entrepreneur is someone who wants to accumulate money or power, a whole-hearted participant in the game of capitalism set on building their own empire – if only so they can take early retirement. But I’m none of those things.

By contrast, my attitude is that of a bourgeois intellectual. Although I see no nobility in poverty, and don’t object to having a good year for income, I am not especially concerned with accumulating money. My ambition in those directions extends only so far as being comfortable, and having a good chance to be as comfortable as I am now in the future.

As for power over people, while I mildly prefer it to them having power over me, who needs the responsibility? I am far more interested, too, in interesting work now than in early retirement – especially since, if I worked hard enough to take early retirement, I probably would forget how to enjoy it anyway.

Besides, having survived on the outer edge of academia for years, I am full of anti-capitalist sentiment. Accumulating privilege seems a ridiculously trivial way to spend my time when there are so many books, films, songs, and pieces of art to appreciate – to say nothing of exercise, conversation, and food. Why make the effort, especially when it is so soon forgotten? Andrew Carnegie and John Paul Getty may have been known in their times, but their names are only half-familiar at best today.

Consequently, I have a hard time understanding in my heart of hearts why a grown adult would be pleased to be called an entrepreneur, or imagine that I would be. Taking on that role seems to involve an obsession with the banal, and a deliberate decision to ignore most of what makes life worth living while getting nothing worthwhile in return.

Frankly, the idea of being an entrepreneur bores me. As for being called one, why would I pleased that someone considered me so shallow?

This attitude, no doubt, explains why I will never be rich. But, please, don’t strain my manners by calling me an entrepreneur. I aspire to better things than that.

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This afternoon, I heard Tlingit artist Nicholas Galanin speak at the Bill Reid Gallery. His talk was my first prolonged exposure to concept art applied to Northwest Coast art. I came away stimulated, but not particularly sympathetic to the effort.

Galanin is the latest of several generations of artists, and has done some jewelry in the traditional style. However, at least for the time being, he is not especially interested in traditional art or culture. He talked about traditional art as being confined by the stereotypes imposed by a romantic view of first nations, and – rather tellingly – could not tell where he obtained a traditional song he used in a video, even though in coast cultures, rights in songs and their performance can be important pieces of property. [Note: Both Galanin and Sonny Assu tell me that it was not the traditional song whose source Galanin didn’t know, but a hiphop song that was part of the same work. See the comments below. I apologize for the error].

Instead, Galanin is more interested in exploring the First Nations as another ethnic minority within the dominant culture – in particular, how coastal images are bastardized and exploited by cheap imitations made in Asia for the tourist trade in the Northwest Coast. He discussed, for example, a series of masks he made out of pages of the Bible, talking about how he found it appropriate that the holy book of Christians, who suppressed shamanism, should be converted into a shaman mask. Galanin also talked other paper masks he had made and how they were masks by a first nations person that showed no signs of first nations culture.

Other projects he discussed involved embedding tourist-trade masks in a wall covered with wallpaper that depicted idealized pictures of 19th century life and another in which the same type of masks were covered in Chinoserie. In a pair of videos, he had a traditional dancer (or an approximation of one) and a modern dancer moving to the same traditional song. In yet another series of work, he gave his version of the highly idealized photos of Edward Curtis: naked women with masks added in a graphics editor.

Meanwhile, ten meters from the podium where he stood was his contribution to the Bill Reid Gallery’s Continuum show: A version of Bill Reid’s “Raven and First Men” rendered by a chainsaw. Galanin was seeing his version of the famous sculpture for the first time, because he had outsourced the work – as he does much of his work.

The outsourcing is a commentary on commercialism, but I also had the sense that for Galanin what matters is not the actual work so much as the concept. Apparently, he sees his role as that of impresario, rather than as an artist who necessarily creates works with his own hand.

Having been a grad student in an English department of a major university, I am tolerably well-versed in such approaches to art. Nor do I find anything in Galanin’s social commentary with which I disagree.

But I wonder if I am missing something, because I have never found this kind of concept art very compelling.

For one thing, it seems to have little room for something that is central to my own appreciation of art – the enjoyment of craft, of sheer artistic excellence. Part of this lack may be that it does not delve deeply into tradition, so it has no standards to judge skill by. But the major reason for the lack seems to be that, when you are making a comment, craft becomes unimportant or perhaps a distraction.

Moreover, when you are commenting on commercialism, too much craft is probably out of place. If anything, your message is stronger if an object shows a lack of craft.

This situation helps create another problem: most concept art, including Galanin’s, is like a symphony of a single note. If your ideal is the “well-made object” of Bill Reid’s aesthetics, then viewers can return to it many times, and even discover something new after the first viewing. In comparison, concept art seems simple and to offer few reasons to return to it. Once you have grasped the message – which is often simple enough that you can reduce it to a single sentence, or at least a rather short paragraph – nothing is left to appreciate. Concept art seems to be unambiguous and unsubtle by nature, and, consequently, not very interesting.

In this respect, it is interesting to compare Galanin’s chainsaw Bill Reid knockoff with Mike Dangeli’s ridicule mask, which is also in the Continuum show. Where Galanin’s “Raven and the First Immigrants” seems one-dimensional, Dangeli has reached into his cultural history to bring an old concept into the future: just as the ridicule masks of the past were public announcements of a wrong, so Dangeli’s is a declaration of the wrongs suffered from the first nations. Dangeli’s mask is every bit as social or political as Galanin’s sculpture, but where Galanin’s sculpture seems facile, Dangeli’s mask is ambiguous and complex. And I doubt it is a coincidence that Dangeli is throughly involved in preserving and reviving his culture while Galanin sounds like a typical deracinated intellectual.

But such issues are a matter of taste. Regardless of what I think of Galanin’s work, I have to admit that the very fact that it takes the form that it does illustrates the diversity of Northwest Coast art and proves it a living tradition. And that by itself, I suspect, is something of value.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It is meant to be a very basic introduction to the complicated study of logical fallacies. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

For thousands of years, people have been cataloging invalid arguments. These are arguments are invalid largely because they are illogical. That does not mean that they cannot be extremely effective; the associational fallacy, for example, is the basis of a good deal of advertising. But the illogic does mean that they should not be accepted in an essay, which is meant to be the construction of a logical structure of ideas.

Too large a conclusion is drawn from too specific evidence.
Example: Three regional airlines have just gone bankrupt, and many of the larger lines have discontinued flights on certain routes. The North American commercial transporta­tion system is in chaos.
Airlines are not the only form of commercial transportation, and bankruptcies and discontinued routes might not be enough to justify calling the result “chaos.”

Too many considerations are left out for the conclusion to be valid.
Example: Getting a good grade in English is easy. All you have to do is write essays of the required length and repeat the teacher’s opinion.
Grammar and punctuation, structure, and even original thought are also factors in getting a good grade.

Only two extreme positions are acknowledged, and no alternatives or mixed positions. Sometimes called “the excluded middle.”
a.) America: love it or leave it (a statement made by political conservatives in the 1960s)
b.)What do you want: good grammar or good taste? (a slogan once used by Winston cigarettes)

You can criticize your country and still want to live there, and good grammar has no relation to good taste, so it can hardly be its opposite.

Post hoc ergo procter hoc (Latin, “after this, therefore that”)
Because one event occurs after another, it must be caused by the second event.
Example: I carry a gun so I won’t be robbed. It must work. After I was robbed a year ago, I started carrying a gun, and I haven’t been robbed since.
From this statement alone, you can’t be sure of any cause or effect. The speaker may not be going to the same parts of town as before, or maybe they have just been lucky.

Non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”)
No logic exists between two parts of an argument
a.) “I made the decision myself, because if we listened to experts, we’d have a tyranny of expertise, and then where would we be?” (John Fraser, former Minister of Fisheries)
b.) “I couldn’t have kicked that girl to death. I wear soft shoes” (a murder’s explanation of why he was innocent)

Why should Fraser insist on making the decision when the whole point of experts is to have someone with advice worth listening to? Similarly, you can still kick with soft shoes – or even when you’re barefoot.

False Analogy
A poor choice of metaphors or of similar situations.
a.) Some people cannot be educated. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
b.) A well-run office is like a machine. You should be able to replace people without disturbing the office’s efficiency, just as you can replace a bolt or a gear in a machine.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because silk isn’t made of pigskin, but it’s not clear that people are that inflexible.
As for an office being like a machine, every organization has an informal organization that compensates for problems with the official organization. For instance, a receptionist may compensate for a company officer’s inability to keep to deadlines. Replace that receptionist, and the office may become disorganized.

Ad Hominem (Latin, “to the person”)
Attacking the person who holds the argument, not the argument itself.
a.) People who complain about the conduct of Cabinet Ministers have a vested interest in attacking the government.
b.) Ignore what teachers tell you about writing. They’re all frustrated journalists and novelists who aren’t good enough to compete in the commercial market.

Both these statements may be true or false. But, either way, they do no mean that the attack isn’t valid or that their advice isn’t worth following.

Ad Populum (Latin, “to the population”)
An argument that appeals to popular prejudice or belief.
a.) Canadians have worked too hard to see their jobs stolen by recent immigrants, or, even worse, to support them when they go on welfare or unemployment.
b.) Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

The first example tries to appeal to anti-immigration prejudice, the second to the popular wisdom of a cliché. Neither replaces a reasoned argument.

Associational Fallacy
A position is made attractive by who holds it – either a famous person, or people with desirable qualities.
Example: I have no crystal ball. But based on our previous mailings, I’m willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction –
Of all the people who receive this invitation, only a very special group will select accept.
You can easily spot them in any crowd. The young in mind, no matter what their age. Eternally curious. Open to new ideas. Alert to future possibilities. Those fortunate few who didn’t stop growing – intellectually – the day they left school. (a magazine subscription offer in the mail)

The implication is that, if you subscribe, you will prove yourself open-minded and curious, too.

Appeal to Authority
A position must be correct because of who holds it. Alternatively, some greater force such as God or a natural order may be mentioned. Note that this has nothing to do with citing who you got an idea from.
a.) Biology is destiny. Women must be dependent on men.
b.) It is historically inevitable that capitalism give way to socialism.

Here, “biology” and “historical inevitability” are represented as greater than human forces with which no one can argue.

Circular Argument
An argument in which the first statement depends on the second, and the second on the first.
Example: There are no drafts of the last half of the poem because Shelley never finished it. If he had finished it, we would have had the drafts.
Besides being faulty reasoning in other ways (the drafts could have been lost), this argument simply goes round and round.

Dormitive Explanation
Similar to a circular argument, the second statement simply repeats the first one – bu tthe repetition is disguised because of a change in wording.
a.) Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle.
b.) Ted Bundy killed young girls without remorse because he was a sociopath with a disturbed libido.

“Dormitive” is an adjective that refers to sleep, and a sociopath does things without remorse.

Value Judgment
A position is attacked or defended because of its moral or ethical qualities.
a.) That is an evil position to hold.
b.) My plan is simply common sense.

Arguments are supposed to be about logic. The morality or ethics of them are irrelevant.

A word or phrase is repeated, but with a different meaning each time.
a.) The law is clear on this point. You can’t argue against it any more than you can argue against the law of gravity.
b.) Since evolution is just a theory, my theory about the origins of life are just as good as any biologist’s.

You can’t argue against gravity because it is a description of how the universe works, but the laws of a country are made by humans and regularly argued. Similarly, a theory is just below a law in science – a position that best explains the evidence – while a “theory” in ordinary conversation is just an opinion.

Confusion of Logical Types
A logical type is a level of organization. For example, a body is of a higher logical type than an organ like the liver, and an organ is of a higher logical type than a cell. You cannot compare or contrast different logical types because they create the absurdity of the parts of something being discussed as equal to the thing itself.
a.) The needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society.
b.) Ignore the details and concentrate on the larger picture.

Give too much priority to either the individual’s or society’s needs, and you are likely to have trouble. In much the same way, the larger picture is composed of details, so you cannot ignore them.

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I’m not looking forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I never watch sports, and I’m concerned about the costs, traffic, and the virtual declaration of martial law during the games. The fact that I once dreamed of being in the Olympics myself only makes me angrier at the travesty that they have become.

Still, I could almost reconcile myself to the games for the sake of all the First Nations art commissioned for them. Some of that art was on display this weekend at the Aboriginal Art Exhibition at Canada Place this weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – even if the lack of organization at the event seems ominous if it is a foretaste of how the games themselves will be run.

Being appreciative of the commissioned art is something you can file under No-Brainer. I mean, what’s not to like about the art? There’re medals with Corrine Hunt designs, commemorative coins by Jody Broomfield. The snowboarding pavilion at Cypress Bowl will have a wall graced with a new work by Dean Heron. GM Place will have a new work by Alano Edzerza, Nat Bailey Stadium a new work by Aaron Nelson-Moody, and the list goes on and on.

After fumbling badly by making the symbol of the game the inukshuk – a symbol that has nothing to do with British Columbia, much less Vancouver – the games organizers have had the sense to commission locally, focusing on less established artists and on members of the Salish nation, whose territory the Vancouver venues are on. I understand that some 45 works of public art will be added to the Lower Mainland as a result of the games, and I consider that an unalloyed good.

Sadly, though, the Olympic organizers fumbled again in their first efforts to bring most of these works to the public. The display was almost completely unpublicized except for newspaper stories just before the event and some Internet transmission. Even then, it was called an exhibition, so that most people arrived unaware that most of the work on display was for sale – an oversight that bitterly disappointed the artists who had taken tables and paid the exorbitant prices charged for parking at Canada Place.

Even worse, the management of the event was haphazard. I heard artists complain that they were unable to set up for credit or debit cards, and the rumor was that the one bank machine in the exhibit hall required a substantial surcharge to use.

And perhaps the worst thing was that, in order to fill up the hall, the organizers seem to have let anyone exhibit who cared to pay for the table. As a result, many tables displayed tourist junk that did not belong in the same exhibit as the commissioned artists.

For me, the incompetence of the organizing was summed up by the sight of two singers on the stage gamely belting out songs to rows of empty chairs, and a snack bar that had closed down at least two hours before the end of the show. Meanwhile, the exhibitors were strolling around talking to each other.

Such poor planning undermines the celebration of the artists. My impression is that the exhibition organizers couldn’t have cared less if the artists were treated with respect.

Perhaps the organizers can learn, but if this is how they put on such a relatively small event, then we should expect chaos during the games themselves. I might be lured downtown to see the aboriginal market at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, but I, for one, plan to spend the three weeks of the games bunkered down safely in Burnaby, far away from the insanity.

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This Facebook meme sounded interesting, so I decided to take the time to answer it:

What is your salad dressing of choice?
Oil and vinegar. They not only enhance the taste without smothering it, but they are low-fat.

What is your favorite sit-down restaurant?
Well, it has to be a sit-down restaurant, because I don’t touch fast food. I like Rasputin’s (although I have to be careful not to have too many different types of dumplings and ignore all the other choices), and the Afghan Horseman. When I’m in Dunbar, I like to treat myself to vegetable pakora and buttered chicken at Handi. And give me any Greek restaurant and I’ll be happy.

What food could you eat every day for two weeks and not get sick of?
I have a bagel from Solly’s every morning for breakfast. They are real bagels, not pieces of bread shaped like bagels, and they have enough variations that I never tire of them.

What are your pizza toppings of choice?
Spinach, capicolla (provided it’s the real thing and not just ham covered with pepper), Gorgonzola and any cheese besides mozzarella. But the crust is just as important; give me a dry oven-baked one or I’ll pass.

What do you like to put on your toast?
Butter, and nothing else.

How many televisions are in your house?
One – and I feel a little ashamed of that, so it’s hidden in a cabinet. But I’m not going to sit at my computer desk to watch DVDs. I spend too much time there already.

What color is your cellphone?
I don’t carry a cell phone. If I’m out doing errands or wandering, that’s my own time, and I don’t care to be disturbed. I figure that very few things will be so important that they can’t wait for a few hours.

Do you have an iPod?
No. iPods don’t support the free (and superior) Ogg Vorbis format. Besides, the Sansa players have more features and better sound quality for a much lower price.

Are you right-handed or left-handed?
Left. I figure that this simple fact gave me a head start at independent thinking. When you’re left-handed, you learn early to translate physical instructions so that you can do them.

What is the last heavy item you lifted?
The new stacked washer and dryer – although I suppose it was more of a drag than a lift.

Have you ever been knocked unconscious?
No, although I felt as though my whole skeleton shook a couple of times when I was tackled while playing high school rugby.

If it were possible, would you want to know the day you were going to die?
Not really. I probably wouldn’t believe the prediction anyway. Or, if I did, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I’d be defiant and get careless.

If you could change your name, what would you change it to?
I’m used to the name I have, for better or worse, and couldn’t be bothered. But, if I did change it, I would find something that allowed for lots of variations so I would have a choice.

Would you drink an entire bottle of hot sauce for $1000?
Yes, diluted 2:1 in water.

Mid-spring and early autumn. The temperatures are decent without being uncomfortable, and I like the signs of change.

My birthday or my partner’s, because we try to do some thing interesting and go out to dinner.

Day of the week?
No favorites. Since I freelance, I work irregular hours and often work weekends or into the evening, so the days of the week don’t mean much to me.

May and September.

Missing someone?
I work from home. At times, I would even appreciate seeing anyone, just for a change.

Pleasantly busy.

What are you listening to?
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” (it just sounds nasty).

Current worry?
What have you got? I have a well-developed imagination, so I can find half a dozen things to worry about before breakfast. I usually don’t let any of them get to me, though.

First place you went this morning?
To the bathroom to shave.

What was the last movie you saw?
I can’t remember (it’s been a slow year). But it probably would have been science fiction or fantasy.

Do you smile often?
Yes, if grinning counts. I grin when I’m enjoying myself, when I hear or see something I appreciate, when I’m nervous, and even when I’m angry. I have a different grin for each of these occasions.

How many pairs of flip flops do you own?

Last time you had a run-in with the cops?
I keep away from cops. They’re like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rich: they’re different from you and I, and I don’t approve of the difference.

Last person you talked to?
My partner, as she came in the door from doing errands.

Last person you hugged?
My partner.

Do you always answer your phone?
Yes, although I often hang up quickly if it’s someone trying to sell me something. I get calls from around the world, and I wouldn’t want to miss them.

It’s four in the morning and you get a phone call (or text message), who is it?
A wrong number, or someone with an emergency.

If you could change your eye color what would it be?
I would want my eyes to be greener than they are.

Do you own a digital camera?
Yes. I use it most often to take pictures of art for insurance purposes.

Have you ever had a pet fish?
No. I’m a parrot person.

Favorite Christmas song
I admire Sileas’ version of “Thomas the Rhymer” on “File Under Christmas.” If that doesn’t count, then something medieval and not often heard. I could list far more Christmas songs that I hope never to hear again.

What’s on your wish list for your birthday?
A new piece of Northwest Coast art.

Can you do push ups?
Yes, I do fifty every day unless I’m sick.

Are you excited or nervous about the future?
Neither. I can only do so much to influence it, so I cultivate a stoicness about the uncertainty.

Do you have any saved texts?

Have you ever been in a car accident?

Do you have an accent?
Yes. It’s a western Canadian accent with the vowels, combined with a mid-Atlantic accent picked up second hand from my father’s Yorkshire. The combination makes people very unclear where I come from; over the years, they’ve guessed Ireland, Iceland, and Jamaica.

What is the last movie to make you cry?
Can’t remember. I could tell you what music did, though.

Plans tonight?

I’ll do some more writing, eat, then watch one episode of “Primeval” and another of “Tru Calling.”

Have you ever felt like you hit rock bottom?
Yes, but I won’t talk about it here.

Name three things you bought yesterday?
Two 18 karat gold rings by Gwaai Edenshaw, spinach, and a tamale dinner special at a Mexican restaurant.

Have you ever been given roses?
Yes, by my partner on my 21st birthday.

Met someone who changed your life?
Dozens of people have introduced me to things I might never have discovered on my own. But I won’t mention the people who have changed my life for the worst because I won’t give them the satisfaction, and I won’t mention those who have changed my life for the better because I wouldn’t want to embarrass them.

Name two people who might complete this.
Who knows?

Would you go back in time if you were given the chance?
Without hesitation. The chance to see different periods would be irresistible to me. I wouldn’t want to see wars or great social upheavals so much as daily life. I’d like to do things like hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge deliver a lecture, or see the first performance of Shakespeare’s plays, or attend an Althing in early Iceland and the coronation of Charles II.

Do you have any tattoos/piercings?
No. Both are very permanent, and I would quickly get bored with them and regret them.

Does anyone love you?
I hope so, but that’s private.

Would you be a pirate?
Only if I could be one like William Dampier, the subject of “A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.” Dampier was a pirate who was also a naturalist, and a writer, and introduced a number of words into the English language.

What songs do you sing in the shower?
Well, it would be in the bath, and it would be whatever song I woke up with in my mind (I wake up with some song at least one day out of three, if not more often)

Ever had someone sing to you?
Only if “Happy Birthday” counts.

Have you held hands with anyone today?
No, although a parrot put two toes around my finger and held it there for a time.

Who was the last person you took a picture of?
Can’t remember, which tells you how rarely I do so.

Are most of the friends in your life new or old?

What is one thing that scares you?
Not knowing what is happening, and being misunderstood. But both have happened often enough that I can live with them, even if I dislike them.

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The other night, I woke in the early hours to the sound of coyotes howling. The howling is a thin quaver that seems to rise slowly through the sky then disappear, and I can think of others sounds that I would prefer to awaken me. But, once awake, I lay on my back with my hands behind my head enjoying the eeriness and the thrill that fluttered through me. I hadn’t heard them in months, and I was starting to think that the local pack had moved on.

Probably, I am a minority in my enjoyment of coyotes. Many people call them vermin. Others are convinced that coyotes will drag young children away, although that has only happened once or twice. Still more are angry because their cats or lapdogs have become the snack for a pack – although the real blame lies with their own irresponsible treatment of their pets.
But I figure that you have to expect that the wilderness is going to creep in one way or the other in an urban area, especially one so full of parks and trees as greater Vancouver. And when you live hard against a green belt as we do, then inevitably the occasional cougar or bear is going to stumble into someone’s back yard. Compared to such visitors, coyotes make good neighbors, going about their business while causing a minimum of fuss.

I used to hear them frequently at night, answering the sirens trailing from the nearby fire station. Sadly, that ended when a patch of woods a couple of blocks away was replaced by condos. However, they are frequent in the daylight. Once or twice, I’ve seen half-grown ones partly concealed by the bushes, but the adults put on a bold front, making so little fuss about walking down the street that at first you think they are stray dogs. Once, I even saw one passing through the middle of our townhouse development, ignoring the people and mostly unnoticed.

Several times, too, I’ve seen them on the sidewalk, sitting waiting for the flow of vehicles to change with the traffic light. I suppose they are watching the vehicles, not the light, but sometimes I am not so sure. The few times I’ve made eye contact with a coyote – from a safe distance, let me assure you – I’ve wondered afterwards if it was a sentient creature evaluating the level of threat I represented. After those experiences, I’m not quite prepared to rule out the possibility that some of them know which light it is safe to cross the street on, even though they are presumably as color-blind as dogs.

Coyotes are not creatures of beauty. If anything, they are scrawny things, living lives of desperation. Still, I admire them for being a part of the wilderness that can adopt to the city. I sometimes think that urban life is an isolated one that leads everyone to imagine that they can control everything about their lives. As the coyotes slip from park to park throughout the urban sprawl, eating our garbage and denning in greenbelts in the ravines of creeks, they disprove such ideas with a quiet disdain.

Their continued experience shows that, no matter how we try to isolate ourselves, we cannot deny nature. Despite all the radical changes to their environment, despite the way they are hunted, coyotes still survive. And I, for one, appreciate their casual upsetting of all our assumptions about ourselves and our cities.

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My revived interest in Northwest Coast art dates to nearly two years ago, when I commissioned a copper bracelet from Henry Green. So, naturally, I’ve kept an ongoing interest in what Green was doing – an interest that has been further reinforced by mutual acquaintances and by meeting Green when I was in Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduation show last April. But, until this last week, I hadn’t bought anything else by Green.

The lack of purchases was definitely not a lack of interest. Although I didn’t realize the fact when I commissioned the bracelet, Green is one of the two leading Tsimshian artists working today (the other is Robert A. Boxley), and probably the premier jeweler. His engraving is exceptionally fine, and his invention is high, although it rarely strays far from tradition.

Moreover, his jewelry is exceptionally well-priced, perhaps because he doesn’t want to set too high a pricing standard for other artists, or perhaps because his income comes largely from poles and large commissions. He could easily get two or three times what he charges, which makes a silver pendant from him one of the best buys you can find in Northwest Coast art. The only real reason for not buying another of his pieces until now was simply that the artists whose work I want to buy far outstrip my income, especially in this last year of recession.

Several months ago at Alano Edzerza’s Gift of the Raven opening, I had seen and appreciated casts of combined pendants and broaches by Green representing some of the Tsimshian house crests. As is inescapable with casts, the pendants suffered from an obvious loss of detail, but I appreciated them all the same. When Morgan Green, Henry’s daughter, sold some to help finance her way through art school (presumably with permission, although I keep have visions of her sneaking into the family workshop at night), we bought a cast of the mosquito pendant from her.

But the cast we really wanted was the devilfish. Consequently, when I stumbled across the engraved original at Coastal People’s, I bought it as soon as I could afford it.

What first struck me about the pendant is its irregular shape. Distorting the design to fit its surface is common in Northwest Coast art, but, in this case (and several of the pendants from the same set), Green has chosen to distort the surface to fit the design. Rather than squeezing the devilfish into an oval or some other pendant shape, he decided instead to let the pendant take the shape of the devilfish instead.

At the same time, within the shape, Green has distorted the shape even though the shape does not require him to. I have seen a number of Northwest Coast designs for a squid or octopus, and almost always they are depicted in a flat, semi-realistic style. However, Green’s tangle of body and tentacles (which are reduced to three, just enough to give a suggestion), although more abstract, captures more of the feel of a devilfish’s irregular movements than a realistic portrayal.

Since the irregular movement is probably what most people see first when they encounter a live octopus or squid (even in a tide pool), the paradox is that Green’s abstraction is emotionally truer than a literal design. Moreover, because the irregular movements are apt to create uneasiness and fear, by capturing the movements, Green’s pendant suggests why a devilfish might become a household crest. With its outsized, eagle-like beak, Green’s devilfish seems a savage predator, powerful and potentially dangerous.

The large areas of cross-hatching and the parallel lines of dots or brief lines are straight from the traditional Tsimshian repertoire. However, in this pendant, Green adapts these elements for practical purposes, using an unusual filling around the eye to give it an unearthly look and turning the parallel lines into suckers on the tentacles.

At the same time, the placement of the tentacles seems to owe more to Celtic knotwork than traditional Tsimshian work. And, in fact, according to Morgan Green, this resemblance is deliberate, reflecting the fact that his first wife was Scottish, and his children are half-Scottish. However, while Don Yeoman and others have tried to combine Northwest Coast and Scottish design in the same piece, this pendant is one of the few that does so successfully. It does so, I think, by balancing the knotwork with the Tsimshian parallel lines and cross-hatched background, blending the two traditions so they work together.

This blending is worth noticing because I think it points to how Green can innovate within his main tradition. Unlike a beginning artist, Green is not restrained by the tradition, forced to alter his design to fit the tradition and therefore chafing at its limitations. Instead, Green is so utterly familiar with the tradition that he can use its elements for his own purposes. In this pendant, the result of his knowledge is a miniature masterpiece in silver.


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“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side.”
– Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings

I despise over-simplification, so I’m often in a state of ambiguity. In fact, I’m there so often that I’m considering applying for citizenship and a passport. But I find myself saddened to be in that state where the new site Boycott Boycott Novell (BBN) is concerned.

As you probably know, Boycott Novell is a site that is notorious in free software and open source circles for its hatred of Microsoft and Novell, the ability of its writers to jump to pre-determined conclusions at the expense of logic or grammar, and the viciousness of its personal attacks. Some people find it entertaining, but I prefer to avoid it because of these characteristics.

Also, I am semi-regularly attacked on the site. A few times, I’ve answered back, but mostly I can’t be bothered.

Under these circumstances, I was amused when David “Lefty” Schlesinger’s Boycott Boycott Novell was suddenly revealed last week. Schlesinger was one of the few other men who shared my opinions about the sexism in the community, and for the first few days I enjoyed the site’s skewering of Boycott Novell and Sam Varghese, a journalist who is, if anything, even nastier than Boycott Novell – and is even fonder of attacking me.

I was not altogether comfortable that BBN is dedicated to attacking people, but I thought its targets could only blame themselves for receiving some of their own back. Besides, BBN is better written and has a higher regard for logic and evidence than its targets.

If BBN had stopped there, it might have proved a real service to the community. Too often, such voices go uncountered, possibly because everyone hopes they will go away if ignored. But BBN didn’t stop there.

Instead, Schlesinger posted an article reviving the old discussions about using “GNU/Linux” rather than “Linux.” When I suggested (as politely as I knew how) that digging up old grievances was not the best use of the site, Schlesinger replied with comments about the Free Software Foundation that suggested that he saw it as little different from the Boycott Novell crowd. The free software movement, he suggested, was fully of zealots at all levels.

These remarks were followed by a guest post about the negativity of the Free Software Foundation and an anonymous picture of Richard Stallman as Ivan the Terrible. Looking at that picture and thinking disparaging thoughts about its artist, who refused to sign it, I realized that BNN had quickly developed an obsessional tone that contained too many echoes of its namesake.

Instead of being the debunking site I had hoped, BNN was revealing itself as sharing something of the obsessional tendencies of Boycott Novell. Boycott Novell almost certainly had jumped to conclusions to suggest that Schlesinger and his supporters were motivated by their support of Mono and other Microsoft-inspired technology, but it does seem reasonable to conclude that the site was a place where people who self-identified themselves as open source advocates were attacking and ridiculing free software and the Free Software Foundation.

Since I am a free software supporter myself, I find this tendency distasteful. More importantly, though, BNN seems inconsistent to decry personal attacks and obsession while showing similar tendencies.

But what really disturbed me was the apparent willingness of BBN to operate on spite. If half what I hear is true, then Schlesinger can hardly be expected to be fond of Stallman. Yet I fail to see what yet another a site at least partly dedicated to venting spite can achieve.

The community of free and open source software is too divided already. Too many are increasing those divisions instead of trying to find common ground. It is as though more than the names of the two sites suggested an infinite regression, as though Boycott Novell and Boycott Boycott Novell were mirror images of each other, reflecting each others’ spitefulness. BBN’s writers, so fact as I can see, have yet to understand that stooping to the same level as its enemy robs the site’s writers of any claim to moral superiority.

Perhaps I expected too much after BBN’s promising start. After all, it is a new site, and could still manage to settle down into a kind of Snopes.com for free and open source software. But it looks like another occasion for ambiguity, with me enjoying the skewering of those who deserve it and disliking the anti-free software rants.

I can’t deny that both are part of BBN, so I suppose I’ll have to accept the fact. But I think I can appreciate it more if I delete the site’s bookmark and stop visiting it regularly. Already, I regret the few comments I made on the site, knowing that some people will take them as a sign of approval. As things are, they’d only be half-right.

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A recent Facebook app offers to tell you how you’re going to die. Unfortunately, it is nothing more than a fortune-telling application. That seems a wasted opportunity to me – not that I expect any predictive accuracy from such a thing, but more personalized answers might tell you a bit about your character and habits.

So, in that spirit, here’s a list of the ways I might expect to die:

I will die at 64, after going on a long jog on a cold and rainy day in late October. Like I always do, I failed to notice that summer was ending and I went out dressed in only shorts and a singlet. Needless to say, I was soaked and shivering when I returned three hours later, but I no longer had the physical strength to fight the fever that sent me immediately to bed.

I will die at 78, senile and in a nursing home. The nurses thought I was cheerful enough, even if I talked too fast and was ungodly energetic for a person of my age.

I will die at 92 while on an exercise bike. I might have been all right if I had stopped when the first pains hit my chest, or called the gym attendant over. But I always was stubborn about finishing my intervals when exercising, and I still had another ninety seconds to go.

At 57, I am out for a late night walk when a couple of teenagers pull a gun on me and demand my money. Unfortunately, I am not carrying any money, and my determination not to be a victim makes me try to stand up to them verbally. The trouble is, what I really needed to do was to stand up to them physically and keep my mouth shut.

I will die at 81, of no particular cause except that every organ in my body is worn out. Since I maintained a remarkably heavy exercise program for a person of my age, I was deeply asleep at the time, dreaming of high school, and felt no pain whatsoever.

I will die in bed at the age of 109. I was smiling, because I had filled the promise I had made to myself when I was 9 of living to see Canada’s bi-centennial. Of course, there wasn’t much left of the environment by then, and the country had long ago proved ungovernable, but I was pleased all the same.

I will die at 61, choking on a piece of meat that I tried to swallow too fast. My last thought is how Earl Godwin died the same way in 11th century England, and of how at least nobody can draw a moral from my death the way they tried to do with his.

When I am 86, I am found at the keyboard of my computer, finishing my sixth novel. I was very late in publishing, but my small output of fiction enjoys minor cult status for a few decades before being forgotten then rediscovered a couple of centuries later.

I die at the age of 4,365 due to a clerical error that delayed the transfer of my consciousness to its newest artificial brain. It would have been my 134th transfer, counting clone bodies and temporary holding tanks. My last words are, “What’s next?”

Okay, maybe I am whistling past the graveyard with these scenarios. The truth is, like many people, I don’t really believe in a world without me. So, regardless of whether Death is Terry Pratchett’s skeleton or Neil Gaiman’s Goth chick, I’m going to be surprised when we finally meet.

But, should Death try to schedule an appointment, I plan on being busy with something else, no matter how old I am. And that, I think, tells more about me than any scenario I can imagine.

(With an acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison)

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