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Archive for August, 2010

Alano Edzerza is a thirty-year-old Tahltan artist whose work ranges from architectural commissions and uniforms for the Dutch Olympic team to T-shirts and hoodies. Although he sometimes duplicates the same design in different media a little too often, on the whole, his work is a good example of how you can find something for every budget in Northwest Coast art. So long as you’re not looking for one-of-a-kind pieces, you can often find pieces of work for $200-$500 in the gallery that carries his name.

For example, one of the pieces usually available at his shop is this Chilkat belt buckle:

Edzerza has often worked with Chilkat designs, but, because they originate in weaving patterns, seeing a single element like this is startling. More often, a Chilkat design will have a number of elements, often repeated, with the result that you rarely linger over a single element. Isolated here, the design gives you the chance to study the face at length. In fact, it wasn’t until seeing this belt buckle that I realized that Chilkat designs (of which I know very little) are structurally closer to the formline designs of paintings and carvings than I had realized.

Edzerza also occasionally sells castings of other artists’ work, like this one taken from a pendant by Mark Prescott, whose prints have been available in the Edzerza Gallery:

The pendant is non-traditional, of course – if anything, the crouching figure of the shaman reminds me of some Old Norse drawings I have seen of Woden. This (presumably) accidental resemblance seems appropriate, since, like the Old Norse god, this shaman with a rattle in his right hand and a knife in his left combines elements of both the magician and the warrior.

Edzerza has also done a casting of an eagle pendant by Marcel Russ. I believe the original is in argillite:

Unfortunately, this picture suffers from the limitations of my digital camera. As a result, you will have to take my word that this casting manages to capture the strong sense of line for which Russ is famous. That is not an easy thing to do, and many casts I have seen of original works are muddied versions of the original. But here, Edzerza – who also shows a love of a good line, both in the occasional borrowing and his own original ones – has managed to give a strong suggestion of what the original must look like.

Works like these do not increase in value like exclusive works. But, at their best – as in these three pieces – such commercial works make a bit of beauty accessible to any budget.

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One of the ideas that keeps circulating through books and blogs about business is that emails should always be kept short. The suggested rules for keeping them short vary – less than a hundred words, short enough to be read without scrolling, and, most common of all, two to three sentences – but the idea is similar, regardless. It is also an idea that can do as much harm as good.

There are at least two rationales for this idea. The first is that if you are sending a marketing mailout, shorter ones are more likely to be read than longer ones. However, given that mass mailouts are likely to be flagged by spam filters, I suspect that the length doesn’t matter much, and that mailouts of any length are most likely to go to the Trash folder unread. Moreover, most emails are not mailouts, and, in a business context, you can count on them being read regardless of length.

The second is more convincing: Conciseness is more forceful, and more respectful of the recipients’ time. And, certainly, many emails, such as those arranging a time and place to meet, hardly need more than a sentence or two.

However, if issues are being discussed online, a brief email will hardly be enough. You should still make sure that an email is no longer than it needs to be, but if what you are discussing needs eight hundred words, then by all means you should give it eight hundred words.

By contrast, insisting on conciseness can cause problems of its own. For instance, this morning I received the following email: “Any specific request for the Greek food? How many boxes would you like?”

I immediately understood that the first sentence referred to the Greek food that the sender would be bringing around to my townhouse tonight. However, at first I interpreted the second sentence as a question about how much food should be bought. It was only after I replied that I realized that the second sentence was referring to another matter altogether – how many cardboard boxes the sender should bring, since they were helping me pack. This is a trivial matter, but it shows how easily conciseness can create confusion.

Moreover, in many contexts, being concise can create a negative impression. It can sound curt or rude, or even indifferent, even if your intention is not to create such an impression. Communication is always as much about relationships as it is about the ostensible subject, and, when you are being concise, on of the aspects most likely to be left out is the relationship part. If you get too caught up with efficiency and forget this fact, that you can easily leave the recipient feeling slighted.

I had an example of this when someone recently sent me a three-sentence email in response to news about my partner’s death: “I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It is so sad. My sympathy to you and your family.”

The sentiments were right here, but the shortness of the sentences undermined them, making their expression sound formal and insincere. The email also has a staccato rhythm and regularity of structure which makes it sound even more perfunctory. It sounded so indifferent that I found myself wondering why the sender had even bothered.

By contrast, here is another email I received at around the same time: “I am so very sorry to hear this news – please know that you have many friends thinking of you and sending you support and love.”

It is just as short, and just as obviously from someone who does not know me particularly well. Yet it takes the time too be personal in a way that the other email did not, and as I result, I found some small comfort in it.

Novice writers might be tempted by simple rules to help them write better, but the point is that they rarely work. Follow a rule like the three sentence email, and you can cause yourself more problems than you solve.

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One of the minor tribulations about grief is that people are continually pressing inspirational poetry upon you. Just as people feel they have the right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly, so even comparative strangers feel that they can offer you material that ordinarily you would never consider reading. Suffer bereavement, and you are aware of this mawkish, archly Christian sub-literature that dozens of people suddenly want to share with you.

They mean well, of course. Whenever someone thrusts a printout at me, I thank them with a straight face, solemnly read the printout, and thank them for their kindness. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, particularly when they are trying to make a thoughtful gesture.

Inwardly, though, I am wondering, “Why do they imagine that grief has blunted my aesthetic sense?”

You see, what makes this poetry such a tribulation is not that it’s Christian. I am an agnostic, but I live in a post-Christian culture, and I fully accept that, to understand the literature of the past, I have to be fully versed in Christianity. And I am, so much so that I have have read large chunks of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But when there are such Christian poets as John Donne, Emily Dickinson, or Gerald Manley Hopkins – or even Tennyson, in his ponderous way – why would anyone turn to the mediocrities that I keep receiving?

At least with such poets, the aesthetic pleasure can provide a genuine relief from grief, and deciphering the argument can be an intellectual diversion, even if I reserve judgment on the Christian conclusion.

But the poems that make up the sub-literature of death are usually doggerel, with all the subtlety of an SUV slamming into a pedestrian.

Take, for example, “Do Not Stand,” a poem attributed to half a dozen sources, but probably the work of Mary Elizabeth Frye. “Do not stand at my grave and weep; / I am not there,” it begins, then goes on to explain where the speaker can be found – for instance, in the reflection of the snow, or the sunlight on grain. A statement about survival after death, it is better written than most of this sub-literature, but goes on for about half a dozen lines too many without any development of thought. And when I come to the last line of, “I did not die,” I become possessed by the cynical ghost of Robert Graves, and I am moved to ask why the speaker has a grave, then.

For that matter, why shouldn’t those to whom the poem is addressed cry? That is a natural part of grief, and knowledge of the person’s survival after death does not change the fact that the deceased is no longer present.

Another example of this literature is, “Death is nothing at all,” which is attributed to Henry Scott-Holland, a canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. According to Scott-Holland, the dead “have only slipped away into the next room” – as if that made them any more approachable.

“I am I and you are you,” Scott-Holland continues helpfully, just in case you were confused, and urges you to act the same as always, and act as though he was still present. “What is death but a negligible accident?” he asks, apparently because “I am waiting for you for an interval / Somewhere very near . . . . One brief moment and all will be as it was before / How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

Well, you know, even granting survival after death in some form, I seriously doubt that laughter. I don’t know about anyone else, but falling into each other’s arms with cries of relief sounds more realistic to me. When I reunite with somebody in life, I don’t laugh at my emotions when we parted, so why would I do so after death? There is something so arch and so smug in this doggerel’s sentiment that to me it amounts to a trivialization of death and grief.

Yet even these two pieces sound like masterpieces next to the anonymous “God sends his love.” Sharing some of the archness of Scott-Holland, this one describes the dead person as being chosen to die so that he can help God in his work. It repeats Scott-Holland’s sentiments about not grieving, but at least has the decency to add, “But do not be afraid to cry, it does relieve the pain.” – although the sentiment is immediately spoiled by the nonsensical line, “Remember there would be no flowers unless there was some rain.”

Blithely skirting around the problem of pain, the piece goes on to assert that death is all part of a divine plan that humans cannot comprehend, and urges the mourners to be helpful to those in need, adding

And when you feel that gentle breeze or the wind upon your face, that’s me giving you a great big hug, or just a soft embrace.
And when it’s time for you to go from that body to be free, you’re not going, you are coming here to me.
And I will always love you, from that land way up above, will be in touch again soon.

Then it ends with “Ps God sends his love” – a tug at the heart strings that even Steven Speilberg would feel ashamed to try.

What is interesting about all these pieces is how much they have in common. They all take the form of the deceased talking to those who survived them, assert survival after death, and downplay the importance of grief. The last two also promise that the deceased and the survivors will meet again as a reason not to grieve.

Perhaps some Christians can find some comfort in the repetition of their core beliefs. Presumably, many can, since few seem to object to the use of uninspired modern hymns in place of the masterpieces from the 18th Century in ordinary services.

But, for me, such works seem profoundly inhuman. By insisting that grief is unnecessary, they show no understanding of human psychology whatsoever. And when this inhumanity is expressed so poorly, with so little development of thought – well, is it any wonder that these printouts go directly into the recycling bin when I come home? In every possible way, they seem a mockery of my grief, not a comfort in the least.

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In the six weeks since my partner died, I have spent much of my spare time cleaning the townhouse. Neither of us were particularly tidy people – although we both placed a high value on hygiene – and we hadn’t done a thorough cleaning in years. She had been sick a long time, and in the last few years, we had had better things to do. Recently, I have been undoing the years of neglect, and finding, somewhat to my surprise, that I am enjoying the process of tidying, and finding it both satisfying and therapeutic.

For a long time, I have referred to reducing clutter as “easing the karmic burden.” That is meant as a wry reference to the idea of not burdening yourself with possessions, but it seems to me literally true. Getting rid of non-essentials feels very much like organizing myself, or perhaps getting rid of distractions.

Then, too, I suppose that creating order out of chaos is one definition of creativity. Organizing my desktop or library may not be actually creative, but it feels like it is. In a milder way, the sense of accomplishment that comes from tidying feels much the same as that when I complete an article or a poem.

In the last six weeks, those feelings have been especially important to me. But, even more to the point, I’ve needed something meaningful or useful as a distraction from grief. I haven’t been capable of much original effort (which makes writing articles painful, let me tell you), but tidying has been something I could accomplish without a great deal of thought.

Moreover, in this case, tidying has been a way of dealing with grief. As I sort through a closet, I remember when something was bought, or who gave it to whom, and what we said at the time. I find parts of our lives that I had forgot about, or even parts of Trish’s that I only knew vaguely, or not at all – something I would have said was impossible after all the years of our marriage. I have even discovered gifts that she had bought for me, but never given. At times, I’ve broken down while cleaning, and worked with streaming eyes, or had to sit down and rest because I was overwhelmed.

I sometimes think that, had I known the scope of the task I was undertaking, I never would have started it. But, mostly, I think I wouldn’t have missed the experience for any reason. In tidying my external environment, I’ve been doing some internal sorting as well. If I finish the process in a few weeks, as I intend, in many ways I’m going to miss it.

I don’t know if I will keep the townhouse as tidy as I’ve already made several rooms and plan to make the rest. I think I will, at least for a while, because the result appeals to the austere side of my nature. But if I backslide, that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen, because the effort of tiding will have already served its purpose for me.

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The concept of a friend on Facebook is (to say the least) elastic. At its loosest, it can mean someone who might be useful to know, but with whom you have never interacted. At the opposite extreme, it can mean an intimate, or someone with whom you regularly interact online. But, no matter how a Facebook friend is defined, unfriending someone is generally considered a serious step, and I’ve only done it three times.

The first time, I made the mistake of accepting a friendship invitation from a friend of a friend. A few days later, the friend of a friend started chatting with me and tried to interest me in what sounded like a pyramid scheme. I made an excuse to log off chat and instantly unfriended them.

The second time involved an acquaintance who indulges in yellow journalism. They are careless of their facts and their logic is slippery, but they expressed an admiration for my writing, and I thought that maybe if they were taken seriously by other writers, they might evolve into an effective journalist. But then they turned their tendencies on me without any warning or apology, and I decided I wasn’t about to mentor someone who wanted to tear me down in order to build their own reputation. That wasn’t what friendship was about, so far as I was concerned, so exit another Facebook friend.

The third time was more complicated. It involved someone I had known for years. A few years previously, we had quarreled, but they approached me on Facebook and, despite some qualms, I accepted their friendship invitation. I had always admired this person’s brains and talents, and I frankly hoped to get to know them – to become a friend in real life, as I expressed the hope to myself.

However, I had forgot that one of the reasons we had quarreled before was this person’s inability to keep up their side of a correspondence. From somewhere – probably a bad book on business management – they seemed to have got hold of the idea that online correspondence should be limited to two or three sentences. To make matters worse, what they did write was so stiff that it sounded cold and condescending – and I have never been able to endure being patronized. The tone killed all efforts to strike up a conversation, and I soon realized that the development of any actual friendship would require the effort put into the first six days of creation and geological units of time, neither of which I had to spare.

Even so, I might not have bothered unfriending under ordinary circumstances. But my wife was hospitalized and dying, and so was a relative of this person. I suggested (in effect) that we might give some mutual support, and received another cold reply, which indicated to me that I was just another part of their effort to compile the largest possible collection of Facebook friends.

Then my wife died. The alleged friend’s reaction? “That is so sad.”

Granted, their own relative had also died. Yet even the person’s own grief could not justify such a chilly reaction. There I was, facing one of the worst experiences anyone can face, and instead of any real sympathy, what did I get? An insincerity worthy of Dale Carnegie. Anyone else would have mustered a little empathy, being in a similar position.

“Sad?” I wanted to phone up and rant. “Rick and Ilsa’s goodbye at the end of Casablanca is sad. The farewells at the end of Lord of the Rings are sad. This is tragedy, you asshole!”

Instead, I unfriended, and – not wanting to appear a coward – sent a brief note saying that I had done so. I said that if they wanted to talk, I would, adding that they probably wouldn’t care for what I had so to say.

I heard nothing, so I knew I was doing the right thing.

Still, I admit that I regret this third and latest unfriending in a way that I never did the first two. But what choice, really, did I have? I have (and have had) friends of both sexes that have my back the way that I have theirs. I don’t need a hanger-on too egocentric to know what friendship is about.

Or do I make too much out of a word that, on Facebook, no longer retains its original meaning, except by chance?

Maybe. But all I know is that recently I am now much choosier about the friendship offers I accept.

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Back in June, I had dinner at the Steamworks pub with Haida / Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana. Mitch kindly offered me a selection from the giclee prints that he was in Vancouver to sell. Few things feel so luxurious as a choice like that, and I could have selected several from his portfolio. However, eventually I decided on “January Moon,” which was the inspiration for his “Blue Moon Mask,” which was one of the standouts at the 2010 graduation exhibit for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

The connection between the two pieces would have been obvious even if Mitch had not mentioned it. But the differences are interesting, because they show the evolution from a good execution of an idea to an outstanding one. There is little in “January Moon” that is not improved in “Blue Moon Mask.”

"January Moon" (left) and "Blue Moon Mask" (right)

The most obvious differences are in the shape and color. With its perfectly round shape, “January Moon” feels relatively static, and more abstract. In comparison, the change to an oval face in “Blue Moon Mask” is more ambiguous, as well as more realistic. Just as importantly, the colors are bolder and more glossy in the mask, as well as the contrast between them. In the print, the colors are muted, and the tones are a better match, but the result is that design tends to fade into the paper.

The exception to this general observation is the blue and black design on the rim. “January Moon”’s rim has more contrast between the colors, while “Blue Moon Mask”’s uses a darker blue that is much closer to the black. This change works because it frames the face most clearly; in “January Moon,” the blue of the rim is closer to those of the face, so that the rim frames less effectively.

However, the greatest changes are in the face. Some elements remain the same, most noticeably using the same colors for the lips, nostrils, and eyebrows. But, in “January Moon,” the eyes are also the same color, which is probably one feature too many for the design, which seems much busier than the mask.

By contrast, on “Blue Moon Mask,” the design is simplified. The teeth are gone, whose black outline is mildly discordant in “January Moon,” and much of the complication of the highlighting as well. The eyes shrink from an angry glare to closed eyelids, and the lips are smaller and barely parted instead of scowling.

The only element that is added is the tear tracks from the eyes, which I suspect originated in an accidental trickle of paint, but which works brilliantly, helping to emphasize the elongation of the face and suggesting an undercurrent of suppressed intense emotion beneath the surface appearance of serenity.

Somewhere in the middle of all these changes, the gender changes as well. “January Moon” registers as masculine to my eye (and that of those who have seen it), perhaps because of the mouth and bared teeth. “Blue Moon Mask,” however, seems female, or at least sexually ambiguous. Added to the suggestion of intense emotion being controlled, this ambiguity makes most eyes keep returning to “Blue Moon Mask” in a way that they do not to “January Moon.” Despite “January Moon”’s aggressive expression – or perhaps because of it – the eye has a hard time lingering over it. Its anger has nothing of the mystery found in “Blue Moon Mask.”

None of this is to dismiss “January Moon.” Its non-traditional eyes with their crescent moon and the creation of the nose through a clever use of negative space are admirable in themselves – so much so that I could wish they could have somehow been retained in “Blue Moon Mask.” But in the end, “January Moon” could be described as a first draft for “Blue Moon Mask.” Although “Blue Moon Mask” is the superior work, very likely it would not have succeeded if “January Moon” had not been created first. Together, they show an artist taking a leap in his development – and, I suspect, learning a lot in the process himself.

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Having someone whom you love die is difficult at the best of times. Not only do you miss them a dozen times a day, but you are struggling to continue without them. But, if that is not enough, you have to deal with people – all of them well-meaning, but many of them annoying regardless of their motives.

If my experiences of grief are any indication, here are the sort of encounters that may tax your patience as you grieve:

  • Suddenly, your life is one continuous conversation about the deceased. Facebook and email can reduce the repetition, but people will still want you to repeat basic information about what happened many more times than you care to give it. You may find yourself longing to have a normal conversation, and escape for a while.
  • We are such a death-denying culture that at the first indication of it, everyone descends into cliches and euphemism. “They had a full life,” people will tell you, and, “At least they didn’t have any pain” if the person died unconscious (as if they could somehow know). Oh, and it’s no longer a memorial service – now, it’s a “celebration of life.”
  • When you break the news of the death, almost everyone will ask, “Is there anything that I can do?” Probably, you will be unable to answer this question, because you don’t really want anything, unless it is for a miracle to restore the dead to life.
  • People with religious tendencies will hand you copies of cheerful and cheesy poems about how the person who died is happy in heaven and you shouldn’t grieve. These offerings are supposed to console you.
  • The employees of funeral homes and similar businesses often seem to think the way to cushion your shock is with an unctuous sleaziness, full of insincere concern and sympathy, and a setting with a conservative grandeur that is reminiscent of the movie palaces of the 1930s – and almost as shabby.
  • If you hold a religious ceremony, avoid clerics who didn’t know the deceased. While they may do their best, often the results are embarrassing. You may not get someone like Father Movie Critic, who turned my father-in-law’s funeral into a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but don’t be surprised if you do.
  • Don’t be surprised if a service is seen by drama queens as their personal stage, as though the service is really all about them. Given any chance whatsoever, they will monopolize the microphone, and throw themselves sobbing into any arms that happen to be nearby. Often, the intensity of their grief is in inverse proportion to how well they knew the dead person.
  • People will promise or propose almost anything in the aftermath of a death. Much of what they say will be said without much thought and they will soon forget it, so do not remind them of it.
  • After the service, people will expect you to be ready to carry on with your life. Since services are generally held within a few weeks of the death – often, within ten days – you almost certainly will not be ready for anything, but there is nothing you can do except try to cope.

In any of these situations, you might be tempted to rant or verbally flay those around you. For instance, when someone told me that the death whose aftermath I was enduring was sad, I wanted to phone them up and scream, “Sad? The ending of Casablanca is sad. King Lear entering with the dead Cordelia is sad. This is a bloody tragedy!” Instead, I just unfriended them on Facebook.

The truth is, most of the people who do the things I mention here mean very well, and will only be hurt and surprised by such outbursts. The behavior I describe here are just some of the things that you have to endure and get past, day by day. Still, it is bitterly ironic that so much that is meant to be sensitive and caring only ends up picking at you like a shirt in which a hundred mosquitos are trapped between you and the cloth.

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