Archive for December, 2010

Since I was widowed, family and friends have made extra efforts to draw me out of myself. They make a point of inviting me over, and, at their parties, they are likely to ask me several times how I am doing. Socializing, they keep telling me, is better than “moping around at home.” Their efforts are well-meaning, and I appreciate the concern behind them, but I admit that I accept their invitations out of politeness more than any other reason.

To start with, I am not a person who easily accepts pity or help from others. When I’m sick, mostly I just want to be left alone to get better. I’m not surly with nurses, but I hate feeling helpless or putting people to any trouble for my sake, and twelve years of caring for a chronically ill spouse has only strengthened my preferences. I remain much more accustomed to caring than being cared for.

Just as importantly, what most of my acquaintances don’t realize is that I’m not exactly lacking social opportunities. Even without their special efforts, my social life is more active now than it has been for the last few years, when I was caring for an increasingly fragile partner. I’m now exploring all sorts of events for which I had no time a year ago.

In fact, recently, when someone sat down across from me and earnestly asked, “So, what have you been doing with yourself?” in a tone that suggested that I must have long, empty stretches to fill, I had to suppress a howl of laughter. Far from being eager to seize every opportunity to get out of the house, I have often found myself bowing out of events, just so I could have a quiet night for a change. But I have always moved in several different circles, none of which overlap, so probably few people appreciate how busy I actually am.

Not, you understand, that socializing comes easily to me just now. I usually test as someone balanced almost exactly between extrovert and introvert, but I am learning how to socialize as an individual, instead of half of a couple. Consequently, while I am glad to see people, being with more than two or three at once is a strain. I no longer know that someone automatically has my back. I find, too, that I automatically scan a group every few minutes to check how Trish is doing.

In other words, rather than helping me to forget my situation, being with other people accentuates it. I especially feel my changed situation when an event ends, and I return home, alone and unable to discuss what I’ve just seen with anybody. Sometimes, the better time I have with other people, the worse I feel because of a mixture of guilt at being still alive to enjoy myself and the contrast between my married life and now.

But there’s something else that most of those around me don’t seem to grasp: while I don’t want to cut myself off from people altogether, I don’t always mind being alone, either. Being alone with my memories is the closest I can get to Trish now. Moreover, I have a lot of things to process – not just the mechanics of probate and the winding down of Trish’s affairs, but assimilating the memories of our life together and figuring what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Although I sometimes talk over these matters, I also need to think about them, long and carefully by myself. I’m not going to adjust to the changed conditions of my life if I have no time to mull them over in my mind; right now, I need more time alone than most people do.

I can’t help thinking that, culturally-speaking, we’ve swung from one extreme to another when dealing with grief. Where once we accepted a period of mourning as a natural transition from one stage of life to another, we now view it as unhealthy wallowing in depressing subjects.

I’m sure that many people chafed at the culturally-designated periods of mourning in Victorian society, but our own attitude is no better. Depressing subjects don’t go away because you evade them – if anything, they often become worse if you don’t face them. All the well-meaning people who keep inviting me to places don’t seem to be aware that, for all their good intentions, in the long run they may actually be making me less able to cope instead of more.

But, to some extent, I suspect that all the invitations I receive are extended for the sake of those who make them as much as for me. In our death-denying culture, seeing someone in mourning is an uncomfortable reminder that there are somethings that you can’t escape and can’t mitigate with positive thinking or some other nostrum. If someone in mourning is seen socializing, acting more or less the same as everybody else, then everyone else can forget the unthinkable more easily.

Perhaps all these remarks are unfair to people who are only trying to do me a favor. Knowing exactly how to support someone in mourning is difficult, and I don’t want to suggest that I am ungrateful for the efforts being made on my behalf. Really, I’m not. But I do want to suggest that the situation is more complicated than most people imagine. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and even a well-meaning action can sometimes obstruct rather than help. Some problems, as I am finding, people have to work out in their own way and time.

Read Full Post »

Having worked freelance for most of my adult life, I’ve set up my desk in countless locales. It took me a while, though, to realize how to set up the desk in relation to the view. That’s not the kind of thing I was ever taught – I had to learn the hard way, through experience.

When I was a sessional instructor in the English Department of Simon Fraser University, my desk was mainly something to lean on while I talked with students about their essay preparation and results. I always counted myself lucky that I had entered grad school in English, because the Communications Department – my other choice was in the windowless maze of the Classroom Complex. By contrast, the English Department was on the north and west side of the sixth floor of the Academic Quadrangle. Each semester, I would have a variation on one of two views: The inner one, where I could see people passing through the quadrangle and, in summer, lounging on the grass, and the outer, which gave a spectacular view of the mountains to the north. I could, and did spend hours at my desk staring out at that semester’s view. But I never expected to get much work done anyway, because it would be sure of being interrupted just as I became absorbed.

When I became a technical writer, and later a marketing and communications consultant, the view became more important. At one long-term position, my window overlooked the top of the Hudson Bay parkade in downtown Vancouver. Looking down, I could see not only the people coming to and from their cars, but also the car thieves going systematically down the row of cars. I can’t have been the only one watching, because security guards would always come along a few moments before I thought to call them. But I was lucky that the project kept changing directions over the thirty months of its existence, or else I might have been too obsessed with the view below to keep up.

The same was true when I worked in Yaletown. The two storey building across the road had a flat roof that, over the decades, had accumulated enough top soil to support meter-high weeds. The weeds make the roof a perfect place for seagulls to nest out of sight of predators. Later, when the chicks came, they would scurry into the grasses to escape the detection of crows. Later still, they made their first stumbling efforts at flight across the roof, crash landing in the clumps of weeds. I was more fascinated by the progress of the fledglings than in the work I was doing, by far.

But my real downfall came when I worked on the twenty-third floor of Harbour Centre. I was the fourth person hired, so I more or less had my choice of locations for my desk. I placed it squarely facing the window, looking down at the harbor and beyond it to the mountains. The view was relaxing when I was negotiating ad space and bundling agreements on the phone, but a disaster when I was trying to write a manual or ad copy. I’d find myself staring out the window, and realize guiltily that I had left my thoughts to rove freely for the last ten minutes.

I wasn’t prepared to give up the view entirely, so I moved my desk at right angles to the window. That way, I could focus on my work without the distraction of a seaplane landing or a cruise ship docking, but, when I was on the phone or wanted to take a moment’s break, I only had to swivel in my chair.

I’ve followed the same arrangement ever since. Now, as I write in my townhouse, I am at right angle to a view of the trees beyond my third floor balcony. The view is not as breath-taking as some I’ve had away from home, but with the parliament of crows thirty meters away and its occasional visit by red-tailed hawks, there is still more than enough to distract me if I permitted it. But by not looking at it directly, I keep my productivity high, and can still enjoy the sight of the swaying tops of the evergreens when I stand, stiff and in need of a stretch after a long bout of work.

Read Full Post »

Mostly, I ignore the various memes that circulate on the Internet. However, every now and then one comes along that intrigues me. The latest of these is to name fifteen fictional characters who have influenced you.

My first impulse is to list only suitably literary and high culture characters. But the truth is, I’m an omnivorous reader, and a truthful list reflects that:

  • Odysseus (in both The Iliad and The Odyssey): Odysseus is hardly a consistent character between these two epics, but some points remain the same. In both, he is not the strongest of heroes nor the most powerful of kings, but he succeeds where Achilles and Agamemnon fail because there is more to him than macho or noble birth. I’ve always tried to combine the life of the mind with the life of the body, and Odysseus was the first character I discovered who did the same. Later, I learned to appreciate that he is also the only one of the major figures in the Trojan War who has a happy ending, even if it was delayed ten years.
  • Robin Hood (in Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood): Green’s Robin Hood is not only a hero who lives by his own code, but always up for an adventure and always a good sport, even when he loses. More than any of the other characters listed here, he sets the standard of behavior that I would like to live up to, and probably rarely manage to.
  • George Smiley (in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and sequels): At first glance, this unassuming bureaucrat of espionage might seem unable to influence anyone. But from reading about him, I learned two important facts that were alien to my younger character: First, that it doesn’t matter if people under-estimated you and may work to your advantage, and, second, that you can often learn more by keeping quiet than by trying to dominate a conversation.
  • Emma Woodhouse (in Jane Austen’s Emma): Besides being Austen’s funniest novels, Emma is a wonderful portrayal of a precocious child growing up. Having been a precocious child myself, I empathize with Emma’s self-conceit at the same time that I wince at her gaucherie.
  • The Emperor Claudius (in Robert Grave’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God): As a child, I had a speech impediment and a mild stutter that made some people imagine that I was mentally impaired. For someone with this start in life, Robert Graves’ Claudius is the ultimate revenge fantasy. From a similar start, Claudius not only becomes emperor, but, until near the end of the second book, when he gives up, a very able one as well.
  • Conrad Nomikos (in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal): Conrad is a secret immortal, living in a post-holocaust earth that is severely depopulated and dominated by extra-terrestrials. He is another of those heroes who is not immediately obvious as a hero, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He is also one of the best portrayals of an immortal that I have read.
  • Lancelot (in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King): Heroes like Lancelot are usually bland. However, White injects life into Lancelot by making him someone who is not naturally good, but who must struggle to maintain his ideal. White also has the insight that, if Lancelot had not believed so earnestly in his code of conduct and was not genuinely fond of Arthur, the tragedy that tore Camelot apart would never have happened. As White points out, an amoral man would simply have run away with Guinevere, not stayed and tried to resist their mutual love for the sake of his personal code.
  • Rissa Kerguelen (in F. M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen): Rissa makes my list not so much for her portrayal – although her story is a lost classic of space opera – but because she is one of the best and most sustained portrayals of a woman by a man that I have ever read. Her story is the example I point to both when I see sexist portrayals of women and when I hear feminists claim that a man can’t write convincing female characters.
  • Aragorn (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings): I’ve often thought that Tolkien has a hero for everyone. Aragorn has it all: competence, modesty, a life devoted to helping others, and the title to a throne no one has occupied for centuries. So far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t admire Aragorn is imaginatively lacking, and probably has other nasty habits.
  • Dr. Who (all incarnations): For me, Dr. Who is the embodiment of creative chaos; he is the disruptive force that opposes and overthrows bureaucracy and other forms of sterility and replaces them with something better. He is the polar opposite of the military types in Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
  • The Wart (in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone): The Wart is the young King Arthur. He is ignorant of his parents, and his foster brother sometimes bullies him, but otherwise he has an ideal boyhood. He runs wild most of the time, and, when forced to study under Merlyn, most of his education consists of being transformed into different animals. It’s a brilliant portrayal, and when I was growing up, I envied The Wart a great deal.
  • Beauty (in Robin McKinley’s Beauty): Beauty is the original from which Disney borrowed heavily for its retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Reading it as a teenager reassured me that intellectual girls existed, and that I might meet one someday (I did).
  • John Constantine (in the Hellblazer graphic novels): John Constantine is a magician with a small bit of talent and a lot of attitude, opposed to Heaven and Hell and anyone else who seeks power, and loyal to his friends – and haunted by the fact that they tend to get killed at an alarming rate when they hang around him. Although his angst can be a little tiresome, the best of his adventures are strong evidence that graphic novels can be as serious as any other form of art.
  • Phillip Marlowe (in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and other novels): Marlowe’s appeal is that he is a man of ideals before he is anything else. Although he rarely talks about his code, he is willing to be beaten up and to live a life of poverty rather than give up those ideals. The utter cynicism of most people around him only makes him appear more plausible.
  • Fafhrd (in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Series): Fafhrd is a northern barbarian whose uncivilized exterior conceals a man of considerable intelligence and aesthetic sensibility. He is given to romantic imaginings, but he almost always chooses pragmatically when given a choice – a tendency I ruefully suspect I share.

I could add other characters to this list – for instance,Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic graphic novels, Jack Aubrey from Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Hamlet, or Sherlock Holmes – but none of these make the top fifteen.

Among those who do make the list, it isn’t hard to see common threads. Fantasy and mythology are the most prevalent genre. In addition, most of the characters are idealistic, intelligent, and/or individualistic. The men can hold their own in a fight, but are more than macho jocks, and, when they do fight, their beliefs are usually involved – which gives, I suppose, a clear picture of my concept of masculinity that I hadn’t really realized before.

Just as importantly, I am surprised by the number of books that I admire that don’t make the list. Where is Great Expectations? No Name? Wuthering Heights? Jude the Obscure? Any of several dozen other books that I regularly re-read or films that I re-watch? I suppose the answer is I appreciate some fiction for other reasons than the characters, or that some characters are so much a part of their settings that they lack the larger than life qualities of the ones that I list here.

Read Full Post »

Four days ago, my Nanday conure Ning lost Sophy, his mate of 24 years, to old age. They had nested successfully four times, producing six chicks, and were a model of happy monogamy, constantly preening and never moving more than a few meters from each other. Ning had cared for her as though she were a chick in her final days, standing over her and preening and regurgitating to make sure she was fed. He was beside her when she died, and I have been able to observe first hand how he grieves. Being a widower myself, I feel a certain identification with what he is going through.

He knew at once when she died. Within a few seconds after she died, he nuzzled her once with her beak, and then moved twenty-five centimeters away, looking very small, with his feathers pressed tightly against his body, which is a sign of unhappiness in any parrot. He did not attack me when I placed her body in a shoe box to take to the vet (as I had half-expected), but went quietly up on my hand and into the cage.

When I returned from the vet, he was in the same position and had eaten little from his dish. But he screeched excitedly when I opened the door, and climbed up to my shoulder, pressing as tightly as he could against my neck and staying there for a couple of hours. I neglected the other birds to give him some time, stroking his back far more than he usually allows.

I was worrying that I might need to feed him and that, without his mate, he might no longer be able to hold his own against his arch-rival Beau, but my concerns proved needless.

As soon as I let the other birds out, Ning became manic. So much as 230 grams of bird can, he stamped around the table and the floor, trying to be everywhere at once. He seemed to have decided that he was going to prove his dominance once and for all by a frantic display. If so, it worked incredibly well – Beau is still reluctant to leave his cage when Ning is out. Now, as a result of Ning’s display, the dining room table is no longer a No-Go area for all the birds, but has been thoroughly annexed by Ning.

That evening, Ning preened me more than he had since the days after we brought him home, and he decided I was flock. But he would stop periodically to cheep for Sophy, and would occasionally fly off to the cage, and peer around it as though hoping she was somehow there. Later, when I put the cover on the cage, I could hear him cheeping for her again. I admit that went to bed early that night, because I could not stand to hear him.

The next morning was even harder. Ning went to Sophy’s convalescence cage, and seemed bewildered when neither she nor the towel I had arranged for her was there. After a moment, he moved down to the perch and started regurgitating. For a moment, it felt to me as though he was responding to Sophy’s ghost, and I was glad when he climbed to the top of the cage.

Fortunately, he started eating again on the second day, and his appetite is hearty. But he will take all the chew toys and attention that I tend to give him, and his efforts to preen me have a gentleness and a desperation that they never had before. He obviously needs the closeness – and, to be honest, so do I. At the same time, he regularly asserts his dominance by inspection tours of the area he claims.

It seems to me that the ability to mourn is a sign of sentience. After all, if a creature does not have a sense of itself, how can it feel loss? If it does not have a sense of others, then how can it mourn? If I did not already know from both personal experience and from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific studies that the intelligence of parrots overlaps with the lower levels of human intelligence, Ning’s behavior over the last few days would have proven his sentience ten times over. We’re supporting each other through our mutual loss – and I can only hope that I provide him with half the comfort that he gives me.

Read Full Post »

“In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says, ‘I can’t fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings’”
– “Charlie and the King of Rome”

This morning when I took the cover off the cage, my parrot Sophy was lying on one side, with her mate Ning hovering over her. She didn’t open her eyes, and her breathing was labored. I scooped her up and put her on the table, and she barely opened her eyes. I knew then that she was dying, so I decided that cleaning the cages would wait.

Sophy had been in a convalescence cage for the last few days after she slipped from a perch and started favoring her left leg. But her appetite was healthy and she was otherwise acting normally; the convalescence cage was just so she wouldn’t climb until her leg was better. Last night when I put her and Ning to bed, she was moving better, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was healing.

But she was thirty years old – old for her species — and had been growing quieter over the last year, so her condition this morning was not a total surprise. I debated taking her to the vet, and decided she was better at home, where she could be in the company of her flock when she died. Besides, the way she looked, I was not sure she would live long enough to arrive at the vet, or that the vet could do anything I couldn’t.

So I sat there as the sun rose, scratching her ear and trying to fed her corn. She refused the corn, and the loving regurgitation of Ning. In fact, she seemed to have trouble waking at all.

When the sun poured into the living room, I stood with her for a while so she could bask in the light, something she would do for hours, given a chance. The sun on her feathers roused her, but only a little. I placed her back on the table and continued waiting, scratching her neck feathers.

A few minutes later, she shifted her head awkwardly once or twice, as though trying to get comfortable. The eye that I could see grew misty. She seemed to stiffen, and all at once she had stopped breathing. Ning prodded her with his beak, and, when she did not respond, moved a body’s length away, preening himself with an air of apprehension.

That was the end of my twenty-four year relationship with Sophia J. (for Jabberwock) Bandersnatch. It was an end that I could hardly have predicted from the start.

When we bought Sophy from the bird-sitter, she had been neglected and abused for several years. She had no tail-feathers, and she had plucked her breast. Recognizing her as a nanday conure was so hard that we almost had to take the fact on faith.

We were told that she had locked in a cage for at least three years, and fed only on sunflower seeds. When she made a noise, a hand or a thrown boot hit the side of her cage. The only noise she could make was an outraged squawk.

Under these conditions, what could we do? If ever a bird needed rescuing, it was Sophy. When the bird-sitter reported back to her original owner that we found that she had a sweet personality, his reply was, “Sophy has a personality?” – more proof, if we had needed any, that he had no idea how to care for her.

When we brought her home, we placed her in the spare room, thinking to quarantine her for a month before introducing her to Ning. But the two birds started calling so excitedly that after a couple of hours, we brought Ning in for a visit.

We were ready to supervise, but there was no need. Ning leaped down off my shoulder and sidled up to her on the perch and immediately started regurgitating. Sophy made a stifled sound of surprise, as though to say, “Excuse me, sir, but have we been introduced?” but her objections could not have been too serious. Moments later, they were mating.

After that, Sophy and Ning were nearly inseparable, eating, bathing, playing with chew toys, climbing up on me. Always, in season and out, they mated, even on my shoulder. If one of them strayed more than the width of the living room, the other would start making anxious squawks. Ning was the more independent and aggressive of the two, but we soon noticed that anything Sophy wanted, she got. In anything she cared about, she was the dominant bird.

With Ning as her companion, Sophy blossomed and started to accept us. She would go everywhere with him, even occasionally down on the floor, which she obviously regarded as a dangerous place. I remember the two of them constantly worrying a small tin back and forth as though playing football.

One time, she crawled into one of Trish’s boots that was lying flat on the floor. She made an inquisitive cheep and, frightened by the echo, retreated squawking.

Over the next couple of years, her feathers grew in. But she remained an over-zealous preener, so that her feathers often looked ragged and you could see the gray of her down on her breast.

A few years later, she was healthy enough that she started laying eggs. The first one surprised her as much as it did us. She kept looking behind her at the egg, as if she could not quite believe that she had produced it.

Other eggs followed – so many at first, that she became egg-bound had to visit the vet just after Christmas. Ning moped around, and, early on New Years’ Day, we took him to pick her up. His rapturous purr as he started preening her in the examination room was as true a sign of devotion as you could see anywhere.

We bought a nest box, and watched her excavate the peat moss that lined it to her liking. Soon, eggs and hatchlings followed – Frumious (because what else should a Bandersnatch produce?), Jabberwock, and Rambunctious, Rogue and Rapscallion, and Madrigal, all born in the living room. Sophy would spend hours cooing over her hatchlings, over-preening them but caring for them fastidiously until they were weaned. Once they were eating for themselves, they were Ning’s concern for a few months so far as she was concerned, and she always seemed relieved when her offspring left for new homes.

A flock, a mate, and babies mellowed Sophy immensely. She never was much for hands after her previous experience, but she came to trust us enough that she would simply press her beak firmly around an encroaching finger, instead of drawing blood.

We knew that she trusted us, because every morning, she would lean from the top of the cage to preen our faces, more gently than any parrot I have ever met. She was the only bird I trusted to preen my eyes, because even a sudden noise would not excite her into nipping me. When I lowered a shoulder, she would scramble across the cage, careless of any obstacles, to climb up on me.

She would sit for hours on my shoulder, with or without Ning, as I worked at the computer. Sometimes, I would sing silly songs to her, and she would shake her tall and fluff out contentedly just at the corner of my vision.

I could go on and on – but I see that I already have. But I can hardly remember a time that her playful and loving presence was not part of my home life. All the birds were a comfort to me in the weeks after my wife died, but she was the one who sat with me the most, and seemed most sensitive to my grief. In return, remembering her sitting contentedly on one leg on the back of the cage, I like to think that we helped her put the years of abuse and neglect behind her.

As I type, Ning is restless, hopping from my shoulder to the table to the floor, and flying up to the cage. He keeps looking around as though expecting to see her, and is unable to keep still.

Without any anthropomorphizing whatsoever, I know exactly how he feels. Even after watching her die, I still can’t believe that gallant little Sophy is gone.

Read Full Post »

I think of Haisla artist John Wilson as primarily a mask carver, and certainly that is where most of his efforts have gone in the last few years. However, his prints show a certain talent for two-dimensional design as well, which is why I was pleased to pick up this abstract “Wolf.”

Most Northwest Coast Art is abstract to a greater or lesser extent, of course, in that it is highly stylized and uses a number of basic shapes not found in nature to achieve its effects. However, the sub-genre specifically referred to as abstract is less naturalistic than most. In an abstract piece, some of the distinguishing features of a subject are often missing or distorted and often only one or two remain. The figure is further distorted by the surface it is on. The end result is a figure far removed from the semi-naturalistic figures in the tradition – so much so that viewers either need the title or some familiarity with the art in order to know what is being depicted. These conditions open up possibilities for original self-expression that are often harder to find in semi-naturalistic figures.

All these generalities are true in “Wolf.” The bushy tail that is one of the defining characteristics of wolf figures (and often an opportunity for considerable ingenuity by artists) is squeezed into the rectangle of the figure below the jaw, so that at first you might mistake it for ornamentation. Only the short ears and perhaps the muzzle and teeth are left to identify the figure – and the muzzle and teeth might easily be a bear’s. Since the figure is turned sideways and presented upright, there is only one foot and a couple of claws, which increases the abstraction even further

What is left is mostly teeth and claws, creating an impression of fierceness, especially since the claws are outsized. This impression is strengthened further by the elaborateness of the eye with its tilt, as well as the red of the tail bisecting the image.

Technically, the print might be called a study in threes. Three parts of the wolf – the head, the tail, and the foot – are depicted. There are three black ovoids — the eye, foot and nostril – that frame the image, each with a slightly different shape as well as different interior decorations. In addition, three parallel lines –the tail itself, the bottom line of the heat and the top of the foot – cut across the picture. Three black lines form the foot, although only part of the two claws are parallel. In addition, the eye is made elaborate by three clusters of U-shapes, each with some variation of a T-shape inside it to thin it out. For variation, the patterns of three are sometimes broken, as in the red decorations around the eye, only two of which have a tripartite structure, but the grouping are enough to give the figure of “Wolf” a strong unity.

An especially interesting cluster of threes is the tail with its knick in the middle. It is minimalistically echoed in the thin red line beneath the claws, and in the mirror image that touches the ear on one side and the muzzle on the other.. I am not absolutely sure of Wilson’s intention, but the way that the top structure mirrors that of the tail suggests to me that it is part of the tail, so you have to imagine the tail wrapping around the wolf, stretching from the bottom of the image to the top behind the figure, where you can’t see it.

The formlines, too, are worth pointing out. For much of their lengths, they are a uniform thickness, and bend at almost the same angle. However, they are saved from being monotonous by their long, tapering ends, and surprisingly few other techniques. Instead, they create a sense of boldness that seems to fit with the ferocity of the wolf.

In fact, if I had to use one word for “Wolf,” that word would be “bold.” In a way, I regret that the print is so small, because “Wolf” is a design that almost demands to be blown up for a house-front or some other large-scale depiction.

(Note: Being a responsible blogger, I want to take this opportunity to strongly deny the rumor that the print is also available in a limited edition of one in pink and mauve. This alleged alternative version does not exist, and you should not ask the artist about it. Nor did you view it here if you are interrogated. Okay?.)

Read Full Post »

One of my minor irritants is the way that the word “creativity” is used in our culture. Too often, it is applied too freely, while other times it is used in a way that suggests that the speaker has little sense of what creativity is about.

These mis-uses matter to me, because creativity is central to my life and self-image. In fact, I might summarize my life so far as a series of movies closer and closer to the point where I could focus on creativity – specifically, writing – and make a living from it. I have an idealistic view of creativity, considering it one of the highest values to which humans can aspire, and the expression of all that is best in us.

Taking the subject so seriously, I feel the slightest pinch of annoyance when it is used too loosely. These days, “creativity” is used in all kinds of places where it shouldn’t be – not just of a craft (which is sometimes just an art with a low social status), but of marketing, business strategy, or simply lifestyles. Frequently, “creative” almost becomes a synonym for “skillful” or “interesting.”

I can accept this usage as an analogy. Like a Venn diagram, all these things overlap to a certain degree with creativity; for example, they all involve skill, hard work, and ingenuity. But, for the most part, to describe such things as creative seems to exalt them more than they deserve, just as comparing an executive to a Japanese samurai or Antarctic explorer does. The connection is a bit of a stretch and should not be taken literally.

What creativity has that these other things lack is sincerity – an aspiration to achieve the highest results regardless of effort or sacrifice. Instead, the motivation of such things is more mundane – utilitarianism, selling products, getting a promotion, or closing a deal, perhaps. The purity of intent I associate with creativity is either totally absent from them or secondary. A marketing campaign may be apt or clever, but if you insist that it literally creative, then I can’t help thinking that we need another word for what a musician or a writer does.

I have the same sort of annoyance when I hear people talk about waiting for inspiration to strike – or, as I recently heard, someone talking about the time of day when they are most creative.

To a large extent, I can see scheduling your work for a time when you are least likely to be interrupted (although as I write that, I can’t help reflecting that if many writers, especially women with family or social demands, like Jane Austen or Sylvia Plath, had waited for the perfect moment, they never would have finished anything). And I appreciate the rare gift that arrives fully formed in my mind that needs only minor touchups to the first draft to complete it.

But, in my experience, the correlation between when you feel most creative and when you do your best work is practically non-existent. At times, a passage that feels like a gift from the gods becomes, in the cold light of revision sloppy, incomplete, or worthy only of deletion. Even more frequently, the passages that work best in my work originate, not in an instant of inspiration, but in reworking upon reworking. Most of the time, creativity seems to reside not in some magic attunement with the sources of inspiration, but in the ability to take pains to get something right. Yet I doubt that most people — even many artists — can be persuaded of the fact.

I suppose that both these misunderstandings about creativity reflect the high value that we place upon it. In modern industrial culture, creativity is widely seen as the highest form of accomplishment (consider how we remember artists but rarely business executives, and the importance of musicians and actors in popular culture). Everyone wants to be seen as creative, and many of us seem to want the maverick image that artists have had in our culture for the last two centuries. But, as these examples also prove, most of us have no real idea of what creativity might actually be.

Read Full Post »

I don’t believe in motivational speakers – those who claim that they can help you find love, or make you happier, healthier, or richer if only you take control of your life and pay them. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by them. The motivational industry is such a hodge podge of airheaded optimism, pseudo-science, and half-truths that it reveals like nothing else the lengths to which people will go to find a shortcut to their goals.

At first, you might think that these New Age entrepreneurs have nothing in common. After all, they are all offer advice in different fields. Yet even when you look at them, the resemblance to each other is amazing.

Often, they even physically resemble each other. All too often, their clothes and the houses they are fond of filming themselves in have the bland taste of the aspiring middle class. The women among them have shoulder-length hair, often of that ash-blond color that you never see in nature, while the men sport mildly unruly surfer dude haircuts that suggest that they might have had an athletic past. Both sexes are tanned and seem to have had one face lift too many, leaving them with smiles that last a little too long, and show an alarming amount of gum. Both, too, have the unctuous manner of funeral directors – the types of postures and gestures that are never quite in sync with their body language.

Personally, their politeness always tempts me (purely in the interests of scientific research, I assure you), to see how long I can insult them until their facade collapses. I never do, but I am uncomfortable around most of them because they are so determined to project a Stepford Wife-like niceness that they are social hypocrites, and you can never be quite sure what they are thinking.

Yet even those who escape the physical stereotypes generally pitch a philosophy that resembles Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This philosophy can be summarized as the belief that, if you feel good about yourself and project an air of confidence, you will succeed in whatever you are trying to do. To help you develop faith in yourself, the philosophy offers inspiring quotes (often ripped wildly out of context), and suggests that followers practice various forms of affirmation (repeated statements of their goals and general worthiness ranging from prayers and mantras to repeatedly speaking or writing declarations of it), The variations and the jargon are as endless as the speakers themselves, but the underlying similarity rarely changes; the perennial best-seller The Secret is a typical example of the belief system.

The trouble is, the only studies that suggest that any form affirmation leads to success either show a weak correlation or else are poorly designed, which makes their conclusions questionable. In fact, the result of teaching self-esteem in school for the last few decades are starting to seem like adults who expect to be rewarded simply for trying, and who become easily discouraged.

Such results fit well with my personal experience as a long-distance runner, when I found that being confident going into a race slid easily into over-confidence and losing. Pessimism and fear were actually more useful, because they encouraged me to think of tactics and stay alert.

When faced with contrary scientific evidence, motivational speakers and their disciples rarely respond by modifying their views. If anything, they are apt to ignore such results. If cornered, they are apt to launch into a condemnation of science and its narrow mindedness.

Yet, strangely, at the same time, the motivational industry is always eager to evoke science to create an air of respectability. Usually, however, their science is painfully outdated and simplistic, like the Myers-Briggs personality indicators. More often, it is not real science in the least, but pseudo-science – fringe beliefs like crystal healing that offer the appearance of science, down to the specialized terminology, but that lacks the rigor and testing procedures of true science.

Not that such limitations bother the speakers and their listeners – the appearance of science only needs to be superficial, since the point is to borrow the credibility of science, not to adopt its actual practices or criteria for truth. What the motivational industry is really concerned about is creating a closed belief system that can never be questioned or debunked, because no real standards apply.

I suspect that the reason that the motivational industry is structured this way is that the truth is very simple. Except in cases of glandular disorders and other medical conditions, the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and find a balance between these two necessities that helps you to keep the weight off. Similarly, any real effort to teach people to successful would have to acknowledge that what is involved is acquiring skills, careful planning, and some luck – and that having money and connections doesn’t hurt, either.

But such answers are not very satisfactory for people looking for quick answers and minimal effort. Nor are they nearly as simple as affirmations. They are more qualified, and carry no guarantees, and who is going to pay for something that complicated?

In the end, all the motivational industry can supply (other than a way to spend money with very little to show for it), is a series of half-truths. Yes, a visible lack of confidence can work against you, but that does not mean that confidence is all you need. Yes, prayer might help you focus your mind on what is about to happen, but it the focus that is likely to prove useful, not the magic of divine intervention on your behalf. And, yes, science makes mistakes, and scientists can be as petty as anyone – but that doesn’t mean that science isn’t usually a more reliable way of interacting with the world than cultivating your self-esteem.

If anything, the motivational industry is constantly threatening to descend into either irrelevancy or farce. I know of one alleged relationship expert (with troubled relationships of their own) who preaches that the way to find a happy marriage is to settle for someone who is agreeable, a suggestion that is not going to be very satisfactory to those who want a particular person, or is dreaming of passion and true love. Still another suggests – with every sign of sincerity – that redecorating your bedroom is a key to finding a glamorous new lifestyle. In other words, in the case of the motivational industry, there is continual reason to believe that the emperor is not only buck-naked, but doing a lap dance.

What fascinates, frustrates, and frightens me is that, despite the ease with which the motivational industry can be debunked, millions continue to believe in it. Apparently, the desire for simple answers is so strong that nobody notices that the motivational speakers themselves are as flaky as phyllo.

Read Full Post »

In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be,
and the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star,
you once made for your own
First Christmas away from home.

– Stan Rogers

This time a year ago, I was rushing downstairs with every knock on the door, hoping to get there before Trish did. At the door, the Kevin and Kell collections I’d ordered for her might be waiting, or the DVD of Oysterband’s 25th Anniversary Concert, or the Northwest Coast masks I’d bought. If one of them was, then I would have to figure a place to stash them until Trish was out and I could hide them more effectively.

This year, I am by myself, reflecting on how many traditions can accrete around a relationship in thirty-two years, and dreading the blankness of a Christmas without them.

The first Christmas we shared, Trish and I had barely been a couple for six weeks. We spent much of it at our separate families, but not before we exchanged gifts; she gave me a ceramic chess set, and I gave her Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. I still have both, although much of the Renaissance album is a bit lush for my tastes today.

The next year, we were an established couple, and backed each other up on all the obligatory Christmas visits. In fact, between dashing over to West Vancouver on Christmas Day, then to Parksville on Boxing Day, and half a dozen other places as well, we overdid the traveling so much that one of our first traditions was born: Never again. In future years, we confined our dashing about to the parents, and maybe one or two other events that we either couldn’t avoid or wanted to attend.

Other traditions were born that year, too. That was the year Trish started her tradition of giving her craftwork as gifts. Blackwork embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, beaded ornaments, embroidery – over the years, the diversity was astounding, and all done to her perfectionist standards. One year, she made several hundred angels and bells, and sold them to buy Christmas presents, an effort she never quite equaled again. One year, too, I threatened the efficiency of her assembly line by doing candles, but the results were too mixed for me to do so a second time.

Trish’s crafts brought other rhythms to our Christmas as well. The one where she stayed up until three in the morning on Christmas Eve to finish a piece was one I might have done without. But the one of decorating our tree with her ornaments is one that always gave me a flash of pride, to have something so utterly unique in the living room.

Another tradition revolved around gift-giving. While I was a student and later as a grad student, we had a budget so tight that it always threatened to snap like a rubber band stretched too far, so we never got into the habit of buying large presents for each other. Besides, where was the fun in that? In our second year as a couple, we got into the habit of buying a couple of dozen small gifts for each other. Later, when our income increased had increased, we might include one or two moderately priced items, but, by then, the pattern had been set, and the small gifts continued – so much so that, over the years, Christmas and birthdays were when most of the books, music, and movies came into the household.

One advantage of buying small gifts was the amount of loving conspiracy that they inspired: splitting the alphabet in various gift categories so that we wouldn’t buy duplicates, secret phone conversations, and mysterious deliveries, all accompanied by cryptic and increasingly outrageous hints. We started using recycled gift boxes, wrapped in the most exotic papers we could find, and adding tags with puns and hints that would have made a veteran solver of crossword puzzles weep at their obscurity – tags that only really became meaningful after the gift to which each was attached was opened.

We learned quickly to take only some gifts for each other on Christmas Day, because other people became impatient with our exchange. But that worked out, too, since it meant we had a few presents to open when we awoke, and still more when we got home after visiting my folks on Christmas Day, and Trish’s folks on Boxing Day.

Then there were the stockings. There was always a marzipan pig in mine, and a Birk’s spoon in hers, either from her mother and me. Trish especially had a genius for finding the exotic and improbable at dollar stores, and often her stocking was the repository of the earrings I had found for her. In later years, when we decided the last thing we needed was more knickknacks or novelty items, the stockings were full of gourmet candies and sauces, which we would be happily discovering well into March.

Somewhere around December 28th or so, when the visits had temporarily slackened, came the gloating over the loot – I mean our first real chance to dive into the gifts and thoroughly explore them. Since our tastes overlapped so much, most of the time a gift could be appreciated by both of us, so we felt slothful and luxurious as we lounged around and made happy discoveries.

New Year’s Eve were for board games. Most of the time, there were just the two of us, but for a half dozen years, a couple of nephews were included, who always fought over the rules and pleaded with us for more alcohol than we would let them have. These massive game sessions would last for eight or ten hours, with pauses to refill the punch bowl on the kitchen counter and for me to cook a hearty lasagna of four or five cheeses.

And, finally, when the New Year had begun, and the guests were gone, came the tarot reading. Neither of us believed in such things, except perhaps as a psychological aid, but we both liked the atmosphere. Anyway, if New Years isn’t a time for omens, then when is?

After that, the days would drift back to normal until January 6th. On Twelfth Night, Trish insisted half-seriously, the tree and ornaments must be stowed away for another, or we would risk bad luck. So down they came, each hand-made ornament carefully wrapped away for another year, and I would march about the house all day singing a song from an old Steeleye Span album:

Oh, Christmas is past,

Twelfth night is the last,

And we bid you adieu,

Pray joy to the new.

This year all these things are gone with Trish. My Christmas shopping is much easier, but much less interesting, and my chances to see how gifts are received greatly reduced. I don’t really need the stacks of recyclable gift boxes in the walk-in closet, and I won’t be doing much visiting, since all except one branch of Trish’s family has apparently decided to drop me. I suppose I could start a new tradition and do some extensive volunteering throughout December, but I’m not sure you can call something a tradition if only one person is involved – and, anyway, it wouldn’t be the same.This year, every time I pass a gift that I no longer have reason to buy, I’m in mourning for the traditions that have died along with the person who shared them with me.

Read Full Post »