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Archive for March, 2011

Wanting to feel useful, today I tackled a task I’ve been putting off: cleaning up the plant pots from the courtyard outside my door. I imagined that I shirked the task because it would be dirty and exhausting, but I had barely begun before I understood that the real reason was I didn’t want to face the memories that lay in wait for me.

Except for the laurel, none of the several dozen pots had been planted by me. It was the sole survivor of three that Trish and I had bought years ago when the strata council had chopped down the fir that shaded our balcony. The others had quickly died, and this one had been moved to the courtyard when our deck was last rebuilt, only to die in last summer’s heat wave when I was too distracted to notice. Our parrots Ning and Sophy had enjoyed having it against the outside of the living room window, since it gave them a hidden place from which to peer out at the world.

The rest were the remnants of miniature roses and one or two efforts at growing mint and other herbs. I had never had a hand in those. They were Trish’s, and among some people she was as well-known for her roses as for always carrying a craft project with her.

Before the carcinoids took hold, an hour or two in the evening or weekends was a part of her life. She was proud of them, having never had much success with gardening before, and she kept her notes about them in a leather-bound book stamped with Celtic knotwork designs. She enjoyed, too, going to the monthly meeting of the local rose society, and she delighted in the names of each rose: Pandemonium, Golden Amber, Black Jade, Pinwheel, and all the rest.

But the real point of growing the roses was distributing the blossoms, few of which were over three centimeters in diameter. Regardless of whether she was going to her job, or we were going shopping at Westminster Quay, the parrot shop, or a bookstore, her departure was always delayed by her snipping the latest blossoms. At summer’s height, she would soak paper towels and carefully wrap the blossoms to preserve them. When she got to wherever she was going, she would hand them out, to the delight and occasional puzzlement of the recipients.

I suppose you could rationalize the distribution of the blossoms by the fact that Trish had several dozen plants, and, when they were blossoming, we hardly had room in our townhouse for more than a few blossoms. But, although we never talked about why she went to such efforts, I knew that she enjoyed offering the small gifts that she had produced to those she saw regularly.

Once, a cashier snootily refused them, and we never shopped at that bakery again. For my part, I was furious that such an innocent and pleasant gesture should be met with hostility. Most people were pleased by the gesture in the middle of their workday, and some came to look forward to it so much that they were visibly disappointed if Trish had run out of blossoms or the plants weren’t producing that day. To some distant acquaintances at Westminster Quay, she was simply the Rose Lady.

But as Trish sickened, she had less energy for roses. One by one, their numbers feel due to frost or disease, and, increasingly, the losses were not replaced. When she could, she still enjoyed tending them and distributing the blossoms, but, with each year she had less energy for anything so active. Nor did she want my help; the roses were her activity, and, not being a gardener and increasingly worried myself, I did not offer help as often as I could.

Two years ago, her health was poor enough that she hardly had time to fertilize the roses, let alone prune or keep them free of disease. Last year, as she struggled with pneumonia and slowly died, she had no time for them at all.

Today, I found that only three rose bushes survived, and one of them will need some concentrated attention to thrive again. But I decided that, despite my lack of gardening skills, I will do my best to keep them alive. The effort is a way I can continue to connect to a time that, nine months later, already seems so fabulous and distant that sometimes I wonder if it existed at all.

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In an era when many women hesitate to call themselves feminists, I consider myself a male one. This self-identification is not always easy. On the one hand, some women believe that a man can never be a feminist, and only makes the claim in the hopes of getting laid. On the other hand, many men ridicule the claim as proof of effeminacy or homosexuality, and while I haven’t been called a traitor to my gender in so many words, I have been called a “neutered male” and worse.

Fortunately, I am more inclined to laugh at both these extremes than be insulted, because, as I usually tell people who ask why I take this position, I suspect I have little choice in the matter. If I weren’t a feminist, then I simply wouldn’t be me. I certainly couldn’t live with myself.

If I were feeling flippant, I’d say that I call myself a feminist because that’s what I am. In the simplest terms, a feminist is anyone who believes in the equality of men and women. Since that is what I believe, what else would I call myself?

However, when people ask me why I call myself a feminist, they’re usually not looking for taxonomy. What they really mean is: what makes me a feminist, anyway?

One reason, I suspect, is that I have always quicker to see similarities rather differences, and patterns and continuities rather than chaos and separation. I am not unaware of the biological and social differences between men and women (I am, in that sense, a healthy heterosexual), but except in matters of sex, gestation, and lactation, they mean little to me.

With this perspective, I never got the habit of thinking of men and women as separate species. As I have observed before, gender is not a large part of my self-identity, so I am always surprised to find a man or a woman for whom it is.

More – I remain unconvinced by studies that claim innate gender differences. I consider most of them poorly designed efforts to prove the researchers’ own prejudices. Admittedly, men and women are socialized differently, but watch them talking and thinking about important matters, as I did as a university instructor, and these differences disappear. Or, at the very least, they become no greater than those between individuals of the same gender, or people from different cultures. So, to me, the idea that men and women have the same range of intelligence and talent requires no great feat of imagination. Based on what I notice, the idea seems merely self-evident.

Another psychological reason for my feminism is that, having started life with a speech impediment that caused many people to denigrate me, I have an instinctive sympathy for anyone who is too quickly dismissed by society. And when such a person attempts self-assertion, my sympathy only increases. The frustration of not being taken seriously, the anger at being held back, the mixture of self-despair and determination to prove your judges wrong – few of the attitudes expressed by feminists are completely foreign to me, and I could not ignore their positions without denying some essential parts of me as well.

Still another reason that I call myself a feminist is that I am a clumsy liar, both to myself and others. My sense of self depends strongly on me being the sort of person who faces facts – even unpleasant ones – and I would be ashamed to pretend that the inequality of women didn’t exist for no better reason than my own convenience.

True, I may not always see an observation first for myself. Yet when someone points out (for example), that my life has probably been shaped by male privilege as much as my own abilities, I have admit that they have a point. Although I squirm, evading the obvious would only make me ashamed.

That same interest in truth also leads me to want my life to be based on something solid. If my sense of self-worth were based – like many men’s’ – on a sense of superiority to women (or anyone else), part of me would know how meaningless it was. It would be like mistaking a job title or empty praise and an award for actual accomplishment. Instead of clinging to such a fragile sense of self-worth and being afraid of womens’ equality, I would rather cultivate a generosity of spirit and support it. To be perfectly selfish about it, I know that the only way that I can be confident of my own self-worth is if I support the right of other people to assert theirs as well.

At any rate, even if I were not temperamentally inclined to be a feminist, do you realize how much feminism has done for modern culture? My own chief field of literature has been transformed in the last thirty years because of feminism. Its re-examination of the past alone would make it worthwhile. Without feminist scholars, Aphra Behn would be less than a footnote, and Ann Radcliffe barely a name. Only two of the Bronte sisters would be known, and each of them for one book apiece. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would be the writer of a handful of conventionally soppy sonnets, and Christina Rossetti dismissed as a quaint writer of children’s doggerel. Or so I would have been told, and without feminism I would have happened on the truth inconsistently, and probably missed it sometimes altogether.

Thanks to feminism, dead branches of the past have flowered unexpectedly, and literature is enriched – no, better than it used to be. And you can make a similar list for all the arts and many of the sciences. These changes are so far-reaching that, even if I disagreed with the criticisms or aims of the many branches of feminism, I’d still be grateful for the broader artistic and scientific perspective it offers.

Really, how can people keep asking why I am a feminist? Under the circumstances, what else could I be?

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Once every decade or two, something I am into becomes popular. The situation is rare enough that I am still recovering from my chagrin when the local TV news used The Pogues’ “Fairy Tale of New York” as background music to an account of a dinner for the homeless a decade ago and from everyone knowing the plot of The Lord of the Rings when the movies were released. But by far my most frequent moments of unintentional trendiness and the resulting breakup of my routine revolve around exercise.

Since I’m built like a cement mixer, you might not realize by looking at me, but I have been a regular exerciser all my teen and adult years. Any day in which I don’t burn a minimum of seven hundred calories running, swimming, or cycling, I count as a slack day. I’m the sort you see doggedly jogging in a snow storm, or being unfashionably sweaty at one end of the gym. I consider exercise a necessary balance to all my hours at the keyboard, and a form of meditation besides. Unlike many people, I like exercise, and the heavier the better.

The trouble is, people are always discovering exercise. That means that the shoes I need periodically sprout velcro buckles and thick tread more suitable for a tank, or blossom in outlandish colors – anything so that their prices can double. Functional sweat tops disappear, replaced by tailored suits made of synthetic fibers that cause me to break out in a rash, and the gyms are always crowded in the first few weeks of January until the newcomers find the courage to break their New Year’s resolutions (much to everybody’s relief).

All this is superfluously annoying when all I want is ankle and arch support in my shoes, natural fabric, logo-free gear and a quiet place to sweat. But, this time, the fashionistas have gone too far. Noticing the popularity of basketball among males under twenty five, the sports stores have decided that all they need to carry for any sort of exercise is basketball shorts – baggy shorts that fall to the knees, and that generally amount to free advertising for an American team.

The least of my problems with the stores only selling basketball shorts is that I look ridiculous in them. Most of my height is in my torso, and I’m considerably below two meters tall. Wearing basketball shorts, I only look like a kid who’s growing too quickly for the length of his trousers. That’s how I feel, too.

But what I really object to is that basketball shorts are completely unsuited to strenuous exercise (and, for all I know, that includes basketball). They might be barely tolerable for the genteel weight-lifting that most of the men at the gym do, in which ten reps are followed by twenty minutes of conversation. But on the pavement or on the saddle of a bike, nothing is more unsuitable.

When I’m working up a sweat, I want my legs as unencumbered as possible. I don’t want them tangling in folds of loose fabric that bind them and prevent them moving freely. That is almost as bad as wearing sweat pants while doing strenuous exercise.

Yet because of the whims of fashion, a day is fast approaching when I won’t have the simple clothes I need to continue doing what I’ve done for decades. Within a few months, unless I abandon exercising altogether, I’ll be forced to choose between three unsatisfactory alternatives: wearing what’s easily available and feeling confined and uncomfortable; shortening a pair of shorts with one of my unsatisfactory hemming jobs (assuming that the synthetic fabric allows me to do that), or else ordering pairs of rugby shorts online and enduring the chafing of the thick material.

Probably, I’ll end up ordering the rugby shorts. But I resent having to make the extra effort simply because trendiness has touched down like a tornado in an area that I happen to frequent. My best hope is that it will move on before my present crop of shorts falls apart, and I can go back to being unfashionable for another ten years.

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I first became aware of Calvin Morberg’s work through a shark mask he sold to the Inuit Gallery. I was too late to buy it, but I did catch a glimpse of it. Although the finishing was a little rough, I was impressed by the originality of the design, and decided to keep an eye on his work. I tracked him down on Facebook, and, a couple of months later, I bought this eagle frontlet from him.

With its red background, abalone and harbour seal whiskers, in many ways, the frontlet is a typical Tlingit design. The general design is one that I have always admired for its boldness and embellishment – two traits that seem more common in Tlingit work than in any of the other northern First Nations. Tlingit work, I have always thought, has a touch of exoticness missing in Haida or Tsimshian or Nisga’a work, which I like to think helps to explain the traditional Tlingit reputation for being shamans. But, regardless of whether that is true or not, Morberg has carved a striking version of a common general form.

True, like the shark mask, this frontlet has a rough touch or two. In particular, the abalone is not well-matched, and, if you look closely, you can see the drilled hole in each piece that suggests Morberg has bought what was convenient – and not what best suited the piece.

However, these are minor flaws. As in all the other frontlets of this general design that I have seen, they are part of the background. What draws the eye is the central figure, and there Morberg shows his skill.

The central figure offers a set of planes consisting of the lower and top beak and the nares, all at contrasting and complementary angles, drawing the eye down to the wing feather tips at the bottom. From the bottom, the wing tips draw the eye back to the painted lower half, circling the design there until the inverted T-shapes at the top draws the eye back up to the eyes, and finally back to the beak via the eyebrows so that the process begins again. This is exactly what successful formline should do – trapping the eye, and keeping it moving around the entire shape. In fact, in moving about the central figure, you soon stop to notice the rest of the frontlet.

Nor is there any roughness to the finishing that would distract the eye in its progress. If the abalone provides a rough surface, the central figure provides a smooth one without sharp edges, and together they create a contrast as obvious at a glance as at a touch.

Another part of the central figure that I appreciate is the painting. To start with, Morberg has taken the unusual step of adding paint to the lower half; in several other eagle frontlets that I have seen, this area is usually occupied entirely by carved wings.

But even more interesting is the pale copper green, which seems to be a hallmark of Morberg’s work just now. Given the red background, he could hardly use red as the secondary color, and the green is an ideal choice, because it complements some of the shades in the abalone.

Also, of course, for those in the know, the color is a reminder that copper was a measure of wealth on the coast – a reminder that is especially fitting since frontlets are an indication of chieftainship, or at least high rank.

I don’t know where Morberg’s developing talent will go next. However, because of pieces like this eagle frontlet, I expect to hear more of him in years to come. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if, sooner or later, I buy other pieces from him.

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One of the dangers of knowing artists (pity me!) is that, when they’re in town, they usually have pieces for sale. That is what happened a few weeks ago when Mitch and Diana Adams were in Vancouver a few weeks ago for the Chinese New Year celebrations. After dim sum, Mitch took my back to his mother-in-law’s apartment to show me what he had brought with him – and, inevitably I bought two: A Gagiid mask and a Killer Whale Comb.

The Gagiid features in the dances of Haida secret societies. The Gagiid is a castaway who, as he wanders the shoreline by himself, grows so crazed that in his endless foraging he devours sea urchins without removing the quills, which embed themselves around his mouth. Cryptozoologists often take the story as evidence for the existence of the Sasquatch, but this identification requires a giant leap of illogic, since the Gagiid is originally a normal man, and in the dances (if what I have heard is correct), the point is to reintegrate him into society. Today, at least, the Gagiid is frequently green, a depiction that often encourages Incredible Hulk jokes – a comparison that is actually closer than you might at first think, since the story of the Hulk is also about reintegrating him into society.

Mitch Adam’s Gagiid caught my attention because of the attention to details. His mask’s blue eyes are not an anomaly, and most likely not an effort to connect the Gagiid with Europeans; blue-eyed Haida were apparently noted by the first Europeans to reach Haida Gwaii in the eighteenth century. However, like a shaman, this Gagiid has eyes with pupils that roll upward, suggesting he is in an altered state of consciousness.

Other details follow naturally from the story. The Gagiid’s face is long and thin, as though he is half-starved. The gaps between his teeth suggest that some are missing, while those that remain are irregularly shaped and sized, as though they have been chipped, either through eating hard food or perhaps after too many falls on the rocks that line the shore. Moreover, not only are the lips swollen, but the the lower face is out of proportion, as though it has swelled, too. Similarly, the blood drawn by the sea-urchin quills (on the mask depicted as porcupine quills) is fresh and running on some, as though the wounds were fresh, and simply a ring of red on others, as though the wounds were made some time ago and the blood has dried.

What makes this detailing all the more impressive is the size of the mask: approximately sixteen by ten centimeters. I have seen masks twice or three times the size with less attention to detail (several with woolly eyebrows that give the Gagiid the appearance of Groucho Marx, an effect that Adams has avoided, I’m glad to say).

The same attention to detail is found in Adam’s Killer Whale comb, which is about the same height as the mask. Combs of this design, he tells me, were not for tidying a head of hair, as most people assume, but for untangling the warp of wool on a loom. Perhaps this knowledge of the shape’s purpose encouraged him – unlike the designers of many combs in Northwest art – to carve a comb that is actually functional, with flat sizes and tapering ends, and not just an approximation of the shape.

Made of yew, Adam’s comb benefits from the beauty of the tight and highly visible grain. However, the grain probably caused him trouble, too, since it runs vertically while the design is horizontal. On one side, the pupil of the eye looks as though it might been a knot, and, if you look closely, you can see several other places, such as the outer curves of the mouth or the shape of the nostrils, in which the two sides are not perfect mirror images. At any rate, even were identical sides possible, differences would remain, because the grain is much darker on one side than the other.

Ironically, the most regular part of the carving is the front design – probably the part least likely to be observed. Yet it is an indication of Adam’s determination and skill that the irregularities are minimized and unnoticeable to the casual eye. Having set himself a difficult task, he proves his skill by doing it extremely well.

Notice, too, how the design conforms to the shape of the comb. Only one design feature positively identifies the carving as a killer whale – the fin depicted on both sides of the handle.

Like “Peaceful Warrior,” the laminate mask I bought several months ago, these two pieces show Adams’ ability to work in miniature. He is perfectly capable of a stunning work at larger sizes, as his “Blue Moon Mask” demonstrates, but Adam’s attention to detail makes his smaller works consistently stand out from similarly-sized pieces from other artists.

My only reservation about buying these pieces is that, when I did, Adams lost the opportunity to show these work to the galleries while he was in town, and extend his reputation. I am sure that both would have sold. But, despite the danger of visiting an artist, I feel privileged to have had first chance at them, and to display them in my townhouse.

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