Archive for November, 2011

Whenever I come across a use of language that makes me cringe, I tell myself that the English language is robust and evolving, and can survive any number of hopeful monsters. I outlasted “not” being added to the end of every sentence, I keep reminding myself, and I can survive whatever other grotesque usage that slouches my way. But there are limits, and mine is “not appropriate” and its near-relative “inappropriate.”

You know what I’m referring to: flat, prim statements that something done, said – or even thought – is “not appropriate.” Typically, I regret to say, it is said by someone such as a unionist, feminist, or environmentalist, with whose basic ideas I agree, but with whose tactics (obviously) I find reprehensible. In fact, I can think of few phrases I disdain more.

What’s my problem with “not appropriate”? For one thing, it’s a euphemism. When someone says that something is “not appropriate,” what they really mean is that they dislike or disapprove of what they are condemning. But instead of saying what they mean, they hide behind a vague phrase. So, right away, they’re being dishonest.

However, unlike many euphemisms, “not appropriate” isn’t used to be discreet or to spare someone’s feelings. Instead, it’s one of the most basic invalid arguments imaginable: an appeal to an authority – in this case, the alleged standards of the community and the unspoken rules by which we live by. The implication is that the person who has done something “not appropriate” has transgressed in a way that no decent adult ever should.

I say “alleged standards” because, almost always, the transgression is not against existing community norms, but against what the speaker would like to be the community norms. My impression is that the speaker is hoping that, by assuming that these norms are already generally accepted, they can enforce their ethics as though everybody shared them.

I would find such tactics hard to tolerate in anyone, but, when standards I support are used in this way, I worry about the harm they can cause. I suspect that many people who might otherwise be persuaded to those standards will reject them simply because they resent the clumsy efforts at manipulation.

After all, when accused of being “not appropriate” or “inappropriate,” you are not supposed to stop and consider the merits of the standards being implied, or discuss what is happening. You are supposed to act on reflex, and shut up.

Those who go around condemning things as “not appropriate” are setting themselves up – almost always, completely unasked — as authorities about what is socially acceptable. The implication is that they know what is right and wrong, and those they address they do not.

Basically, they are offering themselves as the guardians of ethics and morality, demanding that others obey without any discussion. They are taking on the role of teachers and casting everyone else as dull students, playing parents to unsatisfactory children, or cops to the mob. They are usurping an authority to which they have no right – and, when they stoop to condemning even thoughts (or their interpretations of them) as “not appropriate,” they become downright creepy.

No matter how you parse the phrase, “not appropriate” is a fundamentally dishonest and authoritarian expression. The sole virtue of “not appropriate” (or “inappropriate”) is that its use signals that the speaker is so committed to intellectual fraud and authoritarianism that you can save yourself endless time and effort by walking away from them.

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One LinuxWorld Expo, Maximum Linux and Linux Magazine had booths next to each other. Near the end of third day, as journalists lounged around the booths talking, a free software celebrity approached. “Look,” he said, singling out a single magazine from a display. “There’s my issue!”

He wasn’t talking about an issue featuring an interview with him. He was talking about an issue in which he had published a small and rather minor article.

The assembled journalists looked around, as embarrassed at this flash of ego as though a puppy had relieved itself on the carpet. No one wanted to point out the obvious: that most of the journalists had dozens of articles in the displayed magazines, and that bragging about your work just wasn’t done.

I was new to writing at the time, but I quickly absorbed this lesson about the difference between professionals and amateurs. Professionals take the work seriously, but not themselves. Amateurs and semi-professionals reverse the priority, so for them writing and publication is all about ego.

What other differences are there? Considering the number of people who describe themselves as writers in their Facebook and Twitter profiles, the question is worth answering.

Here are some of the other differences I’ve observed:

  • Professionals work when they need to, amateurs when they feel like: If you graduate from university, publishing isn’t that difficult, especially if your editor is willing to guide you. Amateurs, though, are likely to sit back and glow in the bask of accomplishment when they sell an article, and not write another one until the mood strikes them. Professionals may celebrate sending off an article by taking the rest of the afternoon off, but usually they’ve no sooner finished one article before they need to start thinking of the next.
  • Professionals are pragmatists, amateurs perfectionists: Professionals take pride in their work, but they also have a perspective on their work. They know they aren’t writing deathless prose most of the time, but something that will be forgotten in a few weeks. By contrast, amateurs will labor far past the point where improvements are worth the time and effort. Professionals don’t have time for endless tinkering.
  • Professionals judge their work by results, amateurs by efforts: Like high school students, amateurs assume that their work should be judged by how hard they try. Professionals recognize that their work is judged by results – and that an article that is long or takes hours to write can fail as easily as a short, quick piece.
  • Professionals make deadlines or explain why: To amateurs, submitting an article on time is less important than their perfectionism. Professionals know that when they miss deadlines, they are letting their editors and other people down. I’ve heard amateurs laugh about missing deadlines, but rarely a professional. If a professional does joke about deadlines, they sound distinctly guilty.
  • Professionals accept criticism, amateurs are hostile to it: Sometimes professionals complain about editing, but they are usually sharp-tempered because of other matters when they do – or right. But, having invested so much more in their work, amateurs have trouble accepting that their work could be improved. In fact, many amateurs become angry if their work receives anything except praise.
  • Professionals edit to improve the work, amateurs to make it sound more like them: To a degree, all editing is affected by the editor’s own habits of writing (in fact, I can predict fairly accurately what changes an editor is likely to ask in a piece once I’ve worked with them a few times). The difference is that professionals try not to rewrite a piece by someone else as though they had written it. Amateurs don’t make this distinction, imagining through inexperience or ego that the way they write is the only possible way to write.

There are probably other differences, but these are the most common ones. Professionals, I suspect, will nod in agreement at them. Amateurs will probably either be angered by what I said, or else guiltily recognize their own faults.

Needless to say, it’s those who recognize themselves in my comments who have the best chance of making the transition to professionals. Other amateurs might also make the transition, but their progression is likely to be rockier, and include longer and more frequent detours.

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I spent several years of my university career hitchhiking to and from university For the first two years, I’d bus to work, then hitch from the campus to downtown Vancouver, or even home to the North Shore. Later, when I moved closer to campus, I’d regularly hitch while waiting for the bus at the foot of the hill, hoping someone would stop and save me a few minutes.

To many today, this hitchhiking must seem appallingly dangerous. At the time, though, it made me only slightly uneasy. I was an ultra-fit young male, so I was in minimal danger. Besides, I rationalized, I further minimized any danger by hitching only to and from campus – as though, just because someone was associated with the university, they wouldn’t be predators. Sometimes, too, I got such a good ride that I saved my bus fare.

People being what they are, I’m sure that hitchhikers, especially young women, must have been harassed and abused. But, if so, the university took care not to publicize these incidents. For many years, the university actually encouraged hitchhiking, setting by three hitching posts where people could wait for a ride. I was a grad student before the hitching posts were dismantled, and many people protested their removal, even though times had changed, and the campus women’s groups were complaining by then about such an irresponsible policy.

All that I can say is that I never had the slightest problem. The first few times I hitched, I was nervous, but in those days I was telling myself that I needed to be more adventuresome, so I overrode my apprehensions, and soon learned to take them for granted. For better or worse, hitching seemed an adventure. It allowed me to meet people I would never otherwise have met. Often, for a semester at a time, I had regular rides, although I rarely knew the names of my benefactors, for all the far-ranging conversations that we had.

Of the hundreds of rides I cadged, several stand out. One was from a battered pickup truck containing two long-haired musicians and their dog. They did a hilarious fire and brimstone preaching routine to a banjo accompaniment, and insisted on performing for me on the spot, the driver wedging his banjo between his stomach and the wheel, and taking his hands off the wheel to strum. They made me feel hopelessly straight, but I was proud that I could enjoy their company.

Another time, a ride let me out at Main and Hastings. Even then, the intersection was the heart of Vancouver’s skid row, although those were prosperous times and the area was much safer then than it is now. But to a sheltered kid like me, the intersection felt like dangerous territory. I walked eight or ten blocks until I got to the business section, and only relaxed when I boarded the bus for home.

Yet another time, in my second year, I got a ride to North Vancouver, a couple of miles from home, which was an easy jog to home. At the time, I was uncomfortably aware that I came from an affluent municipality – never mind that my family was no more than middle class – and went to great lengths to hide the fact.

Consequently, I lied to the driver about where I lived. When he went on to ask if I were interested in car-pooling, I lied again, saying I was about to move. After he dropped me off, I went half a mile out of my way to pretend that I was heading towards the area where I said I lived, and kept looking over my shoulder all the way home in case for some reason the driver might be following me. My nervousness was due to my discomfort at having lied so lightly, and was directly responsible for me resolving to eradicate or at least minimize my lying – not so much for moral reasons, so much as because of the complications that a lie could cause. Even then, I could see how ridiculous and unfounded my behavior was.

All these episodes were years ago, and I haven’t hitchhiked since. Probably I wouldn’t now, unless I was with at least one other person. But, although in retrospect, I think that I was lucky (perhaps my naivety protected me), I can’t help feeling nostalgic for a time when hitchhiking seemed a natural thing to do, and trusting yourself to strangers didn’t seem rash.

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Forced to choose between being a follower or a leader, I would reluctantly choose to be a leader. But I would far rather be neither, because I perform poorly in both roles.

The trouble I have with being a follower is that I am not a passive person. I am quick to express my opinion, and ideas come quickly to me. But under all but the most enlightened management, these are not traits that are appreciated. Consequently, as a follower I either have to suppress my thoughts or risk antagonizing those who are supposed to be in charge of them.

This situation leads to repression, which either slips out in the form of sly and generally unwelcome remarks, or over-compensation, in which I try so hard to conform that I end up applying to myself some of the wonderfully inventive eighteen century terms for describing underlings, such as toady or lick-spittle. Probably no one else would think those words apply, since I don’t give management insincere compliments or anything like that, but the point is that this is an uncomfortable self-image to have.

Even worse, having managed in my time, I’m always second-guessing those further up the ladder, and thinking – no, knowing – that I could do better. I keep thinking that, if I were left to manage matters, everything would go more smoothly. Telling myself that this belief is probably a delusion does nothing to keep me from holding it.

Like most people, I can deal with being a follower if I get my exercise and rest, and keep up my other interests. But it’s an inherently unstable situation, and sooner or later I crack from the strain.

Being in charge is preferable because of the greater autonomy. I enjoy setting priorities, and being responsible for decisions.

All the same, as a leader I’m only slightly more at ease than when I’m a follower. If nothing else, knowing how I chafe as a follower, I’m constantly wondering I’m affecting those around me, and what they think of me.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t believe in leadership or hierarchies. My observations and personal experience has convinced me that, for all the emphasis on leadership you hear from management gurus, no one – including me – has any clear idea of what leadership is about.

What worries me is that I will start to confuse myself with the role – that, instead of thinking in terms of tactics or strategies, I will start to use my position as a justification of expressing my ego. I worry that I will get used to having people obey me, and actually get to like the power. If I’m not careful, I may start pressuring myself into actions that the leadership role logically demands, but which I would be reluctant to do in my personal life. The chance of losing myself in the role is always all too likely.

Even trying to be an egalitarian leader is only a palliative. Priding myself on an open door policy, talking about how I am against the cult of leadership, claiming that someone can replace you in a couple of years – all these things, I worry, will only hide the rot that is slowly setting in.

Nor, I suspect, that worrying about such things do anything except make me even less of an effective leader. In the end, I find being a leader only slightly more endurable than being a follower.

Given a completely open choice, I would far rather work in a group that pools its efforts, and hammers out tactics and strategies in discussion. But this is largely a fantasy born of reading stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and I’ve rarely and only briefly ever found such a situation.

Instead, I prefer the role of consultant or freelancer, in which I negotiate an exchange of services as something like an equal, and I’m less likely to twist myself out of shape. Being a freelancer isn’t always easy, but it’s the role that comes far nearer to preserving my self-respect than being either a follower or a leader.

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Now that it’s all over except for the night-sweats, the story can be told.

Last year at the Circle Craft Christmas Market, I entered a raffle for several glass sculptures. When I got home, a message awaited me that I had won one of the sculptures.

For reasons that will soon become obvious, I don’t remember what the sculpture was that I allegedly won. But I was intrigued; although I own dozens of original pieces of Northwest Coast art, I only have one or two other original pieces. I immediately phoned Andrew Luketic, the president of the British Columbia Glass Arts Association, and was told to contact him in a few days later, when the business arising from participation in the Christmas Market had wound down.

When I phoned, he had some good news and some bad news. The good news (or so I thought at the time) was that I had indeed won. The bad news was that my prize had been broken during the cleanup for the Christmas Market.

Luketic assured me that I would receive another prize instead. Everything would be arranged in another couple of weeks, he assured me.

However, another couple of weeks passed with no results. Then another. Then Christmas intervened. Each time I contacted Luketic, he promised to resolve the matter. Each time, the schedule he had suggested wasn’t met. I started to get a little impatient, going around muttering that only I could win a prize that I never managed to receive.

At the start of 2011, Luketic seemed to disappear. After five or six weeks of hearing nothing, a few flecks of foam started to appear around my lips when I thought of the situation.

I contemplated a blog campaign, perhaps a conversation with a mainstream journalist or two in need of local color. However, deciding that such methods of persuasion were premature, I contacted the Circle Craft Christmas Market organizers instead and explained my plight.

Shortly after, Luketic contacted me for the first time in two months. His internet connection had gone down, he told me, and other problems had invaded his personal life. We had never been in contact via the Internet, but I choked back my sarcastic remarks in the hopes of resolving the situation.

Another holding pattern set in, and for the next four months, I waited, contacted the Christmas Market organizers, and received a promise of action, only for the cycle to repeat itself.

More than once, I thought of dropping the matter. After all, I had done nothing to deserve the prize beyond filling out a raffle ticket. But you don’t raise a kid on the story of Robert the Bruce and the  spider without making him a trifle tenacious, and I persisted.

Early in June, Luketic organized a series of possible alternatives, saying that, after the long wait, that was the least he could do. With photos of my options in my Inbox, our interaction mellowed somewhat, and we actually had a friendly talk about the glass work of First Nation artists Preston Singletary and Joe David – a talk that, a few months earlier, I couldn’t have imagined.

A few weeks later and another prod or two from the Christmas Market organizers, and by mid-July, Luketic met me to give me my choice of an alternative prize. He also promised to send me some information about the artist, including her name.

However, despite more prodding, he never did. So, when I left ApacheCon North America earlier today and dropped by this year’s Christmas Market, I decided I would drop by the BC Glass Arts Association’s display and get the artist’s name.

To his credit, Luketic didn’t flee or throw something when I appeared (although I noticed that, this year, the display didn’t include a raffle). He wrote the artist’s name on a business card, and now, a few days short of a year after I won the prize, I am able to say that I am now the satisfied owner of Laura Murdock’s “Alice’s Teacup,” a bowl about a twenty-five centimeters in diameter and twelve high, and have been enjoying for several months how the gild in the glass catches the morning sunlight in the living room.

In the end, I suspect the alternative was better for me than the original. The original, Luketic reminded me, was tall and not very solidly based, which was why it broke in the first place. Considering that I live with three flighted and inquisitive parrots, a low, stable piece like “Alice’s Teacup” is undoubtedly safer in the living room.

So, finally, everything is resolved. I’ll probably even check out the Glass Art Association’s exhibits in the coming year.

Just don’t talk to me about raffles – at least, not until I finish therapy.

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Booth babes – promotional models – are a mainstay of many conferences and trade fairs. In fact, called to task for hiring booth babes, one business owner insisted that he would lose business without them. If that’s true, then I must be an unusual man, because I have always found them little other than irritating.

Oh, I notice that booth babes are attractive and revealingly dressed. I am, after all, a straight male who grew up in a modern industrial culture where sex is a given in advertising, and I’m constantly invited to stare. But their sexual come-on seems more of a distraction than an enticement to me. They’re like people who insist on interjecting jokes into a serious conversation – an irrelevancy to my main purposes at a conference.

At best, they might hand me schwag or a product sheet, or answer questions from a limited script. Otherwise, few of them can actually answer my questions.

To complicate this basic reaction, I happen to be a male feminist. I know that at least some booth babes receive models’ wages, so they’re not being exploited financially, but I can’t help feeling embarrassed on their behalf. Can’t they do something with a little more dignity? I keep thinking. What’s happened to their self-respect?

Possibly, booth babes themselves would laugh at this reaction, and maybe claim that they’re the ones with the power. But, then, I would respond that they are only rationalizing to avoid thinking too much about their current gig.

If I’m being honest, though, I have to admit that my main reaction is personal. Basically, to me, a company that hires booth babes is saying to me, “You’re a man. You’re easily manipulated by your sexuality.” To me, that implication is so insulting as demolish any appeal that the booth babes might have.

I realize of course, that many women – seriously or half-seriously – like to say that men think of nothing but sex. Many men, too, like to believe that they are helpless to control their sexual instincts.

Yet, personally, I’ve always counted myself a person first and a man second. I hold myself to high levels of responsibility, and I’ve never cared for feeling manipulated. Consequently, when a company imagines that I’m going to be swayed by booth babes – as though I’m a boy just a few minutes into puberty who knows nothing about his own sexuality – I’m insulted. While the insult may not be aimed at me specifically, it’s no less strong for being general.

For all these reasons, far from being lured into lingering around the booth babes so that a real company representative can pounce on me, I keep walking. Any literature or freebies I might have already collected from the company with booth babes gets tossed. Unless the company is too big to ignore, I don’t write any stories about it – and, even then, I try not to. If a company can be so contemptuous of me, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be equally contemptuous of it.

To be honest, I’m surprised that booth babes have survived into the present era. They seem more a relic of the 1960s, when the end of repression confused people into thinking that all forms of sexuality should be encouraged.

But, for me, today, they have the opposite effect than what’s intended. Nor, I suspect, am I the only male who feels that way. Add we dissenting males to the growing number of women at conferences, and booth babes must be well on their way to becoming a liability.

At least, I hope so.

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If I talk or write long enough, I’ve concluded, I’m going to say accidentally something that I didn’t mean to say. I don’t mean that my words will suggest a double entendre, which nine times out of ten only causes everyone to laugh. I mean that what I say will have implications that I didn’t intend, or will be interpreted in a way that I never meant them. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later I’m going to slip and embarrass myself.

The first of these situations that I can recall happened shortly before Trish and I married. We were sitting with a mixture of friends and strangers in the pub at Simon Fraser University. Naturally, the talk turned to the possibility of children. I said that one of the reasons that I wanted to work from home after I graduated was that I thought that toddlers would benefit from having a parent at home.

I got up to get another round of drinks, and, when I returned, a woman who had arrived when I was speaking was blasting me for being a sexist. With Trish’s help, I managed to convince the woman that I was not talking about female social roles, but my own.

However, for the rest of the evening, my cheeks could have served as neon lights at the thought that anyone – even a stranger – could have imagined that I was expressing views so foreign to my actual ones.

Another cringe-worthy moment happened when I was teaching a first year composition class to a class with a large proportion of foreign students. I got on well with the class, and I often bantered with the students.

Just before the start of a class, I heard one Asian student complaining about staying up late the previous night to finish the assignment that was due that day. “Oh, you people have it easy,” I said.

By “you people,”I meant “students.” But as an awful silence fell and students started to stare at me, I realized that what people were hearing was “Asians.”

With nightmare visions of official accusations of racism scrabbling around in my head, I quickly added, “You students don’t know when you’re well off.” To my relief, everybody immediately relaxed, and the moment passed without ever being mentioned again. But after that, I was considerably more careful about what I said in class.

In fact, for a couple of decades I was successful enough in watching what I said that I managed to forget such incidences were possible. There was the time that I remarked, “small world,” to a dwarf I kept meeting at the elevators of the Skytrain, but I only realized what I had said afterward, and he didn’t seem to have taken my words as a joke at his expense.

Then, a few days ago, another one happened.

I had just finished a biography of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and colleague of Charles Babbage. As you may know, she was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Millbank. She was raised entirely by her mother, who fled Lord Byron’s sexual abuse and mental cruelties and divorced him.

I have always had a great deal of sympathy for Millbank. Any of Byron’s victims might be pitied, but as an infatuated innocent, Millbank must have suffered more than anyone else would have under his treatment.

However, after reading how Millbank continually tried to control her daughter, right to her dying day, I developed a strong distaste for her as well. Tweeting comments about the biography, I said, “I wonder if there were two sides to the divorce of Lord & Lady Byron.”

Shortly afterward, a colleague objected to the comment. My first reply was, “Not saying that Lady B. wasn’t right to divorce. Lord B. was impossible. But her treatment of Ada suggests she was a control freak.”

Another protest followed. I realized that, in attempting to express sympathy for Lovelace, I was minimizing Byron’s cruelties by suggesting that aggravating but commonplace behavior was just as bad.

I’ve done it again, I thought, and admitted that I’d been too flippant. Perhaps Millbank’s self-righteous evangelism would have been irksome to Byron and to many other men as well, but that can’t possibly justify his rapes and sadism – and, put that way, I had to agree that I had implied something I had never intended to say.

Later, I told the colleague that they were quite right to call me on the comment, and I believe the apology was accepted.

However, the embarrassment – the utter chagrin – lingers. I suppose three or four mistakes of this kind in as many decades isn’t the worst possible record. Some political leaders make as many slips in a single ten minute speech.

But the memories aren’t comfortable ones, all the same. Remembering them, I almost don’t want to write or speak at all. Like many writers, I’m overly-fond of sarcasm and flippancy, and, if I’m not careful, being pithy sometimes matters more to me than being accurate or thinking of implications. As a result, the possibility of another episode is always there.

But not speaking would be cowardly (to say nothing of impossible for someone like me). Anyway, I can imagine situations where silence could be as damning as speaking.

As a result, I’ve decided that, while I plan to watch what I say, some misunderstandings are inevitable. In fact, my determination to avoid them just might make me nervous enough that they become more common.

However, I have decided that, the next time I find myself in such a situation, I will explain what is happening as soon as possible. An apology is embarrassing in itself – but not nearly as embarrassing as being wrong, or branded in someone else’s mind as sexist or racist because of a few poorly chosen words.

Even with an apology, I suspect that some people will say that my original words are a Freudian slip that reveals what I really think. But I can only deal with my imperfections as best I can.

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Should you – or can you – appreciate works by an artist whose morals or actions you find objectionable?  Today, the question returned to haunt me when a colleague rightly pointed out that a public statement I made about a writer minimized his cruelty and immorality by equating it with shortcomings well within the human norm. That wasn’t the first time the issue or art and morality had come up, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.

If you consider yourself a person of conscience, the question has no easy answer. In many cases, evoking the cultural relativism of past times just doesn’t provide an excuse. By the standards of any time, Samuel Pepys was a sexual predator. In all likelihood, Byron was, too, although the removal of evidence by his friends allows some people to believe otherwise. Mozart was a brutal egomaniac, Dali a sadist, and Ezra Pound a Fascist sympathizer. Even as seemingly an amiable eccentric as William Blake subjected his wife to poverty and kept her subjugated to his art,insisting that she color in his prints and waking her in the middle of the night to keep him company. The truth is, artists are so far outside the social norms in general that, once you start reading their biographies, many will be found morally lacking.

At times, the exceptions stand out all the more because of their rarity. For example, William Morris was true enough to his ideals of equality that he never divorced his wife, although knowing she was carrying on an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. John Keats also appears to have been a thoroughly decent man, although cynics might question how much poverty and illness simply deprived him of opportunities to offend.

I suspect that how you answer such questions depends on your priorities. If you are only concerned with artistic achievement, then everything else that an artist does is irrelevant. What matters is the art, and the fact that Leni Riefenstahl’s films were propaganda for the Third Reich is irrelevant compared to her cinematic technique.

The trouble with this position is that, if you admire someone for one reason, you often want to admire them in other ways. Unless you are very careful, sooner or later you find yourself making excuses for their behavior, simply because you like their art.

Yet holding artists to the strictest ethics and morality is no easier. For one thing, the artists of which you approve will make a very short list. For another, the question seems a slippery slope. Do you reject Charles Dickens because of his utter inability to portray women as human? Raymond Chandler or Brendan Behan for their alcoholism?  Where do you draw the line for the minor offenders against morality?:When, if any time, do you make an exception?

Just as importantly, there is something crass and insensitive about insisting that art meet other standards as well, perhaps because that is a common practice of totalitarianism. The problem is not so much that at least some arts – especially writing – can have a moral content, as the difficulty of imposing morality upon art without reducing it to the triteness of modern Catholic Holy Cards.

In theory, as George Orwell suggests, it should be possible to hold two separate beliefs — first, that someone is a skilled artist, and, second, that they were reprehensible human beings – but the practice is more difficult. It seems to involve endlessly jumping back and forth between the two extremes, and therefore is likely to satisfy no one. Instead of offering clarity, Orwell’s solution actually invites us to practice double-think – that is, thinking two contradictory thoughts at the same time, a habit that Orwell pointed out is a handicap to clear thinking.

I suspect, however, that is exactly what the majority of us do. We get swept away by the perspective or the choreography, only to start guiltily at enjoying the efforts of someone we disapprove. At other times, we start out disapproving and find ourselves tapping our fingers to the music despite ourselves, or having a memorable phrase lodge in our minds against our sternest judgments. For most of us, the answers don’t come easily or offer much satisfaction when we face the complexity of the situations in which we try to apply them.

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For the last two years, Kate Beaton’s web comic “Hark! A Vagrant” has been part of my morning reading before I settle down to work. Not only is the comic centered on literature and history, which happens to be my favorite reading material, but Beaton approaches both from a distinctly Canadian viewpoint as I do, as opposed to the usual American or English one. So naturally when her first collection came out, I pre-ordered it.

Naturally, too, my productivity went out with the garbage the morning it arrived, as I eagerly read cover to cover.

So far as I can figure, the collection includes all of the comics posted on the web from March 2009 to June or July 2011. They are all available online, of course, but I believe in supporting artists whose work I admire. Besides, the reproduction on the page is far better than on the screen. And, unless I’m mistaken, Beaton has taken the opportunity to clean up the comics and rearrange them by subject matter – although even online, she tends to publish small bursts of comics on the same subject at one time.

Another advantage of the book is that it allows me to appreciate Beaton’s work more. In particular, until reading the book, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much her loosely rendered style owes to Edward Gorey. It’s by no means a slavish copy of Gorey’s work, being less angular and less-detailed in the background, but the resemblance is obvious when you look at their work side by side. Beaton indirectly acknowledges the influence by devoting a number of comics to the impression that Gorey’s dust jackets give of the contents of the book they adorn; clearly, she knows his work well.

Reading Beaton’s comics in batches also helps me to pinpoint her sense of humor. It’s broader than Gorey’s, and less straight-faced, at turns sarcastic (Jane Eyre telling Mr. Rochester at the end of the story that “We are equals now that I am totally superior to you! Now I can love you”) and willfully literal minded (Nancy Drew telling men seen through a crack in a wall that she will rescue them, and their reply, “we could just walk around”), and more likely to be carried by the words than the drawing.

At times, the humor drifts in to the absurd, as with Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech, in which her words “I have the heart and stomach of a king” is continued with “and the wingspan of an albatross” and “the left hook of a heavyweight champ.” Often, the humor comes from a juxtaposition of modern and historical outlooks, such as Americans telling the French during The Reign of Terror that “We think your revolution is super creepy” or the Brides of Dracula terrifying Jonathan Harker, not with their sexuality but their desire to vote and own property, and go to university.

There’s no denying that “Hark! A Vagrant” is a geeky comic. It isn’t buttressed with the elaborate footnotes of Sydney Padua’s “2D Goggles,” but, without a knowledge of the historical events or the fiction she is riffing off, the jokes are much less funny, if they work at all. In particular, I can’t help wondering how much non-Canadians can grasp of jokes about people like Lester Pearson, William Lyon Mackenzie, or John Diefenbaker. Beaton’s assumption that the readers have prior knowledge might very well limit her audience, but for those of us who know what she is talking about (I get about 90%), her work is an acquired taste that leaves us hungry for more.

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