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Archive for April, 2012

“Who writes the story?
I don’t know any more,
And maybe nothing’s what it seems,
Spare me the glory
Just get me safe on shore
And I’ll only put to sea in my dreams.”
– OysterBand

The Victorians were wiser than I imagined, having a year of mourning followed by a period of half-mourning. The convention wasn’t just a social restriction; as I’ve found, you need a couple of years after the death of a spouse before you’re ready for normal life. So, with that need in mind, and with the second year anniversary of Trish’s death approaching, I’m declaring the end of widowhood.

I don’t mean, of course, that I’m forgetting our life together. I still have memories that paralyze me in the middle of whatever I’m doing, and that make me frown in the effort not to tear up. I’ll probably have such moments for the rest of my life, like a joint that aches in the rain, although they might become less common.

Nor do I mean that another woman is in my life. I’m laughably unfit for online dating, and while I’ve met several women in the last two years who have become friends, that’s all they are. The only woman in whom I’ve had the faintest interest isn’t speaking to me, and is unlikely to, and I’m not much concerned. I’ve had one spectacularly successful relationship, and I can’t expect another one.

I am not even suggesting that I have a new direction in life. I don’t, and I’m not likely to. Three years ago, I thought I knew what the next couple of decades would be like, and, with those expectations gone, I don’t see any point in aspiring to new ones. Despite some recent efforts to find new directions, I expect that thirty or forty or fifty years from now I’ll be found dead or ill among amid my books, music, computers, birds and exercise equipment, living much the same as I do now. The thought doesn’t worry me much, and I’m not in the least suicidal; it’s just the way things are likely to happen. Generally speaking, I accept that, just as I accept that I’m on the short side of medium height or have heavy shoulders.

So what do I mean? Simply that a time comes when living in the past feels like futility. For me, that time has come. The immediacy of the thirty-two years I spent with Trish is fading. Not that I forget much, not even my failures. Yet, emotionally, that era seems so distant from the way I live now that at times I have trouble believing that I am the same person who did or said what I remember. To deny that my past is gone out of loyalty or nostalgia would be perverse, and not at all what Trish herself would want for me. I know that, because in the final weeks of her life, she was often worried about what would happen to me without her.

Maybe to you, embedded in your relationships and children, what I’m saying sounds melancholy, or a sign of depression. But, contrary to our cultural expectations, none of us has a natural right to be a happy idiot smiling through out days, although, if you haven’t been widowed or traumatized yourself, you probably don’t understand that. However, from where I am, that’s a truth so obvious it hardly seems worth repeating. To you, it may not seem like much of a step to stop living in the past and start moving into the present, but trust me – it’s an immense one.

But what about the future, you ask?

I don’t rule anything out. However, right now, the future is more than I can think about. I have half-formed plans and intentions, and I’ll probably realize a few of them as I look for ways to fill my time. But they don’t have the urgency they did a few years ago. In that, I’m not much different from most people, if they would be honest with themselves. I’m just more likely to express uncomfortable facts.

What I am trying to say is that I’ve decided to quit feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I’m cultivating stoicism. My intention is to keep moving, one step at a time, not looking backward and not looking ahead, either. And if that seems inadequate to you, all I can say is that from running and writing, I know that’s the only way that most things get done.

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Once a year, I teleconference with the instructors of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art to decide who will receive the Mature Student Award. We discuss candidate’s financial situation, and weigh their artistic skills and leadership, whittling down the list until we have this year’s recipients and – funds permitting – honorable mentions.

But this year, the discussion was short. Kelly Robinson, one of this year’s leading students, was quickly chosen as one of the honorable mentions. After a brief discussion, the second honoable mention was awarded to Stacey Calder, who was technically underage for the award, but judged someone who could make best use of it. Then, unanimously, the instructors urged Sam McKay as the main recipient, a nomination to which I quickly agreed.

In barest outlines, McKay’s story is one that sounds all too common for First Nations people of his generation. A member of the Nisga’a wolf clan, he was forced out of his culture to go to residential school. He ended up on skid row, addicted first to alcohol, and later to crack.

But unlike many versions of this story, McKay’s has an upbeat ending. After thirty years on skid row, in 1991 McKay started to turn his life around. He went to university, and started doing social work with the homeless in Victoria. Eventually, he took a job in the Terrace area, and rediscovered his culture, becoming a dancer and a carver and holding a major chieftainship.

Speaking in a soft, hesitant voice, McKay recalls that “I was well into my fifties” when he changed his life. “I remember when I was getting my driver’s license, and there were all these sixteen year olds waiting for their tests. I told my instructor, ‘All those kids must think I’m a road hazard.’”

McKay had always admired his namesake grandfather, and remembers watching him carve spoons and bowls. At various times, he had also also studied with master carvers like Henry Robertson and Tom Dawson. However, just like getting his drivers’ license, learning to carve was part of the process of the last twenty years.

“I always wanted to learn how to carve a bowl, how to carve a paddle and a totem pole,” he says, adding that he appreciates the talent of the young students in the class, and the school graduates who occasionally drop by to help with the classes.

He finds art essential to both his re-discovery of his cultural history and his personal journey, saying, “When I feel out of place, I just pick up a pencil and start sketching. I’m an artist. It’s natural.

“I always say that I’ve come full-circle. It’s funny, because when I was younger, my grandfather told me my story. It didn’t dawn on me until a few years ago. ‘Be careful,’ he said, because somewhere in your life you will run into trouble. But you are going to realize the situation and get out of it. And when you do, you’ll come full circle.’”

With all the efforts he has made, McKay is exactly the kind of person whom the Mature Student Award was meant to help. I wish him continued success when he returns next year to complete his studies.

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Last week, I flew into Terrace to attend the end exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art.

Of the four year end exhibits I’ve attended, this years’ was the weakest, with the fewest number of pieces on display and the lowest quality, but there were compensations. The show was partly a reunion of alumni, with former students such as Mitch Adams, Latham Mack, John Wilson, and Carol Young in attendance. And, as always, Waap Galts’ap, the longhouse on the campuse of Northwest Community College in Terrace, made for a setting that was both aesthetic and relaxing.

Nor was the show entirely lacking in pieces worth lingering over.

Larry Darrick displayed an abstract panel design that was all the more striking for being in black and white:

Darrick’s “Boogie Mask- Myth of Hairy Man, Bigfoot & Boogie Mask” was also worth a second look for its use of woven cedar for its mess of hair, although its copper nostrils and eyebrows seemed more elaborate than the simplicity of the carving would justify:

Among the spoons and bowls, the painting and lines of Lyle Mack’s “Transformation Spoon” was noticeable, so much so that I found myself wishing he had finished a mask or a painting for the show:

I was especially pleased to see that some of the high-quality work was done by last years’ winners of the Mature Student Award, which I sponsor. Barry Sampare, last years’ winner, showed more attention to detail and finish than most students:

Similarly, Evan Aster, who last year received an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award, displayed the same attention to the painted design as in last year’s exhibit to produce a mask of mildly eerie paleness:

Last year’s other Honorable Mention, Moses White, produced the strongest work of his that I’ve seen to date in “Oil Stained Warrior – Blood will spill before oil.” White’s mask had one side slightly higher than the other, but managed to be eye-catching just the same.

One of the standouts of the show was Nathan Wilson, who has already had some commercial success in the galleries. His “Defend the Village: Warrior Mask” seemed to show traces of the influence of John Wilson, with whom he worked privately in the past, but the boldness of design, as well as the mixture of materials (alder, horse hair, abalone, cedar bark, acrylic) was a a rare example of embellishments not overwhelming the design:

My only regret was that Wilson was not displaying more in the show.

First year student Jared “Citizen” Kane was another standout, with prints that were somewhat lacking in detail, but intricate enough that I bought both of them:

Still another standout was Paula Wesley, who plans to continue her art studies at Emily Carr next September. Although Wesley’s carvings looked a little rushed, and were not her best work, her two-dimensional pieces showed a pleasing discipline of line and a complexity of design, as in her “Releasing the Light”:

Wesley also created one of the strongest pieces in the show, a family box design that, had it been for sale, I would happily have bought:

However, pride of place in the show literally went to Kelly Robinson. Already a professional jeweler and painter, Robinson showed that he is equally promising as a carver. The central area of the exhibit was dominated by a display case with a spoon by Robinson, while two of his masks hung facing each other on either side:

In addition, Robinson’s painting, “Box Design (The 4 Carpenters)” hung at the main entrance of the longhouse, and was the most accomplished piece of the entire show:

The title refers to what might be called the celestial contractors in Nuxalk mythology who were charged with making the sun and other aspects of the world. The painting has a boldness and a mixture of traditional and contemporary that many visitors to the show admired, and I am proud to say that it will soon be on my living room wall.

With such artists as Kane, Robinson, Wilson and Wesley, the show was still worth seeing, and, as in past years, both the students and instructors couldn’t have been more welcoming. I look forward to seeing what the grads do next (and maybe buying more of their work), and how the first year students improve after another year of instruction.

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List stories are one of the most heavily criticized forms of journalism. According to detractors, list stories show a lack of thought, and are simply a lazy way to produce an article. However, I believe that, with a little planning, list stories can be as legitimate a form as any other. They simply have different considerations from most types of journalism.

Not that the criticisms aren’t justified. The structure and logic of list stories are different from the typical story. Instead of offering an obvious path of development of the central idea, list stories are constantly starting over again.

It’s also perfectly true that list stories often feel easier to write than an in-depth story that builds on a single point. Instead, list stories rarely have room to go beyond the general. As a writer, you just start to get into the discussion when it’s time to move on to the next item in the list. Rightly or wrongly, this can feel much less demanding than sticking to one topic throughout the article.

Still, I like list stories – maybe because one of my strengths or weaknesses as a writer is that I’m always tempted to make lists. Instead of squeezing the lists into conventional paragraphs, sometimes it just seems easier to give in and acknowledge the point by putting list items into a bullet list or using sub-headings.

If nothing else, a story divided by bullet lists or sub-headings looks more approachable online. Its blocks of text look smaller because they are divided. There are fewer formidably long paragraphs, and readers have more natural places to pause and return to the article later. Particularly on-line, you have more chance of being read if you organize your thoughts in a list than a conventional story.

Besides, list stories are a good place to use random thoughts and observations that are too short to make stories in themselves. All you have to do is generate some related points to go along with them – which is easier than it sounds, because often one point suggests another.

Developing the story

The trick of writing a successful list story is the same as with any article. You need to find what William Goldman calls “the spine of the story:” The central, unifying idea that justifies talking about all the points in the same story. Without the spine, a list story is just as bad as critics contend that it always is. With the spine, a list story can be as meaningful as any other piece. State the central idea in the introduction, and you’re well on the way.

Then there’s the question of the points themselves. For the article to work, all the points in the story need to be as strong as possible. Since you don’t have much space for each point, any that are vague or obviously padding are going to stand out.

At the same time, for some reason — call it the unspoken numerology of popular culture – some numbers of list items seem to be more widely read than others, such as 7, 9, 11, or 12. Any fewer than seven items looks more like a teaser than a story, while some numbers, such as 6 or 8, simply look wrong somehow.

But, in reaching one of the magical numbers, you need to be careful to avoid padding. Instead, you need to think more deeply, or perhaps see if any of the existing list items is complex enough to be divided into more than one section. If so, as a bonus you have at least two items than can follow one another, the second maybe referring back to the first and thereby increasing the unity of the entire article.

Pay attention, too, to the order of the list items. I always think in terms of what I call “relay order,” based on the order of runners in a team race in track and field. Typically in a four-runner relay race, coaches would have the second fastest runner begin, followed by the third and the fourth and ending with the first. By approximating this order, you start off strongly and end strongest of all. The middle might sag a little, so you want to mix the stronger points with the weakest so that there isn’t a downward descent in interest.

By the time readers reach the end, the original statement of the unifying theme may have grown vague with the details, especially with a longer article. For this reason, a list item needs to end like any other story, with a re-emphasis of what you want readers to take away. Nor does it hurt to explain why what readers have just read is interesting or worthwhile.

 More than a list

Done thoughtfully, a list item is more than a collection of random thoughts. It may look simple and unassuming, but, behind the scenes, a conscientious writer needs to have a good idea of what the points add up to, and be ready to experiment with the order of items as they write. Often, you’re only know the most effective order after you write.

But that’s another part of what makes list items so suitable for online articles. Text editors and word processors are all about rearranging blocks of text – and, with list stories, you’ll have plenty of opportunities and needs for rearranging before you’re done.

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I’ve never been a supporter of proprietary formats. So far as I’m concerned, they’re an imposition on the rights I acquire when I buy. But knowing something intellectually is one thing, and knowing something deep-in-the-gut, blind-raging and foaming at the mouth is quite another, as I discovered recently when I bought an audio book.

The fact that I eventually managed to access my property is entirely besides the point. The access was all of my doing, and none of the manufacturer’s. In fact, if I wasn’t so bloody-minded, I would have given up entirely. As things were, I ended by spending half the price of the purchase again just so I could do what I have a right to do.

OK, part of the blame is mine. I should have known that the promise that I could freely play the ebook I purchased on any of my devices was too good to be true. The manufacturer wasn’t proclaiming its dedication to open standards with that statement, which is how I interpreted its statements in my eagerness – it meant that I could play my purchase on any devices so long as was willing to load the manufacturer’s codec on the devices just so I could play that one purchase.

(Actually, from accounts on the Internet, the promise didn’t even mean that it. It meant any device that the manufacturer had arranged for a hardware manufacturer to pay for for support.)

After I downloaded my purchase, I quickly discovered how I had been misled – or misled myself, perhaps, through excitement. My purchase wouldn’t play on GNU/Linux, like any decently open or semi-public format. I found a seldom-used netbook computer that still had a Windows partition on it, and discovered I could play the proprietary format in iTunes. So at least I could listen.

However, I didn’t want to start up another computer whenever I wanted to listen. Nor did I want to use Windows, or to carry the netbook around, nor to have seven hours-long files. Why? Because I didn’t want to, that’s why, and I shouldn’t have to give any other reason.

All I had in mind was to listen on the operating system of my choice or maybe a music player, with files in a format I could play and divided neatly into individual stories for my private use – all modest and completely sensible goals, I think you’ll agree.

Trusting that where there’s a proprietary format there’s a way, I searched the Internet. A few pieces of software from companies of which I never heard promised to do the conversion for me, but I was dubious.

Then I discovered that iTunes included a loophole that the proprietary manufacturers hadn’t considered: the ability to burn playlists to audio CDs in .wav format.

However, as part of the plot to drive me mad, the function is a feeble ghost of what it should be. For one thing, it doesn’t burn to DVDs. For another, while it supports using multiple CDs on large files, with each new CD, it has to scan the source all over. As a result, each 80 minute CD takes some 12 minutes to burn. When you’re dealing with files seven hours long, that’s a lot of delay. It’s as though iTunes executives rationalize that, just because making a backup copy for personal use is a right in many countries (including my own), that doesn’t mean that anyone has to make creating that backup easy.

My conviction that the manufacturer wasn’t going to make things easy took another giant leap when I discovered that the files were all in ten minute segments, each labeled with another writer’s name — a mistake so amateurish that it seems designed mainly to add to the confusion. At times, too, the last minute or so of one CD would overlap with the start of another CD, so I had to listen carefully when the breaks came.

But the resulting files would at least play on my computer of choice, and I used the free software sound editor Audacity to splice them together, tantalized by the few seconds I heard while working.

Of course, it takes time to copy seventeen full CDs over to the hard drive, and still more time to reassemble the 170 files and to manually rip them into stories. Let’s call it a long evening’s project that was only slightly less fun than washing dishes for five hours. Only a fanatic would have bothered, I’m sure.

But now I’m done, and finally I can sit back and enjoy the stories.

Still, my enjoyment is tempered by the extraordinary efforts I required to do such very ordinary things when, by any sane standard I have absolutely no criminal intent. There’s a basic lack of respect for customers in such practices, no matter how widespread they are — and, after going through this experience, all I can say is that I return it. I’m forewarned now, and I’m going to think twice or three times before buying again from the manufacturer. But if I do, I think it’s only fair to return disrespect for disrespect and to assert the basic rights that the manufacturer has decided to take away.

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Gwaai Edenshaw was long overdue for a solo exhibit. Both a goldsmith and a traditional carver, he is an artist’s artist, and his work is in popular demand. However, for his first exhibit, he has chosen to emphasize another aspect of his work: his graphite and ink drawings, and their role in his artistic process. “Sounds Good on Paper,” currently at the Petley Jones Gallery, does include some his work in gold, but largely to illustrate the importance of his preliminary drawing in his jewellry.

With this theme, the show’s catalog inevitably chooses “The Dreamer” as the piece on the cover. The piece is not only an obvious choice for the theme of the artistic process, but for Gwaai himself (to use the name with which he signs his work). The cartoon style is a reminder of his animation prototypes for teaching the Haida language, and the rings on the hat, a sign of high status in traditional culture an indication of the importance of art among the Haida today. At the same time, the doodles around the margin, as rough as they are, have a non-traditional look. Also, to anyone who has sat down with Gwaai for any length of time, they are a reminder of his constant doodling.

Other pieces in the show emphasize Gwaai’s different traditions and influences. Some, like “Kagan Dajangwee,” are slightly stiff exercises in the northern First Nations style, with their formline and cross hatching:

Others, like “Nanasimget,” a depiction of an Orpheus-like figure in Haida mythology, look like a two-dimensional rendering of a metal casting (and, perhaps not coincidentally, are reminiscent of some of the sketches of Bill Reid, Gwaai’s mentor when he was a teenager):

At the opposite extreme are more mainstream pieces. “Ts’aahl Girl” (Eagle Girl), for instance, combines realism with a touch of whimsy:


Similarly, the two studies of Gagiid, the Haida wildman whose lower face is pierced by the spines of the sea-urchins he is forced to eat after being castaway, bear a distinct resemblance to Gollum as portrayed by Andy Sirkis in The Lord of the Rings:

This movement between traditional Haida culture and urban industrial life – so effortless that it includes analogies – suggest the position of the modern First Nations artist. For those of us who have met him, it also seems very typical of Gwaai’s wide-ranging mind.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show offer a glimpse of the creative process.For example, “Detail: The Two Brothers Pole” shows the precision-drafted plans for a pole that Gwaai recently completed with his brother Jaalen, and a view of the raised pole. The pole is located in Jasper National Park, and was a replacement for a repatriated pole that was appropriated from the Haida in 1907 and that is often attributed to Charles Edenshaw:

A more personal glimpse of the relation between sketches and other media is provided by “Sons of Djillaquon” and the gold pendant “Sons of Djillaquons:”

Both the sketch and the pendant are powerful works in their own right, but together they illustrate what is gained and lost in the transfer between media, as well as the limitations of each. It is this relationship that makes the oxymoron title of “Sounds Good on Paper” a suitable title for the exhibit.

Casual observers might be tempted to to describe “Sounds Good on Paper” as a minor show. And, in one sense, they would be right: most of what is displayed are not the pieces for which Gwaai has rightfully gained his growing reputation.

Yet such a view would also be short-sighted. More than anything else, “Sounds Good on Paper” is a very personal show. It displays many different aspects of Gwaai’s personality – probably not all –and offers a tantalizing hint or two of his creative process and his interest in different media.

My only regret is that the show couldn’t include some examples of Gwaai’s argillite prototypes for his jewellry. Placed beside the finished jewellry, these prototypes could have provided yet another perspective on the concerns of the show.

However, even without this touch, “Sounds Good on Paper” remains interesting both aesthetically and psychologically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibit that shows so much of the artist without a hint of arrogance.

Asked the day after the opening what I thought of the exhibit, my first response was, “It’s very Gwaai.” Having had a few more days to think, I still that response the most accurate I could have given.

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