Archive for May, 2012

I live near the greenbelt surrounding Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus. As a result, I see more wildlife than most suburbanites in my daily routine.

The neighborhood is full of coyotes who have learned not to cross the roads against the traffic flow, and red-tailed hawks who perch on lamp posts, waiting endlessly for road-kill. Every year or two, a mountain lion or bear swims across the inlet and causes a panic, and the mountain used to support a pair of ravens (and possibly still does). And all of this is in addition to the usual squirrels, song birds and seagulls that you can find anywhere in the urban sprawl.

However, by far the most dramatic manifestation of living on the border between the city and the wilderness is when a bald eagle comes hunting in my townhouse complex, and the crows counter-attack in defense of their nests.

It usually happens in late June or July, when this years’ offspring are just leaving the nest. The first sign that a predator is in the area is the suddenly silence outside. If I go to the window, all the smaller birds are flying within ten meters of the ground, darting into the thicker, lower branches of the trees.

From the directions they are coming from, I usually have no trouble locating the eagle, sitting on some high perch, always looking larger than seems possible, and with the mad gleam of a single-minded predator in its eye. Even though eagles rarely attack humans, it’s a sight that’s as frightening as it is magnificent.

The crows take part in the general exodus. But, as soon as they have found shelter – or perhaps checked that their fledglings are safe – they start calling to each other.

Apart from being louder and more alarmed, their calls sound no different than usual to me. Yet the calls obviously mean something to the crows, because, after a few minutes, they rise to confront the eagle, like Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain.

The crows, of course, lack the talons and beaks of the eagle, and are fighting well above their weight. However, they fight as a team – and that makes all the difference.

The crows attack from all sides, never staying still, flying at the eagle but always veering away at the last moment. The eagle no sooner focuses attention on one or two crows than they have moved out of the way, taking temporary shelter in the lower, thicker branches that the eagle has trouble squeezing between. Meanwhile, more crows are dive-bombing it from another direction, and the eagle has to whirl about to keep an eye on them. No sooner has it done so than more crows have moved in from yet another side. There are always dozens of crows, so they have no trouble keeping up their attacks indefinitely.

Usually, though, they don’t have to. Within moments, the eagle has been reduced from predator to fugitive. Abandoning its efforts to attack, it looks for a refuge in the trees, never finding one, since crows can maneuver anywhere it can. Within twenty minutes, it is crashing from tree to tree, trying to escape. Meanwhile, behind it, crows keep rising to meet it, then returning to shelter for a temporary rest while other crows take up the fight.

Once, when walking up to the corner store, I saw one of these attacks about twenty meters above me. From the way its feathers were plastered tight against its body, I could tell that the eagle was not only bewildered, but actually terrified as it was driven from shelter after shelter, never getting enough of a respite to counter-attack.

I half-wondered if the eagle might be so confused that it would attack me, or if the crows in their anger would see me as another intruder and deal with me the same way, but neither of these things happened. Instead, the eagle continued careening from tree to tree, disappearing into the distance while from every tree around me, crows were calling in anger. I tried not to think of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and continued on my errand as the fight moved gradually further away.

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The first thing you need to know about bringing a parrot into your life is that taming isn’t the issue. Unlike dogs or cats, most domesticated parrots are only a few generations away from the wild, and their ancestors haven’t been selected for their ability to get along with humans. Consequently, if you expect a bird that will obey you instantly and never challenge you, you’re bound to be disappointed. Rather than taming, I prefer to talk about “socializing” – convincing a parrot that you are part of their flock and can be trusted.

The second thing you need to know is that an aggressive parrot is rarely a mean one. More likely, they have had some bad experiences with the humans it has previously encountered. If they are more than a few years old, they may have been abused, or even traumatized. They will need their personal space, and will probably need time to accept you. Keep this fact in mind when the bird you are socializing seems to be delighting in scaring you or getting you angry – it will help you to keep perspective. Otherwise, your fear or frustration will reinforce the aggressive behavior, and in turn it will reinforce your fear and frustration.

As you start to work with a parrot, you have five basic tools. The chances are, you will need all of them, even if the bird has been in contact with humans since it was a few days old:

  • Time spent: You wouldn’t expect a person to instantly accept you, and a parrot is at least as smart as a two year old human. Place your bird’s cage where it can see you most of the time you are home. Sit beside the cage, and say a few words when you pass the cage. Establish yourself as part of the bird’s environment.
  • Your voice: Talk to the bird whenever you can. Better yet, sing to them. Parrots are a highly social species, and they are used to members of the flock vocalizing to each other. If you vary your intonation, the bird may also become curious about you, and start to try to figure you out.
  • Food: Adult parrots feed hatchlings. Mates feed each other. Sometimes, even friends feed each other. Offering food is one of the best ways you can show a parrot that you want to be trusted. It’s also a way to encourage your bird to try new foods, by letting them receive it from a trusted source.
  • Your movement: Parrots are a prey species, and at first your every move will be a potential threat. You especially want to avoid sudden, quick movements. Concentrate on slowing down your movements and keep them steady and regular. If you study a bird long enough, you will soon find the speed that makes the bird the most comfortable.
  • Your patience: How fast a bird accepts you varies with personality and past experience. Some birds may accept you in a matter of minutes. By contrast, the badly abused may take months or even years, and never fully accept you. No matter how long socializing takes, you have to keep your patience; if you find yourself losing it, then you need to calm yourself before interacting with the parrot again.

In effect, socializing a parrot is like trying to function as a child psychologist. It requires energy, effort, and time, and is far more demanding than working with a dog or a cat.

If you think it sounds too demanding, the solution is simple: Don’t bring a parrot into your life. There are already too many abandoned and neglected parrots, so the last thing you should do is add to their number.

However, if you are willing to try, the results are worth the demands. The first time that a parrot flies to you or preens the side of your face is one of the most endearing signs of trust imaginable. And with luck, you will have started a relationship that will last several decades, or possibly even longer, depending on the species.

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Anyone who troubles to think knows that traditional male roles are outdated. They started going stale fifty years ago, and by now they are too moldy for anyone to digest. Yet almost no discussion takes place about what – if anything – should replace them.

As with any trend, the media is eager to seize on every explanation for the unsuitability of traditional male roles. The decline of heavy industry and the outsourcing of jobs are popular explanations. Often, too, the changes in women’s roles is cited, sometimes with urban legends like reverse discrimination, but increasingly by even uglier methods such as personal misogyny and laws about reproductive issues that have been called a war on women (and that have about as much chance of succeeding as demands to ship both legal and illegal immigrants home). But the shallowness of these explanations is suggested by the facts that they are inevitably voiced in aggrieved and puzzled tones, and that they offer no alternatives.

The trouble is, men are the least politically conscious gender. Robert Bly’s mythic men’s movement was never much more than another media-manufactured craze, while modern male supremacists sound like a parody of the popular stereotypes of feminism and provoke laughter more than serious consideration.

Even more importantly, such efforts are essentially reactionary. They demand a return to the roles of a past that lasted very briefly. To the extent that these roles were widely accepted, they existed from about 1850 to 1960, and never did manage to influence the working or lower middle classes very thoroughly.

While gender roles certainly existed before that, and were often weighted in favor of men, any social history reveals that they were rarely those that we think of as traditional. Nobody thought it odd that a medieval English merchant’s widow should take over his business, while women in tenth century Iceland had legal rights that women in modern society only regained midway through the twentieth century. Nor, as we find increasingly, is there much evidence of our social roles having an evolutionary origin – all of which only makes the arguments of male supremacists even more desperate than they initially sound.

So far, the best analysis of modern male roles can be found in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed. Faludi, who is best known for Backlash!, an analysis of the reactions against the second wave of feminism, is equally insightful in talking about men’s roles. She suggests that the generation of men who fought World War 2 returned home emotionally distant, losing themselves in their careers in their overwhelming desire for normality. As a result, they became distant parents, and failed to pass on an image of responsible masculinity to their Baby Boomer sons.

Left to shape their own images of masculinity based on the movies, these sons focused on the more superficial aspects of their father’s roles. They expected control of both family and society, but failed to notice that this control was supposed to be justified by their support and loyalty. Male roles became such a caricature of themselves that today, watching sports is supposed to have more to do with masculinity than making sacrifices for your family, or worrying about the moral values of your children.

In a few places, some of the old masculine roles survived. Faludi notes, for example, that until just before the millennium, father and son roles were common in places like shipyards, where new workers were routinely assigned to the care of older men. These mentorships, by Faludi’s accounts, were highly valued by everyone involved. But most Baby Boomers had no opportunity for a similar experience, and had to make up masculinity as they went along.

Many never got past an adolescent concept of masculinity. If you doubt that,check the leading movies of the last twenty years, especially the comedies.

Yet even if they learned their father’s values, the usefulness of these values in recent decades would have been limited. As self-actualization and economic necessity brought more women into the workplace, the justifications for traditional sex roles quickly declined. In particular, the economic justification of marriage for women diminished. At the most, a woman might marry to extend the prosperity of herself and her future children. No longer needing marriage for basic survival, why should any woman put up with even the appearance of deferring to her partner?

In this light, the confusion and anger of many modern men about feminism is understandable – not admirable and by no means excusable, but understandable. Unsure of their roles, then finding those roles diminished, they could hardly be expected to react except with fear and anger, especially when no obvious alternative exists.

This subject is, of course, endless. But it seems to me that, in the same way that women are starting to learn to move beyond their traditional roles, men need to learn to move beyond theirs. The trouble is, the average modern man is completely unprepared to do so. For many men, their gender role is central to their identity. More – making sure that no one can accuse them of being in any way female is important to their sense of self-worth. Yet, with the social differences between men and women diminishing in industrialized culture, men have less and less to compare themselves to. They can only fall back on trivialities, such as preferring beer to wine – which in the end makes their gender identities even less secure.

What men need is to analyze their recent history as thoroughly as feminists have analyzed women’s. Once they do that, more men might manage to identify themselves less as men and more as humans, and even learn to ally with feminists.

But that is an effort that many men are still reluctant to make. Instead of recognizing the inadequacy of the roles they model themselves upon, they would rather cling to those roles and ignore their increasing irrelevancy. But, until they are ready to move on, the personal and social cost is going to be as high as it is needless.

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I’ve never care much about cars. Sometimes, Trish and I would give a car a name, like Wodwo Tulk or Macaw, but a car has never been much more than transportation to me, and definitely not a source of pleasure or status. Yet today when the tow truck disappeared around the corner with our last car, bound for the garage, the moment seemed solemn. Except for the townhouse, the car was the last major piece of our life together.

We bought the car in 2006, a silver gray Toyota Corolla like thousands of others, distinguishable only by its manual transmission. It was used, but in such good shape that it might almost have been new, and Trish was so excited that she hugged the salesman (much to his surprise).

We never did make any long trips in it. By that time, Trish’s health was already too compromised for anything more than a trip across town. But for several years, the car made her more mobile, until she started struggling for the alertness to drive safely. I almost never rode in it myself, except on weekends, when, like many couples, we would run errands, the CD player blaring Oysterband or The Pogues or Ray Wylie Hubbard while we enjoyed each other’s company.

Then came Trish’s final hospitalization. For a month, the car stayed in the underground parking, unused except for the few moments each week when I turned on the engine to keep the battery charged. But in the aftermath of her death, I forgot the task for so long that, by the time I remembered it, I was too late.

In the months following her death, I quickly took care of about ninety percent of her affairs, including cleaning out her belongings. But that last ten percent was something I evaded as being more final than I could bear. When the car’s insurance came up for renewal, I put it in storage, but I couldn’t stand to do anything more. It was twenty months before I could even bring myself to transfer the car from Trish’s estate to me.

Meanwhile, the car gathered dust. Local children wrote “Wash me!” in the dust on the window. A couple of neighbors hinted repeatedly that I really should do something with it. Someone taped to the window the contact information for a scrap metal buyer, who would pay $150 for the vehicle (I angrily recycled the information, and took to glaring at the person I suspected of making the suggestion). But I couldn’t bring myself to do anything except wash the car and clean out its contents.

Still, I was slowly edging towards repairing and selling the car when, two weeks ago, over a hundred cars in the neighborhood had their tires slashed in a night. I was lucky, and was left with two intact tires. But since the car had to go to the garage anyway, I might as well ready it for sale.

When the tow truck arrived this morning, I realized I was dragging my feet as I went down to meet it. I stood to one side as the driver prepared the car for towing, carefully working around the slashed tires. Despite myself, I found myself thinking of what the car had meant for Trish, and how she was long past needing it. For no good reason, I reached out and touched it one last time.

The driver said that I didn’t need to stay around. I told him I would anyway. It seemed like something that I had to do.

Finally, the car was ready. I watched the tow truck carry the car out of the garage and on to the road. As I climbed the stairs to the townhouse, I paused at the top to watch it out of site, feeling as empty as an orange peel.

In a week or two, I should get good money for the car. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about. As it disappeared, I was thinking that another piece of my past was disappearing, too.

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Contrary to narrative conventions, very little of anyone’s personality is decided in a single moment. More often, our traits and beliefs are the result of a number of incidents and how we choose to link them. However, an exception for me is the moment that steered me towards being a leftist.

It was at my maternal grandfather’s house when I was ten. His house was a block away from the United Church where I attended Sunday school, and I used to wait there for my mother to pick me up afterwords. In fact, for several years, the main reason I kept going to Sunday school was so I could spend time with my grandfather afterwords, and be fed milk and cookies and read Prince Valiant in the local newspaper to which my parents didn’t subscribe.

A federal election campaign was on, and my mother and grandfather were in his kitchen, talking about. I was in the living room waiting for them. I wasn’t really listening; just letting their conversation wash over me without really following it, the way that you do when you’re a child and the adults around you are discussing something that doesn’t really interest you.

As we were leaving, I went out into the kitchen to say goodbye, and my grandfather asked me, “And who are you going to vote for?”

This was the election of Trudeaumania, which Pierre Trudeau was busy kissing all the women in the crowds and showing himself all elegance and gallantry and supposed youth. In fact, he was forty-nine, and only a few years younger than his main opponent, and even at ten, I thought him insincere. So I wasn’t going to answer with his name.

The only trouble was, I couldn’t remember the leaders of the other parties. Wanting to say something so I wouldn’t sound stupid, I remembered a name I had heard in my mother’s and grandfather’s discussion.

“Tommy Douglas,” I said.

Both my mother and grandfather laughed, long and loudly. My grandfather, I remembered too late, had been denigrating Tommy Douglas, the leader of the New Democrats, so he was the last person I should have named, although I wasn’t sure why.

At the moment, all I knew is that I had tried to be clever and knowing, and had failed spectacularly.

But that was enough for the name to lodge in my mind. Over the next few months, I learned that Tommy Douglas had been premier of Saskatchewan, and a well-respected one. Not only that, he had organized the first universal health care in all of North America, and made it work. As for the New Democrats, they were social democrats and socialists, and talked about change and justice for all. They were also the perennial underdogs, always the third party in federal politics. They never formed a government, but somehow their ideas slowly became mainstream enough that Trudeau’s Liberal party always borrowed them.

I was already addicted to stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, each of whom was looking in his own way for justice. So it wasn’t long before I decided that “Tommy Douglas” was a pretty good reply after all, no matter who laughed at it. I kept following what the New Democrats were doing, and, started being interested in other social causes. Eight years after my answer to my grandfather, my first vote was for a local New Democrat candidate. I’ve sometimes chafed at the mildness of the New Democrat’s platform, but I’ve never voted for any other party since.

I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if my answer had been taken seriously, or if I had been asked the reason for my choice. I couldn’t have explained, but maybe I would have quickly forgot the name I blurted out, and arrived at my current political positions by some other route. But sometimes, the memory makes me feel that personality is a fragile and mysterious thing, that it can depend on something so small as a moment of failed cleverness and embarrassment.

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Any exhibit by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson is worth seeing. With a career spanning thirty-five years, in media varying from wood to metal and from jewelry to sculpture, Wilson is one of the major figures in Northwest Coast Art, deserving to be mentioned alongside names like Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob. However, “Paint,” his current exhibit at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery, is more worth lingering over than most.

For one thing, paint is not a medium that is popular in Northwest Coast art. Its place has largely been taken by limited edition prints, despite the fact that many artists experiment with it. Wilson in particular is not known for it, and went so far at the reception as to say that it was a medium that he disliked. However, given that Wilson says in the program book that he has done over seventy paintings in his career – forty of which are on display in “Paint” – and has stored many unsold for decades, this professed dislike should probably be received with some skepticism.

When Wilson talks about painting, especially the superiority of wood rather than canvas or paper, his tone is calm but clearly engaged, so perhaps the lack of a market has more to do with his claim than any personal preference. Wood, as he pointed out when I talked to him, is the traditional medium for most of the painting on the coast, and he agreed that “warmth” was a suitable adjective for describing its effect compared to canvas or paper.

Which brings up another point: unlike Wilson’s “North Star” exhibit three years ago, which was mostly a display of Wilson’s versatility in different media, “Paint” is about tradition and its role in modern art as much as media. This concern is highlighted in pieces like his illuminated map of traditional Haisla territory, or in his word paintings or his designs that include the major crests of the Haisla nation.

Less obviously, it shows in his attempts to trace ovoids and other elements from the northern style of design to the anatomy of local wildlife; for instance, he suggest that ovoids originate in the eyes of the skate fish.

Tradition, shows, too, in the marine life that crowds Wilson’s work. Skate, halibut, octopi, red cod, salmon – always salmon, the mainstay of traditional life – cluster in much of his work, like “Raven and the Fisherman.”

Other designs are closeups of marine life, or designs made from their intertwined bodies. Their predators, such as the raven, eagle, and the heron also appear. More than most local First Nations artists, Wilson is always mindful that the traditional culture was one that harvested the ocean and depended upon it.

Another way to look at “Paint” is from a personal level. A miniature Tsimshian-style house front and moon reflect Wilson’s personal studies.

One or two small paintings are studies for larger works, such as “Orca Chief,” which was the model for the sculpture “Orca Chief” at the Vancouver airport.

The exhibit shows, too, how Wilson mixes contemporary life with his artistic tradition, as in his alphabet or maps – the closest, perhaps, in contemporary culture that he can come to the role of art in Haisla tradition – and in his traditional orca spouting rainbows of color.

Circle the exhibit several times, and you can also start getting a sense of his preferred palette, a muted selection of colors far less vivid than, for instance, that of Robert Davidson. In fact, much of Wilson’s strongest work is black and white, where his control of contrast is as subtle as it is effective.

“Paint” is a show that is as intellectual as it is personal. Thankfully, it is accompanied by a sixty-six page catalog that combines Wilson’s artistic statements with personal memories and the sometimes fragmentary remnants of his culture past, as well as a strong plea for a revival of interest in the Haisla language, which is quickly approaching extinction. Far from being the usual collection of glittering generalities, this is a catalog rich in personal and cultural biography that adds genuine aesthetic and intellectual appreciation to the exhibit itself.

In fact, ideally, anyone interested in Northwest Coast art should attend the exhibit, then take the catalog home and read it slowly and carefully in preparation for a second, more informed visit (which is what I hope to do myself, even though Maple Ridge is a ninety minute bus ride away). But even if you can only manage one trip, “Paint” is a major show by a major artist, and you are sure to come away with a stronger sense not just of the artist and his art, but also of the culture behind them.

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