Archive for July, 2012

Twenty-years ago, I happened to be in a gallery when a First Nations man was talking to the owner. He was selling copies of a relative’s work – his father, I believe he said. They were loosely rendered works in a style I had never seen before, and I was immediately intrigued. I bought two as birthday presents for my partner, although I had never heard of the artist, Henry Speck. Nor could I find any information about him aside from the fact that he was Kwakwaka’wakw. I concluded that he was a minor figure and that his relative had exaggerated his importance.

Last week, I finally learned more by visiting The Satellite Gallery’s small show, “Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis”. It turns out that Henry Speck was a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, fisherman, and artist. While he had been painting since the 1930s, his moment of greatest recognition came in 1964 when the New Design Gallery held an exhibition of his work – an exhibition that was almost unheard of for any First Nations artist at the time. Even Bill Reid, who could be scathingly scornful of anything non-Haida, acknowledged his work as “far beyond anything attempted before in Kwakiutl art” (although, strangely, Reid did not include Speck’s work in his seminal “Art of the Raven” exhibit in 1967).

In other words, Speck is one of the bridges between the decline in traditional First Nations culture and art in the early 1900s and the renaissance that began midway through the same century.

This current show hints more than once that Speck might be considered a modernist, and it is easy to see why. Surrealists and modern artists like Jackson Pollack have been fascinated by the masks and paintings of the Northwest Coast and their obvious sophistication, and have tried to give their impressions of what they saw – usually very poorly, since they had almost no understanding of the artistic traditions they were seeing.

To a degree, Speck’s work is equally impressionistic, obviously sketched in ink or paint, and without the close attention to exact lines and curves that you see in traditional artists today such as Richard Hunt. His work also has individual idiosyncrasies, such as using short parallel lines or rows of irregular circles to fill empty space that – so far as I know – have no antecedent in Kwakwaka’wakw art.

However, the difference between Speck and the mainstream surrealists and moderns is that Speck had at least some understanding of the traditions he was depicting. Consequently, while his art seems less disciplined than that of modern traditional artists, his work does not seem glaringly wrong or poorly-observed so much as individualistic. Like many recent First Nations artists, his work does not fall neatly into either the modern or traditionalist categories, but seems to contain elements of both.

The “Projections” show is disappointingly small, with no more than a dozen original pieces, none of which is larger than 16×20 inches. However, taking the lead from Bill Reid’s observation that Speck’s work seems unnaturally confined at these sizes, and would benefit from being much larger, “Projections” includes a large slide show based on the Speck collection at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary that partly compensates for the lack of originals. Not only was Reid quite right in his observation, but seeing Speck’s work on slides restores the often-faded colors of the originals.

Behind the screen for the slides is a loop of archival footage of Speck and his work. by modern standards, the film clips are often gratingly patronizing, as journalists try to adjust to the idea of a First Nations artist. Is it hard to work in the traditional art, they ask Speck, when as a modern man he can’t believe in what he is depicting, the way he might have a century ago? Does he see a conflict between his subject matter and his own Christianity? But Speck, although unassuming, is far from the naïve native that the journalists assume, and answers with more graciousness than his questioners had any right to expect.

“Projections” is a show that can be easily absorbed in seventy minutes, and I wish it was larger. Yet, even as it is, the show goes some ways towards to restoring Speck to the position he deserves in the history of local First Nations art. And, finally, I have the context for the copies I bought so many years ago.

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I don’t know quite how it happened, but I was born into a Christian culture that has transformed into a post-Christian one. This change is a basic fact of my time, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about it.

I am too young to remember fully Christian times. However, from what those a few years older than me say, when I was born, Christianity – or Protestantism, to be exact – was considered the default. Shortly before I was old enough to take an interest in such matters, the expectation was that any respectable man or woman would go to church on Sunday. If anyone wanted to succeed in business in a recognizable community, they made sure they attended regularly, and, if they were really ambitious, they became involved in their local church. Naturally, too, everybody was married in a church. Everybody knew the bible, too, or at least the stories in it.

These norms were so pervasive that I attended Sunday School at the United Church until I was about twelve, even though my mother was only moderately religious and my father an agnostic or atheist, who probably only attended holiday church services as a family outing

By the time I quit attending, I had absorbed that Catholics were an odd, barely tolerated sort of Christian, no better than the Christian Scientists that I passed on my way to Sunday School. I had encountered only one family of Jews, but I often wondered what made them so different. As for Sikhs or Hindus or Muslims, they were mostly a distant rumor to my young ears, but I understood that any I encountered were to be trusted only to the extent that they acted like good Protestants.

Even my grandfather, who I rarely saw be impolite to anyone, belonged to the Orange Lodge. Admittedly, in British Columbia, this was a much watered-down version of the organization that had been involved with religious violence in Ontario and was still in the middle of the chaos in Ireland. Yet my kind and gentle grandfather apparently believed that the mostly theoretical Catholics of the neighborhood needed opposing, because their loyalty to the Pope meant that they were denied religious freedom.

Looking back, I realize that things were already changing when I was a child. The minister, a pale man who always did his best to sound earnest, talked about social service and good causes as much as about Jesus – and never about hell. But the remnants of a Christian culture were still strong enough that few questioned them openly.

And now? When polled, a majority still will say they still believe in God. In the United States, people are still reluctant to vote for anyone who is an open atheist. Yet despite such hypocrisy, church attendance has sinking for over two decades. When morality is discussed, it is rarely in terms of the bible or Christianity, or any other religion. Asked on a census, many still call themselves Christians, but by their actions and attitudes, clearly Christianity does not steer their actions, and very few would be considered Christians by the standards of fifty years ago.

But probably the greatest sign that we are in a post-Christian world is that religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become secular holidays, and governments are careful not to endorse even a generic Christianity over any other religion. A few of the remaining devout Christians complain about these changes, citing the occasional excessive zeal of non-denominationalists as proof, but what they really seem to object to is the loss of any special status in the culture.

My own beliefs parallel these changes, since I have been agnostic since I was a young teen and drifting towards atheism ever since. If anything, I am more at home in the culture of my middle-age than I was in that of my youth. Generations younger than me seem to have caught up with my thinking as a young man.

At the same time, while decidedly a non-Christian, I am glad that I was lucky enough to be educated in its basic tenets. After all, no matter what I think of Christianity today, at one time it was an undeniable creative force.

How, I wonder, do those brought up entirely non-Christian appreciate the cathedrals of Europe without the understanding that they were physical prayers to God? How can they listen to Handel’s Messiah and understand how it develops? Or read the works of Christina Rossetti or Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose styles and phrasings were where they worked out their relationships with their deity?: Even great agnostics like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy make little sense without a thorough knowledge of Christianity, because their passing references and analogies draw upon the common Christian mythology. I would only be short-sighted and false if I attempted to deny that Christianity was a major influence on much of our cultural history.

Knowing Christianity, I have a sense of the continuity in my culture that most people no longer have. But, as for the decline of Christianity as the foundation of the culture – for that, I feel nothing except relief, tempered by only a mild ambiguity stirred by the cultural accomplishments of the past.

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In April, I flew up to Terrace for the Freda Diesing School’s graduation show. I entered from one end of the modern longhouse where the exhibit was set up, and wound my way through the display panels and cases to the opposite end. As I rounded the last panel, Kelly Robinson’s “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” caught my eye.
Immediately, I knew two things:

First, from the amount of red and the particular shade of blue, and the looseness (or non-existence) of formline, it was a Nuxalk piece.

Second, it was such an eye-catching piece that, if I could, I was taking it home with me. At the time, I already owned Robinson’s canvas, “Mother of Mischief,” but this was a contemporary piece that was, if anything, even more striking.

As things turned out, I didn’t take the painting home with me that weekend. I bought it, but both Robinson and I were worried that the glass might not survive the flight home, and that the painting might be damaged. As things were, it was only six weeks later, when a somewhat different version of the show was displayed by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver as Northern Exposure that I finally took delivery.

The Nuxalk, sometimes known as the Bella Coola (although not by them) are a nation about midway up the coast of British Columbia. Like the neighboring Heiltsuk and Haisla, their art shows hints of both the northern formline style and that of the Kwakwaka’wakw to the south, but with bold lines and colors that make it unique.

Unfortunately, Nuxalk art has not been extensively studied in comparison to, for instance, that of the Haida or Tsimshian. However, in the last half century of the local First Nations revival, the Nuxalk have never lacked for artists. My own familiarity with the style – such as it is – comes mainly from the Nuxalk who have graduated in the last few years from the Freda Diesing School, such as Latham Mack, Chaz Mack, and Lyle Mack, all of whom are related to Robinson.

Nuxalk mythology has been neglected by academics almost as much as the art. So far as we know, we have no transcriptions of how Nuxalk stories might have been told a hundred and fifty years ago. Nor has anyone collected the stories. But, from the little I know, the Nation has some unique traditions.

Foremost among these traditions are the Four Carpenters. These are the supernatural beings charged by Atquhtam the Creator to prepare the world for the Nuxalk. Sometimes, the Four Carpenters are loosely glossed as being arch-angels, but a better analogy is probably heroes like Prometheus, who are responsible for the foundations of culture.

If I have the stories correct, the Four Carpenters created the Sun, which is often depicted as a canoe, as a vehicle for the Atquhtam. By some accounts, the Four Carpenters created the Raven specifically to steal the light, as he does in other first nation cultures. But the Four Carpenters also designed the Nuxalk language, as well as the ceremonies and dances of each of the Nuxalk clan; each of the Carpenters may also be the founder of a clan. When they left Atquhtam’s house, they descended to earth on the sun’s eyelashes.

“Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” shows the subject surrounding the sun, with the bottom two, perhaps, starting to descend to the earth. As the name suggests, Robinson’s painting is a study for a design that might be painted or carved on a box. That description sounds like a formal, academic study, the kind of rigidly traditional work that might be done by a student artist, and there are, in face, objects in the painting such as the faces that remind me of other Nuxalk work I have seen. There is also a regular layout that suggests the careful measurement that might be expected in such an exercise.

At the same time, a strong sense of style is obvious at a glance. “Bold” was the first word that came to my mind when I first saw the painting, and it remains the best description I can think of. With the thickness of the red lines, it could almost be intended for a housefront ten metres long, and not just a box. And, while the painting may be generally symmetrical, the difference in positioning between the upper two and lower two Carpenters strikes me as a touch that a modern artist would be more likely to add than a traditional one, or one just learning the style.

Still another individual or modern element is the large amount of cross-hatching in the design. So much cross-hatching might appear in metal or wood, but from my limited knowledge seems rarer in Nuxalk painting. Perhaps, like many local First Nations artists today, Robinson has been influenced by other traditions of painting, such as the Tsimshian’s, which sometimes uses cross-hatching heavily.

I rate the painting as Robinson’s best to date, and have hung it in the living room, facing “Mother of Mischief” on the opposite the wall. I suspect that, on that fast-approaching day when I have so many paintings and prints that I need to rotate them on my wall, “Nuxalk Box Design: Four Carpenters” will be one of the few than hangs permanently.

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I have written and sometimes published more than my share of free verse. However, whenever I am tired of my professional writing, in which deadlines can be as important as quality, I like to retreat into the restrictions of the sonnet. Its rigid structure makes lingering over the exact word a necessity rather than a luxury, and positively encourages small experiments with words. These days, I don’t write much poetry, but, when I do, the result is almost always a sonnet.

Sonnets betray their origins in Italian with their intricate rhyme schemes. In English, which is far more rhyme-impoverished than Italian, the rhyming alone makes sonnets a challenge.

But the strict rules are not just in the rhymes, nor even the iambic pentameter. By tradition, the sonnet is about a serious subject – usually, but not always love (another sign of their origin, since sonnets played a role in the late Courtly Love tradition). The development of a sonnet is also fixed: the first four lines introduce the subject, the next four lines develop it, and, somewhere in the last six lines, the subject is commented on or given a new perspective. In many forms of the sonnet, the comment begins in or near the ninth line, although in the Shakespearean form, it may not appear until the last two lines, when the discussion is hastily brought to an end, often with a declaration of some sort.

To say the least, this structure can be challenging. You might say that the sonnet is like a bonsai tree, twisted into shapes that it would never have naturally because of the confines of its container. The result can be grotesque, but also surprisingly beautiful, provided that the poet takes the time to learn how to work with the form, rather than against it.

One reason I’m so fond of the sonnet is that the first poem for which I received money was a Spencerian sonnet, heavily influenced by Shelley. It was called “Zephyr,” which is pretty much a warning of the excesses to come. It begins:

With weary steps I plodded across the world,
And watched the moon illume, with waxen wiles,
The far-flung reaches of the golden isles.

Which is sufficiently embarrassing that I can’t bear myself to give the rest. The most I can say is that it shows some understanding of poetic technique, which it slaps about like runny plaster on the wall.

Slightly less embarrassing (so far as a love poem can be unembarrassing) are some of the infatuation-based sonnets I have written over the years, either because of a momentary feeling or in the early stages of a relationship. At times, I have written them as an exercise, with nobody in particular in mind.

For instance, in “Love and the Uncanny,” I equate the early stages of love with a sense of eerieness, shamelessly stealing Shakespeare’s habit of using the same parallel structure over and over again and hastily trying to end things with a killer-couplet – a structure that I’ve always thought close to cheating:

You trouble me with hints of the uncanny —
Like depths of silence where somebody waits,
Like houses flexing every beam and cranny,
Perturbing me with omens and strange fates.
I sense you now, just at the edge of eyes,
Like scurryings through leaves beneath my feet,
Like hunts that bay above me in the skies,
Like lightning just before it unrolls in a sheet.
Like wolves’ wild wailing, drawing down the moon,
Like presences that walk behind the trees —
Around midnight half-seen, half-guessed by noon,
You trail the hush and grace of mysteries.
And all that thrills with awe, awaking fear,
Must pale and fade when ghosts of you appear.

In “The Trackless Land,” I combine the old metaphor of the wasteland with an effort at a modern tone, deliberately breaking up the lines to see what I can get away with:

All maps agree: This is a trackless land
That lacks you. Here, the needle swings in riot,
Each GPS runs antic. Nothing’s scanned,
And, looking round, the horizons disquiet.
Old cartographers doodled monsters here;
I conjure from my footfalls strange pursuits,
Here lurk the hulked regrets and stalking fears,
And I am lost and long strayed from the route.
Departure was definitive, I know.
You stay away, from cowardice or choices,
I come across your camps, sometimes,
And breezes people sleep with dooms and voices.
So why, when doubting binds me like a rope,
Am I perverse, and persevere with hope?

I like to think this is the first Shakespearean sonnet to mention geo-tracking – a tawdry piece of immortality, but my own.

As for “Almost,” I think I had been over-dosing on John Donne, considering the tortured structure of the sentences:

We teeter on the edge of almost, spooked
By love’s allure and possibility,
Both hesitant and forward, self-rebuked,
Our diffidence our disability.
This is the tragedy of old regret,
I brood on you and on my ancient traumas,
And you are taut, long taught by fret,
And so like ghosts, we act our separate dramas.
Still drawn together, by decency kept dumb,
We meet in wit, then warily retreat;
A smile, and we advance to what might come
And then – guess what? Repeat, repeat, repeat.
So we dissemble, learn the art of lies,
Endangering our friendship’s lesser prize.

Other times, I’ve declared my own small rebellions against the sonnet’s traditions, as in “Academic,” which not only isn’t about love, but uses a vampire theme – decidely lowbrow material by the standards of sonnets. I wrote in grad school, punning all the way, while taking a course I thought especially reductionistic:

Come, splay the word and stake it to the page.
No need to fear; we have indulgent priests.
Remember in our light its strength is least –
Seesaw the knife through meat and cartilage.
Who cares how it might cadge, or plead its age?
All of us here have catered to its feasts –
Strike, I say, and when the damned thing is deceased,
Lower it to lie, our blood its hemorrhage.
We will not cross ourselves, nor keep a wake;
Dead’s dead, and needs no eulogy again.
Our undertaking over, in this vein,
This time there’s no inevitable mistake:
No innocent admits the thing again;
There’s nothing, nothing tapping at the pane.

I attempted much the same but with a more editorial tone in “The Kingly Ones,” a comment about how official versions of events are used by those in positions of authority and influence:

The kingly ones who send assassins out
Can order innuendo or abuse
As calmly as from a catalogue, or accuse
Anonymous by cell, and never doubt.
A curbing’s committed; they’re not about,
Kneecapping’s done while they sip morning juice.
No animosity is their excuse,
Everything’s convenience and clout.
Just cross them once, and you’re left with a label,
– The law is theirs, you see, to cut and paste –
Complain, and you’re perverted and unstable,
Persist, and you’ll be lonely and disgraced.
To their bland lusts, we’ve lost our innocence,
Our rapes revised for their expedience.

Looking at these sonnets, I’d say that their main problem is that they don’t quite escape their influences. Even after years, I have no trouble picking out which poets influenced which of these sonnets. In particular, several have a mock-Shakespeare tone, especially in the final couplet.

But, then, none of these were written for official publication. They were written for myself, as opportunities to luxuriate in language for a change. And, in that sense, they have served a useful purpose.

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“We’re all a little older, the air’s a little colder,
Feels like forty lifetimes since we walked upon the moon.”

-OysterBand, “I Know It’s Mine”

If you aren’t old enough to remember the first moon landing, you probably have trouble understanding how much it meant – or much it can sometimes still means to those of us who were.

In 1969, life in the industrialized countries had brought more prosperity to more people than at any time in history. At the same time, there were crippling, disfiguring inequalities and wrongs like the Vietnam War to correct. Some people – the so-called “silent majority” – were in denial about the problems, while the rest of us alternated between an optimism that often spilled over into the naïve and a growing cynical conviction that nothing was going to change. It was a moody time, as exciting as it was scary for those us who were still children and starting to wonder what the world would be like when we were adults.

For me, these conflicted feelings extended to the space program. I had done a school project a few years before about space exploration, and I knew it was nothing like the great adventure that science fiction had been promising us for the past thirty years. It was, after all, popularly called The Space Race, and I knew it was an extension of the nationalism of the Cold War, a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each was determined to prove its ideology the best. I knew, too, that Wernher von Braun was an ex-Nazi, and that NASA was too full of the American militarism that was responsible for Vietnam. As for the astronauts, in public they were bland good soldiers that no amount of PR could ever make into heroes.

All the same, I couldn’t help following the gradual testing of the Apollo systems in the eighteen months before the actual landing. No matter how tarnished, my science fiction dreams were starting to come true. When the crew of Apollo 8, in orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, began reciting Genesis, I had much the same reaction as I’d had at Disneyland – it was at once corny and deeply moving. The gesture captured my imagination despite my recent conclusion that I was an agnostic.

By the time of the actual moon landing, my excitement – and everyone else’s – was almost unbearable. Everywhere I went, people were carrying transistor radios, not listening to music, but to live coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, or at least to discussion of it. People were making lists of firsts that would be accomplished on the mission as though they were achievements unlocked in a video game: First man to land on the moon, first man to orbit the moon alone, and dozens of others, some of them remarkably silly, including first man to leave the moon. Talk shows went on about the possibility that the LEM (which everybody knew was short for “Lunar Excursion Module”) might find itself landing sinking into layers of dust, or what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong might do if they needed suit repairs while walking on the moon, or what Michael Collins felt like, being more isolated than any other human had ever been. Nobody could get enough of the coverage.

Then the actual landing came, and none of the shortcomings of NASA or the woodenness of the astronauts, or Armstrong’s pedestrian first words from the moon could destroy the excitement. Not only were humans taking the fist step out into space, but everyone knew that anyone with a television set or radio was listening in, in a small way a part of the achievement. Suddenly, for all the social problems of the time, being a human being, and a citizen of an industrialized country didn’t seem something to be ashamed of at all. Despite all the efforts of the United States government to convince the world that the moonlanding was an American achievement, we knew it was a human achievement that highlighted the best that was in us.

For the next few days, the celebration continued. Newspapers got out the large typefaces to produce souvenir editions with front pages consisting of a single headline and a few pictures. Airlines offered souvenir vouchers, reserving seats on their first flights to the moon (I kept mine for years).

Somehow – I’m not sure how — by the time of the next moon mission, the excitement had died out, the usual social issues and divisions returned if they had ever really gone away. Yet despite the hype and jingoism surround the event, the days of the moonlanding still lingers in my memory as a significant event.

Like the ending of the World Wars, it was a defining moment that combined the fulfillment of anticipation with genuine achievement and the hope for a better future. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was one of the first major events to receive massive television coverage – but, unlike the Kennedy assassination, it left people in awe rather than horrified disbelief. It was like nothing that has happened since, not even the Falkland War or the two Gulf Wars, and probably can never happen again, given our modern cynicism and knowledge of the media.

How much of it was hype, I couldn’t say. But somehow, the point is academic. For a moment, the moonlanding made those who watched it believe – and that it why so many can’t forget it. Despite its shortcomings, I only wish that we could have a moment like that again.

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The Nu-chu-nulth (formerly known as the Nootka and West Coast) were among the earliest First Nations to have contact with European explorers. Yet today, very few Nu-chu-nulth artists are well-known. I can think of Patrick Amos, Joe David, and Tim Paul, and have to do a web search to come up with any other names. This lack is unfortunate, because, while the Nu-chu-nulth sometimes work in the northern formline tradition, their art also includes at least one other – possibly two — schools of design that are unparallelled anywhere on the Northwest Coast.

For that reason alone, a few months ago when Kelly Robinson recently offered his “West Coast Wild Man” mask for sale, I was happy to add it to the works on the walls of my townhouse. But I was also glad to buy because the mask was not like anything I had ever seen before.

A 2012 graduate of the Freda Diesing School, Robinson has been selling his jewelry to galleries for several years. More recently, at the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, three of his four pieces sold within the first three hours of the show. He is also a skilled painter, and one of his canvases, “Mother of Mischief,” already hangs on my wall.

However, most of Robinson’s work is in the Nuxalk style. He has only occasionally explored the other side of his heritage and worked in the Nu-chu-nulth style, but if “West Coast Wild Man” is any indication, he could have a significant contribution to make to that tradition as well.

There are few references for Nu-chu-nulth stories, no matter what name you search under. I assume that the Nu-chu-nulth wild man has some similarities to the Bukwus of the neighboring Kwakwaka’wakw or possibly the Gagiid of the Haida. All three are often depicted with large hook noses and grimaces, and probably their symbolic taming was a feature of the midwinter dances in all three cultures.

Probably, though, the parallel is not exact. The Bukwus is a dwarf, often conceived as being dead, who tries to tempt the living into eating its ghost food so that he can carry them away. Often,  like the Gagiid, he is said to originate as a shipwrecked voyager.  The Nu-chu-nulth wild man seems to share these characteristics, since the culture often raised memorials of skulls to shipwrecked sailors, but almost certainly some of the other context is missing.

To even a casual observer, Robinson’s mask shows obvious signs of the Nu-chu-nulth style, with the inverted skull dangling below the chin, the straggling hair, and the unusually large eye sockets and relatively small eyes. Whether the hair, which resembles dreadlocks, is also traditional or Robinson’s own innovation, I am uncertain, but either way, the general influence is obvious when you compare the mask to the work of carvers like David or Paul.

However, if you continue the comparison, you will notice something else. If you search on the Internet, you will soon notice that David’s or Paul’s work has an air of historical re-creation. Both artists reach a high level of quality, but their work is little different from that done a century and a half ago in the same tradition.

There is nothing even mildly wrong with this choice, and I look forward someday to having works by both David or Paul around the house to enjoy. But, having trained with some of the leading woodworkers on the coast today at the Freda Diesing School – artists like Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – Robinson is trying to do something more.

Consciously or unconsciously, Robinson is following his teachers, and thinking of his work as fine art. His use of both paint and abalone is restrained, and his wood is finished to modern standards. He also takes full advantage of the grain, shaping it to fit his carving. While obviously based on past Nu-chu-nulth tradition, the result is something that – so far as I am aware – no other Nu-chu-nulth artist has attempted. And what is even more important, Robinson succeeds, producing a work that is both contemporary and not quite like that of any other artist.

This originality – admirable in anyone, but especially so in such a comparatively young artist – is sensed almost immediately by anyone who views the mask. Robinson delivered the mask to me at the opening of the Northern Exposure show, and the first response of each of the half dozen people I showed the mask to responded was a sigh of wonder. “West Coast Wild Man” is an original work of unexpected power, and if Robinson can continue to meet the same high standards in other works, his future as a major artist on the coast seems assured.

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I know it’s rained at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. I’ve stood in the mud many times, worrying what I would do when my last dry layer was soaked. I know, too, that at least twice rainy weekends have almost drowned the Festival in debt. Yet somehow in my mind, when I think of the Festival, the sun is always shining.

But to be exact, I need to expand the image. In my mind, it is early afternoon. A mild breeze is coming off the water. It makes Jericho Park, the home of the Festival for most of the last thirty-five years, looks deeply green, and makes the temperature in the shade several degrees Celsius cooler than in the sun. The young crows are picking at the garbage, so surprised by their luck that they forget to be afraid of humans. Everywhere you look, blankets and elaborate fortifications of chairs, tents, and banners are spread in front of the main stage, reserving spaces for the evening concert.

Overhead are a few wisps of cloud, just enough to keep the worst of the heat away for most of the days. But as the day continues, an increasing number of the crowd are opting for the three stages in the shade, where the risk of sunstroke is lower.

From wherever you are, you can tilt your head in a different direction and catch the strains of whatever is playing at another stage – sometimes, two or three. Very occasionally, you can hear applause or a roar of approval, but not often. The problem isn’t the quality of the musicians, which varies wildly, but has included dozens of superb acts over the year. The problem is that, after the first set or two, most of the crowd are too drowsy in the sun to get excited by anything except the very best.

And everywhere, there are people – people sitting cross-legged on the grass, or stretched out staring up at the sky, people dancing to one side of the stage, and people trudging in long lines along the increasingly dusty footpaths to the next stage, or to grab something to eat in the food corner.

Mostly, the crowd is couples and of European descent, but there are always families and cliques of teenagers, and a scattering of other ethnics as well. Recently, women and men in their late sixties and seventies have also started to become more common — some of them with enough tattoos to forever put to rest the idea that people will regret their tattoos when they’re young. A few of every age are in scooters and wheelchairs – including ex-Vancouver city council radical Tim Louis – because both the site and the Festival are more accessible than almost any other event that claims to be. And weaving through this crowd are volunteers, driving performers and drum sets and bass fiddles to distant stages, or picking up garbage or selling raffle tickets (the ticket sellers, by tradition, in costumes).

Most of the crowd, though, are in T-shirts and shorts, or tank tops and halters and long cotton skirts. A few are in bathing suits (and looking increasingly red and pained as the day continues), and women in elaborate and expensive fantasies of what they imagine the counter-culture must have been – fantasies that seem to owe more than a bit to ElfQuest. Some wear costumes. A few women go bare-breasted, believing themselves in a safe place, and a few men who want to show off the results of their weightlifting do so as well. However, far more have hats, either carried with them or improvised from programs or whatever else is at hand. Many have bare feet, despite the warnings in the program that shoes are advisable.

Or so the gestalt image appears in my mind. In reality, I know that that the Festival is not always The Peaceable Kingdom that its organizers sometimes like to pretend. In the early days, drugs were often obvious (and spot the narc one of the informal games that everyone played). More recently, the addition of a beer garden has created an increased need for security (or so I’m told). There are complaints, too, about the high prices charged for tickets and food, the selection of acts, and just about any other aspect of the Festival that you might name.

But I’m talking about my imagination, and not trying to give a balanced assessment. In my mind’s eye, at the Festival my brain is always slightly sodden with the heat, and the rest of me mildly dehydrated and seeking more fluids. The next day, or maybe the day after, I will be back at work, but that time seems centuries away. For the coming hours, I am relaxed and doing nothing but listening in a way that I rarely manage at any other time, even when on holiday.

Last year, I didn’t feel that way. As I said, it was raining. More importantly, the trip was a pilgrimage in which I remembered being there with my deceased partner. “It’s the nearest thing we have to religion,” she used to say, and, it’s true: although we missed the first two, and one for a vacation and one for a wedding, the years in which we missed the Festival altogether were rare.

But this year, I went alone, not expecting to do more than strike up a few casual conversations, and the magic was back. This year, it was the Festival of my dreams once again, and I know that next year I will be back and it will be a blazing hot summer day.

After all, isn’t it always?

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I first heard about the concept of dormitive explanation in university. Ever since, it’s been one of my basic tools for errors in logic and thinking more clearly.

The concept has been articulated several times in the last few centuries, but, so far as I can tell, the person who named it was system theorist Gregory Bateson. The name comes from Moliére’s play The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac), in which a doctor claims that opium puts people to sleep “because there is a dormitive principle in it.”

In other words, opium puts people to sleeve because it puts people to sleep. When the statement is reworded, the circular cause and effect is obvious, but an essential part of a dormitive explanation is that the circularity is hidden by changing the word being used. Often, as in Moliére’s play, the change in word involves using a word with a Latin word rather than a Germanic one, or, at the very least, a more impressive, mufti-syllabic word. In any case, the effect is to leave the impression that something has been explained when it has only been renamed.
Or, to explain the concept another way, dormitive explanation is a fallacy, an indicator of an illogical argument that the classical Greek and Roman studies of rhetoric somehow missed.

Dormitive explanations rarely exist in the hard sciences, although at first they might appear to. Explanatory principles like “gravity” or “mass” might act like dormitive explanations for the semi-trained – for example, things fall because of gravity, which is the tendency for things to fall – but the fact that they can be used to calculate other behaviors indicates that they are more than circular causality hidden by a change in terminology.
However, on the fringes of science, dormitive explanation becomes more common.. For instance, consciousness is often described as the capacity for self-awareness. Often, words like “syndrome” or “complex” or “effect” are used, so that feelings of inadequacy become “impostor syndrome”with no attempt to classify symptoms systematically.

Similarly, in many New Age philosophies, explanations are give in terms of “energy,” which – since the term obviously does not refer to any sort of energy recognized by physics – amounts to just another name for a dormitive principle.

In some ways, dormitive explanation can become an appeal to authority, either to the authority of the explainer, or to the force or principle evoked as an explanation. For example, if you say that men have evolved to be better at mathematics than women, not only are you suggesting an evolutionary tendency whose existence is unproved, but you are mentioning evolution in the hopes of presenting an argument that others cannot challenge.

In fact, dormitive explanation is all about authority. It makes the person who gives it sound authoritative, and, if accepted, gives listeners a sense that something that concerns them has been explained. In practice, no explanation has been given at all, but unless the listeners can analyze while someone else speaks, they are unlikely to recognize what is happening until later.

Many, of course, never recognize it all, and have no desire to do so. After all, which would you rather do: suffer from joint pain, or have arthritis? The problem is not that arthritis doesn’t exist, but that it is a generic term that covers dozens of different conditions. That means that being told you have arthritis actually does people little good. Yet, having a scientific-sounding name for their condition is reassuring for many people, even if the name does little to suggest treatment or prognosis.

What makes the concept of dormitive explanation so important to me is the fact that it is generally unrecognized and used to assert authority and give false reassurance. By contrast, by being aware of the concept, you can learn to notice it when you encounter it, and reject the lack of logic behind it. The result can be not only clearer thinking, but a clearer sense of what to do next.

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When I was in the first grade, I took speech therapy lessons. I sometimes think that is the single most influential fact in my life.

I had two main problems. First, I pronounced a hard “c” as “t.” For example, I would say “dut” for “duck” and “tind” for “kind.” Second, I spoke so quickly that I often slurred my words.

These two deficiencies were more than just inconveniences. They were major factors in how people regarded me. I’m told that, when I was in kindergarten, some of the parents dismissed me as mentally retarded (to use the term of the times). More than once, I was aware that an adult to whom I was talking didn’t understand me. These deficiencies were also the reason that, in Grade One, I was assigned to the slowest reading group, along with at least one child with Down’s Syndrome, although what relation my speech patterns had to my reading ability eludes me to this day. But they were major reasons to ostracize me, and I knew they meant something was wrong with me, although I didn’t know exactly what.

To correct my problems, my parents started sending me to speech therapy once or twice a week. For a long time, I struggled through the pronunciation drills, feeling increasingly inadequate, since it was obvious that I wasn’t giving the right response. Being poster-boy for that year’s March of Dimes campaign, pretending to be deaf, helped a little, but even that, I realized, was not an unalloyed honor.

Then, one day, I managed to make the hard “c” sound. Over the next few months, I learned to make it consistently where I needed to. I also learned to pronounce more clearly in general. Slowing my speech down, however, was a lost cause – decades later, I still speak too fast unless I make a deliberate effort.

To say that this experience changed my life is an understatement. Now people understood me, I was soon in the most advanced reading group. Before long, I was leaving most of my class mates behind.

But the experience also affected me in other ways. Having listened on head phones to my own endless efforts to pronounce words correctly, to this day, hearing my own voice makes me remember feeling like a failure, to the point that I wince at the sound. I dislike being judged and tested as well, knowing how fallible those doing the judging can be. And I still speak with a deliberateness that makes me sound far more serious than I am, and that many people – at least in North America – mistake for an English accent.

More significantly, I was left with an unshakeable sympathy for those who are easily dismissed the same way that I was. My social and political feelings, as well as my feminism, come directly from the sense of injustice I automatically feel when I see someone who has been judged less than mainstream. Nor can I ever feel comfortable being part of an elite, knowing how superficial the membership requirements can be.

Even more importantly, I became obsessed with language. My reading ability, which had always been advanced for my age, improved so dramatically that, by the time I was awarded a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for the best student in my first grade class, it seemed too juvenile for me (I only learned to appreciate it as an adult). That summer, I read the entire Hardy Boys series. By the time I started Grade Two, I was reading translations of The Three Musketeers, and my mother was worried what I might come across in my readings.

Meanwhile, on the side, I was starting my own first efforts at writing. Borrowing a few ideas from my father, I wrote a long story about discovering a prehistoric world inside the local mountains.

Another early effort involved a pack of wild dogs that were being rounded up evil men in a van. I was especially proud of the fact that, while I understood that the dogs couldn’t read the entire license plate on the van, I had the canine protagonist remember the last few digits, which seemed much more probable to me.

Such efforts led me to teaching English, and eventually to publishing manuals, articles, stories, and poems. In a very direct sense, speech therapy gave me my vocation.

But, just as importantly, speech therapy gave me my personal myth. It gave me a narrative of starting from behind, and then succeeding through persistence. At an early age, it taught me to endure and to keep trying, and to ignore the opinions of the skeptical as I worked towards my chosen goals. Perhaps, it even gave me an early orientation to goals.

I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t needed speech therapy. Would I be a political lefitst? Place the same value on endurance? Be a writer? I might have still been and done all these things, but not, I suspect, as strongly. If I had had things easier, then probably I would be a much milder, more innocent person than I am today, even if my general tendencies remained the same.

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To my bemusement, I realized recently that over a third of the articles I do in a month are opinion pieces. Back in 2004, when I first started full-time journalism, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. I believed then that I had no talent for editorials, and the thought of doing one intimidated me so much that I barely knew how to begin.

My background as an academic and a technical writer had a lot to do with that belief. Ask me to summarize or quote accurately in an news story or interview, and I could draw on my experience writing academic papers. Ask me to write an accurate how-to, and I could depend on my experience writing manuals and tutorials. Even a review didn’t seem impossible, because, while it gave an opinion and was shaped by an opinion, the opinion was based on clear facts.

But a commentary on free software-related events? That left me much more exposed. I had only been involved in the community for a few years, and I was all too aware that dozens of people –maybe hundreds or thousands – had more experience than me. So why would anyone be interested in my opinion? I’d be shredded as soon as I opened my mouth.

Besides, years in a university English department had conditioned me to avoid giving a firm opinion whenever possible. I had got used to softening my opinions with words like “almost” or “seems” to lessen the possibility of an attack.

Fortunately, writing at Linux.com and hanging out on its IRC channel every day, I had some strong role models. The late Joe Barr was the master of the attack piece – of angry diatribes full of sarcasm and humor, the kind that is read less for insight than for entertainment, like a review of a play by Dorothy Parker (“And then, believe it or not, things get worse. So I shot myself.”). By contrast, Robin “roblimo” Miller, the senior editor could write editorials just as forceful, but milder in tone and more thoughtful.

These models were important to me, because, when I came to write my first opinion pieces, I had some idea of what I could manage. While I admired Joe Barr’s expression of anger, I knew there was no way that I could match it for more than a sentence or two. I would have to assume a persona that was mostly foreign to me, and would feel foreign – maybe dishonest – to me.

By contrast, my academic background made the thoughtful editorial seem a more attainable goal. While writing academic papers, I had discovered I had a knack for getting to the core of a matter and stripping away irrelevancies. I knew how to anticipate opposing views, and disarm them by answering them before anyone else could make them. I knew that, even if I didn’t always respect opposing views, reporting them fairly made me appear to do, and that the effort improved my own argument. I might still shoot off the occasional one-liner caked in sarcasm, but, most of the time, I had a better chance of managing a thoughtful tone rather than an outraged and witty one.

What I didn’t anticipate was how my style would add to my voice. My model for style was George Orwell, with clarity and simplicity my main goals. In particular, I got into the habit of ruthlessly deleting all the qualifiers that academia had taught me to use to soften my opinions. Add a tone that is partly a reflection of my own speech-therapy influenced conversation and partly the influence of Orwell’s very English tone, and the result is that I come across as more forceful than I initially realized.

This combination of habits and tone meant that, as I ventured into writing opinion pieces, I had a more distinctive result than I realized at first. Not everyone liked it, of course: to this day, I still have critics who claim that my ability to look at all sides of a discussion mean that I will write anything, even for shock value (not true; although I do sometimes write to explore the possibility of an idea). Others find my tone patronizing (usually when they disagree with me). At times, too, I have been called disloyal to free software, or worse.

I can see where these views originate, so I don’t feel much need to argue against them, except to say that they have as much to do with readers’ expectations as anything I actually do.

At any rate, over the years, I have grown much more accustomed to hostile responses than I was when I started writing opinion pieces. If people disagree with me (or with what they think I am saying), they are at least reading me, which means that editors will pay for my opinions.

As for myself, I’m content to express an opinion that I either hold or am considering. So long as I can do one of these two things as thoroughly as possible, writing an opinion piece has long ago lost its terror to me. I sometimes need half a draft to know just what my opinion on a subject happens to be, but opinion pieces have long since settled into being a familiar part of my repertoire.

At times, I can even imagine that I have a talent for them. When Carla Schroder tweeted, “Bruce Byfield writes calm, thoughtful, lengthy articles that somehow ignite mad passions and flame wars,” I couldn’t have been more satisfied. That is exactly what an opinion piece should be and do, and someone, at least, was saying that I was succeeding in doing exactly what I was trying to do.

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