Archive for August, 2012

As a recovering English major, I was trained to be a snob. Strangely, that training means that I’m only mildly abashed to confess an addiction to graphic novel series. After all, when you read George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, you don’t worry much about what anyone thinks about your choice of reading – although I do have a lingering reluctance to be seen reading comics on the bus.

Still, graphic novels fascinate me. They are their own genre, with their own conventions. As a form of storytelling, they’re somewhere between a short story and a TV script. At their best, they have an elegant economy of expression unlike any other form.

However, very few of the graphic novels I read involve superheroes. When they do, the treatment is decidely wonky, often commenting on the whole superhero tradition. More often, they have fantasy elements woven together with strong sense of realism. All the series, too, have a definite end, which opens up more storytelling possibilities than the regular superhero series that go on forever with an occasional reboot that changes almost nothing.

So what series do I read and re-read? Here are the top ten:

1. The Books / Names / Age/ of Magic: Created by Neil Gaiman, these series tell the story of Tim Hunter, a London teenager destined to become the world’s greatest magician. But magic only complicates all the usual problems of adolescence, not least of which is staying on good terms with his girlfriend Molly. The series carries Tim through the first discovery of his powers, his uneasy denial of his destiny, the loss of his family, his search for his true parents, and his university years, ending with him at the threshold of adulthood. The invention in the series sometimes flags, depending on the writer, but the general quality remain high. My only complaint is more than half of Tim’s story is uncollected.

2, The Boys: What would superheroes really be like? According to Garth Ennis, they’d be corrupted by their power, and some of them would need to assassinated. Hence The Boys, a secret CIA-backed team devoted to seeing that justice is done for the rest of us. Violent, x-rated, hilarious, and ultimately humanistic, the result is a wry debunking of comic conventions, including thinly disguised versions of the X Men and the Justice League of America.

3, Cerebus the Aardvark: This self-published comic began as a sendup of fantasy novels, with characters such as the teenybopper Red Sophia, The Cockroach (a version of Batman) and a version of Elric of Melnibone who talks like Foghorn Leghorn, with a version of Groucho Marx thrown in for good measure. The series reached its heights in the High Society story line, then slowly declined into a combination of self-indulgence and anti-feminist rants that were decidedly unfunny and virtually unreadable (and which I didn’t keep).

4. Fables (and Jack of the Tales): The characters of fairy tales and children’s fantasy are real and living in New York, their homes having been conquered by a mysterious figure known only as the adversary. Characters include Snow White, now a civic executive, Bigby Wolf, the reformed Big Bad Wolf, and Jack of the Tales (the same Jack who was involved with the beanstalk), a trickster who eventually got a meta-series of his own. If the TV series Once Upon a Time and Grimm havent settled with creator Bill Willingham, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they acknowledge their sources.

5. Hellblazer: Originally introduced in Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a small-time magician who is always getting in over his head in the affairs of heaven and hell, as well as any other supernatural beings that happen by. The series has its ups and downs, and sometimes includes too much of Constantine feeling sorry for himself because most of his friends are dead, but there’s always an anarchist sensibility that makes it unique. Moreover, when writers like Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis are with the series, it reaches some extraordinary heights – in Garth Ennis’ case, sometimes without any fantasy at all.

6. Hitman: Tommy Monaghan is a New York Irish boy who comes across as a nice boy – except those who object to his profession as a hired gun. Although equipped with mildly superheroic powers – telepathy and xray vision – mostly he forgets his abilities and responds by shooting. For instance, how to handle a vampire? Answer: shoot their legs out from under them, then repeat as necessary until sunrise. Like most of Garth Ennis’ works, the series is comic and irreverent, with Monaghan using Batman for a straight man and making a fool of Green Lantern. However, the series becomes increasingly darker as his family and professional friends die violently one at a time, and Monaghan struggles to leave his profession to do something worthwhile.

7. Lucifer: In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Lucifer walks away from his position in hell to live a private life as a nightclub owner. But in Mike Carey’s continuation, that’s only the beginning, as Lucifer gets involved in celestial politics and a truly creative assortment of characters and situations, and even finds love. Sarcastic and as proud as ever, he learns gradually that autonmy is far more important to him than replacing God.

8. Preacher: A young minister becomes linked to a being half-angelic and half-demonic, then sets out to hold God accountable for abandoning his creation. His sidekicks include his pistol-wielding girlfriend and a vampire with the taste for the low life. Many of Garth Ennis’ favorite preoccupations are visible in the series, including the friendships of men of action, but the series ends with the namesake character realizing that he has to change his macho ways if he wants to settle down with his girlfriend.

9. Sandman: Neil Gaiman’s now-classic series remains an exercise in different forms of storytelling, as well as the new cosmology of The Endless, seven anthropormorphic beings who control the basic powers of the universe. Through stories that range from horror to comedy, and from ancient times to modern, the title character Dream learns the inevitability of change, and how it affects his life. The series also shows Gaiman perfecting his craft as a writer as he mixes history and mythology with his own bits of fantasy.

10. Strangers in Paradise: Few comics could be farther from the superheroes tradition than Strangers in Paradise. The series features two women who are gradually falling in love, complicated by one’s determination to live the hetrosexual dream life in the suburbs and the other’s hidden past and attraction to a doomed young male artist. Sometimes melodramatic, the series is at its best when depicting daily life and the comic interactions between its large cast. A major feature of the series is the numerous fantasy interludes, many of which are pastiche tributes to well known comics artists.

These are not the only graphic novel series that I read. Ask in a couple of months, for instance, I suspect that I will want to add to the list Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, the story of a family trying to escape the events of the past while confronting the eerie ones in the family home. I am looking forward, too, to Sydney Paduas’ first volume of her online comic, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which I hope will be the first of many. With any luck enough series will continue to be published that I can continue subverting my literary training all the days of my life.

Read Full Post »

I never have learned how to accept compliments gracefully. With insults, I know where I”m at; self-defense kicks in and I turn icily cold and dryly cutting. But one enthusiastic word, even from a lover, and a blush warms my cheeks and I start to stammer.

Part of my difficulty is that compliments are rarely delivered at the time of whatever they are praising. Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to some other project. I’m no longer engaged by whatever is being complimented, so much so that it could almost have been done by someone else.

That is especially true when someone compliments a piece of my writing. The facts that I crammed into my short-term memory and the arguments to structure them are no longer there, having been nudged aside by the facts and arguments for the next piece that I’m doing. I imagine that writers on tour to promote a book they finished a year ago must feel the same way.

Another part of my difficulty is that I am convinced that compliments are not healthy for me. I know that those delivering the compliment are being enthusiastic or polite, but part of me regards their kind words as the equivalent of a plate of cinnamon buns that’s being pushed under my nose – however enticing, the compliments seem unhealthy, like far too much of a good thing.

But the main reason I squirm is because of a bit of my own hypocrisy. From all my childhood heroes from King Arthur to Robin Hood, I’ve learned that modesty about my own accomplishments is a virtue (an attitude that makes my years as a marketing consultant more than a little inexplicable).

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help hoping that someone is noticing those accomplishments. Receiving a compliment forces me to confront this contradiction – and, since I am even poorer at lying to myself than I am at receiving a compliment, the whole experience leaves me in confusion.

While part of me thinks that I shouldn’t enjoy the compliment, another part of me is secretly wallowing in delight. Since the two impulses are completely irreconcilable, what I really want to do is make my escape as quickly as possible.

Tell me that learning to accept compliments is part of being an adult, and I would agree with you. But in practice, I’ve never achieved complacency. The best I can manage is a “Thank you” that would rival the Duke of Wellington for curtness, followed by a quick change of subject.

Read Full Post »

Generally, I limit the time I spend responding to negative comments about the articles I write. For one thing, by the time an article is published – even on the web – I’m already thinking about the next piece I want to write.

For another, such discussions tend to be endless. There’s usually little common ground in our basic assumptions and motivations, so if I leaped into the discussions the way I’m sometimes tempted to, I wouldn’t meet my next deadlines. Generally, if I respond at all, I limit myself to two emails, then leave the discussion. Personal attacks may sometimes sting, but I don’t feel any overpowering need to verbally pummel anyone else to the ground.

Besides, over the years, I’ve heard the same comments so many times that they bore me. However, if I were to respond to the most common negative comments that I receive, here’s what I would say:

1. “You’re wrong!”: Disagreeing with you is not automatically wrong or evil. If you see a factual error, by all means mention it, especially if it is part of a logical chain of thought that falls apart without it. But general issues, with multiple aspects and causes are a matter of interpretation, and you don’t disprove a viewpoint simply by condemning it.

2. “This is garbage!”: In all humility, probably not. While editors have schedules to meet, they are rarely going to publish anything that is not competently written and argued. Most of the times, calling something worthless only shows that you don’t understand the distinction between your opinion and intrinsic standards of argument and writing.

3. “You’re a troll!”: A troll is not just somebody who expresses an opinion with which you disagree. Unlike a typical troll, a journalist is not anonymous. A journalist may respond to readers’ comments, but they have no particular interest in controversy, because the time they spend responding is time they could be writing something for which they can be paid. Moreover, unlike a troll, if a journalist wants to continue working, their statements need to have some tenuous connection to fact.

4. “You’re just saying that to get page views”: Sorry, you’re confusing me with an editor. Past page views may determine whether an editor will accept a story on a particular topic. Otherwise, though, what a journalist wants is a story that interests them long enough to write it.

5. “That’s an opinion!”: Opinion pieces have a long tradition in journalism. Often, they are called columns or blogs. Generally, opinion pieces have a lower standard of evidence because they are talking about more abstract things than a news story, such as trends or impressions.

6. “I’ll complain to the editor!”: Unless you can prove that a piece is libelous – that is, false and deliberately meant to harm – don’t bother. The expression of an opinion with which you disagree is not libelous. Anyway, if an editor continues to publish articles expressing an opinion you dislike, chances are that for everyone who objects to the opinion, there’s one or two people expressing approval of it.

7. “That story makes them money”: Actually, in modern journalism, content is almost completely divorced from profit. Ads, not content, is what makes money in modern journalism. In theory, you could threaten to boycott an advertiser, but in practice you would need a lot of agreement to persuade a company to pull its ads from a particular site or magazine.

8. “I’m going to write an article to get the truth out”: Good luck with that. Besides strong writing skills, you need to understand the ethics of what you are doing, and show a willingness to work with editors by being on time and accepting corrections and suggestions. You also have to find an editor who needs more contributors and can afford to pay them. I’m not saying that you won’t succeed, but I will say that if writing were as easy as many people imagine, far more people would be doing it for a living. In the free software field, for example, no more than a dozen people manage the trick.

9. “You’ve got a vendetta!”: Some journalists occasionally do, but most couldn’t be bothered. For the most part, their interest lies in reporting what people are thinking, or what they should know. They may pursue a story if they perceive untrustworthiness or a lack of response, but, believe it or not, most journalists see themselves as pursuing the truth. Getting personal doesn’t fit with their self-image or their busy schedules.

10. “You”re lying!”: Get serious. Do you honestly believe that someone who publishes several articles a week could get away with outright lies? They would be unemployed in a matter of days. The statements you object to may be inaccurate, or, more likely, based on a different interpretation of events from yours, that’s all.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard that Richard Stallman has a number of Emac macros available at a keystroke so that he can make a standard argument without having to type it out again. I suppose this blog entry is a rough equivalent. So, in future, if anyone gets a message from me with this URL followed by a #5 or #9 or whatever, they’ll know that I’ve heard what they’re saying before.

But, then again, I’ll probably be too busy to do even that much. I’ve heard rumors that, beyond the keyboard there’s something called life, and I’d rather explore that spend my days satisfying people who only want an argument.

Read Full Post »

George Gordon Noel Byron, better known to literature as Lord Byron, has always presented a problem for me. On the one hand, he is the writer of some of the most magnificent poetry and wry comic verse in the English language, and a champion of social reform and political liberty. On the other hand, he was a braggart and a libertine, and may have been a rapist, abuser, and harasser as well – hardly the sort of person that I’d care to admire.

My ambiguity is not helped by the fact that Byron’s biographers tend to believe whatever they want. At one extreme are those who believe that Byron committed incest with his half-sister, raped his wife, and was guilty of all the other crimes heaped upon his name. This outlook is supported by numerous vague yet suggestive hints from Byron himself.

At the other extreme are those who believe that all the allegations against him are the result of a combination of rumors and his own boasting and exaggeration, as well as his deliberate cultivation of a rakish reputation during some periods of his life. Stung by real or imagined tales of his behavior, Byron liked to present himself as someone who stood outside conventional morality – a pose that only makes him appear even more immoral than ever.

One of the problems I have in trying to decide between these two different portraits is that Byron was a passionate and demonstrative man in a passionate and demonstrative age. The generation that followed his was neither, and today we are still far closer in spirit to that generation than Byron’s. A frank and flowery phrase that seems to us proof of his unnatural fondness for his half-sister Augusta or of active bisexuality (not a crime to us, of course, but certainly to his contemporaries) might be no more than the normal discourse of the times, especially coming from a man who postured as a poet as often as he actually proved he was one.

Another problem in trying to decide what view of Byron to take is that both extremes sometimes take evidence from the same events. For example, those who see Bryon as a sexual sociopath take the fact that Byron’s friends destroyed his autobiography as proof that it included confessions of immorality and criminal activity. By contrast, those who believe Byron to be the victim of his own posturing insist that the autobiography was simply more of the same, with exaggerations and fantasies that his friends either believed themselves or were sure that others would. Since the autobiography no longer exists, either interpretation might fit the facts.

Similarly, how much credibility should be given to those who testify to his depravity and cruelty? The jilted, erratic Lady Caroline Lamb is far from the most reliable of witnesses. If Byron himself was unstable, she seems even more so. She seems to have been capable of saying or doing anything, yet what she knew of Byron might have been shocking even by her easy-going standards.

An even more problematic figure is Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron. Extremely sheltered before her marriage, how would she have known what sodomy and incest were, unless she had experienced or witnessed them? Or did the sexually active Lady Caroline Lamb coach her? Did she exaggerate because she needed a strong case for separation under the laws of her time? If so, why would her accusations be so lurid and potentially damaging to herself as well as Byron unless they were basically true?

Even the fact that she tried to raise their daughter to be free of what she considered the strain of madness in the Byrons is difficult to judge. Was Byron simply too eccentric for her limited experience and imagination to understand? She seems to have suffered mental and verbal abuse, yet her lifelong obsession with Byron even after their separation suggests she was no less unstable than him. It is hard to imagine anyone spending their lifetime justifying themselves, yet that is exactly what Lady Byron seems to have done.

In the end, the evidence is inconclusive on both sides. Writers about Byron simply see in him what they choose. The sexually neurotic accept all accusations as true, although, were that so, Byron would have had little time for the other parts of his busy life. The hero-worshipers find reasons to excuse him, because of the political sentiments he expressed and his death while fighting for Greek independence – as though his life could be neatly divided into good and bad karma and a final score provided.

Only rarely does anyone consider that both viewpoints might be true, or at least have aspects of the truth – or, rarer still, that all the posthumous gossip has little to do with the worth of his poetry. In the end, Byron remains a figure who is impossible to ignore, but also one who is impossible to define.

Read Full Post »

As a current director of the YVR Art Foundation, I first saw the work of Coast Salish artist Cody LeCoy as part of his successful scholarship applications in 2011 and 2012. I was immediately struck by his impressionistic technique and surreal composition, as well as the thickness of the acrylic paint on his canvases. Buying one of his works was only a matter of waiting for the right canvas. The canvas turned out to be “Ridicule Mask,” which was hanging in the Lattimer Gallery.

Like the potlatch, the ridicule mask is one of the unique customs of many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest. When someone of high rank behaved improperly – for instance, by destroying goods in a display of pride and greed instead of distributing them – a ridicule mask would be displayed until they made retribution.

Often, ridicule masks show a half-ruined face, referring to a story of one chieftain who, in destroying oolichan grease – a form of wealth – in an effort to outdo rivals, badly burned himself. His injuries are considered a just punishment for his boastfulness and pride.

Modern first nations artists have often used the concept of the ridicule mask creatively. For example, several years ago in the Continuum exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery, Mike Dangeli presented a ridicule mask whose subject was the treatment of the first nations by modern society.

However, LeCoy’s painting is more personal. Asked to comment on the painting, he emailed back that the painting was about “the idea of wealth coming from what is given away rather than what is hoarded. The main theme of the painting is awareness of one’s self to know the value of gifting, and to recognize thoughts and behaviors within – hopefully before others catch on – where greed can lurk around the corner.”

In other words, LeCoy makes the ridicule mask a private warning to avoid greed, instead of the traditional public shaming – a re-interpretation, perhaps, that highlights one of the differences between traditional and modern ways of life.

The split between ideal and incorrect behavior is seen throughout “Ridicule Mask.” On the left are unbalanced faces, divided vertically and horizontally. But where on a traditional mask, the division would be clearly defined, on canvas LeCoy can have them overlap, which makes their relationship even more psychologically ominous. In the middle are images of traditional ceremonies – specifically, the potlatch – which was the traditional mechanism for spreading wealth among the community and preventing hoarding by offering status and respect in return for generosity. The canvas ends on the right with an old growth tree that towers above the other figures, contrasting with the ridicule mask faces on the left and suggesting that the sharing of talents is what is natural.

These figures are reinforced by the mixed palette, which LeCoy describes as a mixture of “stagnancy and rejuvenation.” The stagnant colors, he writes, “represent the decay of something that is hoarded for one’s self. The original vitality of something (an object, an idea) goes stale if [it is only used] as a means of personal gain.” By contrast, the images of the potlatch are more brightly colored, and sky beside the tree is blue. However, in all sections of the painting, the colors are mixed, the bright colors highlighting the stagnant colors on the left, and darker colors creeping in between the color images in the rest of the canvas, as though to suggest that the two opposites are never far apart and, perhaps, only exist in relation to each other.

At twenty-three, LeCoy is still a young artist. For this reason, it is possible to see the influences of other artists in his work. Several people with whom I have discussed “Ridicule Mask” suggest that its surrealism is the influence of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, LeCoy’s mentor for his YVR Art Foundation Scholarships. Similarly, the tree on the right is strongly reminiscent of Emily Carr.

Yet if such influences are visible, they are combined with elements that are LeCoy’s own. The crowded canvas is saved from chaos by solid composition; mentally subtract the raven mask in the top center, for example, and the entire painting falls apart. Similarly, in the brush work with its mixture of colors and thickness of paint, LeCoy creates a sense of restlessness and variety that gives his work an originality that proves that he is an artist to watch.

I look forward to watching LeCoy’s talents develop. I suspect that, while “Ridicule Mask” is the first painting of his that I’ve bought, it won’t be the last.

Read Full Post »

“Yes means yes, and no means no – whatever we wear, wherever we go!”

These words have been chanted by feminists and their allies for decades. I’ve never doubted they described the way things should be, but I sometimes wondered if they described the way things are.

In other words, does the way a woman dress affect her chances of facing sexual or street harassment? A researched answer proved surprisingly hard to find.

Anecdotal evidence seems to support the feminist viewpoint. If you look, for example, at maps of reported incidents of street harassment, you sometimes find annotations about what women were wearing. Often, the women doing the reporting note that they were dressed in a sweat suit or a T-shirt and jeans. At times, they sound surprised, as though they expected to be untroubled in such clothes.

If they were surprised, they would hardly be alone. A web search quickly locates studies that show that a majority of both men and women believe a woman is in greater danger of harassment if she is wearing revealing clothing. In some countries, this belief can be strengthened by the association of such clothing with Western decadence and immorality, but it seems a world-wide assumption that few people care to examine.

But is the assumption true? That is harder to answer, although perhaps it would be easier if more academic research was open access. Probably not, however, given that few search results even sound as though they are relevant to the question, regardless of whether they are freely available for reading.

In fact, after searching for half an hour, I found only one accessible, relevant paper: Theresa M. Beiner’s “Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play a Part in Sexual Harassment Cases?” There may be more, but it is well-worth summarizing (and reading in full if you’ve followed me this far).

Beiner begins by noting that American rules of evidence prohibit discussing how a woman dresses or acts in sexual harassment cases unless its use outweighs the danger of harm to the victim or is likely to incite prejudice. That may not sound very satisfactory, but, in practice, this means that such evidence is almost never introduced.

The two exceptions Beiner notes are extremes: in one, a victim wore a sign implying she would give blow jobs, and encouraged men to leave impressions of their hands in paint upon her back and buttocks, and, in another, a woman offered private lingerie displays. However, according to Beiner, “even in cases in which the evidence of the target’s dress was admitted, its impact was minimal in persuading trial judges that the plaintiff welcomed the harassment.”

What these practices suggest is that the American legal system (which is hardly a center of radicalism) is generally unconvinced that how a woman dresses or acts is relevant to sexual harassment – and, after all, those with experience with such cases should have a better idea than the majority of us.

However, the most interesting part of Beiner’s article is the last third. There, Beiner establishes a reason to believe that rapists and sexual harassers are on a continuum of behavior and personality, and turns to studies of rapists for insight into harassers.

According to the studies that Beiner cites, what rapists look for in victims is not revealing clothing at all. Instead, “rapists look for signs of passiveness and submissiveness.” Furthermore, not only can men accurately detect passiveness and submissiveness, but tend to regard attractive women as less submissive – and, while attraction is not synonymous with any particular style of dress, the two do have some connection. It might even be that revealingly dressed women intimidate rapists and harassers.

By contrast, passiveness and submissiveness, “studies suggest, are more likely to coincide with more body-concealing clothing.” Sexual harassment, she suggests, “appears to be triggered by power imbalances – the kind of imbalances that might well be triggered by target submissiveness.”

In other words, so far as clothing plays any role in who is targeted, it might actually be that concealing clothing is more dangerous.

As for why people are so quick to believe the opposite, Beiner offers two possible reasons. Both men and women, she says, may want to believe in a just world, where nothing happens to someone unless they deserve it. Possibly, too, they want to blame the victims so they can sustain an illusion of control. They would prefer to believe that if they don’t do certain things or go to certain areas, they will be safe.

“Sexy Dressing” is not definitive, but it does provide a logical argument about who is likely to be harassed. I’d need more convincing that concealing clothing might be dangerous, but, thanks to Beiner, I’m reasonably confident that revealing clothing is not a factor in harassment.

Read Full Post »

I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

Read Full Post »

“I tell them to thing of the play, and not of the fame,
‘Cuz if they have any future at all, it’s not in the game,
‘Cuz they’ll be crippled and starting all over again,
Selling on commission, remembering when they were flying,
Remembering dying.”

-Stan Rogers, “Flying”

The Olympics are always a wistful time for me. I never watch them, but I remember that I might have competed in them myself, if I had chosen not to accept my limits.

That’s not fantasy or boasting, either. I used to train with one or two young men a few years older than me, and they qualified. So, with more dedication, I might have managed the same. But probably I’d have been lucky to be a finalist. I never would have won a medal, which was the whole problem.

From Grade Eight to my second year of university, competing in cross-country races and long distance track events was a major part of my life. In those years, I averaged seventy to ninety miles a week. Often, I’d train by doing half mile intervals up 17th Street in West Vancouver, or along the seawall at Ambleside Park. My summers were marked by track meets, and my autumns by road races.

And in my age group and distance, I was a standout. My legs are too short for me to compete successfully over 800 meters, but at 1500 meters and above, I won my share of gold medals and cross-country championships. I also set several records that stood for a few years. At high school, I was known for running, so much so that, decades later, that is what many people remembered me for.

Quite literally, I was a front-runner. I would take the lead early in a race, and keep it. As a tactic, this habit lacked a certain variety, but it was psychologically effective. Other runners thought it so natural for me to be in front that once I won a cross-country race with the ‘flu. My time was slow, but nobody thought to challenge my lead – although if anyone had, I wouldn’t have been able to defend it.

But that was high school. At university, running was an altogether more serious matter. In high school, I had usually trained alone, and my coach, not seeing any reason to argue with success, was content to let me do so. But, at university, I was under pressure to train with the team. More – I was expected to support the other jocks and do things like paint banners to display on campus. Since I was commuting by bus several hours a day, I had trouble meeting those expectations.

Even more importantly, for the first time in my running career, I was at a disadvantage. Not only was I suddenly competing against fully-grown men, but I was still recovering from smashing my knee into a steeplechase hurdle. Suddenly, I was no longer the star.

I soon realized that I would have to make a choice. I could focus on running, cutting down my classes and taking up weights and cross-training, spend some time in physio to strengthen my damaged knee, and make training a more regimented and even larger part of my life.

Or I could drop out of athletics altogether. In the circles in which I was moving, there were no places for casual athletes.

Eventually, I realized the obvious: I was good, and with proper training I might become very good. But I wasn’t great, and I never would be.

The realization troubled me, but the choice was clear. If I put in the kind of time I would need to remain a serious competitor, I would spend years in which my life was defined by competition, and, in the end, have little to show for my efforts. It wasn’t that I needed to win at all costs, so much as I recognized that the effort simply would not have been worth the results.

This was one of my first realizations of my limitations, and for about eight months I struggled against the unavoidable logic. I didn’t have any moment of realization – it was more a matter of priorities – but at the end of one spring semester, I cleaned out my locker in the gym and knew that I wouldn’t be coming back. At that point, I had drifted so far away from the running team that I didn’t even have anyone to say good-bye to.

Almost immediately, my knee improved and running became fun again. For years, I logged the sort of mileage that I had done while in training. But gradually I eased off, and now I do as much swimming, cycling, and walking as I do running in an effort to preserve my creaking knees. And it’s been years since I exercised with a stop-watch.

Looking back, I am confident that I made the right choice. Still, every now and then, I hear news about long distance running. Then I regret the necessity of my choice, and grow nostalgic for things that never happened.

Read Full Post »