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Archive for September, 2012

Over the last few months, I’ve been enjoying Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on YouTube. This series of short videos identifies female stereotypes, explaining why they are offensive, in general with intelligence, insight, and clear language. On the whole, I find myself agreeing with Sarkeesian, but her “Straw Feminists” episode is an exception. In fact, the episode seems a cautionary tale about how even experienced critics can sometimes have an off day when they take a critical stance at the expense of what is actually happening.

Much of “Straw Feminists” is to the point, with examples from Powerpuff Girls, Rugrats, and other popular shows. However, when she added a mystery on the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars to her examples, I began to have some doubts. I hadn’t watched the series for a while, but Sarkeesian’s analysis didn’t match my memories except in the broadest outlines.

Sarkeesian was talking about the first nine episodes of the season, in which the title character hunts a rapist at large on her college campus. The episodes’ cast includes the women of Lilith House, feminists who are using the rapes in their efforts to shut down the misogynistic fraternity houses. During the course of the mystery, the Lilith House members are founded to be less than scrupulous in their campaign, faking a rape and egging the dean’s car and office when he overturns a motion to eliminate fraternities on campus.

According to Sarkeesian, this portrayal shows the college feminists as villains and militant revolutionaries – as “irrational, pig-headed man-haters.” She also implies that the series is careful to separate feminism from the strong female lead, and considers the faked rape as taking the portrayal to an “obscene level.”

All this sounds irretrievably damning. The only problem is, when I watched the story arc over several nights to refresh my memory, for the most part that wasn’t what was happening at all.

To start with, the story does a much better job of portraying genuine feminist concerns than the summary implies. As Sarkeesian herself admits, the feminists’ demands, such as a safe ride program and a campus code of conduct are all reasonable ones. Moreover, while the feminists have a grudge against the fraternity, they never voice any of the anti-male sentiments that are characteristic of true straw feminists.

Nor is the title character distanced from the feminists. The first time she talks to one, she is open and friendly, and just as eager to topple the Greek system as they are. Later, although disillusionment with Lilith House provokes a few comments at their expense, she herself voices feminist sentiments, mentioning in voice overs “the male gaze” and commenting when the local sheriff refuses to take the situation seriously, “rape humor – it never gets old.”

In addition, although Lilith House’s inhabitants may be “hypocrites,” Veronica is quick to help promote their distribution of coasters to detect date-rape drugs in drinks. She is more skeptical about the effectiveness of distributing rape whistles – yet it is a whistle that leads to her rescue when she is held drugged and captive by the rapists. You might even say that, if not for feminism, the rapists would never have been discovered.

True, the feminists on the show are not presented as ideals. Yet they compare favorably with the rival fraternity. Fraternity members are shown mooning passers-by, acting out mock-rapes, engaging in sexual contests and deliberately undercutting anti-rape measures. Veronica describes one of them as “repugnant,” and, in the last episode of the mystery, asks the fraternity leader in tones of disgust, “How do you live with yourself?”

The fraternity’s behavior is never explored, although it is implied that one of them is suffering from the death of his brother and the tax-evasion of his father at the end of the previous season. For the most part, though, the fraternity members are presented simply as spoiled rich boys, and no other motivation is thought necessary. By contrast, the behavior of the feminists is attributed directly to the tensions on campus left by the string of rapes.

Even the faked rape, while suggestive of misogynist’s claims, is given a motivation. We don’t know how many of the 2-8% of rape claims that prove to be false are deliberate rather than mistaken, and no clear idea of what the motivations for deliberate false claims might be. However, from a fictional viewpoint, watching a friend commit suicide after being harassed is surely enough motivation for just about anything. The weakness in the story is that this motivation is not discovered until two episodes after the false rape is.

Admittedly, there is one plot element that proves stereotypical – but that is the anal rape and assault of the fraternity’s leader. In contrast to the sympathy given female rapes in the storyline, his rape is treated as a joke by both the fraternity and the title character. It forms the basis of a single episode, and no attempt is ever made to punish the rapists. By the next episode, the only reminder is the frat leader’s shaved head, and otherwise even he seems to have forgot about it.

The feminists shown in Veronica Mars are deeply flawed characters. However, considering the noir world of the series, in which even Veronica’s lovers and friends are occasionally suspect or dishonest, expecting anything else amounts to an exporting of foreign expectations. Their portrayal needs to be seen in the context of the series, not in the abstract, and it is worth pointing out that, later in the season, one of the feminists becomes Veronica’s allies in publicizing the secrets of a Skull and Bones-like male club on campus. All things considered, far from being straw feminists, the feminists in the series might even be judged one of the better portrayals of feminists in television drama (which wouldn’t be difficult, considering how bad most portrayals of feminists actually are).

In pointing out this alternative viewpoint, I do not mean to condemn Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian produces a surprisingly large number of videos in a short space of time, and almost all of them are high-enough quality that I intend to make an overdue donation to Feminist Frequency when I finish this entry.

However, I have made my point at some length because it seems to me worth making: anyone’s analysis, no matter how experience or skilled, is only as good as the extent to which it considers context. When expectations overwhelm context, the best analyst can slip – and, in this particular case, that includes Sarkeesian.

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If I ever have to make a statement of my deepest beliefs, I’m going to quote John Le Carré and say,”A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger.”

Despite my flippancy and cynicism, I really believe that, you know. With imagination, a man can know what a woman feels like when she hears a catcall about the size of her breasts. A pacifist can know why for some soldiers a war is addictive, or an athlete what being twice their ideal weight is like. All it takes is courage and effort, which is why most people have all the empathy of a rock.

And if you tell me that such exercises are self-deceit? Then I’d say that you probably have a point, but that empathy is the best that we can manage, and that it is considerably better than nothing. Even a failure of the imagination is better than no imagination at all.

To many people, such statements are heretical. Today, we like to believe that each person’s experience is so unique that nothing can bridge it. But I come by these beliefs naturally, thanks to a couple of events that happened before my fifth birthday (if not my fourth).

The first happened on the front lawn of my parents’ house. The lawn is divided into two parts, with a low stone wall separating the upper from the lower. Waiting to go somewhere, I ran out to play in the yard. Like I usually did, I ran down the upper part of the lawn, prepared to leap from the wall on to the grass below, when I noticed something coiled at the bottom of the wall.

It was a snake, dark-green with black diamond markings along its eyes and matching black eyes. It was maybe three meters long, and about as thick as my leg. Its yellow tongue was moving in and out, as though it could taste me on the air.

I froze. Utterly terrified, yet strangely calm, I began talking to the snake. Once, I told it to look behind it, and, when its head moved, I said, “Sucker” in a satisfied tone.

But it was no joke. I didn’t think that I could jump past it, and I was afraid that if I backed up to the house, it would simply wriggle after me.

I was still debating what to do when the rest of my family came out, heading for the car. My mother called my name, and I turned to look at her. When I looked back, the snake was gone, and not even the grass showed where it had been. For a while, I was convinced that it must have found a place to hide in the stone wall, which I avoided until the memory was less sharp.

The second experience probably happened a few months later. I can’t be sure, because my sense of time was undeveloped at the time. But I heard a sound in the night, and started down the hallway for a look. I was just thinking I must have imagined the sound as I came to the turn in the hallway.

And suddenly, Captain Hook from Peter Pan was there. He had never especially terrfied me on the television, but there he stood, tall in red velvet, with a black hat on his head, and black boots on his feet. His hook seemed impossibly long, and was swinging in my direction.

I shouted as loudly as I could. I could feel myself waking, and started to relax. Then I did wake, screaming, and I was standing at the turn in the hallway. Naturally, I was alone, although my parents soon rushed out. I couldn’t make them understand that I wanted to search the stairs and the basement to make sure that Captain Hook was gone, but I couldn’t express myself clearly.

Consequently, it was a long time before I fell asleep again. I was convinced that to fall asleep would be absolutely fatal.

Giant snakes and Captain Hook are both foreign to the Lower Mainland, of course. The logical explanation in both cases was that I was sleepwalking while dreaming with intense clarity and wonder. Yet for several years I had a morbid fascination with snakes, and would tuck the blankets under my feet at night to make sure that impossibly thin hook couldn’t reach up from under the bed and drag me on to the floor.

Even now, knowing what must have actually happened, I am still aware of a part of me that is utterly convinced, beyond all rational argument, that the snake and the pirate actually existed, and that I escaped them only by the most coincidental of luck. And, because of that part of me, I know all I’ve ever needed to know about the overwhelming potential of imagination.

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I don’t usually waste much time lamenting that the meanings of words change. It simply happens, and little I can do can change the results one way or the other. However, having grown up on stories of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gareth of Orkney, I do regret the loss of the original meaning of “chivalrous.”

Today, if a man is described as “chivalrous,” the speaker means that he has a condescending attitude to women. At best, he has an old-fashioned gallantry that a handful of women might find charming, but that most would quite rightly find irritating.

Either way, “chivalrous” is not an adjective that I would care to have applied to me. If it ever were, I would wince, and immediately ask the speaker what I had done to annoy them. Somewhere along the line, I would most likely apologize.

However, “chivalrous” used to have other meanings as well. The most basic one is derived from “cheval,” the French word for “horse,” and means a mounted warrior – by implication, a member of the medieval social elite.

But the meaning whose loss I regret means a sort of ethical activist. Influenced, interestingly enough, by the Moorish culture of the Iberian peninsula, this meaning was partly an effort to control the medieval warrior class when it wasn’t fighting.

By this definition, a chivalrous man was one who did not abuse his strength, but was self-effacing and used it on behalf of those unable to help themselves. In the courtly love tradition, this chivalry was especially extended towards women of the same social class – hence the modern meaning – but in medieval tales and ballads, the same obligations were supposed to extend to other men and other social classes. By this definition, a chivalrous man was an admirable one, doing his best not to abuse his privilege and act socially responsible.

So why does this lost meaning matter? Aside, I mean, from the fact that, if I had grown up to live my childhood dreams, I would be spending my days wandering the highways and back roads and looking for wrongs to right, preferably on horseback?

Simply this: it would still be useful to have a word that covered this original meaning. Specifically, it would refer to a man who was aware of male privilege and did his best to disavow it – or, failing that, turned male privilege around on itself, and used it to advance the equality and dignity of women, minorities, and the powerless. We need the word to describe what I believe is an important ideal, to answer those who say that social progress has nothing to offer men by offering an imaginative concept to live by that would promise to bring out the best in men.

Unfortunately, if such a word is ever coined, it is unlikely to be “chivalrous.” The current, debased meaning of the word is too entrenched, and is an important referent in its own right. But I think that having a name for such a desirable male role model would be no bad thing, even thought one of the most appropriate is already subsumed by another concept.

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I don’t smoke. So far as I know, nothing is wrong with my breath, and I am fastidiously clean. Often, my worst anti-social tendency is the occasional outburst of self-righteousness. But I have to admit to one personal habit that is so socially unacceptable that it can send even close friends screaming from my vicinity. Without pre-meditation or warning, I have been known to produce parodies.

This is not a habit under my control – the lines just bubble up from the tar pits of my unconscious like the skeleton of a mammoth or a smilodon, and before I stop to think, I recite them.

As a child, I showed what I now recognize as early symptoms. In the last few years of high school, I developed a taste for lyrics-oriented music, often scribbling down the words to my favorite songs. In my final year, I taught myself poetry and meter, and sold my first poems.

However, the urge to parody did not emerge until I started attending Society for Creative Anachronism events during my second year at university. Shortly before Christmas, tired of the endless parodies of carols like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I started writing what I called pagan carols – songs whose humor was based partly on their lack of Christianity, but chiefly on the fact that they were full of an exaggeratedly violent references completely alien to the spirit of the originals:

A long time ago in Jotunheim,
So the Elder Edda say,
Loki’s girl-child, little Hel,
Was born to rule the day.

From Norroway and Danemark,
And places further west,
To seize your lands and dwell in them,
Oh, this is now our quest.
And if you won’t let us have them,
Your destiny’s manifest.

So much for Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child” and for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and much the same for “Away in a Long Ship,” “Deck the Halls with Bowels of Christians,” and a dozen other equally forgettable tidbits. Once the basic idea was in my head, I could write one of these carols in about fifteen minutes, and I frequently did. I wince at many of these now, finding the cheery violence less funny that I did then – although remembering how Americans objected to the reference to Manifest Destiny, and produced an alternative verse still irks me.

However, by this point, the rot had set in. Stan Roger’s “Barrett’s Privateers” became “Stoat Coyle’s Privateers,” after the persona of a friend. Humorous songs from The Corries became the template for poking mild fun at local medievalists. When the White Tower Medieval Society defeated the SCA, I commemorated the event with “The Twenty Second War,” set to the “Wyndham Fight,” an account of the famous boxing match in 1811 between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux. My version began:

Come you mercenary swords,
All hungry for a meal,
When you’re quite drunk, come gather round,
And hear Lord Ettrick’s spiel:
For glory and for spoils of war
The White Tower’s to be fought,
And bring what ransom is at hand,
Just in case we’re caught.

Shy of my own accomplishments (as I saw them then), I usually urged my partner to sing them for me in public – in order, I said, to give myself a head start.

I committed my share of filking at science fiction conventions, too, although my sources were often obscure by most people’s standards, since I ignored with a sniff most of the popular music of the 1980s and 1990s.

But then parrots came into our lives – creatures who are fascinated by singing, especially when it is directed at them. None of the birds who shared our lives escaped. “England Swings” became a summary of the flock, while “The Popular Wobbly,” which I heard on a Utah Phillips recording, became the life history of our only hand-fed bird. Others were more generic:

The moment that you waddled through the room,
I could see you were a bird of distinction,
A real class parrot
(ba-dum-dum-dum)
Hey big squawker,
Preen a little while with me.

Birdy you’re a boy, make a big noise
Screaming on your cage gonna be head bird one day,
You got gunk on your face,
A big disgrace,
Regurgitating all over the place,
Singing we will, we will flock you.

I even managed six or seven verses of “The Parrot of Shallott,” ending with:

But what is this? And what is here?
What screaming phantom flappeth near?
Beneath the sounds of royal cheer,
They stick a finger in each ear,
All the knights of Camelot;
But Lancelot preened there a space,
Said, “Get your claws out of my face,”
So she sat and chewed on his collar of lace,
The parrot of Shallot.

Fortunately for those around me, imitating Tennyson is too much like hard work, and I doubt I will ever finish that effort. Fans of Tennyson and Loreena McKennitt can rest easy.

I do fewer parodies these days, having a blog and paid writing to do. But I doubt I’ll ever abandon parodies altogether. Just the other day, I found myself extending a version of “Chantilly Lace” called “Genteelly Bored” that described my last office job, and transforming “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a celebration of my parrot Beaudin. They come to me without effort, often when I wake in the morning, and then all that’s left to do is to call for mass evaculation and bring in the rescue workers.

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Twice in the last few weeks, I have been asked for advice about picture framing. Each time, the requests surprised me, because matching a frame to a picture is such an exacting exercise that I don’t think of myself as an expert. However, I have framed nearly three dozen prints and canvases in the last four years, so on second thoughts I must have picked up a few basic ideas.

My first advice to anyone framing a picture is: keep it simple. Anything you like well enough to frame is probably going to be around much longer than your current furniture – plenty of time for you to get bored with something elaborate, and for anything trendy to date itself. So, unless you are decorating a room like an 18th century boudoir, forget the gilt frames that are half as thick as the picture. You are far less likely to grow tired of a plain black frame or one of stained wood.

After all, the whole point of a frame is to accent the picture, not to call attention to itself. If you notice the frame as much the picture, you’ve made the wrong choice.

In choosing the frame, try to match a dominant color in the picture. If, for example, the picture has a blue background, consider a blue frame. If there is a hint of metal in the picture, then consider a metal frame rather than a wood one. When the picture is colorful, either go with a plain frame, or, at the most, a frame with a barely noticeable line of color that picks up on a common color in the picture.

In general, the smaller the picture, the thinner the frame should be. A canvas that is “museum-finished” – that is, painted on the sides (a reference to the times when artists were expected to provide their own frames and wanted to save the expense) – need not be framed at all, although it will usually look more finished if you do. Other canvases often have a deep frame, with the canvas resting about halfway from the bottom.

For a print or a painting on paper, you will often want a matting, or even a double matting between the frame and the picture. The matting needs to complement both, and choosing between the dozens of shades of an appropriate color for exactly the right one can be demanding. You need to consider the width of each matting, as well as which is on top of which, and, occasionally, if the matting should be some other shape than square. Usually, part of the picture is concealed by the matting, which is why white space is so important, but a picture with a ragged edge may float on top of the matting instead. Canvases generally do not use matting, although paintings on paper do.

The next consideration is the glass, unless the picture is on canvas. In some cases, you can save money by the glass you choose, but I generally prefer glass with ultra-violet protection. This glass is expensive, and usually mutes the picture’s colors, but if you think that you may ever change its position, you’ll be glad that you took the time to protect your painting from sunlight.

The combination of frames and matting are numerous, so expect to spend some time finding the exact ones. Twenty minutes or half an hour are not unusual for the decision, especially when you are not used to it, so don’t expect framing to be something you rush in and do in a few minutes. Take the time to do it right, and you’ll enjoy your picture more over the years.

Oh, and one final piece of advice: Don’t attempt to frame a picture yourself. For one thing, if you’re like most people, you don’t have the tools to do so. For another, hobby stores and do-it-yourself framing stores (which mercifully are far less common than they used to be) generally don’t have the selection of frames and matting to help you make the most suitable choice. Going to a professional framer won’t cost you that much more, and you’ll likely be more satisfied with the results.

In Vancouver, I use either Framagraphics or Kent Picture Framing. In other cities, ask the gallery or store where you bought who they use for their framing. – if professionals employ a framer, chances are you can safely use them, too.

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I never did accept my Award of Arms in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Doing so would have been out of keeping with my persona as an eleventh century Icelandic farmer. In the end, Cathal Sean, the seneschal of Seagirt, had to print it as the back cover of a newsletter so he could report that it had been delivered. My one regret about my sacrifice for dramatic consistency is that I would have liked to see if I could register a personal motto. (I suspect not)

Mottoes seem to have originated as war cries for families. Some sound like declarations of faith or loyalty, but the more interesting ones sound vaguely ominous. For example, the Gaelic motto of Macdonald of Clanranald translates into English as, “Gainsay who dare.” Others are hallowed, but obscure. For example, the MacAlpine’s motto urges its speakers to “Remember the death of Alpine,” although exactly why anyone should became obscure centuries ago – probably it referred to some treachery that was the stuff of blood feuds extending for generations.

Personal mottoes, though, are another matter. My partner Trish, for example, thought long and hard about hers, and came up with “Loyalty to honor.” To her, the meaning was perfectly clear: the loyalty of her persona was honorable people and causes, so long as they stayed that way. Those who didn’t understand it, she used to say, were unlikely to be people to whom she ever gave any loyalty.

My own motto was based on my personal myth of triumphing via persistence, and on the fact that my boyhood martial fantasies were more about heroic defenses than wild charges. Since my character was supposed to be living in the England of Athelraed Unraed, it was in Old English: “Ich dreoge” – “I endure.” It, too, said something about the sort of loyalty I offered.

Unfortunately, I never really got much of a chance to use it. Shortly after the Awards of Arms, we left the Society for Creative Anachronism for the White Tower Medieval Society. The White Tower was far more fun, and I once immortalized its triumph over the SCA in a song called, “The Twenty Second War,” but somehow mottoes were not a large part of its activities.

For a while, I used to sign letters with “Ich dreoge.” However, that stopped when Avram Davidson (whose own letters tended to end with, “Yoursly,”) asked me what I meant by “I drag,” and asked if I was confessing to an urge to transvestism. Utterly outclassed in wit, I quietly dropped the habit.

Still, I can’t help thinking still that a personal motto is more useful than a personal mantra. If nothing else, it gives its owner something dramatic to live up to.

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An hour before sunset today, I was finishing my laps in the pool of my townhouse complex. I started to sprint, my arms scooping deeper into the water, and my legs kicking out harder. My head rose for air, higher than at my usual speed. And then I saw them: dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of crows plodding purposefully towards their evening roost.

This wasn’t the first time, nor even the fifty-first time that I’ve been aware of this phenomenon. I’ve known about it for years, and from a variety of angles. Thanks to triangulation and a few comments in the local free newspaper, I even know that the crows are heading to the light industrial park near Canada Way and Willingdon.

Yet it’s a sight that always uplifts me, and leaves me a little awestruck, two emotions that I wouldn’t have thought crows could inspire. After all, crows are the nuisance birds, the carrion-eaters and dwarf versions of the raven, full of themselves and their needs and disgusting habits. Watching their numbers and seeing the fixity of their intent, I might have thought of Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds, but uplift? Awe? From crows?

But the explanation is simple. As recently as a dozen decades ago, North American skies were flooded with birds. Then the Carolina parakeet, which was probably a kind of conure, became extinct, in part because its flocks would return to its dead and wounded members to help them. The passenger pigeon, which filled the skies like the buffalo once filled the plains, lasted a bit longer, but it, too, disappeared.

In such cases, a radically simplified ecosystem is left behind, full of vacant niches. In parts of the United States, these niches are partly filled by feral parrots. However, in the Vancouver area – and, I suspect, many other parts of North America – many of those empty niches have been filled by crows.

Crows are one of the few birds who are intelligent enough to thrive near human habitation. If anything, after watching them pass overhead in a parade that I know can last for over ninety minutes, they seem to have increased their numbers.

In fact, they have increased to the point where nothing can be done about them. The janitors and groundskeepers might complain about the droppings they must struggle against each day, and so might many homeowners on the routes to the roost. Yet, really, what can be done? Any effort to shoot them would be like being on a battlefield for taxpayers. Probably, the crows are too smart for poison to claim more than a handful. And they are too many to net or transport, even if crows were cute enough for our sentimental environmentalism. Besides, given their intelligence, most of them – or maybe some corvine replacements – would be back inside the month.

Individually, the crows I saw are mortal. Yet, collectively, they are more than humans can ever hope to cope with. They are living proof that, even if we were to ten times decimate the inhabitants of the wild, some of them will adopt to our cities and thrive. Amid all the highway construction and commercial buildings I see as Vancouver braces for increased density, I find the idea that we can’t win against the wild as represented by crows oddly cheering.

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