Archive for November, 2012

In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot digresses to suggest that, although the minister in the novel is careless about Christian doctrine, he is still an effective caregiver to his parish. This distinction between what is said and what is done immediately arouses a response in me, because I consider the first time that I made it an important step in my intellectual development.

I like to say that I grew up at an awkward time, being too young for the Counter-culture and too old for Punk. All the same, I came to have activist opinions early in high school. I was full of adolescent energy, and believed in my causes with the all-out enthusiasm that many new converts have. I was shocked when others didn’t share them, since they were self-evidently right to me. I expressed them whenever possible – never mind that they weren’t the best way to impress a girl, these things were important! My greatest fear was that I might become conservative when I became older, and resist the causes I had formerly championed just as they were becoming mainstream.

Few of my classmates shared my opinions, so I would be full of enthusiasm and relief whenever I discovered one who did. Early on, though, I was baffled to discover that, just because someone professed similar opinions to mine didn’t necessarily mean that I would like them.

It took several years to discover that the opposite was true: Someone who expressed opinions completely at odds with mine might become a friend.

The first example I encountered was a medievalist in a small town up the coast. He was a big man, with an English working class accent, boisterous and fond of frequent fights. He liked to dominate a conversation, and if he caught any hint of dogma in another person, he would soon start denouncing their beliefs in his loudest voice, watching them with a barely suppressed grin. If they started defending themselves, he would become even more outrageous. More than once, I saw someone stamp away, swearing and calling him a hopeless redneck.

Despicable, I thought at first. Gradually, though, I noticed that no one did more work in his medieval club. No one was more patient in teaching leather working, or metal-casting, or teaching newcomers how to shoot a longbow or crossbow. If someone was sick, he was first to visit them in the hospital (and argue with them, if they were well enough). Any cause in the community, and he would come out. A little self-righteously, I thought I would forgive his habit of baiting people as an unfortunate flaw in a basically decent person.

But, unfortunately for my self-righteousness, once I conceded that the doctrinally impure weren’t automatically demonic, I started noticing other examples. Like the fiction writer who was irresistible to women and had a Casanova-like gallantry, yet listened to them and took them more seriously than most self-declared feminists. Like the conservative, Catholic apologist who could be one of the most loyal friends imaginable. Or the editor who joked about feminist dogma yet did more to hire qualified women than those who expressed what I considered to be the proper opinions.

Such people were not the majority among those who expressed similar opinions, but they weren’t particularly exceptional, either. After meeting a few of them, I realized that judging people by the opinions they expressed was over-hasty. What I considered instead what they did, I had to concede – with no small reluctance – that some unlikely people could be more deserving of friendship and respect than some who supposedly shared my opinions.

Strangely, this realization didn’t have any affect on my own beliefs. If anything, it has strengthened them. Knowing that someone can disagree with me and still have some worthy traits has humanized me, making me less self-righteous and less judgmental. As a result, I can hear my  beliefs challenged without feeling threatened, and they’re stronger (and more realistic) for facing a challenge rather than being afraid of one.

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As I type, two parrots are fighting for dominance not much more than a meter away from me. It is not a fight in the conventional sense, because both participants are careful to avoid actually touching each other, but it is none the less real for that.

The struggle erupted because Beaudin, the large, younger cock discovered the hutch on my printer stand. The color inkjet is small enough that the space between its top and the cupboard on the hutch has all the space that Beau needs to pad about on top of it. Any nanday conure likes a semi-dark place they can peer out of, and since he discovered the space a few days ago, he flies directly to it whenever he is let out of his cage.

At first, I didn’t object, because he can’t damage anything – well, except for the covers showing the ink cartridges used by the printer that I taped to the top for convenience. After all, I would far rather fetch him from on top of the inkjet that from the floor behind the couch, which used to be his favorite place to hide until I blocked access with a collection of bolsters and old towels.

What I didn’t take into account is that the hutch is half a meter from Rambunctious’ cage in the kitchen. Nor did I expect Ram, a crippled cock who used to mostly ignore the contests when his father Ning was alive and keeping Beau thoroughly psyched out, to defend his territory. He certainly has no scruples about sitting close to Beau’s cage, and even flying over to it occasionally.

Apparently, though, such privileges are not reciprocal. When Beau scampers on top of the printer, Ram rushes from his cage, puffing up and hissing, and stands on the edge of the kitchen counter, peering around the edge of the hutch and screaming at the top of his voice.

Since Ram was a handfed baby and rewarded with attention for being cute when he grew up, his screams retain a juvenile squeak that probably makes them less effective than they should be. However, his sounds manage to communicate his conviction that Beau is trespassing.

For his part, Beau screams back in kind, his tones deeper and more adult. He is obviously taken by his new refuge, and intent on annexing it to his territory.

After the initial screaming match, Beau and Ram settle in to peering around the edge of the hutch at each other, quickly retreating just before they come beak to beak, both of them fanning their wings to look bigger. Their breathing becomes so agitated that I am mildly worried about one of them having a stroke, although I suspect that neither is in any real danger.

The peering is followed by each tapping with his beak on the side of the hutch. Each is responding to the sound of the other, and the tapping is usually followed by another peer around the corner. After a few rounds of this behavior, both back off and make an elaborate show of ignoring each other, preening, or devouring bits of food. Usually, only the telltale raised neck feathers and stiff posture shows that both are on the alert – that, and the way one will sometimes wave his tale just out of reach, seeming to dare the other to try biting it.

Then one will catch sight of the other again, and the screaming and peering begins again.

In order to get some work done and let one of them sit on me, I often have to put one of the birds in his cage. Otherwise, the behavior can go on for hours.

But let me settle down to watch a DVD on the futon by the window, and Ram will sit on my chest, and Beau on the cushion behind me, not much further away than they are when Beau is on the hutch. Apparently, the futon and I are neutral territory, and the feud has a different and quieter etiquette there.

I’ve considered blocking the space that Beau has infiltrated, or possibly working on another computer on the futon. Yet for all their apparent seriousness, I get the sense that Beau and Ram enjoy their feud, perhaps as a break in routine.

If so, who am I to spoil their fun? Maybe I’ll just invest in a pair of ear plugs instead.

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Publishing online, I attract enemies like a rock collects barnacles. Thankfully, I attract more friends, but the ones that astonish me are those who — for whatever reason — take a dislike to me. Some combination of egotism and optimism makes me incapable of understanding how anyone could dislike such an easy-going and outgoing a fellow as I imagine myself. I can’t help prodding at them the way I would a scab, hoping I can comprehend them or maybe that they will have changed their views the next time I look.

They rarely do, though.

A few years ago, I suffered through a trio of semi-professional writers, all of whom seemed determined to establish their reputation by attacking mine. But since then, one has disappeared into obscurity. Another has retreated to his own little niche, where they are the center of a small group of like-minded people and ignored by everyone else. The third, after a blistering attack a year ago, ended up looking so biased and careless in his research that the only reason he didn’t lose respect was that he had none left to lose – not among any worth knowing, anyway.

Currently, nobody like these are disturbing me, but I do have three people who think less of me than I would prefer. The first is a sometime colleague who nursed a grudge over an incident I had forgot about and which they misinterpreted. Whenever we encountered each other, they were barely civil, and sometimes downright rude Finally, I asked them what was wrong. We had an angry phone call one night, which ended with us deciding to ignore each other. It wasn’t an ideal solution, because we have mutual friends, and I continue to think far more of them than they do of me. But at least I can go to conferences without having someone glaring at me.

The second was someone I knew years ago. Our paths recrossed years ago, but, after the initial excitement of renewing the acquaintance, I became discontented with the relationship, and distanced myself. I regretted the action almost immediately, and tried to apologize several times without success. .

Recently, I’ve been tempted to try again, but never have. I was lucky to get a second chance, and can’t expect a third.

The last was a person I never met. However, we interacted for some months on the Internet, and I was starting to think of them as a potential friend – the kind that I might meet at some unspecified point in the future, and maybe go for coffee with, or go for dinner with as part of a larger crowd. But they pushed some of my buttons, and I suspect my reaction pushed some of theirs. They withdrew, and I damned their hypocrisy immediately, and sneered from a distance ever since.

I did try once to suggest that a little creative forgetting was in order. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t surprised to get no response.

One of my problems in these situations is that my affability is learned rather than natural. I come of self-righteous stock, and, when I feel justified, my verbal fury usually destroys any basis for further interaction. If nothing else, my berserkergang is so unexpected that it unsettles the other person.

At the same time, my anger fades as quickly as it flares – maybe because it flares – which means that I am always under-estimating the extent of other people’s anger against me. Long after I’ve dropped a grudge, most people are still clinging to theirs.

It doesn’t help, either, that just because I have some inner child’s longing to be on good terms with everyone doesn’t mean that I have changed my opinion. I may be sorry I expressed it, but that’s usually not good enough for most people.

Under the circumstances, I can’t imagine playing peacemaker again in any of these instances. Being at odds with people irritates me the way that synthetics irritate my skin, but it’s an irritation I can endure. The regret is only occasional, and I’m reluctant to intrude on any of these people again.

All the same, if you think you recognize yourself as one of them, drop a line if you’re inclined. Not hearing from you won’t ruin my life, but I would like to talk at some point.

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Running has been a major part of my life since I was eight. These days, I am slowly replacing it with swimming and cycling in the hopes of preserving my cartilage-challenged knees, but it remains a major part of my live – a break in the daily routine, proof of my fitness, and a sweaty, endorphin-inspired high unlike anything else.

I was always active as a boy. Good thing, too, or else with my bookishness and early speech-impediment, I probably would have been bullied. But although I played soccer and other sports from an early age, I didn’t pay much attention to running until Grade 3, when I discovered it out of pure envy.

My school was going to have a track meet with two other schools, and the gym teacher had assigned the students he thought promising to the various events. Somehow, he failed to assign me an event, an omission that I felt self-evidently wrong. I determined to show him the error of his ways, and began doing laps around the school ground before and after school, where I was sure he couldn’t fail to see me.

Likely, he didn’t notice me, but, if he did, I didn’t change his mind. But the idea of running stayed with me. For a while, I organized before-school runs with my friends, continuing the habit after everyone else grew bored.

In Grade Seven, I finished fifth in the provincial cross-country championships. That was the start of a string of second and first places throughout my school career, with the occasional meet or course record.

I still remember the highlights of those days: crossing the finish line first in the first race of the cross-country season in Grade Nine, distantly followed by team mates in second, third, and fourth, being cheered to a 1500 meter record in Empire Stadium, finishing third against all age groups in the James Cunningham Memorial Seawall Race. I had shared in victories in soccer and rugby games, but winning by yourself gives a fierce satisfaction that a team’s victory can’t match, no matter how important your role might have been.

Yet, somehow, I never quite did as well as I should have. I missed one high school championship because I was sidelined for two races with the ‘fl. Then, in my final year, which I wanted to be a triumph, I ended up limping for months after running my left knee into a steeplechase hurdle as I was trying to learn to leap over it without pushing off from the top. I had to sit out the season, and, consequently, the scholarships for which I had hoped didn’t materialize.

However, in the end, that was probably just as well. Track and field and cross-country were altogether more serious matters at university than they had been in high school, and, at seventeen, I was suddenly competing against full-grown men.

Nor did my commute leave me time for training with the team. In the spring of my first year, I won what was to be my last race – a fun run organized in my local community. I was good, I realized, but unlikely to be great, even if I found proper coaching.

Still, that belated modesty did little to change my habits. I no longer trained 75-90 miles per week, as I did when I was racing, but I still averaged 55-70 until a few years ago, with the occasional bit of interval training.

Keeping up the mileage was, to be frank, an important part of my personal pride. I was proud of my endurance and discipline, and, as I aged, of maintaining abilities beyond those of most people around me. When students on the football team mentioned that their ambition was, by the end of the semester to run up Gaglardi Way to Simon Fraser University without stopping to walk, I took a smug glee in letting them know that I did so several times a week, despite being twice their age. The fact that I never looked fit unless I ripped my shirt off (something that is hard to do naturally unless you’re the Incredible Hulk) only added to their astonishment and resentment.

By the time I was middle-aged, I must have run far enough to circle the globe three or four times. But, eight years ago, I suddenly found myself suffering from regular knee injuries. I took a while to understand the obvious – evidently I’m a slow learner – but, in the end, I realized I would have to modify my daily exercise or face an old age on a scooter.

Now, my running mileage is usually less than it was on a light day in my prime. I get my workout in other ways, but it’s just not the same. I still remember topping a hill just in time to see the sun rise on a chill winter day, and the feel of taking over the lead in a race. I suspect that in my dreams I will always be running, luxuriating in a sense of wildness that comes from the effort and the rhythm of the long miles on the road.

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We never told our families, but Trish and I had three weddings. After proposing to each other, we jumped a broom. Then there was the civic wedding and our medieval wedding – or, rather, the marriage of Ullr Eriksunu and Morag Nic Fingon, to use our medieval names. Of the three, the medieval wedding is the one we enjoyed the most and spent the most money on.

The festivities were at Coyote Creek Campground in Surrey, in the height of the summer heat. We had worked for weeks beforehand to prepare, sewing new costumes for ourselves and planning bits of theater to enliven the proceedings.

Shortly after sunset, we started the event with the bride barter. As a Hebridean widow, Morag claimed the right to barter for herself. She sat in her high seat by the fire, surrounded by female attendants, while I marched up with my attendants to announce my attentions and my gifts.

I had gone to some effort to keep the gifts secrets while I was making some of them. But, on presenting them, I downplayed them in a mimicry of modesty designed to draw laughs. For her part, Morag examined the goblets and rabbit skin purse, checking their construction and passing them to her attendants, many of whom made risque remarks. The final gift was what swayed her: phials of saffron, a luxury spice of fabulous price in our medieval period.  After consulting with her attendants, Morag rose and formally handsealed the agreement, making it a formal contract.

Surrounded by torches (and more remarks), we moved in procession to where the local bard, Daffyd ap Moran (aka Gary Wadham) was waiting in his green Druidical robes. Although not a practicing pagan, Daffyd took his role seriously, fasting for a day before the ceremony. We had a literal handfasting, with our hands tied loosely together by a leather chord, and a ceremony that included us grasping a wooden ring while exchanging vows and copper bracelets made by our friend Jaqueline and drinking at the same time from a marble cup full of mead.

After the mead came the gifts from friends, and singing late into the night. Finally, we retired, with our attendants guarding the tent to prevent the otherwise inevitable chivaree.

Then, just as everyone was falling asleep, a muttering cry of, “Grendel, grendel, grendel,.grendel!” went through the camp. It was Bolverk of Momchilavich, the foremost women fighter of the local medievalists, playing the monster from Beowulf.

Our attendants refused to let us stir from the tent, but we were told that she had wrapped some old furs around her, and had trundled through the camp bent nearly double. She was met at the pavilion by her husband Sir Seamus, who was playing the role of hero. I suspect that the actual Beowulf never greeted his victory with, “I got the mother!” but the next morning there was a giant arm pinned to the pavilion to mark his victory.

The next day, we slept late, and oversaw the final cleanup of the site.. At home, we seemed to require endless trips from the parking garage to our apartment. Most of the boxes we left in the spare room for later storage.

“So that’s marrying done with,” I said as we collapsed on our bed.

“It had better be,” Trish said, and before we fell asleep, I remember thinking that the last twenty four hours were a good memory to have.

And they still are, although the pictures are grainy and damaged, and  we haven’t seen most of the people who  were there for years.

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Last Sunday, Trish and I would have celebrated our anniversary as a couple. As I have done the previous two years since she died, I observed the day (“celebrate” is hardly the correct word) by taking myself out to dinner. And, as I sat at the restaurant, I had a small moment of personal insight.

I was given a table in the bay window at the front of the restaurant. The table would have been ideal for two people who wanted to focus on each other, but for a person eating alone, it gave two choices: to sit either staring at the wall, or staring out at the dark and rainy street. Both choices meant my back was to the rest of the restaurant.

As I stared out at the cold and damp people hurrying along the street, I reflected that I was lucky I hadn’t been given a seat by the kitchen or the washroom. But I told myself I had better get used to unusual tables, because they were likely to be my lot for the rest of my life.

I sipped a cider and nibbled some bread, considering this prospect. The waiter took my order, and I kept on considering. Slowly, I realized that I was not embittered by the prospect. Nor was I anticipating it, nor resigned to it. I simply knew that was how things would be.

The realization, I discovered, was a profound relief.

Ever since I was widowed, friends have urged me to look for a relationship. At their urging, I have tried to join activities where I might meet someone. Not very seriously, I have tried online dating sites. Once or twice, I have gone out with a woman.

None of this activity led to anything serious. Perhaps it might have if I had tried harder. But the truth is, I never cared enough to do so. I was lucky once – far luckier than the majority of men who marry. Why should I expect to be equally lucky a second time? The odds seemed against me, and, although I’ve been lonely in the last thirty-two months, I don’t mind loneliness so much that I would automatically exchange it for any other alternative.

The truth is, a self-declared eccentric like me is not going to be much attracted to many women. I’m a romantic whose experience of relationship-hunting is decades in the past. Even worse, I’m a feminist, who had a feminist spouse, and I have little patience with the games I’m still supposed to play. Effectively, I’m an innocent with an exaggerated sense of idealism, which means that I would be unrealistic to pretend that these traits don’t substantially reduce my second chances.

No doubt this realization has an element of self-defense. Middle-age is supposed to be a time of settling in to your life. To have your routine routed and your expectations extinguished is enough to make anyone wary of trying a second time. After all, I barely avoided being broken on the facts of my life the first time.

But what I mostly realized while eating dinner on Sunday was that my life over the last two and a half years had fallen into a rhythm. I have meaningful work, and friends and pets. Although I can hardly call myself supremely happy, I am content, and disinclined to search for alternatives.

After all, my maternal grandfather lived alone for nearly twenty years, and seemed to manage a full life. My sister-in-law divorced over a decade ago, and her time has been full of accomplishment. And, clearly, there are some advantages to living alone, like keeping irregular hours when necessary and not being answerable to anyone  So who knows what other ones I might find by accepting my situation instead of resisting it?

For that matter, who knows if I’ll meet someone? I’m not prescient.

Meanwhile, though, please, don’t tell me to hang in there, or that I’ll never know unless I try, or offer any of the other cheerily meaningless cliches that people offer when someone has reached a conclusion that they shy from themselves.

I’m not asking for sympathy, much less direction. I’m describing the place I’ve reached so far, and while the description may appall you if you’ve never been here, let me assure you: for the time being, it suits me just fine.

I’ve things to do and places to see. And right now, doing these things matters to me far more than changing my relationship status on Facebook.

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On Friday, I was harassed in the local mall. By any standards, it was a trivial incident, but I believe that the encounter gave me, if not insight to what women endure regularly from men, then at least something from which I could emotionally extrapolate how they must feel.

I was walking through the local mall at the end of a long day. I had just come from the gym, and I was unwashed and limping from a minor injury. I was tired, and had just discovered my bank card was missing, and that I needed to add canceling it to my list of errands to do. I wanted nothing so much as to drag myself home and collapse in a hot bath, but I knew that I had at least another hour’s worth of errands. All in all, I was feeling about as attractive as the sweaty towel in my gym bag.

As I neared a kiosk selling spa products, I saw one man holding a tray of hand lotion samples break into a little dance. By the time I reached the kiosk, he had moved to its other side, and a woman in black blocked my path, holding out a tray.

I tried to step around her, and she moved to block me again. Ordinarily, I would have just kept walking, but, as I said, I was tired. Taking the path of least resistance, I reached out for a sample, and rubbed it on my hand.

“Do you have a special woman in your life?” she asked.

Since I’m a widower, that is a bit of a tender point with me. “No,” I said shortly.

“No sister? No friends? No mother? No aunt?”

I replied “no” to each question, becoming increasingly annoyed at a stranger asking me personal questions.

“Let me show you something,” she said. Not thinking, but relieved that the questions had stopped, I let myself to be steered over to the kiosk.

Without asking, the woman grabbed my hand and started demonstrating a nail buffer on my right thumb. She was standing close to me, and her breasts kept rubbing against my arm as she worked. When I took a step away, she followed, talking continually about how attractive regular the products she was selling would make me.

“Younger women just love men who use them,” she told, stroking my hand.

I was more embarrassed than enticed, and I more or less tuned her out. So far as I was thinking at all, I was hoping that the demo would be over soon and I could move on without being polite.

“You’re not listening to me,” she said. “You’re looking at my breasts.” I wasn’t, but she plucked at her top, an action that not only drew my eyes, but exposed more cleavage rather than less.

Abruptly, I pulled myself together and decided that, single as I was, I wasn’t so desperate as to prolong this encounter. “Sorry, I have to go now.”

“No you don’t,” she said with a knowing smile, trying to grab my hand again.

“Yes I do.”

We repeated the same sentences several times apiece. Then I realized that I didn’t even owe her even politeness, and simply turned and left, shaking my head.

The next day, I was in the mall again. I seriously considered taking a roundabout route so I wouldn’t have to pass the kiosk. But I told myself I wasn’t going to inconvenience myself to avoid embarrassment, and made myself walk by.

“Oh, you’ve come back,” she said, smiling. “I knew you would.”

This time, I was rested enough to know that the last thing I wanted was to stop and listen to her.

I held up a hand without slowing. “No, I haven’t.”

I felt better for walking on. But I admit that I was glad that she was helping another customer when I walked by twenty minutes later.

If you’re a man, especially a young one, you might wonder why I didn’t play along, enjoying the contact and the innuendo as long as they lasted. But such things were far from my mind. All through the encounter, I kept thinking that I might be desperate for female contact, but I would never be that desperate. Besides, as irresistible as I might sometimes imagine myself to be, I knew the whole thing was about selling products. I was disgusted with her tactics, and not much pleased with myself for going along with them, however briefly.

In fact, as I retell the story, I find my lip curling in distaste, and I have had to stop several times to calm myself before I could go on. What, I keep wondering, did she see in me that she would imagine that I would be open to these sales tactics? Did she think that, as an older man, I would buy for the pleasure of having a younger woman come on to me? Or was I supposed to buy because I was embarrassed?

I’m not going to be scarred for life by what happened. I am not even going to report the woman, although I’m sure that I’m not the only one she has used such tactics on. But the experience does leave me with a more immediate understanding of a situation that I ordinarily understand only intellectually, or with an imaginative effort.

All the reactions I felt are similar to those I’ve heard hundreds of times from women recounting petty harassment. My annoyance at being imposed upon, going along with what was happening out of a misguided sense of politeness, the sense of being impersonally manipulated by sexuality, the wondering whether I was somehow to blame, the temptation to avoid the place where it happened – despite my gender, I was reacting much the same as many women do in a similar situation.

So, if anyone thinks that I should have enjoyed it, let me assure you that what happened wasn’t flattering and wasn’t a compliment. It was intrusive and annoying, and an over-obvious attempt to manipulate me that is still making me uneasy several days later.

Admittedly, it was only one encounter. For many women, such encounters are a daily occurrence. Quite justifiably, some women may wonder why I imagine my experience worth recording, or how I imagine that I can extrapolate from my experience to theirs.

All I can say is that, if their reactions are anything like mine, I wonder how they endure such incidents – and why. And you can be sure I am going to be monitoring my behavior very carefully from now on, to make sure that I don’t – even accidentally – leave a woman feeling the way that I am feeling now.

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Six weeks ago, Haida/Tsimshian artist Mitch Adams and his wife Diana were in Vancouver on a selling expedition. We sat on the shaded porch of a Starbucks, and Mitch unwrapped the pieces he hoped to sell to one of the galleries. They included a variety of pipes (“They’ll make you look taller! Cooler!” Mitch claimed), several miniature masks carved from ebony, and a couple of sculptures I would have bought on the spot if I’d had the money. Then Mitch brought out a framed painting from the back of the car.

I remembered the painting. I’d seen it when I was in Terrace the previous April, sitting at the back of Mitch’s workshop. It was a design that he had done while a student at the Freda Diesing School. An injury had left him temporarily unable to carve, so, rather than sit idle (or more like, kibbitzing with the other students, if I know anything), he began to do designs on paper.

At the time, I asked him if he would sell it, but he was unsure of the price, and I had enough to carry back on the plane already. “Throw it in the trunk next time you come to Vancouver,” I said, but, to be honest, I’d forgot all about the piece until I saw it again. However, once I got over my surprise, I was happy to buy it.

As you might guess from the story about its origin, “Haida Box Design” is a formal exercise, but no less interesting for that. Like Celtic knotwork, abstract Northwest Coast designs fascinate me in their intricacy. When you know a bit about the artistic tradition, you can appreciate the breakdown of the figures in a series of basic shapes, each of which is varied by such details as how the thickening of the formlines where they meet is minimized, or the designs inside the U-shapes. At its best, the result is a strong sense of individualism within a detailed tradition – which is certainly the case here.

Adams’ individual touches are numerous. To start with, rather than designing primarily in black, he balances red and black almost perfectly. The design puts round shapes, rather than the more common ovoids, in the center where they can hardly be missed. Many of the lines are straight, rather than curved, as you would expect in most designs on paper, although that would make them ideal for carving. Tapering of the lines is minimal, and Adams makes wider use of thin lines than most artists would.

However, what fascinates me most about the design is how, despite being symmetrical, it manages to avoid some of the stiffness usually associated with symmetry – especially to a modern eye, trained to consider asymmetry of design the norm. Day after day as I’ve done my morning stretching exercises, I’ve watched the piece and considered the elements that undermine the potential symmetry.

First, there’s the easy interchange of figure and ground between the black and red that changes depending on what you focus on. Then there’s the mild variation of rounded shapes in the center of the design. Most of all, however, what really offsets the symmetry are the shapes positioned on an angle.

All things considered, I’m tempted to say that I’d appreciate seeing “Haida Box” design carved in yellow cedar and painted. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the fear that, the next time we meet, Mitch will present me with exactly that, and I won’t be able to resist pulling out the cash to buy.

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This early in the month, I have no pressing deadlines, so I took the afternoon off to wander the Circle Craft Christmas Fair. There, I wandered the endless aisles of crafts, a little nostalgic for the years Trish and I browsed similar fairs, vaguely looking for one or two things and, as usual, spending most of my money of food (two tins of carmels, coated nuts, and three types of feta). Many of the wares, I noticed, were poor quality – and I was being scornful when I suddenly realized that the lack of quality was probably deliberate.

I was in the mood to notice quality, because I had recently discovered a source of hand-made shoes. Wearing these shoes not only solved most of the problems I’ve been having with my feet for the past eight years, but made me notice how the shoddiness of most of the shoes people are wearing. I’m like that: when cramming to buy a car, I notice all the cars on the road, and, when I was learning design, part of me critiqued every sign on the street. Periodically, I have these small bursts of obsession for a week or two before reverting to what passes with me for normal.

Yet even without this fading obsession, I would have noticed anyway. I grew up with a father who brought do-it-yourself to new heights. Trained as a painter, in the process of building two houses and customizing a trailer and two vans, he had to teach himself everything from electricity to plumbing. Since he had a limited education, learning these trades couldn’t have been easy, but he managed a rough competence in all of them except cabinet-making, and even then he managed to figure out enough work-arounds to substitute for not having years of apprenticeship. Consequently, although I usually can’t produce competent work, I know it when I see it.

This afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that as many as one in three or four of the vendors were selling clothes or handicrafts simply weren’t that good. If they sold jewelry, they were cutting the metal to shape, not casting. If they were weaving, the result was loose and slightly irregular. If they were working in metal, you could still see the marks of the tools, particularly the hammer. If they had cut something from wood – even a square cutting board – they had apparently not measured or bothered to square the corners. And so it went, all too often, no matter what the craft, with merchandise being offered for sale at premium prices that was often crude and unfinished.

Yet, strangely, the low quality didn’t affect their business. Often, I thought the reverse was true, and that they were doing a brisk business because of the low quality.

I suppose, however, that this reaction is inevitable in the days of automation. To moderns, perfectly regular, perfectly fitted merchandise is the norm. Without irregularities, even crudity, we would never know that something was handmade.
It didn’t used to be that way. Two centuries ago, artisans prided themselves on the quality of their work, producing a perfect curve in a china teapot, or finishing a piece of jewelry to mirror-like brightness.

But today, an artisan with that level of skill would only be reproducing what a machine could do much more easily, what we see every day. And what would be special about that? The perception that buyers were getting something unique would be lost if a craft vendor sold something that looked no different from what you could find in a shopping mall.

You might say that craft vendors today are not just selling their skill, but that illusion of uniqueness. They are leaving flaws, not because only their deity is perfect but because, by today’s standard, only machines are perfect.

The exceptions are very few. Often, too, they require a trained eye to appreciate them. Several times, I have seen people who balked at paying several thousand dollars in a Northwest Coast gallery in Gastown, walk out on Water Street and pay ninety dollars to someone on the street to someone with a single knife for a tool and no understanding whatsoever of the tradition they were vaguely imitating.

The buyers seemed satisfied with the street vendor’s carving, and not just because of the price. Judging from what I overheard them saying, they seemed to feel that what they were buying was somehow more genuine than work done by artists who had spent decades perfecting their skills.

Such attitudes may be unavoidable, but they annoy me profoundly. So long as these attitudes exist, what incentive do artists have to perfect their crafts? In some cases, artists must even hold back deliberately. Perhaps they even add errors if they want to sell. All these possibilities amount to a cheapening of the artistic process, yet, if artisans want to make a living, what choice do they really have?

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The mother of a friend of mine once said that he had raised himself to be a knight. She didn’t take any credit for the fact – she simply observed it, which it made it the best compliment of a child by a parent that I have ever heard. I knew instantly what she meant, because I had done much the same with Robin Hood, or at least Roger Lancelyn Greene’s version of him.

To this day, I happily devour any retelling of the stories. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, the Child Ballads, the Robin of Sherwood series that made him a mystical figure associated with Herne the Hunter, Robin and Marian featuring Sean Connery as the aging hero, the recent BBC series, the Errol Flynn version with Claude Raines as the Sheriff – all are part of my mental baggage, with what for me is an unusual lack of concern for quality. I’ll even watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, an admission that shows just how indiscriminate my obsession really is.

You see, for better or worse, a good part of my ethical standards was consciously modeled on Robin Hood, to say nothing of my politics as well. Only King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came anywhere close to be as influential, and Robin Hood – despite being the Earl of Huntington – had the same ethics without the sense of class and privilege. He wasn’t even much of a sexist, loving a woman who shared his dangers, rather than languishing at home like Queen Guinevre.

So what did I learn as a child from Robin Hood? Far more than the manly virtue of courage. I learned that I was supposed to be polite to everyone. That I was supposed to be a good sport, even if I had just been thwacked on the head by Little John or dumped into the stream by Friar Tuck. That I was to value honesty and abhor hypocrisy. That I was supposed to help people, even at inconvenience to myself. That I was supposed to face danger cheerfully – and this, and a hundred other things besides.

However, none of this would have impressed me by itself. I could learn the same values from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – never mind that I later learned that Baden-Powell was a traitor to his own standards, having starved the local Africans to keep his British troops alive during the siege of Mafeking during the Boer Wars.

What really impressed me was that, unlike the propaganda of the Scouts, or even the followers of King Arthur, Robin Hood decided for himself. Rather than acquiesce to things that were legal but immoral, he became an outlaw, and he enforced his own sense of right and wrong while he was in Sherwood no matter how anyone else condemned him. Greene never used the phrase, but his Robin Hood lived by a higher morality, deciding for himself where right and wrong lay.

Of course, the anarchy of Sherwood cannot last, and Robin Hood ends by being pardoned by King Richard. But even as a boy I understood that end as more symbolic than anything else: King Richard is the source of the law, and his approval amounts to a public acknowledgment that Robin Hood’s code of behavior was correct, no matter how eccentric it happened to be. The idea that he was substantially changed by his reintegration into society is quashed by his last moments, when he forgives the Prioress for poisoning her and tells his followers not to avenge themselves upon her.

Part of me wants to laugh at this set of ethics, but I can never manage to be quite so flippant. Robin Hood’s example helped me through the worst stage of my life, when only a handful of people believed in me.

At other times, his example is difficult. For example, while I believe in acknowledging when an opponent has done something ethical, I often suspect that belief only serves as a handicap. Certainly few of my enemies have ever reciprocated in kind.

However, at his best, Greene’s Robin Hood embodies a generosity of spirit that I can’t help but admire. I have often fallen short of imitating this generosity, but the idea that I should try to is lodged too firmly into me to ever root out. No matter how cynical or disillusioned I might become, the lessons I learned from reading Greene’s book into oblivion are likely to remain with me for the rest of my life, even if spend my last few years senile.

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