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Archive for February, 2013

Say something controversial to me in person, and you usually don’t much of a response. I have to be unusually tired or fed up before I’ll do more than say something non-committal and make an excuse as soon as possible to leave. Often, my withdrawal will be to write about the outrageousness of what just happened, because, in print – having sold some 1400 articles and written some 665 blog entries – I’m not exactly known for my reticence. But occasionally, being silent even in print is forced on me by circumstance, although usually at the cost of biting my tongue hard enough that it needs a dozen stitches.

It doesn’t happen often. I have a naïve reverence for the power of dialog. Unlike my father, who learned in the army that giving your opinion could be dangerous if you were overheard by the brass, I believe in talking, no matter what the consequences. Despite countless examples to the contrary, I continue to believe, very simply and sincerely, that if I can just get a conversation started, I can improve things by pointing out previously overlooked nuances, working to keep people informed, and pointing out possible common ground or solutions that nobody else has raised.

The trouble is, the chance for dialog doesn’t always exist..

For example, once I had the kind of story that every writer dreams about. I had proof of some major financial inconsistencies that an organization had been making for several years running, up to and including a loan made to a former director. It was a rare case of black and white without nuance of gray, and I was practically cackling in anticipation of being a minor league Woodward or Bernstein.

The only trouble was, no reputable editor would touch it. Too controversial, they all said, even though I had evidence. Not the sort of thing we publish, one editor told me. So I fumed and stayed silent, and eventually the story sunk into irrelevancy.

Several times, too, some organization or person I had researched has done and said something rash, and I’ve been in the person in the best position to write a blistering op-ed in reply. And I wanted to, because their actions put one cause or another I believed in into disrepute. Sometimes, I even went so far as drafting a dissection of their actions and possible effects with all the verbal wit of a Dorothy Parker or the polemical skill of a Harlan Ellison (at least in my own imagination). But, in the end, I refrained from publishing.

In these cases, part of my restraint has been my deep-seated reluctance to join a lynch mob. I don’t care for the mob mentality, having been on its receiving end once or twice, and I won’t countenance it; it feels too much like being a bully, no matter how justified.

More importantly, while the organization or person may deserve to be called into account, the causes they represent may not. Yet it is not always easy to separate the organization or person from their causes. An attack on the organization of purpose may hurt the cause. So, once again, I shut up, fuming that I am letting someone get away with crassness or stupidity while seeing no other choice except to attack a worthwhile cause.

So what do I do while such events play out? I listen to favorite music. I go for harder than usual workouts. Sometimes, too, I write other things, including blog entries on the difficulty of silence.

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I have been lucky enough to witness several social revolutions in my time. The most obvious is the personal computer; I only regret that it didn’t happen twenty years earlier. But the one that is most important to me personally is the acceptance of women into the literary canons.

Art being the record of human experience, this change did as much as any friendship or relationship to help me understand that women’s experiences were human experience, and therefore were something I needed to know.

When I started studying literature in Grade 12, women were severely under-represented in the works studied in academia. Except for those who might be hidden under the name of Anonymous, the first female writer mentioned was usually Jane Austen. She was too important a novelist to ignore, but for the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth century, women’s representation was limited. Charlotte Bronte was credited with having written one worthwhile novel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had written a collection of soppy sonnets to her husband. Christina Rossetti had written a few children’s poems and minor lyrics. Emily Dickinson was a decided eccentric.

And so it went, with women consistently written out of the literary history whenever possible, and presented as minor if they had to be mentioned at all. Even George Eliot was known for only three novels, one of which, Silas Marner, was taught mainly because it had the virtue of being short enough for undergraduate’s attention spans.

The only exception was contemporary literature, especially science fiction. There, you could find female authors in something close to the percentages that you might expect from random chance, and I read writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree, Jr. (actually, Alice Sheldon) as eagerly as their male peers. But even these pioneers sometimes had little to say about women as women, as Le Guin would come to acknowledge later in her career.

Anyway, there was something daring about asserting the worth of writers who were still living. Somehow, they were not taken with quite the same seriousness as writers in the canon.

By contrast, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, the canon had been drastically revised. In those pre-Internet days, the main reason for this change was the feminist-inspired publication of more female writers, often by small, painfully non-profit imprints.

Suddenly, Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliots were revealed to have had not just the occasional success, but entire writing careers. Other writers were suddenly being talked about – people like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Zora Neale Hurston, and dozens of others.

I viewed this change with a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion. On the one hand, here was enough fresh reading to keep me busy for years (which it has). On the other hand, just what had I been taught?

More importantly, who were these women? As a science fiction reader, I already knew that all worthy works were not contained in the canon, and reading Robert Graves’ literary criticism had taught me that exercising my own judgment on the canon was not only permissible, but necessary for independence of thought.

Yet if these women were any good, then surely I would have been taught something about them. I suspected that the promotion of some of these writers was as much the result of academics creating careers for themselves as it was of negligence. And, aside from the occasional exception for historical reasons, why should I bother with mediocrity?

Gradually, though, I realized I was being unreasonable. How could I possibly learn who was worth reading unless a wide variety of works were available? Besides, while most of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (for example) struck me as uninspired back then, so did that of accepted male members of the canon, such as Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray. If mediocre men were accepted, there was no reason not to accept mediocre women as well. If nothing else, tastes differ, not only between person and also occasions.

At any rate, the newly available work had enough masterpieces to justify the era of rediscovery in general. Without it, I might never have discovered the slippery mind of Aphra Behn, or learned as a non-Christian to appreciate the quirky thoughts of Christina Rossetti. I would have enjoyed Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but not have had Eliot’s other books to put them into context.

Just as importantly, I found myself reading works by women differently once a critical mass of their work became easily available. Being a young man and as egocentric as most young men, I had always read Jane Austen’s novels about courtship and marriage or Jane Eyre‘s story of love and indendence as exceptions – interesting in their own way but somehow trivial compared to the concerns of male writers.

However, discovering dozens of female writers changed my perception. Newly able to place their subject matter in context, I realized that such topics were not exceptions. For a very long time, they were the concerns of half the human race. If I were to be fully human myself, I needed to understand these concerns, and appreciate them – and in a matter of months, I did.

I like to think that ordinary life was leading me to similar conclusions, and perhaps it was. But I think that, without the rewriting of the canon, the process would have taken me years, instead of months. I might not have even been ready for love and marriage when they came my way near the end of my readjustment.

People often talk about how feminism transforms women’s lives. But, if my personal example is any indication, its effect on men’s lives can be just as great. Throughout my life, my outlook has been broader – more mature – because of the simple fact that, when I was in my late teens, suddenly I could read about women’s lives and learn to appreciate them as the material of art.

The lesson remains one of the most valuable ones that I have ever had.

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Gender issues don’t play well in comics. The most notorious example is Dave Sims’ Cerebus series, which, as soon the topic was raised, degenerated from a hilarious and inventive series into self-indulgent, misogynistic rants that quickly became unreadable. By contrast, though, Garth Ennis has not only been discussing gender issues repeatedly in his series, but doing so in with an artistry that makes what he has to say intelligent even if – as I do – you have reservations about his opinions.

This suggestion, I realize, requires some defense. Garth Ennis? The hard-swearing, raunchy, ultra-violent, hilarious Garth Ennis, who had to start his own publishing company to write the sort of things he wanted? And there is no denying that Ennis is fascinated by machismo and war, so much so that his treatment of super heroes almost always involves men trained in violence overcoming those with super powers.

Remember, though, that this is the same writer whose best-known work, Preacher, ends with the hero literally riding into the sunset with the love of his life – the same writer who gave loner John Constantine a major love interest in Kit Ryan, a tough, cynical woman from Belfast, and even managed to make their breakup poetic and sentimental.

If you focus on the scripts and ignore the often gratuitously sexist artwork, he is also the writer who manages believable portraits of strong women like Deborah Tiegel and Bloody Mary. Yes, there is a large degree of male wish-fulfillment in female characters like Tulip O’Hare or Annie January, but there is also an effort to give them their own inner lives and concerns in a way that few male writers of graphic novels have even attempted.

I have read much of Ennis’ work, but far from all of it. To say the least, he is prolific, and some of his work, such as his war stories, would only interest me because they were done by him. However, three of works stand out as places where gender roles play a major role.

Pride and Joy

The first is Pride and Joy, a relatively little-known series that fits into a single trade paperback. Pride and Joy tells the story of Jimmy Kavanagh, a petty criminal who goes straight because of his love for his wife. His wife dies, to Kavanagh’s frustration as much as his despair – cancer being something he cannot fight – leaving him to raise their daughter and son on stories of his own father’s exploits as a tailgunner in World War Two. These stories cause endless conflicts with his son, a quiet, more intellectual type than Kavanagh.

One of the most interesting scenes in the series shows him with his wife in the hospital. She asks if he remembers her reply when he assumed that he would be making the decisions in the marriage. With a wistful grin, he quotes from memory, “Like hell.” She replies:

That amazed look on your face . . . It was priceless. You were such a little boy. I gave you such a hard time about that stuff, that Being a man thing. I used to really hate it. My Mom and her Mom, they both lost their men to wars. Men off being men, chasing some ideal they’re meant to live up to. My Mom used to say, ‘All men can do is die and leave the women and children to suffer.’

Now, she is doing the same to him. Yet even in the stress of the moment, Kavanagh needs her reassurance that this is a case where he can cry.

Another key scene is his discussion with his son. While his son asserts that “we’ve got nothing in common,” Kavanagh expresses concern that his son needs to toughen up in order to survive. He remembers his father’s war stories, which Kavanagh’s wife condemned as “macho bullshit,” and for a moment father and son bond. “I guess that’s why she made sure you . . . . You saw a different side to things, maybe. But I still think your Grandad had a point.”

However, as they flee a killer from Kavanagh’s past, any fragile understanding is broken by Kavanagh’s admission that his accidental killing of a child has poisoned his life. His son considers the admission proof of the underlying hypocrisy of Kavanagh’s machismo.

The story ends with the issues unresolved. The son stands up to the killer long enough for Kavanagh to kill him, but as Kavanagh lies dying, it is him, not the son, who cries. As the authorities close in and ask whom he is kneeling over, his son fights to keep from crying – apparently remembering his father’s advice about how not to cry — and replies simply, “He’s my Dad.” Belatedly, the son has found some truth in his father’s philosophy, although there is no reason to believe he accepts it whole-heartedly.

The Boys

The Boys is a twelve volume series about an off-the-books CIA team whose job is to keep super heroes in line. The series cynically assumes that super powers lead to corruption, and is full of thinly-veiled parodies of mainstream comics – for instance, the creator of the G-Men, and most of his original team, turn out to be child molesters. However, beyond the obvious critique of the traditional morality of comics, in many ways the story centers on Billy Butcher, the leader of The Boys, and Hugh “Wee Hughie” Campbell, the newest recruit.

Butcher and Wee Hughie each see the woman they love murdered by self-indulgent super heroes. However, as the son of an abusive father and as an ex-Marine who saw action in the Falklands War, Butcher’s response is to launch a decades-long campaign for revenge that ultimately leads to the attempted genocide of everyone with super powers in the world.

By contrast, Wee Hughie is “an ordinary bloke.” In that respect, he resembles Butcher’s deceased young brother. He learns to fight and kill, but, unlike Butcher, not to enjoy it. Hughie also resembles Butcher’s maternal grandfather, who lost an arm in World War Two, but refuses to dwell on those aspects of his life. Butcher is constantly trying to get Wee Hughie to accept the need for violence, but he also views him as someone who, like his younger brother, can potentially keep him from becoming a complete sociopath.

Wee Hughie’s back story is given in the eighth trade paperback of the series. Despite being an orphan, he turns out to have had an idyllic childhood, complete with adventures straight out of popular children’s literature – in fact, as the cover art makes clear, he has a childhood straight out of the British children’s annuals. However, a return to his childhood home ends in the death of one of his childhood friends. Innocence, clearly, is no option for him; violence can still affect him.

Butcher’s back story is given in the tenth trade paperback in the series. Like Kavanagh in Pride and Joy, Butcher was raised by a tough father. But where Kavanagh’s was simply macho and ultimately fell short of his own ideals, Butcher’s was outright abusive.

Uncomfortable in his growing resemblance to his father, Butcher is saved from becoming his clone by the love of his wife Becky. Trying to be worthy of her, he quits drinking, and learns to control his temper. Thanks to Becky, he also manages to get his mother to leave his father and free herself from abuse, a move that he considers the best thing he has ever done in his life.

Becky sets the limits in the relationship the first time they are in bed. She notices a scar, and as he launches into what is obviously an often-told tale, silences him with, “I don’t wanna hear war stories.” Later, as she runs a finger down his body, she muses, “All this strength. All this power. It has to be tempered. Men without women, Billy. It ain’t a good idea.”

As he lies dying at the end of the series, Butcher expands on her viewpoint: “All that macho shit, that gunfighter, Dirty Harry bollocks – it looks tasty, but in the end it’s fuckin’ self-defeatin’. It just leaves you with bodies in ditches an’ blokes with headfuls of broken glass. Men are only so much use, Hughie. Men are boys.”

Ennis does not spell out the message, but, considering the behavior of the super heroes in The Boys, it seems that men’s physical strength and social positions are just other forms of power that lead to corruption. The dying Butcher’s last advice to Wee Hughie is to return to his estranged lover. “Grab hold of her, Hughie,” Butcher advises. “Feel her strength inside yer own. An never, ever, ever let her go.”

In the closing pages, Wee Hughie takes this advice, and the series ends with a classic romantic happy ending at the end of all the destruction and political upheavals.

Preacher

Preacher is generally considered Ennis’ major work to date. The main plot concerns Jesse Custer, a young Southern minister who becomes possessed by Genesis, a creature whose power causes God to flee from heaven. Angered by this literal abdication of responsibility, Jesse sets off with his girlfriend Tulip and a hard-living vampire named Cassidy to hold God to account.

However, the story is as much about Jesse’s self-discovery, in which gender roles play a major part. The dialog even includes references to feminist theory that are used as humor for those in the know – for instance, Jesse mentions that he much prefers reading Germaine Greer to “the Dworkin woman.”

Jesse is the ideal of a Southern Gentleman: Good-looking, polite, and slow to fight but more than able to hold his own once he does. In fact, he is so much the epitome of traditional male roles that he channels the spirit of John Wayne. Early in the series, he witnesses Tulip being killed. When she is resurrected by God in an effort to placate Jesse, he remains haunted by the fear of her dying again.

After a firefight in which Tulip’s shooting skills help them to survive, this discussion takes place:

TULIP: If I was another guy, you wouldn’t have given it a second’s thought. You’d just think, “He can handle himself. Cool.” but you can’t accept the fact that I can deal with this stuff, can you?

JESSE: Honey … What I been trynna tell you is, it ain’t what’s happened at one time or other that worries me. It’s the thought of what could happen to you. It scares the livin’ shit clean out of me.

TULIP: So no matter what you see me do, you’ll never believe I can take care of myself? Jesse, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

What makes this discussion work is the fact that both views have some validity. Tulip is proud of her competence, so her anger at the thought that it might be ignored is understandable. At the same time, while Jesse’s attitude is part machismo, it is also the natural concern for someone he loves.

Unable to overcome his fears, Jesse abandons her to rescue Cassidy. When he rejoins Tulip, she leaves him handcuffed to a bed for several hours in revenge. Later, they discuss what happens:

TULIP: You know what the worst thing about it was . . .? It reminded me of when I was eight and the boys wouldn’t let me play soldiers . . . . And when you dumped me in that motel and ran off on your big guy’s adventure, I felt just as dumb and useless and stupid as they made me feel all those years ago.

JESSE: Well . . . um . . . I ain’t trynna get off the subject her or anything like that, but I really got to ask . . . How come you wanted to play soldiers, instead like with dolls an’ stuffed toys an’ shit like that?

TULIP: Remind me why I have sex with you again?

. . . .

JESSE: I know, I know. I’m constantly reexaminin’ my approach to gender issues. But sometimes I slip up . . .

Despite the humor and Jesse’s best efforts to act differently, the problem remains. In the sixth trade paperback, they discuss it again:

TULIP: Nothing but demeaning, patronizing, sexist, macho crap

JESSE: Or badly phrased love.

TULIP: Can you think of a single reason why I shouldn’t kill you for trying a line like that?

Yet, as they start to make love, and, she murmurs, “Don’t ever change,” suggesting that, at some level, she responds to the machismo that she verbally condemns. While the limits of Jesse’s ethics anger her, his code of behavior is part of what makes him deeply attractive to her.

In the end, Jesse is unable to overcome his fears, and abandons her again as he goes into action. Waking after being drugged by Jesse, Tulip arms herself while muttering, “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to save his stupid fucking life for him – and then I’m going to kill him.”

For Tulip, this is the last betrayal. At the end of the series, when Jesse catches up with her at the bus depot, she asks him, “Do you think breaking your word doesn’t matter when it’s to a woman? Do you think honor is something that only counts between men?” Jesse starts to give his usual rationales, but even he is aware that he has gone too far. He breaks off with, “I ain’t got no defense.”

Chasing after her, he finally admits that their love is what matters most to him, and that “I do know that I have to change a little, if this macho bullshit you talked about is gonna keep getting’ in the way.” Unable to shed a tear ever since he watched his father’s murder, faced with losing Tulip, he finally manages to cry. “I guess I must be learnin’,” he says, and this sign of humanity gives Tulip and Jesse their last minute happy ending.

Yet as though to show that Ennis is not willing to completely abandon machismo, the last pages of the series show Cassidy waking, newly human again. He starts to put on his sunglasses, the symbol of his irresponsible lifestyle, then throws them away. “I think I’ll try actin’ like a man,” he tells himself. The macho code may be flawed, but it is still better than the amorality with which Cassidy lived as a vampire – if for no other reason than because it prohibits abusing women.

The Power of Ambiguity

I am not claiming that gender issues are all that Ennis’ work is about. But I do suggest that their importance have been overshadowed by more obvious aspects of his work, such as the critique of the comics tradition. No one who is not deeply interested in a subject would return to it as often as Ennis does gender issues.

Nor am I agreeing with Ennis’ positions. If nothing else, I can imagine few women who want to think that their role is as the redeemers and moral compasses for their lovers and spouses. Yet, despite everything, Ennis’ discussion of gender roles works in a way that Dave Sims’ does not, and is far less offensive.

The reason, I think, is that Ennis seems genuinely divided on the subject. On the one hand, he is obsessed with machismo, and of how manly men interact with each other. On the other hand, he also views machismo as ultimately childish, and needing to give way to a less violent maturity that can only be won through the love of wife and family. The places where machismo operates may be the places where he finds stories, but he also considers those who remain there too long as immature.

This unresolved dichotomy, I suspect, is what keeps Ennis from descending into polemic. Genuinely fascinated by all perspectives on gender – including women’s – he weaves his interest into the sub-plots rather than interrupting the action to lecture. You don’t have to agree with his perspectives to see that the result is the complexity of true art.

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So-called men’s rights advocates make me impatient. Yes, men’s roles are changing, and modern men need to think more about the changes. But men’s rights advocates are so vicious, so full of a sense of entitlement that I find sympathizing with them impossible. Instead, I am simply astonished that anybody could be so wrong in so many different ways at the same time.

I may not be an expert on identity, but I have been around long enough that I’m no stranger to the issues, either. From my own ups and down and self-questioning, I can say with some assurance that no one can build a healthy sense of identity based upon:

  • A negative identity based upon what you are not. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a negative identity in the short-run; for instance, most boys and girls go through a period in which they claim to dislike everything to do with each other. But in the long run, a negative identity requires constant reinforcement. In the case of men’s right advocates, that means a constant and tiresome denunciation of women and supposedly feminine traits.
  • Bullying or abuse. Not only are both socially unacceptable, but neither creates a stable personality.
  • An assumption that you have the right to every woman’s time and space. Believe it or not, most women have their own priorities, which do not include listening to a man’s passing attraction to them, dealing with a man sitting too close to them, or putting their own concerns on hold for a man. Even a man in a permanent relationship can’t assume that; if he does, the relationship is unlikely to last long.
  • A sense of privilege. While many people unconsciously think of themselves as the stars of their own movies, most people learn that other people are not extras in that movie. The learning process is called growing up, and it involves a reining-in of the ego.
  • Considering yourself a victim of women (or anyone else). You can’t assert your own rights to self-realization by complaining when other people do the same. Ironically, the traditional gender roles whose loss men’s rights advocates frequently bemoan would find this attitude shameful.
  • Equating the difficulties faced by modern women and men. With the changes in modern society, men feel uncertain. But women are also likely to face abuse and discrimination. The two are not even remotely comparable, no matter how much anyone quibbles and rationalizes.
  • Trying to continue old narratives. Personally, I suspect that the old gender roles were never as simple as the nostalgia of men’s rights advocates would make them. At the most, people – mostly women – simply suffered in isolation. But, whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. Whatever value the old roles might or might not have had, they’re gone, and for strong social and economic reasons. They’re not coming back.
  • Creating an imaginary opposition. In the case of men’s right’s advocates, this opposition is generally “all women” or “all feminists.” Either way, everyone lumped into the category is assumed to act or think the same way. This is a map so different from the territory as to be useless for anything.
  • Not listening. Much of the rhetoric of the men’s right movement seems dedicated to denying the truths of women’s lives – claims that women really don’t face discrimination, that gender differences in pay are reasonable, that rape doesn’t happen as often as the statistics suggest, and isn’t so bad as women claim. The trouble is, these things are not only too well-documented, but – more importantly – too well-witnessed that anyone can do more than nitpick about the details. Not only is that a waste of time, but believing such things mean that you are acting on faulty intel. Act on faulty intel, and you end up doing things like invading Iraq.
  • Anything so fragile as gender. Gender may be all-important to adolescents or to transsexuals trying to figure where they fit. However, for the rest of us, it’s not the only source of self-identity, or necessarily the most important. You need much more to build any sense of identity.

I could go on and on, but my point is clear enough: The men’s rights movement is based on half-truths and psychologically unhealthy. Its complaints are a form of mourning for a social order that never existed the way its members imagine, and the only reason not to dismiss it completely is that even an out-of-touch group can still be dangerous.

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I had barely been at university for twenty minutes before I realized how inadequate it could make people feel. I had just sat down near the top right of the cavernous lecture theater for Introduction to Fiction when a young woman dressed in pink and white arrived.

She looked so upset that I immediately asked, “Is everything okay?”

She burst into tears. “Can I do anything for you?”

She shook her head, and sat for maybe a minute, sniffling. Abruptly, she fled up the stairs of the lecture theater and disappeared into the hall.

Possibly, she broke down because she was embarrassed that a stranger had noticed her. But I imagined that, like me, she was new to the campus and overwhelmed by the experience. During my first year, I remembered her many times, as well as my own inability to help her, although I never saw her again.

Not that I ever broke down and cried, but I could understand how someone might want to. My first year of university was a time when most of the assumptions by which I lived my life changed. I was abruptly free to do almost anything I wanted, but with that freedom came a vast indifference. It was all the same to the university whether I attended classes or not. Nobody care if I handed in assignments. Whatever I did, the university would continue to grind on the same as ever, processing whatever data it had about me exactly the same way as it would any other data. I had deliberately gone to a university where few of my high school friends had gone, and now I was feeling lonely with the intensity that only teenagers have.

The second semester, if anything, was worse than the first. Noticing that the subject matter got much more specific in second year, I had deliberately arranged my first semester so I could take second year classes in my second semester.

Consequently, I felt massively inadequate. The teaching assistant, let alone the professor, seemed so much more knowledgeable than me that I despaired of ever equaling them. How, I kept asking myself had I ever imagined that reading through my high school library could possibly prepare me for university courses? My grades were high, but I felt like I was surviving by luck alone. I was an impostor, elbowing myself in to a place I had no business being, and it was only a matter of time before I was denounced as the phony I obviously was.

I started talking every chance I could during the tutorial, hoping that, as unlikely as it seemed, I might make up in participation what I lacked in knowledge. The ploy seemed desperate, since I had already figured out that, unlike high school, university reacted to results rather than effort. I was steering a narrow line along the edge of panic, sure that I was about to fall off at any second.

One day, a woman in my tutorial with whom I had had coffee once or twice remarked about how much I seemed to know.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “I just know how to fake it.” If the words were flippant, my tone was anything but.
She looked dubious, so I added, “Seriously, I just know how to make the most of what I do know.”

Later that day, on the bus home, I realized that, in trying to sound modest I had said something important and true. Over the next few weeks, I started thinking of the possible implications.

One of my courses was Romantic and Victorian Literature, and we had spend an inordinate amount of time on Wordsworth, who was the professor’s and teaching assistant’s special interest. But, when we turned to Shelley, I was able to correct something the professor said in lecture, and one tutorial, it was obvious that I knew considerably more about Shelley than the teaching assistant did.

These instances cheered me immensely. Even more importantly, in thinking about them, I realized an obvious but important fact: I was never going to absorb all the possible knowledge in the world, as I had vaguely assumed possible in high school. In fact, I was never going to do as much as win a general overview of all possible knowledge. The best I could was find a niche or two of expertise.

On other subjects, the best I could do was sound attentive and learn a few basic facts – faking it, if I was feeling cynical, or accepting my limits, if I was being realistic. No matter how much I tried, there would always be people who knew more than I did on some subjects. But that didn’t matter because, that was reciprocal – in my chosen specialties, they would be as out of their depths as I would be in theirs.

In some ways, I never have outgrown my childhood wish to know everything. Decades later, I still prefer to be a generalist, knowing a little about as many subjects as possible rather than a lot about a single thing. For better or worse, I have what my partner used to call “a magpie mind,” that’s always being distracted by shiny new tidbits of information.

But more to the point, that was the end of most of my feelings of inadequacy. I was – or could be – on an equal footing with almost anyone, if only I chose to make the effort. True, there might sometimes be geniuses whose expertise I could never match. But I could choose to win a rough competence, and even geniuses would have areas where they were less than brilliant.

With these conclusions, I learned to live with myself, as well as freeing myself to admire experts without jealousy. I still had flashes of inadequacy, but, in general, I never thought of myself as an impostor ever again. At worst, I am only ever a person at the start of a particular learning curve that I might or might not choose to ascend some day.

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The more I see of Gary Minaker Russ’ work, the more I consider him the leading argillite carver working today. His attention to detail, his variety of designs, and his restrained use of inlay all combine to put him in a category all by himself. So, naturally, when he was in town a few weeks ago with two mid-sized carvings, I jumped at the chance to buy. Not being able to afford both, I narrowly turned down “Raven and Frog Inside Of a Halibut,” a formal piece squared into an upright rectangle, in favor of “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.”

haida-thunderbird-capturing-killer-whale

I’m pleased with my purchase, although part of me still wonders if I should have bought the other piece – or, better yet, found a way to buy both. But, having narrowly missed buying a cedar sculpture of the same subject a few weeks previously, I still half-feel that karma was urging me to the one I chose.

The thunderbird, of course, is perhaps the best-known figure from First Nations mythology – although I would be hesitant to equate the figure found in the Pacific Northwest with similar ones in the Eastern, Plains, or Southwest cultures to any degree.

In popular modern culture, the thunderbird is simply very large, and somehow creates thunder and lightning. However, among the first nations of the Pacific Northwest, the feature that makes it stand out is simply this: The thunderbird is a creature so large that it hunts whales. Considering that the killer whale is by far the largest animal seen from shore or near it – true whales being usually found further out – that makes the thunderbird a truly monstrous size.

In “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale,” Russ has reduced the thunderbird’s size somewhat, making it closer to that of the killer whale, and the capture less one-sided than if the thunderbird was significantly larger. The thunderbird. It fills the left side of the piece, its head upraised in what looks like a grimace, identified by its curved beak (and, yes, those are teeth, and never mind that natural birds don’t have any). It grips the killer whale by its dorsal fin and head, almost hugging it with a wing that sweeps across the center of the piece.

Otherwise, the killer whale lies passive in its grip, bent almost double by the thunderbird’s strength, so that its tail at the top right is almost at right angles to the head at the bottom center. The thunderbird may be straining, and appears buffeted by the loose tail, but the killer whale is caught and probably moments from death.

What at first glance seems an abstract clutter of body parts becomes, on closer examination, a moment of tension, with greater violence due in a matter of seconds.

The fact that the thunderbird appears almost whole– although in profile – while the killer whale takes a moment to recognize suggests the inevitable winner of the fight. So, too, does the difference in the eyes, the killer whale’s round one suggesting passiveness, compared the thunderbird’s elongated one.

Yet this is not a formline design that keeps the eye moving around the entire composition until you have understood the various shapes. Only the wing operates in that way, the eye’s movement seemingly transferred to the wing itself, creating an impression that it is beating, another of the thunderbird’s weapon and, perhaps, helping it to hang on. On the rest of the thunderbird and all of the whale, the formline is more stiff, leading nowhere and slowing the recognition of the scene – an effect that reinforces the sense that the carving is capturing a brief moment of chaotic violence.

Although you might not be able to see clearly from the photo, Russ’ carving of the scene reinforces the struggle by the depth of carving. Most of the sculpture is in low relief, the figures looking slightly squished. But the whale’s head is carved more shallowly than any other part, barely emerging from the background surface. By contrast, its still free tail is raised almost twice as high, and the thunderbird’s head and tail three or four times.

However, for me, the master touch is that the piece is entirely in low-relief – all except for the thunderbird’s claws, which are in high-relief, and rendered realistically rather than with the usual shapes of the northern form-line. This difference literally makes the claws stand out from the rest of the design, making them identifiable when the rest of the carving is still a jumble of forms to your eye. In a very real sense, the claws are what matter most in the scene: they control the killer whale and will shortly rend it.

In the end, this reinforcement of the subject with technique that swayed me to buy “Thunderbird Capturing Killer Whale.” As I often do with sculpture, I am keeping it beside my computer desk, where I can appreciate it while I begin the leisurely process of deciding its more permanent position in my townhouse.

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