Archive for May, 2013

Coming back from the pool the other evening, I saw a neighbor dressed in a suit, pacing by his car. He was going to his son’s high school graduation, and worrying that his family was going to be late. I hadn’t thought of my own graduation in years, but before I had reached my front door, the memories drifted back.

For me, graduation came about two years too late. My last two years were memorable largely for Creative Writing, Literature, cross-country and track, and a boredom that I increasingly hid under a diffident politeness while I waited for school to be over. I was given a grudging respect for my running championships, so none of my classmates ever bothered me, but I had developed a reputation as a loner, and was mostly content to keep things that way.

Moreover, for the last six weeks of the year, I had convinced all my teachers except one that my time would best be spent preparing for the provincial exams, in which I was expected to do the school proud. So far as I was concerned, I had already made my mental good-byes.

Still, the ceremony meant something to my parents, so I dutifully climbed into my suit. The summer weather had hit early, and almost immediately I was sweating.

My diffidence had found a new gear, so I remember little of the ceremony. I remember looking from the stage over the gym, where more mothers and fathers and siblings had been crammed into the bleachers and the folding chairs on the floor than I would have imagined. I remember sweating under the lights, and being more bored than I had been in Grade 12 French, which for some months previous had been my standard for measuring boredom against.

Dimly, a small corner of me was scorning the platitudes that speaker after speaker offered to the graduating class. Did these people even remember what being a young adult was like? I wondered. Most of them seemed to have no idea that the advice they offered would have been out of place in an idealized 1953.

I no longer remember the name of the guest speaker. But I do remember that he was an architect of some small local fame, and that he took ninety minutes to develop some analogy between growing up and building a house that I stopped trying to follow after ten minutes.

All I remember of his speech is that, seventy minutes in, a fat old man stood up, pulled on his suspenders with his thumbs and said something like, “If you’re such a great architect, could you build a gym that would house all of us here tonight without half of us collapsing from the heat?”

He was cheered, but the guest speaker gave only a sentence or two in reply before returning to his topic.

Finally, the boredom was over, and the graduates duly marched across the stage. There would be another ceremony in September, after the provincial exam results were released, in which those of us who won scholarships would be officially presented with them, so this exercise was token. We shuffled forward to receive blank sheets of rolled paper, then descended the stairs to the stage and rushed into the hallway to open the back doors, tearing off our jackets and taking turns at the drinking fountain.

Then, suddenly, boys and girls I had known for years – some since I was six – were shaking each others’ hands, and saying things like, “Good to have known you.” They sounded like they were trying to voice the sentiments they had put into year books.

Still stupefied by boredom and heat, I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Most of us would be living in our parents’ houses for the next few years – we lived in a privileged municipality, where the university attendance rate was well over 90%. We would still be neighbors. We could still see each other, if we liked. In most cases, I didn’t like, but we would still probably encounter each other regardless.

I felt like everyone was mouthing the sentiments they thought the occasion demanded, not anything they really felt or believed. After a few minutes of such glad-handing, I escaped upstairs to join my family, anticipating getting home and changing into shorts and a T-shirt.

However, as things turned out, the farewells were warranted. That was the last time I was together with my graduating class until seven years ago when I went to my first reunion (who knows why). Almost all my class was headed to the University of British Columbia, while I opted for the younger, then edgier Simon Fraser University on the other side of town, which reduced the chance encounters and what little socializing I might have done. By the time a handful started at Simon Fraser, I was ahead of them, and had even less in common with them than I had had in high school.

Since then, I haven’t looked back very often. All that really remains of my graduation is a sense of pity that, at this time of year, millions of young adults are enduring boredom for the sake of their families, while the families are enduring an equally acute boredom in the face of platitudes for the sake of the young adults. I hope that none of them have to endure guest speakers like the architect who graced my own graduation ceremony.

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I was in high school when I realized that being observant was not just a talent or trait – that to be observant, you had to know what to observe.

I made this discovery because I had decided that, if I were going to write poetry, I needed to educate myself about traditional verse. Armed with a rhyming dictionary with a good prologue, I set out to learn about metric feet: iambs, trochees, anapests, and dactyls, along with outliers like spondees. Through repetition, reading, and practice sonnets, I learned to recognize each foot in a way that I never had naturally (although I had heard of them long ago). I learned that what you could consider an accented syllable varied with the sounds around it, and how some syllables could count as accented or unaccented depending on how you pronounced them. I learned, too, that free verse was not an absence of meter, but an absence of consistent meter (a subtlety that escapes three-quarters of modern poets, and how the whole idea of metric feet did and didn’t fit the way that English was used.

For a while, I became so obsessive that I went around mentally scanning everything that I and people around me were saying. I don’t think anyone noticed the inevitable slowness that crept into my speech, but I was relieved when I finally shook off the obsession. I soon found myself publishing my first poems, and left with a means of perception that most people lacked.

Much the same thing happened in grad school when I realized that, if I were going to teach composition to students, I needed to know more about essay structure. Accordingly, I summarized the sections of essays I admired from people like George Orwell or Gloria Steinhem, making notes of the tactics used. What were the different ways of starting an essay? Of concluding? How should points be arranged? When should opposing views be mentioned, and how should they be handled?

A few years later, I did the same with fiction, both short stories and fiction. Then, as I started exploring graphic design, I did the same with font selection and layout – so thoroughly that I still sometimes walk down a commercial street critiquing the signs. Usually, there’s a lot to criticize, since, to say the least, our culture is not exactly graphically literate.

Each of these circumstances left me with a different way of seeing from most people. Or, rather, I perceived the same things as everyone else, but I understood what details mattered. I could understand, too, how well what I perceived fit together. Instead of a generalized reaction, I could go into detail (usually more than anyone else wanted to know) about exactly what created my reaction.

Some people might argue that I have lost my spontaneous reaction as a result. They might say, for instance, than I can no longer watch a badly written movie, because I can anticipate what is going to happen and, sometimes, when the script writer has become especially lazy, even what the characters are going to say and what will happen to them.

To some extent, that claim might be true. However, my self-taught expertise can tell me to avoid the movie, which I consider an advantage. Or, depending on my mood, I might watch it anyway with a two-track mind, one responding as an uncritical consumer, and one running in parallel observing what doesn’t work and why.

Far from losing anything, I believe that I have gained from acquiring expert vision of selected fields. Because of my efforts, I not only respond, but can articulate why I respond the way I do. In looking for greater knowledge of what I was experience, I have also gained knowledge of both myself and others – and that’s never a fact that I’ll regret.

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I’ve got scar tissue, I’ve got cash in hand,
Got a season’s ticket to the promised land,
And I do this for a living, Mister, don’t you understand
That I’m dancing, dancing, dancing
Dancing as fast as I can.

– Oysterband

I never knew my maternal grandmother well. She died when I was a few years old, leaving my grandfather to live alone for another two decades. I remember him as a quiet man, with a methodical way of moving and a mildly abstracted air. Even as a child, I knew I didn’t understand something about him, but I’ve only realized after being a widower myself for the last three years what I didn’t understand.

Or perhaps I don’t understand, and I am projecting my own feelings to make them seem more universal. But I suspect that, so far as he was concerned, those last two decades were an extended epilogue to his life. He never seemed particularly unhappy, but as a widower he seemed to live in a minor key, as though his life were mildly pleasant, but not very important, as though what mattered to him had already happened.

At least, that’s how I interpret him, because that’s how I feel now. I don’t lack friends or family, and I retain interests in art, books and music that keep me busy. But long range plans? A new lover or partner? I live contentedly enough without the expectation of either.

Apparently, this is a state of mind that you have to experience to understand. When I try to explain it, inevitably people conclude that I must be unhappy or in need of cheering up. They tell me to be patient and not to rule anything out. If they have been widowed themselves and remarried, they use themselves as an example of the possibilities that might await me, if only I choose.

Worst are those who ask if I’m seeing anyone. I’m not, and increasingly people are starting to urge me to try, to sign up for online dating, or take a night school course where I might meet someone. Any day, I expect efforts to set me up with a blind date. Sometimes, it feels like I’m a character in a TV episode whose problems they expect to be wrapped up neatly in an hour between the commercials and distractions of everyday life.

What they don’t understand is that I don’t feel like I have any problem that is in any urgent need of solving. Yes, I might be overly aware that implicit in letting someone new into your life is the likelihood that one of you is the fact that one of you will eventually watch the other one die. And it’s true that, after several monogamous decades, I know less about meeting women than the average fourteen year old.

But while I’m sometimes lonely, I’ve fallen into the patterns of a solitary life. You might say that I’m content with the moment, that I’m reluctant to look for more after the patterns of my life were abruptly demolished, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’ve found enough shreds of purpose to keep me vaguely satisfied. I’m not longing for more, nor am I feeling thwarted or incomplete. Just having a routine after wading through grief is a relief, and I don’t need a grand love or cause to give me direction.

Could everybody try to understand that’s good enough, and control their urge to interfere? Do that for me, and I promise the same studied neutrality when you go through widowhood yourself, okay?

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At First Nations art galleries in Vancouver, Mitch and Diana Adams have a reputation as an effective sales team. Being the artist, Mitch does much of the talking, but because Diana at one remove from the discussions with gallery owners, she is an astute observer of what is happening, and is actively involved in strategic planning.

Several weeks ago when I was in Terrace for the Freda Diesing School graduation ceremony, I asked her what advice she would give young artists about dealing with galleries. Diana responded in detail as we had dinner at Boston Pizza, with Mitch throwing in the occasional comment.

Diana is able to contribute because of her own lengthy experience in sales. “I grew up in a family restaurant business,” she says, “So selling comes naturally to me. As a waitress, my job was to sell the meal. My favorite situation was when people would go, ‘I don’t know. What do you recommend?’ I’d find out what don’t they want to eat, what’s their budget, what they are allergic to, and take it from there.”

Some of what she knows about sales comes from observing her father. However, Diana has been selling her own bead work for several decades. She still remembers her first effort at a Tupperware-like party, where she sold $450 worth of merchandise, confounding her parents’ expectations.

Since then, Diana and Mitch have sold regularly at music and craft festivals through northern British Columbia. For seventeen years, they have been regulars at the Terrace farmers’ market, during which time they have fine-tuned their partnership in sales.

Preparing and handling anxiety

Some artists, especially established ones, can sell to the major galleries in southwest British Columbia without ever visiting Vancouver or Victoria. However, the business of First Nations arts remains very much a face-to-face proposition, and young artists in particular are more likely to make sales when they talk to a gallery’s buyer directly.

Asked how she approaches selling Mitch’s work to a gallery, Diana emphasizes a strategic approach. “I take it on as though I’m applying for a job,” she says. “I do my background homework. I’ll look at a store or a gallery that I want to deal with. I will go in, and not tell them that I’m looking to sell to them. I will observe how they treat their customers. I’ll also see the quality of what they sell. If they have a pamphlet, I will take one, or Google them on the Internet.” She does not worry much about prices, figuring that is not her concern, but she will note at the quality of what is sold, and how staff treats customers.

The point of this research is to decide whether they want Mitch’s work in that gallery. “What a lot of artists don’t understand,” she says, “is that they have an option of deciding whether this is a gallery to deal with or not. I want to know that I’ll be dealing with someone who is dependable, approachable, fair to deal with, and able to give criticism. If I offer them something they’re not interested in, I want to be able to dialog about it. As much as I might want to be a client of theirs, or leave works on consignment, I need to know that I can have a professional working relationship with them.”

Before approaching a gallery’s buyer, Diana and Mitch discuss what pieces to show, their prices – both the price they want, and a bottom-line figure that they will accept as a last resort – and what to say about each piece. This preparation, she stresses, is absolutely essential. “Gallery owners have told us that’s one of their pet peeves, when artists approach them and they don’t know the price of an item. That’s a death-sentence, right there.”

She also notes that, on an introductory visit, artists can expect a lot of questions. Galleries “want to make sure that you are the artist, and not someone else. If you’re the artist, you would know the answers right down to the details.” Forgery and theft are regular events in local First Nations art, so galleries want an indication that the seller truly is the artist.

Another reason for preparation is that it helps to reduce nervousness. “It’s always nerve-wracking. I’ve done it countless times, but there’s still that excitement and anxiety, because you want to do well. But you can’t be overly anxious or insecure, or you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

Another way to reduce anxiety is to take someone with you. However, Diana immediately adds, “Don’t take anyone who’s going to undermine you. Don’t take anyone who doesn’t know anything about your art or will second-guess you.”

Instead, the second person should be either silent, or an active partner. “There’s been times when Mitch has forgot something,” she says, “but I always give him a chance to speak first. But if he forgets something, I’ll come forward. I’ll look at him, and if I know that he’s done talking, I will say my piece.”

According to Diana, planning not only relieves anxiety, but also helps to present yourself as a professional who is easy to deal with. She suggests role-playing the presentation of your artwork, and even approaching galleries you do not plan to deal with so that you can rehearse and prepare yourself for visits to the galleries you hope to work with.

Making the visit and the first impression

“We don’t expect a sale on first visit,” Diana says. “We hope we make a sale, but the whole point is making contact.

Her emphasis is on professionalism throughout. “Dress as though approaching a job,” she advises, “as though leaving a resume. Make sure that the work is well-presented, not carried in a garbage bag. Because if we have no respect for the art, it’s going to show. We use an artist’s portfolio, because presentation is everything. Some of the people we’ve approached have been quite reserved, but we still put on a professional smile, and say what our purpose is.”

Diana also suggests that body-language is important. “Smile,” she advises. “Have good eye contact [with the buyer]. “Don’t cross your arms. Remember to breathe.”

After the introduction, the actual presentation of the pieces is left to Mitch, on the grounds that as the artist he is the one best qualified to talk about them.. “I try to be halfway through explaining the piece as I hand it to them,” he says.

He also gives some thought to the order of presentation. “What I like to do is not give them my best piece right off the bat. Instead, I lead up to it. And I think they see it, too, that the best piece is still to come. But they’ll be lining the pieces up, and hopefully they’ll be being wowed by the pieces that aren’t the best ones.”

If the discussion turns towards the price of any of the pieces, the Adams’ policy is to hold firm to their original asking price, falling back slowly to their minimum only if they strongly want the sale.

“You can’t be desperate,” Diana says, adding as a warning, “never say to anyone, ‘I’ve got bills to pay.’ Never say that because, really, it has nothing to do with the gallery owner. That’s a form of manipulation. It’s a really poor sales technique, because the person who’s being spoken to feels bad and put on the spot. It leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and makes them want to avoid you in the future.”

Some buyers, according to Diana, will claim to find flaws as a tactic for lowering the purchase price; they should be ignored and not cause you to waver in your price. Others may mention what they perceive as flaws as explanations as to why they are not buying; their criticism can be considered later. In fact, once or twice, Mitch has gained credibility by acting on such criticism and taking a piece back to the criticizer for another look.


Many inexperienced artists are disappointed when they fail to sell after a first visit. Many will give up and avoid that gallery. However, as Diana emphasizes repeatedly, you shouldn’t count on making a sale after a first visit.

In fact, at one gallery, the Adamses visited three times before making a sale. “But we kept going back, introducing ourselves, and reminding the purchasing agent who we were. We didn’t take [rejection] personally; we just thought they weren’t able to purchase.”

The truth is, you may never know why most sales fail. Often, the reason will have little to do with you or the artwork, or only in the most indirect way. For example, “there’s some galleries that only buy big items, and Mitch does only miniatures. We needed to keep that in mind, and not take it personally. There’s no reason to be rude, even when they’re rude; we just stay professional, and thank them for their time.”

After an initial visit, Diana and Mitch discuss the experience, and decide whether they want to continue trying to sell to a particular gallery. Sometimes, they may decide not to return, even if the buyer seemed interested in Mitch’s work, because they have decided to deal with only a limited number of galleries so that they can focus on building long-term rapport.

If they do return for another visit, they prepare for subsequent visits in much the same way as the first. The main difference, Diana says is that “we’re not so tense.”
Also, the introduction may become more personal and friendly. “I try to remember something about that person that they shared with me,” Diana says, such as the birth of a grandchild or a trip they have recently taken. But “the contact is still professional. It’s intimate, but it’s not stepping over a line.”

Trying to sell your work to a gallery can often be difficult and full of anxiety. Unsurprisingly, mistakes can be made. For instance, Diana recalls “one time when Mitch got so nervous that he put his hand over his mouth, and what he was saying came across as very muffled. All I could do was reach over and pull his hand down, and he kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ Then he realized what he had done.”

Diana continues, “Some people beat themselves up about moments like that, but there’s nothing you can really do except laugh.” She advises other artists not to dwell on such circumstances, but to focus on being prepared and professional, focusing not just on a first sale, but on a long-term relationship that will also eventually produced a second and a third sale, and many more over their career.

That is the approach that Diana and Mitch are taking, and so far it seems to be working. Listening to their war stories, it is obvious that it hasn’t always worked exactly as they hoped. However, it has worked well enough that Mitch is well on his way to establishing himself as an artist.

Much of the credit is due to his finishing skills and original designs – but at least as much should probably go to the successful sales strategies and partnership that Diana and Mitch have developed. Watch them even once, as I have done, and you’ll know how professionals deal in the world of First Nations art.

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As I write, my native British Columbia is halfway through an election. As usual, pundits looking for a subject to pronounce upon have noticed the increasing decline in voter turn out in the last couple of decades and taken on the task of lecturing everyone on the importance of voting. Apparently, they never once stop to consider that there may be valid reasons for someone not to vote.

Instead, they assume that the only virtuous choice is to vote. Voting, the pundits insist, is a civic obligation. Or, if it isn’t, then it should be, the way it is in Australia. If you don’t vote, they claim, you have no right to complain about government decisions for the next few years. They also like to point out the fact that, in other parts of the world (and usually there is at least one place people can mention) are fighting for the right to vote – all of which they suggest goes to show that non-voters are irresponsible shirkers who don’t deserve to live in Canada.

The trouble with this rhetoric is that it has gone unexamined long enough that no one notices its fallacies. To start with, currently the only legal obligation that a resident of Canada has is to pay their taxes. In World War Two, conscientious objectors weren’t even obliged to fight; they could do public service instead. Voting, so far, is not an obligation of residency. Nor is it by any means certain that compulsory voting makes for better government or anything besides a smug satisfaction at high voter turnouts.

Similarly, telling people they have no right to complain will do nothing to stop them complaining. Complaining isn’t a right; it’s something people do all the time regardless..

It is true that people are fighting for the vote in other parts of the world, but those situations are not particularly comparable to what is happening in Canada. The Arab Spring, for instance, was a series of revolts against totalitarianism, in which voting was only one aspect of the reforms that many sought. By contrast, the voting decline in Canada is about disillusion or apathy with parliamentary democracy – a problem that is the polar opposite of what is happening in places where the fight is to establish democracy in the first place..

What isn’t usually examined is the fact that voting is no longer the only way to influence government actions. Activism, ranging from polite letter writing and rallies to rioting, is a way of life in British Columbia. At times, these various forms of activism can be highly effective, as the protests against new pipelines in the province demonstrate. An activist might validly argue that they have a stronger influence on provincial policy through their activism than they could have through voting.

For other non-voters I know, their choice is a matter of conscience. Politicians, they argue, are only superficially in charge of the province. The real influence is in the hands of non-elected bureaucrats. That being so, elections are a fraud that create only the illusion of democracy. If that is so, they ask, then as people who want to behave ethically, they choose not to participate in an exercise that dis-empowers the members of the public while pretending to empower them.

Another non-voter I know was accused of a crime largely to further other people’s careers. They contracted post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, and to this day they believe that the governments of British Columbia and Canada failed them. To vote, they maintain, would be to support the forces that came close to destroying their lives — to tacitly acknowledge that the government had the right to abuse them.

None of these reasons for not voting are trivial or irresponsible. If anything, they are ethically-based reasons. You may or may not consider them logical or sufficient, but neither are they easily dismissed — unless, of course, you have closed your mind to any beliefs other than your own. Yet such motivations are never even considered when people argue that everyone should vote.

That’s not surprising, though. If such cases were considered, then one of the main causes of voter apathy would have to be addressed – the fact that politicians, on the whole, are out of touch with the public and its concerns.

And if people admitted this well-known fact publicly, who knows? There just might be a call to change the way politics are done. In the end, it’s far easier to blame those who are disillusioned than to suggest how the political process might re-engage them.

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