Archive for December, 2013

When the homeless ask for spare change, I generally give what I have. The fact that some of them are undoubtedly going to use my contribution to buy their drug of choice fails to bother me – I figure it’s none of my business, and I can’t be sure that in their position I wouldn’t buy a few hours of escape myself. But every now and then, I meet a panhandler who pushes hard, demanding more than I am willing or able to give.

It’s not that I imagine that parting with a dollar or two gives me any right to gratitude. They are probably frustrated by having dozens of passersby ignore them. Nor am I to blame if they conclude from my blandly wholesome face that I am an easy mark. But when someone pushes me, I turn stubborn.

Usually, the result is only being sworn at and maybe followed a few steps. Occasionally, though, I meet a panhandler whose stubbornness matches my own.

Once, for example, I was walking from the Chinatown-Stadium Skytrain station to Yaletown when a man approached me saying that he needed money for a bus ticket to Whistler. The bus was leaving in twenty minutes from in front of the Hotel Vancouver, he said.
I suspected he was lying – the excuse is a common one, and I happened to have looked up the bus schedule a few days previously. Yet I gave him a few dollars. It wasn’t enough for a bus ticket, but the deadline was a new twist, and I thought he deserved the handout for his creativity.

Immediately, though, he started demanding more. I said (truthfully) that I had no spare change or bills until I went to the bank. He then said he would accompany me to the bank, and started to walk along with me, alternately telling me long, rambling stories about his life and repeating his request for more money and cursing the selfishness of rich people like me who wouldn’t help him. My repeated insistence that he was not getting more from me apparently went unheard.

The time was early afternoon, but it occurred to me that an attempted mugging was a possibility. I made sure that he was never behind me, and kept walking at a steady pace, determined not to appear nervous or afraid, either of which might provoke an account.
At the bank, the security guards let me in, but not him. He backed away, yelling that I had promised him money, and I joined a long and slow-moving line of customers, even though I had no account at the bank. When he finally gave up, I left the line and got my money from the bank machine.

On Christmas Day, I met another persistent panhandler while waiting for the bus in from of The Bay downtown. I was sitting on the bench at 9:30 in the morning when a passing woman seemed to size me up in passing and return to sit beside me.

With a Quebecois accent, she poured out a series of reasons for needing money. She needed to get breakfast, she told me. She had two kids in a car a few blocks away who needed to eat. She wanted money to stay at a shelter. In a similar rush of contradictions, she said that she was a good girl, that she didn’t do drugs, that she needed the money to get to an addict support meeting.

I gave her what change I had. It was less than she said she needed, and she insisted I must have more money in my wallet. I said she could easily find the rest, and she insisted that the locals were not so generous. She suggested going to a bank machine, and I refused, pointing out that I was waiting for a bus. She said that the Virgin Mary had told her that I would be the person who helped her, and that if I bought a lottery ticket that day, I would surely win.

Over and over, I told her that she had had all that I was prepared to give. Over and over, she changed her story, as though a new one might make me change my mind.

Before very long in this development, others waiting for the bus had moved away – although not so far that they were unable to hear. I was starting to think that only boarding my bus would let me escape, when she abruptly gave up and stalked down the street, obviously furious.

Such encounters disturb me. I am reluctant to ignore those begging on the street, yet, at the same time, I dislike being pressured into doing something, or to be thought gullible. Usually, I spend several hours after them wondering if I have been arrogant or handled the situation well. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have been afraid rather than annoyed.

But I see no way of solving the dilemma to anyone’s satisfaction, so it is sure to happen again – most likely when I am tired or distracted and want nothing better than to be left alone and not to see such social problems first-hand.

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Every now and then, someone takes a harsh view of my journalism – not my how-tos and reviews so much as my commentary. From some people’s perspectives, I am trolling, trying to deliberately create controversy, specifically in the hopes of getting more page hits on my articles. I never quite know how to answer such attacks, because they are so far from what actually happens that I doubt they would believe my explanations could possibly be true.

However, if I did try to explain, I would have to start with the fact that I am a writer, not an editor. Unlike an editor, I hardly think about page hits. Page hits may affect whether a given website continues to buy my articles, and occasionally an editor will veto a suggested topic on the grounds that it has never done well, but otherwise? Planning writing around page hits sounds all too likely to mean writing about topics that don’t particularly interest me, or about which I have nothing original to say. If I wanted to write that way, I would go back to writing technical manuals, which not only pays more, but also pays more regularly.

My first consideration when choosing a topic is whether I can write about it while it is still timely. Online articles are rarely current for more than a few days, and sometimes my other obligations or the complexity of what I would like to say mean that I have no time to do a particular topic. justice, even if it interests me. Rather than do a superficial job, in these situations I prefer to ignore a topic altogether.

However, for me, the biggest perq of journalism is that I get to write about what interests me, restricted only by the need for editorial approval. When I am generating topics, what I think about is: Am I interested enough in this topic to spend the hours that the story takes to write? Are the facts interesting and important to readers? Do I have any perspectives that are different enough from those of the half dozen or so others who might write on this topic that I can contribute something original to the discussion?

Unless I can answer all these questions with “Yes,” I usually avoid a story – which is why I only occasionally write about breaking news. (Well, that and the fact that living on the Pacific coast means that by the time I log on in the morning, writers living on the east coast have probably already filed their stories). I figure that a story that will bore me will probably bore a lot of readers as well, and fortunately most editors regard me as more than a reporter on the beat. Most of the time, most editors will trust my judgment on whether a story is worth writing.

Perhaps I should be flattered that my detractors think of me as a sort of Professor Moriarty of journalism, constantly engaged in manipulations of everyone around me in the fulfillment of some obscure but diabolical agenda. But honestly? I lack both the energy and inclination for the requisite plotting.

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The Charles Edenshaw exhibit currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a rare opportunity to understand not only one of Canada’s greatest artists, but also his influence. The odds are against these two hundred pieces being shown together again any time soon, but, while they are together, they allow visitors to observe the elements of Edenshaw’s style, such as his growing awareness of negative space as part of the design. Just as importantly, the exhibit shows the importance of Edenshaw in the development of not only Bill Reid, but of the entire revival of Northwest Coast Art in the last sixty-five years.

This is an outcome that Charlie Edenshaw (as he was known during his lifetime until a more formal version of his name started being used as a sign of respect) could hardly imagine. We know little of his inner thoughts, but, as he started his day’s work with a prayer, preparing to hunch for hours over his latest work, he seems to have had little concern beyond making a living for his family. In fact, he once said that he was so tired of carving that in his next life he planned to avoid it altogether. When a descendant was one of the few of his generation not to experiment with art, he was widely believed to be Edenshaw’s reincarnation.

Bill Reid never hid the debt he owed to Edenshaw. I suspect, for example, that Reid’s love of deep carving may have come from seeing Edenshaw’s argillite carving, whose cutbacks are so deep that you can often stand to one side and see daylight on the other side. If you are know Reid’s work, you cannot spend ten minutes at the Edenshaw exhibit without being haunted by a sense of familiarity. Reid was not being the least bit humble in his comments about Edenshaw; he was only stating the truth about his own development.

Two exhibits make that influence especially clear. Near the start of the exhibit is Edenshaw’s famous sketch of Dogfish Woman – done, if I remember correctly, at the request of anthropologist Franz Boas. Although acknowledging that we no longer know the story of Dogfish Woman, Reid adapted the design many times in his career. Not only that, but dozens of other First Nations artists, both Haida and non-Haida, have copied the same basic pose and design in the last half century.

The second exhibit is in a display case of bracelets near the end of the exhibit. In the middle of the case are two bracelets, one by Edenshaw and one done by Reid in 1956. They are supposed to be of two different animals, but the use of negative space and even most of the features are identical – and Edenshaw’s has the strongest sense of line. Early in his career, Reid clearly not only studied Edenshaw, but, as developing artists often do, copied him almost exactly – just as dozens have studied and copied Reid since. The next time I go to the exhibit (which is so overwhelming as to be impossible to comprehend in a single visit), I mean to watch for other evidence of the influence.

Besides an appreciation for Edenshaw’s work by itself, the exhibit is important for understanding modern Northwest Coast Art. I do not think that I am detracting anything from Reid’s reputation to notice such signs of influence; one reason that Reid is so fascinating as an artist is that he began as a copyist, and the depths of his talent only blossomed fully thirty years later, in the last two decades of his life. To see what Reid owes to Edenshaw does nothing except to offer more insight into the process of his development.

Just as importantly, as a key figure in the Northwest Coast revival, Reid himself continues to influence dozens – possibly hundreds – of artists. Considering his debt to Edenshaw, it would not be too much to say that, without Edenshaw, the revival either would have been stunted, or else not happened at all.

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When someone suggests that design doesn’t matter, I like to mention Jan Tschichold, whose ideas help to create modern typography and were considered so subversive that Nazi Germany gave him the choice of exile or imprisonment. I can’t say that typography was quite so important in my own life, but there was a period when it helped to keep me sane.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer, having realized that the reduction in tenured positions made academia a dead end. Technical writing was far more lucrative than teaching, and it taught me the importance of organization and brevity, but it was far from challenging. In six months, I had gone from a beginner to hiring my own sub-contractors, and I was looking for the next step.

I branched out into marketing, which quickly lead me to graphic design. I soon realized that typography was a craft in itself that most designers knew little about, and, the more I studied, the more fascinated I became.

Part of the appeal was the esoterica. To appreciate typography, you have to learn about ascenders and descenders, bowls and leading and all the details that most people see without observing. Moreover, the roots of typography were in the early Renaissance, although the modern concepts of design were less than a century old. If you had any hope of understanding what typography was about, you had to train your eye by absorbing obscure concepts that most people never even guessed existed.

Yet paradoxically – and contrary to what many believe – the point of typography is not to call attention to itself. In fact, design that called attention to itself can be called a failure by definition. The point of typography is to enhance the content, to make it more legible and, present it appropriately. Such goals are so contrary to those of our post-modern age that they seemed to me an example of art for art’s sake. After all, why else would someone labor over a design that, if successful, would affect people’s experience with only a handful ever appreciating what it accomplished? Such attitudes immediately commanded my respect. I wanted to understand what successful design was about.

Also, I soon realized that my growing obsession had a practical side. If I could design as well as write, I would become highly employable. I could market myself as an all-in-one service, combining writing, design, and project manager in a way that no one else was doing. Even more importantly, I would have enough variety in my work that I would rarely be bored.

It became common place for clients to tell me that they wanted accurate manuals, not pretty designs. Often, I was cleaning up after writers who thought the ability to put words on paper was all they needed, so the last thing clients wanted was someone else giving themselves airs. I did my best to deliver the hands-on accuracy that other writers avoided – but, for my own sake, I also gave clients well-designed manuals and help files without saying anything.

To my satisfaction, almost every client as they signed off would say some variation of, “I know I said I didn’t care about design – but damn, that design is something else.” I enjoyed giving them a little extra, and proving that accurate content and quality design were not polar opposites. To this day, I can look at my work from that period with artesianal pride at a job well-done.

Soon, however, my restlessness led me to management and finally to journalism. Both were satisfying in themselves, but neither gave much scope for design.

However, in the last few months, I’ve returned to typography, designing the book I’m writing and even designing templates for a client. I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever knew, and I never was more than an apprentice in the craft, but I find the work as satisfying as ever. As far as I’m concerned, combining writing with design is the closest I’m likely to come to what Bill Reid used to describe as “the well-made object”– a tiny piece of art in which I can demonstrate all my knowledge in every aspect of it.

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