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Archive for May, 2014

Sometimes, I become frustrated with feminists. Not all feminists, you understand (and, yes, that’s meant as a wry reference)– just the ones who have strayed from basic issues and who promote every piece of pop psychology that happens along. Yet my commitment to feminism itself remains as strong as ever, for reasons that I can best explain through two popular songs.

Neither of these songs did anything to form my world view. I had concluded that feminism was a basic necessity years before I heard either. But when I heard each song, I immediately recognized them as expressing the main reasons I supported feminism. Both express essentially the same idea — that the way things are and have been, too many women’s lives are wasted, and too many women live in frustration and desperation. These are observations that I made long ago, but have never been able to express

The first is “Mothers, Daughters, Wives” by Judy Small. These days, Small is a judge in New South Wales, which seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good folk singer, although it reinforces the basic point of the song.

“Mothers, Daughters, Wives” is written by a second wave feminist to her mother’s generation of Australian women. It begins with the observation that the mother’s generation had watched their fathers, husbands, and sons in succession march off to war. Meanwhile,

you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

The song describes their experiences as girls, then as adults during World War 2, when they worked in factories and helped behind the lines while raising their families:

But after it was over,
You had to learn again,
To be just wives and mothers,
When you’d done the work of men.
But you learned to help the needy
And you never trod on toes,
And the photos on the piano
Struck a happy family pose.

This, for me is the core of the song: the fact that the mother’s generation had found meaningful work, making a serious contribution to the war effort, only to find that, after the necessity was over, they had to retreat into the narrow roles dictated by convention, hiding their frustrations and pretending nothing was wrong. The fact that anyone should be forced into such a basic denial of their humanity always angers and saddens me.

Yet Small is not quite finished. After describing the mother’s sons marching off to what must be the Vietnam War, where some of them died, Small depicts the mother’s generation in widowhood, watching

How your daughters change their lives,
Seeing more to our existence
Than just mothers, daughters, wives.

Bad enough that their potential should have been wasted. Yet now, when the future looks brighter for their daughters, the change has come too late for them.

The song ends with repetitions of the chorus. Then Small concludes with what for me is the most horrible part of the song:

‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives —
And you believed them.

In others words, they were complicit in all the waste and loss that shaped their lives, because they always did what was expected of them, and never imagined even the possibility of an alternative or a revolt. All I can think when I hear the last four words is what a horrible way that must be to spend your life. Yet that is a description of millions of lives in the mother’s generation, and of billion of women’s lives before.

In fact, as the second song makes clear, the changes of the last few decades haven’t been nearly enough for many women. The song is “All This Useless Beauty,” a song that Elvis Costello wrote for June Tabor, perhaps in the ultimately realized hopes of convincing her to stop being a pub owner and become the singer she was meant to be.

As the title suggests, the song contrasts women as the target of the male gaze — including the artistic one — and how little good that attention does a woman herself. It only leaves her tied to a man who both attracts and repels her, holding him when he has self-doubts and dressing “to impress his associates.”

The song opens on frustration:

It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike
She imagines how she might have lived
Back when legends and history collide ….
Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humor to strike.

Yet, at the same time, the woman in the song knows that her longing for a heroic past is all about the stereotypes that seem her only option: the movies made from “the great tragic books”

won’t even make sense, but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.

Evidently married for some years, she can only conclude that all purpose is either an illusion or temporary:

Nonsense prevails, modesty fails,
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost
All barricades to a pale compromise.

As the song ends, she is reflecting, “If something you missed didn’t even exist / It was just an ideal, is that such a surprise?” The song ends with the chorus, repeating its question over and over: “What shall we do, what shall we do / With all this useless beauty?”

The question has no answer, because the woman is trapped as much as the mother’s generation in “Mothers, Daughters, Wives,” with nothing to lend meaning to a life of living up to the conventions of traditional genre roles.

I have tried many times to express my own perception of such things, but I always end up so abstractly angry that I soon become incoherent with abstract anger, and my writing skills — such as they are — desert me. If I go into both songs in such detail, it is only because they express what I have never been able to say for myself.

Yet I do know one thing, beyond any dispute: so long as such songs correspond to anyone’s reality, I am going to stay a supporter of feminism, no matter how silly or beside the point some of the other supporters sometimes are.

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On April 25, I flew to Terrace for the sixth time to attend the graduation exhibit at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. As usual, the graduation was also a gathering of alumni, and the longhouse where the show is held was so heavy with the smell of varathane as students worked to the last minute to finish their pieces that leaning into one of the display cases could leave you dazed and dizzy.

longhouse

This year’s show was stronger than last year’s on two accounts. To start with, the first year class included at least two promsing artists. Kyle Tallio exhibited a hawk mask, whose elongated shape and and striking painting made it a standout:

kyle-tallio

Another first-year standout was Reuben Mack, who continue the tradition of his extended family (including Latham, Kyle, and Lyle) with a portrait mask that showed both a steady hand on the paint brush and an attention to detail that should serve him well if he chooses an artistic career:

reuben-mack

Yet another promising first-year was Kirsten McKay, this year’s winner of the Mature Student Award, who placed a Chilkat weaving design on a spoon with pleasing results:

kirsten-mckay-chilkat-spoon

Even more importantly, the work of several second year students demonstrated that they had put the last year to good use. Cyril Bennett-Nabess showed a notable improvement in both his painting and carving, displaying several masks, including this traditionally-shaped bear mask:

cyril-bennett-nabess-becoming-a-bear

Similarly, Roberta Quock showed the same high standards that made her an Honorable Mention for the Mature Student Award in 2013:

roberta-quock-thunderbird

The work of two students in particular stood out form. Lyle Quock, who stood out in his first year, showed an originality of design and color selection in the masks he displayed this year:

lyle-quock-moon-mask

lyle-quock

But if I had to choose a single artist as a standout, it would be Loretta Quock-Sort, an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Mature Student Award. Quock-Sort’s female portrait mask was one of the more original pieces in the show:

loretta-quock-sort-mask

loretta-quock-sort-leather-robe

But it was her work in fabric that stood out, including a leather robe with mask in their own display case, and the black and red robe that she wore for the graduation itself.

loretta-quock-sort

The show opens at The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver at the end of May, possibly with a few works that were not ready in April. If you want to see what the next generation of First Nations artists are doing, you won’t find a better place to satisfy your curiosity and aesthetic senses.

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I remember several memorable musical moments in my life. There was the Vancouver Folk Festival where I first heard Stan Rogers singing “The Witch of the Westmoreland” against the reflection of the sunset on the eastern clouds, and the first time Spirit of the West played the Commodore, when our table on the sprung dance floor was bouncing up and down. I remember, too, hearing Loreena McKennitt at the Mythopoeic Conference I helped organized, her voice floating through the hall while the crowd was open-mouthed and silent. But so far the greatest was hearing June Tabor and OysterBand doing their sendup cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.

The venue was the pub on the old Expo 86 grounds. I forget what it was being called at the time; several incarnations came and went before the fact that the space wasn’t commercially viable became obvious. It was a big space, and too far from the beaten path to attract many people.

The exception was the night that OysterBand and June Tabor performed, and you could see that the waiters were not happy with the crowd. It was a crowd that had come to listen, not to buy drinks, no matter how hard the waiters tried. I don’t know about anyone else, but after about the eighth invitation to buy another drink, Trish and I took to ignoring the waiters’ unsubtle persistence, except to turn away and face the stage more squarely.

If you have heard OysterBand live, it goes without saying that the set started fast and continued with almost perfect orchestration, the slow and softer numbers coming at exactly the right places to provide a change from the faster and harder ones. If you have heard June Tabor in any medium, it also goes without saying that her voice could make you world-weary or arouse tears just by the way she emphasized the right word. As usual, her voice with its faintly Northern accent sounded like that of a survivor, tough and proud and knowing everything there is to know about suffering.

We wished the set would never end, but eventually it did end. A long pause followed, and just as the last chances of an encore seemed to disappear, the lights turned psychedelic. Clouds of dry-ice started to obscure the stage, and June Tabor could be seen in a leather mini-skirt, striking a pose like the young Grace Slick, although she was forty-five at the time. She looked stunning – not just beautiful or sexy, although she had something of both, but someone both totally in command of the audience, yet simultaneously camping it up and not wanting anyone to take her completely seriously.

A few people in the audience took up her unspoken invitation and laughed. A few of us recognized the opening strains of “White Rabbit.” Like me, most of them probably expected a few notes, a reference like other bands at the time might make to “Stairway to Heaven” before segueing into another song altogether.

But after a few bars, the members of OysterBand appear to one side of Tabor, and the light show began to imitate that of the video in which The Airplane performed “White Rabbit” on The Smothers Brothers’ show. Slowly, Tabor began singing the first two lines of the song, “One pill makes you smaller / And one pill makes you small.” At the end of the lines, you could hear her accent.

By the third line, Tabor was no longer camping, but singing with exactly the suppressed passion of Grace Slick, almost sounding like Slick except for the burr in her voice.

The difference was that, while Slick sounds ambiguous on “White Rabbit,” Tabor sounded angry. Simply by emphasizing “ones,” she made the line, “And the ones that mother gives you” sound angry and contemptuous. In a single word, she seemed to dismiss convention

The contempt continued in the next line. Under Tabor’s phrasing, “go ask Alice” became bitterly sarcastic and so did the very idea that Alice could tell anyone anything “when she’s ten feet tall.” Just by emphasizing “chasing,” she conveyed the idea that “chasing rabbits” was a ludicrous pastime. Listening, I felt she was giving me personally an extensive tongue-lashing, listing my shortcomings one by one, but I was fascinated and could only lean forward to listen more closely.

The men on the chessboard and the white queen were sung about with a voice of someone who had seen them and knew they were inevitable and tiresome. In these verses, her phrasing sounded much like Slick’s. But when Tabor reached what for Slick was the end of the song – the repetition of the Dormouse’s advice to “Feed your head” – Tabor did not invite the listeners to turn on, as Slick did. Instead, she seemed to be advising us to get smart and learn from the experience.

This impression was reinforced by the fact that she didn’t end the song there. Rather, after an instrumental, she returned to the first verse, singing the words in a flat voice and letting the pause at the end of the last line trail off into silence.

I suppose you could interpret Tabor’s treatment of the song as anti-drug. However, it didn’t come across as so specific. Instead, she sounded like someone who had rushed into foolish things of all sorts warning others neither to imitate her nor expect anything help from the orthodox.

But however you interpret Tabor’s phrasing, it struck the audience like a fist to the solar plexus. When it ended, the audience was silence for a beat. Then everyone spontaneously leaped to their feet in one of the few non-calculated standing ovations I have seen, and you couldn’t talk for the applause.

Personally, I was glad to fall back into my seat. After listening to that one song, I felt as though I had run a marathon with a deflated lung. Like many other members of the audience, I lingered, playing with my drink until we felt strong enough to leave. Neither of us could express what we had seen with more than a half-articulate, “Wow!” express what we had seen, but we knew it had been something profound and memorable — something that we felt privileged to witness.

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Fantasy has vampires prolonging their life by drinking blood, while science fiction offers medical immortality or the uplifting of consciousness to machines. Readers, quite obviously, like to play with the idea of living forever. Yet the more I think about the possibility, the less I’m convinced that everyone is suited to immortality.

Of course, if immortality (and a reasonable degree of youth) ever becomes a possibility, I imagine that it will be reserved for the rich. I imagine, too, that if immortals are in charge of the process that created them, the selection process will be rigorous. There’s an issue of Garth Ennis’ graphical novel Preacher in which the vampire Cassidy meets the first other vampire in over a century. To Cassidy’s disappointment, his fellow vampire turns out to be “a bit of a wanker. ” After trying to reform him, Cassidy ends up leaving him to be destroyed by the rising sun – an ending that is only sensible if you stop to think about it. A long life is going to lose much of its zest if you have to spend it with highly annoying people, so immortals would want to choose their peers with care.

However, what I am really thinking of is that most people are simply not equipped for a long life. For the kind of person for whom time is something to fill – the kind who spends their weekend shopping, or their evenings at a bar – living seventy years or so can must be hellish enough. Several centuries of filling time would probably end with such people committing suicide, or perhaps turning violent in the hopes of finding another thrill.

Either seems a waste of immortality and a source of unhappiness for everyone. I suspect that good candidates for immortality would be those who know how to keep busy, and never have enough time for everything – artists and artisans of all sorts, and scholars.

Yet even being inner-directed might not be enough for immortals. Many artists do not have seventy years of work in them, much less several thousand.

It strikes me that a well-adjusted immortal would have to maintain a fine balance. On the one hand, they would need a strong tolerance for routine. The English playwright Christopher Fry remarked that the problem with being 94 was that time seemed to move so fast that he seemed to be eating breakfast every five minutes, and the problem would probably only get worse with the centuries. A well-adjusted immortal would have to be able to endure all the repetitive eating, urination, sleeping, grooming and sex without boredom setting in. Better yet, routine would need to be a comfort for them.

Yet, on the other hand, a suitable immortal would also need to accept change without falling into the traps of condemning or embracing everything new or living in nostalgia and gradually falling hopelessly out of touch. This is a balance that ordinary mortals struggle with, but I imagine that successful immortals would be those who could live the same routine for twenty or thirty years, then shake it off and find a new routine to settle into.

However, perhaps all this is beside the point. Perhaps the human brain and/or consciousness simply isn’t equipped for a longer life span. Perhaps a point arrives for everyone at 70, 90, or 110 when the sense of self simply collapses into senility, overloaded with memories and perceptions. But if humans ever manage to live significantly longer, those who manage to do so with any degree of contentment will be only a very small percentage of the population. For many immortals, the mental torment might make them think Tithonus had things good, living forever but aging into a cricket.

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The idea that I could outgrow a book surprises me. My tastes are liberal, encompassing everything from nineteenth century classics to the latest graphic novel, and I can largely separate personal taste from artistic sensibility. Yet, sadly, that is what has happened with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

I first read On the Beach as a young teenager. Its years as a bestseller were about a decade in the past, but it seemed to me a bridge between mainstream and science fiction – something I was making a conscious effort to find, since examples were few in number. I read it two or three times, finding myself haunted by its depiction of the last humans waiting their unavoidable death from radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.

The book survived all my moves, yet somehow in the intervening decades, I never took it off the shelf to read again until yesterday. Something of the effectiveness of the setting remained, but I found it a clumsy, almost unreadable book. Part of what bothered me was Shute’s fondness for telling rather than showing, and his painfully obvious red herrings, but what bothered me most was the shallow characterization of the two main female characters.

Not, you understand, that Shute depicted his male characters with any skill. The first is Dwight Towers, the captain of the last American submarine. He is dull as most characters defined by their dedication to duty are. He might generate a little pathos in his continued devotion to his deceased family, but since that devotion makes him reject any but the most Platonic relationship with the Australian woman he loves – despite their impending fate – he comes across as a cad instead. Still, he comes off better than Peter Holmes, the Australian liaison officer with the submarine, who has no observable personality beyond being a newly married man with a young baby.

The men, however, are masterpieces of Shakespearean subtlety compared to the women in their lives. Moira Davidson, the woman Towers spends time with when he is off duty, is a hard-drinking party-goer in her mid-twenties, with a reputation – apparently undeserved – for being a loose woman that is based mostly on her risque talk. Influenced by Towers, she responds to his nobility by discovering her own.

In ordinary circumstances, she confides to the other woman, she would do all she could to seduce him away from his wife. “’It’d be worth doing her dirt if it meant having Dwight for good, and children, and a home, and full life,’” Davidson says. “’But to do her dirt just for three month’s pleasure and nothing at the end of it – that’s another thing.’” I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.’” Instead, she supports his doublethink about his family still being alive, and follows his suggestion that she take secretarial classes to give purpose to her life in the brief time that remains.

As for Mary Holmes, an examination of her mental competence would have no sure outcome. Her only interest is her new baby and her home, and, while some allowance must be made for denial she makes no effort to understand what is happening. Her stupidity gives her husband Peter an excuse to lecture the readers through her, but she is genuinely surprised when the radiation arrives, and wonders if cough drops would protect her from it. “’I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’” she says shortly before they die. “’It’s been much nicer without them.’” She is humored by her husband, and, needless to say, no help at all when the family commits suicide to avoid suffering the lingering death through radiation. Instead, she follows her husband’s lead, and only in her last moments shows any understanding of what is happening.

These female characters are despicable in themselves. But what is worse is that, despite their very different attitudes, they have no trouble confiding in each other for no better reason than the fact that their men are at sea. In reality, two such women would despise each other. Yet Shute assumes that because they are women, they want the same thing, which allows them to become confidants.

Even worse, Shute seems to consider Mary Holmes an example for Davidson. Despite Davidson’s greater intelligence, she ends up much the same, following her man into death without a thought of her own.

Naturally, it would be wrong to blame Shute for setting On the Beach in a time when gender roles – especially for women – were so limited. But I do blame him, very much, for accepting those roles without any question, and being unable to see past them and depict the women in his novel as individuals. A more talented writer would have had Davidson resisting the transformation into a good woman, perhaps even tempting Dwight unsuccessfully and uncertain whether to be angry at him.

Similarly, Mary would be more human if she showed more awareness, and a scene or two revealed that she was playing the role she thought necessary for her husband’s well-being, or wished she had more time for herself. The gender atmosphere of the novel might still have been uncomfortable for a reader today, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so much the result of an impoverished imagination.

I dislike discarding a book; it always feels close to censorship. But I found On the Beach so distasteful that I know that I’ve read it for the last time.

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