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Archive for November, 2014

Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

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Mathew 7:29 states that Jesus of Nazareth “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The description has stayed with me despite my agnosticism, and I take it to mean that he had original thoughts and was not just copying what others had said. Over the years, I’ve taken to using the description for gifted poets, so, after reading Cathoel Jorss’ comb the sky with satellites it’s still a wilderness, I want to say at the outset that she has authority and does not sound the least like a scribe.

The title of her book is a typical example of what I mean. If you stop and think, the statement in the title is not particularly profound – something like “despite everything, the wild still exists.” However, what would be an ordinary thought sounds fresh when expressed in her words, making you notice what you might otherwise ignore.. The same is true of an almost throwaway statement like “silence is snorkelling in God’s own pond,” which also has a flippancy that calls renewed attention to it, as does Jorss’ description of what is evidently a trip to England as “Nasty, British, and short.”

A major part of Jorss’ expression is an aptness for metaphor. In one poem, she describes the sea simply as “the largest wilderness.” Another poem that compares men and women includes the comment that men “improvise, like actors / making up their lines.” Still another describes removing cobwebs from her face as “you may kiss the bride / over and over again,” and talks about “my favorite mole, a blarney stone for silence.” Some of these metaphors may be obscure at first glance, but their originality encourages you to slow down and consider them – and, with one or two exceptions, in context they are not hard to figure out.

Jorss’ tone has a formality about it most of the time, so much so that at times you might wish for a change of pace. However, when Jorss provides one, it can be arresting. Sometimes, it is just the use of “fuck” or “pee” that brings you up short, a sudden reference to Star Trek or a brief descent into the simplest of word choices. At other times, it is unexpected humor or flippancy, or a Sylvia Plath-like bluntness, or all three at once, as when she comments, “I was born old and it’s only gotten worse.” In some of her most arresting poems, she veers back and forth between these extremes so rapidly that the shifts can dizzy you:

so if I choose to believe in love
as a verb (in which a noun can dwell)
I am the last remaining member
of an ancient guild eroded
as polar shelves peel back to reveal the shanks of bone

for I have looked into the darkness so long
it seems to be streaming with light
I whistle while I work and never examine the other side
of the glass, for love is extinct, they say
it is being rebred in captivity

Jorss is not afraid to take chances with language, and if you start by half-expecting her to fall flat on her face, she never takes a serious stumble, and succeeds so frequently that much of the pleasure of her collection is seeing her carry off her audacity.

All these comments are not to say that comb the skies…. is flawless. In a few places, Jorss focuses on language so intensely that her narrative structure is weakened. Personally, too, I would like to see how her generally formal tone fares in structured traditional verse. But free verse relies on diction, tone, and metaphor, and these are all elements of writing in which Jorss shows originality and skill,

I have only read this collection twice, so at this point, all I can say is that Jorss’ work lingers with me. However, I have the strong suspicion that in time it will also pass the ultimate test of standing up to many more readings over the year.

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When I was young and innocently idealistic, you could always infuriate me by quoting an aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill (as well as about a dozen others): “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” I didn’t like anyone claiming they knew better than me, or implying that my beliefs were a passing phrase. Yet at the same time, I worried that the quote might be right, and I was doomed to become conservative. Consequently, it comes with considerable relief, now that I am well past forty, to realize suddenly that my core beliefs remain the same as they were when I was sixteen.

What that says about my intelligence, I leave for anyone who wants a cheap shot to suggest. But in retrospect, I should not be so relieved. The beliefs I assembled into a world view in my teens were not the product fashionable thought; I may not have read as much of Karl Marx or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as I should have, but I definitely read about them, and thought about what I read even more.

Nor was there any question of just mouthing memorable quotes. I called myself a feminist, so when the time came, I attempted to construct a feminist marriage. I wanted work that was meaningful and useful, so when I was free enough of necessity to choose, that was the kind of work I chose. My adult life has not been a clean break from my teens – instead, it has been an attempt to carry out the beliefs that my teen self developed. I suspect I have fallen short of my youthful idealism, but the point is that I am still trying to live up to my long-ago conclusions, and so long as I try, the odds of me turning conservative are not going to be very high.

That is not to say, though, that how I hold those beliefs remains the same. In my teens, I was passionate and I thought a better world was only a matter of time. All that I and people like me had to do was explain our positions to gain supporters. It was only ignorance that made people oppose us.
Now, I am less passionate and more disheartened. I know, too, that people cling to outdated ways of thought for countless reasons: for power or convenience, or out of fear or a dislike of thought or a discomfort with conscience.

An even harder lesson has been that some of those whom my younger self would have identified as part of the problem can be loyal friends so long as you avoid provoking them in certain ways. Sadly, I know, too, that some of those who claim to be on my side are immoral and unpleasant people that I would prefer to avoid.

In fact, there are moments when I regret my lost conviction and feel that every cause is a collision of half-truths. But then I tell myself that, even if that is true, I still have an obligation to take a side, and that the world view I formulated decades ago is still true –even if applying it to what is happening around me is more complicated than I once imagined.

In other words, I believe less intently, but more deeply. More importantly, because my views take in more factors and reflect reality better than they did when they were new, they are truer than they were then. I guess you might say that my heart is still that of a twenty year old, and if my brain is not, it is still as far away from being conservative as it was then.

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For the first couple of days after Jian Ghomeshi’s story became public, I was divided by disgust for his alleged abuse and distaste for the public shaming. However, I soon became less neutral. What changed my mind was partly the number of women telling their stories – too many, I suspected, for a conspiracy based on imaginary events. But what really convinced me was the news that women around Ghomeshi had been warning each other about him for years. In my experience, those kinds of whispers have always been true.

An individual woman making such claims is one thing. Some feminists maintain that those making such claims never lie, but that position is over-compensation for the many years in which victims were never believed. A woman who has worked in battered women’s shelters tells me what common sense would suggest – that is, that women can and do lie about such matters when the stakes are large, especially in separation or custody battles. Granted, only a minority lie, but enough do that you cannot automatically accept that anyone is truthful — a state of affairs that is unfortunate for the true victims.

However, when numerous women are saying the same thing, and exchanging information for the purposes of self-defense, you can be confident that they are telling the truth. Over the years, I have heard just enough to know that, when women talk about men, they don’t just discuss looks, the way that men tend to do when discussing women. They discuss behavior too, which makes perfect sense, considering that men generally weigh and out-mass them, and are more comfortable with violence.

They may rarely file formal complaints against the men they are discussing, but so far as I can figure, making other women aware of the possibilities is simply part of being a woman in our culture. It’s the equivalent of looking in the backseat when you get into a car at night, or carrying your keys between your fingers for self-protection – the kind of automatic behavior that most women are familiar with, and only some men are even aware of. The very fact that it is so routine makes what they say credible.

I first came to this position when I was in high school. Among my fellow athletes was a young man who was always quick with the sexual innuendo. He had a habit, too, of grabbing for girl’s crotches and breasts – or whatever body part was closest – and stopping just short of actual contact. Even in the confusion of puberty, I thought him crass, and tended to avoid him, although that was hard to do, since we were often on the same sports teams.

Then, one night, I was walking home from the ice rink with two young women from my class. I interrupted their discussion of this young men, and was allowed to hear the rest of it. With growing incredulity, I learned that they agreed that they did not want to be alone with him, that in private, he went beyond his public feints, often squeezing painfully. They said, too, that according to those who had gone out with him, that he took their break-ups ungracefully, making obscene phone calls and sending them parcels of excrement.

I was surprised that even he would act that way; I wanted to believe that he would only push the boundaries and not cross them. Yet, at the same time, I had no doubt about the essential honesty of the women with whom I was walking. I started watching him more closely, and, when I heard him boasting about things he had done, I was left in no doubt that he was doing exactly what my informants claimed, and sometimes worse

A year or so later, I heard similar stories about an athletic coach from girls on the track and field team. A couple of decades later, I heard the female staff of a company warning each other against being alone in an elevator or closed room with one of the company’s major clients. Just as with my fellow student, in my naivety I had trouble believing such behavior was possible in either case, but, in both cases, I eventually saw enough to know that the warnings that women were exchanging were grounded in fact. If anything, the warnings were understatements.

Many times since then, I have wished that I could have done something about the situations I observed. But I didn’t fully realize that the things I learned about were criminal, which left me uncertain about who I might tell. I doubted that the high school would fire the coach, or that the company’s CEO would support the female employees over a client, and, quite possibly, I was rationalizing.

Still, thanks to these circumstances, when I heard how women were talking about Ghomeshi, I had no trouble believing them. As I write, he has yet to be charged or convicted, and perhaps he never will be for lack of evidence. But, like I said, in my experience, women don’t lie when they warn each other about abusive men.

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