Archive for October, 2015

In-between the end of summer and the start of winter, I often wear my Dorothy Grant jacket. It’s a casual but elegant piece of clothing, black with a gold eagle on the back in the Haida style and a gold wing down the left arm. It’s by far my favorite jacket, and I wear it as often as I can without freezing myself to death, which is why I was surprised at the reaction it received a few days ago.

I was leaving after a visit with some acquaintances, the first of which I have close ties with, and the second of which I tolerate mostly for the sake of the first. The second one has a tendency to argue with half of what I say, and to derail the other half with irrelevant puns and feeble jokes.

He seems to think, too, that he can advise me and I will follow his advice, even though I have shown no signs of doing so for decades (if I ever did). The truth is, his view of me has so little connection to the reality that his advice usually strikes me as outlandish. Usually, I hear him out, then thank him for his opinion before going ahead and doing what I intended before he spoke to me.

I was putting on my jacket when I saw him frown and make motions as though he wanted to talk to me in private. Doing up the zipped and adjusting the collar, I reluctantly went into the corner, already anticipating an embarrassing scene.

“You can’t wear that,” he said. “People might think you are an Indian.”

I thought I was prepared for anything, but the comment took me by surprise. I had the sense that he thought I needed saving from myself, that I was so naïve I might unconsciously cause trouble for myself by wearing the jacket. In his world, I sensed, being mistaken for First Nations was one of the worst things that could happen.

I don’t think there is much chance of me ever being mistaken for First Nations, considering my features and hair color – although I suppose I might be mistaken for one of the many these days with mixed ancestry.

More to the point, I considered myself well-dressed. To me, Dorothy Grant is an artist in cloth, and although I can only afford the cheaper of her designs – and even then only when they are on sale – I consider wearing a jacket by her a privilege. It is so obviously a work of art that I regularly receive compliments when I wear it.

Yet in his racist world view, being mistaken for First Nations was something to avoid at all costs. Where I saw art, he saw something tacky.

After I had left, I thought of all sorts of comments I might have made, but at the time I could only mutter, “Oh, you think so?” and make for the door faster than I had intended. I wonder, though, if he had any idea that all he had done was make me think even less of him than I had before.

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Sheldon Steven Dennis is a Tahltan artist who graduated from the Freda Diesing School in 2010. He’s been on my short list of artists to buy from ever since, and a few weeks ago I finally bought copies of what I consider his best work, “The Dance of the Bear Dog.”

The print honors the Tahltan bear dog, which officially became extinct about fifty years ago. Dog owners are now trying to recreate the species from crossbreeds. Whether this effort is an honest effort or a scam is a matter of dispute, but you can understand why the idea captures people’s imagination.

About half a meter high, the Tahltan bear dog was mostly black, with erect ears and a tail that has been described as a shaving brush. Double-jointed, they were able to move quickly through the forest.
Hunters carried the dogs in packs on their back, releasing them to surround the bear and distract it with their yaps and attacks until the hunters caught up. At home, they were known for the gentleness as well as their loyalty and intelligence.

Dennis’ print shows the moment when the hunters and the dogs have surrounded the bear, which is huddled in the middle of the design, its claws bristling and red, as though it has drawn blood, but its open mouth and lolling tongue suggesting that it is tiring. The human faces are set in grimaces of exertion, while the dogs are crouched low with an intentness as though they are keeping close watch on the bear and are ready to leap out of the way if attacked.

The design is striking for its limited use of red as a secondary color, which makes its uses on the mouths and the bear’s claws all the more striking. It is a darker red than is usually seen in northern designs, suggesting the blood being shed by all those involved in the hunt.

The form lines, too, are particularly interesting, with the thin lines of the hunters’ chins suggesting vulnerability in contrast to the thick, powerful lines of the bear’s body. By contrast, the strength of the dogs’ bodies is suggested by two thick ovoids, while the relative thinness of the legs suggesting agility.

However, what makes the design so effective is the crowded, concentric circles of action. Many northern designs, especially modern ones, are defined as much by their white space as the design, but Dennis has chosen a busy dance that reflects the chaos of the hunt. This chaos is suggested even further by the way that the outer abstract ring gives way to to the second ring of hunters and dogs, which in turn gives way to the asymmetrical design of the bear and hunters that spirals down as though descending into a drain.

Dennis’ accomplishment is to suggest a rarely seen sense of movement and action while using nothing but traditional forms – a combination that makes the description of the moment as a “dance” a precise choice of words.

Dennis is not a prolific artist. The fact that much of his work is apparently for family and ceremonial  purposes makes his works for sale even rarer. As a result, the pieces available for sale are relatively few. However, on the strength of “The Dance of the Bear Dog,” I will be watching eagerly for more to buy.




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My new furnace has a start button that starts the pilot light with a burst of heat. It is an unexpected bonus, but I appear to have lit my last pilot light – and my sigh of relief sounds like the whoosh of sound as the new furnace kicks into action.

The old furnace, you understand, was installed in 1974 when the townhouse was built. That is not so bad as you might think, because my townhouse has enough passive heating that I usually only need a furnace for a few months each year. Still, the old furnace was not quite on the cutting edge of technology or efficiency.

The pilot light, in case you have never seen one, needs to be started for the furnace to work. The problem was, in the old furnace, it was five centimeters off the floor. To light it, I had to put my face to the floor, and thrust with one hand a long match in the general direction of the pilot. Meanwhile with the other hand, I depressed a button, then, when I saw the flame leap up on the pilot like a miniature gas burner,  keep the button depressed for at least a count of thirty, carefully avoiding contact with the nearby wires. Finally, I would slide the button to the On position, and, wait holding my breath until it seemed that the pilot would stay lit.

That was not be the most convenient maneuver under any circumstances. Often, the match would burn out or burn through, and I would have to move the button to Off, wait for the gas to clear, and try again. If I improvised the long match with a match from a booklet taped to a chopstick, two times out of three, the head would fall off before it reached the pilot.

It didn’t help, either, that the furnace was less than half a meter from the hot water tank, and the furnace room was often piled with boxes waiting to be given away to whichever charity would pick them up. Often, I had to twist sideways while lowering myself down the side of the furnace – and, worse, repeat the movement to pull myself upright, avoiding touching the water tank on both the descent and the ascent.

Usually, too, I was relighting the pilot in the middle of the night, and awkward from sleep.  Most times, high winds had blown the pilot out, and I would no sooner drag myself upright and be leaving the furnace room than I realized that the pilot had blown out again.

Did I mention, too, that with my face so close to the pilot light, all the while I was trying hard not to imagine the flame exploding and giving me a facial massage, or my hair catching on fire? Over the years, I learned the process and overcome my fears, but, for the first few years, I was often visibly shaking as I went about the task.

Sensibly, the new furnace faces away from the water tank, where there is plenty of room, and its pilot light is at chest-level when I sit cross-legged on the floor. However, the manual warns of dire consequences if you try to light it with a match, so I am not about to experiment to see what happens. That seems just like technology – just when a task is made easy, it becomes unnecessary.

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which honors the first computer programmer. The custom is to observe the day by writing about women you admire in the sciences or computing. This year, I have chosen to mention Cordelia Fine, whose book Delusions of Gender gave me a coherent argument for what I have always believed – that, contrary to the prevailing outlook the brains of men and women are largely the same.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t have this belief, but it received strong confirmation when I taught at university and dealt with several thousand students. However, it was Fine’s book that gave me the evidence and reasoned argument and turned the belief into an even deeper conviction.

To say the least, this conviction is a minority viewpoint. Modern alleged science is full of poorly designed research, and unsupported speculations about the differences between the sexes – to say nothing of Just So stories about pre-historic humans that are supposed to have implications for life today in the suburbs. All this mix is reported uncritically in the media to reinforce common stereotypes. Much of my pleasure in Delusions of Gender is Fine’s obvious delight in debunking such things with a combination of dry wit and thorough analysis, proving that most of the conclusions promoted by people like Simon Baron-Cohen (who actually reviewed the book), Leonard Sax, and John Gray are based on flawed experiments and is little more than a rationalization of conventional sexism – a logical fallacy based on an appeal to biological authority, although Fine never actually uses the term.

In particular, Fine discusses how differences in the organization of men’s and women’s brains are used as evidence that stereotypes about mental capacities. Her dissection is lengthy, but her basic point is simple: how does anyone know that the physical differences translate into behavioral differences and limitations? There is no mechanism for this translation – it is simply assumed. Yet, by contrast, when people are brain-damaged, and one part of the brain takes over the functions of another, nobody automatically assumes a similar translation. In the end, Fine condemns such views as the modern descendant of discredited views such as phrenology and cranial capacity as determinants of behavior. She calls this assumption “neuro-sexism.”

Fine also provides the answer I had been waiting for to those well-meaning parents who insist that gender must be biological, because their children are showing stereotypical behavior. Fine’s answer is that the reinforcement of stereotypes is unconscious, even among those who try to avoid them. In fact, stereotyping is so prevalent that expectant parents who learn the sex of their offspring before birth immediately start referring to him or her in traditional masculine and feminine ways. Under these circumstances, a biological explanation is unwarranted – it simply fits into people’s conventional ways of thinking.

Currently, the biological determinists prevail in our cultural, along with their sub-text that there is not much we can do about gender differences. By contrast, Fine makes the case for environmental differences, which means that change is possible. The first time I read Delusions of Grandeur, my reaction could be summarized as, “Finally!” and I continue to regard Fine as a voice of sanity. and scientific reasoning.

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Marriage is viewed uncomfortably by many feminists. For years, women placed themselves at a significant disadvantage when they married, and, even now, marrying means a constant battle against traditional assumptions. In fact, many would question if a feminist marriage – a marriage that attempts to practice gender equality, legal or common law – is even a possibility between a man and a woman.

I happen to be in a position to say that it is possible. One of the proudest boasts is that I practiced feminist marriage for thirty years, and with considerable success.

In fact, if my partner Trish had not died unexpectedly young, I would still be married today.

Much of my pride in the accomplishment I shared with Trish is that feminist marriage was hard work. No sooner had we married than people started treating us differently. Suddenly, we were much more acceptable to each other’s families. Friends who had known us for years assumed we would immediately settle down to having a family, and filling traditional roles.

Fortunately, neither of us was conventional enough to be heavily influenced by such expectations, but, all the same, resisting them often took more energy than we expected – although we did enjoy confounding those expectations whenever possibly. At times, we even took a gleeful satisfaction in educating people by going against those stereotypes.

For many couples who want to practice feminist marriage, division of domestic labor is the largest problem. Notoriously, many men cannot get in the habit of doing their share. For us, however, this was never much of a problem.

For one thing, my mother returned to work when I was late elementary school, so I was more prepared to take on my share of responsibilities than most men.

More importantly, by consulting our preferences and the patterns of our lives, we soon talked out any difference. I was a student when we married, and for much of our life together I worked freelance. Usually, I was home long before Trish, and, since I like cooking, having me in charge of meals was only sensible, especially if we were going to eat before eight or nine o’clock. Similarly, Trish did the driving, so maintaining the car fell largely to her. The tasks neither of us cared to do, we compromised on – for instance, Trish turned out to dislike doing the dishes less than I did, while I tolerated vacuuming better than she did. A few tasks, like doing the laundry, fell to whoever happened to need it done at a given moment.

We never found such decisions difficult, because both of us from the start had a commitment to living up to our ideals of a partnership. Part of that ideal was to talk about everything as frankly as possible, even what seemed obvious, just in case what seemed obvious to one of us was not obvious to the other. Early on, we each agreed as well that displays of temper were inappropriate toward the major person in our lives. As a result, we rarely argued – not because we never disagreed, but because we were committed to finding a civilized solution. Also, by the time we reached the point where we might have argued, we generally had long ago agreed how we would handle it.

Still, others’ assumptions were always there. When someone would note that our division of labor was non-traditional, we took to paraphrasing Lloyd Alexander, noting that while some work was called women’s and some was called men’s, the work itself never cared who did it. What mattered was that the work got done. Most of the time, the comment ended the discussion.

Of course, the expectations annoyed us. However, unlike modern feminists, who are fond of saying that their role is not to educate, we did take it upon ourselves to teach – or at least confound – whenever possible. When we were at a restaurant and the waiter handed me a sample of the wine, I would pass it to Trish to taste as well, and we would both discuss it before we both nodded acceptance. At the end of the meal, Trish would pay (not that it mattered, since the money came from the same credit union account). Sometimes, we would make a great Three Musketeers-like display of Trish holding the door for me, or presenting me with flowers on my birthday. These lessons might have been spoiled by the fact that both of us would end up giggling, but, we would quote Utah Phillips and say that people had to learn these things somewhere, and giggle more.

Once, we were sitting in the university pub, and I expressed the opinion that children probably benefited from having a parent at home. A woman who had come late to the conversation immediately accused me of sexism – then, with what I can only call a smile of vicious delight, instead of siding with her, Trish pointed out that I had stated earlier than I was expecting to arrange my life so that half the time I was the parent at home. As things happened, we never brought a pregnancy to term, but I did arrange my working life so that I could have been a hands-on parent.

Breaking these expectations was a way to get some of our own back on those who wanted us to act traditionally. Instead of exploding in anger or exasperation, we gave them a teachable moment (and ourselves a moment of amusement).

Our marriage was not a matter of us against the world. However, it had something of that flavor. You might say more accurately that it was our beliefs against the world’s, and that we were allies in a shared cause.

Yet, however our marriage is described, its success was undeniable. People meeting us after we had been together for twenty five years thought we were a new couple after seeing us together in public. At Trish’s memorial service, several speakers mentioned the strength of our marriage, and I took some comfort in hearing that several nieces considered us an example for them to live up to. So if you accuse me of filtering memories through nostalgia and grief, you are wrong.

What I have described was real enough, if rare, and we both realized how lucky we were to have it. Except we knew that luck had little to do with it. It was hard work and ideals that was responsible. To me, there is no question whatsoever: marriage in defiance of convention made me a better feminist, and what we built is one of the accomplishments of my life.

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