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Archive for February, 2016

I always appreciate recognizing talent before anybody else. What interests me is not so much the potential for a piece done early in an artist’s career to increase in value (since I never sell what I buy) so much as the satisfaction of recognizing talent before anyone else. So when Kelly Robinson, one of my favorite Northwest Coast artists, told me in December that he was teaching his brother Randall to carve, I was immediately interested in the results. And, given his selection of materials and the finish on “Rainwater,” in Randall James Robinson’s case I am already experiencing that satisfaction in the reactions of those who see the mask.

“Rainwater” is one of Robinson’s first masks. The carving is relatively simple, but a good choice for the material. The mask is carved from spalted alder – that is, alder infected with a fungus that discolors the wood. The discoloration apparently does not photograph well, and is actually much smoother-looking than it appears to be in the photo below, but the point is that the spalting is so interesting in itself that too-elaborate carving would be a distraction, especially since the spalting’s long lines of discoloration suggests long trails of rain running down the mask.

Robinson tells me that he got the wood from Gordon Dick, the carver and owner of the Ahtsik Gallery near Port Alberni, who produced the spalting, but found that it set off allergies when he tried to carve it.

Robinson is carving in the Nuxalk style. The Nuxalk have traditions that are vastly different from those of the northern first nations, such as the Haida, Nishga’a,Tsimsian, Tahltan. If I understand correctly, one of the major Nuxalk ceremonies is the thunder dance, which celebrates “the greatest of the supernatural beings in Nuxalk culture.” The thunder dance tells of four brothers’ encounter with the spirit of thunder on a lonely hillside, and is apparently the origin story of a major Nuxalk family.

I have seen the thunder dance performed several times by Latham Mack, who has carved a couple of thunder masks. However, I have never seen the rain-water dance, which is performed before the thunder dance. During the rainwater dance, the dancers sprinkle those watching with water as cleansing ritual. “It’s the bringer of rain before the thunder,” Robinson tells me, meant “to cleanse the earth before thunder.”

Since the entire coast is a rain forest from the American border to Prince Rupert and beyond into Alaska, a rain spirit seems only appropriate to a local culture. In the same way, “Rainwater”’s use of spalting to portray that rain spirit is a choice that speaks well of Robinson’s developing artistic sensibilities. Like any newcomer, Robinson has endless hard work and learning ahead of him in order to have an artistic career, but this early effort suggests that he has the talent to succeed if he chooses.

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In “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves points out that, while the two words are generally treated as synonymous, he personally makes a distinction. To him, the naked are honestly and unconsciously clothed, while the nude are sly exhibitionists. In the same way, I make a personal distinction between “author” and “writer,” two words that in theory have the same meaning.

The distinction is more than academic to me. For thirteen years, I have made a living mainly by selling my writing, and I have had both “author” and “writer” used to describe me. However, over the years, I have come to prefer “writer” and to use it to describe myself while shying away from “author” altogether.

Part of my preference is due to the fact that “author” carries more weight to my ear. To me, authors are people who write books, and, although I have one book to my credit – my reworked master’s thesis – that was twenty-five years ago, and the rest of my publications have been articles or at the most chapters in other people’s books. Nor am I the only one to define the words this way – wannabe writers, I notice, usually prefer to call themselves “authors,” given even a small justification.

However, for me, “author” sounds too grandiose. As the first syllable suggests, both “author” and “authority” have a common origin in the Latin word “auctor,” whose various forms can mean “promoter,” “originator” as well as “expert” or “holder of power.” In other words, an author is someone who originates thought, or is the source of others. Echoes of this meaning can be read in Mathew 7:29 of the King James Bible, where Jesus is described as having “taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes” – that is, as someone with original ideas, and not someone simply repeating what others have said or someone making a scholarly article full of citations.

To claim to be an author, then, would seem to be a declaration that nobody has had thoughts similar to mine or expressed as well as mine, and that people should therefore listen to me. Yet while that should be the level of excellence to which I or any other writer should aspire, I feel uncomfortable making that claim for myself. If made at all, such claims are the rights of readers. Undoubtedly, too, the pressure of deadlines and the effort to make a living has encouraged at times to write at least than my best. In fact, I am sure that the distinction between original writers and the rest of us is not nearly as clear as the word “author” possibly implies.

By contrast, “writer” is a humbler term. It simply means someone writes, with no reference to quality or originality – and that I unarguably do. For that reason, I prefer to express no pretensions, and simply call myself a writer instead of an author.

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Early in high school, the girl I had a crush on started going out with a friend of mine. I sat down and wrote all the possible outcomes of their relationship, assigning each a percentage of probability. I never showed her my calculations, but I consoled myself with the certainty that the relationship was doomed. After all, I had proved it.

My bias was obvious, of course. However, I was also guilty of reification – the mistaken belief that meaningful numbers could be assigned to abstractions like the probability of a relationship lasting.

Looking back, I can only plead wishful thinking and over-confidence in my own intellect.

However, I am far from the only person to fall prey to reification. For instance, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in The Mismeasure of Man, IQ tests as they are used today presuppose that intelligence – usually labeled g – is a concrete entity that can measured as easily as the length of a person’s foot. In fact, as Gould points out, statistical analysis can make g appear and disappear at will, a sure indicator that it does not exist. Yet for over a century, the future of millions of children in North America has been determined partially by their IQ scores.

In the same way, many online dating sites attempt to match people by asking them questions about their habits, tastes, and preferences. By comparing your answers with other people’s, the sites claim to be able to find a match for you. The sites’ implicit claim is that the concept of attractiveness or compatibility – or incompatibility, since it is often given a value as well – can be reduced to a percentage.

Unsurprisingly, most people find the results only the roughest guide to compatibility. Aside from obvious differences such as being an atheist and a practicing Catholic, a high percentage of compatibility gives little indication of who will be attracted to whom. In fact, I have met more than one person who refuses to date someone with whom they are supposed to have 90-100% compatibility, because, counter to the implied prediction, they have found themselves uninterested in such alleged soul mates.

I have heard of at least one person who tries to get around such limitations by keeping their own records of what they think of the people they meet online. Unfortunately, though, do-it-yourself reification is no more reliable than the institutionalized version. To rely on either is to base decisions on figures with only an imaginary significance – and, in do-it-yourself reification, to have a naively exaggerated faith in your own powers of analysis. That’s fine if on-line dating is a hobby, but otherwise you might just as well rely on your horoscope.

Reification is just as much a fallacy as a non-sequitur or a post hoc argument. However, just because it deals with abstractions doesn’t mean that it’s harmless. So far as clarity of thought is concerned, it can be a serious danger.

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