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Whenever someone claims they can tell if a piece of writing was written by a man or a woman, I have to suppress a knowing smile. They have only a fifty percent chance of being right, and a near certainty of embarrassing themselves with rationalizations if they are wrong. Writing, apparently, is a skill that has very little to do with gender.

I first became aware of this basic fact through the reactions to James Tiptree, Jr. As a young teen, I remember critics praising Tiptree for a supposedly masculine prose style. When rumors emerged that Tiptree might be a woman, many explained at great length why that could not possibly be so. Then it was revealed that Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon – and in a perfect demonstration of double-think, many of the same critics began explaining how they knew that all along, and pointing out aspects of her prose as evidence for what was suddenly an obvious fact.

Something of the reversal happened a few years later with F. M. Busby, a writer of intelligent space opera. Because Rissa Kerguelen, one of Busby’s greatest successes, featured a female protagonist, dozens of people assumed that Busby was a woman. A man, they argued, couldn’t possibly write such a sympathetic female character. But Busby was a man – although one fond of saying that “An intelligent man who isn’t a feminist isn’t.” The reasons that he went by his initials were that he disliked his given names of Francis Marion, and that his publisher considered his nickname “Buz” too informal for a book cover.

Having these two counter-examples, I have always been skeptical about efforts to identify gender through writing samples. Like too much alleged social science, such efforts always assume that certain subject matter and stylistic choices are somehow innately masculine or feminine (gay, lesbian, transgendered, or queer are always left out). A male writer, for instance, might be supposed to use “I” and to write short, unqualified statements. By contrast, a woman might be said to be more tentative in offering an opinion, and write about emotions or domestic subjects. Needless to say, such divisions say more about the devisers of such studies than any actual differences.

In fact, I’ve always found such studies rather dismissive of writer’s abilities. Most writers I know would have no trouble imitating the so-called masculine or feminine prose styles of such studies. Once they knew the required mannerisms, all that would be needed is a few hundred words of practice.

Moreover, whenever I have tried any online versions of such studies, the results have been random. For example, this morning I ran samples of my writing through Gender Genie, an online adaptation of one such study. My journalistic articles registered consistently as male, and my personal blog entries as female. My fiction registered as both male or female, although neither very strongly. Similarly, two women writers of my acquaintance registered as male, and a male friend as female. I would have tried more samples, but at this point, it was obvious that the results had such a large margin of error as to be unreliable in any given case.

And apparently, my personal observations were correct. Recently, fantasy writer Teresa Frohock invited readers of her blog to identify the gender of the writers of ten different writing samples. Of 1,045 guesses, only 535 were correct – a number slightly above random chance, but well within statistical variation. As Frohock noted, despite all the elaborate rationalizations and the stereotyped ideas that men were more likely to write epic stories and women emotional-driven ones, people were unable to tell men from women based on how and what they wrote.

In other words, exactly what my experience would predict.  Excuse me while I cackle, “Told you so!”

But this subject goes far beyond a mildly diverting observation. The obvious conclusion is that, if writing samples don’t reveal who is male or female, then why are most people so quick to assume that supposed differences in male and female brains are significant? If the products of those brains are indistinguishable from one another, then the brain differences can’t matter much, either. As often happens when gender is discussed, too many people tell themselves comforting stories, then look for reason to believe the stories instead of examining the evidence.

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When people call British Columbia “Lotos Land” or “the California of Canada,” they’re not just talking about the alternative cultures or the casual standards of dress. They’re also talking about the weather in the southwest corner of the province, which has fewer extremes of heat or cold than anywhere else in Canada.

Unfortunately, this reputation has one overwhelming problem: the locals believe it more than the tourists.

Most of the year, this delusion is harmless. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few years is unlikely to carry an umbrella, much less wear rain boots, but the weather is mild enough that going through the day slightly soggy is no great hardship – especially since half the locals have stripped down to shorts and T-shirts at the first sign of the temperature inching above five degrees, so that no dry cleaning bill is involved.

However, denial of rain is one thing, and denial of snow another. Because the average winter has only a few weeks of snow – and, every few years, none at all – the general population has convinced itself that the region never suffers snow at all. Every year, a majority of drivers resist adding snow tires to their cars at the end of October. It isn’t unheard of for local municipalities to forget to set aside money for snow removal, or to run through the entire budget for that line item halfway through winter. And only in the Vancouver area could the provincial government pay $3.3 billion for a bridge so badly designed that snow and ice falling from the cables is a major danger to traffic.

Consequently, the first half centimeter of the season sends the entire region into a panic more commonly reserved for a visit by a radioactive monster from the sea. Within an hour of the first flakes falling, the downtown core is deserted, except for the people crowding the Skytrain stations waiting to flee. Often, they have a long wait because, true to regional form, the system wasn’t designed to minimize the effect of ice on the tracks. One memorable year, the doors iced shut, and a uniquely Canadian solution had to be found – beating the doors with hockey sticks to knock the ice off.

Meanwhile, on the roads, the refugees from the office towers are demonstrating their total ignorance of physics, sliding over the snow in their summer tires and slamming on the brakes every thirty meters. Soon, cars are being abandoned in the middle of the road. Occasionally, someone from back east can be seen holding themselves upright on the frozen lampposts, unable to stand because of the helpless laughter that has possessed them as a few stray flakes of snow cripple a city. The easterners have seen real snow storms, and driven in them, too.

The next day, as likely as not, half the city will take the day off on the excuse that no one can get into work. This response to the weather fits well with the casual work ethic, but it’s not just an excuse. The chances are that only the major roads have been ploughed overnight, and getting to them can take hours.

Even if you leave your car at home, your odds of getting anywhere are remote. No municipality clears sidewalks, insisting that home and store owners must do so. Most do not.

As for public transit, forget it. You’re lucky if a few extra buses or Skytrain cars are put into service. And, even if you are lucky enough to find a place on a bus that takes you where you need to go, water is running over its floor as slick as any ice, and the steam rising from people’s clothing leaves you half-blind and disgusted by the prevailing levels of personal hygiene. All you can do is bury your face in the old scarf you hastily pulled from the bottom of the closet last night and do your best to avoid eye contact.

All this is discouraging enough, but it gets worse. Of those who stay home, few will spend the extra leisure winterizing their cars. Instead, what happens is that most people get an unexpected holiday, and the snow disappears in a freezing deluge of rain that floods the streets for a day or two.

Then, like trauma victims everywhere, the locals promptly forget their experiences. A few weeks later, they go through the whole experience with the same details, and again a few weeks after that, until the cherry blossoms appear, and the regional delusion comes slowly into some kind of rough sync with the weather and reality.

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An hour before sunset today, I was finishing my laps in the pool of my townhouse complex. I started to sprint, my arms scooping deeper into the water, and my legs kicking out harder. My head rose for air, higher than at my usual speed. And then I saw them: dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of crows plodding purposefully towards their evening roost.

This wasn’t the first time, nor even the fifty-first time that I’ve been aware of this phenomenon. I’ve known about it for years, and from a variety of angles. Thanks to triangulation and a few comments in the local free newspaper, I even know that the crows are heading to the light industrial park near Canada Way and Willingdon.

Yet it’s a sight that always uplifts me, and leaves me a little awestruck, two emotions that I wouldn’t have thought crows could inspire. After all, crows are the nuisance birds, the carrion-eaters and dwarf versions of the raven, full of themselves and their needs and disgusting habits. Watching their numbers and seeing the fixity of their intent, I might have thought of Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds, but uplift? Awe? From crows?

But the explanation is simple. As recently as a dozen decades ago, North American skies were flooded with birds. Then the Carolina parakeet, which was probably a kind of conure, became extinct, in part because its flocks would return to its dead and wounded members to help them. The passenger pigeon, which filled the skies like the buffalo once filled the plains, lasted a bit longer, but it, too, disappeared.

In such cases, a radically simplified ecosystem is left behind, full of vacant niches. In parts of the United States, these niches are partly filled by feral parrots. However, in the Vancouver area – and, I suspect, many other parts of North America – many of those empty niches have been filled by crows.

Crows are one of the few birds who are intelligent enough to thrive near human habitation. If anything, after watching them pass overhead in a parade that I know can last for over ninety minutes, they seem to have increased their numbers.

In fact, they have increased to the point where nothing can be done about them. The janitors and groundskeepers might complain about the droppings they must struggle against each day, and so might many homeowners on the routes to the roost. Yet, really, what can be done? Any effort to shoot them would be like being on a battlefield for taxpayers. Probably, the crows are too smart for poison to claim more than a handful. And they are too many to net or transport, even if crows were cute enough for our sentimental environmentalism. Besides, given their intelligence, most of them – or maybe some corvine replacements – would be back inside the month.

Individually, the crows I saw are mortal. Yet, collectively, they are more than humans can ever hope to cope with. They are living proof that, even if we were to ten times decimate the inhabitants of the wild, some of them will adopt to our cities and thrive. Amid all the highway construction and commercial buildings I see as Vancouver braces for increased density, I find the idea that we can’t win against the wild as represented by crows oddly cheering.

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Twenty-years ago, I happened to be in a gallery when a First Nations man was talking to the owner. He was selling copies of a relative’s work – his father, I believe he said. They were loosely rendered works in a style I had never seen before, and I was immediately intrigued. I bought two as birthday presents for my partner, although I had never heard of the artist, Henry Speck. Nor could I find any information about him aside from the fact that he was Kwakwaka’wakw. I concluded that he was a minor figure and that his relative had exaggerated his importance.

Last week, I finally learned more by visiting The Satellite Gallery’s small show, “Projections: The Paintings of Henry Speck, Udzi’stalis”. It turns out that Henry Speck was a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, fisherman, and artist. While he had been painting since the 1930s, his moment of greatest recognition came in 1964 when the New Design Gallery held an exhibition of his work – an exhibition that was almost unheard of for any First Nations artist at the time. Even Bill Reid, who could be scathingly scornful of anything non-Haida, acknowledged his work as “far beyond anything attempted before in Kwakiutl art” (although, strangely, Reid did not include Speck’s work in his seminal “Art of the Raven” exhibit in 1967).

In other words, Speck is one of the bridges between the decline in traditional First Nations culture and art in the early 1900s and the renaissance that began midway through the same century.

This current show hints more than once that Speck might be considered a modernist, and it is easy to see why. Surrealists and modern artists like Jackson Pollack have been fascinated by the masks and paintings of the Northwest Coast and their obvious sophistication, and have tried to give their impressions of what they saw – usually very poorly, since they had almost no understanding of the artistic traditions they were seeing.

To a degree, Speck’s work is equally impressionistic, obviously sketched in ink or paint, and without the close attention to exact lines and curves that you see in traditional artists today such as Richard Hunt. His work also has individual idiosyncrasies, such as using short parallel lines or rows of irregular circles to fill empty space that – so far as I know – have no antecedent in Kwakwaka’wakw art.

However, the difference between Speck and the mainstream surrealists and moderns is that Speck had at least some understanding of the traditions he was depicting. Consequently, while his art seems less disciplined than that of modern traditional artists, his work does not seem glaringly wrong or poorly-observed so much as individualistic. Like many recent First Nations artists, his work does not fall neatly into either the modern or traditionalist categories, but seems to contain elements of both.

The “Projections” show is disappointingly small, with no more than a dozen original pieces, none of which is larger than 16×20 inches. However, taking the lead from Bill Reid’s observation that Speck’s work seems unnaturally confined at these sizes, and would benefit from being much larger, “Projections” includes a large slide show based on the Speck collection at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary that partly compensates for the lack of originals. Not only was Reid quite right in his observation, but seeing Speck’s work on slides restores the often-faded colors of the originals.

Behind the screen for the slides is a loop of archival footage of Speck and his work. by modern standards, the film clips are often gratingly patronizing, as journalists try to adjust to the idea of a First Nations artist. Is it hard to work in the traditional art, they ask Speck, when as a modern man he can’t believe in what he is depicting, the way he might have a century ago? Does he see a conflict between his subject matter and his own Christianity? But Speck, although unassuming, is far from the naïve native that the journalists assume, and answers with more graciousness than his questioners had any right to expect.

“Projections” is a show that can be easily absorbed in seventy minutes, and I wish it was larger. Yet, even as it is, the show goes some ways towards to restoring Speck to the position he deserves in the history of local First Nations art. And, finally, I have the context for the copies I bought so many years ago.

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I know it’s rained at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. I’ve stood in the mud many times, worrying what I would do when my last dry layer was soaked. I know, too, that at least twice rainy weekends have almost drowned the Festival in debt. Yet somehow in my mind, when I think of the Festival, the sun is always shining.

But to be exact, I need to expand the image. In my mind, it is early afternoon. A mild breeze is coming off the water. It makes Jericho Park, the home of the Festival for most of the last thirty-five years, looks deeply green, and makes the temperature in the shade several degrees Celsius cooler than in the sun. The young crows are picking at the garbage, so surprised by their luck that they forget to be afraid of humans. Everywhere you look, blankets and elaborate fortifications of chairs, tents, and banners are spread in front of the main stage, reserving spaces for the evening concert.

Overhead are a few wisps of cloud, just enough to keep the worst of the heat away for most of the days. But as the day continues, an increasing number of the crowd are opting for the three stages in the shade, where the risk of sunstroke is lower.

From wherever you are, you can tilt your head in a different direction and catch the strains of whatever is playing at another stage – sometimes, two or three. Very occasionally, you can hear applause or a roar of approval, but not often. The problem isn’t the quality of the musicians, which varies wildly, but has included dozens of superb acts over the year. The problem is that, after the first set or two, most of the crowd are too drowsy in the sun to get excited by anything except the very best.

And everywhere, there are people – people sitting cross-legged on the grass, or stretched out staring up at the sky, people dancing to one side of the stage, and people trudging in long lines along the increasingly dusty footpaths to the next stage, or to grab something to eat in the food corner.

Mostly, the crowd is couples and of European descent, but there are always families and cliques of teenagers, and a scattering of other ethnics as well. Recently, women and men in their late sixties and seventies have also started to become more common — some of them with enough tattoos to forever put to rest the idea that people will regret their tattoos when they’re young. A few of every age are in scooters and wheelchairs – including ex-Vancouver city council radical Tim Louis – because both the site and the Festival are more accessible than almost any other event that claims to be. And weaving through this crowd are volunteers, driving performers and drum sets and bass fiddles to distant stages, or picking up garbage or selling raffle tickets (the ticket sellers, by tradition, in costumes).

Most of the crowd, though, are in T-shirts and shorts, or tank tops and halters and long cotton skirts. A few are in bathing suits (and looking increasingly red and pained as the day continues), and women in elaborate and expensive fantasies of what they imagine the counter-culture must have been – fantasies that seem to owe more than a bit to ElfQuest. Some wear costumes. A few women go bare-breasted, believing themselves in a safe place, and a few men who want to show off the results of their weightlifting do so as well. However, far more have hats, either carried with them or improvised from programs or whatever else is at hand. Many have bare feet, despite the warnings in the program that shoes are advisable.

Or so the gestalt image appears in my mind. In reality, I know that that the Festival is not always The Peaceable Kingdom that its organizers sometimes like to pretend. In the early days, drugs were often obvious (and spot the narc one of the informal games that everyone played). More recently, the addition of a beer garden has created an increased need for security (or so I’m told). There are complaints, too, about the high prices charged for tickets and food, the selection of acts, and just about any other aspect of the Festival that you might name.

But I’m talking about my imagination, and not trying to give a balanced assessment. In my mind’s eye, at the Festival my brain is always slightly sodden with the heat, and the rest of me mildly dehydrated and seeking more fluids. The next day, or maybe the day after, I will be back at work, but that time seems centuries away. For the coming hours, I am relaxed and doing nothing but listening in a way that I rarely manage at any other time, even when on holiday.

Last year, I didn’t feel that way. As I said, it was raining. More importantly, the trip was a pilgrimage in which I remembered being there with my deceased partner. “It’s the nearest thing we have to religion,” she used to say, and, it’s true: although we missed the first two, and one for a vacation and one for a wedding, the years in which we missed the Festival altogether were rare.

But this year, I went alone, not expecting to do more than strike up a few casual conversations, and the magic was back. This year, it was the Festival of my dreams once again, and I know that next year I will be back and it will be a blazing hot summer day.

After all, isn’t it always?

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I live near the greenbelt surrounding Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus. As a result, I see more wildlife than most suburbanites in my daily routine.

The neighborhood is full of coyotes who have learned not to cross the roads against the traffic flow, and red-tailed hawks who perch on lamp posts, waiting endlessly for road-kill. Every year or two, a mountain lion or bear swims across the inlet and causes a panic, and the mountain used to support a pair of ravens (and possibly still does). And all of this is in addition to the usual squirrels, song birds and seagulls that you can find anywhere in the urban sprawl.

However, by far the most dramatic manifestation of living on the border between the city and the wilderness is when a bald eagle comes hunting in my townhouse complex, and the crows counter-attack in defense of their nests.

It usually happens in late June or July, when this years’ offspring are just leaving the nest. The first sign that a predator is in the area is the suddenly silence outside. If I go to the window, all the smaller birds are flying within ten meters of the ground, darting into the thicker, lower branches of the trees.

From the directions they are coming from, I usually have no trouble locating the eagle, sitting on some high perch, always looking larger than seems possible, and with the mad gleam of a single-minded predator in its eye. Even though eagles rarely attack humans, it’s a sight that’s as frightening as it is magnificent.

The crows take part in the general exodus. But, as soon as they have found shelter – or perhaps checked that their fledglings are safe – they start calling to each other.

Apart from being louder and more alarmed, their calls sound no different than usual to me. Yet the calls obviously mean something to the crows, because, after a few minutes, they rise to confront the eagle, like Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain.

The crows, of course, lack the talons and beaks of the eagle, and are fighting well above their weight. However, they fight as a team – and that makes all the difference.

The crows attack from all sides, never staying still, flying at the eagle but always veering away at the last moment. The eagle no sooner focuses attention on one or two crows than they have moved out of the way, taking temporary shelter in the lower, thicker branches that the eagle has trouble squeezing between. Meanwhile, more crows are dive-bombing it from another direction, and the eagle has to whirl about to keep an eye on them. No sooner has it done so than more crows have moved in from yet another side. There are always dozens of crows, so they have no trouble keeping up their attacks indefinitely.

Usually, though, they don’t have to. Within moments, the eagle has been reduced from predator to fugitive. Abandoning its efforts to attack, it looks for a refuge in the trees, never finding one, since crows can maneuver anywhere it can. Within twenty minutes, it is crashing from tree to tree, trying to escape. Meanwhile, behind it, crows keep rising to meet it, then returning to shelter for a temporary rest while other crows take up the fight.

Once, when walking up to the corner store, I saw one of these attacks about twenty meters above me. From the way its feathers were plastered tight against its body, I could tell that the eagle was not only bewildered, but actually terrified as it was driven from shelter after shelter, never getting enough of a respite to counter-attack.

I half-wondered if the eagle might be so confused that it would attack me, or if the crows in their anger would see me as another intruder and deal with me the same way, but neither of these things happened. Instead, the eagle continued careening from tree to tree, disappearing into the distance while from every tree around me, crows were calling in anger. I tried not to think of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and continued on my errand as the fight moved gradually further away.

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Gwaai Edenshaw was long overdue for a solo exhibit. Both a goldsmith and a traditional carver, he is an artist’s artist, and his work is in popular demand. However, for his first exhibit, he has chosen to emphasize another aspect of his work: his graphite and ink drawings, and their role in his artistic process. “Sounds Good on Paper,” currently at the Petley Jones Gallery, does include some his work in gold, but largely to illustrate the importance of his preliminary drawing in his jewellry.

With this theme, the show’s catalog inevitably chooses “The Dreamer” as the piece on the cover. The piece is not only an obvious choice for the theme of the artistic process, but for Gwaai himself (to use the name with which he signs his work). The cartoon style is a reminder of his animation prototypes for teaching the Haida language, and the rings on the hat, a sign of high status in traditional culture an indication of the importance of art among the Haida today. At the same time, the doodles around the margin, as rough as they are, have a non-traditional look. Also, to anyone who has sat down with Gwaai for any length of time, they are a reminder of his constant doodling.

Other pieces in the show emphasize Gwaai’s different traditions and influences. Some, like “Kagan Dajangwee,” are slightly stiff exercises in the northern First Nations style, with their formline and cross hatching:

Others, like “Nanasimget,” a depiction of an Orpheus-like figure in Haida mythology, look like a two-dimensional rendering of a metal casting (and, perhaps not coincidentally, are reminiscent of some of the sketches of Bill Reid, Gwaai’s mentor when he was a teenager):

At the opposite extreme are more mainstream pieces. “Ts’aahl Girl” (Eagle Girl), for instance, combines realism with a touch of whimsy:


Similarly, the two studies of Gagiid, the Haida wildman whose lower face is pierced by the spines of the sea-urchins he is forced to eat after being castaway, bear a distinct resemblance to Gollum as portrayed by Andy Sirkis in The Lord of the Rings:

This movement between traditional Haida culture and urban industrial life – so effortless that it includes analogies – suggest the position of the modern First Nations artist. For those of us who have met him, it also seems very typical of Gwaai’s wide-ranging mind.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show offer a glimpse of the creative process.For example, “Detail: The Two Brothers Pole” shows the precision-drafted plans for a pole that Gwaai recently completed with his brother Jaalen, and a view of the raised pole. The pole is located in Jasper National Park, and was a replacement for a repatriated pole that was appropriated from the Haida in 1907 and that is often attributed to Charles Edenshaw:

A more personal glimpse of the relation between sketches and other media is provided by “Sons of Djillaquon” and the gold pendant “Sons of Djillaquons:”

Both the sketch and the pendant are powerful works in their own right, but together they illustrate what is gained and lost in the transfer between media, as well as the limitations of each. It is this relationship that makes the oxymoron title of “Sounds Good on Paper” a suitable title for the exhibit.

Casual observers might be tempted to to describe “Sounds Good on Paper” as a minor show. And, in one sense, they would be right: most of what is displayed are not the pieces for which Gwaai has rightfully gained his growing reputation.

Yet such a view would also be short-sighted. More than anything else, “Sounds Good on Paper” is a very personal show. It displays many different aspects of Gwaai’s personality – probably not all –and offers a tantalizing hint or two of his creative process and his interest in different media.

My only regret is that the show couldn’t include some examples of Gwaai’s argillite prototypes for his jewellry. Placed beside the finished jewellry, these prototypes could have provided yet another perspective on the concerns of the show.

However, even without this touch, “Sounds Good on Paper” remains interesting both aesthetically and psychologically. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an exhibit that shows so much of the artist without a hint of arrogance.

Asked the day after the opening what I thought of the exhibit, my first response was, “It’s very Gwaai.” Having had a few more days to think, I still that response the most accurate I could have given.

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