Name that tune

November 30, 2004 at 8:14 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Sit down at the computer, Y., you have an hour to spare, the very first one in the day, in fact. You had Chinese take-out for dinner inbetween picking up the kids from their swimming lessons and taking the daughter to choir; you pick her up in two hours. Pour it out now, what do you want to say?

I thought of writing about a Victoria-based ecological and technological dynamo underwater logging company operating in Powell River, whose chairman-of-the-board is a friend who lives a few blocks down the road; or perhaps about what I did last Friday night, when I went to hear Matt Hern (the deschooling advocate) speak at the Victoria Boys and Girls Club, and how his historical summary resonated not only with John Taylor Gatto but also with Gwynne Dyer’s take on the French Revolution’s (and Napoleon’s) influence on our conception of statehood and total war, all in relation to institutional schooling and the various means of circumventing it (eg. home- and alternative-schooling and deschooling); or about the fact that Tommy Douglas won “the Greatest Canadian” contest (and I believe Donald Sutherland, an incredibly sexy guy, is his grand- or greatgrandson) — I mean, any aspect of these topics would make me happy. [editorial update, 12/1/04: Donald Sutherland was Tommy Douglas’s son-in-law. He was married to Douglas’s daughter, Shirley; their son Kiefer Sutherland is Tommy Douglas’s grandson.]

But instead I feel obligated to write about this:

If I had not taken a vow never to compare what is happening here with what happened there, in those terrible times and places, this time I might have made the comparison. It’s hard to be silent, so I will quote from Akiva Eldar‘s report: “As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, [Herman-Peled] was bothered more than anything else by the demand that a Palestinian play music for a Jewish soldier.” [This melody has to be stopped by Yossi Sarid]

This is not a story getting much coverage in the press — The Guardian has an article called Israel shocked by image of soldiers forcing violinist to play at roadblock by Chris McGreal, and BBC writes Israel army forces violin recital, but the Jerusalem Post already reports that Probe clears soldier in violin incident. It will soon be forgotten, but you can visit Horit Herman-Peled‘s site and see the video she shot here.

Alright, you might say, these journalists and activists have an agenda — they’re not telling both sides of the story, they’re not objective. And I might say, So? If you read a report like Molly Moore’s, originally published Nov.29 in The Washington Post and reposted by Truthout, Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army, I don’t think you’re reading the words of a rabid partisan:

For two neighboring societies segregated by the physical and psychological barriers of a conflict dragging into its fifth year, the most intimate contact between Israelis and Palestinians occurs over the barrel of a gun at the 61 manned military checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such encounters exact a heavy toll on both sides, as evinced by accounts from former checkpoint guards who describe working under dehumanizing conditions, and by numerous reports of abuses committed by such soldiers against Palestinian civilians. [More…]

Moore’s point is that both sides are reduced to a level of “reality” that bears small resemblance to what those of us lucky enough to live outside a warzone would consider reality. From the same article, which is an account of abuses at the checkpoints, in particular one that led the trial of an Israeli soldier, another quote:

During the trial, soldiers who had served at the Hawara checkpoint over the past year gave testimony describing what they said were common, accepted practices among combat soldiers who detested checkpoint duty and often received little or no training for what they considered a policeman’s job. In testimony and in interviews, they also argued that the army and Israeli society should accept some of the blame for abuses that they said were the result of an impossible mission.

“When we do all these things, we are not doing it only to the Palestinians, but to ourselves, too,” said Aman, who was a friend of the convicted sergeant and recently finished his military service. “The most important discussion should be in our own society. If you blame the soldiers, you miss the point. . . . These duties corrupt.”

A quote by a friend of the tried soldier ends the article: “They say if you’re a good person, there’s no way you should be doing anything like this and be violent. They don’t understand the situation. They’re living in a movie.”

I found this uncannily close to Ron Suskind’s now famous “reality” assessment in Without a doubt [see note at end of this post]. It was on Maria’s Alembic site on October 27 that I first read the famous quote, in her entry Blunt Pens. She must have had the paper copy fresh off the press that day, and instantly nailed the key quote which made its way around the world (well, the blogosphere):

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

Don’t you see? Molly Moore’s traumatised soldier, doing his duty at the checkpoints, agrees with Suskind’s unnamed informant: he is convinced that he lives in reality, while we’ve all gone out to the movies. This is heartbreakingly sad.

But it’s important. It says something about the plasticity of “reality,” and how easy it is to mould it into something that “normal” people would consider unacceptable. …And it says that abnormal monstrous people will yet remain convinced of their “normality” — reality is that plastic. See, for example, William Grimes’s NYTimes book review of Leon Goldensohn’s The Nuremberg Interviews (edited by Robert Gellately). In 1946, Goldensohn, an Army psychiatrist, was put in charge of interviewing and assessing the 21 defendants of the Nuremberg Trials. He spent seven months with them, taking daily detailed notes. As Grimes’s review points out, “All of them [the defendants] denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the murder of the Jews or any other war crimes.” Their view of reality substantiated what we would call their delusions. Note, for example, how Oswald Pohl, who ran the concentration camp system, saw his world:

[He] struggled mightily to explain that one could administer a system without actually being responsible for what occurred in it. “About the murder of the five million Jews, I had nothing whatever to do with it,” he said. “The fact that I was in charge of all the concentration camps in Germany from 1942 until the end is beside the point.”

Julius Streicher, meanwhile, starts to haggle with Goldensohn about the number of people killed in the camps. He seems to believe that by screwing the number back from six to four-and-a-half million dead, the crime is somehow lessened …or rationalised. And Goering insists that if the Allies hadn’t ganged up on Germany, everyone would be happy and grateful to Germany. For what, you wonder? For uniting Europe as a harmonious confederation of states. Oh yes, I forgot: those damn ends, and their bloody justification of the means. The ends really are a great ingredient for making reality as malleable and plastic as one could want, no doubt about it.

What the banality of evil might really be about, finally, is our ability to believe in ends, and to do whatever is necessary to get there, even when present reality stops making sense. Everyone has that ability, it comes with the ever-changing territory.

Players, take up your instruments. It’s just a movie….

Postscript, Dec.1/04: Thanks to Jonathan Delacour‘s email pointer, I have the NYTimes link to the Ron Suskind article Without a doubt (mentioned above), and also thanks to Jonathan, I now know how to find those “disappeared” articles. Thank-you!

On a different note, I just deleted 3 comments on this article from someone called “Breast Augmentation.” Comment spam slips through whatever filters are in place here, too, but this was the first time I nearly regretted deleting it. Instead of exhorting the reader to purchase anything, the comments were snippets of prose lifted from some kind of pulp fiction. Weirdly poetic, yes, but off-topic, and definitely unwelcome.


November 27, 2004 at 10:33 am | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Wastrel — great-sounding word, isn’t it? Woody, not tinny.

Here’s a definition:

wastrel n : someone who dissipates resources self-indulgently [syn: waster]

Chet Richards reviews Winslow Wheeler’s The Wastrels of Defense; How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security (US Naval Institute Press, 2004) for Defense and National Interest. (Don’t ask how I came across that particular site, just read the review — or the book.)

Alarming stuff.


November 25, 2004 at 4:27 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

A big thank you to Dean Landsman who pointed to this 8-minute flash movie called EPIC, an absolute must-see. Nice touch: when an id card flashes on the screen, it’s Winston Smith‘s. Also, tying in to my earlier posts about Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath’s books — The Rebel Sell and the two posts on Nov. 24 and Nov. 22 that glanced at The Efficient Society — I was struck by the narrator’s closing comments in EPIC. He notes that the end result depicted is “what we chose,” that it’s “our choice.” He also notes that “commercial success pre-empted any discussion of democracy, journalism, and ethics.” (quoted verbatim, not exactly). Nothing in this “history” is implausible, least of all the idea that market forces, unchecked, would logically allow for this development.

Happy Thanksgiving

November 25, 2004 at 4:06 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Happy Thanksgiving

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving at our house today, still unable to commit fully to ignoring the opportunity for a 4-day weekend, as well as being unwilling to celebrate Thanksgiving as early as Canada does (in October on the day that Americans call Columbus Day: Mondays are just not the right days for this sort of holiday!). There were still the obligatory lessons for the kids this morning, though, which reminded me that last week at this time I watched Pinchas Zukerman arrive at the back parking lot of the Victoria Conservatory of Music. I was attending to the last 5 minutes of E’s piano lesson and could watch Zukerman’s black limo drive up. He jumped out of the car, all energy and purpose. He’s a very attractive man, a study in shades of grey and black. Tall, bony, but not sharply angular, as though all that inside energy, pushing outward, had bulged and rounded whatever might look cutting on someone else. Lots of energy. He had come to the Conservatory that morning to teach a master class as part of the National Arts Centre Orchestra‘s pedagogical outreach program. In the afternoon, the kids and I managed to catch the last part of Alexina Louie‘s piano and composition master class. She, too, brought a terrific sense of energy and love into the auditorium, offering helpful critiques of the student compositions. I especially liked a piece written by Philip Barwin, a VCM student, called Perseverance String Quartet (first movement). I’m musically illiterate in the sense that I have no training, can’t play an instrument, or read music, but my responses are intact, I think. It never ceases to amaze me when 12-tone music can be so emotionally intense, so challenging and so evocative. So, I’m thankful today and every day for all the wonderful aspects in my life, and continue to be amazed at the diversity of experience that having children in one’s life can introduce.

Comment, instead of post

November 24, 2004 at 8:20 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Comment, instead of post

Instead of a post, the esteemed possibly interested reader can peruse an overly long comment I wrote for Monday’s entry, here (click on comments to read). My comment addresses a couple of aspects of why I went on that rant by going into some detail on Joseph Heath’s The Efficient Society; Why Canada Is As Close To Utopia As It Gets. (For a useful review of the book, see here (from Globe & Mail 2001), too.

[Added bonus (for my purposes anyway): due to a configuration fluke, one word in my comment, personal, which I had put in quotation marks, links to a post from April 18 (I think), 2003. I started blogging on March 31, 2003, so it’s a really ‘young’ entry. Scroll up and there’s a bit about Colin Powell and the Iraq war as analysed by David Olive. Maybe blogs do have their uses, archivally, psychologically, and all that….]

Why read blogs?

November 22, 2004 at 11:48 pm | In yulelogStories | 9 Comments

Frank Paynter sent around an email to ask, “why do you blog?” It wasn’t a personal question since his query went to a number of people, but all the same I didn’t like being asked just now. Because I often find so little satisfaction in using this format, I am forever on the verge of quitting blogging. I like writing, I like “thinking out loud” (such as it is), I like making a bricolage-type portrait of my quirky interests, but there are too many days when I feel that there’s nothing I want from “the community,” and since I don’t feel part of a blogging community, I would prefer not to be considered a blogger at all. (After all, it was Frank who wrote, “There are half a dozen men in Canada whose blogs I read, whose writing interests me,” and when I read that, I sensed a “vision” of community being illuminated …which wasn’t mine.) I am not keeping a web-log because of some particular care I have about the web. I love the fact that I can get access to information at fantabulous speed through the internet, I love that almost all of it is free, and I love that it can keep me connected to news (and gossip) from around the world.

But I don’t web-log because I love the web. I don’t understand much of the technology that web-based tinkering and creation depends on, just as I don’t understand car engines. I do drive, however; avidly in fact. But my car — and the web — isn’t a fetish in my world: I do not love my car. I am intrigued by the challenge to property rights that information technology introduces to our collective actions here, but that’s still not enough to build a community as far as I’m concerned. Furthermore, if someone paid me to write articles in either this medium or in another, I would stop web-logging. All I really care about, when push comes to shove, is writing. I write on the web simply because it’s free and it’s easier than finding someone who’ll pay me to write somewhere else (though I wouldn’t mind the latter at all). Nor am I keeping a log, because what I’m doing is not some sort of account. It’s not a diary, it’s not a ship’s log (hello, Star Trek?), it’s not daily. It’s my amateur (as in Latin for “love”) attempt at discourse (or should I say monologue?). Again, if I had a job as a journalist, columnist, editorialist, whatever, I’d happily trade in the “blog.” I don’t love the web (except as a tool to get from A to B, sort of like my car), I don’t love public diaries. This is not a diary, it is not a log. Except for hyperlinks (which I do love — for example, finding something in an old book, quoting from it, but hyperlinking some key words: fantastic!), this what’s-it could be elsewhere, too.

I thought it might be interesting to turn the question around and ask, “why do you read blogs?” Here, too, some key differences between me and real bloggers could be defined. There are two bloggers, both women, whose pages I visit daily, Maria and Shelley. I read them for several reasons, firstly because they have intelligent things to say, secondly how they say those smart things. The postings are sometimes uneven — naturally — but they typically offer a fresh viewing angle, an insight, a comment on something either observed or experienced directly, or on something read elsewhere. It’s food for thought, in other words. Those two I read daily. But that’s it. There are many other women writing online whose writing I would doubtlessly find just as interesting, but I simply don’t have enough time or enough love to shower on more than those two. I have heard, however, that real bloggers read tens if not hundreds of blogs daily. They use various aggregator tools to do this — they are in effect the taxi drivers of the web. What I mean is, I like to drive, but not that much, thank you. I tried reading lots of blogs for a while. It was depressing. I didn’t like getting caught up in so much stuff, I didn’t like being exposed to so much unevenness. Everyone’s uneven lots of the time, but blogs are consistently uneven, and by the law of statistics and probability, you will be reading many more “lows” simply by reading more blogs. In non-blog traditional media, you’re getting a filtered version of writing. Supposedly (in theory), this eliminates the “lows” (at least that’s the claim). If you’re a middle-brow New Yorker magazine type junkie, you’ll get a consistent level of mid- to high-range pieces, and it’s up to you if you want to stuff yourself to the gills with that sort of material. There’s a lot of it out there, so you can easily stuff away for days on end. But I couldn’t do it, not with the New Yorker, not with anything. I’m not into stuffing, I’m quite delicate, and I especially get nauseated by too many little green snotballs or too much buzzing or boing-ing or …anything. And the comments! They’re the worst. I don’t like too much, regardless of what too much is. I find it nauseating that so-called A-listers or other important people try to convince not only themselves but others that their quantitative “popularity” somehow obviates the inferior quality of what they write. Surely I can’t be the only one to notice that a lot of what passes for popular blogging is simply terrible to read, shitty from a (brain-nourishing) quality/ content perspective? Unless, of course, you love the web (the technology) the way some people love car engines, and you’re bedazzled. Those of us who like to drive, but who don’t aspire to become taxi drivers or mechanics, don’t understand why hacks think that following links equates with synthesis or analysis, or why tinkerers think they’re worthwhile writers just because their garage is full of customers.

In my mind, I’m not a customer, except for brief, defined moments of time. And then I leave.

“Why do you read blogs?” I have no idea who reads my online writing, but I know it’s not a community. Most readers seem to come here because of some eccentric google searches: they are anonymous, they stop by once, perhaps they come back again if something stimulated them enough, and then they leave. Unlike one-trick ponies, which can be branded and sold to customers, this is neither a product nor a brand, after all. That’s what makes ideas different from stuff. But you’re the reader — you have to decide if what you want is to stuff yourself or if you want to leave.

I always want to leave, and then I come back occasionally. Last week was nearly entirely made of up leavings; I’m still reluctant to come back now, which is probably why I’m yelling at you. My leaving started by my visiting a wider range of blogs and leaving comments, for example here and here and even here. I started to notice a pattern — disconnecting, leaving, writing myself out of my space and going somewhere else. Last week it sort of peaked, coinciding with real-life encounters that made me nearly crazy. For example, last Thursday I met someone in real time and space who read my blog, a nerve-wracking experience even on a good day. It’s especially unnerving if the person likes the site, which this one did, because it always instills in me an evil sense of hope that perhaps there’s some point to all this. Of course there isn’t, and of course the let-down inevitably follows. My descent was deepened when I spent the entire next day (Friday) cleaning the house, scrubbing toilets so that we could finally have at least one weekend off together, as a family, vs spending all day Saturday arguing over who would do what, and doing it churlishly. I wondered what my former house-cleaner of 12 years employ, who owns a vacation home in Florida, in addition to the house she owns in Hamilton-Wenham Massachusetts, was going to be up to for Thanksgiving.

“Why do I blog?” Perhaps because inbetween cleaning my own toilets these days, I don’t have enough time left over for real work? At least I don’t have a second (vacation) home — its absence at least makes for fewer toilets to clean overall.

By late afternoon, I was done. Done in, actually. Before ferrying the kids to their evening fencing class after an early dinner, I took my dog for a walk along Dallas Road. The sun was setting and it was heartbreakingly beautiful out there. Two very large, beefy men in shorts — they might have been father and son — stopped by one of the doggie fountains with their six chihuahuas and their one lab-type mutt to watch the sun sink over the Strait behind the Sooke Hills. Dozens of dogs frolicking with their after-work humans were tearing the field to shreds, chasing frisbees and balls and each other. But for me it was time to check the clock, punch the slot, get back home, feed the kids, hit the road, get them off to class. The next day, Saturday, there was still a bit of yardwork to do, followed by the obligatory outing with the dog. But finally (due to my Friday labours), a break for the adults: an hour-long outing to a bookstore (not Munro’s this time, but Chapters). I felt, however, that I was well and truly plunging into the dark pit of misanthropy by now because everything felt too surreal in a bad way. I felt this intense allergy to people, which the bookstore only exacerbated since it was too full of stuff. So many books… the displays began to look like the blogosphere. I made the mistake of browsing along the tables on my way to the magazine section (where the husband indulged in paging through magazines devoted to wristwatches — the diversity of fetishism never ceases to amaze me). Book covers that copied the look of Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait (Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Queen I think it’s called) dominated the fantasy display aimed at, according to the sign, 8-12 year-olds, and this was followed immediately by a table given over to more topical and political non-fiction. Unfortunately, I casually picked up a book called White Gold, which tells “The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves,” and I made the mistake of opening it. My mind already set on the general perfidy and boundless stupidity of people, I was not happy to see illustrations of various tortures, including the bastinade (which, if you google it, links to sex sites, but it was shown here as putting a man in a kind of stocks and then beating the soles of his feet until they bled). Shut the book immediately, looked up at the magazine shelves in front of me, and saw headlines declaring the importance of certain shades of lipstick.

I felt sick. Moved along the aisles, saw Joyce Carol Oates on the cover of Moment Magazine, looking remarkably like a cousin of Frida’s, or of Tamora’s queen, and paged through an article on Jews in Germany. Something about, among other things, a Purim play in Yiddish being performed by non-Jewish Germans in Germany for lack of German Jews. By now my head was spinning, I wanted to leave.

That’s when I saw an article title on a cover, and knew that it would redeem the day for me: Quitting the Paint Factory; on the virtues of idleness [new link here] by Mark Slouka, in the current (Nov. 2004) issue of Harper’s Magazine. I knew that something truly strange and magical was afoot here, since I had just finished a story (a memoir) in which my father’s paint factory figured heavily. It wasn’t really a factory, more a factorylette in an outbuilding, and he went massively bankrupt on borrowed money within a year or two, which led in turn to our emigrating to Canada when I was a very young child — but the title was like my cellphone ringing with Mr. Slouka at the other end. “Hello? Hello? Yes, I’m here!” Not only that, but “virtues of idleness”?? Bliss, sheer bliss. How many times have I written on this site about the virtues of idleness, about how I hate the Nazi ethic of “work makes you free,” the whole filthy lie of it? And how many times have I written about my despair that American society in particular is beholden to this brand of fascist infiltration? How we homeschool, for example, because we don’t believe that work makes you free? And here was an article promising exactly my argument in Harper’s Magazine. Folks, I felt that I was the author — I was bursting with pride! But it gets better. Mark Slouka has written a really smart piece here, and I’m grateful that there’s a (presumably pirated) version online (there’s that “property rights extended to ideas” issue again…). Read it. The ending amazed me. Read it.

Meanwhile, on the blogs, people (mostly leftists) are debating The Rebel Sell in a way that again makes me despair. (Except read Heath’s response today on the 22nd on this page, and especially read the blog thread on This Magazine. For the most part, the critics just don’t get it, though, and it bothers me a lot because they want to bring moral “values” to the table, which is just what Bush and bin Laden are doing in their domains. Fuck “moral” values for the most part. Your morals aren’t my morals.)

And so I enter, and sometimes I leave again, quickly. Maybe more later, if I come back. For now, it’s telling that even this didn’t cheer me up:

Virginia Woolf: Orlando. You are a challenge, for
outer events, the outside world, the time etc.
play no importance to you. Your focus is in
writing, in gender issues, and inside your own
head. Self-analysis and exploration of yourself
as well as the outer world hold great
importance to you.

Which literature classic are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Going to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon

November 15, 2004 at 8:58 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Going to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon

At least that’s what Sen. Max Baucus should consider — becoming a dental floss tycoon — because to judge by his ideas on international trade, he doesn’t seem fit to be a legislator. Baucus plans to introduce a bill in Congress as early as tomorrow [Tuesday 11/16] that would “give” $4 billion in lumber duties from Canadian companies to US forest companies. See this CBC story here. BC Forest Minister Mike de Jong is making big noises in response, but one wonders how, exactly, he and his Federal counterpart will make good on taking a firm stand against American unilateralism:

[De Jong] says one of the options [to fight the legislative theft proposed by Baucus] includes stopping energy exports to the U.S.,
“I’m just making the obvious point that if the U.S. Congress and the White House sanction the theft of this money, there will be Canadians across the country arguing it is time to make that linkage, and to other products as well.”

See Montana’s Billings Gazette for another report. Other sources claim that Baucus is just posturing and can safely be ignored, but here in Canada, the US is seen as an increasingly unreliable trade partner with no respect for existing treaties. So far, all international court decisions have come down in Canada’s favour, which seems to be fanning the flames of desperate and outrageous behaviour on the part of the Americans. Another CBC business news report, U.S. senator’s bill would give lumber duties to American companies by Steve Mertl, adds more background:

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection bureau is holding an estimated $3.6 billion in countervailing and anti-dumping duties collected since May 2002 after American producers claimed Canadian softwood lumber sold into the U.S. market was being subsidized.

The WTO ruled in January 2003 that the so-called Byrd Amendment to the Tariff Act, which distributed punitive tariffs to companies deemed to have been injured by subsidized imports, violated international trade rules.

Last September, the trade body gave Canada and other countries the right to impose retaliatory sanctions against American products after the U.S. government refused to repeal the Byrd Amendment.

[John] Allan [president of the B.C. Lumber Trade Council] said it’s conceivable the Baucus bill, if it passes, could order U.S. Customs to turn over the duties held in trust. Otherwise, the money would come from U.S. government revenues.

Then if Canada ultimately wins the duty case, “that leaves the U.S. taxpayer on the hook,” said Allan. [More…]

Baucus, m’boy, you’re a bully. And since you’re not doing this for the American taxpayer, whose pocket are you in? Even the US press, when reporting favourably on the Byrd Amendment, notes that while anti-dumping fines previously went directly into the US Treasury, they now (via Byrd) go directly to private US companies. Interesting, isn’t it? Sounds like a “legal,” government-sactioned privatisation of international trade, with the taxpaying public (who cares about them anyway?) holding the bag in case the fines have to be given back to the fined after all. Do piggies need their teeth flossed? [ed.: I initially wrote “jim” instead of “max” for the senator’s name, and have corrected it. It’s Max Baucus, D-Montana. The entry title? Just a ref. to Frank Zappa’s Montana song, of course.]

Dark Blue World in Vancouver

November 14, 2004 at 4:25 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Dark Blue World in Vancouver

If you’re in Vancouver tonight, you can catch Elizabeth Fischer and Dark Blue World at The Railway Club, corner of Dunsmuir and Seymour, upstairs. Special guest: Tarran the Tailor. (Runs with scissors…?) You are invited to

Come prepared with your written entry for the evening’s contest. The question to be addressed is as follows: “Should Ron Dye his Eyebrows, and if so, What Colour”.

The person producing the wittiest retort (on paper, Roman alphabet, note: Cyrillic not accepted) will be invited to a cheap breakfast at the Nice Cafe with the band member of their choice. Attention will be paid to the quality of conversation, however we cannot ensure sexual favours for reasons of pesky personal preferences.


(I don’t have to make sense …do I?)

November 10, 2004 at 10:20 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

I have heroes I forget about for long periods of time, and then something calls them back to mind. One of them is Wendy Ewald, for example. She’s a photographer who, among other things, works with children. More later — first this, another completely scatter-shot opinionated take on things. I posted something called It’s a theocracy a while back, and in “comments,” The Happy Tutor shared his experience of Church-going southern people’s identification with their particular brand of godliness. This started me thinking that one can consider piety as a kind of affirmation of the status quo — and given the right kind of dynamic social situation, piety can even be a one-upmanship mechanism. You know? It’s not really about how godly you are, but about what you’re trying to “protect” and maintain. It’s about keeping a status quo while climbing a social ladder. Another couple of days ago I also mentioned hearing Gwynne Dyer on CBC — I often listen to CBC when I’m driving on an errand, which means I usually only catch parts of the program. If I remember correctly, Dyer suggested that, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been at the height of its imperial power, but he added that everyone understands that a l-o-n-g slide downward tends to follow any apex. What we’re seeing currently, Dyer suggested (if I understood him correctly) is America attempting (in various ways) to entrench that moment (the “now”), because what will follow won’t shine with such glory. There’s much vehemence on the blogs (this one included) on the subject of voter fraud, stolen elections, “red states,” “blue states,” theocracy, endtimes, …you name it. I think it’s important to keep those discussions going: I don’t want to see the Creationists succeed in dumbing people down even further, nor do I want to see a woman’s right to choose impeded, nor see equal rights for homosexuals attacked. But The Happy Tutor‘s comment also summed up, I thought, an aspect of implied social-control and social-climbing in all this godliness that is just as strong in the secular camp. It’s a status question, and that makes it a status quo issue. It doesn’t necessarily have to have any connection to religion. I remembered how, when I moved from Vancouver to Boston in 1985, I was dumbfounded by the intense stratification of Boston-area society along college-affiliation lines. Subtly, oh so subtly, one’s neighbour might ask, “what college did you go to?” People at my husband’s place of work (a class-homogeneous high tech firm) did the same thing, and if they were Northeasterners, they ranked each other according to their undergraduate college’s location. I had no idea what these people were talking about — it took me forever to understand that Colby isn’t just a cheese, but a college which for reasons still completely obscure to me occupied a distinguished place in local minds. (…Colby? What the heck is that? Bowdoin? Smith? Didn’t some writer go there? Once? A long time ago? What of it?) Since I came from a country — and especially that part of it (British Columbia) — where private colleges didn’t exist, and since I was the first person in my family to be able to go to college (vs. having to apprentice or work somewhere), I really didn’t get what this was about. I was also conflicted and had much to think through with Harvard’s offer of admission. I was being coopted in a sense — the petit bourgeois chip on my shoulder grew to boulder size. Harvard: wasn’t that where the running dogs went? Ok, I was going for a PhD and I was still secure in the knowledge that I had gone to a really strong, rigorous Canadian public university (UBC) where no one gave a flying flick about colleges named for a cheese. But in the Boston area, the relentless querying over undergraduate pedigree never stopped. Once on campus, I met other graduate students and saw that this was what some of them cared about more than anything: where had I gone for my undergraduate degree? To a public school? (If yes, they quickly turned away and lost interest.) To a private one? (If yes, they could now play the one-upmanship game.) (n.b.: I gleefully blew the idiots out of the water by getting two articles — based on papers I’d written while I was still at UBC — published in peer-reviewed American & British journals, while I was still a grad student at Harvard. None of those other candy-asses managed that. Hunh, take that. And I had a book contract within 18 months of graduation, with no help from my Harvard advisor. Double hunh.) My best friend at Harvard had a BA from Washington University in St. Louis; she felt the same snooty East Coast disdain I felt, handed out by our fellows from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, …you name it, up and down the Northeastern seaboard. What Northeasterners — students, middle-aged adults, neighbours, colleagues — didn’t understand was that west of, say, western New York State, no one cared about Colby or Emerson or any of the literally hundreds of small and private and infightingly elite expensive colleges dotting the landscape. Only the Northeasterners believed, but they truly believed because they were invested, body and soul, with that part of themselves most sensitive to down- or upward swings: their pocketbooks. Undergraduate education’s social role was that of finishing school, and only private colleges really bestowed any rank, because private colleges — the more exclusive, the better — defined your family’s ability to pay (or at least borrow). What the undergrad college signified wasn’t an education as such, but arrival in a particular strata. Which brings me back to the question of maintaining the status quo. Northeasterners — “blue-bloods,” and whatever else they’ve been libelled as in the rightwingish press — aren’t any different from pray-for-money evangelical Bible-belters or cliquish southerners up to their ears in debt. It’s just that they’ve invested differently in maintaining their standing. The lot of them are over-extended, maxed out on credit cards, working two careers, and spending way too much time in the automobile. But while one part of the country has its churches and god, the other has its private schools. For parents and students in the latter, the admissions officer is god. The financial aid officer is second deity — or maybe first, depending on your finances. And the religion is growing: ask anyone in the Northeast who has kids. Forget about getting into the right undergraduate college — you need to get your kid into the right kindergarten in some communities. Otherwise, you’re ostracised before you even hit that private elementary school. So, maybe we should leave the red and blue maps aside. Americans have way more in common than they have in difference. They do have different things that define them in their status quo, and perhaps more than a few are afraid to change anything because it might just go downhill from now.

Back to Wendy Ewald, in a collage-y sort of way. I paged through her exhibition catalog Secret Games tonight — there are issues other than “red” and “blue” in America. I first saw her work in Massachusetts, at the Addison Gallery of American Art, a very wonderful art gallery in one those quintessentially New England snooty prep schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The show was called Secret Games; Collaborative Works with Children 1969-1999. The exhibition (and book) covered collaborative work with children in Canada (Newfoundland), South Africa, The Netherlands, India, Morocco, Saudi Arabia (women & children; but in social status: little difference), Mexico (Chiapas), Columbia, and the U.S. (Kentucky, 1975-82; & Durham, NC, 1989-99). The aim of her workshops (“Visual literacy through photography”) is letting the children develop a sense of [visual] literacy that will allow them to tell their own stories.

One of the more difficult tasks was to persuade the [Kentucky/ Appalachian] children of the eloquence of their rough photographs. They hadn’t seen anything like the pictures they were about to take, not in subject matter, tonal range, or surface texture. The portraits they admired were slick album covers of Hank Williams or Dolly Parton; they liked the idyllic landscapes they saw in seed catalogues. But if my words did not always convince them of their gifts, they were able to encourage one another. (From the exh. cat., Secret Games, p.37.)

Ewald reprinted one child’s autobiography, wherein Johnny describes his large family torn apart by poverty, beatings, foster homes, drunkenness, early pregnancy, prison, lack of education. His father is in jail, and Johnny concludes, “When I get older, if anybody’s trying to break my family up, I’ll kill them. I know I will.” Johnny has a brother named Charles. This is one of Johnny’s pictures of his brother Charles; it’s called Charles and the quilts:

I know that the “cool hunters” have by now co-opted and appropriated Johnny’s “rough eloquence”; trailer trash had its fashion moment and now we don’t even see it anymore. Ditto for the amazing series, “Black Self/ White Self,” where black and white school children took pictures in which they recreated themselves as “the other.” (Also in the catalog Secret Games.) But with all the talking adults are doing, it might make sense to listen to children for a change, and to study their images. I wanted to show a few more pictures taken by Ewald’s students, but I’m having too hard a time scanning and then making the formatting behave. So if you can, get a hold of the book. Or better yet, hook up with children and find out if they “wanna take me a picture.”

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