Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolutions: procrastination, politics, and the environment

Reading historiography, particularly postmodern historiography, warps your mind.  So yesterday--a beautiful day in Regina, warm by winter standards and nearly windless--I went for one of those woolgathering walks my daughter recommends.  Of course, I spent much time reading the traces in the snow, which is not a bad metaphor for the historical project generally.  Besides the ubiquitous dog footprints, I could see that the neighbourhood hares have been out and about, and noticed one tiny thread-like track that I suspect belonged to a mouse or vole.  The light was extraordinary.  While I understand that some of the words we humans argue the most about are the words for colour, snow in prairie light creates a particular challenge.  Is it blue?  Mauve-blue?  Are the shadows grey or silver?   

Standing here in the windless light meditating on the colour of snow, it's hard to take in the fact that in 2010 nature was deadly.  Natural disasters like heat waves, floods, blizzards and droughts killed over 260,000 people.  At the same time, a brief article in The Globe and Mail reports that only 115,000 people have been killed by terrorists between 1968 and 2009.   So why do North American governments spend so much money and ingenuity on protecting its citizens from terrorists and so little creativity and money on providing leadership that will address the human practices that lead to climate change?

John Allemang, in an excellent article on procrastination, may provide the answer.  We're procrastinators.  We've all done it:  check out Facebook status updates or visit Ravelry again rather than write that difficult essay or harranging blog post. Similarly, our governments prefer the immediate, measurable results of holding up thousands of travellers while their waistbands are checked for hidden explosives rather than drafting difficult legislation that will begin to address the environmental costs of the carbon dioxide we spew into the air.  Allemang writes that procrastinators lack impulse control, tending to focus on what's immediately before us, even though putting off dealing with "retirement planning, transit infrastructure, and climate change can have dire social consequences."  He goes on to comment that "if environmental degradation is a slippery slope of small procrastinations, then you craft regulatory solutions where success is tied to specific plans rather than the vague idealization of better air quality."

Canadian politics at the current moment seems to consists of the art of procrastination.  Don't do anything today that might put off a single voter tomorrow.  Because tomorrow might come with the next budget.  This really translates into not having any vision, into a politics of not offending anyone.  It's as if we no longer ask our politicians for leadership. But if somebody doesn't get creative, if somebody doesn't take some risks, will we be able to meditate on the colour of snow in 20 years, or to consider the miracle of mouse tracks?

Here's the link to John Allemang's essay on procrastination

Here's the link to the Globe and Mail stats on deaths from weather and terrorist attacks:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Convalescence

Two days before I should have finished my marking for the fall term, I came down with the flu for the second time in three weeks.

The first feverish day I mostly slept, trying not to think too much about the fact that I should be marking and that the next term is already pressing in upon me.  I need to read Heidegger over Christmas for an M.A. thesis I'm examining, and I need to get a new issue of Wascana Review online.  When I wasn't obsessing about the passing of time, but listening instead to every voice of my body, feverish memories arose:  vivid, fragmentary, yet surrounded by context that arrived like a flash of lightning, illuminating everything momentarily.  Is memory somehow housed in the body?  Is it when we're ill (or sixty and ill for the second time in three weeks?) that we feel the full weight of our history?  In those moments, time actually stretched out behind me instead of racing toward me, and I turned to face in the other direction in a kind of hazy wonder.  I am the person made out of all that.

Past the worst of the fever but still wobbly in the knees, I contemplated the personalities of my cats.  This is a good thing to do when you're sick and have time on your hands.  Four years ago when I broke my ankle and was confined to the house for several weeks, Twig climbed into bed with me to be nursemaid, leaving only to eat.  In spite of this bond, I feel I don't know him very well; even his needs (except when it comes to food) seem quiet to me.  I imagine that he's a Zen philosopher who has accomplished detachment from much of the material world, leaving only food, warmth, sleep and love.  He now nurses me only when I'm awake.  Instead, it's wild little Sheba who's there the whole time, though she prowls up and down my body when she's bored and thinks I really ought to play with her or at least do something interesting.  When the two of them come, he gives her a bath, nibbling off yet another of the startling white eyebrows on her little black face.  If she climbs under the covers, he's so careful to go around her and not disturb her cozy sleep.  What are they thinking when they take such care with one another and play this nursemaid role, or is there simply some intuition of need?  I suspect they know a lot more about me than I know about them.  My definition of "cat" is "a domestic animal whose habits you know intimately.  Yet there's always mystery beyond what you (think you) know."

Illness is a time to re-read books.  I was too hazy-headed to read any of the year's book that are on the bookshelf in my workroom--Kathleen Winter's Annabel or Ian McEwan's Solar.  I wanted something small, so began to re-read Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.  It's perfect for illness: short, physical in a philosophical sort of way.  The first time I read it, it seemed like a coming of age memoir told from the vantage point of Trond's sixty-seven-year-old self.  This older character I thought I understood:  his desire to strip down to essentials in his life seems familiar to me as I start to line up my books in the third floor AdHum hallway so some unwitting undergraduate will take them home.  I also understood when he said that after the deaths of his wife and sister he didn't know how to speak  to people; I've had depressions when I didn't know what to say to anyone.

Maybe one of the advantages of re-reading books when you are sick is that you're too wooly headed to defy the fact that you always read a different book, even when you are re-reading it.  If nothing else, your own context provides a different filter that draws attention to some of the events or images, motifs or phrases, while ignoring others.  At their best, though, all novels have this rich complexity; we simply pretend too often to have a single, coherent reading experience.  That's harder to do when you have a fever.

This time, Trond's asceticism still appeals to me, but I found his philosophy grounded in a physical, active  masculinity that didn't really know what to do with women.  And how many silent women's lives there are at the border of the novel--his deserted mother who only gets a single scene to herself; his thirty-nine-year-old daughter whom he hardly knows; the two wives we know nothing of, besides the second one's death; and of course "Jon's mother," who doesn't even merit a name.  Still, it's a novel with the hard-working aging body of a man who wants to be, deliberately, inside the time that is left to him.  A fine novel for convalescence.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guerilla Art

A couple of weeks ago, colleague Cameron Louis forwarded a youtube link to a Chorus Niagara flash mob.  Over 100 singers gathered at the Welland Seaway Mall to sing "The Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah to surprised shoppers in the food court.  No one complained about having their space invaded by classical music while they enjoyed their lunch.  Rather, the videographers, AlphabetPhotography, capture delight, fascination, surprise, and joy on the faces of the people gathered there.

Flash mobs are wonderful celebrations of the human spirit, of our desire to give and take collective delight when an ingenious, dedicated group of people works to bring art to us in our public spaces.  "Frozen," the Grand Central Station flash mob where over 200 people freeze in place at the same instant, changes that anonynous, familiar public space, making it strange and curious.  People who would normally have passed by one another without a word now ask each other what's happening, what it means.  Is it a protest?  How long has it been going on?  They walk around the frozen figures, nudging them slightly to see what happens.  The beautifully choreographed and rehearsed flash mob in Liverpool Station of the London Underground not only completely interrupts people's routines, but seeks to get the audience involved in the dance; one of the delightful moments the cameras captured was two portly grey-haired ladies dancing like teenagers.

I suppose you could say graffiti is the visual art world's version of the flash mob.  Once again, something completely unprepossessing like a rail car or a brick wall can be transformed into art, making the mundane and unseen into something curious, inspiring, or provocative.  I suppose you could say that anyone with a can of spray paint can deface a public space, but artists like Banksy can also  transform it into an inventive moment of puzzlement, protest, contemplation, or surprise. 

Since Cameron sent the Chorus Niagara url, I've been thinking that we need more flash mobs, more ingenious and surprising moments when art interrupts the tedium of our daily lives.  Is there a way we can flash mob a novel or a poem, or is the written word simply too private for that kind of experience?

Here's the url for the Chorus Niagara flash mob:

The photographs are by my daughter, Veronica Geminder.  One summer day we drove to a railroad siding between Chamberlain and Davidson Saskatchewan where they apparently keep "defaced" railcars.  More of her photographs of railcars can be seen on her flicker site:

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Near Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, there's a small card that quotes him:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."

 While craftsmanship may speak to the future, it is always tied to the past.  The craftsperson, whether potter, carpenter, knitter, or quilter, is always aware of the lore that makes their craft possible.  The potter knows the age-old recipes for glazes.  The knitter has cable and lace designs going back hundreds of years.  Quilters still return to the patterns found in the remarkable old appliqued Baltimore quilts made in mid-nineteenth century America or return to the simple log cabin pieced out of strips of leftover cloth by a woman settling the prairies.

The craftsman doesn't hurry.  Time, in the way we normally parcel it out, doesn't matter.  What matters is only the quality of the work.  The hand quilter may take a single stitch at a time if the quilting design twists and turns.  Knitters too work a stitch at a time, and often slow themselves down with complex but beautiful patterns.  We're moving forward, but in twenty-first century terms, we're moving at the pace of a tortoise drawing a very long thread.  At the same time, because people have knitted and quilted since time out of mind, that long thread is tethered to the past.  If time doesn't matter, beauty does, as does being truthful to the craft itself.

Having written that sentence, and feeling that it's somehow accurate, I had to stop and think about what I meant.  There are many ways of distiguishing between art and craft, most of them focussing rather narrowly on the fact that we use craft, while art is gloriously useless, happy to be itself.  This is a problematic distinction (and fodder for another blog?); much art is useful in an ineffable way; much mature craft poses questions that are not unlike those art ponders.  Perhaps a more useful distinction is this.  Art is only art once it's fully achieved, whereas craft admits of a process.  A simple scarf, knit on large needles, if the stitches are even and care has been taken with the tension, can be well crafted.  We learn our crafts in simple steps; a first quilt might be made of straightforward, easy to piece four-patches, quilted in a grid.  Pay attention to colour, sew your seams evenly, try to make your quilting stitches even, and you are learning the craftsmanship needed to make the most complex quilt.  When you do these things well, you are being truthful to the craft, regardless of where you are in the learning process.  Because craft can be done well at the most basic levels, it can feed a hunger in us to make something skillfully, a hunger Bill Reid alludes to.

Earlier this fall, I went to see one of my favourite craftspeople, Sue Turtle.  I met Sue last year when I bought the hand spun, hand knit shawl you see on the right beneath the woven scarf I bought this year.  The shawl is spun out of various fibres, including Qiviuk, the downy under coat of the Musk Ox.  It's extraordinarily warm, yet very light.  Sue loves the whole process:  filling the sink with stinky fleece that still smells of an animal, spinning the fibre, designing a project, and knitting it up.  Fibres, which can be rough and full of all kinds of debris, apparently bloom when they're washed.  Spinning, she tells me, is certainly repetitive, but it's like having a mantra that feels wonderful in your hands.  When her mother knit, she simply followed patterns, but Sue likes to experiment with the interplay between a particular wool and the designs it can make. While she depends on the lore of knitters--books that collect every decorative pattern of stitches ever tried--she wants to make something no one has quite made before.  The last ingredient in her satisfaction is giving it to someone who loves the work and who will gain pleasure from it.

Lest we think that knitting is falling by the wayside, undertaken by retired nurses like Sue, I should tell you that Ravelry, a website for spinners, knitters, and crocheters which contains everything from patterns to advice to blogs and chat rooms, recently admitted its millionth member.  Its enormous library of free patterns speaks to the craftsperson's desire to make it new, to conceive of something no one else has thought of. Cookie A, for example, can't seem to stop creating new and astounding patterns for socks that make inventive use of the sock's three-dimensional shape.

Today I am going to spend the day working on the hand knit mittens my nephew asked me to make him for Christmas.  When I asked him what colour he wanted, he said orange, purple, and black.  I suspect the colours have something to do with sports teams, but what do I know?  I just knit.  It was a challenge, but I found a Noro purple and orange on the edge between attitude and cheer to go with my black merino.   I'll be using a pattern designed during the Second World War to make dense, heavy mittens on tiny needles for the men at the front, largely because someone took the time to work out a pattern of decreases that give you a beautifully-shaped round top.  (They won't look like the toe of a sock, as some mittens do.)  Because the sleeves of his coat are quite open, I'll be adding a purple rolled stockinette cuff before I begin the orange ribbing.  Because he's a handsome young man and needs mittens with some class (in spite of the colours), there will be a complex cable up the back of the hand.  Each thumb will have a tiny, different-coloured stripe so he'll always know his right mitten from his left. I love knitting on four needles, so the craftsmanship will be more pleasure than challenge.  I do know that no one will have mittens quite like these.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Saskatchewan Book Awards

We were all dressed in our best.  Brenda Niskala, Tracy Hamon, and Bernadette Wagner were all splendiferous in evening gowns.  Tracy's was so elegant that when she accepted the non-fiction award on behalf of  Alexandra Popoff for her biography of Sophia Tolstoy, Tracy looked like Sophia--or some glamorous woman out of a nineteenth century novel.  A close friend of mine wore sparkly silver shoes that were so pointy I could have quilted with them--and kept the stitches small.  Ever understated, I wore my simple black German dress bubble dress (a very subtle bubble, mind you) with a silver scarf borrowed from my daughter and hand-made jewelery.  The book awards organizers had thoughtfully ordered tiny orchid corsages for each nominee, which was a lovely touch.  Complete strangers came up to me and congratulated me simply for being nominated.  Frankly, I had often congratulated myself for simply being nominated.

Once past the obligatory light bulb jokes, (which makes me wonder why, when we humans gather, we need to laugh before we get to the important stuff) Sheila Coles was an enthusiastic and skillful MC, revealing how much of the shortlist she'd read, telling stories about how once upon a time--for two whole chapters--she'd had to badger her son into reading The Hobbit.  But the highlight of the evening for me was Steven Galloway's brief, funny, but affecting talk about making art.  Coming, perhaps, out of all the thinking he'd had to do about the importance, the meaning, the futility and the hope of a cellist playing in the blown-out streets of Sarajevo, he called the making of art "acts of civilization."  The original manuscript of Albanoni's famous Adagio (which was played beautifully by Cameron Lowe and Hart Godden for us during dinner) was recreated from the fragment of the score after Dresden's Library was firebombed, and made into something different but perhaps equally affecting.  So, too, do writers attempt to make the human condition new--to illuminate it once again, to see a different corner of our ethical dilemmas, to celebrate new joys--just a poets recreate language every time they turn the words for a poem over in their hands.  Each time we do this, Galloway argued, we re-make a bit of the civilization that surrounds us.

People kept asking if I had my speech ready.  I am a realistic person, and was simply so glad to have my first novel included with those of experienced, perceptive, skilled writers like Dianne Warren (whose Cool Water I loved), Sandra Birdsell, and David Carpenter.  So no, I didn't have a speech.

Okay, I'm a realistic person most of the time.  During my morning showers, when my brain isn't fully online, I let myself daydream a little bit.  I'd have wanted to thank--I do want to thank here, whether I won or not--the important people.  Ruth Linka at Brindle & Glass for believing in my novel and fondly badgering me to find the novel she knew was there.   The Saskatchewan Book Awards for creating this wonderful celebration of Saskatchewan's rich literary offerings.  The awards themselves are one of Galloway's "acts of civilization."  My daughter, Veronica, for the beautiful cover photograph.  My husband, Bill, for teaching me how much we can joyfully transform our lives in middle age.

But I'd also wanted to thank every person who wrote a letter or a poem or a journal entry, every person who told his or her friends a story.  Because these are two very important "acts of civilization."  When you sit down to write Aunt Mildred about Uncle Fred's death and try to describe in words what it meant to go fishing with him on Saturday mornings when you were twelve--how the river smelled early in the morning, and how that smell has become part of your gratitude for Uncle Fred, something you remember each time you smell water early in the morning--then you're trying to pummel language into doing its real job.

Or you might tell your friends the story about the time your Doberman ate a quilt block with pins in it and then pooped the whole thing out.  Curious, you washed it.  It was a bit paler than the blocks, but there wasn't a single tooth mark in it.  It had gone down absolutely whole.  Or the story about sitting on a beach staring at Lake Winnipeg, when your baby suddenly walks by you, swinging her arms like she'd been walking all her life, swinging her arms like she'd figured out how sand would be a great place to try this walking thing out.   These stories remind us of how rich and full of wonder the human experience is, unlike the cliched stories we read on the covers of fan magazines and the tabloids.  Because telling funny sad stories is another "act of civilization."