Friday, March 18, 2016

Generosity, Gratitude, and Heroism

I wonder if you too are a middlebrow TV viewer and have given the final season of Downton Abbey your fond attention.  Did any of you notice  how many times people said they were grateful?  I counted three, but it had only become a motif when I heard the third, so I'm not sure I can list them all accurately.  I know Robert told Cora how grateful he was to share his life with her.  I could list the people who probably felt grateful:   I'm pretty sure Thomas said he was grateful for Carson's training, the chance to be the butler, rescue from his former job:  the people taking part in that conversation were clearly uncomfortable, and as a result clarity got lost.  I do believe Thomas told Miss Baxter how grateful he was for her support.  Anna and Bates can certainly be grateful for Lady Mary's interceding in Anna's pregnancy and for letting Anna give birth comfortably in Mary's bed.  There was no small amount of gratitude among the Edith/Bertie/conservative Mother trio:  Edith for being given a second chance, Bertie's mother for Edith's honesty, and Bertie because the lady said yes.  Mrs. Patmore was certainly grateful to Cora and Robert for taking tea at her compromised B&B, just as  Lord Merton was grateful to Isobel and Violet for rescuing him from his appallingly greedy son.

Much of this has to do, of course, with the storytelling and with Julian Fellowes' principles of plotting.  Of course people are imperfect and do stupid and horrible and selfish things:  people have desires, fears, jealousies, corners of greediness, fear of more loss, chips on their shoulders;  then you must add into the mix the blindness caused by being "upstairs" or "downstairs," and that caused by being common or aristocratic with its own blindness about propriety and position. (Think of the relationship between the common Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager Duchess, and how often Violet pulled rank.) These weaknesses and failings drove the plot for six years, more or less successfully. (I wondered why Violet got such wonderful lines while Mary and Edith traded the same bitchy comments for years.  And why was Mary so sympathetic to Thomas and so unsympathetic to Edith--who like her had lost a partner?  Fellowes can do old dowagers but not young women?  It was fun to write lines for Maggie Smith?  I imagined him spending an entire afternoon thinking up her withering and wise one-liners.)

But a second principle operated in Fellowes' plotting:  people in great houses, upstairs and down, even in the midst of behaving badly, will tug down their waistcoats or settle a gown on their elegant shoulders, and decide to try to behave as well as possible.  People try to come out of themselves and be generous, just as Mary did when she called Bertie to let him know Edith was in London.  Most of the gratitude I wrote about above came out of this element of Fellowes' world view and was reflected in the plot.  We know the world isn't always generous, but it should be--or it could be more often.  And I wonder what it says about the present social and cultural moment that we have been so seduced by stories of people behaving well and generously.

The rest of the characters' gratitude comes out of feeling that Fellowes had at least given them a happy ending--endings that I could see from miles off.  As Bill and Veronica and I finished each episode, we drank our tea and bet on what would come next.  Bill got Thomas's suicide.  I knew Edith and Bertie weren't finished.  We were all sure of Anna and Bates's baby.  We did not see Henry Talbot becoming a used car salesman and Mary waxing proud over his shop.  I thought Thomas would get his job back when Molesley began teaching, not when Carson lost his steadiness--heaven forfend!--but I was sure he'd be back.  

The same weekend as the last episode of Downton Abbey, Todd Babiak began a column in The Globe and Mail this way:  "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder.  Sometimes it's in the first chapter and we spend the rest of the book hunting the killer.  Sometimes it's a subtler affair about loss or the effects of war, an event that happened years before the protagonist was born.  But it's nearly always there.  Stories are about changes and ruptures.  In novels, in films and in a fine new generation of television series we're solving a serious problem, and violent crime--or the threat of it--is the most haunting sort."  Let me come clean here:  four of my favourite middlebrow TV shows are police procedurals or an imaginative riff on the genre.  I feel like those people who used to say they read Playboy for the articles when I write that I like the characters and the logical solution of a problem.  But my viewing habits aside, I could not disagree with Babiak more.  

It's the opening sentence:  "I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder."  As I have been saying in dribs and drabs here, Steven Pinker has convincing evidence that violence--intimate, domestic, political and ideological--is down.  As a species, we have more empathy and more self-control; the expansion of the human rights umbrella means that we imagine the suffering of people unlike ourselves.  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, literacy and literature has played an important part on these changes.  Yet we still see our world as dangerous; security is one of our highest priorities.  Why the gap between the way the world is and the way we represent the world?  Let's try this comparison.  On September 11, 2001, 2,996 people died; in Paris last November 130 people died.  Did your outrage or fear decrease because fewer people died?  Probably not.  In an age of empathy, all deaths bear more weight.  And the "availability heuristic" weighs in:  the twenty-four hour news cycle means that we know of more terrorist attacks, more of refugees, more of civil wars.  (That most wars right now are civil wars is proof that there is less violence:  yes, there are wars, but they are on an entirely different scale.)  What kind of world-wide response did the photograph of Aylan Kurdi's drowned body prompt?  

One of the delights of plotting (or reading) detective fiction is that our hero is the lone wolf, the one who uses every means available to him or her (and some that shouldn't be available) to bring a killer to justice.  He or she often works alone, because since the days of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Poe's Auguste Dupin we have not believed our institutions to be staffed by smart people nor have we thought these institutions really cared about truth or justice.  The lone wolf is a compelling hero.

But then I began to think about the heroes of Downton Abbey.  It took two older women, Violet and Isobel, to rescue Lord Merton.  It took Baxter's intuition and the help of three other people to save Thomas's life.  Some fans have commented upon the way Robert radically changed his attitudes about women, but it took four women--no, that's five, if we count Cousin Rose--to just keep piling on the evidence that they were competent in a whole range of ways he would never have imagined.  The heroes of our daily lives are not lone wolves, but part of a generous community that surrounds us. 

I hadn't realized I would say so much about two strands in our present experience: how we are smitten by the Downton Abbey worldview and how we long for examples of generosity and are often grateful on a character's behalf; and how fear of evil in our fellow human beings prompts us to put security ahead of human rights or to read and watch endless stories of the lone wolf who saves society.  I hadn't realized how much I'd have to say about these two examples, but I've held your attention long enough for today.  Next week I'll talk about a new trend in literature that I am seeing:  heroes whose generosity is their weapon of choice or who are saved by the generosity of others.  I'll write about Lawrence Hill's The Illegal and Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault and Close to Hugh.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Inventing Sunshine

Several years ago, Bill and I were driving to Saskatoon in late autumn and stopped at a little convenience store in Chamberlain.  We walked in on a conversation between the male clerk and a woman in her forties that ended this way:  "The days are getting shorter and shorter, and I'm solar powered."  I know exactly how she feels, which is probably why her words stuck with me.

Although I have lived in Regina longer than I've lived anywhere else, the prairies remain something of a mystery to me.  I actually keep a running diary that tells me when, each year, I heard the first robin, when the tulips bloomed, when the trees turned, when the snow fell and stayed.  But I don't need my effort to keep track of spring and fall to tell me that weather on the prairies is changing.  I'm not including what has been called our "Godzilla El Niño," which may or may not have anything to do with climate change.  But our distinctly warmer winters have also been distinctly cloudier winters, and when we've had four or five days of cloud in a row, I know exactly what that witty woman means.  

When I was younger, a stretch of cloudy weather had a distinct effect on my mood.  Now, only those days when the sky is relentlessly white and simply blends into the white snow, like a sheet of paper or a hospital bed, make me feel like a weight had settled on my chest.  I feel closed in.  I can't feel or see the cycle of the day.  I'm stuck in a relentless present until the dark comes down.  Rainy days are fine because they seem purposeful.  Otherwise,  a cloudy day is more likely to influence my energy level.  This winter, there have been many days when I looked out the window as I sat down at my desk and moaned, "Oh, no.  I'll never have the energy to work today."  I've discovered, however, that if I make myself stop moaning and simply put my head down, I can get more done than I imagined.  

It's as if the universe is holding out on me.  It's such a simple thing:  a sunny day.  But if you are a bird brain like me, and "solar powered," a sunny day can take ordinary moments, like staring out the window looking for a word or standing in the kitchen waiting for my little espresso pot to boil or playing the piano or talking to Twig, and turn those moments into celebration, not endurance.  The week of sun we had a while ago gave me a boost of energy and focus:  I finished off revisions of three chapters and had energy to spare.

So I am learning how to invent sunshine.  The three easiest ways are not entirely satisfactory:  espresso, chocolate, or sugar.  The espresso and chocolate can be hard on my pesky ulcers, and sugar isn't good for my health.  So I try to keep those indulgences to a minimum.  Candlelight in late afternoon turns out to have a psychological effect, particularly if the candles are scented.  Lighting a fire in the fireplace is helpful in a number of ways--though it's also more bother than a hit of sugar and probably isn't good for my carbon footprint.  The warmth and the crackling evoke a sense of coziness rather than the claustrophobia of the cloudy weather.  

Good long novels bring with them the sunshine of invention.  Over the last couple of weeks, I've read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and the final volume of Elena Ferrara's Neopolitan Novels, The Lost Child.  Both of these are good "put your head down and go to another world" novels.  Poetry doesn't work nearly as well, because when I've finished reading a poem I look up to consider how it's working before I read it again, and there's that blank page of a cloudy day.
Quilting usually helps.  Above you see some simple blocks I've made and auditioned with possible backgrounds.  These fabrics are all reproductions--modern designers' attempts to create fabrics like those we might have found in the nineteenth century.  The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War brought out an explosion of reproductions along with quilt designs that are true to period.  But as you can see, repros (as we affectionately call them) are safe.  Colour theorists would say that their shades are similar:  basically, the same amount of grey has been added to them (except for the red).  As well, the available colours are fairly limited, partly because reliable dyes were limited.  Red, brown, gold (sometimes called cheddar) and blue are the usual suspects, sometimes eked out by poison green (of a distinctly yellow hue), mauves, oranges, and cinnamon pinks.   Safe, not sunny, not an antidote to days and days of cloud.

So I decided not to play it safe and to get out Lucie Summers' Quilt Improv and some wild fabrics I've been collecting--lots of turquoise and yellow-green, some fairly wild chintz.  Summers' wonderful book gives you some slightly organized ways of "making it up as you go along."  One of these, on the left, has you make a block of diagonal stripes of different widths.  When you put four of them together, you get the perception of squares, even if you haven't organized your values.  Another strategy, in the middle, is to create chevrons by lining up your fabrics at a 45 degree angle.  Or you can make traditional log cabin blocks, changing the width of your strips to suit a desire for quiet or emphasis, to punctuate the block with a skinny hit of deep colour or use wide sections of pastels to provide quieter spaces.  Log Cabin blocks usually begin with a red square; then you surround these with straight, same-sized logs.  It's a highly organized block.  in the example up top, I asked what would happen to their geometry if you started with a wonky rectangle and didn't use straight "logs."  The result is probably unusable in a quilt, but it was a crazy kind of fun that generated its own light.

Unlike repros, this is very risky, yet somehow I'm not sure you can do it wrong.  Summers, who lives in Sussex England chooses colours that are very clear, and fabrics that are often geometric, so I brought in Kathy Doughty from Australia who runs a quilt shop called "Material Obsessions."  Doughty makes funky boho quilts, choosing to put fabrics together less because they "go," than because they have a similar kind of energy.  Summers is great with colour, but Doughty is more interested in the surprising, playful juxtaposition. 

Making these few blocks has been my best invention of sunshine, taking play, chance, the unfamiliar, the unscripted, and putting them in my mental kaleidoscope to see what comes out.  At this point, I have no idea how they are going to go together or whether they will even make a quilt--though that wild chintz I'm auditioning for a background looks promising.  They make me smile.  This is sunshine.