I recently finished the book Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. It markets itself as ‘four steps to finding focus and energy in your daily life.’ Reading it reminded me of reading Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking; both books work to dismantle the ‘brainwashing’ that users suffer which helps justify their addictions–either to smoking or to Internet and social media. Alan Carr was a three-pack-a-day smoker. Knapp and Zeratsky helped create Gmail and YouTube. Now, they’re here to tell you how to stop.
The most important thing to know before you start Make Time is it is not about increasing productivity. In fact, the authors argue, you might end up doing less if you implement their recommendations. It’s about protecting your time from the websites that have been designed to take it. It’s about being in the world more than being online. The most powerful tool (they say) will be deleting almost every app from your phone, including all social media and email. Out in the world now, waiting for a bus, you might start noticing things again, like three different sources of colour spilled and hung around you.
January 18th, 2019
On Chispi’s walk yesterday, we spotted our first witch hazel blossoms and snowdrops of the season. This year, the handmaid’s do not look disconsolate, but strong. I leaned into sharp branches to smell the spidery witch hazel, and was rewarded with a peppery clear green scent.
January 17th, 2019
In the latest issue of Canadian Art magazine, there is a fantastic article by Aruna D’Souza that tracks her trajectory through critical theory, starting in the early 1990s, when a graduate seminar with Linda Nochlin catalyzed her shift from a focus on German art into feminist art theory.
D’Souza writes, “Linda Nochlin’s insistence on admitting to and revelling in the joy she took in even the most ridiculously sexist works of art seems utterly defiant in retrospect.” For Nochlin, it was Renoir whose work she loved despite his sexism. For me…it’s too many to count. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been gripped by the beauty of a painting, only to find out that its artist was a womanizer, or a racist, or an alleged abuser.
I mentioned this once to someone sitting across from me at a party and they countered, a bit testily, “Yes, but there are so many artists who aren’t abusers. Why even bring this up?”
I think they meant, “Why focus on the negative?” Which is too small a question for me. Why not focus on the negative? Are we not large enough to look at the full spectrum of charges, from the most horrific atrocities to the most delirious joys? If I think a work is beautiful to begin with, learning about alleged abuse does not necessarily make it un-beautiful. It does change the viewing experience, somehow. Maybe it hurts a little more to train my eyes on it. But pain is not a thing to avoid.
D’Souza’s thesis is that pleasure comes in many forms, and one of the most radical forms is when women who’ve experienced the kinds of abuse perpetrated by the men above make works of aesthetically joyous art without explicit political, social or moral content. The two examples she gives are from Alma Thomas and Howardena Pindell, and they are indeed delightful enough to stare at for a very long time, allowing their rhythmic colours to dance and stir up all sorts of antidotes to what ails us.
Here’s Alma Thomas’s The Azaleas Sway With the Breeze from 1969.
January 16th, 2019
I’ve started The Waves by Virginia Woolf, her novel in soliloquies. A question I had about one of the book’s voices led me to read a bit more deeply about her sister, painter and designer Vanessa Bell. On this excursion I glimpsed the life of another writer and artist, Nina Hamnett, whose talent, eccentricity and twisted circumstances of her death could have landed her in the pages of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.
Readings of dead modernist women on early weekday mornings, I return to the page, type someone back into existence. If a word finds itself which it often does locked behind a door with no key, use the memory of its shape as a pattern, and fashion it into a dress.
Here is Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Roger Fry, 1917. In it, she wears a dress designed by Vanessa Bell and made at Omega Workshops.
January 15th, 2019
Conflict is inevitable; any authentic and meaningful relationship, whether interpersonal or societal, weathers conflict and becomes stronger from it. Conflict within a large social justice movement is a sign the movement is actually causing change. There have been and are controversies within the Women’s March, both at home and beyond, and I have been impressed with the relative transparency of organizers in dealing with charges of racism, nepotism, exclusiveness, etcetera. Obviously in an ideal world there would be no charges of racism and anti-Semitism within the leadership of international activist groups; however, to expect that an organization piloted by powerful people with corporate backgrounds will be free from abuse is pretty pollyanna. When charges of discrimination come to light, it’s a good thing, because what was once hidden is now exposed, and that is what makes people move.
In terms of conflict within my own community, I’ve been told and have heard from some (mainly my fellow white women) that ‘leftist infighting’ or ‘lateral violence’ is more destructive to progress than beneficial. We keep ourselves down by calling out our peers, these people say. This argument is so tired and uneducated; it’s a red herring meant to keep power firmly in place, and I hope it stays behind in 2018. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow do a good job of calling out this fallacy on their podcast Call Your Girlfriend.
Ann: When I hear a phrase like, “We must find a way to live with our differences and unite to fight the bigger challenges…that implies to me a hierarchy of what is a challenge. That means that someone’s making a decision about what a “bigger” challenge is and historically when those terms are set, they are set by white women. Like, “women” suddenly becomes synonymous with “white women” and you get speeches like (Nancy Pelosi’s) saying, “We’ve have had the vote for this many years–“
Aminatou: Like, bitch, who? (laughs)
Ann: Who’s the “we”?…if you really believe that injustice is about a system of incredibly complex and interlocking and systemic problems–which is what we believe in this family–then you are not going to be able to decide in a group of millions of people what the “bigger” challenges are…Just because the Women’s March isn’t united by the same goal does not mean that all activism is in disarray and women can’t get it together.
Aminatou: Oppression is in disarray and in shambles; activism is doing great.
I work Saturdays and am unable to attend this year’s Women’s March, which starts at 10am at the Vancouver Art Gallery on January 19th. The theme of this year’s march is Ending Violence Against Women. People most vulnerable to violence in Canada are BIWOC, trans women and sex workers.
Here’s a pic from the 2017 Women’s March; I particularly like the person next to Taylor and Chispi flipping both birds at Trump Tower.
January 14th, 2019
This morning I finished Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (via Heather O’Neill’s excellent Instagram account tracking the books she and her daughter read).
This short novel follows an unmarried thirty-six-year-old woman named Keiko Furukura who works part-time in a convenience store and thinks a lot about how she and others adjust their voices, mannerisms, clothing and language so as to mirror or mimic the people around them. Keiko is different from these others though, because while they do it naturally, a human behaviour that helps them be good “cogs in society,” Keiko has to think about it, and she has to remind herself to do it. If she doesn’t, her friends, family and coworkers will discover her for the ‘foreign object’ she is and expel her from the community.
It’s a coping mechanism–this noticing and mirroring the comportment of others–she developed as a young girl, after the first few times she realized she was in face a foreign object–someone who doesn’t contribute properly to society. The first time, when she and her classmates found a dead bird on the playground. The second time, the way she’d chosen to stop a fight between two boys. The reactions of others to these events and more let Keiko know: you’re not doing it right. Be careful, or they will leave you behind.
After graduating from high school, the convenience store offers Keiko the anodyne and homogenous environment–nothing ever changes, including what is expected of her–she needs to exist in the world.
And so, Ms. Furukura herself is fine the way her life has unfolded, but the people around her are getting antsy. At thirty-six, they wonder, why isn’t she married? Why doesn’t she have a better job? Why doesn’t she want children? Keiko doesn’t understand why people care so much. She’s an excellent convenience store employee, she’s content, she doesn’t cause trouble, and–not that it’s any of their business but–the idea of sex to her is “ghastly.” Why don’t people just mind their own business?
Their questions turn to suspicion and Keiko’s fears of being cast out of society mount until finally and inevitably she betrays herself–and the convenience store, at that–and does something absolutely horrific in an attempt to satisfy the expectations of others. To her surprise, the people around her cheer. At first.
What begins as a surrealist allegory climaxes into psychological horror, hitting the reader with a reminder as harsh as convenience store lights: though we are mirrors for each other, we are here to fulfill our task and our task alone. When someone interprets your life as lacking, their life is lacking.
January 11th, 2019
When Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” depicting the body of murdered Black teenager Emmett Till, opened at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a series of peacefulprotests unfolded around it, calling for it to be taken down and/or destroyed. From artist Hannah Black’s letter, signed by 47 artists, curators and critics:
“Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, a similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.”
Instead of apologizing for the pain she had caused and ceding the space to someone else, Dana Schutz chose to leave the painting up.
Today, the New York Times is reporting that Dana Schutz is “back to work.” In the profile, Schutz says: “I’ve had so many conversations with people who were upset by the painting…(I have included them in) my imagined audience when I’m painting. It’s good those voices were heard.”
That these voices were not a part of her imagined audience before she painted or submitted her rendering of Black death is worrisome. In her 2017 statement to the press in the midst of the controversy, she said that while she did not know what it was like to be Black, “I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”
Is it a question of how we should process pain, pain that is not specifically ours? How to process the pain of bearing witness to hateful violence? Where do we have the right to process this pain? In public? On the coveted walls of an international art gallery known for being almost exclusively white? In the New York Times? Who gets to feel and work through their pain in a profitable way?
January 10th, 2019
The latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine features a story called “Bear” by prolific Sto:lo author Lee Maracle. A three-year subscription to Maisonneuve is only $36.00, and Maracle’s story alone is worth it. This mini-review talks about the first half of the story, but does not spoil the ending.
“Bear” opens on a man physically uncomfortable in a large room full of people. He feels a twinge in his knee, a twinge that has come and gone since he was six-years-old in his first large room full of people, the crowded cafeteria of his residential school. As a child, if he squirmed to try and allay the irritation, “one of the brothers would come over and bark, ‘Sit still, Henry.'” (The word “brother” in this context brings none of the familial warmth it should.) The real problem though, is Henry is not his real name, and try as he might, he can’t remember what his parents called him before he was taken. By the age of ten, the brothers had barked his real name out of him.
Or, perhaps, there was something worse than the barking. It’s hard to tell, because in the present tense, Henry laughs–roars, even–at the jokes the moderator at the front of the large room is telling about the idiosyncrasies of Canadians, Indians and Americans when filling up seats as an audience. Where are we? We are at a Truth and Reconciliation conference; there are both Indigenous women and Catholic men being introduced. When the Catholic men’s names are announced, Henry zones out, thinking: “I don’t want to know their names until I can remember my own.”
And though Henry can control what information he hears and what information he blocks, he cannot control the effect these people, this room, the overhead lights are having on his body. “It’s as if I am in a black box and there is some tiny hole in it where the light outside the box shines through.” After the introduction of the clergy, the overhead lights start to glare so harshly, it sets off an audible scream in his head. “The scream won’t stop for a while.” He knows this, because it has happened before, and usually requires external stimuli–alcohol, a physical fight–to silence it.
But then George, Henry’s friend, arrives and sits next to him, and the screaming stops, and the tingling in his knee disappears. George is the one who’s convinced Henry to come to this meeting. Henry had been talking about having difficulty waking up to go to work, and George suggested that talking about his experiences at the residential school might help. He thinks adult survivors of residential schools either sleep too long or not enough.
“Are you going?” I asked.
“You want to know the answer so bad, you’ll go to a conference?” Everyone laughed, clicked glasses. I’m a regular fun guy.
“Yeah,” George said. “I’m the other guy–insomnia.”
This bit all the laughter in half. Then I saw the bags under his eyes, the sagging skin along his jawbone, the fatigue that bent his shoulders slightly. He cradled his cup like he was at rope’s end. Why hadn’t I seen that before?
There’s lots we can’t see or hear or remember when we are looking away and covering our ears. Sometimes the violation is so great, we need to block it out in order to live; but it catches up to us. In her Giller-nominated novel Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq says, “What keeps you alive in crisis can kill you once you are free.” By his own account, Henry is free now. He has a good job, he owns a home, he is thirty-seven. But still, he’s in that black box sometimes, with the glaring light, and the scream.
What follows is a courageous renunciation of silence and a step toward healing that Maracle seems to suggest can only happen when held and heard among friends, among listeners.
The story is punctuated by this chaotic painting by Kent Monkman, an artist of Cree and Irish ancestry. His grandmother went to a residential school and never spoke of her experience. This painting is Monkman’s representation of an exact description in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, when RCMP officers and clergy took children from their families against their will.
Maracle dedicates “Bear” to the three commissioners of the TRC: Marie Wilson, Willie Littlechild, and Senator Murray Sinclair.
January 9th, 2019
At the Art Institute of Chicago, visiting the Ukiyo-e Masterpieces exhibit, I loved seeing this 1801 painting by Gion Seitoku of a geisha, at home, holding a shamesin. I needed to know where she got her bold green lip.
It comes from benibana, the safflower, whose deep red pigment, when produced carefully in the hands of an expert craftsman, crystallizes into an iridescent green. To afford the kind of beni that achieves this metallic glow, you’d need to be a member of the upper class. The green beni fell out of style after the Edo period, when cheap imports made this expensive makeup obsolete.
Just another layer of lipstick, culture and class to add to the growing palette.
January 8th, 2019
Speaking of books.
Last night, I finished The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, recommended to me by a very smart friend whose suggestions have never let me down. The book follows an elderly grandmother and a very young granddaughter as they spend their summer on a remote and nearly deserted Scandinavian island. Classified as a novel, it reads more like a collection of very short stories about death, fear, loneliness and friendship. But that makes it sound much more serious than it is. In fact, The Summer Book is just like its eponymous season–full of light and warmth, calmly meditative, marked by the occasional storm and stretching idly with a sense of expansion and vastness despite its relatively short length (the summer, never long enough, the book, 171 pages).
Jansson, author of the internationally celebrated children’s comic book series about the Moomins, is known for her dry, witty humour and her pragmatic and frank perspective on topics that might suffer under sentiment in a less-skilled author’s hands. The book made me genuinely laugh out loud a number of times, always due to the interactions between the granddaughter Sophia and Grandmother. Sophia is curious, dissatisfied and rude and Grandmother is haughty, practical and wise. The two fight often and meanly, while it’s clear that they love and need each other more than anything else (Sophia’s mother’s death is mentioned only once and her father is seen rarely and always working).
My favourite part of the book comes in one of the final stories, when Sophia, on a day trip with Grandmother to the beach, is bored to tears and wishes for a great storm to come and entertain her. Of course, the great storm comes, and it’s one of the worst the island has ever seen. Miraculously, no one dies, but the squall causes significant damage to homes and boats. Highly distraught, Sophia wails to her grandmother that she deserves divine punishment for having prayed for the storm and bringing this wrath upon her family and community. The grandmother tries to console her, unsuccessfully, until she, with a profound and gentle grace, tells Sophia that it was in fact she herself, the grandmother, who’d prayed for the storm first.
“When did you pray?” asked Sophia suspiciously.
“But then why,” Sophia burst out sternly, “why did you take along so little food and not enough clothes? Didn’t you trust Him?”
“Yes, of course…But maybe I thought it would be exciting to try and get along without…”
Sophia sighed. “Yes,” she said. “That’s just like you. Did you take your medicine?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Good. Then you can go to sleep and stop worrying about all the trouble you’ve caused. I won’t tell anyone.”