September 27th, 2018

CW: sexual assault

I’m currently watching the U.S. senate judiciary committee address Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is introducing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and listing her accomplishments such as her multiple degrees, her peer-reviewed papers, and her two sons and marriage.

Now, Senator Feinstein is denouncing the Republicans’ conduct around the allegations. “In 1991, Republicans belittled Professor Hill’s experience…Today, our Republican colleagues are saying, “This is a hiccup. Dr. Ford is mixed up…” But in the last few days, two more women have come forward with their own allegations about sexual assault involving Brett Kavanaugh. All three women would like the FBI to investigate their investigations, but the Republicans will not allow it.

Kavanaugh has said he has never blacked out, never drank to the point of excess. But, several of his college classmates have come forward to say that this claim does not match their memory of him.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is about to speak. She’s wearing a blue suit. Her voice has a lighter timbre than I’d anticipated, with a bit of vocal fry. She says she is terrified, and her voice cracks. She believes it is her civic duty to report what Kavanaugh did to her in high school. This poor woman, I am thinking. I hope she survives what will happen to her after this is over. She has not had a lot of time to make this decision to go public. She’s talking about her summer she spent swimming and diving, the summer she met Brett Kavanaugh. She knows she will be asked how she got to the party. She doesn’t remember. But the details of he assault have been seared into her memory. When she got to the top of the stairs, she was pushed from behind. Brett and Mark (Judge) came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them. One of them turned the music up louder. Brett pushed her onto the bed and got on top of her. Grinding into her, groping her, trying to take off her clothes. She yelled. She believed he was going to rape her. Brett put her hand over her mouth to stop her from yelling. It was hard for her to breathe. She thought Brett was accidentally going to kill her. Brett and Mark laughed. A couple of times she made eye contact with Mark and thought he might help her, but he did not. Mark jumped on the bed, and Brett and Christine toppled off the bed. She escaped.

Brett’s assault drastically altered her life. She convinced herself that because Brett did not rape her, she should just move on. She waited until May 2012 during a couple’s counselling session to disclose the details of the assault. She and her husband had “quibbling” about a remodel of their home because Blasey Ford was insisting on a second front door, and her husband could not understand why. She finally disclosed the assault, the reason for the need for the second front door.

She was going to remain private. She did not want to expose her family to the inevitable hatred and threats from the public. Reporters pressured her, showed up at her home, urged her to come forward.

And now here she is. Twenty-seven years after Anita Hill. Another Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual misconduct, the same white Republican men judging Blasey Ford and not judging Kavanaugh.

“This was an extremely hard thing for me to do, but I couldn’t not do it.” Thousands of sexual assault survivors have reached out to thank her. Her family have also been the target of constant harassment and death threats. These messages have been terrifying and have rocked her to her core. She has been doxxed. Her family have been forced to move out of their home. Her email was hacked. Apart from the assault, this is the hardest time of her life. “My motivation in coming forward was to be helpful and provide facts about how Kavanaugh has damaged my life…It is not my responsibility to determine whether he deserves to sit on the Supreme Court; my responsibility is to tell you the truth.”

She ends by “requesting some caffeine,” and they offer her a Coke. This is America.

My mom would watch this hearing all day, or she would tape it on the VCR and we would watch it together after she got home from work, sitting on her bed, eating Mr. Noodle with Kraft cheese slices. I’m not sure if I’ll watch the whole thing.

Oh, okay, here’s Rachel Mitchell, the woman they hired to question Blasey Ford. She starts by saying that she is sorry that Blasey Ford is terrified. That’s interesting. The woman UBC hired to investigate the complainants never said anything like that in our meeting; she appeared very cynical from the get-go. When I heard the Republicans had hired a woman to do the questioning, I laughed. As if women can’t be misogynistic, I chortled. As if hiring a woman ensures that *she* will be able to get to the bottom of an assault, whereas a man would be too tipsy off his own gender to hear a victim through unbiased ears! Ha ha ha. But Mitchell has at least the verisimilitude of empathy, which is better than immediate suspicion, only because it might help put Blasey Ford at ease. I think any ease in a process like this is a gift. Oh, I see Rachel Mitchell is an expert in sex crimes. Now it all makes sense.

Senator Feinstein again asks her to go into the impacts of the assault. “The sequelae of sexual assault varies by person. Anxiety and PTSD type symptoms. Claustrophobia, panic, and that type of thing. The primary impact was in the initial four years after the impact. I struggled academically. I had a very hard time forming new friendships. I had academic problems.” You’d have to be there with her at that time to know the impact.

Senator Feinstein asks how she could know for certain it was Kavanaugh’s hand on her mouth but does not know for certain how she got to the party. She says, “Epinephrine and norepinephrine encode traumatic memories in the brain, whereas other details slip away.”

I’m going to go outside for a few minutes and feel the air on my face. My love for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Professor Anita Hill, heroes.

September 26th, 2018

Yesterday, I finished reading Foe by Iain Reid. Actually, I listened to this book. My friend Amanda Reaume finally convinced me to give audio books a try, and I believe this story was a particularly good one with which to start. The language is exquisitely simple and bare, like bones. There are only three characters. The setting is rural, in the near future, with little mention of technology. Just that everyone has a “screen.” Oh, and the big mission Junior might be going on. Junior is the protagonist. His direct narration keeps all the conflict right at the surface, and this feels like more than skilled writing, it feels like part of the story. When he has an argument with his wife, he tells us plainly: “It’s not good. I feel bad.” When he sees a nearby barn on fire, he knows he has to help: “I can’t be a bystander. I have to be brave. I have to act.” The spare declarations become rhythmic, like a chant, weighted with significance and foreboding: “The more Hen talks about the heat, the more I’m aware of it.” Well, isn’t that eerie. Does she control you with her thoughts? Are you in some sort of simulation? At its best, the exactitude of Junior’s thoughts feels almost fable-like, and everything takes on the sheen of metaphor or allegory: “The roads aren’t worn out from overuse, but from neglect.” Only when he gets angry and yells and swears does he break from this pattern. But when he gets angry doesn’t give us any hints either. The causes of his anger are universal: it comes hot on the heels of the fear that he’s losing control over someone or something. Just like any other human. When he does get angry, Terrence, their visitor, steps in and gives him something to calm him down. After all, Junior might have to leave and undertake a big mission. (This is not a spoiler, btw. We know the premise in the first few pages.) He needs to preserve his strength, to save his nerves. The anger passes and we’re back in the mysterious purgatory of not knowing what anyone really means. We can guess, we can make good guesses, but we can’t be sure until the end. A real page turner. Or I should say audio runner!

September 25th, 2018

When Mandela the cat is visiting our home, Chispi the dog doesn’t mind joining me on three hour walks in the rain. He’ll even stop to smell the plum hydrangeas, beginning to crisp in the September air, if it means delaying our return by a few more minutes. The hydrangeas in Vancouver tend to be blue or purple because we have acidic soil here.

The hydrangeas at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are a gorgeous blend of purple, blue and pink, which means the soil feeding them has aluminum sulphate and lime or gypsum. I was there last summer on London’s hottest June day in forty years, and it was too sweltering to sit exposed in the courtyard, so I took some photos and went back inside.

My mother favoured white hydrangeas. They grew in bushes around our home, and when they started to crisp she’d prune them and take them inside and arrange them in vases and baskets. There must have been at least twenty arrangements around the house. I’d have to lift them gingerly off their various plinths and shelves, taking care not to shake and detach the fragile petals as I dusted the furniture beneath.

September 24th, 2018

Over the weekend, we clicked into autumn. Here are some artworks commemorating my favourite season.

September 21st, 2018

Yesterday, listening to The Daily while walking my dog, I cried, as I often do, thanks to the highly-skilled storytelling and editing abilities of The Daily‘s producers and the emotionally manipulative score that plays lightly under Michael Barbaro’s dulcet murmurs of encouragement for his interview subjects. At its most hardened, The Daily covers political scandals; at its softest, the victims of a natural disaster or war or abuse. Yesterday’s episode, called “A High School Sexual Assault,” did both. As I so often do, I let my mind wander throughout the introduction, only tuning in seriously when the interview subject began reading signatures from her high school yearbook–a great hook. So, I missed the fact that the woman talking was Caitlin Flanagan, writer for The Atlantic and proponent of the idea that the #MeToo movement has gone too far.

I found the episode remarkable in that it was entirely devoted to this woman’s recollection of her experience fighting off a teenage boy who tried to rape her. He’d driven her to a beach and forced himself on her to the point where she had to scream and shove and punch to get him off. A fragile girl having just moved to a new town and already struggling with depression, this attack sent her over the edge and she attempted suicide. Flanagan reminds the listener in an admonishing tone that she wasn’t a strong girl who’d became suicidal after the attempted rape; she was a barely holding herself together girl who became suicidal after the attempted rape. It’s a distinction that asks the listener to extend her the allowance of context that she herself might not be willing to extend to others.

The story turns when Flanagan reveals that the apologetic yearbook signature she’s read at the beginning of the episode was in fact from her attacker, and that two years after that initial written apology came an even better apology, in person and with his own tears. These two apologies combined showed Flanagan that he 1) recognized the seriousness of his offence, 2) understood the impact it could have had on her and 3) was genuinely sorry. These apologies helped her heal. These apologies are what’s missing for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of trauma knows that much of the emotional injury of abuse comes when the abuser will not acknowledge the impact of her actions. Studies show that medical malpractice lawsuits decrease when the physician apologizes for her mistake. It’s all connected to the witness theory, and it’s why we have truth and reconciliation hearings, and it’s why when teachers make bullies apologize to their victims, it is less about punishing the bully and more about supporting the victim. A victim needs to feel heard in order to begin healing.

I’m happy Flanagan told her story. She’s the perfect victim. She fought off her aggressor and went on to become successful. At the most difficult parts of her story, her voice shook and threatened to break into tears, which Barbaro interpreted as the lasting impact of the initial trauma. Yes, I nodded as I walked Chispi through the downpour. Those are her body memories coming up. Good things she’s got them under control. Good thing she’s stronger and can acknowledge the pain but quickly move past it to focus on the healing. In her yearbook, her attacker had written, “I know you will succeed because you are smart.” And Flanagan exclaims to Barbaro, “I did succeed…because I am smart!”

Eight months ago, in “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” Flanagan wrote the following:

Here are some of the details of Grace’s account:

While I don’t right now agree that Grace’s story should have been published, I also believe Ansari is guilty of a physical or sexual assault of some kind, and at the very least of sexual harassment. If a woman moves her hand away from your dick, you don’t keep grabbing it and putting it back. That is coercive. That is physical coercion.

I think Flanagan read that Babe piece and felt anger toward Grace; why didn’t she handle these physical intrusions the way she’d handled them as a teenage girl in the 1970s? Grace should have screamed, shoved and punched her way out of Ansari’s apartment. After all, there’s no distinguishing context to extend to Grace. For some, shoving a horny teenage boy off of you in a car on the beach is the same as shoving a millionaire celebrity off of you in his Manhattan flat. For some, the 1970s are the same as 2018: it’s still up to the woman to stop the assault, not up to the man to recognize her as a human being and not a “flesh vase for his dick flowers.” 

September 20th, 2018

In 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in New York put up an exhibition called “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975.” In it, curator Karen Wilkin included a selection of works titled “Origins of Color Field” which of course included Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko and of course did not include Olga Rozanova. Sure, Rozanova wasn’t American, but neither were these Newman and Rothko paintings from 1950 or later. Seems like another opportunity missed to get it more firmly on the public record that before a man, a woman.

September 19, 2018

I teach a writing class to young artists and designers, and for guidance and inspiration we look at the history of Western art and the stories people tell about it. Something we’ve realized together as we learn more and more is that often what historians thought a man did first, in fact, a woman artist had beat him to it.

The first example of this that comes to mind occurred in 2016 when I was in New York City visiting an exhibit called The Keeper at the New Museum. The exhibit introduced me to the mystical and minimalist work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish spiritualist who by day painted landscapes and botanical illustrations and by night created paintings based on instructions she received from a disembodied French entity who wanted her to record the “immortality of man.”

Hilma af Klint kept these paintings hidden from her family and the public. They were discovered after she died in 1944, along with a stipulation in her will that the paintings be kept secret for at least twenty years after her death. No one in the public saw her private work until the mid 1960s, and it is only now gaining international recognition as being the first examples of non-objective painting in Western art, having preceded Kandinsky’s by at least four years.

Today, I learned of another example. I’d always thought Duchamp supplied us with the first example of the Readymade. Turns out, I was wrong. One year before Duchamp put his signature on a bottle rack, artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven named a rusted metal ring Enduring Ornament, thus exalting it from an everyday object to an art object.

My readings of western art history thus far have been ones that centred Duchamp’s Fountain as a turning point in modern art and one of the first examples of Conceptual Art. But even this is contested. It’s possible that Freytag-Loringhoven not only created the first readymade, but that she also created Fountain.

Duchamp denied this later in his life, but in 1917 he wrote his sister a letter stating the following: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym Richard Mutt sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. It was not at all indecent—no reason for refusing it. The committee has decided to refuse to show this thing.” Further, his claims that he purchased the urinal from  J. L. Mott Pottery Company could not be true; they didn’t make the model in 1917.

Detractors of the theory that Freytag-Loringhoven made Fountain point to the fact that she never publicly disputed Duchamp was the actual creator (whereas 2018 readers of this detail might have a more nuanced understanding of how difficult it is to publicly denounce a powerful man, especially a famous one).

Freytag-Loringhoven was often penniless as she struggled to make a living as an artist in NYC. Eventually she returned to Europe, and died in Paris in 1927 under mysterious circumstances when the gas was left on in her flat. She was fifty-three years old.

September 18, 2018

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit Cabin Fever comes to a close in just over a week. I’d expected to see the allusions to both the Romanticism of Thoreau’s Walden and the postmodernism of Cabin Porn. What I hadn’t expected to see was a corner of the exhibit devoted to the cabins built to temporarily house refugees of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco that killed 3000 people and destroyed 80% of the city.

By 1906, tenement buildings had long fallen out of favour for fostering incest, juvenile prostitution and drunkenness. The earthquake cottages were seen as a more wholesome alternative.

However, with the cottage camps (set up in local parks) came different complaints from the city’s middle class. The troubles were no longer ones of depraved immorality, but now the more annoying “idlers and paupers.” At least the tenement tenants had stayed in their own buildings!

September 17, 2018

Walking past the little free library in my neighbourhood the other day, I saw this book, Caravaggio by Gilles Lambert.

Whenever I see a secondhand book about Caravaggio, I feel compelled to take it home. His face, or a likeness of it, painted by BC artist Sheryl McDougald, hides behind a bike cassette on the cover of my first book Pedal. 

I knew Caravaggio was an excellent painter, an asshole with a fatal temper and possibly a pedophile. But in this book, I learned something new. There’s an old adage among heterosexual women: if you want to know what sort of date you’re on, watch how he treats the server. Caravaggio once threw a plate of steaming hot artichokes into a waiter’s face, striking him with the earthenware dish.

September 14th 2018

Today, The Globe and Mail published a piece (for subscribers only) by Russell Smith called “CanLit versus its scholars.” In it, Smith discusses two subjects related to writing in Canada. The first, that bestselling Canadian author Iain Reid didn’t attend a university creative writing program; the second, the upcoming Canadian Literature Symposium at Carleton University (initiated by Jennifer Blair and Jody Mason) calling for papers that “analyze the literary cultures of Canada / of Indigenous nations within the boundaries of Canada in relation to past and present institutions.”

Of his reader, Smith asks these questions:

Smith employs the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” rhetorically, since nowhere will you find them in the actual conference description. He uses “monstrously” to qualify “oppressive,” a form of which you will find in the conference description, as Blair and Mason pose their own question: “If social oppression is linked to structural inequalities, how have the local, regional, national, and global institutions that have mediated the literary in Canada entrenched or resisted those inequalities?”

Smith’s use of the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” is a deflecting tactic. The question of the conference is by all accounts levelheaded. Various social and economic stats of women, LGBTQIA folks and BIPOC show us every day that oppression does indeed exist. Certainly Smith isn’t arguing against that?

By overblowing the question of the conference, he makes the questioners themselves appear melodramatic, or even hysterical, and therefore easy to dismiss. We’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.

Smith employs a similar rhetorical device when he calls it a “ludicrous hyperbole” for Blair and Mason to describe Canada’s schools of creative writing as having “entrenched cultures of sexual violence.”

A ludicrous hyperbole? But how can that be, when in fact two of Canada’s most famed writing schools (University of British Columbia and Concordia) have in the last two years either terminated or suspended professors facing allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment?

Maybe it’s the word “entrenched” with which Smith takes issue. One meaning of the word is “difficult to change.” If Smith thinks it’s easy to change the culture that allows sexual violence to occur within creative writing schools, I’m here to tell him, it is not. Ironically, the Globe and Mail giving platform to his opinion that so recklessly diminishes the complaints of victims is proof of that.

Smith ends his piece with a declarative statement: “The scholars of Canadian Literature are not very interested in books.”

How he knows this with such grave certainty, I’m not sure. Maybe he has access to each of their bookshelves and reading habits. Maybe he is privy to their conversations at book clubs. Maybe he follows them to bookstores. Maybe he can see into their heart of hearts. Maybe he knows something I don’t: that one’s interest in dismantling structural barriers to publishing has an inverse relationship to one’s interest in books.

Or maybe he just thinks that every conference should be about people who look and write like him. Oh, and Iain Reid, I guess?