The danger of a little education

sometimes I wonder if the PhD has wrecked my reading-for-pleasure part of my brain forever. I’m reading BC Book World, a nicely put together freebie newspaper that advertises the wondrous array of publications that come out of this amazing province. The current issue is Summer 2017 with a pic of Wade Davis on the cover. The range of books being discussed is truly fantastic, many of them coming from small presses. But the articles are really adverts rather than reviews because, basically, what they do is describe the author and content, some context yet with absolutely no criticism, in the literary/scholarly/intellectual sense, entailed in the writing. What I mean by that is that the ‘reviewers’ do not challenge the authors of the books, the subject matter, nor do they contextualise the author or book in a broader sense. Some of the reviewers are academics btw, yet they do not appear to apply their critical faculties to the job.

Sometimes the book authors are quoted and their statements are ridiculous and left entirely unchallenged. John Gellard, for example, reviews David Suzuki & Ian Hanington’s new book Just Cool It : the Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It and quotes a number of the author’s recommendations that we can do so much for our environment. But Gellard doesn’t point out how absurd some of the author’s recommendations are, primarily because most of these recommendations clearly do not, cannot, apply to anyone other than a privileged and predominantly urban segment of our society. For example: ‘use fuel-efficient cars or electric cars’; ‘cultivate habits of bicycling, walking, and using public transportation instead of cars’; ‘insulate our homes and use energy-efficient lighting’; ‘install solar panels on our houses’; ‘buy less “stuff” and waste less’, and ‘eat less meat and, by composting, waste less food’. Now don’t get me wrong, all of these are worthy endeavours but for a huge proportion of BC citizens cars are out of reach, never mind elite electric or ‘fuel-efficient’ hybrids. Ditto ‘cultivat[ing] habits of bicycling …’. Well I’ve been stuck in Squamish (trying to retrieve my truck where it’s been getting fixed up at Function Junction & my companion is working off-grid) for the past several days because the public transit here is the shits quite frankly, and prohibitively expensive – so I can’t imagine ‘cultivating’ cycling/walking/busing’ here esp. if I had a job in the service industry to get to in Whistler for example. As for insulating our homes, energy-efficient lighting, and solar panels – anybody looked at the cost of housing in most of BC recently? Who but the privileged can own homes here, and if you do manage to squeak into a mortgage who but the privileged can afford solar panels etc. etc.? Of all the recommendations it is the ‘eat less meat’ that cracks me up the most. Only the privileged would even consider this. I don’t know any low-income people who eat much meat. It’s simply too expensive.

And so this is where I think the PhD has wrecked me. Why can’t I just enjoy the read for the read’s sake?

The review by Mary-Ellen Kelm, titled ‘Genocide in Slow Motion,’ is about the book “Medicine Unbundled: a Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care”, by Gary Geddes. Geddes reveals the First Nations experience of a segregated Indigenous health care system of the last century (Indian hospitals) and presents a harrowing précis of the era. While the article on the Geddes book certainly is worth reading, what is missing is that the reviewer, an academic, never questions Geddes’s methodology of collecting first-person narratives, his acceptance of these narratives as truth (and I’m NOT suggesting they are untruthful), nor, importantly, does the reviewer consider the absence of first-person narratives in the Geddes book – those of the former health-care providers who worked in the system, or at least any documentary evidence left behind by these people. Further, I challenge statements made by the reviewer such as the following in which she quotes an informant from Geddes’ book: ‘Listening, as it turns out, can be a problem for Canadians. As Joanie Morris puts it, ‘the problem I have with white people is that they don’t listen.’ Say what? Since when is the word ‘Canadians’ synonymous with ‘white people’ – and yet this is the implication by the reviewer (and I smell middle-class white guilt in this btw, tho I couldn’t determine Kelm’s heritage from her online presence). Then I argue, if ‘Canadians’ don’t listen, then wtf is the 6-year long Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and the resultant actions and programming that is rolling out daily throughout the country? Kelm just rolls over this in her article.

I could go on, but I won’t. Because it will just prove what I suspect. And that is that the PhD has utterly ruined my reading pleasure. My critical skills are the antithesis of pleasurable, relaxing reading – there are just truck-wide critical holes in article after article of BookWorld – a truly nice publication that spreads the word far and wide on all the industriousness of BC’s authors. Sadly, there’s nothing I can do about turning off my academic switch, other than hope that time will cure all.

Stella Bowen, FMF, & Jean Rhys

‘[P]ursuing an art is not just a matter of finding time – it is a matter of finding a free spirit … Ford [Madox Ford] was a great user-up of other people’s nervous energy and there was no room for me to nurse an independent ego,’ writes the Australian painter Stella Bowen on how difficult it was to continue painting once she began her relationship with Ford Madox Ford. Ford used to assume that Bowen just didn’t want to paint. But Bowen also had a newborn at the time she is referring to (post First World War), and Ford had relocated the little family to a countryside cottage that had no plumbing or electricity. Further, he had serious PTSD from the trenches and he insisted that had to have absolute silence in order to write. 

Later, the family moved to Paris and took in a struggling writer who had left her own marriage and who had honed helplessness and dependency on men to a higher order. Ford then had an affair with the poor dear while she was living under Stella’s roof. The writer was Jean Rys. After Bowen and Ford’s breakup, Bowen began painting again with conviction and eventually became the second woman war artist ever appointed by the UK government (1941). Here’s a link to her war work. 

Bowen always felt herself to be the lesser artist of the two, but I find the concept of greater and lesser artist to be specious, particularly in the context of Bowen and Fordie (whom I adore so much I even snuck him into my doctoral dissertation). Comparing Bowen and Fordie is a bit like comparing runners racing a 1000 meters with one piggy-backing the other for at least half the track. As for Rys, her life was disastrous, yet, I suppose one can say that she served her art. She descended into alcoholism and destructive behaviours with men and spent her life looking for the love of a mother she felt she never had. The irony was that she left a wake of destruction in the lives of so many other women, mothers, as she went. 

source: Osler, Mirabel. The Rain Tree: a Memoir. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

 

Mom

Up at 5 a.m. to begin a draft of a scene for Heart of the North to give to my composer, Neil Weisensel, this afternoon, I began studying script formats. I began thinking about my mother (when do I not think about her) and how extraordinary she was. At heart she was a natural creative, a painter who channeled much of her creative energy into cooking beautiful meals served at gorgeous tables, or how she dressed (always elegantly & trendy but NEVER mutton-dressed-as-lamb). She had little money and yet her tables rivalled the best. She served on department store china – she always wanted a set of Rosenthal china but never got it – and yet it might as well have been Rosenthal because the way she laid the table, served the food was always elegant, a candle ALWAYS lit no matter if it was mac and cheese, & her menus inspired . Some family members mocked her for her predilection for elegance, as if she was ‘uppity’ – but my mom was born into a wealthy family (the money lost in 1929, her father deserted soon after), and had the provenance of being ‘French’. Only late in her life did I find our Métis heritage and only when I began to give her books about our culture and how proud a heritage it is did she acknowledge and embrace our heritage and actually wear the sash.

This morning as I set about working I thought about my mother because it would have been unimaginable for her to have had the luxury of rising at 5 a.m. to work on a piece of artistic work, funded work. My mother raised 5 kids and had a terribly difficult marriage to an alcoholic. She worked at low-paying jobs all my childhood years and had two or three weeks off a year, therefor little time to follow her passion for painting or for learning (she got her B.A. at age 69). Yet I remember our holidays at Boundary Bay and how it was her happy place. In particular I remember her standing at her easel outside the tiny cabin we rented (cold water, no shower/bath, old oil stove, 2 bedrooms for 7 people – the boys slept outside!) – and painting for hours and hours. She often wore an elegant dress, a very fashionable mumu (not the tent kind) brought back from Hawaii by a wealthy friend, and a smock (to keep the oil paint off her clothes). Unlike so much of the year during which she was exhausted and stressed (she’d had tuberculosis, numerous surgeries, and my dad was unpredictable), at Boundary Bay she was happy and relaxed and we kids had free range. When she wasn’t painting she was reading. I think she was irritable a lot of the time because she was intellectually and artistically frustrated. Raising 5 kids and living with the chaos of alcoholism instead of fulfilling one’s intellect and creative spirit is a recipe for self-destruction, yet miraculously, she looked after her health and self extremely well.

Everybody says she is still with me, my mom, but I’m not so sure, I just can’t feel her with me. And I have no one I can phone and talk about books, ideas, what’s in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair – my mom was an equal-opportunity reader (low-brow, middle-brow, high-brow), someone who enjoyed reading the tabloids as much as any academic tome. I have so much to thank her for and yet I can’t. tbh, I’m not going to my PhD convocation because without her there is no point – I did it for her first and foremost.

A huge part of my self-identification as Métis is a recovery of the creative spirit that my mom, and her mother, stifled as brown-eyed girls who passed. Mom’s elegance was sneered upon by some and yet it was her heritage manifested in her clothing, her food, her painterly eye and her eclectic Catholicism. I just hope, no, I pray, I can do her justice.