Friday, October 31, 2014

Speculation about Rushing to Judgement

I wonder if anyone else is feeling the vague sense of discomfort I have been feeling, about a number of very quick, very public dismissals that have been in the news recently. Awhile back, it was the pair of football players. One of them, Ray Rice, was caught on video, delivering a knockout punch to his fiancĂ©, who later married him. Then, one of the real superstars of the league, running back Adrian Peterson, acknowledged punishing his 4 year old with a switch, leaving an array of bruises across his legs and buttocks. There was an almost immediate public outcry as these incidents came to light, and both players were dismissed from their teams in short order, while further investigations were launched.

Public opinion has been virtually unanimous, that the Rice incident was an assault that warrants charges and prosecution. There is less unanimity on the Peterson matter because, while corporal punishment has been increasingly criminalized over recent decades, lots of people still consider "spanking" to be an appropriate and effective tool of parenting. I am one of those who feels that spanking can be responsible, but thinks that Peterson strayed a good way beyond the acceptable.

The other case that has me musing is the more recent incident that saw radio personality Jian Gomeshi fired, due to accusations that he was physically abusive to women in dating situations. This case too seems to have generated judgements that are overwhelmingly critical of Gomeshi, but he has his supporters as well.

My discomfort is with the idea that a person should be summarily dismissed, have their very livelihood taken from them, because of behavior that is in no way related to the work that they do. And my discomfort is increased by the belief that the reason for the dismissals is primarily concern the employers have about public relations, and their fear of being found in violation of political correctness.

I get that abuse is a very serious matter. I also get that, until fairly recently, public figures weren't held accountable at all for what they did in their private lives. That total disassociation of private from public was disturbing as well. There was a time, not so long ago, when a public figure could be found in violation of society's values and might suffer no negative consequences at all. In fact, Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is a kind of throwback in this regard. When there were cries from every quarter for him to resign, he simply refused to do so, and eventually, the expectation that he would step down faded away. That used to be the normal course of events. The powerful simply refused to leave, and very often, even if they were employed by some other entity, they endured.

These days, the pendulum has swung to almost the other extreme. No matter how entrenched in a quality career one may be, a violation of a moral value can end it all overnight. Companies and institutions fall over themselves is the mad rush to disassociate themselves from the now tainted personality. Contracts are cancelled, speaking engagements and endorsements dry up. A beloved figure becomes a pariah.

This worries me. This type of quick action seems to me to be tainted by righteousness and superficiality. It isn't focused at all on addressing the troubling behavior, but only on sweeping it away. As Janay Rice has said, destroying this couple's economic foundation will in no way help them to deal with the domestic violence. If there was any valuing of these individuals - and the many like them among the not-so-famous - don't they deserve help is recognizing, addressing and overcoming their failings? Or is their value simply gone, once they've crossed a particularly sensitive line?

A couple of years ago, a dear colleague was fired by the City of Toronto, because she was found to have violated a policy by having a personal relationship with a client, one of those very sensitive taboos in social services. Now a detailed examination of the situation revealed that, it was quite a stretch to say that she'd violated anything: she'd never worked directly with the "client", the very tenuous client-worker relationship had existed years in the past, with a different program and agency, the other individual was years removed from being a client, and the new relationship had no relation to my colleague's work at all. It was a situation in which the letter of the policy had been brought into question, but in which it was abundantly clear that the spirit of it had been respected.

As I write this, I'm reminded of an historic and very similar example of speedy, righteous judgement, that at the time was lauded and hardly questioned, but which is now recognized for the wrong-headed action it was. In 1967, Mohammad Ali refused to register for the U.S. military draft, citing his opposition to the Vietnam War. This was seen as such a moral affront that in short order Ali was stripped of his championship and denied the right to engage in his profession as a boxer. He was out of boxing for 4 years in the prime of his life because of that, only regaining his license when the action against him was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

No, I'm not equating Ali's anti-war stance with Peterson's beating of his children, Gomeshi's tendency to slap women, or Rice using his wife as a punching bag. I do equate the rushes to judgment that sought to merely punish these individuals, to dismiss and wipe our collective hands of them, rather then to engage them - and their victims - in efforts to understand, solve, grow and heal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kindling for Thought

So, I received a pretty handy and powerful gift for my birthday - a Kindle reader from Ponczka. And I have mixed feelings about it. I feel that I'm on the verge of committing an act of betrayal that will undermine an entire world that has been my comfort and solace for all of my life.

How can I abandon the book? And won't using a Kindle amount to that? I'm feeling very torn: at once in wondrous anticipation of carrying around with me an entire library of books I want to read; alternately frightened at the looming demise of the book industry, and the end of all my hope of a future within it.

It's an elegant little device, this Kindle, as light as a paperback, self-illuminating and intuitively easy to use. At first, I balked at the cost that will be involved in buying books I already have in print form, but soon realized that a great deal of older content is available on the web for nothing. Then I had to confront the fact that all my life I've been a steady and avid consumer in used bookstores, libraries and at yard sales. In other words, as much of a book lover as I am, I've never done much to actually support the industry. In fact, I've used the fact of loving books as an excuse not to bear the expense of buying lots of new ones. I reasoned that, well, authors are already making enough and didn't need the few pennies that would come through royalties I contributed.

Now, I'm having to own up to my own dishonesty. It's the same honesty I demonstrate as an advocate of fair labor practices who continues to buy goods at the lowest price I can, despite knowing the exploitative conditions that are behind those super bargain prices. It's the same hypocrisy that informs my lukewarm support of animal rights while consuming meat from sources I know must perpetuate the horrific conditions that food animals endure, in order to sell me steak at five or ten dollars a pound.

Basically, my entire method and practice of satisfying my wants comes into question. But I've learned - as we all do - how easy it can be to shove difficult questions and moral points to the side, in order to live a relatively easy and trouble free life.

In truth, I don't yet know how the Kindle situation is going to play out. Kindle represents saving trees, too, doesn't it? As well as space and fuel and on and on and on.

I've had a great experience with my iPod, on which I've stored about 300 albums of music off of the original vinyl. At least a thousand more discs to go. The greatest benefit of the iPod has been that I listen to and know my music so much better than I did. I'm regularly drawn away from the ten or twenty present of those 300 albums that I listen to habitually, and am presented with the other eighty or ninety percent of my under-listened to collection. It's been amazing. Because just about all of this music is stuff I listened to closely at right after buying them. Only the few remained all-time favorites. But lots of it is music I was very connected to for a period of time, music that, with passionate intention, pulsed at the core of my being for a season. But after that, most of it gave way to the newer sounds coming along, the newer expression of what music can express like nothing else.

Consequently, my vinyl music collection is more accessible and present to me than it's ever been. The effect of the iPod has been opposite what I'm dreading from this Kindle. Who knows? Maybe this new gadget will spark a similar re-discovery of my many books. There's an argument that they have been neglected too.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Percent Thinking

I've been wondering: Are wealth, power and influence so much concentrated in the top 1% of the population, mainly because the rest of us are so obsessed with the 1%?

In this celebrity obsessed time we live in, this seems a plausible theory. As I see it, in almost every realm of human endeavor, we so idolize those at the very top that we undervalue all the rest. I notice this especially in the Arts.

In creative writing, as in music, as in theatre and dance, there are the few who achieve great wealth, but most others fail to even support themselves entirely through their practice. I don't have the numbers to support this, and forgive me for not doing the research, but I wonder how much this is a function of how the rest of us - those who are consumers of the arts - spend our time, attention and money. When a musical act goes from performing in bars to performing in football stadiums, and from living off of Pay-what-you-can to multi-million dollar performance dates, is it because they've gotten that much better, or because we, the audience, listen in an entirely different way once celebrity comes into the equation? And is the performance by the small, local theatre company that can barely fill the seats, so much less than the "straight from Broadway" production that it's members should live in poverty?

Of course, the celebrated acts are very often dazzling in their quality, and the local unknown sometimes sucks. But often enough, it's the big production that is the huge disappointment, while the local creates the magic. But the former is still catapulted into fame and fortune, while the latter goes home with beer money. (Ever notice how stars of really terrible sit-coms of thirty years ago, or singers of one-hit wonders, maintain their celebrity and the rewards of it, forever?)

It's become common knowledge that in the corporate world, the difference between the earnings at the top and bottom of corporations has grown tremendously during the past decades. When I was in elementary school - in the sixties - we were taught that income disparities were shrinking, and what a good thing this was. But the value of a relatively even distribution of wealth seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Our way of consuming must be a major factor in this. And our consumption has a lot to do with going for what is familiar. McDonalds's has grown to be the largest restaurant chain in the world, not because it's food is so good, but because we know what we're getting. Conversely, it must also have to do with our uncertainty about what we'll get if we go to "Joe's Burger Joint" instead. And while I would guess that a famous person's voice mouthing the words of an animated Pixar character probably does little if anything to boost the quality of an animated film, it seems to be the factor that assures financing and a big audience.

So isn't this - the way we think, the way we consume - a huge factor in this world of wildly uneven quality of life experiences? If we actually attended to and acknowledged and paid for products and services according to their quality, their merit, and not so much their familiarity or celebrity, I imagine we'd live in a much less have-or-have-not world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Painting in "Plein Air"

Since we became part-time residents of the Finger Lakes region of western New York, Ponczka has become part of the arts community there. In particular, she has become a regular participant in a couple of “Plein Air” festivals, which celebrate the practice of painting in nature, out of the immediate experience of a time and place. Plein air painting requires an element of surrender to the elements, however they might manifest, and challenges the artist to convert an experience directly to canvas.

This week, Ponczka and I have been in Geneva, on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake, where the Seneca Lake Plein Air Painting Festival is drawing to a close. It’s a great time for the two of us, who have come to regard this region as part of “God’s backyard”, to borrow a Polish expression. It also feels more and more like home, like the place we’ll be coming to when working for a living is not so much our focus, and when what we do will be measured more by the satisfaction it brings than by the size of a paycheck. Painting is what Ponczka is likely to be doing when that time comes; I aim to be writing.

And this Plein Air painting festival offers a tantalizing glimpse into the potential of such a future. First – it’s astonishing to see what gets produced in a mere two days, by a bunch of artists enduring sun, wind and rain for two days, trying to capture scenes despite constantly shifting light and shadows, and with the challenge of managing easels and paints, heat and cold, distractions, tiring eyes and muscles, transportation, the need to eat and sleep, uncertainty and self-doubt, and the relentless passage of time, which transforms the subject of the painting between every brushstroke.

It’s dazzling and inspiring to see the range of conversations that take place between artist and environment – how this one speaks to the vegetation, that one to the hills, one to the waters, another to the rich earth; one communes with buildings, another with the sky; this one catches the movement, another the deep, solemn stillness underlying all movement. Some paintings aim to capture a single moment, while others are steeped in timelessness. Some dance with color and light; others forego all sparkle or shine and emerge from some weighty place, singing the language of gravity, transcending life and death. So much beauty, seemingly from nothing. But that they exist at all says so much about the fertility of that apparent nothingness.

It’s a fun and exhausting and thrilling and fearful two days. Ponczka is studiously attentive to what she sees and transposes to canvas. But her painting – to my eye – can seem almost aimless and without care. It’s fascinating to watch her quick hand, swiping and stabbing the brush almost recklessly it can seem, while her eye darts from subject to canvas. I sometimes cringe inwardly as she smears on dabs of color – “NO, not that! Not There!” I’m thinking, as she gets it all wrong. But of course, I’m not seeing what she’s seeing.

So I turn away, or wander off for an hour or two, find a place for a beer, or sit and write for awhile. And when I come back, there are no more dabs of paint on a canvas, but instead, three dimensional life. But not exactly life, because... well, there’s so much on the canvas that it calls me to look again at that street scene she’s painted. It doesn’t look quite the same anymore. I see more now, feel more, want more. Connect more…? Something. There is something more now, between me and this street, that I draw from this canvas that has her eyes and her energy all mixed in with it, and with the brick and the grass, and that wall rising up, and that window, and that vague walking figure.

And everyone sees something different. In every painting. At the gala this evening, the awards are given out, and all the works are up for silent auction. Many pieces are sold, most to a solitary bidder. But others are hotly contested. And quite a few get no bids at all. One of the top prize winners has no bids on her work, but it is rich and detailed and evocative of time and memory, and the awards are clearly deserved. And while no one has yet bid to have one of the works adorn a wall in a home, one of the awards comes from a musical association that will use her work to style its programs and announcements for the coming year. And Ponczka gets no bid on her piece that both she and I like best, but another is purchased by the same couple that bought her work last year, and who happen to be the festival organizers.

It’s Art. And every eye, every taste is unique unto itself. And, as Ponczka likes to say – every painting has its rightful owner, but it can take mere moments or many years for the two to find one another.