Saturday, 14 July 2012

Crispin, a Kid on a Quest. You Know, Like Many of the Other Newbery Medal Characters.

In the Newbery Medal winner for 2003, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi, life for Crispin, a boy of thirteen living in England in 1376 A.D, is as it’s often said of existence in medieval times, nasty, brutish, and short. He and his mother Asta are peasants, cottars without land of their own, who make a meager living working the Lord Furnival’s fields in the little village of Stromford. Crispin has been told his father died in the last widespread plague. The other village children shun and taunt him for reasons he can’t fathom. Then Crispin’s mother dies, upon which turn of events Crispin’s circumstances become even more nasty and brutal and his life expectancy even more uncertain.

Lord Furnival’s steward, John Ayecliffe, first shows up at Asta’s funeral demanding that Crispin surrender his ox as death tax, which will mean starvation for Crispin. Then Crispin is seen observing a secret meeting between Ayecliffe and a cloaked stranger in the woods, after which Ayecliffe accuses Crispin of whatever crimes conveniently suggest themselves and puts a price on his head. Crispin receives some hints as to his family history from his few friends and, provided with a little bread and his mother’s leaden cross, flees the village for the nearest city as his friends advise, though they aren’t exactly sure where any of England’s cities are because they’ve never seen them personally. Various adventures ensue, the first and most important of which is that Crispin meets Orson Hrothgar, otherwise known as Bear. Bear is a travelling performer who can sing and dance and juggle balls. He is also adept at smoke and mirror-style political intrigue, and at frightening the wits out of a particularly unsophisticated thirteen-year-old boy.

Haven’t we already seen this book in the Newbery list? Let’s see, boy is thrown on his own resources by the death of his strong-willed, yet physically frail and poverty-stricken mother, and he has some keepsake left to him by his mother that turns out to have an unsuspected significance relating to his mysterious antecedents. Oh, and he’s embroiled in larger political and military turmoil. No, wait, that’s Johnny Tremain, the Newbery-winning book from 1944. And Bud, Not Buddy, the Newberry winner from 2000, which I have read but haven’t reviewed yet.

Child on his or her own is a very common theme in children’s literature. It’s classic wish fulfillment, both a child’s greatest fear and worst nightmare. Heaven knows a kid can’t have spine-chilling adventures, much less embark on some very important quest, with a parent looking over his or her shoulder and saying it’s bedtime or homework time or that it isn’t safe to do this or that. And another common theme in kid lit is "mysterious parentage", which taps into another common childhood fantasy, that of belonging to another family, one more exciting and significant, or perhaps just less flawed. Tie these themes together, put your adolescent hero or heroine in an exotic and/or historical setting, and it makes for an exciting book for a kid. Heck, I’m 38 and I read Crispin in two sittings on a single day.

Suspenseful as Crispin is, some of the plot twists are contrived to the point that they’re an eye roller. I found Ayecliffe’s vendetta against Crispin to be rather awkwardly developed. Crispin is a threat to Ayecliffe because of who he is, yet Ayecliffe only sets a price on Crispin’s head once Crispin has seen him talking to another man in the woods, though Crispin has neither seen nor heard anything that is incriminating. The kind village priest who helps Crispin, Father Quinel, tells Crispin to hide in the woods for another day and then come back to the church for food and for some information about his mother and himself. Crispin asks why Father Quinel can't do the Big Reveal right then, and the priest tells him it’s better and safer to learn such things just before he leaves the village for good. Of course fate in the form of an evil and power-hungry steward intervenes, and Crispin doesn’t hear the revelations. Though we do eventually learn what Father Quinel had to tell Crispin, we never learn Father Quinel’s reason for delaying the reveal. I suspect the motivations for the delay on both John Ayecliffe’s and Father Quinel’s parts are really Avi’s and have to do with creating mystery and suspense. And of course these are important elements in an adventure novel, but so is devising a credible course of action for your characters so that they seem like actual people rather than marionettes whose strings show all too plainly. These trumped-up behaviours reminded me of Dave Barry’s parody of The DaVinci Code:
Handsome yet unmarried historian Hugh Heckman stood in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., squinting through the bulletproof glass at the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, he made an amazing discovery. "My God!" he said, out loud. "This is incredible! Soon I will say what it is."
The character of Bear is quite well drawn. The man is an enigma and his repeated sleight-of-hand behaviours obscure both his motives and his actual beliefs, convincing not only Crispin but even the adult reader (er, this one, anyway). While Crispin does begin to figure out what’s really going on, and is slower to catch on to Bear’s misdirections than the reader is, Bear is a complex character who plays his cards close to his tunic and there’s enough in play that I finished the book thinking there was still probably more to Bear than had been revealed. This is fortunate as there are two more Crispin books, Crispin: At the Edge of the World, and Crispin: at the End of Time, and Avi needed to save some plot twists for those books.

I did really enjoy that Orson Hrothgar’s nickname Bear is a clever classical allusion. The name Orson is derived from Latin and means "little bear". There is a fifteenth-century romance about twin brothers, Valentine and Orson, based on a fourteenth century chanson de geste which tells the tale of how Orson was raised from infancy by bears while Valentine is given a knight's upbringing at court. The Valentine and Orson story is not directly referenced, but it is a nice bonus for the adult reader who catches it. And Bear is indeed very much the wild man of the woods his literary namesake was, as he is huge, loud, aggressive, and has cast aside many of the sociopolitical norms of his time to be what could only be considered a dangerous radical and freethinker by fourteenth century terms.

The historical setting does seem to be well researched, and the psychology of the characters is probably about as authentic as is possible. Avi does as well as any author could in creating a medieval mindset with its implicit belief in God and the devil, fear of hell, reverence for the priesthood, and some truly creative religiously themed oaths, my favourite of which was, "By the bowels of Christ". Even the most dastardly character in the book is compelled to at least partially respect the binding effect of swearing a vow before God. Crispin does seem to be a little too concerned with his self-esteem in a way I don’t think is period appropriate, but then Avi had to make Crispin a boy contemporary readers could relate to.

Relatively minor nitpicks aside, I’d have to say that Crispin is definitely a quite solidly enjoyable book that is exciting, well-written and rich in accurate period detail, if it does feel a little boilerplate as to its plot. But then I must remember that this is a book that is written primarily for kids, not for an adult who’s gotten a little sated on "kid on a quest" books.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Etsy's Unique and Handmade Problems

If I’m going to write about Etsy, I should probably begin by saying that up until this past spring, I loved Etsy. Etsy was, if not in exactly in my blood, then so often on my mind that it seemed to be nestled among my neurons. Before a recent job loss, I was on Etsy nearly daily doing searches and making sure no one else had bought any of the items I had favourited. I just can’t tell you much it meant to me that I, a super-picky and budget-minded and so-seriously-retro-that-I’m-anachronistic shopper who comes home empty-handed from most of her trips to the Eaton Centre, could type a few search terms on Etsy and then browse through pages of items that are at least in the ball park of what I want. Between March 2010 and March 2012, I made 79 purchases on Etsy. Etsy helped me rebuild my jewelry collection after it was wiped out by a burglary (my second, sigh) in January 2010. Etsy made it possible for me to have a mostly non-cheesy collection of swan items. Etsy helped me find very specific gifts for assorted gift-giving occasions. Etsy helped me find affordable Art Nouveau antiques for my 1912-built house. Etsy has an enormous selection of goods, many of which are at very reasonable prices, and numerous talented, hard-working, honest and well-mannered sellers.

But for all its good points, Etsy has its flaws, which range from slightly annoying to the truly ugly, and when one of its failings manifested itself in an outright fiasco this past April, I became unwilling to shop there any longer.

Etsy claims to be an online marketplace strictly for hand-crafted and vintage goods. Their site policy states that vendors can only sell items that are either substantially handmade by the seller, craft supplies, or vintage items, and Etsy defines vintage as meaning the item is at least 20 years old. It’s a great policy which has allowed them to corner a niche in the marketplace. Unfortunately Etsy does not make an honest effort to enforce the policy. The site is rife with mass-produced goods that are available at much lower prices on eBay and Amazon.

I was trying to give Etsy the benefit of the doubt that they were at least attempting to enforce their policy and finding it beyond their capabilities, until this past April. On April 20th Etsy posted an interview with a featured seller, Mariana Schechter, owner of Etsy shop Ecologica, who claimed she designs and makes handmade furniture from salvaged wood. She said in the interview that, “So many designers and craftspeople eventually mass produce their products. Mass production makes it easier to sustain bigger profit margins, but it takes away from the individuality of each item”, and added, “There is something personal and unique that occurs when you craft something with your hands.”

Of course this all sounded beautifully in line with the Etsy mandate, until April 21st, when Schechter was exposed and proven to be a wholesale importer whose supposedly handmade goods are entirely factory-made and shipped to her by a company called All From Boats, based in Indonesia.

On April 22, a full day after the news broke, a coffee table from the Ecologica was among the handpicked items on the front page, and after a week or so of internet sturm und drang (read: Etsy and Regretsy and Metafilter threads of punishing length), Etsy took the official stance that Schechter’s business qualifies as a “collective” under their guidelines, and scolded their users for being meanies.

On June 5th, it was discovered that the Ecologica Malibu shop had been closed. Etsy will not say why. My own best guess is that Schechter closed her own shop because she wasn’t making many sales and/or had finally figured out she was never going to get any respect from the Etsy community again. But the kicker is Etsy has not removed the Featured Seller article about Schechter. Etsy's shameless disregard of their own site policy is stunning. My suspicion is that Schechter’s import business paid them for the featured seller spot, and if that’s the case Etsy can’t remove it without breach of contract.

Of course, this matter was simply an especially dramatic boiling over of problems that have been bubbling for a long time.

Etsy has long failed to set any sort of threshold as to the quality of the goods for sale on its site. There are people on Etsy selling—or trying to sell—rusted tin cans, pieces of scrap wood, filthy and damaged old toys, and other items that are neither handmade nor vintage. An item’s presence in Etsy's vintage or handmade categories is in no way an assurance that the item is actually vintage or handmade. There are "vintage" Blackberries for sale, as well as many other less obviously new and mass-produced goods. I’ve certainly been taken. A necklace I once bought from the vintage category was no more vintage than my 2012 daytimer because I saw the necklace—and matching earrings!—at a kiosk in the mall the week after my necklace arrived in the mail. There are also many copyright infringments. And even when items for sale are described honestly, it can be very difficult and time consuming for a buyer to find a specific desired item because the search functionality is so crude.

All of these problems hurt sellers who are trying to sell genuinely handcrafted or vintage goods. They can’t charge prices that are competitive with those charged for mass-produced goods, their goods are hard to find among the sea of mass-produced offerings, and the customers they are trying to reach are being driven away from Etsy entirely because it’s not offering the kind of merchandise it claims.

Even before the Mariana Schechter charade, Etsy wasn’t making any discernible effort to weed out the outright crap and site policy violations. Items flagged as violating site policy remained in place. Indeed, Etsy sometimes promotes such items by featuring them on their front page collections of "handpicked items". These handpicked items are clearly selected to suit a colour scheme or topical theme, not on their own intrinsic merit, with the result that while the photo collections make the front page look pretty, the practical value of it to buyers is vanishingly slight and vendors who are selling garbage but who can take artistic product shots get bonus traffic to their shops, while vendors with much better wares do not.

I was glad to see Etsy has at least retired one of their more useless features, the "You might like" recommendations. I found them so absurdly off the mark as to be completely useless. Why on earth would Etsy think I might like a Simplicity clown costume pattern or a book on how to draw Woody the Woodpecker? Is it because I searched on Etsy for a skort pattern and a clown costume seemed like the next logical step? Or were they hoping in some oblique way to warn me away from that slippery slope?

By far the most disturbing feature of their business practices is their treatment of Etsy sellers. I have read accounts of former sellers having their listings or entire shops closed arbitrarily and without warning, leaving the sellers with no way retrieve their product images and descriptions, without any refund of listing fees that were supposed keep their goods visible and available for sale for several months, and worst of all with no way to contact their buyers and arrange for the delivery of the goods they’ve paid for. Etsy also seems to offer very little protection or assistance for buyers who are running into problems with dishonest sellers.

And another very serious Etsy business misstep is their refusal to allow any dissent on their site and heels-dug-in refusal to respond constructively, or even, sometimes, lucidly, to customer and vendor complaints. When an Etsy member asked in the forums why there was a crumbling old brick among the featured products on the front page, she was told not to call out in the forums.

When a reseller shamelessly posted in the forums asking for tips on how to sell her "handmade" notebooks and another Etsy user politely replied that she can’t sell her notebooks on Etsy because they are not handmade but mass-produced, the commenter was told not to call out in the forums.

When an Etsy seller was told she can’t sell her Mr. T album in her shop because Etsy had “received a copyright infringement complaint from an agent representing Mr. Chuck Norris” and the seller replied meekly that her listing didn’t mention Mr. Norris in any way, she was told Etsy didn’t have the information to reply to her question and that she must contact Mr. Norris’s representative. Yes, you read that right.

If Etsy wants to be a successful and respected site, much less a community, as its creation of forums and "friend circles" and other features would indicate, it needs to show respect and consideration for its users by allowing a certain amount of open negotiation and conflict and by having the courtesy to listen and respond to their complaints. And too, they need to understand what a resource their users' suggestions and criticisms and flagging of unacceptable items can be.

Etsy so far seems completely unwilling to allow dissent on the site, and nature's abhorrence of a vacuum is nothing compared to the average internet denizen's refusal to accept a lack of space in which to complain. It didn't take long for some independent venues appear. If you have problems with Etsy's practices, you can post to the Consumer Affairs site, or to SiteJabber.

Other sites have sprung up to address Etsy’s business practices: Callin’ Out on Etsy; Etsy Bitch; The Etsy Refugee Society; and the inevitable Facebook group (and I’m sure there are more Facebook groups along that line).

Not only is there much to criticize about Etsy's business practices, making fun of Etsy's wares is an end and a pleasure in itself. My friend Jacquilynne launched a web site called "The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy" back in June 2009. She would critique three pieces of Etsy merchandise daily, and usually it happened that one would be a well-crafted item while the other two would be hilariously badly crafted or perhaps well-made but deeply weird. I fondly remember two of her reviews in particular. In one she referred to a top with a demure, pieced calico front view and half laced-up, half-bare back view as "Amish in the front, Rumspringa in the back". And when reviewing a $1500 needlepoint cushion depicting an erect and graphically detailed penis with the motto, "It won’t suck itself", Jacquilynne headlined her critique with a succinct, "For $1500, It Should".

The Good, the Bad and the Etsy was building momentum nicely when Jacquilynne decided to close it down just two months after its inception because she was receiving death threats from unhinged Etsy sellers who had taken umbrage to her snarking on their crafts. Again, you read that right. Death threats.

As The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy had been posted to the front page of Metafilter and Jacquilynne and I are both members, I initiated a MetaTalk thread to inform the other members of what had happened, and it became a meaty discussion about the value and boundaries of critical discourse. I recommend the thread as interesting reading in its own right.

Jacquilynne clarified her decision to discontinue the blog in the thread:
To be clear, I didn't take the blog down because I felt like I was in danger (internet death threats—ooh scary!), but I was already feeling sort of bad about one person who emailed me and seemed genuinely sad that I'd mocked her item, and I got a couple of threats in a couple of hours, it suddenly all seemed not worth it.
Etsy can’t be held responsible for the behaviour of their sellers off-site, of course, but Jacquilynne’s experience does indicate that one of the site's problems is a faction of Etsy sellers who have neither talent nor the discernment to realize their own lack of ability, and who can't behave like adults when anyone says so.

Of course, I probably don’t have to tell anyone who has read this far about the most successful Etsy complaint and snark blog there is, Regretsy—I couldn’t even get this far through the review without having to link to it multiple times.

Regretsy is owned and operated by the wickedly and incisively satirical April Winchell, and on Regretsy she daily serves up the dregs of Etsy with generous dollops of snark sauce and side orders of pie charts and Photoshop, and has gotten a few book deals in the process. Winchell skewers Etsy for all its flaws and excesses, posts about everything from the serious problems I’ve mentioned to more minor nitpicks such as product shots of food with hairs twined in among the goodies on the plate, unintentionally hilarious misspellings in posters or wall decals offered for sale, poorly made or useless "crafts" such as a necklace that consists of a paperclip on a piece of stiff wire, artwork that is supposed to depict a certain celebrity and looks nothing like said celebrity, hideous and unwearable clothing, vendors who use words that do not actually mean what they seem to think, gratuitous nudity in product shots, and Etsy’s many twee pretensions. Winchell and her many readers sometimes manage to embarrass Etsy’s staff into addressing at least some of its more minor problems. And not incidentally, Winchell and her readers have also raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charitable causes and given specific items, such as new sewing machines, to Etsy vendors in need. The site, which has developed its own culture and momentum, is a lot of fun and also serves the greater public good in a very concrete way. If I didn’t already think the whole "people who make fun of other people's creative work are fat jealous losers who can't do anything worthwhile themselves" was one very dumb canard, I would after seeing what April Winchell has accomplished with Regretsy. Criticism can be fruitful as well as an end in itself.

I’ll try to avoid recapping any of Winchell's posts here because there's really no equivalent to reading them oneself. There's a lot of scope in making fun of Etsy. Not only is it satisfying to see Etsy outed for its many hypocrisies and legion absurdities, but sometimes some of the offerings on Etsy, while genuinely handmade and well-crafted, are so jaw-droppingly bizarre that Regretsians marvel at and celebrate them rather than making fun of them. April Winchell has had to categorize her many posts and the entire list of categories can be found here. Some of my favourite categories are Garbage; Compare and Save; Dead Things and a sub category within Dead Things, Tragicrafting; Not Remotely Handmade; Not Remotely Steampunk; Annoying Descriptions; Peck of the Day (in which Winchell makes fun of the senselessness of the choices for the Handpicked items on the front page); and for the truly unclassifiable, Don’t Ask Me.

In one favourite post of mine, which involved Winchell’s recap of a Etsy "Featured Seller" article, Winchell employed something I’ll describe as a Wank-O-Meter to measure the level of fatuous pretension in the article. Spoiler: it's a very high level. Moreover, one can almost smell Sartoria's studio through the computer screen.

While many Etsy vendors are wonderfully good sports about having their items mocked and appreciate the increased traffic and sales that Regretsy always brings their way (after all, purchases are paid for in government tender whether bought in a spirit of irony or while "under the influence" or in sober and sincere appreciation), some aren’t. As in Jacquilynne’s experience, some of the Etsy crafters whose items are mocked on Regretsy don’t seem to have much more maturity, self-control, basic literacy skills, or grasp of what does and does not constitute illegal behaviour than they do esthetic sensibility. Winchell therefore gets her own share of hate mail, which she opportunely turns into fodder for more Regretsy posts in her Mailbag category. My favourite of these letters was a classic from a person who threatens to call a "layer" and get a "crease and desist".

All snark (or most of it) aside, as I see it, Etsy only has two viable ethical options, the first being that Etsy begins to enforce its own policies, to make every effort to close resellers down as efficiently as possible (they would never get them all) and remove any Featured Seller spots involving resellers. And in this case Etsy should also apologize to the community for not doing so earlier, as it has been dishonest to claim to be promoting handmade goods while knowingly allowing resellers on the site.

Alternatively, Etsy should admit they’ve become dependent on resellers to keep the site profitable (and that's understandable, not judging Etsy for that), and announce that from now on they will be allowing resellers but their products will be strictly labelled and categorized as such. If they have received payment from resellers for Featured Seller spots, they must come clean about that and promise users that from now on paid advertisements will be completely distinct from any editorial content, and promise that they will do their utmost to make sure the handmade categorization can be trusted by all users. And apologize to the community for not doing so earlier.

Both of the paths involve making some changes and disclosures and apologizing to the Etsy community. There is no way around that. There are also other changes that need to be made, such as setting some sort of standard for goods offered on Etsy, treating their vendors better, improving the search functionality, allowing honest dissent on the site, and just in general listening to and learning from the criticisms made of Etsy.

But at present I don’t have any reason to believe we’re going to see Etsy make a real effort to clean itself up. And I believe what will happen is Etsy will slowly decline.

At present Etsy has a reputation for being the go-to site for handmade goods and are valued at more than $600 million according to the The Wall Street Journal, but they can’t coast on an undeserved reputation forever. The Etsy "handmade" brand will become increasingly derided. Etsy will gradually lose their frustrated artisan sellers and their disappointed customers to other sites that offer genuinely handmade goods and treat their users with more respect, such as ArtFire.

Gradually Etsy will become eBay, only smaller, with higher prices and transparent dishonesty, and they’ll find out they can’t compete with eBay on those terms. And there’s an ironic justice in this. Etsy has forced their artisans to compete with sellers hawking mass-produced goods labeled as handmade, and they’ll eventually find themselves pitting these "handmade" wares against a juggernaut vendor selling reams of mass-produced goods for far better prices.

That’s my prediction. Of course, I could be wrong, or even if I am right, Etsy may manage to stick around and stay profitable for many years to come, but meanwhile, I have done my bit to protest Etsy's dishonesty and mismanagement by closing my Etsy account, discouraging my father, who is a talented woodworker, from opening an Etsy shop, and by writing and posting two Metafilter posts and this review to let people know exactly what Etsy’s all about. And then too, I keep in mind that there are compensations in Etsy’s continued survival, namely that Regretsy is ying to Etsy’s yang, and so long as Etsy refuses to mend its ways, Regretsy can go right on trumpeting the fact that Etsy’s ass is showing through its "reclaimed crocheted afghan" pants.

Monday, 25 July 2011

By Way of Sorrow, Indeed

Someone on Metafilter.com linked to this lovely slideshow on YouTube yesterday, saying a friend of his had put it together in celebration of New York's first legal gay marriage ceremonies. I defy anyone to look at the succession of images depicting loving gay couples, contrasted with images of the hatred and bigotry they've faced for so long, and not be moved. The slideshow is set to a song called "By Way of Sorrow", which my Googling tells me is written by Julie Miller and performed by a group called Cry, Cry, Cry, and I cannot imagine a more perfect accompaniment for this video.

As happy as I am for these couples, as thrilled as I am to see that the tide of homophobic bigotry is on the wane, my happiness is veined with sorrow and shame. Sorrow that they've had to wait so very long for a civil right so many of us have had all our lives, that the U.S. Federal government still does not recognize their marriage, that if they were to merely drive across the state border into New Jersey, their marriage certificate would legally mean nothing, that according to Wikipedia only 4% of the world's population lives in a jurisdiction that offers legal gay marriage, because of all the discrimination and even violent persecution they face nearly everywhere on the planet.

And the shame relates to my own past. As a Canadian I live in a country that has recognized gay marriage for six years, and I am in no way responsible for what the U.S. or any other country's legislative tardiness in coming to it's senses. No, the shame is personal rather than political, and is rooted much further back.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. I attended a Christian school and Sunday School and church all my childhood, and had few other social contacts as my family lived on a farm. I'm embarrassed to think how indoctrinated I was at 14 or so, but the reality is that I didn't have much chance to be otherwise. As I attended public high schools, the re-education process began in grade nine and eventually led to my becoming agnostic at age 28, but it took many years for life to chip away what had been instilled in me.

And at 17, when I was still two-thirds cocooned in a hard shell of patent Christian theology, I fell in love with a close friend who was gay. I didn't know he was gay, of course. If I'd had any real experience at all, I would have known. If I hadn't unconsciously wanted not to know, I would have known. Incidentally, it turns out that my first crush (at 11) and first boyfriend (at 16) were also gay. This is why you'll never hear me claiming to have gaydar, though since this trifecta I have at least (seemingly!) managed to pick straight men to date.

But it wasn't entirely due to my naiveté and wilful disbelief that I didn't know. My friend didn't tell me, and he had girlfriends before and after me. It wasn't until over four years later that I found out through a bizarre chain of circumstances. It was his responsibility to tell me. Had he told me he could have spared me a great deal of pain, and both of us a lot of drama, and maybe we could have saved the relationship we did have that meant so much to us both in those days.

However, he didn't tell me, and in the years since I have recognized that I had a hand in keeping him silent. I remember very clearly, and with many a cringe, that one day on a walk through the park the subject of homosexuality came up and I expounded on what the Bible says about it and quoted the Biblical words "with such do not eat". I may even have shaken a finger at him. There were other incidents when I spoke disparagingly of gays or acted grossed out by what "they" did.

To understand the enormity of this you must know that I was a backward, sensitive teenager completely lacking in confidence or a sense of self-worth. My friend had confidence and self-esteem and charisma to burn, and whenever I was around him he cast such a aura of it that he made it possible for me to be wholly and unselfconsciously myself and feel completely accepted and supported. When I was with him we were in a world all our own and nothing anyone else said or did had the power to hurt me. He created that wonderful space for me... and in return I told him he wasn't fit to eat with.

I do keep what I did in perspective. He remained in the closet for a number of years afterward and I very much doubt it was my wagging finger that kept him there. He had a lot of issues that were unrelated to me, and even to being gay, just as I had my own issues that caused me to spend several years looking to him for things it was crystal clear all along that he could not and would not give me. But he was for several years someone I loved more than anyone, he probably suffered a lot over the conflict between who he was and what the world around him expected and allowed him to be, and instead of helping him and giving him the support he always gave me, I gave him one more slap in the face. It is this regret that remains with me to this day more than fifteen years after all others evaporated when I came to see that I wouldn't have been at all happy paired up with him even if he weren't gay.

And this is partly why, even though I am heterosexual, I am such a passionate supporter of gay rights. I've had intimate experience of how bigotry towards gays and living with lies hurts all of us, even when we're the bigots. Had my friend and I grown up in a time and a place when being gay was accepted as readily as being left-handed and the world offered the same options to a gay teenager as it did to straight kids, we both could have been saved the pain and waste of those years. And then perhaps my journals from my late teens would not be so full of anguish and so raw that to this day, twenty years later, I cannot bear to read them.

So to the newlyweds (including my former friend and his husband who have been maried for what must be close to three years now), I say congratulations, best wishes, and please forgive us all for being so wretchedly slow to give you your rightful place at the table.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Jean Teasdale and a Life Spent On An Escalator

Satire is a difficult thing to review for the same reason that Saturday Night Live sketches generally don’t make good movies – because satire by definition has little depth, and its thin premises are soon exhausted. Satire is simply a cleverly skewed presentation of truths everyone readily acknowledges, and one can find little to say about it before having to resort to obvious truisms. And so although I’ve intended to write a review of The Onion’s first ever “columnist-written” book, A Book of Jean’s Own by Jean Teasdale (really Maria Schneider), ever since it came out last fall, coming up with enough words on the subject has involved much mental scratching about. But I was determined to get this review written. I do think Jean comes close to transcending her satirical type and becoming a realized character with some interesting ramifications. I won’t go so far as to say she makes her readers care about her, exactly, but she’s real enough that many people who read her say they know someone very much like her, and sometimes cringe at her partial likeness to themselves. I have several friends who are equally into the Jean Teasdale material and we have very lively conversations about her and talk about her as though she exists. Tellingly, these conversations often seem to be on the theme of “how we could get her life on track”, and thereby tap into one of the most important veins in Jean’s character.

Human beings have a natural bent towards improving themselves and their lot. If we didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves and gnawing on raw meat. After millions of years of progressive development and invention we’ve exacerbated and inflated this tendency until we’ve reached a point of schizophrenic divide. We’re bombarded with images of perfection and incredible achievements while at the same time have reached such an apex of material comfort and convenience that very little effort is absolutely required of us. At least in North America, and under certain circumstances, one can with relatively little effort and knowledge ride the crest of excess material goods and easy credit and self-satisfied ignorance like a sun-baked, slurpee-sipping water park visitor on an air mattress in a wave pool. Resolving this tension within ourselves, deciding upon realistic individual standards, and maintaining a reasonable and consistent level of effort can require concerted effort. Some people find their balance in this matter easily, but for others this schism is a source of great conflict and practical difficulties. Entering the ring of this conflict is one Jean Teasdale, proud and willful lowest common denominator.

Jean is at once an exasperating and enjoyable departure from the social norm of at least making some effort towards being all you can be (or, failing that, feeling guilty if you don’t). Some of Jean’s best and most hilarious moments are those in which she is on the very brink of achieving a state of mindfulness and then turns and snatches the iron, or rather, her Teflon psyche, from the fire. One classic example of such a moment occurs in one of my very favourite Jean columns, the one she wrote after 9/11, in which she decides to deal with the horror of the terrorist attacks by pretending they never happened, and this column about her marriage contains another example. It’s almost refreshing to see someone decide to not only embrace but wallow in her own rock-bottom laziness and sub minimal standards: someone who has “dress sweats”; who happily reports that she wears Crocs and clogs so as not to have to lace up her own shoes; who reads only home making and bridal magazines and romance novels; and takes to her bed, well fortified with junk food and sweets, whenever reality encroaches and life presents her with a challenge.

But then too, there is the urge to “fix” Jean. Her refusal to expect anything of herself or to be realistic has led to a life of precarious mental balance, and forces her increasingly more deeply into denial. She’s like someone who enjoys the free and easy ride on an escalator so much she tries to stay on it all day, and runs into all the drawbacks and hazards one might expect. Her marriage is a hopeless mismatch, she is a middle-aged women with a net financial worth of well under zero, she thinks she’s going to have the three children she dreams of even though she’s 40 and married to a man who doesn’t in the least want a child, she’s so overweight it impacts what she can physically do, she’s been fired from a long series of thankless minimum wage jobs, and she has no skills or education beyond high school.

My friend Jay and I have discussed how Jean could turn her life around or at least make it suck a little less. I suggested that Jean could sell the hundreds of stuffed animals and dolls and “collectibles” and assorted crap she seems to have acquired, which would surely give her a nest egg of at least a few thousand dollars, get at least a part-time minimum wage job and take it seriously enough to hold onto it, make up a budget and stick to it, cut up her credit cards, start knocking down some debt, and look into part-time community college programs. Once she has her finances under control, skills and a job with enough income to be self-sufficient, she can move out. Jay thinks Jean should leave Rick and declare bankruptcy, immediately.

Maria Schneider has said that the Jean columns get more depressing with each one she writes, and that’s understandable. I first discovered Jean in the summer of 2001 upon reading this column, and not too long after read most of her archived columns at one sitting. It induced a weird mental state in me that I can only compare to the feeling one gets from eating an entire bag of chips at on go. Such matter may be enjoyable going down, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, and there was a unwholesome feeling of mental somnolence, as though I’d gone too far into Jean’s warped and confining little mindset and couldn’t get back into my own. Like the potato chips, Jean is meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and I think that may be partly why I didn’t enjoy A Book of Jean’s Own as much as I hoped. Jean’s columns are all solidly crafted with their own narrative arc and make for an enjoyable few minutes of entertainment each. The book was more of a hodgepodge of Jean’s thoughts on this and that: Jean’s tips on how to throw a pity party, her daily schedule, her sketch of her dream wedding dress, fiction she wrote about herself, extracts from her cat Priscilla’s “diary”, an account of the time she reacted to a job loss by shaving her entire body bald, recipes for chocolate goodies that sound revoltingly sweet, assorted lists, her accounts of her “most memorable” false pregnancy alarms (the first occurring before she’d even lost her virginity), her husband Rick’s scribbled contributions, etc. Jean says in the book that she’s not one of those “snobby authors” who expect their book to be read beginning to end, but I do think it’s best to read it that way, as the only narrative force it has comes from Jean’s growing desperation to fill the book (at one point she fills five pages with the repeated sentence, “I am limited!”), her progressive breakdown as her deadline looms, and Rick’s stepping in to finish the manuscript. Not that I regret buying or reading the book, but the columns are the main body of work and the book is better considered and enjoyed as an adjunct to the columns than the other way around.

On the whole the book simply maintains and fleshes out Jean’s character as set in her columns. Maria Schneider must have run head-long into the limitations of the character in conceiving this book. Jean, of course, would never be able to focus and discipline herself to the task of writing a book. And, if she did, she would never come up with an interesting premise, let alone develop it into a book-length manuscript. The book, therefore, is the only thing Jean could ever write: a hodgepodge of Jean-like thoughts.

There are a few editorial sleight-of-hand changes which I suspect were made with an eye to the column’s future. For one thing, her age has recently become fixed and lowered. Jean has been “pushing forty” since her column’s debut in the mid-nineties and she used to make a lot of references to David Cassidy and other such seventies-era pop culture, but she celebrated her fortieth birthday in the summer of 2010, which makes her of an age more likely to have swooned over Michael J. Fox. Also the genesis story of her column has been changed. In a column that seems to have been taken down, I remember her telling the story of how she sent out copies of a column called “That Cathy Cartoon Was Bang-On!” to a number of newspapers on spec, and that just The Onion and some sort of coupon or sewing newsletter (that went out of business shortly afterwards) took it. Now the story is that her first column was “Day 24 in Deely Boppers and Counting!”

On the plus side (No pun intended! Really!), I love that Jean’s drawings of herself are cartoon versions of her “official” photo. The drawing of her engaged in her “naked Plush Jamboree” past-time is – well, I won’t describe it, because it really needs to be seen. Suffice it to say it is arguably the best item in the entire book. The photos of Rick Teasdale and Jean’s pal Fulgencio are superb and just what you might have expected when picturing the characters. And there were several moments where Jean hits some all-time new low ebb of self-awareness. It turns out that her cherished cats Priscilla and Garfield actually hate her, probably because she insists on constantly subjecting them to an affectionate mauling regardless of whether they’re in the mood.

I also really enjoyed having a long-cherished theory of mine confirmed. My friend and I had a running argument regarding Hubby Rick, with Jay holding that Rick was a jerk and saying that Jean should leave him immediately, while I opined that while Rick may not be a palatable character he’s no worse a spouse than Jean. Yes, Rick’s obviously an alcoholic who expects Jean to do all the housework, makes no effort to do anything to please her, drops the occasional mean comment, and threw out Jean’s “Think Spring” balcony display (even though his agency in the disappearance of this display typically escaped Jean completely). But Jean, for her part, expects Rick to pay all their bills, makes fun of him constantly in her published column (including references to his, er, competence in the bedroom), calls him "Hubby Rick" though he hates being called that, and makes no effort to accommodate his tastes and needs. She has filled their apartment with dolls and stuffed animals and frou-frou knickknacks that he hates, adopted two cats against his will, and gives him dancing flowers and potpourri for Christmas. A Book of Jean’s Own confirmed my take on Rick. Jean is a classic unreliable narrator (reading between the lines of what she says is the biggest payoff of reading her work), and Rick’s section of the book is quite revealing on both their parts. It so happens that Rick turns out to be, if less literate than Jean who can at least spell and write in complete sentences, more intelligent, realistic and insightful. He knows he has a problem with drinking and he readily admits he’s fat, but he’s also equally straightforward about his intentions not to bother changing. More interestingly, he “gets” Jean. He knows she lives in a fantasy world and that he’s enabling her by paying their rent, but he’s willing to do so because he knows she doesn’t have any better options and because he, unlike her family and many of the other people in her life, does have a certain real if grudging affection for her. This is hardly a good foundation for a healthy marriage, of course, but in a way it’s an improvement on Jean’s passive aggressive denial.

I would be open to reading another Jean book, though I can’t imagine where Maria Schneider could possibly take the character that would produce enough material. I’m hoping that some of the listed future book titles in the back of the book are merely a joke, especially Priscilla Teasdale’s Kitty Letters to God. I do enjoy Jean’s increased internet presence almost more than the book that occasioned it. Before the launch of the book in late 2010, Jean got a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site for the book, where “she” posted accounts of her book tour appearances. This all served to give the character a startlingly realistic dynamic, especially when Jean interacts with her followers on Twitter. So, although the book may not have been quite what I hoped for, I look as eagerly for new Jean columns and updates to her awesome personal site as I’ve always done and now can also read her book site and follow Jean on Twitter. As Jean would say herself, "Success!!!"

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Some Vintages Age Better Than Others

TANNPC86JSKH A few months ago I came across a copy of Especially Father, by Gladys Bagg Taber, in Value Village. The book, written in 1948, seemed to bear promise of being a type of book I quite like. Though I don’t know exactly how I should classify or even describe this kind of book. Probably the best description is that of “vintage memoir”. I’m thinking of books like Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough; We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson; and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, though Diary of a Provincial Lady is autobiographical fiction rather than a memoir. These books and the events they describe all belong to the first half of the twentieth century, and are all in a literary vein one doesn’t come across these days: erudite yet understated; delicately witty; self-deprecating yet dignified. And, if you can get your hands on an older edition, the yellowed pages with their well-aged scent and old-fashioned typeface only adds to the experience.

Especially Father was in fact this kind of book written by this kind of author. Taber penned more than fifty books, besides publishing a great deal of work in the periodicals of her day, and seems to be best known for her books about Stillmeadow, the seventeenth-century Conneticut farmhouse she bought and restored. I’ve made a note to myself to get my hands on one of these books sometime. But I expect to enjoy those books more than I liked Especially Father.

The book that Taber meant to commemorate her father, Rufus Bagg, does not do so in the way she intended. It’s evident that she loved her father and found that the excitement and hubbub he generated compensated for his shortcomings, but lacking her affection, and perhaps also her level of tolerance, I can’t agree. Good and even admirable characteristics her father had, yes. His level of physical energy seems to have been titanic. His knowledge of geology was profound and immense – as was to have been expected of a mining engineer and college geology professor – and he could discourse about it in a fascinating, poetic way. And he seems to have loved his wife and daughter deeply. But he also seems to have been an utterly unbearable man. Taber details his exploits: how she and her mother nearly starved in a rented room in Mexico because her father went off on an expedition to the mines in the mountains, supposedly for only a few days, but actually for a month; how her father beat his little daughter black and blue for telling a neighbour where they hid their spare house key; how he left her in a store one morning and never remembered her until he returned home at suppertime; how he got up by six every morning and made such a racket no one else in the house could sleep; how he fought bitterly with the college librarian over a seventy-five-cent fine for months; how he browbeat his older brother into giving up his courtship of the girl who became Taber’s mother so he could court her himself; how he thought the only problem with Mexico was “all those foreigners” who lived in it; how he didn’t believe in red lights and never stopped for them; how he never understood any viewpoint that differed from his own and was convinced his own opinions were infallible.

Taber evidently wants her readers to admire her father as much as she did, but the really admirable character in this memoir is Taber’s mother. Without her mother’s sympathy, reason and astute management, Taber’s childhood would have been a miserable experience. It would have taken a rare woman to put up with her father’s pigheadedness, and Grace Bagg seems to have had both the depth of sweetness and the strength of character to not only put up with him but to be happy with her lot – and to be the woman every other woman in town came to with her troubles. Taber writes that her father took her mother entirely for granted, that he expected her to do all the housekeeping, give the best parties of any wife on the faculty, feed six extra dinner guests at no notice, edit his papers, compose his speeches, find anything he had mislaid, and account for every penny he ever gave her. Many married women would have been expected to do the same at the turn of the twentieth century, but surely most would have received in return at least the occasional compliment or some consideration from their husbands. Grace Bagg did not, and she seems to have remained remarkably unresentful through it all, though Taber remembers how her mother would sew furiously late into the night when really perturbed. Grace Bagg did occasionally do battle with her husband to get what she really wanted – and win, too, because she had an understanding of his nature and therefore an ability to use his weaknesses to her advantage that he lacked – but generally she seems to have been able to take most of her husband’s behaviour in her stride and to see the neverending turmoil he caused as an adventure and a joke. But even while I marvelled at Grace Bagg’s spirit and fortitude, there was no getting away from the fact that she should not have been treated in such a way as to make such heights of self-abnegation necessary.

Taber does seem to have been fully aware of her mother’s worth (she wrote, “Mamma was a genius”) and she is also cognizant of her father’s faults, but she could certainly have gone several steps further towards understanding the extent of his shortcomings. I found the pride not only Rufus Bagg but Taber herself showed over being a descendent of Cotton Mather to be appalling. Taber wrote:

I thought of the first ancestor, back there in 1632, setting his firm unfrightened foot on the new and terrible terrain.

It was his crest, and he was perfectly confident that he was virtuous and noble. And if the goodly man cheated the Indians, it was always for their own good, or for the glory of God. If he persecuted the witches, he was saving their souls or defending the innocent wretches they were casting spells upon. Sin was his mortal enemy, compromise a word he never knew.


Sure Mather presided over the cruel executions of innocent people and justified it on the basis of an imaginary threat. But hey, he meant well, and compromising is for the weak and the afraid!

Virtue, like everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The blame or praise we attach to an action or characteristic is wholly dependent on its context. Compromise can be good or bad; persistence can be constructive or destructive. Good intentions need to be coupled with good judgment and competence if they are to lead to positive results. Anyone with a passing knowledge of history or politics knows what happens when those in power refuse to compromise or to be subject to checks and balances and ride roughshod over the rights and opinions of others to achieve their own ends.

Taber opens the book by telling us in a prologue that she came to write this book about her family because she did not want her memories, especially those about her father, to be lost, and ends it by describing a Bagg family reunion and commenting,

The sight of these, the last of the Puritans, standing there gave me an uneasy sense of weakness in my own generation…. If the time came for Communism to sweep the world, Father would face a firing squad still shouting, God bless the Republican Party.


This may have a fine rhetorical ring to it, but the truth is, far from sweeping the world, Communism was to collapse of its own accord, and it is the American Republican party that has become corrupted and destructive. And none of Taber’s fond nostalgia about her father stands up to deconstruction much better than that example. Surely there’s no benefit in glorifying the kind of pig-headedness and complete lack of consideration for others that Rufus Bagg showed. We’ve seen what happened when the U.S. was governed for eight years by a man who prided himself on his own ignorance, who said that we were “with him or against him”, who said that dictatorship would be fine “if he was the dictator”. Especially Father is a mildly enjoyable little memoir, but the reactionary, overly simplistic and reverent strain in it did it no favours whatsoever.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Marie Antoinette and the Recession

Of late there has been a lot of copy generated about coping with the recession. Salon for example has been running a series of lifestyle articles called "Pinched; Tales from an Economic Downturn". New York Times financial reporter Edmund Andrews wrote about his own experience of getting in far over his head with a house he bought in a memoir called Busted. Even a magazine like Elle, which must be the antithesis of a publication concerned with living according to one’s means, has gotten into the act with a writer’s account of her “Year of Living Frugally”.

These articles draw me like a magnet, and once I’ve read them, I proceed to the reader comments, which are often just as good and interesting (if not much more so) than the article. It fascinates me to read about how people arrange their lives and make the most of their resources. I’m always hoping to get some ideas for how to manage my own time and money to better effect, and to vicariously learn about what will not work without the cost and trouble of trying it myself. And then, too, sometimes reading such material gives me a healthy reality check as to how fortunate I am compared to others. But at other times it’s just food for ridicule, when it's not grist for irritation.

Of course these articles run the gamut of quality. The best of them are written by good, thoughtful and self-aware writers who have come to terms with their situations with courage and a matter-of-fact acceptance of reality, and without self-pity. They have an understanding of how their individual standard of living measures on a global scale. They know they may have to work long hours at jobs they don’t like or move in with the in-laws to get by, but they are thankful to have paid work or generous in-laws, not to mention a computer and spare time to use for writing the article, or for that matter, enough to eat and clean water to drink. One of my favourites was "Excuse Me While I Stick My Head in the Toilet", a Salon article written by Rebecca Golden, who works as a cleaning lady, and who takes pride in being physically able to do such work now that she no longer weighs 600 pounds as she once did. And it’s a pure pleasure and inspiration to read the articles written by people who delight in their own resourcefulness, who honestly enjoy the contriving and the organizing and ingenuity they employ to live within their means, who realize that such mindful, careful attention to household management can mean the same or even a better standard of living.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The Elle magazine article mentioned in my first paragraph is possibly the best example of the worst kind of recession-geared articles. The writer, Laura Hollinger, is a New Yorker with a six-figure income, and her idea of being frugal is relying on dinner invitations to make her Aspen and Vail vacations affordable, or foregoing certain luxuries like having her hair professionally blow-dried as often or buying a new cashmere sweater (when she already has four piles of cashmere sweaters) so she can afford certain other luxuries like a Cartier watch. This article was roundly and deservedly mocked on Jezebel. I completely agree with the Jezebel poster who wrote that the problem with the article is not how the writer spends her income since she has every right to do whatever she wants with her own money, but how the article is positioned. Laura Hollinger is in the top 1% of income earners in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s obnoxious for Hollinger and Elle to frame this article as an example of frugal living when by any objective measure it is nothing of the kind.

Another failed article in this vein was a Salon piece, "Can It!", by Sarah Karnasiewicz. Karnasiewicz made jam and concluded that, as delicious as the jam was, it wasn’t cost effective. Salon's readers lost no time in pointing out that one doesn’t normally make jam from organic strawberries purchased at an uptown market or buy brand new jam jars for just one use.

In my own reader comment, I said Karasiewicz reminded me of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. Many of these articles do have either this "playing poor" or a "crying poor" quality. So many of the writers just don’t have the honesty, knowledge, experience, and insight to do justice to the topics they address. Edmund Andrews wrote an entire book about his experience of buying a house he couldn’t afford and losing it without ever disclosing that his wife had declared bankruptcy twice — the second time during the time frame the book covered. Rebecca Golden's article about working as a cleaning lady would not have had the authenticity it does had the writer only worked as a cleaning lady for one day, or if she didn’t have to actually live on what she makes cleaning houses. And it’s so tiresome to read accounts written by the truly clueless and entitled who whine and blame all their problems on forces beyond their control: they can’t lose that extra 30 pounds because they can’t afford to join a gym; they can’t get married because they can’t afford a wedding with 200 guests; they bought a house they couldn’t afford because evil bankers gave them outsized loans; they’re “broken-hearted” not to have made more than an average of 40K a year from writing.

The reader reactions to such articles are a phenomenon in themselves. Nothing, it seems, raises the ire of readers faster than the complaints of a writer who has had better financial opportunities than them. And of course everyone has to air their own story of how they’ve managed on less. As one of the Jezebel commenters put it, these threads are so prone to become a “pissing contest”, with everyone producing evidence of thrifty they are or how few advantages they have, i.e., “I make my family’s undies out of worn-out sheets, and WE LIKE IT THAT WAY.” I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much. Another Jezebel reader claimed such threads reminded her of the Monty Python's The Four Yorkshiremen, and indeed there are parallels. So, giddy as I am over my recent purchase of a secondhand, brand-new condition $13 cashmere sweater at a Value Village, I’m going to try to refrain from trotting out my own thrifty cred in this review. I don’t want to get sidetracked into claiming that my family “dreamt of living in a corridor”.

What I do wish to say it that it’s just as important for us readers to maintain a healthy perspective as it is for the writers. I’m not going to condemn Elle for running Laura Hollinger’s article, or even wish serious financial reversals upon her. It’s a high-end fashion magazine after all. Elle, as with all media corporations, gets far more of its revenue from advertising than it does from subscribers, and Elle’s advertising clients are companies like Dior and Tiffany. We are never going to see articles about how to make three kinds of bean soup or max out our coupon savings in Elle. The women who buy Dior clothes and Tiffany jewellery aren’t interested in reading about those topics. (And who can blame them — I wouldn’t be either if I had that kind of income.) Even if the women who buy Elle can’t actually afford Dior and Tiffany products, Elle has to at least appear to be geared for women who live at that level if it wants to keep its advertising revenue.

And then too, even if it were feasible in business terms to run such articles, it wouldn’t be desirable. Why should every personal account about cutting back or getting more for less involve living at or below the poverty line? Do writers really have to be homeless or unable to pay for groceries or major surgery before they are allowed to muse about their efforts to live within their means? No one has unlimited funds; we all have budgets to stick to. Setting priorities and deciding what we can and can’t afford is a universal experience, and I think we’d all benefit from seeing money management as the subjective, context-specific experience it is rather than preening ourselves on our supposed moral superiority over others who have more and/or don’t manage as well.

It would be nice if such “high-end” money management lifestyle articles were of better quality than Laura Hollinger's and evidenced more insightful, nuanced, and creative thinking, since I can’t imagine anyone benefiting from the revelation that wearing clothes that are already in your well-stocked closet is cheaper than going shopping. But then that’s a criticism I could also make of many money-saving ideas in articles geared for people living at a lower standard; a lot of these ideas are so obvious and old hat to those of us with modest means. It all comes back to that writing truism: write what you know. If you can live like Marie Antoinette, don’t assume that you know all about the working class experience or talk about how frugal you are or expect sympathy from anyone because you’ve had to start buying fewer ball gowns. For that matter, if you're middle class, don't think you know all about the working class or have hit rock bottom because you must shop at the dollar store or have had to take a minimum wage job for a few months. And if you are the socioeconomic modern-day equivalent of a shepherdess, it's good to realize you are just as much in need of a healthy perspective and generous, ungrudging spirit as someone with many times your income.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick

Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again. I found it unsettling.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. And we follow Louise through all her growing up and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and rather harsh. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and at least at first mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. And, in a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is a bright, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was strong and healthy, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asked where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members looked blank. Then as the twins grew and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if that’s the worst thing Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she shows an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise and can’t really understand what Louise’s problem is. Nor do I really see what she could have done about it if she had. She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are naturally disparate, and among the children themselves a pecking order invariably develops. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around. As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school was willing to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth. By her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, Mr. and Mrs. Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and married Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she makes. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this is not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, and is happy with that life and proud of her skill and stamina, and that she can contribute to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, and that I need to set it aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity, and in her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age. That river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that; Hiram Wallace is wise and kind and generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with purple Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she can be contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors a la Parthe Nightingale. I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chose, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.