Assault

Standard

When I was seventeen, just starting university, I was sexually assaulted. Nothing serious — fondling it could be called. But it was uninvited and unwanted.

It was the first weekend of school — lots of parties and lots of drinking. I was new to the game and overindulged. I went out for some fresh air and wound up walking quite a long ways. I was lost a little and wondering how to get home when a car pulled up. I was easily identified as a student by my new university jacket so, not surprisingly, the man offered to give me a lift back to campus. I was grateful and completely naive.

He stopped along the way for a smoke and while we were parked he reached over and deftly unzipped my trousers. His hand was fondling my genitals while he continued to smoke and chat to me. I was a bit shocked. It wasn’t that I was unaware of these things — I’d had a few gay friends in high school. Not openly so, of course, but everyone kind of knew and, luckily for them, many people didn’t care or pretended not to know. There were enough that did so none of them stuck around town after high school. That was the way it was. Homosexuality wasn’t a crime anymore — that had ended in 1969 in Canada but it was still not accepted.

I didn’t struggle or push his hand away. I certainly didn’t fight back or scream. After a moment I said: I’ve had a lot to drink and I’m afraid I’ll throw up in your car. He laughed and said I might as well get out and walk it off then.

I never mentioned it — didn’t for years — and certainly didn’t complain. Who would I complain to? Besides I didn’t know the guy. Then, a couple of weeks later I went to a party with friends and there he was, the party’s host and a tenured Professor in the Fine Arts department. He didn’t seem to recognize me but I left early.

After, I heard his nickname – one that indicated that my experience wasn’t at all unusual. There were rumours that some people had complained and he had been spoken to. But he remained a professor long after I left school.

Why didn’t I complain? Well, partly because I didn’t feel much harmed by the experience. There was no violence, no forcing. In retrospect it seemed a little sad. It hadn’t changed me: made me either ‘gay’ or homophobic. Or a victim.

But, then, there was something else — why hadn’t I even told anyone? Because I knew about guilt by association. When I was younger I was called nasty names just for having black friends. I had heard ‘no smoke without fire’ and didn’t want to be blamed for what happened. I had been drunk; I got into a stranger’s car, for god’s sake. I hadn’t fought back. I resisted in an unmanly way; vomiting is not exactly courageous. Sound familiar?

So it was embarrassment but it was also powerlessness. He was a professor and I was a student. It was his word against mine. And there were not mechanisms in place to deal with it. So I shut up and mostly forgot about it. Except I didn’t. I can still see his face in the dark, looking over at me. Still smell the mixture of smoke and aftershave.

Sexual relations between students and faculty were common those days. Quite often they were consensual in a way (one student even married her professor while I was there) but often they were from an abuse of power or a promise of reward. Somewhat seedy and not talked about.

Some things never change.

And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.

Advertisements

Non-Fiction

Standard

As a fiction writer, I’ve often thought and written about why people read fiction. Recently however, I’ve noticed a shifting pattern in my own reading towards non-fiction. In the last year, a quarter of all the books I’ve read have been non-fiction rather than fiction and, what’s more, the non-fiction constitutes a higher percentage of the books I really liked. On a five star system they have consistently rated in the 4.5 range while the more numerous fiction books rate a full point lower.

I wondered if this was simply a matter of small sample variation but when I looked back on my reading from the last few years, I find that this has been a consistent pattern. My consumption of non-fiction has grown and my enjoyment of it has consistently been higher. Moreover, looking at my must-read-next shelves (yes, yes, I know, ridiculous to have multiple shelves of must-read-next — when there can only be at most three next reads), I find that nearly half of those books fall into the non-fiction category and when I go to my bookstore wish lists I find the percentage is even higher.

What is wrong with me?! Am I reverting to my late adolescence (i.e. university years) when non-fiction made up the majority of my books?

Well, maybe. I think, in part, I have regressed or maybe progressed in the last few years. As I’ve said elsewhere, we read (or at least I do) fiction to learn more about other people — to get inside the point of view, the thoughts and emotions of the other. Sometimes it is the only real access we have to that intimacy. Certainly when we are living outside a good relationship, it is.

Non-fiction, on the other hand, operates on a different level. Certainly it has a point of view, the author’s. He or she is making an argument, not to allow us inside their heads and hearts, but to try to persuade us to believe or accept some interpretation of the facts. It is never, in Dragnet terms, just the facts but always the way they are presented and ordered that makes non-fiction compelling.

And it is our response to those facts that generates those delightful arguments, not only with the author but also with our own preconceptions and established theories of the world. Just as good fiction can create an emotional gestalt shift, so can well researched and cogently argued non-fiction. Presented with a different way of thinking about the world, we are forced, even if we reject it, to rearrange our own thinking. To get inside our own heads in a way we never would without it. And only books can do that — present sufficient force to move the unmoveable object that is a closed mind.

If fiction teaches us about other, non-fiction teaches us about ourselves.

But that’s ten minutes.

Tango

Standard

It may take a village to raise a child but it only takes two to tango. Or so you might think.

I’ve always found the tango mysterious and obvious, exciting and repulsive, liberating and vaguely fascistic. Really, all that slicked back hair, the quick quick slow slow rhythms. The locked gazes and perfectly still shoulders. All the while the hips slipping and grinding above the staccato of leather clad feet.

The tango — the perfect Latin expression of suppressed sexuality.

So what the hell is it doing in bars in the south of London? Well you might ask.

During my last visit to London I had the pleasure of spending a weekend or two with my wife’s daughter and her boyfriend. One evening they had a few friends over and it was suggested we all go down and check out the Tango lessons being given at the bar beneath our very feet. Why not? I had, many years ago, taken Tango lessons from a lovely Filipino lady in Yellowknife who had carefully explained the origins of the dance as a way to flirt under the watchful eyes of chaperones. Because the upper body stays still, in a crowd you can’t really tell what the lower body is doing. Ah, the folly of youth.

My dancing is generally described as — eccentric. I have a sense of rhythm, a well-defined one but my dancing is often to a different drummer than the one who is currently playing. Fortunately, Liz is a trusting and talented partner who can pretty much follow wherever I lead.

In any case we heard the music and leapt to the dance floor, much to the delight of the much younger members in our party. But wait, said the instructor, you can’t dance like that. You are disrupting the flow of the other partners. Indeed we were, or could have if we weren’t occupying the empty middle of the floor while the pasty English couples moved scleroticly in a tight oval around the perimeter. We were shooed from the floor.

Outrage ensued. Not from me. I’d been banished from much better places than this — and not for dancing. However, our table mates were furious and soon discovered that it was not our dancing per se that was the problem but rather the fact we had not paid for lessons.

We had bought a bottle of wine so we had to stay until it was done, glaring furiously at the rather sad folks following the stern demands of their English mistress. Then we went upstairs, put on jive music and danced as loudly as we could above their heads.

Take that Eva Peron!

And that’s ten minutes.

Temptation

Standard

Oscar Wilde may have said it best: I can resist anything except temptation. For example, yesterday, I overheard a blowhard bragging about his job and couldn’t resist tweeting it — though fortunately I did stop at just one, as my kinder self prevailed.

There is a famous experiment called the marshmallow test. It goes like this. You tell a 4-year old that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow on his plate he can have two of them in an hour. You then leave the room while watching secretly. Reason would suggest that the child should wait. Realism would argue that most won’t but many should. In fact, given enough time, they all eat the marshmallow. But some are able to resist longer than others. Believe it or not — that exercise of self-control is a decent measure of success later in life. Now that is a true Blink moment.

Temptation — the urge to do something we know we shouldn’t for moral reasons or for reasons of self-interest plagues us all almost all the time. There are good reasons for this of course. Temptation is wired right into our unconscious brains. Evolution made sure of that. If you see food, eat it; if an opportunity to mate comes along, take it; if you can exert status over another, do it. Those who gave into temptation usually had a better chance to pass on their genes.

Now you know why America is plagued with obesity. And right wing politics. Hunh?

Well, one way of looking at the current rise of the right in America (and around the world) and the dismal response of the left to its assaults is to understand the call for ‘common sense’. When a politician appeals to common sense, he is appealing to that same instinctual part of the brain that means the ‘bet you can’t eat just one’ gamble almost always pays off for the manufacturer of potato chips.

Quite literally, we might say that all ‘gut’ reactions are the same. ‘It feels good’ and ‘it feels true‘ arise from all the same biases that allowed us to survive in caveman days: in-group allegiance, confirmation bias, optimism bias — that is the belief that I am special and there for privileged and of course hyper reaction to low-risk, high danger situations. The last one is particularly perverse.

The chance of meeting a saber-tooth tiger was fairly low but the outcome of doing so was very bed — so we tend to be very afraid of calamitous things (like Ebola, terrorism, or murder by strangers) even if there is almost no chance of us actually encountering it. Meanwhile we aren’t afraid of things that are much more likely to kill us — such as getting in a car or even smoking. Tigers persuade us in the way statistics never will.

This would be fine if we still lived like cavemen —cold, afraid, short-lived, hungry, and mostly lonely (though not, as Hobbes said, solitary) —but we don’t. We live in modern societies with everything we need. More than enough for all of us.

Frankly I’m not tempted to go back.

But that’s ten minutes.

Vigilantes

Standard

There are many people on the left and some people on the libertarian right who view Anonymous in an exceedingly romantic way. Perhaps they are influenced by the movie V for Vendetta or by the occasionally useful things they have done to reveal wrongdoing by governments or corporations —by ‘The Man.’

Of course it doesn’t help that Anonymous per se doesn’t really exist. It is simply a cover name for a wide assortment of hackers, activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, tricksters, malicious pranksters, government operatives (oh, yes, that too) and assorted free riders, disaffected rich guys and teenagers living in their mother’s basement.

But most of all, it is a group of vigilantes who place their engorged sense of justice above everyone else in the world. As such, they are no more or less reliable than the posses we used to see in western movies. Sometimes the posses did good things — tracked down known criminal gangs and brought them back to town for trial. Sometimes they turned into lynch mobs.

Either is possible with vigilantes. They may — more by accident than intent or because they are led by a person who is filled by a sense of justice rather than simple moral outrage — help uphold the law. More often than not, they do all they can to break it down.

Their reasons are many but the idea at the heart of it is this: the law only protects the rich and powerful and any truly just person will always need to take justice into their own hands to see justice done. And how will we know it is just: because it will feel good.

People come to this view for very good reasons. The instruments of the law: police, lawyers, courts, prisons, do seem to favor the rich over the poor and the privileged over the oppressed, whites over every other race.

Not only do they seem to do it — in too many case they do favor them.

The law has always been uneven. The situation is not a new one; rather what we see today is a return to the early days of ‘law and order’ which very much meant using the state — dominated by a very narrow group of society — to impose order on the masses by the use of force (and call it law). Think: riot squads against striking workers or peace protesters.

The bias was built right into the creative moment. Since then people have been struggling to reform the justice system to remove biases of class and race and gender. Progress has been made but it never seems to be enough.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we have to give up on it and turn justice back into simple vengeance. Vigilantes may seem to be heroes now but, in the end, when civil society breaks down and it becomes, as Hobbes called it, the war of all against all, they may not seem so laudable. But by then it will be too late. It is always easier to break than to build. If the justice system is broken we have to fix it or replace it with a better one, not simply throw up our hands and do without.

But that’s ten minutes.

Ferguson

Standard

I’m not sure what people expected would happen with the Ferguson Grand Jury. While most grand juries deliver indictments when prosecutors desire them, the record in the case of police officers appears to be the opposite. There may be many reasons for that. Jury bias or public pressure on prosecutors to seek indictments when the evidence is weak. In this case, race was almost certainly a factor if only because race is always a factor in American justice issues.

Most Canadians don’t even know what a grand jury is or what it does. We don’t have them in Canada; in fact, they are a unique feature of the American system. In other democratic countries the role of the grand jury is played by the ‘preliminary trial.’ This process involves a judge or sometimes a panel of judges. The prosecutor has to demonstrate that there is sufficient evidence to go to trial.

In some cases, the prosecutors don’t even go that far. They determined in the case of a police officer in Quebec who killed a five year old in a fatal collision that there was insufficient evidence even for a preliminary hearing. A public protest – and apparently new evidence — has prompted them to reconsider.

There is a fundamental problem for progressives and more importantly for the oppressed in understanding the role of the police in a democratic society. People on the right have a hard time understanding it too but their bias leans in a different direction. The former are wary of the police, concerned that they get away with too much, that they are nothing but agents of the privileged classes using force to maintain the status quo. The latter view them — each and every one of them — as heroes saving us all from the forces of criminality and anarchy.

They are both right. And they are both wrong. The police have a sometimes dangerous job acting on our behalf; the alternative is vigilantes and lynch mobs. The police have demonstrated a willingness to turn a blind eye to criminality in their ranks. These conflicting world views combined with the proliferation of guns, the racial divide and the ready willingness to resort to violence in America made Ferguson inevitable.

People are outraged that no indictment was reached, that no trial will be held where the evidence could be made public. The prosecutor says he’ll reveal the evidence anyway but that will hardly be sufficient. In any case everyone has already made up their mind. The police officer either is a racially motivated murderer or he is a hero.

Both views can’t be true. The real tragedy of Ferguson is that there is no longer a real way to resolve those differences. No way to be sure that the people we entrust to hold up the law and ensure order have not betrayed us.

Dialogue is dead in America. All that leaves is riots and broken windows; tear gas and arrests. If we’re lucky it will stop at that. Until the next time.

But that’s ten minutes.

Blue

Standard

Blue. Blue when worn by a witness in court inspires trust. Blue is the colour of truth. Blue skies are a symbol of good fortune. It is also a part of the imaginative process. We blue skied until we came up with an idea or a solution.

Yet we also have the blues. We feel blue. It is the colour of depression and sadness. Picasso had his blue period. Was he depressed, seeking the truth, freeing his imagination to find better times?

Or did he just get a deal on blue paint? Don’t laugh. I know lots of artists who do exactly that. The availability of materials driving the creative process.

That’s the nice thing about writing. Words are always there for you; picking the right ones is the hard part. As for ideas — well, we get our ideas from CostCo by the job lot. No shortage there. Ideas are cheap as borsch. So the next time you tell a writer that you have a great idea for a book, don’t be surprised if he snorts in derision. Maybe even turns his back on you with an elaborate shrug. Ideas I got millions of them; books not so much.

But back to blue.

I was struck by the power of blue as a pure experience while visiting the modern art museum in Paris (the Pompidou Centre). There was a painting of monochromatic blue at the tail end of an exhibit of post WWII artists. The artist, who was also a chemist of sorts, had made the paint himself. It was so pure that it only reflected a single frequency of light. Blue light. That’s right; paint is not the colour it appears, it is the colour it reflects. Twist your head around that — everything you look at is really the spectral opposite of what you see.

In any case this painting was so blue that my digital camera couldn’t focus on it. Couldn’t actually capture its purity, the photos simply weren’t right. But they were beautiful. At least I think so.

So I quite often look at them. Especially when I’m feeling blue. They remind me of better times both behind me and ahead. They generate ideas. They make me feel as if some larger truth is there waiting to be discovered. These pure colours — that are mere reflections (to reflect= to think deeply on something) of something else, make me think that life is beautiful.

Blue skies…. and it is.

And that is ten minutes.