My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 4: Arting.

Alright, so I’ve written a little bit about teaching and writing in my last two blog posts. If I decided to, I could write a book about teaching and writing. In my last two posts I didn’t touch on my philosophy of teaching nor it’s sociological and economic dimensions. I just introduced you to my practice. In a later blog, I want to address my intellectual development in all of its many manifestations, permutations and stages. Now, in this fourth post in this series I come to art.

The act of creating  or making art, in my humble opinion, should be called arting. If I can teach and write, I should be able to art. I know, as a verb it doesn’t work in the English language. It should. I’ve been arting for a long time. It’s never been a way for me to make a living nor do I have much formal training in art, like I had in teaching and writing. Still, it’s been an important part of my life.

When I was a kid I’m sure I played with crayons. I may even have drawn stick people on the wall of the bedroom, but I can’t recall. What I vividly remember maybe at the ages of five or six is watching my older sisters, Thérèse in particular, drawing what I can only describe as fashion figures, always young women with elaborate hairdos, flowing gowns and elegant arms. Thérèse would not consider herself an artist now, but I thought she was amazing. Some of my other sisters probably did it too, but I don’t recall. If they read this, they could maybe jog my memory. A little later in my life I clearly remember my uncle Denis paint a kind of small cartoon character on the side of my brother-in-law’s car. It blew me away. How could anybody do such a wonderful thing? I’m sure these events had something to do with my compulsion to paint and draw later in my life, but I don’t recall actually making the connection at the time. I don’t think I ever said to myself: “Boy, I want to do that too!” It wasn’t like that. Then I went off to boarding school and art was not on the curriculum. Music and theatre were taught to some extent, but sports dominated extra-curricular activities.

When I left boarding school before completing grade twelve, it took me some time to adjust to life on the outside. After some time I took an informal painting course with a nun I had not previously known. (I was taught in elementary school by nuns but she wasn’t one of them.)  My sister Lucy and my uncle Denis were also involved. Lucy painted like a dream as did my uncle. I had already tried to paint. I bought some cheap oil paints, a rickety easel (which I still have), a couple of brushes, canvas boards and eventually some canvas and stretchers. I put together a few paintings, some quite large but none very good. Well, I was just starting out, but I was impatient. I wanted to paint a masterpiece. I bought some how-to-paint books (I still have those too). One by Robert Wood, a California landscape painter caught my fancy as well as a book of photographs he took that could be used to inspire paintings. I used that to paint a sunset and it turned out pretty well. (I’m not sure where that painting is now. Maybe long gone after a short stint in a dumpster) I was encouraged. I didn’t draw well at the time so I stayed away from painting figures. That came much later. This painting is based on a Ringo Starr album cover. I don’t know why I wanted to paint it but I did and I realized that I could have some control over my paints and brushes. Devil Woman

The kids were scared of this painting for a long time. They still may be for all I know. The grandkids probably are too. Who knows why.

I also painted this little boat. I still have this painting. It’s 16 X 20 and hangs in my studio in the corner. It’s a reminder of what I did in the far distant past. Yes, far distant past.

First Boat Painting

I think it’s okay for what it is and when I did it.

This covered bridge painting I did in 1971 while I studied with the nun I mentioned before (Damn, I wish I could remember her name!)

Covered Bridge 1971. 18X24 Oil painting

So, anyway, this is some of my earlier work. By 1974 I was doing more drawing but I was in university and that put a cramp in the time I could dedicate to my art. And besides, we got married in 1973 and that also took up some of my time…in an entirely good way, I might add.

It took me ten years to get back into arting after we had moved to the Comox Valley the year before. That’s when I read Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It inspired me to draw again, but this time in a more realistic style. I wanted to be able to draw what I saw when I wanted to. So, I started doing this kind of thing:

Then this:

These two last images of derelict boats (the pencil drawing and the acrylic painting) came from some photographs I took on River Road in Delta, BC, I can’t remember exactly when, but it would have been in the 1970s sometime. Over the years I did three more acrylic paintings incorporating two boats from the photographs I took in the 70s, the Elcay and the VR 280:

River Road Derelicts 36 X 40 inches. Acrylic.

I also did a pencil drawing of the same two boats in the mid 90:

That drawing and a course I took in printmaking at North Island College with John Hooley changed my direction to some extent. I was still interested in painting and drawing, but now I would add printmaking to my repertoire, a medium I very much enjoy. This drawing became the first intaglio print I did. I used a zinc plate that was etched in nitric acid to get the effect I wanted, which was this:

I really need to take a better photograph of this piece. I have an edition of 30 of these prints (I do believe) that are now for sale. I’ve already sold a couple. 

During my course with John Hooley I also learned how to do relief printing and silkscreening. I need to take a silkscreening course again because the techniques and materials have changes so much in the last 25 years. 

After moving to Cumberland in 2002 I had a large studio available to me:

That allowed me to set up a painting and leave it on the easel as long as I needed to instead of having to take everything down every time I finished a session because we needed the space for something else. I’m now working on some prints and have a printing set-up in my studio for relief printing.  I also have a large acrylic painting on the go…which I WILL finish soon because I want to finish up an oil painting I started 10 or 15 years ago at least.  Me in my studio ten years ago:

Five years ago I did this from a photograph one of my former students who was a new mom at the time allowed me to use. She has this drawing. I’ve always meant to do a painting based on this drawing. It’s still my intention, but I have stopped pressuring myself to do this kind of thing. It will happen if it happens. One thing is certain, I have no shortage of projects. My only limitations are my aging body and time. 

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work I have a selection of it on my other blog: http://rogeralbert.blogspot.ca. 

Over the past 25 years I’ve done a number of realistic pieces but I tend more to the impressionistic side of things and I even do what some people would consider pretty kooky works. I’ve copied the works of some of the masters including Vermeer and Schiele. I can’t say that I’ve been overly influenced by any one artist of the past. I just do what comes to mind.

I love to doodle and sometimes I’m astonished by what comes out:

I often carry a drawing notebook with me but don’t always use it. Sometimes I just sit and think about painting or drawing subjects. Art is never far from my thoughts. Neither is writing. They tend to compete for brain space. Carolyn knows all too well what this means for my lack of attention to other things I could very well be attending to in my environment, social and natural especially as they concern her. My brain is a busy place. If a subject attracts my attention in a particularly forceful way I’ll sit and draw it if it’s possible given time and place. Drawing people on the ferry and sitting at picnic tables in parks has been fruitful for me in terms of drawing subjects. I’m finding too that I’m increasingly drawn to ink rather than pencil for my doodles and mini sketches. My ink drawings tend to be less precious and more spontaneous. I like that. 

A group of printers and I associated with the Comox Valley Printmakers Association just last weekend had a pop-up exhibition and sale in Cumberland. We had some 500 people come through in my estimation. Some say more came through. Now I have to finish up some flooring upstairs in the house and some window and door trim. Art has to be set aside for a bit. That said, I never stop thinking about it. But, you know what? I have to clean up my damn studio. I may want to be on a studio tour sometime soon. 

That’s enough for now. I’ve already started to plan my next blog post. It will be a about my intellectual development. 

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

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* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 1.

I haven’t written in these ‘pages’ for a while because I’ve been working on my ‘art’ blog and getting ready for a printmaker’s show on October 27th and 28th in Cumberland at The Convoy Club where 10 printmakers including me are showing our works and offering them up for sale. Check out my other blog at: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com. There’s a page on it that includes most of my prints.

[Just a note about printmaking: the works offered up in this show include relief prints (woodcuts, linocuts), intaglio prints (drypoint and etchings), collographs, and serigraphs (silkscreening). All of the prints are hand made. No digital prints allowed. All of the work is complex, but some is more complex to execute than others. For example, one of my pieces called Van Duesen Dead Ivy is multi-stepped in its making. It starts with a drawing I did of ivy that I was particularly struck by on a trip to Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. It had been growing up a large fir tree and got very large before someone cut the vines off at the bottom of the tree in order to save the fir tree from being choked by the offending ivy. My pencil drawing was then transferred to a 15X20 inch copper plate that had been coated with resist. Resist is a material that prevents the areas covered by it from being etched by ferric chloride. I had to transfer every line, every feature of my drawing to the copper using a variety of sharp metal tools. It’s not necessary to dig into the copper at this point, just remove the resist from selected lines and areas so that the ferric chloride can etch the copper. Once the copper has had its bath in the ferric chloride, it’s ready for printing. Printing itself is a very physical activity. It requires spreading ink on the plate then wiping all of it off again. Well, not all of it. Only the ink that has not settled where the acid has etched away the copper and where the plate needs to remain white. The ink is wiped off the plate with newsprint, a physically demanding task for a plate this big. Once that’s done, the plate is placed on a press bed, paper is placed on top of the print followed by a sheet of newsprint than three blankets. If all goes well, a print is born. If all does not go well, it’s back to the drawing board… The ‘art’ cards I’ve made for this show are very simple linocut prints but each is still made by hand. I should do a YouTube video showing the process of etching but there’s a lot of them out there already. Still, that’s no excuse. There’s a lot of blogs out there too yet I still do this.]

Printmaking, particularly intaglio printmaking, requires heavy presses so I didn’t start printmaking until I had access to a printmaking studio at North Island College. Most of the ‘art’ work I have done over the years involves painting. I have done many paintings and drawings over the years. I make prints now, but I also draw using pencil and pen, I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour and I’ve done a bit of sculpting in wood. I’ve been drawing and painting since the 1970s; printmaking and sculpting are more recent additions to my repertoire. I’ve been printmaking for a mere 30 years or so and sporadically at that. Art work has not been a central part of my life until recently.

My main adult occupation was as a college sociology instructor. That paid the bills. Writing has been a large part of my career too. I wrote television scripts for two Knowledge Network telecourses for which I was the instructor. I wrote all kinds of research reports and manuals. My ‘art’ has been with me a long time, and now that I’m retired from teaching I can spend a lot more time at it, but I could never have made a living as an artist. I’m mostly self taught although I have taken courses over the years in the art department of my college and with independent artists. I don’t hesitate to call myself a sociologist (I have the credentials). I do hesitate to call myself an artist even though I do a lot of things that artists do. I need to explain this further in another blog post. I’ve read many books on art and art history but the nature of it still eludes me. It’s clear to me that looking at a painting I’m not always looking at a work of art. Oh, I have some sense of what it is, its origins and connections to other aspects of culture, but I’m still not convinced I fully understand it.

I was not destined to be a teacher, writer, and artist. In fact my social class at birth almost precluded access to those adult pursuits. My father was functionally illiterate although highly intelligent and capable. My mother had a grade eight education in a rural school at a time when academic achievement was not considered very important for girls. As she entered adulthood, she was too busy raising children (I have fourteen siblings) to engage in any sustained artistic activities even if she had wanted to. We had very few books in the house as I was growing up. We got a television set in 1956 and that became the centre of family life after church and cards.

My grandparents migrated from Québec and New Brunswick in the early 20th Century to homestead in north-eastern Alberta. They weren’t farmers by training, but free land had its appeal. They were tradespeople and entrepreneurs. My paternal grandfather was an accomplished blacksmith and my maternal grandfather was much more inclined to start a small business than farm. He eventually ran a bakery in Bonnyville, Alberta and later, after moving to British Columbia, he owned a grocery store. Later, he returned to agriculture to some extent with a quite successful blueberry farm in Abbotsford. My father, in spite of his illiteracy, was able to rise to management positions in the lumber industry, nothing high level, but still, he became a foreman and operations manager of a fair sized wood remanufacturing plant. More important, he was a virtuoso with tools, both creating them and using them. I have no idea how he did it, but without any formal math or engineering skills, he could grind planer knives to very demanding specifications and in a variety of profiles.

I grew up in a small three bedroom house in Coquitlam. I never felt poor but I knew that we weren’t rich either compared to our doctor and dentist or even some of our neighbours like the mayor (reeve) of Coquitlam. Of course, they weren’t wealthy either on the order of a Jimmy Pattison or other corporate magnate. As I grew older, however, I came to fully understand my class position. More on that later.

So, in terms of employment my family life did nothing to prepare me for my life as a college teacher. Higher education was not a consideration in my early teens. In fact, I actually started working in the lumber industry during the summer when I was fourteen years old when my father got a job in a picket fence manufacturing plant in South Surrey, BC. and continued to work in mills and lumber yards for a few years. In a sense I was much better prepared to work in the lumber industry than at a university or college. Partly what turned me away from the lumber industry was an industrial accident requiring lower back surgery. Fortuitously, after I recovered from my surgery, I undertook a one day occupational and psychological testing program as a means of figuring out what my aptitudes might be. A couple of weeks later I got the results of the day’s testing and one of the results was that I had the aptitude to become a writer and maybe an anthropologist. Well, then, I had something to go on. I applied to attend Simon Fraser University but was turned down because of my poor high school record. So, I turned to Douglas College in New Westminster where I was accepted. I did very well there in terms of grades and after a couple of years applied to SFU and got in. Both of my degrees are from SFU.

Strangely enough, although my family had no way of relating to my career choices, it did prepare me for a sensitivity to art. Some of my siblings are wonderful at drawing and painting and one of my uncles was a brilliant artist but made a living painting street signs for a couple of different municipalities. What my family did for me without doing it deliberately at all was show me that art could infuse my life even if I couldn’t make a living at it and that artistry can be found in the studio, in the darkroom, but also at the forge, in the garden, and in the woodworking shop as well as in the kitchen.

In many ways I have had an idyllic life. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do so many things. Of course I’ve had my share of trauma being human and all that, but I’ve also had the privilege of learning and studying with some very fine teachers over the years and my years of teaching have been a wonder. I’ve read thousands of books, mostly in sociology and related disciplines, but I’ve also read many books on art and art history as well as novels and stories from which much learning can be had. I’ve been able to travel, canoe and hike in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a beautiful home. I have my family. What a gift my family has been. Nothing I say about my family can be enough. No words can express the love I feel for everyone, Carolyn, my children, their children, my brothers and sisters, their children and their children. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s okay. Everyone’s road is different. Sometimes we do share the road. At other times not so much, but that doesn’t diminish the deep connection I feel for everyone in my family. They give meaning to everything that I do every day. On top of all that, I have my community in the Comox Valley, especially in Cumberland. I feel firmly connected to it and the natural environment here. I know about evolution and the temporality of life; I know that my life is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but I don’t live in the cosmos, I live here and now. I know that it’s a bit of a waste of energy, but I get angry at the utter disrespect some people show towards others and the natural world in which we live. Yes, I do feel love but I also feel anger. I’ve thought about this a fair bit because sometimes I feel anger welling up inside of me and I have some trouble explaining why. Anger is a very complex emotion and it is not easy to explain or dissect. I’ll give it a try though in a post coming soon to a computer near you!

Finally, in future posts I want to explore teaching, writing and art in turn as aspects of my life. I want to explore the processes involved in each activity and my journey in learning how to teach, write and ‘do’ art. As well, I will reflect on the philosophical and social underpinnings of each activity. I’m basically embarking on a bit of a retrospective examination of some major parts of my life but, like a good teacher, I expect some of you might just learn a little something by reading my work. It’s a hope I always had as a teacher with respect to my students, and that hope hasn’t died just because I’m no longer getting paid to teach!

 

 

Mobile Phones for kids: Yes or No?

– with Carolyn Kirk-Albert

…if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends?

Carolyn and I just happened upon this conversation 3 or 4 days ago. I don’t recall how we got to it, but as we got into it, we thought ‘I need to write about this.’ So, here I am and here we are.

The issue starts with the fact that there are fewer and fewer households in North America with a telephone landline. More and more people are using mobile smart phones as their prime mode of interpersonal communication. Carolyn and I have not had a landline in quite some time. It just seemed redundant to have 3 phones for 2 people. Besides, as this article from The Star (May, 2017) points out, landlines have become spam magnets or a honey trap for telemarketers. Towards the end of the time we had a landline, the only calls we got on it were from telemarketers or spam freaks. Giving up our landline did have consequences for our kids though. When they wanted to phone home, they had to decide which parent they would speak with. They still do. Sometimes they call me, sometimes they call their mom. It depends on the issue.

The situation is that landlines are losing ground to mobile phones as household communications devices. This article from the CRTC makes that argument. The evidence is clear. The article also points out, perhaps counterintuitively, that poorer households are more likely to use mobile phones exclusively. It’s a cost issue for them. For us too.

However, the issues we want to raise here are the consequences for the children in a household without a landline.  How does not having a landline affect their social lives? For us, when we were kids (yes there were phones back then) we could pick up the phone and call our friends. True, our parents might get upset at us for hogging the phone lines, especially in the days when there were still party lines (many households sharing a phone line), but if we were respectful and reasonable, our parents readily allowed up to talk to our friends, set up play dates, etc.

Now, if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends other than face to face in the school yard? Logically, it can only happen with their parents as intermediaries. So, if little Beth wants to play with little Sammy, Beth’s mom or dad will have to phone Sammy’s parents to set up a play date. The kids may not be able to talk to each other except face to face.

So, when is it okay for kids to get their own mobile phones so that they can communicate with their friends directly? There is a cost involved. That’s a drawback. There’s also the issue of supervision. And, kids can lose their phones. (Adults can too, of course.) Understandably, parents want to know what their kids are up to. Still, the question stands. Aside from the cost and supervisory issues, when does it make sense for kids to get their own phones? The phones can be restricted to local calls only and online times can be monitored.

We don’t know. We’re grandparents. Our grandchildren are getting to that age, however, when they are getting interested in these issues. Maybe kids need to phone their friend’s parents’ mobile phones and ask the parent to pass the phone over. In a sense, that’s what we did as kids. Someone answered the phone and passed it over to whoever the call was for. Is that an issue? Are parents going to be into that: having THEIR phones taken over by their kids. I’m thinking that’s not likely.

I guess Carolyn and I just got to thinking about the social consequences for families of increasing exclusive use of mobile phones. There’s always some fallout, someone that’s left out. Mobile phones are the ideal individual communications device, but they don’t promote sharing or family. It seems to us that they further alienate us from each other and set the stage for our treatment more as individuals then as family members.

Just a thought. Your comments are always welcome whether you have kids or not.

Did you know Seniha Çançar or her daughter Saide Sullivan?

Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:

The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!

The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.

I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in TheWesterlySun.com in Norwich, Connecticut:

 He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.

I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.

There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.

The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.

When the internet finds out that ignorance is bliss it goes crazy!

Alright, so here’s my rant for the week. Nice clickbait title, eh?

Clickbait titles are a tease, of course. They want you to follow them because their income depends on the number of hits they get. Our natural curiosity makes us vulnerable to this tactic and we fall for it all the time. Well, I thought I’d try to get you to have a look at my blog by using this stupid title. Is it working?

The title is misleading, of course, as many clickbait titles are. However, accuracy is not as important as getting you to click on their bait. Ignorance has its cost and its consequences. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it is a necessary condition for all of us. We cannot know everything about everything. The trick is to recognize and accept that.  You can only do something about it by way of learning to be open minded, critical (as in dissecting ideas, values, political events, everything) and scientific. Even at that, you may part the curtain of ignorance slightly. You’ll never open it completely.

Ignorance is the normal human condition at this time in history, especially since the industrial revolution. We have dealt with it using division of labour and so far that’s worked fairly well. A division of labour means that we cannot know everything about everything so we depend on other people to help us out every day of our lives with tasks we have no idea of how to accomplish ourselves. All of us are entirely dependent on others just to make it through a normal day and the more we live in a technologically complex world, the more that’s true. Basically, we are completely ignorant of most of the systems we rely on just to get through each day. And we don’t sweat that. It seems normal. It’s all good.

You may be adept at some things and a klutz at others. You may be a wonderful carpenter, a great mechanic, a skilled brain surgeon or a gifted musician but you’re not likely good at carpentry, mechanics, brain surgery, and music. You’re probably not one of the very few people who know about electricity and how to get it into your home. You trust that there are people who can ensure that electricity gets to your computers, stoves, refrigerators and heaters. You probably know nothing about farming either unless you’re one of the specialists in that field. Oh, you may dabble in growing your own food, but you may not know how to grow food on a scale large enough to feed your family or your village. You depend on others to produce the food you need. With some exceptions you will never know any of them personally. It’s true that some of us get pretty handy with tools, can grow a few veggies, repair a broken piece of furniture, glue a toy back together, or sew a badge on a shirt. We can do stuff without being an expert. But for the big stuff, we must leave it to the experts. Of course, experts can and do make mistakes and we need to make them accountable for their mistakes. What we need in that case is a method to measure success or failure and agree on a system of accountability. That in itself is no easy task. Science is a method of creating models of how the world works. Science can create systems to evaluate just how accurately any idea, structure, method, process, etc., conforms to how the world works.

So, we are ignorant of most things and that’s okay. However, there are things that you will pay dearly for if you ignore them.

For instance, if you see a little warning light on the dash of your car come on that looks like an oil can with one little drip of oil coming out of the spout and you ignore it and keep driving anyway there’s a good chance that you’ll trash your engine in the process. Don’t ignore warning lights on your dash! Automakers put them there for a reason. Don’t ignore the flashing lights at a railway crossing! Sheesh. Don’t run red lights!

The fact is that we get lots of warnings in our daily lives that we must heed, some of them are metaphorical warning lights that light up in our everyday lives that we ignore at our own peril, like ignoring our diet, high blood pressure, or a cold silence emanating from our partner. This is all fine and dandy, but there’s a whole other dimension to ignorance that revolves around ideas, policies, values, and social practices. That’s where I want to go now.

I know nothing about brain surgery and I don’t think you should trust me to remove your appendix. However, I have studied society and history for decades and I would expect that you would recognize that and give me my due. At least hear me out and listen to what I have to say before thinking of what you will come up with as a rebuttal based solely on your own personal experience or hearsay.

Most of you will have no educational experience to even begin to figure out what I’m up to here any more than you can figure out what makes a computer tick. It’s not because you’re stupid (well, some people really are) it’s because you’re ignorant, unknowing. My use of the word ignorant is not pejorative or negative, it’s accurate. You are largely unknowing and don’t have the resources to really figure out the dynamics that drive your existence, not your ideas, your values, your wants and desires, your sexuality, your emotions, nor your very lives and how difficult it is to figure out what the hell is going on. You may have some idea of what drives the dynamics of your life, and in fact, ignorance is not an either or thing. It can be partial…and, of course, that can be dangerous. Every day when I went to work, I was paid to think about these things. How many people have that kind of privilege?

This may sound harsh, but it’s simply true and there’s no way around it. We simply cannot know all things we need to know to live. Furthermore, we are all blinded by our institutions, those habits that drive our actions and thoughts. They prevent us from seeing the world for what it is. Why and how does that happen? Many scholars and scientists have spent their lives sorting out these issues with a great degree of success in my mind. To figure out how the social world works, you just have to know who these scholars and scientists are and read everything they wrote (or write). Then you have to think real hard about how their works relate to each other and build on each other. Who has the time or inclination to do that? The consequence of not doing that is continued ignorance (but don’t feel bad about that). The cost of doing it, unfortunately, in my experience is social compromise and intellectual loneliness (and I can live with that).

I really do feel that I have a fairly good grip on what drives us as humans in our specific cultures and how our cultures evolve. I got this grip from careful and systematic study at university and in private research. That makes me an expert, I guess.

In my next few blog posts I’ll explore various aspects of our lives and suggest models to explain them. That’s the scientific way. You can ignore what I say, of course. You may have particular expertise in a given activity or occupation. I’m sure I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to do your job.  If you want to know something about how society works, you might want to ask me or someone else who has spent a lifetime learning about these things. We each have our areas of expertise. Mine is society and history.

I’m a student of social and cultural life in a historical context. If you have anything you are curious about, ask me. See what comes out.

My next blog is about women and the way women have been portrayed and treated over history. A lot of what I write about will revolve around misogeny, sex, reproduction, patriarchy and seduction.

Why Average Incomes Tell Us Nothing About Real World Inequality

When the experts tell us that average incomes have risen, what does that actually tell us? Not much that’s useful in understanding real world politics and the inequities of economic life. I know that most of us understand averages, now don’t we? What’s there to explain? Well, let’s have a look at average incomes.

Incomes can be looked at using three measures of central tendency: the mean (the average), the median and the mode. For a technical explanation of these terms see: https://statistics.laerd.com/statistical-guides/measures-central-tendency-mean-mode-median.php.

Each of these measures has its advantages and disadvantages.  If we take a population and want to figure out their average height, it’s simple: measure each individual in the population, add the heights of all of them together and divide by the number of individuals measured. It’s unlikely that all people in a population would be of the same stature, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the range of heights. It’s always good to know what the range is otherwise there’s no way of judging just how variable the heights are in a population. Same goes for incomes. Scenario A below is of a fictitious population of income earners that each earns $100 thousand dollars each per year. That makes the total incomes earned by the group $1 million dollars and the average is $100 thousand. If you know where such a world exists, please let me know.

Scenario A  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 100,000 10
Income earner 2 100,000 10
Income earner 3 100,000 10
Income earner 4 100,000 10
Income earner 5 100,000 10
Income earner 6 100,000 10
Income earner 7 100,000 10
Income earner 8 100,000 10
Income earner 9 100,000 10
Income earner 10 100,000 10
Total Income 1,000,000 100
Average Income 100,000  

Now, let’s consider Scenario B below. The total income of all ten earners is still $1 million and the average is still $100 thousand. What’s changed? The distribution. In this scenario, the highest income earner brought in $200 thousand while the lowest earner brought in $45 thousand. That’s a significant difference and means that there is substantial income inequality but if a government wanted to obfuscate rather than clarify the issue, it might want to argue that average incomes haven’t changed. What are you worried about?

Scenario B  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 200,000 20.00
Income earner 2 150,000 15.00
Income earner 3 130,000 13.00
Income earner 4 100,000 10.00
Income earner 5 95,000 9.50
Income earner 6 85,000 8.50
Income earner 7 75,000 7.50
Income earner 8 65,000 6.50
Income earner 9 55,000 5.50
Income earner 10 45,000 4.50
Total Income 1,000,000 100.00
Average Income 100,000  

Now, consider this third scenario. The total incomes are still $1 million, the average is still $100 thousand. However, in this scenario, the highest income earner is taking in 72.7 of the total income. This scenario pushes income inequality to a much greater degree.

Scenario C  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 726,990 72.70
Income earner 2 85,000 8.50
Income earner 3 45,000 4.50
Income earner 4 20,430 2.04
Income earner 5 20,430 2.04
Income earner 6 20,430 2.04
Income earner 7 20,430 2.04
Income earner 8 20,430 2.04
Income earner 9 20,430 2.04
Income earner 10 20,430 2.04
Total Income 1,000,000 100.00
Average Income 100,000  

Now, think of a situation where aggregate incomes rise, but the lowest earners retain their share of earnings at 2.04 percent. Now the government can say: What are you worried about? Your income hasn’t changed at all and the country is getting richer. Silly you. Maybe you should just work a little harder.

Calculating median income isn’t much more helpful. The median income is the point where half the incomes are above and half below. That will tell us if a population distribution is changing in broad terms, but the median income in scenario C is $20,430.00. What does that tell you about the distribution of incomes in this population.

Calculating the modal income is interesting. The modal income is the one that appears most often in a distribution. In scenario C, the modal income is clearly $20,430.00. That’s the income most people make. It still doesn’t shed much light on the inequality in a distribution.

So, we always need more than a measure of central tendency to tell us what’s really going on in the world in terms of income inequality. If the government, or the head of the Bank of Canada for example, tells you that average incomes are rising, know that you’re not being told the whole story.

If you’re not concerned about these things, never mind.

Note: this post was inspired by a section of Robert Sapolsky’s book: Why Zebras don’t get ulcers.