Thursday, April 26, 2007

Not of This World - Part 1

Dreams, nightmares. Tomato, toh-maht-oh. Surreal or absurd? Try looking for a decent definition of 'Surrealism' in the dictionary of your choice and it doesn't really do the experience justice. Defining the term 'surreal' is usually the task of somebody who doesn't have a day job, but let me venture a comparison or two...

Absurd – A guy standing on a window ledge dressed as a toddler and singing Stomping Tom Connors’ ‘The Hockey Song’ in Portuguese.

SurrealUn Chien Andalou, featuring a distressed young man trying to get up a diabolically steep staircase while dragging a dismembered grand piano that’s stuffed with dead donkeys. Yeah, it's no (singing) "Oh! o jogo velho bom do hockey, é o mais melhor jogo que você pode nomear…" but it's far more respectable in some circles.

Absurd- This; Self explanatory. An interesting monster needs an interesting hairdo. Bobby pins please.

Surreal- This; A portrayal of the last moments at Jonestown with unconventional subjects. I'd add 'tasteless' to the description, but I was unnerved by the picture far more than I resented the artist for riffing off of a horrible event.

Surrealism to me has always implied a disconnect with reality more than a disruption of reality. A surreal event isn't necessarily outrageous, it is simply (or drastically) something out of place. It jars the rest of your senses enough that you can't quite process what's in front of you.

I once tried to explain the difference between the surreal and the absurd by using the example of a guy in an obviously fake gorilla costume addressing the House of Commons. If he laid on the chest-pounding gorilla schtick and the MPs shouted "Cor! A gorilla!" and looked uncomfortable, that's absurd. But if the aformentioned gorilla-suited dude was treated without deference and gave an eloquent defense of the Fishing and Hunting act as applied to northern Saskatchewan, that's surreal (this example doesn't work much better here than it did when I was unwise enough to opine it the first time, but maybe it's putting us all on the same track).

My wife disagrees with the gorilla in the house of commons (as many of us would, really). She suggests that if you were at home watching TV and there was a fire engine on the screen with a screaming siren, and if a fire truck was driving past your house at the same moment with its siren screaming, and the phone rang just then and when you picked it up you heard a siren, that would be surreal.

If the dude driving the fire engine was in a gorilla suit, that would be absurd.

This leads us to night terrors and nightmares. A bit later.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


“'If you see an injustice being committed, you aren't an observer, you are a participant.' That didn't mean you had to intervene, she explained, but you couldn't pretend that you weren't a part of what was happening in front of you."

-Sandra Martin's obituary of June Callwood, Globe and Mail, April 14th 2007

June Callwood is dead and apparently there aren't enough good things to say about her in the media and among the usual blogging suspects. That said, there are a few pieces that bring up her easy-to-read quirks (better at starting things than day to day management, she owned a sportscar and wore nice clothes) which the usual pundits on the political left left or right will cite as either charming or damaging on her part, and anyone with an axe to grind can look at the late Ms. Callwood's antics and achivements as proving their point about the importance of...something.

I'm interested by the fact that the whole Nellie's affair is still being mentioned over 15 years later, and there's still no easy resolution. For anyone who's late to the party, here's the Toronto Star's version of events:

"In 1992, she was forced to resign from Nellie's board after being branded a racist by the collective's Women of Colour caucus."
Janice Kennedy in the National Post actually puts bookends around the issue:
"...she received the 2003 Harmony Award, given out by the Harmony Movement, the organization founded in 1994 to promote harmony, diversity and equality in Canada. It must have been some kind of vindication for the outspoken Ms. Callwood after hurtful charges of racism were hurled at her by some members of the Nellie’s board a decade ago. It happened at the height of the political correctness frenzy, and the charges were unfounded, but Ms. Callwood was profoundly disturbed by it."
...and so on, piece after piece.

For an event that everyone's mentioning, there's no clear path as to exactly how it happened and how it concluded from the Nellie's side - did the board recant? Does the present administration have any comment on the Callwood incident? Do any of her accusers 15 years ago still feel that they were justified, over-the-top, or have the assumed the we-'ve-moved-on position so popular in the media?

Feel free to Google her obits on your own time, you'll find that most of them carry some theme and variation upon the whole thing being either a power struggle or overwhelming political correctness (a phrase that was overused even 15 years ago). There are no present-day comments, it was all some vague unpleasantness in the past.

At the time, the Callwood camp said little other than stressing the fact that the charges were unfounded. Supporters of the Nellie's board said that there was something inherently wrong about the fact that their concerns were dismissed out of hand, and that the white members of the board should be reminded that being charitable and being flexible (or receptive) were different things.

There were two high-profile pieces a few months later, one in Saturday Night and one in Toronto Life. I remember that one read as polite, centre-left indignation (and some fawning towards Callwood) and used the phrase 'this reporter believes' and 'this reporter feels that...' enough times that it got very boring. The other piece was more detailed and better written, but neither piece actually broke the issue down point by point; I wanted (and still would like) a comparison of the facts and accusations.

A simple reading (which is what was in the papers) came down to this; there was a thing happening at Nellie's. Callwood's camp didn't want to dignify the thing they were accused of, and were shocked and a little hurt that anyone would consider Saint June to be capable of the thing in question. Nellie's board was portrayed as following the 'you simply wouldn't understand' school of thought, suggesting that there was a systemic problem that nobody wanted to face.

This is based on my memory of the affair- there might be much more to it in print. There might be position papers written by the Nellie's board in libraries around Ontario, but the media coverage in '93 (and a cursory viewing through Google and Yahoo at Callwood/Nellie's articles today) stressed the disconnect more than the details.

The theory discussed most often is that it was simply a power game that had gone bad between both parties - June didn't like to be told what to do, and encountered a board that was tired of not being listened to. Facts are scarce because both parties kept things as quiet as possible as to avoid further flareups- Nellie's would be completely in their rights to consider the matter to be confidential (which appears to be the case), and if I were Callwood and falsely accused (with both damning and vague allegations) I'd consider silence to be a pretty good option. Believe the accusations or not, she may have thought, I've got a life to live.

Does this simplify the situation in such a way that supporters of both sides can feel insulted enough to dig their heels in and insist "It's not what's the way that it happened that upset us..."? What exactly is at issue here, outside of the broad spectrum of ideological differences?

The ideological question goes a long way. From Sandra Martin's Globe and Mail obit again:
"She believed that flinging accusations of racism was a peculiar affliction of collegial women's organizations, where there was far too much tolerance by white middle class women, for disruptive, self-indulgent behaviour and declarations of 'feeling your pain.' Men's groups never went in for that kind of name-calling, she said, and women's groups don't either now because it 'turned out to be bad strategy.'"
Full stop, according to June.

On the other side, here's a selection from an 2005 article (the whole thing's here) in the University of Chicago's Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society:

At a turbulent Nellie's board meeting in 1990, staff member Joan Johnson read aloud a letter outlining concerns of racism. However, the chair of the board, prominent Canadian philanthropist June Callwood, was quick to remind Johnson of what she owed to white women at Nellie'syears earlier, Johnson had been sheltered at Nellie's Hostel while seeking legal immigration status. "Are you the same Joan Johnson all these women helped?" the chair demanded. Johnson understood the meaning of Callwood's reproach. She replied, "You want me on my knees forever" explicit political challenge to the historical representation of the benevolent, white, middle-class helper of the 'less fortunate,' to what has been called the 'Lady Bountiful' image...Callwood's defenders were not only other prominent Canadians but also some other feminists, showing how the projection of innocence is crucial both to national self-image and to the white feminist political project.
Another full stop.

It's easy to look at it all and think this could have been prevented, for all we know. Unless there are minutes of the board meeting that made their way to the public, we won't know the details. The issue is a footnote in most quarters. It looks like the deck was stacked against Callwood, or perhaps she was inflexible in the face of an adamant board and it cost her.

It was over 15 years ago. It ended badly for all involved. The good work that Nellie's does was tainted, and Callwood knew she had to deal with a stigma for the rest of her career. There's a clip available at CBC where she addresses directly, agreeing that the issue will show up in her obituaries. Voila. Is everybody proud?

The tributes will fade; there are always re-examinations. I can't find any material from those who still feel that she was out of line about the Nellie's situation, but it's early yet. There might be an interesting evaluation (or re-evaluation) of the entire affair - there's aFull Comment piece in the Post with a little more detail than average, and cites a nice piece by Moira Farr. I'm hoping for an all-parties-involved recap at some time - what are the odds?

For now, if you visit the Casey House or Jessie's site you'll see a mention of Callwood. Visit Nellie's website and it's nowhere to be seen. It's worth watching over the next few months to see if her name appears and in what context.

Technorati tags: , ,

Thursday, April 05, 2007

For when the moon is a nickel in the sky...

Tom Waits. Nobody else even comes close, live or animated.

Blogger Templates by 2008