Friday, March 10, 2017

The Abyss and the Abbot

Do you ever wake suddenly in the middle of a vivid dream that was going somewhere, but no matter how hard you try you can’t return to it, even if you go back to sleep? Or if you do, the dream is no longer the same?

In this one, I was trying to reach a place, with my children. We had taken the same path away from the place, and now it was time to go back. But this time to get there, we had to climb an impossibly large, rickety old playground structure, an enormous spider web crazily arcing into the sky, made from spindly metal tubes and filigree, painted in white and candy heart pink, but rusted almost through and with rungs missing. Imagine if Tim Burton decided to build an Art Nouveau roller coaster for a life-sized Victorian Barbie dollhouse, and then left it in the jungle for one hundred years. This was the bridge to our destination.

We climbed the first few rungs with relative ease, and I kept saying that it was stronger than it looked, and if it wasn’t safe someone would have put up a barricade, or a sign, or something. But I was slightly ahead of the children, and I didn’t notice the structure branching off to one side until I looked back and saw they were on a different branch than I was, where there were several rungs missing. The youngest was hanging by his hands from what looked like a chunk of wrought iron fence, still cotton candy pink, which was swaying and creaking ominously. Amazingly, he swung his legs around and caught himself on what appeared to be monkey bars over an abyss, and by swinging his weight back and forth he was able to reach safety.

On the other side, I left the children at a cottage where we were staying, because I had to go visit a friend who was staying at a local monastery. The monastery was an anachronism, operating in the same way it had always done, in ancient crumbling stone courtyards, towers, and cloisters. As I approached the monastery through the woods, it seemed to be on fire. There were fires burning in large stone and brass bowls along the tops of the walls, at the gates, in the courtyards. There seemed to be flames floating through the air as well, as though the fire had come to life in the form of searing, golden butterflies. At the gate, I slipped a couple of bills from my pocket into a donation box. I asked a passing monk what was happening. “You must not be a Christian,” he said. “Everyone knows this is Liacost, the time when we celebrate holy fire. We burn impurities and we commune with the light and the fire.” This sounded wrong, and I thought that he was misunderstanding Pentecost, but before I could say anything else he was gone. I stopped another monk as he hurried by. “Excuse me. I’m looking for my friend?” At my friend’s name the monk shook his head and smiled. “Oh, you cannot see him. He is in seclusion, meditating. He will not come out for many days, or weeks.” I couldn’t understand; I had come all this way, he knew I was coming. And I did not live nearby. I could not come back again.

I wandered aimlessly through the monastery, looking at shrines and offerings. I was standing, watching little flames dance in midair, when I felt a presence behind me. I turned to see a tall, heavy man with long, messy blond hair in a monk’s habit behind me. He smiled, and wordlessly held up his closed right hand. He gestured with his left hand for me to hold out my own. I did so, and he slowly dropped coin after coin into my hand. When all the coins had landed, I noticed that his right hand had a thumb, but no fingers. It was pink and shiny, as though scarred from burns. I could not fathom how he held so many coins in it. It felt like a magic trick, as much as the floating flames. “You give too much money,” he said. “You must find something else to give.” I was confused. “I can’t volunteer right now, or anything – I’m just looking for my friend and then I have to go. What else can I give?”
He smiled again. “Visiting your friend is a gift you give. Follow me. I will show you where he is.” We walked through courtyards, down ever darker, narrower alleys, until we came to a plain iron door. It was locked from the outside, or so it seemed, but when the monk knocked the lock undid itself and the door swung open. As I stepped through I turned to thank him, but he had vanished. Turning back to the room, I found myself in a cozy, busy cabin. There was a table overflowing with books, a large window through which light streamed, several chairs, and a pot-bellied stove. There was a cot in a corner, from which my friend was now rising, as though he’d just awoken, although it was late in the day. He was delighted to see me. “But how did you find me?” he asked. “This place is …. well hidden. Few people know of it, and those who do would not tell you about it.” I asked if he was being held prisoner. “Oh, no!” he laughed. “And yet …” He did not go on. I told the story of the monk with the scraggly blond hair. My friend looked pensive. “Oh. That is unexpected. That is the Abbot. But why would he appear to you? And why would he help you? There must be something much greater at stake here than I thought there was.”

Just then, a pounding came on the door and my friend wave frantically at me to hide behind a bookshelf. As I slid down, two men burst in. They did not seem angry, but they were in a hurry and they were investigating something. As they questioned my friend, and began to look in cupboards and drawers, drawing nearer to my bookshelf, I felt myself slipping backward and out of the dream.

No amount of tossing and turning, of lying still and breathing deeply, could get me back to the mystery of my friend and the Abbot.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Hear No Evil

I started writing this post months ago. I am revisiting it now as part of an effort to revive my personal writing.

I've been on an extended hiatus from blogging, apart from sharing the entertaining comments of my children. I keep a list of things to write about, and I've noticed that the list keeps getting longer, while months without writing keep piling up.

There are lots of excuses for this. Work contracts, travel, house guests, puppy and kids and school and home. But mostly I blame Facebook. I am on Facebook a lot. And I love it. I love the pictures of people's pets and kids and vacations and meals, the presentation of their favourite songs and sayings and things that struck them as funny or touching, the proud proclamations on how far they ran or how much they crushed that workout, the confessions of staying in pjs and bed all day, or feeding the kids cereal for dinner because they Just Can't Anymore today. I love listening in, so to speak, on others' philosophical and political debates about gun control and birth control and bicycle helmets and immigration and prostitution and natural resource exploitation. I love that Facebook serves to bring important issues to my attention that, because of my remoteness, I might not otherwise discover. Facebook gives me the chance to, from across the world, chat with friends and browse through their photo albums, share family news, listen to music together, introduce friends to each other, and just generally keep in touch better than I could do without it.

And I like the minutiae. It bolsters my sense of security and my faith in humanity to witness this person's baby's smile or mess, that person's funny observation on the commute home, your frustration with or triumph over your home repairs, your delight or dismay at your new haircut. I took a bit of flak some time ago from an acquaintance over my posting of personal trivia, like the fact that I was thinking of changing my hair colour, or the staggering fragility of the drinking glasses the homeowner provided to us. I understood my friend's annoyance, I truly did, but I was also not apologetic in the slightest. To me, and to thousands of others, this is what Facebook is all about.

It is an exercise in frequent and intense personal description with minimal reflection, in the pursuit of mutual reassurance that we are all still here, we are all still doing the best we can, we are all mostly okay and if we're not, we can reach out to one another. And, of course, the fact that Facebook posting doesn't require much reflection or analytic thought means that I can keep it up at a fantastic rate even while I let my personal correspondence and my personal writing slide. But every now and then, something comes along that requires more consideration.

I struggle with the barrage of awful news items I see on Facebook, particularly the ones of dubious provenance. I lose patience when my feed is flooded with countless iterations of the same dreadful story, and I am thoroughly riled up by demands that I click "like" or share images of wounded soldiers, premature babies, kids with cancer, or would-be daring statements of faith or conviction. So, given my distaste for these things, I am conflicted about the moments when I go on a political or activist posting binge - my posts earlier this year about the kidnapped Nigerian girls, or about the links between underage prostitution and the World Cup in Brazil. My recent posts about the seemingly unending violence against women in our society. I have been struggling to say something about the race violence in the United States, but I fear deeply that I know so very little about and am so far removed from it that I would contribute nothing, or worse: that I would be racesplaining. But if I could say something that I thought would be of use, I would.

And therein lies the fundamental difference between my need to spread certain things and my determination to block the spread of others. If it cannot be of use, if it cannot help anyone, if all I'm doing is showing sorrow, or suffering, or wickedness to others without there being anything we can do about it, then to me I'm spreading sorrow or suffering or wickedness and nothing more. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, online and off. I remember a day a few years ago when our babysitter arrived at work and told me a truly awful story of abuse that she had read online. The image of that abuse haunted me all day, a clinging miasma of sadness and shock. But it didn't help anything or anyone for the woman to have told me the story. I think as humans we have a natural impulse to pass on shocking or upsetting information, even if no change can be effected through that sharing of knowledge, because at some level we hope to alleviate our own pain by passing a bit of it on. I don't think that works. I think by doing this we increase the pain. We perhaps do not double it, but we stop it from fading when we perpetuate it in this way.

When I was younger I could not understand the three monkeys: Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil. I thought I understood the "speak no evil" part, but I was baffled at the idea that we should refuse to hear or see evil. To me this seemed like nothing more than pretending something was not there in the vain hope that it would cease to exist. But when I heard the babysitter's story of abuse, and more recently when a particularly tragic story was being shared on Facebook, I felt a physical need to turn away from the news, a need to refuse to see or hear it, let alone speak it. The phrase "hear no evil" came into my mind, and I suddenly wanted to know more about its origins.

The tenet comes from Japanese Buddhism, apparently, and is thought by some to have its origins before that in Confucianism. If Wikipedia is correct, in Buddhist tradition it means not to dwell on negative thoughts, while in the Western world some consider it a reference to the moral irresponsibility of people who ignore wickedness.

But I wonder, can we conceive of it as a warning not to acknowledge evil for evil's own sake? To recognize that every time we tell someone else about a senseless death, or act of cruelty, or tragic accident, without a reason that is motivated by goodness (action that we can take to minimize suffering, to correct injustice), we spread sadness and pain without benefit. To wit: learning that Jian Ghomeshi, a widely respected and trusted public figure, was very likely an abusive misogynist was sad and shocking and painful. But it also opened up a discussion among Canadians about sexual assault and harassment in a way that few other events have. It was indicative of an evil that we can change, and knowing about that evil is essential to eradicating it. In contrast, knowing the details of a horrific accident or a random and senseless act of cruelty, where that knowledge cannot help us change anything, cannot help us undo an evil, merely perpetuates pain.

There are a lot of small evils in the world. Countless ones. Most of them we never hear about, and we never hear about them because the people who see them - nurses, doctors, emergency responders, police officers, judges, lawyers - go home at night and go out with their friends and talk about good things instead. When I clerked I had glimpses of these evils in some of the cases I worked on. I saw them in cases we studied at law school. Those were just glimpses, though. For people who work in health care and family services and criminal law, and in many other fields, they see evil every day. I remember when my eldest was born, talking birth plans with our doctor. She was patient and supportive, as was the gentle, good-natured, beanie-wearing doctor who actually delivered the baby. It only occurred to me later, having learned more, that these doctors had dealt with more death and tragedy, more evil, than I could easily fathom. And yet they focused on the good. They kept knowledge of that evil from us, letting us know only about real risks and potential problems that we could actually work to avoid. It is better for these professionals, and for the people in their lives, and for society more broadly, that they do not spread this knowledge.

I think there is something to the idea that in turning away from evil and refusing to speak of it, unless we are doing so in order to end that evil, we spread goodness instead. This is my hope.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Should Women Adhere to Sexist Conventions Anyway, for the Sake of Their Clients?

This is the question that was posed to me by a law professor acquaintance, following Eugene Volokh's piece in the Washington Post.

After I'd typed out a lengthy response on Facebook, I realized it was essentially a follow up blog post. Here it is:

 I think Mr. Volokh is broadly on the right track, but is falling into the same problematic rhetoric, founded on stereotypically sexist tropes, that plagues Judge Kopf's piece: that women are prone to trash talking each other or becoming jealous based on one another's level of beauty or style of dress, that the beholder's "biological" reaction to the woman's appearance is the woman's responsibility or fault, even while he acknowledges that what constitutes "too revealing" varies based on factors that have nothing to do with the woman herself, and that women deliberately use their sexuality to attempt to gain advantage. His comment about sexualized environments is confused, as he first says that he has heard that in such an environment men will tend to objectify women regardless of how they are dressed, and then he turns around and says that women should try to minimize this by policing their attire.

The analogy he tries to draw between women's attire and religious attire is at best a poor one, and at worst a straw man. Just being a woman, especially a woman of a visible minority, puts one at a similar disadvantage to that experienced by people wearing obvious markers of their religious or cultural identity. It's fairly common to hear would-be clients say they'd prefer a male lawyer as soon as they hear that a lawyer is a woman, and that has nothing to do with the woman's appearance.

Of course, both Judge Kopf and Mr. Volokh are expressing their opinions with respect to an imagined woman who is wearing "revealing" clothing - that is, clothing that they imagine to be revealing. The judge has admitted that he invented the woman lawyer he talked about, and that he was taking literary license in setting the scene he described. Volokh is responding to that imagined scenario, in equally vague and hypothetical terms.This makes their commentary even less useful, and more unnecessarily blaming of women, because we have no actual benchmark from which we can hope to work out what is "too revealing" or "too sexy." In fact, even when women play into the correct societal norms, we are judged and deemed too sexy/casual/frumpy/etc.

At the risk of raising my own point that might seem like a red herring or straw man, there are loads of men in the professions who wear well-fitted suits, are well groomed and charming, and who generally look like movie stars. They are definitely distracting! It would be easier to focus if they didn't wear amazing smelling colognes, or quite such perfectly tailored trousers and jackets, or lay on the charm so thick with court clerks and registry staff. But there's no collective pearl clutching about their lady killer ways, because we don't scrutinize men for any signs of sexiness, and then expound on that sexiness and its meaning and effect, the way we do with women.

In the end, I think that the degree to which women lawyers try to adhere to certain sartorial norms, whether or not they play into sexist conventions, is not closely related to the possibility that we will be accused of dressing inappropriately or too sexily.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Woman Professional's Wardrobe Minefield (again)

[Note: in this post, I talk about a blog entry written by an American judge. He uses only his initials to blog, and I am not familiar with the conventions of addressing or referring to judges in his jurisdiction. I fear that the way in which I have referred to him may appear disrespectful, and I want to be clear that if that is the case it was not my intent.]
In my final year of law school, I had the great honour of participating in a competitive mock trial program. Most students moot during the second year of law school, but I had spent second year focusing on black letter courses (the meat and potatoes of law, for you non-lawyers). I had two small children at home, and managing my time effectively while maximizing my law school performance and nurturing my family relationships was challenge enough without mooting, until I was sure my transcript was otherwise well-rounded.

Law school had opened my eyes to the degree to which women in professional careers are judged on criteria that are wholly unconnected to our abilities.* We are too young, or we are too old, or we are too dowdy, or too sexy, or too curvaceous, or too frail looking, or too quiet, or too loud, or too fertile. I had learned this. So I went into the first meeting with my moot partner and our coaches, all men, dressed for the job. Minimal, professional makeup, small pearl earrings, conservatively bobbed and straightened hair, dark grey pants suit with off-white blouse, certainly no cleavage, low heels. The coaches were an older Provincial court judge and a Crown counsel in his 40s. They mostly addressed their comments to my male partner, congratulating him on the honour of getting to compete in the mock trial, telling him about all of the opportunities this would open for him. They spoke less to me, and when they did their comments were cautionary or negative. It seemed as though they had spent the last 20 years stocking up on criticisms and complaints about the attire and conduct of the women around them, and here at last was someone to whom they could vent it all. At one point the judge, who was at least 10 years older than my father, looked straight at my breasts and told them that I shouldn't wear low cut tops to court, because "from the bench the judge can see right down your shirt, and the male judges don't mind it so much, but the lady judges don't like it." His eyes traveled back to my face as he said this, and he flushed bright pink. By the time I got home that night I was so outraged that I considered quitting the program. Over the coming weeks, he tried to trip me up on a couple of occasions by saying needlessly provocative or alarming things while I was practicing oral examination. This "hard knocks" approach would not have been so bad, had any of it been directed to my partner. But, no: he was singling me out.

I went on to win that mock trial, and the Western Canada one, and to compete on the national level. I did extremely well in law school. I clerked at the BC Supreme Court, and in that experience and my subsequent articles and practice, I was reassured that most of the men I encountered were professional enough to keep their thoughts about the female bodies around them to themselves. I also spent more time with the Provincial court judge who had coached me, and watched him in the courtroom, and I learned that he was a good judge and generally speaking a decent person. But my regard for him was never as high as it could have been, if he'd managed to avoid being such a "pig and a prude", in the words of another judge who has recently weighed in on the subject of how women dress in the legal profession.

The judge to whom I'm referring, RGK, wrote a blog post in which he identified himself as a dirty old man before saying that it is true that women lawyers whose attire is "too sexy" are a "huge problem" in the courtroom. He went on to give the example of a woman lawyer he knows who appears to be truly excellent at her job but, most notably to him, has an "ample chest" and wears short skirts. He claimed that all the female law clerks flocked into the court to see how this lawyer was dressed one day, and that they were all very upset about it and called it unprofessional. Having been one of several female law clerks in my cohort, I have trouble imagining a situation in which all of us would take time out of our day to attend a specific courtroom for anything less than a hearing or trial of utmost importance. Jury selection on the trial of the decade? We were all there. A lawyer's unprofessional attire - and believe me, many lawyers of all stripes and genders dress inappropriately - would not have brought us running. And perhaps he doesn't realize it, but in this account the judge was portraying every single female law clerk in the building as a catty, fashion-focused gossip. He was choosing to diminish them, to detract from the fact that they are legal professionals, by focusing on his perception of their conduct toward another woman, as much as he was doing the same to the woman lawyer in question.

This broad stroke, stereotyping approach is not surprising when one sees that the first of his "rules" for young women going to court was "You can't win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it." That is not a rule. It's a condemnation. It is factually inaccurate, because while some men are pigs, and some are prudes, and some are both, certainly not all or even most are. Beyond that, however, I am dismayed by his apparent position that these are immutable characteristics of men, over which women are simply required to get. We all have character weaknesses, and many of them happen to skew along gender lines. Some women may be catty, or gossips, and some men may be pigs in their attitudes towards women. But these are things that we can and should change in ourselves. I expect my sons, who are still quite young, to control their tempers and their baser instincts. I expect far, far more from a grown man and a judge. I have absolutely no problem with the fact that judges, like everyone else, are sexual beings who notice other people. But it is not my job, and it is not the responsibility of women everywhere, to manage other people's urges for them.

I am not for an instant suggesting that women should wear inappropriate clothing to court, any more than I would suggest that men should. In fact, ideally female lawyers should have as much of their skin covered as the male ones do. In my view, a lawyer should be dressed neatly and in such unremarkable and plain clothing that upon leaving the courtroom the judge would be hard pressed to recall anything at all about the lawyer's outfit. As our clients' advocates, we should be a face and a voice. The only memorable thing about us should be our argument. But this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do, and it is doubly so when one happens to have, as RGK puts it, an ample chest. I am relatively small framed and top heavy. Suits that fit me through the shoulders and are the appropriate length in the sleeves are too tight through the chest. Button down shirts look boxy and sloppy if they're not fitted, and look too suggestive if they are. Trousers that fit properly accentuate the thighs and rear, and skirts and dresses create a litany of issues. I have to tread a razor thin line between clothes that look unprofessional because they are too flattering, and clothes that look unprofessional because they are unflattering. One could argue that I should simply go with unflattering, but the sad reality is that there is a public bias against women who look old, or who look fat, or who look poor, or who look disheveled. Specifically, women who appear to be any of these things are perceived as less powerful, less intelligent and less assertive. This perception is a significant disadvantage in a litigation practice.

So RGK is absolutely right that we can't win. There is an extremely small range of clothing that both looks good and professional on me and is appropriate for a courtroom, and even staying within that range does not completely protect me from being perceived as inappropriate because I happen to have breasts that are difficult to hide. And that's my experience as a confident, independent almost-40-year-old, who is not trying to climb through the hierarchy of a big law firm. It is far more difficult for the average 20-something, who has had less time to figure out what works on her body, who has little experience with dressing professionally at all, and who is navigating a minefield of assumptions about her worth as a lawyer that are based on such irrelevant considerations as her age, weight, build, level of wealth, relationship status, and fashion sense. Maybe she does dress too sexily. Maybe she dresses inappropriately. Maybe she does it for attention (as RGK's second "rule", "it's not about you", seems to suggest), although that happens less often than people think. Maybe she could use some good advice and constructive tips on courtroom attire. But RGK's post is neither of those things. It is just more minefield, more assumptions about women lawyers based partly on how they dress, but more fundamentally on how the judge finds he responds to them.

There is actually a great opportunity here for older male lawyers and judges - or really any men in a position of relative power - when confronted with a younger woman who they think has dressed inappropriately. It's an opportunity to ask yourself why you find it inappropriate. Would it be inappropriate on anyone, or just on that woman because you find her attractive? Is the issue actually with her attire, or is it with your response? If the attire is the issue, and it's enough of an issue that you wish to publish an open letter about the state of young peoples' attire in court, here are my "rules" (don't worry. They're really just suggestions):

1: Focus on the gender neutral. Describe what is appropriate courtroom dress for all people of all stripes. Neutral, neat, conservative. Plain. The perfect outfit for court is the one that draws no attention at all, because you want them hanging on your every word, not distracted by what you're wearing.

2: If you must draw specific examples, focus on the non-sexual (yes, even if the sexiness is what really gets to you). Loud patterns, flashy shoes and accessories, ill-fitting or messy clothing are all distracting. Long sleeves, high necklines, and covered legs are appropriate for all lawyers of all makes and models.

3: Acknowledge that it can be hard to dress appropriately for court, especially if one doesn't fit the mold, and that the best people to advise you on how to dress for court are those who are like you, who have done it successfully. There are resources that provide constructive tips. Maybe link to some.

4: Acknowledge that women, especially young women, get singled out and sexualized too much in this field, and that you can and will be a part of changing that phenomenon instead of perpetuating it.
*In my first week of law school, a second year student who was about 11 years younger than me asked me what kind of law I thought I'd go into. I said I had heard that it is beneficial to at least article at a big firm, to get a well-rounded articling experience. He said "oh.... well, those firms only take articling students who get really good marks." I asked him whether he thought I didn't get good marks because I was a woman, because I was a mature student, or because I was a mom. He didn't respond.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Tax Collector

There is a poem my father showed me in an English textbook when I was young. I believe it is called The Tax Collector, but I cannot find it anywhere, in print or online. So I cannot properly credit its author, and I fear I may have some of it wrong, but here it goes:

While riding through rural Ruritania, collecting air tax for the mogul, I was summoned to the roadside by a dragon. 
It was her scales I was not prepared for. Red, they were. Like blood on a dime. Like oil on an apple, and anyway I stopped. 
"Kiss me," she said. 
They really were the most remarkable scales. Like thumbprints on a ledger. Like teardrops, in consomme, and when I had done as she had asked (kissed her, that is), and she was blonde again, and creamy thighed, I did not know how to tell her it was the dragon I had loved.