Elizabeth Abbott had always shared her life with dogs. But when worlds collided and her beloved dog Tommy was left behind in Haiti, she set out on a journey that took her from the soulless concrete corridors of an American prison to the halls of Mount Sinai Hospital and the ruins of post-war Serbia, and taught her essential truths about the power of hope and redemption among people changed forever by a wagging tail and a pair of soulful eyes – and dogs who found a new lease on life with devoted human companions. With wit and passion, Abbott digs down into the deepest roots of the human-animal bond, showing us that together people and dogs can find hope and happiness.
CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR DOGS AND UNDERDOGS
Elizabeth Abbott's "Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash" and Toni Shelbourne's "Among the Wolves" are excellent reads. Both books are filled with personal stories about these amazing beings and show how we can rescue and help them and they can in turn rescue and help us. Both also raise numerous questions about human-animal relationships.
Two books arrived at my door at the same time and I simply want to share their existence with you because I feel they are great reads for all people interested not only in the behavior of dogs and wolves but also in our relationship with these amazing beings and other nonhuman animals (animals) with whom we share our lives in one way or another. The first is called Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash by noted author Elizabeth Abbott and the other is titled Among the Wolves: Memoirs of a Wolf Handler by Toni Shelbourne.
Both authors clearly love dogs and other animals and when I first read Ms. Abbott's book to provide an endorsement I kept going back to it to read the stories of different dogs and their humans. The book's description and numerous accolades are very informative of what readers will find between its covers. It reads as follows: "Happiness and redemption can be found at both ends of the leash, in all kinds of places. Elizabeth Abbott had always been an animal lover, sharing her life with all kinds of dogs in need. But when worlds collided and her beloved dog Tommy was left behind in Haiti, a new journey began—one that would take her to some very surprising places and ultimately teach her some essential truths about the power of hope and redemption. From the soulless concrete corridors of an American prison to the halls of a Canadian hospital to life among the ruins in post-war Serbia, Abbott meets people whose lives are changed forever by a wagging tail and a pair of soulful eyes—and dogs who find a new lease on life with devoted human companions. Throughout Dogs and Underdogs, Abbott shares her own incredible and often amusing stories of rescuing dogs in need of shelter, friendship, and love: devoted Tommy, the inspiration who began it all; irrepressible Bonzi, the beagle who charmed his way into prisoners’ hearts; sweet Alice, the little mama who survived a puppy mill to be “mothered” by other dogs; and many more. With wit and passion, Abbott digs down into the deepest roots of the human–animal bond, showing us that together people and dogs can find hope and happiness."
I keep going back to this book and always am finding something new about which to think and feel. Having taught a course in animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder County Jail for many years I was particularly touched by something that an inmate called Shane told Ms. Abbott. Shane said, "Working with dogs has been the vehicle I always needed to get in touch with myself, to put the anger and the old wounds to bed once and for all." (p. 272) I've heard many stories like this and have recently written about how dogs and inmates help one another as they form close and reciprocal relationships in an essay called "Dogs on the Inside: Must See Documentary on Dogs and Inmates."
I highly recommend both books to a wide audience. They raise numerous important and challenging questions about the nature of human-animal relationships) and are extremely inspirational. Each also shows how we can easily rescue, help, and heal other animals and how they can in turn rescue, help, and heal us.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)
Best-known for her popular histories of human relationships (A History of Mistresses, A History of Marriage) and objects (Sugar: A Bittersweet History), Abbott, a Canadian academic and author, departs from form with this book. An account of her volunteer efforts to rescue unwanted and abused dogs, it begins in Haiti, where she was a reporter for Reuters and where she left behind her beloved dog, Tommy, and ends in her Toronto home, “a way station for needy dogs.” In between trot a large cast of canine characters, with Bonzi the beagle as the main plot device.
From his rescue in rural Ohio to his stint at a dog-training program in an American prison and, finally, his adoption by the author, Bonzi personifies Abbott’s mantra that redemption does not discriminate. Through his and other dogs’ inspiring stories, Abbott gets at the highs and lows of loving an animal we will inevitably outlive: the therapeutic balm of physical contact, the way a damaged rescue dog can become both our “albatross and purpose,” and the acute grief when a beast who loved us unconditionally finally dies.
“Inside prison, hatred and vitriol are in the air that you breathe; initiative and self-esteem are frowned on,” writes Shane Livingston, an imprisoned dog trainer who has since been released. “But when you get a dog and become a trainer, you are forced to reclaim your initiative, and sense of self-worth with it . . . You learn to let go of anger, to try to be better.”
Abbott’s profound emotional connection to this subject distinguishes it from her other biographies. She believes all dogs, no matter how ill or injured, need saving, and that we humans owe it to them to “trade with the gifts God gave us.” In her single-minded commitment to the cause, some readers may see zeal bordering on fanaticism. But she did indeed find happiness at both ends of the leash. And as someone whose adopted rescue dog also brought her joy (and eventual heartbreak), this reader is deeply grateful to her and others like her.
Melinda: Wow, just wow! Such an inspirational memoir. The unwavering devotion and unconditional love of a beloved pet inspires countless people to go above and beyond, sometimes moving mountains to do what it takes to save and protect their beloved pets.
Getting a chance to read about the horrors and neglect that the dogs that Elizabeth has encountered, it's hard not to get emotional, especially when you read about the dogs' happy endings after a harsh start to life ...more
Julie: First it gets triple bonus points for having me all teary eyed in the Honda waiting room. This memoir was a glorious voyage of courage and depth, understanding and determination. It’s amusing and honest, sometimes this book cuts deep with it’s gritty truths but it is also full of hope and beautiful, kind people.
Throughout this memoir you will find Abbott’s own story of how she rescued not one, but many dogs, she will bring you amusing and lovely tails (…did you see what I did there). She also hi ...more
Chantelle: Thanks to Goodreads First reads for the chance to read this amazing book! This book is very inspiring and reminds us of how deeply and positively animals impact our lives as well as how we need to do the same for them. The authors experiences are very real, emotional and motivational. I loved this book and would highly recommend it for anyone to read!
Marilyn Stanley: Five stars plus - WOW - what a powerful book. Whether you are a dog lover or not this book will move you to tears several times in the course of the author's journey. It breaks my heart that so many dogs must live in the cruel and inhumane conditions that humans thrust upon them so every good news story makes my heart swell and my eyes run over.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK!!!!
Endorsements of Dogs and Underdogs
"I love Dogs and Underdogs. The stories are touching and right. What a good heart! How I wish everyone cared for animals that much! The book is a delight."
Ingrid Newkirk, President, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
"If you love dogs, if you love adventure, if you love honesty, if you love fine writing, then this is the book for you! I have rarely been as entranced as I was from the very first page. Abbott writes like an angel, and thinks like a true activist: if dogs could vote, she would be president tomorrow!"
Jeffrey Moussaief Masson, author of nine books on the emotional life of animals including the bestselling Dogs Never Lie About Love.
Dogs are in, and there are numerous books about the strong, enduring, and reciprocal bond that forms between them and us. Elizabeth Abbott's Dogs and Underdogs is a gem, surely one of the best reads that clearly shows how dogs help and rescue us and we help and rescue them when we open our hearts to just whom they are and what they can do.
Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.
Abbott writes with knowledge and passion about the dogs she has known and loved. Her stories about a cast of canine characters from around the world highlight the challenges they have faced, but more than that, Dogs and Underdogs is a call to action that should convince every reader to follow Abbott's lead in trying to help dogs. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Rob Laidlaw, author of award-winning No Shelter Here: Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, and director of Zoocheck Canada.
If you are a ‘dog person’ you will love this book which is often funny, and always moving and inspirational. If you don’t consider yourself a ‘dog person.’ you will enjoy it anyway. A fascinating story about an extraordinary life.
Maureen Jennings, dog lover and author of the bestselling Murdoch Mysteries.
The dogs in this book come to life as persons who share in the personal, physical and political worlds of the humans that care about them, and share the same vulnerabilities. We’re all in this together, Elizabeth Abbott shows us, through every change of situation in her own life. For me, this was more than a “my life with dogs” story, it is an epic of commitment and compassion that challenges me to think more carefully about the dogs that pass through my clinic and the shelter where I work.
Debra (Debbie) Tacium, DMV, shelter veterinarian at the SPA de l’Estrie in Sherbrooke, Quebec and animal-issues writer
Four decades of Elizabeth Abbott’s dog relationships and adventures come together in Dogs and Underdogs. The book is emotionally captivating and takes the reader on unimaginable real life journeys. What can Haiti, the University of Toronto, Ohio prisons, a Canadian hospital and Serbia all have in common? When it comes to Elizabeth Abbott – dogs of course! Attention dog lovers - curl up with this book – prepare to be moved.
Lorraine Houston, Director of Speaking of Dogs rescue organization
"Elizabeth Abbott makes her own dramatic life seem like an understatement to what these canine spirits have given her. They have given her much, but don't be fooled. These tales unwittingly reflect back to the reader the person that is Elizabeth Abbott: splendid."
Wayson Choy, author of award-winning The Jade Peony and Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood
Without doubt, dog’s best friend is Elizabeth Abbott, along with other dog rescuers world-wide.
Not only does she truly walk the walk, she writes with a tough mind, a tender heart and unquenchable passion about canine casualties of war, discarded mutts rehabilitated by discarded
men—as well as previously unlucky dogs she has personally given a new leash on life. Come to
think of it, Elizabeth Abbott is the dog-book lover’s best friend too.
Erika Ritter, author of The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of
This book can be traced back to the moment a human first looked deep into the eyes of a wolf and saw--a friend. Others probably thought that person was crazy, but they weren’t. The kinship they recognized was firmly rooted in a shared social brain chemistry that would deepen into one of the most profound and life enhancing bonds on this planet. Thirty thousand years on, Elizabeth Abbott brings us a powerful reminder that dogs have always been worth our faith, our generosity, and even our heroics—because to rescue is to be rescued.
Meg Daley Olmert, documentary producer and author of Made For Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond.
In "Dogs and Underdogs" Elizabeth Abbott takes us to many places around the world and allows us to see how a rescued dog can save the heart and mind of the dog's rescuer. Some truly touching accounts here may well bring a tear to the reader's eye and a smile to the reader's lips.
Stanley Coren, author of bestselling and award-winning books including How Dogs Think, The Wisdom of Dogs, The Intelligence of Dogs and Why We Love the Dogs We Do.
Very Special Endorsement by Shane Livingston
(Shane was a prison dog trainer for years, and critiqued the relevant chapters of my book)
"Late at night, sometime soon, someone will be closing your book in order to close their eyes to sleep. The deeper messages will have time to percolate in their minds. That's the hallmark of a book with the ability to change minds!
Global Television Morning Show: Monday May 10, 2015
Reading and Signing and Meet the Author: Saturday May 16, 2015
Curiosity House Books, Creemore, Ontario
Reading and Signing and Meet the Author: Tuesday May 19, 2015, 4 to 6
Different Drummer Bookstore, Burlington
Riverdale Arts and Letters Club, Riverdale Library, Toronto
Historian and animal advocate Elizabeth Abbott will launch her new book, Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash. Presentation, reading and book signing. All proceeds of books sold at the event to benefit the Toronto Humane Society. All welcome, no registration required.
Meet the Author and Signing: Saturday May 30, 2015, 9 am to 3 pm
SLOBBERFEST AT THE BEACH, TORONTO
Leuty Pavilion on the Boardwalk
People-Pet Walk, Sarnia: June 7, All Day
Presentation and reading, noon to 2 pm
The Bookkeeper Bookstore will host an all-day book table for sales and signing
The Bookkeeper Bookstore and the Sarnia Humane Society have joined to invite Elizabeth Abbott to participate in the morning walk and then to hang out for talks, selling and signing books.
Reading and Signing: Sunday July 2, 2 pm
Studio Georgeville, Georgeville, Eastern Townships, Quebec
Book sales proceedings to be donated to the Frontier Animal Society
Reading, Signing and Meet the Author at Brome Lake Books, Tues. July 4, time tba
Brome Lake Books, Knowlton, Quebec
This event is part of the Arts Alive Festival
Presenting, Reading, Signing: late September date tba
KINGSTON LITERARY FESTIVAL
All dog-loving readers welcomed with open paws!
Toronto Public Library, Queen Saulter Branch: Tues. Oct. 6, 6 - 8 pm
Presentation and discussion, Dogs and Underdogs
Ridgeway Reads Literary Society's Fall Reading Series: Oct. 16, 7 pm
Auditorium, Ridgeway-Crystal Beach High School, 576 Ridge Road North, Ridgeway, Ont.
News of a Different Sort
Artist Robin L. Muller has chosen me as a subject of a portrait!
Robin is superlatively talented and has exhibited in the U.K.’s National Gallery – see link below
The best part is that one or more of my dogs will also be in the portrait
Robin, I should add, is a super dog-person and his dog Georgie was a failed foster that I manoeuvered him into taking in! She arrived so sick the vet arranged a euthanasia date, but Georgie (did she overhear that conversation?) rallied and is now a strong, happy and loving beagle girl.
BOOK LAUNCH: Wed. APRIL 29, 2015, 6 TO 8 PM
Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay St, Toronto
Launching Dogs and Underdogs at Ben McNally's Bookstore
Book Signing and Meet the Author: Friday May 1, 2015, 6 to 7:30
The Sleuth of Baker Street Bookstore
"Not our usual genre of book but I think, given how much I love Percy and how distraught I was that time when he went missing, it is for a good cause. So come on out on May 1st, meet this incredible woman Elizabeth Abbott, talk to others who have rescue dogs, and say hi to Percy, who will be there with tail wagging. We will donate 20% of the sales of Dogs and Underdogs from the event to a dog rescue organization called Speaking of Dogs Rescue (speakingofdogs.com). Its director, Lorraine Houston, helped Ms. Abbott place her Serbian dogs, and she is the creator of the Dog Rescue Directory for Ontario, a hugely important resource.
Councilor Jon Burnside, dog rescuer, introduces Dogs and Underdogs at the Sleuth of Baker Street
Presenting Dogs and Underdogs to dog-loving readers at the Sleuth of Baker Street
ANCIENT BUT WELL-LOVED HISTORY
In Belgrade, my publisher (left) and a representative of the Canadian Embassy (right) introduce the Serbian version of one of my books at a press conference at the Belgrade Book Fair. The Fair is the third largest in Europe, after Frankfurt and London.
In the clink in March 2006, during a Riverdale Historical Society tour of the old Don Jail, now closed to (most of) the public. I wouldn't be grinning if I were stuck in that wretched little cell for more than the few minutes it took me to examine and measure it. I was researching and writing a series of five articles, "Doing Time in Toronto," for my column in The Voice, a local newspaper.
Elizabeth Abbott Has Coffee with Maureen Jennings, Creator of Detective William H. Murdoch, Of #4 Police Station, Cabbagetown, late 19th century.
Elizabeth at Luminatoés Mille Femmes gala.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1986: vernissage of Tropical Obsession, signing a copy for Aubelin Jolicoeur.
April 21, 2011 – 7 pm. Bluestockings Bookstore Reading and Q & A,
sponsored by Red Tent Women’s Collective
April 20, 2011 – 7 pm. Paradigm Shift, NYC’s feminist community, presents “Marriage: PAST, PRESENT, & FUTURE,” with Elizabeth Abbott at The Tank- 354 West 45th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues).
April 16 , 2011 – Le Salon du Livre, Québec City 11:30 recontre d’auteur et 2-3 séance de signature
A History of Marriage has been nominated for the 2010 Governor General's award in non-fiction!
Oct. 2, 2010 – McGill University, Montreal: Speaker at Lunch et Livres. https://aoc.mcgill.ca/network/homecoming/events
Oct. 1, 2010 –Atwater Library, Montreal: Lunchtime Series speaker: “ The Good Wife, Her Husband, and Other Marital Tales”
Sept. 26, 2010 – The Word on the Street National Book & Magazine Festival, Toronto - to discuss historical non-fiction writing on the Scotiabank Gill Prize Bestsellers stage at 2:00pm http://www.thewordonthestreet.ca/
Sept. 18 – Words Alive Literary Festival, Sharon Temple National Historic Site and East Gwillimbury Civic Centre at 11:00am http://www.wordsalive.ca/
July 2010 - Elizabeth will teach Literary Non-Fiction at the Humber School of Writers Summer Workshop.
June 16 – Presenter at IdeaCity 2010. http://www.ideacityonline.com/
May 29, 2010 - Guest speaker at St. Hilda's College Reunion Weekend luncheon. "The Angel in the House and other Old Wives' Tales."
May 28, 2010 - Guest speaker, St. Andrew's Society’s Spring Dinner.
May 15 – Interview with Mary Ito on CBC’s Fresh Air http://www.cbc.ca/freshair/2010/05/sat-may-15.html
April 22, 2010 - Guest author at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.
April 19, 2010 - Guest speaker at Engaging Ideas, a joint initiative of A Different Drummer Books and Burlington Public Library. 7 to 9 pm.
April 1, 2010 - Sugar: A Bittersweet History published in US.
Mar. 18, 2010 - The Riverdale Historical Society launched A History of Marriage.
Feb. 28, 2010 - Guest author at Globe and Mail/Ben McNally's Brunch and Books.
Feb. 27, 2010 - Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus, presented by the Culinary Historians of Ontario at historic Fort York. Elizabeth Abbott judged non-citrus marmalade (and couldn't touch the stuff for two weeks afterward.)
Feb. 11, 2010 - A History of Marriage launched.
Jan. 12, 2010 - Haiti Devastated by Earthquake. Elizabeth is media resource and guest speaker at Haiti fundraisers on an ongoing basis.
Nov. 14, 17, 2009 - Lectured at Dundurn Castle, Hamilton, and Campbell House, Toronto, for the Culinary Historians of Ontario. Topic: "Sweet Revolutions: The Economic and Social Importance of Sugar as Food."
Oct. 27, 2010 - Sugar: A Bittersweet History published in US.
Oct. 22, 2009 - Guest speaker at Vanier College's Annual Social Science Festival, Montreal.
Oct. 20, 2009 - Guest speaker, Retired Women School Teachers of Ontario, Scarborough branch.
June 6, 2009 - Guest speaker at PawsWay, Toronto. Topic: "Rescuing Serbian Dogs."
May 23, 2009 - Guest author at Prince Edward County Authors' Festival, Picton, Ontario.
May 15, 2009 - Keynote speaker at Franklin College's "Exploring the Developing World: The Caribbean" Intercultural Honors Experience Symposium.
May 6, 2009 - Book signing and discussion at Best of Books, St. Johns, Antigua.
April 2, 2009 - Guest author at Toronto's Feast of Authors, St. Lawrence Market.
Feb. 9, 2009 - Benmergui in the Morning on JAZZ FM 91.
Feb. 7, 2009 - CFRB Newstalk 1010, with Lynn Russell.
Feb. 6, 2009 - TVO's The Agenda Round Table with Steve Paikin.
Feb. 2, 2009 - Breakfast Television, CityTV Toronto.
Jan 29, 2009 - CHYR Radio with Ashkon Hobooti.
Jan. 22, 2009 - Classical 96 Radio, Live on the Oasis, with Alexa Petrenko.
Jan. 21, 2009 - CBC's Ontario Today with Cathy Alexander.
Jan. 21, 2009 - CIUT Radio with Monika Warzecha.
Jan. 20, 2009 - CHRY radio with host William Doyle Marshall.
Jan. 15, 2009 - Lectured at Yale University Library's Public Speakers Series on the history of sugar production, Caribbean slavery and the West India Interest/ sugar lobby. Sugar: A Bittersweet History, was short-listed for THE CHARLES TAYLOR PRIZE for Literary Non-Fiction.
Nov. 15, 2008 - Guest speaker at the Pierspective Entraide Humanitaire (PEH), a fundraising gala to support charitable initiatives in Haiti
For more information about these charities, see www.haitiaide.ca
Nov. 8, 2008 - Guest speaker at the Independence Day gala of the Antigua and Barbuda Association of Toronto.
October 2008 - Lectured on Sugar: A Bittersweet History at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies Lecture Series at the St. George Campus, Markham, and Oakville.
September 2008 - Le Sucre: Une Histoire Douce-Amère, the French edition of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, was launched by Éditions Fides.
Sept. 18, 2008 - Elizabeth was honored to be part of the official book launch of ZooCheck Canada Director Rob Laidlaw's new young adults book, Wild Animals in Captivity. She read from Sugar: A Bittersweet History, describing how the Caribbean sugar plantocracy pitted slaves against draft and farmed animals.
July 28, 2008 - Book signing of Sugar: A Bittersweet History at The World's Biggest Bookstore, 20 Edward St., Toronto.
July 19-29, 2008 - Guest speaker at a dinner at Auberge Georgeville, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and signed books at artists' co-op Studio Georgeville.
June 28-29, 2008 - Guest author at the Bayfield Writers' Festival.
June 18, 2008 - Attended the Hamilton Book Club meeting, which featured Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Even as a writer, it's hard to find words to describe the camaraderie I found with these readers. A terrific evening I hope to repeat.
May 20, 2008 - Interviewed by Anne Lagacé Dowson, CBC News At Six. Tonic. All In A Weekend. Canada Live. C'est La Vie ... With Elizabeth Abbott author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Part One. Part Two ...
May 9, 2008 - Daybreak - Montreal's Anne Lagacé Dowson reviewed Sugar: A Bittersweet History.
March 17, 2008 - Interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current, CBC radio, Monday about Sugar: A Bittersweet History.
Elizabeth is now writing a series - Elizabeth Abbott Has Coffee With .... about Toronto writers in The Voice, a community newspaper.
Feb. 27, 2008 - Read from Sugar: A Bittersweet History at International Readings at Harbourfront, Toronto.
Elizabeth was one of Luminato's Mille Femmes, a tribute to 1,000 artistic, creative and inspiring women from Toronto who embody the passion and heritage of the city of Toronto, chosen in recognition of their achievements and leadership in their field. Their 1,000 portraits will become a visual network, a chain of recognition that celebrates not only an extraordinary community of women, but also the creative character and diversity of Toronto.
Monday, 09 January 2012 11:24
ETERNAL HAPPINESS IN A WEDDING DRESS
Wintertime magic can mean many things. For many lovers, it can be an end to the waiting game. During the holiday season, he (or she) popped the question, and now you’re getting married! Let the wedding planning begin!
These (often frenzied) preparations include a determined search for the right location, the right ambiance, the right rings, the right dress. Often a bride already knows exactly how she wants to look on her wedding day, if only she can find that perfect dress and its accessories.
But almost certainly she will not be expecting that her wedding dress will inspire some of the world’s greatest art. Or that her husband will continually re-imagine it as he shares the joy of their marriage in oil paint on canvas.
Yet that is exactly what happened to Russian Bella Rosenfeld-Chagall when, four years after their nuptials on the rainy evening of July 25, 1915, her painter-husband Marc Chagall stunned the art world with his Double Portrait with Wine Glass, a portrait of the couple in wedding garb that, nearly a century later, is considered “the most lyrical representation of connubial bliss ever put to canvas.”[i]
How did Bella’s wedding dress translate onto her husband’s canvases? Double Portrait (1917) makes it long-sleeved and décolleté, worn over purple undergarments that match her fan, while Marc, resplendent in red jacket and green shirt, rides on her shoulders and waves a wine glass.
But in Wedding (1918), Bella’s dress is primly high-collared, her veil long and her hand gloved, in keeping with Marc’s conventional suit and hat. In a distant tree branch, a fiddler plays, while hovering above and embracing the newlyweds is the red-winged figure of Ida, their little daughter, born in 1916.
What kind of wedding united such a blissfully happy couple? What lessons can we draw from the Chagalls?
The first was the depth, strength and confidence of their love. They first met when Bella was fourteen, Marc twenty-one. It was love at first sight, and it lasted forever.
Marc “has come and broken the calmness of my days,” Bella wrote. “His eyes, they were so blue as the sky oblong, like almonds. The face of this boy lives inside me as my second ego, his voice is in my ears.”[ii]
Marc rhapsodized, “Her silence is mine. Her eyes, mine. I feel she has known me always, my childhood, my present life, my future; as if she were watching over me, divining my innermost being, though this is the first time I have seen her. I knew this is she, my wife.”[iii]
But beautiful Bella was a mere adolescent, Marc a struggling artist, and they came from vastly different social and economic classes. The six years it took them to overcome these problems only deepened their love and strengthened their commitment to each other.
Marc was the oldest of nine children, whose hardworking father, did “hellish work” as a herring monger while his mother sold groceries from their home. Bella, however, the youngest daughter of a wealthy man who owned three jewellery stores, was well-educated and raised in luxury.
The Rosenfelds, Marc wrote, “prepared enormous cakes, apple, cheese, poppy-seed, at the sight of which I would have fainted. And at breakfast they served mounds of those cakes which everyone fell upon furiously, in a frenzy of gluttony.” The Chagalls, in contrast, made do with “a simple meal like a still life à la Chardin.”[iv] And unlike the Rosenfelds, who ate poultry daily, the Chagalls served it only on the eve of the Day of Atonement.
Bella’s mother ridiculed her daughter’s lover. “It looks to me as if he even puts rouge on his cheeks. What sort of a husband will he make, that boy as pink-cheeked as a girl? He’ll never know how to earn his living. You’ll starve with him, my daughter. ... And what will everybody say?”[v]
The Rosenfelds’ disapproval reinforced Chagall’s determination to make a name for himself as an artist, so that he could support a family. Thanks to a Russian patron, Chagall spent several years in art-rich Paris, studying and painting until he accumulated an impressive portfolio.
At the same time he thought “night and day” of Bella and, always faithful to her, refrained from sampling Paris’ fleshly delights. Instead, he focused on mastering his art and establishing himself as a painter and selling some paintings.
His persistence and Bella’s loyalty paid off. In 1915, back home in Vitebsk, the Rosenfelds succumbed to his arguments that he would make Bella a good husband.
But the wedding arrangements suited only the Rosenfelds, who planned and paid for it. Marc arrived very late, and overheard guests gossiping about him – “Who is his father?” one snob wondered aloud - and he mocked how gluttonously they eyed the wedding feast.
As for the ceremony, the wise and crafty old rabbi rained down blessings – or “perhaps curses”? – until Chagall nearly fainted. “I became a hero of a traditional wedding ceremony under the wedding canopy exactly as it was in my pictures. I got benediction - all was done according to the traditions despite my objections,” he recalled wryly. He felt resentful, snubbed, yet supremely happy on this, “the most important night of my life.”[vi]
The wedding and its accoutrements – including the gown that came to symbolize their marriage - – were unimportant in themselves. What mattered was the romantic love, personal respect, deepest mutual commitment, shared values and unremitting hard work that enabled these extraordinary lovers to unite in an idyllic marriage that endured for twenty-nine years, until Bella’s death.
[i] James Adams, “Chagall reframed: AGO casts painter in a new light,” Globe and Mail, Oct. 14, 2011.
[iii] Marc Chagall, My Life, (reprinted 1994) p. 74.
Sunday, 16 October 2011 14:32
IF HE HAS A MISTRESS, WHY CAN'T SHE HAVE A .... MISTER?
In the 21st century, egalitarianism reigns -- or does it? Why, if a husband can have a mistress, can his wife not have a mister? Not just a "piece on the side," certainly not a gigolo, but a man with whom she shares a long-term, extramarital romantic and sexual relationship -- a mister, the male equivalent to husband's mistress. (Except that, in these modern times, she should not have to support him.)
This is by no means a new notion. In 1778, Lady Julia Stanley -- the protagonist of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's novel "The Sylph" -- muses that her husband has had a mistress since their wedding day and asks plaintively, "What law excludes a woman from doing the same?"
The simple answer was the law of the double standard that tolerated adultery in husbands but condemned it in wives -- the law of England, indeed, the law of most lands. In an era of marriages contracted as either commercial or family alliances, when (in Lady Julia's words) "the heart [was] not consulted," this law was particularly onerous.
Let's look at how patrician society in England and Italy attempted to assuage the wifely dissatisfaction and unhappiness that marked so many unloving marriages. Julia's creator, Georgiana, knew the rules. The wife must produce an heir and until then, remain faithful. Afterward, as long as she was discreet, she could become another privileged man's lover (no mating with the coachman or gardener!) but without conceiving his child. Her husband, who protected and provided for her, could only be clandestinely cuckolded.
Georgiana played by these rules. Whenever she seemed likely to stray, her controlling mother reined her in. It didn't matter that her husband's new mistress, Bess Foster, was her closest friend. Only after Georgiana had produced an heir could she decently look outside her marriage for the personal fulfillment so egregiously lacking inside it.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Bess Foster, her best friend but also the Duke's mistress
That happy day came when Georgiana delivered William Hartington "Hart" Spencer, her third child and first son, the longed-for heir who (she rejoiced) freed her from marital bondage. She began a passionate love affair with the much younger politician, Charles Grey. But Grey was not her mister. Rather, she had become his mistress.
Then Georgiana broke a cardinal rule -- she became pregnant by Grey -- and her furious husband forced her to choose. If she did not break off with Grey, she would never again see her children. Georgiana's capitulation was immediate. Terrified and contrite, she renounced mistressdom and resumed her life as an unloved, cuckolded wife.
In Italy, the talented and beautiful Teresa Guiccioli, teenage wife of the very wealthy sixty-year-old Count Alessandro Guiccioli, had a similarly difficult marriage. But before she provided the Count with an heir, Teresa fell profoundly in love with the charismatic and equally smitten expatriate English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.
They had sex almost immediately. Teresa's maid helped cover their tracks. A priest acted as their go-between. Their affair invoked the unreality of Italian opera -- assignations in gliding gondolas and charming, out-of-the-way villas, and long, long hours in bed. Soon, Byron proposed that they run away together.
Countess Guiccioli and her cavalier servente and not-so-secret lover, Lord Byron
Teresa was shocked. Did Byron not know that in Italy, a wife could have both a husband and a cavalier servente, an eternally faithful, devoted (though chaste) lover? Teresa could have Byron and Guiccioli together -- as long as they pretended that she and Byron were not sexual partners.
The institution of cavalier servente did not challenge the husband's dominance in marriage. As in England, a wife was supposed to produce her husband's heir. Afterward, she was free to cavort with an amico -- a "friend" or soulmate who would accompany her to plays, churches and elsewhere. But unlike his English counterpart, the amico was forbidden to have sex with her.
The supposedly sex-starved amico also had to swear eternal fidelity to his mistress and promise never to marry or to leave Italy. (Priests were a favorite choice, for their vows of celibacy precluded marriage with anyone.) This arrangement also protected the husband; should he die, his merry widow could never marry her amico. Murder, or suspicious accidents aka "Divorce, Italian Style" could not change the amico's status. A husband's demise was no reason -- or excuse -- for his wife's platonic relationship to become a sexual one.
The wife's conduct was carefully regulated. She could see her amico in her home but not in his. She could invite him to theatrical productions in her family's box but not join him in his. She was bound forever to her husband, and she and her amico had to display admiration and affection for him, and never shame or dishonor him or his family's name or, for that matter, her father's.
So how did cavalier servente work for Teresa? First, Guiccioli "borrowed" a large sum of money from Byron, then invited him to move into their palace where eighteen servants spied on the lovers and made sexual trysts nearly impossible. Guiccioli also noisily exercised his husbandly right to sex with Teresa, making Byron intensely jealous.
As the affair deteriorated, Byron complained that a man should not be hobbled to a woman, and that his "existence [as a cavalier servente] is to be condemned." Weary of the conflict and rancor, and no longer "furiously in love," Byron left Italy -- and Teresa -- forever. Teresa grieved. In breaking the rules that forbid a cavalier servente from abandoning his mistress, Byron had broken her heart and humiliated her. Soon after, her unhappy marriage failed.
Georgiana and Teresa were exceptional women in unexceptional marriages, and their experiences were typical of those of legions of dissatisfied and unhappy wives who struggled for a modicum of relief from the constraints of their arranged marriages. The English assumed sex would occur but penalized its consequences; the Italians permitted socializing and companionship couched in terms of medieval courtly love, but forbid sex. Both imposed strict standards of decorum that upheld husbandly authority. Both systems were, in other words, based on hypocritical premises and for most women, could only work when practiced in the breach.
Our egalitarian society has yet to improve on these 18th century pioneering models by devising a way to respond to today's realities. More than two centuries later the challenge still resonates: If a husband can have a mistress, why can't his wife have a mister?
Sunday, 04 September 2011 17:16
Tent City on the Airport Road
I hadn’t been back to Haiti since the tremblement, the earthquake that killed countless people and devastated so much of the country. The destruction was immediately evident. On both sides of the airport road, settlements of uniform grey tents were pitched close. In the crammed capital of Port-au-Prince that was once my home, I saw the rubble and ruins, and more appalling encampments of tattered tents. Amputees, most victims of the earthquake, hobbled by on crutches or sticks. Streetside vendors crouched beside their wares outside storefronts that ran the gamut from wretchedly battered to freshly painted. Pedestrians hurried through the streets, a melange of humanity: half-naked men straining and sweating under too-heavy loads, smartly-dressed women in high-heels, Madame Sarahs balancing massive baskets on their heads, schoolchildren in neat uniforms. There were also idle loungers, groups of young men gabbing, gesticulating, swigging bottled drinks, sharing Comme Il Faut cigarettes.
Haiti has an extraordinarily high percentage of youth in the population, 35.9% under fourteen (it’s 16.8% in Canada) , with a median age of 21.1 for males, 21.6 for females (38.6 and 40.4 in Canada). The contingent that really caught my eye was the army of young males on motorbikes, riding with the cockiness of immaturity exacerbated by the frustration of travel on Haiti’s miserable roads.
Young Man on Motorbike
Many of them operate as unofficial taxis, transporting customers one by one. In a country near infrastructural collapse, they are an important part of the private sector - and only - transportation system. As part of their scramble to pay for and fuel their bikes, they offer an affordable service that on mountainous Haiti’s twisting, gutted roads, is often the only alternative to drudging on foot or mounting the rubbed-raw back of a thirsty, overburdened mule or pony.
Man Transports Three Schoolgirls
Another Common Sight on Haitian Roads
First, some context: motorbikes proliferate throughout the developing world. Price-wise, they clobber all competition from bigger vehicles. They consume much less fuel and are easier to maintain and repair. They can navigate roads impassible in other vehicles and if they encounter unbreachable obstacles, it’s fairly easy to pick them up and haul them to the nearest drivable spot. The earthquake prompted a rush on motorcycle sales and rentals as foreign aid workers thronged Haiti’s roadways. The U.S. Haiti Motorcycle Project was devoted to facilitating aid delivery.
Haiti's "Eagles" provide clean drinking water
But in Haiti as elsewhere, this reliance on motorbikes exacts a terrible toll in the high incidence of traffic accidents. Statistics are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence of carnage is ubiquitous. On a single day, an accident involving two motorcycles occurred before my eyes. Minutes later, a third one crashed into a ditch feet away. On another occasion, an emergency department physician at the Hôpital Saint-Michel, the southeastern city of Jacmel’s sole hospital, confirmed the frequency and severity of these accidents. I was there, as it happened, assisting and translating for my traveling companion, a Canadian doctor summoned by the frantic relative of a young man lying speechless and unmoving hours after a horrific motorbike accident.
Motorized two-wheelers are inherently riskier to drive than larger vehicles, and their young male drivers are disproportionately injured. But in Haiti other factors contribute and they speak to Haiti’s weak government and near-absent infrastructure.
Heavy, congested traffic
First, the condition of the nation’s roads is abysmal and not just because of the earthquake. They are seldom maintained and many lack their asphalt covering. Side streets and rural roads are often beaten earth. Drainage is inadequate and heavy rains transform roads into slippery and muddy tracks. Even main thoroughfares lack lighting. Potholes and fallen trees or rocks obstruct roads for days or longer, forcing traffic to swerve around them.
Road blockages are common
Guard rails, road signs, lane lines and traffic lights are rare. Other hazards are the sheer mass of people who, for want to sidewalks, throng the roads and often dart across them. Goats, dogs and pigs meander up and down. In the countryside, so do cows and donkeys.
Cows and other animals share the roads with vehicles and pedestrians
Drivers (including motorbikers) do not make things easier. They are lax about observing rules of the road, including speed limits, keeping to the right lane, passing and right of way, which are seldom if ever enforced. Vehicles, many groaning under overload, are not properly maintained and corrupt inspectors issue safety certificates in return for bribes that cost less than repairs. On treacherous mountain roads, brakes fail and vehicles slide backwards, slamming into others or over cliffs unprotected by guard rails. Broken lights and malfunctioning horns are common so that in night-time, which falls early in Haiti, vehicles may be invisible to each other until just before they collide. In hours-long traffic jams, oil leaks and gas runs out, stalling vehicles. Some drivers forestall gas shortages by carrying containers of sloshing gasoline in their trunks. The appalling roads puncture tires, creating a huge commerce of tire-repairers set up everywhere at roadside stalls.
As if this were not enough, the young drivers have no qualms driving without a license. They seldom wear helmets, those expensive and aesthetically uncool barriers to bashed-in skulls. They speed, listen to loud music through earplugs that mask traffic noises, fail to signal what they intend to do, refuse to cede to other drivers. The first accident I witnessed was caused by a pair of motorbikes slamming into a truck from a side road; the young drivers had not bothered to slow down before racing onto the main road.
Riding gear seldom includes helmets
Motorbikers constitute a minority (albeit a substantial one) of their demographic, and in many ways resemble their counterparts all over the world and participate in delivering the essential service of transportation. But thanks to Haiti’s minimal official oversight or enforcement of what laws and rules of the road do exist, they live on the edge and continually put their own and their passengers’ lives at risk. In a nation whose young people are its greatest resource, surely such potential should not be so recklessly squandered.
Friday, 02 September 2011 16:51
WHY MISTRESSES HAVE EVERYTHING TO DO WITH MARRIAGE
The "Fancy Woman" and her Lover
I grew up hearing about mistresses from my mother. She would tell us about the “fancy women” her grandfather, Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained in what she disdainfully referred to as a "love nest." Why did Great-grandmother Minnie tolerate this? Because in her comfortable 19th century world, the alternative – divorce – was unthinkable. But Minnie put a price on her husband’s philandering. For every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. So his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.
My great-grandfather walked a well-trodden path, and that’s why I wrote Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman as the central book in my historical relationship trilogy that includes A History of Celibacy and A History of Marriage. Mistressdom, in fact, has everything to do with marriage. It’s an institution parallel and complementary to marriage, and it evolved to accommodate the sexual double standard that tolerates adultery in husbands but condemns it in wives. Like celibacy, mistressdom offers a fascinating perspective into how women relate to men other than in marriage.
Mistresses, it seems, are everywhere. One U.K. reviewer was startled to find the painful story of the end of her own first marriage on page four of my book. Bel Mooney’s husband, British radio present Jonathan Dimbleby, suddenly plunged into a dramatic and obsessive affair with the magnificent soprano, Susan Chilcott, who was terminally ill with cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later. “It felt like an unstoppable force.” Yet he also “felt absolutely torn” about being away from Bel and their decades-long, happy marriage.
Less than three months after her last public performance, playing Desdemona and singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch'io viva ancor, ch'io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!) Susan died. But a grieving Jonathan did not return to Bel and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce. My retelling of their story, Bel wrote, “was a reminder that there are no easy generalisations about this subject.” But she did offer this perspective: “I admit to a suspicion that most men are susceptible to temptation. Show me a loyal husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”
Bel Mooney - "Show me a loyal husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”
Well, not all loyal husbands lack opportunity, but as Bel Mooney’s personal experience suggests, opportunity is all too often irresistible. Remember when President Clinton was under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky? We discovered later that as Reverend Jesse Jackson piously counseled and prayed for Clinton, he was also cheating on his wife with a mistress who was carrying his child. And Clinton’s self-righteous prosecutor, Newt Gingrich, was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.
Rev. Jesse Jackson and Karin Stanford
Newt Gingrich and Callista Bisek
Both Jackson and Gingrich mistook the waning years of the 20th century for an earlier era, when mistressdom was the familiar handmaiden of marriage. That was clear when Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, successfully sued him for child support. After millennia of protecting marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, indeed even making it difficult for men to recognize and provide for their “outside” children, our new laws essentially “outlaw” the concept of illegitimacy; they also demand parental accountability. Gingrich made another kind of mistake: he gambled on keeping his affair a secret but six years into it, he got caught. The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who-would-be-president on a platform of “family values” had to settle for becoming his mistress’s divorced new husband, who would never be president.
Mistresses are not always ruinous to their lovers’ marriages. Some people believe that love affairs enrich and enliven marriage. Frenchmen, for example, can justify the cinq à sept, the after-ofﬁce-hours rendezvous a man enjoys with his mistress, by quoting French writer Alexandre Dumas's pithy observation: “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it often takes two people to carry them, and sometimes three.”
The British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by his wife, ex-wives and mistresses, had another take on marriage and mistressdom: “When a man marries his mistress,” Goldsmith opined, “he creates an automatic job vacancy.”
In today’s North America, when most marriages are rooted in mutual love and compatibility, mistresses pose a different and often greater threat to marriages. This was not always so. In the days of arranged marriages, when parents selected their children's spouses for economic reasons or to cement family, business or political alliances, romantic love was considered an irrelevant, self-indulgent and even treacherous foundation for marriage. Husbands and wives were expected to cohabit and operate as an economic unit, and to produce and raise children. They were not expected to adore one another or to fulfill each other's emotional needs. Though some spouses developed romantic feelings for each other, usually respect and camaraderie were as much as anyone could hope for, and many marriages were desperately unhappy. This was the context that prompted all but the most puritanical societies to tolerate the tradition of mistresses who enabled men to satisfy their romantic and lustful urges.
The times they are a’changing, and so is the nature of marriage and therefore of mistressdom. Laws and institutions are more egalitarian. Birth control is effective and accessible. Modern mistresses are less likely to depend financially on their lovers. Much more often they fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The alternative to breaking up is the insecurity of the status quo. Many mistresses accept it but hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage. Today as in the past, the two institutions are inextricably linked.
Thursday, 14 July 2011 17:27
GAY MARRIAGE, GAY PARENTS: WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?
Legalizing gay marriage has opened the floodgates of impassioned debate about its most contentious sequel: gay parenting. The classic questions - How does their parents’ gayness affect children? Do gay parents “create” homosexuality in their children? – reflect baseless homophobic fears. The children of gay parents are no likelier to be gay than the children of heterosexuals.
Other, more child-centered questions include: Is it better to have two parents rather than one, even if both are fathers or mothers? Are gay parents likelier than heterosexuals to abuse their children? Will their children suffer more bullying or ostracism? What happens in case of divorce—which mother or father gets custody, and under what sort of arrangement? Because the nature of gay marriage means that only one—and often neither—spouse is the child’s biological parent, custody disputes are inherently more challenging.
More complicating still can be impregnation by sperm donors whose role the law, if not all the individuals involved, may interpret as fatherhood. The children may handily navigate their relationships, but defining them within the context of social and legal norms, and without apparent precedent, is not easy.
There’s one thing it’s difficult to dispute: the children of gay parents are not victims. Almost all studies, even those whose authors do not couch their premises in gay-friendly terms, conclude that gay parenting is pretty well comparable to its heterosexual equivalent. A quartet of Brigham Young University scholars, for example, conclude that “adolescents raised by gay and lesbian parents typically behave more like youth in two parent biological families, providing little support for gendered-deficit theories.” Charlotte Patterson’s comprehensive 2005 study for the American Psychological Association interpreted three decades of research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and concluded:
“The results … are quite clear … Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. … Lesbian mothers’ and gay fathers’ parenting skills may be superior to those of matched heterosexual couples … This was attributed to greater parenting awareness among lesbian nonbiological mothers than among heterosexual fathers. … In contrast to … the majority of American parents, very few lesbian and gay parents reported any use of physical punishment (such as spanking) as a disciplinary technique.
Friday, 08 July 2011 06:56
Gay Marriage Act's Impact on Heterosexual Marriage
Whether straight men and women know it or not, New York’s new Gay Marriage Act will have an enormous impact on them. The reason? It will eliminate or at least drastically reduce the likelihood of gays attempting to conceal or even change their orientation through heterosexual marriage.
In the past, many gay people did not identify with or even fully understand what homosexuality was, or their relationship to it. In earlier centuries, for example, intense and sustained same-sex relationships were considered unremarkable. And because notions of privacy were still practised largely in the breach, it was customary for friends—even strangers—to save money or make do with limited space by sharing beds and many did so.
As a fledgling lawyer, Lincoln economized by sharing a bed with Joshua Speed, his lifelong friend.
At the same time, homosexuals “caught” being homosexual were treated as criminals. In 1953, for example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 required all civil and military federal employees guilty of “sexual perversion” to be fired, and thousands were. As late as 1965, Canada imprisoned a gay mechanic as a “dangerous sexual offender” after he admitted to having consensual sex with other men. He was released only in 1971, when the tide began to change.
Is New York's Gay Marriage Truly Historic?
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 18:53
Tori and Kate Kendall hold their five-month-old baby, Zadie, during their wedding on
June 17, 2008, in West Hollywood, California.
Google “New York Gay Marriage” and 73 million plus stories pop up, explaining, celebrating or lamenting the legalizing of gay marriage in New York. Bridal and tuxedo shops are bracing happily for an onslaught of wedding-minded gay partners. An ever-cautious President Obama praises the process of New York legislature’s democratic debate on the subject. Shocked homophobes and opponents of anti-gay marriage pray hard against it. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who confessed his disappointment and need for “a good dose of the Lord’s graced and mercy,” adds that despite his pro-(heterosexual)marriage views, he loves gays very much. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the vote “historic.”
Historic? Very much so, but not in the way that Clinton means. Gay people have always been around, and in eras when homoeroticism was viewed more matter-of-factly, as in ancient Egypt, various Greek city states, and the Roman Empire, there is evidence of same-sex unions, and perhaps marriage. What else to make of the Sifra, a third-century commentary on Leviticus often cited by the Talmud, forbidding the Israelites from copying what they believed to be Egyptian practices:
- And what would they do?
- A man would marry a man and a woman would marry a woman; a man would marry a woman and her daughter; a woman would be married to two men.
- That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.”
In ancient Greece, some fathers consented to quasi-marital unions between their sons and men who desired them. Similarly, in China’s Fujian province in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), women ceremoniously bound themselves into intimate unions with girls, and men did the same with boys. These relationships ended years later, and the adult spouses then helped their young partners find and marry opposite-sex spouses.
Word Clouds – Or How I Stopped Hating Algorithms
Written by Elizabeth Abbott
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 21:08
I flunked first year college math and algorithms were partly to blame. To me, algorithms were mysteriously ordered numbers at the back of the book; to the professor and most of my classmates, they were mathematical tools they (but not I) could manipulate in their various calculations.
Decades did nothing to alter my (non)grasp of algorithms. But today, after an emailed Word Cloud made me catch my breath at its fantastical kaleidoscope of tumbling words, I had an epiphany: in the right hands, algorithms process and pummel words into artworks as fanciful and compelling as a burst of laughter.
I don’t know who invented Word Clouds but if my math professor had, and if he’d told us about them, I believe I’d have gobbled up algorithmic theory and aced the course. (Well: at least I might have struggled through and passed it.)
Look at just how intriguing Word Clouds can be. I created each of them with the same text pasted into the template; it’s from the Books section of this site and is a big whack of critical praise (it’s my prerogative to omit any of the critical un-praise) for my most recent book, A History of Marriage. Word Cloud algorithms then gulped down all these wonderful words and reproduced them, bowing to my instructions about font, colour and size, and whether they should be structured or randomized. I haven’t yet conquered saving those that aren’t jpgable, but I managed to learn how to do screenshots instead, a minor triumph for someone fighting a lifetime’s self-identification as a math-and-science dunce.
At least I thought I had.
But after posting this I realized that I can’t yet save screenshots on WordPress. Too bad, because my favorite Word Cloud is a Wordle, the colours rich against a stark background, key words jumbled out like an knock-down, no holds-barred spousal argument on a moonlit camping trip. Nor can I provide the source code, because Jonathan Feinberg, Wordle’s supremely clever inventor, wrote the the core algorithms on IBM company time, making IBM the owner, with reserved rights.
This Word It Out reminds me of a scribbled note in a womanly hand. It offers the promise (though it cannot deliver it) of a prose passage, an important message to be heeded if only one could.
This one is precise and messily serious, a teaching tool with built in Post-It notes and highlighter.
The one below is sexier, marriage and all its components squished into a heart pulsating with words in shades of pinkness.
Marriage From the Perspective of a Pink Heart
But the dangers of Word Clouds are already revealed. They are wickedly seductive and time-consuming, which is why I’m going to post these Clouded Words now, algorithms now loved though as mysterious as they ever were.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011 14:27
When the British Columbia government’s polygamy reference case opened at the province’s Supreme Court on November 22, 2010, a stream of participants and witnesses, including representatives from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, REAL Women of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, and academic experts, testified about the many harms associated with polygamy. Carolyn Jessop, who fled a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FDLS) community in Utah with her eight children in the middle of the night, summed it up well: “Polygamy is not pretty to look at. It is nice that it is tucked away in a dark corner where nobody has to see its realities, because it’s creepy.”
But George Macintosh, the amicus curiae appointed to present the opposing argument, came out swinging. He characterized Section 293 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which bans polygamy, as an overly broad and grossly disproportionate law rooted in Christian prejudices, a law demeaning to polygamists. Women in polygamous marriages anonymously testified that they were happy, that they’d made the right decision. According to CBC, the BC Civil Liberties Association argued that “consenting adults have the right — the Charter protected right—to form the families that they want to form.” And the Canadian Association for Free Expression maintained that the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 strengthened the individual’s right to enter a polygamous marriage.
The rights argument carries considerable weight in a liberal society. But something that hasn’t been fully considered but should be factored in to any reasonable decision is that rights can’t be separated from the culture in which they arise. They are inextricably linked to institutions that form the backbone of a society, and in every society throughout history the fundamental organizing institution has always been marriage.
From the beginning, it seems, marriage has been a financial agreement, a way of distributing resources. But it has not been exclusively monogamous. In old Babylonia, for example, a marriage contract might include a stipulation for polygamy. While polygamy would never be the primary form of marriage — as the case of Bountiful, B.C., illustrates, huge segments of the male population would be out of luck — it was certainly widespread. And it’s clear that it provided unique advantages.
Polygamy acted as husbandly insurance against an individual wife’s barrenness, as well as high child mortality rates, and made ill or aging wives less burdensome. With so many children, polygamists had plenty of sons to work the land or contribute to their commercial ventures; in militaristic societies, these sons were prized as military recruits. Daughters, less valued, were still useful for domestic work, or to be advantageously married off to polygamous men.
Polygamy is also entrenched in another ancient institution, patriarchy, and in this context of women’s assumed dependence it actually offered them certain protections. The expandable nature of the polygamous union meant there was a better chance another man would take in a wife who wanted to leave her current husband, or whose husband wanted to leave her. It also meant men were less likely to renounce unwanted, old, sick, or barren wives in the first place; even if they were shunted aside in favour of younger, healthier women, they at least remained married. Co-wives would typically share a residence or compound, co-operating in household duties, including raising one another’s children.
And yet such unions could also very easily succumb to ever-simmering tensions and jealousies. This was especially true with regard to children, rivals for their father’s attention and resources, and whose interests each mother attempted to promote at the expense of the other children. Moreover, an unhappy woman had little choice but to endure her lot; even if the prospect of single life seemed preferable, she would be forced to leave her children behind, possibly with an angry father and vindictive co-wives.
While early Christian patriarchs were polygamous — the Biblical King Solomon, with 700 wives, spectacularly so — the Church gradually renounced the practice, largely because Greco-Roman culture happened to prescribe monogamy. Christians born into the monogamous tradition explained away the Old Testament’s stories about polygamy as a fast track to fulfill God’s instructions to populate the world when it had fewer people; in chapter 7 of On the Good of Marriage, AD 401, St. Augustine wrote, “Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife.”
By about 1300, Christianity had spread across Europe, and despite pockets of resistance — the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, for instance —installed monogamy along with it. Little changed until, in the eighteenth century, the Western world was rocked by the combined force of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. While philosophers and political thinkers challenged age-old assumptions about authority, industry created a resource-rich middle class, which increasingly populated cities, where word spread quickly: the divine right of kings had given way to the notion of universal rights to life, liberty, and property.
These new ideas ultimately altered the balance of power between men and women, and transformed society and marriage. The family’s control over its children’s marriages was increasingly tempered by a regard for individual preferences, and the idea of marrying for love gained momentum. Love would provide companionship, emotional satisfaction, and, most important, an end to the cruelty that marked so many marriages. Women saw love as the lifeline to a decent life, an assurance that they would be treated respectfully by their husbands.
But as love and marriage became increasingly linked in the popular mind, so did the idea of ending loveless marriages — a significant peril of this new incarnation of monogamy. For the profoundly religious, dissolving a marriage isn’t an option, but by the nineteenth century the traditional authority of Christian churches had declined significantly, and divorce became a legal rather than a moral issue. In 1968, Canada passed the Divorce Act, with provisions for no-fault divorce and universal access to spousal support. By making it feasible for women to leave, divorce law had effectively liberalized marriage.
Meanwhile, a great deal of liberal infrastructure was developing around the concept of monogamy. Take personal income tax: first levied in 1917 to finance the First World War, it became the welfare state’s greatest source of revenue, and the calculation always assumed monogamy, simply because that was the only legal form of marriage. The same basic configuration has shaped most modern benefit programs: social assistance, Employment Insurance, Old Age Security or the Canadian Pension Plan, private health insurance, and pensions.
In this context, polygamy has come to seem an abomination. After the FDLS established a community in Lister, B.C., in 1946, polygamous men in the U.S. who struggled to support huge households began to flock there. Their Canadian(ized) wives were eligible for free medical care, day-care subsidies, and eventually the Old Age Pension. As soon as the women were impregnated, their status as technically single mothers also entitled them to claim welfare assistance and other child benefits, a practice known as “bleeding the beast.” By the early 1980s, several hundred members lived in the community which in 1984 was renamed Bountiful.
There is something unsavoury about the FLDS, a religious group headed by smug patriarch Winston Blackmore, taking advantage of Canada’s liberal institutions, but isn’t that bad taste the best test of our commitment to liberalism? Why shouldn’t we find a way to advocate on behalf of FDLS members to practise polygamy unhindered, on the grounds of religious freedom? Why not, in fact, open up marriage to polygamists by legalizing the right to engage in it?
In answering that question, it’s useful to imagine for a moment doing so. Among all the benefits programs we would have to overhaul, perhaps the most satisfying would be welfare, since we could prevent the wives of Bountiful from “bleeding the beast.” But complex issues would arise to adapt various benefit programs that hinge on marriage, and in all but welfare the project would be further confounded by the fact that multiple wives would cost the provider more. Furthermore, distinctions could lead to court challenges, and require wide-ranging legislative changes. When the Ontario court ruled, in 1999, that the definition of common law marriage included same-sex unions, the provincial government had to amend sixty-seven statutes, but that’s nothing compared to the nationwide administrative crisis that would ensue if we attempted to accommodate polygamy.
The thornier issue, however, is marriage itself. The legislated definition of marriage as “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others,” was only just passed in 2005, and would be easy enough to fix by deleting the second clause. But divorce law, which is how the state promotes equality within monogamous unions, is ill equipped to do the same within polygamous ones. Provincial laws currently ensure that when two parties end a marriage, assets accumulated during the relationship are divided equally, with limited exceptions. How much of a husband’s contribution to the marital property would a departing wife receive if she had eight co-wives? One-tenth? But what if those wives appeared on the scene later or earlier — or both? It would not only be infinitely complicated to apply divorce law to polygamy; it would never meet Western liberal standards of fairness. A husband could always dilute his wife’s stake in the family assets by unilaterally deciding to marry another wife.
American legal scholar Adrienne Davis, who believes that conventional family law rooted in monogamous marriage may not be up to attempts at cobbling polygamous marriage onto it, points out an alternative: commercial partnership law. Typically used when two or more parties go into business, according to Davis it would certainly address “polygamy’s central conundrum: ensuring fairness and establishing baseline behaviour in contexts characterized by multiple partners, on-going entrances and exits, and life-defining economic and personal stakes.”
But this is not what polygamists want, and it’s not what we want. Remember, liberal marriage was built on the concept of love; it’s hard to imagine a way of squaring this with the filing of an annual marriage report.
In our longing to ensure that everyone enjoys every possible right, we have been willing to stretch our imaginations, swallow our bile, and give polygamy a chance. That is no less than our values demand of us. But legalizing it is not ultimately in the same category as legalizing gay marriage. While much has been made, in particular, of the parallel between sanctioning same-sex unions and sanctioning polygamy, not least by polygamists themselves, the outcomes couldn’t be more different. The former brought people into an existing system of rights; the latter poses a significant threat to that system.
And that’s probably our cue, as a liberal society, to hold our noses and draw the line.
From the National Post, June 7, 2011.
A longer version of this piece appeared in the May edition of The Walrus magazine.
Whodunnit? From Condoms to Cucumbers: The National Blame Game
Written by Elizabeth Abbott
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 21:21
Leading the pack of scapegoats in Germany’s e-coli outbreak are Spanish vegetable farmers, as innocent as their cucumbers of contaminating (to date) hundreds of German salad eaters – make that salad eaters in Germany.
Spanish cucumbers, now absolved
In the first wave of panic, the crunchy green veggie was singled out. Days later it was exonerated, but not before thousands of Spanish farmers were devastated and perhaps ruined as the European (Dis)union rushed to national judgement. Only choleric Russia did not discriminate, and banned all EU veggies from Russian plates: LET THEM DRINK VODKA!
Victim of the French/English.Spanish/Christian/Polish Disease
In late nineteenth century England, when syphilis stalked the land, Englishmen and women died (they said) of the French Disease that in its French incarnation, however, was known as La Maladie Anglaise while the Russians condemned it as the Polish disease, the Dutch called it Spanish and the Turks condemned it as the Christian disease.
If only its legions of victims had worn a cucumber-like English safe or a French Letter to protect themselves!
The world's oldest condom
Monday, 20 June 2011 14:21
Leading the pack of scapegoats in Germany’s e-coli outbreak are Spanish vegetable farmers, as innocent as their cucumbers of contaminating (to date) hundreds of German salad eaters – make that salad eaters in Germany.
Spanish cucumbers, now absolved
In the first wave of panic, the crunchy green veggie was singled out. Days later it was exonerated, but not before thousands of Spanish farmers were devastated and perhaps ruined as the European (Dis)union rushed to national judgement. Only choleric Russia did not discriminate, and banned all EU veggies from Russian plates: LET THEM DRINK VODKA!
Victim of the French/English.Spanish/Christian/Polish Disease