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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Yoga, Shlepping, and Cultural Appropriation



My first reaction to the “yoga as cultural appropriation” story out of the University of Ottawa was to say this is ridiculous. Political correctness gone mad. Not that I'm a big fan of political correctness even when it's sane. Let everyone appropriate, I thought. Let's all borrow from each other, cross-fertilize, be creative.

 But then I listened to a M├ętis woman on a CBC podcast denounce this sort of thing as oppressive, colonial, insensitive, etc. That didn't convince me. Her political framework is so different from mine that we speak two different languages that don't even connect. However, something else she said did give me pause, making me think, ironically, that she was appropriating my culture.

Early on in the podcast the CBC interviewer was asking some introductory questions just to set the background and introduce us to the speaker, who casually remarked that she'd spent the day “shlepping” around town.

Shlepping?” I thought. How dare she use the word shlepping? That's a Jewish word, my people's word.

Of course, this brought me up short, caught in an internal bind of cognitive dissonance. Here I was in theory celebrating cultural sharing and opposing the notion of cultural appropriation, thinking let's all share each other's cultures, but then when someone not of my culture suddenly used something I thought of as mine, watch out.

Isn't that hypocritical, my non-Jewish girl-friend asked me? Well, yes, I said, I suppose it is, except of course I don't like to think of myself as hypocritical, which would suggest I was violating my own principles. But maybe the principle here is simply don't take my stuff. If other people are borrowing each other's stuff, I shrug and say, Whatever. But if you take my stuff, or my people's stuff, well, that's different.

Not that I even speak Yiddish. Not that I even use “shlep” myself, or “oy vey,” or any of the expressions I heard older generations use. I grew up in a much more assimilated generation, speaking English, not Yinglish. Still, it bothers me for some reason when non-Jews say “oy vey” or “shlep.”

Some words bother me less, I think, like “shtik” or “kibitz”; maybe because they've become English. But then for the woman on that podcast, maybe “shlep” just seemed like an English word too. “Oy vey” seems a bit different. If a non-Jew uses it, I sense mockery, which may be quite unfair, but there you go.

Of course, if someone is indulging in mockery, if their intent is to ridicule in an anti-Semitic way, then that's obviously bad. But the woman on the podcast had no such intent, and yet her use of “shlep” still bothered me, even though in theory it shouldn't bother me at all if I'm being true to what I thought I believed: that we should all just share our cultures.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I am left pondering. I checked online. People do talk about this sort of thing, I mean whether using Jewish words or wearing the Star of David is “appropriative” or appreciative. (And I guess the third possibility is offhand, without even thinking about it.) People debate it; some say non-Jews shouldn't do or say these things.

I don't like telling people not to do or say things. I'm against censorship, I'm not with the recent campaign against so-called micro-aggressions. As a writer, I find that a very dangerous path, leading to the shutdown of creativity.


And yet as the member of a group, however assimilated, I feel unsettled when someone outside the group uses the group's terminology or symbols. Perhaps it's even because I am so far from my Yiddish-speaking ancestors that I hold onto this last little distinction or marker. Perhaps. Who knows? It troubles me.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sheldon and the Mormons

So the other day I was sitting on a bench minding my own business reading a book when two pleasant young women came up to me and the following dialogue ensued.

Pleasant Young Woman 1 (PYW 1): You look very studious.

Sheldon (looking up): Yes ...  How can I help you?

PYW 2: And even taking notes.

Sheldon: Yes.  What can I do for you?

PYW 1 and PYW 2 (in unison): We're missionaries.

"Oh," I said.  "What church?"

PYW 2: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"Oh, the Mormons," I said.

"Yes," said one of them.  "Do you know about the Mormons?"

"There was that musical."

"Did you see it?"

"No.  The Mormons also play a central role in the first Sherlock Holmes story."

PYW 1: Really?

"Yes.  Have you read any Sherlock Holmes stories?"

PYW 1: Yes, but obviously not the first one.

Sheldon: A Study in Scarlet.

PYW 1: Is it any good?

"Oh, very good," I said, though I suddenly thought, Perhaps it doesn't portray Mormons in a very favourable light.  They won't like that.  Still, at least I was able to tell these Mormons something about themselves that they didn't know before.  Performing an act of service, you might call it.

Anyway, at this point I got up to leave, saying cheerily (I'd been cheery throughout) that I had to be on my way.

PYW 1 seemed to accept this, perhaps picking up the signals that I was not good fodder for recruitment despite my cheeriness.  PYW 2, however, persisted.

"Would you like to visit our church?" she said.  "It's right nearby."

"Thanks," I said, "but I have to be on my way."

And that was Sheldon's encounter with the Mormons.

Friday, 22 May 2015

At the Book Launch


The other evening I attended the book launch for the last book of poetry published by Elise Partridge, who died earlier this year.

Elise, with her husband Steve, was a friend of mine, and so I went, though I hardly knew anyone there, and the ones I knew I didn't really know; they were presences when I was in the English Department twenty years before, so I more knew of them than knew them firsthand, so to speak. Sometimes this was because they were profs whose courses I hadn't taken; in fact, whether I'd taken their courses or not wouldn't really matter because, well, I didn't socialize with the professors when I was a grad student.

Then there was the book launch itself, a series of readings of poems from the book, some of them very interesting, but the most interesting moment (not counting the moment when a street person tried to crash the party and steal the donations money) – the most interesting moment or reading for me was of an excerpt from something from the Museum of Natural History about how only 10% of species are even discovered before they become extinct. (I wonder how we know that, but the point is, this resonated with me, along with my feeling of knowing and not-knowing, and along with hearing Elise's poetry, so that eventually I wrote a poem of my own, and here it is:

At the Book Launch

Meeting people I used to not know
Hello, how are you, who are you again?
What are you up to now?
Not that I knew then.
In between
Where did it go?
90% of species exist without ever being known
And then they're gone.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

New Poems

Eight poems inspired by A.A. Milne:

If I were married to the Queen
I think that I would make a scene
I'd say this isn't how it's been
My enemies are all unclean
But after that I'd want to sing
If I were married to the Queen.

-----

If I had a little boy
I think I'd give to him a toy
Not a little pretty doll
That wouldn't suit him, not at all
But a toy that spins and flies around
Though it never leaves the ground
That I think would be quite sound
That indeed would be quite sound

-----

If I were a spider
And sat down beside her
Hoping perhaps I could play
I'd be quite disheartened
And not really smartened
If she were quite frightened away

-----

I wish I had an elephant and rode him to the square
I wish there were some people who said, What have you there?
I do not have an elephant, a tiger, or a drake
I only have a tiny little mouse upon a lake.

-----

A rabbit came a-wandering along a country lane
He held two gloves within his paws and wandered back again
O rabbit, I said to him, rabbit my dear,
Can you explain to us all
Why there's a fool in a stove top hat
Waiting for me in the hall?

-----

It would be nice to have some spice
Though it sadly tickles my nose
And yet I would try it once or twice
Just to see how it goes

-----

You can hear the sea if you stand quite still*
You can listen and know upon a hill
There's all of the world wrapped up in the sea
And maybe there's more of the world to see
Or maybe the world is waiting to be.

*An actual line from "Come Out with Me."
A single line of plagiary.

-----

A poet shouldn't explain his poems
For one thing it might get very long
And worse than that, he might be wrong
And anyway if he tells them through
There isn't much for others to do.