Archive for the ‘Personal Whining’ Category

Oscar Films 2017

Posted: February 10, 2017 in Personal Whining

More than usual, it seems to me, this year’s nominated movies have mostly come out  in the last month.  A few have just come out in wide distribution, so I haven’t seen all of them.  Here’s what I can tell you:

Of the ones I’ve seen,

“La La Land” lives up to its title completely.  It put me to sleep.  Make no mistake; there are plenty of notable things about this film.  The acting and music and sets and special effects are all great.  But the story is cliché.  Actually I saw it as a parody of a cliché, but that didn’t help.  I know I’m being sacrilegious.  I can’t but wonder if its appeal is tied to the need for something simple and sweet in this complicated and dark time.

“Moonlight” was equally non engaging.  Here, while the theme and plot were attempting to be socially relevant, the pace of the movie was almost surreal.  I don’t think that was necessary in order to make any point, unless they were trying to demonstrate how boring the day to day drudge of life was for the characters.  You have to have more than social relevance to make a good movie.

“Hell or High Water” was a good action film, well made and acted, but certainly not exceptional in any way.  I enjoyed it, but I enjoyed a lot of films this year.

“Manchester By The Sea” was also dragging and non engaging.  I couldn’t warm up to the characters, and didn’t feel that it rose above mediocrity in any way.  Not a bad movie, but certainly not notable.

“Arrival” was, in my view, the best film of the year, but I’d be the first to understand why others wouldn’t think so.  I thought it was all round good, but did drag in some places, partly in an over-enthusiastic attempt to create suspense.  It was novel, though, and surprisingly fresh.  It was definitely an intellectual mystery.

“Hacksaw Ridge” The film is well made with an engaging story, although is a little slow at the beginning.  It tackles some interesting moral issues, though sometimes very awkwardly.  Having the main character advocate the idea of non-violence while surrounded by Mel Gibson’s typical graphic violence and gore creates a contradiction.  Perhaps that’s the idea, and it does end up as a bit disturbing.

 

As for best foreign film, I’m really surprised to see “Land of Mine” on the list.  It is a Danish film about German POWs being forced to dig up land mines after the end of WW2.  I saw it at TIFF 2015, so it’s taken a while to come through the works.  Great film, and though I haven’t seen the other foreign films, I highly recommend this one if you can find a copy with subtitles.

 

I guess that the best film I saw this year was “Captain Fantastic”, which is not nominated.  Anyone who knows me can easily see why.  It revolved around themes and issues that I’m very involved in, and had a very strong social commentary that made you think.  Add to that great performances and settings.  You may not agree with the ideas in this movie, but it will cause you to reflect on them, and I think that’s central in a good film.  It’s surprisingly come up sporadically in many of the pre Oscar award shows, so obviously it is getting some critical acclaim.  “Power to the people.  Stick it to the man.”

 

My Best 2016 Album Picks

Posted: January 3, 2017 in Personal Whining

This was a year that I was really impressed with lyrics.  I think that given the current social situation music can play an important part in the lyrics that it presents, much like the Hippie or the Punk eras.  There was a time when Rap did that, even if you could tolerate it, but that time is largely long gone with its and Hip Hop’s lyrics having been little more than fluff for quite a while now.  However, there’s been a bounce and maybe 2017 will see better in this area.

 

  1. David Bowie – Black Star : I’m not placing this here out of respect or pity or anything other than the fact that I think it is a terrific album. Lyrics, melody and production all come together to make Bowie’s obvious “good-bye” a masterful piece of music.  It’s original, deep and full of emotion.

  1. Strumbellas – Hope : I know this is an odd one to put in second place with so many other great albums further down the list, but this is an album that I found myself constantly going back to, impressed with the strength and likeability of almost every song on it.

  1. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker : And he certainly gave it to you. The melodies have the usual Cohen angst, but it is the lyrics that really captured my attention here.  Like Bowie, this may have been a conscious ‘good-bye’.  Song lyrics are just dripping with dark emotion.

  1. Colour of Bubbles – She is the Darkness : Again, a relatively unheard of choice. I’m always impressed by new bands that successfully experiment with new sounds and which just ring out freshly original. I loved their first album and this one does it even a bit better.

  1. Conor Oberst – Ruminations : Catchy ballads and more great lyrics. I’ve been an Oberst fan since the Bright Eyes days.  Personally I found his last solo album much better and diverse, but apparently that opinion was not shared by the critics that found this stripped down Oberst much better.  Either way, all good.  The concert was amazing as well.

  1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree : So you can probably see that the downer tone of the year has influenced my choices. Here’s another really deep and moody selection.  Nick Cave is always a class act.

  1. The Kills – Ice and Ash : A lot of Alt Rock stuff sounds the same. I listened to I don’t know how many New Wave type groups this year and many of them seem interchangeable.  So it’s nice when one stands out as more fresh and original.

  1. Wild Beasts – Boy King : An excellently produced album with strong songs.

  1. Drive By Truckers – American Band : I’m not much of a country music fan, but this one is more R&R. What makes it stand out though are the socially relevant lyrics.  I’m hoping this will be the beginning of a trend.  We need more stuff like this from younger bands to galvanize the fight for social justice issues.  (Neil Young’s latest album does that, but I don’t think he has the weight with listeners under 40 that is needed.)

  1. Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool : Took a long time to get into this album. Didn’t appreciate if fully until one time when I ended up listening to it sitting back and half asleep.  I guess that says something about it.

  1. Agnes Obel – Great voice and well crafted songs.

  1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial : Another one in the ‘Alt-Rock that rises above mediocrity’ category.

  1. Anohni – Hoopelessness : Kind of a slow, experimental, trip hop album with really depression lyrics. Aside from the title track you’ve got some song titles like, “Drone Bomb Me” and “Execution”.  Very clearly preoccupied with social justice issues and stands out from the crowd for that reason and others.  Definately an acquired taste, though.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  Air Traffic Controllers; Bat For Lashes; Dylan LeBlanc; Kongos; Mogwai; Neil Young; Pretenders; Ray LaMontagne; Teenage Fanclub, The Lumineers; and Wilco.

The events that have led up to and culminated in Trump’s presidency can be a catalyst for a new cultural renaissance similar to the one that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s.  It is a unique opportunity to mobilize an energy of outrage and rebellion among a large portion of society.  Seldom has a political upset resulted in such a strong sense of concern and disbelief.

It is difficult to accurately assess the cultural rebellion of the 60s unless you lived through it.  There is no doubt that it had its detractions and failures.  However, it also produced the seed beginning of such things as women’s rights, minority and civil rights, environmentalism, and eventually gay rights.  Furthermore, it sparked a new way of looking at things like consciousness and a new world that was more inclusive and peaceful.  You’d be right in saying that a lot of this was hypocritical, but that doesn’t matter as these things eventually matured into some real and solid social evolution.

When I look at news reports of current demonstrators promoting one cause or another, whether it be anti-Trump, environmental concerns or Occupy Wall Street, I see the same accusations being used against these demonstrators as was used half a century ago:  “They don’t know what they’re doing and don’t understand what they’re talking about.”  And many of them are spectacularly unable to verbalize and express their points (…and if they are, then the media often goes to great lengths to find those who aren’t to insert into the interview.)  It was the same in the 60s.  The “Hippies” were often depicted as unaware of the important issues and politically naive.  Many of them were.  In any group you are going to have those leaders who combine the intelligence and eloquence to properly explain their point of view.  Many of the others will be at varying points on the intelligence and eloquence spectrum and may have a sense of the big picture or even simply a gut feeling about the justice in what they are doing, but will fall short if pressed to accountability.  That’s not a problem.

The marches still took place and the memes still took hold.  One of the central elements of the 60s revolution was the Viet Nam war, which not only was halted to a great degree by social pressure, but which served to present a broader message of peace and cause people to question the role of the American military industrial machine in the arena of world affairs.  It managed to influence things for a fairly long period of time, up to the period just before and after 9-11.  At that point, though the reality changed, the consciousness still endured in some places, -although the mainstream of government did everything to suppress it and twist it into an anti-American or anti-patriotic stance.   In spite of the shortcomings, the evolution still took place, even if it wasn’t totally successful.

The central memes of the 60s were peace, questioning of authority, tolerance of alternative life styles and expanded consciousness, -all of which had their positive and negative aspects.  The past fifty years has tried to sort out those positives and negatives, and I personally think they done a reasonably good job of doing that.  This was the inception of the post-modern, pluralistic stage of our western society.  (In Integral Theory terms, this signals the shift from orange to green.)  The job is far from finished.

The memes that emerged in the 60s were fashion (importantly including long hair as a central symbol), a musical explosion of creativity often centred around social justice, the drug culture which fed a reinterpretation of the nature of consciousness and perspective, alternative life styles which fed the new Green level meme of pluralism and multiculturalism, and finally the whole idea of questioning authority rather than blindly trusting it.  There was the common saying that, “You can’t trust anyone over 30,” which was a flawed idea but reflected the pervasive sentiment of not trusting the establishment.  Interestingly, many of the leaders of the movement were, in fact, well over 30.

It all came together in a strange cultural mixture that had a huge impact on its time and on decades following.  I feel that the same tinderbox for change exists now.  In the late 70s there was a second wave of reformation in the form of the Punk movement, with many of the same memes that I listed above.  However, it didn’t catch fire with the same intensity because the crisis it was addressing was mainly the feeling that the previous “Hippie” revolution had betrayed them, (which in many ways it had.)  Ironically there was a strong thread of anti-racism in the punk movement, although it was confusingly mixed with messages of violence and fascist memes.

The current opportunity is to solidify that shift towards inclusivity and to perhaps even push the segment of society that is ready into a new stage that is even more inclusive.  (Integral  Theory’s Second Tier levels)  In fact, the huge benefit that we may see from the current situation is a refocus and evolution of all of the Integral Levels.  We have an opportunity to understand more about the pre-rational, pre-modernist element of society which was at the core of electing Trump.  This is a social level that does not base its decisions on reason or respect facts.  It is a level that tends to be highly egocentric (though not necessarily selfish) and nationalistic.  They also have a strong predisposition to project their own shortcomings onto their perceived opponents.  These were the people that Trump appealed to.  They never had a candidate that championed their world view, and probably didn’t often vote in prior elections, but Trump woke them up (although many would say that they should have let sleeping dogs lie).  Chances are they are going to stay woken up now that they’ve tasted political power, at least for a while.  Part of what can be learned from the current mess is that these are people who genuinely feel ignored by the system.  They are, in many cases, justified in their malcontent and if you don’t want them interfering with the running of the ship, you have to do a better job of listening to them and satisfying them.  If not, then they wake up and elect people like Trump.

That’s not to say that all of Trump supporters are in this category.  However they undoubtedly made up a major portion of the original core supporters.  After a while other factors added to their numbers; everything from rebellious fad to party loyalty to conservative opportunism likely played a roll.

The cultural renaissance of the 60s was, as I said, largely in response to the Viet Nam war.  Actually that was the catalyst that ignited the fire.  The fuel for that was several decades of bland conformism peppered by early beat generation rebellion.  It was “Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons” on TV and “The Sound of Music” in the theatres.

Now, however, there is a real external social crisis which has the power to fuel a new social reformation.  That crisis is personified in the rise of Trump,  but exists more generally in the rise of reactionary ideas in the form of nationalist isolationism and rolling back progress made in the area of civil rights, women’s’ rights and gay rights.  It is the last hurrah of the premodern elements of society, feeling intimidated by the progress of the world and latching onto current problems to emphasize that fear.  In doing so, they push aside reason and pluralism, digging deep trenches in their own traditional and largely egocentric world view, but still taking full advantage of modern technology to spread false information and practice confirmation bias.  It is the rise of people who had remained dormant for a long time, perhaps feeling powerless.  It is the rise of a people of limited education and sophistication, prime targets for the misinformation wielded by those specializing in media communication.

This is the scenario in which a new rebellion, revolution and reformation is poised to take place.  The outrage and real emotional terror at the Trump win by more than half of the population and especially by those who consider themselves as progressives, is unprecedented.  It is not the usual grief that one’s party lost.  It is a genuine dismay at the loss of an entire way of life or view of what it is to be American, -or in fact just a reasonable human being.  It is a frustration that simple logical arguments that should be done deals are refuted by right wing talking heads who spew illogical nonsense and outright lies, having no respect for facts.

The demographic in the reformation of the 60s was youth.  The demographic of the current rebellion has to be those progressives who respect reason and intelligence (the formal Orange level of Integral Theory) but also the principles of integrity and tolerance (the Green level).  This wouldn’t be an age based demographic, but I believe that it could be even more powerful than age driven evolution ever was.  I believe that there are even people who voted for Trump who would be sympathetic to if not active in such a cultural reassessment.  The kind of mess and free for all that the media has turned into must be concerning to them as well.  It won’t be long before, as was with Brexit, there arises a little “buyer’s remorse” when the Trump administration doesn’t turn out to be as advertized.

It needs cultural memes to hook onto.  “Make America Smart Again”, “Make America Sane Again”, “Facts Matter”,  “It’s OK to be smart!” and the general integrity of reasoning and expertise need to the brought forward.  Key fights, such as Climate Change need to be front and centre, both to champion good science, but also to promote a new era of environmentalism born out of dire necessity.  Reverence for the outdoors, such as what’s happening at    need to become priorities and high profile.  Concerns like those expressed in “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv or expressed in films like “Captain Fantastic” need to be addressed as to whether we are raising children in a world isolated by reality and socialized to play video games, with superficial Internet analyses and information.  In addition to a reverence for Nature, let’s also encourage a reverence for reality.  The word “authentic” was an important one in the 60s.  Let’s encourage authentic relationships, families, group activities, friendships.  Let’s encourage an authentic life.

I’ve already seen a trend towards music that highlights social justice, authenticity and environmental issues.  Think back to the power of songs like CSN&Ys “Ohio”.  Rap music started with that aim, but got badly sidetracked.  It needs to realign itself with its original values and there needs to be music other than rap with those same values (for those of us who have trouble relating to rap).  Hip-Hop has become largely glitz and glamour, echoing the mediocrity of Disco.  It needs to become relevant, not just an “opium for the masses”.  Even in the fringes of country music, I’ve heard bands like The Drive By Truckers who have put some real social commentary teeth in their newest album.

Movies have also been active in this area.  This year’s TIFF slate was enormously heavy with films dedicated to social commentary.  There were films about immigrants, gay issues, cultural issues, etc.  The landmark movies of the 60s revolution were films like “Apocalypse Now” which really questioned the war effort in Viet Nam, and “Altered States” which opened up whole new horizons in the question of consciousness or “The Graduate” which opened doors of discourse around sexuality.  Movies can play a very important part in this kind of social evolution, but they need to be popularly accessible (while retaining quality) if they are going to reach a wider audience.

In the 60s the counter culture saturated society.  It was easier because of the baby boom bubble creaing a great market from which it could profit.  I think that a similar market could exist now, only with a progressive bubble rather than a baby boom one.  There are all sorts of progressively moral people who are eager to act on and display their personal values.  They just need an opportunity.  I’ve many times advocated a campaign where places of business would display “We serve everyone,” signs so that those who have corresponding values can make a point of giving those businesses their patronage.  People would feel good about making that sort of statement.

One of the issues that always seems to come out of the gun control debates is that of mental health.  One of the priorities of this new renaissance has to be a concern with mental health.  This has to happen not only for those who have critical issues, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, but also just in general terms.  Introspection and “mindfulness” skills should be addressed and eventually taught in schools.  These new awareness skill might even make a dent in the whole “virtual world/video game” issue that often prevents authentic connection to reality.  (I want to make clear here that I’m not in opposition to technology, but just want to strike a balance so that more genuine an engaged relationships with reality can be encouraged.  Virtual experiences might actually be useful in treating mental illnesses and in expanding consciousness.  Just not at the expense of reality.)

These fights need to be fought on every front and issue.  The anti-rational, anti-intellectual, anti-expert sentiment must be addressed at every opportunity.  Cases have to be made for modern and post modern values, but with the caviat that there has to be a recognition and accommodation for the pre-rational or concrete rational.  To ignore them would be like ignoring a child.  You don’t do what they say all the time, and you certainly don’t assume their advice to be correct.  But you don’t ignore them either, and you respect them for what they are, encouraging and accommodating them when it makes sense.

And one of the most important things that this renaissance needs to do is to usher in an atmosphere of integrity, but for all of the people including the ones that see themselves outside of this rebellion.  If the Trump supporters are not included in the plan, it would be dangerous and, frankly, unfair.  That doesn’t mean that society defer to them and what they consider to be their moral compass.  Honestly, if all people abided by the standards advocated by the Red core that supported Trump, we would be living in the early 1900s.  If the experts and professionals that these people hold in such distain were to disappear, they wouldn’t have their cell phones, tv shows and other toys.  This sounds kind of like Ayn Rand’s withdrawal of service by the elite class in “Atlas Shrugged”, but that’s not what I’m supporting, -although that might be a necessary segway.   Rand’s reaction was more “I’ll show you!” than “I’ll try to understand and work with you.”  This is a tall order, but the first stage is the all important step of regaining social respect for reason, education and expertise.  A element of society has chosen to devalue these for their own personal and selfish reasons, and that is one of the main things that has led to the rise of misinformation on the Internet and a post-fact world.  Education is extremely important, but that is challenging when some people are actually suspicious of education.

Part of this is the constant talk and attack of “elites”.  Who are “elites”?  In many cases they’re just a catch all phrase for anyone that doesn’t agree with you.  Opposed to the idea of climate change?  Then the experts, scientists and people generally educated to be knowledgeable on the subject are a threat.  How do you deal with it?  Label them “elites” along with a generous helping of connation and vague ideas of derision, and you’ve instantly solved your problem.  If everyone who might disagree with you is an elite, then you don’t have to present a logical argument to defend your position.  “You think you’re so smart just because you have an education,” is a crazy accusation that I’ve personally heard many times.

Every reasonable voice needs to rise up and not accept the normalization of this “new world”.  It’s not a new world, it’s a very old one.  When ignorance and incompetence manage somehow to take over, you don’t say, “Let’s give them a chance.”  When a wrestling promoter is made Secretary of Small Business, a climate change denier the head of the EPA, and a person who thinks that an entire religion is corrupt and violent, then it’s time to act, not wait.  It is time to expose and expose and expose, hoping that some of it will stick.  It’s time to use the opportunity to reframe the situation as much as you possibly can by shaking it up over and over.  Ironically, that’s what Trump claimed he was going to do before creating an administration simply entranched the status quo and special interests, while overtly rewarding those who were “loyal” to him whether or not they are deserving of their new positions.  The goal was correct enough; lots of things needed to be shaken up.  Both Trump and Saunders were in the same ballpark in that regard.  But Trump is striking out while buying the umpire to claim “winning”.

It’s really a political version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  We need lots of people to call out this tin emperor.

The short answer is “yes and no”, but I offer the following three points for explanation.

  1. The big complaint that the Trump campaign has right now is that the media is paying too much attention to all of the sensational things that Trump is saying in his rallies and is ignoring the substantive things. However, the media has always been characterized as being drawn to sensational things.  I’m reminded of the old newspaper adage which states, “Dog bites man is not a worthy story.  Now, man bites dog…”  Trump succeeds in biting dogs on a regular basis, and when you say ten things and one of them is outrageously sensational or controversial then you can only expect that this will receive disproportional attention.  As it should.  If you are running for president and you embed one outrageous statement among a slew of others, that one statement still speaks to your integrity.  You can speak to all the wonderful things you might have done on a previous day and then, among them, state that you kicked a puppy.  What do you think is going to be noted and talked about?  As it should.  It speaks to integrity, and whatever you may say on policy, integrity is (forgive the pun) a trump card.

 

  1. However, speaking of policy being included in speeches and rallies, one of the reasons that the media doesn’t report on it for Trump is that it is extremely meagre. “You pay attention to that one statement and ignore the rest,” is the standard complaint.  I’ve paid attention to Trump speeches, and the fact is that with few exceptions Trump has remained true to his Primary strategy of providing lots of assertions but very little substance.  How will you help minorities?  By making this the best economy ever.  How will you stop ISIS?  Not telling you is the best tactic.  How will you help the country?  By making America great again.  How will you improve health care?  By getting rid of what we’ve got and replacing it with something better.  The fact is that there’s not much substance to report, and what little there is such as allowing people to shop across borders for health insurance, is covered to the degree that they can along with the appropriate critical commentary.  On the other hand, while still lacking substance in many areas, the Clinton side of the discussion is providing far more substance to report and discuss.  This has been evident in the three Presidential Candidate debates.  Simplistic and blanket assertions are difficult to report with any kind of rigor.  Especially when allegations of being a sexual predator are looming in the background.

 

  1. In spite of this, I do believe that there is a lot of media bias in many areas. I, for example, would like to hear more details about some of the accusations against Clinton.  Not the Benghazi and email server stuff.  That, you have to admit, has been covered to death and certainly does not support any contention about media bias in her favour.  But there are many other issues connected to her foundation and recently emerging emails that deserve scrutiny, whether justified or unjustified.  With regard, for example, to the accusation of her having “attacked viciously” the 13 year old rape victim when defending her assailant, a little digging reveals a fantastic story of a totally botched prosecution.  It was a great story, but why did I have to dig for an hour in order to uncover it?  I’d like to hear a more substantive analysis of the whole “pay for play” scandal.  I suspect there’s little to it, being much more smoke than fire or poor timing rather than actual criminal intent, but I don’t know, because CNN is so busy talking about Trump, that there’s little time to actually examine and disentangle these issues.  I watch enough news that I should know as much about Clinton’s issues as I do Trump’s, but the fact is that I don’t.  Here’s a web page that presents a lot of the Clinton controversies and debunks them, but I’d love to see the questions debated seriously so that I can confirm that these are the full stories.  I suspect there’s at least a little more to them than is being presented in this article.

And then there’s the whole Bernie Sanders thing.  There was no question that for the first half of his campaign he was deliberately ignored by the media.  It should be a huge embarrassment for them.  I remember one Sunday morning, after reading about a huge Sanders rally on the Internet, it got five seconds on CNN.  And when they put up a picture of him, someone had accidentally put Hilary Clinton’s name underneath it.  This was on a morning where Clinton got a fair bit of coverage, but, of course, Trump was the poster boy.  Trump, if anything, has received so much free exposure from the media that claiming their bias against him now is nothing but laughable.

 

And therein lies one of the most important things that the media needs to soul search about after this circus is over.  They have done a very poor journalistic job of covering the issues in this election.  Time and time again I’ve seen discussions on CNN cut off to go to break just when they’ve begun to become substantive.  And CNN is far from the only culprit.  They are just the most obvious ones because they seem to suffer from some sort of ADD where they are incapable of concentrating on more than one issue at a time.  They took the bait when Trump was just too outrageous to ignore in the Primary, helped create a monster, and now has to deal with it.  They often claim, with justification, the exact same thing of the Republican Party, but miss the fact that they are equally guilty themselves.  It was, I admit, an easy trap to fall into, but now there needs to be an effort to learn from the mistakes.

 

There are two good things that can potentially come out of this debacle of an election campaign.  The first is for the media to examine their own role in that debacle and to reassert or redefine the role of journalism in enlightening the people rather than chasing ratings.  The second is to recognize that the Trump supporters are real and need to be factored into the overall situation.  The hard core Trump supporters are a faction that has long been dormant in American politics and found a crusader in Trump at a time when frustration with the Federal government was particularly high and when the Republican party and media were all too ready to fan the flames (before discovering that they couldn’t control the fire).

Very recently I led a spectacular hike with a group of teenage boys.  The destination was a beautiful small lake at the top of high cliff in Killarney Provincial Park.  The hike was entirely off trail, bushwacking through forest, boulder field and navigating a secret route up some precarious rock faces, culminating in a climb up a chimney-like crack in quartzite rocks leading to the very top.  There the view over George Lake and Georgian Bay is breathtaking.  If you look carefully you notice the lake just a hundred metres or so from the edge of the cliff, a little paradise in a place that relatively very few people have probably seen.

We sat by the lily pads and ate lunch and some of the boys went swimming under a sunny blue sky.  I thought to myself that I’d managed this hike about a dozen times since I first was shown the route over forty years ago.  It occurred to me that, while I’d likely be able to do the hike next year, realistically I couldn’t see myself doing it in ten years.  It was hard enough this time.  I realized that this could easily be my last visit to this special place.  So I stopped to drink in the memories of the occasion and in the days between then and now I’ve been able to call them up and re-experience their warm glow.  I’m blessed with a very good memory.  I can do the same for most of my visits to this lake.

For most of my life I’ve had a strong feeling that if something were to happen and I were to find out I was going to die tomorrow, it would be with no regrets, knowing that I’ve lived my life to its fullest and used my time wisely.  I’ve spent six months wandering through Europe and Africa.  I’ve hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon about eight times.  I’ve spent over 300 days camping in the wilderness and over 100 days canoeing the wonderful lakes of Ontario.  I’ve passionately pursued my interests and shared them with other people.  I’ve made memories that I can reflect on and smile.

I’m not trying to be morbid here.  My friends out there need to know that there is no imminent demise on the horizon.  I still plan to pursue a pretty full bucket list.  This is more a reflection on quality of life than on any personal issue.

I’ve met many people who primarily go through the motions of life, people who count the days off the calendar rather than counting the days till the next adventure or highlight.  (This is not to say that only big adventures can be highlights.  There are many other ways to make significant memories, such as relationships and family.  However these, like everything, can easily turn into “going through the motions as well.)  Tom Brown Jr. once said in a class I attended that you should keep a journal that you write in every night.  If you find you don’t have something to write about, then get the hell up and go out to do something.

When I think about two summers ago, there was no big trip or adventure that dominates.  There was, however, one great day that I walked from Union Station to the C.N.E. along Harbourfront, exploring new places.  The day culminated in a few hours at the CNE and a Blue Rodeo concert in the evening (allowing me to strike that off the bucket list).  It was a day full of new discoveries and great photography.  It stands out clearly compared to the rest of the summer, which was just kind of going through the motions.  The days that I “got the hell up” and went out to do something are the days that stand out.

Somebody once said, “Don’t live your life like a lazy Sunday afternoon, where once it is over you ask, ‘Where did the time go?’”  In the end will it make a difference?  I think so.  When I think back on fond memories, I feel good.  When I think back on a week and say to myself, “Well, that slipped by too quickly”, then I don’t feel so good about it.  In the end, that’s all we can probably really hope for.

A WORD ABOUT BULLIES

Posted: August 1, 2016 in Personal Whining

One thing that a teacher has to deal with on a regular basis in just about any school community is the problem with bullies.  I’ve dealt with my fair share, and I remembered noticing a pattern in their behaviour which was brought to mind when watching some of the current U.S. election nonsense.

One of the defining characteristics of bullies is a three part pattern that they follow:

  1. They annoy and victimize people around them with their actions or words.
  2. They goad until their victim strikes back in one way or another.
  3. They then proclaim that they themselves are the victim and attack the other person as being the cause of the problem.  It becomes a blame game and gets personal.

It’s pretty well a sure thing.  You see it in abusive relationships.  You see it in schoolyard bullies.  And you definitely see it in the current actions of Donald Trump.

My response in that situation has always been not so much the counseling of the bully (although some action is needed there) but rather to counsel the victims and the other people in the equation.  If the pattern can be neutralized then often so can the bully.  Mutual support amoung kids can lessen the seriousness of goading, and if it escalates to a more serious level it is usually difficult for the bully to transfer responsibility.  A united front against a bull (kind of NATO style) will often make a bully back down, as bullies habitually will target the easiest people.

We ahd a boy once in grade 7 who was ruthlessly teasing and insulting many of the girls.  For a long time we focused on the boy, trying punishment, counseling, suspension … everything.  It didn’t work and it was clear that the boy required more assistance to deal with his problem than we were prepared to give.  Then we shifted the focus and began counseling the girls, allowing them to talk about their frustrations and work them out as a group.  They also talked about what they figured must be the boy’s motivations as well.  Finally they talked about how it was likely that the situation would probably get worse before it gets better.  A bully is very much about power and attention, so when it dries up desperation takes over.  After that, the boy’s insults didn’t have the same effect on them and they often dismissed him.  It didn’t take long for the taunting to stop on its own.

Unfortunately I don’t think that if the American people ignore Trump he’ll go away.  Then again, it is the support and attention that he is getting that is likely the fuel for his actions, so if he was ignored, ya, he’d probably fade away.

If you ask many of my students from the last 30 years what event they remembered the most, very often you would get an answer involving one of the many overnight outdoor education excursions that we took.  There were the standard ones to one of the many local (but diminishing) outdoor ed centres, sponsored by the Board of Education and staffed with teachers running a pre-arranged program.  These were wonderful and memorable, but the most interesting ones were a handful that we organized ourselves.

The first one of these was, remarkably, during one of my practice teaching stints when I was assigned to a class in Newmarket for a period of a month.  I proposed the idea to the classroom teacher, who thought it was great and was on board immediately.  The principal of the school was a neighbour and friend, so that didn’t hurt the chances.  We ended up at Rockwood Conservation area for two nights, a safe location because it had things like picnic shelters and was pretty close to town.  That turns out to have been a good thing as we had torrential rains for our stay.  It could have gone better, but we coped.  I’m sure, though, that the kids involved will still regard it as highly memorable.

It was a while before I tried that again, but eventually I just had to run an outdoor program which was a total camping experience.  The location I chose was Warsaw Caves Conservation Area, near Peterborough, which is a pretty primitive facility.  Water, picnic tables and outhouses were about it.  When I first suggested it, my fellow teachers and my principle thought I was a little crazy.  Three Grade 7 classes out for several nights in tents and cooking their own food?  Nuts.   However the tactic that I chose was to throw the logistical problems at the kids and wait to see what happened.  Students had to put themselves in groups, find tents and other camping equipment and plan their own menus.  In order to maximize safety I had them produce menus which did not require cooking unless it was something that could be done quickly at a central cooking area that was supervised.  (I didn’t do this the first time around and regretted it when a leaky Coleman stove set a picnic table ablaze.  Fortunately with no serious consequence.)

The students performed admirably.  I put a series of checks and balances in place to monitor the planning and make sure that nobody was left high and dry.  Multiple lists were submitted, modified and returned.  Lots of calls were made to parents.  In the end, we were able to arrange parent drivers for the whole group both to deliver and pick up students from Warsaw.

That’s the logistical part, but the whole purpose of the trip was to enact a program which I had planned taking full advantage of the resources and wilderness surroundings of the conservation area.  This included succession studies, tree surveys, pond studies and solo sits among other things.  Science was the headliner, but in my proposal to the Board (-because you know they demanded a detailed proposal for an idea like this-) I was able to tie in almost every single subject.  Poetry was written on solo sits.  The geographic history of Warsaw was discussed in detail.  The average diameter of trees was calculated in various biomes.  A lot of physical activity and details learned about camping were easily connected to Physical Education.

It was a tremendous amount of work, and it was both miraculous and a testament to the devotion of my colleagues that I was able to have all of the teachers and a number of support staff, plus many parents, participate for the three or four days and help deliver the program.

We accomplished this feat four times during my tenure at two different schools.  It was a time when outdoor education was regarded as a higher priority and when the Board of Education was less paranoid.  (The background skills that I possess through having taught wilderness skills to youth groups for decades helped a lot in convincing my superiors.)

I looked at the program for the outing as a three step process.  Using the example of studying succession, here is roughly how it went.  Before the trip, in the classroom, it was important to introduce several concepts such as the nature of lichen and soil production.  They were also introduced to the idea of biomes and a general overview of succession.  They had to draw and understand the components of a chart which they then used in the actual exercise.  Once at the camp, small groups laid out a 10 meter rope on the Limestone Plains location, which is a perfect place to observe succession from bare rock to trees.  At one metre intervals each group had to observe the plant growth by category and record it on the previously made chart, which had headings like lichen, moss, grass, small shrubs, large shrubs, etc.  They also recorded things like depth of soil, which of course was zero at the first interval.  They were then asked to draw a cross section and colour it in using a key of their creation.  After the camp, all of the data collected as rough copy was formalized into good copy assignments with accompanying conclusions and commentary.  This pattern was followed for quite a few of the activities.

Many of the activities and also the general philosophy of the entire endeavour came from a series of books by environmental instructor Steve VanMatre.  His books include Acclimatization, Acclimatizing and Sunship Earth.  Each of these is pack full of program ideas for environmental and outdoor education, although they are often very ambitious and need to be modified in some ways.  These ended up being the best resources I ever found for outdoor and ecological education, being adaptable for anything from classroom to canoe trip.  I highly recommend this resource if you do any work in these area.  (They may be a little hard to find nowadays.)

For the days we were away, immersed in the wilderness, in camping routines and in active learning, not to mention each other, these congregations of classes truly became communities, with people helping each other and learning many new things about each other.  It was something I’d always been more successful at with my youth groups over the years, and I knew that it would be particularly challenging with a large group consisting of multiple classes.  But we ended up doing it, and it these trips will always be some of the brightest and most rewarding moments of my teaching career.