Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Vista of Neon: A Wabi-Sabi View of Vegas

Perhaps it is a matter of landing in the city just at dusk, the desert skies a crosshatch of jet plane vapour trails as Friday afternoon provides the prelude to the artificial lighting that will keep the stars out of view in this most darkness-deprived of places.

The artificial light, whether the fluorescent blasts of the slot machines and VLT's, the traditional neon and the enchanting new LED variations that throb through the night to achieve sensory overload and ensure that the place has the allure of the new, polished and appealing. This is the way Vegas is. The way it has to be. Apparently.

As with even the lowest stakes tables in the smoky lairs and basements of the casinos, there is a high cost of entry if you are to thrive and have the type of experience that Vegas promises and that peer pressure expects us to have. It is the place to get away with things as the commercial mantra -- which goes supernova on the cliche scale here -- and which peer pressure further asserts during the preamble and debriefing of a trip to Vegas.

The price of entry is high, whether you are trying to get a seat at even at the lower stakes tables or if you are trying to carve a niche for yourself in the wavering consciousness of people walking the strip. The two CVS Drugstores on the strip pitch themselves for their 24 hour availability and contribute their own lumens to the visual cacophony of the light shows and sheen that make this landscape. The darkest spots on the strip are for the closed businesses that have not been able to carve a niche in people mindsets in this place of acute, commercialized attention deficit. There is a darkened 10 metre sword, kissed by the ambient neon. The steakhouse it once provided a beacon for idled by the declines that face businesses everywhere but the fate here was decided by the inability to thrive according to a formula that is unique to Vegas. It is hard to tell here whether the rules are different or merely amplified by the scales that are required to sustain here.

The hotels, casinos and other venues need to have the architectural botox required to vaunt their brands to the levels that justify the mark-ups and price points that appeal to the high rollers who come here to amplify the one aspect of themselves, whether shopper, gambler, self-debaucher, that they want to flaunt at the expense of the wholeness of who they are. On the retail level, there is a certain sadness for those on the strip who aspire to do no more than sell they typical souvenirs that tourists would seek. Without even darkening their doors, the lighting there a subtle, but noticeable and off-putting coolness of older fluorescent fixtures that will prompt more shoppers to move on to a newer place with a different tone and a bombast that assaults a different sense with a different blatancy. Without the maintenance to ensure that the experience of the Vegas "machine" is compliant with the expectations that have been built to trick the senses in to forgetting the passage of time and the cycles of the day.

The formula in in Vegas is a simple one. It has been adapted and calibrated over the decades and the influx of gambler and investor money has refined the city into a well-oiled machine for distracted play. The effort to expand the senses is overwhelmed by the ambition to define each experience. The scents that are pumped through the hotels and the corridors between the smoky casinos are another way that the setting is micromanaged and the range of experiences is controlled rather than expanded. It sounds paradoxical to suggest that there is both sensory overload and a limited experience in Vegas but the stereotype of excess that is associated with the city and the Strip do not leave much room for a wide variety of experiences as might be the case in New York or Paris. The possibilities are in the intensity rather than in the variety of experiences that the city accommodates (or tolerates.) One thing that further distinguishes Vegas from Paris and New York is that so much of the city is derivative from those cities and others. There is probably much about city's surroundings that can be drawn upon - the desert, the western heritage, the wonders of Hoover Dam are a few examples, but these seem to be exiled to the suburbs of the imagination in favour of preserving the playground mood.

Little is allowed to age on the Strip, and less still allowed to go dark. Opposites are not allowed to balance. Even if legislated, the acknowledgement that gambling is in a realm that risks inducing addition is merely given lip service while the lures remain untethered. Youth, not age. Excess, not restraint. Vegas makes no apologies for what it is and it should not have to. The lack of nuance or the slick calibration of the Vegas "machine" leaves it unlikely to adapt to changes in the future and reinvent itself. While Vegas is the oasis or enclave for the play that it promises makes sustainability a challenge. It is disconcerting, but telling to see so much energy invested in maintaining a certain look. It is illustrative that Cher's 72-year-old face looms over the strip, her presence projected in neon while the collective restraint to not comment on cosmetic surgery indicates the willingness to buy into the illusion that here, at least for the weekend, in these snapshots and postcard moments the ideal has been attained, regardless of the price of entry. Can all of these illusions be sustained, especially in the desert as other resources dwindle away?

I would not dare suggest that Vegas try to greater encompass the qualities or the wisdom behind wabi-sabi and recognize the impermanence, the incompleteness and imperfections that lurk behind the glimmering facades of the city. People would simply say that Vegas doesn't do that. However, I am curious about the cost of maintaining the playground's appeal and appearance in the face of changing tastes and the physical challenges of maintaining this city in the desert at the pace it maintains. It would be compelling to look behind the curtain and see the margins and machinations of sustaining all of this at its apparent peak. The challenge of maintaining this vista of neon will prove unsustainable eventually and it will be interesting to see what becomes of Vegas when and if the decline proves to be inexorable.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Day

In my naive teens I recall watching the national Remembrance Day ceremonies and television and wondering about the frailty of our Silver Cross mothers and dared to assume that there would be a time when we would not have one to visit the cenotaph on these cold November mornings. Time has nudged aside the notion that we have had or may ever have a war to end all wars and the commemoration is one that has gained solemnity as the veterans include in their number those younger than I am.

Seven years ago, I missed the ceremony for a medical check up with my son to see how he was coming along after 83 hours of life. He has attended a few ceremonies since then without "getting it," but this week he has come home brimming with stories of hardship amongst those who lived through the 20th Century wars that are fading toward the rear horizon.

Today, though, war is remote from our imagination and reality. Not only past wars, but current ones have little place in our daily thoughts. Canadians presume today that there are no soldiers or peacekeepers in harm's way and needing to be vigilant rather than solemnly reflecting as the minute hand reaches 11:11am today. Our affluence and the division of labour that allows us to send fewer and fewer soldiers into action - for it is technology and not peace that has allowed us to send fewer troops - has altered our definition of heroism and has allowed us disparate lives that make the possibility of collective cause more remote than our ancestors could imagine. There are available and urgent collective causes today, but we are somehow unable or unwilling to rally ourselves to them and make the sacrifices that ancestors made.

Despite recent history, there is still a sense that the World Wars are the ones to commemorate and that subsequent wars, police actions or battles are afterthoughts. This is due, in part, to the milestone anniversaries and the respective commemorations of the sacred spaces that have been made of European battlegrounds. Despite our default to say "the war" to refer merely to World War I or World War II, war remains a part of our currently reality and not just a distant reminder. While we acknowledge this with solemnity, bowed heads and a rendition of "O Canada" that finds its way to a muted, minor key, we know little of the commitment and the hardships that contemporary soldiers and their families make on the modern battlefield and on the home front as well.

Over the course of the 20th Century and into our own, there has been diminishing commitment to war. We know from recent experience that the calculations have indicated the expense and loss of war is a futile expenditure. The promise of peace is enticing but it is a deft deployment of deception and platitudes to lure us to the battlefields time and again. Can we ever stop falling for it? We can only hope, but there is a likelihood that we will be rally to defend ourselves or taken on a guardianship that ought to prompt a more humane and generous response than the mobilization of munitions and kevlar. Today, as daughters as well are fighting and dying on the battlefields, we must not only remember but reflect upon what the future holds for us and determine what we wish to do to shape it. The challenges ahead are massive and the response that we reflect upon today - war - will likely exacerbate situations and squander our resources, our young and our humanity rather than bring about the resolution we aspire to. As we reflect on the complexity of our times and acknowledge that right answers are elusive and illusory, we strive for the compromises and sacrifices that will ensure that we stand solemnly with the realization that peace is premised on seeking what is right rather than striving to merely and exclusively have our way.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Creativity: Monoliths and Constellations

Creativity has been increasingly recognized over the last decade, at least, as something more than a pastime or a pursuit that would round out the character or skillset of one who risks going through life with a narrow range of interests and a narrow horizon as well.

Despite the body of literature that has come out over the last few years to underline the social, personal and economic benefits that stem from creativity, it continues to be regarded in some quarters with some trepidation. Creativity continues to be regarded as a remote monolith, steeped in a mythology that reinforces assumptions about god-given creative genius, the quick, easy genesis of complete works and the belief that creativity is merely the reserve of the fine arts.

When viewed with the fear and regard that a monolith incites, creativity can ultimately remain untapped or unexplored, especially in our classrooms. One factor that limits the extent to which teachers may explore and foster creativity in their classrooms, is the attention that must be paid to the curriculum and assessment, especially the diploma exam. Given the structure that the curriculum and a provincial or diploma exam imposes, there is a strong sense of risk in exploring creativity, potentially at the risk of leading the students down a rabbit hole that diverts them too far away from preparation for exams. Investing class time in creativity when it cannot be accurately evaluated nor is part of a diploma exam would be deemed indulgent or even reckless by those looking for measurable results from their child's education.

Apart from the pair of handcuffs that is put on teachers, especially high school teachers, by the diploma exam, there is a teacher's confidence in their own creativity. If a teacher lacks confidence in their creativity and/or does not have a creative outlet that they can visit to regularly identify significant aspects of the creative experience, he or she is less likely to risk exploring creativity if it takes them out of their comfort zone.

The opposed monoliths of assessment and a fine art perception of creativity need to be re-examined or even atomized. Assessment and education always need to be reconsidered as changes to technology and society occur. Creativity, meanwhile, is being regarded more and more through a different lens today. We are slowly moving away from the monolithic, narrow definition of creativity and as we look at the values, skills and characteristics we can associate with creativity. With a careful consideration of input or outcomes that we would associate with creativity we can generate a constellation of skills or competencies that may not the focus of a diploma exam, but are still vital traits that we, as teachers, would like to model and foster among our students.

A considered assessment of the qualities that are a part of this constellation of concepts that we associate with creativity would provide a few areas where teachers can bring a strength or interest to the classroom to model or support for their students. They will not necessarily be exercising creativity in a strict sense but such an approach will be an opportunity for a teacher who has reservations about their creativity to support students in an aspect of their creativity. There will be a need to adapt the curriculum and assessment to ensure that creativity is fostered in the classroom. There will also be a need for the powers-that-be to give creativity its due place in the curriculum and ensure that it is not pushed aside in favour more easily measured competencies. Creativity, like the concepts that I have associated it with in the constellation above, is sorely lacking in our society today and giving it short shrift because we cannot evaluate it should not be continued much longer.

In the meantime, teachers ought to see the opportunity to identify skills and competencies that are among their strengths and ensure that they embody and model them in their classrooms. Such efforts will ensure that their students are in a safe, supportive environment where they, in turn, can develop their competency in these areas and build the foundation for a creative practice that allows them to think divergently, solve problems, thinking critically and pose the "what about" questions that will generate novel ideas and innovations.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Echoes in "blooming bloodfruit"

I encountered a piece of music last week that still resonates with and astounds me. On one level, it is an accomplished and startling expression of vision and elegiac rage. On another it is an artifact from an experience that I am not a part of and it has cast me into a reassessment of jazz and how I have selected and listened to it for over 30 years.

As someone who has not-necessarily-quietly worn the badge of my tastes as something that defines me, Ambrose Akinmusire's "a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie," provides an assertive reminder of jazz's roots, eclecticism and its activism. As much as I might want to be defined by what I listen to, I realize that I am also defined by what I overlook.

The song -- and this is a case where 'song' risks falling short of capturing the breadth and scope of Akinmusire's palette -- begins with the restrained long tones of a classical string quartet and is complemented by the terse insights of a hop-hop artist. Thus opens a piece of remarkable musical, thematic and lyrical complexity that refuses to remain in the background.

When the rap begins, a hip-hop that echoes the lines that Billie Holiday delineated in "Strange Fruit." The simmering rage remains as does the reminder that for African-Americans only the landscape and the tree has changed with the passing of time. The pastoral scene of the American south is gone and it has been replaced by cellphone footage on the streets of the suburbs and urban core of this America that has become nastier and bleaker as its horizons have narrowed. The current tragedies blip and repeat as the data streams public at an unsteady rate and the institutional indifference toward the rights, dignity and innocence of adolescents like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and other young black men who have died at the hands of the police over the years.

Let's keep it simple -- what formed the African-American experience is still there and it is more visceral and present than we would collectively wish to admit. We know there is still racism, but those privileged enough not to experience it remain ignorant, and blissfully so. We might sense the need for advocacy, but not the urge to respond or become a staunch ally.

The racism that is central to the African American experience in an integral part of jazz lore and reality. Integrated bands were a novelty that met opposition. Cabaret cards were tokens of manipulation and control of African-American players, even in the liberal north. Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and other musicians who came of age during the 1940's and 1950's were haunted by the murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955. John Coltrane's "Alabama" was prompted by Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham that killed three teenaged girls. In "blooming bloodfruit" a malleted drum riff pays homage to Elvin Jones' drumming on "Alabama" and evokes an era that, actually, hasn't ended despite the civil rights accomplishment that can be cited over the last 50-60 years.

These struggles and experiences have deeply informed much of the jazz experience and its language. As much as I have listened to Hancock, Davis, Ellington and Coltrane, my tastes of lead me elsewhere over the years. The jazz I've listened to has been more meditative and sedate, steeped in the Great American Songbook, trio playing and lulled me into seeking out the distinctions in playing among different musicians. I've drifted off in the process.

A few months ago, I patted myself on the back for catching a fragment of Vince Guaraldi's "Lucy and Linus" in the middle of an interpretation of "Monk's Mood." Yes, my grasp of jazz was such that I could cite the hook from one of the most widely known soundtracks of childhood. I'd burrowed into a cave of my own tastes but, by chance, Ambrose Akinmusire's stellar work as a sideman prompted me to broaden my horizons to jazz's ambition and its roots.

Sequestered with my fondness for older generations of musicians who are still present, vibrant and posing no threat to settle for a routine in tuxedos that would never be threatened by the sweat of full on performance, I've found myself listening to music that has been familiar rather than challenging. Akinmusire's piece has given me a reminder to take full note of not only him, but of the likes of Kamasi Washington, Ben Williams and others who are of the generation of musicians younger than me. I've listened to "blooming bloodfruit" a dozen times now and I have ponied up for the album to tell myself at least, in this age of streaming, that this is a substantial piece of music worth the time, attention and the vote in dollars. I have a single that has challenged me to re-examine my listening habits and I anticipate an album that will do the same and consequently change my perspective on

I come away from the track with a humbling note to myself as I expand my horizons: "I know so little."

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Photography, Seeing and Connecting

The commentary on the value of creativity has grown louder and increased in the number of variation
on the litany in recent years, but the familiar challenges that creativity presents have not fallen away.

The anxieties about creative processes will remain and they will menace you with the threat of a mythic hydra. Fear, risk, the dynamics of the ego still guard the transition from work, chores and the everyday into creative processes. Procrastination becomes a familiar companion as one tries to get an atrophied creative muscle into shape, but cannot find the proverbial gym or routine to exercise or even identify where or what your creativity actually is.

As the public commentary about creativity and its importance increases in volume, variety and intensity, the recognition grows that it is good, that it has benefits. You might be willing to acknowledge that creativity is like doing the stairs instead of elevators. There may be the familiar inhibition and frustration the occurs when presented with self-improvement, self-help or a dream. You know what to do, know some of the benefits and at the end of the day merely nod to yourself that you know these things. Still, there is reluctance to do it. Worse yet, you may find a certain inner dialogue taking a familiar tone that leaves you in a rut and that may perpetuate a certain dialogue about the willingness to follow through on something, or start.

The ambition of creative expression is daunting. Apart from developing the belief that technical aptitude is required and that it has to be something we are born with, the other myth that may lock up creativity is the sense that it needs to be about something. Songs, movies, poems, painting, movies, books and blog posts all have this stated expectation that they have to be about something. A Statement is to be made. Once you start to work on something there is that expectation that it have a theme and have this impact on other people and communicate with a certain profundity.

No, no, no. Not your first time out. If you wish to pick up the paint brush, pen, or guitar, that expectation looms in the background.

You could probably doodle without the expectation of about. Or is that "ABOUT?"

The camera, be it a refined DSLR or the one in your smart phone, is another mode of creativity that is not going to impose the word "about" on you. There will be no expectation that you connect with a theme or make a statement about the world. Not that the ambition of a theme is ruled out for photographers. However, when you pick up the camera you are simply doing so to take a picture of something. If there is a statement to be made it may occur only out of happenstance or as a happy consequence or accident from a connection between the photographer and the subject.

No single picture has the burden of having to be about something. If it is about anything perhaps it is about, as I said, the connection, or just as importantly, the moment. Of all the things that you could be looking at in that given moment, and for all the times that you have walked through your day inattentive to your surroundings, this was a moment when you saw and connected.

While high stakes loom and weigh upon you with other creative pursuits in music, writing, acting, and other areas, that is less of a case with photography. The changes that have taken place in photographic technology have allowed more people to pursue it and its spontaneity is such that there is almost no time commitment to taking a single image these days. At the same time, the equipment is not that necessary and there is still the risk of fetishizing the gear a bit too much, especially when it is so ubiquitous that anything can be photographed at any given moment. The moment taken, however, to stop and see something and connect with it, whether merely with the eyes or with a camera, is one that can reward you immensely at a very low risk to you.

Without the pressure of having to take a photo about something and the opportunity to see and communicate something that nobody else sees or is able to see in a given moment of your day, creating with the camera is something that poses very low stakes and has the opportunity to offer immense rewards. There will be the occasional pang of fear or risk when making a breakthrough with the camera, but those will be worth it.

For these reasons, the camera is probably one of the most inviting paths to exercising your creative muscles and having those first tentative jostles with the fear and risk that stand between you and creativity. And if you want to wrestle with the question of what a photograph can be about, it is about you.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Having Gone For It

     Is drowsy an emotion?
     Okay, it is just a state, but it is profound and extends to muscle and toes at the moment. They are sore after the marathon but they want to sleep too. Dearly. 
     Given the opportunity to visit the flat course that qualified me for Boston a year ago, I was curious about how I would feel as the morning started. There has probably been a bit of a let down over the last year after qualifying for Boston, but there has only been a slight drop in my training mileage compared to the amount I had put in last year. I've been more meditatively in my training runs for a very long time and there has been a lingering doubt over the last year that there has not been enough of a push in training to get me as race ready as I was a year ago. Still, I wasn't sure how race ready I was then either.
     I am, however, able to say that my fitness seems to be holding despite the lack of intensity in training lately and perhaps the tactical errors today. It being my second marathon of the year and likely the occasion to shut it down for a pretty long time, it wasn't long before I decided to go for broke. After 10K of comfort at a pace that was on par with the time I needed to qualify, I pushed through at the pace I set, conscious of my questions about fitness and a lingering tweak in my left ankle or achilles that, today, kept itself to a whisper.
   Today, however, was not as emotional as the race last year that qualified me for Boston or running the 122nd iteration in April's tempests. It may have been a matter of not lingering long in the starters' area this morning - a mere 10 minutes today, compared to the usual hour or so I usually put in. It may be a matter of the stakes being a little lower for each of the marathons I've run in the last 12 months. One thing that was significant in my recollection of the Edmonton marathon last year was that I was not connecting today with other runners the way I do when a race is going well. There were familiar faces throughout the race but connections did not form for one reason or another.
    In the back of my mind there, is still a desire to run Boston under different conditions from what I encountered this year, but bucket list items usually don't have parenthetical updates. I still went for it and for the better part of the race my mantra for the morning nudged me along whenever I seemed to be flagging.
   The legs, however, surrendered their drive a little earlier than I needed. My stretch from the half mark to the 30K mark was my fastest of the morning and, as I told myself last year at that point, I had one hour to go. Just ease in 12K at a 5-minute pace. I pretty much nailed that last year, running those last 12(.2!)K in 1:00:57. Today it took 1:12 as the legs gave their walking orders (worst pun ever?)         Part of it was tactical today, part of it was also the lack of the long runs through the summer to prep me for the kick needed to get through that last 1/4 of the race.
   For the soreness and the resignation that a break awaits to heal, work on other aspects of my fitness it is comforting to know that, on a day when things were less than ideal, I have managed to run faster than I did 2 years ago.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Twelfth First Marathon

Decisions... decisions...
     I'm 36 hours away from my next marathon and, well, believe it or not, I don't know what shoes to wear.
     I'm not gaping at a closet full and pondering the right colour to go with my go-to ensemble of orange shirt and black shorts. I haven't done the full matchy matchy, footwear-included match up, in nearly two years and that was more trust in the chosen shoes than striking the right look on the asphalt. Most folks are too bleary-eyed at that hour of the morning to size up the fashion statements unless someone is going outrageous with a tri-coleur afro and matching crocs or beyond.
    The shoes aside, there are familiar questions and doubts about the race. What's the goal? Have I trained enough? Where am I mentally? Physically? Can I rein myself in for the start and follow the necessary strategy? Could I run a negative split? Will I push myself as hard as I can or will I leave something in the tank to avoid conking?
    At this point the die is cast. Preparation and training have laid the foundation for what will happen and I can probably -- despite the questions -- guesstimate my finish time. I know that I will have Asian fast food at lunch to begin the carb load and top it off in the evening with the katsu-don and sashimi repast that served me so well one year ago. It is results, not superstition that has set the menu. Sunday morning beverages are identified and the pre-race pacing and bathroom visits are noted in advance without much cause for concern. I'll line up with the 3:45 pace rabbit as I did last year. After 20-40 minutes or so of looking regularly at my watch to ensure I'm not going out too hard, I'll settle in for the race and the close surveying of mind and body to determine where I am at and addressing the unknowns that I bore with me to the start line. The answers will come to me, wordless. I'll recalibrate my will, my hopes and the demands I make of myself as I determine where I'm at and do what I can to focus on the task at hand.
    From there the following 3 hours, give or take, will be the culmination of a day where the stakes are high. The focus is relatively sharp for that time. There will be distractions occasionally, and my mind will meander and occasionally settle on a thought for a while, but the intention will remain undivided. For water gulps and refuelling the stride will be unbroken as I put all my focus into finishing with as little left in the tank as possible. There won't be a number or a red line to tell me how well I consumed what I have with in me that morning. I'll look within and navigate by dead reckoning. Perhaps that is the challenge that makes the marathon such an intriguing race.
    There are few other endeavours, at least in my life, where the challenge is so intense and the result as tangible as it is. The stakes, at least as I set them for myself, make each run new. The uncertainties about what I'm capable of ought to raise the stakes everyday and make me rally my best self to each  occasion that presents itself. There are moments when I can lock in and bring a certain level of intensity, focus and eventually, flow when I'm writing, doing photography or working. A race, though, is an occasion to see if I can set myself to getting into that flow rather than wait for it to present itself to me.
  So, when I get in the scrum with the other runners on Sunday morning, I might try to treat it like a typical morning long, but I'll be keen to push it and see what I got in me. Now... I just have to figure out whether to go with the pair I ran my last marathon in or a newer pair.