Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Instead of Angry Alberta, How About Petulant Conservatives?

A curious trend on social media has emerged with the #NotAngryAB hashtag trending on Twitter. It has been cornucopia of pet videos and scenic shots of Alberta landscapes. In the broader context, it is an election year both provincially and federally and the aspiring provincial opposition has been doing its best to ratchet up the animus against the current incumbent governments. Today the price of oil is $7 lower than it was when the Progressive Conservative party was counting down the last few days to its election loss in May 2015. This is but one of many things that the opposition, and reportedly the majority of the province are angry about in 2019.

The anger that the opposition, and by opposition I should narrow that to the United Conservative Party, seems to come from what could be construed as either a sense of entitlement or a resistance to change. For much of the last year, the party has had a commanding lead in provincial opinion polls but that somehow does not seem enough to content the presumptive government-in-waiting. The sense of entitlement manifests itself in two ways: 1) the assumptions that they ought to have been in government for the last four years and that the largesse of oil revenue that the province had enjoyed for much of the last 50 years ought to be restored, perhaps because Albertans are prepared to make the promise that they really, REALLY will not piss it away this time and 2) that the province of Alberta is owed some degree of insulation from the changes that have been occurring recently. Whether it is the empowerment of Indigenous peoples as partners in the development of natural resources, the diversity and tolerance that have become prevalent in the province over the past few decades, the pesky souls with that environmental consciousness that muddies the discussions about extraction and custodianship and that provincial government that does do things the way previous governments did.

So with the cat videos providing the thin edge of the wedge for discourse on anger or the lack of anger in Alberta, I'll quote Pema Chodron about "an essential choice that confronts us all: whether to cling to the false security of our fixed ideas and tribal views, even though they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and make the leap." It has been clear throughout the brief life of the United Conservative Party that they are replete with fixed ideas. It has been apparent in their opposition to Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools, and other social policies that they have opposed. As far as tribalism is concerned, the favour they have gained from racists in the province, not to mention the positions of authority that those with racist points-of-view have had within the party do not indicate that the ascension of a United Conservative Party would not be regarded as a hopeful breath of fresh air.

The rise of the UCP and their quiver of fixed ideas will herald an era of unresponsive, incapable government with a mandate to setback social policy rather than respond to the changes that are occurring and are beyond the control of the provincial government. UCP leader Jason Kenney does not have experience in an economic portfolio under his belt and his aversion to current provincial polices indicates that he will conduct a slash of spending that will be motivated by visceral attachment to dogma or disdain for anything done by the Notley government because it was the NDP.

The anger that has been expressed on the part of conservatives in Alberta and in other jurisdictions over the last few years -- the United States, United Kingdom and Ontario to name the most vivid recent example -- has been aimed at change. In each case, governments have been granted powers to resist change and each of these governments have demonstrated their quixotic responses in fashions that are clearly worthy of ridicule. Jason Kenney may be a more polished politician that the likes of Donald Trump, Teresa May and Doug Ford but that polish does not extend to bestow on him the aura of a visionary or an innovator. He did not gain the leadership of the UCP by virtue of an engaging and invigorating grassroots campaign. He got the position by virtue of the name recognition and the political capitol he has accumulated through the course of his 20+ year career.

As the vanguard of a political party pushing for a regression to past values and tired entitlements Kenney, the UCP and other angry Alberta conservatives seem too preoccupied with harbouring their grudges and plotting a return to an old world order to focus on diversifying the economy of Alberta. Perhaps they are merely averse to admitting that the oil industry with remain moribund indefinitely, but the United Conservative Party do not conduct themselves as a group of forward-thinking innovators who are capable of acknowledging that change is inevitable and generate policies that help Alberta adapt, and encourage and invite entrepreneurs and new businesses to set up shop. Instead, they will double-down on oil and insist that someone at the federal level pour good money after bad.

The United Conservative Party does not, despite its relative youth as a political entity, strike me as a group that possesses the mentality of a start-up. The do not seem connected to the innovators and the influencers who have a vision to take Alberta into a future that is built on inclusion, economic diversity and an interest in supporting the innovation, risk-taking and entrepreneurship that is required to pave the route forward. Instead, they are more inclined to ensure the security of the old ways and they will recommit themselves in an initiative that will ultimately fritter away resources and political capital that they have in shorter supply than they think.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Stagnant Versus Exploring Leaders

It is 2019, yet it seems to be a time when people are more inclined to look at the world in black and white rather than in greys or with an awareness of nuances and details. It is hard to tell if it is the majority that think and act this way, merely those in power or if, despite our best of intentions and aspirations, the vast majority of us regress to a simplistic view or response when push comes to shove.

In recent years, outmoded ideas that ought to have been consigned to the same dustbin as polio have re-emerged at a time in when progress whether they be about race, gender, religion, or the comfort that we ought to be entitled to at this very minute, regardless of the short-term and long-term expense. People of this mindset, and it goes without saying that there are business and political leaders who have decided to thrive on espousing a "you're either with us or against" mindset or narrowing their vision and consequently public discourse to battles over ill-defined mutual exclusions.  The economy and the environment can co-exist. Bicycles and pedestrians are not a threat to automobiles. Admitting a flaw or a weakness will not compromise your character. Such fallacies have too much influence on us today.

After a period of progress and positive change, more and more people are assuming that ideas and beliefs are fixed absolutes and there is significant investment of emotion, money and energy in ideas, despite the fact that they have, at best, a limited shelf-life. We must not blanket ourselves in ideas and assume that we can take indefinite comfort in them, or fix an iron-firm grip on them and their certainty despite the rapid pace of change that we have experienced throughout our entire lives. the things we merely believe are regarded as knowledge and sacrosanct because of the comfort certain ideas provide. All too often, we fail to regard ideas and beliefs as things that have an impact on others and a fixed shelf-life that ultimately includes decay. However, when ideas or beliefs are challenged -- whether by opposing opinions or by reality -- there is an escape to over-simplistic thinking or a tactical mission to get one's way.

The overlooked options in the face of such challenges are discussion, reflection and exploration.

There may have been a time and a space when these things could be done, but we live in a time when it all seems or actually is, too fast paced. Beyond that is the reality that given the penetration of social media into each moment of our lives, that there is a lack of private forums to safely discuss and get our heads around the changes that are occurring and weigh the pros and cons or even determine what we can be certain about. Instead, we have the mounting evidence that the more public the forum, the more rigid and intractable the positions people adopt.

At the start of 2019, with elections to anticipate federally in Canada and provincially in Alberta and an electoral debacle that is asking to be undone in the United States, people can anticipate convening in a forum where the positions politicians adopt are stagnated and inflexible. Adapting to the realities that are encountered during an election and acknowledge a change of policy or approach would be tantamount to weakness. While Kim Campbell might get ridiculed for saying that "[an] election is not the time discuss serious issues," there is incredible accuracy in the statement.

A few days ago I reopened Marshall McLuhan's Hot & Cool (1967) and rediscovered the following passage:

"I am an investigator. I make probes. I have no point of view. I do not stay in one position.

Anybody in our culture is regarded as invited as long as he stays in one fixed position. Once he starts moving around and crossing boundaries, he's deliquent, he's fair game.
The explorer is totally inconsistent. He never knows at what moment he will make some startling discovery. And consistency is a meaningless term to apply to an explorer. Ig he wanted to be consistent, he would stay at home.

Jacques Ellul says that propaganda begins when dialogue ends. I talk back to media and set off on an adventure of exploration.


(This passage is particularly dated by McLuhan's use of "he." There have been at least two evolutions in the use of personal pronouns in the past 50-odd years. McLuhan, however, had the insight to explore these changes and make light of how those knotty little pronouns have proven to be more temporal than we ever might assume. I digress --)

Perhaps an election is not the time to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. Somehow though, it is a good time to talk about other things. (My apologies for not barraging you with hyperlinks to the greatest hits from the campaign trail.) Let me say, however, that as erratic as Donald Trump has been, he has been consistent. The same consistency and the same stagnant, fixed point of view can be attributed to an infamous line of politicians over the last two years alone: Nigel Farage, Doug Ford, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Mike Pence, Theresa May and Jason Kenney have thrived by adopting fixed, narrow, unconstructive, positions bereft of policy or innovation in favour of the best sequences from a propaganda playbook. None of these leaders have demonstrated a capacity for proposing policies that respond to the changes that are impacting society, the economy or the environment. Amongst this pantheon, there are a few who cut and run when heavy-lifting was required. Amongst these warriors exerting every last effort they can to preserve a fading status quo, Kenney is compelling because he seems to be campaigning with from the assumption that the premiership of Alberta is, by birthright or some ancient fiat, the domain of conservatives.

Those political leaders who choose to sit still and shun the responsibility to examine the changes that are occurring and drafting policies to address them are a threat. They may be worthwhile examples to follow if we are examining tactical abilities on the stump. Away from the gamesmanship of the campaign trail, however, these "leaders" embody a version of leadership that is detached, self-interested, and oblivious to the distant early warnings that exploring, vigilant leaders are more often attuned to. Whether a threat is 10 minute, 10 months or 10 years away, the likes of these stagnant leaders loathe to observe, explore, dialogue and direct in favour of calculating, strategizing and last minute fear-mongering.

Given the pace of change we currently encounter, more and more of us are seeking certainty. Lip-synching along with right-wing politicians espousing family-values and saving tax dollars is not the certainty voters ought to settle for.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Favorite Reads During 2018

I'm not sure how many years I've done this, but one nod to experience is to call it my favorite reads during rather than from the year.

My reading strayed well beyond 2018 publications, though the first five that come to mind were all worth the wait and the investment in the hardbacks. Richard Powers The Overstory was my favorite novel of the year. With each novel of his I am awed my the depth of knowledge that he brings to his work.  As I work through the craftsmanship of his sentences, I hang carefully on each turn of phrase and carefully chew it over before moving on. Further to his craftsmanship is the breathtaking authority he has in relating the science and history that he shares with his readers with each novel. Having also read Powers' 1985 debut Three Farmers On Their Way to A Dance, his method and his gifts have been apparent throughout his career and The Overstory shows him at his peak. The stories that he weaves together in his account of the timber protests in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s provides an aching description of the era and will prompt a deep reconsideration of the trees we are surrounded by. If I've piqued your interest in either book, the paperback of The Overstory will be available in April 2019. I'd be happy to lend you my copy but you would likely have me leaning over your shoulder throughout the reading. I may be keen to get it back promptly, but I'd more likely be waiting to ask you, "Right?" with each turn of the page. You cannot go wrong with Powers' novels, with the exception of Galatea 2.2, and it is unfortunate that he is not better-known.

The other visit with a familiar voice was Haruki Murakami's Killing Commendatore. I became familiar with Murakami's work about 15 years ago while I lived in Japan and this novel is an ambitious return to his more surreal or fantastical works and given the creepy presence of an idea embodied as a physical, human presence provides an interesting departure point if you are looking for some insight on the ideas that are shaping the news each day as we crawl through the post-truth 2010's as parched, bedraggled souls trying to cross a desert. It is a thought-provoking book with moments of humour, deep insights into the creative process and perhaps some revelations about Murakami, himself.

Two other 2018 books I enjoyed were the biographies of Arthur Ashe and Robin Williams. The Ashe biography, published 25 years after his death was not just a detailed reminder that we must not forget the men, but a moving account of the man's life. The description of his 1975 upset of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon brought tears to my eyes as the account of the composed, honourable thinking man of sport found the strategy and the focus to achieve this improbable win. Tears visited again as he grappled with the stress of playing tennis, engaging with apartheid-era South Africa to advance human rights there and being one of the key figures during the tumultuous transitions during the first 5 to 8 years of the Open era. The poignant moment in the book is the beautiful account of Ashe taking his 4-year-old daughter to a gala reception just days after announcing that he had AIDS. The book is a rich, emotional reminder of the marks Ashe left throughout his life and it would be hard to read without wondering what he would be doing today if he were still with us, pursuing his passions where they lead him.

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff, gives a full account of Williams' career. From my perspective I went through the book with the realization that I was reading about a career that I had pretty much seen from start to finish, at least as far as his time in the spotlight was concerned. His talent, his compassion and the what if's that surround the last chapter of his life are all evident. Itzkoff does a thorough job, but I suspect that this will not be the last bio done on Williams.

The last of the 2018 books that stuck with me was Ryder Carroll's The Bullet Journal Method which was a deeper look at the time management system that Carroll developed for himself. Since introducing it to a wide number of users, including myself, the bullet journal has become a valuable system for much more than time management.

On that note, I acknowledge that I've spent a lot of time on just five books and risk giving short shrift to the other books that highlighted my year. So, in quick snapper style, here are the other highlights of 2018:

Books on Creativity:
Henri Cartier-Bresson - The Mind's Eye - a quick read with brilliant insights from the master photographer.
Peter Himmelman - Let Me Out - maybe the best of the 25-30 books on creativity I've read in the last 18-24 months.
Wendy Ann Greenhalgh - Mindfulness and the Art of Drawing - I'm not so hot with a pen and sketchpad, but this gave me amble fodder to contrast drawing from photography and the inspiration to dare picking up a sketchpad.
Richard Powell - Wabi Sabi Simple - Powell is, along with Leonard Koren, are to my eye the two leading authors exploring wabi sabi in the English language. This was a long overdue and valuable read.
Torsten Andreas Hoffman - Photography as Meditation - Great!!
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander - The Art of Possibility - This will change the way you examine creativity, risk and education.

Wally Lamb - We Are Water - the second novel of his that I've read. I shouldn't wait 20 years before reading him again.
Nayomi Munaweera - Island of a Thousand Mirrors - an account of terrorism and the Tamils in Sri Lanka in the 1980s
Banana Yoshimoto - Moshi Moshi - beautiful tale of a mother and daughter's efforts to move on with life after the death of their husband/father
Nicholson Baker - Room Temperature - He may be an acquired taste for some but his hyper-acute regard for his surroundings and experiences can be enchanting and wise. Anticipating a new NB book in 2019.

Sherman Alexie - You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - a memoir of Alexie's relationship with his mother
Ta-Nehisi Coates - We Were Eight Years in Power - Eight long essays on the years of the Obama administration and the rise of Trump.
Matthew Carl Strecher - The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami - A look at Murakami's work that definitely informed my reading of Killing Commendatore. A great reference for a careful reading of Murakami's work.
Zadie Smith - Feel Free - The second collection of essays that I've read by Smith. Her insight, perspective and depth of curiosity is illuminating to read, whether she is venting about Brexit or contrasting Michael Jackson's ostentatious dancing with Prince's almost subliminal movement.
Lewis Thomas - The Medusa and the Snail - Thomas was brought to my attention in an article about Richard Powers. I hope to read more of him in 2019.

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."