Monday, December 29, 2014

Revising Lord Acton: Power Metastasizes

Lord Acton is best known for the quotation, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but I would humbly like to offer a revision.  In cases where institutions fail to serve the communities they are intended to serve and wittingly or unwittingly tend to serve the special interests of a faction or clique of a community, it seems more and more likely that power tends to metastasize. 

Governments are increasingly overwhelmed by the range of interests and needs that they are asked to balance off against on another or give due consideration during their decision-making processes. That, along with the technological changes that have accumulated over the course of time have given a wide variety of stakeholders the means to offer an alternative to governments or even oppose them and other long-established institutions.  Those established institutions that we have long taken for granted but are growing rickety in the absence of substantial reforms are no longer the robust responsive institutions we relied on - if they ever were those vanguards of justice.

The fact is that many of those institutions have been flawed and history has recounted may cases where those institutions have squandered their legitimacy in ways the Lord Acton so aptly summed up.  The ideal of those institutions was that they would be places where the rights and needs of all were taken into account and given their due respect.  The failures of those institutions to provide that service to their constituents and form a community that they served fairly has motivated more and more groups to act in a manner that has either provided an alternative means of empowering and serving groups or individual or advocate in some way, whether peacefully or not, for the sake of the group they purport to serve and protect.

Due to the shortcomings or failings of governments, justice systems, school systems, churches or other institutions that we would associate with eminent, columned buildings of beauty, purpose and high ideals, more and more individuals or groups have taken the opportunity to assert influence of their own and earn support because of the declining legitimacy of those institutions that we had so long invested trust in. Some of these new alternatives gain a certain degree of power or legitimacy from various audiences. Corporations gain more legitimacy because of the good will they foster among customers and employees. Environmental groups do the same among their supporters. Religious groups assert their own influence on the conscience of a community.  Countless other groups and subgroups and subcultures each purport to stand for their cause or have their respective missions and within each of these organizations there are groups or individuals who are abusing their power and undermining their legitimacy to divide again and again. 

Power, be it gained via wealth, knowledge, media assets, popularity, natural resources, weapons, collective rights or presence, is multiplying because so few of the groups or institutions or organizations strive to represent or consider the whole.  Therein is the metastasis that is occur much to the detriment of our society.  There are too many people and organization each striving to find their soapbox or their audience that fewer and fewer people seem willing to listen intently to all of the arguments and voices that are striving to be heard.  The flaws that power brings when it is wielded continue to multiply because too many people are striving to gain power for the sake of punishing or being retributive rather than building communities that are founded on more than one interest.

At a time when there is so much cynicism about the role and motivation of governments, the need for leaders who show a command of the complexity of our societies and the diversity of opinions and interests and strengths that seem to be multiplying and spreading rather than unifying into a coherence that can contribute to a vibrancy, resilience and responsiveness that an inclusive community can be capable of.  When we see governments ignoring the realities associated with climate change and there are monthly recurrences of police activities that raise questions about their ability or willingness to serve the entire community within their jurisdiction, there is ample reason to doubt the intentions of our elected officials, but investing the patience and effort required to reform these older institutions will be more successful than efforts to counter these flaws with alternative organizations and structures that may ultimately lack the scope of mission or vision that is required to unite people and build or rebuild communities.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Want Progress on Race in the States? Look at Cop Salaries

As events this year in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City have intensified the harsh glare on race relations in the United States, one question that has not been discussed has been the salaries paid to American police officers or the budgets that American police departments have. The gap between salaries paid to police officers in Canada and the United States is stark with Canadian police officers earning an average of $19,000 dollars more annually.

The wage situation is worse if you looked at the situation from one city to the next throughout the States.  The poaching of Detroit police officers that has occurred since that city went into bankruptcy illustrates this gap as well and according to a recent report by NBC News, the salaries are barely above Canadian minimum wage rates for many of the municipalities comprising metropolitan St. Louis.  Ferguson is in the middle of the pack in the St. Louise area with an average hourly pay of about $22 an hour.

The majority of police officers are getting paid in a range that can put them on a level with administrative assistants, or retail store managers.  It is not reasonable to expect the expertise and range of skills required to effectively handle and defuse the challenges of police work from someone earning the same salary as a manager at a Denny's.  Evidence from Ferguson and from the death of Eric Garner in New York City, suggest that some police officers cannot handle their work any better than the likes of George Zimmerman, who was involved in the death of Trayvon Martin while volunteering with a neighborhood watch program in a gated community in Florida.

The gap between professional police officers - if that is what they can be called when they are making $11.18 an hour - and a volunteer such as Zimmerman, who has been described by many sources as a racist, seems negligible but the institutions who employ and underpay these officers ought to be scrutinized. Police work is becoming increasingly complex and given the budgetary stresses facing police departments such as Detroit's it is highly unlikely that they are able to develop the range of new initiatives to respond effectively to this increased complexity.  In Canada there is a wide range of innovative community policing initiatives that are being introduced, each of which are requiring new skill sets and aptitudes that are far removed from the typical skills of a beat cop.  There may be similar efforts in the United States, but there is every chance that appropriate compensation is an obstacle to introducing new initiatives that would move American policing toward more cooperative, community-oriented models.

This is not to suggest that the race problems in the United States is new or recent.  New approaches to policing that are more community-oriented, or require skill sets other than the old west quickdraw are at an increased premium and at this point it seems that police departments in the United States may be too constrained by a variety of budgetary challenges to break ground on new initiatives and approaches to policing that can improve relationships and cooperations between police departments and the communities they serve.

American policing faces many obstacles - the Second Amendment and the racial issues getting the most type space of late - but the most insurmountable may be the lack of financial resources or perhaps the lack of will to fully support police departments in the United States in innovating approaches to policing that would surmount the barriers that currently exist between police departments and the communities that they serve.

Paying police officers appropriately for the challenging work that they do on a daily basis, to not only protect the public but also to ensure that people have the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty and to uphold the rights of all citizens, including those they are apprehending.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GSA's in Alberta and the Old "Legislation of Morality" Argument

Last weekend I lunched with a circle of older friends who gather regularly to, as we put it, solve the world's problems regale each other with accounts of the week that passed. On the occasion of our most recent gathering one of the more conservative of the group posed the question about what the big deal was with the Alberta government's efforts at splitting the difference with its legislation "addressing" the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA's) in schools throughout the province.
This older, conservative-minded gentle wondered what the big deal was all about and why there was even a need for such legislation, or a more favourably-worded bill being required or preferred and why the cause of Gay-Straight Alliances was one that was worthy of such public opposition.  In stating his opinions about the perceived inutility of the GSA's, he skated ever so closely to the "you can't legislate morality" argument which is a perilously lazy attempt to feign neutrality on GSA's and the matter of school bullying, which many politicians indicate a desire to reduce or - to provide a less effective, more retributive response - penalize.

The kids who favour and wish to form the GSA's have a conscious sense of what community building can do to student life in their schools. By recognizing and accepting homosexuality in the manner that the GSA's intend to do, they enhance the safety of their school for all of the students.  By creating a degree of openness about the topic, they in turn erode the power of parents or students who feel that sexual orientation ought to either be: 1) a matter that ought to be kept private if diversity is going to be acknowledged at all or 2) compliant with their perceived "norms" will a stern response against anyone who expresses a variation on that hetero norm.  Such narrow attitudes result in students feeling entitled to express their opinion, whether physically or verbally through bullying and those students acquire the power to bully because of a narrow determination of "normal."  The presence of GSA's is a step toward broadening the definition of normal or rendering it moot and taking that away the soapbox from which bullies feel they can rail against difference.

My elderly friend still felt there was no need for this to be a matter for government to legislate.  The argument he gave was that if a heterosexual and a homosexual chose to be friends, let them.  In that, is a clear desire to turn a blind eye to the realities of school life. It would be very difficult for friends to stick together in the face of the bullying that one would get for the sake of being different. We can all recall the scenarios in school where one kid in class -- be it the pasty skinned one, the heavy one, the slow one, the poor one, the more heavily acned one or anyone else who was deemed to be a member of that exclusive phylum of target -- got ridiculed and bullied. The last thing that one kid was able and willing to do was stand up for or stand by that kid.  It would take a great deal of will to bear that collateral bullying.  It is tempting to look back on our school years and say that that act of bravery would or could have been committed if it were required, but it was and is. Regularly. The majority of kids would want to be on the right side of those relationships and they simply need the assurance that they are not going to be the only ones to stand up and that they in turn will be safe when they stand for their principles.

If the legislation, the right legislation, regarding the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances ensures that power does not get created among groups of people who choose to be intolerant and instead gives students the opportunities to contribute to forming environments where adolescent men and women have the opportunity to fully recognize and develop their identities at the same pace, regardless of their sexual orientation, then the government would not be merely legislating morality, but taking a long-term, big picture view on the physical, social, sexual and mental health of the next generation of Albertans. Even the most cursory of cost-benefit analyses would prove that worthwhile.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Power in a Looming Winter of Discontent

As 2014 comes to a close, it feels like a particularly bleak year, one in which notions of progress seem to be limited to the technological spheres alone and those baby steps toward social progress seem to have meandered or wandered into a wilderness from which our darker instincts will not allow us to escape.

The news runs over with details about sexual abuse by people who we had ample reason to hold in high regard, whether it has been mellifluous-toned talking head who has held our respect for the last decade or a beloved father-figure who has entertained us and been a part of growing up and childhood for the last half-century.  The surprising reports of these two figures and other sordid tales of sexual abuse almost seem to struggle to get out of the tabloids and compete with the mounting racial tensions that go from simmer to boil as each dusk falls and those protesting against police brutality barely keep a lid on the righteous rage that so easily could be uncorked in response to the apparent ruthlessness that police seem to apply force or power - note that I do not say the law - against minorities in the United States.  The hopes that lessons have been learned in the decades since Watts, Rodney King and more recently Trayvon Martin are trod upon on a daily basis is this much esteemed century or millenium marches on without fulfilling the promise of progress is a global community.

These issues are local rather than geopolitical and the picture there seems bleak as well.  The murders of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in October brought a heightened sense of how our institutions and the people who represent them are rendered vulnerable in ways we had never imagined.  In all of the white noise of the current news as it keeps arriving in wave after seemingly pounding wave, we do not know if the members of the Canadian Armed Forces are able to wear their uniforms safely beyond their bases and posts.  Such are the new normals that the imbalance of this age has unleashed.

It is hard feel optimistic about much at this time and friends who normally don't talk about politics or the state of the world in favour of topics that are more academic, or insignificant or personal have made a point of acknowledging that things feel bleak right now or simply outright said, "Again?!" at the ongoing reinforcement of the possibility that we collectively never learn.

If I really wanted to induce depression I could pile on with ISIS, Russia, Syria and the massive typhoon that the Philipines braces for while the Canadian government continues to avoid acknowledging the need to bolster environmental and climate change policy.  (Not that there's a direct link between the two today, but I risk digressing.)

What seems to be happening on so many fronts is a deterioration of democracy and a fracturing of the elements of our communities or societies that keep competing interests in balance and ensures that various stakeholders in our society are pursuing their own course of action separately in pursuit of their own interests because there is little sense that our institutions are serving everybody or anybody. Let me cite a length quote from John Ralston Saul's recent book, The Comeback. The book is an examination of the re-emerging prominence of indigenous people in Canada but the following passage has meaning well beyond that discussion and the struggles that seemed to be coming from all directions.

"in a healthy democracy, power a is surprisingly limited element.  And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust...  [If] power only matters... then the government feels it has the mandate to do whatever it wants; that the law is there principally to serve power. If democracy is only about winning power and using it, then it has been deformed into a denial of society and of the idea of responsible citizenship." (John Ralston Saul, The Comeback, p. 30)

If our era is one defined by the entropic use of power and the fracturing of society into countless separate interest groups, each with their own narrow horizons and a locus of metastasizing self-interests, then we are going to continue seeing governments wield the implements of power (military, police, financial instruments) in ways that may seem effective, intimidating or substantial, but are merely futile and likely to result in negative repercussions.  If, as individuals, we choose to assert sexist or racist mindsets when we engage with the people that we are supposed to share and build our communities and societies with then we are only going to ensure that more and more people will take to the streets.  At first it will be in vigil with candle in hand, but when and if that fails there will be graver actions that will unfold.

There needs to be an infusion of informed, committed citizenship if we want to see the news get any better.  We need to take the time to consider our aspirations for our neighbours and our neighbourhoods just as much as we do ourselves and if we choose instead to postpone our respect for our collective hopes and aspirations the consequences of delay and the work required to build strong vibrant communities will be much greater than we will anticipate.

Our governments seem disinclined to listen to the people in the communities they are intended to serve, but it is essential that we communicate with them clearly.  The news that is concluding 2014 is such that governments and their institutions seem more detached from us than ever before and the only people who will bring order to this are informed, engaged citizens who are inclined to actively say "enough" rather than reel one more time in the face of events that make us cry in disgust, "again?!"

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remember Justin Bourque? A RANT!

As this tragic autumnal week comes to an end and Remembrance Day feels closer and more palpable than it has in even recent years, the federal government is making moves to increase the powers of police and spy agencies in ways that may compromise Canadian rights and freedoms despite the comments made to reaffirm the commitment to Canadian values and inclusion in the immediate aftermath of the assaults in Ottawa on October 22.

The link to jihadism or to ISIS has been determined by someone be a limited one and many experts have suggested that the attacks in Ottawa and St Jean-sur-Richelieu were the actions of drifters who were mentally ill and had lengthy criminal records rather than members of a coordinated terrorist group.  In fact it seems that the perpetrators of the two attacks on Armed Forces personnel have more in common with Justin Bourque who attacked RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick this past June 4.

These requests for increased powers were not made in the aftermath of the shootings in New Brunswick or upon the House reconvening this autumn. In the case of Justin Bourque as with the two deceased criminals this week, an individual who has adopted more radical beliefs and accumulated a record of criminal behaviour has acted in a manner that has shaken our sense of security and raised our concern for the safety of our protectors but Bourque's actions did not prompt such actions or calls by the government.

A review of the profiles of these three criminals would likely reveal striking similarities in their paths and their decisions to conduct themselves in such violent and radicalized ways. The distinction is that Bourque's radicalization seemed to connect to pro-gun or extreme right wing activities while this week's criminals pursued Islamist affiliations and were ultimately rejected by the mosques they tried to associate with.

The religious affiliations were a medium for expressing a hate that was deeply entrenched and merely needed terms to be expressed in, just as Bourque's was. Is there a tolerance for Bourque's redneck or good ol' boy roots that seems to be more tolerable or harder to provoke fear around? Religious leaders are now being scrutinized to the same extent as gun shop owners and leaders of overtly radical organizations within our borders and the governments calls for actions this week when the profiles indicate that these men did not have significant associations with larger Canada-based groups that supported them in completing their acts of violence. As the profiles indicate at this point, each of these three men acted alone or with the barest minimum of help and the difference is that two of them have claimed what appear to be tenuous and self-serving links to a religion.

The entire picture of each of these individuals needs to be examined and all of it needs to be accounted for rather than shaped to foster a narrative or story that demonizes some individuals over others out of sheer convenience. We cannot respond to these problems with responses that merely seize on the power and accessibility of a crime's iconography to mold policy.  Once again, the federal government seems committed to pushing for policy based on ideology and fear rather than a careful weighing of the evidence. If there were a careful assessment of the actions and profiles of all three men there would be a chance of implementing policies and responses that would reduce the likelihood of similar recurrences of each of these incidents. If the choice is to generate policies that are dedicated to xenophobia and racial profiling, next Bourque, Couture-Rouleau or Zehaf-Bibeau will shock us and etch themselves into our consciousness once again and leave haunting memories forever afterward.

The Hero is the Last One to Admit It

Over the course of this week there has been an incredible sequence of events throughout Canada, one
that sends thoughts to other places or other eras in our own history to come to terms with what unfolded. With the stunning and heart-rending events in St. Jean-sur-Richilieu and in Ottawa, there is a heightened sense of fear but of appreciation as well. There has been occasion to revisit what defines Canada and a commitment to that rather than the confident assumptions that we allow ourselves when all seems well. People have probably come closer together in the aftermath and the effort made once again to be that much more inclusive. Things that we take for granted earn our attention once again.

We have dusted off the word hero this week as well and without a doubt Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-At-Arms for the House of Commons who acted sudden valiantly and promptly on Wednesday morning in the face of what unfolded in the marble corridors and among the columns of the Hall of Honour. He was honoured with a lengthy standing ovation that he was humbled and troubled by. There was probably a significant part of the man who hoped and wished that his actions on October 22 would restore normalcy and that the greeting he received did not happen. He would argue that he was doing his job, that he was doing what was within his capacity and responsibility in his role and position and that it was within the scope of what he spent his professional life being prepared to do. If you sat down with the man, he would probably be able to tell of other occasions where he was challenged far more than he was on October 22.  He may have acted during that moment when instinct has kicked in and fear has not had the opportunity to influence thoughts or stir dread and anticipation.

Many people that we attribute heroism to -- fire fighters, police, members of the military, ER staff in hospitals to name a very few -- would shrug that attribution off, insisting that they are trained for it, prepared and equipped for it and that they would not want to have any other job. They would even add that someone has to do it (without adding that it is a dirty job.) In Mr. Vickers' case, part of the surprise that has magnified his heroism this week, is the ceremonial role many would assume he had been restricted to and the potential consequences that may have resulted from what unfolded in Ottawa.

When we think of ceremonial roles, our thoughts of course turn to Nathan Cirillo.  Standing in traditional uniform with an empty gun at the National War Memorial at the moment he was gunned down. The layers of symbolism are to ponder for some time but he stood guard at the memorial as evidence of our commitment to remember all men and women who have worn that uniform on behalf of our country and the values that we have stood for and been forged by.

In the aftermath of what happened to him and to Patrice Vincent this week, it is now a challenge and a risk for members of the Canadian Armed Forces to wear their uniforms. In a more innocent time, my father would pick up a hitchhiker who happened to be in uniform and it stood then, as it ought to now as an reassuring indicator of the character and commitment of the people that wore it. Today they must don their uniform cautiously tempered by the realization that apart from being a representative of the nation and its values, they are now potentially a target for that act as well. The simplest of symbols, going beyond the uniform to the poppy and other objects that we regard with fondness and pride are subject to some anxiety.  In that, we walk our streets and go through our lives with a greater caution but hopefully with a greater confidence in the things Canada has long stood for and a commitment to protect it.

The next heroic acts ought to multiply and all of us must be more conscious of the bravery it takes to be inclusive, trusting and committed to the values that our flag, our poppy, our soldiers and our everyday lives embody.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jordin Tootoo's Journey

Every journey to the stardom of a professional athlete is a unique one. There may be a few similar templates for many of the stories. The stories that are told most often are those of the stars who may be familiar one with the prodigy emerging early and the clamour among the competitors at the professional level to rising acclaim that the protagonist achieves during his or her career. Stephen Brunt has done exceptional work with his most recent hockey biographies, Searching For Bobby Orr and Gretzky's Tears crafting stories that not only define the players but also the eras that the respective icons played during.

With All The Way, Jordin Tootoo's account of his path from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Stephen Brunt lets Jordin Tootoo tell his story in his words and his voice and the story is a vivid one that sheds more light on Tootoo's heritage and background. Brunt's voice occurs intermittently at the start of each chapter in most issues to set the scene. Tootoo tells his story. Some of the elements of the story might be common with other sports biographies. Tootoo's talent when he first got the opportunity to play organized hockey earned him attention and helped pave the way for his progression from house leagues in the south and on to the WHL, Team Canada and NHL.

The similarities between Tootoo's odyssey and other hockey players' are limited to those few. 

Tootoo story begins in Rankin Inlet, with a strong sense of place.  The attachment to the tundra and the confidence that comes from there is evident in the story he tells and in the struggles that he and his family experienced in their home (as opposed to the land). He frankly and starkly describes the battles with alcoholism that have ravaged his family and his community.  His own battles with alcoholism are disclosed as well.  There is a sense that his potential on ice was never achieved, perhaps because of his role as an energy guy or fighter, but the greater question is about the possibilities for his family and his community as they try to heal and find their way forward.

Tootoo's sobriety and marriage make for a rewarding and reassuring conclusion to this chapter of his life and Joseph Boyden in his introduction to the book suggests that there is more ahead.  The chapters ahead make for plenty to look forward to as Jordin Tootoo makes his next steps embracing his roles husband and role model.

Patrick Hanlon, author of this post has recently self-published his account of his teaching career in the Canadian Arctic.  Exiled From the Tundra is available for Kindle.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Igloo Lesson

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming e-book Exiled From the Tundra: A Teacher's Arctic Memoir.

I do not know if it was a moment where I ultimately gave up or if it was more a matter of finding some zen-like simplicity, but late one morning in March, I interrupted class to ask them, "What do you want me to teach you?"

Mary spoke first, “How to live off the land.”

I joked that the first thing I would try to teach them was to look for two sticks to make a fire with — a useless endeavour this far north of the tree line. I had no idea how to teach them how to live in their environment or educate them in a manner that resembled what Inuit forebears taught children for generations or millennia. Their responses included things that I could be capable of teaching them, such as cooking, but their traditional skills dominated the list. They wanted me to teach them to make the most of the resources that were accessible to them and do so in a way that was consistent with the way their families had long lived and thrived on the land. 

Nothing grand. No mention of test prep. Just what they needed to know to help them get by. One response left me slack-jawed before I could muster clarification.

“Igloos?!  Your parents are supposed to teach you that.”

“But you’re the teacher.”

“Still, I can’t teach you that.”

“You have to. It’s your job.”

That brief exchange captured the essence of what the schools had done to the relationships between Inuit parents and their children. I wondered how much time the kids spent with their parents out on the land on weekends or during the summers. Their parents went out on the land from time to time, but whenever they did, they left the kids behind in the village to entertain themselves or look after one another.

The old insistence that the students attend classes, despite the responsibilities that Inuit kids have had for generations rings hollow when all the teachers have to offer are long division, the past perfect, and antiquated Science texts. The knowledge the kids accumulated within the walls of the school does little to prepare them for life in either the north or the south. Instead of learning from their parents and grandparents, they spent their time with me. I had little that compared with the valuable life lessons indicated progress towards viability, responsibility and adulthood. All of that wisdom and education was discarded in favour of schooling with kallunait (southern) teachers the likes of me - at times well-intentioned, but often uninformed, ill-suited to the task at hand and if not parasitic, then at the very least, unfeasible. As the school was constituted while I was there, it was difficult to point to success that warranted the time and money that went into it each year.

For the school to enhance the life of the kids and the community, it would have to overhaul of the curriculum and involve the community. A more collaborative relationship with parents would make them more aware of what was happening and encourage them to influence the school by either providing the teachers with insights about the culture or the community or asking questions about why teachers did things the way they did. One thing that I learned from my translator during my first round of parent-teacher interviews was that all of my students were adopted rather than living with their biological parents. That knowledge was gained by happenstance after spending a good part of the day with one of the adults from the village. It did not dramatically alter the way I taught the kids, but it informed my work and provided a key insight that I could integrate into a greater understanding of the community I was working in. More interaction with the parents would help the teachers become more familiar with the community and culture and perhaps help the school adapt more to serve the community.

As the kids added their requests for what they wanted me to teach, I wondered what had kept me from asking sooner. The question was the briefest thought removed from being off-the-cuff or flippant. As I took note of everything they suggested, it became clear that what they wanted to learn and could have learned from their parents was the opportunity to grow, and gain the responsibilities that once marked the rites of passage into young adulthood.

Even though the kids had spent their entire lives in the permanent settlement that the kallunaits built, they had strong misgivings about what had been lost when they left the nomadic rituals of the tundra for settlement. Everyone was in favour of taking their chances on the tundra. Mary, the oldest, was just 15 and some of the others yet to enter their teens, but the opportunities and challenges of the tundra appealed to them. It may have merely been romance and nostalgia, but life in the village familiarized them too well with the anxieties and pain that made Mattiusi Epoo take his life, made Putulik sniff and made Mary explore the tightness of her coat sleeves around her neck. For whatever scarcity and hardship of the tundra would challenge them with, it appealed to them and held some hope for the future.

When we usually speak of “the struggle to survive” we attribute a degree of hardship or difficulty opposes us and makes life miserable or onerous when struggle is a blessing. Struggle has become an even greater requirement for our spiritual well-being because without it, we lack the sense of purpose that motivates, nourishes and sustains us. The move from a nomadic economy of hunting and gathering to the welfare cycle the Inuit have found themselves in has in part contributed to the suicides, substance addiction and family abuse that are today acknowledged with a shrug of resignation. Material abundance, without a goal to pursue in life, endangers the lives of Inuit more than the harshest of winters ever did.

In all likelihood, teachers before me had their own moments of idealism (or desperation) and struck upon the needs and desires of the students as I had that day. The noon bell rang and was ignored. We continued our discussion well into the lunch hour before I insisted they head home for lunch. On my way out, I caught Alasi in his office and I told him about the discussion that I had and the kids’ desire to learn how to build igloos.

I hoped that I would impress upon Alasi the kids’ need to learn their own culture and express my own wonder that the kids were not learning as much as they needed. When I got home, I suspected my words would go no further than Alasi. I recalled Danielle’s challenges trying have an igloo built for the school exchange the year before and thought of taking them out to try to teach them myself. I did not want to haggle over the costs of having the parents teach their kids. Furthermore, the conversation the kids and I just had was a significant one and proceeding with the regularly scheduled Math class in the afternoon rather than building on the discussion would have been disappointing. When we returned after our brief lunch, the conversation picked up where it left off and we continued to flesh out their needs and interests.

One of the television channels the village had, Television Northern Canada (TVNC), had coincidentally featured a National Film Board short film that showed the construction of an igloo two days earlier. The details of the construction were still relatively clear in my mind. An igloo is built from the inside, with little need to move around the outside of the building. You cut the blocks out from underfoot, creating a larger floor and going higher overhead with each block. The one thing I could not discern from the movie was the type of snow to seek, but perhaps the long winter had rendered most of the snow the right texture and consistency rather than the powdery or wet snow that would be less cooperative. I was willing to give it a shot, but I worried about the consequences of me teaching the kids to do it instead of their parents. Deep down, I wanted to fail rather than succeed, but I did not want our dialogue to result in nothing.

Fortunately, Alasi had taken my conversation to heart. A snowstorm raged the next day, providing a fresh layer of snow over the drier, older snow. The day after that, however, a beautiful blue sky provided a springlike feel that belied the -15° Celcius that prevailed. Just before lunchtime, Alasi let all of the teachers know that there were going to be a few adults building igloos near the school that afternoon. If the teachers wanted to bring their classes along to participate, they were encouraged to do so. 

In the afternoon, most of the kids joined in the activities. A few adult men did the main construction while the kids looked on and filled the cracks between the bricks with snow. There was not as much explanation or explicit instruction as I would have liked, but there may have been more learning going on than I was aware of. More importantly, connections were being reestablished as adults and children enjoyed each other’s company in the middle of these labours. I took pictures and stayed out of the way. After a while, my girls wandered back to the school. 

I would have liked to spend a bit more time watching the igloos go up, but I wanted to make sure the girls were okay. I straggled in a few minutes after they did and found them sitting quietly at their desks, with the lights off and the high sun of spring pouring in through the windows. I paused to take in the sight of seeing them each sitting quietly with a book. I switched the lights on so that they could read more easily, but Mary gestured for me to turn them back off. I took a seat at my desk and noticed they had the copies of The Princess Bride that I bought the previous Christmas. Mary even asked me the meaning of "scullery." Despite the uselessness of what I had to offer them - in this case, the esoteric vocabulary - they were meeting me halfway. 

In the days that followed, a lot of igloos that went up, including a cluster near my house, most of them built by Raymond's boys. There were a few nights when they glowed blue or orange with a light within and I was tempted to drop in on them. Ever hesitant about intruding or, at this point, putting myself in a difficult situation, I watched the glow from my kitchen window.

Two weeks later, Alasi called me into his office to inform me that the School Committee had decided not to renew my contract for a third year. It was hard not to take the news personally, but eventually I would acknowledge how burnt-out I was. Summer could have brought renewal and an appetite for the challenge of preparing Mary for graduation to a village further south, but I likely would have exhausted my reserves of energy early in the fall. It was best for me to move on.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Have Any of Our "Leaders" Heard of the Marshall Plan?

The martial drumbeat is growing louder and once again and the allies are rallying themselves to a cause that requires Western or NATO intervention in the Middle East. This time to bring a stop to the atrocities that have been committed by ISIS.  The script during the build up has sounded familiar to that prior to other attacks and it seems certain that there will be ultimately the familiar lines about needing boots on the ground to finish the task and put a stop to this [fill in the blank].

The script has been played out so many times that it is tempting to tune out and try to find some way to opt out of the Special Report updates on another unwinnable war.  If we recall the narratives of previous wars, air strikes and initiatives to send advisors to some troubled theatre ultimately lead to expanded involvement and a poor return on the investment and the high-tech toys that ultimately sow the seeds for future terrorist groups to, like a hydra, come back in a new variation and a level of virulence that is, if we trust those beating the war drums, is even worse then its predecessors. This iteration of the fight against terror as tired and cliched as its previous refrains is only going to ensure that the battle will have a future chapter far sooner than the politicians and generals promise this time around.

While a battle of much greater concern, the battle with Ebola that seems to show the death-spore ahead of the best efforts of humanitarians and other people who are on the ground there. While there are experimental drugs that are available to deliver to the parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and their neighbours afflicted by the outbreak there seems to be little impetus to respond to this threat that has arrived on Western shores and is likely to make a more significant arrival before it ends.

Time and time again politicians make decisions that only take into account the shortest term possible and just as tragically the voters do not demonstrate the patience or the generosity to allow their leaders to take a longer term view on matters that have profound consequences for -- to trot out another well-worn chestnut from the hustings -- our children's children. Politicians with an eye to getting elected and staying in office continue to flash one dimensional short term responses -- responses not solutions when faced with challenges that impact our communities or all humanity. This is not to suggest that a response to ISIS is inappropriate but that it needs to be more comprehensive and look to ways of addressing the root causes of terrorism.

The Marshall Plan is a long-standing template for a pre-emptive, thorough and effective response to ensuring that communities that could become the breeding grounds for a potential threat, in the case of the Marshall Plan, communism. A similar package of initiatives aimed at bringing prosperity and development in some small way would be a noble alternative to the litany of airstrikes, invasions and territorial influence that the West have initiated in the Middle East for longer than our lifetimes. If there is opposition or suspicion among leaders and the general population in the Middle East it would because the West has long had its eye on the territory and the resources of the area and have played their chess games and power struggling with their strategic goals in mind, with a peace that is entirely in their favour rather than in the best interests of the people of that region. There dearly, dearly needs to be a substantial change away from the quixotic adventures that the west continues to waste its resources on. If the model of the Marshall Plan does not convince you, think instead of Osama Bin Laden's ambition to bankrupt the American economy.  A Marshall Plan initiative would likely cost less than ongoing war and do more to advance prosperity and consequently deny terrorist recruiters of their anti-American, anti-Western sales pitch.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Remarkable: The Assault on the Sub-2-Hour Marathon

I woke up this morning to the news of a new world record being set in the marathon. Dennis Kimetto completed the Berlin Marathon in a time of 2:02:57, the first runner to complete the marathon in under 2:03. Apart from Dennis Kimetto's barrier breaking pace, the world record was also attained by the 2nd place finisher Emmanuel Mutai who was 20 seconds off the pace.

The feat is another remarkable step in the progression toward running a sub-2-hour marathon, something which has become discussed increasingly in the running world as a possibility. There is still debate raging about this, but nothing of the nature that occurred prior to Roger Bannister's achievement of the 4-minute mile, something which was considered a clear and unattainable barrier to human athletic performance.  The debate has been a subject of when and how it seems rather than if.  The record is 5 minutes faster than it was 45 years ago and 52 minutes faster than it was at the turn of the century.

As a casual runner who as completed a grand total of one marathon I have some sense of the effort, discipline and ongoing mental strength it takes to achieve this performance. For Mr. Kimetto and Mr. Mutai, this morning's progress has been the culmination of a career of preparation toward this peak performance. It may well be that this two hours and change of running this morning may be the finest two hours of their athletic performance and that they achieved a state that is rarely attainable for any human.

However, for these two men and the handful of elite runners who they have competed most closely with over the course of their elite-level careers there is probably a fraternity of colleagues who can tell one another that there were minor lapses here and there through such races that they would like to have back and that there were aspects of the mental management of the race that they would fine tune before pursuing the distance the next time around.

The feat is duly remarkable.  The two-hour pace is one that many casual runners set as their goal for a half-marathon.  For my own comparison I have to look at the pace I run when I am sprinting.  Ten days ago I ran a set of 100 metre sprints and was thrilled, not to mention gasping, to complete single 100 metre sprints in under 20 seconds.  I joked to my wife afterward that I (at 47) was nearly half as fast as Usain Bolt.  The reality this morning is that if I happened to run one of my sprints as Mr Kimetto ran by, he still would have easily passed me on the last stretch of his run this morning.  His pace for the marathon in Berlin averaged 2:49 a kilometre or about 4 seconds faster than me over 100 metres. It is time for me to head out and work on my sprinting. As I do that the next time out I will marvel at how Mr. Kimetto, Mr. Mutai and others who are on their heels manage to perform and push each other to.

It may be another few decades before the two hour barrier is achieved but has training techniques, nutrition for these athletes and other aspects of the sport continue to evolve the world records in the race will continue to fall by small increments until that barrier is broken.  Runners everywhere, even the most casual, will be inspired and amazed by today's feat and with each increment toward that is made toward that benchmark.  Hopefully as these athletes work toward a record that has seemed unattainable they will gain more international recognition.  On a Sunday when TV audiences will pick at their brunches fixated on the Ryder Cup, click through the NFL menu throughout the afternoon and keep an eye on the last day of the MLB regular season, the achievement in Berlin is the one that deserves the front page of the sports section and ought to be considered among the sporting achievements of the year.

Until the record is broken again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Roots of the Soft Skills Shortage

Earlier this week the Canada West Foundation released a report titled Talent is Not Enough outlining the skills shortage that has become increasingly evident throughout Alberta.  The report highlights, among other issues impacting the Alberta labour market, shortages of skills that currently exist and will likely become more pronounced in the coming years as baby boomers retire.

One of the highlights of the report are that gaps in Essential Skills and Soft Skills are increasingly apparent among new or recent entrants to the labour market.  The issues with soft skills and essential skills could arguably be set on the steps of public schools but get only the briefest mention of their needs to adapt and contribute to resolving the skills shortage that the Canada West Foundation outlines in its report. While a great deal of the discussion of education is aimed at the initiatives that the post-secondary sector has developed to address these gaps, the K-12 system only gets the briefest mention in the concluding "Pathways to Success" portion of the report.  As an educator who has worked in the K-12 sector and the post-secondary sector I can still clearly recall the concerns that I encountered when: a) junior high school students could not properly spell but English-language educators (their use of the noun, not mine) under the spell of the whole-language movement held off on correcting students on grammatical or spelling mistakes.

There was some rationale to the whole-language movement and it may have had its merits when working with elementary age students who were in the process of putting together the language as well as they could and may have benefited from more relaxed approaches to language acquisition, there had to be a time and place where teachers would take the initiative to correct the students and sway them from their spell as you go tendencies and other communicative strategies that disregarded the need for the language to be a common medium of exchange.  As this cohort of students moved through the public school system with their ungrounded assumptions about their communications abilities.

As those students moved into university without the writing skills required to complete papers coherently, more of those institutions found themselves having to offer alternatives to English 101 for students who graduated Grade 12 without the communications skills required and add writing programs to remediate these as well.  Similar to some employers that were mentioned in the report, the universities did not feel that it was their purview to teach skills that ought to have been developed before these students sought admission to university.  Eventually, they waved the white flag and offered these alternate classes, but there are still university students who graduate without their limited communications skills and soft skills being identified, evaluated and remediated.

Part of the motivation of the whole language movement when it was introduced had been to preserve the self-esteem of students and forego the risk of harming their feelings with the trauma of correction of obvious mistakes.  Another consequence of this approach to public education, apart from the buck-passing that has occurred as students advance from one grade to the next without learning the skills required is that, as the report indicates on page 10, "post-secondary graduates often have unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.  Their aspirations do not match the opportunities available to them.  They may not be willing to begin in entry-level positions or they may expect immediate promotions and salary increases."

If new employees are bringing a strong sense of entitlement in lieu of the skills required, that would provide part of the explanation of the paradox of a skills shortage and an apparent job shortage occurring at the same time.

One might argue, as a recent article from The Globe and Mail suggests, that these limitations among university graduates may be in part a consequence of the programs they enter. Arts graduates are still graduating with the critical thinking and communications skills required in the job market today. Business, Science and other programs with more apparent technical components may be more focused on determining if the technical skills have been developed and sigh and shrug at gaps in other skills because it is not their responsibility to develop those.  Furthermore, there is an ongoing challenge in ensuring the technical aspects of those degrees remain current, something employers noted when responding to interviews during the Foundation's study.  At the post-secondary level, it could be address by ensuring that Business and Science students are getting the opportunity to develop these communications and critical thinking skills as a part of their programs or by

For these problems with skills shortages to be addressed, the mandate of the K-12 system needs to be carefully examined.  If it is determined that these skills ought to be developed at the K-12 level, then the Ministry of Education needs to adjust the K-12 mandate to ensure this.  As the stakeholders look to come together to resolve the labour shortages that are imminent, this stakeholder must not be overlooked.  Also, ensuring the post-secondary students have the opportunity to further develop these skills in addition to the technical skills they develop in Science, Business and other programs with greater emphasis on technical skills needs to be ensured.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Fallacy of a Justifying Future

"I just can't believe in anything that claims to be prophetic or oracular. Don't forget about all the dire consequences involved when you employ arguments based on a non-existent future. All the genocides that were committed under the sophism of a future filled with light, because of the false promise of a marvellous future. Nothing like that exists. An argument based on the future is a lie."
Eloy Urroz, Mexican-American novelist, The Family Interrupted, 2011

I am in the process of polishing a manuscript describing the two years I spent teaching in the Canadian Arctic with the intent of publishing it as an e-book in the coming weeks or months and I paused on a rather significant question that many teachers ponder at one point or another.  The question was how strongly my approach to work as a teacher was justified (rightly or wrongly) by the belief that I would be proven right at some unknown point in the future.

All teachers have to invest some degree of faith or confidence that they are contributing to a meaningful long-term goal and accept that the results of their work may never be known to them.  Of the eight kids I taught, a few sent me pictures of themselves and letters in the years shortly after I left the Arctic.  More recently, twenty-plus years after I left, three have friended me on Facebook, but other than that there is little that I can add to the column.  I cannot tell from this distance that those students are handling adulthood, parenthood, employment or any of the other challenges that face them in a manner that would reflect my actions in the classroom and indicate a positive outcome from the time I spent with them during the two years we were together.

This uncertainty takes me back to the notion that a justifying future is a fallacy.  It is a ploy we rely on to help ourselves carry on in the face of doubt, or perhaps to justify the way we act with others, whether it is as a teacher, parent, partner or colleague.  I do not wish to suggest that this fallacy is something that visionaries or scientists indulge in carelessly.  They take an entrepreneurial approach and invest their time, energy and reputation it influencing the future in a more concrete way and they do so conscious of the risks of failure, whether they are career-ending or the bump in the road that entrepreneurs are familiar with.

Going back to the classroom, where in the Arctic compulsory education was arguably a key part of an extended and troubled bit of social engineering, the perceived future was a dangerous justifier of an endeavour that was misguided and poorly executed.  As C.W. Hobart and C.S. Brant put it in 1966:
"much of contemporary [Inuit] education in the ... Canadian Arctic is inappropriate, and perhaps even dis-educative from the standpoint of preparation for the life children will lead as adults."
The fallacy of a justifying future enabled teachers to adopt the attitude of, "I know what's good for you," but worse yet it encouraged the institutional leadership we were employed by to adopt the approach to education that it did.  At the individual classroom level my refusal to allow the students to listen to Metallica's Enter Sandman full blast on an ailing Sears, single speaker cassette player was one minor example of me using the future to justify my actions.  I would hope that I did this in a respectful manner.  However, I was sticking to the curriculum that students throughout the rest of 
Qu├ębec were abiding my.  The justifying future in that instance was far less respectful on the Inuit people or their culture and 25 years after the Hobart and Brant article and nearly 50 years later the education is likely just as dis-educative.

There is a risk that we as individuals, societies are as capable of this fallacy.  Businesses and other institutions risk it as well even when presented with data to the contrary or opposition and ridicule. This morning I came across an article indicating that Mercedes-Benz is choosing to disregard data cities.  Their position is that the data is more complex and that this shift is not going to be sustained. As a corporation they are entitled to take this risk and the consequences will largely impact them.  In other instances where faith-based organizations, most notoriously the Westboro Baptist Church, conduct themselves in the least forgiving of manners with the fallacy that their hatred will be approved of when they get to "their" heaven.

Ultimately, we may look to the future with hope, but our aspirations must be realistic rather than narcisstic and our actions and attitudes must remain grounded in respect for others and their aspirations for the future rather than the assumption that we know best.

Compartmentalizing Versus Character in the NFL

Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
 The string of domestic violence issues that have drawn eyes to the NFL this month and an appropriate level of criticism as well.  Such charges are not unusual within the NFL or other sports for that matter and they are not unique to North America as well.  The problem this time around has been the lack of will to discipline these players appropriately for their actions.  While Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy may each have their apologists too many look to compartmentalize what these athletes do on the field from what they do off the field.

The apologists may be happy that Ray McDonald was able to play for the San Francisco 49ers while facing charges for a domestic violence incident and hoping that Hardy (who played the season opener despite a conviction) and Rice somehow find their way back onto the field despite the obstacles they each face.  The apologists are too caught up in the game to recognize the these men do not merit the retinues of fans supporting them merely because of their achievements between the lines.  The on-field glory that these athletes have accomplished should in no way earn them a retinue of blindly obedient fans willing to overlook their flaws, especially flaws as egregious as these.  Fan loyalty the day after a loss or painful season is an indication of faith, the familiar promise of, "Wait till next year."
Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers

This fan loyalty morphs into something entirely unhealthy when one continues to applaud the man under these circumstances.  I am not suggesting that these man be pilloried or ostracized for their actions, but that fans detach enough to make a clear assessment of what the man has done and what the consequences are for his victim(s) and for society as a whole when public figures and like it or not, role models treat women and children in this way and expect to evade the consequences.  Blind support at these times only feeds the sense of superiority that motivates professional athletes to believe that they are not only above the law but also that their partners are such a threat that they can or ought to be treated with violence.  If there is an interest in seeing these men redeemed then it has to begin with acknowledging and accepting their character flaws and wishing them well on their amending these matters rather than enabling them to continue presuming their conduct is tolerable.

Going beyond the fans, even more needs to be said for the organizations that insist on disregarding these athletes' conduct because having standards of character would somehow get in the way of victory.  Organizations such as the Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers have easily compartmentalized significant character issues out of the discussion of what benefits their team from one week to the next.  There may be a mindset that acknowledges that such violent tendencies may come with the territory when one is looking for high-level performers in such a violent sport and the best efforts are made to overlook it or, once again, compartmentalize it.  In the case of Greg Hardy, convicted and pending appeal, that skill set is worth $13.1 million to the Carolina Panthers.  Beyond the NFL, there needs to be an examination of the moves NCAA boosters and administrations indulge in to protect stars players from the consequences of their actions.

The athletes involved and their organizations are supposed to be professionals familiar with their public profile but they seem overly eager to exercise their right to brush aside those fans that buy the jerseys and wear them, seek autographs and bemoan the benchings that impact their fantasy squads. The character of the athlete needs to bring the character of the organization and the character of the fans into question if they are tolerant of this type of behaviour.
Ray Rice, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens

Amidst the growing undeniable evidence of the brain damage that has stemmed from playing football and other matters related to providing a safe and healthy workplace for these athletes, teams need to start looking carefully at the types of environments they are asking these young men to work and live in.  Denying that these young men may have issues with character that would land them and their organizations in the large font ink that these men have merited over the last few months and others have earned in years passed cannot continue to be overlooked.  Efforts must be made to prepare the players and the organizations for situations such as these and policies regarding domestic violence and other crimes must be applied consistently within the NFL.  Whether it is Commissioner Roger Goodell's apparently unsteady hand, or a separate disciplinary body run under the league there needs to be a standard that ensures that the league acts in response to charges and convictions against its players rather than leaves it to the teams to regulate.  It appears that the NFL is taking steps to address the gaps in policy addressing domestic violence among its players but it remains to be seen how willing the league and its franchises are willing to go to address an issue that has been far too prevalent since long before the perfect storm that has unfolded since the start of the 2014 season.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Is The Workplace the Current or Future Frontier of Multiculturalism In Canada?

After over a generation of multiculturalism in Canada, it could be said that we may be resting on our laurels or settling for our branding as a multicultural nation. The reality is that the work is something that needs to be sustained.  Whether it is for the sake of committing ourselves to the mission of maintaining a multicultural nation or achieving the competitive advantage that Canada is slowly letting slip away in the face of looming global job shortages, there are few new modes where Canada's progress toward greater multiculturalism is being sustained. The promise of accommodation and tolerance that has long attracted newcomers to our shores is being challenged due to changes in policy and attitude within the federal government and because of the increased pressure for the workplace to adapt and facilitate greater integration of a larger number of newcomers to Canada.

While Canadians may be getting bogged down in the semantics or hyphenation of the national discussion of multiculturalism there are realities of integration that are still hard to overcome.  There are obstacles for internationally educated professionals to gain the accreditation or certification that they require to work as engineers, lawyers, accountant, doctors and in other professions.  This may be a matter of those professional bodies wanting to regulate the supply of professionals in their fields and ensure standards are maintained in areas where matters of public safety are concerned.  It could, however, be just as easily a trumped up anxiety about the cultural differences or the quality of education these professionals received.

However, in other professions and occupations, international experience is disregarded and often calculated at a rate of 5 or 10 years of international experience worth a year of Canadian experience.  (This, of course refers to newcomers from developing countries rather than those coming from industrialized European countries, Australia, New Zealand and the US.)  Given the labour shortages that are regularly forecast for Canada and the rest of the industrialized world, such fussy math when recruiting is a luxury that ought to be reconsidered.  Those employers who adopt more flexible recruiting strategies will be ahead of their competitors when it comes to tapping into the labour pool in the future and integrating diverse talent into their workforces.  For some reason this is all treated like the typical "good for you" advice like people receive time and again about diet, exercise and other habits.  At some level in larger organizations and institutions there is resistance to adapting and those groups will lose their competitive advantage to smaller organizations that have been more forward-thinking on this crucial labour issue.

Organizations and businesses that begin transforming their organizations into more diverse and multicultural teams, will have gone through the pain of adaptation at a time when the competition for foreign talent has not yet peaked.  They will have achieved the critical mass to create and support a diverse, multicultural workplace and do so in a more intuitive manner.  If their competitors ignore the warnings about labour shortages until it is too late, they will be fused to the starting blocks and facing significant declines in productivity that will compromise their ability to respond to the challenge.

The workplace is a key node for newcomers to integrate into the greater community and, given the economic forces bringing so many newcomers to Canada, employers have the opportunity and responsibility to play a large role in the integration process.  Helping newcomers become familiar with workplace culture can be challenging in the short-term but the benefits will accrue in short order as the team becomes more diverse in terms of perspective. The temptation is to say, "That's just the way we do it," but reflecting in depth on our workplace habits and explaining them more thoroughly is just one step toward welcoming and retaining new staff and creating an environment where that new talent can make the contributions that they are capable of.  Once an organization makes the decision to hire, integrate and accept (rather than tolerate) talent from around the world, they will improve their ability to face the coming labour shortages and achieve productivity benefits that will become tangible when they recognize the talent and potential they have injected into their organization.  Commitment to this requires support and insight to foresee the challenges that will emerge in the short to medium term, but it will pay off by creating a more synergistic organization.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Time Travelling Monday at the Multiplex

As I ate a pizza prior to showtime I noted the clutch of kids lingering outside the multiplex.  A sign that the doors were closed and that the venue and the product were aimed at them at this hour, 1pm on an August Monday.  Looking ahead to the movie I meandered here to see, I wondered which of the movies on the screens today would mark this summer for them.  When I was their age, I'd likely footnote E.T. and Poltergeist from the summer when I was 15.  The other details -- my parent's ailing Buick Century wagon, the house, the food of the day, the paper route -- all come back, but only with a bit more effort than either of the movies brought, or even those respective trips to the theatres.  I still distinctly recall the spill that resulted from trying to lug three drinks with their straws already installed. The decay of the Buick and the gamut of repairs that piled up, however, escapes me in its entirety.

This afternoon, this 47-year-old father of a 2-year-old (okay, he's closer to 3) looked back at various pasts and into the future as I occupied the back row of cinema 6 for Richard Linklater's Boyhood

There were maybe a dozen viewers in total, all adult and probably a decent turn-out for the time of day. Given Linklater's reputation for pushing the envelope on the narrative of his films with the Before series he has done with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and by adapting the non-fiction book Fast-Food Nation into a feature picture rather than a documentary, the notion of him taking 12 years to make a coming of age picture does not come as a complete surprise or a viewing experience that would lack reward.  As the film moved from limited release to gradually wider release this past weekend, I was eager to take it in before it slipped away from the local screens.

From the moment Eller Coltrane's Mason begins dialogue with his mother, played by Patricia Arquette, as the two drive home from school and discuss his homework, it is clear that Linklater cast the lead role brilliantly, if not perfectly. Coltrane's performance from these opening moments one that is unguarded and nuanced with a realism that throughout the movie that left me feeling more like a bug on a neighbour's wall rather than a popcorn-eater in the dark.  The movie was a constant invitation to meditate on the era that has just passed, my own youth and look ahead to the rites of passage that my son will go through and lead me through as the years ahead fly by all too quickly.  There were occasions throughout the movie, where I reflected on my own experiences dealing with peer pressure and as a parent think of how precarious a situation may unfold if my son does not have the sense of direction and moment that Mason had in most instances.

The drama in the movie was realistic and did not resort to more substantial traumas that might unbalance other characters in other stories and leave them scrambling to rediscover equilibrium by the end.  Instead, the audience is asked to follow the path and thoughts of the quiet, thoughtful dreamer splayed on the lawn in the first shot and grapple with the ever-lingering question, "What do you want to do?"  It is not an unfamiliar question but the story of Mason's growth is presented with such a degree of intimacy that the characters feel familiar in ways that they do not when the drama is more contrived to suit formula.  There are dramatic elements on the home front throughout the movie: changes of homes, careening marriages and the trouble that kids find their way into when they are finding their way and testing themselves and their boundaries but the main question that lingers in the audience is the opening one.  What is Mason going to grow up to be?

With this film, Richard Linklater has invited the audience to meditate on the gradual growth of his character in a film with novelistic depth.  Its poignancy, eye for the era that has passed and for the rites that all boys go through in one way or another resulted in a movie of quiet, confident brilliance.  As the story closed on this chapter, I thought about the years that lay ahead for my wife and I until, as Mason's mother put it on the day he leaves home, "The worst day of my life!"  This movie is more likely to resonate with me 12 years from now than it may with the boys who lined up for Guardians of the Galaxy (probably the 3D version) but it will be one that I will dust off for my son at a certain moment in our lives to let him know that -- even if he may find himself out of his element at some point in his life -- his experience is a common one and that he'll get through it somehow.  Really.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


It is a privilege to recall Robin Williams' brilliant career from that meteoric rise in the late 1970's to all that has transpired since.  There is a stock photo of Williams' as a street performer in New York, complete with the grease paint of a mime in the 1977 World Book Encyclopedia Year Book.  The publishers' assumption may have been that Williams still had the anonymity to pass as just another bit of local New York street colour but by the time the volume was in circulation he had already appeared on Happy Days as the alien Mork and spun off on to Mork and Mindy (and made a leap into the present) shortly after that.  The attire was much the same template that Mork wore the blue and orange striped T-shirt and suspenders so there was no denying that Mork was Williams' The childlike energy and sense of wonder that Mork possessed was convincingly alien to me and Garry Marshall's casting of Williams as an alien may have been the only way to bring Williams' talents to the large audiences that he achieved with his previous sitcoms.  It was the first of countless revelations as Robin Williams matured.

As the spark of inspiration that fed Mork and Mindy ran its course and Williams took his talents and his profile onto the concert stage that energy was unbound and there was a sense at the time that he was where he belonged and that the movies like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson were either respectable efforts or bombs because they just didn't get Williams or make the most of the talents that he had.  The stand-up routines where he spun off moments such as Elmer Fudd singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" or conjured the notion of Pavarotti working a night club with a "two Jews walk into a bar" riff that are firmly deeply etched in my mind.  If there was such a thing as stand-up karaoke there are countless wannabes (myself included) who would revel in the opportunity to bring their best tribute to Williams to the stage.  In that medium he was unbound by script and expectation and improvised at will.  The results were brilliant, profane and profound.  In his 1987 A Night at the Met, Willams emphasizes his concerns about raising his kids and poignant concerns about whether he or any of us for that matter can do it in a world that has given him the material that it had during the Reagan era.

Could any of us have imagined Mork was a mere 20 years away from an Oscar?

The serious work was always there, whether as that respite during stand up work, the efforts such as the adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (for PBS no less) and the touches that he added to those more manic film roles he was expected to perform his shtick in.  Good Morning Vietnam had acknowledged the war rather than merely used it as a backdrop for Williams and that indicated the transition to "more serious" work and his performance in the face of the street warfare was on-key and the transition to the role in Dead Poets Society gave him the platform and space to do what was familiar to audiences while bringing a complex character to the screen.  Was John Keating doing right by his students to inspire them as rebelliously as they did?  Was he giving those students that proper opportunity to think critically by having them tear pages out of the texts on day one? He made teaching literature cool.

Awakenings. Robin Williams had the quiet, introverted, awkward part while DeNiro had the role that let him cut loose.  It may have been the most stunning moment of his career, a revelation of the depth he invested himself in a role or a performance.  (I should not overlook the curiosity that Penny Marshall, sister of Garry, directed him in this role.)  There was never a moment in the movie where he turned manic with one of those signature riffs that left me wondering how in the hell the animators on Aladdin managed to adequately animate the vocal performance he provided without massive doses of coffee or a hair transplant or how everyone else on the set of his other performances could keep a straight face.

The energy that went into those broader performances was present in the calm, restrained roles such as Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings and in that you could see the professionalism and commitment to his craft and the ability to immerse himself into his roles as deeply as actors we are more apt to laud and lionize.  It was a commitment that made Williams succeed, regardless of audiences' expectations and it may have challenged writers and directors to ensure that he had plenty of material to draw on to make a character. Each time he performed he took those around him to a new and unexpected place and the results were breathtaking. In Awakenings, however, he did so much with his hands in the quietest most private moments to communicate the vulnerability of a brilliant character he played in that movie.  He was capable as packing as much into the slightest, most minimal gestures as he did into his entire body when doing improv or stand-up.

That vulnerability that he exposed in Awakenings and in Good Will Hunting was at the heart of his work throughout his career and life. There was so much more left in him, but maybe I'm assuming that with the selfishness of the audience when he actually left us when he was truly and finally spent. Farewell and thank you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Step

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.  It is undeniably remarkable that the Age of Flight accelerated from the first flight at Kitty Hawk to this apogee in the space of a mere 60 years and despite the other events of the day it may have been the most optimistic moment for the United States of the second half of the 20th Century.

It seems odd that, despite those halcyon days of the 1960s and early 1970s, the era of American space travel is all but over.  Whenever I look at my 2-year-old's picture books with their images of Saturn rockets and space shuttles, it strikes me as odd that they are ultimately relics of a bygone era. That something so laden with technology and ambition to shape the future is a museum piece because the ambition itself has been rendered moot by the economics are questions about the return on investment seems incongruous.  Telling him that the space shuttle is in a museum but not because it has been replaced by more modern technology flies in the face of our long-standing assumptions about progress.

And that may be a good thing.

During the 1960's, there was probably a gee whiz glee and the possibilities of what's next and a belief that progress itself was an immutable or even an immortal thing that would never stop rewarding us with new awes or gadgets and that challenges could be met merely by pouring more energy, money or effort into something.  There is still the occasional murmur about heading to Mars on a mission, but given the distance that would have to be covered and it is more likely to remain science fiction or fantasy.  NASA no longer has the fleet or perhaps the talent that it once had so their progress toward a Mars mission is likely proceeding at a much slower pace than they would like.  Today, however, few people can trace direct links between the benefits of the technology that went into the space program or the research that was done.  There were achievements but they have likely been taken for granted or diminished to the snarky response of, "Tang?"

We have heard less and less of the "if we can put a man on the moon" confidence-builder in recent years and it may be due to a loss of hope in solving problems or meeting the challenges that pose themselves to us as a society or a civilization.  It has become more evident that the cliche shows a limited approach to problem-solving and an unrealistic faith in technology as the answer to all problems.  The rocket to the moon mindset is as obsolete remnant of an all-too-linear way of thinking.  Poverty, the drug war, equity are just some of the challenges that had at one point or another been met with the same approach that was adopted when pursuing the moon shot.  Many of these problems are right where they were before the "solution" of more was put forward.

If, over the course of time, we have developed a greater sense that progress has been a mixed blessing and that there need to be solutions that integrate the resources that we have to apply to them rather than just pile them onto a problem without giving too much thought to the way those resources are mixed and calibrated to address the challenges that we are trying to address.  Merely throwing as much as possible or available at a problem is no longer as feasible as it use to be.  Look no further than the cuts that have come to NASA as the American government has struggled with its budgetary restraints.

Beyond that, there have been the possibilities that have emerged when wider ranges of stakeholders have been involved in contributing their insights to problem-solving, creating a more comprehensive approach to problem-solving and moving toward a more rational approach to achieving goals rather than seeking great leaps that never deliver what was advertised.