Sunday, December 31, 2017

Respect the First Draft

For a writer, the taunt of a blank page has its own wing in the hall of fame for life's frustrations. It is not as large or well-funded as the wing dedicated to commuter traffic in southern California or Houston because a lot of writers have just walked away from the blank page rather than acknowledge its existence. (The presence of the blank screen just sends us to Twitter or we walk away from the computer with a sudden urge to defrost the freezer or we return to the keyboard update the cover art on our iPods.)

The first draft, however, lingers on the lower half of that ballot. It poses its challenges, especially when one expects or aspires to nail the project on the first go. Michelangelo's David does not betray signs of erasure or a red line to self. I have never seen David and ought to read more about it, but on first blush it is one of those icons of the successful first go at a work of art.  In reference to David, it is often said that Michelangelo just carved away the inessential parts of the stone, asserting the possibility that David was just in there waiting as if a fairy tale victim. While Michelangelo's comment about the essential is valuable, the lingering image of the dormant solid subject waiting for release may not be a healthy one. I believe there were points in the process where Michelangelo had creative or technical decisions to make and that he was not merely in the thrall of the medium.

Creative history is rife with examples of the spontaneous creation, but the reality is that there are very few immaculate creative conceptions. There are stories of movies shot from a first draft of the screenplay. "Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in a dream. There is a history (or series of urban legends) of fully realized arrivals. These stand out because of their utter uniqueness and ought not be the gauge for assessing our own creativity. These instances can also be a curse.  It brings to mind a story of a weekend golfer who tees it up for the first time of the year, stares down the fairway, waggles over the ball and cranks it straight on a long, arcing 270-yard shot with the first swing of the season. Perfection, right? The golfer drops his head in more disgust than elation and in response to his foursome's puzzlement says, "That's gonna be in my head all year now."

There are first drafts or attempts in creation of something and during those first drafts you are putting the clay or the jigsaw pieces on the table to see what you have and what you can do with it. It is not going to be pretty and sadly it is not going to be as easy taking the lid off the Play-Doh or the puzzle and dumping it on the table. And then turning the pieces over.

There is the need for a process and a need for regular practice as well. One challenge may be finding and cultivating the patience to stay at something when you believe you have a fully realized conception of what you want to do and that all you have to do is dump it out. That may be the very thing that makes the blank page as daunting or taunting as it is. When you stare at it, you may know the very thing you want to write but you are trying to find the seam in a rather austere or antiseptic sci-fi setting that will reveal the door into the product that you want to find. So you stare at the page or screen scanning your thoughts with the tactile sensitivity of a safe-cracker but can't find the purchase on the product that you are hoping for. When writing the quest for that combination of voice, angle and rhetorical grab to start your great novel it is probably akin to trying to crack the safe at Fort Knox with a pair of oven mitts on your hands and a Fisher Price stethoscope to reveal the movements of the tumblers.
  • Try working from the assumption that there will be a second draft minimum.  This ought to take some pressure off the quest for the ideal starting point.
  • Consider where you are and start where you are at. You have the best chance of harvesting the thoughts or ideas that are clearest to you.
  • Write the best part first. The sooner you have this down the more time you have to polish it and the greater impact it has on the rest of your project.
  • Enjoy the freedom that comes from knowing that it is for your eyes only and make a mess of it.  Write yourself instructions along the line of "I need to put the description of the monster's breath here" and move on to what you are doing.

Depending on what you are working on, you may be a few months getting that first draft out and what you want to do is get into the state of flow (You knew that word was coming, didn't you? I have heard it often enough that I think that after a drink or two I can even say Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's name accurately) so that you are creating or doing in an uninhibited manner. When I am writing fluently my hands are banging away on the keyboard as if I were at the piano and on many occasions there is music playing to set an air piano mindset.  With photography it is very much about getting into flow. I am not sure if the photos that come from that state of flow are consistently strong but the state of mind and movement I get into as I head out my door with nothing more in mind than following colour, there is the sense of clearing my thoughts or my palate to do other things with a great sense of awareness.

Speaking of photography, if you wish to create in other media, the concept of the first draft still exists. There are the loose faint sketches of form and overall composition in the visual arts that will provide the core of what you proceed to finish. Even in photography, there are shots taken to merely determine exposure or depth of field.  In more complex photographs it may take a significant length of time for a photographer to capture the image that they have in mind when they begin the shoot. I can recall an instance where I first attempted a shot in February 1996 and had to wait until December 1998 to get it. The film I used was damaged during the processing and - the pictures being taken on holiday - I had to wait until I returned there for the shot.  When I set up for the shot I had in mind, I took about eight shots, but I knew that the first handful and the last two were not going to be the shot I wanted.

Setting aside the goal of the completed product or project and getting into the grit and grind of getting what is in you out of your head and soul and in front of you so you can work with it can, hopefully, be freeing. Granted it may be as "freeing" as pushing around a wheelbarrow full of rocks, but they are out there for you to work with.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Creativity Versus Technical Proficiency

Cellphoto by the author, November 28, 2017.
One challenge for many is separating technical ability in an area from our real or potential creativity. Among children, there is the matter of developing the skills, or merely the size, to do the things that they would like to do. We could look at the simple challenges of reaching across a set of piano keys or the fret board of a guitar. In Canada, the sight of a child turtled up in their body weight’s worth of hockey gear as it renders them nearly immobile comes to mind. 

Technical challenges are evident in every field of endeavour, including the creative ones. The frustration comes when you have a vision of what you want to create, but cannot either offer it to the world in its completed form as you envision it (if only!) or, failing that, start at an obvious square one and proceed in an orderly fashion from there. The technical challenge is one that may be very discouraging, especially if you are of the mindset that creativity is - again - this available font that you just have to access to express a vision. This is the point where I could launch tedious, familiar platitudes about the process and digging deep within yourself.

Creativity, however, comes from a separate stream or a separate set of habits or skills than the technical proficiency people aspire to.

When teaching photography, I run into the illusion or delusion about technical proficiency being the key to becoming a more expressive photographer and the screen door to great photography will open once you master the dustiest most untouched corners of your owner's manual. In the one-day classes I teach, I strive to strike a balance between the creative and technical aspects of photography. However, the vibe I get in class and often get more clearly expressed in my course evaluations can be essentially summed up as, “Creativity... yeah, yeah, great, but what does this button do?” The presumption that  technical proficiency will facilitate (rather than hinder) creativity is a false hope. I have seen too many photographers purchase more expensive gear in the hope that it will prompt an expressive leap in the way that a Stradivarius will facilitate for a violinist to make better music.

Creativity, however, comes from a separate stream or a separate set of habits or skills than the technical proficiency people aspire to. There have been several times in my photography classes where people show me a picture they took with their phone and either want my feedback or are quite chuffed about what they pulled off, wrongly convinced that they excelled despite the camera's limitations. I affirm their pride in the shot and briefly tell them that if they’re in the right place at the right time and open (which I manage to verbally italicize as well) they can take a great shot with their phone. 

Photographic equipment is often grossly overrated. I remember teaching a class where a student had tens of thousands of dollars of equipment with her in class and she wanted to get as much as she could out of all of it, but she had fundamental challenges with composition. Writers do not fuss over the pen and paper that they write with limiting them because they are cheap. Writers don't feel pressured to take a writing class because they bought a Mont Blanc pen. When I see it, I become more curious about what someone is writing with a blotty Bic pen - its end looking like a stalactite because of chewing - in a ring coil notebook with awire straggling out 3 or 4 inches and certain to snag on the writer’s clothing than anything written in a Moleskin with a Mont Blanc. Twenty-five cents words, however, do well up more than they ought to.

My most satisfying shots are the ones when I am most open and that is a consequence of habit or skills that need to be cultivated while pursuing technical proficiency. There is a point though where the ROI on technical training will plateau, but there should not be a similar long-term plateau in your creative development or growth. It is something that can and ought to be continually sought or cultivated whether by looking at other works, work in other media, from other cultures or mindsets or looking carefully at the way you are living or nurturing yourself.

Presuming that full command of technical skill or possession of the best equipment are tantamount to achieving the creativity you talk about aspiring to may ultimately be rationalizations to not getting anything done. The creative habits need to be established and preoccupation with equipment or conditions that must be met in order for creative work to be done are mere excuses. So pick up your phone or an old Bic pen and napkin and get to it.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Is Childhood Imagination a Fallacy?

Despite many of the things that I produce - photographs, writing in a variety of genres and formats, a knack for singing, a not-too embarrassing appearance or three on the stage when I was in university - and a lingering hunger to continue to produce in any or all of these ways, I have struggled to consider myself creative. I do not by any means wish to single myself out. My assumption is that I am not alone with my inner-doubt about creativity and whether or not I am among those who are able to drink gulps from the font of artistry that forms and informs so many of the people that we lionize for the shape that they give our culture.

I suspect I am on the precipice of a discussion about how creative certain people actually are and whether or not "they" ought to have the influence on us or what we consume to entertain ourselves with.

I was given the impression that ... a child could ... open some metaphoric door and just ... create from a dearth of raw materials

What I really want to do is look back in time to my youth a examine how certain myths about creativity were embedded from an early age. From my vantage point -- at 50, and with a son in kindergarten prompting me to compare where I was at his age on a regular basis -- the old saws about children, creativity, inhibitions, natural talent and risk-taking are all being examined in a different light.

One of the first things that comes to mind is the unchallenged assumptions about the imagination, especially in children. Throughout my life and especially during my childhood, conversations about the imagination seemed premised on the belief that a child's imagination was the very paradigm of fertile and active. My imagination during childhood seemed downright barren or vacant whenever I was asked to call upon it. It may be a matter of the way my head works but in my case there was on obstacle to creativity - I did not have the life experience to draw upon. As a child, I was given the impression that the imagination was this place or centre in the head where a child could go, essentially open some metaphoric door and just conjure and create from a dearth of raw materials.  Whenever I went there... nothing or a forced gibberish that lacked the coherence that marked me as one of the select few who could identify a prodigy's life path of creativity.

I do not know if there is a lot of valid reliable research on childhood imagination that asserts, as Noam Chomsky does about language, that a certain combination of elements lure a red arrow across an MRI or a catscan of a child's brain to say that creativity or the imagination is "HERE!" As I blindly type this in an indoors playground I seem to have captured the attention of an idle child of about 4 who is entranced by my concentrated typing without looking at my hands.  I digress... If there is a section of the brain though that flashes a certain profile in that research, I believe that it is an area that needs to be equipped with the experiential crayons and paints and the cerebral tablet required to foster creativity for a larger number of people. Asking children to work with the scant raw materials "available" in that space before it is sufficiently equipped by the life experience to fill it and the knowledge of creative processes to identify how free they can be in that place or determine the structure the guides even the most defiantly individualistic of creatives.

The direction that I heard throughout elementary school to use my imagination likely frustrated at first and may have just disengaged me from trying to settle into or even locate a frame of mind that was that unlabelled, unnourished or unequipped creative centre.  Somehow I manage to get in to that space regularly at this point of my life. When, during early childhood, I was give direction to use my imagination or create, there were the additional obstacles of the fine motor aptitudes required to draw, paint or mold something or the visual acuity or attention to detail to present something with the accuracy that would develop a sense of agency or confidence in creative endeavours. A few months ago I came across my elementary school report cards and read a lot of comments about my need to work further on my "hand work," and wonder what creative vehicles were employed to develop my fine motor skills at the expense of whatever confidence I might have or processes I might learned as part of a creative method.  (Note that I say 'a' creative method not 'the.') Similarly, I wonder if I did haikus in grade four to express myself or merely to identify and count syllables accurately.

My talents only began to emerge or be identified when I was in grades three and four. In grade three I was told that I read well, which meant that I was not only accurate in identifying words but pulled them off the page with a flow and intonation which was decent for my age. In grade four the urge to write first emerged and I became determined to get a Student of the Week award for my writing.  The risks and rule breaking began, most notably with a three-line effort that did not conform to the 17 syllables required of a haiku. Still, the myth that children could visit their imagination for the balms of insight required to create remained impregnable. The imagination somehow had a tangibility

As I look at things I have created or tried to create throughout my life, especially in adulthood, I am very conscious of the synthesis that I engage in and further to that the way ideas or activities cross-pollinate one another. My photography leads me to a certain calm frame of mind and it can prompt significant reflection about my creative processes and my need to be in a certain frame of mind to take good images. Beyond that, there are the cues that images can provide for writing. When the camera is not nearby the urge to create or archive prompts me to resort to poetry. Haikus often serve the purpose and despite myself, finger tips still dance together in counts of 5-7-5 to find my way.

I wonder if, because of my age, experience, and increased self-awareness, I am becoming more creative. There are countless occasions when something resonates and creativity is sparked to a blaze but I have to arrest it because of responsibilities that require my attention. Responsibilities like furnishing that unknown room in my son's head where his creative is softly flickering.

Favorite Reads of 2017

To begin, let me make it clear that these were my favorites of 2017 not from this year as my reading habits are too scattered to be just from this year. To see everything I read this year, feel free to check.

Dave Cullen - Columbine and Sue Klebold - A Mother’s Reckoning
The Cullen book was an account of the massacre at Columbine in 1998 and takes a more historical or journalistic account of the events, including police records and other documents that trace Eric Klebold and Dylan Harris's activity leading up to April 20, 1998. I only read Sue Klebold's book only a month ago and it feels like it has been with me for much, much longer.  A stark, vulnerable account from a mother who makes little effort to hide anything after realizing how much had been hidden from her. You might want to see her TED talk to get a taste of what Sue Klebold has dedicated herself to since 1998 in her search. It is an enlightening and harrowing description of parenting.

Stephen Tobolowsky - Dangerous Animals Club
Needlenose Ned from Groundhog Day with a great memoir. There are wise and heartbreaking moment of self-discovery that are willing shared. This covers his life and career up to the early to mid 1980s. He has published a subsequent memoir this year and both are available essential in audiobook form from his podcast.

Nicholson Baker - Box of Matches
I read three books by Nicholson Baker this year and Box was the best. A quick read from a man with a virtually Buddhist attention to detail. The premise is of a man getting up on consecutive winter mornings to start his day in a moment of dark solitude and reflect on his life. The book lasts the full length of the box of the matches required to start his morning fire and prepare for the day ahead.  We have intermittently corresponded on Twitter.  (He writes back!!) At the moment, he is putting the finishing touches on his next book so he won’t be tweeting over the next few months. Weeks?

Richard Powers - Generosity
Powers blows me away time and again and is - with Baker - climbing my favourite authors list.  Whatever he writes is put together with a remarkable degree of authority about the topics that he takes on whether neurology, science, pharmaceuticals or beyond. This one is about the possibility of a gene for happiness being discovered and ultimately transplantable and whether or not that is a good thing.  I still have not read all of his stuff but I’m eager to and his 2018 novel Overstory is already pre-ordered.

Julia Lawson Timmer - Five Days Left
Surprising story about a foster dad and an adoptive mother who only know each other via a chat room for adoptive parents. 

Pema Chodron - When Things Fall Apart
A wise perspective from a Buddhist abbess who resides at a monastery in Cape Breton. She is a prolific writer and this was a very moving, and well-highlighted book for me.

Haruki Murakami - Men Without Women
My first? acknowledgement of a 2017 publication. A bustle of short stories, many of which have appeared elsewhere, which ought to tide me over until HM’s next novel is translated in 2018. (I hope.)

Trevor Noah - Born A Crime
A compelling read of Noah’s “early” life with no hint of the path he would follow to New York and the Daily Show.

David Foster Wallace - This is Water
The text of a commencement speech from DFW and actually something you might be able to track down on YouTube or elsewhere.  Again I’m saving you money.

Frank Brady - End Game
The madness of Bobby Fischer.

Julian Barnes - The Noise of Time
I actually read three Barnes books this year. This is the most recent and his fictional bio of Dmitri
Shostakovich brought me back to the stimulating reads of Kundera and other dissidents during the 1970’s and 80’s.

Patti Smith - M Train
She just takes a poetic look at the life she is experiencing and expresses her senses and her feelings openly and powerfully no matter how mundane or troubling they might be. Can I publish something like this? Please? It may not be as good and I don’t have the rock star rep but I’ll share. I must read more of her.

Diane Ackerman - Dawn Light
She strikes again and we also had a little correspondence on Twitter.  One of the most comprehensive and eclectic perspectives on anything. A joy to read.

Brene Brown - Braving the Wilderness
Also 2017! Brown takes a view on how people can better come together and speak honestly and positively about themselves and the things they are passionate about at a time when the bull shit is getting to be too much to bear. A timely continuation from her earlier works on more personal development.

Goncalo M. Tavares - A Voyage to India
He will win a Nobel Prize for Literature in the next 10-15 years. Ambitious, daring, big-minded and possesses a nasty, dystopian streak. Ambitious and daring? This one is a 400-page epic poem written in the 21st rather than the 17th century.

Patrick Foss and Sean Kramer - Across Tokyo
Yes, Patrick is an old friend and Japan is close to my heart, but this book is written with not only deep insight about a country best defined by how it takes everything it does to an extreme - whether grace or depravity - but does it with a self-deprecating wit and a command of written orality that few people do well. 

Jess Walter - Citizen Vince

I’m a day or two away from finishing this but Walters is someone else who is emerging as a favorite. This is the fourth Walter novel I've finished in the last year and a half and his wit and command of imagery and dialogue evokes memories of Elmore Leonard but I'm not sure Elmore could have would would have wanted to try writing a book as romantic as Walter's Beautiful Ruins.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Lucky Accident of Orality

At risk of belabouring the topic for those who know me or visit this blog semi-regularly, I am still very much informed and influenced by my time teaching in the Canadian Arctic in the early 1990s. The solitude and silence of the place along with the social and professional challenges I encountered there have had lasting influence on my perceptions about education and the relationship between Canada's Indigenous people and its settlers.

The time I spent there was very much a trial and error sequence as I tried to find my way in the classroom and community and I gradually progressed from the tried tactics that I was schooled with during my childhood and something much more intuitive, exposed and - ultimately - productive. One of the milestones on my journey to flat-out asking my students what they wanted me to teach them was storytelling. There were movies that had a hit and miss nature to them based on the content of the story and it was evident with those that there was something lacking and less than compelling for the kids as I resorted to that. To my chagrin, the kids voiced the assumption that life in the south resembled the mayhem of Terminator 2, which had made its tour of the local VCR's while I was there and prompted many of the kids to hide behind the tinted Terminator shades when I arrived.

The shades were part of the uniform for the teen cool and indifference that they tried to communicate and often kept me on my heels as I tried to progress toward some sort of breakthrough to connect with them in the classroom. There were times when I tried certain things to work on their listening skills and vocabulary in the English classes but they were rejected as dated or old because they were the strategies used by the colleague of mine who taught them English when they were elementary school age.

Try and try I did and I gave storytelling a try, even though it was something that I, in my elementary school experience recalled ending around grade four with the vivid memory of gathering on the floor to listen to Stuart Little while I eyed the patina of Gail Murphy's braids and heard Stuart's story. I often concluded that the class I taught in the Arctic was too old and would insist on being too cool for storytelling or me reading from a book to them. Desperate, as I often was, I gave it a shot.

I chose my material quite carefully and did not wish to merely pick something off the shelf but draw their attention to an association between Inuit and non-Inuit stories that they may not have been familiar with: seals. While the Inuit had their origin myths about seals -- most notably the story of Sedna the daughter of a sea god who defied her father and as a consequence of her banishment became the source of all marine life -- there were similar mythological attributions to seals among other folklore as well. Though the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, the most famous -- and I acknowledge I may be using the term "famous" quite loosely -- was produced and released after I left the Arctic, there were other variations on the theme that I could draw upon. I had grown up on a steady diet of Irish folk music and over the years heard the story-song "Peter Kagan and the Wind" countless times and I would always pause attentively at the mix of spoken word verses and sung chorus.

I wrote out the song for myself and brought it into class and despite the reality that there was little or nothing "cool" about this route I was taken to connect with the kids and make my time with them relevant to them, something happened. I provided enough introduction to make it clear that I was intending to read to them but I did not make the effort to draw the mythological connections clear to them. I started and they sat quietly. Some even moved to the floor to lie down and perhaps drift a few inches toward sleep and I smiled to myself about the possibility of that calm repose in their morning of school as unexpected as it was for them. They chose to indulge in that calm of the spoken word and when the 10-12 minutes passed they were clearly refreshed by that recess in their day.

I am not sure of the connections they made that morning. They may not have had the explicit knowledge of the Sedna myth but the story and the voice had done something and in some small way the stones were put in the river from me to proceed from the classroom techniques and curriculum I grew up on to those they longed to learn from.

At a time when Indigenous people and settlers look to come to a closer understanding of one another, it will be our oldest stories, the ones that have the most potential to resonate and echo with one another that will prompt understanding and do so without and extended negotiation about the meanings and misunderstood attributions we will assign to more recent stories. Those more difficult stories need to be told, negotiated and understood, but the older tales, the ones that show we have a great deal in common, are the ideal ones to begin with.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Bridge of Passion

For quite some time I have been meaning to write a post about the passions we have and the metaphor and guide that they provide as we interpret our surroundings and use them to offer our perspective to others. By passions I mean the pursuits, hobbies and interests that occupy our thoughts, occasionally obsess us and, often, give us the language and metaphors to provide our insights on the topics we engage with.

In many instances, these passions are the areas which prompt us to self-identify, with pride, as a nerd or geek. Whether we declare ourselves a Star Wars geek, a jazz geek, or such we describe ourselves with pride and only the slightest bit of self-effacement despite the pejorative lineage of the terms geek and nerd. The powerful aspect of these passions is indeed the way that we can apply them to describe our world and illustrate concepts or shares beliefs in ways that are more challenging when we observe or interpret the world without a lens or vocabulary that invigorates us in such a manner.

At a time, though, when people are less inclined to listen to one another because of the assumptions we make based on perceived self-interest -- the tendency to attribute a certain belief system or motivation because of race, gender, generation, hairstyle, et cetera -- there is the slightest chance that by speaking with the metaphors that are unique to us we can breakdown the layers of platitudes, right and left-wing karaokes and ears-covered-na-na-na-na routines that provide the bleak measure of "discourse" as it is abused during a time when the messy, complex and paradoxical pursuit of understanding of reality and one another has been so nastily discarded in favour of something much slicker, brutish and, ultimately, disengaging and isolating.

As the rights of the marginalized are further diminished and even mocked, there is the chance that a geek's reminders about the egalitarian universe of Star Trek might make a case clearer to someone who is disinclined to hear more conventional arguments about a topic that they are hard-wired to an unchangeable position on.  It is our passions that provide the best metaphors to break the deadlocks that have persisted over the last few years and show little promise in dissolving until something catastrophic sends the pendulum back into retreat.

Speaking in such a passionate commitment to our terms of reference is not without its risks. The Peter Sellars' movie Being There (1979) presents the exceedingly uncomfortable story of a man who finds himself in the circles of power after essentially being expelled from the security of the refuge where he, naive and intellectually challenged, is equipped with little more than his passion for gardening. Clearly, in the clip from the movie above, his metaphor is given the utmost generosity in interpretation and that is far less likely today when there are so many people who are uninterested in listening under any circumstances and would run you out of the room or conversation for being too nairy-fairy for their tastes.

It would still argue though, that there is a chance of reaching a few more people than we would trying to reiterate or fine tune argument or positions that have fallen on deaf ears and strident opposition. So, if Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Fight Club, Seinfeld or the garden speak to you as few other things do, feel free to speak of these things and extend the view of the world that you have enjoyed from each of these lenses. There is a better chance of making your point and if you fail in the process in the short-term you might get a laugh out of it and later learn that you made a point anyway.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Two Walks on Election Eve

Wednesday morning unfolded as expected: I dropped my son off at out of school care on my way to work and headed to the LRT to get to work. I walked the five minutes or so to Sunnyside Station oblivious to the white noise of election signs for mayor, councillor and school trustee that dotted the lawns in the run up to the municipal election in Calgary slated for October 9. When I arrived at the station, I spotted one of the candidates for councillor, Dean Brawn, mainstreeting on the opposite platform dressed in a Calgary Flames jacket, despite the controversial maneuvers the petulant corporate citizen has made during the campaign. The sartorial selection suggests a lack of subtlety or strategic insight on the part of Brawn and his campaign team.

Brawn, who has made a point of using campaign signs that bear hardly a coincidental resemblance to the livery of the bygone Progressive Conservative party, is running in my ward as a candidate intent on cost-cutting. He has gone after the incumbent, Druh Farrell, for her spending and he has made every orchestration to indicate he would cut spending and possibly taxes, despite his apparent interest in the Flames' ambitions to not have just a new arena, but the chance to indulge in a side business in real estate. In light of the history that Calgary-based real estate developers have had trying to influence municipal elections to pave the way for continued sprawl further and further out of the city's core, Brawn's bald affiliation with the Flames and those with aspirations of visiting a reopened corporate welfare trough. With mayoral candidate Bill Smith touted for his Progressive Conservative bona-fides, his reluctance to follow through on transit plans that are in place for the LRT Green Line and Southwest BRT raises questions about his interests in ensuring that the city continues to build the infrastructure that it has in the last 5-10 years and making the progress toward building a more sustainable, walkable and urbanist community that Calgary and other Western Canadian cites have strived to develop in the last decade.

It is undeniable that money has been spent during Naheed Nenshi's term in the mayor's office and money has been spent in Ward 7, where Druh Farrell is councillor. The money that has been spent has gone into infrastructure that will have a last impact on the life of the city and its citizens. The unspecified change that Smith, Brawn and other "cost-cutters" running for office have wrapped themselves in to promote themselves as champions of the taxpayer or the little guy is nothing more than a ploy to regress to an approach to city-running -- I deliberately avoid the terms "leadership," "government," and "management" -- that discards a long-term view or granular assessment of city life that ensures the city proceeds in a direction that lacks in the complexity and strategic insight to spend money wisely and with a comprehensive plan that impacts all of the aspects of the city's life.

To make a point about the distinctions and advantages of living in Calgary that is run with a comprehensive vision for what it could or ought to be let me contrast two neighbourhoods I have lived in. Ten years ago, I lived in Rocky Ridge with a view to the west that gave me a sunset but no connection to the rest of the city. If my wife and I wanted to go for a walk to a coffee shop, we had to walk for 55 minutes to find the closest. The only time we saw one of the few neighbours we knew was when we ran into him when he worked at the airport.  (We are not jet-setters who are passing through YYC anymore than two or three times a year.) The lot that housed a large billboard in 2008 touting the soon-to-come elementary school still has that sign and has yet to see the shadow of a shovel. These are the types of broken promises that are made when people are encouraged to buy into the sprawl of the suburbs but the city and the province does not have the resources to build infrastructure further and further out rather using the infrastructure in the core of the city as efficiently as possible.

For the last eight and a half years, however, I have had the good fortune of living in a neighbourhood where the walkability and convenience has put me in touch with neighbours with whom I have become acquainted with a fond of. I can walk my 5-year-old son to school at the start of the day on my way to work and at the end of the day I can walk him home. I also have enough time in my day to make a side-trip to the supermarket. He chattered away in wonder at how the snow melted as soon as it hit the ground rather than accumulated, stopped me to gaze up at a nest in a tree and for the two of us to share what unfolded throughout the day without inhibition. The walks the two of us share regularly are not merely an opportunity to chat, but one for him to enjoy the benefits of daily walking that is less available to everyone living in the outer suburbs. I would not have this opportunity if I was driving home, bouncing from station to station looking for a good song or a traffic report while my son stared out the window or gave his input on the listening options.

These incidental relationships and moments in communities where neighbours get to know one another and a father and son can have the conversations that teach and bond them together are the fabric of the community that Calgary can be. Dean Brawn and Bill Smith do not demonstrate a grasp of this when they talk about cutting transit and suggest they will open the coffers to a low-return contribution to developers and sports teams.  They seem more like power-brokers than community-builders and they are more motivated to assume office than necessarily do anything particularly constructive when they get the keys. Mayor Nenshi and councillors such as Druh Farrell, Gian-Carlo Carra and Evan Woolley are among those who have had a detailed, granular grasp of and passion for recognizing how cities, neighbourhoods, and streets work and bring an insight and passion for community-building to their roles that have made them valuable stewards of the city.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Victory Lap?

Sponsored by an ambulance service?!
With the Boston Qualifying time under my belt and my registration confirmed, I was still inclined to get out and run one more marathon in 2017.  After running four last year, the itch lingered and the office was clearing its throat for me to start burning through the vacation days I had piled up.

I had a strong interest in returning to Nashville to get another massive bit of bling and take a shot at winning my age group in a smaller, now-familiar race, but Portland beckoned as well. With Portland, there was also the opportunity to visit a city that I had heard so many positive things about.

With Boston 6 1/2 months away friends have been regularly asking what I was going to do to get ready for it and I openly admitted the possibility that the motivation may not be there since racing there might be the cherry on the cake. I have actually wondered how many more marathons I'd want to do after next April. I've thought about being a pacer in future races but have said more than a few times that it would be tempting to treat Boston as a victory lap and that there was just a remote chance of me going back regularly or annually after doing it in 2018.  I have not expressed the recognition, however, that training at the pace I have throughout 2017 was not going to be sustainable and that I would have to take some kind of break between now and the end of the year before bearing down for the new year.

That retreat had already begun in earnest since qualifying. I have not been running as much or eating as carefully as I had through the year to this point. In September, I made my mileage goal only on the very last day on the month.  So this morning, I lined up for marathon number ten with plans to maintain the pace I kept in August with a bit of help from being on a relatively flat course at sea level.  I started out well though I needed an early bathroom break (my fourth in all of the races I've run in the last 7-8 years) and kept a strong pace through the first third of the race.

The recent lack of hill training made its point to me around the 13K mark but it did not put too big a dent in me.  I stayed on target pace for the race up until the 30K mark and felt the legs go tight and felt an unfamiliar compression (it seemed) on my lower ribs. From that point on, I laboured and lost in range of 5-6 minutes over that last stretch of the race and finished with a 3:34. Not feeling the pressure to run faster, I focused on remaining comfortable and steady for the last 12K and still felt that I could get close to the qualifying time.  Being passed by the 3:30 pacer was demoralizing but I did what I could to keep pace with them.  However, according to my GPS, I somehow ran an extra 600 metres, which did not help.  The tightness I experienced is rather unusual as I'm more accustomed to having a flabby, weakened feeling set upon my legs when a race takes its toll on me. On top of the achy legs, is soreness in the arms from pumping through the way I did.

So the day winds down with a bit of clock watching due to a flight delay while the rose I received for completing the race dries. It was a fun race and I am abundantly amused that the race finisher T-shirts were sponsored by an ambulance service, a reminder that this is the original extreme sport.

Mentally, I did not have the focus I had in August, or the confidence that I had then either. I was quite possibly cocky, rather than confident and I was not telling myself to have fun and to succeed as I did in August.  Instead, my mind was a less-focused blankness and I did not assert myself in this race. I was rather withdrawn from my fellow racers, as was the case in May this year.  The question is whether the mental aspect is something that will come to be or if it is something that I can force myself into.

Still, managing my third best marathon on a day when my fitness was not at its peak is an assuring indication of what my body is capable of.  With a few nagging aches to look after and a light racing schedule for the rest of the year, it will be time to ease up a bit, rest my body and mind and start to ramp up the training for Boston as winter sets in and I prepare to make my next marathon a more meaningful and memorable one.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jason and the Hooded Left Wing Hate Machine - A Children's Story

I am not particularly interested in the race for the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race and have not tracked polls, the issues or know or care when the vote will be occurring. What I do pick up on when something rises above the white noise of the Alberta right is that there is an arrogant inevitability about Jason Kenney’s campaign. He is campaigning directly against the NDP government rather than any of his opponents and that is well within his rights and it is not the first time such a strategy has been adopted in a leadership campaign.

Despite my disregard, I regularly see posts from his campaign appear on social media and I'm regularly invited to like his posts or follow the campaign; an indication that the algorithmic nuance of his social media campaign is set somewhere between zero and absolute zero. I have the most fleeting of temptations of following the campaign, but I have scanned enough vitriolic message boards on topics that I anticipated benign discussion to quash the notion rapidly. The  amped up anxiety of those who have believed the Alberta is the divine right purview of conservatives and that the province needs to be taken back - in time, I ask myself - in order for it to proceed down the road to oil riches that Alberta travelled so well for so long. The unstated fallacy being that the election of a UCP government would see the consequent recovery of the price of oil the day after the election and that the “normalcy” the Albertans perceived as their right would be restored. The oil patch would be revitalized, the biweekly Fort Mac-Newfoundland commuter conveyor would restart, there'd be a pipeline in every kitchen… er… direction and our property values would rise again.
What little I have seen from Jason Kenney’s campaign videos has deliberately avoided nuance and done so as strategically as he has avoided campaigning against his UCP competitors. He chooses to ramp up anxieties about gun control or the status quo of responsible gun ownership. I am not a rural or native-born Alberta but this is not a campaign priority to me and it sounds more like a splinter issues that has been excavated from the Reform Party playbook in the ‘90’s and the aughts rather than something that has relevance at the provincial level. I acknowledge that this is an issue among rural voters but I suspect it is a few steps below health care, education, elder care and the economy.

The splinter issue of gun control is more likely to get certain groups out of a space of calming sitting through the debate of a campaign and get everyone on edge about the dearth of meaningful dialogue, the conduct of politicians in general and disengage voters who want a civil, detailed and clear campaign about significant issues rather while energizing voters who have clear hot button issues that will bring them out to campaign events and shout down the civilized dialogue and discussion of policies about the future of Alberta rather than a gilding of the good old days that are out of reach and require vision, an ability to negotiate collaboratively, a focus on building communities the appeal to families and potential investors. You can already see the campaign trail silliness of a UCP hack heckling a suburban NDP candidate about the National Energy Board as if it were 1979 and disbanding the NEB was something that the candidate was solely responsible for and the move would restore the price of oil to $140 a barrel. Mr. Kenney, with his talk in the past about firewalls and his assertion that he can renegotiate the equalization formula with Ottawa seems more intent on delivering a deftly managed federal campaign for 1997 than he is in putting forward a vision for governing a diverse, increasingly urban and urbanist Alberta in the 2020’s. The firewalls sound more like the musing of a boy in his shorts wanting to keep his treehouse safe from girls than the musings of a former Minister of Immigration or Minister of Defense who ought to be drawing on his experience of how permeable reality is and how we need to be responsive and nimble in the face of not only threats but opportunities as well. Instead he will argue that his party will need more funds to keep that reality away or hold off the rationally stated fact or valid argument that he cannot contend with

He is not offering anything of substance that pertains to running the province and leveraging the resources that are available in the Premier’s office in Edmonton. Should he assume the Premier’s seat after the next general election, there is the strong possibility that he will go into Stephen Harper's mode of constant campaign and keep the electorate’s attention away from his lack of vision for the future of the province or his administrative skills and strive to divide Albertans or mislead them with rhetoric, much like the recent comments about a left-wing hate machine — such mature a contribution to discourse about Alberta politics — that is in full churn against him. Refusing to allow Mr. Kenney’s campaigning to go unchallenged by the facts is not the work of a hate machine, it is an assertion that we must live and agree to be governed within the realm of reality rather than the illusions and rhetoric that serves an aspirant on the campaign trail.

Despite the focus of Mr. Kenney's campaign, he will not become the Premier of Alberta, the Prime Minister of Canada or the lead rodeo clown in Ponoka. He will be the leader of the UCP, a group that has its roots nourished by supporters of some of the most narrow-minded and divisive politicians to sit in the provincial legislature over the last decade. In light of the misogyny they have targeted the Premier with since the NDP formed the government and the distasteful ways they have attempted to dehumanize members of the current provincial government and the diverse constituencies they attempt to represent there will be an attempt by the UCP to run a campaign similar to one we saw a year ago south of the border, and only because it worked.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Time to Break Bubbles

It is easy to believe these days that conversation or dialogue - complete with nuance, richness and discovery - is a fossilized relic rather than a contemporary standard of interaction.  The pendulum has swung from dialogue to solitude and concept karaoke amongst the like-minded.  If you are not able to parrot along with the conceived topic of agreement, ostracism follows. Ostracism in many contexts occurs in the name of assuring a community's well-being -- those who threatened the day-to-day survival of a community because of a pathological behaviour -- but given how promptly groups ostracize outlying opinions today, the fragility of the group or the sanctity of its unanimity is grossly overstated.

There is the well-evidenced gap between left and right ends of the political spectrum.  The opinions of each side are clear and each side has built a fortress around their mindset that make position immutable in the face of counterargument or evidence.  The permission to distort and to offend that each of these camps grants reduce discourse to the crudest or most personal of terms as is the case with federal Conservative MP Gerry Ritz's "climate Barbie" remarks about Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Rather than engaging with her in a discussion on environment policy (a unicorn-and-rainbow gilded fantasy of discourse in this day, I admit) or outright criticizing the policy itself (which would have resulted in him appearing to be less of a sexist and just a buffoon - a win-win) he chose to go after her gender and tried to discount her and undermine her credibility on her gender and perhaps her looks rather than her stand on policy.  There was no cry of, "What about the little suffering oil companies" or some other tribute to Jimmy Stewart's admirable filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Ritz opted for the entrenchment of exclusion.  It further reinforces the prevailing opinion of politicians, especially those who favour strategies that divide and conquer the electorate rather than bring people together.

The question is, how willing are people to come to a table likely to pose challenging conversation amongst people equipped with not only diverse opinions, but the ability to challenge you on the validity of the world (or bubble) that we enclose ourselves within.  All too often people are unwilling and consequently they discard or narrow their individuality and for the sake of a vague allegiance to an individual or group they hope will champion a pursuit of having their way in lieu of the long, challenging but energizing quest for understanding and wisdom.

It is easy to utter the word 'politicians' with a dismissive tone, but they are not the only ones who find it troublesome to dialogue. More and more people enclose themselves in gated communities where they can not only take comfort in the assumptions that can be made about the opinions of those in the same tax bracket but make rules for them to follow that, despite assumptions about freedom of speech, deny them the right to hang a peace symbol on their house. Even neighbours -- not exactly a group we summarily dismiss as nuisances -- are more inclined to litigate against one another than talk and come to some realization of where they differ and where they have common ground.

As the years pass, we fragment ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, each increasingly exclusionary with each subdivision. The self-definition grows intricate, unwieldy and ultimately hypocritical, think for instance of the female Conservative MPs who were silent in the aftermath of the Gerry Ritz tweet, shrugging at the bad behaviour with either the resignation since the outgoing MP is resigning shortly or a strong-as-oak commitment to the opinion on policy that Mr. Ritz's tweet. "Is a woman getting a 'here-we-go-again' blast of knuckle-dragging misogyny from a clown who doesn't deserve the 6-digit salary and the soapbox he feels so entitled to? Yes, but she and I are so far apart on environmental policy that I won't stand up for her." Again, these or politicians and their conduct bears a childish lack of nuance.

These nuances, however, do not merely escape politicians who somehow feel more and more empowered to misbehave because of the audiences that they can motivate or alienate with a single tweet.  Despite our hunger for reasoned discourse amongst politicians they still have to play to their audiences or constituencies to essentially score points. During the trudge to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the United States in 2009-2010 there was a complaint that the debates over this made for bad television. Sadly, the efforts to dismantle it in 2017 are making for good television but do little to bring insight or dialogue to an effort which is, at best, a ham-handed and naked money grab. There is little of the parry and thrust of a debate or discussion but just an effort to ram the legislation through via the brute will of those who feel they are, again, entitled.

This is not the only place where the oxygen supply to dialogue is getting cut off.  Increasingly, the aversion to dialogue and free speech is becoming evident amongst the generation that has grown up post 9/11. Whether it is a lifetime of being inculcated to a certain wariness about the clash of opposing views or the free flow of information, a habit of getting the info-fix they want from the echo-chambers of their social media feeds or a lack of armour and skill to weather the challenges to the perspective that they have formed and had reinforced time and again by their select circle of friends who have been selected and recommended by their oh-so-trusty algorithms.

This younger generation needs to sit down with unlike-minded peers long enough and often enough to pare away their poor habits of reasoning: their tendency to disregard a statement of fact or opinion because of their opinion of the messenger; the recklessness with which we choose our words; our tolerance for being snowed by those we want to align ourselves with; our settlement for descriptions when explanations are required; and rediscovering the patience to ponder where another person is coming from. There is much to be learned from conversations with people whose opinions and experiences are far removed from our own and at a time when successful business see the strategic advantage of diversity and different ways of thinking we ought to ensure that we bring that into our lives in a deliberate manner rather than locking ourselves into the closed feedback loop of our cellphones while we wait for AI and virtual reality to further assure us that our delusions about the world are secure and further fortify the bubbles that should have burst so long ago.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Driver

The City of Calgary has ensured that public works projects include a component for public art. The formula starts with a far-from-indulgent 1% of a project's total cost to a maximum of $4 million. The city has been enhanced by the additions of these elements and they have significantly contributed to the atmosphere of the neighbourhoods where these projects have occurred and art has been added. During my first visit to Enmax Park this morning, I was greeted by an installation of a multicoloured fish. There are, as Calgarians well know, similar installations throughout the city at our LRT platforms, public buildings and other infrastructure that has been added to the city.

Collectively these pieces of art contribute to the life of the community and have met with little controversy or criticism.  There are, however, two notorious pieces which continue to provoke bewilderment if not the ire of Calgarians.  The Big Blue Ring and the more recently installed Bowfort Towers have been the most controversial of the installations and it is probably not a coincidence that these two pieces were installed near new highway construction. The scale and complexity of pieces in such large spaces is going to be far more problematic than pieces located in more walkable areas of the city where the interaction with the art can be more casual, intimate and less time-sensitive.  The larger scale art along the highways needs to be bold (or blatant) rather than nuanced, at least in visual complexity.  Factor in the significant budgets for both installations -- which has amounted to $470,000 and $500,000, respectively, -- and you have projects that are going to provoke criticism. 

Drivers, the notorious lot that they are, are difficult to satisfy.  If they are asked how their drive is, there is rare mention of a pleasant or mind-clearing drive.  You know, the wide open roads of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Cabot Trail did not emerge during their tedious, tree-lined trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back.  If they happen to have the opportunity to drive the Icefields Parkway, they will complain about getting stuck behind some acrophobic driver from Saskatchewan who was terrified of the heights during the drive, overlooking the chance that said tourist might be soaking in the sights.  A driver wants nothing more than to get from point A to point B with the minimum hassle and fuss and the lowest risk possible of getting caught by photo radar.  They will happily screech to a halt at the first fluorescent or neon beacon offering burgers, donuts, soda and or coffee no matter how little of the drive is left, but they want to be alone and have the road to themselves.

It is disappointing that the expense of the art gets the ridicule that it does but the investment in the highway infrastructure is regarded as a requirement, even though research shows again and again, even in Calgary, that such spending on cars and highway infrastructure is futile.  

Part of the problem with these public art projects is that regardless of where the funding is coming from, they are projects that are ultimately regarded as private space by those who use them.  These highway projects raise the expectation, wrongly, that they will ease congestion for people travelling in these parts of the city and fail to do so. In the face of that failure, drivers' sense of entitlement regarding the roads they drive on escalates.  The City of Calgary's policy regarding public art ought to maintained rather than suspended and reviewed. The issue with the Big Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers is the disconnect that is evident when trying to put public art into a space that people want to regard as private.  The aesthetics and budget for the art aside, the main provocation may be the assertion that this highway infrastructure is not a simple slab of concrete and asphalt than appeared pricelessly from the heavens but the reminder that it is ultimately a public space.  Installing art in these areas, despite the controversy, has been a noble effort to assert that these spaces are, indeed, public.

If the suspension of Calgary's current public art policy prompts a retreat from adding the public enhancements that have helped beautify and revitalize the city as it has over the decade or so since the policy was introduced, it would be a significant failure of will and sound thinking at City Hall.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Attaining the Unicorn

To start by totally burying the lede, I happened to get a high-five from Andrew Ference - recently-retired former captain of the Edmonton Oilers and Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins.

I ran a personal best today, beating my previous by 4:40. At 50! Today's 3:25:29 lanced a summer of frustration and reiterated what I learned earlier this year about the mental aspects of the marathon. More significantly, it qualified me for the Boston Marathon, a goal I missed by an oh-so-close, c'mon-round-it-up 9 seconds last November. That result is one that I remain grateful for and now it glows so much brighter without the what-if hanging over it.

Throughout the summer I have had a sense of being disconnected from my running and not enjoying the races as much as I normally did.  Where in other races there was this sense of connection with the runners I've been with, even if I did not get a chance to talk to them, the summer races had seemed more isolated for one reason or another.  Even if I was grinding the miles with the same group of runners for a long stretch, I did not send out any energy to them to support them or acknowledge what they were up to during the race.  I was a little less a part of the running community, I felt, when I joined in the chute on race day.

So last Sunday, after a rough summer that included several disappointing results and a DNF, where I didn't even finish 10K of a half-marathon, I decided to test my mettle one last time.  Last year's PB was run in the US in the fall and while the coming cooler weather holds some promise of improved results, I did not want to sink a lot of money into registration and travel if my head and body weren't up to it. Running Edmonton was a low cost, low risk, FLAT, course that would be a sufficient indicator of where I could be at if my head was a little clearer.  Running two days after changing jobs might have cleared my head, but my emotions were running rather high (ha, rather) so it was hard to tell where my head was going to be.  I pondered running without the watch and just staying comfortable throughout rather than pushing or doing the finish time math for the duration of the race.

Despite waking up at 1:30am and again at 3am, I was going to make a point of enjoying it.  If results were off, I was going to dispose of them as a consequence of trying to enjoy the race. As I walked to the start before dawn, I thanked the cops I saw on Jasper Avenue, getting out of the isolation that may have kept me away from satisfying results me earlier during the summer. When walking the last few blocks to the start, I ran into a runner from the UK, who was bagging his last of the 10 provinces to go along with all 50 US states and a grand total of 887 marathons.  (I asked him, he told me.  I replied with a chuckle at my suddenly paltry 9.)  I was getting connected again.

In the chute, I wasn't sure if I was "there" for the race.  With "Life's What You Make It" cued to set the theme and the cadence for the first half-hour of the race, I was conscious of a concerning lack of nerves.  After the fiasco with the pacers at last year's Edmonton Marathon, I regarded this year's with some trepidation but they looked the part and I was relieved not to hear the 3:30 or 3:45 pacers declare, "I've never run this pace before!!" as was the case with last year's 3:45 pacer.

I was ready to bond with the pack.  After a K or so alongside one runner, I took my earbuds out and teased him about the barely perceptible fist-pump he made for canning his paper cup for two points after one of the water stations.  We had a bit of back and forth about races we've done.  He liked the Calgary Marathon.  I replied that I did not.  (I did hold off on talking about the Bataan Death March down Memorial Drive, however.)  I was prepared to keep up the banter for a while, but I slowly pulled away.

I checked my watch to find I was going a little "hot," (as my brother would put it.) I decided not panic about it.  Today was a day that it was okay to conk.  All I wanted to do was extend my senses to the battlefronts of chest and limbs and get a full report on what my body was willing and able to do.  The only adverse report was coming from my near-numb feet, which were a bit nerveless thanks to me tying my shoes too tight.  I think I got sensation there about 18K into the race.

My head was clear and furthermore focused on one thing.  I WANTED THE BQ TIME.  I had given some consideration to the strategy I would adopt if I was going to go for it and each time I thought about it, I did not want to go out easy and leave myself scrambling to close it near the end.  If the body was telling me no, then I'd take it easy and just take in the experience.  The body - at least from ankles up - was all in, and - with a friend's prediction that I'd just blow the BQ out of the water since I wasn't expecting much - I dropped the hammer.  Besides, I happened to be wearing a pair of shoes that I unintentionally wrote the area code for Boston on when I jotted the month of purchase on them. The talismans were with me.

I caught the 3:30 pacer around the 11K mark.  I had hung with that group and pondered the comfort and security of drafting off them for a while and making my break toward the end, but that risked the late scramble I was not keen on.  I ventured on. There were two other groups that I came upon a little further ahead, but I still felt confident and pushed through.

Around this point, it was clear that I was having a good back and forth push with a younger Asian runner, that I may just have seen and run with around the halfway mark when I did Edmonton in 2016.  We had probably started our back and forth around the 3K mark but as the pack spread, we were on our own each taking our turn to push the pace and keep us at the pace we set.  By the halfway mark, I had 4 minutes to spare in pursuit of the BQ. Throughout though, I was connected to those around me. Whenever I saw the 79-year-old gent who was achieving his goal of 100 marathons before age 80 -- 9's not so paltry now, huh? -- I gave him a high-five to power us both along.

My Asian friend and I went back and forth, pushing each other and pulling each other along throughout the race probably.  At the 28K mark I extended a fist bump to him and let me know that we just had to grind out the last bit.  At this point I just wanted to get to the 30K mark and assure myself that I could manage to get the last 12K in an hour at a 5 minute/K pace and I'd be in the clear. Eventually, a young female runner from the 3:30 pack caught and passed me and the Asian runner fell into step with her and pulled away.

From there, it was a matter of holding it together with the pace I needed to the finish.  I added another 30 seconds of cushion in the second half of the race and as I came to the finish, I actually raised my arms.  Yes, me.  Before the volunteer got my medal around my neck I gave her a huge hug and announced that I had qualified for Boston.

"It'll change your life!", she said with the authority of one who knows.

Today's did, too.

*BTW the unicorn reference is to the logo for the Boston Marathon.  I see it constantly out on the trails and now I can have one of my own.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Volkswagen's Meek Call to Storytelling

During Father's Day brunch Sunday morning, the muted broadcast on CNN drew my eye away from the table and my son's prodigious consumption of waffles. There was no disaster to report, at least not in the graphic trope of nighttime pandemonium lit by the passing strobe of red and blue flashers. No, the talking heads were merely parsing "presidential" Tweets from what I could discern.

What caught my eye was a Volkswagen commercial that featured a scene on some outcrop along the Pacific Coast Highway; as with many a car commercial Big Sur provides the rugged, ragged, horizon-laden metaphor of west coast freedom of space, thought and the open road. Unlike countless other commercials set there, the theme was not complemented by the openness of a cruising convertible.  Instead, the commercial ended with the spreading of a lost patriarch's ashes into the Pacific waters and a child attempting to frame the setting sun in her fingers.

What I saw on CNN was an abbreviated version of "America," a commercial for a new seven-seater that VW has introduced. Without the soundtrack, the ad seemed downbeat - as bleak and self-destructive as the EV-1 ads GM did when introducing and distancing itself from its first electric car. A visit to YouTube to watch the ad with the soundtrack gave more context.  Simon and Garfunkel's "America," is deployed to accompany a family's coast to coast journey through America's rural landscapes to evoke an attachment or some nostalgia for a nation that was once held together by its highways and its fondness for the open road and the promise that it held of there being enough space for everyone.

The longer version of the commercial begins with the matriarch urging her kin to see the country she wanted to see and doing it together, phrasing that struck me as awkwardly on the nose with its reference to the spacious car. However, when she says,"there is enough room for everyone" she is not talking about the car, but the country and echoing the same tone as the more positive commercials that were featured during the Super Bowl in February.  VW's spot tries to reiterate the need for the country to hold together, but there is a meekness about that message.  The journey starts in New York City with a drive across one of the city's bridges but that is the lone image of urban American life throughout the journey.  The family passes through countryside, stops to reminisce at the type of diner that is used in Iowa by aspiring presidential candidates to play the man-of-the-people role as campaign stagecraft unfolds every fourth January.

Each of the rural settings evokes the reminders of the wide open spaces and the purity of the landscape but with each shot in the sequence, the is an insistent reminder that these are the flyover states that turned Red last November. The efforts at quaint nostalgia around an old abandoned sedan just as easily remind people of the decay in the Rust Belt as they do the peak of the Greatest Generation.  Rather than stating the desire for diversity and defiance of Trump's myopic version of greatness as boldly as those Super Bowl ads did, this one come across as resigned and cautious in its assertion of what America ought to be and may still be.  If only...

The conventional symbols have morphed under the weight of pessimism and are now adulterated by the co-opting of the word "America" by the current president and the misplaced ennui that made him president. Through this lens, the comfort of these familiar tropes is lost and the Simon and Garfunkel tune now, even a year after Bernie Sanders' use of it, seems elegiac rather than aspirational.

Perhaps the images alone will carry that message with the caution and delicacy to win over the denizens of the flyover states.  Perhaps Americans will venture out once again on road trips and share stories such as the one that is the centre of this ad. The question that remains and does not evoke the most optimistic of answers, however, is whenever people will care enough to listen to one another's stories and let them unfold in the detail and richness of a few minutes and not 30 seconds or 140 characters.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Akulivik is Not Alone

On a sunny afternoon in late August 1992, if I recall correctly, five young women visited my home in Ivujivik, Quebec.  Actually, it was six young women if you want to count the three-month-old that one of those adolescents brought with her. 

For reference, today in 2017, Ivujivik is the next village past Akulivik if you happen to be flying Air Inuit up the west coast of Quebec toward the 60th parallel. I happened to have had a layover in Akulivik in 1991 when I was first heading north to begin my career as a teacher there.  These neighbouring villages vary only in topography and surroundings, the line of the shore and their orientation to the path of the sun or the routes of migrating caribou. Much else is the same. The government-designed housing that leaves me asking myself, "Is that Ivujivik...?" whenever I see a news report from the north, is the same. The isolation and reliance on Air Inuit and the late summer sealifts. The ineffable silence that can engulf you on the tundra, the prompt to stretch your ears for the slightest aeolian whistle of wind across the granite. The social challenges that have become so endemic that they only earned a shrug of resigned acknowledgement when anything less that these multiple stabbings transmits an echo from the North to the South.

North and on the reserve, the tragedies of indigenous communities only extend a ripple through the consciousness of the south when communities reach a breaking point that illuminates realities in the south. In a world as wired as ours is today, it is a testament to apathy that only the large-scale tragedy of an Akulivik merits our collective attention.  Since the stabbings occurred last Sunday (June 11) the people of the 14 communities of Nunavik (or Arctic Quebec) have made the effort to demonstrate their unity, their despair and their need for more comprehensive support from governments at the federal and provincial level. Makivik Corporation, a business entity that works in the region but has significant influence on the social capital of the Inuit of Nunavik, would also be a significant player in responding to the issues in Nunavik more meaningfully.

It has been clear for at least a generation that this community needs social services and support to deal with the changes that have occurred in their communities since they were established as fixed settlements and effectively began the dissolution of the traditions, culture and bonds that held those communities together and allowed them to survive in their environment for as successfully as they indeed did.

Let me turn back to that August afternoon. The five girls who visited me that afternoon were students that I taught.  A year earlier, one of their classmates, a 15 year-old-boy, turned that familiar despair on himself and took his own life. Another classmate took his life nine years later,  just as he was about to turn 20. And it did not end there.  It is common knowledge that the suicide rates in the north are haunting.  The numbers are ultimately ignored by those in the south.  Is it 6000% higher than the national average? Is it 250% higher? It does not matter because that number just does not seem to be enough to motivate decision makers and the stingy resource hoarders in government from directing the manpower, compassion or intelligence to address the suicide pandemic that is so prevalent in the south. The five girls who visited me that afternoon, not only lost two classmates.  Two of them, two of these five women, who are just crossing from their mid-30s to their late 30s, have lost their children to suicide.  One of those children was the three-month-old girl that I held for a few minutes that afternoon. I mused about asking the principal of my school if there would be an issue having her mother bring the baby to school if she wanted to continue her education, but I squashed the inquiry because I doubted there was an appetite for such an innovation. Those five women have been directly impacted by four suicides.  And those are just the suicides that I know of.  You can be certain there have been others.

Rather than waiting for a blip of multiple deaths to merit the attention of the south, perhaps it is time for the Canadian media to devote a week, a month, or a year to report each suicide that occurs among indigenous communities.  As it stands, those statistics are quietly accumulated and filed without any recognition of the detailed despair that suicide victims, their families and their communities go through.

Resource people need to be deployed to these communities to give the support that these people need. If one ponders social workers as an example, they need to be people from the community to support one another.  Better still, there might simply be a need for training to give people the knowledge to provide the support they already try to provide one another with more informed intention. Initiatives to give kids, and adults for that matter, more to do with their time and more opportunity to find their passions and things they can aspire to be.  Joe Juneau's efforts to organize hockey in the region as a means to give kids something else that they can divert their attention and time to.

If nothing is done to bring these resources to the region, and others like it, the suicides will continue, as will the alcohol and domestic abuse and other social problems that form a vicious, silent circle in the north and throughout indigenous communities everywhere.