Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Aging and Playfulness

My city is full of construction in preparation for Light Rail Transit. I hit the bookstore today and was walking towards the hardware store for some blinds when the sidewalk abruptly ended. An orange mesh fence framing a "Pedestrians, use the other sidewalk" sign stopped me in my tracks. I considered turning back, but I had come this far. So I made my way across four lanes of traffic to the other side where, lo and behold, there was a twin sign and fence bookending the highway. There WAS no other sidewalk!

After determining that there was absolutely no other way to get from point A to point B, I slithered my way around the fence and into a 2' deep trench that once featured a walkway. Sloshing through lovely suctiony mud, I was further pleased that I wasn't able to find my sneakers at home earlier and had resigned myself to heavy boots on a reasonably mild day. And as I was happily stomping through the muck on the busy street, just 20' or so from where the sidewalk would begin again, I thought about a book I had just paged through but hadn't bought.

Ian Brown is a favourite writer of mine. I even e-mailed him about a bit of writing I had done once, and he courteously responded (which I printed and saved). His newest book is about turning 60. He wrote a diary-like entry once a day for a year, and I immediately regretted not doing the same at the start of this year, my 50th, except I know I'd never keep it up for a year. Once I started a blog taking a picture a day of myself - no words or ideas, just a snapshot. I lasted three days. Routine is not my forté.

But I didn't buy the book because it would make me too introspective. I buy books to face me outside of myself. John Ralston Saul's The Comeback was my choice today. A book about someone turning 60 would have me dwelling on turning 50. Even just paging through it a bit has done that well enough, obviously!  Brown wonders about what 60 looks like, what pleasures are found and lost, what it means to be 60 these days. I understand those questions as I find myself searching out which famous people are close to my age. Woody Harrelson is close, and Robert Downey Jr. But famous women my age don't often look like anything I could recognize in the mirror. What does 50 look like? It's so hidden it's become foreign to us. And how do 50-year-olds act?

I thought of Brown's book as I enjoyed my muddy journey trespassing around barricades on a busy street in broad daylight, and I became briefly self-conscious, suddenly aware that I'm not 10-years-old, but a middle-aged lady intentionally splashing mud like a crazy* person! This makes it all the more hilarious. Somehow I'm typically saved from acknowledging the gaze of the other through some magical built-in obliviousness to norms, which allows for a strange sort of freedom. I might look ridiculous, but I'm causing no harm.

Why is unself-conscious playfulness the thing we give up as we get older when we could just as easily give up judgment and spite and crabbiness. Because shouldn't we all enjoy a bit of a splash now and again?


* I waffled over how to word that line for ages. I considered "like something's wrong with me" or "like I'm on drugs" but both have the same problem of stereotyping behaviours. Yet I do want to get across that childhood behaviours in an adult are ridiculed - people think less of us as they would someone with a mental challenge or illness. And the whole point is, wouldn't it be cool if they didn't?

On Making Change

For decades, I've been bringing cloth bags to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags and bringing home superfluous garbage. But for decades, it's been an annoyance for the poor cashier who had to figure out what to do with my pile of assorted sacks, and who, more often than not, would just leave all the groceries for me to sort and stuff.

In the last 3-5 years, all that has changed. Ever since they started charging for plastic bags and offering store-logo'd bags for sale at the check-out, cashiers now ASK if I have my own bags. They welcome my thread-bare sacks without hesitation. That change is nearing completion: a state in which bringing containers for groceries is the norm, and accepting plastic bags for a price is deviant. Of course we're understanding when people forget their bags; we all do it from time to time. But I can't imagine people having that same pitying reaction to "I'll need some bags too" just five years ago.

Similarly, I've avoided most paper in my classroom for years. I have a website with all my handouts and assignments, and I collect and mark all work online. I don't just do that for the environment: my course notes are clearly organized and easier for students to find than a bunch of handouts at the bottom of their knapsack. It's also much faster to mark online, and all student work is automatically organized for me. I avoid marking programs in favour of simple, straightforward Gmail, which I've been using since 2002 when I worked on a teacher's guide and was introduced to online editing. I've been using that "Review" option on word documents ever since. Now I can just search a name in my mailbox to find a list of all the work a student's submitted with my comments and rubrics attached.

With google docs available for free, some students don't see the point in buying a word program, so I accommodate that too, reluctantly. Students aren't yet adept at sharing with the right settings that enable an easy communication, and it adds an extra step of checking dates when a document is "live." But it's still easier than collecting paper copies.

And, like the shift away from plastic bags, the hard copy advocates are becoming the deviants, which makes my life so much easier. It used to be the case that I had to also provide paper copies of assignments in case students didn't like using computers, and I had to accept hard-copies of work. Now that our school board is trying to cut back paper use by 75% in the next four years (75/5 started a year ago), it's acceptable to have all work online, and students have resigned themselves to the change. Some students even complain when teachers give handouts. They used to lament having to type up their work, but now they're up in arms if they're asked to print an assignment. The shift is almost complete. Some teachers are going further to make all their tests online, but then they have to watch all the screens like a hawk for googlers (with no LanSchool for chromebooks on wifi). Paper does still have its benefits, and so far I don't feel too guilty about one paper test each unit.

This shift is handy for me. It's good for the board's bottom line (money). And it saves trees. I'm surprised there aren't pulp and paper lobby groups all over this; maybe they've had to recognize times are changing and they won't be able to stop this kind of shift. Maybe.

How I feel when I talk about reducing paper,
and how I think other people feel: Oh bother.
So it is possible to change behaviours to the extent that people are appalled or embarrassed to be asked to do something that was commonplace just a few years back. It seems to have to involve business concerns over the financial costs of wastefulness. The change in paper use wouldn't have happened without the board being concerned with the cost and amount of paper being used. One person (me) jumping up and down about it, showing off my marked essays, and putting boxes for good-on-one-side paper in every room does absolute squat to change behaviours. Now can we apply the model to other issues?

Tim Horton's sort of charges for a cup, but they do it backwards with a discount if you bring your own mug. If they reversed that and decreased their prices by ten cents, but then charged a dime for the cost of a cup, AND encouraged people to buy a mug at the checkout, I think single-use cups could be dramatically reduced.

But those are really small potatoes. Can we reduce cars (single-use vehicles) and meat consumption the same way? That's the real challenge.

Stickers on gas pumps might help. I've long suggested stickers of child slaves on free trade chocolate bars to remind us to buy fair trade*, so maybe we can get some squished animals for meat packs from factory farms (even though we can't get GMO labelling here). But all the stickers might have the effect they did on cigarette packets, which is nil.

To follow this demonstrably effective model, we need the government to put in place a firm and dramatic limit on consumption of gas and factory farmed meat; I think that 75/5 target for typical residential use might help make a change, and it could be do-able. And they'd need to offer easy alternatives to use, like increase taxes enough to obliterate bus fares, or have promotions on other ways to get protein with recipes to help people make the transition to meat only on Mondays. Except that Big Oil and Monsanto might have something to say about it all. That's a bugger.

With political will, it could be done. It would mean a couple years of grumbling, but then we might get to a place where people complain if they're actually asked to do something that requires serving meat, like the boss is coming over and expects a steak, or that requires a vehicle, like moving across town.

It could happen.


* John Oliver on Last Week Tonight also had a bit in which people could get labels to stick on food products to tell the truth about the products. I posted the video on facebook, but it has since been deleted. And all other videos with the same name have edited out the ending with the citizen re-labelling suggestion. It makes me wonder if their legal department canned it not necessarily on "copyright grounds" as he just provided downloadable stickers his staff had created, but because it inspired an effective citizen backlash.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Those Statues Again

the first statue
There are dueling petitions out to continue and to stop statues of all 22 prime ministers being planted on the grounds of Wilfrid Laurier University, my old school that I loved all to bits. I wrote about this statue project on its inception two years ago. The statues were originally to be set up at Victoria Park, but a survey of our citizens showed 79% rejected the idea. This debate has made news at The Star, The National Post, and The Globe and Mail, where one professor noted,
"Parliament wants to encourage the participation of diverse groups for the 150th celebrations. No one here was asked what they wanted,” said Nelson Joannette, a history professor at the university. . . . "Imagine any other marginalized group walking around campus and seeing those 22 monuments celebrating great white leaders. What kind of message does that communicate? It flies in the face of what contemporary universities are about." 
I talked to my grade 10 students about this issue. They were in full support of the project, but their arguments are telling. They more vocal respondents fell along two lines:

1. "If it's free, then it's good. If someone wants to give you something for free, you'd be crazy not to take it."

The fact that it's privately funded takes away some of the concern of taxpayers, but it raises a different issue. Should wealthy benefactors be allowed to dictate the art that permanently represents our city? As Joannette suggests, if we want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada, our voices should all be heard with respect to what type of display is warranted. Our voices were heard once in this city, and now the majority that protested the statues is being ignored.

2. "I don't see a problem with the First Nation issue. It was so long ago, who really cares about that anymore?"

Yikes! And, exactly. People don't get the connections and the long strings of history that sit behind the current occupation of land, and they don't understand problems with some of the policies of the past that have left a lasting negative impact on our nation. Missing and Murdered Indigenous  Women and the disproportional number of Indigenous people in jails are just skimming the surface of the number of problems created by colonization.

I recognize that we have to understand people's lives within a historical context, much as I praise some of Plato's work even though he was cool with slavery. We can't attack their entire body of work because of one piece. But some PMs don't have much of a piece to praise, certainly not compared to other Canadians focused more on social reform than personal status.

Some American cities have been taking down confederate memorials. It's curious we'd want to put up something that could be seen as glorifying a dark history, just as our neighbours are becoming more enlightened.

And our own Luisa D'Amato tried to explain the problems with the opposition to the statue project:
It will be one of the ways that visitors, students and employees get information, both critical and supportive, about the behaviour and legacy of that prime minister. Perhaps a conversation or two will happen. "We're not trying so much to celebrate as we've tried to document," said one of the proponents of this privately funded project, Jim Rodger.
They want to display the PMs with warts and all to elicit further discussion about our history. The problem with Rodger's argument is that he wants to change the meaning of erecting a statue, but we can't arbitrarily change the symbolic vernacular of a culture. We don't look at statues and think, "This group of people obviously wanted to discuss this person further." Culturally, we understand statues to be a commemoration. We can't just change that definition as it suits us.

We should celebrate people who have sacrificed and fought in order to help our nation flourish. Terry Fox, the Famous Five, and Shannen Koostachin are good examples. Being a politician that gets to the top through trickery, dumb luck, or honourable means shouldn't be enough to warrant a bronze legacy. Some politicians fight for the top position for power and prestige, not necessarily to make Canada a better nation. Title alone doesn't make one laudable.

If the statues are about learning about history, then a smaller version of the statues could sit in a display travelling through museums and galleries across Canada. As a temporary display, people will come to see the statues when they're near where they can remark on the trajectory through one PM to another and look for the hidden iconography of the pieces. Maybe they can end up housed in the foyer of Kitchener's The Museum. In a museum, they are clearly an educational tool. As public art, they are celebrations of former Canadians. There's no getting around that.

D'Amato closes with these words: "When people at a university start instantly dismissing something because it makes them uncomfortable, that makes me uncomfortable."

Professors openly discussing and debating an issue in the news is not the same as "instantly dismissing" them. They're presenting their views for larger consideration, and the debate will continue.

But what's really interesting to me about this issue, is how passionately I feel about it. Beyond all the rational discourse, it should be noted that I am shaking with rage at the very idea that a statue commemorating Stephen Harper could go up in MY city. After all he has done to destroy what made Canada great, if he is to be celebrated here, then I WILL MOVE!

Just sayin'.

On Population Control and Freedom at Any Cost

China has officially ended its one-child policy, and the New York Times argues against any similar policy ever existing again.
The Chinese government’s decision to end its draconian one-child policy is a pragmatic economic move, but it’s hardly sufficient. The government continues to control personal freedom by limiting the number of children a couple can have to two, an abhorrent policy that no nation should have.
The editorial talks about limiting freedoms like it's the worst possible action, but there are far worse consequences if we don't. If no nation should limit their population, then we'll have some bigger problems in our hands. We have to begin to control our population, and asking people nicely isn't going to do squat! I explained the logic behind this a whole other blog ago. Most of us just aren't made to care about the entire world, so the masses have to be forced to do what's right for the greater good.

In my school board, they've implemented a 75/5 paper reduction policy starting a year ago: we're to decrease paper use by 75% within the next five (now four) years. Stats were run, and I tried to convince the keeper of the numbers to accidentally leak them - or, better, openly post them and warn that updated numbers will be posted quarterly.  He already suggested that we limit printing to 600 pages/year, and there was an uproar. With stats in hand, he's clarified that most people are doing that already, but a few - about 10 in 80 teachers - are way, way above those numbers. Unfortunately he's not quite comfortable posting those names yet, but I think it's the only thing that will work.

As I walked out of that paper meeting, another teacher said we'll never get teachers to do this - even with on-line resources in our back pockets - literally. But back in the day when I started teaching, we rarely photocopied anything because we had one mimeograph machine (Remember smelling the paper to get a buzz?), and it took forever to make copies. We got by without copies and without computers. So it's entirely possible to reduce paper use, but the masses won't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It won't happen until it's forced to happen. People will complain for a couple years because change is hard, but then they'll get used to the new rules, and life will go on with a few more trees in the ground (and more money at the board office).

If we don't create some rules around population, it will be truly disastrous. Suzuki illustrates that here:

After reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, I summarized his research on the reality of not having any pro-active population control:
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It seems pretty clear that either we can choose to allow genocides to reduce populations, or we consciously prevent more children from being born. I think we'd all like to choose that second option... except when it directly affects us, which is much of the time.

The reality is that if we want to have a healthy planet for our grandchildren to live on, we have to stop having so many grandchildren. We have to spread the word to anyone from 15 to 40 to have fewer children, and from 40 up to tell their children to stop having children at all, or maybe to have one among the lot of them. I have three kids, and, so far,  I've convinced two of them not to have any kids. But intelligent friends my age laugh at this suggestion. They just don't believe this is a real problem that they need to actually act on in any real way. So we need something else to get us going.

We could try incentives, and I suggested to my grade 12s that we offer free education in exchange for voluntary permanent sterilization. We'd have to do it when they're 18-20, before they get a strong biological urge to reproduce. It's young for them to make such an important decision, but that's the point. I think it's the only time we could conceivable (ha!) convince people to willingly give up their right to have children. They pointed out that if we tie incentives to university, then we might reduce population in the smartest group of people and potentially end up with an Idiocracy:

So that plan might not work.

We need to change our entire mythology around freedom in order to survive another couple generations. We need to stop thinking that freedom should come at any cost. I said as much after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the bad guy rationed water, and our hero opened the valves for all to drink freely. Fast-forward twenty years, and we'd see the fatal short-sightedness of that style of leadership.

We're back to Plato's Republic where control = freedom, except it doesn't have to turn out like 1984 or a Nazi regime. Quite the opposite. We can have a very transparent government explain the consequences of our actions and suggest a series of reforms that limit our reproductive freedoms. We can be asked to vote on the best method of limitation, but we have to limit it in some way. In Canada, we're happy to limit the freedom to buy automatic weapons and the freedom to elicit others towards hatred of an identifiable group of people. We force teenagers to go to school against their will if necessary. We've banned the sale of sugary foods in schools, and some cities have successfully banned water bottles. Now can we learn to recognize the wisdom of limiting our freedom to reproduce even though it fights against a significant biological instinct? That's the question this generation must answer. Immediately.

But what about our pensions and jobs and the economy? We can't have an economy without a tolerable planet to put it on. It's too late to look on this as a 50/50 choice. Environmental legislation has to win or else we all lose.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Childhood Angst

Can children be existentialists? What I'm asking isn't so much whether or not it's possible, but should we allow it? 

If I dare to claim to define some central ideas here, the part about living authentically and embracing the freedom that comes with taking responsibility for all our choices with no excuses, that side of it is, I believe, pretty useful for everyone. But what about the darker edges of the philosophy? Life is objectively meaningless, and, since being unceremoniously dropped here, we're each of us alone in our quest to find meaning for ourselves. Things don't all work out in the end somehow; wonderful people can suffer many tragedies, one right after another. Nobody's controlling the game to make sure the good are justly rewarded. It's all a crapshoot.... And then you die. And, according to some, getting your head around the finality of our existence is key to the authentic life.

Is that too harsh for the little ones?

At what age is it acceptable to have conversations with children about this topic? What if your children bring up a sense of dread and angst at the possibility of their own demise. Is it better to acknowledge death, foster illusions of permanence, or deflect the issue entirely? Which will have the least detrimental effect?

A friend's daughter is suffering some anxiety; she's a worrier. Maybe it's because she has a gene for rumination. Or maybe she's a typical bright, creative kid.  One study, albeit with a very small sample size, found a link between intelligence and anxiety.
"Those with anxiety disorder tended to have higher IQ scores than healthy people, as well as higher levels of activity in regions of the brain that aid in communication between parts of the brain. These regions are thought to have contributed to the evolutionary success of humans. . . . High levels of anxiety can be disabling, and patients' worries are often irrational. But every so often there's a wild-card danger. Then, that excessive worry becomes highly adaptive. People who act on the signals of that wild-card danger are likely to preserve their lives and the lives of their offspring." 
But another study with an enormous sample size found a strong link between creativity and mental illness:
They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. . . . Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.*
It can be weirdly comforting to know that anxiety has links to positive traits, but more important than understanding why it starts, is to figure out what to do now. How do we help our children when they worry they'll run out of food or get hit by a meteorite or get hit by lightening or get conscripted into a war or get abducted on the way home from school? We feel helpless. We are helpless. The reality is we can't guarantee our children's security. We do our best to try, but there are no guarantees we'll be successful. Should we pretend there are? How much control can we really have over this - over their security and over their sense of security? It can help to believe we can fix everything for our kids, but I wonder if it's healthier to recognize how often we can't.

We really like to find patterns in the world, connections that make it all seem predictable. If everything works through a rational cause and effect system, then we can have a measure of control over the outcome. If we can observe the effects of different actions enough to see where the connections are, then we can behave in a way to provoke a specific outcome. But however we might look back at a sequence of events and connect the dots to try to understand how we got here, sorry to say, that only works in hindsight. Our lives are largely unpredictable. We live with a comforting illusion that we can control events, but then random acts steer us in a different direction.

Things are generally predictable, but not specifically, and that trips people up. Like Mlodinow explains in one of my favourite books, people are like molecules. Heat them up, and we can safely predict they'll all spread out, but we can't accurately predict the trajectory of any individual molecule. So we know that, generally, a university degree leads to a better job, but we can't know if your university degree will get you anywhere. This can be a little daunting, so we seek out other factors that caused the unexpected effect. We fight hard to grasp at an illusion of control over our lives, but, for better or worse, we encounter the absurdity of the the world. But if we can accept that some things just are and can't be controlled or fixed or prevented, it can actually make it easier to live through the random events that mark human existence. 

I suggested to this friend that acknowledging death is the best course over pretending we can guarantee a long life or ignoring the heart of the concerns. He responded, "I'm not going to tell my 8-year-old that we're all going to die." And coming from that angle, my suggestion sounds crazy. And yet, after some time to consider the situation, I maintain my position because doesn't she already know that to be the case?

I asked my 11-year-old what she thinks about the idea of talking to kids about death and what she thinks about kids having lots of anxiety these days.  She said,
"I think kids should know the truth instead of thinking that the whole world is a perfect place. Because it's not. We've got a lot of places that have a lot of problems right now. I worry about stuff that's going to happen, but I worry about it too soon."
I think she's hit on something important about worry - that it's often a concern when it's a matter of inappropriate timing. It makes more sense when it's right in front of us and very likely than when it's further away or less likely. Anxiety can give us an adrenaline rush that helps us stay up late to hit a deadline when we need it, but it's fruitless when it's too far in advance.

My concern here with an avoidance of existentialist thinking is that our culture's drive to protect children from anything remotely painful might be creating a society of people with lowered resilience who struggle to cope with the most minor setbacks, like students weeping over an essay because they can't think of a topic. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, or, at least, it's only recently that it is being openly displayed to teachers. 

Maybe previously we were all ashamed of feeling anxious, so we hid it. If that's the case, then it's a positive that we're seeing more of it.

But I wonder if it's the case that, previously, our anxiety over having enough food or money or supports in the face of plenty and a general fear of losing everything we've worked for was met with "Yup you might. Get over it!" comments that convinced us to cut-off those thought instead of dwelling on them and talking about them and bringing our concerns to person after person who would share their deepest fears, thereby giving credence to our worry and further embedding the pathways in our brain that allow worry to flourish! Flippant reactions might have a similar effect as current CBT methods in which people might be told to stop negative thoughts by imagining a big red "X" over the negative idea, then replace them with alternative thoughts, and then those troubling ideas will eventually decrease in frequency and intensity. Flippant reactions to worry can have the same effect of "You're fine!" in response to a tumble on the playground instead of rushing in with peroxide and bandaids. We rush in an awful lot these days.

We've gone down a different road of listening to everyone's feelings to the point that now we have a generation of second-order anxiety: personal anxiety plus anxiety over our children's anxiety. Have we fostered discussions of our concerns to a point that they've become normalized and entrenched in our brains? We feel like we worry for good reason about our anxious children because sometimes anxiety can turn into something worse like self-mutilation or suicide ideation. And then then we worry that worrying about our children's anxiety might actually make it worse! I think it was easier for my parents to acknowledge the worst case scenarios because they were born in the '20s and lived through the depression and then WWII. They experienced the worst and survived. We've been too sheltered from real trauma in our generation's past to be able to acknowledge that it could be a very real part of our future and to just get on with things. We're here today, and we have food and shelter, and we haven't been hit by a meteorite, so do your homework already!

Worrying about what might happen (like a child's anxiety turning into something worse) helps us feel like we're doing something productive about something we might have little effect over. But it could just an illusion of productivity. The tricky business is figuring out when we can have an effect and when we can't. We might stand back as parents and watch our kids fight through various stages of depression and anxiety, trying one therapist or medication after another wondering if doing nothing would have been as effective. It's complicated. But when they're beginning to express some fears over things clearly outside our control, a brush-off might be the trick. 

I can be a pretty intense worrier, and I actively work to decrease those thoughts. When I was growing up, I was terrified of the cold war. I was absolutely convinced we were all going to waste away from radiation poisoning if we weren't lucky enough to be hit directly.  This cartoon didn't help. It's of a middle age couple slowly dying, yet in denial the entire time, desperately trying to look on the bright side: "I should put some skin lotion on these spots. They should soon clear up." No wonder I had nightmares. But we lived, and all that worry was for naught. It did nothing to affect nuclear disarmament. Nothing.

I recognize this might not work for everyone, but what helped me cope as a child and now, what I believe prevented a journey into deeper anxiety or spells of crying in front of teachers, was my mum's very Epicurean acknowledgement that, "We all have to die of something," as she'd light another cigarette. Epicurus explained that, of course we're going to die, but we're not dead now, and, when we're dead, we won't know about it anyway; therefore, it doesn't make sense to worry about death. My mum was the kind who required a bloody appendage stapled to any request to miss a day of school. She'd soften the blow by tacking on, "But it likely won't happen for a long time....But, then again, we never know!" It had the effect of making me very productive. If death could be around any corner, then maybe I should drag myself from the TV to seize the day. And it helped me see that we're all in this together, Kings and paupers alike.

Recognizing the randomness of our lives, and how little control we have over it all, and the reality that death is inevitable, can actually help us live a more satisfying existence. I didn't wait for a magical age to share this with my children, but aimed to answer questions and concerns as authentically as possible throughout their lives. It's not all bad news. The worst might happen tomorrow, but if you're alive and well today, then let's celebrate that fact.

from this cite of awesomeness

*I'm not sure the difference between being an author and being a writer, but for the sake of my mental health, I hope I'm in the former group.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On Reading and Writing

I teach grade 12 university-level philosophy, and I teach it as a university prep-course. So we read primary sources, and we write essays longer and more complex than the standard five paragraphs. And then I brace myself for the complaints.

Why do we have to read about other philosophers? Why can’t we just explore our own philosophy?

I heard this one in art courses too, back when I actually taught art: “Why can’t we just discover our own style?” And I don’t just get it from the students but from parents too. “School should be about self-discovery,” they argue. “These other people are mainly dead, anyway. They don’t matter any more.” And then the real problem surfaces: “This is too hard for them. I can barely read it!”

I answer this the same way every year. First of all, I acknowledge that reading primary sources is the hardest thing many of them have ever been asked to do in their lives of Wikipedia-driven research methods, skimming, and cutting corners. Most textbooks are even summaries of summaries with lots of sub-headings and pictures and cartoons to allow weaker readers to decipher meaning from a variety of cues. Sometimes they're so simplified, they're devoid of real meaning. And here I am with the nerve to cruelly hit them with black text on a white background full of big words, sometimes olden-day words, and long, complicated sentences. These aren’t books they’re given, but just pieces of essays: a bit of Mill, some Thoreau, a dash of Aristotle.... And they’re assigned after reading several bits of essays and discussing what they mean together as a class. We take baby steps but all within one semester - the one semester that's most vital for university admittance.

I give them a strategy: Slow down! Stop at the end of every sentence and write down the main idea in your own words AND what you think about it. Is he on to something, or is there a problem with this line of reasoning? Then after a couple days, I give them my cheat sheet on the reading with the main idea of each section in my own words, in point form, with page numbers. If they couldn’t wade through this first reading successfully, they had a back-up. Baby steps.

But I do insist then learn to read for real. Why? Because the more they tackle difficult texts, the better they'll get at it. It opens avenues for understanding ideas that would have previously been inaccessible. Once they get it, once they see that they CAN struggle through a text and understand it on their own (and learn that it IS a struggle), then they can attack any reading material.

And I insist they learn about other philosophies before discovering their own theories. This raises a good Plato vs Aristotle debate. Plato suggests knowledge is inside us to be brought forth through contemplation and a good teacher who can ask the right questions and turn our eye in the right direction, while Aristotle would have us go out into the world to explore and experiment and put ideas together in a new way that’s our own. The schools are leaning more and more towards Plato’s ideal, but I’m firmly in the Aristotle camp.

My argument is a bit of a Pascal’s wager focusing on the possibility of error because we really don't know what's best. If it’s actually correct that we learn more from exploring past ideas, and we don’t do that with students, then students have lost the chance to learn that content since they’re unlikely to pick it up on their own. But if it’s actually correct that we learn more through questioning our own thoughts, and we keep trying to explore dead people's theories anyway, then we haven’t harmed anything in the process. Students can still sit and think after we’ve shown them other people’s ideas.

What's curious to me is how often they think that getting my help with a reading is cheating. I ask, "How do you think you best learn without help from someone who's learned this before?" Somewhere they've gotten the idea that they should be able to just know the answers, or find them themselves online, but they shouldn't have to ask any questions. I tell them I'm looking for a course on Heidegger right now because I'm stuck in the readings, and no online summary can help. I need a real live person to answer specific questions about specific lines. That's how we develop an understanding of a new topic. I believe that if you can do everything you attempt with ease, then you're not challenging yourself enough.

Furthermore, without the basics, many students run into issues that have been discussed for centuries. Learning about previous arguments gives them a head start towards developing better ideas. Most of us entering a new field don't know what we don't know; we don't recognize our weaknesses until we start to explore the strong ideas passed down and debated and discussed and tweaked for millennia. And the reality is, some people don’t have many ideas to share. They're a blank slate. They need a starting point, typically something they can argue against to get them really thinking.

And there's always the ability to impress others with a well-timed quote from a famous philosopher thrown into a conversation that makes people look at you a little bit differently.

And then we get to their own ideas.

Can you sign my drop form?

A chunk of the class drops out before the summary of that first reading is due. They didn't expect to have to read and think. It's too hard. And I worry about their ability to manage in university. But that raises the question of whether it’s better to give them easy work so they have high marks to get in to university, or to give them challenging work so they can be more successful once they're already in university where failing a course means throwing money down the drain. If they can't get into university in the first place, then having the skills that would have been useful there are wasted, right? And this is an elective course; shouldn’t it be just for fun?

Can't it be fun and intellectually demanding? Aren't they the same thing?!

Ideally, we’d be challenging students significantly in grade 10 - the last year that isn't scrutinized by university entrance committees. That should be the year of rigour when we really push reading and writing skills, ensure a strong knowledge of grammar and syntax, and demand clearly cited primary sources. But it’s pretty inconsistent because, as a profession, we don’t share the same learning goals. Many teachers believe grammar comes to us as we read and doesn’t need to be formally taught, and then I have to explain principal clauses to my grade 12s.

And it's hard to watch students struggle. It's hard to be the one who keeps pushing them to keep trying something that's difficult. Despite my course getting a little easier year after year, and despite using similar assignments, students are stressed out as never before. They need to skim and toss off a bit of writing quickly because they have so many other obligations in their lives. They have to work in order to afford university, and they need to be involved with many activities because it looks good on their applications. On top of that, they take 8 courses in a year that we encourage only 6. They feel like they'll be behind if they take a 5th year, so they cram too many courses into their last year rather than spread them out. I tell my 10s to take 8 courses in grades 9 and 10, then 6 each in 11, 12, and 5th year. Take the most courses possible; it's the last chance to take advantage of free education! But they're in too much of a hurry for that nonsense. It's all a huge competition, and there's a scarcity of rewards at the end.

I’ve known students who had 80s and 90s in high school, then actually failed classes in university. These are bright, hard-working students who were ill prepared. And that discovery costs them real cash dollars. This is the wall they hit due to grade inflation: 80s are the new 60s. My exams are a little easier every year because I do bow slightly to parental pressure. I’m teaching less depth, marking easier, and the grades show it. If my average were in the high 60s, like everyone's were fifteen years ago, then I wouldn't have a course to teach. Nobody would take it because they need high marks for university. But kids who might have had 60s and taken a different road a decade ago, are going to university with 80s and ending up on academic probation. That can be an expensive lesson for them, and it's not really their lesson to learn.

Some universities are reporting rising failure rates and professors offer solutions not dissimilar to my own:
"25% of high school students with A-averages in high school face being kicked out of universities in first year . . . We need to engage students by making everything more difficult . . . force students to think about things, to learn instead of memorizing."
One Trent University prof, Alan Slavin, noted a dramatic failure rate increase in his own classes, and, after some research, found it's mainly "an Ontario thing":
"Professor James Côté and co-author, Anton Allahar, in their recent book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, blame a general student disengagement with learning as source of the problem. However, most of the students I see are not so much disengaged as poorly trained for university expectations. Students’ ability to do analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization and regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. . . . There is always a certain amount of material that must be memorized, but knowledge of facts makes up only a small component of one’s learning. More important is the ability to relate these facts in new ways, to see them in a new light, and to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve new problems or create new forms of art. This ability to analyze and synthesize is what makes good scientists, writers, philosophers and artists. It is the ability needed to drive a knowledge-based economy."
Can't it be both student disengagement and poor training? But, from what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful. He blames this on changes to Ontario curriculum over the past twenty years that have made it much more content-heavy such that, from grade 1, time isn't spend in learning to understand concepts; there's only time to memorize.

Why essays? We should just learn the ideas and make posters about them. Why do we have to follow a format? What are in-text citations anyway? Other teachers are okay if we just put a list of urls at the end. Teachers shouldn't have set expectations, but should change their rubrics based on what each student can do.

Learning how to write within a consistent format is like learning the rules of a game in phys ed. We could let people determine their own rules and make up their own games, but we’ve established some useful techniques already that have been working for us. We offer some variations from time to time, but the basics are useful to follow. If we all understand the rules, then we can all play together, and people from all over the world can join in.

Over centuries, we've figured out a way to convey information in a clear manner such that, if everyone follows the general structure, we'll all be able to understand one another. If writing is clear, coherent, and precise, then we can discuss each other's ideas unhampered by questionable metaphors and illustrations. A poster or story or stream of consciousness piece or interpretive dance just can't clarify ideas in a focused way like an essay can. There is still room for creativity in an essay, but it's in the ideas themselves, not in a collage on the title page sewn to the essay with yarn. I fear that leaning on other media is a fool's game of hiding weak ideas.

When papers are written clearly, with flawless grammar and spelling, and a subtly demarcated format, then the style of communication can fall into the background, paving a road for the ideas to travel. Like learning formal theory in art, some people have all the elements of design IN them. They can just sit down and create things that are appealing aesthetically and interesting. The rest of us need to learn some guidelines, sit with them, and get them under our skin by using them over and over before we can take off from there.  Unfortunately it's been my experience that the extent to which people believe they can just write free-form in a way that’s coherent to others has no correlation to how good they are at it.

Back in the old school days, we learned how to cite sources using index cards and an assignment that sent us all to the public library when we were in grade four. I still have that project on Cats in Ancient Egypt. It was exciting to be dropped off on a Saturday and meet up with others there to look up books without a teacher or parent watching over us. And citing sources was an expectation of every grade after until, by high school, it was second nature. Now, because there's not the space for this in earlier grades, it's a hardship in high school. But having one consistent way of clarifying where information was found is necessary for readers. And MLA (or Chicago or APA) is the way we've decided on as a group. We all just have to get with the program on this one.

Citing sources properly, with all the necessary information, has never been more important as it is with internet research. If it's not clear who wrote an article, or if their name is "squeekee478," then it could be a questionable source. Scouting around a website, following the "About" link and the "Contact Us" link, is an imperative part of good research skills in this century.

Without set standards and expectations to work towards, we're not really teaching. I can encourage a student to throw a ball over and over that never hits the side of the barn. Without the goal of establishing the best technique, and getting students to work to master closer and closer approximations to the target behaviour, I'd just be watching random unfocused attempts. The attempts might get them closer to the target eventually by sheer chance, but the established techniques could get them there faster and with greater precision. Unpacked, what I hear some students saying is, "I should never be evaluated on something I’m not naturally good at without effort." But then we're not evaluating what was learned. (Keep in mind an evaluation of an essay is JUST an evaluation of how well you write not on who you are or your value in this world.)

These are standards that can get worn down with every complaint. What keeps me firmly rooted is the occasional student who has come back from university to visit and to tell me that this course really helped them have a step up. They watched others struggle with a 4-page essay, and thought, "Four pages? That's nothing!" I tell parents and students that, but they're dubious.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Sex Work

Bill C-36, which passed into law almost a year ago, begins like this:
"Whereas the Parliament of Canada has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it...recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution..."
The new law criminalizes buying sex, advertising, or otherwise benefiting from the sex trade (minimum cash fines and up to a maximum of five years in jail - ten for pimping), but it doesn't criminalize selling sex if only the sex worker benefits. It's theoretically a move to protect sex workers, except it limits their ability to advertise without walking the streets, and it limits their ability to discuss services in a public place. It took out restrictions for running bawdy houses, but it can charge men as they enter or leave.

But is prostitution necessarily exploitative?

Marlena Evans has an interesting piece at The Toast about working as a prostitute in order to pay her way through university. I'll look at the issues from the position of the prostitutes and the clients separately. I'm assuming it's a given that trafficking and pimping are obviously heinous acts that should be shut down by all means possible, but it's the grey areas that need a second look. And I'm not touching the potential for infidelity involved. Lots of things make it easier to cheat but aren't illegal. My question is: Is it necessarily exploitative or harmful to society if some people offer sex in exchange for money?

The Prostitutes: Is sex work necessary for women to survive, and is it necessarily harmful?

Evans presents her own case as proof that prostitution isn't necessarily exploitative, or at least, no more exploitative than a standard minimum wage job. And higher wages means she can work fewer hours.

She undermines the stereotype of prostitutes as struggling to feed their children or a drug-addiction. She's doing it to advance herself at school, a reason that's seen by her clients somehow as selfish.
"...people laugh about student poverty — they joke about cavities and scurvy as though one’s early twenties are merely a dry run for real life and one cannot actually starve to death."
She explains how working in the sex trade is significantly better than working in fast food.  I've had many students over the years share tales of working for exploitative managers that break ESA laws openly relating how unlikely it is that any kid will risk even a crappy job to complain - because the jobs are all crappy.
"If I got sick too often working at the fast food place, I had to provide a doctor’s note. I suffered abuse from customers who lumped me in with the automated machines. My gifts and talents were utterly squandered as I stood, sometimes for hours at a time, staring at the door, waiting for someone to come in and put me to use, knowing that if I got caught reading or writing or even listening to music I would be reprimanded. All of this and I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent and utilities in the same month."
Objectification and degradation anyone? We have a workforce of wasted talents following corporate-driven orders to behave in specific ways during their shifts (and sometimes beyond) for less than a living wage. We have many university students - the best and the brightest - who have to work 20-hours/week to pay rent and tuition even though it affects their grades and any ability to reach their potential. These are real problems in our country. I'm all for getting rid of exploitation, but it's a red herring to suggest it's just a problem in one type of business.

Some argue that a guaranteed minimum income will reduce society to a bunch of layabouts squandering their talents, but Evan's example shows quite the opposite. Some people are currently being held back from honing their talents because of their economic situation, so a guaranteed income would increase their ability to add to the greatness of our people. One Canadian study found this financial plan increased health and emotional well-being, and that the only people who quit their jobs were new moms and students, arguably the people with the greatest potential to benefit society if allowed to focus their talents without fear of economic reprisal.

Evans also gets at a different means of exploitation:
"I’ve been assaulted by countless men. By a man who was a client? Only once."
We have a vision of sex workers as throwaway women allowed to or willing to or coerced into bearing the brunt of assault, which somehow acts to keep the rest of us safe. But considering sex work as the one place that exploits is an illusion. Sexual harassment and assault is still a problem in and out of many fields of work. There are worse jobs women can do that nobody questions. Sexual oppression is in the fabric of our society. I'm not convinced the existence of the voluntary sex trade, as Evans describes it, increases that reality.

ETA: By way of contrast, see Hedges interview with Rachel Moran who calls prostitution "being raped for a living." Her experience isn't of voluntary sex work however, and I believe, as Evans suggests, that "voluntary sex work" is not an oxymoron. I believe it's condescending to suggest that all sex work is necessarily coerced even if prostitutes believe they've made a free choice. To honour people's different experiences, to believe women, means believing that they have the ability to distinguish a free choice from coercion. It's insulting to portray women as unwitting victims when they themselves feel empowered to choose sex work over fast food. Moran argues, “The nature of sex is mutuality, And where you don’t have mutuality, you have sexual abuse.” I'm not sure what "mutuality" means, but perhaps I'll dissect that quote another day.

The Clients: Will prostitution always be a reality, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

With prostitution available, people (predominantly men) can get a physical and emotional connection otherwise lacking in their lives. Many people are unable to find a mate or any physical contact at all with random strangers. They shouldn't have to live without any human connection because they're deemed less desirable by those in close proximity. This is an argument that many people can accept, especially after seeing The Sessions.

But some people seek out a prostitute for the lack of constraints this type of relationship has on their lives. They want to do something beyond the boundaries of a monogamous relationships: to have a variety of partners or acts available, to avoid any emotional responsibility, or even just to avoid having to clean themselves up a bit. When Hugh Grant was with Elizabeth Hurley and got caught with a significantly less beautiful prostitute, people speculated that Hurley wouldn't "go downtown." The infidelity aside, what makes it wrong to seek out sexual release in a specific way without courtship and commitment?

It seems we can accept the need some men have for the sex trade only if all other avenues have been exhausted. It should be a last resort for people in need, not a first choice for guys who like some convenience, variety, or just don't want to put down the video controller long enough to develop behaviours conducive to dating. But is this just a puritanical belief or a valid ethical position? Is this simple, easy sex option harmful to society in general?

A couple years ago, Wente wrote an article suggesting that men won't grow up and fulfill their potential if they don't have to work for sex. I'd completely write that off except that famed psychologist  Zimbardo furthers a similar thesis. The easy availability of sex today might prevent some men from rising to the challenge of getting a date, and, some argue, that challenge is what brings men to live up to their potential thus furthering society. But I'm not convinced that's a problem. I'm going on an assumption that most men who would only improve themselves for the reward of a stable sex life a relationship might offer are not necessarily the kind of men who are on the verge of curing cancer. I don't think it's the case that we will lose half the potential of the world if men can get laid easily. I agree that this focus might be a concern for some boys, but I don't agree with Wente and Zimbardo that it should be a concern for society.

Zimbardo laments the demise of boys, that their test scores and admittance to high-ranking schools is lower than girls now. That doesn't necessarily affect society if the strongest students are still working hard, which I imagine they are. From what I've seen, when students are exceptional, they're driven by the rewards of personal efficacy in their field - of being able to finally solve that problem. Accolades and external rewards are secondary. They don't need stickers to keep working as children or a woman's civilizing touch to keep them productive citizens as adults. From that it might follow that in schools today with fewer males entering, all things being equal (which they're not), we'd see a pretty even number of men and women getting the top marks. If it's only lower down the honour roll that will see an influx of more feminine names, then we're unlikely to suffer a loss of ingenuity as predicted. I suggest that the biggest impact easy access to sex might have in society is a lack of available partners for hetero women, but perhaps it's an effective means to separate the wheat from the chaff for them in the dating pool.

If one goal in our competitive society is for workers to be as productive as possible, on-call to answer e-mails 24/7, then having uncomplicated sex lives can foster this productive work habit. I don't think that type of life is necessarily most conducive to happiness or well-being, but if it works for some, then who benefits by making it illegal?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lives of Others

I have this poster on the wall of my classroom:

It's important to know. It's necessary to understand how things work. And then it's vital to act rightly in the face of the truth.

That's the message in The Lives of Others, a gripping film with one of the best final three words since Ironman. A Stasi officer in East Berlin, with eyes and ears on a playwright of dubious intent, decides to help the man just this one time. That sets off a foot-in-the-door type of psychological effect: Once we help a little, we tend to help a little more.

The director, von Donnersmarck, was only eleven and living in the relative safety of West Berlin in 1984, the Orwellian year when the film begins. Timothy Garton Ash (there be bold spoilers!) laments the details of the film: The Stasi weren't so well dressed. The students would have been in uniform. The entire thing looked too Western.... But that kind of truth is less important than the reality of the fear and desperation of the times - the general anxiety of day to day life when we can trust no one. It becomes all too clear the reality of the slippery slope we could face if we continue to allow C-51-type intrusions into our freedoms.

Within a fictional totalitarian regime, Alan Moore explained, "Artists use lies to tell the truth," and that line had a presence as I watched. This idea is crucial in the film when the artists' lives and livelihood are at stake as they embed statistics in poetic prose. But that very risk is what makes spreading the truth all the more important.

Garton Ash asks if high culture humanizes us, and he shares this bit of trivia:
"Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie."
If anything can turn us from cruelty, it might be art. Films like this one precariously transport us to a place of heightened empathy as we live through the character's dilemma. We become a little more moral, a little more courageous in the process.

What affected me most in this film, however, was the plot driven by one man of power unable to completely have the woman he desired. People must pay the price for his loss. This is an issue no less disquieting in our pseudo-enlightened times thirty years hence where men scorned still prove menacing whether on a real life date or during on-line encounters. Women can expect sexually aggressive threats from total strangers for politely rejecting advice. Stealing away with a woman to force her hand in marriage has been illegal since the 12th century, but I fear tactics have merely gotten more subtle in their execution.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Call for Questions

Another civics teacher and I are hosting an all-candidates debate for potential MP of my school's riding, which, for the first time, is not my own riding even though I live just three blocks north. So I'm not familiar with the specific candidates.

We contacted all parties, but, unfortunately, the Green Party candidate was very hard to reach, and he responded last with regrets. The other three will be there a couple weeks from now, and they want a list of questions before the day. Some want the list immediately. That's not unreasonable, and I'll provide them (most of them), yet it would be nice to see them responding on their feet.

I'll be soliciting questions from my grade 10 class tomorrow, but I thought I'd put this up here in case my wise readers have some juicy ones worth asking! The debate will be for an audience of 15-year-olds, so the issues can't be too complex or we'll lose the audience - and nobody wants 150 bored teenagers in a room.

ETA - The challenge is, as it is every day for teachers, how to provoke as much depth of thought possible within the constraints of one-hour of time and a wide variety of levels of understanding in the room. 

Just in Time Learning

The experience that most prepared me for teaching wasn't teacher's college, it was working in a huge insurance company. They trained me to work efficiently and stay working until the job's finished, which, in an insurance company, means forever. It's a very useful skill when I'm marking.

There are a few efficiency slogans that come to mind when I've got a pile of work, like "Only touch it once." No sorting and separating and wasting time preparing to work. As soon as you open a file or essay, don't put it down until you're done with it. The goal is to get it off your desk as quickly as possible! That little reminder at the back of my head has done wonders for getting work back to students in a timely fashion.

But the one that came to mind recently is "Just in Time." Don't prepare work too far ahead in case the situation changes and you've just done all that work for nothing. It seems like it could be counter to getting things done, but it's not. It means don't order a ton of supplies for a situation that might never come to pass, or don't prepare questions for an all-candidates debate until all the candidates are confirmed and the debate set to go - even if they keep e-mailing for that list of questions.

I was thinking about "Just in Time" in the context of learning, though. Members of OSSTF recently ratified our contract. As staff president, I had to get everyone out to vote last Thursday. I sent a few messages to everyone's home e-mail near the start of September and to their school e-mail more recently, but still, on Thursday, people asked, "What vote?" as I went room to room personally inviting them to mark an "X".

I was lamenting this to a colleague, when we started complaining that it was also picture day, and we didn't have any instructions about what order students go down for their photos. Before calling the office, I wisely re-checked my e-mails and found some very clear instructions sent two days previous. I had read the e-mail, but it had completely left my brain. It seems that information has to come the second you need it and not before or else it dissolves. The brain sorts out whether or not something's immediately useful, and dumps it if it's found wanting. Especially now when we have so much information coming our way.

And later I asked about a book in the library, and my librarian told me I could look it up from my own computer. Who knew?! Then I recalled many little lessons at staff meetings about the library website that I had watched with eyes glazed over. That information had nowhere to sit and wait to feel needed, so it just wandered away. I needed to hear it AS I was looking for a book. But isn't it a bit much to ask someone to teach each of us a lesson individually - 80 times over - only as we actually need that knowledge? Well, it would certainly be inefficient. But maybe sometimes efficiency's overrate.

And, of course, I think about all the information I give my students about things that aren't quite due or aren't necessary to be used immediately. I don't mean real-world applications - I haven't used calculus since high-school, yet I maintain, in that sense, that all learning - the learning process in itself - is useful. I mean teaching them how to do close reading or cite a source, but not soon after testing them on that skill in some way - not making them use the skill in a way that I can verify they understand it.  They'll need it generally, as we go, but then do those concepts hide in their brains, atrophying as they grow weary waiting for opportunities to show themselves?

This isn't new information at all, yet every time I tell the staff of educated adults about something happening, and I put it in writing, then I tell them individually, and so many still don't quite remember what I'm on about, I'm baffled. It's because I'm still not done learning about learning! I forget how difficult it is to store information until it's needed.

But those insurance efficiency slogans sure stuck in there. It's because my boss actually said them over and over. If we appeared overwhelmed with stacks of files, he'd remind us, "Once begun, half done." Here's the thing: It was not beyond the expectations of his job description to remind us over and over to keep those files flying off our desks. We despised him for it, but we worked like machines!

I'm not interested in getting kids to be more efficient - although it can be handy in certain fields. But I am interested in the stickiness of slogans repeated and applied over and over. Years later, they creep up unannounced to keep me going on that pile of essays. And I'm grateful. And I have to work to remember (because it wasn't part of the training regime) that it has to be an expectation that I'll repeat things over and over to educated adults and students alike and not expect them to remember it until they've actually used the information many times.

Teaching is a funny job where, like in insurance, it feels never-ending. Through a wide lens over the decades, people learn a bit during the 5-month semester, then we start fresh, without any of that knowledge I just taught. I repeat the same content in a variety of ways over and over and over again, and even though many go off to university to continue learning, it can feel like I haven't really taught anything because it starts all over again the next term, brand new, with a collection of people, and some of them think Obama is our Prime Minister.  And years after high-school, some others - coughmyownkidscough - don't remember learning, from me, how elections work. It was way back in grade 10, and they didn't need to understand any of that until now. We teach them that way before they'll use the information, and we don't go over it throughout the rest of high-school.

So I taught them all over again.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Has the Green Revolution Actually Arrived?

There's an article floating around sub-titled "The Year Humans Got Serious about Saving Themselves from Themselves" by Jonathan Chait.  It starts with a litany of climate change-driven bad news with the conclusion that,
"The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene — the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul-crushing, that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds. Working for change, or even hoping for it, has felt like a sucker’s game."
That "seek the release of final defeat" bit makes me think of Freud's theory of a death drive:
"Our recognition that the ruling tendency of psychic life… is the struggle for reduction, keeping at a constant level, or removal of the inner stimulus tension – a struggle which comes to expression in the pleasure-principle – is indeed one of our strongest motives for believing in the existence of death-instincts."
We long for finality, for completion, not just in our daily accomplishments, but in all things, in order to release ourselves of the tension of getting near the end.  This is clearest, I think, when we feel great making a questionable decision because having finally decided feels so good, so final, even if it's a bad choice.  This explains why so many stay on a wrong path and won't budge from it even when shown the error of their decision; it feels so good to have decided that we don't want to have to go back to that moment of choosing.

It's curious how much we say we want more freedom, hence more choices in life, and yet choices can be such a burden.

Anyway, we're clearly on the wrong path now.  Are we really going to just watch it play itself out to the final end of humanity?  Not according to this article,
"The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win....The task before the world is best envisioned not as a singular event but as two distinct but interrelated revolutions, one in political willpower and the other in technological innovation."
Why will it all come together now, suddenly?  He points to signs like "the price of solar is fallen" - in some place it costs less to use solar or wind than coal or natural gas.

But I'm afraid that what Chait misses with this line of reasoning, is that it's not just the cost that drives the use, it's also the number of powerful people who stand to gain if we continue using fossil fuels. As Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, Canada's economy depends on money from gas-powered cars and from tar sands. Rubin thinks things will get better only when we can no longer afford to drive:
"...the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the best possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."
Chait then suggests we're already using less energy because we have better technology for better lightbulbs: "everything from buildings to refrigerators is being designed anew to account for scientific reality." And these innovations happened because,
"governments disrupted [the energy market]; progress came not in spite of our government but because of it. The private sector developed LED bulbs because Washington required higher-efficiency lighting....The overall direction of American carbon use is no longer in doubt. American carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, with the main question now being how far and fast they will plummet."
Good for Obama, but it's hard to be hopeful with Harper in power.  Chait points to countries getting on board, but my concern are the many countries still not interested in this discussion.  It's better than it was, but is this really the tipping point of a major transformation?  He thinks that American policy will affect the rest of the world, and I hope he's right.  He looks to China for proof of hope:
"It is hardly selfish for developing countries to refuse to force their impoverished people to shoulder the burden of averting climate change. (Even now, China burns less than half as much carbon per person than does the U.S.) The developing world has thus been presented with a brutal moral logic: The rich countries have burned through the world’s carbon budget, and there is almost nothing left. But in the past year, something amazing has taken place. In 2014, China’s coal production and its consumption both fell, and the drop appears to be continuing, or even accelerating, this year....The possibility has come into view that, just as the developing world is skipping landlines and moving straight into cellular communication, it will forgo the dirty-energy path and follow a clean one."
He thinks people are losing hope because they're American, and "the new global consensus on climate change is least evident" in the U.S and Saudi Arabia. "The U.S. is the only democracy in which such a consensus [on climate change denial] can be found."   Maybe he hasn't noticed us to the north as our government fights to run more pipelines, sell more oil, take away protection over waterways, remove scientific funding, etc. About a year and a half ago, Huffington Post reported,
Gerry Ritz, Canada's Minister for Agriculture, told the House of Commons last week that "this cold weather can't last forever. This global warming has to stop some time".....fellow Conservative Member of Parliament Gordon O'Connor spoke out..."I don't know what those words mean because they're a buzz phrase. Climate change. If we're talking about what is our preparedness for natural disasters, that's one thing, but climate change, if you want to talk about the climate, the climate always changes. It goes hot. It goes cold, etc....Last year, newly minted Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated that "there's always a debate around science and what's changing" and claimed that climate change was still "debatable.""
I don't think you have to be American to be losing hope over this.

Chait recognizes the immensity of the problem we face, but thinks we are at least starting down a better path:
"Even if the world could eliminate all fossil-fuel use tomorrow, the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere will create, and is already creating, disruption, havoc, and death. Even if the world halted all greenhouse-gas emissions today, it would be, by the standard of perfection, too late. Besides, the target the world has set for measuring success — holding increased global temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius — is merely a guess at salvation.....Even if all the Paris talks do is simply eliminate the risk of the all-too-thinkable worst-case scenario, it would constitute a monumental achievement in the history of human civilization, like the development of modern medicine."
But he ends equating denial of climate change with despair over the condition of the world as if they both blind us from this revolution taking place. I think we can see how bad things are and likely will be, as he does, yet also recognize there are some small gains happening here and there. It's not the same as railing against these gains because climate change doesn't exist.  Not by a long shot.  But it's still despair-worthy to consider how little the gains can be at this stage - as he points out:
"The limits agreed to at Paris will not be enough to spare the world mass devastation. But they are the beginning of a framework upon which progressively stronger requirements can be built over time. The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope."
So, I'm also not entirely convinced that "the long-awaited green revolution has finally arrived." Some politicians are on board, but not nearly enough. And nothing is happening fast enough. The word "eventually" above doesn't help me believe it's getting so much better.

But most problematic, Chait misses an entire piece of the puzzle: the necessary involvement of big business (or significantly increased regulations).  Until corporations stop draining aquifers, stop outsourcing to countries with lax pollution restrictions (exacerbated by trade deals supported by Obama), stop running business on a policy of planned obsolescence (so products have to be re-bought over and over), stop flying products around for pieces to be built and assembled in a selection of countries, and do more than superficial greenwashing, we're not going to be truly off this path of destruction. And it'll be quite the effort to convince people to stop practices that increase profits.

And yet, there is always hope.

Monday, September 7, 2015

On Achievement and Death and Stuff

This is a post about cycling further than ever before, but first, a bit about boredom:
"Boredom may lead you to anything. After all, boredom even sets one to sticking gold pins into may choose what is contrary to one's own's own fancy, however wild it may be...desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid - simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is rational...this caprice of ours....preserves for us what is most precious and most important - that is, our personality...the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop."  - Dostoevsky 
"We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom...A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vial impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase." - Bertrand Russell

Some people assert their own will by choosing naturopathy over doctors to treat their cancer, or by quitting their satisfactory marriages and careers to seek out a new mid-life adventure. I hope to make slightly more reasonable choices or certainly less self-destructive ones. According to Dostoevsky, I'm sucked into the western ideals of individuality over community, of standing out, which can make us foolish. Melting into the crowd isn't an easy option. Being one with the universe is a task for later when I've figured out how to sit still. And for Russell, who hit puberty in Wales as the Russian was drawing his lasts breaths, being able to endure boredom is essential for happiness. Seeking out excitement to avoid boredom just makes our pleasures less easily felt. He warns,
"pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely...certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony." 
In art, we'd call that degree of monotony an area of restraint necessary for the eye to relax.  It's why some beautiful gardens have an expanse of grass. But mine doesn't. I lean towards chaos.

I get antsy when I don't have a project. The house can be a mess while I deliberate what new task to take on next. My backyard took over for a couple years, and I have ideas of an off-grid home a few years off, but then what now? For better or worse, I'm obsessed with doing, finishing, accomplishing.

So I set as a project to find the limits of my cycling abilities - or, more specifically, the limits of my lungs and heart and other organs and muscles in a body as old and untrained as mine. I'll tell you from the get-go that I failed. But I'll get to that.

Before an annual camping trip with neighbours, I considered having my packed rental car, complete with youngest child, driven by a fellow camper so I could cycle the 137 km to the site. The longest I had ever biked before was 60 km, and I wanted to see how far I could actually go in one trip. I didn't train or prepare in any useful way - that would take the challenge out of it. But having a driver coming up my rear helped because I could bail at any time. It was about seeing how far I could get, not about getting to the end. That was key to the entire adventure. That, and a cell phone to call for help if needed.

This was a decision fraught with a ridiculous amount of anxiety. I tried to keep Epicurus in mind as I was deluged with worries: If pain is not occurring right now, then it’s not bringing pain except for tumults created by imagination, right? I am bringing myself pain, which is ridiculous! So stop worrying about flat tires, swerving trucks, strong wind gusts tossing me into traffic, some crazy guy attacking a lone female, heat stroke, complete organ failure, random loss of appendages, the list goes on. And there's always the old standby concern that, if I leave the house for any significant duration it will burst into flames. From time to time I was struck with absolute terror at the though of being killed in traffic and picturing my children coping with my death. I'd have to actively "X" out the thought and replace it with a vision of biking without incident. Thanks CBT. The fact that many worries are unfounded doesn't seem to lessen their intensity. At all. I actively ignored the looming date, and second-guessed my choice of directions - later to be intensified by many geographical advisors after-the-fact  "Why didn't you go this obviously better way?" serving to prove my instincts for direction weak.

So I said nothing to anyone about my hopes to attempt the journey until the last minute; I knew I would be easily swayed to give up before I started. I waited until two days before to ask a neighbour to drive and was almost deterred by her husband's concern about wind, and the night before, I told my kids and then immediately become openly worrisome and neurotic. It's like talking about it tapped the keg of concerns. And it was going to be a windy ride: 20 km/h headwinds until the final 30 k.

It's curious, in areas of insecurity, how much other people's attitudes can affect us.  The support of that one comrade, and my son's insistence that, "of course you can do it" were paramount to my leaving the house that morning. I have lots of people in my life - I'm sure we all do - who tell me why I can't possibly do this or that. I ignore the lot of them most of the time, but physical exertion is a weak spot for me, so their voices loomed louder than usual and took some effort to drown out. Some told me I couldn't join a women's ride group because I'm too slow, and others refused admittance to a guy's casual riding group because I don't have the necessary equipment provided by mother nature. I'm not recognized as a cyclist. Even the physiotherapist helping with my aging knees questioned me about my regular trips to Bamburg, a local marker of a hilly 40 k loop from our city:

"Oh so you drive there and then bike around."
"No, I don't have a car."
"Oh, so you live near there."
"No, I live a block from here."

Awkward silence. I just don't look like someone who moves quickly.

So I bike alone.

Armed with a banana, some nuts and raisons, water, my phone and wallet, brand new lights on my bike, and quality bike shorts, I kissed my kids good-bye and set off before dawn hoping to beat the heat of the day. I played music in my head to keep me pumped - possibly a skill developed in only those raised in the pre-walkman era. This one kept my cadence up:

Some think it's nutty not to train formally before a big ride - as if we'll fall to pieces if we don't work towards our goals gradually, but there are too many times the fear of being unprepared stops us from action. We think we can't do this or that because we're not quite ready. Then we dilly dally about doing prep work forever and never actually getting to the thing we actually want to do. I channelled Laura Secord who didn't train for her marathon bushwacking experience. She just got out there and started running through fields and forests.

I didn't wear any fancy duds or pimp out my ride either. I did get a pair of good bike shorts because, since about 40, my butt fat has all gravitated around the corner to my belly - and, just my luck, just in time for a big booty to be in style too. Extra padding was necessary there, but then I just threw on a t-shirt and sandals and my stand-by helmet. And I thought of Marathon Man, and Dustin Hoffman copying Abebe Bikila's run without shoes. But Secord and Hoffman's character were running for their lives. I was creating a situation as if it were a necessity knowing full well it was a luxury. I had to convince myself of an importance for it in order to develop any motivation to go.

For me, the point of cycling is to go places. It's not to work out and live longer because we could die any minute. And it's not to work out to match the current beauty standard because we could be hated anyway regardless our quest for physical perfection. For me, it's all about getting off our fossil fuel addiction. If a middle age woman without any know-how can do over 130 k in a t-shirt and sandals, with a crappy bike, then maybe you can bike to work. Amiright?!

I was once told by a colleague that I could never be a department head because I don’t have a car, but people don't understand that we can get almost anywhere without a car. And we can bike dressed in our everyday clothes. Granted I still used a car to transport my camping gear and daughter, but with more of us cycling, we could definitely use fewer cars. We need to move under our own steam whenever we can.

The trip was also about finding my boundaries, but part of it was about getting over my fear of biking further from home alone – the fear of having an accident, but more a fear of boogie men out to attack me. People are mainly nice and helpful. There are some odd ducks, but the odds are in my favour. And, with the exception of a brief trek on a major highway, everyone moved over a lane to give me space. I was completely safe.

Part of the journey was because I turned 50. I'm in a hurry to do stuff because it gets a little clearer that any day could be my last. I'm still stuck on having a leave-behind, a legacy, even though I'm pretty convinced there won't be generations to come to remember any of this. With climate change, there’ll be no leave-behinds. Having kids or writing a book or erecting a statue will have no impact on future generations if there ARE no future generations because the planet has become largely uninhabitable by our species. This death is a final death.

But some thing can still make me feel like a kids again. When I listen to certain songs, I'm 17 again. And when I’m on my bike, I’m 10, riding to the corner store in my bathing suit with a nickel in my hand for a freezie.

Just beyond the half-way point, at 70 k in, my legs and lungs were fine, but my eyes started getting weirdly blurry, so I took that as a sign to re-fuel.  I stopped briefly to stretch, eat, and drink. I just had 23 k to get to the next city where I could sit in a Tim's to wait for the car if I needed to.

I was surprised that it wasn't the hills that got me but the long flat parts where there wasn't anything to mark the passage of time. I watched this in my head as I pedalled:

The music and videos come to me of their own accord, but cycling distances alone takes me to that wonderful zoned-out place where I often come up with entire concepts I couldn't possibly find in my hectic kitchen. Like if it's a coincidence that Rex Harrison played mentor to Eliza Doolittle then later played Dr. Doolittle. Weird. It's a state that can't be as easily achieved with another cyclist there - if they try to have a conversation or if I feel pressure to keep up or have to wait at every turn. That modicum of attention somehow destroys access to the internal world.

And then there's the beauty of the scenery with light filtering through the trees, and the cows cheering me on up the hills. Montaigne said,
When I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
Prolonged activity allows time to get sufficiently bored to actually start paying attention to the details of the world. Those magnificent details!

But the trip was also about reaching a goal even if I didn't want it to be. My mom died in her 60s of cancer, and my sister got cancer in her 40s. I always expected to die young, and I've been ever impatient to finish things because I might be dead tomorrow. I update my will regularly and leave behind instructions in case I die whenever I leave for a trip. It's not the case that I'm living fearful of death, but that I'm living authentically recognizing that it’s right around the corner for all of us. My son sometimes asks me if I’m afraid to die, and I worry mainly, as a single mom, if they’ll all be okay without me – it’s been my primary worry for the past 21 years. Not just financially, but will they have someone to go to when they feel misunderstood by the world. But other than their future, I think I'm okay with it.

And the trip was also about sheer endurance. We need to suffer in order to grow. We need a bit of adversity in our lives - challenges, and since we've had it easy for so long in this time and place, we sometimes need to create personal challenges. Nietzsche wrote about wishing difficulty on others so they can find the strength to fight. It's not about training to cycle, but about training to get in there. Staying in there for that hill creates the means to stay in there to keep on about climate change and injustices and politics even when most people seem completely apathetic.

And then I saw the sign for the campsite and started singing:

And suddenly I was Rocky at the top of the steps, and Sarah Conner bein' badass in T2.

I felt completely fine at the end. I wasn't sore at all, but I was tired of doing the same thing for so long - almost 7 hours of riding plus a lunch break on top: that's a full work day!

I made it the whole way without being rescued, so I still haven't found my limit.

There will be time....

A hawk hanging out at our campsite.


It's curious... actually it's not at all curious... but I posted my bike trip from Runkeeper on Facebook, and I also updated my profile picture that was ten years old. The profile change got 12 times the likes as my journey.  Being able to keep my casing reasonably smooth trumps actually being capable or useful.  So if you want to impress others, stay skinny, smooth, and symmetrical. Doing stuff carries a more personal reward.