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Archive for the month “October, 2015”

Art and Arbitration

For me, art is the refuge, the respite. I recall concurring with the diatribe explained at length in The Goldfinch: it’s the illusion that makes life bearable. I think in art, truth is revealed, put out for examination.

At the Denver Art Museum recently, I viewed paintings of the North American Indian by Fritz Schroder. They are bold and terrible, addressing the stereotypical images portrayed and memorialized by early photographers such as Edward Sheriff Curtis ( between 1907 and 1930) whose intent it was to record traditional Indian cultures. His opinion of Indians as “primitive ” reflected a majority American viewpoint, promoting a “myth of a vanishing race, with the notion that Indians are historical features of an American landscape, not functioning members in a modern society”. [See Beck, “The Myth of the Vanishing Race”, in Edward S. Curtis in Context].

In Schroder’s paintings, piles of viscera a la Francis Bacon, dead bodies, ravenous dogs and unhappy looks express an alternate reality. At least in Denver’s 21st century exhibit, the victim’s story is in evidence. And perhaps as importantly, national museums are not afraid to display a reversal of public thinking, accepting the blame that has been incurred on our first nations.

Earlier that day, I sat as an observer in a mock arbitration where the topic for resolution dealt with the dismissal of a teacher. Based on the famous 1925 Scopes- Monkey trial financed by the American Civil Liberties Union, lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued Modernist and Fundamentalist perspectives based on the accusation of a teacher’s teaching the Theory of Evolution in the classroom.

Fast forward to 2015 where this arbitration would flip the test by pronouncing the Theory of Creationism as the tempest in the teapot. Here Mrs. Betty Scopes is impugned by a confused 10 year old. The mother reports a change in the child’s behaviour along with nightmares that include being descended from an ape. This is the basis of a complaint that results in Scopes’ dismissal.

Although the teacher clearly states that she did not teach religion, as she might at her church, she did expose her students to her view of Creationism. However, she explains that, as well and significantly, she provided a forum for all students to discuss their ethnic and religious backgrounds, even citing aboriginal peoples’ beliefs in transformative animals and The Great Spirit.

Certainly she did not expect her students to parrot her views: no test or exam had in fact been given so no grades had been assigned to attest to the bias of the accused. Indeed, Scopes’ classroom forum to express diversity was the means towards developing critical thinking skills in her students, as attested by Scopes herself. The mother lampoons that Scopes was only paying “ lip-service” to this approach.

From my own educator’s pedagogical insights, it made sense that this thoughtful teacher was incorporating creative and cogent collaborative student narratives into her curriculum presentation, relying and including them as means to enhance and extend her teaching in an appropriate fashion. Boards of education and teacher education programs all promote a child-centered approach to learning.

Never had there been a complaint against Betty Scopes, and no one had ever requested her daybook, notes, or her teaching tools. Nor had anyone, teacher, principal, parent or board member set foot in her classroom to substantiate the words of the mother, or distressed Benny, a boy described as one who preferred to “be told how to think.” In fact Scopes had been recruited by the same school board where she had taught previously, lauded for her teaching.

At the conclusion of the first day of mock arbitration, one arbitrator queried if a ten year old was capable of critical thinking? I smiled because I reflected, this man understood what should be central to his rendering a decision:

How do we educate in the preponderance of social media? How do we learn how to listen to the stories of others? To respectfully question and ask why? How do we learn not to just accept, but to think, to search for truth, to evaluate and separate fact from argument, slander from pander and false rhetoric?

As guardians of children in this Post post- modern world, how do we, as teachers and parents, aid in making meaning for future generations, avoiding the mantle of the Modernists whose belief in hierarchy, order, master narratives and centralized control( see http://www19.homepage.villanova.edu) dictated what, where and how to instruct and indoctrinate, trampling individual truths in the midst of heavy chauvinistic slogans of country, religion, majority thinking, etc. No doubt the original Scopes’ trial raised issues that debated which theory of creation or evolution would overpower and corrupt knowledge in a democratic society. I believe the Post-Modernists addressed these issues in their strong backlash to the former’s world view.

When all four arbitrators, both Canadian and American, supported Scopes’ dismissal, I was shocked. Ironically I could hear the voice of William Jennings Bryan surmise that ridicule ( and worse) had been cast on everybody who believes in Bible. Ironically, here the reversal of the Scopes’ trial, an attack on the teaching of religion, not evolution, but in a time when religion is not the panacea but the culprit.

Much like the Salem witch trials and as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, slanderous gossip results in death: death here to the individual ‘s freedom to not only express, not “ indoctrinate” ( the word used to castigate her ) with her own religion, but to enable her students to glean diverse knowledge of other worlds of creation and to think critically about them.

And for this teacher, as well, a death to her livelihood and likely a blackballing of her professional life.

When I taught high school English almost twenty years ago, our novel of senior study by Timothy Findley was Not Wanted on the Voyage, a twisted retelling of Noah and the Great Flood: where the hero/ heroine on the voyage is a transvestite and Noah and God are power mad. Not grounding this particular book in the Bible would have made no sense, but along with the Bible, we also discussed other stories of creation.

Would my own particular religion have also been called into question and the reason for firing me had a student reported my instruction to the school board? Even back then, parents sometimes complained about our Feminist-based curriculum and they were offered alternatives for their children. I never heard that our public board of education took extreme measures to censure or release any of my colleagues. Particularly with no hard evidence.

I wondered had any of these arbitrators, all easily over 60 years of age, been in a real school lately ? They might object that I had been working with senior students, not pre-adolescents as our Benny is.

But, had they not even noticed the eyes of babies glued to Ipads, imbibing the confusion of truth and untruth that comes their way. What tool, except critical thinking, even as young as kindergarten could provide for a toddler to make decisions or simply prevent herself /himself from being brainwashed, passively accepting and not knowing where advertisements ended and their shows began.

Were we not then perpetuating a generation to be easily led and manipulated by the Modernists we once lambasted? Our arbitrators had only to try and pry an iPad or computer from the hands of some toddler blissfully involved with the animation and machinations of a cleverly made show? Their parents ( grandparents?) believing the child was learning how to sort shapes, learn alphabet, dance with Mickey or sing with The Wiggles. Or so they hoped. If these arbitrators could not comprehend critical thinking as fundamental to teaching, where else had they erred?

Perhaps relying on their own unease with religious proselytizing, they had felt it better to go in the opposite direction, gagging all whiff of religion altogether. Would that mean the teacher wearing a skullcap or niquab would also not be permitted in the classroom? And where do we draw the line between minority and majority rights?

Several arbitrators stated that the teacher’s manner of not demonstrating remorse was also problematic. My mind raced to Albert Camus’ anti-hero in L’Etranger whose lack of tears and acceptable mourning condemns him. Had Betty Scopes displayed crocodile tears and promised to be a good girl, would they have been more lenient? Tut, tut, young lady ,repent the error of your ways and we will embrace you as the prodigal daughter.

And what of the 10 year old Benny? And again I thought of David Mamet’s plays in which stinging indictments fell professors and teachers, the words of one fatally impacting the rights of another. And here in this mock arbitration, only words, a child’s words, again reminiscent of The Children’s Hour, malicious gossip ruining the lives of school marms. Words as thin as the air through which they travel but strong enough to topple regimes as we watched in Egypt recently.

One arbitrator noted that young children idealize their teachers, until they know better. Here too a bias, but sadly a contemporary one.

So here I sat, amazed and shocked by this panel, their perspectives on teaching and teachers in today’s society.

I must admit my first response to this presentation which I heard performed, not read, was to condemn a teacher for indoctrinating her students, but then I withheld judgment because:

1. In a Post post-modern world, our natural inclination should be to listen to the victim’s story, to undo the harm a Modernist attitude has done to exult unthinking adherence to collective thinking; and rather now, to consider diversity of major and minor religions;

2. Consider the teller of the tale, reflecting on who and why the teller is telling his narrative and what factors have impacted on this person, child or not. But in this case, a child who as a child might be more inclined to fabricate, exaggerate for multiple reasons.

This particular vein of discovery was not permitted during the mock trial, in fact shut down by one of the arbitrators, fearful that the mother might be unfairly cited as reason for her son’s distress. We did not hear if perhaps Benny was being bullied at school? Were both his working parents not available to him? We are told he turns to his rabbi, but this results in only more confusion for the child. So we must take Benny’s confusion at face value, laying the blame totally on this unfortunate educator;

3.Where there has been no documented evidence, mere hearsay rules. So he says/ she says is not contested, even as the words of Benny, the child of the 21st century influenced by social media, apparently holds much more sway than the explanation of his educated teacher who not only imparts the curriculum in an accepted and endorsed 21st manner, but encourages the ethically diverse children in her class to share and critically assess their views. And the teacher, with a Masters Degree whose work has been applauded, not contested.

Wow.

We are in Alice’s rabbit hole where fearful of the imposition of a once predominant world view, we have decided to silence an individual who has spoken, unrepentant, her own truth as one of many truths: tossing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

So, I return to art and silent art galleries where I can discover for myself, judge, and critically consider the stories of the victims. I can turn away from judgments that suggest political correctness in the 21st Century and terribly disparage once again, the one who is seen as different because of their personal convictions.

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An Autumn Gift of Listening

Oct 14. They say the best things in life are free. After living in Toronto and other environs, I know, of course, that is hardly the case. However, the free concert at the Operahouse is an amazing gift to the city. I try to attend several times a year and this week I had decided to hear Joseph Johnson play cello. He did Bach and Britten and it was amazing and compelling.

The amphitheater sets the scene and tone. The ceiling to floor glass windows designed by Diamond architects situates the viewer onto a scene of everyday life of buses, scurrying peeps who have no thought that they are being observed, the colours of their early fall coats dashing and weaving into a pattern of hurry. At my eye level, straight ahead if I glance above Johnson’s entranced body, there are  the thick impenetrable   branches of the Law Society. Now in their faded fall greenery they set the stage for thoughtful somber thoughts. Johnson also lost in deep cello reverie, eyes shut, is deeply enclosed in his music. Hisleft hand, a moving spectre,that seemed not really attached to his body, as if an alien powerfully moving up and down the instrument’s chords. 

Bach is a study in patterns. Once I read a book by Douglas Hofstadter that discussed  Bach, Escher and Godel,  analyzing the repetition and brain patterns that all three hold in common and the commonality of their neurology. Much like Escher’s staircases that move impossibly up and down at the same time and into a variety of dimensions, Bach is a triumph of embroidering notes in an impossible didactic manner. My mother said his music drove her crazy as my father played it over and over again in his shop, maybe trying to parse the difficulty of his phrasing. Not at all mathematical, I rather enjoy it myself: clean, precise and orderly. And from the look of Glenn Gould, it suited him perfectly !

But for me, the Britten regned supreme. A third suite, the result of a bet between  Shoshtakovich and Britten and written in 1971, Johnson explained that after Britten died, Shoshtakovich  never played it again. It is a magical piece, so moody and diverse in techiques. Johnson explained to the audience how each part of the suite would work: the intro, the march, the canto, the flight of bug-like sounds that took him six months to learn!, the fugue, Britten’s take on the Bach piece. All intricate elements working to make the sum of the parts more incredible than each one by itself.

You listen in different ways.

I listen as I watch the artist move over his/her instrument, awed at how the left and right brain must work together while engaged in vastly different acts: the bowing and the pizzicato, co-ordinating flawlessly. When often I cannot even co-ordinate my own walking and thinking, and trip over my feet as my thoughts fly off past my bruised knees. A musician’s mastery is awe-inspiring and I reflect that it is likely that few  endure Altzheimers  because of the numerous synapses and connections that have formed and endured in the course of their lives. How intricately beautiful must their brains be in frozen cross sections.

I listen while looking over University Avenue at the bustle and movement that appears almost dreamlike with the music entwined but not the star in my thoughts.

But I listen best  with my eyes shut and my body takes over as I sway and internalize the music that moves me on visceral and emotional levels. Some sounds replicate my breath, the in and out contractions  of my lungs, other chords move up and down my spine, encouraging me to sit taller,stacking my vertebra like precarious diamonds ,  but then I sway further from side to side, knocking them a- Kimble. Others loaded with meaning resonating in my heart and I feel those moist droplets in the corners of my eyes. 

I listen to discern what Johnson has taught us about the sections that will not be differentiated by bands of non-playing. He has asked for a group cough as silence is important to the performance of the piece.  I exhale so deeply that I catch some phlegm in my throat that necessitates a quiet cough but I force myself to swallow and dissipate the need to break the quiet. I am successful. But the memory of a holocaust film where a suppressed cough choked a child almost causes me to interrupt this perfect performance.

 I feel the music as greens, browns, sienas and somber tones. Once I could see music in a variety of colours called synesthesia, a real condition and I imagine Franz Marc or Kandinsky might have boasted of that sensitivity. Sadly, I no longer see the notes as verdant fluttering streams or outrageous yellows or wavelike blues or dancing reds. I wonder why I have lost that sensation, but I am glad that I am responding as I am today. The performance is reaching deep inside me and when it ends I long for it to endure; it’s not over, I silently beg, inspite of the cessation of sound. A John Cage moment where the sound of silence morphs into the sweet desire for bliss.

I feel so much, so intensely, now not with visualizations or suggestions of imagery. I experience the music and this  is a revelation and something fresh for me. Johnson has taken me to a very new place because the music has pierced and invaded my entity of what I conceive of as me, a me I rather like. 

Perhaps I have begun today in a moody fashion, the weather threathening rain and thoughts of autumn that naturally accompany the ideas of decay, closing down and making ends. I don’t know. We have just passed Thanksgiving and I have reflected on the many gifts I have been given.

But this gift of music is so different, so intimate, only experienced by myself alone. I feel it has been meditative for me, a  time out of time where I have chased away the occasional thoughts that threathened to impose themselves on my listening. So there has been  a purity and thoroughness of this free gift today, a gift that in freeing me from everyday worries has also made me sad, emotional, a vehicle for the cello’s powerful cries.

The price of this free concert is gratitude.

Time and Nao

Yesterday Cathy Tile’s presentation concerned a book by Ruth Ozeki called For the Time Being about a Japanese-American girl named ironically enough Nao ( Now???!). There are actually two stories, one concerning Nao who is a bullied, depressed adolescent who contemplates suicide; and, Ruth living on an island in B.C, the other narrator who happens upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox by the water and is desperate in trying to discover if she can alter/ save/ prevent Nao’s plans. The time lines of Nao and Ruth do not coalesce as Ruth attempts to find out when Nao packed up her lunchbox and how it might have arrived on the shores of BC from Japan.

It is a troubling tale that raises many issues: bullying, displacement, suicide, loneliness, personal and professional success and failure in life. The disorienting factor, however, is time lie and how Ozeki manipulates the reader to believe that Ruth might actually be able to find and save Nao. Time loses its meaning in a linear fashion, expanding and contracting, shaped by our, Ruth’s and Nao’s emotions, pulling all of us into a tangle or a large soup within which we float.

Ruth, herself, does not really draw us in; she is the stooped woman we see wearing a cardigan in a checkout line, eyes focused on the ground to avoid interaction. Nao is the changeling, part Californian- part Japanese searching for friendship but isolated and taunted for her difference and inability to succeed in school and fit in. Her solace comes from her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun who leads by example, espouses peace and provides Nao with a summer of escape from the abuse of her schoolmates. We learn of Nao’s kamikaze uncle who preferred suicide rather than participate in war, her father who suffers because he will not permit his software to be used for killing : all junctures of great stress . And we have Ruth- the writer- who incorporates these lives, these times into her own time, making them part of her own story and altering the course of their trajectories to suggest different resolutions to the endings of these narratives. ( As we perhaps we wish we could, too).

My friend Anne corelated connections with Ian McEwan’s Atonement where time shifts to alter the story: making me think, if only we, too could unwind the narratives of our days and, like old video tapes, slice off parts we did not like, re jumble and change the outcomes of events. I recall watching the plane crashing of 9/11 and thinking for a second, this is only a show on tape. Let’s rewind it and erase it; it’s not real. Cathy Tile briefly referred to Atkinson’s Life after Life, also a play on “what if” the character’s life followed one path then shifted to a second to reveal diverse outcomes. I reflect too on Robert Frost’s Roads Not Taken and how important the choice made a crucial moments is.

I too thought of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton I ,“Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present.

And as we read Ruth’s thoughts, all of the past does become our present. It is for me, a deeply disturbing book, not one easily read. There is much dislocation as both Ruth and Nao grapple with their own stories, trying to establish identities and find places for themselves .It makes one aware of how difficult, even day to day existence can be for ordinary people like Ruth the writer and Nao the school girl.

Jiko the grandmother stands outside of time, calm, unjudging, beaming with a kind of truth that encompasses a godlike understanding and acceptance. I suppose Ruth’s manipulation of the story suggests we can take stories into our own hands and make them better, providing more positive outcomes. This is of course the role of imagination: to light the way out of the darkness of life, yet what is saddening is the back drop of others, the people who make war, make life hideous for little girls, and pilots who would prefer to soar not be forced to shoot. Instead of being able to go about our daily life, smell the flowers and smile openly, our refuge must be in the darkness of our heads where we can choose to write and improve the tale, concocting a better kinder story.

Time especially as we age is a topic we ruminate on. Have we wasted time? What time is remaining and how we can stretch the time that remains into satisfying vignettes to assuage the notion that our time in time may dissipate at any moment. Maybe it is the cool of fall, the twist of the last leaf on the tree, the drooping flowers that remind us of this eternal fact.

The American Landscape and Canada

I have often stated that I want- at this point- in my life beautiful. San Diego is that. However, arriving in LA for an event, I am confronted with everything I dislike about America. The buildings resemble 14th Century Gothic churches that eventually collapsed because of the competitive desire of the builders to touch the sky,pushing them higher and higher. Hotels here not content to be solo versions of rest and repose combine as the JW Marriott and Ritzcarlton have done here: the second a looming appendage to the first. The Weston sprawls for an entire block. Even restaurants are overly encroaching octopi, presiding over almost entire blocks.

The resurrection of Downtown LA reminds me that in spite of the line of overly heaped bundle buggies toppled here and there that the U.S. desires to be the biggest, and most imposing, stretching upwards to the stars and sideways wide to encompass numerous freeways and acreage. How appropriately had Betsy Ross envisioned their flag in 1776 to have created the symbol that flutters in the breeze!

As a girl in the 60’s who came to LA to visit her cool cousins, I had no sense of America’s expansionism- even though our history classes focused on the Monroe Doctrine or the Manifest Destiny or the Purchase of Louisiana. My cousins’ friends asked if I drove a dogsled to school and if l occupied a teepee. I merely giggled and guffawed at their lack of knowledge of Canadian history. I devoured my first big Mac in California and luxuriated in being away from home, alone, for the first time. I sped through traffic on the back of a motorcycle en route to beaches named Hermosa, lazing all day in the scorching sun. I was driven about in cars, even rising before my aunt and uncle, to trudge up some hill to watch the sun glisten through the smog.

Back then I cared little for politics ( although I still maintain that the play in politics is about power only using the issues as excuses for self-aggrandizement, cynic I may be ). If I was considered an oddity as a homegrown product of Canada as a visitor to the US back then, so be it. It played smally into my hedonistic teenage romp. Only later, did I realize that love for Canada is in deed bred in the bone. Much much later, when I noted that turning on a tap in a faraway place yielded beautiful drinkable water did I pause to consider that Canada was truly spectacular in many ways. And its vistas humbling.

Just last weeks at a Blue Jay game, I watched as a family struggled to contain a large man in a wheel chair. It was obvious that he was impaired, likely from a debilitating disease that had robbed him from not just standing unaided, but even keeping his head from bobbing this way and that, his glasses attached by a thick elastic to the back of his head. When our National Anthem played, he immediately leapt from his seat, terrifying his family that in his attempt to “stand on guard for thee” he might just topple over the glass barrier. How deeply does our passion for our country reach- and even when we cannot control our limbs, that we somehow jump to attention to demonstrate our feeling for this country.

Canada is my home. I applauded John Chretien’s refusal to align itself with the US, demanding real proof that were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . We stood alone. Our health care system demonized by US is still a thing of beauty, equalizing both rich and poor. We like to pride ourselves on being different from the Americans, that we hold different values. Sadly, however and over the ages, we too have looked the other way, on issues of immigration our statesmen touting none is too many or some such nonsense to crises of real life and death matters, opening and closing borders, separating serious practical concerns from theoretical ones. And in terms of our environment, while 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment, we have not enshrined it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, demurring that the price of enforcing it would bankrupt us.

Yet, we accepted same sex marriages, allowed women and their doctors to determine necessary abortions, promoted cannabis for the very ill, and are working towards operationalizing euthanasia. I reflect that no country is perfect and we ride on a tide of politicians who drive our boat into uncharted or fearful waters.

Yet here back in LA, it is the display of these ridiculously high and monstrously wide buildings that flash silver and reflect the sun right into my eyes that gives me cause for complaint. At the same time, I love the new Disney concert hall designed by our own Canadian Frank Gehry with its unbelievable shapes and curve. Just today I read that his fascination of the curvilinear was likely engendered by the fish kept alive by his grandmother for their Sabbath dinner. In Toronto.

I laud the Getty museum with its staggering art collection as a tribute to the good of some Americans. Yet I am uncomfortable with the showiness, the lack of humility and the bravado of the Towers of Babel that symbolize the presence, the riches of a country where at the bases of these edifices homeless people sleep in their dank hoodies curled like the tendrils of ferns. In my head is the ignorance of a Donald Trump insulting, bold, brash and so embarrassing allowed to compete for the highest position in the land. And the right to bear guns, well, that is an unbearable story.

It all confuses me: the display of power, who grabs more, who displays better?.

Later as we anticipated the event for which we had come to LA, I admired the dashing hubub of people in tuxes and black lace. We were beginning to worry we would not arrive on time at the Biltmore, lusciously tiled and gilted as the first home to the Oscars. My husband suggested we call Uber and before we knew it, a grey car burst through the entwined mess of traffic permanently stalled in the driveway of the Marriott. The driver who was cordial and accommodating managed to detangle his car and we were off for the short blocks that separated us from the celebration.

Chatting about the rise of Uber, our driver, a dark and handsome young man explained he worked for Uber only part time because he was studying to improve his speech which was very good I, a former English teacher, thought. Carefully and haltingly he responded to our questions, revealing he had no family in LA, that he had come from Syria only on year ago. Reluctant when we continued to question, he said only his flight from his home could be a book: he had swam from Turkey to Greece and the United Nations had allowed him to stay.

Always wanting to accept and believe, but sure there is a story behind the tantalizing tidbit, we respected his privacy and did not press. He was grateful to be in the country, hoping once his English had improved to follow his dream- of all things- into marketing. This revelation drew me back to a night at the Saigon hotel at the Rooftop Bar overlooking Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture where I considered the irony of a disastrous war fought for values that were in not in sync with the economy or desires of people.

I’m not sure of how to think about Syria. I want it black and white and people allowed to live and thrive in democracies so their lives are about good choices. I pondered how this Uber driver had afforded his car which he proudly proclaimed he owned. I wondered if he would meet some sympathetic beautiful Valley girl who would support his American Dream.

My thoughts on America are always tied to the Gatsby story and the image of the green light bouncing off the water. As well I carry with me Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with scenes of rotten decay that twisted the dream. Yet here in the flesh was not just a dreamer but a young man who through dint of determination was wrestling a new future for himself, fulfilling the dream.

Of course I cannot say to what lengths he had gone : had he bribed? lied? Or merely kissed his parents goodbye as they urged him to leave in the dead of the night? My imagination emboldened by my knowledge of the Holocaust and the fiction of heroic movies set my mind racing. Yet in the front seat, neat and quiet spoken was a person who like Tennyson’s Ulysses had striven…not to fail.

Impressive.

Almost a year later, the newspapers present us with the child washed ashore, an unsuccessful attempt for him and his family to achieve a safe harbor, his dreams dashed, and Canada at a pivotal point .

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