#Eminent2016: Why Bob? Why Now?

My goal is to try and stick to some sort of chronological ordering of the aging of Dylan in the images used in the creation of this project. Hence, this young shot of Dylan in his Greenwich Village folk days here at the outset of the project, moving toward his more current iterations as the study progresses.

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

After almost ten years at the helm of the TALONS annual Eminent Person Study, I decided to conduct my own study alongside this year’s classes. These posts will be collected here. 

Why Bob?

They say everything can be replaced

That every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man that brought me here. 1

For a brief moment when I first thought that I would take on the Eminent Person Study, I initially declared my intentions to study Bruce Springsteen. In recent years my musical tastes and affection has leaned heavily toward the Boss, and I would relish the opportunity to delve deeper into his life and rock catalogue. But with Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win I’ve been hearing a lot more Bob, reading various responses to his inclusion as the first musician to be awarded with the literary honour, and been coming reacquainted with my first true love (and one of Bruce’s, to boot).

Before Bruce, and Josh, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there was always only Bob.

Why Now?

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

An artist has to be careful never to really arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you’re in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right. 2

Back when I was a student in an older version of our district’s gifted program – the forerunner to TALONS that operated at Dr. Charles Best Junior High back as far as the late-nineteen seventies – our teachers would occasionally participate in the major projects with us: studying eminent people, or engaging in-depth studies to sing or sew, and creating their own inquiries, findings and meaning alongside us. This always seemed an exceptional example to me of what life might be as an adult: that we might go on, continuing to strive, and learn, and change markedly into our middle and advanced ages. But Q and I, as well as the other TALONS teachers, haven’t much made or had the time to engage in these sorts of pursuits as TALONS teachers in recent years.

It’s true, two of us have completed advanced degrees, a PhD and an MEd between us, and we regularly share our personal and professional struggles and triumphs in blog posts and classroom conversations about the nature of lifelong learning and aspiration. But engage in a project directly alongside our students, we have not.

Additionally, TALONS seems to stand somewhat perched at a crossroads in its continued evolution. Having doubled a few years into our run as a two-teacher, twenty eight student cohort, there are now four teachers and nearly sixty students these days, two of those teachers new to the program this fall; we’ve added courses in the senior grades, and are breaking new trails in Adventure Trips, and other aspects of our learning and organization all the time.

As well, I find myself nearly ten years into my career, with just shy of that time spent facilitating the TALONS learning across a variety of subjects. And with so much change arriving in the TALONS world, I feel compelled this year to strike out a little beyond my own comfort zone as an act of solidarity not only with my grade nine and ten students, but my new teaching partners. Our program is a place where adults as well as adolescents are challenged to grow and develop beyond what they may have previously thought  possible, and to be joining such a juggernaut of an ecosystem as ours must be an intimidating prospect.

Hopefully some of this process extends an invitation to them to join the ranks of public learning that makes our program unique, both for what it teaches the young people among us as well as those of us beyond the school.

But… why Bob?

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. 3 

Around the time I was graduating from university, I had begun to play guitar with the idea that I might be able to expand the scope of my expressive capabilities into music. I would be earning my degree in Creative Writing (with a minor in French and an additional honours thesis on civil society and ideology around a Boy Scout summer camp that I had spent two summers interning for), and had written a roughshod novel during school, along with hundreds of other essays, newspaper columns, letters, and stories. But like Kurt Vonnegut wrote once, “virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” I had always been drawn to music, to the images and melodies that lit fires in undiscovered places in myself. And so I set about exploring my existing taste and experience in music through a borrowed acoustic guitar; when I moved home to Vancouver I bought my own and started unpacking the history of popular music from Elvis on forward.

I listened to the Beatles incessantly, and in chronological order. I watched the Anthology documentaries and began to untangle the thread of blues and rock that ran through Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. I began to see the tightly woven threads of the culture that connected Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg to Jim Morrison, and back to Robert Johnson. I’d had some experience with each of these threads in isolation: I’d studied the Beats ravenously as an undergraduate; that hasty youthful novel written in my third year bore an inscription from one of Jim Morrison’s poems; and I could talk for hours about the complimentary and divergent aspects of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ early aesthetics.

Untitled

Then my dad bought the Martin Scorsese documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, and everything became obsolete. Here was the Rosetta Stone to synthesize and decode the American spirit that unified the story I’d been untangling for years. Here was an artist who defied category or classification, who by the time you had decided what to call him had morphed into something else entirely, who seemed to know his own voice and gifts so well for never claiming to understand them so much as the fact that he would never cease to explore their potential. With Dylan there were no lines, no titles, no boundaries, and I wanted that for myself.

I wanted, as I still do, to find what my vision and voice can see and say: to expand beyond what I’ve previously thought possible, and to create new ways of being for others to follow, which is Why Bob, Why Now.

  1.  “I Shall Be Released”
  2. No Direction Home
  3. Songwriters on Songwriting

On the Run

Start

On Saturday I ran my first race in more than ten years, finishing third in the Coast Mountain Trail Series‘ 13 kilometer Run Ridge Run between Sasamat and Buntzen Lakes in Anmore, BC. Having explored the trails of Bert Flinn Park above Burrard Inlet during the last year, I stumbled onto the CMTS a few weeks ago when a hike above the Sea to Sky Gondola coincided with the inaugural Sky Pilot Race in September. And after floating the idea to my recent running buddy, R (who ran his first marathon last spring), we signed up to compete in the shorter of the two courses being run Thanksgiving weekend (the other being a 25km tour of the Diez Vista Trail in addition to the ridge-line connecting the two lakes).

KM3

Having grown up on tracks and cross-country courses since I was eleven, I rode an athletic scholarship to Arkansas when I was seventeen. Down south I enjoyed a few successes, briefly holding my school’s 800m record, and was a member of a few national and conference champion relay and cross-country teams. Eventually though I ‘retired’ on the heels (or, shins, rather) of successive seasons ruined by injuries, and threw myself headlong into my academic studies, fortunately earning a scholarship there that allowed me to finish school in Arkansas and discover the path(s) that would lead me into teaching, outdoor education, and the intersecting life’s passions that have sustained me in the years since.

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

With this all making its way about my mind on those runs, and increasingly in between, it was only a matter of time before I toed the start-line of a footrace once more. Because while I’ve done a lot of things in the time since I left the sport, many of which have opened my eyes, challenged me beyond words, or led me to new personal achievements or experiences, nowhere is the essence of a personal challenge more literally waged than in a race.

Snow Run

And if a race, why not a grueling tour of the local watershed?

Why not put the trouble of travel by foot to the rigors of the British Columbian coast?

Dirt, and granite.

Slippery cedar roots climbing incomprehensible inclines.

R and I paid our entry fees and scouted the course a few weeks before race weekend with equal parts excitement and giddy fear that the experiment might go horribly awry, that we would be sandbagged by the hills, or wind up wrestling one another to not shuffle in dead last. On a second trial of the course, a week before the Big Day, we became more familiar with the rigors of the Run Ridge Run, and talked about where we would conserve our energy, where we would try to push the pace, a race plan we followed almost exactly – if a lot faster than we bargained for – on Saturday.

Run Ridge Run Data

With the excitement of the start and the rush of the departing crowd, our first three kilometers (all relatively flat along the shoreline of Sasamat Lake) were more than a minute faster (each) than in our trials on the course. We bid our time heading up the ridge road, and then steeply up the single track section of trail leading up to the water station, drafting on the pace set by a runner in the 25k race. Cresting the hill, we recovered and descended briskly to Buntzen Lake, where we were able to log a few quick kilometers along the road before heading straight back up the mountain.

This ascent had been the concern of my pre-race anxieties, much due to our run the week before on the course where I soundly ‘bonked’ on the climb after a hard week of training on the Bert Flinn trails. But with a mostly restful week leading into the race, my legs were burning, but still able to meet the challenge of the steep and technical climbing over roots and rock back up to the ridge.

“That’s the ball game,” R said when we were (*almost) back to the water station atop the trail returning into the finish, where we pressed the pace against our knees and the soft single-track descending the ridge. Mist was hanging in the trees and beginning to glow with sunshine poking through the clouds.

Plaque

Not having seen anyone since we left our 25k companion on our way up the hill initially, we couldn’t tell where we were in the pack, but were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had arrived within a few minutes of the 13k winner, and come in third and fourth separated by only a few seconds.

In addition to the third place plaque and a pair of DryMax socks, I was also unofficially awarded “first place in the rocking beard division” by the MC.

Having arrived and warmed up in teeming rain, I drove home in the sunshine hooked (again) on racing.

On dipping a toe…

Reading...

Part of my summer plans to reread a few formative books of my university years. 

It’s been ten years almost since I consciously “outgrew” Jack Kerouac’s singular influence on my young mind. Having long exhausted myself of his optimistic early work, I petered out through Desolation Angels and Big Sur as Jack faded into alcoholism and a sense that, in repetition, the bliss of beat lost its lustre. I grew to think that perhaps this lack of depth was the cautionary tale of the Beats: that a slavish devotion to the sanctity of the Moment can blind us to exploring our future potential.

By the end of university (and since), I was looking for more in my life that Kerouac seemed to hold the blueprints to, and I haven’t looked back on him or the Beats (with the exception of Alan Ginsberg who, by living, has aged along with his work, a lot better) since.

So I might have approached On the Road with some skepticism that what had enraptured my twenty year old mind would convince my accumulated years (rest assured, I hear more judgement of myself here than of Kerouac). But I was immediately swept up in the warm weather freewheeling of the writing, and the fluidity of the early scenes.

Kerouac meets Neal Cassidy, and steels himself for the earliest of his ventures west with $100 in his pocket. From there we are in transport trucks’ cabs, the beds of pickups with nomadic labourers, and sleeping out in the open air on the high plains. It is 1947 and Kerouac and the characters populating these pages are huddled at the hearth of an energy that will come to set America aflame.

Mad Ones

Because even if it will prove eventually fatal, the romanticism, the reverance and revolutionary energy dripping from Kerouac’s descriptions in the early passages has taken me in a way I’m not even sure it did in my early twenties. To reread On the Road all these years later brings with it the expanded awareness of what the book’s ideas wrought in the larger culture, but also a more intimate sense of what notions and self I took from it, and having been running with ever since.

 

One of the things I remember being enamoured with as a young writer – to my benefit and detriment in equal measure, I think –  was Kerouac’s fervent devotion to the creation of a beautiful spontaneous phrase.

 

Kerouac's Rules for Spontaneous Prose

Following America’s Lost Generation authors, Kerouac and the Beats are actors in the literary folk tradition of Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie – little wonder On the Road had such a profound effect on Bob Dylan. Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Prophet

And while it might be easy to write off such sentiments as the definition of youthful idealistic hyperbole, I am still struck with how intoxicating it all is. That I remember reading good chunks of On the Road in the back of a charter bus taking my track team to Iowa lays my own experience on top of Kerouac’s descriptions:

As in a Dream

I forget sometimes that for five years of my life, I existed in a pretty solitary world. True, I was often surrounded by people; but in flying back and forth, bussing across the south and prairie states, running races and finding my way in school an life so far from home, my experience was mine alone and I was writing it in my own mind. With all that such an opportunity afforded me, I could have had wore idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life, all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.

How many times in those years would Kerouac, if not able to offer advice, be able to say he’d been there?

 

I suddenly found myself in the street with no money. My last dollar war gone.” 

“It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but that’s the way it was.” 

And yet how many times would I learn to know what he had been chasing: “The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way”

Having met him again after so many years during these last few days in the first week of summer, it’s a joyful reunion.

Nowhere Everywhere

Theater of Wild

DSC02050 Theater of Wild by Bryanjack

The year before I graduated university, I spent six weeks working as an assistant aquatics director at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, in Arkansas. An internship component of an academic scholarship I had won the previous year, I spent that summer sleeping in a canvas tent under the watchful eye of the Airforce National Guard, who used to use our pool and lakes as laser-target practice for their C-130 bombers, and living immersed in the particular strain of Americana that spends its weekends and vacations marching to chanted troop slogans, saluting the flag and praying before meals.

I had been a transplanted Canadian in the south for three years, running on a track and field scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and had made a place for myself among the urban college scenes of Little Rock and Fayetteville, acquainted myself with Memphis, New Orleanes, and the dirty-vegas facsimile of Tunica, Mississippi. But this was my first prolonged excursion into the wilds outside of town, and after four years in Little Rock, quickly became what I still consider my southern home (I returned to the camp as Aquatics Director the following two summers).

The friends I made in those woods, and the things that the Quawpaw scouting community taught me about myself and the world and my fellow man were a culmination of my university education, and a perfect synthesis of my British Columbian and southern roots, where we would be swimming lengths before dawn in the mist of the pool, and watching heat lighting accompanied by the buzz of cicadas. It is all much more than I can hope to capture in words: a densely peopled time in my life that left such deep marks upon my heart and mind that without any deliberate effort the characters from these stories continue to create my daily life and living.

We’ve talked a lot in TALONS the last few weeks (or I have at least) about the Precious, an unspeakable love and adoration the classroom community passes in held hands and knowing glances, in laughter and tears, a bond and affinity that stems from a flowering seam of wilderness and wild that the Gus Blass Scout Reservation helped light in me those many years ago now, and which I will never forget.