With Hemingway

Ambos Mundos

Italy, Spain, Cuba – half the world is filled with the places that he appropriated simply by mentioning them. In Cojimar, a little village near Havana where the solitary fisherman of ”The Old Man and the Sea” lived, there is a plaque commemorating his heroic exploits, with a gilded bust of Hemingway. In Finca de la Vigia, his Cuban refuge, where he lived until shortly before his death, the house remains intact amid the shady trees, with his diverse collection of books, his hunting trophies, his writing lectern, his enormous dead man’s shoes, the countless trinkets of life from all over the world that were his until his death, and that go on living without him, with the soul he gave them by the mere magic of his owning them.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Meets Ernest Hemingway

Last week I was fortunate once again to travel to the island of Cuba and visit the Ambos Mundos hotel and bar that once housed Ernest Hemingway before he purchased and moved to his estate Finca de la Vigia. His first Cuban home, Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511 at the hotel in the heart of Old Havana.

Havana Daytrip

When I graduated from university, my sister and I spent the following summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the Ozark foothills, and made a pact to read nothing but Hemingway for the balance of our time at the camp and en route back to Vancouver. He and I shared a birthday (July 21), and as a creative writing student I had learned from professors with deep affections for authors I hadn’t yet digested: among them Hemingway, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At the outset of my life beyond school and what promised to be an adventurous summer – my sister and I would leave the summer camp after six weeks in the woods to fly north and road trip across Canada – we seemed to have been presented a fitting venue to finally set teeth to Papa’s ouvre.

I had started For Whom the Bell Tolls before M. got off the plane with her copy to To Have and to Have Notand we marched forward from there:

I finished For Whom in a tent in Molena, Georgia, at a National Certification School for the Boy Scouts.

A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa were read mostly near the scout camp pool in Damascus, Arkansas.

I read To Have and to Have Not in the tent that was my home that summer.

Islands in the Stream went down riding the train from Montreal to Toronto.

There were others, of course: The Sun Also Rises, Old Man and the SeaA handful of short stories: “The Killers,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and others. And by the time we crossed the continental divide, Hemingway’s protagonists and prose had enveloped the colour and tenor of our adventure.

View from Ambos Mundos

At twenty two years old, and newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, our summer in the woods and the ensuing journey home represented the discovery of an all-too-enourmous canvas upon which to paint my sister’s and my lives. Saying goodbye to intense and short-lived friendships, taking on the struggles of life outdoors, travel, not to mention fears about what lie ahead in terms of what I would do with my college education, Hemingway’s plots and conflicts provided a matter-of-fact commitment to the rough, sad, beauty of life.

In Niagra Falls, on the first afternoon of our trip, we found just more than $117 in our shared savings account, and more than 3000 kilometers between us and home.

Outside of Thunder Bay we drove into the darkening night and creepy dirt-road northern towns looking for a place to pitch our tent.

And upon arriving home, we learned that our mother had been diagnosed with cancer (which she would eventually beat).

Each of these difficulties was embraced with Hemingway’s words ringing in our ears: “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.” And as we crested the rocky mountains and entered again the lush and coastal climes of British Columbia, we had come to see ourselves as characters as large in life as the continent we had just crossed. There was little need to express this grandeur in hyperbole or poetry, however; the stark terms of Hemingway’s words created a notion of quiet heorism that was somehow the least any of us could do with our minute lives.

Papa's CornerYears before I would begin teaching a high school course in philosophy, Ernest offered a view on the good life I could embrace: “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

In the years since I’ve been guided by other artists, and other authors: Bob Dylan, Garcia Marquez. Springsteen. But in the spirit of Dylan, “I remember every face, of every man that’s brought me here,” and to stand in Hemingway’s lobby, and turn the knob on the door that he slept behind, is to touch something intangible that has profoundly shaped my life as an adult.

Last fall, I read The Dangerous Summera disappointing visit with an aging author in which his lesser qualities run too close to the surface: his infatuation with the brutal “beauty” of bullfighting, chief among them, perfectly representative of the shortcomings in his work around his own image, as well as masculinity and misogyny. But even while acknowledging these shortcomings, the ripples that he made with his mind in the world demand to be reckoned with, if only for me personally as someone who his work  has profoundly touched and influenced.

Sipping an icy lemonade in the lobby bar surrounded by pictures of a formal idol, a depressed man (along with fellow 21st’er Robin Williams) with whom I share a birthday, what he had created in his mind’s eye and invoked in my own imagination became real once more.

I was able to breathe its air, and touch its humid surfaces. To know that it and the life I had conceived in my mind as a young man are in fact still real.

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

On Jack’s 92nd Birthday

Jack Kerouac would be ninety-two today (March 12th), a birthday the New Republic has celebrated with a Reconsideration originally published in December of 1972. Noting a recent change in fashion that “left Kerouac’s work inert and his legend inactive,” William Crawford Woods set out to devour the scope of the author’s “one vast book” of a life in literature, discovering (in Dharma Bums)

Kerouac’s special grace—which is, at his best, to shower mindful tenderness on the crummy specifics of the day-to-day. It’s a grace given no- where more freely than in this book, where the writer’s later bleaker vision (“Why else should we live but to dis- cuss . . . the horror and terror of all this life . . .”) is crowded off the page by animal enjoyment. The uniform celebration of food, sex, art and exercise that is the core of the book suggests the intellectual sensuality that was the core of the Beat esthetic: poems and women, both to be made.

This past summer I made a point of rereading On the Road more than ten years since I discovered it as an undergraduate, and was struck with the same sense of energy:

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.

Woods points out that Jack’s legacy is rightly obscured by rising tide that drowned modernity’s brief infatuation with “spontaneous prose,” noting that:

Kerouac, by subscribing to so strict a program, had made himself into the one thing he professed himself to be at war with: an academic from the start. Another novelist might discover his materials and methods painfully from book to book, but Kerouac came with a design that only genius could save from formula, and I think we will see that that salvation was not forthcoming. For what the author did was write the same book eight, 10, a dozen times, and in the end his “spontaneous prose” was shuffled from volume to volume in an unspontaneous manner.

But as I discovered this summer, “I could have had worse 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.” He is, Woods reminds us today on what would be Jack’s 92nd birthday, “the kind of unanonymous writer to whom some of us have a specific special debt.”

Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment

Untitled

As part of my personal learning project in #TieGrad’s studies I’ve been guided in my efforts to frame my learning – as well as the intentionality of creating my classroom spaces – by  delving into educational research surrounding topics of interest this semester. Aligning neatly with my opportunity this term to be teaching Philosophy 12 as an open course, my research concerns have been epistemological, ethical, and social-political; through many of my readings, the theme of student ownership and empowerment offered through a variety of learning opportunities constitutes a democratic necessity.

The act of learning itself is presented as a requisite component in bringing about greater human freedom.

There are two foundational texts I’ve taken on this semester, both of which create the progressive framework of many faculties of education in North America:

While Dewey’s tome may be seen to fall short for reasons critics have long-outlined as failings of his work, the necessity of public education as a means of cultural survival is an idea that resonates with me for many of the reasons he outlines. For Dewey, education seeks to achieve balance between the contradiction of its dual purpose:

  • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
  • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

Freire, while not offering a perfect system by any means, offers a similarly passionate characterization of education as an ongoing emancipatory process through which teachers and students engage in learning that resolves the power dynamic between them. His vision of education is rooted in similar sentiments, that:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

Each’s vision of education is one of necessity, and one which holds the potential to increase the freedom and equality of opportunity for all as its ideal. Education’s role in delivering on democracy’s promise is rooted in the critical thought Michel Foucault uses to define the Enlightenment, which he says should:

“…be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

This semester I have come to believe more and more that all education is citizenship education. All education should be concerned with the Project of Enlightenment and the search for greater justice that it entails.

And I do admit that it is encouraging to note here that we spend a great deal of time incorporating ideas of “social responsibility” and “justice” and “democracy” into learning outcomes, core competencies and school codes of conduct. Ensuring that the education system’s explicit messaging system – The Curriculum™ – reinforces these ideas is an excellent place to start.

But if we are serious about cultivating “lifelong learners” capable of delivering on the promises of the Enlightenment, and to guard against our own democracies falling prey to those who would subvert their intent for private or minority gain and exclusion (I’ll let you decide who you imagine in that role), we must have the courage to address the observation that many of modern schooling’s implicit messages communicate to young people (and teachers alike) messages about power, agency, and citizenship that can be seen as contradictory to the basic values of learning and progress.

In his popular essay, Immanuel Kant begins his response to the question, What is Enlightenment? by stating that:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

It is within this notion of the intellectual tradition that I strive to frame my own notions of pedagogy and schooling, and with much time spent documenting my range of practice in carrying out what I’ve defined as my own efforts in citizenship education, I have collected here a variety of papers that have shaped the development of my underlying theory these last few months.

Epistemology and Theories of Knowledge

The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation | Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Information, Knowledge & Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology & Education in a Digital Age | Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters and Michelle Knoble

“In an age which fetishizes information, knowledge may seem either to be passe, or in need of a serious reframing. What follows is an attempt to identify some areas and concerns we believe need close attention in the context of burgeoning use of new communications and information technology, including their rapid incorporation into school-based teaching and learning.”

 Kant and the Project of Enlightenment  | Curtis Bowman

“…the development of a system of human freedom, both in theoretical and practical matters. Thus we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason; custom and authority are no court of appeal for theoretical matters. And we are to lead lives in pursuit of autonomy in which the chief goal of human action is the realization and maximization of human freedom (understood as self-imposed lawful behaviour). In other words, we are to be our own masters in both theory and practice.”

Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference? | Edith Ackermann

Psychologists and pedagogues like Piaget, Papert but also dewey, Freynet, Freire and others from the open school movement can give us insights into:

      1. How to rethink education
      2. Imagine new environments, and
      3. Put new tools, media, and technologies at the service of the growing child.

They remind us that learning, especially today, is much less about acquiring information or submitting to other people’s ideas or values, than it is about putting one’s own words to the world, or finding one’s own voice, and exchanging our ideas with others.

False Dichotomies: Truth, Reason and Morality in Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Contemporary Social Sciences | Paul R. Brass

Even more distressing in the latter discipline is the celebratory character of so much work that takes for granted the existence of democracy and freedom in our world, and hails their extension to the rest of the world in processes of so-called democratization. It never recognizes the need for anything but reform without displacement, even if it ever makes any policy suggestions. It never offers a thoroughgoing critique. Before revolutionary action can be proposed, revolutionary thought is required.

Citizenship Learning & the Public Sphere

Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions | Gert Biesta

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics | Daniel Schugurensky

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

Education in a global space: the framing of ‘education for citizenship’ | Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta, Greg Mannion & Hamish Ross

“…a form of citizenship which is predicated on critical political activism, rather than upon social compliance. If we think of citizenship as something that constantly needs to be achieved (and this can never be guaranteed), then we need to emphasize the process character of citizenship.

Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education | Hugo Monteiro, Pedro Daniel Ferreira

Like social and cultural elements, schools have special responsibilities towards diversity. To affirm the richness of this diversity transcendent to the apparent unity of the whole becomes a particular task in public schools. There the “right to education” established in the Declaration of Human Rights becomes a particular challenge in the response to each singularity that actually composes universality. This is one of the political/educative roles of an education that does not deny or avoid conflict but actually underlines its presence as a particular and manageable value.

Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning | Gert Biesta

it is no longer so that we need to learn – need to discover some truth about ourselves and our condition – in order to become emancipated. If there is something to learn in relation to emancipation, so we might conclude, it is about what we can learn from engagement in the always open and always uncertain experiments of transgression and dissensus.

The Summer Book Project

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco Magazine

Photo by Thomas Hawk (click image to read the interesting history of this photograph)

For a formative period in my youth, I was made of books and words. Half a continent from home at the end of my adolescence, I filled the blank slate of my life in Arkansas with the stories and poetry of the literary zeitgeist of people like Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison or Douglas Coupland.

Such was the impact and guidance of these written voices, I set out at twenty to contribute to the world the verbose favour my idols had given to me. I changed my major – from Biology to English – and began a journey inward, striving to explore and give name to that singular storm of experience and mind that was mine alone, and make something of the intangible mystery of life.

I wrote, and wrote. And wrote.

Journals, essays, stories, poems. Novels, nonfiction, songs and sharpie-scribbled graffiti on fliers and scraps of paper around my campus.

The arc of those years – from leaving home at eighteen for Arkansas, and returning home more than five years later – is plotted in ragged journals, floppy disks, printed pages and the highlighted passages of a few hundred books. And while I’m still very much the young man who worshipped Kerouac and Kundera, and Kafka, I’m more and more aware of the tuning of new pages into a different sense of adulthood than I’ve yet known.

I wonder what the thirty-two year old me would see in the self of ten years ago, and have been toying with an idea that might give some sense of an introduction between them: over the next ten weeks, I’m planning to go back through a few of those seminal texts, see if I can dig up my own corresponding writings of when I was reading them, and reflect on what the intervening years have wrought.

To keep the project focused and attainable, I’ve picked three books to re-read this summer, all of which lent considerable influence to my young mind:

I read On the Road during Christmas Break at home in the year 2000, Immortality while working at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the Ozark Mountains in 2003, and One Hundred Years of Solitude sometime toward the end of 2004. Roughly coinciding with my time in university (1999-2004), I’m excited at the prospect of using at least some of my vacation time this summer looking back on those years when my reality was written in my own words, and the words of others.

“…totally uncharted territory.”

#IntroGuitar Performance Day

Something that I haven’t given as much blog attention here as I would have liked so far this semester is the vibrant community that has sprung up around our school’s Introduction to Guitar class. Having had students post their work regularly to a wiki site in past years, I wanted to incorporate some of the design lessons I learned in #Philosophy12 and create a site that could function as a hub of creation, collaboration, and community that would serve not only our school’s face-to-face guitar students, but also offer wayfinding musicians on the open web a place to play, learn, and offer their own expertise to one another.

Alan Levine nailed it with this description:

…it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.

And while I think the course has always functioned this way as a ‘closed’ system (even though we have shared our exploits on Youtube, #ds106radio, and other places), the energy and inspiration that our open online participants have so far brought to the class has increased the creative combustibility of the group by several orders of magnitude. There are folks in Japan, Ontario, Australia, Singapore, and even Ontario-azona strumming along with #IntroGuitar lessons and assignments, sharing stories of their instruments, their struggles (and triumphs) of playing music, and making meaningful musical connections with the face-to-face students who meet daily in our school’s choir room through videos, blog comments, and listening to performances in class.

One such connection that has been working its way through the course community began as a poem shared by a student of Jabiz Raisdana, in Singapore.

Having made some trans-oceanic songs written with Jabiz over the years, I opened up a Google Document and began sanding the poems edges and syllables with some chords and a basic melody. I recorded this so that folks could follow up with what I had made out of Michelle’s orginal poem, and posted the works on Twitter and the #IntroGuitar blog.

Over the weekend, Nathan John Moes continued to work with the chords and Michelle’s lyrics and added this version of the song that has been stuck in my head since Sunday night.

Take a listen. Seriously, wow.

Which all would have been amazing, right? A poem gets posted late at night (I might be adding that piece to the narrative…) on a student blog in Singapore, and a week later it’s spawned a song that has been amended, added to, and recorded by a few teachers in British Columbia.

But this ball is still rolling, still bouncing.

Coming full circle, Jabiz spent this past Saturday morning recording a new incarnation of the song (version III now, if you were counting), and so did Colin Jagoe, in Ontario.

Of his work putting the song and the recording together, Colin said:

...this is totally uncharted territory for me.

Totally uncharted territory, for a guy who isn’t even getting a grade or credit for the course and – beyond that – has been playing guitar for more than ten years.

And yet still, the ball bounces, and rolls. This morning Leslie joined the party all the way from Lima, Peru, Camrose, Alberta, offering the fifth (!) incarnation of the poem accompanied by her ukelele.

But this is likely not the end of this particular story, with chapters, verses and tomes yet to be discovered.

Maybe by you?

Update: 

Back in Singapore, Keri-Lee Beasley has added some stellar vocal harmonies to Nathan’s track. Check it out:

A Kernel is Hidden in me…

PM TALONS Photoset on Flickr 


Fresh from the PM TALONS’ fall retreat, I woke up Monday morning with a tweet from my colleague in Singapore, Jabiz Raisdana, inviting me and fellow writers, teachers and thinkers to run with a post he shared with his class of grade eights at UWC:

I would love to see these words transformed, re-thought and remixed into some kind of art project. I know there are some amazing musicians, writers and artists amongst you; do these words inspire you to draw, sing, create? This post is like Caine’s Arcade, in that I hope it moves you in some way to create. Consider it another seed that I have planted. I will wait patiently and hope that perhaps a few trees may grow.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hesse quote made a perfect union with some of the pictures I took while the TALONS were journaling on our three day jaunt through the British Columbian woods, where Jabiz’ own words had actually served as a meditating and writing prompt on Thursday afternoon. Before sending the group on a solo walk around the back half of Hicks Lake, I played the TALONS the first half of a song I wrote out of one of Jabiz’ poems and told them to “immerse oneself in the blossoming awareness of the moment,” and that we would meet up on the opposite shore where I would play them the second verse and we would settle ourselves to do a little writing (where I snapped the above pic).

That he would have a follow up quotation for us on Monday morning is unsurprising, of course, because this is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from my online colleagues, these folks – some of whom, like Jabiz, I’ve never met face-to-face – who are here in our classroom from time to time whether on these blogs or in the local woods: teachers, students, learners, friends.

Port Moody Youth Arts Festival Songwriting Workshop


A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.

I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.

The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.

Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.

As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.

The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.

I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project,  the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.

They all rose mightily to the occasion.

Family Legend

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Campire Stories

A little twist on the Family Legend assignment from the Daily Create let me bring this neighbourhood legend to the Camp Magic Macguffin campfire. 

They had come from Burnaby, had the MacDonalds that came to reside on Garcia Court, and beyond the neighbouring suburb were from points across the breadth of Canada and back into Europe. Both branches of the family we knew reached the old countries of England and Scotland eventually, but had each traced vastly different routes across Canada to the coast.

Mr. MacDonald’s family had splintered out of a line of Joneses in Ontario and settled in southeastern British Columbia near the American border where towering mountains are ringed by lingering smog of a half-century’s smeltering. Mr. MacDonald’s father had worked in that smelter, and he and three siblings were raised in a narrow two-story house near their elementary school. The family lived above the gouge of the Columbia River and knew well the hoards of river moths that owned the dusks and dawns of summer with a singular and biblical tenacity.

It has struck me each time I’ve heard it told that Mr. MacDonald never passes over the subject of his hometown in conversation without mentioning these moths. His eyes sharpen and he pointedly engages each person within eye and earshot in his narration; there is no mistaking the onus he places on the regular emergence of the hovering pests.

“You have to drive with your windshield wipers on,” I have seen him marvel. “And the town hides itself indoors, sure to seal every window and door – even though you could at best keep only ninety percent of them out!”

Listeners cringe at this image, and Mr. MacDonald relishes their discomfort. “Oh yeah!” He often repeats important details for effect, stalling and indulging brief cul de sacs and dead ends before continuing with the story. These productions never seemed scripted until I began to hear these various narratives told and retold by Mr. MacDonald, and then also by others on the street, word for word.

This particular story of the onslaught of minuscule beasts wobbling as they rise from the Columbia River Valley inevitably meanders to the recounting of the childhood of Mr. MacDonald’s youngest brother, David. (No one fails to mention, in this telling, that Brandon bore such a resemblance to his father’s brother that once Brandon had reached the age of fourteen, they were christened “DavidBrandon” for the duration of several family gatherings that spanned almost a decade.)

It is told that as a child David never harboured the town’s apprehension for the river moths, and would await their nightly coming tide at the crest of the bluffs above the river. Standing bare-chested toward the setting sun, he would watch the air thicken above the flat pools on the Columbia and hear the million hatchlings popping onto air. The hum would drive in a cloud toward him on the hill and his heart reportedly raced as the million moths reached and engulfed him before sweeping over the bluffs like a humming wave. They would fly through his hair and glue their wings to the sweat of his arms and legs, and he would let the ones that could land and begin to crawl, trekking his skin and covering him from head to toe. Only once the night’s flight had subsided would he walk the steep grade of the hillside and descend slowly into the freezing depths of the river. The moths that resisted at the surface of the water would come unstuck once submerged, and David would rise from the water clean, washed with the first boilings of the next night’s hatch.

I heard this story for the first time at a cul de sac barbeque at the end of my driveway. Mr. MacDonald had put his silver beer down to do the telling, and as many as fifteen of us looked on as he reached the dramatic finish, painting his brother as a shining martyr of these moths. Perceiving that I was perhaps the only one present who had yet to hear this tale, he nodded to me for what I assumed was my appraisal of the tale.

I said meekly, “Didn’t anyone ever go out there with him?”

Mr. MacDonald laughed and said, “DavidBrandon always wanted to know the same thing.”

TALONS Hunger Games

Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and fix their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even. Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager.

Macleans

In some ways, I guess it is natural that the TALONS class would incorporate into its evolving storytelling and myth-making the influences of dystopian literature, fan fiction, and the classic zombie film. In the background of the class’ study of novels, history, and current events, math and science, the approaching Adventure Trip (constituting the class’ Leadership 11 Final Exam), the class blog has become the setting for unfolding video, and literary riffs on the classroom setting, as well as TALONS characters enacting both a five part series of zombie films and an epic, multi-authored fan fiction bringing the Hunger Games to the afternoon corhort.

There is no avoiding the violent nature of the Hunger Games, and each post begins with a variation of the following caveat:

(Warning: The following post depicts scenes of violence, using fictionalized examples of real people. Please do not read if you might find any of this offensive  / disturbing. This narrative is for educational purposes only. Any references and ideas taken from the Hunger Games trilogy are the strict property of the brilliant Suzanne Collins).

But what I find remarkable about the TALONS versions of each story – and perhaps what constitute each genre’s appeal with today’s young people – is an awareness and an articulation of the human qualities that perpetuate our survival in desperate times, whether in real life, a zombie movie, or young adult fan-fiction. Each are excellent examples of using an existing structure of genre or plot-line to tell a story that is uniquely personal.

Check them out (and don’t miss the informative ‘Legend‘ to help see into the intricacies of the class dynamic at work in the story):

Welcome to the First Annual TALONS Hunger Games!” Part I

The platforms stilled, each tribute squinting in the sudden light, trying to adjust to their surroundings. They were standing in the middle of a field of grass, an enormous ancient stone city before them, practically crumbling before their eyes. Behind them was a forest, thick with every kind of tree, green and lush with life. The tributes looked around, dazed by the beauty of their surroundings. For a moment, all thoughts of death and murder disappeared out of their heads, but seconds later, the gong sounded and each tribute shot off their platform, scattering in all directions.

There are no friends in the Hunger Games.” Part II

Morning came and Bronwyn wasn’t prepared. She had hardly slept that night after yet another cannon had roared, causing her to wonder who had died this time. She exhaled softly and packed up quickly, sliding down the tree ready for day 2. The moment she hit the ground, she heard the sound of feet running. She ran and leapt behind a bush, peering through and seeing, to her surprise, Leanne. She was standing in the middle of a clearing, holding a badminton racquet. Bronwyn frowned. A badminton racquet? What kind of a cruel trick was that? But suddenly, the small hole Bronwyn had been staring through darkened as someone stood in front of it.

What was that?” Part III

Chelsea climbed up the tree, searching for a place to stay. Sean climbed close behind, trying not to look down. He didn’t know why he had saved Chelsea, but he had. Shaking his head, Sean called up to Chelsea that he had found a branch. Swinging sideways, Sean landed on the branch and pressed himself against the trunk, closing his eyes and listening for any noises. Instead, the anthem played and Sean blinked and looked up at the darkened sky.

I got her with a tree branch. Hell-o, irony.” Part IV

About half an hour later, Alisha was happily roasting several chunks of meat over a spit. She leaned forward and studied them carefully, inspecting them and making sure they were cooked thoroughly. Then, with quick and precise hands, she whipped out a handful of Japanese Yew berries and stuffed them into the meat.

Humming to herself, Zoe loaded up Jonny’s crossbow, and crouched down, lying on her belly and began to aim. Alisha had been right. Only one could win.