#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 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

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.

The TALONS meet Alec Couros, via Skype

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of TALONS students had the opportunity to visit a classroom at the University of Regina. Professor of Educational Technology Dr. Alec Couros extended an opportunity for classrooms to connect to his, via Skype, so that his class of student-teachers could gain first hand responses to their questions about the use of technology in working classrooms across the globe. Throughout the day classrooms from across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia participated in video chats with Dr. Couros’ students in Saskatchewan, and at 2pm, a select group of TALONS – all of whom blog, Tweet, and live Facebook-savvy lives of “regular” Skyping with Dr. Alec Courosteenagers beyond their academic use of the Internet and computers – contributed first hand knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, and what they would like to see when teachers set out to implement different technology into the classroom. Dr. Couros’ classroom was projected on the wall of Gleneagle‘s office conference room, and the TALONS were broadcast in real time halfway across the country, allowing for shared learning and collaboration newly available to today’s students.