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Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Rui @ 9

September 29th, 2015 (01:48 pm)

Rui, our labradoodle, has turned nine. The book, The Year of Living Doggedly, which chronicles his and my first year together has been out for four years, and it describes events that had happened four years before it came out. In human years that makes him about 63, to the extent that one can translate such things. And yes, there is a distinct change in him that parallels the changes I see in myself, as we become approximately the same age. I write these words at 7:36 pm, and he has just trotted up the stairs to go to bed. He used to stay up later, but didn't we all?

I look back on my anxieties of that first year, my worries about whether that puppy energy could ever by tamed, about whether he was a "bad dog", some punkish urban equivalent of a sheep killer, and they seem hilariously naïve. He was a puppy, and that's what puppies are like. If a friend confided her worries because her 6 month old son couldn't write yet, it would be similar. First dog, new parents: what can you do?

His maturity manifests in a number of ways. He stopped playing with other dogs about four years ago, for the most part. The one exception is puppies who are bigger than him physically. Rui is generally submissive, so we suspect he enjoys dominating bigger dogs, and he can only do that safely if they're younger. At the dog park, he enjoys chasing Pepper, a 14 months old great Dane. He always preferred people to dogs, but while he'll enthusiastically greet anyone who comes to our door, he becomes uninterested in them in a few minutes. Happily, he rarely leaps up any more; non dog-people used to seem displeased by a 30 kilogram dog leaping onto them, even if it was affectionately. Stuffed toys, which he used to tear at until they were completely destroyed now warrant only a few minutes attention, and then are discarded.

But from the beginning, before Diana and I had even come to live with Rui, I'd had a dream. That was of being able to walk with a dog off leash, calling him when I needed to, not worrying that he'd run off. And that's come to happen, though not where there are cars, or houses. Rui retains his curious disposition, and will happily try to learn what’s inside any open door, which is how I have made a number of new friends with whom I share a common alleyway. Ella, a four year old who lives three doors south, came shyly to our door last week and asked if she could give Rui a dog treat. That was very kind of her, as her first meeting with Rui had come when he dashed through the garage in which her mother was working, ran across the backyard and into the house, grabbed one of her stuffed dolls, and dashed back out of the house, “like a Navy Seal on a mission”, as Ella’s mother admiringly noted.

So Rui and I walk together on paths through parks, and in Toronto ravines. Rui has always been benign towards nature, and has become more so at nine. He doesn't chase squirrels or birds, and has never shown aggression to any one, so I don't have to worry about what he might do. He might eat something disgusting, or lie down in mud, but he is a dog, and I've come to accept that is what they do.

He has become a delightful companion. He has expectations of me: there is a time for food, and a time for walks. Should I stray outside of the acceptable bounds of either he will come and stare intently at me, till I remember and do what I am expected to do. But he rarely barks, unless he wants to be let in and the door is closed, or a stranger is arriving. He is an easy dog to be with, and he accepts that humans are in charge without resentment.

Rui and I both have a fairly cavalier attitude towards rules about leashes. There are a few dog walks on which a dog can be unleashed, but we very often walk elsewhere. We walk in school yards that have "No Dogs Allowed" signs. We walk, unleashed, in ravines that warn "All Dogs Must be on Leashes". We walk though the gates in High Park that say "You are leaving the off-leash area. Please leash your dog". Rui stays on paths, which he understands. He doesn't chase fauna, and he doesn't destroy flora. I can't think of any damage he does that he wouldn't do equally if he were leashed, and as we walk at different speeds it is much more pleasant for me to walk at my slow amble, while he'll sniff something of interest and then catch up with me. Or perhaps, he'll dash ahead, and then wait for me to catch up. Should the path fork, he'll wait to see which tine I choose, and then follow unquestionably.

There is a minimum fine of $360 for having a dog off-leash in a prohibited area, and for a while I was concerned about that. But the bylaw officers who enforce that law rarely get out of their cars, as many dog owners have noticed, so as long as we remain out of sight from the road we seem to be safe. If I consider how many fine walks we've had illegally, and divide that into $360, the average cost per walk seems quite reasonable, certainly less than the cost per walk of a dog walker. Like other practitioners of civil disobedience through the ages, I believe there is a higher law than the law of man; for me it is the law of dog.

Over this Edenic bliss, of course, a dark shadow looms. A dog's life is far shorter than a human's. Rui continues to be quite healthy, but the average life span for either standard poodles and Labrador retrievers is about 13. Both Diana and I notice how empty the house is on days when Rui’s staying with friends. There will come a time when he is staying with a different set of friends, those who have passed on, and that is hard to imagine. But that is not today's problem, and one of the many lessons Rui has taught me is to remain more solidly focussed on the present.

Pets age faster than their owners. That means that they start out younger, and end up older. So it logically follows, according to what I once learned was called the intermediate value theorem, there must be a day on which they are the same age. I have calculated that April 25th, 2016, is that day for Rui and me, and that will clearly call for some sort of celebration. I don't know what it will involve for me–perhaps a very long walk– but for him meat will certainly be part of the festivities. In some regards, he hasn't changed at all.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

What is this Socalled Music?

May 26th, 2015 (09:16 am)

Josh Dolgin, called "Socalled" is this guy from Montreal. He does things, including but not limited to, journalism, film-making, magic, puppetry, and cartoons. And he makes music, most notably People Watching, an album he's just released this past month. It's a great album, but trying to pin down its genre is even tougher than describing its creator. A lot of it is hip-hop, blended with reggae, dance-hall, funk, soul, rock and roll, klezmer, jazz and classical. And it meanders, smoothly, from any one of these into any other, such as in the title song which starts with a vaguely Klezmer choral wave, becomes a folky female vocal, moves into a funk rhythm, a soul chorus that alternates with hip-hop verses that suddenly become Jamaican dance-hall, which transmute into a call-and-response with Punjabi singer Kamal Chamkila. Bootycaller brings in French-Canadian singing from Josey Wales and Frank Lambert part-way through, and so it goes.

This would be vaguely notable only as eclecticism run amok were it not for the extraordinary skill with which Socalled blends the different threads. Katie Moore, his long time singer creates lovely waves of female vocals; Fred Wesley (ex-James Brown and Funkadelic) brings in serious funk credentials on his trombone; and Oliver Jones plays a jazz piano that reveals new depths on every listening. And just when the first time listener thinks they've gotten a sense of the kind of musics this album holds, something comes flying in from out of the blue: such as Fire on Hutchison St., a solo piano and voice song (folk/klezmer, basically, but.) that alternates verses about the Friday night fire in his apartment ("An audience assembles across the street to watch/ lots of Hasids to see the fire blazing/ movies and tv forbidden so this is the show to watch...") with a chorus about the end of a relationship ("Well I'm sorta sick of saying I'm sorry/ I'm sorta sick of feeling like I kinda never know"). Is the titular fire on the street the external or the internal? Like all good poets, Socalled doesn't give you answers, but leaves you to admire the question. 

The references resonate throughout. The album opens with a chant, "Went through all the good books, learned from every tale; it's not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail", which (as if you didn't know) was originally said by Attila the Hun. And ten cuts later the closing number, (Curried Soul 2.0), is instantly recognized by any Canadian listener as the theme to the CBC Radio 1 evening news show, "As it Happens". Originally written by Moe Koffman. Socalled's version won a CBC competition to update the theme two years ago. 
One of the things I love about living in Canada is the blend of cultures that cities like Montreal and Toronto offer, a potpourri of flavours, styles, foods and people. It's that love of mixing things that are considered separate that has led me to become a slavish follower of Yotam Ottolenghi's cooking, for Yotam is happy to mix an Israeli grains with Mexican spices and Italian accents. (Full disclosure: my refrigerator features a banner, WWYD: What Would Yotam Do? It helps me to break free of wimpy recipes.) And I realize that is exactly what People Watching does. It takes elements that have never been juxtaposed, because they so obviously belong to different worlds, and mixes them together in a way that not only works but makes the blend seem inevitable.

Another Montreal band, Arcade Fire, sang a few years ago about how "Now the music divides us into tribes", and it seemed true. In any high-school cafeteria, every student can identify which tables the hip-hop crew sit at, and which ones are reserved for the metal-heads. Once, in the 70's, I used assign my English class to play a song and talk about the lyrics. I liked the assignment because it let them value their culture, as opposed to teacher culture. I stopped doing it sometime towards the end of the 80s, because it had become too divisive. The tribes were pretty intolerant of each others' musics. People Watching  might retie those disparate stands. Perhaps that's claiming too much, but it sure sounds a whole lot like nothing you've ever heard. Ot maybe, a bit like everything you've ever heard. 

Peter Marmorek [userpic]


November 29th, 2014 (01:46 pm)

DakhaBrakha is a Ukranian quartet that might remind you of no one else, or maybe of everyone else. It’s hard to say.There’s a fierce percussive drumming on bass drums that puts one in mind of Kodo, the demon drummers of Japan. There’s a chelloist who produces a screeching background drone reminiscent of John Cale in the early Velvet Underground. Tabla playing suggests India, bird calls suggest the jungle, and the high keening vocals takes one back to 1990 and “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares”, the Bulgarian folk choir that first introduced many of us to that sound. No wonder that DakhaBrakha refer to their style as ethno-chaos!

And then there’s the visual impact. One man, off to the side, and three women, wearing wedding dresses and tall black lamb-fur hats. One of them, Nina Garenetska, plays the cello, sometimes with a bow, sometimes plucking notes as though it were an acoustic bass. Iryna Kovalenko plays piano, jaw-harp, accordion, and drums; Olena Tsibulska plays tom-tom; and Marko Halanevych plays accordion and tabla. All of them played a variety of percussive instruments that come from India, Arabia, Africa, Austrailia, and Russia. Their name, DakhaBrakha, means give/take, and they do. They take from all over, and they give back a distillation of sonic energy that is astounding.

They have been around for a decade, having started in in 2004 at the Kyiv Centre of Contemporary Art with an original focus on Ukrainian folk music. The piercing vocals are sometimes in Ukrainian, sometimes in English, and can be, for example, from a traditional Carpathian song about a prospective bride’s less-than-stellar suitors (thank you, NY Times) or laments from funeral songs. But the sound is based on the intertwined harmonies of the three women’s voices, keening in a manner that is utterly haunting. Much of the music doesn’t have tunes, but rather works through complex rhythms and tempo changes. Part of that is the deliberately minimalist sound of the arrangements, which are percussive. That’s clear from the central role of the drumming but the accordions and piano were largely played rhythmically without many note changes, creating intricate frames for the heart of the vocals.

The audience, in Toronto’s stunning new Aga Khan Museum, reflected the diverse appeal of the band: in a full range of ages and ethnicities they ranged from a fully bedecked Eastern Orthodox priest to a pair of punkishly pierced lesbians. There were many Ukrainians who recognized traditional songs, even in their new clothes. Still, it would be wrong to think of DakhaBrakha as simply ethnic. They’re complexly ethnic: Rolling Stone hailed them as the Bonnaroo Festival’s “Best Break Out”, at the four day rock festival last year. At the Aga Khan Museum, they drew a series of standing ovations at the end of their show. The music is transcendent in two senses: it crosses the barriers of language and culture, and it moves the listeners beyond normal experience. DakhaBrakha may have roots in the soil of traditional Ukrainian folk music, but its powerful branches extend deep into the modern world. The Aga Khan Museum has as one of its goals to foster dialogue among different peoples, and DakhaBrakha is a classic example of how music can do just that.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Moving Story, Chapter Two: The Days of Demolition

November 19th, 2014 (12:40 pm)

I think, yet again, of that classic scene in which Coyote walks out over the edge of the cliff, never looking down until he does. And then he falls, down into the abyss. Somehow I had imagined that once we had packed up everything, and moved out of our house, and unpacked in the new house, all the stress would be over. From time to time we'd check in to see how things were going, perhaps chose between two lighting fixtures, but our end of the work would be done. I'd have to write some cheques, but that would be the extent of the stress. Wouldn't it?

We finished moving out on Sunday, and Monday Demolition Man arrived. His job would be...you're way ahead of me… to take down the kitchen and study walls. Our contractor, John, had been to my mind slightly reticent in giving a final estimate for how much the job would cost. When I'd ask, he'd explain that he'd prefer to wait till the walls were down to brick so he could see "what we were working with". John is a hugely sweet man, and our friends whose houses he renovated swear by him, so I just figured that was the normal course of things.

Wednesday I went over to pick up the mail. John greeted me cheerily, explaining that he'd been about to phone me because he had some news. "I suppose", he said, "that it could be good news or it could be bad news".

"You mean," I responded, "that if I had a whole bunch of money that I couldn't figure out how to spend, it would be good news?"

"Yes," enthusiastically, "you've got it."

John led me into the room formerly known as the kichen, and pointed up at the ceiling. There was a cross beam that even I could see had the unusual feature of ending halfway across, with nothing holding it up." John explained that when someone had renovated the bathroom in the 65 years before I owned the house, they had just cut the floorboards and supporting beam to get the plumbing in for their bathroom renovation. "I don't really know quite why your bathtub stayed up there all those years," he observed, "and the bathroom's walls aren't really supported by anything.

I asked him when the good news was going to start.

"Well, that's the good news," he said. "Your bathtub didn't fall down." I agreed that was good, though it was hardly hardly news. Fortunately neither Diana nor I ever took baths upstairs, as the basement tub had jets and a cabinet full of essential oils. And some non-essential ones too, truth to tell. John went on, "And now's the perfect time to replace your bathroom, as we'll have to take all the plumbing out anyway."

I was puzzled. "Demo man couldn't slow himself down, or what?"

"Well, the pipes are all rotten, there are no vents, the trap is nowhere near code, and when it started to leak, someone just sprayed foam around it so all the insulation is wet and moldy and has to be replaced."

While the emotional term for what I was experiencing was panic, the technical term is "reno creep". It's like "mission creep" in Iraq, in that at every moment it seems logical to extend the original goal by small increments. But in for a penny, in for a megabuck, as Stephen Harper almost says. We agreed we will have a new bathroom.

Meanwhile Diana and I had purchased new appliances, a stove, a 600 ft per minute hood for the stove, a refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a clothes washer. We don't actually wash our clothes in the kitchen, but ours had died two days before we moved out, and while there isn't, as far as I know, a term "appliance creep", there probably should be.

Once the walls came down we learned a number of things. I had always believed there was a brick wall between our house and the other half of the semi-detached. I was wrong. That meant that the furnace chimney took up more kitchen space than predicted, so our original design wouldn't work. A dog walking friend (a commercial interior design when she's not dog-walking) came up with a clever new design that saved the island that was the core of the whole kitchen renovation.

I was amazed how shabby and frail the house looked once its walls were stripped away. In some places there were huge chunks of wall missing, where John and Blair had sawn away brick to make space for new windows and doors. It was a very good house not to be living in while this was happening.

There were a lot more decisions to be made than I had realized. I learned of a new and wonderful floor covering called marmoleum, and admired the complex and intricate designs that came up when I googled it. I chose one, found a store with both one foot by three foot "click tiles" and one by one tiles, and worked out a stunning two-colour design. I took it to the marmoleum store, and showed it to the installer. He shook his head. "Won't work."


"It's tounge and groove. You've put pieces running at right angles to each other, so they won't fit."

It was one of those observations that's incredibly obvious once you've been told. I did ask the next question, which was if I designed it the right way, with all one by one pieces, how much the more installation would cost than if I just had a flat roll of one colour.

"About $8000, roughly."

I started looking though the roll patterns. Some of them are very nice. Maybe I'll print out an 8 X 10 of my original pattern, frame it, and hang it above the desk.

New features keep sneaking up, things I hadn't known were possible. A roll up screen for the upstairs balcony door. Electronically synchonized fire alarms, so that a fire in the basement will trigger alarms throughout the house. A second heating vent in the kitchen. Today our kitchen got a skylight, though that's only a temporary feature due to our upstairs bathroom no longer having a floor. But I like the 20 foot ceiling from the kitchen's point of view– it really makes the room feel spacious.

And I've had a few conversations with the nice man who manages my money, explaining that there's about to be a lot less of it for him to manage. He took it well, and has been making money miraculously appear in my bank count, at a slightly faster rate than John is making it disappear. All the new appliances have been put on my visa card, which gives me airline points. Diana and I will be able to fly far and often by the time the kitchen is done. I suppose that too is part of the good news.

But the demolition is now all done, and the construction is about to start. We still need to select cabinets, tiles for the bathroom, and make several thousand other decisions. (Do we want knobs on our cupboards so we can open them? On the whole, I think we do. But apparently we have to then decide which knobs. So maybe not.)

But there won't be any new surprises now, and it will all be simple. I tell myself that, and keep walking onwards, being very careful not to look down.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Moving Story

November 4th, 2014 (09:13 am)
current song: Silk Road Fantasy (Silk Road) - 喜多郎

Diana and I both like to cook. But our kitchen wasn’t designed for two people to work in, not enough counter space, so we constantly bump into each other.. And the peninsula juts out which means that when we come in there's no space for two people to sit down and take off boots, let alone to dry off Rui. So at some point we began the theoretical question of what a new kitchen might look like. And then there’s my study, directly above the kitchen, was once itself a kitchen, back when the house had an upstairs family and a downstairs family. When I moved in, 35 years ago, I tossed a plywood condom over the sink, and left all the pipes there, because that was the easiest thing to do. This is how I learned of the phenomenon called "renovation creep"– it just seemed so logical to upgrade the study as well. And I'd always thought that if I ever were going to do the study, I could replace its window with a door, and have a balcony. It would be a nice airy western vista, looking out over the backyard and garages. And this would certainly be the time to do it.

All of this is the prelude to why we moved out of the house last weekend. As John, our renovator/designer had said to us, "I can do the work with you here, or with you out. But it will take longer if you're here, because we have to clean up every day, and you'll be happier if you're not." And two dear friends had an empty basement apartment about a ten minute drive away, that they offered to let us stay in, so once we talked them into accepting some money for that, it was perfect.

Packing everything up seemed impossible, though in the end we did get it done. Excavating my study felt akin to an archeologist burrowing down through the La Brea tar pits. The further down I went, the older the detritus. I found a 5¼ inch floppy disk, which must have dated back to the early 80s when I had a Commodore 64. There were handouts buried under the drawers in the desk that still had the perforated edges that pulled them through the dot matrix printer; all my photographs from the days when I had a darkroom; class lists from every year; video tapes I can no longer play because I got rid of my VCR years ago; cassette tapes for seminars I had done at IndEC in the 70’s; and there were books. Books I had loved, once. Books I still do. Books I held on to because I was proud that I had been the sort of person who could read those books (My MIT calculus texts fell into that category.) Books that I was sure that I had read, but that i no longer remembered anything about. Books that I genuinely had no memory of every having seen before.

And there was the computer stuff. Cables that connected devices I no longer had. Manuals for programs put out by companies that never made it to the 90s. A neat bag of mouse balls, which were very handy when kids would steal them from the mice in the mac lab, but are less useful now that mice no longer have balls. I gained a new and deeper respect for the extent to which I am in touch with my inner magpie.

The kitchen, pantry, and closet was another adventure. There was the can of mandarin orange slices that was now puffed out to the point that it was almost spherical. Once I had been fond of a salad that had spinach, toasted almonds, and mandarin orange slices. It was the late 70's, and it seemed very au courant. Unfortunately my taste for the salad had ended slightly before my tendency to buy cans of orange slices had, and this can had clearly been plotting revenge for a few decades.

We winnowed our 7 linear feet of cookbooks down to five, letting go of cookbooks that had been gifts that we didn't like, and a lot of cookbooks we had once been excited by but that we no longer ever used. Then we took two cookbooks each to last us through the next three months, and packed the rest away.We took a deep breath, and tackled the fridge.

There were things at the back of our fridge that had been evolving, and had nearly reached the point when, octopus-like they could unscrew the caps from the bottles they were in, and crawl out of the fridge. There were moulds that probably could cure diseases that haven't even been discovered yet. In the pantry there were spices with labels that told us what the spices had once been, before they had been left scentless and tasteless. There were spice mixtures that people had given us that we knew we hadn't wanted, so we put them into the pantry in case our tastes suddenly changed, and we did want them. That happens rarely. Ok, never.

Umbrellas are useful things. Diana and I feel that way, as do many other people. But for a family of two, it could fairly be argued that 13 umbrellas are too many. They ranged in style and size. There were the $2 umbrellas I pick up when it starts to rain, and I'm out without an umbrella so all I need is a cheap one to get me home. There were 4 of those, plus a few that had fallen apart, as you would expect from a $2 umbrella. I guess I kept them in the hopes they would miraculously heal themselves, which they might have had I applied some of the moulds from the fridge. There was the lovely red and white umbrella I won in a school lottery on my last day of teaching. It is large and powerful, and emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo which is why I've never used it, and never would. Sooner get dribbled on by one of the broken $2 umbrellas, than walk around shilling for sugared water.

Rui was increasingly traumatized by all this packing. He's lived in our house for all his 8 years, and he gets nervous just when suitcases appear. So having everything go into boxes, and those boxes go into the living room so he couldn't get up on the beautiful feather stuffed couch he believes we bought just for him to sleep on was hard. When the mudroom that joined our kitchen to the back yard was removed he was incredulous. He scratched at the back door, as he does when it's time to go out and inspect the back yard, and when we opened the door, the mudroom and steps were gone. there was some concrete rubble and some 2 X 4 boards. Rui backed away slowly, and we closed the door. he circled the kitchen and scratched at the door again, and when we opened it, the mudroom was still gone. After he'd done this four times, we stopped getting up to go and open the door. But it was clear he was now an old dog, and this was a new trick. By the time we were ready to actually move, he would follow us around the house, never letting us disappear for a moment. He would stare with a passionate intensity at us, trying to communicate how desperately important it was that we not forget the dog.

What did I learn from the experience? I'd claim that I learned to let go of things that there is no possibility I'll ever use, but you might remember and embarrass me when I pull out one of the next crop of cheap broken umbrellas. What I really learned was to ask for help. I asked for help in moving boxes from young strong friends and relatives. I asked for help from people with big cars. I asked for help when I realized I was scheduled to be service leader at NUUC the same weekend we were moving, and went into my my panic place of omg I can't possibly do all this. But I asked, and one of the other service leaders offered to trade with me, and that was great. I learned to say when I was too tired to do any more. This is all new for me. I tend to be better at helping others than asking for myself. But asking for help is a useful skill, I have come to realize.

And our new home, for the next three months (at least) is quite lovely, and cozy. Rui seems surprisingly contented now that we've settled in, and he knows we didn't forget the dog. He was very excited to walk through a new neighbourhood (slightly more upscale than ours) and pee on all the hitherto unclaimed telephone poles he's never met before. We feel somewhat the same way, except for the part about the telephone poles. And we know, as he does not, that in three months we can go back, and it will all be better and newer. Except for the living room couch which will be the same, just as Rui likes it.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Teaching From the Four Directions

September 23rd, 2014 (05:10 pm)
current song: Almost Like the Blues - Leonard Cohen

I've been lucky enough to be a teacher for over 40 years. I started teaching in London, England; taught high school for 30 years in Ontario, and have taught online to students from all over the world for the last ten years. Some students passed through my life and disappeared; some became and remain friends. I've taught in small schools with fewer than 150 students and in schools with more than 1500 students. Some of my classes had students who had been classified as "severely gifted" (ah, eduspeak!) Some had been judged criminals, in Canada's only federal penitentiary for women. I started as a Maths and Physics teacher, and wound up as a World Religions and creative writing teacher, passing through Psychology, and Media and spending most of my time teaching English. Teaching was always challenging, as I tried to braid what the students needed with what they wanted, what was possible, and what wass allowed. One of the ways I become more aware of challenges, more aware of what I'm feeling and thinking, is by writing. This book is a synthesis of my writing about teaching, some of it written in the heat of the flame; some in the cool of retrospective recollection.

In the First Nations' spiritual practice I follow, the four directions of East, West, North and South correspond to Spirit, Body, Mind, and Emotion. Each of us tends to have a direction which feels most natural to us, and a direction with which we're least comfortable. It's the least comfortable one from which we can learn the most. I came into teaching very focussed on the North, mind. That's how I saw the world. (The fact that someone approaches the world through mind doesn’t mean they're smart, or particularly good at it. Listen to 15 minutes of any radio talk show if you need to be convinced of that!)

After about six years of teaching in traditional schools, I was lucky enough to get a teaching job in an alternative school, where the teachers taught students individually. I stayed there for ten years, and it was a revelation as to what became possible when the course was shaped to each individual student. Because students and teachers met one to one for about half an hour every week, there was a far deeper emotional connection than in a traditional classroom, where 70 minute classes with 35 students make deep personal discussions pretty much impossible. So it was at IndEC (Individual Education Centre) where I learned more about how emotional connections deepened education.

Back in a traditional school, I tried to bring some of that awareness into a classroom. I learned how shaping the physical environment changes everything that happens. When I arranged my classroom so that all the desks were in a circle, facing inwards, and I might sit anywhere on any given day, the dynamics in the classroom shifted. When I put in halogen lamps, with dimmers, and refused to use the overpowering flourescent lights that blasted every other classroom, things shifted. Cushions on the floors changed things again. We all know this on some level. Wherever you work, if you wear a tee shirt and cutoffs people will treat you differently than if you wear a three piece suit. There was one month in which I alternated between suits and jeans, and a teacher across the hall always was absolutely friendly when I was formally dressed, and never said a word to me if I wasn't. At the end of the month I asked her about it, and she denied any consciousness of having treated me differently. I believed her; I think her behaviours were detirmined at a much deeper level than consciousness.

I decided that it was time to leave high school about three years before I did. Thinking about what I wanted to achieve in my last three years, I decided to make an effort to teach from a place of compassion rather than a place of judgement. Looking back on that decision, I can see how I might equally well have said I wanted to teach from spirit rather than from mind. When I created my online writing course, The Writers' Croft, I very consciously tried to shape it as a place where compassionate teaching and learning would happen.

But life never offers us neat black and white slices, like these. There were moments of rage, of blind emotion, all through my years of teaching. Sometimes -rarely - that anger was directed at students. More often it was directed at the boards of education, or the government, or the administrations. Sometimes it was directed at myself, when I realized how badly I'd misjudged a student or how poorly I’d dealt with something in a classroom.. And all the other directions were always there, sometimes in a positive role, sometimes hidden in my shadow.

There was a hard distance between the moment I first thought about writing about my teaching experiences, and what I'd learned through them and when I started putting this book together. I couldn't see any way to honour the range of experiences I had, or to find a common style to the writing I had that was fiction or essay, polemic or mediation. I didn't want to lose the authenticity of the passion of the moment, but I wanted some overviews as well. The crack that let the light in came when I realized it wasn't a case of either/or. I could choose both/and. I could offer all the directions to my readers, and that would make a better book. If there's one thing I'm sure of after having walked my path, it's that there's no one size that fits all students, or teachers, or readers.

There's a lovely saying in Hinduism that while there are many paths up the mountain, the view from the top remains the same. I don't believe I'm anywhere near the top of what there is to learn about teaching, but I hope that you enjoy sharing these partial views, some fog-bound, some rained out, some with rainbows and some frozen. Some are optimistic, some aren't. Generally I'm hopeful, but if I claimed not to feel despair at the horror of some of my students' lives, I'd be lying. Every day is as different as every student, though at the deepest level we all share more than we often recognize. I've tried to make all these stories emotionally and psychologically true, even when they feature fire-breathing dragons, or people disappearing into cyberspace. I had to let them go and find the direction that they had to follow. And I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I have.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Zebrina: Blues for YHWH

September 9th, 2014 (07:56 am)
current song: Hamidbar Medaber

Zebrina is the band; Hamidbar Medaber is their newly released album. Multiple origins at the start– the band name comes from the Latin name of the wandering Jew plant, and the album name is Hebrew for "The Desert Speaks". The music is a hybrid as well: there is a lot of jazz in it, and there's some klezmer (in the John Zorn sense of klezmer, not your bar mitzvah sense, unless you had a very avant garde bar mitzvah). But as well, there's an underlying funk jam sound that suggests no one quite so much as the Grateful Dead, perhaps in their "Blues for Allah" period. Let’s call this Blues for YHWH.

Like the Dead, Zebrina is a six person band. Five of the members are experienced musicians from in or around Toronto: Jonathan Feldman plays keyboards, and is Zebrina's composer and bandleader. Bret Higgins (Beyond the Pale, Great Lake Swimmers) is on bass; Joel Schwartz (Royal Wood, Aviva Chernick) on guitar; Max Senitt (Alex Cuba band) is the drummer; and Columbian Juan Carlos Medrano is the percussionist. San Francisco-based and world-renowned Ben Goldberg, clarinet, is a recent and powerful addition to the group.

The band members come from a range of different musical backgrounds, and that gives a power and depth to the music. At times it's clearly in a groove, then one member will solo, or dialogue with another, and the music will wander off, into a spacey improvisation, only to smoothly glide back to almost the point from which it started. The music is always metamorphic; what it is is also the basis for what it is becoming. Themes are often played in call and response, both repeating a melodic line, but also changing and evolving it.

Seen live, at Ashkenaz, the biannual Toronto festival, Zebrina showed a rhythmic power that blew away the audience. Having two drummers/ percussionists established a strong pulsating groove that freed up the bass for exploration. (Again, a similarity to the Dead, whose bass player, Phil Lesh, was the one a strong avant-garde jazz background). All of Zebrina's musicians took solos or duets, but there was never a sense that they were showing off: it was an exploration of new musical terrains, with a team who alternated in breaking the trail.

Zebrina's music is all instrumental, though their songs have spiritual titles ("Chant of Ages", "The Spirit Within", "Higher Power", "The Guru's Advice”). But the exploration of the themes is implicit, and personal. Band leader Jonathan Feldman has said that music is his biggest connection to Judaism and spirituality. If spirituality is a way of aligning with something bigger outside of ourselves, of transcending limits, Zebrina's music may be a shamanic catalyst, offering a way to do that. You can hear their music and check out their schedule on their website. They're an exciting and provocative band, well worth exploring.

Zebrina, live at the Ashkenaz festival

Zebrina, live at the Ashkenaz Festival

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Handling the Reality of Drugs

July 10th, 2014 (03:04 pm)

Part of a teacher's job is to enforce the school's rules. Teachers are the referees, calling penalties as they are needed and when they are deserved. Sometimes that's easy: for example, everyone agrees that stronger kids shouldn't be allowed to bully weaker kids. Sometimes it gets harder, particularly when you don't agree with the rule that it's your job to enforce. For me, one of the major challenges came with entheogens, teacher plants, or drugs. As a child of the 60s, I had ingested a wide variety of things, and felt that drugs were tools, that used appropriately, could deepen and enrich one's life. I remembered being a student at MIT, where the administration established a program that would test anonymously submitted samples, and tell you (via phone, and 10 digit code number) what the submitted drug actually was. MIT did not want their students taking drugs, didn't approve of their taking drugs, but most of all didn’t want them taking drugs that were cut with adulterates. It was an intelligent and compassionate program that I have always admired.

None of the school systems for which I taught had any remotely similar program. Their view was that drugs were a viral evil, and that anyone a teacher could identify who had been infected by the virus should be isolated and punished.  The difference in perspective, between my attitudes and high school administrators’ attitudes, led to a number of sometimes amusingly dissonant situations.

The first one came when I was in teacher's college, and was assigned a practice teaching position in Lindsay. I was 25; my teacher advisor was maybe double that. On our first meeting he explained to me that he was very concerned about drug use amongst his students. He explained that as I was younger, I might be able to recognize signs of addiction he had missed. If I did, he urged me, I should immediately tell him which students I thought were on drugs. He then took a deep breath and confided that a friend of his on the Lindsay police force had once shown him marihuana, “both the leaves, and the berries”. Part of me really wanted to point out to him that marihuana doesn't have berries, it has seeds. Fortunately, I was able to bludgeon that part into silence. Nor did I point out any of the kids in his class who were obviously extremely stoned. (How could I tell? When I asked one student what his name was, he started giggling hysterically, and couldn't stop for 5 minutes.)

My first full time job after teacher's college was in Cobalt, and as I got to know the students there, it became pretty clear who the stoners were. At my second parents' night, the mother of a student I'll call Richard came in, and went on a long tirade about how terrible it was that students were smoking marihuana, and how it was my duty to share with the police any suspicions I might have who was supplying it. I knew who it was: her son, Richard, who was getting it from her older son who was a student at University of Toronto and sending packages up to Cobalt. It was a really tempting moment, but I kept quiet. I had learned one of the great secrets of teaching, which is that if you want to know what's really going on in your students' lives, you can't pass judgements about it.

I was 26 and my senior students were 18, so the differences between us were much less than they would be three decades later. Joan, one of my Cobalt students, told me about Supertramp, a new band who sounded interesting and offered to make me a tape of them, together with the new David Bowie album. I accepted happily; a few days later Mary handed me the tape box. When I got home and opened it, there was a very professionally rolled joint on top, with a note saying, "I like to get blitzed when I listen to new music; hope you do too." In fact, I did, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that while it was clearly a generous and friendly act, Cobalt was a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone. When I passed Joan an envelope the next day, containing both the joint and thanks for her kind offer, I learned that most of the students in the school already knew and had eagerly been waiting to see what I did. I was learning that as a teacher I had to walk the walk.

IndEC, the alternative school in which I taught four years later, was more challenging because the rules were fuzzier. The students were older, and more mature. In chemistry, there were sophisticated presentations on THC, the active intoxicant in marihuana. In my photography course, students would hand in projects on drug pipes. In literature, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Burroughs were perennially popular. In World Religions, students would read Aldous Huxley and Tim Leary's works on the use of drugs as a way of moving towards enlightenment. One of the surprising truths about drugs has always been that if someone talks intelligently about the effect of a drug, it's pretty likely they've had experience with it. I suspect that made it pretty clear to both my students and to me that we were colouring outside the lines with similarly psychedelic crayons. But nothing was said, and I never admitted to anything that might come back and haunt me at a later moment.

Except once, at the David Bowie concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, in 1980. Another IndEC teacher and I were at the concert with about a half dozen IndECers, and a joint got passed down the row. It got to me, and I took a deep breath, inhaled and passed it on. Nothing was ever said about it, which is good, as it was certainly a hanging offence. Must say, it was also a very fine concert, Bowie being at peak form and in his 'Thin White Duke' phase. I'm still close friends with three of the students who were in that row.

When I went back to a traditional school, Clarkson, things were different. I was older, and my students were younger, and while IndEC's one to one student-teacher meetings encouraged openness, the traditional classroom discouraged it. But I still had lots of facial hair, and listened to current music, so I knew the question would inevitably arise. And when it did, I was ready.

“Sir, do you smoke marihuana?”

“Well,” I smiled cheerily, “that’s really a silly question to ask me. Because if I didn’t smoke marihuana, I’d tell you the truth, and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.’ And if I did smoke marihuana, because I’m a teacher who wants to keep his job, I’d lie and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.” So the answer to your question is no, I don’t smoke marihuana.”

Many of the students from Clarkson did smoke, and some made a lot less of an effort to hide it than others. The student smoking area, inches outside school property, often had clouds of marihuana smoke over it. So the staff generally tried avoided going near it, so as as not to be in a situation we could neither condone nor ignore. Lorne Park was a wealthier school down the street, and we counted ourselves lucky that our students’ problems were usually with alcohol and marihuana, as they couldn’t afford the more expensive drugs such as cocaine that richer students indulged in. As Robin Williams once noted, “Cocaine is God’s way of punishing you for having too much money.”

There were times students did come to me for help. One of my gifted students, Jean, came to talk to me in the throes of her first LSD experience, which had become longer and more intense than she had expected. I was able to be present, supportive, and non-judgemental and when it wore off she was (and has remained) hugely grateful. Another gifted student (from the Lorne Park area) had a year and a half of cocaine-fuelled dysfunctionality. I didn't kick her out of the gifted program, because it was absolutely clear that her problem wasn't academic, and I couldn't see how being put back into the regular program, away from her friends, would do anything other than alienate her further from school. She came through wonderfully, and had become the editor of a major Canadian fashion magazine when last we crossed paths. People will often live up to your expectations, but they certainly will live down to them.

The head of Clarkson’s guidance dept once sought me out to serve on a teacher panel he was convening to address the issue of student drug abuse. I told him what I felt, that the place to start was with recognizing that some students were inevitably going to use drugs, and our role was to teach them how to use drugs in a way that minimized dangers and problems. He looked at me in shock, and said that he felt all illegal drugs were always bad, and we certainly couldn’t condone any drug use under any circumstances. And that was the end of my formal participation. I felt at the time that he was wrong, but I don't think I fully understood why. He felt that the problem was that some students didn't have the right values, and he wanted a program that would give them those values. I don't think you can give people values. I think you can shape an environment that encourages them to develop the values you want them to have, but that holding the students in compassion without judgement  is essential key. Too wish-washy? Perhaps it made me a less good referee of student transgressions than some might have wanted, but I'm sure it made me a better teacher.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

All My Little Eccentricities

June 17th, 2014 (11:08 am)

There was a knock on the classroom door, and Miranda, my student secretary, announced that the next parent had arrived for her interview. She came in, and inspected the classroom intently. "It's so nice, " she finally said, "after hearing about them for so long, to get to see all your little eccentricities."

Me? Eccentric? I had always thought that I was completely normal, and all the other teachers were unusually conservative. But as I tried to look at my classroom as a stranger might see it, I could see atypical aspects to the carpet on the floor, the giant stuffed cushions on the carpet, the desks arranged in a circle around the classroom, and most of all the lights. Clarkson had standard high school lighting levels, rows of banked fluorescents that blazed with a blinding intensity. I hated them, and of course couldn't do anything to change them because it was board policy. So I bought vertical halogen lamps, about five or six, and put them around the perimeter of the room. The room was dim, with shadows. It felt comfortable to me, and my students loved it.

Years later an ex-student would say to me, "Your classroom had shadows…what I mean is, because your room had lamps which could not throw light equally across the room, there were corners were the light was far dimmer. You could go there and sit inside yourself with yourself. The implicit message was the lack of surveillance. … That's what was so different. That's why we relaxed. Sometimes, you'd visit us in the shadows. Other times, you'd leave us alone. Doesn't that sound like exactly the kind of thing teenagers need? They need to be permitted to be in the shadows."

I know that as a teenager I needed shadows. That was why when I got to MIT, the first place where I had control over my room, I created a space painted completely black, and illuminated mostly by ultra-violet light that made the day-glow murals on the wall shine more effectively. Some of the murals were weird, some were abstract, some were both. There was a powerful sound system, (Grateful Dead and Zappa), and a smell that I would claim was incense. Later at Queens’s University teacher’s college, I fought admin to get the bed springs out of my room, so I could put in a canopy over the mattress and break up the concrete box space. I won that fight, though I had to sign an official form that I would take responsibility for making my own bed. (Queen’s felt that having to bend down would put too great a strain on the ageing bi-weekly sheet-changers.)

At IndEC I started having cushions on the floor and dim light. It seemed a more relaxed comfortable and egalitarian way to talk to students, and as we only had one to one interviews, formality just got in the way. I never liked having a formal distance from my students, which is certainly is part of why so many of them became and remain my friends, or why when I decided to write about my classroom I posted on Facebook the question, "What do you remember about our classroom?" and had 20 responses from ex-students within 24 hours.

What did they say? They started with the poem on the classroom door: I called my classroom Xanadu, and posted the opening to the Coleridge poem there: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ a stately pleasure dome decree". There was a shabby couch, and progressively shabbier cushions. Over the years I noticed how many of my gifted students would come into the classroom for the first time and immediately throw themselves onto the cushions. Others were much more hesitant at first. Because the desks were in a circle, there was no obvious front, and I'd often sit in different parts of the classroom. This challenged the students whose style was to sit as far away as possible from the teacher, which I suppose was part of why I did it.

When I finally won permission to have a computer lab, the circular desk setup had to go. The computers occupied all the space around the perimeter of the room, and shared tables were in the centre. Bonnie, the head of Art, the fellow supervisor of the Mac lab, and a dear dear friend and I agreed that all the computers should be named. We alternated between writers and artists (Joyce, Atwood, Freeman, Georgia O’Keefe, Blake did double duty). I liked the personalization of the computers, and gradually we became aware of the different personalities and abilities each computer had. Partially this was because we only acquired two or three per year, so that the eMacs were more powerful than the Power Macs; partially it was because different computers got different software. None of that explained why Kafka would crash unexpectedly so often, or why Atwood was the most reliable for Quark Express. Because the Peel board refused to support Macs, I had complete control over what was on the computers, which is how they came to have games on them, something that was utterly taboo elsewhere. I am proud that I remained the Snood champion, despite my students’ best efforts.

Always, in all my classrooms, the top right corner of the board was reserved for the thought of the day, an epigram that might be deep, or silly, or both. On Facebook my ex-students mentioned some of them: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”, or "Beware the wrath of dragons, for you are small and crunchy and good with ketchup.” My perennial classroom favourite was G. K. Chesterton's, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly", a vital message with which I tried to unstick students so paralyzed by fear that their work would have flaws that they felt it was safer to do nothing than to try and fail. I still have above my desk my favourite Beckett quote, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

There are teachers, many of them excellent, who view the core of the classroom experience to be challenging the students to meet the teacher's expectations. Increasingly that was not my approach. I felt that the student had a relationship with the subject material, and my job was to be a catalyst for that relationship, to remove the obstacles that kept him or her from mastery. Feeling hungry, feeling judged, feeling uncomfortable were all antithetical to a good learning experience. One of Clarkson's principals once marked down a teacher he was observing because she had let a student open a window without asking her permission, and he felt that "students should always feel slightly nervous in a classroom." He and I didn't get along terrible well.

Einstein famously observed that “education is what's left after you've forgotten everything you've learned." I wanted my students to leave feeling that learning was fun, and enjoyable, and something they could do. Eccentric? I've been called worse things.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Dancing Around the Rules

June 4th, 2014 (01:16 pm)
current song: Brother - Sunny Pompeii

"The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be."


Today I was talking to Rick Hosside, who's a teacher at Clarkson, the big school in which I now teach. I've always felt a certain kinship to Rick because like me, he had also once taught at IndEC, a small alternative school. Rick had come up in my World Religions class, when one of my students had had a cell phone ring in her bag. That is Very Bad according to school rules, so she tried to cough to cover it up. I laughed at her, and said I couldn't believe any teacher took that sort of rule seriously, and she said oh no Mr Hosside did, so when I ran into “Mr Hosside” I kidded him about taking it seriously and he said no, he did because it was, after all, a school rule. Then I said "So?" in a way that indicated that my concept of what a school rule meant was very different from his, and the conversation...and probably the relationship...was on a downward spiral that reached its nadir when he explained that in the business world people had to follow rules, and I explained that I wasn't training people for the business world, I was training them to live, which was the exact opposite.

It was depressingly similar to the conversation I had with Miguel, who teaches Math, and who was upset because Shawn had been writing rap lyrics in his class last Tuesday, and when Miguel confiscated them they had Bad Words in them. He was displeased when I clearly didn't give a fuck about the type of language, and more displeased when I explained that as Shawn (who is often a jerk, but that's a whole different subject) was doing a rap magazine for my Media course, it was appropriate that he use such language. Miguel felt that it was unreasonable that we had different rules about what was acceptable language in different classes, and I could tell who he felt should change their rules. And he could probably tell what I thought of his attitude, which didn't help the mood he was in after being told by Shawn's mother that she thought he was a rude idiot.

There's a fine old quote, “The more I see of people, the more I like my dog”. It would probably be cruel to say, “The more I see of teachers, the more I like my students”, but it does amaze me that these people take these kinds of rules about personal style seriously. I too get irritated when a rule in my classroom is violated, like the rule not to change the names of all the folders on the computers, which one little troll did today, or not to steal all the mouse balls, which happened last week. But I get irritated because it makes more work for me, or for the students who have to figure out where their projects have disappeared to. Other teachers seem to assign a moral value to style. Students are bad if their style of behaviour is different from what the teacher wants it to be. If I were playing tennis and my opponent's serve went out, I'd call it out, but I'd be disinclined to believe this made my opponent a bad person.

One of the really important issues I often have to explicitly address is that students are not bad people because they're failing or not working, or not handing in work or skipping class. And that they shouldn’t think that the fact that they're getting 23% in my course and haven't handed in a single assignment of substance since September means I don't like them. Because it doesn't. If I were Macbeth on stage and they were Duncan or Banquo, the fact that I killed them in the play wouldn't mean we couldn't go out for a drink afterwards. Those are just the roles we're playing. And we are neither Broadway nor Harvard. We're a little rep theatre company trying to help each other. Why impose this heavy morality on superficial behavioural choices? Our school's new dress code, under which I am supposed to send any female student to the office if I can see any part of her cleavage, is another example of a very bizarre moral overlay to a stylistic choice, before we even get to the impossibility of a defensible response to the obvious parental question of why the teacher was staring at his student's cleavage in the first place.

Our school has a rule that there is no eating in class. This means that when kids are hungry, they ask to go to the washroom, disappear into the cafeteria where they run into their friends, and miss a half hour of class. So I made a rule that students can eat in class, if they clean up their mess. If they don't, they lose the privilege. This worked well, until one kid was intercepted by the vice-principal carrying food to my classroom, and when she said, "But you know you aren't allowed to eat in class," he explained that he was allowed to eat in Mr. Marmorek's class. The VP called me down after school, and clarified that I did in fact allow students to eat in class. She then said, like someone playing the ace of trumps, "But you know that's against school rules." I agreed that I did know.

Then there was a very strange and interesting pause. I knew she was waiting for me to apologize and say I wouldn't do it again, because it was against school rules. I thought it was a silly rule, so I wasn't going to say anything. I was curious what she would do. Eventually she said, "Well, I'm going to have to tell the principal about this," an extraordinarily weak response that conjured up visions of 1950's Mom saying, "Wait till your father hears about this." I smiled, gently, and said, "You have to do what you feel you have to do." I never heard anything about the issue again.

People impose a moral overlay on all sorts of things today. Sports teams win because they dig down deeper, because they give more, because they are morally superior. Increasing demonization of political opponents, in which those who differ are morally culpable, is ubiquitous. Anyone since 9/11 who has ventured to suggest that it might be useful to explore the reasons why some people hate the US has quickly found that out. Always I come back to Elie Weisel's line in “The Gates of the Forest” in which he says “The just man knows a thousand truths and that's his weakness; the murderer knows one and that's his strength.”

I mark essays and assign numbers in courses, and do so with as much honesty as I can muster, but these are at best a consensual hallucination. In other places and times, at higher or lower academic levels, the essay to which I give an A would be a failure, and the one that abjectly fails would be a wonderful piece of writing. Fifty years ago the seventh man on the ice in hockey, the rover, was a legitimate position; today it's a two minute penalty for too many men on the ice. A referee has to call the penalties, but they are arbitrary. That's vital to recognize because there are so many deeper levels of communication possible than superficial morality. As David Foster Wallace said, "You might consider that how to escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.” Taking superficial rules seriously is wrong because it means you never get beyond those rules. If everyone walked in step, how would any of us ever learn to dance?

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