Saturday, 29 April 2017

Things I Ate in Barcelona

Grilled watermelon and goat cheese. 4.5 stars
Caramelized pear torte, vegan. 3 stars
Mueller Priorat Crianza 100 stars
Bocadilla with Iberian ham and Brie 3.5 stars
Broiled Octopus 3.5 stars
Fried Camembert with Berries 4 stars
Paella 2 stars
Flammetart 4 stars
Tiny beers 4 stars

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Quality of Your Life

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney 4

What makes your life a good one? 

Back in the day, the majority of Canadians might have agreed that a good life was one with a well paying job for dad, a mom that stayed home and cleaned and cooked and raised the 2.5 kids in a 3 bedroom house, safety, freedom and three weeks holiday in the camper.
Me and my mom, Trail B.C.
Nowadays, now that we understand more about what people value, our ideas are different. Maybe it means mom working outside the home, or two moms, or a single dad, or a single person living happily alone, or a family with ten kids. Maybe it means living out of your van, as a musician I know does quite happily. Or living off the grid, in a colony, on the rez, or in a downtown apartment or surviving off the land. Maybe it means living in the frozen north or on a beach. 
Fort Resolution, 1988.
Maybe it means having lots of money. Maybe it doesn't.

For my neighbours, driving a quad through the waterways is something they love. Every time I see them, that makes me angry. I feel like saying "Get off your butt and walk somewhere, you lazy bastard! Quit destroying the natural environment!" Meanwhile they are probably thinking "What the hell is the matter with you? You live in the bush and you don't own an off-road vehicle?"  

Likewise I see huge families and I think "Why are you overpopulating the planet?" When the whole idea of overpopulation was something my family thought about long and hard before deciding on having a third child.  To the absurd point I asked my childless cousin if she would give me her "quota" of kids so we could have another child. And yet I know for these families having numerous kids is something they value deeply. Perhaps they don't feel the need to provide for their education or have a house large enough so each kids has his/her own room. I know many of them feel sorry for those of us with small families. They cannot understand why anyone would make that choice.
Cemetery, Sarajevo

Sometimes the thing that makes my life good interferes with someone else.What principles do we use to determine where we legislate to achieve the common good? A simple vote? A referendum? Majority rules? Charter rights? "Inherent" rights? 

The more connected we are in our globalizing world, the more these questions matter. We cannot go back to the past , much as people like Donald Trump and Brexit voters and Marie Le Pen would like. The good old days weren't that great for everyone. 

Now we understand what "quality of life" means, we have to navigate into tomorrow's complicated world and its unknowable future. And that means recognizing that we are all unique, yet connected. That means trying to understand other people's views. Otherwise we will allow for the tyranny of the majority, the oppression of minority viewpoints and a world in which some people's way of life intervenes with the rights of others.

Inequality in Mumbai's slums

Monday, 10 April 2017

Just what I always wanted

Every family has its stories. Some of them are told over and over again.

My mom was fond of repeating stories, even before the dementia set in.  One involved the first birthday party I ever attended, the fourth birthday of my next door neighbour Ricky Kent.

Ricky Kent in the cardigan, me, far left
The story went that Ricky ripped open a gift and loudly proclaimed, "Pyjamas! Lousy pyjamas!"  This led to my mom giving me a lesson about proper etiquette when receiving a gift.  "You never want to hurt the feelings of someone who has given you a gift.  No matter what it is, you smile and say thank you as if it's the one thing you always wanted."

Continuing on with this tale, my mom related what happened at my own fourth birthday party just a few weeks later. 

When it was time to open the gifts, no matter what the present, I smiled a huge phony smile and exclaimed,"Thank you! It's just what I always wanted!"  My mom told this story over and over, almost every time I opened a present. And over the years, that was a lot of presents. Hundreds of gifts-some "exactly what I always wanted." Some surprises, like the binoculars she gave me for my birthday when I told her my dorm room had an excellent view of the playing field but it was too far away to see the boys. Or the flying lessons she paid for when I turned 21. 

Image result for ribbon candyIn our family, we have some traditions when it comes to gifts. For instance, everyone has a "favourite" Christmas candy. Mine was icy cups. Granddad got peanut brittle. My brother, it was widely known, loved ribbon candy. It became almost impossible to find and family members felt they had scored a coup whenever they found some for Doug. Last year he told me he hated ribbon candy. Fifty years of ribbon candy. And he doesn't even like it.

Gift giving is hard.  Searching for the perfect something to show how much you care, no matter what the cost.  Hoping you get it right and it will touch their hearts. What you really hope for is that you will come up with a gift they never even knew they wanted until you gave it to them. Gift receiving is harder. Because, as my mom taught me, you must be grateful even if you hate the gift. Someone thought about you and that matters more than any gift.

My mom gave me a lot of gifts over the years. Things I wanted. Things I didn't expect. Gifts tangible and intangible. Life lessons. A way of being. I'm not sure I ever expressed my gratitude. She's not here to give me anything any more. But I know she knows.

This life I live might not be the one I imagined.

But it's just what I always wanted.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Textbooks Suck. Why do we keep using them?

Why are textbooks so terrible?

It's like they beat out anything interesting or fun about a subject. The drama and the injustices and the personalities and the emotions that shaped history. 

Sure, the modern day books are filled with pictures and sidebar notes and links to web content, but the actual material makes you want to poke a fork in your eye. The new ones are no more captivating than the old ones, as I discovered reading through this old textbook published by MacMillan of Toronto in 1920. It might even be less interesting. At least "The Story of the Canadian People" had colourful tales of derring-do like this little description of the fall of the Huron: 
"When the end came, it was before the onset of seven hundred, yelling, bloodthirsty savages that the walls of the fort went down. The gallant defenders, scorning to accept quarter, were cut to pieces"
Today's history books are more about explaining the past than telling its story. Even most online content is desperately dull. You can't just take some crappy content from a book and put it online and say it's good, even if you throw in a few 2 minute videos and an online quiz.

It's like the people who wrote these materials didn't understand what makes kids tick. Or even what makes their subject interesting. And yet they are usually written by teachers who I assume love their area of specialization and are excited about learning and teaching. For my own course writing- maybe it is not filled with drama and excitement, but at least I try to make the characters come alive and point out some of the atrocities of the past and the inequalities of the present. Why sweep that under the carpet?  As a teacher I met in Grande Prairie said the other day, "That pile is getting too big. We can't even walk on it any more."

Bill Bigelow, in his article "The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools",talks about the dull and lifeless way the stories of the past are told, describing "a curriculum bound for boredom".

The crazy thing is, history is NOT boring. Including Canadian history. It's alive! It's full of things that make you say "Whoa, what?" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Why didn't I ever hear that before?" or "That is just plain wrong, how did people let that happen?"

Imagine a party of inexperienced Northwest Mounted Police towing huge York boats up a powerful river, taking instruction from a captured Blackfoot slave. Imagine that same party, on its way to Willow Point to sign Treaty Eight, caught in a huge storm on Lesser Slave Lake, followed by an amazing sunset. 

Imagine One Arrow, stripped down to nothing but a loin cloth, announcing to the Treaty Six Party "I came into the world naked, but the Great Spirit provided for me. And now you are taking our living from us!"  

Imagine the drama of a fully uniformed regimental band marching into Blackfoot Crossing in a show of strength to announce Treaty 7 negotiations, only to find almost no one there. And a couple of days later, warriors in full war paint, charging through the same land, performing amazing feats on their ponies, countering with their own display of bravery.

Why don't we read that in the books?

Could it be because history is written by the victor so there are stories we don't tell? Are we afraid of getting some details wrong? Or do publishers feel they must remove the messy, uncomfortable and unpleasant bits? Why must we sanitize the hell out of our stories so their truths don't even matter? Could it be that publishers try hard to not offend? Do they fear backlash from politicians and community groups? Is that why they whitewash everything? At the risk of being political or controversial, our textbooks are nothing at all. No wonder kids find our history so dull. We haven't told them what it is.

Detail from Kanata by Robert Houle, an interesting take on the classic "Death of Wolfe"
Or is part of the problem the publishers themselves? Generally our publishers are huge multinational corporations like Pearson whose goal is not education, but turning a profit. Why would a multinational be interested in promoting anything other than the status quo? Why would such a corporation encourage critical thinking about political systems that invest power in the elite or economic systems that value profit before justice or a history that is sometimes painful to think about? 

Keep flogging old ways of thinking and it doesn't matter what colour of font you use or how many cool photos you incorporate. You will never touch the hearts and minds of kids unless you tell real stories that appeal to their innate sense of justice and curiosity.

And so far, I haven't seen a textbook that does that.