Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013: The year in music!

As I have started reading all of the 2013 best-of-the-year lists posted around the internet, I have resigned myself to the fact that I'm not really an active "Music guy" anymore. I still listen to music, and I'm still aware of most of the artists that I follow, as well as the trends and popular stuff (I have to be up-to-date as a teacher), but I'm just not at the level I was five years ago. I have not even written a Year in Review for music since 2010; I always said I would get to writing them eventually, but I think I knew deep down that I just didn't have it in me anymore the same way I once did. After all, it's not really possible to compose a top ten list if you only listen to a dozen albums in a year.

I suppose the evidence has been there for a few years, but I'm just finally publicly admitting it now. After all, I went to one show this year, I have not even bought a half-dozen albums in the past twelve months, and when people ask me what I've been listening to lately, the list is getting shorter and harder to generate each time. I'm now adding maybe a dozen albums in a year to my listening rotation (though I still usually at least listen to twice or thrice that amount), and usually only really adding a half-dozen new artists to my list (this year those artists were The Lumineers, The Lone Bellow, Of Monsters and Men, Whitehorse, and The City Harmonic). It has been a clear trend for the past three or so years; but the question I then had was why this has been happening. I thought of five possible reasons, all of which I think are partly to blame for my descent.

Five reasons for the change in my music habits

1. I got married, so I have less disposable income and time to spend on music. It's not that my wife is opposed to music; it's more that she is very deliberate about all purchases, and while a $10 album is nothing to me, it's a big deal to her. Also, I just don't have the time to listen to as much music now, and I need to share my experience with her. It's probably no coincidence that my peak years (2003-2007) were the years that I was on my own, and that the music I still listen to the most is the music that she also enjoys. I might have once listened to 3-4 hours of music each day (if not more); now I listen to 1-2 at most.

2. The rise of digital music has resulted that fewer and fewer albums are available secondhand. One of the ways I built my collection and my listening rotation was in buying albums at thrift stores, but that's just not a feasible way to do it anymore. There's more music available for sampling digitally, but there's just something about the physicality of an album that makes it easier to focus on.

3. My overall allocation of time has had to change, so I just don't have the time to make for music as much anymore. Between work, marriage, church leadership, life, friendships, and my own interests and hobbies, I just don't have as much time for music. I suppose if it were really important to me that I would make the time, which just demonstrates that it's probably not as big of a deal that I don't spend the hours I used to on investigating new artists.

4. I do not have the same kind of intensity in my community regarding new music. Music, like all forms of media, is an inherently social exercise, and I do not have people in my immediate space who are consumed by music. I still have friends who enjoy music, some at that higher intensity, but it's not nearly as pronounced or as defining a factor as it was even a few years ago. Victoria itself is also a really hard place to be a music fan, as many artists do not cross over to the island.

5. There are just not many new artists and albums that interest me. I know that this point will be more contentious for some, but I think that it's more than just a personal change; I just honestly think that there are fewer albums being released now that are worth my time and energy or even perhaps worth it on a wider scale. Maybe it is entirely that my windows of interest are narrowing as I age, but there is a great irony that as music is more plentiful and accessible than it ever has been that I am less and less interested in the breadth and scope of the entire industry.

Just to clarify, it's not that I'm bitter or frustrated about this change; it has just taken me three years to finally admit it. But in the end it's actually kind of a relief to transition to a different style of music fandom. I find that my tastes are narrowing, but they are doing so in a way that allows me to invest more into and ingest more of each album. Rather than finding something new every week or two, I am able to really listen to an album fully before moving onto something else. I'm less focused on the flavor of the moment and more open to only listening to music that really widens and enriches my experience. I'm also continuing to narrow my scope of genres, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I've written before about how the metal/hardcore end of the spectrum is just not of particular appeal to me anymore, and my overall tastes are a lot more mellow.

Best Of 2013

This brings me to my year-end list. My list of albums from 2013 is very short indeed, as I can only think of around a dozen albums that have made any kind of impact on me whatsoever. And really, if I were to give the actual list of albums I've enjoyed the most in 2013, it would include several albums from previous years, including the self-titled debuts from Whitehorse and The Lumineers, as well as Of Monsters and Men's My Head Is An Animal. But despite a small pool of albums, there are still a few that stuck out to me as released in 2013. I know that these are not the "best" albums released in 2013, but they are ultimately the albums that mattered most to me in the past twelve months. Here then, in no particular order, are my top five albums of 2013.

Honourable mention: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories. I really liked a good portion of this album, but I still did not buy it. Maybe I pick it up at some point in the future and really get into it then. It's a great dance album, and "Get Lucky" is one of the best pop tracks in recent memory.

The Great Gatsby - Music from the Motion Picture. I spent a good portion of the summer enjoying this eclectic album. It has some great dance tracks and it really captures the spirit of the film, which remains one of my favourites of the year. There are a half-dozen tracks that have been my favourite at one point or another, but I think the standout tracks are still Florence + the Machine's "Green Light" and Fergie's "A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody", as well as Jack White's cover of U2's "Love is Blindness."

The City Harmonic - Heart. The Canadian group released their second full-length album, and I immediately loved it. This is powerful worship-oriented music that evokes comparisons to Coldplay, among others, though it transcends any mere comparison. The City Harmonic are one of the most creative, effective groups making worship music today, and I cannot get enough of this album.

Dustin Kensrue - The Water & The Blood. The former lead singer of Thrice has been leading worship at Mars Hill church in Seattle, and this album is almost exactly what you would expect given the nature of the church as well as Kensrue's career thus far. It is theologically deep and very liturgical in its orientation; he at times presents a very Calvinist point of view, but it never gets too consumed with these ideas, leaving these modern hymns accessible to everyone. The musical composition is varied, and it includes some tracks that evoke Kensrue's country leanings, as well as one or two that sound an awful lot like Thrice (and that's a good thing). This has immediately become one of my most significant worship albums, and I am looking forward to what more Kensrue will produce.

The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow. The Brooklyn-based trio is part of the crowded folk-country wave that has emerged over the last few years to include the Avett Brothers, The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers, among many others. What sets The Lone Bellow apart are their incredible harmonies and their rich songs, especially "Bleeding Out". If you like any of those other artists, check out The Lone Bellow.

The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars. The second album from the estranged Americana duo is even more heart-breaking than their debut, especially with the context of the separation of the singers, John Paul White and Joy Williams. This album is another incredible collection of intertwined harmonies and poignant moments, and the worst part of it is that it might be their last album. It includes several songs that the pair has performed live for up to two years, and although some of the live versions are better, it's still great to have a studio recording. This is probably my favourite album of the year.

In addition to those five standouts, there are a handful of other albums released in 2013 that I think may eventually earn a similar place in my heart. These albums will probably rank among my favourites with more listening, but I wanted to make sure that I mentioned them here.

Avett Brothers - Magpie and the Dandelion
The Civil Wars & T-Bone Burnett - A Place at the Table Original Soundtrack
Fiction Family - Fiction Family Reunion
Gungor - I Am Mountain
The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still
The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Sigur Ros - Kveikur

So there you have it: my top albums of 2013 as they stand right now. I'm looking forward to the chance to catch up a bit on some of these albums I have missed, as well as maybe reflecting on albums from 2012 and 2011 that I may have missed. I'm also looking forward to the new Switchfoot album, Fading West, due to be released in mid-January, as well as a new U2 album sometime in 2014. Maybe there's hope to regain some of the musical momentum I've lost in the last couple of years after all.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A rubric for evaluating Oscar season

With the announcement of the Golden Globe nominees this week, the Oscar season entered its second-to-last phase, the one in which the overall awards gather more clarity, the critics' circles announce their picks, and the final contenders are finally released to theaters over the next few weeks. The entire process culminates with the wide releases of the final films, the Golden Globes being announced, and the Oscar nominees all in early January, after which point it's the final sprint through two months of buzz and Oscar-baiting. So far, this year's awards race has been fairly interesting, and it seems like it will continue to be compelling over the next three months until the final Oscar winners are announced on March 2. But it made me wonder what makes an awards season interesting in general, and why some years are better than others. So I decided to do what any good teacher would do and to create a rubric to evaluate Oscar seasons.

Let's imagine that the Oscars in general could be evaluated on 6 criteria, with 1 extra outlying criterion to encompass any other variable factors. (In case you're wondering, I've loosely based this on the 6+1 traits of writing methodology that I use to teach writing and to evaluate essays.) Imagine that each of these criteria could be measured from 1 to 5, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. I'll explain each of the criteria, followed by some examples.

1. Quality films. It should seem obvious, but the slate of films need to be worth watching in general. A year with many good films - 2009 or 2010, for example - can elevate the season, whereas a weaker year - 2006 or 2011 - will make the overall season less enjoyable. Oscar junkies like me who feel the need to watch many of the nominated movies are a lot happier if we can actually appreciate and enjoy the movies rather than endure them.

2. Actual competition. The most interesting seasons are the ones in which there is genuine competition for several of the major awards; this often goes along with quality films, but it is slightly different, as there can still be quality films and one frontrunner (ie. 2007, No Country For Old Men). It's not nearly as interesting to have a frontrunner that is destined to win as a foregone conclusion, particularly if most of the major categories go that way. There are usually a few categories that are well-decided (particularly Actor and Actress), but it's better to have several films competing across the board. The worst example I can remember was 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire), in which almost every category was predictable; in fact, of my predictions that year, the only one I missed was Sean Penn for Best Actor, and even that was because I was playing the odds that the Academy might have taken a less traditional route with Mickey Rourke.

3. Meaningful omissions. There have to be some worthy nominees omitted in order to validate the films that were included, but the omissions have to be reasonable and justifiable. Of course, there will always be some people who advocate for the most random films, so I'm not counting every omission as a "meaningful" one. That said, there needs to be a sense that the nominees earned their nominations, not that they were the default picks. But with that in mind, there needs to be valid evidence that the snub was warranted or at least justified by the overall quality of the nominees (much like Best Actor will be this year). An unjustifiable snub can drag down the season; the best example of this was 2008, in which both The Dark Knight and Wall-E were omitted for Best Picture. TDK had its faults, of course, but there was no reason for it not to be nominated as the first comic book movie for Best Picture (as far as I can recall, anyway). TDK's omission has been directly linked to the expansion of the Best Picture category to include anywhere between five and ten nominees, which has had the effect that there have perhaps been too many inclusions and not enough omissions to validate the overall season.

4. Surprises, upsets, and underdogs (or at least the possibility of such). This is connected to "actual competition", but it is slightly different. There needs to be a sense that anything can happen and that at least one award might be given to someone unexpected and (arguably) legitimately qualified to win: Juliette Binoche or Marcia Gay Harden or Tilda Swinton or Charlie Kaufman, to cite recent examples. If the entire exercise seems like a fait accompli and there is no room for artistic merit, it plays into the cynicism that many pundits (myself often included) harbor toward the Oscar process.

5. Interesting personalities. Part of the whole process is having the personalities involved be at the forefront. Sometimes, that means the big stars like Clooney or Bullock or DiCaprio; sometimes that means the auteurs like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix or Amy Adams; sometimes that means the unexpected personalities who come to prominence like Roberto Benigni or Jean Dujardin; sometimes that means the young actors finding their way like Jennifer Lawrence or Jennifer Hudson. Either way, the type of stars involved in a year can distinctly sway the overall quality of the year.

6. Satisfying results. Again, it should be obvious, but the entire process needs to be validated by the results, regardless of the specific merits or demerits of a film or cohort of films. Whether a film was the best film of the year or not, there needs to be a sense that, in some way, it deserved to win; Argo in 2012 was not the best of the year, but it earned its victory. 1998 and 2005 could have been some of the best years for Oscars based on the other criteria, save for the fact that Shakespeare in Love and Crash won, respectively, invalidating much of the accomplishment of the season otherwise.

7. Intangible variables. This is the "+1", the extra things that can sway a season; these are factors that might not make or break a season on their own, but they can make a good season great, or even redeem an otherwise blasé season. They might include a wide variety of possibilities: an historic film (Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King); a controversial nomination or omission (ie. Ben Affleck and others for Best Director in 2012); or any other extraneous narrative strands that contribute to the whole picture (ie. James Cameron against ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker in 2009).

For the two decades I have been "covering" awards season (I start with Schindler's List in 1993 as the first year I really was able to pay attention to the process), I could go through each year and apply the rubric in each category and rank them accordingly - but I just don't feel like going through all of that work right now. But the reality is that I probably already know by intuition which years will end up on the bottom and which will come out on top. The worst years are most likely 1996 (The English Patient) and 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire); the best I can think of are probably 2007 (No Country for Old Men) and 2009 (The Hurt Locker); the rest are somewhere between those extremes. It would be possible, I'm sure, to further apply this rubric to all 85 years of the Oscars and to generate a master list; if I were a paid columnist writing for a site with significant traffic, I would probably attempt to do so, but I'll leave that for another time. Still, I would imagine that 1972 (The Godfather) would probably be near the top of the list.

Now, as to 2013, and where it seems to sit. There is a strong slate of quality films that will contend for nominations. At this point, there is no clear frontrunner (though many critics attempted to pre-emptively name 12 Years A Slave as the presumptive winner), and there looks to be distinct competition in 5 or 6 of the 9 major categories. There will be some omissions, particularly in the Best Actor category, and it seems like this might be a year for a surprise or two (Her?). Many big personalities are looking to be nominated for acting, including a couple of awards-season newcomers in Matthew McConaughey and Michael Fassbender, as well as personalities behind the camera like Martin Scorsese. It's too early, obviously, to comment on the results, but there are a number of intangibles that could swing the entire season over the top, including the discussion of racism from 12 Years a Slave, for example. It seems most likely that 2013 will be a solid year from what we have already seen, and I'm looking forward to how it unfolds over the next three months.

Films I need to see over the next couple of months (in order): American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Captain Phillips.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On existential malaise

I have been thinking about writing this post for a month, but I was either too busy, too sick, or too disengaged to write it. But I think that writing, as I have observed innumerable times in the past, is part of my therapy. (It probably helps that I'm reading some Donald Miller right now, and his writing always pushes me to reconsider engaging with my own.) I write this post knowing that it's more for me than for anyone else reading it, but I hope that in my giving voice to some of these thoughts here that it might not only help you understand me but also yourselves. I also write this post knowing that it could be misconstrued as a self-pity party or a cry for help or a flippant attitude toward my life, and I want you to know that it is none of those things (at least by design). This is my attempt to capture the moment, so here goes; I will mostly be writing this as a "stream of consciousness" without much self-editing, just so that I (and you) can really get a picture of me at this moment (or, at least, what I'm choosing to project).

Some of you will have picked up on the fact that I have not been doing particularly well since mid-to-late September, especially if you have been in contact with me in that time outside of online interactions. I cannot point to any one or two events in particular that incited this "not-okayness", other than to say that it is a general malaise that has permeated all areas of my life: professional, emotional, intellectual, relational, spiritual, personal, existential. At various points over the past three months, any one of those areas might have been okay or even good, but my general state of being has been "not good". And for me, this is very out of the ordinary, as I can recall only two other previous periods in which I have had any kind of extended not-goodness: my fourth semester of university, just after I decided to change my program; and my twelfth (!) semester of university, when I was just kind of fried by life as a whole. In both cases, the semesters ended and I was able to move forward with life after a few months.

When I think about these two periods of life, there are a few similarities that carry forward through to these past few months. I had lost something, whether it was direction for a career or a relationship or hope for the future. I was not particularly engaged with my community, regardless of how supportive it may have been. I did not particularly like my physical setting, and I felt aimless and directionless in general. I did not sleep or eat particularly well, and I didn't really care. And if you're reading this thinking, "gee, it sounds like he was depressed", you're probably right.

I hesitate to use the "D" word because of the medical, psychological, and cultural implications and connotations it carries, but if you take away all of those "official" meanings, I would describe myself as "depressed" - as in flattened, weighted down, trapped, disengaged. I don't use it in the sense of "I struggle with depression", because I think that trivializes the struggle that people who actually struggle with depression have, but more in the metaphorical sense of feeling like all of the air has been squeezed out of me - maybe "deflated" is a better metaphor, one that does not carry the same gravitas as "depression". Either way, I think this gives a clear(ish) idea of how I have been feeling.

If it seems like I have an unusual amount of self-perceptive acuity about my current situation, it's probably because in some ways I do. Most of the time I know what's going on, even if I feel powerless to stop it or change it. I might understand cognitively what is going on (or, then again, I may be incredibly self-deluded), but I am still in the midst of having to feel the weight of the emotions of it all. The weight of four years of professional disappointment. The loss of relationships due to my own negligence. The weight of thirty years of expectations, all coming to whatever this is. The feeling that all of the talents and relationships and experiences and likes and skills and connections and things and hobbies and travels and passions and tidbits of information and blog posts and games and jobs and friends and memories and days and months and years all don't really add up to anything, or at least anything that will propel me forward.

It's not that I feel like everything is hopeless, or that life is meaningless, or that I have nothing to live for, or that this will never end. I know that this, too, shall pass, and that this is but a short season in my life. But I also know that more days than not that I don't have good days, particularly when I'm at home not working. I know the things I should do to change my circumstances, yet I often choose not to do those things. I have to-do lists and projects and all of the time I could ask for to do them, but I just don't do it most days. Usually, I have the willpower and the strength to push myself through the not-goodness, but I haven't lately, and I think that's by design. I think I'm supposed to really feel all of these emotions as I'm going through them, and that I'm supposed to allow myself to sit in it. Please note that this is not a resignation or defeat, but rather an honest admission that even in the midst of the past few months of feeling this way that I think that there is (and will be) a purpose in these experiences, and that I need to let them be what they are for now without trying to power myself out of them.

That is not to say that I can't try to make little changes or to set goals for myself. I'm going to try over the next month to accomplish little steps to rehabilitate myself emotionally, relationally, and personally. I'm going to treat this healing process with care and with candor, and I'm going to have to work hard to remember that it is going to take me some time to recover from these past few months. I'm going to have to remind myself that I will still have days of "not-goodness", and that I cannot measure myself by my failures (or my successes, for that matter), but rather by the overall progress I make, however incremental it might seem. I just need to take one day at a time and not judge myself by my usual norms, and I need to remember that I know, deep down, that everything will be okay - probably even good. And I need you to help me remember that when I don't (or can't or choose not to, whatever the case may be). Writing this post was one of my first steps, and it's funny how I feel better even now, knowing that I have put this out there for you to see and for me to give voice to my feelings. And that's all I can do is take one step at a time.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grey Cup 101: Riding high

For only the fourth time in 101 Grey Cups, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are the champions. I suppose that every championship is memorable, especially when they come so rarely, but this 2013 team set itself apart with how they won. After it looked like they might lose against BC in the West Semi-Final at home, Durant took over. His numbers over three playoff games: 60 for 77 for 795 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. The Riders scored 109 points while giving up only 61, and they dominated their final nine quarters in a way rarely seen. This Cup was won authoritatively, and it was so much more than just a Grey Cup win. This win is about the past, present, and future of the Riders.

There were a lot of ghosts from the past that were excised on Sunday night, including the victory over former QB Henry Burris. This was vindication for the past five years of heartbreak, least of which was the loss in 2009 and the repeat loss in 2010. This was the end of the doubts for everyone who questioned the team in the last half of the season. This was the end of the joking about the 13th man and the disappointment in not winning one for Ken Miller. This was the end of doubts about whether Durant could win it and #dariansfault. This was also the silencing of reminiscing of the Riders' last win in 2007. Don't get me wrong: we loved 2007, the dream season under Kent Austin, the championship that just appeared seemingly fully formed, gift-wrapped, almost too sudden to really appreciate it. The Riders would not be where they are today without that championship to kickstart the reasonable expectation of success, but let's face it: that Cup was about the past, not the future. 2007 was about the players who had endured a decade drought of even appearing in the Cup, and whose hearts were broken year after year by either the Lions or the Eskimos. 2007 was the culmination of all of the hard work of Danny Barrett and Roy Shivers, who worked so hard to restore the Riders to respectability both on and off the field from 1999 to 2006. It was about the genius of Eric Tillman, who put the final pieces in place to secure that team's place in history: coach Kent Austin, QB Kerry Joseph, RB Wes Cates, and many others. But even when we remember that 2007 Cup, it's mainly about Austin, and it still seems surreal. But 2013 is very real and very present.

2013 was about the players who are playing now, and it was about Rider Nation. Almost every player, from Durant and Dressler to young players like Sheets and Heenan to prodigal son Chick to newly adopted Riders Simon and Hall, was part of the victory. Every single one of them has said that they could not have done it without the fans, and I believe it. This was not a team playing by itself on the field; this was a team propelled by an insatiable need not only to win it for themselves, but for all of the fans - both in Saskatchewan and the Rider diaspora - who have invested so much of themselves in this team. The Riders are a synecdoche for the province: the once have-nots who are now, after years of turmoil and trouble, finally firmly established as flourishing. It's no wonder that people are flocking back to Saskatchewan at record rates (100,000 people in the past decade), as it has never been better to be there, or to be a Rider fan.

But 2013 is also about the future of the Riders, as this team's dominance was a statement of the promise of years to come. This is a team that is built to win and to keep winning, with a strong young core of players who love playing with each other in Regina. Of course, the CFL is incredibly swingy, and teams can go from worst to first (or vice versa) in a season, but the Riders have established not only a winning team, but also a winning culture. Winning is expected now, and it's reasonable that it should be expected. Saskatchewan has one of the best home-grown talent development streams in the country (if not THE best), and players from Saskatchewan want to come play for the Riders. Sure, they won't win every year, but for the foreseeable future, they will be one of the teams to beat, and they will play hard against every team in every game. This team has accomplished so much in the past and in the present, but something tells me that the future holds something more for these Riders, and that they are not done yet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Head up, shoulders back

I was certain of one thing going into Sunday's CFL game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the B.C. Lions: that Darian Durant would not let the Riders lose. I was confident in the team's ability to win, though not blinded to the possibility of a loss, but I knew that their quarterback would not be the reason for the loss. Three quarters of the way into the game, it looked like I might be partially right, as the Lions seemed destined to win, though through little fault of Durant's performance. It ended up that I was right, and I was personally inspired by how Durant led the Riders to victory. Allow me to recap how events unfolded in the last quarter of the game, forgiving the necessary football terminology, and then I will explain why it was so meaningful for me personally.

The Recap: Riders vs. Lions, November 10, 2013

The Riders had not played well for most of the game. Except for a drive near the end of the second quarter that resulted in a touchdown to Weston Dressler, it seemed like BC's game to lose. The Riders had not held the lead since the first quarter (3-0), and they were down 25-16 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. Things did not look good at that point, even as the team got the ball back at midfield. Durant fumbled a handoff to a teammate, and though he managed to recover it, it seemed like it might not happen for the Green and White; a few plays later, the team was stopped on a 3rd & 1 conversion for the first turnover of the game, and the loss that seemed improbable at first now loomed as inevitable. The defense forced a two-and-out, but it seemed like the win might already be a fait accompli for the Lions. Then something changed.

On the last play of the third quarter, on 2nd down with nine yards to go, Durant pulled off a quarterback draw and ran up the middle to get 15 yards and a first down. Two plays later, after an incomplete pass left the team facing 2nd and 10, Durant called the same play and ran for 35 yards to put the Riders in prime position for a touchdown, which Durant delivered moments later in a pass to Dressler, leaving the Riders trailing by two points. After a five-and-a-half minute drive resulted in a field goal for the lead, Durant successfully rushed on 2nd and long twice more in the final minutes to extend his team's drives and ultimately secure the win. His final numbers were telling: 19 of 23 for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns to go along with 97 yards rushing, including 76 in the fourth quarter alone (91 if you include the run to end the third quarter). Durant decided not to let the team lose, and they didn't. He needed a lot of help along the way - two touchdowns by Dressler and five field goals by Chris Milo, along with a shutdown of the Lions' offense by the Riders' defense - but Durant was the inspiration for the rest of the team.

Watching Durant lead

What really struck me was how Durant ran, particularly in his 35 yard run. Most QBs scamper and hunker head down when they run, attempting to eke out the minimum yards necessary to make the first down before they crumple and slide to avoid a hit. Durant ran powerfully, with his head up and shoulders back, choosing to run as much as he could before going down to avoid a hit - not out of cowardice, but out of wisdom, as he knew that incurring an injury to himself at that point would be foolish and pointless. He ran knowing that he needed not only to get the yards, but to inspire confidence in his teammates that they could - and would - win the game. He chipped away at the Lions' defense, which was still successful in neutralizing running back Kory Sheets, one of the most explosive backs in the league, by completing short passes and then running himself when he needed to. He was the leader that the team needed on Sunday - though it has been quite a journey from his beginnings with the team five years ago.

Durant started out as a young quarterback playing above his expectations, as he led the Riders to unexpected Grey Cup appearances in his first and second full seasons in 2009 and 2010. He suffered some injuries in 2011, along with some coaching changes that set him back, and he had to re-evaluate himself and re-establish himself as the leader he had shown extended glimpses of being in his first two seasons. After another new coach in 2012 and a difficult first-round loss to Calgary, Durant came back with a vengeance in 2013, starting off with one of the best half-seasons ever by a CFL quarterback. He and the Riders trailed off after their torrid 8-1 start, in which Durant did not throw an interception until his 9th game, but he (and the team) recovered and still ended the season well: they finished 11-7 and he threw for 31 TD and over 4100 yards against only 12 interceptions. Even during their final 3-6 stretch, in which the team had a lot of missed opportunities, Durant was referred to as a "veteran leader", and he knew that he would have to get the team back on track for the playoffs. He proved it especially on Sunday, as he did not seem like the young mistake-prone quarterback exceeding expectations, but the established leader who knew himself and his team, and how to get to that victory even when it seemed unlikely.

The personal connection

The reason I took particular note of Durant's performance on Sunday (and indeed his entire career) is because I have felt a particular kinship with Durant. He is six months older than I am, but his professional career as the Riders' QB has mirrored my career in Victoria almost exactly in length (the timing, of course, varies because of the discrepancy between the CFL season and the school year, but just stay with me on this one). Like Durant, I started off in Victoria strongly, with two years of teaching in my subject areas and a lot of success professionally and relationally at my school and in my church community here. Then, like his injury-laden season with coaching trouble, I had a similar year of challenges after being laid off and working as a teacher-on-call for a year. Then, like Durant, I had a new opportunity to establish myself; for him, a new coach, and for me, a new school. But like the Riders' 2012 season, my season was ended abruptly, and I was left looking for answers (as well as a new job) in the off-season.

Like Durant and the Riders, I started my next "season" strongly; in my case, this included two summers that bookended a school year. I directed a successful camp ministry at the Forge (my church), followed by surprising success in working as a teacher-on-call in 2012-2013, particularly with younger kids, as I spent a surprising amount of time with students in K-5. I capped off the overwhelmingly positive year by again directing Forge Camps in 2013, a time that I consider one of the most rewarding I have ever had in ministry (or employment, for that matter). But like the Riders in 2013, my record has been different after Labour Day, and I have struggled significantly over the past two-plus months of working as a teacher-on-call. I have had some good periods in the past nine weeks, but I have been in a rut most of the time: not feeling motivated, not feeling successful, not able to manage my time well on days off, etc. I have not been able to explain it or even figure it out, but these past two months have been some of the hardest in my life. Just like the Riders' 3-6 finish, my struggle hasn't made a lot of sense, per se, but I have still had to deal with it in the meantime.

"Head up, shoulders back"

And on Sunday, I broke in church. Publicly. Crying. If you know me, you know that I don't do that. Ever. But I did, and it was hard even going to church that morning because I knew going in that I would need to break, and that it needed to be with everyone, and that it was what I needed to do to be not only the person I needed to be but also a leader in that community. So I asked for prayer, and people gathered and prayed for me, and I sobbed and my wife sobbed, and something in me broke; I got lots of hugs after the gathering was done, as well as a number of words of encouragement from a number of people who know me well (as well as a few that don't). One of the main prophetic words I received during the prayer time was from a friend who had the phrase "head up, shoulders back" very clearly for me. It resonated immediately, because my attitude over the past couple of months has just been to (metaphorically) put my head down and just power through this difficult season of life, mostly on my own strength. It's clearly not working, and I needed to break down and have someone point it out for me.

What the Riders were doing on Sunday was not working; the fumble and subsequent failure of 3rd & 1 showed that clearly. So what did Durant do? He responded to the situation as it unfolded around him, he changed the way he led, and he ran forward with his head up and shoulders back. He inspired his teammates, and he earned that victory on Sunday. He still used the previous methods, including Sheets' running game, with limited success, but it was the overall shift in his composure that made the difference between winning and losing. Of course, it's not going to get any easier for him next week going into Calgary; in fact, it will be even harder, and the team might not win, despite his efforts. But they're going to try, and they're going to leave it all on the field (I hope). And that's what I'm determined to do in this season: I'm going to do my best and I'm going to do everything I can to change my composure just like Durant did. I don't know if I can make any changes to my current state of employment or living situation, but what I can change is my attitude and my focus. Instead of just trying to get through, I need to hold my head up and put my shoulders back and to focus my attention in a different direction. In my case, I need to look to my faith in Jesus, as well as looking toward the areas in which I can experience success. I need to look to those around me to inspire me and carry me when I can't take it. And I need to remember that regardless of the outcome of the season that it's all worth it for the journey.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

On Contemporary Christian Music

I recently went to the local Christian bookstore to pick up a new album. It's not a habit I try to keep, but for some releases it's just easier (and cheaper) to have them order it in, rather than trying to order it from Amazon or even through HMV. In this case, the album was the new collection of worship songs from Dustin Kensrue - the former lead singer of Thrice and one of my favourite songwriters - entitled The Water and the Blood. I took a few minutes to look around the store, as I often do, mainly as a way of keeping in touch with what has been happening in the Christian music and publishing industry in recent history. The question, it seems, is why I would feel the need to do that; the answer, I think, is multi-faceted. Part of it is market research: knowing what's out there, who's saying what, and how it might intersect with my life through the people around me who are consuming that culture. Part of it is personal interest, as every so often I find something that I would not have otherwise found, perhaps a new release from a favourite author or artist, or a book title that intrigues me. And part of it is nostalgia: a way of keeping in touch with that part of my past, whether it was my time working in a Christian bookstore six years ago or my time as a Christian-music-only listener in my early university years. I bristled as I waded through the aisles of kitschy baubles and unfortunate trifles to make my way to the music section, and what I found there fascinated me.

I took a few minutes to look through the store's selection, as well as the top releases. Among the artists featured prominently in the store's selection were: Third Day, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, Kutless, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, tobyMac, Plumb, Steven Curtis Chapman, Jeremy Camp, Matt Redman, Sanctus Real, Jars of Clay, Martin Smith, and Skillet, among others. Notice anything strange about that list? It's almost identical to the artists that were featured in 2003, a full decade ago (and not a lot different from 1998, for that matter). So I decided to inspect the track listing of WoW Hits 2014, the 19th (!) edition of the most popular tracks in Christian music to see if it was just this particular market's idiosyncrasies or whether this was a wider trend. Of the thirty tracks on the album proper - I overlooked the "bonus tracks" which deliberately focus on new and upcoming artists - only five tracks were from artists that were newly prominent in the past five years. I was curious, so I did a quick check to see how many artists on WoW Hits 2014 were prominent in 2003, and the number was a staggering fifteen - fully half of the album's roster. Just pause for a second and let that sink in: of the most popular artists today in Christian music, half were popular a decade ago, and over 85% were popular five years ago. That's a staggering statistic.

Now, I do recognize that this cursory examination could be criticized as providing a limited perspective, and that it is entirely possible that a wider look might give a different picture. So I looked at the top Christian/Gospel songs and albums at Billboard. On the songs chart, the numbers were similar, with about half of the 25 songs by artists that have been established for a decade, and 6 or 7 songs by artists who have appeared in the past five years - slightly higher than the WoW compilation's ratio, but not much. The Christian albums chart was even more telling - of the 25 albums, three or four were by new artists (with one surprising inclusion of former Live singer Ed Kowalczyk - when did that happen?), and the remaining albums all by decade-long established artists; that's over 80%, even more saturation from artists from 2003 than on the WoW Hits 2014 song list.

So, to recap, that's somewhere between a 50% and 80% possibility that if an artist was popular in Christian music in 2013 that they were popular in 2003. I took a quick peek at the number one albums on Billboard's Christian music chart from 2003 to see if the reverse was true - that being in popular in 2003 meant you would be popular in 2013, and I found only two exceptions: Evanescence, whose career trajectory changed shortly after their initial success after then-member Ben Moody released a tirade about having been released in the Christian market in the first place; and Stacie Orrico, who apparently has a new album coming out in 2014. (The only two other arguable outliers were Michael W. Smith, who won a Dove as recently as 2012, and P.O.D., who still had a number one Christian album in 2012, long after their relevance in the greater musical world.) Granted, 2013 and even 2003 are a long way from 1993, when dc Talk's Free At Last topped the charts for 34 weeks of the year, or 1983, when Amy Grant's Age To Age was the top-selling Christian album every week of the year in the midst of an 85-week streak atop the charts, but my point should be clear by now: when you make it in Christian music, you stay in Christian music, unless you have some grave moral failing. And even then, you can regain your status and come back to the fold, as did Grant, who recently topped the charts in July with her new album.

All of these stats beg the question: why is there such a staggering lack of innovation in CCM (contemporary Christian music)? There are many arguments to be made here, all of which have likely played a part in this functional stagnation. The nature of producing and selling music is different for the entire music industry, as fewer artists are produced by major labels in general, so it is no surprise that there are limits within CCM. In addition, the ability for artists to distribute their music independently is entirely different than it was a decade ago, so many artists can now choose to distribute their music without a middleman (ie. the labels) and deliver it directly to the listener; this is how NoiseTrade started, in large part due to co-founder and former CCM poster boy Derek Webb. The internet - iTunes and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the like - have almost completely revolutionized the way we interact with music and musicians, starting sometime in early 2006, around the same time that iTunes reported its one billionth download (Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" on February 22, if you're interested).

But perhaps the central argument is that the scope of CCM is very narrowly limited. It is almost entirely based in Nashville, and its distribution is highly centralized. The industry's awards - the Doves - are a significantly "insider" event, and many critics of CCM have pointed out the (metaphorically) incestual nature of the industry. Furthermore, there is a very tight definition of what constitutes being "Christian" and a strict code of morality that persists anachronistically. If an artist does not adhere to that limited definition, which seems to be primarily centred in Conservative American Evangelicalism, they are not allowed into the industry. And even established artists have to earn their way in; just look at several artists from Tooth & Nail Records who started on the outside, but have now been accepted by the industry (eg. Kutless). It's far easier to maintain a relatively binary model of acceptance, both for the producer and consumer, than it is to open up to dialogue and discussion, and a narrower focus makes it easier to market and define what is "Christian music" and what is not.

Of course, many people would rightfully ask, "why should we even care"? After all, isn't this whole idea of defining music as Christian or not anachronistic in and of itself? It seems so passé to even be thinking about the idea of labels, much less Christian music, as the hyper-individualism and constant self-determination of the iTunes and YouTube age of music has created a culture in which the consumer is paramount, the artist significant, and the producer seemingly irrelevant. So perhaps it doesn't matter, or it shouldn't - except that CCM still sells albums, and it exists as a commercial force, though not a particularly influentially artistic one. Despite the fact that it lacks innovation, lags a half-decade behind in trends, has little diversity, and is almost completely culturally irrelevant, CCM still exists and influences the listening tastes of perhaps millions of listeners.

Is it entirely a bad thing that CCM is still doing its thing? Probably not, as it does appear to provide a useful service for people who want their musical choices pre-edited and sorted according to arbitrary non-musical factors (ie. the faith of the artist). I'm sure that there are arguments to be made about censorship and editing and artistic control and brainwashing and the opiate of the masses, and were I feeling more ideologically driven, I would probably take the time to make those arguments here. But it seems like a lot of effort for little return, so I refrain and treat CCM mostly as an amusing oddity that occasionally produces great artists in spite of itself. I kind of like that there are at least a few artists who make it through in CCM who are worth my attention; my current cause célèbre is The City Harmonic, a Canadian CCM worship band that I have discovered in the past two months, and one that likely would not have as much of a presence without CCM. So CCM exists, and my occasional interactions with it are enough to pique my interest, make me shake my head, chuckle at the quaintness of it all, and ashamedly recall the time a decade ago in which I listened to nothing but Christian music.

Perhaps no band better exemplifies the last decade of CCM than San Diego surf-rockers Switchfoot, who will release a new album entitled Fading West in January 2014. In the midst of that admittedly embarrassing Christian-music-only phase, I remember proclaiming in Feburary 2003 that Switchfoot's album The Beautiful Letdown heralded a significant shift for Christian music. Here was a band that started in CCM, made the successful crossover to the mainstream, and established themselves as a cultural entity with their presence on the soundtrack for the movie A Walk To Remember. Letdown had hits that made it on the main charts, and their subsequent album, Nothing Is Sound, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, though it dropped quickly thanks to Sony's short-sighted DRM copyright protection. They released their final major label album, Oh! Gravity, in late 2006/early 2007 to less commercial success (No. 18 debut on Billboard), and then they went away to record a new album as an established independent band. Their two albums released so far received not insignificant airplay and attention, and the band now has artistic freedom, as well as commercial success within and without the world of CCM. They owe where they are to CCM, but they are no longer bound by it; they benefit from their exposure in CCM, but they're not limited by it.

That's perhaps the lesson here overall: CCM is still meaningful for people, but it is not the entirety of the conversation on Christian music as it was even a half-decade ago. Even though most of the artists are the same, and the industry itself has not changed, the world around it has. The listeners are better off, and even CCM itself is the better for it, even if they don't have the capacity or willingness to acknowledge it.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Oscars 2013: Early thoughts

The narrative is well under way to the Oscars, which will take place in just under four months on March 2. The nominations will not be known until mid-January, but the speculation is already well under way, as the regular columns started in late September. Kyle Buchanan's Oscar Futures at Vulture updates which films are up and down weekly in each category, and Mark Harris writes his perspectives at Grantland about once every week and a half. Most of the real contenders are already established and widely agreed upon, even though they have not been widely released or screened for the masses; of course, there is some argument as to whether this is a good thing or not, but it still is fairly clear which films will likely come out leading in award season. What is far less clear is which films will ultimately come out on top, as much of the posturing and advocating is yet to come. Of course, there are always a few surprises in the last two months, whether they are supposed frontrunners that are critical failures or that fail to gain the necessary traction at the box office, or previously unknown films that ride a groundswell of support to a surprising run. But still, by this point, we know probably at least 80% of the films that will dominate the conversation over the next few months.

When I wrote this post last year (admittedly with two extra weeks of knowledge at the time), the only film that was not a part of the overall conversation at the time was Amour, and the only frontrunner that dipped was The Hobbit (although The Master did fail to break through outside of the acting categories. This year, the field seems even narrower than last, with only eleven films currently mentioned as major contenders - the ones that seem like they will vie for Best Picture and most of the primary awards. The list currently includes (and likely will continue to feature): 12 Years a Slave; American Hustle; August: Osage County; Blue Jasmine; Lee Daniels' The Butler; Captain Phillips; Gravity; Inside Llewyn Davis; Nebraska; Saving Mr. Banks; and The Wolf of Wall Street in some order. There are a few minor contenders that may have an opportunity to be recognized for a performance or two, or perhaps a screenplay nomination, and right now, that list is much shorter, with fewer than half a dozen films on that radar, including: All Is Lost; Dallas Buyers Club; Don Jon; Enough Said; and Rush.

With those titles in mind, here are five films that I think may earn a place in the conversation with their release over the next two months - call these my wild cards.
1. The Book Thief - Though the adaptation of the young adult novel has received little buzz and some middling early reviews, it does feature a favourite setting for Oscar (the Holocaust), as well as a couple of often-noticed performers (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson).
2. Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom - Not much has been released about the new biopic of young Mandela, but never count out The Weinstein Company, high-profile biographies, or black actors who deserve to be noticed (ie. Idris Elba).
3. Labor Day - Jason Reitman's newest film is a drama, rather than a comedy, but Reitman along with stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin might be enough to ensure this film gets a second look.
4. Out of the Furnace - Young director Scott Cooper's last film, Crazy Heart, went on to two wins for 2009, and his newest might have the same kind of surprises in store. With a cast that features Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepard - all of whom have been nominated or won in the past - this could be the ultimate dark horse for the year.
5. Her - Spike Jonze's first effort in four years has had a quiet reputation so far, which perhaps best befits the tone of the film. Jonze has been nominated before as Director, though he could also receive some attention for his screenplay this time, as could star Joaquin Phoenix.

So, with those lists in mind, here are a few early observations and some very preliminary predictions; after all, if I'm wrong, I haven't lost anything, but if I'm right...well, I haven't really gained anything, I guess, but it would be great to know I was right.

1. I am puzzled by the lack of attention toward The Great Gatsby, and I still would not be surprised to see it re-enter the conversation beyond the possible artistic nominations for costumes and set design. It features a director who has been nominated (Luhrmann), a high-profile star (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young ingenue (Carey Mulligan), beloved source material, and it made a lot of money. It may not have the kind of critical support necessary to get some of the main nominations, but it seems odd that it wouldn't be mentioned at all.

2. I'm further puzzled by the lack of attention being paid to Leonardo DiCaprio. He is one of the most bankable, marketable movie stars working today, and he has not one but two notable performances in 2012, with Gatsby in the books and The Wolf of Wall Street finally coming out in December. He has been in the conversation for performances in each of the past five years, but his last nomination was for Blood Diamond in 2006. I think he breaks that streak this year, likely for Wolf; I don't know if he'll be able to win, but I think he'll be a strong contender.

3. It seems like 12 Years A Slave will be one of the dominant entries this year, and that its presence will really bring a focus on the status of African-Americans in film, much like Precious did in 2009. It is with a sense of irony that critics note this fact, as director Steve McQueen is British, but the writer and stars are mostly American. After last year's highly-criticized "whitewashed" versions of slavery in Lincoln and Django Unchained, it seems that 12 Years A Slave is perfectly timed to enter into that discussion and perhaps redefine it. But with three of the major contender films dealing with issues related to racism, this is easily one of the most significant years for black filmmakers. My wild card prediction is that the total number of black directors ever nominated for Director will double this year, with McQueen and Lee Daniels taking two of the spots.

4. American Hustle will be the film that finally earns David O. Russell an Oscar (for screenwriting), and it's going to nab a couple of acting nominations too. All five of the principal stars have been nominated for Oscars in the past three years, and four of them for films by Russell (with two victories). It's entirely possible that Hustle could be the film with the most nominations, if it lives up to its advance billing.

5. Matthew McConaughey and Michael Fassbender break through with nominations after several years of "almost but not quite" making it.

I have a very long list of films that I know I will need to see at this point, but my top films to see are definitely 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llweyn Davis, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street. It's just too bad that several of those will not be released here for another two months. Maybe I should just go see Gravity again...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Turning over a new Leaf

It's a strange sight: the Toronto Maple Leafs are leading their division ten games into the season. With Tuesday night's victory over the Anaheim Ducks, a team that entered that game on a seven-game win streak, the Leafs officially established that they are a team to watch out for this year after their unexpected (and unfortunately shortened) playoff run in the spring. With that effort last season, I started to renew my interest in the Leafs not only as a brand (which is how my fandom carried through the lean year after the lockout), but as a team and as individuals.

This 7-3 start marks the Leafs' best start since 1993. That team started off the season 10-0 before finishing second in their division and losing to the Canucks in the Conference Finals that year. The roster of that team is still revered by most Leafs fans, and it continues to be immortalized in NHL '95 (which still receives semi-regular play in my house): Gilmour, Andreychuk, Clark, Anderson, Borschevsky, Ellett, Macoun, Potvin. That streak was when I officially became a Leafs fan, and it was probably one of only three windows in the past thirty years in which any rational person not living in Toronto would have chosen the Leafs for a team; the other two were the 1998-2002 teams that beat Ottawa every year in the playoffs, and this current 2013 edition.

Maybe someday the Whale will rise again...

For the first time in over a decade, this is a team that has character and personality - something sorely lacking since that Sundin/Roberts/Joseph heyday of 1998-2002. There is a sense of the team as a whole, as an identifiable team, that was so sorely absent for much of the past decade. For a long time, it was "Mats Sundin and a bunch of cast-offs", sometimes overlapping with the "I'm just riding out my time here until I get traded to a contender" veterans, and not to leave out the "might be good players someday but probably won't be because they're playing for the Leafs and have ridiculously high expectations and low support which is a recipe for disaster and probably being traded and then becoming an All-Star or least a serviceable player on a decent team" kind of players.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2008 Toronto Maple Leafs (as seen in The Love Guru).
Now there is a genuinely interesting group of players who are young, talented, excited to play together, and who love playing in Toronto. There are fascinating individuals: the still-young veterans Kessel and Phaneuf; the breakout stars Kadri and Reimer; the oft-injured electric wingers Van Riemsdyk and Lupul. Even their off-season acquisitions were exciting for the first time since they signed Curtis Joseph in 1998: Bernier, Clarkson, and Bolland all fit the mold nicely; Rielly is a great young player; and even Bozak might not have been a bad player to retain (even though it essentially cost the team Grabhovski, thus continuing the trend of Russians not playing up to expectations in Toronto). I genuinely feel like I can cheer for most of these players as people, not just as products of the Maple Leaf team.

Awww, they're hugging...

But this team is not interesting only as a group of players; it's also interesting in terms of the way the game is played and evaluated. Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown wrote a great article for Grantland about how the Maple Leafs are genuinely one of the most interesting teams in the NHL this year because of how they have defined conventional knowledge and found a way to win despite the confluence of advanced statistics that continue to state that the Leafs' current success is flawed and ultimately will fail. McIndoe explains it well, but in summary, he discusses how the Leafs fail at most of the advanced metrics that are now being used in the NHL that focus primarily on possession and control, and that they are one of the luckiest teams in recent memory. They are arguably closer to the pre-1995 lockout method of building teams than any Leafs team or other NHL team has been in the last twenty years - a blast from the past. This is a anachronstic team that would fit perfectly into that aforementioned world of NHL '94-'95, and it's going to be fun to see how it ends up for them over a full 82-game schedule.

I had the chance a couple of weeks ago to watch a topsy-turvy game between the Leafs and the Oilers that the Leafs ended up winning 6-5 in overtime. Although it was nice that the Leafs ended up winning in the end, I realized partway through that it didn't really matter if they won or lost; it was actually just fun watching them play. And that's the joy of this season: regardless of how things end up - as long as they make the playoffs, of course - it's going to be fun to watch this team play. They are finding their way as a group and forming an identity in one of the most demanding sports markets that exists, and they seem like they're enjoying it. We fans are enjoying it, too: after a decade of playoff irrelevance, bad coaching, shoddy management, and poor play, we finally have a team worth cheering for. Go Leafs go!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Practice of Creativity

I was working as a teacher-on-call yesterday, filling in for teachers while they were in short meetings all day. I was all over the school, from French to Math to PE to Industrial Arts. Although I was only in the IA room for about ten minutes, I was impressed by the projects the students were working on (as well as a little wheezy from all the sawdust in the air), and I started to think about my own limited experience in woodworking. In Grade 8, we had to make the choice between IA and Home Ec; I, like every other student in the class, took IA. I remember that I made a sign ("No Smoking", I think) and a key holder and a towel rack, because they're all sitting very nicely in a plastic tub in my storage room, alongside the (award-winning) wooden cars that I crafted and designed with my dad for the AWANA Grand Prix each year. But after those elementary years, I never had any interest in creating things on my own out of wood (not that it was that pronounced anyway). I still appreciate the worksmanship, and watching those students at work got me to thinking about how I have been creative and what it means to be creative.

Discovering my creativity

Visual art was never my thing: I never liked Art class in elementary school, and I opted not to take Art as soon as I had the choice not to in Grade 9. This came despite my family's artistic history: my mother's father was a commercial artist for the Co-op for several decades, and my mother continues to work as a caricaturist and cartoonist as she has for 25 years. Granted, I did not have great art teachers, but I think that part of the issue was that I did not like the process of experimenting and not knowing how things would come together or the possibility that they might not. I liked things that had structure and answers and concreteness, and art did not - or at least I came to believe that was the case. (I have a whole story about Ukrainian Easter Eggs from Grade 8 that typifies my perspective from the time, but it will have to wait for another time.) So I was never a visual artist (at least until discovering bead sprites last summer).

One way I was creative was as a musician. I played trombone for seven years in concert band and jazz band, and I always valued the collaborative nature of playing music in an ensemble. I never explored music individually as a writer or creator, but I still value playing music as a creative enterprise. I revived this practice after nine years away from playing, and I really enjoyed playing in a band for the two years I did it; unfortunately, life just got to be too much, and I had to prioritize my time, which meant leaving the band two years ago. But I do always hold out hope that I might one day be able to pick up my sackbut again.

But the greatest of the arts for me was drama. I had often acted in plays and skits at church, some of which were relatively extensive productions, but I had never really been involved at school until I watched some friends in Godspell in Grade 9 and realized that I could actually do what they were doing. In Grade 10 and Grade 11, I acted in school two musicals, as Fyedka in Fiddler on the Roof and Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, as well as roles in some of our school's entries into the drama festival. I also kept myself busy with Christian drama team called Snow Creek Ministries that traveled throughout the prairies to spread the message of abstinence to teens (wow, that is such a 90s sentence right there). SCM involved acting along to pre-dubbed voice tracks and choreographed dances; when I look back at it, it's highly amusing that I was part of it, but I enjoyed it at the time, even if the choreographers had to accommodate my terrible co-ordination and rhythm. I also started to write and direct some skits at church. I got to be a master at the punchy fundamentalist morals, but I would also like to think that I had a bit of quality in those productions. I still have a couple of (thankfully) unperformed scripts that may someday be revealed, including one that had the main conceit of two teenagers having to apply for a license to have sex and the confusion caused therein (I know it's highly unoriginal and overly preachy, but I was 15 and fundy, so give me a break). But what mattered more than the material was that I was being creative, and I was discovering my niches of creativity.

Skits and Drimes

For most of my undergraduate career, I mostly left those musical and dramatic creative pursuits behind, at least at a formal level. I did not have the time to play in a band, and I certainly felt that I could not participate in any dramatic productions with my other time commitments. So during my first few years as an undergraduate, my dramatic creativity came out in smaller settings: leading skills at summer camp and establishing and leading a drama team called "Fruit Salad" that was part of our Christian group on campus (and yes, we knew about the jokes therein). We performed dramas that consisted mostly of those aforementioned skits with a highly moralistic concept and resolution, but it was still creative. We did a little improv, but it was mostly funny only in that limited context. Still, we were actually mostly good at what we did, and we were invited to perform at a couple of events for international students and a church (or two, maybe?). But what we did the best - our chosen form of presentation - was drimes.

Drimes - short for "dramatic mimes" - for the uninitiated people who were not part of Western Canadian church culture in the late '90s and early '00s - are short dramas that are acted and choreographed to a song. One of the earlier and more popular skits was performed to DC Talk's "In the Light", but I preferred to create my own drimes. I directed several drimes over the course of 2001-2003, which involved picking the songs, choreographing the movements, adapting the action for the number of actors, and directing those actors in where to go and how to act it out. It was always incredible seeing how the ideas would come to be, particularly with a group of 12-14 year-olds at camp who would get it together in five hours' practice, and I loved the process of crafting drimes from start to finish. There was an art to picking the songs: they needed to conform to basic 4/4 time, and they also needed to be narrative, clear, effective, and punchy in their presentation. The list of songs I used is indicative of my primarily-Christian music predilection at the time: Jars of Clay's "Love Song For A Saviour"; Third Day's "Who I Am"; Brave Saint Saturn's "Under Bridges"; Kutless' "Run"; Seventh Day Slumber's "I Know"; Superchick's "Hero". I had several more ideas - most notably Collective Soul's "The World I Know", Creed's "My Own Prison", and a few years later, Linkin Park's "What I've Done". I stopped creating them after I moved back to Saskatoon and started a new program, as not only did I not have a context for creating them anymore, but I also did not have a desire to do so, as I started to rethink some of the ways I had been acting out my faith (pun intended) in my admittedly overzealous early years of university. (I suppose I should be glad that this all happened before the age of iPhones and YouTube; I would certainly have kept evidence that I might have felt compelled to share against my better judgement.) I suppose part of me has always held onto this phase of my creative development; after all, the reason I remember these so well is that I found a list on my computer with scripts and ideas.  Well, I actually knew I still had the list, and I have kept it for a decade for some reason; the lesson, as always, is that I am a nerd.


My start as a writer really came when I was in Grade 11. That was the first time that I really started to identify myself as a writer and to consider developing and pursuing my craft, and I began to orient myself toward schooling that would lead me to that career. I entered university under the auspices of applying for the School of Journalism at the University of Regina, and I immediately started as Opinions Editor at the school paper, the Carillon. I'm slightly embarrassed now at some of the things I wrote as a 17-year-old (particularly the time I created a quotation for an article and had to admit it when my Editor-in-Chief put it on the front page), but I was part of something creative. Over seven years, I learned to be an writer, columnist, editor, and eventually a blogger, even as I decided to veer away from that profession and to pursue education. And even though I may have been young and naive, I am actually still proud of a number of articles that I wrote over the years. I still have everything I wrote - some still in electronic form - and one of my goals in being creative in the near future is to scrapbook them and maybe even post them online in a searchable archive.

In my later university years, I still wrote for the Sheaf (the paper at the University of Saskatchewan), but I also learned how to create, amend, and refine constitutions and bylaws for non-profit organizations, and I was able to put my creativity to the test in helping establish (or re-establish) organizational structures. It might not seem like there is a lot of creativity to this style of writing, but it is actually quite demanding, as it requires both an understanding of the application and nature of the concepts and language necessary to create viable "legislation" (such as it is), as well as an intrinsic and intuitive understanding of the nature of the community or society to which it is being applied; call it creative adaptability, if you will. To this day, I still write this way, and I have created handbooks and guidelines in almost every position I have occupied to help those who come after me.

And I also learned how to blog. It's hard to believe that I have been writing for almost a decade in this way; of course, it's probably even harder to believe the relative lack of output considering the scope of time of input. Still, the fact that I'm still here and that this is still part of who I am as a writer is kind of unbelievable, and I've always come back to blogging as a manifestation of my creativity. I have had a few side projects over the years, including a few side blogs that eventually fizzled as well as being published on sites like Relevant magazine and Patrol magazine, but I always come back here. The amount of my output has waxed and waned over the years, fluctuating as a result of external stimuli in life, primarily my marital status and state of employment; it's probably not a surprise that my most consistently prolific period in the past eight years came when I was both established in my marriage and gainfully and meaningfully employed. But the desire to be creative has never waned, and I have always felt like I have had more ideas to write than I have had time to do so. Even now I have at least a dozen ideas that I would love to develop into posts; I just have not felt like I have had the time to do so.

Creativity and teaching

As I finished university and stepped into my career, I quickly found a new avenue for my creativity: teaching. Some aspects of teaching were directly connected to those creative enterprises I had left long in the past; for example, I had the opportunity to help direct several dramatic productions in my first few years of teaching. Most of what I have been creating as an educator is much less tangible, however. When I was teaching in my areas of English and Social Studies, I was able to create lessons, projects, units, and even courses to communicate certain ideas and concepts. Some teachers are really uncreative in how they do that, but I relished the opportunity to be innovative and creative in what and how I did it. I am still really proud of the unit on "life, legacy and meaning" that I designed to start English 12 that started pre-Beowulf, proceeded through Chaucer, Browning, Coleridge, Shelley, and other poets, and ended with The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane (and directly preceded the indepth study of Hamlet). I really enjoyed teaching the unit on Canadian Identity from 1945 to present in my Social Studies 11 class, and I loved developing a Christian Perspectives 10 course from scratch.

Of course, that creativity ended over three years ago. My work as a teacher-on-call and on probationary and temporary contracts since has been at best creatively non-fulfilling and at worst emotionally draining. One of the hardest things about working as a teacher-on-call is that I have very limited ability to be creative. I am continually working within someone else's construct and expectations, and the management of their structures as well as the successful navigation of non-established relationships with students and staff constricts the creativity that I can have on any particular day. I occasionally get glimpses of it - like when I helped some Grade 12s get a grasp on Act 3 of Hamlet last May, prompting one student to repeatedly yell a very rude word inspired by Hamlet's sexual wordplay with Ophelia - but I am mostly stuck managing the environments or babysitting while students do their work. It's not optimal, but I'll take what I can get until I am able to step into a teaching position that allows me to expand my creative horizons once again.

Creativity in a challenging context

Here's the thing with being creative: either you are or you are not; there's no kind of or partway or half measures. True creativity takes full measures of time, energy, effort, and space; just ask Walter White. The creative process changes and evolves and overwhelms and consumes and defines and supplants and imposes itself on our lives, and it mandates attention. This post itself started as a short reflection and turned into a biographical behemoth that consumed three hours of my day, as well as 3,000 words and hopefully a few attention spans for a few minutes. I do have other things to do, of course, but I decided to put them off for today once I started the process of writing this post. I opted to prioritize creativity as a way to bring life to my week and to sharpen me in the midst of a life situation that I feel consistently dulls my creativity. Even though I feel the tension of having stuff to do, I am glad that I made this choice today, and I recognize that this is the choice that I need to continue to make: to be creative in spite of whatever else is going on around me.

It is a challenge to pursue creativity in spite of challenging circumstances, such as my relative dearth of professional creativity, other than managing my life and work; after all, I do suppose a certain amount of creativity is involved in the amount of networking and juggling I have been doing in my work as a teacher-on-call. But it feels right now like most of what I am doing is drawing me away from being creative, and that I've been in a relative rut for the last year or so (camp months excepted). I have been able to be creative in my tenure in church leadership, particularly in the past two summers as Camp Director, but that's not enough for me; I need to make a habit of creativity. As I wrote and reread my stories here, that's what I've realized that I'm missing: the constancy and expectation of creativity. I suppose that's why I wrote this post - to try and figure out what was going on with my creativity and how to fix it. And now that I think I've landed on the issue, I need to implement the solution.

It's not for lack of options, as I have a lot of ways to be creative. I would love to write more consistently and to write those dozen or more undeveloped ideas and and to finally develop my site into a full archive of my writings. I would love to continue to pursue my various social media and to learn to do podcasts and become a more widely known critic and reviewer. I can start making bead sprites regularly again. I can play board games and video games and enjoy media that inspires me. I even have embryonic nuggets of ideas for television series and young adult fiction novels and at least two books and a card game, any of which I would love to develop into something more malleable. And even finally finishing scrapbooking those articles would be significant.

So what's the solution? It seems tautological, but the solution is to take time to be creative. Nothing creative will happen without sacrifice and change on my part, as creativity does not just happen extemporaneously. It's obviously not the inspiration that's an issue, so it must be the perspiration (to paraphrase a clichéd adage). I need to make time to be creative and to work things out and for things I try to fail. I need to make time and space and to put energy and effort into being creative. And I need others around me to continue to urge me to do so, which is where you come in. Get on my case if I don't post, push me to write, ask me what I think about things, encourage me when I do by responding, and be creative yourself. Let's be a creative community and make a habit of being creative collaboratively. Let's practice being creative and see what comes out the other side.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Top 5: High school confidential

After working mostly with primary and intermediate grades to begin this school year, I have finally been teaching in a high school again this past week. It has been fun to work with older students again, and it has been great to be in the culture of a high school. I also recently finished reading Jian Ghomeshi's music memoir 1982, which was all about his grade 8 and 9 years and watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is about a high school freshman, so I have been reflecting on my own high school experience a lot in the past week. It has been a fun exercise, if not a little awkward, to try to remember what I was like in those formative years and to reflect on my overall high school experience, which was primarily positive and certainly atypical.

It always occurs to me when I intake any media that portrays high school that I had a completely non-normal experience in high school. I never went to a party, I never drank or smoked anything, and I only had anything close to a girlfriend for a total of one week in Grade 10 (and even that was mostly just one night at a Halloween party, so I don't really count it). I didn't get my driver's license until halfway through Grade 12, and I only worked during summer and during the Christmas holidays, so my time was mostly devoted to my studies and the activities in which I was involved in and out of school, along with the few friends I had. I was a top academic student (90+% in almost every subject) and I was highly involved in the life of the school (editor of the school newspaper, male lead in the musical, leader of the Christian club on campus, trombone in band and jazz band, announcer at and host of the annual basketball tournament, visible in most public events) to the point that I was awarded both the public speaking award and the overall school spirit award at graduation, as well as being named "most likely to succeed" by my peers. In short, not a typical four years of high school.

I think this atypical adolescence in part actually makes me a better teacher. Some of my peers seem to be teaching high school because they never wanted to leave or never matured out of it (a cynical point of view to be sure, but not necessarily untrue; you all know the type of teacher to whom I'm referring). I like teaching high school because of the formative nature of these years and because I know that it does not have to be like the stereotypical high school experience is portrayed. I love being able to encourage teens to try new things and find themselves and to create a safe environment, both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities, in which students can do so. Sure, it's still destined to be awkward and weird along the way (I certainly was), but it can be fun. I know that I managed to make it through with no real regrets about who I was or what I did, and I love being able to help teens find that path.

Of course, when I say that I have no real regrets, I mean that I do not have any overtly negative memories or experiences that clouded my time in high school. I loved the things that I did and how I did them and the people with whom I studied and acted and edited and worked. I did everything I wanted to at the time - but yet there are still a few things that I wish I could have made the time to do, knowing who I am now and who I have been along the way. Of course, I have remedied some of these in my teaching career, so maybe I'm making up for lost time and those regrets in my career now. Here are my top five things I would have liked to have done during my high school years.

5. Worked a regular job. I worked seasonally, but I did not work during the times in which school was in session (save for a couple of weeks before Christmas). It's not so much the income that I missed out on, but the life (and work) experience that I could have gotten. Well, and I probably would not have so many student loans now. I had vowed never to work fast food (and I still haven't), but it would have been great to be in a work environment more consistently over those years.

4. Debate / Model United Nations: I group these two similar activities together, and I chalk up this absence to a bad experience with Debate in Grade 8; I was named "least likely to succeed in debate" at the "Johnnies", the year-end awards for debate, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy in my high school years, as I didn't even try. (As an aside: you should never allow kids to give those kinds of awards. I'm not sure if the teachers wrote that, or they just allowed it to happen, and I remember thinking it was kind of funny based on my experience that year, but that should NEVER EVER happen.) I did not have a good partner for the debates in which I participated (likely because I was mostly an insufferable jerk for most of my middle school years), so I never really got into either of them. But when I think about my skill set at that age, I could have been really good at debate; it was a missed opportunity, to be sure, along with Model United Nations. MUN was always one of those maligned groups that only the really nerdy kids were part of, and despite what you may think given my current nerdiness, I couldn't get past that fact to participate. Plus, I didn't really know what it was; if I had ever investigated, I know I would have enjoyed it significantly.

3. Bible Quizzing. While not a school activity, quizzing takes place during those years, so I've included it here. I did not know about Quizzing until I was in Grade 12, and my life was already too full by that point to join. But I would have destroyed at it. Quizzing involves memorizing books of the Bible, anticipating questions, practising weekly, competing against others, and becoming very skilled in a set of information; in short, my wheelhouse. I have no doubt that I would have been able to represent the district at Internationals, a feat that sounds impressive and kind of is considering that something like 12 quizzers were chosen out of over 500 to go each year. I coulda been a contendah, and I would likely have had a more established group of friends during those early high school years (I ended up meeting many quizzers in university, including the one to whom I'm married, so I didn't entirely miss out after all).

2. Student Council: That's right, I was never on Student Council, though it was not for lack of trying. I knew I would never win a popularity contest from my peers, so I never tried to be elected that way in Grade 9 and 10. In my last two years, the option was presented to be selected by a committee of teachers and current student council members to ensure that the entire enterprise was not decided by a popularity contest; an admirable idea, to be sure. I tried both years, but I was inexplicably omitted both times; I say inexplicably because I actually still do not know why I was not selected, except that I was not supposed to be there. I also ran for the Senior Watch, the elected male position to represent the school; I did not come anywhere close to winning, but I still got 100 votes out of 1000 students, and 10% is pretty good in my books. It is an interesting mental exercise to think about how my senior years may have been different had I been chosen, as it is likely that I would not have been able to do any of the other activities that I really enjoyed leading. So in the end, I am glad that I was not on Student Council, but I still kind of wish that I could have been, if you get what I mean. The funny part about the whole experience was that because I was so involved in almost every public event (pep rallies, etc.) and I was good friends with most of the seniors on Student Council, most of the school thought I was on Council anyway. Maybe I'm just not cut out to be a politician after all - I'm better as the strategist behind the scenes, or the commentator on the sidelines.

1. Played any team sport. My greatest regret is that I did not play any team sports in high school; the only sport in which I participated was Track. I ran in Grade 9 and 10, and then I realized that I could not compete with the club guys. I do remember winning a heat in the 200m once (though it was very slow) even though my legs went lactic on the home stretch and I collapsed over the finish line; that was my early queue for "retirement", so I stopped at that point. I did not even take Phys Ed in Grade 11 or 12 partially because it was not required and mostly because I had many more interesting subjects to take, like all of the sciences and maths, band, and French, along with the required English and Social Studies courses. I had quite a few options at my school (though several, including basketball and volleyball, were automatically ruled out due to my lack of height and athleticity), but I never played any; they weren't even on my radar after Grade 10. I thought hard about football the summer before Grade 10, but I decided against it (and what position would I have played anyway?) and saved my knees in the process. I could easily have joined one of the curling teams, but I didn't; both football and curling actually won provincial championships in the time I was at school. The closest I came was when I tried out for the soccer team in Grade 10; I went to every practice, and I even got my high school nickname ("Heppy") out of the experience, but I was the only cut out of the guys who had really tried out (ie. who had gone to more than one session). Now, I was resolutely terrible at soccer, so it made sense that I would be cut, and I was mostly trying out because I had friends on the team who encouraged me to do so, so I was not devastated. As it was, I was too busy with what I was doing outside of sports, so it was probably for the best that I didn't make it, but I do wish I had found a sport in high school. If our school had had an ultimate frisbee team, or a rugby team, I might have been interested, but it was not to be. There are a lot of good lessons to learn through sports, and I intend to ensure that my kids learn them through involvement in team sports someday. I suppose, though, that I will have to model that to them, so maybe I should start now; after all, it's never too late, right?

CanLit (Them Able Leave Her Ever)

The first thing I did last Thursday morning was to grab my phone and check the news. I usually only do this in special circumstances: sports playoffs, movie awards season, or when something otherwise extraordinary might happen because of a pre-scheduled event. In this case, I really wanted to see who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, because Canadian Alice Munro was one of the frontrunners. I had never read any of Munro's work before (though I have read some in the past week), but the idea that a Canadian could finally win captivated me, so I was very pleased to read that morning that she had been awarded the prize this year for her mastery of the short story form. As many Canadian novelists, poets, journalists, and bloggers have written, it felt like a long-overdue victory for Canadian literature, and I can be counted among those who are quite happy to see our national body of work validated in such a manner. Munro is the first Canadian author to win the prize, as I refuse to consider American poet Saul Bellow as "Canadian" just because of the location of his birthplace. In the same way, I also refute those critics who have tied Munro's victory to New Zealander Eleanor Catton's 2013 Man Booker Prize as a victory for CanLit; Catton was born in Canada, but moved to New Zealand when she was 6 years old, so she in no way represents anything about Canadian literature. So in light of this recent focus on Munro's work and CanLit in general, I have been reflecting on my own experience with CanLit (as evidenced by this post's title, taken from a poem by Earle Birney) as a student, teacher, and reader.

Becoming Aware of CanLit

The first time I was ever really aware that there was such an entity as "Canadian literature" (CanLit for short) was when I was in Grade 12. The Saskatchewan English 12A curriculum mandated that the teacher focus exclusively on teaching Canadian literature (the second half of the year focused on the rest of the world). I had read stories and poems (and perhaps even a novel or two) that were Canadian, but it was almost an afterthought that these good stories happened to be Canadian. In Grade 12, we read stories, poems, a novel, and a play because they were Canadian - not to mention well-written. I do not remember everything we read, but I do remember some of the highlights: Sinclair Ross' seminal short story "The Painted Door"; Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, and W.O. Mitchell's brilliant satirical play The Black Bonspiel of Wullie McCrimmon, a story about small town Albertans who curl against the Devil and his crew - a play I now teach after finishing Macbeth. I know we read a few poems and other stories, but they have all faded into memory.

The problem with that course, I felt, was that the primary (or in some cases only) theme or idea that tied these works together was that they were Canadian. It seemed to be an arbitrary external imposition of national literary identity with the intent of fulfilling a quota, rather than an organically derived, naturally driven confluence of ideas. (Or perhaps I just think that in reflection - I'm not sure that I put that much thought into thinking about high school English.) I still did appreciate, however, for the first time, that there was a Canadian canon of literature and that it was actually worth reading. In the next few years, I did not read much Canadian literature in my first years of university, other than Will Ferguson's Why I Hate Canadians. CanLit just really did not matter to me at the time; I was in my late teens, after all, so it should not be that much of a surprise. I wasn't necessarily avoiding it; it just didn't really have a draw or appeal for me at that age with that life experience. Besides, I just wasn't really interested in reading much literature other than the books I was studying. I also finally read The Lord of the Rings at the end of my first year (to have it finished before the movie came out, of course), only to reread it for a class just over a year later, and my forays into Middle-Earth consumed a lot of my recreational reading time in that period.

Defining CanLit

After a couple of years, when I was in my third year of university, I took a course on Canadian Literature. At that point, I knew I was planning to teach high school English, so I thought it behooved me to know my subject. We read three novels in the course - Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion, and Margaret Laurence's The Diviners - as well as a selection of poems and short stories. I remember that the professor talked about some of the ideas that tied CanLit together - Margaret Atwood's concept of survival, the search for identity, the pioneer spirit, the need for diversity - but it still felt imposed and somewhat disjointed as the primary reason to read literature. It also was not a great course the way the professor taught it, as she essentially recapped the things we had read during our in-class "discussions". At any rate, it did not really stoke my interest in CanLit; what did bring me around was all of the media interest in Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which was newly minted as the Man Booker winner at that point. There was a lot of conversation about CanLit at the time, so I started to open my mind to reading more of it. A few years later, I had the chance to teach a unit in English 12A while on my internship for teaching. I wanted to make sure that the students were exposed to a wide variety of texts, so I brought in a number of poems, essays, and stories in my attempt to do a one-month overview of the major themes of CanLit, which required me again to reactivate some of that previously acquired knowledge and experience in Canadian literature. But admittedly, it still felt forced to teach such a wide variety of ideas and texts as one homogenous entity.

A significant issue in understanding and classifying CanLit is that Canada and its literature are in and of themselves so diverse that it is really hard to bring any sense of order or continuity to CanLit as a unified body. Indeed, one of the biggest struggles in the history of CanLit has been just how to unite this disparate group of texts under one simple moniker; and despite all of the efforts to do so (as mentioned earlier), I'm still not sure that it has been fully accomplished. There are several distinct cultural regions in Canada - even a grossly oversimplified list should delineate between the coast, the prairies, the tundra, Toronto, Quebec, the Maritimes, Newfoundland, and the Arctic - in addition to the various cultural identities that exist - eg. Métis, First Nations, Québecois, Scottish, English, Eastern European, South East Asian - each of which have equal and valid claim to being "Canadian". In short, the idea that CanLit even exists is somewhat troublesome by nature, just as almost any national identity being reduced to a simple moniker in order to be classified is problematic.

Teaching CanLit

With this in mind, I think that it's awkward to designate that a course (or even a unit) has to focus on material that is Canadian. I know that's the only way that some teachers would actually teach books by Canadian authors, which is more than a little disappointing to me. I'm certainly in favour of having a quota of content of literature that students study be Canadian - somewhere between a quarter and a third - but I would rather that curricula have to mandate that teachers incorporate Canadian works. Then again, I know that I need to work at integrating more texts by Canadian authors into my secondary English instruction, as I can tend to gravitate toward more traditionally accepted texts that tend to be American or British in nature. I need to be part of the generation of teachers that acknowledges that Canadian literature and its history is not uninteresting, and that the history of other nations is not superior to our own, as we often imply through our selection of texts.

I think that we need to study works by our authors and to make sure that future generations are exposed to the history of our nation as seen through our writers and artists. And I think the best way to do this is to integrate CanLit with all other forms of literature; in fact, I would like to see us do away with most delineations of authors based on national identity - at least at the high school level. At higher levels of education, I recognize that it can be useful to examine themes and motifs that originate from particular cultures or nations, but I think that most of our focus in secondary English education should be on developing thematic understandings and integrating Canadian texts into those units. When I get my own classroom again (assuming the curriculum allows me to) I certainly intend to incorporate Canadian text more directly and intentionally.

So why do I read CanLit?

This whole discussion brings me back to my original inspiration, that Alice Munro's Nobel win has refocused attention on CanLit and validated it as a literary entity. My reflections on how I have interacted with CanLit over the past decade and a half have made me think about how I currently incorporate CanLit into my life. There is a professional motivation to continue reading CanLit, as it makes sense for me to be aware of the authors and ideas that are out there, and it enriches my experience as a teacher to have read a greater swath of the canon, since it is part of the curriculum to do so. But it also has meant that most of my pull toward CanLit is professional, rather than personal, and that when I do read books by Canadian authors, I admit that despite my intimations or intentions otherwise, I mostly read them out of a feeling of obligation more than out of an authentic pull to do so.

As I have looked over my lists on GoodReads, I have realized that I still do have a significant number of Canadian authors on my radar, even if I have not read many of their books recently (other than Jian Ghomeshi's memoir 1982). I do try to read some of the established canon, as well as new releases that are worth reading by significant authors or that receive media and/or awards attention. Still, I'm mostly ashamed to say that I have not read most of the nominees for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Awards, or in the Canada Reads competition. Only one of my favourite "must read" authors is Canadian - historian, comedian, essayist, and novelist Will Ferguson. In theory, I like reading CanLit; in practice, I'm much less inclined to do so.

There are many reasons for this, but the primary reason is that I read from a fairly wide variety of genres and time periods amongst which I try to rotate regularly. I try to balance reading classics, science fiction, contemporary fiction, non-fiction in several genres, biography, books about Christian faith, young adult literature, Shakespeare.... Several of these genres do not have strong Canadian representation; for example, there are not many Canadian science fiction authors that are very popular; in fact, there are only three that have received wider attention from the SF community: Atwood, Robert J. Sawyer, and, as I just discovered in my searching, A.E. van Vogt, whose work I now need to intentionally investigate - but I digress. When I think about it, it would be a lot easier to narrow my selections down and just focus on one or two areas - but I just can't; I like reading a wide variety of authors and ideas, and it makes me a better teacher, reader, and person overall. Still, I try for every fourth or fifth book I choose as one for "enrichment" - a book that I feel I should read or one that is part of the more widely accepted canon; perhaps this seems arbitrary, but it's a way to ensure that I keep on improving as a reader. CanLit mostly falls into this category (unfortunately), and it has competition there, with the result that I only read a few books by Canadian authors each year.

So what have I learned? I would like to read more books by Canadian authors, so I need to be more intentional about doing so. I need to deliberately incorporate works of CanLit into my reading rotation to ensure that I read more of it. I have a few on my immediate radar: Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness, Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes (which somehow I've never read), and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. But regardless of why I choose to read CanLit or how much of it I actually read, I still make a point of the exercise because I think that it's important to understand our national identity through the lens of our writers, as well as participating in my own small way in the preservation of that established canon of literature, not only as a teacher but also as a reader. And my hope and belief is that Munro's Nobel Prize win will help others to come to the same realization and make the same choices in their consumption of literature. I am proud to be Canadian, I am proud of our literary culture and tradition, and I am proud to be entrusted with teaching this heritage to the next generations.


Life of Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Canada License. Subscribe to posts [Atom] [RSS].