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.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The presence of pulp

Four days out, and the internet is still abuzz with discussion of Breaking Bad in the wake of "Felina", the series finale. Andy Greenwald of Grantland talks about Walt's legacyMatt Zoller Seitz of Vulture gives his follow-up thoughts, and others like Emily Nussbaum spit conjecture about whether the entire finale was Walt's fantasy. EW's Jeff Jensen also gives a thorough treatment of the show as cynicism. But the question that most fans have been asking is "what's next?" (Other than rewatching the series from its pilot again, of course.) The obvious answers might seem to be Homeland, which premiered last week, or The Walking Dead, which premieres soon, but I'm not sure that those answers are sufficient. Here's why. And yes, I know that I kind of answered this question with a post earlier this week, but I feel like I didn't quite say everything I needed to say - hence this post.)

Television as an evolving medium

For the first half-century of television, TV was seen (perhaps accurately) as the little brother of film in terms of creative success. The perception was occasionally disrupted when something really good aired, but it was not consistently challenged until the 1990s when programs like Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and ER began to increase the overall quality of the medium. Much like film, which aside from a few aberrations (eg. Citizen Kane, Casablanca) spent much of its formative years in a pulpier format, TV started that way and then began to grow. The past fifteen years are clear evidence that the trends have been changing - just look at the evolution of the list of nominees for Outstanding Drama Series for the Emmy Awards for proof. It used to be that actors would take TV jobs when they couldn't make it in films; although that still is the case occasionally, it is more common now for established stars to make forays into television (particularly on cable) without damaging their movie star cred. Of course, there still is a stratification of "TV stars" and "movie stars", but the line is blurring.

One of the main appeals of Breaking Bad was how it created television that had rarely been seen. As an example of a written, crafted series, it is preceded by The Wire and paralleled by Mad Men. These are shows that are based highly in being scripted with continuity and with a lean-ness often reserved for film. Cable has given television the ability to strip away most of the extraneous material often included with bloated network seasons which are often twice the length of cable seasons. The resulting product just is not as good for serialized television, which is why there have been few successful serious serialized dramas on network TV in the past fifteen years of the cable age - and the few there have been either have had significant "episodic-ness" to them (ie. House), altered formats or moved to cable (ie. Southland), ended quickly (ie. Kings, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), or continued well past their "best before" date (ie. Heroes). In fact, many of the serialized shows that have had success on network TV have had one thing in common: pulp.

Pulp Fiction

The idea of "pulp fiction" is derived from stories that were published on pulp in the first half of the 20th century to save money. They were associated with quantity over quality, and they were seen in stark contrast to "serious" literature. They often featured emerging genres that had not yet been fully accepted into the mainstream, and many of our current genres owe their origins to pulp: fantasy, mystery, western, sci-fi, adventure, horror, romance, etc. Of course, the idea of pulp fiction became more or less irrelevant around 1950 for several reasons: the development of the paperback novel; the economic boom after World War II; the diversification of the interests of the population; and, perhaps most significantly, the introduction of television. There are still genres that are primarily pulpy today - westerns and Harlequin romances pop to mind - and there is still a sense of pulp even within the works of best-selling authors like Tom Clancy or Stephen King, but I think that one of the interesting hallmarks of the latter half of the twentieth century was the adoption of pulp by television and the emergence of TV as the primary purveyor of pulp for the masses.

For all of the aforementioned advancement and growth of TV as a medium, much of it remains unabashedly pulpy. Even in the aforementioned nominees up until this year, there are still one or two pulpier nominees each year. Desperate Housewives was perhaps the apex of the past decade, but many of the most popular dramas on TV are pulp factories: NCIS; CSI; Scandal; Grey's Anatomy; Revenge; Once Upon A Time. True to form, this season's new network dramas are accordingly pulpy: for example, a mastermind criminal helps the FBI find his foes in The Blacklist; Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is deliberately (and rather delightfully) pulpy in its concept and execution.

What I find particularly interesting is how many cable shows currently have the feel of "pulp" to them, and how popular they are. True Blood, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead all have that pulpy feel enhanced by their supernatural characters and excessive nudity and violence. Boardwalk Empire, and to some extent Downton Abbey, revel in their revisionist historical pulp. There is significant pulpiness in shows set in our current context such as House of Cards, The Newsroom, and Homeland (after Season 1, anyway). Dexter always had an element of pulp to it in its premise, but at its best it transcended it to become something more; at its worst, well...if you saw the finale, you know.

The purpose of pulp

When I first started writing this article yesterday, I vacillated between several alliterative titles: "in praise of pulp"; "the problem of pulp"; "the pleasure of pulp". I couldn't quite make up my mind as to whether pulp (as I've defined it, which is in itself somewhat loose and fraught with problems) was good, bad, or neither. I decided to settle on starting with the premise of determining its existence and prevalence and evaluating its permanence and then moving on from there (thus leading to the eventual title). Then I read Jensen's article, in which he describes Breaking Bad as "arty fun pulp" and I was conflicted. I had begun building the concept (in my mind, at least) that pulp was to be avoided, that it was the bane of the true TV fan, that it was for the masses; the burgeoning thesis of my post, undone with one short turn of phrase. Then I realized that Breaking Bad, despite my earlier thoughts, does have some pulpy aspects to it (eg. exploding head turtle bomb, train heist, "magnets!" - you get the idea); even the finale itself feels a little pulpy as a revenge fantasy. But it never lets those aspects detract from the true story or from the construct of the series; the pulp is firmly in balance within the greater picture. And that's when I truly realized: we need pulp, and it's not a bad thing.

Pulp has a place and a purpose, and it should be part of each medium. This is, it seems, the question that many critics face: does my enjoyment of pulp invalidate my ability to appreciate the artistry of the medium? My answer, at least, is "no": there is the fanboy part of me that can enjoy pulpy films like The Avengers and not have to worry about the logical leaps taken therein; I can enjoy it for what it is, not as an example of "real cinema". I can also enjoy the more serious films without having to not enjoy the pulp for what it is. The trick is in understanding what I am watching and whether it is good for what it is. Pulp has a place and a purpose, and it is there to be enjoyed.

Maintaining the balance

So the issue is not whether something is pulpy; it's when pulp is all there is to consume or when it becomes your entire diet. In the past, I have been able to enjoy shows like Chuck and Star Trek: The Next Generation because they had serious meaningful moments that transcended the pulp ("The Inner Light" is still one of my fave TNG episodes) and because they embraced it when they needed to. They knew that they could at times be unashamedly pulpy, and as long as they did not stay only in that place, they would be okay; this is, perhaps, the greatest failing of Voyager and Enterprise - not maintaining the balance and allowing the show to become either too self-serious or too pulpy (and sometimes both).

I am enjoying Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for what it is. I watch and enjoy House of Cards, The Newsroom, and Homeland for what they are: highly entertaining, highly stylized, and highly unbelievable stories that occasionally transcend beyond being "Important" (with a self-imposed capital "I") to presenting something deep and profound. But I can still enjoy them for what they are, being aware of their flaws (as most pulpy entities demonstrate at some point). Someday I will finally watch Burn Notice knowing what it is. I just always need to keep that balance and watch shows that are not as pulpy to balance out my viewing diet. I also feel the need to do it within the medium - not to allow all my TV to be pulp and my movies to balance them out.

So this brings me back to my initial question: what should follow Breaking Bad? As established, it should be a show that has depth, meaning, vision, and perhaps a little bit of pulp. I really think that The Wire (arguably the least pulpy TV show ever aired) is probably my best best, so I really should get going on my long-stated quest to finally watch it. But that notwithstanding, my best answer for current shows is Justified. It has just enough of the pulp of crime fiction and westerns to hook viewers, but it goes so far beyond those genres. At four seasons in, it provides the perfect balance for its audience, and its two principal characters (Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder) are among the most well-crafted in television right now. Justified is poised to begin its run through its final few seasons in January, so you have three months to watch the first 52 episodes.  It's a little more pulpy in its first season, but by the time it hits season 2, it's lean, mean, and the best antidote to pulp out there.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A eulogy for Breaking Bad

[Spoiler Alert! Turn back if you haven't watched "Felina", the Breaking Bad series finale. I have tried to avoid specifics, but you've been warned.]

It has been 46 hours since I took in the final scenes of Breaking Bad, and I can't shake them. There was a visceral beauty to so many of the shots in the finale, and I haven't been able to get them out of my head; I also haven't been able to stop listening to Badfinger's "Baby Blue", arguably the best use of a song in television ever. I have been reading many different recaps and critiques of the finale, and I really appreciate what they have had to say. Andy Greenwald of Grantland thinks it was a little too scientific in its execution, and that it could have been a little messier. Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture compares it to Dickens' A Christmas Carol and states that he believes the true finale was two episodes earlier in "Ozymandias". I cannot fathom how many more perspectives have been communicated, and I certainly do not want to repeat things written elsewhere, but I have a few thoughts on the finale and the significance of the series that I have not seen clearly outlined in other places.

On Felina

I thought it was an absolutely brilliant ending to the series. Few shows have the opportunity to finish on their own terms like Breaking Bad did. I do agree that there was a feeling of denouement to the final two episodes, but unlike others, I think that it was exactly what was needed. I agree with Greenwald that there was a scientific neatness to the finale, but I think it perfectly fit the tone and tenor of the entire series. I did not need to see Walter in an orange jumpsuit to be justified or to fit the moral of the series, and I am satisfied both aesthetically and ethically with how it finished. The characters who should have lived lived, and the characters who should have died died, as far as I'm concerned. The entire series was justified in its conclusion (unlike the previous week's series finale of Dexter, which cast a retroactive pall on everything since Season 4), and it goes out in the pantheon of "best television shows ever" (somewhere up there with The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, from what I understand from what critics tell me; I've never seen any of the three).

Why did Breaking Bad resonate?

In the wake of the finale, I have been wondering why Breaking Bad has had the resonance it has. It is, after all, a disturbing, occasionally gory and excessively violent tale about a milquetoast high school teacher who erupts as the most violent meth-making force in the American Southwest. What are the reasons that 11.3 million people watched the finale and the New York Daily News reported the ending as actual news? I think that there are five main reasons that the show had the impact it did; here they are, in no particular order.

1. The literary nature of the show. Breaking Bad has a literary quality to it that has arguably never been seen in television, particularly in how it so seamlessly incorporated literary devices into its structure. The flash-forwards became an integral part of the final season as they had in past seasons, and the aforementioned denouement gave the final season and the series overall a literary form that is seldom seen in serial television. The numerous allusions contained throughout the series run - Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass", Shelley's "Ozymandias", Scarface, even Marty Robbins' outlaw country folk tales - not only added to the depth of the tale, but were integral to understanding the events therein.

2. The outlaw/frontier myth. Creator Vince Gilligan happened upon a serendipitous circumstance when New Mexico offered better incentives for filming than the original location of Riverside, California, as NM became as important a character as any on the show. The locale reinforced the cowboy-outlaw-frontier ethos of the show, and the entire series really can be seen as a Western in a lot of ways. I don't think that it's coincidence that films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were released in the same year as BB started, as they explored similar themes of manhood in the midst of the Western genre. I am certain that people have written clearer theses about this fact (and I would love to read them if you find them!), but I think the whole frontier/outlaw ideas became a huge reason that people identified with the show.

3. The overall quality of the show. Almost every key player in the series, whether actor, director, writer, or cinematographer, has been recognized for their work through nominations or awards, culminating in last week's long-overdue Emmy win for Best Dramatic Series. It's visual poetry, and it's one of the best written, best filmed, best directed, and best acted shows currently and ever on TV. It demanded and justified the attention to detail paid both by its creators and its audience (again, unlike Dexter, which made egregious leaps of logic and narrative in its final season), and it kept us guessing right up until the final moments.

4. The character and narrative of Walter White. It's a testament to Bryan Cranston that he was able to keep Walt a sympathetic character despite the atrocities he committed, but it also speaks to the nature of the audience. We wanted to like Walt, and there was something about his narrative that drew us in and kept us going. The entire show was his story, and Cranston's gravitas has enshrined White in any discussion of best television characters ever.

5. The social nature of the viewing experience. TV, at its best, is a communal experience that demands to be shared; that's part of the fun of the immediacy of the medium. Still, there are a few shows that lend themselves to sharing, and BB became that show for the last three years (after Season 3). I myself had not watched it until after the conclusion of the show's fourth season, and although I watched the first half of the fifth season within the time that it aired, it was not a particularly social experience until this last season. I watched six of the eight episodes with friends as they aired, and it definitely enhanced my experience. But there's also something to be said about the show's contextualization in social media and how that delivered a new level of socialization. Other shows have had the same privilege in the past six years, but there is something about how Breaking Bad has done it that sets it apart; perhaps it was just the first, and that made the difference. I might have to think about this one more.

Final thoughts

Breaking Bad, as I wrote two months ago, has changed the nature of the medium of television itself. It has been a special show in a unique time, and there has been, is not, and will not again ever be anything like it. For me, any intense serial show I now investigate watching will be evaluated against the measure of "would I rather watch this or re-watch a season of Breaking Bad?" The answer, I'm sure, will vary, but I cannot think of another show that I have ever considered this way. It made me laugh, it made me cringe, it made me yell at the screen, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Well done, Mr. Gilligan, well done. Now you can work on your spinoff - not Better Call Saul (although I am excited about that one) - the other one:


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