Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The ephemerality of teaching.

Occasionally I tell my students, if something strange happens, "I have the weirdest job in the world." (Un)fortunately, strange things happen pretty often inside classrooms, so I get to reflect on that thought fairly often.

In a broader sense, though, being a teacher brings with it this bizarre confluence of extreme intimacy and, paradoxically, extreme fleetingness. Let me explain.

With this gig, we teach students for five months and then we change 'em up. Each semester is about 88 days long, and each period is about 75 minutes long, give-or-take, which adds up to a lot of time spent together (just over 100 hours, by my calculation).

Have you spent a hundred hours in a room with someone? Even if it's in a group of 30 or so, and even if you're going to be moving around and doing stuff and they're doing stuff and it's a little crazy sometimes, you (hopefully) interact with each kid a little bit every day, almost 90 times. Sometimes it's a hello, sometimes it's a oh my god stop driving me up the wall, sometimes it's a 15-minute conversation describing why their family came to Canada. You cover a lot of ground in five months.

In addition, if you work with kids in extracurriculars such as teams, clubs, tutoring and the like, you get to know them on a totally different level. Plus, they might open up to you in ways that they wouldn't if they were in a classroom; I've coached kids I taught at the same time before, and it really is a different dynamic.

Finally, of course, one's colleagues. It's a weird dichotomy; we have co-workers and colleagues and brothers-in-arms, but in the end, it's just you, alone, in a classroom with the kids. But, these are people you get to know, either superficially or, in my own personal experience, extremely well (for the most part); these are people you're with through babies, weddings, divorces, deaths, house purchases, and everything in between.

But, of course...
  • the semester ends with exams, and you bring in a new group of kids
  • the season ends, usually with a defeat, and next year's team will be different
  • colleagues come and go, move around, retire, and whatnot
And then, when the new comes in, the details of the old fade away, and sometimes quickly. There's no room in your brain for all that detail: it's scrubbed-out and sanitized, and the new pushes out the old. That kid whose name you swore you could never forget? Well, you just saw them in the hall/the plaza/on a subway, and you knew that face, and what was their name, anyway? Gah. Sat in the back corner. Always diddling-away on their phone. Dyed her hair blue after a long weekend.

...hold on, it'll come to me.

...nope. Got nothin'. Jenny? Siyami? LaFawnduh? Baaaaaah. Something like that.

It's an interesting gig in terms of meeting new people, that's for sure. Every walk of humanity comes in and sits down. I heard an old colleague say once, "Some people say that teachers aren't in the real world, but I get more of the 'real world' walking through my door in one day than the average person experiences in a year." I think he was on to something.

But, alas, they come in, and they go. You might see them again, but who knows? It's a small world, they say -- but I wouldn't want to paint it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Greeings from the Sunshine State.

Oh, Florida, you are a weird place.

I've been down here for the past few days, soaking up the sun (a little too much today, whoops -- gotta make sure sunscreen covers everywhere) and taking in some meaningless baseball games. I think this is the ninth straight year I've done this.

I've done this trip with other people, but mostly solo; I get to nerd-out on baseball, get to the park really early, and generally go and do what I want, when I want. It's pretty sweet.

As a consequence, I'm lucky to have met many people -- at the park, while sitting at a bar, or just while milling-about. If Americans are one thing, they're talkative -- and they seem to really like Canada.

Me: "So, where are you from?"

Them: "Oh, I'm from Michigan/New Jersey/Washington, but we're here for a week/a month/the whole winter. Where are you from?"

Me: "I'm just down here from Toronto for a few days."

Them: "Oh, Toronto! I've been there a few times, and I love it/I know someone from there and they love it/I've always meant to go up there, it looks great."

People who actually live in Florida fall into one of these three broad categories, all of which seem to be about equal in number:
  1. They're born-and-raised Floridians.
  2. They were born-and-raised somewhere else, but live here now.
  3. They live here for a few months a year, but primarily live somewhere else.
I had a really interesting conversation with a couple, probably in their late 50s, who fit into category #2; she grew up in Pittsburgh, he grew up in Indianapolis. We got to talking about politics and whatnot, and they were not fans of ObamaCare.

Aside:
Frankly, neither am I. It straddles this weird gap where it's private insurance, but you have to buy it, and that's enforced by a government who will penalize you on your taxes if you don't have it. It's not unlike the situation with Highway 407; if you owe money to the private company that owns it, you can't renew your licence. Very strange, and somewhat troubling.
I'll give it to the couple: they were very nice and genuine, and they actually explained their side of things very well and very calmly. We had a solid discussion, and I learned a lot; because of the Affordable Care Act (or so they claimed), their own health insurance was going to double if they were to get the same coverage -- apparently because the plans had to let in all the people who either can't pay, or had pre-existing conditions, and because young, healthy people would rather pay the penalty than have to fork-out for insurance (much to their detriment should something happen to them, obviously).

My argument was twofold: in essence, (a.) sometimes you have to force people to do something they don't think they want to, in order to benefit the greater society (e.g. single-payer health care), and (b.) put yourself in the position of someone who had been denied coverage because that wasn't profitable for a health insurer; now they can get insurance and can't be turned away.

The first strategy is the broader rationale for a single-payer system; I'm a relatively healthy guy in his mid/late 30s, and I've paid thousands and thousands over the years into the system because it's not a question of if you'll get sick, but a question of when, and you're going to want that system there eventually.

The second strategy is less solid, but seems to be more effective in convincing people individually. I gave the example of a teacher at my school who was denied Long Term Disability Insurance (it helps ensure you get 75% of your income if you're off sick for a long strech) because of an auto-immune condition she's had for years. But, they changed our plan recently, and now everyone's in the LTDI pool, including her -- and she's expressed relief about this to me on several occasions.

Fundamentally, though, it comes down to a question of, "Who do you want to provide Service X -- the private sector, or the public sector?" You draw a line; the private sector supplies things on one side of it, and the public sector supplies things on the other. Roads, defence, the environment: these seem to be public sector. Beer, pens, back-alley handjobs: private sector. It's pretty clear which side of the line each of these things belongs to, and there's not much argument.

But, for something like health care -- and in the US it's a huge industry, worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year -- it's more of a grey area, and the differences between the countries' philosophies sways things one way or the other. Obviously, being a Canadian and all, I believe it should be taken care of by the public sector. My American chums seemed to disagree... actually, it was less "disagree" than "holy shit, if you tried to implement that here, that would be absolute chaos. Plus, there's so much money in health care, that would not go over well with a lot of rich people."

Anyway, I got the impression that this couple did pretty well for themselves, and I have trouble feeling sorry for rich people, so fuck 'em.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Bands need to not try so damn hard to be great.

I try to stay ignorant of most modern mainstream rock (MMR) music. This has been true for about a decade or so; we had some signs of hope in the early-to-mid 2000s there, with your White Stripes and your Strokes and your whatnots. But, alas, bands like that have faded back into indie-like obscurity (or just called it quits and moved on), and it's back to crate-digging for your ol' pal J.

Something that irks me about MMR is how hard bands look like they're trying, when they're up there striking their rawk poses, hammering-away on the three chords they know, singing lyrics about heartbreak so earnestly (and in a manner that suggests their leg is caught in a bear trap), all the while hoping their mascara isn't running.

"We're trying as HARRRRRRD as we CAAAAAAAANNNNN!!!!"

It's irritating.

Knock it off.

Relax. If you've got talent, we'll see it.

Case in point: the early work of Dire Straits.


It's been a while since I saw this clip; I still love the song, of course. And, naturally, the Straits' stock-in-trade at that point in their career was laid-back pub rock, a genre I definitely enjoy.

The thing that strikes me most obviously is that they don't even look like they're trying that hard. Naturally, of course they're trying -- they're on stage, they know they're being filmed, and there's an audience they're trying to please -- but it looks like they're just chilling out and jamming, for the most part, and coming up with a fantastic song.

That takes talent, folks... something in short supply these days, that's for sure.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Song review: "Legend" by Drake.

Local singer Aubrey Graham, from Forest Hill, has released a new album called If You're Reading This It's Too Late. Graham, who was an actor as a child and has now started making music of the hip-hop variety, goes by his middle name, Drake, and has apparently eschewed using his surname.

A curious practice, indeed.

At any rate, the first selection from the album is entitled "Legend". Is Mr. Graham singing about the legends of Arthurian days, with knights and round tables and whatnot? Or is this song about a more-contemporary heroic figure -- perhaps someone along the lines of a Nelson Mandela, a "Sully" Sullenberger, or maybe even Ava DuVernay, the director of the powerful film Selma? We shall see.



The lyrics follow.

[chorus]

When I pull up on a nigga tell that nigga back, back
I'm too good with these words, watch a nigga backtrack

Oh my. Graham goes right for the self-aggrandizement, straight from the top. Gotta hand it to someone who knows his own talents.

If I die, all I know is I'm a mothafuckin' legend
It's too late for my city, I'm the youngest nigga reppin

Graham clearly wades into the Scarborough subway debate, coming down on the side of the LRT; it's "too late" to go back to the original plan approved by Council. Also, apparently he's a legend. And, also, he has a fondness for the n-word.

Oh my God, oh my God
If I die, I'm a legend
Oh my God, oh my God
If I die, I'm a legend

Embracing his spiritual side, I see. Does he see himself as a possible martyr to a cause, should he meet a premature end? He apparently opens the door to this possibility here.

[verse]

I'm up first, I'm on tour, got a girl, she from the South
Used to work, used to dance in Texas, now she clean the house

Traditional family values ring through clearly in Graham's lyrics: his wife, a former ballet dancer, stays at home and takes care of the house.

Everyday, I was strugglin' to learn what life's about
On my way, money taught me Spanish, make it andale

Perhaps his high school didn't offer language courses beyond French; this is somewhat common. But, for a modest fee, a course like Rosetta Stone can help you learn any language you like.

Way up north, packed in Honda cars
They 'on't know who we are
Fuck 'em all, they only pussy niggas shootin' at the star

As their ads suggest, the Honda Civic is the best-selling car in Canada for the past several decades.

Right or wrong, I'mma write my wrongs
They can't live this long

Graham feels it necessary to get his thoughts down on paper, especially when it concerns his misdeeds; powerful stuff.

You don't know where you're gonna go
I got this shit mapped out strong

I'd have taken him for a fan of GPS, but apparently he is a strong proponent of mapping things out beforehand. I'm curious if he uses Google Maps, or if he sticks to the classic paper map.

[chorus]

[verse]

I'm the one, one
Why do I feel like the only one?
Why do I feel like you owe me one?
6 G-O-D, I'm the holy one

Again, his spiritual side shines through. Perhaps a bit of a messiah complex here, however, and a strange attachment to the number six.

Yeaaah, you know wassup
They been off for a minute now
You know they all sentimental now
You know they all actin' different now

Separation from one's friends can highlight the subtle and gradual changes one experiences in one's lifetime. But, upon reunion, these changes are quite noticeable -- including an embracing of sentimentality, which often comes with age.

And I, I just can't pretend
Seen too much, it's so hard for me to let new people in

Similarly, as one ages, one's social circle tends to solidify, making it difficult to acquire new friends. Perhaps Mr. Graham could join a club of some sort, or take up a new hobby in order to meet people.

I can't change, this shit set in stone
They can't live this long
You don't know where you're gonna go
I got this shit mapped out strong

Graham generalizes here to the inability to change other parts of his persona. However, recent research has shown that, if people continue to learn new things throughout their lives, it decreases the decline in brain function due to aging. Thus, Graham does not have to set things in stone.

[chorus]

[outro]

* * * * *

Who am I kidding? These lyrics are idiotic, and his voice sounds like a robot taking a dump. There isn't an instrument within fifty yards, and thus no real "song" to speak of. Holy fuck, this is terrible.