Thursday, 29 May 2014

Step Right Up...

Hello Friends.

This past weekend, I visited my old hometown and took in a street festival. The thing about street festivals is that attract the same calibre of attendees as outdoor music festivals, and those attendees are among the worst people in the world. Frustratingly, I read Facebook updates after the fact where several old friends posted that they had attended the same festival. Didn't see you there, gang! Instead, I saw an awful mix of hippy dippy henna tattoo types, burlesque dancers, old gays in linen beekeeper suits, and sunburned babies. Sunburned. Babies! NEW MOMS! When you're attended a street festival on a hot and sunny day, get out the SPF 1000 and slather up your damn kids. Also, is it necessary to bring the stroller AND the dog? And to stop in the middle of the festival grounds to look at a spoon that been molded and reshaped to look like another spoon?

The other thing these festivals always have is street performers. The ones at this festival were situated unfairly close to one another so the saxophone duo taking a crack at Poker Face were drowned out by the octogenarian on the didgeridoo. There was one performer, a young boy with a small accordion and a beret and a placard in front of him that read something like Zayden the Musical Boy. Well, Zayden just pushed the squeezebox back and forth! It wasn't even a song! Whee-HAW, Whee-HAW! No one's impressed, Zayden! And the beret is pandering. But guess what, guys? Zayden was MONEY! Everybody dropped change into the open guitar case of Zayden the Musical Boy. I don't know if you know, but getting just one dollar from a thousand people will net you over 700 dollars. If not set for life, Zayden definitely had a good weekend. Summer is coming up and I plan to attend many festivals, and there's no reason why I shouldn't get a piece of that sweet, sweet summer money pie.

Dream: Become a street performer.

Goal: Achievable. I don't necessarily have any talent, but have you seen some of these buskers? Clearly, talent is not a pre-requisite.

Plan: Figure out something cheap and impressive that I could perform on the streets for a couple of bucks all summer long. Here are some options:

Sing. The only appeal to this one is that it requires the least amount of stuff, you just show up and sing. But my unaccompanied singing voice sounds like a homeless woman calling for her dog, so perhaps I'd bring along sleigh bells to jingle, Salvation Army-style. I would also choose unexpected hits to sing so that I would draw the passer-by in. Can you imagine a sleigh bell remix of Cece Peniston's 'Finally'? *tink tink tink tink tink "Finally, it happened to me/Right in front of my face/And I just cannot hiiide it!" *tink tink tink*"
Breakdance. Kids love the breakdancing. It looks very difficult to do, but I notice that, before someone starts their back spins or leg twirls, they kind of aggressively dance in a circle, like a dog turning three times before he goes to bed. What if I just did the circles, but faster and faster. People would be like, "This guy's bound to do something cool! And soon! Better give him a buckaroo."

Clowning. Nope. The only reason clowns make money is because former theatre majors like myself pass them on the street and think, "There but for the grace of God go I." Like burlesque dancing and veganism, clowning is one of those, "Maybe there's merit to this... oh wait, no there isn't." Before I discount the practice entirely, let me say that there are good clowning performers who are strong writers who create really compelling narratives that are somehow entrancing. I once sat through a one person clown show for 90 minutes absolutely transfixed. But the REST OF THEM! Here is every goddamn clown show:

BINKER: I have a bicycle! (rides bicycle)
BINKER: See my bicycle? (rides bicycle)
BINKER: Who are you? (Villain approaches, takes bicycle)
WINKER: What is it, Binker?
BINKER: Someone took my bicycle!
WINKER: Your bicycle?
BINKER: My bicycle!
(Back and forth for two hours)

Magic. I don't think I would attempt this dark art because I'm happy to report that I'm absolutely boondoggled by a magic trick every single time. Sleight of hand magic is something I will never understand, particularly "find the little red ball." I am SO confident that I know where the little red ball is, and I'm misled every time. I'm disappointingly white, so my reactions to magic are always masked incredulity, while pretending I know what actually went on. "Oh, clever you! Yes, well, you must have taken a long time to learn that trick. Excuse me, I have tea brewing." But have you ever seen black people react to a magic trick? This is going to get amusingly racial, try to relax into it. I'm only going by those street magic specials they used to air on TLC, but it seems to me that some (not all) black people react with raucous laughter and/or a run in the opposite direction. That is exactly the reaction we should all have! Laughter is borne of a defied expectation, and that's what magic is! And sometimes magic is so astonishing, you have to distance yourself, as if to gain clarity on the whole thing. That somehow seems so much more honest than a suspicious, "Hmmm, well you must be very good at tricking others."

Guitar. There's something so cool about a guy who is facile with a guitar. Strumming and picking sound effortless, and the way a guitar reverberates around a subway platform, let's say, or drifts gently through a park is just calming. I have no such facility and would probably just rely on the extent of my grade school music lessons and play "Sloop John B" over and over again.

Comedy. Have you ever seen a stand-up comedian try to ply his trade out of context? It's awful! Now, granted, in the context of street performing, comedy is usually part of another thing the performer is doing. They might banter during the set up of a magic trick, for instance, or a clever quip after eating fire. But sometimes you have that poor soul at a talent show, or during an open mic that is not comedy oriented, that wants to try a set. I used to go to this cabaret show in a piano bar where actors from the various musicals in the community would come by and sing a number. It was very impromptu, but these folks were pros, and it was a bit like getting Mirvish season tickets in an evening. But one night, somebody's cousin was an aspiring stand-up comedian and he took the stage and began, "So my girlfriend is pretty annoying..." and lost the room. It was a painful five minutes that took fourteen hours. The crowd was restlessly silent throughout and the guy at the piano rolled his eyes at everything. I think I could maybe do stand-up again someday, but only in the appropriate context, and never what it was unnecessary (though is stand-up comedy ever necessary?).

Psychic readings. I think this one is the most appealing. You can charge people a good amount of money, toss in some bullshit about how their dreams will come true, and profit! I know there's the matter of not having psychic ability, but the more I watch shows with supposed psychics on them, the more I'm convinced that's no more than its own sleight of hand magic. For instance, I saw a psychic reading on tv recently where the medium said, "Who's the older woman in your life that has passed?" and the person said, "Oh my god, my Grandma!" I'm sorry, but who would that not work on? Who hasn't lost either a grandmother, great-grandmother, mother, aunt, etc? Then the medium says, "Do you have something of hers?" and the person said, "Yes! She left me her necklace." Come on, guys. Do you own something that belongs to a family member that died? Probably! I don't mean to dismiss the calling entirely, I think there probably are some people that have unexplainable visions or visitations and then intuit something uncanny about a person or situation. A cold case investigation show I saw once turned to psychic for help solving a murder, and he was able to tell the cops where the dead body was, how she had died, and when it had happened. They found the body and the psychic was right. Though I suppose the psychic could have murdered the person himself. That could be a show.

The thing about performers, any performers, is that they have a courage so few of us possess. Can you imagine calling attention to yourself in public, literally making a spectacle of yourself, and then asking people for money? To tell the truth, I was just another moron at the arts festival this past weekend. I probably walked too slow, feigned interest in things I had no intention to buy, and watched a hip hop dance crew for way too long without parting with a dime. But aren't I lucky to experience any of it? On the face of it, the idea of street performing, arts festivals, independent craftsmen, seems so patently absurd in today's economy that it's wonder such things even exist. Perhaps I should just be grateful, instead of another whiny baby, soaking up the sun.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Left to My Own Devices...

Hello Friends.

Am I the only one who sees the terrific irony in a video about putting down your phone going viral on social media? You know the one, the poem that goes like, "Put down your phone and you will see, the world  alive for you and me" or some nonsense like that. It's not nonsense, I completely agree, but people are literally watching and posting this video from their own cell phones, thus using the medium decried by the message to boost the message.

Again, I completely agree with what this guy is saying. We miss so much of life while we're staring at screens. But for so many of us, staring into screens is essential to our work, and our work bleeds into our life, and our life is how we live, and ooh, an email from Old Navy! My job requires complete device connectivity at all times. I work in a small office as part of a nationwide company, so the bulk of my assignments and directives come from people in Toronto or Vancouver or Moose Jaw or wherever. If lost access to my email for an hour during a workday, I could justifiably be docked pay for that hour (if my bosses were cheap and miserly, which they are not). In fact, my job is such that I sometimes wonder why I don't work at home. I could provide the same press releases and sales announcements in my jam jams with the added bonus of a 30 second commute from my bed to my desk. But the point is, I am "plugged in" for at least eight hours every day.

It's easier to unplug outside of work, but it's tempting not to. Social media, for all its "What character from the Flintstones are you?" is fun! There are people I almost never see in person anymore that I quite enjoy catching up with on Facebook. There are people on Twitter I have never met that are hilarious and reading their tweets is free access to the best comedy club in the world. But I do worry about virtual connections replacing real ones. I fall back on the idea that we don't have a lot of friends here yet, and going out and doing things is a lot harder than staying home not doing them, but that's a self-fulfilling prophecy that will soon see me with one of those headsets, and a wrist brace from carpel tunnel mouse clicking, and a weight problem. Not how I'd like to spend my life.

Dream: Unplug, at least an hour a day, every day.

Goal: Achievable. By unplug, I mean no cell usage, no internet usage, no television, no ipod. That should not be hard, but sometimes it's stupidly hard! I never thought I was that attached to my electronica until Jon pointed out that, when one of us takes a bathroom break from a television show we're watching, the other will open his laptop. How pathetic, really! We can't sit for two full minutes while our loved one pees? An update that Susan is "sooo frustrated FML i don't wanna talk about it tho" is that worthy of our time? Come on.

Plan: Continue to recognize my compulsive behaviour in an attempt to curb it. Also, fill more of my free time with constructive pursuits.

An hour a day to unplug is easiest if I go swimming. A walk or the gym doesn't count because I have my stupid ipod in. In the pool, I can only hear my own watery thoughts. I'm going to try to use my ipod less during walks and workouts, though. Yes, fast music can increase your pace and alleviate the inherent boredom of exercise, but how many times do I need to hear Talk Dirty? Thankfully, I don't have an iPhone, because I can't imagine being able to text, play games, and listen to music at the same time. Occasionally, though, on my morning commute on the train or bus, I'll be listening to my ipod and staring down at my phone in my lap, like I've got my dick in my hand. And while I occasionally get a text coming home from work like, "Pick up milk", I never get a text on my way to work like, "Office exploded, take the day off." Never ever. Also, I should mention that I don't know how to get internet on my phone and thank god for that. I Facebook and Tweet from my home computer, like the pioneers used to. Anyway, all of this is to say that I should either swim every day or leave more stuff at home when I go out.

Also, it's vitally important to remember that the people I'm desperate to keep in touch with via email and social media don't have any information that can't wait until tomorrow. It impacts me in exactly zero ways that you had roast chicken for supper. Likewise, I need to resist the impulse to weigh in on everything. Beyonce's sister Solange attacked Beyonce's husband Jay-Z in an elevator, and I tweeted about it conservatively 5000 times, and weighed in on other people's impression of the incident. Who gives a shit? But at least I'm hilarious. The sanctimonious preachy post gets a lot of attention, too, and I try to limit those to just 10 times daily #Kony2012.

What doesn't make me feel hilarious, or sanctimonious, or otherwise important, is socializing with another me, who can't stop looking at their own phones. I know of a boyfriend and girlfriend a few years younger than me, for instance, who seemingly spend all of their time together messaging other people, and all of their time with other people messaging each other. Doesn't that sound exhausting?

An hour a day is so little time, really, considering I only work 40 hours a week and don't have children. Lately,  I enjoy going to bed obscenely early to read. Tucking in at 9.30 with a book when I don't have to be up until 7 the next day is absurdly luxurious.  The scary thing about dependence on this kind of technology is that you can literally determine how much your time is worth. You can figure out how the charges in your various data plans amortize over a given period. If I pay x dollars per month for all my services, then spend all day between my internet, cable, and phone, I can measure my sloth in dollars and cents. My time spent unplugged is my own and it's free. One hour is a good starting point, but I hope to keep adding to it, little by little, until my life is mine again.

Friday, 2 May 2014

To Sir...

Hello Friends.

A late and somewhat somber blog today. Through the grapevine, I've heard that a former teacher isn't doing so well. There's something infallible about teachers that makes news of their life outside a classroom seem incomprehensible, and I say that as the son of my high school English teacher. When I hear news of a teacher's illness or retirement or career change or whatever it is, it doesn't compute. I'm suddenly five years old again, picturing Teacher curling up under her desk to go to sleep every night.

I think it's strange to acknowledge teachers having lives outside of a classroom because their impact on your own life outside a classroom is immeasurable. It's as if your kindergarten teacher exists only to teach you counting and empathy, your third grade teacher to enforce a love of reading, your eighth grade teacher to teach you a love of writing, your high school English teacher to raise you from birth, and your art teacher to show you how much better it is, even as a desperate-to-be-popular teenager, to be an outsider looking in at the world, and recognizing all of its inherent beauty and absurdity.

It's no coincidence, then, that the best people I've ever known as an adult have also been teachers. They are my friends now, and still my role models. My mother is a teacher, and my brother, and my partner. I've known teachers through my retails jobs as they either work while they complete their degrees or, sadly, have had to moonlight as till jockeys because their 60 hour a week teaching job pays so pitifully. Maybe it's this proximity to teachers that still has me believing September is the start of a new year and June the end of an old one, but I think everybody still kind of thinks that.

I've always believed that behind every good person is a teacher, but I've also always believed behind every bad person is a teacher, too. Teachers are everywhere and impact people differently, obviously. But what I can't conceive of is not having teachers at all. Right now I'm a tutor at a literacy centre for adults, which is not the same as being a teacher, and I don't mean to make the comparison, but what strikes me is how many of us take our education completely for granted. People from varying circumstances, even born and raised in this country, won't or can't pursue their education beyond an age that they can get to work. Conversely, the legacy of residential schools in this country will be a black mark on our collective history forever and is continuing to affect generations of people. But I've won the lottery as far as education is concerned, and I have teachers to thank.

Dream: Thank the teachers.

Goal: Unachievable. Like the song says, "How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" That actually always struck me a weird lyric and a bit perverse, but Lulu was onto something. The scope of a teacher's influence on a person can never be appropriately measured, so how can we thank them properly? It isn't easy, but I'll try.

Plan: Here are some ideas on how we, as a society, can start appreciating the people who build the foundations of that society.

Pay them more. Pay them more, pay them more, pay them more. Teachers, particularly in their first years, make pretty lousy money. The trouble with statistics that appear to prove otherwise is twofold. One, the lists that aggregate "average teacher salary" within a province arrives at that figure by also including principals, vice-principals, and other administrators who make a significant amount more than teachers do, and two, no rubric can possibly calculate money earned based on the hours teachers actually work. Lesson planning, paper grading, test marking, parent-dealing, and all the extra-curricular activities teachers are expected to take on (for no additional pay), means a teacher's day never starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:30. You would never know, for instance, that Jon gets summer holidays. As a professor, he is very well paid, I don't mean to lump him in with elementary and high school teachers in that respect, but his time in the classroom is infinitesimal compared to his time doing prep, research, marking, and smoking a pipe/wearing a tweed jacket (you have to do that when you're a prof).

Parents, chill the f out. I saw a cartoon awhile ago that had two panels. The first panel, labeled something like, "A Generation Ago..." had a parent holding a report card over their cowering child, furious and screaming, "Why are these grades so terrible?!" The second panel, labeled, "Present Day..." had a parent holding a report card over a cowering teacher, furious and screaming, "Why are these grades so terrible?!" The point was that some parents expect teachers to serve their children, rather than instruct them. Teacher's aren't gods, nor should they be expected to be social workers, police officers, life coaches, babysitters, or therapists. If your kid keeps getting crappy teachers every single year who don't "get" him, maybe you have a crappy kid.

Treat the profession with the gravity it deserves. I've definitely heard people say, wistfully, that being a teacher must be so great. Short work days, summers off, and you can get into any school dance you want. I even heard that expressed by education students while I was in university. Things like, "Such and such was hard, but I guess I'll just be a teacher." Those people shouldn't be teachers. The saying, "Those who can't do, teach" is such a tired example of elitist, superior horseshit. It's not a concession when an artist decides to teach art, or an actor decides to teach acting, it's a gift. We should prep prospective teachers like they're going into the army, but with crappy combat gear and no end in sight.

Finally, I suppose the best way to honour teachers is to keep learning, growing, and working hard. I have a lot of student guilt when I realize that I'm not using all that I've learned in my work or my life. I may not be a successful actor, writer, athlete, mathematician, or free period, but I use those skills for something every day of my life. When I think of the particular teacher I'm thinking of today, I can't imagine a student not affected by his passion, were they lucky enough to wind up in his class. That's how I will always feel when I think of this teacher, so incredibly lucky to have spent a little time with him. I know intellectually, of course, that teachers teach thousands of students throughout their careers, that they eventually retire, that they cultivate rich, full lives outside of a classroom. But part of me always thinks, when I pass by a school at night, that those teachers are still there, waiting for a new day, and another chance to change some lives.