Sunday, September 20, 2015

Call for Questions

Another civics teacher and I are hosting an all-candidates debate for potential MP of my school's riding, which, for the first time, is not my own riding even though I live just three blocks north. So I'm not familiar with the specific candidates.

We contacted all parties, but, unfortunately, the Green Party candidate was very hard to reach, and he responded last with regrets. The other three will be there a couple weeks from now, and they want a list of questions before the day. Some want the list immediately. That's not unreasonable, and I'll provide them (most of them), yet it would be nice to see them responding on their feet.

I'll be soliciting questions from my grade 10 class tomorrow, but I thought I'd put this up here in case my wise readers have some juicy ones worth asking! The debate will be for an audience of 15-year-olds, so the issues can't be too complex or we'll lose the audience - and nobody wants 150 bored teenagers in a room.

ETA - The challenge is, as it is every day for teachers, how to provoke as much depth of thought possible within the constraints of one-hour of time and a wide variety of levels of understanding in the room. 

Just in Time Learning

The experience that most prepared me for teaching wasn't teacher's college, it was working in a huge insurance company. They trained me to work efficiently and stay working until the job's finished, which, in an insurance company, means forever. It's a very useful skill when I'm marking.

There are a few efficiency slogans that come to mind when I've got a pile of work, like "Only touch it once." No sorting and separating and wasting time preparing to work. As soon as you open a file or essay, don't put it down until you're done with it. The goal is to get it off your desk as quickly as possible! That little reminder at the back of my head has done wonders for getting work back to students in a timely fashion.

But the one that came to mind recently is "Just in Time." Don't prepare work too far ahead in case the situation changes and you've just done all that work for nothing. It seems like it could be counter to getting things done, but it's not. It means don't order a ton of supplies for a situation that might never come to pass, or don't prepare questions for an all-candidates debate until all the candidates are confirmed and the debate set to go - even if they keep e-mailing for that list of questions.

I was thinking about "Just in Time" in the context of learning, though. Members of OSSTF recently ratified our contract. As staff president, I had to get everyone out to vote last Thursday. I sent a few messages to everyone's home e-mail near the start of September and to their school e-mail more recently, but still, on Thursday, people asked, "What vote?" as I went room to room personally inviting them to mark an "X".

I was lamenting this to a colleague, when we started complaining that it was also picture day, and we didn't have any instructions about what order students go down for their photos. Before calling the office, I wisely re-checked my e-mails and found some very clear instructions sent two days previous. I had read the e-mail, but it had completely left my brain. It seems that information has to come the second you need it and not before or else it dissolves. The brain sorts out whether or not something's immediately useful, and dumps it if it's found wanting. Especially now when we have so much information coming our way.

And later I asked about a book in the library, and my librarian told me I could look it up from my own computer. Who knew?! Then I recalled many little lessons at staff meetings about the library website that I had watched with eyes glazed over. That information had nowhere to sit and wait to feel needed, so it just wandered away. I needed to hear it AS I was looking for a book. But isn't it a bit much to ask someone to teach each of us a lesson individually - 80 times over - only as we actually need that knowledge? Well, it would certainly be inefficient. But maybe sometimes efficiency's overrate.

And, of course, I think about all the information I give my students about things that aren't quite due or aren't necessary to be used immediately. I don't mean real-world applications - I haven't used calculus since high-school, yet I maintain, in that sense, that all learning - the learning process in itself - is useful. I mean teaching them how to do close reading or cite a source, but not soon after testing them on that skill in some way - not making them use the skill in a way that I can verify they understand it.  They'll need it generally, as we go, but then do those concepts hide in their brains, atrophying as they grow weary waiting for opportunities to show themselves?

This isn't new information at all, yet every time I tell the staff of educated adults about something happening, and I put it in writing, then I tell them individually, and so many still don't quite remember what I'm on about, I'm baffled. It's because I'm still not done learning about learning! I forget how difficult it is to store information until it's needed.

But those insurance efficiency slogans sure stuck in there. It's because my boss actually said them over and over. If we appeared overwhelmed with stacks of files, he'd remind us, "Once begun, half done." Here's the thing: It was not beyond the expectations of his job description to remind us over and over to keep those files flying off our desks. We despised him for it, but we worked like machines!

I'm not interested in getting kids to be more efficient - although it can be handy in certain fields. But I am interested in the stickiness of slogans repeated and applied over and over. Years later, they creep up unannounced to keep me going on that pile of essays. And I'm grateful. And I have to work to remember (because it wasn't part of the training regime) that it has to be an expectation that I'll repeat things over and over to educated adults and students alike and not expect them to remember it until they've actually used the information many times.

Teaching is a funny job where, like in insurance, it feels never-ending. Through a wide lens over the decades, people learn a bit during the 5-month semester, then we start fresh, without any of that knowledge I just taught. I repeat the same content in a variety of ways over and over and over again, and even though many go off to university to continue learning, it can feel like I haven't really taught anything because it starts all over again the next term, brand new, with a collection of people, and some of them think Obama is our Prime Minister.  And years after high-school, some others - coughmyownkidscough - don't remember learning, from me, how elections work. It was way back in grade 10, and they didn't need to understand any of that until now. We teach them that way before they'll use the information, and we don't go over it throughout the rest of high-school.

So I taught them all over again.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Has the Green Revolution Actually Arrived?

There's an article floating around sub-titled "The Year Humans Got Serious about Saving Themselves from Themselves" by Jonathan Chait.  It starts with a litany of climate change-driven bad news with the conclusion that,
"The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene — the tension so unbearable, and the weight of looming catastrophe so soul-crushing, that some people seek the release of final defeat rather than endless struggle in the face of hopeless odds. Working for change, or even hoping for it, has felt like a sucker’s game."
That "seek the release of final defeat" bit makes me think of Freud's theory of a death drive:
"Our recognition that the ruling tendency of psychic life… is the struggle for reduction, keeping at a constant level, or removal of the inner stimulus tension – a struggle which comes to expression in the pleasure-principle – is indeed one of our strongest motives for believing in the existence of death-instincts."
We long for finality, for completion, not just in our daily accomplishments, but in all things, in order to release ourselves of the tension of getting near the end.  This is clearest, I think, when we feel great making a questionable decision because having finally decided feels so good, so final, even if it's a bad choice.  This explains why so many stay on a wrong path and won't budge from it even when shown the error of their decision; it feels so good to have decided that we don't want to have to go back to that moment of choosing.

It's curious how much we say we want more freedom, hence more choices in life, and yet choices can be such a burden.

Anyway, we're clearly on the wrong path now.  Are we really going to just watch it play itself out to the final end of humanity?  Not according to this article,
"The technological and political underpinnings are at last in place to actually consummate the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The world is suddenly responding to the climate emergency with — by the standards of its previous behavior — astonishing speed. The game is not over. And the good guys are starting to win....The task before the world is best envisioned not as a singular event but as two distinct but interrelated revolutions, one in political willpower and the other in technological innovation."
Why will it all come together now, suddenly?  He points to signs like "the price of solar is fallen" - in some place it costs less to use solar or wind than coal or natural gas.

But I'm afraid that what Chait misses with this line of reasoning, is that it's not just the cost that drives the use, it's also the number of powerful people who stand to gain if we continue using fossil fuels. As Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, Canada's economy depends on money from gas-powered cars and from tar sands. Rubin thinks things will get better only when we can no longer afford to drive:
"...the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the best possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."
Chait then suggests we're already using less energy because we have better technology for better lightbulbs: "everything from buildings to refrigerators is being designed anew to account for scientific reality." And these innovations happened because,
"governments disrupted [the energy market]; progress came not in spite of our government but because of it. The private sector developed LED bulbs because Washington required higher-efficiency lighting....The overall direction of American carbon use is no longer in doubt. American carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and have fallen since, with the main question now being how far and fast they will plummet."
Good for Obama, but it's hard to be hopeful with Harper in power.  Chait points to countries getting on board, but my concern are the many countries still not interested in this discussion.  It's better than it was, but is this really the tipping point of a major transformation?  He thinks that American policy will affect the rest of the world, and I hope he's right.  He looks to China for proof of hope:
"It is hardly selfish for developing countries to refuse to force their impoverished people to shoulder the burden of averting climate change. (Even now, China burns less than half as much carbon per person than does the U.S.) The developing world has thus been presented with a brutal moral logic: The rich countries have burned through the world’s carbon budget, and there is almost nothing left. But in the past year, something amazing has taken place. In 2014, China’s coal production and its consumption both fell, and the drop appears to be continuing, or even accelerating, this year....The possibility has come into view that, just as the developing world is skipping landlines and moving straight into cellular communication, it will forgo the dirty-energy path and follow a clean one."
He thinks people are losing hope because they're American, and "the new global consensus on climate change is least evident" in the U.S and Saudi Arabia. "The U.S. is the only democracy in which such a consensus [on climate change denial] can be found."   Maybe he hasn't noticed us to the north as our government fights to run more pipelines, sell more oil, take away protection over waterways, remove scientific funding, etc. About a year and a half ago, Huffington Post reported,
Gerry Ritz, Canada's Minister for Agriculture, told the House of Commons last week that "this cold weather can't last forever. This global warming has to stop some time".....fellow Conservative Member of Parliament Gordon O'Connor spoke out..."I don't know what those words mean because they're a buzz phrase. Climate change. If we're talking about what is our preparedness for natural disasters, that's one thing, but climate change, if you want to talk about the climate, the climate always changes. It goes hot. It goes cold, etc....Last year, newly minted Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated that "there's always a debate around science and what's changing" and claimed that climate change was still "debatable.""
I don't think you have to be American to be losing hope over this.

Chait recognizes the immensity of the problem we face, but thinks we are at least starting down a better path:
"Even if the world could eliminate all fossil-fuel use tomorrow, the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere will create, and is already creating, disruption, havoc, and death. Even if the world halted all greenhouse-gas emissions today, it would be, by the standard of perfection, too late. Besides, the target the world has set for measuring success — holding increased global temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius — is merely a guess at salvation.....Even if all the Paris talks do is simply eliminate the risk of the all-too-thinkable worst-case scenario, it would constitute a monumental achievement in the history of human civilization, like the development of modern medicine."
But he ends equating denial of climate change with despair over the condition of the world as if they both blind us from this revolution taking place. I think we can see how bad things are and likely will be, as he does, yet also recognize there are some small gains happening here and there. It's not the same as railing against these gains because climate change doesn't exist.  Not by a long shot.  But it's still despair-worthy to consider how little the gains can be at this stage - as he points out:
"The limits agreed to at Paris will not be enough to spare the world mass devastation. But they are the beginning of a framework upon which progressively stronger requirements can be built over time. The willpower and innovation that have begun to work in tandem can continue to churn. Eventually the world will wean itself almost completely off carbon-based energy. There is, suddenly, hope."
So, I'm also not entirely convinced that "the long-awaited green revolution has finally arrived." Some politicians are on board, but not nearly enough. And nothing is happening fast enough. The word "eventually" above doesn't help me believe it's getting so much better.

But most problematic, Chait misses an entire piece of the puzzle: the necessary involvement of big business (or significantly increased regulations).  Until corporations stop draining aquifers, stop outsourcing to countries with lax pollution restrictions (exacerbated by trade deals supported by Obama), stop running business on a policy of planned obsolescence (so products have to be re-bought over and over), stop flying products around for pieces to be built and assembled in a selection of countries, and do more than superficial greenwashing, we're not going to be truly off this path of destruction. And it'll be quite the effort to convince people to stop practices that increase profits.

And yet, there is always hope.

Monday, September 7, 2015

On Achievement and Death and Stuff

This is a post about cycling further than ever before, but first, a bit about boredom:
"Boredom may lead you to anything. After all, boredom even sets one to sticking gold pins into may choose what is contrary to one's own's own fancy, however wild it may be...desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid - simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is rational...this caprice of ours....preserves for us what is most precious and most important - that is, our personality...the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop."  - Dostoevsky 
"We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom...A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vial impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase." - Bertrand Russell

Some people assert their own will by choosing naturopathy over doctors to treat their cancer, or by quitting their satisfactory marriages and careers to seek out a new mid-life adventure. I hope to make slightly more reasonable choices or certainly less self-destructive ones. According to Dostoevsky, I'm sucked into the western ideals of individuality over community, of standing out, which can make us foolish. Melting into the crowd isn't an easy option. Being one with the universe is a task for later when I've figured out how to sit still. And for Russell, who hit puberty in Wales as the Russian was drawing his lasts breaths, being able to endure boredom is essential for happiness. Seeking out excitement to avoid boredom just makes our pleasures less easily felt. He warns,
"pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely...certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony." 
In art, we'd call that degree of monotony an area of restraint necessary for the eye to relax.  It's why some beautiful gardens have an expanse of grass. But mine doesn't. I lean towards chaos.

I get antsy when I don't have a project. The house can be a mess while I deliberate what new task to take on next. My backyard took over for a couple years, and I have ideas of an off-grid home a few years off, but then what now? For better or worse, I'm obsessed with doing, finishing, accomplishing.

So I set as a project to find the limits of my cycling abilities - or, more specifically, the limits of my lungs and heart and other organs and muscles in a body as old and untrained as mine. I'll tell you from the get-go that I failed. But I'll get to that.

Before an annual camping trip with neighbours, I considered having my packed rental car, complete with youngest child, driven by a fellow camper so I could cycle the 137 km to the site. The longest I had ever biked before was 60 km, and I wanted to see how far I could actually go in one trip. I didn't train or prepare in any useful way - that would take the challenge out of it. But having a driver coming up my rear helped because I could bail at any time. It was about seeing how far I could get, not about getting to the end. That was key to the entire adventure. That, and a cell phone to call for help if needed.

This was a decision fraught with a ridiculous amount of anxiety. I tried to keep Epicurus in mind as I was deluged with worries: If pain is not occurring right now, then it’s not bringing pain except for tumults created by imagination, right? I am bringing myself pain, which is ridiculous! So stop worrying about flat tires, swerving trucks, strong wind gusts tossing me into traffic, some crazy guy attacking a lone female, heat stroke, complete organ failure, random loss of appendages, the list goes on. And there's always the old standby concern that, if I leave the house for any significant duration it will burst into flames. From time to time I was struck with absolute terror at the though of being killed in traffic and picturing my children coping with my death. I'd have to actively "X" out the thought and replace it with a vision of biking without incident. Thanks CBT. The fact that many worries are unfounded doesn't seem to lessen their intensity. At all. I actively ignored the looming date, and second-guessed my choice of directions - later to be intensified by many geographical advisors after-the-fact  "Why didn't you go this obviously better way?" serving to prove my instincts for direction weak.

So I said nothing to anyone about my hopes to attempt the journey until the last minute; I knew I would be easily swayed to give up before I started. I waited until two days before to ask a neighbour to drive and was almost deterred by her husband's concern about wind, and the night before, I told my kids and then immediately become openly worrisome and neurotic. It's like talking about it tapped the keg of concerns. And it was going to be a windy ride: 20 km/h headwinds until the final 30 k.

It's curious, in areas of insecurity, how much other people's attitudes can affect us.  The support of that one comrade, and my son's insistence that, "of course you can do it" were paramount to my leaving the house that morning. I have lots of people in my life - I'm sure we all do - who tell me why I can't possibly do this or that. I ignore the lot of them most of the time, but physical exertion is a weak spot for me, so their voices loomed louder than usual and took some effort to drown out. Some told me I couldn't join a women's ride group because I'm too slow, and others refused admittance to a guy's casual riding group because I don't have the necessary equipment provided by mother nature. I'm not recognized as a cyclist. Even the physiotherapist helping with my aging knees questioned me about my regular trips to Bamburg, a local marker of a hilly 40 k loop from our city:

"Oh so you drive there and then bike around."
"No, I don't have a car."
"Oh, so you live near there."
"No, I live a block from here."

Awkward silence. I just don't look like someone who moves quickly.

So I bike alone.

Armed with a banana, some nuts and raisons, water, my phone and wallet, brand new lights on my bike, and quality bike shorts, I kissed my kids good-bye and set off before dawn hoping to beat the heat of the day. I played music in my head to keep me pumped - possibly a skill developed in only those raised in the pre-walkman era. This one kept my cadence up:

Some think it's nutty not to train formally before a big ride - as if we'll fall to pieces if we don't work towards our goals gradually, but there are too many times the fear of being unprepared stops us from action. We think we can't do this or that because we're not quite ready. Then we dilly dally about doing prep work forever and never actually getting to the thing we actually want to do. I channelled Laura Secord who didn't train for her marathon bushwacking experience. She just got out there and started running through fields and forests.

I didn't wear any fancy duds or pimp out my ride either. I did get a pair of good bike shorts because, since about 40, my butt fat has all gravitated around the corner to my belly - and, just my luck, just in time for a big booty to be in style too. Extra padding was necessary there, but then I just threw on a t-shirt and sandals and my stand-by helmet. And I thought of Marathon Man, and Dustin Hoffman copying Abebe Bikila's run without shoes. But Secord and Hoffman's character were running for their lives. I was creating a situation as if it were a necessity knowing full well it was a luxury. I had to convince myself of an importance for it in order to develop any motivation to go.

For me, the point of cycling is to go places. It's not to work out and live longer because we could die any minute. And it's not to work out to match the current beauty standard because we could be hated anyway regardless our quest for physical perfection. For me, it's all about getting off our fossil fuel addiction. If a middle age woman without any know-how can do over 130 k in a t-shirt and sandals, with a crappy bike, then maybe you can bike to work. Amiright?!

I was once told by a colleague that I could never be a department head because I don’t have a car, but people don't understand that we can get almost anywhere without a car. And we can bike dressed in our everyday clothes. Granted I still used a car to transport my camping gear and daughter, but with more of us cycling, we could definitely use fewer cars. We need to move under our own steam whenever we can.

The trip was also about finding my boundaries, but part of it was about getting over my fear of biking further from home alone – the fear of having an accident, but more a fear of boogie men out to attack me. People are mainly nice and helpful. There are some odd ducks, but the odds are in my favour. And, with the exception of a brief trek on a major highway, everyone moved over a lane to give me space. I was completely safe.

Part of the journey was because I turned 50. I'm in a hurry to do stuff because it gets a little clearer that any day could be my last. I'm still stuck on having a leave-behind, a legacy, even though I'm pretty convinced there won't be generations to come to remember any of this. With climate change, there’ll be no leave-behinds. Having kids or writing a book or erecting a statue will have no impact on future generations if there ARE no future generations because the planet has become largely uninhabitable by our species. This death is a final death.

But some thing can still make me feel like a kids again. When I listen to certain songs, I'm 17 again. And when I’m on my bike, I’m 10, riding to the corner store in my bathing suit with a nickel in my hand for a freezie.

Just beyond the half-way point, at 70 k in, my legs and lungs were fine, but my eyes started getting weirdly blurry, so I took that as a sign to re-fuel.  I stopped briefly to stretch, eat, and drink. I just had 23 k to get to the next city where I could sit in a Tim's to wait for the car if I needed to.

I was surprised that it wasn't the hills that got me but the long flat parts where there wasn't anything to mark the passage of time. I watched this in my head as I pedalled:

The music and videos come to me of their own accord, but cycling distances alone takes me to that wonderful zoned-out place where I often come up with entire concepts I couldn't possibly find in my hectic kitchen. Like if it's a coincidence that Rex Harrison played mentor to Eliza Doolittle then later played Dr. Doolittle. Weird. It's a state that can't be as easily achieved with another cyclist there - if they try to have a conversation or if I feel pressure to keep up or have to wait at every turn. That modicum of attention somehow destroys access to the internal world.

And then there's the beauty of the scenery with light filtering through the trees, and the cows cheering me on up the hills. Montaigne said,
When I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
Prolonged activity allows time to get sufficiently bored to actually start paying attention to the details of the world. Those magnificent details!

But the trip was also about reaching a goal even if I didn't want it to be. My mom died in her 60s of cancer, and my sister got cancer in her 40s. I always expected to die young, and I've been ever impatient to finish things because I might be dead tomorrow. I update my will regularly and leave behind instructions in case I die whenever I leave for a trip. It's not the case that I'm living fearful of death, but that I'm living authentically recognizing that it’s right around the corner for all of us. My son sometimes asks me if I’m afraid to die, and I worry mainly, as a single mom, if they’ll all be okay without me – it’s been my primary worry for the past 21 years. Not just financially, but will they have someone to go to when they feel misunderstood by the world. But other than their future, I think I'm okay with it.

And the trip was also about sheer endurance. We need to suffer in order to grow. We need a bit of adversity in our lives - challenges, and since we've had it easy for so long in this time and place, we sometimes need to create personal challenges. Nietzsche wrote about wishing difficulty on others so they can find the strength to fight. It's not about training to cycle, but about training to get in there. Staying in there for that hill creates the means to stay in there to keep on about climate change and injustices and politics even when most people seem completely apathetic.

And then I saw the sign for the campsite and started singing:

And suddenly I was Rocky at the top of the steps, and Sarah Conner bein' badass in T2.

I felt completely fine at the end. I wasn't sore at all, but I was tired of doing the same thing for so long - almost 7 hours of riding plus a lunch break on top: that's a full work day!

I made it the whole way without being rescued, so I still haven't found my limit.

There will be time....

A hawk hanging out at our campsite.


It's curious... actually it's not at all curious... but I posted my bike trip from Runkeeper on Facebook, and I also updated my profile picture that was ten years old. The profile change got 12 times the likes as my journey.  Being able to keep my casing reasonably smooth trumps actually being capable or useful.  So if you want to impress others, stay skinny, smooth, and symmetrical. Doing stuff carries a more personal reward.