30 December, 2011

The Wider World, 2011-2012

Looking out on the globe from the cocoon that is Canada, 2011 was a tumultuous, tempestuous and possibly pivotal year. Depending on your point of view, the Occupy movement that took hold in late summer marked either a great and powerful upsurge of the long trodden-upon, or else a colossal public nuisance-slash-waste of time. Methinks the monied class considers those one and the same: 2012 may be the year in which they learn the difference.

But I wouldn't put my money on that.

As I have been writing periodically since 2008,  there is a tremendous amount of energy being exerted to attempt to convince the world at large that there is nothing wrong here, all is well, and if it isn't, it soon will be, so please everyone, go back to sleep while we finish the job of raping your retirement correcting the economy. Anyone squawking too loud--such as, for instance, those who took it upon themselves to clutter up a few city parks--is mercilessly mocked and told to "get a job". (And never you mind that more Occupiers than Tea Party members actually have jobs. That sort of talk will brand you a socialist, un-American traitor and a practitioner of the dreaded "class warfare" to boot. There's something acutely Freudian about accusing somebody of class warfare as you man the catapults yourself.

I can confidently predict that "Occupy" will not fizzle out, though it might be driven underground for a time. What form it takes next is impossible to determine...but the paranoiac in me is convinced the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012is a pre-emptive strike. This bill allows for the indefinite detainment of American citizens, without trial, in military prisons: all that is necessary is that they be called terrorists. The definition of 'terrorist' these days is increasingly slippery. (Is that paranoia? or heightened awareness?)

2011 was a year of ironies on a global scale. As the U.S., that bastion of freedom, slipped ever closer to the precipice of tyranny, several tyrannies in the Middle East took some tentative steps towards freedom. The so-called 'Arab Spring' may be fleeting...but I doubt it. Once people get a taste of freedom, they usually find they like it enough to cook up some more for themselves.
Those of you convinced the Internet is mostly for porn, consider the role that Twitter played in the emancipation of Egypt. Of course, the Internet is merely a tool, but what a powerful tool it can be.

Famous people I've never met die every year. This was the first year that I felt grief over it--and twice. Jack Layton, the leader of the federal NDP, died on August 22, two days after composing a letter that reduced me to a gibbering idiot for a couple of days. The final paragraph of that letter resonates still:

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."


Steve Jobs died a little over a month later, depriving the world of one of its bigger brains. His final utterance is, in its cryptic way, just as inspirational as Layton's carefully considered last instructions. One wonders what he was seeing--I can only I have a similar reaction on my way out the door.

I don't plan on going out that door in 2012, least of all in some Mayan mishap. The idea that next winter solstice will be doomsday has been debunked almost as many times as it has been put forward, most notably, to my mind, by NASA and John Michael Greer, the Archdruid you can find in my sidebar.

No, the world will not end in 2012, but the world as we know it might be sliding towards an ending. Neale Donald Walsch, another of my founts of inspiration, terms it "The Storm Before The Calm". We'll determine what form that storm takes. And we'll determine what the calm looks like afterwards, too. It could be the calm of utter desolation or the calm of idyllic bliss; what's key to understand is that this is not something that is happening to us, it's something we are choosing. There are consequences to every action--Newton knew that nearly three hundred years ago. Science today is inching ever closer to confirming the interconnectedness of all things, which only means that consequences can spread out like ripples in a pond. It behooves us all to remember this, and to live accordingly.

---------

Closer to home, I'm going to be an uncle this year! Alex Hopf is on her way. We were never able to have children of our own--which still pains us on occasion, and even joyous impending births do bring that pain to the fore--and so our way of dealing with that pain is to give baby Alex some of the love we've been holding in reserve all these years. To put it in simpler terms: we're not completely sure what Alex stands for yet, but we know we'll be standing for her every step of the way.

I continue to grow in my new job, and life around here is looking up. It's the only way to look, folks. 2012 is just another step along the way. I look forward to taking it with all of you.







29 December, 2011

525,600 Minutes


Explanation for blog title here

There’s no way, simply no way, that 2011 could have lived up to 2010, one of the best years of my life. It probably wasn’t fair to think it could even come close.
And I suppose I should be grateful that 2011 didn’t quite follow the crappy pattern previously set up by other years ending in one. Let’s see. In 1981 I got glasses and moved to London, where I discovered that London kids had a thing for guys in glasses. The “thing” was a burning desire to rearrange the geography of those kids' faces. The previous year I had been arguably the most popular kid in my third grade class. 1981 was a shock, a rude one.
1991 was my first year in university, and it brought its own rude shocks. I’m still amazed people are willing to pay thousands of dollars (the price has roughly tripled since I went) to have professors read textbooks to them--and they have to buy the textbooks too. That was the year I began to fall out of love with the classroom. It was also the year I piddled away a veritable fortune on nothing in particular. Endless meals out and arcade games seem like fun at the time. Soul-crushing is more like it, but chalk that one up under ‘lessons learned’. While you're at it, chalk up the astonishingly long time it took me to learn that lesson as its own lesson. 
In 2001 I was still freshly married, and so THAT was all right, but still. We were living in an apartment about six steps down from where we are now and maybe a step and a half up from squalor. Before my job with Price Chopper came along in May, I was a hollowed-out shell of a 7-Eleven employee. My mind was slowing turning to Slurpee. It’s  a good thing I had a loving wife to come home to, else you’d have found me in the papers, under "Gone Postal".
 Oh, and let’s not forget 9/11, which affected me not at all except to inflict on the last four months of that year a species of free-floating dread I hope never to feel the like of again. 
Twenty-eleven was neither a particularly good year nor a particularly bad one around here. Which is to say, it had its moments, good and bad. It was certainly eventful. My store transformed around me, pretty much doubling in size; I absolutely loved the new look but positively hated the new feel. That feeling started just after we opened, when I got my first cheque as a FreshCo employee and found it missing twenty hours at time and a half. When I confronted the store owner about this, he said, quote, "you were free to go home after forty-four hours."
I don't mind working for free--God knows I've done enough of it--but that was a bit much. At the same time I was shuffled out of dairy and into frozen--after training a brand new employee to replace me. That hurt more than the missing pay.  I couldn't figure it out. Ken, we trust you enough to take this new guy and teach him everything you know, but not enough to just, uh, do everything you know.

It occurred to me that I was no longer appreciated--if I ever had been since the previous owner left. Which made my leaving inevitable: all I needed was an opportunity.

That arrived towards the end of August...and I don't regret taking it one little bit. My only wish is that I could have taken about thirty people with me. Not that there's anything wrong with the people here: actually, I'm starting to kinda sorta make friends. But man, I miss so many people so very much.

Personally, my biggest revelation this year is trifling to anyone who isn't me, and it can be expressed in four words:

POP CULTURE DOESN'T SUCK

This realization burst on me with the force of a supernova around about the time I started to consider the annual year-in-review blog entry. It was reinforced when I saw what the critics picked for best albums/movies/TV shows of 2011 and spent about a day musing did I lose my taste? Did I gain some taste?
I still don't know the answer to that question, and furthermore, I don't care. Herewith are my top  cultural experiences of the year, most of which appear on somebody's top ten, which has got to be a first.

BEST ALBUMS

1) FLEET FOXES, HELPLESSNESS BLUES

There is half of one track on this album that is practically unlistenable-the argument in "The Shrine / An Argument". Every other song is simply sublime. Close-knit harmonies and thought-provoking lyrics mesh in ways that leave a listener (this listener, at least) nearly breathless. The title track is a case in point:


2) ADELE, 21 

This appears on pretty much every top ten list I've seen, usually at number one. And I had never even heard of it until I saw the first of those top ten lists and thought I should check this out. Depressing to realize this woman was born when I was in high school. What a voice. Just in case you have been living under some other rock than the one I've apparently been under all year, get a load of this:


3) MARIANAS TRENCH, EVER AFTER

Okay, this one isn't quite as critically acclaimed. It should be.  Josh Ramsay has a Broadway-calibre voice and here he and his band simply soar on it. Astoundingly catchy hooks. Listen to this and I guarantee you'll be humming it later:


Special note: I discovered MUMFORD AND SONS this year: if their album Sigh No More had actually been released this year, I would have rated it number one. As of this writing, it's the tenth-most downloaded album of all time, which proves that pop culture hasn't sucked for longer than I'd thought. Maybe it never did...?

BEST PLAY: THE BOOK OF MORMON

Nine Tonys, including Best Musical. The top-selling Broadway album in forty years. Once again I find myself in an echo chamber, joining the chorus that goes something like "holy fuck this musical's good."
The profanity is intentional: the libretto is raunchy. What elevates it out of the gutter and into the clouds is, paradoxically, what's under all the muck on the surface. This show has a heart of gold. 

Listen to this (WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK, OR KIDS) and if you find yourself getting offended, pay special heed to the bridge: 



If you don't like what we say
Try living here a couple days
Watch all your friends and family die
Hasa diga eebowai!

I'm going to hold back on Best Movie, because (a) the only new release I saw this year was the final installment of Harry Potter and I'll (b) going to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on New Year's Eve. I anticipate it'll be the best movie I've seen in several years, and not just because other people seem to love it too, damn it. (I should probably add that I'm also seeing the latest Mission: Impossible flick, which again has critics raving).

BEST TV SHOW: again, this is a medium I tend to avoid like the plague. But I made an exception for  GAME OF THRONES and am I ever glad I did. I even got Eva hooked on it, which surprised me mightily and pleased me greatly. Our TV tastes, to the extent I have any, tend to diverge. But we both loved the sets, the acting, and the unpredictable plotlines. We are eagerly awaiting season two.

BEST NOVEL I read this year is from the same brain that spawned Game of Thrones: A DANCE WITH DRAGONS (George R.R. Martin). Is it perfect? No. It meanders. But the chance to spend time in Westeros is not to be missed. 

So that was my world in 2011. Tomorrow I will cover off yours, and try to hazard some guesses as to what awaits us in 2012.

EDIT--Good Lord, Dad, I didn't forget all about you! Honest, I didn't! My father had a heart attack this past year--and I can't believe that was still only this year, it seems like forever and an age ago. While terrifying at the time, it was in retrospect a good thing, in a way. A shot across his bow...and mine. He is in much better shape now, with more energy and, I suspect, a renewed appreciation for life. I'm so very glad he's still around to appreciate it...




26 December, 2011

Second Christmas

This little family has some damned weird traditions.
Perhaps the weirdest of them is our Boxing Day ritual. Christmas over the past many years has always yielded us Canadian Tire gift certificates from one place or another. Each and every Boxing Day, we've ventured out early to hit Canadian Tire as the doors open, and there we hurry to buy...

...cleaning supplies?

Yes, cleaning supplies. The week between Christmas and New Year's, this house gets as deep a clean as it ever gets, all in order that we can sit on our asses New Year's Eve without a dust lion in sight. So each Boxing Day we buy, among other things, roughly a year's worth of cleaning supplies and implements, along with whatever flotsam and jetsam the house requires at the moment--light bulbs, garbage bags, laundry sheets, what have you. While the rest of the world is rushing to upgrade their 76" TVs to 77" and buy a new cell phone to replace the perfect good cellphone they already have, we're buying stuff we need.

Now, we'll also buy some stuff we want, at Canadian Tire and elsewhere...or at least we'll look. Eva has to check the kitchen aisles for the latest in culinary whizbang gadgetry, and like as not we'll head to Chapters, because Mr. Breadbin here is what you'd call a book-slut. Today was no different: I picked up the third volume of the Void trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton; Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs's latest, and something I swore I wouldn't buy again...a book by Dan Simmons.

What can I say? I feel I owe the guy one more. Back before he went insane and started seeing evil Muslims hiding behind every bush, he was a helluva writer. By all accounts, he still is, but he's let more and more of his politics intrude on his fiction of late. I won't set an official foot in his forum anymore, though I still occasionally drop in and lurk in the shadows, just to see where Fox News will get their next ideas from.
FLASHBACK looks to be right up my alley: a near-future dystopia. Though this one seems to have been brought about because America stopped playing World Dictator...still, it should be an interesting read. If only to see just how deep the crazy runs now.

While in line at McDonald's for a the greasy goodness of a Sausage McMuffin, I heard a customer behind me telling everyone--several times--that she'd already been to Sears, she was in line at six a.m. We've done that, except Sears was the Brick and it was freakin' COLD. We also heard the line to get into Best Buy was an hour long. We've done that too, at Future Shop. Never again will we do either of these things. Boxing Day is supposedly so-called because the wealthy used to give their servants a gift in a box on this day. Well, I'm hear to tell you this meaning has gone the way of the dodo, and that there's a sweet science to the braving of the crowds on the 26th of December. I never really liked science, sweet or otherwise, and as much as I hate people in bulk, Eva hates them more. So each year we're practically alone in Canadian Tire, and we hit Chapters before it gets too zooey, and then...home. Home to relax and be at peace.

25 December, 2011

All I Want For Christmas Is My Two...

...days off.

The holiday run-up this year was nothing short of insane. It's like that every year, of course, but this year the insanity was compounded by a new routine, a fair bit more responsibility, and customer patterns I could only guess at.
I pride myself on staying in stock on holiday-sensitive items. Nobody's perfect, of course, and I'm less perfect than many, but over the years at Price Chopper/FreshCo I'd like to think I managed it more often than not.
It's harder than it sounds. Egg nog is a case in point. The problem with egg nog is simply this: nobody buys it, nobody buys it, nobody buys it, WHAM! LET'S VACUUM UP ALL THE EGG NOG!, egg nog? why the hell would I buy that?
Seriously, after New Year's you can offer people money to buy egg nog and they'll look at you as if to say money? I doan need no steekin' money. 
Making it harder: us peons down here at store level aren't the only ones who know about this problem with egg nog. The dairies know it too, which is why they only make so much. After a certain time--you never know quite when it will be, but it's usually half past I need some...there's no egg nog to be had.
Which means I had to lay in my nog a week and a half early.
Then there's the warehouse. You can never guess what they'll run short of in any given holiday season. Traditionally it's hash browns, the sales of which triple in December...but I've seen butter go bye-bye a week before Christmas. I've seen creamed cheese unavailable. And this year it was our store brand sour cream, out of stock since early December with no firm date in sight when it might be back in stock. And so: ninety cases of name brand sour cream, better order it quick while they still have that
Tack on all the distributions (hey! Let's put yogurt on sale Christmas week, everyone bastes their turkey with yogurt!) and account for the general uptick in sales and for a little while this past Thursday morning I could not close the door to my dairy cooler. This has never happened to me.

And still I ran out of things. I ordered double what the computer said I would sell in vanilla ice cream and ran out before Christmas Eve started. We were out of our brand of butter for a few hours. (And then of course there's the aerosol whip creams, of which I have about a year's supply.

Still--not bad for a rookie in this store, if I do say so myself. And there's a good group of people here. I'm starting to feel--not quite like I belong, exactly, but that I might belong. Which is a good feeling, a merry feeling.

But boy, have I been stiff. Getting out of bed over the past week has become progressively more difficult. And so I am cherishing these two days off.

Merry Christmas to everyone. 

18 December, 2011

The Problem with Christmas

...is that it's too short.

I don't mean the season. That now makes its first appearance before Hallowe'en and, what with interminable Boxing Day sales, extends nearly into February. I don't care how much of a Christmas person you are, three months of it is clearly too much. Yet every year the carols start up earlier and earlier.

I keep hoping for new ones to supplant I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (which I hate) and Little Drummer Boy (which I hate more). Be careful what you wish for, Ken. I had somehow managed to never hear Last Christmas in its original George Michael incarnation. Maybe I did hear it and just blocked it out. That's more likely, actually, because I hated Taylor Swift's rendition the first time I heard it. on November the first of this year, and it did not improve with the subsequent repeats every ninety minutes through every work day since.

Amazing how quickly this jaunted to the top of my stick-icicles-in-my-ear list. It's right up there with Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime (does ANYBODY actually like that dreck?) and Feed The World (Do They Know It's Christmas) (memo to Band Aid: the majority of the world doesn't celebrate Christmas, so no, even if they know, they don't give a fartridge in a pear tree.)

But Last Christmas, now, let's examine these lyrics that have been fingernailed onto my brainboard.

Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away


Whoa, whoa, stop right there Rudolph. You "gave away" my heart? How do you do that, exactly? And maybe I like the person you gave it to more! But no,

This year, to save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special (repeat ad Clauseum)

But, umm, I thought YOU were special last year and look what you did with my heart.

Clearly not a good judge of character, our caroller here. I suppose it's too much to ask that she SHUT UP about the mistake she made last Yule and what she plans to do this season to avenge it.  Ugh.

So yeah, the carols are getting increasingly painful. I mean, I never hear the few I actually LIKE, ones like this one



Or this one



Or how about



Instead it's Last Christmas AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN...Arrrrrrgh! Just once, just once, I dare somebody to play something like




And this never-ending soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the stress of the season. You really should have seen my dairy cooler by the time I got everything into it last Thursday. Some of it I won't need until next Thursday, but I got it all anyway, all thirteen skids of it, and next year, to save me from tears, I'll gi--SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP

So yeah, way too long. But too damned short, too.

We met my Dad and stepmom in Barrie today for lunch. This is the second year we've done this. It's not ideal by any stretch--ideal would be a week or so--but this year in particular it had to serve. I'm not off again until Christmas Day.
Joining Dad and Hez this year was my stepbrother Robbie (the life of every party ever) and, surprise, stepsister Brea. Both of them we don't see near enough of. We missed my aunt Dawna and her partner Barry this time, sadly. But it was so nice to see the people we did, even if for so short a time.

I almost cried from one of the presents my dad got me. I mean, they were all nice, but this one--a collage of photos of him and I with a message, all in a lovely frame.  Dad, I wish we could have got you the gift you deserve, but they don't make things that special on this planet.

Two 'Christmases' to go, both of which will zoom by too quickly. It really is about family and friends, and I'm blessed to have the family and friends I have. We love you all and wish we had about a carolling season's worth of time to spend with you.


11 December, 2011

School Daze, Part II

On what date did what bomber drop the first nuclear bomb used in warfare where?

So help me, I actually had that question on a history test once. I raided a near eidetic memory for the dry facts (August 6, 1945, Enola Gay, Hiroshima), wishing there was room to note that the bomber had been named after its commander's mother and that Hiroshima had deliberately been left completely alone by American forces so as to measure how much damage one nuclear weapon would actually cause.

Personally, I find those parenthetical remarks more interesting than dusty dates. I would have been more interested still if we had had an in-class debate, pretending it was six months before mission date.  Should we drop the bombs, yea or nay? I would have been extremely interested to hear the Japanese side of the story. Why were they fighting in the first place?
That information was never given to me; I was left to scavenge for it on my own time.  I would have been flabbergasted to learn that the Japanese were considering surrender before Little Boy was dropped.

I'm still learning things about August 6-9, 1945. Just yesterday I learned about a man who survived both bombings. There were an estimated 165 "double survivors"; one of them was actually telling his co-workers what to do in case they saw a blinding blue flash when there was a blinding blue flash.

To me, education has several purposes. Socialization, the most important of them, is best accomplished by encouraging empathy, and empathy is best encouraged by providing numerous opportunities for students to get into other people's heads. The best books will do that, but so will movies, plays, debates--even written assignments wherein you're asked to take up a contrary position.
Who, what, where, when--all of marginal importance, surely. It is absolutely critical to know that Hiroshima was devastated on August 6th, 1945? Or is it sufficient to know that its payload and that dropped three days later effectively ended the Second World War? I think "how" and especially "why" are much more relevant questions, almost always, and sadly, they're the ones most often ignored in the media. Why does a serial killer do what he does? You can say "because he's crazy", and of course that's true...but he doesn't think he's crazy. How do we determine who's crazy? Is it morally right to arrest psychopaths before they commit a crime?
My favourite classes were the few that considered these sorts of questions. I think most students remember those classes far more than they do the dry and boring facts they were force-fed.

Okay, so...empathy as a core curriculum value. What else? Well, what values are we looking to instil into students? I'd suggest honesty is a good one. So is accountability. Healthy skepticism is always welcome (unless you're the kind of parent who wants to raise carbon copies of yourself).
How do you get those values into little heads? Model them. Model them by your actions; model them in the curriculum. Show some consequences of dishonesty. But also encourage critical thought. When is it okay to lie? When is it necessary? What would happen to the world if we had easy access to a 100% reliable lie detector?
Accountability--for the last several years, there has been no punishment meted out for students who turn their assignments in late. I'm told for many years now, children have been told to spell words the way they sound, rather than the way they're actually spelled. This strikes me as utterly bizarre. I was among the last generation that learned to read using phonics, which undoubtedly is one good reason I was spelling at college level in grade five. Back in that ancient day, if you spelled something wrong, it was corrected. If you repeatedly spelled many things wrong, you'd fail your grade and be kept back a year...something else that doesn't seem to happen any more.
My problem was procrastination. Like many kids, I was lazy, and unless I was really interested in a project, more often than not I'd slapdash it together at the last minute. Until fifth grade.
My grade five teacher was Mr. Sackville. I don't remember what the project he assigned was, though I think it had something to do with computers.  As usual, I'd left it to the last minute. Beyond the last minute, actually: I didn't even start it until after it was due, and I turned it in four days late. I will never forget how it came back to me: 96% at the top, in that red ink teachers always used. "A+." "GREAT JOB!!!!" I distinctly remember, count 'em, four exclamation marks. Below that... -15% x 4 days late = 36%. And that was circled.
That hit me where I lived. I never turned in another project so much as a minute late ever again.

I wasn't taught skepticism, healthy or otherwise, until university. I had one prof named Lewinsky--he taught literary criticism, or LitCrit as we called it (as opposed to ClitLit, which was Feminist English). Anyway, we covered a different school of literary criticism every week, and every week he would come to class every week a completely different person. For the feminist perspective, he came in drag. Every week, he'd dismiss the philosophy he'd argued the previous week as a pile of crap. That class was tremendously liberating, and I wish I'd had others like it before.

You'll notice I haven't covered what many people think is the only reason for schooling: to prepare students for the work world. That's because I just don't think it's all that important. I believe that apprenticeships should begin--for many jobs, not just the trades--towards the end of what is currently high school. By that point, in my system, students would be as literate and numerate as they'll ever get, and hopefully, through inhabiting the heads of people in many different professions and being exposed to many different ways of seeing the world, the vast majority of them will have found something that interests them. I'd set aside an entire year for students to try out various careers. Those who show an interest and aptitude for one would then enter specialized training that might last six weeks or six years.

While keeping the core values in the curriculum as much as possible, I'd suggest there are many things schools should be teaching that they don't bother with at present. Here are a few.


  • Home economics. Yes, I believe everyone should have a solid grounding in nutrition. They should also know at least the basics of cooking, sewing, and--important, this--budgeting. Also parenting. That last should actually be its own required course.
  • A greatly expanded civics program, covering your rights as a citizen, how to protest effectively, what to do (and what not to do) if you are accused of a crime--and (again with the healthy skepticism) how to parse political bullshit. I'd actually call that last segment exactly that: How To Parse Political Bullshit". That'd get the kids' attention.
  • Life Skills. Currently this is a program for kids with special needs. I think it's a great name for a catch-all course that covers things you'd learn in Scouts and Guides. How to tie knots. How to navigate. Emergency preparedness. Comprehensive first aid. And so on.
  • Avocational School. Everybody should have at least one semester in which their interests are probed and cultivated. For instance, I have been composing music since I was four years old, but even now I have no idea what to do with that particular skill. I know someone who cross-stitches well enough to live off it, but she doesn't. Some kids might grow up to be professional athletes. Whatever course they're interested in, they should learn its channels and its shoals beforehand. 
What would school in your world look like?






10 December, 2011

School Daze, Part I

Catelli over at Not Quite Unhinged has presented an excellent argument for education reform, to wit, that most of the stuff we force kids to learn is pointless. Particularly most of the math. Like him, I was told that the math I was learning would be critical to my success in later life.

Unlike him, I struggled with math. Hated it, actually. Didn't like the hard sciences, either, because "hard" means math. Somehow, I internalized that: hard is math, math is hard.

It didn't help much, in my case, that I spent grade seven and eight in a "gifted' program. If I described this program to your average public school student, she wouldn't believe me, and if she did, she'd beg to be let in. No homework. No supervision. Very little work of any kind, actually. The teacher read books to us, almost like story time in kindergarten except these books where things like George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. Other than that, we were left pretty much to ourselves.
This was fine for my fellow 'gifties', who were tossing off calculus. My gifts lay in another direction--since grade two, if not before, I had revelled in playing with words, bending them to my will. You can't bend numbers: they're stiff sons-of-bitches.
So I missed any kind of structured math instruction for those two years. It turned an average-at-best math student into a horror. I had to work my ass off in grade twelve to get a 65% average, which was fifteen points lower than ANY course average I maintained in high school without much effort at all.

It's funny, you know. I used to be the most unyielding black and white person you could possibly imagine. There was a right way of doing things, and--never mind the wrong way--there weren't any other ways. Contrast that to me, now: there are increasingly few hard truths I hold to and I'm willing to at least listen to yours, no matter how outlandish it might seem to be. I figure people have a reason for believing what they believe, and I reserve contempt only for those who haven't examined their thoughts and simply believe whatever they believe because it says so in some book, or because that's what Daddy said.
You'd think a person like my black-and-white younger self would appreciate a subject as black and white as mathematics. What can I say? Adult Ken has a root someplace, and like as not it's in that dawning realization that words open windows while numbers, in my experience anyway, only slam doors.
Math always struck me as a top-down system: teacher teaches, you learn. Or not. In EVERY other subject, I could supplement whatever was being taught with outside reading so as to impress the teacher. But math was just this dead set of numbers. I look at the word "number" and all I see is a word meaning "more numb". Aptly named little buggers.

But I was told it would all come clear later. Notwithstanding my inclination to run away from equations wherever they pop up, to be honest, I haven't seen any. My wife has--she works with numbers all the time, and if you told her high school self she'd be enjoying that, she'd have slapped you silly. But see, she gets to use a calculator. I'm told kids get to use calculators all the way back in grade three, now, which is probably why so few cashiers can figure out how much change to give you without some idiot display telling them. I doubt anything Eva learned past third grade is of any use to her now. I can say with certainty that this is true for me. As far as academics go, I can't think of a single thing I learned in school that (a) I use today and (b) I couldn't have learned, more easily, some other way.

I still remember grade thirteen history and the panic attack I got before that class got going. I'd found out that it was going to start in the year 1200 or something like that and work forward from there. I knew NOTHING about the year 1200. Nothing at all. I was practically hyperventilating, and my mom looked at me and said, "Isn't that the whole idea of school? To learn?"
"No," I said, as if  that had never occurred to me. "The point of school is to show what you've learned."

Although I liked school (aside from math and the one science course I took), I did all my best learning outside the classroom, where I wasn't straight-jacketed into "read this, then read that, then answer these questions". I was willing to be, in Catelli's terms, a storage tank--for a while, at least; it got more than a little tedious in university, when I realized professors were filling me up with their opinions and expecting me to digest them and excrete them as facts later. But I refused to be just a tank. I was forever searching for connections, looking at the hows and whys of things. Maybe that's why I did so well in my OAC year, when my classes all seemed to feed into each other: the stuff I'd take in history would pop up again in world issues and again in music class of all places. Even then, though, it only inspired me to spread my mind-net further afield.

If the academics in school aren't valuable to me now, what was and is?

The first thing that comes to mind when I ask myself this question is a project in grade ten geography. We split up into "firms" of four or five students and were tasked with laying down a power line from point A to point C on a very large and detailed map. As I recall it, the power line had to go through B, but beyond that we were free to plot any course we could justify. Of course, there were issues: many of them. Costs varied...it would be $x across a flat field, $2x over a ridge, $4x over a river, $8x underground, and so on. There were environmentally sensitive areas: we could go through them, but doing so meant extra costs and an extra "impact assessment" step I don't remember any of us taking.  B was a city, and we had to plot the line through it in such as way as to minimize disruption. In the end, we had to draw up and present our proposals to the teacher, who judged them on various criteria. It took up five full periods, and it was the most fun I've ever had in a classroom. That project was my first real exposure to different ways of thinking and the idea that there could be more than one solution to an actual, real-world problem. I flash back on that project quite often.

School is the place for socialization, both structured--think sports, but also things like band, a class play,    and the yearbook committee--and unstructured. I wasn't much at the unstructured stuff for the longest time: absent a common goal like a musical piece to be learned or an opposing soccer team to obliterate, I didn't know how to connect with people. But that's something I eventually learned, and I'm not sure I could have learned it in any other setting. It's a big thing, socialization, probably the biggest thing we social animals ever learn, and so school does have a purpose. Pity about the endless layers of crap on top, though. Double the pity since there is so much school could teach that it doesn't bother with. That's tomorrow's subject.