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Saturday, 21 January 2017


For those of you who’ve forgotten from high school, a metaphor is comparison of two unlike things.  A simile is a metaphor using like or as to connection the two objects.  Poetry makes great use of metaphors and I’ve always found my favourite songs utilize an extended metaphor to create a feeling or image “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan or “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones or “Drops like Jupiter” by Train or “I Can See Clearly Now” Johnny Nash or “Pocket of a Clown” by Dwight Yoakam.  You get my drift. 
The teaching profession uses metaphors to justify teaching practice.  The last superintendent of schools introduced herself to parents and teachers with a metaphor that went something like this.  Eye surgeons once used a scalpel to remove a cataract from a patient’s eye but, today, they use lasers.  What was once a somewhat dangerous and expensive procedure has now become cheap and routine.  By extension, through the introduction of radical new teaching methods, students should be able to learn more quickly and efficiently. 
I realize that I may not have been expected to take the metaphor literally.  Nevertheless, I was flummoxed.  How are the two alike?  One’s a mental process.  The other is a physical.  We have lots of examples of improvements in the way we deal with our physical health however mental still causes issues.  I knew she couldn’t be talking about drugs which would have been the most appropriate point of comparison.  So, what was she trying to say?  Over the next few years, we would learn. 
During one in-service, we were told that students should be able to redo an assignment as often as
they wanted.  By way of support, the in-service leader utilized a metaphor about packing a parachute and a graph for us to better visualize the message.  Let’s say you have a large group of students.  One group, for whatever reason, don’t improve no matter how many times they practice.  Another, are good at the beginning and although they improve a little, never become excellent.  A third group starts out poorly but eventually becomes the most excellent parachute packers.  However, if marks were given for each time an individual packed a parachute, then the middle group would achieve the highest marks.  When, in fact, if you were to hire a parachute packer, you should be hiring from the last group.  So, students should not be evaluated based on their first attempt at an assignment.  They should be evaluated by what they’ve achieved at the coursess end.  Or, as it was later interpreted, when a student has mastered an objective. 
Dreaded bell curve
The problem again, has to do with the concreteness of the metaphor and the subjective nature of teaching and teacher evaluation.  As a student progresses beyond grade 3, he or she can never truly master any one objective.  Increasingly, evaluation becomes a process of comparison so that, by Grade 12, the assessment branch of Alberta Education determines the quality of its diploma exams not only by the way it tests the curriculum objectives but the average.  It should be somewhere in the 65% range.  And then in university, you get the bell curve.  That is a small percentage of the class will get an “A,” a large percentage will get a “B” and “C” and a small percentage, a “D.”  The test for quality of parachute packing mustn’t go too far beyond whether or not it will open when the sky diver pulls the rip cord.  The consequences of it not opening are dire. 
School administrators have argued that the universities have it wrong.  They should be using the same objective criteria for evaluation as the schools.  The question is, how do they do that?  We don’t live in a finite universe.  As our knowledge on a particular subject improves, we increasingly discover how little we know.  Which brings me to my favourite subject and quandary about recent social phenomenon.  Yes, that’s none other than the election of Donald Trump as president. 
Instead of logical argument, I will use a metaphor as my method of support and not to confuse it one can be objectively quantified and tested using a scientific method, I will do so in the form of a poem.  

A tranquil sea where all may languish,                           
A rough one brings on loads of anguish,         
But, what upon horizon breaks?
A raft of gold and glitter flakes,
What if nothing’s below the hull
The captain cries he’ll save them all
From tawdry tasks that pay f**k all.
All you need’s to climb aboard
And join this righteous holy horde
On a journey, only Donald knows
From whence it starts and where it goes. 

Some wonder what if storms appear
Where is stored the safety gear? 
Captain Donald says, “you need not fear
The seas for me are always clear
How else could all this gold be here? 
Meanwhile, women, keep your privates clear.”

And what of this other ship we did not choose 
Just how smoothly does it cruise
It’s run by women, it’s fun by fobs
Who come to steal our precious jobs
And unlike Trump’s big gold raft,
With almost nothing of a draught
Most of this ship can’t be seen
Invisible below the water’s bright gleam. 
How do we trust what we cannot know, 
Which is why our love for Donald grows,
Just look at all the gold and glitter   
And he is such as whiz at twitter.
He doesn’t talk fancy.  He’s just like us
There is no science.  There is no fuss
Trump pretends there is no mystery
To what’s causing us the misery
It’s not computers, it’s not the phones
It’s not the robots that make us groan
We love those things that work like magic
And that is why this story’s tragic. 

Raft of reeds covered with gold dust & emeralds for
newly appointed chief of Muisca people of Bolivia 

Friday, 13 January 2017

Crazy - it's all around us

         A few days before Christmas, my wife and I were suddenly woken by a phone call at 6:30 in the morning.  With much trepidation, Nicola picked up the receiver located on her side of the bed.  A phone call at this time in the morning is either a wrong number or bad news.  Unfortunately, this was the latter.  Our eldest was phoning from Heathrow Airport to say that she hadn’t been able to board the plane for Minneapolis because her first and last names had been switched on the ticket.  If the clerical error had been identified prior to boarding, a correction to her name could have been made.  Now, she would have to pay 750£ or $1250 Canadian to book a new flight.
            I didn't understand.  The airline would have been in possession of our daughter’s passport number and the credit card number she'd used to purchase the ticket.  Surely, the idea that the name switch could be anything but a clerical mistake would be ludicrous.  Ramsey Jordan wasn’t coming to claim the seat.  Her bags were already on the plane so they would have to find her bag and have it removed delaying the flight and incurring expenses both for the airline and the airport authority.    
         Couldn't the flight attendant think for herself?  Didn't she have a mind or was she mindless because anyone with a mind could have figured this out.  Then I thought, to be without mind must be the definition of insanity but then I looked it up though, I discovered that insanity is a legal term.  It refers to being of “a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder.”  However, the word crazy doesn’t come with such encumbrances.  Merriam Webster defines crazy as being “full of cracks or flaws: unsound” which would pretty much exactly describe the flight attendant’s lack of thinking. 
            A few hours after the first phone call, our daughter phoned again.  She’d gone back to the check-in area of the airport to book a new ticket where she’d been told to return to the lady who had originally not allowed her on the flight who was now in a more forgiving state of mind.  She wouldn’t charge Jordan the difference in fees between the cost of the ticket she’d originally bought and its present value.  However, Jordan would have to charge a 125£ fee for rebooking.  Jordan would be leaving on a flight the next day.  She was now arranging for someone from baggage to escort her back into the secured area of the airport to get her suitcase. 
Mongolian Yurts
            This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this kind of bureaucratic craziness.  In 1984, I watched what I thought would the last of who would become my future wife wave as she proceeded to the boarding area of the Beijing Airport.  I then boarded a train for Hohhot in Mongolia and spent two-days on a tour of the Mongolian plains.  Upon return, I attempted to check into a Peking Hotel for two nights before my flight left for Tokyo.  I’d reserved a bed in the dorm room except when I went to check-in, I was told that the hotel didn’t have a dorm.  Not knowing what to do, I asked the New Zealand friend I’d met in Mongolia if I could leave my bags in his room.  Overhearing my request, the clerk told me that I could leave my luggage behind the desk with the rest of the bags left by people who were staying in the dorm.
“So, you do have a dorm?” I said.  
“No,” he replied.  “But if you come back tonight we will.”
Crazy huh?  That was China, 1984.   
Upon entering the hotel, we’d seen a girl kneeling on the pavement begging to one of the clerks standing nearby for something although we didn’t know what.  A half-hour later, while showering in the men’s washroom for residents of the dorm that didn’t exist, I heard hysterical screaming coming from outside.  By the time, I wrapped a towel around myself and went to the window to investigate, the screaming had stopped and the girl was sitting on the edge of the sidewalk in front of the hotel parking lot conversing with the hotel clerk.
           I decided to investigate and when I arrived in the parking lot, she was crying uncontrollably.  Her British friend explained that they’d booked a room for two in the hotel through CITS, the Chinese International Travel Service.  )Shits as it was known to travellers.)  The girls had been told that the rooms would cost 32 yuan a night but upon checkout, they had been charged 38.  She said they were on a budget and couldn’t afford the extra cost.  I knew this couldn’t be entirely true because budget travellers didn’t stay in a room.  They slept in dorms with guys like me.
I told her to pay the difference. After all, I said, I’d paid 38 when I’d stayed in a room at this same hotel earlier in the week.  Rather than being comforted by this information, the hysterical girl became anger with me. She said that she was not going to pay the 38 yuan and to press her point, she'd given the desk attendant only enough money to cover 32 yuan a night.  The attendant countered by holding her girlfriend's luggage which would be returned when the difference was paid.  I wondered why the two girls were wasting their holiday on a Mexican standoff for a paltry sum worth the equivalent of $3 Canadian?
Crazy huh?
One of my group on a camel  
            During my time spent in Mongolia, I’d been completely dependent on a group of Hong Kongers because I knew virtually no Mandarin and almost no one in Mongolia spoke English.  So, I had to depend on them to translate.  They thought I was crazy.  What was I doing touring a country where I knew practically no words in their language besides beer, thank you and the name of the university where I had studied?  Nevertheless, they took pity on me and arranged for me to join them on a two-day tour of the Mongolian plains.   
            Even though they were nice and smiled at me a lot, none was interested in engaging me in conversation.  So,  I looked around for someone who would.  Then, at lunch on our second day, I heard what I was sure was English.  We were in a cafeteria style restaurant seated on benches at tables in a series of parallel rows.  I stood to get a better idea as to where this conversation was coming from but I could see nothing but a sea of black hair.  Then, I heard the words again and that’s how I met Gilbert.  He’d been working in Hong Kong and was on holiday in Mongolia.  When I introduced myself after lunch, he seemed as happy to find another English speaker as I.  He even forgave me for identifying his accent as Australian.  I was told in no uncertain terms that he was from New Zealand, not Australia.  I apologized and said that most people I met when abroad assumed I was American which I didn't really like either.     
         He and I hung for remainder of the tour.  We had laughs riding camels, were equally impressed by the warmth and coziness of a Mongolian Yurt and amazed by the display of stars at night.   Then, while packing, I discovered that we wouldn’t be travelling on the same train.  Cam, Gilbert’s Hong Kong friend, who was fluent in Mandarin said that we could trade the tickets at the station which we did.  The problem was that reserved seats were no longer available.  The rest of the seating would be what? First come, first served?  Cam was reassuring and said they’d save me a seat. 
As our train drew to a stop at the station, a mass of humanity in green pants and matching tunics crammed the doorways to the carriages.  When the doorways became blocked, they'd climb over one another to get inside.  Those who'd got inside would then their friends through the windows of the carriage.  All I could do was stand back, watch and admire their determination.  No way was I ready to participate in that kind of craziness.  If I couldn’t get a seat, I’d just buy a ticket for the next train. 
28 hours on this
By the time I got on, all the benches were occupied.  Those who couldn’t find a seat were claiming space on the floor of the aisle. Stepping through luggage and over bodies,  I managed to find my friends.  They were facing one another on hard benches ready to spend the next 28 hours in relative discomfort seated without the ability to even recline.  If lucky, I’d be able to join them.  Otherwise, if I stayed on the train, I'd be stuck on the floor.  
Even though the seats across from Cam and Gilbert were taken, Cam told one of them that his seat had been reserved . . . for me.  Since I was a Westerner, the guy didn’t question or ask to see my ticket.  He simply moved onto the floor.  I did allow him to lean against the side of my bench so I wasn't all bad.  We spent the journey dozing, conversing, reading and getting really sore behinds.  Not fun, but considerably better than standing or sitting on a filthy floor. 
            What I’d witnessed with the Chinese boarding the train was certainly crazy to my Western eyes as were the conditions of travel that those without reserved tickets were forced endure.  But, what was really crazy, was my presence on the train.  What was I doing travelling to the outer regions of China alone with no understanding of the language?  Obviously, I was out of my mind. 
Nicola & I on travels in China
           In 1986, Nicola and I were attempting to change money at a bank in Tokyo.  Back then, debit cards did not exist and credit cards were not universally accepted.  So, most people carried their money in the form of American Express travellers’ cheques that could be cashed at banks for the local currency.  If a tourist couldn’t find somewhere to cash a cheque, he or she was essentially broke.  W
hen Nicola and I went to cash a couple of travellers' cheques, we were disheartened to discover that the bank was packed with tourist attempting to do the same.  The tellers knew very little English and travellers were crowding the counters demanding service.  Suddenly, we were told that the bank was closing for lunch.  With a lot of grumbling, the tourists left.
Nicola was about to leave as well but I told her to stay, have a seat and wait.  It was close to noon and they could be closing for lunch, but for some reason, I didn't believe them.  Sure enough, five minutes later after everyone had left, the bank miraculously opened.  II’d just seen this same frustration in service workers when we’d been travelling in China.  Nicola and I were in a similar crowd attempting to book a room at a  Beijing Hotel.  The hotel clerk suddenly announced that there were no more rooms.  We’d waited for everyone to leave and then, when they had, we were offered a room in the Overseas Chinese section of the hotel.  Overseas Chinese were those of the Chinese race who no longer lived in mainland China.  Mr. Ye, our friend and translator for a course we took in China had emphasized how losing face is a bit problem in China and Japan.  It’s better to avoid a situation than have it result in embarrassment.  Because the tellers couldn’t deal the number of foreigners trying to change money, they simply told them that the bank was closed. 
            Were the clerks crazy to lie to the tourists?  Maybe.  Were the tourist crazy to believe them that the bank was actually closed?  Definitely not.  It’s a Western tradition that we don’t lie, particularly if we’re in a position of authority.  Was I crazy to stay?  Obviously not.  Nicola and I easily cashed our checks for desperately needed Japanese Yen.  Was the whole situation crazy?   Maybe a little but sometimes, a little crazy can help. 
President Tsai Ing-wen, Donald & President Xi Jinping - Hmm
            The Americans are certainly going to get a little crazy after voting for Donald Trump as their future president.  Immediately, following the election, he took a call of congratulations from the president of Taiwan breaking a protocol that had been followed by previous American presidents going back to 1979.  Richard Nixon, the president at the time, strengthened ties with Mainland China by recognizing their “one-China” policy and removing the American embassy from Taipei.  Even though the U.S. still trades extensively with Taiwan, they haven’t formally recognized its existence which, up to this point in time, has been enough for Mainland China not to lose face.  Now, Donald is forcing their hand.
            Who’s crazy in this situation?  Is it Trump for refusing to recognize a protocol that, at least on the surface, seems a little crazy?  Or, is it China who refuses to recognize the craziness of their position on a one-China policy?  Or, maybe it’s just me unable to recognize nuances that may be playing out that are beyond my capacity to understand.  I certainly don’t understand the nuances of the situation with my daughter at the airport.  Being a parent, I’m certainly not going to blame my daughter.  After all, how serious can a clerical mistake be?  Would it endanger the lives of the passengers aboard a plane?  Would someone by the name of Ramsey Jordan with the same nationality and passport number suddenly appear at the gate demanding his or her seat.  Maybe that’s not my call.  I will call “crazy” on the flight attendant who didn’t let my daughter on a flight that would allow her return home for Christmas, the only time we are together as a family all year long.  Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy. 
The "children" all home for Christmas