Thursday, February 27, 2014

Three About Me

It’s finally time I wrote about me—sort of.

On the Internet, it amuses me how bloggers are eager to share what they had for breakfast while essayists, in contrast, can get engaged and married without breathing a word in their essays. Perhaps essayists are too uptight, or modest to a fault. Or maybe they just believe in crafting really focused essays.

As for myself, I think my life is just too boring for others to care about: That’s what I told my fellow students last week—I’m taking a night class in creative nonfiction. My excuse for posting some class assignments here is that I’m finally revealing a little about me. Besides, I don’t like to “waste” anything I write, not if I can put it out there again. (In fact, I just took last week’s web essay down to my college alumni magazine)

Here are three short assignments: They don’t focus directly on me, yet they are revealing. My classmates in my real life found the pieces interesting; so here’s hoping some readers in cyberspace will too.

Assignment One: Find a newspaper article that moves you. Encourage readers to feel too. 250-300 words.


In my life I’ve earned a one-year college certificate, a college diploma and a university degree. I’m smart, by the grace of God, and I have good will towards those not-so-smart: They too have their story. You could say I’m conservative, don’t swear and I go to school: These three attributes describe everyone in the family of Juliana Tolifson—everyone except, explains Juliana, herself. She is a hairdresser with tattoos—she came to her family from an orphanage back when Romania was under communism. She says she’s nuts, she’s the black sheep, and she wants to meet someone like her. Now she’s nearing the end of a seven-year quest to learn more about herself by finding her birth mother. The only photo Juliana has is one of her mother wearing a leopard print bra under a white T-shirt: Juliana can really relate.

I’ve often met people like her, cheerful and spinny—the folks who never get into the history books or the weekly TV dramas or the Sears catalogues. They don’t read books, they don’t know world politics—still, they are optimistic about their community and willing to do their part.

I am touched when folks like Juliana learn how I read so much and then respond by marveling, being too nice to call me four-eyes. Perhaps Juliana is nice because back in elementary school she was bullied for being a “foreign kid.” Today she’s a successful hair stylist, getting ten different big Romanian flowers tattooed all down her arm. I’m old enough to be her uptight uncle, without any tattoos, but I wish her well. I sure hope her birth mom agrees to meet with her.

Assignment Two: Write about someone who you admire, or on why you became a writer. (I did both at once!) Maximum 400 words.


I am older now than my spiritual father, George Orwell, was when he died of tuberculosis. For me his essays are what he will be remembered for. The man who wrote great essays could also write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

Orwell knew imperialism first hand. One hot day, as a young police officer and administrator in Burma, he found himself walking with an army officer, from his own class, behind a file of common British soldiers. He really didn’t like their smell that day—and he knew this was mere class prejudice, since the soldiers were all healthy, well fed and well washed. Admitting his fault, he also admitted the same nation that imperializes foreigners would imperialize each other. Call it: Divide by class and conqueror. He took action: resigning his commission, and going back to England, there to mingle with the lower orders, the “proletariat,” enough to shake off his prejudice. (To quote another writer, “he (They) walked away from Omelas”)

Like many idealists of his time he knew there had to be something better, a world where all people could be equal comrades. Yet, unlike the rest of his generation, he knew that bloodstained, actively lying communism was not the answer. To him, a socialist England would still have soldiers guarding Buckingham palace with the buttons on their tunics inscribed with, as he titled his essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.

I too am a writer; I was born in the 1950’s; and I too had to invent myself. Orwell had the word “sensitivity” in his vocabulary: He once took the measure of Rudyard Kipling by saying Kipling had enough sensitivity to write, and just enough insensitivity to fraternize with imperialists east of Suez. Other writers, noted Orwell, would not leave London for the colonies. Now “sensitivity” is part of my own vocabulary, as one more bit of my own self-invention.

Orwell was socialist, yet not a communist. Reformist, yet not a sandal wearing vegetarian crank. Leftist, yet sympathetic to the flag and soldiers. A scholar of revolution, yet sympathetic to the actual working class, not to some romanticized “proletariat.” An intellectual, yet he fought with volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. To me he remains a model of a man who would not hate, nor deceive himself, nor lie for any cause. A decent man… I try to be as decent as he.

Assignment Three: Write about a setting. Maximum 500 words. (This, like the above, was an exercise for me in word processing, as I kept adding and cutting to get under the word count)

Concert at the Lantern

On a cold prairie night, in the older part of the city, I find the Lantern Church. A little paper sign on the door says, “Pull the handle down hard.” I manage the little handle and step inside.

Smiling people take my ticket, and I walk down, down past rows of long curving pews filled up with spiritual people. I sit. Many folks here have a past, many would say they are on a healing journey. Now I see people happy and eager, with spouses and families and jobs—the past is the past.

I see Margret, the mother of Eily Aurora. I see a man operating a camera on a tripod—it’s David, Eily’s father. I’ve known the couple since Eily was teenager, later Eily was active on campus, now she’s actively staging her second concert. Set on stage is Eily’s harp, and her Japanese sitar. Also on stage is Trevor’s Australian didgeridoo, and drums that have surely been used in a drumming circles. I know Trevor from Miracles Toastmasters. Later they’ll be joined by a goateed guy with an electronic base guitar and by a bearded young man who uses vocal sounds as an instrument; he has a Celtic drum too.

Eily had told me last week she was scared; but that’s natural. Tonight she does fine. Speaking slowly enough and lovingly enough she speaks of owls and vision quests and invites us to listen for what comes up for us. We begin the concert with silence… as many folks close their eyes.

As for the audience, no one is dressing to conform. No suits or ties. No one minds wearing color, or embroidery, or stripes on their jeans. All have warm fuzzy friendly fabrics; no one wears plain blue cold polyester.

None would describe themselves as rigid. In fact, I suppose I’m one of the more rigid ones here. Yes, I know music is like modern art; I realize I get out of it only what I put into opening myself up to: I “need to sit with it.” I know this, but it’s still hard. At least on this night I’m not actively uptight and dampening my feelings—that sort of life was years ago.

And the music flows over that spiritual crowd, over us all, with a beat and rhythm but no melody; voice, harp and bell, and sometimes the team gets loud and fast to simulate the fact of chaos. And then back down to beauty. People love it.

At the intermission it is clear that people have brought their hearts. Some one freely yoga stretches. No one hesitates to talk to anyone. A young lady with a red fuzzy toque tells me she feels this is a good church: plain, not overly decorated, “It doesn’t take money from the people.”

The music resumes. We clap. We echo. Folks are invited to sit on the stage stairs as “receivers.” People dance freely in the aisles.
…Pray for peace…

Sean Crawford, Calgary, 2014

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Arete Means Excellence

As I write this, young Olympians are gathered in Sochi striving to become stronger, to go further and faster. They are living examples of the ancient Greeks word, arete, meaning excellence. In the Athlete Village, the young at heart mingle with a friendly excitement you can feel from way over here: The Olympians remind me that I too could strive for excellence—In fact, I have been fitfully doing so ever since a certain class in college.

Meanwhile, far below that special thin atmosphere of Mount Olympus, down here in the muggy world, students the same age as Olympians will be crossing fields to enter campus corridors. Whither arete? In secondary school, as children, the students would have done schoolwork that was adequate, more or less, to pass. As they enter post secondary, as adults, they realize at some level the truth: “You get out of life what you put in.” Some will be inspired—They will strive to learn: A day with new knowledge is like a day with golden sunshine. But many will merely just do what they have to…At least they can look forward to student parties. It’s a long drop from Olympus to campus. Why are so many young people, unlike their peers in Sochi, content to do shoddy work?

I guess they lack vision.

I don’t think students are third-string from a lack of measurable challenges, since their marks are a measurement, and they surely have no shortage of peers to strive with. Rather, I think undergraduates enjoy having a few years of not yet being accountable to life… years betwixt boy and man, girl and woman. I dimly recall a syndicated advice columnist (Ann Landers?) responding to parents. They told Ann about their child’s college sending them two letters. The one letter was a bill for some youthful misadventure. The other letter said the college refused to reveal what the misadventure of their student was, citing (adult) privacy. Ms. Landers suggested the parents switch envelopes and send the letters back.

I think many students, despite being legally adults, don’t see themselves as believing in excellence and responsibility, not yet: Among their peers, all too often, being too responsible is too uncool. To illustrate: I attended Mount Royal College, class of 1984. While you would think that folding desks, compared to normal desks, would be more portable, smaller and lighter—else why make them folding? —I once had an early morning class in a small room by the wrestling pit, a room with nothing but huge folding desks made out of cast iron or something: Very noisy. It was a career class in Leisure Services, (Recreation Therapy) so I knew the exact (nineteen) head count. And for nearly every class, various students arriving late would crash around unfolding their desks as the rest of us were trying to be involved. It would have been simple enough for me to arrive on time, count chairs, and then unfold any needed extras before class started. But I never did. Yes, I had initiative, but no, I didn’t want to be too responsible: I judged at the time it wouldn’t seem cool to my peers.

I could discern the contrast between common students and the Greek ideal of arete because I had left the adjacent army base and crossed the abandoned airstrip over to Mount Royal College. I felt like a minority of one. (As every student feels like) At my student newspaper, if someone came in later on the weekend, they could tell if I had been in earlier: I was, people told me, the only one who always put a pad of typing paper between my typewriter and the telephone so I could take phone messages.

When I was in Leisure Services I knew in theory which program would be the most athletic: dance. My college had no dance program; we did have a theatre program. The theatre students, like everyone else, were more student than professional. One day when they were giving memorized recitals, during class, from a stage, I noticed the only person who didn’t ask for help by calling “line!” was Brendan Lavery. He presented Edgar Allan Poe’s lengthy “(Quoth) The Raven.” For doing dance and movement, Brendan was the most skilled of us all.

It was by taking the Creative Movement class, with permission, that I had the opportunity to be among dramatists. (Note: I find movement is to dance what drama is to acting) Because our teacher, Joyce Grey, taught summers at the Banff School, she had to leave us, mid-semester, for (I think) three weeks to go travel across Canada holding auditions. She found a substitute, a man from the real world: Kevin McKendrick, of the locally based, seen around the world, Arete Mime (Physical Comedy) Troupe. He was determined to expose us to arete. And to our shock, he did.

Our morning class was held in the bare dance studio, no desks to crash around. The first thing Kevin told us, standing with Joyce before she left, was we were to be on time, because he would be locking the doors and starting the class promptly. For his first class a raven came tap-tap-tapping on the door—and she wasn’t allowed in. He started the class by, as one student complained, “…working our asses off!” Such vigorous exercise was to allow maximum stretching for our muscles, ligaments and tendons, after we were warmed up: “Your body is your instrument.” For every class the long vigorous routine never varied. Our in-class lectures and exercises would be matched by homework exercises. I remember being the first element, earth, as I “lectured my fellow executives” on why the Ocean Ranger had capsized. Figuratively, I didn’t dare stumble or call “line!” Call it arete. Classmates noticed I wavered a bit as I stood; the teacher said it was entirely appropriate to be a mixed character as I was.

I suppose many of my classmates in leisure and theatre would, like Marjorie Morningstar, go on to have regular lives. One day, talking with Kevin, he told me how he had avoided that common fate. He had been in Canadian Mime School—and by the end of school, he and two of his classmates decided to make a go of it as their own troupe. As Yoda would say, there is no try: I think they really had no choice, if they were going to succeed, but to seek arete. Hence the vigorous exercises every day. I guess by starting bang on time every day the arete trio never succumbed to pencil sharpening or drifting standards or drifting morale…

By the time Kevin left our class we no longer complained about working so hard: We “got it.” Kevin had held up a torch, giving us a vision of excellence, and we had shared the flame…

That semester was so long ago… I remember an ancient Greek urn depicting athletes forever striving, forever young. Today, old enough to wear reading glasses, I fitfully strive for excellence too.

Sean Crawford
In the shadow of the Parthenon,
February 2014

~My essay on Creative Movement is archived April 2012; other essays can be found under the label Olympics.

~The airstrip, a relic of WWII, was used during the week  for a truck driving course; during the weekend you might see it used for radio controlled toys, go carts or for launching hot air balloons. Other relics in the area are hangers and very steeply roofed houses, service issue, presumably based on the nation-wide pattern for houses with heavy snowfall. The runway was destroyed to make way for fancy media housing for the 1988 winter Olympics. Those media houses became student housing.

~The army base was decommissioned, over Mayor Al Duerr’s protest, to save the federal government money. Someday the feds will research how it boosts morale and retention to have a base in the city, but then it will be too late… When my dad was stationed there during the war there was nothing but bush between the base and downtown. At night, when the bars closed down, he would walk back to barracks… I’m amused that my dad and I both did time in the guard shack.

~The wrestling pit had been originally planned to be a sunken fountain, according to Len Thomas, Ph.D. He had suggested it be a wrestling pit instead. Fully padded, bottom and sides, it was great for doing cooperative games, or peer lectures just before going off to do recreation.

~My own little class, with a wall of glass, probably had some sort of curtains or blinds, but just around the corner was a small room called the Goldfish Bowl, opening onto a common area with tables and a dairy bar. No curtains. The class was great for learning to teach, Len told me, because students would instantly get distracted if their attention wavered.

I’m sure I was late for morning class on occasion myself; I mean no lasting disrespect for young students. In fact, I like a poem inspired by what an excellent martial arts master, Masami Tsuruoka, has taught:
We are beginners when we are born.
We are beginners when we go to school.
We are beginners when we leave our parents’ home.
We are beginners when we have children.
We are beginners when we retire.
We are beginners when we die.
The Spirit of Karate-Do Teachings of Masami Tsuruoka, by Andrew Bowerbank, 1997, Morris Marketing and Media Services, Toronto