Christmas Present

It’s Christmas Day and we sit reminiscing about Christmas Past.

Once upon a time we used to drive up to the farm to cut down a tree for Christmas. As a teenager I would pile batches of friends into our station wagon and drive 3hrs north to Burks Falls. This idea of a real tree was novel to some of the friends, particularly those from southern climes.

Somehow, your perception of how big of a tree you need is different in the wilderness. One time, we had a tree that was so heavy we couldn’t get it to stand up straight without anchoring it to three corners of the room. Another year we didn’t have the means to get up to the farm, so we cut the tree from the front yard at Glenlake. You can’t really blame the neighbours if they thought we were Herdmans.

That tree too was somehow so much bigger once we got it inside and in my Christmas enthusiasm, I cut off the top instead of the bottom. Exhausted from the struggle when we discovered it was still too big we just wedged it between the floor and the ceiling. It didn’t need any container or anchoring and appeared to be growing into the second floor of the house.

And then there was the Christmas (or several) when we didn’t even have a tree and used a wooden ladder, somewhat bejeweled with decorations and stacked with presents. How do people recall this stuff? It is all so conveniently blocked out of my mind in favour of some kind of Rockwellian past.

On the 23rd I woke up four hours and two appointments late. As I dashed out the door, Mike tried to waylay me with lists of menus and plans and chores and I burst into tears cause the tree was up and the house was decorated and the tables were set and everything was underway and I hadn’t even been home in two months let alone helped out with Christmas.

Christmas is my holiday. I own it. It starts on November 1st and happens when, how and with whom I say. Santa knows this. Everyone knows this. So it was a bit of a surprise to see that it marched right on without me this year, too busy even to think of presents or over-the-top fru-fru.

On the 24th at noon we closed up the cafe and I wrapped the presents Mike had bought for the kids. Then I realized I didn’t even have a present for Mike. I ran down to Kool Stuff on King and met – aw, shoot, I asked him his name twice – a very nice guy who owns the place, full of stuff that Mike would love. I knew from recent “What would you do with a million dollars” conversations that Mike was coveting some sort of video game, possibly that requires a new system that he doesn’t have, but I could not recall the details and buddy at the store was more of a comic collector. Wouldn’t it be great if I listened better? Remembered things? Paid more attention? Planned ahead?

I gave up and got a $20 gift certificate for Kool Stuff.

They say that in a person’s life we can only manage four (4) priorities. That after that, we can’t keep to our commitments. I ticked them off on Christmas eve, shortly before the family arrived for happy hour at the cafe. In no particular order: Community-building; Teaching (Bestseller Bootcamp); Writing (aka ‘Learning things the hard way’); Heart of the Hammer Cafe; Family. Give you one guess which one has fallen off lately.

And now it’s Christmas Day and the kerfluffus is over. I’ve been in pj’s all day and finally went hunting for games in the hall dresser when what should I discover? The gifts I bought for Mike all those months ago and stashed in a drawer so he wouldn’t find them.

The Kool Stuff gift certificate is still pegged to the bulletin board at the Cafe and Mike still hasn’t seen it. The certificate itself is so cool that I suspect it will never get spent.

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Maslow’s Adendum: The Artists’ Paradigm

In my MBA class one of the weirder things we were asked to do to was to self-identify our social class based on a textbook list with a pretty strong bias.

In marketing terms, businesses look at groups of people to study their buying power, buying habits, buying preferences and figure out how best to make money off of them. I checked boxes indicating that I had the material values of the upper-upper, the social network in the middle-middle and the financial profile (historically) far below lower-lower. As I pondered this, I realized that most of my friends were in the same boat as I, making us undefinable targets for marketers. After pondering this I came to believe that for a minority of people, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is exactly inverted. I am referring to the Artist Class, though I suppose no one will ever study these people because there is no money it in. At least, in the short-term.

For the artistic temperament, self-actualization is all. They are willing to sacrifice safety, shelter, food, family, social acceptance, financial gain, everything on the imperative need to be themselves; to be true to themselves, to be all that they can be. When they develop some confidence in this, they then want to be accepted for who they are and build a place for themselves in the world, whereas previously they disdained the opinions of those who couldn’t value them. After years of toiling for little recognition or compensation, they start to want to indulge in a few material essentials, like a credit card, a car or a house with their name on the deed. And finally they start to want a little security, and begin to look for teaching jobs and other stable occupations that let them earn a living while practicing their craft and being themselves.

I see this tendency even in a child who knows in his heart that no one really listens to him, no one really understands him, no one sees him for who he really is or values him for his him-ness. We are all trying to stuff him into a box – for his own good – and his reactions repel us.

Given that this is being called the creative age from so many angles, I wonder what would happen if this small number of creative types were actually identified, invited into some kind of environment like the Centre for Social Innovation where they could develop some confidence that their self-ness wouldn’t be taken away, and then worked backwards from there to help make the world a better place. Is that what happened to me? Here at CSI I have found home, shelter (even food) acceptance, encouragement and all the support one could want for self-actualization and I wonder if that is the reason why I am now engaging in outreach, in (gag) cooperation, in helping others to self-actualize. And suddenly it makes me wonder, what’s next?

What if everyone was treated like an artist from the beginning and given these basic ingredients for life?

One Good Teacher

It sometimes happens during our time in school that we get one good teacher; one person who offers us a glimpse of the big picture, a motive to excel, an understanding of the options on the road ahead.

On a recent tour of Prince of Wales elementary school in Hamilton, I was surprised to see that they had set up a tracking system to measure at what level each kid was performing and to track their progress. The interesting thing about the PoW (an unfortunate moniker) system is that it was a roadmap of success for the school and each kid had a place on it; each kid was part of the success and had to succeed individually in order for the school to succeed.

When did my MBA I quickly got a tutor for my finance class cause it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning anything. After our first mid-term when 70% the class failed there was a general sense that it wasn’t the students who were at fault and my tutor was called in to pinch hit weekly for the rest of the class. Evidently I didn’t even know enough at the time to know if it was me or the teacher who wasn’t making sense.

This is also true in grade three and grade four and grade five. You don’t know that you’re not alone in your struggles. You don’t know that 2/3 of the school is below the level they should be at for reading, for instance. All you know is that you’re a dummy, or a disappointment. And most people, be they teachers or not, are not going to look much farther than at the kid to find out the source of the problem or even try to solve it. Most people are content to agree – the kid’s a dummy. Why look for an answer that might point to me? Or you? Or to a problem that is beyond my ability to solve?

So when I saw this system at Prince of Wales School, I could see right away that there was more than one good teacher at this school and that there was some mighty fine leadership that wasn’t afraid to find the source of the problem and tackle it even if it seems insurmountable. So when they saw that so many of the kids were below grade level in basic skills like reading, they started recruiting readers from the community, people to come in and read to a kid for a short time each day, or each week, or each month. People to come in and help kids get used to hearing someone read.

I remember doing this with my little friend Xavier many years ago, and the struggles we went through. I remember his mother’s breakthrough when in a conversation it came out that it seemed to him as if all the other kids had come to school “knowing” how to read, whereas he didn’t. So his mother explained to him that all those other kids had had to learn to read just like he was doing, they just happened to do it before him. And that was his breakthrough that got him on the reading track.

So if you live in the neighbourhood of Ivor Wynn Stadium, which is right beside Prince of Wales School, and if you can read, and if you’ve got a bit of time each week, call up the school and tell them you want to read to a kid. If you’ve got a business in the neighbourhood, consider giving your employees an hour off (paid) each week to do the same. With so many kids, demand is high.

We’ve all heard the stats. We’ve seen the movies and read the news stories. The “Three Rs” are the starting point for every bit of success that these kids are heading for and this intrepid school could use your help putting them on the right path.

It’s our turn to be that one good teacher.

Loner Pie

One hot July day in 2007 I was feeling a little bit invisible, like I had no connection to anything and sort of felt like I needed people to see me. To know that I was here. I needed some way of making a scene without making a nuisance so I changed my birthday on my Facebook profile to the day in question.

Back then we were all new to FB an only had 40 or 50 friends each, you remember those days right? So of course everyone saw that it was my birthday and I got a great many well-wishes and nobody seemed to care that it wasn’t February.

Then the following February I turned 40. I didn’t feel 40 but when you’re sitting around broke and jobless you really feel like “this is not where I planned to be at 40!” I had planned to have a fabulous masquerade ball with all my favourite people at some sort of Cirque-esque venu, or to have a potlatch and give things away. But I didn’t have any things to give.

So I invited the family out to breakfast at the Grenadier restaurant in High Park and just crossed my fingers that someone was going to pay for mine. I think several someones did and now we have a new birthday spot in the family.

I remember in first year theatre at Concordia, after about one week of going home alone each night and then spending a whole weekend with nothing to do, I went back to school that Monday morning, found Barb, Isabel, Walter and Krikor sitting in the hallway, and blurted out some kind of blah-blah about not having any friends in Montreal and nothing to do and they all said “Yeah-yeah, me too!” And even though I left after one year, we all stayed friends.

And sometimes I write about things that I think are just my own weirdness, and I put it out there in the hopes that it is entertaining to people. (Actually I’m hoping for engaging, compelling and enlightening, but I’ll settle for entertaining) And then I am always surprised by how many people comment, send emails, messages or Facebook notes saying “Yeah-yeah, me too! I get it!”

How come we all get lonely if we all share the same weirdness?