Post 236

Here's My Essay, Baby!
A Critique of the English 30-1 Diploma Examinations

On Alberta Education’s website, you can find Part A of seven past English examinations, ranging in date from 2011 to 2016.

You can see the essay-writing portion of the diploma examinations for English 30-1, and the website also provides samples of actual student essays. The sample essays are classified (with commentary) as “Satisfactory,” “Proficient” or “Excellent.” “Proficient” isn’t the clearest term in this context; it’s between Satisfactory and Excellent.

English 30-1 is the highest level of English study available for Alberta high school students.

I found the entire collection of questions, student essays and commentary on the essays to be interesting in the way that a four-car pile-up is interesting. In other words, what I saw made me question what I saw.

The test itself is poorly designed and the approach to marking is problematic. The exam is a poor measure of English writing ability.

I say this as an outsider to the process. I wrote my exam ages ago and until I looked at these samples on the website, I didn’t care very much at all about how they were graded.

But now I do care, and I have been comparing the exams marked “Satisfactory” with the exams marked “Proficient” and “Excellent.”

I shake my head, unconvinced that those who received higher marks were better at English, and unconvinced that those who received lower marks were worse at it.

I present my objections below. In keeping with the English essay theme of this post, I have three objections.

1. Which is better? An apple or an orange or a watermelon or a papaya?

Someone obviously thought that it would be nicer or more open-minded or fairer to allow for a huge variation in approaches to the essay writing on the diploma exam, but the result is just nutty.

Students are provided with three resources: a poem, an excerpt from a fiction piece and an image. It is the student’s choice as to whether to use one, two or all three of the supplied resources. They are also allowed to write about their own lives or to write about the life of someone else. This story can be real or fictional. The essay assignment refers to a choice of three styles: “personal, creative or analytical” and some students did a combination of these styles.

So you can see that there are a myriad of choices here. It means that student A’s analysis of three provided resources will be compared with student B’s fiction piece about a photo, even though literary analysis is entirely different from story telling.

I am not saying that one is better than the other, but the point of standardized testing is to compare things that are roughly equal.

The fact that each student can choose his preferred resource or his preferred style is a drawback, not a strength. It reduces the effectiveness of the examination’s ability to accurately measure and compare writing ability.

Imagine hundreds of athletes competing for the prize of best athlete where each athlete does his own sport. At the end of the day, how can you compare? Is Kate better at fencing than Steve is at rowing? Is Attila better at hurling the discus than Matilda is at cycling? Is this kumquat better at being a kumquat than that kiwi is at being a kiwi?

Any sensible organizer will know to categorize and judge the sports individually. Different styles of writing are like different sports, and even different resources change the game considerably.

Writing is already a very individual process, making testing and comparison difficult. If you have one hundred people writing about bananas, by the time you get to the end of the second sentence, no two people will have written the exact same thing.

Nevertheless, there are ways to make the test more standard and there are ways to make the test less standard. The test-designers at Alberta Education have obviously opted to increase variation, not reduce it, and I disagree with that choice. (And here I will not even delve into the other part of Part A of the exam. In the second part of Part A, students answer a question about any piece of literature studied in the grade 12 program.)

It would be preferable to test ability by having the students describe a photograph or other clear image. Show students a photograph of a room or an event and ask them to describe it.

See whether their compositions are clear and informative. See whether they have used appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure. See if there is variation of sentence style. See if the spelling and the punctuation are correct. See if the word choice is discerning and see if word usage is skillful.

If you gave me one hundred such descriptions, I could tell you which students showed a greater command of the English language and which students had a weaker command. It would be enough of a test and yet easy to implement and easy to evaluate. As a matter of fact, with such a straightforward and uniform arrangement, many people could evaluate English-writing ability.

Sadly, however, with the current model, the amount of variation built into the test is extreme. The essays are topically and stylistically so different from each other it does not look like they are writing the same exam, and the marking guidelines themselves are a dizzying mess of adjectives which confuse the issue further. The guidelines are not straightforward or sensible because they are supposed to be one-size-fits-all. The guidelines are supposed to be useful no matter what type of essay is produced by the student but that’s not practical. We would never think of using one type of scoring method regardless of sport.

So much for “standardized testing.”

2. Personal revelations tend to skew results

The examination asks students for a “personal response” to the resources which are provided, and one of the optional approaches is called “personal.” This means that it is considered perfectly acceptable for the student to write an essay about his personal life for this diploma examination. Indeed, every year, the question is worded to show the student that he can write about his life: “Support your idea(s) with reference to one or more of the texts presented and to your previous knowledge and/or experience.”

Although personal revelations have their place, personal revelations have their place. In other words, although personal revelations can be appropriate for certain types of writing (letters to family and friends, personal opinion pieces in publications, blogs, autobiographies), personal revelations and opinions are not suited to as many places as people currently believe; one anecdote does not make a general rule. In any case, personal revelation most certainly does not belong in the world of standardized testing.

The evaluator is, after all, human. I know that the evaluators will swear up and down that after marking thousands of papers, they have become entirely immune from the emotional and psychological angles of the students’ writing, and I do believe that there are very professional teachers (these exams are marked, for the most part, by English teachers) who can stay quite focused on the English skills at hand. However, there are far too many evaluators who are going to be influenced when the student confides that he is the long-suffering but incredibly diligent Engine-That-Could, who has made many sacrifices to succeed and become A Better Person so that the World Could Be a Better Place.

And even if it is the case that the evaluator is able to stay focused on evaluating English ability, why have a system which lends itself to these types of shenanigans?

Consider this actual student sample from the January 2016 English 30-1 examination:

 

I often tried my best throughout following my own personal goals in my life and I was hard on myself when I may have been unable to meet them. Living with PTSD has kept me from choosing to climb up the ladder again, and I always felt as though I wasn’t a good person for doing so. With time and a strong, determined spirit, I was able to better prepare myself for the ladder, and I am ultimately a better person for it. With my education, I often stay up late into the night to finish my work, which is difficult mentally, however, I continue to do so because I enjoy seeing the things I can accomplish and I enjoy learning new things in my life. Some may never reach the fruit at the top and it’s a personal belief that the amount of effort an individual produces is more important than reaching for the lowest you can.

The take-home message is that the student keeps making personal sacrifices for all the right reasons. I guess that’s awesome, but the English is not. I will refrain from commenting on the fruit and ladder imagery, because that’s a reference to the supplied poem, but let’s look at that first sentence: “I often tried my best throughout following my own personal goals in my life and I was hard on myself when I may have been unable to meet them.” The main issue is the word “throughout.” Throughout what? It’s an incorrect use of the word and throws the sentence into grammar purgatory.

Consider the last sentence. It is a comparison sentence, where one thing is more important than something else. Behind door number one is “the amount of effort an individual produces” and that’s more important than what is behind door number two. Are you ready? Behind door number two is “reaching for the lowest you can.” There’s a lack of balance in the sentence, and of course any comparison between something obviously nice and something obviously bad is suspect from the get-go. Here’s my version: “It’s a personal belief that striving to keep one’s house clean is more important than aiming for the stickiest floor on the block.” Another wrinkle is the use of the word “produces” with the noun “amount.” We usually do not speak of “producing” an amount of effort. It is more natural to speak of effort being expended or exerted or spent.

You say I am being critical.

Of course! The entire process of evaluating English writing involves critical scrutiny of the use of English words and phrases. That’s the entire point, and my concern is that evaluators will become distracted from the poor use of English because they are caught up in the drama of this PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder?) student burning the midnight oil, fueled by his noble personal beliefs.

Even now, those who read what I write will view me as excessively harsh — how dare I go after some poor 18-year-old student who works so darn hard and suffers so very much just to Get By In Life?

And that would be my point.

When a student portrays himself as a disadvantaged but earnest underdog, who has the nerve to say, “Hey man, your sentences suck” ?

This is why personal stories should be kept out of the arena most of the time, if not all of the time. Don’t let students play the sympathy card in the guise of having a “personal response to texts.” Don’t let them Accidentally Happen to Reveal that they are creative geniuses. Please — don’t let them. If you’re a genius, prove it to me by whipping up a paragraph that is second to none. Don’t write that all your friends and family and teachers expect you’ll be going to med school Any Day Now (real example from a different sample).

Allowing these personal stories means that many students will choose the story which casts them in the most positive light. The following student presented several versions of the earnest underdog:

 

Like the girl in the poem, my life is shaped by forces that encourage my actions. When facing adversity these forces encourage me to stay determined and carry out my actions. In the past, I was trying out for the senior basketball team. There were many athletes at the tryout that contained various skill levels. When these girls demonstrated their knowledge of the game and their ability to handle the ball, I became very intimidated. Instead of drawing back and quitting, I became motivated by their intensity. It encouraged me to run faster and jump higher in order to succeed. Being encouraged to put in the extra work not only made me a better athlete, but a better individual. I used the competition as a concept of motivation in my life. When writing tests I would strive to get the highest mark, which led to more studying. When being in musicals I would attempt to have most emotional performance, which led to countless hours of character analysis. All of my work had become enhanced because of the force that encouraged me to succeed. This has shaped me into the dedicated person I am today and I will continue to be in the future. I have many years of the game of life ahead of me and I plan to continue pushing forward to be prosperous.

Groan.

Are you beginning to see my point?

These students were not born yesterday. They know the game. They know the game all too well. The game is to show that you are incredibly motivated to succeed and that you have a past history of success.

You can tell me that this type of self-promotion has no effect on the teacher, but I would disagree. These two essays both were labelled as “proficient.” The sample section above was praised as being a thoughtful discussion, containing specific examples. Indeed, there were examples.

However, there are problems in the writing and I do not find it to be particularly impressive. The construction of the following sentence is awkward: “I used the competition as a concept of motivation in my life.” A concept of motivation? In the following sentence, an article is missing, and the phrase “when being in musicals” is worse than the conventional “when participating in musicals.” Here is the student’s sentence: “When being in musicals I would attempt to have most emotional performance, which led to countless hours of character analysis.”

If the student is accurately describing her outlook and her experiences, then she may be an impressive person, and very emotional during musicals, but that is not the same thing as being a skilled writer of English. Reading these personal life stories blurs the one into the other.

At the risk of boring you, I will show yet another example where the student presents himself as a driven underdog. Believe it or not, I found these 3 examples in a group of only 6 essays. That’s 50% of the samples from the January 2016 examinations. Three students included personal revelations of their exemplary character. Doesn’t that fact alone make you wonder?

Alright, so the following excerpt is from an actual student essay which was marked “excellent,” but I will put into bold all of the words/phrases that are problematic.

 

Just as many onlookers of this photo do, I never possessed any extraordinary skills. Those all belonged to my older sister, the prodigy in our family. My older sister excelled in every task a teacher could possibly think to employ; she was a fantastic student, a prolific writer, and considered by many to be among the elite artists of our generation. She began commissions for her acclaimed artwork when she was 12 years old. Naturally, when we both went to our dad, a fabulous musician, with an interest of learning the guitar, I already knew how things were gonna play out. Just like everything else, I was going to live in her shadow. And I was right. For the first couple months, my sister’s ability with the instrument skyrocketed while I remained, with bleeding fingers, still trying to play my first chord. I hated it; not music itself, but my own inadequacy. Music simply spat that stark truth in my face. I wanted to give up. I didn’t want to play anymore; there was no point. For some reason, however, my dad favoured me more than he did my sister. At first, I thought it was because he pitied me, and perhaps this is true. Now I realize he saw potential I couldn’t see in myself. When I was on the verge of quitting, my dad started playing with me. We would jam, just the two of us, for hours on end. I’ll never forget the one Sunday afternoon, we played for three hours straight. The more my fingers hurt, the more I wanted to continue playing. At the end of the session, as my dad was putting his guitar back onto the rack, he said, “Good job, Nate. You’re gonna be better than me if you keep that up.” It was that day that I fell in love with music, and I don’t think that would’ve been possible without my dad. When I lacked the confidence to keep trying, he instilled confidence within me, and caused me to grow in ways I never thought possible.
My whole life has become about making music that inspries people . . .

The student goes on to talk about the fire burning within him and so on and so forth.

Sigh.

The entire personal revelation aspect of these essays seems formulaic and predictable.

Mind you, I don’t fault the students for writing this way, because they want to succeed, and they have been encouraged to craft these little Life Moments pieces for a few years by the time they write the Diploma examination. Ah! Another Little Engine That Could? Take a number.

The problem is the trend in English education which places a premium on self-disclosure and the personal voice. The trend was already underway back in 1985 when I was beginning high school. [Cue background music for Blogger’s Life Moments Story:] I remember that I could not make any headway with my English instructor until I began incorporating reflections from my real life. To talk about myself struck me as cheesy and out of place in an essay discussing a work of literature, but the teacher seemed to think that I had ‘broken through’ once she saw these little personal reflections and the higher grades started to rain down, stupidly.

I was glad but unimpressed.

The personal voice should be reserved for certain applications and most definitely should not be used in a setting where one student’s work is compared with another student’s work. It can too easily cause things to degenerate into one student’s outlook being compared with another student’s outlook, or one student’s character being compared with another student’s character. An evaluator, being human, will tend to go easier on a student who sounds admirable.

3. The diploma examination questions are vague and jargony

The test-designers provide questions which are maddeningly vague and airy-fairy. Here are some examples:

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions? (Jan 2016)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the ways in which individuals deal with the uncertainties of the past? (Jan 2015)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the impact significant events have on an individual’s ability to determine their own destiny? (Jan 2014)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the human need to make a commitment or renounce a course of action? (Jan 2013)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the interplay between how individuals perceive themselves and are perceived by others? (Jan 2012)

 

What do these texts suggest to you about the conflict between pursuing a personal desire and choosing to conform? (Jan 2011)

These questions are very broad, and sadly, the provided resources do little to focus the questions.

These questions are really not much more than themes, especially when you study them in relation to the provided resources. The provided resources are also airy-fairy. You’re left with a fuzzy question about fuzzy resources.

When I say that the resources are fuzzy, I hope you believe me.

Here’s a typical example:

 

You have been provided with three texts on pages 1 to 4. In the poem “The Leaving,” the speaker reflects on a night’s labour. In the excerpt from And the Birds Rained Down, Bruno and the narrator discuss the circumstances leading to Gertrude’s arrival at the hotel. The photograph by Stephen Salmieri shows a carnival worker posing in front of a game of chance.

Did you catch that? One of the “texts” is a photograph!

Yikes!

The entire point of the word “text” is to differentiate letters and words from images. If you are a graphic designer or a magazine or newspaper editor, one of the most basic distinctions is between writing and graphics or images.

You would think that what I state is really obvious, but this is what happens with those who consider themselves progressive. While you and I have our backs turned, they change the definition of an English word and act as if they’ve done something wonderful, as if they’ve gone “ping” with their magical word wand. They congratulate themselves on their modern and broad-minded approach. While you and I naively think that the word “automobile” refers to a vehicle with four wheels, they know that only the laypeople are Narrow Like That. They know better. They know that a bicycle is also a “automobile.”

Man.

It’s not right. The most basic component of successful communication is consensus about what the words mean. If they teach students that the word “text” can include a photograph or a painting or a drawing which contains no letters, then they are failing in their duty to educate their students. They are miseducating them.

In this case, the problem is amplified, because here the question-makers are pretending that a photograph can speak volumes about abstract human questions.

A picture may be “worth a thousand words,” but let’s be sensible — it is NOT a thousand words.

The student is told that the photo (“the text”) suggests something to the student above and beyond the obvious. A photo of a carnival worker standing in front of a ball-in-basket game suggests something about “the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions.”

Oh puh-leeze!

Nobody in his right mind who looks at a photo of a carnival man standing at his booth is going to start thinking about “the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions”!

Most people will look at the photo, say, hmm, a photo of a carnival guy. It looks like it’s an old-fashioned photo. The guy is obviously posing.

Then they move along.

If they look at it longer, they might think of the times they’ve been to the carnival, and what happened there. Others might try to decide if the man looks handsome or not, and what his mood is. Some will read the writing on the sign.

That’s about it.

Photographs are for quick digestion. You look at them and you absorb the main idea within seconds. Sure, some photos are stunning, and you take your time, looking at the overall image and then lingering to enjoy the details.

But still, they are not essays. They are not books or short stories. You could call them “poetic” but they aren’t poems either.

They can be shocking and they can elicit emotion and they can educate you about a reality, but they do not delve into abstract concepts by means of words. Their power is their immediacy, not their depth and exploration of topics at length.

(And as an aside, it can be said that as our society becomes more enamored of the image than the printed word, our analysis of life’s deeper themes becomes less frequent. We want the quick story. We want the story in picture form. Even a movie is too long for us nowadays; we like the 3-second gif and the witty meme.)

In any case, it is unrealistic and misleading to tell students that a photograph is going to enlighten anybody about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions. It’s just too much, and I don’t like the game of Let’s Pretend.

It’s not right to burden one photograph with essay-type responsibilities. Let it be what it is. Let it be a photograph. Judge it and evaluate it and enjoy it the way photographs are meant to be. Consider the composition, the colours, the subject, the mood and the lighting. Don’t say that it’s suggesting something about the forces that inhibit or encourage an individual’s actions. It’s not.

 

NORMAL WORLD:

 

Charlotte: This photo reminds me of the time the family entered the pig in the fair.

 

Wilbur: This photo reminds me of the time I was entered into the fair.

 

ENGLISH DIPLOMA EXAMINATION WORLD:

 

Charlotte: This photo suggests that an individual’s actions can be inhibited by various forces, including the likelihood of losing at a game of chance.

 

Wilbur: This photo suggests that financial considerations can function as an encouraging force, enticing individuals to take chances in life.

Um, yeah.

In sum, the questions are painfully vague and consulting the provided resources (poem, excerpt from fiction and image) does little to illuminate the question. If I were to provide an analogy, I’d say that the students are directed to go fishing in the dark with a dimly-lit flashlight and a dollar-store fishing net. Get ready, set, go!

Reading the question, one is given the impression that a person could gain valuable insight into deeper human topics by reviewing the resources. One is given the impression that these “texts” will be Suggesting All Manner of Things About Life, but the sad truth is that the connection between the “texts” and the essay topic is usually sketchy.

However, like abstract art, the game is all about acting as if you are capable of seeing the Deeper Meanings and All the Connections.

In other words, the game is about bullshitting.

And the students catch on pretty quickly. Before you know it, one student is writing that the white garment worn by the man is a way for the photographer to suggest that the game is an honest one. (Real example.)

Before you know it, another student is suggesting that the fish eyes in the canal symbolize persistence in the face of failure. (Real example — it was something like that.)

Before you know it, half the students are just saying the texts say whatever they need the texts to say and the other half have decided that they are going to steer clear of writing English essays for the rest of their lives.

Can you blame them?

It’s a contagious case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The teacher says to the students, “Don’t you think this garment is fine?” The students look at the teacher’s empty hands and say, “Yes, it is mighty fine and the luxurious fabric catches the light.” The teacher says, “Indeed, it glimmers like the dawn, and symbolizes the brightness of your upcoming score on the upcoming diploma exam.”

The “texts” which form part of the exam are quickly scanned by the students, who mine them for the odd phrase or idea which might possibly, arguably, tie into the question’s abstract concepts. The diploma exam is timed, after all, and students have 45 to 60 minutes to read the resources, draft an outline and prepare an essay.

That is not the best approach to literature. Quickly reading a poem and an excerpt from a story in order to answer an essay question on an examination does a disservice to the literature.

Poems aren’t meant to be read quickly. Fiction is also meant to be savoured. A careful and unhasty reading of the works has the best likelihood of uncovering the intention of the author and is the proper approach to any analysis beyond the superficial (such as an examination of obvious literary devices). I am not in favour of suspending a measured and thoughtful approach in the context of an examination.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in my review of the student’s essays, analysis of the provided texts was scanty and token, and when a student did venture into the provided texts, the discussion of the texts was either very basic or else — at the other extreme — fanciful and implausible.

I did not encounter any insights into the provided “texts” that were compelling.

Nevertheless, I do not fault the students. I fault the examination.

In order to properly explore any work of literature, it is advisable to read it for its own sake, without asking it to reveal an answer to a predetermined question. Take your time, move at a pace which is comfortable to you and suited to the work. See what the author or the poet has to say, and if the work is terrible, think no further about it. (Either that or write a blog post about it.) If the work has merit, consider what the author is saying about life, and how he chose to say what he said.

The English 30-1 diploma examination already has a comprehension section, where students demonstrate their understanding of a previously-unseen piece of literature. That is enough. Do not ask them to incorporate a new piece of literature into an essay.

In the same way that you wouldn’t ask a chef to make you an Irish stew in forty-five minutes, don’t ask a student to analyze a poem or an excerpt from a story in that span. Proper analysis takes time.

Furthermore, the essay portion of the English 30-1 test should be testing on English writing ability, and in the same way that personal essays tend to push evaluators in the direction of evaluating personality, there is a problem with asking students to analyze or even comment on works of literature and life’s more complex issues. The danger is that students who are more logical and analytic will appear to be better writers than those who are less logical and analytic.

Now it is true that logical arguments and good writing are often close companions, but I’d argue that it is better to remove the argument aspect as much as possible when trying to evaluate writing.

Otherwise, the teacher could be distracted by the fact that there is only scanty support for a given proposition, or impressed by the persuasiveness of a novel argument. Will a paragraph promoting candy floss and caramel corn be judged in the same light as a paragraph promoting kale and parsnips? Maybe not. Maybe the teacher will deduct marks for flawed logic despite flawless sentences.

In my opinion, persuasiveness and logic are important, but they should not play too large a role in an examination on English.

Even more dangerous is that it is frequently the case that a teacher will be biased towards a student who says things about life that sound more pleasing. Students learn the hard way that taking a position which is unpopular with the instructor is a quick route to a lower grade. Students learn quickly to praise the fashionable idea of the day. They refrain from saying what they really think. Why run the risk?

(And here I would venture to say that the constant grading of viewpoints throughout the educational system has a stunting effect, which discourages independent thought. Students emerge from the system learning to gravitate towards whatever answer is ‘right’ according to the person in charge. Students become accustomed to moving with the herd, and those who challenge the prevailing viewpoint are few and far between.)

For these reasons, it’s safer to separate the two aspects. There is no need to review a student’s outlook on life’s bigger issues in order to assess his writing skill.

As I said, if a student is asked to provide a description of a person or a room or something along those lines, you will see quite clearly whether the student is able to make good use of the words in the English toolbox, in the same way that a good carpenter can build a better chair than an inept carpenter, and in the same way that a good cook can make a better breakfast than an inept cook can. You don’t need to make a test Big and Deep and Fancy in order for it to separate the men from the boys.

I’m going with the biblical theme that someone who is faithful in small things will be faithful in big. Someone who can successfully answer a straightforward question is the best person to write a novel or an encyclopedia. Someone who calls a photograph a “text” is not.

The point is that the examination question need not be contorted and self-conscious. The examination question needn’t refer to unfamiliar “texts” which supposedly suggest things about abstract topics. Exile such questions. Send the person who is designing such questions on an indefinite time out.

Stop the game of Let’s Pretend.

If you want to evaluate a student’s ability to write, make the question plain and no-nonsense. A convoluted and jargony abstract question encourages students to invent connections where they don’t see them in order to appear insightful and it encourages students to make assumptions about the literature which are not supportable. Having been told that certain resources suggest Big Things, the students pretend that those resources are suggesting Big Things.

At the start of the examination, they had never deliberated upon “the interplay between how individuals perceive themselves and are perceived by others” and they had never seen such-and-such poem. But forty-five minutes later, they have written with confidence (“confidence” is something the evaluators purport to evaluate, believe it or not) that an unfamiliar poem suggests quite a bit about these abstract concepts and that this is supported by their “previous knowledge and/or experiences” blah blah blah.

It’s just all such a stretch, and it is usually a counterfeit of genuine analysis, evaluation of literature and exploration of abstract concepts.

If you really must ask questions about new literature, keep them down-to-earth. (I find it telling and disturbing that the word “straightforward” is a word with negative connotations in the grading system of the diploma examinations; straightforwardness is a sign of merely “satisfactory” writing.) Ask the student whether a given character is being presented as a hero or a villain, and how this is being accomplished. Ask the student about the mood that is being created in the piece, and how this is being accomplished.

If you want something creative, ask the students to continue the short story from where it left off. I enjoyed the work of the January 2016 student who used the photograph as the launching point.

There are ways for students to demonstrate their ability to write which do not require fanciful pseudo-psychological theories about life. Such topics are best explored when they are personally chosen (not imposed) and they are best explored when the timer is not running.

The current recipe (Vague “Deeper Meaning” Question + Unfamiliar “Texts” + Time-Pressured Student) does not yield a desirable result. It’s a recipe for Fake and Bake, and that’s a shame.

Concluding Thoughts

I could go on, but if you agree with me by now, you’ll join me in hoping that those charged with the responsibility of designing the tests will overhaul the examinations. If you don’t agree with me by now, there is probably nothing I could say to convince you.

How’s that for a concluding paragraph?

I think it’s “Excellent.”

Post 235

You Stand with Whom?
Reflections on the Consent Order That Ended Wisdom Home Schooling

The slogan chosen by supporters of Wisdom was “We Stand With Wisdom Home Schooling.”

Well, from what I can tell, for all practical purposes, Wisdom is out of the game.

Wisdom will no longer fill its coffers with money in the name of home schooling. Wisdom will no longer make contracts with facilitators or with rich deacons hiding behind corporate entities in order to collect rental income. Wisdom will not give itself salaries.

Wisdom will not be able to do any of these things, because the cookie jar is being placed out of its reach. Trinity Christian School Board, which was the party entrusted with overseeing home schooling, is not going to be able to deliver, as it previously has, the lion’s share of its funding into Wisdom’s bank account, for Wisdom to do with as it pleases.

I have reviewed the January 5 Consent Order, which was not posted onto the Wisdom website, but which was posted onto the Alberta government website.

Among other things, it states that all employees will be employed by Trinity (i.e., not by Wisdom). It probably means an end to facilitators working as self-employed contractors and receiving cheques in the name of their companies as well:

b) All staff, including the principal, home school administrator, teachers, teacher contractors, facilitators, etc., will be employees of Trinity.

The agreement recently reached between the Alberta government and the many parties who sought an injunction was that Trinity Christian School Board would be allowed to retain its accreditation (for the time being, obviously — funding grants are discretionary) but the government will appoint a financial administrator to oversee Trinity. A government-appointed financial administrator will oversee Trinity for twelve months, and perhaps longer:

f) Alberta Education will appoint a financial administrator (in good faith consultation with Trinity as to the individual selected) (the “Financial Administrator”) to oversee Trinity for a term of twelve (12) months, the time of appointment to be extended if necessary. Alberta Education will bear the cost of the Financial Administrator.

The administrator will be calling the shots:

g) The Financial Administrator will support the Board of Trinity’s review and development of revised bylaws, board policies, and oversee the restructured operations of Trinity as set out in the agreement including policies on related party transactions, remuneration and leasing.

In addition, as a further precaution, Trinity will receive the government funding in dribs and drabs:

e) Funding to Trinity from January 2017 onward will be provided on a monthly basis until otherwise approved by Alberta.

I can tell by the wording of the Consent Order that the government lawyer had the upper hand when it came to drafting the agreement.

Trinity clung to existence by conceding almost everything.

It will be interesting to see how Trinity does ultimately get restructured. Who will be employed by Trinity? What will their credentials and job descriptions be? What will their salaries be? What programs will be offered to the families who stay with Trinity?

The Wisdom website gives assurances to the effect that it will be ‘business as usual,’ but I suppose time will tell. Nobody can predict exactly how a restructured Trinity will look. It is arguably a brand new board, with new policies, regulations and employees. While other boards in the province continue with business as usual, Trinity will go through a process of massive change. I wouldn’t be surprised if some families decide that they do not want to go along for the ride; I wouldn’t be surprised if some families decide they don’t want the drama.

The agreement (and Consent Order) is a victory for the government because the government’s goal was to ensure that the funds were being managed in accordance with the provincial regulations. With an administrator in place, this can be achieved.

The initial approach — disband Trinity ASAP — was unpopular with those who were loyal to the people behind Wisdom, and with those who feared that other school boards would not be as good, and with those who dislike the NDP government. In other words, it was unpopular with many people. It wasn’t unpopular with me, but it was unpopular with many.

So, in light of the political pressure, the government proceeded with an alternative way of protecting the cookies (Administrator=Parole Officer=Babysitter). This should satisfy the families who were enrolled with Trinity (though they thought they were enrolled with Wisdom), and I am not surprised that they view the Consent Order as a victory (no need to switch boards).

From the outside, it looks like Wisdom was victorious, because the families can stay where they are. It is no wonder that lawyer Jay Cameron focuses on this aspect of the outcome in his statement to the press.

From the inside, however, it’s a new ball game, and Wisdom now has neither role, entitlement nor voice. It has not retained any of the powers that it formerly had — not a single one.

Indeed, that fast-handed player with the word “Wisdom” on his hoodie has given himself up with a whimper.

So much for #Standing with Wisdom.

Wisdom is nothing more than a website now.

a) . . . The Applicant WISDOM Home Schooling Society as an entity will have no governance role or decision-making authority in the Trinity organization.

Post 234

By the Oaks of Mamre: An Update

Greetings and Happy New Year!

I am sorry that I did not write to you earlier, but the days have flown past, and it seems that my life has, of late, begun to travel in a new direction. I have hesitated, trying to decide how I could begin to summarize what has happened in our lives since I saw you last.

After some reflection, I have decided I will just put pen to paper and describe it as well as I can, come what may.

Where shall I begin?

As you know, I recently celebrated my ninetieth birthday. Praised be the Lord that I have reached such a ripe old age! My blessings are doubled because I enjoy good health, and I can say the same for Abram, who is almost a century old! Who could have predicted that we would still be walking the earth, albeit more slowly than before?

Ish’mael is in his thirteenth year and is himself now a man. He looks more like Abram than his mother Hagar, as it turns out, which is a personal relief to me. Ah, the lot of a woman!

Oh, and speaking of Lot — I have so much to tell on that score as well, but first I will tell you of our own story.

A few months ago, Abram gave me the most startling news. He said to me that the Lord had appeared to him, and said,

I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.
And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.

Can you imagine? I was just speechless as I listened to him. Abram said he just immediately fell onto his face. There was more. The Lord said to him,

Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

I was stunned as I listened to him. How could this be, I wondered, that the Lord would speak to my own husband? My regular and simple Abram! Yet at the same time, I could not doubt what he told me, because his word is always true. I have never known him to say a dishonest word.

A million thoughts were rushing through my mind. Was I supposed to call him Abraham from now on? Would we use that name privately or would we tell all of our friends? Surely they would question us! What would they think of a name change after a century of life with one name? I suppose you will think my thoughts were trivial, but I tell you how it was.

But of course, the words were more stunning than that, because they spoke of descendants! I should have been dizzy with the words — “nation,” “kings,” “generations,” “everlasting” and yet I was strangely steady. Indeed, the Lord himself supported me so that I could hear such things! How the Lord had spoken to my own husband!

But this was not all. Abram (shall I refer to him already as Abraham?) could recollect, with perfect clarity, these words as well:

As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

My astonishment, which I thought could not be increased, was doubled upon hearing these words. Circumcision? For all the males? Indeed, it would be a symbol in the flesh! I will make you smile when I say that in that moment, I did not mind to be a woman!

But trust me, friend, I had not yet heard the part which was the most astounding of all, and it is no wonder that Abraham was anxious to get to the end of his news before letting me say very much of anything at all. He said to me, “Sar’ai, Sar’ai — there is more! Sar’ai, listen!”

This is what he told me the Lord said:

As for Sar′ai your wife, you shall not call her name Sar′ai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.

I was incredulous. When had I heard such words? When does a barren woman receive such a message? I, who had never before doubted my dear Abram, was pushed to the limit now. But he insisted. He insisted that this is what he had heard from the Lord. He said to me that he himself had laughed, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Indeed, shall a woman who is ninety years old give birth to a child?

Abram could not believe that the Lord really was speaking of me, so he mentioned Ish’mael. Abram said, “O that Ish’mael might live in thy sight!” but when he said that, he heard:

No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ish′mael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.

I tell you no falsehood when I say that I would have fainted away, had not the Lord sustained me. Such words! Such words to my heart! I cried and I laughed, and I didn’t know if it would be more painful to believe the words or to disbelieve them.

Could it have happened? Could the Lord really have spoken to my own Abram?

I pondered it and I lived almost in a dream over the next few days and weeks. I went through my ordinary tasks as a person divided. My hands and eyes were in the present, but my mind and my heart were in the future. Could this be true? Could this be true?

As for Abram, however, he had a faith greater than mine, and he did not waste a single moment. Before I could even digest what he had said, he began all the arrangements. The sun had not yet set and both he and Ish’mael and all the menfolk of the house — even the slaves — were circumcised.

It seemed as if our ordinary lives were suddenly turned entirely upside down, and I felt that we had experienced more excitement in those twenty-four hours than we had in the preceding ninety years.

However, the Lord was not finished with us.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the tent when Abram (I was still accustomed to calling him Abram) rushed in and this is what he said, “Sarah, quickly, take three measures of fine meal, knead it and make cakes.” The weather was unseasonably hot, but he spoke urgently, so I did as he said without delay. While I did this, Abraham went out into his flock and chose a calf for the servant to prepare. I was filled with curiosity, but there was no time to waste.

Later, after I had given the cakes to Abraham, I observed him as he presented them to three tall strangers. They ate them, along with curds and milk and the prepared meat. They sat under the oak trees and Abraham stood there, watching.

I studied the clothing of the men, and their demeanor. I had never seen them before, and they were striking in appearance. They did not speak but they did not appear overly solemn. They had pleasing expressions and manners. I wanted to see more, but I was afraid of being seen, so I retreated towards the rear of the tent, where I could still hear them, if they were to speak.

Suddenly I heard my name! One of them asked, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” If you were to see me, you would have seen my very ears open at hearing my name spoken this way. How did they know me, and how could they know me by that name? Had Abram already mentioned me? I was very attentive.

Do you know what I heard next, from these mysterious strangers? I heard these words, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

Oh, you know me well! I could not help but laugh to myself at the notion!

But would you believe? These strangers read my very thoughts, and addressed Abraham this way: “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”

I was so embarrassed, and I sheepishly emerged with flushed face from the tent to say my part, but when I denied laughing (it is true I should not have denied it, but I was afraid), the stranger said, “No, but you did laugh,” and I could say no more, because I knew that he was right.

Ah, you see how I tell you everything, friend! I am sure you have not had a letter such as mine before!

The visitors came just seven weeks ago, so that brings you up to date about our lives.

I am not with child as far as I can tell, but if my account is true, then we shall await the spring! If what we have heard is true, then I will be blossoming along with the flowers and trees. What a sight that would be! Can you picture your friend — me — holding a newborn child in barren arms? Can you picture your friend — me – holding a newborn child as if I were young again? Could it be true?

I hide nothing from you when I say that I feel my life has become more mysterious to me than ever before. I once felt that I had nothing left to see, and nothing left to experience, but now I gaze at the world around me with fresh eyes. I try to pierce the veil that prevents me from seeing the future. Could these promises be real? A son? A son from me? How many times have I whispered the name “Isaac” to myself!

I hide nothing from you when I say that if these promises are not true, then my suffering will have been doubled, for the Lord has allowed to be awakened within me a dream which I had thought long dead.

So I choose to trust in the goodness of the Lord, and we will await the future with trust and anticipation. I hope that you do not ridicule me as you read this.

But the light is fading now, and so I shall not bore you any longer with all of my ponderings and questions.

I remain, as always, your true and constant friend,

Sarah (Sar’ai)

P.S.: I almost forgot to say — the light fades quickly now so I give you the briefest of summaries. Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomor’rah, along with his two daughters. He attempted to persuade their fiances of the impending destruction, but they did not believe him, and I presume they died with the others. As for Lot’s wife, she escaped the city, but she disobeyed the angel, who told her to not look back towards the city. She’s a pillar of salt now.

Post 233

Debacle: Reflections on a Curtain Call

A conversation is a dialogue. A conversation is not a monologue.

You would think that an actor would know the difference between a dialogue and a monologue, but actor Brandon V. Dixon described his on-stage speech as a “conversation.”

When President Elect Donald Trump asked the cast of “Hamilton” to apologize, Dixon responded with the following: “conversation is not harassment sir.”

Trump asked for the apology because when Vice President Elect Mike Pence went to a theatre performance on November 18, 2016 by the name of “Hamilton,” the actor Dixon addressed Pence from the stage during the curtain call. Pence was seated in the theatre and Dixon was on stage.

In other words, Dixon was prepared and Pence was not.

In other words, Dixon had a microphone and lights, and Pence did not.

That was not a conversation. You can call it a conversation only if you stretch the definition of the word “conversation” so far that it encompasses almost every type of human expression. If that address was a conversation, then the homily I just heard at the 5:00 o’clock Mass today was also a conversation. If that was a conversation, then what I write to you now could presumably be called “a conversation.”

Man. Some people should not write their own lines.

I do not mind theatre being used as a vehicle for advocating social change, and I do not mind script writers criticizing and condemning those whom they believe are in the wrong. Why would I? Perhaps this does not happen often enough. In any case, playwrights and screen writers typically cannot help but incorporate and promote their own world views, as do all users of Facebook and all the people in chat rooms and forums all over the world. Everyone views himself as an expert on humanity, being human.

Those who have defended Dixon’s speech in the name of The Rights of Theatre misconstrue, probably deliberately, the criticism of those who criticize what Dixon did. They are fighting on a different front, where there is no enemy. Nobody was saying that theatre cannot be bold and brazen and confrontational and challenging and enlightening. It can be. Even Broadway theatre could, in theory, be like that.

Go ahead, script writers, do your darnedest. Write me a script that moves me and makes me fall in love with your characters and your ideas.

Some want to pretend that those who criticize Dixon are attacking the freedom of theatre to challenge the populace and the politicians. But they are pretending, because those who criticize Dixon are not saying that theatre should not criticize individuals, institutions or ideas. It very well can, and I don’t even mind if they mention the individuals by name, but this is to be done via the script, and not via actor-to-audience impromptu speeches. The method matters.

In a theatre production, there is a special relationship between the actors and the audience. There is an element of trust which should not be violated.

When I go to see a play, I will purchase my ticket and take my seat, expecting that the actors will deliver their lines and go through the motions of their performance. For my part, I will pay attention and not distract the actors or other theatre patrons from the performance. That’s the way we do things nowadays. It is the cultural expectation and it is civilized. Don’t talk to me about how “in Shakespeare’s day,” the patrons used to do this and that and the other thing. I’m talking about the norm for our day.

Of course, there are special types of theatre which are improvised, and anyone attending may expect that the actors will come up with lines in reaction to current events or even in response to the audience reactions or behaviour. They will speak their mind, and we’ll see that some people are funny and witty and that others should stay out of improv.

Nevertheless, even with improvisational theatre, there are still limits, and if the audience is going to be engaged, then this must be done on a strictly volunteer basis. Let those who want to be involved volunteer themselves.

As for the others who haven’t volunteered themselves, leave them in the anonymous safety and security of the darkened theatre. Do not single out any of your guests without their consent and foreknowledge. Even if you have a message which you consider innocent, such as “Happy Birthday,” do not spring it upon a member of your audience during a public performance without consulting with him in advance.

Using polite words does not give you a free pass. Some have defended Dixon’s words because they were not offensive. I agree — they were rather unremarkable, in my books — but that is besides the point. Even a message which you consider innocuous takes on an entirely different flavour when it comes in a setting where you would never expect such a message.

That is why a marriage proposal written on a front lawn with Christmas lights is noteworthy. That is why a “Will you forgive me?” message written on a billboard would make people look twice.

My cousin once paid for billboard advertising to let his former girlfriend know that he was now “new and improved.” It sure caught her attention! Unfortunately, when she decided that she’d give him a second chance, he changed his mind.

But anyway, when an unsuspecting audience member takes his seat in the audience, give him your show, to the best of your ability. Other than that, leave him in peace.

There are so many reasons for this. Part of the reason has to do with the inequality in the arrangement between the actors and the audience. The actors are on their game; they are psychologically prepared to speak and to perform. The audience members have a different mindset. They expect to be one of the crowd. Even a famous person has an expectation that when the lights go down and the spotlight is on the actors telling their story, all eyes will be on the show.

And to continue this theme of inequality, the actors are more ‘at home.’ They know the story inside and out, and they know their theatre. They know when to expect this music and that sound effect and they know that the lights will go dark here and the fog machine will be activated there. The creating of an atmosphere is so much of what theatre is all about. You could say it’s a house of mirrors, where patrons are just a little bit lost. It is something of a foreign world, as it should be.

Finally, the actors in a play are the story-tellers; they are the authority in the room. They are the ones with the scoop. They hold the cards; they have the information. The audience members participate as the recipients of that information, not as the authority. All the theatrical devices are employed in order to lend credibility and weight to both the story and the story teller.

This, incidentally, is a large part of the reason actors enjoy acting. Someone else writes interesting and persuasive lines, and the actor finds that people want to hear him saying them. You can make an audience fall in love with almost anybody, provided that you give them the right lines and moves.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people rapturous about actors who were 180 degrees different from the characters they portray. As a writer, it is a bittersweet feeling.

In the past, actors were not held in such high esteem, but nowadays, they often are. In any case, by the time of the curtain call, when the cast steps forward to receive credit from the audience, the actors are often glowing. They feel like heroes and often the audience perceives them as heroic.

At that moment, what is a mere mortal audience member by comparison? Who is that dot who has been silent and in the dark for the past two hours?

Do you now address him with gusto, as you stand there in your costume and your eyeliner?

Do you now decide that your moment for fame has arrived, and that your voice must be heard?

Is your audience “captive”?

Stop and think, euphoric Broadway actor.

The audience member is always important, and is not a passive entity who can rightly be subjected to anything of your choosing, by virtue of the fact that he chose to attend a performance that you participated in, organized or wrote.

(And I extend most of what I say to other types of entertainment. How wrong it was for Chumbawamba’s vocalist Danbert Nobacon to pour water upon the head of a deputy Prime Minister who had come to see the show. He publicly humiliated his guest. How wrong it was for Sinéad O’Connor to destroy a photograph of Pope John Paul II when she was invited to sing on Saturday Night Live. She deceived her host, who had no advance knowledge of her plan because she had held up a different photo during the rehearsal and did not tear it.)

So actor, do not think you tower over the audience member just because you stand on the stage in the limelight and he doesn’t. Don’t let your ego get ahead of you.

All actors, writers and theatre producers should be honoured by each and every soul who attends their performances.

It is an honour to have people dedicate their life’s precious minutes to coming out to your show, and you are, in some sense, indebted to those who are watching.

The audience member is a guest in your house, and I say it is fitting that the area where the audience sits is called, in English, “the house.” Technicians talk about “the house lights,” and that means the lights above the theatre seats.

You have invited your audience member to see your show, and he has accepted that invitation. There is a contract and a trust, and those attending a performance rightly have an expectation of physical and psychological safety.

To depart from the script in order to single out an audience member without warning is a violation of that trust. It can be alarming to hear oneself addressed directly from the stage because you have come to see a play, not a public lecture directed to you personally.

I would even go so far as to say that this should extend to those who are backstage. The Master of Ceremonies is violating a trust if she surprises the director, by calling her onstage without forewarning. It does not matter if a bouquet of roses is waiting. People should always be forewarned before being thrust into the spotlight.

I have previously condemned President Obama’s ridiculing of Trump while Trump was seated as a guest at an official function. That attack was offensive and reflects poorly upon President Obama. President Obama was the darling and the hero that evening, and had the authority of his office behind him. He was prepared with microphone, video clips and lighting. The guests at that dinner laughed politely at each and every one of his jokes. And they obliged with laughter when he made jokes at Trump’s expense. Was it funny? Perhaps. Was it appropriate? No.

If it were a public debate, that would be different. That would be an equal duel. And there are other venues for expressing differing opinions — there are newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, magazine articles, columns in newspapers and magazines, blogs, cartoons, television satires and movie and theatre scripts. There’s Twitter and Facebook and hey, you can even put a sign on your lawn, provided that you don’t live in St. Albert.

My point is that context matters. If you invite a guest into your home, you have a special responsibility towards him that you would not have if you were both at a restaurant. And in a similar way, if you are a guest in someone’s home, you have duties towards that person in addition to any of your existing duties.

Could you imagine someone screaming at her host? How outrageous! And yet I have both seen and heard of such things. That type of behaviour, which is already highly problematic, is worse in the context of a host-guest relationship. For that reason, I encourage those with explosive relatives and friends to plan get-togethers in a neutral zone, such as the front lobby of the local police station.

Context matters.

As for the booing of Pence by some audience members, that is a different matter, because in that case, there is equality. In that case, both the jeering and the jeered are spectators; they are on equal ground, literally and figuratively.

Booing is a rather inarticulate way of expressing oneself, but perhaps sometimes it is warranted. It is an expression of the people, and those who seek public office may encounter this type of opposition. The morality of such behaviour depends on the circumstance and I leave it to those who do that to review their own consciences.

But I could not leave those involved in planning and executing the November 2016 “Hamilton” debacle without expressing my disapproval. They did wrong. They should have been honoured that another person (in this case, Pence) wanted to see and attend their hip-hop drama show. They did wrong in ambushing him. No audience member, no matter how famous, should be surprised in this way.

Imagine how unnerving it could be — as the actor turns to where you’re sitting and as he begins speaking to you, would you not be unnerved? You may well wonder, in the context of an audience that has already been booing you, whether the words are going to be accompanied by anything else. In the moment, there would be no way to know.

The New York Times had this: “Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of the show, said the statement to Pence was a group effort. ‘The cast, the creators, we all felt that we must express our feelings,’ Sellers said. ‘We wanted to express our feelings and thoughts.’”

They wanted to express their feelings and thoughts.

They wanted to.

Ah.

In that case — a free pass?

Man.

Some people should not write their own lines.

I like the word “debacle” as a summary of the event, a word which I am not accustomed to using, but which popped into my head as I tried to find the right noun. My big red dictionary defines debacle as “a sudden, disastrous overthrow or collapse; rout; ruin” and it is explained by vocabulary.com in this way:

Use debacle to refer to a fiasco, disaster, or great failure. If several dogs run onto the field during the big baseball game, tripping players and chewing up the bases, you can call the whole event a debacle.

That’s a three-syllable way to summarize what they did to their own production. The production itself was outshadowed by their use of the theatre setting for a pre-planned speech to an unprepared member of the audience. They took advantage of the theatre setting in order to satisfy their own whims and get publicity for themselves and their production along the way. In so doing, they did a disservice to theatre itself.

No stars.

Post 229

Where Do You Go and the Other Inspired Song of 1996

There are two different versions of “Where Do You Go.” Frank Farian (Franz Reuther) was behind a group called La Bouche and they recorded one version of this song. The words were changed and then recorded very soon afterwards by a different group, also organized by Farian. The second group was called No Mercy.

It’s hard to tell who wrote the lyrics for each version. As a matter of fact, I’ve never had such a hard time figuring out whom to credit with writing the lyrics. I guess it’s not entirely surprising — when Farian has his hand in something, the issue of who should get credit for what gets foggy fast.

Wikipedia has Franz Reuther as one of the songwriters, but LyricFind does not. LyricFind puts the songwriters in this order for the La Bouche version: Peter Bischof-Fallenstein, James Walls, G. Mart. For the No Mercy version, LyricFind puts the songwriters in this order: G. Mart, James Walls, Peter Bischof-Fallenstein.

The first (La Bouche) version was not inspired in terms of lyrics and sound. The second (No Mercy) version was.

My source tells me that Frank Farian was initially supportive of the idea of running with altered lyrics for No Mercy, but then things got, in his opinion, thoroughly ‘out of hand’ when there was genuine collaboration between the lyricists and the singers. It became an enjoyable process for them and Farian was not able to pull the strings as perfectly as he would have liked that time. Things got away from him, and he never likes it when that happens.

No Mercy has three members – Marty Cintron, Ariel Hernández and Gabriel Hernández. These last two are twin brothers. As for lyricists, I’ll write their names as I believe they were.

I’m so glad a dance track made it.

Where Do You Go — No Mercy
(Lyrics: G. Mart, Kristof Lehnoberde, Joseph Vöulkniér, Marty Cintron)

Where do you go, my lovely?
Where do you go?
I want to know, my lovely, I want to know

Where do you go, oh oh eh oh
I want to know, oh oh eh oh
Where do you go, oh oh eh oh
I want to know
Where do you, where do you go
Where do you, where do you go

You leave without a word, no message, no number
And now my head is pounding like rolling thunder
You left me with a heartache deep inside
Girl you should see me cry all night, and I wonder

Everybody says, what a shame, what is wrong
They don’t like the game we play
Heard you’re hanging round every night until dawn
I’m waiting for you night and day

Where do you go, my lovely
Where do you go
I want to know, my lovely, I want to know

Where do you go, oh oh eh oh
I want to know, oh oh eh oh
Where do you go, oh oh eh oh
I want to know
You gotta break the silence, don’t keep me waiting
Just like a river flowing to the sea
You’re running back to me
Come hear what I’m saying

Where do you go, my lovely
I want to know

Where do you go, oh oh oh
Where do you go, oh oh oh
I want to know
Where do you, where do you go?

Save me

Come back and dry the tears, I cried for you baby
You’ve gotta stop this heartache deep inside
You’ve gotta help me make it through the night safely
Come back and save me
Where do you go, my lovely
Where do you go
I want to know, my lovely, I want to know
Where do you go, my lovely
Where do you go
I want to know
Where do you, where do you go

The next song also features brothers — Toby Pipes and Todd Pipes teamed up with John Kirtland, Clay Bergus and Kirk Tatom. This song was unpopular with some critics, but they were wrong. It’s amusing and endearing and bigger than it looks.

The song is directed to someone who gives many vague and in vogue reasons to end a relationship, without admitting that the real reason is that her heart just isn’t in it anymore. The writer knows what’s going on — “Still I know you just don’t care” — but he doesn’t say that out loud. Instead, he makes his argument in favour of continuing the relationship using her standards. In other words, she is saying that in order to continue, the relationship needs a common interest. That’s what she says is needed, when the truth is that the success of any relationship depends on intention — do the parties involved want it to succeed or not? In this song, the writer does want it to succeed and makes his pitch. He’s able to come up with the tiniest sliver of commonality — they both somewhat enjoyed the same movie. Since she agrees that he’s found something, the song has a ‘happy ending.’

Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Deep Blue Something
(Lyrics: Todd Pipes)

You’ll say we’ve got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we’re falling apart
You’ll say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us
Still I know you just don’t care

And I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said I think I remember the film
And as I recall I think we both kind of liked it
And I said Well that’s the one thing we’ve got

I see you, the only one who knew me
But now your eyes see through me
I guess I was wrong
So what now?
It’s plain to see we’re over
And I hate when things are over
When so much is left undone

And I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said I think I remember the film
And as I recall I think we both kind of liked it
And I said well that’s the one thing we’ve got

You’ll say that we’ve got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we’re falling apart
You’ll say the world has come between us
Our lives have come between us
Still I know you just don’t care

And I said what about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said I think I remember the film
And as I recall I think, we both kind of liked it
And I said well that’s the one thing we’ve got

Post 228

Up Close and Personal: Reflections on the Art of Conversation

I’ve never had a boring conversation with KindOne.

For that matter, I’ve never had a boring conversation with TenaciousOne, SpiritedOne, StrongOne, CharitableOne, SincereOne, EquitableOne, FearlessOne or DiscerningOne. Have I had a conversation with EfficientOne? Yes, I have — not boring.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a boring person, because people are mysterious, and if you were able to lift the veil and see into their soul, you’d find the most outrageous things. Their self-perception is often hilariously off-base and their short-term and long-term goals would blow your mind. Yes, it turns out he does plan to rule the world one day. Yes, she thinks that she’ll one day be the leader of her own religion.

Chesterton visited the issue of boredom and the idea of a boring person more than once. He was usually on the side of the person who was being accused of being boring.

After all, the stereotypical idea of a boring person is someone who is fascinated by stamp collecting or botany or other presumably dull topics, but he said that a person who was excitedly counting blades of grass was in fact a very interested person, and he said that those who easily dismiss topics or people as boring are the ones with the duller minds.

This is a fair point. People are interesting, and life is interesting, and learning about the reality of each other’s lives is entertaining enough.

But one must speak of reality here. Sometimes things are whitewashed to such an extent that there’s nothing left to talk about. Everything is perfect over here — what’s to discuss? That’s not reality, and for that reason, I’ve always wanted to get to a place where we could really talk.

Let’s talk.

Let’s talk about everything.

Let’s talk, for starters, about that elephant in the room.

In The Way, St. Josemaria Escriva writes:

You never want ‘to get to the bottom of things.’ At times, because of politeness. Other times — most times — because you fear hurting yourself. Sometimes again, because you fear hurting others. But always because of fear!

With that fear of digging for the truth you’ll never be a man of good judgment.

The Way, 33

How many conversations have I had with people where they were so intent on ignoring What Just Happened? So many! Too many!

I present to them, on a platter as it were, a rather Major Issue.

They say, “My, the weather is fine.”

They say, “Have a great week! :) ”

They say, “Blessings on your day!!!”

Sigh.

Alright. Have it your way. Let’s talk about how you keep your Christmas tree looking fresh.

So although I insist that people are not boring, I say that there is most definitely such a thing as a boring conversation.

The number one characteristic of a dull conversation is not the fact that it happens to be an in-depth description of your own life events. Many people have apologized to me for making the conversation revolve around their own life situation, but I would reassure them. Life is interesting, whether it’s happening to you or to me.

Pour the tea and let’s carry on.

Mind you, one would hope that if Greta has a conversation with Hilda, Hilda will show interest in Greta’s life too, even if that’s not the main topic. I once had a conversation with someone I didn’t know well, and although we spent four hours together, she had no questions about me.

I know about her childhood, her siblings and their current troubles. I know about her in-laws and about their marital situation. I know why she and her husband chose those names for their children. I know about her plans for moving and where she has lived. I know what she thinks of her town and how she loves horses. I know about the career she had before she had children, and why she liked it so much. I know where she likes to buy her groceries and what photographer she likes. I know about her dog and about the games that her family likes to play with it. I know about her church and I know about how she felt and feels about Catholicism.

And yes, I know how she keeps her Christmas tree looking fresh.

But what does she know about me? What did she ask? She asked nothing. She asked nothing about my family, my past, my present or my future plans. She asked nothing about my career, my interests, my friends and my pets.

For all she knows, I own horses.

(I don’t.)

Mind you, horse people talk about their horses. That’s how you know they are horse people. If they didn’t talk about their horses, you wouldn’t know that they like to ride them and they have one named Cocoa Puff and Cocoa Puff has always been just the Very Best Horse that a person could have — so gentle with children and so easy to ride — and they weren’t planning to add another horse to their collection but then Wouldn’t You Know they just happened to come across Lightning and he was just so Beautiful and the owner just couldn’t keep him anymore and really, how could you say no and he just gets along with Cocoa Puff as if they’ve been together their whole horsey lives and the whole family just loves to take them out riding and it almost makes you forget about the days when they had Snowdrop who suddenly passed away last year after developing that infection and the veterinarian bills were through the roof but What Can You Do and isn’t it so good they Live Out in the Country?

Yes, it is. It’s good you live over there and I live over here.

I have nothing against horses, but I just don’t love them the way you do, I guess.

It strikes me that horses are unlike other pets in the extent to which they dominate one’s life. People are drawn towards living in the country because that’s where they can keep this pet, this cross between a dog and a motorbike.

You can go for a long time without knowing whether your new acquaintance has a dog or a cat, but you’ll know fairly early on that They Own a Horse or that they like show jumping or dressage. Ah, dressage, how many times have I heard mention of dressage!

But anyway, to return to my topic, seeing the inside of my home and my photographs prompted her to say nothing and ask nothing.

Amazing, really.

Who has a home which is utterly devoid of anything of interest? I have never been in a home where something did not capture my attention. Everyone has different ways of living and it’s such a personal space, revealing habits and priorities. As a matter of fact, there are usually so many new and varied things to see that you can miss noticing what is right under your nose. I once failed to immediately notice a gleaming brand new BMW motorcycle parked in the middle of a living room. It was fresh from the store and the owner was proud, while I was oblivious.

Ah, men and their bikes. Some are like girls and their ponies.

But anyway, in light of the fact that nothing about my life nor my space was worth inquiring about, we were left with conversational topics related to her life. I mean really, what can you do? I don’t want to talk about myself if you’re not interested. I won’t talk about what I think about food or parenting or photography or Catholicism or homeschooling or animals or housekeeping or law or theatre or fashion or hair or makeup

if you don’t want to hear what I think.

Why would I?

Nevertheless, I maintain that a conversation which takes, as its launching point, your life instead of mine, can still be plenty interesting to both of us.

However, here’s my caveat. Let’s do more than talk about the facts. He said this and you said that.

What’s your take? What do you make of it? What does it show us about life and about people in general?

She did this and then they did that.

What’s your take? What do you make of it? What does that show us about everything in general?

In other words, what’s the point? What conclusions have you come to? What have you learned? Or if you can’t make heads or tails of it, let’s puzzle it out together. I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed and you tell me what you’ve noticed. Putting our observations side by side and sharing our own tentative theories will be entirely fun.

That’s the ultimate — a sharing of perspectives on everything under the sun.

In dialogue, facts are just the starting point. A conversation which never goes beyond facts risks being deathly boring.

Try having a conversation which is all facts.

Greta: I was at the grocery store today and the person in front of me was buying ground beef, lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese. He was also buying salad ingredients.

Hilda: Oh, really? I sometimes buy just a few groceries myself.

Greta: When I came home, I made myself a bowl of oatmeal. I added raisins and a bit of milk.

Hilda: Mmm, sounds good. That’s a great meal, especially on a cold day. I also enjoy having breakfast type things at odd hours. Just the other day, for instance, I had an omelet near midnight!

Greta: Later I watched Cinderella, the movie that was released a couple of years ago. My sister told me she really enjoyed it, but I was rather disappointed in it. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Hilda: Oh, yes, I watched it too, and now I wonder if it was really worth the time.

Greta: In a few days I am going to go on a trip, so I’ve been really busy packing. I’m going to Lviv for a conference and I’ll be there for five days. Before I return home, I’m going to do a side trip into Poland.

Hilda: Oh, no way! How exciting for you! I’ve been to Ukraine, but never Poland.

Do you see what I mean? How boring!

There’s no spirit of exploration. The entire point of having all these facts in our lives is to make us THINK! The entire point of life is to raise our spirits to the bigger questions! Don’t just put one foot in front of the other and raise your spoon to your open mouth day after day! You’re more than an animal! You’re more than eating and sleeping! Open your mind, and wonder about everything! Consider everything — find the messages in the details of the day. God is speaking to you through the world around you, and if you cannot examine things and ask ‘why,’ then our multi-dimensional world will become, for you, as flat as a pancake.

Let’s go and visit Hilda and Greta again, but let’s make Greta more interesting. As for Hilda, we’ll leave her as is.

Greta: I was at the grocery store today and the person in front of me was buying ground beef, lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese. He was also buying salad ingredients. I was impressed — so often you see these guys at the store and it’s obvious that they’re bachelors. You know what I mean? They’re buying steak, a jug of milk and an apple pie.

Hilda: Oh, really? I sometimes buy just a few groceries myself.

Greta: When I came home, I made myself a bowl of oatmeal. I added raisins and a bit of milk. These days I’m being careful about what I eat. Oatmeal is a pretty good one — filling but not too high in calories.

Hilda: Mmm, sounds good. That’s a great meal, especially on a cold day. I also enjoy having breakfast type things at odd hours. Just the other day, for instance, I had an omelet near midnight!

Greta: Later I watched Cinderella, the movie that was released a couple of years ago. My sister told me she really enjoyed it, but I was rather disappointed in it. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Hollywood usually can’t get it right even when they begin with a good story. They reuse the same mold time and again, always with an eye on the box office.

Hilda: Oh, yes, I watched it too, and now I wonder if it was really worth the time.

Greta: In a few days I am going to go on a trip, so I’ve been really busy packing. I’m going to Lviv for a conference and I’ll be there for five days. Before I return home, I’m going to do a side trip into Poland. I’m not really a fan of travelling for the sake of travelling, but some cities are better than others, is my view. And Poland, well, who can dislike Poland?

Hilda: Oh, no way! How exciting for you! I’ve been to Ukraine, but never Poland.

See — now that’s getting a little better. You know more about what Greta really thinks, and she’s opened up some topics for exploration.

As for Hilda, she’s as agreeable as off-white drywall. You know nothing more about her because she’s playing things entirely safe. The mild and bland quality of Hilda’s comments means that Greta’s got more work to do. Keeping the conversation alive is going to be work because Hilda brings next-to-nothing to the table. She won’t show her hand, and it’s anybody’s guess what she really thinks. In such a scenario, Greta needs to come up with topic after topic in order to find something that might be able to go somewhere.

How about one more time? Let’s equip both of them with exploratory and active minds, along with a willingness to say what they think. Once again, the new stuff is italicized.

Greta: I was at the grocery store today and the person in front of me was buying ground beef, lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese. He was also buying salad ingredients. I was impressed — so often you see these guys at the store and it’s obvious that they’re bachelors. You know what I mean? They’re buying steak, a jug of milk and an apple pie.

Hilda: Oh, really? I sometimes buy just a few groceries myself, but usually it means I’ve forgotten something. And hey, didn’t you think Barb Duteau’s Facebook post was cute? She shared the one about playing the game of guess-what-was-on-the-grocery-list-that-I-left-on-the-table. That was funny. What do you think about Facebook?

. . . (conversation continues)

Greta: When I came home, I made myself a bowl of oatmeal. I added raisins and a bit of milk. These days I’m being careful about what I eat. Oatmeal is a pretty good one — filling but not too high in calories.

Hilda: Mmm, sounds good. That’s a great meal, especially on a cold day. I also enjoy having breakfast type things at odd hours. Just the other day, for instance, I had an omelet near midnight! I suppose that’s high in calories but satisfying your food craving isn’t a sin, is it?

. . . (conversation continues)

Greta: Later I watched Cinderella, the one released a couple of years ago. My sister told me she really enjoyed it, but I was rather disappointed in it. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Hollywood usually can’t get it right even when they begin with a good story. They reuse the same mold time and again, always with an eye on the box office.

Hilda: Oh, yes, I watched it too, and now I wonder if it was really worth the time. I totally agree about Hollywood, but I’ve enjoyed some things over the years. I’ve always really enjoyed Meet the Parents, for instance, because I think it explored some very interesting themes in an effective way. But yeah, Cinderella — hoo boy!

. . . (conversation continues)

Greta: In a few days I am going to go on a trip, so I’ve been really busy packing. I’m going to Lviv for a conference and I’ll be there for five days. Before I return home, I’m going to do a side trip into Poland. I’m not really a fan of travelling for the sake of travelling, but some cities are better than others, is my view. And Poland, well, who can dislike Poland?

Hilda: Oh, no way! How exciting for you! I’ve been to Ukraine, but never Poland. I think you’ll love Lviv, because although it’s more touristy than some places in Ukraine, you can really feel like one of the locals, hanging around in the cafes and restaurants. Mind you, with a face like yours, a person wouldn’t exactly blend in . . .

. . . (conversation continues)

In sum, if you must speak exclusively about yourself, let’s take it to the next level. Don’t just tell me that you bought something. Tell me why you bought it and why it’s important to you. Don’t just tell me that your cousin said such-and-such — tell me why you have an issue with what your cousin said. That’s conversation.

Conversation is back and forth. The idea is to climb from the real facts at hand into the world of ideas. It’s like going for a hike — step by step you walk together up the steep path and eventually you make it to the top. You survey the view — you started down there and now you’re up here. Together you’ve now made sense of another slice of life.

And when I say “the real facts at hand,” I condemn the all-too-prevalent practice of turning a blind eye to outstanding issues, as I said above. I wouldn’t be surprised if this tendency to avoid talking about obvious issues is stronger in ‘polite’ countries, such as Canada. On the other hand, St. Josemaria Escriva was from Spain. It’s an unfortunate tendency, and leads to layers of superficiality in relationships.

Avoiding hard topics is arguably a way of saying that a person’s concerns are not valid or worthy of attention, and as St. Josemaria Escriva says, it will prevent the avoider from developing into a person of good judgment. Avoiding difficult topics is for the cowardly and immature.

Don’t pretend it just didn’t happen. Don’t ignore your wrongdoing.

Do you really think that my memory is so short that I have already forgotten about your recent failure to live up to your commitments to me? Is my memory so short that I have forgotten about the time you didn’t show, with only the vaguest of explanations, and about the time you were 45 minutes late, with no explanation? Does a casual conversation about Christmas lights make everything better? Am I that easily distracted?

Do you think my memory is so short that I have forgotten your lack of empathy in my moment of trouble? Does a bag of cookies make everything better?

Do you think that my memory is so short that I have forgotten those emails where you soundly defamed me, the ones I was never meant to see? Does a reference to the size of the moon make everything better?

Let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say that if you really want to begin again, it’s best to address what’s happened between us. A good relationship faces reality — the real facts at hand. I don’t mind looking at the moon, but let’s not ignore the ground that needs to be covered.

So sure, let’s talk.

Let’s talk, but let’s make it worth our while. Let’s make it interesting and let’s make it fresh — a discussion of experiences and an exchange of ideas.

It’s your turn and then it’s mine. We’ll go this way and that and zigzag and return. That’s how we’ll talk. What do you think?

If that’s not your idea of a good time, then I’ll just move along.

After all, if I want an entirely one-sided conversation, I’ve got this thing called a blog.

Post 227

Ancient Aramaic, Anyone?
Reflections on the Art of Criticism

This is interesting. I just came across a link to an article where the researchers were wondering about the use of swear or taboo words. They were wondering: is it true that people rely on swear words because they have a limited vocabulary? And to extend it further, is it true that people who swear are less intelligent than those who don’t?

The study was done by Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay, and it was published in the November 2015 issue of Language Sciences. The study runs 160 pages and I didn’t read it, because you have to pay $35 to download it from Elsevier Ltd. And that might even be American currency.

They asked participants to say and write as many taboo words as they could think of within a set span. I think it was sixty seconds.

I think that’s funny, and I think the researchers would have had a blast. Here’s the summary of what they found.

Abstract

A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally-neutral words. In order to test these hypotheses, we compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-is-fluency hypothesis. In each study, a set of 10 taboo words accounted for 55–60% of all taboo word data . . . Overall the findings suggest that, with the exception of female-sex-related slurs, taboo expressives and general pejoratives comprise the core of the category of taboo words while slurs tend to occupy the periphery, and the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.

In other words, if you’re good with your words, you’re good with your words, whether they are ordinary ones (they test these using a test they call Controlled Oral Word Association Test), animal words or taboo words.

It looks like there were 10 words which showed up again and again.

Don’t you think it would have been hilarious? Here comes little granny, and at first she’s all reluctant (someone told her something about something called “the creep devil,”) but then with fifteen seconds remaining on the clock, she just lets it rip? And then you’ve got some super hip youngster who starts with a blast and then just falls flat. “Uh . . . shit? Did I say that one already?” Maybe he’d get frustrated and start using pseudo swears: “How about ‘dang it’? Uh, did I say ‘ass’ yet? And what about ‘heck’? Does ‘heck’ count?”

Oh man. I’m getting myself curiouser and curiouser. Maybe I should just go and download the study.

And according to the abstract, men and women were pretty much equal when it came to their swear word fluency. Gender wasn’t a factor.

A different summary of the same report said that when they ran IQ tests, they found that those who scored higher on the word index had higher IQs. I don’t see a mention of an IQ test in the abstract, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Can you really deny the creativeness of some ‘colourful’ expressions of English?

Here I happen to think of rap songs, because I’m in the thick of them in my 90s music research project. If you study their lyrics, you’ll see that many of them are filled with every kind of crass and distasteful word, but you cannot deny their cleverness. The rappers rhyme and play with the words the way a child plays with alphabet soup. I get it.

But unfortunately, rap music suffers from two problems as a whole. First, the melody is often sacrificed for the sake of providing a blank slate for the lyrics. Fitting words to an interesting melody is more difficult than fitting words to a flattened one. Second, the subject-matter is usually unimpressive and beyond shallow. Often the rapper inserts his own name into the song, and the song is intended to glorify the rapper.

The rap song that I have liked the best so far was by Skee-Lo, called “I Wish.” That was amusing.

And turning to Shakespeare, he was entirely creative and prolific when it came to insults. I once toyed with the idea of buying a calendar. Each day had a Shakespearean insult. In the end I didn’t buy it, but you never know — the time may come.

There are two types of criticism.

1. Criticism of actions. This is tied to a particular date and time. For instance, if you say, “you lied,” that is a reference to a specific event. It can take a long time to put together such a criticism, because the context needs to be set out and the exact problematic behaviour needs to be identified and described. Sometimes the problem is like a lump under a blanket. You can see it, but you have to figure out exactly what is going on before you can get much traction.

2. Criticism of character. This can be done with one or two words. You could call someone ‘a liar,’ for example. This is an insult, but it makes no reference to a certain date and time. If you are a liar, you are likely to lie as the ‘need’ arises. If you are a loser (interestingly, the Ukrainian word for loser – невдаха – seems to be made up of two parts, being a negation of the word ‘character.’ How apt!) then you are presumably a loser on both Wednesdays and Saturdays.

I am not denying that criticisms of character can be true. Jesus referred to some people as hypocrites. That would be a criticism of character, and it would have been true, 24/7, of those to whom he spoke thus.

And of course, when you apply general labels to people, you have a choice of several words which have similar meanings, but with different moods, depending on your intent. The word “slim,” is always safe, but the word “skinny” can be a criticism. The word “eccentric” is safe, but the word “bonkers” is not. The word “zany” is safe, but the word “weird” is not.

You catch my drift.

Criticisms of character are far more likely to be false than criticisms of actions. They should be used with care, which is exactly what they are not used with, most of the time. These one-word insults are usually hurled in the heat of the moment. That’s not so good, unless they are true, in which case, the truth has been spoken. Jesus knew that what he said was true, and he spoke this way to alert the innocent that vipers were among them. He spoke this way to alert them that those who enjoyed a public reputation for goodness and sanctity were in fact evil. He spoke that way to shake the evil-doers out of their self-satisfied views. St. John the Baptist spoke in the same way.

So I am not saying that you cannot call someone a liar, or a bully, or a drunkard. You can. But make sure that you are right.

I don’t know about calling someone an idiot, however. I note that Barbara Duteau wrote, “What an idiot!” about someone on her public Facebook post of November 26th.

I find that problematic, because the word “idiot,” is an insult referring to a lack of intelligence.

In former days, the word “idiot” was used to describe people with Down Syndrome or similar genetic conditions, and it was seen as a statement of fact, and not as an insult. Nowadays, of course, using the term for anyone with a mental disability would be simply outrageous, because the word has taken on a very negative flavour.

But stop and think about any insult related to a lack of intelligence. How much control do you have over your level of intelligence? Some would call such a word uncharitable, when used nowadays.

It would be far better to write that such-and-such was idiotic behaviour, or that such-and-such was an idiotic speech.

The context for her insult was the speech that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave upon the death of Fidel Castro. Mr. Trudeau’s father, who was Prime Minister, had a good relationship with the dictator and met his sons. This affected the content and the delivery of the PM’s speech. And in a later justification of his words, Justin Trudeau alluded to knowing how it felt to hear how a well-known politician was described after death. He would have heard many things said about his father after his father’s eventful political career.

I get it.

I understand how, upon learning of the death of someone, people tend to gravitate towards words of praise. That’s a very typical reaction, from both friend and foe. If you were to confine yourself to reading about people in the two weeks following their death, you’d think the person was a saint.

And it is for very good reason that the Catholic Church says that eulogies are not properly part of the funeral Mass. Why would you want to mar the Mass with lies? Sometimes in their eagerness to be appropriately respectful, holy-sounding or fortunate to have known the person, people exaggerate the good qualities and the accomplishments and they minimize and even ignore the harm that they caused and the evil choices that they made.

People go a little wild when they talk about people who have died, especially if the person was young, murdered or killed in an accident.

Take, for instance, the case of Jim Prentice. He was, for a short time, the Premier of Alberta. Initially, it was thought that he would continue to lead the popular and entrenched Progressive Conservative party. His party seemed stable and a long future seemed his for the taking. Perhaps he became over-confident, because by a series of ill-chosen words and actions, he made himself increasingly unpopular, and his party was swept out of power. He paved the way for the New Democrats to take over the house, and his loss was huge and historic. His name became associated with the disgraceful imploding of the party.

Fast forward a few years, however, and a sudden death by plane crash had several people speaking of all of his good qualities and his various accomplishments. The current leader of the New Democratic party, his political rival, said nice things about Mr. Prentice, pointing out that her father had likewise died in a plane crash.

I understand that, and I don’t see a huge difference. In both cases, people yearned to find what was praiseworthy and chose to overlook everything that didn’t fit with that picture. I am not saying that Fidel Castro was Jim Prentice, or that Jim Prentice was Fidel Castro.

God knows who died with a purer soul, but you probably do not.

My point is that the approach taken is the same. People don’t want to be ‘mean’ because the dead person is, well, dead. The dead person is having a worse day than you are, is the general thought. He won’t cause you any more trouble. Our Judeo-Christian roots kick in and people know ‘not to speak ill of the dead.’

It’s a common tendency, and I understand why Justin Trudeau may have wanted to find things to praise about someone that his now-deceased father befriended.

So I won’t call Justin Trudeau an idiot. I won’t. It’s not true. He may not be as intelligent as some rappers, but he’s far more intelligent than many people give him credit for. I read his defence of his speech, and it has merit. The Man With Good Hair often makes bad decisions, but I give him no excuse stemming from a lack of intelligence.

And as for our leader’s background as a school teacher, this may not be as tactically useful as a background in business or in law, but when it comes to governing a nation, the best preparation is a willingness to do a good job. Someone with good intentions will be given the grace to choose observant and wise advisors.

And while I am on the topic of politicians, it strikes me as interesting that many Christians consider them ‘fair game,’ when it comes to insults. The moment these so-called Christians are unimpressed, they lash out with all manner of name-calling with little basis in fact.

Consider the recent issues with respect to Trinity Christian School Board. How many people have gone online to express their contempt for the current government officials! They begin with the presumption that the officials have tainted motives, yet are quick to talk about the Wisdom officials being presumed innocent. One person calls the Minister of Education “a tool,” and another person refers to the government people as “biased bullies.”

Slow down, folks. Reign in your words. Think before you speak. Can you support your accusations?

What is your evidence that the government is biased? Don’t claim that lightly. The government has a lengthy report based on the findings of financial auditors. Are the auditors then biased as well? My understanding is that the first accounting firm was hired by the school board itself, even before the current government came into power.

The government report is critical of Trinity’s financial interaction with the homeschooling families that Trinity undertook to serve. The government says that the funds were mismanaged, and that the families suffered as a result. The taxpayers’ funds were given to Trinity on the understanding that Trinity would manage them properly for educational ends. The government portrays itself as looking out for the families with Trinity and the tax-paying Albertans, and I think it might very well be doing just that.

The unavoidable question is: were the funds mismanaged? It looks to me that they were, and I have heard nothing challenging the financial figures found in the report. I have seen that Toby-Lauren Burgess insists that the liquor consumed was wine, but that is not a contradiction of what was written in the report, and one might hope, for her sake, that nobody had a beer.

Let’s not obscure the issue.

What does it matter if the officer who gives you a speeding tickets also happens to dislike Christian rock? The issue is whether or not you were speeding, and not the musical preferences of the officer.

It’s not that complicated.

The best defence is not an offence, accusing the government of being nasty. That’s an approach which is immature and it distracts from the issue at hand. Mind you, that may be entirely the point.

The best defence is a defence, showing that the numbers in the auditor’s report are faulty, and in showing that there was compliance with the laws and regulations governing the board. It is not enough to say that a New Democratic party dislikes Christians or the homeschooling community.

And if that is really going to be the theme of your protests — if Trinity and Wisdom are so entirely convinced of the unsympathetic nature of this or previous governments — then would that not be all the more reason to be fiscally unimpeachable? Why, in such a climate, would you not run everything in a ship-shape manner, as do other homeschooling boards?

Why buy wine?

I can believe that the government officials have mixed feelings towards homeschooling or towards Christians, but my point is that this is not the issue. The issue is whether the government’s allegations are true. For this reason, I agree with the prayers that the truth would be exposed.

And consider, if the truth came out, it would come out piece by piece. We would learn whether it is true that so-and-so received a 100% pay increase from the first year to the next, and we would learn whether so-and-so, who every month collected a car allowance, received money for using his car. (Mind you, I think that case of double-dipping was confirmed as having occurred, and excused as an accounting error by the folks at Wisdom.) Hey, maybe we would even find out where those gift cards went. Or maybe not.

Oh well.

Knowing the nitty gritty, and knowing the who-what-when-where-and-how, is what it’s about. Spare me the unthinking solidarity.

I like having the facts, and I hope that increased knowledge of the facts will quiet these rash accusations leveled at the government and these unfounded insults.

Returning to the two types of criticism, the very best criticism can be a plain statement of what was done and when it was done. If you can accurately describe what so-and-so did, then you often needn’t say more. You don’t even have to spin your words to have a negative flavour. Just say what happened. Make it as dispassionate and clinical as an autopsy report. Make it as bland as an auditor’s report or as plodding as a Ph.D. thesis about a cactus. It doesn’t matter. Just tell it like it is.

You don’t need to apply a one-word insult or an emoticon or an exclamation mark. Your readers will add them on their own.

Take the following article as an example. It was written by Duncan Kinney and was published yesterday by the Globe and Mail. I wasn’t looking for it, but coincidence is always an interesting thing. I went online to see how old Cate Blanchette is. I just watched the Cinderella movie where she was the wicked stepmother. The last time I watched a movie with her in it, she was young enough to be the heroine. Time flies I guess. So in doing that, I came upon and watched an interview where she was joking around with the interviewer. He said he had a serious question, so when he asked her how she managed to deal with a cat on a leash, she was flabbergasted. “That’s your fucking question?” she asked, incredulous. I thought it was funny. Mind you, I didn’t like the part where she said “Jesus!” (She wasn’t praying.) The media always gets excited over the wrong things.

But anyway, somewhere along the way, this headline caught my eye: “Alberta Tories ignored years of red flags at private home-schooling association.” As I said, the article was published yesterday, on December 9th.

Here is the link.

Alberta Tories Ignored Years of Red Flags at Private Homeschooling Association

It is always much easier not to do the responsible, adult thing. No one gets pleasure from taking care of that sink full of dishes that collected over the weekend. If only we had the good luck to be Alberta Tories, we could just ignore our responsibilities for years and then have someone else clean up.

The Alberta government has stripped accreditation and funding from the Trinity Christian School Association, which operates a private school based in Cold Lake and contracts a company that provides home schooling to thousands of Alberta students. The government’s allegations of financial wrongdoing are outlined in recently released court documents.

For years, Progressive Conservative governments in Alberta either turned a blind eye to multiple red flags at Trinity Christian or were incompetent.

Two families involved in running the association and affiliated organizations are alleged to have taken home $2.86-million in salaries from 2012 to 2015. A private school called the Wisdom Center was built by the association with public dollars – a clear violation of Alberta Education rules – and sold to one of the affiliates. The documents also show questionable lease agreements, $988,000 that should have gone to parents for education expenses and that public money was spent on gift cards, babysitting and booze.

The new New Democratic Party government in Alberta was forced to do the adult thing and clean up the mess.

The signs that something was wrong go back more than 19 years, the court documents show.

A September, 1997 letter from Alberta Education to the most senior employee of Trinity Christian reads, somewhat prophetically: “It appears your school is reluctant to comply with all of Alberta Education’s regulations.” The Tory education minister at the time was Gary Mar.

In January, 2004, Alberta Education wrote to Trinity Christian to let it know again it was breaking the rules.

“It is evident that Alberta Learning funding has been used for purposes not permitted by the funding manual and AISI [Alberta Initiative for School Improvement] guidelines. More specifically, the purchase of the Wisdom Center building and some of the listed AISI equipment should not have been purchased with Alberta Learning funding.”

More than $500,000 in taxpayers’ money was used to pay for the Wisdom Centre, in contravention of all law and precedent when it comes to private schools in Alberta, the documents say. Taxpayers do not build private schools in Alberta. Taxpayers finance private school students’ education for up to 70 per cent of the amount that would be spent for a public school student. But private schools do not get money for capital projects.

Trinity Christian and the Tory government ignored this rule, and it is unclear if this money was ever returned or deducted from future funds sent to Trinity Christian. The court documents allege the Wisdom Centre was then sold at a substantial loss to Living Water College, an organization run by Kenneth and Marlane Noster, members of one of the families at the heart of this case. That building was then leased to the Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta, an organization affiliated with Trinity Christian, at a very reasonable rate.

The Tory education minister, at the time a private school was built with public dollars, was Lyle Oberg.

In 2009, Alberta Education started to question Trinity Christian’s financial reporting. Why were funds being carried forward? What exactly was Wisdom Home Schooling doing, given that it was not a registered or accredited private school? Those concerns continued until 2015.

In February, 2014, Alberta Education warned Trinity Christian it was not complying with the rules for homeschooling.

In March, 2015, a couple of months before premier Jim Prentice and the Tories lost to the Alberta New Democrats, Alberta Education repeated that warning.

The Tory education ministers between 2009 and 2015 were Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk, Jeff Johnson and Gordon Dirks. All failed to act on red flags that something was wrong at Trinity Christian School Association and Wisdom Home Schooling.

Last fall, after an investigation by auditors, Trinity Christian was stripped of its accreditation. That decision was made by New Democrat Education Minister David Eggen. (The money and accreditation were restored through a court injunction.)
It is no fun to do the responsible thing and deal with a long-festering problem. Six Tory education ministers had the chance. They all declined. It is worth asking why.

I think that’s an interesting article, and I think it’s interesting that I found it tonight, when this post was nearly complete. The following was going to be my version of how writing about when-where-what can be more powerful and effective than name-calling. This is what I had:

1. Ken Noster of Derwent collected approximately $243,963 in 2015 as head of Wisdom.
2. Ken Noster’s company collected more than $7,000 per month in rental fees in Derwent.
3. Ken Noster and his wife will not be going out to the orchestra, and therefore will not use their tickets, but if you are interested you can repurchase these tickets (value: $90) for $75.

The take-home message is that no matter how much you take home, you might still not want to give things away for free.

I’m just kidding. The take-home message is that there are two ways to embark upon a criticism of someone. The first method describes behaviour, and the other method labels the person as a whole. Both can be valid, provided that they are true.

I prefer the first approach for many reasons. In the first place, other people can see the components of your criticism, and if you have missed something or misunderstood something, they can point out your error. In the second, it leaves the person criticized with a clear indication of where the issue is, so that they can improve, or do better next time. I notice, for instance, that the most recent musical adventures at the Basilica are presented differently now, and they don’t involve purchasing tickets online. I’m glad for that, and in the same way, I would be happy if everyone whose behaviour I have criticized would do their best to rectify their behaviour. That would be good. (As for the phrase ‘constructive criticism,’ I dislike it, since the phrase is often used as an excuse to be vindictive.)

At minimum, a clear description of problematic behaviour can point out to others what potholes to avoid. When you read a transcript of a really weak birthday greeting, you can see how it flops miserably. The lesson is lost on the giver of the message, but the hope is that others can learn. (If you can’t leave a pleasant and spontaneous birthday message, either write it down ahead of time, or keep your message super simple – “Happy birthday, Jane. I hope you have a lovely day.”)

There is often an instructive quality to point-by-point criticism of behaviour that you cannot get with a one-word slam.

But speaking of the one word slam, I’m no different from you on this count, and the exclamation marks go off in my head once in a while too.

And on occasion, I will summarize out loud with a single word. You bet.

I haven’t gone biblical with it though.

Perhaps I could give that a whirl sometime.

“You brood of vipers!”

“You white-washed sepulchers!”

That would be funny. I should brush up on some ancient languages so that I could do it with pizzazz.

After all, you know I’d want to impress those researchers, when it’s my sixty seconds to shine. (Wouldn’t want them to think I’m an idiot :)