Monday, October 19, 2009

Cultural alignment

Montréalers, it seems to me, really do start from a glass-half-full "place". For example, the driving culture, if you will, sets rules positively rather than negatively. That is, at intersections you are told the directions you are allowed to travel. As opposed to the directions you are not allowed to travel.

Thus, I am at an intersection with a left-bound one-way street. The sign I see is a green-rimmed circle with an arrow pointing straight upward (forward) with an arrow swooping off to the left. The sign is indicating the ways I am permitted to travel. only. Further, the traffic lights that come on will frequently show a straight green arrow which allows you to travel forward. only. You may not turn even if it is permitted at the intersection, until a full green spot comes on indicating that all permitted directions are now allowed.

In contrast, the United States frames all this in terms of what you are not allowed to do. There will be a sign with an encircled arrow pointing to the right with a red slash through the circle; you may not turn right. There will be a single green spot that comes on permitting travel in whatever direction is allowed. There will be a labeled one-way arrow sign; in Québec there is simply a directional arrow with no explanation of what that means indicating that a street is one-way!

The purpose for the two-tiered green arrow/green spot system in Canada is to allow protected time for pedestrians -- gasp -- to cross. It's quite clever and minimalistic. And respectful of pedestrians of course.

But mostly, I believe this is an example of a positive approach to society's structure here. Microcosmic indeed, but extant, IMO. The "joie de vivre" (sp?) is permitted just a smidgen more freedom when things are formulated this way, as what is *permitted*, rather than what is *not* permitted. I would contend this is one small part of what makes life here feel the teensiest tad looser, freer, happier.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I am going to make a little list of some astonishing scenarios of long-discredited pedagogical techniques. The hope is that some of my OUTRAGE will be lanced by lashing out in words rather than speech. No good is likely to come of my confronting the ISP about whom much venom is spilled in the daily debriefings of my innocents.

Gym pants. Evidently school children have been raised here with a cultural, learned-evisceral understanding of Gym Pants; of this my children are ignorant. The gym teacher is not, however, and relayed his dismay of my children's garb repeatedly ... in French. He does not speak English though he teaches at an EMSB (English Montreal School Board) facility -- these are the institutions tasked with teaching children permitted to learn in English.

So I had been receiving frequent reports indicating that my children's attire was inapproriate and that proper shorts were required asap, only what constituted 'proper' was entirely unclear, mutually contradictory reports being relayed by both children jointly and separately. I simply gave up trying to understand and aquire the right thing for them as I could not for the life of me understand what the right thing was: pockets or no? Over the knee or below it? Running gear or sweat-clothes or something else? And then: where would it even be gotten should it be possible to discern what was to be gotten? I gave up and got nothing.

Until one day it comes to pass that the littlest is excluded from participating in gym class because she is the possessor of inadequate gym pants. Her shorts are evidently of the "cargo" variety excluding her from play, though others in the class have nearly identical shorts. I am highly confused as to what is wanted of me. As anyone reading this knows, I am a Good Girl I Am and would race to aquire the required dress immediately were it made known to me what that were. Preferably the bearer of said news ought to be someone of the adult persuasion. But it has not been and now, suddenly, my children are put to public shame and loss by being sidelined for a gym class: she wasn't allowed to run with the rest, simultaneously depriving her of needed exercise and embarrassing her in front of her peers. To what end? Well, it got mom moving, but this goal might have been accomplished by simply sending home a note (the preferred method of communication) regarding the issue. Or phoning. Whatever.

I halt the post-school hike up the hill in favor of visiting the ISP to ask for clarification: what exactly is the dress code? Where do I aquire it? How do my children attire themselves in it?

I am treated to a lecture: Where is your agenda? Me: Agenda, what agenda? I have no agenda apart from figuring out what you want from me and my children. But it turns out "agenda" is a technical term -- who knew? It means 'calendar' in this culture and rather than being made to pay separately for it as a treat worthy only of exalted 5th and 6th graders as had been the case in my kids' school last year, every child appears to have been given one of these nifty organizers. And inside of it in the front few pages are the school's rules; the school handbook in my native parlance. These instructions evidently include language about the permissible garb, including a description of the elusive gym wear.

The ISP reads this to me in rather a rude tone, exuding astonishment at my unwashed ignorance of the agenda, its contents and the matter at hand. I am gratified to discover that even when the appropraite section has been located and read aloud, still it does not contain enlightening language: now we both don't know what is required of my children as far as gym clothing goes.

So I'm told that this will all be gotten to the bottom of the next day and in the meantime I should just go and get some gym pants. But what kind? And where???? "Oh, anywhere". Me: could you give me a hint, just a name? "Walmart". Me: Any other suggestions? I would never shop in that store in my own country. Why should I go to a foreign country to enter this politically reprehensible establishment? "Oh, there are lots of other stores all around". sigh.

I give up and go to Walmart and even manage to get something suitable. But in the meantime, the next day each child is called out of class individually, and asked to come to visit the ISP separately. There they are told, literally, "this is a Good School. Your mommy is very busy. I don't want you worrying her with your complaints. You shouldn't go to your mommy with these problems. This is a Good School. Don't bother your mommy with this sort of thing anymore".


Fortunately, to my infinite relief and even a touch of pride as well, both girls came to me with the same story, laughing. We spent at least an hour doing damage control, laughing about the matter, trying to make light of it so that it would stick. I tried not to Utterly Flip Out externally though inside I was shrieking in outrage and terror. What am I if not required by definition and job description to be a sounding board for my children? What if something, say, physically problematic were going on at school, or abusive whether physical or otherwise? It is beyond-imperative that one's children feel comfortable telling such things to their mother (or at least some adult). It's my job, it's my privilege, it's my purpose to be thus available. How outrageous is it that someone sholud insinuate otherwise, that someone, a stranger, should try to come between me and my children? It's incomprehensible what the ISP said.

Further, exactly how is it going to work that they should ever get the proper attire if they weren't to trouble me with it?!

Like, wow.

Take home message: Stay well away from the ISP.

Tale #2. Ther eis evidently a 12 yo in the older's class who is behaving very like a 12 year old. This in and of itself is not news and it is not shocking. Though I suppose it is of some passing interest to wonder why the 12 yo is being "12" with a teacher, but she is. She is playing proverbial power games, refusing to answer a teacher's stupid question. Why? Dunno, perhaps because the question is stupid? Because she is stubborn or wants to win the fight or wants to engage (aka "get attention") or doesn't know the answer, trivial though it be? Who knows, but this much is certain, scorching the earth because a 12 yo is being stubborn is not sound practice.

The teacher asked a stupid math question today which the 12 yo refused to answer. Literally; nothing at all was said by the child. So the rest of the class, knowing the drill as this was at least the third time this sort of thing has happened, took out their homework and started working on it. For in response to the child's silence, the teacher halted all classwork. Nothing happened. For hours. The teacher was waiting for the child to answer. And guess what? The child wasn't going to answer. Nothing; no sound; not at all. So everyone sits and waits for an answer from a 12 yo who has decided not to give one.

If there is a point to this particular power struggle it is hard to see it or know it. But what of the rest of the class? There is evidently no responsibility to them evident.

It's hard to imagine a more pointless lose-lose-lose-lose situation.

Or really, pedagogically inexcusable one. The nominal excuse being "she is going to have to learn sooner or later that she can't just refuse to answer questions". Umm. Can't she learn that not at the expense of the entire 6th grade class???

Never mind that it always has been suspect, this notion of "better learn now because later....". God how I hate that argument.

Scenario #3. There is one play structure for 500 kids at lunch simultaneously. Previously the equipment had been so crowded that children were forced off at the expense of the integrity of many a limb. Hence the structure has been scheduled for certain classrooms during the week. Only the schedule doesn't get stuck to. And children just run up and bully others off it regardless of the scheduled day. Further, when not on the structure, what are the rules? No ball playing. Tag may be played but none of the playground structures such as, say, trees, may be utilized. Etc.

Hence, my kid is bored at recess. She is bored during English days (half the school week class is conducted in English, the other half of the week it is conducted in French) because the lessons are too easy. She is bored during French days because she can understand nothing. I belive this is how kids come to hate school.

I try to tell her that I don't really care whether she learns any scholastics this year; just surviving the new culture will be lesson enough. She doesn't really understand and I can hardly blame her.

Scenario #4. A teacher goes home early having been hit in the head by a ball while on the playground (hence no balls are subsequently allowed on the yard). The remaining 5 hours of the school day are spent teacherless; the children color. all day long. they are 12.

Scenario #5. Imagine a class where one's name is written on the board if materials are forgotten at home. And one's name stays there, forever. If materials are forgotten a second time, the principal gets visited. A third time, parents get called. I'm not sure how the progression evolves from there. But I am certain this is called public humiliation, with no chance for salvation. Ever. This is a pedagogical technique? I thought this occurred only in bad Hollywood charicatures of bad schools. And we're trying to escape Hollywood?!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Most of the vehicular jerk-encounters around here seem to be instigated by male drivers (not unrelated: most drivers appear to be men). And yet after performing outrageous maneuvers they emerge from their hunks of metal – smaller on average than in the States – relaxed and jaunty, attentive, seemingly-loving. Tension seems to be held and expressed differently here. Perhaps the rude automotive shenanigans aren't a road-rage thing. Though I get the impression that little leeway is afforded foreigners, or at least not those from the United States. Our car is plated still from California, and I am forever run to the side by people passing on side, residential, unstriped streets on both right and left; they just force one to the side. Even when I'm not poking along, it's just de rigeur to force the interloper aside. Same from women at the market, though in fairness this happens to me in LA or Boston; I am insufficiently sure at public markets.

So I dunno. I do think though that these cultural metaphors and expressions for emotion are different here -- the vernacular just doesn't translate directly. Aggresive driving may not mean suppressed anger; pushy impersonal encounters may not belie political harmony. Or maybe it does. These are the pieces that just don't translate.

What's in a name?

Check this out:

With the pictures...

That should be where I start as it is hard to move into writing position when time has snatched the beginning of this whole adventure away from you! As always, dreams of setting up elsewhere resulting in mounds of free time for rocking and knitting and writing are just plain foolish. The act of being new and in a different place itself requires time, and lots of it. As if there were enough before, we're running here, running! True there is less time spent in the car by many, many hours but it gets substituted for other, albeit more enjoyable, activities. For example, walking to school. Oh how lovely that is. But it does take about the same time as driving, round trip. Yet, there is no insecurity about traffic, not to mention the extreme risk every time one enters a car and the highway. Crossing the street may likewise be risky, but there is a sense here of unbelievable caring for children. Adults may wander across the street only barely cognizant of traffic, but children are watched by all.

This was one of my first impressions of the city and it is still an important one: children are beloved, they are precious. Reciprocally, families are assisted, understood as an entity, and a socially useful one at that. I feel valued for having children and watching them. I feel other children are cocooned when they are out and about and I believe my own are as well. It is an inchoate feeling on the streets and it is absolutely of priceless value. These feelings are beyond intangible, unquantifiable, unjustifiable, inexplicable. They are the stuff the composes Quality Of Life and I do not believe these feelings can be adequately described. OK, as a statistician I understand it is our job always to cut down the error term of the unknown iteratively more so. And when you start to claim a parameter can never be characterized, that verges on the realm of the spiritual, a place that anyone who knows me understands I abhor.

So, cynical though I may be about the potential succes of bringing that term to zero, my efforts here will be to hack away at an understanding of Quality Of Life as defined by the recogniztion of the place where we wind up in, which is so different from that where we recently left. That is, subtracting what you get here in Mtl from what is there in LA ends up being, essentially, a characterization of improved Quality Of Life.

Where was I? Let's start with this notion of Family. and Children. On our first visit here I saw a child sitting under a tree, reading. Unchaperoned. I took a picture of her, it was just plain shocking. Children walk around here, in packs, in singles, strapped to ... *dads*. Dads are in evidence everywhere walking their infants around. They sit in children's classes waiting for them to end. Where is the gaggle of gossiping, scratching moms? I have no doubt they are out there too, but they are not evident at any of the classes my kids attend. I think their presence is a cultural phenomenon which manifests itself differently depending on the city arrondisement (I love that word), or district, you are in. Hard to test that. Though I can say that the swim team we sampled in a French district felt markedly different from the one where we wound up, essentially the Westchester County, or Brentwood of the extreme southeast (We're *South* here in Canada, remember?). I am only guessing that the character of waiting-parent chatter is different as well, principally on the basis of the sense that classes in this English-speaking section are very alike those in LA.

And yet, predictably, they are not alike, these classes. For one thing, this city is a city filled with music. Probably more generally the arts as well. There are artists and galleries around showing their wares, so I presume this is so. Being a little visually less-well-versed, this is not an avenue we have yet explored. Though the local library has a "cultural center" attached in mirror image to the library across three floors, replete with stage and at least two galleries. Do you know how hard it is to find cheap, local gallery space in LA? I think it just doesn't really happen. Public space is *everywhere* here. From pocket parks at the edge of streets every couple of blocks to larger district parks and intermediate neighborhood parks, all of which have play structures and benches and other facilities, meeting spaces, etc, etc. Then there are several giant city-sized parks with huge recreational facilities -- it feels that one's personal housing-space is augmented by approximately 160% in terms of the actual space available to one to live and move and work in this city. That's not counting things like dedicated bike paths and the metro -- how can one discount that?! Buses; there are so many. People just ooze along everywhere through and across streets, underground, lazing, lounging, interacting. There is an ease of association that is positively palpable.

That ease of association: I think it is the most significant quality of this city. I interpret it in a way that may, off-hand, sound questionable, but with time I hope to explain. Maybe not fully today. But I attribute this ease of, this flow of life that one feels, to the insurance situation here. Really, I do. I know this is an agenda-driven or at least prejudiced statement but I believe it to be true. I think when one's life is not girded by the fear associated with culpability a freedom flows that is saturative. Leave aside for the moment the health care insurance system. There are other ramifications, at least as widespread. Vehicular ones, for example. No one is worried about blame here. When you purchase a license plate for your car you buy into a state system, as I understand it, of automobile insurance as well. Medical costs are covered in any vehicular accident by that other, unmentionable system, so that concern is simply set to the wayside. And in the event of a collision, fault is adjudicated by a central, singular agency; I don't think anyone is personally liable. I could be wrong about this, but it is how I read things.

So listen to this very carefully, it is profound: Fault is not an issue. It doesn't matter who caused the accident, damages are covered by the cost of your license plate.

That sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? I must have that wrong ... I will look into this.

But certainly the health aspect is right. It's all covered by the "Régie" and it is not an issue, underlying so much of life. Kids' playground are far more risk-laden and probably necessarily, therefore, fun. There are giant climbing webs and structures, so many cool designs, climbing walls, so many ways to easily break one's limbs and heads. And indeed one sees more people in crutches, walking injured. And at the same time thousands, millions more, and more fun, play hours are being had by kids. Because blame and fear is not an issue. They play harder. They whack themselves harder. They are left alone more. It's just different, really different. It feels so different; it is profound.

I think this unrestraint that falls out of centralized risk-sharing is monumentous. In a good, good way. In the States we really do, all of us, carry a burden of worry on our shoulders. It is spirit-crushing. And we don't know it. With the buoyancy one observes here, it is possible to search out and subtract out the source a little bit, I would claim. This is my interpretation of the undeniable lightness that is pervasive here. There is chattering and laughter and lightness. It matters.

I think I fell offtrack on the kids' extracurricular lessons. I want to note that following this public sense of space and sharing, is a fall-out of public expression, which is to say, essentially, art. And "cultural" pasttimes, whatever that means. Music is huge in this city, and it is what I call "real" music, as opposed to Hollywood schlock. There, I said it. Most broadway-type music is drek as is most, not all, movie music too. There is a ginormous literature of real music out there, and almost none of it gets played in Los Angeles. At least not in an affordable, accessible way to a mere lower-middle-class inhabitant of its westside. Here, there are choirs many times over. The public school system even has one, and its quality is simply breathtaking, goose-bump-wracking. The neighborhood has one. The music teacher requires recorder playing for everyone, insisting on makeup sessions for those behind (though actually, this individual is rather problematic, which I'll recount at a later date; it's the attitude I'm referring to here). The music classes offered by teacher-professors are not of that weasly LA-half-hour-how-much-money-can-we-lift-from-your-wallet-while-baby-sitting-your-kid-type thing. These are studied lessons by a teacher who imparts their philosophy and knowledge. There isn't a revolving door cramming in as many through-the-motions kids as possible. There is an effort here to learn an instrument and enter the parallel, valuable and culturally, society-wide valued world of music.

It's rather hard to explain, again, a feeling. And how general it is, I can't, at the end of the day, say. But it is universal among the classes my children are taking. There is a level of performance among the kids and expectations that surpasses that in LA -- or perhaps not "surpasses", that's too simplistic. But it's more *careful* of the child and the learning. It's more 'mindful', to use that hideously coopted term, of the child.

My time is up for the day. And there are yet no pictures. I may spend tomorrow adding some, but the laundry beckons and work, cleaning, etc.

And I haven't even mentioned the autumn. We're experiencing one and it is like falling into a highwire's safety net. It is beautiful, cooling, delicious, right. There is a season and rain and aerial beauty; renewal, pacing. I know where I am. Maybe I'll even remember how old I am now that the years have started up again? It is raining on the beautiful, sunshiny leaves. There is variation in light all over all the buildings and trees; shadows pass across building faces in response to a sky with substance in it. Substance. We have a citing of it here in Mon-réal.