Sunday, June 25, 2017

9th Grader Teaches Us a Lesson

Knowing the right thing to do is sometimes easy, sometimes fiendishly difficult. Actually doing the right thing once you know what that is can be just as challenging. These are lessons you strive to teach your children, but on occasion, they will teach you instead.

As grade 9 wraps up and Glory prepares to go to a new high school next year, some situations build to a head. She has a classmate I will call Ron, who is a little awkward, kind of quiet, and of course low-hanging fruit for those who like to antagonize the different. In Ron's case this started out some time ago with his being described as 'someone like a school shooter'. The inevitable progression of these things has gone from 'if he did' to 'when he does', and at last, direct interaction as the resident jackasses ask him kindly to spare them on the day of reckoning.

These machinations peaked in a couple of incidents last week in Glory's media class. The first of which involved one of that key group constructing a cylinder out of red construction paper in a crude effigy of cartoon dynamite, which, accompanied by supportive snickering, he proceeded to roll to Ron's feet, saying "Hey Ron, don't go blowing up the school now, huh?" or something to that effect.

But Ron had had just about enough of this, it turns out.

He jerked to his feet, his chair squawking back, echoed by his surprised tormentors doing the same. Ron strode over to them, purposefully, fists clenched, as the other boys backed away. When he got close enough he shoved one of them, which, of course, was when the substitute teacher twigged to what was going on, saw Ron as the instigator, and sent him to the office to receive an in-school suspension.

Talking to Glory about it a night or two later, it was clear that the fundamental injustice of the situation rankled her deeply. "It's not fair," she said, " he didn't start it, and if the other boys hadn't taunted him, nothing would have happened, but he is the one getting suspended?" She had sympathy for the sub, who admitted she had come into that particular opera in the third act and had no context, and could only act on what she saw (which I thought was surprisingly transparent, actually). 

But Glory felt compelled to act, and she and another girl went to one of the vice-principals to explain the situation. They met another classmate when coming out of their meeting, who had done the same thing with another member of the administration, so it was clear that this was bothering a significant number of ninth graders.

In the end though, the staff cannot act without evidence, and we all know what the road to hell is paved with, so two days later meant the curtain was going up on Act Two. This time the insincere admonition to Ron not to become violent was punctuated with references to the previous incident, as though his reaction justified their characterizations of him as a mad bomber or mass shooter.

And, unsurprisingly, Ron's fuse was even shorter at this point - after all, who knew how much he had endured over the preceding semesters? - so this time the confrontation ended with some seriously surprised bullies locking themselves in a side room of the media lab while Ron battered at the door with a chair.

The teacher was not in the room at this time, so Glory and another girl left to find another teacher, any teacher, and they did, and of course the end result was once again more punishment for Ron and (assumedly) a finger wagging for the idiots who had set him off.

Putting aside the inherent cruelty of picking on someone simply because they lack the social skills to blend in, the stupidity of pushing someone into a position where they could perhaps end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually come to school with the intent of doing indiscriminate harm, leaves me slack-jawed. 

As a former 9th grader myself, I recognize the cognitive limitations and fundamental lack of appreciation for long term consequences as being endemic to the breed, with a better than even chance of growing out of it, but come on! The combination of an absence of empathy and shortsightedly outlining a probable course of eventual revenge is not just cruel, it borders on evil.

Not long after this, Glory's best friend overhears this group concocting yet another menu of torments to visit upon Ron in that afternoon's media class, which she is not in. She meets up with Glory afterwards, unsure what to do. Glory says, "What else can we do? We tell someone, and we keep telling until someone does something about it."

This time they find a vice-principal who shares their frustration, who makes sure to get as much detail as he can from the girls, including first and last names of the conspirators, but as they leave, the girls are unsure if they have affected any real change.

But when media class rolls around, Glory notices that Ron is not in his seat. And shortly into the class, the vice-principal knocks on the door, comes in, and reads the names that had been provided. Sharing some puzzled glances and shrugs, the core group follows him out.

They come back some time later, perhaps chagrined, but more mystified than anything else. Glory sits close to them and can hear them whispering. Once the teacher has left the room (noticing a pattern here) they begin to discuss the situation in earnest, with one of them finally inquiring bluntly , "Well, who snitched?"

Glory sensed her role shifting from bystander to participant in the drama, but didn't want to sell out her bestie, who was not there. She had already taken a couple of incidental shoulder-checks and locker bumps in the hallways, and Glory didn't want to exacerbate that, but turned to these adolescent badgerers regardless and said, clearly, "Yeah, it was me."

If they were puzzled before, they were probably mystified by this point, seeing their seemingly rhetorical question answered so forthrightly.

After confirming that Glory had in fact said what she'd said, and done what she'd done, one of them asked, "But, why?" and there was no delay in her response.

"Because I'm sick and tired of watching you guys bully him," Glory snapped, "it isn't right."

There was a pause.

I suppose no one ever considers themselves a bully, really. It's teasing, it's horsing around, it's 'just kidding'. But I wonder if hearing that word, having that label so forcefully applied to their behaviours, maybe gave them pause for thought, because I was astonished by the response.

Breaking the silence, one of the leader-types in the group quietly admitted, "Y'know, she kind of has a point."

And that was the last that was said of it to my daughter.

When Glory told me this story, I was so proud I nearly burst, but I was a little jealous, too. 9th grade Stephen probably would not have participated in the bullying (having been subjected to a fair amount of teasing in junior high himself), and he might have brought the names forward as Glory did, but there is not a cat in hell's chance that he would have had the guts to stand up and tell a group of bullies that a) they are bullies and b) yes, I had ratted them out.

I was also impressed that she addressed it in a way that focused on the behavior, not the perpetrators, making it easy for them to separate themselves from it. She didn't call them bullies or jerks (although few would have blamed her), but pointed out that they were bullying, and that it wasn't acceptable. The aphorism "All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing," springs to mind, and it is gratifying that other students also felt compelled to act.

I'm not sharing this story just because I am proud of what my girl did (but let's be clear here: I'm really proud). There is a valuable lesson here, and I have every reason to believe that every single person who reads this (yes, all my tens of readers!) can expect to be tested along these lines at some point in the future. Maybe you will see a woman in a hijab on the LRT being told to go back where they came from. Perhaps you will overhear a coworker saying that aboriginal people need to 'get over it'. 

Whatever the test is, I hope we perform as well under pressure as Glory did, and make a point of standing up, and making a simple declaration about what is right.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Canto (Or Won't-o)

Last month, at my birthday, Pete confessed in a somewhat embarrassed fashion that he really enjoys singing as a part of Rock Band. I was delighted for him, but a little sad as well.

Singing, like sports, seems to have become one of those things that most of us are far happier to watch than we are to do ourselves. I'm comfortable speaking in front of large audiences, but the thought of singing solo feels me with apprehension.

It's understandable, I suppose. I have a colleague at work with a background in musical theater who says, "Sing, and show me your soul." I suppose most of us are reluctant to make ourselves so vulnerable, and besides, there are so few real opportunities.

Friday night, Audrey, Glory and I went to see the ESO's production of Carmina Burana, which Fenya's choir was performing in. In all, there were 200 voices in support of the orchestra, and it was an intense musical experience to say the least.

Before the show, Cantilon performed in the Upper lobby of the Winspear, and one of their selections was a Finnish folk tune they had competed with earlier in the year, in which Fenya has a solo.

Like most of us in the household, Fenya is her own harshest critic (yes, even more so than her own musical director!), but she was actually very happy with the job she had done in the competition's recording, and had received quite a bit of good feedback on it. I was delighted to hear her perform it in the lobby, same as I was when she did it at her spring concert back on Mother's Day:

Today at church she had been asked to sing, and given free rein to choose her tune and little time to rehearse, she chose "Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go", a melancholy Scottish folk song. I had chided her a bit at breakfast about the lack of a spiritual component, but in the context of the service, which dealt with both the Season of Creation and Aboriginal Sunday, it worked out beautifully:

Oh the summertime is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

I will build my love a tower
Near yon' pure crystal fountain
And on it I will build
All the flowers of the mountain
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

If my true love she were gone
I would surely find another
To pluck wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie, go?

After listening to an elder from Alexander First Nation talk about the importance of collaboration and forgiveness on the road to reconciliation, the words "And we'll all go together" resonated deeply within men, and of course, it sounded beautiful too.

But afterwards, as we sung from the same hymnbook together, her voice soaring while mine plodded along, I felt myself carried along. Dozens of voices, working together; some gifted, others less so, but all keeping the tune, all showing the souls of their owners.

And better still, on the way home, with the windows and sunroof open, singing along with Stan Rogers and company to the choruses of Barrett's Privateers, oblivious to what other might have thought, and not caring at any rate.

Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar liked to say, "We don't sing because we're happy; we're happy because we sing," and I believe this to be true. It's a shame our egos lead us to deny ourselves such a simple, natural joy, but I guess there is always karaoke and Rock Band.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

You Are Who You Follow

It was a bittersweet day at work last Thursday, as we said goodbye to our CEO for the past 5 years, Karen Adams. A lot of people had anticipated last year that she would be leaving after the completion of our massive technological project called Compass. We implemented it early last year, but she announced last fall she had been asked to stay on and had agreed.

However, that was before the new provincial government rolled out new guidelines for the heads of agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs). Since staying on after that would have meant a 30-40% drop in pay, well, I don't think anyone blamed Karen for taking another CEO position with a mutual fund company back east.

It's difficult for me to articulate my relationship with Karen. When she first arrived, she was my boss's boss's boss's boss. She spent the first 90 days just trying to learn as much about the place, and the work we did, and the people who did it, as she could. She met with me as I was developing our first quality assurance program. I was pretty excited about it, as well as the work I was also doing on our engagement committee, and I guess it must have showed, because near the end of the meeting, she looked directly at me, and said, "I bet you're a great dad."

Now, I don't believe I've ever actually claimed to be a great dad, but I've made it no secret that I really want to be one. I was gobsmacked that this stranger, four levels above me on the org chart, could not only see my true priorities so clearly but could also make a casual assessment about me that I would find so gratifying.

So, yeah, from that moment on, Karen had a pretty loyal follower in me.

Shortly after that we had our first corporate summit, a company-wide meeting at the local Cineplex where everyone could hear the same message at the same time, something else I am a firm believer in. Later summits had skits and tremendously involved presentations, often mimicking popular tv shows like Oprah, or Late Night with David Letterman, but the first one was a bit more stripped down.

Karen needed to go over her speech a couple of times because she doesn't like to work with notes, so we retreated into the higher seats, away from where the sound board was being set up, so she could rehearse her content, and even asked me for feedback. It wasn't until afterwards I wondered why she would pick me for that, when there were executive assistants and vice-presidents galore for her to choose from. Regardless, I was flattered and grateful for a chance to contribute.

I worked with Karen and her staff on several summits afterwards, and even got to give feedback on off-site speeches she often gave, which is what eventually led to me taking a job in our Stakeholder Relations department (formerly communications), and reporting directly to her for a few months prior to getting our own director.

As a leader, Karen has a firm idea of what is important to an organization (people) and what isn't (autocracy). She knows what she wants, but is always willing to listen to alternative points of view. Unlike several leaders I can think of, Karen can have her mind changed on a course of action, provided you can make a good case for a better one.

Despite having all the drive and focus you would associate with anyone at her level of responsibility, Karen's leadership included tremendous amounts of joy and whimsy. Within 24 hours of getting into it with a staffer over the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, she had arranged a lunchtime Pepsi Challenge that over 150 people participated in. She could often be found cracking jokes with members of the staff as she made her way about the building, and her speeches included a number of well-delivered quips, as well as a genuine feeling of sincerity. I was astonished and touched when I saw she had written a glowing recommendation on my LinkedIn profile earlier in the week.

The combination of her departure and fear of the unknown in terms of our next CEO has taken its toll in many ways, so Thursday's send off was pretty bittersweet. We (mostly) respected Karen's wishes not to have too gushy or emotional of a farewell, limiting the commemorations to three short addresses by our three other executives, each accompanied by a small gift.

I guess because of my involvement in Toastmasters and my work with Karen on the summits and some of her speeches, I was asked to have 3-4 minutes of material on hand in case we got rained out and had to entertain folks indoors. The initial ask was a little vague ("I dunno, some jokes or a poem or something...") but after thinking about what I might say to acknowledge Karen's leadership and what her absence might mean for us going forward, I had an outline I was happy with and figured I could flesh out the rest on the fly if need be.

Last Thursday was the warmest day of the week, so I guess I needn't have worried.  I also knew that the EA who had asked me to be on stand-by had already caught some side-eye from Karen about the scheduled presentations, so I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't get a chance to do my little bit.

They did need someone to get things started and keep things moving, so I did a minimal amount of emceeing and then stepped out of the way so the thankings and the giftings could happen. Some of those voices were thickened with emotion, and I was grateful for the minimalism of our tributes. Afterwards I mingled with other staff while eating cake shots.

Eventually Karen wandered over to thank me and say goodbye, and I mentioned that I had been asked to speak if we got rained out. I told her that somehow I had managed to come up with a short bit that I felt captured most of how I felt about Karen's leadership and how it has prepared us for a future without her, and  I said, " if you ever want to hear it and you have 4 minutes to spare, you just need to let me know."

"Like a command performance sort of thing?" she asked.

"Exactly!" I laughed.

She looked at her watch for a second, then back at me. "How about now?"

"Like...right now?" I stammered.

"Like right now," she confirmed.

I hesitated, pointing her to a group of staff that I knew had been waiting for their chance to say goodbye, but as soon as she was done with them, she came straight back to me, and one of the Executive Directors who had wandered over.

"So you really want me to bust this out on you right here?" I asked, a bit nervously.

Karen nodded. "I really want you to bust it on me right here." She looked around, asking, "Do we need a bigger audience for this, or...?"

I took a look; most of the staff had left, and the majority of those who remained were board members I didn't know and a handful of executives, and I didn't want to make too big a deal of this than it was already becoming. I looked at Jon the E.D., who nodded his willingness to stay, and said, "This is good right here," and I started before a crowd could form.

Leadership is a funny thing. You can find yourself leading from a variety of places, like in the middle, or from the rear, especially if you are herding sheep. You might find yourself at the front of a group because everyone else around you took a big step backwards. 

But there are some people who need to be at the front, who have that combination of vision and persuasion and charisma that make it easy for other to follow them, even if they aren't precisely sure where they are being led to.

I think a lot about a Confederate general during the U.S. Civil War, Lewis B. Armistead, who fought at Gettysburg under Robert E. Lee. During Pickett's Charge, Armistead led his brigade from the front, taking his men across almost a mile of withering Union fire: bullets, cannons, and grapeshot. The smoke from the black powder weapons was so thick and the terror so palpable that he fashioned a makeshift standard by sticking his sabre through his own hat and yelling, "Follow me boys, and give them the cold steel!"

Armistead's brigade was the only unit to break the Union lines that day, but they could not hold it, and he himself was mortally wounded during the counterattack. There is a stone marker where he fell, and roses are left there to this day by admirers of his bravery. Those who followed him boasted about it for the rest of their lives.

Karen leads from the front too, under far less dangerous circumstances, obviously, but not without a degree of uncertainty and fear. She brought a clarity of vision to our workplace, not just about the kind of business we want to be and how we go about it, but the kind of environment we want to work within. She has had a profound impact upon our culture, and the way we interact with each other.

An organizational structure is kind of like a nervous system, and if you look closely at a group of nerves, you'll notice that they never actually touch; there's nothing there, it's a gap called a synapse. That space between is the most critical part of our neural impulses, the same way the interactions between us help define the organizations we work within.  Karen has built a culture of openness and respect, a breeding ground for new ideas that can come from anywhere, and not just the top.

We talk a lot about "you are what you eat", but I am beginning to think it might be more accurate to say, "you are who you follow". We should be careful about where we place our loyalties, and proud when we do so judiciously. But when you get to the top of the structure, who do the leaders follow?

If you are lucky, they follow values.

Karen has been a champion of values-based leadership since coming here, and not just our corporate values like Quality, Service and Accountability, but other, personal values I have come to expect from the leaders I choose to follow and not just work for. Values like honesty. Courage. Humility. Gratitude.

Karen has these values in spades, and has pointed to them throughout her time here as our leader. Now she is leaving, and that sucks, but the values remain, easy for us to find because Karen has pointed them out to us, like a compass. Navigating the way to a secure future, a better way of doing things, is the greatest gift a leader can give to her subordinates, and Karen has given us that.

Thank you Karen, for the leadership you've shown us, the gifts you've given us, and the values that will keep us moving forward after you've gone.

Karen's face was kind of crestfallen when I finished, and I was terrified that I had either overstepped my bounds, missed the point, or disappointed her with my hastily cobbled together speech, but this was not the case. "We totally should have had everyone hear that!" she cried. "Why didn't you say that when you were at the mic?"

"Well, it might have been because somebody was getting pretty upset at the amount of presentations and speeches already being done..." I offered.

A chagrined nod of complicity, "It was me, wasn't it?"

"I'm afraid so."

She thanked me for my words and my assistance over the years and gave me a hug. We had a few more words, and then said our goodbyes. I'm dearly going to miss that lady and the conversations I had with her.

I've been lucky to have had some great bosses over the years, all of whom have taught me something about leadership in some fashion, albeit in very different ways. I'm fervently hoping that this continues to be the case, but the truth is, Karen's shoes are not only big ones to fill, but have heels on them too. Here's hoping for the best!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Ballistic But Balanced - Wonder Woman, Reviewed

Adaptations are a tricky business; oft times the work being adapted is from a different time, perhaps with an ethos or morality which has shifted or become unpopular over the years. Or maybe there is a political subtext needs to either be incorporated or disregarded, or a Balkanized fanbase that can't stop arguing with itself long enough to determine what it really wants from an adaptation.

Wonder Woman is all that and more; for all the character's longevity, visual cachet and comic-book idealism, transforming her into a summer tentpole blockbuster has been a challenge that has thwarted some of Hollywood's best. Consider, for instance, that the character was created by a polyamorous psychologist with a keen understanding and interest in B&D nearly three quarters of a century ago, and how her brand now has to incorporate a staggering amount of comic continuity, a campy but beloved 1970s tv show, and an invisible jet even though she is an Amazon who can fly. Well, maybe it isn't all that surprising that this adaptation took over a decade to come to fruition, but this Wonder Woman was definitely worth the wait.

Back in 2005, Patty Jenkins was winning accolades for writing and directing Monster, which garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar win for actress in a leading role. She was approached to make a Wonder Woman movie, but became pregnant and had to step down. Joss Whedon was brought in as a writer/director, but some time later had to step away as well, unable to come up with a story that appeased both his inner vision and the commercial needs of Warner Bros.

Getting a woman in the driver's seat has seemed long overdue for this genre, and Michelle Mclaren, with producer credits for both The X-Files and Breaking Bad was brought in, but left over creative differences. Intriguingly enough, the wheel came to a stop back on Patty Jenkins, who had been short-listed for the Thor sequel, which would have been her first feature film since Monster. Given the demands and expectations put upon her by millions of demanding fans, an anxious studio, and the need to play within the continuity being drawn out by the architect of the DC Extended Universe, Zack Snyder, I'm astonished she took the gig, but incredibly grateful she did.

Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg have tied together an entrancing story with one foot set in the classical world of Greek mythology and another in the brutal trenches of First World War Europe. Her direction is solid, taking equal joy in the peacefully martial society of the Amazons of Themyscira and the dazzling action scenes on the battlefield.

Comic history and fan service is woven throughout, but never to the point where a newcomer would feel left out. Diana's comic origins of being sculpted from clay and given life by Zeus is still here, but in the form of a bedtime story told to pacify a little girl who is so much more than she is being told. The origins of the Amazons themselves is told as a bedtime story, with animated illustrations which take their cues in layout from Neal Adams and George Perez, but their execution in the style of Titian or Botticelli. This style gets references time and again during the film, and in the inevitable and anticipated Reveal that all good comic movies have, I couldn't help but think of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Gal Gadot is one reason why, and is undoubtedly the best casting coup DC and WB have made in building their own cinematic universe. In addition to being gorgeous (she competed in the 2004 Miss Universe pageant as Miss Israel at age 18), she radiates strength, confidence and animus in her fight scenes (she began her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces at age 20). Her fearsome aspect is almost terrifying to behold, but watching her amazement at hearing a baby on the streets of London or her delight at trying ice cream for the first time is completely beguiling.

Her male counterpart and foil, Steve Trevor, is ably handled by Chris Pine, in his, what, 4th potential franchise now? (Princess Diaries, Rise of the Guardians, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, and of course, James T. Kirk in Star Trek). Now, I like Chris Pine but he is one of those actors who is almost too good looking to take seriously, and seems suited to bigger than life roles like Kirk and Trevor, but he imbues the character with a well calibrated mix of swagger and humility, of belief and skepticism. He gets a chance to display both action and comedic chops, and he never forgets that despite being a good-looking pilot, soldier, spy and adventurer, he is not the star of the movie.

The film really ticks along and does not drag out its 141 minutes. Part of this is due to great pacing, and quiet scenes that keep you involved and develop characters instead of spelling out exposition (the one where Diana explains that the conclusion of the 12-volume treatise she read on physical pleasure was that men are necessary for reproduction but superfluous for gratification was tremendously welldone), but I think a lot of it is also due to the filmmakers craftily balancing a number of disparate elements.

Before you get bored of the marble of Themyscira ('Paradise Island as Trevor calls it, another great little nod to the comics), we move to the grit of London and thence to the trenches. The gloom of humanity's first global and mechanized war is offset by genuine humour and camaraderie, especially amongst the intercultural dogs of war that end up accompanying Diana and Trevor in their quests to stop both a devastating chemical weapon and Ares, the god of war. Optimism and cynicism are balanced out as well.

It was a great time, and the three ladies that I saw it with all loved the film, as well as the fact that there is, at long last, a female-starring superhero film, directed by a woman. If you have a daughter older than 12, you really need to take her to this film. The film's focus on fighting for what is important but the importance of doing so with love really resonated with me, and is a fantastic antidote to the cynical isolationism and populism we see playing out in the news of the world.

It is by no means a perfect movie, with a couple of missteps and some instances of rough looking CGI that permeate this kind of event picture, but in the end, Wonder Woman is a good story, well told, that looks, well, wonderful.

And it seems I am not the only one who thinks so. After playing second fiddle to Marvel ever since Christopher Nolan wrapped up his Batman trilogy, DC and Warner Bros. can finally hold their heads up high, with both a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and early signs of a fantastic opening weekend. A sequel, helmed again by Patty Jenkins, seems all but certain.

Can they sustain this current swell of goodwill through Wonder Woman's next appearance in this November's Justice League? Who can say? Zack Snyder is a gifted visual storyteller who simply has a drastically different view of heroism than I do, but he has left JL following the recent and tragic suicide of his adult daughter. Joss Whedon, currently working on a screenplay for a Batgirl movie he will direct, has stepped in to finish off the film, finally getting a chance to work on the character he had such high hopes for a decade ago.

I am bound to go and see it, of course, and I am bit apprehensive, but Wonder Woman (the movie, not the character; she only goes by Diana in the film) has done what she should always do: she has given me hope for the future.