Thursday, May 22, 2014


On Friday, May 16, I was privileged to attend the graduation ceremonies of the Class of 2014 at the California Institute of the Arts.  Over the two years during which our son completed his Master’s of Fine Arts in Jazz, I have concluded that this institution structures its programs and practices to respect the autonomy, individuality, and potential of each student.  Indeed, according to its mission statement, CalArts strives to  “educate artists in a learning environment founded on artmaking excellence, creative experimentation, critical reflection and the diversity of voices. . . CalArts urges collaboration and reciprocity among artists, artistic disciplines and cultural traditions.”  Every aspect of that ceremony honoured the institution’s principles.

1.    Graduation is a day to celebrate.

More than a thousand white garden chairs line the courtyard behind the music building.  The ceremony is outside because this is California in May, and they can.  Records shatter like Corel dishware on a ceramic floor as temperatures soar into the +40’s C.  For this reason, the ceremony is moved to 6 p.m. from the traditional noon. 

The CalArts African Music & Dance Ensemble leads the graduating students in a procession reminiscent of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  A flag bearer hoists the colours of the particular school:  Critical Studies, Art, Theatre, the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance, Film and Video, the Herb Alpert School of Music.  Four hundred and forty-six students  enter in single file down a ramp to the right of the stage.  Traditonal graduation garb is not required, in deference to mission to innovate or to the heat, I’m not sure. 

As they come down the ramp, some students wave and cheer in gladness, some dance, some amble to soak in the moment, others come costumed in character or in a traditional cap and gown.  As each student passes, relatives, friends, and colleagues stand, applaud, cheer, whistle, and call out in recognition.  One family of a graduating film director has had T-shirts made for their group.  On the front of a white shirt:  a photo of the graduate behind a hand-held camera, baseball cap turned backwards.  On the back, in bold black letters:  a message that says, “I am Karissa Hahn’s proud [mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother, etc.].  The processional takes thirty minutes.  Jubilation reigns.

2.    Individuality matters.

Each graduate is celebrated for his or her individual growth and accomplishment.  Recipients of Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s degrees  for each school are grouped by alphabetical order for the presentations and demarcated in the program, but no announcement is made.  Creativity and experimentation mark this part of the ceremony, too.   Some students lead their children by the hand, others, a dog.  Still others wear a distinctive costume or suit.  I see Mary Poppins, a member of the Star Trek crew, a superhero with a billowing white cape.  One dancer poses triumphantly on an arm bridge formed by two smooth-chested, muscular young men clad only in royal blue silk boxer shorts bearing one thick letter of the graduate’s first name in gold sparkles on each cheek.  There’s time to acknowledge everyone. 

Pixar/Disney Chief Creative Officer and CalArts alum John Lasseter receives an Honourary Doctorate.  In his address, he encourages graduates in their vision.  “Your voice is worthwhile,” he says.  “Have faith in your voice and your vision.”  He shares his own career path as a testament to that confidence and perseverance.  

3.    Every single graduate has accomplished great things.

In her welcome message, trustee Joan Abrahamson springboards on the grad theme, We have arrived.  The invasion of the CalArts graduating class of 2014.  “It takes two years to travel from Earth to Mars,” I hear her say, and miss the rest, lost in the thought that her words capture our son’s growth in his two years at the school.  He has traveled from Earth to Mars.  So have other students.  If, as President Stephen Lavine says, their mission is to “bring something into the world that did not exist before [they] imagined it,”  the school has prepared them.  Lavine quotes Elizabeth Streb, founder of the dance company STREB, in referencing “basic training for tough souls,”  so that graduates will "have the ability . . . to have the capacity to break the rules and to deal with the judgment that happens when you break those rules.”  

No students receive awards.  No medals are handed out, no scholarships awarded, no honours bestowed, and no stratospheric GPA mentioned.    No one student is singled out for special attention during this celebration  (the Herb Alpert award winners, one from each school, had been recognized at a luncheon the day before). Everyone is important. 

I ask myself if here isn’t a model for schools searching for a way to recognize the achievements of their students in an outcomes-based, non-percentage environment.  Celebrate the attainment of a goal within a rigorous environment.  Resist the temptation to form an elite club of achievers separated from the rest by decimal places.

4.    The institution and the students are bound to each other and to past and future alumni in a perpetual symbiotic relationship. 
The second message Lasseter wants to impress on graduates is that they need others.  Collaboration yields better results than competition.  “When everyone around you is making great art, it makes you better.”  Success paves the way for more success.  “Great art makes you want more,” Lasseter adds; after all, if you witness one amazing performance, you want to experience more of them.   Lavine picks up that theme in his concluding remarks, urging students to exploit the resources CalArts offers to alumni as well as to students, to stay in touch with faculty and staff, and with alumni all over the world.  They are forever CalArtians.

As we cheered on our son when he walked across the stage and shook hands with Dean David Rosenboom, I thought of all he had learned that was at once connected to music and still so much larger than any one discipline.  Supported in his development and in his innovation, he now belongs to a club that lives out that tradition.  The fireworks that colored the sky at the end of the ceremony capped off an induction as much as a graduation.  Fitting, really, as the moment marks a beginning as much as an end.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


A wide, paved walking path climbs between two symmetrical neighbourhoods.   Like an axis of reflection, it separates bays formed in u’s on either side of it.  They remind me of the looped boutonnières my mother sewed down the back of her sister’s wedding dress some sixty years ago.  At the tip of one of those bays, a father plays catch with his son on the street  just before dusk.  A basketball net suspended from a thick black plastic support is planted on the edge of the traffic and faces the street.  The games occur in the round of the bay, it seems; not much traffic here to worry about.  I’m not at home, though, in my small town in Saskatchewan.  I’m in Valencia, California, about forty minutes north-east of Los Angeles.  That surprises me, a testament to stereotypes I may have built around California despite three visits.  It surely mustn’t surprise the residents of Valencia.  I feel at home here, and that surprises me even more.

I’ve learned a lot on this visit, when I’ve had time to get to know the area. 

· Drivers in the greater Los Angeles get a bad rap. We have encountered only courtesy and respect.  Throughout our road trips to Encino, Pasadena, Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Malibu, along with shorter jaunts around Valencia, we have witnessed only proactive consideration for drivers on all points. Waters part on the freeway when a vehicle signals to change lanes, and an automatic zipper effect begins whenever congestion limits accessibility to a roadway.  LA drivers consider others because, as our son says, they have all experienced a traffic congestion.  It’s karma.  They are considerate, they receive courtesy in return, and they pay it forward.  The cycle continues.  Yes, we experienced congestion, but never road rage.
Santa Monica Pier

· The communities associated with Greater Los Angeles, like Santa Clarita, Beverly Hills, and those I’ve just mentioned, have a vibrant sense of their own identity separate from the metropolis. 

· Los Angeles is in a basin.  Mountains and canyons surround it.  When you drive into the city, it’s downhill.  Never quite understood that.

· I have to sign my credit card slips.  Over time, I bet I could even forget my pin number.

· You need a bottle opener to open pop bottles.

· Solar panels adorn the roofs of many neighborhood homes and businesses.  They also power electric lights or signs in isolated locations.

· Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt are everywhere.

· Businesses and residences have courtyards.  No need to worry about how to get the snow out of those enclaves in the winter, I guess.

· People are friendly, and service is always courteous and affable.  They are interested in Saskatchewan, if the subject comes up, and ask questions.

· It’s been a heat wave this week with record-setting temperatures in California.  After eight months of -25 C, though, I won’t be the one complaining about + 35 C.

· I forget that so much of California is desert.  My images of endless soft, sandy beaches and gigantic surf persist from TV shows and movies.  The sections of northern California around Baker (true to its name, coming in at 41° C today)  trump southwestern Saskatchewan for bleak, desolate landscape.  Like the grasses and hills of southwestern Saskatchewan, however, those valleys and canyons exude their own majesty.  

So, California, I hope to be back before too long to discover more of your treasures, and to meander along more walking trails so pastoral that you can forget you’re in a metropolis.  Thanks for the hospitality.

Friday, May 9, 2014


“Are you Yvette?”  The waitress caught me mulling over a lunch choice.  Cashew chili, a vegetarian option I had enjoyed once before, or roasted red pepper soup with an egg salad and strawberry half-sandwich.  I looked up at her, eyes wide and head tilted in inquiry.

“Yes, I am,” I answered.  What was going on?  How would she would know my name?

“Are you waiting for Miriam”*?

“Yes, I am,” I replied.  Now, my forehead creased in anxiety.  I was to meet Miriam and a friend of hers here for lunch.   She was feeling better after a month-long illness, and she wanted the three of us to get together.

“Then, there’s a call for you.”

She led me to the alcove beside the kitchen, and handed me the phone.

“Yvette?  This is Elizabeth.*   I was supposed to have lunch with you and Miriam today.”

Supposed to?  “Yes.”   

“Miriam is in the hospital.” 

Oh, no, I thought.  She’s had a relapse.

“Yvette, she’s in a coma.”

“What happened?”

“She fell in her apartment, and hit her head on the concrete floor.  The doctors say she had a stroke.   We’re meeting later today for a prayer vigil and to talk about support. Would you like to come?” 

“Of course.  I’ll be there,”  I assured her.  “Thanks for letting me know.”

Stunned, I walked back to the table, picked up my things, excused myself to the waitress, and went back to my office to pull myself together.

Miriam was in a coma for two weeks.  Her life as she knew it would never be the same.  At the beginning, though,  Miriam, her caregivers, and those like me who loved her, hung on to the belief that the pieces of her shattered life could somehow be reconstituted, like a broken vase in a rewound film.   Things would one day go back to normal.

We were right about one thing.  She picked up  the shards of her life.   Fortunately, her memory and vast knowledge base were unaffected.  The damage was physical.  She learned to pronounce her words again.  She learned to swallow, and then, to chew.  She learned to eat with utensils.  She learned to move her legs again, to walk, and to get in and out of a car.  After a brain injury, these movements were much more deliberate than before.   She had to focus on each step of the action that her therapists had first deconstructed for her and then engrained during her convalescence.  Slowly, she regained enough independence to live on her own and reclaim her work part-time.

Miriam could taste her old life.  Her body, though, could not sustain the progress.  Her limbs weakened.  Stability was a challenge, and she needed a walker.  In the end, she moved into an assisted living facility.  Miriam knew she would live the rest of her life with people who were generally at least fifteen years and more older than she.  She was dependent.  How would she give her life purpose once again?

Miriam did what she always did.  She analyzed her own talents and the need before her, and got to work.  She began by being present to her fellow residents.  She learned their names, spent time with them, established relationships.  She found people like her who loved to read, so she began a book club that met regularly.  Through the book club, where members shared stories, she saw an opportunity to record those stories.  She began a writing club, with the goal of some day publishing the stories the group wrote.  Miriam is a mover and shaker within her community.

Like Miriam, we are called, at various times in our life, to reinvent ourselves.   Sometimes,  we have the luck to be able to choose the moment of our redefinition.  A career change or a retirement would be an example.  More often, however, that reinvention is imposed on us—by age, tragedy, illness, or other unforeseen and unwelcome events.   When our turn comes, Miriam’s example can inspire us.  Confronted with a scenario she didn’t want and couldn’t change, she used her predilections, her gifts and talents to help others.  Like the violinist Itzhak Perlman in the story from the Houston Chronicle reproduced in the preceding blog post, Miriam continues to make music with what she has left. 

What might be the essential messages, then, in this four-part series on identity? 

1.          A brand, or specific traits we cultivate in ourselves and that others attribute to us, can be an advantage in establishing both a professional or a personal identity.

2.          We need to be aware of our own abilities, character traits and limitations, as well as how all three are perceived by others.  Johari’s Window is a useful tool to help us track our progress toward that desired state.

3.          When we have a strong sense of who we are, we are able to self-actualize.

4.          We will have to reinvent ourselves several times throughout our lives, often when it’s most difficult.  With courage and determination and the example of others, we can continue to enrich the lives of others, and, by extension, our own sense of satisfaction and our identity.

Thanks to David Myles, Brett Cave, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, T. S. Eliot, Miriam, and Itzhak Perlman for their inspiration in these posts.

*Fictitious name


I am sharing a story I read a decade ago that has continued to inspire me, and that is relevant in the fourth post about identity.

by Jack Riemer of the Houston Chronicle, February 10, 2001

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came 
on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln 
Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a 
Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no 
small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio 
as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks
 with the aid of two crutches.
To see him walk across the stage one step at a time,
 painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks
 painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair.
 Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor,
 undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back, and 
extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the
 conductor, and proceeds to play.

By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly
 while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They 
remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his
 legs. They wait until he is ready to play. But this time,
 something went wrong.
 Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings
 on his violin broke. You could hear it snap--it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what
 that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.
  People who were there that night thought to themselves: 
"We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps
 again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage 
to either find another violin or else find another string
 for this one."

But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The
 orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such
 purity as they had never heard before.
 Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a 
symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and
 you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to
 know that. You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from
 them that they had never made before.
  When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the
 room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an 
extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and
 cheering, doing everything we could to show how much
 we appreciated what he had done. 

He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a
 quiet, pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it 
is the artist's task to find out how much music you can 
still make with what you have left."
  What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind 
ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is 
the definition of life—not  just for artists but for
 all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life
 to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of
 a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with 
only three strings; so he makes music with three strings,
 and the music he made that night with just three strings
 was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than
 any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings.
  So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing,
 bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at
 first with all that we have, and then, when that is no
 longer possible, to make music with what we have left.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


None of the names is familiar to me.  Although I took the time in the fifteen minutes before the oratory contest to write the names of the contestants on each of the adjudication sheets the other judges and I have in our packages, I can’t find the Smith-Jones* my fellow judge has assigned to first place.  He has put Findley in second, and I can’t find that contestant, either.  I can find Amanda, and Tom, and Chelsey, and Brandon, and Stephanie, though.   I dig out my program from the pile of adjudication forms, and attempt to match the speakers’ first names to the last names I hear.  Even in the first two minutes of our discussion to finalize winners in each of the categories, I am uncomfortable referring to people by their last name.

For my judging partner, a police officer, wielding last names seems natural and comfortable.  The officer certainly means no disrespect.  Before the contest began, he chatted with the young people in the audience.  His genuine smile and evident interest in what they had to say established an easy rapport.    So, why would using last names be so normal for him yet spur such a visceral reaction in me?

He might be used to it, I speculate.  I would wager he remembers being called by his last name during his own training.   At that point, I ask myself in what contexts individuals might be called by their last name.   I come up with military and police recruits.  Boarding schools.  Sports teams.  Professional athletes.     Aristocratic men (Darcy, Bingley from Pride and Prejudice).   Authors.  As I have never been part of the military or the police, have never attended a boarding school or been part of a school sports team and definitely am not (yet) a professional athlete, a published novelist or a member of the aristocracy, calling people by their last names is foreign to me.  It’s not how I do things.

Throughout my career, I have always used first names.  I knew my students and my colleagues as Brittany, Cindy, Tom, or Dave.  Not Tremblay, Smith, Jones, or Findley.  Any last names I might have used have always been hooked up to an appellation like Miss, Mrs. or Mr. In fact,  names are so sacred to me that whenever I have been called by my last name (without appellation), I have always felt demeaned and intimidated, as if my identity as a person had been stripped away, and I had become a faceless object.  Which, in the end, might very well have been the intent. 

Our names are inextricably linked to our perception of ourselves.  That’s why most parents reflect a long time and weigh all possibilities for nicknames, initials, or connotations before naming their child.   That’s why bullies often torture their victim’s name as part of their concerted attack on the individual.  Their contortion can associate the name with unflattering, even lewd, overtones.   Any attack on our name targets our very identity, strikes at our essence, and disarms us.   T. S. Eliot alludes to the importance of our names in developing our identity in his poem, ‘The Naming ofthe Cats.’

In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the poem that inspired Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats, T. S. Eliot writes that a cat needs not only its everyday name and its fancy name.  A cat, Eliot reflects, needs  “a name that's particular, / A name that's peculiar, and more dignified.”  Without such a name, “how can he keep up his tail perpendicular, / Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?”  Without esteem for its name, a cat can’t be who it’s meant to be.  It can’t hold its tail up or spread out its whiskers.  Without names that are significant and instill pride, humans can’t be who they are meant to be either.  When they are not called by their particular, dignified names, their identity is compromised, and they will not actualize nor showcase their innate abilities and talents, that is, hold their tails perpendicular or spread out their whiskers.

When I first heard those words, sitting in the audience at Cats, I scratched them down in the dark in the small notebook I stowed in my purse for those occasions.  I recalled them after the oratory contest, as I reflected on why the use of last names might affect me so deeply.    In my worldview, a person’s name, so representative of identity, is sacrosanct.  Its utterance inspires growth and translates respect.

*Names in this post are fictitious.