Art + school = why do we even have to talk about this?

I am about to rant, so if you’re curled up somewhere with a cup of tea and you’d like to preserve your serenity, you may want to skip this post and have a look at these book recommendations.

Still here? Well, then…

I received this letter from the cash-strapped Vancouver School Board a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been stewing about it ever since.

Dear Parent or Guardian of Students in Grade 4, 5, and 6:

The Vancouver School Board is exploring the possibility of offering a district-wide User-Pay Elementary Band or Strings Program beginning in September 2016. This program would be for interested students in the upper intermediate grades (Strings: Grades 5-7, Band: Grades 6-7) whose families are willing to pay for this complementary experience.

The intent would be to provide these programs in schools where we have a minimum number of students (20) who have indicated an interest in participating. If the minimum cannot be achieved at a particular site, then unfortunately, the program cannot be offered at that school. The fee to participate in the program for next year will likely be between $400 and $500 per year per student.

It goes on. But let’s stop for a moment and consider the $400 to $500 per student. It seems like a ridiculous amount of money. And yet, it’s less (much less) than what Min and I pay each year to fund Julia’s voice and piano lessons and Matthew’s guitar lessons. Outside of school. Because, unlike my elementary school which had a dedicated music teacher and a band program and a guitar program and school musicals, our kids’ elementary school has none of these things.

So, should we cough up the cash for some strings lessons?

NO! No, no, no, no, no.

Because art in school is not just for kids whose parents can afford it. Is this really something that needs to be said? At the moment, the PACs in B.C. — the parents — pay for the library books, the instruments, and tons of the art supplies used in elementary schools. The school boards don’t fund these things, because the province doesn’t give them the money to fund these things. WHICH IS RIDICULOUS!

How are we going to raise creative, resourceful kids without books and instruments and art supplies? Even LNG engineers are one day going to have to creatively solve problems, and they’re not going to learn to do this by completing math workbooks. (Though incidentally, the parents pay for the math workbooks at my kids’ elementary school.)

Honestly, I think I’m going to settle myself on the sidewalk in front of the VSB office and protest by pulling all the hairs from my head one by one. I think that would be less painful then trying to explain WHY WE NEED BOOKS AND INSTRUMENTS FOR ALL KIDS IN ALL SCHOOLS!

Done. Whew. You can check out those reading recommendations now.

Things that make me say “om”

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling, lately, and about its presence in the wider world.

AND, I spent much of last week being highly entertained by the Om the Bridge fiasco. For those of you who aren’t Vancouverites, Om the Bridge was an attempt to close the Burrard Bridge for a massive yoga gathering on July 21st, International Yoga Day.

However, July 21st also happens to be National Aboriginal Day. That caused a fracas. Then people figured out that the BC government was supporting Om the Bridge with $150,000, at the exact same time they were suggesting that the Vancouver School Board close 19 schools to save money. And finally, the event was being co-sponsored by Liberal donors/yoga/yogawear companies and, for some reason, Atlagas.

There was a massive Twitter uproar, led in part by:

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 9.00.01 PM

The event was cancelled.

What I find interesting is the way that, in the space of a few days, the story entirely changed. It was supposed to be (I assume) a story about how fun and quirky we Vancouverites are and about how beautiful Vancouver looks from the Burrard bridge, especially once a bunch of Lululemon-clad bottoms are doing downward dog. Amidst all those bottoms, presumably Christy Clark and Altagas were going to look fun and quirky, too.

But thanks to social media, the story changed. It became a tale of corporate interests vs. respect for First Nations, and public relations funds vs. education spending.

Many times, when we favourite a tweet about a particular cause, or retweet a petition link, we’re succumming to laziness more than we’re actually participating in democracy. But this weekend showed what Twitter can do well. It can act like one of those elementary school writing games, where one kid starts a sentence, then another adds, then a third…

It can take a basic idea, examine it from 974 million angles, and reinvent the story entirely.

Mergers and acquisitions and coffee houses

I’ve been mulling over this Random/Penguin merger, wondering if I care. I mean, these are already massive companies. Does it matter to me, as a writer, if two massive companies become one super-massive company?

Well, it turns out it does matter, and I do care. Because no matter how big a publishing house is, acquisitions are still handled by real people. And more often than not, a book is accepted because a single editor falls in love with something on page 75, or sees potential in the concept, or laughs in all the right places. These are things that happen on a personal level, not a corporate level, and with each merger there are fewer editor-gatekeepers.

If you’ve ever been to a real estate open house, you’ll know there’s no single factor buyers are searching for. Some love the place, some hate it, some are ambivalent. Editors are the same way. The reason books get rejected 27 times, then accepted and go on to make millions (well, theoretically I’ve heard that it happens…), is that taste differs. Just as you only need one buyer to fall in love with your house, you only need one editor to fall in love with your manuscript. But it could be any house showing. And it could be any submission.

The more acquiring editors there are, the more chances our manuscripts have. And the more diverse the market becomes for readers. A small number of gatekeepers means a smaller slice of personal taste is dictating what goes onto (virtual) bookstore shelves.

A second reason this matters to me: when we cut the number of acquiring editors, and we become more homogenized and appeal more to the commonalities of the mass market, we leave writers with regional or quirky or highly focussed books to the rigours of self-publishing. Without Douglas & McIntyre, would anyone have published Flight of the Hummingbird, which I thought was one of the most gorgeous picture books ever? Maybe not.

Of course, some writers will do very well by self-publishing. But many others will miss out for not having worked with a traditional publisher.

Traditional publishers have been slow to advance in many ways, but they’ve always excelled at hooking up talent. As creators, we’re often too close to our work to make wise decisions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hated a cover design, only to realize a year later that it’s much, much better than my original choice. Publishers put together the teams of creators — writers, editors, illustrators, designers — necessary to produce outstanding work. They are the coffee houses of ideas.

With each closure and each merger, we have one less coffee house. And the world of self-publishing, though exciting in its possibilities, has not yet found a way to consistently put great talents together.

So, despite the fact that I have no professional connection to Douglas & McIntyre or Random or Penguin, these things do matter to me. They matter to me as a writer, and they matter to me as a reader.

Whew. Longest. Post. Ever.

AGMing

I went to the TWUC AGM panel discussions on Friday, a feat which involved having my parents take my kids to school, having my mother pick up my son from preschool, having my husband leave work at 11:15 to take over childcare so my parents could catch a ferry, and arranging a babysitter for 12:45 so my husband could get to his martial arts class.

If this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I am seriously overqualified to be an air traffic controller.

The AGM itself was… interesting. It reminded me how many amazing, well-spoken, talented people there are in the world of books. It opened my eyes to all sorts of issues in the lands of ebooks and libraries and self-publishing. And it made me just a teensy bit glad that I can return this week to my own sheltered world of writing.

The most intriguing panel of the day was the one on copyright issues. I’ve been feeling horribly guilty about:

(a) not fully understanding copyright; and,
(b) not having a strong position.

I waft between copyright-is-vital and sharing-is-good-for-everyone. What I learned at this panel was:

(a) copyright is flippin’ complicated; and,
(b) many share my state.

In a strange way, that made me feel so much better.

Bipolar disorder and climate change

I often skim through Treehugger, and yeesh… reading those headlines is the best way to make a girl feel bipolar.

Here are just a few of them I saw yesterday:
Is Suburbia Doomed? Not According to Joel Kotkin
DIY Idea: Beautiful Vintage Birdcage Chandeliers
IKEA to Expand US Solar Investment to 75% of Stores

So far, feeling pretty good. Right? And then:
Proboscis Monkeys Threatened by Ecologically Insensitive Malaysian Palm Oil Plantations
COP17 UnMerry-Go-Round: US Delays, Canada Obstructs…
Oil Prices Spiking Again; When Will We Ever Learn?

The only one of these articles I fully read was the one about the COP17 climate talks, and that tipped me to the bottom of the depression scale.

I’ve decided the only reasonable response to the entire Durban conference is prayer.

If I were my alter ego

While I’m not generally brave enough for public protest, I can’t help admiring those who are.

There are the glitterati, for example, dumping glitter over people’s heads to highlight anti-gay bigotry. This is a particular favourite of mine because glitter is so noticeable, yet so harmless. It doesn’t actually hurt to have glitter dumped on your head. The whole idea is genius, really.

Then there’s this guy, who robbed a dollar from the bank and demanded prison time so he could access free medical care. Crazy, but undeniably clever.

The master, of course, is Tim DeChristopher, who posed as a buyer in an oil and gas auction. His act was illegal, apparently, even though the auction itself turned out to be illegal. (I’m sure that makes sense in a parallel universe.) He’s supposed to be sentenced this week.

Honestly, it’s enough to make me want to chain myself to a tree-top platform in the rainforest. Which I would totally do, if it weren’t for the lyme-disease-carrying ticks, the rabid squirrels, and the possibility of ruining a perfectly good pedicure.

On etiquette

Min has suggested — somewhat diplomatically — that my letters to government officials be less sarcastic and more respectful.

I’m torn on this, personally. I don’t believe anyone will thoroughly read the letter, so I see no reason to be overly respectful. If someone actually does read it, it will probably be a co-op student. In which case, my letter serves a dual purpose. It counts on whatever scorecard the politician’s office keeps for these sorts of things, AND it keeps just one young civil servant from dropping into a boredom-related coma.

What do you think? I’m theoretically capable of writing a more serious letter (though I find the idea less than motivating). Is sarcasm disrespectful? Do elected officials deserve respect simply because they’re elected officials?

Or does any of it matter?

Letters for the abyss

Dear Christy Clark:

Congratulations on winning the recent by-election. I understand that your government will be putting families first, so I thought I would write to you about some of my family’s particular concerns. First, as I send my children across the street each morning to their school, a 100-year-old brick building, I’m extremely concerned about earthquake safety. I understand that you committed to seismic upgrading when you were the Minister of Education. And still, our school — rated at high risk of severe damage in the case of an earthquake — is not even scheduled for repairs. I find this offensive, particularly when I drive by BC Place and see its $563 million new roof. (Which, by the way, is horrifically ugly. Have you seen that thing? It’s likely to scare tourists from the city.)

Onwards. My second concern is the underfunding of the school system as a whole. I notice that you transferred insurance payments to the individual school districts this week, which to me doesn’t indicate a strong interest in better funding. Also, I take issue with the way the carbon tax is being implemented. While I support the tax, I was appalled to read in the Vancouver Sun that the money taken from the Vancouver School Board — enough for the equivalent of five full-time teachers — was given to Encana, the oil company currently being sued for contaminating drinking water through fracking. I had the opportunity to speak with David Eby before the by-election, and he mentioned that one of your key advisors is a former executive of Encana. Nice.

These facts alone lead me to doubt your “families first” priorities… and I haven’t even done any research yet. In order to earn my vote in the next provincial election, I’m afraid you would have to improve your environmental standards, and begin repairs immediately on our neighbourhood schools.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,
Tanya Kyi