Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Best Of Everything -- Thanks, Tom Petty

He always got the first line right.  So that one, right there, is mine.  

Tom Petty nailed more first lines than any songwriter I can name.  His vignettes, usually about romantics who were chasing a dream, screwing one up, or trying to keep one alive, never crept into focus.  They slammed right in to view, telling you right where you were.  You knew where you stood with a Tom Petty song.

The displaced Southerner of “Rebels”, who we meet already hollering “Honey, don’t walk out/I’m too drunk to follow”.  The boyfriend, whistling past trouble in “Listen To Her Heart”, who tells you the straight up deal is that “He thinks he’s gonna take her away with his money and his cocaine”.  The wistful loner who recalls “It was nearly summer, we sat on your roof.  We smoked cigarettes and stared at the moon” tells you immediately what kind of song “Even The Losers” will become.  And the women in Petty’s world come into the narrative fully formed, too, whether they are good girls who love their mama; they work in a night club ‘cause that’s what her mama did, or were an American girl raised on promises.

What we do when those promises come due, and how we deal when they are denied to us and become hard promises, is a whole big part of who we are.  Your teachers call that “character”.  In many ways, it’s life – figuring out what’s out there worth chasing, running it down, and dealing with the obstacles in our way.  Most of our life, on the quiet days, we are in the process of doing one of those things.  And that’s where we find Tom Petty’s music jangling along.  If he shows up on almost everyone’s “soundtrack of my life” list, it’s probably because that’s what he writes about.

That’s why he’s been my favourite artist since I was nine years old.  That’s why I’m coming too damn close to breaking my rule that it is stupid to cry over losing celebrities you didn’t really know.

My generation is at the age where our rock stars die.  Maybe it hits us so hard because the art form allows us to know them so well.  Singers who write their own songs develop a voice and a personality that gives us an intimacy with them.  When they express what we are feeling before we even know it ourselves, they become part of our lives.  They aren’t our parents.  But they are that cool older sibling we can talk to, the one who’s got enough years on us to get our respect but is still enough of a peer to get us.  Even if it’s a one way conversation, that voice can be as comforting as if they can hear us.  After all, they write like they already did.

So, no apologies.  I feel like my cool older brother Tom died, and I’m sad about it.  I’m going to tell you what he said to me over forty years, and why it stuck with me.

Tom Petty was classically stoic.  The ancient stoics believed that we never lost anything, because nothing was ever really ours.  If you lost your house, or your money, or even someone you loved, they were simply restored to wherever they were when you didn’t have them.  Petty, raised in a difficult home and a town where he was a perpetual outsider, always seemed to keep the same emotional distance.  His protagonists were a resilient bunch. They faced down all manner of heartache.  They screwed up what they had chasing something they couldn’t even know.  You could be kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom in “Refugee”.  Maybe your mother was in a clinic and your father had no job, like the “cute little dropout” we meet in “Zombie Zoo”.  You could be stuck in a One Story Town.  As Petty sang on a quirky little “Hard Promises” cut, you could put up with it for a little while, as long as you were working on something big.

For a while in my twenties, I was struck by how obstacles in Petty’s world appeared without explanation or analysis.  They were just….there, they appeared, and you dealt with them.  For a while, I used to think this made him a more simplistic songwriter than his fellow heartland rockers Springsteen and Mellencamp, whose work was more overtly political and explored causes.  Mellencamp knows what went wrong when the Farmers’ Bank foreclosed in “Rain On The Scarecrow”.  The Boss always told you who was closing down the textile mills in his hometown.  With age, I began to see that Petty’s lack of explanation for life’s obstacles were not the result of being incurious, but a world view that told you that hard times were part of the journey.  You didn’t spend time wondering why times were hard.  You just kept running down a dream, you learned to fly, you didn’t back down even if they stood you up at the gates of hell, because these obstacles were transient.   

As he tells us on a quietly powerful “Mojo” track, “There’s something good coming.  There has to be.”  And when you know that, what kind of explanation do you need?  In Petty’s world, the nobility comes from the struggle itself and even defiance when it’s called for.  That always made his work powerful for me.  In a world where we all read motivational books and need daily affirmations to know why we keep going, Petty tells us that perseverance is its own reward, and that life is about kicking back even when it’s hard.  Hell, drop the “about”.  Life IS kicking back when it’s hard.  Tom told me that.

In love, Petty’s work was equally accepting of hard times and hard promises.  He was not Don Henley, whose beautiful “Heart Of The Matter” finds acceptance by analyzing the breakup, chalking it up to “pride”, “self-assurance” and times that are so uncertain.  In Petty’s world, love doesn’t owe you an explanation.  One of his best album cuts is “Straight Into Darkness”, where he tells us “there was a moment when I really oved her, then one day the feeling just died”.  In “Letting You Go”, he opens with a similarly blunt “I used to think that when this was all over, you might feel different about me”.  At no point does he demand an explanation – the object of his affection just didn’t feel different after all.   It was as if he took to heart the counsel of the lover who left him one album earlier on the underrated hit “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)”.  After she laughed in his face and told him goodbye, she advised him “Don’t think about it, you could go crazy”.

Again, it is possible to take a critical view of this approach and attribute this to a kind of incuriosity, when so many spurned musical lovers take great pains to understand WHY love has been denied them.  But Petty’s take on love is not because he doubts its power.  When love smiles upon him, he can tell the whole wide world, shout “here comes my girl”.  Even just the potential of love animates “A Thing About You” with a dizzying crash of guitars that simulate the swell of a new crush.  And Petty knows what it means when love dies; one of his crowning achievements is the opener of his post-divorce album “Echo”.  On “Room At The Top”, Petty’s voice quavers like never before as the song builds to a quiet “I love you.  Would you please love me?” before the singer withdraws behind a wall of sound to find some equilibrium.  And arguably the best song he ever wrote is “Insider”, which has nursed many a Petty fan through a hard breakup.  When he describes his ex-partner’s personality and muses “I’m the one who oughtta know/I’m the one left in the dust”, he tells us a lot about the price you pay for letting someone close to you in an uncertain world.  With Petty, one should never mistake acceptance for detachment.

It struck me as meaningful that Petty closes “Into The Great Wide Open” with three tracks – “You And I Will Meet Again”, “Making Some Noise”, and “Built To Last” – that pay tribute to the constants of platonic friendships, rock and roll band mates, and romantic partners.  An album that opens with him starting out “for God knows where, guess I’ll know when I get there” ends with odes to the joys of loyalty to people in your life even as places and things change.  In Petty’s world, the redemptive power in love does not come from understanding it, it comes from giving it even through dark times.  Love is mysterious, but when it perseveres through hard times it is powerful and redemptive.  Like life itself, love gathers its power through resilience against the odds.  

And love is sweeter in Petty’s world because women are strong personalities who can make their own choices, not just objects for pursuit.  They can pay your tickets and leave you out in the thicket when you’re a screwup, like in “Rebels”.  And make no mistake, Petty may sing “Here Comes My Girl” with pride and joy, but it’s her who “looks me in the eye and says ‘we’re gonna last forever’”.

As I grew older, Petty’s work began to add an important element to its theme of determination and grit against long odds.  Petty’s later work addresses disappointment and preaches benevolence and acceptance as a way to deal with the times when the struggle falls short.  The benevolence you see creeping in on “Southern Accents” with its eulogy of an album closer “The Best Of Everything”, when he calls out to a lover past “Wherever you are tonight I wish you the best of everything in the world”. 

 In the criminally-underrated “Square One” he has reached a place of peace with the ups and downs of life.  Summarizing failures and successes, he simply stands at square one and invites a lover to “rest her head” on him.  As the chords keep a quiet constancy, Petty purrs “took a world of trouble, took a world of tears, took a long time to get back here”, but the tone does not hint at a triumph over adversaries as much as an acceptance of the sum of wins and losses, and a peace with wherever the end point of the journey was.  

By the time an older Petty puts out the second Mudcrutch album, he is able to counsel that “people are what people make ‘em, that ain’t gonna change” before asserting at the end “I forgive it all”, hinting that this Petty protagonist, at least, has found enduring love and the rest requires only benevolence toward the rest of the world.  Even if you did do him like that, or if you got lucky when he found you, anger at some point gave way to peace.

I hope that Petty, the restless romantic of my youth, found that same peace himself as he wound down his final tour and went home.  It would be foolish to think I know him because I know his art.  He surely had his demons – who doesn’t? – but the Petty who spoke to me deserves the peace he counselled me as I got older and youthful dreams became hard-won wisdom.  Whether the real Petty held that kind of benevolence and loyalty I do not know. 

 I do know that when I saw him live, I found it genuinely affecting when he thanked the audience for holding up lighters through a ballad. “I never get tired of that”, he told us, putting himself in our place as a fan even as he was also the star.  Certainly his life, whether withholding an album from his record company until they rolled back a price hike and speaking of his enjoyment of hearing how we experienced his music, seemed to show a genuine connection to his fans.  Indeed, “The Last DJ” is widely seen as his weakest album in part because he could not shake his pedantic anger at those who lose sight of the music for profit.  If the connection was only image, it was cultivated far better than any other part of his persona.

In the end, in the reality of his fans, an artist is his work.  And as the cool older brother I adopted through a child’s early fandom, Tom Petty taught me well.  We could do worse than to learn that there are promises out there for all of us, even the losers; that to chase those promises down is its own reward; that setbacks are inevitable but that perseverance is its own virtue; and that when the struggle ends we should strive towards peace with ourselves, loyalty to those that stuck by us, and acceptance of everyone else.  If that was the soundtrack to my life, I could have done a lot worse.


And, Tom, wherever you are tonight – thanks.  I wish you the best of everything in the world, and I hope you found whatever you were looking for.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Explaining Well-Meaning Failure -- NB Second Language Training Edition

The news that only 32 people took advantage of the government’s $1Million programme to provide free second language training to unemployed New Brunswickers last year has been met with surprise from some quarters.

In particular, the minister responsible seemed disappointed, stating “You can’t just stay there and complain that you can’t get a job opportunity because you don’t know the second language but you are not doing anything about it.”

Let me say at the outset that, while Don and I famously have our differences, I think his support for bilingualism is heartfelt, sincere, and admirable.  This is not a hit piece.

But his statement confirms what the numbers suggest – Don doesn’t understand, on a human level, what the reality is for unemployed people.  Or for Anglophones who have not mastered a second language.

Often, our second language training in New Brunswick is terrible.  And I think it is because we design programmes for their symbolic value rather than their educational value.  We ask “Will this show we support bilingualism?” rather than “Will this make more actual people bilingual?”.  And we should be mature enough to break that bad habit, because bilingualism is here to stay.  We have to stop fighting the ghosts of the 1960s.

To understand the failure of this program, we have to understand one fundamental thing about what it is to be unemployed.  If you want to know what path an unemployed adult will choose, first ask the question “What will most quickly get this person into a job?”

For example, if I offered free philosophy degree courses to unemployed New Brunswickers, there would be low take up.  Even though statistically people with arts degrees, even in Philosophy, earn more than those with no degree at all, it would be a tough sell.  It takes four years to learn enough philosophy to get a degree, and even then the skills are general – there is no automatic job afterwards.  Some doors open, but that is the most that can be said with certainty.

But isn’t that also true, for most, of second language training.

If your skills in French are minimal today, learning a second language is not a quick solution to needing a job.  Because you are not three, six or even twelve months away from speaking French at a level that opens up any jobs.  (I had access to Arabic language training for six months last year.  Do you think I will be applying for any jobs classified Arabic-essential?)  Basically, if you lack the ability to have a basic conversation today, you are years from the point where you will learn French well enough that you can actually use your new French skills to apply for jobs that require French.

It is a great thing, of course, to be able to have basic conversations in Caraquet in French.  But that doesn’t get you hired.

And many unemployed New Brunswickers do not have even minimal French to start with.  (Remember that before Intensive French was introduced in 2008, 98% of non-immersion graduates lacked the ability to use even one sentence spontaneously, and fewer than 10% of graduates completed Immersion).  

Also, that is a number of years needed for the average learner.  Statistically, there would be a higher number of people who struggle to learn languages among the unemployed than there are among the general population.  (There most certainly are high-skill unemployed here, but it is also true that a higher percentage of unemployed adults report having struggled in school than the percentage of employed adults).  That means that many unemployed New Brunswickers likely doubt that, even with time and effort, they will master a second language well enough to make it a certified, employment-related skill.  If you struggle with first language skills, how plausible is it that you will master a second before your EI runs out ( or social assistance rules force you to take the first job available).

So if we understand that unemployed people desperately need jobs because they have kids and mortgages and basic desires to work, and second language training takes years to help an unemployed person get a job, and the government doesn’t help with living expenses while you get “free” training -- why are we surprised that the programme tanked?

For most adult learners, that is the calculation that adult responsibilities force upon us.  The question we ask when deciding whether or not to learn French is not “Would I like to know French?”.  The question is “what professional benefit does that bestow compared to other things I could do with the same time and effort?”

If you are a unilingual worker at a private sector company, you could learn French in 2 to 3 years.  You could also get an MBA and qualify for jobs that don’t require French and pay more.  What will you do?

If you are a Grade 12 student who wants to be a doctor or scientist, you could take Advanced Math in French.  But if you know you go a bit slower in your second language, and you’ll be competing in university for scholarships and med school spots, don’t you have to choose mastering the Math over polishing your French?

If you’re on social assistance and you left school in Grade 10, should you do your high school equivalency first, or learn French?

See the problem?

Many francophones underestimate the struggle for Anglophones to learn French, just as Anglophones underestimate the risk of assimilation.  One group has the second language so present in their lives they need to create spaces away from it, the other struggles to find places to use it and learn it informally.  Neither completely gets the other, which I think is why we see Don Arsenault defaulting to blaming people without jobs for not jumping all over the chance to take a French course instead of asking questions about what these people need.

If we are serious about bilingualism, we wouldn’t do it the way Minister Arsenault did it.  Instead we would:

1.       Fund universities and colleges to offer co-curricular training in French for free while students are already forgoing income to learn.  Make these opportunities free and available outside the programme.


2.       Offer French training when it fits an employment plan, but commit to assist learners with student aid and income support to pursue the programme for the time it takes to gain actual certification.


3.       Don’t limit programmes to those with the urgency of being unemployed.  The people who will actually learn French are likely those who have the comfort of a paycheque and will take the course for the long-term benefit.  Waiting until someone is unemployed to offer free French training is like waiting until someone is having a heart attack to offer them a free gym membership.


4.       Of course, the best time to help as many people acquire a base in French is when they are young and already free to go to school all day.  If starting immersion in Grade 1 is leading to 10% who learn a lot of French and 90% who learn almost none, see if delaying the entry point will allow a broader cross-section of people to graduate knowing enough French that they can quickly get professional certification.  Like, maybe starting in Grade 3 would lead to higher immersion enrollment …..wait, what?....someone did that?  Well, I am sure that the government would build off that, since they want more bilingual people.  That’s here to stay!


In all seriousness, bilingualism is not helped if it is simply a way to create an Anglophone elite and it is not available to all in programmes that match reality.  Offering programmes symbolically without asking how learners actually can learn is a waste of time and money.

And blaming unemployed people for government’s failure to act strategically is not good.  Minister, a little more thought and a little less lecturing would be welcome.