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Dead Sentinels; Inspired By A Family Hike To Stanley Glacier

The summer of 2018 had been hot, dry, and smoky in British Columbia and Alberta. There had been many forest fires. Recent previous summers had also known significant forest fire damage.

As a family, we had chosen to do the Stanley Glacier hike. The area had been affected by fire in a recent year. Rain had fallen earlier in the week of our hike, so the air was clearer than usual, and so we took the opportunity to get out to the mountains.

Early on, our hike went past many short young coniferous trees growing close together. Some of the cones of evergreen trees actually require the heat of a fire to crack them open and make the seed available for germination. The fire that had burned away many taller trees and left charred stump also had eliminated the canopy that prevented sunlight from reaching younger trees, and now the new growth was plentiful.
There were, however, the blackened and barren remnants of the tall trees that had once dominated that landscape. They stood out like sentinels watching over the newer life below them – the new trees, the fireweed. A poem began to form in my mind, nearly spontaneously. It’s a rare occurrence for me, but it does happen- perhaps the result of a lifetime’s fascination with words and ideas, how words sound, and how ideas are shaped. So here it is.

Dead Sentinels – by Art Koop (September 1, 2018, during a hike toward Stanley Glacier, through terrain scorched by a huge forest fire just a few years previous)

Dead sentinels still standing guard
Over nurseries of toddler trees and fireweed
Determined in their youth
Asserting life within
Their rockstrewn charred domain
Certain in some grander scheme, they win.

We, wending our way over, through, and past
Begin to feel our circulating breath and blood,
The warmth of working muscle pushing us ahead.
And start to feel we too are more alive than dead.

The intrepid potentilla, bursting into bloom
While holding fast its roots in molecules of dirt
Between the rocks, bears witness to our wandering
And seems to cheer us on, while we,
Amazed at its endurance, hear its positive prodding
And proceed.

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Gonna Spend My Cash

“Why do you buy organic bananas?” asked an older visitor. “They have a peel, so pesticides won’t transfer into what you eat.”

I told him that I had seen a documentary that showed pesticides being sprayed on a banana plantation while workers were picking the bananas, because the corporation that owned the plantation didn’t want to stop the harvest long enough to spray pesticides and interrupt the work. So for me, it wasn’t about the bananas, but about the workers.

“I hear that,” commented our visitor. He then went on to relate that when he was young, picking hops in the Fraser Valley, the company also sprayed pesticides while the hops were being picked.

We try to keep ethical and sustainability issues in mind when we make our purchases. Fair Trade coffee and chocolate are frequent purchases of ours. If you search “Child Labour and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”, you will come across an article by the ‘Food Empowerment Project’ that gives some details about how the chocolate industry is involved in the worst possible labour conditions in the world in our time.

Yet, we are inconsistent in our efforts, even as far as buying chocolate. Some fair trade and organic goods are only sold in stores that are some distance away from our home, and thus we would have to spend more time, money, and fuel, to go and purchase those goods – which creates an opportunity cost and additional environmental sustainability issues in itself.

Every purchasing decision is on some level a compromise, and there are so many such decisions that have to be made. The individual consumer in our society should not have to bear this burden alone – but our society is insufficiently committed to ethical purchases, production, and environmental sustainability, and mostly just sees it all as a bother, so it seems unlikely that governments will be elected in the near future which will encourage and support change on a broader level. There are powerful corporate and political forces that benefit from the status quo, combined with a societal inertia and malaise, so this is likely to be an ongoing issue.

While I want to continue moving toward an ethical and sustainable lifestyle, I also really do enjoy getting paid. Getting a paycheque provides a bit of a sense of recognition for work accomplished, and I feel that it’s natural to want to celebrate that. There’s a cloud of guilt that lingers over progressives, because of the level of ethical compromise involved in almost every act of every day. Even sitting at this keyboard to type has environmental consequences.

So my song “Gonna Spend My Cash” relates to that internal conflict of feeling joy and wanting to celebrate my remuneration, while at the same time wanting to be a more ethical and sustainable consumer. I haven’t ever heard a song like it, so it needed to be written, in my opinion. Here are the lyrics.

Gonna Spend My Cash

Gonna spend my cash, ‘cuz I got my pay
There’s value in a dollar and that’s okay
Gonna spend my cash, but watch where it goes
Cuz I want it to be love and not blood that flows

I’d be lying if I’d say gonna give it all away
Got a family with dreams and bills to pay
I earn, so I’ll share, but I won’t throw it away
There’s a balance in the balance, and a price to pay

It would be great to get around the degradation
It would be great to get rid of financial oppression
It’s tough to fight a system that I live in
To avoid a depression, but reduce my possession

Gonna spend my cash, ‘cuz I got my pay
There’s value in a dollar and that’s okay
Gonna spend my cash, but watch where it goes
Cuz I want it to be love and not blood that flows
Cuz I want it to be love and not blood that flows

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I Do What I Do (And I Don’t Pay No Mind)

It was an understandable mistake. The first time the recording studio producer typed in the name of the song, it came out “I do what I want”. That one word difference, though, was too much – I had to change it back to the original “I do what I do…”.

The song is not so much about doing what I want, as about continuing to press forward – without being distracted by unproductive criticism, or past mistakes, or regret. It’s about finding meaning in work – although getting paid for what you do is lovely and provides resources to meet goals, meaning is what helps a person to endure and persist. It’s about being prepared for opportunity by putting in the necessary groundwork so as to be ready to go when the right time comes. It’s about being authentically oneself.

It’s not a complicated song, and the words in it aren’t particularly difficult or unusual. The grammar is definitely not proper. But all that stuff in the paragraph I just wrote, was stuff I wanted to express in a straightforward way and with a tone of dogged persistence and a sense that there is a wealth of experience beneath the words.

Here are the lyrics;

I do what I do, and I don’t pay no mind
to what naysayers say, or what muckrakers find.
I do what I do, and I don’t pay no mind.

Like everyone else, I’ve left stories behind.
Some I think of fondly, some I’d like to rewind.
I’d like to retouch some of my history,
but I’m not looking back, ‘cuz that’s no place to be.

If you put in the work, your heart will be satisfied –
it’s not seeking reward, it’s not stroking your pride.
If the world needs what you bring,
you know you won’t be denied –
but the far greater thing is the warm glow inside.

I’ll sit back and wait –
I’ll know the time when I see it.
I won’t rush to be great –
don’t wanna fake it, but be it.
I’ll sit back and wait –
I’ll know the time when I see it.

Well, I do what I do, and I don’t pay no mind
to what naysayers say, or what muckrakers find.
I do what I do, and I don’t pay no mind.

**The other unusual thing about this song, for me, is that it’s in 6/8 time. Generally my songs are in 4/4 time, but this is the first of two of my most recent recordings that is in 6/8.

You can find my music on any streaming service, and it can be downloaded as well from Apple Music and from Amazon, to name two.

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(I Want to be) Like Democracy

Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others”.

What he meant by that, of course, is that while no political system is perfect – each has its advantages and disadvantages – he on balance actually preferred democracy. Chances are that he was responding to criticism of the British Parliamentary system of democracy, and his reply was somewhat sarcastic or sardonic.

I wanted to write a song that would discuss the relative benefits of democracy, but would not be limited to a kind of memorization tool for school. I did write the song so that it could possibly be used in class, maybe introducing some political systems ideas to the class in a different way than through note-taking or the more traditional forms of educational introductions to ideas. The song would ideally also be able to stand on its own. So I thought maybe I could use democracy itself as a kind of metaphor.

Like political systems, people also are not perfect. Sir Winston Churchill wasn’t, and I’m not either. But as it happens, the ideals behind modern liberal democracy are also ideals that I hold dear – openness, accountability, human rights, sharing power, freedom…. And, of course, ideals require some sacrifices. Sharing power means giving up one’s own notions of power; it means not always being able to have your own way. These sacrifices are worthwhile, though, because of the greater importance and priority of the ideals.

I have released my song ‘Like Democracy’ in several versions, and in various ways. There is the latest, commercially available version, which can be heard on Spotify or Napster or Tidal or Deezer or YouTube or various other streaming services, and which is also available for purchase via Amazon or iTunes and other digital music distribution services. There is another version of Like Democracy available for upload right on this site (under the ‘Educational’ tab, choose ‘Curriculum Songs’ from the drop-down menu), and another one on my YouTube channel. The lyrics are available on this website too, just below the website recording of the song.

On this website, also on the ‘Educational Tab’, there’s a Question Sheets Related segment in the dropdown menu that also uses the song Like Democracy for exploring ideas related to human rights, specifically the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For me, the main significant lines in Like Democracy are

“I wanna be like democracy,
Give my friends a chance to reach the top.
Sometimes things might go wrong,
Sometimes people let you down,
So then I also wanna have a way to stop.”
This brings out the political idea of power being in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of a leader. Also, on a personal level, it is about both trust and a willingness to change.

2. “I wanna bring out the best in people,
I wanna know about the worst.
I wanna blend love, mercy, and justice,
And the right kinds of hunger and thirst.”
This is about how the idea of sharing power politically, along with providing freedom, gives people the opportunity to come up with new ideas and contribute to society and each other.
On the other hand, it is about how an open society with a free press and political opposition parties provides accountability. True democracy is only viable when people know what their choices are.
On a personal level, it’s about honest relationship and caring. “The right kinds of hunger and thirst” is a spiritual reference to a “hunger and thirst after righteousness” – in other words, for right and equitable living in authentic community.

And finally,
3. “And I would take love over fear,
Even at the risk I might get hurt.
No true affection in the voice
Of one who hasn’t got a choice,
So I’ll give up control or even lose my shirt.”

One of the ways in which dictators maintain control of their societies is through the use of fear and force. The idea of choice is frightening to dictators, because they perceive any action which represents ideas different from their own as a threat to their power. Real democracy encourages choice. It allows for different ideas to emerge, in the hope that a full discussion of possibilities can result in ultimately better decisions being made, even if there are some difficult moments in the meantime.
On a personal level, I too want to be willing to take risks in relationship. Coercion and love are different things, and it’s the real thing that I’m interested in. So since there’s “no true affection in the voice of one who hasn’t got a choice,” I have to be willing to take loss if what I really want is love. It can’t be coerced.

I first wrote ‘Like Democracy’ around 10 years ago. It’s still one of my favourite songs of all those that I have written.

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Getting On That Train (Living With a Non-linear Mind, Prologue)

Sometimes my mind just runs along all on its own, and I couldn’t tell you what I’m thinking about if you asked me.

And there are moments when that rambling mind grabs up many of its assorted ideas and weaves them together into a new whole, something special, that was not there before.

The ideas conglomerate and shift until they make a new picture, or a new set of pictures, like a kaleidoscope. And when that happens, I often feel like I have to go with it. I have to get on that train, and take those ideas where they are going to go. For a couple of reasons.

First off, if I do let go of that new set of ideas, I’m taking a risk. Something might happen to scramble them all – I might get distracted and forgetful, and just drop them all and they’ll lie shattered in a confused pile for a long time before I can take them up again.

More likely, though, I just won’t be able to concentrate on anything else. My mind will have grabbed that set of ideas, and if I don’t go with it I will find it difficult to concentrate. My dreams will be full of confusion and shifting scenes that I can’t keep track of. My conversations will tail off and people will wonder if I’m having a stroke.

So I have to, if you will forgive the cliche’, seize the moment. If everything has come together into a complete picture, I have to somehow record that assemblage of thought. It’s a kind of drive, which is equal parts unpredictable and infrequent.

So what counts as a goal for me, is to in some way make progress toward my larger goals – even small progress – on a daily basis. Blog. Practice guitar. Do things around the house so that I can be more efficient or have free time later. Listen to music I haven’t heard before, to stimulate my mind. Anything.

Because I can’t count on inspiration, but I can do my part to be ready for it if and when it comes. If I’m gonna get on a train, I better make it to the station on time – so attending to the daily tasks are what gets me there.

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Seeing Value

In the past year, I met a goal I had set about something trivial. I have a point to this story… you’ll have to be a bit patient, though, to get to it.

I wanted to be the top-ranked Facebook Scrabble player in my peer group, in all 3 categories of highest ranking, highest word score, and highest number of 7+ letter words, all at one time. I did it by taking an approach to the game that most people have never tried, as far as I can tell.

The key to doing well at Scrabble when you break it down, I figured, is to get more point value out of your letters than your opponents do.

If you were to take a superficial look at the value of Scrabble letters, you would probably say that the 5 most valuable letters are the Q and the Z (worth 10 points), the X and the J (worth 8 points), and the K (worth 5 points).

The way I play the game, the most valuable letters are S, R, E, I, and D, in roughly that order. Why? Well, I figure that since players get 50 bonus points for using all 7 of their tiles at once, the best way to get the most out of your letters would be to get the most 7 letter words. And, the way to do that would be to use word-extenders (plurals, suffixes, prefixes). And so, the letters that show up most often in plurals, suffixes, and prefixes would be letters to hold onto, in order to get the most out of them. S is the letter most used for plurals. -er and -ed, -ier and -ied are common suffixes. re- and de- and dis- are common prefixes. There are other letter combinations I consider after that, but you get the idea. In addition, if you add an s or an e or an r onto many existing words, you get a new word or version of the existing word, providing a connection point for your word placement.

So when I play, it’s more about the letters that I don’t use in a turn than the letters I put down. I will often sacrifice the opportunity to score more points on one turn, taking the chance that by holding onto my more ‘valuable’ letters I can score a ‘bingo’ bonus for using all 7 of my tiles in a turn to come, depending partly on luck to do so.

I reasoned that, while many other players may have a larger vocabulary than I do, and while some players (not likely in my peer group, but among ‘random’ opponents that may be chosen for me) may be tempted to purchase the ‘Teacher’ app on Facebook Scrabble (which shows you the highest possible scoring word from the previous turn), if I was willing to play in an unorthodox way I could potentially win games by giving myself more opportunities to score large numbers of points.

And, long story short, it worked. I had a theory, based on reasoning; I applied my theory; I met my goal. The reason it worked was that I was able to see value where others did not, and was willing to take chances that others were not willing to take.

There are applications here. Sometimes we may be tempted to take the easily measured values of our society – amount of money, titles and status, letters behind names – as gospel for how we ought to measure the value of people. But all people have contributions to make in our lives and in society, and maybe what really needs to happen is that we need to take a different point of view in order to see the value that is being overlooked. Maybe if we can work as a community, we can all extend our abilities in order to add up to more than any of us as individuals can achieve alone.

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