Method Research, Part Nine: Everything has a rig. That lesson came to me in high school.

I

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II

Are people in the press idiots?

Well, yes.

That’s what happens when you choose to be a follower.

I have been talking months about Trump’s Chaos Narrative, the press now finally clues in.

Trump is down, not out. For those of us who didn’t try our brains with cocaine in the 1980s, he has gone through this kind of thing before. His enemies think they have backed him in a corner, and he does something unexpected and rises from the ashes.

His Chaos Narrative is over. This is intermission. The Phoenix Enigma is a completely different rule book. His detractors are now clinging on to a script that just got burned.

You can turn over the rules in more than one way.

That I learned in high school.

III

When I was in junior high, we had a yearbook and I was on the committee for both years. We didn’t actually do anything, I noticed, other than make posters. The teacher actually did the entire book from all the photography to the layouts. I had the lone poem published in my Grade Eight yearbook, but the “committee” seemed to be in name only, and I found it frustrating.

Then I went to high school and was on the yearbook committee every year, and in my senior year, I was yearbook editor.

Unlike junior high, I was heavily involved in its creation. I took lots of pictures. I did the layouts and came up with the ideas. By Grace 11, I did more pages than the entire committee combined. I kept track of every page as I looked for events to cover.

I didn’t like it, however. The first teacher advisor spelled my first name wrong on my personalized copy, which was the alleged “perk” of working on the committee. Alexander instead of Alexandra? I typed out my name, and then she ruined my Grade 9 yearbook for me.

And then it happened again in my Grade 12 Yearbook, but the advisor didn’t give me a personalized yearbook. I was furious when I came back to pick it up the following year. I typed the sheet and handed it in, and I know how to spell my own name.

In my Grade 11 Yearbook, one of the members did a two-page spread with tiny writing crammed around artistically, with my advisor not paying attention to what a teenaged boy would try to sneak in — only after it was printed did her husband notice. I was editor of the current book and it took a lot of arguing to convince her not to tear out those two pages, but have him black out the offending parts every single book instead.

I caught a lot of attempts at people trying to get crap through. I was more eagle-eyed than what kids assumed I would be.

But as I said, I didn’t care much for yearbooks one way or another.

But I found being on the committee extremely useful and instructive.

For one, you know everything about everybody. The office would print out lists of everything from teachers and students and hand it over to us. I knew everyone’s credits, grades, and the like.

Second, I knew exactly how the year would play out right in September. Student life was predetermined. Everything was tightly controlled and scripted, and we’d get the playbook from Day One through the yearbook committee.

That way, I could plan my year knowing in advance what was the rigs with my roadmap.

And I don’t like scripts.

I was doing a lot of things off the script, such as finishing my studies one year early. I also did a literary journal. I wanted to do a short comedic play, but the only way I could do it was by presenting as advertising for yearbook. I had organized a simulation experiment that got serious local media play because there were parents throwing fits about it — but there was a lot of positive feedback from students, the press and the public who supported it. (It was a simulation of Apartheid in South Africa, for the record. Most students received a “black” passport and were forbidden from a lot things that the “white” passport students got to do. I didn’t invent the concept, but I got feedback from my friends who had it in their high schools, telling me what a flop it was; so I tweaked it just enough to get publicity and praise for it. It almost got derailed when Student Council got wind of it and went ballistic, trying to water it down. My advisor for that committee went ballistic in turn, and demanded an emergency meeting where I pushed and presented my case for it, and they backed down and had it go as is. Then parents went ballistic and called to complain because they thought watching racism and inhumanity on the news was enough, and then the principal cancelled it after half a day and students were upset because they actually wanted to feel the same loneliness as people who were oppressed as a show of support, but then that same principal turned around on graduation and used it in her speech about what a great school we were for having it because of the positive press and laurels they got for having the courage to do it.)

I had access to things because of that committee. I did fight for things, but if I couldn’t get them one way, I knew how to bypass it. When I suggested we have a small literary section in the yearbook, I was shot down by the advisor, but then I just made my own journal. I didn’t have a seat on Students’ Council, but I didn’t want it, either, because once you had a seat, you got tethered.

I did have a seat when I was yearbook editor. You could be elected by your fellow students or appointed if you were in charge of the committee. My seat came from the latter. I found it to be a real drag, but it was amusing nonetheless with students thinking they had control over their committee, when in fact, I knew that was coming up because I was on yearbook. It was all preset for us.

I had a peculiar reputation back then: one the one hand, I was seen as a Miss Goody Two-Shoes. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I was academically-focussed.

But on the other hand, I was seen as rebellious. My old yearbooks have inscriptions from friends who called me wild, gutsy, and even insane. I was repeatedly referred to as a “chick.” I dressed wildly. I often wore a beehive or flip to school. I wore leopard print and mini skirts with boots. Sometimes I wore a black stocking on one leg and a white on the other. Back then, everyone wore Polo by Ralph Lauren. I wore Mondi, Christian La Croix or something exotic my grandmother thought up for me.

Grandma’s designs were wilder by a mile. Some kids said I dressed like an alien. I didn’t care, but it was fun.

Child of the 80s who dressed more like she was from the 60s.

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But not always.

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That was the other reason I knew about a rigged system.

Teachers had complained to me that I wasn’t behaving the way they expected someone like me to behave.

While other kids were trying to fit in, I was trying to expand my horizons. I didn’t want to box myself into something inauthentic.

And it helped by knowing how scheduled and choreographed the year was going to be.

Here are where all the hamster wheels are. This is the schedule when you are supposed to climb on them. Now, get to it, kids!

There was a reason for it.

If teens — who have just had their minds whacked with the novel thing called hormones — were left to their own devices, they’d dare eat other to eat dog shit and set fire to different chemicals in the science labs just to see what went bang the loudest.

I am not totally unsympathetic to the need of sublimate that new and nasty energy into something productive as students’ attention is being deflected from the real purpose and told a cock and bull story about how extracurricular activities were important for resumes, scholarships, and getting into “good schools.”

You see what happens when one is allowed to stray and wander unsupervised.

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Get the whippersnapper to worry about doing well at the next track meet and then spend hours running around in circles, and everything flies under the radar.

But if he’s left on his own, and some political and journalistic manipulators and exploiters will chew him up and spit him out whether they pretend to “oppose” him or “support” him.

I get it.

But when you have no intention of eating dog shit or blowing up the school, those rules can hurt you. You start believing in those invisible boundaries, and worse, take them as divine and natural truth and reality. You take them for granted.

You count on rigs to save you and make you adept at roaming out in the open to explore.

You don’t see that’s the cage to keep you locked up and then your senses and thinking become passive.

Creative thinking is thinking. Rote adherence is not, but can be confused for it.

I spent my high school years learning how to spot the rigs as well as how to turn them over, break them, and challenge them as I bypass them.

It wasn’t without incident, but even then, I learned how those rigs are reinforced and kept in place.

As I mentioned, I once put on a little skit for assembly. I cleared it with the yearbook advisor who told me to see the advisor for assemblies, a teacher who I had never spoken to or would have as a teacher as she taught subjects that weren’t going to be something I had to take. I never met her before. I just knew about her because teachers were all listed in the yearbook with their photographs. She seemed pleasant, approved, and then the play went without a hitch.

I ran into the next semester, and not on purpose. Here was a teacher I never had dealings with save for the one time. Now, here she is again, recognized me, and started to talk to me. I was polite, and as I didn’t know her very well, just asked when was the next assembly. She told me, and I said something benign that I am sure it would be interesting and good luck with it, and left.

The next day, my yearbook advisor sternly warned me that I couldn’t have another skit, shocking me. I said I didn’t want one. She said the other teacher said that I asked about the next assembly. I replied that I never made any comments about wanting another skit to her, nor did I have the time or desire to do something I already crossed off my list, and I had not approach my yearbook advisor, meaning that, obviously, that’s not why I asked. I was making small talk.

My yearbook adviser wanted to warn me again, and I flat-out said that I didn’t appreciate gossip or speculation about me in the teacher’s lounge, and if I was going to be interrogated because I was being polite, I wasn’t going to speak to any teacher for any reason for the rest of the year. Besides, usually, ideas were shot down ninety-percent of the time in this committee regardless of who asks; so the chances I would go to the trouble when it would likely be vetoed was close to nothing. She backed off but I could tell she was very displeased with me.

She thought she “got” me at something that veered off the sanctioned script, and in the process, revealed more of the behind-the-scenes goings-on than she should have. I was involved in more than one committee, and she knew it. If she was going to go on a fishing expedition, she could have asked if I had any other ideas for promotion. Another skit would not have been something that I would have recommended, and considering I wasn’t the editor at the time, I would have said that ship sailed. Sales wasn’t my department. That would have refuted the theory, and kept the inter-teacher intelligence-gathering under wraps.

But it got me thinking about a lot of things.

How many students get labelled because of loose talk in the teachers’ lounge. Students do it to teachers as well, but the power imbalance is there.

I changed my ways, but even silence brought certain collective assumptions. I didn’t talk to teachers about my personal and social life because it wasn’t their business, not because I didn’t have one.

I had teachers stop me in the halls — teachers I never had as teachers — tell me I should have “friends.” I would nod and thank them, and leave. This was a rude and unfounded. I wasn’t by myself. I went to events and socialized.

And then my senior year, my school held a “fashion show” over two days. In 2019, this school would have gotten in serious trouble for it by the neo-Victorian puritanicals eating prunes as they posted their disapproval on the Troll Scroll.

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The high point was when the male students, teachers, and vice principal dancers stripped off to their skivvies and grandmas were shoving money down their speedos.

But it was all for charity, which makes everything okay!

(Oh, this wasn’t the most questionable sexually explicit thing to go down in my high school. A couple of girls in my gym class showed a hardcore porn video for about ten minutes in health class. The teacher got in a bit of trouble, but didn’t lose her job over it, even though everyone forgot that as I was the youngest in the class, I was actually underage. There was something else even more serious that went down there, but that was a year or so before my time; but that’s for another day).

I bought tickets for both nights — mostly because I invited my friends who went to other high schools to see my school’s cheery debauchery up close. It was not surprising that the day after the second night that I had more than one teacher comment that I never mentioned I had so many close friends from other schools, as if that was uncommon among teens. Give me a break. I just sighed, shrugged, smiled cherubically, and walked away, making me wonder what kind of gossip network was going down in the teacher’s lounge. Yay, live action reality show!

And I was the character without a trope-ish role.

Who was Alexandra? She was skipping grades and winning awards. She was on committees. She was a wild dresser. She was mouthy, rebellious, but knew just how subversive she could be without getting derailed. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, where I wanted, and how I wanted it. Peer pressure didn’t stop me. Teachers didn’t stop me. I used to get calls from dignitaries who’d call the school, and then I’d get paged to come to answer the phone. I gave a news interview that way. I had students quip that the principal was borrowing my office for occasions, and yet he barely knew of my existence because I wasn’t getting hauled to his office, and the one time I did, it was the teacher who had to apologize to me.

It was actually a very simple and straightforward matter of turning over all of the rules because I had the scripted year playbook via the yearbook committee.

There was no “conspiracy." There was no diabolical plot. There was an adherence to traditional rules and routine. Teachers didn’t want trouble. They got their marching orders from the Ministry of Education, and followed the rules. I got that.

But I wanted to learn more than just what the government thought I should. So I made my own playground.

I graduated, skipped the prom, and then went off to university.

And then a civil war broke out, and I decided to become a Method Researcher.

But I remembered about those rigs I used to ticker with in high school and wondered if the real world really was like high school — only with more money.

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IV

J-school was my test-run of Method Research. By this time I had experience in real world journalism in short order, including a column in the Hamilton Spectator. I got the idea because I got the attention of 60 Minutes. I worked as a freelance reporter for the Burlington Post, and this is one year into my experiment.

Now I was getting a grad degree. I had enough under my belt to know what reflected the real world, and what was the academic-version of it.

So this would be my way of pushing and keeping notes of my results.

I didn’t have a yearbook committee to give me the crib sheet of the upcoming year, but for two of the three semesters, we were split in three groups for some classes on a rotating basis: one third would do radio, while third television, and one third print, then we’d rotate until we did assignments for all three media (no Internet at that time).

So what I could do was ask what the other two groups were up to, and then I’d say what I was doing. That would be sufficient.

As I was working on my assignments, I was lining up and planning for my upcoming assignments. I could actually work the phones and email and nab some high-profile newsmakers to give me interviews — some that usually didn’t grant media interviews at all, such as then controversial London police chief Julian Fantino.

By the time the first rotation hit, I had everything ready and sailed through. The second rotation went even better.

It didn’t always go to plan, but by then, I learned how to land on my feet, only one level above what my original plan was.

I had figured out to sit on my professor’s right side because when we were giving our pitches, he’d always start with the student on his right. One time, he decided to go the opposite direction, meaning I would give my pitch last.

And as my luck had it, the second to last student had the same pitch I did, and it was one of the rare times that I had no backup plan.

And it was my turn, and I said I didn’t want to say anything until I confirmed it, which was true. I promised I would check in within the hour.

I ran down to the bulletin board in the front lobby to see if anyone of note was speaking at the campus or anywhere downtown because you can’t just buy time unless you have a justification for it.

Peter C. Newman was promoting his new book — and one that I had bought and just finished reading. I called Maclean’s who gave me his secretary’s number, and he gave me an interview.

And he even autographed my copy.

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It was a high point for me on numerous levels. Newman was an excellent writer and researcher, but he was also an exceptional editor. I had written one essay on the history of Maclean’s and his notion of keeping a map of Canada with pins to ensure the entire country’s affairs were being covered was something that stayed with me, and something I used in my own work over the years, and, in fact, still do. When I wrote When Journalism was a Thing, I had my own map of the various parts of the profession, and made sure I covered it thoroughly.

It was a close call, and I learned a lot that day, from the contents of the interview to the importance of not getting complacent even when you figure out the rigs.

I interviewed a lot of different people back then, a lot who were reporters and editors of various media outlets, particularly after the Quebec referendum for a TV assignment about the media’s coverage of that watershed national event. I had set up an interview with one very popular radio host on a newstalk station that fired him and others and changed the format to music. He phoned me to let me know he’d still do the interview. He was gracious, and there are many times I wonder what happened to journalism because once upon a time, you could find humble and sensible people in the profession like him and Newman.

I often wonder if journalists realize how far down the rabbit hole they are. You had the twits, but you also had the square shooters. Eventually, the twits took over completely and their toxic mindset poisoned the industry beyond help.

I learned more about rigs in the real world. Some people tried to use them as fortresses and even silent weapons, but you also had people who challenged those rigs.

By the time I graduated, I had my hypotheses to test, my experiments I would conduct, my map of the landscape I vowed to explore, and the plan by which I would explore it. When you are an explorer and what you are exploring is a laboratory, you are part scientist, part detective, part cartographer, but also part rig detonator.

It was a fascinating way of being a journalist. It is like being a fictional character who suddenly realized she was in a comic book and then questioned the story structure, the plot devices, tropes, the author’s ideas, the illustrator’s choices, even the structure of the panels. There is something very meta about it, the way La Linea is.

But over time, I became very good at spotting and even predicting rigs.

We don’t need them. So many innovations are being denied because we think they give us power, and they merely take them away.

It is fear that keeps people holding on to them as if they were security blankets. It is irrational and counterproductive.

I understood that in high school. I understood it as a Method Researcher.

I still do, and it is the reason that I fight for a world without them…