Fame 2.0 – Stage Mom

Yesterday I was in a silly and uninspired mood. I started writing a blog entry that quickly took an unexpected turn for one reason and one reason only. I couldn’t get that ancient Irene Cara song ““Fame”” out of my head. (There is a great German expression for this phenomenon that translates as ““ear worm””.) The thing is, though, that the whole concept of fame is one that actually occupies my thoughts in a serious and enduring way.

Why is it that we grow up with the dream of becoming famous? And why is “being famous” equated with having a successful life?

I taught the Maslow Pyramid for years. I inherently understand the ideas behind it and find them illuminating. That is, until it comes to the point of “Esteem” with “social recognition” being the prerequisite for “Self-actualization”. That may have been true one hundred years ago when social connections were important for survival, but now in the era of TV (casting shows) and internet (trolling), can a person really be satisfied with the esteem of the people she actually knows, or does she have to pass muster with the entire virtual, only-ethereally connected international community of people she will never meet?

I think the majority of people would estimate my life as a small one. Particularly this weekend. With my husband away for three days, I have spent most of that time being an on-call chauffeur for my daughters. Yesterday my trips were from the dance studio (Hip Hop class) in one town to the music school (piano lessons) in another, then back to the tutoring center in the first town (extra French lessons) and back to the music school (concert rehearsal). I have two talented daughters -– one is a pianist and the other a singer -– and it is my job to do what I can to help them develop those talents while keeping their priorities straight. Wanting to be “a star,” – I tell them, – is a fantasy, not a goal.

In general, I try to let my girls make their own decisions, but once, when my singing daughter played with the idea of auditioning for one of those ubiquitous casting shows, the hammer came down fast and furiously on that thought. We have friends who have gotten a backstage view of what goes on and it is not pretty. Half the kids end up in depression and therapy afterwards. They get an identity thrust upon them (the cool guy, the bitchy girl, the rebel, the diva . . .) and have to play the role. They see their pictures in the newspapers and hear the judgments of ten thousand strangers. They can’’t recognize their instant “stardom” for what it isn’’t and are shocked when it all dries up 15 minutes after the season finale has been broadcast. It’’s the Hunger Games for real.

So no casting shows. But when a small and local songwriting contest was announced last year, we did encourage and help our daughter to enter. Just for the experience, we said to her, not with the expectation of winning. Two days into the public voting period I went completely stage mom. I checked the status of the voting compulsively – 15 times a day. “THIRD PLACE! WE ARE IN THIRD PLACE!!” My husband and I both pulled out all the stops in drumming up votes -– sending reminders to everyone in our cell phone contact lists, posting on Facebook . . . The music school and the town government and the local chapter of the Green Party joined us in spreading the word. We excitedly monitored her tally shooting upward in the final hours of voting.

Meanwhile, my daughter got increasingly weirded out. She had stopped reading text messages and disconnected WhatsApp. She never checked the voting herself and when we updated her on her ranking, she responded with ““oh.”” She watched us silently with a quizzical look: – “Who are you people and what have you done with my parents?”  she was asking. She was the only cool head in our household.

Looking back, I think the thing I am most proud of is my daughter’’s non-reaction reaction to the entire hullabaloo. She was perfectly happy with her Third Prize. She spent $100 of her winnings and put the lion’’s share of it right into the bank. She started working on a new song.

This all makes her sound so very mature when she actually isn’’t. She is emotional and impulsive, chaotic and sometimes scatterbrained. I have this mental image of her as a huge heart perched on top of two long toothpick legs. She has started reading 100 books and finished none of them. She has 100 friends and refers to half of them as her “best friend”. She is interested in everything and focused on nothing.

Except singing. In this one thing she has discipline, stamina and drive. She does it every day for hours on end with no prompting necessary.

Last year she sang in a music competition and as I watched her, something became clear to me. I was sitting right behind the jury, who were very harsh, – even a little feared – that year. While the contestants were singing, many of the jury members were shuffling through papers, rubbing their foreheads, passing critical looks back and forth, communicating their impatience in a myriad of non-verbal ways. Then my daughter’’s turn came and she walked on stage, introduced herself and started her first song. The jury sat up and paid attention. They smiled and whispered things to each other. They leaned forward and nodded their heads a lot. The other singers were older, more mature and frankly, many had better or at least more trained singing voices -– even I could hear that. I asked our piano teacher why my daughter was one of only two contestants to get a First Prize. He said, simply, it is because ““She is a singer.”” And the jury recognized that. It is part of her innermost self, her nature. It is what she does.

As a teacher I am always trying to help my students discover their talents and their passion. That one special thing that grabs them and doesn’’t let go, that steers the direction their life will take. As a mom, I can now say that when your child discovers her passion, you stop worrying about her. She will make her way.

And now I am full circle back to where I started. In my very first blog entry (of this round) I wrote ““I am a writer”.” I am quite sure that most people would interpret those words as ““I am an author”.” In other words, – “people read my work”. Lots of people. But I truly didn’’t mean it in that way. I meant that ever since my earliest journals, writing has been an integral part of my being – I do it out of necessity, for fun, for survival, for sanity, for clarity, for fulfillment, for catharsis, for self-actualization. The writing itself is the thing. Whether or not someone reads it later is . . . not the thing.

Still, I carefully select my readers (five now!), and deliver my writings to them with the instructions to praise me lavishly at intervals of two or three months. Being consistent is an admirable quality, but who wants to be that way all the time?

Framed

I’’ve written before about my husband’’s job as school principal. In addition to that, he is also the Chairman/Head/President of about 5 different organizations -– mostly sports related stuff. And as of today, we can add a new title to his list of accomplishments: convicted criminal.

The back story: After beginning the job as principal, he wanted to cut back on some of his other responsibilities and functions, but it turned out to be harder than he thought. He finally managed to get rid of one of the posts for a while, but when his replacement stepped down after just two years, my husband had to take over again. (Sigh.) The General Assembly and election of a new Board/Chairman took place in January and my husband duly informed the District Authority of the results.

Today he got a two-page letter in the mail that went like this:

____________________________________________________________________

Administrative Criminal Procedure
As Chairman and therefore, according to the existing Statutes, the named organizational administrator of the (City)-Union-School Sports-Initiative, you did not, in the outgoing legal correspondence (namely the official declaration of election results for the affiliated representatives of the organization), which was received by Supervisory Association Authority on 2 January 2015, cite the Central Association Registry identification number in compliance with the provisions of Section 18 Para 3 of the Law Governing Association Affairs of 2002.

You have therefore violated the following legal Ordinance(s):

Section 31, Point 4 lit. e.i.V.m. Section 18 Para 3 Law Governing Association Affairs 2002

Due to this administrative offense, the following penalty has been imposed on you:

€€15  or in the case this cannot be paid, an alternate term of imprisonment of:
0 days, 12 hours, 0 minutes

_____________________________________________________________________

In case the above is not completely clear – here is the situation:

He didn’’t include the club’’s number when he reported the election results and now he is going to jail for 12 hours (and 0 minutes).

I hope they feed him.

I am going to buy a frame for the letter. I’’ll hang it right next to his Decree from the Provincial Government ““Recognizing Outstanding Service to the Community”” and right above my favorite Haderer cartoon.

haderer vorschrift

 

 

(“Rules are rules!”)

Inspiring Stories

After reading an awesome blog entry today, I was inspired to tackle a topic that I have been dancing around since starting this. One of the worst experiences -– and oddly enough – best – of recent years. I am talking about my career at the Business School, which, to misquote T.S. Eliot, ended with both a bang and a whimper. But before I get into the unpretty details, I can’’t resist going back all the way to the hilarious start.

It was April-ish 1987 and I had just returned to this country after almost a year in Asia. The rekindling of my relationship with my now husband led to a change in my amorphous idea (as opposed to any real plan) of what to do next in life. My visit became a longer stay and I needed a job. So I did what no one here would ever do:– I went around the university from department to department, professor to professor, and asked for work. I did this because I had no idea at the time that the customary way of getting a university position was through the exchange of fluids or sharing a common gene pool with someone who was already there. Amazingly everyone I talked to that day stayed quite polite and kept their laughter on the inside. After the pleasant rejection from the fifth or sixth professor, I asked for suggestions of where to go next and the answer was the Dean of the Business School.

“This is a really nice office!” I thought as I sauntered into it. Despite my introduction and explanation of why I was there, the Dean was still confused. What on earth is this American girl doing here?? We talked in circles for a minute and then I said that Professor So-and-So had told me to go there. ““Aaachh soooo! Well if Professor So-and-So thinks there is work for you, then here you go!”” He handed me two forms and I stood there in confusion. “”Take those back to him and he will help you fill them out.”” I thanked him and left. Back in the Professor’’s office, I showed him the forms. “”Aaachh soooo! If the Dean thinks there is work for you, then I there you go!”” We filled out the forms and I had my first two courses.

I went from there back to my apartment where my roommate asked me how the first day of job searching had gone. I told him solala. All I had found were these two uni courses . . .

“”Are you joking!?”” he asked.

I stared at him.

““No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Why?””

He then explained to me how I had basically tripped and fallen onto the top rung of the teaching career ladder.

Over time, two courses became four, and then five, and even six for a while there, then back to five. Five years became ten, then 20, then forever. I started saying ““If someone had told me way back at the start that 25 years later, I would still be here . .. I would have laughed.”” But it was the kind of job you simply didn’’t give up easily. For one thing, where else could I find a position that gave me five months off a year?

I loved the work (the teaching part) but disliked the place. A huge, cold, concrete and metal building decorated in every color imaginable as long as it was a shade of gray. Relationships between colleagues also worked best when kept cool and distant –- we called it ““professional””. Secretly, we all knew just how unimpressive the work was in reality and that we didn’’t really deserve the knee-jerk respect that came with the position. Deans came and went, and so did the Heads of the Business Language Center,– all of whom seemed to be chosen according to two criteria: their (high) disinterest and (low) spine density. In the meantime, the secretary ran the computer systems and the computer systems ran the show.

My biggest problem, though, was seeing the education my Business students were getting. The message seemed to be “”Don’t look right and BY GOD don’t look left! Keep your eyes on the goal (profit)!”” Eventually I designed one of my courses around the idea of being as subversive as I could get away with. Tried to get them to question one established economic principle after another. Tried to get them to consider alternatives to our current system, to see that maybe, just maybe, we had not yet arrived at the be-all-and-end-all of possible ways to organize ourselves socially and economically. I got them talking, – then debating. Sometimes even wondering. Their English got better.

My career peaked with a nomination for a teaching prize, but at the very same time, behind the scenes, changes were in the works that would eventually cost me my job. The first was a brand new curriculum designed to drastically reduce the number of students in the (overrun) Business School within the first two semesters -– we are talking the Agent Orange of weeding programs here. And it worked -– there was an 80% reduction in the number of students between the first and second years when the new curriculum went into effect. This, of course, drastically reduced the number of Business Language teachers necessary -– from 7 down to 2. So who has to go? The ones with the lousiest contracts or the ones with internal reproductive organs? (And– in our case, those two groups overlapped almost perfectly.) But how do you get rid of them after so many years? Luckily they have all been working under a long chain of time-limited contracts (technically illegal in this country), – so let’s make a rule to break that chain: they all have to go on a forced, unpaid sabbatical every seven years.

My colleague and I got the news that this rule would apply to us and she quit the very next day. I decided to put up a fight. The first meetings went well. – I left the Dean’’s office with the assurance that “this would be fixed”. Then came week after week of hemming and hawing and conferences and delays and false promises and twists and outright lies. I took it all the way the university Vice-President’’s office, but then stopped short of taking her advice to make it a gender discrimination case. Not because the fight in me was entirely gone, but because of a phone call.

It came somewhere in the middle of all this. It was the Chairman of a little alternative school near where I live. They were looking for a native speaker to teach there and would I be interested? If that call had come a week or two earlier, I wouldn’’t have considered it seriously at all. A week or two later, probably not either. At that very moment, though, I thought “”What the heck? No harm in looking at the place.”” And I went for an interview.

It was lovely and homey. We sat in a bright colorful kitchen that smelled like coffee and apple pie. There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. The people were smiling and laughing and they looked like people who I could be friends with. The school was disorganized and improvised and lacked professionalism. Based on the eclectic collection of hand –me-down dishes in kitchen shelves, it clearly lacked funds as well. The kids were coming and going and everyone was on a first name basis. They had called me, so I chatted away with all of them, totally relaxed and then it hit me:– this was a job interview! So I pulled myself together and made an effort to make a good impression as a teacher with lots of experience. I (diplomatically) asked direct questions about the school based on its questionable reputation in the community and got honest unruffled answers. I drove home thinking that destiny was sending me a sign.

Shortly thereafter, my fight to keep my job at the Business School came to an abrupt end. By email, no less. And a forwarded email at that. The Dean had written my boss to thank him for his efforts in trying help me keep my job, but unfortunately, it wasn’’t going to work out. He should tell me to clear out my office and “give back any of the university’’s property” I might have. My boss had no better idea than to forward this email to me with the question “”What do you make of this??””

What I made of it was that it was a really fine send off for an employee of 25 years.

Two days later I drove to the university and completely cleared out my office – – a fairly Herculean feat that I only accomplished thanks to sheer rage. My secretary realized what was going on and called my boss who then rushed over. He told me it wasn’t necessary to clear out my office for the one semester, but I said I preferred it this way. He gave an impromptu and thin sort of retirement party speech interspersed with additions to the string of dubious assurances I had been hearing in the previous months. We made our awkward and insincere Goodbyes.

Before writing this, I looked at all the emails that had gone back and forth in that period (yes I still have them – I hold on to everything it seems). What I discovered in them, now after the fact, were 6 of the 7 classic stages of grief. Shock, denial, anger, depression, release, and return to love. (I skipped over the ““honor the departed”” one.) But what I liked the most from these emails was a sentence written immediately after everything was decided: ““Best case scenario: one year from now I will look back at all of this and be thankful that I was forced into this career change.””

It has been almost four years now. And I couldn’’t be more thankful.

On Pluto – (MYoM – Part 3)

Three weeks from now there is going to be a solar eclipse -– a pretty good one too from the sounds of it (providing the weather cooperates) -– and it is going to happen smack dab in the middle of a school day morning. So what do we do in a school like mine in a situation like this? We do an Astronomy project with the plan of having the eclipse as our grand finale. Right now I am all caught up in the ““Is Pluto a planet?”” debate: should I teach “the kids

“My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas””  or

“”My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos””??

When I got up this morning, I had no idea that I would spend hours researching these and other new developments in Astronomy. But it is what I love about my new current workplace:– the freedom to improvise, to create teachable moments out of what is going on in the world around us at any given time, to adjust course midway through the year in order to make use of unforeseen opportunities that come our way. And I get to learn so much in the process too.

I especially appreciate this part of my job whenever I talk to fellow teachers in regular schools. Not only have all the negative trends from the States come here (“educational reform” which basically boils down to standardized curricula, standardized testing, teacher bashing, and finding more and more ways to save money), but they have been forced through the same funnel as the century old rite of passage called ““Matura”” – or graduation exams – creating a toxic brew called “”Central Matura””. For competent and dedicated teachers, drinking this brew fills them with a feeling of frustration. It is all drilling and teaching to the test now – no fun anymore – – at least that is what so many of them tell me. The less competent ones are filled with fear -– like a bunch of Chicken Littles running around yelling “”The Matura is coming! The Matura is coming!”” My daughter has a French teacher like this – – it is their first year of the language and the Matura is 6 years away, but this teacher is drawing thick red lines under every little mistake and passing out the “F’’s” like crazy. When asked if this is really necessary, she replied “”By the Matura, they will have to know all this!””

We have standards! Yeeaayy!

The word ““standard”” is truly a strange one. As a noun it is mostly positively perceived – – a standard is a proof of quality, something to aspire to and attain and maintain. As an adjective it is not so rosy –- it is standard, average, the norm, ordinary. It begs the question of whether our school system has the goal of producing kids with standards or standard kids.

Let’’s imagine a world with fewer “standards”. You have thousands and thousands of teachers, all with their areas of special interest and enthusiasm, free to be a little creative in their teaching, but generally holding to a commonsense list of what kids should master in school to help them in their later lives. You have tens of thousands of kids and each one is taking away something different -– even from the very same teacher -– because it is almost impossible to control what, exactly, each one learns from the materials taught. (And this is why tests only show us what kids haven’’t learned and never what they have.) The sheer collective dimensions of everything learned by these tens of thousands of kids is astronomical, unmeasurable.

But let’’s try to measure it anyway. From the universe of the learnable, we will pick out a tiny microcosm that can fit into three hours’ worth of multiple choice questions. We will send these out to the tens of thousands of kids at the same moment on the same day and see how much of it overlaps with the knowledge each individual one has gained in his/her school years. The best trained, most drilled, most standardized of the kids will have the easiest time of it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Central Matura.

I have been so darn lucky in my career to have somehow sidestepped this entire system. During my years at the university, I was too small a fish to attract anyone’’s attention. The fact that no one was looking over my shoulder combined with the concept of “academic freedom” allowed me to teach according to my own ideas and personal “standards”. One of my first decisions was to get rid of final exams and replace them with a point system that allowed the students some freedom in deciding what they would learn and what grade they wanted to achieve. Overnight, the amount of work my students produced tripled. In the last few years of my career there, more and more changes and restrictions came and finally the whole thing dried up. But that is a story for another day.

Enter my little alternative schoolteacher career. Status-wise, a big step down and outward in this country’’s educational solar system. Metaphorically speaking, I’’m now on Pluto and the debate is still raging as to whether we are actually a real school/planet. And just like Pluto, we keep orbiting. Emitting our non-standard students for the society to try to measure and categorize. Refusing to be dwarfed.

“Nine Pizzas” it is.

Junkie

I am a junkie and it is my mom’’s fault. She is the one who introduced me into this new world. “Have you ever tried it?” she asked. “Oh, come on, you have to! It’s fun!” I resisted. I said it is not really my thing. She insisted –- even offered to procure it and set me up. “It will be your birthday present,” she said. Before I knew what was happening, she had made all the arrangements. That was 10 years ago. And in the time between then and now, I have used almost daily.

Mom tried the same thing with my sister, but she resisted. “I know myself,” she said, “I can’t have something like that around.” This went on for years, but Mom kept pushing. Finally, my sister caved and took her first try. Immediately, it seemed, there were three junkies in our family. But Mom didn’’t stop there.

At our last family reunion, I caught her pushing my brother. I admonished her. “Why are you doing this, Mom?” As an atypically self-aware addict, she immediately admitted that she didn’’t want to be alone in her addiction. The more people who shared her compulsion, the better. The more, the merrier. I tried to warn my brother. “Don’t do it! You will regret it! It will steal hours and hours away from your real life and you will feel such deep regret about the time wasted.” To this day I don’t know if he resisted or not.

It is not a subject we admit to openly. It’s more of a dirty secret. One that leads us to stealthy actions to hide our compulsions from the world, like an alcoholic secreting away the empty bottles in the late night hours and then throwing them away in someone else’’s trash cans. In this case, there are no bottles. Just the program statistics, telling me that I have played 33,081 games. Time to reinstall and set that number back to zero.

http://www.snood.com

I partook again today. For at least an hour, until my shoulder started to ache. In that time, I wrote this blog entry in my head.

The Thing About Mansions

Years ago my sister and her husband bought an old historic house on the lakefront at a time when their upkeep was so prohibitively expensive that the selling price was low. I think it was originally planned as more of an investment than a long-term move, but then some love for the brick and mortar ensued, and years later, they are still there.

Thank goodness.

The place is huge -– six bathrooms, seven fireplaces, two complete side-by-side kitchens (one for the servants), a ballroom on the third floor, front and back staircases, a winter garden room with two glass walls and a little fountain-– also known as “”the place houseplants go to die””. The house has a huge labyrinth basement, once creepily reminiscent of the Silence of the Lambs, until my sister had it painted bright blue. Most people get a little disoriented the first time they visit. The weird thing is that the longer you stay there, the smaller and homier the place feels. Partly it is because of my sister’’s decorative changes. Mostly it is because you simply feel welcome there the minute you walk through the door. Some homes have a ““Look but don’t touch!”” feel to them. You sit on the edge of your seat and are afraid to put your glass on the table because it might leave a stain. My sister’’s house shouts ““Go ahead – – plunk yourself down anywhere!””

And that is what we have done –on  both sides of the family. Over the years, various relatives have moved in with them for a while. Half of us have stuff stored in her attics. I stayed there for almost a year during grad school and if you add up all the summer visits since then, I have probably lived there for over two years all tolled. The house has also become the family gathering place for holidays, round birthdays, reunions . . .

On one of the first such occasions, my brother came with his two boys – now both grown men, but at that time they must have been around 8 or 9 years old. It was their first visit to the house and they began their exploration all wide-eyed. ““Is this a mansion?” “This is a mansion, isn’’t it?”” they asked me. And then they took off. I was sitting in the kitchen and every 10 minutes or so they would tear through the room on their way to the next foray, sometimes stopping to get their bearings. “”Oh, we are back here again . . .” ” On the next trip through, the younger one stopped and took a Coke from the refrigerator and then tore off again. Ten minutes later, he was back again, opening the fridge and about to grab another can.

““Andy,” ” I said, “”didn’’t you just take one 10 minutes ago?””

“”Yeah. But I don’t know where it is.””

““Tell you what. Why don’’t you go look for it first before you take a new one?””

Andy sighed and closed the refrigerator door.

“”That’s the thing I hate about mansions,” he said, “You can never find your Coke.””

Thank you, Miss Bertorello

This is my 19th blog and I have decided to celebrate it. Two months ago, when I (re-)started this experiment, I fully expected to do it two or three times and then lose . . . interest? nerve? direction? time? What I didn’’t expect, was how much fun it would be. How satisfying.

It has already become a part of my daily routine, my recurring thoughts. I look forward to the late evenings when the house goes quiet, the chance of interruption diminishes, the dogs are snoring. I click on Floatsome and catch up with my best friend’’s current thoughts. I think about the day. I get an idea – or more accurately, an idea gets me. I start typing. And I see where the words take me.

Today they are taking me into the deep deep past. Because I realized that the actual physical exercise of writing – – touching letter keys on the laptop –-  is only that: a physical exercise. The actual writing has been going on in my head for a while already . . . The words are already aligned and ready to spill. Sometimes they have been in the making the whole day – after a thought-provoking or relate-able experience sets my mind off in search of the perfect phrasing. Sometimes the words have been in the making for years – some significant memory that has replayed itself over and over in my mind, each time only slightly varied in the exact verbal formulation, because, as it turns out, I don’t remember in scenes, or sights, or smells. I remember in voices and words.

As I continue on back into the past to find the source of my writing, I land in my Junior year of High School. 35 years ago. My creative writing teacher, Miss Bertorello is handing back our semester project journals. I am a bit nervous, because I didn’’t follow her instructions about the number of entries, the lengths, the types of writing we should include. . . I open my journal up and find a single sentence of commentary:

“If I could write like you, I would be starting my first novel. A++++++++++++”

Was it those words that set me off? Or did it go back even further? To my first boyfriend, Scott, wobbling for a split second on his bike and ending up in a casket. That final straw in what I would later name the “Death March” that had invaded and occupied my life from the age of 8 onward. It began when my father suddenly died in his sleep one night and culminated during that phone call Up North at age 15 when the news of Scott was spewed all over me. In between, in intervals of 6 to 9 months, came the deaths of my best friend’’s dad, then her grandmother’’s, then her mother’s, then my grandfather’’s and my aunt’’s . . . But it was Scott that sprung the coils.

Miss Bertorello spent many an hour reading my grapplings with all of this and she did it without question or comment on the events themselves. That freed me to let it all spill out onto paper. She read about holding hands on the way to 31 Flavors and stolen moments alone in Pickle Alley after we managed to ditch the rest of the pack. She read about my first kiss, my first break-up, about Scott’’s disgusting and uncool handkerchiefs, his red uncombed hair, the barbarity of his open casket and the incompetence of the funeral home employees who tried to mask his head injuries with clownish make-up. She read about the girl who criticized me for wearing a beige skirt to the funeral. She read about how the house he lived in across the street became hollowed and abandoned and scary despite the fact that his family continued to live there.

Whoa.

I started this blog entry with the idea of celebrating. I am having so much fun, I said! And look where I am now. Time to bring this back up and into the light.

Here, now, a thousand years later and a zillion miles away, I still love Scott. And I still love Miss Bertorello. They live inside me.

And a zillion days from now, I hope, no, I know, I will live inside other people.

Whether they read me or not.