I’m Being Followed

I just got a notification about a new follower. I clicked on the name and it turns out to be a business selling solutions for cleaning your car and home. I assume they found me because one of the tags on my last post was “home life”. There are boxes to click on this site with tips for cleaning your brushes, stove burners, yoga mats, toilets, floors, ovens, freezers, skillets, irons, and sneakers.

Boy have they got the wrong woman.

 

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We’ve Got Teenagers

hiking sticksEver since my kids could walk, hiking has been one of our favorite family activities. We have even had week long vacations in mountainous areas where we hiked to different lodges each day. We all had our special walking sticks which we whittled and painted ourselves. At each lodge we would buy the metal badges to nail on to our sticks. Actually, the girls and I did it – my husband refused. He said that was something for the German tourists and no self-respecting Austrian would partake. He also would start speaking in a thick German accent every time we walked into a lodge. (“Mensch! Hier ist es ja spitze! Und die Pfannkuchen sind lecker!”) We ignored him and kept collecting our badges and working toward our Golden Hiking Pins. And I am glad, because not only did these badges work as a motivation for the girls, but they also turned our walking sticks into little treasures that I will keep until I die.

When the girls were very young, one of our favorite routes was the Teichalm-Sommeralm route in Styria. It begins going uphill for the first hour – but nothing too strenuous – and then after the peak, there is a long slow downhill walk through the fields of happily grazing cows, forests and streams. The tavern at the end is lovely and has great food. We chose this kid-friendly route months ago when we were planning a hiking day with 6 other families, all with kids ranging from 2 to 15 years old. It was scheduled for today, but during the past week, one family after another bailed out for various reasons. The weather forecast did not look that rosy either. Yesterday, our girls worked up the courage to tell us they also didn’t really want to go – especially now that all the older kids in the pack had dropped out too. My husband is a sentimental family guy. He took it sort of hard at first, but then said he understood. Secretly, I wanted to bail too, but I didn’t have the heart to do that to him.

So this morning we got up early, and as our daughters slept happily, we got dressed, packed our provisions, put Dog Four in the back of the car (Dog Three is too old for a hike of this length) and took off. It was eerily quiet in the car. That was the moment of realization: we now, officially, were raising teenagers. It was the first time they hadn’t wanted to go along. Our life of being a twosome again was beginning. This was our future. Him, me, and our grandchild dog.

My husband repeated his statement from the previous evening that he understood why they didn’t want to come. I think he was trying to convince himself. We talked about the girls for the entire hour-long drive.

“Actually, we are lucky they went along with us for as long as they did,” I said to him. “And they still like spending time with us, you know. There will be more hikes.”

He was silent.

“And there will be grandchildren,” I added.

“Yeah, maybe. In about ten years from now.”

When we arrived at the starting point and met up with the other families, my husband put on a brave face and joked about our state of shock at being childless. He announced that this was our first tour as an old senior citizen couple. We let Dog Four out of the car and she promptly ran off, ignoring our calls. We wished, once again, that we had done a better job of training her. That Montessori-style Puppy School we took her to a couple of times hadn’t done the trick. I chased her around the tavern for a while until she pooped in the middle of the playground. I sighed and went to clean it up.

And then something happened. She came over to me and sat down, letting me put the leash on her. We set off and noticed that she was great with the kids, didn’t bother other hikers, and didn’t seem to even notice the cows. Could we risk letting her off the leash? We decided to try and from that moment on, she was . . . perfect. She came when we called. She never went more than 100 yards away from us. She even heeled when necessary. She approached other unleashed dogs in a carefully friendly way and played with them nicely. People actually made comments to us about how well trained she is.

My husband noted that she is only one year old, adding “so we should have her for at least another ten years.”

Hesitantly Going Where Everyone Has Gone Before

One word in the title of my last post has set my mind off on a warped journey into the past and future. Bear with me while I set up a little experiment.

When I was in one of my last seminars of grad school, we all had to present our Master’s Thesis topics to the other students. I remember there being a lot of mutual disinterest during those sessions. You’d think grad school would be stimulating place to be – a lot of educated people with similar passions discussing important themes – but, in reality, the students were extremely competitive. They formed little factions with the Cultural Studies crowd all scoffing at the “classics” of the privileged and therefore politically offensive “canon”, while the Literature crowd ridiculed the really awful writing of modern mainstream bestseller fodder. The Creative Writers walked around with their heads in the clouds and the one Linguistics student just took a lot of notes. They all knew secretly that they were being educated for one job and one job only: being a college professor. They also knew there were many students for few such positions and that a lot of them were going to be working in bookstores. And what about all those important themes? Well, looking back, it seems to me I spent the vast majority of those two years talking exclusively about sex and death.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved grad school, but I am not sure I would have liked the place if my strange circumstances hadn’t provided me with a little emotional distance from the feuding factions. You see, I was actually already living in Austria at the time and teaching at a university here. I was on sabbatical for 9 months so that I could go back to the States to finish my degree. Not for any professional reason, really, but simply because I had always planned to do so and my husband was willing to hold down the fort while I was away. I also thought it would be a unique chance to reconnect with my home country – to not be a foreigner for a while.

That last part didn’t work out too well. A few weeks into my studies, I was small talking with a fellow student on the elevator ride to our class. He asked me a few questions and then suddenly interrupted my answers with “Oh! You’re the Austrian!” I was really taken aback (and in my mind, I protested loudly: I am not! I’m as American as you are!) But that was not the biggest distinction in my fellow students’ minds. There was also the fact that I spoke German fluently (the foreign language requirement being a big hurdle in their studies for most of them). My worst crime, however, was being employed. “You have a JOB?!?!” That one freaked everyone out. I could see them thinking: Then what are you doing here??

So, I was in the seminar, listening to the topics of my fellow grad students’ theses. They were all over the place and the only commonality was that each topic was self-centrically chosen, my own included. (I compared the literature of exiled authors to those who had emigrated voluntarily.) There was the guy who was doing a Jungian analysis of some poor slob who would surely have regretted publishing anything had he known what this guy would make of it. His talk was so thick with psychoanalysis-babblespeak that most of us understood zippo. Then there was the guy who was writing his thesis on the topic of “Shit”. That one summed itself up. One female student was writing about the amazing and inspiring works of her favorite author and idol, who just happened to be the professor giving the seminar. No one liked that girl. Including the professor. The most memorable topic by far came from another female student: “The Emotional Politics of Public Confession”. She was tracing the development of literature becoming more and more self-reflective and self-revealing – in a word “confessional”. Increasingly, authors were “coming out” and saying “This is how I am. Now forgive and accept me.” The more she talked, the more interested I got. Considering the fact that this was in the earliest days of the internet and pre-dated self-publishing and blogs – this woman was downright prescient.

Of course, it was the title of my post yesterday that got me thinking about all this again.

Is that what we bloggers are doing? – confessing? To be honest, I haven’t seen my own that way, but . . . how can I be certain?

I could use the scientific method to test this question.

Step 1: Make an observation.
Step 2: Ask questions about the observation.
Step 3: Form a hypothesis and make predictions.
Step 4: Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment.
Step 5: Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject hypothesis, modify if necessary.
Step 6: Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory.

Steps 1 and 2 have been done already. Steps 5 and 6 can only be done after I post this. So here is Step 3 (the hypothesis):

If I confess something here in this blog and it feels different than my previous posts, then this blog is not confessional in nature. (Except for this post of course.)

That leaves Step 4: Make a confession and publish it. Let it be known that it took me a long time to come up with one. Being a happily law-abiding heathen, I have no experience to draw on. But here we go:

Despite my education, I am a Star Trek fan. A real one. I could even imagine going to one of those conventions someday in a Star Fleet uniform. I find Star Trek stupidly comforting – escapism at its finest. I have watched every episode of every series multiple times. Actually, seeing as how I am confessing here and should tell the truth, I have to amend that last sentence. I have heard every episode. I mean, there isn’t a lot of visual stimulation or tremendous acting going on, so once you know how the actors look and sound, it is not really necessary to watch them. I usually play Snood, or Tetris, or do Sudokus, or knit while listening to Star Trek episodes and just glance up at the screen once in a while. Way back in the day, I watched on Sky TV. Then Sky TV turned private, so the picture was scrambled, but the sound was still fine. I continued to “watch” and didn’t find much of a difference in the experience. My husband would find me doing this sometimes. It worried him.

There. The deed is done. Now, all I have to do is click on “Publish” and wait. See if I feel any different. See if people forgive and accept me.

“Helm, Warp One. Engage!”

Confessions of a Phytoplankton

When my old blog platform announced its imminent death last July, I packed up and moved to WordPress. I had to start over from scratch building up a community of like-minded reader-writers and to do so, I occasionally dove into the Reader to explore tags similar to the ones I use. The huge variety and sheer number of blogs disoriented me. I quickly realized I was a tadpole in the ocean.

No, something even smaller.

Plankton, maybe.

Or that microscopic matter that plankton eats.

If not for the loyal support and mutual commiseration of my first and best blog friend, I might have just steered toward the first hungry fish and called it a day.

Weird things happened. My new blog went virtually unnoticed for weeks while, over at the old platform (where I no longer posted), things hummed along as always, statistically speaking. They even got better. The world of deep data processing seemed to be telling me that the way to get more readers was to stop writing.

Then one day, a star symbol on my WordPress page turned red. I clicked on it and found out that some unfamiliar name liked me. Someone liked me!! I clicked on the unfamiliar name and a screen popped up that looked like a business website. Either that or some syndicated blogger with 23 zillion followers. I’d been discovered! That was quick!

Before long, I realized that likes are not all alike. Some are genuine, somewhat shy attempts of other plankton to establish contact; others come from computer generated algorithms targeting the tags of new bloggers.

Then came the first comments. That was something different. Real people writing responses, not just clicking a “Like” button. The former “I’ve been discovered!” turned into the more realistic “Someone out there noticed me!” But not all comments are alike either.

“Great writing! I think there’s something here!” wrote another unfamiliar name. A click on that comment directed me to another commercial looking page. I sighed and closed the page, wondering how many more computer viruses I had just added to my collection.

But then . . . there were also real voices. Clicks led me to real blogs of a real people who had some interest in common with me. I read. I responded. I liked. Connections were made.

Now . . .

There is the Canadian woman writing about her experiences with her beloved autistic son. There is the British woman who had been adopted years ago by parents of a different race. There is the American woman who, right now, is in that awful wait-and-hope phase of adopting a child. There is the high school friend with whom a friendship has been rejuvenated. There is a German woman who can appreciate everyday moments and turn them into poetry. And there is the faithful old friend without whom, this would be a blank page.

Together, they are already enough to keep me steering away from the nearest hungry fish.

Cool School Kids – (MYoM – Part 16)

As part of our project on the refugee crisis, I had the kids do a role play this week and they blew me away. The scenario was a simplified version of what we are experiencing at the moment:

refugee role play

I put them into four groups representing 1) the refugees and migrants, 2) the government of Country A, 3) the government of Country B, and 4) international relief organizations like the Red Cross or UNICEF. Each group got an article and a list of various opinion statements to read. They had an hour to work on their positions, reasons, and proposals. I sent them off to separate corners to prepare, thinking “Oh my god, what have I done? – this is way too hard for them!”

But then, as I walked around from group to group, it struck me how focused and seriously they were working. They asked smart questions and slipped more and more into their roles. The Country B group, in particular, geared themselves up to do some play acting and to say things they didn’t really feel or believe.

As they worked, I set up a serious looking conference table, complete with group-name tags, maps with statistics, and a little replica of the Statue of Liberty in the center. At the arranged time, they all came to the table and took their seats, and then . . . silence.

“Why don’t we start with the refugees?” I asked. “Can you tell us where you are? How did you get there? What it is like there? and What do you want?”

One girl from the group slowly started to speak and then picked up the pace as she got into her role. Suddenly she was interrupted by Leo from Country B.

“How do we know if you are all refugees? You could be from anywhere!”

Another silence.

Then Anja from the same group piped up. “I believe what my colleague means to say is . . . .”

From that point on I could just sit back and listen. They went at it for over an hour. They brought up the Geneva Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They discussed whether it is better to break those rules or the asylum policy agreement of the European Union. They talked about borders and the Schengen countries’ shared concerns. They argued about push and pull factors of migration. They talked about the source of the crisis and whether they had contributed to it – whether they were partly responsible. They came up with reasonable proposals and possible solutions.

And they never once got distracted or silly.

Near the end it became clear to them that they weren’t likely to find a solution. I asked them if anyone wanted to say something before we ended the role play and then said “Okay. You can drop your roles now and say anything you want.”

Anja immediately exploded. She almost shouted “I DON’T BELIEVE A SINGLE THING I JUST SAID!!” And then she smiled and laughed. We all did. Another boy added, “Boy! Politics makes everything so hard!”

Did I mention that they are all 12 and 13 years old?

Commendable

I wrote yesterday about my job teaching English in a Korean language school almost 30 years ago. In the process, while looking through my memorabilia, I found the recommendation letter my bosses gave me when I left.

_____________________________

March 3, 1987

To our minds, C. was so diligent and seems to work hardly. She employed at LTRC since 8 months. At that time, she taught her students too much over enough than anything.

During her staff teacher life she comprised much valuable materials. How happy we are! Her students said us they are never boring and oftenly had a funny time.

She always entered the LTRC every time. She never departed her office until prepared her work. Almost of teachers thinks she has generous mind. Frankly speaking, C. looks like a gentlewoman. Our thinking, C. is the most teacher we have met before.

Nowadays, we thank her for her effort. We very recommend her a job at another where. You had better have her to your office, couldn’t it?

Sincerely speaking,

T.K.
D.F.
Senior teachers

____________________________________

Clearly, my work there was done.

Kibun

I intended to write (ironically) about “compassion fatigue” yesterday, but then went off unexpectedly on a completely different track. My little detour into culturally specific emotions then got me reminiscing about another experience, so that is where I am going now, instead of back to the original idea.

Or that is where I would be going, if I could just get Robert Frost’s voice out of my head.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Whatever.

This time I am 25 years old and living in Southeast Asia. During my 10 months there, I spent most of that time teaching English to Koreans in a place called the “Language Teaching Research Center”. A fancy name for a place that was only slightly more legitimate than the 100 other language schools in the city of Seoul. The country was gearing up to host the Olympics at the time. Motivated by national pride (and “encouraged” by the military dictatorship), it seemed like all the citizens were trying to learn some English. That meant any native speaker with even the shoddiest photocopy of an obviously fake high school diploma could get a well-paid teaching job. When I went in for my first interview, the managers looked at my Bachelor’s Degree in English, teaching certification, and résumé showing 2½ years of experience and seemed to be thrown for a loop. One sputtered out “Oh! . . . you’re a real teacher!” and the conversation immediately switched course, with them trying to convince me how great it was to work there.

And it was great. We used something called “The Silent Method” which had one or two similarities to Montessori principles. The teacher was supposed to be in the background, not the center of the classroom, just facilitating the students when necessary. We did only speaking lessons – no homework, no tests, no writing of any kind. We had a couple of cabinets filled with materials separated into 6 or 7 different levels and could use whatever we chose to (or just improvise). There was only one iron-clad rule: don’t use any materials from a different level (so that, as students moved up, there would be no repeats.) Terms lasted two months, with the clients coming five days a week for one and half hour classes. The students, housewives and self-employed came in the mornings and afternoons, the working and business people in the evenings. By my final terms there, I could easily teach six groups a day with no stress. The cash poured in and for a short period, I was a millionaire. At least that was what my bank balance said. Of course that was in Korean won. Once I had exchanged the wons on the black market for dollars, it was a stack of bills small enough to be smuggled out of the country inside the pants leg of some jeans packed in my suitcase.

As cheesy as the method might sound, it was actually exactly what most of our students needed. They had graduated from high school with eight years of English behind them, but on the first day of Level One, they all could only say the same three sentences: “Europe have no culture, no history. Korea have 5000 year history. Korea have four distinct seasons.” If I asked them “What is your name?” they were stumped.

For me, teaching there became my own personal odyssey through all the facets of groupthink – my own and theirs. It started with the names. We addressed the students with Miss, Mrs., or Mr. and their family names – unfortunately about half the country has the same last name. (One of my fellow foreign teachers of the fake diploma variety claimed that he started every new course by saying “Okay – all the Kims go to that side of the room. All the Lees go to the other. The rest of you, get out!”) To make matters worse, that cliche about “they all look alike” was unfortunately true for me – at least at the start of my stay there. But as the months passed, my eyes got trained in distinguishing different features, and by the end of my stay, they all looked completely different to me. The funny thing was . . . they said the same thing about white people all looking alike.

One big perk was the Korean respect for teachers and authority figures of all kinds. They were also very generous and had the custom of giving teachers gifts at the end of the course. Sometimes, they also took me out for dinner. It was at the first few of these occasions that I discovered the intensity of pressure the Korean culture puts on its members to conform. I realized that “groupthink” could become . . . (I wanted to write “groupfeel”, but that sounds slightly obscene) . . . a shared emotion.

In the restaurant, we all sat on the floor around one low table, in other words, at the same level and in a way that everyone could see everyone else and no one had their backs turned to anyone. We were served different dishes that were all placed in the middle so that everyone ate from the same bowls. At some point in the evening, one of my students would stand up and sing a song – right there in the middle of the restaurant with no accompaniment. Once one person did it, each person in the circle was expected to do the same, one after another.

Eventually, it got around to me.

I didn’t sing. And I certainly didn’t sing alone. And in a public place, for heaven sakes.

I waved them off when they told me it was my turn. I tried the “Thanks but no thanks” tack. I tried to explain how impossible it would be for me; I explained it was a cultural thing . . . They were clearly disappointed, even disturbed. Some were adamant. “You have to,” they told me, “or you will destroy the Kibun.”

The non-conformist in me went into overdrive. And since I didn’t know what “keyboon” was, I had no problem destroying it. Better that than my pride.

Throughout the following months, I slowly learned the significance of Kibun. The Koreans translated the word as “harmony”, but it was really much more than that. Any time a group formed – in a classroom, in a family, in a restaurant – a “group feeling” developed and everyone there could sense it – like a shared emotion. Everyone was responsible for maintaining it, keeping it positive, harmonious. The group was more important than its individual members, each one of whom stood up in turn and sang that fact out to the others.

I had more dinners with classes, but had the foresight to announce beforehand and as a precondition that there would be no singing from this American individualist. And there never was.

Now, I am telling all this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.

My thirty years since then have been spent mostly in Austria, which is not only geographically somewhere between the USA and Korea, but culturally as well. Especially when it comes to the relative importance of the individual versus the group (“STREBER! STREBER!”). In that time, I also had my own kids and started teaching gradeschoolers – both of which brought singing back into my life. I sometimes wonder – if the person I am today were back in that Korean restaurant, would I sing?

In the end, it might not matter. In all probability, my truly very bad singing voice would have been just as deadly to Kibun as my not singing at all.

I took the road less traveled by
and it didn’t make much difference.