Tuesdays with Dafi

During a small family gathering today at my mother-in-law’s house, I got . . . scolded . . . admonished . . . reprimanded . . . by my sister-in-law.  And by my younger sister-in-law, no less. (A younger s-i-l who should actually be just a little in awe of me, a bit less uppity in my presence . . . I mean, if we were in China, I could boss her around and she’d just have to stay silent and take it.) What she scolded me for was how little I have been writing in my blog lately. Now that is a sweet thing to hear for any blogger – especially one who worries that certain friends and relatives are only reading out of a sense of obligation. I used to think this about her.

Every Tuesday, I take the train to the university to teach my course there. Two years ago, I got a new (old) lecture hall that had only one saving grace – it was right next door to my sister-in-law’s office. Once I realized this, I called her from the train one day and said “Hey Dafi! I’ve got a half hour to kill. What are you up to?” (She never let me forget that formulation.) What followed were weekly short get-togethers in which she gave me free coffee and all the latest family news that my husband forgot to tell me about. I’m not quite sure what she got out of these talks. Not only am I a terrible source for juicy gossip, but, once when I arrived at her office, I noticed my blog on her computer screen. “Oh no!” I thought, “she’s cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!”

One wonderful thing about Dafi is that when you think a thing like that, you can feel free to just go ahead and say it out loud to her too.

“Oh, no!” I said, and then asked her, “Are you cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!?”

She laughed and said no. I didn’t completely believe her.

All the more reason that today’s scolding made me feel good. Even if it came from a younger sister-in-law who has no business scolding her elder.

So, here’s a post dedicated to Dafi and a promise to everyone I have been neglecting on the reading/commenting side that summer is here, time for catching up is upon me, and I will be back. As I have warned many of you at times before  – “watch out for incoming!!”  And once the bombardment starts, you can all say:

“Thanks, Dafi! Thanks a lot.” (How you intone this is your own choice.)

______________________________________

A Note on the Name “Dafi”:
  1. it is pronounced “dah-fee”
  2. it is spelled d-a-f-i by me, d-a-f-f-i by my husband, d-a-f-f-y by others
  3. for years I thought it had something to do with Daffy Duck
  4. according to the husband, it comes from the movie “Some Like It Hot” and Jack Lemmon (in drag) as Daphne. (Pronounced in German “dahf-na” which turned into “dahf-nee”, which lost its “n” and became “dah-fee”, which is where I came into the family and took up the nickname and to this day, 30+ years later, still use it, even though no one else does anymore.)

 

A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.

 

“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

Women’s Work

It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.

It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!

Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.

(Am I being unfair?)

This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man.  At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,

“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”

“No. My mom does it.”

I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.

“What is so funny?” he asked.

“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”

My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:

“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”

 

That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.

What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”

Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.

At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2.  I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?

What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.

So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.

 

People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or  government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.

I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.

I tell myself.

 

 

Mission Creep

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 35)

 

It is my sixth year in my beloved little alternative school. Before that I spent 25 years teaching in a university Business School. The two worlds could not be more different. In fact, it strikes me now as just a little strange how these two worlds can co-exist on the same planet. No . . . “co-exist” is not the right word. Each of these worlds politely ignores the existence of the other. The Business faculty continues to preach the established world economic order and does very well for itself in the process. The Hummingbird School lives on a perpetual shoestring, finding creative new ways to buck the system, continually re-defining itself always in contrast to establishment principles. If I had to create a social/political/economic Venn diagram of these two worlds, it would look like this:

venn

The little red dot is me.

From the very first day of my employment there, I represented an intersection point between this alternative world and most everything outside of it. Over these six years, I have slowly staked out my place in this very complex place as an insider/outsider. The only teacher whose own children do not attend the school. The only teacher who does not participate in the parental organizational structures or pay dues/school fees or commit 30 hours a year to janitorial and organizational duties. The only teacher for whom this work is only a job and not part of some larger, life changing communal project.

So far I have gotten away with it. I’m an integrated foreigner, allowed to be a little different now that I have learned the language. But it also works out because slowly and surely, I have increased my voluntary contributions to the school. I have taken over supervision of the Secondary group. I have taken over the school book ordering. I have taken over the organizing of photos and make the school year slideshow. I’ve started offering lessons to the grade school and kindergarten kids. I attend the weekly team meetings in which we basically administrate the entire school as a group of five. I’ve arranged excursions and camping trips and weeks in London. I’ve gone to seminars to learn more about Montessori. I’ve attended weddings and parties and team-building weekends. I’ve listened to others for hours on end.

I didn’t envision most or all of this when I started. It just happened. When you work with a bunch of idealistic people who are all willing to pull extra unpaid weight, you do it too or you go. It is mission creep. I keep re-evaluating the extent of my commitment and where the borders are.

All of the above became an issue again, because we had a “Supervision” today. It is sort of a group therapy for the teaching team led by a psychologist/coach and it was my fourth experience with this. For the fourth time, I basically listened like a voyeur to other people working out their problems with the help of a mediator and in front of witnesses. This time it was all about one incident way back in fall. The two coworkers involved both felt that the other had acted arrogantly. There were tears.

Some of my thoughts during the session:

“Geez, I have so many other things I could be doing right now.”

“I had no idea these two had a problem with one another.”

“Why don’t they just apologize and move on?”

“Boy, I am really really insensitive compare to everyone else here.”

“This whole week has really sucked.”

“How, pray tell, is this going to help?”

“I wonder if anyone else here feels like I do?”

After about an hour of these two coworkers expressing (non-violently!) their facts, their feelings and their wishes, it didn’t seem to me that they were any closer to an understanding than at the start. A bizarre silence ensued.

“Please don’t ask us to weigh in on this!” I thought.

“So, I think it would be good if the rest of you now weighed in on this,” the mediator said.

 

This is my world now.

Strangely enough, it was memories of my old, coldly professional and highly competitive workplace that made me feel better. I imagined my former colleagues – almost all of whom were arrogant – in this situation. A bunch of old, white-haired (male) college professors in suits, sitting in a circle on the floor, two of them facing one another, looking into one another’s eyes, each telling the other in turn how their statements or behavior had made them feel, with the rest of the faculty watching and then weighing in with understanding and constructive statements. Then the dean asks the two professors if the situation is resolved for them and adds how deeply appreciated they both are as part of the team. The dean then hands one of the professors a tissue . . .

The mental image made me laugh.

Soooo . . . .

Three hours of my today were basically lost and I will never get them back. My butt hurt and my back ached at the end of them. I’ll add those three hours to the mission creep tally.

But in the grander scheme of things, I wasn’t cold. And I am still glad to be here and not back in the real world.

Rainmaker Riposte

First – a re-blast from the past . . .

Metaphorical Money

March 6, 2015

Over the years of listening to hundreds of business student discussions, it started to occur to me that the way we talk about money –– the idioms and metaphors we use –– have changed over the decades. I started collecting those idioms and metaphors and discovered that they generally fell into three distinct groups. One for each of the three physical states any substance can take: solid, liquid, and gaseous. Let me explain.

A hundred or so years ago, money had the physical properties of solids. It was dough or bread. You could hold a big wad of cold hard cash in your hand or jingle the coins in your pocket. You could stockpile money, put it where your mouth is, throw it around, or stuff it in your mattress. Like Scrooge, you could stack up your wealth against someone else’s or squirrel it away. You could pinch pennies, hold the purse strings, have money to burn or have money burn a hole in your pocket. Money talked.

Then something changed –– maybe it was abandoning the gold standard or deregulation. Who knows? But it seemed that the revved up economic motor got hot and money melted. Liquidity was born and savings turned into cash flow and liquid assets. Companies no longer went broke, they became insolvent. They didn’t fuse, they merged. A small amount of money was a drop in the bucket. More and you were awash in it. See a good investment? Then dive in! Some of the money evaporated. Some of it trickled down.  But even in its liquid form, there were still some natural barriers to keep money contained; you could pool it, but not for too long, because then it would go stagnant. Money had to keep circulating. And some of those pools had bubbles in them.

The economy heated up a little more and then, in 2008, came the “Great Economic Meltdown” which strikes me as a misnomer. The economy had been melting for a good long while. This was more like the ”Great Economic Vaporization”. We suddenly discovered that money had become a gaseous substance somewhere along the way. At first it had seemed to be everywhere and limitless; you could just breathe it in. You could make money out of thin air. No need to produce anything or do actual work –– let the Chinese do that. We could just buy and resell stuff to make money because it was not connected to anything on the ground anymore. The FIRE economy (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate – in which nothing is actually produced) ascended, while roads, bridges and schools crumbled. But in money’s new form, it started, like most gases, to rise upward, collecting in the stratosphere. For the 95% of us down here on earth, huge portions of it simply floated away; there was suddenly no financial oxygen around anymore, no cash flowing or trickling, nothing solid or tangible to put in your pocket. Poof. Gone.

What now? As I admitted at the start, I am a language teacher, not an economist –– or a chemist for that matter – but it seems to me there is no way to get all those escaped gasses back. And simply printing more money as some have suggested won’t do anything to reverse the chemical processes that have been set in motion. I think we have to start building things again. Let’s start with things that keep the planet cool. Like wind turbines. And solar panels. And schools.

I generally don’t like re-blogging stuff (even when it was written at the start when I had a readership of one), but I have found myself returning to this old idea lately because it still seems completely relevant to what is going on today, and more particularly in how economic issues have been dealt with in this election. One hears continually that decades of increasing financial frustrations turned into rage (with some help from a well-meaning socialist senator and a de-meaning wannabe strongman), leading us into our current political quagmire. Now we are being asked to choose between the classic medicines of the political left and right. Put her in office and she will try to push through her hundred ideas of how the government can help us. Give him the chance and he will wield the magical powers of money to save us.

Although I definitely fall in the camp that sees government as a useful and necessary institution, I believe now that old ways of thinking are no longer valid. For over thirty years of deregulation, wealth has slowly consolidated upward as the lion’s share of the tax burden shifted consistently downward to lower earners. All of these developments have made our economy precariously top-heavy and in constant danger of tipping.  Left/right solutions no longer make sense for an up/down problem. The core of our predicament is neither political nor economic – it is chemical . . . and mythological.

Ironically, the arguments behind three decades of deregulation have been disproven by their own implementation.

 

Myth #1: “Job Creators”
Let large companies keep their money and they will reinvest it, creating new opportunities for workers.

In reality, the vast majority of people are employed either by government or by smaller companies. When the large ones have more money, is it their first instinct to think “let’s go hire more people”? Or do they go shopping for smaller competitors, take them over, fire employees with redundant positions and make those remaining take on the extra workload? Seeing as how the prime directive of corporations is now “shareholder value”, the choice seems clear.

 

Myth #2: “Dishwasher to Millionaire”
A person can work their way from nothing to fabulous success.

At some point I learned that a person now needs money to make money. Horatio Alger might disagree, but it seems to me that there are more people working harder and harder just to decrease the rate at which their standard of living is sinking. We have become Gatsby’s, believing “in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us . . .So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 

Myth #3: “Taxation without Representation”
Paying taxes means “the government is taking your money”. You are a much better judge of how your money should be spent than those bureaucrats in Washington.

Really? Personally, I don’t want to have to home school my kids, check the quality of my food, build my own roads, put out my own fires, dig my own well, confront the burglar myself, build my own generator, drive my injured friend to the hospital (on roads I built myself) or pay every individual (home-schooled) doctor out of my own (already empty) pocketbook (-and I haven’t even had lunch yet!) I don’t want to dine on cat food when I am seventy or build my own playground or define and defend my own rights.

And I don’t want others to have to do all that alone either.

Until the day arrives when not only the obscenely rich up there in the stratosphere, but ALL of us, down here at ground level, can afford private daycare, private schools, private transport, private doctors, private libraries, private security forces and private pension funds, I think we are going to have to keep working together. It would help us all a lot if we had more cash flow.

So let’s start by making it rain.

Admittedly Surprised

Today was my last day at the university for this academic year. My last two candidates took their oral exams and both passed. One, a very studious and conscientious young woman who did hours and hours of work each week – more than was even assigned, and the other, a very confident future businessman who did almost no work in the entire first semester, telling me straight out that he was 1) too busy and 2) simply lazy. I responded that, of course, it was his decision. I just hoped that he wouldn’t end up feeling he had wasted his time this year. I asked if he was sure he really wanted to study at the university if he had so little time. He kept coming week after week, with empty hands and a strange skeptical stare every time I explained grammar or answered a question. He liked to talk – a lot! I must have said to him fifty times: “Okay. Now say that in English.”

In the second half of the semester, he slowly started doing a little homework, and then more of it each time – mostly, I think, because he and Miss Conscientious formed a study group of two. About three weeks ago he handed in his first of a total of two texts for the year. I was happy to see that they weren’t catastrophic. He managed to come within three points of a passing score on the written and then hurled himself over the top with a very well prepared and delivered oral exam. I congratulated them both for coming one step closer to being admitted to the university and we went to a café for the traditional post exam celebration coffee (or sometimes, beer).

hummingbird giftIt’s not unheard of for students to give me presents at the end of the course. I was sort expecting a box of Merci chocolates or something like that from Miss Conscientious. So it was all the more disorienting when Mr. Brash handed me small package. Inside was this original and signed painting of a hummingbird which he had bought at an art fair in Germany months earlier. (I had told them a few stories about my alternative school over the year.) I really love this picture and the thoughtfulness of the giver was touching.

Sometimes people surprise you.

Room with a View

Somewhere in this blog, I have surely mentioned that I take a train to Graz once a week to teach a university course. It’s part of a program that helps people without high school diplomas get accepted into college (and I really love teaching it!) Over 29 years, the numbers of participants in the program/course has gone up and down. There were times when 50 people showed up in the first week. One year it was only 7. Lately, I usually have between 15 and 20 at the start, half of which are there voluntarily (meaning that they will be examined by someone other than me). Certain developments happen every year:

  • The number of people in my course goes up and down for a while as the late enrollees arrive and the program dropouts depart. The number then stabilizes midyear.
  • Attendance drops dramatically in the two weeks before Christmas break.
  • I lose about a third of the group when they pass the exam on the first test date in February.
  • As the academic year nears the end, all the students who are not tested by me start to drop away, leaving the hard core survivalists in the final weeks.

With two weeks to go, we are now at the hard core stage: I have my four remaining exam candidates who show up religiously each week and no one else.

But one thing has been new this year. The program’s current secretary (who makes the schedule and reserves the rooms) was utterly incompetent. She waited so long to do the work that all the usual course rooms were already booked. (Don’t you just hate procrastinators?!)  So each week, my course meets in a different place and sometimes at a different time. This week – today – was the best. Here’s the room the secretary booked for me and my four students:

lecture hall 1 lecture hall 2