Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Butterfly and the Bush Era

Last night I attended my first performance of the Puccini Opera classic Madam Butterfly. I had long wanted to see this chestnut—and see where those so familiar tunes fit into a story line. The tale ripped my heart out, but I left the opera house to go out into the blizzard struck at how a story that was first told 108 years ago remains as fresh today as ever. And it’s more politically relevant than it ever was, because when it first opened in 1904, it may not have seemed as politically incorrect as it is today.

How Puccini captured the American arrogance and the way we blithely ignore and exploit a native culture then move on thinking its ok to say I am sorry and this will torture me all my life is nothing short of genius. As I listened to the soundbites of George Bush and his final press conference on the drive home, I can hear BF Pinkerton and his final song. A montage of Madoff, and Cheney, and Condi Rice runs in my mind as the marriage takes place. Meanwhile, one hopes that Iraq will not commit Hari Kari as we move on to our next “wife,” Afghanistan.

I was physically ill with disgust and déjà vu as Sharpless stood by and merely wagged his head as Pinkerton committed statutory rape with full public pomp and circumstance. It was all right at the end of the 19th century to screw children. We are still doing it if the body count is even half way right. And so, in the way that great art does, the work resonates and sends ripples out into my mind and life. I said to my startled children that Madam Butterfly needs to be required viewing as part of military training. My kids think I’ll have a tough sell on that one, but maybe we could get the modern remake, Miss Saigon, on the curriculum.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Parallel Universes

You never have to go that far
From Home
To find a foreign country.

Some of us are born into them.
Our families
Never sure of the language
Or currencies
The means of exchange.

And some of us migrate
Into them.
Fleeing our familiarity.

But most of us
Ignore them.

Parallel universes going on
As our lives unfold in droll dullness

Same and safe in regularity.

The bodega or Asian market
In the mini-mall,
The other language publication
Sold side by side with the Tribune
Worlds unto themselves
Foreign lands
Under our noses
In our neighborhoods, next door.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Learning to Dance

As promised. more on Dance education:

I think it is a great tragedy of our modern times that an enormous percentage of people walk around every day thinking they cannot dance. That concept is absolutely implausible and untrue. Everyone knows how to dance before they are born. On a molecular level everything is dancing, protons and electrons bumping about in the disco of space. Even rocks, not known for their tangos, are, on a very basic level, dancing. It is our nature to dance by whatever means necessary, with whatever parts we have, and so, everyone can do it. Everyone knows, in their bones, how to dance. Of course, many folks don’t really speak to or listen to their bones anymore, unless they are complaining too loud to hear anything else.

Not everyone or everything does it, Dance, well. To be a good dancer you have to hook into the universal rhythm, relax and find a groove. There are an infinite variety of grooves—we have given names to some of them: waltzes, disco, tangos, salsas and such. But there are grooves in the sound of waves on the shore, or monkeys chanting.

And to be an EXCELLENT dancer you need to find the groove and move with Style, that ineffable something that makes others want to watch you and do what you are doing. Rocks do not have style unless you get to their molecular level. But we humans have evolved and trained in some pretty spectacular styles: ballet for one, Russian Folk dance and West African dance for some others. And don’t forget Irish Step Dancing.

But not everyone loves dancing (though this is very difficult for me to understand because it is such a primal joy, our first communication). I think some of us are socialized to avoid dancing because we are self conscious. Others have misinterpreted our lack of, or struggle for, Style and made us feel bad about the search. Some of us are physically awkward. Some of us hear different rhythms than the ones the rest of us are hearing and when we move to that groove we appear out of synch and we are made to feel foolish when we move out of synch with the crowd.

But none of that means that you don’t know how to dance.

Our society has reached an interesting spot, vis a vis our conceptual relationship with our bodies. Rather than focusing on function, on the getting from here to there or the accomplishment, physically, of the task, we get hung up, obsessed even, with the appearance of our physical shells. We spend billions modifying and enhancing a shell that will essentially be outmoded and turning to dust in a century. All this focus on the appearance of the body and its unattainable conceptual ideal, and lack of focus on the utility or joy of being in a particular shell means that some of us, instead of spending money trying to fight nature, need to relearn the joy of dancing.

We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance. ~Japanese Proverb

To dance in space is to learn the measure of a distance. To not step on a partner and measure a pattern through a room helps our mind conceive of geometry and dimensionality. As we move through space, our kinetic intelligence is activated, causing neurons in parts new parts of the brain to get busy and wake up. When teaching dance to children in early childhood programs I can see almost immediately who is a visual processor, who is an auditory processor and who is a kinetic processor. But even if we have a dominant way of processing stimuli, we can learn other ways—and that is why dance education is so important.

Dance is a language we all begin with. As Martha Graham said: Dance is the hidden language of the soul. She also said: Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery.

In a classical education from the Renaissance forward (and possibly before) dance was considered an essential subject. Royals, nobles and when they could afford it, even the middle class, contracted with dancing masters to assure their offspring were well schooled in the steps of the day. One could not advance in society without mastering the form. And master it they did. You don’t hear of Kings moping about muttering, I can’t dance, back then, no way. Dancing was the grease on the skids of politics. Dancing was the link up for getting good alliances. Ah, but dancing has fallen from favor. (Though I hear there are a heck of a lot of inaugural balls being planned in two weeks) What we are left with is some desperate shrugging meant to attract a mate, no steps removed from the mating dances at the local zoo. It is time to bring back all the forms, all the Style that we humans have invented over the years. And it is time for those of us afraid of ridicule to realize that everyone else is so busy about how they look that they are paying no attention to how YOU look. Breathe and move. To whatever music is in your head. We all need to learn to dance in as many ways as possible. Just put on your music and boogie. Martha Graham again: • Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.

So finally, I give you the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzche who said:
"We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Getting an Education

This is a long one so hold on to your horses (or in my case dig out the reading glasses!)

I have been raging about my school board again.

I don’t know where to put my rage…… The ninnies on the school board did a holiday run around and gave our inept superintendent a contract extension and a raise on top of a raise while we were all out caroling and making sugar cookies (in my case slurping down latkes and spinning dreidels) and watching our retirement funds self destruct-- meanwhile the teachers union issues a report that teacher morale is the lowest on record. Based on the constant turnover over of teachers and principals I could have written that report. Now they want to raise our taxes and take out a 20 million dollar bond issue. It is an absolute financial policy of the school administration to drive anyone with money into the private schools because it saves them gobs of money and if you say any of this in public they will lob the charge of racist (and several other nasty things) at you. And have our test scores gone up –well it depends on which test you are looking at. The elementary school district puts out press releases saying how great the improvements are, and the high school issued statistics that one in 7 kids show up completely unprepared for the work there…..and the scores on the one test calibrated for the college tests shows that less than half have any chance of getting a high enough score to get an ACT score that will get them into a state school. It reminds me of that shell game they do on the subway.

Oh for the days when we could afford private school and I could blithely ignore all this and send in my tax check and feel like I was doing my part for public education in America. Now my kids are in the system and it’s really really scary. My kids went from being really into learning and loving school to feeling like they are in prison.

But are they getting an education? And in what?

They are learning what it is like to be a part of a mindless bureaucracy. And I hope they are doing a pretty good job at navigating it. I mean that’s a life skill. They have gotten really into outside indicators of success, even though I really don’t know what the grades mean.

What I think of as a good education is being exposed to the great ideas of being human. The fact that two of my elementary school children have been beaten up bad enough to be able to come home says there is a little problem there—one of the great ideas is Do Unto Others What You Would Have them Do Unto You—but maybe my kids are more on the heros journey and learning Survival Through Adversity.

Some basic math would be nice so you can figure out that Bernard Madoff is too good to be true—yes, one definitely needs to understand economics. I also think you should know how to get from here to there, preferably navigating a crappy transit system like our own so geography (and problem solving—heroes journey again) is important. You need enough science to cook a decent meal and know why something is inherently unhealthy before you put it into your mouth. And enough science to theoretically grow food.
You need to know how to make things, basic things like sew a pair of pants and how to nail boards together. You never know when the economy will crash and you will have to do these things, and working with one’s hands gives a person great pride and happiness. You should have a basic appreciation for music and know some musical structures and forms because music is about one of the most fantastic things that humans have ever invented and you appreciate what you know and understand even more. It is a crime that kids today know rap and not Mozart, Beyonce and not Puccini. The Chinese listen to Puccini, and to stand and hear an opera singer makes you believe that humans really can accomplish anything. Given how much film has influenced culture, you better get a pretty good media education, including history and forms, and all the European Educational Ministries are with me on that one. We haven’t caught up. And in this world economy you are hopefully not only looking at American films—education should include learning to love subtitles.

I think everyone should learn to dance, but I will save that one for another post.

If you can’t draw, at least learn to appreciate art because it will help you when times are tough. And of course, in our house, you better know good theater from bad and how to make it, but maybe everyone doesn’t need quite so much of an education in that.

It is a great tragedy of the current era that the amount of time dedicated to history has shrunk so drastically in order to prepare for the dang tests that seem to be the way we take the measure of our child. There is no other discipline that is so important as history because we cannot know where we are going until we know where we have been. We are lost without history. You cannot understand the world you live in until you look at how it became that way.

I do not give a whistle about Language Arts and Literacy. I care about Poetry. And I want to know what good books you have read lately and Why You Thought They were Good. I want to know what characters have made you laugh and which have you wanted to murder. I want to know what plots you thought were believable.

I am completely clueless about the math my kids bring home—the new math, the new new math. Two of my kids get it and feel good about it. My other child does not get it (neither do his parents) and we all feel awful.

I had this epiphany the other day. Math is a language but if you do not want to speak it and it does nothing for you—why do we force it? Maybe everyone who CAN do calculus doesn’t have to. I mean I hate administration, but I am good at it and I’ve been pigeon holed there and it has eaten my real life. My brilliant gifted child is talking about going to trade school. And that may be ok. The most important thing is to be lit up about the life you lead, about the world around you. We can’t let school get in the way of education.

A good education becomes part of who you are, just as a bad one does. I just can’t say right now what kind my kids are getting. And here is a totally radical statement from a bleeding heart liberal: it is a crying shame that education ISNT a free market. If everyone in my town who has grown disgusted and left the system (we have the largest Homeschool chapter per capita in the state) things would change pretty quick, yes they would.

Quick show of hands out there—is there anyone who LOVES the school their kids are in? If you are in private school put your hands down.

I thought so.

Monday, January 5, 2009


I am having trouble compartmentalizing my life—knowing where work leaves off and my own time begins—it seems like it’s all one unruly ball of tangled yarn. Supposedly, this means I am a true cultural creative, part of the new highly productive economy. Ha! It feels like a bit of a brain fry. I am so productive that I dream about my job, only sometimes my dreams are uncannily like nightmares. More on that in another post.

Test question: When I am in a museum with my kids previewing an exhibit and observing their reactions to see what developmental level it fits so I know if it would be a good field trip (I am famous for good field trips) is that a work or a personal activity? Next question: When I am rehearsing the out loud reading of a new picture book at bedtime to see if it will work with our story time on our school’s out program, or making my teen read a novel to see if her age group gets into it, or trolling Facebook to see what her friends are talking about to keep my youth programming relevant is that job related, or my own time? Final bonus question: When I frantically spend the weekend learning a new technology so I can teach it the next week to my charges, does that count as work?

My workplace is very traditional. They actually have a punch clock that you punch in and out of. Very 1950’s. Working at home is pretty frowned upon—we used to have an absolute stated policy against it, but now I am not so sure. I do know that any hours outside the confines of my office are pretty much looked at as my own time. As municipal employees, folks need to know when we are On the Clock so you are not a ghost payroller and Wasting Taxpayer Dollars. But when you love your work, you are never truly Off The Clock. It’s a part of who you are. You are always thinking about how to make what you do BETTER. Well in my case I am fairly obsessed with it. Ask my staff. But it’s one thing when a sanitation worker is off the clock—its kind of hard for him to do his job when he is not on the truck –but my job is to help teach and raise everyone else’s kids and that happens all the time and everywhere. I am very aware that out in public with my kids, I am not just a mom, but potentially your child’s teacher or camp director. It definitely colors what I do. And I know that I stopped separating my life into boxes labeled work, home, mine, theirs, when I started to answer my cell phone the way I answer my office phone. My husband will tell you that I have completely lost the ability to get away from my job until I reach the point of collapse.

But given that what I do that pays me is totally infused into who I am, when I bang up against the old fashioned 9 to 5 punch in punch out work concept, I just get into a brain pickle. I have no idea how to fill out my time sheet and account for my hours. As I move into the new year with a resolution to work smarter so I can have some time to say, read a novel (be still my beating heart) I have absolutely no idea what that means! And of course, the novel I want to read is actually research for one of my camps this summer….
It would be nice to have more time with my own kids. I discovered to my dismay that after 11 hours with everyone else’s kids, I was done with being with children, seeking stimulating adult intellectual conversation, and my kids had to fend for themselves and hang out with Dad over break. I wonder if its that way for other care workers.

So I sit with my boundary building materials, and no idea where to put the fence.