Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chris and Erica's Big Adventure

Back in the fall I was feeling old. It struck me that at one point in my adult life I had been pretty adventurous. I had given myself an eighteenth birthday present of a jump out of an airplane. I had joined the Peace Corps and lived in Yemen for two years, pretty much on a whim. I had moved to Montana with no connections, no job, no place to live and all of my worldly possessions on the back seat and in the trunk of my 1970 Plymouth Valiant named Fuad. Erica and I had decided to get married just a few months after we met, and we spent our honeymoon camping around Portugal for six weeks.
But back in the fall I was having a real hard time thinking of the most recent thing I had done that could be categorized as even remotely adventurous. I was feeling a hole in my life and I was able to identify that hole as the place where I used to take risks and be spontaneous. But rather than being empty, as I looked more closely inside I could see that my spontaneity had been squeezed out and replaced molecule by molecule and cell by cell by Financial and Parental Responsibility. It was very much like the process of fossilization experienced by trilobites many millions of years ago.
Not wanting to be a living fossil, but also not wanting to be the cliché 42 year-old man who adds excitement to his life by buying a sports car or taking on a younger mistress, I began to cast about for something I could do to address my need to continue to believe that I am an adventurous and spontaneous human. One thing I did was commit myself to saying “YES” more often instead of simply and reflexively rejecting any unscheduled opportunities that came up in the course of my days. And then it just came to me that I should ask Erica to come to Paris with me. Neither of us had ever been there and it would make a statement to me and to her that the man she fell in love with is still here, UNfossilized and ready to try something new.
Before I even asked her, I called my parents in Delaware to see if they would take our daughter for the Spring Break week in April while we were in Paris. My mom was up for it, so I went ahead and asked Erica and she was thrilled. We got a couple of guide books and started to think about what to see, where to stay, and what to do with the five short days we would have in Paris.
We didn’t buy the airplane tickets in September because they were very expensive. We figured the costs would drop as the time got closer.
We were wrong about that. In fact, ticket prices continued to go up AND the dollar slipped into freefall against the franc. When February got here we had to decide just how much we were willing to spend on regaining some of the spontaneous spark in our lives. After a long, hard look at ticket prices, hotel costs, and exchange rates, we made the hard decision to forego Paris THIS time.
Instead, we kept the part of the plan that involved leaving Isabel with my parents and replaced five romantic days in Paris with five romantic days in our Ford Windstar van, roadtripping somewhere in the Eastern half of North America.
Last week finally arrived and we dropped Isabel in Delaware and drove away, atlas in hand and a plan just starting to form. Our week turned out to be a great one. We saw nine states and drove 2100 miles down to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and back. We played much of the trip by ear and had a wonderful time. It was good to be reminded of the beauty of being open to the possibilities any day presents. It was also eye-opening how much I missed my daughter. I think Erica and I had a harder time with the separation than she did. But we all three survived and now trips like this are much more likely to happen again in the future.
It became clear to me on this trip that I had been both a willing and an unwilling participant in my own loss of spontaneity and adventurousness. Some things do have to change when you take on a child and a mortgage, but not everything. It was really great to be reminded by the stunningly purple flowering trees in Virginia, the vibrantly yellow chest and crystal song of a meadowlark in a field in Tennessee, and the sudden rain shower on (and IN) our tent in North Carolina that being open to experience can make life richer. It is not a lesson I intend to forget again. And we didn’t even need to leave this time zone, let alone this continent, to have a real romantic getaway.
Now we are back in Connecticut, back at work, and back to parenting, but most decidedly NOT back to the rut I had worn into my life. Now that I have remembered to stick my head up and look around, there is no way I am going to willingly resume my trudge deeper into predictable middle age.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Depends On How You Look At It...

Many years ago I was walking along a Red Sea beach with a good friend, scanning the sand for interesting and beautiful finds. I spent much of my childhood on the beaches of Delaware and Long Island, so I was only half-committed to the process, at best. My friend, on the other hand, spent her first 23 years in Missouri and Illinois. The beach, shells, and sea glass were all still new to her.
That particular day we were the only humans on a three mile stretch of beach known to the locals as Ra’s Kathib. We called it “The Spit” because it was a long spit of sand angling out into the Red Sea from just north of Hodeidah, in what was then North Yemen. The fact that we were the only ones on the beach may have had something to do with the air temperature of 115 degrees and the relative humidity of well over 80%. Anyone with any sense at all was parked in a shady spot, directly under a ceiling fan.
We were near the end of our two-year stint as teachers of English at the National Institute of Public Administration. Don’t let the name fool you; NIPA-Hodeidah was a slightly ramshackle school that offered Accounting, Small Business Management, and English classes to anyone capable of paying the $40.00 registration fee. As a result of the less-than-demanding admissions criteria, my friend and I lucked into one of the most open and diverse groupings of people in all of Yemen.
There were ten year-old boys, seventeen year-old daughters of Hodeidah’s upper crust, forty year-old cab drivers, and thirty-five year-old housewives. These people would never have met, let alone acknowledged each other’s existence in their real lives in Yemen’s gender- and income-segregated streets. They would not have been allowed. But there in my classroom they were free to converse.
Of course, most of their conversations came straight out of Longman’s Beginner English Workbook, (Level One), and contained the phrase “Excuse me, do you know the way to Camden Market?” But at least they could say something to each other.
Anyway, on this particular day I am remembering, my friend and I were stopped dead in our tracks by the most incredibly luminescent blue shell either of us had ever seen. It was spectacular. We both saw it in the same moment and we both froze. My friend bent down to snag the treasure before I could and then she promptly dropped it to the sand as quickly as she had snatched it up. As she dropped it, she let out a disgusted “Unnnhhh.”
Thinking she had gone crazy, I immediately reached out to grab the shell. If my friend didn’t want the treasure, that was her problem. As soon as I lifted it I could tell something was wrong. It didn’t feel right—it was far too light and too slick to be a shell. One look up close and I could see that it wasn’t a shell at all. It was a shell-shaped piece of plastic. I reacted just as my friend had—I opened my hand and let it fall right there where I stood.
Now here it is twenty years later and I find myself thinking of that moment on the beach quite often. It taught me something that I have had cause to learn over and over since. What it taught me is the importance of perspective. That concave clam-shell-shaped piece of plastic didn’t change one whit during our entire “interaction.” It was just itself the whole time. And yet, in a span of thirty seconds it went from being incredibly beautiful to both of us, to being beautiful to one and repulsive to the other, and then finally it ended up as an ugly piece of litter to both of us. All without any change in its actual state of being.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Vorophobia--or "Fear of Buying More Underwear"

I bought new underwear this morning. Socks, too—both white and dark. And for good measure I threw in a ribbed blue tee shirt. Altogether it came to $45.00, give or take. And now here it is five hours later and I still feel guilty.
I believe I have a problem. It is not one I have seen mentioned anywhere—and trust me, I spend a lot of time just dinking around on the Internet. If such a problem had already been identified, named, support-grouped, stretchy-braceleted, and bumper-stickered I would have come across its existence somewhere.
I am not sure what to call the problem, though I do have some sense of the root causes and a too-strong awareness of the symptoms. I’ll start with the symptoms:

• When confronted with a need around the house, I will always think about what we already own that can be improvised to get the task done

• I wear clothes even if the clasp has broken, a stain has appeared, or they are worn all the way through. (ALL of my socks have holes.)

• When I have gotten to the point where the need to buy something new is simply undeniable, I will delay the actual purchase far beyond the point that it is okay to do so

• I alternate between the three pairs of socks that I own, even though two of the pairs are not technically “pairs” but instead simply close-color cousins

• When I do finally make a purchase of clothes for myself, I feel guilty for weeks. Really. (Today’s utter binge will have me feeling bad for at least ten days.)

As far as the causes go, I have pinned them down to the dual afflictions of Roman Catholicism and being one of six kids in a staunchly middle-class family. My Catholicism, though long abandoned, lingers in the stunning levels of guilt I feel over an amazing array of thoughts, actions, intentions, omissions, desires, fears, hopes, temptations, and PURCHASES. My upbringing as one of six kids in a family without a lot of money has left me with the notion that my needs are just not that important. I was raised to believe that making due is far better than buying new.
These two strains combine to form a powerful thread in my personality. It may come across as simply “cheap” to the uninitiated, but to me it is something different. It is a clinical reluctance to buy new things. It might even be worthy of inclusion in the DSM-V. My default response any time Erica or Isabel suggests, (or worse, states outright), that we need to buy a new anything is to list all the other things we could do in lieu of spending money. “We don’t need a new colander, we can just use an old tee shirt.” “Who needs an eyeglass repair kit? A short bit of paperclip wire will hold those together.” “New shoes? Duct tape!”
There is sometimes an oceanic gulf between identifying a problem, and actually changing the resulting behaviors. I have by now identified my problem. I have taken a cue from psychiatric tradition and named it from its Greek roots, vorophobia—fear of having a lot of stuff.

But now that it has a name, I am left with a question of treatment. What do I do?
I am experimenting with strategies to consolidate the guilt by saving so-called necessary purchases until I have at least four items on my list. Once I have four, I go and buy the things as quickly as possible. To be clear, the guilt is most severe when the things I am buying are for myself alone, with no possible larger purpose. That is why I threw in the tee shirt today. I do “need” one, since all of my other casual shirts have race logos or stains, or both, on them. I figure instead of making four separate trips to the store and marinating in four separate infusions of guilt, I get it all over with at once.
I have decided to take my experiment one step further today. Erica and I are heading to New York for a play and on the train I will be wearing new socks, new underwear, and my new blue shirt. You may not realize it, but I will be taking quite a risk. If you happen to be on the 4:12 Metro North to Grand Central and a guy in your car seems overly-agitated, has pupils that are fixed and dilated, and seems to be emitting little hicks and squeaks driven by deepest despair, call 911 right away and report a case of rampant vorophobia. (But please, tell the paramedics to be careful with my shirt if they need to use the paddles.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Native Son

When people who are unfamiliar with the school where I work ask me to describe the kids, one of the first words on my list is “verbal.” My students are good with words. From day one in the preschool they are asked their opinions and they are pushed to put their thoughts, hopes, fears, and concerns into words. But I think that their verbosity is not something that develops solely due to attendance at our school. Rather, families who visit and see their own emphasis on words reflected by the school then choose to enroll their children with us. We simply continue children down a path they are already on.
As a result of this self-selection process, by the time the students get to me in fifth and sixth grade they are often capable of some very sophisticated writing. Their reading comprehension is also pretty consistently excellent. It is rare that a student arrives in my room without a deep-seated love of reading. So rare, that I am shocked when it happens. It’s a little like being a doctor in Miles City, Montana. If a patient comes in to the emergency room complaining of fever, headache, and vomiting the doctor will work through a mental list of possibilities. It may take a long time for the doctor to hit on the correct diagnosis if the problem happens to be malaria. Malaria is not endemic to Montana and so the doctors there probably don’t consider it right away. Instead, they probably start with known local causes of the above-mentioned symptoms and expand their circle from there, eventually getting to malaria.
When I come across a student who doesn’t want to read, I also start with the known local causes: bored with his/her current selection, feeling sick, choosing books that are too hard or too easy, not enough guidance choosing books, tired. It is rare that a student’s reason for not wanting to read is not on this short list. But once in a very great while I will meet a student whose reason for not wanting to read is NOT one of the above. When that is the case I am forced to practice the teacher equivalent of tropical medicine in Montana.
And when I then expand my search of possible causes, I am usually left with two explanations for the lack of interest in reading: either the student has contracted malaria and can’t read through the fever, headache, and vomiting OR the student does not like reading. Both strike me as equally unlikely, given the setting. In spite of the slim odds of it being true, I am occasionally forced to conclude that one of my students may actually hate reading.
It can sometimes take weeks of frustration to reach this conclusion, but when I do finally get there I am always surprised and a little relieved. “Surprised” for the reasons I have already given---students at our school almost universally love to read. “Relieved” because as I address each possible cause with the student and still meet resistance, I often grow more and more frustrated, perplexed, and driven to find the solution.
Once I realize that the particular student simply hates to read, that lifts a huge burden from my shoulders. My job at that point becomes simply to provide opportunities for that student to discover the joy of reading on his or her own. My faith is in the fact that s/he will come to love reading on a schedule outside of my control.
My faith is not the faith of the naïve, but rather the faith of the convert. I was an indifferent reader at best all through elementary school and I don’t remember a single book I read before the eighth grade. But then, in the winter of my eighth grade year I was assigned the novel Native Son. I had no interest in the book and refused to even buy it until the Friday afternoon before the Monday we were supposed to have read the entire thing. It was then I told my parents we needed to go to the bookstore to buy Native Son. We found it easily enough right where it should be under “W” for Wright. As we paid for the book I had no idea how much my life was about to change.
I went to my room, lay down on my bed, and opened the book. As I began to read I was unceremoniously yanked out of my comfy Long Island life and into the world of Bigger Thomas in Chicago in the 1930s. That book ate me up and spit me out two days later, reeling and amazed at what a story could do. From that moment, I have been a reader. Not before that moment, mind you. It is seldom so clear where the breaks in our lives occur between pre- and post-. But in this case, there really was the me that existed before reading Native Son and the me that was born as I closed the back cover.
So now when I finally think beyond the known local causes I am tempted to prescribe a heavy dose of Richard Wright, but he might not be what it would take to cure my non-reader. I have no doubts that there is a book out there that will do it, but my occasional book-haters need to find it for themselves.

Which book did it for you?