Friday, January 28, 2011

On Peace in Israel and Lebanon (Or, I saw it with my own eyes)

I have a unique opportunity in my profession, which is to rule upon high over my own miniature version of the UN. Okay, so I’m really only an ESL instructor and it's really only a classroom of students from all over the world, but as the professor, I wield my authority respectfully and with great appreciation for what I, too, can learn from my students. Take Israel and Lebanon, for example.

I’m not talking about the nations here but rather of two students in one of my classes – both beautiful, intelligent, and outspoken young women who sit near each other and are, therefore, often made to work together when we do small group activities. They are both worldly women in their own ways: Israel is born of Persian and Libyan parents, while Lebanon is a professional ballet dancer who has lived in Paris. Today in class, they were put together with Nicaragua (another lovely and not-so-shy girl) and Colombia (an attractive and reserved middle-aged woman).

During the activity, these four women made up only one group out of five, but watching them gave me the most food for thought. The activity required the students to work together to rearrange items on a list and divide them into main points and supporting details – a task that would easily eat up 20 minutes of class time. Colombia gracefully sat back as Nicaragua, Israel, and Lebanon strongly but civilly debated the various options.

Israel saw things one way, Lebanon saw things another way (they both were correct), and Nicaragua disagreed with both of them as she firmly and rather confidently stated her position. So adamant was she (and so wrong as it turned out) that Lebanon could only sit back and shake her head, waiting for the opportunity to prove Nicaragua wrong. Israel kindly tried to tell Nicaragua where her reasoning had lost its footing while Colombia opted out of the debate, and it was during that moment I noticed a glint of respect in Lebanon’s eyes. She knew she and Israel were right even though they saw the situation differently, and I think she was proud of the way Israel was trying to logically argue the point, which was a challenge given Nicaragua’s dramatic facial expressions. Israel and Lebanon never teamed up against Nicaragua; they seemed to understand that some battles just aren’t worth fighting...which is when I asked myself why their home countries can’t see things as clearly.

Yes, this is an oversimplification of real-world dilemmas, but for a moment, Lebanon and Israel were on the same page albeit through different viewpoints, and with nothing more than a glance, this was understood. I imagined Lebanon and Israel (who never talk to each other apart from these forced exercises) going out for coffee after class and reveling in their newfound commonality.

Eventually, though, I had to burst Nicaragua’s bubble (because I wasn’t sure how patient Lebanon would really be – she was actually sighing deeply) and tell her she was completely off track. She took it like a trooper and openly listened to Lebanon explain the point. All the while, Israel’s bright smile told Lebanon that she concurred even if she would have expressed it differently.

As we discussed the activity as a class, all eyes turned to the board, where I was outlining the final results, and I felt a bit sad. I wished I could have prolonged the group activity so I could fool myself into believing there was hope in the world simply because two young ladies of such different philosophies had found a common ground. With all that’s going on in Egypt, Tunisia, and North Africa and the Middle East in general, the ESL classroom seems the only safe place for these nations to come together. I’m proud to be part of that, and I will go to sleep tonight thinking about Israel and Lebanon and dreaming about their newfound friendship. I know these girls said nothing to each other when class ended, but it’s my dream. And it all has to start somewhere, doesn’t it?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Sleep (Or, If the rooster crows, I'll shoot 'em)

Do you remember being a kid and not wanting to go to bed? You believed sleep was a punishment depriving you of the adventure of living. Do you remember being a teenager who wanted to stay awake but could do nothing but sleep? Naps were frequent and sleeping until lunchtime on the weekends was commonplace. Are you now a parent who finds glorious ecstasy in waking and realizing you slept more than five hours?

Sometime after age 11, we start to see the merits of sleep. We make it through adolescence and then our 20s until parenthood hits. Suddenly, sleep isn't simply something of merit but rather a holy grail as unattainable as a low mortgage rate. Sleep is numinous. In fact, I'm surprised more songs, poems, or odes haven't been written about this basic yet often elusive life function.

Like our brain cells, sleep slips away with age. I seriously consider it a good night if I wake up in the morning after sunrise, can count more than seven hours since I went to bed, and realize I only got up once during the night to pee. Truly a beautiful thing, I tell you, yet as fleeting as my dark brown hair, which is now more than 50% overrun by gray strands (but you’ll never know it!). It is because of how much I treasure sleep that I completely lose it when my nine-year-old daughter fights with me every night about going to bed.

“Can’t you be sweet to me at bedtime?” she pleads.
I respond, “You get sweetness for five minutes. After 45 minutes, my love, you’re S.O.L.” (She knows what that means.)

My son, who is already in the throws of puberty, naps with the cat (who doesn't need puberty as an excuse).
This is bliss.
My daughter, on the other hand, wastes so much of my evening fighting something that is as basic a need as eating and pooping when I could be doing something else to bring me closer to doing the exact thing she is resisting. It infuriates me. I hate how our days often end on this bad note, which is why I always greet her in the morning with a kiss and a back scratch as I try to wake her for school. As you can imagine, getting her out of bed on a school day is as challenging as it was getting her into bed the night before. Did I mention she’s only nine? I dread what is to come when puberty sets in.

I am open to any ideas for how to manage the bedtime routine better so long as they don’t include alcohol or tranquilizers (and don’t think I haven’t considered that many times). I’ve already tried threatening to take away privileges for the following day (and following through), professional counseling for her alleged sleep fears, bedtime stories, nightlights, melatonin, redecorating her room more times over the past nine years than any girl deserves, and even being a kinder and gentler mommy at bedtime (which usually requires alcohol on my part). It’s time to think outside the box, people. Hit me with your best shot!

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Progress, Part II (Or, The Blequel)

I can't believe I'm doing this, but I'm actually posting a "blequel" (blog sequel...get it? I just made up that word...hope it catches on). In my last post, I praised modern technology, especially email and Skype. Today, I'm focusing on Facebook and instant messaging because it is saving my friend's life right now. If you'll indulge me...

My dear friend Teresa lives in Spain. I have known her almost since the day I arrived there in 1991, and she has remained my Spanish touchstone ever since. The same year she met me, she also met the man who would eventually become her husband, except that it shouldn't have been him.

In her 20s, my highly-intelligent, beautiful, and goofy friend lacked the most important quality - self-esteem. So when she met the young man in question, she ignored the red flags that desperately waved their warnings. Instead, she pursued him right to the altar. Several years later, she would tell me how her wedding day was the saddest day in her life...because she knew.

As soon as she had children (now ages 9 and 4), she began her descent into depression. She would talk about leaving her husband once the children were grown, but how would she live so miserably for so many more years? Locally, she didn’t have many friends since she’d become a workaholic to avoid time at home. It was hard for me to be so far from her, and though I visited a few times throughout those years, I felt more distanced from her with each visit...until this past Christmas.

During the holiday break, Teresa managed to have some significant conversations with friends she considered wiser than herself. Who knows if it was the fact that she'd hit 40, or if the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter had aligned with Mars, but with the New Year, Teresa found the strength she needed to separate from her husband. It appears to be civil (so far), but it is far from easy.

This all leads up to the inspiration for today's "blequel". I logged onto Facebook this evening to see Teresa's status update where she rather vulnerably expressed how alone she feels. (Because she knows it's going to get worse before it gets better.) Immediately, I found her online and sent her an instant message, reminding her she wasn't alone because I was there. She said she needed me to hold her, which I said I would if I could. Her response? "I feel it either way."

This, my friends, is why I love technology. As my friend on the other side of the ocean sat alone in her quiet apartment while her children slept and her husband was NOT there, she needed someone to hold her. And though I couldn't physically wrap my arms around her, she felt me.

We chatted for a bit before I realized Teresa was taking a while to respond to my comments. Turned out she was also having an IM chat on Facebook with another mutual friend, who was apparently also sending love her way. I had to laugh as I accused Teresa of already playing the field. And though she could only type back, "Ha ha ha," I heard her was beautiful.

So I once again thank the nameless but brilliant inventors of the instant message feature, of all social networking sites, of email (not you, Al Gore), and of my beloved Skype. Without this technology, my friend Teresa might have cried herself to sleep feeling completely alone and questioning every decision she'd ever made in her life. Instead, I'd like to believe she closed her eyes feeling a bit more relaxed after having had great chats with those who love her. The road ahead of her will undoubtedly be rocky and painful, but with friends accessible with just a few key strokes, Teresa will make it through this, coming out stronger because her friends were by her side.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Progress (Or, Technology, how I love you so)

Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology because I rely on it about as much as I needed my mother when I was three, and when technology fails me, it brings out that three-year-old tantrum instinct I'd so well suppressed for over 40 years. But computer and application problems aside, I LOVE TECHNOLOGY.

First of all, technology feeds my passion for nostalgia by exaggerating the differences between then and now. I mean, how else would I mourn the loss of letter-writing if it weren't for word processors? Paradoxically, it is those exact processing programs that make it easier for me to write  type letters to my friends, which they can receive in the time it takes technology to deliver my letter to their email inbox.

Which brings me to email (so old hat already that we've dropped the hyphen between "e" and "mail" and made it one word functioning as noun, address, and verb all in one). Though I yearn for the days of receiving a handwritten letter in my real mailbox (which now only receives bills and even that trend is fading), I love how connected I am with friends all over the world. It is truly priceless.

But email was only the beginning. I started using email about 1995 and now love my Skype account even more. This again feeds my nostalgia, for when I was a youngster - back when Elvis Presley and John Lennon were still alive and before President Reagan was shot - speaking with a friend who lived more than thirty miles away constituted a long-distance phone call which cost MONEY. And spending money on phone calls was a big-ass deal. Now, with Skype, I can not only chat instantly with friends everywhere, but I can summon the spirit of Dick Tracy by seeing them in a live video chat and even share a glass of wine with them while we shoot the shinola...for free.

Now, I'm sure there are those of you out there saying, Get over it, Wendy. But you have to know that I am still amazed by the technology of landline telephones, so email and Skype go on my list of technological wonders of my time. I also like to think of myself as one who appreciates the beauty of humankind's ingenuity, and our desire to improve communication and to connect with each other is inspiring. Many complain that this new technology alienates us from socializing like we did in the good ole days, but I argue that it actually brings us closer together. And in a world where nations are still killing each other over religion and money, it's nice to know the human desire to connect with others still lives on. There are people in my life today who I never would have dreamed of seeing again if it hadn't been for technological progress, and I love having these people in my life.

So here's a toast to all the nameless inventors who have helped me preserve my relationships with distant friends and who've made it possible for me to renew old friendships I'd thought lost forever. You are my People of the Year!

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Tradition (Or, Tevya had the right idea)

As a fourth-generation American whose ancestors hailed from different parts of Europe, I grew up with no unique New Year's Eve traditions. Then in my twenties, I was fortunate to live in two foreign countries where New Year's traditions and superstitions ran rampant. Those traditions were charming and fun, but of another world.

Fast forward about fifteen years to 2009, when I invited some dear Latin friends over for New Year's Eve. At 11:30pm, panic set in when they realized we didn't have El Viejo to burn at the stroke of midnight. To appease the frantic guests, the three men set to work digging through our recycling bins and stored boxes in the garage to fashion our very own effigy that stood about eighteen inches tall. While the men worked, the women gathered the kids to put into action MY idea of incorporating a burning ceremony. This involved writing down our negative thoughts or bad events of the year and stuffing the small notes into El Viejo so they'd burn up and disappear with the passing of the year. Everyone got into this, and we scurried during the last five minutes of 2009 to shove our folded papers inside El Viejo's head before midnight.

We brought El Viejo out front and planted him in the middle of the cul-de-sac, safe from grass, bushes, cars, or anything else that might catch fire if our effigy turned into the bonfire we hoped it would. At eighteen inches tall, however, El Viejo wasn't quite the spectacle we'd hoped he'd be. We loaded him with fireworks and watched him snap, crackle, and pop with about as much gusto as a bowl of Rice Krispies. Still, it was cathartic to watch him burn, taking our negativity with him.

I loved this Latin tradition (which also reminded me of the Italian version, called Il Vecchio), so to send off 2010, we got smarter. With the same Latin couple in house in addition to other guests, we constructed a taller, greater, more formidable Old Man who stood about three feet tall and had plenty of room in his belly for our burning notes. We also bought lighter fluid and doused the guy so he'd burn baby burn, like a disco inferno. And that he did.

Adding to El Viejo, we ate our 12 grapes at midnight and stood in the cul-de-sac counting the $100 of cash our Latin friends passed around, but only after my husband and I first ran up to our bedroom to dig through drawers searching for something red to wear since we certainly did not have yellow underwear. (Apparently, you're supposed to wear yellow underwear and something red. Next year, we'll be better prepared in the undergarment department, I swear it.) The only thing we didn't do was pack our suitcases and walk around the block to ensure a year of travel, but I'll be damned if I don't make that happen anyway.

In all the rush of El Viejo, the grapes, and the cash counting, we forgot to drink champagne, but since I am not one to snuff old traditions for new ones, I quickly poured everyone a glass. As we raised our flutes in toast, I thought of Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof, who sang of the value of preserving tradition. I knew how lucky I was to have my family and my dear friends by my side as we made these new traditions our very own, and I toasted to 2011 with a Salud!, a L'Chayim!, and, of course, a Cheers!

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2011 bring you health, joy, success, and an open heart to welcome any new traditions that might be hiding around the corner waiting for you to take them in!