Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Heavens

My friend Adam is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe in unseen, unprovable phenomina like conspiracy theories, ghosts, or gods. If he’s going to believe in something, he wants empirical proof.

One day when we were talking, I mentioned something about horoscopes. “You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. If he was asking whether I believe that people’s personalities are shaped by celestial patterns, that all people born on a particular day, or even during the same month, would share a set of identifiable traits based on the position of the planets—then no. If he was asking whether I believe that knowing somebody’s astrological sign affords some worthwhile insight into his or her personality—then, I suppose, yes.

I’ve always been interested in astrology and horoscopes, and it seemed dense of me that I had never thought about whether I actually believed in them. They’ve always just been there, like Democrats and Republicans, black, white, Asian and Latino people, like terriers and schnauzers, and every other useful but probably fictitious categories we classify things and people by.

Horoscopes had always been one of my ways of understanding all sorts of personal relationships, starting with my family. My mother and sister are a Cancer and Pisces, respectively, both signs known for their emotionalism and sensitivity. My father, on the other hand, is a Virgo, a logical, Mr. Spock kind of sign. My own sign, Gemini, represents duality, which seemed to explain my status as the peacemaker between the two factions.

Our professions also reflect these traits. My emotional mother is an artist, while my logical father is a computer engineer. My sensitive sister is a psychologist. And I, the mediator, am an English teacher, which means that my job is largely to help people with different viewpoints and perspectives to communicate with one another.

My first serious boyfriend was a Virgo, born on the same date as my father. After we broke up, I looked up our compatability in a book my roommate owned called Love by the Stars. The book said the following about Gemini-Virgo couples:

You are join
ed by your mutual interest in intellectual pursuits. However, aside from that fundamental similarity, you are not naturally compatible. The Gemini will perceive the Virgo as uptight, rigid, and overly serious, while the Virgo will find the Gemini to be flighty, disorganized, and prone to silly distractions.

I couldn’t believe it; the description seemed to have been written by someone who knew me and my ex-boyfriend personally. It turned out that my next relationship, with yet another logical, serious Virgo, followed this pattern as well.

How could I not believe in astrology, after all of this evidence of its predictive and explanatory powers? And yet how could I believe in something so patently untrue, from a strictly empirical point of view?

Reflecting on these patterns, I realized that they are less a belief than a mythology, a pattern more literary or symbolic than scientific. Certainly not every Virgo in the world behaves like my father or first two boyfriends, and not every Gemini acts like me. Still, these categories have always been a part of my consciousness. They have shaped the way I understand the world for so long that if I decided to excise them as illogical, I would lose a shade of meaning as rich as art or music.

It’s a lot like religion, really, because I use that to explain my life, too, even though I don’t strictly believe in it.

Monday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Proper Jews stayed home from work and attended services, praying and fasting until sunset.

I didn’t do doing anything at all to observe the holiday this year, and I haven’t for many years. I used to observe this holiday every year, you might say religiously. It took on a special significance to my family when I was seventeen, just after my mother’s father died. Yom Kippur was on his birthday that year, and my mother, sister and I fasted and attended services on Stanford campus near our house (my father was never much for synagogue; he went to work). My mother brought printed copies of my grandfather’s eulogy, since my sister and I had not been able to go to the east coast for his funeral. After the service, we sat on the grass and read the eulogy, and then we shared memories of my grandfather. It was a very sweet and sad afternoon, its significance heightened by the dreaminess of hunger.

By the time we were ready to go home, my mother felt too lightheaded to drive, so I drove, being extra attentive to traffic since I was also fairly woozy. When we got home we could not find the copies of the eulogy, which had been in a folder along with some pictures and documents. It turns out I had left them on the roof of the car, back on Stanford campus. I drove back to Stanford, now in a really surreal haze, and found the folder, scarred by a dusty tire-print, in the parking lot. I expected my mother to be angry with me, but she said, “It’s okay. We’re all just really out of it.”

This was a special day for my family, and for a while, Yom Kippur became a meaningful family tradition in a way that other Jewish holidays were not. My mother still observes Yom Kippur fastidiously each year, but I stopped long ago. It seemed that the significance of the day was more about family history and the headiness of hunger than about religion. Even if there is a God, I don’t think It would be interested in micromanaging us to this level. With all the activity and matter in the universe, what kind of Supreme Being would busy Itself worrying about what I eat?

Cartoon--"Compare and Contrast: God Versus Superman" written by Karin Spirn and illustrated by Adam Caldwell.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hard Work

If you ask Chris Evert who was the better athlete, herself or Martina Navratilova, she’ll tell you it was Martina. The former rivals (who are also close friends) went on Oprah together last year. "Martina's a natural athlete," Evert said. "She could have been a champion at any sport she chose. I wasn't like that. I was a champion in tennis because I loved the sport so much, and I focused so hard on my game” (or something along those lines; I’m paraphrasing).

Evert’s statement suggests that there are two ways to achieve greatness: through talent or through hard work. Of course, in practice a successful person would need some combination of both of those things; no one would argue that Evert wasn’t athletic or that Navratilova didn’t work hard.

But we often expect that talent trumps hard work, that a person cannot excel at a sport or hobby or profession or field of study without some observable, natural proclivity for it.

As teachers, we can’t help but judge our students this way. Some students are just never going to get it, we say, often about students who have been given very few chances to get it before now.

Students judge themselves this way, too. I’m just not good at English, they’ll say, often in an introductory English course, like someone walking into a new yoga class and declaring, Don’t bother teaching me; I am horrible at yoga.

Whenever I parallel my own teaching to the subjects that I currently get taught at, mainly martial arts, I think, This whole school thing should be less about assessing and judging and more about learning. A student who can’t write a grammatical sentence shouldn’t be chastised and humiliated any more than a student who can’t throw a straight right cross; both students just need instruction and practice.

Although I am reminded of my role as a teacher each time I attend a kickboxing or yoga class as a student, sports taught me how to be a good teacher before I ever knew I would become a teacher myself.

When I was in high school, I was pretty good at all the subjects I studied in school—except physical education. I wasn’t horrible at it. But if there was a C on my report card, it was probably next to the letters P.E. Most of my gym teachers ignored the kids like me who weren't great at catching a fly ball or running a mile. And while I always enjoyed running around and getting exercise, P.E. was always my least favorite subject because it was frustrating and humiliating to have my teacher rolling his eyes and insulting me if I couldn’t master the art of the layup during our two weeks of allotted basketball instruction.

I had one great P.E. teacher in high school: Mr. Hart. He was also the photography teacher. He seemed like a pretty interesting guy. He was the only P.E. teacher I ever had who actually ran and did sports with us instead of just watching. He was into windsurfing and scuba-diving, and he brought his own equipment so we could try it in the swimming pool.

But my favorite thing that Mr. Hart did was create obstacle courses. It was a requirement of P.E. classes that we run three times a week. Sometimes, instead of just running the track, Mr. Hart would have us run all around the P.E. area, up and down the bleachers, through the trails in the bushes, jumping over hurdles, stopping at the pull-up bar to each do a pull-up. I could never do pull-ups, and my other P.E. teachers would have just yelled at me to try harder. But Mr. Hart came and lifted up all the students who couldn't do pull-ups, and encouraged us to pull as hard as we could to train our muscles so we could learn to do them on our own.

In Mr. Hart's class, I discovered that I could be good at sports and working out. It's not my natural area of strength, but I like to work hard, and I can learn a lot if someone will teach me.

Now that a large portion of my adult life revolves around a sport, I regret that I so often sat on the sidelines as a teenager because I didn't think I could do a good job.

Back during Mr. Hart's class, I had a revelation that has stayed with me throughout my years of being a student and a teacher. I thought: You know, those other teachers never bothered teaching me to do sports because I wasn't good at them naturally. But if someone would just teach me, I could learn. I became angry at the years of teachers who hadn’t taught me anything, who had ignored me or insulted me because I wasn’t naturally gifted in a subject that it was their job to teach me.

And then, for the first time I can remember, I thought in horror of all the students who weren't naturally good at math and English and other academic subjects (which I was naturally good at) and how their teachers might be treating them the same way, as hopeless cases not worth teaching.

When I tell my friend Marie this story, she says, “Like all my math teachers. They just ignored me and hoped I’d go away.”

When I became a teacher, I vowed to be there, like Mr. Hart, for students like Marie in math and me in P.E., students who are ready to learn, if only someone would be patient and teach them. In the time that I have worked in a community college, where we accept all students at any skill level, I have met some English Martina Navratilovas, superstars who are just waiting to unleash their innate skills upon the world.

But I’ve also met dozens of English Chris Everts, and I have seen them rise to great success and achieve things that their teachers would never have thought possible—that I wouldn’t have thought possible—because they are tough and scrappy and ready to fight for the knowledge and skills that are their birthright as humans.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Like You’ve Never Been Hurt

Dance Like No One’s Watching. Love Like You’ve Never Been Hurt.

These words of inspiration annoy me a little whenever I pass the car, parked along my bike route to my favorite tea shop, that bears the bumper sticker upon which they are inscribed.

Wouldn’t you be an idiot to love like you’ve never been hurt? That’s how you love the first time you’re in love—when you haven’t been hurt yet, at least not by somebody you’re in love with—and look how that ends.

If you’re thinking, Well, I’m still with the first person I was in love with, and it hasn’t ended in horrible pain yet—just wait. I’m not being cynical; it’s going to end, one way or the other.

I remember the first time I was in love. I thought I was meant to be with this person, thought we should go to graduate school together, get a matching set of English PhDs, find one of those double job openings that are oh-so-common in the academic world, which would fortuitously enough be in some wonderful exotic city, and spend the rest of our lives writing obscure books and having babies.

When this plan did not pan out, we decided to continue living together in our three-bedroom apartment as roommates anyway, because, we reasoned, we were best friends and mature adults. You can imagine how that went. Suffice it to say, we drove our third roommate away by provoking horrible childhood memories of his parents’ divorce. My now-ex-boyfriend was forced to date women in secret for fear of upsetting me, and I lost ten pounds because I couldn’t stomach any food if he was in the apartment.

I’ve been in love a few times since then. I can’t say that I loved the same way, with the na├»ve expectation that the relationship would last forever, that this person was the one, my soul mate, that if this relationship fails then a part of my life has failed. I will never think any of that again, and if you’ve paid attention when you’ve been hurt, you probably won’t think it, either.

The advice on this bumper sticker, which, I just found out, dishearteningly enough, was written by Mark Twain (I assumed it was written by the same committee of hippy marketing experts who coined such bumper-sticker wisdom as Mean people suck), reminds me of something that my kickboxing teacher frequently says to me:

Don’t be scared to come in.

By come in, he doesn’t mean into my kickboxing school, although if I were thinking logically I would probably be scared to walk through the front door. No, my teacher says this when I am staring at a man who outweighs me by at least thirty pounds, who is faster and more experienced than I am, and who without a doubt will throw a very powerful, fast side kick at my stomach the moment I come six inches closer to him than I am now. Since I know he is going to do this, I should be able to avoid it happening, but so far, the only way I can prevent it is by staying approximately three feet away from him at all times, which is not conducive to fighting somebody.

Don’t be scared to come in, says my teacher, watching me tango with this opponent. He moves a step closer; I back up a step. He moves to the left; I move to the right.

Don’t be scared to come in. I know better than to be an insolent student, but I can’t help myself—I shoot my teacher an indignant look. Don’t be scared? Do I look like an idiot? Do you see his front leg, cocked and ready to throw the side kick at me before I have any chance of reaching him with any part of my body? Of course I’m scared!

I know what my teacher means: Don’t let your fear prevent you from coming in. That’s what we usually mean when we say “Don’t be scared”—be scared, but do it anyway. That’s the definition of bravery.

And I know what Mark Twain meant, too: don’t let your past experiences of being hurt affect your ability to love, without reservations, in the present and future. Just like fighting: when you get kicked hard in the stomach, you don’t stop fighting; you go back in. But you don’t go in like you’ve never been kicked in the stomach. You’d be an idiot to do that.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Presidents

“I wanted a less prestigious job with a lower salary,” said the man on the radio.

He had left his job as a politician to become a pediatric nurse. He would be interviewed on a show coming up later tonight; this was just a promotional sound-bite.

“But seriously, he loves his new job,” said the radio announcer.

I was surprised, because I had assumed his comment was serious. Was it really so absurd that someone would want to escape the pressures of a prestigious, high-paying job? Wouldn’t lots of people want to switch to something with less stress, less responsibility, even less money? What about CEOs, movie stars, politicians? What about the president?

I have watched a number of people attempt to become president of a number of things during the last few years. The process that it takes to become a president would itself be enough to make most people wish for a less-prestigious and lower-paying position.

There was, of course, the race to become president of the United States. Lots of people wanted that job; they raised millions of dollars, campaigned day and night, hired speech writers and campaign managers to craft elaborate strategies for outsmarting the other people who also wanted to be president. This president was chosen democratically, and almost every adult citizen of the country was allowed to cast a vote for his or her choice. So the people who wanted to be president needed to try to please large numbers of citizens.

There was also the selection of the president of my college. While the people who wanted this job did not have to raise money or hire helpers to design their campaigns, they did go to great lengths to try to get the job. One flew all the way from Chicago to interview; another gave a speech to representatives of the entire college despite the fact that she had broken her leg the evening before. She must have really wanted the job.

This process gave the impression of some democratic overtones, in that members of the campus community got to submit their opinions about the job finalists. These opinions were passed on to the board of our college, who were free to read them, consider them, and then choose whichever candidate they wanted. The candidates’ job was to please the campus community but to please the board even more.

One other race that followed a democratic model was for the presidency of the college’s academic senate (which is like student government for teachers). All the teachers at my school had the opportunity to vote. The democratic integrity of this process was marred, however, by the fact that only one candidate chose to run, and only after some fairly intense coercion.

This last presidential election was the only one I could really relate to. I can’t imagine myself attempting to become president of anything—the country, a college, the campus book club—except under some pretty serious duress. I definitely wouldn’t be running against anybody, because if someone else wants the job, by all means, she can have it.

Sometimes I try to imagine wanting to be a president. It’s a stressful job, certainly. The president of my college needs to make crucial decisions about our budget and policies. She knows she will often face criticism for those decisions, and if her decisions aren’t good, she could damage or destroy the entire school. That seems pretty stressful.

On top of that, there is the stress of having to be the face and voice of the college. I don’t really feel that I represent my job when I am not there, at least not in an active way. If I decide to spend the weekends wandering around the local mall in ripped-up sweatpants, no one will say, “I can’t believe an English teacher from Las Pecinas College walks around dressed like a slob!” I am allowed to make negative comments about my school, if I so choose, without violating the specifications of my job description. But being the president of a college is a twenty-four-hour job. No matter what the president is doing, whether walking her dog or shopping at the store or, say, visiting a strip club, as long as she is publically viewable, she represents our college and is expected to act accordingly, which means that she should avoid strip clubs if she wants to be seen as doing her job properly.

Why would somebody want this job, I wondered, as I watched the candidates giving their speeches to the college. Sure, it pays a lot more than my job, but I don’t see that the added responsibility is worth the money. I would opt for the lower-paying, less-prestigious job any day.

Now imagine being president of this entire country. Think of all the things you could never be caught doing: making an insulting or critical comment about your own country. Making an off-color joke, an insensitive remark. Spacing out and forgetting what you were talking about mid-sentence. Forgetting the name of a country. Farting in public. Playing air guitar. Getting drunker than you meant to. Making obscene hand gestures. Buying pornography. Going to a sex shop or a swingers’ party, even with your spouse.

It’s like being a celebrity, except you make less money and are expected to maintain your dignity all the time.

Because I don’t want to be president—of my country, my college, my academic senate—I really appreciate those who are willing to do those jobs. I guess I think of them sort of like the person who cleans the toilets; it’s a dirty job, and I’m really glad somebody is doing it.