Monday, November 26, 2012

The Accident

There was a Friday last June, that like many Fridays, my husband and I took our nine year old to see a local Kansas City performer over Happy Hour. Olivia rarely chooses to join us but Eli loves the live music and the half-price appetizers.  The bar is called “The Phoenix” and is housed in what is suspected to have been a brothel. The stone walls and Jazz music performed there lend to an ambiance which is reminiscent of a 1920’s speakeasy. It is not difficult to succumb to the raucous whispers from the past while our favorite musician’s trumpet wails itself into our souls. We drink sparingly or not at all because we know that Eli’s attention span is short and our promises of “dessert” will only hold him off for a short time. His favorite waitress “Tuesday” a sexy young woman in her early thirties with a Lauren Hutton smile remembers that he likes bleu cheese and brings him extra for his wings. We find ourselves hypnotized by “Lonnie” a gorgeous, lanky, jazz musician whose energy seems boundless.  We know that if we stay long enough he will change his shoes, climb up upon the bar and tap dance. That Friday we would not see Lonnie tap dance. Eli lost interest and announced that it was time to go.

Almost 5 minutes into our ride home Eli announced that he really should have used the restroom before he left the bar, a scenario that repeats itself frequently. We explained to Eli that the trip home would be at least 30 minutes perhaps longer and that he would simply have to “hold it”. Eli happily broke into his “Pee song” in which he repeatedly sings the word “pee” to the tune of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. I’m not certain as to whether this helps him to cope with his condition or if it is meant to subject us to such a level of annoyance that we stop at the nearest McDonalds an allow him to relieve himself.

As we were driving, Andrew and I were talking about our weekend plans and the traffic had come to an almost complete stop. I became even more conscious of the “pee concert” that was being performed from the back seat and silently wondered if we should take the next exit to allow Eli a bathroom break or if the delay would compound the time in reaching our home.  Suddenly we were hit “hard” from behind. We luckily, were wearing seatbelts.  Our bodies were violently pushed forward only to be pulled back hard again. Our car hit an older Crown Victoria (known for exploding on rear impact) which then hit a red SUV in front of it. Before we had a chance to recognize what had happened, we felt the impact of another car hitting the car that originally hit us and then there was a sickening sort of slow speed acknowledgement of what had happened. I immediately looked back at Eli who was sitting “wild eyed” in the back seat, I looked to Andrew who was looking at me and saying something, waiting for me to respond, I reassured him that I was okay. There were fire trucks, numerous police cars, an ambulance and even news helicopters circling overhead. Out of the 5 cars, 3 were obviously totaled. Our Honda Civic was one of them and yet besides back aches which would linger for over a month and Eli’s intense fear of driving on the Interstate, we are very fortunate.  Perhaps the saving grace for Eli was the young police officer who stopped three lanes of traffic to allow him to walk into the trees to urinate.

We are able to laugh about the “Pee Song” now and he still sings it with frequency but there was nothing comical about the accident. The average speed on the interstate is 70 mph or approximately 113 km/h. Eli could have been killed or been made an orphan and life could have changed drastically in just seconds.

I had a learner that I will call M. M was unusual but I could never put my finger on the reason why. When her numerous lessons began to run out I was sort of relieved. It was not that she was unpleasant or a poor learner. To the contrary, she worked hard at her lessons and she was always appreciative of our time. It was just that sometimes she was vacant. During our last lesson she told me a story. It was during that last lesson that I realized that after 30 hours together, I didn’t know her at all. I hadn’t even scratched the surface.

As a child, M lived in a small rural village in central France with her parents and her younger brothers. My impression is that life was good. One morning when M was about 12 she, their mother and the boys got into the car to drive to a nearby city to go to the market. M sat in the passenger seat, her mother was the driver and the little boys sat in the back. When they were about halfway to their destination a large oncoming truck veered into their lane. Her mother was killed upon impact. Upon entering the car she had been a girl and from the moment of the impact everything changed. Her initial role was to comfort the injured boys in the backseat of the car while concealing their mother’s death. Later she simply took on the role of their mother, cooking cleaning and caring for the boys, not because she was told to but because she felt it was her responsibility because she did not die. It was only when her father insisted that she go to Paris to University that she loosened herself from that responsibility but never entirely relinquished her role.

People are complex. They are not just black or white, good or bad, interesting or boring. They are an intricate mosaic of experiences, smells, colors, textures and tastes. I guess that all experiences shape us. We might see it in the form of a tragic accident that robs us of a loved one or we can be forever changed by a beautiful trumpet solo that pierces our being and embeds itself in our soul. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sex May Sell but what about the conflict in Gaza?

Last night I posted an entry titled “SEX SELLS”. It was a sort of a cheap way to get readers and although I believe in what I wrote, it might not have been my best work. As expected it got more “hits” in 15 minutes than some of my posts do in a day. It was sort of an adrenaline rush and I was caught up in the moment. However, as I was checking “twitter” I saw a post from journalist, Jon Donnison for the BBC. He posted a soundcloud from Gaza and it quickly brought me back to earth.

In the recording one can hear the sound of distant rocket fire. There are explosions, then about 25 seconds of quiet and then the sound of more rocket fire, it repeats with shorter amounts of quiet. It was nearly 9:15 p.m.  and I had just put Eli to bed. He was safely in his own queen sized bed, tucked neatly into his blankets, beneath a tent or canopy that we made together. I had given him permission to watch his “nook” for thirty minutes. Outside my house there was relative silence. I could hear an occasional car driving by or dog barking.  Our house alarm was set.  Olivia was in the living room with her IPOD plugged into her ears. Andrew was in our bedroom reading. My world was safe and comfortable.

The recording from Gaza was made at 3:49 a.m. I tried to imagine how a mother living within the sound range of the rocket fire in Gaza would exist. I wondered if she could sleep. Did she fall asleep for those seconds between the rocket fire only to be jolted awake by fear? I wondered if she spent the night sleeping beside the bed of her children with the belief that if rocket fire hit her home she could save them. I’ll bet you anything that she told herself that she would rather die with her child then live without him or her.

In the last week I have tried to learn more about the conflict between the Hamas and the Israelis. I am trying to understand the history of Gaza and why this history of violence runs so deep. I also want to understand why the US seems to have a bias towards the Israelis and whether that bias is well founded or politically motivated.  This is my perception and understanding:

The Gaza 
 Gaza is a small strip of land that is approximately 25 miles or 40.23 kilometers long. It is about 8 miles or 12.87 kilometers wide. It is basically a small area of land within Israel that shares a tiny border with Egypt.  The Mediterranean Sea is on is on the western border of the Gaza is largely controlled by Israel.  In 2011 a little more than 1.5 million people lived in the Gaza, making it one of the most densely populate places on earth. Most of the residents of the Gaza are the descendants of refugees who lost their homes in the Arab Israeli war in 1948.

Israel has controlled Gaza and its residents by maintaining territorial waters, the entry of foreigners, the import and export and even air space. Although Hamas governs Gaza, Israel controls almost all access which means that it has the Gaza in an economic stronghold. Author, and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, calls the Gaza Strip an open air prison.


The word Hamas translates into the word “Enthusiasm” or “Zeal”in Arabic. Hamas is an acronym for "Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamia," or Islamic Resistance Movement. Gaza has been governed by Hamas since 2007, when it seized power.  Hamas have strong social welfare programs and operate soup kitchens, orphanages, hospitals and schools in Gaza.  . Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.  In the recent past the US has recognized Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. 

The US Relationship with Israel

The US has historically demonstrated a strong bias towards Israel. Nearly 3 billion US Dollars have been given to Israel in the form of grants since 1985. Some assume that this relationship is based on the US need to maintain a strong ally in the Middle East but many feel that it has been at the expense of building strong relationships with the Arab governments.  Israel is listed as having the 10th most powerful military firepower globally.

The more that I tried to learn about this conflict, the less I felt that I really understood. I then resorted to my usual method of deciphering information that I simply can’t get my “head around”, I asked my learners their opinions.

Many of my learners were also overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, one said it was more about religion than anything else, many said that it was simply a war that could never be resolved. I told one learner that I felt that Israel was not the victim in this situation, his response was, “Not this time”. I asked one learner if he believed that Hamas are terrorists. He said, “What is a terrorist when you are defending your home? What is a terrorist when you see your neighbor’s son loaded into a wooden box?”.

Often it is my learners who have come from very humble beginnings that impart the most significant wisdom in my life. Some are refugees from Vietnam, some started their lives in Algeria then went to live in the Parisian slums, and some grew up on a mountain top village in a remote part of central Africa. When  they tell me about children who are enlisted into the army at age 8, or describe a government that abandon them or a family that betrayed them, I ask them how to put it all in perspective. How do I live my life of good fortune and safety with the knowledge that I simply won the lottery of being born in Lawrence, Kansas? How do I balance knowing that others suffer simply because they did not win the location lottery? The response is simply, “Teach your children to know the world, help them to understand their advantages. Make them understand their responsibility to be educated and to understand others”.

In the end my opinions and knowledge is based largely on opinions of those reported in the media and those spoken by friends and learners. My knowledge of the situation changes absolutely nothing but it gives me a little more of an ability to empathize with that mother who hears rocket fire and wants only to protect her children. She does not have a face or a name but in my mind but we have both carried life in our bodies and we both know that one life regardless of geography, socioeconomic position, religion or sex is not more important than another.

This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for the silent moments between rocket fire.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SEX SELLS or Happy Thanksgiving, Now Let’s Give Up What We Think Are Puritanical Values

This week the American media announced the possibility of a major national security breach which I’m guessing that most people would have ignored all together except that it was connected to a sex scandal. In the U.S., sex sells news. The American people are obsessed with sex scandals but in truth Americans are obsessed with sex. My French learners frequently make the observation that Americans are much too concerned with what is happening in the bedrooms of others, I tend to think that it’s just that American adults just aren’t getting “any”.

I sometimes ask my learners to describe what they believe is different culturally concerning how Americans regard sex. Most will say that it is rooted in our puritanical history.  Tom Jacobs wrote an article published by Pacific Standard that indicates that the Puritan value system is still embedded in our brains. His supporting information however, was based on a study led by Luis Eric Uhlman by the Paris School of Management. I see a trend here. The French think we are prude.

When I thought about it, I thought that it made sense. There is something irresistible about the forbidden. I somehow imagined poor William Bradford anguished by the sight of his young wife Dorothy May’s exposed neck, turning away with disgrace when he actually wanted to stare unperturbed by shame, drinking in the soft, white, youthful skin. I imagined that he might simply long to walk to her and tenderly stroke a wisp of golden hair peeking out from beneath her bonnet, take her in his arms and have her in the New World. But I soon learned that she fell off the Mayflower and drowned in the Cape Cod Harbor during his first expedition ashore. That’ll teach him to go out exploring with the guys and leave her on the ship to mend the laundry.

The more that I read the more confused I became by the correlation between Puritan values and America’s prudish reputation. The Puritans did not in fact teach that sex was evil. In fact the Puritans viewed sex in marriage as the “crown of all bliss”. The Westminster Theological Journal published an article written by Daniel Doriani titled, Puritans, Sex and Pleasure. Doriani wrote that “Sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant”. He said that the Puritans believed that Sex was good, created by God for human welfare and even pleasure, and the Puritans were not squeamish about it. Okay, so much for that theory..

The truth remains that Americans are not as liberated sexually as our European neighbors. Strangely, based on a 2006 study, out of 1000 teenagers 3.8 will become pregnant in The Netherlands and while France will have 7.8, the United States will have 41.9. These numbers increase in the U.S. yearly. Clearly we are not only prude in the U.S. we are afraid to give our own children the information they need to protect themselves from pregnancy. The philosophy seems to be, “I’m not comfortable with my own sexuality and I certainly can’t talk to my children about theirs nor, do I want my children to receive the information that they need from school, maybe we will all just get lucky.”  By empowering our children with information, we will empower them to make educated choices and good investments in their own future. By hiding behind shame, we are failing them.

Sex between consenting adults is natural. It is not shameful or dirty. The human body is miraculous and beautiful. I can admire the muscularity of a man’s body beneath a crisp cotton shirt and imagine what lies beneath and still know without a doubt that no one can make me feel the way that my husband does. My friend in France goes to libertine clubs and has safe sex with strangers with her husband’s knowledge. I can still admire her intelligence and talent and still consider her gracious. It has nothing to do with me. It does not erode at my marriage nor does it pollute my mind. When we are truly respectful of ourselves, when we are truly respectful of the privacy of others, when we regard sex between consenting adults as natural and normal, we are far less frivolous with the attention we pay to the sex lives of others and we can give our attention to what is really important.

This Thanksgiving I am going sit across the table from my significant other and give thanks to his great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather William Bradford for marrying his second wife Alice Southworth and legitimizing his marriage by having exuberant Puritan sex. I am going to look at him and admire the hands that after 25 years instinctively touch me, I’m going to think about how his breathe feels on my skin. I’m going to admire the width of his shoulders and the confidence in his walk and then go home and fall asleep waiting for our nine year old to brush his teeth and go to bed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Love What You Do, Do What you Love

I spoke to a new learner yesterday. She is a journalist and a television host. When I heard her speak of her work, I heard her express the enthusiasm and fascination for her work that I feel for mine. In writing this I realize that with the exception of my friend Linda, a third grade teacher, I don’t usually hear people talk about their work this way. Both Linda and my learner yesterday speak of their work with a sort of lilt in their voice, with adoration for the people they encounter and a sense of enchantment in the description of their experiences.  I too love my work and though Monday always comes too soon, I face my day with an excited sense of anticipation.  I fall a bit in love with every learner I encounter. They all become a part of me.

My first lesson begins at 6:00 a.m. my time or 1:00 p.m. France time.  Before my first lesson, I drink a cup of coffee and scan the International news. If the French president has made a speech or if the European Stock Market drops, I need to know the details so that I can have a relatively articulate conversation on the issue. I find that people learn to speak English easier if they are speaking on a subject which is important to them.

I sometimes become so absorbed in my work that if I am not interrupted by the normal course of the day, such as my husband coming home for lunch, I become stuck in a sort of nether land.  I have one foot in another time zone, another culture and another way of thinking. I enter into board rooms, family dinners, presentations and employee evaluations.  I hear details about tense conversation between colleagues, fears about the decline of production and the excitement of a promotion. I become so bonded with my learners that after the first few minutes of a lesson I once sensed my learner’s vague nausea and asked her if she was going to tell me that she was pregnant. She gasped and said, “How could you know, I’ve told no one”.  I’ve silently wept as a female executive cried explaining that her husband left her “again”, this time for good.  

When my last lesson ends I tend to look around me, notice the light filtering into the room and I’m often shocked by my surroundings.  I notice a film of dust on a picture frame, a photo of my smiling children, a plastic figurine of “Yoda” (he looks down upon me silently imparting wisdom) and then I enter into the reality of my world.

I sometimes carry with me the things that I have heard, a story about a ninety year old grandfather living in Breton who has mastered the internet and uses his mobile phone with the skill of a teenager, the image of my learner who describes the beautiful new shoes she bought which she later learned hurt her feet or the frustrations of a 28 year old engineer who hates his job and longs for employment which offers more immediate results, like that of a baker. I sometimes carry with me the aloof air of a Parisian, silently judgmental of the processed foods in the grocery cart of the person in front of me. I find myself stopping before dashing out the door to the supermarket in my workout clothes and meticulously choosing a skirt and applying cosmetics.

Perhaps the most magical experiences are those with a new learner in which they are initially shy and very nervous. Over time I have the opportunity to hear them gain enough confidence and vocabulary to begin to express themselves and their personality blossoms before me. I learn that they have a hilarious sense of humor or a tender heart or that they are a cancer survivor. It is those moments that I sit at my computer on my side of the world, close my eyes and bask in the wonder of that connection. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Haircut

My learners often rush into a conference room to take my call just seconds before their lessons begin. It’s possible that they have been in a meeting or have just ended a stressful phone call so I use the first few minutes as a sort of “warm up”. I ask about the weather, if it is the beginning of the week I ask about their weekend, if it is after Wednesday I ask their plans for the up-coming weekend. They have a chance to wind down and in truth any type of conversation offers learning opportunities.

One day I asked Laure, a 31 year old, systems analyst about her plans for the weekend. She told me that she planned to get a haircut.

 “How long is your hair?” I asked.

“To the middle of my back” she answered.

“How will you cut it?”

“To my shoulders”

“Have you ever worn it very short?”

“Yes, I have. I once had no hair because of chimioth√©rapie

“Chemotherapy?  You are a cancer survivor?“  I asked, a bit taken aback.

“Yes, I am a cancer survivor”,  she responded, carefully pronouncing her words.

“Then you are a warrior, you have fought a battle haven’t you?”

“Yes, my cancer was very rare, I was one of only 500 people in France to be treated for this cancer. I had chemotherapy for one year and then I had radiograph therapy.”


“Yes, this is it, Radiation”

“Did you have someone in your life to support you?” I asked.

“Yes, my brother and my mother” she responded. 

“It must have been so frightening for them, particularly for your mother”

“Yes” she paused, “Yes, my mother was so afraid. I felt that I had to take care of her. I fought two battles. One battle was with cancer, the other to protect my mother from fear”

The tears begin to sting my eyes and I fight desperately to regain my composure. I make a mental note to myself to spare my children my fear in serious times.
“Yes you are a fighter, you did fight two battles” I manage, “Are you cancer free now?”

“Yes, I have no cancer since 4 years”

I automatically repeat what she has said with a correction, “I have been cancer free for four years”.

“I have been cancer free for four years” She repeated.

“I have three sister in laws and a niece who are warriors of cancer” I say through tears. I don’t mention that one sister in law did not survive.  My voice cracks, “Now you are one of my heroes too.”

“I want you to know why this haircut is so important” she says, gently.

“Thank you, I want you to know that when I am an old woman, I may not remember your name or your level of English, but I will remember you and this story. It will become a part of me.”

There is silence but I know that we are both wearing a weary smile.