Friday, January 7, 2011

New Years Crossroads

Yesterday, as I looked out the window, the view from my seat was pretty grey. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. The optimism that often overtakes me at the beginning of a new year usually starts to wane right about now as I realize that bridging the gap between self-flagellation (lose weight, save money, quit drinking) and self-improvement (start running, shop less, sobriety) is more complicated than the mere making of resolutions. Like everybody else, I close out the year by taking stock, lamenting over failures and weaknesses, and then begin rigorous plans for self-improvement. I find myself starting sentences with "next year, this is going to change," or, "next year I want to do this..." as if New Year's Eve is some magic portal that I will pass through and come out the other side a different person.

A big New Year's tradition is reading my Mah Jongg tiles. Really, I should wait until February for Chinese New Year, but anticipation usually gets the better of me and I do a reading in late December to see what the year ahead holds. No, I am not crazy - the cards/tiles are often uncannily accurate. I have been doing readings for about 15 years now and I would like to think I have gotten good at recognizing patterns. Usually Lynne and I cast our tiles together and there is always a moment of dread/anticipation as they are flipped: please, no fire or North. Bring on the guardians (protection) and the dragons (luck). This year, I pulled 3 tiles on the lunar eclipse (the blood moon) and they were: the pearl (wealth, when favourably aspected, reckless spending if negative), the carp (usually always good, signifies peace and longevity) and the mushroom (kind of like the Chinese lottery, an extraordinary future occurrence that can be either good or bad).

I am not a big fan of the mushroom - I hate surprises. Even the wording makes me apprehensive: "... it may refer to some future occurrence, as yet unknown, but so extraordinary that the querant will be obliged to recall the oracle's foreknowledge of a remarkable event." Sometimes, the cards/tiles around the mushroom can give clues as to the nature of this remarkable event, other times not. So my future event should have something to do with money (pearl) and peace (carp). The carp signifies extremely favourable results but they will take longer than expected.

Thankfully, the universe did not make me wait long. My window gazing was interrupted by a call from the department telling me that enrollment is low this January and they won't have a class for me to teach. Now I had been kicking around the idea of leaving my teaching job and returning to corporate America due to several opportunities that had come up which looked interesting. But there was always something that made me hesitate and not apply. First of all, academia may not be as lucrative as the corporate world, but it is by no means paltry in the wage department. I have definitely experienced worse. But really what I loved about my job was the complete absence of drama. As I said to Lynne: "no one is trying to fuck me, and no one is trying to fuck me over," which is a huge change from the corporate world. Don't get me wrong, I was no innocent victim; I gave as good as I got in the drama department which was probably the reason I left. I just didn't want to be that person. So, for me, academia has been a pleasant respite where I was able to focus on what I wanted to learn, and who I wanted to become. That is not to say that academia wasn't stressful; the stress is often unimaginable because it is you who you are challenging. Often, I didn't feel smart enough to finish - I constantly worried about hitting my intellectual ceiling. I would read what I wrote, select all, and hit delete in despair. Also, academia can be very isolationist. For my Master's project and my RA, I was given a set of keys and an office and told "see you in April." I'm exaggerating of course, because there is support if you need it; but primarily the work that you do, you accomplish alone. I found myself missing the collaborative process that happens on many corporate teams. I also missed an environment where everyone didn't take themselves so seriously - in business, you can admit what you don't know freely as long as you have a plan to find out the answer. In academia, what you don't know seems to be a source of shame and I could never get my head around that. I found myself wading through a lot of pompous bullshit.

After the phone call, I returned to my post at the window. Now what am I going to do? This year is not starting well. Dental surgeries and unemployment - well, at least we know the pearl was negatively aspected. The mushroom also seems pretty clear. But what about the carp?
I sat there all afternoon in quiet contemplation. Slowly, I started to see that the University not having a class for me might just be the push that I needed. Maybe there is some great job out there for me and I will know how to handle the pressure and the drama better because I know what I want and who I want to be. More importantly, I know what I don't want and who I am not. Perhaps I needed to step away and figure things out and academia gave me a relatively safe place to do that. But that time is over, and I need to move on. I started to feel euphoric - filled with possibility, and strangely, I didn't feel afraid.

The phone rang. It was the department again saying that they had another class that I could teach but it meant longer hours at the same wage. I would not be teaching literature or rhetoric, but strictly English as a language. This would only be for one semester and then I could go back to teaching 140/145. I heard my voice say: "I'm sorry, but I think I am going to have to pass on this. Thank you though."

I returned to the couch and waited for the feelings of apprehension to wash over me. I turned down a good job with great people in the middle of a dicey economy - without discussing it with Rob either. However, the feeling of euphoria didn't depart - it got stronger. And as I sit here typing, it is still here. I feel calm. I'm going to be okay. I worked hard to get to this point and while 2011 might have had a rocky start, there is sure footing on the horizon - I can just feel it.

Ah, there's the carp.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Presentation Week

Last week was presentation week for my class. They had to formally present the term paper they had been working on for the last 6 weeks. I knew they were able public speakers because I had been informally 'testing' them on this concept for weeks and I was amazed at how each of them (even those who are so shy they wouldn't yell if they were on fire) performed the task so competently. I asked if they were taught public speaking in China - and yes, getting up in front of your class starts in grade 1, getting up in front of the school starts in grade 4.
So with this in mind, and the fact that all of these students are applying to the Faculty of Business, I told them my criteria for presenting would be fairly advanced. If you don't know Power Point, then a) you better learn it, and b) it would not be considered as an excuse to not have a visually appealing presentation. They had a SMART class at their disposal, so they could use the internet, utube, project handouts etc. - anything to catch their audience's attention.

Most of you know that I have done a lot of public speaking in my day - both informally, and in front of crowds of over a hundred - so I am not all that easily impressed. I thought I would be in for hours of "um's" and "ah's" as nervous students held sweaty cue cards and looked at the floor. Boy was I wrong. Their presentations kicked ass.

Two come to mind that I wanted to share with you. First was a L. He did his presentation on some of the causes and effects of climate change. Up until now, it had been your run-of-the-mill Power Points with all of the predictable visual effects - swirling text, sound effects, bullet points that screech to a stop - distracting stuff that was once de rigeur. However, L used software from China I am not familar with (he is locating and sending me a link for an English version) that was simply spectacular. He made it snow over his text while talking about inclimate weather. Imagine little piles of snow gently accumulating at the bottom of the screen. During the portion discussing tsunami's, he had a huge wave wash away the text. But it was the rain that was truly breath-taking. Somehow, he managed to give the rain a 3D effect that was so cool - and the thunder and lightning were awesome. I was also impressed that these effects didn't take away from the content of his presentation. His hard work was evident and, best of all, after he finished he told me how much fun he had making and presenting it. I told him he should consider a career in animation.

Following L was J - a girl for whom I have a special fondness. She got up and stood in front of the class and all she had in her hand was a black marker. "Uh oh," I thought. Poor J had to follow L's presentation and the bar was already set fairly high before that. Then, she turned her back to the class (which you should never do in public speaking, that is what PP is for) and started speaking. She gave her presentation in the form of a story (once upon a time and the whole bit), and while she was talking, she was drawing on the board. J's topic was logging practices in BC, and while she spoke she started drawing tiny circles. Soon those circles became rings and then she added lines until it was apparent she was drawing timber. Under the timber, she drew a flat bed truck. Eventually the truck was on a road, hauling the timber down a mountain. I don't know if you have ever seen a competent artist draw before, but the speed and precision with which she drew was incredible. Slowly, a beautiful scene emerged on the board - an impromptu process map of BC's logging industry. It was, without doubt, the best presentation I have ever seen. And coming from GE, that's saying something. Her voice rang clear and confident. She didn't look at her notes, for there were no notes - and her presentation wasn't memorized either. She made the audience gasp and clap with delight as her illustrations came to light. I don't think I have ever seen anything quite like it. All with a black marker.

My inbox is full of thank you's and comments that I was so patient and so kind and how they will never forget the things I taught them. These things I take with a grain of salt, excellence in teaching is something I have seen a lot of at the U of A - professors who truly care about their subject matter and the role they play in society (which is a pinnacle one, in case you didn't know). But today, as I sit here and write, their marks due in a few short hours, I am truly amazed at how much I am indebted to them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Culture Shock

Most of you know that I am teaching English for Academic Purposes 140 this term. All of my students are from the International University in China and most of them have 3 or 4 years of post secondary education under their belts. This, I might add, is before they come here to start their 4 year Bachelor's degree. I mention this so that readers may glimpse at how incredibly committed a person must be in order to learn another language. Even with 3-4 years of post secondary education, the majority of them would not pass an introductory English class without some formal training in writing.

Today is the Moon Festival or, more correctly, the Mid-Autumn Festival for the Chinese. Because I knew nothing about this celebration - only that the students were very homesick to not be in China to celebrate with family and friends - I googled it and found that a special treat that goes along with the Moon Festival are moon cakes. So at 9:30 in the morning I set off to T&T to find some moon cakes. The squeals of recognition and appreciation made the trip totally worth it. They did laugh at me, however, when I asked if there were any special recipes for moon cakes, or any particular way of preparing them that is a family tradition. One student explained that they were laughing because it was as if I had asked for the recipe for a Ding Dong or a Wagon Wheel. In short, apparently moon cakes come from a factory. There is no such thing as 'homemade' moon cakes.

This week we have been working on Canadian history, so I thought that we would discuss Terry Fox considering that it is the 30th anniversary of his run. I downloaded an interview with Terry prior to his leaving Fort St. John, just as he had dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic ocean. In the interview, he said that if he failed in his mission to run across Canada, it would be because of an act of God - nothing short of that could keep him from his goal. After the interview, there was some footage of Terry running with his characteristic double hop. At this point, the entire class burst out laughing.

You have to understand that in China, disability is regarded as something very shameful - something that should be hidden away. The fact that we idolize a person who only had one leg is, in many senses, incomprehensible to them. But I have to admit, their laughing got to me. One student, struggling to understand, asked why we look up to someone who did not finish his task. Is it because he was disabled? Is it because he died of cancer? I paused for a moment to think, and answered that Terry Fox appeals to Canadians because he represents to us strength through adversity and a purity of intention. Terry looked for a way that he could contribute no matter what life threw at him and he did so in an honourable and courageous way. I then explained that the Terry Fox award in sports is one of the highest honours an athlete can receive. I told them about recent winners Joannie Rochette and Petra Majdic and the reasons they were given the award in the 2010 Winter Olympics. Slowly, my meaning started to sink in.

At the end of the class I assigned their homework for the night. I gave them an article about a new video game that is causing controversy because it re-enacts the Dawson College massacre where the player can select whatever rifle they want and start killing classmates. I asked them to research the Dawson College story and then write a response to the outrage over this game. Their assignment was to consider the idea of 'free speech' versus something can be argued to be hurtful and in very poor taste. Can we consider this game to be 'art' as the creator suggests that it is? A single hand went up amongst the confused faces: "Miss," the student asked, "what is free speech?"
One thing is clear: none of us are in Kansas anymore.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Narcissus Revisited

Lately I have been having a problem with aging. My own aging, not other's. Looking at recent photos I find myself seeing every line, every wrinkle and I wonder where that young girl went, the one I still feel inside me. The luminosity of my skin and hair is fading. I can no longer eat whatever I want without running every calorie of it off. It feels like gravity is slowly pulling everything down. I find myself contemplating various procedures and surgeries that I could pull off in secret (Yes my time in France did do me very well thank you) and these thoughts make me blush with feminist shame. I'm not supposed to feel like this. I have two university degrees. I have a successful career. I am a good mother. I look good for my age. I'm not entirely sure what being a feminist has to do with this but somehow I feel like I'm supposed to be larger than all this anxiety. That I am now supposed celebrate my womanhood beyond the gaze and feel secure in my mind and in my talent. At this stage of the game, I should know who I am enough to know that how I look doesn't matter. But I think about my appearance - a lot.

Obviously in a culture that fetishizes youth and beauty above all else these feelings should come as no surprise. And it also comes as no surprise that this fetishization applies primarily to women although I know this is slowly changing to the point where men are becoming as apprehensive about aging as we are. I love that we think this is progress. When I look at my husband, I can see grey hairs creeping up his side-burns. His crows-feet deepen every year. He, too, gains weight more easily. Somehow I am able to look at his aging and my heart fills. He's never looked better. And I'm not even saying that to appear magnanimous either - he really does look better every year.

Which brings me to Narcissus. Everybody thinks that Narcissus could not stop staring at his reflection because he was so in love with himself, that the sight of his beauty was so bewitching that he couldn't imagine pulling away from the pool even for a moment. He was a slave to his beauty to the point where he ended up destroying it - sacrificing the needs of the body (food, water, sleep) in exaltation of the body. The moral of this story is that this is the recompense for vanity. Narcissus was vain and therefore he got what he deserved for loving himself too much.

I don't know much, but I know that this was no act of love. This was an act of hatred.

Narcissus did not love himself. He hated himself. He needed that pool - the gaze, even if it was his own - to define him. Without the gaze he was nothing and he knew it. Narcissus was never able to trust in himself, in who he was as an individual beyond the body. That's why he withered away into nothing but a pile of bones when there was food and water right by him. He could have saved his life, stepped away from the pool, had he just trusted that he existed beyond his reflection.

I think this kind of trust can be especially hard for women. And how can it not be? To be looked at is a big part of being a women, even if we wish it were not so. I love to look at women, especially in summer. Flirty dresses, polished toes, pony tails, bodies just waiting to be seen - to be gazed upon. I think most women enjoy being looked at - and what is true for most women is perhaps doubly so for me.

This need for visual attention starts fairly young too. I have a friend whose little girl plans what dress she is going to wear the next day as a surprise for him. He has strict instructions as to how she will reveal herself and he knows his job is to be delighted and to tell her how pretty she looks. I've been trying to unpack what she is excited about. Is it the anticipation of the surprise? Is it the planning of the dress, the shoes, the purse, the jewels that thrills her? Or is it his attention? I imagine it is an amalgam of all of these things.

I was once at an all-girls party where we were discussing the possibility of going camping. One of the girls looked rather pointedly at me and said that she would not tolerate any 'girly' girls worrying about chipping their nail polish. My sister - who else? - rushed to my defense saying to not be deceived, I was a master outdoorswoman who could fish, hunt, start her own fire and even build her own lean-to (thanks dad) but this woman wouldn't lay off. She said: "I've gotten to a place in my life where I think God wants more for women than just beauty." I was not sure how God came into this coversation however, I readily agreed but also added my own views: I think God gave us beauty to delight us - to please us. I think pleasure in beauty in art, or music, or architecture, or nature is to elevate our hearts and minds. To remind us that she exists.

But in many ways beauty becomes standardized, molded, and reduced until it only fits within narrow parametres. I'm trying to work on that in my own mind. I think about how much I love Isobel's snow white hair. I think about how I am proud of my hands even though they are ugly because they are a mark of a great pianist and became so chorded from years of typing/playing. I'm trying to love my laugh lines and my big bum. But most of all I'm trying to accept that it is okay to walk away from the pool from time to time. That I have done the hard work of becoming a person that I could be proud of.

And I won't disappear just because no one is looking.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How Big is Lisa?

When I was quite little, one of my strategies to get attention was to throw my hands high above my head and shout: "How big is Lisa?" This entreaty meant that those around me had to immediately stop what they were doing, raise their hands in the air and reply, "Soooooo Big!" If I didn't get what I wanted right away, I was not deterred - I would start chanting, hopping from one foot to the other: "How big is Li-sa, how big is Li-sa?" Responses to this would vary. More often than not, I would get a sing-song chorus of "so big" - placated, I'd move along. Other times, people were busy or talking so they would ignore me until my chants became louder and more persistent. When it became impossible to hear themselves over the din, someone would finally yell "SO BIG" loud enough to blow my hair back and I would shuffle off, feeling hard done-by, wondering what was everyone's problem.

Why did I do this? I imagine it had something to do with being the youngest of five daughters who were equally, if not more, talkative than I - getting enough 'air time' was something we fought over. My verbally talented sisters had a decided advantage over me, but none could match my tenacity. Talk all you want, I thought, I will keep chanting. When I think back, that was a tough room. It wasn't easy being on the tail end of that lot. Wendy, the eldest, was poetically beautiful. People would stop her on the street and tell her so. Katie, the brain, was known for her kindness and her intellect - she was the only one of us who had any talent whatsoever for mathematics. Gayle's voice was larger than life. I remember her singing Ave Maria a Capella filling the cathedral church to its rafters. The only person who could match Gayle's talent for performance was Lynne. She was gifted with a crazy, disarming sense of humour and could mimic any accent. Plus Lynne was always different than everyone else. Fearless. I remember one time she shaved her head on one side and died it purple; the other side she left long, ebony, hanging to her waist. People stared, but she just laughed. It wasn't her problem they weren't cool.

Perhaps "How big is Lisa?" had something to do with carving out a space for myself in amongst all this excellence. Maybe I insisted on being seen. Lately, however, I wonder if there wasn't something more to it than this. If you think about it, I was asking a deeply important question. Standing on my tip-toes, stretching my arms as high as they would reach, I wanted - needed? - to know how big I was. I don't think I have stopped asking this question, I've merely internalized it. And the insistence upon external validation still looms as large as it always did. Every new challenge, every goal I set, every impossible mountain that I scale, has this question at its heart.

How big is Lisa?

I guess we'll find out.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Women Are Attacking Campus

Last week students Michelle Tomarat and Derek Warwick posted satirical posters expressing their disgust and incredulity over President Indira Samarasekera's comments that males are disenfranchised in terms of enrollment in academia. She was referring to the fact that women now comprise 56% of campus population with men trailing behind at a paltry 44%. Her concern is that in 20 years that Canada will "not have the benefit of enough male talent at the heads of companies and elsewhere." Naturally comments like these provoked outrage and forced students to wonder if Samarasekera has a clue about women's position as it stands today in the world. The fact is that as of 2007, women in North America still make 76 cents to every male dollar. They do not comprise the majority, or even a close minority (certainly no 44%) of executive positions in business, politics, or government. There has not been an elected female prime-minister in our country yet. There has not been an elected female leader in North America, for that matter. Some articles I have read from the European Foreign press indicate that North America is a bit of a laughing stock in terms of their lack of female leadership...something that is increasingly more common in Europe. Yet still over here in the land of prehistoric snow and ice, we continue to lag behind.
I would have to say that what outraged me the most was that there was a time (a loooong time) where women did not have equal numbers in terms of enrollment in Canadian universities. This, however, was not a matter of concern for past presidents of the U of A or elsewhere. There were no drives to help women achieve higher education. No quotas were lowered (as is being discussed in the States to help drive male enrollment in post secondary education), no tax breaks given, no encouragement formal or informal delivered. Yet the number of women being educated slowly started to rise. So many of them, myself included, made it through the school of hard knocks. During my first degree, I had two children and a part time job. I would start school at 8 am, go to classes until noon, and then drive to GE where I would work until 6. I worked all day Saturday and Sunday. For two years I never took a day off. I did this because I knew there was no oil patch job waiting for me. I knew that as a single mother, I made up the largest portion of those who reside below the poverty line and that I had the least likely chance of ever crossing that line. If there was any hope for me, it was to be an exception to every statistic that was defining me - so this is what I set out to do, and have done with a moderate degree of success.
At any rate, back to the subject at hand. The satirical posters hailed headlines that read "Women are attacking campus!" and "Women: stop! drop! Men: Enroll!" complete with black and white vintage representations of the 1950's men and women. The posters were clever and above all funny. These students used satire to question statements that, frankly, should be questioned. The response to this was that campus security rounded up these students and told them they were being charged and potentially expelled from the University for distributing "hate literature." In 2009 ladies. This should concern you.
Basically the students were bullied into dropping their resistance, and President Samarasekera stated to the Edmonton Journal that there is no way they will be expelled as she is all for 'academic freedom.' Apparently Samarasekera's office received many complaints from faculty members, professors, and students protesting this suppression of academic freedom. This was not an issue that was being taken lightly. Faculty members and professors at the U of A, and presumably around the world, take academic freedom seriously. Like lay-down-in-front-of-a-tank-Tiananmen Square- seriously, which is lucky.
I couldn't help but think back to my first degree and to a group of students who weren't so lucky. During Rod Fraser's imperial reign as President of the U of A, a group of students spray painted some plywood sheets that were erected as a temporary front to a business in Hub mall that was under construction. The posted statistics of the ever-increasing tuition prices at the university under his leadership and correlated them with the number of students who were homeless, to those who were now forced to use the food bank. They were expelled for destruction of private property and in that battle, the students fought alone. My husband still says that Fraser's name on his degree is a blight to the quaecumque vera (whatsoever things are true) motto underneath it. Fittingly, that motto comes from St. Paul's letter to the Phillippians (who wasn't the greatest lover of women) and the passage commences with "Brothers..."
While the students ultimately were not charged, and to be fair Samarasekera defended their right to freedom of academic expression and that the literature they distributed did not constitute 'hate literature,' it is still with a heavy heart that I write this morning. I am overwhelmed with stories lately of women who are getting the shaft in corporate America, who are climbing up on the backs of one another, spreading malicious rumours to gain advantage, and bumping their heads on the glass ceiling. To those women who are taking other women out in order to gain advantage (and I have a specific example in mind here) I say this: you don't know what you are doing. The stakes have never been higher - and you reinforce a system that will spare you no mercy when your time comes.
To Derek Warwick and Michelle Tomarat I say this: where can I get some of those posters? I would like to frame them and put them up in my office - to remind me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

This One's for the Girls - No, really!

Warning - this blog is about menstruation. If you find that in poor taste...well, personally I don't really care. Read something else then.

Have you ever had your period completely surprise you? You are on holidays, or in your car, or in the fitting room at Nordstrom, or worse - in a lecture hall, and you start to feel this slow trickle between your legs. If you are like me, than for sure you will not have a tampon in your purse. I always keep one for emergencies and it seems like I always use it and forget to replace it. Or, alternatively, I haven't used it and it gets mangled by the junk in my purse until there is no way that it could be considered sanitary and it gets pitched. This is precisely the moment where I will get my period - because I am unprepared.
I was musing on this predicament with my sister a while back and bitching that I, a 35 year old woman, should by now have some reasonable idea of when I will menstruate - but I don't. Every month it's like this diabolical surprise that springs up, usually when I am wearing white. My older sisters are incredulous that this continually happens to me. Kate: "Don't you know by now how to chart your period? They teach you that when you are twelve you know." Yes, I remember health class where dear Daena's mom (who was a nurse) would come and pass out "It's Wonderful Being a Girl" pamphlets and allow us to write questions annonymously on little scaps of paper so that we wouldn't be embrassed. I guess that you could say I am remedial because I never did actually use the calendar enclosed; twenty years later, I still have not done so.
Lynne and I have a mutual friend who tracks her period on-line so I thought I would check it out. If you are forgetful like me, this is a handy dandy little site. You can fill out your calendar online and it will send you reminder emails when you are going to menstruate. There was one hitch though in that you have to be able to give the dates of your last two periods (which frankly, if I knew that I wouldn't need the calendar) but after some discussion with Rob (Don't you remember? We were kyaking and had to race into Jasper? The month before that remember we had to leave that dinner party early?), I managed to figure it out. Yes folks, my poor husband has purchased feminine hygiene products for me pretty much everywhere on earth while I sit slunked low in the passenger seat with a napkin jammed between my legs... Anyway, the site is awesome. This month I received a pink pop-up reminder that said "Lisa: put some tampons in your purse." Also, you can track fertility, breast self examination, symptoms of your period, gynecologist appointments - whatever you want. It will graph the trends for you and make suggestions.
What really struck me though was the section for women who are trying to conceive. This is an invaluable tool for them as it tracks ovulation. There is a section called the 'Wishing Well' - as I opened it my eyes filled with tears (did I mention the cite will also track PMS?) Hundreds, no thousands, of voices filled my screen: 'Please God, give me a baby,' 'Please let this be the month,' 'My husband's disappointment is killing me, he wants this so badly.' It's overwhelming. There is a section called TTC after MC (trying to conceive after miscarrying) where women can post their wishes but also comment on other's wishes. You can send people prayers or, for the non-religious, wishes of good luck. You can send women 'tons of baby dust' or make supportive comments. This is what I found truly moving. Somewhere out in the electronic blackness there is a community of women holding each other up - buttressing each other. They are seperated by race, ethnicity, distance, socio-economic circumstances, religion, sexual orientation and so on - yet they come together to share their hopes, experiences and fears.

I added my own wish to well. "Please help us continue to be sisters, please help us support one another. Grant us peace."