The Change Chronicles: Part 3

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So, in some fairly dramatic ways, it turns out the more things change, the more things change. This is not ideal.

The last few years have been a real roller coaster for my generation. For a while I was thinking, Damn, what is going on? Why are all these people dying/bad things happening/disconnects appearing TO US? Then it hit me – it was not “US” because we were particularly cursed or tragically unlucky. It was “US” because we are arriving at (upon?) a certain age.

When every fashion trend you despise returns (high-waisted jeans I am totally glaring at you), every movie you grew up with is being remade (seriously, Footloose? That borders on sacrilegious), and your icons are leaving you at a pace that defies explanation (Leonard Nimoy, BB King, Dick Van Patten – was Eight really ever enough? – Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Morley Safer, Mohamed Ali, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Florence Henderson (I didn’t even have television growing up and I know The Brady Bunch is just My Three Sons without her), Fidel Castro (who made Che after all), Zsa Zsa, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Mary Tyler Moore (“I’m the Mary, you’re the Rhoda!”), John Hurt, Chuck Berry, Roger Moore (nooooooooooo), Adam West… in only a few short years….), and the political landscape enters into the realm of Mad Magazine, one starts to wonder if they were born under a bad sign.

Turns out no… one was just born a long time ago.

Samantha “Sam” Baker wakes up on her 50th birthday. She reaches for the iPhone on the nightstand and immediately feels a tear in her rotator cuff. She heads into the bathroom to pluck the white chin hair that grew overnight.

I started noticing things were not as they should be about four years ago. My hair color regimen had to be bumped up to every four weeks – which is both costly and demoralizing. My aesthetic expenditures shifted from the lower half of my body to my chin. My skin began to look, well, like someone else’s I remember with love and warmth, the soft and slightly crepe-y feel of my grandma Joan but a grandma I am not (I am still spending money on Hanacure regularly like only a true believer would). Add to this that the creaky knee decided to announce substantial arthritis and then.. the hip. You know who has hip problems? OLD PEOPLE.

How did this happen? I am starting to sweat even thinking about it. #hotflash And just be glad I am not going to publicly regale you with the joys of the onset of “The Change of Life.” At least, not yet.

As the reality of turning 50 looms, it dawns on me that I actually didn’t realize I was getting old. I mean, I can read and count, and I understand through a very tenacious Facebook group (yes – I know Facebook is only for old people now… that is sort of the point here) that my 30th Class Reunion is coming to fruition, so I am clear on the whole passage of time thing, but looking around at my friend group and our lifestyles, I was deluded into thinking that things were not really changing. Not in some sad or pathetic way at all, but in a more authentic and unconventional way: we are doing what we want, how we want, when we want. But, we probably have to come home a little earlier (who goes out at midnight people?) And really, if it is not VIP it is not for me, I mean who can deal with all those people? (To be fair, VIP has always been for me, but at a certain age it is actually a requirement, and one we can afford.)

In some ways talking about getting older amongst ourselves in a jokey sort of way has been a way to own it – but outside of the peri-AARP circle, it just sounds a little sad and creepy. I happen to work around young people and this has a variety of effects: in some ways it keeps me a little bit more on the hipper edge of life, in some ways it accentuates the reality that I am so not hip, which can be it’s own quasi-cool characteristic and allows for a slightly more full embrace of the No Fucks Given position (although truth be told, that has been my life’s work). But mostly it just makes my view into the abyss of later middle age all that more clear.

Don’t get me wrong – I do appreciate the increased freedom to do/say/afford/act as I please, but really, I am not endeavoring to enter the realms of caricature. I just want my hip to stop hurting, to stop worrying about whether or not I actually could grow a full beard, and whether or not someone is looking at my resume and wondering, “How is someone this old looking for a new job?”

Because I am. And there is this thing going on where experience is not actually a sought after trait anymore across industries and institutions (how is that working out for you all in Washington you foolish lemmings?) These days experience translates as: conventional, inflexible, old-fashioned, and close-mided against a world where thinking of the un-thought-of is the goal. I think this is called agism by some. I definitely know that it is a conundrum for me because I am able to think quite far outside of the “box.” It just so happens that I am also old enough to know when relying what has worked in the past is the right thing to do. I mean really people, you still like the damn wheel right? The 60-second minute? Checkers?  Ancient Sumer gave you those around 3500 BCE – not to go all History Teacher on you.

I have no idea where the next stop on my professional journey will take me. I am confident it will be somewhere informative and significant and I know I have a lot more to offer creatively, intellectually, and through straight up hard work so I am excited about the potential of finding something really interesting and inspiring, and dare I say, different. But I am not wishing for anything, I am getting back out there and looking people in the eye with zero fucks, straight up honesty, and fearlessly keeping my chin up because I have a great electrologist.

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December 2017: In Lima at 47 with no make up, no fucks given, and a couple of Pisco Sours.

Sam replies, “I’m 50 years old, motherfucker. I don’t have time for wishes.”

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Slow. And mostly steady.

I am slow to let people in. Anyone who knows me at all will attest to this truism. I am, as of yet, unconvinced as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – or if that really matters, maybe it is just a thing. I do know it has caused drama in my life on occasion. For example, Ms. Cort always loves to tell the story of the school picture in 8th grade: she asked me for my photo, I responded by asking why she would want my picture when she didn’t even know me. This did not go down incredibly well, but more than 30 years later we are still friends so I suppose it served its own purpose. (And really, I was a total social misfit and had no idea that school photos – and the number of them – was a status symbol at good old PJHS.) Other times it has caused me more serious drama: the shortest man to ever be my boss did not renew my contract at Albany High School my first year back in the States (instigating a wild week of insane self-doubt about everything in my life: coming back to the US, my career, my personhood) because he said, “You’re not friendly enough.” Of course in the end, it was – as all experiences inevitably become – a universal godsend, but damn son, you basically just told me I need to smile more. (For what it’s worth – his career was in many ways as short as his stature.)

It is not that I am categorically unfriendly. Maybe guarded would be a better word (although that doesn’t sound healthy either). My mom has said, on more than one occasion, that I will talk about anything. Unless it really matters. Maybe. I do know that the few times I have abandoned my habit of being slow to let people in it has almost always been with men, and always a disaster. Fools do rush in, it seems to me.

I was thinking about this today before my yoga class began. Okay, I was still thinking about it as class began and I was trying to clear my mind of the chatter… but hey, baby steps. The reason it came to mind as I walked in to class today was that I saw a friend of mine in the room and we waved at each other as I walked to an available spot. This may seem like a ridiculously small thing. It may actually be a ridiculously small thing. But it stood out to me. I have a friend. From yoga. In fact, I may have more than one. It is weird. I have been going to this yoga studio almost daily for nearly five years. So, why would it be odd that I have friends there? I don’t really have an answer for that question except that for me, it is odd.

Over the past few months, maybe even the past year, I have been noticing a shift, I guess it is a shift in myself, but whatever, something is changing because I seem to have somehow developed a bit of a community at this yoga studio. It is small, and it seems somehow a little fragile – like maybe I shouldn’t eve talk about it out loud, but it is there.

This little group includes a few yoga students I have met simply because we sit – for hours – with each other in often humbling positions. It includes a few yoga teachers, people I am probably more inclined to let into my circle, but nonetheless, slow to do so. The circle also now includes some of the people who work (and practice) at the studio. And there are a few people who I knew otherwise and have come into my yoga experience. It is interesting to sit and think that slowly this has become sort of a group. To which I belong.

Belonging is a strange sensation when you feel used to being on your own, or an observer.

I remember my guruji in Hong Kong telling me he wanted me to be more open and friendly with the people I practiced with there and I explained to him – as I have often done here – that I come to yoga for the quiet and the solitude, that with a job and a life like mine I need that. And Veer simply said, “No.” He said that the quiet I needed did not come from solitude in a group. It would be found in my head through practice and that it was important to be in the group -as an active and willing participant – in order to ever really find the quiet I was looking for. And with that one word that was a clear direction from my teacher, this small, tight-knit group of Chinese women became one of my circles. My friends. They are still people who check in on me (and me them) from afar, and strangely, language and culture aside, we are friends.

So it is not a new phenomenon that I am reluctant to expand my circles. But this very familiar turn of events got me thinking today. Who do I let in? Who do I keep out? Why? Is it some sort of test? Is it a trust issue? Do I like being part of these communities or no? Then my teacher said this:

Who would you be if you weren’t so sure of who you are? Release your gripping and your stories just a little…

And I was like… WOAHHHHHH.

I thought about how much time we spend thinking about who we are, and what makes us “us.” And I thought about how easy it is to use that information to justify our habits and patterns and excuse the things in us that maybe we might need to adjust or change…

Who am I?

  • daughter
  • teacher
  • friend
  • laugher
  • niece
  • cat lady
  • student
  • music lover
  • athlete
  • singleton (tragic spinster?)
  • cousin
  • gluten consumer
  • traveler
  • “writer”
  • talker
  • yoga practitioner
  • sports fan
  • DeadHead
  • shoe lover
  • tattoo wearer
  • control freak
  • ENTJ –> INTJ
  • body dysmorphic
  • fan girl
  • observer
  • neat freak
  • animal lover
  • beer drinker

And what would I be without all that? Just me I guess. Sitting with these people who have their own long lists of who they are, and who have, lists aside, become my friends.

Slowly.

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Oops, I did it again.

…we have a deeply held anti-intellectual strain in our culture. It’s OK for schools to teach the basics or, even, vocational skills that lead directly to jobs. But studying history, literature or philosophy has always been suspect. Why would anyone want to study such subjects, goes thisunconscious logic, if not just to feel superior. They are not practical, not good for anything other than providing a sense of entitlement and elevation above the mob—except when they actually do train students to take places in the finance industry or advanced technology or any other area that promises immense financial gain. 

If you Google schools are failing you will get “about 49,300,000 results [in] (0.21 seconds)”. So, with all apologies to Britney Jean, here I am writing about work again. Oops. I cannot stop thinking about it – even on my vacation. And I don’t need to be thinking about it right now because I worked 16+ hour days for the three weeks heading up to vacation to ensure that I would not have work to do over this vacation. But it doesn’t really matter because as long as there is school to return to in January, even if I don’t have papers to grade, I certainly have work to do. It never really goes away…. even in summer, and oh, I love  hearing people talk about teachers and their summer vacations as they wax poetic about how nice it must be to have so much time off. Yeah. It takes about three and a half weeks to lift your head up again after the mad dash to the end of the year, and then when you are able to focus on the fact that you are not responsible for day-to-day presence at school it is time to revisit the entire last year and start making lists: what worked, what did not work, what you need to do better, what adjustments to be made, what materials will be required, what new books and articles you should read, what re-certification work needs to be done, what conferences to attend… Ahhh…. summer. And then school starts. And by the way, it starts in the summer. 

So, it is not that strange that as I sit and try to figure out the best way to help launch our brand new Interdisciplinary Project, one of the cornerstones of our Small School (within the large school) that combines the students English, Anatomy, and History classes for three weeks as they complete a major research project represented by a gallery worthy art installation, that I feel frustrated by the reality that no matter how hard I work, or how amazing the project that the group of people I am working with comes up with – we are still labeled as failing.

Failures.

That is so inspiring.

Right?

If schools are failing, there are a few painfully obvious questions that come to mind. 1) What does success look like in terms of our schools? 2) What does it actually mean when we hear and say that schools are failing? 3) Why are schools failing?

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Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right…

One of my recurring thoughts while I was living in Hong Kong was this idea that I was spinning my wheels. I remember – acutely – looking at my life and wondering what I was doing. I remember thinking to myself, “My goodness, all my peers are doing things. Like buying lots of houses, and having lots of babies, and accumulating lots of things and planning for lots of days lots of years down the road.” At which point I would look around at my life and say, “My god, how did I get here!?” I was not buying lots of houses, or having lots of babies, or accumulating lots of things, and I certainly was not planning for anything anywhere down the road. It seemed like I was doing something wrong. Maybe everything. But, so was everyone else around me. Of course, I judged these people, my friends and allies, equally as harshly: “Look at us, escapees all, avoiding the reality that is life in Manchester, Liverpool, Ontario, Paris, Melbourne, London, Sydney, Wellington, Seattle, and places far less interesting in between. What were we doing? Where were we going?

The wind in the willows playing Tea for Two
The sky was yellow and the sun was blue
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand
Everybody is playing in the heart of gold band
Heart of gold band

The reality I was doing tons (tonnes) of things. I was traveling and reading, and writing and taking endless snapshots of it all. It was not perfect, and there were bumps in the road, but I can say with confidence, I was on the road. My friends at home used to say to me, “Oh, I wish I could do…” And I would say, almost glibly, “Well, you can. Why not come over and just do it?” And they would say, “No, I can’t, I have to….”

As I was walking round Grosvenor Square
Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air
From the other direction she was calling my eye (note 1)
It could be an illusion, but I might as well try
Might as well try

Now I am back in the US… [You don’t know how lucky you are, boy… Back in the US, back in the US] and I find myself checking in on my friends in far off places, who continue to live the way I was living and it looks different now. Now I look longingly at the photos of the Chinese New Year holiday spent in Saigon, the weekend in Samui, the quick trip to Shanghai, to Tokyo, a little sun session in KK. And I say, almost audibly, “I wish I could do that… but I cannot because I have to…”

Have to what, exactly? When pressed to answer… I have nothing.

Well I ain’t often right but I’ve never been wrong
It seldom turns out the way it does in the song
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right

Right now we are studying empires and imperialism in World History class and we are focusing on the cyclical nature of things. How history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but if you pay attention, you can make fairly accurate predictions about how things might go – because once in a while you get shown the light. And it is not by accident that this unit of study coincides with the Lunar New Year, because that is a tradition I also like to share with my students and we talk about the cycles of the Chinese zodiac and the patterns and the pleasant predictability of certain elements that make the less predictable shit a little easier to deal with.

My students drew visual representations of cycles at one point last week. There was no limit on how they interpreted this. They could choose perpetual, repetitive cycles, finite cycles, patterns… here are some of the things I got:

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And in the midst of all this, while feeling a bit sedentary these days and frustrated at my go-to response falling somewhere between “I cannot do — because I have to do —” or “You can’t just —” I woke up to a beautiful New Year of the Snake feeling all pleased about my clean house and the wonderfully familiar sense of a new beginning it dawned on me in the most obvious way, I’ve been here before: When I was there I thought I should be here, in spite of the radness of my life (and it is important to acknowledge that the pull to live the life you feel you should and enjoying the life you are living are not mutually exclusive…) and now that I am here I find myself stymied by reasons why I cannot be there. But as the series of thoughts marched across my morning brain, they felt far less significant. After all, they were marching, after all. And truly, I had been here before, so it follows I will probably be there again sometime too.

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I glanced over at Max as he carefully un-straightened all the pictures I had equally carefully straightened the day before. The whole pattern played out in the sunshine, and then I got up and readjusted the pictures.

And reserved my rooms in Bali.

As I picked up my matches and was closing the door
I had one of those flashes I had been there before
Been there before…