Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Layout Room

At some point soon I’ll write a nuanced description of the Sound in Early America exhibit that my grad students are curating. The team includes the two first year grad students Amy Coddington and Gretchen Michelson.  We also have Courtney Kleftis, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale and Winston Barham helping out.  Winston is the resident expert on old books.  My official description will explain the ways in which we have tried to remind everyone that Early America was a noisy place and that we want to animate the archive by turning its usually silent stacks into sonorous echoes of the past.  After all it’s only we moderns who think of Reading as a solitary and silent practice.  For now I’ll just say that I hope the chaos of today will be delightfully invisible to the millions of visitors who will troop into the UVa Special Collections Library when our exhibit opens.

Yesterday’s class project was layout.  That means apparently that you turn layout the goods on a mock display to make sure they all fit. It gets pretty punchy when you’re in a windowless room with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of precious documents including a civil war era valentine, some printing tools that look like toy soldier weapons, and a picture of the lovely Jenny Lindt. Most rare books rooms only let you look at a few things at once, and they have very strict rules about not talking, not sharing, etc.  We had a good 36 items floating around.  Old paper gets dusty fast and we learned that all of us scratch our throats in unladylike ways that gross out our boyfriends/husbands.  And yes, other than Winston who is holding down the man fort, we are all women—a formidable bunch of women I might add. The  whole process works like corralling kids. I think I said “use your inside voice” at least five times.  (the room is not soundproof and other people were actually doing SCHOLARSHIP)  I’m also pretty sure there was throwing. I’m not mentioning names, but those cute little bean bag things that hold pages open definitely flew.

The first of six cases took us a good forty minutes to deal with, which I’m pretty sure left the library wishing they’d never asked us to do this.  Petrina and Anne (the excellent librarians who have been working with us) have been remarkably patient and helpful. I, for example, have not had time to get my e-services password to work, so any time I need a book I go old fashioned and write it on a paper slip. I feel totally 1990’s.  In terms of the Music Department crew, I am thankful that Amy took over and acted as drill sergeant and book gatherer. I think she was really hungry and thought if we got it done she could get food faster…  But it worked. I realized about ten minutes into the process that I’m a terrible person for this sort of thing; archival exhibits are completely inaccessible to the visually impaired since they prevent my usual stick-my-nose-quite-literally-in-the-book pose.  In addition, my lack of fine motor skills makes writing labels and quickly moving around fragile things treacherous.  Before Amy took over I heard phrases like “uh oh, I think we just made something up.” And, again I’m not naming names, but someone put a song from 1824 in the civil war section. We plan to upset (we hope) some visitors by deliberately placing the Civil War in the Patriotism section and presenting some of the more abhorrent Confederate materials as examples of what happens when Patriotism goes wrong.

My low point during the initial warm up was picking up Thomas Jefferson’s edition of Der Freishutz and watching the title page fly off—yes, fly off.  I’ve been drawn to this particular edition for a few years.  This piano reduction has a beautiful cover illustration.  It’s a really simple reduction; much easier to play than most.  And it doesn’t really fit in with anything else in TJ’s collection.   Jews believe that if you drop a Torah you have to fast for forty days, and I’m sure the retributions for dropping anything Mr. Jefferson put his hands on are harsher around here. I promise that part of my Decentering of TJ project does not involve consciously dropping his stuff.  (though in my opinion we could all stand to rough up a little more of his stuff…)

It got pretty brutal down there as we had to make choices about which documents would actually get to spend some time in the display cases instead of languishing in the bowels of the library. The most crushing omission was probably the tiny books.  We all fell in love with these little miniature books that measure about three inches.  You could easily fit three of them in your jeans pocket.  After oohing and awwwing every time, we were finally informed by the librarians that “they are cute but...”  As in, “Get over it ladies.  These things are too small even for people who can see.”  We also ran into space problems and had to evict Jenny Lind. The sweetish nightingale became famous in the States after an extremely successful concert tour organized by PT Barnum in 1850.  It felt a little like a cross between a sorority and a job search as we had to eliminate her because she simply did not meet our needs and her delightful little program was falling apart and decrepit.  With her, unfortunately, went Willa Cather’s Song of The Lark.  As someone said “we gave her the boot even if she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize or something like that.”  We had to move all kinds of things around because the precious wax cylinder is considered a security risk. 

We’ve divided the exhibit into six major categories.  I’m not going to write them here because I want EVERYONE TO COME SEE IT, and I know that you are all dying to know exactly how we’ve organized the goods.  We’ve been most fascinated by, and had the most trouble with, the sections of the exhibit that deal with musical representations of Native Americans and African Americans. We first categorized this as “stuff white people like to transcribe”.  That seemed not quite right, so we moved onto a Guyatri Spivak style “can the subaltern sing?”  We settled on musical ethnographies. Wordplay aside, writing about Race is always hard, and it’s particularly vexed at UVa, which has its own ugly history of racism; a history that is with us today in countless ways.  That means that, in addition to Frederick Douglas’s speeches, we have a Steven Foster minstrel song.  Frederick Douglas was disgusted by the idea that the songs of enslaved people reflected their happiness and insisted that they told a “tale of woe in tones loud, long and deep.” And minstrel songs stand as an egregious example of a white celebration and appropriation of the Black Culture it attempts to oppress. And we also have the earliest printed collection of music of the enslaved people published in 1867.  We also have Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” from 1786 that claims to be “An original air, brought from America by a Gentleman long conversant [sic] with the Indian Tribes, and particularly with the Nation of the Cherokees.”  The gentlemen that brought back those original airs also participated in a process of genocide.  These are very tricky issues for graduate students to navigate in two sentences of text.

I did notice that we’ve all sort of fallen in love with old books.  I’ve always been disparaging of the kind of opera or literature scholarship that acts like the author is about to have lunch with the character.  But I’d say we’ve all crossed a line with these books.  We worried about finding them a home, giving them room to breathe, finding them a safe space to be, etc…  I’m not sure what the students actually think about the process.  When I promised them all A’s in the class they seemed to relax a bit... But I am pretty sure that I’m not the only one in  that room who gets a kind of visceral pleasure out of touching old books.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Arts Engagement

I was asked a few weeks ago to write a brief update on my Mead endowment project.  This is a small grant I have from the University that I am using to pair UVa students with third and fourth graders for a series of Arts events over the course of the year.   In the Charlottesville public schools, kids can start a musical instrument in fifth grade. They can also begin to take extra art and drama.  Kids who experience the arts are more likely to want to make art. There’s a lot of talk about the achievement gap in academics but there also exists a very real artistic gap, which to me feels just as tragic.  Like every parent in the Charlottesville schools, I’ve seen the achievement gap happen. Some kids who started kindergarten coming out of Head Start reading better than either of my children now read below grade level.  This is not because my kids are smarter.  Likewise, my kids consider the UVA Lawn their playground and have been going to concerts since they were literally a week old; they assumed they would play musical instruments, and they do. My daughter thinks she might be an artist because she knows some.  The kids in the Arts program go to the elementary school that Rebecca and Jonathan go to but they come from different worlds. They live predominantly in two underserved communities in Charlottesville, both of which are bussed to the school.  Many of the kids have never been on UVa’s campus, even though it’s a fifteen-minute walk from their home.  Many have never been to a live concert or an art museum, even though Charlottesville offers plenty of both for free. They do not play instruments and they do not have a cabinet of art supplies in their homes. Things change slowly, and the Arts and UVa remain inaccessible and alienating to much of the city’s population, especially to people of color living in poverty. 

I’d been asked to do this progress report a few weeks ago and, although this project has consumed more mental space than Music 101, the task stumped me.  For a few days I considered just sending them some really great pictures that a history faculty member and documentary photographer took of the group at the Bill T Jones open rehearsal.  Eventually I sat down and wrote a few bland sentences; the kind that can go on brochures.

A brief update about my Mead project. I had a tremendous amount of interest from the undergraduates and, in fact, had to turn many students away.  We've had two events so far.  The first was a photography show and jazz concert at the Bridge. The second was a bit more ambitious and involved taking everyone to see a Bill T Jones open rehearsal.  Below are a series of pictures.  John Mason from the history department took the second set. It's been a blast to get to know these undergraduates. About half of them are from my music 101 class or other things I've been involved with on grounds and about half are brand new to me. The best part is probably exploring the project of arts engagement with these bright and enthusiastic students. The University as a whole seems to be struggling with community engagement and it turns out that if we ask our students they have some pretty good hunches. The undergrads and little kids are keeping journals together and a few pairs have been on WTJU. This gives them a sense to experience live radio and give me a chance to hang out with them more. There have of course been some mishaps.  For example just because you can have a group of 200 music 101 students completely under control and enthralled doesn't mean you can effectively control 12 third and fourth graders on a bus. That University Transit driver may have quit. It's a learning experience for all of us.  On Saturday we're headed to a step contest at the Paramount. The UVa students came up with this plan. I haven't been to a step event in a good twenty years and it's out of my comfort zone but I'm sure it'll be an experience for all of us!

While all of the above is true, beneath that surface lies a much more complicated truth, most of which I think wouldn’t be appropriate for the kind of upbeat positive spin that donors want to read.  It turns out that taking a small group of UVa students and a small group of little kids to some events is not as cute as it sounds. And I’ve spent a lot more energy on logistics and crowd control than on thinking deep thoughts about Arts engagement. For starters, I can’t even control my own kids, so I’m not sure what made me think I could control ten extras.  When putting together the proposal for this project, I thought of those moments when my own children sat angelically moved by some performance, not the ones where they kicked the person in front of them, threw up on me, or cracked up at a moment that an artist thought was sublimely moving. (and those ARE things my kids have done). Also, it turns out that while on good days I can soemtimes make an assignment clear to a graduate seminar, I can’t do it for third and fourth graders. My student Lauren, who has been a real school teacher, and without whom this whole thing would fall apart, informs me that when talking to groups of children I need to limit the information to three things.  And she suggests I get the most important safety and logistical information out there before opening up the floor for questions.  So that, for example, everyone knows what time they will be picked up before discussing what happens if you bring money for ice cream but you don’t quite have enough money for ice cream and if one person has to go to the bathroom will the other person wait before buying the mythological ice cream that I never said we’d buy.  Next time we speak to the group of kids, she talks. 

The most complicated part of this project is, not surprisingly, moving twenty people around.  Despite the fact that they have smart phones that they check every three seconds and that I think I’m crystal clear, the UVa students are always confused and some chunk of them go to the wrong place. The University doesn’t want us driving kids around—it’s a liability nightmare.  So they suggested we get a University Transit Service (UTS) bus.  We did this for our trip to the Bill T Jones rehearsal at UVa.  It seemed to make no sense to have the UVa kids on the bus because this would take about an extra hour of their time, cost more etc.  So this left me with twelve kids on giant bus.  The low point came on the bus ride home, during which I realized that the bus driver didn’t know where he was going and, because I don’t drive, I had no clue how to get there either.  Since I was sitting between three fighting ten and eleven year old boys, I dispatched an eleven-year-old girl to give directions. When I heard her say to the bus driver “Oops, we missed it. Can you just back this thing up a bit?” I knew we were in trouble.  In order to back the thing up, a bit he turned the lights of which enticed all of the kids to scream their heads off.  (Don’t worry everyone was safe and got home in one piece).  We’ll all be enrolling in Harry Potter magic school before this weekend’s event so that we can magically appear in our location without worrying about vehicles or directions.

Our events have thus far been rather heady—jazz, photography and the Bill T Jones rehearsal.  Bill T, though he gave the kids a great 10-minute audience, did not do a lot of dancing. This extravaganza turned into a classic case of things not going quite as I imagined. His residency here came as part of a project called Story Time in collaboration with Ted Coffey a composer and friend of mine in the Music Department.   The open rehearsal I saw with this group about a year ago still stands as one of the most arresting performances I’ve ever seen. I found Bill gorgeous to watch, and he captures an entire room even he is just sitting in a chair.  This experience immediately incited liberal music professor fantasies in me about bringing this particular group of predominantly African American kids to see an African American Artist. He’s one of the most innovative and powerful dancers of this era and has shown a profound commitment to experimental arts and to community engagement. With Arnie Zane his dance company has merged with New York Live Arts to become one of the most innovative arts engagement projects in the country. I’m not naive enough to think that a few arts events can bridge the achievement gap or provide role models.  But I do believe in exposure, and I believe in giving kids the opportunity to see grownups who look like them do great things. The UVa residency wasn’t really aimed at those sorts of goals.  Nonetheless, I’d been trying to bring at risk kids to see one of the Bill T events for about two years and got nowhere.  For last year’s events, I was told that kids couldn’t come. This year the events had more seating, and I decided with the UVa students to take the kids to see a rehearsal. They, like me, saw this as a unique opportunity to expose kids to UVa and to the Arts.  A rehearsal seemed like it would suit our needs as we could talk about the process of working hard to get good at something and see first hand the process of making art.

This particular rehearsal focused more on concept than action. The dancers spent a lot of time moving stage equipment and did a few dance like small movements.  The kids asked variations of  “so is modern dance where you stand still” and “why don’t they just move the couch if it’s in their way.” Some of the ten-year-old boys informed me that the dancers just weren’t any good and that they just kind of looked weird.  The boys, predictably, got restless after 45 minutes, so I took them out into the lobby told them they cold quietly show me what they thought dance should look like. They did a series of very quiet back flips and step dancing which got us all in trouble with the undergraduate hall monitor.  (they were in fact very quiet)  Back in the auditorium some of the kids found the moving of furniture complexly fascinating.  But about halfway through I wondered if I’d managed to kill dance for a group of kids that love to dance. However, when Bill T spoke with the kids, it was a pretty phenomenal moment.  They asked engaging questions, suggesting that while I was doing crowd control they had actually gotten quite a bit out of the experience. This was not easy art to experience. So the real progress report is a giant question mark. I know that all of us have seen a few very cool things that we hadn’t seen before.  Beyond that I don’t know if this is working.  I don’t know what the UVa students or the little kids are getting out of it. And it may well be that my impulse towards exposing at risk kids to the arts is misguided.  Maybe they need too many other things. Perhaps the UVa students need more training and more guidance than I can give them.  And on a personal note perhaps this takes too much time away from my regular job and my own kids.  But, hopefully, the twenty-five of us involved, and those twenty five include my husband and kids, will make some sense of it by the end of the year.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

Birthday Dream

Everyone needs a construction site next door.  It’s true that the giant machines wake you up at 6:45 EVERY SINGLE DAY.  And your entire house will be covered in dirt for months.  At least two members of your family will get something in their eye that will cause major problems.  You will inadvertently become a strip show for construction men.  Your children will stage protests by throwing play mobiles at the workers who are not, in fact responsible, for the construction. You’ll have to call the police a few times when people rob the dumpster or use it to throw away large metal objects.  The children and the resident dog will cry as their favorite trees are ripped heartlessly from the ground.  But there’s nothing better than a construction site for a five-year-old birthday party.  Ok, it was slightly stressful when two kids went missing and the phrase “they are in the bobcat” was used.  

Other than that, this was by far the easiest birthday party we have ever had, including the ones where we paid outside agents to do all the work. We spent about ten bucks on juice boxes and paper plates and had no plans.  Poor deprived Eli almost never has playdates except on his birthday.  By 8 am it seemed like we might be headed towards the usual disaster because eli had already had two tantrums; the first because he knew we needed MORE BAKING SODA IN THE CAKE!.  I’ve had a thing about making elaborate b-day cakes for years now.  My friend Cynthia and I outdid ourselves with the Williams Sonoma double train cake for Rebecca and Jonathan when they turned four, and we have also specialized in cute little ice cream cone cupcakes.  Cynthia was generous enough to fly in from Alaska for this year’s festivities, but Reidecca Party Planning, Ltd. took over.  Reid and Rebecca first made a pin-the-siren-on-the-fire-engine game out of poster board and then hit the cake.  These are kids who until now put so much frosting on Hanukah cookies that they were inedible and always produced cakes that had more sprinkle than cake.  This year they carefully outlined the fire engine wheels in mini m&m’s and took off from there.  They both have better fine motor skills than I do.

It seemed like we were pushing our luck when we had some friends passing through town and invited their three kids to come to the party.  And then the first guests arrived half an hour early because the kids had been begging to go to the party all day and finally the dad said “ok that’s it. if you want to go now we walk.” So they walked the two miles.  And the kids played on the site in the mud for most of the time.  Hannah, who showed up in a pink taffeta party dress, spent a good hour in a muddy hole and came out with a miraculously clean dress.  Everyone needs a party dress to play in the dirt. At some poing the big kids started a game of relay relay which involved jumping around in retail relay bins.  I typically use these for time out.   When things looked like they might get cranky, we moved on to birthday cake, which was lovely, although Eli, who had burned his hand making pancakes in the morning, wanted nothing to do with the actual candles.  After opening presents we had a half hour left on the b-day party clock, and I suggested Rebecca read to the kids out of E’s new Dr. Seuss book. This meant that when parents picked up their kids no one was on large construction equipment. Instead, the five year olds were gathered around the second and third grade girls who were calmly and seriously reading to them.  We had three big sisters with us, each of whom needed to take a turn! And I’m pretty sure that another mom cleaned the family room and swept the floor while the big sisters read. 

For the record, we have terrible birthday party karma.  I pretty much hate them and have attended about two kid b-day parties other than my own.  Even when we moved to having parties at outside venues I felt like I needed heavy painkillers to recover. I can barely locate my own children in a crowd even when I dress them in matching bright colors, so the last thing I can do is keep track of seven extra kids who are high on sugar and party uppers.  Rebecca and Jonathan’s five-year-old birthday party was one of the worst ever.  Because of the twin factor we had to invite the entire class.  That class is pretty much on speed and has already traumatized multiple preschool and Sunday school teachers. They all came including uninvited siblings and parents who stayed.  Meanwhile the power went out and the low point was a kid (not ours) throwing rocks at another kid while his father looked on doing nothing. Although we had sent our dog away for the party, a guest arrived with an unleashed dog who, though very friendly, traumatized two of the kids at the party and a few neighbors.  Two kids climbed over the fence and the art project that I had carefully planned after serious Internet research took exactly three seconds.

I’m not sure what happened yesterday other than karmic payback for torturous parties of birthdays past.  It’s true that Eli’s class is a calmer group.  The little boys who have been on his b-day list the longest are Sid, Solomon and Charlie, who, when you add Eli to the mix, sound like a group of old men in Florida.  I’d like to say that I am super mom and that we should all go back to basics—no theme, no goody bags, no activities, no rules; just let it rip.  But that’s probably not the answer for every party…

Monday, November 21, 2011

Conference Cheat Sheet

I’m back from my two-week conference tour.  As a grad student and young assistant professor, I frequently attended the meetings of both the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology.  But they are always back-to-back and with a job, spouse, and kids, such gallivanting became difficult.  The combo of travel, friends from at least ten different phases of my life, and papers whose names I can no longer remember has me somewhat brain-dead.  But I loved going back to SEM after many years and, especially, hanging out with old friends. Suffice it to say that Friday nights giggle fest was worth the trip.  I have a few observations from my comparative ethnography, but I haven’t figured out how to say them in ways that won’t make everyone mad so for now I’ll keep most of them to myself. As a teaser, Ethnomusicologists sport much cooler, attire but they do not drink as much as musicologists. 

 I spent much of Friday and Saturday afternoon/evening with current and former students.  They suggested that I write down some of the conference tips I gave them.  I did not come with all of these myself but gleaned many from my friends and mentors.

1) Do not go to a conference exhausted.  For example, I do not recommend taking thirty kids to see Bill T Jones and chaperoning a bus trip the night before a cross continental flight to a conference.  This will take two weeks, at least, to recover from.

2) Read the program before the conference and try always to go to a few papers that seem completely irrelevant to your research and that interest you.  Do this when you are young because at a certain point you can do nothing but support students, former students, friends, former friends etc... and intellectual interest falls completely out of the equation.

3) Put a little thought into meals. Foraging for food can turn into a very eighth grade affair.  A few people make plans, someone else tries to join; suddenly seven people find themselves in a clump with an awkward five-person reservation on the offer.  If you are on the job market or a search committee you may find yourself in the awkward position of adding the employment power dynamic to the 8th grade social machinations.  Reserve a few activities for really good friends and keep them small!  Consult Yelp and locals.

4) If you have kids and they have either given you a manicure or put a tattoo on you, remove.  You may feel uncomfortable with multi colored fingernails and a spider man on your wrist.

5) Hydrate.  Think of this like a marathon.  Hotels are dry, and the air quality often resembles an airplane delayed on the runway.  Drink lots of water and apply hand cream generously. (the latter is particularly for scholars not in the early stages of their careers, as we euphemistically say in the AMS now)

6) Speaking of hydrating… If you drink, a flask is key.  Hotel bars charge a fortune for drinks and can be full of people whom you may or may not want to see.  I recommend Bourbon or Cognac.  Many Universities sponsor parties with free alcohol (and you can fill your flask if you charm the bartender) or cash bars.  The Harvard party at SEM got the prize this year for delightful peach margaritas.

7) Bring Advil.  See above for hydrating issues.  Add to that the fact that conference hotels now frequently combine environmentally correct slightly yellow lighting with crazy light displays, and a head ache will surely rear its ugly head.

8) Bring Snacks, preferably protein.  Any event with food will include starch and more starch.  The weekend is likely to gyrate unpredictably between eating giant starch-infused meals to situations with no opportunity for food for hours on end.  Always have a high quality dark chocolate bar in your bag—this can solve food and caffeine problems.

9) A very eminent and serious female musicologist who shall remain nameless explained to me about twenty years ago that when she gets a paper accepted she plans the outfit first and then writes the paper.  And every year at least two female musicologists asked me what to wear to AMS or SEM.  This is all a little more vexed for women than for men. My general words of wisdom are wear teaching clothes and wear something you feel good in.   I recommend tights with glitter on them, and have them hand delivered by a fabulous friend to sparkle up day seven of conference going in two weeks.  But if that doesn’t work for you, find something else.  Don’t get too caught up in what you are supposed to wear.   There are certainly those women who wear suits, but if you’re like me and you look like you’re wearing your mom’s hand me downs in a suit, find something else that works. I’m personally committed to color, and I appreciate it when people wear it.  If you don’t see well and every third person is wearing gray or black it can be hard to locate your friends.

10) Do not speak in elevators ever.  It is inevitable that you will insult the person you are riding with directly or at least insult someone who is just like them.

11) Introduce yourself to people if the person you know in common fails to do so.  Said person has probably forgotten their name but can not ask because they should know.  And if you’re a senior scholar wear your nametag and introduce your students to people so that they don’t feel lonely and awkward.  (after 9 pm name tags can probably come off.)

12) Bring a pen.  Writing snide notes is more subtle than texting the person sitting next to you.  If you txt you may accidentally push a button that makes noise or send the text to someone’s 12 year old daughter who has a similar name.

13) Add entertaining apps to your smart phone. The Mozart Dice game and Cat piano work especially well.

14) Stick to exercise routines.  If possible get OUTSIDE the hotel.  If you’re an adult who probably should have been on ritalin as a child, the consequences of this can be dire including, for example, accidentally kicking an extremely eminent scholar while fidgeting during a paper.  In addition to the stress release, there’s a certain kid of hooky pleasure that comes from sneaking past colleagues incognito in running clothes.  But if you’re meeting someone else don’t leave them stranded in the lobby in running shorts.  In order to avoid this scenario I ended up bringing a female student up to my room while I changed, which is probably breaking some sort of rule.

15) Do not bother bringing seven books to write that paper you’ve been needing to write all semester.  This will only hurt your back.  Another eminent female musicologist I know spent much of her conference time writing when her children were small, but she’s a special case. 

16) Figure out whether or not you like to stay in the conference hotel.  Some people always like to sleep away from the hoards.  Others value the convenience above all else.  Another nameless scholar informed a few friends that after walking all over San Francisco to avoid the hotel strike and being tired and sweaty that even if the next one took place in a bordello with a musicology prostitution ring the conference hotel was a must.

17) Make sure you are teaching something you can do in your sleep or showing lengthy Opera video examples the day after a conference.  Your brain will be completely mush from scholarly overstimulation and will need a time out.  Avoid situations where you can make a fool of yourself or where, if it’s a promotion year, your evaluations might be negatively affected by confusing Schubert and Shobart and or getting trapped in a digression about Deluzian philosophy while teaching Schoenberg.

18) Above all, make sure you do at least one thing each day that is fun for you.  This could range from solo morning coffee to wearing your favorite socks to adding mustaches to some of the advertisements on bulletin boards. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cocktails and Sketch Studies

I’m writing this from 30,000 feet on the plane home from San Francisco where I attended the national meeting of the American Musicological Society.—a musicological mini camp.   Instead of campfires we have heady evening sessions.  And instead of roasting marshmallows we roast each other over wine and cheese.  In San Francisco dining options included boutique cocktails with bricks of ice and pieces of Ginger.  This was of course all that much more delicious thanks to menus that described in great detail the provenance of every morsel consumed in a restaurant—the cow named Clifford who lived on a farm in Napa, the apple that grows only in the valley and was picked a mere thirty two hours ago etc..

The weekend once again reminded that the China summer is the gift that keeps on giving.  On the plus side even though the plane was delayed on the runway for 90 minutes because they parking break was stuck and they needed to get it a new one the trip feels easy. The more delightful continuing effect centers around the boils that occasionally sprout up on one of us.  Yes I do mean boils in the Passover ten plagues sense of the word.  Eli had one on his butt last week, which caused him some pain but did give him essentially unlimited license to talk about butts, a favorite topic of five-year-old boys.  Manuel’s unfortunately was in a slightly more vulnerable spot—the armpit.  It required surgical lancing and a narcotic painkiller that was so strong that he mistook his hospital bed for a swimming pool. Soon we will need to begin a process of decontamination and decolonization. This begins apparently with bathing the children in diluted Clorox.   In other gross echoes of the jungle have a bit of pathological dishpan hands from washing things in non-potable water.  But this can be turned into a fashion statement by replacing rings with spider man Band-Aids. The boils provide great cocktail party conversation and my friends Nathan and Cynthia whom I had not seen in FIVE years were especially delighted to hear and see all of the gory details.  I even showed them pictures of the boil on my hip/muffin top, which is not a place a twin mother shares with many people.

The other benefit to me of the summer centers on domestic calculus.  I feel that three months in a third world country in which I made bread every day and did not spend more than two hours away from my precious offspring gives me a kind of carte blanche travel freedom for at least a decade.  This is similar to my attitude towards changing yucky diapers which amounted basically too “I birthed and nursed them you do the other gross stuff.” The fantasy of cashing in on this particular family debt centered on spas with lady friends and time in urban centers around the world.  Needless to say the combo of my grandmother dying and needing to go to an extra conference this fall didn’t measure up to those sultry daydreams.  But I did have a fabulous extra day in Berkeley recovering from the American Musicological Society.  The children unfortunately seem to have completely forgotten the summer of love/attachment parenting and simply want to know why I travel so much, how I could possibly miss the sock hop, piano recital and two soccer games, and why they could not come with me.  By all accounts Rebecca rocked Spanish Dance.  Her teacher reports that he suggested she work on getting some height in her chords to produce a big sound.  She apparently got the hands way off the keyboard and “loved the drama and got a little bit of sound of the instrument too…”At this point she’s all drama and gesture and not much content.  In asking her about the recital I was careful to ask at last four times if she had fun before asking how she played. He would like her to progress faster in her weekly lessons which translates to “hey you’re a pianist why can’t your kid get a little more done here…..”

I’ll be home for two days before setting off for the Society for Ethnomusicology.  I’m planning comparative fashion ethnography of the two societies building on the fine work of three of our graduate students.  I always give my graduate students various writing assignments and ethnographic tasks around national meetings.  A few years ago a particularly dynamic threesome turned in a stunning ethno-sartorial study of the AMS.  While I’m quite certain that I possess neither their style nor their critical eye I’ll do my best to report. My hunch is a lot less suits and definitely no Republican frocks.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bedtime woes

Someone please explain to me how a perfectly pleasant and kid-centered evening with your children can turn wretched in a matter of minutes. At dinner we civilly discussed Little Women and the upcoming school board election and two of three kids ate their weight in broccoli. We concluded with the kids eating dessert in front of the classic kids show “wizards of waverly place” while I chit-chatted on the phone. (take that sugar lady. by the way I happily give my kids dessert on a regular basis). Later, long after the mythical ‘sugar rush’ should have occurred, all hell broke loose. I’m not sure what happened except that Eli was running around with a broom and a lite saber, Jonathan somehow thought both weapons actually belonged to him, everyone was screaming and crying, and someone hit someone with something. I’m not exaggerating when I say we switched from a Norman Rockwell painting to surrealist depiction of hell in about three seconds. In one of those moments of parental desperation I think sent Rebecca to read in my bed and forbade the boys from reading or being read to which resulted in more screaming and crying to the point where it seemed possible that we might have two pukers. In between screams they threatened to “smite me” “write mean things on my tombstone” and a few nominations for meanest mommy ever.

Finally after twenty minutes of serious noise everyone calmed down. I decided to process the evening’s event with Jonathan. I thought we could talk about resisting the temptation to smack the little brother. For some reason I decided to talk about Odysseus and the sirens. Why on earth in that weak moment did I go for the sirens? As a feminist musicologist who writes on early modern Europe I’ve been asked to write enough essays about sirens that I could have a whole third book project and I’ve never once taken the bite. First I was informed “he put wax in his ears and the sirens were beautiful women. My ears are already full of wax and Eli is not a beautiful women. He is a horrific creature from the underworld.” The led Rebecca to a long discourse about how maybe she would be a siren because she loves to sing. And “oh don’t forget about Pandora.” Then she invoked Artemis. Jonathan finished the story by saying “well what’s his name was tempted to look at her at her bathing and was turned into a stag. He was then torn apart by his hounds.” So in the grand tradition of cautionary tales I said “see what happens when you succumb to the temptation to hit your brother.”

And, by the way, Rebecca is having second thoughts about being Demeter for Halloween; a costume her grandmother labored over. She worries that she might come across a supporting Antiochus because he wanted people to pray to the Greek Gods. Manuel argued that dressing up as a Greek God did not mean supporting all the attendant theology. She was unconvinced. We may be in for sartorial trouble on that front.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghost in the Machine

I am about one class period away from turning music 101 into a philosophical exploration of the ghost in the machine. There are many classes in which technology doesn’t add much or simply provides a bit of accent. But like most people who teach soap-box style lecture classes, I’ve become dependent on new-fangled technologies for music 101. Gone are the days of the mixed tape for class, the pile of CD’s heavy enough to break an LL Bean backpack, transparencies, and books passed around the classroom. The technology in our beloved classroom has been smiting me for every sentence I’ve every negative word I’ve ever written about technology. To start the week, Martha Jefferson’s musical commonplace book took us directly to Iran. This seems improbable until you recall that in order to turn on our thirty-six key keyboard, you need to push a special button on the computer control. (The technology folks spare no expense for Music 101) This time, instead of activating the slightly out of tune electronic keyboard, it activated a map of the Middle East which highlighted Iran. Yesterday’s highlight involved a computer that refused to read jump drives at all. I meant to show a 19th century illustration of a Turkish dance and play a clip of the Turkish march from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and ask the class to discuss it. After a few minutes of interpretive dancing by all, my TA hooked my laptop up to the projector which, among other tidbits, involved sharing emails from my sister about Halloween Costumes and my actual lecture notes complete with phrases like “blather on about exoticism for a bit” to the entire class. We read the work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for my grad seminar, which seemed more than apt. We can be sure that whatever aura Beethoven, Monteverdi, the Tokens, or Paul Simon ever had was completely sucked up and spat out by technology.

I rushed home to run what turned out to be the Parkway afterschool program. Thanks to spending a lot of time at an afterschool program, I knew exactly how to handle them. I sat them down for snack, made them all do their homework, and then explained that the activity was cleaning Rebecca and Jonathan’s room. I announced that anyone who disobeyed would lose a privilege. After they finished the clean-up, the girls made cookies for a work dinner I was hosting that night, and the boys continued to excavate the construction site next door. (being a feminist mother sucks at least ten times a week) The dinner also featured asking guests to do Jonathan’s homework for him. For some reason the third grade unit on economics and capitalism ended up in a fair in which kids were told to “bring in something useless” and sell it. Jonathan and Marietta played violin for 15 cents. And Jonathan, who has a fine motor delay and hates arts and crafts decided to make beaded bracelets.

The first low point was when the neighborhood cat ran into our house and the two five year olds ran after the cat and down the stairs, falling down the bottom three and announcing that each had pushed the other down. Both screamed until I stuffed cookies made by their sisters into their mouths. The second low point is ongoing. As it turns out in joining the boys for a little construction site exploration I got something in my eye that I’m allergic to and the whole organ started a long process of swelling, exuding puss, and generally turning red. Said process landed us in the eye doctor for the afternoon; never a fun place to hang out.

Tomorrow is the first event in my Arts Mentoring program. It would be super-fabulous if I could open my eye and see completely by then. I’m pretty sure that the fabulous graduate student Lauren would be in her rights to kill me if I said “hey you go ahead and coordinate getting 12 UVa students and 12 children from underserved communities to an art gallery for a photography exhibit, pizza picnic, and concert.” Speaking of this event wish us both luck. It’s one of those events that could really go either way!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

oops i'm a tiger mom

Yesterday I had Chinese food for the first time since we got back from China. Needless to say Panda Garden had almost nothing in common with what we ate in China. I’m pretty sure the cheese wontons would have made anyone in the Menglun metropolitan area puke. But Panda Garden combined with the annual sukkah hysteria inspired me to return to the blogosphere. We knew sukkot in Charlottesville spelled trouble when during our first fall Rebecca and Jonathan announced that their whole class was coming over for snack under our Sukkah. We had no intentions of building one. Somehow this has become an annual ritual and while we do now look forward to a hoard of tiny Jews traipsing to our little hut it would be a good idea if the teachers actually checked the dates with us. We thought Eli was making it up when he said his class would appear this morning. Having failed to convince him that the civil war did not end in 1953 and George Washington did not fight in it, I gave up trying to convince him that his buddies were not on the way. It turns out he had worked out a date with the teachers. Luckily, the biblical rainstorm saved us at least until Monday. This all amounts to some sort of cosmic payback for the time I volunteered my mom to make Latkas for the entire first grade.

Meanwhile I have to confess that I had a tiger mom moment with my not yet five year old. Eli begged to take piano lessons and we said sure. I think he’s too young but he loves it and takes it very seriously. At least he takes it seriously in the lesson where he tells his teacher things like “oh yes I know all the notes” or “I only pway in mino keys.” Pwacticing, however, is not his thing and usually consists of ten minutes of setting up his music, stretching, and organizing things and maybe finding middle C once. The other day I casually mentioned to the big kids that we’d have desert after they practiced. Somehow I thought it was a good idea to tell this to Eli too who of course refused to practice. But by then I’d taken a stand and felt I had to see it through. I make fun of most Dads I know for the “going nuclear” approach to parenting where for example a kid fails to put their shoes on and the Dad says something like “put your shoes on or you will never have another playdate again….” This is impossible, the kid knows it, and continues not to put the shoe on. So once I said the desert thing I felt I had to follow through. Let’s just say it ended with Eli screaming from his bed “I’M HUNGWWWWWWY. I PWOMISE I WILL PWACTICE…..” He also proudly explained to the teacher that his mother took away his desert for no reason and that said mother didn’t understand that his piano has a Z on it. Suffice it to say his performance of “Old Mista Wabbit” was lackluster at best this afternoon. In the end it’s hard to know what to say about a day that starts with rumbling front loaders, moves through Berlioz’s witches’ Sabbath, Charles Burney, Sting’s racial politics, and ends with a rather whimpery Mista Wabbit.

As I posted this the page just told me my blog is boring and old fashioned and that I should update the format. I promptly clicked a few buttons and found myself unable to figure out how to post. I did take a quick glace at a few of my posts from China. I'm not sure I can sustain this back here in cville. It all seems a little mundane now. But it did inspire a small congratulatory moment. I did in fact meet the summer's goals set out by my grad school bff Kirstin. 1. Do not beat the children. 2. Do not divorce the husband who took you to China. 3. Do not contract any fatal diseases. (I think the continued presence of the boils doesn't count so much as fatal disease as it does as pure gross. Nope the lovely thing on my neck is not a viola hicky caused by a newfound interest in practicing rock licks. It's a BOIL!"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bye Bye Trees...

The breakfast table wore my brain out on Friday. By 7:30 we had covered peaceful protest, civil disobedience, pogroms, Nazis and religious genocide. We’ve trained the children to read the newspaper or a book so we usually don’t have to talk before 7:30. I knew we were in a for a long morning when the kids came down the stairs in full mourning for the trees that are going to be cut down in the property next to our house. I’m talking operatic “we have to spend the entire day in the trees” mourning. This has been a long time coming; various neighborhood groups made sustained efforts to curtail the transformation of the former old people’s home into an apartment unit with a giant parking lot that start about two inches from our driveway. The kids are furious about loosing green space and their favorite climbing and they are very worried about Savvy, their dog friend who has colonized a space under one of the trees. Before we left for China they launched a peaceful protest with signs, sidewalk chalk, and notes on the building to the developers. They talked a lot about a petition but I’m not sure it ever happened. However when they heard the news that the trees will actually meet their demise next week they came up with a plan of throwing play mobiles at the tree guys. After a discussion about peaceful opposition I said “what would Martin Luther King have done”. Jonathan’s response was “well that took a really long time and we only have until Monday.” Rebecca added “and he got shot.” We tried also to explain to them that the guys actually cutting the trees were not responsible for the decisions. The image of a couple of faculty brats hurling plastic toys at grounds crews is truly liberal parent hell. Luckily before we had to deconstruct that situation we moved on to discussing the Ellis Island and immigration portion of the third grade curriculum. The kids wanted to know if our families had come here in search of religious freedom. We quickly explained that describing fleeing the pogroms and the Nazis as a search for religious freedom seemed to understate the issue just a bit. Somehow we snuck religious genocide and socialism in there before running down the street to catch the bus.

After we finished with genocide, civil disobedience, and religious persecution I took a moment to realize that we’ve been back from China for exactly one month. Returning from China feels very different than returning from almost anywhere else I’ve been. It seems so far away that it’s almost like it never happened. When I’ve returned from stints in Rome I come back thinking in Italian, reading books I’ve purchased, carefully reading Italian newspapers etc.. But the resonances between China and anything we do in our daily life here are almost none. The most noticeable thing about the return is that we’re still not playing with a full deck. Physically we’re all still on the mend. We’re not boil free and Manuel and I both still have serious pathological not-potable-water dishpan hand flare ups. It turns out that the lack of potable water, readily available protein and dairy, and a few modern conveniences actually takes a while to recover from. I still have not eaten a grain of rice and I think Rebecca’s new fascination with top chef may be a hint that her parents need to attend a little more to her culinary needs.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

my grandmother

We buried my grandmother yesterday. It was a small but lovely funeral if such things can be lovely. Here is what I read. My Uncle Michael, her baby, and I said very similar things.

My grandmother called the obituaries the party page, and she loved parties. She thought life cycle events demanded full participation and extravagant celebrations. We all thought that the St. Patrick’s Day parade was in her honor, and she kept a record of who called on birthdays and anniversaries. If she could, she’d take attendance today.

When she turned 83 she said she wanted to ride a double decker tour bus around New York City with her five granddaughters, so we did that and finished it off with a jazz concert in a club off of Madison Avenue. This last spring we had a party which included, in addition to the usual suspects, almost all of her nephews, and she was more with it and connected than I’d seen her in years. She loved every minute of it. She talked about my cousins’ weddings for weeks. And for my twins’ naming ceremony and bris she insisted that she and my mother wear matching green. She did jello shots at my sisters’ college graduation. And while I spent my high school and college years decked out in baggy ethnic garb, listening to earnest folk singers, she wore custom made leather outfits to clubs and concerts in the City. Every so often she bought me a sexy shirt that I wouldn’t wear for almost twenty years. I think this aesthetic caused a mixture of pride and trepidation in my cousins who lived in the city and got to bring her to grandparents’ day. You never know how black leather and sequins will play in an upper East Side primary school. So my niece probably had it right when she wanted to wear a peach taffeta puffy dress today. And I know that I’m not the only granddaughter who felt inclined to buy a colorful outrageous dress this week. If there had been time I would have suggested green manicures for all before this morning’s service. She loved parties because she loved people. I know that she would want us to celebrate her life.

And, perhaps even more importantly, I am certain that she was ready to die. She stopped her rote greeting of “I’m happy to be alive” about a year ago. And this last week she said she was ready to go. Mammy outlived everyone in her generation except her husband. We come from a family that does not shy away from talking about death; for the last twenty years both of my grandparents have taken a Woody Allen approach to old age, reminding me that they could die soon and therefore I should, for sure, come up for lunch. And by the time my grandmother’s slow decline became a reality I had internalized the behavior. She was, by the end a shell of what she once was. But that she was not much older than I am now when I was born means that I have vivid memories of her in her 50’s. And for that I am incredibly thankful. Not only was she vibrant enough to take my sister and me on trips, stay with us when our parents traveled, and generally be the coolest grandmother on the planet, but I got to have an adult girl friend relationship with her. And those are the memories I want to hold on to.

I want to remember the Mammy who did my hair at Uncle Michael and Aunt Lynn’s wedding. And I want to remember the Mammy who slept with me and Pami in the big trundle bed and told us stories about my Mom and Uncle Earl and Michael when they were children. I always liked the one about how she locked then in a closet when they had misbehaved and they asked for cookies. And I want to remember the Mammy who took train to Philadelphia to hang out with me in when I was in graduate school. And of course I want to remember the Mammy who loved my babies.

Mammy saw five granddaughters married and eight great grand children come into the world. Two of my favorite snapshot memories are of her on the floor stacking cups with my twin babies and of her walking down 86th street with one tiny hand in each of her two. They were her walker. And she thought the baby monitor was the best invention of the 20th century. She was largely blind but could sit on Uncle Earl’s deck in the Hamptons listening to the kids squawk at each other for hours. My children looked forward to her visits, which came complete with bagels and lox and usually a hideous toy that made too much noise. She got to meet her newest great grand kids Henry and Nola in the last year, and I know that thrilled her.

My grandmother lived a wild and crazy life, and she lived it with gusto. She was movie star beautiful in her youth and flirted shamelessly not just with her children’s friends but my friends all the way through graduate school. She knew that every ex-boyfriend any of her granddaughters had must be gay. She was in the coast guard, a dental hygienist, a cable television producer, an avid traveler, an amateur Egyptologist, and a good guitar player. She loved music and was truly adventurous. She always bucked the system. Our cousin Bill reminded us yesterday that in the throws of losing her eye site she got thrown out of the Lighthouse for The Blind support group. Instead of a seeing eye dog, she wanted a seeing eye horse so she wouldn't have to walk everywhere.

She had a fast and furious romance with my grandfather who, more than any of us knew, was still the love of her life 68 years later. It broke my heart to see her reach for him this last week. And in this they may be a model for us all. While they were movie star beautiful they did not have a movie style marriage. They had the kind that took work in the decades before people talked therapyspeak. They loved each other fiercely and had extremely strong ideas that didn’t always match. I don’t know many women of her generation who so clearly lived the way they wanted even when it went against what their husbands wanted. They knew how to fight and how to make up.

My grandmother told me years ago that she didn’t want anyone making stuff up at her funeral or saying nice things if they weren’t true. (my mother has said the same thing so it must be genetic) And so it’s worth saying that she never ever turned into a sweet little old lady—little yes in her final years but sweet no. With that vigor for life came a vicious temper. It didn’t really surprise me when she gave the ER resident the finger last weekend in the hospital, actually it cracked me up. She had spunk and humor until the very last minute. And she always loved her comforts and those too she had at the end. I had the best grandmother in the world. She was by no means perfect, and that’s exactly why she was the best. I’ll miss her terribly, but I’ll end by saying again that I’m sure she’d want us to have a party today

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And so it begins....

We spent the entire summer in an earthquake zone where one of our biggest fears was the fatal mix of seismic action and Chinese construction. And there we were in Charlottesville on the last day before school started when an earthquake came. It’s clear that at least this east coast girl had no clue what to do and had this happened in our Chinese house we would have all bitten the dust because we would have been in the closet while it came tumbling down on us. I somehow confused earthquake and tornado protocol and hustled the five kids in the house into the front closet which was away from the windows. After a few seconds I thought to get the hell out of the house. If it hadn’t been the longest thirty seconds of my life the sight of five kids waiting for me as I bolted down the stairs with their little ears covered and then the six of us huddled in the closet might have been kind of cute. Eli’s friend Sam was freaked out and wanted to go back in the house, Eli was clueless, Jonathan thought it sounded like horses storming in the Peloponnesian war, and Rebecca and her friend Olivia managed in thirty seconds to turn into an operatic “WE ALMOST DIED IN AN EARTHQUAKE”

Meanwhile we’re all settling back into normal—or at least our form of normal. We have a few nice little staph infection boils as souvenirs, and I don’t think any of us has gone near a grain of rice. It’s clear that we’re not yet batting with a full team. One of us who shall remain nameless failed to check the time of their first class and missed it, one of us had the day wrong on a seminar, and one of us scheduled office hours during class. Needless to say that the wilting afternoons in the jungle with nothing to do but sweat often drove me completely crazy, but something between that and five people and one driver going in eight different directions might have been a nice transition.

The kids, for the most part, seem to have completely forgotten the experience. Last week I said “Isn’t it kind of weird that ten days ago we were in the jungle.” And the response was a resounding, “Can I have another waffle please?” I, on the other hand, found it remarkable to be standing in front of sixty first-year students talking about the tune Hound dog and Beethoven ten days after riding a Vespa into town to eat dumplings.

They still have a few habits; shoes left outside houses, obsessive washing of hands, constant checking if water is ok to drink. They seemed a little feral when we first got back, and one of them did their best impersonation of a psychotic child at the school open house, complete with no eye contact with anyone and grunting at teachers, etc… But all three of them marched off to the first day of school and haven’t looked back. As always, we get almost no information from them, though I learned from eavesdropping after bedtime that this year the Spanish teacher “actually speaks Spanish to us.” This seems like an improvement. Rebecca seems still to have a crush on the music teacher, and Jonathan would rather learn Latin than Spanish. Eli seems to be having a blast in the same preschool class he was in last year, though his joy was temporarily tampered when his big sibs said “really Eli are you going to learn anything at that school this year?”

I told the kids that I wasn’t cooking for two months when we got back. I lasted two weeks but have still not baked anything. Rebecca explained to me that she was pretty sure that what I baked would be more nutritious than the packaged snacks they were eating. I said a whole wheat Ritz cracker was plenty healthy enough.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

Thank goodness for Google. When I came home from rural Kenya in 1988 I had no idea that the panic attack caused by the cereal isle in Safeway came from a phenomenon called “reverse culture shock.” I think it’s safe to say that’s what we have going on in the Gordon/Lerdau family. We did mitigate it a bit by staying at my parents house for two days on the way back, which worked a little like one of those bubbles that astronauts hang out it when returning to Earth. Even with that, there is something bizarrely decentering about having the familiar feel unfamiliar. Seven minutes of internet research revealed that reverse culture shock often expresses itself in a radical reevaluating of priorities and a re-setting of life goals. My symptoms are more material than spiritual.

Electric lighting feels blinding, and I can’t finish any of the meals I crave. No one looks at me when I walk down the street, and no one touches my kids. Everyone looks very large; this was especially so in the barbecue place we stopped in on the way back to C’ville. But I’m not tall anymore. The transformation of language from a largely inaccessible background noise to a mode of communication is not seemless. Not only do other people’s conversations distract, but when everyone around you understands you a little self censorship is in order. Time to turn the brain/mouth filter back on. This, by the way, is a concept neither the kids nor Manuel have grokked; I am sure all four will be sent home from their respective schools at least once in the first week.

My yoga class on Wednesday night kind of captured the whole thing. For starters my regular teacher wasn’t there, and it was all new people, so no comfy yoga return. But also coming from a part of China that is extremely Buddhist, where greetings regularly involve a kind of yogic head bow, and where squatting is a way of life, not a pose, made the whole thing seem hilarious to me. The sight of white chycs in athletic tank tops with “exotic” patterns as fashion accent toting large mats and chanting Sanskrit just seemed incongruous.

Charlottesville is very invested in local food these days. I’m kind of over local food. One of my friends came over to try to take me to the farmers market the day we returned. (she also left ice cream and waffles in my freezer and took care of my ant problem for me when I was gone so she rocks) However, at the market request I pretty much laughed in her face. “A market are you crazy? All I want is groceries delivered, and I want the food I want without worrying about whether or not it’s possible in this climate.” I went to a farmers market every other day and bought all kinds of delicious locally grown produce. However, had I had the option of anything not locally grown, we would all have had an easier summer.

There’s even an oddness to the giant brick that has been lifted off my head by US safety standards. Rural China comes with multiple ways in which your children can meet their demise. In the last two days we were in China we read Chinese news stories about child kidnapping, death from tampered food at KFC, renegade escalators running people over, kids dying when roller coasters collapsed, death by plane crash, and statistics on motor vehicle death. And that was the Party news, which means it was heavily censored and hid most of the bad stuff. Even without the help of the news, it’s not hard to conjure up demise in the form of venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, motor accidents, crumbling buildings, earthquakes, mudslides, fire, flood, vicious tropical viruses, bullet trains, airplanes with no safety rules, etc… To exist there with small children and not collapse with anxiety involves simply putting every idea about the safety of your children in a little box. But to maintain that box takes a lot of mental energy. And now that we are back I have let myself think about all the things that didn’t happen; that’s scary.

While Manuel and I are walking around in a kind of haze and have yet to interact with anyone but our very closest friends, the kids seem fairly immune to the whole business. As creatures of the moment China was the new normal in May and now it’s Virginia’s turn. They have said some comical things like “do you think Ian and Caroline will remember us” (Ian and Caroline live across the street and Ian apparently wondered if they’d still understand English.) For the first day they looked for places to stash their shoes outside buildings and asked repeatedly if water was safe to drink. We also need to aggressively Chinese government style impose some new normal; we wear seatbelts, bike helmets, sit in booster seats, do not leave the house and go visiting without telling an adult, take off on our bikes at will etc… But for them home is simply where we are. When asked about the best parts of their trip they immediately talk about the vacations, which I initially thought revealed the excitement of the trips. But now my sense is that the living in the Garden part of our experience barely registers as a trip. It was simply where we stashed ourselves for a while.

Ok, I have to admit I have no clue how they have been the last couple of days because my fabulous parents have them. This is the first time in three months that I’ve been without them for more than about two hours, and I don’t miss them one bit. In fact given that the Charlottesville schools deactivated them and then failed to promote them to third grade it might not be a bad idea for my parents to just register them in Alexandria and send them to the school Pam and I went to…

There are of course countless ways in which it feels like home. Our friends filled our fridge with prosecco, beer, orange juice and milk and left chips, salsa, and coffee around the house. They also left a brilliant note, which should go in an essay on gender in the jungle, but it began “Welcome home, Family of Dr. Manuel Lerdau and servant-wife Bonnie. They set some rules for us “No air conditioning in day-time. No playing in mud. No Privacy. No bad language. No No. 2 in toilet. Outside please.” Sitting on the downtown mall eating Tacos we ran into quite a few people we know and then I had my first ever Dave Mathews citing. He was headed to the Gillian Welch concert and I saw the back of his head. In the morning I went for a run with my running lady friends and though the run practically killed me I realized how much I’d missed the collective. My neighbor came over to say Hi yesterday and it was sooooo good to see her—really made it feel like home. Although I have not so much as made a cup of coffee it feels really good to have our kitchen back. And I’ve worn nothing but shorts and tank tops since I got home—neither of which really flew in China.

Today’s my goal is to find my new office. It was moved while I was gone and I don’t even know where it is. Classes start on Tuesday. This somehow seems symbolic of the whole return. Manuel has to go in today to start freshman advising; I’m afraid he’ll focus on telling them how to get bottled water and avoid the cobra who lives two-thirds of the way up the trail. I have a few more blog posts up my sleeve processing the whole experience and then my hunch is it will all get a lot less interesting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


We are hanging out at my parent’s house in Alexandria, recovering from the journey and visiting with family before heading back to Charlottesville. It’s funny how a three-month trip to another planet defamiliarizes the familiar. This process began as we boarded the United Airlines flight. On Chinese airlines safety precautions are suggestions rather than rules; so if the flight attendant says buckle up and stow your baggage only about 1/3 of the people bother to do it. If there is something worth looking at out the window everyone gets up to check it out; no matter what the seatbelt sign says. On United they mean business and because so many of the passengers spend more time on Chinese airlines the flight attendants were pretty busy getting all the bags stowed and passengers buckled. The only time they didn’t carefully check each row was when the pilot made the somewhat alarming announcement “fasten your seatbelts and flight attendants sit down wherever you are.”

The soundscape feels radically different here; modernization performs a kind of evening out. Cars all sound the same; no more radical difference between truck, toktok, motorbike, tractor etc… The bugs, even Virginia Cicadas barely seem audible compared to the natural cacophony that underscored everything we did in the jungle. And the breeze is a treat to hear. It also feels amazing to be clean, and I mean really cleaner than I’ve been since May. I took a long hot shower in soft water that actually rinses the soap off, and we are washing everything that came to China. Once the clothes came out of the washing machine, the grime we’ve lived with for three months seemed repulsive. And what a delight to walk into a public restroom and find both toilet paper and soap. Potable water is the best!

As I mentioned in my last post, our exit was a study in what could possibly go wrong. The first problem was that on Tuesday I got really sick; tropical virus that made it impossible for me to get out of bed for two days—two days that ought perhaps to have been spent packing, organizing stuff, finishing my syllabus etc… And I basically felt crappy the whole rest of the week. Manuel then followed this with some sort of hacking disease that made enough noise to wake up all the ghosts who reside up the hill from the house. When we finally both woke up two days before we were to leave, and Manuel went to the bank he found that it was completely out of money. Our account was in fine shape, but the bank itself had no money. The second bank in town was simply closed because it was August 13. Luckily I’ve embraced the Chinese cash economy and had a few piles of cash stashed away in my underwear drawer and my wallet so we were fine.

The real excitement was the journey from the Garden to Beijing. We have never had a problem with a driver from the Garden. But sure enough on our last and perhaps most important ride the guy was almost forty minutes late. There is only one morning flight from Jing Hong to Kunming so if you miss that it’s possible you won’t get to Beijing that day. And we wanted nothing getting in the way of our getting on that precious United flight out of China! Manuel convinced himself that we would certainly miss the flight and when we called the guy who made the van arrangements all we got was “oh my god wait a minute…” The driver arrived and neighbors tossed our bags and kids in the van and off we went on a ride that felt more like an amusement park stomach turner than a drive. It usually takes 75 minutes to get to the airport we did it in 45 and that included driving through a few sections of road that had been washed out by mudslides. By some miracle no one puked. We made it to the gate halfway through the boarding process with the kids running through the airport and Eli falling every few minutes. We arrived in Kunming and found that one of the two new bags we bought for $1 had busted leaving Rebecca’s bathing suit and Manuel’s underwear dragging along the luggage dispenser. Luckily, both bathing suit and underwear were of a style not tempting to other passengers (& there’s almost no petty crime in China) and this sort of bag explosion happens so often in China that the airport has a place where they wrap and fix bags. I had also learned the night before we left that Kunming is a center of child-snatching in China. So while we waited on line I used my iPad to read up about said snatching, which inspired me to yell at the kids every time they got more than two feet from me and conclude with a stern lecture about staying close to us unless they wanted to be stolen and sold into slavery. They were totally unimpressed and informed me that there is no slavery in the modern world. This is another one of those things that someone might have told me before our many flights through Kunming. We finally arrived in Kunming and went to look for the free shuttle that came with our hotel. That bus turned out to leave from parking slip c-0818 in the basement of being airport. The waiting area neither provided enough air to breathe or enough space to insure not being hit by a car.

As soon as we arrived at the hotel we turned around and attempted to get a cab into town to have dinner with my cousin Jordan. Our bad car karma continued and after waiting almost 40 minutes the guy arrived and informed us that he could not drive us because we were too many. We finally made it to the dumpling restaurant half an hour late and proceeded to eat our weight in delicious dumplings. My favorite was a spicy pork with celery and something else yummy. We also had one with dried shrimp, corn, spicy cabbage, and something else. Manuel ordered another delicious one that had something, something else, and a different something else. We each sucked down a 24 oz. beer in about two minutes. It was a blast to watch our kids play with Jordan’s son Jayden. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a third cousin. All four of the children started off working very hard to ignore each other and drive their parents crazy. But by the eventually bonded in the form of shooting things, not eating as much as their mothers wanted them to, and building stuff.

We all collapsed after dinner and stayed that way until we made our way to breakfast at the “swiss chalet” at 10:30. The kids did their usual, unpack every little bottle and box in the bathroom which this time included a package of condoms. This registered on our bill as “health accessory.” Manuel took the kids to the pool which had them so excited that they jumped in with their clothes on. We arrived at the airport about four hours before our flight and saw the longest line on the planet. By the time we checked in I was ready to kill the kids and they were ready to kill each other. We had hagandaz ice cream for $5 a scoop, and Jonathan spent the entire time worried that we’d miss the flights. He takes after his father and two grandfathers. Security was fine but passport control caused some trouble. The passport control people at the Beijing airport look like combat soldiers and yelled regularly. This time they yelled at me. We never figured out what I did wrong but there was a lot of incomprehensible yelling and they made me get the eye scan multiple times. The only thing that prevented me from ending up in a re-education camp was probably the “bebe” who they decided was cute. The bebe was by that point terrified and did not perform his usual cuteness. As we waited for the plane the kids had exactly one moment of playing nicely—it went by so fast that by the time we got the camera out it was done so I had very low expectations for the plane. But on the way down the mile long jetway someone took the kids and replaced them with sweet angelic kids whom the flight attendants complimented us on. They were all pleases and thankyous and quietly drank their milk and apple juice. Rebecca and Joanthan were so happy to have English reading material that they read the Hemispheres magazine cover to cover and when I attempted a skim I was told “mommy you did not skip the article about roman coins on page 17 did you.” They watched Thor which they found ridiculously inattentive to the norse mythology. They were full of ethnic observations. The first remark was “woah look at all the white people” followed by “wow there are African Americans on this plane” After a few rounds of that we decided it was time to dose them up with benedryl and they went to sleep. We zipped through us passport control and customs with no problems, which, given the number of chicken feet and bottles of moonshine we brought with us, is somewhat miraculous.

We are all exhausted and wired today. Jonathan suggested we “languish” for the day but we’ve been messing with our stuff, drinking water, and generally experiencing culture shock. More on that a little later….