Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Triathlon Eilat 2011 or "Gone with the Wind"

Being both a competitor and a mother isn't easy. The days prior to the annual competition in Eilat were filled with making sure that everything was ready for my boys: their bikes, gear, their emotional state-of-mind! I wanted things to go as smoothly as possible. Yes, I prepared my own things, made sure to drink water, thought a bit about the race; but that was secondary. Rami and I packed the car. Three bikes, three kids. A full load. So thankful he was driving. He's convinced his presence on these trips is superfluous. If he only knew! Couldn't do it without that other calm adult in my corner! The whole trip down south was occupied by the thought of whether or not we'd get there in time for the boys' practice, not mine. It's impossible to disconnect from being a mom.

Thursday late afternoon, all is set. Daniel calls in tears. He has brought two left shoes with him. He won't be able to wear his favorite competition shoes. I breathe a sigh of relief. When I heard his cracked voice I thought something had happened to him. It was okay. It's just equipment. And everyone knows that equipment doesn't make the athlete! Or at least, that's what we tell ourselves!

Thursday night, Daniel fills up his tire: poof! The valve breaks. He's a mess. This is an important competition for him and he's very tense. We change the tire. Or rather, his big brother Noah does it. Noah is relaxed this time around. It's his seventh time in Eilat. These boys are "old hat" at this business. I decide not to touch my tires. If they were good enough a few days earlier at my Tuesday morning practice, they were good enough for another 20km. 

Friday morning. I wake up the boys and send them off. I have a few minutes on my own. Nice. Quiet. I go down to check in at the bike station. Laugh with my friends. I have plenty of time and it's not even cold! What a break!

Over to the beach. Daniel has gotten out of the water. I wrap him up. I wouldn't dare get into the water. Brrrrrrrrrrrr. I don't see Noah at all. In fact I NEVER saw him except for the one split second when he emerged from his swim. After years of watching my boys' entire races, cheering them on, having butterflies in my stomach over their competitions, all I got was one split second.

Daniel's first. Great start out of the water. I breathe a sigh of relief…Noah out of the water. Great…I’m next. Black out. To the water's edge and jump. Don't remember too much about the swim except being focused on finding the exit. Last year I targeted between Melech Shlomo and Royal Beach, leading a whole group of women astray! I wasn't going to let that happen again. I did notice that the water wasn't as cold as I'd expected and that was a GREAT thing. The swim was fine. I love swimming. I reminded myself that as I pushed forward. I saved a bit of energy with my legs. Thinking about what lay ahead. Out of the water…heard Ziv and Udi cheer me on as I headed up the path. I smiled.

On to the bike. I climbed the hill out of the station. I heard the names of friends of Daniel finishing. Where was he? He'd had such a great start. He must have already finished. Okay, focus!!! The bike. The wind. The fact is that I was so relieved that they'd cut back to 20km from the 26km we did last year that it just didn't matter. It was a little tense on the course. I tried not to let too many people pass me. I fought. I pushed myself. I looked for Noah. No sign of him so I assumed he'd been in that pelaton speeding down the hill on my way in. I smiled as I saw Guy and Shai coming the other way. Great company! And then: there was Arella! And then the turnaround. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was almost home! Time to fly. Gears didn't work at the bottom range. SHOOT!!! I stayed somewhere in the middle of the higher range and took the opportunity to fuel up on water. I'm going fast enough. It will be okay. Flew over the speed bump by the entrance to Eilat! Oh no! Landed. Phew! Headed back into town. Menachem was there alone on the side of the road, cheering me on! There is no way to explain JUST HOW IMPORTANT that encouragement is! Just when you're ready to throw in the towel…Go Caroline!!! It's like taking a sip of an energy drink!!!

I pulled into the station. On to the run. Made that one turn in front of the stands and felt as though someone had put up a wall. The wind was stiff in my face. I couldn't believe it. Hadn't I done enough? What was this? I felt broken but knew that I had to finish. I also knew that I had a good position because I hadn't seen too many women ahead of me. It was going well. I wasn't going to give up now.

NITRO-ites were all over that first corner. How wonderful was that! But I really wanted one of them to jump in and just do it for me! The run was difficult.  It wasn't as hot as I'd expected but my pace wasn't where I wanted it to be. I should be faster.  Guy was already coming back. LUCKY Guy! I wanted to be in his shoes. Okay, I'd wait for the turnaround. The wind was wild, sometimes in my face, sometimes coming from the side. When I spit I had absolutely no idea where it was going to hit!

I approached the turn and saw Shai!! Yeah!!! Shai! I continued on. I had cramping pain throughout my ribs. My torso was so tight. Forget aerobic fitness, leg muscles. None of that mattered. How was I going to move through the pain coursing through my ribcage? And then: There was Tal. Come on Tal. Pass me! Tal runs like the wind. The next section of the run I simply waited for her to overtake me. Jennifer. Zebale. Miki. We're all here. We're all together. Finally, Tal passed me on the left. That was good. Now I knew I was almost finished. Back at the Nitro corner. Nir. Tsaf. So many others! I took water, but drinking at this point made me nauseous. COME ON Caroline: 500 meters! 

I didn't know what the heck was going on between my ribs. Nir tells me there are muscles  and tendons there…never really knew they existed until Friday morning and I could have lived without that knowledge. I came down that stretch looking forward and back. Last year I was elbowed out by a woman my age, one elbow separated our places. I wasn't going to let that happen again! No one around. I was alone. Turned the corner, Rami yelling to me: GO! Crossed the line. Shai welcomed me….the ribs…unbearable! I pulled it together. Shai stayed with me. I'd done it….and yes, I knew I'd done well and that maybe, just maybe, while tipping the top of the age category at an ancient 49, I might just have made podium!

It was great. And worth it. WHAT A FEELING! Daniel met me on the other side of the stands. He'd had a cramp. His race, which had started out so well, had ended badly…Not badly in terms of the whole age group, but badly for him personally; a real disappointment. He cried on my shoulder. How painful was that. I forgot about my ribs. Rami came over. I asked about Noah. He'd had the race of his life, finishing far ahead of his expectations. What a mixture of results and emotions.

I walked Daniel back to the hotel, hearing him tell me how again, like at Emek HaYarden, his leg had cramped so badly that he'd had to stop and work it out. When you hope to be on top you can't take those extra two minutes…I passed some of my friends from the Sprint, Arella, Jennifer, Zebale. What could I have done without them? Doing the Sherox Triathlon alone during the summer didn't compare. I was surrounded by support: My husband, my children, my teammates, my coaches, my friends. How lucky was I?

Later on I checked the results: WOW! I'd showed those youngsters something!!! Just wait until next year!!!
I'll be back!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


That’s not a typo. The title for this blog really is “K”. “K” stands for just how many shortcuts we take in 2011. “K” is what I received on my cell phone, continually, this summer. “K” is short for OK, which is short for O.K., which is short for that obviously too-long-to-deal-with word: okay.

The first time I received a “letter” as an answer on my phone I thought it was a mistake. The friend that sent this message must have let it go too soon—not finishing whatever it was that she wanted to say. But then I received the same message from another friend. And soon enough I realized that “K” has become an acceptable form of confirmation.

The ever apparent, inverse relationship between rapid communication and meaningful conversation is troublesome. In an ironic fashion modern technology has enabled the streamlining of life to the point where a one word, or even--dare I say it--"one letter," exchange, can count as a full-blown conversation. I discovered this phenomenon this past summer when I received my son's cell phone bill. There were an inordinate number of text messages. The Verizon customer service operator explained that he was sending almost one hundred a day. 100! I was amazed that Noah had that much to say considering that I’m lucky to have a handful of words come my way. When I asked him about this apparently astounding "gift of gab" he explained that most of his texts were only one word.

That's it. We've managed to whittle down the English language to the point where one word--and in some cases, one letter-- counts as a bona fide response; a full-fledged side of a conversation.

I’m having difficulty swallowing this new indicator of how far we’re willing to go to hurry things along—keep things moving—get on with it. How much more quickly do we want life to go?  As it is, things speed along whether we like it or not. Although as a teenager I was champing at the bit, eager to move on—right now I’d just as soon slam on the brakes. Modern technology is bound and determined to keep things moving at an ever-increasing pace. Where once this primarily affected transportation, helping us get places faster--in more efficient ways; now it's mostly about communication.  Although I'll never be able to stem this particular tide, I don't have to like it. Maybe it's time to pause and question whether this is a good thing and whether it's something that we need to buy into and swallow whole.

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Runni recently addressed another one of the pitfalls of the explosion in technological development; explaining that the existence of multiple means of communication has actually complicated our lives, maybe even slowing them down, by demanding that we know something that should be obvious: "how" people want to be reached.  In short, since personal communication preferences can determine accessibility, we need to know each individual's preferences in order to actually contact them; to know whether they check their answering service or prefer incessant redials, prefer text messages, emails or messages posted directly to their social network. Ironically, the exhausting effort required to negotiate how to best reach another party in some cases can actually deter communication! For example, by the time I recall which friend prefers to be contacted via text, which through the phone and which through email I have little desire to actually bother with the conversation!! Sometimes I just swallow whatever I wanted to say and move on—figuring that one less comment or update won't make a difference and simply exhausted by the thought of the whole process!

Modern technological development has somehow managed to complicate what should be the simplest of tasks. Whatever happened to the basic concept: “Reach out and touch someone"? Does anyone even remember that ad? Looking for a creative way to soften the image of AT & T, emphasizing the phone company’s indispensable role in everyday American life, Ayer Advertising agency came up with that now famous tagline in 1979. At the time, no one could imagine life without Ma Bell. How amazing in light of the fact that since then, many other communication giants have risen and fallen (think Sprint) and the all-powerful home telephone, so impressively invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, has lost its allure. In my house, for example, absolutely no one answers the phone. It rings, and rings and rings--and not one of my children move. They're all aware that if someone really wanted to contact them they would have already sent them a message through the computer or via their cell phone. How different from my youth, when I raced to the phone at the first ring, hoping it would be for me! 

The multiplication of the means by which we communicate with others, most of them requiring neither physical contact, neither full sentences nor an actual voice, has virtually killed human communication—that formerly intrinsic part of existence! It is definitely responsible for our general disinterest in actually "speaking" with someone. After all, electronic forms of communication take so much less energy and guarantee us time to formulate an appropriate reply! But I for one don't think we should be so quick as to call this progress. In fact, the repercussions of the degradation of communication caused by these so-called "developments," for this next generation (to which I've contributed three young souls) are frightening. I don’t relish the idea of their living in a world where one letter stands for a response. In fact, I’ve seen the rendition of this abbreviated form of written communication in their actual, “in person,” conversations and it goes beyond disheartening—all the way to depressing.

Maybe it's time for a wakeup call. Take a look at one of those original AT & T ads. Then, in honor of the Jewish New Year, reassess who matters most, reach out and touch them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Diary entry: Sherox Triathlon Competition Philadelphia 2011

I have to admit that this year I was a lot less apprehensive about this Philadelphia triathlon event but at the same time, quite ambivalent about it. As the date approached I really didn’t feel like doing it. I’ve worked out very hard all summer and I knew that I was in good enough shape to do it but I didn’t feel like getting worked up….and that’s what always happens before competitions. I get major butterflies and my stomach is a mess and I worry worry worry that something will go wrong.

But crossing the finish line is such an incredible feeling that the struggle is always justified.  The “why?” that I said to myself as I started the run, pretty exhausted, just faded away as I accepted my medal and slowed to a stop at the finish.

The swim: The Schuylkill River is a city river. Its primary use is by rowers. My mother is a rower. Rowers get in these skinny skinny boats called sculls and go backwards! If you've never seen it done check it out, it’s an amazingly challenging sport. In any case no one actually swims in this river and I don’t want to write about the kind of things found in there. (I’ll gross you out somewhere later in this retelling).  The water is pretty murky. You can’t see your arms as you go. You can’t see anything.  They put the competitors in the water in waves. It’s an incredibly comfortable way to start. Very dignified compared with that massive rush at the water’s edge I know from home. Approximately 60 people to a wave. You start treading water near an imaginary line between two orange floats. There is nothing to hold on to. Each wave has a different colored cap so as you swim along you know  you’re doing well when you've caught up to other colors. After all, they started a full 4 minutes earlier. Now in the USA I've noticed that while running is REALLY strong, swimming is not. There are amazing swimmers out there…and I saw them in action close up in my age group start, but there are many just trying to get through it. I actually passed people hanging out in the water, and some that were doing backstroke; tons doing breast.

But it was in the water that I figured out exactly who I had to contend with. I was in a 48-54 age group start. And it was in the water that I learned a major lesson in Philadelphia. The toughest women out there are the 50+ group. In fact those were basically the only ones that passed me!! The 30 somethings were always on the side. I could take them easily…But those skinny, muscle-ly 50 somethings were fierce!!!!

The swim started too fast. Some of those women just leaped out! I went with them and soon enough I found I couldn't breathe. That DOES NOT HAPPEN to me and I couldn't believe it. And frankly, with so many people in the water, not only from all those “wave starts” but also the lifesaving crew checking that no one is in trouble (someone died there last summer in a Triathlon),  it’s kind of freaky not to be able to breathe. I figured I must have pushed too hard. I calmed myself and slowed my pace.  Meanwhile the vapors off the surface of the water and that bit of water washing into my mouth with every breath were just foul. We are so spoiled in the Mediterranean!! I couldn't wait to finish. Now that is REALLY not like me. I love to swim. I wait for the swim. I never want it to end. I don’t want to do anything but swim. But here I was DYING to get out of the water. For me that set a weird tone for the whole race. I started thinking, if I’m really not enjoying this, what’s left? Next up I’d have to get on that darn bike! I might as well try to enjoy this! I focused. I swam strong. Nice long strokes to get through the current which was pretty strong. It was only 600 meters. They keep it short because the swim is what keeps people from participating; the more the merrier for women’s events. I reached the end of the murky water and here they pull you out because there is nothing to hang on to…I was hoisted up and off I went.

The bike: The bike section was really long: 25 km. Of course, that doesn’t compare with Eilat which I thought would never end. I kept that in mind!! But this course is hilly. It includes a challenging bridge up to the Strawberry Mansion area and then a climb through the mansion area. Of course all that climbing is rewarded buy some pretty fun down hills! Anyway, this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for to use my new technique. I climbed those hills standing like a 14 year old thanks to my Coach! Thanks Nir! I was still a bit wobbly (practice makes perfect), and I’m never going to be great at it because my balance simply isn’t terrific (I blame it on poor eyesight) but I knew he would be very proud of me. The course is two loops and after the first loop you can really anticipate those hills. Unlike most races, I also pushed through the down hills. As I mentioned before, I usually did the passing. I felt good. I felt strong. There were two categories of those passing me. One was those riding absolutely amazing bicycles. While I’m happy to have my mom’s old Cannondale, a mid 90s relic with three plates at the crank, it does not compare to the machines on the road. I actually thought an airplane was passing me at one point. Along came someone with those fancy wheels and a bullet (or sperm shaped) helmet. Scary!!! Anyway the second category was the 50+ group. As I mentioned above, I simply COULD NOT COMPETE with them. [Well, we’ll see next year!!!]. Phew!!

The course was littered with people with flat tires. It had poured the day before and also all night until about 5am! There were sticks and stones everywhere. I was incredibly careful. I really didn't feel like ending my race that way.  Plus I think this is where my hearty tires came in handy!! 

On to the run: Again, “Why am I doing this?” Did I forget to mention that although the temperature was in the mid 70s, very comfortable, the humidity was 95 percent? All of my body parts were simply stuck together. GROSS! The good thing was that there was a cloud cover the entire race. NO SUN! How different races are without that sun beating down!!! The run is a straight shot out to the Art Museum and back.  It’s relatively flat but it is never ending. I started out comfortably and said, “Okay. I have to make a decision here…have a dull run like Herzliya and be disappointed in myself or actually go for it.” I started to quicken my pace just a bit. For the record, I was DEAD TIRED. I kept a close eye on my heart beat and decided on a target number. The woman who completed the bike section and moved on to the run was a great runner. She jumped out ahead of me and I decided that I was going to stick with her. AND I DID! I had her in sight the entire way. She had a beautiful runner’s gait. I was so envious.  But I kept her in sight during the whole run and unbelievably, 500 meters from the finish, I realized that I actually could go a bit faster. I passed her!! And without sprinting!! (I learned a painful lesson about sprinting at the finish of the Tel Aviv Night race of 2009).

Finish line 2011: I did it! It was over. And yes, I knew, right there, that I’d do it again next year. Lessons of the day: 1. I’m strong--very strong. Thanks to Nir for torturing me several times a week. 2. It’s a lot more fun to do this with my friends. I was pretty lonely before and during the race. Not only did I not know anyone on the trail but no one cheered me from the sides except the race officials who were actually GREAT and numerous. 3. Rami deserves major thanks. Not only for waking up at 5am but also for cheering me at every opportunity. Next time he promises to memorize my swim cap color so that he knows when to expect me from the water! With 1700 participants (there was a TRI and a Duathlon) it was crowded and difficult to figure out who was who as we emerged from the water. 4. Women 50+ should not be messed with. They are tough as nails. 5. I love doing this despite the butterflies.

The results: I placed 14 out of 114 in my age category 45-49 (I’m the oldie). Overall 98/940. Last year I was 22nd. I’m more than satisfied!!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Education, Professional Success, and/or the Liberal Arts

About a month ago, sick of seeing it continually lambasted within the press, I decided to put in my two cents on the value of a liberal arts education. Since then the subject has popped up in at least three separate conversations, convincing me of its relevance to just about any dialogue and delaying the publication of this particular blog entry.

What's the point of a liberal arts education? With unemployment high in the US, and job opportunities slim-to-none, it’s definitely legitimate to debate the value of non-professional higher education. The main issue, and definitely not a new one, is whether a student majoring in, say, Anthropology or English, will ever be able to find a job. Over a year ago an article in USA Today, citing a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, stated that the US economy was in serious danger due to a growing mismatch between the skills needed for jobs being created and the educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. This same study was republished in last weekend’s (24 July 2011) New York Times Education section. Apparently we’re all quite interested in just how unprepared our children might be for “real life” and how we might better “direct” them if we want to remedy this situation.

Compounding the problematic discord between chosen programs of study and future job success is the continual insinuation that colleges are not adequately preparing their graduates for the "afterlife." A recent article in salon.com outlined the pitfalls for those with a liberal arts degree (too esoteric, disconnected, irrelevant, and impractical) while simultaneously supporting its intrinsic value; most significantly suggesting that universities should be taking a more active role in the future of their graduates. In response to these discouraging studies and the bashing of the liberal arts, multiple businesses (ironically under the direction of liberal arts graduates--so they have in fact found some way to make a living), specifically aimed at easing the way for these graduates, have cropped up throughout the country.

The issue of marketability, in reference to academic studies, cannot be ignored. In fact, the direct relationship between college major and median earnings and the growing attraction of the more “practical” fields of study, such as that recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, indicates the urgency of this issue. Engineering, for example, has taken over as the most popular concentration nation-wide, with English (just an example) way down the list. The underlying implication of such data is that a liberal arts education, at the astronomical price of $200,000, might, just possibly, be an official waste of one's time (and money)--leading nowhere.

What all of these studies fail to address and identify is the true significance of the liberal arts education. The original concept of liberal arts study was based on the study of the seven liberal arts by ancient Greeks: grammar, dialectic or logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The goal of this curriculum was to impart general knowledge which would develop the student’s rational thought processes and intellectual capabilities. Carefully excluded were all studies that had anything to do with professionalvocational or technical preparation. According to much contemporary commentary it is this latter omission, the provision of no specific instruction, which leaves college graduates inadequately prepared for the real job world.

My personal experience actually proves that the concentration on what might seem to be esoteric or impractical fields within the liberal arts can, albeit in an "undefined" fashion, actually prepares students for their professional lives. Having been educated precisely in the manner set forth by Plato and Aristotle it took just one fascinating course on 20th century Architecture by larger-than-life Professor William Jordy to forever alter my pre-college plan to become an attorney. Swallowing up the liberal arts concept whole I became an art historian. While liberal arts studies are a natural drawing card for future academics—and indeed many of my childhood friends expanded their study of fields such as Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, Economics and Biology into careers within academia—it is just as relevant for the more “professional” or “practical” fields like law, journalism and business.

Any understanding of the relevance of a liberal arts education, so ostensibly “erudite” as to be considered by some as outdated, entails an acknowledgement of its roots.  From the get-go the American system of higher education, originally modeled after that perfected within esteemed, and in many cases ancient, European institutions, was intended as an "experience:" a four year bubble in which the still developing and maturing young person could develop their thoughts and ideas within a supportive, nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment. For the most part, the farmers of Virginia weren't sending their sons to Harvard to study agrarian science. They understood that the value of a liberal arts education lay not in its curriculum, but rather, in its discourse and rhetoric.

This is precisely why many academics alternatively claim that a liberal arts background can increase a student’s marketability, thereby ensuring his future professional success. USC Professor Robert Harris has beautifully outlined its multiple benefits, specifically mentioning the manner in which it teaches you how to think, improves your perception and, by offering deep knowledge, enhances potential creative thinking. Furthermore, in an article in the Financial Post answering the multiple criticisms of the inability of business schools to prepare its graduates for leadership roles, business entrepreneur Ray B. Williams actually encourages a return to the education developed in classical Greece wherein individuals were, for example, taught to sit down and critically discuss the effectiveness of their rulers. He proposes that this broad, idealistic form of education endowed its students with a wisdom which made them more valuable to their employers in the future.

The combination of this means of teaching with a more directed plan of study, such as that noted in the more professionally-focused system embraced within Israeli higher education, may offer a solution to current cynics. In Israel students begin their studies after 2-3 years mandatory military service and apply directly to a specific course of study. Unlike the typical eighteen year old American beginning his studies, the Israeli student seeks acceptance into a specific degree program, beginning his or her higher education with answers rather than questions.  His undergraduate experience accordingly more closely resembles the American graduate one. While "Liberal Arts" are included amongst the other majors (such as literature, art history, economics and political science) offered in Israeli institutions of higher education, similar to those found in their American counterparts, one can also opt for what Americans would consider "professional" courses of study (such as Law, Dentistry or Medicine) usually reserved for graduate education in the US.

For the most part, courses of study in Israel are heavily focused on the student’s main concentration and include a minimal amount of “tastings.” Although this might seem barbaric to an American audience, I mean where is the hit-or-miss process wherein one makes amazing discoveries within fields one has never heard of (my own experience!), it makes quite a lot of sense for this slightly more mature demographic. Several years older than their American high-school-graduate counterparts, with unique life experience behind them (active military duty or an extended stint contributing to the Israeli public through social service), this population is somewhat better positioned to make concrete decisions regarding what they want to study and eventually do with their lives. Eager to get started, the university experience for them is very much a means to an end. Critics of the seemingly disconnected and irrelevant aspect of liberal arts study might appreciate the middle ground between the two systems: a combination of the "exclusive education for education’s sake" offered within the American one and the more “focused” approach which is the substance of that noted in Israel. Ironically, the latter, suggests the kind of maturity whose acquisition was one of the original goals of the liberal arts curriculum!

While it would be natural to expect a certain decline in interest within the more esoteric concentrations, especially in light of these statistical studies, the state of the economy and recent journalistic attention, that isn’t entirely the case. Indeed, even in Israel, liberal arts-oriented fields are somehow holding their own. Although not as popular as the departments of engineering, international relations, economics and computer science, the "purer" fields are still alive and kicking. The best proof that this next generation values the theory and thought behind the matter is my own sixteen year old son’s choice to study the Philosophy of Science as part of a summer course at an American Ivy League institution. Bypassing many of the courses with a more practical orientation, such as medicine, engineering or law, this product of the nuts-and-bolts Israeli education system opted to acquaint himself with writings on space, time and dimension by the likes of Berkeley and Abbot, Einstein and Van Cleve.

I’m way over my head. I’ve taken on a subject beyond my academic acquaintance and although my words somewhat assuage my own irritation and anxiety about liberal arts-bashing I’m aware that they barely skim the surface. Nevertheless, I’m continually reminded of the significance of the topic. Two few weeks ago I attended a performance of Ballet X—a company known for a repertoire showcasing contemporary choreography quite different, save for its incorporation of classical technique, from that of traditional ballet. The last piece of the evening, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was intended as an exposé on the life of the last castrati, those young boys who sacrificed their manhood for the sake of their art. The work describes these castrati almost as lab rats: laid out for inspection by the audience for whom they perform; depicted under strobe light meant to reveal their oddity more than their artistry. It demands that the audience understand something of 17th century European history, the particular plight of these unfortunates and their sacrifice in the name of art, while simultaneously accepting their own complicity as peeping Toms whose interest has encouraged this atrocity.

Working on this essay at the time, I sat in the dark and wondered, “Where do the synapses required to create this conceptually clever and intensely revelatory dance originate, if not in the rhetoric and discourse espoused by the Ancient Greeks." I’m a confirmed adherent.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sleep as a Choice

Sleep is overrated. Or maybe it's not; maybe it's simply overestimated. Although there isn't a lot more scrumptious than climbing into bed and pulling up the blanket to complete the day, the barrage of print devoted to the harmful effects of not getting enough is superfluous, if not boring. Jane Brody has just devoted a two part series on the subject. In A Good Night’s Sleep Isn’t a Luxury; It’s a Necessity she outlines all of the obvious benefits of a good night's sleep: better health, improved physical appearance, easier ability to maintain proper body weight, increased efficiency at work, elevated mental acuity, healthy state of mind. It's that simple: if you can sleep at least seven hours a night it's all right out there for the picking.

Of course that's in a perfect world, and how many of us live in a perfect world? I was always a decent sleeper, preferring to go to bed early and get up early but usually able to get a good night's rest. My issues with sleep developed with the birth of my first born; convincing this long white spaghetti-strand of a child to close his eyes and settle in was a twice daily, gargantuan chore. My only option was to "Ferberize” him. For those who don't know, Dr. Richard Ferber has written the guide on how to "ease" (love that choice of verb) your children through the night. While I’ll admit that at the height of its usage I called this book the “Bible,” singing its praises for helping me to “break down” my son’s iron will to remain awake, I now understand that my own goals might have been misguided. After all, my objective was based entirely on my own desire to get to that lovely moment at the end of the day, or even indulgently in the middle!, where I could put my feet up on the coffee table and enjoy the “absence” of that constant pitter patter. Wasn't I justified in letting that poor blond thing "cry it out?" But sixteen years down the road my eldest is still amongst the last to go to bed and the first to wake up-- persistently forgoing hours of sleep for the many other things that give him pleasure (triathlon work-outs, reading, American sit-coms, computer games and more reading).

Inattentive to his particularly "alert" temperament and desperately thinking of my own needs (shame on me!) I was trying to force him into the "ideal" sleep pattern encouraged within most literature on the subject. A point in fact is Brody's second recent article which concludes that children are simply not getting enough sleep. There's absolutely no surprise there. In fact, just about every social get-together I've attended over the last few years has eventually rolled around to the subject. Brody's excellent suggestions for assisting our sleep-deprived teenagers include a later start to the school day, the curtailing of late night stimulation (i.e. screen time), the establishment of more "appropriate" (i.e. "realistic") bedtimes and the incorporation of the biological sleep cycle into the school curriculum (if we explain to them why they need to sleep maybe they'll actually do it!)

While this article, with its particularly effective guidelines for frustrated parents, presents a few germane ideas, it joins a bevy of others which miss the point: It is simply fashionable to complain about how long it takes to get our children to sleep! If we can't blame our exhaustion on our children we'll have to look for answers in our own lives! Oh no! Worse yet, solving this common problem would prevent us beleaguered parents from getting all worked-up over the issue and that wouldn't be much fun at all. The proof of our obsession with our children's unwillingness to go to sleep is the excitement over the imminent publication of Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to sleep. The unprecedented amount of attention this book is getting in the press (it's at the top of Amazon's best seller list and hasn't even appeared on the shelves) indicates that the author has hit upon a major bone of contention. Not only are millions of parents desperate to get their children to sleep, or anywhere within spitting distance of their beds, but additionally, they're hinging their own sleep deprivation on this predicament.

The fact is, when push comes to shove, I can't blame my children for the sleep I've lost (although it's pretty darn convenient). Indeed, as they age I have more and more opportunities to hop into bed, whether for an early bedtime or a midday nap on the weekend. But here's the bottom line:  I’ve benefitted so much from those hours not spent snoozing that I've begun to see sleep as a poor option.

When I first moved to Israel in 1992 I was astounded by the number of business establishments that closed between 1-4pm. In Binyamina the shutters went down along the main street, leaving clouds of static dust and a look of the long-abandoned Wild West. Apparently the whole town was going home to take a nap! I soon understood this to be an Israeli/Middle East/ European (how big is that net?) phenomenon. I was amazed: How could a whole country run on a siesta schedule? The biblical admonition "Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you shall be satisfied with bread" (Proverbs 20:13) obviously held little sway in the Holy Land. Over the years I tried to adapt and have, off and on, succeeded in taking advantage of this afternoon shut down, but I'm still not a convert. After all, with air conditioning fairly universal, making the original "heat" excuse no longer tenable, this "daily yawn" is somewhat ludicrous.

For years my husband's participation in this ritual, at any given hour, has irked me to no end. But I've lately come to understand that my resistance is entirely due to choice and has nothing to do with a so-called "Western" inability to wind down! As far as I'm concerned, albeit necessary and delicious, sleep is a terrible waste. With a limited number of hours to each day why would anyone choose to fritter them away sleeping? Take that siesta as example: What a perfect opportunity to catch up on, let's say, reading! Just how many words are lined up next to my bed waiting to be consumed! My children's resistance to sleeping is beginning to make sense. Maybe their desire to keep on ticking, fighting tooth and nail to avoid napping and going to sleep later and later each night, is indicative of their own awareness of how many interesting things the world has to offer! Small cracks in the age-old argument of sleep advocates suggest that they may have gone overboard in their recommendations. Allowing our children to engage with the world for an extra hour or two may actually be reasonable!

When I first joined the local triathlon group I stuck solidly to evening workouts and turned my nose up at the 6am option. I knew exactly where I was going to be at that hour and it was far, far away from any swimming pool! But two and a half years down the road I've been converted—or some might say, broken. While each night I revel in that glorious feeling of lying horizontally beneath the sheets, eyes closed, the imminent loss of consciousness filling my body from tip to toe, I effortlessly shake off the cloak of somnolence when my alarm rings at 5:15am. I burst from the bed like the barely-bridled Secretariat at the starting gate. Although this transformation didn't happen overnight, I’ve gradually become convinced that being outside, at dawn, moving my body, is one of the "greats" and definitely worth the sacrifice.

This doesn't mean that I don't experience those days when it's absolutely painful to leave my cozy down comforter and hurl myself out of the house. After all, I'm still human! And obviously the result of my lifestyle is that by midday I'm tired. Not knock-down fall over tired--but still, tired. After all, although possibly overrated, sleep cannot totally be forgone. Its embrace is incomparably healing: especially when overcoming an illness or suffering from serious deprivation. But in general, despite its overwhelming appeal, I am prepared to forgo those extra "winks." Albeit morose, there is much to Warren Devon's famous saying, "I'll sleep when I die" as the overwhelming physical and emotional gains of that one hour of lost morning sleep always outweigh its loss.

 This isn't about triathlon. It's about choice. With so many people to keep track of, as well as daily household and work demands, grabbing the hour when most of the protagonists are still tucked cozily into their beds makes the most sense for me. And so, with a respectful nod to Ferber and those other sleep schedule advocates, I've come to the conclusion that one should march to the beat of their own drum. Accordingly, when my son pops up at 7am, after too brief of a night's sleep, I will not wrestle him back to bed (difficult at 6 foot in any case); when my husband stays up into the wee hours and then catches up on his sleep with a 6pm power nap, I will respect his biological clock as I respect my own; when my daughter opts to cozy up with her dad and watch some inane late night reality show, obviously leading to a difficult morning wake-up call, I will allow her that luxury; in the end, each to his own. The need to push harder, achieve more and "do it all" cannot be easily extinguished and is beautifully described (in reference to a surging horse) in Job (39:34): "With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet." Sleep is only one prerogative amongst life's offerings.    

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Right of Return

That's it! I'm out of here; or, at least, almost out of here. Last week I stumbled upon the word "exurbs" in Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom.  A quick search (Kindle-enabled) revealed that this apparently well-known term, which I'd never heard of before (mostly because it's primarily used to describe an American phenomenon), pretty well defines where I live. I did a quick search in the dictionary and discovered that "exurb" refers to that area beyond the suburbs; that region that is "beyond the beyond". For those in the know, this is one huge leap beyond Levittown! The term appears repeatedly within American publications from approximately 2003 and describes the new boom created by the loss of population in America's biggest cities and the aging of the inner suburbs. Its origins go back to a book published in 1955 by August Spectorsky titled The Exurbanites. According to Spectorsky, exurbs are "other than" urban areas characterized by prosperous communities with a large percentage of college-educated residents (more than closer-in suburbs) and generally high average incomes. Sitting here in my comfy house, gazing up at the diploma attesting to my own doctorate, I realized that I fit right in. That being said, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I got here!

Why would any super-educated person choose to live so far beyond, well, everything.  The fact that my life had been so neatly defined by what is now considered a well-documented geo-economic group has left me more than a little depressed. To add insult to injury, one of the areas upon which Spectorsky's now fifty year old book was based is that beyond Main Line Philadelphia which I, as a born and bred Center City resident attending a racially and socio-economically mixed school in Germantown, have always disdained. Venturing out to this carefully groomed, ever-green, area as a teenager, for a lacrosse game or a garden party, I would cynically mock its ho-hum boring pace, the overwhelming monotony of color amongst the residents and its remote location--distant from anything and everything. Could it be possible that I had somehow become a Mainliner?--that I was now a full-fledged member of one of the multiple exurbs that satellite major metropolitan areas and are so obviously twice removed from, well, life!!

The fact is: I’m a city girl. Just last week I drove into Tel Aviv to have breakfast with a group of local Caesarea women. Traffic was wretched and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why we couldn't sit down for an omelet and diced cucumber salad somewhere that didn't entail so much time staring at the back of a bus. The significance of my remoteness from bustling city life grew with every creep forward. The sludge of the morning crawl on the sole highway leading to the city weighed on more than my gas tank, creeping into my psyche. Upon arrival we settled ourselves in a pretty café in the city's port. As the conversation at the table moved from one subject to another I looked up and down the boardwalk. There it was: the world. Parading before me was an endless stream of types ranging in age, color and nationality. A typical 10 second glance might include a few people on Segways, obviously on some kind of tour, a 60 year old woman taking an exer-walk, an older man with a fishing rod, a young couple in their twenties holding hands and an assortment of runners between the ages of 25 and 55.

In short, sitting on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, I had found life. Here it was. And soon enough I'd be paying the bill, taking a last sip of my cappuccino and facing whatever traffic lay ahead as I made my way back, gulp, to the exurbs. Talk about being stuck in the middle. Not only was I chronologically right smack in the middle of life but also physically wedged into the middle of the Israeli coastline--halfway between two cities: Haifa (if that counts) and Tel Aviv. I turned to the other women around the table and broached the topic of my "itch" for city life. Half were with me and half had no clue what we were talking about. This latter group was happy to return to the "beyond the beyond" after a quick Mimosa and Israeli breakfast. Those whose kids were virtually out of elementary school, heading to the army, or beyond, and approaching fifty-- in other words: beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel--were with me.

My sister in law recently announced that she and my brother are "this close" to relocating to the city. I am jealous; more than ready to turn in my wheels, give up the ceremony of raised waves to familiar cars passed on our town's one main drag, and the boredom of the same two cafés. When all of my chickens have flown the coop I am out of here! The question of how I ended up an exurbanite (I can't bear to even write the word) isn't all that important. Of greater significance is how the heck I'm going to get out of here!

Any getaway demands careful preparation, including a thorough assessment of what one's escaping--kind of a "know what you're up against" strategy. Accordingly, I consulted the ever-faithful Wisegeek. This source provided three characteristics of "exurbans" which I felt demanded address. First, exurbans specifically choose the isolation and remoteness of the exurbs in order to escape the political and social hotbed of the city. That would explain the extreme sense of boredom and somnolence which cloaks my little town and which I will be happy to escape. Next, exurbans seek smaller and safer refuges from city life where there will be more opportunities for their children to engage in nature.  I'm not exactly sure how to make peace with this assessment since my kids spend a minimal amount of time in the so-called "great outdoors" (especially now, during snake season, when we've got the house sealed up like Fort Knox) and a maximum glued to whatever screen enters their visual perimeter. Last, exurbans are under the assumption that the ex-urban perimeter offers their children better educational opportunities. While I'll refrain from addressing the overall quality of primary and secondary education here in Israel, I am firmly convinced that, unlike inner-city USA, in this country the best opportunities still reside smack in the middle of the three major cities.

In his "Take a Ride to Exurbia," David Brooks claimed that the move from the city, to the suburbs and then onward to the vast sprawling exurbs, was a way of breaking "free of the gravitational pull of the cities" which afforded people the ability to discover "their own world far beyond." That makes a lot of sense to me. Ending up "beyond the beyond" could only be the result of some vast disturbance of the natural law of physics. The problem remaining is how and when to take that one big leap into the vortex and let it draw me back toward the center. In some ways I feel a bit like the Palestinians--desperately claiming their right of return! While my banishment years back was voluntary, and could be rescinded without so much as a blink from any foreign government, the path back to where I belong would require careful negotiation.

How does one pick up an entire life and relocate it, albeit one quick 45 minute ride down the road. The fact is that by the time we've hit "middle" life, several kids up and running, established firmly in one community or another, it becomes all the more complicated to unpeel everyone from their present digs/life and move them elsewhere. Ironically enough the only consideration that doesn't come into play is work. A move to the city is almost always an economically better option; just how many hours does my husband spend jammed amongst other frustrated drivers on the highway--and my own work is entirely portable and might actually benefit from an audience bigger than a pea. But relocating will require my children to switch schools (or maybe not if I wait just a few more years); me to find a new triathlon group (unthinkable! But then again the statute of limitations on that hang-up will expire soon enough as I, a-hem, age); and a bit more effort to maintain my small, but select, group of friends (most of whom I presently engage with on the telephone or through the internet). Maybe this move isn't as complicated as I imagined! It certainly didn't seem to be for my parents who, in their mid-forties, moved us back to the city after 10 years in the, shhhhhhhh!, exurbs.

That settles it. The reality of my present "exurban" life is more than I can handle. It's time to escape Siberia. With my exit strategy nearly in place, there remains only one fly in the ointment: the question of relocation. Why stop at Tel Aviv when Philadelphia is just one hop, skip and jump away? Obviously this hurdle will take time to cross. In the meantime I'll enjoy another smashing coastal sunset, right in my backyard, and, like Scarlett, "think about that tomorrow." 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Art of Mothering

It's Mother's Day and I want to write about my mother. Endlessly devoted, never wavering, steadfast in her efforts to support my brother’s and my every project and share our successes with the world, my mother is definitely up there with the best. I've known this since I was a child and feel it twice over as an adult. I'm not saying she's perfect. I don't know any perfect mothers. I am definitely not one and I'm pretty sure that hers was not one. Mothering is an art that needs constant attention, adjustment and tweaking. I don't know one mother who thinks they have it "down pat". Along with the multitude of challenges that come with the job is the need to change and adapt as we, and our children, grow. Although my own mother is mother to an adult, and accordingly no longer needs to parent, she still serves as a major, and I want to add excellent, role model.
Growing up it was obvious that my mother liked to plan. I used to find her daily to-do lists, itemizing exactly what needed to get done before the sun went down, around the house. She always got an early start, and still does. There's so much to do! She always included some form of physical exercise (a bike ride, a row in the Schuylkill, a brisk walk, a game of tennis) and still does. She always worked-in time to read a chapter in at least one book, and sometimes two, to make whatever phone calls were needed to keep the house running, and scheduled cherished time to put together dinner for whoever was home. Although as a child I used to find these lists daunting, amazed at her daily aspirations, as an adult they garner respect. For my mother, then and now, each day is full to brimming and, as far as I can tell, she closes her eyes at night knowing exactly how much she has accomplished and what's coming up the next!
Recently my mother was put to a test. Her ability to plan every moment, to anticipate every next step, was washed away. A situation arose which entailed an enormous amount of flexibility. "Go with the flow" was going to have to be the new mode and I wasn't entirely sure how she was going to handle that.
As most mothers learn to do, mine has quickly adapted and risen to the occasion. Pouring endless energy into something which she wanted no part of and never asked to have in her life, my mother is proving tenacious, unfaltering and dedicated. Her strength, which I have admired from afar my whole life, is shining through. She's only at the beginning of something very unwanted that's been shoved onto her plate, but I am certain she will handle this exactly as she has handled everything else: with determination, fortitude and unfailing love.
My mother's performance on a new battlefield has inspired me, setting the bar for how I want to mother when my children mature into adulthood. Although I’ve also become a list maker, I have never subscribed to her method of daily scheduling. In fact most of my lists get lost in the ragged shuffle of my life and I usually move on to a new one before completing the items on the last. Nevertheless, I've recently discovered that her seemingly simple routine may offer a solution to some of the challenges I’m presently facing as mother to three adolescent children. Last Fall I stumbled over an article that, by introducing its own to-do list, goes a long way toward easing the bumps of parenting teenagers. In "What Do You Tell Your Teen Every Night? 15 Things Every Parent Should Tell Their Teen," psychotherapist Dr. Mary Jo Rapini doesn't give her opinion on the role of the parent in the age of technology, the methodology of parenting or, heaven help us, the dichotomy between Western and Chinese forms of mothering; instead she offers an itemized list reminiscent of those I've seen my mother prepare, check over and actually complete, for decades. 
Rapini's nighttime checklist of things you should say to your teen, including items such as "My job is not to be your buddy, I am your parent; It is okay to mess up, I do it all the time; and I am sorry you don't like my rules, but you will have to abide by them," not only satisfies a natural desire for checks and balances but, even more significantly, reminds us of what we might be forgetting. Sometimes watching our grown children lope through the house, a foot taller than us and one step away from walking out the door, we forget that they still need our love and direction. Rapini's list offers a way to step in, do our work and get the job done.
Sometimes simple steps go a long way. My mother still makes lists, today’s containing certain things she could live without right alongside her favorites, and her daily accomplishments show the results of direction, focus and determination. The fact remains that whether actively parenting, or serving as role model, our responsibility as mothers is both essential and infinite. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, "God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers." On this particular mother's day I want to pay tribute to my own. There are a lot of great mothers, and she is one of them.