Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tossing the Coin: School vs. Fun?

Last week I happened upon an article about excessive demands and burnout. Although primarily focused on the workplace, I wondered if this assessment might be extended to other venues such as, say, school. This would definitely explain the local fad of taking children out of school to give them a "day off." Just to be clear, I don't mean for doctor's appointments or because they're not feeling well or for those special occasions when a relative is visiting from abroad but rather, to give junior a day to lay on the couch, eat bonbons, watch television and basically, recuperate.
I'd like a show of hands. How many parents think that their children are deserving of a "day off" every now and then? If I were to pose this question to my friends back in the U.S. of A. it would surely garner a kind of twisted, cynical "Are you kidding me?"-look leaving no room for interpretation. Just try to find a comic satirizing parents actually running away from school with their children instead of shoving them back inside! Yet here in my adopted neighborhood there are a fair number of parents that think otherwise!                           
Having rarely missed a day of school, let alone been allowed to stay home to "hang," I've tried to familiarize myself with the fundamental reasoning behind what I consider to be a positively inane practice. Here's what I've come up with: Kids are being given a "day off," commonly known as a "fun day" in the local jargon, because they've "earned it." Apparently, certain parents feel that the arduous and exhausting experience of attending school every day demands more of a recovery than the natural one that comes at the end of every week (otherwise known as the weekend) and those that come in the form of vacation days.
I did a quick calculation: Here in Israel kids have approximately 180 days off for roaming and such. Despite this inordinate margin for freedom (50 percent of the year??) a fair number of local parents regularly whisk their little darlings away from school. I suppose, in light of all the burnout noted in the press, there simply isn't enough time for "fun." Whether aged eighteen or six (even kindergartners tire of building block towers and digging plastic figures out of the sand box) children need to be "relieved" from a tiresome day at school (and all of those demands that go along with it) and offered alternative, more enjoyable, and relaxing activities such as surfing, bowling, go-carting, fishing, shopping and/or lunch with mommy.
My poor, deprived, and obviously quite envious children have never been given a "day off" let alone anything as frivolous as a "fun day" and with only a few more years of secondary education remaining in this household I can guarantee that there is absolutely no chance they'll get one. Maybe I'm just a little too square—or a lot. A look at the by-laws in other Western countries (primarily the UK and USA), as well as posted by the Israeli education ministry, reveals no inclusion of a "fun day" among the acceptable reasons to miss school. Valid reasons include quarantine, illness, and recovery from accident; required court attendance and death in family. There is one clause on educational tours and trips which could be bent to fit the scope of some of these "outings" but I'm fairly certain they aren't intended to include breakfast with mom at a café in Tel Aviv. I suppose the story would be quite different if, as in the United Kingdom, absence of school were considered against the law--offending parents fined for each infraction! It's actually quite amusing to consider how such a fine would go over here in the Middle East where a school's ability to collect annual fees is even problematic.

For the record, there was a time when I anticipated that days in the Israeli public school system would be inconsequential, unnecessary and easily skipped—a long metaphorical climb down from the ivory tower of education I knew growing up in private American institutions. I've come to understand otherwise. Fifteen years experience as a parent here and I'm continually impressed by what I expected to be a far less inspiring, entirely mediocre experience. At this point I'm even willing to admit that my children are actually being educated. I wouldn't dream of withdrawing them from school now and then to give them a break because I think that sticking it out, exactly when they don't feel like it, is part of the reason they go in the first place! In fact, I can't imagine anything more important than encouraging them to learn to cope with demands, difficulty, and effort. Would it be too much to suggest that parents take one step back and stop trying to save their children from living in a world of expectations? It's not terribly difficult to figure out that when roles are blurred, boundaries smudged and limits compromised everyday life becomes that much more difficult to negotiate.

But maybe I've missed an even deeper issue here—one which actually explains what otherwise makes no sense. The answer might just lay in the question: "Who are these days actually fun for?" Perhaps they're more about amusing and relieving the parents' humdrum lives and very little about "saving" the children. Although a mid day tête-à-tête certainly has its appeal, and might very well alleviate my own inertia, I'm pretty much unwilling to give up the pleasure of an empty house. That being said, far be it from me to ruin someone else's idea of fun. Another quick calculation provides the comforting fact that even in the longest-day scenario an astronomical 70% of each day (that's 17 hours) is still available for parental design. Imagine the possibilities and yes, let the fun begin!

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Clunk. There's a sharp thud. The chassis of the car has smacked hard against the raised concrete speed bump on the road. It occurs to me in a flash: Forest Gump had it all wrong. Life isn't like a box of chocolates. Life actually isn't "like" anything. Life is one speed bump after another and how we negotiate this endless series of bumps completely determines its manner and course.

So, back to the speed bump:  There are two ways to drive over a speed bump. One can slow down, almost to a stop, essentially "easing" over the bump so that one barely feels it or, alternatively, accelerate into it, assuming that speed will lift the car into the air Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style, and nary a bump will be felt. (Oh, and there's also the non-confrontational manner of avoiding the bump entirely by veering slightly off the road. Since that doesn't really count as "coping" I've discounted it here.) A recent discussion with my son over the preferred course of action, held while careening along in his rickety 14 year old Ford Fiesta, (this type of subject matter is par for the course during our outings,) prompted my realization that the manner one chooses, slow or fast, is an excellent metaphor for one's approach to daily challenges. In the end, it leaves no middle mode, no way to just slither through, to feel one's way. You either go for it or you don't. The speed bump as a metaphor—I love it!
Of course there are bumps, and there are bumps. This metaphor doesn't extend to disease and death but rather, those ostensibly benign challenges that can be real thorns in one's side. For example, some months back I developed a problem with my right foot which has forced me to stop running. This is no small issue for this admittedly fanatical runner. Having invested quite a few years in this inane activity this has been nothing less than devastating. Every day I drive along the road and hiss at the runners happily jogging along. How come they get to run while I can't!

I have been, proverbially, "benched!" Years ago, while studying in Ann Arbor, I was quite jealous of my friends back on the East Coast. How had I choose to bury myself (quite literally in the winter) in the Mid West when there was obviously a whole lot of fun and actually, "life", going on back East. A friend of mine put it succinctly: living in the Mid West is very much like being made to sit on the bench in a baseball game. The whole team is on the field. The whole team is busy getting on with it, playing the game, while a few poor souls are stuck sitting on the bench--just watching and waiting. Harbach's The Art of Fielding, which I read while planted on my stationary bicycle since, yep, I can no longer run, confirmed that there is simply no worse punishment.

The most pathetic part is that it has dawned on me that being benched, sitting on the sidelines while everyone else is up and on the move, is kind of my present modus operandi. It extends far beyond my foot injury and well into my personal/professional life. I have the sense, daily, that everyone else is moving forward, advancing, actually going somewhere, whereas I'm stuck, and if not entirely stuck--because I refuse to be entirely stuck--essentially sidelined.  What an awful word!! It suggests other unpleasant adjectives such as dried-up, useless, wrinkled, unimportant and past one's prime. To make matters worse it's part and parcel of that ugly mantra running through my head: "Malaise! Malaise! Middle-aged Malaise!" (Obviously reading Alice Munro's last collection of short stories wasn't a good move. In fact, I think it almost pushed me right over the edge with all that gravel leading absolutely no where at all.)

In some ways I feel that there's no point in even trying to get back into the game—it might be wiser to just raise my hands in defeat and call it a day. Seriously…I mean that would probably be the easiest option…kind of like easing oneself over that speed bump. Yet maybe, just maybe, this malaise, another obstacle that must be forged in order to get to the other side, demands another approach. And ironically, I've come to this conclusion precisely because I've been sidelined. Having another perspective, an opportunity to watch that "parade" we know as life where everyone's so busy being in the thick of things, desperately advancing with their minds tick-tick ticking, has actually instigated my enlightenment. 

In a nutshell, being stuck has allowed me the opportunity to realize that this "period" really is just one among many. Life really does boil down to how we negotiate each obstacle, one by one, because they're simply not going to stop popping up and getting in our way. Exactly how we get over, beyond and to the other side, since hovering for too long isn't an option, is what it's all about. It's time, indeed well beyond time, to take one giant step forward—or rather—put the pedal to the medal. That's it. I think I've got it. I'll try it out first and let you know how it goes. Vroom.