Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Commencement address, 2011; a speech that practically wrote itself

This past weekend I went to my first real American-style commencement ever. It was pompous and very American, as expected, although they never played Pomp and Circumstance. I sang the Lebanese national anthem, Khallina Nimshi, and the AUB Alma Mater with the choir. Commencement was also very Lebanese and/or Middle Eastern. Along with the 1800+ graduating students, five of the six honorary doctorates accepted their degrees and held speeches. The President held a speech, as did a student representative. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “Arab Spring” mentioned quite so many times in such a short period of time. I understand that a speech at a commencement at a time and place like this can only go one way, but really; we heard pretty much the exact same speech given by seven different people with very little variation, and it got a little… tiresome. It’s as if someone had given them all a sheet of paper with the following key terms to be used in their speech:
  • Young graduates
  • Arab Spring
  • Human rights and dignity
  • Voice of the people
  • Middle East
  • Responsibility
  • Fingerprints and Future in any possible combination

In all fairness though, the speakers had no choice: this is the speech you have to give at commencement 2011. There’s a lot of potential among those graduating students, and the Arab Spring has opened up roads and possibilities in the Middle East that we are just starting to get a glance of. For the first time in our history, these young people can walk out into a world where human rights and dignity are real components, and the voice of the people rings out loud and clear: this is our time. The young graduates of the class of 2011 have an obligation, a responsibility to make the best of it, and to leave their fingerprints in a changing world for future generations to come. The speakers all expressed this, only much more eloquent than I do here.

One of the best commencement speeches I’ve ever heard was one given by Garrison Keillor on a Prairie Home Companion. I found this somewhere on the web:

A graduation speech by Garrison Keillor
It's an honor to be with so many smart people and their parents, and congratulations to you on your good work. I had a child in this school years ago and I remember how she went to her room after supper and stayed there for hours doing homework, until I regretted sending her to such a good school, since it meant that I saw so little of her. I enjoyed my daughter's company, she is a bright and funny person. She is irreverent and I enjoy that. I discovered too late that giving her a good education was not in my best interest. Now she lives in London and we exchange e-mail but I miss her. I know people whose children did not get a good education and the children still are living at home into their early thirties and are a comfort and a help to their parents. That's an option I wish I had considered.
It's a cruel moment, graduation.
The relationship between children and parents is an animal relationship, unlike normal social relationships: you start out with absolute intimacy and you move toward becoming strangers and if necessary toward a state of hostility, and it's painful, but that's the way nature wants it. Nature is single-minded, it's cruel, it's only interested in the survival of the species, and nature wants to get you out of our clutches and out on your own so you can be independent, think for yourself, know who you are, and be able to raise your own children and continue the species. But it's painful for us parents to let go of you.
Being a parent is a messy business. You stumble into it by accident and you're ill prepared and you read books that aren't very helpful and you're filled with anxiety every day of your life. The life of a parent is a life of constant silent prayer. And then suddenly its over, and when we lose you, we have no further usefulness in nature's scheme of things. Nature isn't interested in our golden years --- we had you, and that's our contribution to the survival of the species --- and now nature would be glad if we got out of the way. Our longevity serves no natural purpose. We go on and on, but as far as nature is concerned, we're only taking up space. You were our main work, and now that it's done, we may as well take the long walk out across the frozen tundra. It's in our interest to cripple you in some way that will make you need us.
Today I need to speak either for the parents or for the children, I can't speak for both. And since the children invited me, I'll speak for them.
Nature wants you to get free, because it's important for survival that you have your own experience and that you learn from it. Experiences that are arranged and provided by us aren't as good. It's an age of information, and most of the information you will get is either untrue, irrelevant, or trivial. You need to have your own experience in order to be able to weigh what you hear. So you need to have the experience of being out of touch with us --- going someplace and not telling us where so that if we needed to reach you, we couldn't --- a good experience. You need to have secrets. You need to go off with your own friends and make fun of us. This is important. Any person your age who cannot do a good imitation of your father when he is angry or your mother when she gives you fashion advice --- if you can't satirize your parents by now, it's time to learn.
Nature does not want you to absorb too many of our mistakes. Your parents are part of the generation of boomers that frankly is not a shining example of idealism and purpose. Its mistakes are out there for the world to see: its greed, its narcissism, its utter absorption with itself and its own emotional life and its pitiful attempts to find its identity and express itself, this generation of aging children for whom the TV sitcom was a defining experience. These people have nothing to teach you. Ditch them. They fed you, encouraged you to walk and talk and to read and maybe they have shown you a few things to admire and emulate, and they have amused you. And nature doesn't want you to learn any more from them. You can be close to them and kind to them and love them, but you don't need to agree with them or even take them that seriously if you don't want to.
I imagine life will take you off to strange places, and lucky you, but I do think you were lucky to be from the Midwest. This is a culture that teaches you good basic things. To be competent and useful. Not to be an arrogant blowhard who's all gas and no flame. To be helpful. Don't pass by people in trouble and pretend you don't see them. To be mannerly. To be cheerful. To avoid self-pity. Winter is not a personal experience; everyone else is as cold as you are; so don't complain about it too much.
But the Midwest can't teach you everything, and it is not good about teaching you to be an individual. This culture that you grew up in prizes mediocrity and conformity. It is not happy about people who think independently and say so.
You need to get free of your parents, and become their equals, and if they are good and kind and understanding and loving parents who can't do enough for you, you need desperately to get free of them. Good parents can be the hardest to get rid of.
You have to be independent if you want to be somebody and have a real life. You've pleased your teachers and your parents, and now you have to do something harder, which is to please yourself and to do things that you in your heart know to be right and that you're proud of.
You have to be independent because it's your own opinion of yourself that matters now. Scores don't matter that much. Prizes don't matter. You're all above average, but so what? This is not a nation of great intellects. According to one survey, about half of the American people cannot tell you how long it takes the earth to make one revolution around the sun. Most Americans can't speak English very well. They, like, go, like, "Huh?" y'know, and you go, like, "You know," and they, like, go, "Oh." So if you can write a term paper, you're way above the average, but don't be too proud of it.
Be better than you need to be. If you're coasting along on your personal charm and your sweet smile, learn how to be honest. Learn to look people in the eye and tell them what you think. This will come in handy someday. If you're fearful, master your fear so that you don't have to think about it. Afraid of the water: jump in. Afraid of people, what they might think of you: go talk to them. Afraid of making mistakes, afraid of looking foolish: learn a foreign language and speak it with people for whom it ain't foreign. It's an education in itself.
To be your own person, you need good friends. Friends are the treasure of your life. They may turn out to be your real family. So learn to be a friend. You'll lose a lot of them in the course of things, but try to hang onto the people you've shared your secrets with and who've known you at your worst moments and who you never need to feel embarrassed in front of. Don't be careless with these people. Make friends. Extend yourself to people you care about. And be kind to your enemies: they might become the best friends you'll ever have. Friendship can cross every boundary: I truly believe that. No matter what lines you draw, dividing people into male and female, northern and southern, liberal and conservative, right or left wing, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or agnostic, rich or poor, friendship can cross all of those lines. Don't be so glib or so smartass or so passive or so cruel or just so busy that you go along and don't make those intense sweet connections with people, and find that intimacy that we all need, to be known by another person. Don't forget to be a friend.
And when you have friends, then you have someone to tell your story to, and that is how you finally and absolutely get free of us. This is the ultimate power you have over us. It's your account that's going to last longer.
It's easy to have an opinion, it's hard to tell a story: to be able to look at things and describe them accurately; to describe action, chronologically, in a way that conveys the reality of experience to another person. You were there during your childhood. You saw us and the clumsy things we did and the terrible dumb things we said--- you saw what happened ---- and now it's your story to tell and we can't tell you what to say. But if you can tell that story truthfully and with humor and with a little forgiveness, then you're on your own.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Greece on my mind

I don't usually write about news, but on my mind today is Greece. I've been to Greece many times, and love it. Now, I'm not an economist or a politician, but as a responsible citizen I can't help but wonder, with their million dollar tourism industry, wine production and other resources, how in the world could they get themselves into such a mess

A lot of Europeans, especially from the Nordic countries, consider Greece to be the messed up member of the European Union family: Greece is the brother who continuously gets into trouble, is too lazy to work, and uses public and private fund credit cards without being able to pay for them. Greece is the sister who goes on strike stays up partying all night when instead she should be out working and paying taxes looking for a job or studying. Greece is the brother you have to use your hard-earned money to bail out of bankruptcy jail. You want to not have to pick up the mess after your brother time and time again, but you also can’t just stand by and watch him go down, because, well, he’s a member of you union family, and not some African country stranger.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Questions a mother must be prepared to answer...

Some things I got asked today:

Mama, have you seen this guy’s head? (Uh... No.)
Mama, what exactly *is* a mental breakdown? (Which movie is he getting this from?)
Mama, what’s masturbate? (Oh, God.)
Mama, how do they determine how big steps should be? (asked while walking down the AUB steps)
Mama, do you have an old pillowcase I could use for a sewing project? (What?!)
Mama, how do I move the staircase? Do I have to put a spell on the painting? (some kind of computer game)
Mama, could you come here quickly? And bring a lot of towels and a band-aid? (Hmm…)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sidewalk manners: a person's a person, no matter how small!

We were walking to campus, when a man just ran straight into Abraham. Bam! If I had not been holding him, he would have flown backwards and hit his head, but instead now his cheek got slapped and he stumbled. The man slowed down a bit and mumbled some sort of apology, but then kept on walking, without so much as even having really looked at Abraham. "How rude," I thought, "a child is a person who deserves respect, just like anyone else."

When I looked down big tears were streaming down Abraham’s cheeks, and half his face was all flushed and red. I don’t think he had got terribly hurt but was obviously very scared and freaked out.

Abraham is not very tall, and so if somebody is walking down the street only looking absolutely straight in front of them they might not see him. They would still see me though, and along with that notice that I am holding on to something with my stretched out hand. If the person then lowers his/her gaze a little, they will notice a little person walking next to me. And you can’t walk down the street in Beirut just looking straight in front of you, anyways, because there are so many other people, potholes, objects and whatnots all over the place, and oh, children. Hello!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Another visit to the ER - cat attack

Our second ER run (read about our first ER visit in Beirut here) here in Beirut was prompted by Abraham’s introduction to the moods of an AUB campus cat.

We were at the playground when a pregnant cat came up and started walking around my legs, obviously looking for attention. Abraham got curious and started following the cat around. She didn’t seem to really care, so although I kept reminding him not to touch her, I didn’t remove him or make the cat leave. Next thing I know I hear the cat scream and hiss, and then Abraham scream. When he came towards me he had a bite mark on one arm, and his fingers were scratched up on his other hand. I treated his wounds immediately with iodine and Neosporin, however remembering that Abraham’s tetanus booster was way past overdue (between moves and paperwork and settling in and all that, taking Abraham for a check-up and shots was one of those things still on my list of things to do), I decided to take him to the ER on our way home, just in case.

We didn’t have to wait. A pediatrician looked at his injuries and a surgical student cleaned everything again. I was told tetanus was not really a concern, but that we should go to the clinic the next day with Abraham’s vaccination card to get everything up to date. The doctor proscribed antibiotics that I could give him if anything should get infected.

The next day we went to the AUB infirmary, and Abraham got his boosters. His cuts were already healing.

The lesson here? Don’t put things off? I would have saved myself a lot of worries if I had just kept up with the shots. Oh, and don’t bother pregnant cats!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Our day of no rest

We had no plans or obligations today, and on paper today looked like a lazy Sunday, however our day turned into one of those days where you decide to do all kinds of things because you don’t have any plans. So we watched a show this morning, had a big brunch with bacon and eggs, and I read lots of stories to the boys. Then we packed up and walked down to the AUB beach where we had a long swim. Or the boys did, while I followed Abraham around in the pool and burned my back, again. After showers and a brisk walk home I made spaghetti Bolognese for an early dinner, and then we did a big tidying of the house (which included going through some drawers and a closet) and a couple of loads of laundry, along with a few games. To celebrate Father’s Day I then proceeded to bake a blueberry pie and made fresh vanilla sauce from scratch to go with it, while the boys worked on their cards for their papa. After a nice family feast I sat down with my book - I’m reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – but it wasn’t long before it was time to put Abraham to bed, get the older boys in bed, and help Courtney get some things ready for tomorrow.

Now that I’m finally sitting down to check my mail and catch up on news online, I’m exhausted. And I’m remembering why I had left this day empty: tomorrow Courtney starts teaching his summer courses, which means he’ll be going into work every day for the next seven weeks. For those of you with normal jobs this may not sound hard, but because we are not used to it, I know it will take some adjustment. Also, there are a lot of things going on over the next couple weeks; parties, commencement, conference, etc. and although mainly fun, it will be tiresome. So I had made today a lazy Sunday for us to be well rested when things take off.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Life with a two-year old...

William asked me the other day about my age preference when it comes to children. “What is your favorite age, mama?” I didn’t really feel qualified to answer the question, since my children are all still pretty young, and I haven’t seen the full spectrum yet. I told him though, that I could tell him what the most challenging age is, as far as my experience goes; from the time children start walking well, until about 3 ½ years, at which point they seem to gain some independence and most important, sense.

1 ½-3 ½ years is a great age because you really get to watch a little person form, but because the child has the physical ability to do many things, unmatched by little mental ability to control or understand all the exciting things around him/her, adult supervision is required at all times. It is therefore challenging mainly in the physical sense, as in they are extremely active, all the time, getting into things they shouldn’t exploring everything - you always have to be there, watching them, and every time you look away for a moment, they get into something or do something that takes a lot of time and effort to handle.

Take this morning for example.

Abraham is currently at the stage where he 1/ is able to take his clothes and diaper off (but can’t put them back on), 2/enjoys being naked, a lot, but 3/ is not yet potty-trained. This means that while we’re in the house, I constantly have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t take his diaper off, and if when he does, monitor him for signs of needing to go. It also means that if I look away at the wrong moment, I end up having to change the boys’ sheets or wipe pee off the floor in the playroom.

This morning, I left the living room to get some more tea in the kitchen. Abraham was playing naked, very nicely, on his slide. The older boys were around but not exactly paying attention to him, because he was having so much fun playing by himself. (Two-year olds can be deceptive like that too - they -act- like it would do no harm to leave them alone for a moment.) When I came back, tea in hand, Abraham held up his poop-covered hands to me, his body smeared, with a happy smile, gesturing to what used to be two turds on the carpet, but now looked like two turds that someone had stepped in and then tried to wipe off all over the carpet, and said “Aimie-ham went POOP! Mama!!” with a proud voice.

Sigh. I’m going to need more tea.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Another move coming up!

When we arrived in Lebanon last year we were disappointed not to get to live on campus. Not only would it have been so much more convenient for home schooling-, social- and other purposes, but it would also have been a so much better deal for us economically. There were no free apartments for us however, and over this past academic year we have gone from having been told that we probably could get an on-campus apartment next year, to we shouldn’t count on it and even finding out that we’ve been passed over, to desperate lobbying attempts for our family’s situation – without any immediate resolution. I was starting to feel quite negative about the matter. Last week I made one final attempt to find out what our housing situation would look like next year, and lo and behold, we got word that indeed a three bedroom apartment has been reserved for us to occupy as of mid-September.

What a relief, and how wonderful!

Our monthly costs will effectively go down to where we might actually be able to manage on our salary. We’ll be living next to the playground, and I can send the boys out to play. We'll be close to the sports center. We’ll have neighbors that are families with whom we can socialize. We'll have a phone. And these are only a few of the advantages!

Of course, this means we will have to move come September, and moving is not one of my favorite things to do – it’s especially hard with the little people “helping.” Also, I will miss living so close to the grocery store, and shopping will definitely pose a new challenge. These are all things we’ll be able to figure out, however, and once we’re settled, life here in Beirut will become a lot easier – I know it.

I am so excited!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IRS, my friend, I sent you a letter!

Because we are living over-seas, we get a two-month automatic extension on our tax return. This is nice, because getting all the papers we need from all over the world takes time. This year I had everything I needed a whole week before our return was due. I put everything together over the weekend, and Courtney took the envelope to the post office on Monday to mail to the US. Goodness knows how long it will take before it gets there, but at least it’s post marked before the deadline, 15 June.

As every year, we’ve over-paid and will get a bit of money back, and this year, which has been so hard on us economically, it was especially pleasant to realize. Another few dollars to put a distance between us and debt.

Did you get a check from the IRS this year as well? What will you spend it on?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Full-time, full-time, full-time = full-time?

Pheuw. The past ten days or so have been something! Although it has been fun to work, it has been hard to combine my new assignments with two other time-consuming events that occur every year around this time: the university exam period and the last homestretch of schoolwork before summer break. Add to that the opening of the beach and the fact that Abraham is at a very difficult stage developmentally, and you have a recipe for – if not disaster, then at least – difficulty. To survive, we did what we had to do. We rented some all-right educational DVDs along with a couple of “carrots,” and instituted some extra hours of screen time every day. We also included a lot of play time, and Abraham was not kept from his day-time naps (something we’ve tried to avoid lately as it totally destroys our evenings). Healthy, balanced meals were replaced by “easy and quick,” and for one night and one day, mama was “off limits,” meaning I could not be disturbed unless there was an emergency. Do you think that worked? [Listen to the irony in that question.] He, he. Not a chance!

Fact: I got the job done.

Fact: It was really, really hard. Not the job itself, but the circumstances, and I fear that the quality of my work suffered because of it all. In fact, the whole thing made me wonder if it’s really possible for me to work while teaching full-time, AND being a full-time stay-at-home mom AND supporting my husband’s work AND being a person at the same time.

However, this is not a time for wondering. I need to work because we need the income, and if I need more time or effort put into it, then that simply has to take priority, one way or another. I know there must be other homeschooling families out there that deal with this kind of question already, and in between assignments, I’m trying to find inspiration, and to figure out ways to solve our problem in a more efficient way. How do you juggle all your duties? What does your day look like?

Challenge: How many words a minute can YOU translate and type with a child at your breast?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Swimming in the Med...

The boys have spent most of their "after-school" under water these past couple of weeks. I've been wanting to get a picture of everyone at the beach, but it's hard when all I see of the older boys is their snorkel tubes sticking out of the water, and when I constantly have to prevent Abraham from drowning by pulling his head out of the pool. Here are a couple I manged to snap, however, between events.


Monday, June 6, 2011

I got a job!

Following a call for work sent out to family, acquaintances and friends, thanks to a friend in Cairo, I started receiving some really great translating free-lance jobs last week, and have reclaimed my role as a working mother. It’s not entirely without complications of course, as this means an adjustment for everyone, however we are all happy and able to make changes to our day-to-day-life in order to improve our living conditions.

Although linguistically the jobs I get are easy, I have been spending a lot of time trying to learn how to use Trados, the program I need to do the translations with. And I mean a lot. I’m good at this kind of stuff and never had trouble working with new software before, but this one is a little different, and getting started hasn’t been as easy as it may look. One of the problems is that the user guide sucks. If we had a sufficient internet connection I would watch an on-line tutorial or something like that, or try to find an alternative instruction manual, but instead now I’m stuck trying to follow the user guide that comes with the program. I always thought of myself as a patient, calm person, but whenever I sit down and try to start my work a wave of irritation and frustration comes over me, and I imagine a giant wall standing between me and my translation job. I think I feel this way because of time pressure - with all that’s going on right now I have time to do the translation work, but I don't really have time to sit down and slowly learn an entire software. Instead I try to set everything up quickly so I can get to the work without a thorough learning session, mess up, get frustrated, search through the user guide for what I might have done wrong, start over, and mess up again. Sigh. Just writing about it makes me stressed.

The good news is though that once I’ve got the translation going, it’s easy, fairly fast and fun. And I know that eventually Trados and I will come to terms with each other. I think I might have missed working a bit. I mean working for money on things that I normally wouldn’t think about working on by myself. Because I’m almost always working, just not for money, and when I want to do something academic or professional, I choose that something entirely by myself, usually on a topic within my comfort zone. Now I get paid and I get to do new, interesting things.

Speaking of which… After a big cooked breakfast, morning exercise, two loads of laundry, a morning filled with school work (Math, English and Science), home-made pizza for lunch, a few hours on the beach with a big snorkeling excursion, showers all around, taco dinner, and a big clean-up, the boys are now sitting happy in front of Tangled, and - it’s time for me to get to work.