Walk and learn

Years ago when I was still living in Virginia, my Argentine brother-in-law came to visit. Not crossing a single person as we toured the neighborhood, he insisted everyone must be on vacation. More recently, I walked about 20 blocks on a sunny spring Saturday in Denver, pop. 700,000. The only other people on foot were walking their dogs. I saw a yard sale of the accumulated excess of one house that would have filled three in most other countries. Despite the perfectly manicured yards, crack-less sidewalks and nice weather, this was not a pleasant walk. Not having a car, I felt exposed, somehow lesser, the dog-walkers looking at me curiously, like ‘Did you lose your dog?’ As I strolled past dozens of empty front porches behind fragrant rows of lavender, I knew exactly what my brother-in-law was talking about. It’s like no one is really there.

My feelings about walking are not a commentary on the need for more exercise, or the obesity problem or even the act of walking per se. There is a bigger picture here that I fear is hard to see from inside the frame. It’s about what we’re missing by not walking; and what we’re losing along the way: our ability to coexist. And hey, I know there are exceptions, neighborhoods of neighborly people where they do ‘front-porch Fridays.’ I once lived in one of those places. The very same one that shocked my brother-in-law, which I fervently defended at the time as a unique community of friendly neighbors who made good use of its sidewalks. I could not see it through his eyes used to people walking from corner vegetable stands, kiosks, shoe repair shops to butchers, hardwares, etc. on every block. And of course there are a few truly urban US cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, where people walk regularly to do their shopping, buy the paper, take the cat to the vet, get where they’re going. But in the vast majority of US cities, towns and neighborhoods, they don’t.

It is the sense of oddity, even suspicion, surrounding the act of walking in these places that concerns me. My husband, walking home from the library at dusk in small-town USA, his satchel of books over his shoulder, was once harassed by two guys in a pick-up, ‘Hey, faggot, get a car!’ A police car flashed its siren and pulled up to stop a friend’s father on a stroll through a Dallas suburb, ‘Sir, is there a problem?’ Another friend describes a guy she recently met in LA: ‘He’s great in every way, except he doesn’t have a car, which is just weird.’ Just last year, two siblings walking home from a playground two blocks from their home in Silver Springs, Maryland were picked up by the police; their parents were accused of negligence and social services called in. Incidents like these are beyond baffling to people from just about anywhere else in the world. Because in any city of any size in Europe, Latin America, Asia, wherever, walking is a natural part of life for everyone. The exercise is just a fringe benefit. Of course people in all of these places also take public transportation, bike and some even drive. But there is no stigma attached to one form of getting around as opposed to another. How people move around is not a measure of social hierarchy.

In the US, however, car culture is pervasive to the point of rendering all other means of transportation somehow inferior, with walking being the lowliest form. Who walks? Poor people, black people, homeless people. Foreigners. Or the fools who suffer big, crowded cities and surely long to move someplace where they can drive and never worry about finding a parking place, right? The lone walker, unless clearly dressed in expensive athletic gear, or attached to a dog, is cause for alarm. Because why would you? There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Madmen, set in the early sixties, where the women are gossiping about a new divorcee in the neighborhood. They fixate on the fact that she’s always walking. Where is she going? Why is she always walking? As a measure of social norms way back then, the scene gives some sense of the historical dimension of what I’m talking about. She is an outlier, a rule-breaker — a divorcee, for god’s sake. She is a threat to their perfect suburban landscape.

While European cities took shape around pedestrian paths laid centuries before the invention of cars, the US concept of urban planning has been built upon the notion of individual freedom of movement by car. Our highways, suburbs and massive shade-less parking lots are an ode to that freedom. Like the mind-numbing sameness of suburbia, the hermetic seals on everyone’s individual mode of transportation for the past 70 years or so has taken a toll on our tolerance for each other, for our differences, even for our perception of climate change. From inside the acclimatized “freedom” of our comfy individual spaces, we have become both unable to tolerate extreme temperatures and at the same time able to ignore them. The same goes for other kinds of people.

It is hard not to see the implications of this drive-by culture of insensitivity reflected in the current state of US politics. Look no further than the current president, who recently took a golf cart up the hill in beautiful Taormina, Italy, while all the other NATO members walked together, taking in the breathtaking view and getting to know each other. This is the face we show to the world in our unparalleled freedom to drive by with the windows up.

I now live in Buenos Aires, a big, crowded city of millions at the other end of the planet. I walk, a lot. I also bike or take the bus or subway to get where I’m going. I generally have to allot several hours of my day for these journeys. It is often uncomfortable — hot, crowded, smelly, noisy — but I have learned to live with the inconveniences of broken sidewalks, exhaust fumes in my face or the human crush on public transportation at rush hour. And I have learned to observe, the good and the bad. Sometimes I get inspired and take a whole series of pictures of doorways.

Or I come up with an idea for an article about walking. A particular walking obstacle that many foreigners living here complain about is how Argentines always walk side-by-side instead of single file, making it impossible to pass them. How inconsiderate, right? The thing is, here it’s considered extremely rude to give your back to a friend, so that’s why people always walk abreast. It took me a while to come to this realization, but all that time walking and thinking about it as I try to get around them gave me the answer. So who’s to say whose version of inconsiderate is the right one?

Something else I’ve learned is that every time I take a street on the opposite side, I end up noticing something I’d passed dozens of times unawares. There’s a nice old house with typical Italianate details and ironwork that I always pass on my bike. Today I walked down the other side of that street and saw that the house has a fantastic second floor, set back from the façade, clad in very modern, dark wood slats that look like some Finnish spa. The combination of styles is fantastic. Or on my last visit back to the US, I discovered a historic public bathhouse that I’d never noticed on a street I’d driven down hundreds of times in Richmond, VA when I used to live there. I never knew it used to be full of public bathhouses.

I asked for walking stories from friends:

As I take my morning walk or run to buy my $5 cup of coffee in this nation’s capital, there is a particular homeless woman I pass throughout the seasons. Sometimes she’s sleeping on the metro grate in winter to catch the warm air rising, sometimes she’s collecting leftovers from the trash of high-end dinners of the night before. The other day on a warm summer morning, I noticed she had just finished bathing and washing her clothes in the public kids’ water fountain. I stopped to speak to her and her words for that morning were that the weather and life were wonderful and what more could she ask for!

For any long-time resident in one place, walks are an experience with historical accumulation: the mandala marking a late-night murder; the fading political graffiti from two cycles ago; the plaque on the branch library celebrating a local civil rights heroine. My favorite invisible story lies in front of the disability center, where the sidewalk looks like any other, but has very slightly different surface finishes. The wheelchairs and everyone else take diagonal shortcuts without a thought. But the blind customers follow the more polished path, which takes predictable right angles to the front door.

It is these snapshots of the lives of others that we miss entirely from inside a car.

My mother lives in a small town in Colorado. She is 81 and no longer driving. She describes this as a ‘punishment, like being in jail.’ Unwilling to use the taxi service or town shuttle (miraculous in its mere existence), she is forced to walk for the first time in her life. I can only hope she benefits, but the sad truth is I know she won’t be passing many others along the way and will likely be viewed with pity.

Car culture in the US is one small piece in the short history of seemingly benign developments that society has taken for granted as just one more convenience. But there are social consequences. It’s so easy to just drive past the guy holding a “Need Work” sign at the stoplight, you barely need to look at him. But in the time it takes to walk past a homeless person, you might just notice — like my friend with his expensive cup of coffee — how neatly they’ve arranged their belongings under the bridge, or that they’re shivering, or you see the color of their eyes. If any of these things causes to you consider that person’s predicament, even for a few seconds, you are that much closer to empathy than you would have been speeding past in your car. Walking takes longer, requires more effort and patience. But it puts us at eye-level with other human beings of all sorts. There is so much to see if you take the time to walk.

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Road Signs

DSCN2076I believe we largely make our own destinies. And even though I carelessly used the word ‘providence’ in an interview once in reference to an uncanny alignment of events, I don’t believe in fate or god or any of that. I am, however, a faithful disciple of Dr. Seuss and his vast wisdom of the universe—the forks in the road, road signs, speed bumps to be heeded. Anything traffic-related really. Because these are behind the choices we make. And sometimes the signs are billboard-sized and all in neon.

One example of this would be how my family and I ended up living in the house of Hugo Midón. I could play connect-the-dots on that one back any number of years, but I’ll just limit the connections to one: a public school in Seville, Spain –> our current residence in a PH in the noisy barrio of Caballito in Buenos Aires. Short version goes like this: Frustrated by the lack of arts activities in our children’s elementary school in Seville—a school where “art” class consisted of a color-coded text book and our naturally musical kids would come home crying about how mean the music teacher was—my husband turned a volunteer storytelling activity into a makeshift drama club, which quickly mushroomed into a major theater project. Then our friend Marina from Buenos Aires gave us a CD of music from Midón’s musicals. Then we decided it would be cool to incorporate some of those songs and build our own script around them. And everyone went a little gaga over the music, and there were suddenly people making weird percussion instruments, giant pinwheels and I was running a tie-die operation off my balcony. Contagion city.

Then in the midst of that circus I made a solo trip to Buenos Aires because we were thinking maaaybe about moving. But all those crazy theater people wanted was more music from Midón’s plays, so in addition to real estate sleuthing, the music thing was also on my shopping list. And one day as I was wandering the (then still hipster-free) streets of Palermo Viejo, I found myself accidentally in front of Rio Plateado, Hugo Midón’s theater school. Two-bird moment, I rang the buzzer thinking I’d avoid Musimundo and score a few CDs of his musicals right then and there. And because my short version is turning long: I ended up sitting in Midón’s office, sipping tea with the man himself and he happened to mention his house was for sale. That was one of those signs you heed.

Six months later we were living in his former house. The music happening in that house, mostly thanks to my kids, has never ceased for a moment. And we also have a resident writer. Call it a muse, creative spirit, providence, whatever—but it really comes down to the choices we made.

Following some similar signage, I made a trip to San Francisco, CA last year. This was after a moment of personal crisis and a conversation with a friend about what the hell to be when I grow up (in the second half of my life). She asked, “If you could wipe out all factors limiting your field of options—responsibilities, family, geography, etc.—what would you do?” In a very random moment, I said, “I’d go to San Francisco, visit the Pirate Supply Store, maybe buy an eye-patch, and hope to meet Dave Eggers.” She said, “Why don’t you? You could open your own pirate operation here.”

I have to confess I suffer from a bit of starry-eyed giddiness when it comes to Eggers, which is mostly just about his writing. When I read his first book way back when he was all ‘stream of consciousness’ and I was all ‘holy crap, he is speaking directly to me in my special language,’ I decided he was the writer of my generation, that I had connected deeply on that. So over the years I’ve read all of his books, and he’s grown up, and so have I. And I’ve learned to respect him not only as a constantly evolving and multi-talented writer, but also for coming up with the brilliant idea behind 826 Valencia, an ingenious public initiative that has writers and volunteers doing free creative writing workshops with public school kids. It has mushroomed into numerous centers throughout the US and elsewhere in the world. After following the project for the past few years, forcing my family to watch his popular TEDTalk more than once, and just generally being way too much of a groupie, I learned about the 826 National seminars not long after aforementioned conversation with my friend. The national NGO runs seminars for people interested in starting their own 826 centers. Which gave me a much more concrete (ok, mature) reason to go the Pirate Store.

Dot-connecting: Went to 826 seminar in SF last July, spent two days learning about how to start a non-profit, raise funds, talked to volunteers, explored the store and writing center, met inspiring directors of other connected organizations, like Mimi Lok, executive director of Voice of Witness. It was all better than I’d imagined—just brimming with genuine commitment, quirkiness and the most incredible people. Luckiest of breaks, the organizers told me someone else had come from Buenos Aires earlier this year with similar intentions. They said they’d put me in touch. After months of mulling over how to start one of these centers in BA, a notebook full of lists of potential donors, venues, school-system contacts, other education NGOs, etc., I knew what I really needed was a partner, someone with the same mission. Someone like any of the amazing people I had met during the seminar. My wish was about to be granted. Soon after my return to Buenos Aires, I got an email with the contact info for this other person interested in starting an 826-inspired center here.

And sometimes we ignore the signs. The official version of this story is that I met Ignacio (not his real name), began to brainstorm and collaborate with him, helped raise volunteers, bring in writers to run workshops and handled the social media and communications aspects of a pilot program that he had arranged through the sponsorship of a local publisher. The program was incredibly successful and a joy to be a part of, mainly seeing the enthusiasm of the students and teachers from the five public schools that participated. And to see the need firsthand and know that a program like this, if done right, will address serious failings in the school system when it comes to writing skills and creative self-expression. The experience confirmed that following my long-term interest in this project and making it happen was right on target.

The backstory is a little different. There were billboards. And flashing lights. That I chose to ignore because I knew they would prevent me from being a part of the project. And because sometimes I overanalyze and make too many allowances for potential “cultural” differences. Sometimes those differences are really just about people being out for themselves no matter where they’re from… And this is the part where I have to delete a whole paragraph of ranting in an effort to stick to the high road and boil it down to: I had good reason to be pissed by the end.

Do I wish I had followed those signs from the beginning and saved myself from some humiliation and the feeling of being used? Actually, no. Because if I had, I would have missed being a part of the whole process of making it happen and now knowing that I am quite capable of doing it myself. With better people. And better ideas. And truer to the whole collaborative spirit of the thing, and not some convenient marketing scheme. Even though I ignored all the little lights and warning buzzers I saw early on in small acts of incompatibility, I can now see they were pointing to a much larger—huge, really—difference in our global understanding of the project and Egger’s vision.

I live in a house where at least three generations of artists, performers, musicians and writers have regularly come to dinner and worked their creative magic under its roof. It feels like the appropriate site for an 826-inspired program to come together. In an imaginary dinner conversation between Dave Eggers, Hugo Midón, and my family, I see lots of shared vision, like-mindedness and lively conversation. (Ignacio is not invited.)

Remember

I don’t remember what it felt like to sit in my mother’s lap or the sound of her voice reading to me. You won’t remember these things about me either. You won’t remember that our house had wallpaper on the ceilings, that we stood on ladders and used a machine to steam and peel it off, our arms aching from being held aloft, dirty water dripping on you as you crawled around below. You won’t remember that there was music playing always, or that we hired an opera student to babysit and sing you arias. You won’t remember that I painted whimsical fish and ocean sprites on your bedroom wall, or later the Mono Liso. Or how I held your flailing arms and legs and rocked you in a big blue chair, all because you wanted chocolate milk at 3am. You won’t remember me pushing the stroller through the snow, you all bundled in fleece, because it was the only way you’d go to sleep.

ImageYou won’t remember that all we needed was a sofa to sit back and watch you perform, blissed out while you inhabited endless characters, costumes and worlds all for our viewing pleasure. Or how we banned technology for years just so the show would keep going on. Nor will you remember how your thumb was your best friend and you spoke so lovingly of it, to it. You won’t remember how I marveled—truly—at your tiny, intricate drawings. Or how, when you wanted to fly for real, we hitched you to a harness, strapped on your wings and let you soar from the oak tree. You won’t remember sippy cups or Maymont Park or learning the words to the Peter Pan song and singing it with abandon. You won’t remember tire swings or puddle-jumping or that time I rolled out brown craft paper and let you run around in different colored paint all over it, or how I cut out sections of it later to decorate the dining room wall. You won’t remember how we decided to just work from home because we couldn’t get enough of you, how we sometimes just stayed in our pajamas all day long and were silly.

You won’t remember how many times we read Chicken Soup with Rice, or that time we drove to France and couldn’t bother to get out of the car because we were so immersed in a story about a certain wizard. You won’t remember your skinny, knobby little legs running out of the ocean and throwing yourself down to roll around all wet in the hot sand, and then we’d call you milanesita. Nor will you remember the gleeful timber of your voice or how excellent you were at jumping rope, how intensely you danced. You won’t remember how long you believed in Santa Clause or how easily you accepted the Reyes Magos when they showed up, because your faith in our stories was abiding.

That’s ok. I still remember.

 

Daytrip

 

Image

Every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling like the kind of person I’d like to hang out with, or sometimes when I’m blue, I indulge in a quiet Saturday afternoon date with myself and go alone to the movies. On this particular Saturday in Buenos Aires, I choose to venture out to the Arteplex cinema in Belgrano, far on the other side of the city. Because it is quite a journey and looking a bit like rain, instead of biking I decide to do a combination of city transit, taking the 141 bus to Plaza Italia and then the Subte out to Congreso, the last stop on the D-line.

 

I

Clown boards bus bearing beat-up guitar. His attire is accurate but filthy: high-waisted, green plaid pants sag from suspenders above exposed, flip-flopped feet. Gnarled, cracked, crusty dirt-brown feet—too brown to match hands on guitar. White face-paint grayish with traffic grime suggests several days of wear. Circle around clown features reveals outer regions of naked face: high forehead, steel-wool hair awry, pushed back with headband sprouting sad, plastic flower which may or may not squirt tears. He lays his pitch on us, monotone and sad, as if way more skeptical than his audience.

Damas y caballeros, and especially all you kids (there were none on the bus), I’ve come to brighten your day. Hope you’re all having fun. Pardon the bother, I’ll just sing a ditty or two. Brought my whole band along (shows us his harmonica as he anchors it around his neck). Yes, we’re a one-man band. Again, please pardon the intrusion, hope you enjoy the show, then I’ll be right on my way, chicos.”

I kick myself for not bringing my iPod. Then again, he does seem to be taking his whole act very seriously with all the preparations and is entirely consistent with the sadness concept, I’ll give him that. And I also have to admit that blasting my headphones to drown out all nuisances around me in recent months is taking its toll on my hearing. Perhaps it’s best to give the man a chance.

Guitar rings true, rockabilly sound, voice channeling Elvis, deep, wide like an unpolluted river of pure sound. Disconcerting, real concert. Sounds like English, but not quite. More like that video of What English Sounds Like to Non-English Speakers—the one where the only decipherable word is “squirrel”. The phonetics are all right, the intonation, pauses in the natural places, only the words are not quite words. They are a melodious approximation. Then the harmonica jumps in: in and out chuffing blues, Memphis on a bus in Buenos Aires.

“Thank you very much (no longer Elvis). That was one from the archives. Traveling across the ocean back to my origins, now we’ll visit Italy.”

I have no idea what song he’s belting out in Italian, but at least he seems to be getting the language right on this one. It feels authentically 1950s Mediterranean, like something Marcelo sang to Sofia. On a Vespa. All pencil-thin pants, loafers no socks and cleavage. By the time I get to this image, I realize I’ve been hauled into the music, completely sold on it, but having a really hard time with the clown act. The 141 show takes a bow, passes his hat, I give him a fiver and almost tell him, “Lose the make-up, it’s distracting, have some self-respect. You are amazing.” Almost.

 

II

I exit the bus right after it turns off Scalabrini Ortiz and onto Santa Fe. I am at the gate of the Botanical Gardens, an abiding memory of the first time I ever came to Buenos Aires. I was a tourist then. I check my watch and decide I have time for a walk through. No longer a tourist, like people who live in cities with Eiffel towers or Empire State buildings, I have relegated these gardens to the category of places for visitors who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, gazing around with half-smiles and taking-it-all-in blank expressions on their faces. I have never understood the hands behind the back.

Like so many places in Buenos Aires, these gardens are a relic of the city’s glorious past, a lush piece of turn-of-the-20th-century landscaping and statuary—a reminder that this level of sophistication was once the norm. In a way it is a time capsule. But then again, I don’t come here often enough and perhaps things are not quite encapsulated. Today what I first see are fathers and little boys, enthusiastically pulling on hands to take them to see carnivorous plants. Couples on benches, legs stretched out, ankles crossed, intimately reading side by side. Venus rising out of a litter-free pond of lilies, so serene, I make a mental note to come back and sketch her. A path that pulls me along, leading me to ground-level vats teeming with strange, snaking aquatic plants. Down and around I come up behind the main building, see Saturnalia snapped in mid-action, preserved in bronze—a worthy welcome committee for visitors to the tiny, children’s green library on the back corner of the red-bricked Victorian visitor’s center. The library has a carpet of believable faux grass and I imagine the books on its shelves are filled with stories of plants, sustainable ways, garden fairies, forts made of fallen trees and discarded bits of this and that—a reason to come back another day, sit on the grassy rug reading children’s green lit and spend the whole afternoon exploring the silent wonder of these gardens. Today time is running short: I have a movie to catch.

 

III

I step out of these imaginings and onto the subway platform at Plaza Italia. Just as the doors are closing, a young man struggles to get on with a keyboard and speaker on a cart. Top right forearm riddled with scars on scars, not accidental—intentional, random, mean razorblade hatch-marks. My brain cannot conjure the horror of their origin, so I look at his face instead: protruding front teeth, freshly scarred upper lip, maybe from a punch, or maybe just a skateboard accident. The braces on his teeth are somehow in disharmony with all his broken parts; braces mean fixing, future, caring. Then too, he is clean and neatly dressed, so someone cares.

He removes the keyboard from the trolley and places it on the subway floor. It is a mirror of himself: cracked, patched, duct-taped. And amplified. He plugs in and flops down on the floor, not on his knees: butt on the floor, legs splayed at odd angles to one side like a kid about to play with his Legos. He fully occupies the space in front of the doors, making it impossible for anyone to enter or exit and further highlighting his blatant, genuine lack of shame. He starts to play and everything else fades to black in that moment. Bach, Beethoven, flawless Rachmaninoff flying over the keys. On the floor, on a beat-up plastic Yamaha, brandishing scars on the D-line to Congreso. This is Buenos Aires.

I have to get off even though I’d rather continue. I give him a much bigger tip than the clown, not because he deserved more—half of it was my guilt for not giving the clown more, for not having openly congratulated either of them for their talent, for not thanking them for the music. But mostly for presuming they’d be too loud, too predictable, too hard to drown out, too in my face. Perhaps someone will make a movie about the countless characters like these on public transit in Buenos Aires. Because sometimes you set off on a quiet solo trip to the cinema not wanting to be disturbed only to discover that what happens along the way is a story worth telling.

 

 

 

Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.

Set Your Alarm for 5am (Parents’ Guide to BA Teenagers)

After seeing way too many looks of horror on the faces of friends as I casually mention what my teenagers do on a typical weekend night out, I am reminded of the stages along the way to reaching my current state of zen. So for expat parents of kids who will soon be moving on to secondary school in Buenos Aires, here’s the lowdown on what to expect outside of school.

Year 1: Your still cherubic 13-yr-old will at some point this year ask to be allowed to go to a matinee. Strike down immediately any inclination to inquire as to whether it’s an afternoon film or play; it is not. Matinees are essentially kiddy night clubs that run from 8-12pm, don’t sell alcohol (supposedly), no one over 16 allowed in (ditto). There will likely be much online debate among members of your class parent list as to the potential evils of these places and you will get first glimmers of other parents’ true colors. Seize this opportunity to identify: the slackers, who always let their kids go out, no questions asked and never volunteer to drive; the clueless ones (most) waiting to go along with the group consensus; the detectives, who try to ascertain which kids are lying about the venue by comparing stories; and the die-hards who make grand statements smacking down the mere idea of discussing the subject in the first place: My daughter will not go to a matinee, a disco or around the corner to the kiosko until she’s 18! (Now you know who to avoid.) Whoever you are, face the fact that you will give in at some point and let them go. Find out which matinees have the best rep and take the hurdle, pool with the other cool parents for drop-offs and pick-up times. Welcome to high school.

Year 2: The Fiestas de Quince. Having grown out of the matinees (so soon – no one over 14 ever goes!), not to worry, they don’t get to graduate to full-on after-hours clubs quite yet. You are saved this year by the endless chain of fiestas de quince, each so special yet essentially the same as the last one. I’ll spare you yet another description of these ubiquitous affairs, other than to say that even though they last all night long, at least the grandparents are present, not to mention the rest of the family. So not much to worry about in the middle of the night other than possible sugar coma from the mesa dulce that usually premieres sometime around 4am. Your parent taxi services are, however, still required this year, so get used to setting your Saturday alarm for 5am. Nearly every weekend. And sometimes twice. As with all ostentation, by the end of the year, the kids are mostly bored to distraction with the pomp and gluttony and feel no shame at going to sleep in the muck on the floor under a table. Good preparation for what is to come next year. (I should point out that it is allowable to break with tradition on the quinceañeras and do your own thing. We rented a music venue, put on a concert and sent everyone home by 2am. By all accounts, it was one of the most memorable parties of the year; they didn’t even complain about the cakes not having dulce de leche.)

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Year 3: Brace yourself. The fact is those all-night parties last year had an ulterior motive: to lay the foundations for the Argentine notion that all fun happens between midnight and 6am (only the extended family is no longer welcome). Having gone through my own high school years with a 12pm curfew, adapting to this schedule felt downright scandalous but with a curious element of transgression against one’s own aging parents… When it comes to your kids, if the late hours of the fiestas de quince were a stretch for you, third year fun and games require deep-breathing exercises and a huge dose of faith. The key shift is that, while they stuck with their classmates in previous years, they now socialize with the older students. Sex, drugs, rock ’n roll, baby. They start the year asking to go to previas (pre-parties) at relatively reasonable hours (10-2am), always at private homes but rarely with adult presence. This is the point at which you can start worrying about drinking, a happy stroll down your own seedy memory land. The good news is it takes them a couple of months to muster the courage to request the all-night pass and carry on at the real parties that kick in after the previas, so they actually come home by a reasonable 1 or 2am, meaning you might still be awake enough to hold their heads over the toilet.

However, they will not settle long for the mere pre-party, so onwards and upwards: after-hours bashes at rented venues, where the kids organize and serve bar and who knows what else. Interestingly, they also hire security and, in an effort to control ticket-sales and avoid over-crowding, do not allow anyone to re-enter once they’ve left the venue. And I am told that drug consumption is pretty limited, at least among the public school crowd, for a simple reason: no money. (This small fact was a light-bulb moment for me, given my very recent efforts at trying to procure summer work for my own kids so they’d learn the value of work/money, control their own expenses, blah blah blah, the standard US approach. Working while still in high school just to earn “spending” money is uncommon in Argentina; kids go to school, study, hang out, do what they do, but most don’t work for money unless they have to. Ergo, very limited buying power. Flip-side: One way to look at drug consumption among US teens.)

Once you’ve accepted this is their night life for the remainder of high school and decided to trust in the decency and good sense of Argentine youth, your next hurdle is how to deal with the comings and goings at insane hours of the madrugada. You will probably, like we did, succumb to your parental instinct to sacrifice your own sleep, texting throughout the night to track their movements and then stumbling out to your car in your slippers in the pre-dawn glow to pick them up from some warehouse on a street you’ve never heard of in Barracas or Chacarita or Parque Patricios… and it will all be fine. And you will soon realize it’s OK to let them just take the bus to the party because they always travel in herds, and find yourself a good remisero or reliable taxi service to bring them home. And you’ll wake up several times during the night the first few times, but then you won’t because you’ve reached nirvana and now trust them to make the right choices.

Which brings me back to kindergarten… A very wise kindergarten teacher once taught my kids the value of making good choices. I can still hear them repeating that line in their 5-yr-old voices to each other. Sounds simple, but it is actually the key to being a good parent and is not so simple. Because it means your kid is the one who has to learn to make those choices and the only way for them to do that is for you to shut up and let them. It requires a mountain of trust.

What I have come to know about Argentine teenagers: They genuinely look out for each other; they travel in large groups; they have a tradition of ripping up their uniforms and covering themselves in rainbows of paint on the last day of school; they are surprisingly organized when it comes to their own fun; they make their own music; the boys like to cook more than the girls; they have strict codes of honor; they care about politics; if they trash your house, they also clean it up with mops and brooms in the haze of dawn. What’s not to trust?

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(Sorry not to include years 4-5, but not there yet and even so, it wouldn’t matter. By this point, you will have either reached acceptance or decided to bail out and take them to some first world suburb where they have smartboards at school and everyone comes home by midnight.)

I Am, therefore I Do

DSCN2346Just the other day I got a kiss and congratulations on an arguably un-momentous occasion: the purchase of a new car. The kudos came from the guy who keeps watch in our parking garage. He came out of his booth, gave me a big smile and warm felicitaciones. It was a genuine sentiment and made my day, not because I thought congrats were in order, but because he did. That is just the kind of person he is—the “to be” kind rather than the “to do” kind. He’s Paraguayan. A few years ago he shaved his prematurely thinning hair and actually looks much better as a bald guy. He wears nice clothes and is always in a good mood. What he does (sit in a booth in a dingy parking garage) in no way defines who he is.

My first exposure to life in a “to be” culture was in Spain. After moving there, the more people I met, the more it became apparent that nobody was asking the standard ‘What do you do?’ question. Ever. They asked about how I liked the food (Spaniards loooove to talk about food), why we had decided to move there, how the kids were adapting, if I had tried the gambas yet, but never ‘What do you do?’ Spaniards place you immediately in their own social context. Which, by the way, revolves around food. The experience of being around Argentines has been similar. Even more so than in Spain, Argentines want to know how you feel, if you miss home, your family, your friends, etc. And they are particularly keen to know your where your fútbol loyalties lie. Because for them, what team you’re on is key; for Argentines, interpersonal relationships and a sense of community are a big part of who they are. I would even venture to say that people in both these countries might consider it rude to ask about a person’s profession right away in the sense that it would be seen as a cold and impersonal question. At the very least, it feels awkward to me now to ask this question.

Googling around for interesting research on “to be” vs. “to do” cultures, I surprisingly didn’t come up with much. There’s this, which I think gives a pretty limited view of both, making “to be” cultures seem primitive and sounding straight out of an Intro to Anthropology textbook. It does at least highlight the relationship element of “to be” cultures. There are an interesting number of takes on the subject from the corporate world, tirelessly stretching its tentacles into all fields. None of this, however, speaks about the “to dos” and “to bes” in everyday terms, how living in a society that is one or the other shapes how people interact. And act. Personally, I think it is more on the micro-level that being and doing become more relevant and meaningful in different cultures. After all, most people in Argentina and Spain are certainly career-minded and can speak at length about their professions in certain contexts; however, they don’t generally refer to what they do (i.e., their jobs) when introducing themselves. In fact, I kind of take issue altogether with the English usage of ‘what do you do?,’ which really means ‘what is your job?,’ on the grounds that we all do many things in our lives. It just doesn’t translate well.

I recently heard someone say, “What you do defines who you are.” I would argue that it is who we are that defines what we do, and furthermore that one should be careful in uttering cultural maxims as if they were universal truths. The cultural relativity of what exactly makes us who we are is the only true universal here. For example, here are some lower-case “to dos” from my southern upbringing, which supposedly shaped my character: Saying yes ma’am = respectful of one’s elders. (I really wasn’t.) I can’t tell you how annoying it is every time I now visit Virginia and get yes ma’amed all the time from people of all ages. It makes me feel like I’m 80; it also evokes a visit to the parrot cage at the zoo. Writing thank-you notes = sufficiently grateful. I always thought the genuinely uttered words were sufficient. It was assumed that forming these habits would bestow these qualities upon us. Honestly? All it really bestowed was perfunctory, meaningless behavior that, if not acquired, was basic grounds for judgment being passed on your character. Not that I have anything against thank you notes when one is just overflowing with gratitude for that $20 bill in the greeting card, but guess what? Nobody does that in the other places I’ve lived. So are they therefore all scandalously ungrateful for their birthday presents?

Actually Argentines give enormous importance to birthdays, especially the party aspect. The presence of their closest friends and family is the most important thing. There are gifts of course, but they are very secondary to the social gathering and often opened after everyone leaves, so there’s no way of even knowing who gave you what. Ergo, no thank-yous; the material part of it is an afterthought. There is however something that people do that is always surprising to me. Friends and family members who cannot be present call to personally wish happy birthday and ask how your day is going. Especially amongst family, if this phone call is overlooked, the birthday person will get offended. It’s kind of like the thank-you note requirement, except the outcome is not a judgment on anyone’s character. People are just genuinely hurt that you didn’t remember, that you forgot to be there for them. It’s the being there emotionally that matters, not just the lip-service.

The reduced number of little “dos and don’ts” in these cultures of course makes for less polite, more unruly, louder and unrestrained interactions among people on an everyday basis. (I invite you to watch fights among taxi drivers at rush hour here.) However, I don’t notice the bitingly judgmental nature of “to do” societies in people here. Furthermore, not being constantly asked what you do for a living is liberating in that you are free to describe yourself in any terms and not limited to the label of your profession or lack thereof. I paint, I write, I travel, I raise my children, I work. (I have a friend who refuses to be labeled professionally; when he has to fill in official documents, he writes Worker in the blank by Profession even though he holds a Ph.D.) Not having to adhere to the constraints of certain “dos and don’ts” means you are free to act based on who you are and what you believe. If I am a generous person, I will give to others naturally; if I am not, dumping my old clothes at Caritas or Good Will does not make me generous. However, even if I am not a generous person, perhaps I am a good listener or a great teacher or even a hero. So don’t judge me based on the small things I don’t do.

My garage attendant’s name is Christian. In addition to being a nice guy, he is also a huge fan of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano and can talk at length about his books on Latin American history. He’s always reading something. Imagine if I had met Christian at a dinner party and started our conversation with ‘What do you do?’