Sunday, February 20, 2011

Éloge de Ma Ville Natale

In Praise of My Home Town

I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with Home Town over the years. As a child and teenager, it felt close-minded and stifling. During college, a quick weekend at home was enough to recharge but not long enough to become bored. I’ve grown less judgmental with maturity and can now enjoy a walk down memory lane without lingering in the thistle patches.

Last week, Maman and I went to see a South African choral group at the renovated théâtre downtown. We were able to walk to the theater from free, safe, well-lit parking. Many families had dined at the nicest Italian restaurant in town, just across the street from the venue. Before the show, the theater’s director took a moment to thank all of the collaborators including local businesses and other arts organizations such as the Community Theater. The performance was wonderful, but the real beauty lies in the greater infrastructure. This show was just one of many billed for the season for the renovated theater, which coordinated its schedule so as to complement those of the local high school drama productions, symphony concerts and art center programs. While this event was on the more expensive side, there are many free or low cost (<$10) programs available to people of every age in the community. There are extension classes (ceramics, ballroom dancing, Spanish), poetry readings, and a river festival which attracts local artists and performers.

Perhaps a more community-minded person would have noticed this earlier, but as a natural introvert I participated in many programs due to availability. Tout ça (all that) seemed de rigeur as an angsty adolescent, until the day I visited some friends who live in the suburbs of Urban Metropolis. I asked where the local theaters, museums and cinemas were and they pointed me downtown (at least a 30 minute drive). Due to the community’s affluent nature, the local government didn’t fund many summer programs as most kids took private music/swimming/ACT/underwater basketweaving lessons. A large and vibrant artistic community exists in Urban Metropolis, but it is located far away from where most people (of all socioeconomic classes) live and work.

I’m grateful to have grown up in a place with a strong sense of community and hope that these programs survive the coming state budget cuts. Private donors can, have and will fill the gaps but there’s something powerful about a proclaiming the arts a public good. Not a passe-temps for the elite, but open so that all may find the beauty and creativity in and around themselves. During a session on development, PC staffers talked to us about listening to our communities and how some might want to build a recreation area more than renovate the health center. Host Country has a long history of artistic production, particularly in film. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading about how Volunteers use computers, crayons, paintbrushes and plays to give their communities tools of expression.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Il était une fois…

Sorry for the blog absence as of late. Things have been going well chez moi – I finished my last appointment with the kinésithérapeute (physical therapist) before the rendez-vous with the orthopédiste next month. Jury duty calls for later this month. While the world keeps turning, I’ve had several fairytale experiences in the past few weeks.

Tout d’abord (first of all), I saw a production of “Phantom of the Opera” at my old high school. I knew that the drama department was still strong, but how those kids could sing! Last May, I visited l’Opéra Garnier with my friend M before our flights home. Basking in the glow of the opulent fixtures and reveling in the watercolors of Chagall, Leroux’s story and Webber’s play finally came to life for me. My father picked up the film “Language of the Enemy” from Redbox before reading any reviews. (SPOILERS) It starts off as an intense meditation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before becoming an international romantic comedy version of Romeo and Juliet. Maturity has made me more generous with respect to films and I appreciated many of the small details: the décors, the anecdotes of past generations. I could not, however, bear the silly sociolinguistics of the film. The protagonists speak to each other in Arabic for a few minutes, but spend the rest of the film speaking to Israeli and Palestinian characters in English. Oh well, I should just rent “Carlos” and read subtitles for dialogue (10 languages)!

Last week, my parents and I braved the icy roads to journey to College Town. They went shopping while I spoke to former professors about My Future PlansTM and Important GoalsTM involving graduate school, a career et le français. The physical part hadn’t changed much – the five minute walk felt much longer, the computer stations were all full and the foreign language stacks still tempted me to partir là-bas (leave for there). I didn’t recognize a single student’s face, but was received with much warmth and advice. ThesisAdvisor asked about my past experiences and looked over my future dossier for graduate schools. MajorAdvisor reminisced about his own travels in France and wanted to know how the assistantship program was doing. TripAdvisor, who guides at least 40 students a day, spoke in a quick clip about others who had chosen my potential paths. SocialAdvisor helped me refashion my ideas such that new portals of progress opened before my eyes. College wasn’t a wonderland for me, but it was nice to return to a place of strength and comfort and to receive wisdom from those who had gone before me.

This is why I value education so much. I had wonderful high school teachers, but I saw them as imposing knowledge on me. My professors, par contre (by contrast), see themselves as intellectual guides and have given me the tools and confidence to follow my own dreams. Hopefully one day, some students will say the same about me.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Les Bonnes Réponses (The Correct Answers)

En fin de compte (as it turns out), I learned some interesting facts myself while searching for the answers to this quiz. I still remember sitting through eighth-grade state history, yearning to hear about a different place. Mes voyages have made me reconsider some aspects of American history, such as different forms of diversity in each time period. Furthermore, I have come to appreciate the importance of local history after visiting many small-town museums and cultural centers. Hope February is off to a great start for everyone!

1) Sante Fe, Oregon, Chisolm, Coronado, Smoky Hills, Leavenworth Pikes Peak, Ft. Scott – Ft. Leavenworth Military, Atchison Lewis and Clark, Pony Express [source: Kansas History postcard series]. We were “drive-through” long before “fly-over” was even a term.

2) From the Kaw people, formerly known as the Kansa, the Kanza and sometimes called “People of the (South) Wind” or “People of the Water” [,]

3) Raids by the Border Ruffians from Missouri, led by William Quantrill. []

4) Noted abolitionist John Brown []

5) Francisco Vásquez de Coronado []

6) “Ad Astra Per Aspera” – “To the stars through difficulties.” Ad Astra is also the name of the sculpture which sits atop the dome of the Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka. []

If you found other answers, let me know!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Jour du Kansas

Today is Kansas’s sesquicentennial, marking 150 years of prairie pride. During mon enfance (my childhood), I thought it was the lamest state since no one every bothered to talk about us. Then we got caught up in an evolutionary standards scandal – yeah! Attending one of the flagship universities gave me a) a better appreciation of the state’s diversity and b) the realization that you can’t change where you’re from, so il vaut mieux (it’s better) to accept it.

I always remember Kansas Day because in elementary school one of my classmates shared her birthday with the state. One of my good college friends was also chanceux (fortunate) enough to be born on January 29th. Happy birthday L and P! We may be best known for tornados and their use as transport to magical lands, but there’s more to offer than that. Take the quiz below to find out! (Answers will appear on Monday).

1) Name at least five historic trails of Kansas.
2) Where does the name “Kansas” come from?
3) Which events in the 1850s gave rise to the name “Bleeding Kansas”?
4) Name the historical figure depicted in the large mural in the Capitol building.
5) Which explorer was said to have reached Kansas in 1541? HomeTown is located a few miles away from a “fort” marking his furthest point of exploration. I thought he had really camped there hundreds of years ago. Turns out it was a WPA project, which explained the absence of historical markers and the presence of cigarette butts and beer bottles.
6) What is the state motto? It was the second Latin phrase I learned, after “E pluribus unum.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Swimming, Ballet and Other Inadequacies

Upon the recommendation of my kinésithérapeute (physical therapist), I have taken up swimming at my local branch of the YMCA. I haven’t swum since the Fourth of July party in Host Country, but it’s coming back to me. And I don’t even have to wear a swimsuit bought from a vending machine like last spring in France!

The lap pool adjoins a family pool area filled with brightly colored slides and strangely shaped devices. Though the sounds can be a bit annoying, this arrangement does lessen the clinical appearance associated with white, sterile, harshly lit and badly smelling piscines. Moreover, I’m free to glide along, wearing my lunettes de plongée (goggles), secure in the knowledge that the other adults won’t randomly cross under the lane markers as I used to do during Pollywog swim classes.

I prefer to lap swim poorly rather than tread water or accomplish acrobatic feats. The basic strokes (front crawl, backstroke, breastroke – le crawl, le dos, la brasse) are easy enough conceptually, but I usually manage to falter at least once in the middle of a lap. Part of this is due to my elbow injury and part is due to natural clumsiness. Hand-eye coordination and reaction times were never my best subjects. Consequently, I rarely felt guilt about my lack of physical prowess and reserved my névroses (neuroses) for more academic pursuits.

My thoughts turned to this lack of agility while watching the film “Black Swan” with my mother this week. It was certainly un film percutant (a powerful film), though not one I came away “liking” by any means. In her quest for perfection, Nina (Natalie Portman) descends into paranoia. Her slight physical frame withstood the pain of hours of rehearsal while her mind fluttered like a stray feather caught in the wind. Later, as I tried to force my limbs to gracefully bend and bow to my will, I decided to accept the fact that I look like a drowning duck rather than a gracefully disturbed swan.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Working the System

Yesterday, I had to get some empreintes digitales (fingerprints) taken for a background check required by Home State for a substitute teaching license. After having lived in France and worked my way through the Peace Corps application, I felt well prepared to deal with bureaucracy. Perhaps not with the nature of bureaucracy, but rather with my usual errors such as not double-checking instructions or trying to cram errands into a one hour time span.

I went to the County Sheriff’s Office, where the pleasant receptionist informed me that fingerprinting was now done at the jail. While driving around the block to the Visitor’s Entrance, I remember my only other time at the jail. I was in fifth grade and we went on a field trip for Boy Scouts, all wearing our uniforms. A nice police officer led us on a tour and we all gawked at the high-tech surveillance électronique. This time, I was surprised to see a money transfer machine to the right of the reception window. Several different options scrolled across the screen in English and Spanish. I took a number and sat down amongst several families who had been waiting for visitation.

My number was quickly called and I met La Dactylo-Technicienne (the Fingerprinter) in her office, who knew the requirements for teaching and nursing licenses. I wrote out several checks, then let her press my fingers on a giant roll of ink which she spun around before each print. A dispenser offered up an abrasive soap-like substance which cleaned my hands well enough so that I could assemble the paperwork. All the paperwork, except for the transcripts that is. I thought that I could mail the package out myself, mais non, I had to hand everything over to her office.

In the past, I would have become très fâché at these inconveniences and surrendered. Instead, I calmly collected myself and walked out to the car. Part of this new attitude is being accustomed to several steps in processes, part is realizing that this would not be a hard problem in my Home Town where I knew all the locations and spoke and the language, and part is having matured into a more patient person. I will never be as patient as Host Country citizens who can stand in line for hours, but compared to BurkinaSciSteven circa 2007, I’ve made vast improvement. No words muttered under my breath, no reckless driving on the winter roads, just calm determination.

Twelve minutes later, I stepped out of the car (carefully, to avoid the ice patches) and went inside to hunt for the transcripts. They were sitting on top of my dresser, but I couldn’t find stamps anywhere. A quick call to my mother confirmed that we were out. Glancing at the clock, I sped off to the post office, bought the stamps and raced over to the jail before noon. I waited awkwardly for several minutes, worried that I’d missed my window of opportunity, before a guard called La Dactylo-Technicienne. She signed the fingerprint card and promised to drop the package in the mail that afternoon. Mission accomplished, just in time to enjoy a nice lunch and a session with the brace.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Meals and Movies

Désolé for the long blog absence, mes amis. I enjoyed a wonderful holiday season with my family. Everyone took part in the annual cookie-decorating ritual and much fun was had by all. For New Year’s Eve, I snagged a spot on the commuter airline that goes from Home Town to Midwestern Metropolis. My généreux friend R put me up for a few days and I remembered how exciting it was to interact with other twentysomethings. One challenge of this recovery has been the socialization process from “development worker” to “full-time patient.” This trip reminded me of other past identities (biology TA, creative writer, etc) and made me feel more confident about the next steps in my life.

Adventures in eating included chocolate-chip pancakes, scrambled eggs, pad Thai and a delicious chicken stir-fry prepared by R’s wonderful parents. For movies, we watched the delightful “Despicable Me,” the artistic “I Am Love” and the hilariously historical “Tristan and Isolde.” Upon arriving in Home Town, I watched “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” with my father at our local arts cinema. I loved reading the Stieg Larsson novels and thought that the film adaptation was quite faithful to the themes of the books if not the intricate details and subplots.

Recovery is going well, but there are still a few benchmarks I need to hit before medical clearance. I’ll be chez moi for a few more weeks. I’ve been revising my senior thesis into une sorte de writing sample for graduate school applications and will hopefully start substitute teaching in the next few days. Hope that 2011 is off to a great start for you and yours!