Archives for category: Adult Education

FOREIGN LANGUAGES

“Hola,” I say.

“Hola,” says the short man with what appears to be a genuine, warm smile. He wears a baseball cap and holds a leaf blower.

I’m taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. I feel it’s appropriate and respectful to greet landscapers in their own language when I can. Often, the response I get appears to me to be a combination of surprise and delight. But some disagree. My wife, Katie, for instance, thinks the workers may feel insulted when I speak to them in Spanish. Readers are welcome to share their opinions. My children cringe whenever I utter a word of Spanish in ANY context. Granted, I’m not a linguist.

*****

When I was little, I had an excellent opportunity to learn other languages. My father’s clothing store was in a section of North Philadelphia that contained a mixture of Puerto Rican and eastern European immigrants. Though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time there, whenever I was in the store, I witnessed my father navigate fluently between English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. He could also speak passable Polish and German.

My father passionately wanted his children to learn Russian. Only one of his four children inherited his gift and interest, however. My sister not only learned Russian but she achieved college-level proficiency at Spanish and chose to take graduate-level courses in French, Italian and Romanian! The extent of my knowledge of Romanian begins and ends with “blintz.”

I remained oblivious to the babble around me at the store. And my father was not the sort of parent to impose his linguistic hopes on me. My first exposure to foreign language study did not occur until seventh grade when I entered a private school, Friends’ Academy. Most of the students there had commenced studying French in third grade.

To my continuing regret, Friends’ Academy did not offer Spanish at any level because it was deemed “too easy.” Before I could commence French or German or Russian, however, they felt it necessary for me to obtain a foundational understanding of western languages, and it doesn’t get any more foundational than Beginning Latin. For an entire school year such terms as “dative” and “ablative” bounced off me like hail hitting a metal roof. All that stuck with me were: “puer spectat puela,” meaning “boy looks at girl;” and “stultus asinus,” meaning “stupid ass.” The latter characterizes my level of my accomplishment in the subject.

Despite my evident lack of aptitude, Friends’ Academy required continued foreign language study. Recognizing I was too far behind my classmates in French, and that Russian would be impossible (a different alphabet!) they placed me in Beginning German in eighth grade.

To my shock and dismay, I learned a language could have ten or twelve or fifteen ways of saying “the.” Also, nouns can be feminine or masculine.

“Why?” I asked in despair, “is it necessary to complicate simple things?”

Frau Herta Springer was not sympathetic. At the time, I thought of her as an elderly woman though I now realize she was only around fifty. Peering at me through thick glasses, she said, in a clipped Austrian accent: “Deutsch is a precise language. It is not sloppy. And it is not supposed to be easy.”

*****

Frau Springer and I had an awkward relationship for the next five years. She couldn’t understand why I found grammar impenetrable. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was so important. But what she really didn’t understand is why the weakest of her eleven students crushed her in Scrabble when we played in class every other Friday. (It had only taken a couple of weeks for me to graduate from playing my fellow students to taking on Frau Springer).

My secret weapon was a lifetime of play with my mother and aunt. I found words easily, so long as I didn’t have to know what they meant or how to place them in a sentence. Scrabble in German is the same as in English, except that the letter distribution features more S’s, C’s and H’s. She simply could not reconcile my relative genius at the game with my non-comprehension of everything else.

“Was ist los mit dir?” (What is wrong with you?) she asked each time she returned a quiz.

“Ich weis nicht,” (I don’t know) I answered, not quite sure if the ending of “weis” was missing a letter or two.

I never explained to Frau Springer how I came to dominate her. My proficiency at Scrabble was critical when it came to the subjective part of her grading and I didn’t want to risk that by resolving her confusion. At the end of each semester, with my average hovering in the low C’s or worse, she gave me a B.

*****

On the home front, my father found an alternate route to Russian language enthusiasm. This came about through Robert, a classmate of mine who had taken an interest in all things Russian. Starting in ninth grade, he made it known that he read Tolstoy for fun. (Private schools have kids like that. Our German exchange student spent his lunch hours memorizing train schedules). Robert also wore a Russian hat to school each day, its fur flaps protecting his ears even when the temperature topped eighty.

When Robert found out that my father had been born in Russia (Kiev then, as Putin would have it, considered to be part of Russia) he requested the chance to visit our house on Sunday afternoons to engage in Russian conversation. My father was ecstatic. Over the course of about eighteen months, I recall sitting upstairs awkwardly watching football or baseball on television while my father laughed and soaked up the company of Robert in the breakfast room below.

Whatever psychological damage this did to me was rectified, or at least evened out, when we learned that Robert’s father was an ice hockey fanatic with front row tickets to the Flyers’ games. Robert had no interest in sharing his father’s passion for something he thought so ridiculous as sports, so I attended eight or ten hockey games with his delighted dad over the same period.

When Robert’s interest in Russian petered out in favor of a new passion for painting Victorian train stations, (what can I say?) my father was clearly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t work up any interest in learning Russian. And I didn’t foresee how useful and valuable Spanish might be. In the early 1970’s, no one had yet calculated that it could be the majority language in the country by 2030.

*****

As an adult, I’ve had more opportunities to learn Spanish than I ever imagined. First, the kids played soccer under a series of Latin American trainers. Then we bought property in Costa Rica and began to visit there regularly. In addition, my children studied Spanish in school. They tell me they are proficient though I’ve rarely heard them speak.

Accordingly,taking a scattershot approach, I’ve obtained several books and tapes and I sometimes watch Spanish television with English subtitles. Once again or, perhaps, still, my ability to memorize vocabulary words outstrips my limited capacity to place the words in proper order and tense.

Like German, Spanish features a host of ways to say “the” and divides its nouns into masculine and feminine, with all the same grammatical booby-traps. But Spanish has two things going for it: there are tons of cognates. In other words, hospital in Spanish equals hospital in English. Doctor is doctor. Goal is gol, etc.; and, Spanish-speaking people, at least those I’ve encountered through soccer or visiting Costa Rica, are not hung up on precision. When I try to express myself in Spanish, if they can understand from my vocabulary and body language what I’m trying to say, they smile and say: “Su espanol es muy bueno.” (Your Spanish is very good).

I know they are exaggerating. I also know I’d benefit if they were less kind and more rigorous in teaching me. But, at least on some basic level, I’m able to converse in a foreign language. And that’s more than Frau Springer, my father, or I would ever have expected.

Advertisements

GOING ORGANIC

As both a new arrival to North Carolina and a recent refugee from a law career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience. An organic farming class offered at Central Carolina Community College fit the bill. Not only would I learn new gardening techniques and pest control measures, but for three hours a week I could sample the life of a working farmer.
Little did I suspect that organic farming consists of only one part gardening to nine parts chemistry and soil analysis. For a former literature major like myself, there were intolerably massive doses of incomprehensible terms like “Ph”.
The first class, held at a real farm in Pittsboro, began with the customary introduction of the participants. Several were already professional farmers in search of knowledge in the “organic” realm. Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming, though they had degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry. One classmate had just inherited twenty-seven acres and craved direction and inspiration — organic farm or housing development? A contingent were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune. And then there was me, in over my head, a retired lawyer who grows a backyard vegetable garden.
The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose past was intriguing. Doug graduated from Harvard circa 1975 and somehow missed the memo about investment banking. His was the stringy body of a man who has done backbreaking, painstaking physical labor for nearly forty years. Just as stringy was the grey ponytail down the middle of his back.
Certainly, Doug’s jeans, boots and flannel shirts started out clean each day; however, by the five p.m. start of our weekly class, they were always caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours. To me, they looked muddy.
And THAT summarizes the course for me. Yes, I learned to place a tomato plant sideways in its hole. I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting. I learned to construct a raised bed and to make a temporary greenhouse. I learned one should not refer to the class as “orgasmic” gardening in front of classmates who do not consider it a laughing matter.
But I also learned being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work. There are challenges wrought by bugs and bacteria made exponentially harder by the organic element. And, organic or not, there are battles with heat, drought, floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina! And there are vagaries of produce prices and supply shortages, etc.
Farming is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year pursuit, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there is a small profit in the end. While I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my humble garden at home, there is no new career in it for me. Ultimately, what I learned is not to complain about the price of organic produce at the market.


WRITING GROUP

I did not join a writing group to write about the writing group, but the collection of people in one of the eight-week sessions I’ve attended over the last two years proved irresistible.
In addition to our “leader,” Elena, who organized the meetings and provided the prompts, there was Velva, a sweet wheelchair-bound woman whose house we used since she cannot travel; Tracy, a wildly curled redhead just graduated from college, who wore cowboy boots and wrote about drunken bacchanals she had attended; Greg, a psychiatrist, and Marybeth and Debra, two admitted depressives who’d never met before, but whose macabre tales of woe and suicidal thoughts appeared to have been written by the same person. If Greg had hoped the writing group would provide a break from his work-a-day world dealing with psychological crises, he was sadly mistaken.
The sessions were split into two parts. In each, Elena provided a verbal, visual or tactile prompt. We wrote for thirty minutes in longhand or on computers, then each person read their piece aloud, and everyone said something admiring about the piece, no matter what they may have really thought. When I first encountered this requirement, it struck me as impossibly disingenuous. However, I soon recognized the necessity of encouragement in this context. Also, one glows with goodness from lavishing praise, like telling a dinner host “everything is delicious” while contemplating which cereal to have immediately upon arriving home. Between the two writings, we spent fifteen minutes sharing snacks and herbal tea. All-in-all, the format presented a pleasant, nurturing way to practice speed-writing technique.
Several problems seemed to arise more acutely with this group than with other writing groups I have attended. First, not everyone was able to produce cogent writing in thirty minutes. Obviously, some are better at doing so than others, and everyone is flummoxed sometimes. For those occasions when a participant was completely blocked, or when they deemed their product to be total gibberish, they could opt out of reading aloud. In this group, participants chose not to read nearly half the time rather than a typical tally of, perhaps, ten percent. And, in retrospect, considering the head-shaking quality of what was written, we might have been better off with even less reading.
After all, what does one say when a piece is terrible or incomprehensible? How far can one stretch such adjectives as “interesting,” “intriguing,” or “unique” to suggest only positive connotations? Sometimes, after listening to Debra or Marybeth describe pondering submersion in a bathtub and “crossing the River Styx” not for the first time, I expended more effort and anxiety formulating a positive comment than I had contributed to my writing.
Greg’s solution was to comment exclusively in verse, which somehow deflected the tension. It was like having Doctors Seuss and Freud in the room together, formulating cryptic couplets. For example, when Marybeth wrote about her lack of friends, Greg said, with sympathy: “There are good ships, there are bad ships, but the best ships are friendships.”
When Debra wrote about finding her grandfather’s dead body, with emphasis on the word “putrefaction,” Greg nodded admiringly at her vocabulary, and said: “There’s a good deal of action, in putrefaction.” I tried to picture Greg offering therapy. He insists he does not resort to poetry with patients, but did admit to having said to one: “You snooze, you lose.”
On a weekly basis, Tracy described behaviors resulting from chugging beer that made me believe the kegs had LSD instead of alcohol. And she went to a fundamentalist, all-girls’ college! After she described one debauchery courtesy of some visiting males, Greg broke the stunned silence thusly: “One thing for sure, suffice it to say, I’ll never view a pool table, in the same way.”
Velva read from her wheelchair, with a smile, about relatives maimed in car crashes, marriages ravaged by adultery and disease, and crimes carried out with savagery. “It was really creative that you could get to cholera from the prompt ‘shirt collar,’” I once enthused.
My ego was boosted from participating in this particular writing group. In comparison to my co-participants, at least, I was adept at producing a page or two with a beginning, middle and end within the time limits. The bar may have been set low, but I usually attained it. In contrast, Elena rarely produced more than four or five sentences in a thirty minute period, and she knew the prompts ahead of time.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said, speaking of running her household, holding a part-time job, taking a correspondence course, and mothering a four-year-old. “I can’t think straight.” Her admission was a revelation to me; it helped me feel greater empathy for her and the other participants. My life, at this stage, is comparatively uncluttered. After I attended several of her subsequent eight-week sessions, filled with writers I deemed more mainstream in their personal lives and subject-matter, Elena announced she was taking a break.
The hiatus has provided the opportunity, and necessity, to write on my own. This has been a useful development. Yet, I miss the ferment of the writing groups and the interesting collections of people who came together; while most sessions have melded in my memory, the group described above stands out. As the ever-gracious Greg concluded at the end of one bizarre evening:
Those images were horrible,
But don’t take this wrong.
I really enjoyed them,
Gross, pungent and strong.


LUNCHTIME PATTER

I sit at lunch at a long table in a Yale College cafeteria, and half-listen to small talk between two male fellow participants at a writing conference, when a six-foot-tall, dark-skinned woman, with notably high cheekbones, sits down across from me and says “hello.”

I am mildly flattered to have a woman greet me and turn my attention from the man recounting his life story as a national sales manager blah, blah, blah, who has always felt there is a novel in him.

“What do you write?” I ask my new lunch mate, hoping it is not another tale of vampires, dystopic end-of-the-world struggle or daddy/boyfriend/you-name-it beats me misery.

“I write about sex,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s a memoir,” she says.

“Wow! That’s, ah, different,” I manage to say, despite my surprise.

“I’m trying,” she explains, with what might be a blush, “to convince myself to read aloud to my group this evening.  The subject is quite personal.”

“It should be,” I say, blushing myself.

“You see,” she explains, “I write sex advice for a national magazine, and I thought I’d compile my columns into a book.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say.

“So I had a friend who’s a literary agent read the draft, and he said it would be better if it’s personalized.”

“No doubt,” I say with authority, as though I have some.

“But I’m not sure I can read it aloud in front of strangers,” she says.

Unsure what else to say, I quote the climactic advice from the morning’s keynote speaker, an eighty-seven-year-old novelist: “Be bold.”

“That’s right,” she says.  “I really must overcome my shyness.”

Not thinking she is shy at all, I mostly listen while she discusses human sexuality in unusually explicit terms. I try to focus on all the remarkable details about routine topics (to her), such as: nipple hardness, female wetness, and male genitalia, while remaining outwardly nonchalant. Inwardly, I was unsure if I was astounded or embarrassed or both, when I hear her say her present passion, when she’s not writing, is leading tantric workshops.

I gulp.

“How do those work?” I ask. I also take a second to wonder if this discussion is really occurring or if this is a daydream.  I conclude I am fully awake. I decide to delay going to the dessert buffet.

“We usually have six to eight participants of each gender,” she explains.  “We position the participants in two semi-circles – the women sit on the floor in front of the men.  The men move in front of the women, one at a time, and each man looks deeply into the eyes of each woman, and tells them he is sorry for anything negative any man has ever done to her.”

Ever”? I say.

“Yes,” she says.  “Next, they honor the femininity of the women by stroking them, gently, on non-erotic zones, as they proceed around the semi-circle.  Gradually, the touch becomes more intimate.”

I imagine these activities take place in the nude, but I do not wish to ask hopelessly naïve questions.  I also try to imagine how the men are containing indications of excitement.  I don’t have to wonder for long, because she fills in the missing information:  “Throughout the process, the participants, of course, are naked.”

“Of course,” I agree.

“The instructor imparts gentle suggestions about touch to enhance the experience,” she continues. “The men are, by this time, almost certainly revealing interest in sex.  However, it is crucial that they harness this interest, since the stroking activity should last at least three hours before consummation.”

“Three hours?” I say in disbelief.  “If this were a Cialis ad, they’d have to call a doctor, haha.”

She betrays no amusement.   During an awkward pause, I run through a plethora of thoughts, namely: I am happily married; this is not a pick-up bar; I am happily married; she is considerably more than I could handle if I were NOT happily married; I am happily married.

“How do these, um, workshops end?”  I ask.

“The couples pair off for individual implementation of the tantric techniques they have learned.  Each woman chooses a man from around the semi-circle as her partner.”

I concentrate to envision the tantric experience and also sustain the conversation amidst the hubbub of a college cafeteria.

“So, is it like picking teams at recess?  Do the best-looking guys get picked first?” I ask.

“Tantric is a spiritual experience,” she says, “and, it is hoped, all the men are deemed equally attractive.”

“What if a man doesn’t get chosen?” I ask.

“That happens.  Sometimes, it’s perceived that men are there for the wrong reason,” she explains.

“I guess I could see that happening,” I say, possibly with excessive sincerity.

By this time, I realize the other men at our table have stopped talking.  I don’t know how long they’ve been listening, but it now feels as though our conversation is broadcast to hundreds.  We fall silent.

With my next session beginning in several minutes, I gather my plate and utensils.  “It’s been most interesting talking with you,” I say. “Good luck with your reading.  I’m getting a piece of fruit and heading to the lecture hall.”

She offers a luxurious smile, and says:  “The bananas are excellent.”

“Thanks,” I say, backing away, thinking:  “What did she mean by that?  Did she mean anything?”


TAILGATING

 

Certain parts of the American experience have eluded me.  One such element was the “tailgate party.”  Having attended a small college whose football team struggled against Quaker schools, and a graduate school that did not have a football team, I never attended a tailgate party.  And, while much of my adult life was spent in northern New Jersey where the Jets and Giants are known to attract partiers to their parking lot, I was never tempted.

This hole in my resume of life was recently filled when my wife’s employer at North Carolina State University decided it would be a good idea if the Chinese students she helps to acculturate attended a tailgate event preceding a football game.  Always marginally willing to experience something new, I volunteered to go along.

The day loomed sunny and hot, a final scorcher squeezed into the last week of summer.  I thought I would help at home by offering the bit of football-fan knowledge I had, namely:  one is supposed to dress in the color of the home team.  In this case, that would be bright red.  I looked in every closet and every bureau.  I ran up and down the stairs.  Unfortunately, other than a long-sleeved platform-tennis shirt and a souvenir Panama national soccer team jersey, my wardrobe is devoid of bright red.  My wife also was unprepared in this regard because her employer, an independent affiliate of the University, directed its employees to wear company polo shirts; they are blue.  Luckily, the shade of blue is not close to the “Carolina Blue” of the detested rival, the University of North Carolina.  Still, blue is a long way from red.  I opted for what I hoped would be an inconspicuous white shirt.  After all, I thought, there could not possibly be absolute adherence to this custom.

I had several other pre-conceived notions.  Naturally, the tailgate party would feature food.  I anticipated this food would likely be served from coolers stored in people’s trunks.  I surmised it would have been made at home or purchased from a fast-food place along the highway.  I even predicted some celebrants would have some form of barbecue sandwiches, since barbecue is the much-ballyhooed local obsession.  There would also certainly be beer, perhaps a six-pack for each car-load, maybe two.

Finally, as to my expectations, large sporting events engender traffic jams.  However, since the game was not scheduled until six o’clock and the tailgate event was to start at two, I did not expect crowding to be an issue.  After all, how many people would be at a tailgate party in the parking lot four hours before game-time, perhaps several hundred?  I groused we were going too early.  “What if the parking lot is not even open?” I asked.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

We exited the highway about a mile from the stadium and immediately fell into a massive traffic jam.  Pick-up trucks festooned in red flags and banners predominated.  As we crawled towards the stadium, the challenge of locating our group’s designated location, “Space 2675,” became apparent.  Hordes of fans holding plastic cups walked back and forth across the six-lane highway, seemingly oblivious to traffic.  Music blared from speakers set up along the road by fraternities and sororities vying for attention from unaffiliated freshmen, like politicians looking for the last undecided voters.  Everyone was shouting or laughing or throwing footballs or playing corn-hole, a horseshoes-like game indigenous to North Carolina that involves the throwing of beanbags.  Each entrance to a parking area was blocked by a barricade indicating what sort of permit one needed to enter.  There were alumni parking lots, season-ticket-holder parking lots, booster parking lots and staff parking lots.  There did not appear to be any “regular people” parking lots within hailing distance of the stadium.

After fifteen minutes of circling, we were spun out of the main stadium area like satellites shot into orbit and alighted upon an open area abutting railroad tracks that was attracting random attendees like ourselves.  After parking amidst the weeds, we asked several students and security officials about the elusive “Space 2675” and received looks blanker than an empty canvas.   We started to walk towards the now-distant stadium, all the while receiving text messages and phone calls from bewildered Chinese students who were also somewhere in the vicinity.  My wife tried hard to convey confidence that we would all eventually arrive at Space 2675 a confidence that she did not actually feel.

First, we walked through a dusty, unpaved lot that was staked out by student-aged revelers.  Since they were uniformly dressed in red, we felt conspicuously out-of-place, both old and discolored.  Food was not a major element among these participants, but beer certainly was.  There were no six-packs in evidence – more like six kegs in the back of each pick-up truck.  The guys were mostly dressed in T-shirts and shorts; the girls all wore cowboy boots.  “Are we in Wyoming?” I wondered.  I am still seeking an explanation.

As we reached the next level of parking lots grass and dust gave way to loose gravel, and the population changed.  Vehicles were not mere pick-up trucks but resembled military-grade assemblages.  They had tires appropriate for the lunar module.  Others could certainly have towed airplanes.  We were now amidst the Greek community at ground level.  Nineteen-year-old boys were wearing white buttoned-down shirts with red ties over plaid shorts and sailing shoes.  They smoked cigars and held plastic cups with alcoholic concoctions beyond mere beer.  Every twenty yards or so, another tent was set up to house a booming stereo system and bar.  Girls draped themselves over the boys and tried to out-do each other with enthusiastic, attention-grabbing gusto.  Whose legs were longer?  Whose shorts were shorter?

We rushed to move beyond the cacophony but still took time for a photograph or two, just as one would if surrounded by amiably oblivious, wild animals on a safari.  Finally, after at least a mile of walking, we scurried across a highway to where paved lots began.  The population shifted again.  Here were alumni and boosters, the highest order of tailgating civilization.  The music was quieter, the imbibing more dignified, but the infrastructure was amazing.  As we rounded a corner behind the stadium, there was a sea of red tents as far as the eye could see.  There were hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand North Carolina State-branded tents.  Each was surrounded by a circle of support vehicles.

Several of the tents held a mere card table and chairs with some fast-food boxes.  However, the overwhelming majority harbored folding tables with red table cloths, over-stuffed lounge chairs, flower arrangements, and massive barbecues aflame.  The smell of sizzling meat competed to overload one’s senses with the noise of stereos and the sheer blaze of red bunting.

We must have looked conspicuously clueless because a kindly lot attendant in a golf cart pulled up and asked if we needed help.  Actually, what he said was:  “D’ y’all know whe’ ya goin’?”  We gratefully sputtered something about space 2675 and he told us to “hop on in.”  We hopped.  Our savior chatted the whole time he drove us.  We understood very little of what he said due to his thick North Carolina accent and the wad of tobacco contained in his cheek, but we were so grateful for the ride that we nodded and smiled encouragingly at every opportunity. At last, he deposited us in a relatively quiet outpost in the far reaches of the lot.  A tiny sign informed us that we had arrived at the 2600 area, where non-regulars can set up a tailgate.   Several of my wife’s co-workers were already there, looking exhausted.  They gaped enviously as we departed the cart and casually bade our chauffer good-bye, as though our good fortune had been arranged on Expedia.

The company tent was modest and only a few students were present when we arrived.  But staff and students alike were busy with cell-phones directing a far-flung Chinese diaspora to our location.  More arrived every few minutes, appearing as though they had just crossed a desert.  Culture shock was combined with shell-shock and provoked the inevitable question of whether we could/should provide the students something stronger than soft drinks and water.  The answer was “no.”

The company van contained coolers of soda and ice water and several interns unveiled the feast that doubtless made our tailgate unique among its surroundings and, possibly, the history of tailgating – dumplings.  Students and several employees had spent the morning shaping, filling and boiling vast quantities of pork, chicken and beef dumplings.  A sign was unfurled to advise our neighbors, who were already amazed at the sight of fifty or so Chinese students in their midst, that we had dumplings to spare.  When several sidled over to sample our dumplings and share their spicy boiled peanuts (definitely an acquired taste), our tailgating experience was underway.


SPIN CLASS

 

A recent phenomenon since the new millennium is “spin class.”  When the term first appeared, I thought it had to do with dancing or fast-paced calisthenics.  Not being particularly interested in either activity, it took me several years to learn that “spin” is actually performed on a bicycle in a health club.   Despite having several friends and a spouse who are spin enthusiasts, I spent several more years picturing spin as akin to riding a bucking bronco.  John Travolta came to mind when I learned there is a musical component.  I maintained that image in my mind until today, when I made my spin debut.

“Spin” was not on my agenda for this morning.   Instead, I awoke anticipating my usual weekend tennis game, while my wife headed off to her spin class at “the gym.”  However, the weather dawned wet and wild, so there would be no tennis.  Always practical, my wife suggested I accompany her so that a subsequent trip to the hardware store could be accomplished together without the need for an extra car ride.  “You can hang out in the weight room for an hour,” she suggested.  However, in my new occasional openness to new things, I volunteered to finally experience “spin.”

The first revelation was that we had to arrive early to stake out bikes.  Even though it was barely past dawn on Sunday morning, “spin” is somehow popular.  People pay to pedal!   Skeptical, but compliant, I joined the rush into the room at 7:40 for an 8:00 class.  Remarkably, the room was nearly full as we staked out two of the last available bikes.  I examined mine to see if there was any special feature that transformed this humdrum piece of hardware into a calorie-collapsing powerhouse.  Nope.  The bike looked notably pedestrian.  In fact, it was less elaborate than most bicycles I’ve encountered since there are no gears and no brakes, just a round control in the middle which adjusts the resistance.   “So far, so good,” I said to myself.  “This looks easy.”

While my wife chatted with several friends, I tried to wrap my mind around the popularity of spin, which I understood from our ride over, would involve being led through a regimen of sweat-inducing pedaling challenges by a loud-music-inspired taskmaster.  The “spin” aspect refers to the wheels, I suppose, indicative of slick marketing,   since it sounds significantly more satisfying than “stationary bike class.”  The class component means that, instead of just taking a difficult bike ride, if one is so inclined, one pedals, sweats and grunts in close quarters with twenty or thirty fellow non-travelers.

The class was comprised of a mixture of participants ranging in age from the mid-twenties to the outer limits of what can still be called middle-aged.  There were about twenty women and three or four men.  Though the population of any such exercise class is self-selected to be fairly fit, this spandex and tee-shirted crowd was not notably attractive.  In suburban North Carolina, perhaps, unlike in Hollywood, glamour is left at home on rainy Sunday mornings.

At the appointed hour, the instructor, Charles, swept in amidst our bikes and took his place on a platform in front of a mirrored wall.  He gazed out at us and shouted with unnerving cheerfulness:  “Is everybody ready to sweat?”  He then turned on some throbbing rap music and led us into a “warm-up.”  “Wow,” I thought.  “I am subjecting myself to this noise when I could be at home listening to Vivaldi.”

I tuned out the sound as much as I could and focused on the physical activity.  We pedaled slowly, mostly, and stretched our arms to the sides and above our heads.  It felt good.  From my spot in the middle of three rows I felt good-natured solidarity with those around me as we cheerfully set off on our ride to nowhere.

Directly in front of me, however, I noticed a young man pedaling furiously, as though he were racing up a mountain in the last stage of the Tour de France.   He was the student from central-casting who embodies the expression:  “there is one in every crowd.”  You know who I mean.  It is the guy who always sits front and center in class; the guy who always raises his hand to answer questions; the guy who dominates the instructor’s time.  This was a young man in an unnervingly bright orange cycling outfit who felt a need, during a short lull in the music, to announce to the instructor and everyone else:  “This is my first class!  Make it a good one!”

I rolled my eyes and attempted to focus on my own activity.  My wife warned me to react to Charles’s frequent exhortations to “turn it up” by moving my resistance dial in tiny increments.  Otherwise, I would find myself working harder than my legs could manage.  It was not clear, however, what she meant by “tiny.”  Is that an eighth of an inch, a quarter of an inch, or what?  I realized that there would be an unexpected moral element to this activity.  How hard one works is entirely up to oneself.

At first, as we progressed from warming-up to climbing an imaginary mountain, the activity was easy.  I moved my dial a modest quarter-inch and still did not feel much resistance.  Charles then instructed us to alternately stand and sit while pedaling.  This required a fair amount of concentration, particularly given that male anatomy is not ideal for rapid placement on a bicycle seat.  My haunches began to feel challenged.  A bead of sweat emerged on my brow.  Still, the exertion was manageable.

Misty memories of soccer practices emerged in my mind that I had not pondered for decades.  My college team had “brutality day” once a week, a practice that consisted almost entirely of conditioning.  We ran, then we did exercises, then we ran again, then we went en masse to the weight room that the football team grudgingly vacated for thirty minutes.  On those days, in the flush of youth, my teammates and I obsessed with avoiding exertion.  Each person dogged it as much as possible, oblivious to the counter-productiveness of our lassitude.  We all knew that better conditioning would help us win our games.  It was definitely a case of youth being wasted on the young.

I pondered the irony of how much more my youthful body could have endured while the college facility was free.   Now, I found myself paying to participate in a fitness activity; yet, once again, I was not working to full capacity, though I completely understood the importance of promoting good health.  The philosophical implications of effort and reward and the passage of time weighed on my mind.  These profound ruminations helped me ignore the loud and ostentatious exertions of the fellow in front of me.  I ultimately rationalized my sloth with the conclusion that I wanted to be able to walk the next day.

Another of the random thoughts that floated through my mind during spin, like flotsam and jetsam, is that one cannot know how much resistance one’s neighbors are imposing upon themselves.  The only objective marker of a spinner’s work habits is the puddle of sweat accumulating on the floor around their bikes.  In this category, I was failing.  I noticed that the guy in front was sweating so profusely that I was certain he had spilled his water bottle.  Not to be outdone, I turned my dial a half inch, with a flourish!  After all, I figured, we must be nearly done, and I needed to appear fully perspired when the class ended.

At that moment, Charles announced that we were halfway through.  “Halfway?” I gasped.  The guy in front of me shouted to Charles to “make it more challenging!”  Feeling my knees begin to wobble, I pondered if Alleve and Preparation H can be combined.  I relished a minute devoted to stretching.

The second half of the class proceeded like the first.  I found it harder because my legs were undeniably fatigued.  Yet, I was also more comfortable handling the frequent ups and downs, and I was now thoroughly “warmed up.”  I glanced at the earnest participants around me, including my wife, and admired their dedication.  Thus inspired, I turned the dial another quarter inch and tried to appreciate some aspect of the rap music that was reverberating in my skull.  I could not find any, but at least the misery in my ears helped me to absorb some of the misery in my thighs.

Sunshine emerged through the windows and brightened the room and the mood.  “Isn’t that nice!” shouted Charles, over the music.  “It’s going to be a beautiful day!”  Several classmates whooped and cheered.  I was still pedaling slowly, feeling as though my kneecaps were turning to jelly.  I leaned forward over the handlebars to relieve the tension in my back.  This enabled several drops of sweat to fall from my forehead to the floor and added to my sub-par collection.  When I sat back again I saw that Lance Armstrong in front of me was now swinging his arms to accompany his furious pace.

“Last mountain!” shouted Charles, as he adjusted the music even louder.  “Turn it up!”

I took a deep breath and contemplated my choices.  I could turn the dial just a little; I could turn the dial a lot and go out (or down) in a blaze of glory; or, as a devil-like figure seemingly whispered into my ear, I could act as though I were turning the dial without actually turning it.  No one would know the difference!  This was entirely my own choice and my own consequence.

Except me.   I would know the difference!   And that would not be good.  I have, at least, made some progress since I was twenty.  I adjusted the dial a moderate amount and pedaled through some moderate discomfort.  When the music finally ended, and Charles declared:  “See you all next week!” I made sure I kept pedaling until after the guy in front of me came to a halt.

 


PREMATURE MATRICULATION

I was on my way to becoming an adult school drop-out when “Shakespeare in Music” turned out to be almost entirely about obscure opera. Perhaps I should explain.
When we moved to Chapel Hill, we looked forward to auditing courses at UNC, a mere twelve minutes from our home. Unfortunately, as part of the pervasive financial crisis, the University system dropped their longstanding policy of allowing anyone over fifty to audit unless they were on staff. How this change saves money is beyond me, but policy is policy.
The next best thing, my always resilient spouse said, is to participate in the “Life-Long Learning Program” for adults at Duke. My initial thoughts were that Duke is thirty-five minutes away, not twelve, and my son, who attends UNC, and is a basketball fan, would no longer speak to me. However, the catalogue included several interesting classes, and I agreed to participate.
I signed up for Screenwriting, and my wife signed up for History of Comedy. The day before the first class, however, I received a call advising that the Screenwriting class was full.
“Alright, that’s too bad, but what about Nanotechnology?” I asked.
“Full,” she said.
“Technical writing?” I asked.
“Full,” she replied.
“Well, can I join my wife in History of Comedy?”
She paused for a moment, then replied: “That’s not available either.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “I should just ask what is available.”
“There’s a class called ‘Shakespeare in Music’ and…” she hesitated, then finally continued “….Actually, that’s the only class that is available.”
I pondered my choice that was not really a choice. Do I let me wife drive to Durham each Monday morning by herself or do I learn something about Shakespeare in music? To be in class, or not to be in class, that was the question.
Having resolved to be a good sport in my new, non-New Jersey, semi-retired mode, I thought, “What the heck? I’ll do Shakespeare.” The ballet music from Romeo and Juliet was a favorite of mine, and I was certain it would figure prominently in the course.
My main impressions of the first day of class were that my teacher was a young man who spoke quietly and with a lisp and that most of my class-mates utilized canes or walkers. Two had oxygen tanks. And the syllabus…. I had not imagined that there are four operas based on Falstaff, not one by a composer with whom I am familiar. The Romeo and Juliet that had attracted me was not included, the teacher explained, because the proper expression of Shakespeare in music is found in opera, not ballet. He felt it was important to study the “texts” which he pronounced with extreme difficulty. It sounded like “tetthhhhhs.”
Of the twenty students in the room, ten were asleep by the end of the ninety minute session. To be fair, only eight fell asleep during class because two were asleep when the class began. I struggled to keep my eyes open. The woman next to me whispered, when it was over, that I was a nice boy for being willing to drive my parents to the class, and asked me which ones they were.
On the way home, I told my wife I was unsure about continuing. However, she had enjoyed her class immensely and suggested that I try it. She assured me there were several open chairs and that the teacher did not take attendance.
“We laughed the whole time,” she said. “You won’t believe how funny the instructor is.”
The following Monday, ready to be amused, I snuck into “History of Comedy.” The students were just as old as in “Shakespeare in Music” but they seemed livelier – they were, after all, interested in comedy. Everyone chatted amiably for several minutes until the elderly teacher arrived. He faced the blackboard and drew a huge smiley face. He paused for a moment while we tittered, then laboriously drew a teardrop next to one eye. He turned and gazed at the assembled students, and said: “I have an announcement.”
We smiled expectantly, anticipating the first joke.
“I have cancer,” he said, gravely. “I will not be able to continue teaching the class.”
We sat in stunned silence. After a pause, he continued: “I imagine you can get a refund.”
He shuffled out.
We all looked at each other, crestfallen. Finally, we rose one at a time and walked out. I still needed to process the sad event that had just occurred, but one thing was clear to me; my premature matriculation into adult education was over. Perhaps in twenty years, I will try again.