During one of my classes at the residency (a class consisting of all 4th term students getting ready to graduate) someone commented that they were sure looking forward to a break when school is finished. While we have a four week break between semesters, most of us spend it reading material for the next residency and/or working on submissions for the workshop. In effect, we don’t ever get a break for the two years we are working on this master’s degree, and it becomes a bit daunting. But this time, we didn’t seem to have as much preparatory work for the new term, and this opened a conversation about how nice it’s been to be afforded a mental break. Several people talked about how great it was reading a book or two that was not mandatory reading.
I commented that I had spent Christmas vacation reading magazines.
This was met with laughter and someone said, “So, you turned into a vegetable when you finally had the chance, did you?”
My knee jerk reaction was, well aren’t you all sudo-sophisticated snobs calling me a vegetable because of my reading choicse. I have a thin defensive skin regarding my intellect, due to years of feeling like a dumb-dancer. But my actual (more fair) response was, “I wasn’t exactly reading Cosmopolitan, you know. There are some amazing magazines out there, which fuel your mind. Yes, I read magazines. Plenty. I’ve yet to read a literary book that can give you the broad spectrum and the insight of good old fashion information, and there are some incredible writers on staff at some of the more interesting magazines too.”
Then, my friends backpedaled and said, “Well, I guess there are some magazines out there worth a dose of time. We thought you meant dumb ones, like fashion magazines.”
My class mates are good, talented, smart people, and I know they didn’t mean to offend. But they do have strong feelings about anything they consider commercial garbage and I don’t entirely agree with them.
Nevertheless, I said, “I read fashion magazines too. Shoot me.”
What the heck, I’m not ashamed of who I am. (And deep down, I have confidence that I will do more with writing than most of those closet-Cosmo-reading literary aficionados just by nature of my own determination. And I am not intimidated by art. I don’t have to pretend to be a purist regarding literary sensibilities. I can have a deep understanding of literary merit and enjoy commercial material too.
Anyway, the fact is, I do read magazines. Too many, in fact. I subscribe to so many magazines that the postmaster at my P.O. Box (Vicki) has put me in first position on the waiting list for a super-sized box. My regular sized box is always jammed full of magazines. I also receive tons of books, because I now purchase everything on-line because there is no bookstore within an hour of our home.
The other day, Vicki said, “I sure hope you like reading, because I’ve never seen someone receive more book packages.” I explained that I was in a master’s program and I needed a lot of books for school.
“It’s amazing you can see straight,” she said.
Ha, she should know I’ve always believed reading is the reason I see straight at all.
For example, I spent this morning reading my very favorite magazine of all time. Ode. This magazine is marketed as a periodical “for intelligent optimists”. I don’t know if I qualify, but I think I am somewhat closer to being one, thanks to the enlightened articles in this publication. All the pieces are short, based on elements that influence our world, yet with a positive bent, as if the editor decided long ago not to simply focus on problems, but to share information about all the solutions people are working on to overcome the world’s issues. I love this. Reading Ode, I learn who won the noble peace prize and why, and what inventions are on the brink of discovery to help our environment. I learn about progressive cultural exchanges, and new perceptions in philosophy, religion and politics. I read inspirational articles about people who impact the world in positive ways. It’s a down to earth magazine that doesn’t see everything through rose-colored glasses, but does discuss intelligent solutions to the things plaguing us today. Like the heading on the cover says, it is intelligent and optimistic.
I lay in bed reading Ode and every few minutes I’ll share some snippet of information I find fascinating with my husband, who usually just mumbles, “Wow, that’s nice dear.” I leave it around for him, but he has yet to read it.
This month, there was a short one-page article on a new light bulb invented that lasts 35 years and uses 90% less electricity. Talk about a solution to our energy crisis! But the bulb costs 38 bucks. Over the lifetime of use, that still saves tons of money, and iit’s a way to pay heed to our environmental problems. But anything that isn’t cost efficient in the short term is often pushed aside, so the article discusses ways to change people’s attitude to accept this small change for a greater long-term benefit. Now, this may sound boring to you, but I read it and it swirls around in my mind for hours. I’ll be feeding the horses, thinking of light bulbs – the ones I use, the ones I now want to use. It stimulates my mind in great ways (like a lightbulb going off over my head, so to speak), so in the end, I think about more than just my routine of feeding horses.
I also read about a man with amazing, innovative management techniques that are the opposite of those traditionally incorporated today. He lets employees set their own hours, their own pay, and the entire company is set up as a democracy. And this company made 212 million last year. He states, “When people act like animals in a cage, I believe it’s not the people. It’s the cage.” Fascinating. Made me start thinking about what worked and didn’t work when I had my own company. Next thing you knew, I’d spent the afternoon thinking of ways I might have done things better. (Sigh) Next time?
Anyway, I wish everyone I cared about would read this magazine. It would keep us all on the same page. Little sparks of insight offered through easy reads like this stretch the boundaries of a person’s world. It not only feeds us with healthy information but it offers creative ways of thinking about the world. It is a message of positive hope, reminding us every individual can make a difference if they think outside of the box. This is good for a person’s soul. Good for their health too to look at the world with a positive slant. And it’s fun – an intellectual orgasm, so to speak.
The point is, I don’t believe reading a magazine like Ode is a waste of time. I don’t think I’d would be better served by reading one more book by Faulkner or Alice Munro instead. I think literary books are important, but people need a variety of input to be well-rounded individuals – and we need eclectic data to ignite our brains.
I used to preach this to my students when I could. I’ve always believed that the only way you can ever be a great artist is to be a great person first. I had issues with art obsessive students who lived in a dance vacuum. I’d say, “It is all well and good that you master your craft and can produce art amazingly well, which was accomplished by your tunnel vision determination – an admirable thing. But art is more than technique, and if you have nothing to say, no greater truth, your talent is worthless. Art reflects life. It is a vehicle of communication for human beings. What the hell are you gonna create a dance about, if you don’t understand anything but dance? A dance about dance is just movement, so shallow it simply won’t fly.” (Competition fluff)
The truth is, great composures, great choreographers, great writers, great artists of any kind, usually are recognized because of the substance behind their work. They create works based on social commentary – history, religion, politics, culture, etc. That is what draws an audience, because it moves them at the core of their being. People don’t hail art because it is “pretty”. Take a look at the greatest works of all time (in dance too). You can bet those company pieces that withstood the test of time are those by Graham or Twarp that said something about the earth – dances that have meaning. Pretty dances are a dime a dozen. The dances that make a statement last. And to make a statement, you must have an intelligent understanding of the world.
I once was having dinner with a student/teacher from FLEX on a dinner break at a competition we were having. We had escaped for well-needed break from the madness. I asked this friend what they wanted out of life. She answered, “I just want to dance at FLEX forever.”
“Yeah, that’s good, but what else? Seriously. Everyone has dreams and aspirations. Working at FLEX is lovely and everyone should do what they love for a living, but there must be other things you desire deep down. Places you want to see or things you would love to accomplish. For instance, you may want to walk across Ireland to see the home of your ancestors, or write poetry just for yourself, or support the rights of squirrels or something. Everyone has a dream. What do you want out of life that will give your world meaning?”
She narrowed her eyes and said, “Not everyone has big dreams, and there is nothing wrong with me because I don’t want anything more than working at FLEX. Not everyone wants to write books. What is wrong with YOU that you can’t be happy with what you have.”
Later, my husband admonished me for “attacking” our friend. He said I make others feel bad for living a simple existence. “Not everyone is as complex as you,” he said, ( and this was not said as a compliment.)
I said, “I wasn’t attacking her! I was trying to help her think beyond the cage she is creating for herself. She is young, and she needs to be reminded that the world is a damn interesting place. I was hoping our conversation would lead her to realize there were things she wanted that would enhance her life, and I’d like to brainstorm to help her realize her dreams. I’m not saying she needs another job. I’m saying that life is more than work. I believe in encouraging others to expand their horizons. Besides which, can we ever talk to anyone about something other than dance? We’d just sat through 8 hours of competition and had four more to go. Was it so wrong to want a mental break and discuss something else? Don’t you get sick of every conversation being about the dance world?”
“These people don’t care about anything but dance. And they don’t want YOU to care about anything else either. It threatens and confuses them. Did it ever occur to you that your incessant questions come across as if you don’t think people are good enough as they are. It’s as if you are testing them to see if they have a decent thought in their head . . . and sometimes, they don’t.” he said. “No reason to point that out.”
I certainly didn’t (and never do) mean it that way when I ask questions. But I am curious about what makes a person tick. And honestly, for all that I love dance, I think carving a life around only that leads to a person becoming a very shallow individual. Considering I genuinely care about my dancers, this creates a conflict. I want to introduce them to the grandeur of dance, but remind them that it should enhance other elements of life, not smother you or make you one dimensional. I hate to think that in order to dance, a person must sacrifice all the other fascinating elements the world has to offer. And face it, we get older. What is left when dance is gone if you didn’t develop yourself as a person along the way? (This particular senario happens to be what my thesis book is about.)
For the record I want to point out that later, my husband apologized for attacking me when he accused me of attacking her. This all happened at a time when I was first struggling with frustration regarding the narrow perspective of our lives (which ultimately grew and lead us to sell our business). My growing interest in the world beyond dance was unexpected, and a bit threatening back then. But later, more talks like this and confessions regarding the lack of meaning in our lives, lead to discovering we had mutual frustrations. We both harbored aspirations beyond the routine of building our school. And a lot of what we did with our lives was out of habit and clinging to what was familiar. It is easy to stick with something you are good at, but that doesn’t necessary promote personal growth. Anyway, his angry reaction to me that day wasn’t about that conversation at all, but other things going on in our life, and in the end, he admitted he shared the same feelings as I about a narrow mindset. And he did not really hate the way I ask questions of people, because it usually made for fun conversation. Both important revelations.
In all fairness, I admit I ask too many questions of people. I guess I cross the boundary of social comfort when I venture into more intimate areas of a person’s mind. But heck, I find it boring to talk of weather or all those appropriate, surface subjects –it’s not real talking at all. I want to know where a person would live if they could live anywhere. What kind of work they would do if they could do anything. I am curious to hear what they went to college for, and why their career paths changed. I want to know how couples met, and what their weddings were like. I wonder if they ever played an instrument, and if they read books (and which ones they read). Are they religious? Vegetarians? A fan of Aerosmith?
My daughter warns her friends and boyfriends about me. She says, “Be prepared. My mother will interrogate you.”
I hate this. I DO NOT interrogate people. But I do ask them questions. If I ever fail to get into a good conversation with one of her new friends, someone she cares about that she has brought home to meet the parents, she then says, “What’s wrong. Don’t you like him? You didn’t ask anything about him? He was ready for you.” Now, she’s offended that I didn’t find out some meaty information (which she then hopes I’ll share.) Geez – I can’t win.
I used to talk to Mark’s dad at holiday gatherings, and later I’d comment on things I learned. Mark would look at me strangely and say, “Hell, I never knew that. I guess don’t know anything about that man.”
“Well, you should have just asked”, I’d say – but in this case, I must admit, that quiet Scottish man was a tough nut to crack and I worked really hard at it – it was a personal challenge. But the point is, I find it sad that we can spend lots of time with people and never really know them. The best way to like someone is to know them. Then you put all your prejudiced assumptions aside.
When we had FLEX, there was a particular group of involved parents that I very much liked. I was always trying to learn more about them, but it was hard. Their kids were close friends with my kids, so we would gather at competitions or I would have them over to my home on Halloween (for my obsessive pumpkin buffet) and I’d try to pump information. I once asked a mom what she and her husband hoped to do when they retired – what secret ambition they had for their life. She shared an interesting picture of her ideal future, then blushed and said, “Why are you asking me this?” As if I must have some ulterior motive for being interested in her as a person. Then, she shut down – distrusting that I could have a sincere interest in anything other than her kid’s dance career, I guess. Big disappointment. I never forgot it.
We’d be sitting around after a competition and I’d ask women where their husbands were and what they did, and why I never got a chance to meet them. And they would always answer politely, but generically, then turn the subject back to dance and the kids and what choreography I might be planning for next year. So I’d ask about their work. Their hobbies. Again, I would get short, generic answers and this would be followed by a dance comment to get us back on track in the comfortable dance zone.
Mark was right, no one wanted me interested in anything but dance. I was neatly packaged into this dance guru role and everyone was most comfortable with me there. When I ventured to any subject other than dance education, my comments were met with skepticism, as if I must be trying to harvest information for some end, as if knowing their inner selves would give me fuel to gossip or something. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t like to see me distracted from their kid’s interests. Or maybe they simply didn’t want a friendship.
Let me point out that I loved their children. Really adored them. And I loved being their dance teacher and leading them into the world of the arts. I felt my job was significant – enriching the lives of young people and helping character development. And face it, I can talk dance for hours. It’s my number one subject. Try me. But the fact is, these kids are twelve. I’m forty-seven. They are important young people to me, but they are students, not my friends. I always believed the true friends I’d find would be among those parents who supported their kid’s interest in the arts. I assumed we had similar core beliefs. These were women with marriages, devotion to their kids, careers, personal interests, and most had a hearty sense of humor. We had a lot in common. But I was not allowed to be privy to who they really were. I was just the hired dance guns.
One time Mark said, “I don’t think they know who they are, Ginny. Sometimes I think they define their lives by their kids. That is all they talk about because that is all there is. You don’t define yourself by your children, so the truth is, you really don’t have much in common with them. ” But I couldn’t believe it. I thought it had to be something else. Maybe they worried that if they dared answered a question about their own lives, and the answer didn’t sit me, I’d put their kid in the back line or something. Right.
I swear, I’m the only person I know who was swamped with people every hour of the day, yet who was so lonely she found herself talking back to the books she read just to escape the dance cell that she’d been sentenced to. Hello? Is there anybody out there? If I see one more sequin I’m going to scream!
Amazing that as dance teachers, we were always focusing on things like balance, but there was no balance in the process for us.
Ah well. It’s history now.
After we sold FLEX, I had dinner with a few of those parents I always thought I might have enjoyed if only I had an opportunity to know them as people. Most of the others had long since turned on us the moment they decided we were no longer useful regarding their child’s dance education. In fact, true to the theory, they had no interest in any kind of relationship now because we ventured beyond the confines of their dance interests. They even took pride, boasted, of how they wouldn’t give us the time of day. Punishment for us? Whatever. We broke that unspoken rule- we were supposed to remain in that dance guru place where we belonged. Permanently. It was our role in life, and when we left, everyone was disappointed and angry. We were not the heroes they thought we were. We had let them down. We were horrible, selfish people who obviously didn’t care about “the kids” like they thought, or we wouldn’t have sold the school.
Anyway, at that dinner, I finally got a chance to talk to these parents who dared remain friends, just for the sake of past good times, and appreciation for our years of service. We didn’t just talk about the kid’s dance education, because some of them didn’t dance anymore. Some of them still danced at FLEX, but since I didn’t own it, discussing their dance education was sort of fruitless. Some of their kids even had begun dancing elsewhere. And all of this was OK. I was interested in their choices, and I gave them my two cents on the big picture, but beyond that, we eventually were able to move on to other subjects.
With the interests of the kids shortly exhausted, I began to learn who these adults actually are. I learned that one couple used to weave baskets and do stained glass. I learned another had a website featuring her artwork – beautiful vintage cards. She also enters (and wins) writing contests. Who knew? We talked and laughed about how they met their spouses and they shared funny things that happened on vacations, or when their kids were born. We laughed about old FLEX memories too and talked honestly about the kind of impression I gave others. Some of it was admirable, some of it wasn’t. Much of it was off the mark regarding what I actually felt or thought, and it was interesting (if not a bit sad) to see how people got the wrong impression of the Hendry’s due to a lack of any real talking.
I sat there, watching these familiar faces over my wine (Mark wasn’t with me that day), thinking how sad it was that I never had these kinds of conversations before. I would have been happier as the owner of FLEX had I had some non-dance related adult interaction. I would have probably been more effective in teaching their children too, because with honest friendship, you can help others see through all the dance bullshit. Anyway, I enjoyed the meal and I left thinking these people were now, at long last, real to me – individuals I could admire. They didn’t seem like obsessive dance nuts who had such a skewed sense of life priority (which honestly, it felt like people had considering we only saw that little-legue dance aggression side of them). Now I saw these dance parents as interesting, warm, quirky people who are defined by so much more than being parents of kids who dance. I mourn those potential friends we lost in our transition, those that couldn’t have a glass of wine with me because I sold the school, but I believe we gained something too. A new perspective on the people we spent years hanging around with. Some would have been friends all along had we found a way. Others never were. Interesting.
I am so on a tangent!
Where was I?
Oh yea, if my schoolmates are right and magazines turn your brain into a vegetable, then I’m not a radish. I’m a whole faloot’in vegetable garden. These are the magazines I actually subscribe to. I read most all of them, some I pour over and read every word, others I glance out just to see if there is anything interesting inside. The titles are so varied, you could say I am a Reading Sybil.
Health & Fitness: Runner’s World, Shape, Fitness, Health, Yoga Journal. A Journeys (Appalachian Trail mag.) Backpacker
Human Interest: Ode, National Geographic, People, American Heritage, the Advocate
Cooking: Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, Taste of Home, Light and Tasty, Bon Appetite, Vegetarian Times, Food & Wine,
Figuring out what the heck I’m supposed to do with 50 acres: Hobby Farms, Mother Earth News, Grit, Equus, Horse Illustrated,
Special Interests: Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, Writer’s Ask, Writer’s Chronicle, Spin Off, Crochet, Bead and Button, Beads, Budget Travel, Travel and Leisure (If you can’t go anywhere, you can always read about going)
Women’s (These I keep trying to let go, but they keep wooing me with deals, like a full year for 6-10$ so despite my resolve to par down the list, I usually cave. I read these the least, except for browsing for a few good recipes. Sometimes I think I could write for them though) Woman’s Day, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle.
Literary Mags (Which I suppose might counteract the mush effects of the above, except that I tend to let them stack up in my “I will read when I graduate” pile. The benefit is sort of counteracted that way.) Missouri Review, Georgia Review, Brick, Rosebud, the Sun.
There are probably others I’m not thinking of or are not in the rack beside me. Eee gad. I’ve just counted for the first time. That is 42 magazine subscriptions! I have to read one and a half mag a day just to keep up. Eesh. I really do gotta par down. And this does not include those magazines I periodically get from organizations, like from the Heifer Corp, United Christian Children’s fund, Angora, Romance Writers, etc…, which I also read. Then there is the fact that Mark takes up all that room in our mailbox with his three subscriptions to Woodworker, Log home and Men’s fitness. (Just like a man to take up space in a perfectly good PO Box with such nonsense.)
The more I write the more I realize I better go read the glossy print now. Gotta keep up.
Make the day count! Ask someone a question. Listen to the answer. Smile.