Every time I mention that four letter word (FLEX), my site gets a thousand hits. Emotions are stirred. People get riled. Some in defense of us. Some in defense of their own actions. Some people write responses to the blog. Many write me directly, wanting to keep their comments private. As result, despite lots of emotionally packed experiences these past two years, I’ve avoided sharing most of my feelings regarding interaction with our former business, except in cases where I was really goaded into saying something. Anyone who knows me understands I get impassioned about the things I care about and react accordingly. Sue me (actually, people have tried this year. Go figure.) The thing is, to not mention the “unmentionalable” is difficult since this blog is random and based on life experiences. FLEX continues to be a big part of our world, like it or not, so it is hard not to include comments about it occasionally.
In a way, not saying something is also a way of saying something. I want to avoid people making assumptions and projecting their own opinions about what we are doing and why (and this turning into some sort of folkloric “fact”) so I am more comfortable speaking for myself. So I’ve decided to address the FLEX mess in one more post. Then, I can move on to more “life in Georgia” posts, which my good friends say are the real reason they tune in.
As many people know, we have had a difficult week and a half, (which is why I haven’t been blogging). I’d like to go into detail about my experiences because writing about things helps me work through them. But due to the vast, critical audience I’ve gained, I have learned to avoid too much detail and gut honesty about dance or FLEX. Still, to avoid the subject altogether makes this a very incomplete representation of our world. So, here I am again, addressing this situation, but consider it simply an overview for friends.
Mark and I went back to Florida yet again for the unpleasant task of dismantling our former business. FLEX took eighteen years to build, and only eighteen months to destroy. Packing up that school was a poignant, heart rendering task that took every ounce of fortitude we could muster. The emotions connected to such a task are so complex and personal that it defies description. It’s like burying someone you love, experiencing a release from prison, and tearing out your own heart, all wrapped up into one disturbing act.
We were watching the movie “You’ve Got Mail” last night, which I’ve seen dozens of times and really enjoy, but it had a different meaning in light of our current experiences. Before, it was just an entertaining, endearing love story, but this time I was sensitive to the subplot. In the movie, Meg Ryan is forced to close a business that has been a significant part of her life for many years. She is devastated, but has no options due to the financial situation she finds herself in. Obviously, I can relate. No mater how much you love a place, you can’t hold on forever when in operating the red.
Tom Hanks says, “I’m sorry. It was only business. It wasn’t personal.”
And she responds with, “It was personal to me. If life is anything, it should begin and end with being personal.”
I cannot stop thinking about that nugget of wisdom.
A few days ago, we filled a 30-yard dumpster with useless, unnecessary (foolishly expensive) boxes and boxes of over-ordered brochures, programs, stationary and marketing paraphernalia. I admit, I felt rage. This was symbolic of what has been going on for some time. Our business, so carefully tended for so many years, was thrown away – for foolish items acquired to impress others. Rather than paying rent or building the reserve we impressed as so important, or budgeting for meeting normal business challenges and consideration of long-term security, the new owners focused on purchasing art, computer and high tech toys, investing indulgently in all sorts of surface esthetics. They bared no expense in all the areas that had nothing at all to do with dance. Meanwhile, in the dance rooms I found materials that were tattered and worn, holes in the walls and/or plaster repairs that remained unpainted after two years. The hallway had a spiffy new wood floor (very impressive), yet the dance room floors had not been professionally cleaned in over a year (very offensive). There was gluttony of overstocked supplies like construction paper in the preschool shelves, but the playground was in disrepair with broken equiptment, tattered canvases, and two year old, faded, mulch. The choices that have been made regarding the allocation of financial resources defy reason from a business or artistic sense.
It would be different if FLEX fell into hard times because our directorship had been missed, or because students fled because the ownership changed. It wasn’t outside influences, like a change in economy. Mismanagement drove staff and students away and began a breakdown of pertinent quality programs. The obvious evidence of just how frivilious the decisions made were, caused me to cycle between despondent melancholy and fury, touching upon every gray area in between. I ended up somewhere with resolve and apathy in the end. Like the T-shirt they gave Mark at our last recital that said: “My Give a Damn is Busted” – I think I’ve became so emotionally exhausted I cannot feel anything anymore. So I went through the motions, doing what had to be done like a robot on automatic pilot, trying to second guess what my husband was thinking and feeling, and knowing he was doing the same about me.
We loaded old costumes, trophies and ruined dance and preschool materials into the dumpster, trying not to implode over the inner turmoil each bag of trash stirred up. Mark watched me like a hawk, expecting me to fall apart every other minute. Meanwhile, he had this vacant look in his eyes and his breathing was shallow and distressed. Fair to say, next to losing a baby, this was one of our most distressful experiences as a couple.
For the most part, Mark and I were alone. It seemed oddly appropriate. We had time to talk, air our personal feelings, cry, and even laugh a bit over old memories. However, after the first day, we also had wonderful (and much needed) help from Cory and Sharon (who will be taking over the building and opening a school based on our format) which was very much appreciated. Cory is one of our students from way back. He was around in the beginning, helping us set up this studio. How appropriate that he was there in the end, a sweet reminder that our time as FLEX owners had come full circle. As we hauled crap to the dumpster, Cory paused to play my original warm-up music. It blared through the halls making the school seem alive again. This dredged up endless memories of students I loved and dances I created. I felt like the star in my own sad movie, wallowing in my misery as I waded through the remnants of a life. Meanwhile, Cory and Mark made bittersweet jokes – they always had a funny, inappropriate shared sense of humor when together. This isn’t the first time I’ve watched them turn misery into a form of dark comedy to help make it easier to swallow. It was a uniquely poignant experience, Cory’s beginning and our end somehow wrapped up in this work, a mutual act of love and respect for the past, the future, and a celebration of friendship and mentorship. I will always remember this student’s role in this significant passage of our life. In some ways, his being involved healed much of the hurt we were taking away – because while he is only one of our many beloved former students, he was symbolic of a generation. And even if he is a single case, perhaps, knowing we really meant something to one person is enough to validate those years. But I know it isn’t just one, for many students have gone out of their way to express their appreciation for our past influence, and for that, we are grateful.
While throwing out trophies, Cory brought one down that had 1992 on the label. He said, “Hey, if this is from 1992. I m
ust have been in this dance! Oh, it’s 3rd place. Um… probably because I didn’t point my feet. Sorry.”
Mark flashed a fleeting smile and said, “No, that trophy was for Heather Kaboble. Ginny choreographed the piece in her street people dance. Heather did a fantastic job – deserved to place higher. But we didn’t care. We were so proud of her.” Then he sighed.
What a memory that man has. Every dancer, every dance, every joke, and every fight with a parent is prominently etched in his mind. Snippets of his vivid recollections (which proves how important these people and events were to him) slip out at random moments all the time. I wondered if he was looking around the room, cataloguing memories of every single dance and dancer that each of those thousand trophies represented. How I wished I could crawl into his mind to share those thoughts.
Kent is a young man now, and a great help when muscle is needed, so we asked him to pitch in on the last day. At one point, a trophy fell from the shelf and broke and he bent to pick it up. “Steam heat,” he said (this was a dance he was featured in that won a national award. “I would have like to keep that,” he said sadly.
I felt badly because I know how important this school was to him growing up and it is a bitter pill to swallow to participate in the dismantling process. I asked if he was O.K. He shrugged and said, “This part is kind of killing me, Mom.”
“Me too.” I said, which was true in general, but not really true in this specific circumstance. Many things were killing me about dismantling our former business, but for me, throwing out those trophies wasn’t one of them.
In some ways, throwing out those trophies was healing. It is no secret how much I’ve always despised competition. I acknowledge the benefits, but the cons are significant. Competition always twists people into knots. Great dancers lose heart because they are not successful in the competition arena and they end up lacking confidence. Dancers who are very “competition oriented” win and become arrogant and filled with self import, which makes them far weaker dancers and practically untrainable. (Once you think you are great, you lose the humility and determination to grow, which means you peak too soon.) Parents get crazy, making judgments about what constitutes “good” choreography, passing judgment about who is talented, determined by the stupid results of this commercial endeavor- which for the record, is designed not to promote dance education, but to cash in on everyone’s gut desire to validate their talent. It is a money making scam, in my opinion, which eats the resources of time, money and staff attention that would be so much better served allocated to other dance endeavors. Anyway, Mark and I have never liked competition. We’ve participated begrudgingly, learned how to play the competition game to win, but deep down, we are always vividly aware that it provoked surface glory in place of earnest artistic development. A few years back, we decided to take a stand. We held firm and stopped taking the kids to competition all together. These were the years we focused on our regional company (West Coast Dance Project) and our best dancers and greatest work derived from that period. Most of the students who went on to become professional dancers (and are now in professional companies or are teachers) were from this era. However, as parents balked and students started loosing interest in dance without the competition glory, we caved into customers wants. We just got tired of fighting everyone and decided to give them what they wanted rather than what they needed. Guess that was the beginning of the end for us.
FLEX closing has significant impact on many people’s lives. It is so sad – for students, staff, the new owners that now must live with the result of their mistakes, and for us. Furthermore, the financial implications have left us in a serious bind. It means we have to go back to the drawing board and think through what we were going to do about tomorrow. We set up our new life based on certain expectations that now will not materialize. In other words, we can’t afford the life we created. So what are we going to do about it? I’m not pretending we are without means, because we are selling the buildings and this provides us capitol for a new enterprise. But that is all. On top of all else, we were dealt a might blow when we found out that as Georgia residents over a third of all we make will go to taxes.
Upon hearing this news, Mark actually asked our accountant, “How about if I divorce Ginny. Can I be a Florida resident then and get around it?”
I was like, “Excuse me. You are willing to divorce me to save money!?! Better watch it, buster. I may not want to take you back!”
He shrugged and said, “Please. Who else would have you?”
Anyway, it is true we’ve been lucky in the big scheme, and it would be an exaggeration to say FLEX closing means we have no future. We sold the school thinking it would live on, even if it swayed towards new directions, which made leaving it somehow easier. We also believed we would remain involved, able to dip our toes in the dance waters occationally to choreograph and enjoy working with our former dancers during the transition retirement years. These things didn’t work out, which was a disappointment, but losing the monetary rewards too takes away another degree of what we dreamed was a perfect graceful exit from years of dance. Keeping our land and house is now going to be difficult. It is sort of like the gift of the Magi. We can walk away from this chunk of land and all the natural freedom and quiet it represents and probably even make money doing so– but the only reason we would want to make money is to design a life of quiet and natural freedom. Money itself has never been important to us, but the freedom and opportunity to pursue a creative lifestyle IS something we covet. Nevertheless, complaining about our situation really proves how spoiled we are. The problem is, I feel not unlike Scarlet O’Hara, ready to grip the dirt of her homestead and vow to do whatever it takes to keep it. I love the house my husband created and I want to live in it for more than six months. I love my animals and my garden and my bees. I love the solitude we have in this 50 acres. I love the art my husband has yet to make in his yet to be finished workshop. Mostly, I miss dance and I know these things are not just flippant interests. They fill the empty spaces in my heart where dance once took residency. So shoot me. I am not ready to give up the ideal if there is any way around it.
Talking about our dilemma in the quiet, dark hallways of a school we loved, surrounded by powerful memories of everything we have missed this past two years, inevitably lead to the subject of returning. I can’t tell you how close we came to making the decision to move back to Florida to put FLEX back together as a path to saving our Georgia home. Cory and Sharon certainly made the idea seem too easy when they offered to work as managers under us to learn the business firsthand for several years with a plan to shift ownership carefully, without risk to the business, later. They presented a case for our running it from afar, which could actually work.
We sat down and crunched numbers. Figured out what we would have to do to repair the damage. We made calls. We contacted staff members, who immediately expressed a desire to return under our directorship, and made a plan to hire new blood (calling in favors from old New York acquaintances) all the while amazed at how simple it would be to not only fix the school, but perhaps make it even stronger. We talked to a few former students. They expressed wild excitement at the idea- certainly nice for our wounded ego after months of people discrediting us and throwing parties as a public show of disrespect. As the word leaked out that we were considering returning, we even got a call from a few students who had “defected” to the school we
will call the “Flex Alternative”. They said, “Please understand that we made what we felt was the best choice out of two very unpleasant choices. However, we are not happy. We would come back if you came home, as would about 95% of your students . . . that is, if you would have us. How mad are you at everyone?”
This made us laugh. We were never mad. Disappointed. That is different. Nevertheless, we would hope everyone would stay wherever they landed. No reason to invite more drama into a world that has been drama engorged for too long. People like us simply don’t have to covet other people’s dancers, even if they once were ours, because we are capable of making more. We have always been more comfortable focusing on new students, fresh faces, because they don’t come to the table with baggage and they haven’t been confused by alternate styles of training or guidance.
The idea of dealing with that element was not something we wanted to consider anyway, so we stuck to issues regarding how to reinforce the quality of the school, and how to manage it even better in consideration of all we have learned. Distance puts things in perspective, and we do feel grateful to have been given this wonderful gift of seeing the true mettle of people. Those who remained friends during the past two years of conflict are so dear to us now, we even felt pulled to return just to enjoy those relationships fully.
The idea took shape. We looked around at places we might rent if we wanted to try the duel residency thing, then looked at houses in case we decided to move back totally – “just in case”.
While resurrecting FLEX was a makeable put, all the while we grew more and more depressed. We started fighting. The fact is, while returning is a practical solution to the financial problem, (and honestly, we have missed so much about our prior life there were other reasons to consider it too) it still had some major flaws. We figured we could repair things easily in one season, and this would take us . . . where? To being exactly where we were when we decided to leave.
We already left financial security and all those elements of dance we loved once. The fact is, there was a cost to that life which we determined was too high considering our age and life priorities now. There are elements about the dance school business that will never change no matter what we do to diffuse and control it. With two years distance, we understand exactly what was good and bad about our previous life. We know what we would do differently if we thrust ourselves back into the fray. But, we also know our personality quirks. The fact is, for all that we might decide to return as owners and directors only, for business reasons, we know we will never be able to control our personalities. Where ever you go, you take yourself with you. It is only a matter of time before we get sucked in and start caring – only a matter of time before we are personally involved again, feeling emotionally ravaged and torn, obsessing about the quality of the school and the kind of dancers we create. We wouldn’t remain in Georgia no matter how much we love it. In the end it is a good bet that we would end up returning to Florida full time because total involvement is the only way to run the school correctly. We simply can’t do anything halfway.
As such, we decided that we are not people who can go backward. Been there, done that. Time to leap into the unknown. We just have to leap a bit sooner and farther than we thought we would due to the sudden change in our fortune.
So we declined Cory’s generous offer and put to rest the ongoing debate. We decided to revisit the complex issues regarding getting this building and business into Cory’s hands alone (with our friendship and guidance helping him navigate the waters). He had hit a snag in financing, but we had a creative solution so it could still work out for him. We told him our one rule is we didn’t want to hear anything more about the dance school politics, the recitals going on in Sarasota or anything else regarding our former customers, students and/or school. But we would love to talk to him about what it takes to make a school great and help him to create a fine school he could be proud of. But that is the limit to our involvement. No more drama.
As for us, we are now brainstorming, determined to create a new world that is perhaps less ideal than puttering with writing and woodworking at our own pace, but exciting in its own way. Fact is, we have discovered we are way too young to retire, and we don’t like the alienated feeling we had being removed from the work world in our 40’s. It isn’t natural to us to live without struggling somewhat to survive. And when your friends are still in production mode, you feel out of sync with a cushy existence and too much time on your hands.
I’ve always said, “Be careful what you wish for.” When I had left the dance empire I had more time to write, but I wrote less. Go figure. All I wanted in life was time to pursue my dreams, but when I got that time, I lost the discipline to take advantage of it. I guess it is a matter of supply and demand determining value. They always say, if you want something done, ask a busy person. I need to be busy again, so I can fight to find the time to write. May not make sense, but it is true. I do have my MFA, and in that sense, I’ve spent the last two years well, preparing myself to write better. Now it is time to use what I’ve learned.
We now are visiting dozens of creative ideas for piecing together a new sort of future. It is time to go back to work, and build a new business – one that is less personal we hope. We are at our best when we are in the creative think tank mood, so at least we are in a positive place. We are formulating a plan and every day it gets more vivid. Oddly enough, the pallor of melancholy that has been ever present these past two years is lifting too. Limbo was never good for us. Working together is something we understand and this makes us feel grounded for the first time since we moved.
We are bidding on a parcel of land in town for what we hope will be for our second groundbreaking. Never imagined we’d do that twice in one lifetime. This time it won’t be a state of the art dance studio we will build, but a rustic lodge coffee house and art gallery. Mark is designing a remarkable freestanding building in his mind, something we will market as a “vacation destination”. The style will be not unlike our home with geode incrusted fireplaces and leather couches and natural log details. The shop will serve organic coffees and pastries and huge log stairs will lead into an Appalachian arts gallery filled with crafts and furniture – much of it made by Mark. We have some unique features I will not go into now, such as a small stage for open mike readings (poetry and folk music) and a children’s tea party room (leave it to me to be thinking of the kids – old habits die hard). Anyway, we have some fun ideas we are tossing about to create a very different sort of place here in this land where no Starbucks exist. 60K people are dropped off by the train every year in a town without much to do or see. Our lot is across from the station. I see that as great potential for selling a lot of cups of coffee to tourists as well as locals.
We can work out the kinks (working like a dog, no doubt) by owning one such store, then open others if it is successful. Heck, we may franchise someday and have more log cabin coffee houses in other adventure areas. Ya never know. We were asked to franchise the FLEX children’s program many times, but for all we explored the possibilities with investors, lawyers etc… we never could get around the quality control issues when the school expanded beyond our direct control. This will be a different ball of wax – anyone can pour coffee and ring up a sale of a wood bowl, right? And I don’t see parents telling you off because they don’t think you appreciate their little coffee drinker’s talent. But it takes time to build a bu
siness from scratch, and there are no guarantees it will work. I also understand that there is a learning curve to every new endeavor. Still, we are entrepreneurs at heart, and have a knack for making creative concepts manifest. I have faith that things will work out.
Meanwhile, Mark will build a house on our creek lot. He’s been meaning to get to that someday – well, it’s time. Later, if we have to, we figure we can even build a house each year on three acre lots at the outskirts of our land. I guess even Scarlet would release a bit of Tara if it was the only way to keep the bulk of it intact. This would still leave us 30 acres to play farmer upon so I can still have my bees and peacocks and chickens and horses and llama and donkey and garden and blackberries. It’s a plan, man. Filled with obstacles and what-if’s but hey, that is what makes life interesting.
The point is, innovation is key to hanging on and carving a new existence when a wrench has been tossed in the mechanics of your life. This is the route we’ve decided to take rather than retreating to the security of what we know. Such a decision takes faith, and a willingness to roll up our sleeves and dig in wholeheartedly from point zero all over again. But, when we think back about our happiest years at FLEX, they were the early years when we were struggling. There is a message in that. We must focus forward and not pause to feel resentment or frustration over past disappointments, or questioning this alternative path once we decide to give it a go. Can’t be wishy washy about your choices, for they are yours to make and stand by .
While I have felt depressed and sorry for myself now and again this past two years, I’ve decided to see this whole experience as a gift. Life tests you to see what you are capable of – and as result, you often discover the best elements within.
So, that is the scoop regarding the closure of our past life. We dismantled FLEX (leaving behind everything Cory and Sharon will need to begin their dance empire, of course). It was a dismal, sad end that broke our heart a hundred ways coming and going. I cried all the way home (eleven hour drive), and Mark kept stopping at rest stops claiming he felt sick. He said, “I don’t know why, but I am shaken up and I feel like at any moment I’m going to fall apart.”
“Me too”, I said.
“Me too,” Kent said.
“Not me. I’m glad it’s over,” Neva said. She’s always had a certain, remarkable wisdom of her own.
Since we are not the type to indulge ourselves in “falling apart”, we kept driving. Then, we came home, let the serenity of our world here take effect and made this much needed attitude adjustment. After two years of frustration, we are finally closing the book on our past. A grueling ending. But, God willing, a beginning too.
Sigh. Glad to have this sorry news update behind me. Now, I can return to “life in Georgia”.