October 2008


I don’t think I even need to remind what it is one week until, do I? Yes, one week until the U.S. Presidential election.

I’m literally losing sleep over it. Part of me just runs the it will be Obama, it has to be Obama! refrain in my head. But I look at McCain and Palin, and the anger of some of their supporters. It is an anger that disgusts me and scares me at times (i.e. supporters who shout at “Sit down, boy!” at African-American cameramen) — but it is an anger that I know, unfortunately, can work.

VOTE OBAMA '08 -- for America, and the world...

VOTE OBAMA'08 ... For America, and for the rest of the world...

This anger, combined with the human tendency to fear of change and difference, can make people do a lot of crazy things …  things that end up hurting themselves and others. The New York Times had a great piece about my old “stomping grounds” — Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where I worked for about a year and a half during my other life as a journalist. While I have often been angered at the way “big” journalism covers my folks back home during this race — generally depicting them as either backwards or just stupid — I think this piece does a good job of capturing what is at stake here. The main photo is of Ambridge, a town named for the American Bridge Company, a steel mill that brought the town to epic boom proportions before closing in the mid-80s. And what do you do when that which gave your town its very name closes? Who are you left to be as a community?

When bored or avoiding the regular phone calls of the then-Ambridge mayor (a man named Buzzy who had a tendency to call in various stages of seeming inebriation, with various made up “news items”) while working at the Beaver County Times, I used to sit and flip through old photos in the library . Ambridge in the 50s or 60s looked so hopping: streets packed with people, dressed up, Friday night check in their back pocket, ready to go have fun.  The town had a look I never remember it having in my lifetime …in a way, it reminded me of the good happy feeling I get standing at the cross streets of M & Wisconsin in Georgetown on a warm evening … the crush of people and lights and cars and noise just makes you feel like everything is so… alive. The New York Times guy got this right, too: there were people of different colors and backgrounds: every Eastern or Southern European nationality you could imagine plus some influence from the earlier black American “Great Migration“. Certainly, it was no perfect melting pot, and separation between groups was strong. The segregation was both self-enforced  (there is a reason Ambridge once made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most bars and churches per capita: the Italians had the Italian Catholic church and the S.O.I; the Poles had the Polish Catholic Church … and so on) and actively encouraged by mill bosses (Carnegie and Frick, great philanthropists thought they may be on some level, were famous for encouraging, via mill-owned housing and bosses, for trying to keep all the races and ethnicities separate in their industries to keep unions from becoming too powerful).

Obama once got attacked for suggesting that the people from such towns are bitter. Bitter? A gentle understatement — and the emotion should be understandable. I actually come from a family that suffered it, too: my dad worked for years at the H.H. Robertson plant there, a plant which, when I drove by it as a reporter, was so rusted and had so few shards of glass left hanging in the window. The town’s main street wasn’t hopping… it was closing up when I reported on it.

So who do people blame? It’s pretty hard, when you played by all those “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” rules of the American Dream, to admit that dream wasn’t ever available to everyone, and that the very ideological forces selling it to you were also selling your mill off to a country where unions couldn’t keep wages fair.  Can people blame ideology? Blame capitalism? Blame greed? Sure, but those are pretty big ideas; we humans have long preferred to turn our rage on other humans, however illogical the blame chain.  Bitterness only deepness segregation and discrimination. There is a reason those termed “limosuine liberal” tend to have the broadest mindset in terms of race or gender or sexuality: it is easy to shake off the systemic national prejudices when you don’t have survival on your mind.

But this time, this time I am hoping and wishing that the Beaver Counties of America … both the real Beaver County, Pennsylvania and all those places like it … prove their strength and refuse to be swayed by old and tired prejudices on race … prejudices which have always hurt the disempowered class far more than the ruling classes. Obama’s winning this election matters, very much, for the whole world. And that world includes places like Beaver County. Vote for Obama, vote for yourself.

In keeping with the trend of something beautiful for Mondays: sunset at Visegrad, from my first week in Hungary.

I’m currently staring at my pile of graded midterms, glad that they’re done but thinking again that I hate grading. I honestly would rather go back to receiving grades than ever have to give another one.

I know: good thing I’m not in teaching, right?  Of course, I understand the necessity of grades — students need a record, administration needs a gauge, different schools need to have some “common language”  when looking at student progress — but I am still not a huge fan of them.

And it’s not for the reason most writing teachers hate grading – the time put in. Certainly, it always takes me a significant amount of time to grade (as all teachers know, much more time than the office-job/desk-bound set understands when they say things like “but your day ends so early!” or “but you get breaks”…grr….but I digress). I don’t mind the time all that much: when taking the time to write comments on essays, I feel like I get to do that great one-on-one coaching I’d love to be able to do for my students all the time. Particularly on significant assignments, I have always tried to provide a lot of feedback (just ask my Georgetown Liberal Studies students, who quickly became accustomed to at least a page and a half of single-spaced comments per essay), and I enjoy doing so because I like to be engaged in that kind of conversation with my students.

What bothers me is feeling like I have to assign the letter (or number, as the case may be now: Hungary operates on a 1 to 5, not F to A, system of grading). It just starts to feel like the silly number/letter is the only motivating factor for the student, or the only measure of progress. For instance, let’s say you have a student who makes a few really impressive points in her essay, but lacks the thesis structure needed to make the essay coherent. And yet, the impressive points she made still show grand progress from her last work. Where do you mark it?  (more…)

Today marks the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Few Americans know much about it — myself included, before I came here — and yet, the uprising of the Hungarian freedom fighters against the massive power of the Soviet Union became a deeply beloved symbol of why Communism was a great evil to the Red Scare-ed U.S. The Hungarian Freedom Fighter was Man of the Year for Time magazine in 1956. Martin Luther King Jr. referenced them in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

And yet, the U.S. did absolutely nothing to help in this case. Sure, we commemorated the fighters, and had promised to assist, but both the U.S. and the U.K. found themselves more interested in causes that directly benefited themselves or too worried about saving their own butts to help. So we didn’t (yes, an overly simplified version of history, but it is true that the expected response from both America and Britain — to assist in any cause of freedom — was woefully absent).

It’s just another thought aout why we U.S. citizens should be very careful as we choose our next leader: our actions as a nation have long reverberated with very real effects abroad. It is crucial to be lead by one who actually cares about this.

..And I am curious about whether or not you have voted (if you’re doing absentee) or registered and planed (for the stateside crew)! Here I am filling out my own absentee ballot — the juice on the table is a nod to the candidate of choice (Barack means “peach” in Hungarian). Just remember, your Obama vote matters not just for you…not just for the fact that Sarah Palin could easily be running this country without him (I know several American pets who have more foreign policy experience)… but it also matters to all of Europe. I’ve done my arguing about how sad it is to see the state of America’s reputation abroad, how we have gone from last best hopes to something more of a letdown.

And I know I am but an English teacher, and that I’m better suited to explaining color imagery in a story or talking about what makes a strong thesis for an essay than suggesting I understand how to fix economic crises or get out of a fragile war. But I can’t stop worrying and hoping and begging people to take a stand in this election anyway.  For the last 8 years, criticizing anything America does has been labeled by the Bush Doctrine (Ms. Palin, if you don’t know what that is call me…or Katie Couric…either of us would be happy to explain) as “unpatriotic” or “anti-American”. I criticize, for sure, but I am neither: nothing like being abroad reminds me of how, undeniably and indelibly, I reflect the nation where I was raised, and that I am American. And happy to be so.

But nothing like being abroad  shows me how sad it is when we don’t meet the ideals we profess to stand for, and to spread throughout the world (particularly being in a country which, during my lifetime, believed we did actually stand for them). It hurts, for instance, to hear a student say he doesn’t want to try to study in America anymore because “it is too humiliating” to try to get a Visa (so much for that give me your tired… welcome line). We should do better.

So. Go. Register. Support the man who has the best chance of making ties, not splitting them. Tell your friends to.  If you don’t listen to me, listen to Springsteen. To those cute kids from Gossip Girl. Listen to Colin Powell. Just do it — not just for yourselves, but for all those who don’t have a vote, but whose own futures depend on the outcome of American elections as well.

I gave mid-terms today (and will give more tomorrow, MWHAH-HAH-HAH, I laugh my evil professor laugh).  I had debated doing as such, but I really did want a way to check in and assess where the students are at. Despite my repeated assurances that this was the case, and the students shouldn’t really stress out over it, they did. I tried to explain that I have never been a huge fan of tests myself, which is why the essay (or final project, in the case of conversation class) counts for so much more — and that I believe it to be a better judge of deep learning — but I walked down the halls to looks that ranged from fear to “maybe we can scare her back to America” today. Fortunately, I think they went well — very well in the case of my conversation class, where I ran almost a half-hour over because the students were able to talk at length (Huzzah for breaking that group of their aversion to speaking!!). But as many of my students take both my Monday classes, they faced two midterms back to back and thus looked understandably drained by the time evening fell and we were all heading home.

I was crossing the street talking to two of my hardest workers when, in my typical Robyn-daze, I nearly stepped in front of a car (note: Hungarian drivers rival DC diplomat-plated cars for their lack of care about taking down pedestrians). One student threw his arm in front of me to stop me, then turned and said:

David: Are you OK?

Me: Sure (jokingly) But I am surprised you tried to stop me. I just gave you two hard midterms. Shouldn’t you want to push me in front of a speeding car?

David: (thinks for a moment) It did cross my mind.

… can’t say I blame the kid 🙂

Ever since the program orientation back in September, my colleague at the Fulbright office, Krisztina, and I have been scheming to get a group of us together to go try folk dancing. Well, we finally made it this Friday … and I am pretty sure we didn’t do anything to improve America’s battered reputation abroad. I personally may have broken the toes of at least 3 different Hungarians.

But that said, it was amazingly fun. Krisztina had warned us we would sweat; we assumed this meant a small bottle of water would suffice. But after the first circle dance, we were already sweating enough to need new shirts. We were actually dancing the Csángó, a type of folk dance that from the region that is now Moldova (Wikipedia tries to explain here, but be forewarned that the page has been marked as “biased’). It felt a bit like an extremely boisterous version of being in a Jane Austen movie: a recorder, little drum and lute making the music, men bowing to women, a room of people dancing with the same steps … only instead of the staid English steps, there was a lot of kicking and ample smack-your-foot-against-the-floor-really-loudly steps. ( I did discover one internal problem to being a great csángó dancer, though: more than one of my partners for the paired dances pointed out that I was attempting to lead. What can I say? — that whole independent woman thing must come through even in my dancing shoes… sort of like how I kept offering my arm to the groomsman instead of the other way around during the last wedding I was in. )

What was most amazing to me, however, was how many younger people were there. Voluntarily. On a Friday night. Growing up in love-thy-ethnicity Pittsburgh, it was common enough for kids to be involved in the Tamburitzans or to have to learn enough of the tarentella to make it through Italian family weddings (usually held at the Economy Borough Fire Hall or similar venue, complete with foil-wrapped trays of baked ziti… but I digress), yet it was seen more as a duty, something to please mom or keep you in a great aunt’s will. But at the dance hall where Krisztina took us, there were plenty of teenagers and 20-somethings, eagerly learning the steps and dancing with pensioners with as much enthusiasm as with their dates.

Perhaps I am just a bit goggle-eyed at this because I came of dancing age during the early to mid-1990s. Which meant my choices for Friday-night shakin’ it included

(a) angry head-banging while looking all angry and grumpy in your layered flannel shirts, thanks to the grunge/alt movement, or
(b) the “charming” practice known as “grinding,” or merely rubbing against one’s dance partner in an unimpressive way for as long as it took for Vice Principal Cathy Good to pull you apart and remind you of the school-board-mandated inches that should remain between students at all times.

Needless to say, my teenage dancing years were unimpressive at best, and often shudder-worthy. So I suppose it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was a little jealous to see a hip-looking teenage Hungarian boy sweep a 20-something girl onto the floor and lead her through a set of intricate foot kicks, boot stomps, and super-fast spins. No offense meant to all my memories of the gym of Quaker Valley Junior High, but I’m feeling really ripped off in terms of dance culture. What made the night even better was the teacher: an extremely hyper young Transylvanian guy, who somehow managed to make sense in telling us all the steps despite the fact that first of all, none of us spoke much Hungarian (besides Krisztina) and second of all, even if we did, he was apparently speaking a Transylvanian dialect of Hungarian, which Krisztina later explained was quite beautiful to listen to but much different that what one hears on the street… she likened it to someone walking up to an American and speaking Shakespearean English — we’d understand, but it would sound as if the person was speaking in poems.

And he also bore a striking resemblance to Justin Timberlake.

It’s hard to describe without seeing him, but he had very Timberlake-y sideburns and a Justin-worthy ability to boogie…as well as a pretty styling fedora (often used creatively to keep time during the dance, with little hat tips) He began the night bouncy and full of energy; after a palinka break, he was jumping around like some Transylvanian version of a leprechaun, feet moving far too fast for us befuddled Americans to do anything but stare in wonder as he leaped and twirled gracefully around the room.

Actually, maybe calling him Timberlake doesn’t do him justice — JT’s last big dance scene with Madonna, for instance, was all well and good, but had nothing on our fearless dance leader’s moves with a random dance-house goer. And, despite the toes I crushed, I have a feeling I’ll be following Transylvanian Timberlake around the csango steps a few more times during my adventures.

That is, if poor Krisztina wasn’t embarassed by us too much…

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