Becoming Part-time (and Grasping at Straws)

The preamble.

These are my thoughts on the part-time university teaching situation where I live in Japan. You may read my version of affairs, and nod your head in agreement. Or, you may not. It is more than possible you have not experienced what I have. Your personal viewpoints and opinions about the state of affairs in the part-time teaching world may be very different. I respect that, and I hope you will respect my take on things as well.

**It should be noted that my current working situation is bliss; the students, the people I work with and for, and the atmosphere all come together to make it a great place to come to every day. I will miss it dearly.

Warning! You must obey this exclamation point!

I enjoy and invite discussion on any of my blog entries. For this particular piece of writing, I will not allow any proper names to be used. If readers wish to speculate by throwing around names of people or of schools, I will not publish the comment. Please leave that kind of speculation for outside of my blog. Thanks in advance!

Thank you, and enjoy your visit to The Basement Blog.

Becoming Part-time (and Grasping at Straws)

Work has been on my mind a lot lately. And for good reason. The position that I hold at the university where I teach has run its course. Six years is the maximum contract term, and the end of my final year is looming just up ahead. For many full-time foreign university instructors in Japan, this is par for the course. Tenured positions do come up, but they are generally for PhD holders, and, rightfully so. I’ve seen my husband and many friends put in the hundreds of hours necessary to complete a Doctorate. The least they should get is a bit of job security at the end of it. That isn’t always the case of course. There are no guarantees. I do know that at this point in my life, a Phd is not something I’m ready to take on. But, never say never, right? For the time being, though, the teaching positions with the most security are out of my reach.

Hmm. Looks like quite a trek.

I guess it would be over seven years ago when I began the search for the job I’m in now. I remember how I felt, scanning job ads, bulking up my resume with presentations at JALT functions, and spending many late nights completing assignments for my MA. I was wired for work, and so very ready to begin full-time teaching. At that time, I was teaching fourteen or fifteen classes at four different universities. As a part-timer, I had quite a lot of freedom when it came to textbook choices, lesson planning, and organizing my day outside of the set teaching hours. But I was exhausted. I had co-workers who were teaching twenty or even more classes per week, getting from campus to campus on mopeds, gunning at full speed to get to the next classroom on time. I admired their tenacity, and I understood why they were working so hard.

There are a couple of incentives for part-timers that go beyond the love of teaching; the pay itself is half decent, and the holidays, well, the holidays are beyond great, especially when compared to what is the norm for most workers not only in Japan, but all over the world. For many part-timers, summer vacation generally begins in late July and goes to mid-September. Winter break can work out to be from nine to twelve days. There are National holidays in the mix, and when spring arrives, many part-timers can plan extended holidays and trips overseas to see family. Classes generally wrap up the second to third week of January and start up again the first of April. That’s right. Up to two and a half month’s break to recharge and get ready for the new semester. It makes teaching twenty classes a week, at not a bad hourly rate, really quite enticing. Well, it was enticing. Now I’m not so sure.

If all the lights are green and the wind’s at my back, I might even be able to eat lunch.

Things have changed in the part-time teaching world while I was away and putting in my own six years of duty at my full-time gig. Of course things have changed. I know one of the symptoms of getting older is to wax nostalgic over “the good old days”, and I have to admit, that’s what I’ve been doing. And you can imagine that if I, someone who has only been putting in time for less than a decade, if I’m pining for the way things used to be, the teachers who have been at it for two, even three decades must be more than a little fearful of what the next few years will bring about. The world of part-time teachers has always been a competitive one. Classes aren’t guaranteed, and if you’ve got a good schedule, you want to keep it. But universities choosing to outsource employment to dispatch companies have popped up with more and more regularity since I left part-time teaching, and student numbers have been going down. This has created a tension within the ranks which has upped the level of competition to such a degree that I’m not sure whether or not I’m cut out for it.

Dispatching. From undergrad to instructor for the price of an airplane ticket!

I’ve been putting feelers out and asking lots of questions to friends who are in the trenches. They sit in the staff rooms at the various universities, and the gossip and rumours are rampant. This isn’t new either. There was certainly gossip flying around when I’d pop my head in to make photocopies or check my mailbox when I was a part-timer, but I’d usually stick around for only a few moments, say a few hellos, and then leave. I’m not sure if that’s really an option now, for if you aren’t sitting at those tables in the staff rooms, listening to the gossip and rumours, you may miss out on the next big juicy job offer that so-and-so’s friend’s wife’s boss heard about. Networking is absolutely necessary, and who you know can often be more important than the number of presentations and articles on your CV.

The staff-room discussions that go on between classes at various campuses around town could be the key to getting the next great part-time, or possibly full-time set-up. And, because of the nature of the university teaching business here, these talks can become, at times, a little testosterone fuelled. The female persuasion is not equally represented in these parts, so naturally, the banter is geared more towards male interests which aren’t always necessarily job related. It does make it a little more difficult to be part of the “in” crowd, or, should I say, the “in-the-know” crowd. These discussions that centre around common interests and tastes can lead to friendships and solidarity and promises of keeping one another up-to-date on the job front. It can be difficult for a woman to integrate herself easily into these chats. If and when she does, she can hopefully forge friendships and contacts, and be on the same playing field as her colleagues. She may even be considered ‘one of the guys.’ Hmm.

I’ve got a lead! It’s 7th period on Fridays, and it shouldn’t take more than two hours to get there by bus.

That’s not always so easy. In the past, when I’ve sat in on the between-class discussions, I couldn’t help but sense that my presence might be putting a damper on the talks, that some of my colleagues may have felt they had to tone things down a bit, or perhaps not be as candid as they could be had I not joined the group. Or, sometimes not. The pendulum can swing dangerously the other way as well. Some of those discussions, unfortunately, can go beyond what would be seen as academic shop talk, or last night’s football score, or the latest, greatest software downloads. The banter can get aggressive, sexist, and the talk about the students can take on connotations that would make most teachers, man or woman, uncomfortable. And that’s when being one of the guys, whether you actually are a guy, or one of the few women trying to fit in, gets weird and awkward. If you call someone out in front of the group for being inappropriate, then you’re that teacher. The one who is too sensitive, who doesn’t get the joke, or, the horror, is way too PC. You’ve spoiled the party. And, when you aren’t around, you could be the next great topic for the gossip mill.

Um… did you really just say that in the staffroom?

In this tepid job climate, I don’t think anyone wants to be that teacher. Myself, I don’t want to be talked about and avoided because a few of the guys in the school yard regard me as humourless or overly PC. I’m too old for that crap. But, as I said before, word of mouth is crucial in the part-time teaching world, and if you’re not a part of the group, you’re not going to hear the word on the street.

As seriously as I take my job as a teacher, I know that if I jump back into that world, I will have to be ready to play the game, a game that at times is very far removed from the fundamentals of teaching, lesson planning, or research. I don’t believe I’m alone in my view that all of the politics and who-knows-who are a part of a not very evolved, but somewhat complicated interaction amongst the colleagues themselves, as well as with the people who hire them. It’s a strategic game, and it can get quite competitive. And, most importantly, if you don’t know the rules, you could most definitely lose out to a stronger opponent, an opponent who may not necessarily be a more qualified or a better teacher, but rather someone who knows how to navigate their way through the game more skillfully. After six years of relative peace and absolutely no need to sit in a staff room in order to secure my position on the playing field, I’m not completely sure I’m prepared to get back into that game. The rules have changed somewhat, and it seems to have gotten a bit rougher out there since the last time I played.

Oh, and recently, a new style of game play was introduced. As far as I know, it has only been tested out in one playing field, but it was a pretty bold move on the part of the rule-makers. It’s called the game of chance, and it involves straws. Yes, that’s correct. Straws to determine who will keep their classes, and who will, well, you know, pull the short one. It’s genius, isn’t it? If all the rule-makers take on this innovative way to divvy up part-time positions, there really won’t be anymore posturing and maneuvering out on the playing field, will there? Part-timers will be able sit leisurely in those staff rooms, planning lessons rather than strategizing and gossiping, and the powers that be need only purchase a bag of straws at the 100 yen shop once or twice a year, and cut them up accordingly. Playing cards or dice could do the trick, too.

Place yer bets, ladies and gents, ‘cuz next up for grabs, I’ve got two back-to-back Wednesday mornings, first-years, Oral Communication!

You may think I’m fabricating this story in order to emphasize how dire the situation has become for some part-timers. I assure you, I am not. Two weeks ago, a group of part-time university instructors went into their director’s office and played a game of chance in order to determine their work schedule. Each worker had his or her own reason for needing to hold on to all the classes they currently held. Problem was, there simply were not going to be enough classes to go around the following year. The director was in a very uncomfortable predicament. He had to make an extremely difficult decision that could make him unpopular with the workers, some of whom he had known for many years.

So, the straw idea was bandied about by the director, and a consensus was reached by the teachers that this would have to be the way it would be done. The method of chance used really didn’t have to be straws, though. A deck of cards or a couple of dice would suffice. Desperate times, desperate measures, right?

I call foul.

As hard as the decision would have been to make, it should have been made independently by the person in charge. That’s a big part of what a person in that position is paid to do – make difficult and unpopular decisions for the organization that he or she works for. If a person is in desperate need of a job, there’s a pretty good chance they will go along with a game of chance in order to secure their classes rather than let the executive decision be made by a higher-up, particularly if they are uncertain of the credentials or experience of the people they are competing against. In a sense, it may even feel like they have been given power over their uncertain destiny.

Once again, I cry foul.

Some may wonder why might an instructor choose games of chance over protocol? I thought about it a lot since I first heard the story of the straws, and I came up with a few possible scenarios:

The person whose credentials are not stellar but who has taught for many years, is popular with the students, and has a close relationship with higher-ups may choose the luck of the draw because he may get another year of teaching under his belt, even if he has not gone to any professional development conferences or created a fresh new lesson plan in years.

The person who is relatively new but who is up-to-date in teaching methodology may choose the luck of the draw because she isn’t certain if her lack of experience may keep her from holding on to the classes she already has. Every class she can hold on to now adds experience to her somewhat sparse CV, and prepares her for moving up the academic ladder.

The person who is getting closer and closer to retirement age but who has taught consistently and well over the years and has kept his CV up-to-date with various activities may choose the luck of the draw because of a nagging and valid worry that his age may be a detriment when compared to younger, newer teachers.

So, in this small sampling you have a popular, well-connected teacher, a younger teacher who is familiar with current teaching methods and eager to try them out, and an experienced, mature teacher who can see retirement just over the horizon. This list could go on and on. Each teacher has their own strengths and weaknesses, and depending on who you ask, there are various reasons why each of those teachers should hold on to their classes. The one who is great with students and gets high evaluation numbers year after year? He should keep his classes. The one who has all her Master’s research fresh in her head and the energy to keep the students engaged? She should keep her classes. The one who has years of solid service and the wisdom of experience to share with his students? He should keep his classes. This decision can’t be easy, and when you add in a personal history that connects each teacher to the person who must decide, the choice then carries a certain degree of emotion and sentimentality. You know what? Straws are indeed beginning to look like the simplest way out of this uncomfortable predicament for all involved.

Wait! I’ve changed my mind. I want to do rock, scissors, paper instead.

But then who said the role of decision-maker was going to be simple? When it comes to deciding which teacher is best qualified and has the desired strengths that would be most valuable for the job at hand, it’s up to the powers that be to decide; not chance.

I am an outsider looking in at this part-time world, and what I can see from my limited perspective is an atmosphere that is tinged with desperation. And, with desperation comes, at times, the awful realization that personal dignity may have to be set aside momentarily in order to secure that all important Wednesday morning class. The hours put in to earn an MA, the creative energy extended in order to develop innovative lesson plans, and the thank you cards received from students because they had a teacher who cared, all this means absolutely nothing when you are presented with a fistful of unevenly cut straws. Those long tubes of plastic are all that matter.

It may go something like this:

You walk into the office where the draw is going to be made. You nod and smile uncomfortably at your colleagues, and you give a nervous laugh as the boss makes a joke to lighten the atmosphere. The room is charged, but the energy is not positive. It’s like the air has been sucked out, and a vacuum has been created, causing a suction in your ears and a headache that makes your temples throb. You look to your left, and glance to your right, and as you hear the blood pumping in your ears because your heart is pounding hard and loud enough to make your body shake, you close your eyes and you extend your hand and hope for the best as you grasp for a straw. A straw that your boss took the time out of his busy schedule to cut and tailor just for you.

Go on. Take it.

* * *

I want to teach. I don’t want to play games, but I worry that as the job market continues its decline, it will become increasingly more difficult to separate what I love doing in the classroom from the politics in the staffroom and the games of chance in the director’s office. I love my students. I attend and lead presentations in areas that I find compelling and worth sharing. I write papers and share ideas with colleagues through faculty development. But, most importantly, I teach. And I teach very well. And because I know what I love, I’m going to look at this inevitable change in my life in a positive light.

How often are we presented with choices in our lives at a clear and almost tangible crossroads? We usually recognize those moments only in retrospect, and not months before. I can practically hear Robert Johnson plucking away on his acoustic guitar and singing his blues, and the sound of  those chords and words are so clear he may as well be sitting right beside me. But for me, those crossroads just up ahead aren’t a place for making deals with a guy holding a pitchfork and wearing a red suit. They are an important junction, one that will lead me to what I am meant to do. Those crossroads are a place where important decisions will be made. I’m right now in the process of getting prepared for that pause in my journey, that fleeting point in time when I will find myself smack in the middle of those roads. The preparation for that trip to the crossroads involves writing, and writing honestly and from my heart about things I’m passionate about. What I’m writing now, at this very moment, is a crucial first step. How this is received I am most certain will be a part of the momentum that pushes me closer and closer to the decisions I need to make. Decisions that are true to my profession, true to the people I may find myself working with in the future, and most importantly, decisions that are in sync with my personal belief system.

When I arrive at those crossroads, and I’m standing right in the middle of that intersection, I’ll be afforded a panoramic view of choices. And it won’t be midnight. I’m picturing a sunny afternoon, pale blue skies, and nothing but a few trees and green grass stretched out for as far as the eye can see. I’m going to sit myself down on the hard and uneven pavement where those four roads meet, and I’m going to listen carefully. When the last blues note from Mr. Johnson’s guitar has faded, and the sound of cicadas in the distance create their own distinct buzz and rhythm to fill in the silence, I’ll hear a voice as I close my eyes. And that voice will be my own. And it will know exactly what to say as it guides me down the road I’m meant to be on. I’ll be listening.

Ah, Robert. You’re playing my song.

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She Worked Hard For the Money

But is dental and medical included?

What was your first job? For many of my university students, this is a question they can’t answer yet. Many, at the age of nineteen, have never had a job. Some do have part-time jobs, but those who do are not the majority, and they often do it as a short-term quick injection of money for a trip overseas, or a big ticket item that their parents will not buy. For many of my students, work will come (hopefully) upon graduation. Moving out of the family home will come even later, possibly not until marriage. And for those who don’t marry, it isn’t uncommon to live indefinitely with their parents. It’s a much different world than the one I, and many of my peers grew up in.

I remember my first job vividly. I was twelve years old, and my father was adamant that I begin earning money in order to supplement the cash he’d deposited into my brand new bank account. We’d set the account up together at the CIBC in the Argyle Mall down the road from our house. This was in the day when bank tellers smoked, and customers could light up in the queue, pillar ashtrays lined up to catch the ashes. We stood for a while in the smoky line-up, and when called to the teller, my dad set up my account with a crisp five dollar bill. He passed me the new bank book with a very serious look. I was under instructions to make that five into ten, and to do it soon. He was putting me to work.

Dad speak; “Two of these fins and you’ll have a sawbuck.”

The next week, I was out in the neigbourhood with a canvas bag full of newspapers slung over my shoulder. I wasn’t a very big kid, in fact, I was what many referred to as scrawny or underfed. My dad told me I was fat on the inside; it pushed my ribs out. In any case, this bag was very heavy, which was incentive enough to empty it of its contents as fast as possible. Now, in the spring and summer, this job wasn’t too much of a burden. And, I was adding to that initial five dollars in the account; the money kept me moving. It was about November, however, that the love of money wasn’t enough to beat out the love of comfort. And comfort for most Canadians in mid-November comes in the form of warmth. That warmth is found in the house, on the sofa and under a wool blanket, not out in the middle of the empty crescents and lanes of suburban London, Ontario. I was no longer money hungry. I just wanted to be in my living room, stretched out on the couch.

I told my dad of my new found love of hearth and home. I was pretty adamant that money wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be, and that I could get by on the thirty-seven dollars I had saved. He didn’t agree. Back out to the streets it was for me.

It was mid-December when I knew I was fully and completely over the novelty of delivering papers to anonymous customers. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas holidays, and I had gotten home early from school. There was a very good reason that I was home by noon. The blizzard that was raging outside had closed down some roads and torn down store front signs from their hinges. It was the kind of day that made school kids realize that there was indeed some kind of higher power looking out for them. It was declared a Snow Day, and we were sent home.

There’s my car – it’s the white one over there.

When I got in the front door of the house, allowing a substantial amount of snow to follow in behind me, my dad was waiting at the top of the steps leading into the kitchen. He had on his parka and snowmobile boots. And he was holding my canvas newspaper bag. He held it out to me, and said; “It’s good you got out early. You can get a head start on these.” This was not included in my Snow Day plans. On the trek home from school through the thigh-high snow drifts, my thoughts were focused on a) popcorn, b) hot chocolate, and c) rarely seen afternoon television, which included The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Gilligan’s Island. I was devastated.

Trying to explain this to my dad was not even an option. He passed me the keys to his car. “Here, you start it up and turn the heat. Remember to rev the engine if it idles too slow.” Now this was a treat for any twelve-year old. It felt so very grown-up to be able to slide the key in the ignition, press down on the gas pedal, and hear the initial roar of the engine. Roar may be a bit of an exaggeration. It was a 1974 Acadian (I think), already well past its prime, so it was more of a gasp and sputter than a roar, but none-the-less, I really, really liked starting up that car.

As I was revving the engine, my dad came out and brushed the layer of snow that had settled on all the windows, and began the methodical “scrape, scrape, scrape” to get the bottom centimetre of ice removed from the windshield. When he was done, he opened up the back door, and threw the sixty or so newspapers I was to deliver onto the seat. “Okay, switch seats, I’m driving.” We did the switch, and once I was settled in, he dug into the canvas bag and pulled out a thermos. “Hot chocolate. Be careful, it’s hot.”

So that day I had my first co-worker. When we got to the first small street on my route, my dad passed me ten papers that he had rolled up with an elastic band. He gave me a punch on the arm, and off I went. I jumped out of the car, into a foot or two of snow on the side of the road, and I delivered the ten papers. My dad drove ahead ten houses, and while he waited, he put elastic bands around ten more papers. When I got back into the car, the heat was belting out, and a silver thermos cup of hot chocolate was waiting. It was sweet, hot, and tasted so much better than it did from a regular mug at home. When the cup was drained, he handed me another batch of ten, and back out into the snow I went.

It was a long haul, but we got it done. I held on to that route until summer, when I found a new part-time job that paid better. East Park Golf Gardens. I worked in the cafeteria, making sure the hot dogs on the metal rollers didn’t get too dried out, and sharpening lots of little pencils when business was slow. It was a fun job, with a lot of perks, including late nights on the driving range, bashing the balls as hard as possible. My co-workers and I weren’t aiming for the markers that designated how far you had hit the ball. We were focused on the bright green tractor, and the poor guy driving it, who came out every night at dusk to clean up the balls from the range. We were young and evil. Even though the tractor had a strong mesh cage to protect that poor driver, he must still jump at loud noises to this day. We showed no mercy, and it was made all the better because it was free.

Would you like mustard on your hot dog, Mr. Woods?

All through high school I worked. I found a job just down the road at the Argyle Mall; the same mall that housed the bank where my part-time dollars were earning interest. From grade nine to thirteen I worked in the Red Grill, the cafeteria at the back of Woolco Department Store. It has now become Wal-Mart, but on visits home from Japan, I pop in, and there are still staff members from the old days who remember my name, who stop to reminisce when they see me walking through the aisles with my dad.

Moving on to university, I found another part-time job, this time in a bank a twenty-minute walk from my university residence. The days of tellers who smoked were over, but beside each wicket there were still nicotine-stained steel ashtrays, welded into place on the counter, and still occasionally used hastily by the few people who forgot that smoking had become a taboo and  finable offense. They would stub their butts out, sometimes with anger, sometimes with a guilty half-smile, when we pointed out the no-smoking signs recently hung on the walls. It was here that I met my wonderful friend Gordon, who introduced me to Toronto’s underground nightlife. I held on to that teller job right up until the day I graduated. I just visited Gordon last March, and we still talk about the places he introduced me to when I was a green teenager in the big city.

I’ve worked pretty much my whole life. And while none of the part-time jobs I had before or during university had anything to do with my final career choice, those jobs definitely prepared me for the reality of what it means to be responsible for the money I earned, the money I saved, the money I spent, and yes, the money I wasted. Oh, I did waste it, especially on those late night haunts with Gordon. It was worth it, so really, waste is probably not the right word to use. Those nights out were investments. I have friends from those times that I still keep in contact with, and, of course, many with whom I don’t. But for those I’ve lost touch with, there are memories that come out of nowhere that make me snort out loud with laughter.

I do wonder if my students here in Japan are missing out not only on some valuable life experiences, but also on some basic prep for the real world. I am surrounded by nineteen year olds who have spending money, nice clothes, fancy wallets and handbags, but very little idea of how these things materialized. On one hand, I envy the ease in which they handle their money. I see them at the bank machines, and I watch as they withdrawal the equivalent of $150 to $200 without flinching. They grab the notes, place them carefully in their wallets, and off they go to purchase whatever happens to be popular that week. I will never have the nonchalance they have with money, nor will I have the ability to not treat money with a certain reverence. Trudging through snowbanks with a bag full of newspapers will do that to you.

I may be underestimating my students and seeing only what I’m projecting on them. Perhaps they have an excellent grasp on the importance of money, and I’m just too old and culturally unaware to see the big picture. When I talk to my students about what they are doing in their free time, there seems to be far too much time spent on games, tv, shopping, and… sleeping. Yes, my students include sleeping and tv as a hobby. And I can relate sometimes, I really can. I liked tv when I had the chance to watch it when I was younger. But, with so little time to really count tv as a hobby, in later life I never felt compelled to purchase a television. My students think I’m very strange, but, from my side of the generation gap, I think they are the ones losing out on so much.  I think of their lost chances to earn their own money, make some new friends, and, of course, create memories that will last long after they’ve passed even my age.

Sleep? Who has time for sleep when your hobby is… oh. Never mind.

And all of this makes me remember the day my dad became my co-worker for a day, the day I was going to go home and watch Gilligan’s Island. I know with complete certainty that whatever happened to the Skipper, Ginger and Maryanne that day would not register in my memory bank today had I stayed home to watch that program so many years ago. What I do remember, when I close my eyes and think back to a Snow Day in December, is the smell and taste of hot chocolate, the weight of a canvas bag on my shoulder, and the sound of an ice scraper clearing the windows for a slow drive in the snow. Not a bad trade off, and… I made a few bucks in the bargain.

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The Value of Memories


Well, lookey here. Popping my head in after starting this blog up many months ago. A few people have asked me to start blogging again, and I must admit, I have been feeling a certain itch. Maybe it’s time to get some of the jumbled thoughts out of my head and out into cyberspace. I have a couple of other blogs that I could re-start, but, I think it’s going to be the basement blog that gets a bit of a renaissance, even though I’m out of the basement and back in Japan.

I stayed in that London, Ontario basement from September to mid-January, and quite a lot happened in that space of time. I’ll start from least important. The house was robbed one early Sunday morning. My dad and I were out and about, and my mother (who is partially deaf and legally blind) was fast asleep when someone came in through the window of the back sitting room. They made their way through the house (and surely saw my mother sleeping in her bed) then went down to the basement ensuite where the goods were. The goods of course were the portable, electronic things that came from Japan with me. My iPod (and all the music my husband had stocked it with), mini-speakers, head phones, and, of course… the Mac. My sleek, silver, “fit-in-an-envelope” Mac, full of writing, photos and so much more. To cart the goods out was made easy with the use of my leather backpack.

There are quite a few emotions that come into play when you get robbed. For me it was first an overwhelming sadness. Not just at the few things that were lost, but at the state of affairs in a small town like the one my parents live in that creates a need and desperation in people so great that they break into a senior citizen’s home in broad daylight. And for what? The cops said it was certainly to get cash or small items to trade for drugs. Whoever it was did go through drawers for cash, but that was the extent of the rifling. Whoever it was wanted small electronic goods to fence for speed, crack or heroin. And with almost intuitive precision, they made their way to the space where they could grab it all in one quick swipe; my room. After that, I’m quite certain where the next stop was.

The downtown core of my parent’s town is a ghost town. You can practically hear the tumbleweeds blowing through what used to be the crossroads of the main intersection. Don’t get me wrong. There are some thriving businesses. Want a burger? No problem. A sub or a falafel? Sure. But real businesses are boarded up. There are no more movie theatres or a Woolworths or a Simpsons. You go to malls for all of that, past downtown and out into different suburban neighbourhoods. What you will notice in one stretch close to the former downtown core, is that the biggest money makers are the sleazy cheque cashing places that charge the people who are the most down on their luck a substantial percentage of their scant earnings in order to get their dough a few days earlier. It’s legal loan sharking. Just beside these places are the pawn shops, and then, a bit further East, and you’ll find what is becoming a mini version of Vancouver’s Hastings and Main.

Excuse me, sir? Have you seen my iPod?

While it’s still no Hastings and Main, London, Ontario’s “East of Adelaide” is definitely doing its best to mimic it. There are dark alleys for shooting up, and on the sidewalks the speedsters are so charged up they don’t walk so much as do a jerk step in a somewhat forward direction. And then of course there is a methadone clinic on the main drag, brightly lit and almost festive with the buzz and bustle of heroin addicts as they wait for their turn to upend a cup of liquid chemicals into their gullet. Down the hatch, eh?

If it’s green, it’s healthy, right?

So yes, from my somewhat privileged perspective, I did feel sadness at how London was suffering the plight of urban decay that causes a young person (and the cops were quite certain it was a teenager, male, acting on his own) to take such risks in order to get a fix. But the sadness didn’t last very long. The next emotion that came up grabbed sadness by its scrawny shoulders, shook it, and said; “What the hell are you feeling sad about? Your mother WAS IN THE HOUSE when this asshole broke in.” So much for sadness.

When the reality sunk in that my mother could have been clocked by a teenager because she happened to wake up while he was robbing us, well, the adrenaline was pumping hard and fast. All I could think about was getting down to the pawn shops East of Adelaide and finding the guy. And then I’d… well, I don’t know what I would have done. Anger isn’t a very logical emotion, is it? It wants instant gratification. NOW.

When you get robbed, you feel violated. You look at your home differently, through the eyes of a stranger, and you try to imagine what they saw. And you realize that the little sailor doll sitting in a miniature rocking chair on the piano means absolutely nothing to the thief. Sailor represents dollars, and dollars only. And for this robber, sailor was just a bit of cloth and yarn, not even worth cents. You look more closely at sailor, and at the books with faded covers and pages gilded in gold. You re-discover old teddy bears, ears floppy, fur faded, who had blended into the background of the things that you no longer notice because of their familiarity. These things all deemed worthless by the teenage crackhead, and you understand the value of memories.

What? I’m not even worth a dime bag?

So, after the police came and dusted for fingerprints (which sounds so much like a tv drama, but it’s exactly what they do), and my dad and I were able to calm my mom down, we took stock of what had happened. I lost my computer (my lifeline to Japan, as it was the only computer in the house, but that’s another story), some music and a nice bag. My mom didn’t get hit over the head with her own cane, the thief didn’t dig deeper into drawers and boxes for loot, and he didn’t break things for the sheer thrill of being able to, well, break stuff. We got off pretty lightly in the grand scheme of things. But I couldn’t stop thinking about memories, and their importance in keeping a connection to the past. And here is where the more serious aspect of my London visit comes into play. Memories.

While I was home, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers. As you can imagine, her memory ain’t what it used to be. So, this robbery, the upheaval it caused, and the fear and tears my mom went through for a short time afterwards still affect me. For my mom, well, not so much. I never bring up the day of the robbery to her, and she hasn’t mentioned it in months. It’s a lost memory. Where it went… well that’s the mystery of Alzheimer’s, isn’t it? The doctor showed us images of my mother’s brain scan, and while there are indeed spots where you can see the brain matter has shrunk, where do all those memories that are still buried deep in the remaining grey area, just where do they go?

It’s impossible to have a relevant conversation with my mother about what is happening in the here and now, or really what has happened in the past few years. The day after my wedding, we brought her for brunch to the main restaurant of where the reception had been held. As she was seated, she looked around and said; “Oh, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? It must have been years ago.” While that kind of memory loss does sadden me, knowing that she also doesn’t remember something as harsh and unpleasant as having a stranger break into her home and steal stuff is kind of strangely comforting. I’m not much of a Jim Carrey fan, but that Eternal Sunshine movie had a strong effect on me. The thought of erasing unpleasant memories does hold a certain (momentary) allure, doesn’t it? Or not.

Getting older has caused me to be more nostalgic, get weepy at things I used to be cynical about, and appreciate small things on a deeper level. I’ve got a new computer, and while I didn’t replace my iPod, I’ve got a husband who’s quite accommodating; he takes song requests most days and sings them to me.  And I’ve got a pretty sweet bear who keeps me grounded. As I witness Alzheimers take its hold on my mother, I realize how important it is to write. The memories may get buried and lost, but documenting them may keep them closer to the surface. Even the not so pleasant ones, I suppose. So, here I go again. Wish me luck, watch this space, and I’ll do my best to remember to write.

The Basement Blogger

First Weeks Back Home

I’m 43, and I’m staying in my parent’s basement. Over twenty-five years ago, the room I’m sitting in right now used to be my sister’s. Back then there was a padlock on the door (that I quickly learned to pick), and behind that door were mountains of clothes, crates upon crates of vinyl records, and the smell of Indian incense used (ineffectively) to cover the smell of pot. My sister was cool, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with me (which explains the lock on the door). But, neither the lock, nor the very large “KEEP OUT” sign could deter me. I wanted a piece of that coolness, and I had to get to the other side of that door (when she was out, of course.)

I was a cultural anthropologist, digging through the artifacts of a mid-eighties punk rocker. My sister had it all; threadbare jeans held together by hundreds of safety pins, neon green hair gel that came in clear plastic jars, and, of course, the music. She didn’t take the best care of those records, and I’d have to tiptoe in a zigzag around the vinyl discs scattered in piles on the floor, some balancing ten or fifteen deep on each other. Finding the record to match the jacket wasn’t always an easy task, but I’d persevere.

There were some album covers that screamed out louder than others to be picked up from the mess on the floor, to be examined a little more closely. The Clash’s London Calling cover is iconic now, but back then I had no clue what they were all about.  The guy in the leather jacket, about to smash his bass, the skinny jeans and the haze in the background created an image for me that represented excitement, fear and sexy all at once. I’d see guys downtown in the same punk armour, and was instantly smitten. High-top black and white converse and jeans so skinny and tight they look painted on were signals to me that the guy wearing them was cool, older and mysterious. That album cover set the tone for many years to come for the kind of boy I’d want to date.

It was just an album cover. I hadn’t even heard the music yet (because finding the record to go with the jacket was no easy task in my sister’s messy room) but that photo, which caught a fraction of a second of punk angst, created the backdrop and palette for my future choice in clothes, music, and style that has stuck with me my whole life. Hearing the music that went with the cover, at some later date, only reinforced what I already knew. The Clash were cool, just like my sister.

So, here I am, in that same basement. It’s a guest room now, with an ensuite bathroom and colour coordinated pillows and dried flowers. The records are gone, but I’m looking to the side of the bed, and there’s a pair of converse. They’re mine. They aren’t high-tops, and they’re pretty new, but it’s while I’m looking at my choice of footwear, at 43 years old, that I realize how much our early experiences impact us in later life. And, although this basement room has gone through a facelift and some transformations over the years, it’s still a part of what I call home. And I am so very grateful that I have this opportunity to come back here and help out the best that I can. I have an understanding husband, and an incredible workplace to thank for this unique chance to do what I can to keep this house running smoothly.

For most ex-pats, visits to the  homeland are a mix of the rush and excitement to see people, eat food that they’ve been craving, and share what’s been going on in the months between visits. For me, this time is different. There isn’t the need to pack months worth of experiences into just a couple of weeks. I’m here to help my parents, and I’ll be here for a good chunk of time. I suppose that’s why the memories are more striking this time around; I’m giving them more time to register, and I’m questioning their significance. My Converse have always been important. When they wear out, I get a new pair. No question as to why, I just do it. And here these shoes and I find ourselves again. In the basement. This basement in this house is not only where I’ll sleep for the next little while, it’s where I’m going to go when I need a small break from the needs of my parents. It’s a place where memories are stored, and I’m going to take a little bit of this treasured time to unearth and examine them.

Converse, the Clash, and a unique opportunity to spend some time in my childhood home have come together, affording me an invaluable opportunity to do what I think many ex-pats hope they can do, which is to be able to revisit a time and place that at times seems unattainable when caught up in the day-to-day adventure (and sometimes not so exciting) reality of living overseas. Sometimes, we just need a little taste of home to appreciate what got us to where we are, and who we are today.

Still kicking, September 2011

Over and out for now,

the basement blogger

I can’t seem to find the first entry, so, just in case, here it is:

Away From Japan… for a while

I’ve lived in Japan for quite a few years. My life is in Nagoya, where I have all the creature comforts: a wonderful husband, fun friends, and a solid career. Sometimes I pinch myself (I really do) just to double check that this is me, living my life, and it isn’t just some fantastic dream. But, I’ve entered into that time of life where my focus has been diverted from my home in Japan and on to my original home in Canada. My parents went and got old. The nerve! By writing about some of the challenges I am facing, I hope that I’ll not only relieve a bit of stress, but also help some other ex-pats out there who may be able to use some of my experiences as a bit of a guide when it’s their turn to help out the folks in the homeland.

My Parents ~ Tying the knot, June 16th, 1962

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