Monthly Archives: May 2012


May 31th 2012

universal thank you note

The West African women are warm and welcoming. I am here to observe their conversational English group, which I will be helping to lead a few weeks from now in July and August, as a literacy volunteer tutor. Their group has been meeting at the library for six months. I am not the only newcomer today. A young woman from Togo has also come, accompanied by her husband. One of the instructors invites her husband to stay for as long as he likes, but maybe the prospect of being in a room with eight women is too much; he flees after a few minutes.
The first timer, Lucie, and I are both short, though at five feet she is shorter than me. Her hair is closely cropped; she says that in Togo she wore it long, very long, but cut it when she came here because she wanted to feel freer. A pang of envy or admiration shoots through me, for her bravery in starting a new life, her openness in front of strangers. Is the cutting of her hair symbolic of the rupture of her ties to her first country? She and I smile at each other because that is what newcomers do when they want to feel at home. A gift given, a gift received, it costs nothing and means so much.

Lucie tells the group her husband works in a nursery. It takes us a few minutes to understand he is not a landscaper nor a childcare worker but a nurse. I am happy to hear Lucie’s husband has a job; there has been a shortage of nurses in the U.S. for a long time and his prospects sound promising. Lucie says she prepares food for people. We realize she is talking about catering and want to know more about her business: did she do this in Togo? Who are her new clients? But this is her first day in the group and it feels rude to keep questioning her. She says she loves to cook and clearly she takes pride in her work. We go around the table introducing ourselves. There are two instructors, myself, and five students. All five are from French-speaking countries: three from Togo, one from Ivory Coast, one from Burkina Faso. Two of the women have brought baby girls with them; Justine has brought her daughter, Marie, and Bella has brought Grace, a 10-month-old she babysits. Justine nurses her daughter when she fusses and puts her back in the carriage she has parked behind her chair. Grace sits on Bella’s lap and when she gets restless, Bella places her in a colorful blanket and wraps it around her waist so that Grace rides on Bella’s back. The baby immediately falls asleep. Bella promises to show the women next week how the wrapping is done, and I am sorry I will not be there to learn.

The conversation turns to last weekend’s activities and then to food. The woman from Ivory Coast says she is planning to go home and make a dish with cornmeal. The other West African women know this dish and tell those who don’t that it’s something like polenta. One of the instructors says she plans to make soup this afternoon and asks me if I like to cook. “No,” I say. “I hate it.” Immediately I regret this. The women look at me as I’d just admitted to cheating on my taxes. I hope I have not insulted them. The challenge of feeding a family in a strange country is something they take seriously. I want to tell them my mother hated to cook and that I grew up on diner food and Stouffer’s tv dinners. But the talk has moved on to the pros and cons of shopping at large supermarkets versus neighborhood grocery stores. I make a mental note that when I return in a few weeks, I will ask the women more about what they like to cook and which ingredients are hard to find. Perhaps with the library’s permission we can have a potluck lunch and I’ll make macaroni and cheese from scratch.

Two hours have passed and the meeting is over. The women say their goodbyes in French, and an instructor calls out, “English, ladies. Please!” But it’s too late, the pull of the mother tongue is so strong. I turn to Lucie and ask if she plans to come back. “Of course she’s coming back!” the other instructor exclaims.

I’ve misspoken again. What I meant to say was, “I’ll be coming back, and when I do, I hope I see you.” But perhaps Lucie understands, because as she leaves she gives me one of her radiant smiles.

Nancy Gerber

Nancy Gerber received her doctorate in English from Rutgers and taught Women’s Studies and English at Rutgers in Newark for eight years.
She is the author of Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving.

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What is Memorial Day?

May 24th 2012

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Useless Literary Terms Come Alive

May 17 2012

Synedoche: figure of speech wherein part represents whole, e.g. “crown” stands for “king” or “queen”.

Objective Correlative: T.S. Eliot’s literary device, akin to metaphor, where an object or thing represents an emotion or feeling.

How do I know such obscure things? Rather than following my dad’s advice to pursue a more practical career as a doctor or lawyer, I studied literature, finally taking an M.A. at UCLA. Later I was in the Ph.d program, but when confronted by an obscure question about a lesser-known English poet named Charles Lamb in the part one written exams, I walked out of that UCLA classroom room and away from the Ph.d program. I left three months later for Paris with $400 in my pocket, a big smile, and no real plans. I had gone to school in Paris a few years before so the City of Light was no stranger.

When I returned to the States 2 years later, it was tough getting a decent teaching job, even though I had three teaching credentials and plenty of teaching experience. So I took an even more risky career detour into music. I would have been a terrible lawyer and could have never gone to med school to cut up a cadaver anyway.

But going back to seldom-used literary terms, occasionally they crop up in real-life situations. For synedoche (sin-ek-dough-kee), I pulled into the SMC parking lot last Sunday to do my show. I beheld the 1964 Chrysler New Yorker sedan, blue-green and in glorious original condition. It belongs to Jason Groman, who runs logistics for KCRW, and also handles the KCRW mail and fulfillment departments, both crucial links between KCRW and its members. The Chrysler harkens back to the era of great Amercian cars and embodies the taste and sensibility of its proud owner, who loves classic things, whether they be Paper Mate pens, Lawry’s Prime Rib, classic Magnavox hi fi consoles, and Sinatra ballads on the original vinyl. It made me happy to see Jason’s car and to know I would also soon be seeing him. Everybody at KCRW loves Jason Groman. He’s a great guy and a unique human being. The Chrysler New Yorker truly reflects him.

As for Eliot’s objective correlative: I used to think that Sinatra’s Only the Lonely was his best album of torch songs. Then I heard In The Wee Small Hours, and that trumped Only the Lonely. Then I discovered No One Cares, and realized that this was numero uno. On the cover of No One Cares, we see a photo of Sinatra in a club at the bar, alone, down and depressed, nursing a glass of whisky, smoking cigarettes while others gaily dance and romance in the background.

Then you look at some of the song titles: ”A Cottage for Sale” is about a failed marriage. ”Stormy Weather”, captures his tempestuous marriage and divorce from Ava Gardner. These two song titles capture the essence of the album. T.S. Eliot’s term, originally meant for aspiring poets, actually comes up a lot in music. These are just two examples.

So even though obscure literary terms do not have much use in daily life, occasionally they spring back to enliven the little things that make life more interesting. And you don’t need a Ph.D to appreciate them.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program on radio for KCRW Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons

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Repetition Plus Expression Equals Satisfaction

May 10 2012

On a week bookended by a beginning guitar class at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and a painting retreat in Encino, I was buffeted by a key challenge of the reinventing Boomer. The guitar classes were held in a room that does triple duty as concert hall, classroom, and showroom. All manner of stringed instruments ranging from ukulele to classic Fender electric guitars to handmade mandolins fill the walls. The classes are also packed with instruction on technique and practice drills. In contrast, at Master Rassouli’s painting retreat in Encino, the opposite approach is taken, no technique–nada, his approach is to inspire free expression. The empty, cavernous, multi-purpose, room fits this method perfectly.

Each class was a stretch for me. The guitar class pushed me beyond my capacities to absorb the chord changes, fingering, and timing of the guitar. I ended up getting more and more frustrated by the minute.  It came to a head when I just shut down and stared at the sheet music, unable to move my hands. At the painting retreat, prepared to paint another masterpiece with new canvas, new brushes, and ample acrylics, I spent the day bobbing around like a castaway’s bottle in the sea with no direction. Between these polar opposites is the sweet spot of growth/ learning in the creative arts. 

Skill development in the arts can be highly satisfying. Whether playing a musical instrument, learning to draw or paint, writing a novel, learning to dance, later in life people are often called to the arts as a way of expressing themselves. They can be a vehicle for growth and achievement as well as simply enjoy of life.  The big elephant in the room is that learning an artistic craft is often tedious, slow, and often difficult. When you have no natural talent for the field but always thought it would be cool to play piano (or draw or tango), it takes motivation and/ or passion to continue on past the unavoidable beginners’ stage.

Artistic pursuits are often seen to be outlets for self expression. Indeed, I have experienced great liberation from simple free painting.  I have done abstract paintings for years and enjoyed it immensely. I had an exhibit of my work a couple years ago called, Expression as Liberation. It was great. The rush from expressing oneself is liberating and fun, but it is also fleeting. Like an intoxication that wears off the next day (if you don’t have a hangover). To sustain the high or the liberation, one must keep taking more of the intoxicant, but in artistic pursuits the high fades overtime without craft, without skill. What is missing is the satisfaction of achievement.

In art, the ‘high’ of flow or engagement in the moment is exciting. To keep that high one must slog through the rough terrain of building skills through drills. Spoken word artist, Adwin David Brown says it this way, “repetition, repetition, repetition, and then flow.”. The bliss of spontaneous creativity comes after many hours on the free throw line at the gym, drilling forehands with a practice partner, and swinging in the batting cage. Miles Davis, the master improviser, said he practiced the scales every day. 

When we entered our first adulthood we were fresh canvases, open to learn new stuff and the long hours of repetition are not so daunting. Brain scientists have determined that the human brain is not fully formed until around 28. After we have filled in the spaces of our brain patterns (science reports that we do use most of our brain, contrary to pop psychology) learning is a bit more daunting.  At a mature age we have to retrain part of our minds to learn new skills. That takes effort. Deep satisfaction from achievement is possible with patience and a carefully designed plan for sustaining the growth. Art done for the quick high, is as ephemeral as last night’s drunk.  My personal mantra on climbing this mountain in the second adulthood is: Show up, be mindful and do it, (over and over and over again).

Ran Klarin
A lifelong L.A. resident, he is known for his relentless creative nature. Ran advocates seeking, finding, revealing, and sharing one’s uniqueness. After a long and notorious (often accused of being ‘innovative’) career in public education where he rose to become a high school principal, he leapt into a new life dedicated to creativity. So far, his career in the creative arts has produced, an exhibition of his paintings, Expression As Liberation, a book of poetry, Expression Is Liberation, and a book of essays, Creative, Collaborative, Cagebreakers. His regular blogs can be found at His handbook for Boomer ‘refirement’ Firebird: A Guide for Conscious and Free Retirement will be published in the Fall ‘2012. He asserts that the time has come for Boomers to live their youthful ideals for community, the environment, for freedom, for justice, and for fun. Ran has Masters degrees in School Administration & Mass Communications and an BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley.

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Embracing International Students: Lowering Standards for the Almighty $$$

May 3, 2012

Dollar Sign in Space - Illustration

As we seek ways to attract international students to our college campuses, lowering our standards and accepting candidates solely to boost revenue and clout doesn’t seem to be a smart way of going about it. But, it is exactly what’s happening. As states cut back on subsidies, slashing budgets and tightening belts, our colleges and universities are feeling the strain and altering their screening of foreign applicants.

In a way, being admitted on the basis of having famous parents may not necessarily get one into a university, but having influential relatives as likely donors will give the student a leg up. At least, that’s what Douglas Christiansen, the dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University is quoted as saying in an April 17, 2012 piece “Colleges angle for influential foreign students like Bo Guagua” on Reuters. Where a family’s clout overseas was once not a factor in the screening of applications of international students, more and more U.S. institutions are feeling the pinch and slowly abandoning their purist admissions practices and considering to “think about screening foreign applicants for their capacity to help boost revenue and prestige,” is how Phillip Ballinger, Admissions Director at the University of Washington in Seattle puts it in the same article.

You may have heard of Bo Guagua, and his “party-boy” persona, and even following the recent headlines surrounding his parents who are accused of political corruption and even murder of an English businessman in China. (Children of China’s political elite are commonly referred to as “princelings,” a strange moniker for a country that did away with emperors and all things princely.) Despite what news articles have uncovered about this young man’s spotty and subpar academic record beginning with his secondary education at Harrow (a prestigious boarding school for boys in England which appears to have admitted him on the basis of a strong recommendation from the very English businessman, now deceased), to his stint at Oxford University, where he was suspended for a year for “poor academic performance,” the 24-year old Bo Guagua was admitted to Harvard University’s Kennedy School to pursue a Master’s. And, he was on a scholarship!

What happened to academic performance? Parents are breaking their backs to put their students in college-preparatory programs and paying for private tutors so their children will score high on SAT’s and get into top notch universities. They apply for student loans and take second mortgages on their home to be able to pay for their child’s college tuition. And while soon-to-be high school graduates double up and pack their schedules with extra-curricular activities to strengthen their college applications, there are those, like the young Bo Guagua, who simply jump to the front of the line because of family ties and financial resources.

There’s something wrong with this picture and as one who has been involved in international education for nearly 30 years, I know the answer lies in the proper vetting of the international student with a thorough and detailed verification and evaluation of his/her academic documents. This may sound like a self-serving statement, but it is true. As public universities here in the US are feeling the pinch and pressured to loosen their reins on screening foreign applications, more and more are looking at ways to exercise more flexibility and at times turn a blind eye on the importance of credential evaluation. Sadly, one of the first departments that appear on an institution’s chopping block at times of financial hardship tends to be the international student office. Yet, the institutions set out to aggressively recruit international students knowing that they are a guaranteed revenue generating source.

Fortunately, there are still some holdouts in the education market. Just yesterday I spoke with the director of the international admissions office of a local community college who was adamant about having the applications of potential foreign students screened before encouraging them to apply to his institution. He wanted to be sure that a) the institution the foreign applicant had attended in his/her home country was accredited; b) the academic documents were bona fide, and c) that the studies were equivalent to U.S. high school graduation and beyond with satisfactory and above average grades. At least he has the good sense to verify these students’ academic documents in advance. Let’s hope that more institutions see things his way.

In our quest to attract international students, enriching our campuses with diversity and multiculturalism, boosting revenues that help our local and regional economies, we can maintain the integrity of our academic institutions without compromising our standards. If a community college is capable of doing this and still remain an attractive destination for international students, other institutions can do it too.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI, Inc.

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