Tuesday, February 28, 2017

John at Hyde Park Theatre

As a child, I grew up in theaters. Watching plays and talking about them was my first taste of literary analysis. Sometimes at movie theaters, I feel depressed if I don't think people around me are paying close enough attention. The joy of movies and plays is in being asked to understand subtext. For me, the second joy is feeling a bit emotionally wrecked. I want theater that challenges me to think about people in new ways. I want to walk away feeling changed, charged, and maybe not quite okay. Live theater is such a brave art form; it excites me because it's different every time and because each performance takes such courage and energy. I don't get to see enough of it, but lucky for Brendan and I, we were able to catch a preview of John by Annie Baker at Hyde Park Theatre last weekend, and if you live in Austin (or within driving distance), you cannot miss this one.

I hate movie previews these days because they give everything away, so I won't do that here. I'll just tell you the premise. Jenny and Elias are a couple that go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to stay at a bed and breakfast that turns out to be real--weird. There, they meet Mertis, a strange woman with some curious tendencies who runs the B&B, and her friend Genevieve who is not technically sane but sometimes the sanest character on the stage.

Photo Credit: Hyde Park Theatre
The show is directed by Ken Webster, and it's always a treat to watch his creative process and the complete and consuming dedication he puts into every project. Ken has such a knack for casting that I often wonder how the off broadway productions of his plays can function without the Hyde Park Theatre actors. He finds people that truly embody the roles, and even with discussion about lights and props going on between the three acts, it was easy to feel I was watching something real and organic. Annie Baker's work is masterful. There's no other way to say it. This play has so many layers that it challenged what I think of as theater doing; Brendan put it best when he said "this is the kind of play that she earned the right to write." 

Katherine Catmull is fantastic as flighty Mertis, the B&B owner whose house is filled with knick-knacks. Mertis struggles to make her guests feel at ease as she works to please both humans and the house (you'll see), and she brings humor and lightness to the stage. Catmull does an excellent job with the evolution of her character, over time making the audience realize that Mertis's secrets aren't like yours or mine. With her sing-songy voice and unique dialogue, you just want to listen. Mertis's friend Genevieve is played by Lana Dieterich, always a favorite to see on stage. Genevieve is blind, but she is aware of more than meets the eye (pun intended). Instead of questioning the seemingly ridiculous, Genevieve embraces it, and somehow makes what is absurd understood. Dieterich creates an endearing character; though her monologue is frightfully disturbing, Dieterich delivers by letting humanity meet insanity. There is no way anyone could make this role so entertaining as Dieterich has. I think this is my first time seeing Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady in a play, and both are an absolute delight. The build up in tension between these characters is so breathtaking. They were completely relatable in the beginning, and over time, I became completely worried for them. As Elias, Thomas portrays a character both self-centered and sensitive. You somehow feel sorry for him, even as he's making choices that you know are destructive. Grady is so perfect as imperfect Jenny. She makes her work onstage look effortless as the phone obsessed girlfriend who simultaneously wants to accept and fix Elias. The cast works together excellently; each member expends so much emotional energy that they bring this world utterly to life. At the end, you'll want reassurance that everyone is okay and that it was just pretend. You'll also want to talk about it for the next two weeks. 

So, here are the details on John. 
Word in my email is that you can catch a free preview (Wednesday) March 1st by just showing up before 8PM. The official opening date is Thursday, March 2nd. The show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8PM through April 1st. The theatre is located at 511 West 43rd Street. If you are looking for an interesting evening out, this is the ticket (literally). Speaking of tickets, the cost is $22 per ticket on Fridays and $24 per ticket on Saturdays (except for the last weekend when prices increase to $24/$26). $2 off for students, seniors, and ACA members. Thursdays, as always, are pay what you can: keeping quality theatre affordable for Austinites. Check out the website for tickets and more details. 

Happy viewing Austinites. I'm envious of you because I'd go see it again if I were local. If you see it, please email me about it so we can discuss. 


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What is the Meaning of Life?

Greetings faithful blog readers!

Lola and Zoe, the blog, is taking a turn for the serious today as I ponder the meaning of life (blog style).

In the past few months, I've been thinking a lot about the meaning of life, and I have all the usual questions. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why are other people so hard to understand? What is the meaning of all this?

When I was younger (I mean even as recently as eight or nine years ago), I was really quite self-centered. I thought in terms of what was best for me and people that I directly interacted with. I didn't feel a responsibility to the larger whole. I had a life philosophy where I thought "What am I getting out of this?" And honestly, I wasn't so grateful. I felt like I deserved everything that I had because I worked really hard for it. If people didn't have what I had? Well, they should of made better decisions! But, as I've grown older, I've come to several conclusions. The big conclusion is that the meaning of life is to serve others. 

It's pretty imperative that I explain that I think serving others is also self-serving. You see, living like "it's all about me" did not bring me happiness. I believe that if you want to be happy, you must think of others. This works on a small scale (thinking about your family's needs above your own), but it works on a much larger scale too. Sometimes, you need to make a stranger's needs your top priority for the day. If you are the person that can help someone else, and you choose to use your time that way, you just did something incredible for the world; maybe you did something that no one else could do. And that means that on that day, for that person, the world was a better place because of you. This, alas, is the secret to happiness! The second key to happiness is being grateful. Now, I spend a lot of time every day marveling at what I have: my health, my career, my family, my home, and I am really grateful beyond words. I mean I literally freak out thinking about how lucky I am. Because I finally realized that even though I did work hard, I don't really deserve any of what I have anymore than the person that is without. Sure, I worked hard, but I also inherited a fantastic set of circumstances that have facilitated much of my personal success. If my fantastic circumstances set me up for a great life, and I only lived that life in benefit to myself, the world would gain nothing. BUT if I use my life to do great things for others (to help others advance, to contribute to society, to give to charity, art, and causes that helps others, etc.), then the world gains some good from my existence. And you know what? I'm so much happier feeling that my life is doing some good--not just for my friends and my family and my students but also for my community and for people that I encounter. These two things together (being grateful and serving others) equal my meaning of life.

I don't ever think negatively about paying taxes; instead, I think: I'm so lucky to live in this country and enjoy everything it has to offer, and I'm so happy I can contribute to it. And I don't ever worry about what someone else is taking or not doing. I'm happy that I can help support someone with nothing, and if a person finds refuge from bad circumstances, then I am happy for them, and I don't care if there's a bit of a cost to help that person become established. I think often about if the tables were turned and I needed help. I would want that help to be there, and so, I'm grateful for the chance to contribute to foundations and funds and social welfare programs that can be that help for someone else.

I know some people that have a really nice lifestyle, but they don't think about what they can give to society; I hear them be worried and defensive and suspicious of others, and I know what that line of thinking feels like because I've thought that way (and I'm not perfect and still have my moments from time to time).

I do feel sorry for these people though, and I do wish for them a beautiful transformative experience that gives them the chance to really help someone and feel how great it feels.

For me, my transformative experiences happen at work almost daily. I have the opportunity to help a lot of people, and I love it so much that I have trouble staying at home for a day even if I'm not feeling well! But I've also been lucky to have Brendan in my life because he is a person that really does think of the underdog all the time, and he has brought out a kinder more giving and compassionate/empathetic side of me than I ever knew was there.

He left me this in my office today just to make me smile. His ability to think of me first fills me with love and makes me want to put other people first too.

This little gesture had me thinking about the meaning of life today. So: may you be loved and give love, may you do unto others as you'd have done to you, may you be grateful for each and every blessing that has been bestowed on you, and may you serve others every day in every way that you can. 

And if you realize that you've been a jerk, may you rectify it and not beat yourself up over it, and may your happiness increase tenfold because of your newish worldview. 

These, my friends, are my hopes for all of us! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Super Sick Valentine's Day

Greetings faithful blog readers,

I've been sick since Friday, and the past few days have been the worst of my year so far. I had to cancel plans to attend a birthday party, I've had to take a sick day (something I rarely do), and I've had to miss working out for multiple days. In the midst of my illness, we celebrated Valentine's Day, one of my favorite holidays, but I was too sick to enjoy cooking dinner together, so we put that part off.

Brendan cheered me up by bringing home some gorgeous roses, chocolate, sour gummies, and a new Pillow Pet I named Speedy. Don't worry, I still have Ralph.

I can't eat anything other than saltines, toast, and other bland foods, but I'm looking forward to enjoying my treats soon.

Lola and Zoe cheered me up by watching new episodes of My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with me, and I also got some new LulaRoe for myself (see above). Anyone else slightly addicted to the comfort of LulaRoe?

I gave Brendan a Zingerman's Cheese Club (Italy edition), and we both gave each other sweet cards. Brendan's parents gave us a cheese club for his birthday one year, and it was amazing. Our first installment came today, and boy do I wish I could eat some.

Please send well wishes to our household, and we hope everyone had a wonderful day of love yesterday.

Also, our friend Michael's book of poetry is out today! If you pick up a copy, you are in for such a treat. We can't wait for ours to arrive. We plan to get it signed when we visit San Francisco in just a few weeks! Healthier times are ahead.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Public Education: A Love Letter

Today, I watched, outraged and heartbroken, as Betsy DeVos, billionaire bent on destroying equal access to education and known plagiarist incapable of answering basic questions, was confirmed as Secretary of Education. In a historic vote of low confidence, it took a Vice President's vote to confirm DeVos, but she was confirmed nonetheless. Now, education as the great equalizer, a value I believe in with all my soul, is threatened. But this post isn't about my fear; it's about my love for public education. Read on. 

Dear Public Schools, 

I have been inside of your walls daily for twenty five of my thirty years. The lessons that you taught and continue to teach me are invaluable, and it's time I said thank you publicly, proudly, and loudly. 

As a young child, I struggled with heightened anxiety and a short attention span. I wasn't particularly easy to educate, but you didn't give up on me. I was lucky to have the same teacher for both kindergarten and first grade, and she stayed in communication with my parents about my struggles. I remember my class filming our own mock episodes of Reading Rainbow, I remember writing and illustrating my own booksand I remember singing along with a guitar on the playground. Volunteers: I remember you. One mom that was a dentist came to give our class a presentation on oral hygiene. A woman from the community volunteered as a mentor and was paired with me during second grade, the difficult year that my parents divorced. I remember she brought me a ceramic bunny that she painted. I kept it for years on my dresser. My favorite part of the day was gym class with our PE instructor, a seventy year-old woman who had us dancing to "The Electric Slide." Later, we had a male PE instructor that insisted every girl could climb a rope or do a pull up just as well as the boys. Everyday, he took notes on his clipboard. "Tomorrow could be the day," he would say optimistically if you didn't get it. 

Third grade brought a move to a new school. I didn't like my teacher, but she taught me multiplication tables expertly, and I was able to pass the TAAS test in all subjects. My confidence that year was low; I remember thinking I should bubble the opposite answer of whatever I thought on standardized tests, but other experiences brought joy. I remember one of my best friends at school was the granddaughter of our janitor. It didn't matter that our backgrounds were so different: we both had the same opportunities, and I took for granted that this should always be and had always been the case. Looking back, I realize that she was on the free and reduced lunch program, but that didn't occur to me back then. I recall trading food and secrets with her and another friend, an international student originally from Russia. My mom took to packing extra snacks for my friends, and she wrote notes on post-its and put them in my lunchbox. When my class took an overnight field trip to SeaWorld, my mom drove six of us in her min-van. We dressed like penguins for an obstacle race. We were all members of the same Girl Scout troop, which met in the common area outside the third grade classrooms. 

Fourth grade brought my favorite teacher of all time, Ms. Reyes, and new best friends. Ms. Reyes made reading click for me. I don't know what she did, but suddenly, I got it, and I loved it, and I couldn't read enough. My new best friend was an only child that lived in a townhouse with her parents and an international student from Korea. We all loved dolls but felt a little self-conscious about it, so we were secretive when we played with them at recess. That year, we were in the portables, and Mrs. Reyes would let us curl up in the coat closet with flashlights and books and read during free read, which was my favorite part of the day. In a portable across the way, a teacher my mom had mentored taught Special Education class. Ms. Alicia loved her students, and my fourth grade class got to help out with her class. We read to the students and helped with Special Olympics week and with life skills, and, even at nine years old, we learned about compassion and the gift of friendship and acceptance more than I'm convinced some adults have. Ms. Reyes gave us "star-cards," with stamps for accomplishments, and we exchanged them for Blow Pops. The saddest part of the day was when Ms. Reyes went home, and I went to after-school care until 5:30. My parents were both working full time, but in after-school care, I could get help with homework and play outside safely until they arrived. My best friend from third grade was there too, which was an added bonus. I should add, my parents put us in some private programs, but the after school care was what we liked best, so we always ended up switching back. 

Fifth grade brought opportunities to shine in the class musicals, which were self-written by our creative and quirky music teacher. I was the only fifth grader to land a lead role in both the winter and spring musicals. I was starting to blossom and become more outgoing. A parent that owned a dance studio volunteered to do all of our choreography. I wore jeans and a training bra for the first time that year. Our music teacher tried to teach us to play recorders. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" never sounded better. Our art teacher, a short woman with frizzy red hair, tried to teach us sculpture. I failed at both, but I still appreciated the exposure. I made an ice-cube sculpture for an assignment where we were supposed to sculpt a piece of food. "It's not very good," another kid said. "It could be abstract," my art teacher said hopefully. It turns out, it was really just bad; to this day, my mother uses the ice-cube as a paperweight. 

Sixth grade brought a jump to middle school. I was intimidated. I remember walking there with a group of friends wearing neon green overalls over a black and white striped t-shirt. The first day, the air conditioning was broken, and we almost melted. I auditioned for the school play and was cast in a lead role. I found myself competing at University Interscholastic League (UIL). My mom volunteered to help chaperone us to the competition. My scene partner Neal and I won first place in duet acting for our first kiss scene from the movie My Girl. Sadly, Neal passed away when we were twenty. I visited him in the hospital when he was sick. "Remember when we won first place?" he asked. I did. Days like that stay with you. I started my period that year and attended school dances. Teachers and parents volunteered to spend a Friday night in a school cafeteria watching a bunch of 11-13 year-olds dance. Back then, I was was oblivious to their sacrifices. A friend and I got in trouble and were given a day of in school suspension in what was, honestly, an unjust punishment. I remember her parents moved her to private school instead of having her go to ISS. I stayed, did ISS alone, and learned that sometimes punishments aren't fair, but you can still live with it. 

In eighth grade, I applied for PALS (Peer, Assistance, Leadership, and Service) and was thrilled to be accepted. This was my early introduction to tutoring, and I remember many afternoons spent tutoring my assigned sixth graders. I was able to give back to the school that had given so much to me. I also was the editor in chief of the yearbook. One of the popular girls had wanted the position, and I remember her congratulating me. It meant a lot to me because I was feeling insecure about my ability to do it. "You deserve it" she told me. She ended up helping me a lot with photos, collages, and layout; I was more interested in the writing aspect. This was an early experience of teamwork and coming together with people you normally might not have anything in common with to accomplish a goal. 

For high school, I decided to transfer to a Fine Arts School. My district did an amazing job of providing students with opportunities for specialized education. It was here that I was able to study theater and dance every single day. I was one happy student. I also joined the newspaper and National Honor Society and became an officer for the Royal Court Players (we had bumper stickers that said "Thespians Do It On Stage"). I was ALWAYS was reading. Once, someone put a name tag on me that said "have coffee with me, I'm lonely," and I didn't even notice for the entire day because I was so engrossed in reading All the Pretty Horses between classes. I landed the lead role in The Diary of Anne Frank my freshman year, and my theater teacher brought Arnold Van Den Burg, a holocaust survivor who had lived down the street from the real Anne Frank, in to talk to us and see our performance. I'll never forget the message that he wrote to me in the program.

It was public school that taught me about the holocaust, slavery, and the atrocities committed against Native Americans. It was public school that had me read Night, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cry the Beloved Country, Things Fall Apart, The Poisonwood Bibles, The Giver, The Handmaiden's Tale, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Frankenstein, and so many of my favorite, to this day, novels. It was my tenth grade teacher, Ms. Morgan who refused to take an assignment late, even know I knew she knew I merely hadn't been paying attention when she asked for it. At the time, I thought she was being unfair. I didn't realize she was teaching me to be accountable. It was my ninth grade teacher, Mr. MacArther, who taught me what a paradox was. It was my tenth and eleventh grade history teachers, Mr. Staples and Mr. Ferguson, who brought history alive for me. Mr. Staples even organized a trip to London, and we saw Richard III at The Globe. No doubt, my public school education experience was enhanced by the fact that my parents could afford to give me extra resources, like tutoring, but from personal experience, I know that the math and science teachers were there early every single morning for kids that needed extra help (because sometimes I was among them). I couldn't forget Ms. Troy, who encouraged us to read what we loved, or Ms. Larden, who taught me to explicate a poem and brought fiction alive. 

It went by so quickly. And then I found myself graduating in the top ten percent with an early decision acceptance to New York University. Along the way, there were many teachers and counselors willing to help me make that dream become a reality (and willing to write the letters of recommendation on my behalf). I ran into one of them on a plane this winter on my way to Connecticut. "Aren't you Stacy Austin?" she said. She hadn't seen me in twelve years. I can't ever doubt that my counselors were above and beyond in their dedication to our successes. 

And then, at eighteen, I found myself at a private institution for the first time. My classmates were from diverse backgrounds, but some of them came from elite private high schools where their parents had paid 40,000 a year in tuition since preschool. If there were extreme differences between them and myself, I wasn't aware of them. I graduated from NYU with honors in three and a half years. In the meantime, I worked for a program called America Reads, tutoring third and fourth graders in reading and math at Public School 64. I worked with Ms. Allison, a most dedicated teacher, whose students, many of them ESL (English as a Second Language) had limited resources at home. Ms. Allison made her classroom an adventure everyday. I accompanied her class on a field trip to the MoMA, and I heard one of our third graders analyzing a painting in a fashion that brought tears to my eyes with its profound accuracy and emotional depth. I consider myself lucky to have learned from Ms. Allison. She let me take the advanced reading group though I knew it was her favorite; I think she wanted me to fall in love with teaching too (it worked). 

After college, I was accepted to graduate school with full tuition and a stipend and found myself, once again, at a public institution. I packed my bags and moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana to attend McNeese State University. I've written about McNeese a lot, and I always say it was the most magical time of my life, and I mean it. My professors (Neil, Amy, and Rita) were so caring and literally spent all day with us (I mean 8AM to 8PM twelve hour days with us). I never doubted their belief in me. I thrived in the small MFA program where I finally was just one of twenty "weird kids" now adults. I got to discuss my stories with Jeanne Leiby and ZZ Packer and Michael Knight and many others. I got to read so many collections and novels and poems and think about writing all day long. I was able to teach and discover the love and joy that I have for it. Writing entire sample essays (made up as a class) on a chalkboard soon became something I could do in my sleep (despite my initial fear of chalk). I'm still in touch with most of my classmates, and many are still writing. We received our former professor's book in the mail during dinner tonight, and our names appear in the acknowledgements. When I didn't think I could do it, my professors gave me tea and time to freak out. I wasn't okay, but then I was, and suddenly, graduate school was over too, a public gift that left me with zero debt and two degrees. 

We applied to eighty jobs, and since I left McNeese, I have been privileged to teach at two public community colleges in my home state. In my first year of full time teaching, a dual credit student approached me after class. I was excited to hear what she would say. Had I inspired her with my discussion on Othello? Was she falling in love with Shakespeare? Had I changed a life yet? "Professor Austin," she said, "I like your jacket."

I don't always know that my teaching is effective or great, and some days are hard, but there's nothing I could imagine wanting to do more. When I teach, I feel alive and happy and awake, but it's not just those hours in the classroom that I love. Teaching is keeping your office door open: it's writing a recommendation for a student to transfer to university, it's helping your former student win a scholarship or write a thank you to a donor, it's when a student stops by with a story he wrote for fun, when parents find you to say "thanks for believing in our daughter," it's when a student tells you he took his kids to the dentist for the first time because he graduated and landed a position with benefits, it's when the school janitor asks you how to register for GED classes, or when you get the chance to encourage your students to take that field trip to the capital or enter that poetry contest or join that club. It's taking a group of kids bowling on a Sunday night. It's an end of year cook out at a park. It's meeting up with a former student, who happens to be studying in your conference city, and seeing him fully adapted to college life. It's when the kid that couldn't write a full sentence, but wanted to be a newspaper reporter, brings you his first completed article. It's when a student emails you to say your performance of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is still giving her nightmares! It's crying at graduation every. single. year. 

Teaching is, put simply, the gift of being able to pay back the tremendous gift that was given to you. To teach is to give education, and to teach is to constantly learn. At MC, we say "It's YOUR college." That means, no matter your test scores, or reading ability, or last name, or learning challenges, we have a place for you. That's the idea of public education. I've lived it, I've loved it, and today I celebrate it. 

And if I were a product of private schools that had never educated my child in the public school system, and I recently found myself Secretary of Education, before I went fighting for a voucher program or dismantling public education, you know what I'd start by doing? I'd stop and listen. 

Because every public school child across America has a story like mine. Because the truth is, my public school education wasn't the exception. Across the country are teachers that are waking up early everyday to come tutor children. Across the country are teachers buying their own supplies and coming to school in the summer to decorate classrooms. Across the country are teachers staying after school, so kids have a safe place to be. Across the country are parents and volunteers giving time, money, and skill sets to their public schools. Across the country are children benefiting more than they can ever articulate from the love, patience, and care of their teachers, counselors, coaches, and school advocates. 

I know because I was one of them. 

So if you're reading this, and you, like me, are concerned for public education right now, what can you do? You can find a local school and volunteer there. Be a mentor, be a tutor, be a teacher's assistant. You don't think it will make that big of a difference. It will. Give money to your local school. In every school, there are kids struggling to afford the books, the field trips, or the sports gear: give to make that child's experience better. Ask a teacher what his or her classroom needs (every teacher has a wish list). On election day, VOTE to give more money to public schools. You won't miss the twenty five dollars nearly as much as they will, I promise. Continue to write to your representatives and let them know you support public schools. I know that our Senators disappointed us this time, but some of them listened. Be an advocate for public schools by speaking up for them. When you overhear people say that education is a "government run monopoly," correct them and gently explain why it is essential that education not be for profit (because it gives every child, not just those with parents that can subsidize vouchers or those lucky enough to have no learning challenges, equal access to education). Direct your friends and family members to public colleges and universities and away from for-profit "universities." Make sure people in your life understand the difference between public, private, and for profit education (and make sure they avoid the last!) Lastly, if you have your own love letter to public education, WRITE IT. Let's start a movement. 

Public school advocates, America needs you more than ever. 

Write your letters, thank your teachers, post your school pics. DO IT NOW. 

Left to Right: Colombina, Eugene, Me, and Corley after a student written and directed play


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