Friday, March 23, 2012

Dancing (with two left feet)

In gym (P.E.) Maya has been learning to dance. Next term she will be doing basketball and last term she was doing American football, but this term she has been learning to waltz, tango, salsa, foxtrot and more. As with most things to do with school, Maya takes her dancing seriously. She practices at home, her arms held out in front of her for an imagined partner and her feet making patterns across the dining room floor. A few weeks ago, the school sent a letter home inviting parents to attend a celebration of the children's dancing. In the English state school context this would be a fairly minor event. After all, there are only 16 children in Maya's class and they had only been studying dance for two lessons a week over a period of six weeks. I envisaged maybe a handful of parents attending the school hall and the children reenacting some of their new dance moves to the accompaniment of a tape player in the corner (ok, I'm being slightly facetious - it would probably be a CD player... but you get my gist).
"Mummy," Maya announced, "I need a dress and shoes".
Maya is a tomboy. She lives in jeans and sneakers. Maya is also nearly a teenager. She is developing a teenager's inflection in the way that she speaks. For example, she has perfected the performance of that word "need" - leaning heavily and hypnotically upon the long 'ee' in a persuasive, coaxing and yet totally authoritative manner. We went shopping.
Maya is also very tall and, therefore, has rather large feet (this is a good thing; if she was this tall with small feet I think that she would fall over more frequently). We went shopping to a grown-up women's shoe shop where Maya found a beautiful pair of black satin pumps. She hurried me out of the store before I could change my mind about their suitableness.

The dance event was on a Monday evening after school. Maya mentioned that the other Grade 5 children across Cambridge had also been learning to dance and would be at the celebration. It wasn't a small event with a CD player in the corner. This was a huge pageant: girls were dressed up in mini-prom dresses, boys wore shirts and ties; the event was professionally compered; the hall was decorated with balloons and huge bouquets of flowers; hundreds of parents and grandparents and friends attended; a performance was put on by professional ballroom dancers as well as by the children.

Maya looked beautiful. We had walked down to the school hall, slightly flustered about time. I'd glanced down at her feet twice and told her that she had her shoes on the wrong feet. She danced really well: twirling and spinning and electric-sliding with the best of them. I was very proud of her, but wished that she had changed her shoes to the right feet (no-one but a mother would have noticed...)

After the professional dancers had finished and the hall began to empty as children started to go home, I sat Maya down so that she could learn how to put on her new grown-up shoes properly. It was only then that I realized that she was wearing two left shoes: one was a size 5 and a half, the other was a size 6 and half. Maya danced terrifically well, given that she was wearing two left feet. I can't wait to see how well she can dance in a matching pair (and she now has two matching pairs of black satin pumps in her wardrobe: one pair is sized 5 and a half and one pair is sized 6 and a half... what else is a mother to do?)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Learning to drive: part 2

It seemed sensible for me, after the fiasco of last week's lesson, to change driving instructors. At very short notice, I managed to persuade another driving school to sponsor my driving test today (to sponsor means to provide a vehicle, to provide a person to sit in the back seat of the vehicle, and to pocket $100 of my money). They agreed, on the condition that I booked an hour's lesson prior to my test. No problem, right?

At 10 o'clock this morning, I stood outside an obscure subway station in outer Boston waiting for my new driving instructor to pick me up. I waited and I waited and I waited. Eventually two Russian men turned up in two separate cars with the name of the driving school written onto the side of each. They both walked over to me and shook my hands. We observed that the weather was good. They told me that life in America was good but that American food was 'terrible - always terrible, always the same'. This clearly distressed them both and they exchanged the names of foods that they found particularly terrible - hot-housed strawberries, hot dogs, white bread, and other foods which I couldn't understand. Their accents were very strong. They gestured that I should get into the gold car. This was, they assured me, the 'lucky' car.

One driving instructor came with me, the other one left in the other car. He encouraged me to 'get comfortable'. I checked that I was allowed to use all three of my mirrors - 'no problem', he shrugged. We drove about 50m down the road and he told me to parallel park behind a silver Volvo. 'The Volvo,' he said, as I pulled up alongside, put on my indicators and checked my blindspot, 'eez good car but very very expensive.' I nodded and put the car in reverse, looked over my shoulder, and began my maneuver. The driving instructor grabbed the steering wheel.
'What are you doing?' No-one has grabbed a steering wheel when I've been driving since I was 17.
'I am helping you, honey.' It is also possible that no-one has called me 'honey' since I was 17.
'I am not finding this helpful.'
'I show you.'
'I don't want you to show me. I want to practice parking by myself.'
'But I vahnt to help you.'
'That's kind. But, please, let me hold the steering wheel.'
'But I vahnt to show you.' His eyes and his jowls both drooped with dejection. I felt a little bit bad, but I had my driving test in 25 minutes time. I did not feel that it was a good time for him to show me something I could already do. He put both hands onto his lap and I began to slowly reverse the car before straightening the wheel.
'No!' He howled so loudly that a passing pedestrian looked alarmed.
'What? What now?' I momentarily thought that I had hit something, someone or, worse, somehow damaged the lucky gold car.
'Not yet. You are straightening up too soon.'
'No I'm not.'
'Yes you are, honey.'
'Really, I'm not.' At times, I can sound very very English.
'I vahnt to show you.' He was wheedling, persuasive and, to my credit, I know when I am fighting a losing battle.
Our next two attempts at parallel parking were combined efforts: I was allowed to touch the brake and the accelerator, but he kept both hands on the wheel. After that, he moved to having only one hand on the wheel and then, finally, directed my reversing through a series of grunts and sighs. A grunt, I surmised, meant 'do not straighten the wheel yet'; a sigh meant that I had straightened the wheel too soon. We had only 15 minutes before my driving test. Was the test center close by, I inquired. No, he replied, it was a 15 minute drive away. Should we, I asked very slowly so that he would clearly understand what I was saying, begin driving towards the test center.
'You are very nervous, honey,' he told me. 'You need to relax. Re-laaaax.'
'I will relax when we arrive at the test center.' I accept that my voice was higher and squeakier than normal, my intonation had become worthy of a leading role in Downton Abbey. This may have given the wrong impression: I was not particularly worried about actually taking my test, but I was very worried about whether we would arrive at the test center on time.
'Re-laaaax. Re-laaaax.' There are meditation CDs which one can buy which are intended to help one to relax. It is possible that there are also CDs which feature a plump Russian man saying re-laaaax in a heavily accented English. This is not an approach to meditation which I find to be helpful and I do not recommend that you should buy such a CD if it does exist. Rather than feeling more relaxed, I could feel a nervous tic beginning behind one eye.

We began driving towards the test center. There was a relatively amicable silence between us and he did not touch my steering wheel. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he shouted: 'Eeeez terrible!'
'What did I do?' I was driving carefully, I was in the right lane, the lucky gold car was still in one piece.
'That car,' he said, pointing through the windscreen at the blue car in front of us, 'Eeez Hyundai. Eeez a terrible car.'
A headache began which did not subside for several hours.

We arrived only slightly late at the driving center. As I parked, he again took hold of the steering wheel - just in time for one of the driving examiners to see what he was doing. The look on my face made my driving instructor drop the steering wheel more quickly than if it had burnt his hands. I do not consider myself to be a particularly scary person, but the look on his face suggested that I might want to reassess this perception.

'You need to re-laaax.' He told me one more time and switched on the radio. 'Listen. Eeez the Beatles. Enjoy. Re-laaax.' I was pleased that he was no longer calling me 'honey', but I wasn't sure that the laissez-faire approach of merely sitting outside the test center was the most effective way of letting the Driving Registry know that we had arrived. Should I, I asked him, tell the driving center that we had arrived, that we were sorry for being late, that we were ready to take my test. He shrugged a perfect Slavic shrug, thereby managing to communicate, without the need for any words, the utter futility of human action. I told him that I needed to get out of the car and he joined me, leaning nonchalantly against the car hood and lighting a cigarette.
We waited.
He finished his cigarette and stubbed out the butt, then put his hands together and looked upwards to the heavens. 'If it eez God's vay, then you will pass.'

The driving examiner eventually appeared, a reddish haired squirrel of a man, and told me to get into the car. I glanced at the driving instructor and saw that his entire countenance drooped. 'Eeez terrible,' he whispered to me. Our driving examiner was, he was trying to tell me, even more terrible than the Hyundai, American cooking, or my desire to keep my steering wheel to myself. I shrugged - when in Rome....

As it happened, I drove reasonably well. I parallel parked (while the driving instructor grunted and sighed to himself in the back seat), I used my mirror but also remembered to exaggeratedly look over my shoulders when reversing, I kept within speed limits and demonstrated my hand signals with aplomb. I thought that the driving instructor might cheer up when we were told that I had passed, but he continued to look sad and merely said, 'Eeez God's vay.'

He wouldn't drive me home to Cambridge ('I never go to Cambridge. There are too many students and bicycles') but agreed to take me back to a subway station. After he blindly overtook a lorry on a narrow residential street, I asked if I could just get out. There is an irony to all of this. The day that I become a  legitimate Massachusetts driver, I end up on a sidewalk somewhere west of Boston with my A-Z and a very long walk ahead of me.