Gymnastics – On luck and existentialism

Parents of children spending a lot of their time devoted to any sport are more likely than most to suffer from the kind of existential angst that is normally the preserve of Camus-reading teenagers. In our case the question of whether it is all ‘worth it’ comes up regularly. Since parents can make the kind of decisions which encourage their progeny’s budding talent or alternatively stop it prematurely in its tracks this is not a trivial matter. With this in mind a ‘gym mom’ shared a link to the comedian Tim Minchin’s Occasional Address to graduates of the University of Western Australia in September, 2013.
In his speech he provides nine ‘life lessons’ which gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s definitely worth fifteen minutes of your time. To an extent his speech has to be consumed with the rather large proviso that he is a success story. Most people don’t achieve any degree of fame in their lifetime, most people don’t earn an awful lot of money and most people don’t get granted honorary degrees. That being said the particular lesson I was pointed to was this one:
“You don’t have to have a dream. Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine if you have something you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart, go for it. After all it’s something to do with your time, chasing a dream. ………
I never really had one of these dreams and so I advocate passionate, dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
If we translate this to sport then the question is whether any boy or girl should devote themselves to a sporting dream. It takes considerable dedication to be nationally competitive in most sports, never mind about being internationally competitive. Minchin’s argument is that the focus on a bigger dream detracts from enjoying all kinds of opportunities along the way. I can see where he is coming from to an extent but I think that the flaw here is assuming that most people think that dreams are achievable. The reality is that most of us know in our hearts that our ultimate dream won’t ever come true. That’s why it’s a dream.
I used to have this recurring dream where I would climb up a ladder and go for a walk on this rooftop where I would meet this girl I was infatuated with. In the dream I would talk to her like I never did in real life and finally kiss her. I always woke on the kiss and tried to go back into the dream because the reality was that she was unattainable for me. I did what I could to make her want me, I wrote poems and letters, the only tools I knew, but to no avail. What purpose then the dream? Maybe that dream kept me going at a time when I was miserable as hell, wearing black and listening to The Cure. Maybe there wasn’t anything shiny glimmering in the corner of my eye. Life sucked, thank God for dreams.
The worry with elite sport is that your children will give up too much and miss out on a normal childhood. Of course there are many things your children miss out on from parties to school tours to other activities they could be doing. In my childhood I tried my hand at almost every sport you could imagine. I had great freedom and no commitments beyond getting my homework done. So my children are growing up in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the way I was brought up with no pressures other than those which I put on myself.
I agree with Minchin that there is a lot to be said for the periphery. I don’t think it’s ideal for a child just to focus on the distant (and quite often impossible) dream of a medal in the Olympics. At the same time I think that most children are smart enough to understand their level in sports and other pursuits pretty quickly. The dreams of being a medal winner regionally, nationally or internationally are just possible destinations but it’s the journey that counts and for me the beauty of gymnastics is that it gives you satisfaction far beyond the podium. I have written many times about the aesthetic and artistic beauty of rhythmic gymnastics and the challenges of group work add elements of collaborative achievement beyond what an individual can do. Acrobatic gymnastics is by its nature collective and synergistic, the satisfaction of contributing to a greater, wonderful whole is surely a fundamental source of human happiness. The fact that these arts all tie in to a global gymnastics and circus arts movement which has a quasi-religious dynamic also rewards the effort, the sacrifice needed to become a player on this stage. Building friendships in your club and travelling to events in your own country and abroad make the connections real. Gymnastics is not about money, there are no million dollar contracts and especially not in Holland. For us as parents we do see a payback that makes the hours devoted worthwhile especially when our girls are coming home from training smiling and wanting to show what they have learned.
There are no right answers really. As a parent you make choices for your kids which inevitably leave you open to criticism further down the line. Especially in the years before children fully know their own minds every path might be considered the wrong one. As Minchin says, it’s all luck, for better or for worse we just get to roll the dice, we don’t dictate the numbers that come up.

Gymnastics – A Year of Change

The summer holidays are scarcely over but we have been swept along by a torrent of activity since school started again. With gymnastics we have had something to do almost every day since starting back. Luna has RG training in Amsterdam four times a week, Nadia has RG twice, swimming and now Acro on Saturday, Daisy has Acro training four times per week in Leiden but her demo team has shows almost every weekend to collect money to go to the World Gymnaestrada in Helsinki in July. Basically it means that we are non-stop on the go but luckily we love gymnastics too so it’s not like we are being dragged along to something torturous. It’s hard to get tired of the amazing skills gymnasts learn to execute.
For Daisy there has been a really big change because all of the acro teams in Leiden merged and that means that her training has moved more towards the sessions at what used to be Groen-Wit. This has really worked out for her and there are many familiar faces too because various people she trained with before are also there. It looks like she will be competing in a mixed pair with a boy that she knew well a couple of years ago and she is really excited about starting to learn new routines with him. The demonstration team is really exciting for her too because they have so many experienced people who can quickly improvise and put elements together. We haven’t ever seen her as happy as she has been these last weeks. The girl has a passion for Acro and she is getting to do what she loves regularly, what more can a kid ask for?
Luna has settled in really well at her new team. It helped a lot that she already knew the girls her age but the club has been really welcoming and she is really happy with how things are going. It is really exciting for her having so many girls showing her different techniques and she comes home after almost every session wanting to show what she has learned. It will be a few months before her first competitive outing of the season but so far she is enjoying learning the choreos in the new environment. Nadia is also enjoying things. She is still too young to be able to focus for very long. As long as she keeps learning and gains more competitive experience she will have a good season. Although she is left-handed she seems to favour doing certain actions on the right hand side which makes her a bit of a challenge sometimes but it is all fun for now so keeping her smiling and enjoying her sport is the most important thing. She got her A diploma in swimming in June so we are hoping that she can do B and C in the next six months so that the schedule is a bit less hectic. Right now we can hardly pause for a breath.


Gymnastics – The Point of It

My children could have been a lot of things. They could have been musicians or dancers or hockey players or stamp collectors or computer gamers. They could have chosen to refrain from organized activities altogether and enjoy their own company and maybe even inhabit a fantasy world like the Bronte sisters. They might have devoted even more time to developing their ‘looks’ and make up skills and maybe we would have made trips to the market on Saturday for materials to cut and sew with the machine they insisted on getting for Christmas. They may have been lots of things and they will be many more things in the future but for now they are gymnasts and that has made all the difference.
Becoming a gymnast means that you begin a journey with no clearly defined ending, no guarantee of any success and certainly no prospect of financial reward, You will spend time training when other girls are skating on the ice or playing in the snow or sunning themselves or swimming in the lake on the hottest day of the year. You will miss school trips and birthday parties and maybe even stop getting invitations to anything because you always ‘have to train’. You might be laughed at, you will certainly be misunderstood, you will have to justify your dedication as will your parents who will become a target for those who just don’t see ‘the point of it’. Your gymnastics career might well result in serious debilitating injuries that will provide painful reminders of your halcyon days when you get to the age (or stage) that you even have trouble touching your own toes.
I am no gymnast and nor have I ever been one outside of my imaginings and yet I think that I know something about ‘the point of it’. I don’t have a drawer full of medals. My modest sporting career yielded a gold medal in swimming for finishing a one man race and a host of county championship medals won for being ‘on the panel’ and coming on in the last few minutes of a final already won. I had my days in school debates but the books and scholarship were about all I was good and yet I have known beauty.
What would you remember if it were the last day of days? I am ten and coming out of church after serving mass and my black Labrador Sooty is waiting loyally in the pouring rain. I am thirty four and it’s only the regional eighth division but my volley smashes against the cross bar and I’ve already scored three, I am fifteen and I have spent four hours writing the perfect poem before R reads it and tears it to pieces because ‘I couldn’t have written it myself’, I’ve just sung a translated version of Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free, at the Irish College in 1984. All the things that come back are moments that I felt somehow to be sublime.
In my own life they have been few and far between which is no doubt related to my lack of creative talents and my natural conservative tendencies. That’s what makes it so fine to have three daughters who have more sporting talent than I ever had but who are also risk seekers and adventurers. In my heart I urge them to be nothing like me so that they can have far more of those moments that define a life.
The beauty of gymnastics is that everybody is ultimately competing with themselves and seeking out their own borders and possibilities. Every gymnast has a journey and the minutes of competition in a year are a tiny fraction of the training hours. Yet all the time a girl is testing herself to go a step further, to do a little more and the coach is subtly altering the ingredients that culminate in the choreographed routine that is used in competition. If a girl is really lucky there is a day or maybe there are days when the recipe comes together so perfectly that she shows something unique and perfect and irreplaceable to the world, it may or may not be the case that others will remember those golden moments but she does and that’s the point of it.
As a parent you cannot know if your child will look back on their childhood with the same perspective that we have as parents in the here and now but if I look at the pictures on our walls or more importantly if I look within and remember the joy that their sport has brought to us these past few years I can only hope that in future days they will let their minds travel to flashes of the sublime at summer camps and events and competitions, that’s the point of it.

OU Diary #38 – All the words

As I wrote last time I am taking A300 20th century literature: texts and debates as the seventh (and final) module the BA degree in English Language and Literature. The good thing about all of the indecision about whether I would do this course is that I have been tentatively preparing for the eventuality for more than a year. The biggest criticism I have heard about this course is that there is too much reading to be done in too short a time. That’s why I went out of my way to read novels from the syllabus.
As you would expect I have dealt with the easier ones first so I have read the Booker Prize winning “The Ghost Road” (as well as the other works from her trilogy) and another Booker nominee “Paradise” by Abdulrazak Gurnah. I really like the Barker novel but the Gurnah one was tough going and only really engaged me towards the end. At the same time there is absolutely no link between the ease of reading and how difficult it will be to study the novel because it will all depend on the angle from which we are approaching the works. We will have a science fiction novel too and the one they chose was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick on which the film “Blade Runner” was based. I thought that was a cool book to read and I wouldn’t have read it under any other circumstances. That also goes for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Manuel Puig. I remember hearing about the film in the 1980s and being a bit squeamish about it considering I am from my conservative background. Time moves on though and I am so delighted to have read what is a really fine literary work and I look forward to analyzing it in more detail. “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier also proved to be quite different to what I expected; I associated her books with very old looking covers in the library and being read by mothers of a certain age. The reality is a much more challenging and thought provoking novel than I envisaged. As you can see even the preparation for the course has done much to challenge my perceptions of literature and indeed to revise my tastes.
Right now I am reading the Scottish work “Sunset Song” by Lewis Grassic Gibson. It is extremely tough going so far but I am hoping it will get better since it is ostensibly held in very high regard by the Scottish public. After I finish that I am going to have to do some reading and watching to prepare for doing “The Cherry Orchard” by Chekov and work through some short stories by Katherine Mansfield. These are the first pieces we will be studying so it makes sense to cover them before the start in October when we will start into the A300 adventure.

Rhythmic Gymnastics – Change of Season

After all of the excitement of training in Canada and getting to learn new skills as well as make new friends there the girls are back in Holland and ready for a new season. This year will bring lots of changes. The biggest one is that Luna and Nadia have moved to a new club in Amsterdam. Although it is physically further away the new team’s facility only takes thirty minutes to get to since we live near the highway. Since it took twenty minutes before to get to training it is not a big difference and actually the logistics work better since Nadia will train twice a week at the same time as Luna. Luna will train 13 hours as opposed to 10 last year but she will still have four (longer) training sessions. Since Daisy will have four Acro training sessions too it is good that we are only dealing with two locations at any time but we still have a lot of coordination to take care of.
We hope that the move will give the girls the best possible chance in the sport. For Luna it means training with three of the top girls in the A category for her age group  and these girls are all a year older with great results in their first year. She will also do a group exercise with these girls so it really gives her a great chance to learn and perform at the highest level in group work too. Of course there were lots of factors to consider as parents but ultimately we made this decision in the hope that last year’s disappointments can be forgotten about and that Luna can work towards having a chance again at national level in two year’s time. As this is her first year as a Pre-Junior we don’t have high expectations so this year will be all about learning and enjoying the new environment.
If anything the move is more positive for Nadia. We saw from a very young age that she has the natural physique and flexibility of a rhythmic gymnast. She has already learned a lot at the old club and even competed in Romania but the progress she showed in Canada was astonishing. Luna did not even start RG until she was seven and Nadia at six is way ahead from that point of view. In the new situation her team trains at the same time as the top girls and she is already so excited about what she can see and what she can show. At the end of last season Nadia wanted to stop RG so we can’t be sure of anything. However, we are very excited about her potential and she is in a great environment to develop that if she maintains the same level of interest.
At this stage of the season all of the girls are just beginning to learn their new routines. The competitive season is a long way off so for now we are just getting used to all the changes. Part of Daisy’s training will be at another club in Leiden which is ironically the one where Luna started (artistic) gymnastics. With all sports parents and athletes have to make changes when they think that the time is right. It is a painful process but ultimately parents make decisions in the best interests of their children. You cannot always be sure that what you decide will work out for the best but in sport as in life there are no definites. Only hindsight will reveal if what we have done was for the best.

How French was my Canada?

When I was younger I had big dreams of moving to Canada and at one point I had this fantasy that I would end up studying at McGill in Montreal because of it being a bilingual city. I was very interested in French speaking Canada since their experiences were so relevant to Irish speakers in Ireland. The biggest difference of course was that the French speakers in Canada, just like the Catalans in Spain, were winning the seemingly unwinnable war and gaining ground back from the world language that surrounded them.
Although my views on the Irish language were always informed by political nationalism I have never been a supporter of a monolingual identity in Ireland or anywhere. The beauty for me has always been in the ability to wear different hats competently. The theory of a multilingual country where the speakers of the different languages were competent and confident in the other national languages always appealed to me but unfortunately the reality of most bilingual countries is quite different. The nature of history has meant that language and politics are closely intertwined and the ‘other’ language may well be one that was actively used to discriminate against your forefathers. From the outside it is fantastic that Canada is an officially bilingual country. Who wouldn’t want their children to speak French and English fluently? The thing is that most of them don’t.
The latest episode of The Amazing Race Canada provided a good illustration of the reality. The episode was set in Paris with a number of tasks that involved speaking in French. Of the six pairs two were Francophone so they had no issues in French (though one pair had difficulty with a previous task where they had to learn a song in English). The sibling pair of Indian origin spoke no French but obviously had some knowledge of Spanish. One of the Anglo pairs spoke good (Parisian style) French, another was functional and a third pair had no substantial French either. It’s a small sample but if you had eight Irish people the chances are that they would demonstrate the same relative competency in French since most people take French in Ireland too. You would expect that every Canadian would at least be functional in French but that is just not the case.
Equally it seems bizarre that all of these Irish children in officially bilingual Ireland are spending fourteen years of their lives learning a language that many of them cannot hold a conversation in when they leave school. Where are all of the bilingual children you might expect in a country that focuses on learning two languages from the start of school?
Although I would have loved to have encountered a bilingual Canada the fact is that I was in BC, the westernmost province far from the Francophone heartland. One very good thing in Canada is that products are labeled equally in French and English so if you are actually interested you are continually exposed to written French. Equally there are French language channels readily available on the television. I heard French spoken on only one occasion in Vancouver and from their accent those people were French tourists and not Canadians. If you really want to speak French and engage in the language in Vancouver you can but the same can be said for Japanese or Mandarin. If you are a normal child in school there French is as remote as the Irish language is to a child living outside of the Gaeltacht in Ireland.
In Vernon we met one bilingual family where the mother is from Quebec so her perspective on things was very interesting indeed. Vernon is a city in the Okanagan Valley without any notable French speaking population but it does have a French immersion school. These schools are very similar to Irish language schools in Ireland because the majority of children come from English speaking backgrounds. What is also similar is that a large ptoportion of the teaching population are not native speakers of French. Although it is clearly not mandatory to be taught by a mother tongue speaker I am surprised that they don’t have more native speakers available since there are so many millions of French Canadians.
If you read forums about immersion education like this one you get a mixed view on how effective it is. Personally I think that people are too critical of the ‘Franglais’ that comes from speaking to other English speakers in French (similar to the derogatory attitude to Gaelscoil Irish in Ireland). The fact is that it is unrealistic to expect kids to speak absolutely perfect French unless they also interact actively with native speakers outside of school. However, that doesn’t mean that a less perfect form of French is so disastrous. In Ireland we were encouraged to go to Irish speakers areas to get properly fluent. There was no notion that school Irish was the same as what a native speaker would produce. Similarly any Anglo Canadian who speaks school French would only have to spend some time in Quebec to their French polished up nicely.
The interview that Benny, of Fluent in Three Months fame, did here about Quebec French points out all the main differences between Quebec ‘joual’ and the Parisian French we learn at school. I have to say that Quebec French is hard to get used to for me because of the pronunciation differences like the fact that you don’t hear the nasal ‘n’ we all spend so much time mastering. It would take me some time to be able to speak with a Quebec style accent but understanding gets easier once you get over the main pronunciation variances. It’s encouraging to hear that Quebec folk are very amenable to helping people who make an effort in French.
So I didn’t get too much exposure to French in BC, nor did I expect it but my interest in the Canadian language situation was stimulated again so you can see that my visit there did have a French twist at the very least.

Reality and a Trilingual Family

With lots of long term ‘projects’ you don’t have a real idea about what you are getting yourself into. You start off with ideas and assumptions and find out that the reality is not what you expect because there are so many variables outside of your control. So it is with our intention to raise our children as trilinguals. I was so passionate about this at first, it was one of the biggest projects in my life. I was convinced about the need to give our children the gift of multilingualism. I have copied some Q&As below that I supplied to a researcher who was writing an article for a newspaper some eight years ago.
I don’t really disagree with too much of what I wrote at that time but a few things do leap out at me. The first is that I thought it was ‘easy’ to maintain a trilingual environment. As the years have flown by that has proven so much harder than I would have predicted. When the children were younger they happily watched Polish television but as time has gone on their engagement with Polish culture has lessened considerably. That is partly because sport has taken up so much more of our lives than we could ever have known but it is also very much related to the fact that Polish as a language doesn’t really offer enough compared to what Dutch can and it definitely does not compete with English. If one thing has shone out in the ten years of Luna’s life it is that the language of America is very much the light that guides. Although there are Polish pop stars and soaps and everything else they pale by comparison to Hollywood. This should come as no surprise considering my own childhood when British things were more glamorous than Irish things and even they were positively insipid compared to the USA (Sunday afternoons glued to Vincent Hanley on MT USA). Once children can choose for themselves then you can’t really dictate the language they want to consume in. I would love Polish to be more attractive for them but, as it is now, it is more the language of their mother and Polish family than something they are actively engaged with. Sure they can speak Polish well enough but the limits of their engagement do little to stimulate the goal of speaking Polish at a level equivalent to their Dutch (or even English).
It’s not that English has promoted any sense of Irishness in them either. In Canada this summer we saw what a great thing it was that the kids could feel right at home in Canada, English gives you that capacity. Luna was at a camp in Poland last year and got on just fine through Polish but maybe it was the nature of the camp or just some barrier that she has around Polish children but she certainly wasn’t as caught up in the equivalent Polish experience. I didn’t want the children to have such a preference for English (given the fact that it usurped Irish in Ireland and is not my heritage language) but the cultural power of the language has a potent effect.
I find it funny that I assumed that Dutch would be left ‘on the doorstep’. In reality Dutch is the language that the girls use amongst themselves. It is their strongest language so they are more likely to know a specific word in Dutch than Polish or English. For that reason I sometimes have to tell them what an English word means in Dutch or what the English translation of a Dutch word is. That all sounds logical but I really did envisage a much cleaner situation with far less mixing over the language boundaries.
In Canada I had a few conversations with people who thought it was great that the kids could speak three languages. Since it’s not something we talk about or think about too much anymore it made me think a lot about how I feel now. In many ways it is much easier not to use three languages. For us life would be rather simple if we just spoke Dutch to the kids. The way we use our languages is fine in our family but it remains a source of difficulty outside home where the fact of us using English and Polish just draws attention to our foreignness. In practice I notice that the foreigners who seem the happiest in Holland are those who give up their languages. You just speak Dutch and mimic the Dutch way of doing things and everybody is happy. It might seem a bit extreme but I wonder sometimes if our decision to have a trilingual family has contributed to the sense of dislocation and general ennui I feel here. I speak fluent Dutch but I felt more at home in Canada on my first visit than I ever do here (and that’s not a holiday feeling, every time I go to Chicago for work it is also a sort of homecoming). I wonder if our children also feel like that. As Dutch is just one of their languages they may feel a much more tentative commitment to their home country than a single language Dutch kid might. I don’t know any more what it all means. I just know that we made this choice for our children and now we need to see it through until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

Q& A from 2006:
Our family set up is as follow. I am Irish aged 34 and my wife Agnieszka is Polish aged 28. We live near Leiden in The Netherlands with our two children Luna (2 years and 9 months) and Daisy (1 year and 6 months). Both my wife and I are were raised as monolinguals speaking English and Polish respectively.

Do you feel that learning/teaching three or more languages is harder than learning two?
It is not difficult to raise the children as trilinguals if you have the right environment. In our case I speak English to the children and my wife speaks Polish. We have television, music, books etc. available in both languages and we also have contact with friends and family close by who speak our languages.
Dutch is the language of the outside environment and my older daughter already goes to playschool four times a week and sometimes watches Dutch television. She also hears me speak Dutch on the phone and to the neighbours so she already understands quite a lot of Dutch even though her spoken Dutch is not well developed.
The challenge for us may come when the children go to school because Dutch will then be the strongest language. However, we will keep speaking Polish and English at home so I believe that they will leave Dutch on the doorstep.

How many languages are too many?
There is only so much time in the day so I don’t think that any more than three languages is practical for a young child. When the children are older I see no issue with adding other languages especially as we have family who speak French and Spanish.
As you get older and learn grammar I don’t think that there is any real limit to how many languages you can speak but you cannot speak all of them fluently all of the time. I speak many languages but while I am going forward in one language I trend to slip back in others. This is a natural process but you can definitely learn the basics of several languages and never forget them.

What are the main advantages/disadvantages of learning several languages?
The main advantage of being thoroughly fluent in a language for me is that you have unrestricted access to the culture surrounding the language and you are treated as an equal by native speakers. For us it is really important that our children appreciate Polish and Irish culture even if Dutch becomes dominant.
The main disadvantage is getting criticism from the outside world because you are doing something non-compliant. Dutch people can sometimes think that a child will fail at school if they are not hearing Dutch at home. This is not true but you still have to live with this perception.