26 June, 2012

Let it Be

Dear Claire,

I read your recent blog post, the one in which Bill interviewed you.  In fact, I've read all of the interviews between you and Bill, and I would like to give my side of the story.

Bill and I met in the summer of 1968 when he was a young graduate student.  I was on a break from recording The White Album, so I went to Cambridge for a quiet weekend.  I had broken a string on my guitar while playing it on the banks of the Cam and was gently weeping.  At the same time a rowing team was speeding down the river.  They were going by so quickly, but I could see before it happened, that they were not going to make it smoothly around the bend in the river.  The boat crashed, the rowers were flung into the water and all I could do was watch.  After some twisting and shouting, one of the rowers swam away from the wreckage, and I held out my guitar to him to help him come ashore.

As soon as Bill had recovered and gotten the wind back into his lungs, we met formally.  He was so grateful, and kept saying that I had saved his life.  That afternoon Bill offered to be my lifelong servant.  I couldn't accept the offer, generous as it was, but it quickly became clear that he had an interest in music.  He seemed to be trying to entice me away from the rest of the Beatles, but I said, "That'll be the day!"  At least I did agree to a few impromptu sessions with him.  Nothing like a worldwide tour or anything, just a bit of busking.

I think the real misunderstanding came about a few months later.  We were talking about new places to busk and he suggested we do it in the road.  I said it was unsafe.  He kept saying that we could do it if we got a little help from my friends, but I wouldn't budge.  We never really saw eye to eye after that, and I admit I was hurt by our parting of ways.  That pain inspired some songs that I would come to write, but I couldn't abide by Bill claiming that he wrote my songs.  The restraining orders only came out when he was spotted outside of Abbey Road Studios.  He claimed he was there showing the iconic zebra crossing to a group of students, but the local traffic cameras were spotting him there with too many groups of students for me to believe it was innocent coincidence.

I hope this helps clarify whatever Bill has told you about me.  I miss him as a friend, but am genuinely glad my busking days are over.  However, I have enclosed a photo of our last busking gig together.  We played our final performance outside Tower Hill tube station.  I remember that Saturday afternoon as if it was yesterday.  We ate hummus sandwiches before we performed and, ironically, talked about what we thought our lives would be like by the time we became pensioners.  We argued over whether men officially became pensioners at 64 or 65.  We had no idea that would be our last performance together.

Thanks for listening,

22 June, 2012

The Walls Have Eyes...

How often do you turn around with the feeling that you're being watched?  For anyone who's been in the London Center in the evening when there aren't many other people around, did you find it just a bit eerie?  The ICLC is an old Victorian home, so I suppose haunting goes without question, but you never expect to see a manifestation of of all the creepy ideas swimming through your head as you hesitantly check to see if the London Center really is empty.  So consider my surprise when I stood up from in front of the fireplace in the Common Room to see a pair of eyes trained on me.  Not a pair I was expecting.  This happened in broad daylight, during a moment when I had a confident grasp of how many people were in the building.  Sarah and Bill were working downstairs in their offices.  No students were in.  And yet I was being watched.  Not by one set of eyes, but as I took closer note of my surrounding, I discovered it was by nine sets.

All of a sudden my eyes were opened to all the faces around the London Center!  I don't mean students or Elsie, I mean bizarre, expressive, character faces.  They're all over the place!  Paranoid much, you ask?  These Victorian features, coated in over a century of paint, are nearly hiding in plain sight.  I've compiled what I doubt is an extensive list of the ICLC's hidden faces.  Doubtless they watch the building day and night, noticing comings and goings, weighing in on who their favorite ICLC directors have been.

So, I'm introducing you to the faces of the London Center:
Tilly- Over the fireplace in the Common Room
Benjamin- Mantel in the Common Room

Melbourne- Mantel in the Common Room

Bobby- Mantel in the Common Room

Palmerstone- Mantel in the Common Room

William- Mantel in the Common Room

Derby- Mantel in the Common Room

Cecil- Mantel in the Common Room

Tony- Mantel in the Common Room
Harvey- Front Hall post

Al- Front Hall post

Louise- Front Hall fireplace (probably not Victorian?)

Frank, Lorraine and Suzanne- Exterior Facade above Entryway

Henry- Front Door (almost definitely not Victorian)

Francis- Front Office

Tilly and the boys listen from over the fireplace to Diana Rigg talking to an Interrelationships class in 1982.

20 June, 2012

Bill as Interviewer?

Bill Sheasgreen: It's time to turn things around.
Claire Mokrauer-Madden: Pardon?
BS: Today I interview you.
CMM: No thanks.  I'm not as interesting as you are.  Only people at the ICLC who have bad blood with Sir Paul McCartney are eligible for interviews.
BS: Only people who have bad blood with Sir Paul McCartney are allowed to work at the ICLC.
CMM: Are you suggesting I should pick a fight with a knight to keep my job?  That must be discriminatory in some way.  It's certainly discriminatory against knights of the realm.
BS: Not against knights in the plural.  There's only one knight we are discriminating against.
CMM: Remind me again how many restraining orders he has out against you?
BS: I think we're veering off topic now.  Back to you.  How's your summer going so far?
CMM: Not great.  It's long been one of my life goals to make it into the Olympics, and so far things aren't going so well.  My background in synchronized swimming just isn't strong enough, my 12.5 hour marathon time wasn't good enough to qualify for that team, and I'm not a citizen of a country that it makes no sense to have a bobsled team for.  I'm really beginning to despair here.
BS: I believe the Brazilians are introducing a knitting/unicycling biathlon in 2016.  Fancy trying out for Rio?
CMM: Hmm, sounds like something I might be able to pull off.  What's the competition like?
BS: Canada is the only other competing country right now, but I believe the word on the street is that the Russians and the Yemenis are putting something together, too.
CMM: Ok, well that's one possibility.  Any other ideas?
BS: Swimming?
CMM: Hmm, that's very competitive.  I would have need to start training for that about 25 years ago.  I think I'll give that one a miss.
BS: Even if I told you that a yogurt pool is being introduced into the winter games as a complement to the water pool used in the summer games?
CMM: Eating yogurt for breakfast is a wildly different world away from trying to swim in it.  But it does remind me of the time my friend compared reading the novels of Henry James to trying to run knee deep through mud.  Which further reminds me of more strange comparisons and brings to mind a Michael Jackson documentary that said something was as difficult as trying to drag a wet mattress up a spiral staircase or trying to staple a jam sandwich to the ceiling.  Then they showed what both those activities would look like.  I'm really not sure what they had to do with Michael Jackson.
BS: Yes, I've tried the mattress thing.
CMM: [questioning look, no other response]
BS: You see, it was a dark and stormy night.  My friend Paul and I...
CMM: Stop right there.  This will not become yet another interview all about Paul McCartney.  If he takes out a super injunction disallowing the publication of interviews where you talk about him, these interviews will cease to exist.  Please try to play nicely.
BS: So, back to your Olympic aspirations.  Have you tried out for anything in the 2012 Olympics?
CMM: Not exactly, but I wonder if getting to and from work will turn into an Olympic event.  I can imagine the commentators saying, "Ooooooh!  Another bus on diversion!  It's not as if we didn't see that coming, we just didn't expect it on this road!"
BS: Yes, I heard they were getting Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen to cover the bus games.
CMM:  Hmm, "Bus on diversion" does sound best in a Scottish accent.  Almost makes it all worth while.
BS: And supposedly they will have Boris Johnson himself commentating on the journey's of the Boris Bike cyclists.  Have you heard about the training regimes those cyclists are undergoing?
CMM: No, do they have to do special training?
BS: Yes!  Some of the stands will have decoy bikes parked in them, so if any novice cyclists enter the competition, they might become seriously stumped at being confronted with a rack full of out-of-commission bikes.
CMM: Tricky!
BS: Yes, it should be very good fun.  I think Boris will get a real kick out of it.
CMM: I would have thought at least some aspect of his career would have depended on those bikes being a success rather than a burden.
BS: The best bit is that as well as commentating, he will also be out there in the field, repairing bikes as best he can.  After all, he is a seasoned cyclist.  Probably never leaves the house without his bike pump and some tire patches.
CMM: You certainly don't.
BS: So will you enter the cycling competition?
CMM: Possibly not, but I like the concept.  I may try and get tickets for that one.
BS: Well, this has been fun, but I really should get back to directing the London Center.  Any parting advice?
CMM: I'll have to defer to the wisdom of my favorite elephant jokes.  Who has four feet, none of which fit into glass slippers?  Cinderelephant!  I'm here all week.  Thank you and good night.

11 June, 2012

I Am Such a Muppet!

There was a recent conversation that Heather and I had, and it was totally related to work.  We were talking about our favorite Muppets, because we're all Muppets at one time or another.  For me it's no question- Kermit the Frog.  I had him on the zipper of my jacket when I was little.  When I was three I was convinced that my mother was pregnant with him.  I can't tell you the disappointment I felt when my brother was born looking like a pink person rather than a green frog.  I think I forgave him quickly enough, but my attachment to Kermit has remained.  I think he suited my personality, and according to the article that Heather sent me, I identify with an order Muppet for the most part (my books at home are nearly alphabetized).  My sister identified with Miss Piggy, described as a chaos Muppet.  In this way of sorting Muppets, chaos Muppets and order Muppets pair with one another.  Bert and Ernie are a prime example, as are Kermit and Piggy.

The original article that this conversation stemmed from had to do with the Supreme Court Justices, but the model is applicable to most work situations.  Here in the London Center we are a prime example.  Who is each staff member?  I think Sarah is Scooter.  The gofer on the original Muppet Show, he kept things running, even when it looked like disaster was imminent.  Similarly, we wouldn't be able to put the lights on in the London Center without Sarah making sure we're on the good side of the electric company.  Heather is the Swedish chef.  Experimenting and trying new things as she goes, though definitely less frenetic.  I'd like to think I'm like Rowlf, but I'm probably more like Beaker, without knowing it.  On the upside, I've never been blown up, electrocuted, eaten by a large monster or lost a body part.  And Bill.  He's a tough one to pin down.  Sometimes he's Fozzy Bear, sometimes he's Elmo.  Endeared to the hearts of many, but sometimes people don't get his joke.  No matter which Muppet he is that day, the only thing that's definite is that judging by his office floor, Bill is a Chaos Muppet, without a doubt.  And working as a group, I think Heather, Sarah and I all feel at times that we are the Kermits to Bill's Miss Piggy.
Not out of control, emotional or volatile, but I bet some of the sandwiches in Bill's bag are blue and fuzzy.

Taking this one step further, I also thought about which film we are.  I'm no expert on the cinema of the Muppets, but this past semester I thought we were the reject version of The Muppets Take Manhattan- The Muppets Take on Elsie.  Positive differences- no one got amnesia, no one ran off and joined the circus, and no one went crazy with Joan Rivers in a department store.  That aside, we had a big production to put on (the reception for our 40th anniversary), and I thought it went really well!  We had a pretty packed house, too, just like the Muppets.  Oh yeah, we didn't have a surprise wedding at the end, try as Sarah did.

I imagine you're all wondering, which Muppets are our faculty?  That's easy, they're Cookie Monsters.


07 June, 2012

You Know that Road you Chose, What do you Think of it?

You know how Robert Frost took the road less traveled by?  He had two options in front of him, and he went for the one most other people hadn't.  Most roads people have to choose between aren't usually just two-pronged forks.  As soon as you pick one road another fork shows itself and so on, until rather than a fork your road looks like those old-timey rakes you sometimes see in movies that are made of craggly sticks branching out into tons of fingers.

In a recent conversation with Sarah, she showed me a website of IES students blogging about their study abroad experiences from the perspective of a year later.  A lot of these were touching remembrances of how studying abroad changed their lives and their worlds.  So it got us wondering if we could do something similar with the London Center.  We celebrated our 40th anniversary this year (not sure if we'd mentioned that here before!) and had a lot of positive feedback from students spanning 4 decades, as well as feedback from our current students about what they were learning from London. 

This project of asking students to write from the perspective of a year onward is fascinating because that's possibly one of the hardest times.  One year later the muscle memory of packing luggage and sweating over visa applications is still there.  Perhaps it's something about the weather or a specific smell in the air that makes causes a flash of panic that you don't have the right converter plug, or maybe the smell of something burning is still a fresh reminder of the first few nights you cooked in your flat.  For me, even a decade on, the things that take me back to studying abroad are the smells of particular teas and this one Kylie Minogue song that was really big.  They may not be the classiest memories, and may not be life-changing in themselves, but a theme that I noticed in the IES blogs was that people were talking about the subtle changes in day to day life.  I think those are the differences that we notice most.  When something is taken for granted, the first time it's different sticks with you.  Like the girl who studied in Paris and recalled that she had traded her stale cereal for croissants and pastries in the morning. 
Getting ready to fly out of Newark Airport, August 2002

On the London Center's website we have a section of testimonials that students wrote at the end of their semester in London.  Hoping to expand this, we would love it if our dear readers would contribute their own version of a blog post that we could publish there.  We want to hear how studying abroad has affected your life.  Did it help you to choose a fork in the road that you hadn't known was there?  ICLC students, parents of students and visiting faculty alike, we would love to hear from you all.  The only parameters are that we would like you to try and remember your reflections from one year on.  You're welcome to include your current reflections on studying abroad as well, as long as you're willing to say how long ago it was.  Please email your posts to iclondoncenter@ithaca.edu.  We aren't able to publish everything that is sent to us, but we thank you in advance for all submissions.


04 June, 2012

We Are Not Amused. No, We Are Very Amused.

Today is 4 June, 2012.  It is 2 days after the actual day of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.  On the day itself she went to the derby in Epsom, and yesterday she had a big boat party on the Thames.  How is she celebrating today?  She's only having a concert in front of her house with a special song for her by Gary Barlow and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber!

Yesterday, as a semi-loyal Londoner, I turned out for her pirate party.  I say pirate party because all the boys on her ship had swords.  They didn't have pirate hats or eye patches, but I extrapolated the rest as irreverent foreigners are wont to do.  Which leads me to the real subject of this post- what is the royal family?  I'm not sure how different my perspective  is from the rest of the ICLC staff, but I'm the only one who isn't really her subject.  Yes, I live in London, which is in England, which is one of the four countries that make up her United Kingdom, but I'm American and I'm German.  Sarah was born in Wales, so may not actively swear allegiance to the queen, but was born as her subject.  Bill is a Canadian, and as a member of the Commonwealth he was born her subject.  Technically he was born as the subject of her father, but this post isn't about Bill's age.  Heather chose the queen.  She was born an American and became a Brit, pledging allegiance to the American flag at the same time as singing God Save the Queen.  Some people might say that the queen and I have common ground in our German roots, but mine are more direct.  No, my grandmother was not a German princess (that I know of), but Germany is actually the country she was born and raised in.  Princess Mary of Teck was born and raised in the UK, according to Wikipedia.

So there I was waiting in my friend's flat yesterday for the last possible moment to head out into the rain and join the crowds watching the boats on the river.  As I headed out under her union flag umbrella with my paper mask of the queen, I wondered what I was doing.  I really felt my irreverence for the whole thing as the six of us posed for pictures wearing masks of the queen, Philip, Charles, William, Harry and Kate.  We all had a good laugh and then joked about climbing on each others' shoulders to try and see through the crowd that was at least ten rows deep with people.  Then a man approached us.  He said he couldn't help notice our masks and wondered if we would mind posing for him to take our picture.  As we were removing our masks after his photo a woman appeared and asked the same thing.  And as she was finishing her photo shoot with us a group of Japanese tourists jumped in and took their own photos with us.

I still haven't really attacked my original question- what is the royal family?  It seems that her actual subjects enjoy the irreverence of foreigners, and perhaps foreigners even learned it from locals.  For me the queen is pretty incredible for being an 86 year old woman who is known for being amazingly knowledgeable and for standing for hours yesterday as she waved to the crowds and other boats in some rather British weather.  For me Prince William is the one who is only a couple weeks older than I am, and Prince Harry is the one with dubious political tendencies (not that I think he has the right to vote, does he?  Or is it just the queen who can't vote?  I don't know if Wikipedia can answer that for me).  They seem to be people who are good to have a street party around and who sometimes get military jobs.  Many people argue that they aren't worth the tax payer expense, but looking at all the paper masks around yesterday, I'd say that they're good for this recession economy in other ways.


PS- The atmosphere around here is nothing like last spring when Bill briefly caught wedding fever!