Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beyond Borders

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who will remember Borders as the book giant that failed, and those who will remember the flagship store in Ann Arbor as the coolest indie bookstore ever.

Tom and Louis Borders opened their used bookshop on State Street in Ann Arbor in 1971. My parents moved us to Ann Arbor from a big Detroit suburb in 1974. I was not-quite-14 years old, full of teen angst exacerbated by the move, and completely miserable in my new home town.

I was lonely (14 is a sucky time for girls to have to move; don't do it to your child) and bitter. My old school was 6th-8th grade and I had made all my friends there. My new school was 7th-9th grade (due to an overcrowded high school) and I couldn't beg or bribe my way into the cliques. All my friends were going to high school and I was stuck in a fourth year of junior high, a fate worse than death. I may, with a little more therapy, find a way to forgive my parents.

To me, the only decent thing about Ann Arbor back then (I think of them as the Wonderless Years) was free bus transportation for students. I started exploring a bit and discovered three great things on State Street:

The State Theater — a grand old dowager that had seen better days, but let students in for a buck and showed late-night movies. I'll never forget getting the beejeezus scared out of me when I went to see Sissy Spacek in Carrie at midnight with my uncle, who was just a few years older than I.

Wazoo Records — may still be one of the coolest record stores in the world (Stylus Magazine thought so in 2007), though I haven't been there in years. Those were vinyl days, and Wazoo was where I bought my copy of Janis Joplin's Pearl and my very first Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash records. Everything about Wazoo was cool in the hippie counterculture kind of way that I had missed by being born 10 years too late. I started my record collection there, which recently brought $300 into the family coffers, despite being used and abused to the point of being barely audible.

The original Borders — hunched right next to the State Theater and across from Wazoo, and was cool in a whole different kind of way. It felt more Nor Cal than midwest, all laid back and intellectual, just this side of pretentious. Since before I could read, stories had transported me beyond the mundane limits of late century midwest suburbia. Borders was an oasis, a calm, reader-centric environment with benches everywhere and a few comfy chairs that invited to you sit and read. Don't yawn. Back then, that was truly innovative. Other bookstores were crammed with shelves and snarky staff who looked down their noses and dared you to crack one of their new spines without paying for it first. Our Borders hired smart college students and book lovers of all ages who knew a thing or two, and were happy to share their recommendations or help you find the perfect gift. And Borders even had refreshments. You could (and I did) practically live there.

Though I continued to prefer the grownup Borders to Barnes & Noble, and feel plenty guilty about my Amazon binges, the Borders I will mourn hasn't really existed since it moved down the block to what they came to call "Store No. 1" on Liberty. Maybe that's what ultimately led to Borders' downfall— rewriting history and kind of forgetting what the real Store Number 1 was all about.

Do you remember the real Borders? If not, what do you think this failure means, if anything, to book lovers everywhere? Click here to comment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teach a Man to Fish

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
— Chinese Proverb

There are two kinds of people in the world, facilitators and enablers.

The verbs facilitate and enable are synonyms, both generally meaning to make it easier for someone to do something. The noun forms, however, have taken on opposite connotations. A facilitator is a someone who helps a person or organization find a solution to a problem, while an enabler has come to mean a person who makes it possible for someone to continue with bad or destructive behavior.

A good boss knows how to be a facilitator — to help employees learn, grow and move forward. Most of us have experienced supervisors who are more concerned with their own success than that of their subordinates, a short-sighted vision at best. Effective leaders learn to delegate, support and encourage all team members.

I'm good at the supporting and encouraging part of this equation, but I think I fail as a delegator. I don't know if it's a lack of trust or my own control issues that get in the way of delegating, but I have never really learned to let go.

Good teachers also know the difference between facilitating and enabling. A teacher can talk and talk and talk, but most students need, in one way or another, to figure things out themselves. In this NY Times post, students were asked who were their best teachers and why. Over and over, responses included teachers who had high expectations and who encouraged independent thinking and learning.

But perhaps the arena where the difference between facilitation and enabling is seen most clearly is parenting. If you are a parent, you know that it is usually easier to do something yourself than to let your children to do it. Just think back to the last time your young child "helped" you fold the laundry or cook dinner or shovel the walk. If you're like me, your fingers itched and you had to swallow your offer of: "Here, let me do it." But that kind of restraint is essential for effective parenting, because we all know children who have been "over-enabled"; they're called brats.

Each child has different expectations of what constitutes parental help. My daughter has always been an "I'll-do-it-myself" kind of kid. I can't count the hours wasted when I butted in trying to help her, only to have her rip off her tights (for example) and begin again. "I do it myself" was practically her theme song. Despite sticking my nose in many times where it didn't belong, her innate independence has turned her into a highly motivated, successful young adult. She can be snappish, but she gets things done, and I think the art of delegation is going to take her a long time to master.

Her twin brother, on the other hand, has always welcomed any and all help. These babies were born at 24 weeks, and the boy's size and development lagged far behind his sister's for many years. There were things he could do and things he couldn't, but he was, and is an easy-going, lovely human being, graciously accepting any favor, large or small. I have never once heard him say "Let me do it myself."

When the twins were four, I learned about something called "assumed disability", which often goes hand in hand with an actual disability. With assumed disability, we assume that because someone cannot do one thing, they cannot do something else. From the beginning, my son had two loving, willing females to take care of him, and it took me a long time to figure out we weren't doing him any favors. One day, I heard myself ask the girl to go get her shoes and put them on; then I asked her to get his shoes so I could help him put them on. The bell finally rung and that poor boy's life has never been the same.

But the line between facilitating and enabling a child (especially one with disabilities) is a tricky one, serpentining across the sands of childhood, moving and changing while you're not looking. What is facilitating one day is enabling the next, and staying on top of that moving line takes constant vigilance.

I wish I had been better. I wish I had devoted more time, been stricter and demanded more. I wish I had worried less about his happiness and more about his independence. (Notice that I say this with perfect 20-20 hindsight.) Now the line between facilitating and enabling is a dotted one, and I'm not at all sure how to help him make the right connections. I feel lost, hamstrung by his age, the law and my own expectations.

Don't get me wrong. I've taught him many of the skills necessary for independent living: he does his own laundry, is a pretty decent cook and can get around on public transportation. But his ability to think things through from start to finish or to anticipate are impaired. Is it possible to teach common sense?

I know (hope, believe) that if he could find his passion, the independence would follow. But can you facilitate passion? Can you even enable it? I don't think so. This is just one of those things he's going to have to do himself. And I'm going to have to learn to let him.

How have you been facilitated, or how have you been a facilitator? Or tell us your tale about enabling instead. Just click here.