MVrang.jpg"Why do I haveta have such a baby sister?" moaned Mikaela.

Hundreds of miles earlier in our Southwestern US road trip, Katrianna quit defending herself. And simply scrunched further down in her booster seat. Yet her older sister's taunts ticked off with regularity, keeping steady pace with the highway's mile markers before finally crossing the [CO state] line.  

"You're just scared because you're so young!"
Not really, I interceded, I'm frightened, too. Good thing Katrianna's backing out since otherwise I'd definitely be taking the fall for it....

"Oh, c'mon, it's only 50 feet!"

Actually, that was another of Mikaela's tall tales. The Balcony House ladder was a mere 32 feet high, though the hike to reach it also included a 12-foot tunnel crawl & a 60-foot open rock face ascent.

"And the travel guide said it's the very best one. On their 'Not To Miss' list!  But now we're gonna skip it  -- all because of scaredy Kat ~rianna!"

As we passed through the entry gate into Mesa Verde National Park, Chris 'helped' by suggesting we might turn around & go right back to Houston if Mikaela didn't stop. Huh. Nothing quite as effective as an idle parental threat, is there?  True, this strategy maybe works if one's traveled 5 miles away from home... possibly 15... but, hmm, exactly how credible is this: So, Cathy, whaddya think about driving us a thousand miles & then we'll pull a U-ie?

"Besides, there's nothing hard about it! I could easily climb that ladder wearing all 4 of our backpacks, a water bottle in one hand & Skittles in the other! This is so unfair!"

It so was!  Mikaela was determined to show that she was officially a Tween now. And, perhaps even more importantly, that her sister was officially not. Accordingly, she sulked.                   

Well, I reasoned, unfortunately we'd arrived too late to reserve tour spots anyway...

MVCliffP.jpgHowever, we had timed it perfectly to take solitary, dusky strolls among deserted (even by modern tourists) Mesa Top farming villages, choose to casually overlook Cliff Palace all by our lonesomes, view a gloaming sunset from Park Point's 8572-foot advantage, and finally eat & sleep by starlight in Morefield Campground amid the soothing sounds of chirping crickets, crackling campfires and purring sputtering choking carburetors in sundry RV generators.


The next morning, while other guests queued outside the Far View Visitor Center for guided tour tickets to Long House, Cliff Palace or the acrophobic-exclusive Balcony House, we busily got ourselves all spruced up instead. Yup, in order to get on down to the Spruce Tree House at the break of dawn. It was misty-cal, all right, as we made our way along the dewy path with glimpses of the overhanging cliff site beckoning. Even more so when we realized we were the only ones there. Well, except for two Ancestral Puebloans who greeted us in that peculiar, primitive headgear of theirs, ie the "funny hats" worn by all natives of the National Park Service.

Hospitably, they offered to show us around the place & began with a rote set of queries intended to engage, pique interest & inform. However, in preparation for our visit, M&K had studied the NPS website, making those rhetorical questions not quite so rhetorical after all:

The ranger ~                                                                  M&K ~

Does anyone know what 'Mesa Verde' means?                   Green Table!
And who lived here?                                                       The Anasazi!
How long ago?                                                                1400 to 700 years ago!
Why did they leave?                                                        Don't know!    
That's right! Truthfully, no one knows...

OK, so what did they eat?                                               They farmed on the mesa!
What type of structure did they live in?                            Pit houses!
And later?                                                                       Under the cliffs!
What are their bricks made out of?                                  Sandstone!
Why are these ceilings black?                                          Umm... not sure?

Pshew, that made everybody feel better. Happily, the ranger led them to correctly guess "Oh, yeah, it's cause of the smoke from their fires!"

The rangers exchanged a knowing nod. "You're homeschoolers, aren't you?" they stated in agreement, as though plainly this was another rhetorical device. Wow, I humbly noted, how effortlessly we make our lil' contribution to reinforce the image of homeschoolers everywhere....

Next, they invited the kids to partake in the usual daily grind, skillfully demonstrating how to keep one's nose to the ol' grindstone (at least until M&K got the grist of it). Sure, it's corny, but it seemed the girls thought it was grate & could go on like that all day. In fact, everybody was having such a good time, it was hardly noticeable when M&K kept inching away from the edge of pit where the second ranger stood expectantly.

MVkiv.jpgClearly with well ingrained excitement, she segued to the climatic moment, "Of course, I bet ya'll already know what a kiva is!"   No answer.

"Yes, good. And that small circular hole in the bottom is called a 'sipapu.'  Step up here a little closer so you can see it!"   No movement.

"OK then," she declared, "the awesome part is that you get to go down into it now!"

Evidently overcome with repentance for yesterday's teasing, Mikaela benevolently offered the first turn to her little sister. "No, that's okay," declined Katrianna, "you can go first."

But Mikaela-the-Elder insisted. She helpfully pushed Katrianna forward, ever closer to the rim.  "No, I don't really wanna..." Katrianna admitted. "Cuz I think... I might be scared."
Would it help if I went first, I wondered, & jumped onto the ladder.
MVcerb.jpg"Mom, NOOOOOOOOO!" M&K gasped at my Dante-esque descent, certain that the 3-headed Cerberus awaited my demise below. Heeding Mikaela's dire warning -- "Don't step in the hole, Mom. It leads to the Underworld!" -- I dutifully performed a thorough kiva inspection, reported it safe & sound, and invited Katrianna to join me.     

Trustingly, she backed up another foot & a half.  So Chris clambered partway down and held out his hand. Still Katrianna wouldn't budge. "Sorry, Dad," she whispered as he resurfaced.

"Guess it's all yours, Mikaela!" I called up. "Come on in, it's the pits!"

Suddenly, it was as if the intrepid Tween wouldn't touch that kiva with a ten six-foot ladder. "Mom, can I just jump & you'll catch me?!" Mikaela suggested at a volume [with the tre(m)ble turned up] guaranteed to reverberate through its shadowy depths.

After 10 minutes of urging, waiting, pleading and stalling, I made the arduous ascent solo. To the welcoming, joint embrace of our dear anxious daughters. Once again, the rangers exchanged a knowing nod. Wow, I humbly noted, how effortlessly we make our lil' contribution to reinforce the image of homeschoolers everywhere.... 

So what's there to say? It's not surprising, really. After all, we're homeschoolers, not social climbers.

MVpt.jpgMVpg2.jpgWithout a word, it was immediately understood -- time for us to take a hike. We headed out on the Petroglyph Point Trail which winds through & often clings to the walls of Spruce Canyon. Here, too, we were the only ones on the single-file track and soon found it challenging, as well as truly delightful. The canyon is coolly invigorating, verdant, with striking views in contrasting oranges, browns & greens. It's filled with narrow passages that require squeezing through rocks and grabbing onto centuries-smoothed hand holds pecked into the canyon walls by Mesa Verde's original inhabitants. There was an overwhelming sense of the past and its people each time we stepped into the foot wells formed by their ancient civilization, stony testaments worn away by daily use, comparable to the age-old depressions made in marble stair steps throughout Europe.... 

And then the incredible happened! Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Chris started seeing folks on every bend, at every turn, literally hanging out all over the place. Apparently, the cliffs were speaking to him from the omnipresent formations eerily resembling rock faces. (Not that he isn't always on the look out for two-faced impersonators. Or stone-faced posers. Perhaps the Rolling Stones? Plus Rocky I.. II.. III... no, can't malign his reputation like that - implying he watches Sylvester Stallone movies is going too far.)
MVfaces.jpgEventually he revealed not only their existence, but also his conjectures as to the obvious meanings of their Anasazi-chiseled features. Take this one with the particularly menacing expression - would give cowardly aggressors pause, no? Or that one with curlycue vines overhanging its brow & the silly grin - aha! "killed 'em" with laughs. What about him, over there, with the quizzical expression - meant to baffle & discombobulate the wary trespasser (seemed to be working on Chris, anyhow). So convinced was he that he filled our camera's photo card with pictures to document the find, in disbelief that no archeologist before him had dared look this phenomena in the face...

Although it was well before noon when we climbed out of the canyon, the heat was stifling, the mesa's piñons & junipers woefully short on shade. However, Chris rushed us onwards to the visitor center, eager to share his discovery!  Another kind & patient ranger received the news.  And diplomatically suggested that Yes, many people see things in the rocks...  Uh huh, the lighting creates some strange effects...  Interesting indeed, but ever heard about a thing called 'erosion'?...

As we drove out of Mesa Verde National Park and I tried in vain to soothe Chris' disappointment (by searching for my new favorite song - Smiling Faces Sometimes* - on the car radio), his confidence spontaneously rallied. For he did what most sensitive parents do under similar circumstances. And remembered to bring up his child's previous mistake.

"Hey, Miks, don't you have something you should say to your sister?"   Silence.

"About being wrong? You know, the Balcony House?"   Continued silence.

"And," he goaded, "ladders?"

"Okay, okay, I suppose it's not really all your fault, Katrianna..." mumbled Mikaela. "That you're 3 whole years younger than me!"

Ahh, lesson learned. No sense cliff dwelling on it. 

*Beware, it's one of the most irritating songs ever. And that's The Undisputed Truth.
And, tho it's the much disputed truth, a "Tween" is generally defined as an 8-12 year old.

Aflags0.jpg Zimbabwe CAR South Africa Namibia Kenya Niger Tanzania Somalia Mali Nigeria Botswana Togo Guinea Rwanda Mauritania Liberia Benin Gabon Cameroon Seychelles Swaziland Madagascar Morocco Chad Republic of Congo Ivory Coast The World Cup series: Part 4 of 4                    
(Begin with Part 1 The World Cup: Get Up, Stand Up!)

Preposterous as it sounds, M&K began to assert themselves & discover personal connections to the world through means other than sports.  Naw, really, no foolin.'  Alongside the Sports Illustrated for Women's Mia Hamm poster, thoughtfully handpicked & affixed to her bedroom wall by Dad, Mikaela scotch taped a glossy spread of her actual hero, Jane Goodall, taken at the Gombe Reserve in Tanzania. (Indeed, Chris' is a common mistake - this parental urge to Hamm it up - often referred to as a Mia culpa.) 4JG0.jpgThen, during her little sister's soccer matches, if not passing the time by conducting sideline interviews for the Texas Gazette, she'd pull out her supplemental reading, Peacemakers: Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Once the game finished, we'd go further afield to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which just so happened to have a temporary exhibit on Nobel Prize recipients. (Though their display was rather small, the kids still thought it was dynamite.)

Whoa! no way, how could we ever have let it come to this?  Now see where being lax about little league legacies leads?  Well yeah, straight to the Nobel Prize!  Via the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Bill of Rights & Civil Rights movement.  With the United Nations + Africa in hot pursuit...
4AB.jpgIt started out innocently enough, merely when Mikaela decided she'd grow up to be President of the United States. Naturally, that necessitated a quick homeschooling unit dedicated to a perusal of the US Constitution, in order to acquaint herself with its tenets & thereby allow ample time to strategize ways to circumvent them. (Never too early to start the process, after all... just ask Dick Cheney, that trailblazer.)  This coincided with The Declaration of Independence's American tour, which we heard was putting on quite the live show, so we caught a performance at the LBJ presidential library on the University of Texas campus. (This original copy of the Declaration, one of just 3 privately owned, was bought at auction by Norman Lear, who might've just kept it All in the Family but instead sponsored a cross-country 'road trip' to bring democracy's most esteemed document into fair & equal-opportunity viewing for all the people. Subversive Hollywood liberal. Gee whiz, could he learn a thing or two about patriotism... from an Archie conservative, am I right?)

Wrapped it up with a visit to the Houston Print Museum, so M&K could roll out some d-i-y  D-o-I broadsides (now that's impressive), intently watched democracy in action on C-SPAN Schoolhouse Rock, drafted new & improved versions of the Constitution & Bill of Rights (eg, voting rights extended to 4 year olds & optional horse ownership guaranteed), read a few books like Fritz's Shh! We're Writing the Constitution before getting popped (quizzed) by a testy Miss Mikaela, skimmed some nuts 'n bolts explanations of how government works, and completed several pages from the US History & Presidents workbooks picked up on clearance. And, just like that, simple as sayin' uncle Sam, we were done -- Finito with Freedom!!!  

But no, wouldn't get off that easy. Couldn't seem to shake those pesky discussions about the meaning of "justice for all" with its nitpicky nuances, ie does "all" = sum or some? (Alas, proving that smart as they were, even the founding fathers had difficulty with equations.) So it was on to Seneca Falls for a consultation with Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony about women's suffrage. Soon followed by study of segregation and the Civil Rights movement. Although M&K already knew quite a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr,  it seemed a different civil rights leader might best resonate with our young daughters. In particular, a courageous giant of the movement who marched at the very forefront of integration, but was of slightly lesser stature. Primarily because she was 6 years old & around 3 ½ feet tall. We read Ruby Bridges' own account, Through My Eyes, as well as Robert Coles' analytical insights, plus watched & talked at length about events depicted in the movie. It was also the kids' introduction to Norman Rockwell, his poignant portrayal of Ruby taking on even greater meaning after an afternoon first spent viewing his many endearingly lighthearted depictions of the American lifestyle & human interactions worth celebrating.

4RB1.jpgOK, after describing listening to a perturbed Rosa Parks recount her experiences in person* & then convincing Mikaela to check out Jackie Robinson's story (ha! snuck in sports), it seemed we had the faltering progress of equality covered.  Not quite. From there, our focus expanded to the concept of universal human rights, the efforts of the United Nations, and finally Nobel Peace Prize winners. We read more about its 1964 recipient MLK, adding his sister's remembrance My Brother Martin to reading the Heroes of America chapter book + DK biography, but also learned about Ralph Bunche, Mother Teresa, Clara Barton's Red Cross, the Dalai Lama, Amnesty International, Jimmy Carter and, because even altruism recognition is political, Mahatma Gandhi's notable omission.


4MG.jpgHere was another link in the natural progression of our studies. Gandhi was not only the leader of the Indian Independence movement against British rule & one of MLK's models for civil disobedience (in 1959, King visited Gandhi's birthplace to gain insight & inspiration), but the young attorney initially solidified his commitment to satyagraha (firmness in truth) and ahimsa (total nonviolence) strategies to resist the discrimination he faced while living for twenty years in South Africa. A noble, prize-worthy philosophy carried on by Desmond Tutu, '84 recipient, and dual '93 awardees Nelson Mandela and - for his willingness to acquire power in order to cede it - FW de Klerk, winner of the Golden Boot (out Botha).


Meanwhile, amid all this, life was constantly stepping in to distract us. Consequently, we'd investigated aspects of Africa quite inadvertently, by pursuing interests that had evolved independently of any "academics," eg origins of early man & civilizations, archaeology, geography, and everything animals, including wild games of every description; hundreds of "Safari" identification cards, sorted & classed off by their Latin surnames (found that one particularly taxaing); voluminous tomes of Vertebrates so massive that simply picking one up risked spine-snapping invertebrate transformation; and weekly zoo visits timed to attend keeper-led talks or, even better, synched to the newest baby giraffe's or infant elephant's bottle feedings. Thanks to the Kratt Brothers & PBS'  Zoboomafoo, Katrianna also became enthralled with lemurs -- oops, excuse me, "Coq-uer-el's  Si-fak-a," she'd insistently enunciate. Her mad about Madagascar two year phase was all-encompassing & threatened consultation with travel agents until finally, and not coincidentally, it subsided with the premiere of DreamWorks' Madagascar animated movies, which no billboards, toys in cereal boxes or Saturday morning cartoons could persuade M&K to care for one bit. Topping it off was that zany Tanzanian troupe-r Jane Goodall, Rwanda's own famous band member Dian Fossey, as well as the continuing adventures of Chris' client & our family friend who leads charitable projects throughout Africa, aka Bob, The Solar Power Superhero!  Granted, these were wholly elective activities, quite enthusiastically thought up & guided by the children, thus quite reasonably cannot be considered valid "schoolwork."

4geobk.jpgSo began our formal study of Africa. As usual, we started with books. Still in recovery from of a bygone era when encyclopedias & nonfiction titles were dense, dry deserts of text relieved only with an isolated, illusively blurry b&w photo mirage, I'm continually amazed that we get to choose from today's inviting, well-written & color-filled kids' books that are as good as or even better than National Geographic. What results is a mix of light & heavy reading, from 2-page per country summations of essential geo-political info to dozens of in-depth library books dedicated to individual countries like Nigeria or Kenya, specific cultures like the San & Maasai, and ancient history. Add in some super websites, such as Phillip Martin's, and sharing the world becomes instantly exciting.

For straight up geography, memorizing the country of Africa can be daunting even for the experts. (O, sure, it's fun to act superior to Sarah... yet, honestly, who hasn't suffered with occasional in continents problems?) Therefore, in order to meet our goal of correctly identifying Africa's many nations, it became a contest, the challenge to find 2-3 phenomenal facts unique to each. Eventually, however, we discovered that the most mundane or oddly irrelevant statistics proved surprisingly entertaining, too, as outdoing one another in mind-boring minutiae has its own irresistible appeal.

Nevertheless quite a few countries remained, demanding we employ a slightly different memory trick technique:4lcy.jpg

Where do folks go to settle a dispute?   The Rift Valley
What's Ethiopia's all-time favorite show?   I Love Lucy
Who was trippin' over Dr Livingstone, I presume?    Queen Victoria Falls
Where is Zoboomafoo not just a passing fady?   Madagascar
Who's the biggest band in Nigeria?   Indigo Girls (they're to dye for)
Where's Al Gore's least favorite place for hanging out?    Chad
What river runs between Zimbabwe & Zambia?    Aw, that's too Zambezi!


Or these, just 'cuz they're fun to say:

She sells seashells in Seychelles.
I'll be Dogon.  Siriusly?   (Well, it's got a good Mali-dy.)
I'll match that & raise ya a Timbuktu.
An elephant, a rhino & a cheetah walk sail into a Zanzibar...  No lion.
C'mere, my sweet baobab-y.


Suddenly, recalling locations was easy, familiar & most effective. (Uh huh, never underestimate the motivation to make Mom's 'helpful hints' stop.) We drilled each other in all sorts of spontaneous games using wall, book & homemade political and physical maps. Plus, M&K really enjoyed "demonstrating mastery" (showing off) by surfing for numerous online timed quizzes to identify countries by outline shape, natural features, famous landmarks or customs.    


Pretty soon, this morphed into an engrossing unit study ~~

Writing: preparing & presenting reports on endangered animals, native insects & plants
Reading: folktales - summarize, illustrate, plus practice oral storytelling with & without props
Art: craft traditional masks based on virtual tour of masks representing 100 ethnic groups; loom weaving; experiment with dyeing fabrics naturally; bead bracelets based on traditional patterns; charcoal, pastel & color pencil drawings of animals
Home ec: Mikaela researches vegetarian dishes & cooks 
Math: play strategy games such as mancala, butterfly (Mozambique), Senet (Egypt) & others found online or in Games From Around the World; create Kente cloth geometric designs; write & exchange facts 'n figures-based word problems; interpret animal stats charts & graphs 
Science: review classification system & make pop-up charts for variety of animals; sketch representative biomes on posters & then place 3-D animal photo stickers in correct zones; watch Planet Earth dvds & PBS programs about wildlife (+ culture + history) paying renewed attention due to the region's greater resonance; consult numerous African national parks & reserves guidebooks to plan "someday" trip 
Current events: read about Obama's journey to Kenya to visit his grandmother & other relatives in Dreams from My Father & stalk google map his ancestral village (no street view, only satellite images); follow news stories, esp environment-related 
Field trips: zoo & museum exhibits, particularly the Menil Collection and HMNS' Lucy 4E.jpg

Finally, while reviewing the symbolism of the African flags' colors, M&K decided to make a few mini flags for their binders. So blown away were they by this flagging interest (winded its way into their hearts, did it?) that they produced enough for Katrianna to turn it into yet another game, writing the countries' names on back & taping them onto theme dividers as look-see, interrogation-ready décor. (Not to be flip-up-pant about the thrill-a-minute excitement that is homeschooling, but for us this was a Banner Day.) Wanna play? At the top of this page, rest cursor on each flag til its name appears.   

Of course, as usual, the very best part was sharing the music. Tracing the roots of American tunes - spirituals, blues, rock 'n roll, peace music, protest songs, zydeco - back to African rhythms & messages, a rigorous curriculum requiring listening to a variety of traditional African groups (tho I'm ashamed to admit, at that time we somehow overlooked indigenous blond Shakira) & crossover 'pop' artists including Ladysmith Black Mambazo with (or w/o) Paul Simon, Alpha Blondy, Majek Fashek, King Sunny Ade, Fela, and Rocky Dawuni, mixing in The Specials, Steel Pulse & Sweet Honey in the Rock for good measures. Yet the overriding instructional incentive was even more fundamental to providing M&K with a proper education: Got to regale them with an epic tale known as The Legend of Mom's Fall.



Exhilarated by a Johnny Clegg & Savuka** concert celebrating Nelson Mandela's freedom in 1990, I was graciously demonstrating to an appreciative audience (our dog, Picasso) several of the moves gleaned from close observation of that evening's performance. Duly impressed, Pico immediately began his own show of solidarity by running ever-accelerating circles around the perimeter of the backyard. As you can imagine, it was a revelry of merriment!  That is, until my glorious finale -  a flurry of dead-on-authentic Zulu kicks - came to an abrupt, spinning-heels-over-head halt in a spectacular collision of centripetal force. An unanticipated audition for Dancing with the Stars, my hip-stir status was validated upon landing, dislocations notwithstanding. "Once again, kids, demonstrating that the personal sacrifices Mom has made for South Africa are truly stunning."

So this extra meaningful World Cup, we honor Madiba Magic, responsible for bringing the World Cup to South Africa and Africa to the world. It's been a chance to celebrate not just nationalism, but internationalism! (Hey, wait just a second, doesn't MLB do the same thing in its aptly named 'World Series'? Why, take last year's contest of global proportions, spanning the widely disparate ends of the New Jersey Turnpike -- going the distance, Philly to NYC!  Aw, c'mon, just sayin'... no assault on battery intended.)  Overall, it was a hugely successful tournament, Fate's failings aside. (Struggling to cope with misinterpreting Destiny here... thought for sure they were Ghana go all the way.)


Plus it's also infected each of us with our own symptomatic cases of World Cup fever.  For Dad, it's all about soccer. His primary goalie now being to call in the plays posts for from a bench couch-warming position. (Altho to Chris' his football-lovin-pals-turned-bloggers' credit, it does fit the inclusiveness criteria, receiving 5,000+ visitors a day from all over the world. Hardly a blip compared to that psychic octopus' reach, but still.) For Mikaela, it's been an opportunity to relive her soccer days of yore - yup, she took along a library book for our communal (big screen) sports bar visits, content to be chaperoned by The Vicar of Wakefield. For Katrianna, it's served as a great culmination to our studies, an occasion to display global geography preeminence while actually watching some games, as long as we kept those pub fries & pineapple Crushes comin.'

And, lastly, for me -- well, isn't it obvious?  As no doubt this World Cup blog series underscores, I believe we homeschooling parents deserve a lot more credit than we're given. For clearly it demands an enormous amount of dedication & patience... to bring each & every subject around - sooner or later - to a story about me. "Organic learning" at its finest!  Truthfully, why else would we so selfishlessly homeschool our children?  Oh, that's right, to teach them to embrace connections, understand that ultimately everything is related, and realize that discovering the ties that unite us all is what makes learning worthwhile, fascinating & fun.  Yeah, well, I guess those are OK reasons, too....

Ironically, this occurred at that same 'liberal' college freshman year... Her bold reaction to its audience was much more outspoken than mine, after which she collected her speaker's fee, thank you very much.

**Clegg was repeatedly jailed for performing in a racially mixed band, an illegal act in apartheid-era South Africa. Banned by state radio, "Asimbonanga" ("We haven't seen him") called for Mandela's release & named activist martyrs Neil Aggett, Stephen Biko, & Victoria Mxenge. In 1988, Michael Jackson cancelled his Lyon, France concert due to Clegg & Savuka's attracting a larger audience. Savuka translates "We have risen/awakened."

And now for an extra Specials treat:

From his BMOC days, the song Chris cranked up on his Chevy Chevette (whenever it would start)

Mtest.jpgThe World Cup series: Part 3 of 4                     
(See Part 1 The World Cup: Get Up, Stand Up!   &   Part 2 The World Cup: United We Play)

After the thrill of being Brazil's invaluable 12th man (tho in his mind he got Peléd), Christiano was determined that soccer would remain a permanent fixture of our family life, its principles passed on to our enthusiastic children. Well, anyhow, to the original set of kids [hereafter referred to as 'The Premier League'].

The firstborn was a natural defender & trapping skills perfectionist who positioned himself at sweeper to tackle any challengers (particularly those charging his supper dish). The next two, a daughter-son duo, constantly begged Dad to kick it around and doggedly ran their drills all day. Or most of the day, until the pressure simply got to be too much for our precious Pizazz, who'd inevitably air it out by sinking a fang into the leather & thereby earn herself a bye week....

WCcr.jpgNot surprisingly (at least for those well-versed in birth order theory), the baby of the family, a last-minute draft choice acquired from the SPCA Juniors division, was an extroverted crowd pleaser. Christened Cameroooooooon, the dynamic dribbler was admittedly not the most disciplined athlete, impatient with set plays & preferring to improvise. Yet, just like Cathy's all -It's Milla- time favorite World Cup contenders, she was by far the most entertaining to watch.  What's more, that Indomitable Lion uniformly marked any snakes in the grass and, without thought to risking her career, willingly took to the attack for the sake of the squad (garnering a record-setting 6 garters in a single outing... including one gut-checkin' overtime). But, most significantly, Cameroon revived - at least for her cheerfully sidelined soccer mom - that beloved '70s fad: Red, Yellow & Green Striped, Polyester Knee-Highs. Stylin'! 
Now inexplicably, when they finally joined our team's roster, the second string of Sarkar progeny wasn't nearly so goal-oriented. Mikaela & Katrianna resisted Chris' every attempt to raise them into football fan addicts, which I believe might've been previously mentioned in passing. (See Homeschoolers Are Such Bad Sports.)  (Plus Happy Dad's Day: Father No's Best.)  (And Life Cycles: Spinning Our Wheels at Le Tour de France.)  (Also alluded to briefly in Spring Equinox Fever Sows March Madness.)  (Oh, and again, just casually, so as not to belabor the point, in On Your Mark, Get Set, GOld! to the Olympic Training Center.)

As conscientious parents -- simply trying to bring up our kids to be well-adjusted, socially-conscious, responsible citizens who are confident in their identities, life's purpose & place in the world -- we were at a loss. I mean, aren't we obligated to compel the girls to take part in something larger than themselves & thus recognize that a greater force is at work? (Illustrated exquisitely, for instance, when "doing the wave.")  MDtv.jpgTo be both humbled & uplifted in cheering - or booing - the cause of humanity?  (Greatly facilitated by following the crowd cues flashing on the scoreboard.) Furthermore, as Phil Knight suggests, without a solid foundation in commercialism & springy shoes, could we really expect them to be adequately equipped for the game of life? (Sure, unless setting them up for failure as Nike goddesses is an acceptable option in your household.... Personally, I Just couldn't Do It.) 

And, ultimately, how would our daughters ever achieve self-actualization - as in "find their centers" - if not through tuning in to ESPN's SportsCenter?  Indeed, this universally acknowledged, inextricable link is clear not only to The Worldwide Leader in Sports, but was most incontrovertibly & resoundingly recognized by the Queen of Soul herself, Mz. Aretha Franklin, in that globally-renowned, empowering feminist rerererefrain: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, soccer it to me!"

See Part 4 The World Cup: Madiba Magic Champions at Last!

WCdls.jpgThe World Cup series: Part 2 of 4                                                         
(See Part 1 The World Cup: Get Up, Stand Up!)

Back in Texas, the humble, state-funded university had already adopted & even moved beyond the Sullivan Principles without any help from hardball political operatives like me. Akin to the magnetic inclusiveness of my public high school, the diversity of students and campus culture promoted natural connections, an environment where all ethnicities, races, religions & classes belonged. Which was certainly a relief. For it allowed everyone to focus on the really big, world issues. And funnel their energies into what's most important. Uh huh, that's right, talkin' bout Kickin' It Ol' Skool!
AlbnAr.jpgThat's where Chris - a guy who made a persuasive political yet somewhat controversial fashion statement by wearing his $5 'Free Nelson Mandela' ANC t-shirt a minimum of twice weekly - made his pitch. He proudly played for "Agony of De Feet," an intramural team composed of mates from such exotic lands as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Greece, Iran, Cambodia, Mexico, Ghana and California. In the heralded semifinals, this left-leaning right winger earned acclaim by scoring the go-ahead goal on a penalty kick, his cleat striking a glancing blow to the ball ground which sent the opposing goalie leaping into the air for a desperate save as earthshaking tremors (aka, 'incidental contact') propelled the ball's torpid-o charge into the net. Another of his citywide clubs, "Albion," was predominantly made up of Brits, a few Scots and a couple of Irish blokes whose brilliant strategizing (when the refs weren't looking) expedited the squad's phoenix rise from 4th division dregs to 1st division victors in only 4 seasons. It, too, was a culturally broadening experience, especially when they'd invite him to partake in postgame draughts at the Richmond Arms pub. There, after discreetly requesting that he please put away his checkerboard, they'd commiserate over what aled 'em by ordering another round of pints, plus a second bottle of Crush pineapple sodapop for their favorite rookie sidekick. 

WCSwd.jpgOnce forfeits due to injury exceed the number of actual matches played, it's time to quit. So how swell is it that the World Cup was so accommodating, showing up in our very own backyard just in time for Chris' ankles' retirement party in 1994? The first round-of-16 match, pitting Sweden against Saudi Arabia, proved rather uneventful despite the 3-1 result & those swingin' Swedes' much-anticipated raucous scoring celebrations (e.g., firm handshakes, kindly pats on the back, mischievous hair mussing... Buncha Viking punks). Yet, for us, just being there & sharing in the World Cup communal spirit was a no header. For instance, we gladly paid $20 to discover the 4-wheeling capacity of our Honda Accord when coming to an abrupt, final resting (parking) place mid-wye in our tracks due to all those partially dugout railroad ties crisscrossing the officially sanctioned dirt lot; waited out a thunderstorm in the Dallas zoo's Wilds of Africa aviary (conspicuously absent of football fanatics, who must have been going incognito); and learned why Texas-sized, ten gallon baseball hats never caught on with soccer players. Overall, it served very nicely as a warm-up friendly for Game 2.
Which Chris felt certain would be "the one," Brazil vs. Holland in the quarterfinals. The first half was classic, riveting soccer, a purist footballer's delight:  After 45 minutes, still 0-0!  Wholly unadulterated by scoring, the definition of "Fantastic!" Thus, given those fraught-with-suspense circumstances, Chris' Whirled Cup Spilleth Over Incident in the 43rd minute was perfectly understandable. Not that he didn't immediately "Beg pardon!" once he noticed the Coca-Cola cascading onto the fellow's head and frothing in foamy profusion under his collar. Plus offer assistance by fastidiously dabbing at the chap's furrowed brow & magnanimously presenting the now-empty souvenir cup to him by way of making conciliatory amends. Momentarily, it seemed, the day wouldn't be a complete loss in terms of real, interactive soccer spectacle! However, the guy was obviously not a legit football aficionado, for no requisite brawl ensued, but merely a miffed & international-mayhem-averting "No worries." Honestly, this WC experience was proving to be quite a let down. 
WCBrz.jpgOf course, during halftime, lesser fans found themselves fearing that Brazil was Dunga for. Or perhaps musing, in an offsided sorta way, Wherefore art thou, Romário? But no doubt due to head coach Carlos Parreira's Tom Landry's pep talk in the Cotton Boll locker room, Romário came out striking, then proud papa Bebeto rocked the joint, and finally a buckin' Branco embraced his inner Texan, delivering a free KIKKer for the win!  In celebratory cacophony, everybody simultaneously struck up their belongings -- drums, horns, fifes, tom-toms, kazoos, cowbells, bongos, accordions + bagpipes -- and morphed into anaconda-like oneness to exit the stadium singing "Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Brasil, Brasil!" Afterwards, no one admitted they'd rooted for Holland's Lost Boys (sadly, Tink, it's 'cuz they dwell in Never Netherlands).
Turned out, this 5-goals-all-coming-in-the-second-half match was considered "the game of the tournament" (even by those who didn't realize we were there) and led the way to an unprecedented 4th World Cup title for the Seleção!
See Part 3 The World Cup: Soccer It to Me

The World Cup series: Part 1 of 4

"Get Up, Stand Up!"     
Only one professor glanced over long enough to reveal her slanted smile. The rest of the faculty filed past in velveteen caps & satin hooded gowns without acknowledging anything, save their tams' golden, dangling tassels tickling against their tightly clenched lips.

"Stand Up For Your Rights!"

For today's dignified procession was honoring the university regents' annual meeting, a staid rite of passage to uphold the trustees' traditional rights to forever withhold the passage of time at this small, private, liberal arts college in the east...


"Don't Give Up The Fight!"

Lining just half of the short sidewalk leading to the assembly hall, ours was a paltry protest, a smattering of undergraduate rabble-rousers futilely trying to infuse sixties-style enthusiasm into tired, decades-old chants: "What do we want?"  DIVESTMENT! "When do we want it?"  NOW! We held up hand-scrawled, slogan-filled signs to an audience of silent onlookers who mocked our sincerity from across the green. (Yup, nobody there at all besides some exasperatingly unresponsive trees, pruned to remain rigidly neutral & unperswayeded by the blowin' winds of change.)  

"It's not all that glitters is gold; Half the story has never been told"
By the time our lil' dedicated core of agitators reconvened -- coincidentally enough, in the school's newspaper offices -- journalistic integrity rallied the cause with unbiased, factual reporting of glorious, indomitable dissidence. (Following a quick, unanimous decision to omit superfluous details, such as the one about an as-yet-unidentified sophomore who panicked and unplugged Bob Marley & Peter Tosh's First Amendment rights -- emanating from a hifi defiant 12" dual-cassette boombox -- mere moments before the college president's impending advance.)  The editor-in-chief made the additionally daring decision to run "Out of South Africa" as the week's lead story, front page & topped with a photo taken at the precise angle to appear jam-packed with no less than 20 laudably heroic students, 18 of whom also happened to be news staffers.

"We sick an' tired of your ism-schism"


Cogent testimony to these overwhelming pressure tactics, the board members did, most likely, put the item on their agenda. Just long enough for it to be formally dismissed as irrelevant. Apartheid had no place here, in our harmoniously homogeneous community. Clearly, this was a black ~or~ white issue.

(Really, arguing with that type of logic is of no hues... sometimes it's simply a matter of Caucasian & effect.)

"You can fool some people sometimes, But you can't fool all the people all the time"

The finance committee could find absolutely no reason to alter course on their winning investment policies. Well, maybe with one exception... regarding accrued interest in a certain puny(tive), out-of-state investment. That's okay, at the end of freshman year, I packed up my scholarship & went home. Quite successfully divested, I might add subtract.     

"Whoa yoi, whoa yoi, whoa yo, yo, yo, yoi!"

*For 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, Nelson Mandela lived in this cell on Robben Island. While there, he earned his Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London & encouraged other inmates to pursue their studies. The jail guards, as well as those he inspired, referred to his cell block as "Mandela University."

See Part 2 The World Cup: United We Play

Eneb1.jpgMy grandmother never liked me much. At least that's what she told me.

That was okay. It was the one thing we had in common, the strongest proof of our familial bond:  Mutual Disregard.
Mostly, it had to do with onions. They bring tears to your eyes, ya know. The onions, I mean. Well, and the grandmothers who insist on serving them up in every single dish at every single meal. Sliced, diced, sautéed or raw -- I'm afraid I put up a thoroughly leeky resistance.  Predictably, she resented her granddaughter's rapscallion behavior, threatening to withhold dessert: "And it's your favorite - caramel!" So I fell for it once... fyi, caramelized onions are not the same thing.

egg8.jpgOr could've been grammar. She would send back thank you notes or birthday greeting cards with my grammatical mistakes circled in red - yes, really. She was a former Latin teacher and upheld the stereotype with compunc(tua)tion. It was my earliest introduction to the deterrent power & effectiveness of the zero tolerance correctional system. Particularly, the syn tax. 

But, as you might have suspected, her bitter disdain toward me was not limited merely to onions or handing down verdicts of punishing, diagrammed life sentences. In fact, it was bigger than the both of us, harking back to that historic North-South, Mason-Dixon great cultural divide. It began months before Grandmother was to arrive in Houston from her adopted home of Connecticut in order to supervise & cook us kids (oops, meant 'for us kids') while Mom partook in the women's moms' lib movement for two 'away' weeks during summer vacation...

On a sleepover at a friend's house, one of the moms I especially liked was waxing eloquent on the subject of manners. This evening's lecture was about the dignity, nay, the ultimate respectability conveyed by addressing all elders as 'sir' or 'ma'am.' Then she switched feet. As I watched her clippered toenails sail through the air in majestic arches before sinking into an oblivion of burnt orange (Hook 'em Horns!) shag carpeting, followed by a skillful application of maroon (Gig 'em, Ags!) nail polish & the meticulous positioning of delicate, silvery appliqués of stars, hearts + crosses, I contemplated this etiquette lesson. (Briefly, one of the brothers sauntered past in his 'casual attire,' creating a trifle disturbance in the flow of her stream-of-refined-distinction-consciousness: "Good Lord, go git some clothes on, bubs, we got company!" egg24.jpgAn admirable demonstration of ladylike grace under somewhat trying circumstances, it recalled & fortuitously exemplified last week's 'Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain' session.) The righteousness of her divine message was undeniable. Right then & there, I converted. From that moment on, I went about freely dropping 'yes, sirs' or 'no, ma'ams' at will. It made me feel clean & good & extremely polite all over - verily, 'twas the Southern Baptists' answer to confession! In heretofore childish ignorance, I'd been operating under New England-bred WASPish constraints. This was a revelation. I was pretty sure it was the next best thing to being born again....

Well, ma'am, on her very next visit, Grandma put an end to that. "Cathleen, I am neither a 'ma'am' nor your "Grandma.' You may call me 'Grandmother.' Now go wash your hands for supper."

I caught myself just as I was about to ask, "Yes, ma'am, but don't you mean 'for dinner,' Grandma?" Instead, I complied with Grandmother's directive. And, whenever I again felt the need to achieve that fresh, clean feeling, I did what all virtuous Episcopalians do. I scrubbed with Dial antibacterial soap.
Eeggs.jpgBut, eventually, when I became an adult and Grandmother retired & moved back to reunite with her sisters in Nebraska, we discovered our shared, unabashed love for each other... Ok, to be accurate, make that my love for punning & her love for punditry. Close enough. She explained it to me later, "When you were little, you were just 'a good kid.' You always did everything your mother told you to do."  Absolutely unforgivable!  'Nuff said. Yet she continued, "Then you finally starting speaking up... and your puns were better than mine." egg11.jpgA greater admission of adoration she'd never uttered. She retreated to her room to recover, not to be seen again until she suddenly reappeared at 10:01 pm anxiously throwing on her windbreaker and urging us to take cover with her in the shower stall. Visions of Dorothy and being swept off to Oz spun through my head. Just before we realized that deafening tornado siren was the same testing of the advanced warning system that sounded nightly, 365 days of the year, at, yessiree, 10 pm. Methodically, she removed her jacket, hung it in the closet, and wished us a good night.
She even tolerated Chris, once he discovered that the best way to interact with his grandmaw-in-law was to rile her by debating etymology. Not that Chris has ever been an authority & he usually lost handily, a fact which made her persnickety, rancor-ravenous intellect appreciate him all the more. Several times a day, they'd dash over to the bookshelf to consult her gilded 1950's unabridged dictionary with its 500 to 5000-year-old word origin notations. (He wasn't permitted to touch it otherwise. Neither was anyone else. But, before Chris, no relative had the audacity courage slightest iota of inclination in that direction.)
Of course, bets were wagered. To everyone's dismay, one time Chris won. His prize: her much admired childhood pocketknife with its authentic, decoratively-carved, inlaid cow horn handle. Grandmother pretended not to care. So Chris would spend those long drives to the big town -- undertaken on the pretense that it boasted the best all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet in the county (it did) (but, more importantly, it also had the county's biggest liquor store, allowing ample restocking options for the sisters' daily happy hours) -- pulling out his new acquisition to admire its fine workmanship & challenge Grandma to a game of mumblety-peg right there in the backseat. Duly baited, Grandmother would mumble some characteristically captious retort, forcing the frazzled chauffeur, racing over rollercoasters of sandhills in this vast farming country, to intervene, "All right, you two, settle down back there -- I'm trying not to plow into a combine here!" My great aunt riding shotgun in the passenger seat would sadly shake her head; the other unfortunate aunt sandwiched between them would dutifully confiscate the knife.
Quite often, we'd go on Platte river picnics. In a brilliant strategy designed solely to avoid odious odorous onion conflict, Chris and I would provide victuals. Grandmother didn't seem to mind, for she'd given up most cooking by then and genuinely embraced reprieve from such onerous tasks & the freed-up opportunity it afforded to focus on life's finer pastimes - namely, critiquing others' cooking. E3melon.jpgSuch as, while observing Chris' attempt to cut open a watermelon one afternoon, "You city kids certainly are green when it comes to choosing ripe produce." Snapping the knife blade back into its authentic, decoratively-carved, inlaid cow horn casing, and then ceremoniously slipping the treasure back into his pocket, Chris replied, "Aww, no need to thank us, Grandma. Just let me know when I can slice up another piece fer ya!"

No matter where else in the world Chris & I visited, those annual trips to Nebraska were the favorites of our pre-kid travels. But, invariably, after depleting typical old lady talk -- like discussing the weather, or the potential of Tom Osborne's latest recruiting class, or the sweetness of this year's corn crop, or the nuances of Blackshirt defensive formations, or how Chuck Hagel was the right kind of Republican ('cuz he was the only one Left) -- their attention would turn to children. And it's easy to guess the gist of those hints, no? That's right, they couldn't stand babies! Enormously grateful that part of their lives was done & didn't possess the patience to deal with youngins now & what vexation 'n tribulation they wrought, o my!
punssprng.jpgTherefore, expecting cool politeness and an inevitable distancing of our relations -- far exceeding the 1,000 concrete highway miles already separating us -- to coincide with the news that I was expecting, we were completely unprepared for Grandmother's reaction. First, there was her admonition that I should hold & cuddle our newborn constantly. She regretfully reflected that she'd been a poor mother, believing the child-rearing experts' advice of her generation to let babies cry it out & limit affection in order to avoid spoiling them at all costs.

punhare2.jpgThen the phone calls began. Which, given her telephone-averse tendencies, were already extraordinary. However, on top of that, her nascent great-grand maternal devotion compelled her to withstand the tortures inflicted by our answering machine -- as we preferred to screen calls by initially letting Al Green, Bob Marley or Black Uhuru pick up for us. That really pushed her buttons rotary dial!  But, for a chance to chat with the infant Mikaela, she endured. punhare7.jpgStipulating sworn oaths that no tickling occur to produce such sounds, she listened while the newest 'just a good kid' & perpetually buoyant baby razzed, cooed and incessantly giggled through the receiver into her great grandmother's delighted ear. My tech-savvy (had a computer) grand aunt received our regular email updates, which they read aloud at happy hours, laughing over Mikaela's antics while downing highball spritzers and schnapps.

Ever practical, Grandmother & her siblings had long ago disavowed any desire for presents, even on Christmas and Easter. "We have enough. Don't want anything. Don't need anything. Can't abide the thought of having more things to look after," they insisted. Thus launched a new tradition. We sent the only item still in constant demand, requiring minimal dusting & flexible storage options:
Gifted Conundrums. Their intrinsic humor amusing allusions relative demerits were debated among the 3 sisters in intimate speakeasies of contentious contentment. Those that made the final cut were then prominently featured at the Kensington Society Club's cold salads & casseroles holiday luncheon. 
Since we indoctrinate 'em early 'round here, M&K joined in the fun as soon as they were able to meet the high level of punning standards set by our family. Yup, right around 18 months of age or so... Honestly, though, it took them until approximately 2 1/2 to equal their folks' utmost erudite efforts. Not that we were tracking it. Well, alright, just casually. On their What To Expect hourly growth charts lining the halls. Fostering such a pressure-free environment is the key to inspiring creativity. (Plus, imho, witnessing your children's emerging precociousness so seamlessly converge with their father's not-so-latent immaturity is truly one of the greatest joys in parenting... as any mom of a preschooler could confirm.)   


"I'm glad we became friends, Cathy," Grandmother confided on our last visit together, "I like you." Which clearly was her subtle way of saying, "You're like me. I like that about you!" (It's true, definitely there are parts of her in me. But upon doing some further solecism searching, I must admit, they're fragmentary at best.) And then, overcome with such sentimentality, she added, "Oh, and you're OK, too, Chris."

After pausing a respectful minute or two to make certain that hadn't activated the tornado warning system again, I suggested, "Hey, wanna go to Dairy Freeze? I feel like having some onion rings."

"My treat!" ordered Grandmother, splurging for double scoops of soft serve choke(d up)cherry ice creams all around before managing to fully regain a proper sense of decorum.

*Easter Eggs Hint: In accordance with our stringently highbrow punning criteria, plays are only on "egg"- no "ex" - words. For instance, the ex-ample at right would be disallowed. Granted, it might suggest hilarity at 2 in the morning, but who could respect themselves if this cracked up them in the light of day?

 Caution: Further scrolling will reveal all the answers!    
                                          (To the puns.)

It was Easter eve.  

Katrianna, then five years old, announced that it was bedtime. She'd just completed a rapturous hopping-on-the-mattress performance of that Easter classic "So jump in bed and cover up your head 'cause the Easter Bunny comes tonight!" at a decibel level certain to scare off any bunnies within a 500 mile radius. Now she was desperate to turn out the lights & begin pretending to sleep.

Yet, as I tucked her in & kissed her goodnight, she asked,
"So Jesus had to die, right, so we could go to Heaven?"    
"Yes," I answered.

But before I could elaborate, Mikaela added with dramatic import,
"Yeah, and because of the people who did that to Jesus..."  
"Ohhh," said Katrianna, clutching her stuffed lemur a little tighter
while absorbing the implications. "You mean the doctors?"
"What doctors?"
"The doctors who were upset because they couldn't make any money with Jesus going around healing and curing everybody," explained Katrianna.

Obviously, Katrianna got a little mixed up on her impassioned play, didn't she? 

Of course, it wasn't the doctors!

Nope, it was the insurance companies.

Note: My dad sold insurance for a living. Which led to his desire to impart to his children all that he'd gleaned from his hard-earned years of experience in the industry. So, what was that single golden nugget of wisdom?  "Remember, kids, the surest way to throw away your money is to buy insurance policies!" Yep, rest insured, those health care reform school dropouts can be heelers.


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