Because we homeschool, I've always been a little hyper aware that Mikaela & Katrianna don't have the variety of teacher role models that I enjoyed and Chris drove into early retirement. So, like many overcompensating homeschoolers, we've supplemented with teachers for extracurricular classes in music, art and writing, participated in ongoing educational programs at science or history museums, nature centers & the zoo, plus had the tutelage of a couple of little league coaches. We've also discovered "positive influences" in many of the other homeschooling parents who have surprisingly diverse and interesting careers, such as NASA rocket scientists, professional artists, architects, doctors, ranchers, airplane pilots, supercomputer engineers, landscape designers & geologist 'rock stars.'
And a final, unexpected way we found mentors for our kids is through interaction with and learning from Chris' clients. We just spent most of March in Boulder, Colorado, so Chris could meet with colleagues with whom he has consulted for a few years now. Over time, we all have gotten to know many of them and several have become significant role models for our girls. Their greatest qualification? They are nerds who found a way to make it their life's work!
Now, before Chris gets fired, let me explain. In our family, "nerd" is a term of endearment, a complimentary title reserved only for those we most admire and idolize (and, obviously, what we aspire to be ourselves). Nerds are people who have been able to turn their passions into action. Bespectacled or not, they fully embrace and fixedly pursue whatever "turns them on," become specialists in their fields and, eventually, find a way to put their education, enthusiasm and expertise into practice. (For us, this applies to traditionally "nerdy" intellectual pursuits, but also to excelling in sports, politics, music, art ... ) At first they might seem too geeky or unconventional, but ultimately they become, often as a direct result of their previous "misfit" status, the coolest and most respected extra-ordinary people out there.
Really, it's quite similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for "The American Scholar," only we prefer the ring of "The American Nerd" (pə-tā'tō as opposed to pō-tot-ō?). We constantly point out historical and contemporary examples of this phenomenon to M&K, who are true believers now due to an innate propensity to nerdiness [nature] as well as exposure to as many nerds as I can find to teach them about [nurture]. So far, our daughters' nerdy-cool heroes have ranged from Br'er Rabbit to Ben Franklin, Daniel Boone to Clara Barton, Martin Luther King to Mother Teresa, John James Audubon to the first dog astronaut (along with the lesser Neil Armstrong), Hatshepsut to Louisa May Alcott, Robin Hood to Nelson Mandela, Joan of Arc to Jane Goodall, Sacagawea to Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln to Barack, Michelle, Malia & Sasha Obama. That's all good, since these are laudable legends studied in textbooks, newspapers or from afar, but meeting and befriending real, live "pal"-adins is, of course, even better!
Stephen Mitchell is an author who readily admits that initially he had no idea he could actually earn a living by writing. But, to date, he has 38 published books and has gained a large and appreciative audience for his translations, poetry, fiction & non-fiction works, children's books and philosophical writings. He was in the middle of an eleven-city tour arranged by his publisher when we met him and attended his reading for The Second Book of the Tao. Many receptive thinkers and fans were gathered there to hear him expound upon its chapters, as well as to get a few moments to chat with him while he signed copies of his book.
In preparation for the reading & seeing Stephen again, the girls and I read his book and incorporated it into our studies for school which included a year-long unit on China (where we focused on all the typical cultural facts & wrote historical research papers, plus partook in protest demonstrations favoring Tibetan independence & watched the Olympics as "homework"). Even before the book hit bookstores' shelves, we had a sneak peek and discussed such concepts as accepting things as they are. Our perceptive daughters' understanding of this idea mostly centered around its application to Mom - their prime examples being my gracefully accepting the "perfection" of their untidy bedrooms, lackadaisical tooth brushing or school papers that are found everywhere except in their portfolios. Enthusiasm for their particular interpretation of "the way" then extended into the minutiae of our daily routine, as in 'Are not a correct answer and an incorrect answer to this math problem equally worthy and virtuous?'
After the reading, as we all strolled down the blustery Pearl Street Mall, Chris was the personification of "yes chasing no endlessly in circles" as he orbited in hyper leaps about the ever composed and serene Stephen. (The allusion would be a good one, except for one thing - I am the one who sits up all night sweating ethical
dilemmas, while Chris peacefully snores right through - clearly
demonstrating that he is much further along in his journey to Zen than
I am.) Finally, we found ourselves ensconced safely inside the Dushanbe Teahouse and enjoying a moment's peaceful silence when Katrianna, the existentialist, suddenly piped up: "Could it be that I'm a butterfly just thinking I'm having tea with Stephen Mitchell?" Well, at least it showed she'd taken a fancy to chapter 5...
Not long after that, coincidentally I'm sure, Stephen mentioned that he enjoyed doing the book tours and meeting people but that he would rather be home spending time with his wife, Byron Katie. His affection and respect for Katie, who he had also mentioned fondly several times during his reading, moved me to such an extent that I immediately gave Chris an elbow to the ribs and said "See?!" before I realized I wasn't Loving What Is...
Understandably, Stephen then expressed a desire to get back to the hotel and work on his next book, a highly anticipated translation of The Iliad. Just as the cab was about to mercifully whisk him off, Mikaela eagerly called out, "In your next book, remember when you're formatting not to align the text to the right - it has to stay centered!" By then, however, I believe he'd successfully plugged his ears with beeswax, so he just graciously smiled and waved goodbye. Certainly it had been a productive day, one that no doubt illustrated Chris' invaluable worth as a consultant, especially in his ability to fully test Stephen's resolve to adhere to the Taoist tenet of remaining calm and unaffected by worldly strife and drivel.
Another client we met last week was Robert Freling, who was in Colorado to receive the King Hussein Leadership Prize presented by Her Majesty Queen Noor at the Aspen Institute. Previous recipients have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Doctors without Borders and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank.
Bob was introduced to our family over the phone a few years ago, when he called Chris immediately after returning from a trip to Rwanda where his team had been busy installing solar electric systems to replace diesel generators used in several community health clinics. My interest was piqued when I overheard Chris saying "No way... How many ribs?!" Turned out, a couple of very dark nights before, Bob had decided to take in a view of the stars, stepped out onto his bungalow's nonexistent back porch and promptly plummeted down into the wilds of Rwandan jungle. (Demonstrating the need for some solar lighting, no?)
He broke some ribs but still managed to hike several miles the next morning so he could fulfill the fun, relaxing part of his visit and see some gorilla families, descendants of Dian Fossey's beloved buddies. With that, he instantly became our family's latest hero and was thereafter affectionately dubbed "Solar Bob" by my admiring kiddos.
Bob, who also happens to be a native Texan, leads a charitable organization called Solar Electric Light Fund, based in Washington DC. They install solar panels in remote villages around the world, providing essential power for hospitals and vaccine storage, fresh water and drip irrigation systems for crops, lighting & electricity in local schools and personal power units for individual homes. Among SELF's many impressive projects are those for the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania, for local schools in Nelson Mandela's birthplace, for the Vietnam Women's Union, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative for numerous medical clinics in Africa, with Brad Pitt's Make It Right project in New Orleans, and alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide reliable technology access for the Navajo Nation.
It's been a fun and ongoing inspirational lesson just trying to keep up with and learn about all of the places Bob has been to and that SELF has helped.It makes those places "real" and the world becomes, as a result, smaller and more accessible - if not physically, at least psychologically. Certainly it underscores the theme that one person (even a kid who grew up in Dallas, Texas) can make a meaningful contribution toward "making the world a better place."
Stephen and Bob are examples of "regular guys" whose natural interests and strengths became integral to their work and lifestyles. They do what they love & they make a living doing it. But, they are still nerds... after all, despite all of their accomplishments, look who they ended up hanging out with in Boulder.