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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.

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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!)


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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?)

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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.

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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).
     


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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.

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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!


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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.

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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.    

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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.


 

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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.)

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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 soccerblog.com 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)


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January 17th is my son-in-law's birthday. He'll be 304. Oh, that's right, you probably didn't know about our son-in-law...    OK, ok, ex son-in-law.

Actually, it was Mikaela's second marriage.

Her first relationship lasted only a few months, a steal-your-heart-away, whirlwind romance with a wild fella by the name of Tigger. The nuptials were surprisingly staid, infused with ceremonial pomp, striped of oozing sentimentality. Yet, soon enough, Mikaela would learn that old lovers' lesson the hard way: An affair with just another pretty face can't sustain itself forever. Sure, even if he makes you laugh...
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It wasn't long before she sought truer substance (& less fluff). Someone with standing, as opposed to bouncing. A Frank kinda gent who you could build a real future past with...

And that's when she met Ben.  Eventually, they'd go their separate ways, but, oh my, it was something to behold while it lasted!


BFr5.jpgThe initial attraction was typical: she was drawn to his senior letterman [book] jacket. She fell fast for his rags-to-riches story, in its accessible, easy-to-get-to-know-you, abridged autobiographical style. Here was a guy who wasn't afraid to communicate, plus his doing so in 240 pages allowed her to boast she'd read him like a book in only a week. Thus, they'd formed a hard-binding commitment - for who can resist someone who sets you up to achieve a new personal best?
 

After that, she began seeing him constantly. And she wanted it to be exclusive, willingly dropping friends or dates if they (playgroup) threatened to interfere. So much so that Chris & I discussed limiting their time together to just 30 minutes a day. Precisely from 4:00 to 4:30, because, after all, PBS' strict curfew also had to be taken into consideration. As far as Mikaela's loyalist devotion was concerned, it was Give me "Liberty's Kids" or give me "But I'll die if I have to miss a single episode!" Of course, we encouraged her to see other shows... as if there was a remote chance that it was within our control.



So, once again, we watched a rerun: Mikaela walked down the aisle (hallway) to the chapel (playroom) to vow eternal love until death do they part (?). As you Mikaela might imagine, it seemed a match made in Heaven. Her dad & I tried to be receptive to her wishes and set the right tone... Whosoever has just cause that this occasion should not be joined in music, click now or forever hold your peace:

Regrettably, only later did it occur to me -- I should have hired a professional armonica band!

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It's with sincerest compunction that I admit it now, but at first we parents were skeptical. We predicted the numerous potential problems that life would bring this unConventional couple, yet their united Constitutions were resilient in the face of such adversity. For instance, we reasoned, her young man had quite a reputation. Was she aware of his previous activities, like when he was 18 (-th century) and quite the lightning rod about town? BFamos.jpg
Yes, yes, she countered, he'd told her every electrifying detail (excerpt what the Kids' Classics editors left out to make room for illustrations), &, besides, she wasn't naïve. She'd read the other tail-all accounts penned by his hangers-on, like Amos (that rat), or poor, pithy Richard Saunders (who notoriously suffered from an Almaniackal complex). Moreover, if she gave us a piece of her opinion, we would Do good to Silence our Mrs. reservations! (Ben suggested we could Master them Posthaste if we followed his General example -- he had such a humble way of stamping out mailstroms.)

And, as it turned out, those two crazy kids were right! Theirs was a remarkably productive partnership. Certainly he was inventive and, with time, his Franklin Institute-ion proved that he was an experiment that would last. BF22.jpgHe was a brilliant mathematician (further confirmation he was a total square, magical as he was in our daughter's eyes) who prompted Mikaela to accelerate the pace in memorizing the multiplication tables, thereby raising her expectations for a happy future -- as well as her math grades -- exponentially. (Finally, evidence he's not a D-ist?*) True, we did discover that he was a player, but his Morals of Chess merely entreatised us to make the next strategic, and simultaneously altruistic, move.

Indeed, he was the ideal checkmate for our girl. Following his example, she acquired a requisite "little book" to chart her progress (nifty graphing practice) & then allotted one week per virtue in her quest to expeditiously attain moral perfection. But, as the weeks wore on, she tired of it, experiencing such easy mastery over them all -- "child's play," I think she called it -- that she felt no need to continue past week 12. (Really, who orders a Baker's dozen of virtues anyway?)
     
THE VIRTUES OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
blank215.jpg1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or
                        the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

But their most prolific collaborative effort was the stuff of legends (which they thoroughly investigated & only then reported in their newspapers). His Pennsylvania Gazette was the journalistic inspiration for her Texas Gazette. Further, he served as her opinions' column editor and certainly provided as much valuable input in that capacity as do most advisory committee board members. (What'choo talkin' 'bout, Michael Moore?) So, she began building her publishing empire -- as a community service, you understand -- which soon led to her wanting to scope (scoop?) out the competition. A field trip was arranged to tour a small, local paper where she compared typing wpm speed with the owner-managing editor, took turns interviewing & being interviewed by staff reporters, and laid out - as straightforwardly as she could - headlines on the copyeditor's light table. (Unfortunately, Ben was unavoidably 'otherwise indisposed' on that particular day, but he went with her, as they say, in spirit.)
 

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Yet then love accomplished the impossible! It was Ben, alive & in person! (And, if I may be permitted to acknowledge, their supportive mother-in-law had a lot to do with it.) Leafing through a Houston Kids' magazine, it was as if an arrow struck. For what was on the agenda February 14th? Hold onto your heart, it was a lovely surprise rendezvous at the Museum of Printing History! I'm still not sure why Ben Franklin made an advertised appearance on that particular day... not that a print museum isn't the first place most people think of for romance. And back then, it seemed, he'd be Imprinted on her forever...  

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But, alas, rekindling
an old flame, even
with a candlemaker's son,
can be wicked. There came a day -- right after that Valentine's Day, actually -- when she told us that she'd simply outgrown him.  


So we no longer celebrate the Printer's birthday in the old (Goudy?) style. Not after she threw Benny over for Robin Hood, anyhow. The attraction of an older man - roughly 400 years that young whippersnapper's elder - and a British accent was too much for her to resist...

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*Some recent biographers have purposefully mischaracterized Franklin, both historically and intellectually. His family attended the most liberal Puritan church in Boston, Old South Church, home to many rebellious spirits who later led the American Revolution. As a young man, he advocated Deism & throughout his life stated that "the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man." Although even he took some liberties with his autobiographical image, it's inaccurate to rewrite history to fit a religious agenda (I mean, that ain't Right). Franklin, like the majority of Americans today, held that belief in God, virtue & patriotism are inalienable rights for all Americans, Left for each of us to value & express in a "liberty of conscience." Now that's a founding, Father!

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So, are you ready?

It's that time of year again! Yep, time to prepare for the seasonal celebration of death, honor those who have passed away, face our own immortality and dwell on the wonders of the afterlife. As usual, M&K have been planning a party for weeks & have nearly wrapped up their costume designs. (Which, if you know our family, should be easy to predict - as always, they're going as little Mum-mies.) Certainly, an annual, festive excitement pervades the whole country & has even spread across the world. So, please allow me be just one of many who will greet you this week with that dear, recurring chant from our childhoods: 

          "HAPPY HOWARD CARTER-KING TUT'S TOMB DISCOVERY DAY!" (Trick or treat?)
 
Except for a week or two of high school World History -- which was supposed to be a review, but was all new to me -- I could not recall a thing about Ancient Egypt. I'd always heard that this was one of those subjects, like dinosaurs or singing vegetables, that supposedly turned kids onto learning. But, based on my own experience, where teachers generally devoted 3-5 class periods per civilization before moving on to the next millennium, I was in a bit of a panic: How could I possibly fill 4 weeks of homeschool history on such a dull, uninspiring topic?
(Admittedly, a Nile-istic attitude.)

I went with my strength. There was one lesson about Ancient Egypt that I not only memorized as a kid, but - and I add this in all modesty here - that I still remembered perfectly as an adult. So, just like back in the day, I was willing to demonstrate my mastery of this subject matter if necessary & upon request (my own - for I am nothing, if not obliging). And now, thanks to youtube, I even had an accompanist: 


OK then, that got us through the first two days of the month! Our golden girls were delighted to learn the words & practice all those form-idable, op-pose-able palms moves... why, they continuously roamed the halls in head bobbing, stylized sync! [Well, until I told them they could stop. Sure, 72 hours of this is par for the Egyptian course, but homeschoolers tend to pick things up a little faster, so we were able to declare our proficiency after only 48 hours (not counting the snack and government-mandated napping breaks).]

I hesitate to share the next step in our exploration of Egyptology's merits & nuance, but might as well since perhaps it highlights the full extent of my desperation curriculum-creation powers: Again, I turned to youtube - aka, vestige of all that is educational and worthy of attention - & played The Bangles' Walk Like an Egyptian. Thank Ra, the girls much preferred "King Tut." (Can I get an Amen-Ra?)

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Of course, this was all just as I planned it. M&K found my approach extremely motivating. And, the following week, completely took over the direction of our Egyptian studies.

Which meant a play. On words. In 8 scenes. Mikaela was the primary playwright, but they worked collaboratively to come up with ideas for action which "must combine tragic & comic elements" to meet the artistic criteria set by the demanding director (older sister). Mikaela also wrote new lyrics for a musical interlude. Although it was in the same tempo as Steve Martin's, she claimed her song was a much improved version since "It's more factually accurate." They then set about memorizing lines, making costumes & props, and rehearsing for hours. Well, there were several minutes of rehearsal, but add those to the hours of arguing, storming off and refusing to continue under such creative duress and you've got real, honest-to-goodness drama!
 
In addition, Katrianna composed a ballad to be sung by Amenhotep (Katrianna) to honor Cleopatra (isn't she a doll?) as the curtain (baby blanket) fell, a subtle signal to the dense audience (it was SRO - all chairs were taken by Thutmose, the scribes, Osiris, miscellaneous embalming equipment...) to begin shouting rounds of "Bravo!" & "Encore!" All of that happened right after Amenhotep weighed King Tut's heart on the scales of justice to find that "Sure nuff, it's light as a feather!" & we watched as the two buddies played a riveting game of Hungry Hippos in the afterlife waiting room. [For those of you keeping score for fantasy Hungry Hippos, Amenhotep won. Tut-tut! But only after first spotting Tutankhamun a 3 marbles lead, the fair way to proceed after one guy just got his brains pulled out through his nose in scene 7 (by a fancy silver plated 'S' shaped bookmark, a gift to Mikaela which kept slipping off the pages & made a lousy bookmark, but it was an excellent brain hook).]

Then there was a field trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Normally seeing their extensive Egyptian collection would have taken roughly 7 minutes, but on one of our visits (actually, this time it was to play with the Simple Machines exhibit), we happened onto a class of third graders being lectured to by a matronly docent. Etor.jpgKatrianna kept straying over to their group gathered in the corner, huddled around a small cabinet of Egyptian artifact goodies that were brought out one at a time for prompt display once the woman paused to relock the treasury's door & securely deposit its key back into her pocket. Our daughter was mesmerized. She scooted in closer, sidling up between two girls who were paying great attention to smoothing the seams on their crisply pleated, navy blue skirts. Her hand shot up! And there it stayed as the flustered docent droned on. And on. And on. Wow, I thought, could this mean that she really wanted to be in school? Had she been unable to tell me that she yearned for this sort of social interaction? That she was so eager to seek out others whose expertise could teach her more than she was learning at home?


It was humbling, but I reminded myself that this was always her choice to make. However,  she'd managed to move up another row & the chaperones, if they ever noticed, might get unnerved at such a display of insolence. So, I tapped her on the shoulder. And tapped. And tapped some more until she finally acquiesced and disconsolately followed me over to the other side of the museum's basement. "So, you really liked that class, huh? The teacher was pretty interesting, wasn't she?" Clearly frustrated, Katrianna said nothing, so I answered for her. "Yeah, it might be fun to go to school like those kids. And get explanations to all your questions. What was it you wanted to ask her about just now?"  Katrianna stared at me, confirming my suspicions of teacher-mom inadequacy, and then replied, "I wanted to tell her that she was wrong. Khafre's pyramid looks taller, but Khufu's is really. And they're in Giza, not the Valley of the Kings. And after they did that CAT scan thing, no one thinks Tut was murdered anymore!" She sullenly walked over to pedal the stationary bike until its light bulb flickered on....

After we'd officially finished with our Egypt month of studies, we started Christmas vacation. It gave Mom a much needed break from the rigors of academia. And, amid holiday activities, carol singing, present making and Peanut's specials, it gave M&K a much needed chance to finally break into the rigors of academia they'd so desired. (Until then, they'd felt E-gypped.) "OK, Mom, that settles it," pronounced Katrianna, who was flat on the floor examining an 11x17 xerox copy of the Rosetta Stone. Laying her 3" diameter magnifying glass aside for a moment, she declared, "I'm going to have to learn Greek!" Her progression in deciphering hieroglyphs was unacceptably hampered by this linguistic deficiency and how else could she be certain that Jean-François Champollion had correctly translated all 3 scripts? Sure, she could engrave the hieroglyphs & demotic script with confidence onto her handmade model magic RS replica, but that was hardly satisfactory... And, despite the fact that when we went to Europe a year later & she was limited to one carry-on bag for packing all of her belongings, she insisted on taking along that same magnifying glass for the express purpose of using it in the British Museum to verify the Rosetta Stone's authenticity.

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In January, we started back to school & other topics. But, for her New Year's resolution, Katrianna solemnly vowed, "I have to study every day if I want to be an Egyptologist. So that's what I'll do." With that, her Independent Studies began in earnest. On Easter, the Bunny (not without reservations due to his keen sensitivity to irony) delivered the request topping her wish list: The Book of the Dead, replete with be(plastic)jeweled cover & full page, color photos (just like the original). All that year & into the next, she read from her growing repository of meticulously detailed Egypt books, including the Cairo Museum's Collection Guide. Within a week, Katrianna memorized its floor plans & set the daily agenda for our family's impending(?) visit. She also drafted several letters to her hero Zahi Hawass, though they were never mailed because her uncooperative parents refused to finalize our (her) travel itinerary & "C'mon, can't you find a customer in Cairo, Dad?!" After all, how would it look if she sent a resume to the Secretary-General without specifying her dates of availability for meeting with him in person? Not an advantageous way to negotiate her responsibilities & membership on the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is it? But, alas, her best laid pyramid schemes have yet to result in a trip...  

So, no kidding, here's what the kids had to do to satisfy my original syllabus expectations:


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Science
Explain 'What is archaeology?'
Experiment w/moving heavy loads w/'logs' (Lincoln logs) 
Geography
Draw, color & label Egypt map
Math
Use compass to make equiv sides & draw pyramids, cut out, fold & tape
Games: play Totally Tut; learn & play Senet
Mythology & Writing
Read & discuss Egypt's divine kingship chapter in big MYTH book & write summaries, responses or illustrate the following stories: The Wandering Eye; Preparing for Eternity; The Duat; Thoth & Horus' Eye; The Dream of Thutmose (make up Sphinx riddles)
Play Word-within-Egyptian Words game


Art
Make Egyptian mummy mask w/paints & "jewels"
History & Reading
Read pages about Egypt in History of the World (compare DK to B&N); read aloud A Little History of the World Egypt chapter; kids pick out & read a few library books
Identify famous pharaohs: King Tut, Ramses II and... umm, TBD
Hieroglyphs: become familiar with character script, learn to write name
 
And here's what they did to satisfy their own:

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Learn intricacies of mummification process, incl all technical aspects of brain removal & organ preservation; Watch NOVA The Mummy Who Would Be King video about Ramses I mummy found in Canada; Wrap a mummy, then take turn as the mummy to be wrapped; Understand & explain process of carbon dating; Practice archaeology digging & brushing techniques on 'You Dig It' Kit's clay-encased miniature pyramid, sarcophagus, skeleton & amulets (K's bday giftcard choice); Watch Ancient Egypt --kids archaeology video; K continues pursuit of archaeologist career in dirt, sand or snow mounds where she uncovers miscellaneous Mom-buried treasures (ancient, delicate ping pong balls); Watch PBS Newshour's Face of a Pharaoh about reconstructing Tut's face; K develops her own theories to explain the "unsolved mysteries" of various pharaohs' deaths; K researches native & endangered animals of Egpyt w/DK Animal, Safari & Geosafari cards; K makes Shrinky Dink pyramid puzzle (for our Chemistry states of matter unit); Build shaduf w/Tinker Toys & test (before we got it to work, we blithely addressed fellow lab mates as 'Hey, Shadoofus!')

Geography
Study 3 different Nat'l Geo Anc Egypt maps + "Great People of the Past"; Watch Touring Egypt video -- explains ancient & modern sites; Memorize regions where pharaohs are buried, ID on map 

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Math
K draws pyramid blueprints, incl her detailed 'Secret Room' discovery plans; Play Math Pyramid game; Complete Egyptian numbers worksheet + make own probs; Figure volume of our paper pyramids w/Dad; Build various sized step pyramids w/Lego; K makes "fortune teller" with math probs & Egyptian pharaohs' names (spelling practice) on alternating flaps
 
Writing
M&K make up & perform Egypt play
M writes King Tut essay based on bk suggestion
M makes her own 7 pg version of The Egyptian News (part of it covers Elvis -- he's from Memphis)
K writes & types up in most ornate font "Cleopatra & King Tut: A Relationship of Time!" Her fly page promises "- A Dangerous Story! - And a Great One! - And You Will Love to Read It! - And a Love One!" Includes: moment of destiny when Cleopatra's crown is blown off & it is retrieved by "love at first sight" Tut, a palace in Giza, lots of dancing + praising Ra, followed by a wedding, the birth of Nefertiti (their daughter) w/examples of her 1 yo hieroglyphs & 3yo bday celebration, touring Sparta & purchasing a summer home there (in the nice neighborhood, not the one where "Spartans were still busy punching each other"), more action in "dark & creepy" woods, and the perils of repeatedly battling a "man-munching" cobra.


Art

Make amulets, scarab beetle & other symbols w/modeling clay
Make rings + necklaces patterned after Egyptian designs in Fun with Beads: Ancient Egypt kits (found in our Met MoA store at 80% off) 
 
History
K preps & teaches us Egyptology lessons, followed by true "pop" quizzes (administered during meals, while grocery shopping, in car...)
K memorizes ALL of the pharaohs' kingdoms & orders {though she skipped phyla in her classes? - still, a phar-aoh cry from what I'd planned...} Pride forces M to learn most.
Learn about gods & symbols: Ra sun; Horus falcon; Bastet cat; Scarab beetle; Ankh life; Anubis jackal
Hieroglyphs: Learn to write everyone's name; write secret messages/decode; include hieroglyphs in essays, stories & newspaper headlines

Ehier.jpgRelated History

Watch documentary on Egypt's WWII involvement (M was studying WWII in the spring, but K's Egypt vid covered this. K also listens as M describes WWII facts & the novels she reads, so they both throw around WWII terminology and trivia, usually mixed in with Egyptian references and German culture, unaware that most people cannot talk about Cleopatra, Akhenaten, Napoleon and Hitler all in one sentence.)
K rereads Bible stories related to Egypt, ie Moses, pharaoh, plagues, Exodus; Watch The Prince of Egypt animated vid
Learn about pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, Chichen Itza, Mexico
See Night at the Museum in theater (kids' reviews: "Terribly unrealistic" & "Fun!")
 
Reading
Fiction & NF Books: Encyclopedia of Ancient World; Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt; Nat'l Geographic's Egypt (PBS show bk); Royal Diary series' Cleopatra - read book + watch video; Illustrated comic classic Cleopatra; How the Amazon Queen fought the Prince of Egypt; British Museum's Anc Egypt pop-up bk; Great Bk of Archaeology; Mummies, Pyramids & Pharaohs; Pyramids & Mummies; Ms Frizzle's Adventures in Anc Egypt; Tutankhamun's Gift; Hatshepsut; Cleopatra; DK Revealed: Ancient Egypt; The Egyptian News; Egypt in Cross-section; Letters Home from Egypt; The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid (Geronimo Stilton); Look what came from Egypt; Pharaoh's Egypt; The Egypt Game (Newbery award but M dislikes); Everyday Life in Anc Egypt; Inside the tomb of Tut; Akhenaton & Tut: the Religious Revolution; Tut: Mystery of the Boy King; Your Travel Guide to Anc Egypt; Going to War in Anc Egypt; Egyptian Cinderella; Magic Schoolbus Mummies in the Morning; Curse of the Pharaoh; Secrets of the Sphinx; Mystery of the Egyptian Mummy; Egypt diary: Journal of Nakht; Mystery of the 9 Scarabs - games, activities, bkground; variety of modern travel guides
 
And More Books (from K's Egyptology Ind Studies year #2): Ramses II, Egyptology, Book of the Dead, Ency of Anc Egypt, Atlas of Past Times, Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, Chronicle of the Pharaohs, Scieszka's Tut tut, DK Pyramid, ZH's Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King, The World in the Time of Tutankhamun, 100 Things You Should Know about Anc Egypt, Mummies, Mummies Made in Egypt, plus follow news developments for discovery of new tombs, ZH's website, etc  

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Websites & Computer Games
www.ancientegypt.co.uk - hieroglyphs + underworld game; guardians.net/egypt Brit Museum; www.rom.on.ca Canada museum; Aton Ra @ funschool.com; online Senet

Party
Plan Nov 4th Howard Carter anniversary activities (becomes annual event): serve Ancient Egyptian snacks; play Pin the Head on the Sphinx; make up & exchange new Sphinx riddles in the form of anagrams & word ladders; play all Egypt-related board games; K distributes her word find puzzles w/Egypt vocab as party favors


More blog posts about:
Torino Museo Egizio
Dorchester Museum
Vatican Museum
Cleopatra

Hsthil.jpgI was born to teach. I mean, I was born to a teacher. Wait, better make that, I've borne with teachers all my life. Hmmm, that didn't come out quite right either...

Hjer.jpgAs far back as I know, there have been teachers in every generation of my family, often several per generation. Born into the upper classes (8th grade-level equivalency or higher), teaching is our "family business" - we're pre-school apprenticed, fated by an ancient caste-them-into-the-educational-dungeon system, forever destined to a life of demagoguery... oops, sorry, typo there - should've said pedagoguery, of course. So easy to confuse those two, isn't it? But the latter originally comes from the Latin word paedagogus, which means "slave who escorted children to school and generally supervised them." Yep, that's the one I meant.  

Coming from this long line of teachers (and figuring out how, after getting all the wiggles out, to stand still on it with tippy toes tucked together), I see the world through sophist-colored spectacles. Clearly, it has influenced my perspective, encouraged a yearnin' for learnin' and modeled the value -- dare I say the nobility? -- of academic professions. But, I would probably have to conclude that the most invaluable lesson of my upbringing was learning how to live happily on a teacher's salary.

Generally, people don't claim that aspiring to make a teacher salary is setting the bar too high. In fact, they might even go so far as to question the worthiness of one's ambition, if not intellect, for choosing teaching as a vocation. Others opt to express their dismissive disdain by simply quoting that educator-beloved proverb, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." But, as one accustomed to living on a teacher's wages from the perspective of a child, a grandchild, a teenager and an adult, I am also familiar with the possibilities that exist despite the relatively 'prohibitively low salary' - not only the validation that a scholarly life is one worth living, but one that affords huge payback in terms of time off and travel options. (Yes, there's time travel, too, but that's another entry...)
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There was my great grandfather, a world-renowned physicist, who traded in the rights to his many inventions for university tenure & a nicely painted portrait that hangs for perpetuity in a dank & dusty lab hallway somewhere. That seemed patently fair...
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There was my grandmother who, like a Willa Cather heroine, left Nebraska at 17 to attend college in the east and then crisscrossed the country by train for graduate school in California, presiding over a one room schoolhouse back home and teaching Latin at a prestigious boys' prep school in New England. She seemed to have lived everywhere, but always in very small quarters, tiny houses which appeared to have been plucked from miniature Christmas village scenes. Or, there were the photographs of her smiling from the deck of a 15' boat with its sleeping bag-sized cabin, her stay-afloat-home for a two year, now-you-sea-me, now-you-don't, tour of the Atlantic.


Hm.jpgThere was her sister who also became an educator, first in the US and then abroad in Germany and Japan. She taught 3rd graders on American military bases and saw the world on holiday. When she finally reunited with her sisters in Nebraska, well after they had all retired, each returning from whence they came, her shelves were filled with European trinkets, Japanese folk art, textiles and fantastical carvings. When I was little, each December had delightfully arrived with Christmas advent calendars she sent from Germany. Decades later, to her great grandnieces, she delivered in person the materials used long ago in her classrooms: books filled with legends of that just peachy Little One-Inch, LPs of traditional Japanese folk music & classical compositions like Peter and the Wolf, sets of world geography flashcards that served as the girls' first introduction to Cold War-era political borders, and a collection of black & white & yellowing How and Why Wonder-full science books. And, she was the one who always had the same answer any time I expressed doubts as to what we should do for & with our kids: "TRAVEL!"

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Of course, not all of the influential teachers relative to me were required to be my relatives. There was Mr Martin's syrupy sweet, yet unflappable, Jack support of a teaching-traveling lifestyle, one he insisted came full stacked with fringe benefits which over easily offset the occasional, if pressing, prioritizing dilemma created by limited income: Would you like 2 sausages - or - 2 slices of bacon with that?

There was also another of my high school teachers whose roving nature proved instructive. Initially, she checked her restless spirit by taking library science courses on the side. Understandably burnt out on American literature after marking up one-too-many The GraDes of Wrath essays, she was no doubt desirous of making that lucrative, lateral, librarian career path leap (a sure sign she was a Libris?). Hgrps.jpgBut, eventually, bibliotheca thrills could no longer satisfy, as her untamable soul wandered among rows of travel guides and shelved discontentment. Sure, for a while she'd been appeased by a rebellious resistance to systematic Dewey Decimal classification, but that couldn't last forever -- things were stacked against her from the start. So, she took early retirement, bought a little RV & began solo trips, making larger and larger concentric circles until she'd finally escaped Texas' gravitational pull and experienced wait-less-ness.  

Later, there was a fellow English department faculty member, thirty years my senior, who every summer took her mother and rented the same quaint cottage in England. Thanks to a standing agreement with an elderly lady there, they'd upheld the tradition for nearly twenty years. It was easy to imagine my colleague & her mum sipping tea, nibbling scones and chatting with their landlady-turned-bonne amie about the noontime's light drizzle or teasing shows of sunshine... How very proper for one assigned by fate (and the scheduling committee) as a purveyor of British literature! Hcotg.jpgAn arrangement so thoroughly pleasing in its safety and simplicity, she returned each fall refreshed and at peace. Then, on spring breaks, she pursued her other fancy free pastime -- massive archaeology site digs. In her school marm sensible shoes, ankle-length heavy skirts and hair-pinned bun, she was the best disguised Indiana Jones I ever met. Would have given Harrison Ford a run for that crystal skull, too, I bet, if she wasn't so busy writing college recs.

And, like my grand aunt, there were a few college friends who also went the Japan route, most as English language tutors. One couple married just before embarking & thereby received the ultimate parting gift: a combination first job with international experience + a guaranteed, all-expenses-paid, year-long honeymoon an ocean away from the in-laws. Another guy, a journalism majoring single, kept renewing his annual contract because he'd become an overnight karaoke club sensation, playing sax & apparently looking just enough like Sting (requisite stringy blond hairdo) to get steady gigs. At last, vindication for marching band nerds can be found just one continent over!  [Thanks to opportunities available in the wide world of teaching. Actual results may vary.]

Although I'm no longer a paid teacher (not that I haven't tried to unionize, but it's so laborious and strikes me as futile somehow), I still set our family's budget parameters by teacher salary standards. With that comes a practical and well-known comfort level, passes down my inherited values system to our daughters, and is a relatively easy way to ensure that we can continue to homeschool & travel for as long as we'd like. We're far from financially savvy - it just doesn't take much finesse to work out a budget when you adopt a going light, less-is-more philosophy.       

Hb1.jpg"So, how do ya'll do it?" (This is the question we often hear, though the rhetorical subtlety of 'Well, la-di-da!' sometimes suffices.)  Actually, it started when we were settling down & had no travel plans. We married and bought a very modest house, one we could afford based solely on Chris' single income (which just barely exceeded first year teacher earnings at the time) and my graduate school contribution-leeching-liability status, as assessed by the bank's loan officer. Most significantly, the monthly payments were so low that we could still cover them if - irony forewarning here - Chris ever got fired from his job for refusing to travel for work, an often contentious point with a succession of bosses who always threatened to, but never actually did, let him go. Instead of focusing on moving up (in the corporate hierarchy or to a "better" neighborhood), we put time spent together, and then time spent with our kids, ahead of getting ahead. [Plus, it turned out that we loved our little, unpretentious neighborhood, one that included a friendly mix of people and interests, a preponderance of teachers & an active contingent of watchful retirees. It's the closest one could come to living in small town, Nebraska, in a city containing 5 million people: a forgotten, six-street, "No Outlet" corner of a sprawling, post-WWII tract housing subdivision. On summer evenings, husbands met on sidewalks for rousing games of washers, wives exchanged cuttings from flower gardens, and kids ran about displaying their most impressive collections of crawdads & Texas toads, extricated from blue jeans' pockets mercifully still alive and not croaking.]  

We didn't invest a lot in social standing and, likewise, we've always chosen a fairly low-key lifestyle in other ways: We drive one 10 year old car, never had cable tv, belong to only one country club (the whole country's club - we're proud, card-carrying National Parks' Pass members), don't own a boat or ATVs or jet skis, do not indulge in drinking, smoking or other egregious & costly personal habits (golfing), own few appliances & tech gadgets, don't pay private school tuition fees or purchase pre-packaged curriculum kits & courses, stopped buying furniture when our house was furnished, and don't have season tickets to sporting events, the theater, the ballet or the WWF. When we had kids, and again when the kids convinced us to become vegetarians, we also cut back on eating out and began cooking most meals at home. And, once we went to Europe and realized we could get by with carry-on-bag-sized wardrobes, we reevaluated there, too, simplifying our - and the washing machine's - clothing loads thereafter. Through it all, we discovered that remarkable inverse relationship: the more "stuff" you have, the less you can do. Fewer things = less maintenance, less cleaning, less dusting, less washing, less insurance and way less worry.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating asceticism or living too far below one's means for effect (or 'for affect'), but what we value often does not correlate to $$ spent. We're not Zen, we're just not extravagant. Plus, it frees up a lot of energy and resources that can be put toward what we do desire: globeschooling.
 
We are lucky that Chris' business allows him, to a large extent, to set his own schedule and have flexibility in where he works. We're also lucky we can homeschool. However, both of these were decisions we made with consequences to risk if it didn't go well and pressures that are still there even when it does. HDwM.jpgIt also took us more than a decade to find a successful way to work & be together, including one year when Chris got fed up with the corporate world and joined me as a high school geometry teacher, and another, Mikaela's first, when I worked and he stayed home with our baby and his entrepreneurial dreams (voluntarily reducing us to a one-teacher-income household again). Amazingly enough, he couldn't get his start-up business going between diaper changes, two-hour-long power lunches of mashed bananas and our infant's insistence on pulling all nighters every nighter. So, we switched. Chris returned to the corporate life, waiting to try again another 4 years later. 

The "jump" into globeschooling was equally daunting. Especially when it seemed that anyone doing something similar recommended a $150,000 per year minimum budget and/or had just purchased a 43' yacht - with more rooms & amenities than our house - to sail around the world in precisely 365 days. But, the idea that travel is only for the rich or privileged few is an antiquated notion (ok, maybe it was true in Antiquity, but Saint Augustine - who said "The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page" - and Harley Davidson - who spoke in slightly less mufflered tones - changed all that). Yet, it's still a myth perpetuated by some in the travel industry & most of the rest of us, too: it's elusive, not for regular folks, esoteric, ethereal. Or, it's dicey, scary, dangerous, you'll definitely get lost. Certainly, you'll need a lot of help. And a chaperone. A translator. A valet. And an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you really think about it hard enough, surely you can find at least one valid reason NOT to go....

But, with Do-It-Yourself itinerary planning, you can not only get there more cheaply, you're almost guaranteed an infinitely richer experience because you thought about it, researched it, looked forward to it and invested the time - not necessarily the money or tour package "incidental costs" - to appreciate what you're gazing upon. Eventually, we figured out, there are hundreds of ways to Go West, Young Globeschoolers!  And east, north and south, too. We just had to begin by finding one that didn't make us too uncomfortable or stressed out & start there. After that, it got much easier.

Hcgrnd.jpgSurprisingly, it was at William Randolph Hearst's 'La Cuesta Encantada' that we found the culmination & confirmation of our family's guiding philosophy 'Tis better to be independently minded than independently wealthy. The in-house movie "Building the Dream" detailed the passion & impetus for Hearst's constructing a 'Castle on the Hill.' And why? Because his mom took lil' William sightseeing in Europe when he was ten years old. So taken was he with the experience that, when he inherited his father's magnate status, he told architect Julia Morgan, "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something..." That meant the Enchanted Hill: 165 rooms & 127 acres of manicured gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. Plus thousands of imported artifacts, tapestries, furnishings, fireplaces and even a complete, reassembled 15th century ceiling harvested from a Spanish  convent to grace the billiards room. All in order to fulfill his fantasy of replicating medieval feudal society right there in 1920s San Simeon, California... or Palatine Bust? Now, our own kids weren't moved to do the same when they got back home from their European vacation (although we did offer them two tubs full of Legos if they wanted to give it a try), but it did make us realize that...

Just like Hearst, we tripped around Europe, if not in the same grand style (in our case, it was great grandma's style), it was nearly the same in substance. No, we did not enjoy the voyage o'er the pond like William -- from first class cabins on a luxury cruise ship that sped to the Old World in three weeks. Instead, we found a discounted flight in coach which got us there in nine & a half hours (mere seconds behind those in business class, btw). No, we didn't leave good ol' dad behind to tend the store (and gold, silver, lead & quartz mines, as well as fret over the hopelessly unprofitable San Francisco Examiner money pit), but went all together to ensure that Chris got as little work done as possible. And, no, we weren't able to devote a year and a half to our journey, but we still saw 90% of what Hearst saw during our time there. Only without staying in a swanky villa the night before, hobnobbing with our entourage, heeding propriety's sake, arriving in a timely manner appropriate to our station & getting mention in the society pages (inexplicable, really, since I diligently sent out press releases) and without a chauffeur (well, 3 of us had a chauffeur. Went by the name of "Mom." And drove the pumpkin-converted-minivan 30,000 km in 3+ months.) Yet, sights are the same no matter who's looking at them. In fact, sometimes because we had a short kid with us, we actually were allowed to move up 'to the front row' for the primo view. And, if you get up early enough, you can feel just like a débutante & enjoy having even the most famous places all to yourselves. (Ok, that's not true - débutantes sleep in.)
  


We don't want to build our own castles in the air. Just visit them on occasion. [Well, in the interest of full disclosure, Mikaela did suffer a temporary bout of mansion-envy, cured only by seeing the gargantuan things up close. They lacked the warmth and charm with which her active imagination had lavishly furnished them, visions instantly dispelled by grand foyers filled with hunting trophies: glass-beady eyes peering down from decapitated heads onto a less than receptive Mikaela. Now her make-me-green wish is not livin' large, but livin' off the grid, the goal being cozy & extremely efficient square footage.] M&K do appreciate the magnificence of what they see, but it is tempered with the reality of what they know, such as: Marie Antoinette, the girl who grew up in Schönbrunn Palace, eventually lost her head in Versailles; Catherine de' Médici & Diane de Poitiers, who fought viciously over the questionable figure Henry II cut in his knobby-kneed tights, were left with only Château de Chenonceau's beautiful gardens to haggle over for their troubles; painter Vincent Van Gogh took as his subjects those lovely irises & olive groves primarily because they were located just outside the doorway of his sanatorium; and, Jack London's dream home mysteriously burned down upon its completion, leaving him to write & pass his two remaining years in the small shack's sleeping porch where he first started out at 'Beauty Ranch' ...

When I was growing up, we didn't travel much and I never watched Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous. If you didn't want to be rich or famous, what was the point? But, maybe there was one, one that fits in with our belief system, after all. What Hearst's example revealed is that you can see & learn as much as "the elite," but perhaps more because their own lives also serve as examples to illustrate greatness' foibles, follies & flaws. In a moment much too clichéd to invent, we were talking with an elderly woman at the gas station in nearby Cambria after our tour. Hindr.jpgHer auburn hair faded to gray, she was wistfully reminiscing about pony rides she & the other servants' children had been allowed to take when she was a little girl. She told us about his exotic zoo animals & all the fine folks who came to visit... However, as we were saying goodbye, she felt compelled to add, "But we all hated Mr. Hearst. No one around here could stand the old man!" Too often, the most transparently obvious lesson is that money and material things are transitory and do not make people content anyway. Ironically, being witness to this simply reinforces an idealism of resisting the allure & false promise inherent in equating materialism with happiness. Overall, it was an excellent way to satisfactorily answer any lingering questions the girls might have had on our Home(school) Economics Final Exam.

Which finally leads me back to an alternative take on that teaching career postulate:   

Those who can, do teach. Those who can't teach, whatever do they do?

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We met Ben & his mom in a queue forming at the entrance to the Vatican Museums in the wee hours of dawn. Luckily, we'd arrived so early that we were the 1,032 - 1,035 people in line. (Ben & his mom had the enviable 1,030st  and 1,031st spots.) With nothing better to do (Ben was reading Harry Potter), Vbn.jpgthese fine folks from Australia finally broke under our incessantly friendly banter. We discovered common ground by discussing shared concerns: the difficulties in working for a big company versus starting your own business, educational desires for our children and Barack or Hillary? Once everyone else in line heard that, they all moved in a little closer, encircling us, wanting to weigh in on the strengths of their favored candidate & ask for our -- as their American representatives -- votes. (McCain was never mentioned. But, to be fair, he hadn't named Sarah Palin as his VP yet...?)

Slowly (not that it seemed there was any hurry since the doors didn't officially open for two more hours and we wouldn't actually get inside for another three), Mikaela and an initially very shy Ben struck up a conversation about great world literature, uncovering that they'd both read every Just William cover and also very much liked Little Men (understandably, Ben refused to confirm that he'd either read or enjoyed Little Women). When he mumbled an explanation that nothing but a 27-hour flight from Sydney could have induced him to start the Harry Potter series, Mikaela immediately forgave him - as he had her, upon learning she'd not yet graduated from catechism classes & received first communion as he'd done just before taking this trip.  

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The clique had been cast... lacking a Rubicon, we crossed ourselves and then the threshold of the Vatican's hallowed halls together, mutually agreeing that continuing to share this experience would be fun. We were all a little giddy, though that might simply have been the exhilarating rush of taking 5 or 6 unimpeded, speedy steps at a time...

Now "Mikaela's little sister" was there, as well, but up to that point Katrianna had not been getting her usual amount of attention. She was also at that age when grabbing the hand of anyone you liked was instinctual. It was her way of being amie-rous, nothing more. And Ben here was her new friend. But Ben was a much older man. "Ten and a half, to be exact." He was mature. He had a rep to think of...


However, Ben was also a gentleman. So he spent most of his time trying to figure out how to subtly disengage his hand without offending the young lady. Judging by his ever reddening face and perspiring brow, the anguish & anxiety it caused him were excruciating.

Vbn2.jpgWhat made it worse was that Katrianna was a very distractible partner-in-arms. She'd regularly release her iron grip to bound off and get a better look at displays, like gleaming, gilded cases filled with relics or the collections of those intriguing, instructive instruments about which she was so Inquisitive (she admired others' vises, too). At other times, she'd let go in order to wave her own hand with a flourish in the direction of a particular Egyptian artifact to which she wished to command his attention. As she lectured on its merits and historical relevance, he ever so subtly wiped his palm with great vigor against the back of his pants. About two to three dozen swipes and he was awash with relief.

But, just as he was lowering his hand from the job of drying the condensation built-up inside his glasses' lenses - it must have been very humid that day inside the climate-controlled Vatican - she'd seize upon it again. Then gaze up at him adoringly, likely noticing the tears welling in his eyes but no doubt attributing it to his being overcome by the awe of her expertly performed docent duties. Accordingly, she said nothing. And instead sympathetically squeezed his hand a little tighter.

VCMK.jpgIt wasn't until ¾ of the way through our four hour, self-[Katrianna]-guided tour that we learned that Ben had been sick the day before. What a relief that they'd still managed to get to the Sistine Chapel after a night like that! I understood perfectly: it was especially worrisome when a child felt poorly far from the comforts of home, not to mention the disruption it created in a family vacation abroad where every precious moment counted (at an exchange rate of 2.65:1).

For our final stop, we were pressed to squeeze a time-sensitive and CO2-abundant religious experience out of the Sistine Chapel, where we rubbed elbows & just about everything else with those other 1,029 people who'd preceded us in line, as well as the roughly 8,965 who'd come later. Apparently, when I wasn't paying attention in that queue, everyone had agreed to convene there - in this 134' x 44' chapel space, about a third of which was roped off for restoration - all at once.

A captive audience! Mikaela took back the tour guide reigns, explaining Michelangelo's political misgivings with Pope Julius II and the rushed, noticeably less intricate & stylistically inferior sections of the of the ceiling that resulted. And, thanks more to the extremely detailed DK Italy guidebook than our own homeschooling studies, she told stories about the scenes and identified the various artists of each lower panel painting. When it came time to escape, I mean depart, Ben & his mom were part of the elect, I mean they elected, to skip St Peter's Basilica. Our day & dilettantes had gone on unexpectedly long and they were supposed to meet Ben's dad, VSPB.jpgall rested up from his alternate activity choice [nap], several hours ago... What a Pietà, not that I'm one to make Assumptions.

We made it to Pompeii the next day, but the morning after that Katrianna woke up with a stomach ache. Plans to see any more of southern Italy were thrown up out the window. We picked the shortest and supposedly fastest route home (our temporary quarters in France) - straight through the Alps. Certainly it was disappointing, but perhaps there was a silver mountain lining. I'd read descriptions of it before in Italian Baedekers and, sure enough, the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo was very pretty, at its height with fall color and ear-popping altitude.  

And, yet, Katrianna was more and more unappreciative of all it had to offer with each and every of its hairpin turns. Too far along to turn back & nowhere to go but onward through the mountainous terrain, I vacillated between proceeding at a get-there-fast clip and, once a  succession of stomach turns drove home the necessity, a painstakingly slow 15 km, g-force-reducing rate. At moments, I would not have been surprised had I looked up to see Hannibal and his elephants not only passing us by, but also having a more enjoyable trip.

Of the many renowned drives we took throughout Europe, the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo was truly the most scenic Rout of them all.
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When Mikaela was 5, we ran out of fairy tales.

Of course, I turned to Edith Hamilton. Yes, that Edith Hamilton and her 1942 classic Mythology.The very same book that nearly made me abandon English class completely and swear off literature forever in the 7th grade. EHamiltn.jpgThe very same book that, as a first year instructor without any "cred" to choose the curriculum, I found myself having to teach to ninth graders. (No way around it, the department chair insisted, plus it was the year's required first unit - couldn't have some of the 9th graders doing different things, could we? No, that would be utterly unthinkable, I agreed silently.) Reluctantly, I searched for my old, battered edition with its drab, mostly missing, black & white cover, in disbelief that I was put in a position to try to present this deadly-dull stuff to others. But, once I confessed these very feelings to my students, all of us unwillingly embarked on our Greek mythology misadventure together. Probably because of this shared sense of dread and the "freshman naïveté" of both students and their 23-year-old teacher, we had a fantastic time, employed any and every creative approach to get through the material and learned more Greek & Roman mythology than even good ol' Edith could bunker.  (And that's no Bullfinch's.)
 
D'Aul.jpgYears later, I again pulled out Hamilton's Mythology, this time its cherished remnant of a cover barely hanging on, askew from its binding despite numerous applications of scotch tape. Little colored post-it notes were peeking out from between the pages now, tempting my daughters with all the hidden intrigue and secrets they suggested. We began with my favorite stories, sometimes reading the text verbatim, but mostly picking out only a descriptive line or two and then breaking off into old-fashioned storytelling mode. We also supplemented with the children's classic D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, geared for kids so Mikaela could read it aloud to her sister, but the girls preferred Edith's detail-oriented prose interspersed with my elaborations. Soon, they knew the stories as well as my high schoolers and thought it was super fun to take the "so easy" quizzes they found folded up in the back of the book.

But, after a while, we ran out of those fairy tales, too. Luckily, it just so happened that we were studying ancient Greece anyway -  my subtle segueway to get the kids primed for watching the 2004 summer Olympics (a very educational experience to be had while sitting on a couch eating potato chips, btw).

So, I turned to Homer. After all, he was Greek to me. Why not share?

For about 20 minutes each morning, we started the day with a book from The Odyssey, taking turns reading significant passages aloud and learning new terms like epic simile, extended metaphor or "gray-eyed Athena" epithet (that last one sidetracked us for a full day, suspending all other activity, so M&K could dwell on making up fitting nicknames for various stuffed animals, playmates and relatives). RFitzODy.jpgWe used Robert Fitzgerald's translation, the version college profs liked when I was a t.a. & that I then taught to those Greek-lovin' 9th graders. For, despite my unorthodox practices to make literature accessible & engaging, I'm not a big fan of retellings which lose the writer's voice or "dumb down" the story. "Big words" do not have to belong to adults-only - as the experts say, young kids can soak up language more easily than at any other age, so why deny them the joy of knowing those 25 cent words (that mean the same thing as the ones they already know - so there is some context - but the new, fancy lingo provides entertainment because it "sounds funny" rolling off the tongue... and, bonus, these words, now memorable because they were learned in small doses, will then be all-too familiar when they show up again on that all-important SAT). Admittedly, it's a strange combo - I'm somewhat of a purist as far as text goes & retaining the beauty of an author's poetry, but, once we've paid homage to the language, I have no problem digressing from there, freely taking poetic license & following things out to their illogical conclusions... My focus this time around was simply to expose the girls to The Odyssey as an exciting story, the way it was originally meant to be sung (no, c'mon, I didn't really do that to them - the way it was meant to be told, I should say), before it became nothing more than a dry topic for a Humanities essay or was reduced to a cram session for some loathed final exam. And, besides that, there was just a certain something about our Homer boy's bardy humor that inspired us to go 3-D with our homeschoolese aMusements...
 
htl.jpgOur Homeric tale began where all great sagas do - in a plastic hotel. Inexplicably, someone had thought (and this was well before our "globeschooling" began) that it was the perfect present for our girls - Barbie and Ken meet the Radisson? For a long time, we did not properly appreciate the pleasingly pink - with aquamarine décor highlights - toy or its inherently transcendent & imaginative qualities. Until at last we realized, by Zeus, this playset was just the thing to stage our production of The Odyssey
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In Homer's version, Athena cleverly crafts a bronzed-tan Odysseus to better secure Princess Nausicaa's favor. Similarly, in our version, Odysseus is played by a perfectly sculpted, god-like 'Ken' knockoff, with the words "Made in China" imprinted on the back of his head. Close enough, right? In Greek, I've been told, that phrase translates to lead-in [Pb] man (though I wouldn't want to be tested on it). His son, Telemachus, was the hotel's nondescript and very stiff - a suitably immovable action figure - bellboy, who doubled as the elevator operator in the one nifty feature of this wonderful motel de résistance (somehow it included an ingenious crank & pulley elevator system, excellently illustrating that scientific principle for our Simple Machines study). Of course, it wasn't long before we began Trojan horsing around. Odysseus had to trick Troy into letting him enter their fortified Lincoln Log walls, did he not? Yet, the hotel did not come with a horse - after all, it was no New England bed and breakfast. Alas, the playtime must go on so we improvised. Oh, what would the "wily Odysseus" do in this situation? WileE.jpg(Aside: we watched several Wile E. Coyote cartoons to reinforce that vocab word - or actually, in the case of the coyote - and, an often shockingly obtuse Odysseus  - the antithesis of the word.) Why, isn't it obvious? He spied Mr. Potato Head! Surely you've noticed that discreet trap door on the potato gentleman's posterior, where all of the spudly accessories belong (but are never properly stored since they most often are used to provide invaluable traction on the playroom floor instead). MPH.jpgInto the hatch went the Greek soldier-sailors (aka, NASA playset astronauts - isn't it remarkable how the connections abound since that's a Greek word, thus indisputably, authentically Homeric?). Later, in a pinch, Mr. Potato Head had to step up again, for he was the understudy in a second minor role, that of Cyclops. The Playskool makers had mistakenly left out a single myopic eye when they boxed ours up, but we made do with a Halloween eyeball eraser secured with some Tacky glue (fyi, I see no correlation there). Odysseus then speared Polyphemus' eye with a handy pick-up stick, rendering the giant's gangly, permanently outstretched white-gloved arms ineffectual in snagging any more of the manly morsels strapped beneath the escaping sheep (combined herds from our Noah's Ark and Old MacDonald's Farm).

Oh, please, will this duality never cease? No. But to summarize: The effect of Circe's magical powers, which subtly revealed the inner nature of Odyssey's men, was portrayed by our family's cute & cuddly male chauvinist pet pig, the mechanized walking & snorting "Oinky" (another thoughtful? gift). prtshp.jpgThe sirens were represented by the motel's complimentary bikini-clad young lady with her alluring Madonna-esque tunes (I ask, who wouldn't want to crash into some rocks after listening to that? OK, I hear ya - going back to minding my own beeswax). For Charybdis, we first tried constructing a "tornado in a bottle," which, like so many of our science experiments, turned out to be a disappointing failure. So, we reconciled ourselves with the dramatic realism afforded by watching Odysseus in his (Captain Feathersword pirate) ship swirling around our bathtub drain. Argos was our very own panting dog, complete with feebly wagging tail, waiting patiently on the patio until we could tear ourselves away from the non-stop action to let him back indoors. onk.jpgAnd, finally, after twenty agonizing years (condensed into 3 weeks) of this off-oh-so-off Broadway production, the Kenly Odysseus returned to his hotel and identified the tree (well, sort of a neon green, ferny, Triassic period tree) that grew right through the lobby so he could be recognized by the ever faithful Penelope - duh, Barbie. For months afterwards, M&K referred to all of these assorted toys and dolls by their Greek-given names, effortlessly reinforcing the events and our lessons from Homer's Odyssey. Sadly, they eventually learned to put away such childish things as "ancient history" (unlike their mom, who kept busy figurine out ways to exhume them for the occasional Iliad-conceived revival).

When we'd nearly finished our little odyssey, Mikaela let slip what we'd been doing to another homeschooling mom. "Ah ha," she accused, "I knew you followed The Well-Trained Mind!" I had no idea what she was talking about. She didn't really believe me, but proceeded to inform us that I was obviously following a very particular kind of "Classical Education." The truth was that I was blissfully & quite intentionally ignorant of homeschool teaching methodology or factions. Moreover, I had no plans to change my approach - we were already too busy trying to cover all of the topics Mikaela had thought up once we'd decided to homeschool & I'd unwittingly asked her, "So, whaddya want to learn this year?" However, within days, I found myself at the library reviewing the gigantic tome of classical education, at first impressed by its weighty reading list - indeed, it did include The Odyssey (though not for kindergarteners) -  if not the sheer "heaviness" of its 764 pages of content suggestions.

WTMd.jpgYet, based on my cursory review, it seemed the primary exercise for children's history lessons was showing mastery of a subject by outlining chapters. Parents could feel assured that following this rigid format would instill discipline, plus provide superior college preparation to boot. I have no doubt it succeeds at both, but my overriding impression was "You choose to homeschool your kid so you can do this?" Displaying the kind of hubris which only emerges when one feels fully threatened & insecure, I made Chris listen as I droned on about the mind-numbing potential of chapter outlining for the rest of that evening. Three or perhaps four hours later, Chris had finally achieved deep REM sleep and I was wide awake, once again absolutely confident that I was right to summarily dismiss this approach....

The next morning, I sat Mikaela down in her little school chair at her little school table, which was laid out with clean, lined paper, sharpened pencils at the ready. I made her read a few pages of a children's typical history text. I demonstrated how to outline the first paragraph. Then I told her to outline the next two. No pressure. Just to prove she could. Pshew, she could. I then promised her that she would never, ever have to do that again. Our sole attempt at "classical education" was exhausting.* That's so Classical.

Meanwhile, back at playgroup, when an unrestrained Mikaela explained a bit more about the specifics of our Homeric similes (ie, personification by Ken & Barbie), a different mom felt obligated to let me in on yet another sacred educational theory. "Oh, I NEVER allow my daughter to play with plastic things. Not good for the tactile sensory functions, you know? Waldorf encourages all-natural toys - like from nature, you know?" No, I didn't know. Oh, the shame and embarrassment. Sensing my distress, she empathized, "Honestly, I just threw out our plastic toys a couple of months ago. Replaced them with only natural toys, so we can reconnect with nature - like our seashell collection. I got a whole bag of 'em on sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond!" rexpuppet2.JPGImmediately, I realized what a fool I'd been... if only we'd told the Odyssey using mollusks, river rocks & twigs, imagine the superior learning & retention possibilities. A lost cause, I didn't dare tell her that I'd already planned our next storytime - Beowulf - based solely on the fact that we'd recently acquired "Rex," a tyrannosaurus puppet that came with a fast food kids' meal to promote Toy Story 2. Turned out, he served very nicely as the terrorizing dragon. 


*Despite my protestations, our reading selections probably do align most closely with those considered 'Classical Education' or, at least, "the classics." But, our approach to learning from & experiencing the material resists formality or static categorization. Like many homeschoolers, we take the "easy out" and, if forced, define ourselves as 'eclectic homeschoolers,' picking & choosing from a variety of styles (most often, our own).
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"Ummm... excuse me, but could you tell me where Isaac Newton's clapping hallway is?"

Katrianna stood on tiptoe to peer into the ticket booth at Trinity College's Great Gate.

"His what?"

Katrianna tried again. More than anything else at Cambridge, she wanted to see the hall where Newton tested his speed of sound hypothesis by clapping his hands and listening for the echo. Earlier that day, when driving to the university, our family voted on which college to visit based on limited time & expense. Katrianna convinced the rest of us that Trinity's Isaac Newton trumped all other notorious cards who'd attended our second choice, nearby King's College (we could save face(s) for another trip).   

She dejectedly walked back through the heavy wooden doors to report, "He said Newton didn't do the clapping experiment. It's just another tourist trap!"



1clppingnewt.jpgImpossible! Could Rick Steves be wrong? All four of us simultaneously looked up to check the sky - nope, still intact. Katrianna pulled out her well-worn pocket travel log and made a tally mark - "That's #42, Mom."

Alas, once again, we would have to hold our applause. We consoled ourselves on the outside of Trinity's ivory towers (which looked a lot like exterior brick walls) by taking a photo of Newton's dorm window which faced the street and looked down upon a small apple tree.
 
"If I may, do you know who is up there above the gate?" asked a man who suddenly stood beside us, apparently taking it upon himself to point us in the right direction. (Verily, it was the same gentleman whose truth telling had taken its toll on Katrianna minutes before.)

Mikaela giggled self-consciously and Katrianna held her breath. "Ah ha," he thought, "I've got them!" But just as he was about to explain, Mikaela realized that his was not a rhetorical question and exclaimed, "Sure, doesn't everybody? That's Henry the Eighth!"

"And he had six wives!" jumped in Katrianna, who was busily leaping from cobblestone to cobblestone in a game of imaginary hopscotch.

The gatekeeper looked up to Henry and then back down at the girls with a quizzical expression. 

"Your turn?" Katrianna asked. Mikaela gave the nod. They took their positions - face to face, two feet apart. Mikaela cleared her throat. Katrianna attentively bounced in place. Their Henry VIII call and response commenced:

"Catherine of Aragon --"           "Divorced!"
"Anne Boleyn --"                       "Beheaded!"
"Jane Seymour -- "                   "Died of her own accord!"
"Anne of Cleves -- "                  "Divorced!"
"Catherine Howard -- "             "Beheaded!"
"Catherine Parr -- "                  "Survived!"

"Crikey, that's more than most English schoolchildren know!" He scratched his thinning silver crown and reconsidered, "I've been working here for over 30 years - that's more than most people at Cambridge know!"

He told us about the students' annual prank of stealing Henry's scepter and replacing it with either a chair leg or a broom handle. Indicating the globe held in the king's left hand, he next queried, "Do you know what an orb is?"

SonAvjest.jpgEvidently, unbeknownst to him, this was a multiple choice question, for Katrianna started, "O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb..." And Mikaela finished, "Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere."

The poor fellow hadn't realized his miss fortune. M&K had spent months reciting that "orb" line from Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene and Mikaela had grown especially fond of the Twelfth Night quote after seeing it engraved on a statue of Shakespeare's jester in Stratford-upon-Avon. From then on, she seemed to find it applicable to any and all situations in Europe, even without such fortuitous prompting.

Additionally, M&K ran through their sing song rendition of Henry's greatest hits (on his wives) on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis  - it was part of their top 40 repertoire at the time. Besides DK or Michelin travel guides, we'd brought along only 4 books for this entire European trip (we'd agreed to "go light" & the limit was one book per carry on bag). KQBrit.jpgThe kids had never experienced such a dearth of literature and so had devoted themselves to memorizing the minutiae of The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Kings & Queens of Britain. (By chance, we'd found it on Border's 60% off clearance shelf just before our trip and, unlike the Don't Know Much about the Kings and Queens of England series or similar children's books that were considered "age appropriate," M&K were fascinated by its 250+ pages of stories and argued over whose turn it was to reread the best parts aloud as we drove around Great Britain.)    
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[As far as learning English history for the even younger set, we liked an 1897 edition of Short Stories from English History by Albert F Blaisdell, a book passed down to us from Grandma's collection.]

Luckily, our self-appointed phantom of the tollbooth discerned (or forgave?) the jovial spirit of the girls' copious (or would that be quote-idian?) exuberance and graciously suggested, "Jolly good, now why don't you take a tour? You do have time to look around?"
 
It was getting late and most of the colleges were closing to visitors soon. "Well," I answered, "we just have this afternoon... And we'd hoped to see Newton's hall, but now that we learned the truth about that - thank you, by the way - we're pretty happy to see his tree here..."

newttree.jpgHis eyebrows went up (proof he adhered to a naturally principled philosophiæ). I calculated (though it seemed an infinitesimal differential), "Or a descendant of his tree?" He nodded, the gravity of the situation sinking in.

"We're thinking we'll go ahead to King's College." I'd unwittingly touched a nerve.

"King's College? Why there's so much to see right here! Come with me!" Immediately, he waved his arm and the gates to higher learning open sesamed.

GCt.jpgWe entered Trinity's vast courtyard together, but soon after our spontaneous guide noticed a bevy of VIPs congregating at the entrance. He quickly imparted instructions for us to stand in a very particular spot and he'd return for our answer to "What is significant here?" No doubt pleased by our puzzlement, he cried as he sped away (in much the same fashion as Alice's rabbit hurrying off for his very important date), "It's to do with the clock! Go, watch the clock!"

So, we compliantly bided our time in front of King Edward's Tower, taking care to steal only furtive glances at this side of Newton's paradise, aka an inside job view of Sir Isaac's dorm room. But our satisfaction was short-lived as we realized, in watchful ignorance, that we had no idea what he was talking about.

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Was there a ghost of a chance that Hamlet's father was still lurking about up there? No, that was not to be, I was quite off the Den mark - he'd be over at King's College. Ah ha, the clock struck the hour! Surely now we'd learn for whom the bell tolls. From their tower roosts, disturbed doves fluttered about cooing secret messages to us, but regrettably their pidgin English was merely indecipherable squab(ble)s... Then, from the adjacent college, another tower's clock chimed out of sync - was that it, were we caught up in the chronic[ker] showmanship of rival superiority? Or, a once-in-a-sentry breach in the time peace? Whatever was the Greenwich meaning of this? I admit, I was getting ticked.

"Having a good time, all tickety-boo?" Our seer, mortarly bored of regents perhaps, had enthusiastically returned to us at last! However, his new hints were to no avail and finally he just told us that this was the clock featured in Chariots of Fire - the "stopwatch" timing Lord Burghley's famous run about the perimeter of the Great Court during its 12 noontime strikes. We never would have recalled that detail on our own, mostly due to the fact that the girls had not seen the movie and their parents had watched it in 1981. He'd done it! We were speechless. He then took pity on us and revealed that the scene's filming had actually taken place at Eaton College, not Cambridge, and that the Harold Abrahams character is erroneously portrayed as fleet footing it when historically Lord Burghley was the only runner to successfully beat the clock (yet not in 1919, preceding the '24 Olympics, but in 1927).

3cmbg.jpgHe escorted us to the chapel, lingered over a few more questions and then allowed us to tour the rest of the grounds on our own. It felt as though we had the place all to ourselves (well, with the exception of the omnipresence of our ol' pal, Newt, Sir Francis Bacon, Ernest Rutherford, Charles Babbage, Niels Bohr, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, A.A. "Pooh" Milne & William Makepeace Thackeray) and we were suitably charmed by its vanity fair. When we met up again with our host, he had one final question for Mikaela: "So, do you think you'd like to study here at Cambridge?"

Wishing not to offend him, a wise Mikaela summoned all of her tact, saw fit to spare him of her "homecolleging" plans and simply reverted to a schoolgirl giggle by way of response. "Indeed," he proffered, "we should have given you a degree already!"

Mthbrdg.jpgThe rest of our gloaming Cambridge evening was filled strolling along the River Cam like typical tourists and unintentionally finding ourselves trespassing through college yards and campus grounds (to which we were politely told by the guards to go back the way we came, essentially permitting us to freely explore many of the colleges' "backyards" and hangout spots at our leisure). There were more repeatedly surprising and remarkable conversations, as well: the first was struck up by a friendly biology professor & her teaching assistant; later, graduate exchange students wanted to compare impressions of England's attractions (and dwell on the weather's detractions); and finally, the local grocery store's chatty & inquisitive checkers were keen to hear all about our "brilliant" adventures throughout Britain, although they were incredulous that "there was anything interesting to do here in Cambridge?"RNCh.jpg



At the end of the day, it was clear to us that America's Southern hospitality and manners have some serious competition from the Brits' warmth and easygoing gentility. Not only that, but despite Mikaela's uni-lateral acceptance deferral, I readily consider this the kids' first college scholarship offer (at least in terms of its third degree potential?). Of course, it seems a mite presumptuous, but after all we obviously have very powerful connections with those in charge of Cambridge U's highly selective admissions process.

[Editorial note: We know, it's Oxford with the Rhodes Scholars program, but Cambridge has the Golden (Bill) Gates.]

C-s-M.jpgFor most of my student years, I was not fond of history. Too many teachers had focused solely on dates & famous leaders and, in even the most challenging classes, tests were mere measures of meticulous memorization. The 'story' in history was lost, taken over by war generals, names of battles and what I suspected were some teachers' overwrought compensations for their own frustrated machismo. Even in college, I was bothered to find that friends, who seemed quite nice otherwise, were in fact history majors - what sort of deep seated psychological issues were they hiding? Who wanted to spend all their time delving into the gory details of madmen, power trips and world destruction

Omaha.jpgWell, I'd eventually discover, my kids did. But, tyranny was only a minor part of their enthusiastic attraction to history, so they ended up - in ways much more persuasive than any teacher I'd ever had - taking me in and showing me the excitement that could be had by studying history. In a way, their tabula rasa innocence allowed them to accept the past 'as is' and skip the moral judgments which made me categorize things as 'good' or dismiss them as 'bad.' More effectively than Shakespeare, they put the play-fulness into historical drama, bringing individuals' personalities, the fascinating interplay of flaws & virtues, back into the stories. Of course, we also end up learning "the lessons" - both academic and ethical - intrinsic to the events, but without our primary concern being the weapons used or detailed listings of physical wounds inflicted (and without the requirement to demonstrate ultimate subject mastery in the form of a unit chapter test).

Omahasea.jpgWhen Mikaela wanted to learn about WWII in fourth grade, I initially practiced my usual evasive maneuvers & put it off, hoping she'd forget about it until she was "old enough to handle it." I'd taken a college course on Holocaust literature that was thought provoking, mostly depressing, yet sometimes uplifting, and I solemnly looked forward to the time - when she was in high school, maybe - that I would be able to share those books with her - Night, Schindler's List, Survival in Auschwitz, Judgment at Nuremberg, What's to Become of the Boy? But, there was no way I felt she was ready for that now... or seeing war footage...  or watching the compelling but brutal movies that even overwhelm adults... 


ww2books.jpgI couldn't figure out how to teach WWII to the under-10 year old set besides the pedantic "just the facts, ma'am" approach, so I did what any thoughtful parent or teacher would do in that situation: I stalled. But, it wasn't long before Mikaela started independently building her own reading list and surreptitiously checking out WWII books from the library. She'd easily defeated my curriculum-setting axis, so my next strategic move as a homeschooling mom was clear: I allied myself with her efforts and she immediately began teaching me and her sister.

arromanches.jpgFreed from my preconceptions or didactic objectives, I was soon able to find excellent, age-appropriate resources & made several suggestions, but mainly I relied on Mikaela's instincts. Some books she started and then stopped after a few pages or a couple of chapters because they were "too scary." And, although I very anxiously put aside my apprehensions about letting her read The Diary of a Young Girl with its abrupt, wrenching conclusion, in an outcome I couldn't have foreseen, she never reached the end. Stopping halfway through, she declared that Anne was "too boy crazy" for her to continue. Since she had read other accounts of Anne's fate (including letters by Anne's father) and I know she will one day reread and finish the diary, I found this temporary assessment rather telling - it was clear that she saw Anne as a full person, not just a symbol of war, and, ironically, that genuine identification made her realize (even inadvertently) that she would better understand Anne's situation when she was more mature herself. She put Anne Frank's diary back on the shelf "for the next time we study World War II, Mom."
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In the time we devoted to WWII, Mikaela learned an enormous amount and taught me even more as we followed her student-led syllabus (recorded in my teacher's log):

HISTORY - JANUARY: WWII for Mikaela, brief overview for Katrianna (studying dinosaurs instead)

Create collage of WWII drawings & symbols for portfolio theme divider
NY Times The Complete Front Pages & NY Times Greatest Stories collections: read 'real time' newspaper articles leading up to war, during war & victory celebrations; discuss tone of war-time ads in paper; read current articles about Pearl Harbor 65 yr anniversary & google for more info
Read fiction & non-fiction books: One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping: Julie Weiss (Dear America); Number the Stars; Lily's Crossing; Sadako & the Thousand Paper Cranes; I Am David (too scary); American Girl: Molly on the Home Front series + A Spy on the Home Front + nonfiction study guide; The Devil's Arithmetic; Introducing Shirley Braverman; My Secret War; Diary of Anne Frank (1/2) + Nonfiction book w/photos, Anne's report cards & various info about her; The Causes of WWII; Witnesses to War: 8 True-Life Stories of Nazi Persecution; WWII Days: Projects ideas + background, facts; The Bombing of Pearl Harbor; A Time to Fight Back-Stories of Resistance; Growing Up in WWII; Memories of Survival; Children & War; Rescued Images: Childhood in Hiding; Hey, Don't You Know there's a War on?; Ten Thousand Children: Kindertransport; Carrie's War; Early Sunday Morning (Pearl Harbor); Journal of SP Collins, WWII soldier; Journal of Ben Uchida (Internment camp)
Watch movies/videos: Sound of Music; Miracle of the White Stallions (Vienna's Spanish Riding School); What Have We Learned, CB? (Omaha beach, France, poppies); 60 minutes show @ just released WWII records w/interviews of camp survivors, original Schindler's list document, Anne Frank's papers, etc; K's Egypt video: section on Egypt's involvement in WWII; PBS documentary @ women pilots program in TX (WASP); PBS show @ 1949 Berlin airlift; Bedknobs & Broomsticks (movie has WWII references, book does not); Molly on the Home Front tv movie 
crane1.jpgFold 100 origami cranes based on Sadako book
Learn terms: anti-Semitism, Axis powers, Allies, D-day, blitzkrieg, dictator, inflation, fascism, Gestapo, Holocaust, kamikaze, isolationism, nationalism, U-boat, Nazi, Aryan, crematorium, concentration camp, deportation, genocide, ghetto, swastika, yellow star, atom bomb - Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Complete workbook pages; look up definitions in encyclopedia for terms; make battles list
Discuss artists, ie Paul Klee, labeled as "degenerate" by Nazis who removed works from museums
Write & type original WWII story: diary format @ US kid & her soldier dad serving overseas 12 pg
Interview grandparents about their experiences as children during war
Write & type 1000 word research paper on kids' contributions to war effort, cite primary & secondary sources + include bibliography (narrowed to 5 topics, started with Women Airforce Service Pilots & then switched to kids' contributions)
Attend talk given by former WWII female resistance fighter at university memorial event
Visit Holocaust museum, view & discuss exhibits
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Visit Los Alamos "Manhattan Project"
museum,view exhibits, A-bomb, talk with docents @ G-pa (M invokes moral absolutism here and insists bombs were wrong) 
 





The following year in Europe, we got the opportunity to apply what we'd learned. Normandymonumt.jpgOne result of my newfound, daughters-inspired appreciation for history was an insistence that we not only see "fun" & touristy sites, but that we take some time to pay homage to the past, recognizing both the bad & good in history. I'd always struggled with the dichotomy of regarding war as wrong and ignoble, while I believed most soldiers were exceedingly brave and honorable. In WWII, the moral imperative for military engagement made 'right' & 'wrong' and the heroism of those involved uniquely evident. Yet, even when we cannot extol noble causes or justify a particular war, we will continue to glorify the people who sacrifice for our sakes and a victorious human spirit that often emerges most distinctly amid conflict. Having children - and relearning history with them - only deepened my sense of debt, humility and thankfulness to those who are willing to stand up and serve for their own and others' families.

UtahBeach.jpgFor twenty years, I was an 'A' history student, but never retained - & usually couldn't forget fast enough- what I'd learned for the tests. History was summarily lumped in with my natural aversion to villainy, horror movies and obscure, irrelevant minutiae that, outside of a classroom, only occasionally showed up as Trivial Pursuit questions. But, apparently, what they say is true - even for the most incorrigible student, all it takes is the tutelage of motivating teachers: Katrianna, who began her Egyptology & Ancient Rome dual PhD program in preschool, and Mikaela, who so far has instructed me on medieval times, the British monarchy, the American Revolution and WWI & II. I'm receiving a first rate education this time around. In fact, I think I'm majoring in History...   

vimycard2.jpgFor our first visit to Canada, we went to France. It was a tribute of remembrance for soldiers and civilians involved in The Great War. We drove the Circuit de Souvenir, a route that winds through WWI battle sites in the Somme Valley from Albert to Bapaume, France. Our tour concluded with a visit to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, north of Arras.

WWImap.jpgWWIdefine.jpgMikaela learned about WWI in a fairly traditional way before the trip: names of leaders, important battles, weapons development & new inventions, significant dates. But Katrianna hadn't formally studied WWI yet, so (unconstrained by the rigorous course requirements self-imposed by her 9 year old sister) her flights of fancy soared to WWI aircraft. She made every model in a vintage (cardboard) airplanes kit and knew the characteristics & insignias of Allied and Central combatants. fokker.jpgOf course, there was also what she'd gleaned from the battles of the famed WWI flying ace, Snoopy...  which led, to my surprise, to M&K memorizing every trivial detail about the real Red-headed Baron and his legendary dogfights (even those that weren't against a beagle).
 
Both girls recited "In Flanders Fields" and fashioned paper poppies. And our whole family watched "What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?" which is Charles Schultz' award winning cartoon salute with many Memorial Day facts interspersed with the Peanuts gang's car troubles (a classic, crank start automobile that repeatedly thrilled K - "Look, Snoopy's car!" - on our visit).




albert.jpgalbertinterior.jpgWe began very early on a chilly morning in Albert, fog obscuring the view of Mary & Jesus who stood atop the Notre Dame de Brebières. The compact town centers around its fountain and the quiet town square across from the basilica. Many of the original buildings had been destroyed in the war and were rebuilt in the art deco style, but the church was restored faithfully and turned out to be my favorite in all of France. It is not very big or imposing and has little of the gilding or ornateness of France's famous cathedrals. But, it is airy, serene and beautiful in its simplicity and its soothingly fanciful interior design.albertruins.jpg
It is also the setting for a salient WWI story. The church and its steeple served as an important landmark and base for soldiers who could see the Virgin from miles away, took up their stations under her gaze or passed by her on their way to the front lines. She loomed above as a symbol of sanctity and refuge until 1916, when Germans shelled the basilica, knocking over the statue but not fully dislodging it. Divisions grew among the troops as to the portentous meaning of God's divine hand holding the "Leaning Virgin" so precariously over their horrific conflicts. Ultimately, however, they seemed unified in their conclusion that the war would surely end when Mary joined them on the ground. So, in a truly ironic act combining both their hope and despair, all sides proceeded to take potshots at her golden likeness for months. The Germans, after being unsuccessful in toppling her but then taking possession of the cathedral themselves, even promoted a new rumor that whoever shot her down would lose the war. Finally, in 1918, British forces came under heavy artillery fire emanating from the basilica's tower. A colonel sent immediate orders to defy a newly instituted army order to spare all buildings and "blow the place to blazes." Fearful of reprisals from his superiors, a young captain - who was left in charge in the temporary absence of a general and his brigade major -  hastily drew up plans of "imaginary trenches" that lay just beyond, but directly in the line of, the basilica and then commanded the battery officer to fire hundreds of rounds at those strategic trenches. Aided by such worthy accomplices, Mary did fall that day and, within months, so did the Central Powers.

sommebk.jpgAfter some time talking with Albert's welcoming greeters at the small but interesting visitor center-museum, we set off uncertain of what we'd find along the Circuit road. We're not war buffs and I'd had to do a lot of research beforehand only to find that there is not much to see in terms of intact WWI era sites. Development had occurred, the landscape had changed and we weren't going when the archetypal poppies would be in bloom. But, we drove down tiny villages' narrow streets lined by stucco houses and dilapidated barns, past farmers out plowing their fields and through the bucolic countryside that had once been overrun with soldiers and destruction - really, unable to reconcile the peaceful and colorful present images with the stark black & white war photos we'd studied. snoopycoloring.jpgThen again, we couldn't help but wonder if that old stone farmhouse across the meadow was the very one Snoopy had crawled through enemy lines to get to so he could order a root beer. . . But, the most poignant symbol throughout the journey was the recurring cemeteries and their low walls concealing white crosses. The highway runs beside them, sometimes takes abrupt 90 degree turns right about them, and constantly  provides glimpses of distant vistas and fields planted in furrows which skirt around scattered, small plots on the horizon.

vimymemorial.jpgBy mid afternoon, we reached the Vimy Memorial, the most well-preserved site of our WWI expedition. France gave the land to Canada in 1922 in recognition of the Canadians' war efforts and their victory in recapturing the ridge from the Germans in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917. Almost all of its 220 acres are very hilly, but they are very small hills, like successions of dozens of pitchers mounds covered in short clipped, light green grass. These bumps and lumps of earth had been made as the terrain was exploded, exhumed, shored up or piled into heaps during the war. In other areas, there were large craters, created either by bombs that fell from above or in detonations, accidental and intentional, from interred munitions. Trees had been replanted and grown tall since being leveled during combat, but Katrianna couldn't run through them like she wanted because most of the ground had not been cleared of explosives and there were signs everywhere warning visitors to really "Stay off the grass" or else. The woods and fields were very still and empty with the exception of roaming 'grounds crew' sheep who kept the grass neatly shorn and tread lightly enough to avoid tripping any land mines (ewe, I admit I felt a little sheepish just watching them. . . but, by God's graze, there was no need to pull the wool over our eyes). [Sorry, I'd been pretty restrained up to this point, but still no excuse for that - returning to somber tone now.]

trench.jpgInstead, M&K played hide & seek and eagerly timed their runs through the mazes of trenches, recreated for permanence with walls made from concrete-filled sandbags and brick & metal grating flooring where there once had been streams of running, muddy water. Still, the kids' "war games" stopped every time there was a break in the trench walls for gunner lookouts, where you could stand and see the trench line occupied by the Germans just yards away, or at the numerous, small cubbyholes along the walls where soldiers had kept provisions or had to sleep.
 
The only way to enter Vimy's Grange Subway, an extensive tunnel system dug by British engineers, was on a guided tour. (Usually, we avoid guided tours, which are generally crowded, sometimes costly and often circumvent all of the fun for M&K, who - in their travel preparations - always call dibs on places we plan to visit and spend the preceding weeks reading up, memorizing facts & anecdotes and jealously guarding the privilege of playing tour guide when we finally arrive.) But, this time, our experience was excellent. The guides are college grads who won fellowships to spend four months showing visitors around the memorial and take their off days to sightsee. Our docent was extremely knowledgeable and fully lived up to the Canadians' friendly reputation, causing M&K to proclaim unequivocally that Vimy's was our very best guided tour in all of Europe.     
 
After descending into the subway (and adjusting for tunnel vision), we noticed telegraph wires tacked to blackened chalk walls, damp with humidity and filled with musty odors. The tunnels were dimly lit, but were not nearly as dark as they had been during the war (pitch black for several yards at a time). We learned that, even inside the tunnels, no one was secure and the Allied soldiers, intent on expanding their own tunnel network, could often hear the digging of Central tunnelers just a few feet away. In fact, one technique was to purposely dig under the other guys' tunnels to set explosives beneath them and carry on the warfare underground. 

bombshell.jpgThere were many tunnel offshoots and mysterious barred dugouts that held supplies or ammunition caches (Katrianna likened them to the gladiators' storage rooms we'd seen in Rome's Colosseum). In one area, much of the booty found when reopening the tunnels was heaped into a rusty pile of machine guns, old cans of food, pistols, mildewed uniforms, grenades, wheelbarrows, utensils and unidentifiable rubble. Two weapons-savvy Belgian boys, also in our tour group, were ecstatic to try on helmets, wield hatchets and sip from canteens while M&K watched, mouths agape, from a safe distance.

There were few rooms, all very small, sparsely furnished with wooden slat chairs, cots and a couple of rickety desks in the officers' quarters. Besides the officers, the only soldiers regularly permitted to sleep inside the subway were the runners. Those were the men, required at a moment's notice, who would deliver and receive messages between the commanders below and the officers on the front lines. They had to sprint through miles of dark and harrowing tunnels and then emerge out onto battlefields to dodge sniper fire. Often volunteers from the regular ranks, they had a life expectancy, we were told, of 1-5 days.

Although there was no mention of it in our guide's narrative or the visitor center displays (probably in order to avoid any association with or semblance of bringing him positive notoriety), what made the runners' experiences even more intriguing was that Hitler, as an infantryman, had been a runner in WWI. And, during WWII, the then führer took great pains to protect Vimy from vandalism (even showing up there for a photo op to prove it). Though accounts I read differed, one interpretation was that he had been so impressed with Vimy's authenticity, he ensured its preservation - perhaps as a personal tribute to his early war career or, some say, due to his "soft spot" for fallen WWI soldiers. Another explanation was that Hitler respected it because, unlike other WWI memorials, Vimy did not exult in weaponry paraphernalia or vilify Germany, but stood only in remembrance of the dead. For whatever reason, he stationed Waffen-SS troops to guard the memorial for the duration of WWII.
 
As it turned out, our "tour of duty" to honor the veterans of WWI made our own world a little smaller, our alliances to others a little stronger and greatly magnified our gratitude to all those who served and brought us peace. Our debt continues to the men and women who do the same for us today, on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day and always.
schonbrunn1.jpgFdSbk.jpgMy first encounter with fin de siècle Vienna was in a wonderful college freshman Humanities course which explored the connections in art, literature, music, architecture & politics at the turn of the 19th century. We debated the merits of Gustav Klimt and Oscar Kokoschka and their artistic license or licentiousness. operahouse.jpgWe played with Arthur (Weiner) Schnitzler and learned what makes the world go La Ronde. We listened to the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg which, to my untrained ear, sounded like he kept losing his composer. We admired architect Otto Wagner who stated "Something impractical cannot be beautiful" and was the Ringstrasse's biggest proponent (until he was awarded the city's post office as his only commission and became its biggest detractor). Finally, our studies culminated in a field trip to see an opera in Cleveland, Ohio, the reputed home of the world's second best opera company and a cosmopolitan mecca where the more flamboyant professors could whip their scarves about in urbane fashion. But as much as I enjoyed learning about it, I never thought I'd visit Vienna.

A few years later, I taught a Viennese thinkers course to high school students. To buttress my weakness in architecture, on the fly I invited the math teacher's architect husband to lend us his expertise on the construction of the Ringstrasse. He also brought along his apprentice, who just happened to be from Austria and could provide invaluable verification, primarily through head nods, that indeed a particular building existed and was significant because he had seen it himself. Apparently it meant so much to him that we were studying his homeland, he "borrowed" my text and nostalgic sentimentality must have prevented him from ever returning it (even though he invited himself to all of our subsequent meetings). After such broadening cultural experiences, it crossed my mind that some of my students might one day visit Vienna in person, but I still never thought I would. 

Then I had kids. And repressed thoughts, or at least those which related to Sigmund Freud, Vienna secession or intelligentsia of any kind. Even after finding out we'd get to spend a few months in Europe, my focus was solely on Salzburg, Mozart & the Sound of Music. A typical protective mother, I was more than willing - when it came to my own little girls - to put Modernity on hold indefinitely.
 
royaldiary.jpgbdaycake.jpgBut then 9 year old Mikaela read a Marie Antoinette biography, and then another, and then another. Schönbrunn Palace became, in her mind, the equivalent of visiting Disneyland. Above all other places in Europe, she wanted to go to Vienna on her birthday and eat cake with Maria Theresa, Maria Antonia & Franz Josef. (I know - because Mikaela told me - Marie Antoinette didn't really say "Let them eat cake." Sorry, I guess I just lost my head. . .) But still (Bastille?), it got me out of preparations for a usual kids' birthday party - you know, making those tiny guillotine-topped cupcakes or a homemade papier-mâché Marie Antoinette head piñata (which I'm sure would have been a bust). So I agreed. We would celebrate her fin-de-décennie in ten year old decade-ends.

neptune.jpgschonbpass.jpgInside Schönbrunn Palace (which Marie Antoinette claimed was far superior to her shabby digs at Versailles), we took the Grand Tour and saw 40 of the 1,441 rooms, including countless trompe l'oeils that were absolutely necessary to give an illusion of spaciousness to the place, blue porcelain and silk tapestries aplenty, the Mirrors Room where 6 year old Mozart gave his first concert before plunking himself down on the Empress' lap to smooch, and all else that glitters and is gilded. But, mostly, we saw the backs of the other 1,441 tourists who were also let in during our 15-minute assigned entry time slot.
 
Mikaela served as our very informed tour guide, correctly identifying Maria Theresa's 16 kids in the Children's Portraits Room and explaining the advantageous political marriage-alliances engineered by their empressive mama. We saw Franz Josef's historically important billiard and walnut rooms where he held minutes-long audiences with hundreds of dignitaries in a day. In his Spartan study, we couldn't help but wonder at his incongruous, dedicated work ethic - he awoke to splashes of cold water in his face at 4 am each morning, knelt on a stool next to his iron cot-bed for lengthy prayers and denied himself all extravagance with the one exception of a built-in ashtray in the otherwise austere wooden toilet bench in his bathroom (installed only after he realized he could devote the saved time to state affairs - yes, both kinds).

labyrinth.jpgOutdoors in the "back 400," the girls were thrilled to run through two hedge mazes & puzzle out the giant Labyrinth, which proved nearly as challenging as the game of constantly jumping out of the way of poorly skilled carriage drivers and their galloping horses on the crisscrossing walking paths. Adding to the drama, police cars, ambulances and firetrucks kept roaring by, sirens blaring, across the groomed grounds to places undiscovered. zooticket.jpgWe never figured that one out, but eventually realized no one else found it extraordinary, so we went to the zoo.



gloriette.jpgWe also climbed to the viewing terrace of Maria Theresa's home office (aka The Gloriette) and staggered kilometers and kilometers to "hit the wall" at the Roman ruins (rebuilt for the sake of tourism). When M&K realized the Privy Garden was aptly named, more for its smell than its secrecy, we were ready to call it a very long day.
glorietteview.jpgmusicbox.jpgBack in the van, a cranky Katrianna serenaded us with "The Blue Danube" on her souvenir Johann Strauss mini music box and we felt inspired to look for a romantic spot to spend the night waltzing (ok, camping) along the river outside of the city. We gave up after finding only industrial-lined tributaries in all directions within 50 kilometers of Vienna. Well, sometimes it hapsburgs and you just have to rococo with the punches. 

whitestallions.jpgThe next morning was spent cruising in dizzying circles around the Ringstrasse. Finally, we just decided to ditch the van and go on a fortifying walk. We strolled through the Heldenplatz gardens to Hofburg Palace, the royals' winter residence, and checked out the books at the Nationalbibliothek. We even saw the exercise field for the famed Spanish Riding School, but not the Lipizzaner stallions since they were literally put out to pasture at the time of our visit and no doubt had gone on holiday to horse around at the Cannes film festival. It was a let down after our rigorous preparation for seeing a live performance - we'd watched a whole Disney movie.

klimtkiss.jpgOf course, every museum along the Ring had must-see exhibits featuring Klimt, Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. We skipped in concentric circles around them all. Long ago M&K had seen works by these Austrian greats in a traveling 20th Century Art Masterpieces show at Houston's MFA and it had been a limited success in terms of enhancing their art appreciation. After five minutes of observing Jackson Pollock's Number 1 amid complete silence in a room full of art elites striking poses of profundity, a two year old Katrianna loudly proclaimed, "Mom, if he was gonna just scribble anyway, how come he only used black and white?" Even if those impressions had faded, I figured revisiting Gustav so I could deliver a more sophisticated explanation that his little black rectangles were phallic symbols of potent sexuality wasn't going to prove any more edifying for M&K this time around. So, we Kissed the chance goodbye, despite it leaving me feeling noticeably ver-Klimt.

Freud.jpgSimilarly, outside at 19 Bergasse, my Id dreamed of going in and seeking the famed analytical-psycho Freud (hysterical, isn't it?). But my Super Ego said no. Sigmund is unacceptably Beyond the Pleasure Principle, especially when in the company of minors, so I talked myself out of it and was cured. (Or maybe I just couched it in the unconscious, I can't remember.) Anyway, the Anchor Clock chimed that our session was over and I knew my time with the good doctor was up.

anchorclock.jpgAlong the murky brown Blue Danube, the road out of Vienna was a mess of torn up asphalt, construction cranes and traffic jams. However, it did allow plenty of time to observe the city's ubiquitous contemporary art: graffiti tags spray painted on every railroad trestle, bridge overpass and roadside wall. After not "being moved" by the fine art or the bumper-to-bumper bouchon as the thermometer hovered at 35 Celsius, we took a 90 degree turn into the fast (food) lane.

mcdonalds.jpgWe pulled into a McDonald's to wait it out, get some drinks with ice cubes (unheard of anywhere in Europe except McDonald's, Pizza Hut or KFC - yes, they are all there) and appreciate the "architectural realism" of 21st century Austria which had fully embraced the structural form of golden arches. McD's was more crowded than any spot in Vienna, but this time it was not fellow tourists but locals who jammed in to criticize, and all the while enjoy, the restaurant's fine ambiance where they could listen to the American top 40 tunes - played nonstop there, without the interspersing of Austrian heritage music required of state radio stations. There were no seats to be had in the red & yellow booths below the hanging works of iconic portraiture, exquisite renditions of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. So, we sat out in the parking lot beside the Blue Danube and watched a stream of guys in business suits who came after work to rakishly lean across their little cars and eat big macs. Along with fries and soft serve ice creams, M&K got a "biggie size" order of Vienna's modern realism.

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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.'

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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! 

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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...

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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.


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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?)

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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_bhutan.jpgBob, 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. billbob.jpgAmong 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.
HHDL.jpgIt'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. 

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Like all moms out there, I struggled with knowing exactly when to broach certain topics with my kids. When to assume they were mature enough for sensitive discussions about those "taboo" subjects that make all parents pause and shudder. Yes, you know the ones.

Things like beheadings, backstabbings, extramarital affairs, illegitimate children, political assassinations, love triangles, polygamy, suicide, disposal of bodies, hiding evidence, miscellaneous subterfuge and, of course, asps. 

Essentially, all the facts of life. Why couldn't I find any chapters on those by the so-called experts Dr. Spock & Dr. Sears?

Well, let me tell you, the perfect age for exposing your impressionable youngster to each of these worthy life lessons is 4 years old. I know what you're thinking, just how long did I think I could keep overprotecting them? Homeschooled kids are so sheltered.

I admit, it wasn't even my idea to teach them any of this so early & in my master syllabus we were to wait for the macabre until kindergarten, at least. I'd adamantly refused to add Shakespearean drama to Richard Scarry selections for our storytimes, despite the kiddos' pleadings and peer pressure.

Really, some homeschooling moms were shocked. They extolled the virtues of condensed versions of Shakespeare's tales retold by Mary & Charles Lamb. They shook their heads at me & questioned whether I truly could have been an English major in college. But, I steadfastly resisted - I suppose it's that dysfunctional, parental urge to preserve childhood for as long as possible. . .  

I just couldn't see how most of the historical plays, tragedies or even comedies transferred very well into abridged, ten page summaries. (If only my high school students had known about the Lamb version, all those wasted minutes reading Cliffs notes could have been saved. . . ) I mean, what's left in Romeo and Juliet: 2 teens go behind their parents' backs, swing around on a balcony one night, a friar actually helps them come up with a completely numskull idea & they both end up killing themselves. There's not even any redeeming Elizabethan blank verse and, horrors, all puns are edited out.   

So, how did I lose control? It was when I least suspected it, got distracted and let Katrianna, a preschooler at the time, check out the comic book version of Egyptian pharaoh history. How could I be so irresponsible, you ask? (Sure, hindsight is always 20/20.)

Before I could "preview" it, she'd zipped through the whole thing in the car on the drive home. She'd been a very enthusiastic Egyptology student and even when we were 'officially done' with our school unit, she'd happily continued to pursue her independent studies. I tried to keep up, but she'd left me in the dust after the middle kingdom. . .

I was none the wiser, a complacent and oblivious parent, until weeks later when the "ides of March" was upon us. I referred to the infamous phrase in passing and then saw a quizzical look on the kids' faces, so I began to explain that it was an important day in Roman history & people thought bad things might happen. . .  before I could get any further, Mikaela interrupted to explain all about omens and how a seer told Julius Caesar he would die that day. I hurriedly shushed her, casting meaningful Quiet! glances in the direction of her little sister who seemed to be listening. Mikaela finally got the subtle hint. All was silent.

JCpyre.jpgSeizing the opening, Katrianna then commenced to fill in the blanks of our stories: "Julius Caesar was surprised and stabbed by some senators, including his buddy Brutus. Marc Antony had tried to stop it, but he was too late."

I thought, Brutus? And not the one who beats up Popeye?

I kneeled down and took her by the hand. "How do you know about Marc Antony, sweetheart?"

"Well, he was one of Cleopatra's boyfriends. Julius Caesar didn't want to leave her after they had a baby, but he had to go back to Rome. Then she and Marc Antony had some kids... twins!"

I was stunned, but she interpreted that as rapt attention so she continued: "And then before Marc Antony could lead an army against the conspur.. conspur.. con-spur-a-ters, he and Cleopatra were caught and he killed himself with a dagger. And then Cleopatra was sad, so she picked up an asp and it stung her, so she died too."

No way, this is not happening was all I could muster in terms of profound response. But, she wasn't finished, only catching her breath.

"Oh, and I forgot!  Before all that, they showed Julius Caesar Pompey's head in a jar of honey." *

A jar of honey? And, for my daughters, that evokes not Pooh & Piglet, but a decapitated Pompey? (These are the same girls who at that time couldn't get through the witch & apple scene in Snow White. Apparently, make-believe, Disney violence is a lot more frightening than the real deal.)

At that moment, it dawned on me that I had misunderestimated** my little homeschoolers. They were, in fact, not ready for independent study. That evening at bedtime, all together, we began reading aloud Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, since really the bard could add nothing with his rendition of Julius Caesar.

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Editorial note: I realize I reneged on my personal blogging vow and posted a whole entry here without any puns. True, some subjects are just inherently lacking in humor, but I still acknowledge I've let everyone down. As the Romans might say before throwing me to the lions, "What the Hail, Caesar?! That was really bad forum."
 
Ahh, that makes me feel much gladiator. Two thumbs up!

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*For the historical sticklers, it was actually Alexander's body that was stored in honey & Pompey's head which was presented in a basket. Katrianna's confusing them is evidence of our slacker, half-asped approach to history. Better get back to the basics. "Kids, go outline some chapters in a textbook.

**Don't judge. It happens to the best of us, doesn't it, Dubya?

 

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