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...
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!
The 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!
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? 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. He 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
1. 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.)
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...
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...
*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, thatain'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!
From The Call of The Wild's chapter 6, "For The Love of Man" ~
Thornton's command cracked out like a pistol shot. Buck threw himself forward, tightening the traces with a jarring lunge. His whole body was gathered compactly together in the tremendous effort, the muscles writhing and knotting like live things under the silky fur. His great chest was low to the ground, his head forward and down, while his feet were flying like mad, the claws scarring the hard-packed snow in parallel grooves. The sled swayed and trembled, half-started forward. One of his feet slipped, and one man groaned aloud. The sled lurched ahead in what appeared a rapid succession of jerks, though it never really came to a dead stop again... half an inch ... an inch... two inches... The jerks perceptibly diminished; as the sled gained momentum, he caught them up, till it was moving steadily along.
Men gasped and began to breathe again, unaware that for a moment they had ceased to breathe. Thornton was running behind, encouraging Buck with short, cheery words. The distance had been measured off, and as he neared the pile of firewood which marked the end of the hundred yards, a cheer began to grow and grow, which burst into a roar as he passed the firewood and halted at command. Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson. Hats and mittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.... Buck seized Thornton's hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back and forth. As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.
But we were never the kind to let a little indiscretion stop us. "Whoo-Hoo! Buck did real good, right?!" cried Katrianna, relinquishing her grip on the dining table's edge & jumping from her chair to race about the living room in a fury of exhilaration. While pushing the table 3 feet back to the original position from which Katrianna had propelled it while listening to this last scene (her moving response to rising action), I had to agree. "Yep, Buck was fantastic! And Jack London's pretty amazing, too, isn't he?"
"Well," declared Mikaela, from where she stolidly sat, "he's no Louisa May Alcott!" But at least she was in the room when she said it.
Knowing that the girls wouldn't have the heart to embark upon manly man Jack London's writings on their own, for the first time in a very long time I was reading aloud to the kids (and to Chris). Just a few pages or a chapter at a time, usually when we were finishing up with lunch or dinner. In the last few days I'd even found the book waiting on the table for me, placed there by Katrianna, instead of the usual preceding groans from both girls.
Indeed, there had been progress since page 1 when Mikaela literally ran from the room. That was OK, she didn't have to listen, I told her, fully accepting of her literary discernment and autonomy. I read just loudly enough for her to hear from the hallway, yet softly enough that she didn't catch on it was intentional. Worked! She had to strain mightily to catch each word and, as soon as we stopped, would reappear so the rest of us might patiently endure her long-winded explanations of how superior Alcott's Eight Cousins is in every way. Finally, she saved herself the trip, sometimes even forgetting to grimace, and excused her presence by citing a desire to leisurely enjoy dessert... before summarily assessing London his just desserts. (Eh, her bite is worse than her bark?)
We were answering London's Call of the Wild for two reasons: 1) to expose the girls to a recognized classic in a "boy book" genre that I knew they'd otherwise try to Pass the Buck on, and 2) because we were then in California, not far from Jack London State Historic Park. That's right, I was plotting for an imminent visit to Wolf House -- cuz, ya know, The Buck Stops There.
And Jack's Ranch really was a Beaut! A mix of oaks, redwoods, meadows & vineyards, with pretty views all around. There were gardens growing the practical & experimental plants he cultivated, such as Luther Burbank's "spineless cactus," which never completely lost its spines, a thorny non-development for the evolving gentleman farmer (and his hungry cattle).... And thick groves of imported Australian eucalyptus saplings that he planned on harvesting to sell as pier pilings or hardwood lumber, an unforeseen technicality being that their wood was deemed "too soft" (poor JL, always barking up the wrong tree... actually, 81,000 of them... turned out to be a shady business at best... he couldn't hardly stand it). But he did manage to reap record-setting oat hay crops from the previously over farmed acreage, plus personally design palatial pigpens that enabled one man to feed 200 swine simultaneously, a feat that would understandably inflate any male ego. Hmm,he found success sowing his wild oats & going hog wild -guess those accomplishments speak for themselves...
In the House of Happy Walls, built by his"mate woman"(aka, second wife) after London's death & now a museum, we saw many of his papers & letters, photographs, boots and a grand piano roarin' with vintage '20s tunes thanks to a genuinely genial volunteer (no, his name wasn't Charles, but he was a ton of fun, plus had an easy speaking style, was ready to Lindy an ear & didn't make no flapper about our rather Raggedy foxtrot). Throughout the mansion were numerous souvenirs that he & Charmian had acquired on their South Seas sailing adventure, an around-the-world trip for which he'd allocated 7 years but ended after only 27 months due to health issues, a disappointment which made him sea-sick. (He'd always adored the ocean, even in his earliest days as a reputed "Prince of the Oyster Pirates" who, under fear of incarceration, suddenly morphed into a prodigal California State Fish Patrol deputy.) In the dining room, beside a long, narrow table with pine benches & chair seating, were the white china dishes that London acquired secondhand in Samoa, after learning that they had belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson during his stint on the islands. Artifacts were abundant, including statues displayed at nearly every turnon the wide staircases, featuring a recurring motif of the couple's entrusting to well-endowedments (?). Charmian's bedroom & bathroom also revealed a procleavity for noteworthy busts, such as those of Venus de Milo & Nefertiti.
After that, we were anxious to get some fresh (or perhaps less fresh) air & began a half mile hike to see the ruins of London's 15,000 square foot Wolf House. Moss-covered walls and deteriorating bricks are all that remain of his dream, creating an atmosphere very much like that at Tintern Abbey. Dampness, steeped in the towering Redwood trees, imbues a natural mist & mystique pervading the foundation of the gutted 4-story, 26-room, 9-fireplace structure with its once indoor, but now open-air, rainwater-harvesting swimming pool. Nearby, his gravesite, marked by a lichen-sprouting boulder & surrounded by a gray weathered picket fence, holds his & Charmian's ashes. Before leaving, M&K whispered their Secret Club password to them both, as they had to the spirits of Eugene O'Neill & Robert Louis Stevenson, two more authors with northern California connections who shared such an honor.
We walked back through the woods and past the London-made lake where he liked to swim & canoe with his many invited guests, that is when he wasn't too busy playing pranks on them. And then on to the cottage where he lived and wrote during his eleven years at Beauty Ranch. He couldn't afford to fulfill his promise to rebuild Wolf House after the fire (hard to believe, but he'd made just 750 bucks for Buck's tale spin), so he added a study annex on the groundskeeper's cottage where he'd first started out at Glen Ellen.
There, his sleeping porch was the most intriguing place of all, for it was where he spent his nights after staying up late with the company he kept (Charmian had her own bedroom) and where he woke early to complete his "profitable chore" writing allotment for the day.
Strung across the small, sun-drenched space was a thin wire dangling slips of paper clamped on with wooden clothespins -- his novel filing system for jotted phrases & story ideas -- the original post-it notes? Nearby was his study, adjoined by another nook filled with books, a gramophone & a typewriter, the space often used by Charmian while she typed + edited + added descriptive passages to his manuscripts (sorry, Mr. Whipple, it seems he couldn't help but squeeze the Charmian).
Which leads to a 3rd, unanticipated reason that Call of the Wild was such a special book for us: It spurred conversations and memories of our own family's wolf-dog. Though in appearance he resembled White Fang much more than Buck, we couldn't help but get taken in by London's (or Mrs. London's?) description. The story's violence and dogs' poor treatment are, as expected, very difficult to take. But since we'd already studied a lot of historical accounts about the Gold Rush & learned about London's own trip to the Yukon (where he got such a debilitating case of scurvy that the doctor forbade him from working his claim & promptly sent him home), the truthfulness and reality of the experience helped offset, a little anyway, the brutality and inhumane aspects. Yet, it was the portrayal of Buck & his transformation that got us -- his depiction is so well done and provides such comic relief at times. When Buck finally finds Thornton, his last, nice owner, London shows his stuff by perfectly capturing the our dog's character, playfulness, and pride & nearly redeems himself for all of his 'dhishoom - bhishoom' author sins. As a result, long after we'd finished the novel & trip to California, thanks to Jack London & much to M&K's delight, we continued the ritual of sharing stories about our lauded hero - in the form of a family dog - while finishing up dinner desserts.
There were a few other, lingering effects on the kids, as well. Three days after our visit to Jack London State Park, Katrianna lost her first front tooth. She hopped around clutching her tooth fairy pocket, filled with hopeful prospects of the "gold" she might discover under her pillow the next morning. And for two or three months, inspired by London's next dog adventure story, she proudly referred to herself as "No Fang."
And the following Christmas, Grandma gave the girls sweaters. A bright, multicolor, striped one with a hood for Katrianna, but a light gray-green, "old-fashioned, ladylike Louisa" cardigan was Mikaela's pick. The aspiring author then began waking very early in the morning, when it was still a bit chilly, to don her sweater & take pencil in hand to write 1,000 or so words before breakfast. Mere coincidence, certainly, that she settled on that number... For she'd never readily admit that Jack London could offer any good writing tips.
Jane Austen is Mikaela's favorite author. Well, unless she happens to be in the Middle of marching through a George Eliot novel... In fact, because of our pre-teen, who continues to find the gaping holes in my graduate school literary education, I'm cutting my wisdom teeth on The Mill and the Floss right now (actually, have been for the last 3 months). Her laughing repeatedly & for crying out loudly at Eliot's "the best sarcasm ever, Mom!" was humiliating. No, not because a young girl is devouring novels thirty years before I ever started them. That is mildly threatening. But not nearly as alarming as the thought that my acerbic wit preeminence might be usurped in my darling daughter's heart. By George, that Eliot is taking it too far.
Yet, every now and then, Mikaela humors me. And we read a novel together. Slowly. One or two chapters at a time, followed by an in-depth discussion where she asks me lots of questions. And then goes on to answer all of them herself.
Last month was my turn to pick, so I'd chosen The Chosen. It was a favorite book in junior high, introduced by an English teacher who tossed out the regular 7th grade textbook in favor of bombarding students with excellent 'young adult' novels, class periods spent debating the morality of characters' decisions, and weekly, intensive essay writing tests. (She could only do such an irresponsible thing because she planned to quit teaching after that year anyway. Between classes, we drilled with the 1,000 handwritten vocabulary flashcards she'd made for the upcoming GRE. That is, when she wasn't busy in an administrator's office receiving poor evaluations for her unacceptably slacker teaching methods.)
The Chosen is a wonderful and challenging book, with layers of meaning and an intensely nerdy appeal. It's about the joy of learning. It's about friendship. And it's about the arduous, often tedious, phases one must endure for the sake of both. But, it also has kids as its main characters, so, compared to Mikaela's usual fare, is accessible and at the "appropriate reading level" for her age. Moreover, I could actually contribute something to the discussions, further explaining the numerous detailed passages regarding Hasidism, orthodox practices and the subtle distinctions in various sects' beliefs.
But the most significant theme in the novel is the necessity that intellect be complemented by the soul. It is a powerful concept when reading the book and identifying with its teenage protagonists, both Reuven, who seems to have a natural inclination to empathy, and Danny, whose brilliant mind often hinders his emotional insights. But it is equally poignant when rereading it as a parent, with the added responsibility of guiding a child young woman to achieve - and yearn for - that balance.
After wrapping up our study of the novel, we happened onto this article in TheNew York Times: Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana. It was a neat summation to our talks, as well as a reminder of how the history of Judaism comes into play in today's current events. The reporter prays upon readers' expectations in the post-9/11 era, toying with biases and perceived prejudice, both toward a Hasidic rabbi and the dogged police officer. The premise serves to provide contrast to commonly held preconceptions, by revealing a community in Billings that creatively fought intolerance, for example, as well as to set us up for his surprise ending.
Yet, it was not so very surprising to Mikaela. In part, this was due to our reading of The Chosen. But, its relevance went further, into homeschooling experiences that we never would have connected to the novel on our own.
We, too, had met a K-9 policeman and his dog. Back in 2004, Mikaela wrote about it in her own news article:
Her interview with Alpo came about by chance, on one of our many, many visits to the Houston Police Department's stables. At the time, our lil' National Velvet was in a typical, horse-crazy girl mode, memorizing everything equine, briefly taking riding lessons, and primarily devoting her energies to corralling her folks into weekly field trips to call on her HPD favorites (neigh, she loved them all). It soon evolved into a regular family outing, including a ritual first stop at a local Latino grocery for bags of carrots & apples for the horses and fritters & churros for us, followed by lazy afternoons spent watching & petting the horses. But, when we arrived early one morning instead, Alpo and his best friend were working out on a dog-sized obstacle course. In addition to learning all about K-9 duties, M&K's attentions turned to trying to coax Alpo into accepting a carrot and, with it, a vegetarian lifestyle.
More recently, we traveled to Bozeman and visited several small towns in Montana, including Libby, where we stopped for lunch. To our dismay, it perfectly fulfilled our every notion of the Wild West: As we stepped out of the (station)wagon, air thick with smoke & cinders stung our eyes... due to a wildfire raging on the ridge right above town! However, besides an occasional airplane pilot circling round to drop fire retardant, no one else seemed to notice. People were doing their grocery shopping, cracking jokes at the gas station or lingering over Subway sandwiches, with nary a glance at the looming orange flames. We city slickers got right back into the car & hurried on as fast as the 25 mph speed limit would allow to Glacier National Park, with a quick detour through its three gateway towns, one of which is Whitefish. Little did we realize then that being awed by Montana's scenery would also let us in on a sophisticated NY Times inside joke. (A rabbi, a cop and a German shepherd walk into a capitol building...)
None of these events were essential for understanding or appreciating The Chosen. And all happened independently of each other, with no foreseeable connections amongst them. But, one of the most exciting things about learning is seeing the relationships between what at first appear to be disparate things. And one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is that it allows the time & opportunities to delve into topics of interest, engage in thoughtful conversations, build a one-reporter newspaper publishing empire, stroll around some quaint & heretofore obscure small town, or just pass the day horsing around. And, by doing such random things, find the connections between them. And, by doing that, see the connections to ourselves, as well.
My hope is that Mikaela has absorbed The Chosen's lesson that intellect must include compassion. It is a philosophy that applies to us as individuals, yet also necessarily extends to all levels of interaction. The conflicts facing the Middle East are just as complex and divisive now as they were when Chaim Potok described them sixty years ago. The need for an approach to the peace process which balances reason and compassion for both sides concerned, and the ultimate worthiness of engaging in talking rather than silence, would be well chosen.
"And," he added, turning to Katrianna, "it's nice to meet you, too." Sidney held his hand out to her...
Oh no! She was suddenly shy-struck.
Here? Now? This, despite all of our exaggerated & exuberant "How do you do, And how do you do, And how do you do again" nursery rhyme handshaking sessions begun almost at birth, Richard Scarry's Polite Elephant reinforcement of the finer points of etiquette, and my own determination that our homeschooling kids would not be socially inept? And yet, at various times throughout their childhoods, Mikaela & Katrianna have alternately been overcome by silence. Or experienced urgent, rapt absorption with any stray object located on the ground. Or have inexplicably lost all sensation & mobility in their arms, hands and the cerebral cortex-common courtesy region (could it be an involuntary response of their fluctuating nervous systems?).
"Well, okay then," Sidney said, "I'll just take a hug instead." And he did.
Though it happens with predictable regularity, the girls' rude-imentary lapses in social skills still take me by surprise every time. Their extroverted phases lull me right up until the sporadic moments that they re-intro-vert themselves. Now I know this cannot really be attributed to our homeschooling. I remember doing the very same thing when I was a kid, repeatedly bewildering my mom at the most inopportune or embarrassing times. When she tried to talk with me about it later & ask what had happened, I was unable to explain it, even to myself. Then, when I was a teacher, I watched freshmen high schoolers work through those first weeks of insecurity with about as much self-assurance & panache as the 18-month-old toddlers who'd so amused me when I'd taught preschool...
Still, there's nothing that adequately prepares a parent to handle those awkward moments that persistently arise in spite of one's conscientious efforts to prepare a child to conduct herself with civility & charm... and then watch as she completely blows it. Well, there was nothing, until Katrianna met Sidney.
We were introduced in person for the first time this past summer while Steel Pulse was on tour. Sidney Mills plays keyboards & is the band's musical arranger. That afternoon, Chris was meeting with lead singer & songwriter David Hinds, Selwyn Brown - also on keyboards, band manager Rich Nesin & Sidney to discuss marketing ideas & potential internet campaigns, especially those promoting charitable partnerships. The girls and I had come along because we were all going to attend their concert later that night. But, to be honest, it wasn't just Katrianna who felt a little self-conscious, so M&K & I quickly left Chris alone to impress the rest of the guys by himself & went off to do all kinds of important things while we waited (primarily reading Calvin & Hobbes comic books in the restaurant next door).
But, we'd known Sidney - even if he hadn't known us - for many years prior to that. Long before we had kids, Chris & I globe-cooled: we would travel anywhere in Texas to see Steel Pulse in concert. (Ok, so Texas isn't truly "global" & we weren't actually cool, but...) Theirs was our first date concert & a valid enough reason to skip work anytime to drive 800 miles for a Reggae SunSplash festival. [The most strange & memorable being a San Antonio concert happening in concert with the 1994 World Cup's opening day & the Houston Rockets' NBA Championship playoff game 5, watched on a tiny, borrowed, handheld tv while driving - amazingly, Hakeem stood .610" tall, yet still managed to dunk on Ewing! Then, part way through Steel Pulse's show, the big stage screens broke away from close-ups of David singing or Grizzly on drums to show a white Bronco in a slow-speed police chase? The music stopped & an announcer explained it was OJ Simpson. Everybody stared at the images & each other. The jamming resumed. The next morning, at our favorite, most popular, jam packed 'secret' bakery in San Antonio's Market Square, every single table had ordered not the usual coffee or tea which complement Mexican pastries, but glasses & whole carafes full of orange juice... It just doesn't take much subliminal messaging, does it?]
Over the years, I'd also consistently taken every single opportunity to play Steel Pulse's singles in my classroom (the long-play versions whenever possible). Sometimes, it even fit in with what we were studying!On the first day of school, students walked in to Grab Education. Certainly, that set the right tone in the kids' minds: this woman is so dorky she plays music about education - or - this woman is so cool she plays reggae music & calls it school. If it was a successful year, I kept 'em on the fence (or should I say on the ropes?) & guessing like that, unable to come to a definitive conclusion, until well past spring break (if ever).
When I'd first begun teaching, the headmaster chose to emulate the I'm-not-ratifying-it-hold-out-hero-senator John McCain & refused to honor Martin Luther King, Jr Day (although, acting under the auspices of a private school charter, they seemingly found it appropriate to take every other Monday off as some sort of patriotic holiday). So, I respectfully showed up for work anyway - to moderate debates about the validity of observing MLK's Day as a national holiday and play Steel Pulse's Taxi Driver, Sweet Honey in the Rock's Peace & Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday for my 9th graders. The juniors got to read Alice Walker's1955 Elvis fable, then listen to Steel Pulse's Roller Skates & tie it all back into our studies of the relationship be'Twain Huck Finn & Jim... Within a couple of years, our school's board voted to take MLK day off after all. Accordingly, I switched my curriculum. Our MLK class celebration was moved to the preceding Friday so the kids (and their parents) could dwell on it all3-day weekend long.
My American Lit scholars also learned that David Hinds & ee cummings have a lot in common: Wild Goose Chase & pity this busy monster, manunkind seemed a perfect pairing to write about Modern disillusionment. Yet, interestingly, Chant a Psalm hearkened back to Puritan era selections. And Throne of Gold might just have been the sequel to Anne Bradstreet's To My Dear & Loving Husband (I also put Your House with Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666, so they could prove to me how thematically unalike? they were). For Civil War literature studies & our related, subsequent discussions about apartheid in South Africa, we had an obvious State of Emergency. And, along with contemporary political & environmental poetry, Earth Crisis (matched with Marvin Gaye's Mercy, Mercy Me & What's Going On) inspired some spirited exchanges, as well as good creative writing pieces. Whoops, sorry about that, went off a little bit here --- we teachers get so bogged down in believing that what we do might actually matter to others. My bad. Now returning to this decade & the 21st century... Once again, let me hear ya put your hands together for the real, live STEEEEEEEL PULSSSSSSSSSSE!
From then on, each time we saw Sidney that evening, he'd offer his hand to Katrianna. As she added another scuff mark to the toe of her tennis shoe by way of response, her emerging smile grew increasingly visible. Sidney'd give her another gentle hug, along with an extra backstage pass, & continue with his equipment prep and pre-show routine.
During the concert, we got to sit in the special "Friends of the Band" roped-off section, a privilege to which the girls were completely oblivious no matter how many times their impressed parents tried to convince them it proved Mom & Dad's ultimate, verifiable hipness. Frankly, Mikaela was too preoccupied with maintaining her tween 'rep,' regardless of the fact that no other tween, besides her sister, was anywhere in sight. Still, she kept busy looking nonchalant, taking some photos & bootleg videos, as well as alerting us with "Timber!" every time some Man No Sober guy was falling in our direction. And, despite the fact that once upon a time she rocked [asleep] to Rally Round the Flag, Reggae Fever & Brown-Eyed Girl as her most preferred lullabies, now she stood-fastly refused to dance. [Again, I tried to be as understanding as I could -- that is, while simultaneously jumping up & down in my signature, syncopated, reggae rhythmic, spastic style. For I'd acted the same way long, long ago when my mom took me to St. Stephen's Coffee House, a 1970s hippie version of an Episcopal church. Everyone sat in a big circle on the floor, a couple of guys played acoustic guitar & people joined hands to sing folksy, Cat Stevens-type tunes by candlelight. I never let on that I liked it, shrugging off encouraging participation nudges from Mom and all those other annoyingly warm, glowing faces. As we (I mean, they) crooned only slightly altered C'mon, baby, light my fire sanitized lyrics, all that was missing was a real bonfire - perhaps that would have brought me in? So hard to tell with a tween... Although, while we waited between Steel Pulse sets, I asked our friendly, frazzled usher if reggae or rock audiences were more difficult (well, after allowing for those notoriously riotous Christian rockers). No, she set me straight, it was the bluegrassers- they'd set fire to the seats & rope lines only weeks before. There, now we know who's really got it going on, don't we?]
However, 'bashful' Katrianna happily danced, bounced & sang alongside me until pure exhaustion made her smooth moves more of a hang-over-mom's-shoulders sway. Yet, once the concert was over & we went backstage again, she instantly revived by running up & down the ramps as the stage crew broke down the equipment. We joined the band in their "headliner" dressing room, standing around at the edges trying to be both unobtrusive & take in our first-ever, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the rockstars' world. Soon, Sidney took control again, sparing us from the overwhelming strain of trying to summon & then project our own auras of coolness (good thing, since I'd forgotten to bring mine... plus I couldn't even remember where I'd seen it last). He directed Katrianna to please take his seat, a primo, overstuffed, fully-featured deluxe chair. Ahhhh, so that's where her comfort zone had been hiding! Immediately, she turned to David, confidentially sharing - amid giggles from her Throne of Recliner - "When I was little, I used to think you were singing 'Sitting on a doughnut hole!'" Somehow, David managed to laugh as though that was funny, but Katrianna was so tickled with her own hilarity that she didn't really notice. Then Chris tried to help the joke along. By singing aloud a few bars from Throne of Gold directly to David. It worked, all right -- it was so embarrassing to everyone involved, the whole room's attention was promptly diverted completely away from us...
Which gave us more time to look around. And notice a fridge well-stocked with varieties of organic, soy & almond milks and tables laid out with abundant choices of fresh fruits, avocados, tomatoes, whole wheat breads, bottled waters & all-natural juices. Though David offered, Mikaela was much too shy to partake in any of it, but fully appreciated observing that his after-concert meal was "All vegetarian!" Her confidence now bolstered, without warning she blurted out, "So, David, have you finished Dreams from My Father yet?!" And, again, one of our daughters had managed to leave him slightly stunned. Not that it was a fair contest exactly, since previous to this moment David did not know he was embroiled in a competition. But, when Mikaela had overheard her father talking with him on the phone about Obama's autobiography, apparently that was the impetus she'd been looking for - she started reading it herself that very day (a unique approach to preparing for an upcoming reggae concert, no?). Valiantly, David rallied to her cause, teasing Mikaela about his additional incentive now that he'd finally learned of their fierce reading rivalry race. Mikaela was smug, content in the political coup she'd just pulled off - which, in her mind, was definitely equal to the bands' being invited to play for Bill Clinton's inauguration or their releasing an election-coinciding single entitled Vote Barack to encourage getting out the vote last year.
When it was finally time to go, Katrianna forgot to shake hands with the members of the band. She was too distracted with giving high-fives & hugging Sidney to remember her manners. Darn it, we proved once again that homeschoolers lack all social graces, didn't we?
Seems another review of our Missed Manners is in order. OK, I'm putting it on the family 'To Do' list right after "Rehearse our barbershop quartet remix version of Handsworth Revolution." There's just so very much to do to get ready for our next Steel Pulse concert...
I 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...
As 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...) 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...
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.
There 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-fullscience 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!"
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?). But, 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! An 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.
"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. It 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.
Surprisingly, 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 architectJulia 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. Her 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?
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), these 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 Williamcover 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 Potterseries, 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.
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.
What 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.
It 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, all 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.
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. The 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.)
Years 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). We 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...
Our 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! 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? (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). Into 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). The 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. And, 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 TheWell-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.
Yet, 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!" Immediately, 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).
On July 4, 2007, we were in transit. Much to M&K's disappointment, we had to skip going on our annual patriotic picnic hike, listening to the symphony play John Philip Sousa tunes & watching fireworks from our usual, strategically-placed-blanket spot.
Not to worry. I assured the kids that missing the Fourth would soon seem less pitiable on July 14 when we would get to participate in France's Bastille Day activities and merriment. Every French teacher I'd ever had drilled it into our heads (it was perfectly tense) how superior and spectacular Bastille Day was in comparison to America's festivities. So, I suggested we rest up and Basteel ourselves for a rousing celebration de la Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!(ou la Mort?)
It started off well enough with a hike through the mountains to the gnomadic alpine village of Valmorel for Corte D'Or ice creams. Its single strolling lane was lined with plenty of shops selling mementos decorated with Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty, which was okay - we immediately understood that all trinkets are suitably French because, after all, they are called "souvenirs." Plus, the town square's morning program was full of endemic celebrations that likely could not be replicated anywhere else, such as displays of Balkan folk dancing against the idyllic backdrop of the French Alps.
But that's not all. There was also the nearby, larger town of Moûtiers which drew us with a promised "fête formidable with dancing in the streets, bien sûr." Turned out that its bustling avenues reminded us most of those found in Western ghost towns, as we aimlessly wandered across eerily quaint but abandoned bridges (bedecked with cascading flower baskets on the outside, and graffiti & litter - and, ever so momentarily, us - on the inside). Eventually, we did find some townsfolk when we wandered into the seemingly empty Cathédrale Saint-Pierre of the Archdiocese of Chambéry. Yet, to our dismay, the devoutly dapper were not seated in attendance on the beautiful, heavy wooden pews fronting the gilded main altar or absorbing the delicate, multi-colored light filtering in through the church's windows. No, they were not in the side chapel either. Instead, Mass was taking place in what appeared to be a lean-to church annex - a low ceiling, windowless, wholly unadorned small room with folding chairs (similar to the set up in some start-up, strip center American churches). It was not due to heating or air conditioning concerns or for any other reason apparent to us, who sat in the airy main chapel in our blue jeans contentedly contemplating our faith... as well as the big, meaning-of-life questions that can only occur in the midst of centuries of organized religion's showy splendor, to which we concluded: Hey, if you're going to go to all the trouble of exacting tithes and exploiting medieval serf labor, you might as well get your money's worth - go ahead & live it up, take the plastic off the cathedral seat cushions & enjoy going gothic in the main chapel! Really, even many villages' "small" cathedrals are often awesome in the true (meaning, not George W's) sense of that word: the interior columns and arches are designed to make one automatically turn eyes upward to God, to put one's puniness in proper perspective & thereby inspire Heavenly thoughts, and, perhaps most importantly upon stained glass-reflection, to cause the humbled pilgrim to lay back in wonder just far enough so all the loose change spills from his pockets onto the floor (cha-ching! gotta fill those coffers somehow).
Undeterred, we set our sights on a night of feu d'artificeback at Valmorel's ski resort, its influx of party-seekers seeming to confirm it was "the spot" for a national bang-up gala. In reality, theirs was a modest fireworks display (some might term it a blasted bomb, pyrotechnically speaking). But Mikaela caught the spirit of the evening anyway & lit it up all the more by accompanying each explosion with graphic historical accounts of how the bourgeois' good intentions went somewhat astray. (Now isn't that just like homeschoolers? They really know how to completely ruin all the fun in a good, old-fashioned revolution!)
Our revelry continued well into the enwee hours. In front of the fountain, a rock band played American covers and Katrianna verified its Americana authenticity by clapping her hands (over her ears & adamantly refusing to remove them - something she automatically does for similar music in the States). Finally, just as we were about to declare our Independence and go home, the dancing in the streets indeed began (actually, to be honest, it was square dancing) - of course, we joined in, all the while telling ourselves we think we can-can.
Overall, Bastille Day was an enlightening change of pace from our typical July 4ths in the U.S. We were happy to partake in all of the new cultural experiences France had to offer on this special occasion, despite the fact that there were none of the traditional amusements we'd originally expected - like frolicking games of Pin the Head on the Aristocrat (much anticipated by Mikaela), Storm the Prison & Free our Comradessack races, or the undeniably thrilling, though life-threatening, Running of the Boules (probably for the best, as everyone knows boules fighting is justifiably frowned upon by PETA). Well, we globeschoolers continue to live & learn. Anyhow, as I recall (with a knitted brow, Madame?), it was the best of times.
"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.
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!"
Impossible! 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?"
Evidently, 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). The 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.) [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..."
His 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.
We 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.
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 Greenwichmeaning 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).
He 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!"
The 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?"
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.]
Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life; Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents' strife. The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love, And the continuance of their parents' rage, Which but their children's end naught could remove, Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage; The which, if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. Prologue, Romeo & Juliet
On June 1st, Italian soccer star Luca Ceccarelli and his stellar girlfriend Irene Lanforti, both alike in dignity, got married in fair Verona. The mayor officiated at the ceremony in an effort to promote the city's romantic image, as well as a brand new $1300 bargain opportunity for other lovers to follow in Luca & Irene's footsteps (or in Romeo & Juliet's wake, as the case may be - my guess is that the price tag for the latter might be a bit higher, though, as it involves a double ceremony of sorts, so do check with your wedding planner in advance). In fact, they exchanged vows on Juliet's famed balcony, a destination which already receives 1.2 million pilgrims a year. Only problem is that it's not Juliet's balcony. We jester not (we're no Shakespearean fools), we have this on high authority - that's right, we watch Rick Steves. Apparently, the Cappello family household, supposedly linked to the ancient Capulets, was actually occupied with "misadventur'd piteous overthrows" of another sort... indeed, it is reputed to have served famously as the neighborhood brothel. (Does this earn Luca a red light district card?) The balcony was added to the facade centuries after R&J's legendary tryst, but I wipe my civil hands clean of disparaging it any further.
The point is, by the time we got to Casa di Giulietta ourselves, it was a bit anti-climatic. All of us were jaded by visits to too many sightseeing attractions and - though it was subtle - we discerned that this one was yet another touristbooby trap. The whole idea of seeing Juliet like that rubbed M&K the wrong way, so none of us was disappointed when we arrived after closing time.
But, now, a flashback to the prologue of our own play on Romeo & Juliet:
M&K's Shakespearean melodrama had begun long before we entered Verona 'live and in person.' After several nights spent reading acts of the play aloud for "bedtime stories," we went ahead and scheduled Franco Zeffirelli's version for family movie night. They loved it and, naturally, it provided all manner of new family farcical fodder, like the scene where Romeo finds out Juliet is masquerading as a Capulet - dubbed the "Oh, Crap-ulet!" moment (yo, no disrespect). I very purposefully emphasized how silly R&J were to be so impatient, "doomed" and inclined to moaning - trying to make sure to counteract any over-romanticizing of the love story and its outcome (putting me in direct opposition to the dreamy Mercutio, thousands of English teachers who annually uphold this as the sacred epitome of tragic love, and the millions more afflicted with Sir Walter Scott disease in its many Harlequinesque manifestations). But, since they already knew about that sort of thing from Marc Antony & Cleopatra, I felt relatively assured that they were quite content to scoff at scars & won't be inclined to feel - or purposefully self-inflict - any wounds.
Nevertheless, it did inspire them. We created an abridged script of the balcony scene and M&K began practicing at once... so, May we humbly present Mikaela in the guise of Romeo and Katrianna as a r's rolling, Romeo-relishing Juliet:
And, since there was only one fair way to resolve "the ancient [actress] grudge that threatened to break to new [sibling] mutiny," Mikaela now assumes the role of a be-musing Juliet & Katrianna displays her best Zeffirelli-directed portrayal of the boysterous, love-struck Romeo:
Eventually, after all of this intense theatrical preparation in the states, the girls found themselves performing to wide acclaim across Europe. In nearly every village, town or city, in each & every country we visited, they sought out spare balconies, trespassed their stony limits & winged it to love's lofty heights to answer the summons of Shakespearean schmaltz. As you can imagine, many awe-struck, appreciative aficionados would stop what they were doing to listen (interpreted by M&K as a 'standing O') before resuming their mundane daily tasks, which peculiarly enough usually involved sweeping the dirt off their own balconies so that it cascaded, confetti-like, right onto Romeo & Juliet's upturned, praise-expectant bare heads.
When we finally got to Verona following four months of "touring," our little troupers approached it with all of the enthusiasm of hackneyed actors on their 500th run of an off off-Broadway production. Their namesakes "up in graffiti" outside the gates of the Casa di Giuliettafailed to amuse them. But, it was a beautiful, crisply cool night so we merrily romped through the medieval, marble-cobbled streets pretending to be the Montagues & the Capulets (improvising to add the snappy fingers & mandatory dance moves of the Sharks & the Jets, obviously). It was really perfect and oh-so authentic, all except for the fact that Tybalt, aka the Prince of Cat's, aka Chris, refused to change into the tri-colored tights I'd brought along especially for this occasion... clearly, men do not support the arts.
We strolled past Verona's colosseum and through a maze of fashion boutiques to Piazza delle Erbe, the expansive town square lined by herb vendors' carts, gleaming lights and freely flowing fountains of youths imbibing the nightlife. It was quite nice, but then we meandered around a corner and found ourselves in Piazza dei Signori, lorded over by a middle aged, supremo Dante who refused to tell us definitively whether we'd found Paradiso or, could it be, the infernal Cinema Paradiso? - certainly, his mute condescension proved to be a divine comedy at our expense. Once more, we wandered on through an indescript opening in the walls and, magically, we were completely alone in yet another piazza facing the biggest, most imposing staircase and balcony we had ever scene!
That did it. The Sarkar Sisters Theater Company sprang into "Action!" Well, at least they tried to. Turned out that the final, moonlit performance of Romeo & Juliet actually started with the Intermission due to a minor glitch - when, upon inspecting the balcony to ensure its safety for the children, Mom was, at its vertex, suddenly struck with her fear of heights forgotten in all the excitement. No problem, there was only a slight twenty minute delay as Mom took to her hands and knees to crawl back down the 72 steps...
The dénouement of our Verona play date:
Truly, I don't know how I hadn't thought of this before. We always seem to overlook the obvious and what's right in our own backyard, don't we? But, thanks to the newly betrothed Mr. & Mrs. Ceccarelli and the fare-mayor of Verona, I'm adding The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas to our list of worldly, must-see sites. Of course, it's the home of the esteemed classic musical, valid reason enough. However, now I also realize we should be looking ahead and scope it out as an ideal spot for Mikaela's or Katrianna's future nuptials & afterparty. A wonder that it hasn't occurred to the fine, entrepreneurial folks at the La Grange chamber of commerce, ain't it? Just goes to show that we Americans still lag far behind in terms of European sophistication and literary nuance...
A glooming peace this morning with it brings; The sun for sorrow will not show his head. Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished; For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
For 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?
Well, 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).
When 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...
I 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.
Freed 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." 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'slog):
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 Fold 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
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. One 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.
For 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...
Chris and I used to plan our weekends around university and local library used book sales. We were bound to. These sales were full of all sorts of obscure, random & dusty titles with disturbingly nibbled edges (bookworms?) and torn, tattered jackets (not that we judged them by their covers). Invariably, Chris would turn up the volumes. He'd insist on purchasing a much needed fourth copy of Lancelot because 1) it was hardback, 2) it was likely the missing link to completing his senior thesis, and 3) it was 25 cents. So, that's how two aspiring literati became bookkeepers -- on account of our value system: 50 books for $12.50. (A ledger-ly, our living buy the book also kept us in the, well, read.) We always left with several boxes of rare finds that Chris would lovingly strap into the back seat, carefully anchored to the child safety locks.
That was no accident. For a long time, books were like our pampered babies. Until we had real babies. And needed more room for their pampers. So, though all parents deny doing it, it became clear that we would have to 'play favorites,' boldly declare our love for one fiction over another, and turn over some old leaves. The first 25 bags of books took their exit in preparation for Mikaela's nursery. The second batch packed it up for the girls' playroom. And, in the ultimate treachery, the third set was shelved (or, in this [book] case, unshelved) to make way for M&K's own, ever-expanding kids' book collection. (Drat, folio-ed again!)
Originally (sins I felt guilty for overbooking), I did convince Chris that we should try to sell the initial round of rejects to Half-Price Books in an effort to ease the farewell pinch. But, after the first couple of bags, the 'buy back' bookies caught on that our car's trunk was overflowing with more... Suddenly, we had no value in their eyes & our returns were pathetic. It just became too painful to be offered 15 cents for a book and see it up on their shelf two weeks later priced at $7.50.
Even worse is when we'd panic and seriously consider rebuying it! Sure, ridding ourselves of it had seemed like the copy right thing to do at the time... until we saw its new edition at Borders listed as a $19 novelty. Ya know how it is, when you realize you had a pretty good thing going with that open book? Finding yourself face-to-face with the lost love, it's so tempting to abandon all the progress you've made in the 12-Step Readers Anonymous Program. You start to sweat, experience those familiar withdrawal symptoms & can't remember why you two ever parted in the first place. Hey, you tell yourself, unlike with all those other used books you'd been considering, at least you know this one's history, who it spent time with before...
...and, next thing ya know, you're walking down the aisle to register that you're Reunited.
Thankfully, we finally brought that chapter of our lives to a close.
Though at first our losses were very difficult, we read between the lines and have faith that our castoffs are not really Books of the Dead. They've passed on to a better world,
one where they join all other virtuous books on golden, shiny shelves (with infinite shelf life
expectancy) and we can feel confident that we will see them again one
fine day. In fact, we often do -- every time we go to the library branch where
we donated them & recheck 'em out whenever we want. Verily, they
have returned from whence they came and, as a result, we have been
'saved' from paying monthly fees at Public Storage. Now we live on
borrowed time: what M&K can't afford to get with their Barnes &
Noble birthday gift cards, we simply loan out from the library. We're taking it two weeks at a time.
Wishing you a happy National Library Week and a fine(s) time! (Pardon me, that sentiment was overdue.)
Hey, hey, wanna
this page? (Did I read your mind?)
Some of our past Easters have been spent at church. Some with relatives. Some on day-long hikes. Some at Eugene O'Neill's house. No, not really, there was only one Easter at Eugene O'Neill's house.
I didn't plan it that way. Last year, I'd called to schedule a reservation at the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site & specifically asked about "off hours" so we could avoid being added to a crowded tour group. "Oh, well then, you'll want to come Sunday, March 23. We're going to be open & no one's scheduled that day. All of the other times and days are pretty much full." Then she added, a little tersely I thought, "You could come that Sunday if you want. We have to be open anyway."
Perfect, we'll take it! I hung up thinking how lucky I'd been to not only get a spot, but to get one all to ourselves on such short notice. We weren't going to be in California for long, so this was our chance. I ran to my calendar to jot down the particulars when I finally understood her tone. That Sunday, just a couple of weeks away, was Easter Sunday - in March this year, not April, I'd forgotten.
I picked up the phone to cancel, but then I reconsidered. When would the girls get this opportunity again & how could I, their loving mother, deny them the joy of modern realism, abject pessimism and unresolved tragedy? I did make sure Aunty Monica would accompany us, and then assured myself that it was indeed a relatively festive way to celebrate Easter, after all.
Katrianna was not so easily persuaded. I tried to convince her that, since we weren't going to be at home in Houston, the Easter Bunny might have difficulty finding us. So, he had told me to meet him at Eugene O'Neill's house on Easter day at exactly 1:25 pm. Wasn't that neat? And, didn't she want to get her presents? She didn't buy it, not even close. OK, go with a different approach:
"Well no, honey, I know we haven't read anything by Eugene O'Neill yet... But, he did write a play called The Hairy Ape! It is almost exactly like Richard Scarry's cartoon where Bananas Gorilla finds and eats all of the bananas in the hold of that ship, then has to swab the discarded banana peels off the deck as a punishment. You really used to like Bananas Gorilla, remember?...
"Well no, Eugene didn't draw comics. He kinda preferred the format of dreary one act plays or four-hour long modernist sagas that examined the savagery and despair of humanity. But, other than that, it's exactly the same as Bananas Gorilla!"
She told me she had been over Bananas Gorilla for several years now & she didn't have any interest in Richard Scarry, this Eugene O'Neill fellow or any other "baby stuff" anymore. As an alternative to breaking out my anthology of O'Neill's one acts, I suggested, "Well, we could go out for pizza after the tour?"
Done! Easy parenting coercion 101.
The Easter Bunny did in fact find us in the morning that became electric with egg hunts, baskets of chocolates & brunch before we had to drive over to Danville. We arrived in the parking lot with time to spare and it was blissfully empty. Until another car arrived. And then another. And then another. And then the van, which we all just barely squeezed into so it could shuttle us up to the Tao House. Mostly I was upset our private tour had been usurped. But, I chose to focus instead on the weak moral character of these heathens who would so readily violate the sanctity of a holy day by going on a literary tour. They obviously had no sense of pro-piety.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and also clearly felt that there was no better thing to do on Easter Sunday than discuss Eugene O'Neill. He did take a moment to acknowledge that there were 'some younger than usual visitors with us this afternoon,' but he was a purist. That segue way over, he proceeded to display his exhaustive and intimate knowledge of O'Neill's life, including but certainly not limited to: alcoholism, child abuse, abandonment, collegiate suspension, depression, extramarital affairs, divorces, drug addiction, excommunication, banishment and multiple suicides of just about everyone connected to O'Neill in any way. Of course, he didn't realize it and nothing would have constrained our devout guide anyhow, but all of this was "old school" for my 7 and 10 year olds and they barely blinked - well, unless a big yawn sort of forced them to.
However, they did perk up when talk turned to O'Neill's daughter. Because they finally saw some way to relate perhaps? Was it the mention of a child or the father-daughter dynamic? No, it was because Oona had run away with and married Charlie Chaplin, 36 years her senior, and had been disowned by her dad forever after. He never saw his little girl again - very sad. It was hard to gauge M&K's reaction, however, because they were too busy nudging each other repeatedly, giggling and pointing at their own dad who had made them sit through hours of Charlie Chaplin movies saying, "Now, just wait, it does get funny. . . the good part's coming right after this!" It brought up such nostalgia in them for Modern Times, I mean their quality-filled 'Dad Times.' Still, at least the Noble Prize laureate's life had finally become relevant in their eyes. Plainly, Oona was wrong for what she did. Not the marrying a much older man part. But, the part about choosing to spend the rest of your life with someone who thought slapstick (not to mention silence) was funny.
A few other things caught their attention, too. The fact that inside the Tao House, which O'Neill had specially built based on the principles of Taoism, mirrors were strategically placed to ward off evil spirits and were tinted a disconcerting shade of green (perhaps to reflect the envy of all onlookers?). The fact that his third wife had changed her name from Hazel Neilson Taasinge to Carlotta Monterey to appear more exotic.
The fact that their dog was dotingly referred to as their "baby" and, unlike the husband, got to share its room with Carlotta. The fact that the neckties hanging in O'Neill's bedroom closet matched those of their dad (proving that Chris is at the height of 1940s fashion). The fact that his study was designed and decorated to replicate a ship captain's quarters. The fact that they were the only ones on the tour allowed to sit in his chair and fiddle with his vintage pencils, always kept meticulously sharp on his two desks. The fact that, in his last years, his handwriting was so tiny that the guide supplied us with magnifying glasses so we could make out the words.
And, the fact that the outside of the house had stairs leading straight into walls, going nowhere, prompting Mikaela to observe that the Tao House seemed a lot more like the Winchester Mystery House than a soothing, feng shui environment.
But, what about the fact that he was born and also died in hotel rooms to which he reputedly decried from his death bed, "I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, Goddammit, died in one!" Or, the experience of overlooking the same hills and scenic views that had captured his imagination? Or, what about perusing his personal bookshelves full of literature and philosophical works? Or, how's about seeing his actual Nobel Prize for Literature award? Ehh, not so much...
Back outside the kids went, much more interested in the fact that all of the garden walkways and paths
zigzagged to throw off the
'negative powers' that, we were told, could only travel in straight
lines - which, of course, induced M&K to 'positively run amok' and play tag in the
estate's backyard until it was time to leave.
Still, they had given their mom a memorable Easter present - the certainty that one day this would mean something to them, too. Or, even if not, that they might at least know enough to avoid life's (and/or ENGL 401's) Strange Interludes as a result.
After our Long Day's Journey into Easter, we were playfully ushered Into Night with the help of large pizzas, sodas & tunes on the ipod shuffles that the Easter Bunny had managed to slip into a couple of eggs found at Eugene O'Neill's very own Tao House.
On our extended trip to Colorado, a different sort of snow job commanded the attention of our family of flakes in the form of a blizzard. We don't ski, but we easily could have been mistaken for a bunch of lugers out there chillin' on the mountain. (Really - and I don't mean to brag - I could have sworn I heard a couple of snowboarders call us just that when they swooshed by... true, it was a little muffled in the 70 mph winds... Down South, by the way, we call those gusts 'hurricanes' instead of 'wind resistance.') We went sledding down a perilously slippery slope that extended for quite possibly a whole 40 feet (even the bunnies were laughing at us - from their vantage point about 500 feet up).
And, not once during our outing did Ethan Frome's "smash up" slip slide away into the recesses of my psyche... but, luckily, our day involved no desires under an elm, shattered pickle dishes or zeena-phobia. [I hated that book when I read it at 16, but no amount of topical Wharton remover, applied liberally to my prefrontal cortex twice daily ever since, has proven effective in eliminating its imagery.] Overall, however, it was a very (very) cool experience!
During our time spent in Boulder with Bob and his wife, Chaya, we also went to the Dushanbe Teahouse, where the fine
service, like the fine tea, apparently cannot be rushed. Once you enter
the doors, time stops and all is at rest. We arrived just when we
should have - not even close to tea time - and the place was nearly
empty with tables plentiful, yet our seating preparation and the
ceremonious setting of utensils took at least ten very
consciousness-inducing minutes while we stood waiting at the cusp of
enlightenment (which is located just inside the entryway, wedged
between the hostess stand and mere millimeters from the swinging door -
which I can only assume to be intentional and symbolic of our
precarious position in the universe). The unanticipated respite
provided us abundant time to examine and accept the futility of our
rushed lives and overly eager expectations, as well as gave Bob ample
opportunity to select and purchase a tasteful souvenir. When Chaya
asked if she could have milk in her tea, the waiter deliberated and
answered philosophically 'Why, yes, he thought she might' which he
emphasized by agreeably nodding his redhead. It took quite a bit more
prompting to move him out of the realm of possibility and into the
actual delivery of the milk, but the result, of course, was our deeper
appreciation of each and every aspect of our tea time, as well as
a savoring of the teahouse staff's superior understanding of the subtleties
of service. Truly, at the famed Dushanbe teahouse, my cup runneth over. And, now, a final metrospective: Boulder is, due to a tremendous amount of concerted effort on the part of its citizenry, just a bit quirky. Everybody drives either a Prius or a VW van converted to run on veggie oil, conscientiously rehydrates with only organic beer after Bolder Boulder training runs, climbs rock walls in 100% hemp laced birkenstocks or spins around on their tandem bicycles (outfitted with a modified second seat to accommodate their dog who pedals like mad in an effort to reduce its carbon pawprint). There is also a plethora of "Keep Boulder Weird" bumper stickers & paraphernalia, yet I am required by Texas allegiance (& the desire to avoid another scuffle with state patrol border guards on the way back in), to take umbrage and point out that their beloved mantra was plagiarized, lifted verbatim from Austin, TX. True, it is hard to blame Boulderites since that wording is so profound and evocative. May I humbly suggest they try something more local, a pithy summation that is indicative of their own region instead? I got it, how's about BOULDER: WE'RE FULL OF CROCS!
I don't know, it might need some tweaking... Perhaps Austin just had beginner's luck coming up with our so emulated slogan & no city should expect to coin something that achieves transcendent, world famous status. Oh, shoot, I just remembered the Alamo... Guess it's time for us to return to the only state that can rightfully claim to have the highest density of original weirdos in the nation!
Great (Dave) Scott! I didn't mean to resort to Lance strong Arm tactics there...
P.S. For the record, during our visit to Boulder, we did not once catch sight of Mork nor Mindy. But, I did see several characters who I suspect might be aging backwards... either that, or they're new aging. I admit I can't tell the difference.
Because we homeschool, I've always been a little hyper aware that Mikaela & Katrianna don't have the variety of teacher role models that I enjoyed and Chris drove into early retirement. So, like many overcompensating homeschoolers, we've supplemented with teachers for extracurricular classes in music, art and writing, participated in ongoing educational programs at science or history museums, nature centers & the zoo, plus had the tutelage of a couple of little league coaches. We've also discovered "positive influences" in many of the other homeschooling parents who have surprisingly diverse and interesting careers, such as NASA rocket scientists, professional artists, architects, doctors, ranchers, airplane pilots, supercomputer engineers, landscape designers & geologist 'rock stars.'
And a final, unexpected way we found mentors for our kids is through interaction with and learning from Chris' clients. We just spent most of March in Boulder, Colorado, so Chris could meet with colleagues with whom he has consulted for a few years now. Over time, we all have gotten to know many of them and several have become significant role models for our girls. Their greatest qualification? They are nerds who found a way to make it their life's work!
Now, before Chris gets fired, let me explain. In our family, "nerd" is a term of endearment, a complimentary title reserved only for those we most admire and idolize (and, obviously, what we aspire to be ourselves). Nerds are people who have been able to turn their passions into action. Bespectacled or not, they fully embrace and fixedly pursue whatever "turns them on," become specialists in their fields and, eventually, find a way to put their education, enthusiasm and expertise into practice. (For us, this applies to traditionally "nerdy" intellectual pursuits, but also to excelling in sports, politics, music, art ... ) At first they might seem too geeky or unconventional, but ultimately they become, often as a direct result of their previous "misfit" status, the coolest and most respected extra-ordinary people out there.
Really, it's quite similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for "The American Scholar," only we prefer the ring of "The American Nerd" (pə-tā'tō as opposed to pō-tot-ō?). We constantly point out historical and contemporary examples of this phenomenon to M&K, who are true believers now due to an innate propensity to nerdiness [nature] as well as exposure to as many nerds as I can find to teach them about [nurture]. So far, our daughters' nerdy-cool heroes have ranged from Br'er Rabbit to Ben Franklin, Daniel Boone to Clara Barton, Martin Luther King to Mother Teresa, John James Audubon to the first dog astronaut (along with the lesser Neil Armstrong), Hatshepsut to Louisa May Alcott, Robin Hood to Nelson Mandela, Joan of Arc to Jane Goodall, Sacagawea to Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln to Barack, Michelle, Malia & Sasha Obama. That's all good, since these are laudable legends studied in textbooks, newspapers or from afar, but meeting and befriending real, live "pal"-adins is, of course, even better!
Stephen Mitchellis an author who readily admits that initially he had no idea he could actually earn a living by writing. But, to date, he has 38 published books and has gained a large and appreciative audience for his translations, poetry, fiction & non-fiction works, children's books and philosophical writings. He was in the middle of an eleven-city tour arranged by his publisher when we met him and attended his reading for The Second Book of the Tao. Many receptive thinkers and fans were gathered there to hear him expound upon its chapters, as well as to get a few moments to chat with him while he signed copies of his book.
In preparation for the reading & seeing Stephen again, the girls and I read his book and incorporated it into our studies for school which included a year-long unit on China (where we focused on all the typical cultural facts & wrote historical research papers, plus partook in protest demonstrations favoring Tibetan independence & watched the Olympics as "homework"). Even before the book hit bookstores' shelves, we had a sneak peek and discussed such concepts as accepting things as they are. Our perceptive daughters' understanding of this idea mostly centered around its application to Mom - their prime examples being my gracefully accepting the "perfection" of their untidy bedrooms, lackadaisical tooth brushing or school papers that are found everywhere except in their portfolios. Enthusiasm for their particular interpretation of "the way" then extended into the minutiae of our daily routine, as in 'Are not a correct answer and an incorrect answer to this math problem equally worthy and virtuous?'
After the reading, as we all strolled down the blustery Pearl Street Mall, Chris was the personification of "yes chasing no endlessly in circles" as he orbited in hyper leaps about the ever composed and serene Stephen. (The allusion would be a good one, except for one thing - I am the one who sits up all night sweating ethical
dilemmas, while Chris peacefully snores right through - clearly
demonstrating that he is much further along in his journey to Zen than
I am.) Finally, we found ourselves ensconced safely inside the Dushanbe Teahouse and enjoying a moment's peaceful silence when Katrianna, the existentialist, suddenly piped up: "Could it be that I'm a butterfly just thinking I'm having tea with Stephen Mitchell?" Well, at least it showed she'd taken a fancy to chapter 5...
Not long after that, coincidentally I'm sure, Stephen mentioned that he enjoyed doing the book tours and meeting people but that he would rather be home spending time with his wife, Byron Katie. His affection and respect for Katie, who he had also mentioned fondly several times during his reading, moved me to such an extent that I immediately gave
Chris an elbow to the ribs and said "See?!" before I realized I wasn't
Loving What Is...
Understandably, Stephen then expressed a desire to get back to the hotel and work on his next book, a highly anticipated translation of The Iliad. Just as the cab was about to mercifully whisk him off, Mikaela eagerly called out, "In your next book, remember when you're formatting not to align the text to the right - it has to stay centered!" By then, however, I believe he'd successfully plugged his ears with beeswax, so he just graciously smiled and waved goodbye. Certainly it had been a productive day, one that no doubt illustrated Chris' invaluable worth as a consultant, especially in his ability to fully test Stephen's resolve to adhere to the Taoist tenet of remaining calm and unaffected by worldly strife and drivel.
Another client we met last week was Robert Freling, who was in Colorado to receive the King Hussein Leadership Prize presented by Her Majesty Queen Noor at the Aspen Institute. Previous recipients have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Doctors without Borders and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank.
Bob was introduced to our family over the phone a few years ago, when he called Chris immediately after returning from a trip to Rwanda where his team had been busy installing solar electric systems to replace diesel generators used in several community health clinics. My interest was piqued when I overheard Chris saying "No way... How many ribs?!" Turned out, a couple of very dark nights before, Bob had decided to take in a view of the stars, stepped out onto his bungalow's nonexistent back porch and promptly plummeted down into the wilds of Rwandan jungle. (Demonstrating the need for some solar lighting, no?)
He broke some ribs but still managed to hike several miles the next morning so he could fulfill the fun, relaxing part of his visit and see some gorilla families, descendants of Dian Fossey's beloved buddies. With that, he instantly became our family's latest hero and was thereafter affectionately dubbed "Solar Bob" by my admiring kiddos.
Bob, who also happens to be a native Texan, leads a charitable organization called Solar Electric Light Fund, based in Washington DC. They install solar panels in remote villages around the world, providing essential power for hospitals and vaccine storage, fresh water and drip irrigation systems for crops, lighting & electricity in local schools and personal power units for individual homes. Among SELF's many impressive projects are those for the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania, for local schools in Nelson Mandela's birthplace, for the Vietnam Women's Union, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative for numerous medical clinics in Africa, with Brad Pitt's Make It Right project in New Orleans, and alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide reliable technology access for the Navajo Nation. It's been a fun and ongoing inspirational lesson just trying to keep up with and learn about all of the places Bob has been to and that SELF has helped.It makes those places "real" and the world becomes, as a result, smaller and more accessible - if not physically, at least psychologically. Certainly it underscores the theme that one person (even a kid who grew up in Dallas, Texas) can make a meaningful contribution toward "making the world a better place."
Stephen and Bob are examples of "regular guys" whose natural interests and strengths became integral to their work and lifestyles. They do what they love & they make a living doing it. But, they are still nerds... after all, despite all of their accomplishments, look who they ended up hanging out with in Boulder.
It all started when we were trying to fit in with a new playgroup at their park day. We'd recently decided to homeschool Mikaela, but we hadn't found our niche yet in any of the homeschool groups where most families' kids were older than ours or we'd been rejected because we wouldn't sign the group's statement of faith, publicly declaring our animosity toward Satan and expressing our willingness to enlist the kids in a crusade if given 48 hours advance notice.
This group, though not homeschoolers, seemed ideal because it had an abundance of toddlers along with several five year olds who'd just missed the school district's birthdate cutoff. If it worked out, both of my girls would have plenty of potential playmates and our homeschooling wouldn't even be an issue.
It was a gorgeous 75 degree fall morning, full of buzzing bees, flitting butterflies and birds tweeting their sweet, melodic songs (this was long ago, before they communicated exclusively through twitter - 140 notes at a time).
Then, suddenly, he was upon us. Lawn Mower Tractor Guy. Oblivious to all due to the roar of the engine, his walkman headphones and the thick, dangling earflaps of his woolen winter cap, he was headed straight for the sandbox! Like Odysseus, who had to abandon his insanity act and rescue the infant Telemachus from an oncoming plow, I threw aside my frivolous, inane, getting-to-know-you banter just in time to hurdle the teeter totter and swoop up Katrianna.
The whirling blades just grazed the ironsides of the ship-shaped sandbox, barely causing a stir among the kids inside it who were too preoccupied with shoring up caches of pebbles (resourcefully stored in their pull-ups) for the inevitable battle that brought each and every playdate to a glorious conclusion. Still panting, I glanced around to see that the few moms who had bothered to look up from their cell phones were snickering in my direction. In an ironic twist in our odyssey to find playgroup inclusion, my conspicuous child-rescue action was regarded as egregiously overprotective and confirmed their suspicions that "the homeschooling mom" was indeed out of her mind.
I hung my head in shame. I called to Mikaela that it was time to go when an empathetic mom broke ranks and came over to commiserate about the odd fellow who'd nearly mowed down my daughter. Thinking it a lost cause anyway, I nervously adjusted the buckle on Katrianna's overalls and explained, "I just hadn't realized Ignatius J Reilly had moved to Houston."
She laughed, then added, "Oh, but he hasn't. That was Holden Caulfield!" Right then I knew we'd found our playgroup and I could postpone carpooling the girls to Lil' Missionary Club meetings for at least another year.
[Helpful hint: Undoubtedly, the Confederacy of Dunces allusion litmus test is a good idea, but that Toole's book only came up this one time. For no fail conversational icebreakers, I recommend going with War & Peace or Moby Dick - both are invaluable sources for discovering common ground among parents while watching soccer games in lawn chairs. Nevertheless, this was a refreshing change and I am forever beHolden to the Catcher in the Wry.]
Over the winter months, Charlotte and I and our four kids became good friends. We even went along when they invited us to some services at their church (but it was an Episcopal church, so it doesn't really count - as everybody knows, religion and Episcopalians never really mix... except maybe martinis... in post communion happy hours... the Reverend Father tends bar). But, one deceptively free & easy spring afternoon, we lingered to let our kids play when all of the other playgroup moms had left. Charlotte leaned across the picnic table and asked me confidentially, "Now truthfully, Cathy, why do you homeschool your kids?" Lulled by a cool breeze as we sat there in 96 degree shade, I let my defenses down completely and made a terrible mistake: I was honest. I blame it on sunstroke.
I answered that, like most parents, I strongly believed I was obligated to do the best I could for my kids. A huge part of that had to do with meeting their academic needs. Although I didn't think it would be "bad" for them to attend public or private school, I was in a position that I could stay home with them and we could choose to homeschool instead. They had learned so much already before they were of "school age" and, out of all the options I'd looked into, I felt we could do the best job of providing them a challenging education, letting them progress at their own pace and keeping the learning fun. Plus, I added, it was what Mikaela said she wanted to do & my plan was to go along with it for as long as she wanted...
Charlotte looked incredulous. I guess she sensed I was still holding back. She guilefully goaded me on with "But is being smart really soimportant?"
That did it, she got me in my Achilles cranium. I went on to explain that I thought God wanted each of us to reach our full potential. We'd all been given gifts and, since my girls so far had not demonstrated any Carl Lewis tendencies or Olympic aspirations (wiped away a tear there), I was focusing on what seemed to be their particular strengths and affinities right now. They were smart, they loved to learn, and they wanted to homeschool. My personal philosophy was that each of us should do our very best with whatever talents God had given us and, through conscientious effort, we would make the world a better place.
My spiritual revelation had the precise effect I always suspected it might. Charlotte immediately remembered a crucial need to replenish their goldfish's food supply, tossed the kids head first into her bicycle's pup tent kid carrier and shifted through all 3 gears of her bike's derail-hers in the fastest getaway I'd ever "witnessed."
Sincerity stinks.Had I learned nothing from Linusand the Great Pumpkin? In a momentary lapse of judgment, I'd forgotten to keep my blanket securely in place o'er this little (jack-o) lantern o' mine. And, I hadn't even told Charlotte the whole story... that the worst period in our pre-school years was when I realized three year old Mikaela was recognizing words and learning to read on her own. On the advice of several teacher friends, who told me that she wouldn't fit in at kindergarten and would have to skip ahead a couple of grades if she kept this up, I rebuffed all of her repeated requests to teach her to read 'real' books. The "rejection" seemed to hurt her emotionally, no matter how I explained it or tried to distract her with 'fun' activities and playdates. But I persisted, determined that she would attend traditional school.
I spent my time touring schools and visiting on parents' night open houses, taking Mikaela to our neighborhood school's Dr Seuss play to show her that indeed - in 2 more years - attending school would be wonderful, and even signing her up for pre-K classes where I was told she asked too many questions, overparticipated and refused to properly print lowercase letters using the "clock system" (because she had mastered upper & lowercase lettering already, but apparently that was not the point). After three months of this, my little scholar was literally at her wit's end. Finally, at home one quiet morning, I pulled out a chapter book and asked her to read it aloud to me. She was ecstatic and that decided it for all of us. What were we waiting around for?
Our families continued to get together after my unconscionable faux pas, but we always kept to safe topics after that: discussing our kids' vegetable preferences, debating the environmental impact of cloth vs. commercial diapers or, always a bonding win-win topic, listing all the things other moms did wrong in raising their kids. By the next fall, her son was accepted into the city's most competitive academic kindergarten program, reputed to produce only National Merit Finalists and Rhodes Scholars. He did very well but, for first grade, she transferred him to a magnet school for music, explaining that she sought a well-rounded education.
Sacrilege! Not that I'm judging... Few parents are comfortable putting all their little eggheads in one basket. Of course, we've been doing this homeschooling for so long now, we just went ahead and invested in a whole basket case... but that's just us. Most likely, her son will graduate from the music academy as a classically trained musician, receive a scholarship to Juilliard and be first chair in any of five instruments.
(That's okay, we play music, too... We adhere strictly to the Chu-ze-key guitar method -- if you don't know the fingering on a note, no need to fret, simply choose to play a different note or skip it altogether. Hey, when they're teenagers, who do you think will be picked to play in a garage band? See, we homeschoolers do consider socialization and the big picture.) As our kids grew, we met on their school holidays and during summer vacations and, eventually, we also found some like-minded families in homeschooling groups.
Certainly, we all got a lot out of that playgroup experience. The kids made many new friends, although -inexplicably- none of them elected to homeschool when it came time to start kindergarten. And, perhaps most significantly, it reaffirmed my promise to myself that I would never again divulge even the slightest hint of religious motivation in our homeschooling decision. Thank God, I've faithfully stuck to that one...
The truth is we're closet religious homeschoolers. But, if asked, I'll deny it. Three times.
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.
Seizing 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.
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 theHail, Caesar?! That was really bad forum."
Ahh, that makes me feel much gladiator. Two thumbs up!
*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?
Today, President Obama met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As much as I support and admire Obama, his glaring diplomatic misstep in the press conference afterwards was a bit embarrassing. And I quote BBC news,
"Asked about their personal rapport, Mr Obama said they had 'spectacular wives and wonderful children in common'."
That's all fine and good, but I'm afraid Obama was merely showing his neophyte understanding of interpersonal and political dynamics by citing such a transparent and superficial connection. Proof? Well, when George W was asked about what he had learned after a crucial first meeting with Tony Blair, he was ready. Relying on all of his years of international experience and personal charisma, Dubya stunned the world with his incisive grasp of the relevant when he responded: "We both use Colgate toothpaste."
To his credit, however, Obama recovered somewhat when he noted: "Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies and there is a link and bond there that will not break."
To what bond is Obama referring? Some might think it's our common heritage under British rule. Or, perhaps, our shared preference for English muffins over a breakfast bagel. It could simply be the use of the English language (or a semblance thereof in the case of US leaders that make me wax nostalgic). But, all true policy pundits immediately know what Obama was getting at. The real tie that binds us Americans to our British compatriots -in-spirit is one thing and one thing only: really bad jokes.
(Could it be that Bush was inadvertently and unwittingly more astute than we all realized? I guess we'll just have to do like he says and "See what the history books decide." Oh, I can hardly wait.)
Obama clarified: "This notion that somehow there is any lessening of that special relationship is misguided... The relationship is not only special and strong but will only get stronger as time goes on." Gordon Brown concurred, stating, "I have come here to renew our special relationship for new times. It is a partnership of purpose born out of shared values."
They both went on to warn about the dangers of isolationism and the prosperity that is certain if we all refuse to "'project inwards' by encouraging protectionism." I wholeheartedly agree. If we cannot come together with our English cousins in fair and equal comedic commiseration, with an unfettered exchange of goods, services and puns in particular, how can we ever expect to find common ground on other, less significant issues like preventing world economic disaster? Let's learn from our past. It wasn't called the Great Depression for nothing.
I didn't really need this segueway to discuss bad British humor as a means of excusing my own. I admit I've been feeling sheepish and somewhat apologetic about my pun-laden prose since this blog's inception and have been mulling how to go about redeeming myself intellectually ... But, just yesterday, I caught sight of this headline on BBC's front page news:
With that, I feel absolutely no need to recuse myself from future blogging and the lofty heights to which I pun. Besides, even Shakespeare includes a healthy smattering of puns in his plays, so I figure I'm in good company. (True, his use of such undignified humor was an attempt to amuse and thereby quell the low-class, raucous urchins who occupied the pit of his Globe... But, then again, how is his writing so different from mine? Now, if you keep reading, blame only yourself.)
I am not asserting that England has any claim to superiority in comedy. For instance, despite calling myself an English major, I never ever could tolerate Monty Python marathons - any clever allusions in Holy Grail are unmercifully negated by chauvinistic slapstick that fully escapes my sensibilities. And, despite his eerie resemblance to my husband (at least according to several of my admiring/bewildered students), Mr Bean does little for my desires to relax heavy & punitive protectionist taxes on imported humor.
But, in terms of "the man on the street," in our travels thus far, we consistently find the grandest rapport with the gentlefolk we meet in Great Britain. (No slight intended to Joe Six-Pack, Main Street America, you betcha!) Sure, part of it is our common language, but it is also a shared willingness to use language for inclusion, nuance and a certain joie de vivre. (Mais oui, bien sûr, that is borrowed French... but the French too often miss the point, so it's okay to appropriate their phrases. Besides, the girls and I actually speak French, but, in our months there, we enjoyed little in the way of repartee or outreach beyond our being repeatedly corrected on the pronunciation of Juuuuuules Verrrrrrrne. Quel dommage. Zut alors!) Two examples of England's convivial conversationalism occurred in Dorchester. We'd gone there on a quest for Thomas Hardy, but then got sidetracked by King Tut. (Isn't that always the way?) We'd arrived a little later in the afternoon than we'd hoped, meaning we'd just missed the admission hours for Hardy's home tour, so we found ourselves with an unexpected Hardy hometown respite.
We strolled over to the Mayor of Casterbridge's house, took an obligatory photo while we tried unsuccessfully to recall the plot of said novel, & wandered around until we serendipitously entered the world-famous, two-roomed Dorchester Museum. (Travel tip: The exceedingly friendly receptionist talked us into purchasing the more economically-advantageous family annual membership, so that, in the likely event that we did not complete our perusal of their expansive collections, we could enjoy unlimited return visits.)
To my young Egyptologist's delight, the touring exhibit on display was that of actual replicas of King Tut objects, most of them in the ultra-realistic medium of wax (allowing us to skip a visit to Madame Tussaud's, so it was worth every pence). Lest you doubt the thrill of this experience, let me brag on and say that the ticket included an added sensory bonus - when we entered the makeshift tomb, it was exactly as it had been the moment Howard Carter broached it in 1922, down to the odiferous supplementary whiffs authentically discharged from a retrofitted Glade plug-in. This diversion was not on our planned itinerary, but it was nonetheless edifying. Indeed, before that moment, I'd never known King Tut was a Hardy boy...
I know, there's no humor in that. I'm getting to the funny part now.
When reentering the light of day and 2007, we squinted and rubbed our eyes only to find ourselves amid festive preparations for the Queen's grand procession. Apparently, Dorchester is the only town in all of merry England still permitted to assemble a queen's volunteer militia. We found a place among the waiting throng of Dorchester's multitudes, when my husband loudly quipped, "What are we all waiting for? A public hanging?" From the elderly gaggle of ladies next to us came: "Certainly, of Tony Blair." With that introduction, they graciously forgave us for being Texans, and we all immediately and with ease proceeded into a discussion of the merits of public beheadings and the foibles of the various King Georges on both sides of the Atlantic. We were having a jolly old time, but weren't sure if they were just humoring us Yanks from o'er the pond, when we suddenly realized our amusement and delight was genuine and mutual. While we were passing the time in anxious anticipation of seeing one of the women's husbands marching by in his regiment, I'd glanced up just long enough to become disconcerted by a man passing us with a ridiculous, leering grin aimed right for me and my young daughters. I dismissed it, as our little group's hilarity and social protocol regained my attentions. It wasn't until we looked out onto any empty street that the woman realized the whole parade was finished and she'd forgotten to even notice her husband... we quickly exchanged pleasantries and cheerios as she ran off to find him. It was only much later, when I got our pictures developed and again saw that scary old man so intent on catching our eye, that I realized I had seen her shining knight-at-arms after all.
After such excitement, we elected to pass that night in Dorchester and resign ourselves to a drive by (photo) shooting of Hardy's home at dawn. I'd read in my handy guidebook that Max Gate, the name given Hardy's residence, was now a National Trust site, as well as a semi-private residence occupied by a couple who were esteemed members of the Thomas Hardy Society. Visiting days and hours where very limited, with tours seldom offered, and we'd missed our chance due to being so understandably caught up by the festive regalia and charms of Dorchester. Arriving that morning outside of the gated compound at the edge of town, and finding that its sign verily confirmed that we were not welcome until 3 days hence, Chris consoled himself by stealthily trespassing to snap a memento (we are Americans, after all). Fortuitously, in the garden, he tripped over the cord of the electric weedeater wielded masterfully by Sir Andrew, aka custodian of the estate. We've all read enough Hardy and Dickinsonian English tales to know what happened next, have we not? That's right. We were all invited in for tea and a spontaneous, gratuitous, private tour of Hardy's home. We flipped through pages in Hardy's personal photo albums as we were regaled with as much Hardy lore as we could heed.
Much to our surprise, we were told that Hardy was a sentimental man. He loved animals and had several pets. In fact, the caretaker continued, when a pet died he carved and engraved a tombstone for each of them with his own hands. In particular, he recalled, Hardy had loved a cat named Snowball. But one day, tragically, Snowball had made his way over to the railroad tracks and was fatally struck. Hardy was devastated. My girls listened intently and nodded somberly. Oh, to be privy to such intimate details, we all felt privileged. He next insisted that we follow him outside and around the grounds to Hardy's pet cemetery, a quiet, shady grove scattered with a few small, stone markers. It was tranquil and humbling to stand there, where Hardy had taken such care of those dear to him. Our guide pointed out the names - a lap dog there, his wife's favorite collie here... Finally, he carefully directed our attention to a headstone which read "Here Lies Snow." And, a few feet over, "Here Lies Ball." Only then, did he emit a hardy laugh at our expense.
As his wide smile displayed his gleaming white teeth which glistened in the English sunshine, it made me wonder, "Could it be he uses Colgate, too?"
How did it ever occur to us to study such a radical subject as gardening? It could not have anything to do with the fact that every single "What your child should learn" syllabus lists it as a mandatory science item for alternating years until graduate school (or the 5th grade, whichever comes first). Our approach to the subject was surely more original & organic than that...
Katrianna was the one to push seed sprouting as part of her academic agenda this year. But, in the interest of full disclosure, please note: We do not claim to have invented the lima-bean-in-a-ziplock experiment. As far as I know, kids have been doing that one since around the time man first discovered fire. Only they used those other baggies, the old-fashioned kind, with the fold-in flaps. That's right, the kind we parents used to pack our pb&j in for summer camp, the ones made from the lining of goats' stomachs instead of the "zipper seal." But same idea. (Note to Homeschoolers: add this bit of trivia to your homemade world history timeline, charted on scrolling butcher paper, which winds its way around your dining room and down the hall.)
Really, if you want to learn more about lima bean sprouting origins, just take the guided Lascaux cave tour in France. (Did you think they painted all the time?)
And, as much as I'd also like to claim Katrianna's gardening interest was an offshoot of my playing Audrey Hepburn and our touring around the Gardens of the World, that's just not so either. It was not the result of seeing Monet's Giverny, British Columbia's sunken gardens, Portland's famed roses, or even Stratford-Upon-Avon's very own "Shakespearean herb garden" (bet Shakespeare wished he'd thought to capitalize on that back in the 1600s - he might not have had to struggle with playwriting & instead could have turned his father's glove making business into a gardening glove making business, thereby assuring his future success).
No, none of those visits made my daughter green with envy. The real impetus for Katrianna's verdant desires was simply sibling jealousy (but I do claim quite a bit of credit for fostering that whenever possible). When looking through Mikaela's old portfolios last summer, Katrianna found her sister's original flowers & seeds section, completed when Mikaela was 5 and she was 2. Exactly what was the attraction? It wasn't the nifty construction paper seed parts with their movable flip-up features, or the labeled diagram worksheets, or the still life watercolor renditions à la Georgia O'Keefe, or even evidence of her sister's kindergarten attempts at flower-themed Wordsworthian sonnets.
The pure motivational factor in this sudden passion for gardening was to acquire her own set of pages with seed packets & seed samples glued beside them. That's it. They were colorful, commercial, tactile, and as close as our family comes to displaying glitz & glamour. And, most importantly to both girls, it was that subtle "I have something you don't have" quality, repeated in singsong delivery week after week, that made it a must-do school project.
Leading us back to Shakespeare, who captured the universality of this phenomenon when he penned that famous, so oft quoted line from Romeo and Juliet:
Do you bite your greenthumb at me, sir? (Act I, scene i)
So, with that, we will Candide-ly continue to tend our own gardens...