Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Memory

In looking back over some old Christmas notes to friends, I came upon this glimpse into life with boys as it was almost a decade ago. The boys were then 4,5, and 6. Here is one of my favorite Christmas memories:

Christmas 1999
As you know, I am the mother of three young sons, and I take my parental role very seriously. I have read many books about boys, how to help them become promising young men, how not to damage them unduly, how to prevent them from creating a homemade atomic weapon and blowing up the neighborhood, etc...
I was pondering the idea of hardwiring today and considering that while some mothers' experience sons like Thoreau who, while tiny, lisped sweetly, "I am trying to look through the stars to see if I can see God behind them."
I have sons who say things like yesterday's gem:
"Hey, if we melted down this silver baby Jesus nativity scene, we could make a bunch of bullets."
Surely there must be a reason for my sons to emerge from the womb screaming for blood and glory, and refusing all toys except projectiles. Bereft of toy guns by me, their idealistic mother, they deftly mastered the art of shaping their toast into the shape of a realistic looking guns and pointing them at me and saying "Bang!" by mere toddlerhood.
I feel I am swimming against a raging stream of testosterone- and losing the battle.
Yesterday, I noticed my lovely and realistic 500,001 piece Bethlehem village looked... odd. Looking closely, I discovered someone had carefully placed 100 or so small, plastic soldiers complete with full battle gear at strategic locations throughout the village. Especially daunting was the prone soldier holding Mary at bay with what appeared to be an AK-47.
Kind of authentic really.
Only last night did realize how very little control do I hold over these testosterone laden young mammals. We were doing the traditional kids get to make candy activity with peanut butter balls and chocolate. The boys were busily crafting small spheres of sweetened peanut butter and Christmas music was playing softly in the background.
All was a Christmas postcard.
I heard some smothered giggles and emerged from the kitchen just in time to see my middle son, Benjamin, in the act of chocolate-covering the most perfectly rendered set of male genitalia. Replete in its perfection... he had indeed created peanut butter balls.
Wish me lots of luck with these guys, please. I will need it.
Merry Christmas Everyone!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Recipe Box

I opened my grandmother's recipe box this week. I was trying to get a head start for Thanksgiving and wanted to make and freeze her poppyseed cake. Along with Texas cake and carrot cake and pumpkin pies,her poppyseed cake made an anticipated appearance each year. While thumbing through the thick collection of recipe cards , I found myself pausing to remember many friends and beauty shop ladies who shared recipes with one another on a weekly basis. Many familiar names topped the carefully written recipes. “From the Kitchen of Dorcas Herren” announced the recipes belonging to my piano teacher, Mrs. Herren. She arrived at my grandmother's beauty shop every Saturday morning before dawn to have her hair done for over 20 years.
As I read her recipe for peanut butter bars, and Amish friendship bread I remembered how competently her hands flew across the keyboard and how she never once was grumpy at my obvious lack of practice. I read so many names and could see the familiar faces, now gone.
I read my great-grandmother's recipe for lye soap and wondered how she managed a chore involving dangerous, combustible chemistry and simultaneously keep watch of her 17 children. I wish I would have thought to ask her how she managed.
I found favorite foods of my grandfather- like the mock strawberries my grandmother would make at Christmas. They were made with condensed milk, sweetened coconut, and strawberry Jello and looked and smelled like real strawberries. Not caring for coconut, I never thought they tasted as good as they looked- but it was the comfortingly familiar process of making them that announced that Christmas was coming. I found the Swedish Meatball recipe and recalled how much Papa loved them and how my grandmother had made the tiny, labor intensive meatballs by the hundreds for my parents' wedding reception.
I found an old photo of my brother, Nick, tucked between two recipes. Nick is wearing a chef's hat and rolling out pizza dough. I remembered that day and taking that picture. It was a good, happy day- one of thousands spent together. I am comforted that he knew how much he was loved.
I finally found the poppyseed recipe, but was momentarily daunted to find that it only listed the ingredients- not directions how to put them together. My grandmother must have assumed that whomever made the cake would have the experience needed to put it together. I should have payed attention. I forged ahead, overly confident in my abilities to remember how the batter should taste.
The resulting mixture looked familiar and as the cake baked, I was hopeful . During the last 5 minutes, however, it collapsed completely. I must have botched critical steps. Luckily, my grandmother is still with us, I have time to ask her, time to learn.
The recipe box is a tiny time portal. It can connect me with faces and events that once were. It contains glimpses of a life lived well- with family and close friends. I can open the box and within seconds, am transported to Christmases and holidays spent with people I loved, whom I love still-but whose time with me was limited. We are never certain how long we will remain together for grief and loss visits us all. Although I sometimes ache for those who have passed, I am grateful for having the chance to know and love them. I think of the wise words a friend once told me about loss: “ The holes in our lives created by those who leave us are enormous and will never truly go away, but somehow, we reassemble ourselves around it.”
I hold the recipe box in my hands- it feels warm and alive with the voices and faces it contains.
A mini Pandora's box of love and memory. For this, I am truly thankful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After the Election

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.

The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side.

It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonderIf I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbours?

Isn’t itWhere there are cows?

But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly,

and I’d ratherHe said it for himself.

I see him thereBringing a stone grasped firmly by the topIn each hand,

like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Removing the Blinders

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today
-Randy Newman

My oldest son recently made his first solo trip to Chicago. With trepidation, we put him on an Amtrak and sent him off to his Aunt Tess in the Windy City. He arrived uneventfully and had a great time with my little sister- who showed uncharacteristic restraint, by the way, and wisely refused to allow him to get a tattoo.
After he came home, he related that one of the strongest impressions the city made was the many homeless families camped on each city block.
Statistics provided by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless show that Chicago has over 80,000 homeless people and shelters serve 15,000 any given night. Chicago is one of five cities that collectively have over 50% of the nation's homeless population,many of whom are mentally ill -displaced after deinstitutionalization and a broken mental health system, but many are also victims of family violence.. There are more than 18,600 homeless students attending Illinois Public schools- a truly staggering number. The causes of homelessness are many and often complex and Chicago has a vast network of good people trying to help people find shelter, however,my son saw only the desperation and despair. He saw statistics in human faces and it was a revelation.
Through my work with the Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council's 6th Judicial Circuit, I see suffering family violence creates and which often leads to homelessness for women and children. Last week, I participated in hosting a large conference in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Working in collaboration with the 5th Judicial Circuit, our own Piatt County Sheriff's Department, Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, HOPE,Dove,Inc, A Woman's Fund,Kirby Hospital, Piatt Probation, Safe from the Start,DCFS, and others, we were able to bring nationally renowned domestic violence speaker, Mark Wynn for a day long conference.
Mark is a 20 year member of the Nashville Police Department and served as a Lt. to the Domestic Violence Division. He is also a survivor and witness of years of brutal domestic violence. He brings his wealth of experience and training to law enforcement, yet the message that resonated with me-the image that will stay with me longest, is the same one that I have learned and witnessed throughout my years working with domestic violence; the image of children hiding under their beds, hands covering their ears, eyes squeezed tight- waiting for the violence to end. Mark related how he and his brother would hide under the bed and listen to their step-father brutalize their mother. They once even planned how they would protect their mother from further abuse by killing their step-father. They replaced the whiskey in his bedside bottle with roach killer and waited. The abuser drank the entire bottle, but fortunately for him and for the boys, he showed no adverse effects. Mark said they just kept waiting for their step-dad to flip over on his back with his legs up in the air, stiff like those bugs. Luckily, that didn't happen. I can't tell you how many times I have heard similar tales from child victims.
Contrary to the beliefs of wishful thinkers who profess, “we don't have those kinds of problems in Piatt County”- I assure you, we do. Sometimes we are blinded to the suffering of those around us, not by indifference, or because we have been hardened by the realities of suffering on our street corners, but by the absence of visible suffering. We are sometimes shielded by our own affluence. Immaculately groomed lawns are not violence proof. Although out most vulnerable citizens may not be living in cardboard boxes on our street corners, they are here. There are children in Piatt County who have become adept at finding hiding places and are waiting out the violence. We have domestic violence, child abuse, and even homelessness in this county. I have seen families without homes camped near corn fields. We must ask ourselves, can we do more to help in our own towns?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween Memory

Excerpt from "I Want to Say" by Natalie Goldberg

I Want to Say Before I'm lost to time and the midwest

I want to say I was here

I loved the half light all winter

I want you to know before I leave that I liked the towns living along the back of the Mississippi

I loved the large heron filling the sky

the slender white egret at the edge of the shore

I came to love my life here

fell in love with the color grey

the unending turn of seasons

Each day when I drive my my sons to basketball practice, I pass the house where I grew up. Each of us has a house that we still think about and which we remember as truly home. For me, it is the house with the round window.
That old house absorbed the shouts and murmurs of my adolescence, saw the birth of my little sister,and was the scene of my wedding;vows said before the fireplace. The house sheltered me and seemed to mourn in tandem, while I grieved my brother within its walls. Two of my sons learned to walk on the old hardwood floors. I knew its every creak , identified while I cautiously tried to sneak in and out long past my curfew. I knew its harmless, but clearly audible ghosts, who inspired wonder and a little fear.
All of our family traditions evolved inside those walls and I think of those experiences as I watch the leaves change and feel the evocative emotions the change of seasons elicits. Many Halloweens were spent there. Each October. My mother would pain the huge round window with orange tempera. A giant, smiling jack-o-lantern would form under her brushes and be perfectly back lit by the warmth of our home. Families began their own tradition of driving by each year to see the giant pumpkin that, in the darkness, appeared to hover in midair.
This simple act of painting a window took time and effort, and I recall that the cleanup was often a nuisance, but it was well worth the trouble. People still remark to me that they remember that yearly pumpkin and that it holds a fond place in their childhood memories.
I remember that there were other traditions we held each Halloween...we lit a fire in the fireplace, often for the first time that year, my mom made special treats that we only had at Halloween (that kept them special)- a caramel, walnut and cream cheese apple dip that was fantastic, and an enormous bowl of buttered popcorn to share with the many children who trick or treated our house. My mother took care and artfully arranged simple but delicious snacks to balance the overindulgence of sweets she knew we would take part in later. It wasn't really about the costumes- although ours were always creative.
I remember the year I was a white rabbit and my infant brother was a carrot. I have a fuzzy snapshot of the two of us- an 8 year old white bunny holding a vaguely annoyed looking baby carrot. We won first prize at the costume contest held on the square; I recall first prize was a silver dollar and our picture in the paper.
Halloween evening at our home often became an informal party with parents, teachers, children from the school and others dropping in and staying to eat, laugh, talk. The little dining room off the entry would be cozily crowded and the front room pressed into service. A tape of creepy music would add to the atmosphere.
What I remember most fondly was not the frantic accumulation of sugar and door to door traipsing down sidewalks whose cracks I could map from memory, but the quantity and quality of time that was afforded me. Time to enjoy a lighthearted evening with family and friends, time to gloat over and meticulously sort my loot, time to listen and remember. The evening seemed to last and last. There were no cell phone interruptions, television was ordered off and remained so all evening. When we were together, we were truly connecting. I had time to think and reflect and enjoy each moment. The only interruptions were the periodic, gentle tappings on the front door.
I hope my boys will remember with similar fondness the Halloweens we have spent together, as a family. Happy Halloween!

Carmel Apple Dip

Granny Smith Apples
Jar of good quality caramel sauce
Cream Cheese
Toasted Walnuts or Pecans
Spread softened cream cheese on serving plate, pour caramel sauce over cream cheese, top with toasted nuts, serve with apples

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Smaller is Better

What is a community?

"A community is (among other things) a set of arrangements

between men and women. These arrangements include marriage, family

structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility

for the instruction of children and young people." Wendell Berry

As a child attending Lincoln Elementary School, I walked halls that were haunted in a friendly way with memories of experiences shared by my grandparents and my mother . I knew, for example, that my grandpa had, in first grade defeated a huge bully who chased him into the coal room and threatened him. I recall sitting wide-eyed for the hundredth time while my grandpa told me how he had squatted, in terror on the cement floor in the darkened coal room waiting for doom in the form of a huge red haired farm boy to destroy him.. My grandpa, aged 6, had picked up a hatchet he had found lying on the floor and as the bully approached my grandpa warned him, “Don’t come any closer,“ and tapped the hatchet repeatedly on the floor as a deterrent. The bully never slowed and menacingly advanced on my grandpa, a boy half his age and size. The hatchet came down on a barefoot with a sickening thud and the bully some toes. The injured assailant left school sadder but hopefully wiser, and my grandpa was expelled for the remainder of first grade. I never tired of hearing that story. When I was victimized by a huge older girl who poked me repeatedly in the back of the neck with sharpened pencils in chorus, I warned her that I had a toe -chopping grandpa that I would ask to exact revenge; it gave her pause. The pencils ceased poking.
While I waited for lunch in the cafeteria, I thought of my grandma and how, during the Depression, she was often starving while at school. With 17 children to feed, and few resources, the children in her family were usually hungry. She told of once feeling so faint with hunger while at school that she quietly ate a purple crayon while at her desk. She remembered how dreadfully sick she had become and how embarrassed she felt. Those stories helped me feel a deep connection with my school and my people, and gave me strength when I was weak. As I walked the halls and ran my small hands along the brick walls, I felt my sense of place and deep connection , identification and ownership with my town. The school was a familiar and comforting branch of my family tree.
Thus, I read with interest the front page story last week regarding the proposed reorganization study completed by the Consulting and Resource Group. Many small towns in our County are struggling with increasing costs and declining enrollment in public schools and are desperately searching for what they hope are fiscal solutions. In much of the Country, small schools are giving up and shipping kids to conglomerate schools.
Interestingly, the trend flies in the face of what we know to be beneficial to children; research clearly shows that children do better in smaller schools.
Researcher Lorna Jimerson identifies ten research based attributes of small schools that have proven benefits to children and learning. First, studies show that the relationships in small schools “intrinsically foster close relationships that not only help children feel connected to the school community and reduce alienation, especially among older students, but also lead to increased student learning. The close relationships inherent in small schools also have a positive impact on educators. For example, teachers in small schools tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, have less absenteeism, and take more responsibility for ensuring that their students are successful in school.” ( Jimerson, Why Small Works in Public School)
Other attributes of small schools listed in the report include:
greater participation in extra-curricular activities, increased school safety, smaller class size, and wider grade-span configurations.
What is lost in consolidation? I think of Cisco school and how much heart was taken from the town when the school closed. I had many friends who attended grade school in Cisco and they seemed to share a special bond throughout high school that remains even today. Schools have historically served as social glue for communities and ties formed there help make a cohesive and caring community.
Other documented negatives of consolidation include:

*Long bus rides
*Negative impact on the social and economic health of the community
*Increase in costs, particularly in transportation
*Higher dropout rates
*Increased anonymity in large schools
*Lower participation in extra-curricular activities by students and all school activities by parents and community members.
Interestingly, although consolidations have been sweeping the country for the past three decades or so, research has shown that in those schools that have consolidated- especially schools over 1,000 students, every predicted benefit has never bore fruit. In fact, many conglomerates are now participating in programs like that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who have given millions in a new “smaller is better” initiative to carve up what only years before had been combined.

Additionally, I believe that the long term effects of consolidation contributes to the decline of rural populations and flight of children to cities. We need to think about the messages that we send rural children,; children whose families have participated in a agri-culture, long before it became agribusiness. We need to remember and reinforce the value of rural living.
Sadly, in the end, often due to apathy, these important social and cultural issues usually tip in one direction or another based on financial concerns. What is needed first then, is passion, commitment to believing in little schools. The understanding that bigger is not always better- and that in education, bigger is almost always worse.
There are many organizations who are designed to assist rural communities to shore up their schools and to hold onto their town’s heritage. The Rural School and Community Trust is a wonderful organization whose goal is to assist rural schools and communities to become strong. The Rural Education Finance Center (REFC), a program of the Rural Trust, is dedicated to improving educational opportunity for rural children by reducing inequities in state school finance systems, strengthening the fiscal practices of rural schools, and ensuring the adequacy of funding to rural schools.

In these troubled times, when Americans are realizing how much has been lost with the sweeping greed of the last 30 years- we are beginning to understand that what has vanished was actually more valuable than the trillions lost on Wall Street; self-reliance, competency, and the ability to trust our own instincts in evaluating what is right for our children and our communities without spending millions of dollars on consulting groups who will always consider fiscally and lead us only in the direction of money. Solutions are available and the power of a few committed individuals can make all the difference.

ERIC articles about consolidation

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Time is Passing


by David Ignatow

You wept in your mother's arms
and I knew that from then on
I was to forget myself.

Listening to your sobs,
I was resolved against my will
to do well by us
and so I said, without thinking,
in great panic, To do wrong
in one's own judgment,
though others thrive by it,
is the right road to blessedness.
Not to submit to error
is in itself wrong
and pride.

Standing beside you,
I took an oath
to make your life simpler
by complicating mine
and what I always thought
would happen did:
I was lifted up in joy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Sons' Read Aloud List

We have enjoyed these books, read aloud, beginning in 2001:

Read Aloud Book List Starting 2001

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-Dahl

Fantastic Mr. Fox-Dahl

Big Friendly Giant –Dahl

James and the Giant Peach- Dahl

Little House in the Big Woods- Wilder

Little House on the Prairie-Wilder

Farmer Boy-Wilder

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone- Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets-Rowling

Ramona and Beezus-Cleary

Henry Huggins-Cleary

Henry and Ribsy-Cleary

The Hobbit- Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings-The Fellowship of the Ring-Tolkien

The Two Towers- Tolkien

The Return of the King-Tolkien

Little Britches: father and I were Ranchers- Moody

Horse of a Different Color- Moody

Call of the Wild- London

Incident at Hawke’s Hill-Eckert

The Legend of Jimmy Spoon-Gregory

Sacagawea-St George

Lewis and Clark-Ambrose


Gray Boy

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire- Rowling

Indian in the Cupboard-Banks

Dragonslayer’s Academy-McMullen

The Best School Year Ever-Robinson

The Return of the Indian- Banks

The Fear Place-Naylor

Watership Down- Adams

Little Men- Alcott

All Creatures Great and Small- Herriot

On the Banks of Plum Creek-Wilder

The Land-Taylor

The Hundred Dresses-Estes

Gentle Ben-Morey

Only Sky and Earth Last Forever-Bencheley

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix- Rowling

Harris and Me- Paulsen

Caddie Woodlawn-Brink

Hatchet- Paulsen

Sarah Bishop-O’Dell

Mr. Tuckett-Paulsen

The River- Paulsen

Call Me Francis Tuckett- Paulsen


The Great Brain-Fitzgerald

Brian’s Winter- Paulsen

Tuckett’s Ride- Paulsen

Tackett’s Gold- Paulsen

Tuckett’s Home- Paulsen

Goodnite, Mr. Tom-Magorian

Hear the Wind Blow-Hahn

A Day No Pigs Would Die-Peck


Poppy- Avi

Milkweed- Spinelli

The Hobbit (second Reading)

My Brother Sam is Dead-


Hook Moon Night-

Dogsong- Paulsen

Harris and Me (second reading)

Yellow Fever 1793


On the Banks of Plum Creek (second reading)

On my Honor

Angela’s Ashes- McCourt

Watership Down (second reading)

Abel’s Island

Series of Unfortunate Events-Snickett

Wilderness Trek to Beaver Creek

The Road- McCarthy

Monday, September 15, 2008

Of Mice and Men

“Aw Lennie…I ain’t takin it away just for meanness. That mouse ain’t

fresh.” From Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

I have made the acquaintance of many mice, a few I considered friends. My mother was liberal in her view of pets and my brother and I took advantage of her relaxed attitude to experience a wide variety of the animal kingdom in pet capacity. Rodents were small, easy to care for, inexpensive and brimming with personality and interest. They were also remarkably forgiving and sturdy.

I have a vivid memory of seeing my brother Nick’s hamster, Han Solo, floating in the living room in a mini hot air balloon my brother had devised from a paper cup attached to a helium balloon. The hamster seemed nonplussed, but showed less reaction than when he was an unwilling but lively passenger in toy trucks or electric trains. He was finally lost when we decided he might enjoy the real experience and tied kite string to our mock hot air balloon. The string slipped from my fingers in a gust of wind and he went sailing off into a galaxy far, far away and into the annals of rodent history.

Peaches and Herb were my favorite hamsters until I came home from school one day to find that Peaches had killed and devoured Herb. I couldn’t stand the sight of Peaches after she murdered her mate and was glad to hand her off to a friend who admired her and was unaware of her cannibalistic past.

In college, I had an obese black mouse named Gus who enjoyed traveling in my coat pocket. Occasionally, I would forget he was snoozing in my clothes and rush off to class with him curled asleep in my pocket. He seemed to enjoy the lectures on Egyptology at the U of I and would listen attentively long after I had lost interest. He acquired an appreciative fan base of young, neighborhood children who would pound on my apartment door and ask if he could come out to play. Gus lived well past normal mouse longevity- almost 4 years and when he finally expired, he was totally bald and blind. I buried him in a matchbox with a few crumbles of gorgonzola.

When my three sons were younger, they naturally gravitated to the mouse and hamster section of the pet store. When Ben was 4, he brought home a white hamster he named Ed. Ed was extremely adept at escaping. Frequent frantic cries of “Ed is gone!” could be heard throughout the house. Searches would ensue, and Ed would be located scampering down a hallway or crouching in the closet. He would be returned to his cage and various mean of securing his home would be mounted- tape, cardboard wall reinforcements, all to no avail. Ed was a minute Houdini. One day, I was busy about the house when I hear the familiar cry announcing that once again Ed was on the lamb. Within seconds I heard a shriek and ran to the living room. Jerry, the rat terrier was sitting on the couch and Ed, or what was once Ed was next to Jerry. Obviously, Jerry, ever helpful, had located Ed and in a friendly yet extensively damaging gesture, carried him to the couch. Jerry, in terrier fashion had secured Ed’s head in his jaws and this manner of transportation had caused Ed’s eyes to bulge gruesomely in a manner not conducive to life. Ed died with a particularly horrified expression on his whiskery face. Ben, unfortunately, had come upon this spectacle and after a momentary stunned silence, screeching commenced. Clearly disgusted at our lack of appreciation for his pest killing abilities, Jerry fled the scene, and I tried to calm an inconsolable Ben who, by now was cradling the dead, bug-eyed Ed, (the mouse really looked exactly like a rubber stress squeeze toy). Ed was buried and weeks later, Ben was still sensitive about the tragedy. One afternoon, Jerry sniffed out the rapidly decomposing Ed and came trotting inside with Ed’s mangled remains in his jaws eliciting another round of trauma.

Recently, we experienced an interesting rodent adventure with my youngest son Sam’s hamster, Vern. Vern was anti-social and perhaps even a pathological hamster. Disgusted and bitter towards humans, he escaped from his cage and after a thorough search of the house; we all braced ourselves for the inevitable discovery of dog mangled rodent. A week passed and there was still no sign of Vern-dead or alive.

While sitting at the computer one evening, I heard a scraping noise above me in the ceiling and looked overhead to see a large hole growing before my eyes. Vern was alive and well-surviving in the sub ceiling of the basement on a diet of ceiling tile. Attempts to corral him were futile and while I tried to work he chomped noisily overhead and sent a steady cascade of chewn material raining down on my head. He would craftily retreat when I tried to grab at him. Each morning, when I came down to work, I would fume at the ever growing holes in the tiles. Sometimes I could feel beady eyes watching me and would look up to find him staring at me from above. It was unnerving. I even took his picture to send to disbelieving friends. As the holes grew ever larger, I began to feel he was mocking me and grew irrationally angry and frustrated at my inability to corner him. I declared war with Vern-o.

I used every weapon at my disposal to flush him out, but he was too wily. He finally escaped via mysterious channels into the outdoors and I miraculously spied him once lurking in the front yard. When I approached, Vern reared up on his hind legs like a miniature grizzly bear, growled (I swear) and came at me in a threatening manner. He had turned feral. I slowly backed away. The last I saw of Vern he had joined a pack of voles and was leading vicious attacks on their sworn enemies, the shrews.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Links to Book Lists

Good lists for boys-

Another list sent from reader:
Thanks Mark!

Young boys-

Older boys-

Junior High Boys-


List for girls age preschool through grade 3

Good general list for girls-

Good list to help raise strong girls and boys-

Reading With Children

I have a picture of myself at age 2, sitting on my great grandmother’s lap. We are at the kitchen table and she is reading to me. Looking over my childhood pictures, I am amazed at the number of photos that show me being read to by various relatives.

A favorite great aunt has often told me how my uncle would finally hide my stacks of books for brief periods because they were so weary of my constant demands to be read to.

After I taught myself to read with “Lovable Lyle”, books were my first friends and as a child I surrounded myself with them. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, and Jo March lived and breathed in my mind.

Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes” wrote of the importance books played in his bleak childhood in Ireland and how one of his toughest school masters counseled him to “stock his mind” with books. Quoting his teacher, McCourt said, “You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”

When I look back over my own years of parenting my sons, I know I have made significant mistakes. I didn’t say “no” and mean it often enough, I didn’t make them do enough housework- I’ve catered to them too much. The list could go on. I have, however, done at least one thing very well. From the time they were infants, I read aloud to them every day. We began with picture books and moved on until, by ages 5, 6, and 7- we were reading aloud young adult fiction books and even some adult books with ease.

While little, the boys shared a room which made the evening reading routine easy. Once everyone was settled in, I would read each night. I couldn’t wait to share my childhood favorites. Out came my old Little House books, Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott. I discovered lists of good books especially for boys on the internet and we delved into Gary Paulsen and adventures with Brian and his survival in the wilderness with only a hatchet to help him survive. We eventually read all Paulsen’s books and many were so

fraught with excitement that the boys would demand many chapters read each night. The laughter we shared as we read “Harris and Me”- the tale of a boy’s summer spent on a wild cousins’ farm, will always remain in my memory. We loved “The Call of the Wild” Occasionally I pushed ahead of their listening abilities and made mistakes in choices. “The Red Badge of Courage” was too advanced and dry when read aloud. After a few chapters, and too many yawns, I admitted defeat set it aside for a later date. “Watership Down”, however, was loved and requested twice (and is still a favorite with all three). We read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy well before the movies came out- and the movies were made more vibrant because we knew the characters intimately through out reading.

Throughout their childhood, evening meant the routine of reading together, stopping to talk about scenes, character, a new word meaning; anything that related to the books. My middle son sometimes grew fidgety, and when this happened, he knew that he could work quietly with a basket of Legos while still listening, or draw with pen and paper on the clipboard by his bed. I kept a list each year of the books we finished and it was fun to try to top last years count.

During these years it was great to have wonderful children’s’ librarians to recommend books and to talk about books we loved. I think of Mrs. Doherty, a great librarian who kindly assisted my sons through grade school and is one their lists of best teachers. I also think of Paula Valentine. Paula is a wonderful librarian and teacher of children and one of the kindest people I know. We certainly miss her.

I know when I am old and my boys are living their lives with their own families, I will always remember the books and laughter we shared.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Orbit's Watch

I grew up hearing tales of amazing dogs my grandfather had known. There was Mike, a Springer Spaniel who guarded my mother when she was a toddler. My grandmother would place my mother in the backyard in the sandbox with a few toys, and then she would call the dog and say, “Watch Cody, Mike.” He would sit down and begin duty. Mike would patiently and repeatedly pull her back from the busy street when she pushed her doll buggy too close. He was the best of babysitters.

Mike was a valued member of the family and when he vanished one cool fall day, my grandfather searched the County for him. Several days passed before a neighbor on the edge of town called with the sad news that he had found Mike, dead, caught in his wire fencing. His collar had strangled him as he tried to free himself. Mike and his remarkable fidelity lived on in stories that I begged to hear and my grandpa loved to tell.

When my brother Nick was born, my grandfather dropped in daily to hold the baby. For the first few weeks, despite my mother repeatedly telling him that his name was Nicholas Joseph, my grandfather stubbornly called the baby “Mike”. After a month or so, when he saw my mother was unyielding in her choice, my grandpa finally gave up his attempt to christen my brother after his dog.

I had my own faithful guard dog as a child. Hershel the beagle lived with my paternal grandparents on their farm outside of town. Hershel had wide and knowing eyes, a gentle disposition, and an almost human presence. In the many pictures I have of myself on the farm, Hershel is always sitting a few feet away, observing me with his liquid and soulful eyes. Though he usually watched with benevolent boredom, he wasn’t afraid to voice his displeasure if I ventured into trouble and more than once began barking like crazy to alert my grandparents when I snuck too close to the barn. A particularly vicious bull lived there and I was fascinated by his dangerous horns. Hershel had more sense and thwarted my every attempt to get a closer look.

One fall day some trigger-happy hunters mistook Hershel for a turkey and blindly shot toward some low brush. After he was killed, it felt so alien to be alone on the farm without his ever watchful gaze; I pretended he was still there, a few feet beside me, keeping silent vigil.

Canine fidelity was a trait respected by my family, but I think one dog will forever be linked in my mind with true devotion. My brother Nick brought home a small black and white rat terrier from the pound, and named her “Orbit”. She had the frustrating qualities that many terriers possess: a willful spirit, a devotee of the dangerous art of moving tire biting, and a relaxed attitude about peeing wherever and whenever the mood struck her. Nick thought she was perfect, however, and even wrote songs in her honor. One I recall was sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree” and included the lyrics, “O Orbie Dear, O’Orbie Dear, you’re the best dog in the hemisphere!” And she was.

They would often play a game of mock battle: Nick would grab Orb through a blanket and Orb would bite his hands and spin about in a delighted fake attack mode. Nick called the game “Pit Pup” or “Ninja Pup”. There’s was a perfect example of a dog finding her true boy.

When we lost Nick, suddenly, unexpectedly at age 12, we each were caught in our own waves of grieving for many months; we struggled just to keep breathing.

Absorbed with my own misery, Orbit was present, but not foremost in my thoughts until I noticed her sitting in the front window one fall day. Nick had died shortly before school had begun and now, weeks later, children were streaming down the street, released from school for the day. Orbit watched each child intently. Particular children were given extra scrutiny. Boys on bikes, boys with a familiar walk, boys with tee shirts and knobby shoulders, or a boy with dark hair – these traits excited her. As they passed by, and she recognized each not to be hers, she would sag a bit, and then resume the posture of patient waiting. Every day, she waited.

We moved to a new house and Orbit immediately took up her vigil in the front window. Each possibility that walked or rode by elicited brief excitement. A tiny quiver of hope. A black and white canine candle in the window.

Ten years passed and a much greyer Orb still watched with cloudy eyes. Too arthritic to jump up, she barked for a boost to her perch. She would keep waiting for as long as it took.

In her 14th year she had a stroke and fell down a long flight of steps. After an emergency trip to the vet, mom called to tell me Orbit seemed to be paralyzed. I rushed home armed with bags of Orbits’ favorite treats and we worked with her all night. By midnight she was up, pudgy with treats and although unsteady, she was walking. We said how proud Nick would be: Orbit was healed by the power of Pupperoni.

Eventually, more strokes struck and the day came when Orb could no longer walk at all. Our family knew what needed to be done, yet it was excruciating to take that final trip to the Animal Hospital. The vets were wonderfully kind as always and as Orbit slipped quietly away we all sobbed together. The thought that sustained and comforted me was that her long wait was over; Orbit had finally found her boy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

List of Plants, Trees, Animals, Birds on Monticello Bike Path

Thanks to Mr. Harty who created this great list.

Two good books to recommend to hikers on the trail is Illinois
Wildflowers by Don Kurz
And/or Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers by Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle

Yellow or grey-headed cone flower Ratibida pinnata
False sunflower Heliopsis helianthoides
Purple prairie clover Petalostemum purpureum
Bindweed Convolvulus sepium
Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardii
Wild petunia Ruellia humilis
Tall goldenrod Solidago altimissima
Stiff goldenrod Solidago rigida
Wild quinine Parthenium integrefolium
Prairie cordgrass Spartina pectinata
Fleabane daisy Erigeron strigosus
Rosinweed Silpihium integrifolium
Purple coneflower Echinacea purpurea
Ironweed Veronia fasciculata
Staghorn sumac Rhus typhina
Smooth sumac Rhus glabra
Poison ivy Rhus radicans
Trumpet creeper Campsis radicans
Sullivan's milkweed Ascepias sullivantii
Common milkweed Ascepias syriaca
Switch grass Panicum virgatum
Grey dogwood Cornus racemosa
Grapevine Vitis aestivalis
Winged verbena Vebesina helianthoides
Basswood Tilia americana
Green ash Fraxinus pennsylvanica
Black cherry Prunus americana
Hackberry Celtis occidentalis
White mulberry Morus alba
Silver maple Acer saccharinum
Box-elder Acer negundo
Elderberry Sambucus canadensis
Black walnut Juglans nigra
Pokeweed Phytolacca americana
Honeylocust Gleditsia triacanthos
Shingle oak Quercus imbricaria
Black oak Quercus velutina
Sassafras Sassafras albidum
Virginia creeper Parhenocissus
Heal-all Prunella

Vine honeysuckle Lonicera flava
Catbriar Smilax
Avens Geum canadensis
Hazelnut Corylus americana
Red elm Ulmus rubra
Solomon's seal Polygonatum commutatum
American bellflower Campanula americana
Canada wild rye Elymus canadensis
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium fistulosum
Thimbleweed Anemone cylindrica
Gaura Gaura biennis
Prickly lettuce Lactuca biennis
Illinois memosa Desmanthus illinoensis
Evening primrose Oenothera biennis
New England aster Aster novae-angliae

EXOTIC SPECIES: Not native to North American and cause are a huge threat
to natural ecosystems

Queen Anne's lace Dacus corata
Reed canary grass Phalaris arundinaria
Garlic mustard Allaria officinalis
Multiflora rose Rosa multiflora
Chicory Cichorium intybus
Wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa
Soapwort Saponaria officinalis
Depford pink Dianthus armeria
Bush honeysuckle Lonicera x bella
Hops Humulus japonicus


Purple martin
Turkey vulture
Cedar waxwing
Redwinged black bird
Indigo bunting
Barn swallow
Bell's vireo


Cricket frog


Grey squirell

Goudy oak gall on shingle oaks
The acorn weevil isin the genus a Cuculio spp.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Back To School

The summer is waning, the evenings feel cooler and this week I caught the first scent of fall in the air. Late August is an evocative time.

As a kid, August represented a return to school. I always celebrated July 4th with mixed emotions, for each day after the 4th brought me closer to the end of summer. Even the droning of the cicadas seemed to hum vacations imminent end. After dragging my heels and squeezing out every bit of fun summer had to offer, I finally accepted the inevitable end of my break. I even began to enjoy the thought of a fresh start. I would lay out my new school supplies and admire the box of 72 crayons (with built in sharpener). I imagined how this year would be different from all my other years of scholastic mediocrity and odd duck status. This year was as fresh and unblemished as my Periwinkle crayon.

In my mind I saw myself dazzling my peers with my new school clothes and imagined stunning my new teacher with my wit and intellect. I banished all the many past educational and social failures from my mind and resolved to make this year successful.

I agonized over which outfit to wear; I wanted the best first impression. On the first day of school, I created many equally ridiculous styles with my mousy hair (In 4th grade, after the success of Bo Derek’s movie, 10- I tried cornrows. I was less successful. ), and once even briefly tested a new walk- shoulders uncomfortably back, head held high, one foot placed directly in front of the other- a look I admired having watched the Miss America pageant. Adopting this rifle straight and odd looking gait in school merely resulted in boys asking if over the summer I had sat on a steel rod.

I nursed other expectations lovingly over the last long summer days; I would be organized, I would shock everyone with my new found confidence, I would find a true kindred spirit for a friend. Sadly, my hopes often fizzled within the first week. Boys and girls still treated each other unkindly, I was still scattered, awkward socially and physically, and unfailingly messy. It wasn’t many weeks before I would suffer the routine shame of an exasperated teacher shaking the entire contents of my crammed and disorderly desk onto the floor. I can still hear the sound a shaken desk and crashing books make in a hushed classroom. I spent many recesses slowly sorting and organizing my desk; always among the detritus- 72 broken crayons with torn papers.

When I think of these memories I have to admire my unflagging hope. I truly believed, however briefly, in each new beginning. I also remember with piercing clarity, not the curriculum, but individual moments of kindness shown by my teachers; those instances glow in my recollections. I remember how good it felt when a teacher seemed to genuinely like you.

I recall suffering a couple of teachers who made no effort to hide the fact that they didn’t care for me and how disconsolate their indifference, (or as in 3rd grade- obvious distaste) made me feel. It made for a long, unhappy year. In 5th grade, however, I met Ms. Moore who startled me with her kindness. Once, although I was taller by at least a foot, she helped me put on my coat, tied my hood with affection and then delivered a hug that felt like a benediction. That small gesture, and the many more she showed throughout that year renewed my faith in myself as likable.

Perhaps in these times of state mandated teaching to tests, rigidity and resistance in allowing creative teachers to be creative and an adopted mantra of “teach, don’t touch” holding sway, we sometimes forget how powerful simply connecting with a child can be. The 8 hours a child spends in school, nine months of each year, are central and formative to his life experience. In that time, in that place, young lives are being lived. I worry that important things are being lost in our resolve to “leave no child behind.” Teachers may be losing the time and the flexibility to teach at reasonable speeds and styles that match the natural development of children. Teachers and children alike are under increasing pressure to perform. I wonder what is truly being left behind.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cellular Effects

Much has been said in recent days about the possible physical side effects of excessive cell phone use. We know that driving while talking on a cell induces the same effects as having a .08 alcohol blood count. Additional unease regarding the dangers of radiation from cell phone exposure continues to linger. Although the warnings have generally been pooh-poohed by Americans, European health agencies have warned their citizens for years and recommend limited cell phone use, especially for children.

Scientists in America are generally quick to assure the safety of new technology; however, blanket assurances always remind me of the radium dial girls of the mid 1920s. Few remember the story of the young women whose jobs involved painting radium laced illuminating liquid on clock dials. The girls were encouraged to shape the paintbrushes to a fine point with their lips. They were paid a penny and a half per dial. While shaping the brushes, they ingested the radium paint, called “Undark” and many developed deadly and horrifying jaw and lip cancers. Similar assurances had been made at that time regarding the safety of radiation exposure, yet those girls’ graves are still ticking out radiation like clockwork. Human fragility and our proven fallibility should dictate caution.

Lately, I’ve been thinking and wondering about unintended social consequences of many of the new tools our society has unhesitatingly embraced.

Wandering aimlessly around in Bement, searching for a street (only I could get lost in Bement), I saw a middle aged woman standing near a school and decided to ask for directions. I pulled up with my window down and then noticed she was laughing and talking on a cell phone. Before I could smile at her, and pull away- I didn’t want to interrupt; she glanced up at me, frowned, shook her head, and then turned her back to me to continue her conversation. Momentarily stunned by the ease of her rudeness, I waited a moment then pulled away. I looked elsewhere for assistance and added another mental entry to my list of the negative aspects of cell phones: they are a tool which enable and encourage rudeness. Cell phones can form an effective cloaking device that allows users to move through the world without connecting to others in the environment.

Last Spring, I watched a girl, perhaps 14 years old shopping with her grandfather. The grandfather was obviously making a graduation purchase for her- an extravagant piece of electrical equipment. She trailed him in a bored shuffle as he carried her gift; she never stopped texting or looked up from her cell phone/keyboard.

This disconnect is a distressing aspect of cell phones. It is something that many parents simply do not anticipate. When your teen has a cell phone and actively text messages, even when they are with you- participating in a family outing for example, they are also with their friends. It is intrusive and disruptive and parents are fighting to regain a measure of control.

As kids most of us talked with frequently with friends. I recall my mother’s irritation with the constantly ringing phone (a single phone, connected to the kitchen wall).The difference was, when we weren’t on the phone our pals, we were usually with our family. There were definite lines of demarcation. Texting has changed that notion. How is socialization and family life affected when peers are always available and present if only in voice or word? Additionally, the communication among friends is instant, often beyond parents’ sphere of influence, and can involve sharing confidential conversations with unintended parties. When these communications are posted to internet sites, the can even be criminal.

Kids are using technology in ways most of us simply did not envision. This technology is so new; we may not see results of physical risks associated with cell use for years to come; the social side-effects are all around us.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Poolside Memories

As I waited for my son to emerge from the pool this week, I watched the moms and small children paddle about in the baby pool. My boys are teens now, but how well I remember the days of floaties and swimming diapers. I look back with some wistfulness that those days are gone forever, but also with immense gratitude that I survived.

In my memory those days were always sweltering, so hot that even the daunting prospect of a trip across town with three fractious toddlers (my boys were one year apart so I often felt as though I had triplets), the laborious undressing and suiting up, the collecting of toys, and the slathering of sun block on three small, resisting boys was not enough to deter me from the undertaking. We would arrive at the pool and survey the kiddie pool crowd. The scene was always the same: pink suited, impossibly tiny, blonde babes and their often mirror-image moms bobbed and swayed gently in the water like so many graceful swans and goslings. Wee, cherubic girls poured tidy streams with toy watering cans or carefully scooped with ladles and buckets. A gaggle of moms made easy small talk with one another- it often resembled an outdoor cocktail party or a magazine spread exemplifying graceful summer living.

Then, Da Da DAT da DAAHH! my crew arrived like a pack of Bumpus hounds. I tried desperately to restrain my herd of wild things, but the task was daunting. They hit the gate running and, immediately, the peace was shattered. Tension electrified the air as splashing and yelling ensued. High-pitched wailing arose as small, pastel suited girls were flattened by rogue waves created by my zephyering, canon- balling little boys. My sons seemed to be everywhere at once, mini bundles of incredible energy- and I could feel my blood pressure shooting upwards as I scurried about, desperately putting out the social fires they continuously sparked. Here an accidental, but colossal splash to a face, there a toy grabbed (always a Snoopy-esque snatch) - a grab and go which left the victim momentarily bewildered, mouths agape in shock and set off the inevitable chain of events: screeching from the injured party, chasing of the offender, returning the toy to the indignant child (and parent), the hurried, forced, insincere apology from my son, and ending with the other parent mentally crossing off of our names from the invitation list of their child’s next birthday party.

My sons not only splashed others, snatched toys, and generally ran amok, but enjoyed varying their routine by occasionally sneaking fairly large sticks into the pool area to employ as weaponry. These sticks were crucial for games of water jousting, a less injurious form of the original bicycle jousting; a brief but lively game they invented which may hold a record for being attempted and banned during its trial run. In a lax moment, perhaps when my attention was diverted to my youngest toddler, who was fond of repeatedly bouncing slowly in the water- bobbing in wonder toward the deep end until he inevitably bounced too far, disappeared from sight and had to be rescued- in that moment, my other sons would strip nude and streak gleefully about to the delight of the bored teen lifeguards who were immensely pleased at any diversion. To shake things up a bit, my sons might join forces and create a multiple brown out-thereby shutting down the baby pool for cleaning and sterilization and alienating and disgusting the entire baby pool community.

Although the transgressions were unintentional (mostly) and never committed in a mean spirit, but simply in the goofy, gangly puppy stage that most little boy’s experience, I could tell that some parents thought my sons a menace. Heaven help me if I had to explain an incident to a protective father. On one memorable occasion, a paternal jaw had jutted aggressively and inordinate anger was expressed. After apologizing for my son’s dousing of his daughter and multiple counts of absconding with her kick board, I came away feeling excessively weary. I recall catching a glimpse of myself in the changing room mirror after this particularly grueling pool session (which had also included one of my boys inadvertently backing into a smaller child and toppling them headfirst flailing and shrieking into the pool not once, but three times in rapid succession), in that quick glance I noticed that my face was frozen in a look of apologetic embarrassment and chagrin. I wondered if it would remain that way throughout my sons’ youth.

The parents tried to be kind (mostly), yet it was obvious that parents of many little girls and of the more sedate little boys often thought my guys were a different species; some untamed, dangerous creature; possibly a minute Viking remnant or Cro-Magnon offspring.

I couldn’t blame them, although it wasn’t as if I sat back and allowed my boys to be ill-mannered. I never stopped moving -shepherding them, herding them to more neutral pool ground, speaking in low, firm tones, intervening at every transgression. I was (and continue) earnestly trying to civilize my guys.

Those years were often exhausting, yet I am so glad that I was with my boys; that I had the opportunity to tell them to stop running along the pool the million or so times it took before it finally processed. That is what they needed; a parent to be there, to say the words of guidance as many times as it took. Childhood is a short season. We must fill it with understanding, patience and love- and millions of guiding words.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Walking with Children

I like to live on the edges, where my vantage point can look inward toward community or outward unencumbered. I live on the far corner of town, with views of both farm and field. I am lucky to be within sight of a bike path; a walk with a prairie view.

When I taught young children, we often took walks together. Special things happen when you walk with young people. Initially, everyone is bubbly with energy and excited to be released from indoors. Experiencing outdoors with pals always feels novel to children and hands find friends’ hands and bodies quiver with the joy of anticipation. Children have not yet learned indifference to nature and their fresh perspective, without fail, reawakened some forgotten wonder in me.

We would set off and let the walk unfold of its own volition. We never walked in formation, but higgledy-piggledy and always found areas where we could mingle and stop in a huddle together to examine and talk about inevitable finds. Here an empty snail shell, a cracked bird egg, various scat (always the impetus for some giggles- poop is, after all, universally funny), there an insect to be identified and remembered. I always brought a collection box for items we wanted to bring back to school, and for things that I couldn’t name. For to truly love something, we humans need to name it.

While walking the bike path recently, I thought about the many names of plants and birds that I didn’t know, visible all around me. I thought with regret how my grandfather would have been able to tell me the name of a certain red berry; if it was edible (I really wanted to taste it). I wished for the millionth time that my appreciation for his knowledge had coincided with the short years our lives had run parallel.

I mentioned my wish to know the names of the plants and birds along the bike path to a friend and fellow teacher, Heather Foran, and she graciously offered to ask her friend, Fran Harty. Mr. Harty is a research scientist/botanist/conservation expert from the Illinois Natural History Survey. He has taken time to take our students to participate in a Sangamon River study and is a wealth of knowledge. I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to walk the trail with him.

We set out one Saturday morning and within minutes, I marveled as Mr. Harty pointed out the wonders that flew and grew around me. My neighbors to the east have set up many martin houses and a large colony is thriving. A small wonder of the world within feet of my home.

As we continued, Mr. Harty pointed out the many prairie plants, and their uses, birds and bird song. Identifying birdsong is an art. You must teach yourself to separate the individual sounds from a symphony of noise. Carefully lifting layers of sound, you listen for a specific pattern, a set of trills, or a single note. Others have listened carefully and converted some of the bird song into human words or phrase for easier identification. Listening; it takes practice. Mt. Harty has a talent for it.

I thought about how fortunate that some people are bearers of this forgotten pool of once common knowledge. I watched as Mr. Harty “pished”. To pish is to make a sound or series of sounds (it is an onomatopoeia), that attracts the bird, which flies in for a closer look. The amazing thing is- it works.

We came upon the berries that I had wondered about. They were invasive honeysuckle berries, mildly toxic to humans, but birds love them. Mr. Harty called the juicy berries the fast food of nature. They are packed with short term energy, but have few nutrients. The fruit pass through the digestive tract of the bird within feet of feeding and thus, seeds are spread.

As we walked, Mr. Harty kindly wrote each plant, many trees, and birds in a notebook for me. I thought how nice it would be for people- families with children, to have an identifying list to take with them when they walked the trail (I will provide the list he created on my blog).

In between plant identifications, bird sightings and pishing, great stories were told. Walking is a dowsing tool to divine good, uninterrupted talk. I was again reminded of my years walking with children, for my students would inevitably sidle up during long walks, especially during the more subdued return journey. If my hands were not full of finds, small fingers would clasp mine on either side and the talk would begin. Latest happenings at home were told, worries were given voice- things of importance only in a child’s world were shared. Things of utmost importance. These moments in time, not trips to theme parks, are the real quality time

We need long, unbroken time with each other. Time that is not disturbed by cell phones, noise and distractions. Walking or working with children is a perfect venue to truly connect with your child, to know their soul.

My mother, a teacher at Metamorphosis Montessori School, recently told me a story that moved me and illustrates this wonderful phenomenon. She was working with one of my favorite people, Sarah Perdekamp, age 7. Sarah, lovely inside and out, seems to glow with inner light- she is a wonderful soul. The two were busy with Sarah’s birdhouse; sawing the boards (a job for two), and hammering the wood. The work is long, and sawing requires concentration and patience. In a lull, with saw in hand Sarah suddenly announced in the delightful, “no segue needed” manner of children,

“I think I understand it.”

My mom, thinking Sarah meant understanding how the birdhouse was built, said nothing and Sarah continued in her quiet, thoughtful way,

“I think it’s about thinking about what God wants first. Then thinking about what other people want. Maybe then, just a little bit about ourselves. But only a little bit. That’s what I’ve figured out”.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

There is a common parable politicians tell to elicit goodwill and exemplify the power of people to change. The story’s origin has a historical basis and many readers may know the short tale of a monk who visits Rome:

“A monk, named Telemachus, left his native Asia and was led by an inner voice to go to Rome. Upon arrival, he followed the rowdy crowds to the Coliseum. There the monk saw two gladiators fighting, to the death, with swords.

Telemachus jumped between the gladiators shouting, “In the name of Christ, forbear!”, and was immediately run through with a sword. When the crowd saw the monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and were filled with remorse. The crowd slowly dispersed one by one. When the Emperor heard the story of the brave monk, he decreed an immediate end to the gladiator games.”

As a child I loved this story. As an adult, even after I learned the version from my childhood was not entirely truthful, I appreciated the story for its insight into the darkness and light that inhabits all of us. The true story is as nuanced as human nature. Telemachus did step bravely between two enormous gladiators in an attempt to stop the fighting; however, the parting gladiators did not kill him. The crowd, furious at the disruption of their entertainment, stoned the monk to death.

The impetus and date gladiator fighting ended is debated by historians. I like to believe that Telemachus’ act did have some influence on the Emperor. Perhaps the monk’s reaction to the scene and his actions reframed the games in the eyes of decision makers and the population.

I am reminded of this story and of the Coliseum when I watch television. I imagine that the chanting and jeering; the glassy-eyed bloodlust in the eyes of spectators at the Jerry Springer Show or the World Wrestling Foundation effectively conjure the atmosphere and crowds at the gladiator games.

I often think that we need people like Telemachus to help us see anew our own culture. We are so immersed in the sights and sounds of mass media that it is almost impossible to gain perspective. We’re assaulted with images- it often seems to me that these influences have permeated the very air around us. Television is in stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, barber shops, schools, and some churches. Television’s bluish glow and inane sounds float on the evening air when I am out for a night walk. It feels like a culturally toxic amniotic fluid in which we all breathe and float. Yet, television is actually an isolating experience. I think communities need to use television and media collectively to help reveal its own dark side.

At our last Safe Schools Coalition Meeting, we showed a wonderful film called, “What a Girl Wants”. The piece is a short work by the Media Education Foundation that examines how media portrays girls and young women and the effects of popular culture on development. The film showed a collection of recent ad campaigns with young icons such as Brittney Spears. Professionals in education and socials services were in attendance. As we watched, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the images. One arresting ad had appeared in a popular teen girl’s magazine. The glossy page showed Brittney Spears in pig-tails, bending provocatively over a white, child’s bicycle complete with flowered basket wearing impossibly tiny pink underwear that had the word “Baby” across her bottom. The image purposely posed her as a prepubescent little girl. What is the message here and just as alarmingly, who is the intended consumer?

What I found interesting is that I had previewed the film alone and had not felt the same shock and embarrassment that I felt when viewing with others. Like most of us, I reached the Britney Spears saturation point years ago. I no longer really saw her –she had become just another brand name (now replaced with the newer, younger, and more marketable Miley Cyrus). I needed the eyes of others, whom I respected, juxtaposed with those images to help me see with fresh vision. They became my Telemachus.

While I worry about the path we are collectively traveling and often suffer from cultural indigestion, I am also very hopeful. History repeatedly shows that after dark ages, comes renaissance. Additionally, there are many people working diligently to help us re-examine the media and images we are consuming and that are consuming are children. People like Jackson Katz, Jean Kilbourne, Mary Pipher, Richard Louv and many others. The work of Jackson Katz can be viewed on You Tube for free. I also have a growing library of films produced by the Media Education Foundation and have planned a series of free parent film screenings and workshops and discussion groups which will begin this fall.

Links to You Tube Media Education Previews

Consuming Kids

What A Girl Wants