The Red Sox Cap Theory of Traveling

2 May

There they were, the choices. At first glance they seemed identical: blue ball caps with red “B”s. But one was not as vivid, it’s “B” lacked flourish, but it was fifteen dollars less expensive. The other was the official hat for the MLB. The salesman wanted me to be informed, but I knew I wanted a bona fide Red Sox cap. I didn’t fly across the nation, knowing nothing about baseball, for a less pretty hat.

He seemed pleased with my choice, and as he cut off the price tag and removed the card stock from inside the cap, he taught me how to speak Bostonian. “See this word?” He slid over a piece of a paper with the “khakis” on it. “This is how we say car keys.” He handed me my cap and nodded in approval as I put in on my head to head back on the tour of the Freedom Trail with my friend to try out my new lingo.

The Bostonian pronunciation.

The Bostonian pronunciation.

We arrived at Bunker Hill shortly after the time they stopped letting people in to climb up to the top of the monument. I asked the guard, “Are we too late to climb up?” He looked at me, looked at my hat, “How can I say no to someone wearing a Red Sox cap?” and let us up. At Louisa May Alcott’s house, the tour guide complimented me on my hat, as did other people in and around Boston. I was confused. This was Boston; didn’t EVERYONE have a Red Sox cap? What was so special about mine? But then again, everyone in Boston is really nice.

In my Red Sox's cap in front of Louisa May Alcott's House.

In my Red Sox’s cap in front of Louisa May Alcott’s House.

But a part of me thinks that they must have seen that I was not from around there. I was too bundled up (it was below freezing most of my trip) or my hat was just too new or I pronounced my “r”s. Their kindness and recognition of my cap may have stemmed from their appreciation that I took pride in their city. People are generally nice and want to be helpful, but when you show that you are enjoying their home, that’s where we get into what it means to travel.

This played out to almost comedic effect in London last fall. Steve wanted to eat at some top-tier restaurants, and we chose Pollen Street Social, a recipient of one Michelin star (a crazy hard achievement). I wore white jeans, a teal sweater, and pink loafers while Steve wore a short-sleeved plaid button down shirt, untucked with jeans. I kept asking him if we had on the appropriate attire, and he assured me that it was “semi-casual”. However, I suspected that London semi-casual is a whole different thing than America’s version. As we entered the posh and modern dining room, we knew we were quite underdressed.

Floor to ceiling windows separated the kitchen from the dining room revealing master chef Jason Atherton and his team working away at their creations. Our server showed us our seats among men in sharp suits and women in fancy dresses. We explained that we were from California. We tried to mask our discomfort of sticking out like sore thumbs. We had been to nice restaurants before, but this was something else entirely. I felt like a novice trying to play in the big leagues.

Servers came by with our wine and amuse bouches of mushroom tea with cream, goat cheese churros with truffle oil drizzled honey, polenta muffins, and black olive crackers. One asked me if I had food preferences. Finally Steve ordered the fourteen course tasting menu while I stuck with a regular entree of the red mullet with black and green olive purée.

Steve’s little courses started to appear at our table, and they surprised us by bringing me tastings, too. One of Atherton’s signature dishes is the Deconstructed English Breakfast– an eggshell filled with finely chopped sautéed mushrooms, a tomato purée, eggs made into something like a cream, and ham. Mine was made especially for me without the ham. Throughout the night various servers stopped by our table and chatted with us about the food, European wine versus Californian, and our homes. They wanted to know what they could convey to the chef, especially when I couldn’t finish my dinner. What was my reason for not cleaning my plate?

The Deconstructed English Breakfast.

The Deconstructed English Breakfast.

At dessert, they brought me out the tastings even though I said I was full. We had frozen caramel corn over sweet cream and creme anglaise, cucumber yogurt foam with strawberry coulis, frozen banana dark chocolate Grenache, and white chocolate sorbet with lime. One of the desserts was was topped with blueberries, and I told Steve that I hoped they didn’t bring me a taste since I dislike blueberries. I wondered if we were being recorded, because when that dessert came out, they only brought one for Steve.

We observed the other diners. They talked amongst each other; the food, the service, the ambience seemed to be an afterthought. This was just another Monday night and another dinner for them. They took it for granted that they could just go such a restaurant and have such a meal. All received good service, but none garnered the attention we received. We were there for the experience, and everyone who worked there responded in kind and seemed determined to give us the best experience possible.

When we went to Simpson’s so Steve could have the prime rib, we had a similar experience. Simpson’s is a London landmark; it’s been there since the 19th century and was even featured in Downton Abbey. They are famous for carving the prime rib table side. Steve researched the restaurant beforehand and learned that it is customary to tip the carver. When the carver came to our table, he and Steve got talking about prime rib, and he carved him an English cut, an American cut (thinner), and the much coveted end cut. When Steve tipped him, he smiled and said, “You know the tradition.” When he could, he stopped by our table and chatted some more, and before we left the manager stopped us to talk to us about our meal and the speech David Cameron gave that day. Again, they wanted us to have a good experience.

It felt like we had on London’s version of the Red Sox cap; everyone responded to our enthusiasm. People take pride in what they do, and they want to share what they know or their skills. It seems to come down to the fact that no one wants to take the other for granted. We don’t often have dining experiences like these, and it also appears that they don’t get a plethora of diners who are there for the experience.

Two thoughts come to mind as I write this post:
1. I realize that I am preaching to the choir. My readers (who mostly consist of my friends and family– Hi, friends and family!  Thank you for reading!) are those who would enjoy everything a place has to offer.

2. Much of this joy that we experienced is a result of being present in the moment. We were paying attention; we weren’t diverted by our phones or other concerns.  In my quest of focusing on how to “be”, these moments provide a good lesson on how to give attention.

Now the question is how to create this sense of wonder here at home. How can I break out of taking my hometown for granted?

The Other Man

1 May

It’s true.  I confess it.  There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile.  This affair transcends time and spans two continents.  He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.

Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me.  There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.

His name is Johannes.  And you might know him: as Vermeer.

If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music.  He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said.  She’s known for her pearl earring.

It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer.  I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed.  The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown.  It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.

Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.

Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.

Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club.  Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try.  The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers.  He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting.  Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery.  No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored.  They were also quite rare.  There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent.  van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all.  His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull.  How could have so many people been fooled?

If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail.  Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you.  In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber.  The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him.  He did it all himself; this limited his output.

However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see.  In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth.  They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way.  While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special.  I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative.  For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom?  What are its contents?  What is its affect on her?  He allows the viewer to create the story.

His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life.  Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices.  In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip.  The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come.  They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile.  All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.

Slowly Vermeer became part of my life.  It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection.  It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile.  My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works.  To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame.  In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them.  The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.

Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work.  There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.

Being in Rome

28 Apr

Yesterday I wrote about the struggle of finding the balance between “doing” and “being”.  My thoughtful readers chimed in reminding me that some times life just asks us to “do” more at certain times; that busyness is not necessarily bad but we need reminders to slow down; and that for some of us “doing” is a way of “being”.  As I reflected on this dichotomy, it occurred to me that I can just “be’, but in order to do this, I have to be somewhere else.

The places that came to mind where I have been the most calm, aware, and in tune with my environment are visiting my parents and lying on their couch, hanging out with my grandma in Michigan, morning walks in Palm Springs, walking on the beach with my friends in St. Augustine, or wandering through Central Park. It’s even better if I have a camera in my hand and my senses become attuned to sights of beauty.  Being away means that there’s nothing really required of me.  I just have to BE there.

But one memory stands out the most for constant, sustained BEING: Rome.

Rome and her umbrella pines.

Rome and her umbrella pines.

Rome is an attack on the senses; it is a perfect place to “be” because it is unapologetically itself. It calls on you to be aware as the past and the present are melded into one.  Our modernized apartment in the ancient Monti neighborhood revealed its past as brickwork peeked through the paint and the stairs leading to our door followed antiquated building codes.  At the piazza down our cobblestone street, barely wide enough for a Fiat, bright young things  continued the tradition of congregating around the fountain at all hours of the night drinking wine and solving the world’s problems.  Make a right at the piazza and you find yourself facing the Colosseum surrounded by vendors selling cold sodas and tourists toting selfie-sticks. Ruins, art, and churches are everywhere.  Rome startles you as you daringly try crossing the street on faded crosswalks, praying that the drivers will either stop or drive around you; yet it lulls with its umbrella pines, sidewalk cafes, sunny warmth. It asks you to slow down and savor the moment.

The Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum.

Steve and I landed in Rome after having spent two weeks in London and Paris, respectively.  Unlike the other two capitals where we had planned what sights we wanted to see and where we wanted to eat and had our time determined by reservations, we hadn’t done much prepping for Rome.  After the orderliness of London and Paris’s refinement, we found ourselves in a city that followed completely different rules and no plans.  The first day set the tone as we explored our large apartment that beckoned relaxation and wine drinking.  We set out to find our wine, cheeses, artichokes, and olives. The afternoon was spent enjoying our bounty before heading off to explore the piazza for a late dinner.

You want to BE there for this.  Yummers!

You want to BE there for this. Yummers!

We did what you expect travelers to Rome to do.  We saw the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley House.  Since we had no set plans, we went back to the Forum again.  However, we took our time. We lingered.  We ate gelato. We drank wine.  We had late dinners.

The Vatican in the distance.

The Vatican in the distance.

None of these quite compared with our experience at the Borghese Gardens.  We planned on going to the Borghese Gallery, but tickets have to be purchased in advance and they did not have any extras.  No Old Masters for us that day.  Instead we eyed the pedal carts that people rode around the park.  Soon we were off and away, Steve pedaling our cart (my feet didn’t reach), laughing as we coasted down a hill narrowly avoiding tourists.  After almost three weeks of walking, it was freeing to explore on wheels.  We rode around the park as I hopped off with my camera to snap whatever caught my fancy.  Soon we passed a stand renting out golf carts.  You can imagine what we did next.

Steve and I in our pedal cart.

Steve and I in our pedal cart.

Umbrella pines at the Borghese Gardens.

Umbrella pines at the Borghese Gardens.

“I’m driving in Rome!” Steve called out as we zipped away to explore another part of the park.  The next we knew we were racing against a group of teenage boys.

After we returned the cart, Steve found a place to sit down and have a beer, and I found a quiet garden with a boat pond.  I made my way through this sanctuary and enjoyed the stillness of the afternoon and watched the ducks and turtles lounge in the sun.

The boat pond.

                              The boat pond.

This place, this city’s only request that we just “be” and be present.

Monday Motivators: Being vs. Doing

27 Apr

“There are some people who go through life doing things rather than being,” said my best friend on the other end of the line. I knew where this was going, what she was hinting at.

“Are you saying I am a doer?” I asked.

“You’re not just a doer; you’re an exceptional doer.”

She was telling me in the best way possible that I might just be doing too much. This is not something I haven’t heard before. Normally I shrug my shoulders, so what I do too much. I can handle it. Except this time it’s true. I may have just gotten myself too busy and it’s impacting me in weird ways. For instance, I showed up late to a meeting that I swore started at 4:30. I’ve been going to these meetings for two years, and they start at 4:00. I’ve double-booked myself, and in my mind I envision being at both places, but it’s not until later that I realize that I cannot be two places at once. Every morning now I have to write myself a to do list just to remember what it is that I need to do– because I’ve been forgetting.

I do a lot at my job and I do a lot at home. There is always something that needs to be done. Even when I travel, I like to visit cities, places where there are things to do. Sitting on a beach or by the pool does not appeal to me. (I’m not going to divulge what I do because 1) I don’t need my readers telling me I do too much, too, 2) I don’t want it to be like I’m saying, “Look at me! I do everything!”, and 3) this is not a busyness competition: we’re all busy.) And as my friend reminded me, sometimes we make ourselves busy in order to avoid “being” or reflecting or processing emotions. Busyness keeps keeps the internal messiness at bay. There is some truth to that.

My problem is that I don’t know what “being” looks like. How does one just “be”? Is it sitting in a chair doing nothing? Can one do something and be at the same time? I imagine it involves “being present” and “in the moment”, but if I wonder if I’m present, does that mean I’m not? I didn’t ask my friend the definition of being and how to be; we spent all of our time discussing the consequences of doing too much.

So that is my goal this week: to find time to just “be”. I don’t have a real plan on how this is going to work out, since I don’t know what it means to “be”, but I’ll do it anyway.

Monday Motivators was started by my friend Laura who decided that we could all use a bit more motivation in our lives to take on personal challenges. Check out her blog; she’s a lot of fun AND she is a recent FitBit convert (so she can totally hang with me).

Monday Motivators: When The Mind Is Willing And The Body Is Not

13 Apr

Last week my personal challenge was to walk 65,000 steps, or 13,000 steps a day, in five days.  I knew this would be hard, but the week before I handily accomplished 60,000 and my confidence was high.  Surely, I could sneak in an extra 1,000 steps a day.

Instead, something else snuck up on me.  My weekly total was 53,342.  This sounds like a lot, and it IS a lot.  For me, it was pretty low.  On Monday I woke up feeling pretty tired, but I tried to get in my steps and even did a step aerobic workout when I got home (I live by workout videos).  Even with this effort, I missed the 13,000 mark by 800 steps.  I shrugged it off; the deficit would be made up on Tuesday.  The next morning I felt worse– exhausted, kind of swimmy, with a headache that throbbed behind my left eye, and everything I ate or drank tasted like bile.  I still went to work, hoping that once I got there I would feel better and knowing my job was to chaperone students on a low-maintenence field trip.  I still did not feel better.  This followed for the entire week and culminated on Thursday when my left eye felt like it had looked at the sun too long (even though I was indoors) and could not regain its sight. Nothing was getting done; the papers remained ungraded and the steps remained untaken.  I went home and walked to the couch.  Friday resulted in the same action.  I spent most of the weekend recuperating.  It wasn’t until Saturday evening that it started to abate, and while I feel much better today, I know that it just went into hiding; I’m not out of the woods.

The good news is that I got in a lot of steps today.  I worked out and went for a four-mile walk.  My goal this week is back to 60,000.  My friend Ginger, who also has a FitBit, challenged me to the Workweek Hustle competition to see who can get the most steps.  Hopefully between feeling better and a good dose of friendly competition, I will make it.

Monday Motivators was started by my blogging friend Laura who is motivating herself and others to accomplish the things they want to do for the week.  Go over and check out her blog and be her friend.  She is awesome.

Monday Motivators: 65,000 Steps

6 Apr

Challenges:  They get me in trouble.  I cannot say “no” to them.  So when my blogging buddy Laura started her Monday Motivators to challenge and motivate herself and her friends to do whatever it is they need to do that week, I signed on immediately.  My challenge: walk 60,000 steps in 5 days.

The fitness powers-that-be suggest 10,000 steps a day, but working at a school and being on my feet all day helps me attain almost 6-8,000 steps.  Walking to the mailbox and regular daily living walking helps make up the difference.  That’s not very challenging. 12,000 steps requires more from me, and to reach that goal, I need to come home after being on my feel all day and do a workout.  That is a challenge.

But I made it.  I actually did a little over 60,000 steps and here’s my plan of attack:

1. Wear the FitBit.  My FitBit tracks all of my steps, and sometimes after I shower, I forget to put it on right away.  That means I walk around the house getting ready for work and those steps are not tracked.  This can add up to over 500 steps!

2. Plan ahead.  Last week I knew I had an all-day meeting Wednesday, a book club in the evening Thursday, and a tuckered body on Friday.  These days were going to be low-step days, so I planned to work out Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons.  On Monday and Tuesday I exceeded 12,000 steps in order to make up for the rest of the week’s deficit.

3. The mini-challenge.  On Thursday and Friday, know that I would need to get in some good steps at work, I gave myself mini-challenges.  For example, during class I checked my steps on my FitBit (I love my FitBit) and challenged myself to walk a certain amount of steps in a limited amount of time.  This had an added benefit of keeping my students on task: at any moment I could be doing a lap around their desks.

4.  Take the long way.  My classroom is close to everything: the front office, the library, the bathroom, the elevator.  Fortunately my room is on the second floor, so there is ample opportunity to take the stairs.  However, with everything so close I often create “long ways” of getting places.  It might take a minute or two longer to get somewhere, but the steps add up quickly (you’d be surprised).

5. A little help from students.  Some of my students know that I am trying to get in my steps.  Some cheer me on, while others are sneaky.  One day a student called me over to him. After walking across the room to see what he needed, he grinned, “Nothing.  Just helping you get in some more steps.”

This week has less demands on my time, so my goal is to reach 65,000 steps.

Readers, if you have not met my lovely friend, Laura, click on the link above and check out her blog.  Let her motivate you, too!

I like Eric Clapton, and I crank up Cocaine each time I hear it in the radio.  But I am not familiar with all of his work; I will check out this album.

31 Mar

Inspire That Student! (To Do Something! Anything!)

25 Mar

To hear some people tell it, all teachers need to inspire and motivate students is to clearly state the day’s standard and objective. Students will obviously feel energized knowing what it is they are responsible for and will work diligently to “Create equations in two or more variables to represent relationships between quantities; graph equations on coordinate axes with labels and scales” or “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

The sad truth of the matter is, besides the standards sounding really boring, many of our students do not have the vocabulary to understand what the standards mean. However, that is for another blog post. The happy truth of the matter is that most students are nice little worker bees who want to do well (or at least slide by) and respond to the objectives. They also respond to the lesson plans and classroom management expectations; they may even go so far as to catch the teacher’s enthusiasm and love of the subject– all of the things that help motivate and inspire them. But what about those other bees? You know, the “lazy” bees, the “screw you and Jane Austen” bees, and the “I don’t care what you do, I’m not gonna do it” bees? Every year they fly into the classroom, and instead of squashing them as we are tempted to do, we have to get them to make honey. We live with the knowledge that they don’t/won’t. And it stings.

So what do we do to motivate and inspire them? I mean beyond calling home, setting up appointments with school counselors, and setting up an IST. My school in particular is on its journey to becoming a Professional a Learning Community (PLC) to help strengthen instruction, collaboration, and response to intervention, but the full implementation is a few years out (this is a slow process). How do teachers, as individuals, get students to do something (and maybe learn a thing or two)?

It’s a crapshoot, really. In my experience those who don’t do anything have reasons for doing so that go beyond the classroom walls and have problems much greater for one teacher to bear. This doesn’t preclude that we just give up, and it also doesn’t preclude that once we reach a spark, that the student will be suddenly transformed. It’s a day by day process, and I try to celebrate each success in the moment knowing that tomorrow could land me back at square one. The kicker is finding that spark.

I teach US History, but I hate packet work and work sheets. Instead I have my students write paragraph responses, read primary documents, do creative projects, and analyze and respond to document-based questions among other things. In one class I have two boys–both who refused to do the work. One flat out told me that he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to do it. He then criticized me for not having a packet; a packet is easier, why do I have to make things so hard, blah, blah, blah. We both left that discussion heated and upset. I stewed. How dare he, that lazy bum, criticize me and my teaching when he does nothing, NOTHING? I bet, I thought, he wouldn’t even do a packet if I made one! Yeah, that’s what I’ll do! I’ll make him a packet! Then what will he have to complain about? That afternoon I made him a packet. The next morning when he sat at his desk, I plopped the packet in front of him. “Here.” I said, “Here is your packet.” He picked up the offensive packet gingerly in his hands and gave me a wide-eyed gaze. “You made me a packet?” he asked, “Thank you.”

While I thought I had been calling his bluff, he really wanted a packet. We decided that I was still going to teach the way I planned, but he would work out of the book and do packets. This requires him to bring his book everyday even when the rest of the class doesn’t need it. He is still a lazy kid who still tries to beat the system and has violated my trust, but he slowly does his work and cares about passing the class, because he knows there’s a chance.

The other boy called my class a “farce”. I didn’t know whether I should be annoyed or impressed. However, I did know that the response was aimed to blame me for his inactions. I had asked him why he didn’t answer the essay portion of the test (when I knew he knew the answers) in order to determine what we could do so he could do better next time. He flatly refused to do anything, but with the attitude that he was too good for my farce of a class. But he would talk to me. We share a love of reading and the classics. He constantly checks out books from the library and shares his opinions with me. The one thing we would not discuss is history.

One day he decided to write a poem for the library’s poetry contest. He kept telling me about it. The day he finished it I tentatively asked if I could read it. He said yes, so I asked if he would allow me to comment on it, and yes again. It was quite good. I highlighted the especially poetic phrasing and made comments on how he could tighten up areas. After class we discussed it in order for him to understand why I made the suggestions I did. He submitted it to the competition and received a positive response. Wanting to capitalize on his new found interest, I asked if he would consider writing poems about what we were studying in class. He thought that an “interesting prospect”. After a couple of days on his own, he finally asked for help and guidance, “I don’t know where to begin.” With the rest of the class working independently, he and I discussed Shakespearean sonnets and how to write one. He took down notes, asked questions, and looked up some sonnets on-line. Once he felt like he had a grasp of the sonnet form, he cracked open his text book and started to read. That night he wrote a sonnet on Imperialism and then another just for fun.

My students had to do a creative project at the end of the semester, so he chose to do a poetry book. He wrote four sonnets, two villanelles, and a sestina covering the themes learned so far in American history. The room took on the feel of an author reading as he pulled a chair up to the front of the class and began reciting his work. He read well and with passion; the class was floored. His face beamed with pride at their applause.

Both of these ways to get these boys to work are flukes; there’s nothing in the teacher guide that says “give the kid the packet” or “teach history through sonnets”. My class is still not rainbows and kittens. There are other students who weigh on my mind, and I wonder if I will find that spark in them during the last semester of school. One has told me that he prefers summer school, because, “Ms. L, the teachers are so chill, they don’t care what you do, and it’s so easy.” I don’t know what I am going to do about him. Another responded to my request for suggestions for things to do once we get back from break: “I don’t like creative projects. I like book reports and essays.” Hm. It looks like my students will all be reading more next semester.

Teachers: What do you do to find that spark in your unmotivated students? I’d like to hear about your experience.

The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

23 Mar

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…

The Homestead and The Orchard House: A Tale of Two Literary Tours

22 Mar

Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson's home.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home.

Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.

Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.

These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.

Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.

It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.

Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?

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