Tuesday, April 8, 2014


N. is reading a funny kids' novel from 1982 called A Word to the Wise by Alison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali.  It's about a bunch of kids stuck in the "bad" reading group at school.  They discover a thesaurus that their teacher says they aren't ready to use yet.  One by one each kid sneaks the thesaurus home...  I haven't read it but N. says it's a really good book.

I realized today that N. had never seen an actual thesaurus, so I brought an ancient one home from my office. I've had this one since junior high.  I think I bought it at a rummage sale.  (Someone wrote on the edge of the pages "I HATE DOING PAPERS!! JAMES T. O'GRADY" and someone else wrote "moron - writing on your thesaurus.")

N. was absolutely thrilled to see what a thesaurus is like and immediately began reading out words and synonyms.  He thought it was the coolest thing, which made my word-loving heart glow, shine, gleam, flush, burn, blaze, flame.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Field Trip: Colonial Williamsburg

recently attended a conference at Colonial Williamsburg and Tim and N. spent a day there with me.  N. enjoyed seeing the buildings and listening to the patter of the costumed interpreters.  He suddenly wished he had a tri-cornered hat and colonial outfit!  He found the "history" presented in the house tours somewhat hokey but he loved the craftsmen and women and the militiamen.  He saw a shoemaker, tailor, and bookbinder.  Since he's interested in knitting and weaving, he lingered for a long time watching demonstrations of spinning, dyeing, and shuttle-winding.  The day concluded with a regimental march and test-firing of cannons.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"O Fortuna!"

N. joined a local children's chorus in January and he has really enjoyed it.  He loves the singing and he also likes the socializing.  In March the chorus participated in an all-day chorus festival that included 6 regional children's choruses.  It was a powerful experience to sing with more than 200 other kids.

Later in March his chorus sang the children's parts of Carmina Burana with a symphony in the region.  N. -- and all the kids -- were thrilled by the big booming sounds of this piece.  The conductor had to continually remind the children to watch him and not the percussionists banging the bass drum and tinkling the triangle next to them.  And who can blame them?  It was pretty wild to suddenly find themselves right in the middle of a huge piece of music as it was being brought to life.

Since that performance, N. has been working out a piano accompaniment to the children's parts, banging those big chords and belting out "O Fortuna," recreating a bit of the experience of the concert every couple days in our living room.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"I gazed and gazed..."

On Sunday N. was inspired by the springy, sunny weather to take out the nature journal one of his sisters made for him a couple years ago and which he has used intermittently.   The nature journal pages include boxes for drawings, descriptions, and identifications of specimens.  We sat out on our patio while N. drew clover, violets, and a daffodil.  (I drank tea, read fluff articles in the Sunday Styles section, and then read aloud from The Return of The Great Brain)  He commented on how the sustained attention required by drawing made him notice features of the plants he'd previously missed.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
             --William Wordsworth (1804)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Act One by Moss Hart

Hearing about Tim and N.'s ongoing autobiography curriculum last year, a friend recommended the playwright Moss Hart's Act One (1959).  Tim is now reading it to N. and they both love it.  Every night at supper I get to hear about the latest episodes in Hart's rise from office boy to playwright.  Who could resist this timeless story of grit and luck in bygone New York?

But its appeal is not only the story of an unknown making it on Broadway against the odds.  Hart's account of his mother was especially resonant for us:
"With my mother the gulf that parted us was even wider, and it remained so forever.  I felt sorrow for her, I admired her, but I did not like her.  If this seems like a heartless impertinence I do not mean it so.  It is said in terms of compassion and not of complaint.  Within her limitations she was a woman of decent instincts and exemplary behavior, and her lot was a hard one.  The days of her life were spent in a constant battle of keeping peace between her father and her sister, and later on, after my grandfather died, between her sister and her husband.  The struggle robbed her of her children -- people who spend their lives in appeasing others have little left to give in the way of love.  It was her tragedy, as well as my brother's and my own.  At a certain age, sometimes early, sometimes late, children make up their minds about their parents.  They decide, not always justly, the kind of people their mothers and fathers are, and the judgment can be a stern one; as cruel, perhaps, as mine was, for it was maintained through the years and was not lessened by the fact that to the end of her days my mother showed not the faintest sign of understanding either the man she had married or the sons she had produced" (25-6). 
Tim recognized in this much of his relationship with his mother, who died in late February.  Reading this passage shortly after we attended her funeral gave Tim and N. an additional way of thinking through our mourning of N.'s grandmother, a feisty woman who didn't understand her son but who warmly embraced her youngest grandchild.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Networks of Learning

A dear friend gave us Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language (1977) a couple years ago, and recently brought to my attention his Pattern #18: Networks of Learning, which reads like a description of my ideal home/urban un-schooling environment:
"In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students -- and adults -- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.... Therefore: instead of lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on younger children, museums, youth groups traveling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on.  Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process..."
 It is reassuring and exciting for homeschooling parents to think of themselves not as the primary teachers of their children, but as the facilitators of their learning networks.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Hotel Cat

Shortly after I wrote about my failed book-bribing campaign to get N. more in the habit of reading novels from start to finish, he did just that.  It was evening and I was looking for a new read-aloud.  (I settled on Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, which we are loving so far!).  As I was rummaging the shelves, I noticed Hotel Cat by Esther Averill and tossed it on N.'s bed, thinking he might like it (he loves cats, and it is set in an old hotel in New York).  He found the book later when he was getting ready for bed and immediately began to read.  So much for a reasonable bedtime that night!  He read one more chapter, and one more, and one more until later than I will publicly admit to.  He woke himself up early in order to keep reading, he read through breakfast, and he finished the book by the following night.  I immediately ordered as many more of Averill's Cat Club books on Abebooks.com as I could find at reasonable prices (as usual, our lame public library has none).

This totally absorbing, drop-everything, "please don't talk to me" binge-reading is one of my favorite pleasures, and it warms my heart to see my son experience it.  That was all I was really aiming for in my book-bribing project.  It wouldn't be particularly practical if he read that way all the time; he'd never get anything else done!  And this was certainly not his first experience of this kind of reading (see Harry Potter, volumes 1-3).  But as a mom and a literature professor, very little gives me greater happiness than seeing someone in lost in a book.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Celebrating Chopin's Birthday

On Saturday N. played in a local festival celebrating Chopin's birthday.  Over the course of five hours, local students, teachers, and professional pianists played works from Chopin's oeuvre.  N. played a mazurka.  Piano can be somewhat more isolating than other instruments children learn; there are rarely spaces for pianists in youth orchestras or school bands.  So it is nice to have a chance to join a larger community of pianists.  And in this case, it was especially fun for N. to participate in an event celebrating one of his favorite composers.  He really enjoyed hearing so many different pianists interpret Chopin's music.

(The jumbotron directly behind N. was amusing to us.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"When the Curtain Goes Up"

The Magic Flute at the ENO. Photo by Robbie Jack
I'm very proud of the fact that N. has become quite an opera lover.  While violent plays upset him, the tumults of opera do not (in fact, in making the case for being allowed to go to Othello with us in London, he cited the fact that he'd seen Carmen).  The arts conservatory in our city has an excellent graduate program in opera and there is a pretty good professional regional opera company which puts on two productions a year, so we have had many local opportunities to take N. to the opera.  Some of the works he has seen in our city in the past couple years include The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Barber of SevilleCarmen, and La Rondine.  Two weeks ago we saw a wonderful student production of Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman, which N. absolutely loved.  He has been going around the house singing the catchiest snatches of the "Kleinzach" song ever since.  Thanks to our rejuvenated French studies, he also enjoyed picking out French words when he could recognize them as they were being sung.

In Europe last semester, we took advantage of being in major capitals of culture to see top-notch opera.  We saw the crazy production of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream in Berlin that I wrote about earlier.  My brother gave us tickets to the season-opening concert of the London Symphony Orchestra for N.'s birthday, which happened to be a concert (non-staged) performance of Rigoletto.  It was so so so good!  We couldn't bring ourselves to pay the super-high prices charged by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, but near the end of our stay in London we did splurge on tickets to the English National Opera's new modern-dress staging of The Magic Flute, which was really wonderful.  N. loved Rigoletto and The Magic Flute, especially the tenor's singing of "la donna e mobile" in the former and the excellent singer who played Papageno in the latter.

My primary acquaintance with opera before the past two years has been through CDs that collect famous arias.  I love listening to Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Kiri Tekanawa, and famous singers of earlier eras work their way through the repertoire.  But I never bothered to learn more about most of the operas from which these pieces come.  I'd seen a few operas (Butterfly, Tosca, La Boheme), but I didn't know a lot about the form.  So I'm really enjoying N.'s developing love of opera because it's giving me the opportunity to learn more.  We don't study up on the operas before we see them, but let them wow us in performance; we follow up later, reading and listening and youtubing.  At the opera, all three of us feel a Betsy-Ray-ish excitement "when the curtain goes up!"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Knitting While Travelling

On Hampstead Heath
I mentioned here last spring that N. and I were learning to knit.  A while after that post, N. got frustrated with the washcloth he was knitting because I chose a yarn with strands that split too easily for a beginner; he put it aside.  I, on the other hand, went crazy with knitting and knitted lots of baby and kid sweaters and mittens while we were travelling.  So much time on trains and planes!  It was perfect for knitting.

Although N. stopped learning to knit for the time being, he loved going with me to yarn stores.  In Paris we spent a memorable afternoon wandering through the fabric district in Montmartre trying to find a yarn store (that turned out to be closed for August).  Another day we went to the fabled yarn store La Droguerie, a colorful, cozy little haven tucked in the shadow of Saint-Eustache church.  After we marveled at the Gothic Saint-Eustache (and listened to a bit of a student's lesson its famously huge organ), we stroked the samples of yarn hanging from racks in La Droguerie.  N. chose a yarn spun especially for the store of recycled wool, linen and silk, for a zip-up hooded sweater (pictured).  We learned from the store employee winding our yarn purchase that its color had been named "la pêche á la sardine" (sardine fishery!).

In London a wonderful yarn store called Loop was a short Tube ride from where we were staying and N. and I went there frequently.  He chose all the yarns for the sweaters I made for his niece and nephew, for him, and for projects in progress now for myself.  We had fun exploring hand-dyed and British wools.  My knitting felt like a collaborative project we were undertaking together!

N. has expressed some passing interest in relearning garter stitch with a more suitable yarn (and his best friend is obsessed with finger knitting) but even if he doesn't, we'll always remember the fun we had exploring yarn stores on our travels.

(I'm on Ravelry here).