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).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mad for Chopin

For the past 9 months or so, N. has been pretty deeply obsessed with Chopin's piano music.  He started playing some etudes and nocturnes last spring, and then moved on to waltzes and mazurkas.  His piano teachers have had to force some variety into his repertoire, because for a while at least he really only wanted to play Chopin.  I see their point, but it is a total treat to have Chopin's music floating through my house daily!

When we were in London last semester, Tim and N. did not have their regular daily "school" time so their long-standing improvised auto/biography curriculum was on hiatus.  But browsing Blackwells bookstore on a day trip to Oxford we found Adam Zamoyski's biography Chopin: Prince of the Romantics (2011).  Tim did not read this aloud, but read it himself and told N. and me a lot about Chopin's life over meals throughout the semester, so it practically felt like it was read aloud to us.  The book is especially strong on Chopin's life in Poland before he moved to Paris.  N. was fascinated to learn about his life, and he loved learning details such as Chopin's love of Bach's music and thinking about how Bach's music, which at first listen seems so different, shaped Chopin's.  He was also very amused to hear that Chopin had his hair curled every day by a servant.  It's hard work getting that tousled Romantic look!

Our primary approach to homeschool could be described as "If you liked that, you might like this."  We're always looking for connections to the things N. loves.  So, when we were in Paris we made a pilgrimage to Chopin's grave in Père Lachaise cemetery, which was covered in flowers and memorials from music lovers.  When we were in Berlin we went to an all-Chopin concert at the French Cathedral.  For Christmas we got him a CD of Chopin's first and second piano concertos.  I love being part of these long learning trajectories as they develop over time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Curious Incidents

Last fall while we were in London, my study-abroad students went to a play every week and we had the opportunity to take N. to as many of these productions as seemed age-appropriate.  We made a couple of mistakes in judging age-appropriateness, however.  I've already written about taking N. (at his request) to Othello, which was a very painful experience for him.  Although at first he regretted seeing it, I don't think he still does.  He also came with us and the students to War Horse.  Before we went to the theater, I didn't know anything about this play other than its use of full-size puppets to portray the horses.  The marketing we saw around London made it seem like a children's play, and I vaguely knew it was based on a children's novel.  I wished I had done my homework, however, because N. was so upset by the war scenes that he begged to (and did) go home at the interval.  He was much more disturbed by this play than Othello, perhaps because the production is sensorially overwhelming and manipulatively sentimental.

Remembering traumatic viewings of scary or upsetting movies in my own childhood, I've always been vigilant about what N. watches on screen.  I don't think children should be protected from all upsetting images or artworks forever, but I do think there is plenty of time in later childhood for the complex reactions such works elicit.  Since this is my view, I felt especially bad that I'd unwittingly brought him to a play that was both maudlin and violent.  Perhaps my cultural snobbery was to blame; I wasn't as suspicious of the theater as I am of movies.  I didn't think about the fact that theater can be as sensorially powerful (or even more so) as film.  The instructor of my students' theater class warned me to be careful in choosing what I brought N. to because as a passionate lover of theater, she didn't want a disturbing experience to make him reject theater.  Fortunately, we saw so many other wonderful plays with N. that War Horse remained anomalous and did not dampen his enthusiasm for theater.

We learned when we first arrived in London that we'd be seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a West End play based on the bestselling novel.  N.'s curiosity was piqued by the cover of the book as Tim was reading it in September and he wanted to read it himself.  I'd read it years ago and thought it might be a bit troubling for a 9-year-old, but N. begged so insistently that I relented.  He had read about half (and apparently peeked ahead as well, so he knew the major plot revelations) before we went to the play.  Despite the dog's death that opens the play, the complexities of Christopher's parents' relationship, the references to sex, the sensory terror of Christopher's journey to London, N. absolutely loved the play.  The production was surprisingly successful at dramatizing what I thought was the most important achievement of the book: the representation of a person's interior life so different from my own.  Sound and light effectively created the sensory experience of the autistic protagonist that is so movingly narrated in the book.  Afterwards, we had a lot of fun talking about the ways the book and the play told Christopher's story.  N. eventually finished the book, and was further inspired to start (but not yet finish!The Hound of the Baskervilles, which inspires Christopher's quest for truth in Curious Incident.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Bribing

Internet, I did something I'm not proud of.  I bribed my son to read.

As you know if you're a faithful reader of this blog, I've long been perplexed by my son's nonlinear reading habits.  He loves to read and spends a lot of time every day reading -- articles in Trains Magazine or Classic Trains, snippets of books about the London Underground, National Geographic articles, books about great buildings, picture books, favorite chapters of favorite books, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix.  I've tracked the non-picture books he's read on Listography.  He loves to read, he tests very high on his annual national standardized test in reading, and he reads well above 4th-grade "reading level."  He thinks of himself as a kid who loves to read.  It's unreasonable that I am anything but thrilled with his reading.

But it drives me nuts that he starts and abandons many chapter books.  We don't assign any reading to him as part of his "school" work, yet I find myself pestering him to continue reading a book I know he has begun and set aside.  I am a literature professor; I believe really really strongly in the value of finishing books!  I know that nagging is counter-productive, but I can't resist nudging him to pick the book up again and read a bit more to see if it grabs him.  Often, this is exactly what happens.  He reads a bit farther and is suddenly completely absorbed, begging to read one more chapter before lights out at night.  So, despite being uncomfortable that I've compromised my commitment to my child's free reading, I feel vindicated.

When we were in Europe last semester, we had no access to a children's library and had been able to bring only a few books with us.  N. didn't have the range of nonfiction or old favorite fiction to dip into as he did at home.  In London, however, we lived around the corner from Daunt Books, a wonderful little bookstore with an excellent children's section.  They stocked both Tintin and Asterix books (which we have to order online here in the States), much to N.'s delight.  While I wasn't initially thrilled by his love of comics, I've come to see their value as reading material and I decided to use them to encourage N. to read some longer fiction from start to finish.  So I bribed him.  If he read a longer work of fiction, I would buy him a Tintin or Asterix volume when he finished.  We had fun walking to the bookstore and picking out the next novel or the next comic; it is such a luxury to live near a decent bookstore!

During the course of my bribing scheme, N. read a couple Enid Blyton novels (and I wondered if this was really cause for celebration, since Tintin and Asterix are much much better written than Blyton's drivel!), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the first of Frank Cottrell Boyce's sequels, three of the Zack Files books that his grandma sent him, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  My hope was that this would get him in a more regular habit of always having a chapter book going, but when we returned to our extensive home library in December, N. was back to his preferred mode of browsing.  After reacquainting himself with his favorites, he's read Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms by Lissa Evans and is almost done with the sequel (which he begged for, began, put aside, and picked up after my prodding).

The moral of this story is that my bribing didn't change N.'s reading habits.  When he happens on a book he wants to finish, he does.  While I do think it is important to read novels from start to finish, to cultivate sustained engagement with a story, to open yourself to a novel's development rather than to dismiss it too soon, I also appreciate not wanting to waste your time on a book that isn't worth it.  It took me many years to be able to put a book down unfinished, and I rarely do so.  Now instead of bribing or nagging my son to finish a book, I'm trying to talk with him about why he decides to abandon one.  I'd much rather he develop an awareness of how and why he assesses a book as worth continuing than that he reads to the end simply out of obligation.  I'm trying to think about our temperamental differences as readers as an occasion for talking about why we read, what we want in reading, when reading what we think we won't like can be pleasurable, when to put a book down.