Friday, October 30, 2009

Tell Me A Story

The Home Tour is just a week away and the urge to start cleaning top to bottom, inside to out, is becoming irresistible. I find myself using my sleeve to capture cobwebs from the corners of the pantry, wiping the rime of dust from the trim on the doorways and closets. And speaking of closets, the one that was Ben's, in the office, is being eyed as most likely repository for the six by three by one foot volume of books, papers, and correspondence on the desk. So, time to attack the big box in the bottom of the closet.

Lots of debris, lots of loose change, several rosettes from years ago livestock shows. But I also found four paperbacks that we thought were long gone, a series of stories that I know Lee read til the covers fell off. I took them upstairs where all the other "kid's" books now reside, ready to be resurrected as the grandkids reach the age of sniffing through bookcases like their parents did and their grandparents as well. What's living upstairs now? Recently I sent 'Twenty-one Balloons' home with Ann. She's read it to Aaron and he in turn has constructed his own aircraft with HyVee sacks and two whirligigs. One evening when he was spending the night, we read a chapter from 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. I had a tendency to buy books I remembered as a kid for my children as they grew. Sure, we had lots of books from Scholastic, but the girls lived 'Little Women' and Ben got 'Sherlock Holmes'. One year, he was even Hercule Poirot for Halloween. I loved Dr. Doolittle, all Marguerite Henry's books, all Walter Farley' 'Black Stallion' books. But my special love was reserved for the semi fairy tale, semi fantasy, semi folk tales by Lloyd Alexander. My grandmother gave me a paperback version of 'The Castle of Llyr' and I stalked the aisles of our little library until the next story arrived. They were full of good hearted, frail creatures, a marvelous mix of magic, heartache, adventure, terror and morality. As an adult I appreciate the subtle, gradual way that Alexander's characters "grew up", becoming less selfish, less self centered, and ultimately sacrificing immediate gratification for doing good. But as a kid, the bad guys were really really evil and there was no subtlety about the necessity of their destruction.
And, indeed, there was an unambiguous yet bittersweet happy ending and lots of good parts to read over and over again.
Well, why this nostalgia? Because I know my grandkids shouldn't see 'Where the Wild Things Are'. Or probably lots of other movies that pass for kids' fare. I feel safe picking out stories that I read in a long ago time, because I don't trust today's paperbacks to tell a wondrous tale without lots of baggage that unsubtle little minds don't need. I'm reading a novel now with some characters that try to behave in a Christian manner, who fail at the task, some who resist temptations, more that do not, and, frankly, I have had a difficult time working up any empathy for any of them. That's fine for me; if I have a bad taste or a bad dream, I did it. But that isn't for children. They really should want to read and read again, to be so wrapped up in a tale that it almost feels real. A good story should be sitting on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, or the library, or up in Grandma's attic, waiting, waiting to be rediscovered by the grown up child who will smile in remembrance and take it home to the next generation.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Yeoman and Classical Education

Whoa!! Don't be scared off by the weighty title. We just spent a weekend listening to folks with nothing but the best intentions for our cultural future and the common intellectual language of students past and present. To be sure, most of the attendees at this conference were 1) older rather than younger, (that generalization is safe to make when the decline of anything is discussed), 2) professors, writers or members of think tanks, and 3) conservative in a broad and long term sense. There were also some college kids who probably didn't need any indoctrination; they were already members of the choir.

The panels were not just one giant Greek chorus of lament; there are indeed intelligent and energetic people out there in the education wilderness attempting to make sense and order of what children are taught, not just in higher education, but also in the lower grades. But one does not have to have one's ear very close to the ground to know that curriculum is a mighty battle ground and such a large one that communication between all the fronts is nearly impossible.

What do we all need to know to be a people with a common cultural language? Obviously, most programs with an emphasis on "core texts" go all the way back to the Greeks. I am certain that the degradation of that kind of learning began quite a while ago. My high school exposure to classical literature was....well, to tell the truth, I think it was nil. What I remember reading in high school was some American poetry, Shakespeare, and Thornton Wilder. Also some short stories including Hemingway. I am completely certain that my four years of high school mathematics left me better grounded in that subject than my three years of high school literature. When given the opportunity to "build my own degree program"as a college student (yes, that WAS the 70s), no wonder I passed what I considered the "light weight" fare of Arts and loaded up on the foundations of Science. Was I well educated? Culturally, certainly not. But even as a green and naive student, I knew I could trust the knowledge imparted in botany,chemistry, and geology in ways that I could not trust what I considered the opinions delivered by instructors in literature and history.

Fortunately, the common yeoman, as I am, while unlikely to come home at night and pick up one's texts in chemistry or calculus, can easily and with pleasure pick up novels and essays of great worth and make common cause with readers of the past. Not all the doesn't just sashay through history and biography like a riveting mystery novel. And, sometimes, one just has to veg and watch sports and NCIS. But on the occasions when I finish something weighty, or even just start it, I know I'm connecting the dots with the past and, perhaps, some of the wisdom waiting for me there.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When the Outside wants to Come In

It happens about this time every year. One day the temperature creeps above 60 degrees. The wind picks up from the south. The combines are roaring as the crops are drying down. You come home from delivering dinner to the field and ...there they are. The ground underfoot crunches; the air around you swarms; you can't get the mail in the house without carrying in countless.....ladybugs.

Or Japanese beetles or whatever the technical entomological title is. However we designate the eras of our lives, "back then" (as in, "back then" it snowed more) there wasn't this epidemic/avalanche/plaguey nuisance of ladybugs in the fall. I think I can almost pick out the year it first happened, but even if the calendar date escapes me, the shock of the sheer numbers inside the front door and the stink of frying beetle in the light fixtures seem like just yesterday. And what they do to the inside of one's sweeper!!

Well, enough of that invasion. While in Virginia this last weekend, I met a new and also aggressive insect. While preparing for a nice hot bath, suddenly a medium sized insect crawled out from behind the shower curtain. I am not particularly squeamish about bugs...macro bugs that is. I become hysterical around thrips and apoplectic about aphids. At any rate, I was willing to live and let live when this particular bug attacked me. It made a 18 inch leap at my knee cap and when I dodged, followed me around the bath rug relentlessly. I lured it out the door, into the exposed hallway and ....SQUISHED it with my sock. It was a bold action requiring lightening reflexes.

Ben tells me this thing is a "greenhouse camel cricket". It seems an unwieldy title. Maybe the word "jumping" is in there too. At any rate, another one of those strangers that one must beware when the outside starts to come in.

Be My Guest

Aaron has been the most frequent guest at his Grandma and Grandpa's house. From the age of six months, even before he could sit up, we would come upstairs to the little kid's room, sit cross-legged on the floor, and play with the Brio train pieces. I found all the cars with magnets because his favorite activity was hooking "cargo" on the little wooden hoists. As early in the evening as he thought he could plausibly ask, he would be ready for a bath in the downstairs tub and soon he and I would be ladling strawberry soup into the measuring cups with the big spoons. Being the first grandkid meant that the toy selection was sparse back then and "spoons and cups" were readily available. After the bath, he'd brush his teeth with the veggie tale toothbrush and we would read McDuff, or Thomas the Train. Repeatedly.

I get a kick out the routines the small people invent as visitors. Aaron has graduated to Legos and construction, planes and army. Lizzie used to come in and immediately pull all the puzzles out to the floor. Now she does want to put the pieces back!! Lizzie and Abbie both get the "girls" from their plastic ziplock bag and dump them on the chair. If the "girls" are clothed, the clothes come off. When my little girls leave, I put clothes back on the toys so they are ready to be denuded again. Gabe also finds the planes and helicopters. He makes some buzzing noises with them, but proceeds to park the planes in certain locations that seem right to him...maybe the stairs in the front room, maybe the back stairs, maybe the dining room table. Altitude matters...they are seldom just left willy nilly on the floor.

Having guests has always meant baking. Unless I was really pressed for time, I thought company deserved a Mrs. Peters coffeecake, or a Phyllis' coffeecake, baked goods that required no special ingredients and no extra trip to the HyVee. Apple bread would be part of lunch or supper. It is a pleasant ritual to freshen the sheets and know that someone may be using the reading light in the guest room. We have a lovely new light fixture in the dining room and I am anxious to set the big table for a big meal and enjoy the heat and humidity in the kitchen and bustle in the house that attends a gathering. There are certain dishes that simply gather dust until we do...big pottery bowls, ringing wine glasses, platters.

It was pleasant to be a guest this last week. My hosts had a birthday cake and lovely bottle of wine prepared. I was greeted at the airport with curb to curb service. The coffeepot was ready and the Starbucks coffee set out. The guest bathroom had been labeled "do not enter" until my arrival! I appreciated the preparation and planning.

But it is also a pleasure to feel at home and NOT feel like a guest. I want the grandkids to know every nook and cranny and constantly make new routines that evolve into new traditions. I want the homefolks to assume there will be pop in the fridge and chocolate in the candy dish on the dining room table and spare slippers for our frigid winter floors. There's plenty of room in this house to make it homey for all.