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Archive for the ‘Learning Notes’ Category

Perhaps you recall this year’s Baby Robin drama…

It began when I noticed a nest being constructed between a downspout and an eave.

 

Soon, the robins had laid their eggs, and just a couple of weeks ago,  they hatched.

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We watched them the best we could – we of course didn’t want to disturb them, but even if we did, the parents were vigilant guards, perching on nearby branches and wires whenever we came near, squawking repeatedly and even swooping down towards us if it all became too much.

A week and a half ago, we checked on the babies on Sunday evening, and saw their little heads.

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Monday morning:

Carnage:

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What made it even sadder was that the parents were still around, perched, chirping, squawking and swooping. You have to wonder – what did they “think” – if anything?

I thought that was the end of it. I left the nest on the ground for the moment, intending to take it up later. Before I could do anything with it, the yard guys came and just put it back up atop the downspout.

Nice, I thought. But why?

The next day, I noticed that the parents were flying around with grass in their beaks – they were rebuilding the nest.

And now, a few days later – look at that.

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They’re trying again. I had no idea that would happen.We will probably be in Japan  by the time they hatch – but depending on when that is (they say 12-14 days) – we might be back for part of the infancy, although my daughter will certainly be here and can keep us posted.

I just hope the hawk has moved on to other parts of the neighborhood….

(Six years ago, in our previous house, we had a fantastic view of the entire process, as robins built a nest on a window ledge. Here’s a post summarizing what we were privileged to witness.)

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By far the dumbest thing in my life this past year – in a life full of fairly dumb things – has been my aggravation about  stupid Trini Salgado and her stupid camiseta. 

(Waits for readers to do a search….and return, scratching heads.)

As you might remember, I have a 13-year old who homeschools off and on, and if we were going to pin him down to a grade, we’d say he’s in 7th grade. He’s very interested in Central and South American history and culture, so this year, we’ve gotten more intentional about Spanish.

I spent some time last summer searching for a curriculum. I knew he would probably be going back to brick and mortar school for 8th grade, and I knew that the school he’d be going to teaches high school Spanish 1 over the course of 7th and 8th grade – so if we got through half of a Spanish I curriculum, we’d be good.

But what to pick? I do not, for the life of me, know why I didn’t just wait for the Spanish avencemos4teacher to tell me what she would be doing for the year (I knew they were changing) and then track with that. But I didn’t. I went ahead and splurged for a curriculum that is school-oriented, but used by homeschoolers as well. It’s called Avencamos! (Let’s keep going!) and it’s published by Holt.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting  about the curriculum itself and thoughts prompted by it as well as some other recent curriculum adventures, but even without that, this post will make some sense.

One of the many, many many elements of this curriculum are videos. Each unit is centered on a particular Spanish-speaking area – it begins with Miami, then moves to Puerto Rico, Mexico (Puebla! – where we just were!), Spain (Madrid! Where we’ve been!) , Ecuador, etc.

Each video features a different teenaged boy and girl, going about their community, using the unit’s vocabulary and grammar lessons. They are what you expect – mostly wooden acting and a little weirdness that can be, at times, highly entertaining. Mi mochila! And ¿DONDE ESTA MI CUADERNO? have already become standard elements of household conversation.  Oh, as well as a harsh, “No. Gracias,” uttered through gritted teeth which the very rude girl in the Madrid saga says repeatedly to a shopkeeper who’s only trying to show her las ropas, for pete’s sake! That’s my favorite. Maribel = me.

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Some verge on the surreal. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that be a good idea? To produce totally surreal, bizarre language instructional videos?

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Okay. So here’s the dumb, ingenious thread that runs through all of these videos that has obsessed me these past months – for some reason, all of these kids in these different countries around the globe are trying to see or get an autograph from a female soccer player named Trini Salgado. Some of them are connected – I think they’re trying to get Trini’s autograph for Alicia, who lives in Miami. I think. But they’re always thwarted in the quest – they get the wrong time that Trini’s appearing, they lose the jersey they want autographed, they get the autograph and Papa throws it in the laundry and it washes off.

The weirdest thing about it to me is that each little unit of videos ends in a absolutely unresolved way. In the Mexican set, the boy and girl go to his cousin’s house to retrieve the damn jersey and they’re scared off by a perro grande. They run off – and let’s go to Puerto Rico now!

What? Are you kidding me? You’re really going to leave me hanging like this?

You’d think – you’d think – that the whole situation would eventually get resolved. I thought they’d have some big global gathering feting Trini, everyone speaking Spanish in their various dialects and eating their varied foods.

But no.

Spoiler alert (I checked) – the last unit ends in just as unsatisfying a way as the others.

No one ever gets Trini’s autograph!

Those are some dark-hearted textbook writers there.

If you poke around, you find that kids have had some fun with this – there are a couple of Trini Salgado Twitter accounts, an Avencemos Memes account,  many mentions of are you kidding me, do they ever meet Trini – wait is Trini Salgado not a real person? and some class-made videos that play with eternally-frustrated yearning to get Trini’s autograph.

But here’s why I’m writing about this:

Once more, we run into the power of the story. Each set of videos runs about 6 minutes total, the acting is mostly terrible, and they’re mostly silly, but dang it if they didn’t leave me mad as heck that I wasn’t going to see what happened??

What is it? Isn’t it one of the most fascinating aspects of human life – that we can get so caught up in the the travails of imaginary characters, of situations that aren’t really happening in the real world? We can be wrecked by Lost, so content to settle into the world of Mad Men once a week, root for someone in the world of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad to follow the moral compass we know is buried deep inside there.

These aren’t real people. This is not really happening. I should not care. 

But I do.

It’s a promise of something good and true – and a warning. First the warning, which is about how easily it is for us to be caught up and manipulated simply by an engaging, compelling narrative. Authoritarians and abusers sense this and use it in varied ways: by constructing an epic narrative of identity, revolution, progress or restoration that flatters us, engages us and pulls us in or by simply weaving a tale that justifies and excuses and sounds good but is really just a lie. Marketers – whether they’re marketing products or themselves as personalities – know this and work hard to try to make us feel connected to their personal stories and daily adventures. Another self-serving lie.

Now the good part: The power of the story – even the insanely dumb story – tells us that our lives have a structure, meaning, purpose and direction. We’re pulled into the story because we know we are in the midst of a story ourselves. The challenge is to find and live in the true story – which, by the way – actually has an ending. And, I’m told, a pretty good one.

The only reason i took spanish 2 was to find out if they ever get the jersey signed by Trini Salgado

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For those of you who haven’t been reading this week – we’re currently in Mexico. The first part of the week was spent in Mexico City, and now we’re in Puebla. Read previous entries, including a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here. 

— 1 —

This format fits very nicely into the Holy Thursday tradition of Visitation to the Seven Churches – but the account won’t be broken up that neatly, for more than the visitation happened yesterday…and I want to write about that, too.

Thursday would be our last day in Mexico City, a fact that brought both relief and the slightest little touch of sadness. It’s always that way when we travel – just when you’re settling in and feeling comfortable with the neighborhood – it’s time to go. But relief as well, because Mexico City is huge and busy, and even though our quick Thursday morning walk showed us that Holy Thursday would be far less chaotic than other days (given most people wouldn’t be working and the streets were far emptier),  it would still be a relief to get somewhere where our sightseeing wouldn’t require either a long drive or fighting crowds to see what we wanted every time. (I’d be wrong on that last point, thought!)

So, Thursday morning, we awoke, cleaned ourselves and the apartment, packed, but then set out on to see last one sight before we checked out: the parish of the Holy Family, the location of Blessed Miguel Pro’s remains.

It was about a 3/4 mile walk in a direction we hadn’t explored before. Most shops and restaurants were closed, but the street vendors were out. We made it to the church, and prayed in front of Miguel Pro’s relics, which are contained in a small casket on the right side of the church. What was really unfortunate, but not surprising, was that the museum was closed – the museum that holds, for example, the vest he was wearing when he was killed and of course other interesting items and information. I didn’t think that through when “planning” this – that of course it would be closed on Holy Thursday. I am very glad we got to the church, but really regret not being able to see the museum with the boys. I find Miguel Pro’s story so inspiring and humbling (I wrote about him in the Book of Saints under “Saints are People who are Creative)  that even without the museum, visiting him gave me a boost, and I hope did so for my sons as well, not to mention those for whom I prayed there.

 

M had spied a vendor featuring chorizo on the way, so on the return, we stopped for a taco or two, then made our way back, gave the apartment key to the doorman, called an Uber, and were driven to the east bus station, from which we’d go to Puebla.

— 2 —

Bus travel in Mexico is not like it is in the United States – it’s more like it probably was in the US before the advent of personal cars and interstates, but with better buses. These major bus stations are like very busy airports – probably more so on Thursday because of the holidays. It was very efficient, although these situations are those in which one’s lack of a language becomes a real handicap. In international airports, signage is in English and most employees speak English. There’s no reason for that to be the case here – so it isn’t. Add to that the fact that it’s loud and of course native speakers in a chaotic, busy environment where things need to get done and get done now – are going to speak very quickly.

The buses run so often that there’s no need to buy a ticket ahead of time. I just wanted to get to Puebla mid- to late afternoon, so I knew if I showed up around noon, we’d be able to get on a bus within an hour – sooner that that, it turns out. I got to the ticket counter at 12:15, requested first class tickets on a bus to Puebla, and was put on a 12:35. Total cost, a bit over 600 pesos, which is $33.

We made our way to the proper gate, checked our suitcases, got luggage tags, went through security (didn’t have to remove shoes or laptops, though!), then attempted to board the bus. This is where the language thing was a problem – well, not a problem, just annoying. If I could have understood what the woman was saying to me, I wouldn’t have kept getting in line over and over, only to be told each time, una momenta senora! 

We arrived at the gate at about 12:20, so I didn’t think twice about attempting to board, but when she looked at my ticket, she told me to step aside – una momenta!. Then one group finished, she got on the PA and said something very fast into the din, people lined up, and so up we went…una momenta, senora! Finally, a manager who spoke a bit of English looked at my ticket and was able to tell me that we wouldn’t be boarding until right before the scheduled departure time – which is indeed the way it is. If your bus is at 12:35, you’ll probably board at about 12:33, sit down, and be driven away.

A word about “first class” – the boards I read indicated that it was worth the miniscule extra fee, partly because you get a bit of food. Well, we didn’t get any food. I don’t know if the seats were any better – they were indeed comfortable – and I did get WiFi – I don’t know that’s a feature of all the buses, or just restricted to first class. I’ll probably swing for first class on the way back, too – perhaps it will be less chaotic on Sunday and I’ll have a better sense of the difference.

After a not-very exciting two hour ride  – the first part crawling through Mexico City traffic, and the last on highway, with The Mighty Macs playing on the television hanging in the front of the bus (maybe that was one of my first class benefits? The Mighty Macs? Well, then, of course it was worth it…) we arrived in Puebla, and attained a taxi through the same pre-paid system they had in the Mexico City airport – really quite effective in heading off scams.

—3–

Our hotel is an old one in the centro, just a block from the Cathedral. I let the boys chill, then set out on my usual recon mission – checking out the neighborhood, finding quick food, convenience stores, and just getting the lay of the land.

WUT.

I knew a lot of things. I knew that Puebla is not a small town (it’s the fourth-largest in Mexico, but with an historic center that was part of its appeal to me). I knew that it’s school vacation time in Mexico. But I also knew that it was, er, Holy Thursday – you know the first day of the Triduum, and part of the reason we’re here is to experience the big, serious Good Friday procession?

So I suppose what I expected as I set out was some sort of subdued preparation vibe. No. I put it this way in my head as I walked around.

Well I guess Lent is definitely over! 

Big crowds, family groups everywhere, characters posing for photos with kids, toy vendors clacking their annoying toys, huge clouds of balloons for sale, food vendors, every shop open and just…people enjoying each other and enjoying life.

Not what I expected, but, as the day wore on and I absorbed more of the experience, probably exactly what I needed to break some frankly puritanical (French-Canadian Jansenist mother combined with low-church Methodist dad) currents still running in my blood – although a lot of that was shaken loose by my late husband’s deep, but relaxed and humane piety, it’s still there, and this was an education.

I stopped in the Cathedral – which was coursing with visitors (if you’ve ever been to St. Patrick’s in NYC – it’s the same kind of vibe – just a constant flow around and around) and was treated to a performance – from the dress and relaxed attitude, I’m going to guess it was a rehearsal, but perhaps not? Anyway, it was some kind of oratorio – perhaps the Messiah, although it was a section with which I’m not familiar. Or it occurred to me, it could have been a Mass or even Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was lovely. I hope it was a rehearsal and I can figure out when the actual performance is – I didn’t see it posted.

 

–4–

I returned and got the boys. This was about 4:30, and they’d hardly eaten anything all day, so time for refueling before the Mass fast sets in (we’d be at the Cathedral for the 7pm). There’s a tiny shop right next to our hotel that serves tortas – one got chicken, one IMG_20180329_165031.jpggot full on Cubana and I got milanese – which I finally learned is what they call veal. Slathered with bean spread and avocado, they were delicious, heated in a press. There was an option for some heat, but the shop owner warned by over-enthusiastic son against it, dropping a tiny drop on the back of his hand and inviting him to try it – Brave one took a taste, his eyes widened, and he shook his head: no gracias! 

We then wandered until Mass time – I’ll talk more about Puebla in tomorrow’s post, because I’m sure we’ll be covering much of the same territory in a different way today.

We decided to settle into seats for Mass early – about 6:30. The Cathedral is very lovely, but kind of weirdly set up. There is just not a lot of seating. You walk in, there’s this huge, gorgeous octagonal altar, about twenty rows of seating, and then a huge closed off area for the organ and choir. There’s seating on the side, yes, but in all I can’t see that there are actual seats for more than a few hundred people. What I finally theorized was: first, when it was originally constructed, they probably didn’t have pews, so there was more room, and secondly, when it was originally constructed,  perhaps the organ space – if there was one – wasn’t as large as it is now.

So we thought it was a good idea to claim a seat early – which it was. It got very crowded, naturally. And it wasn’t bad getting there early – we could watch the preparations, mostly one fellow who climbed high above the altar to light the (oil) candles and working to replace a couple of them.

Liturgical notes:

  • Mass was celebrated by the archbishop (or a bishop – there are auxiliaries – but given his age I’m presuming it was the archbishop. Only one priest concelebrant, a deacon, an MC, and an interesting collection of serving ministers. Candlebearers and the VIMP (who holds the archbishop’s accoutrements during Mass) were older women dressed in identical grey suits. There was one teenage girl who was the actual altar server. Other robed adults floated around doing things. (Unlike the Shrine of Guadalupe, where everyone on the altar  – including the troop of servers) were male.
  • The music was provided by the organist and a small choir of adults, with a strong tenor cantoring the responsorial psalm. I have no idea what they were singing (there was no “worship aid” as we like to call it…), but every piece was known by the congregation by heart. The music sat between emotional Latin pop church music and more traditional sacred music, leaning more towards the latter in tone.
  • During the Gloria, two other women in grey suits were in charge of ringing the bells which were very cool – I didn’t get a good photo (partly because there were signs everywhere forbidding photography – I’m thinking just during Mass – I hope) – but will try to go back today or tomorrow.  There were two large rings of small bells – maybe two dozen – mounted on pillars for the choir area behind us. They are rung by pulling ropes – and one worked great, but the woman ringing the bells behind us couldn’t get them to work, as valiantly as she tried during the entire Gloria!
  • The archbishop preached, in a sincere but subdued tone, so that even if I understood Spanish, I don’t think I would have been able to understand him. I saw several people look at each other and shrug during the homily.
  • No foot washing, which was great in my book, but unfortunately no ritual stripping of the altar either – which is always such a solemn and sobering moment. The archbishop did of course process then to the altar of reservation back behind the sanctuary followed by a couple of hundred of us.

 

 

–5 —

What to do now? Well….I ventured…there’s this tradition of visiting seven churches where the Eucharist is reserved on Holy Thursday night. I’ve always wanted to do it, but doing so in Birmingham would require driving all around town – there are so many churches here – we could probably knock of seven in about thirty minutes.

They were not super enthusiastic, as well as doubtful about my claim, but you know what? I wasn’t too far off. If we had been totally business-like about the whole thing, and not stopped to watch and observe and figure out some new sights we were seeing it wouldn’t have taken longer than thirty minutes.

So we set out. And discovered something new and quite wonderful. Those of you with roots in this culture won’t be surprised. But I don’t and I was. This visitation of the seven churches is A Thing.  It’s what everyone is doing on Holy Thursday night – wandering around the center of the city with their families and friends, stopping in churches, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament and enjoying the end of Lent -for at the door of every church were vendors set up selling the typical snacks of this area – the corn, the little tortillas, frying, topped with salsas and cheese, and turnovers.

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I was stunned. I don’t know if this is the “correct” way of seeing it, but this is what came to me as we walked amidst the other families, joined them in prayer and smelled the scents of bounty:

After the Last Supper, Jesus took his friends to the Garden of Gethsemane and asked them to stay awake with him. They didn’t. They slept. As we pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday night, we are trying to stay awake, to keep watch with him. We know this. But in this culture, it takes on a different flavor. The entire community – not just me as an isolated individual – is remaining with Jesus, not in strained imitation, but in joy and trust that as he remains faithful to us, we are going to try to be faithful to him, as we are, in community and in joy for the life we trust he has given us – a life that is real and full because of him. We flow into his Presence in the church, we pray, we keep watch, and we flow back out into the world as it is, knowing that in the midst of it, he lives, and we are doing our best to stay with him – not just by ourselves, but as a people.

Plus, you know, Lent is over!

One really intriguing note – that perhaps someone familiar with this can explain. At every church door, in addition to the regular food being sold, there was a table, usually manned by  a religious sister, of big bags of white sheets and scraps of..something. I could not figure out what it was – I originally thought it was wax left over from candle making. I finally asked one woman in some broken Spanish, and a sister who spoke English approached and explained: No not wax but leftover sheets from host-baking. “We eat them as a snack,” she said, “We think they are delicious.” And indeed, as the night went on, that’s what we saw – people walking about munching the scraps. I don’t know if it’s something that is only done this time of year, or all the time.

–6–

So finally, the churches. I don’t have time to figure out what churches we went to. We just started at the Cathedral, and moved towards lighted bell towers. Every church was full of people praying, and many had lines to go in – the doors were marked entrada and salida for crowd control. There were different things going on in each church – silence in one, the rosary being prayed in another, sisters singing in another.

Photos below, with video at Instagram. I also don’t have time to artistically arrange these photos – gotta get going, and this Wi-Fi is unreliable. So I’m going to toss them here and hope for the best. You can click on photos and enlarge them.

 

–7–

Well, I probably have more to say, but this has taken long enough – time to rouse the troops and get ready for the Good Friday procession…..

Oh, and check out my entry in Living Faith tomorrow. 

 

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Today’s one of my Living Faith days. Here you go!

(By the way that restaurant is doing the same Thanksgiving free-meal-for-all this year. Information here.)

 — 2 —

Moving on…

In  the words of my favorite math video guru…And….we’re done!

Friday morning, I’ll be sending along the manuscript of my next book for Loyola, to be published next fall. The manuscript is due 12/15, and look at me, submitting a month early.

Unheard of!

I’m usually not late, but nor am I this early. So settle down and I’ll tell you what happened. Apply to your own particular life as you will:

I knew writing this book would be a bit of a challenge because I would be back in the homeschooling game during the writing time.  I wrote The Loyola Kids book of Bible Stories last year while they were both in school, and while I had written a few things – devotionals and such – during the couple of years they were both homeschooling, I was a bit nervous about being able to fit writing this book into my life this year.

It’s not that my 12-year old demands attention. Not at all. It’s not him, it’s me. I’m so into the homeschooling thing, especially with this mature, curious young man and especially since I can see the end in sight: five more years, at the most, and he’ll be on his way (and it could be sooner, considering his capabilities). I want to spend time facilitating his learning – I want to do things with him and travel about and so on.

But then as I began writing it, I discovered a few things.

— 3 —

First, the subject matter and the very clear structure the editors and I laid out at the beginning meant that it wasn’t a very mentally taxing book to write. I didn’t just color by the numbers, but it wasn’t like writing War and Peace, either. Not that I know what writing War and Peace is like. It was just that with the structure established, that was one less aspect to agonize about.

Secondly, my high school aged son began driving himself to school. Over the past couple of years, before he was driving, we’ve done some carpooling, but it’s been sporadic, which is the way it is once you hit high school and everyone has their activities, particularly in the afternoon.

But now, as he takes himself back and forth,  I find myself with an hour or two more to myself than I’ve had over the past couple of years during each day – for on the days that I got hit with both mornings and afternoon, that was a couple of hours that I’d be in the car.

Not having to drive back and forth across town twice a day has changed my life.

He gets up at 6:45, I wake up, he leaves a bit after 7, and I get to work. The other one won’t wake up until 9 or so (I let him stay up as late as he wants because in the evenings he’s either reading, drawing or playing music – no screens at that point – and so if he wants to do those things all night, that’s fine with me.), so there’s my first chunk of work for the day.

Which,  will tell you, is…different.  I have lived most of my life as a night person -and for the most part, I still am. I have never been able to actually think clearly and creatively in the mornings, especially early – probably because I’ve been up so late doing all that (usually pointless) thinking, and I’m tahred.

But as I have aged, I’ve found my powers of nighttime concentration dwindling, and more than that, my desire to work at night evaporating. I basically want to read, so leave me alone.

So if I was going to get good work done, I was going to have to set that sense of myself aside, develop some self-discipline and hit work first thing instead of staring into space or scrolling through my bookmarks online.

Which I’ve done. Actually done. Consistently, all fall. Amazing even myself. There’s prep work involved, though. The mental routine I’ve developed is a variation of the way I’ve always worked on these things. Basically, I realized a long time ago that I have a very active and fertile subconscious. Perhaps everyone does, but it’s something I became quite attuned to in high school, especially as I struggled with math and the more abstract sciences. I realized that when I agonized over something in the evenings, and then set it aside, forgot about it and went to sleep, when I woke up in the morning….I got it. I didn’t even have to try. My brain had just figured it out for me. Thanks, brain!

In college, I came to understand that there was only so much active studying that was useful to me. I would read, read, read, and then set material aside for a day…and then be able to do well on the exam, for the most part, no matter how jumbled it all seemed when I set it aside.

— 4

So when I work on writing projects of a certain type (catechetical, instructional), my process is generally:

  • Have a very clear structure laid out. If you look at my Loyola books, you can see this structure in the tables of contents. Once, for example, with the saints book, I figures out the structure of those subsections: “Saints are people who…” I was off to the races and wrote the book in six weeks, no joke. This latest book that I’ve just finished is the result of thoughtful collaboration with the Loyola editors. Their concept was quite smart and lent itself to very easy writing.
  • Research, research, research. Spend an hour, two – a day – whatever, reading. Then take a day. Or go to sleep.
  • Get up the next morning and write. No agony, just get it all out. And there it is.
  • Come back the next day and rewrite. That also functions as the warm-up for writing the new stuff you’ve researched the previous night.

I write on both paper and the computer. It depends on what, at that moment, helps me feel freer and less constrained. Sometimes that’s paper, but sometimes the physical act of writing is too slow, so I go to the computer and pound it out. And sometimes composing on the computer makes me feel a very confining, daunting expectation of putting down a perfect product – so back to paper I go.

And then I edit (my favorite part – love editing – it’s when the real stuff happens and I can really understand what I was trying to do and what I need to do) – and pull all the pieces together, and send it in, stuff the file folder with all my notes in a drawer (that’s one thing I do by hand – take notes), and then when the final MS has been okayed for publication…I toss it all away…

I’m not writing great, creative, inventive, stuff, but I’m committed to accessible and engaging, and I think I have a knack for it. I believe the stuff. I believe it’s all true, and I want to help spread that Good News. I really do. There’s one little thing I think I’m okay at: taking these concepts that are sometimes complex, and communicating them to various audiences.

But it feels…so good …when you’re done!

— 5 –

Oh, this was the other thing I was going to say: my intuition had told me to push myself on this one. Just do it. To suppress my natural tendencies to procrastination and just go ahead and do it and get it done. I do try to obey my instincts when they strongly tell me to just do it  – because what I find when I don’t is that sure enough, something will happen to eat up all that time I thought I was going to have: someone will get sick or have some other sort of crisis, or there’ll be some political or culture explosion that is impossible to tear myself away from watching – and then, once again, I’ll learn that lesson…you should have obeyed your instincts because now it’s due tomorrow, and here you are, idiot.

Well, I’ll just say that the instincts were correct again, and not because anything bad happened, but because a couple of opportunities for good work came up, opportunities that both had very tight, inflexible deadlines – and I wouldn’t have been able to take them on if I’d left this project until the last month before it was due, thinking…oh, I have time….

So yes. It was one of the few pieces of advice my mother ever handed out, and she was right:

Obey your first instincts.

— 6 —

Homeschooling this week:

  • Frog dissection
  • Symphony concert – Beethoven’s 4th – that’s this morning.
  • Piano, of course.
  • Basketball practice.
  • More Yearling. He’s enjoying it, as am I.
  • Monday’s jaunt: he is playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for one of his recitals, and as he was playing it, my memory was jogged….isn’t there a Birmingham connection to this song? 

Why yes, there is! The composer, Hugh Martin, was born and grew up in Birmingham, and some accounts say he wrote the song here, but I am thinking that is probably not correct. But whatever the case, he had strong Birmingham ties, so on Monday, we drove ten minutes and found his childhood home, complete with historic marker. His father was an architect and designed, among other local buildings, one of my favorites, the wonderful main downtown library. This home is not terribly far from where Walker Percy’s first childhood home would have been before it was torn down for the Red Mountain Expressway. Same general area. (the second Percy home, where is father committed suicide, is still standing.)

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  • The other usual stuff.
  • A side trip to …wait for it…BESSEMER, ALABAMA!
  • Jealous?
  • Yeah, well, don’t be. I just went to get my new car registered, and since we were in the neighborhood in this town that was once at the center of the once-thriving iron/coal/steel industries of this area, we took a look around. There’s a little museum: The Bessemer Hall of History, the star holdings of which are a typewriter from Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway and the door of a jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Why was King in jail in Bessemer? Interestingly enough, that arrest was King’s last arrest, and occurred fifty years ago last month. The pre-arranged arrest was a fulfillment of punishments for charges related to the 1963 arrest (when “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was composed):

After King’s release from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, he fought charges that he and several others protested without the proper permits. He appealed several courts’ rulings until in 1967 a Supreme Court judge upheld his conviction and ordered him to serve the remaining three days of his four-day sentence.

The fanfare surrounding his arrival in Birmingham prompted officials to reroute him to Bessemer to escape the overwhelming attention from the media and the public. 

  • We searched for and eventually found the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the, if not the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the country. As I said, we eventually found it, but could not figure out the pathway in, and then it was time to head home, so we did.
  • Lunch was not at the venerable local institution called Bright Star – one of the oldest continuing operating restaurants in Alabama, but rather down the road at a lunch counter in a gas station, a spot noted on “best hamburgers in Alabama” lists. The hamburger eater agreed with the ranking.

— 7 —

St. Nicholas day is a few weeks away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

Looking for Christmas gifts? Try here!

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— 1 —

Piano and fossils, oh my.

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Let’s report. Because there’s just too damn much else going on demanding reaction and commentary. Who the heck can keep up? It’s probably good in the long run. Keeps some of us off our high horses, minimizes the temptation to virtue-signal,  and refocuses us back where we can actually have an impact – on our own daily lives.

 — 2 —

Last Saturday, the older one had to work early and for most of the day. In the morning, the younger one and I headed over to Samford for a “Masquerade” recital where he played the Rach 3 in C# minor. The famous one, you know. His costume? We bought a pack of “hello my name is” stickers and he plastered his shirt with them – everyone from Spiro Agnew to Taylor Swift. Not sure what that was all about.

Anyway, he played well – you can see some video of it here. We’re done with the Rach for a while and he’s hitting the Beethoven Sonata 1, 4th movement hard right now. I think I mentioned before that he and I are having fun with Satie’s 3 Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. I’m playing around with Scarlatti K. 69. I find it almost heartrendingly beautiful. For example, listen to the part (if you won’t listen to the whole thing…) that begins around 0:40 in this recording. So simple, so profound.

— 3 —

Anyway, here are some photos from the fossil hunt – I posted one a few days ago. It was sponsored by a local group geared at getting kids and families outside – Michael’s been to a couple of their camps in the past. They have two fossil hunts a year at this site – the fossils are mostly plant based, and are quite fascinating to find – once you figure out how to look. The first step is to look for black blotches on rocks – it’s a sign of carbon detritus, and carbon = life.

Grasshopper: not a fossil. He was a hitchiker.

— 4

Here’s a find from the late-night homeschool “planning” sessions: History Bombs, which seems to be British. It’s mostly a pay site, but there are a few free videos, which are fun and, it seems, mostly accurate.

Speaking of accuracy, or the lack of it – if you are familiar with the world of educational videos, you’ve probably heard of Crash Course videos. I find them irritating and smug so I don’t use them, but a lot of people do – but just fyi, here’s a useful and brief critique of the Crash Course video on the “first Thanksgiving” – it’s a good reminder to be wary of most popular history…everything gets diluted down and mythology is uncritically passed on….

— 5 —

Speaking of history, this week’s In Our Time was on the Congress of Vienna. Quite absorbing and clarifying. I was particularly taken with the presence, energy and wit of one scholar, Tim Blanning, whom I subsequently looked up and found to be the author of several interesting books, including this one, which I think I’ll check out of the library tomorrow and probably never finish, but you know…I’ll have tried.

— 6 —

Good stuff from Andrew Ferguson. God, I hate everyone. Well, most people. Not you, though!

— 7 —

Currently reading:

Several short stories that my older son had to read for school – 19th century American realism. Crane, Chopin, London – you know the drill. I hadn’t read any of them, I’m ashamed to say, except for “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I think my favorite was Crane’s “A Mystery of Heroism.”  Irony upon irony: the fellow who didn’t think for a moment he could be a hero actually did something heroic, but his motivations were anything but heroic anyway – rooted more in pride and fear of his fellows’ contempt than anything else. It says much about the muck and ambiguity of human conflict of all kinds.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the 12-year old. He read The Old Man and the Sea last week. (This is “school” reading – he has bunches of books and graphic novels he reads for pleasure on his own).

Officers and Gentlemen by Waugh – the second in the Men at Arms trilogy. As I mentioned previously, I had, for some reason, thought it would be battle or strategy focused, so I’d not been interested, but as I’ve discovered, it’s just Waugh – centered on eviscerating human folly and yearning, in just another setting. Favorite sentence:

Her features were regular as marble and her eyes wide and splendid and mad.

It’s part of a brilliant and insane chapter of a bizarre dinner at the home of a faded Scottish aristocrat on an pile of rock called the Isle of Mugg….you had to be there…

Other than that, life is writing – I’m on track to finish writing the book due on 12/15 by 11/1. Yup. Super proud of myself, although perhaps I won’t be once the editors read what I’ve produced and said, Er…um…. But it’s good that I obeyed my instinct to be uncharacteristically efficient, because another project has come my way that’s going to take a lot of time between now and the spring. Which is good!

Writing, watching Lost and homeschooling. That’s it right now….I do tend to post updates more frequently on Instagram, so do check me out there.

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Growing crystals in the homeschool.

And start doing your Christmas shopping, for pete’s sake! I don’t mind being bested by Jesus – that’s as it should be – but Martin Luther? Nope, nope, nope.

"amy welborn"
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— 1 —

Sunday is…Sunday. Which supercedes any saint celebrations – but you can still think about St. Teresa of Avila anyway.She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, and Loyola has a very readable excerpt here 

(If you would like to read a pdf version, click here.) 

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 — 2 —

.Early last spring, I wrote a small prayer book for Creative Communications, publisher of Living Faith. And then I forgot about it until a couple of days ago, when I thought..Wait…what happened to that thing I wrote? Shouldn’t it be out now? 

Well, I discovered, it is:

They had forgotten to tell me it was out or send me copies. I think they’re on the way now.

It’s just a little thing, suitable for bulk purchases for your parish – like when you’re ordering your St. Nicholas pamphlet, right? You can read a pdf excerpt here.

And since it’s the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun….take a look at my Mary book, here. 

Speaking of the St. Nicholas book, when I was corresponding with the editor about it (it had been out of print for a few years), he said something like, “Yes, the prose has held up pretty well after twenty years. We didn’t have to do much to it.”

And I thought…twenty years? That’s crazy.  I’m sure I wrote that no more than ten years ago…right?

Nope. Sorry. 1997.

Wow.  I have to say that realization really set me back. That was a long time ago. I don’t know what to think about that….

— 3 —

Well, onward. I am working very hard on my next book for Loyola, and I’m optimistic about getting it done on time or, hopefully, earlier.  So between that, homeschooling and Lost watching, there’s not much time for writing in this space. Click on the image to the left to get the newest book – or get it, preferably, from you local Catholic bookstore. Or order it from me! 

But…we have done quite a bit since last Friday. I’ll fill in the blanks with some photos and a quick report.

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Last Friday (a week ago), we attended a morning concert of the Alabama Symphony orchestra – they were performing Brahms’ Symphony #1 for an audience of mostly older people and schoolchildren. It was quite good and just the right length.

— 4

Over the weekend, we hopped over to the Alabama Farmer’s Market which was having a little fall festival. There wasn’t a lot to it, but there were some animals with very nice faces.

"amy welborn"

 

 

— 5 —

The science center class is over, so that frees Tuesday mornings up, but Tuesday afternoons are still about boxing. This Wednesday morning we participated in a very interesting homeschool  group field trip to Sloss Furnaces, an iron-producing furnace in operation from the late 19th century to 1971. It’s now a National Historic Landmark, and the great thing about it is that you can just go wander around it – at no cost. It hosts events like music festivals and, of course, Halloween fright nights, and it’s a center for metal arts as well, but really  – most of the time you can just show up and wander around this amazing abandoned facility.

It had been a few years since we had been, and they’ve really upgraded the visitor’s center since then. It’s all very nice, and this was also the first time that we’d taken a tour. Part of the tour had the kids carving a design in a sand/resin mold for their own iron tile. They hold these “iron pours” periodically through the year for the general public, and now that I see how it’s done, we’ll definitely come back to do it again.

 

— 6 —

There was also some photography class homework done, here at Railroad Park:

Birmingham is trying to get some Amazon facility to settle here, so one of the gimmicks is to set up big Amazon boxes all over the place:

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Tonight (Thursday) – a free concert by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. It was outdoors on the UAB campus, so we just ran over there and stayed for about half the set and had some sopes. 

We do try to get around. Life is short. Carpe Diem, etc.

Twenty years ago? Really?

— 7 —

Miscellaneous reads and listens:

In Our Time on Constantine was good, with a recurring theme of ambiguity about what we actually know. 

I listened to several episodes of Witness – a very short program in which an historical event is described from the perspective of those who witnessed it (obviously). I took in episodes on Catalan nationalist Lluys Campanys, the raising of the Mary Rose, and Australia’s rabbit plague, all in one walk.

Oh, and there was a Great Lives episode on P.G. Wodehouse – the structure of this program is that a non-academic picks out a “great life” to talk about – usually it’s a hero of theirs or role model or just someone they find very significant. They chat about this person with the host Matthew Parris and an academic expert in the figure they’ve selected. The non-academic fan of Wodehouse was Stephen Fry who is so very clever and charming in his way, but so creepy and off-putting in others. But he was utterly lovely on Wodehouse, and it was a very inspiring program, not just for writers, I think, but for anyone who would like to think about what it means to just do the work you’ve set out to do and do it well.

Reading: Officers and Gentlemen by Waugh and The Old Man and the Sea. 

In these days when it’s de rigeur to dismiss formulas-norms-rules-formulations-ideas when speaking of faith, here’s a voice raised in defense: Carl Olson “In Gratitude for the Gift of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

…..reading and studying the Catechism, Church doctrine and dogma, and theology are not ultimately about knowing things or facts but about knowing the living Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Redeemer and Savior. True theology is an act of worship and prayer; far from being dry or dull (or rigid!), it is an encounter with the Triune God, who creates, draws close, calls, loves, and invites. The Catechism is a tremendous gift that contemplates, explains, and shares the greatest Gift of all.

 

When the Catechism was in preparation – twenty-five years ago, I guess  –  I was in a meeting of parish Directors of Religious Education. The bishop of that diocese was there and the topic was the forthcoming Catechism. The diocesan Director of Religious Education said this:

We have to be careful with this. We have to make it clear that it’s for pastoral ministers, not the laity. If they think of it as something for them, they’re going to start comparing our programs with what they read in the Catechism. 

As my mother used to say, You think I’m making that up. I’m not. 

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When I feel the need to write something in this space, but can’t quite focus or mentally manage one of ideas on my huge list, I fall back into homeschooling reporting. I find that it exercises the writing reflex, but in not in a stressful way, and it has the added benefit of providing me with reassurance that yes, I am accomplishing things.

Not that I’m not writing other things. I have a Living Faith set due on Thursday – which I finished earlier today (I was in today, by the way), and work on the book continues apace. I’m not going to meet my first personal goal of having it done by 11/1, but I will get it done before Thanksgiving, which was my second-best goal. (Contract says 12/15, by the way, but I want to get it done before then.)

And no, I’ve not forgotten that objective of getting an e-book out of the Guatemala trip. I hope that after this week, I can return to that.

Anyway…about that homeschooling:

  • The unschooling goal is sort of working. Any holdup is due to the fact that there’s been so many extra activities happening since the beginning of September: Boxing and piano lessons every week – which won’t end – and then 2-hour science center classes on Tuesday and 2-hour photography classes on Thursdays. So that means that any sort-of-formal structured learning gets crammed into Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and usually just Monday and Wednesday, since Friday is turning out to be “Hey mom, can we go somewhere today?” day.
  • But we’ve had the last of the science center classes, so that frees up more time on Tuesdays. Photography class runs for the rest of October.
  • Math: Prealgebra with the Art of Problem Solving continues apace. He’s on chapter 3, working on number theory – first prime factorization, now least common multiples.
  • He wanted to learn Spanish this year, so he’s doing so. I hunted around for a decent curriculum, found what I thought was one, but I HATE IT.  Specifically, I HATE the “whole language” pedagogy. I am going to blog about this one, because it deserves a post, but wow, this is challenging. Especially since, you know, I don’t speak Spanish. I’m pretty good with languages though – I can manage French and did Latin up through two years of college, and I did take 8th grade Spanish! And helped one of my older sons learn middle-school Spanish in preparation for 8th grade, but still. This program I picked out it a hot mess, confusing and not at all intuitive, even though that is supposed to be the point – it’s supposed to be “intuitive.” It’s not. Or at least it just makes no sense.
  • Do you wonder what I’m talking about? Here’s a small example from today: introducing a construction that requires use of indirect object pronouns without ever mentioning what these new words are, defining them, or translating them. “What are those words?” “Um…I’m guessing they’re indirect object pronouns, but let’s go on the internet and see” Five minutes later, after we both read through an excellent, clear explanation on a web page – “Why can’t the book be that clear?”
  • No lo sé. Sorry.
  • He does listen to one of the local Spanish-language radio stations all the time, though, and we went to the local FIESTA last weekend, so there’s that.

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  • If he ends up not going back to brick-and-mortar school, though, this is going to have to be outsourced. He has a strong interest in Central America (for some reason) – the culture, the history and the nature – and so Spanish fits.
  • He’s read Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men. Yes, the latter is rough with a lot of cursing, and it’s definitely not a cozy readaloud, but it was a good choice for him to read. Short, but meaty. It was an easy entry to discussions about expressing themes in fiction, as well as discussions about history (the Great Depression) and geography (Steinbeck’s California).
  • I knew it was a good choice when we were discussing the first chapter and, without being prompted or asked, he started going back over Steinbeck’s descriptions of the river bed in those early scenes – the rabbits coming down to the sandy bank in the early evening, the snake’s head emerging like a periscope from the water. Those and other images stuck with him to the point he wanted to share them. It was a good opportunity to discuss what makes evocative description.
  • He’s got his own reading going on, always, but the next “school” book will be The Old Man and the Sea. We’re doing short works right now – it offers more of a sense of accomplishment. For everyone.
  • Read and discussed “To a Mouse” by Burns before he read Of Mice and Men. 
  • He memorized the poem “Bird of Night” by Randall Jarrell. 
  • History/Geography reading has been of his own choosing from our books and library books. Topics he’s read about this week have included Assyrians, the Aztecs, Indus River civilization, the origins of the Vietnam war, and short biographical entries on a few presidents..
  • Watched a few videos from The Kids Should See This and other sources, mostly on science topics: whether or not jellyfish sleep, birth of a kangaroo joey, etc.
  • Read this article and did a bit more research on whistled languages.
  • He did some quizzes of his choice from this website, and then some presidents’ quizzes that I found. Continued working on memorizing the list of presidents.
  • Religion: focus is, as per usual, on saint of the day and Mass readings of the day and the discussions that flow from that. He served at a convent retreat Mass this past Saturday and heard an excellent homily from Fr. Wade Menezes. 
  • Monday, we discussed the Nobel Prize that had been announced that day – Physiology. We haven’t had time to discuss the others, but will try to knock of that teachable moment on Friday, I guess.
  • Talked a little bit about John Cage, for some reason. I think he was on a playlist I was listening to on Spotify, and it prompted a memory and a question from music camp.
  • Going to see the symphony do Brahms Symphony 1 on Friday.
  • He did a homeschool session on clay  at the Birmingham Museum of Art today.
  • Today in his “go read some nonfiction something anything for a while” he came out and said he’d been reading about Siberian reindeer herders in, I think, National Geographic. He asked what Anthrax was. (Because the reindeer had contracted it and infected their keepers, who ate their meat raw). So he researched that for a while.
  • If you’re following along, you know that aside from his own interests, which are considerable,  his history work – such as it is – is focused on participating in the history bee again. The qualification test for that is in January. He qualified last year without much preparation, so he’s not super intense about it, but I am using it    hoping that it inspires a little more formal/disciplined study. To that end, I’ve purchased a couple of outlines of US history and he’ll be going through those with a highlighter, making sure he knows the basics.
  • Music: He’s going to be playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor at a recital in a couple of weeks. He’s learning the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Sonata #1 and starting to review the 3rd movement of Kabalevsky’s Youth Concerto, which he sort of learned last year but never well enough to perform. It’s a goal for this year. We’re contemplating the organ. Sort of.
  • He and I working on this piece, just for fun: Satie’s “Three pieces in the shape of a pear.”  Most of it is easy enough for me. We both enjoy playing it – it’s different.
  • I blew his mind when I showed him this article about John Tyler’s two living grandsons. Imagine being alive in 2017, and your grandfather had been born in 1790 and was the 10th president of the United States. Crazy. He kept bringing it up all day.
  • One trip to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for photography practice, then a jaunt to a short but interesting and varied walking trail, one which I knew existed but could never figure out how to access until I finally just asked someone. There. Done.
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