Friday, March 28, 2008

the pioneer spirit

A couple of months ago, I saw the film "Into the Wild," and shortly afterward re-read the book, which I had first read in the late '90's, when I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado (or maybe it was after I had moved to Anchorage; I can't remember exactly. I do remember reading Jon Krakauer's original article in "Outside"). I'm glad I took the time to experience it again. On the first read, I was living amongst somewhat extreme mountaineers and adventurers, and, being young and impressionable, I confess I jumped on the bandwagon of head-shakers who dismissed young Chris McCandless as naive and arrogant. For those who aren't familiar with the story, Chris McCandless was a kid in his early 20's who, upon graduating from Emory College, donated his 24,000 dollar trust fund check to Oxfam America, then shed his identity and his possessions and took off on a year-long odyssey around the country, and, ultimately to the Alaskan interior, far from civilization. With little knowledge or preparation, he was able to survive off the land for four months, living in an abandoned bus, eating plants, small game, and the rice he'd packed with him. When he finally decided to hike out and re-join the world, he found that the small stream he'd crossed in the spring was now a thunderous river, one whose current would easily take him out. Distraught, he went back to the bus; he had no map of the area, and was possibly too weak to seek an alternate route, as his journals indicate that he was either injured or starving or both. By himself and terribly lonely, he died on his sleeping bag in the bus; he either starved to death or ate a poisonous potato plant.

After re-reading the book, I was no less convinced that hubris was in part responsible for McCandless' death, and I didn't forgive him for forsaking his family and assuming a new identity, but I did read with a sense of awe, and even respect, that I didn't feel last time around. McCandless was highly influenced by the literature he read, especially Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gogol. And, like most people in their early 20's, he was opinionated, naive, and rebellious. But these qualities found their extreme form in Chris McCandless. I can't help but wonder at the awesome sense of morality and purpose that incites someone so young to essentially drop out of society and turn almost entirely to nature. On the one hand, this seems so entirely misogynistic; yet, he was able to form fulfilling relationships along the way, and many who were interviewed by Krakauer for the book found themselves spiritually touched by his presence. This was especially true of "Ronald Franz," an 80-year-old man who, after meeting McCandless, sold all of his possessions and moved out to the beach.

I'm always drawn to "pioneer stories," especially contemporary ones, because at this point in time, we are so disconnected from nature and from the land. John McPhee's "Coming into the Country," in which he spends a year in the Alaskan bush, is one of my favorite books. I understand and identify with the pioneer spirit, and sometimes read with wistful longing, even though my Alaskan experience was limited to Anchorage and Fairbanks and the wonderful mountains surrounding those places. So even though I find myself angry with McCandless at times, I'm still haunted by his story, and wish I could know more. Like, what was he feeling during those long nights in the bus, his companions the bears and moose and porcupine and relentless mosquitoes? His journal entries are curt, and mostly describe what he caught or ate. And then, at the end, his loneliness: "So lonely. Terribly lonely."

The film, despite some drawbacks, did capture the mood of the book quite well, and I have to say that the ending scene just blew me away. I won't give it away, but it's definitely worth seeing. And Eddie Vedder's soundtrack to the film is equally intense, if not more so (you can hear a clip from his song "No Ceiling" if you go to "Profile" here on this blog and then click "audio clip"). "Long nights allow me to feel I'm fallin', I am fallin' safely now, to the ground. . .ahhh."

One of the aspects of a great book is that you carry it with you, that you wrestle with your feelings and find yourself going back to it again and again. In this, "Into the Wild" is a great success, at least for me.

(the above photo is McCandless' "farewell photo". The paper in his hand is a goodbye note.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

just for fun

Couldn't resist dressing them up for the holiday (and believe it or not, the bottom photo is a candid one)

welcome, spring

It's hard to know how to talk about and celebrate Easter with your children when you are not religious. We have had this discussion often, Bryan and I: how do we instill spirituality and a sense that there is something "out there," something that is looking out for their well-being, without subjecting them to dogma? We have considered the Unitarian Church, and my friend Heide, who is dealing with the same religious questions, has recommended a book called "Parenting Beyond Belief," which I intend to read in the next couple of weeks.
In the meantime, there was Easter. For me, personally, Easter is about resurrection, just as it is for Christians, though not so much the resurrection of Christ, but the resurrection of life in the buds of trees, the blossoming flowers, the return of various birds, and the vitality that comes with all of the colors of spring. So last night, we went to the Ansonia Nature Center for a "welcome spring" drum circle, and this was a good way for us to connect, for Dylan and Alexa, the Easter holiday with something tangible: the arrival of spring. Dylan was more interested in the playground and the remote-controlled cars zooming across the baseball field that was across from the picnic pavilion and bonfire where the drumming took place, but Alexa really got into it, banging on her Guatemalan drum and, later, dancing. She has proclaimed herself a drummer, so perhaps she will follow in mom's footsteps and be a percussionist-band geek. In any case, I enjoy witnessing the musical spirit in our kids, whether they are strumming the guitar, blowing on the mouth harp, or trying to keep up with Paul McCartney as he sings "O bla di, O bla da" (which Lexi sings as, "O bla di, o bla da, life goes long johns!").
Happy spring!

the longest mile(s)

Last month, we spent a night and day in Keene, New Hampshire, catching up with some dear friends: Amos and Emily, who hosted dinner at their apartment in Keene, and Matt, who was visiting from Anchorage. Amos and Matt were my adventure-buddies when I lived in Burlington, VT, and we have stayed in touch via a regular email forum for the last several years, visiting once or twice a year.
The morning after our dinner was frigid but beautiful: blue skies, billowy clouds, and so much fluffy white snow. We ventured into Pisgah State Park--Amos, my sister Kaytie, and our family--for some much-needed snowshoeing. It was soooooo lovely to feel powder beneath my snowshoes, and to see and smell real, honest-to-goodness winter everywhere. Dylan was a natural on snowshoes, even though it was only his first time out. We were so proud.
That said, snowshoeing is a much different affair with small children. The 3-mile round trip trek took us several hours, and by the end, Kat, Amos, and I had to muster up all the good humor in our reserves to get Dylan up the hill and over the mental hump. Halfway through the hike, Alexa, who hadn't slept the night before because we were in a hotel, had entirely succumbed to her exhaustion. She fell asleep in the backpack for a bit, and then, waking to find that she was still on the damned trail, no closer to bed or warmth, she made us aware of her fury by way of a long, loud wail that slowly transformed into a fit of screams. Poor kid. When she wore herself out, she fell asleep in Bryan's arms (see below). He hightailed it back to the car and warmed her up, while the rest of us finished the trek at a Mt. Everest pace: step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Dylan, no less garrulous on the trail than he is at home, felt the need to stop every time he began a new story. I was very fortunate in my hiking mates: Amos and Kat are as witty and good-natured as they come! So a few setbacks, but an enjoyable day nonetheless for all but our tired little girl.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

get connected

In my Advanced Editing and Revision class at Quinnipiac, which is composed of juniors and seniors, mostly English majors, we've been talking about Silence: the function of silence in our culture, be it in the form of political apathy, political correctness, or covering up political corruption. I recently discovered the writer Derrick Jensen, who is something of an eco-critic, an outspoken activist, perhaps even an anarchist, and the students, much to my surprise and delight, are excited by his ideas.

To summarize briefly, Jensen was horribly abused by his father as a child, and uses this abuse as a lens through which to view other, more universal abuses: rape of the land, disdain for the environment, genocide, exploitation, etc. As a child, he found solace in talking to animals, something he still believes is possible. In his autobiography, A Language Older than Words, he sets out to find others who have had the experience of communicating with "non-humans."

An especially precocious student in my class took Jensen's question of whether or not we can communicate with non-humans and used this as a springboard for her essay, which began with her own question: Can we, in our "connected" culture, communicate with humans? She used the university community as her specimen, and provided amusing anecdotes in which she and her roommate were sending instant messages to one another, only to realize that they were sitting 20 feet apart from each other. So she decided to launch an experiment: she disabled her Facebook and AIM accounts, and vowed to keep them disabled for a month. Radical.

She was amazed at all of the time she now had on her hands. She realized quickly, though, that she had not made any attempt at outreach, so she called her friends. They were surprised. Why not email?

This incited an in-class discussion about what electronic communication has done to interpersonal relationships. Absent from emails and text messages are the important elements of body language, voice tone, pauses and sighs. No dialogue descriptors. And then, with email, we worry when our friends don't respond right away, start imagining what we might have done to provoke their silence. Worse, we don't even know if our message ever reached its intended target.

And what has email done for teacher-student relationships? I think back to my college days, when, believe it or not, I had to wait in line in the computer lab to use a computer to type my essays or send an email. None of my professors distributed email addresses, if they had them. And this was only ten years ago. Granted, I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, not exactly the technological hub of the US, but still. . .. If I wanted to talk to my professors, I found their office hours and met with them in person. Now, in the age of email, I feel like I'm the on-call help line. "I've just added this line to my essay; does this make sense?" And sometimes email is the student's outlet for his or her frustration over an assignment. On occasion I get the 1:00am email that says something like, "I have no idea what you mean by 'close reading,' and I have other work to do, so can you please get back to me right away?"
You know the little paper clip guys that pop up when you're typing something in Word and say things like, "It looks like you're typing a letter. Can I help?" Well, they should make one for students, one that pops up and says, "It looks like you're overstepping a boundary with your teacher and could possibly say something inappropriate. Can I suggest taking a deep breath and walking outside for a bit?"

Don't get me wrong, I like email. I'm not techno-adverse. But I am a little concerned. And I miss handwritten letters, those bygone relics; reading other people's handwriting is so much fun, such a window into their mood.

And does anyone else find it bizarre that text-messaging, which requires a ridiculous amount of button-pushing, is the preferred method of communication for most teenagers? But I've always been a purist, and in a few years I'll probably be a curmudgeon. And a hypocrite: I'm sitting here typing on my computer, not a clue as to who will read this, and I'm complaining about electronic communication. What would Derrick Jensen say?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

qualified. denied.

My running partner, Fran, and I have spent the winter training for the Boston Marathon once again. Our goal: to qualify for Boston at Boston, rather than at one of the other New England marathons. To clarify: in order to run Boston, you need to qualify at an accredited marathon; qualifying times are based on age. Although I have qualified for Boston at several races, I have not been able to do so at the Boston Marathon itself. Boston, as any veteran will testify, is an entirely different beast: until recently, the race started at noon, which poses a number of challenges for your body, because you have to get to the starting line around 7;30 or 8:00, hang out in corrals, often in the sun, and then of course there's the question of what, and how much, to eat.

And the hills. The course goes steadily downhill for about 15 miles, and then lo and behold, "Heartbreak Hill!" This is actually a series of hills that lasts for about 4 miles. Burning, burning quads.

So, Fran and I have been training. Every week, one of us would say, "Have you registered yet?" Nope. The marathon is pricey, and so I was holding on to my precious $110 as long as possible to make sure illness or injury wasn't going to prevent me from running--because once you send in your money, it is the property of the Boston Athletic Association.

Two weeks ago our running pal Todd said, "Just make sure you get your form in by March 1; otherwise, you'll be at the back of the pack. But you'll still be able to run."

That very night, I went to register, and stared in disbelief when I received a message saying, "Sorry, this year's field is full. Try again next year." Full? 25,000 runners, and full before March?

"Just send them an email," Bryan said casually. "You qualified; they have to let you in."

I sent the email. They wrote back. Sorry; full. Try again next year.

What a blow! And even more so because I qualified in 2006, which means my qualifying time expires this spring. Which means I have to re-qualify.

Yeah, it's just a race. But it's Boston! The glory! Yeah, okay, I've done it before. But still. . . .to let a qualifying time go to waste is just too, too painful.

My fellow runners were outraged: so many waivers casually distributed by the BAA, and here we are , two runners who qualified, with no Boston to run. Denied. No gut-busting run up Heartbreak Hill amidst the cheers, no Wellesley scream tunnel, no painfully victorious crossing of the finish line in Copley square. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

seatbelt, please!

You fasten the strap across your lap, making sure it's tight enough, and your heart starts beating faster in anticipation. The operator walks by to check that the belt is secure and then returns to the control booth. Your heart beats even faster as he throws the switch, and your car lurches into a slow movement. Up, up a hill, slowly, slooooowly--suddenly you're at the top, and you go plunging down and around in a wild, spinning swoop that makes your stomach drop, and you're not sure the track will ever level out. But it does, and you no sooner catch your breath then you're off on another plunge. Maybe you scream, or shout, but you find it difficult as the wind rushing past blows your hair back and stifles the noise before it leaves your mouth.

The above excerpt is Dr. Sears' description of parenting a high-needs child. Many, many times at the end of a particularly harrowing ride on the Mighty Alexa have I gone back to my old friend Sears for support, for affirmation, for gentle admonition, for kind reminders. How can so much energy--positive, negative, creative, intense--be bundled up in one small, chipmunk-cheeked, cherub-faced little two-year old? When she was an infant, Alexa changed our parenting strategies and philosophies. With Dylan, compliant, good-natured Dylan, we were schedule-oriented, and we patted ourselves on the back when he listened to us, when he slept through the night, when he greeted all who approached with a smile. What great parents!

But Alexa? From the moment she emerged from my womb and I saw her beautiful, precocious eyes in the mirror the midwife held, I could see that this was going to be a different trip altogether. Her cry held a greeting that said, "Hello, Mom, thanks for pushing me out of there, now strap yourself in!" And she proceeded to cry almost nonstop for seven months.

And I turned to Dr. Sears, The Fussy Baby Book, and to The Happiest Baby on the Block, and in spite of my frustration, I learned. One of the things Sears says in Fussy Baby is that "you will mature along with your high needs child." Alexa's "colic" allowed me to discover the joys of attachment parenting. I nursed her nonstop, and even though she shunned the rest of the world for a half year, even though she woke us every hour of every night, when I took her out of the bath in the evening and held her naked body to my skin in front of the fire, "Blackbird" or Bic Runga playing softly in the background, I realized she was teaching me something about parenting, and about my approach to life itself. Not everything is in my control, and that's okay. I had to let go, to give in to my intuition and ditch the books that say things like, "At two months, your baby should be sleeping six hours at a stretch"--books that fool the parenting public into thinking babies are programmable clones that can submit to your will as long as you are persistent in your "discipline." Books that perpetuate the belief that everything has a quick solution, a pill, a two-day strategy. Bah.

Discipline. Sears says that attachment parenting is discipline in and of itself: when your infant cries and you hold her, you are teaching her that the world--or at least her world--is a place of comfort and love, and this, according to Sears, will give her the confidence she needs to go forward. I mean, really, can a 2-month old manipulate us, as many popular books suggest? When Alexa cried, I nursed her. I held her. I cursed her silently at times (sometimes not so silently), and Bryan and I bickered like brats in the middle of the night.

But look at her now--all confidence and opinions and amazing energy. And no, it's not all positive. And last night, after another crazy double-loop ride, I pulled out Sears again and asked for help. And he reminded me to think of the future. Do I want a dull, compliant child who never questions authority? Sure, that would make my life easier, but I'm not doing the world any good! One of the more frightening passages in the book states that how we handle our children's "high needs"--their tantrums, their defiance, their clinginess--determines how they will handle themselves with others. And their ability to feel empathy: this is something they have to learn, and learn through our example. That caught my attention, because just the other day in the English 150 class I'm teaching we discussed the lack of empathy in our culture and the possible causes of this.

And I know I'm impulsive and quick-tempered (though, thankfully, quick to cool down). So Alexa is helping me to "mature," because if I respond to her defiance with counter-defiance, I'm teaching her very little about positive human interactions. So I've got to remain calm during her screams, during her relentless bullying of her sweet older brother. And I'm not always successful, but at least I'm aware, and I confess that at times I even enjoy the challenge.

In our culture, 'good' children are ones who do what they're told, without discussion. They sit quietly in their high chairs and eat what they're fed. They obey the Sunday school teacher and take their seat when asked. They don't talk in class at school and they certainly don't argue with their parents.
"I've met very few children like that, yet we persist in the fiction. . . . (Sears, 160-61).

I love a good fiction like anybody else, but I also love a roller coaster. And thanks to my parents, who are willing to jump on the ride whenever we ask, Bryan and I are able to get off once in a while and gain some perspective over a few glasses of wine in some not-so-far off bed and breakfast or on a trail somewhere, away from the madness.

And when a child approaches Alexa and says, "Hi!" and she gives them that puffy-cheeked pouty face that smacks of defiance, I know it's temporary; on another day, she might just as well give the kid a hug. When she resists authority and is reprimanded, she cries out, "But I love you!" reminding us that she is, indeed, a sensitive child. She nurtures her baby dolls. She animates her Little People with lively narration and imagination. She is athletic and daring, but always steps back for a hug. And she's learning, too. Yesterday, she said, "Mommy, are you happy?" When I said yes, she said, "I like to make you happy. I like when you smile." Which opened up a conversation about just what makes mommy happy and how Alexa might help me get there.

And she did make me smile a couple of hours later, when we were walking on the Derby-Naugatuck bike path and she spotted an African American man, pointed to him, and said, "It's Rocco Bama!" (translation: Barack Obama).

(Dylan took one look and said, "That's not him, Lexi.")

"So don't resign. Instead. . .enjoy the ride!" (Sears, 167).

Sunday, March 9, 2008

politickin' at the preschool

On Wednesday, when I arrived at Dylan's preschool, his teacher said, "Oh, before you go, I want to tell you some things Dylan said about George Bush."
My first thought, of course, was "Uh oh."
But Dylan was tactful. Apparently, during storytime, the teacher came upon a picture of George Washington. Somehow the terms "president" and "George" must have sparked an association in Dylan's mind, because he raised his hand and said, "You know what? George Bush is not doing a good job."
His teacher, surprised at such an interjection from a 4-year-old, laughed and said, "Oh, really? Why not?"
Dylan replied, simply, "He's not helping people."
Considering our strong opinions on that topic, I was relieved to hear that's all that had been said. But this incident, like many others, has made me think about the many ways in which I need to censor myself and even, at times, the outside world. I generally listen to NPR in the car, but now that Dylan has such a keen ear, I've had to switch to CD's. The other day he said to Bryan, "Some radio guys talk about killing and dead people. Mom listens to that radio in the car." Yikes.
But NPR has its advantages for them, too: Alexa wants to know more about the democratic presidential candidate "Rocco Bama" (or, as that underhanded McCain calls him, Rocco Hussein Bama).
Here's to Rocco!