Monday, February 25, 2008

Living with Obama

I wear a hat around that says "Obama O8" on it. The first time Colm saw it he said, "Obama?" I nodded, proud of my son's decoding skills. We had the laptop in the kitchen during dinner last week so that we could watch the Texas debate. Tess hear his voice, looked up and said, "Is that Barack Obama?"
Then both kids practice saying Obama's name the way Scooby Doo would say it. "Rarack Rorama!" They crack each other up for a good long time with this.
Barack Obama may be the only name of a contemporary public figure that our kids actually know and recognize. Every other name just slides by like so much radio white noise (no racial slur intended). That is not to say that they don't hear things. Just the other day, Tess stopped what she was doing and tilted her head like the RCA Victor dog. A pundit on the radio was discussing campaign strategy. Suddenly Tess exclaimed, "What? It's dangerous to go naked in a debate!"
"Well, yes it is dangerous sweetie, but he said "negative" not naked."
Then today Colm is lounging on the couch with me. He looks at my cap, get a sly look on his face and says sweetly, "Dad?"
"Yeah Colm."
"Is Obama your favorite?"
"Yeah, he is."
Colm laughs and half shouts, "What about me!"
He's gotten me. All I can do is wrestle him into my lap and tickle him into submission for outwitting his old man.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


that was the entire text of an email message I received Sunday from a friend. Here is the You Tube clip she included to explain...I have to say that I'm not worried, I don't think.

2/22...the worst day?

Last Friday after work I go to a nearby clinic for a doctor's appointment concerning leg pains that have been plaguing me for about a week. I take a seat in the waiting room. It is after 4:00pm. There are a handful of us there. Nearby a middle aged man sits between an elderly woman who has a plastic tube running into her nose and two kids, a boy and a girl, roughly 9-12 years old. Across from them sits a couple, both senior citizens. Everyone seems to know one another, they converse good naturedly about nothing in particular. Aside from the couple, it's not obvious who else might be related to the other. Time passes, there is a palpable sense of the week winding down. The elderly couple is called and then shortly thereafter, the man and the two kids. Idly, I note these facts, checking off possible family configurations. I have almost dozed off when the two kids come running back in. The girl stumbles and nearly falls. She catches herself with a smile and sits. The man, the father, trail in behind. He returns to his seat. The elderly woman with the tube, smiles at him and askes, "Good news?"
The question causes me to search the man's expression for clues. There is a slightly preoccupied air to him, though he manages a wan smile for the lady.
"No," he says and sits next to her. "It's not good at all."
The woman sits quietly beside him. She does not avert her eyes. There is something inexpressibly kind about them. The man turns and looks at her.
"I didn't expect it to be this bad. I thought it was getting better." He drops his chin a little. A few seconds pass. The two kids who have been extremely well behaved, begin to wriggle ever so slightly in their chairs. Finally the girls gets up and goes to the chairs that had been occupied by the elderly couple. She stretches out as if to take a nap. The old woman reaches over the arm rest dividing her and the father. She puts her hand on top of his, and then a moment later she says, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah...I'm okay. It's just that I thought she was getting better." I glance at the girl. I can't help this impulse to try to connect the dots to this heartbreaking scene.
"The doctor offered her some medicine to help. She said she didn't like medicine. And I said Trudy (not her name), take the medicine, if you don't like it then you don't have to take it, but at least try it."
The girl struggles to wrap herself in her sweater as she tries to get comfortable. The old woman gets up and goes to her. She lifts the sweater from the girl and makes it billow like a parchute over her before letting it settle gently over her shoulders and torso. The girl smiles sweetly at her but says nothing. The old woman returns to her seat. We remain this way in silence for some time.
I have completely forgot about my own troubles as I watch this poor man being attended by this saintly woman. His stoic courage, her enfolding grace, the children's invincible naivety. What began for me as an idle means of passing time in a waiting room has suddenly become a sort spiritual mystery play enacted in front of my eyes. And then a woman walks in. Middle aged, average height and weight, hair the same color as the boy's. She walks wordlessly to where the man is seated and retrieves her coat and bag and begins to get ready to leave. The man seems a bit flustered by the pace of things. He gets up and says, "Are you okay?"
She just looks at him flatly, and says, "No. I'm not."
Suddenly a nurse appears and summons me to my appointment. I get and walk past them. My legs begins to hurt all over again. I allow the pain to pull my focus inward, and I make my past them discreetly.

An hour later, I'm in the emergency room at the hospital getting an ultrasound for what I've been assuming was a pulled calf muscle. I watch the images on the screen as the technician presses against my thigh. They remind of the ones I looked at when Beth was pregnant. I couldn't make heads or tails of the image of our kids in the womb and I can't make head or tails of my veins and ateries now, even though the technician has given me what she obviously feels like is a more than satisfactory explanation of the image onscreen. She works her way down toward the back of my knee. "There's something," she says in a pleasant though matter-of-fact voice. The technician goes and gets the radiologist who informs me that I've got a blood cot. My doctor shows up soon after to explain to me that it's called DVT (Deep vein thrombosis). Clots like this if they break loose can make their way to the lungs and cause an embolism..."which can be catastrophic," she adds. Clots which make it into the thigh where the veins are bigger have a 20% chance of doing this. She seems satisfied that we've found it just before that threshold.

The doctor puts me on anti-clotting meds, including injections that I'll have to administer to myself at home.
"You're staying in the hospital tonight." she tells me.
I call Beth from my hospital room and we survey the day's events together. Talking to her helps me put things in a perspective. For one thing, the blowup between my and friend is over. The day before, I went to his house...we literally embraced one another and pledged to moved forward. It's good to talk to Beth always, but this evening it is more than good, it is a lifeline. I'm pissed off having to stay in a hospital instead of going home, but talking to her and hearing my kids lifts my spirits enormously.
Beth looks at the calendar and is reminded suddenly of something. Before she says goodbye she tells me that a few days ago, a friend told her that she had read somewhere that Feb.22 would be the worst day of the year. No context, no explanation, just that.
We both laugh.
Later on as I reflect on things and recall the family in the waiting room and the kindly old woman, I realize that if this was the worst day of the year for me, I can definitely live with that.

ps. here's a photo of the kids watching me give myself an injection this morning. They were impressed to say the least.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Goodnight Moon

Tonight the kids and I watched the lunar eclipse. In advance of the event I set up a couple of onions and a golf ball on the dinner table and did my best to show the kids what was really going on up there. Tess seemed genuinely intrigued, Colm looked up between bites of spaghetti. We bundled up and went out on the deck to watch. The sky was crystal clear. Pretty impressive. The moon glowed kind of reddish. Made me wish I had a better camera. Here's what I got.

friendly skies

photos by Franck Jouandoudet taken around the
Bassin d'Arcachon, France

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Obama swept the Potomac primaries Tuesday night. Here's the speech he gave that evening in Madison, Wisconsin. I love the bit about Obamatans (Republicans who are supporting Obama). Ohio and Texas loom large on the horizon. Clinton is banking on big wins there, but Obama has shown that he can shift the elecorate if he gets a chance to spend time in a state. Three weeks and counting...

Monday, February 11, 2008

I'm nobody

Colm is pretty enamored with the idea of being terrifically strong which in many cases boils down to being stronger than me. He is always hurling himself into me, sometimes from a long way off, sometimes without warning, sometimes aiming his head at my most vulnerable areas. He loves to goad and taunt me into contests.
"I bet nobody can stop me."
(For those keeping score at home, I'm nobody.)
"Nobody is stronger than me!"
He will issue his challenges anywhere anytime, but lately Colm has discovered where his comparative advantage lies. He has taken to attacking me in bed. It's a shrewd strategy on his part. I'm typically groggy and not feeling especially competitive.
"Pretend you're stopping me but you can't."
Colm lifts up my limp arm and makes like he's going to trample my head. Instinctively I tense up and hold him off, exactly the response Colm's been hoping for. He pushes back with all his might. He's got me at an awkward angle, and it's my bad shoulder (rotator cuff problems). I hold him off, but just barely.
Of course I could repulse him, but, instead, I cave in. Colm bears down on my arm until he and it have collapsed on my head. I then grab Colm and tickle him, until he is laughing uncontrollably. As soon as I stop however, he's up on his feet wanting to repeat the entire sequence again. And so it goes some mornings. During one of these sessions, Colm suddenly turned pensive. He looked at me and said, "I'm stronger than you sometimes." He seemed to consider the dimensions of this boast because he quickly added, "In bed... I'm stronger... sometimes."
"I guess you bed." I grab him and tickle him into submission.
Unbeknown to me, Colm has been carrying on similar matches with his best friend's father. Unlike me, however, he always lets Colm win. He is a nicer man than I am. Fast forward to an evening where these friends are at our house for dinner. Colm rushes up to the man, stands between us and pointing at my friend he declares, "He is weak!"
I look at my friend a bit unsure of what to make of this. He is all smiles. He tells me how Colm takes him on and how he always wins. Before Colm runs away, he says, "I am stronger than my dad, too... but only sometimes... in bed."
This time it's my friend's turn to look quizzically at me.

Tess is becoming quite the scrapbook maker and diarist. She loves drawing, writing, cutting paper, pasting images to cards and pages. She is a headstrong girl with a pretty fiery temper so it's nice to see her settle in such pacific activities for extended periods. We've been trying to give her scope to feel her strong passions without being penalized simply for having them, especially anger and frustration. At the same time we're trying to convey to her that one can feel and express anger in ways that don't involve trampling all over other people's feelings. Just this afternoon Tess comes into my room crying loudly from having bumped her elbow. I hold her for awhile. Finally her crying subsides. I then try to cheer her up with the observation that the pain will be gone completely in just a little while. She seems recovered so I say, "You see it's nearly all gone now." My mistake.
Tess is not done feeling her pain. "No it's not! It still hurts!"
I try a different tack. "You know what is a very cool super power to have?"
Tess looks mildly interested so I continue, "The power to heal from injuries. Wouldn't that be great?"
Tess backs out of my embrace and frowns, theatrically folding her arms across her chest. "No!...I don't like that." The way she says it is very much what I imagine a spoiled and unappealing child might sound like. I turn away and with a wave of my hand, I say, "I don't feel like talking to you right now. Leave now. You can come back and try again if you want to."
Tess doesn't move. I say, "Go, now. Come back later if you want."
She turns and leaves, taking care to step more loudly than necessary. I take up something to read. My thoughts bend to my daughter though. I wonder whether I'm handling this well. Then I hear from off in another room of the house, "Daddy!"
"You can come in here if you want to talk to me sweetie."
She appears at my side and sweetly asks me, "How do you spell "angry?"
I grab a piece of paper and write it down. She takes the paper, looks at me with a Mona Lisa smile and disappears. A few minutes later she's back.
"Daddy? How do you spell "sometimes?"
Once again I help her; once again we exchange smiles.
I sit back and wait for her next visit. I hope there is one.
"Yeah Tess?"
"How do you spell "people?"
A while later, Beth comes home and my dance with Tess is subsumed by preparations for dinner. The kids help set the table while I wash the day's dishes. Beth is cooking pork chops, palenta, and roasted peppers. I absolutely love this dinner, but Colm hardly eats anything. After awhile we let him get down. Tess too is just pushing her food around, but then she asks, "Is there dessert?"
"We have some cookies," says Beth.
"But you have to eat some dinner." I add.
Tess goes to work on her plate.
When she's done, she asks for a cookie. Colm has been hanging around on the floor in the kitchen. He gets up and quietly asks, "Can I have a cookie?"
There is a moment of silence. Then I say, "You didn't eat anything Colm. Not any pork chops, not any carrots, not any peppers."
Beth is looking at me. I can't tell what she's thinking though I suspect disharmony. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying he didn't eat any dinner."
"What does that mean?"
I look at Beth. Is she calling me out, I wonder? Colm is standing in front of the fridge like someone on death row. I have just finished cleaning Colm's plate.
"No dinner, no dessert." I say.
Colm's head and shoulders droop, his chin hits his chest. Softly he begins to sob as he makes his way without even looking to his mother's lap. She strokes his hair gently and says, "You didn't eat any food Colmy."
Then Beth sees a few pieces of pork chop that Tess has left behind. I see them too. "Do you want to eat some dinner so you can have a cookie?" Colm lifts his head and nods gravely, his cheeks streaked by tears.
As our boy puts away the pieces of pork chop, Beth and I go back and forth over his head. Tess pretends not to listen.
"Why didn't you just say it?"
"What were those questions about?"
"I wanted to know what you were going for."
"I was trying to give you a chance to jump in there and support me."
"I sure didn't get that."
"Well you sure didn't jump at the chance did you?"
"I'm just glad you left some food on the table for him to eat."
Abashed, I say, "Me too...I thought he was finished."
"Can I have my cookie now?" says Tess.
Both Beth and I look at her and say almost in unison, "When Colm's finished."
Dessert happens. Spirits fly up again. I'm clearning the table when I'm accosted by Colm from behind. He plows into my legs, knocking my knees against the cabinet.
"Nobody is stronger than me." He is itching for a rematch. Tess too is looking at me expectantly.
"Lets play Nobody!" she says.
"Yeah! Nobody!" yells Colm.
"Okay." I say pretending to moan. The kids gleefully dash over the sofa where they crouch on the cushions. The sofa is safe. The game is simple. I stand a few feet from the sofa with my back turned to them. The sneak up and try to touch my butt without being captured by Nobody (me). Over and over again, I whirl and feint and roar and threaten while the kids full of daring scramble and screech as they elude my grasping hands.
All is golden, all is forgotten in these moments...I can do no wrong for this little while and it makes me very, very happy.
At length, we manage to turn everyone towards bed. It is a smooth transition. Beth reads to them on the sofa. She reads with tremendous aplomb, flanked on both sides by her babies, their heads pressed against her shoulders. Colm's head is destined to slide down onto her lap any minute.
Later, I'm in my room when I hear Beth send Tess in to say goodnight. She runs in and throws her arms around my neck. I get up with my long-limbed girl in my arms, Beth appears at the door with the journal that Tess is keeping. She has it open to today's entry. I look at it. There is a picture of a girl with a darkly frowning expression. On the opposite page is written:
Dear Mom and Dad
you make me
angry sometimes
you even
sometimes make me happy
I like people
And so it goes...what's it all mean? Nobody knows.

Cell mates

Sunday I broke down and purchased a cell phone...a tracfone. We've done fine without one, and this purchase is not so much about catching (quite tardily to be sure) the cell phone wave; rather, it 's just about having a security blanket for when we travel.
If I needed any reminder of what I really hate about cell phone culture, I got it Friday night at a reception I attended. I sat down at a table where there were four people already seated. I knew all of them well enough, and at first we all chatted amiably. For all of a minute and a half, that is. Then one of them, a woman seated to me left, I'll call her Mary, began telling us about her work at in the community. While she spoke, I noticed her hand slip inside her bag and pull out a phone. She brought the phone to her ear and without a pause, without even breaking the flow of her own commentary, she began speaking into her phone.
It took me a moment to realize that she was no longer talking to us, and when I did, I shifted my attention to an elderly man and his son across from me. Neither of them seemed fazed by the phone; in fact the younger man started up a fresh line of discussion about his own work administration. Then, bizarrely his hand moved in the selfsame fashion, producing a cell phone which he held at his ear. He continued speaking as had the woman, but just like her he was no longer speaking to us.
I looked at the old man, obviously hard of hearing and a bit withdrawn. To my right sat the old man's daughter-in-law. She seemed interested in watching her husband's phone conversation. So I figured I'd try the old man.
I asked him how he liked the high school team. The old man at first didn't seem to realize I was speaking to him. I repeated the question, "What do you think of the Tigers this year?"
There was suddenly a glint of recognition. He smiled and wagged his finger as if he had maybe quite a bit to say on the subject. I leaned in a little to hear him.
But then suddenly the old man's son thrust his phone in his father's face and said, "Johnny wants to talk to you." The old man's frowned for a moment but then he took the phone, pressed it to his ear and I could see all thoughts about the Tigers had been chased away. I sat there alone at a table of five people, two of them on cell phones, the other two watching the same cell phone conversation.
Well, this is lovely, I said out loud, knowing that no one was listening. Nobody was. I got up, said, "Excuse me," and left.
Charming, no?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

fundamental change

It's a well known cliche that all politics is local. Sometimes it's personal as well.
A friend of mine and I got into an animated argument over dinner at our house a couple of days ago...the subject was politics. He and I may well end up voting for the same candidate come November but until that day comes we cannot seem to avoid picking at each other. For my own part, I'm suspicious of my own inclination to play the contrarian just for the stimulation it gives me.
Knowing this about myself, it's no wonder that I see political conversation as a cryptic and perhaps unconscious means of personal disclosure. Could it be that discussions about the war in Iraq or health care or campaign funding are really discussions about how well I'm getting along with my wife, how successful I feel in my job, or whether I feel appreciated by others? When is politics politics, and when is it an elaborate masquerade? And when it's the latter, shouldn't we just skip the political foreplay and cut to the chase?
I recently began picking up on my friend's penchant for pronouncing the phrase, "fundamental change" in nearly every utterance he makes on the subject of politics. It is his mantra - has been, I realize, since I've known him. We need fundamental change...until we get fundamental change...the only way is to fundamentally change, and so on... Since noticing this phrase, I've begun to feel its effects in more and more personal terms.
My friend may be talking about renewable energy or the insurance industry but there comes a point when I hear the words "fundamental change" and I want to say, "Don't you like this life, this world? Do you really want to fundamentally change it?
The words seem to put me in mind of that rather well known sci-fi trope of creating radical change in the present by going back in the past and making the slightest, seemingly insignificant revision (Bradbury's story for example where someone inadvertently steps kills a butterfly in prehistoric times and thus completely rewrites human history). It's crazy and out of proportion to what my friend intends, yet I begin to feel as if his relentless invocation of fundamental change is little more than a rejection of this set of circumstances which cradles my own happiness, this community in which my family resides happily, this happy life which I may not deserve yet which I cannot imagine forsaking.
Obviously, my friend intends no such thing. He only means to enlarge happiness for many others. Why then do I chafe at his language?
I manage to wrankle my friend with my words as well. He laments the failed bids of Kucinic and Edwards to which I respond that the rhetoric of class warfare has not got much traction with Americans in general. He clearly hates the phrase "class warfare" and calls it a smear derived from Republican talking points. I can see that I've struck a nerve. Simultaneously I feel like recanting and redoubling my charge. He is my friend; he's at my house for dinner, and things are getting a bit testy. Nevertheless, I'm on the verge of crafting a syllogism composed of the terms, Two Americas (an Edwards campaign slogan), fundamental change, and class warfare when my friend beats me to the punch with a crack about Obama.
He asks me if I've read the article detailing how Obama "caved in" on health care?
Excuse me? Don't you mean compromised?"
No. Then he repeats the offending phrase. He caved. Did you read it? He asks me.
I bite. No.
My friend begins a tale whose source, he identifies as a Boston Globe story run several months ago about Obama's legislative work in the Illinois state legislature. Illinois democrats had written a universal health care bill. It was, my friend claims, a done deal. All it needed was a signature...but then Obama caved in to the insurance companies who hated the bill. They pressured him; he caved and then he rewrote the bill which was then signed into law. Illinois lost it's best chance at getting universal health care. My friend shakes his head ruefully and says, I lost a lot of respect for Obama when I read that.
I look at my friend and repeat silently in my head his words....caved in...done deal. Has he no sense of proportion? Will he say anything at all simply to score points in an argument? Internally the story's logic doesn't hold up. How precisely does a bill go from being a "done deal" needing only a measly signature to give Obama the very prize he's been fighting for to instead him stabbing his allies in the back by gift wrapping a new bill for his most ardent political opponents?
Our conversation hits the tipping point and soon our wives have melted away, leaving us to gnaw away at each other's arguments.
It's not that they're angry with us for locking horns like this; rather, it's just that they crave their time together; they too are friends. I note their absence and feel a twinge of regret over my inability to manage my own impulses. My friend and I aren't really breaking any new ground; we're just recycling arguments we've already read and reciting arguments we've already rehearsed in our heads many times.
We run out of steam. Both of us are aware that we've been left alone at the table. All this while, our kids have been playing together blissfully, migrating from from to room, giving my friend and I a berth, as they parade by in sundry costumes - pirates, royalty, jungle creatures. They are the very picture of companionship.
People talk about things like politics and religion for many reasons. Sometimes they do it for sport. Tonight however I'm not enjoying myself. What do I want, I ask myself? What does he want?
I imagine that my friend will never be happy unless he is on the margins, the perennial activist and outsider issuing warnings and going largely unheeded. I on the other hand want to belong; I want acceptance. He and I can never be happy in the same ways. I know this because he is taking his family away from us and our kids to go live on the other side of the country. Our children will not grow up just down the street from one another, they will not be classmates and best friends as we had once envisioned they would. We won't skip down the sidewalk to have these impromptu dinners at each other's tables or feed each other's pets when the other is away. Change is coming, and I'm not looking forward to it; in fact, it pisses me off.
It's all got nothing to do with politics really, but all I can say to my friend is, "Kucinic...I don't believe he ever really wanted the fucking job."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Is Obama for real?... a question from France

A student of mine in France last year is curious about the Obama phenomenon. He writes,
I wished to ask your opinion about its (Obama's campaign) chance of success. According to the results of the big Tuesday, he may be the democrat candidate. Here in France, we think he would have only a few chances to win the election, due to his blackness. We think that some americans would be afraid to vote for a black. I apologize if it seems racist or wrong, but that's the opinion we have...

Elsewhere in his letter he says that it's hard to get good information on this subject. The results of the primaries thus far reveal a set of facts that allow one to assert the following without much fear of contradiction.
Many millions of Americans will indeed vote for a black man for President. The question of whether some Americans will not vote for a black man is no doubt true as well, but it is much harder to quantify. My gut tells me that while certain people will always vote reflexively against certain factors like race, gender, religion, etc... that ultimately it comes down to whether a candidate inspires confidence or not and whether he or she can raise enough cash to get themselves seen and heard. Amazingly, Americans have reached into their pockets and funded Obama's campaign to an unprecedented extent. As for confidence, Obama's experience or lack thereof may be his biggest liability in the minds of voters how are seriously undecided.
Another important point I would ask my student to keep in mind is that the current campaign is not for the general election but for the Democratic nomination. This should be, in an ideal world, an election where his blackness would not hold him back given the Democratic party's platform of progressive ideals, and yet, ironically, it might be easier for Obama to win a general election against a Republican than for him to defeat the entrenched and powerful establishment Democratic forces supporting Clinton. If he loses to Clinton, we will all lose the opportunity to see whether Americans are indeed willing to vote a black man into the Oval Office. Personally, I believe they would.
For two reasons I'm not surprised that Obama is a source of wonder and curiosity to young people in Europe. First, he has a powerful generational pull here in America that is very translatable overseas among the same age group. Second, he isn't George Bush.
The French public which is typically riven (as is ours) by political and social divisions has been galvanized in recent years by two American phenomena: 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. The first led to an enormous and spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with americans. The second led to widespread vilification of Bush. Bush was in many ways French president Jacques Chirac's political salvation. Standing up to and opposing Bush, was in the eyes of many French, his one shining moment in a career otherwise marked by cynical and even corrupt dealings.
What has this to do with Obama?
Despite efforts by some, notably the Clinton campaign, to pigeon hole Obama in the traditional categories of identity politics, Obama has really energized a new political discourse that seeks to put character, competence and commitment front and center. Obama's politics do not derive from his blackness; rather, Obama embodies a new calculus which fuses categories of color and gender and religious faith and sexual orientation in ways that resonate with the way young people today experience them.
Obama is at this stage untarnished by a legacy of cynical double dealings or corruption. Skeptics claim that this is nothing more than a mirage, a function of time not yet spent in the halls of power and influence. Give him time, they say, and he'll become just like the rest of them.
I don't buy that argument. Nor do I buy the faint praise criticism that he is simply "articulate". Some people say that as if being able to speak well is commonplace among second rate thinkers. Really great speaking cannot be divorced from great ideas. Listen to his speeches and you'll hear more than polish. The man is comfortable with ideas. He has obviously thought long and hard about things. The richness of his language is derived in no small measure from the depth of his reflections. The campaign he has run is a model of discipline and enthusiasm and efficiency. The man is competent; he's a progressive with a conservative temperament; he's got skills; he's not just a brilliant orator.
I'll say it again. In a general election, Americans from every corner of this country would vote for him, but unless he can beat the Clinton apparatus, we'll never know.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

digging out and digging in

There has been so much snow this winter that at times it's been a bit overwhelming. Hardly a day goes by without snowfall or without a road closures in the region due to snow and accidents. Last year's drought looks like a distant memory right now with the snow pack well above normal. Every morning I look out the window to see whether or not I need to shovel the sidewalk.

This morning I found a cup somebody had left outside on the wooden railing the day before.

Last weekend we decided to try something new for us... we dug a snow cave. Took the better part of an afternoon. The gale force winds had created some pretty impressive drifts to bore into.

The first part was just a chamber wide enough for both kids to get inside comfortably, but then the home improvement/expansion itch took over. Thankfully we didn't have to refinance to realize this project.

First the kids put in a window near the entrance. Next I went round the other side of the drift and began boring a new hole toward the cave. Tess quickly grasped the idea and began tunneling from her end. We finally met but the passage was only wide enough for a small body. Colm willingly volunteered. He disappeared into the tunnel and after a few suspenseful seconds, emerged smiling out of the back side. We left the kids to play on their own and went inside to watch the Super Bowl. They stayed out there for a couple of hours. It didn't take them long to make changes. They put in a sky light and carted a few shovel fulls of snow back inside so they could build benches and a fireplace... they seem to have an instinct for remodeling.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I apologize

A few days ago I posted a brief story about an incident that occurred during a presentation I made on my exchange in France last year. My thought was simply to share an amusing anecdote. In my eagerness to be funny however, I have hurt the people whose names I included in that post. I want to apologize and use this occasion to set it right.
First, I will have taken down the offending post by the time you read this.
Second, I was wrong and I deeply apologize for offending you and hurting you. I also apologize to Martin, and Gerard and Julia.
Third, here is why I put that incident on my blog in the first place. I use the blog as a place to record events and reflections that arise in my daily life. This incident is something that happened to me; it was unusual and, to my way of thinking at the time anyway, perfectly harmless and amusing. I narrated what happened to me thinking of it not as a private experience but a public one.
I was a bit mortified but I was never angry, instead I thougt this was a typically teen aged prank, immature but also innocent and amusing, that could just as easily been carried out by an American teen as a French one. I have never had nor have I intended any other reaction to this story than that of a good natured chuckle.
The title of my post (humor a la francaise) was something that I gave almost no thought to. I think the other title I briefly considered was "Teenage (body) humor". I decided that the play on words between "bawdy" and " body" was just too subtle, believe me or not; it's true.
The reaction I received, made clear to me that my efforts to write about this incident failed utterly to convey that this was not emblematic of French people and certainly not of the family involved but of only of one thing: adolescence.
It pains me to admit that I myself have demonstrated a rather adolescent inability to discern between what is funny and what is unbecoming. It was adolescent of me to amuse myself thus. Again, I apologize to all involved.
If you don't know the people I'm referring to then you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that they are unfailingly generous and considerate people and that I was an am honored to have had the chance to live and work in their community. I regret absolutely the damage I have done in so careless and cavalier fashion.
I feel terrible about it.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Fired up and ready to go

The Obama campaign has become a perfect storm of things political and cultural, serious and hip. Here's two music videos making the rounds. The first one was put together by volunteers in a makeshift studio. It's based on a chant which was itself adapted from Obama's "One voice can change the world" speech. It was put on the internet about a week ago.

The second video appeared on the internet just one day ago. It is a celebrity effort though you have to be under 30 to recognize most (but not all) of the faces. This video renders a fairly complete portion of Obama's now famous "Yes We Can" speech. The words appear below the video clip.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality.

Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics...they will only grow louder and more dissonant ........... We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

Now the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea --

Yes. We. Can.

Friday, February 01, 2008


After reading aloud the opening chapter of The Education of Little Tree to my freshman English class yesterday, I engaged them in a conversation about the idea of naiveté. I first wanted to see if we could arrive at a coherent definition of it and then employ the term as a tool for analyzing the text (naive narrator) and the protagonist (a five year old boy). We began with defintions. The students offered a list of synonyms and equivalent expressions like: innocent, rosy view of life, unaware, young, sheltered, gullible and so on. When asked to zero in on the specific textual evidence of the boy's naivety, one girl cited pointed to the way he misconstrues the laughter of the passengers in the bus. "He doesn't seem to understand that laughter isn't always just about fun, that sometimes it's a way of mocking someone."
A female student mentions a reference in the text to a woman on the bus with dark eyes and blood around her mouth and how the boy imagined that she was in hurt even though she joined the others in laughing. The girl confesses that she finds this passage puzzling. A classmate, a boy, suggests that the woman was wearing makeup and that the boy didn't know what makeup was. The girl looks around the room, sees the nodding heads, and smiles sheepishly as if embarassed at not having seen this herself. There are some good natured chuckles in the room.
"One could say that you had a rather naive reading of that passage, couldn't one?"
I don't want to pile on gratuitously however, and I try to come to this girl's aid by explaining how readers often entrust themselves to a narrator. This trust, however, should almost never be unconditional. In this book for instance, she has put herself in the hands of an unreliable narrator. Not a liar, just someone who isn't able to report the full truth of what he sees because he can't see it himself. In a situation like this, a reader has to learn how to see what the narrator can't or won't tell her.
Another student, the one who suggested the term "rosy view" wants to suggest another dimension to all of this. She reminds us that the boy has recently lost both of his parents, that he's being taken by his grandparents to live with them, and that, at the end of the chapter, as his grandma sings the boy to sleep in his new bed, the boy is overcome by feeling that forest, the animals, indeed the entire natural world loves him and that all will be well. She pauses, perhaps for effect, perhaps because what she is about to say is something that she'd almost rather not say.
"That's just not the way it is." I allow a few moments to pass just in case someone wants to contradict that assertion. Apparently no one does.
"So he's naive?" I ask.
Heads nod.
"But why doesn't he know this? Why is he naive?"
It is an adept group, full of kids who are both discerning and eager to share. They quickly point out key factors. He's only five years old. Someone else observes that the boy seems to live in a rural setting, maybe somewhat isolated. This seems to trigger a series of observations about how sooner or later children have to discover that people can be mean, that the world is not always a nice place, and that you have to learn how to deal with it.
As I listen to their comments I am struck by their insistence on this latter point. I confess to them that as a parent of a two very young children I'm not in such a big hurry to begin their "education" on the cruelties of the world; rather, I want them to have a childhood first.
"When do you begin then? At what age?" I ask them.
One after another, girls and boys, my students tell me that parents can't protect their kids from the outside world. They are serious, naively so, it occurs to me. Could it be that being a teenager so immerses one in the struggles of self protection that the experience of childhood can only be seen as a sort disinformed prelude to "real life"? Do they resent being so protected and sheltered? Perhaps it is just that the possibility of being labeled "naive" as a teenager is one that is fraught with complications. Hence the mask of sophistication and self assurance.
Finally though the girl who coined "rosy view" raises her hand. I have long since noticed how she seems to say things not so much to persuade as to suggest, and not just to suggest to others but to herself as well. "I think if a child doesn't have some kind of view of life that is ideal or rosy then she might as well be raised in the basement or something."
I ask the students to look at what the boy reports to us about his grandparents conduct on the bus in the face of the abusive behavior of the other passengers. The students point to how quietly the grandparents make their to their seat, how the grandma reaches across the boy and puts her hand on the grandfathers hand, how he grasps it in silence, and how the boy enveloped in their arms falls serenely asleep.
"Translate the grandmother's gesture. What is she saying to her husband?"
Hands go up. "Stay calm; don't say anything." "We'll be alright." "I'm here." "Don't worry about them."
"Why doesn't she just say that to him?"
"She wants the boy to go sleep. She doesn't want him to worry."
"Do they think that this is the moment to begin his education about the cruelties of the world?"
They shake their heads. I follow up. "Do you agree with them?"
There's no point in belaboring the answer to that seems pretty obvious. Instead I feel compelled to ask another question.
"Childhood, it seems to me, is by definition different from adulthood. Let's just say that it describes that time of life and state of mind in which life is full of wonder and goodness and even magic. Adulthood is another thing altogether. But would anyone, if they could choose, choose not to have such a thing as childhood before becoming an adult?"
Slowly and by degrees, some of the students begin to qualify their earlier comments about exposing kids to the realities of life. I can see that they are no different from the rest of us adults in that their formulations about life and wisdom need the time and space to evolve, to go through a kind of dialectical process until they feel as though they've struck the right note, sounded the right tone.
These students are young and smart and sensitive and, yes, naive, but I feel hopeful in their presence.
My job is to help them get ready for the "real world" and thus to help disabuse them of certain childish conceits. To do this I will attempt to earn their trust and then use that trust to encourage them to think for themselves, to bring a healthy skepticism to claims made by other people. Fallible authorities, fallacious arguments, invented histories, unreliable narrators ... a series of that spirit, I will, in due time, share with them a secret about the book they're reading, a secret that will call into question another article of faith, the very notion of authorship.
I will tell them the story of how The Education of Little Tree was published as a memoir of a part Cherokee boy, but the author, Forrest Carter, was in fact a white man named Asa Earl Carter, a man who wrote speeched for George Wallace including the famous line "segregation then, segregation then, segregation forever!" Before the truth of Carter's identity was learned, millions of Americans, including countless Native Americans, had embraced the story as a profoundly moving narrative. The American public had been conned.
Can an entire society be called naive in such a case? Or are we justified in looking at a work of art as a thing that stands apart from its creator and lives on its own merits? Does learning the facts of an author's biography somehow invalidate our initial emotional response to the book he wrote?
Stripping away illusions about things is not necessarily a pleasant thing. Learning often feels like losing something. The first time you hear the sound of laughter and feel something akin to evil is a time that forever changes the way laughter lands in your ear.
Then again, there are few experiences that I'd rather have than the ones where I am visited by a sense of understanding, a moment of clarity, a breakthrough, be it intellectual, emotional, physical or interpersonal.
You might call me naive, but getting people to crave such experiences instead of flinching from them ought to be the central aim of what we call education.