Monday, June 29, 2009

Mysteries of the Great Lakes

After 17 years of living in Michigan, I decided it was finally time to see the state's largest city. Detroit seems so far away, and I've only been in the city proper once, when I stopped downtown to pickup my husband for the drive up to Traverse City, on my second visit after we decided to relocate from Washington, D.C. That was in 1992. In the intervening years, all I've seen of Detroit are the signs on I-75 as we bypass it on our way to North Carolina.

So with my daughter and husband (our son was away at camp), we embarked on a weekend excursion to Motown and Ann Arbor. On arrival at our hotel Thursday evening, we learned of the sad death of Michael Jackson, and that was a bit of a deja vu moment. In the summer of 1977, I was checking into an Atlanta hotel with my vacationing family when we learned of the death of Elvis; I was about the same age my daughter is now.

On Friday we toured the Detroit Science Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts, the highlight of which, for me, was finally getting to see the Diego Rivera murals. May they never meet the fate that has befallen so much of Detroit's fine architecture.

There is much to lament in Detroit, which in many places gives the appearance of a war-torn city. But a city that takes care of those Rivera murals will always be a city to cherish.

Another point of hope came from a little film we say at the IMAX theater at the science museum across the street from the Rivera murals. There really were no mysteries presented in Mysteries of the Great Lakes, which I suspect received its title because it was deemed more luring to schoolchildren than something descriptive like "Restoring the Great Lakes." The primary plotline of this film was the effort to rescue the lake sturgeon from the brink of extinction.

Apparently the sturgeon is to the Great Lakes what the buffalo is to the Great Plains, although not quite as iconic. This species has been around for 150 million years and was plentiful in our waters prior to the usual exploitative overfishing brought about by greed (their eggs are called "caviar"). Now only a few decimated populations exist and biologists are desperately trying to restore spawning grounds to support the fish version of test-tube babies -- eggs deposited in the few remaining active spawning sites, fertilized in a mobile lab and hatched in containers filled with water from the designated transplant spawn river, which the young sturgeon will hopefully accept as a new home and return each year to repopulate.

The scene that made my eyes water was near the end, when the biologists gathered along the Black River in Wisconsin to await the return of the sturgeon to the spawning grounds. They were cheered on by dozens, maybe hundreds, of local residents lining the banks, all there to protect and cheer on the sturgeon. Are we humans finally starting to get it?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More books to remember

As promised, part two of books I've read that stayed in my life:

*A Flag for Sunrise, by Robert Stone. I read this in 1985, my junior year of college, when my political awareness was primarily focused on watching the cute guys playing hackeysack by the anti-apartheid shanties on the quad and attending the occasional beans and rice dinner sponsored by the Central American Solidarity Committee. This novel made me aware that the latter was about more than a free meal. I haven't re-read it, but I do occasionally look up passages to quote.

*Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. This one speaks for itself.

*Sophie's Choice, by William Styron. I'm glad I read this before I became a mother; I don't think I could manage it now. It haunts me still.

*Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. I wish I had read this before I became a mother. My daughter was the same age as Ruth May when I read it. I cried for the better part of three days. Equally memorable for me, although not as emotional, was Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer.

*My favorite two treatises by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience and On Pragmatism, can be found in most compilations of his writings. I consider myself a pragmatist.

*The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. I blame this novel for my continuing habit of mentally labeling any expensively-dressed, very thin blonde woman a "social x-ray." The book is far better than the movie (sorry Tom Hanks).

*The food books of Mort Rosenblum, in order of their deliciousness: Chocolate, Olives and A Goose in Toulouse. Where have you been lately, Mort? Enough of those state-of-journalism books that I have to buy for my husband. Write another foodie one, please!

*You are Your Child's First Teacher, by Rahima Baldwin Darcy. Inspired by the educational philosophies of Rudolf Steiner that led to the development of Waldorf schools, this was the most influential of the parenting books I read when my children were small.

*The Beast in the Garden, by David Baron. Starting with an incident in which a mountain lion killed a jogger in the foothills near Boulder, Dave does a brilliant job illustrating the difficulties that ensue as human habitat encroaches on the wild.

*The City of Joy, by Dominique Lapierre. This portrait of the poorest slums of Calcutta somehow manages to leave the reader feeling strangely uplifted and optimistic.

*Texas, by James Michener. The thing that stayed with me from this historical novel was Michener's description of the difference in settlement patterns of the Spanish and the Anglos. As he told it, the Spanish found their security in each other and built their homes close together around central plazas, while the Anglos found their security in isolation and generally preferred to settle as far as possible from each other. Daniel Boone was reported to have remarked that when he could see smoke from a neighbor's chimney, it was time to move. I've been wanting to further explore the implications of these patterns on modern land use and transportation systems.

*Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. I'll never forget his anecdote about the guys in a French barber shop being perplexed at a photo of Jodie Foster carrying a baggie of dog poop on a beach -- hilarious!

*How Stella Got Her Groove Back, by Terry McMillan. This is not Literature, but in the depths of winter, whenever I'm tempted to fantasize about running off to a tropical island where some hot young hunk could bring me fizzy drinks and rub oil on my back all day, I remember what happened to the real Stella.

*The Constant Gardener, by John le Carre. The movie is really good, too.

*Home Economics, by Wendell Berry. I want to read this again.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some important unforgettable books, but there will not be a part 3, at least not anytime soon. I should do a list of great books I haven't read yet and start working through them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Books to remember

Perhaps, like others in their 40s, I too often confuse information overload with the onset of senility. If I can't remember where I read something, or even what I read, the logical explanation is that the volume of data I've attempted to stuff into my brain simply exceeds its storage capacity. But then, didn't I read once that humans use less than one percent of our brain power? Can't remember exactly -- information overload!

Anyway, summer is here (happy solstice!), with front porch settees and backyard hammocks luring us out for iced beverages and blissful reading. Why spend that time overloading our puny brains with yet another forgettable "beach" book? Summer reading isn't required to be "light", although some of the books I'm about to suggest can almost qualify as easy, engrossing escapism because they are fun to read, even if they may prompt thought during and/or after.

These are the books I most remember or that have influenced me the most. For some of them, I may not recall details, or even plots, but the narrative or message in some way impacted my life. The list, in no particular order, along with a helpful link to reviews:

* Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. I read this my junior year in college as part of a project in my public policy ethics class. It awakened me to many issues of political and social justice and also prompted me to learn more about Gandhi.
* The Gandhi Reader. This remains an excellent and accessible compilation of Gandhi's most important writings, as well as reminisces from those who knew him. It would take many blog posts to list all the ways that Gandhi's writings and life have influenced me, but one little standout from this volume is his treatice on the benefits of spinning, which led to a fascinating exchange with Rabindranath Tagore.
* Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat. The definitive biography of Tolstoy, who has to be one of the most fascinating and complex writers of all time. He also influenced, and corresponded with, Gandhi.
* Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin. This is one of the best critiques of our materialistic culture, and the antidote to it. The foreword by Ram Dass is just as compelling as the rest of the book.
* Divorce Your Car, by Katie Alvord. I was well along the anti-automobile path when I was asked to review a copy of this book several years ago, but it really helped me catalog the many reasons I don't like cars. It's just as relevant now as it when it was published.
* Diet for a New America, by John Robbins. I'm not still a vegetarian, although I continue to shy away from meat, and this book provides great incentive for doing so.
* The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I've long been a huge fan of Michael Pollan's and had read most of this in some form or another in his New York Times articles, but this is a great compilation of the current state of industrial food, and the alternatives to it, regardless of how much meat we eat. For a fun read from Pollan, I also recommend his earlier Botany of Desire.
* Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon. This cookbook is pretty much the bible of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Its hardcore (and controversial) nutrition for those who want to eat like our pre-industrial ancestors.
* Handling Sin, by Michael Malone. Everyone needs a completely escapist and fun summer novel, by a writer you're probably never heard of. I've read this one twice, and I rarely re-read.
* The Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler. My neighbor tucked this novel inside my bag when I was leaving for Christmas vacation a couple of years ago. The heroine walks away from her family while on summer holiday and doesn't come back for a year! I suspect many mothers in their 40s can relate to this.
* In the Absence of the Sacred, by Jerry Mander. If I were to read this again, I'd feel bad for spending a beautiful Sunday morning updating my blog, even though I'm outside.
* The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawke. Did the previous one depress you? Then read this novel that envisions how society might function if we tree-huggers get our way.
* In Service of the Wild, by Stephanie Mills. This is from one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers and a dear friend.
* Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman. If Stephanie's wild service inspired you, take a closer look at another community that's doing similar work.
* Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit. This is an outstanding history of walking as well as a guide to the inner journeys accessible with our feet. I was inspired by this book to plan a hike from my front door to the tip of South America in celebration of my 50th birthday. That's just a few years away, so I guess I'd better start figuring out that Darien Gap crossing.
* Earth Odyssey, by Mark Hertsgaard. Particularly compelling is his chapter on the automobile, which begins with a midnight taxi ride from the airport to downtown Bangkok.
* Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I'll probably get blasted for this because it's so politically incorrect, but I first read this when I was 12 in North Carolina and have never forgotten it. If you can get past the racism and pretend you haven't seen the movie, you'll find a memorable story about a courageous woman who defies social conventions to live by her own star.
* Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. I don't elaborate on Jane.

I'll probably have more to add to the list tomorrow.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The search for meaning

As Glinda the Good Witch advised Dorothy, "it's always best to start at the beginning," and so as I embark on homeschooling, I've started at the beginning by reading a book about the end. In this case, author Neil Postman's "end" is really more about the entirety. I first read The End of Education several years ago, and I decided a few weeks ago that I could use a refresher on it since I recalled it answering that basic question that nearly every parent hears at least occasionally: "Why do I have to go to school?" For the homeschooling parent, the question may be edited to "Why do I have to learn that?"

Postman argues, basically, that schools need a better mission statement, a raison d'être, or, as he puts it, a god to serve, and this must be a god that doesn't fail. I'll give a full review of the book after I've finished re-reading it, but in brief synopsis, an example of a current popular god that has failed is the god of economic utility, which basically says "study hard and you'll get a good job after you graduate." It's not that this maxim is inherently untrue, but it doesn't exactly infuse a young person with a sense of higher purpose. By replacing this narrative with -- according to one of his suggestions -- a narrative that prepares students to be caretakers of the planet, we begin to restore the collective consciousness and meaning that has been missing from institutional education.

Grasping for that meaning prompted me to pull out my copy of Walden yesterday. My daughter yearns for what she views as the ultimate simple life: the romanticized, school-free existence of the Kalahari bush tribes featured in The Gods Must Be Crazy. In an effort to explain that school may not be essential to the human condition, but learning is (even Kalahari children must learn skills to survive in their world), I found the famous words of Thoreau, which are inscribed on a plaque near the site of his cabin at Walden Pond:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

I'm persuaded that freeing oneself from the materialistic cultural paradigm is an entrée to a life more focused on learning, even if that does not involve "school". My next task is to implement a home school that celebrates true learning, the kind that rewards us with meaning.

Fun Links of the Day:

I got a kick out of this Salon blog describing a Facebook unfriending. Surely all those who have been friended by people they haven't even thought about since high school will relate to this.

In another humorous Salon essay, Gary Kamiya wonders how the macho American male will adapt to Fiat's impending takeover of Chrysler. Enjoy!

And finally, rubber lawn chairs in Times Square? Tis true!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Homeschooling -- Can I do it?

Barring any earth-shattering events this summer, my daughter will not be returning to school in the fall. I'll refrain from elaborating on the circumstances that prompted this decision; suffice it to say that my husband and I believe this to be best for our daughter emotionally, mentally and academically. We remain ardent supporters of public schools -- and our son will continue in public high school -- but have recognized that our daughter needs a different environment at this time in her life. We are fortunate to be able to provide it for her.

I'm currently feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of directing the education of a rising 7th grader. I've been researching this for most of the past two months and wonder if I'm up to the task. There are so many options, so many resources, so many possible directions and approaches. I need a home school fairy godmother!

We'll actually start some form of home school this summer, on a limited trial basis. I want to see if I can rekindle my daughter's natural curiosity and channel that to learning, and I also want to make sure she will cooperate with me as the "teacher", or more appropriately, the educational facilitator. But summer is much too gorgeous and short in northern Michigan for us to spend any of it bothering with an online math course, so I'm keeping it light.

Her assignment for the summer will be to read 6 books (2/month average): three of my choosing and three of hers. I told her she can choose shorter books, but they need to be somewhat age appropriate. No counting books, haha.

The three I've selected for her are Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, for an engaging and accessible survey of science; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' Reindeer Moon, because its heroine is a teenage paleolithic girl who hangs out with lots of animals; and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, because, well, it's Rushdie!

Now I just need to somehow make the days stretch to about 50 hours instead of 24 so I can figure out what we'll be doing come September. Comments and advice welcome, if anyone reads this.