Category Archives: Childhood

Anne Frank

My  wife Jen and I recently saw a University of Arkansas production of Anne Frank, a dramatization of the diary, which prompted us to pick up a copy of the diary itself.

Image result for anne frankSomehow I’ve not read it, ever, except for excerpts here and there in anthologies, but reading it now I see how enthralling it can be both for historical and literary reasons. Frank records the Nazi persecution of the Jews as it spreads from Germany to Holland, where the family fled in 1933, and she confides in her diary as to a friend, her BFF, in fact, for her motive in writing, she says, is to discover and describe just such a friend.

Fabulous that she would begin such an enterprise and push it forward by and for herself! The diary was not discovered till after the war, after the Franks were hustled off to concentration camps. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen camp; her diary was saved, back in Amsterdam, by a family friend and employee.

Frank called her diary “Kitty” and confided in it, as you would to the best friend you didn’t have and might never have. It’s charming to overhear these confidences, starting with the friendly address of the diary. “Dear Kitty,” Frank wrote, again and again, telling of her fears and joys and terrors.

I’m reading the diary now and should like to use it as something of a model for the young students I am tutoring, who are writing journals. Frank, after all, deliberately supersedes the idea of recording only “a series of bald facts … like most people do.” She has more important things on her mind — political, psychological, and yes, erotic, things to consider, as any adolescent would have on her mind but few would commit to paper like this. Frank not only writes down her thoughts, she uses writing as a means to transcend the painful and the lonely here and now.

Sound familiar, writers?

Tutoring is more than child’s play

Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.

The word “tutor” comes from the Latin for protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.

lar, lares
The Wikipedia article on lares, a type of Roman tutelary spirit, shows a “Lar holding a cornucopia from Lora del Rio (Axatiana) in Roman Spain, early 1st century AD (National Archaeological Museum of Spain).”

In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.

With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words!  They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.

What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?

For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own.  Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.

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Adventure and danger

Took a hike this last Saturday with my son Gabe, granddaughter Ruby, tutee Aneeka (like Ruby, 8 yrs old), and her lovely mother Rupali. We went to Tanyard Creek up in Bella Vista, a stream that plunges down from the spillway at Lake Windsor and winds among the woods. The hike was only 2 or 2.5 miles, but with the girls darting and playing on the rocks and in the water it took us an hour and a half or so.

What a glorious day it was. Lots of people were hiking, as families. Groups of teens appeared to be camping, at least day camping, by the stream, as they hung out hammocks — and then just hung out. Everybody was smiling.

The girls had a lot of fun — Ruby leading the way, charging  on with her hiking stick raised high and Aneeka charging after. Signs along the route warned not to get off the trail, as delicate habitat could be destroyed. But this didn’t hold back the girls, especially Ruby, who is high spirited and not very mindful at times.

Gabe, my son, and I kept calling her back, but she wouldn’t listen. Finally, as we returned to the parking lot, Gabe said, “I admire Ruby’s adventurous spirit.” Which I do too. The problem is when adventure comes to equal heedlessness. Every parent wants his child to be safe and may hold him back for that reason. So there’s a constant tug between safety and security, on the one hand, and adventure and growth, on the other.

base jumping
Extreme base jumping, which may lead, in extreme situations, to extreme unction.

At what point does adventure equal danger, heedless danger? That could be different for each of us. There’s extreme sport, after all, and base jumpers, who fly wingsuits among mountains, through crevices, and sometimes, alas, into the mountain faces. May they rest in peace, and we hope the thrill of the flight was worth the instant annihilation of the end.

Most of us are less extreme. I remember that my one-year-younger brother Bob and I would run away from the car and clamber up rocks when our family motored from the Twin Cities to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We might have been 10 and 11, or 11 and 12. Our parents kept calling us back, but we didn’t come. Were those knucklehead boys about to spill their brains on the rocks? Well, we didn’t spill ’em, though we might have.

As we might have, when older, drinking too much and clambering up on roofs. My brother died of alcoholism, in fact, when he was 46: he’d climbed too many roofs, in effect, and fallen plump down on his head. Drunk once, in the 1990s, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior, I climbed the roof one night, which was pretty shallow, to chase off the seagulls. I had no business being up there, drunk as I was, but there was no mom or dad to bring me down. Instead, my wife and friends encouraged me not to spill my brains, which were, they pointed out, all I had, but they could not compel me to get down.

Ah, yes, let’s adventure on, boys and girls. But not too much booze, please. Nor speeding on the highway. Nice and easy does it, it could be. Let’s get down off the roof, off the high, and see what adventures the mind itself can make.

Whack-a-dad

Had a massage today, down in West Fork. My masseuse lives in the house, an old stone house, with her husband and kid. When I entered, her four-year-old boy greeted me in the office with a rolled up news magazine.

I was thinking, isn’t that great, the tyke can read already, but he assured me, in no uncertain terms, of his real intent. “When my daddy gets home,” he announced, “I’m going to whack him with this magazine!”

“Oh, my!” I replied. “Aren’t magazines for reading?”

“Well,” the kid rejoined, “he hit me first!”

“So you deserved it!” his mom, my masseuse, replied.

At which point, I graciously bowed out of the family feud, went into the masseuse’s room, and disrobed. No sense getting too involved in any one family’s private pathology. If we have to be naked and honest, don’t we have enough of our own?

Happy hour

Dreamed last night that I was given an assignment, evidently at school, to write something about happy hour. Maybe the assignment was conveyed to me by a classmate and I lost something in translation, because I had to ask, in class, whether everyone had to write about the same scene or situation. I think the answer was yes, and so I was redirected toward a more neutral scene, perhaps having nothing to do with happy hour.

Mom and Fred
Mom, Mary Zeck, and her younger brother Fred Curtis, back in the happy day and happy hour.

But this idea, and phrase, has deep meaning for me (is cathected, in psychoanalytical language, the way “our song” may be cathected for a happy couple, or a once happy couple, who upon hearing the song wax rhapsodic or nostalgic about everything it means to them. In my family, happy hour was the time from four to six, or five to six, in which we sat down together, as adults, Mom and Dad and the kids, sharing a few drinks and telling family stories.

“Happy hour” is also a reminder that our time on earth is short and our time to be happy as fleeting as the hours. Life is our happy hour, the only hour we have to be happy, and if we miss out on it then we miss life.

Perhaps, I’m thinking, this assignment to write about happy hour is from the ego itself. If I, in my brief life, as brief as yours, am to fulfill the mystery of why I’m here, I must write about happy hour. About my family, that is, and my place in it. About the pleasure of sharing drinks and stories (see entry above about the kinds of stories we told). About the fragility of these times together.

Happy hour. The briefest of hours. The most pleasurable too. It will not last, unless you grasp and form it in memory, or recollection. Unless you write it down, where others too may share its magical and transient charms. This happy hour begs to be a drama, that is, a play. No matter that I’ve written poetry and fiction but not drama. The genre is of no moment, and all moments. And don’t I have plenty of play left in me still?

Stanky Legg

Stanky Legg
Thanks (I guess) to the GS Boyz for their rousing performance of “Stanky Legg.”

No, they didn’t perform that one when I was in Catholic school. They didn’t twerk to that one back in the day. This morning, at the start of the day, I attended a school convocation at Happy Hollow Elementary School, where my granddaughter Ruby is enrolled in second grade. We thought she’d be dancing for this gig; she might have thought so and so communicated to Gabe and Heidi, her parents. But, no, she sat in the middle of a sea of kids on the floor of the cafeteria, gyring a bit, while up on stage a select group of maybe six or eight skinny kids twitched and jerked to Stanky Legg.

By god, I feel cheated by the good priests and nuns back in Catholic school (St Peter’s, then St Dick’s: no comment). They taught us the Latin hymns, by god. We could do a mean rendition of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, but we didn’t shake our asses to that one. And how about the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass? The mass was all Latin, in those faraway days, and attendance was all decorum.

I guess they think these days that shaking your stanky leg will loosen you up, blast away your inhibitions, and ready you for the school day.

Maybe it did make the kids more attentive to the propaganda that followed: the Pledge of Allegiance, the class pledge, the pep talk about recycling. And for the work of the classroom. I can’t vouch, directly, for the effect. Just know that shaking one’s leg (legg), stanky (skanky) or otherwise, makes some sense.

A friend who teaches at the University of Arkansas told me yesterday he’s doing some tag-team teaching this year in a class where the kids get to click a remote device to answer or maybe ask questions. This makes sense. They have something in their hands, palpable, pushable, with which to participate, instead of merely sitting on their asses and thinking idle thoughts (hmmm, what’s for lunch, yo where can I get me some pussy).

In the same way, I once had tremendous luck, teaching, when I threw around a small rubber ball to anyone with his or her hand up. Boy, did I get participation that day.

Whatever the dubious merits of “Stanky Legg” in itself (it’s way passé by now, boyz, don’t you know, trashed soon after it appeared in 2009, I see online, by many connoisseurs of the sewers of pop music), shaking your leg, or your bottom, or your finger, before class, or work, may have tremendous salubrious effects. You gotta remember, brothers, sisters, you are creatures of flesh and blood and spirit and intellect, and how to separate and appropriate them? You can’t do it, any more than you can separate Humpty Dumpty’s parts, post-fall. You certainly can’t do it by setting people down and nailing ’em to their desks.

 

 

Centenarian stories

On 5 September 2015 my mother would have been 100 years old had she been living. Unfortunately for her sake, and ours, she died about 24 years ago at the age of 76 . We have dearly missed Mother, genius as she was of the happy hour, when we would gather, parents and children, and tell happy stories of the old days. In our telling, that is, the days were happy, or the telling was happy, even while telling of struggles and dissension. The tales that Mom loved especially were about her struggles with Grandpa, her husband’s father. Old Grandpa Tony was what my dad called “old school,” meaning that he had very fixed ideas about behavior proper to men and women among other things. And my mother’s behavior did not fit in with Grandpa’s idea of what a woman should be like and what she should act like. My mother’s smoking, especially, enraged Grandpa. He would fume, not with cigarette smoke but with his Yosemite Sam temper, about Mother’s smoking. He would mutter, only half under his breath, so that everyone could hear, including Mother, unflattering things about “that woman and her smoking!”

With such stories we would regale each other, reinforcing types  and stereotypes of the dramatis personae of our family. Yes , in our telling, Grandpa was either an old-school tyrant or villain, on the one hand, or a clown, on the other, whose behavior was so rustic and so boorish that all you could do was laugh at it, especially these many years later.

The clown stories included episodes of Grandfather’s cheapness. He was so cheap, or tight, that he saved everything, for reuse, from newspapers to old bottles to plastic bags. He and Grandma Gertie, children of the old school and the depression, were fervent early recyclers not for the sake of the environment but their pocketbook.

The most comical story, could be, was told by my brother-in-law Russell Murphy. When Russ and my sister Barbara were first married and had several small children and lived in the suburb of Richfield , Grandpa called them excitedly one night saying, “Hurry! Hurry! You must get here before they come!” Before who come? Russ wondered. But he and Barbara and all the kids piled in the car and trundled up to northeast Minneapolis, a half hour or so away, the Polish part of Minneapolis where Grandpa lived. As soon as they pulled up to the curb, Grandpa ran out calling excitedly, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” And when Russ asked, “Who are coming?,” Grandpa merely repeated, “Hurry! Hurry!” and took them through the frontyard and then the backyard to the alley, where the noise of the garbage truck was approaching. “Hurry! Hurry!” Grandpa repeated.

What they were hurrying for, It turns out, Is the loads of windfall apples under the trees on both sides of the alley. “Hurry!” Grandpa panted. “Or they’ll be gone!” For he knew a good deal when he saw it, son of the depression, grandson of desperation, and his zeitgeist was not in accord with that that of the booming ’50s and ’60s. When Russ and Barb got home with their apples, they discovered a dubious windfall — most of the fruit at least half rotten, much of it needing to be thrown away. For all their labor, both coming and going, gathering and preparing, they ended up with a measly few bottles of apple sauce or preserves.

The old immigrant America, quaking in its impecunious boots, desperate for a few free chances, vs. the booming native sons and daughters, with their spendthrift and profligate ways. C’est la vie, non? Here today, gone tomorrow. And no one was starving.

We would tell these stories, as I say, and laugh uproariously. The distance between them and us! The distance of time, place, and point of view! The hilarity of their rustic desperation!

Of course, the day would come, and has, when our heirs would laugh their tails off telling tales, tall and short, about our eccentricities and peccadilloes. How frightened we were and shrunken! How afraid of every shadow that blew!  Now that they knew what was what, and what was not, they could settle back to their drinks, their food, chewing the fat of this generous land and worrying no storytelling bones.

My Struggle 2

With a tip o’ the hat to Karl Ove Knausgaard, I reference here my own struggles with a backyard garden and pond I’ve been working on since late last year.

Garden pool
Backyard garden-pool, with stepping-stone waterfall, filling. Just one part of the never-ending garden project.

To be literal and direct, I’ve worked on the pond a great deal this summer — digging the hole in the ground and trying to shape it to the preformed pool; balancing the pool in that rocky bottom; building a waterfall that drops into the pool, a place where birds should come — near our bird-feeding station — and refresh themselves in the circulating water. I can’t say how many hours I’ve put into this project, and like gardening itself it will take how many more before it’s done if it ever is.

To be figurative, to fly away with symbolical suggestion, let me say I’ve suffered several disappointments along the communal line lately — belonging to groups (not so easy for me), organizing our neighborhood into a property owners’ association (a project halted by libertarian objections) — and so have fallen back on that old Voltairean advice to cultivate your own garden. This is what Candide does, in the end, in the eponymous book by Voltaire. After all his disappointing adventures in “the best of all possible worlds” — being kicked out of the castle after fondling Cunégonde, careening around Europe’s war zones, witnessing and suffering the Inquisition, riding with the lady with one buttock over the Andes — he comes home to roost in his own little home, his own yard, and starts a garden.

Am I advising isolation or isolationism? No. Simply acknowledging that, like Hamlet, one soon tires of “the all too solid flesh” and its struggles with the world.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

But if Hamlet had been a bit more Voltairean, a bit more like Candide and less like himself, he would’ve put in a garden at the castle and done some weeding himself. And so avoided his earthly troubles, including all that bloody and murderous sword-fighting. There soon comes a time, seems to me, when a no longer young man’s thoughts, never mind Hamlet, turn not to war and not to love but to gardening of one sort or another.

It’s the urge, I tell folks, when they turn fifty to put their thumbs in dirt. A guaranteed way to have a dirty, if not green, thumb, I tell ’em. And what can be more comforting, at this age, than to make that connection to the earth once more? After we’ve run the rat race, how many years, burdened with family, oppressed by work, stupefied by technology, we come to our senses, at last, or once more, and feel the way we felt when we were children — in the supersensory pleasure of connection to  experience at hand.

Cultivating a garden is both nature and culture, of course. The flowers we plant, the flow of water we direct come from nature and are shaped by man. Like Candide, we forget our earthly sorrows, our earthly experience, when we plunge into the earth. We are mortal, sure, but grounded in the soil. We feel our  sensory connection to everything we touch and everything that touches that, down to the center of the earth.

In this connection, time dissolves. The world whirls away. There’s only us, our hands, our grounding down to the earth’s deepest zones, and, even while working (on our own, for ourselves, in a trance), we are protected, for the magic moment, from the high voltages of alienated labor and alienated affections.

(P.S. Those of you who don’t garden, there’s still time!)

Baseball has been good to me

Beisbol has been berry berry good to me.

So said the comic Bill Dana, in his role as José Jiménez, back in the 1960s, and so say I. José, you might remember, once upon a time, praised the friendliness of the American people towards Latino immigrants. José had gone to a baseball game, and though he could afford just a nosebleed seat out in center field, everyone stood up before the game began, looking his way, doffing their hats, and sang, “José, can you see?”

Naturals' players stretching before the game.
Naturals’ players stretching before the game.

Last night I went to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals game in Springdale with my son Gabe. Because school has begun already, attendance was sparse, maybe 1,500 fans in the seats (out of a capacity of 6,500). We got excellent seats, behind home plate, and sat among a cadre of score-keepers and statisticians for both teams. These young men, some ball players, kept charts and used radar guns to measure the pitchers’ speed.

Our speed, Gabe’s and mine, was measured in beers rather than innings pitched, batters up, or balls and strikes called. We didn’t keep track of much of anything besides the score at the moment and the status of our beer cups. Ended up having three each (local craft beers) and one hot dog (mystery meat).

pitched ball
Our starting pitcher delivers to a Cardinal.

The game loped along, in no particular hurry, and the Naturals beat the Springfield team 5-3. (The Naturals are a AA affiliate of the KC Royals and the Cardinals of the St. Louis Cardinals.) Our seats afforded us a great view of hitter, umpire, and battery (pitcher and catcher). We could see balls and strikes almost as well as the umpire. I took a bunch of photos with my Fujifilm camera, the only hindrance the backstop netting between us and the action.

Sure, the team has Latino players, who may or may not have been welcomed as heartily to the US as José Jiménez, those many years ago. (The last game I attended, two weeks ago, was led off by two solo home runs on the part of two compact Latino infielders, Ramon Torres and Raul Mondesi. Last night, Torres had an RBI triple and scored on a throwing error after his hit. Jorgé Bonifacio, from the Dominican Republic, had a game-winning, two-RBI single in the bottom of the seventh.)

But the biggest impression made, on the field, was by Naturals’ third basement Hunter Dosier, who though he’s having a tough season at the plate, made two spectacular plays at the hot corner, snaring a wicked half-hop early in the game and throwing out the baserunner and, then, late in the game, helping to seal the victory, diving to his right and snagging a bullet, again throwing out the runner with his fast, accurate arm.

infield preparation
Hosing off and brushing up before the game at Arvest Park on a perfect late-summer evening.

So why do I care about beisbol? How has it been good to me? So many people these days knock the game, saying it’s slow and boring. While these may not be the people who say the same thing about classical music, these knocks show a certain blindness to both sports. Those who don’t see the beauty of baseball are not looking very hard — the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter; the chatter of batter and catcher, teammates, fans; the largo and then slap-bang allegretto of the innings; the idyllic pasture of the outfield, the hosed-down, swept-up neatness of the infield. (As for classical music, I’ll address that issue another day, saying for now only that those who pooh-pooh it most probably have hearing, and learning, disabilities.)

I grew up playing baseball, sure, in Little League and Babe Ruth. I might not have been a force of nature in the game, whether catching or playing third, but I enjoyed it. Have always enjoyed playing, and watching, organized ball.

And, way back in my childhood, playing an unorganized game called “fenceball” that my best friend Mark may have invented, where at the local park the batter stands between home plate and pitcher’s mound, facing the screen, and the opponent throws to him. The screen acted as a measurement for your hits, divided into three horizontal sections and three vertical. If you hit the bottom section, it was a single; the middle, a double; the top, a triple; and if you smacked any of the four vertical posts, or the fringe extending at the top, that counted as a home run.

Mark died young, at age 23, in a truck accident. And although he is buried long ago and far away now, on a hillside overlooking the Minnesota River, in a Catholic cemetery (Resurrection) maintained by a faith I no longer subscribe to, I do believe in the power of the game of baseball to soothe, smooth, and relieve our lives of stress and pain. To provide an idyll on a perfect summer day. (Though my son Gabriel Mark doesn’t play or enjoy baseball like his dad, he’s the perfect companion for watching the game and guzzling a few cool goodby-summer brews, toasting the fleeting season and proclaiming, “Hello, Brother Summer, and farewell.”)

Energy credits

Drove Ruby, my seven-year-old granddaughter to Happy Hollow School this morning to save her time on a long bus ride. Had to enter the school through the office, get a visitor pass, and then accompany Ruby to the gym, where the kids all gather before the school day.

gym running
A furious spectacle like this is not what an old guy is used to seeing early in the morning. (Photo credit: Bring It On Sports.)

Well, they don’t just gather, they expend energy. While most of the kids were knotted around the gym floor, in class groups, there were seven or eight lines of kids at the far end of the gym. A teacher or gym coach whistled and seven, eight kids thundered furiously down the length of the gym and then back again. I was dumbfounded, thunderstruck — standing there gape-mouthed, no doubt, at the spectacle of so much energy so early in the day (it was about 7:30 am). Then I started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I kissed Ruby goodby, she trundled over to her classmates, blonde hair swinging, backpack too, and her crazy grandfather stood there on the sideline, distinctly out of the game, and roared with laughter. The kids must’ve thought I’d lost my mind.

If these kids, who have so much energy, excess energy, obscene energy, could only siphon some off for their elders! We could pay them, couldn’t we? Outright bribe them and, vampire-like, suck some elan vital. Or have them trade their energy for a consideration — say an extra TV  show, or a bowl of ice cream, or quality time with Mom and Dad at the venue of their choice.

I’m prepared to do a little gym work, say at 2 pm or so, a few times a week (I do go to a seniors’ gym), and to bike a couple of times per week — activities I enjoy — but early-morning track or fisticuffs, no way!