Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Be gone...before someone drops a house on you!

I'm undertaking a new challenge. I challenged myself, but it requires family participation. Let me explain.

I finished my book club book, The Timekeeper by Mitch Albom (Don't waste your time. Ha.) and was looking through my bedroom bookshelves to find something new to read. Perhaps something more satisfying (I really didn't like that book.) I specify my bedroom bookshelves, because we have bookshelves in every room: the living room, every bedroom, the kitchen, the hall...even the bathroom. We are a family of book lovers. Right now, I'm reading The Hobbit aloud to the boys every night so that we can finish it before we go and see the movie. Cause that's how we roll.

So, back to my bedroom bookshelves. I came across a book that my father gave me when I was 16.

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. You can probably guess that I never read it.

It sounds a bit dry, I'll give you that. But as I flipped through it, I came across this folded and tucked in between two pages.

It reads:


Dear Kate -

     Here is a book I have found to be very helpful to me. The title tells it all. This book will help you a lot.

Your Father-
Dan Ryan

How could I not read it? (This was typical of letters my dad wrote me.)

I dug in and was amazed that the biggest issues in education facing the country in 1987 are pretty much exactly the same as those in 2012. Namely, that student test scores are going down and their knowledge of the world around them has decreased dramatically. Hirsch calls "cultural literacy" that information that it is essential for us to maintain intelligent conversation with one another and have hope for any progress. He goes so far as to list those things in our culture that really deserve to be taught in our schools. But they aren't. They used to be, but they aren't anymore.

So what would any self-respecting former teacher and wanna be writer with three children do? She would challenge herself to teach her family these very things. She would vow to raise culturally literate children. She would do that by going down the list included in this book, item by item. From Aaron, Hank to Zurich.

I shared this idea with Aquaman who cautioned that it might be pretty hard to do and that the boys might balk at the notion of learning such things when they could be playing xBox. I was undeterred. Especially when I came across this article in The Atlantic. It references President Obama's recent ad lib "voting is the best revenge," a derivation of "Living well is the best revenge" that certain parties warped into a political battle cry of fear instead of the actual meaning.

This morning, a golden opportunity presented itself. As I packed lunches and toasted strudels and signed forms, I dismissed Thing 1(who was only lingering to harass his brothers) from the kitchen with these words: "Be gone. Before someone drops a house on you."

I saw in his eyes that he didn't get it. But The Redhead did - he chuckled. Mostly because he was just part of his middle school's production of "The Wizard of Oz". Thing 1 had already disappeared into the hall, but I called him back. With all three boys sitting at the kitchen table, I announced, "Here's what we're gonna do from now on. Every morning, we'll discuss something that is important for you to know as an American. It's called 'cultural literacy'. It means that you'll be able to speak intelligently about things. And it means that you'll recognize when someone else speaks intelligently and you'll know that they're smarter than the average bear which means they might be okay to hang around. Although not always."

Thing 1 asked, "Like what kinds of things?"

"Just things that you need to know that you probably won't learn in school," I explained.

"Like 'Don't eat yellow snow'?" he asked.

"Good one!" Aquaman yelled from the bedroom.

"Um, no. Not really. No." I was getting frustrated, but decided to press on.

"So let's start with this one. When I just said, 'Be gone before someone drops a house on you' what did I mean? Where does that come from?"

The Redhead jumped right in. "It's from 'The Wizard of Oz'. When the Wicked Witch of the West has found her sister has been killed by Dorothy's house landing on her. Glinda the Good Witch tells her that to get her to leave Munchkinland."

"Exactly," I told him. "The Wizard of Oz is a classic American movie. It is more well-known than the original series of books it was based on. It is part of our culture. And you should know it and be familiar with references to it."

No response. I looked at Thing 1. "Now," I said. "Be gone, before someone drops a house on you."

He scuttled away, unimpressed. Tomorrow? We'll tackle, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

It just might apply to this whole challenge.  

Truthfully, I don't yet know the origin of this saying - but I will tomorrow. My father kept a sticker like this one in the drawer of his Gerstner tool chest. This was where he stashed extra cash. When the cash was gone, the sticker greeted the seeker. Clever, no? 

*On a side note, an occasional reader of this blog remarked, "So, you have Aquaman, The Redhead, Thing 1, Thing 2, and Yellow Dog. Who are you?" To which I replied, "I'm no one. I'm me. The narrator. It's my blog. I don't need an alias." But now that I've had some time to think about it, I think I will be "She Who Must Be Obeyed." How's that?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Accidental Birder

I think I might be in love.

It snuck up on me, as love tends to do.

It has inhabited my dreams.

And now, for the first time, I saw it.

Our owl.

A few nights ago as I was turning off lights in the kitchen and heading to bed, I heard something. I stopped to listen.


I cocked my head towards our big kitchen window.


"That's an owl," I announced.

"What?" Aquaman said from the bedroom.

"That's an owl!" I repeated. This was enough to get him out of bed. We opened the back door, but kept the storm door closed so as not to frighten anything away. We listened.

"Hoo-hoo-hoohoo." Again. Loud. Right in our own back yard.

"I've been hearing that," Aquaman said. "I thought it was a dog barking all this time!"

And I felt smart. Because I had recognized a bird's call before Aquaman. He is the birder. He is the naturalist. He led groups of people on birding trips for the Whooping Crane Festival when we lived along the Texas coast. He was the one out the road in Alaska for the annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. We have lived along two major flyways: the Pacific Flyway and the Central Flyway. He owns the serious gear of bird nerds everywhere: the harness strap for his binoculars.

I make fun of him for this. Come on. How can I not?

He has even given this harness-thingy that eliminates neck strain to my older brother, a fellow birder. Aquaman and my mom used to talk birds as my eyes would glaze over. We went to hear David Sibley talk once and even I acknowledge the superiority and artistry of Sibley Guides. He talks of such things as "life lists" and other things that I have zero interest in. I have, on many occasions, declared wholeheartedly, "I hate birds." And I have always meant it.

This hatred has a source, of course. It has a reason. And it begins with this evil character:

Looks innocent enough - I'll give you that.

I was probably about four years old. My older sister and I were outside playing. And by playing I mean trying to break a plastic bowl on the sidewalk by taking turns throwing it down, over and over. Why? Because they were new bowls. My father had brought them home and declared to my mother, "They're unbreakable!" Like they'd finally outsmarted their five savage children. Only I heard his declaration. And naturally, I took it as a challenge.

My sister and I would hold that white plastic bowl over our heads and slam it as hard as we could on the concrete. Over and over. We were gonna beat this! Unbreakable. Ha!

Only my sister got sidetracked. She saw something, laying in the grass. A baby bird. Still alive. "Let's save it," she said. She started to pick it up, to place it in the bowl. And at that moment, came this:

Oh, there was more than one - I'm sure of it. And they swooped and landed on her head and pecked and pecked and pecked while she screamed and screamed and screamed, all the while clutching the bowl with the baby bird in it. Their baby bird. Until finally she dropped the damn unbreakable bowl and we ran into the house and went right to the window that looked out onto the sidewalk where we'd just been.

And then the blue jays flung themselves against the window. "Thunk!" Over and over again. And we watched their fury while my mother inspected my sister's scalp. There were bloody pricks along her crown of long hair that was now tangled so that it looked much like, well, a bird's nest.  I was in a real live version of Hitchcock's classic.

I have never forgotten that day. The terror on my sister's face, the fear in my stomach, and the horror as we realized they knew where we had gone to hide and were going to try and get us. I do not remember what became of the baby bird in the bowl.

But we had lots of cats. So there.

I grow up. For the rest of my life, I am cautious around winged creatures. If they fly too closely overhead, I duck and cringe. I hate it when people feed seagulls on the beach. I, at times, ridicule my husband for stopping on the side of the road to observe a hawk or Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (his favorite bird). The Roseate Spoonbill - one of the prettiest birds in the world - does not impress me. I hate birds. And yet I grew up with parents who were bird lovers, have at least one sibling who is still an avid birdwatcher, and married a bird nerd. I will not tell you how many bird field guides we own. I still hate birds.

You understand why, don't you? I was traumatized as a child.

So what's happening?

I was wooed by the hoot.

That first night that our owl made himself known, I suddenly remembered something else from my childhood. I stood, just after nightfall, on the rise above our hay barn. I held my father's hand. We were waiting. Watching. Quickly, my father pointed to the sky. "Look, Katy. There he is. Look look." The biggest bird I'd ever seen flew out from the highest opening in the barn, beneath the light that had just come on with the darkness. I could feel the presence of him as he flew over our heads, silently. He seemed huge -- too big for flight. And he was gone.

"He's going to hunt," my father explained. "It's good luck to have a barn owl. We are lucky, Katy-my-girl."

The farm where I grew up and the barn that was home to our barn owl.

So I have a good memory of a bird, all wrapped up with my father and nightfall on the farm where I grew up and the barn where he painted hex signs to ward off evil spirits and where an owl lived that brought us good luck. So I've been dreaming each night that I hear the owl. At least I thought I was dreaming.

I walk out this morning to let the dog out and I look up into the trees and I see him. Our owl. He is beautiful. My heart races and I am excited and I just stand, trying not to breathe. Trying not to scare him away. And I strain to see him but I can't - he is so high up. I picture my binoculars (a gift from my father decades ago) and pray they are still in my bedside table and I quietly retrieve them. He is still there. I bring him in to focus. Is it a hawk? A falcon? I don't know! I'm not the expert, remember? No ear tufts. Brown and white and gray and black feathers. He is facing the other way but he turns to the side. I can see his hooked beak. And then his head turns further - to look in my direction. This is when I know he is our owl. That 270 degree turn. It can be nothing else.

I again tiptoe into the house, this time to the bookshelves in the living room. I scan the field guides - there are many. Seahorses. Fishes. Insects. Snakes. Birds. That's the one - the one I thought I'd never touch. I grab it and return to the porch. I narrow down the choices, examining details through my binoculars. As I am reading about the characteristic call of the Barred Owl, he flies off. He looks just like I thought he would -- too big for flight. Majestic. It is thrilling.

And the irony is not lost on me. I sit with my binoculars around my neck, field guide in my hands, coffee on the table, alone in my house. Aquaman and the boys are all gone - camping for the weekend. I am home alone. I could be doing anything in the world - whatever I want. And I am keying out a bird.

And I'm enjoying myself.

I feel lucky. This owl has chosen us. I know throughout history, in many cultures, they are considered a harbinger of death. But in our "western" culture they have come to be known as a symbol of wisdom. In my own family culture, they were pronounced heralds of good luck. We were fortunate to have one, I was told.

I'll go with that. I will accept this change of heart I've had towards the avian world because of an owl that chose to reveal himself. I might even admit that I put up a humming bird feeder earlier this year and felt some satisfaction knowing that I am continuing my mother's tradition of doing so. My older brother does this as well. We have become our parents. Perhaps I might even confess that I took a peek at this and it made my heart go pitter patter:

Just keep those evil blue jays away from me.      

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Happy Blogiversary!

This blog is officially one year old!

No introspection. No re-cap of the year.

Just yay!

Yay me!

I needed that.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I miss Aquaman

He's coming home. I know he is. It won't be much longer. But I still miss him.

He gets one phone call a week. Twenty minutes. It's kind of like he's in jail. Only it's a floating jail in the Gulf of Mexico. And they keep changing how many days he'll be incarcerated. And he gets fed really great Mexican food. Until the fresh vegetables run out. Then it's mostly tough meat in sauce.

First they told him the trip would last 30 to 45 days. Then he figured out this particular captain was known for his frugal use of fuel - stretching it to last a really long time. Then the captain made jokes about having Thanksgiving aboard. Then it was 'a few more weeks'. I finally stopped asking, "How much longer?"

During our weekly phone call, the minutes quickly tick by. He has a satellite phone to make the call. The connection is usually crappy.

We have learned that it is better not to spend precious minutes letting the boys talk because they mostly don't. All of the goings on and exciting things fly right out of their minds when they hear his voice and all they can say is "Good" when he asks them how they are and "Fine" when he asks about school. "I miss you" and "I love you" are popular, as is "When are you coming home?" It is better for me to relay the excitement or drama he has missed.

So far, he has been gone 55 days. During today's call, he said they will come ashore in two more days. Election Day. He probably won't get home in time to vote because he is still a 13-hour-drive away.

We have grown accustomed to him not being here. To not having many outdoor adventures. To my nagging Thing 1 about his fish tank and its upkeep since Aquaman isn't here to oversee it. To me juggling two jobs (three for a few weeks) and getting the boys to drama practice and band practice and to and from friends' houses. I cook a minimal amount - mostly on the weekends. Our groceries are heavy on the convenience foods - things the boys can heat up themselves. The xBox is my nemesis. Sometimes it is my ally, when I need to finish work and the boys play contentedly. Sometimes it is my foe, when I need to finish work and they are fighting over whose turn it is to play alone or who threw down the controller or who screen cheated or, or, or...

I put on his socks the other day when my feet were cold. I wore his sweatshirt when the temperature dipped below 50 degrees. It smells like him. Like salt water and soap. Thing 1 steals his pillow when he is gone. Thing 2 snuck his polar fleece blanket out of our room. But I don't say anything. I understand.

I have to remember to empty all the trash cans and the recycle container the night before trash pickup and get the boys to take the cans to the curb. I have to remind/threaten The Redhead to mow the lawn. I had to change lightbulbs the other day. Sweep the porch. Clean the bathroom. Supervise archery in the back yard. Walk Yellow Dog. Every. Day. Plan solo for birthday parties and presents and cake. Go to the band concert alone. Supervise trick or treating and pumpkin carving. Grocery shop. Help with homework and projects. Algebra is kicking my butt. Make breakfast and pack lunches and make dinner. Read the boys a story at night and kiss them goodnight. There is no day off.

And I know some people - single parents - do this all the time. And they do it well. But it's hard.

It's so hard.

Two. More. Days.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hollow-een: How old is too old for trick-or-treating?

I think our boys are officially too old for Trick-or-Treat. It's a sad day, me realizing this. Kind of a hollow feeling (Hollow-een. Get it?) But I can't deny the evidence this year:

1) None of them were very excited or interested in costumes. In fact, only at my prompting did two of the three pick out minimal items at a Halloween superstore two days before Halloween. The Redhead chose an Indiana Jones hat and whip. Thing 1 chose a mask from the movie "Scream" - which he has never seen, to my knowledge. Thing 2 grabbed a Groucho Marx pair of glasses (complete with eyebrows, mustache and nose) as we headed out the door Halloween night. He had no idea who Groucho Marx was.

Half-ass costumes. 

2) They chose pillowcases for their treat bags. I'm not kidding. Although they appear jaded about the whole costume thing, they anticipate gobs of candy.

3) They didn't want to go downtown to "Scare on the Square".  They said it was for little kids. Instead, they wanted to wait until it was dusk before venturing out.

This is all so different from previous years. They'd have started knocking on doors as soon as the school bus dropped them off at 3:30, if I would have allowed it.

I know it's partly because we moved from a very small town to a very large one two years ago. The small town had the best Trick or Treating one could hope for. Everyone went to one subdivision that was accessible by one road - this makes for very safe conditions on Halloween night:  one way in, one way out. Most people parked and everyone walked the five cul-de-sac streets that made up the neighborhood.  You didn't have to knock on doors - everyone sat on lawn chairs in their driveway. Adults and children dressed up. The owner of the local BBQ joint handed out chopped BBQ sandwiches and beer to the adults. It was basically a ginormous block party. Even the fire truck parked and the firemen (I told you! Something for everyone! wink, wink!) handed out the holy grail of Halloween candy:  full size candy bars. The boys didn't know how lucky they were until it was gone.

But they're also growing up. I know that happens.  In fact, a real nice woman pointed it out to them while they trick-or-treated this year.  She answered the knock on her door with this question, "Aren't you too old to be trick or treating?"

Thanks a lot, lady.

But The Redhead stood his ground.  As she put a minuscule hard candy in his pillow case (perhaps indicative of the size of her heart, no?), he replied, "I'm 13. Have a nice day!" and beat a hasty retreat.

None of them would knock on any more doors after that. If someone wasn't out on their porch, they just kept walking.

So of course the haul of candy they expected was not realized. Which predicatably resulted in endless comparisons about how much better Halloween was where we lived before.

And I couldn't argue with them. Hell, somebody was actually handing out these:

Please. These belong in oatmeal cookies.

Who hands out RAISINS on Halloween?  What's this world coming to?

So I know I've got to embrace this change.  They're too old to trick-or-treat. But they're just about the perfect age to enjoy getting the crap scared out of them. Luckily, I'm kind of an expert at that.

The weekend before Halloween, I took them on a haunted walking tour of our new town - the one that doesn't compare to the old one, remember? We heard tales of public hangings and hauntings in the park next to our house. We toured restaurants and antique shops and listened to the owners describe plates flying off walls and crashing to the ground and ghostly sightings. The boys were mesmerized.

 Don't they look scared?

Smoke bubbles. Simple pleasures...

Yes, Thing 1 is trying to get away. Yes, I have a tight grip.

We took a similar tour this summer in New Orleans. And while this one in our little historic district didn't quite rise to the level of ghostly tales in the French Quarter, it was still pretty scary.

When we returned home from the less-than-stellar trick or treating this year, we plopped down in front of the TV and watched the movie "Silver Bullet".

This is one of my favorite scary movies from my teenage years. Based on the Stephen King short story, it has a great evil werewolf who must be defeated by two kids and their uncle. The boys loved it. I also picked up "Salem's Lot" on VHS at Goodwill - but it was defective and wouldn't play in our machine. Another Stephen King story, it is a truly terrifying vampire flick. I was subjected to it much younger than the ages my three boys are now and I still have nightmares about it. Maybe it didn't work in our machine for a reason?

I think it's time to introduce them to the world of "Halloween", "The Fog", and "An American Werewolf in London".

These movies were what I lived for in my pre-teen and teenage years. I loved them.  Couldn't get enough. Would stay up watching them with my brothers and sisters, all of us scared silly and sleeping in each other's rooms for days afterwards.

I also own copies of these:

I've already made them watch "The Thing" because John Carpenter is a genius, of course. I'm holding off on "The Exorcist". This is the only movie that can still reduce me to a scared little girl who is afraid to sleep alone. Merely searching Google Images for "The Exorcist" was almost too much for me. Which is why I'm not posting a picture of Reagan here. Because I might wet myself.

I think it's a great idea to introduce my growing-up children to this other side of Halloween by fostering an appreciation for the art form that is the horror movie. I'm a good mom like that.

And to the bitter woman who answered the door and tried to crush my child's spirit on Halloween night:

You are a dumbass. 

And furthermore:

Don't answer the door next time. It's a shame YOUR MOTHER didn't teach you, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  Lucky for you, that's what I've taught my children.