December 16, 2012

Into the Light we Go

When something like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happens, I am left reeling with thoughts of sadness for the children robbed of a future, and for all the families affected. As President Obama said in his sensitive speech following the news of so much slaughter of the innocent, "These neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, these children are our children." I could not help but put myself in the place of those parents who have lost their little ones, and all those connected to the adults who were also killed on that day in Newtown Connecticut.

I could say so much more about this senseless act, but I will not. Not today. Today I will focus on the good that I experienced in going for a day trip to Vancouver last weekend to see our son at his workplace and do some Christmas shopping. The fact of how blessed I was to have all my family together and intact has not escaped me, and the knowledge that we will all be together for Christmas is cause for even more happiness and gratitude.

We have had a rainy December at this end of the Fraser Valley. The clouds tend to rest against our high and close mountains and some weeks it feels as though I have been weighted down by a large and somewhat heavily brimmed grey felt hat. My husband, being on holiday for the past couple of weeks, had been checking the weather for a good day to go to Vancouver. Originally, we had wanted to avoid the city on a weekend, but Saturday looked like the best day weather-wise, so we planned out our day carefully and left early.

As we headed west, we drove gradually into the light.

As we approached the newly twinned Port Mann Bridge, her 'sails' rose up into the clear blue sky, reflecting the snowy peaks in the distance. Vancouver enjoys three local ski hills in its North Shore mountains: Grouse Mountain, Cypress Mountain, and Mount Seymour. Our family spent two wonderful winters Nordic skiing at Cypress Mountain, before horses, orchestra rehearsals and soccer took over our lives.

It's challenging to take photos from a moving vehicle.
This was taken while crossing the bridge.

We parked in our usual downtown spot, and walked over to the Vancouver Christmas Market. I've been an admirer of the 'new' Vancouver Public Library since it was built, so I had to take a photo of it gleaming on such a beautiful day.

 And then it was on to the market, where our son Ian is working for the month of December. The market is as authentically German in style as possible for the organizers to make it. It is set up in the lobby and the courtyard of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Vendors occupy decorated pine huts, offering everything from hot fresh pretzels and bratwurst, to spiced apple cider with or without a warming dram of alcohol, wooden toys and decorations. For those of us who are attracted by the woodsy charm of a traditional German/Bavarian Christmas, the market is a purely enjoyable experience.

The market was hopping that day, so good photo ops were few. However, we made the rounds with Ian, who met us a couple of hours before his shift at this hut here, serving traditional Swiss raclette and other delicacies made by our local cheese maker, Debra Amrein-Boyes, who operates the famous Farmhouse Cheese. 

I chose hot coffee over hot apple cider, but we did try it last year, and chose to purchase one of these souvenir mugs, which we put in our youngest's stocking to remind her of the happy day she spent with us at the market.

Of course, no German market would be complete without a hot polka band. This is the only shot I managed to get of the band, who were great and so much fun to listen to.

We all had a grand time at the market, Galen and Emma enjoying it for the first time. The day was clear and mainly sunny, but also cold, and after we'd had enough of the market, we moved on to the shopping malls to thaw and split up into pairs for some gift buying for each other. Then we said goodbye to Ian, happy that we would all be together again soon.

This song seems so fitting for my present state of mind.

Wishing you and yours a safe and joyful Holiday Season.

Peace on Earth. Good will towards men.


December 10, 2012

Musing on Schooling

Sometimes I walk into a situation where someone is having a bad day and speaks before they have a chance to consider the impact of whatever is coming out of their mouth. One day not too long ago, I walked into a shop which I frequent. A mother and her daughter, who was dressed in pyjamas and a fluffy pink robe were purchasing some items at the till. I gave the little girl a knowing smile since my daughter had been similarly dressed that day for 'Pyjama Day' at the local elementary school. Every once in a while, the kids have a fun excuse to dress up in some kind of theme at school, and it had been entertaining to see so many kids and teachers similarly and ridiculously attired that morning.

When the pair had left the store and I was choosing my bunch of cilantro, I heard one of the women at the till ask the other why the girl had been in her pyjamas. The other woman suggested that perhaps the child was home schooled, therefore eliminating the need for proper clothing. The first woman practically shouted, (and remember, she works at this store) "If it were up to me I would BAN home schooling. They don't learn anything!"

I decided to tell the cashiers from my nearby position in the store that it was merely Pyjama Day at the local school. Moments later, the first cashier, looking angry, began to remove the packaging from a case of some product near to where I was choosing a can of black beans. I was this close to giving her a piece of my mind because I home schooled my children for four years. However I quelled my anger and restrained my strong desire to scold the cashier for being so narrow minded; I very rarely do give these people a piece of my mind - I usually go home and write about it instead.

Years ago, when we lived a forty five minute drive down a winding mountain road from any school, it did not make sense to drive my eldest to school for the two and a half hour daily Kindergarten class. The gas money required for the daily commute was deterrent enough and after a family friend suggested I home school, we decided to try it. For four years I taught my first three children and I still believe, to this day, that some of their later success in school could be attributed to the one-on-one they received in learning to read, to compute, to write, recite, and even to draw in their formative years. I also benefited from experiencing in an intimate way, their various styles of learning. Ian would understand a math concept before I had finished explaining it; Galen could memorize anything in record time and rarely forgot it even a month later. Emma I only had for Kindergarten, but she was never one to lag behind her brothers, and learned to read in Kindergarten from a handy book called Alphaphonics. Home schooling is certainly not for everyone, and it would not have been my first choice but for the simple logistical challenge of where we lived when our children were small; it ended up being the best of experiences for our family and brought my children and I much closer.

We made many friends in the town where we did our shopping, some of them home schooling families, some of them not. They all accepted us until one day when I said the children would be moving from the home into the one room school house at the lodge. By the end of my fourth year of teaching my children at home, there were enough school aged children at the lodge to qualify for a district funded teacher three days per week. My home schooling friends were not impressed that I would be handing my children over to the school system, but with a new baby at home, I was ready to move on, and I believe my children were, too. I explained that, while I valued the home schooling experience tremendously, my intention had always been for my children to progress to a school setting. I also knew in my heart that our days at the lodge were numbered, and the one room school option seemed like a great way to bridge the gap between home and wherever their next school would be. It was. My children had to learn to trust another adult with their education - Kim was an excellent teacher - and to accommodate and cooperate with other children in the class, even though they all knew each other like family.

When we moved here in March of 2003, and my children entered the local elementary school, I will admit there was a major adjustment period. Ian punched someone in the nose on his first day because the kid called him a 'motherf***er', and my son, not used to that sort of language in his schoolmates, took offense. (I did not hear about the incident for years, however. The very understanding principal let Ian off with a warning and did not call home.) Galen was completely overwhelmed with the behavior of the other children and begged me to keep him at home for the remainder of his grade three year (which I did most Friday afternoons), and Emma merely said, when asked how school was, "It's pretty much the same, Mommy, just louder." Over time, and with much coaching from their teachers and principal, and from us at home, the kids adjusted and even began to thrive. I will always say that while home schooling can give children an excellent academic education and an enriching family life, public school teaches them to get along with all sorts of characters, even the worst sorts, and find room to be generous to them while setting boundaries socially; both are important for the well-rounded education of the whole person, as long as the child is supported and feels safe in whatever school environment is chosen for them.

All in all, I think what I would like to have said to the cashier, is that the great thing about schooling these days is that there are so many options for learning which were not available when we were children. When I was home schooling my children my mother recalled how unhappy I had been in elementary school. "You would have been the perfect candidate for home schooling, Rebecca," she said. "But such a thing did not really exist back then and never entered my head as a possiblilty." Now, with choices, we can give our children the type of education that suits their style of learning and the life of our families.

December 1, 2012

The Saving Grace of Satire

It began in high school: my friends and I made a habit out of making fun of pretty much everything we could. We would gather at Jenn's house for the annual 'sing along with The Sound of Music' event on New Year's day. We would watch the film, recite the dialogue along with the characters, sing, and then when Maria whips out her guitar on the mountaintop for 'Doe a Deer', we would always say to each other as the orchestral strings of the soundtrack commenced, "And suddenly out of nowhere there appears an orchestra on the mountaintop" and we would laugh and laugh at the idea. We would put Duran Duran records on the 45 rpm setting on the record player, and Jenn and Mike would go on their knees like Duran Duran dwarves and sing and dance along to the sped up tunes. That was hilarious. When we discovered Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, my friends and I would memorize long passages and songs from their films and spend hours reciting them to each other around camp-fires and at parties, or in the back of the car on our college commute. We ate up satire and sketch comedy with the eagerness and voracious energy of youth, and we told funny and embarrassing stories on ourselves and about each other. Laughter took up the greater part of most of our conversations. Almost nothing was sacred. Almost nothing escaped the microscopic lens of our sharp wit and our desire for fun. We made a sport of critical thinking through satirical humour, and I do believe, in many ways, it saved us.

My children have the same approach to life that my friends and I had at their age. I see evidence of the fact every day, and I love it. The ability to laugh at one's self is of great importance to my way of thinking, and the ability to laugh at the world, and what it continually serves up, is vital for the survival of one's individuality and true purpose in the world. My family recently acquired Netflix and we are making our way through ten years of missed Saturday Night Live seasons - my husband and I watched the show all through the '90's but missed the 'naughts (2001-2009)' or, as they are called by some here in North America, 'the Bush years' of the show almost completely. SNL's 'good natured skewering' of everyone from politicians to the head elf in Santa's workshop makes for good TV. Some of my favourite episodes are when an actual politician, be he George Bush Senior or Senator John McCain, appear on the show and are given a chance to retaliate. The result is always a healthy experience for everyone: for the audience who get to see a more human, not to mention humourous, side of the politician, and for the actors and writers on the show, who get a bit of their own back, exhibiting a tremendous sense of fair play on their part. The first Monty Python film I showed my children was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with insulting Frenchmen, anachronisms galore, a wimpy knight named Brave Sir Robin, and King Arthur riding a non-existent horse while his squire knocks two coconuts together to provide the sound of the horse, should one actually have been in existence. My kids, all of them, found the film refreshing, intelligent in its silliness, and downright funny.

We in Canada have always revered satirical comedy in general. With shows like SCTV and The Air Farce, which began on CBC Radio and made its way to television, Codco out of Newfoundland, This Hour has Twenty-two Minutes from Halifax, and The Rick Mercer Report, Canadian politicians, celebrities and Canadian contemporary society are never safe from a good natured ribbing, and I think we are better for it.The U.S. has, of course, Saturday Night Live, but they also enjoy the brilliant political satire of John Stewart in The Daily Show with John Stewart, as well as The Colbert Report with the irrepressible Stephen Colbert. Stewart and Colbert are so well loved and respected in their nation that an overwhelmingly large percentage of the people stay abreast of the political situation chiefly through their shows. I know there exist many shows out of the U.K. which provide that nation, as well as many fans around the world, with countless opportunities to laugh at themselves and the world at large. Comedians such as Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Tracey Ullman, and of course the aforementioned favourite Monty Python, all use their great talents to help make their society truly democratic. As writer and satirist Jonathan Swift said, "As Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature, so Humor is the most agreeable, and where these two enter far into the Composition of any Work, they will render it always acceptable to the World."

I remember reading a satirical essay in my English Literature course in college entitled A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, in which he suggested a way to deal with poverty and hunger, which were rampant in eighteenth century Ireland, was to raise babies for consumption by the upper classes: "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children." The essay was shocking to me for something written in 1729, but it also appealed to me greatly. I am not sure of the effect it had on the social policy of the time, but obviously, the essay swept the nation much like the latest YouTube video does now, and woke many people up to the absurdity of a nation starving its own. A Modest Proposal is not far off the sort of satire produced in the present age. In fact, Swift's essay, and others like it, as well as the political cartoons of the time, most likely inspired it. Every age has employed its satirists, and they are as important to the workings of a healthy society and its institutions - churches, schools, government, etc.- as the institutions themselves. Satirists provide the checks and balances every person and every institution with power over others needs, and they accomplish this feat with the most welcome leaven of humour and the intelligence of wit; I shudder to think what would happen to us if this was not so. Apparently, a school district in Texas tried to shut down classes which taught critical thinking to students for fear that teaching children to think for themselves employing logic and reason would cause problems in the more God-fearing homes of their student body. To that I, whom some would call 'religious', cry foul and laziness - should we not teach our children to think, to question, to form opinions based on the good values we have brought them up in? To my own children I say, "Question everything by all means. Just be prepared to do the work to find the answers." And laugh. A lot.

Here is one of my favourite Rowan Atkinson sketches, satirizing the stereotypical English public school headmaster.

Emma and I have a new post over at Stella's Virtual Cafe. Check it out...please.