Archive for April, 2010

Quintessence of dust

…how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable…”

– Hamlet

I went in for a physical Tuesday. Some of you may have an idea why, the rest of you will learn why very soon. It’s “for a good cause”. I happily endured the indignities of the clinic where our family doctor plies her trade. I was told to arrive fifteen minutes early so I could fill out paperwork. I did, and finished the paperwork by the time my appointment was scheduled. It was half an hour before I was called. No worries. There were plenty of magazines. I read an article in Travel and Leisure (which refers to itself now as T+L) about how to go about securing an Italian villa or a cottage in Britain for your vacation. About the time I was trying to figure out where we could get enough friends to make $4000 – $11,000 (USD) per week for a villa in Tuscany work out to be “a value”, a young woman, a nurse I guess, came out to escort me back to the examination rooms.

Nurses don’t wear white anymore, I’ve noticed, not even in hospitals. It is surely outdated of me to be nostalgic about that, and I’m sure that the white dress, white stockings, and heeled shoes that comprise the classic Western nurse costume were ordained at some point long ago by a group of men in accordance with male fantasies about being cared for by a nurturing, angelically white, vaguely maternal figure who was kind of a hottie, too. I’m just assuming. But the dirty sneakers peaking out from under the floppy blue pantlegs of the scrubs now commonly worn felt a little like a signal that my well-being was held as a lower priority than whatever purpose was served by this more work-friendly attire. The shoes, especially, seemed to be the tail of the wolf sticking out of grandma’s bathrobe, the giveaway. This young woman had been playing frisbee or riding her bike earlier, these shoes said, and had just managed to don the blue costume in time to come out and call me. Yes, I am an old male with habituated sexism and stereotypes and wrongthink, but when I am in the vulnerable place of being treated or examined physically, I like the idea of a nurse being presented as a person whose sole purpose is my comfort and care. The uniform is reassuring even when considered apart from the (possibly) sexual aspects of its origins. Even if it was a male nurse, it would be nice if he didn’t look like he were about to slide under a car. The casual nature of the scrubs makes me feel either as if my visit interferes in the very busy schedule of people whose work is arcane and incomprehensible to me, or as if I am merely a body to be poked at, an assemblage of mechanical parts that has thrown an error message that needs to be puzzled through.

After measuring my height (six foot and a half inch — which means I’ve lost half an inch of stature at some point, unless height measurement machines have a calibration error?) and my weight (170, wow!, I remember when I could barely keep 140 pounds on myself), she sat me down in an exam room and took my blood pressure. One-seventeen over eighty, right in there. Then she asked me all the same questions I had just finished answering on paper in the waiting room. She entered the answers into a computer pad she carried. I did not ask why I had been asked to write down the answers to those questions if she was going to ask them and enter the data electronically on her pad. I assumed there was a good reason. She left me with a cleanly laundered and crisply folded smock with a green print pattern, noting as she walked out that “we’ll need everything off” and that the smock’s opening should be at the back.

A shiver went through me, but I disrobed as cheerfully as possible (socks too?, I worried), put the smock over me, tied it shut at the back, and then sat in the chair again. The only magazine in this room was WebMD, which had a tagline of “The Magazine Created for Your Doctor’s Office”. A photo of Julia Louise Dreyfus was on the cover. I like Julia Louise Dreyfus, but I did not walk over to the plastic magazine holder affixed to the wall to retrieve the magazine. I sat wondering whether the “Your” in the tagline was meant to refer to patient or doctor.

The doctor came in. She has been Mara’s doctor since birth, and we like her a lot. She too, was unburdened by the classic garb of her profession. Instead of a white smock, she wore a print shirt. However, it should be noted that she is a family doctor and she sees a lot of children. Children do not find comfort in uniforms, I think. So I can understand why she does not wear one. She did wear a stethoscope. I think children are distracted by stethoscopes and, since they do a mysterious and interesting thing without a sharp point, find them agreeable. We talked for a while. Things are going well, yes. She looked at the sheet of answers I had filled out (see?). We discussed the little physical irritations that make middle age a drag without really being enough to warrant either decisive remedial action or much sympathy. I’ll spare you the particulars of those complaints, as well as the details of the physical examination, which represents the nadir of indignity. No wait, I mean the nadir of dignity. The acme of indignity. A small price to pay, really, for the opportunity to praise the Most High that my prostate is in serviceable condition.

After that, walking over to the lab to get my blood drawn — as a second avenue of prostate health assessment — was a bland denouement. I fear this, the letting of my life into a glass tube, and cannot watch. It’s not the sharp pricking, it’s the idea. Once again, the technician wore scrubs, bright red ones this time. She did her work quickly and well. I was grateful. In less than twenty seconds a little cotton ball and bandage was applied over the offended spot on my right arm and I was told I could go.

I went.

I went outside, my bodily frame struggling to bring itself to its full proud height again, trying to remember its dignity after the hourlong onslaught of little persecutions. “What a piece of work is a man.” 

Am I really a half inch shorter than I used to be? 

A sheep shearing in suburbia

Within the city limits of Bellevue, smack dab in the middle of a vast and tenured suburbia, is a place called Kelsey Creek Farm. It is not far from the neighborhood I grew up in — across the great bog of the Mercer Slough, under the old train trestle, and a few blocks deep into a ’60s and ’70s era enclave of split-levels where you certainly don’t expect to hear the bleating of goats. The City of Bellevue runs the activities there and keeps the grounds, but it is an old farm, with two large barns and several paddocks and pastures.

Kelsey Creek Farm, a remnant of old Bellevue. Click to reveal the larger scene.

We went to a sheep shearing demonstration there Saturday, which turned out to be just one part of a pretty well attended spring fair for youngsters interested in things bucolic. There were pony rides, dogs demonstrating their sheep herding abilities, wagon rides, animal petting, compost demonstration, log cabin heritage activities, beekeeping displays, wool fiber demonstrations, and a ton of craft stations where among other things kids could paint and decorate horseshoes and make hats.

I’m still agog that this little farm has survived, but the fact is, the place is mainly a wetlands with just a few hills where the barns are, so it’s not really developable. Still, it’ll be a sad day if this working farm park ever goes away. We were glad that we discovered the event and were happy to support it, even though admission to the event as a whole was free. They charged only for individual activities, such as the “pony” rides.

Shearing demonstration. Mostly the sheep just roll with it.

I have put the word “pony” in quotes, because these animals were mostly full-sized horses. Only one of the half-dozen or so horses was small enough to be considered a large pony. The rest were as big as or bigger than the horses I used to ride at the ranch. Mara was excited to go on her first pony ride, but was a little alarmed when we got in line and she saw the size of the beasts. They brought a beautiful dark bay horse up to the stair box where they helped the kids on and off, but Mara hesitated and then decided to give this one a miss. Her next opportunity was a large palomino named Oscar, and she said she wanted to ride him, but when she mounted the platform again, she wasn’t ready. The woman stationed there had a good way with children, was very understanding and encouraging and patient, and suggested that Mara just pet the horse once, and then said that if Mara wanted, they could put her on Oscar’s back and not go around the ring, just sit there so she could get the feel of it. She stepped down again.

The third time, when the woman asked Mara if she was ready, Mara hesitated just a moment, looked around as though considering the wide world of other things she could be doing that might not involve such a large animal, the breeze playing at her hair, the sun on her moony cheeks — and then quietly said “yes.” She does not acquiesce to a thing until she is ready, so when Mara said “yes”, we knew she was committing to it fully. There wouldn’t be any freaking out or crying or wanting to get off midway round the track. Mara’s “yes” is solid. It bubbles up slowly but it comes from that hot and molten place of her inner being. I was so proud of her, but I was also trying to be detached and would still have supported and championed her if she just couldn’t muster the courage.

And yes Mara said yes she would yes

But as soon as she uttered her “yes” the helper man lifted her from behind and set her on Oscar’s saddle. She held onto the saddlehorn, and gave me a brave little wave as the assistants led her away. She has heard so many stories about “the brave knight Mara” and her horse, but now she was feeling the actual bulge and sway of those huge muscles underneath her. This was a big event for a cautious girl like Mara. It is only recently that, in riding the carousel at the zoo, Mara has chosen the horses that go up and down rather than the ones that remain fixed on their poles. I imagine that she was experiencing a combination of joy and terror riding on the back of this animal. After she got down, she made a beeline for Angela’s arms and didn’t look back. Storytime, when it involves tales of the brave knight Mara, will have a more vivid edge from now on.

In attending an event inextricably tied to the seasons and the land, I was a little worried that my romantic pastoralism would flare up like an old shrapnel wound. Sometimes I get morose when this happens, feeling like I need to move out to the country and get off the treadmill. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of despising my urban life. I’ve already agreed with myself a million times that living on the land would be infinitely better, inherently better. Dwelling on it doesn’t help me. But I weathered the afternoon well and we had a lot of fun.

There was an cold wind raking the hilltop during the shearing demonstrations, which made it very hard to concentrate on what the shearers were saying, so I didn’t learn much in the way of facts except that hand spinners favor the wool of the brown sheep because it has more character, while automated manufacture favors the lighter wool. I would have liked to have learned more about this. However, one thing that I found interesting was a comment the announcer at the sheep shearing stage made about their art. She mentioned how easy it was to learn, and literally told us where to go and whom to talk to, and said that she always gets a number of requests each shearing season from people — even right around here — who have two or three sheep. It started me thinking. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a full-time job, but I tried to let myself imagine sheep shearing as one tool in the toolbox of a peasant life. I like the idea of being good at something that needs to be done every year as part of the cycles of the seasons in the life of a rural community, or even, apparently, the outskirts of suburban ones.

This took about eight or nine minutes. If you do this for a living, you flip a sheep every minute or two. Click to reveal the larger scene.

Not that I’m going to go to sheep shearing school tomorrow. I’m just saying that one might imagine it, and that for me, it is good to imagine these things without criticism from my inner Hardy-Har-Har. It is useful to let the idea fully roost in my mind for a while. Certainly it is not practical at this time, maybe at any time. But there was a moment there at Kelsey Creek when the smell of the lush grass and the sight of geese waddling around and the sight of my daughter deeply imbibing some of the experience of what it means to live on the land…well it all seemed suddenly like a life that was important to try to get closer to, one that would be extremely rewarding in so many ways.

Gone to ground

There is no security, or peace, except underground.”

– Badger in ‘The Wind in the Willows’

When you descend into the Metro tunnel from the University Street entrance there’s often a wind that pushes out at you, most strongly just as you get to the end of the hallway and walk through the double doors that lead to the big vaulted chamber of the tunnel itself. Not being a meteoroligist I don’t know exactly why this is. I’m sure it has to do with the limited number of pathways that the air can take in this subterranean network of passages, but why there is so MUCH air in motion that desires to exit is mysterious to me, as is the little flicker of excitement that I get when I pass through this pneumatic vortex.

It could be worse, although it couldn't be raining. This is the Pioneer Square Station. Notice the air vents at top.

I was grumpy, expressed grumpiness, when official notice was given earlier this year that both of my homeward bus options, the #76 and the #316, would no longer run on the surface of Third Avenue but would be rerouted through the reopened Metro tunnel. (The tunnel has been closed for several years while being refitted for light rail.) Why should I be grumpy, anyone might ask. There is no smoking in the tunnel, unlike on the sidewalk, which is now, because of a law that I did not vote for even though I do not smoke, the last refuge of those who inhale. Nor can the rain and the bitter cold winds reach you in the tunnel, although truth be told, since the new route started in February there has hardly been one evening when I’ve walked to the tunnel in rain wet enough to spot my khakis. And although I never felt threatened standing on Third, the tunnel is well-enough lit that most people can feel safe waiting for their buses. For some reason, panhandlers and others whose avocation involves speaking directly to passersby do not often work the platform the way they do the street above. And, at least in theory, a throughfare dedicated to mass transit does not clog up with baseball fans in cars, so the buses generally come on time, except when they don’t.

What’s not to love about the tunnel?

For me, one of the things that makes being in the city tolerable, even almost enjoyable at times, is standing or walking outside among buildings that are fun to move among as they catch and redistribute light, or rain, or whatever’s coming down. There are a few real abominations that look like losers in any light and in any clime, and two of the worst are the two buildings that fill the block directly across the street from my accustomed bus stop, but these are more than made up for by the old Telephone Building and the Seattle Tower one block away, which provide a very restful station for the eyes.

Temporary denizens of the underworld, because that's where we've been put.

Secondly, I don’t like being underground. Actually, that’s not really true. The four internal tunnel stations each have different styling and art installations, and there’s a certain badgerish pride one might take in the whole system. What’s true is, I don’t like missing out on what’s happening in the out-of-doors. Even if it’s ugly out. The weather is one of the few connections to the earth that almost anyone can afford and access, at least occasionally. For me it’s a lifeline, a soul-line. I usually eat at my desk so I can use my lunch hour to get out and wander around.

There’s also something about being moved around as though I were a toy figurine in a panorama that rankles a little. One day I’m waiting for the bus topside on Third, and the next day, because of a decision taken by some folks in a room somewhere high above street level, I must go down in this hole, over here, and wait for my bus in this latter day Moria. It occurs to me that the Deciders can put my bus anywhere, and they can route it through Omaha on the way to my house if they wish. There is a feeling of being shuffled about, a feeling of lack of control over where I place my footsteps. I am both served by and enslaved by infrastructure. Those who know me will not be surprised to find me slightly resistant when this equation appears to be tilting away from me.

Finally, when the fair weather comes, it is still preferable, even with the pervasive cigarette smoke, to stand and wait for my bus outside in the last light of a nice day — one that I have spent most of looking out at through a window — than to trog down into that burrow to wait for a bus.

Lucky pucks waiting for their bus outside the Hoge Building. The Broderick is visible across the street. Image by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But today I am willing to look for what I call Ye Gode Thynge and to focus on that. There are actually several “good things” that I’m starting to enjoy about the new commute. The fact that I have been “rerouted” by the Powers That Be means that I now must either walk north from my office to the University Station or south to the Pioneer Square Station, which I enter from James Street. I usually do the latter, which takes me through the part of Cherry Street that the oldtimers called “Cherry Canyon”, which in turn means I get to walk past several of my favorite old buildings. One is the Hoge Building with its adornment of lion heads around the top. Another is the Broderick (a.k.a. Bailey) Building with its rough-hewn stones — it looks like Ben Grimm from the Fantastic Four squatting there — the gabled Lowman Building so iconic of Pioneer Square, and of course the Alaska Building, which was Seattle’s first steel-framed skyscraper and is now being renovated (and, sadly, renamed). These are all on Cherry between First and Third.

And back to that great rush of wind at the University Station. I don’t know why I like that so much. Perhaps it feels like the opposite of what I expect to encounter — stale dead air. It makes me imagine that the city is breathing, which makes me hate it less as an entity, or it reminds me that everything that goes under the ground rises out of it again, if only in spirit.

Dewey or don’t we (or, la Petite École Française Latone)

Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”  

- John Dewey 

Our basement family room is suddenly green, and it’s because of what has happened to our views on educating children.  

There was a time when Angela would have resisted the idea of homeschooling, but I’ve learned not to mistake my wife’s mainstream views on a given topic today as her final views. She’s generally not an agitator, doesn’t look for ways to be nonconformist, is not oppositional to cultural norms for the sake of being oppositional. Her view, once upon a time, was probably that public schools are there for a reason and that they can’t be doing that bad a job or more people would be doing something else. Homeschooling was more of a Matt thing, one of those ideals that fit in snugly with my chronic romantic pastoralism. I wasn’t homeschooled, but I’ve often talked about the advantages I saw in it. 

Before.

But as the years have quickly ticked by and we have grown as parents, and the time has approached for us to decide what we shall do about educating Mara, the more Angela’s views have changed about this. This was none of my doing. Through her own research, Angela began to agree with me that modern public schools, which are the product of a well-intended 19th-century mandate to get children out of factories combined with the 20th-century need to train workers and raise consumers, are failing miserably at the thing we regard as the most important job, and that is nurturing and guiding children’s innate proclivity toward learning and discovery. This may be what teachers wish they could do, but it is not what we see happening, because teachers are forced to design their courses around the administrative madness that is testing and so-called “accountability”. The flop and twitch that has gone on in education policy in the past decade, combined with our understanding of Mara’s personality and what environments she thrives best in, has convinced us that we could do better at home. 

It was Angela that started investigating the homeschooling community in Seattle, which is large and active and supportive. With the encouragement of one other mother we knew who was homeschooling, Angela began taking Mara to Tuesday “park days”, in which any and every member of the homeschool community is welcome to — and invariably some large subset does — convene at one of the parks or playgrounds around town so the children can play and parents can talk shop. Angela and Mara began making new friends this way and bringing them home for play dates. 

In Washington State, rules about homeschooling are progressive. You can homeschool until you don’t feel like homeschooling anymore. Many of Mara’s little buddies were in preschool as soon as they could walk, but we have deliberately avoided that rush. We are not concerned that Mara be the smartest person in the world. We want her to be the happiest. The intense competition of the school system, where students are basically pitted against each other and rewarded for their dominance over their peers (I’m generalizing here, but this is what the grading and testing systems achieve) is not healthy for children. For anybody. I know, this is a radical view. 

So we’ve worried and stewed and stewed and worried about what to do, until we gradually became aware that we have become part of the homeschool community. My wife leading the charge, we have become homeschooling wackos. There are several kinds. There is a large fundamentalist Christian sector — one that I would say has rather defined the wider public’s perception of the homeschool community — that refuses to subject their children to the teaching of evolution, and that’s their reason for homeschooling. There are accordingly many distinct Christian news groups online, but there are also many news groups whose identies are defined by other things than religion, and there is even an expressly pagan homeschool network (I don’t know what their beef is; maybe they just wanted to make sure that no one confused them with the Baptists). Many of those parents not motived by religion just feel that they can do a better job of preparing their children for whatever career they choose. These networks use email and social media such as FaceBook and Yahoo Groups to organize outings and events and share information, advice and encouragement. 

He didn't wear specs for nothing. John Dewey unleashed this nugget on the world back in 1916: "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession."

Angela and I have found ourselves a little bit on the fringe even of the homeschool educational philosophy: we believe children have a natural propensity toward and love of learning, and that all you have to do is not make it a nightmare for them and they’re pretty much golden. We don’t cotton to the idea of loading kids down with homework, for this reason. Also, we see learning and discovery as organically interwoven with the rest of life; you could think of it somewhat as though we were polar bears or elephants. The kid travels with us and does what we do, and thus learns about life and the wonder of the created universe (yes, we believe it is a creation, even though in this regard we ride with the unaffiliated). The reading, the writing, the math, all that will come when she is interested, and she will be. She’s interested in everything. 

Play is also under attack in schools. Recesses on the playground are being shortened and done away with altogether, despite research that shows how critical unstructured play is to the the emotional and psychological development of children. It may look like a lot of goofiness, but when children are playing they are working through new experiences, processing stresses and emotions and trying on identities and roles. Children who don’t or can’t play are damaged. We’re turning our schools into stalags. 

What a lot of this boils down to is that the public school system, and even colleges and universities, focus a lot on training, as though the whole purpose of education is the job waiting at the end. One can understand parental fears of seeing their adult children unable to make the salaries we expect them to have, that we in fact see them entitled to as American children. Angela and I believe, as classical education theory did, that schooling should be about giving children the tools, the larger patterns and lenses for exploring the world that will make them more fully engaged as perpetual learners, no matter where their career path leads them. Learning a foreign language, for example, activates and engages certain parts of children’s brains that enable them thereafter to learn other things that are much more specialized. Learning a language may not be directly in the line of career building, but it’s a vital developmental building block. 

That’s why I came home and found the basement room painted green a week ago. Mara started attending a children’s French class once a week more than a year ago. Not a rigorous one. It’s not Berlitz trainers preparing kids for a commando raid in Dijon. The teacher, a French woman named Veronique, teaches the kids a few nouns each weak, or a phrase, and they color pictures of whatever it might be; un arc-en-ciel (rainbow), maison (house), or pomme (apple). Mara regularly calls a medium-sized thing a “moyen one” because she learned the French word for medium before she learned the English phrase “medium-sized” and she does not yet register a barrier between the languages as distinct and separate systems. 

After. We've started collecting wee wooden chairs.

When the course was over for Mara’s age group, Angela organized a French class in our home with Veronique, and invited the homeschoolers to sign up (space limited to seven participants). Now every Wednesday morning Veronique holds what she calls “French Club” downstairs with Mara and her fellow étudiantes (I call it the “Little Latona French School”) while the parents have tea and engage younger siblings upstairs. (I would have posted a photo of this happening but we didn’t want to distract the students or create a disturbance.) Angela had been fretting that the mud-tan carpet and white walls looked drear and depressing together, so she painted the room the night before the first class started (the paint is non-off-gassing, in case you had a moment’s doubt). 

Bienvenue à la Petite École Française Latone! Off we go. 

 

A family I knew

NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was “Shooting Emma” and the second was “High, wide and handsome“.   

“Company, company! Where would we be without company?!”

– Sir John Middleton in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

Up a little road from the ranch house, and then down a little road, less than ten minutes’ walk as I remember it, there sat a little farmhouse on the side of a hill facing west. It was one of several old farmhouses that long ago, before strip mining came to Ohio’s eastern hills, were the homes of independent farmers in the neighborhood, but were now the widely distributed holdings of the ranch property. The house had no running water (there was a natural spring outside, about twenty yards away), and it had no telephone. Its occupants were reached from the office of the ranch house by means of a citizens’ band radio. In this house, at the time I arrived in Ohio, lived David and Judy and their two daughters and their young son, a family that became very important to me over the year that I lived and worked at the ranch.   

I found myself more than once sitting at the table in Judy’s kitchen, taking refuge from the daily stress of the ranch house, trying to make sense out of what to me was an increasingly bizarre experience in my dealings with the ministry’s management. Judy somehow kept positive while listening sympathetically to my complaints about things down at the ranch house. She never, that I recall, contributed to the general murmurings of discontent — or the gossip — that pervaded the atmostphere of the ranch. And it wasn’t as though she was removed from it all. She worked in the kitchen of the ranch house, cooking huge meals — hundreds of pancakes or hot dogs or eggs — for dozens of camper kids and the staff, and cleaning up after them, which was more than a full time job. She often made sure there was a sheet cake on the counter, from which the wranglers could filch a slice between trails or other tasks. We had a young volunteer named Don who came to run the kitchen the summer I was there, but even with a person working full time, it still took the daily assistance of Judy and several other volunteers to keep the ranch house dining hall running smoothly.   

Judy, Joanna, Rebecca and the Small Man of God posing with Little Nemo, my car, 1991.

When she wasn’t working at the ranch house, Judy was homeschooling her daughters Rebecca and Joanna, whom she and David had brought to the ranch as young girls, and Jonathan, whom they had raised there since his birth. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was cooking meals for her own household, and canning preserves, hanging laundry, and making calligraphic posters for ranch events. All this, and she still had time to listen to my puny resentments with a smile. The refrigerator was a mosaic of faces of friends near and far, a photo gallery of people who had moved on but kept in touch. The shelf behind the kitchen table was lined with glass jars full of vegetables and fruits that Judy had preserved. I would say “put by”, but Judy didn’t use such rural colloquialisms. She was, I believe, a New Yorker by birth, and on one hot afternoon, while I sat in her kitchen enjoying some gespacho she had just made, she told me that she had been raised Jewish, had wandered to Buddhism as a young woman, and had finally found her spiritual home in the Church of Rome. She married David, an Irish Catholic, and I could see that the culture of peace, community, tolerance and service she wove around the family they raised together was made from the fabric of her broad spiritual journey.   

David was as rare as hens’ teeth. He mostly spent his days away from the madding crowd, gardening, splitting wood, praying, and having as little as possible to do with the ranch house. I sensed that like me, he had difficulty being around Uncle Bill, and I rarely saw him. I once sought him out in the woods where he was using a bow saw to cut rounds from a fallen tree for firewood, and he gave me encouragement over some matter that had clouded my vision, but that was one of the only times I remember speaking with him heart to heart.  

David and Judy had moved to the ranch from North Carolina in the ’80s, when Rebecca and Joanna were around 8 and 10. Their vision was not the same as Uncle Bill’s, but the ranch was large. I was frankly amazed that Judy’s smile and her generosity had weathered the ranch antics for so long. David and Judy were the kind of people that other people just wanted to be around. They embodied the idea of community. They were pioneers, and in some ways hold-overs, of a Catholic communal agrarian movement that had started in the 1960s and ’70s. The reason they had come to the ranch was because they had seen in its vastness and in Uncle Bill’s stated ecumenism the possibility of creating there the ideal Catholic community, centered around farming and traditional Church values. They lived in a kind of voluntary poverty at the ranch, using water drawn from the spring outside to cook and clean with. This lifestyle, and their attitude of hospitality to all who knocked upon their door, made them rather legendary among the local Catholic community that centered around a Franciscan university nearby. Catholic agrarianists who found their way to the university, where the movement was still alive and well, often were told the inspiring story of David and Judy, and how they happened to live not far from the city, and these seekers would end up driving up the long ranch driveway looking for these humble heros of the Church. We would direct them up the road past Ring pasture toward David and Judy’s house. I am not kidding about this; David and Judy have actually been written about several times before, and for years Judy was active in writing letters and articles for a magazine that celebrated and promoted the agrarian Catholic life. For the sake of their privacy, that’s all I’ll say about that. But for the academics and young students at the Franciscan university, David and Judy were the real McCoy. They were living the ideal.   

Joanna and her buddy Prairie King (a.k.a. "PK"). Photo by Amber MacPherson used by permission.

For me, David was a bit of a puzzle. When these visitors came, I saw a different David than the one that seemed so invisible most of the time. He would sit and talk excitedly for hours into the night with his fellow Catholics, many of whom arrived at his house complete strangers and left friends for life. I was not Catholic, and while David was generous to me in many specific ways, he saved his most enthusiastic fraternal energies for those who shared his Catholic agrarian vision. I only mention that in order to paint the full picture of the gratitude I felt when David accompanied Uncle Bill to the hospital while I was laid up with the pericarditis. I had agreed with myself that when next I saw Uncle Bill I would apologize to him for nearly a year of bad attitude; when Bill strode in — his cowboy hat undoffed — my courage almost failed me, but then I saw David coming in right behind him with a friendly, calm smile, his billed cap in hand and his wisps of red hair tousled, and my spirit was buoyed up again. I’ll never forget that moment. I spoke my peace to the chief, owned my part of the dissonance. Bill nodded and grinned in his way, a way that made me fear the leverage I was giving him (with good reason, as it turned out). But behind Bill, saying not a word, sat David, and his presence there made all the difference. David was my witness that I had done true, and his quiet support in that moment made it possible for me to go through with it. I imagine that that was a small and even forgettable moment in David’s life, but it was a large one in mine. We sometimes become angels.  

While I was there David built a small chapel not far from the house, with Uncle Bill’s acquiescence if not his blessing. A cardinal or bishop came out from the city to bless it, or consecrate it — I don’t know the liturgical term. I know it was an exciting moment in the life of David and Judy’s dream.  

One of my warmest memories of the little house over the hill was late in the fall (I think), when George and I and several others of the staff joined Judy and Rebecca and Joanna, and maybe even little Jonathan, around the table for a reading of Hamlet. Copies of the script were handed out as we sat in the dining room, and we all were assigned one or more parts. The mayhem and laughter was a release that we all needed. It was a chaos of un-Bardly illiterature. Lines were botched, or skipped, or said by the wrong person, or spoken with outrageous accents. I think we recorded it all, too. The wind howled outside while we howled within. As the little house enfolded us in our merry enterprise, all the stresses of the summer drifted away.   

No, we didn't take every single picture in front of my Bug, but I've lost most of my ranch pictures. Judy and her kids were at the center of the extended ranch community. Here most of the full-time staff of summer 1991 takes a break. Back row left to right: Jonathan on my shoulders, Judy, Bonnie, George, Joanna, Mary (a.k.a. "Myrrh"). Middle row: Geo, wearing my hat, Rebecca, crouching tiger. Front row: Julie, Amy, Mary McD, Fiona.

Rebecca and Joanna, at 17 and 15 years old, were bursting with intellectual fervor and youthful zaniness, almost unable to contain the boil of ideas in their heads. They were funny, bright and beautiful, and I felt priveleged being in the house when the family was gathered. Bonnie, one of the full-time, year round staff who was like an aunt to Rebecca and Joanna, bought them an old upright piano as a surprise for Christmas the year I was there, and we delivered it to the little happy house one frosty morning in the back of a pickup truck. Bonnie and Judy and David and George (and several others of us) led the girls off the porch and out to the gravel driveway, our hands covering their eyes. Thus “blindfolded”, they erupted into an impromptu reenactment of a blindfold scene from Return of the Jedi:   

Joanna: Han!   

Rebecca: Luke!   

Joanna: Are you all right?   

Rebecca: Fine. Together again, huh?   

Joanna: Wouldn’t miss it.   

Rebecca: How are we doing?   

Joanna: The same as always.   

Rebecca: That bad, huh?   

When not lines from the Star Wars movies, they recited lines of classic poetry or other literature. I couldn’t keep up with them, being by comparison ill-read and slow. Judy once told me that she had set out to raise “Renaissance women” out of them, and I believe she achieved her goal. 

Jonathan, who I think was seven years old, was usually outside hiding in a bunny hutch or chasing sheep, but when he was around I would hear David refer to him as “Small Man of God”. Once Jonathan and another, slightly older boy who had come with his parents to live on the ranch accidentally chased the sheep into the stables through the lower gate, which often remained open. It was a quiet moment when perhaps several trails were out, and I was up near the ranch house when I heard the worried bleating and sensed the alarm of the few horses that were tied to the rail in the stable. I saw this dirty cloud of sheep fume into the lower stable, which I knew they woudn’t do on their own.  Next I saw that Jonathan and Nathan were in there — Absolutely Forbidden without adult supervision — and I ran over and hollared at them to come up and out of there. They obeyed, nervously shouting back that the sheep “had gotten into the stables”. I went down, shooed the sheep back out and then came up to talk to the boys. They were worried. I think I would have presented a pretty grumpy spectre to them on the best of days, and they knew they were guilty. I knelt down to look at them on their level, and Nathan started chattering about what happened — all fabrication and dissembling. I interrupted and told them they weren’t in trouble. I wasn’t mad. Nothing bad was going to happen. They shushed. I told them I needed to hear them tell me what really happened, and they said they had been chasing the sheep, and then the sheep started going toward the stable, and they tried to head them off but only ended up making them run into the stables faster, and they thought they should get them out, which is the only reason they went into the stables. I wanted to laugh but instead tried to balanced a look of stern authority with genuine respect for their little drama. I thanked them for telling me the truth and reminded them that they were Absolutely Forbidden to go in the stables by themselves. Then I tousled their little heads and ran them off. 

Often one of the features of my visits, and the happy price of a slice of pie and some conversation and fellowship, was a trip to the spring with empty milk jugs, which I would fill up with the coldest, freshest water — a favor the family was extremely grateful for, since this was their neverending chore. Sometimes Rebecca would come with me, and we would sit next to the spring while the jugs filled and chew on sprigs of spearmint, but more often she opted out, since she’d filled them herself a crillion times. On those occasions I went alone and enjoyed the quiet. The family needed so little, and I owed them so much. Carrying the water was the only way I could show them my love. Once during winter when David hurt his back, I went over and chopped some of the wood he had collected by the front porch. The family allowed me to share their Christmas Day celebration with them that year, and I also remember one time when Judy made latkas, the traditional Jewish potato pancakes, and we ate them with applesauce after Judy covered her hair with a cloth and said a Hebrew prayer.   

Jonathan in the rabbit hutch, ca. 1991.

The first time I saw the the Aurora Borealis, the only time I have ever seen them, Rebecca and Joanna and I were walking along the road to their house after a darkness rich with the smells of hay and the bleating of sheep had descended on a long day of work. So far south, the “Northern Lights” were not phenomenally bright, but we paused to admire the green and violet strands at the zenith of the night sky. The sisters had seen them before. I have never forgotten that sight. The moment remains in my memory as one when I knew that everything was sufficient. 

The little family seemed eternally part of the ranch to someone like me, who only came for a year, but looking back I see how lucky I was to have been there when I was, because David and Judy (and Jonathan) left a few years after I did and established their own homestead not far away. Rebecca and Joanna had gone off to college, first at the nearby Franciscan university and then further afield. Both became and remain teachers (though Rebecca has returned, literally, to the soil of eastern Ohio and is also raising organic crops in a sustainable farm operation with her husband). They had served the ranch as camp counselors and wranglers — before they were 15 they knew every inch of the trails and the characteristics of each member of the herd (here’s a photo you’ve seen before of Rebecca) — and logged hundreds or maybe thousands of hours in the ranch house kitchen as well. Along with Judy, they had been an enormous benefit to the daily operations of the ranch house. I can’t imagine the ranch without them and I would venture to say it has never been the same since they left. For me, the little house just over the hill was the thing that kept ranch life from being untenable. More than that, it was a house and home to which the journey itself, for its own sake, was always worth it.

I humbly accept

I could not resist posting this. Friend and frequent commentor Louis sent this to me by email and when I opened it I almost lost body fluids by every means possible. I laughed so hard that my coworkers turned around to see what I was goofing on. To understand, read the comments for my last post, “Five“.

Maybe we shouldn't.

Five

Mara turned five on Easter Sunday. We celebrated the day before by having a few of Mara’s buddies over for a ballerina-themed party. Most of the parents stayed, but two did not, one of them a dad. He apologized for “dropping off” and beat a hasty retreat, muttering about work he had to do.

It was a Grande Tyme. We happened to hit on a Schedule of Events that worked out really well for a two-hour party that didn’t seem any too short by the time it was over. The girls ran around for ten or fifteen minutes while everyone arrived, and then the very first thing we did was sit them down around the table for a snack. They ate pretzels, cheese sticks, grapes and apple chunk kebabs on toothpicks with orange and red ribbon frills. Apple and “berry” juice boxes were offered. All the participants chose apple so as to “be like the birthday girl”. The timing of the snack proved felicitous indeed. All the girls were starved.

Job one: fill their tanks.

It was my idea to play Duck Duck Goose, which was a big hit but almost didn’t happen. Mara didn’t really feel like it, so the bill was about to die on the House floor, as it were, but I asked the girls if they would play it if I played too, and one of the older girls said that sounded fun. Just like in Twelve Angry Men, the jury of seven finally turned completely around, although in less time. We played Duck Duck Goose for twenty whole minutes.

Next it was time to make necklaces. Thanks to Angela’s preparedness and resourcefulness, each participant was supplied with a little cup of beads and little wooden letters to spell their name. We helped them string them in the right order. This proved to be the perfect sit-down, eye-hand crafty event to follow the physicality of Duck Duck Goose.

A moment we all deserve.

Then the cupcakes were brought out. The celebrants could choose from pink, orange or white frosting. The table was divided, pinks on the east side and oranges on the west side. The oldest girl braved it alone and chose white. Then they were given M&Ms and sparkles with which to decorate their cupcakes. The spectacle of seven kids mauling cupcakes heaped with candy and licking frosting off their elbows in sherbet colors is a sight better left to the imagination.

The revelers then adjourned for the Opening of Presents. We had coached Mara a little beforehand in how to be gracious, to retard somewhat that devastatingly brutal honesty that kids exhibit around gift opening. It worked. With only occasional prompting from us, she thanked each of her tributaries upon opening their gifts, and even rose from her Opening of Presents Throne to embrace each of them in their turn. It was sweet.

Holding court and receiving tribute.

Five! (?)

Where did the time go? They say the days are long and the years are short, and I’ve found this to be true. Already.


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