Monday, May 31, 2010

Any of Your Children

I used to work as an aide to autistic kids, ones who were severely disabled, unable to communicate, unable to control their emotions. They required constant supervision and specialized care, 24/7. A frequent topic of conversation among the other aides and myself was how none of the parents of these children, when they made the choice to have a child, seemed to have considered that it was possible their children might turn out to need this much special care. They assumed "normal" children by default. Most people do.

When you make the decision to have a child, though, you're inviting a living, breathing question mark into your life. From the moment your child enters this world, he or she is a unique individual, born into a different world than the one you were born into 20 or 30 or 40 years before. Born out of your body, but into a different one.

Any of your children could be born premature, or with the cord around their neck, or with a hole in their heart. Any of your children could be missing a limb, or have Down syndrome, or be unable to see or hear. Any of your children could be born without ten fingers and ten toes, or without an easily discernible penis or vagina, or with two X's and a Y or two Y's and an X.

Any of your children may talk late, or never, or with difficulty. Any of your children may walk late, or never, or with difficulty. Any of your children may learn to control their bowels and bladder late, or never, or with difficulty.

Any of your children, if they have not yet found themselves on the wrong end of somebody's bell curve, could remain much smaller than average, or could shoot to an adult height so fast it strains their heart and bones. Any of your children could grow quickly or slowly in their knowledge and emotional control, as well.

Any of your children could take up interest in a sport or hobby you've never much liked. Any of your children could become friends with the type of kids you didn't get along with as a child. Any of your children, exposed to a wide variety of people, could become friends with the type of adults you don't get along with now. Any of your children could be far more or less social than you ever have been.

Any of your sons could bring home girls you don't like. Any of your daughters could bring home boys you don't like. Any of your children could bring home dates of a different gender than you had anticipated. Any of your children could live as a different gender than you had anticipated.

Any of your children could grow up and decide to become Catholic, or Muslim, or pagan, or atheist. Any of your children could grow up to be politically liberal, conservative, moderate or radical. Any of your children could choose to be vegetarian or vegan or omnivorous, to shop at farmer's markets or to love McDonald's.

Any of your children could marry and divorce three times, or never marry at all, or be blissfully wed to someone who annoys you, or not marry until well after you've passed on. Any of your children could choose not to have children, or to have twenty of them. Any of your children could become pregnant, or get someone pregnant, at a much younger age than you ever expected. Any of your children could choose to adopt rather than pass on your genes, or to give birth and put the child up for adoption, or to have an abortion.

Any of your children could choose to become a business executive, a starving artist, a doctor, a carpenter, an astronaut, or a hobo. Any of your children could prefer to live at home until they are 30 and then move in next door to you, or to sail around the world when they turn 18 - or maybe even before.

Any of your children could develop severe depression, become addicted to heroin, run away from home, or kill someone. In those cases you can reduce the likelihood by raising happy children, but you will raise the happiest children if you bear in mind that pain and fear can ruin any life, not just those of the weak or immoral.

Any of your children, when you reach your twilight days, could choose to personally spoon-feed you and monitor your oxygen, or to put you in the cheapest nursing home they can find, or to have no idea if you are alive or dead because they stopped speaking to you years ago.

Any of your children could die before you.

I could go on forever listing all the things that your children could be or do or have happen to them. The main thing is to realize you can't anticipate it all. Something will surprise you, something will catch you off guard. The more you accept that your children will make choices or face obstacles that you wouldn't have chosen for them, the more you'll be willing and able to help them navigate through those things. Because even among all the surprises and the question marks, there is one important aspect of your child's life which you really can control.

And that's you.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

In Memoriam

I sent this letter several weeks ago to Ren Allen's wonderful blog, Letters to the Dead. I have held off on posting it here because it's a bit depressing for the overall tone of this blog. However, I felt it was appropriate to share for Memorial Day. My uncle did not die in combat, but he did die while serving his country in the Army.

Relevant to the day, more than to my uncle: If you believe war is sometimes necessary, you will naturally see the importance of honoring fallen veterans. If you are against all war, then you should be respectful too, because these lost young men and women are the very evidence on which your cause hinges. Remember that not all of them freely chose the military, and none of them chose to begin the wars in which they fought. At the very least remember that these are the real friends and family of people you know - and we miss them.

Dear Uncle Dick,

You've never met me before, so I should introduce myself before I start rambling to you. I'm the only daughter of the baby sister you left behind when you died. I'm grown now, but I still sometimes feel like a kid - and yet, I'm older than you ever had the chance to be. Death at 20 is something I can hardly fathom. I know you must've had so many dreams you never got to live out. The Army was never your choice, and I wonder what you would've done if you'd had all the freedom I've had. Maybe you'd still be alive. Maybe you would've lived just a few more years, only to be sent to Vietnam and die there, with your mind and soul broken by the violence and horror. Korea, at the time you went, was a safer place, and I'm glad your time overseas wasn't spent watching your best friends die.

There's so many things I wish I could ask you. What did you think about politics? Did you like Nixon or Kennedy? Were you religious like Nannie and Mama, or a searcher like Granddaddy and me? What did you like to do for fun? I know about the dog shows, because that was Granddaddy's hobby too, but I don't know much about who you were besides that. I've seen a few of the letters and pictures you sent home from Korea, and I can see your sense of humor in them, especially that one picture of you in a dress. (We have dozens of pictures of you, but that was always secretly my favorite.) I think you would've made a great uncle, with that sense of humor. The only thing anybody really said about you was that you were kind of private and didn't share a whole lot of yourself with the family. I'm the same way, so I can understand that. We're both Virgos, maybe that's why, I don't know. But I do, selfishly, wish you'd left more of yourself behind.

Mama left me last year, gone at a young age too, though she lived two and a half times as long as you. We buried her beside you. Nannie and Granddaddy have been gone for years, and so have all our aunts, though Aunt Evelyn lived to be 93. Maybe you know all that; maybe they're with you in some comforting, tangible afterlife. But in case they're not with you, in case you never saw them again, you should know that you were always remembered and deeply loved. I've known about you for as long as I've known anyone else. Mama always talked about how she admired her big brother, and Aunt Evelyn was always going on about little Dickie with the golden curls. Even though I never knew you, I could feel the hole you left. There was something dark and broken behind Nannie's eyes, some unanswerable confusion in Mama's mind, some hardened place in Granddaddy's heart that was built to hide his pain. Mama was so little when you died, and had a bad memory besides, but she could still remember the way Nannie screamed when she got that awful telegram. Nannie never could bring herself to talk about you much. I think she was afraid she'd start screaming again.

I've mourned for you, too, in my own way. Many times I've regretted that I never had an uncle, when I knew I was supposed to. Many times I've wondered if I would've had your children to grow up with, or your grandchildren to babysit. I was scared when I turned 20, scared some family curse would come and take me then too. I wrote an essay about you in sixth grade, to warn my classmates about speeding and seatbelts and all. I drive carefully. When I hear about car accidents, I see you in my mind.

I think that's the thing that makes me most angry, when I think about how we lost you. Like so many of your generation, you died while in the Army, but you didn't die in service. Nobody got to describe your death as a "sacrifice" or take comfort in the idea that it meant something. Your death was meaningless and stupid, wholly avoidable, a product of young foolishness that wasn't your own. The "friend" who crashed the car that killed you dragged your lifeless body into the driver's seat and ran away. He only broke his arm. Thinking of that makes my blood boil, though I sympathize with him. I'm sure he was afraid of jail, and thought the blame could bring no consequence to a dead man. He was wrong. It troubled Nannie deeply to think you would do such a stupid thing. She never believed you were responsible, and she claimed to "hear" you tell her, somehow, that it wasn't true. A few weeks later she received a letter saying the driver confessed to what he'd done.

Part of me will never forgive him for taking you away from me, for taking your potential children away, for putting out my grandmother's inner light and making my mother grow up feeling unstable and lost. But I also know he was young and out for a good time, and cars weren't as safe in the 60's as they are now, and anyway his conscience has probably ripped him to shreds over the last 48 years. I hope he's found some peace about it, even though I doubt I could look him in the eye.

Even though most of the people who knew you are gone, I've still kept quite a bit of you around. I still have your coin collecting book, though it's out of date and falling apart, and somewhere around here is the bag of international coins you collected. I still have your Army hat, and your Buddy Holly record, and your favorite shirt, and your baby shoes. There's a box under Mama's old bed with your Korean knives and the keys to the car you died in. I have all your letters, too, though I haven't been able to bring myself to read many of them. In some ways I've done what Nannie did, deliberately keeping you at a distance to avoid the pain. The more I know you, the more angry I am that I don't know you. It hurts, too, seeing you write to people I did know and don't have with me anymore. Someday, when the pain of losing Mama is not so fresh, I'll dust them off. Maybe I'll write Donna and ask her to dig up some old memories - I think she knew you better than anybody else.

Until then, though, I want you to know that I care about you. All of my friends who've known me for any length of time have heard of you. I plan to tell my children about you. I think of you when I hear Buddy Holly on the radio or see a bull terrier or a little boy with curls. You've been gone so long, but you were never forgotten. I plan to keep it that way.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Places to Go, People to See

Having cleared out my conscience a bit, I've been feeling much more able to make progress on this dream, and I've set myself a time frame: six months. I want to be out of here by Thanksgiving, because if I spend another holiday at home I'll get all sentimental and have to detach all over again, and also because I'd like to spend it with my family far away.

To further motivate myself to get moving with, uh, moving, I've been indulging in some daydreaming about where I want to go, and I thought I'd share that here. This is an extremely long (and still incomplete!) list, but I don't plan to rush through everything. First of all, there are three states I plan to use as "home bases" for extended stays - Arizona, Massachusetts, and Florida, the places where I know the most people. Plus, I plan to do a lot of workamping to keep my costs down, and that will often involve staying in one place for several months at a time.

The List

  • St. Augustine
  • Melbourne (Kayla)
  • Boynton Beach (Terry)
  • Miami (Netzi, if she's still there by then)
  • Everglades
  • Obviously, I will come back to Jacksonville for visits later on

  • Alma (where my grandmother is from)
  • Savannah (Kimber)
  • Atlanta area (Donna, Bill, Abby)
  • Historic sites around ATL
  • Dragon*Con if time of year is right

South Carolina
  • Columbia (Lovejoys, Melissa)

North Carolina
  • (David W)
  • Asheville

  • Williamsburg
  • Monticello
  • Alexandria
  • Washington, D.C.

New Jersey
  • Manahawkin (Spiffy)
  • Wildwood

  • Philly
  • Gettysburg

New York
  • NYC (just for a day - park in Jersey)

  • (Pitres)

  • Boston (Val, Michael, Eli)
  • (Dorseys)
  • Salem (Baptista-Toolans)
  • Historic sites (?)
  • NEUC

  • Cincinnatti (Hannah & Ramona)
  • Cleveland (Rock n Roll Hall of Fame)
  • I'd say UWWG, but a Florida girl driving an RV into Ohio in February...

  • (Endreses)
  • Joliet (where my dad is from)

  • (Rachel)
  • (Savannah)

  • Appalachians (ARGH, if time of year is right)
  • Memphis (Graceland, as a bit of a tribute to my mom)
  • Tri-Cities area (Ren, Laura B)
  • Chattanooga (Haworths)

  • New Orleans
  • Jena (Alanna)

  • Norman (Annette)

  • Gonzales (Hillshade RV Park)
  • Austin (Monica)
  • Waco (Cameron T)
  • El Paso (Samantha)

New Mexico
  • Albuquerque (Whatever SUSS is being renamed as, if time of year is right)

  • (Coateses)

  • Tucson (Bobbie, Lin, Megan)
  • Tempe (Roni and Lyle)
  • Sedona
  • Grand Canyon

  • Everyone says I should go to Vegas, but no one has given me a convincing reason yet. I don't gamble and I don't know what else is there. Fill me in?

  • Escondido/San Diego? (Uncle Joe)
  • San Francisco (Meet Bobbie and Lin there, if possible)

  • Corvallis (Diana)
  • Portland

  • Seattle
  • (Maiers)
  • Vancouver (LIFE is Good, if the time is right)

  • Yellowstone

South Dakota
  • Mount Rushmore

Please note this is NOT a complete list - this is a brainstorming list. If you/the place you live are not here, it doesn't mean I don't want to visit you! You're probably missing because I don't strongly associate your name with the place you live, or I don't even know where you live, so none of these states brought you to my mind. I'm pretty open to visiting anyone and anyplace - as you can see, most parts of the country are "on the list." If the place you live is nowhere near anywhere I plan to go - well, even better! I'd love to hit as many states as I can, but there's some places I haven't yet found a particular reason to visit. Maybe that reason will be you?

And if you are on this list and didn't expect to be, please realize that I'm not inviting myself to your house (though I'd love to visit anyone who'd like me to)! This is just a statement of intent that I think you're way cool and I wouldn't dare swing by your area without, at minimum, inviting you out for coffee.

Also note that the only reason Canada isn't on the list is because I don't know much about the logistics of crossing the border with an RV full of pets. I imagine there will be some bureaucracy involved. I still very much want to see Canada (and Alaska), but for now I'm keeping "The List" to the lower 48 for simplicity's sake. it is apparently not that difficult to cross the border and I will definitely make sure to find ways to meet up with my Canadian friends!

Finally, if you know of any super awesome places I absolutely have to go, PLEASE let me know! I'm especially interested in historical sites and lesser-known state and national parks - especially ones that offer workamping. (If you know places with living history or science-related workamping opportunities, I'm especially interested in those!)

I expect to be on the road for as long as I can afford it - I was originally thinking two years, but after hearing many people's success stories of finding work on the road, I'm now thinking I'd like to travel for five years or more. Of course, those five years will be the second half of my twenties, so I fully expect a lot to change in that time! Maybe I'll be married by the end of it. Maybe I'll have found a city I love and decided to stay there. Maybe I'll settle on a career that needs college and end up doing a degree. Who knows? Who cares? The biggest point of this journey is to find out exactly who I am, where I want to be, what I can do that I didn't think I could before. So I'm trying to keep my mind and my eyes open, and just let it flow.

The Caveat: Taking Friends on the Road

I currently live alone, pets notwithstanding, and my RV will probably have room to sleep 4-8 people (depending largely on how well those people know each other!) I also know that plenty of people my age are itching to hit the road themselves. In fact, when I first announced my travel plans, at least five people's immediate response was "Can I come?" The answer to that, no matter which friend is asking, is: Yes and no.

No, I'm not looking for a roommate or a permanent travel buddy. I'm very introverted, with a lot of weird sensory needs and idiosyncracies, and I just can't see myself sharing a tiny space on any permanent basis with someone to whom I am not married and did not give birth. I value my friendships too much to put them to that kind of test, especially with friends who may not be able to easily go home if it doesn't work out. Plus, I have a lot of friends who want to travel, and I don't want to put myself in the really awkward position of having to audition them to see who gets to go!

But yes, if I know you reasonably well, you can come along - for a while. I'd love to bring people with me to specific destinations, especially when I'm traveling to places where I don't know anyone. Maybe I can swing by where you live and carry you across the country until you reach a friend's house or decide to fly home - hey, it's cheaper than flying out, staying in a hotel and flying back, right?

Here's the ground rule, though: If you come along for more than a week or so, you're going to need to help pay your own way. Note, however, that I don't necessarily mean "I won't bring you along unless you give me money". Maybe we'll arrange to take turns workamping (only one person needs to work, usually, to get the site free), or maybe you can "pay" by helping out with stuff I will definitely need help with, such as pet care and dealing with mechanical problems. Maybe we can sell crafts or services and pool money to make ends meet.

If there's a place on my list that you really, really want to go, or you just want to travel, let me know! I'm not able to make any promises at this point, but I'm absolutely willing to talk to you about it. My house isn't even on the market yet, so we have plenty of time to come up with something.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Selling Tara

Over the last few months, as I've been mentally preparing to sell all my stuff, my house, my land - the last tangible ties to life with my late family - I've noticed a strange thing happening. The closer I get to actually making real progress toward leaving, the more depressed I get. Instead of getting more excited, I retreat. From hearing the stories of others, I expected every box or bag removed from my house to leave me feeling lighter and more ready to move forward. For me, the opposite is happening: each box I remove, no matter how little I care for the stuff inside, feels like it's taking a piece of my heart with it. Each day spent clearing clutter results in two or three days where I am too emotionally exhausted to even think about it. I began to wonder: Am I that materialistic? Am I really this upset about getting rid of old socks and office supplies? What is my deal, anyway?

Today, seemingly out of nowhere, I finally realized what was going on. See, last September, after an extended vacation, I decided I was finally ready to move away from home. I had grown too much for this house, and this town, to hold me anymore. But my mother's health was poor, and I couldn't just leave her alone. I began to resent that - knowing it wasn't her fault, but wondering why I had to be stuck this way while others my age were free.

Then, without warning, she had a heart attack. I spent several long, dreary days in the ICU waiting room, hoping she'd wake up enough to know who I was in the five-minutes-per-hour I was allowed to spend with her. Not having anything else to do in those other 55 minutes, I sat in the hospital's computer lounge reading about fulltime RVing, wondering if I could live like my friend Shannon who had just rolled into town in her bus. I swore to myself that if my world was going to come crashing down around me, I was going to rebuild it into something better.

It took a lot of healing time after my mother's death before I could bring that dream to mind again. And even though I've been making definite plans for a few months now, I haven't been able to make myself act on them. I didn't know why that was until it dawned on me today: I am getting what I wanted because my mother died. I lost my wonderful mother, who never wanted anything in her short life except to have me and to make me happy, and I am benefitting from that loss. My life will be big and exciting because, and only because, hers ended too soon.

Needless to say, that doesn't feel so good.

But I think it's definitely the root cause of my self-sabotaging inaction: It is easier, on a certain level, to mope around and to let my mother's death ruin my life. After all, losing someone you love dearly isn't supposed to make your life better. It's supposed to ruin it. It's supposed to leave you crushed and broken. At least that's what my subconscious seems to be telling me. Mourning forever is a sign that I really, really loved her, right?

Of course, that's not at all what she would've wanted for me. She spent her whole life struggling to get me the things I wanted. Rolling pennies to buy me Barbies, carefully rationing her Social Security checks to rent me a clarinet, scraping up money so I could go to Williamsburg. She always wanted to go to Graceland, but there were things I wanted to see, and that came first for her. There is absolutely nothing in any of her actions, in any part of her life, to suggest that she'd ever want to see me make my life small and sad.

And yet, I still find myself having trouble letting go of all that my family spent years accumulating and building for themselves. My family put a lot of money and dreams and love into this place: moving this house here, building a stable, maintaining the land, and creating everything else I am about to leave behind. Worse still, I am thumbing my nose at the importance of owning land - a notion that perhaps only my Southern readers will understand, but one that has been ingrained in me all my life. "Always hold onto your land," my great-aunt warned my mother at every turn. "As long as you have land, you'll always be okay." Yet here I am, selling Tara. Selling the place my family worked so hard on so they could have a horse, and breed dogs, and raise a little girl with the freedom to run across acres of grass and woods.

What I need to remember is that what my family was truly trying to build was a bigger life - not just for themselves, but for me. I am the only one still here to live that life. If I make it smaller for the sake of people who are gone, I will be wasting not only the effort they put into building a home, but also the effort they put into building me. I am who I am - free-spirited, stubborn, an incurable dreamer - because of them. I am not benefitting from losing my family; I am benefitting from having had them. The biggest thanks I can give them is to live the biggest, brightest life that I can - even if it means giving up some of the things we loved together. Even if it means leaving the place I grew up and never coming back.

Because my family didn't just want to give me a piece of land. They wanted to give me the world.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Non-Angry Music Rant

I don't mean I'm ranting about non-angry music, but I'm ranting about music in a non-angry manner. Maybe rambling is a better word.

This is way off the usual topics of this blog, if there are any, but I guess since I was talking about an Alabama song in my last post I got to thinking about this. I hear people all the time talking about how they like "all music except rap and country." First of all, that's a lie. No one likes every song they've ever heard even in a genre they like, and few if any of the people who say that are into polka or throat-singing or whatever. I don't mind people not liking certain genres, but I'm not sure why they follow that by saying they like everything. "I like a lot of stuff" would suffice.

I like country music. I'm from the South, I grew up on country music, and it's as much a part of me as any other music I like or once liked. When I was a teenager, I realized country music was Not Cool, that it was only for certain people and that those people were Not Cool. So I kinda stopped listening to it, except I didn't really. I just didn't put any on my computer or on lists of my favorite songs, or admit to my non-Southern friends that I liked it. Now that I'm grown, I'm realizing how silly that is.

I don't really understand all the animosity toward it, I guess. I don't get why it's the black sheep of all music, why just the mention of it makes people act like they're going to barf, even if they've never really heard any of it except while stuck in bad diners with relatives they didn't like. Yes, a small percentage of it is xenophobic or psycho-patriotic, but that is a VERY small percentage. A lot of it is also as canned as any current pop music, but even the worst of pop music is not the target of as much ire as country. *Good* country music is really fascinating, telling the stories of pockets of American culture that are not represented in any other part of the media. Good rap music serves the same purpose. I think at least *some* subset of the "I hate rap and country" crowd feels that way because they don't want to hear those stories. Not all, but some.

Think about it this way: Most people, on hearing that someone "hates" rock music, would protest. "You hate ALL of it? But there's so much variety - The Smiths are NOTHING like Megadeth who are NOTHING like the Red Hot Chili Peppers who are NOTHING like Janis Joplin." That is true of rock music; it's an enormous genre and if you listen to enough of it you're likely to find at least a few songs to enjoy. It's *also* true of country music and rap music.

If you hang out at my house for awhile or ride in my car, it is quite possible that at some point you will hear a country song or two. If you are really *that* personally offended by Willie Nelson, or Reba McEntire, or Johnny Horton, or Travis Tritt (none of whom sound ANYTHING alike), I'll be happy to switch it for you, because I'm nice like that. But if you'll just sit tight for a minute and listen with an open mind, you might like it. And even if you don't, you'll probably find that the next thing that comes on is Peter Gabriel, or Loreena McKennitt, or They Might Be Giants, or Donovan, or Smokey Robinson, or Matisyahu, or Tchaikovsky, or Rammstein, or Goldfrapp.

Even if you don't love them, none of those artists will kill you. Alabama won't either. I promise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The "Aha!" Moment

Yesterday I was kind of bored with the music on my iPod, so I decided to dust off some old CDs I burned when I was 17. One of those CDs contained a song that is inextricably linked to one of my favorite unschooling moments, and since I'm on a roll with history and big connections lately, I thought it would be fitting to share that story here.

When I was in my late teens, I happened to watch a documentary on TV about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, I should say that even though I'd been to school for about ten years, I had only the faintest idea who these people were. I think I'd heard of Eleanor on The Simpsons one time, and I knew who Teddy Roosevelt was because of teddy bears, but I'm fairly sure I had no idea who FDR was at all. I still really didn't care for history at this stage of my life, and the only reason I got interested in this show was because they mentioned straight away that FDR was paralyzed from polio*. I'd always been interested in disabilities and diseases, and I'd once had a math teacher who'd had polio as a girl, so if school can be thanked for any part of this story, that's it.

So I watched this show, and it was mostly not about Roosevelt's presidency, but about his personal life and his relationship with Eleanor. I was surprised at how engaged I was by this show - it was history, true, but it was about people's lives and vulnerabilities and relationships. That made it interesting for me. Being a young girl, I mostly came away from it feeling really angry at FDR for cheating on Eleanor and breaking her heart after he promised never to see his mistress again, and after she supported his presidency and supported him physically on top of that. I kinda just saw him as this big jerk in a wheelchair and had no real idea of why he was important.

But not long after I saw that show, I was listening to the radio and heard a country song I'd known all my life, called "Song of the South" (which has no connection to the infamous Disney movie of the same name). I'd always thought this song was stupid and complained loudly whenever it came on, because the chorus just keeps talking about sweet potato pie or something. But this time, I paid attention to the whole song, because this part jumped out at me:

Well somebody told us Wall Street fell
But we were so poor that we couldn't tell
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall
But Mr. Roosevelt gonna save us all

All of a sudden, I GOT it. Just hearing that one little verse made everything suddenly click for me - I literally felt like a lightbulb had come on in my mind. Suddenly I not only understood why Roosevelt mattered, but also what the Depression was *about*. I knew what a stock market crash was. I knew why my grandmother wouldn't let us throw out expired milk. That song and that documentary were the final pieces in a puzzle I'd been building all my life, from comments my grandparents made and song lyrics and things on TV (and, okay, maybe a thing or two from school as well).

I was SO EXCITED when those pieces fell into place. What I felt was no less than the kind of joy one gets from discovering a new favorite hobby or making a new friend. From then on, I adored that song. From then on, I loved hearing anything about FDR or the Depression. From then on, I paid close attention to song lyrics, especially ones that sounded like they might be about real life. This was one of the first times I could recall being excited about any kind of history before the 1960s (a more accessible time, thanks to sitcoms and rock music). That kind of "aha!" moment, when bits of information gathered from here and there finally snap together, is really what makes unschooling work, and it happens all the time. This was just one of many, many examples from my life. Learning this way is always exciting, because it involves a spark and a surprise - and no strain or struggle at all.

*It's now widely believed to be more likely that Roosevelt had Guillain-Barré, but at the time of this show, his disease was still accepted as polio.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

People With Passions

While I'm in the process of exploring my own passions, Youtube has brought me some wonderful examples of people who are doing the kinds of things I want to do and absolutely loving their lives. First, this guy:

That guy is Bill Barker, and he's been playing Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg since the early 90s. I just love hearing him talk. The man is absolutely geeked on Jefferson - that's all he does, his only job, to "be" Thomas Jefferson and talk about him. You can hear in his voice and see on his face that this is truly his passion, that he's not one bit less excited about it than he was when he started. According to his bio he has a B.A. in history, but it would appear that most of the education required for his job came from his own study of Jefferson and participation in theatre. I'd be willing to bet that at least a person or two in his life has thought his fascination with Thomas Jefferson to be a bit strange or excessive, but I absolutely LOVE seeing people who are that excited about something. It's pretty rare.

Second, this woman:

SaFire is only 26 (according to her Youtube profile) and already owns her own business and website where she teaches hooping lessons professionally. She also travels the world performing, teaching and learning. One thing that really struck me is that she has a post saying how thankful she is that she didn't win a million dollars in a contest, because she wouldn't have created her website if she had. That is true dedication to a passion.

What both of these people have in common, and what amazes me about them, is how they just completely exude positive energy. Maybe what they do isn't "important" in the same sense as being a doctor or an activist or something, but because they are so fully alive in what they do, they bring joy and light and learning to others. If everyone made that the goal of their work - no matter what type of work it is - imagine how bright and shiny and fun and *smart* the world would be.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Passions Series: History, Part I: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Past: Colon Movie Blog for Theaters

This post is part of a series on my passions, interests and hobbies. Other entries in this series can be found here. The posts in this series tend to run long (1500+ words), so you may want to make sure you're in a comfy chair.

What I love

History! Specifically U.S. history, more specifically the ways people have lived on this land for the last ~400 years. My interest lies in several areas:

1) The everyday lives of Americans at every social and economic level, and how they differed from life today;

2) The lives of the presidents, specifically the ways in which they were flawed, vulnerable, or goofy, just like the rest of us;

3) The different political climates of days past, specifically what has changed (a man with Wilson's awful teeth, Lincoln's lack of formal education, or Jefferson's atheism would never be elected today) and what hasn't (smear campaigns - Martin van Ruin, anyone?);

4) The histories of groups which have either been forgotten or sorely neglected by your standard history textbooks - i.e., everyone besides wealthy white Christian men.

On a global scale, I'm fascinated by the progress of societies as they've developed throughout human history, the history of diseases and how they were handled by various cultures, how various religions and other rituals and traditions developed, the way languages have developed and spread and evolved over time, and the history of all kinds of technology - especially of simple things you wouldn't normally associate with the word "technology", like blankets, tables, and shoes.

How I came to love it

Did you notice how broad the above is? Maybe you wondered why I even bothered to list those things individually, when "I love all of history" would've sufficed. Or maybe you noticed the few things I didn't include:

1) Battles
2) Treaties
3) The drawing of borders
4) Long, boring speeches

Look through a typical history textbook, and you will find that they are in fact made almost entirely of battles, treaties, the drawing of borders, and long, boring speeches. Barely a word about how people actually lived, unless you're lucky enough to be looking at a humanities book, in which case you might at least get some cave paintings or the lyrics to "Old Folks at Home." Almost nothing about science, except quick mentions of plague or smallpox. And since it's the personal and scientific sides of history that fascinate me, there was never anything in these books for me.

In fact, until just a few years ago, I absolutely hated the living shit out of history. You couldn't get me near it. History class was a chance to squirm, space out, act goofy to get attention, doodle - anything but listen. I would've preferred calculus. I would've preferred getting hit in the head by basketballs in gym class. I would've preferred getting hit in the head by rocks. Anything, I thought, was better than hearing one more damned thing about feudal serfs. And it wasn't even the teacher's fault - I was lucky enough, every year, to have my least favorite subject with my favorite teacher, my gifted ed teacher who I'd known since elementary school. She was absolutely on fire for the subject she taught, and she tried to bring it to life for us by showing us all kinds of awesome artifacts, and assigning fun projects, and even one time showing Monty Python and the Holy Grail in class. It was the best history class I could've hoped to have in K-12 school.

But she still had a curriculum to cover. We still had to talk about the damn battles and treaties. We still had to talk about Europeans all the time, with no room for Asia or the Middle East or Africa. We still had to read My Brother Sam is Dead, which I'm sure is a good book, but at the time I didn't care one bit about it. The plain fact was, at that stage of my life, I wasn't ready to love history. At least not history that far back. I was excited about time periods just before my own, like the 80s and the 60s, and occasionally as far back as WWII. If I could connect to it - if I actually knew people who lived during that time, if I could see movies and hear popular music from that era - I was interested. I just wasn't able to relate to those dusty old dead people and their dead, dusty wars.

But that's all about how I came to hate it, and I'm supposed to be telling you how I came to love it. I know. I just wanted to make sure the stage was properly set so that when I reveal how I came to love it, you will smirk. Because the main things that made me love history - after years of reviling it in school - are as follows:

1) Two cartoons
2) A video game
3) A parody of a history textbook.

See, when I was 18 I was volunteering at a local elementary school, which required getting up at the bare ass-crack of dawn, at which time there is nothing on TV except infomercials and PBS cartoons. So I started watching Liberty's Kids, mostly just to have background noise to keep me awake through breakfast, and after awhile I found myself actually getting into it. The characters - Ben Franklin and the other historical figures, plus some kids invented for the show - were presented as real people. Sometimes actual quotes were used, especially for Franklin and for people like Paul Revere, and since the show had to put them in some kind of context, they made sense. And despite being a PBS cartoon, the show isn't babyish at all; it shows the realities of war (toned down a bit, of course, to avoid being nightmare fuel) and the complex political climate of the time. I learned a LOT of American history from this show.

About a year later, my then-boyfriend bought me a copy of America: The Book. If you're not familiar with this book, it's put out by Jon Stewart and the other writers of The Daily Show, and it parodies those godawful textbooks I hate so much. It has sidebars like "Were You Aware? The phrase 'Did You Know?' is copyrighted by a rival publisher", and "activities" like "Found a country" and "Construct a tri-corner hat out of whalebone, fine felt, and a mercury solution." The actual text of the book, while still being parody, actually does contain real information, most of which was new to me as a person who had spent my life avoiding history. I was surprised when I realized I was actually picking up facts from this book!

So I got a little bit interested in history from those two sources, but it didn't really take off into me wanting to learn more. Fast forward to 2008, when I started playing Civilization II. This is a computer game where you start from just a tiny village and have to build up your society over thousands of years, until you either conquer the world or send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. It's a very complex game, because most of what you're doing is deciding which scientific and cultural developments to pursue, what military units to build, and what improvements to build in your cities. Once I was sucked into the world of this game, I started getting curious about the details of it. What's a trireme? A phalanx? Why did polytheism come before monotheism? Who's Adam Smith? What's an aqueduct? Why do I have to discover astronomy before I can research navigation? Answering these questions led me to a lot of Wikipedia-surfing, but it also led me to historical programs on TV. I'd flip past the History Channel or the Military Channel or A&E, and there'd be a show on about early civilizations, or weapons that are in the game, and I'd be hooked. Before I knew it, I was watching these kinds of shows all the time.

In January of 2009, I made a list of goals for myself, some serious and some frivolous. One of the frivolous ones was to memorize several songs from the cartoon Animaniacs, where they name all of the countries in the world (as of 1993) or all the states and capitals. The first one I decided to memorize was one where they name all the presidents (up to Clinton), and that was where the big fascination with American history started. I'd play this song over and over, trying to memorize it - remember that memorizing all the presidents was not my goal, even though that's what I was doing; my goal was to learn the song for novelty's sake - and eventually I started getting curious about some of the lesser-known presidents. Specifically, the line "John Tyler he liked country folk" stuck out in my mind. What did they mean by that? I looked him up on Wikipedia, which led to reading a whole bunch of other stuff, and soon I was getting hooked on this stuff. Then, because Presidents Day was coming, the History Channel started almost constantly airing a series about all of the presidents. Despite it being shown ad nauseum, I watched this every single time it was on. When I got mono and had to miss two weeks of work, my main comfort was that I had a lot more time to watch historical shows. That's how fascinated I was, and this obsession was still going on months later.

And here we are now. I haven't spent the whole past year engulfed in history, because I took a huge rabbit trail into sci-fi, which actually gave me a lot more philosophical context for why history is important. But that's a topic for another post. I'm still really enjoying history, which is exciting. So many of my interests end up being fleeting, and even though I learn just as much from those, I'm always really happy when one sticks.

Since this post got way the hell long, I'm breaking it into two parts. In the next post, I'll tell you why I love history, why I think it's important, and how I use it in my life.

Passions Series

One of the most common questions you hear in the unschooling/autodidact community is, "What are you passionate about?" For awhile, when I was depressed, I was answering that with a shrug and a change of the subject. But when I really got to thinking about it, I realized I have TONS of passions! I decided I wanted to write about each of them, how I got into them, what they mean to me, and what place they hold in my life.

So I'm going to be starting a new series on this blog, sharing my passions with you all. And I'd encourage anyone else who has a blog to do the same! I'd LOVE to know what you're passionate about, why you love it, and how you got there. My hope is that by looking through my posts, people can gain some insight into why interests matter, what sparks an interest, and what can kill it - and that maybe, amid all my gushing about the things I love, you'll find a new passion for yourself.

I'm going to be using this post as an index of all the posts in the series, so if you're getting here later on, you should see a list of my interests below. Before I get into that, though, a warning: These posts have a tendency to be really, really wordy. There's a couple reasons for that. For one, I seem to have been born without the gene that allows people to be concise, and everything I write is wordy. (Hell, I'm on my third paragraph already, and this is just supposed to be an index.) For two, once you get me started talking about my interests and passions, I basically can't shut the hell up. But the main reason is that I want to really be thorough here. I want to make it clear exactly why these things matter to me and what the story is behind each interest, because I want people to know what that looks like. I want to help people recognize the value and the process behind each burgeoning interest in their children, their friends, or themselves. And I want nervous new unschooling parents to see the map that leads from point A (which might be South Park or Pokemon) to Point Z (which might be ancient history, a foreign language, or an amazing career).

This is all a roundabout way of saying that before you read these posts, you might want to settle in with a cup of tea.

My Passions

History, Part I: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Past

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wishes, Dreams, and Art

I keep wanting to write a post about the things I'm thinking about for my future, and every time I try and actually form it all into some sort of coherent essay, I get stuck or my mind wanders off. So I finally decided just to throw some things down that I'd like to learn to do. This isn't strictly a post about careers. Some of these may make me money, some may not - if I think too much about how to make money on a hobby, I convince myself that I never will, and I kill the interest before it even gets started. So I just want to poke my nose into stuff, and if something is going to work its way into a full-time thing, I'll let it unfold organically.

Full-Time RVing. I already posted about this here. This is the one thing on this list that I am almost 100% sure I will do, which is good, because it will give me the freedom to pursue some of the others...

Hula Hooping. I can already hoop, a little, in the sense of being able to keep the hoop up around my waist, but I really wanna learn the cool hoop-dancing stuff, like this. I would also like to make my own hoops and possibly sell them or teach others how to make them.

Living History Interpretation. This is one that I think I might like to turn into a career. You know when you go to places like Colonial Williamsburg, and they have all these people in costume who act like it's the 18th century and explain how to make soap or talk about how they used to go to school with Ben Franklin? And if you happen to be 14 when you go, like I was, you spend a lot of time trying to get them to break character because it's the equivalent of a seven-year-old yanking off Santa's beard? I used to think these people had the worst job in the world, kinda like being stuck in the Goofy suit at Disney World. But now that I am totally geeked on history, I absolutely LOVE the idea of that kind of make-believe time travel. And there are tons of museums, farms, etc. around the country where I could find work doing this sort of thing. Even if it doesn't exactly pay well, many places offer a free RV hookup if you volunteer to do this kind of work - which is basically the equivalent of having your rent and utilities paid. If I get good at it, I might even like to branch out into acting in small plays, especially historical ones.

Making Comics. I've had a few ideas for comics floating around my head for years, but nothing has ever come of them yet - because I can't draw. I finally got sick of that this week, dusted off my copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and started practicing. We'll see where this goes. I don't know if I'll ever feel confident enough about my comics to publish them, but I'll definitely feel better just for having written them down!

Singing and Playing Music. Technically I've been playing music ever since I first got my hands on an instrument, and I've probably been singing since I could talk. But I've let go of a lot of my music practice in recent years, and I'd really like to get good enough to perform in public again. I have no aspirations toward making this into a career - I just love performing music and I'd love to be in a community orchestra, or play for friends at parties, or what have you.

Building Computers. Thanks to the blessing-in-disguise of my current computer being a piece of shit, I have a lot of experience digging into the guts of computers and swapping out the parts. I figure if I can do that, it shouldn't be too difficult to learn to build them from scratch. Admittedly the limited space of an RV won't let me do too much of this, but I can definitely see building computers for people here and there when I'm parked for extended periods.

Dancing. I have some experience with dancing, here and there - I've taken little bits of ballet and bellydance lessons, I've performed "Thriller" in public four times in the last eight months, and at ARGH last November I learned a traditional Indian dance in just two or three days, and performed it in the talent show. I've also done a lot of things that are related to dancing, like yoga, marching band, and Dance Dance Revolution. Despite all this, I really don't think of myself as a dancer at all, because I just don't have that much practice with any one style. I'd really love to learn many different types of dance - especially bellydance, swing dance, and even though I have a mental block about it only being for skinny teenagers, I wouldn't mind getting back into some ballet. I LOVE dancing and I want to start doing more of it!

Doing Science. Okay, so one of my BFFs has a habit of hopping from one career to the next, and *I* have a habit of looking at whatever she's doing and going "Ooh! I wanna do that!" Right now, she is working in a biology lab, doing entomology work, so of course now I wanna do something like that too. I worked in a college lab before, washing test tubes and labeling things, and as boring as that sounds it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. The cool thing is that if I park my RV at state parks, they frequently need people to help out with science and conservation work, and just like the living history gigs, you can usually get a free RV hookup and probably some additional pay out of it. Not bad.

Writing. This may seem weird to put on a "wishlist" like this, since the fact that you are reading this confirms that I already write. But I have some specific things I've been itching to write and haven't sat down and done it. Specifically I'd really like to put up a blog or website that is more strictly focused on unschooling, since this is more my personal blog of whatever my brain happens to throw up that day. I *might* consider speaking, eventually, but it's not on my list of wants right now - I'll just greet it if it comes knocking.

Conference Chasing. Well, it would be a waste of all that freedom if I didn't use it to hit as many unschooling conferences and nerdy pop-culture conventions as possible, right? ;)


Looking back over this list, the main thing that stands out to me is how much of the work I want to do is in the arts. Dancing, writing, acting, drawing, making music... all the things (lucky) kids are encouraged to do, but adults are almost universally nudged away from because they're not constructive and you "can't" make a career out of them. These are things I've wanted to do my whole life, but was always subtly led away from them, down the more practical path. "That's no way to make a living" and "You need something to fall back on" (i.e., put the flute down and go get a business degree) are the battle cries used against anyone who wants to take a creative path in life. Few people suggested that these interests would be worth pursuing even if I didn't make a living off them.

Shortly before I left high school, I auditioned for a school of the arts. It seemed like my dream life, taking classes in all those different things. Except when I mentioned that at the audition, it was hastily and sternly pointed out to me that at this school, you had to pick a major and stick with it. I was auditioning as a clarinetist, which meant I could not take a visual art class. Or a drama class, or a dance class, or even a creative writing class. I could only take academics and band classes. Even in public school, if I'd jostled my schedule around, I could've taken more than one type of art! I was deeply disappointed, and the teacher's manner made me think I was wrong to even mention such a thing, wrong to even want to be creative in more than one way. I walked out of that school nearly ready to cry, and never went back to take even a single class.

After that, I subconsciously let go of the idea that I could be an artist and a musician and a writer and a dancer. I still picked at all those things, the way you might pick at a plate of cold dinner, but I no longer saw them as things I could really get good at and have lots of fun with. Only now, in my mid-20s, am I beginning to rediscover the joy of art for art's sake. It's amazing how much damage was done to me by a school I never even went to.

So now I say: To hell with you, snot-ass school of the arts! From now on, I'll let the world be my art school. It won't force me to pick a major. It won't play keepaway with worlds of knowledge while curiously claiming to be concerned with my education. And best of all, I won't have to wake up at 5AM to go to it - it's there all the time.