Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Acoustics and Acquisitions

Today’s accomplishment was changing my blog title to three kids and a book in the jungle. For those family members and friends whom I sent email updates to when we were in Rome I'm going to use the blog this time. It's a little less cumbersome tan emails for me; especially when traveling.

We are now enmeshed enough in crazy trip prep that I’ve given up the idea of getting any writing done. Writing is replaced by an attempt to do one small book task every day. This on the advice of a friend who said she was mad at herself after a sabbatical about all the little bits of time she could have used. So for today I returned to Orlando Furiosso, an Italian epic poem I haven’t thought much about since graduate school. My interest this time around was not the feminist magical heroines but the acoustics—trumpets so loud they drown everything out, descriptions of what bloody battles sound like, etc… I got back to the epic via a one off from Galileo who claimed that reading Tasso after Ariosto was like eating cucumbers after melons. I have not idea what that is a metaphor for but it occurred to me that there were great descriptions of sound machines and voices in the poem and that I can get a nice 16th century version of it free on my ipad so it can come to the jungle.

I’m not going to admit publically how little of my day was actually spent on this fine scholarly pursuit. But suffice it to say that getting a family of five to rural china is not a trivial proposition. And perhaps someone can explain to me the natural tendency to do things you’ve meant to do for months before you leave and for weird stuff to just happen. The car for example needed to be fixed today. Various university projects for next year need to at least set in motion. The clothes need to be organized. The built in bookcases in the kids room need to in. The various plates we have had around for at least a year from barbecues need to go back to their rightful owners who are clearly miserable without them. And lucky for me the preschool is having music week in the Levana class and I need to go play for a bunch of 4-5 year olds tomorrow morning. The teacher informs me that they’d really prefer the electric viola since Eli has told them all about his mom’s “wock band” she suggested I play some of his favorites. I’m thinking she doesn’t actually want anything that will make him wing either “I dwopped acid on my tongue,”

And there is a good deal of consumer activity that is occurring each day, a shocking amount of money on jungle princess glasses and a summer’s worth of medications for all five of us. (I have the most expensive cocktail of all of us) New hiking boots for me for the Himalayas, the nice pair my parents got me for my 30 year old b-day have bit the dust and are too small for my post child bearing feet. And of course my MAC lipstick somehow got smashed in my purse the other day and there’s no way I’m leaving without that. It also occurs me that despite my proclaiming for months that I’m simply not learning Chinese it might be worth at least a Berlitz tape. The kids learned some words from watching kung fu panda and think they are all set.

The boys seem pretty obvious to the trip on an emotional level. Eli packs a suitcase almost every day and is pretty sure we’ll meet Anikan Skywalder while we are there and eat a lot of sushi. Jonathan every so often pipes up with a question. Rebecca is very worried and has an impressive list of questions and concerns. She’s mastering early the sulky teenager affect and has become extremely mommy focused. She doesn’t want me to go to yoga, even though it’s after she’s supposed to be in bed. The logic that we’d have 14 hours on a plane followed by three months in a botanical garden with no school or camp, only a few other kids to play with, and a father doing biological fieldwork did not work on her.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Passover always bring interesting events and discussions in our house. The first year that the kids went to the Jewish preschool involved Jonathan putting on a loin cloth looking thing, harnessing himself to the coffee table, and dragging it around proclaiming he was a Hebrew Slave. He had barely made the growth chart and still had the scrawny preemie look so the effect was dramatic. That spring both kids spent a lot of time explaining to anyone who would listen that “our people were slaves.” This seemed politically problematic in central Virgina. The following year they dressed up regularly as Pharaoh and Cleopatra. Rebecca one year embraced Mirium, which as a feminist I have to support. But I have to admit I could live without the tumbrel accompanying every gesture and we don’t need a douser in our house—at least not the time that imports spewing waters at every possible moment. The combo of a fetish for Roman fountains and Miriam turned our house into a flood zone. This year things are a little more complicated. We got off to a bad start when Jonathan refused to put his book away during the Seder and screamed that this was a holiday of freedom. At this point every household rule is met from one or the other of them with something like “our people marched in the desert for 40 years for freedom.” Yesterday I decided to start explaining the difference between anarchy and freedom and suggested De Toquiville as bedtime reading. And somehow this all led to a discourse from the twins to their cousin Hannah on Hitler, Hitler’s potential suicide, why he hated Jews, and who other tyrants in History were. Jonathan jumped directly to Ramses the second (of course) and Rebecca kindly explained to her cousin that there was genocide in Burundi.

We’ve had a week of musical family, making me wish tha my sister lived closer and that the Charlottesville schools would just once in a while have a day off around a Jewish holiday…. We had the seder at my parents house with my sister and her three kids and then traded our little one for her big one. Jacob, Eli, and Ethan are 3,4 and 5 and come off as tweedle dumb, tweedle dumber, and tweedle dumbest. We took Hannah back with us which left us with two eight year olds and a 6.5 year old.

Meanwhile the countdown to China continues—twenty one days til blast off.. Today’s project involved a massive toy organization and house clean because we will get home about a week before classes start. My sister who got every single organizational gene in from our pool leaving me with none led the charge and was amazing. I’ve started gathering food to mail with Manuel’s lab equipment. I’m a little worried about what Jonathan will eat—he mostly eats bread, cheese and milk. And after years of feeding therapy, failure to thrive etc.. I’ve basically stopped worrying about it but his will present new challenges. I’ve got a nice collection of travel games and madlibs put together. We’re living in what looks to be a pretty modern three-bedroom house. The pictures look kind of pagoda meets cheezy hotel. However it does not have potable water. There is a town that we can bike to which has tons of people in it but is very rural—it’s a shop in a market kind of place not go to the grocery store. I’m also trying to organize my work just in case I get to do some.

Between Passover and China prep it’s been pretty much a no work week other than the continued saga of the Vatican slow—as—molasses--permission office. I’m trying to do something related to the book every day even if it’s nothing more than a translation or reading a related book. This weeks came with a little bonus. I discovered in the bowels of my computer that while waiting for books at the Vatican the last time I was there I seem to have translated the whole of Michael Todini’s Dichiaratione delta Galeria Armonica. I don’t remember doing this one in particular but I do remember sitting in the library fuming over waiting for books, being told I couldn’t have a book etc.. and f violently translating things I thought might be useful. I did it very sloppily and failed to transcribe any of it, which makes it relatively useless for publication. But I found some great little snippets where he explains just how dangerous building a musette can be, the ways that Kircher was completely wrong, and the problems of moving instruments up and down stairs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Busy Weekend

I knew by Friday morning at 6:43 that it was going to be a long weekend. The wake up call involved Eli screaming bloody murder and jolting me out of a deep enough part of my sleep cycle that I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten to a planet populated by midgets screaming about weapons. The tragedy involved losing the sword of the Star Wars guy—Commander Someone. Eli is finally pooping in the potty, but it costs us a star wars figure for every deposit—desperate times…. And everyone can thank me for not posting the picture of event number one that Manuel and Eli took to make sure that yoga didn’t keep me from this precious moment. At 6:44 the other two barreled out of bed and immediately made it clear that my failure to read the Thursday folders was a giant mistake and yet another example of my failings as a mother. I think Walk To School Day, Pastries 4 Parents, Crazy Hair Day, and bring your money in for Jump Rope for Hearts was just too much for one morning. It was an all action all the time morning complete with Rebecca having a fit because I could only find five hair ties before having coffee and she needed SEVEN for her crazy hair do.

Saturday was not much calmer. The kids were headed out of town to the circus with their grandparents and cousins. Before they went Manuel made them run laps around the house in the downpour, which they did senza rain coats because the wanted to “Feel the rain upon their skin” We could not go with them because I had to go to a Banquet, an a-capella group concert, and a senior recital all in the space of 24 hours. I was delighted to learn at the banquet that we have a polo team—as in horses not water. And I enjoyed hearing about music with an “oriental influence.” The whole weekend challenged my closet, and I ended up having to borrow a frock from a friend. It was a gorgeous dress I thought, but I missed the memo about how you were supposed to wear short and strapless no matter how old you are.

By the time we hit the UVa events, Manuel and I were both pretty wiped. I had one of those bright ideas that seems like it should be no big deal but actually completely knocks you out. In conjunction with the Presidents inauguration UVa had a day of service. I’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work with an afterschool program in the West Haven housing projects—a community that feeds into Jonathan and Rebecca’s school. The big idea was that we should use the option of energetic young bodies to overhaul the rec center in order to create a nicer place for the kids. I thought I’d just fill out a form and get a bunch of sweet young things to do the work—not so much. While we were at it we got a nice chunk of cash to completely stock the place with arts and crafts and school supplies. And, I thought, as long as we’re doing it we ought to get book donations. Let’s just say I’ve never spent that much time or money in Wal-Mart, and, while I enjoyed spending a lot of someone else’s money on games and arts and crafts supplies, the fluorescent lights did me in. The rain was definitely our gain—at about 9:30 eighteen UVa kids showed up in a caravan of Subaru’s and SUVs. Some of the people I know wanted to make sure I actually knew these kids... We completely emptied out a wall of books and disposed of at least eleven boxes of useless books including four out of date encyclopedias, twelve science books from the 1970’s, a large number of old gardening magazines, and at least four different books about sheep births. Manuel could not figure out why someone had donated 4 years worth of American Nurseryman to the rec center. The room now looks amazing and it would have taken those of us who usually do things there six months to do it. Luckily we had one organized person with us (not me).

This was an impressive event. Charlottesvills is still frighteningly segregated, and kids grow up a quarter of a mile from UVa in conditions that are unimaginably difficult to most UVa faculty and students. It is more than a world apart. Words like achievement gap and class difference don’t even begin to capture it. So, as a parent of kids in the public school and a UVa faculty member, I found it really touching to see a group of UVa students get their hands very dirty with some public school teachers, moms, and West Haven community members.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Tweens and China

OMG I have tweens. Rebecca and her friend Reid were making cookies all by themselves and singing Taylor Swift songs, to which they know the words. That seems fine but how on earth to they know who Justin Biber is dating?

Rebecca: I don’t understand this Justin Biber thing. First it was Michael Jackon, then Taylor Swift then Justin Biber.
Jonathan: He does have a nice haircut.
Rebecca He is sooooooo creeeeeepy
Reid: I hope Celina ditches him.
Joanthan: But hopefully he wont start dating Celine Dion

The tweens went on to wonder if Taylor can afford her own band which led naturally into their assertion that their music teachers must be very rich. Why? Because they get lots and lots of checks.

The real excitement of the week was that Manuel got home twelve hours earlier than we expected. I’m not quite sure how neither of us noticed that his flight from Seoul was about 27 hours... I’m feeling pretty proud of myself for flying solo for seventeen days without doing anything terrible to my kids or having a total meltdown. I yelled at them a few times, and was even less productive than usual. There were of course some low moments. For example I tried to get the kids enthused for bike riding practice by explaining that bikes are the way to get in China the result was a combo triple meltdown followed by a Lerdau children impersonation of a forced death march. The night when Oedipus one and two fought for the spot next to me at 3:00 am definitely sucked.

Manuel came back with a Chinese Bank Card, Chinese Money (every single bill has a picture of Mau on it) and a weird assortment of Chinese treats. We tried the oatmeal for middle aged and elderly people today. Eli liked it but the other two hated it. I have not yet sampled the tea for “getting skinny” and “getting soft skin” yet. When I do I’m sure I’ll look at least ten years younger. The second grade is conveniently studying China this month so some of the things will go to school. This has also prompted all kinds of questions about China.

The kids are both excited and nervous. We’re getting lots of questions. Eli is especially concerned about who will take care of octopus and yellow dog. (a stuffed animal and a yellow plastic dog) Jonathan is worried about what he’ll eat for breakfast. Rebecca is worried about house details; what color will it be? Who will she play with? We officially got the trip prep ball rolling by vaccinating the children. Rebecca was characteristically stoic. Jonathan put up a fight; but it seemed a matter of principle; a kind of “I know when we get shots that I curl up in the fetal position under a chair and scream for a bit.” All three of them have sore arms from the typhoid shot and we have prescriptions for enough drugs to start our own hospital.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Civic Action

We live next to a large abandoned building known as Comyn Hall. As I understand it, it was most recently a nursing home populated largely by women. It is also a stop on the haunted Charlottesville tour as the site of one of the town’s most grisly and murders. In 1904 the former mayor supposedly killed his wife in the bathtub and hung for the crime. I learned this story from Rebecca and Jonathan when they were five. They draw the story out with lots of blood and guts; even my oldest son who found the Frog Princess too scary to sit through. Eli called it the ghostly house for a long time.

The site now stands as a kind of neighborhood playground for softball, running, snow man building, elaborate battles, fantasy pioneer games etc… We knew when we bought the house that this would eventually end; at that point it was slated to be turned into a condo building with an underground garage. It went back on the market for an obscene amount of money—and it looked like it could easily need a million dollars to fix it up. The place is a disaster and Eli is not the only one who thinks it’s haunted. For a while we even had some squatters living on the porch. My fantasy involved someone turning it into a women’s only spa/bar. I envisioned yoga classes followed by a nice martini. Neither husbands nor children would be allowed in the vicinity. Everyone I told this to thought it was a great idea but I don’t know anyone with three million bucks to pull it off.

Needless to say there’s no spa coming and when the apartments and the parking lot go up about three inches from our driveway our yard will not seem so grand. There are many people in the neighborhood who have worked hard to prevent this from happening and who know a lot more about it than I do so I’ll refrain from talking about the process or the details. The kids have meanwhile decided that this whole thing is unacceptable and have decided to take action. Their first plan was a war and they started gathering sticks. As a rule I think a bunch of scrawny kids declaring war on large men with power tools is a bad plan for a number of reasons. So they have now resorted to a kind of war of roses and are carefully making signs. “we don’t want your building.” “stay off our land” (it’s actually not our land but such details seem irrelevant. They put them all over the property. The latest weapon is sidewalk chalk and they are saying things like “playzone” “we want playspace” “save H20 don’t make CO2”

This is one of many moments when I’m not quite sure what to tell them. We have always taken our children to political events; they have held up signs in the cold for Obama, being to the big IMPACT meeting in Charlottesville, gone to a living wage protest etc… My mom took us to various protests as kids and I knew I was pro choice, anti apartheid, for nuclear disarmament etc…. So I thought it was important to do that with my kids. The good news is that in the words of my sister’s dissertation they know about civic action and are ready to do it. And they genuinely think that their sidewalk chalk is going to stop a developer. Their reasoning is sound; it’s bad for the environment, bad for kids, bad for the neighborhood. I think they may have even used the words affordable housing. The current action team includes children of an architect, an environmental scientist and a political theorist so they have good rhetoric. But this is a done deal. I don’t have the heart to tell them that their well-organized efforts will have absolutely no effect. And I worry that too many lost causes will stifle their political enthusiasm. When Tom Periello lost the election they were truly stunned.