Bonsoir from Montreal

9:45 pm. Dinner included escargot and duck confit. The waitress had trouble coming up with the right English words to describe the menu. Yes… I and my beloved and cherished husband are in Montreal for a week celebrating the fact that my parents are taking care of my children for a week. Bliss!!!

But although I could tell you about Montreal so far, I’ll save that for another day. Like maybe tomorrow. Instead, I’ve been using my lounging-around-in-leather-armchairs time to catch up on a few (hundred) pictures! I promise that I’ll include more verbiage, er, sometime this week. But for now, here are all the times in the last month I’ve bothered pulling out my nice camera, heavily influenced by wanting to play with the 35mm lens I got for Christmas!

So first, here are a bunch of pictures and videos, mostly of my boys playing games and with minis. (Mostly because the boys were sitting stillish, and I wanted to try out the focal ranges with the minis.) It also includes PIEMAS!

Check out the geeky goodness here!

Then, we have Easter. The first set is a neighborhood egg hunt. The next set is the actual celebration of Easter in our church. (Well, to be precise, the leading up to the celebration of Easter. Once the service got started I was awfully busy with the trumpeting.)

Cultural and religious celebrations of Easter abound!

I hope that tides you over until I can get you something more substantive!

Mastermind and Minion

My eldest son snitched the “Essential Calvin and Hobbes” from next to my bed when he was five years old. I caught him poring over the adventures of the older boy and his striped companion, and loomed over him with mixed feelings. On the one hand, yay love of reading! On the other hand, Calvin is not an ideal role model. On the third tail I’ve always promised myself that – like my parents – I would only make access harder to books that really do damage. I simply hadn’t planned on my non-censorious resolve being tested before my son started first grade.

But there was my spiky-haired son, putting on his best space alien accent and saying “Dat darn Kalfin! He stole ma space chip!” I forked over the complete collection.

He was quoting this tonight, and I swear I hadn't mentioned it.
He was quoting this tonight, and I swear I hadn’t mentioned it.

When you think about Calvin (as a grownup who may or may not spend too much time thinking about Calvin and Hobbes), you think of a kid who drives his parents nuts, does poorly in school and has behavior problems. But when you return with fresh eyes and see what Calvin DOES in the panorama of his time and tale, you begin to wish your son was – and could be – more like Calvin. Calvin has *time* and freedom. He wanders the woods with only a fearsome predator for company. He has long leisurely afternoons for the creation of mutant snow goons. He exercises his vast and untrammeled imagination in a whole panoply of joyful childish pursuits, many of which my poor son is forebarred from by shifting culture and a mother who works. There is no circumstance under which my seven year old would spend a whole afternoon playing with a little creek running through mud. He doesn’t have that much free time, and I am more constrained to periodically check on him.

The book was next to my bed, which explains the odd lighting.
The book was next to my bed, which explains the odd lighting.

But Calvin is teaching Grey what it could mean to be a little boy, and fires his imagination. Grey considers his circumstance, and finds his own way to be, well, an Evil Mastermind (of the amusing, kind, relatively-well-behaved type).

This Calvinic mischief was brought to mind the other night. Grey has a tremendous advantage over Calvin. Although entirely lacking in feline company, Grey has instead a little brother who is his willing and eager minion in acts of creative mischief. How joyful are those two boys in their shared universe! Anyway, the other night the boys were doing their usual delaying song and dance regarding sleep. Basically, it was part of our intricate tradition of them not going to sleep when I’ve told them to go to sleep already. At one point they came downstairs and demanded that I set up a tent for them to sleep in. (In truth, my actual challenges getting Grey to sleep are worthy of a serious post. But it’s funny in small moments.) This demand arrived at the point at which I had HAD ENOUGH ALREADY JUST GO TO BED AND IF YOU DON’T YOU’LL BE SLEEPING IN THE BASEMENT NEXT TO THE WORM BIN!

There was thumping upstairs after my chastened (so I thought) sons went back, but no more demands were lobbied by the prepubescent set, so I declared myself satisfied.

When we went in to kiss them good night, however, an astonishing feat of architecture met our eyes. Sadly, I could find no angle of photography that would take in the full glory but imagine this.

You walk into the room, and the wall appears suddenly several feet nearer, and covered in blue stars. You realize that blessed children have stood Thane’s mattress on it’s side. (I swear this is why I won’t buy either of them a proper bed.)

Wall of bed
Wall of bed

You are convinced that shortly your children will be squashed by said mattress and tiptoeing up you check out the situation. The brothers – the Lego Mastermind and his brother the Builder Minion, have used the kiddie chairs in the room to ensure their sleep remains unsquished. They lie in opposite sides of the “fort”, in a stuffed-animal-and-blanket filled enclosure.

The Minion, in Scooby Doo PJs, protected by the Green IKEA chair
The Minion, in Scooby Doo PJs, protected by the Green IKEA chair

Isn’t this what childhood is all about, my friends? The problem solving? The rule-breaking ingenuity? The ability to sleep on a pile of stuffed animals right next to your brother? Perhaps Calvin taught my son a bit of what was possible. I can’t regret it. And I can’t wait until Thane is old enough to read it too.

The Mastermind, with fuzzy dinosaur blanket and Puppy on a white chair.
The Mastermind, with fuzzy dinosaur blanket and Puppy on a white chair.

Stages of life, as marked with bookmarks

Sample bookmark: googling "Brenda Ardent One" didn't work out so well.
Sample bookmark: googling “Brenda Ardent One” didn’t work out so well. Represents the 6th grader’s bookmark

Baby: No bookmark. “The Monster at the End of This Book” does not require a bookmark
Beginning reader: Still no bookmarks. If interrupted, place picture book face down to preserve location. Use as roller skate when you re-enter the room.
Grade schooler: Dog ear the pages of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. Go to furthest page dog-eared, since every second page is so marked.
6th grader: Use pink name-derivation bookmark your grandma gave you at Christmas, since your sister has threatened to dismember you if she ever catches you dog-earing her copy of “Watership Down” ever again.
9th grader: Intricately designed bookmark made with a black BIC pen, lined paper and tape… and the extra time granted to you by your American History class.

This masterpiece now lives in my Bible, along with many of my other nice bookmarks.
This masterpiece now lives in my Bible, along with many of my other nice bookmarks.

College student: Erudite Shakespearean quotes on reading and philosophy that you got out of Bartlett’s Quotations, spent hours looking for the perfect celtic clip-art for, and printed on resume paper.

I thought I might find this in the Yale Shakespeare, but instead I found it in the Rodale Book of Composting. Go figure.
I thought I might find this in the Yale Shakespeare, but instead I found it in the Rodale Book of Composting. Go figure.

Young Adult: Proper bookmark with nice but inobtrusive artwork that sits right by your bed for your regular use.

I picked this one up in Venice shortly before Grey came along
I picked this one up in Venice shortly before Grey came along

Parent of an infant: No bookmark. “The Monster at the End of This Book” does not require a bookmark.
Parent of young children (son edition) Pokemon or Bakugan cards

It burns my precious! Obviously this is my current stage of life.
It burns my precious! Obviously this is my current stage of life.

Parent of kids Magic the Gathering cards (common)
Parent of college student $6 bookmark with logo of child’s school that you are paying $50,000 a year for. You paid for said bookmark at college bookstore while dropping child off.
Empty-nester Limited edition signed artistic bookmarks created by the artist whose work you’ve been following lately.
Grandparent Laminated picture of your grandkids being cute. And/or cats.

Needless to say, I am at the Pokemon bookmark phase of life. I will confess to harboring the suspicion that it demeans whatever book I am reading. (Tolkien right now.)

What bookmark phases am I missing? Which phase are you in right now? What bookmark is in the book you’re reading right now? What’s your favorite ever bookmark?

Red Sox: In good times and in bad

Red Sox fan - Fenway 2009
Red Sox fan – Fenway 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a baseball season that made me so passionately excited about football as this 2012 Red Sox season. I’ve been a baseball fan since 1995 – a respectable time now. I started as a Mariners fan and – without dropping my hope for the Ms to do well while bowing to the realities of being 3 time zones away – I’ve become an ardent Red Sox fan.

I’m definitely not alone in having come to Red Sox fandom in the last decade. I attended my first game at Fenway in 2000. 2001, for reasons that will be instantly understandable to those of you who live in the Northwest of follow baseball closely, I lived tied to the MLB broadcasts on my computer – up until late at night. After that, though, I started following the Sox. I lived through the devastating heartache of 2003 (there is a great group of guys with whom I can never watch another game after Pedro got lifted…). I actually missed the first three games of the ALCS in 2004 (I was in Vienna and thinking, as I caught the box scores, “Well, at least I’m not missing a *good* post-season.”), but lived through the incredibly late nights and unbelievable comebacks of Game 4 and beyond. I rode the wave of seeming-inevitable excellence through 2007. And like so much of Red Sox nation, I find myself facing down a September where we are – to put it plainly – totally out of it.

Dire days like these, my friends, are when I need to draw on my Mariners roots. There are 29 teams in baseball. This year roughly a third of them will make it to post-season play. Only two of them will stand on the frost-hard field in the chilly air of late October. But all of these teams have fans – not just that ultimate pair or penultimate quad.

Your team does not have to be winning – or even good – to have fun being a fan.

As the 2012 season turned from bad to worse, I opined to a friend that it was years like this that allowed purer motivations to shine. Everyone wants to be part of a winning effort, but disdain and disinterest have followed the Red Sox this year as they have struggled to win as many games as they’ve lost. As fast as people jumped on that bandwagon, so fast are they saying that the Red Sox do not deserve their fandom. Well, I’m not jumping.

There are great compensations in losing, my friends. For example, the next time the Red Sox are great (which with Cherington’s moves may be as early as 2014), we will get to be the “We were there when” folks with the 13 year old lucky shirt. Sox fans can actually see the games now. This isn’t a problem in most towns, but there have been years where it was impossible to procure even bad tickets to exciting games in Boston. They still cost an arm and a leg, but at least now if you WANT to get to Fenway, you can go. We are getting to watch some young players come up who will be next year’s super-stars. I remember listening to Kevin Youklis’ very first major league at bat. Some of the kids we’ll see next year will be the next Youklis… and some will be the next Jose Cruz Jr. (My Mariners peeps remember how big he was billed!). We may have the chance to watch a team win against the odds, instead of having the “Best Team Ever” collapse into ignominy. In small market towns, some of the compensation is watching your gifted young players “Make it big” in the big towns. In a town like Boston, it’s getting to poach those self-same players. Regardless, the Red Sox are almost guaranteed to have a shot at the playoffs within a decade.

That isn’t true everywhere. Take, oh, Seattle for instance. There was much ado about the 84 years since the last time the Sox brought home the championship. But Seattle’s team, founded in the 1977 expansion has not only NEVER won a World Series… it’s never BEEN to a World Series. The furthest we’ve ever gotten is the ALCS in 1995. That record-breaking 2001 season ended up flaring out in October. And although the Mariners keep valiantly trying, there is no sense of entitlement in the Emerald City that we’ll ever win it. But still, the fans flock to Safeco and turn on KOMO.


Because it’s fun to watch and listen to baseball. That’s the point. Your team may lose four games out of five, but man that fifth game King Felix is pitching. Or you have an outfielder like Jay Buhner who just loves to play, and it shows. Or you have an Edgar Martinez, who would still be DH-ing if they’d let him run the bases for his doubles using a wheelchair. Or, in a particular appalling year, you still cheer for your team to win (against all odds), but the fun of watching is seeing all the stars of the game come to your home town to trounce your teams… a little like having the Harlem Globetrotters come. Just because your team is under .500 doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

So, bring on September. Would I rather we were in the thick of the chase? Of course. Am I looking very much forward to the Pats kickoff in just over a week? HECK YES. But until then, I’ll listen to Joe and Dave, follow the kids called up in September, hear the amazing feats of the opposition and hope that we at least play well in tonight’s loss.

What the Grownups Were Doing

So I’ve been giving you the Camp Gramp updates for the last week or so. Obviously, Adam and I were not with our children. So what were we doing? A quick litany, for my remembrance and your enlightenment.

Wellspring's new Sanctuary
Wellspring’s new Sanctuary

Friday night: Fly in. Very tired. Zzzzzz.

Saturday: Go to Seattle for family picnic and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The family picnic was lovely. I got to see all my uncles & aunts on that side, if few of my cousins. The playground location meant that that kids had fun too. This was the first time my kids had gone to G&S. They were beautifully behaved, but a not-insignificant reason for that was because they were, well, asleep. Hard to fight the time zones, late hour, exercise and dark theater, I guess!

Sunday: Church (where I got to be the pianist) was followed by a quick lunch. Then Adam and I went up to Paradise on Mt. Rainier. It was snowy and crowded up there, but we had a nice hike. We came down and then went to Wellspring. It is such a glorious place she has built there for weddings. We hiked through her lovely grounds, got massages and sat in the hot tub with the best view ever.

Monday: We drove down to Ashland. We took the direct route instead of the ocean route, which made the 8 hour trip seem short by comparison.

Tuesday: We saw As You Like It. This is one of my favorite comedies, as beautifully executed as only Ashland can do it. (This was the play that initiated my celebrity crush on Ted Deasy back in 1997.)

Wednesday: We skipped our traditional three hour breakfast to go White Water River Rafting on the Upper Klamath. It was AWESOME. We saw tons of ospreys, quite a few bald eagles, and some adorable otters. The whitewater was fantastic. Seriously, those rapids are something else. It was awesome. However, we were TIRED when we got back that night, and we still had a play.

That night we saw Henry V, which I had just seen in London at that Globe theater. These were very different productions. That Henry had been downright funny, playing up the comedic aspects to the hilt. Ashland’s Henry V walked away from the humor and the funny lines, dwelling on the martial themes with absolute seriousness. As usual, I was ready to sign up on the dotted line after the Crispin Crispian days speech.

Thursday: We took our regular 3 hour breakfast. (I’ve been reading through Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). That night we saw The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, which was a rewritten version of Shakespeare’s. They held on to the blank verse and the plot, but the marriages in question were gay marriages and the jokes very topical. It was VERY FUNNY. (And hey! It had Ted Deasy!)

Friday: Our last day out. Only a two hour breakfast. Before we left, though, one more play. We, through luck and good fortune, were at the world premiere performance of All the Way. The audience was packed with actors and dignitaries – the theater sold out. It was absolutely amazing. Our favorite play last year had been a Ghost Light… this was our favorite play this year. It went through Lyndon B. Johnson’s passing of the Civil Right’s Act and reelection. If that sounds dry, it wasn’t. It was very entertaining, and extremely educational (for those of us who did not live through it). There were big laughs, and times of tears. It was fascinating to hear how the arguments have changed in the last fifty years… and how they have not changed one whit. Some of the same arguments being made around civil rights you can still hear being made today. It was amazing. I highly recommend you go see it.

And now we’re back in Mineral, surrounded by young people who are related to us and getting ready to fly back to Boston tonight.

It was a great week!!!!

A remarkable thing happened to me

I’m not sure I’ve ever gone into my own origin mythology in this venue, but it goes like this. I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere. Well, actually several middles of several nowheres. But I was born in a small village called Tshikaji, in the Kasai Province of what was then the Zaire and what is now the People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the bush of a rural province in a shockingly underdeveloped country in the very middle of Africa. For context, it took my grandparents six weeks after the fact to learn I had been born… in 1978.

Tshikaji - a long way from Boston in every sense
Tshikaji – a long way from Boston in every sense

There is very little emigration from DRC Congo to the US. It got hit hard and early by the AIDS epidemic (that’s where it started, folks). I have met Kenyans, Ghaneans aplenty, Ivorians, South Africans, Algerians… but in my entire adult life, I do not believe I have ever “run into” someone from Congo – even the bustling capital city Kinshasa – never mind the remote corner that nurtured me.

Stoneham Family Fun Day 2011
Stoneham Family Fun Day 2011

With that complete not-foreshadowing, let me look back to last weekend. Saturday was the day of the Stoneham Family Fun day! (Yes, that’s what it is really called.) Last year we had fun on the rides, so when a neighbor texted that they were headed down, I rallied the troops and we went down ourselves. To my disappointment, there were hardly any rides but way more booths. Fortifying my children against disappointment with various sugary snacks, we wandered around, talked to our friends, and desultorily walked through the booths. Grey tugged at my arm and said he wanted to show me a mask. I followed him.

The booth he lead me to was full of African art. I stopped, stilled with the stunning familiarity of it. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind, at one glance, this was Congolese art. I went up to the proprietor and asked, “Where is this from?” “Africa,” he replied. My heart ached that this would be the level of detail he finds appropriate. “Where in Africa?” “The Congo.” “DR Congo or Republic of Congo?”* “DR Congo”.

I knew it.

“I was born in DR Congo” I told him. “In Tshikaji, in Kasai”. Congo is a Biiiiiiig country. Odds were very good he was from the capital and had never been that far South.

His face lit up! Ahhh! He cried! My home!

He explained to his lady-companion in Tshiluba – a language I have not heard spoken by a native speaker in 31 years – that I was from his home. Oh, the reunion we had! I trotted out my 15 words: counting to 10, the word for buttermilk, the name that had been given to me as an infant. With every discovery of shared experience there were exclamations of astonishment by both of us. He was from Kasai. He had been to Tshikaji. I believe I caught that he was born in the same hospital I was born in. I named the pastor who had baptized me, and the tears streamed down the face of his lady. They knew that pastor well. I made my son sing the one song I carried over with me, Grey parroting phrases that I myself parroted. The recognition of it washed over them.

I cannot tell you what it meant to me, to meet these people. I cannot tell you how strange it was – to see new versions of art very like the ones my parents have had on their walls at every home I lived in – that are up right now in the living room of their house. I cannot explain the flush of recognition at this language I spoke once, as a child.

I can say that I was tempted to buy one of everything. I bought some things – particularly lovely, or that really reminded me of my childhood. We said farewell. Still dazed by recognition, I called my mom. “You’ll never guess what just happened, mom.” I returned, brought my cell phone to him and he and my mom had a conversation in Tshiluba. (He told me her Tshiluba is very good. She told me she understood maybe one word in four.)

And that is the story of how, under the tolling bells of the carillon in a sleepy New England town, I met Jean Pierre Tshitenge and was transported to another time and place, as far from the Town Square as it is possible to go.

Jean Pierre Tshitenge
Jean Pierre Tshitenge

*Note: there are conveniently two Congos in Africa. I come from DR Congo or Congo Kinshasha. If you’re older than, say, 50, you probably know it as the Belgian Congo. The name changed from Zaire to “Democratic Republic of Congo” in 1997 as Mobutu Sese Sako’s kleptocracy was toppled. When I applied for a passport in 1999, I entered my place of birth as Zaire because, well, that’s what it was then. The State Department actually noted my birth location as Congo-Brazzaville. The wrong one. I did eventually get it fixed, but I thought it was funny that it was so obscure and rare that the State Department got it wrong.

The second age of firsts

Grey at Fenway
Grey at Fenway

Grey is now entering his second great age of firsts. The first, of course, is that period from birth to about two when you get first smiles, first steps, first solids, etc. Then you have the long steep curve of learning until, a scant four years after all the first milestones are met, you start with the second milestones. First day of school, first crush, first real secret, first overnight trip without a relative, etc.

Grey had two big firsts this week, from my point of view. Last night was my husband’s company’s annual summer outing to Fenway park. It transpired that – perhaps – an extra ticket was available. So with a babysitter lined up, we left him to Thane’s tender mercies and brought Grey to his first adventure in Fenway Park. We were in the right field roof, in a terrace. I’d never been up there, but on a very hot and humid solstice, it was breezy and open and lovely. I bought Grey a new t-shirt and he arrived – face-painted with serpents – and I showed him the park and the history and explained the game and the players to him. With intense concentration he learned how to say “Saltalamacchia”. His father, on the other hand, taught him “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher” and “We want a catcher, not a belly-scratcher.”

The Sox played the Marlins. Papi hit a grand slam into the bleachers. The Sox trounced the Marlins 15 to 5 with booming hits to all corners and long leisurely innings. The air was warm and fragranced with peanuts, beer, people and the softer fragrances from the not so distant fens.

We stayed through Sweet Caroline – sacred tradition – and turned tired feet home, only crossing our threshold around midnight to find a Wide-Awake Thane. It was a weary household this morning, I assure you.

Grey asks questions during the intermission
Grey asks questions during the intermission

But my church was hosting a concert this evening, and I wanted to go. The performer was Patrick Ball, a gracious and funny man. (If you ever have the chance to see him perform – go!) I wanted to go, and I wanted to take my son with me. So I wrested myself off a gossiping front porch and news of babies to head to my church on a sultry Thursday night. Grey picked our seats in the very front. The wise child had figured out where the fan blew hardest.

He had a notebook with him (our church provides them at the front door for kids), so I listened to the stories and the harp while I watched him draw. As an aside, he is already a far more accomplished artist than I am. Not than I was at that age – than I am now. Anyway, he would lay his pencil down for the stories and pick them back up for the songs. He would drape my arms around him like a scarf, still young enough to not be ashamed of my touch, or to lean his back against me as the night drew long.

The harper’s last story had the weight of bronze, of meaning, of power to it and settled heavy on us in the audience. Patrick turned his hand to the twinkling brass harp strings one last time. As he glid through an arpeggio, close to the end of the song, one of his harp-strings sprung and snapped in the heat of the night – springing up in curliques. With impeccable timing, he declared that he was now done. He stepped down and gave Grey his broken brass harp string.

There are moments that you hope are prophetic, that point to a future you would like to see. I watched my son, transfixed by words and music and meaning, take a glimmering bronze harp string from a bard directly under the cross – at the spot where my child had himself been baptized. Your breath catches and you wonder if, maybe, perhaps, there is still some magic left within the world after all.

Grey tugged at his shirt. Patrick leaned his head down kindly to listen. Then says, “Sure, go ahead.”

In a loud and ringing voice, my first-born announced, “I have a joke!”

I am caught between mortification and pride. I have no idea where this joke is going. To infinity and beyond? Terrible punch line? Actually funny? No clue. But standing in front of the unmoving audience that just paid to come listen to a professional storyteller, my son bravely stood, remembered his lines, lifted his voice and told a truly Kindergardeneresque joke. You really have to be under the age of 8 to think it’s funny. But with courage, conviction and timing, he delivers it to the (extremely patient) crowd.

So I don’t know? Portent? Talent? What does it all mean? On the way home, he discussed at length that final story, asking questions about it that showed he had thought about every word. He wondered if maybe he could try something different with music? (I will give him this – the guitar teacher is really tough. I struggle with the lessons – I don’t think someone learning how to learn was going to be successful in that context.) What does it all mean? Should I sign him up and help him pursue these interests? Should I step back and let him blaze his path, watching in fascination (and periodic mortification)?

What remarkable people they are, these children of ours. They come from our love, eat at our tables and judge the world based on a normal we define for them. But such paths they walk are mysteries to us all, and every winding step an adventure and a delight to watch.

Thank you, Patrick, for your brazen harp string and stories, and for firing the imagination of my son.

The Bard
The Bard