What’s the Question?

Lou and Peter Berryman have a song on their Double Yodel CD called, Come To Mind in which Peter mentions that he’s no good with answers. He says that he gets by with mostly two suggestions: “Put the curtain in the tub, when you take a shower. And learn how to live with your questions.” This is really good advice. I think of it almost every time I take a shower. I’ve known for years that I’m much better at questions than answers. Oh, I have some answers, but they’re hardly ever the right ones.

For instance, someone will ask me where the peanut butter is and I don’t know. I wasn’t the last one to put it back, and my best guess is that it’s in the fridge or maybe the dishwasher or even, possibly, the trash. Those are the three places where things seem to end up in our kitchen, when they’re not where they should be. So, I answer that it might be in one of these places, but in a really wimpy tone of voice. How different my tone and my life would be if, just for once, someone asked me something I know for sure.

For instance, if some fine morning, someone stumbled down the stairs, looked in the fridge for a long, electricity consuming five minutes and then turned to me and with a puzzled look said, “Mom, what was Yip Harburg’s real name?” I’d say, with complete confidence that it was “Isidore Hochburg”. He got the nickname “Yip” from yipsel, which is Yiddish for squirrel, because he was so active as a boy. He wrote all of the lyrics for Over the Rainbow, the Depression anthem Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, April in Paris, It’s Only a Paper Moon and many, many more songs. He also wrote two books of rhymes which were republished in one book that’s available from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He was a Democratic Socialist and was blacklisted in the 50’s. He’s one of my heros. (I got most of this information from Whither Zither Peter Berryman’s well-worth-reading newsletter.)

But no one ever asks about Yip Harburg, although I don’t know why. Neither do they ask about anything else I know about including live bottoms, Blonder Tongues or Frigiscopes. (Sometimes I wonder, Is the art of conversation dead?) So, I waste hours on answering questions about mundane things like missing wallets, strayed shoes, how long to nuke jello and whose cat threw up the mouse on the bathroom rug (which is really important, because it determines who has to clean it up).

It’s no wonder, with all this trivial chatter going on, that we don’t get to the good stuff. “Honey,” I can see the geek saying someday, looking lovingly into my eyes, “Do you think live bottoms are better in a bed or what?” “Why, yes,” I’d say, batting my eyelashes, “I certainly do. Having a conveyor belt on the bottom of a truck bed to move the cargo out under the rear door – which is hinged at the top – is really effective. Dangerous though if the driver forgets to latch the door. That’s why they have those ‘Warning: Live Bottom’ signs on the trucks.”

Or, “Lill,” a friend might say after routine hospital tests, “Did you know that Doctor Martin has a Blonder Tongue?” “As a matter of fact,” I’d answer, “I actually saw it last time I was at his office. Blonder Tongue is the best company for broadband equipment that I know of.”

Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that anyone will ever ask me about Frigiscopes. Not unless, like me, they’ve had to undergo some rather unpleasant tests that only females are subjected to when they flunk their PAP test. (But, Doc, I studied all night! Honest! Can’t I get at least a B?) As I lay flat on my back on a cold metal table, my feet in stirrups and a covering the size of a dishtowel over my “lap”, there was a great rustling and shuffling of feet and my doctor led twenty first-year medical students into the room. Most of them were Asian, and as the doctor spoke, many of them bowed in my direction. I tried to do the same, but it’s very hard to bow when your feet are in stirrups and you’re lying flat on your back. It just looks like you’re sitting up.

I’m pretty unflappable and not terribly modest in medical situations (I’m a DES daughter, which is why I was there in the first place and have had many medical procedures), but I began to wish that I had read the papers I signed a little more closely. Especially the part which gave permission for twenty students to each peer through the lighted scope called a frigiscope (I am NOT making this up) until they had located the suspicious cells the PAP test had found. It took a while.

As a matter of fact, it took so long, that I was sure that the cells would have all mutated into cancer cells before the last student – a young woman with extremely thick glasses and a wall eye – had spotted them. When she finally said the Chinese equivalent of “eureka!”, the other students broke out into cheers and clapped and the doctor patted my foot, which was asleep from being in the stirrup for so long, and said, “I hope you weren’t too bored.” “Not at all,” I said, half delirious with relief that the ordeal was over, “I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time.” (Of course, at the moment I couldn’t remember much of anything including my middle name, but he didn’t know that.)

I could answer questions all day, only I doubt that they’re answers to questions that anyone but me would ask. I notice things, wonder about them, write them down and then look them up. That’s how I found out all of the above and more. It’s great because later on in life, when there are dull lulls, I can rummage around in my mind, pull out nuggets of information and review them to keep from being bored. (This, rather than pure loopiness, is why I stand there chuckling to myself in checkout lines.) Or I can write about them, when I can’t think of anything else to write.

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Unschooling On The Side

I guess I AM an optimist. I just went to take a nap in my bedroom which is directly under Son’s bedroom where he and two other teenaged boys were playing a board game. You’d think I’d know by now that there are board games – think senior citizens playing checkers – and there are board games – three 17 yr old boys doing anything. So instead I’ll write the post I was going to write later today.

Recently on Elisheva’s Ragamuffin Studies homeschooling blog I read something that really made me think. In a post about her son being uncomfortable with schedule changes, she said that she forgot to “be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.” I don’t know whether she made this up or got it somewhere else, but it worked its way into my brain and I find myself saying it like a mantra. Several times in the last few days, it’s saved me from an angst-iety attack when what my kids seem to be learning doesn’t fit my perception of what they should be learning.

Daughter is a reader, which is wonderful. However, oftentimes it seems to me that the only things she reads are Pokemon cards, Club Penguin chat, Neopets Magazine and restaurant menus. Sure, we go to two libraries every week and she brings home at least two cloth bags full of books, but I rarely see her read them. How in the world, I wonder, is this kid going to learn anything about history, science, math or literature? But, unschooling advocate that I am, I repeat my mantra while biting my tongue, and let her follow her interests.

A couple of days ago we’re buying drapes to darken my bedroom and she gives me a fifteen minute history of blackout curtains as they were used in England and the US during World War 2 with a side trip to discuss bomb shelters and the London Underground or tube stations. She says she read it in an American Girl book earlier this week. That night, we’re watching Jeopardy and she knows three questions that I didn’t know she knew. One was about Theodore Roosevelt having Booker T. Washington to lunch at the White House, one was about Abraham Lincoln’s son, Tad and the third was that “ferrous” means “containing iron.”

I don’t know why I’m surprised at this. Just yesterday, I finished reading “Shadows and Lies” by Marjorie Eccles, which taught me more about the Boer War and the Relief of Mafeking than I ever learned in school. Because I’ve been reading from 7-20 books a week for over fifty years, and because I have very eclectic taste in books, I’ve probably gotten about three college degrees’ worth of knowledge from reading. So why do I doubt that my kids can do the same thing?

Maybe it’s the same mindset that people have when they doubt that parents who have been educated in public schools can teach their children as well as public schools can. It’s always seemed like a silly argument to me. If I learned something well enough to pass it and graduate, why can’t I convey that knowledge to my kids? If my kids want to learn something, why can’t they find a resource where the knowledge is available – maybe with my help – and use it to study the subject?

I guess it comes down to a matter of trust. Public educators don’t trust parents to teach their kids, nor do they trust kids to be capable of learning through any agency other than teachers and textbooks. When I doubt that my kids can learn without my constant direction and correction, I’m falling into the same mindset as the people who believe that my kids can’t learn without school.

So thanks, Elisheva, for getting me back on track. Sometimes I forget why the unschooling/homeschooling community is so important to me both online and offline. Now, I think I’ll attempt that nap again while the boys are out flailing at each other with swords made of foam and duct tape. It’s such a waste of time and I’ll be so glad when they outgrow it and get interested in more worthwhile things like what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives, which is what they should be thinking about instead of playing… Oops, there I go again. Guide on the side. Guide on the side. Ommmmmm.


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Up On The Roof With a Rodent

The other day, things starting going kind of swimmy on me. When I looked out the window at lunch, birds looked fuzzy and I could hardly tell a finch from a thrush. My cat, who was hunting in the field, looked more like a lopsided marshmallow that had been burned in a couple of places than he usually does. I asked Daughter if it was misty out and she assured me that it wasn’t, so  I decided a visit to the optometrist was in order if I still had “this vision thing” the next morning.

I still had it when I looked out the window at breakfast, and it was worse, actually. A hummingbird zoomed up to the window and I couldn’t tell if it was male or female until it started fighting with its reflection, which gave me a clue. Anyone else ever notice how male hummingbirds seem to spend almost all their time fighting? One wonders how the heck they get enough to eat or produce next year’s crop of hummingbirds. But I digress.

Dr. G had an opening so I hustled down to the mall to get my eyes examined. She said everything was fine – or as fine as it gets for someone who is legally blind in one eye without her glasses.

“Have you been doing a lot of close work?” She asked. “Do you spend more than two hours a day on the computer?”

Sheesh, 22 hours would be more like it, some days, and I told her so. She shook her head.

“Well, you have a temporary condition caused by too much straining to look at a computer screen,” she said. “It’s called “Computer Vision Syndrome” and it makes your vision “swimmy” as you put it, for objects that are farther away than your monitor. It’s because you’re sort of clenching the muscles in your eyes to focus. It can last for a day or even longer after you leave the computer and the only thing that helps is fewer hours in front of that blue screen.”

I told her that I have to spend hours in front of my computer, because I’m a writer and asked her if there wasn’t something else I could do to help.

“Well, you can try taking frequent breaks to walk outside and focus on something way off in the distance for a few minutes. That might make your eyeballs “unclench” so to speak.”

So, I drove home, trying not to clench my eyeballs. When I got there, I noticed a fresh mouse carcass in the yard, compliments of my cat, Benny, no doubt. He usually eats the rodents he catches, but the hunting is so good in the summer time, that he sometimes leaves one for the dog whose digestion just isn’t up to mouse tartare any more, so we try to dispose of them before she finds them.

But, I remembered, as I picked up the mouse by its tail, I was supposed to be focusing on the distance, so I looked off into the trees in the side yard, willing my eye muscles to relax and unwind, as I hurled the mouse up and into the air. Because I was looking off into the distance, I didn’t realize where it had landed, at first. Then I looked up at the garage roof and there it was, looking very odd and out of place. Daughter came out to join me just then and I showed her what had happened. She’s softhearted about critters, but has gotten somewhat inured to Benny’s turning our yard into a slaughterhouse. She loves the little creep.

However, like me, she thought the mouse on the roof motif was pathetic and creepy at the same time. I mean, who has a dead mouse on their garage roof? Owls? Actually, an owl is what we need right now or I’m going to have to dig out the roof rake that we use to get snow and ice off the roof and use it to get the late mouse down.  I’ll give it a couple of hours and see if an owl or hawk or – hey, maybe a turkey vulture or crow – will get it first, so I don’t have to.

In the meantime, I’m sitting here, staring over my laptop screen through the window into the distance,  typing as far away from the keyboard as I can, given the length of my arms, and trying not to clench my eyeballs. For some reason, I just realized, that makes me grit my teeth and I’m beginning to get an ache in my jaw. I suppose I’ll be off to my dentist next to be told that I have some other syndrome you get from trying not to clench your eyeballs while typing with your arms extended. There’s always something.

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