The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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Several weeks ago, my friend Lori over at Project Based Homeschooling mentioned a book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Over the next 72 hours, I saw this book mentioned across social media. A lot of people I knew were talking about it. Normally I avoid trendy things until they blow over (or forever) but when I read the premise – getting rid of the things you own that don’t prompt a “spark of joy,” I bought the book.

The premise appealed to me because of inklings I’ve been grappling with over the past year. When Kidlet and I were in Colombia last winter, I noticed how clutter was not a way of life for everyone, especially people who didn’t live in the city. Due to its three mountain ranges, history of guerrilla warfare and poor government investment in national infrastructure, Colombia is a difficult country to navigate once you leave the metropolitan areas; this makes bringing goods into small town and rural communities very costly.

One of the consequences is that in those smaller places you don’t see a lot of extra stuff in people’s homes. There are no Walmarts, Targets or Fred Meyer one-stop-shopping stores where you can easily buy things you didn’t know you ‘needed’ until you saw them on display. There is no Amazon delivery service or Zulily. There are still toy stores, market places and shops that sell knick-knacks, necessities and cheap sundries, but they are mom-and-pops.  Most people walk to them or take a motorcycle, horse or mototaxi. This is not to say that Colombians are minimalists, nor do I want to romanticize their existence. What I’m saying is I noticed how, because of circumstances often beyond their control, people managed to have a lot less ‘stuff’ and still live comfortably.

This is something I’ve observed often outside the US/Canada, and may be one of the reasons I enjoy traveling. Kidlet and I stayed in normal homes/apartment rentals for our visit to Europe, and while there I paid attention to what possessions the owners chose to have on hand, and how they organized them.  I also thought about what we brought with us, for three weeks: One large carry-on suitcase and my purse, plus Kidlet’s tiny backpack for her mini tablet, headphones, and sketchbook supplies. At the end of the three weeks there were clothes and books I’d packed that we never wore or read. Eighty percent of the little items I’d packed “just in case” were never used.  Several people have suggested I write about packing light with a child and I will do that later, but for now I’ll say — I could have packed lighter! And wished I had.

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

My clothes out to sort; all my remaining clothes in closet (including coats).

So, what does this have to do with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Well, it’s about accurately identifying what one needs and loves. I followed Marie Kondo’s directions as outlined in the book, beginning the process of discarding with my clothes. Just my clothes. (I’m leaving Kidlet and Hubster to do their own discarding later if they want.) It worked out just as she said. When I pulled a plastic tub off the top shelf of Kidlet’s closet marked “Out of Season Clothes,” I found stuff that did give me that “spark of joy” – but I hadn’t laid eyes on them in two years. Because they were in a bag in a closed container on the top shelf of a closet in my daughter’s room. Additionally, I could wear them right now, this month; so much for “out of season.” Meanwhile, there were items hanging in my closet that I looked at every day and didn’t like to wear.

When I was done pulling out the clothes that neither sparked joy nor met a real need, I’d filled four 13-gallon sized bags with clothes — alarming because I’d already ‘decluttered’ three such bags’ worth of clothing a month ago.  In one day, I let go of 50+% of my clothes. I don’t miss any of it.

The second category of items to discard is Books. I was looking forward to this because books take up a lot of space in our 2-bedroom flat. But it’s been trickier. I have far more books than clothes, and some of the books I’ve held on to for years have come to symbolize old aspirations and my past.

I also noticed more pushback from virtual on-lookers. Whereas no one suggested I hang on to clothes, or that it was good to have a closet full of outfits, many of my friends reminded me of the virtues of keeping physical books. Clearly, I have more bookworms for friends than fashionistas (not that the two are mutually exclusive), but I was intrigued. The fetishization of books is another thing I’ve been (idly) contemplating for a while, especially as Hubster has shifted mostly to digital/e-books and I imagine myself as a righteous defender of the independent bookstore.  It’s tempting to take this generally good thing (a book) and rationalize holding on to it because literacy, education and open-mindedness are so valued among my circles.

But there I was, defending the e-reader as preferable for some kinds of books, defending the whole process …. and in responding to my friends I discovered something: that I want to change my life, and that means removing the barnacles from long-held virtues so that I can actually grasp them again.

Marie Kondo strongly encourages honesty in this process — and the truth is I still view the book as a talisman. Kondo writes of clients with dozens of religious charms in their home, and they’ve had them for years, though the charms — if you take them literally — lose their value over a year or so. There’s a mindlessness to it, the idea that a thing retains its value to you forever. As if this object, long after you’ve paid it any attention, is still doing work for you, imbuing you with desirable gifts or powers.

Looking down at my pile of books — Kondo recommends putting all of them in a big pile on the floor to realize the enormity of ones collecting — it was apparent to me: I don’t need this kind of ‘luck.’

All my books - and some of Inara's - in a big pile to sort.

All my books – and some of Kidlet’s – in a big pile to sort.

Some of my books qualify as “sentimental items.” Kondo recommends sorting sentimental items last, but I was confronted with some yesterday and today. What inspires sentiment isn’t always positive. Letting go of some books has been about letting go of aspirations of who I want to be or skills I hope to acquire. And accepting that I am still not that person, even if I’ve had the book for 10 years. Emotionally, it’s not easy. But it’s been better to get rid of these books. They are attached to old, unrealized hopes which have just withered into shame.

If I pick up a book and feel shame, there is no doubt that it’s got to go. I had to take a deep breath and accept that there will always be another book to read, another really, really good book to read.  Not necessarily to possess, but to read. And share and reflect on.

What I am learning in this KonMari process — which I’m still at the beginning of — is that accepting when I have Enough books, is tied to accepting that I am Enough. Enough doesn’t mean Finished or Perfect, nor is it a prescription for the future.  What is in my life today may not be in my life tomorrow, what I love today I don’t have to love tomorrow. The excitement is beginning to mount as I have a much clearer view of the books that do spark joy – with the excess out of the way, I can see them and spend more time with them.

A Question for the Dalai Lama

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This morning on my way home from rowing practice, I started thinking about the recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon. What to do? What to do? What does a person like me, so far away and of average capabilities and little power, do? There is a famous account of the Prophet Muhammad telling his followers: Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he should change it with his hand; and if he cannot, with his tongue (by speaking against it); and if he cannot do that, he should hate it in his heart – but know that is the weakest of faith.

That story has come to my mind every day for months now, between IS and Boko Haram abroad, the ongoing killings of unarmed Black people and mentally ill persons by police seemingly given carte blanche here in the US, and school and mass shootings right here in my own state. And of course there’s our purchased politicians working steadily to strip more and more from the poor and working classes, including the quality of the very air they breathe and the stability of the ground they walk on. I mean, what do you even do?  Can anybody do anything?

And for some reason I started thinking about the Dalai Lama – I don’t remember why he came to mind as I sat there, parking my car in the garage – and what would he say about all this? IT dawned on me that I don’t know what the Dalai Lama has to say about any of these issues. Or the Pope. Well, Pope Francis talks about social issues, but these two are spiritual experts – why don’t they give Boko Haram or these criminals running our financial system a call and a talking to?

If those who cause the most pain and suffering are suffering from spiritual disease, doesn’t it make sense to send the most skilled practitioners to go and treat them? At least give it a try? Wouldn’t Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama be volunteering? Am I bananas for thinking this? I think of the scores of journalists and humanitarian observers who’ve been killed and murdered this year in their efforts to keep us all apprized of what’s happening (so that we can denounce it in our hearts from the comfort of our homes), and the medical professionals who’ve watched helplessly as bandits kidnapped their patients, and the thousands of ordinary people – including children – who’ve stood in witness to terrible things. And I think of ordinary chaplains and nuns in prisons and criminal psychiatric wards sitting with the condemned and the wretched as a regular practice, sometimes having to grapple with them physically but mostly grappling with their spirits, for their souls.

Later in the day I was at home and someone on Twitter mentioned the Pope Francis again – and his recent statements about expecting a punch in the face if you insult someone’s mother/religion. I think this Pope is not a bad Pope as Popes go, but what is his purpose, exactly? What has he been appointed to do? Is he challenging himself? And why was the Dalai Lama reincarnated? To what purpose? To inspire whom? To oversee the transformation of what souls?

In education, new charter school or program likes to vaunt itself as reforming when it’s simply plucked the high achieving students out of low achieving schools.  But a school or program that could take the worst performing/worst behaving individual students and help them become successful would be impressive – that would be the proof in their pudding, to whatever claims they’re making of their validity and necessity. So it follows for me when it comes to religious and spiritual leaders. Why are these big shots so involved with us? Why is it left to ordinary, unchosen people to deal with the monsters of the world?

At first I thought, Wow. Am I jabbing a finger at the Pope and the Dalai Lama because I feel powerless? It’s possible. Probably yes, to some degree. But there’s more … and even though I’m not his religion, I felt sacrilegious wondering this: Is the Dalai Lama afraid?  Too afraid? I’ll be open: I’d be afraid to face off  with BH and IS and all those other people wreaking havoc on populations, be it through physical violence or economic violence. Is he also afraid? Is the Pope afraid?

I thought, at least the Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation and his own awareness, what does he have to fear? What a victory it would be if he could guide some of the world’s most lost souls back onto an ethical path. What a victory it would be for the Catholics and the world if the Pope could soften the world’s most hardened hearts. Is it possible? Could they do it?  Is that even their job? Does anyone of us actually believe it’s possible? What does the Pope, what does the Dalai Lama, actually believe is possible?

Yesterday the Dalai Lama was in West Bengal, India, where he gave a speech on the necessity of dialogue to achieve peace.

 

 

Peace Requires Education

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… the one cultural revolution truly worthy of the name would be a revolution for peace, capable of transforming a man trained for war into a man educated for peace, because peace requires a proper education. This indeed would comprise the great mental, and therefore, cultural revolution of humanity. And this owuld mean, finally, the advent of the much discussed new man.

~José Saramago, The Notebook “May 7, 2009″

 

Buying a Car: I Am That Woman!

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We leased a car today – a new one. I’ve never owned a new car, or driven a new car. I’ve never been to a dealership to get a car and had no idea the process would take nearly four hours. When we first arrived I felt snippy — anxious about the financial commitment, the cost, having to haggle, our credit rating (how terrible would that be?), and what will we do with our old car, which was in the shop, and so on … so many things worrying me. I feel old and shrunken up when I fret like that.

And then I felt I had to keep an eye on Hubster, the wildcard. When it comes to money we tend to switch roles – I go from erratic to plodding, and he goes from objective to thrill-seeking. I would rather back away from a purchase altogether if it seems excessive, whereas he will say things like, “Well if we’re going to spend [x amount] on a lease, we might as well buy the car and pay for it in cash.” And then I have to look at him like he’s grown antlers and he says, “What? You don’t agree?” And then I have to explain why that is ridiculous, and how we already talked about this and my god, nooo.

As often happens with us, the saleslady was amused by our banter and maybe the fact that we actually exist as a couple — I suspect a lot of people think it’s interesting that a Black woman and an Asian American man are even together, and I can only imagine what stereotypes we’re reinforcing or destroying as we go about in public together. It’s not something I think about at the time, but sometimes later when I’m home I reflect on it….

Anyway. Back to the car. I was abrupt and guarded and trying to manage all these concerns at once when we first arrived, so I kept the saleslady at arm’s length. She initially struck me as harried and a little dismissive, a woman probably in her late 40s, with whom I surely had little in common.

Then at some point I realized, “Oh my gosh. I’m that woman.” Yes, I’m that 30-40-something woman with the spouse and the kid, who is not being present, who is stressed out, lacking charm or the ability to find humor in things. I used to have customers like this all the time in my previous work, back when I was still in my 20s. And I used to wonder, “How do these sour women get this way?”  Now I know: they are not like this all the time. This is what it looks like when you have so many things you’re trying to take care of that how likable you are in that situation is simply not a priority.

Before I knew it, the test drive had been completed, and I was being given quotes. I was so focused on my goal to not spend more than I felt was reasonable, and to keep to a budget, that I found myself doing something I rarely do – saying No. I sent the saleswoman back three times. I don’t think I’ve ever sent anything back three times for anything in my entire life. Hubster wanted to reconsider, “Well, maybe ….” I put my hand up –at least that’s how I imagine it — and put my foot down. “No. We can’t do this.”

Surprisingly, the saleswoman kept going back and it occurred to me later that even though I wasn’t trying to haggle, this was haggling. She didn’t seem surprised by it. The fourth quote was the one that worked, and we managed to get it without any rudeness or hurt feelings. Now that I know this is possible, “the game” has changed?

Ultimately, we got a solid car on a three year lease, and I don’t think we overpaid too much for it, all things considering. The saleswoman turned out to be very chummy with us. Before we left, I was relating to her as one adult to another.

Even though I’m in my late 30s I still often feel like an adolescent in unfamiliar situations. But the way I view myself from the inside is not how I present anymore on the outside. My life has changed, I’ve changed, in ways I don’t always realize. I hope that I can remember from time to time that Oh my gosh, I am that woman! And what’s more, so is she! And it’s all right. There are good things about being “that” woman. And sometimes, it just is what it is, nothing more.

All in all, a good experience to have on the second day of the New Year.

Drifting into the New Year

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How to celebrate New Year’s when you’re in the doldrums? I’m so often in the doldrums, most people wouldn’t notice I’m there — sometimes it takes me a few weeks or months of getting shadowed up to my knees or waist or neck in it, to realize where I am.  You’d think I’d recognize the signs, and I sort of do, but whether I’m always willing to admit it to myself is another story. Daily life lights up with easy distractions.

But a big warning sign I should stop ignoring is not wanting to write things for the public (via blog or wherever) — I do this mostly out of a bizarre fear of sounding like a loon. How terrible it would be if I hit Publish on something ridiculous! Which is silly for three reasons: One: no one cares. Two: I am ridiculous. Three: not-writing for me is about the most depressing thing there is; it makes everything worse.

Every first day of the year for a decade or so now, I read a passage called “For the New Year” from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.  It’s one of those things that sits on my heart and from day to day I weigh my actions against the ideas presented in that passage, choosing to be guided by it when I do; and just as often, noting when I didn’t follow it — usually because I was thoughtless and forgot.

But this year is the first time in a long time it hasn’t resonated with me. I still think it’s a terrific aphorism, just not the one I need right now.  And although the New Year is my favorite holiday, for 2015 I didn’t plan or do anything special for it. I didn’t even go and get the mochi to make for breakfast as I’ve done for years since marrying Hubster. Late on New Year’s Eve, I regretted doing nothing. Most holidays I’m content with not doing anything special, but it didn’t sit well with me neglecting this day. Not at all.

What a way to start the new year, with a regret. But also a realization: some things do matter, some things do matter to me. And recently I’ve been lost in the fog of discontent that arises from focusing on unimportant things, so finding that I cared about something was like finding a little lamp shining on the path leading out.

I did make a wish for the year, that I posted on Twitter: To have a more lucid and efficient mind, a softer heart, and stronger muscles. Those are reasonably achievable, and what’s more, they are sincere. It’s strange not step into the year with enthusiasm and my usual optimism, but I still have sense enough to know that my life is full of great things, that I have many good fortunes. 2014 was good for me, but part of what makes me sad is knowing it could have been more. And all the more that it wasn’t, was no ones fault but my own. I have another post sitting in Drafts that touches on that called “Aging Gracefully in an Age of Regrets.” Maybe I’ll post it later this week or month or year.

A great thing that happened at the end of 2014 was reading Rilke and having his words finally ring a bell for me. Here’s a part of a poem I found pertinent to this day, a prayer I make for myself.  From Part Two: XIII of the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Berlin Highlights

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In this post, I’ll share highlights of our visit to Berlin, Germany. Kidlet and I were joined by my long-time friend Elandria, who had met us in Prague. Not only was it great to see my friend again — she normally lives 2,500 miles away in Tennessee — but it was wonderful for Kidlet to get some quality time with her “Auntie E.”

Good morning from our Berlin apartment.

Good morning! From our Berlin rental apartment.

After writing yesterday’s post on Prague I realized how much wasn’t said. Places to eat (and not eat), buying souvenirs, what things confused or perturbed me, history, culture, race and language, our accommodations,  the arts scene — not to mention so very many more photos I wanted to share. If you have a specific question about Prague or want to know more about the experience, feel free to ask in the comments. (If you know me offline, of course you can ask me offline.)

Now on to Berlin, where we spent four nights in a one-bedroom apartment (Air BnB) in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood:

Sights We Saw in Berlin
Checkpoint Charlie
Potsdamer Platz — Salvador Dali gallery — a wintergarten — shopping mall
Museum Island — Pergamon Museum
MACHmit! Children’s Museum
Brandenburg Gate
City bus routes #100 and #200
Berlin Wall
Story of Berlin museum
DDR Museum
Marx/Engels statue

City of Bikes, Berlin.

City of Bikes, Berlin.

Berlin is enormous, flat and full of bicycles. It also feels young and vibrant, diverse and full of history, too. It felt like a place one could just slip into, if one were accustomed to cities and city life.  Getting to experience Berlin with one of my BFFs was great, and she was a real help to Kidlet, too. We all really liked the city and its excellent transit system, and by the end I was trying to figure out if Hubster could be persuaded to move there!

Berlin is also where I realized I’m a selfish introvert used to getting lost in her own head; hence, I am not the best travel companion. That was a humbling experience and I often felt frustrated with myself.  The one time in Berlin that I felt truly at ease was on our last night there — after a few glasses of wine (and uzo). Only then did I feel like a fun person to be around. For the future, I could probably address this problem by: doing daily relaxation exercises; traveling with more than one other adult (so that I can “tune out” as needed without guilt/anxiety); learning to ‘lighten up’ and be less serious/anxious; and traveling more frequently with another adult so that I can get better at it.

My own hangups aside, Berlin was great. It’s hard to list the highlights because almost everything was pretty cool (once we found it and arrived there).

 

Berlin Highlights

Museum Island, Berlin

Museum Island, Berlin

Riding the #100 city bus — Elandria had read somewhere that this was the thing to do, and a much cheaper alternative to those sightseeing buses that charge 40 Euro to take you to the same locations. Many of the city buses are double decker, and we lucked out by boarding the #100 at its starting point, so we had front row, top deck seats. As the bus took off, E and I agreed that this was really nice and the only difference between this and those sightseeing buses was that we weren’t getting a running commentary from the tour guide. Well. Lo and behold! Seated behind Elandria was a Berliner in a burly coat, who appeared to be in his 60s, with a voice made for theater. He began pointing out every thing for us! As we rode down the main avenues, he told us about this and that museum and what sort of collections they held, this and that church and when they were built and destroyed and rebuilt, what that construction project was, and what types of events were held in this popular site.  He told us about the previous night’s celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling. He was not condescending or overbearing in any way. We got the grand tour, he was very kind. I wish I’d been more bold and asked his name or at least his occupation. Thank you, man from Berlin, for the first day orientation!

Seeing the Salvador Dali gallery was another thing Elandria wanted to do, and I ended up really liking it! I’ve seen some of Dali’s more famous works, but this museum was focused on his sketches and lesser known sculptures and paintings. What I loved about it was getting more insight into his process as an artist, seeing the evolution of his ideas through sketches. I was happy that Kidlet got to see this, too, as she does mostly pencil and pen drawings. I left the gallery with a deeper appreciation for Dali’s brilliance as an artist – not just his famed imagination, but his actual, technical skill. I could have sat with some of his pictures for half an hour simply because they were so good. I also learned more about his life, like his 50+ year devotion to his wife, Gala, and bitter feuds with other artists, and for heaven’s sake, the man was burned in a tower that he’d retreated to after Gala died — in all, what a cinematic life. And he is not overrated.

The Checkpoint Charlie museum was more than I bargained for, in terms of information. First there’s the cheesy, touristy thing where you can pay a few Euro to take photos with young (non American) men dressed as American guards, then there’s this strange, deceptively small-looking private museum that declares its dedication to peace and human rights – CRAMMED FULL of text, photos, artifacts and videos. It’s old-fashioned in its presentation. But there is a wealth of information there, countless testimonies and photographs. The unabashed, passionate feeling about the fact that people’s lives were devastated by the Wall and and that the people who rose up against it were heroes was … kind of awesome.  So many historical museums have a cold veneer of objectivity, whereas this one feels very much a product of the 1960s.

View into art/printing room at the children's museum.

View into art/printing room at the children’s museum.

An eight-minute walk from our apartment, right in the heart of Prenzl’berg was the MACHmit! children’s museum. Kidlet was stoked to check this place out, as she’d been toted around for days looking at things that had belonged to dead people. Many Berlin museums are open until 6, 7 or 8 at night. As a tourist, this means there are things to do after dark in the wintry months. MACHmit closed at 6, so we were able to visit on a weekday when school aged children were there, and Kidlet had a blast.

The MACHmit looks like it was designed by Waldorf-obsessed storytellers who’d been given approximately a million dollars. I was taken aback at the exhibits and their high levels of sturdiness, simplicity and beauty. The downstairs was an homage to the way things were done in olden days and the Grimm fairy tales … with printing rooms and a recreation of an apothecary that I wanted to play in. Upstairs was more play-space, a story time area, massive tables for art, and a café.  Prenzl’berg is a trendy area of town with lots of families with young children, and I felt at ease there. The way people dressed, ate and behaved was not that different than what I’m used to in Seattle, with all the emphasis on organic (called bio in German) foods, old-fashioned little dining spots, and probably many other insufferable bourgeoise obsessions that I have no business knowing about.

A final highlight for me was getting to meet a long-time online pal, whom I met long before I even knew Hubster. She is somewhat famous these days (there is a Wikipedia page about her!) and I was slightly disbelieving that she made the time to visit with us. I’m so proud of her and all the important work she does, and to meet her in person and see who she was and what she was like, face-to-face, just made me feel good.

When it came time to leave Berlin, I was not ready. Elandria had to return back to the United States, and Kidlet and I were expected in Munich. Maybe one day I’ll return, and if I do, I will definitely spend some time in the Tiergarten (a 520-acre city park). Every time we passed it, I’d feel my spirit trying to pull away and run in! In Munich, I was able to get in a bit of park ramble, but that’s for another post. A few more photos from Berlin:

 

Berlin postal worker's bicycle.

Berlin postal worker’s bicycle.

More Bikes in Prenzl'berg, Berlin

More Bikes in Prenzl’berg, Berlin

Kidlet and Elandria at the Story of Berlin museum, religious diversity exhibit.

Kidlet and Elandria at the Story of Berlin museum.

We didn't get to explore Nicolai Quarter, but this is an evening view of it, and the Spree river.

We didn’t get to explore Nicolai Quarter, but this is an evening view of it, and the Spree river.

At the MACHmit! in Berlin

At the MACHmit! in Berlin

Elandria and I on our last night in Berlin. Note my wine-induced grin!

Elandria and I on our last night in Berlin. Note my wine-induced grin!

 

Back from Europe: Highlights from Prague

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So I managed to blog exactly once since leaving for our three-week trip to Europe (Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Austria) – and that was on the plane ride there. Oops. Traveling (with a young child) is tiring, and between journaling and updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I’d had my fill of documenting the experience while there. Still, there’s a sense of completion I get from blog posts that I just don’t get from other forms of social media.

Let’s begin with the trip itinerary:

Prague, Czech Republic –  4 nights
Berlin, Germany – 4 nights
Munich, Germany – 3 nights
Verona/Brescia area, Italy – 3 nights
Florence, Italy – 2 nights
Overnight train – 1 night
Vienna, Austria – 1 night
Prague again – 3 nights

That sort of pace has never been my style, but the transitions were not as grueling as I’d expected. I still prefer to stay longer in a single city or to visit more than one or two cities of an entire country, but given the parameters I was working with, it was the best itinerary I could’ve come up with. And I can say that because I came up with 19 possible itineraries – this one was #17!

Wenceslas Square, Prague

Wenceslas Square, Prague

Several people have asked me for highlights of the trip, so I’ll structure my blog posts along those lines. First up: Prague, our arrival/departure city. We spent four nights there at the start and three nights at the end. Initially we stayed in Malá Strana (Little Quarter), several hundred meters from Malostrenská Square (aka Starbucks Square). It was a good location because of its proximity to the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a few key tram lines. On our second visit, we stayed in a more remote location up on the hill, a few minutes’ walk beyond Prague Castle, near the Loreto. Prague is compact, so we were not very far from things, but the hill is a consideration. Especially walking back after dinner at 10:30 at night when it’s really cold. Which we did, several times. If I visit Prague again, I’d like to try accommodations in Old Town or thereabouts because there were more restaurant options on that side of the river, and a lot of stuff over there we didn’t see much of.

Sights We Saw in Prague
Prague Castle — St. Vitus Cathedral — Golden Lane
Franz Kafka Museum
Charles Bridge
Petrin Park — Tower — Hunger Wall — Mirror Maze
Wenceslas Square
National Marionette Theater
New World Street
Strahov Monastery Library
Old Town Square — Astronomical Clock
Kampa Island
Museum of Miniatures
Nerudova Street
Old Jewish Cemetery — Pinkas, Spanish, and Klausen Synagogues — Ceremonial Hall
Municipal House
Palladium (Shopping) Mall
Lennon Wall
Museum of Ghosts and Legends

 

 

First evening in Prague, at the Charles Bridge.

First evening in Prague, Charles Bridge

Highlights

The Charles Bridge is not overrated. We walked across it eight or nine times and it never got old. It was the first tourist thing we did on our first evening in Europe. It was not crowded,  and early enough we could look up at the statues and see them against a backdrop of sapphire blue sky, with all the waterfront lights reflecting on the Vltava River. Buskers (one of Kidlet’s favorites was a man who played glasses of water) and portrait artists were still around at night. During the day, there are more ware peddlers and a lot more visitors in general. One day I’d like to walk the Charles Bridge at sunrise.

A photo of me asking Kidlet to include overhead sign in the photo of me.

A photo of me asking Kidlet to include overhead sign in the photo of me.

Franz Kafka Museum – Well, I can’t think of a better museum dedicated to an individual, what an homage this place was. It’s located on Kampa Island and there’s a David Černy fountain out front of two men with swiveling hips facing each other, perpetually “urinating” into a shallow pool shaped like the Czech Republic. Kidlet got a real kick out of that as I mulled over the artist’s statement. I spent two hours at the Kafka museum and could have lingered longer, but six year olds have their limits. Kidlet never fussed or complained and spent most of the time drawing in her sketch book, but she found the space, full of shadows and angles, to be eerie.  As we moved from room to room, she’d grip my sleeve and ask, saucer-eyed, “What’s that sound?”

In Old Town, we visited the Municipal House (the exterior of which is spectacular) for the two-room show, Vital Art Nouveau 1900. When traveling, the temptation is strong to see famous warehouse-sized museums, but museum fatigue is real (and lousy). I retain so much more information from a small, well-written and well-curated exhibit on a subject I’m interested in. Here I learned more about the philosophy and influences behind Art Nouveau, especially as it developed in this region, and also about Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, whose work you’d likely recognize even if you don’t know him by name. There were echoes of ideas and feelings I experienced at the recent Seattle Art Museum exhibit on the Northwest School. Some artistic connections were made for me here, and also some beautiful artifacts and film footage of Prague from a century ago.

View from Funicular, Petrin Park

View from Funicular, Petrin Park

On our first full day in Prague — before one of my best friends arrived to join us — we had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours at Petrin Park. It was one of our best days on the trip. We set out for a breakfast place called Cafe Lounge near The Hunger Wall, but accidentally took the long way (I wasn’t lost, just confused about where we were going).

It was a great thing because we stumbled upon the Lennon Wall, and some funny statues of giant babies on Kampa Island, and we were along the water and met friendly dogs and their smiling owners in a little park. After a good breakfast (with good service!) at Cafe Lounge, we walked to Petrin Park. There was the sculpture art dedicated to victims of communism, and near that, a big bed of blue and white flowers. I got yelled at by an impatient transit ticket seller, who was then yelled at by an Englishman who came to my defense. Then we took the cable car (aka the funicular) up to the top of the park, where we saw the replica of the Eiffel Tower and spent some time in the Mirror Maze (a major highlight for Kidlet). It was still pretty Autumn that first week of November, and we got to see Prague’s trees full of changing leaves. Petrin Park was calm and interesting, with lots of paths crossing the hills. There’s a nice playground at the bottom of the Park, off of Ujezd.  We returned a day or two later with my friend and climbed Petrin Tower (299 steps, and the elevator was broken – be sure to ask after the lift’s condition before buying tickets if there is anyone in your party unable/unwilling to climb those stairs!). It was cold and misty on the second day but the views were still grand.

Kidlet was a real trooper and let me visit not only the Old Jewish Cemetery but several important buildings related to Prague’s Jewish culture and history in the Jewish Quarter. The Cemetery is a sight to behold, with graves — dating back to the mid-15th century — scrambling over each other and every which way.  Adjacent to the cemetery is the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 80,000 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed by the Nazi regime are written on the walls. In the upstairs of the synagogue, we looked at the art of children from the Terezín (aka Theresienstadt) Camp. Kidlet’s mind is still very much in a child’s world of cute critters and robots, candy, hearts, flowers and rainbows, but I talked to her about what we were seeing here.  I know she doesn’t well understand the context of World War II (nor does she care to go into details of history) but she listened and seemed to think about it.  Another highlight, half a dozen blocks from the Cemetery, was the Spanish Synagogue. It’s done in a Moorish Revival style, and all I can say is, do an image search and see for yourself; I stepped in and was in awe.

Well, summing up just the highlights was tough. I have so much more I could tell or write about Prague, but no one wants to read a 2,000 word post. I’ll just end by saying I truly hope to visit Prague again — it’s beautiful, approachable and very romantic. Also, one final highlight: Kidlet lost a tooth there on our very last night!

Lost tooth!

Lost tooth!

 

“Nobody Reads Books Anymore”

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I’m standing with Kidlet on the jet bridge, about to board our first flight of three that will take us to Prague, when I overhear an older man in a rumpled polo shirt tell another passenger: “Nobody reads books anymore when they travel.”

At this my ears perk up. I’m an inveterate eavesdropper, but I’m also selective: what I love to overhear most are absurdities. The man continues, shaking his head till the white wisps of his hair change direction.

“Ten, 15 years ago, I’d get on a plane and everyone would be reading a book. Now, no one reads books on airplane. No one reads books anymore, everyone’s got their faces in these ‘devices.'”

The woman he is talking to nods sympathetically. “It sure does seem that way, things sure have changed.”

He leans toward her now like she’s an old pal, though they’d only met in the terminal. “Digital devices. Cell phones. Tablet computers. The Internet. Who wants a book anymore? Nobody reads on planes.” His tone was lamenting yet excited.

As we inch forward toward the plane door, I consider the airport’s busy Hudson News shop just 500m from our gate – half of the inventory appeared to be books. Best sellers, business manuals, genre fiction, and so on.

I’m still thinking about the man’s words as we make our way to our seats – the very last row. The plane isn’t even 20% into the loading process, yet I pass four people already reading paper books before row 12 – another half dozen are obviously reading books on e-readers.

Seeing this cheers me. One, it confirms my own experience – which is that quite a good number of people read on airplanes; and two, I hope the man will see what I see and realize that his assertion is wrong. I hope he will be comforted by the sight of people reading books.

Fast forward two hours. The same man comes to the rear of the plane to use the lavatory, which is occupied. As he waits, he strikes up a conversation with the flight attendant. “You know what I’ve noticed,” he says, sighing. “Nobody reads books on the airplane anymore.”

I look up.

To get to the 34th row, he must have passed many people holding books, but he chose not to look at them or to see them. I myself am not two feet from him, and nothing at all obscures his view of me sitting with one book on a tray table and another (notebook) that I’m writing in.

He makes a concession, gesturing at a seat in front of me: “Well I see one person over there reading a magazine.”

The flight attendant tells him she brought a book with her to read but she hasn’t had a chance to get to it. “By the time you’re heading back to your seat, I’ll be reading it. So that’ll be one person you can count, at least.”

I listen carefully, waiting for him to express happy surprise at receiving hard evidence that someone reads books on airplanes after all.

He rolls his head as if to stretch his neck. “What book is it?”

“It’s called River of Doubt.”

“What’s that? I haven’t seen it.”

She explains that it’s about some exploits of Teddy Roosevelt in South America in his later years. The man soon changes the subject, begins to talk about his life and career. Apparently, he writes?

He doesn’t seem perturbed by evidence that clearly refutes his earlier assertion. What an investment he’s made in his belief! Such a little thing, so easy to prove false. No doubt, he will go on repeating it.

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Response to A Teacher “Insulted” by Homeschooling

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Earlier this week I read a blog post titled, “I Am Slightly Insulted by Homeschooling,” over at Sammiches and Psych Meds.  Today I commented on the post but it’s – in my typical fashion – so long that it could be its own blog post.  Comments have to go through approval over there, so I’m going to post my responses here, as well. (Might as well, my blog could use another post!)  The original poster covers an anti-homeschooling argument that’s familiar to most homeschoolers: The “Expertise Argument” which can be summed up as:  “I’ve received quite a lot of training and credentials as a teacher, how on earth do you think you can do what I do?”

While I know there are homeschooling folks out there who diminish the work of teachers, that’s not the case for me and most of the homeschoolers I know. We commit large amounts of time on a daily basis to studying, observing, discussing, and thinking about learning, about how to be better learners and how to be more effective communicators with our children. Do I think there is a role for professional teachers in our society? Absolutely! But for me, this doesn’t translate into my child needing to spend 6-8 hours a day with them.

In any case, my reply to the post (again, linked here) follows:

I’ve been involved in homeschooling (as a child and now as a parent) for over 25 years and have never met anyone who made the decision to homeschool arbitrarily.  I’ve met lots of people who’ve homeschooled for reasons I don’t agree with, but “just because” has never come up once on my radar, not even as a rumor. If anyone has told you that they homeschool “just because” I suspect that was their way of saying they didn’t want to talk about their actual reasons with you at that time.

I have many dear friends who were trained as professional teachers, and I have a great deal of respect for their expertise and their efforts with children. We often talk about education, childhood development and the learning process.  We exchange ideas, and I learn from them regularly. Homeschooling doesn’t have to mean being at odds with professional educators or rejecting their knowledge and experience.

Kidlet at eco-hostel in Colombia, where facilities were built by non-professional builders who had studied and mentored to learn the necessary skills.

Kidlet at eco-hostel in Colombia, where facilities were built by non-professional builders who had studied and mentored to learn the necessary skills.

I absolutely agree with you that teachers are the most qualified to teach what they’ve been taught, as they’ve been taught. What you’ve missed – and some homeschoolers miss this, too – is that it’s not my goal to replicate what you teach as you’ve been taught to teach it. Put another way, you’ve confused ‘education’ with the current public (or even private) school system. These things are not synonymous.

You gave the example of construction or dentistry – and it’s true, outside of the most desperate circumstances, I would not attempt to build a dwelling or perform oral surgery without any training or research. I wouldn’t live in a house built by or have oral surgery performed on myself by someone who had no idea what they were doing, either. If that’s your analogy, I can see why you feel it is obvious that homeschooling is a bad idea. But a more appropriate analogy would be this: I recently traveled to Colombia and stayed in several dwellings that had been built by people who did not have the certifications and trainings required to be licensed contractors in the United States. I took my daughter to a hospital there in which the doctor who saw her was not licensed to practice in the United States.

My point is that what matters is what you know, and the expertise you have – not who credentialed you or how many hours you spent in a particular kind of classroom. There are many ways to learn, not just the way you’ve learned. There are many ways to get good at something, not just the way you’ve learned how to get good at something. Once we step outside of our own particular context, this becomes apparent.

Lastly, I will say there are things I want my daughter to learn about learning that I can’t expect her to learn in most public and private schools because of their very design. Would you really feel comfortable with a parent coming in and saying, “I want my child to equate learning with joy and diligence, not external rewards or punishments or fear of humiliation?” Or “My child needs a mentor, not a teacher.” Or “In order for him to have a chance at surviving in this society, I need you to model for my child how to critique capitalism and dismantle institutional racism instead of internalizing the violence done towards him.”  Have you been trained to teach in ways that would allow you to accommodate children with these needs? Are you given the freedom as a teacher in a school to accommodate them?