Monday, June 17, 2013


Curb Your Enthusiasm

The table beside my desk in my home office.

In our family, as soon as we admit we are committed to something, the brainstorming floodgates open.  Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.  Colleen, who is masterful researcher and internet explorer, is on the computer creating Pinterest sites, and finding amazing deals for RVs on Craigslist, albeit about six months before we will be ready to buy anything, calling us all over to look.   The boys join in with random and somewhat predictable suggestions.  “Can we finally go to Disney World? Everyone of our friends has been, some of them two or three times,” Jacob, the fifteen year old, reminds us.  Having been raised more or less like a hippie child, Jacob had imbibed very little television or junk food during the first twelve years of his life.  By then, Theo was five, we’d moved back into the city from a little place in the country and our home schooling crowd had shifted from want-to-be dropouts to high-tech want-to-be urban survivalists.  In town, we all got too busy and more or less gave up on the idea that a healthy diet was one  low in American popular culture.    In Jacob’s mind, we can never make up for the deprivations he has suffered.  In Colleen’s mind and mine, the past five years with its over-indulgence in cable television, fast food, and the rush rush rush of kid’s activities is the exact reason we want to take this trip. 

            “Disney World.  Got it,” I say and glance over to Colleen. “There’s Epcot,” attempting to stave off a diatribe.

            “And beaches.  I want some beaches,” Jacob punctuates.

            At that point, Theo starts jumping up and down in his best Tigger imitation.  “Beaches, beaches, yes, beaches.”

            Since we are all standing—or in Theo’s case, jumping—around in the kitchen, I suggest that we all sit at the table and begin to organize our random synapse explosions.  It is not that I am all that calm and organized, but I’ve learned to co-habit with MY fleeting desires and interests, accept that I won’t remember everything but will probably discover something better, and breathe deeply through whatever disorganization may ensure.  (This sounds like the writing process, doesn’t it?  I should be quoting Anne Lamott here or Natalie Goldberg, jotting this on a 3 x 5 card and pinning to the cork board:  “The writing process is a metaphor for travel.  Travel is a metaphor for Life.”)  It’s when everyone around me begins bursting with ideas, like balloons popping or firecracker’s exploding, that I feel the need to corral, or herd the animal spirits.

            “Hey, let’s all sit down and get some of this on paper.”  Thinking this will be easy, I grab a pencil and couple of old envelops.  Colleen foreseeing trouble, says, “Let me get some clean paper,” and so we begin the first of many discussions. 

             I admit that I want to complete more of the family research that I have been doing.  “I’d like to spend a little time in Southern Illinois in some libraries and in county offices learning more about my dad’s side of the family.  Then there are the Norths in Pennsylvania, and several families in North Carolina.  We’ve been to Tennessee, my mom’s side, a lot, but there is still more to do there.  And there’s Virginia.  I didn’t get much done the last time we were there.”

 “I want the boys to see the Grand Canyon and the national parks out west, Yosemite, Yellowstone” Colleen adds.  She looked toward Jacob.

Although Jacob is only fifteen, he’s six foot four.  Last year he started playing league basketball, and next to million dollar automobiles, it’s his passion. “I want to see Kevin Durant and the Thunder and Labron and the Heat.  Maybe the Lakers.  Definitely Madison Square Garden and the Knicks.”

Colleen nods, “I can support that.”

Seeing an in, I suggest some baseball games.  “You may have to go to those by yourself,” Colleen says, and the boys agree.   Why is it no one in my family likes baseball the way my father and I did?  I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than at a ballgame in Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.  “I’ve never been to Fenway,” I whine.

Colleen smiles sweetly, “Maybe you can finally see some games in spring training, while the boys and I head to the beach.”  That’s as good as it’s going to get, so I’ll take it. 

“What are the boys supposed to study next year?”  I ask.  I have to admit that home schooling for Jacob and Theo has basically been Colleen’s doing.  This year, besides spelling, handwriting, and math, Theo has been taking classes at a co-op in photography, improv acting, and Greek and Roman mythology for what seems like the hundredth time.  Jacob has been focusing on chemistry, geometry, composition, and British literature.  He has always been a great reader, and one of our great challenges has been keeping him stocked in pleasure reading.  He devoured basically every kid’s series there has been.  Swallows and Amazons, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Hardy Boys, you name it. Now he is into Ian Fleming. We’ve even forced Jeff Shaara on him.  It got so bad a few years ago that I dug my father’s old Horatio Alger books out of a trunk in the garage, and Jacob read a bunch of those, in addition to Chatman’s Baseball Joe series.  Why can’t I get him to support me on the baseball stadiums idea?

“I think it’s time for American literature,” Colleen says.

Jacob turns toward me with an “ol shit” expression.  He knows what this means.  I almost feel sorry for him.

“You mean it’s time for Dad’s American Literature class?” I say.  I like referring to myself in the third person, sometimes.  It makes me seem scarier than I really am. 

Jacob’s not looking up, I notice.  But that doesn’t slow me down.  I know that pose from almost forty years of teaching. All students know:  Don’t look up and catch the teacher’s eyes; he’ll call on you, then.   “Perfect.  I’ve been waiting for this moment.  Your mom’s had all the fun so far.  Now it’s time for Huckleberry Finn . . .”

            “Read it.” Jacob interrupts, hoping to tamp my growing enthusiasm.

“Not with me, you haven’t.  And The Great Gatsby . . .”

“Read it.”  He waits for my response, which I deny him, and offer only the stare.  “Well, I have,” he says.

Undeterred, I begin listing.  “There’s Whitman’s houses in Brooklyn and Camden.  Dickinson’s in Amherst.  Poe in Baltimore.  Washington Irving in Tarrytown. Stowe in Maine, Emerson and Thoreau in Concord.  We can head out west for Thor House and Steinbeck country.  Hannibal, Missouri.  I went there as a kid.”

“There’s Little House on the Prairie and Little Women,” Colleen adds as much to widen Lyman’s Canon as to remind us of books they’re read together.  

“God, and then I’ve never been to Patterson, New Jersey, or Hartford, Connecticut, or Key West or to City Lights Bookstore.  That’s William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, and the Beat Poets.”  I’ve begun footnoting myself.  My family hates it when I offer footnotes to my lectures.   I am starting to get too excited.  “We could read Dreiser or Kerouac or Sinclair Lewis.  Willa Cather in New Mexico.  Powell along the Colorado.  Muir in California, Aldo Leopold in Michigan.”  I am beginning to get a little obscure, I know. “There’s too much.  How about Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs.”

“Stop, Dad.”  Jacob says.  “Calm down.  We can’t do all that.”

“You are right.  Maybe we will do mostly short stories:  Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Faulkner, Winesburg, Ohio, the Nick Adams stories.  Maybe some Annie Proulx or Rick Bass.  Raymond Carver.  Bobbie Ann Mason.  Sherman Alexie.”

“What about you, Theo?”  Colleen interrupts.  She’s ready for Professor Grant to shut up. 

“Presidents.  Can we do stuff about Presidents?”

“Good idea,” Colleen says.  “He’s obsessed with the Presidents vs. Alien game on his Kindle,” Colleen informs me.   “Like what?” she asks Theo, and holds up her hand to me, so I won’t begin my Presidential sites tour lecture.

“Mount Rushmore.  Theodore Roosevelt, of course,” Theo says as if he were talking to idiots.  He does have a Theodore Roosevelt poster on the wall in his room.  I make a mental note to add the autobiography or The Rough Riders to our reading list.  Maybe Theo can join in on parts of Dad’s American Literature class.

“Anyone else?”

“I liked Monticello.”  We visited there three years ago.  It makes you feel like a good parent when a child remembers something educational. “What about Grant?”

I say, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” half remembering a joke my father used to repeat.  Everyone looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.  “It’s a joke,” I say trying to recover a little respect.  “New York, we can do that.  And Mount Rushmore, I haven’t been since I was three or four.”

“Any place else?”

“Yes,” and Theo’s face opens like a flower.  He brightens.  His eyes are shining, and he’s confident he has a great idea.  “Alcatraz, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Montauk, Empire State Building, Fort Sumter.”  He pauses for a second and begins again, “The Atlanta Aquarium, Battery Park, Mount St. Helen’s, Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Mount Tam.”  He takes another breath.

Colleen and I look at each other like we do not know this child.  “What the. . . .  Where did you . . . ?”  I’m astonished.  I’m speechless.

But Jacob has a self-satisfied, smug expression, like he knows all the answers.    ‘I know.”

“Know what?  How your brother has suddenly become the family navigator?

“Percy Jackson.  These are all places in the Rick Riordan series The Last Olympians.” 

Now Colleen is looking smug.  She does this ever so often, when we have living, demonstrable proof that her home schooling is producing some very bright self-actualized children.  

“Cool. Sounds like I need to read some Percy Jackson.” I admit. I’m not sure we need to go much longer.   “Looks like we have the basis for our year.  Colleen, do you have anything else?”

“Well, three things.  First, family.  There’s your sister, Barbara and the nieces and nephews.  So North Carolina is required. Then my dad’s family in Georgia.  So those are givens.  Then museums.  I really want to go to museums.  When we were in D. C.,  we didn’t get to the Smithsonian, or the Holocaust Museum.  I hear St. Louis has a great one.”

“Yep, me, too.  And I think the boys need to see more art, and we always love history.  Right boys?”  They don’t bother to answer.

“But mostly, I want to be outside.  I want us to be active.  I want to camp in the national parks and hike and bicycle and swim.  You are always at a desk, and now I am at the computer doing my school and with the boys doing their homework.  I want to move and I want some fresh air.”

We look at the boys to see if there is any dissension.

Jacob looks half defiant and half pleading, “Can we at least take the x-box for when it’s cold or raining or dark?”

We agree.  Then Colleen and I gather up our notes.  I am old school, so I say, “Time to get a file folder to put these notes in.”  Colleen takes the papers and says, “I’ll type them into a Google docs file.”

Soundtrack:  "America," Simon and Garfunkel:


  1. Add Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Concord, MA. Indeed, Alcott, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson are all buried within 20 yards of each other in Concord. Emerson's tombstone is a hoot.
    Gettysburg is an education must. The number of memorials that litter the battlegrounds, the suicide charges, the South's highwater mark... a reminder of the infallibility of America and nonsense of war. Every American should visit it and read Whitman. - Rich P.

  2. I'd wander over to Oxford, Mississippi, too!

  3. If you're going YA,like Riordan, take them up to Olympic National Park and drive from Forks to La Push to the Quileute Indian Reservation. Locations in that teen vampire novel, Twilight. Not the best book but it makes an interesting critique. Maybe too girly for them. Trip has great rain forest, beautiful beach by La Push, Rialto Beach. And you can go on up from Forks (not along the coast) to the Makah reservation at the topmost NW corner of US, Neah Bay. Great museum there, with artifacts from a dig of a village buried by mudslide. And get smoked salmon at Kim's.
    I just got told of your trip by a poet in Austin, I think it was David Meishen. I thought I'd start at the beginning and read to up to date. I spend summers on the road out west in my van (7 summers so far)rand write it up so I'm curious about your trip and how you are approaching things.