Friday, May 18, 2018

"Okay, Now Pretend You're Going To Roast Me For Dinner"

Three girls were playing together on the outdoor stage. I approached just as a fourth girl asked them, "Can I play with you?"

This is tricky question to ask around a preschool because the knee-jerk answer is most often "No." Normally, I advise kids struggling to enter into an established play group to start by asking, "What are you playing?" or to simply state, "I'm going to play with you," or best of all, to simply drop to your knees and start playing. It still doesn't always work, of course, but I've noticed that kids who approach others like this are far more likely to have success.

In this case, however, one of the girls answered, "Sure, if you want to be an evil unicorn."

"I'll be an evil unicorn."

The girls then continued where they left off with both me and the newcomer listening on.

"Okay, pretend I'm on the bridge and you come along and push me off."

From what I could gather, the girl asking to be pushed off was a good unicorn. For the most part, she was directing the evil unicorns in how to torment her. They pretended to push her off the planks of wood they had arranged as a bridge, then she said, "Okay, now pretend you're going to roast me for dinner."

There was an old bicycle tire on the stage. The good unicorn knelt down in it. One of the evil unicorns held a couple of florist marbles. She put them on the good unicorn's back, saying, "These are so you'll taste better when we eat you."

"I'm already going to taste good."

"Yes you will, dearie, but these jewels will make you taste even better."

The evil unicorns went through some motions around their roast while the newest evil unicorn looked on, still studying the game before leaping in.

After a few seconds, the roast popped up, "I'm done now. Now you have to wash me off." She retrieved a faucet set up (a spigot with hot and cold knobs mounted on a board) that has somehow appeared on the playground this year. The evil unicorns used it like a hose. Then the good unicorn said, "Pretend the bridge is the table and you're going to slice me up." She walked out on the bridge again and curled up under the spigot, repeating, "Now slice me up for dinner, dearie."

At first, the good unicorns used the sides of their hands to pantomime slicing, then one of them said, "Pretend I'm going to slice you with my staff," referring to the large stick she had been wielding. They were interrupted by the newcomer calling out, "I don't want to be an evil unicorn. I want to be a good unicorn!"

"Okay, if you're a good unicorn then we're going to have to roast you for dinner. Get in the oven." The newly be-monikered good unicorn dutifully took her spot within the circle of the bicycle tire.

"But first you have to eat me," insisted the other good unicorn.

"Don't worry, dearie, we'll eat you first."

Then the newest good unicorn called out, "And eat me too!"

"Of course, dearie, of course."

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. ~Arthur Schlesinger

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Playing With Garbage

Last week, we made what we've come to call "San Francisco kites." All you need is a breezy day, one of those thin plastic shopping bags, a piece of string, and you're in business.

In 2012, the city of Seattle has banned the use of those plastic bags that once littered our streets and filled the branches of our trees. It was an inconvenience at first, remembering to bring your own re-useable bags to the supermarket, but now it's second nature, like putting on a seatbelt or wearing a bicycle helmet. I continue to support the measure. I can see the difference it has made, but one of the unintended consequences is that they are no longer so easily accessible for us to use around the preschool for things like our simple kites or making rope with our homemade rope-making machine.

Across Lake Washington, for better or worse, the city of Bellevue where my parents live, continues to permit the use of these bags, so I've taken to illicitly importing them, like a smuggler during prohibition. Mom collects them for me and sends me home with several dozen every time I visit. I reckon it won't be long before Bellevue follows suit and then those bags won't be so easy to come by any longer.

In the meantime, we'll enjoy our simple pleasures, these wonderful kites made from garbage, this thumb in the eye of those who manufacture toys and craft supplies and curriculum materials to sell to preschools, making simple, joyful things complicated and complicit in the commodification of everything. A good childhood does not need to be purchased. It comes naturally in the form of things the rest of society has cast-off, like toilet paper tubes and scrap paper and old car tires and bits of wood left over from construction projects. It's such a cliche that it hardly bears repeating, but everyone knows that children have more fun playing with the box the Christmas toy came in than the toy itself.

So we will fly our kites as long as we can, joyfully, and when they are gone we won't weep but rather find some other garbage with which to play because we know there will always be garbage and playing with it, making it new again, is what children have always done.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Secret To Making It There Or Anywhere

Our daughter Josephine is a 21-year-old who found her passion by the time she was an eight-year-old and who has now pursued that passion to New York City, a place about which Sinatra sings, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And from where I sit, it seems she is making it: pulling down the best grades of her life, earning money, landing internships, and finding plenty of time to play with her cool friends. As I recently shared a story about her, someone who has never met her interrupted to ask if she had been "gifted" as a child. I think she is gifted, of course, but not in the sense that is usually meant by the term. By most measures I'd say she has always presented as a fairly typical kid, good at some things (usually the things she enjoyed) and not so good at others (usually the things she didn't enjoy) which is more or less the way I'd describe myself.

We tried not to pressure her about school. We let her quit extracurricular activities when she wanted to quit. Finding something "boring" was more than good enough for me. And with few exceptions we didn't make her do things she didn't want to do. Of course, people warned that we were setting her up, saying things like, "How will she ever learn about perseverance?" They would caution that success only comes from putting our noses to the grindstone, while young, doing the things we don't want to do, every day as a matter of course, painting a portrait of life as relentless, competitive, and exceedingly difficult, at least if the goal was to "make it." It was easy for me to ignore them because I'd already figured out, even 21 years ago, that what they were saying was pretty much pure BS, the kind of BS that is spread by tightly wound people who take life way, way, way to seriously.

There is entirely too much of this kind of BS out there and its impact is compounded by the fact that it passes for wisdom in too many circles. Most of the time it's just BS, but it can also be toxic, like when parents worry that their five-year-old is "falling behind," a fear that too often drives well-meaning adults to expect junior to strive to be a champion at everything, just in case. And that's BS.

I've never had an instinct to lead children. My driving interest is to play with them, to listen to them, to make jokes, make art, make math, make engineering, to just make things, together. There's no "behind" because it's about learning in the wild, about the world, ourselves, and what it means to be ourselves in that world. That's the fundamental question we live to answer. Everything beyond that is BS.

There was a time when I would entertain myself with the cocktail party game of asking people if there was anything their parents forced them to do that they still do today. Most people couldn't think of anything and those that did always, always, cited piano lessons. Not violin lessons, not regularly attending church, not making their bed, not putting their nose to the grindstone. Indeed, it seemed that for most people, the moment their parents stopped compelling them, they ran like the wind. Yes, I'm sure that everyone can come up with exceptions to this rule, but you have to admit, it's largely true.

Putting one's nose to a grindstone is a waste of youth. Even thinking about the grindstone is an abuse. If there are grindstones in their future, and my own life is a testament that it is not inevitable, then they will learn how to deal with them soon enough, tragically. No, if there is a best time for making mistakes, for chasing dreams, for indulging one's passions, for just goofing around, it's in our youth.

As I watch the children I teach play, I see them making mistakes, chasing dreams, indulging their passions and goofing around. I don't wish wealth or fame or power or "success" on any of them. No, my hope is that they get to keep playing, throughout their lives, every day, doing those things that bring them peace and joy and love. Of course, there's crap they'll have to get through, but don't you think kids already know that? Everything they do is accompanied by pain and disappointment and conflict and fear. That's life. But when children play, when no one is harping on them about "success," but rather leaving them free to pursue their passions, it never becomes a slog. There are no grindstones. From where I sit, the only losers in life are the ones who waste it at the grindstone.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Kids already know this. They show us that no one works harder, or perseveres more, than those who are farting around. And they also know to call BS when they see it. That is the secret to making it there or anywhere.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

With People Who Know This

A few weeks ago, we were paddling around Lake Union in one of the Center for Wooden Boats' umiaks when I managed to hook a pinky on my glasses and hurl them into the water. I made a grab for them as they began to sink, but failed. There was a brief moment when I wondered if it would be worth jumping in, but just as quickly decided that it would be both rash and very unlikely to succeed. So I watched them disappear into the deep.

I've been wearing those glasses for more than twenty years, the ones you see in the photo of me at the top of this blog. As I saw them for the last time, it felt as if I'd lost a part of me, both physically and emotionally. Glasses are a type of prothetic for sure, and as such replaceable, but I'd been using this particular prosthetic for such a long time, they're in all the pictures of me, they're part of of who I am . . . Or rather was, I realized as they passed out of view.

The truth is that not only had I owned those glasses for two decades, but I'm pretty sure it had been that long since the last time I had a new prescription. Indeed, it had gotten so that I rarely wore them on my face any longer because they were really only effective for mid-distances and I don't need glasses for reading. I had become one of those people who are forever taking my glasses off and on or, alternatively, squinting into the distance hoping to see something slightly more clearly. So even as I began a mini-mourning process, the rational part of my brain recognized that this was a blessing in that it would force me into an optometrist's office. Later that afternoon, I found that the soonest appointment I could secure was a week away so I resigned myself to living without my prosthetic for a time.

Since I rarely drive this wasn't as big a handicap as it might be for other people. Mostly it was just a bit annoying, but also edifying. Several times I caught myself reaching for my glasses and I began to note what kinds of things caused me to want to see more clearly. For instance, several times I imagined that the blurry figure walking toward me was a friend or acquaintance and I wanted to know for certain. I spotted an unknown figure opening the school gate and reached for those glasses to get a better look at the "stranger," who turned out to be Teacher Rachel wearing a cap I'd never seen before. I missed the clarity of the scenery on sunny days and found myself forever reaching for my seeing aids so as to better take in the beauty. And, pathetically, I caught myself more than once seeking more clarity when an attractive woman passed me by.

In the meantime, I flew to Alberta, Canada without my glasses. When I arrived at the airport I found it annoying that I couldn't read all the signs and schedules without walking right up to them, but otherwise it was fine. I was there, however, to give a couple talks at a conference and what I really didn't like was not being able to actually see the faces of the people in the audience. I hadn't realized before how much I rely on that kind of feedback.

My eye doctor told me that I wasn't the first patient to come in after having dropped his glasses in the lake. He even told the story of one woman who had hired a scuba diver to look for hers. He had turned up a couple pair, although neither of which were her lost ones. I briefly considered going that route myself, but only passingly.

So now I have new glasses. I didn't bother trying to replace the old ones and, with the advice of my wife, picked a pair of tortoise shell frames. And oh, what a change! I'm sure they alter my physical appearance, but more importantly, I can really see again, something that hasn't been true for a decade at least. Just walking down the street, seeing things clearly that I'd forgotten could be seen clearly, made me feel like a kind of peeper, as if I was ogling the entire world, seeing things I was not meant to see. I was astonished at the clarity of the world, the sharp lines, the shapes, and the colors. And for a week I've moved through my daily life living in a new and better world. I feel taller, stronger, more competent, better looking.

But I realized yesterday that the thrill is to be short lived. It's only been a week and I'm already taking it for granted: this miracle of seeing clearly. It's only human nature, after all, to begin to take things for granted, which is why it's important to periodically, as my mother says, count our blessings. Still, I hate that my sense of wonder is already faded. I'm going to try to continue to be amazed by it, but I know that it's only a matter of time before this prosthetic will just be another part of my body, an everyday aspect of me, something that I'll forget to appreciate until its gone. But that's neither here nor there, to be honest, it's just a pair of glasses. The important thing is that sense of wonder and, as always, it is most often found in the little things. This, more than anything else, is why I am grateful for the career I've chosen: I get to work, every day, with people who know this.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

"Bye, Bye, Butterfly!"

For the past several years, the grandfather of two of the children enrolled in our school has taken it upon himself to purchase caterpillars, lady bug larva, and, more recently, a praying mantis egg sac. It's the gift of metamorphosis, a process that we watch over the course of a few weeks. For whatever reason, our classroom climate must have been perfect this year because every single caterpillar pupated quickly and became a fully formed painted lady butterfly. In years past there have always been one or two that haven't made it or that emerged from their chrysalis somehow deformed and unable to fend, but these, to my eye, were as nature intended.

I've been telling the children the "story" of the butterfly lifecycle over and over again. Each time children gathered around to peer at the caterpillars or chrysalid I would say, "Caterpillars are born from tiny eggs, they eat leaves and get bigger, then they split their skin and form their chrysalis where they turn into butterflies. After they emerge we will let them go outside so they can find mates and lay eggs so we will have more caterpillars." Sometimes they ask me to tell it again and again, especially the youngest children. We have a song we sing about the process. We compare this story to that of the ladybugs or to the seeds we've planted. I usually call them "circle stories," because they go on and on, round and round. Some of the older children have started identifying other circle stories, like the ones about weeks or seasons or even our own human lifecycle.

The lifetime of a butterfly is short, only a couple weeks. In years past, we've made the mistake of keeping them in their cages too long, releasing them when they're already too geriatric to fulfill their part in the lifecycle, except as food for something else. That's why I've made sure to emphasize the part about us letting them go outside. I wanted the children to know it was coming.

Last week, we took the butterflies outside. They had been quite active indoors in their cage, but outside where it was a bit breezy, they grew still, something the children noticed.

"Maybe they're shy."

"I think they're scared."

"I don't think they want to leave us."

Then finally, one fluttered out and away into the sky. Spontaneously, all of us, the children and their parents, called out, "Bye bye, butterfly!" As we stood waiting for the next to take flight, one of the girls urged everyone to take a step back so the butterflies could feel "safer." Her classmates complied. Then another took to the sky to a chorus of "Bye, bye, butterfly!" One by one over the course of the next 15 minutes, they launched themselves. A couple failed, tumbling to the ground, a dangerous place on a playground, but we were careful, waiting with still feet until they finally figured it out. The last one was reluctant to leave. It was still feeding on the sugar water we had manufactured to feed them, but finally it too fluttered away as we called after it, "Bye, bye, butterfly."

When the last one was gone, a boy burst into tears. He had wanted to keep one. I told him the story again, the circle story about butterflies, about us all, but it didn't console him, at least not right away. One of the butterflies then made another pass overhead, hunting for food, looking for a mate. I pointed it out to the boy who stopped crying long enough to notice it. He said, his eyes still awash, "Bye, bye, butterfly." And then it was gone, off to fulfill its destiny.

The Butterfly upon the Sky,
That doesn't know its Name
And hasn't any tax to pay
And hasn't any Home
Is just as high as you and I,
And higher, I believe,
So soar away and never sigh
And that's the way to grieve --
                                                           ~Emily Dickinson

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Cotton Ropes In A Bag

There were three thick white cotton ropes in a bag. A parent had asked me if I wanted them and I had said "Yes." They were in a bundle. At first we had no idea how many ropes there were. We wondered if it was one long rope or several smaller ones. It was all bound together with a piece of twine.

Normally, I would have just left it for the kids to find and figure out, but I was pretty sure that if I did that, it would all instantly become a permanent part of the "bad guy trap," a structure that has been under construction since the first couple months of the school year and that now incorporates about half the junk we keep on the junkyard playground. I didn't want this cool new thing to be sucked up before the rest of the kids had a chance to at least goof around with it. So I held the rope on my lap as the kids arrived on the playground.

"What's the rope, Teacher Tom?"

"It's rope for us to play with. I was wondering if anyone had any ideas what we could do with it?"

This was more or less the pattern as the children arrived. Most would put their hands on it, stroking it, handling an end. Very few ignored it altogether and most offered up ideas about what we could use it for, with an emphasis on "tying" up this or that.

Finally, one of them asked, "Can I have it?"

I answered, "I don't even know how many there are. It might be one long rope or it might be many."

"I think it's one long rope."

"Maybe, but I think it might be two or three ropes." I pointed out at least three rope-ends as my evidence.

"Can I have one?"

"Sure, but they're all tied up." I showed her the twine binding.

"You should saw it off."

"Yes, or I could cut it off."

"Cut it off! With scissors!"

I matched her enthusiasm, "Okay!" I then excused myself to retrieve a pair of scissors, leaving the rope in a pile on the table at the top of the hill. When I returned, children were gathered around the rope, touching it, tugging on it, talking about it. I snipped the twine.

A girl called out, "Let's see how long it is!" She grabbed an end and began pulling it down the hill. "Teacher Tom, grab the other end!" I took an end, although I could see at least three more ends so I had no idea whether or not we were holding the same rope. She pulled until all the ropes were in a snarl. I said, "They're tangled." She responded by dropping her end of the rope to tackle the task of "untying."

By now, other kids had found ends to hold, each pulling in different directions. There was a moment of tension as a knot began to form. It released suddenly, causing several of the children to fall over one another. Most of them laughed; some of them fussed. It was chaotic for a bit as at least a dozen kids took up a bit of rope as her or his own. It was hard not to be distracted by the few who shouted or cried, but I still managed to also hear the rest of the children scheming to cooperate, saying things like, "This one's ours, okay?" inviting and including one another. I heard them talking about being "teams." Some of the teams found themselves, quite by accident, working together, so they became larger teams. At some point we recognized that we had three thick ropes.

The girl who had wanted to measure the rope's length was frustrated. "Her" rope had been commandeered into a good-natured tug-o-war. A second rope was also in a tug-o-war. And as these things often happen, the third rope lay inert in the dust at my feet. I took it up, announcing, "I'm going to use this as a 'measuring rope'," including the pouting girl in my comment. She got my intention and we each took an end. Amidst the chaos we managed to stretch it out between us. It was a good 10 feet long, as were all three ropes.

One tug-o-war evolved into a running game with everyone cooperating to maneuver about the playground: around the windmill, up the concrete slide, down to the row boat. The other one appeared to take the form of a classic contest of strength, but upon study, I could see that it really wasn't. It was if the internal purpose of the game was to reach a kind of stasis where both sides sought to be able to lean into their pull. There were frequent shifts of allegiance, with children switching sides according to their whims. There were several "failed" efforts when they were disappointed to find that they were all pulling in the same direction, but as they played they figured out how to maintain tension in the rope, almost as if by pulling against one another they were pulling together. This process of balancing the system involved lots of laughter and shouting as did the rope game that continued to wind about the playground.

Throughout, the original measuring rope remained as a sort of "free" rope, left up by where I sat at the top of the hill. We measured with it. We held opposing ends and wiggled it. We tied it to things. It spent some time just lying on the ground, waiting for someone to pick it up. At one point I spotted it on the way to the "bad guy trap," a plan I headed off by saying, "I don't want that to become part of the bad guy trap."

"Why not?"

"Because it's a new thing that belongs to everybody and no body gets to play with the stuff in the bad guy trap."

He thought about this for a moment, then answered as if seeing my point, "That's where we hide stuff." He then decided to try swinging an end over his head, before leaving it for someone else.

Before long the ropes were everywhere, no longer the focus of attention, but simply part of the playground to pick up an play with for a time.

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