WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY IT ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany, his posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9—and perhaps because of them—he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. Won over to his vision, his wife Eleanor prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any sick child would be refused at the doors of Immigration, and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. “Their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered of the parents later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red a fnd strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and later reunited with their children.” (Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.)

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed antiSemitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans to whom their own lives meant more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy the—principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld. (Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.)

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The exuberant response to the election results among some families I know brought about a revelation for me. Though they have been polite, some even kind, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life I find unnatural in diverse Southern California. But then again, I thought, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. No, multiculturalism doesn’t work that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color: NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. This is one way those who interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white people enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t really look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, extras moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and the news.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas. After all, America had problems of its own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct from war, disease, emigration, and eradication of their culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built itself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We also remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother have been mugged at knifepoint and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America picked its way through the racial degradation and rose to its feet as a single country, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters, for one, conquered the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Koreathough he hails from immigrants just the same. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My Asian-American friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. Our commitment to excellence, intelligence, the drive with which we have emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented the fissures of mistrust between disparate cultures as we did business together, advanced the economy together with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you will learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance. It’s not always front and center but in this country, the holy grail of opportunity awaits the thirsty and the earnest. Resourcefulness always finds room, a corner it can turn. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can raise that strong, beautiful voice you claimed at birth. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. At least they could, once.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate for them. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to renew its vows to liberty and justice, which we now look about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly, the many faces of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in this country. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.

stargazers

stargazers in furious
bloom – vanilla air –

are the only flowers
that trust me, tell me

i am not hopeless;
the juice in their veins, the way
they gulp the sun and meet my face,
their beauty and their business

say i don’t need a green thumb
and the riotous garden.

all one needs is a singular love.

 

stargazer

Happy Hard Year

“He told of how the trees had grown in all sorts of conditions, endured lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations. [The boat builder] said the wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, but it also taught us about the reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about things larger and greater than ourselves.” Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat

Anticipation trails the greeting: “Happy new year!” The newness in the turn of the calendar somehow holds out hope of a fresh happiness, a better year. But I remain grateful to be able to maintain the status quo of a mom on duty, keeping up with the home lessons and activities, turning out the chow, running the house. Put my face on this year? Maybe! The lipstick box awaits, now organized. Host company?? I pulled off Christmas. WRITE? Perhaps I ask too much. Because I have learned to be satisfied with little, even through the homesickness for my blog. I’ve shown up here drenched, not in the exhilarated sweat of the marathon victor, but in the swells of a twelve-month winter that have finally cast me out on shore. On the heels of a year I would not repeat for any amount of money, with eagerness do I accept the well-wishings of a happy 2017. Except that though we don’t like to think about unexpected hardships, they come. In fact, they don’t take holidays, and have left me with friends and family whose Christmas season remains an anniversary of dear losses. So maybe the relief of a tabula rasa is a luxury not within our rights. Maybe we can at best just hope to survive.

That is what I got out of the book The Martian, Watney’s desperate fight to stay alive an amplified contemplation of the symphonic battle between the harbingers of death and impulse of life we call the human condition. The farmer’s labor is a prayer, dependent on forces he attempts to harness but cannot control. And there is the financier, the urban version of this struggle, in his relationship with market conditions. Life is conflict – in the community, family, ourselves.

“A protagonist is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition he or she faces,” journalist Jack Hart quotes a writer in Storycraft. Isn’t that life? Even trees testify to the seasons they have weathered, confess their ordeal and age in their rings and core. “He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in the wood. He said those separate fibers, knitted together in the wood, gave cedar its ability to bounce back and resume its shape or take on a new one. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, Pocock said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood.” DJB, The Boys in the Boat. There is a strength adversity builds that is of a different order than the brawn of success. It comes from just holding on and being able to look another day of it in the face. You are not capable, pretty, or smart. You just try to keep standing. Day after day.

“I continued to go [to the nursing home], and I struggled to find meaning in their bleak existence. What finally helped was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 

Part of my problem with suffering is that I’m surprised by it. Why can’t it all go my way?? Well, if it won’t always be California sunshine, can I at least have my greenhouse? You have been reminded. Expect a hard year, and happiness will follow somewhere in that.

“Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. The population is strong and growing. That’s pretty impressive, when you consider it was exposed to near-vacuum and subarctic temperatures for over twenty-four hours. With hundreds of millions of bacteria, it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.” The Martian

Why Everybody Else Is Happier Than You

Why does Facebook famously feed depression? The Happiest Virtual Place On Earth can feel like one endless reminder of the Things That Are Missing in our life. Offline, I look at the people around me. My single friends would give an arm to be married. Those with families of their own each have their burden, ones I am grateful to have been spared. So why are we convinced that others were dealt better cards, when every one of us remains in need of support and understanding?

happier-disney-castle

Reasons We’re Sure Everybody Else Is Happier

1. We are unsatisfied with our lot, no matter how it turns. The human condition is not, in the language of mathematicians, an equation but an inequality: My life < The Ideal. By literary metaphor, we are an unfinished story, which is why our heart beats for more. More money, more time, more joy, more toys, more love. We bring to the table our fractured perspective, limited understanding, hopes conceived of an unresolved past. We will never, by the bootstraps of our humanness, be able to complete our relationships because we can’t complete ourselves.

2. Our sense of entitlement. Conflict in these imperfect relationships gives us away and pride declares, “I deserve better. He owes me appreciation, recognition. She should’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.” Disgruntled where we are, how green we find the grass on the other side.

3. The myth of perfectionism. I borrow insights from Alain Botton, author of the NY Times article Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, on our misguided notions of love because nowhere else do we so generously spin our fantasies of happiness. In a recent roundtable entitled How We Choose Our Spouses, Botton spoke of the reaction his article had garnered:

What was interesting was that people were overwhelming relieved. Look, it’s like telling people you will have an unhappy life…I think that often we suffer from a burden of shame around how difficult it is that we find it to live, to love, to make good choices…And the reason that there is something oppressive in being told that only perfection will do as the basis of marriage, is that so many of our marriages, under that kind of judgment, have to seem below par and it can seem rather punitive and oppressive as if we have failed to measure up to a standard which most of us simply cannot measure up to.

We allow Facebook and blogs to perpetuate the hope in fairy tales, the expectation that we grow up and live happy, photogenic lives.

We should learn to accommodate ourselves to ”wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners…We don’t need people to be perfect in love. We need people to be good enough.

4. Love, according to Botton, is not an impulse of feeling but a skill. It isn’t pay dirt at emotional Roulette but “with all of us deeply broken, a chance of success in love means being able to deal with our brokenness, both inside ourselves and in a partner.” I’d say this truth holds for all our relationships. “Compatibility is ultimately an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be…the precondition of falling in love.” Love is something you work, and often work hard, at. You manage expectations of spouse, friend, self, and life, being able to explain your craziness as you grow in self-awareness. But we somehow believe life doesn’t exact so much effort of those around us.

 

Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

Forty-two days after burning in a fatal crash, Niki Lauda jumped back on the Formula 1 track to defend his championship title against James Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.

I wasn’t into racing, but this was my kind of story. Lauda,_Niki_1973-07-06

The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer with the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile on him. For Lauda, on the other hand, the pursuit of dreams is a battle from the starting gate. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda turns himself into an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. Both men embody greatness, but Lauda steals my attention by his response to the life-altering crash that nearly claims his dreams.

What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray his gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain, deeply uneasy about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Racing that day is obviously asking for it. But Hunt turns the room full of men who too are scared, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. In a moment that rings classically of high school, afraid of looking chicken in their terror, the guys put it to vote, and the race goes on.

Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashing at 170 mph, the Ferrari erupting into flames. The rescuers have trouble pulling him out, leaving him trapped over a minute in the inferno.

That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. He slips a long thick metal rod down Lauda’s throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” Lauda orders through bruised lungs. He remains captive in bed as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day Lauda attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.

Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival wiped off the map, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show Lauda peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he undid on site in real life. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for having swayed the vote that fateful day. Lauda responds, “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.”

Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses – not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on something louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? Hand over to his enemy the years of his sweat and showdown with death? Lauda has fought many times over, and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved out of nothing, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to conquer himself.

Behind the wheel at the Grand Prix, the roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder what things assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on that impossible road. The real Niki Lauda off screen was absolutely petrified that moment, as credible heroes go. Many know how extremely difficult it is to get back on the road after an auto accident.

The cars take off, one after another passing Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass before watching two drivers collide before him. He manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion at the end reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.

Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage, and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring once again. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the Forces That Be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside cars that look like sleek coffins.

I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga, but some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama, exploring what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks everything to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are, the more alive you feel.”

The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking into his future. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors would give him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?

 

Exodus

How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (for the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.

1 And God spake all these words saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

 

A Tiger’s Pursuit: Mastery

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good, after all, the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew in the movie. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except, if he were Korean, the first time Andrew plows through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless band aids would’ve been cinematic cliché. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.

Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the one mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the one error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.

I could see he’d felt the pressure – from me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy California mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom from New York. She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came, and once again her Old Self, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, she found herself oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, the tall demands we aspired to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.

So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.

I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof – fingers uncrossed – where he could’ve lost it all. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son for him to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to turn possibility into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.

Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.

Math: Counting by 12s

Science
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods

What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds

Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition

First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural

English Grammar
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without

History
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.

Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.

Science
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate

What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct

What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle

The Path You Might Have Taken

Favim.com

Favim.com

As the last iPhone holdout on the planet and blind without virtual powers, I could only guess that the 91 straight ahead was going to stop up in five miles as usual. Do I move left and hit Fastrak or make my way over to the right for Toll? Which will get me to Orange County faster? At 60 miles an hour, there came a point where I was committed. And to stay in the lane was to decide.

We play out this moment more dramatically many times in our lives, often at the crossroads to wildly differing futures. While we can inhabit only one place at one time, language enables us to travel many roads at once in our wondering over what might’ve been. On the TED stage, Classicist Phuc Tran takes a look at this versatility afforded by the subjunctive mood. Remember that the indicative expresses factual action (I am blogging) and the subjunctive, nonfactual with its nuances of possibility and potential. (I wish I could blog more. If only I could blog more! I might’ve blogged today if only…)

A brush with tragedy often sends us on the subjunctive ride. Some have marveled that they were sent to a different office the day the Twin Towers fell, others that they had missed their plane. Under the rubble of mishap or suffering, we also often retrace that path. What if I hadn’t taken that dive? What if I hadn’t bumped into her? What if I’d married him? Tran shares, “The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying, shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire. It exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping and about what would have happened if we hadn’t.”

He goes on to muse that his native Vietnamese tongue uses no subjunctive. His father never dwelt on what could’ve been, for better or worse. He never pined that he should have held security and status as a lawyer and aspiring politician back in Saigon. He did what he had to do in the indicative strength of his mother language, driving a cement mixer to support his family in America. But borrowing from the resources of the English language, his son grew up to explore the possibilities for his own future, crafting joyful work as a Classics instructor as well as a tattoo artist. While saving simplicity can protect us from the bitterness of regret, it can also keep us from life-giving promise. After all, the question of what could have been springs from the same emotional impetus that asks what could be. Isn’t what if the stuff of dreamers and visionaries? It’s what gets people out of North Korea, impels us to look for a better job, start a blog. We don’t just declare our present reality and sit back with a bag over our head. This is my life. This is my body. We devise a better way and move toward it.

Tran cites the 2011 Gallup International that surveyed feelings of optimism among various nations. Which country do you think came out on top? The one “whose language doesn’t allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of what could have been“. The most pessimistic? France – whose language has “two subjunctives and existentialism.” (The audience laughed.) Let me throw in how South Korea reigns as Drama Queen in Asia with her notorious tear-jerker melodrama series that remains in demand across the seas. Korean happens to weigh in as a language fraught with the subjunctive, its history full of pathos, saturated in longing. Fascinating how language forges the paths we might take in the mind and heart. And then look what we do with that language.

Something in us not only calls up the prospects we missed but finds so intriguing the ones ahead, that we have come to devote a whole genre called fiction to exploring the unreal – what might have been – and make it real in the indicative. The most powerful novels that stay with me long after I close them sound the echo of steps not taken by characters who’d had a choice. Because that is life. Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chase us. “The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of could have or should have. But within this idea of should have is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret,” says Tran.

As for me this year, I am to take neither Fastrak nor Toll in the homeschooling and all the TO DOs but to stay the course, on foot. Grounded. I am working on keeping more grounded, attuned to my needs. All 90 pounds of me have felt as though I could blow away with the wind. I was surprised to find the other day that the inviting rebounder didn’t feel as good as the treadmill I am usually not dying to hop on. My feet sought firmness. It feels good to be cooking again, chopping my beets, the juice of the earth on my hands. I am seeing that it’s not either-or, where I thought life had me in the teeth between the dictates of my indicative circumstances and muzzled hopes. This path of nurture will slowly give way to possibilities.

I Hear Voices

First Grade, NYC

First Grade, NYC

I imagine people don’t know what a recluse I am. I socialize at church and in the homeschool gatherings stand tall, take initiative, make announcements. My parents, struggling to piece together a life in a country where they were Other, taught their little girl to write large and speak loudly. That’s me in the school play, mike in hand. (My husband would now like me to lower my voice by 20%.) I’m usually the one to notice inefficient or unjust ways things are done in our different communities and the one to speak up. So I can pull off extrovert and can be sociable because I know it’s rude to sit next to someone for half an hour and say nothing. But all I want, oh all I want is to bolt the door and write. Bury myself in what novelist Dani Shapiro calls the Cave to give attention to the voices in my head, meet myself on the page. Because inside is where so much of my life is.

I would probably long for love and community if I were granted the hermit’s wish (er, I think). ‘Tis human to want what is out of reach. Look at me glaringly not in step with the vogue practice of being present. No, I can’t be fully feeling the current of the moment around my feet when my head is in books, ideas, memory. In my defense: we women are wicked multitaskers.

Speaking of tasks, I asked Husband to scrape the stovetop stains last week. With equanimity he announced that he had just vacuumed and was done for the day. “I’ve done enough,” he declared pleasantly. I marveled at the male self-preservation mechanism in action. Granted, that was a lot of carpet. But it was the question corporate executives, business owners, moms, students knot themselves in angst over. When is enough? And he had solved the cosmic conundrum with such ease. Buddha Man just might be able to undo the problem of world peace. I laughed, “Done enough. Imagine mothers saying that. The world would stop.” No skin off his nose, he agreed – feet up, on the couch. I shouldn’t grouse about the responsibilities. It’s a blessing, not a burden, to have places to go, people to see, (aaalll these) things to do. George Eliot debuted at 50, Laura Ingalls Wilder at 65. There are others enjoying their second life publishing in their 70s and 80s. I don’t plan to wait another 30 years to go and to see all that’s in my head but in the meantime, I show up where I’m needed. Whether or not I can show up for myself, I will keep writing large and speak to be heard. Poor Husband.

The Real Reasons I Blog

1. To ward off dementia.

2. Stay in touch with my roots. No such thing as overworking with Koreans. Rest? Psh. That’s what the grave is for.

3. You’ve saved me money on therapy. I didn’t have to go this year.

4. I don’t want to clean. Who in their right mind would choose mopping and dusting over THIS?

5. It’s my one rightful obsession. I don’t drink, smoke, go on shopping sprees, or get pedicures. You gotta give me sOmething.

6. I can be as anal as I want and people like me for it. Go figure.

7. I’m repressed. Parents didn’t let me stay out at night. I get to party ’round the clock as the comments roll in.

8. I hand out advice on stuff: blogging, life, men and women. And all these people think I’m for real.

9. It’s my only chance at keeping up with technology. I’m terrified to tweet, annoyed with Facebook, have yet to go near an iPod, hate texting.

10. I haven’t had this much fun since…since…
*Slump* Pathetic. (Time for my next pick-me-up post.)