Monday, July 7, 2014

A Mother's Prerogative


A very young Ben, reading one of my favorite books. 

Forgive me, this once, for a gratuitous display of my maternal pride. 
I promise it won't happen very often. 
The gratuitous display, anyway.
The pride is a constant.

I wrote for a long, long time before receiving any money in exchange for my words. I wrote for my high school newspaper, my law school paper, plenty of newsletters, journals, and, of course, for the private pleasure of my own literary navel-gazing. I wrote in exchange for the thrill of the writing itself as well as the miracle of publication. Sometimes I received complimentary copies, now filed away in my "Jess' writing" box in our basement, but more often, I received nothing more than a heartfelt "great job!" note from my mom.

My first paid writing gig was for Michael O. Leavitt, who some of you may remember as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Through an unlikely series of coincidences and a crazy twist of fate, I was invited to help Leavitt write the inaugural speech for his third term as Governor of Utah. We had almost nothing in common - not politics, not religion, not verbal style - but we got along like peas and carrots, and the first time I heard my words emerge from his mouth, I was hooked.

And later, when I got paid? I could hardly believe my good fortune.

I was thirty when I became a paid wordsmith, but my son has me beat, big time. He will receive his first paycheck in exchange for his prose this summer, at the tender age of fifteen.

His review of R.J. Palacio's book Wonder, will appear in the July/August issue of Your Teen magazine (with Michelle Obama on the cover!), and with the generous permission of Susan Borison, founder and editor, I present Ben's half of our adult/teen book review article.






Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The More You Know



I love coming to New York to appear on the Today Show, even when the topic is depressing and impossible to parse in three minutes. I got a call yesterday afternoon to jump on a bus (and train and car) to appear this morning to talk about the California shootings and warning signs in kids. 

I always have a goal when I appear in an interview, one takeaway piece of information I want to convey in the segment. Today I had two. 

First, the crime rate has been going down steadily since 1993, and homicides are down between 40-60% depending on which age group you are talking about. Thanks to Lenore Skenazy for the FANTASTIC resouces at FreeRangeKids.com on reassuring, reality-check crime statistics. 

According to Pew Research

Compared with 1993, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the firearm homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation’s population grew. The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm—assaults, robberies and sex crimes—was 75% lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall (with or without a firearm) also is down markedly (72%) over two decades.  

But here's the thing. Pew also found that due to the media onslaught surrounding isolated and rare examples of gun violence, Americans believe that gun violence is up. 

Despite the attention to gun violence in recent months, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is markedly lower than it was two decades ago. A new Pew Research Center survey (March 14-17) found that 56% of Americans believe the number of crimes involving a gun is higher than it was 20 years ago; only 12% say it is lower and 26% say it stayed the same. (An additional 6% did not know or did not answer.)

So, takeaway point number one. Chill out, turn off the TV, go back to what you were doing, and remember that the crime rate continues to decline in this country.*  

Takeaway point number two: when a teacher notices that something is up with your kid, and gets up her nerve to tell you about it (which is not an easy thing, ask any teacher), LISTEN. Listen with an open mind and know that if she's come to you, she's worried. 

That said, PSA over, and here's today's segment on "Navigating the world of troubled children."

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*However, as a friend points, out, don't relax too much if you have a gun in your home or if your child has access to guns. That's just too damn dangerous. Here are some links from the Children's Defense Fund re: the stats on kids and guns

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parenting: It's All a Big Test

This week, in the Parent-Teacher Conference, I answer the question of what it really means when a school asks to have a child tested. This is a wild and wooly topic, with lots of tangents and caveats, but I did my best to get the details down in 1000 words or less.

I even got to use one of my new action figures for the piece, and you can read it here.


Monday, April 28, 2014

I Think I'll Be Big Enough Next Year

Summer is coming, which means Finnegan's year of anxiety about summer camp is quickly approaching its climax. A year ago, when he was nine, we decided that it was time for him to head off to overnight camp, and as Ben will be celebrating his final year at this camp this year, it would be Finn's last opportunity to go to camp with a guardian sibling.

For the first few months, we were not allowed to talk about it at all.

In the deep midwinter, summer seemed too far away to worry excessively, but we did not bring it up often, just to be safe.

This spring, the boys forms arrived, and as it's my policy that they fill out forms for their own activities, I handed the pile of papers over to them with the obligatory doctor/dentist/insurance information and told them to get started.

An hour or so later, I found them in the playroom, heads together, working on the activity selection forms. Ben detailed each activity for Finnegan, explaining how archery or canoeing or sailing works, and when the water is coldest, and what time of day he'd want to take swimming class.

Finn's anxiety had turned to excitement, so I quietly left the room. My participation was clearly not needed.

In June, it will be time for me to take my own advice, which means I have less than two months to wrap my head around the idea of saying goodbye to my little baby, and leaving him in the hands of strangers for two weeks.

I will do my best to remember the plea of my older son, an arrangement we made when it was time to drop him off to camp at eleven, a plea I wrote about for the Atlantic last year, "Goodbye, and go away, thank you very much."



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Life is What Happens...

I'm back in New York this week, hanging out with my friend Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, and this time, we're talking about making the conscious decision not to be busy on the Kathie Lee and Hoda show. Thanks to Brigid Schulte for providing the inspiration in the form of her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and to Jacoba Urist for the piece she wrote for Today.com.



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Friday, April 18, 2014

Pimping the Pantheon

My vestigial teacher calendar notified me that it's National Mythology Exam season, so I though I'd re-share my favorite study too. I present, "Pimping the Pantheon." Enjoy! 


The National Mythology Exam is coming up in two weeks, and my Latin classes are knee-deep in Roman and Greek gods. We've been reviewing the stories, symbols, family trees, and domains, so today, it was time to test the kids to see how much they have learned.

I rolled my laptop up to the front of the room and projected this painting up on the white board:


This is the The Gods of Olympus, by Guilio Romano (1499-1546), a trompe l'oiel ceiling from the Sala dei Giganti that represents the gods and other immortals of Olympus. I blew the painting up so it covered most of the whiteboard, handed each one of the kids a marker, and told them to get to it: Identify all the gods.

I don't know what it is about markers and whiteboards, but my students go a little crazy. They circled and labeled and argued and voted...and watching them...it was the most fun I've had all week.

One of my goals is to get the students to the point where they can identify the gods by their symbols - trident, hat, armor, owl, whatever. And today, they did really well. The seventh grade found (going counter-clockwise from Zeus at 6:00 with his thunderbolts that look like wheat sheaves): Artemis, Demeter, Heracles, Dionysus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, Pan, Athena, (they missed Hestia; she's too ambiguous to identify here),  Persephone, Poseidon, Cronos, Rhea, Hades, Ares, Eros, and Aphrodite.

I then put up Saturn, by Goya.


I knew they would know this one, and they did. Some had learned about Goya in their art history class (thank you Crossroads, for having an art history class). Here, Saturn, or Cronos, is eating up his children so they can't overthrow him just as he overthrew his father. Too bad he missed one; that will come back to bite him in the ass.

Next, I put up a more challenging scene. Before moving on to this one, I reminded them of the various ways to "read" a painting - left to right if it's telling a story, or, in the case of this painting, which tells two stories, from the center out in opposing directions. 


Starting from the center, you have the first man, as modeled by Promethius, who is on the right talking to the lady with the red sash. I had given them the clue that this was a painting to be divided in two, so they quickly identified Promethius' brother, Epimethius, on the left. Back to Promethius. He's being counseled by Athena, who passes her wisdom (remember that later on when I point out an owl in another painting) on to Promethius, who then shares it with mankind. If you look up to the right, you can see Athena flying off with Promethius in the next phase of the story, and he's clutching the fire that he's acquired from Helios (see that vague shape of a chariot with horses in the cloud on the right?) hidden in a fennel stalk. That ember in a fennel stalk is the precursor of the olympic torch, by the way. I love that tidbit. Down in the right corner is mankind suffering from the torments that Pandora let loose out of her jar (see the little jar over to the left of the statue, on the ground in front of the bench?). Back over to the left. Epimethius is shaping a man out of clay in to match the model Promethius made, and there's mankind suffering again in the left corner. Oh, and that monkey guy in the tree? That's Epimethius after Zeus got mad and punished Promethius and Epimethius. I'd take the monkey transformation of Epimethius any day of the week over Promethius' punishment: eternity (well, it would have been, but he got rescued) chained to a rock while eagles (Zeus' bird) eats his liver out every day. Yeah, I have dibs on the prehensile tail.

Next, an easy one:


Yep, that's Hades taking Persephone off to the underworld in his chariot. There are some fun clues in this one, including his bident under his foot and a shadowy Cerberus in the chariot and that nymph trying to stop the chariot, but the kids didn't need it. I also mentioned that while this painting is called The Rape of Persephone, it's really more of the "seizing" of Persephone, which is appropriate, as "rapere" in Latin, which is the root of "rape" is actually to seize. 

Another hard one. I told them to be silent, look carefully, and put the pieces of the puzzle together. 


 Hints: look at what people are holding and remember that the most important people are in the center and in the foreground. The guy with the crown - that's a bident he's holding. The guy on the right has a lyre, and note the wings on the guy next to the woman. And those three biddies on the left in the front? The one of on the right has a spindle with thread in her hand.

Yep, it's the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, the guy with the wings, has led Eurydice down to the underworld after her death (by snake, nasty stuff), and Orpheus has descended with his lyre to sing for Hades and his wife Persephone in order to beg to get his love Eurydice back. Persephone talks Hades into it. The Fates are there on the left because they are the ones who determine human life and would have something to say about allowing Eurydice to thwart death. Clotho ("the spinner") spins the thread of human life, Lachesis ("the drawer of lots") measures it out, and Atropos ("the inevitable") cuts the thread. Even Zeus could not go against these ladies, despite the fact that he often wanted to. Back to the story. Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice back up to the world, but he had to NOT LOOK BACK, which of course, he does, and she disappears. When the gods tell you to do something, do it. That's the moral of that story.

Another story:


This one goes left to right. The quality isn't great, so I'll just describe it. This is a panel on a wedding chest, so it's the love story (not the sad bits) of Cupid and Psyche. On the left, Psyche is born and her two sisters hold her lovingly. Once humans start worshipping her more than Venus (see the suitors and the woman in white?), it's bad news for her and her parents, so they go to the temple of Apollo (background) and they are told to leave her on a hilltop (center) and she flies through the air and lands on the ground (follow the flying lady in white) where invisible servants take her to Cupid's palace, where she's told not to peek at her husband WHICH SHE DOES and all hell breaks loose. Do people not listen?? That's him, flying away on the far right. There's a happy ending, but not in this painting. On a wedding chest. Go figure.

Another easy one:


Hunter with arrows and dog stumbles upon bathing nymphs....one of the ladies has a moon on her head...yeah, that's the story of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor bastard came upon Artemis and her nymphs bathing in her secret grotto. Big no-no. She couldn't reach her bow to shoot him (her weapon of choice), so she splashes the spring water on him and he sprouts antlers, turns into a stag, and his dogs tear him to bits. Doh.

That's by Titian, incidentally.

Here's a more obscure story:


Check out the fingers. Yep - those are branches. Eros (hiding under the woman's dress because he knows he's in BIG trouble for starting this mess) made Apollo fall in love with Daphne, a nymph. You can tell that's Apollo because of his quiver and golden bow (and glowy head with a laurel wreath). Daphne was so horrified by Apollo that she ran away, shrieking for her father to help her out, and he rose out of the river (he was a river god) and turned her into a laurel tree. Now, I am always dubious when I teach this myth - how is being a tree better than being seduced by Apollo? As a parent, I give Peneus a break; he was protecting his children the best way he knew how.

Another story, left to right:



The kids nailed this one right away because of the labyrinth on the right, but the story starts on the far left with Ariadne meeting Theseus (with her sister, Phaedra). Moving to the right, Theseus takes her lovely string to the maze, goes in, kills the Minotaur, gets out, takes Ariadne away (the three figures walking back toward the center of the painting), and takes off for Naxos, where he sadly abandons Ariadne and she married Dionysus. There's also a ship with black sails in the background - Theseus had promised his father Aegeus that he would return with white sails if he survived the Minotaur, but Theseus got so excited he forgot to change the sails. His father thought Theseus had died, and he threw himself into the sea...which is why that sea is called the Agean Sea. Sweet story. 

On to one of my favorites...


Yeah. She's naked. Get over it. That's Leda. You can tell because she's having a moment with a swan - Zeus, actually - and there are babies coming out of eggs. Zeus wanted Leda, so he went to her in the form of a swan, she got pregnant and had egg-babies, two of which were Castor and Pollux. They are often portrayed with little skull cap hats to represent fragments of the eggs on their head. I know this because I looked it up last week. You never know when these sort of facts will come in handy.  

This next one's a classic, for so many reasons.


I thought this one would be the easiest myth to identify, but it took the kids a while. Maybe it was because the women are naked, maybe it was because they are, "a little chubby," as one girl put it, but either way, I had to really lead the younger kids through this one. I point them to the guy on the right. What do you notice? Shepherd staff, sheep, sheepdog. Sitting on Mt. Ida. Right. Paris. And the other guy? Winged cap, staff in his left hand - a caduceus, to be precise - and what is that thing in the shepherd's hand? Ah. An apple. I suppose it would have been an easier ID if the apple had said "To the Fairest" on it, but once you put the whole picture together, the story is clear. Three women. One with a peacock, one with an owl and a shield bearing the face of Medusa, and the one in the center stepping forward as if she's been selected (because she's that vain). Note the figure in the sky. That's Eris, companion to Ares, who just loves to stir things up. She's the goddess of strife, and she's the one who instigated this whole apple to the fairest scenario. This is The Judgment of Paris. And those chubby ladies? I call them Rubenesque, which is handy, as this painting is by Rubens. 

When we finished going over each painting, they begged for more, so I gave in and launched iPhoto on my computer. I found my album of photos from the Met's Greek and Roman collection, photos I had not really planned to use yet. I had a grand plan for them; last time I was there, I spent an hour taking photographs of gods and goddesses that might be identifiable by their stance, symbols, tools, clothing, and context, and they were supposed to get organized into a fancy-schmancy PowerPoint presentation. 

Oh well, whatever. I used to be OCD enough to care about this disorganization, but now...when my students plead for more, I can hardly complain about the frayed edges.

There are days I come home exhausted, ready to collapse on the couch, and then there are days like today. Days that propel me into the next day, and the next. 

And the next, which marks the start of February vacation. I plan to thank the gods by making an offering of the choices cuts of fat and meat in my backyard. 

But today? Today rocked. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education*



I had a lovely day in Tarrytown, NY yesterday. I was the keynote at a fundraiser put on by the Hackley School Parent's Association at the Tappan Hill Mansion, formerly owned by Mark Twain. He bought what was formerly known as the Hillcrest mansion for his daughter and lived there for two years at the end of his life. As I looked out over his view of the Hudson River, wishing I had thought to bring my white Twain suit and black bow tie*, I had one of those sappy gratitude moments. I get to meet some very nice people in some really cool places.

I also noted, as I gazed out on this awesome view, that if you figure inflation into the mix, Twain got a damn good deal for the mansion and its 19 acres when he paid $47,500.00 for it in 1902. The purchase amount was well under the asking price of $50k, which makes sense. He was heavily in debt to his buddy and occasional benefactor Henry H. Rogers (Standard Oil money) at the time, so he was feeling the economic squeeze. He even resorted to the notably un-cool move of contesting his taxes and successfully had his town assessment reduced. Among the "Tarrytown Millionaires," lofty tax assessments were a boasting point, so his request was notable - and perceived as odd - at the time. It was not the first time Twain was ID'd as a quirky guy, nor would it be the last.

But back to the point of my post. As promised, Hackley parents, here is the bibliography for the long version of the speech I gave yesterday, including all of the books and studies I specifically mentioned and lots more I would have mentioned given more time.

Thanks again, for inviting me!

Books referenced in my talk:

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

Study: inflated praise makes children with low self-esteem feel worse. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_143884.html

Not referenced, but also very interesting:

James M. LangCheating Lessons: Learning from AcademicDishonesty (kids don’t cheat on tasks for which they are intrinsically motivated)




*This quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but there is also some controversy about the veracity of this attribution. You can read more about this debate here.
**People tend to picture Twain in his white suit, but this was not a daily get-up. According to some quick research I did before showing up at the Tappan Hill Mansion (what can I say, I like to cover my research bases in case there's an appropriate moment for a Twain joke), he wore the white suit at a 1906 congressional committee meeting about copyright. Notably, he wore it in photographs, so it came to be his "thing" just as people tend to picture Emily Dickinson in black even though she usually wore white.