Now Robbi and I can add miseducation to the list of our crimes. We met a very nice woman named Jessica at this year’s AWP, who bought a copy of our Six Degrees of Francis Bacon poster and hung it in her kitchen. We know, because she wrote to tell us. We wrote back, begging her to send us a photo. Which she did.
But now we wish we hadn’t. While perfectly suitable for enjoyment by educated adults, Francis Bacon is a scourge to developing minds, so full of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies. As it turns out, Jessica’s kids have taken an interest in the poster, looking at it and pointing at it and such.
It troubles us to think that these small people might grow up thinking that Dostoevsky actually did have a beard growing competition with God or that Poe and Chaucer were drinking buddies (Amontillado being their grog of choice, of course).
Perhaps we should gracefully surrender our guilt. It is, after all, Jessica’s own fault that her children are thus exposed to our nonsense. But we can’t help feeling some responsibility, wondering if someday these deliberate errors will surface on an AP Literature essay. We can see it now, a young man getting back his D- paper and defending his work to his skeptical teacher: “Thomas Pynchon did have weekly sleepovers with J.D. Salinger, I swear! I read it on a poster!”
As has been well documented here already, I’m a big fan of Friendship Montessori, the little school in Worton where Alden and Kato spend their days, mostly because my kids came home so happy every day.
But curiosity got the best of me, and so I decided to spend a morning observing in Alden’s classroom a few weeks ago. Robbi joined me with her camera. The result is a piece for the Chestertown Spy.
My goal was to illustrate the basic principles of Montessori education by showing how the kids learn.
It’s about the classroom and the community, the materials and the approach to teaching.
As is my style, there are lots of pictures. This is one of my favorites.
Ever since Bobbledy started last August, we’ve hosted a weekly drawing prompt. We’ve given kids something to draw, and they’ve done drawings (wonderful, amazing drawings) and have sent them to us.
This week, for the first time, we’re turning the tables and doing a drawing prompt instead. Here’s how it works: Robbi drew an illustration, and we’re asking kids to respond by telling us what it should be called and then recounting the story that comes to mind when they look at it.
Here’s Robbi’s drawing:
I showed Robbi’s painting to Kato and Alden, and this is what they had to say.
Kato named the picture “Playing,” and here’s his story:
“That robot wants to pick up that kitty.”
Alden named the picture “Robot and Kitty,” and here’s her story:
“That cat wants to go in the door to get her temperature taken. Because she needs to be extra strong and extra good when she goes to the doctor.”
If any of you (or your kids) have wanted to participate but thought it would take too long to draw and scan a picture, here’s your chance to respond to one of our prompts. Collecting and recording the gripping narratives above took me all of 90 seconds.
So please, jump in and tell us what fireworks the picture above sets off in your mind. If you have a kid on hand, great, but if any of you non-kids are feeling creative, feel free to jump in.
Send your title and story to me in an email by the end of the day. I’ll be posting all the stories on Wednesday morning.
Yesterday was one of those miserable days that gets sucked down into the wallows of uncooperative technology. It had started out alright – I had just unveiled my brand new wireless keyboard and trackpad (happy anniversary, Robbi!) the night before.
They were beautiful. Sleek. Small. Wireless. This would solve lots of problems on my desk. Believe me, the details are dull, but I was very excited. It turned out, though, that the trackpad doesn’t have full functionality unless your Mac is running Snow Leopard, which I had previously believed (and I still think, rightly so) to be a fairly extraneous update. But dammit! I sure wanted that sleek new trackpad to work. And so, I folded. I bought Snow Leopard. Thankfully (and perhaps because it’s a fairly extraneous update) it did not break the bank (though I’m not sure if the extra $29 just for trackpad capability was worth it, especially in light of the ensuing misery).
Alright then. So. I woke up yesterday ready to install Snow Leopard. I figured it would take me an hour at most, and then I could finally address this pressing burden of work that I’ve been putting off since getting back from Japan (two weeks later, I don’t think I can still blame jetlag, but whoo boy am I wonked out).
But. But. But.
Something weird happened in the update and something else weird happened when I updated our server and for a while there it looked like I would never be able to retrieve my Time Machine data and that our server wasn’t going to get beyond the grey spinning startup screen and that total computer apocalypse had happened, all because I desired my stupid (yet beautiful) trackpad over my functional (but ugly) third-party mouse. There’s some greater lesson to be learned, here, I’m sure. Anyway, 8 hours later, the problem seemed to be mostly solved, and Matthew sent me off to take his yoga class because he could see that I was looking all pinched and manic.
And when I returned, he had a little something waiting for me. I had mentioned a couple days ago that I had in my head a little character named Mr. Melba, who was a piece of melba toast. I considered him some sort of children’s book character. And so, Matthew wrote me a story about Mr. Melba. I am posting it below. Let it be known, however, that Matthew literally wrote this in 12 minutes. No editing. Just straight out of the font of strangeness. And I love it. It made my day.
November 10, 2010
Mr. Melba was a happy fellow. He had everything he needed—friends, conversation, and a nice, warm box to live in. He was content. He had no needs or aspirations.
One day, his friend (who was also named Mr. Melba [it was so confusing]) came back to the box with paté on his head. “Egad! What’s that!” said Mr. Melba, horrified.
“It’s paté,” said the other Mr. Melba, sounding not at all horrified, and actually rather pleased with himself.
“Oooh! Paté!” said various of the other Mr. Melbas in the box. Mr. Melba felt the shame of the ignorant and said, “Oooh, paté,” too, but with decidedly less enthusiasm.
The pate got smeared all over the inside of the box, which distressed Mr. Melba and made him want to complain. But the Mr. Melba with paté on his head was the new darling, and so Mr. Melba feared to cross him. The other Mr. Melbas insisted that the Mr. Melba with paté on his head sit still and enjoy life while they did all the chores and suffered all indignities on his behalf.
Mr. Melba fumed. This was not right. He decided to go on a journey of discovery. He set out across the kitchen counter, in search of truth.
He was nearly destroyed on several occasions.
Eventually he came to a place with a view of the table. People were gathered in celebration. He saw a number of his fellows on a plate in the midst of the festival. In the middle of the plate was a bowl of paté.
Mr. Melba scoffed at the paté, recognizing it as a hollow emblem. One after another, the happy people picked up his friends, smeared paté on their heads with a tiny silver knife, and then devoured them with enthusiasm. Mr. Melba knew he shouldn’t be envious. But he was. This was his destiny, he suddenly realized. This was the only livable culmination of his life’s heretofore underwhelming trajectory. He had to get to the table. He had to. But how? He was high on the counter. He could not get down without risking terrible injury. He was dry and brittle. The table was also high. Were he to make it down from the counter successfully, he had no idea how he’d climb up to the plate. His mind reeled as he embraced his limitations. He grew depressed. He would have wept.
Miserable, he wandered back to the box, knowing that, at the least, he could take pleasure in communion with his fellows. But to his shock, the box was empty. His friends were gone! He looked up to see them piled on a plate that was being carried away from the counter and toward the table. He had missed his ride! He had missed his chance at destiny!
He was feeling wretched and alone when he heard a voice, hollow and despondent. “Ack,” it said.
Mr. Melba turned to see the other Mr. Melba with paté on his head. He was looking wan and soggy. The paté had soaked through his flesh, causing him to sag. A crust had formed across the top of the paté, making it unappetizing.
“I’m old before my time,” said the wretched Mr. Melba. “They didn’t want to eat me.”
Mr. Melba looked at his friend and felt a searing pity that was almost patronizing. He tried to hide his contempt. He failed.
“Your contempt is withering,” said the other Mr. Melba.
Mr. Melba cackled. He was not to fulfill his destiny, but at least he could revel in the pain of another. It was almost as good.
Later that evening, he and the other Mr. Melba were fed to the dog. Their pulverized bodies were commingled as the dog chewed and then swallowed. Mr. Melba’s last feeling was nausea.
I suppose it doesn’t make for much of a children’s book. But it sure made me smile. At the end of the day, a little melba with some paté can sure right a lot of sloping sailboats.
Tomorrow morning, I go back to work. I have a 9:00am meeting and (from the sound of it) a pile of projects eagerly awaiting my return. Honestly, I’m looking forward to a change of pace. It has been nice to have so much time to write strange stories about Homer, Williams College, and middle-aged men who love Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the other side of my brain is ready to dig back in. At least this is what I tell myself.
To celebrate my final days of freedom, I drove across the bridge to spend Saturday with Christian, Emily, and Iris (Emily not pictured for reasons of being at Crate and Barrel when this photo was taken).
It hasn’t been that long since I saw Iris, but she has turned into a person suddenly. She expresses opinions now, climbs up and down the stairs with ease, and (much to her father’s delight), triumphantly says “Goaaaaaaal,” whenever a ball finds the back of the net in the World Cup. I got to witness this phenomenon several times during the high-scoring Germany/Uruguay match. (Iris was an equal opportunity fan; cheering with full enthusiasm for goals scored by each side.)
After the soccer, we decided to grill. Steak, of course–full-pound, inch-thick ribeyes. It is appropriate to celebrate grandly on the final weekend of one’s sabbatical.
Also there were grilled sweet potatoes.
And grilled tomatoes.
One of the tomatoes appeared to be having genetic difficulties…
…which in no way interfered with its being delicious.
The coup was brown-sugar-soaked figs wrapped in prosciutto and then lightly grilled.
It is the kind of treat that would send Robbi into a state of pure glee. But I must admit to initial skepticism. The concoction seemed to violate my long-held conviction that sweet and salt should never be mixed.
But it, like the rest of the meal, was delicious. And the company couldn’t have been better. I had to fight back tears when Iris hugged me goodbye. She has already cultivated a wonderful embrace. When Alden returns, I will see if I can arrange some lessons.
Still no new words from Robbi and the kids, though I did hear from Robbi’s brother’s wife (who just got back from the tundra), that the fishing has continued to be slow. And apparently, Kato has embraced solid foods with nothing short of lustful glee. It’s difficult to feed him, so enthusiastic is he to grab the spoon with both hands and shove it into his mouth. I can’t wait to see it. He hadn’t quite figured out the delicate act of swallowing when they left.
Moving forward now. It’s time for a change of gears. More pushups await. I mention them again because clearly some of you are interested. I’ve gotten more emails about 100 Pushups than I have about any other topic in recent weeks. Alas, 100 Pushups has higher aspirations for my pectoral development than I am able to meet. I am now consistently demoralized by the workouts, which I can’t even come close to completing as outlined. But I am undaunted. My goal is that I won’t be able to fit into any of my shirts by the time Robbi gets home.
Here’s my little painter (Robbi thinks Alden is actually going to be a writer).
And here’s my little dude, enjoying the simple pleasures back when eating solid foods was still nothing but an idle daydream.
Here’s a sneak peak at some key components of a book in the works.
You attentive parents might recognize these cheerful figurines as members of the Fisher Price Loving Family line. Though I’m hoping Alden will not take an interest in this plastic family, they will be the central characters of an upcoming drama about the state of family life in contemporary America. Rather than drawing, Robbi will photograph these figures in self-made dioramas. Perhaps it won’t work, but we’re going to try.
One of the things we’ve come to love about our book project is that we get to reinvent our style and approach with every volume. Most illustrators are advised to cultivate a recognizable style and stick to it, creating characters or an aesthetic that are consistent from project to project, so that art directors can begin to recognize one’s work and have it in mind so that when the right project comes along, they say, “This would be perfect for Robbi Behr!”
Only, so far, Robbi hasn’t subscribed to this strategy. Although there are definite through-lines in her approach to depicting humanity (the oft-cited gnarly fingers and pointy boobs, for example), in the course of illustrating our subscriber books, she has been largely free to choose a media, aesthetic, and approach that works best with whatever text I have advanced. In 3+ years of Idiots’Books, she has worked in pen and ink and watercolor, gouache, vector art, and, sumi ink. She has drawn on cardboard boxes, ticket stubs, hot-press paper, stretchedc canvasses, construction paper, sketchbooks, and rice paper. She has used clip art, collage, and digitally manipulated images. She has gotten to make saddle-stitched, wire-o, and perfect bound books. She has gotten to make posters, card sets, CD-jackets, and original letterpress prints. Stylistically, has ventured from the surreal to the abstract to the representational. She has gotten to do it all, never veering from her aesthetic core, but showing the full range of its application. And each new project affords an opportunity to try something new. Cops, as the new book is called, will provide a chance to try her hand at photography. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.
It has been a difficult day in the barn. It seems two weeks of this is enough. I’ve gotten so much done, but there’s no one here to share it with. I’ve been working all day on a story about Homer (the epic poet, not the lovable consumer of Duff beer). I ran, I went to yoga, I did my pushups. But I’m operating in a vacuum. I need a hug from my Robbi, a kiss from my baby, a petulant episode from my two-year-old. The days are slipping past, but not fast enough for my tastes. On Saturday, I’ll head to Baltimore to spend a day with my good friends Christian and Emily. On Sunday, I’ll attend a dinner party with some friends in Chestertown.
That leaves tomorrow as the last official day of this sabbatical. I’ll review all I’ve written, making changes and improvements. It has been a good two weeks. I’m sure I’ll look back and think I could have done more. But I guess I’ll have to be content knowing I did as much as I could.
The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. If an errant comet hits the barn tonight, destroying me and reducing my home to cinders, the letters I have written will not find their mark. They are stacked on my table, addressed and return addressed and stamped and ready to go out into the world. All except for the letter requested by Scott of the UK, whose letter is waiting to have the proper postage affixed.
This was fun. Thanks to those of you who reached out. Several of you wrote expressing interest in the project but claiming that you, “did not need letters.” What am I to make of this? Are you being too polite? Or maybe it’s that you’d rather I not know where you live.
In some ways, I am grateful that I posted this offer over a holiday weekend, because had more people asked for letters, those of you who will be getting them would have gotten less. I wrote each of you a full page, with the exception of the lone stranger among you, who got two pages. It’s too small a sample to draw conclusions from, but I think it might be telling that the one person I did not know at all got the longest letter. Did I have more to say, for some reason? Did the act of writing to a stranger require greater preamble? I wish that more strangers had reached out, that I could know the answer to this question.
The words I write in my daily exercises are free to be empty. They have no audience. With the letters I have sent to some of you, the words required purpose, care, and meaning. It’s a different challenge, to be sure. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to meet it.
If you are inspired, please tell me what you think when your letter arrives. Words cast into the void have some value for the potential they represent, but words responded to are greater by far. They represent a conversation. And no matter how much of a misanthropist any of us must be, we need exchange as we go about our lives. We long to be heard, responded to.
In other news, I got an email from Robbi today, who must have ingratiated herself to the owner of a local cannery with a wireless connection. The message was short, the news brief. It sounds like the fish aren’t hitting this year, but that my babies are well. My babies…what do they even look like? Oh, I remember now.
Seventeen days and I’ll see them again. Wasn’t the whole world made in just one?
I got home from a Fourth of July crab feast around 11:00 tonight, sat down at my computer, and wrote the eleven letters that have been requested by the readership. Lindsay, Clare, Abby, Cathy, Brandy, Veronica, Don, Holly, Jessica, Alex (and Megan), and Brandi can expect a letter in their mailbox by the end of next week. As for Aubrey, I have not started writing your masters thesis. It’s 2:00am, and I’m feeling unequal to the challenge of unpacking the subtle mysteries of Stoppard’s prose at the moment. But that’s what tomorrow is for.
Thanks to those of you who participated in this experiment. It was great fun writing to you all. I’d like to be the type of person who writes a letter every day, but I know how daunting a challenge it would be. Just past the midpoint of the year, I have succeeded in my New Year’s goal to write at least 1,000 words a day, though what I come up with is a mixed bag. Sometimes nonsense, sometimes solid prose, the product of my daily writing, is, at least, writing. Raw production aimed at nothing more than keeping my fingers in shape and my mind involved. Even a bad run is good for the legs, the heart, the soul.
That’s what I tell myself, at least. Good night, everyone. Here’s hoping you got to see some fireworks.
Here’s a photo of the family, an outtake from the recent Baltimore Magazine shoot.
Just a short post this morning. I didn’t rise until nearly noon today after staying up half the night watching the first four episodes of Veronica Mars, a show for teens that features a surly high-school detective and her misadventures with a pack of rich kids and a local biker gang. I was looking for something to stream on Netflix before going to bed, and was reminded of a positive review for Veronica Mars on NPR from a few years back. It’s nicely done. Good storytelling, and the lead actress, Kristen Bell (also of Heroes fame), is incredibly appealing. Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop. My present vulnerable emotional state makes me more prone to admit things that I might otherwise keep to myself.
I guess my brain needed a break from yesterday’s record writing haul. I finally caught my stride, making major contributions to four new stories, finishing working drafts of two, and revising my Alaska essay into something approaching final shape. If I had been this productive from the first day of my sabbatical, I would have written the great American novel by now. Or at least the good American novel. Or at least a novel written in America.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s day of letter writing. I’ll repeat my offer. If you comment on this post and write me an email with your mailing address, I will write you a letter tomorrow. And I’ll send it to you in the mail. It’s ok if we don’t know each other. In many ways, I consider the prospects of writing to a stranger a more intriguing challenge. But perhaps you’re too busy eating hot dogs and waving sparklers to check in this weekend.
For those of you in my current queue, I wonder what I’ll have to say to you tomorrow. Be prepared for lengthy observations on the monkish life. I have little else to offer these days.
In case you are hoping for a photo (I know I need one right about now), here you go.
The Fourth is always a day of major celebration on the tundra. If the fishing schedule allows, people from all along the beach gather for a massive pot-luck featuring everything from casseroles to Akutaq (pronounced a-GOO-duk), or Eskimo “ice cream” made from seal oil and berries.
After the pot luck, people gather along the bluff to watch Pyro Dave (who works as a demolitions expert in the off season) dramatically explode drums of fuel or boxes of black powder. It’s one of the highlights of the season (to give you a sense of the lack of other entertainment to be found in Coffee Point).
Here’s a video from a few years back, if you care to partake.
This afternoon, I’m heading off with friends to a crab feast and fireworks of the more traditional kind. But it’s nice to be able picture what my family is up to today.
Chestertown is getting hot again. I got up early to take a run while the world was still cool. Now I am sitting in the artificially chilly confines of the studio, working on a story about bad-looking high school freshmen. It is only vaguely autobiographical. I am only drawing slightly from my own memories of the high school years. Ok, just about every painful episode is basically a word-for-word transcription of my adolescent pain. There is a famous photo of me taken in the eighth grade when I was swindled by the teachers into being on the “Principal’s Council.” It was basically a distinction given to the dorkiest kids so that they could be easily identified by the other, meaner kids and publicly mocked. I was still in my fat years at the time, and I still parted my hair in the middle. I still had large plastic glasses. My father still dressed me. In the photo, I am featured, fat and unlovable, in my Keystone Mountain t-shirt. One of my sleeves is longer than the other. I look sloppy and imbalanced. I’m sure that everyone who looked at the photo wanted to stuff me in a locker. To complete the image, the words that were printed on the shirt were (in reference to skiing, of course) “My Life is Going Downhill.” The wonderful thing is that I had no consciousness of the irony at the time. I was a mostly happy kid in spite of the social blight I represented. Rehearsing my early teenage pain through writing has been a pleasant way to spend this lazy afternoon. And I’ll never run out of material.
In other news, I finally heard from Robbi last night. The fishing has been slow so far, but the Department of Fish and Game has decreed that they fish during the day, so it has been difficult to travel over to Egegik to use the pay phone in the cannery. Yesterday they were switched to the night tide (which probably means Robbi got up at some ungodly hour this morning to stuff herself into a full rubber suit and head down to the beach), so she was able to make the trek across the water to call me. Apparently Alden spent the first two days being a total pill, still sick and completely exhausted from the travels. But she’s back now to her spunky self, though she can’t seem to understand that the “beach” here is different from the one she loves at home. No parent in his right mind would let a child swim in the water here, which is dirty and cold and teeming with underwater life.
Kato is sleeping happily in a cardboard box. Other helpers are more than making up for my missing contributions. It was a good report. Mostly, it was just good to hear Robbi’s voice. I did not get to talk to Alden. She was sleeping when Robbi left for Egegik, and rousing her would have violated Robbi’s and my most sacred rule: never wake a sleeping baby.
I got my first letter from Robbi today, full of news about her trip, mundane details that were delightful to me but which would bore you stiff, and so I’ll keep them to myself. But letters are on my mind right now as I contemplate my Monday of writing them. I think I have a list of ten eager recipients so far, including the young lady who has asked me to write her Masters Thesis. I’m going to do it. I may post it here for all of you to enjoy. We’ll see how it goes.
Be sure to let me know if you want a letter and haven’t asked for one yet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the next post.