Category Archives: Education

Rethinking Education…Again

antique cars for history class

Students learned about the early 20th century by exploring antique cars at Massabesic High School in Waterboro, Maine this spring.

Here’s what I was talking about with the Teen this morning.

What if we gathered together a bunch of high school students interested in studying literature/writing/journalism and planned an entire education program from there? We would start with that passion and incorporate all the disciplines. For instance…

Literature: We could read and write various genres and analyze their conventions.

History: We could write historical fiction–and do the historical research necessary.

Math: We could talk about the biz of publishing, learn accounting, statistics, and maybe create some marketing or distribution algorithms. I’m unclear about algorithms but this sorta explains my idea

Economics: Maybe we would create a “virtual” magazine and learn the ins and outs of publishing, sorta like those classes where students trade stocks, with all the learning implied in that kind of endeavor.

Social sciences: We could study sociology and psychology and philosophy to inform ourselves about character development and conflicts.

Science: We could do some nature writing/science reading and writing and learn about those subjects and/or incorporate what we learn into fiction. We could visit a lab and interview scientists (or better yet, go down to the science-learner wing or school and interview students in their lab).

Art: We could write about art and artists. We could look at paintings and sculptures for inspiration for new stories. We could practice art as a way of accessing different parts of our brain, stimulating creativity.

Health & Fitness: We could do some yoga and walking/running or any other form of exercise because authors need to get up and move to stay healthy and their minds working properly.

Industrial Arts: We could build bookshelves or maybe personalized writing desks.

Music: We could write music lyrics and learn some music theory while we are at it. Of course we could also participate in chorus or band.

Now….if I were interested in say, science, how could I create a similar program for the science-learners?

Math & Science charter schools are already creating this kind of learning environment…so why shouldn’t we create schools geared toward artists? Or philosophers? Or writers? Or athletes? (Actually, there is a school for skiers up at Sugarloaf called Carrabassett Valley Academy.)

What if we truly started with students’ interests and built programs around them? Video gaming? GREAT! Website design? Fabulous! Auto mechanics? No problem! Agriculture? Be still my heart.

For those kids who want to be college professors, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc, then a traditional liberal arts education might just be what they need. Fine! Create a classical academy school for them.

The point is, different learners have different interests, so why shouldn’t we have different schools or classroom clusters for them? This is not a new idea. Some high schools have created schools within a school similar to colleges within universities or majors within colleges.

What is the point of education, after all, but learning what you need to actually DO something? If you were a student again, wouldn’t this sound like fun?

Homeschool advocates already understand all this. Homeschooling is the ultimate individualized learning program.

Charter schools geared toward particular types of learners and interests are springing into life all over the place.

How does standardized testing and a common core curriculum match up with how and why students really learn? Isn’t this is a question legislatures and administrators might want to ask themselves as they move forward?

And what about employers? With the cost of college spiraling ever higher and student loan rates becoming prohibitive, maybe the economy should consider criteria for employment other than the ubiquitous college degree. Does an administrative assistant NEED a bachelors degree in business administration or could an office management training program do the trick? Does an entry-level library assistant really need a bachelor’s degree or even an associates degree? Vocational training, geared toward specific professions, makes much more sense to me. Couldn’t we have aptitude tests and on-the-job training? Apprenticeships?

I suspect it is time–past time–to radically rethink education and human resources. What do you think?

For further contemplation:

Between the Ears

Cool School

If Our Current Education System Implodes: A Radical Idea for A Local, Sustainable Alternative.

A letter to our local school board was sent out this week from our superintendent. Basically this letter talked of the dire budgetary issues the school district is facing, the major cuts in funding from the state, and the need to reduce staff and increase class size, cut already strained programs and services, and further erode our school’s ability to educate our children.

If this trend continues, we may be forced to look for alternatives–and soon.

I have a radical idea for education in a local, sustainable community if the time comes that we can no longer afford the system we have today. I suggest that in addition to parents teaching their own children at home, teachers also open their own small schools in their homes similar to the daycare centers and preschools that are so ubiquitous in our society now.

Granted, I haven’t asked any teachers if these ideas could ever work, but if we can educate our pre-schoolers at small, home-based schools, why not elementary-age students? Why not teenagers? There could even be a certification process, for the ease-of-mind of those parents who don’t trust their own judgement.

Here’s what I like about the idea: Self-employed teachers, greater school choice, walk to school choices (as the small-schools would be scattered throughout many neighborhoods), leverage to kick the trouble-makers out if they chose not to behave and learn, smaller classes, and greater flexibility. Teachers could choose to focus on the kind of education and populations they are most interested in serving. They could, if they wished, coordinate activities and lessons with other small-schools in their area. And the best teachers could command the best salaries. And the best students would be wooed by the schools. And a parent wouldn’t be hindered, necessarily, if he or she did not have money. Agreements for bartering and exchange of services could be worked out or parents could simply chose to educate their own children.

With internet and iPads and curricula out there, do we really need to shove our kids into sprawling industrial-era school buildings for six hours a day? Do we really need to spend all that gas money hauling them back and forth five days a week?

I think this could certainly work for K-8, but school would not necessarily be organized according to age or grade. Students could learn in multi-age classrooms.

Maybe high school could be in the former elementary buildings with sign-ups for classes and open campuses, similar to the way adult education is organized now? Maybe there could be internships and apprenticeships and pick-up softball games and/or a bunch of intramural teams that get together at the community fields/elementary gym to play games instead interscholastic sports? Of course teachers could offer music and art lessons–or just about any kind of special interest out there. Jewelry-making? Why not! Animal care? For sure!

How about converting some of the sports fields to school gardens? What about a school-run vegetable stand or Community Supported Agriculture program? Students could have even greater educational opportunities in the areas of agriculture, cooking, marketing,retail management, accounting, and more.

I’d also be inclined toward voluntary but rigorous exit exams, providing motivation for those who wish to enter college.

How would we pay for this kind of education system? Well, how do we pay for daycare and preschool? Charitable organizations and churches would, probably, offer to subsidize some schools that fit their mission-statements. Those with means and inclination may offer scholarships.

Perhaps there could be some assistance via local taxpayer money for those families who cannot afford the cost, but with all the savings in retirement, benefits, heating, gas, building maintenance, state and federal mandated programs, etc., and with all the choices that would be available, we could probably afford it.

I’m not saying this is ideal, but it can’t be much worse than what we are looking at if budgets continue to take hit after hit, year after year. Teaching, as a profession, will be radically different, but I hate to see teachers lose jobs and our students continue to lose the opportunity to learn from talented individuals because those teachers are let go or choose to leave for more lucrative, stable professions.

Some teachers might see this as an opportunity for self-determination in their careers, and I think the earning potential could be similar to what it is today (which isn’t great, let’s face it). If a teacher had space for fifteen students at $200 per week, that’s $156,000 a year gross.To compare, average daycare costs in the U.S.A. are $11,666 per year or $972 per month.

Hefty tax deductions for parents with children in school would make sense, as well.

All this is very radical, but not that long ago in our history, one-room schoolhouses were the norm. Prior to that, children were taught at home by parents or tutors. In ancient Greece and Egypt, teachers gathered a group of students who learned, literally, at their feet.

All this underscores my fundamental belief that education takes place in one space: between the ears of the student, most times with the guidance of a teacher or teacher-parent. You don’t need a sprawling building with little boxy rooms and a gymnasium and a cafeteria for learning to take place. A kitchen table can work just fine.

Lesson Two: Life Is in the Details

Tree Frog?

In this week’s Teen Writing Class, we talked about using vivid details to bring our stories to life. The scene below was extended from a couple of sentences to a descriptive little section complete with figurative language, inner dialogue, secondary characters, and sensory details. If you want to read the entire lesson, click HERE. Otherwise, hope you enjoy this scene that could be part of a longer young adult story or novel.


I loiter in the hallway outside Room 15, slipping through the doorway at the last possible second when the bell rings. The sharp chemical stench of formaldehyde hangs heavy in the room, inescapable. When I try breathing through my nose, I can taste the smell on the tip of my tongue. Dissecting day.

‘Larrisa Boucher! Put that knife down before someone gets hurt!’ From her perch behind the desk, Ms. Cameron screeches at a five-foot ten inch basketball player pretending to threaten her teammate, Brandi Ellerby, with the silver dissecting tool. The Lady Hawks goofing off at the corner station snicker and shuffle in a loose clump of sharp elbows, hooded sweatshirts, Amazonian legs. I shoot them a look, eyes narrowed. Mutants.

A feel a nudge at my elbow. ‘Are you okay?’ Angela Greer whispers, breath minty from her gum. ‘You look kinda pale.’ Her long, orange hair brushes my elbow.

Shaking my head, I say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

Angela leans closer. ‘You have to. If you don’t bring up your grade in Biology, you won’t be allowed to go to drama camp with me this summer.’

‘I know, I know!’ Holding my breath, I glance down.

There it is. The frog.

Reaching out, I slide a tentative finger along its back. The skin is cold and slimy and weirdly stiff. Not like a real frog. Nothing like.

I remember when I was a kid how my cousin and I would walk down to the stream on summer mornings and catch them–big, green croakers hiding close to the muddy bottom among the cattails. We’d plunge our hands into the cool water and grab one by his leg. They were slimy then, too, but in a live way, wiggly. This frog is dead. And I have to cut him open. It isn’t fair, I think, stomach hollow and queasy. Why do animals have to suffer for us to have this stupid biology class, anyway?

Writing With The Teen

The Teen artwork

Inspired by writers Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner who publish a writerly blog called Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour, I’ve decided to “give something back” as they suggested in a post entitled Bad Advice Wednesdays: Do Something For Someone Else (30 Ideas for Writers).

From the post, which I highly recommend you read, is the following:

What I’m proposing today is forgetting about our own careers (or lack) and thinking about what we can do for others, what we can do to make the world a more hospitable place for art, and for artists, which is to say for writing and writers. Doing for others may be your key to success, and is certainly the key to happiness. Herewith, 30 suggestions for writers. Karma, anyone?

This past fall, I drove the Teen and three friends once a week to Portland, Maine to attend a teen writing workshop at The Telling Room. This place is awesome! A non-profit organization dedicated to mentoring young people as they learn to express themselves through story–oral storytelling, cartooning, poetry, fiction, personal narrative, new media, film, etc., The Telling Room provides a cozy space on Portland’s waterfront, guest teachers, and a wonderful staff both paid and volunteer.

The girls were attending a writing/cartooning class once a week. Driving to Portland and back after school, on a weeknight, was tiring for all of us, though. I kept thinking, “I wish we had writing workshops offered close to home.”

Well, when you want something to happen, often the solution is to do it yourself. I dredged up all my old high-school English teacher training and created a syllabus for a five-week teen writing workshop. I’m calling it Dreaming On Paper. Retro, perhaps, since most of us writers use computers now. However, I decided the focus of the class will be the keeping of a daily writing journal . . . paper and pen. Basic. Portable. Inexpensive. Not intimidating. The idea is to take a set amount of time, start your timer, and write until the alarm goes off. Writing with intention but freedom to let your mind stray, hopping from topic to topic, recording even the strangest images and connections that pop up from who-knows-where in the subconscious.

Natalie Goldberg in WRITING DOWN THE BONES describes the process in detail, and my hope is that teenage writers will find timed journal entries both fun and productive–a treasure trove of ideas for future writing projects.

The Dreaming On Paper writing workshop syllabus can be viewed by clicking here. Feel free to use it. Offer a writing workshop in your hometown. Follow the instructions to start your own writing journal/journey. Use your imagination.

When the workshop actually starts in March, I will be posting about it here, sharing tips and stories and maybe some segments from our notebooks (with permission of the authors, of course). My hope is that teens in my community will be inspired to put their dreams, observations, and ideas onto paper, discover the joy that writing brings (along with some frustration, because, let’s face it, writing isn’t always easy!), and find a micro-community of other young writers with whom they can share their interest, craft, and passion for the written word. While my Reiki instructor friend, Laura, explains that there is a difference between “expression” and “communication” (more on this topic at a later date, plus a link to her new blog!), here we can combine the concepts. . . expressing on paper in a private journal, rewriting for clarity and meaning, and then communicating to others. This is how it works. This is writing.

It’s so fabulous!

Homeschooling Myself

Windmill at U.S. Botanical Garden

Dear Reader:

September. Back to school. This time of year finds me yearning to learn something, to sharpen some pencils to fine points, to crack open some new notebooks with all those blank pages bursting with possibility. The steam rising from lake in the cool mornings mixed with the scent of steam rising from my coffee cup catapults me into autumn. Once September arrives, the season turns, and I find myself casting about for continuing education.

I compulsively peruse college websites and contemplate returning to school for an advanced degree in . . . something. A MFA in creative writing? A master’s in New England studies? Paralegal courses? Business? Or maybe I should take some adult ed classes. I look and dream and try to project myself into the future, trying to spy out the terrain. Will I actually use the costly investment of time and money to make a decent return on investment? Will jobs even be available in my fields of interest? Do I really want a career, or am I simply wanting to learn something?

Until I figure out what I where and what I want to study, I will try to teach myself. Truth is, we’re all lifelong learners whether we want to be or not. Some of us chose to direct our learning in specific directions, and some of us learn by default when we pick up a magazine or click the television remote. Either way, we learn.

For instance, today I could be learning where the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills get their nails done. Or “What Not to Wear.” Or how to make Martha Stewart’s Halloween punch. Instead, I chose something different. I chose economics.

Economics is one of those subjects I missed along the way to high school diploma and college degree. Like a teenager who feels that if she only had that one magical pair of perfect jeans she’d suddenly become skinny, de-pimpled, and popular, there’s one side of me (call her Side A) that has this sneaky suspicion that if only she understood how the economy works, everything about this world that seems illogical and murky would suddenly be made clear. Of course, the other side of me (Side B) knows that is ridiculous, that there is no magic theory on this earth strong enough to provide a lucid organizing principle for everything.

Side A argues, “Yeah, but would it hurt to try? What else are we gonna do all day?”

Side B shakes her head, disgusted and cynical but eventually agrees, grudgingly, to go along with Side A’s latest folly. “As long as it doesn’t cost us anything but time.”

Side A waves a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go find me a highlighter already. And some skinny jeans.”

Anyway, since I wasn’t going to allow myself to take expensive college courses simply for the fun of it, I needed to find a cheap alternative. Lucky for me, someone dropped off an introductory college textbook at the swap shop at the transfer station, and I snagged it up last spring. The book is called THE ECONOMIC WAY OF THINKING by Paul Heyne. Two chapters in, and I’ve already found at least ten gems. Here are a couple.

From page 4: The theories of economics, with surprisingly few exceptions, are simple extensions of the assumption that individuals take those actions they think will yield them the largest net advantage.

Heynes goes on to explain that “advantage” doesn’t always mean money. There are always other advantages besides greater monetary wealth.

From page 16: (1) Most goods are not free but can be obtained only by sacrificing something else that is also good. (2)There are substitutes for anything. (3) Intelligent choice among substitutes requires a balancing of additional costs against additional benefits.

So (1)Education isn’t free. You have to sacrifice good money and/or time in order to gain education. (2)A substitute for expensive college tuition is homeschooling myself. (3)Balancing additional costs (money) against additional benefits (maybe a paying job, maybe not), means the intelligent choice for me was picking up that used textbook at the dump.

From page 12: The primary goal of this book is to start you thinking the way economists think, in the belief that once you start, you will never stop. Economic thinking is addictive. Once you get inside some principle of economic reasoning and make it your own, opportunities to use it pop up everywhere. You begin to notice that much of what is said or written about economic and social issues is a mixture of sense and nonsense.

Yeah, this is no surprise to me. Once I get into any sort of reasoning, I begin to apply it to everything around me. My hope is that economics will bring into focus the slightly blurred edges of current events, history, politics, and social issues so that I can get a clearer picture of the world around me.

So far so good. I am devoting my early morning coffee/reading time to economics this fall. You, dear reader, will probably have to suffer through commentary about current events both personal and public as seen through the lens of economic theory.

But who knows. It might even be more entertaining than watching reality tv.

Question for you, my dear reader: What sorts of continuing education opportunities have you found since graduating from high school or college? What interests have you pursued? Do you feel you can learn on your own as effectively as you can learn from a teacher or a school? Are there any glaring gaps in your education? Drop me a line and let me know what you think of continuing education . . . Outside the Box.

A World Without Borders Bookstores

My Bookshelves

Dear Reader:

I am taking a break from Outside the Box in D.C. to comment on the news about Borders. Remember when the big-box bookstore rolled into town? Independent bookstores weakened and died. Patrons mourned, but they ended up shopping at Borders anyway because, let’s face it, Borders carried just about everything you ever wanted to read and more . . . plus you could have some great coffee and feel chic and intellectual sitting at a cafe table, sipping lattes and reading your Philip Roth, your Stephen King, or your Candace Bushnell.

Image from IMDb website.

Movies were made. Who can forget Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, in YOU’VE GOT MAIL? She tried so hard and loved her store so much, and it just about broke your heart when her authors jumped ship for bigger booksignings at the megastore “around the corner.” The movie ended with this feeling of inevitability. Little guys will lose. Big guys will win. End of story.

Image from

Image from website.

And what is bigger than a big-box brick and mortar bookstore like Borders? An internet retailer. The virtual shelves of an internet bookstore are endless. End-less. Was the closing of Borders inevitable?

Probably. First, the rising tide of online shopping ate away at the retail giant’s sunny shores. According to some analysts, Borders did not adapt quickly enough with their online platform. Annie Lowrey wrote an article for Slate magazine slamming the bookseller for outsourcing their internet sales to Amazon early on. Then the tsunami of electronic books & magazines rocked the publishing world.

Some of us (read: older) readers love our hardcovers and paperbacks and glossy print magazines. We like the smell of books. We like the feel of turning the pages. We like dust-jackets. But as time goes on, I see more and more people reading on their Kindles and Nooks, and if we haven’t already reached a tipping point there, the time is fast approaching. In fact, I’m wondering how much longer we will have any new printed materials at all.

I still have certain reservation about e-publishing, namely: what happens if the power goes out? In a low-energy world where we’ve used up all the easily-available oil, where a non-renewable resource–coal–continues to power the electric grid of large cities, where that grid infrastructure is vulnerable to decay and terrorist activities, where we haven’t yet ramped up our alternative, sustainable options such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy technologies . . . in a world like that will electronic readers, tablets, laptops, and smartphones really be a reliable platform for information storage?

How will we make sure that the least affluent in our democratic society still have access to information? Will the rich and middle-classes be willing to buy e-readers for the poor via library programs, education initiatives, or flat-out charitable donations?

Will “somebody” be printing out at least a few hundred copies of the most important works, storing them in a secure location just in case? The thought of losing our collective knowledge gives me the willies! We will need all the information–scientific, sociological, historical, psychological, anthropological, etc–if, indeed, the fit hits the shan.

More of my library

Which is why we need to keep some of this (see pic above) even as we move into a new bookselling era.

The role of independent, brick and mortar bookstores will become increasingly important, I believe, in the coming years. For those of us who love “real” books, these stores will be suppliers for our fixes. They will also be micro-conservators of information, as will those of us who keep home libraries. Locally-owned bookstores will continue to provide spaces for book-lovers to meet, to talk about literature and the issues that literature explores.

Will we survive in a world without Borders? Sure thing. Click on the Indie Store Finder and check out a local, independent bookstore near you. Shop there. Buy something. Build a family library. Be picky. Go to a used book store and find some unusual books on subjects most interesting to you. Become an "information saver." If your bookshelves are already full, go through your collection and weed out the books you'll never want to read again and make room for some classics. Donate your old books to library book sales, swap groups at a community center or transfer station, or bring the best of them in to used bookstores to trade for some credit.

And, yeah. Go ahead and buy a Kindle or Nook or other e-reader if you want to. It's the wave of the future . . . the near future, anyway.

Days 20 & 21: Shoe and Tell

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dear Readers:

I think it would be fun to create a D.C. scavenger hunt based on shoes. I’ve heard about these scavenger hunts. Someone makes up a list of unusual places/sights/objects around the city and sends tourists off to find them. I would create a shoe-hunt. One of the places I’d put on the map would be the Museum of American History.

Most people who come to view the First Ladies exhibit focus mainly on the fabulous gowns. Granted, these are spectacular, and if you are at all interested in clothing design and fashion, you will be in heaven here. What you may not tend to notice, however, are the smaller articles displayed around the dresses. Mirrors and combs. Dinnerware. Silverware. Fans.


Abigail Adams's Slippers

These pretty embroidered leather slippers were worn by Abigail Adams in the late 1700’s. Over two-hundred years later . . .

Michelle Obama's Jimmy Choo's

. . . we have the Jimmy Choo’s that Michelle Obama wore with her Inaugural Ball gown.

Michelle Obama's Inaugural Ball gown

Both the Teen and I enjoyed looking at the gowns and shoes and designer sketches. We viewed a short video of Michelle Obama’s speech at the museum when she donated the gown to the exhibit, and I was impressed once again by the First Lady’s down-to-earth demeanor, her humor, and her intelligence. I also can’t help loving her for her passion for healthy eating, starting the Let’s Move program to fight childhood obesity, and, of course, planting the Victory Garden at the White House. Click HERE to watch a video of this year’s spring planting at the White House Garden.

George Washington In A Toga

This is the funniest thing I’ve seen in Washington so far. I can’t help laughing. Here is George Washington in his Colonial wig and a toga. A toga! Did you check out his feet? Sandals. I’m sure the sculptor had some grand vision for portraying our first president in this way–yes, democracy has its roots in Greece and all–but in my opinion, this is just wrong. Eh, can’t win ’em all.

The Teen shushed me. “Stop laughing, Mom.” So on we went.

Bon Appetit!

Here I am with another of my heroines, Julia Child. Why is she my heroine, you ask? Okay, I’m not really into gourmet cooking, but she inspires me because she never gave up trying different things until she discovered her true passion. Once she found that passion, she jumped into it with both feet. When she had ample reason to give up when trying to finish her cookbook, she persevered. And she continued to follow her passion the rest of her life.

The museum exhibits her famous kitchen . . . no shoes, unfortunately, but I’m sure Julia would think the cooking utensils were more important than shoes.

Julia's Kitchen

Giant History Poster Project

I loved this wall collage (is that the right word?) of all things Julia. “Wouldn’t it be fun to be the person who works here putting these exhibits together?” I said. I got a shrug in return. Okay. Guess I’m a dork.

Julia's books

Here are a couple editions of Julia’s book, MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING.

The Paper Engineering Exhibit

Speaking of books, we were delighted to discover this exhibit dedicated to the art of paper engineering. Students at our local elementary school have a wonderful librarian who teaches lessons every year on various bookish subjects, including paper engineering. I believe the Teen was more interested in this exhibit because of that early introduction. Connections between school learning and real-life learning. So important.

Soapbox moment: Library programs are important to the education of our children and foster self-directed and life-long learning skills. These programs should be retained and restored in our schools.

Leaving the pop-up books behind, we toured the American On The Move exhibit. We weren’t sure we were all that interested in transportation, but we ended up glad we decided to give it a try. We saw trains and carriages and cars and a police motorcycle and an early bicycle and a trolley car. I enjoyed the exhibit’s focus on how transportation changed commerce from mostly-local economies to our current, vast global economy.

Early Train

Trains started off rather small and plain.

Pretty Train

But they soon got much bigger, more efficient, and startlingly beautiful.

Loading boxes of produce

This scene shows how boxes of produce are loaded from the train to a horse-drawn cart and then unloaded at the local store.

Shipping Containers

Today, products are shipped all around the world in these huge metal containers. In 1960, 25 million tons of goods were shipped into West Coast ports in these containers. By 2000, 250 million tons. That’s alot of containers! There are so many laying around, in fact, that some people are building houses out of them. Click HERE!

Both the Teen and I agreed that this was an excellent exhibit. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to get to the museum.

The Original Muppets

We made our way upstairs and found the ruby slippers, Kermit the Frog, and a wonderful doll house donated to the museum by Faith Bradford, a retired librarian.

Faith Bradford's Dollhouse

The house has twenty three rooms, each filled with the appropriate furnishings.

The Wash room

Hungry and getting a little tired, the Teen and I reluctantly left the museum, chosing to find lunch up in Penn Quarter rather than eat at the cafe or the larger downstairs cafeteria in the museum. We strolled around the Quarter feeling a little out of place in our tourist garb amidst all the suits and ties out on their lunch break. Unfortunately, we ended up at a Starbucks again. I’m having a hard time finding local coffee shops. Time to deliberately research instead of hoping to run across them serendipitously.

On the way home, we zipped into the Hirshhorn so the Teen could have a look. “It looks fluffy but it is made out of pins,” was the Teen’s observation about this piece. I agree that the irony is pretty cool. What wasn’t cool was being told by a docent that I wasn’t supposed to be using flash. This was weird because I deliberately asked the docents on Monday if there were any restrictions on camera use. They told me there weren’t, and so I proceded to go around snapping beaucoup snaphots with flash all around the museum. Now I feel guilty . . . but glad I got the nice pictures.

This incident flattened my mood a bit, but when the Teen said, “We should do this every day, Mom,” my spirits lifted. I hope this experience is something that she’ll remember the rest of her life. I also hope it inspires some interests in art or history or fashion or travel or social issues or architecture . . . or all of the above!


No shoes on this guy!

Where are your travels taking you this summer? Drop us a line . . . Outside the Box.

Days 18 & 19 Part One: The Elephant In The Room


"Woman, 1965" by Willem de Kooning, paint on wood

Here’s the thing. I don’t know much about art, but I love looking at it.

I used to like creating it. As a kid, I remember the distinct oily smell of finger paints and the slippery feel of the special paper under my fingers as I smeared color in swirls and lines. Watercolors came in little tin boxes with plastic brushes, and after a bit of time the water in the cup turned a dark, sludgy grayish purple. It took forever for the paper to dry.

"Conception Synchrony", 1914 by Stanton McDonald-Wright

Later, I sketched things with pencil–I was fascinated by hands for awhile, and I seem to remember a horse phase somewhere around fourth grade. Unfortunately, our small school didn’t have an art program, and for some reason I just never sought out any books on art history or biographies of artists in my random borrowings from the Bangor Public Library. I don’t think I went to an art museum until I was in college, and even then I passed up chances to take art history in favor of other electives.

Now, at forty-something, I can’t seem to get enough of it.

"Composition In Light," Window from Coonley Playhouse, 1912. Frank Llyoyd Wright

Art is a window. We look through this window and see the world in new ways. We look into this window and see another person’s inner world. We learn something about perspective, understanding that we all view the world and its events through a psychological/emotional/historical lens which distorts, to some extent, reality.

"The Sorceress" by Jean Tinguely, 1961.

Every person’s lens is shaped a different way. I guess we’re all just bent.

Take this sculpture of a woman for example. She’s a twisted aggregate of rusted springs, iron, steel, and a motor. It makes me think–we are all of us made of the same elements, just molded and shaped in different ways, twisted by events big and small, worn out or still shiny new, motors chugging along just fine or backfiring now and then, maybe running a little rough and in need of a tune-up. The same, yet different. This is what art tells me. Appreciate the unique in all of us.

"Greenhouse" 1988 by Michael Lucero

Isn’t this the tower we all wanted to build when we were kids? It reminded me of playing with those Lincoln Logs toy sets. This piece also made me think of layers of civilization piled up, all the rusted out old technology finally topped by a more sustainable way of life.

Detail from Luceo's "Greenhouse" sculpture

Of course I loved this piece: rooster, farm equipment. Is it strange that I feel so alive here in a city environment while at the same time pulled toward “the farm” and an agricultural life?

David Smith "Big Rooster," 1945.

Perhaps my life-lenses are bifocals!

Willem de Kooning "Woman Sag Harbor," 1964. "Woman," 1964. "Woman," 1965.

Willem de Kooning’s bubblegum pink, clown orange, and candy-apple red portraits made me smile because we can’t take ourselves so seriously all the time. That’s something else modern art teaches me.

Joan Miro "Woman & Little Girl in Front of the Sun," 1946.

As fabulous as all these sculpture and paintings are at the Hirshhorn, some of the most powerful and astonishing pieces are the video projections–films and/or photographs projected onto huge screens. I’ve never seen anything like these.

The first took me by surprise as I entered a side gallery on the third floor. Here was Grazia Toderi’s “Orbile Rose,” 2009 and “Rosso Babele,” 2006. Walking into the room, your eyes widen to see a giant, bifold screen covered in a reddish projected image that looks like a cross between the planet Jupiter and a photo of a city electrical grid taken from an airplane at night. Flashes of light move your eye here and there. Lines of lights snake around a conical shape–right side up on one screen and upside down on the other. It reminded me of nothing so much as that old computer game Asteroids mixed with a background shot from a science fiction movie. Click HERE to see it on the Hirshhorn website. It’s redder in real life than it looks on the computer.

Sculpture Outside the Hirshhorn Museum

So are you wondering yet about the elephant in the room? Typically, they are the things we avoid talking about if we can help it, we pretend they aren’t there. Here I am referring to another projected piece, this one from the second floor in the Fragments In Time and Space exhibit. (Please, please click the link so you can see an image.)

I’ll attempt to describe what is best observed. Walking around the circular space into one gallery after another, you enter a dim room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor. In the middle of the room, giant screens slightly overlap each other facing outward. There is a small screen with a close-up shot almost hiding in one corner. Projected on the screens, an image of a room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor . . . and a big, gray elephant. The elephant walks around, swings its truck, lays down on the floor. The piece is called, “Play Dead; Real Time,” 2003 by Douglas Gordon.

There is, in a surreal way, an elephant in the room.

Turning The Corner

I thought, maybe sometimes you have to look at something that makes you uncomfortable, acknowledge it, talk about it, and then move on.

So I did. But later, this exhibit got me thinking about how important art education is for students. Art and music and languages should not be seen as “dispensable” subjects when discussing school budgets. More and more I’m thinking that budgets, if they need to be cut, should be cut across board. Our kids need access to the visual and performing arts in conjunction with language arts and math and science if they are going to be able to really get down to business and think . . . Outside The Box.

"ART surrounds us" poster

We Cambridged, We Saw, and We Concord

For several years now I have wanted to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why Cambridge, you ask? Sometime just before junior high school, I had gone through my parents’ collection of books stored on shelves in the basement and came across a paperback edition of Erich Segal’s book, LOVE STORY. I read it, understanding not much except that she was a young girl who dies. What kind of writer, I wondered, kills off the heroine like that? Stupid book, I thought. I’d go back to my ANN OF GREEN GABLES, thank you very much.

(In eighth grade my teacher gave me a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and I realized that heroes die in some books so I’d better get used to it. Two years later I read GONE WITH THE WIND and discovered that even epic love stories can have tragic endings. Don’t even get me started on ANNA KARENINA.)

Sunny courtyard seen through an archway

Anyway, LOVE STORY was my first literary journey to Harvard and Radcliffe, The Coop, Widener Library, and rowing on the Charles River. After that, I had a fascination with Harvard. For me it has been this sort of ideal–as if all that history and learning and writing and lecturing and studying has bonded into the brick and stone structures, permeated the leaves of the trees in Harvard Yard, seeped into the water of the river down which preppy boys skim in long, thin boats. If only I could get there, I fantasized, perhaps some of that intellectual wondrousness (think Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Adams, Al Gore, Matt Damon . . .) would rub off on me.

Plus it just sounded like a really cool, historical, happening place to visit.

So, last weekend when my friend, Donna, invited me to attend her reunion at Lesley University, a small liberal arts college right next door to Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is Lesley University’s Admissions building.

The entire campus is housed in these beautiful, renovated, Victorian-era houses snuggled up together on tree-shaded streets just off Massachusetts Avenue. If you Google Map it, look for Wendell Street.

Here I am on the steps of the dormitory hall where we stayed. The three-story house was tall and narrow with five or six rooms on each floor. A wooden staircase wound up from the front entrance hall to the two upper stories. Pretty posh living quarters for undergraduates, I thought.

The Coop Bookstore and Cafe

Refreshed and revived, we didn’t stay in our room for long–just about enough time to throw our bags on the bed and eat a brownie from the fabulous table of food downstairs in the common room. Donna gave me a tour of Lesley and then showed me where she used to cut through Harvard to get to stores and whatnot.

Street performer on a unicycle playing the bagpipes in a kilt

Sure enough, we came out near Harvard Square where you can catch the T, watch street performers, browse for books in The Coop, have coffee at one of the many, many coffee shops, and window-shop for shoes that cost more than I spend on groceries for a month.

Cambridge River Festival

Donna and I were lucky to be here the same weekend as the Cambridge River Festival, a celebration of the arts set up along the Charles. About 2 pm, we slipped into a tent to enjoy a presentation of storytelling by some very talented local teenagers, viewed some performance art (guy dressed up like a giant, slightly creepy, white angel) and then went back to Harvard Square in search of coffee at The Coop.

Once we’d had our fill of mocha lattes and book browsing, we walked around the city for a few more hours enjoying the pretty, landscaped dooryards, quaint neighborhoods, campus buildings, and shop windows. Cambridge really is a walkable city, the kind of place New Urbanists claim we most enjoy living in.

Roses gracing the sidewalk

What are the priciples of New Urbanism?
1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and Urban Design
6. Traditional neighborhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Green transportation
9. Sustainability
10.Quality of life

Of course, Cambridge is an OLD urban model. It is the kind of place the New Urbanists look to for inspiration. Cambridge has the elelments we’ve been missing in all our unsustainable suburbs and exurban housing developments.

Here, you can shop, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, work and play all in the same place without having to get into a car. You can walk or bike or ride the T or catch a bus. The architecture is stunning. The quality of life is fantastic–all those institutions of learning, the emphasis on culture and the arts, the plethora of caffeinated beverages. I felt energized just being there for one weekend. Imagine living somewhere even a little bit like that.

Sign at the Farmer's Market

On Sunday morning, Donna and I even discovered a farmer’s market in Charles Square. We bought bread, sampled cheesecake, perused the greens, and admired the booths. I watched people buying bags of veggies, tubs of goat cheese and long sticks of baguettes and envied them their local lunch.

Donna at the Farmer's Market

We ate a small lunch at an outside table in front of a coffee shop and headed back to Harvard for more sightseeing. I was determined to see Widener Library before we left Cambridge, and Donna wanted to find a church she had attended a few times when she was at Lesley.

Ironically, you CAN park your car at Harvard Yard . . . or pretty close to it, anyway. When we had arrived at Lesley the day before, we were given a pass to park at Harvard’s underground Oxford Street parking lot. Now we stopped to see the buildings around Harvard Yard on our way back to the garage.

Widener Library

Widener Library was closed on Sunday morning, but was still impressive in its huge massiveness. The thought of all those books housed in such a beautiful structure makes me giddy!

Memorial Church

We found Memorial Church, and snapped a few pictures. It was built in 1932 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I and to serve as Harvard’s church.

Pretty grounds at Harvard University

The day was getting late, and so with reluctance we found the parking garage and said farewell to Cambridge. Heading home, we decided to swing through Concord–home to some pretty famous writers back in the day. We drove past Thoreau’s Walden Pond. A little ways down the road was something even more remarkable and heartwarming . . . a community garden!

Community garden just outside Concord

Here where a few of our country’s great writers–Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nat Hawthorne–penned some pretty amazing American Literature, modern Concordians not only enjoy reading but also like growing their own food. According to the official Concord, MA website, “Concord has long supported community gardens and in 2010 has three community gardens on town land with over 100 plots. The burgeoning interest in gardening and local food production has ensured that two of the three gardens are subscribed to capacity, though there is limited turnover from year to year. East Quarter Farm Gardens, near Ripley School, was established in 2009 and still has plots available.”

Three community gardens on public land! Over one hundred plots! Two are filled to capacity!

There in a quaint, old, respected, historical, classy community we find three community gardens, while here in my exurban subdivision carved out of old farmland we have none because some people don’t want to live next door to a garden. How sad–and stupid. When is my community going to wake up?

Emerson's House

Perhaps if I were as effective a writer as Emerson or Thoreau, I could convince my fellow community members to find a place for a communal garden space, to change the bylaws which allow cutting trees in order to put in a swimming pool but not for a sunny garden area, and to begin changing our subdivision from a car-centric, single-use, unsustainable, exurban backwater into a walkable, mixed-use, connected, sustainable, green community.

Cambridge house on side-street

Or maybe I just need to get out of Dodge for awhile.

Stay tuned in the next week or so as Outside the Box travels to Washington D.C.

Tee Shirt Eureka . . . or not so much.

Inspirational Tee Shirt?

Dear Reader:

So, I’m sweating and aching and groaning my way through my Thursday night aerobics class at the Limington Town Hall, and I’m thinking about the tee-shirt I’m wearing because, let’s face it, my brother-in-law’s paving business doesn’t exactly make for sexy workout gear (see picture) when the various pieces of my latest obsessions coelesced into one glorious idea. I would have shouted “Eureka!” but I didn’t have any breath to spare considering we were doing the umpteenth set of leg kick/arm punch combos. Here’s what I was thinking:

a)I probably look like a dork in this tee-shirt, but at least it’s black and black is slimming. (huff, puff)

b)Actually, printing company logos onto tee shirts is great advertising for local businesses. If someone makes a snide comment about my exercise outfit, I’ll claim I’m doing it because I believe in local business. (Ouch, my thighs are burning!)

c)And anyway, everyone else is advertising various national sporting goods companies on their Nike/Addidas/Columbia/Insert Name Brand Here workout clothes. Why shouldn’t I advertise a local business? Or in this case, a family business? (Hey, thighs about to fall off here!)

d)And, hey, wouldn’t it be kinda cool to start wearing all kinds of tee shirts and hats and sweatshirts with local business logos? It could be my new “thing.” (Seriously? Another set of eight? Is she crazy?)

e)But those tee shirts are so baggy and boxy . . . (Oh my god. I can’t feel my left toe!)

f)Unless I TRANSFORM them and turn them into a fashion statement. Eureka! (Water break? Water break?)

Here is where I thought I’d come up with a unique and inspired idea. I would collect a bunch of local tee shirts and sweatshirts and hats, figure out various ways to reconstruct them into more fashionable shapes and lines, and begin wearing them around town. I’d post tips and instructions so others could create their own DIY fashions. We cool loca-fashionistas could then pooh-pooh the silly fashion slaves with their manacles of Abercrombie and Aeropostale strapped around their chests or plastered on their butts liked cattle-brands.

Maybe I could talk to the home-economics (or whatever they are calling it these days) teacher at the local high school and suggest the students practice their new sewing skills on tee shirt transformation projects. Maybe the school could host a loca-fashion show (do you like that? The double meaning? Loca, i.e. local AND crazy) to raise money for the school system–since the state is going broke and has cut funding but not the mandates–or for local food banks or homeless shelters or people who are just having a hard time buying heating oil or maybe a scholarship or two for a kid who can’t afford the astronomical costs of higher education here in the U.S.

I began picturing a Massabesic High School model-wannabe parading down the catwalk in, say, a Waterways tee shirt halter top paired with a funky tulle skirt and black biker boots. Or a Limerick Supermarket baby-tee with ruched sleeves combined with a fringy, drapey skirt crafted from an F.R. Carroll’s tee worn over a pair of jeans.

“Too cool!” I thought. “Except I have no idea how to tranform tee shirts into anything.” I mentioned my idea to my friend Michele last night and she said, “Oh, a team from Odyssey of the Mind remade their school logo tee shirts a couple years ago.” She listed a number of transformative ideas, and about that time I started to realize that, like most good ideas, someone had already eureka-ed it ahead of me.

So, this morning I jumped onto the internet to see what I could find, and struck paydirt. Okay, I won’t get any big awards for this idea since apparently I’m way behind the proverbial 8-ball (see “My Sources Say No” post of January 6), because I found an amazing source for tee shirt transformation projects. Check out Generation T where you can find projects, books, and inspiration for your own DIY tee shirt fashions. The website is the brainchild of Megan Nicolay, a self-professed “obsessive Do-It-Yourselfer.” I am psyched, psyched, psyched to dive into this website and will probably purchase the books.

In a few weeks, I plan on having an updated, black and gold “Proseal” tee shirt to show you. Can you see me rubbing my hands in gleeful anticipation? I’m going to try to turn it into something I can wear to my aerobics class. I’m hoping that others will notice my cool shirt, ask how I did it, and soon the entire area will be wearing local logos instead of mindless fashion labels that are really nothing more than profitable advertising for the multinational company that owns the name on your hoodie.

Think about it: they con you into paying sixty to a hundred bucks for the privilege of advertising for them. Come on! They should be paying YOU!

Break free from your fashion chains, tranform a tee shirt, send me a picture, and we’ll have our own virtual fashion show right here . . . Outside the Box.

P.S. I’m calling my fashions Flabbercrabby & Stitch. I love the slogan “It’s cool to be Flabbercrabby!” It’s just so much fun to say, don’t you think? And in the spirit of collaboration and sharing, I am “open-sourcing” the name and slogan, so use it if you want (but it will be very bad karma if you take it and copyright it and sell it to some conglomerate. Very Bad Karma!)