24 July 2008

Taking a look at Renovations

With school drawing closer, I'm really under deadline to finish up the work on our house!

Last spring, Jenny and I decided to refinance our house and pull out some money for major renovations (this seemed insane, considering that so many American homeowners are going bankrupt, but we were OK). Our focus was on the "new" side of the house, built for my grandparents in 1958.

Since we moved into the house, we've all been living in the "warm side of the house," i.e. the original wing (built in 1954). As the kids grew up and moved into their own beds, things began to get crowded. Owen and JoJo now share the library, which isn't really big enough for one person, much less two with toys.

The reasons we stayed out of the "cold side of the house" were twofold. First, it's haunted. Second, two walls of the huge family room were taken up by energy-inefficient sliding-glass doors. The most recent time we tried to pay for heating both sides of the house in the winter, we ended up with a $541 heating bill.

The energy efficient improvements to the house, then, were tops on our list. We replaced the heating & cooling unit on the warm side. We replaced all the windows in the house with double-paned glass. We removed the sliding-glass doors and replaced them with walls and picture windows.

The house is haunted, too. There is a singing Santa Claus doll that Jenny's grandpa bought us for Christmas five years ago. Whenever a loud noise is made nearby, it starts shimmying and singing some stupid song called "Disco Santa." Mizpah died in 2004. The place is haunted.

Secondly, it's haunted because my grandma and grandpa's bedroom is there. That's their room, and in my mind it always will be. I was joking with someone at Oasis that sleeping there with Jenny would be like the first time I spent the night in bed with her in my mom & dad's house. Despite the fact that we were legally wed, I half expected my mom to come bursting through the door and say, "What do you think YOU'RE doing?"
Just this week, I got the cold side of the house ready for moving. I can't tell you how excited I became as I nailed in the final crown molding and swept up the final mess. How awesome!

As you will see from the photos, there is still much to do. I know that many of you--particularly the Ditteses--have been wondering what it looks like now. I'll take you on a photo tour of the new digs.

Photo 1: the family room from the outside. The wooden walls and picture windows are where the doors used to be. You will notice the french doors on the end of the room. We haven't stained the outside wood yet. That will be a fall activity.

Photo 2: detail of the back door and security light. We still have to pick out a color for the stain. I can guarantee one thing. It won't be the color of the trim above the bricks! That color looks best on a bowel movement, not a house.

Photo 3: looking toward the back door. You can see the flooring and the new ceiling fans much better in this one.

Photo 4: Closer view of the new windows on the west side of the family room. If you look closely, you can see the cool new lights in the hallway.

Photo 5: New hallway lights. This L-shaped hallway was always too dark. There was one light bulb in the corner expected to light both sides of the L. I found this lighting kit at Lowes that let me stretch out the lights. Now it's so much brighter! I have one 20-watt halogen light pointed at the steps to the kitchen, one pointed at the entrance to the family room, and three more to cover the space in between. Whenever I walk into the hall, I feel like I'm in an art gallery!

Photo 6: Here is a trick question--only the hardcore Ditteses will know this one. I think you would need to have spend 20 years of your life wandering the halls of this hallowed manse like I have to even answer it. This is a picture of the hallway in the warm side.

What's different?

If you figure it out, tell me in the comments.

19 July 2008

Thinking Out Loud About School

School starts in three weeks.

There's a lot I need to finish. The renovations we have made to the house are on schedule, but there is still much work to be done. The family room needs to be livable by the time Julie visits in two weeks. That means that there are boards to stain and shellack, couches to buy, blinds to hang. Much, much work.

For the first time in quite some time there are also questions about school.

Not about me. I'm set to teach German again this year, along with two English classes. I will be adding podcasting to my teaching repertoire, using it to teach vocabulary words and dialogue in German--and to teach some cool things about German history and culture, too. It will be my fifth year at Station Camp High School, and my longest teaching stint to date looks pretty certain to continue indefinitely.

Ellie is looking forward to middle school. As you may remember from a previous post, she finished the school year at a public elementary school near where I teach. She loved it. She felt challenged by the work and respected by her teachers. She can't wait to get into 6th grade--6th through 8th grades attend middle school in my county, followed by high school.

The cool thing is that Knox Doss Middle School is just down the street from where I teach. On a decent day, she will walk over to my classroom after she finishes her class work and track practice.

Now Jenny and I are wondering about the boys. Owen will enter 2nd grade this year, and Jonah will be in Kindergarten. A new public elementary school just opened up on the campus where I teach, and I am leaning toward enrolling them there--70% certain--instead of returning them to Highland Elementary, the school that both I and my dad graduated from (1985 and 1958, respecitvely).

Not easy.

I need your prayers and your heartfelt thoughts. Perhaps by sharing this dilemma on my blog, I'll be able to sort this out a little better.

I don't need any prejudice. Please don't tell me what you've "heard" about public schools or speculate about the curriculum or fellow students. I have ten years experience teaching in public schools, and I have friends who teach at Station Camp Elementary.

This is how it breaks down. I'll start with the pros, since that's the way I'm leaning.
  1. The education. The teachers are all highly qualified, and the curriculum is up to date and a little more challenging. Ellie learned more about science and history in the last 11 weeks at JAES than she had learned in 25 at Highland. This year she will take honors 6th-grade English. The teacher told me they learn 5-paragraph essays. I learned how to write a 5-paragraph essay in college. Owen will qualify for advanced classes that should stimulate him and meet his gifted needs.
  2. Convenient location. The boys will be right next door. Their school would get out at 3:45; mine gets out at 3:15, so I would be able to pick them up every day as I was leaving. Last year, we had to arrange for friends to pick them up after school or pay $14 an hour to have them in after-school care at Highland. It was complicated, because they seemed to be at a different place every day.
  3. Cost. About $600 a month--although public school isn't necessarily free.
  4. Friends. It's a good school in an upper-middle class neighborhood. The kids are about twice as likely to get invited to a program at one of the megachurches in the area as anything negative.
  5. Faith. Jenny and I have no reason to invest in a lifelong attachment to Adventism, since we ourselves have moved on a different faith community. We don't want our kids fantasizing about Heaven or speculating on the Second Coming. We want them to learn to live Christian lives within the community God has given us. The onus would be on Jenny and me, however, to teach what we believe and encourage positive interactions with their teachers and friends.
Of course there are also cons.
  1. Owen doesn't wish to leave.
  2. Friends. Owen and Jonah have good friends at Highland Elementary. They like the people they go to school with, and they don't have an overarching reason to leave (in the way that Ellie was struggling with teachers).
  3. Family. It was tough enough on my family when Ellie left Highland. I feel like many of them are so prejudiced that they are now banking on her failure in life to prove me wrong. When she was faring poorly at Highland, my dad was one who jumped on the "there's something wrong at home" spin, instead of confronting some of the issues that were going on at school. If I send the boys to Station Camp, I might as well be putting them on a yellow school bus to hell.
So that is where things stand. I have prayed about this for the past few months. I feel led to make the break now, rather than drawing things out as I did with Ellie. Ellie wants them to make the move for many of the "pro" reasons listed above. As difficult as it was for her to switch, she tells me I should have done it sooner. She still sees her Adventist friends at church and at camp, but school is about school, and she likes the clarity of it.

One thing I learned as a teacher is that it's easier to be a Christian in a public school environment. I think the choices are starker, the outcomes more clear. One doesn't get bogged down in trivial stuff.

Comment below. I welcome your ideas.

Taking a Claw to My Fears

I am not a man who is defined by his phobias, but I certainly struggle with some.

My greatest fear is heights--something that has dogged me ever since I was young. Fortunately, it doesn't keep me from going to the tops of tall buildings (we visited the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center in our 2nd Day in New York--as Jonah demonstrates in the picture at right, that is the Empire State Building under his left elbow). I have climbed my share of canyons and seen plenty of mountain tops despite this malady.

A close second is a pretty strong fear of crabs.

When I was five, I remember walking out on a pier during a visit to my grandparents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We found a man there hunched over a plastic bucket. One by one, he pulled crabs out of a trap, nonchalantly snapping off their claws and dropping the bodies into the bucket. I can still her the snap, snap, snap of the claws. My fear of crabs is caught up in those terrible claws.

Once, right after I had met Jenny, we stopped during one of our hitchhiking trips at a tidal estuary in Wales.

Jenny was in one of her mad fits (a craving to exercise), so she decided to swim out to an island in the middle of the river, about 100 yards away. I waited on the shore and guarded our stuff.

As Jenny started to swim, I waded a little ways out in the water. I needed my exercise, after all!
Standing in the water, I felt something tickling my ankles. I looked down to see dozens of small, sand dollar-sized crabs scurrying all over my feet.

I screamed like a little girl and raced back to shore. By the time Jenny got back, I was ashamed--not only for failing to meet her physical challenge, but also for getting chased out of the water by a combined posse of crabs that weighed less than one pound.

But travel has ways of liberating one from his phobias.

At the Mystic Aquarium, I came face to face with crabs, and I finally overcame my fears.

The Mystic Aquarium is a wonderful place with a surprising array of experiences available in an aquarium dwarfed by others I have visited in Chattanooga, Boston and Atlanta.

One of the big draws for me was the aquarium's connection with Robert Ballard, the submariner par excellence who located the sunken Titanic and who has found shipwrecks and signs of ancient civilizations from Lake Huron to the Black Sea. An exhibit featured his many explorations.

The animal exhibits were fascinating, too. An aviary let the kids get up close to Australian parakeets. Belugas swam for us--I had taken care to copy the classic Raffi song, "Baby Beluga," to our summer soundtrack.

A display showed "mermaids' purses" or sharks' eggs. Part of the black, leathery shell had been stripped away, and we could see the embryos growing at various stages right before our eyes.

The highlight for me, however, was the hands-on pool. There were two crabs there: a huge crab, which huge claws (like the one Jonah stares at in the picture at side) and a spider crab (smaller claws but creepier looks).

In the full spirit of adventure, I reached for the crab.

"Pick it up from the back," the guide told me. "It won't be able to pinch you that way."

I reached in from behind and grabbed the crab. It jerked its claws and dangling legs back and forth helplessly. I felt such a surge of power and pride! I couldn't believe my fingers.

Next came the spider crab. It was easy. Those tiny pinchers were no match for my bravery. I was in command of the crabs--and my fears.

A few days later, we stopped in North Carolina's Outer Banks. What looked like a short hike from the Cape Hatteras light house to the beach turned into quite a trek through scrub and sand dunes.

I stepped over a pile of scrub, only to hear a haunting clicketty-clicketty-clicketty sound.

"A crab!" Owen yelled, pointing to a small crab now cowering in the shadows.

"Cool!" I answered.

04 July 2008

Over ye go, Me Hearty!

"Owen, that does it. You're walking the plank!"



These words were actually said by yours truly, two days before Father's Day, no less.

Every road trip has its highs and lows. For me, one of the highs was our visit to the fascinating town of Mystic, Connecticut. (One of the lows was Owen's behavior that day.)

From the time Julie had offered to rent the RV last Christmas, I had known the theme for this trip would be whaling. I read Moby Dick. I read five books on whaling and 19th-century maritime history. I rented films. I did everything I could to prepare.

That didn't stop Mystic from blowing me away.

The previous night we had camped near Orient Point, Long Island. We caught the 8:00 ferry for a ride across Long Island Sound to London, CT, passing four to five islands along the way, as well as a photogenic array of sailboats and lighthouses. We squeezed the RV through the narrow byway into Mystic, a town of about 45,000 close to the Rhode Island Border.

Outside a used book store the brightly painted sculpture of a sperm whale welcomed us to town. I knew this was going to be a great stop.

We drove to Mystic Seaport, a historic maritime village. They feature a boat yard where wooden ships are carefully wrought in the way they were made when Yankee Clippers were the finest of open-sea technology.

There were exhibitions about rope-making, clam-fishing, and knot-tying. We climbed aboard a Yankee Clipper in time for a guide to tell use how the sailors sang songs to work the ropes--since most sailors were "greenhands" or novices, the first few weeks of any voyage were a chance for the captain to help the crew to "learn the ropes," a saying we still use today. I also learned that a "slacker" was a sailor who didn't pull his fair share of the rope.

The crown jewel of the visit, though was the blacksmith's shop and the Charles W. Morgan, the only whaling ship remaining from an industry that was a backbone of the American economy in the 1850s.

It was in the blacksmith's shop that we came face to prong with the instruments of the whaling trade: the harpoon, the lance, and the cutting spade.

When whalers spotted a whale--"Thar she blows!"--they rowed away from the ship on whaleboats. The harpooner, at the front of the boat, got close enough to the whale for a solid shot (10 to 20 feet). After securing the harpoon in the whale's side, the crew of the whaleboat held on for a "Nantucket Sleighride."

As the injured whale towed the boat through the water, the crew maneuvered to tire out the prey and bring the boat up close. Once the whale was still, the mate approached from the back of the boat with the lance, a long spear which probed the inside of the whale, hoping to reach the lungs and cause death by asphyxiation. When the whale emitted a spray of blood from its blowhole, the cry went up, "chimneys afire!" and the crew secured the whale to to the carcass to the whale ship.

Yes, this sounds gross. It probably was.

The blacksmith's shop was hands on. I picked up a harpoon and showed it to Joshie. We imagined what it must have been like to get so close to a whale, throw the harpoon, and hold on for dear life.

Moored nearby was the Charles W. Morgan. It had been one of the last whaling ships to hunt for whales--long after petroleum had replaced whale oil as an illuminant and lubricant and the prices has collapsed.

As we entered, Owen's mood darkened. He is an animal lover; I am a history nut. Perhaps his take on the whaling story was opposite to mine.

We talked with the guide and toured the captain's galley--a bed with matters and a toilet, the captain lived in luxury, and he shared a table with his mates.
Owen kept up a negative whine, shoving his cousins and causing chaos.

"That does it," I said. "Walk the plank!"

He looked at me and frowned.

"I mean it. I want you to walk right off this ship and wait for us at the end of the plank."

Owen turned and stomped off. (The picture, right, shows him waiting for us when we left the ship.)

We continued into the blubber room, into which strips of whale blubber were lowered and cut. I had read that whale oil was some of the strongest smelling stuff known to man--and the lower decks reeked. It was said that you could smell a returning whale ship before you saw it; others insisted that whale ships could be smelled from three to five miles away.

Once the whale had been killed, there were only two commodities American whalers sought: oil and ambergris. In the sperm whale--preferred prey of Americans--the head contained a huge, 500-gallon chamber of a special oil known as spermaceti (its cloudy texture resembled human sperm and gave the whale its name). As for the rest of the whale, whalers cut into the blubber with the long whaling spades, rotating the whale in the water and peeling it as one would peel an orange, with one long line of blubber coming free.

(Other valuable commodities from sperm whales included whale teeth--sperm are one of the only whale species that have teeth instead of baleen--which were worth their weight in gold on the South Sea islands. Also, ambergris is a substance found in the intestines of sperm whales that was used in perfumes and seasonings.)

Back on the main deck, we checked out the try works, where the blubber was melted into oil and drained into barrels. We walked the plank to find Owen waiting patiently for us, ready to move on.

Later I left Julie with the kids at a kids-oriented exhibit, and I took Owen through the museum. Owen has a great personality, but he is something of an introvert. Jenny and I have learned to give him his space when he really starts to act up.

Together we examined wonderful examples of scrimshaw (artwork painted onto a whale's tooth) and watched ancient film footage shot during one of the last whaling voyages, around 1909.

We finished with a meal at the galley--my only sampling of fish & chips the entire trip. Before leaving, we posed for pictures on a doomed whale boat.

For me, Mystic was the highlight of the trip, both for the seaport and for the aquarium, which I will blog about next. That so much history and character could be bottled up in such a charming town! If you go to New England, it is a must, methinks.

Basking in the Art of America

My first stop in Washington, DC, was the museum that I loved when I was a kid: the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I had wanted to begin our whaling trip there because of memories I had of the giant blue whale that soared over the marine wing of the museum. As I began to research the trip, however, I learned that this whale was no longer part of the museum--you have to go to New York's Museum of Natural History to see a full blue whale (although we later saw some skeletons in New Bedford, Mass).

In fact, the marine wing was closed for renovation, so Jonah, Owen and I headed for the mammal wing while Julie, Ellie and the Gates gang checked out the insect zoo.

I love the 'stuffed animals of the exhibits, and so did the boys--they had really loved Chicago's Field Museum last summer. They posed (right) with a chunk of seal blubber.

Later we visited the dinosaur room, in which so many different skeletons are on display, it is almost overwhelming!

For the afternoon, I decided to check out a new (for me) museum, the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art, which shares the old U.S. Patent Office with the National Portrait Gallery. I love art museums (it's a vice, I know--and the rest of my family hates me for it). When I visit a good exhibit, my pulse quickens, and my imagination begins to race. I really get stoked for these things!

To make things worse, I spent 2nd semester teaching American Literature at my high school. When I teach literature, anymore, I try to use music and art to augment the lessons kids learn about how American culture advanced through time. I had a heart full of American artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Winslow Homer; now I was ready to get an eye full.

We split up again. The Gates Gang (with Ellie in tow) toured the International Spy Museum across the street. I took Jonah and Owen.

Touring an art gallery with a kindergartner and a 2nd-grader is a real challenge. I knew that--if I was going to get anything out of this visit--I would need to provide a context for the boys to enjoy the paintings, too. Otherwise it was going to be a terrible afternoon.

The first gallery was an exhibition of landscapes. Before we started, I took the boys aside. "Okay, we're only going to look at a few pictures here," I told them. "For each one we look at, I want you to answer, 'Where is it?'."

They nodded.

"You can say 'desert' or 'Colorado' or 'Tennessee' or whatever you want."


We went to the first painting, a pretty straightforward picture. Seashore, said Owen. "That's the beach!" Jonah chirped.

We saw desert, New Mexico, a big river. We stopped before an abstract painting with lots of lines going up and down (brilliant, Georgia O'Keeffe). Where is it?

"That's New York City!" Jonah shouted. Owen looked at the marker. He looked back at me, stunned. "He's right."

I was stunned too. I'm not sure where Jo-Jo got it. (Later in the trip, we would visit New York.) At that point, I knew the visit would be great.

I had planned to skip the abstract paintings, but the boys were hooked, and their imaginations were fully dialed in. Nothing got past them, they figured out where everything was.

We moved into the collection of portraits of American presidents. Jonah was still on track. He pointed out George Washington, got a little tripped up on Jefferson (all the wig-wearers looked the same to him). He needed only a little help with Lincoln, and we journeyed through the other presidents with ease, including a fascinating exhibition on Lincoln's 2nd inaugural and subsequent assassination/funeral.

The last part of the tour was the one I had looked foward to the most, a trek through 300+ years of American history and art.

Our previous travels informed the kids of this wing--there were lots of bison and Indians, which we had learned about on trips West the previous two summers. I was blown away by the monumental Bierstadt painting, "Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868)." It was ten feet high and almost 18 feet wide, and it simply was breathtaking.

The print they sold in the gift shop just didn't do the original justice. I will include it at right, just for you to reference, but you will have to take my word on the magnificence of the original.

This is painting is what makes being an American such a great experience. There are places in this country where you can stand, look up at the mountain peaks, and get the feeling that angels are singing all around you--like you are looking directly into Heaven. Thank God, there were painters who shared this view and were actually able to capture the emotion on canvas!

There are fireworks going off in my mind at the memory of this painting, and I witnessed it almost three weeks ago (there are fireworks going off outside, despite the rain, because it is Independence Day, which may also explain my patriotism).

I will close with one more picture from the MAA. In the modern wing of the historical exhibit, we found this sculpture of a mother playing with her baby. It was a remarkable sculpture, because the fluid lines and the playful postures made this a work of art that was enjoyable from almost every vantage point.

You can see that even Owen found a good angle from which to study this piece.
By the time we met Julie and Ellie again, I was on cloud nine. The boys had had fun. I had gotten a mind full of art and a heart full of my country. I had blown some serious money in the gift shop. All was right with the world.
(Later, when I report on our Father's Day visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I will purposely leave out the dis-interest the boys showed there. All you need to know, dear reader, is that I got it right...once.

03 July 2008

Shoeless Jo goes to Washington

Since he was old enough to walk, Jonah has had his own nickname: "Shoeless Jo."

For those of you not versed in the history of baseball, the original Shoeless Joe played for the Chicago White Sox 90 years ago.

He was one of the greatest players in baseball history, topping 3,000 hits (the standard for baseball's greatest hitters), hitting over .400 once, and retiring with the 2nd-highest career batting average when he left the game after the 1920 season.

But it was how Shoeless Joe left the game that obscures the greatness with which he played it. He was part of the eight men on the White Sox who agreed with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series against the underdog Cincinnati Reds. He accepted $5,000 to play poorly, even though his statistics--.375 batting average & 12 RBI would have won World Series MVP in many other years.

He was part of a legendary encounter outside the federal court house where he had testified in the gambling trial. A young boy, a distraught White Sox fan, confronted him outside the court house with the immortal words, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

It was so. For his ties to gambling, Shoeless Joe was banned from baseball for life and kept out of the Hall of Fame, despite his records. (For the record, my favorite childhood baseball player, Pete Rose, remains banned from baseball for his own gambling problems.)

My own Shoeless Jo earned his nickname through consistent negligence. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I remind him, Jonah remains shoeless. Yesterday we were halfway to VBS when I looked in the rearview mirror. "Did you put on your shoes?" I asked. (I had reminded him four times before we left.)

Jonah shrugged. "Nah." I tried to be angry, but he out-cuted me.

When we visited Washington, there was a lot of walking. Monuments, museums, walk, walk, walk. We were really exhausted!

On Tuesday we went to my congressman's office to take a tour of the U.S. Capitol his staff had arranged for me. (I had contacted them to arrange for a White House tour, but I missed out on the six weeks it takes the Secret Service to screen visitors.) At 1:30 Congressman Gordon walked into the office for a chat. Julie and I were the only visitors.

He showed us into his office to talk about a few issues. He was pleasant and courteous, showing us the different space-related curios in his office (he chairs a committee on space--of all things).

As I was talking to him, I saw Julie start to grin. I turned, and to my horror I spotted Jonah, squirming around on the congressman's nice leather couch.

In the 30 seconds I had talked with this important congressman, Jonah had found a way to slip off his shoes and kick back on the couch.

He certainly made himself at home.

I couldn't believe it.


Julie snapped the picture that you see at left.

I have to admit, I have studied this picture carefully. Jonah is on the couch, pointing his bare feet at the congressman (if this were an Arab country, where feet are considered unclean, it would be equivalent to flipping the bird.) Joshie is next to him, shoeless as well.

Every time I look at the picture, I try to scrutinize Congressman Gordon's smile. It looks genuine, doesn't it? Or is it the opaque smile of an experienced politician? Behind the smile, is he thinking, "The people I represent HAVE GOT to do a better job of raising children! This is leather furniture! These miserable rednecks and their spawn!"

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. At least I will know, when I cast a vote for him in November, that he has certainly earned it.