Saturday, May 31, 2008

So I Went and Did It

I took the Pillowfight Fairy to see Prince Caspian.

(Ever write a sentence, and then realize that it has a completely different meaning to normal human beings than it does to you and the people you usually communicate with? I was just struck by the silliness inherent in that sentence: "I took the Pillowfight Fairy to see Prince Caspian." Fairy, meet Prince; Prince, meet Fairy. Have fun with the pillows...)

Ahem. Where was I?

I have of course been wondering up until this point whether it would be a good idea to take the Fairy to see this movie. On the one hand, she liked the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really, really well. When I told her the book Prince Caspian was being made into a movie too, she was very interested in seeing it. Furthermore, I'd read her the book some time ago, and she got into it.

On the other hand, I'd heard from numerous sources that it was a bit intense. It's a war movie, for all intents and purposes; the entire movie builds, from almost the first moments, toward a climactic battle that everyone knows is coming. There's not a whole lot of blood on-screen, but there is a whole lot of fighting and a whole lot of killing.

And in addition to that, this was to be the first time the Pillowfight Fairy has been in a movie theater. Our family just doesn't have much of a movie-going habit; we usually wait for the DVDs to come out, and we watch them in the safety and security of our own home, where we can pause the movie whenever someone has to go pee, for instance. And while things on the small screen can certainly be scary, it's often nowhere near as intense as when the same scene is shown on the big screen.

But on the other hand (thinking like Tevye here), I remember seeing Star Wars on the big screen when it came out in '77. My whole family went to that. I had just turned six at the time, and my younger brother didn't turn four until a few months after it came out. If (now) Uncle Andy could enjoy Star Wars while still three, I figured the Pillowfight Fairy could handle Prince Caspian at five.

Now, I warned her that the movie could be pretty scary, but she bravely dismissed this concern: "I'm not scared by the Narnia movie." Ok, girl, here we go....

But just in case, when we got to the theater, I picked a pair of seats way in the back of the theater, so the experience wouldn't be so in-our-faces, and I picked a pair of seats on an aisle, in case it got too intense and she had to leave the theater suddenly. We were the first two people in the theater, so we got to sit anywhere we wanted.

And it was also helpful that this wasn't the first weekend the movie was out, so there wasn't much of a crowd. There were a couple dozen people in the theater, tops; it was maybe 10% full. So we could quietly converse during the movie, as necessary, without bugging anyone else, since there was no one else sitting near us.

Now, my wife and I used to go to a fair number of movies before the kids came along, but we haven't had much chance since the Fairy was born back in 2002. After all, it's generally not good form to take the really young ones to the theater; screaming babies tend to have a negative effect on the enjoyment of the other patrons. And of course, since the Pillowfight Fairy was only the first of our three kids, Tonya and I have had some of those "really young ones" ever since. And babysitters are a bit of a hassle to set up; on those rare occasions that Tonya and I find ourselves kidless, we tend to want to spend time with each other, conversing about adult things and doing stuff together; movies tend not to be our first choice under these circumstances. So the number of movies that Tonya and I have seen in the theater since the Fairy came along, is literally in the single digits.

And I've noticed that a lot can change in the movie industry in five-and-a-half years. For one thing, the theater was already playing advertisements when the Fairy and I first entered, some twenty minutes or so before the movie's posted starting time. The theater was one of those new-fangled digital projection theaters, where they don't use a film projector; and, of course, the fact that I would call this "new-fangled" shows you just how long I've been out of the movie-attending scene. :-) But my guess is that the theater management probably prefers doing it this way, since you don't have to queue up all that film for all those ads; you just tell the computer, "Play!" and it all happens automatically.

So the Fairy and I sat through at least twenty minutes or so of ads before the previews started.

As the previews ran, I started to see signs that the Fairy would probably sci- be Ok with the intensity of the cinematic experience. One of the first previews is for the upcoming dystopianfi thriller City of Ember. The trailer was dark, it was action-packed, it was intense, it was scary, it was claustrophobic; there were lots of quick scene-cuts and strange lighting effects; there was a sense of constant fear as the main characters were trying to escape. And when the trailer was all over, the wide-eyed Fairy said: "That was terrific."

Yeah, she's going to be just fine.

That trailer was followed by at least six or seven more. That's something that's also changed since I was a regular movie-goer. At three minutes or so per trailer, it takes a good amount of time to get through all of those! But the Fairy kept giving me signs that she would be fine with the feature presentation. During the trailer for the upcoming Journey to the Center of the Earth, we were treated to people falling into an abyss! And there were tunnels! And there was lava! And there were dinosaurs! (Including one that drooled on one of the main characters, which the Fairy found particularly important.) And at the end of this trailer, my little girl was acting just like her Mommy does when she's had one too many Pixie Sticks: she sat there with a big, silly grin on her face, saying, "Hehheh... Hehhehheh... heh heh..."

Watching the Fairy was more entertaining than the trailers themselves. ;-)

Ok, so the movie came up--finally. It's been reviewed in plenty of other places, so I won't go into the show itself here, other than to say that I liked it a lot. It does depart in several ways from the book, but there are good reasons for that; the book has a lot of themes that wouldn't translate well to the screen. The director here has created a good war movie that follows the book closely enough that you sort of know where it's going; but it departs as needed to exploit the strengths that the screen has over the page.

How did the Fairy take the movie?

Pretty well. There was really only one place where she got really spooked.



Minor Spoiler Alert!




There's a scene toward the beginning, which is based directly on a scene from the book, involving a bear that attacks the traveling party. The way this is done in the movie, Lucy sees the bear first, and thinks it is a Narnian Talking Bear; so she goes up to say hi, not realizing that the bear is wild, and is very hungry. The bear sees her, and charges her. Lucy realizes her mistake and starts running away, and the bear nearly gets her; she falls, and the bear lunges.... and right at that point, the Pillowfight Fairy was so drawn in that she let out a scream-sob. Thankfully, that scene didn't go on much further; the dwarf shot and killed the bear with an arrow right before the bear got to Lucy. The tension came back down, and the Fairy calmed down again.

There were a few other times where the Fairy got a little spooked, but not as badly as in that scene. The other times mostly involved chase scenes, which the Fairy has always hated. There's one toward the end of the movie where a handful of mounted Telmarine soldiers are chasing Lucy and Susan on horseback (a scene not in the book); Lucy and Susan get separated, and one of the Telmarines nearly gets Lucy. It was starting to look like the Fairy would lose her cool again, but just at that moment Aslan appeared and knocked down the Telmarine and his steed. And with Aslan there, everything was safe again.

There were a couple of things that the Fairy liked, but mainly they involved either Aslan himself (especially where he meets Lucy out in the woods, and they roll about in the grass in happy greeting) or the mice. I'd read in all the reviews that every time Reepicheep is on-screen, he steals the show; I can personally vouch that this is, in fact, the case. That mouse is a hoot. And even the scene at the end (which also is in the book), where he's been gravely injured, and is brought to Aslan on a bier borne by his mouse followers, has a humorous pathos to it; the other mice are mournfully playing the bagpipes during this very solemn procession. Now that was funny.

Anyway, we fully intend on getting it on DVD when it comes out. And I fully think that the Fairy will want to watch the movie at least as much as she watches the first one these days.

We'll have to see how the Adrenaline Junkie likes it. She's not much younger than her Uncle Andy was when he first saw Star Wars, after all....

Anyway: now that we've reached the bottom line, I think I have to declare the Pillowfight Fairy's first movie-going experience a success. And after seeing those trailers, I think we've got the next movie-going experience all lined up: I'm going to have to take both girls to see the next Pixar movie, Wall-E, after it opens late June. Frankly, I don't think Pixar has made a bad movie yet....

Every Once In A While...

Every once in a while I catch my kids doing something that makes me proud.

Ok, that happens pretty often actually. What I mean is, every once in a while I catch my kids doing something that makes me really, really proud to be their Daddy, and reaffirms that Mommy and I must be doing something or other right.

So as I was getting ready to make the kids lunch today, just as I was about to call them over to the lunch table, I happened to notice what the girls were doing:

The Adrenaline Junkie, our three-year-old daughter, has been learning the sound values of the letters lately, to the point where she can sound out simple words--generally of three letters or fewer, with all short vowel sounds. And this has become a rather fun game for her. So the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5) occasionally, spontaneously (i.e., no pushing from Mommy or Daddy), decides that it would be a fun game to help the Junkie learn her phonics. The Fairy is a little like her Daddy: she likes to explain things in incredible detail.

So I sneaked up with a camera. Not quietly enough, of course; the moment you show up with a camera, your kids notice and start acting. Well, mine do anyway. But I told them to carry on. In the picture just above, the Fairy has just cleared the Magna-Doodle and is preparing to write the next word:
By the way, I highly, highly recommend these little travel-size Magna-Doodle toys, for parents who are trying to teach their kids phonics. You can write, erase, write, erase, and so on for thousands of cycles before the toy breaks, and you save a lot of paper. We found when we were following the Hazel Loring blend-phonics method (warning: PDF file) we found at Don Potter's website, that the Magna-Doodle was absolutely the right tool for the job. It is the exact modern equivalent to those chalk slates students used in the middle of the 19th century.

(Which brings up another question, that I ran across when trying to look up the links for this post: it appears that Fisher-Price is no longer making the original Magna-Doodle toys. It looks like they're now being made by some outfit called Ohio Art, and that Fisher-Price is instead making a different line of toys under its own brand name "Doodle". Anyone have any information about this?)
At any rate, you can see here that the Fairy is teaching her younger sister both about phonics, and about the parts of the body. Those that are easy to spell, anyway. I don't expect her to start teaching the Junkie about the duodenal epithelium anytime soon.

Then again, you never know....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Whole Bunch of Links

Well, since I've been out of town for a while--and just generally suffering from a case of writers' block and generic blahs--I haven't had a whole lot of time or energy lately to blog. But I have been noticing lots of little things that I think are worth sharing. Here are a few.

First, this week's Carnival of Homeschooling is here. My post I Won’t! I Won’t! I… Uh, Ok is presented. I also didn't yet post a link to last week's Carnival, which is located here. While I didn't have anything in that Carnival, there were some good items there, including this one about some very unwelcome trends in university-level undergraduate education: that schools are neglecting undergraduate education in favor of "research", and that academic standing is increasingly being assessed on point systems, which create perverse incentives for students to avoid tough classes and real learning in favor of classes that offer easy grades.

And then I saw this essay, by Rebecca Walker, daughter of feminist author Alice Walker (who wrote The Color Purple, among others). The essay has to do with the real-world effects of feminism on the lives of others--particularly the children. Rebecca is estranged from her mother, and explains why. In her view, the breaking point came when she became pregnant with her son, which was viewed by her mother as a betrayal of her ideals. Rebecca expresses a great deal of pain in this essay. And while it only represents one side of what is obviously a very touchy personal dispute, I do think it deserves to be widely read and considered. (Hat tip to Dr. Helen on this one.)

Finally, Mary Eberstadt over at National Review has published the second entry in her series entitled The Loser Letters, which is sort of a Screwtape Letters-type discussion--by a hypothetical recent convert to atheism--of why the arguments promulgated by atheists have so little effect against the beliefs of the great bulk of the Christian community.

There's a lot here. Hopefully it'll keep you occupied until I get up the gumption to write my next post. :-)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

On the Road Again...

Greetings from Southern California, where my family and I are spending the Memorial Day weekend. We took a few extra days off, giving us a five-day weekend, and we drove down to my Aunt's place on Saturday.

Driving from Sacramento to Riverside could probably be done in seven hours of road time, if the traffic wasn't too bad (and it wasn't yesterday). However, traveling with three kids--ages five, three, and one--is a little tricky. Among other things, you've got to stop at least twice for food, and you should never count on it taking less than an hour per stop. And you'll have to stop for gas at least once. This can be tough on kids. You can just tell from the one-year-old's expression that he's thinking: "You aren't going to put me back in that seat again? Not again? No!!! Not fair! This isn't right!" And truth be told, I don't blame him one bit.

And then there is the whole potty-time issue. One of our girls is potty-trained, but is still very young. One of them is in potty training. So, we have to think strategically: when was the last time we stopped? Did they pee then? Can we wait the additional twenty minutes so we can stop in Mojave, or do we need to stop here in Tehachapi? Man, I can't wait until their bladders are bigger.


...


And then there's the sheer boredom. No, it goes past boredom into the realm of ennui, almost to realm of nihilism.

Now when I was a kid, the most common game that was used to pass the time could be called the "Quit Touching Me" game. You know the one! Somehow, the fact that we kids weren't allowed to goof off meant that goofing off became entirely irresistible. What would typically happen is that the older kids would realize that they could get the younger ones in trouble merely by making goofy faces--quietly. At this point the younger ones would start to giggle, and would make goofy faces back, but this time with noisy sound effects, which would then set off the parents:

Don't Make Me Come Back There!

If you don't stop right now, we're turning around and going straight home!

Any more of that and we'll make you get out and walk the rest of the way!


Incidentally, my parents actually followed through on this last threat once. We were on our way home from somewhere or other, and they made my younger brother get out and walk about half a mile away from the house. Then my older brother and I were looking at each other, thinking to ourselves: Oh no, this has never happened before. They've gone off the deep end! But we couldn't stifle the giggles either, so they pulled over about a quarter mile later and kicked me out. And then apparently they kicked my older brother out about a block or two later on.

You were smirking!

I was not!

Alas, one of the effects--for better or worse--that current child-safety-seat laws have had, is that it has reduced the opportunities to play the Quit Touching Me game. After all, if you have a family with three kids, and each one has to be in some kind of booster or five-point-harness, it means that you really can't get by with anything less than decent-sized SUV or minivan. You just aren't allowed to throw all three kids in the back seat of an econo-box anymore, since these cars just aren't big enough to hold the seats. But with each kid in his or her special seat, with one in the back row and two in those big bucket seats in the middle, they can't all see each other, and they can't reach each other to play the Quit Touching Me variant known as Stop Crossing That Line.

So mostly people get bored on these really long trips. I mean, it's pretty exciting to point out, "Oh look: cows!" the first few times. But after the first couple of hours, even a three-year-old starts to lose interest in that game. There are only so many times that you can point out trains and count the train cars, or look for out-of-state license plates....

And then there are all those games, where you are intentionally looking for things outside the cars. A favorite in my family growing up was trying to find all the letters of the alphabet, in order, in street signs and billboards and on license plates outside the car. The problem with these games is that they work best when you're trying to cross the width of New Mexico or Montana or the like, where there's not a whole lot to see. If you try to play this game along a reasonably well-populated stretch of road--and Highway 99 in California's Central Valley passes through lots and lots of little towns--it takes you all of five minutes to play this game, A through Z. There are just too many signs out there. Even the letters that you would think would be rare, like X and Z and V, are pretty common: X is in the word Exit, Z is in the word Mazda, and V is in the words Avenue and Boulevard. Of all the letters, only the Q takes any time at all; and if there are enough cars on the road, you'd expect it to show up on at least one out of every ten license plates. So of the five minutes needed to play the Find the Alphabet game, at least four of them are Find the Q. And let's face it, Find the Q would be a pretty boring game in and of itself. I'd rather count cows.

(Incidentally, this game is a lot more interesting when you play it in Germany, where I lived for four years as a kid. The various letters have different usage frequencies in the German language than they have in English. And those words I mentioned above? Well, Exit is Ausgang--no X there. The letter X is pretty rare in German. And you don't get words like Avenue or Boulevard, which came into the English language by way of those pesky French invaders; mostly the invasions on the continent went in the other direction. The word in German is Strasse. And I don't remember too many Mazdas in Germany. Even words that you would expect to help you out--like "Bavaria"--don't work, because that is an Anglicized version of the German place name "Bayern". So it takes a lot more work to play this game in Germany than it does in America--especially those parts of America with lots of Spanish-derived place names.)

Except that I'm generally the one driving, and counting cows while driving is at least as dangerous as texting while driving with a blood alcohol content of .07%.

When you think about it, it's amazing that we ever get anywhere at all without killing ourselves.

Anyway, we're here tomorrow, and then we drive back north on Tuesday. Any suggestions on how to keep us sane on the trip back north, let us know.

Friday, May 23, 2008

I Won't! I Won't! I... Uh, Ok.

I've been noticing something about the Pillowfight Fairy. I'm not sure how much of this is due to her particular personality, and how much is due to the fact that she's a five-year-old human, like all the other five-year-old humans out there. You tell me.

Here's one story, from today, that illustrates what I'm talking about.

Our kid has a very nice little bicycle with training wheels, which she likes to use on the patios and walkways in our backyard. She'll start over at the RV pad on one side of our house, then ride along the walkway the length of our yard, then turn onto the patio at the other end, whereupon she does a big loop and heads back the way she came. Now since she's still on training wheels, she hasn't learned how to lean into turns, so sometimes she takes a corner a wee bit too fast and starts to tip the other way. (Which is ironic; it means that cornering is actually more dangerous with the training wheels on than with them off. If they were off, she could lean better. Since she can't, she tends to tip over. Go figure. But that's a different post.)

So I've been trying to teach her how to turn. And I've drilled into her head three rules for turning. If you want to not fall over when you turn, you do these three things:
  1. Make wide turns instead of sharp ones. The sharper the turn, the more likely you'll tip.
  2. Lean into the turn.
  3. Slow down as you approach the turn. You're more likely to tip if you take the corner fast.
And she has these three memorized, although she frequently gets them confused. Today she informed me that she was supposed to take sharp turns instead of wide ones....

Now, her bike is equipped with those back-pedal brakes--the ones where pedaling backward engages the brake on the back wheel. But up until today she was adamant that she didn't want to use it. "No. I don't want to. I'm going to do it my way!" And truth be told, she doesn't often get going fast enough for it to be a problem; all she usually needs to do is stop pedaling and push her feet against the ground to stop, a la Fred Flintstone.

But a few times today she got going fast enough that it took her a little bit too long to stop, so I decided to make her learn to use the brakes, for her own good. So I told her this, and she put up her usual objections, which I ignored.

First, I had her pedal backwards while the bike was perfectly still, until she got the hang of the proper foot motions. Then I pulled the bike in a gentle circle, and periodically told her to pedal backwards. When she did, Lo and Behold, the bike came to a stop! Occasionally it even locked the wheel and put a little tire mark on my beautiful new patio. :-(

So we did this a few times, and then I let her go. And what do you know, but the Pillowfight Fairy was now fascinated by the concept of braking.

She would start up, get going (not too fast, mind you), and would suddenly hit the brake and come to a stop, leaving a little skid mark. Then she would start up again, pick up a little more speed, and hit the brake again, leaving another little skid mark. It was like she'd just learned a new primary color! She was enthralled.

Now while grimacing every time she did this (due to those skid marks on my beautiful patio), it still made me stop and think. Here our little girl was totally against learning what in essence is a new skill, until she figured out what it was for and how she could use it--and until she could see how using this skill was far superior to the old way. This is not the first time my wife and I have noticed the Fairy acting this way:
  • When she was much younger she wanted Mommy to do all the drawing and coloring, because Mommy was obviously so much better at it. But Mommy made her do it herself. Eventually she got very good at it, and now we can't stop her from drawing. We've already caught this little five-year-old occasionally drawing faces in three-quarters perspective.
  • We've been trying to get her to tie her shoes, which has been a real test of wills. The fact is, teaching someone that young to tie a bow knot isn't easy. We adults have the finger motions so memorized we don't often know how we're doing it ourselves, and Mommy and Daddy do it differently, so we have to be careful that we don't both try to "help" her and just confuse the matter. And yet, the Fairy managed to make a couple of decent bow knots today, and it boosted her confidence enough that she wanted to practice even more. I suspect that the better she gets, the more she'll want to practice.
  • Then there's the piano playing. We've put lessons on hold until later this summer, but our little girl will now occasionally get out her book on her own, and play through everything we've practiced thus far, without any prompting on our parts. This is amazing to me, since getting her to sit for her lessons was at the time a little like convincing her to eat liver & beets. But again, the better she gets at things, the more she wants to do them.
  • And then there's her math work. This is one of the subjects that Mommy has been working with her as part of her Kindergarten curriculum, and it's the subject she dislikes the most. Except... that now that we've reached the end of the academic year, she now does math problems for the fun of it. She'll make up problems for us to solve (or her three-year-old sister, which is rather cute, given that her sister reacts a little like when you try to explain Relativity to your miniature schnauzer--very happy and eager to listen, but with a whole lot of wiggles and without a whole lot of comprehension). And the Fairy has been making her own math books with paper, tape, crayons, and pens--complete with lavishly decorated covers and with lots of problems to be worked out.
So I ask: how much of this is just the fact that she's a five-year-old human female with a standard dose of Original Sin, and how much of it is her own particular personality? We don't really have a frame of reference to answer this, as her siblings are still much younger. I suspect that all kids have a little of this tendency, but that it's much stronger in some than in others. Some kids are curious about learning the unknown precisely because it is the unknown, while others only willingly learn if they can see why they need to learn it, while yet others don't want to learn it at all and will only do so by accident.

Still, that's just my guess; and the Fairy is our oldest, so she's the one we get to make all our mistakes with. ;-)

But this has ramifications for anyone who wants to teach her anything. One buzzword you hear a lot of in educational circles--especially homeschooling circles--is "student-directed learning." The idea is that it's a whole lot easier to get a kid to do something that they already want to do. So, for example, if your kid is interested in--say--animals, you build a curriculum around animals. You give them literature about animals to read; you give them writing and research assignments about animals; you teach them lots of animal biology; you have them study artwork about animals; you have them practice drawing animals; you have them raise animals; and so forth.

And there's certainly merit to this idea. For one thing, this kind of educational approach can be useful in helping a student find his or her calling in life. Some people were just born to be farmers or ranchers or veterinarians, and this kind of education can complement their natural talents and inclinations.

But in the case of the Fairy, I'm afraid we'd be asking for trouble if we tried this approach. The things she loves doing now, she only loves because we made her do them, by force, until she got good at them. She loves drawing and coloring in no small part because we refused to draw things for her; she had to do it herself--which she was not always inclined to do--until she got the hang of it, and now we can't stop her. Several of the videos that she wants to watch all the time now were ones that she had no interest in seeing, when we bought them new; we had to tell her, "Tough. We're going to watch this anyway;" and then she watched them with us, and got hooked on them. She likes riding her bike now; she didn't want anything to do with it when she got it as a Christmas present. We practically had to make her ride it.

"Your grandparents got you a perfectly good bike, and so you will ride it, and you will like it!" Geez, I've been starting to sound like an old fogy lately.

The funny thing is, those old fogies appear to know what they were talking about. She did ride it, because we made her, and she did like it. Had we not made her, there's no telling how long that bike would have stayed in our garage gathering cobwebs.

So while I'm hip to the idea of finding the Fairy's interests and talents and weaving our curriculum around them in such a way as to bring out her true nature, we have to remember that we're the parents, and she's not. We're the ones in charge, and while we're not perfect, we know a whole lot more than she does. We know a lot of what she's missing, and while no one can predict with absolute certainty what a kid will like or won't, we can make some pretty good guesses. We also know something about the skills she'll need to know whether she cares for them or not.

So yes, little Fairy, you will do as we say, you will finish your work, because it is good for you, and you'll like it. And we don't care if you think we sound like a couple of old geezers when we say it. ;-)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Few Opera Stories

Update: Fixed an incorrect date. I actually did La Boheme in 1997, not 1999. I'm off by two years! I think I'm getting old.

...


I have a bit of a confession to make.

(And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that I haven't blogged in nearly a week.)

One of my recent posts had a crack about the relative girth of the (supposedly) typical female opera singer:
(And those six-foot actresses who are slightly on the beefy side? Well, that's why God made Opera.) :-)
And truth be told, that little voice in the back of my head has been nagging at me ever since. Fact is, I've been involved in a couple of opera companies, and while there are certainly some women in Opera who fit that definition (enough to keep the stereotype alive), there are also plenty who are tall, slender, and drop-dead gorgeous. Especially like those at the companies I was involved with, which tended to recruit younger singers.

So I've been reminiscing a lot lately about my younger stage days, and the people I knew then. And I've remembered a couple of stories that are worth sharing. Not coincidentally, both of these stories involve young sopranos--in both cases, they were very dear people who I think the world of, who had top-rate vocal talent, and were coincidentally drop-dead gorgeous.

...

Here's the first one. Full disclosure: I was not present when this story happened; I was told it by the other members of the cast who were present, including the soprano in question.

Back in 1997, I played a minor role (Alcindoro) in a production of Puccini's opera La Boheme, at a small start-up theater company located in Capitola (on the Central California coast, near Santa Cruz). This page was written to provide publicity for the company--and actually has a publicity photo in it with me, for those of you who want to see me before I got pudgy and grew a beard.

The role of Mimi was sung by a wonderful young soprano named Jennifer. Now, for various logistical reasons (like the fact that none of us lived anywhere near Capitola), the early staging rehearsals were held at her house. And Jennifer's family had a couple of dogs--great danes, to be precise--who were fairly friendly, yet quite protective of their people.

Now, the opera La Boheme ends as a heartrending, highly emotional tragedy, as Mimi dies of consumption up in the garret apartment of the four main male characters. The last act begins with the four friends horsing around, making jokes, getting in mock duels with things like umbrellas and loaves of French bread and whatever else they happen to have around (depending on the staging), when suddenly Mimi arrives on the arm of a female friend, near death. The mood immediately shifts as they try to figure out how to keep her warm and comfortable, and as they madly scramble to figure out what to sell so they can get money for medicine. She slowly worsens, and then as the act draws to a close she falls asleep, and quietly passes on; when her former lover (one of the four main male characters) realizes this, he breaks down into loud weeping as his friends comfort him and try to brace his courage. It's an absolutely heartrending ending.

That is, it's absolutely heartrending if it's done right... and it's a little tricky to do right. It's not always easy to act out such strong emotions on the stage. And if anything goes wrong, and I mean anything, this scene of crushing tragedy can turn into sublime comedy in a fraction of a second. I mean, let's face it: there's something rather humorous about the very idea of a bunch of grown men and women moping about on a stage for the entertainment of a large audience. It's really easy to do the William Shatner thing and over... emphasize... every... hand... motion! Like this.... whereupon the spell is broken, and people realize just how ridiculous the scene is, and then are no longer weeping with you, they are laughing at you.

And of course it's even more awkward when you first start blocking the scene. Imagine that you're just learning your lines (or your music), and there's a short little woman with an unusual accent bossing you around: "Now you come down over here next to the couch, on one knee, and move your hand like this, and start weeping really loudly. Ok, let's see how this works. No, let's have you go down on your other knee instead, and grab her hand... Now let's try it again, from the beginning of the scene..." And now you're supposed to turn on the waterworks on cue! Typically, these kinds of rehearsals have a way of turning into laugh riots.

Enter a pair of curious Great Danes.

Imagine the beautiful young soprano, lying on the couch, pretending to be dying (or already dead), as the young men cast about trying to figure out what to do next. Imagine that into this scene of deep pathos bound two very happy dogs, each nearly the size of the soprano. Unsure of why she's just lying there like that, they bound up to her face and...

Schhhhhhluuuurp.

Whereupon the suddenly-very-alive soprano leaps up from the couch and yells Eeeeeewwww!

So much for all that pathos.

Now, after witnessing this, imagine trying to get back into character to practice the scene one more time. I can't imagine it having been easy.


...


Here's the second one.

I was in the chorus of Opera San Jose for three seasons in the mid 1990s. One of the artists in residence was this young lady, who was about as tall as I am (slightly upwards of six feet). I encourage you to take a look at some of her publicity photos.

Yes, boys, she really does look like that in real life.

In fact, she looks prettier in real life, because in real life, she actually smiles a lot. I realize that publicity photos are supposed to give a sense of sophistication--the smoldering eyes, the dark, passionate gaze--but you know, when this young lady smiled at you, she was absolutely devastating. I think that most of us guys lost about a third of our IQ points when she started talking to us, and didn't get them back until she left the room (whereupon we wondered what just happened).

Not only was she taller than most of the guys, but she had an absolutely fantastic voice, capable of doing the smoky mezzo roles, all the way up to the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute. And she could act. And she could dance. And her hair came all the way down to her lower back. And she was a genuinely nice person.

Well, the year she was with us, we did Bizet's opera Carmen, with Ms. Walsh cast in the title role, as the gypsy seductress herself. She was pretty close to perfect in the role.

When we finally got into the performances, she decided to do a little something to keep all us boys on our toes. During the number in which the character Carmen is introduced--the Habanera--she would pick one guy in the chorus, and focus all her seductive attentions on that one guy, for the duration of the piece. She would flirt, and then turn away suddenly... and then throw a glance backward over her shoulder, then turn to him and come on... and then push him away... and so forth.

The catch was, over the course of thirteen performances, she picked a different guy in the chorus each night. What this meant was, when it was your turn (and you never knew in advance if it was going to be your turn that night), you were suddenly having to react a bit differently than you would on any other night. Whoa... I haven't practiced it like this yet...

And so you'd find yourself having to do a little, um... ad libbing. On a live stage.

With about a third less IQ points than normal. Because, yes, everyone's acting; it's all fake; but dude, this demi-goddess is coming on to you.

So one night it came to be "my turn". And I have never had a woman try to seduce me quite as powerfully as that before. If I hadn't had all the music memorized, I would have been stammering. I was nearly stammering as it was.

The really funny thing about it, though, was that was the night my girlfriend was in the audience. The whole time I was up there, there was this little voice in my head telling me, dude... you're never going to hear the end of this....

And that little voice was right. But: there was a mitigating circumstance.

You see, Ms. Walsh's then-boyfriend was in the audience, too, and my girlfriend got to shake his hand and say hi. It seemed that this made it all better. She wasn't only accusing me, "I saw her making eyes at you!" She was also saying, "Well, if it has to be, then she can have you if I can have him."

(I'm not sure I would have complained....)

By the way, he's a very handsome guy in real life, without all those funky head-bumps. He's a bit shorter than you would imagine--and much shorter than Ms. Walsh--but he was gracious to all those fans who came up to him after the show and wanted to shake his hand.


...


These are just a few of the stories that I could tell from my theater days. Pretty much every stage production has its own character, its own mood; some shows are just fun to be in, and some are drudgery. Interestingly enough, the mood of the production often has nothing to do with the mood of the play or opera itself. Some of the grimmest shows are a hoot backstage, and some of the most fun shows are no fun for the people who are in it. My last show with Opera San Jose was the Srauss comedy Die Fledermaus, after which I decided, this isn't fun anymore.

But every show leaves memories, and stories; and I keep finding myself drawn back into that world. Whenever I see a show on stage, I find myself thinking that I'm on the wrong side of the orchestra pit--precisely because I know what's going on on the other side, behind those curtains.

We'll see if I can work something into the schedule next year. ;-)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Haven't Forgotten About Y'all

Nope, haven't forgotten about y'all one bit.

I just haven't been in the mood to get on the computer and lay my thoughts bear for the whole world out there to read. Sorry.

Anyway, just to let everyone know that I'm thinking of you, I'll put up a few items from the last few days that struck me.


...


Item: Have any of you seen this news story? I just about freaked out when I did. The kid is three years old, and due to a "rare brain condition" has never slept!? That he never went down to sleep, ever, until he had a surgical procedure done on his brain?

Speaking as a Daddy with three kids, ages 5, 3, and 1: Those. Poor. Parents. God bless them, I have no idea how they made it this far. My wife and I have difficulty making it through an afternoon without getting our brood down to sleep, let alone three years...

Although I have to admit, that is one cute-looking kid. I wish him sweet dreams.


...


Item: the columnist Mary Eberstadt, over at National Review Online, has decided to write a series of columns similar in character to C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters.

For those of you who aren't familiar with The Screwtape Letters, they present some practical theology in a very interesting and original format. The Letters are all written by an experienced, world-wise demon named Screwtape, and are addressed to his "nephew" Wormwood, who has been assigned to corrupt the soul of a particular young man. The letters are all filled with good advice about how to go about distracting the man from the important questions about existence; how to keep him from doing worthwhile things--or if he does do worthwhile things, how to turn the good intentions and deeds into something less than wholesome; how to disguise those things that are trivial (or less-than-worthy) as important, and how to disguise those things that are worthy as trivial, and so forth.

(Interestingly, C.S. Lewis didn't particularly enjoy the act of writing The Screwtape Letters. It's not that it was hard to do, he explained; it's that it required him to get into a frame of mind that was so counter to his own personality, that was so opposite of who he was and what he was trying to do with his life's work, that he felt practically dirty as he was writing it.)

Anyway, Mary Eberstadt has undertaken to write a similar series of letters, entitled The Loser Letters, to be published one per week at National Review Online. Here's the setting of these letters: they are written by a hypothetical convert from Christianity to Atheism, and are addressed to the numerous authors of the atheist manifestos that have been published in this country in the last year (the arguments in which were what convinced the hypothetical convert to leave Christianity). The purpose of the letters is to warn these atheist authors that their approaches to arguing against Christianity are not likely to make much headway within the Christian community, and to explain why.

The first letter is up this week, and deals with issues of sexual morality. The one for next week, interestingly enough, involves the role of Reason with respect to religion and irreligion.


...


Item: My kids are always doing things that surprise me.

(I'm sure anyone who's a parent is now thinking, "so what else is new?")

Readers of this blog know that I've been debating taking the Pillowfight Fairy to see Prince Caspian in the theaters, or whether it would be better to wait until it comes out on DVD so we can watch it safe comfort of our home. The concern is that the movie Prince Caspian appears (from all the reviews I've seen) to be a war movie; and while it's not particularly heavy on the blood and gore, it does have a fair amount of tension and it has a fair amount of violence. It features a single combat, for instance, in which one of the combatants is killed. That could be scary to a five-year-old. The Pillowfight Fairy may do just fine with it; or it could freak her out in the theater, which would not be good for anyone. I just don't know.

Readers of this blog also know that I've been thinking a lot lately about musical plays and about operas. Especially since commenter B. Durbin jumped in and tried to recruit me for next year's production at the Light Opera Theater of Sacramento, I've been thinking to myself: "Could I do this without disrupting my family too much? Is it a good company? Am I up to their standards? Are they up to my standards?"

So I started thinking about what music I would use to audition, if I were to audition, which I'm not saying I will. (And everyone who knows me is sitting around going, "Yeah, yeah. We see exactly where this is heading.) And so I started pulling out all my old opera scores and anthologies, and I came across this aria (which I've never performed before, but could if I wanted to):



This aria is O wie will ich triumphieren, from Mozart's opera The Abduction From the Seraglio, sung in this clip by bass Kurt Moll. In this scene the Major-Domo Osmin has caught the two young heroes trying to sneak the two young heroines out of the Pasha's harem. He explains to them, in this fun little song, that he's going to take them to the plaza to have them hanged, at which he will be so joyful that he'll be hopping, skipping, and singing a little Song of Joy. (Of course, at the end of the opera the Pasha actually decides to let them all go, which Osmin doesn't particularly like.)

So I was looking at this clip when the Fairy walked into the room and saw it. She came over to the computer to watch it, and was entranced. I showed her the sheet music to the Aria, and explained what it was that Osmin was saying. A few minutes into the aria she blithely asked, "Are they being hung yet?"

And when it was done, she said, "More, more!" So, I started looking on youtube for other bass arias with Kurt Moll or with Samuel Ramey (who I've always liked).

I came across one that actually has both Kurt Moll and Samuel Ramey in it! Ooh, this'll be good, I thought. So I pulled it up and played it. Almost immediately I thought to myself: Hmmm... maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

The scene is the one from Don Giovanni where the ghost of the Commendatore (killed early in the opera in a duel with Don Giovanni, who had just finished trying to force himself on the Commendatore's daughter) shows up at Don Giovanni's palace to offer him one last chance to repent of his evil ways. Don Giovanni refuses, and so the Commendatore drags him down to hell. Properly staged, this can be one of the creepiest scenes in all of opera (before the twentieth century, that is; a lot of stuff written in the last hundred years is much creepier).

Take a look and see how they did.



So I warned my five-year-old that this would be pretty scary. And she watched the whole thing without batting an eyelid. When it was done, she announced that she wasn't the least bit scared.

Go figure. Maybe she is ready for Prince Caspian.

Oh, and a footnote: the Adrenaline Junkie overheard me say that this one is really scary, and must have decided that I was talking about opera in general.

Thereafter, every time I started to sing anything in a foreign language (loudly), she would say something like: "Stop! That's too scary."

(Now, I've been told this before by other family members--mainly by snarky siblings during my formative years. Am I the only one? I don't think I'm the only one. Rather, I hope I'm not the only one....)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Coming Up This Weekend

This one's for my Doppelganger-East out there.

How ya doin'?

I realize from some of your posts that you already visit the Libertas site, but if you haven't yet seen this review of the Prince Caspian movie, it's looking pretty good.

A few fair-use quotes from the review:
All 140 minutes of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian are vastly superior to its predecessor. The crucial difference is that unlike The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Caspian is not a C.S. Lewis picture, it’s a director’s picture — it‘s an Andrew Adamson picture.
That could be good or bad, of course; I've seen plenty movies where the director's ego messed up a perfectly good novel. But it's also true that Print and Film are two different art forms with different strengths and weaknesses, and successful adaptations take these differences into effect. This reviewer thinks Adamson did a good job.
A more fitting title for this wonderful sequel might have been, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lie Of Kumbaya. Caspian’s themes of honor, faith, nobility, and self-sacrifice all come to a single point: confronting and destroying an evil that will not be appeased or negotiated with. This is often a dark adventure, and one that doesn’t ask us to turn the other cheek when it comes to confronting evil — even through war.
Good. The concepts of honor, faith, nobility, and self-sacrifice--not to mention confronting and destroying evil--seem to have been out of fashion among our philosophical elites for some time; it's good that someone still takes them seriously.
This is not some new-age Christian allegory where if you fall to your knees in some sun-dappled field and raise your hands to Jesus all your problems will go away. As in life, God is not a deus ex machina. There’s a bigger picture at work — a master plan — and it’s up to us to find our place within that plan, not the other way around. What Would Aslan Do? No. What Would Aslan Want Us To Do.
I'm thankful for this; Christianity, as practiced by Jesus, by the apostles, and by many, many Christians throughout the millennia involved some serious sacrifice; it's way too easy, in this time of relative religious freedom and unprecedented prosperity, to forget this fact.

I like how the writings of C.S. Lewis always bring us back to a sense of seriousness: that daily life conspires to distract us from the important questions and the deeper truths, but the questions and truths nonetheless remain and still drive our destiny--whether we choose to see them or not. The book Prince Caspian plays this theme over and over.

Anyway, the movie opens this weekend. Alas, as a daddy of really young kids, I'm not likely to get to see it until it comes out on DVD.

So Chris, after you've seen the movie, could you let me know if it would be appropriate to take a somewhat sensitive 5-year-old girl to see it on the big screen? ;-)

Carnival of Homeschooling is up!

The Carnival of Homeschooling for this week is up over at Mom is Teaching. My post about High School Musicals is featured.

There were a couple of other posts that I found interesting:
  • Dana over at Principled Discovery has a post entitled Structure and Learning in the Homeschooling Environment, in which she addresses the charge that homeschooling doesn't provide an adequately "structured" environment to prepare children for the "real world" (there's that term again). Incidental to her argument, she points out that different children (even within the same family!) often need entirely different amounts of structure in their days.
  • The Reluctant Homeschooler has a post entitled What I Check Out of the Library. This is an interesting site; the mother started homeschooling in February, and her blog gives a blow-by-blow of why they made the decision to homeschool, what was going through her head when she started (in a word: "Panic"), what successes they had, and what mistakes they made--almost in real-time. Additionally of interest is the fact that they started homeschooling with high-school, which is definitely the road less taken. I found it particularly interesting to go through the earliest posts in their archive and see what brought them to this lifestyle choice, and how they got into it. It wasn't a smooth transition. Anyway, regarding their choice of library books: they check out some really depressing titles, dealing with the worst that Man does to Man. They want to instill in their children a sense of righteous indignation, a sense of justice, so that their children will grow up noticing these kinds of things happening around them, and be motivated to do something about them. As one who's extolled the virtues of the old children's literature (the stuff in which bad things happen to people), I find their decisions to be thought-provoking.
  • The Thinking Mother provides this review of a book entitled Ships Without a Shore, the thesis of which is that the way we as a society raise our children--with less parental involvement than in generations past, and with more institutionalization (in everything from day-cares to high-schools)--is having a terrible effect on the up-and-coming generation.
There's a lot of good stuff there. Check it out!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Maybe a Script-Writer? Movie Director?

Well, I mentioned in my previous post that the Pillowfight Fairy has pretty well decided that she doesn't like plays, after being taken to a local high school production of Thoroughly Modern Millie that went way past her bedtime.

But that's not entirely true: she's decided that she only doesn't like those plays that she hasn't made up; all the other ones are just fine.

And she's decided that the thing to do is make them up, and then write about and illustrate them. Now, she's only five, so the writing part is still a bit of a challenge; but so long as you only write the Title, that's not too much work now, is it? And after all, what more do you actually need than the title? A good title should tell you every thing you need to know, after all. If you write a play entitled, say, The Importance of Being Earnest, you may fairly expect the play to discuss the numerous virtues of being Earnest. If your name instead happens to be something unfortunate like Jack or Algernon, you're out of luck. So: we first need a descriptive title:


Now that is a descriptive title! Of course, we need to work on the spelling of those darn non-phonetic words, but at least she got the apostrophe right, and that counts for something when you're only a kindergartener. And I note that "Mony" may refer to the name of the king's worthless chambermaid or lady in waiting or something, in which case it's spelled right (although then the title would be: "The King's Zero, Mony," and we need to work on capitalization and commas).

Ah, but there's something else we need to work on as well: Plagiarism. You see, the Fairy and her siblings rather like the old animated Disney Robin Hood--the one where all the characters are animals, and Robin himself is a fox. Anyway, there's a scene in that movie where all the townsfolk are breaking out of the king's dungeon, and Robin has sneaked into the king's bedchamber to steal all the gold so it can be given back to the townsfolk. The way he gets the moneybags out of the bedchamber and down to his accomplices below is on a makeshift rope-and-pulley getup. In fact, it looks very much like this:

So, act one, scene one of The King's Zero Mony appears to be a direct rip-off from an old Disney movie. I need to warn the Fairy that you do not, under any circumstances, make The Mouse mad at you. That's bad news. The Mouse has lawyers--mean ones. You will be assimilated.

...

Anyway, as regular readers of this blog know, I'm continually amused by the illustrations she comes up with. I know, Daddies are supposed to be amused by what their little darlings do, and what they say; they're supposed to gush about them to any warm body who will listen, even if said warm body isn't pretending to be interested. Nevertheless, I know that at least a couple of you (mainly grandparents) find this stuff interesting, so at least I have that excuse. And besides which, it's my blog, right?

So remind me to tell you sometime about the time the Adrenaline Junkie said, "I wanna honk your head...."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

High School Musicals

Well, it's that time of year again. In the last three weeks I've been to two high school musical plays.

You know, I've developed something of a soft spot in my heart (head?) about these things. You see, I was in several when I was in high school. My own school didn't have a drama program; but the one in the next town over did have a small program (and a little shoebox of a theater, which was converted from a previously-unused storage room); and during my Junior year they had decided to stage a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

Of course, this is a very male-heavy show, and most of it is sung; so early on they decided they could use a few extra male bodies with already-changed voices. One of my teachers had a son who was to be in this production. Knowing of their casting shortages, she decided to inform me of the production, and got me (and my younger brother) in touch with the guys in charge.

I ended up landing the role of the Major General, and my younger brother wound up as one of the policemen.

The show was an absolute blast. It was the first real stage experience I got, not counting those elementary school deals where this person plays the tooth, and this person plays the toothbrush, and this person plays the courtroom judge who's trying the case to see who's at fault for the tooth decay....

Between the enjoyment of the acting and singing itself, and the camaraderie that was built with the others on the cast and in the crew, I was hooked enough to join three other productions before I finished high school. The summer after my Junior year I was in a local Junior College production of Grease, where I was the DJ at the party singing about doing the "Hand Jive." The following fall I was back at the neighboring school's production of Little Shop of Horrors, where I was the Dentist. (Now that was a fun role. Death scenes give plenty of opportunity to ham it up, especially when the cause of death is an overdose of laughing gas.) And later in my senior year I got drafted into our local J.C.'s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is another male-voice-heavy production of the sort that's hard to get fully casted. (Our "Hairy Bunch of Ishmaelites" were women, since we couldn't spare any of the men; we had them comb their long, blond hair forward, over their faces, and then had them wear shades over the hair, giving an effect much like Cousin It from the Addams Family. Hairy Ishmaelites, indeed.)

Four shows in one year!

And this is what set the stage (no pun intended) for me to go into Opera a few years later. And while I haven't been in a production in about a decade (aside from the occasional semi-staged Christmas or Easter production put on by our church), I still feel the pull; I still find myself tempted to see what kinds of local opera companies or Gilbert and Sullivan societies exist around here. Probably won't happen for a while, given the fact that I have three children and a wife who'd really like me to spend some time, you know... raising them. Still, one can dream...

But when I heard that a couple of the young ladies at our church were going to be in various productions, I figured this was a really good excuse to get out and get a little culture (such as it is). So about three weeks ago I grabbed the Pillowfight Fairy and went off to the first of these productions, a little play entitled Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The young lady from our church turned out to be the person cast in the eponymous lead role, and she (and the rest of the cast) did an excellent job. But all through the production I was wondering: Where did they get this magnificent theater? The thing was huge, and it was beautiful. It obviously had a gigantic backstage area. The theater was bigger than the one that Opera San Jose (my old company) had inhabited for many, many years, before moving to their current digs a few years back, with the help of lots of funds from the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. Someone generous benefactor must have put down a huge chunk of change to get that high school theater built.

The play itself is a fun little comedy about a farm girl who has moved to 1920's New York intending to take the world by storm, only to find that New York is filled with farm girls who want to take New York by storm, and that it doesn't particularly care for them. In the process there are all kinds of complications involving attempted seductions, and a kidnapping ring, and prohibition. The music is rather fun, with much of it being lifted from other sources--Gilbert and Sullivan and Auntie Mame, to name a few--but inserted into the story in somewhat different and unexpected ways for comedic effect. In all, I enjoyed my time there quite a bit.

And the Pillowfight Fairy?

Well, she loved the first hour or so; she liked all the dancing (tap dancing!) and singing. Of course, the story was a bit convoluted for a five-year-old. And the show ultimately went close to three hours, going way past her bedtime. She handled herself very well, all things considering. (At least she didn't melt down....) But I think I may have turned her off of plays for a while now.

But as we were filing out on our way to greet our young starlet, I did get to teach the Fairy how and when to say, "Bravissima!" I think she liked that part.

The production values on this show were just great, and I was amazed also at how many guys they had up there dancing and singing. I think this has to do with the fact that Folsom High is a big high school, and is in a rather wealthy district, so they have lots of students who go for these kinds of electives--not to mention the financial resources.

...

Last night my wife and I went to see another high school production. Turns out Tonya's parents were in town visiting the grandkids (and us, too, I suppose). Tonya and I figured out early in the day that we could foist the kids off on the grandparents and have an evening entirely to ourselves! This is the sort of thing that doesn't happen all that frequently, so we jumped at the opportunity.

Another young lady we know from church was in the chorus of her school's production of Once Upon a Mattress, which is a fairly cracked retelling of the story of The Princess and the Pea.

Truth be told, I was actually contemplating dragging the Pillowfight Fairy to see this one too, and I think she would have enjoyed it a little more than the other; the plot line is a little more accessible to a five-year-old. However, this is still a matter of degree; one of the sub-plots involves the fact that no one in the kingdom can get married until the Prince does; and, well... one of the knights has just gotten his betrothed pregnant by accident, so he becomes really really motivated to get a princess for the prince, so the Prince can get married, so that he can get married before everyone knows what he's done.

Well, my wife wisely talked me out of dragging the Fairy along. And so Tonya and I were able to have an evening to ourselves! Just the two of us! Without having to wipe anyone else's noses! And we got to eat at leisure--eat real Mexican food at leisure--and take a walk, and have a leisurely drive, and enjoy the play without wondering whether someone was about to have a meltdown.

The theater itself was fairly new, if not as well-apportioned as the one at Folsom High--but was still a couple orders of magnitude better than the one on which I sang the Major General song twenty (!) years ago. And in this production, they did something a little more ambitious than in Thoroughly Modern Millie: they forewent the canned music, and had the students man the orchestra pit. Now, the result was a bit squeaky and dissonant, as one might expect; but I give them credit for doing this. It is after all a school, and they're trying to give their music students good experience doing something that every professional musical theater and every professional opera needs.

Once Upon a Mattress is also a fun show. The Wikipedia entry states that "Once Upon a Mattress is a popular choice for high school drama programs and community theatre groups," and I can see why: it's obviously a lot of fun, especially if you have talented actors in the lead roles--and this production did. The evil, domineering queen was played by a young lady who could modulate her voice to have the same effect as fingernails on a chalkboard, and she (quite appropriately) dominated every scene she was onstage.

I only have one minor quibble with the casting, and it is indeed a minor one. The young actress who played the Princess Winifred did an excellent job--I found no fault in her acting. However, she didn't really look the part. One running joke about the character of Princess Winifred ("Fred" for short) is that she's energetic, athletic--more so than the prince--and muscular--much more so than the prince, and which is one of the reasons that he falls so madly in love with her. Winifred could be played to excellent effect by an actress who's six feet tall and on the beefy side. And the fact is, most drama departments have young ladies who fit this description to some degree, who have decent acting skills, but who will never get cast in most lead roles because they don't look the part of the shy, demure heroine. Given this fact, this would seem the perfect lead role to give to a lady who doesn't look like a traditional leading lady. The girl they cast as Winifred in this production looked a little too slim and pretty for the role. However--I need to assert that she did an absolutely wonderful job, and that she struck all the right poses and projected the right attitudes to convey the idea that she was a "buff chick". She did a good job.

(And those six-foot actresses who are slightly on the beefy side? Well, that's why God made Opera.) :-)

Anyway, the show was fun, and Tonya and I are glad that we went. When we got home, the Grandparents had put the kids in bed, so we didn't have much in the way of chores to do. It was really, really nice. Grandparents are cool.

So as I mentioned above, all this has me thinking about seeing what kind of opera companies or dramatic societies there are available in the area. Maybe not now, mind you--it would have to be a few years down the line, when the kids are a little older and don't require quite so much direct supervision.

And I've also been thinking about how we, as homeschooling parents, would go about giving these kinds of opportunities to our kids. After all, if we do homeschool through the high school years (as we are currently intending to do, although one can never tell this far in advance), it means that our kids will never attend a high school with a drama program. Of course, two of my own high-school-age productions were hosted at the local Junior College, so that's a possibility. And there may be other community-based organizations around that provide opportunities. We'll have to see what's available.

Any other Sacramento-area homeschool parents out there face this issue yet? How'd you handle it?

(And in case you're wondering, the Pillowfight Fairy is on track to grow pretty darn close to 6 feet tall. I'm going to have to teach her how to sing....)

Friday, May 9, 2008

In Which I Get A Little Sappy

Ok, I'm going to tell a little story here. Why I'm telling this story now, of all times, will be revealed a little later.

I graduated from college in 1995 and got a job almost immediately thereafter. Almost immediately I discovered first-hand what any person with half a brain could have told me, closely followed by a well-enunciated "Duh:" that life after college is very different than life in college. Going from being a happy-go-lucky college student with OK (not great) grades, to being a programmer in a financial services firm that needs those numbers right now was a bit of a culture shock. The time needed for work, and for commute; the money issues (trying to keep all the bills handled at the same time while relying only on the money one earns oneself, without going to the parents every month for extra dough); and the fact that all my old friends were graduating and moving away made for a fairly rough transition. For a little while there I went through a woe is me phase, until I figured out: "Look, pal, this is life. Every guy has to face this stuff and keep soldiering on, just to live. You've got absolutely no right to complain, so man up and live up to your responsibilities."

So I started making some adjustments, started handling money a little better, started building some job expertise at my company, and started to adjust my social life. Things started smoothing out about 1997 or so.

During this time period I started looking at the relationships I had with the people in my life. I wasn't dating anyone, and hadn't been since college. I had several friendships with people at work, but none of them were particularly close. I knew a lot of people from church, but most of these were either once-a-week acquaintances, or they were really close friends who were (alas) at the age where they were moving on in life, and moving away from home. So I decided to myself, I need some new friends.

Or rather, I needed to start cultivating some of these acquaintances and see if any of them could become friendships.

Where to start?

Well, there was this young lady named Tonya who used to sit near me in church every Sunday. This wasn't because of any animal magnetism or anything; I was sitting up front because I often led songs during services, and she was sitting up front because she could see and hear better up there--there are fewer distractions when you're not behind a whole host of oddly-shaped heads. We'd been exchanging weekly pleasantries for years by this point, since we'd first met back in 1990. So one Sunday morning sometime during summer 1997, I asked her out to dinner.

This wasn't intended to be a "date", per se. After all, we didn't really see each other as being in the same league. She was four years older than I was, for one thing; and when I first met her, I was a snot-nosed college Sophomore, and she was in her second year of her Masters' program. Four years is a big difference at that age. Besides, when I first met her she was dating a man who was about 18 years older than me, with a reasonably stable career. No, this woman was not in my league. Now, on this day in 1997 when I asked her out to dinner, I wasn't trying to start anything; I was just trying to get to know one of my comrades a little better. She wasn't dating the older man anymore, and neither of our lives were focused around school anymore, but there was still this sense of "she's not in my league; that's not what this is about."

For her part, Tonya had (after breaking up with the older gentleman) taken some time off dating. And she had been running through the list of all the single guys she knew, and finding reasons why that one would be a bad choice. Turns out, she'd thought about me, evaluated me, and had decided: Nah, too immature.

...

So anyway, that Sunday morning in 1997 I asked her to dinner, and she said "Ok." (After a moment's reflection, she couldn't see anything that was inherently wrong with the suggestion, so she went with it.)

We had a very pleasant dinner at a Fresh Choice restaurant that is no longer there. (It's been replaced with a Cheesecake Factory, which is a bit of a delicious irony, actually.) We wound up in conversation for a good three hours while we were there, during the course of which we solved all of the world's problems. I was thinking to myself, "Ooh, this girl is smart, and she's got her head screwed on straight." I have no idea what she was thinking of me. But I decided that I rather enjoyed her company, so at some later date I asked her out again.

Eventually we started doing the "dinner and a movie" cliché, and I discovered something else about her that was interesting: this very nice, very proper, very conscientious girl had this weird fascination with violent movies. Those flicks with impossibly larger-than-life heroes, with impossibly larger-than-life muscles, who blow up dozens of their enemies and then crack bad one-liners, sent this rather demure lass into little fits of giggles.

Especially when she was hopped up on sugar.

So our first movie together was the James Bond movie that happened to be in the theaters at that time. Again, we had a blast. Apparently, she liked my company too, since every time I asked her out, she kept saying "Ok."

Well, this went on for the better part of a year. And during most of this time, neither of us was trying to "make" "anything" "happen." But eventually, when two people of the opposite sex spend enough time together--and when that time is uniformly enjoyable by both parties--one or the other will almost inevitably start to think of the other in "that way." In our case, it was me. Tonya was more or less clueless, I think.

So I started thinking about whether I should try to tell her how I felt, and would that wreck our friendship? Because that kind of thing can wreck friendships, you know. It happened with that girl, and that one, and... Hm. This seems to happen a lot with me, you know? So how do I tell her what I'm feeling? Or do I tell her what I'm feeling? And am I really feeling it, or am I just kidding myself....

I'm reminded of that Far Side cartoon, captioned "Same planet, different worlds" in which the top frame shows a man lying in bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking: "I wonder if she knows I exist... Should I call her? Maybe she doesn't even know I exist? Well, maybe she does... I'll call her. No, wait!... I'm not sure if she knows I exist... Dang!" And of course, in the lower frame, the woman is lying in bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking: "You know, I think I really like vanilla." This was exactly the dynamic that was at work here--including the part about Tonya liking vanilla.

So I asked some advice from a young lady I knew and trusted from a completely different social circle, and then planned THE date with Tonya. We were to have dinner, and then I would tell her there was a vista point I knew of, up on the hill side where one could see the entire Bay Area stretched out below--quite lovely on clear nights. And then I would explain to her how I felt about her, and ask her if she had anything resembling similar feelings about me.

It was a lovely meal, but I don't remember enjoying it all that much, from all the butterflies in my stomach. But she just said "Ok" when I suggested that we go for a bit of a drive into the hills, so that was the first hurdle crossed....

Thankfully I didn't make her carsick on the way up. That was a real danger; so I made sure to take those corners pretty gently.

So we got up to the vista point eventually, and it was calm, peaceful, and quiet up there. Unfortunately there was a bit too much fog up there to be able to see the usual spectacular view, but that was probably just as well.

So as we sat up there, in the quiet, and the dark, I swallowed hard... madly tried to think of the right words to use... took a deep breath of air... and then tried to explain to her how I felt about her and why I felt that way. I tried to sound calm. I most certainly was not.

Her response when I finished my spiel, as far as I can recall, was something along the lines of, "Well, I suppose it's a good sign that I haven't developed a sudden desire to run for the hills."

(This was followed by a giggle and the comment, "That's because we're already here.")

Now, knowing Tonya, this response came to me as a huge relief. So we were able to talk about it some. She hadn't specifically been thinking about me in romantic terms--there was that whole vanilla thing and all--but she wasn't dead set against the idea, either, and wasn't freaked out by the fact that I felt that way about her. So we talked for a while....

And eventually, I couldn't resist, and I asked if she would let me kiss her.

She said (after a brief pause), "Ok."

It was about twenty minutes later when we finally came up for air. ;-)

...

So why do I mention all this?

Because that date was May 8th, 1998. I would have blogged about this yesterday, but we've been having a wonky internet connection (that didn't really get fixed until the phone company guy came and worked on our wires this morning). And besides, one doesn't want to celebrate important anniversaries by blogging about them, right?

Still, after ten years, one rather sizable (but thankfully simple) wedding, a move, and three kids later, I'm proud to say to my beloved wife:

Happy kissy-face day.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Back Online

Had an interesting experience yesterday: the Internet broke.

Ok, all right. The only part that broke was the part that comes to our house.

More specifically, it was this little box sitting right next to me with the blinking lights and all those wires sticking out the back.

And, it didn't so much break, as it... um... hiccuped. So after spending a whole day with a bad case of involuntary shakes, I discovered the secret: I turned it off, waited a few minutes, and turned it back on. Problem fixed!

(Maybe it's a good thing that we aren't encouraged to fix our own lawnmowers anymore.)

...

Ahem. Anyway, I'm back online, with the link to this week's Carnival of Homeschooling! Unfortunately I didn't have anything in it this week as I was spending all my time and energy debating Objectivists and needling Hungarians. But there were some articles that caught my eye. I liked this one from Barbara Frank, in which she relates a story about how she tossed her lesson plan and schedule out the window to let her daughter finish a project; she realized that the project was educational, it was more important than what had been planned, and her daughter had become obsessed with it. Anyway, they just went with it, and everyone wound up satisfied.

There was another headline that caught my eye, about teaching speaking. This is an important skill to have, and one that we've been thinking about a lot, given that the Fairy is about to hit first grade. Anyone who's come in contact with the Fairy can tell that she talks a lot as it is; it's making her get to the point of her story that's the hard part. (She gets that from her uncle.) So I clicked over to this article, hoping to glean some new and exciting wisdom.

Meh. The article had good, solid, dignified, stolid advice. It was pretty much a decent reminder of what everyone already knows: you need to practice a lot, in different social settings, keeping in mind enunciation and avoiding horrendous grammatical mistakes. Yeah, yeah.

But just seeing the headline got me thinking: how will we be teaching the Fairy to speak? One thing we'll be doing is daily Narration, similar to what Charlotte Mason recommends. The idea is that the student reads something of high literary quality once, and then--from memory--relates it back in his or her own words, in as much detail as can be remembered (subject to reasonable time constraints, of course. This is an important caveat where the Fairy is concerned). This exercise, if done a whole lot, helps buttress concentration skills, helps build comprehension, helps build memory, and helps build elocution. I've tried it on occasion--it's actually a very mentally demanding activity, even if the passage in question is no longer than one of Aesop's fables.

But thinking about the teaching of speaking, reminded me of something I read recently. For some unknown reason, I was looking at the Wikipedia page of the Baron Münchhausen--being interested in classical literature that could some day be read to and appreciated by children--and I came upon this little section, that sent me into a fit of giggles:
In 1998 a multi-player storytelling game entitled The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen was produced by James Wallis of Hogshead Publishing.[1] Players of the role-playing game assume the role of a noble person and challenge one another to relate an improvised tale based on an opening line given by another player (for example: "Grand Poobah, please tell our assemblage about the time you singlehandedly defeated the entire Turkish army using only a plate of cheese and a corkscrew!"). Players are able to interject and introduce a limited number of complications to the tall tale at any time ("But, my dear Grand Poobah, is it not true that you have a horrible allergy to cork?), and eventually all vote for the best storyteller.[1]
Now that sounds like a fun game. It sounds like it would be hard, but it would be an absolute blast, if you were to play it with the right kind of people. And my guess, judging from the kinds of stories the Fairy tells now, is that she'd be a natural for this kind of thing, when she gets a little older.

And I started thinking of all the people I know who would have a ball while doing this kind of game.

And then I started thinking about how it was that I would have managed to thwart the entire Turkish army with nothing but a corkscrew and a plate of cheese. It's not easy coming up with a story like this on the spur of the moment. But playing this game until one actually got good at it, would give a speaker some powerful oratorical skills, I'd bet.