Dog Days of Summer

I thought “the dog days of summer” referred to the conundrum some of us face in August: Should I chase that rabbit? Or just lie here and pant?

Tiptoe around every corner and you’ll find a Classical root. Dog Days comes from ancient astronomy and refers to the heliacal rising of the star Sirius in late July. Apparently people feared the onset of disease and other disasters associated with heat of August. In the Iliad, there is an association of this period with war.

sirius

Illustration of the constellation Sirius (c. 820-840)

Knowing the background doesn’t change how we moderns use the term, though. For most of us, “dog days” evokes the late summer when we feel lazy and unmotivated. We long for crisp fall air to help us get things going again.

But what do dogs want during dog days? My guess is air conditioning and a cool tile floor. That’s how our old Border Collie Josie is spending her dog days. Stretched out as far as her arthritic body will allow, she sleeps the hot weeks away. We have to coax her out for walks: she isn’t going to move a muscle unnecessarily.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Josie was a canine bullet. She could outrun any dog on the ranch, which is saying a lot if you knew the parade of dogs we had.

We got her in 2005 from the Wise County Animal Shelter. It’s hard to get dogs adopted out in the country: everyone has too many. There’s a place in Hell for people who drop unwanted dogs down country roads on the theory that “they can survive” in the wild. Yup, until nightfall and that first pack of coyotes.

But back to the story. We had “auditioned” her the previous afternoon to make sure our tempestuous Lab-Chow “Buddy” would accept her. He did, despite disliking virtually all other dogs. So the next afternoon, we drove back to Wise County to get her.

But it looked like we were going to arrive past the closing time, so we called the attendant to ask if he’d stay a few extra minutes. “Ma’am, I don’t care if it takes you ‘til midnight. I’ll stay here if you’ll just come adopt one of our dogs,” said Joe.

I’ve never forgotten Joe’s words. Many a time I’ve recalled the commitment he expressed in that moment: whatever it takes, I’ll do it.

josie

Photo by Evgeny Fouk

So Josie got a version of his name and went on to have a great life. She had total freedom on the ranch. Every morning she would make the rounds with big dogs (Anatolian Shepherds), frolic in the tanks (ponds), and eat whatever they found in the woods or pastures.

But there were bad times. She indulged her herding instincts with a Fed-Ex truck that sped down our dirt road. I won’t gross you out describing her injuries, but let’s just say she was stitched back together by a glorious vet named Beth Winingham. Beth attended all of Josie’s disasters, included a drastic hip surgery and a nasty rattlesnake bite. She called Josie the most pain-tolerant dog she’d ever treated and she wasn’t just doling out compliments. It’s hard to diagnose an animal that doesn’t whimper, despite severe pain.

Still, Josie survived. And when we moved back to the city, Josie was the only dog to make the cut. Livestock dogs that bark all night aren’t going to be welcome in a modern urban neighborhood, nor will they be happy.

Why am I writing about this, you might ask? Ordinarily I write about the arts and education. I write about travel. But not dogs. I’m not even a “dog person” for that matter. Cats are more my style.

But I admire dogs. Moreover, I’m fascinated by how people feel about their dogs. In each of my tour groups, people start passing around pictures of their grandkids on Day 3 or Day 4. But I know they’re ready to go home (no matter how fantastic the tour) when they start pulling out pictures of their dogs.

We cherish our dogs. They exhibit virtues that our frantic, rude society has abandoned. They wait. They rejoice in a butterfly or a corner of cookie found in the grass. They rejoice in us, no matter what.

In a sermon long ago, Fr. David Allen (St. Francis Church, Dallas) made a comment that has never left me. “There is no such thing as a good dog.” I remember my eyes widening. What? He reminded us that dogs do not, and cannot, make moral choices. Yes, they have enormous capacity for loyalty and extraordinary instincts. But they learn to behave in ways that please their masters and avoid punishment. And they rejoice in what pleases us.

It is we humans who can be “good” or “bad.” We were created with a conscience and the ability to make moral judgments. That conscience has to be nurtured. Children must be prepared for a lifetime of distinguishing good and bad. Each child is endowed with the capacity to measure and understand the difference.

Josie does not wrestle with moral dilemmas. But we are called upon to make moral choices every day. Daily I need to strengthen commitment to the pursuit of “the good.” And I need not to fade in nurturing others along the same path.

May these last weeks of August bring you chances for spiritual refreshment (“cool tile”). May you find the inspiration to cut through the heat and tackle the tasks required as you prepare for the new academic year. And may you find the same kind of admiration we see in our doggies’ eyes as you begin the substantial work that lies ahead.

R.I.P. Cheryl Lowe of Memoria Press

I’m watching barges go up the Rhine River. The precious, early morning hours before official tour activities begin are my favorite, no matter where I am. Still, the joy of sitting here, looking out at the castles on the Rhine? That defies description.

By the end of the week, I will be back in Texas. But between this voyage and returning to Dallas, I’ll spend three whirlwind days at Highlands Latin School (Louisville, KY), working with teachers attending a training conference for the Classical Latin School Association. My thoughts are already focused on that adventure.

Why? Gathered together will be some of the most inspiring educators you could hope to meet. These are people on a mission. Pushing past today’s low expectations, they accept the realm of excellence as the only standard. These are teachers who make the neglected subjects of Latin, Greek, Rhetoric, and Ancient History spring to life. These are teachers who help turn the “average” child into a well-educated human being.

cheryl-loweBut that’s not the only reason I am thinking about this event. The second reason is dearer, and more poignant: the sudden loss of a great woman named Cheryl Lowe, founder of Highlands Latin School and of Memoria Press.

The Classical curricula published by Memoria Press served as the first inspiration for Hank and me as we started on the path towards Professor Carol. The year was 2008. We were considering taking up a challenge issued by a variety of my SMU students who had been homeschooled. They repeatedly lamented the dearth of serious secondary-school level curricula in the Fine Arts, not just in the homeschooling world, but in public education. They said, in effect, there was nothing.

I was just learning from them about homeschooling, but I really had no grasp of methods or materials. Still, when student after student seemed to echo the same assessment, I got curious.

So that summer Hank and I drove to Houston to attend a convention. Wandering through the aisles, encountering names like Math-U-See, ACE, and Sonlight, we were fascinated. We stumbled across two things that really stayed with us. One was called Greathall Productions featuring the delicious, incomparable master of story-telling Jim Weiss (I’ll save him for another essay). And the second was the booth for Memoria Press.

As I recall, their spread was significantly smaller than it is today. But what power emanated from their publications! With ever increasing surprise, we leafed through serious, attractive courses in Latin, Greek, Rhetoric, Ancient History, Poetry, and Handwriting. Raised with a strong background in Latin, I had watched with sorrow as these seminal subjects faded from public schools. I had proof of the damage left behind: bright students in my classroom at SMU whose education had been weakened, and I’d even say crippled in many respects by their absence.

But here it all was again: clean, crisp, clear, and powerful. I said to Hank, “If we do this thing, I want our materials to look like this.” Over dinner, we talked for hours about what we’d seen across the exhibit hall, but particularly at Memoria Press. Our conclusion? Memoria Press had the kind of materials we wanted to emulate.

Shortly thereafter we met Cheryl Lowe and soon were in conversation with her about possibly working together with Memoria Press in our venture. As it turned out, we moved forward independently to make Discovering Music, but kept Memoria’s vision squarely in mind. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cheryl Lowe’s death will be deeply felt by those who worked with her and depended on her, both locally and nationally. Last February we enjoyed her lovely hospitality at an elaborate reception held at Highlands Latin School for our Classical Consortium meeting, complete with some of Kentucky’s finest cuisine. As always, she was scheduled to be a guiding light for the conference this week. And suddenly she is gone.

There will have already been plenty of tributes to this woman who decided to homeschool her sons in an era when homeschooling was illegal in many states. She was in every sense of the word a pioneer: a woman who saw her children not challenged, and decided to move heaven and earth to do something about it.

And something about it she did! Not only did she find ways to teach them when curricular materials were not available to individuals, but also created appropriate Latin curricula for them. Soon, she was sharing it with others who thirsted for the same. Not surprisingly, but still wondrously, a small school sprang up which grew, and grew, and grew. That necessitated bringing in even more talent. And, accordingly, a press was required to keep up with the curriculum she and others were developing.

Today both Memoria Press and Highlands Latin School embody a level of excellence that shines like the North Star. The world of Classical Education and, for that matter, homeschooling has broadened and strengthened in ways those courageous trailblazers like Mrs. Lowe could have imagined only in their wildest dreams. And she is responsible for a great deal of those developments.

Everyone at this conference will be struggling to grasp the loss of this extraordinary woman. Her mission is complete. Her vision is secure. But her loss is inestimable. May the work we all do at this event be worthy of what she would have expected from each of us. Resquiescat in Pace.

I Never Took a Course in Drawing

At each conference recently, I’ve found myself discussing the same quandary: how do we implement curriculum so that the arts occupy a central, not ancillary, position?

Particularly in the realm of Classical education, we extol the value of the arts as a component of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Yet each of us lives in a world where music, dance, theater, and visual art are seen as frills, or, at best, electives. This diminished labeling exists even within some of the finest Classical curricula.

What do we do about this? One answer comes from remembering the central position the arts held within a serious education in centuries past. A well-educated person attained at least basic skills in several of the Fine Arts, such as dance, drawing, recitation of poetry, or music. The goal wasn’t professional mastery, but the ability minimally to execute, or at least appreciate, the arts. No one questioned this emphasis, just as no one questioned a young man’s training in fencing or a girl’s study of needlepoint.

But to learn and master the execution of the arts, or to gain appreciation or historical understanding of the arts, they must be studied as a core component of daily education. They can’t be pasted on in the manner of an elective (although, admittedly “some” knowledge is better than none).

stick-figureLet me give you a funny example. A few years ago, while crossing the Atlantic on a large cruise ship where I served as a Smithsonian speaker, I enrolled in an art class. Ships at sea have many such classes, and they are often quite good.

The first class dealt with collage (you should have seen my fabulous construction-paper collage of a coffee mug stuffed with colored pencils). “I can do this,” I thought!

But then we had our first drawing class. Okay, first class isn’t quite the right word, because “first” implies a step-by-step introduction to a skill, right? As it turns out, these people could draw already, or at least understood line and perspective. Everyone but me.

We went up to the 16th deck (yes, the ship was that big) and spread out across the Astro Turf. “Let’s sketch this chair,” the teacher said, pointing to a wood-slatted deck chair. They all dove in, quickly sketching it at several angles. I sat there thinking. “Okay, I have no idea what to do . . . but, hey, no one is going to notice I cannot do this, so I’ll just wiggle my pencil and look thoughtful until it’s over.”

Except the teacher did notice. He smiled as if I were a child. “You’ve never done this before, have you?” Well that was apparent.

He put his hand over mine and started sketching the outlines of the chair in the proper proportions. “Here. See if you can take it from there.” He had essentially eliminated my need to have any skill and brought me to a point where I could, at least, decorate my chair with squiggles.

I’ve often reflected back upon that experience. I wish I had more skill at art, but the fact is that I trained my hands at an early age to play music, not to draw. Yet, knowing music helps me to appreciate art. Music provides me an historical and aesthetic frame through which I can weave knowledge from virtually every discipline.

The arts don’t just beautify or inspire us. They develop us. They take our primitive physical and intellectual abilities and make them more exacting, flexible, and effective. They hone our creative and analytic abilities, challenging every aspect of our being (and not just a right or left brain lobe).

I like to use another example: George Washington was renown as one of his era’s best social dancers. His ability to negotiate the subtleties of minuets, allemandes, and jigs (gigues) with exceptional virtuosity was not unrelated to his ability to strategize a military campaign.

In fact, if you look historically, a person’s aptitude in court dance was recognized throughout Europe as a way to assess that person’s cognitive and physical abilities. It was all there on display: memory, coordination, flexibility, fortitude, and grace. A mistake on the dance floor in the French Baroque courts was called a faux pas (false step). This term did not mean “picking up the wrong fork.” It meant making an obvious error in something that should have been learned and mastered.

We can’t approach the Fine Arts as an occasional add-on and expect to develop any proficiency or love for the subjects. Insofar as the performing arts, obviously an early start is desirable; but abilities can be developed at any age (witness the proliferation of classes one finds in senior centers).

Developing the arts as a central column in the curriculum, from the youngest possible age, allows the student’s mind to be shaped in a critical way, whether in terms of creating art or appreciating art. As long as we treat it as an elective, a frill, or a specialization suitable for only a few, we deprive students of enormous, life-long benefits.

And so, as we struggle in our modern world (whether in brick and mortar buildings or in a homeschool) to provide a traditional, and necessary, study of the arts, let us take one concern out of the mix: toss that sense of guilt when focusing on the arts. We are not wasting time, amusing ourselves with easy things, or diverting our students from the “truly important” work. We are, instead, pursing what the Ancients considered a cornerstone of true education.

We’re Supposed To Know It

We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.

These words have resonated in my mind since hearing them said to me last Friday in our Krakow hotel. It was the last day of our Smithsonian Journeys “Week-in-Krakow” tour. The setting was a restored, golden-bricked medieval cellar where our breakfast was laid each morning.

I’d given my final lecture earlier in a side alcove of the cellar used for presentations. Other than the morning talk, the day was unscheduled, and I was going to be able to eat a leisurely breakfast after speaking. What a rarity that is!

A young waitress set a hearty omelet before me. I nodded and started to dissolve back into my book when she asked quietly: “What was that music you were playing in there?”

She asked in perfect English. (Everyone under 30 seems to speak English here.) What music did she mean? Then I knew. She’d overheard my lecture since only an ancient door of weathered boards separates that space from the breakfasters.

“Ah, that music. Chopin. The first piece was one of his songs called Wiosna (Spring),“ I smiled. “Most people know Chopin’s piano pieces, but they don’t necessarily know he wrote songs.”

“Oh,” she said, still waiting. “And the other music at the end was a clip I showed from a movie called Moonlight Sonata starring your Paderewski.” She nodded at the name of Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941). “It’s a sweet scene where he plays an ornate rendition of his famous Minuet at a children’s hospital.“

Boznańska

Boznańska, Girl with Chrysanthemums (1894)

Her eyes continued to inquire, so I continued. “In between, I was showing images from your wonderful Polish painters, like Chelmonski and Boznańska. In the U.S. we don’t learn many Polish paintings, but you know this art, of course.”

That’s when she said it. “We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.”

She said it so wistfully, I almost caught my breath. Then I got the picture. She was wishing she had been sitting in the lectures, rather than carrying fruit trays and clearing plates. She wanted to go back and fill in the gaps in her education.

She continued to stand there. I sensed two choices: I could thank her for the omelet and go back to my book. Or, I could follow the twitch in my heart and do something different. But should I?

I looked around. Everyone was gone but us and another young waitress clearing the buffet. The quiet time between breakfast and lunch shifts had descended. I followed my heart: “Would you like to see some of the talk? I can show you right here.” She smiled broadly and called her colleague to come over.

I cranked up the computer and gave them the ten-minute version of the talk. Yes, an hour-long talk can be compressed into ten minutes.

They listened thoughtfully to Wiosna and watched the video clip. I told them more about “their” Paderewski who was just a “book name” to them. In vivid terms, I described this dynamic pianist who took the music world by storm and ultimately served as Premier in the newly restored, independent country of Poland after World War I.

Then we flew through images of gorgeous 19th-century Polish paintings—the same images that had captivated my own guests an hour earlier. They recognized many, but not all, of the paintings. They asked questions, too. It’s amazing how much you can pack into a short time when you have to. It was like ice-skating through Polish cultural history.

Then the restaurant manager walked in. I closed the computer. They moved back to work with a twinkle in their eyes. The omelet, while cold, was still delicious.

They knew enough to know that I was teaching icons of their culture. And they were “supposed” to know these things not for a test or a better job, but because it’s part of who they are as Poles. How many of us in the United States can identify the gaps in our education, especially after we have stripped so much of the Western Canon out of our curricula?

One source of continual inspiration, since beginning “Professor Carol,” happens to be the parents I meet who are dedicated to obtaining a better education for their children than the ones they received. Whether they accomplish this through exceptional diligence for their publicly schooled kids, breaking the bank for private schooling, or by home-schooling, they are determined. It’s a battle and they don’t want to lose again.

We are supposed to know it, but we don’t. It is our duty, and privilege, to make sure this changes.

No Selfies

Selfie_icon.svgTwice on Sunday I forgot to take a selfie. The first time came during a joyous afternoon reunion here in Latvia with two long-ago SMU students. Both fantastic musicians, these “kids” were members of our orchestra in the early 1990s, a time many refer to as a Golden Age in our newly fashioned Artist Certificate program. They (and others from countries like Russia, France, Czech Republic, China, Bulgaria, and Spain) brought enormous talent, a razor-sharp work ethic, and hearts overflowing with enthusiasm.

Some went on to forge stellar music careers; others moved into innovative jobs outside of music. No matter which avenue their lives took, it is always a tremendous honor to visit with them years later, wherever I may be.

In this case, the three of us spent a leisurely afternoon of reminiscence and rejoicing at a trendy Riga coffee shop. Now, here’s the thing: if we had been teenagers, we’d have taken a selfie — a dozen “selfies.” And I did intend to take at least one picture. But we were so caught up laughing, and recalling persons and events, we simply didn’t think about pictures. Only when I returned to my hotel did it hit me. Gosh, lost opportunity there, right?

The second omission happened earlier that same day. Our Smithsonian group was weaving its way through Riga’s Old Town, taking in the endless architectural delights. Our tour operator (a vibrant Lithuanian woman), was bringing up the rear when she found herself suddenly approached by a dignified man. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit and vest and, perhaps seeing her kind face, had begun to speak with her. I moved back to check things out. A retired Art professor in our group joined me, just in case something interesting was going on.

Within seconds we were drawn into their powerful conversation. I translated as seamlessly as I could for our professor who could barely believe his ears.

This gentleman, in 1940, had enlisted in the Russian army at age thirteen. A Russian born in Riga in 1927, he convinced authorities he was seventeen and got away with it. He then fought against the Germans and survived. He recalled seeing Stalin on multiple occasions while in Moscow. For him, of course, Stalin was the heroic leader who stopped Hitler.

After the war, this man came back to his home country. Latvia was part of the territory traded at Yalta to the Russians and subsumed into the Soviet Union. Folks in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia often say “the Russians liberated us but forgot to go home.” Such dry humor hides their deep bitterness at winning the war, only to be defeated by forty-plus years of disastrous Communism.

Past retirement by the time Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, declared its independence from of the USSR in 1990, this man seemed not to have had had his world turned upside down as did so many younger Latvian Russians. Simply put, persons (Russians) who were high up on the hierarchical ladder during the decades of Communism were suddenly cast down and, in many cases, cast out. If he did experience this, he didn’t mention it.

What he did tell us, though, had to do with a commemoration on May 9th (Victory Day) signed by Putin himself, of which he was very proud. Now at age 90, he was being officially honored as a soldier in the Second World War. He pulled his shoulders back strong and tall when he described the commendation.

As part of his recognition, he was receiving a two-week visit to a spa on the Baltic seacoast in June. It was pretty clear that he hadn’t spent life enjoying resorts. He couldn’t wait for it to begin.

I’ve been privy to such spontaneous conversations with World War II Russian veterans, although fewer as that generation is nearly gone. But my art professor had not heard anything quite like this. As with everyone in the group, he is drinking in reams of information during his first serious tour of the Baltic countries. And he is coming to understand the different heritages, languages, geographical features, and personalities of these three countries united primarily by common misfortune: invasions, occupations, destruction, and rebuilding. This has been the cycle, from pre-history through the Northern Crusades. From Napoleon to World Wars I & II and 40 more years of Communism. That’s it: shared misfortune and a border on the Baltic Sea.

As our group was drifting away from us, we had to say goodbye. He was reluctant to part with us. He was enjoying telling his story. Only after we’d parted did my art professor and I simultaneously clap ourselves on our foreheads: “Yikes, why didn’t we get a picture?” We consoled ourselves that maybe we’d see him near that same courtyard tomorrow.

But we didn’t. That’s the nature of touring. You get only one chance. And, unlike younger people, snapping pictures isn’t always our first instinct. We are more likely to gaze in wonder at the situations we encounter, the persons we meet. We are more geared to savor the moment than to post it to Instagram.

I wish I had both pictures. But actually I do. I have two pictures etched in my memory. The first shows a proud, 90-year old soldier whose eyes blazed as he told his story. The second shows me rejoicing in the presence of two now-grown-up “kids” who chose not to stay in an easier life in the US, but to return and offer their talents and hearts to a stunningly beautiful sea-side country that continues to struggle and rise on the wings of hope and prayer.

Image: Claire Jones, A Selfie Icon (CC BY 3.0)

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