It’s That Season of the Year

apple-2No, it’s not Christmas. It’s the beginning of the academic year—a date that always comes too quickly and catches us by surprise.

The start of the academic year affects most of us, whether by the need to watch out for school zones or to fight crowds of people loading up on notebooks and crayons. Parks empty, pools close, and there’s a sense that we need to be serious again. Yeah, boo, yeah.

“Won’t you miss teaching?” People asked me that a lot when I retired as a professor from SMU and, effectively, broke away from the academic calendar for the first time since I was six years old. A part of that question was: “how much will you miss the rhythm of life as a teacher?”

I did miss it, especially at first. Nostalgia washed over me in August as I romanticized my memories of making new syllabi. I missed the fun of assisting with Freshmen Orientation and the crazy adventures dashing off with my new International Students to buy pots and pans.

More than anything, I missed idly chatting with my colleagues in our office doorways during the week before classes started. I can’t explain why, but there is something utterly delicious about looking towards a new semester. Even professors who adopt a negative tone towards their teaching find themselves caught up in it. “Well, maybe this year’s students will be better,” they grumble, but with a slight smile of anticipation.

But I was headed to the ranch for good, or so I thought. I’d hung up a sign on my the wooden door saying “Gone Fishing.” My empty office loomed out woefully (how sad the walls looked without the rows of bookcases and decades worth of framed pictures). I was sad too, but I had a lot to do: I had my hands full figuring out how to keep my goats, cows, and horses alive.

What did I know about livestock when I began? Try zero.


Kurt Haubrich (CC BY-ND-2.0)

So, my new classroom became the Alvord Feed Store, under the tutelage of Roy. To describe him as a character out of “Central Casting” won’t suffice. To Roy I attribute one of the best remarks ever addressed to me: For someone who is supposed to be so educated, you sure don’t know nuttin’, do you?”

He was right. But he was willing to teach me. He, and a lot of others. No academic schedule dictated this classroom: just the realities of the agricultural and breeding season.

And I did learn, with certain disasters along the way (the worst being losing one of my loveliest goats to pregnancy toxemia because I didn’t realize what was happening). Many times, I found myself wishing I could have brought the wisdom and skills of ranching to my life as an academic, starting with faculty meetings. There’s a certain beauty in how one grabs the horn of a stinky buck and drags him back to the barn that could have been useful.

Later, new ventures would drag me back to the academic calendar. Never underestimate what the future holds. I could not have predicted either the amazing adventure of Professor Carol or my opportunities to work around the globe with The Smithsonian. What I feared was “lost” bloomed anew, and in abundance.

As you begin your new semester, let me congratulate you in advance. Enjoy that sense of embarking on a perfect, blank page. It won’t stay perfect, of course. But our desire to learn stems, in part, from our attraction to the perfect concept. We are divinely created with both a perfect capacity and perfect desire to learn.

If you doubt that, observe any toddler throwing himself headlong into every puzzle before him. I try to stay off the YouTube treadmill, but I admit to being caught up yesterday in a video where a toddler in diapers crawls up what looks like two metal baby-gates stacked on top of each other. Perhaps you’ve seen it. With determination and cleverness, he finds a way up, over, and out to freedom. Maybe the video was staged in order to go “viral,” but so what! It’s a good reminder that God gives us the both the gifts and strength needed to crawl over and conquer obstacles.

So, set up your obstacles, stand back, and plot your strategies. Don’t listen to someone saying “you can’t do it.” When has that ever been right? Rarely.

And may we all vault with joy to our goals!

A Little Night Music

It took me back nearly 40 years, this wash of chirps, clicks, and hoots surrounding my sister-in-law’s screened porch outside of Chapel Hill. A nighttime symphony cascading through the Carolina pines brought me back to a rickety trailer not far away and the cinderblock stoop upon which I sat nightly.

My trailer was nestled in the woods down a country lane called Manns Chapel Road. I lived there for all four years of graduate school, making an uphill transition from my background as a pianist into the field of musicology. The isolation was perfect. I could rant and rave at any hour about the difficulties of my music bibliography assignments and the raccoons didn’t mind. I could practice at any hour. And I could sit on that stoop and talk to the stars about how my dreams might play out.

Back then, trailers and clapboard houses speckled Manns Chapel Road. And, yes, a few dwellings did have freezers or washing machines on the porches. Today, the road is beautifully paved. The fragrant corner store with its barrels of pickles and blocks of cheese has been replaced by upscale commercial development. The forests are carved into luxury, wooded developments with properties worthy of Architectural Digest. In short, you’d never recognize the neighborhood.

But the bugs, bats, and birds haven’t changed. Hoot owls, crickets, whip-o’-wills, and night sparrows still weave their hypnotic music, creating a soundscape that, once in the ear, is never forgotten. At the time, I didn’t realize how much this night music brought inspiration to my weary mind and blurry eyes. I didn’t realize that these sounds were shaping my soul.

Smell evokes the deepest memories, they say. But sounds unleash a cascade of memories too. The rusted hinges of a childhood pantry door. The creak of a certain bottom step. The whirl of an aged appliance or perk of a coffee pot. These sounds may not inspire symphonies, but they cause a flow of melody inside of our hearts.

Not surprisingly, the aural palette of night creatures has inspired many musical compositions. One of my favorites is a piece from Out of Doors, a suite written in 1926 for piano by Béla Bartók. In the fourth movement, swirls of pitches delicately layered and punctuated by irregular rhythms realistically evoke the tapestry of nighttime sound. Close your eyes, and you will be transported to Bartók’s beloved Hungarian countryside, a place beautifully captured by the painter László Paál.


Paál László, Landscape with Cows (1872)

Bartók wrote Out of Doors while still in Hungary. Unhappily, European chaos caused him to emigrate to the United States (1940). Despite much effort, he could never replicate his success. Everything that worked artistically and personally in Hungary did not work in the New World. His artistic soul was rooted in his native soundscape. His health deteriorated. Little in his new environment brought him peace or joy.

Memories. Why did grownups talk so much about their memories, I wondered as a child. Didn’t they have anything interesting going on their lives now?


Ken Thomas, Tufted Titmouse

How could I understand that memories build columns that nurture us throughout our lives? How could I realize that we can spend a lifetime trying to recapture our sound memories. Amidst his struggles, Bartók did reunite with the aural richness of memory. In the last year of his life while in North Carolina, the sound of a tufted titmouse inspired the slow movement of his final composition, the Third Piano Concerto.

Imagine how deeply this sound touched him. A vital font of memory suddenly poured out once again in music.

Maybe my reminiscences of nocturnal sounds on that screened porch were not so profound, but the experience still captured me. It was a vivid example of the music created by God. It was a gift we all crave: a reminder of where we’ve been, and what we have valued—a soundscape of our hopes and dreams.

Practice What You Preach

st-anthony-veroneseDid you grow up with people telling you to “practice what you preach”? Even in childhood I figured it must be difficult, considering the way adults said it.

For the past two conference seasons I’ve delivered a talk called The Digital Dulling of our Children. It packs the room, no matter where. And why? Because thoughtful parents are (or should be) worried about the effect this ubiquitous technology has on their children’s well-being.

Let’s get past one thing right now: the “hype” about the great benefit of technology for education is nonsense. The developmental downsides of handing children iPads are legion. Finally this fact is hitting the popular press. From kindergartners unable to grip a crayon to fourth-graders unable to pay attention, writers are decrying what has gone wrong.

But now I’m thinking about something else: the damage screen time is doing to young (and old) eyes. On my last Smithsonian Journey’s voyage down the Rhine, one of my guests was an optometrist. It turns out she worked during the 1990s at the same Dallas eye center I frequented back in my SMU professor days. After we chatted about “who knew whom,” we moved to the topic of the arts, and then education. I saw my opening! “So, from your perspective, how damaging are these digital screens to kids’ eyes?”

I knew her answer would not be bland, but its vehemence surprised me. In short, all of us are experiencing eye damage from screens, starting with babies and toddlers who never should be near screens in the first place.

In my childhood, parents worried about the effect on eyes of a TV screen observed across a room. But kids, with their short arms, holding these brilliant screens inches from their tender, still-developing eyes? That’s a recipe for disaster, she said.

Retinal damage is the biggest concern. Longer-range fears include early onset of glaucoma, ordinarily a disease of senior citizens. The future of today’s “screen kids,” quite literally, will be blighted by greater likelihood of blindness.

In my own life, I know how tired my eyes get from screen usage. Particularly with all my international travel, I wake up at night without the slightest idea what time it is. My wristwatch is somewhere under a pile of books. The bedside table doesn’t have an alarm clock. So I look at my phone.

And, ouch, the blast of light really hurts the eye. It hurts when it comes on and it hurts for ten, fifteen minutes afterwards.

For the longest time, I ignored how much that light hurt, or didn’t think that it mattered. But lately I’ve taken notice. And after more research subsequent to this doctor’s pronouncement, I’m convinced, for starters, that I need to find a different way to check the time at night! Better a blast of light from the lamp than the intense light of the phone blasting into my sleepy eyes.

Fully cutting the umbilical cords of the technology is not something I can do right now. “Professor Carol” may have started in the CD age, but today it’s front and center as a cyber-business. We stream video and webinars. We design our publications on-line. Our Friday Performance Picks and Advent Calendar travel around the world by virtue of the internet. Plus, I stay in touch with students and families through email, texting, and the “Professor Carol” Facebook page. Believe me, I want to be available for everyone who needs me.

So those things must remain.

But I don’t need to extend my screen time with cute-cat videos. And how many times daily do I need to consult news sites? Is the ultra-convenience of downloading a book on the iPad really worth the eyestrain of reading it in digital form?

And, most importantly (I’ve had this day of reckoning and made subsequent corrections), when my grandson toddles over to me, do I want him to see me staring at a screen? I need to practice what I preach.

Along these lines, I recently realized that my pre-school granddaughter hardly ever saw me writing on paper. Contrast that with the memories I have of my mother composing letters and lists in her beautiful handwriting. So I’ve moved the laptop over and started using notebooks again.

I’m trying. When the grandkids are around, unless I’m expecting a communication from someone in the hospital, or a relative out on the highways, the texts can wait. If one of our students or teachers is distraught with a problem, then I need to answer that email ASAP. Otherwise, email can wait until an appropriate time.

Practice what I preach. Get better at modeling the behavior I wish them to see. And give my always poorly sighted eyes a chance to make it a bit longer. What about you?

Image: Veronese, St. Anthony Preaching to the Fish (c. 1580)

Monument aux morts de Strasbourg


He caught only a glimpse of the monument. You know how it is, traveling as a tourist by bus. If you sit on the right side, whatever you need to see is on the left. About the time the guide mentions something important, the light changes and you zoom off.

But Anand managed a quick look at the monument through an opening in the trees. Known as Le Monument aux morts de Strasbourg, the sculpture by Léon-Ernst Drivier, erected in 1936, sits in the center of Strasbourg’s Place de la République. Our guide mentioned it so quickly, some people missed it.

As we rolled along, the guide added that it was modeled on The Pieta, but in an unusual form. The mother holds the body of not one son, but two: one representing a French soldier and the other a German.

Strasbourg’s geopolitical history is dizzying. This cultured city in a region known as Alsace has bounced so often between the French and the Germans, it’s hard to keep up. Plus, just because the Rhine serves as a stable border today between part of France and Germany, borders are never carved in stone.

All the more poignant, therefore, is the portrayal of the sculpted mother grieving over her sons. Think how often this tragedy has occurred, not just in the wars we call World War I, World War II, or the Franco-Prussian War, and not just here, on the Rhine.

The tour of Strasbourg came towards the end of our voyage down the Rhine. Booked as a “family cruise,” this journey brought together multiple generations. Among the 120 guests on the beautiful Amadeus Silver III were 29 kids! The youngest was about seven, while the older kids were experiencing the trip as glorious gifts upon their high-school graduations.

In the course of such a trip, you do get to know the guests rather well. Anand’s family was delightful. His grandparents exuded such joy, plus they kept us in stitches. Anand’s mom beamed with joy at having her two sons and her parents together, making lifetime memories.

Anand’s younger brother, about 12 years old, was the talkative one, spending his free time playing chess and games of strategy with a group of boys his age. He was clearly one of the leaders.

And Anand? He was the quiet one, the observer. Sixteen years old and a football player, he struck me as a gentle giant. His visible deference to his mom and grandparents, indeed all of the adults on the tour, was endearing.

To my surprise he came to my lectures and our discussion groups. He even offered a few comments. But other than that, he was like many teens his age: hard to read.

The evening after Strasbourg he told me about the poem. He wanted to know if I’d like to see it. Of course I did. He handed me his phone. (Is everything on a phone these days?)

I had to glance quickly at it, because we were due at an event. My eyes widened. “You wrote this after glimpsing the monument?” “Yes,” he said quietly. I asked him if he would send it to me, and he said yes.

We bumped into each other at the Amsterdam airport after leaving the ship, and I reminded him. “OK,” he said, with a smile. I added, “If you do, may I share it with people?” He seemed surprised. “I’ll be sharing it with good people,” I assured him. “People who care about history and the arts. And who care about kids.”

The next day he sent it. He asked only that I put his name on it.

Think of all the kids who, if exposed to the arts, would choose to express themselves in poetry, music, dance, painting, or drama! Don’t tell me that they are “electives.” Don’t even breathe the idea that they are frills or unimportant. Arts like music and poetry have the power to open a young person’s heart, soul, and mind. They are not artificial add-ons. They are expressions of our deepest reflections, ideas, and ideals, no matter what our age.

Here is Anand Ambrosi’s poem (as yet untitled):

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

You called on them from your ivory tower.
Sat upon a throne of bones.
The blood of your people surrounds you,
But all you see is the other side’s throne

So you shout and you scream to take their land
As your throne grows with the bones of the dead.
Still you can’t see the cost of this great war
Because the blood hasn’t come to your bed.
I held my two boys’ cold and limp hands.
One fought for France the other for Deutschland.
But underneath they still bleed the same red.

I loved them, I loved them, I loved them.
All you thought of was winning the war
At the cost of my children’s precious lives.
You sent the devil to knock on my door.

All I want are my two little boys back,
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

A war will ne’er solve anything,
When two brothers fight for the other to die.
This, the great folly of war, can’t you see?
When one problem is solved,
In return you get three!
So, consider that war costs more than money
‘Cause you’ve left two holes in my heart.
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts can’t you see?

To you they were just a pawn piece
I loved them, I loved them, I loved them
I miss their sparkling eyes.
Lives cut too short by needless war.
Gone before I could say goodbye

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

Image: Richard (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A Family Cruise on the Rhine

swanA swan passed by my window this morning at sunrise. No, it wasn’t a dream. I’m on a river boat serving as Study Leader for a two-week Rhine River cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. The focus for this trip is family.

Of the 130 passengers on the ship, more than a third are children. The family groups range from an 82-year old grandma and her adolescent grandson to multi-generational bundles of relatives coming together from across the US.

I needn’t state that these are very fortunate children. In our opening reception, I used nearly biblical language describing the trip as a blessing for the kids able to participate. Every adult head was nodding in agreement.

Certainly the grandparents on the ship didn’t have such luxury travel growing up. In fact in many cases they are but one generation removed from the bold travelers who abandoned everything and sailed to Ellis Island seeking refuge in the early 20th century.

Some of the adults in the “parent” generation, though, enjoyed some international travel as youths. But even so, they seem as wide-eyed and excited as the kids.

And what about the kids? I feared they’d be privileged children hunched over in classic postures of teenaged boredom. But they aren’t. They’re smiling as broadly as an adolescent can in the presence of family. Plus, the best news of all: by the second day, I noticed a decline in their focus on digital technology. Could it be that castles are more interesting?

“Whose idea was this trip?” I like to ask this question of each family group. Inevitably, it will be a grandparent’s. One granddad told me gruffly, “A year ago, in the middle of my chemo, the Smithsonian catalogue came in the mail and I figured, what else was gonna put me in a better mood? So I told them ‘I’ve signed us all up!’” Based on his subsequent grin, that story has ended happily.

Of course not everyone is in a position to book expensive river cruises in order to build family memories. But the shared experiences all families crave don’t have to take place on a tour. They take place, equally powerfully, around the dinner table or standing at the sink doing dishes together. They abound when father and son puzzle over a recalcitrant lawn mower or big brother and little sister walk the dog. And they bloom with vibrancy every time someone reads out loud to the family. Or starts up a round of Frère Jacques.

Since beginning the Professor Carol adventure, I’ve come to understand better the irreplaceable value of family. I’ve observed countless families who, on a minimal budget, manage to find highly creative methods to counter what, to me, is our biggest societal problem. And, no, it’s not our collapsing standards of education, although that vies for the title.

It’s the collapse of the family, and in particular the extended family. It’s the numbing isolation that so many experience trying to raise their children or care for their aging parents without the support of other family members nearby.

It’s also the break in tradition that results when families are spread across a vast country, or torn apart by the demands of work schedules. Like so many problems, it starts quietly and builds over time, making it difficult to assess just how much damage is done.

Moms and dads need backup. They need someone older to turn to for reinforcement and advice. Kids need extra pairs of loving hands to foster them. They need the open hearts of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or even older sibling or cousin. Even if you factor in the undeniable challenges of sibling rivalry or strife between some relatives, family relationships are the golden cross-threads that strengthen the weave of the fabric.


Breisach, Germany

And so my guests will use this journey to weave such a fabric. It’s a joy to watch contented grandparents taking after-dinner walks with their seven-year old grandchild along the Rhine’s leafy shore as the reflection of Breisach Castle sparkles across the water. It’s utterly fun, if a little scary, when the ceiling above my head shakes as teens on the sun deck romp through a hyper-active shuffleboard tournament. “Surely they built the ship strong enough for that, didn’t they?” I find myself asking.

The parents will go to sleep each night of the cruise knowing that their kids have experienced something unforgettable. Maybe it was their first smoked fish for breakfast or a hike in the Black Forest. Or maybe it was the challenge of photographing the dark beauty of a gothic cathedral.

And I’ll do my part to further the educational side of the trip. When I gave my first lecture called “Unraveling the Puzzle of German History,” most of the kids came . . . and stayed! The adults were pleased: they want the kids to take away more than cozy feelings or a taste for new foods. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the engineering history of the Rhine itself, and what the Rhine has meant in the imagination of the artist.

And then I’ll launch my favorite session entitled “Goethe Boot Camp.” Few Americans have a solid knowledge of this German giant. We’ll linger a while with a famous passage from Faust in which the theme is lingering:

When I say to the Moment flying
‘Linger a while – thou art so fair!’ (Verweile doch, du bist so schön)
Then bind me in thy bonds undying.

Here Faust charges Mephisto with what he assumes is an impossible challenge: to bring the jaded professor into a state of ultimate satisfaction that will make him want to stop time and proceed no further. Faust, as it turns out, underestimates Mephisto’s abilities.

Can youngsters grasp such a passage? Their grandparents can. But it doesn’t matter. The kids will remember it, just as they will remember standing with grandma, feeling small beneath the spire of the Cologne Cathedral. And just as they will remember splashing Uncle Ralph in the backyard with the garden hose when they were supposed to be washing the picnic table, or hauling slate tiles to build grandma a path to the birdbath.

Because it’s about building. It’s about building moments that bind us together. It’s about needing each other. Nothing can replace what family offers, whatever the bumps and disappointments may be. And nothing could heal so many of our societal ills as quickly as renewed vitality of the extended family unit. At least, so it seems to me this late afternoon as I await the return of the swans at sunset.



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