Archive for September, 2008

Book review: 1776

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

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Author:David McCullough
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:non-fiction

Sometimes, I'll be reading a novel and get to some worrisome plot twist. The characters I've come to love are in jeopardy, and -- the tension is too great for me. I put the book down and call someone I trust who can reassure me that I should keep on reading anyway. Sometimes, they don't reassure me. "Yeah, that book is simply not worth the time." So then I go read something else.

When I chose to read 1776, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to have to worry about the plot. After all, here we all are seven years after 9-11. Or, most of us at least...

Obviously, I remembered that there had been an American Revolution, which was a war. And that people fought and died to create our nation. But the number 1776 had always had very positive associations for me. Declaration of Independence. "Give me liberty or give me death." Etc. etc.

I tried to persuade my very sensitive 13 year old to read 1776 with me. "I think it might be pretty depressing," she said. She was right. Depressing. Harrowing in fact. But well worth reading.

And come to think of it, on this the seventh anniversary of 9-11, I'm not actually certain that the American Story has a happy ending. That we are actively dealing with the very Real Problems we Americans face. Reality is harrowing. Still. And needs to be faced even when there is a woman who shoots moose from airplanes and arbitrarily fires those who cross her running for election as vice president of the United States.

The happiest thing I took away from 1776 was the stories of the famous and not-so-famous men who led the American and British troops. All of whom, leaders and troops, suffered and learned from their terrible mistakes, if they survived.

I was very impressed with how certain these guys, on both sides, were of the importance of their cause. In particular, I was astonished by the Americans, who, even before the Declaration of Independence was published, thought of themselves as Americans. Believed that they needed to establish a democracy, even though no country of this type had ever existed on Earth before. Believed that they and those they lead needed to fight and possibly die for a concept that had never been tried in the world before.

McCullough plunks us into the mind of George Washington just as he has become Commander of the American army. We don't learn much about how he came to be in this position. We only learn that the Continental Congress seemed to place great trust in him, but that there was simply not money enough for them to pay for the army he needed. And that others felt that Washington was not the right choice.

As for Washington himself, he seems to have felt qualified for the task he'd undertaken, but very aware of the terrible consequences of the mistakes he made. That death and disease, starvation and freezing, rape and pillage, of both troops and American non-combatants were the necessary accompaniments to war were always on his mind. And yet he fought on.

McCullough is also very, very good at describing the military implications of the geography, topography, and troop configurations prevailing before each military encounter. He's fantastic at signaling us early on when a general is about to make a grave mistake. Makes it easier for a reader like me who may get overwhelmed by worry to prepare for bad news.

This is not a book for the sensitive reader. But I am so glad that I read it.

-- Emily
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Trip report: Building REsources, San Francisco

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

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“I LOVE this place!,” my 13 yr. old exclaimed, after we had finally escaped the mesmerizing grounds of Building REsources. “They have GARBAGE CANS FULL of BROKEN GLASS. And they’ll sell it to you. How cool is that?”

Hey, other people pay upwards of $65 to go to Disneyland for a day. You can get into Building REsources free any day of the year. And not only do they have broken glass, but they also have broken doors (and some not so broken…), counter tops, tiles, doors, windows, chandeliers, globes, wooden flooring and many, many plants growing out of old bathtubs, cement stuff, and fountains made of — who knows what.

There are wind vanes made out of old metal barrels and others made from tiny signs, whirling above you.

There are the folks who welcome you in — funnier and more personable than the jokesters on any Disney trams. The guy in the shed built the chandelier that looks like a filthy jellyfish that greets you when you enter. We sought him out when we could not figure out how to get into the Paradise of Broken Glass. He introduced us to Angel, who gave us a tour of the glass and the machines that break it.

Dear daughter was absolutely transported by the glass. Angel was very supportive; gave hints about which types of glass would work best for various projects, backed us up when we parents warned that sometimes projects take longer than expected, made our daughter feel welcome to take samples of the various kinds of glass so she can experiment with grouts and adhesives.

Our visit was about two hours of thrills and chills. I kept reminding my daughter not to run up and down the aisles, not to jump on the carts, not to put her hands into the bins of broken glass (it is rounded down, but still…)

Oh, and the oak moldings we got (slightly worn, but much nicer than the ones at Home Depot, we thought), cost a fraction of what we’d have paid for new ones.

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Movie Review: Man On Wire

Monday, September 1st, 2008

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One day when my older daughter was about 4, before we knew that she could read, we took a trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It was a great visit. The grounds are lovely and we saw many creatures we’d never seen or even heard of before. But then, all of a sudden, dear daughter cried, \”What time is it? We have to get out of here. Now!\” She started lurching around, dashing one way and then another. But we were looking at some very interesting red kangaroos, or maybe they were tree pandas, and hadn’t seen the real pandas yet. \”WHY do we have to leave now?,\” we asked her. Eventually, she calmed down enough to point a sign out to us. One we hadn’t realized that she had seen, let alone read and understood. It said, \”Park closes at sundown.\” There ensued a heated family discussion about the definition of sundown and it was finally agreed that it might be open to interpretation. The compromise reached was that we would dash over to see the giant pandas and then leave before the federal authorities arrested us for overstaying our welcome at the zoo.

Man On Wire is the true story of how Phillippe Petit and a group of his friends snuck into the World Trade Center and strung a high wire between two of the towers so that Petit could dance nearly 1400 feet in the air over New York City. And was then arrested and charged with trespassing. It was the \”Artistic Crime of the Century\”.

We took our 13 yr. old (younger) daughter, the one who likes to climb to very high places, with us to see the movie on condition that she \”not get too many ideas\”. Luckily, the movie features shots from above the \”crime scene\” so we could all experience what it might feel look like to look down at the streets of New York from 1400 feet. Dear daughter shuddered with the rest of us.

Man On Wire is hilarious, exhilarating, terrifying, inspirational, and, to those of us with a previous relationship with the World Trade Center, nostalgic and sad. Anyone trying, for any reason, to sneak into any New York landmark for any reason these days would no doubt not get even the modicum of support that Petit did. And they might indeed be shot on sight. Sad, very sad. Petit’s lovely graffiti gone, all gone, along with the terrible smells of the subway under the WTC and the soaring views above.

Man On Wire is like a real life Mission Impossible, told in flash-back. It is the story of a team of friends who are very, very, very good at what they do and have to learn to be very good at other things too (like sneaking into buildings), so they can do the thing they love to do.

There’s Petit at 17… Already obsessed by walking the high wire in challenging places, he reads a story about the plan to build the World Trade Center (the towers were going to be the tallest buildings in the world at that time). Before he even knew what they looked like, he knew he had to wire-walk between them.

When he gets out of jail after wire-walking the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he learns that the WTC is about to be completed. We hear Petit and some of his co-conspirators reflect back on their adventure. (The interspersing of live footage and photos with \”re-creations\” of some moments is confusing, but does not detract from the authenticity of the film.)

The lessons taught by this documentary are plentiful and satisfying:

  • That one with a true gift should be honored, but that challenging that person to exercise that gift is permissible. (Petit’s friends worry that by helping him perform this walk, they might be abetting a suicide. The policemen who arrest him let him dance on the wire for a good long time before they drag him in for psychological evaluation.)
  • That competent co-workers and friends you trust are not easily replaced, so you should treat them well, appreciate their advice, take their counsel. That you never truly lose them, but you can through your own carelessness, lose them as true friends.
  • That hard work and planning, in addition to raw talent and drive, are key to success.

Maybe I’ve said enough about this movie. See it. And take your teenage children. (There is one very, very short scene in which a man and woman romp in the nude. But the real reason you don’t want to take youngsters is that you probably don’t want your three year old to get ideas. Also because a fair amount of the film is in French with English subtitles.)

And, if your child has a gift, even if it is a scary one, you might as well help him or her to do it well and with competent support. We want our children scaling great heights. We don’t want our children breaking into high buildings and jumping off roofs but feeling all alone.

— Emily