Archives for the month of: June, 2012

So buildings and their history and construction became somewhat of a preoccupation in our home.  We would talk about them as we went places in the car, as we drove through other towns, as we traveled to new cities. We would talk about construction materials, historical styles, roof materials, what was durable and what wasn’t, what we liked and didn’t like, and why.

When Andrew was four and our godson was being baptized at a local Orthodox Church with a massive yellow brick dome, Andrew got out of the car, gazed solemnly at the enormous brick edifice, and proclaimed, “The big bad wolf sure couldn’t blow this church down!”  The dome has since been sheathed in metal, but I’m sure to a small child at that time, it looked something like this: 

Real building at home (as opposed to stacking) always started with colored wooden blocks, which, in spite of their low-tech nature, provided endless hours of joy. 

Another happy accident almost as pivotal as the blue table came the year that Santa Claus somehow shorted Andrew by one gift.  The line-up, when inspected on Christmas Eve, looked decidedly and unacceptably unbalanced.  How had it happened? It wouldn’t do. So dear father went out to Toys R Us for a late-night foray to even the score and came back with an off-brand castle kit of small Lego-like pieces.  “But — the recommended age is eight!” I said.  Andrew was not quite five.  “Don’t worry — I’ll do it with him.  It’s so cool — he’ll love it.” And he did.  And they did.  And it became one of the great activities in our house for several years.  That very intricate castle, with parapets and flags and knights and guards and a mote, was built and rebuilt, first by father and son, and later by son alone, and in the weeks when it was going on our whole house seemed consumed by medieval romance.

Who could forget Camp Hi-Ho? Twenty miles out in the country, where the kids had days of totally unstructured playtime, and dear camp owner Karen Lawrence always made sure they had piles of plywood, two-by-fours, hammers, saws, nails, and a sturdy tree on which to build their own tree house. Before each session when they were enrolled, Karen would call to say that she had their building supplies ready.

A few years later, when we were contemplating leaving our 1850s house for something with more modern amenities, we took both children house-hunting with us.  It seemed only fair that they should have a voice in the decision, since it would be their home during their most formative years.  One day after spending a great deal of time in a circa 1970s home with a large indoor pool, a lovely gathering kitchen, spa-sized bathrooms, an entire floor for the teenagers, a finished basement, and closets that would hold everyone’s clothes in-season and out  (in our 150-year-old home, we had to teach the kids what the word “closet” meant by showing them pictures in magazines), we walked back into our front hall flushed with excitement over the lavish social life we could enjoy in such a spread.  The next thing I knew, Andrew was lying spread eagle on his back in our vast front hall, arms outstretched on the black-and-white terrazo floor staring up at the ceilings 15 feet over his head. “What are you doing?” I asked.  After a few beats of silence his young voice emerged, oh so quietly.

“We can’t leave this house.”

So we didn’t.  We hired an architect, then a contractor, and created some of the conveniences that we had thought we would buy.  And during the process the kids spent hours designing their own fantasy additions. They drew floor plans that were unusual in their. . .unusualness.  Scores of rooms led one to another in dizzying spirals. Only a fire marshall imported from Ukraine and a very large bribe would have give us code passage. One design featured mile-long, parallel wings with special rooms for any number of particular activities: the board game room; the painting room; the doll room; the bouncing room; the sewing room, the music room, the movie room, the dancing room, the ping-pong room. (Actually, that floor plan might be used for executive homes to this day.)

Then there was the time during our construction period when we visited my first cousin in Vienna, Virginia.  As Tom and I enjoyed a quiet anniversary dinner at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, my cousin John pulled into his garage with Andrew and Sidney in the car.  Sidney, age six, emitted a contented sigh and John caught her smile.

“What is it, Sidney?”

“A garage is nice.” And she added conspiratorially, as if she had recently been admitted to a very special club,We’re building a garage.”

No one can live in Louisville, Kentucky without being aware of our city’s impressive collection of Victorian cast-iron store fronts — the biggest collection outside Manhattan.  My husband insists that we have the best Main Street on earth. And going regularly to restaurants and cultural events in that environment leaves one with a certain mental and spiritual imprint, as does going to a high school built in 1934, or going to a church built in 1888. And if your father works in a building designed by Michael Graves, well, that’s just the cream. 

We bought books to celebrate our fascination with architecture: the greatest, the absolute greatest, was What It Feels Like to Be a Building, by Forrest Wilson, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now sadly out of print, but still available used.

Housebuilding for Children by Lester Walker is still in print, and gives detailed instructions in how a group of primary-school children can build a small house using easily available tools and materials. Seriously, what child would want to play video games when he could build his own little house? This book was on the market when my children were young, and I’m dreadfully sorry I never knew about it.  They and their father set out to build their own house, which remained in our backyard for many unhappy months.  It was not an architectural gem, and the fact that a toddler potty somehow ended up inside, and the house didn’t have a door, rendered it. . .well, not the epitome of couth.

Another treasure was Dorling Kindersley’s Open House,  “lift-the-flap” book that revealed the behind-the-door secrets of a Roman street, a 16th-century Scottish tower, a 17th century Dutch home, , an 18th century English country mansion, an 1800s French farmhouse, early 19th-century Japanese house, and a mid 19th century  American country store.

All this must have soaked in with both kids, because when they were looking at colleges, the architecture became a surprisingly weighty factor in their preferences.  One look at the inside of student housing at Duke caused Andrew to change his mind about the desirability of that school forever, and sent him racing over to neighboring Chapel Hill for an admissions form.  And I think Sidney would have worked as a barrista for the rest of her life rather than go to a school without quintessential Gothic architecture.  Such hyper sensitivity to architecture seemed a little silly to me at first, but when I remembered that I once told a friend that I’d rather live in a tent in Mozambique than in a certain subdivision not far from my home, I had to admit being at least half responsible.

Thinking about your town and its architecture — whether built to last or not — what could you do to raise your child’s awareness of his built environment?

(Photo Credit: Colin Dixon/Arcaid/Corbis)

When I first was taken with great architecture in my life, I began to reflect on great structures. It dawned on me that great structures last. In time, it began to dawn on me that not only do great structures last, but perhaps all great things last.  As I observed life around me, I could see a marked difference among that which had only been around a few years, that which had been around decades but was fading into disrepair or obscurity, or that which had survived centuries or even millennia.

Thus, my first observation about how to pursue a quality life was born:

To gain insight into the best of human life, study and absorb the things that have stood the test of time, and have lasted.

At first I thought primarily about the built environment, but as time went on, I realized that once could broaden that philosophy to include music, literature, art, and religion. And ever since that time, I have gained my great moments of spiritual exhilaration when learning at the feet of great masters of all these disciplines, whose work has had to endure a few decades of being buffeted by the course of events, societal distractions, even ridicule, and then emerged again showing forth a wisdom that people at first overlooked or even scorned.

But this is not a blog, or eventually a book, about my life, but about your child, and how you can broaden your child’s spirit and vision, as it were, to recognize quality in the midst of all the noise in our world.  I can give you a lot of practical tips, but underlying those has to be your bedrock conviction that there is something worth shooting for, high above the diet fed by the Disney Channel and MTV. You have to believe that some things, the really good things, are everlasting.  If they weren’t, it would be rather cruel to force-feed them to our children: I don’t think our goal is to create creatures of utter cultural anachronism, weirdos and nerds destined to be mocked and bullied.

What’s more, truly to raise a Renaissance child doesn’t mean sequestering him or her from all of the cultural junk food that comprises most of young Americans’ media diet.  If you do that, he will have no way to discern quality from candy, and once he gets his first taste of Cheetos, if you will, it’ll be good bye caviar (figuratively speaking). The allure of forbidden fruit is real, so a little bit of age-appropriate cotton candy  can be used to teach the difference between shallowness and depth, and the occasional joy of cuddling up in bed and watching one’s favorite prince or princess outwit the evil villain. Later you can find seek out the age-appropriate version of the real Pocahontas, who was not in love with John Smith but sacrificed herself more heroically simply from an inner sense of fairness. 

It all goes back to your own convictions, and communicating them calmly and respectfully to your child, trusting that if you can take the most advanced concept and put it into simple language and render it understandable.

So what are we trying to produce, if not weirdos and nerds? I think for me, my desire 24 years ago when my first child was born, was summed up in a documentary my husband saw about a Japanese woman raising her children in the aftermath of Hiroshima.  As she put her children to bed each night, she told the camera that she tried to teach them “to look beneath the surface of things.”  Above all, we will have prepared our children for life, and they will be better citizens of the world, if they know how to do that – and culture that has lasted through time is only a tool to teach our children to go deep, question the prevailing wisdom (which so often is only herd-think) and have the courage to stand alone if one must. I’m not sure one can do that without being inspired by stories of others who have, and by having the messages of courage and nobility instilled in us. So we expose our children to heroicism in the arts and history and the world – large things that capture their minds and hearts and inspire them to dream big dreams. Because one will never sacrifice without a dream as a promise to back it up.

But you can’t fake it: you have to believe at some very elemental level that the universe is on your side in this endeavor: that for all the seeming dominance of bedazzled plastic, it will ultimately turn to dust, and the good and the heroic will remain.  For some of us, this is not hard.  We believe it – we know it. For others, you may have to spend some time contemplating this concept and asking yourself what you really believe, and what is really important to you.  If you really believe that it’s more important for a girl to be popular at her school than for her to have self-respect, then you will never be able to persuade her that you aren’t just as devastated as she when she has been abandoned by the cool kids on the weekend. If you really believe that winning the football game is all-important, your son will know that when he misses the last-second field goal that you are ashamed of him and he will imagine that you prefer another child to him.

And above all, when it seems that your teenager is rejecting everything you have tried assiduously to teach him, can you keep from throwing it over yourself in your own mini-popularity contest with your own beloved child? Because although we can be flexible, we can’t be hypocrites and keep our childrens’ respect.  They will push and test and torment us, and we have to be stronger than they are.  We have to win their love by risking their scorn. We can’t tell them that reading Black Beauty is better than reading A Diamond for Tammy, and four years later ourselves be caught reading a dime-store bodice-ripper under the covers with a flashlight. 

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