Following the ball

It’s not about the paraphanalia…a ball and some worn out shoes…

Soccer has a hold on our family…my husband being English hasn’t helped.

It has been interesting to see that the game has taken my second son to a different place than where it took his older brother. Whereas the myopic older brother tended to only focus on whatever was directly in front of him to the exclusion of the periphery, his younger brother tends to care a lot about the larger environment. So where the older brother pursued soccer to the highest league levels that  his family’s stamina and finances could sustain, his younger brother has always had a more political/social approach. He has finally found a team that is less about affording middle class kids a sports opportunity but just as much about playing the game.  He has joined a team made up of French-speaking African kids,  some middle eastern kids, and a pinch of Hispanics. I am necessarily vague on the exact nationalities as he has only just got his feet wet with this team. These are kids who elect to get up on the first day of Spring Break to meet for 3 hours of “Pick-up” at 8:AM in the local Boys Club gym. They are kids who have shoveled the snow off the unused ice rink in the small city in which they live in order to play soccer on it. These are kids who arrive on foot to practice and don’t necessarily have rides to far away games. They don’t have expensive sweat suits or team sports bags.

Both sons really enjoyed playing soccer in England and France last summer when we visited their Grandmother in England. Yes, we had a soccer ball with us as we wended our way through the Louvre. And then out on the street, the boys would start kicking on any little patch of ground, often attracting other players out of the woodwork. The amazing thing was the lack of a language barrier. In Brighton, they had some sort of school group from Italy that they played with. Neither of my sons speaks Italian, but it didn’t seem to matter. One of the Italians spoke English and basically, if you know the rules of the game, you can play across a language barrier.

I would be hard pressed to say that either son’s approach is more or less serious about soccer. My older son cared a lot about attaining the highest level of play…he needed to be on teams where at least a few of the other players understood the game at the level he did and could play at that level with him. To this end, he succeeded by “making it” onto the competitive teams that he tried out for and then managing to establish himself on each one. He played on the most accomplished team in Albany 40 miles to the north of us. That team went to tournaments across the northeast, and most of the players went on to play college soccer. My second son, on the other hand, has had an uncomfortable relationship with the coaches and most of the teams he has played with. He has felt for a long time that he plays much better himself when he is involved in  a spontaneous game that is not “organized”. He hasn’t liked the petty politics on teams or the “yes sir” mentality of taking direction from coaches who may or may not have an international understanding of the game. There is still a tendency in the US to pattern some of the game strategy after that of American football. I know my family disdains the appellations “fullback” and “half back” as those are American football concepts, not native to the real “football” or “footie” as the second son calls it. As our family’s stamina for driving to Albany waned, my second son played on a more suburban less accomplished team…a sort of off-shoot of the high school team where he never really felt appreciated as both a homeschooler and an independent thinker in general. So when a fellow homeschooler introduced him to this more local team right in our backyard, he was delighted. Not only does the coach have an active appreciation for the players as individuals, but the players wouldn’t be there if it were not for their personal commitment to playing. You can sense this as they gather to practice in the little Boys Club gym. Local tournament tomorrow!

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The Old Dog

So I have actually built a website. You can click here to actually view the real thing (and help increase it’s prominence on the web): www.catskillriding.com
 It is for the small farm where my daughter works and learns horse-riding. The owner of the farm doesn’t even have a computer, so we decided to bring her establishment into the 21st century ourselves. It provided a good learning ground for me, as there were no scary deadlines or even specific requirements, except that I use her already created logo. My daughter knew that she liked the color green.

That is a picture of the website above. So far, that is all it is, except that the image of the girl on the horse changes to 2 other images in a little slide show. The slide show aspect was way beyond my abilities at this point and required intervention from my 16 year old son, my web guru.

I vacillate between certainty that I can master this skill set, and anxiety that I can’t. I am currently focused on learning as much as I can before above-mentioned son leaves home, because learning is so much easier with a guru in the house. Of course, when he learned, he did not have a guru. He struggled and pondered and drove himself. I watched, helpless to help. He got on forums and asked lots of stupid questions before he got to where he is now, the one on the forums answering the questions….I guess I will be able to post questions on the forums and hope that someone like him is on the other end waiting to answer them.

One immediate issue was that my energetic and bright son immediately rejected learning website design via Adobe Dreamweaver, which I suspect bridges the gap for an artist like myself who has a pretty big grasp of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. I was encouraged to begin with Dreamweaver by another not-so-young web-designer who asserted that she had taught herself and that it was easy and that I could do it as I already had a grasp of the other Adobe programs. This was several years ago. I went home and told my then 13 year old son about it. He began teaching himself Dreamweaver but within about 2 weeks, had decided that is was a shortcut that didn’t allow him enough control, and abandoned it forever. Leaving me to straggle along behind him as he learned HTML, CSS and javascript and all sorts of things that I don’t even know what they are.

I  took his advice and continue to do a series of tutorials on learning code. These tutorials did not exist when he was teaching himself! It is a wonderful site called “codecademy”. It is very well designed, with short simple lessons in how to use code to create visual information. The part that is not so well covered is how to translate those lessons to actually building a web-site. If my son were not here to coach me along, I am not sure I would have begun to understand the difference between using the remote server versus the local one. (I’m still negotiating this, but at least I understand the concept)

My years of working in design and advertising combined with formal art school training, have made me a very critical judge of what I see on the web. There are many websites that look like some one certainly knew how to code, but they do not know how to design or maybe worse, they do not care about what things look like. I imagine that this is getting rectified in art schools across the country; at least I hope so.

One big glitch in web design has been an inability to deal with type in a measured and specific way. With print design, the designer can fuss about how far apart the letters are from each other both vertically and horizontally. And I don’t mean adding a whole line or letter space! I mean tiny iotas of space; tiny smidgeons, that can make a seemingly huge breathable beautiful amount of space that completely changes the way a given word appears.  So far, (and keep in mind that I am definitely a novice) it seems that tasteful web designers must resort to using the Adobe programs to create well-spaced type layouts and then use them in toto in their web design. I must remember to inquire about this of my son. The formulated question being: Can web designers use code to alter the spacing by tiny increments between letters? and lines of type?

My web involvement has made me curious about how art schools are handling web design. Are all design students still introduced to actual physical materials like plaka and illustration board? or can the whole art be learned electronically? I imagine that this is subject to opinion. Do art schools deal with detailed aspects of web design? like the user experience? or is that relegated to computer technology school? The more you know, the more questions there are to ask.  

Beyond Boxing: Bellows

 A friend clued me in that I would be missing something if I didn’t see the George Bellows Show currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York City. I had bypassed the exhibit a month earlier when tired images of boxing scenes materialized in my head as I read his name on the Met banners. With some friends, I opted for a photography show and Chinese garden paintings instead. .

Paddy Flanagan  (1908)

Luckily, I got a second chance. After I made my way past a wall-size representation of one of the famous boxing paintings (which I was informed by a museum staff member was printed and laminated to the wall rather than replicated by artistic house elves) I was immediately overwhelmed by the first room full of painterly paintings. I picked one that I can’t remember now and tried to concentrate. It wasn’t until I got to the second room where I was confronted by Paddy Flanagan’s challenging stare that I began to relax, confident that I was in for a good experience. It was in that second room that the urban landscapes and crowds of people initiated me into the confident and frenetic brushwork of Bellows. In many paintings, such as “Rain on The River” (below) the economy and frenzy of the brushwork suggests a rapid desperation rather than studied application of more traditional painting techniques.

Rain On The River  (1908)

 Color is sometimes startling and purposefully belligerent. Trees and bushes and buildings and trains are sketched in paint with a crude fast accuracy. . This is drawing with paint! This is painting!

Churn and Break (1913)

I can’t help thinking that the boxers are the least interesting aspect of his body of work. I do think that one or two of the famous ones are actually not that well drawn. This thought was confirmed in the last room of the show where his later work was more stylized and stiff, with a complete loss of the rushed brushwork that so defined the paintings right around 1908-1913 or so.  Of course, one can understand the difficulty inherent in catching boxers in the drama of their physical engagement with each other. Bellows would have been working from studies and may have lost some of the natural gesture and eloquence of the scene just through the difficulty of rendering the action. He didn’t have the same problem with the ever-moving ocean however. Compared to four roiling ocean paintings  hung together in one corner of the show, the boxer paintings that I did glance at felt stiff and forced. Looking through images now, I see some variation in the boxer paintings, with one or two seeming to have more of the drama and eloquence of the painting experience still evident, while others seem  stifled in every way, from a composition too lined up with the perpendicularity of the boxing “ring” and then the action rendered past any excitement in line, color, and paint.

My House, Woodstock (1924)

Finally, a painting towards the end of the show made me laugh. I immediately  thought that it was the painting that I might shove in the closet if I had made it, realizing that it had got a little melodramatic with its color. It was wonderful in the context of the exhibit however, as it was a lurid example of the daring and “belligerent ” color that I mentioned above. And sometimes, the mountains around Woodstock do look like they could lift off and fly away with the clouds.

Snakes and Education

the ball python bears its non-existant teeth

So, much to the consternation of most family and friends, we finally did allow our 13 year old son to obtain a Ball Python Snake. I mentioned in a previous post that this was part of a complex deal that enables us to stop attending a homeschool social group that was requiring a little too much of me as a teacher and not offering enough unfettered socializing to my kids. I realized that my 13 year old son was attending sessions with several other 13-14 year olds none of whom wanted to be there in “classes” but all of whom enjoyed spending time together. So why don’t we just meet to see movies and ice skate and go hiking?

All of this aside, I have realized that the snake represents more than just a ticket out of the homeschooling group. It is also a live representation of the trust that I count on between my kids and myself. Let me be perfectly clear: I have no desire to own a snake, no desire to thaw frozen baby mice on the counter top in order to feed them to the snake, no desire to regularly handle and exercise the snake, no desire to set up appropriate lights and plants for the snake’s habitat. But my son does. So, after he had been asking for several years whether he could have a pet of this kind, I finally caved in. The son in question has been diagnosed with a vision problem, and he is making great strides with the help of a vision therapist in improving his ability to focus and deal with the printed word. Within a month of snake ownership, he finally started up a blog, something I had been urging him to do for years as a method of both learning to write and sharing his visual and observational talents with the rest of the of us. For in spite of being diagnosed with a vision problem, he is one of the most observant people I know, spotting owls and birds of prey on telephone poles, noticing people’s shoes, and identifying undercover police cars on the highway long before I even see a car.

The python represents my faith in my son’s active curiosity and innate ability to learn. He spends literal hours on-line watching dumb movies, but also hours of you-tube videos about ball pythons and how to care for them. He has been very fortunate to have found a ball python “mentor”, a young man who has kept pythons for many years (actually since he was about my son’s age) and who is happy to give advice and share information. So while it may appear puzzling to traditionalists that my son is only reading at a primary school level at this point, and does not know his entire multiplication table, I am secure in the knowledge that he is definitely learning how to learn. By allowing him the snake, he is driven to learn everything he can about it.  In my experience, this is the essence of education.

As a teacher in a local community college, I get classrooms full of students who do not know how to learn. There are many who have learned how to get good grades, and they come to my class with nothing more than the desire to get a good grade. These students are most depressing. They pay attention, they begin the assignments doing exactly what I have showed them to do , and then they frenetically call me over to check that they are doing enough to get a good grade. I usually answer them by setting the bar a little higher than whatever they are doing. I want them to try to grasp that there might be a higher goal than the grade. There are other students who have spent so many years uninterested in whatever has been going on in every classroom that they have been in, that they approach my class almost like suicide bombers, careening through the skills with a slap dash effort and idle curiosity at the havoc they create both in their assignments and around them in the classroom. And then, there are always a few wonderful students who quietly explore the material that I am presenting, actually think about it, are curious enough to pursue other angles on it, make some connections between aspects of the material, and then pipe up in class about how they solved the given assignment in a new way. Those are the gratifying moments.

But I have digressed. I have gone a roundabout route to explain why I will not encourage my son to suffer through a boring learning experience. There is no point to it. People will actually argue that it is part of the discipline of life to be bored now and then, even that it is part of the discipline of going to school. I beg to differ. I think it encourages students to lower the bar on their own curiosity. They forget to learn how to do interesting things and think interesting thoughts. They lose track of what they are innately interested in and passionate about. How many teenagers have no idea what “they want to be when they grow up”? Might I suggest that this is because they have not been allowed to actually explore the world in a first hand way with time to follow their own passion when they were six and seven years old? They are left unsure whether they like to draw, or whether they like to think, or whether numbers are interesting.

Being bored is something that we can all do on our own. It happens. And it can even be  constructive. But I see no reason to drag roomfuls of kids together to bore them. That just seems stupid. So that is indirectly why we have a Ball Python snake. Because it is extremely, compellingly interesting to my 13 year old son.