Aug 30, 2016
This weekend my sister and I went to the house in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born. Officially known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the three-story house at 83 Beals Street is maintained by the National Park Service, whose rangers lead walking tours through both the house and surrounding neighborhood.
Joe and Rose Kennedy moved to Beals Street in 1914 when they were newlyweds, and they had four of their nine children during the six years they lived there. This being the era when doctors made house calls, John (known to his family as Jack) and his sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born at home in the master bedroom. (The couple’s eldest son, Joe Junior, was born while the family was vacationing in Hull, Massachusetts.)
Joe and Rose Kennedy were well-to-do when they moved to Beals Street, their starter home having room for not one but two maids. But the house where Jack was born is far from palatial, with one small bathroom and only two bedrooms for a growing brood of kids, and in 1920 the growing family moved into a larger house a few blocks away.
The Kennedy kids were born into privilege, but they never forgot their mother’s favorite Bible verse: to whom much is given, much is required. Joe and Rose Kennedy intentionally raised their children to be public servants, expecting them to be well-informed about politics and current events and to participate (even as youngsters) in the dinner table debates the family was known for.
The house on Beals Street is frozen in time, with clocks set to 3:00 pm (the hour of Jack’s birth). In the dining room, a tiny table is set for Jack and his brother when they were toddlers, and the room that Rosemary and Kathleen would ultimately share is decorated as a guest room, as it was before they were born.
After John F. Kennedy became President, the house where he was born, which was then under private ownership, was only occasionally visited by curious onlookers. After his assassination, however, Beals Street was thronged with mourners looking to make a kind of pilgrimage, as if visiting the site of Kennedy’s birth would somehow help them make sense of his untimely death.
In 1966, Rose Kennedy re-purchased the house with the intention of restoring it to its original appearance and donating the property to the National Park Service to serve as a memorial to her son. This weekend on our tour, my sister and I were joined by tourists from Colorado, New Mexico, and Japan, the allure of JFK still reaching far and wide.
Touring the house on Beals Street, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between JFK’s presidency and the current presidential campaign. Kennedy was an orator who was groomed from birth to be a public servant: I wonder what he’d make of the crass and crude rhetoric of this present campaign, or how he’d respond to a candidate who like him was born into wealth but shows no proclivity for service and sacrifice.
To whom much is given, much is required. Walking through the house where Jack Kennedy was born is sad because despite Rose Kennedy’s attempt to freeze a happy moment in time, we all know how the story ends. The house on Beals Street captures the happy promise of a young family with their lives ahead of them. Only later would the Kennedy family’s commitment to public service take an exacting toll.
Aug 16, 2016
I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage this past week: not just the mainstream events that are shown during primetime but also more obscure events you can live-stream online. I love watching equestrian competitions, so I’ve set an alert on my tablet that lets me know when those events are live, and I watch them with the sound muted while I work on other things.
I could spend hours watching Olympic jumping: it’s soothing to watch large, powerful creatures fly over fences. When I was a horse-crazy kid living in a central Ohio neighborhood far from any farms, I loved the classic movie National Velvet, in which a young Elizabeth Taylor dresses as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase, and International Velvet, a modern sequel in which Tatum O’Neal plays a girl who competes in the Olympics.
Although I don’t remember much of the plot of either movie, the fact that they both centered around horses and horse-crazy girls was enough to grab my attention. In addition to a huge collection of model horses, as a child I had a Barbie-sized International Velvet doll that came dressed in a riding outfit complete with riding boots and helmet, and I would play with that doll for hours, imagining what it was like to soar over fences. As a city girl without a horse of my own, I relied upon books, movies, and toys to quench my horse-hungry appetite, and watching Olympic equestrian events as a grown-up also serves to scratch that long-dormant itch.
In addition to show jumping, I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic dressage competitions. Folks with an untrained eye often dismiss dressage as “horse dancing” as riders guide their horses through a set routine of carefully orchestrated gaits. When I was a kid, however, I read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza, in which a boy spends months as an apprentice at the famous Spanish Riding School with their world-renowned royal Lipizzan stallions, and that book taught me how much training both horse and rider undergo to master the moves of classical dressage.
The royal Lipizzan stallions perform jumps and kicks known as “airs above ground,” but Olympic dressage doesn’t involve that kind of acrobatics. Instead, Olympic dressage horses move through a routine of artificial gaits such as the piaffe, which is a prancing trot where the horse pauses in each step, and the flying change, where the horse alternates his lead hoof while cantering. Whenever I watch riders guide their horses through these or other meticulous moves, I have a single question in mind: How do you get a horse to do that? A good dressage horse looks simultaneously energetic and collected, like a wound spring, and a good dressage rider stays calm and focused, sitting upright and still in the saddle as she guides her mount through his paces without any visible cues.
Sometimes when I’m meditating, I imagine myself astride the powerful dressage horse of my own mind, my cushion like a saddle. A seasoned equestrian knows you mustn’t crush your horse’s spirit: a well-trained horse is alert and engaged, marshaling its energy in calm abeyance. When you watch an Olympic jumper or dressage horse, you’re watching a powerful creature that is contained by concentration, his rider literally reining in any exuberance while spurring on an alert and active demeanor. When you watch your mind in meditation, you hold its wandering exuberance in check with the rein of your own breath: easy now, boy. Stay with me, calm and collected.
I shot all of today’s photos from the livestream of Olympic coverage I’ve been watching on my tablet: a blatant violation of broadcast copyright.
Aug 3, 2016
August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.
I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.
As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.