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Educating our Children in the Humanities


The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s will indicated a preference that his son be raised in San Francisco, Chicago, or Manhattan, “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts and architecture that such cities offer.” As a society, we devote a lot of energy to standardizing education, testing outcomes, increasing STEM content, and generally trying to make education the same for everyone. Yet, Hoffman’s will highlights something we are missing with all the standardization: the danger of making education equally bad and equally pointless.

Hearing Hoffman’s wish for his son made me think about the outside-the-classroom choices that my parents made and the choices my husband and I have made as parents. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and then Flint, “culture, arts, and architecture” were a little thin on the ground. There were museums, plays, and the occasional symphony concert, but what we didn’t have was critical mass of people who cared about the arts and talked about them. Despite a wonderful, bright extended family and a few dear friends, we didn’t have that 24 x 7 soup of culture, arts, and architecture. So, early on, my parents started taking us to Toronto. Braving the QEW over winter breaks, we spent more than one snowstorm in Simcoe. But our parents’ objective was to have us experience what a real city was like, one where as a teen I could ride the subway on my own, where there were lots of innovative restaurants, books, magazines, bigger art museums, more people focused on the arts.

That early exposure was part of what prompted me to apply to graduate school in Dublin, a city sometimes overshadowed by London, but with a hugely literate culture. Two (that I know of) the 20 students from my MA program are published authors.  People in pubs had reasoned opinions about literature, contemporary world events, art. Over winter break, I spent my first week in London, where a guy who was very interested in the friend I was traveling with gave us a brilliant tour of the Inns of Court. It wasn’t a matter of a few more museums, or even safe, reliable mass transit (although that made a difference). The critical factor came from just bumping in to people who were well-educated and cared about history, culture, architecture.

Fast forward to my own parenthood. I have struggled to find schools that work well for my child, and after 15 years, finally realized that a combination of homeschooling and community college is the right answer for us. I feel like it took way too long to figure that out and I probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief by doing it sooner. What we did do well, though, was travel. Starting when our child was less than 2 weeks old, we were up in a small plane. We’ve done road trips around the US, hit the history sites in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian in Washington, even been to Beijing as a family. We keep going back to London, though. It’s the place that grounds us because of the “culture, arts, and architecture,” and I would add history. The cultural texture is so thick and so deep there that our child couldn’t help but become immersed in it, developing a perspective that’s informed by history, literature, music, wit, drama.

Education, after all, comes from the Latin, for to lead out. Education leads us out of ourselves, out of the narrow confines of our worldview. Whatever steps we take as parents to lead our children to a broader, more informed worldview enhances their education.Image: London double-decker bus

Getting Across the Mountains in the Winter


Over the last four years, I have made dozens of trips between California and Nevada, mostly in a Prius. I’ve learned a few strategies and gathered some resources for getting safely across the mountains.

Give Yourself Time

If you have to make a flight or a meeting at a specific time, give yourself a 36-48 hour window for travel. The main highways in the mountains don’t close every time there is snow, but if they close in the 4-6 hours before you need to be in Reno, Sacramento or San Francisco, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having left earlier. After a big snow storm, crews work to get the roads open quickly, but it can take several hours to plow the roads and clear spin-outs.
Watch the Weather
Conditions change suddenly in the mountains. It might be fine at 10 am and snowing heavily an hour later. Check the forecast regularly  Check the high point on your route frequently and pay attention what it says about snow levels and temperatures. If you are traveling over I-80 between California and Nevada, here’s a link to a point in Donner Pass.
Watch the Traffic
Friday nights eastbound and Sunday nights westbound are notoriously bad times to travel. Avoid them. If you are working remotely, use that flexibility to time necessary travel so you avoid traffic and take advantage of breaks in the weather. The hours right after a major storm can also be slow, just because of backed-up traffic. Caltrans has a wonderful web site where you can check current road conditions and view videos of current conditions. Here’s what Soda Springs looks like. You can also like Caltrans District 3 on Facebook and to get updates.
Prepare Your Car Make sure that your car is in good running condition and that you have the following accessible in the car:
Warm Clothing and a blanket or two
Window scraper
Washer fluid that won’t freeze (available at auto supply and grocery stores in Nevada).
060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains

060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains (Photo credit: t0msk)

Pack as if you might get stuck and you probably won’t, but you never know when an accident or sudden change in the weather will cause a delay–even if you have planned carefully.
Understanding Chains
Carry the correct tire chains in your car in the winter, unless you have a car with 4-wheel drive AND all-weather/M&S tires. One or the other isn’t enough. N-DOT and Caltrans are absolutely serious about chains. If there’s a chain control notice for I-80, there’s going to be a little booth, with someone checking every car. Just before the booth, you will see chain installers who will put your chains on or take them off (if you’re leaving the chain control area) for a fee. Last year, it was $30 to put chains on and $15 to take them off. Sometimes gas stations just off the highway offer slightly lower rates. I think it’s worth paying a pro to put the chains on. They have the tools, the foul-weather gear, and it takes them about 2-3 minutes per car. I often take my own chains off because it’s easier than putting them on and harder to mess up.
Prepare Yourself
Travel when you well-rested. If it looks like a long drive, share the driving with someone. Winter driving requires more concentration.
Prepare Options
Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, something goes wrong. A bad accident can close 80 for several hours. When this happens, it might be more efficient to take another route over the mountains, or to wait. Check your route ahead of time for rest stops, gas stops, restaurants that are open. Between Kingvale and Colfax, there just aren’t a lot of places to stop. I once sailed through Auburn thinking I would get gas at Kingvale. Driving uphill took more gas (this was in a larger car) than I expected and I was anxiously counting the miles to Nyack. There are rest areas at Gold Run and Donner Summit.
Adjust Your Driving
Slow down, please. Even if you have 4 wheel-drive or chains, it still takes longer to stop on ice or snow. Pull well out in front of trucks when you pass them. Let people pass you if they’re driving faster. If you’re in a chain control area, obey the speed limits. Think well ahead of the car. If traffic is slowing down, gradually ease off of the accelerator, rather than braking. When I’m driving in winter conditions, I try to make the smallest, slowest inputs to the car. I avoid sudden turns, braking, or acceleration. Not only is it safer, but it saves gas.
Safe travels!

London with Teens–A Flexible Approach


We’ve been traveling with our daughter, now 15, since she was less than two weeks old. When a friend recently asked for recommendations about seeing London with teens, it got me thinking about how much we love visiting London with her. Traveling with a child or young adult can really open up your experience, so that you get beyond the tourist attractions and experience places more like a local. All it takes a little flexibility. Here are some tips for having a great visit.

Avoid Summer Holidays
We avoid the summer tourist season, June-September. Air fares are highest then and everything is crowded. Who wants to spend vacation waiting in a two-hour line to see the crown jewels? Apart from the summer, though, school vacations can be a great time to go. If it’s a school holiday in England, there are often special activities for children and teens. Larger castles often have medieval cooking and craft demonstrations during school holidays, or historical re-enactments. Our first family trip to the Tower of London was during Easter school holidays. One of the activities was a troop of actors doing an audience-participation performance of Colonel Blood’s plot to steal the crown jewels, a much more active way to learn history than reading guidebooks.

Consider a Flat, Instead of a Hotel

Hotels can be expensive in London, and eating multiple meals out every day can really increase costs. Look for accommodations that include a kitchen. Many independent hotels have studio or one-bedroom flats with kitchens and small dining areas. With a kitchen, you can buy something inexpensive at the local Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, or, if you’re lucky, Waitrose. By making your own tea and toast, you can feed everyone for less than what you’d pay for one meal out. If you eat a hearty lunch out, you can make sandwiches at the flat or have tea and cakes for an evening meal. Pick a place that’s close to one or more Underground stations. The hotel web site will tell you the nearest station and walking distance to it.

Get Around Without a Car

The Oyster card works on the Tube and buses

In fact, having a car in central London costs extra. But that’s okay because between the Underground (Tube), the overground, the Docklands Light Rail, buses, and taxis, it’s very easy to get anywhere in London. Not to mention walking, which is often the most interesting way to get to where you’re going. When you arrive at Heathrow, follow the signs for the Terminals 123 entrance to the Tube. Buy an Oyster card for each member of your group and put 25 pounds or so on it. You can pay for this with a credit card, but it’s a separate transaction for each person’s Oyster card. It’s easy to top up cards at any station, as well as many newsagents. Oyster cards work on all of London transport and automatically calculate the best fare for you at the end of each day, based on where you actually traveled. Pick up one of the free Tube maps. The agent who sells your ticket or the one attending the gate will be happy to tell you which line to change to for your hotel. Touch your Oyster card to the reader each time you enter or leave the Tube system. You’ll start out on the Picadilly Line and the trip should take about an hour. If you’ve got a lot of luggage, you can always take a taxi from the Underground to your hotel. There are fast and express trains to and from Heathrow, but they’re more expensive. The people-watching on the Tube is more fun anyway.

Spend a Few Pounds Your First Day

TimeOut London Magazine - cover story is 50 Be...

TimeOut London Magazine – cover story is 50 Best London Websites (Photo credit: Route79)

Roaming charges on your home cell phones can quickly add up. It’s better to purchase either low-cost UK mobile phones or UK sim cards with Pay As You Go Service. Put 10 or 15 pounds on each phone. You can add funds (“top up”) your phone at many of the same locations where you top up your Oyster card. Once you have a cell phone and Oyster card, stop in at a newsagent for a copy of Time Out and a couple of copies of London A to Z (“a to zed”). The listings in Time Out cover a magnificent variety of shows, museum exhibits, festivals, concerts…if it’s happening in London, it’s listed there. Each listing ends with an icon showing the transport system (bus/rail/tube) and the name of the nearest stop. The A to Z lists every street in London with a grid reference to a corresponding map. Copies range from about 5 pounds to 8 or 9 pounds, depending on size. The very smallest ones are handy, but can be difficult to read, especially while walking or riding a bus. I like the second-smallest size. It still fits in a pocket or bag and is easier to read. Oh, and if it’s raining, the newsagent probably has umbrellas for about 4 pounds.

Balance History and Culture with Teen Interests

Rather than trying to cram all the popular historical attractions into one visit, focus on a couple and separate them by a couple of days. Devote the other days to finding less touristy options that match teen interests. London is so full of history, that this strategy is really like hiding vegetables in a recipe for cupcakes. Our daughter’s interest in acting schools led us to two free performances by one of the excellent acting schools in London, at the only surviving Music Hall in London. Her interest in Science Fiction sent us to a special exhibit at the British Library, and to the Forbidden Planet bookstore.  She also chose a wonderful beach-combing walk along the Thames with an archeologist, a Jack-the-Ripper walk with the former curator of the City of London Crime museum, and a walk around Rotherhithe and into the shaft of Brunel’s Thames tunnel with the curator of the Brunel museum.

A great find in Notting Hill.

Shop Around

There are lots of brand-name shops on Regent St. and Oxford St, but if you like searching for bargains, head for The Stables near Camden. This cobblestone collection of shops started life as a hospital for horses that pulled the barges on the nearby canal. Stores range from vintage and steampunk clothing to common tourist stuff, with lots of inexpensive  food options. Walking along the road toward Camden (downhill) from the Chalk Farm tube station, you’ll see several other vintage shops. Just past the stables you’ll come into the oft-photographed Camden shopping district. In Shoreditch, you’ll find the world’s first pop-up mall.The area around Notting Hill tube stop has several stores with inexpensive clothes and shoes. There is a huge market in Portobello Road on Saturday mornings, but it’s extremely crowded, and many shops and stalls are selling the same t-shirts you can find anywhere. If you’re interested in antique scientific instruments, check out the antique shops mid-day during the week. If you’re near Seven Dials, be sure to try the cheese at Neal’s Yard Diary, which used to be in Neal’s Yard, but moved around the corner to Shorts Gardens. And although there is no bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road, Foyle’s and Blackwell’s are very nearby.

Cabinet War Rooms

Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Iphtjes)

Focus on Special Interest Museums

London is a wonderful city of museums, many of which simply ask you to make a donation. The Science Museum, Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, to name a few. If it’s a school holiday, you will want to stay away from the dinosaurs at the natural history museum, as well as the London Zoo. Both will be mobbed, and they aren’t really any different from similar museums elsewhere. In London, the speciality museums are really worth your time. There are museums dedicated to photography, architecture, medicine, military history, maritime historyurban history. Some of the more specialized museums charge admission, but are well worth it. Walk through the Cabinet War Rooms to see where Churchill and others worked underground.

See a Show

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Leicester Square Ticket booth will sometimes have bargains on tickets for theatrical performances, you can even check availability a day or two before you leave. During the season, there are almost always 5-pound tickets for performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, but at that price, you have to stand through the performance and experience it as a “groundling.” Many of the theatre schools in London offer low-cost performances and you might get to see a great actor before s/he becomes famous. Smaller theatres, outside the West End will also have more reasonable ticket prices. These will be listed in your copy of Time Out.

Find Your Local People

Very Normal London People!

Very Normal London People! (Photo credit: Jody Art)

If you or your teens belong to a group, see if there’s a chapter in London. If your teens are interested in computers and there’s a technology show in town, let them go. Even though there’s technology at home, the opportunity to connect with Londoners who share an interest can be more valuable than seeing one more historical marker. If you like French food, go to a French restaurant, or a Chinese or Indian one. Check the listings on lectures to see if there’s a movie premiere or a special performance or presentation. Take a one-day class in Falconry or a horseback riding lesson. If you let your and your teen’s interests lead you, it will be a wonderful trip.