The Fall To-Do List


I’m guilty of making too many lists of things I need to do. This weekend I got an email with suggested fall things to do. Along with the usual autumn list (fall foliage leaf peeping, apple and pumpkin picking, apple cider and donuts, Halloween-ish things), there were some others that I already do this time of year but probably are not on everyone’s lists. That’s if you have any lists. You don’t have lists? I envy you a bit.

For so many years of my life, September meant back to school, either as a student or teacher that I can’t help but think about that even though I’m no longer in classrooms. I still have school dreams. I still like watching movies about some schools – Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Cub, and Good Will Hunting, for example. Or maybe a fall football film, such as Rudy or Remember the Titans. There are films that just have a kind of autumn aesthetic, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve lost some of my interest in Halloween and scary movies but that makes some lists.

I spend a lot of time outside in September and October and always hope to continue working in the garden in November if frosts and winter don’t arrive. People like to decorate their homes with fall chrysanthemums, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, and pansies, but I prefer the optimism of planting in fall for next spring. As I dig up cannas and gladiolus I am also planting tulips, daffodils, peonies, and Shasta daisies.

My mental fall list also has things that might not be any “official lists.” ( I wrote a short poem this morning about that.) One such item is something that often appears on this site – nighttime celestial events. On a cool night, I will pour a warming drink, start up the fire pit, and sit outside looking for the Draconids and Orionids meteor showers in October and the South Taurids, North Taurids, and Leonids meteor showers in November. It is often cloudy and sometimes even on a clear night I won’t see any “falling stars” because of light pollution. But sitting there is a bit like fishing for me. You don’t have to catch a fish or a meteor for the time to be enjoyable.

Finally, my favorite spontaneous autumn thing is taking a drive to nowhere special but somewhere rural. Yesterday, we drove north and ended up near Warwick, New York after driving through many farms and fields and where I walked years ago on the Appalachian Trail. We ended up at a brewery for a beer and lunch. It is early for foliage but lots of people were out apple and pumpkin picking, taking kids on a little hay ride, and going through corn mazes. I love an unplanned stop to see a view, take a photo, and buy some cider and donuts. The air was cool and clean with a hint of someone’s fire or some ribs smoking.

It does feel like autumn. The equinox untitlted the Earth. How are you feeling?

The Summer I Read Colette

I think my only earlier connection with the writer Colette was watching the 1958 musical film Gigi. It stars Leslie Caron and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on a 1944 novella by Colette about a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a courtesan. She has a relationship with the wealthy cultured man named Gaston who falls in love with her and eventually marries her. It was also a play that starred the yet unknown Audrey Hepburn, and then another play based on the film (Lerner and Loewe) which is described as the “unexpurgated 1973 stage musical” that was not a hit on Broadway but was still revived on Broadway in 2015.

My more recent contact with Colette came through watching a 2018 biography film, Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley.

I read that the film was “inspired” by her early “Claudine” novels: Claudine at School; Claudine in Paris; Claudine Married; Claudine and Annie. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was pushed by her first husband, Willy, to ghostwrite novels based on her own youth.

My wife, who studied in France and taught French, said that she read those novels when she was in high school.
“Were they any good?” I asked.
“They seemed pretty good when I was 16.”

So I thought I’d give one a chance and I got the audiobook of Claudine at School. She was right. It would be a pretty good book if I was a 16-year-old girl in high school. In the novel, Claudine is smart, cultured, sarcastic, and a little ahead of her schoolmates and teachers. It is a somewhat flirtatious tale that probably was considered more than that in 1900.

That book and its sequels were published with her husband, Willy, listed as the author. The books were very popular and should have made Colette immediately a well-known author. But she only becomes recognized as a writer in her own right with her book about her music hall experiences, The Vagabond (La Vagabonde, 1910), which was published under her name.

Colette costumed for “Rêve d’Egypte”at the Moulin Rouge Link

The young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette began an affair with Willy (the pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars) and he brought her to Paris as his bride. He considered himself to be a “literary entrepreneur” and employed a number of ghostwriters to write for him and asked Colette to write for him too.

Colette wrote a draft of Claudine à l’école based on her own life, but Willy rejected it. Still, when he is in debt, he took out the draft, suggested revisions which she made, and the novel was published. He did not expect it to be a bestseller. Not surprisingly, but surprising at that time, it attracted a large female readership. Delighted, Willy tells his publisher a sequel is almost finished. There is no sequel. Willy buys a country house with his new money and his anticipated wealth. He locks Colette in a room there and forces her to write. She initially objects but ends up writing Claudine à Paris which is another bestseller.

Colette’s books are often described as racy or erotic. In real life, Colette had a lesbian affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval. When the jealous Willy finds out, he also has an affair with Georgie. This inspires Colette’s next novel, Claudine en ménage (translated as Claudine Married).

Though the Claudine books earned a lot of money, the copyright belonged to Willy. Colette and Willy separated in 1906 and divorced in 1910. She made her living on stage in music halls across France. She even portrayed Claudine in sketches from her novels. But her earnings were minimal and she was often hungry and ill.

She had a number of relationships with other women, something that had actually been encouraged by Willy. One of those affairs was with the gender-ambiguous Mathilde de Morny (who was born female but presented as the male “Max” and sometimes as the female “Missy”). They prepared an act and a 1907 onstage kiss between Max and Colette in a pantomime entitled “Rêve d’Égypte” caused a near-riot at the Moulin Rouge. The outrage made Willy believe that her books’ sales would crash, so he sold all the rights to the Claudine books for 5,000 francs without Colette’s knowledge.

That was when Colette decided to divorce him. Willy told an employee to burn the Claudine manuscripts, but the man returned them to Colette instead. She turned to journalism and photography and chronicled this period of her life in La Vagabonde which is about women’s independence in a male society.

Colette’s numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades. Initially considered a limited if talented novelist, she has been increasingly recognized as an important voice in women’s writing.

“The Summer I Read Colette” by Rosanne Cash
from Songs Inspired by Literature
see lyrics

Labor Day and Unions

I have written before about Labor Day. It’s another American holiday that has lost its original meaning over the years. You can read about the history of the Labor Day holiday elsewhere, but today I’m going to look at one film that changed my thinking about “labor” and labor unions.

Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film directed by Martin Ritt based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton. It stars Sally Field as the title character, a factory worker in North Carolina who becomes involved in trade union activities at the textile factory where she works. She was not a person with much formal education and no political or organizing interests. But she becomes interested after her and her co-workers’ health is compromised due to poor working conditions.

The scene that I remember best is the one illustrated above where Norma Rae writes “UNION” on a sheet of cardboard and stands on a table until, one by one, her fellow factory workers shut off their machines in solidarity.

It is a climactic scene that feels like a kind of triumph and is inspiring, but it’s important to note that by this point in the movie, Norma Rae has already been fired from her job because of her “unionizing.”

The real-life Norma Rae, Cheryl Lee Sutton, did organize a protest in 1978 and was fired. But the mill was unionized and she went to work as an organizer for the textile union. The mill where she worked closed in 2003 along with hundreds of other similar factories across the Carolinas, as American textile manufacturing moved to countries like China and Mexico.

When I saw the film at its release, I was four years into my first teaching job which had me in three unions – local, state, and national. I eventually worked on negotiations for my local union to try to correct what I thought were inequities and needs. We never went on strike and our “protests” were pretty mild because the vast majority of teachers did not want to do anything that would hurt the kids’ education.

One college summer job I had required me to be in the Teamsters union. That was quite different. I only attended one meeting but it was like what films had shown me about unions – tough guys (mostly men) acting and talking tough.

I had and have mixed feelings about unions. I know the need for them. I saw the opportunities for abuse. I saw how they could help. There were times it was to my advantage to be in a union and times when it was not to my advantage.

I know unions are probably not as powerful as they once were in America. I know that companies are still trying to stop new ones from forming. Amazon is an example of that in the news recently.

The film, Norma Rae, received four nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won two awards – Best Actress (for Sally Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song “It Goes Like It Goes”. The film is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.

Back to Kindergarten

The ads for back-to-school sales and promotions have been around for a few weeks already and as we approach Labor Day lots of kids, parents, and teachers have either gone back to school or will be going back in the next week or two.

Where I grew up in New Jersey, school starts after Labor Day. This was a time for me as a child to get that nice, new, clean notebook that always made me think that it would be a nice, new, clean school year. As a teacher for four decades, mid-August was stressful. It already felt like summer was over even though I still had several vacation weeks and summer would still be the season for even longer. I often had “school dreams.” When I taught at the secondary level, I had to visit my classroom and set it up. The custodians had cleaned the floors and desktops and I had to put up bulletin boards and arrange the desks (rows were the thing for a long time, then pods, squares, and circles became popular). I got my new paper plan book (by the time things had gone all digital, I had left secondary education for “higher” education) and started getting my sets of novels and handouts ready for the first weeks.

I have been out of the classroom formally for a decade this year, but my brain still thinks that September is the start of school – or some kind of shift.

I see people posting online photos of their kids or grandchildren dressed and ready for the first day of school. Some are headed to pre-school, kindergarten and even middle and high school or setting up their dorm room for freshman year at college.

first day of school
Looking pretty dapper for my first day

My Mom took a photo of me on the first day of kindergarten, but never after that. Though those years are pretty hazy in memory, I remember day one of kindergarten. For one thing, I had to stay after school.

I loved my classroom. It was in the newly-built wing of an old school and had a sink, water fountain, and even its own bathroom. It was full of interesting things and we each had a “cubby” where we put our mat for naptime and things to take home. My Mom walked me the few blocks to school in the morning and told me where she would wait for me after school. When all my classmates had left school, I was still there and my Mom came in to see what was wrong.

The last activity we did that day was some coloring. Our teacher told us to pick two colors from the crayon box. I picked orange and purple, which I remember she said, “did not go together.” She gave us some graph paper with small squares and we were supposed to color them in some pattern. Some of my classmates scribbled their way through in a few minutes. I was carefully outlining some squares, alternating the colors, and then carefully coloring them in. Sometimes an orange outline was filled in with orange; sometimes it was filled in with purple. Some blocks were checkerboards. I didn’t finish when it was time to leave and she told me I had to “finish up.” I did. At the same slow, careful pace as before.

“Staying after school” as a bad thing wasn’t something I had ever heard. I was enjoying myself. My Mom waited and talked to my teacher. I wonder what kind of first impression I gave my teacher. Was it that I was a neat and careful worker – or a slow learner?

There was no pre-school in my time and everyone I knew started school when they were 5 years old. I didn’t learn to read until kindergarten. The first word I remember learning was “the.” It was an excellent word because then I went through the Newark Evening News and circled “the” wherever it showed up on the front page. There were a lot of them!

I loved kindergarten and I liked the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things which was published in 1988 by Robert Fulghum. I was deep into my teaching career by then. I had a Master’s degree and was in a doctoral program in pedagogy. I was committed.

I agreed with Fulghum’s ideas that the seeds for much of what we would need to learn in life were planted in that first year of school. Like the bean seeds we planted in cups and put on the classroom windowsill which would sprout (Be patient!), grow and maybe even make beans when we took them home, if we planted them and took care of them. And, yes, they would die.

We learned to share, and not to take things that aren’t yours, be kind to each other, follow instructions, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, and clean up your own mess. Clearly, a lot of adults I meet or read about today either never learned these lessons or have forgotten them.

There were lots of lifelong skills: Wash your hands before you eat. Flush the toilet. Learn something new every day and do some thinking, drawing, painting, singing, and playing. Take a nap.

A kindergarten with a rooftop garden, Los Angeles, 1906

It was in a college classroom many years later that I learned about the origin of kindergartens. It was 1873 when the first public kindergarten in the United States was authorized.

Friedrich Froebel had developed in Germany what he called a “kindergarten” – a garden of children. (And it’s not a kindergarden in English.) His idea was that teachers were more like “gardeners” tending to the children, rather than teachers in front of a classroom doing formal teaching.

An American, Susan Blow, was visiting Germany in 1870 and while there she began studying the philosophies of Hegel and the American Transcendentalists. She also had the opportunity to observe Froebel’s kindergartens. She was impressed by the approach to early childhood education which she had never seen in the U.S.

Susan was not an educator and had been more self-educated than school-educated. She saw that these children were learning language, math, and science concepts through play. She began studying whatever she could find about the kindergarten concept and educating young children with the intent of bringing it to the U.S.

Her father was a well-to-do man in St. Louis and he approached Dr. Harris, the St. Louis school superintendent, about opening an experimental kindergarten. Harris agreed. Susan Blow was sent to the New York Normal Training Kindergarten to study for a year. That school was operated by a Frobel devotee.

Back in St. Louis, she offered to direct the kindergarten for free, if the school board would provide her with a teacher and a bright, colorful classroom with kid-sized tables and benches. The kindergarten was a success.

She directed the kindergarten for 11 years, and when she retired, the St. Louis schools were serving 9,000 kindergarteners. At the time of her death in 1916, more than 400 cities offered public kindergarten in their schools.

My granddaughter at two and a half years old will be starting pre-school in September. I hope she loves it.

Stream of Timelessness

An episode of On Being that was inspired by James Prosek asked the question: What activity gives you the sense of “standing in a stream of timelessness?”

This is part of their “Summer of The Pause.” The host of their Poetry Unbound podcast, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes that “Rather than going for the high moment of drama, the high moment of the erotic, the high moment of the extraordinary, poetry will choose the small moment of pause just to look at what’s really happening, to look at a few layers deep and to let that small pause, that ordinary moment, open up with all the fullness of its being to us.”

I haven’t had a “pause project” this summer. James Prosek is an artist, fly-fisher, author, and environmental activist who has always, as he puts it, “found God through the theater of nature.” My theater of nature might be my frequent walks in the woods, working in the garden, sketching and painting, or writing in my journal. But are those pauses? Am I standing still in the stream? Maybe it was standing in a field of lavender in Provence with my wife this summer, or sailing down the Rhône River and just watching a world I’ve never seen before pass by.

The site invited people to share their #StreamOfTimelessness from summer with a short video or photo on Instagram. I took a look there trying to figure out how people interpreted the pause and standing in the stream of timelessness. This one makes some connective sense to me – though I still don’t know what is my answer to their question.

My World Wide Web Adventure

On this day, August 6, in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee first posted, on Usenet, a public invitation for collaboration with the WorldWideWeb project. WorldWideWeb is the first web browser and web page editor. The post started something that revolutionized modern life. You are using it right now.

Tim published the first website, which described the project itself, in December 1990. It was available on the Internet from the CERN network. Berners-Lee worked for CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and he invented his service so that scientists could easily share and access information via the Internet.

The infrastructure of the Internet had been around for some years but it was a highly technical system known mostly to academics and scientists. Tim’s idea was to use the Net to connect documents with clickable links (hypertext) and make them searchable.

His August 6, 1991 post gave an explanation of the project, how people could use a browser and set up a web server, and get started with their own website. It had the simple but encouraging headline “Try it.”WorldWideWeb – the browser was later renamed Nexus to avoid confusion between the software and the World Wide Web itself.

The World Wide Web, which became known simply as the Web, is that www that used to be common to web addresses. It is what allows documents and other web resources to be accessed over the Internet. The first Web server was CERN HTTPd. We still see HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) in addresses, more often now with an “s” at the end to show the site is secure – as in https://ronkowitzllc.com.

I met Tim Berners-Lee in 1997. My friend Steve Smith and I acted as advisors for a team of high school students in a website design competition sponsored by ThinkQuest. ThinkQuest was a global competition to create an educational website that was a collection of student-built educational sites. I never met the three students in person until we were given a first-place award and attended the awards ceremony in Washington, DC. Tim Berners-Lee was one of the speakers and presenters. I was quite awestruck to meet Tim and totally intimidated to ask any kind of technical question. It was only that year that I created my own first few websites.

The coaches and kids there from around the world had a pretty good idea of how important he was to the history of the world. Years later, a panel of eminent scientists, academics, writers, and world leaders were asked to make a list of 80 cultural moments that shaped the world. The invention of the World Wide Web was ranked number one. They said, “The fastest growing communications medium of all time, the Internet has changed the shape of modern life forever. We can connect with each other instantly, all over the world.”

The time we spent in DC was very interesting. Our website was called “The Motion Picture Industry: Behind-the-Scenes” and it contained sections on film history, the filmmaking process, interviews with film producers, several self-made short films, their production diary, a movie production simulation game, and a scriptwriting tool. Steve and I played no part in writing the code. That was the point of the competition. We acted as soundingboards and occasionally as “voices of reason.” The kids built the site. In fact, one member was much more advanced than either Steve or me.

The presenter for our category was supposed to be James L. Brooks, the director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of Gracie Films. His television and film work includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roda, Taxi, The Simpsons, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and Terms of Endearment. Unfortunately, he never made it there. Soccer great Mia Hamm and Berners-Lee filled in with the presenting part. Both of them were very nice to us.

But Brooks’ wife at the time, Holly, was there and we ended up hanging out with her. She had a brand new not-available-to-consumers digital video camera she was using. I pitched several ideas for The Simpsons (that never got on air) to that camera. Her friend for the weekend was Patty Smyth who was married to tennis bad boy John MacEnroe – but Steve and I knew her as the singer in the rock band Scandal. They were fun to hang out with. Probably more fun than James and John would have been.

We also got a special after-hours tour of the new Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian. In our tour group were Sonny Bono and his son. This was not the Sonny of Sonny & Cher days but the Sonny who had been mayor of Palm Springs and was then a Republican congressman from California. He made sure we knew that by wearing a leather bomber jacket with the seal of Congress embroidered on the back. Sonny corrected me on a comment I made about Boba Fett who was his son’s favorite character. Sonny died the following year in a skiing accident.

ThinkQuest was created in 1996 and in 2002 it was taken over by the Oracle Education Foundation and was known as Oracle ThinkQuest. I did several more teams including another winning team in ThinkQuest Jr. for middle school students that was comprised of one of my sons, two of his friends, and a student from the school where I was teaching. I believe the competition itself ended in 2008. The sites seem to have been taken down but I found an archive of parts of ThinkQuest on the Wayback Machine at archive.org and also some other references, including this one from Japan referencing our 1997 winner.