Friday, November 21, 2014

Dealing with Anne Shirley, And Other Quick Takes


First, a digression: Recently I blogged about Jules Verne, Ursula Le Guin, dragons, and giant octopi. I've significantly expanded that into an article about the subtle, hidden, cultural rules of storytelling. You can read it at The Federalist.


L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley is so very, very beloved by many readers that I hesitate to confess my ambiguous feelings about her. Each time I return to the novels (which I read several times throughout childhood, and very much enjoyed at the time), I find myself resenting her for being airbrushed and perfect. That might sound like a weird statement, since Anne is presented as a decidedly flawed individual who is always getting into "scrapes." However, every single one of her flaws are of the sort that readers are most willing to forgive. Inclined to daydream? Good, it makes the story better-- besides, our culture admires and encourages dreams, imagination, and originality. Generous to a fault? How sweet. Passionate tempered? Adds drama, and fits our desire for feisty heroines. Anne has flaws, but they are all romantic flaws. That is rather different from having the unattractive, wart-like flaws that tend to beset us real humans.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Alien Sainthood

We remember Elizabeth of Hungary today. I must admit that I am not aware of the history of why Lutherans have selected this particular medieval woman for such official recognition. All I know is that she is admired for her self-sacrificing charity and generosity to others, and is one of the relatively few individuals commemorated in our Lutheran hymnal. You can find a brief text about her life here.

However, I was struck by one brief sentence (see the above link). After she was made a widow at the age of twenty, she "made provisions for her children and entered into an austere life as a nun in the Order of Saint Francis." Wow. Because she was married at the age of fourteen, the eldest of her three children could not have been any older than five or six. Yet she gave them into the care of someone else so that she could pursue austerity in a convent. Sorry, kids, Daddy is dead and Mommy is leaving. To top all that off, "Her self-denial led to failing health and an early death in 1231 at the age of 24."

To modern ears, Elizabeth's choices sound quite dreadful. They fly in the face of the priorities that we consider moral. As a mother myself, I find it hard to understand why she didn't wait until her little ones were grown.

The fact that Elizabeth's actions are considered proof of inspiring, saintly virtue shows that a cultural divide lies between her day and ours. The sanctity of the nuclear family was not a medieval value. Furthermore, the (Victorian?) idea that any decent woman would put her children first was not "obvious" to Elizabeth and her contemporaries. Nor did they recoil at a self-denial that we moderns would probably diagnose as dysfunctional or even a sign of mental illness (since it led to death).

There are, of course, many reasons for these differences, including the simple one that the nuclear family was not a sustainable unit in an era when death frequently winnowed out both parents and children. Besides, long-term life goals (such as a plan of entering a convent once one's youngest kid graduated from high school) would have been far more tenuous.

Despite all of my intellectual willingness to understand the values of Elizabeth's day, my emotions still balk at her choices (I can't help being from Twenty-First Century America). However, the beautiful thing is that Christians need not all belong to the same culture, live in the same way, or agree with each other's actions. It is good to be reminded sometimes that the many things I mentally categorize as being part of the "Christian life" are not perhaps ultimately important. What matters is not us and our culture and our Christian lifestyles, but Christ and the cross.


I am going to listen to this Issues, Etc. episode about her. Perhaps it will help me understand.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary bringing food for
the inmates of Wellcome.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Two-Year Blog Anniversary

Wow. I have been keeping this blog for two years! It doesn't feel that long.

When I first started posting, I lived in a little student apartment with my husband. I remember having him read my first post, and being extremely excited when it achieved multiple page views. Four or five! More than just the two of us! It was heady stuff.

In these two years, the post that has received the most page views is the one about how Fashion Was Easier When Women Wore Corsets.

Second most popular was the first in the "How to Homeschool Without Warping Your Kids" series.

In my personal opinion, the article that probably had the best illustrations is this one because it has little bunny memes that I made myself.

Writing for this blog is a lot of fun. I'm grateful that I've been able to do so. Thanks very much to all of you who read what I post!

Friday, November 14, 2014

There May Not be a Santa Clause, Virginia; But Advent is Real

Recently I was able to hear a presentation by Dr. Cameron Mackenzie, a scholar and professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. He made the point that the way that we think about history is very different from the way that Martin Luther did so. When we study the past, we are looking for patterns of natural causes and effects. When Luther looked at history, he spoke frequently of the direct action of both God and Satan.

Insulated by years of scientific advances, we tend to think of life as primarily something that we can improve and control. For instance, we expect as a matter of course to be able to find cures for illnesses and to eradicate diseases. In contrast, Luther and his contemporaries did not see the world as under the control of humanity. Life was something that happened to one, and disease and death was something that could come at any time (as could a miraculous deliverance from death).

I wonder if we are not in danger of losing sight of a reality that Luther knew very well. It can be too easy for us to feel that we are in control of our lives. With the adjustment of a thermostat and the willingness to pay a utility bill, we can summon cold in summer and heat in winter. With a bit of voice activated android technology, we can chat with people who would otherwise be unreachable. We are even encouraged by our culture to pursue our personal happiness at any cost, and told that we can achieve any dream if we will only believe in ourselves. It is tempting to utter the idolatrous words of Henley’s poem “Invictus” and to say, “I am the master of my fate.”

And yet, we are not. No matter how many Paleo steaks and organic vegetables we eat, we cannot stop ourselves from dying, perhaps today or perhaps in thirty years. No matter how many self-actualization classes we take, we cannot make our significant other love us (or even stick with us) in the way that we want. No matter how resolutely we try, we cannot even prevent ourselves from the very sins that hurt ourselves and those we most love. That is why we need Advent.

To submit to the rhythms of a church calendar helps us to remember that, just as we cannot make today Christmas (no matter how many Bing Crosby tunes we play), we cannot rule our own fate. To live according to an external order is to be free of the terrifying, lonely, ultimately empty illusion that the world belongs to us.


Joining Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife for an Advent Link-Up Party!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Favorite Picture Books

Recently, while listening to the Read-Aloud Revival podcasts, I found myself wondering how I would answer the question, "If you were stranded on a desert island with your family, what three fictional books would you want to have with you?"

I asked my husband about this. We had trouble deciding. The problem is that the definition of "three books" is a little squishy. For instance, does the Globe Illustrated Complete Works of Shakespeare (a massive volume, to be sure, that would probably sprain your wrists if you tried to read it) count as just one book? The Chronicles of Narnia can also be purchased in a single volume. Does that count as only one? In which case, I'm sure that there are anthologies of British novels that would include multiple books.... Or perhaps I could get some of my favorite books bound into three large volumes. Maybe the problem is with us. Maybe we have the minds of people who cheat when they answer hypothetical literary questions.

A little later, someone asked me to come up with a list of three books that I would recommend for each of his two young daughters.

These mental exercises have resulted in my wanting to provide you all with a list of my favorite childhood picture books. These are the volumes that I would like to have to read to my children if we had no other picture books available, whether or not a desert island was our home. I did not manage to limit the list to a mere three, but it is still fairly short.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Here Lie No Dragons: Unspoken Rules of Socially Acceptable Storytelling

(Or, What I Learned from Ursula K. Le Guin and Jules Verne)

UPDATE: I expanded this blog post into an article for The Federalist, (read it here).

As I peruse Jules Verne’s dramatic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I am repeatedly struck not just with a case of I-am-not-buying-into-this-improbable-event-in-your-plot, but with actual discomfort. There are certain passages that conform to Nineteenth Century mores but clash with ours. Nowadays, when we talk about the astonishing creatures of the ocean, we are supposed to sound…. well, positive. Admiring. We aren’t supposed to judge them according to human standards of behavior or physical appearance, and to declare some of them (such as gigantic octopi) “monstrosities of nature,” or to decide that others (like sperm whales) are “mischievous creatures” who should be slaughtered in a “wholesome massacre” because of their supposed viciousness toward other, nicer whales. Our modern stories are supposed to focus on the danger that unrestrained humanity poses to the animals, not the danger that wild animals pose to humanity. To read about a scientist who says, “What a magnificent specimen of a rare creature! Quick, kill it!” feels downright awkward. I myself am no foe of hunting, but I am enough of a child of my era to experience unease when the fictional sea runs red with the blood of whales.

I am also reading the first story in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (a collection of novellas that intersect with her Earthsea fantasy novels). What fascinates me is the contrast between this story and the author’s first Earthsea novel from 1968 (in the forward to Tales from Earthsea, Mrs. Le Guin herself acknowledges that the vast social changes in moral outlook have changed her own view and thus her stories).

The first Earthsea novel is called A Wizard of Earthsea. In it, a young man named Ged travels the difficult path to wizardry and self-knowledge. The story is unconventional in many ways that were, in their day, quite bold. For instance, although not all the book jacket illustrations reveal this, the hero and most of the characters are not white people. For another, instead of engaging in epic warfare (or any warfare at all) the hero endures a long quest that ultimately revolves around facing and accepting his mortality. It is a hero saga and a quest story with a counter-cultural, reflective atmosphere (and without any fair-haired maidens who require rescue).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Which I Conquer the Scones, and Other Off-Topic Quick-Takes

My blog description says quite clearly that Don't Forget the Avocados is not a food blog. However, the time has come, the walrus said, to talk of other things. Of ships and seas and sealing wax, and cabbages and... scones.


I generally cook and bake rather well (to misquote Mrs. Elton from the movie Emma, "My friends say that I certainly know how to make a cookie"). However, success in two areas of baking has historically eluded me. My first problem is with scones. They just don't turn out. The recipe will say to add "enough" cream. I add cream. But how much is enough? How much is too little? In the end, my scones have always tasted of baking powder or had an unfortunate texture. This is very sad, particularly when the failure of a scone is accompanied by the loss of the perfectly good chocolate chips or dried cranberries that I put into it.

However, recently I was inspired to try again.

And, hooray and hallelujah, the oven light has shone. My scones now turn out. They are delicious. They are moist, blueberry-y and nice. Here is the lovely recipe. I don't bother with the glaze (I think it would make them too sweet, anyway) and I definitely follow the advice of grating the frozen butter. I also put a bit more cream in than specified in the recipe.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Classical Education is…. a Person

 We humans are forever chasing desirable traits that are really the natural by-product of other, more neglected things. In the sphere of marriage, we pursue feelings of excitement and attachment for their own sake, forgetting that feelings of love must be anchored and restored by service and commitment. In the sphere of religion, we fall into the trap of focusing our energies on our own good works, forgetting that good works are the result and not the cause of faith in God’s promise of forgiveness. In the world of education…. oh, we are dreadfully inclined to chase the wrong things. We see that good readers have good vocabularies, so we print lists of words and hand them out, instead of guiding children to good books. We see that successful learners believe that they are intelligent enough to learn, and so we tell all children that they are smart, even while handing them “F’s” on their half-blank quizzes.

It is hard to see that just because a thing is good, it may not be helpful to chase it. It is hard to recognize the essential sources of the good things we desire.

It is especially hard to know how to provide a good education, because the dominant educational outlook (progressivism) is problematic, and vibrant, cohesive alternatives (such as the current classical education movement) are still in youthful form. We think of classical ed as a return to past educational ideals, but structurally, it is really a re-invention. The classical education of the past was something that began after the young student’s primary education and centered on what we would now call high school and college. The classical education of the present is something that begins with pre-school or Kindergarten and often ends with eighth grade or, at most, twelfth grade. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Silk Stockings, Skinny Jeans, and Other Quick Takes

October 17th is the anniversary of the day that nylon stockings made their appearance in the world. Nylon stockings may no longer reside in the top dresser drawer of ever self-respecting woman in America, but I think you will agree that their historic importance is significant.


So, imagine that you live in the Twentieth Century, and fashion has changed:

You will notice that these new fashions demand a bit more of, er, your legs.

Yet this is not yet a resident of convenience store shelves:

You really do not want to display thick, saggy socks of cotton or wool. You are forced to expend all of your pin money on keeping yourself adequately clad in silk stockings. Like the character Tib in the Betsy-Tacy series, when you go swimming, you thriftily hang your precious stockings over the edge of the boat to protect them, while modestly putting them back on when you come out of the water.

Then, one day at the 1939 World Fair, a new invention is displayed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Curiosity (Review)

Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Recently, I finished reading Gary Blackwood's 2014 youth novel Curiosity. Set in 1835, the story follows a sheltered, semi-crippled boy with a unique gift for the game of chess. Due to the failing fortunes of his father, the lad finds himself working for a sinister showman as the secret operator of "The Turk," a chess-playing, mechanical automaton (the Turk is borrowed from history by Blackwood). Meanwhile, Edgar Allen Poe and his poor Annabelle make several appearances. I enjoyed the author's use of phrenology (a nineteenth-century "science" in which a person's character was analyzed through the protrusions of their skull). Blackwood weaves his character's belief in phrenology into the text in a believable way. Period characters who think like period characters, at least in one way or another, are always a plus. They remind us that even though we believe in our own period's scientific claims, our science too could be in error.

Blackwood's enjoyable tale is told with great competence, although most adult readers will find the foreshadowing a bit blatant. I notice that several Goodreads reviewers found the novel disappointing, mostly because it is heavier on character development and atmosphere than plot.

Speaking of chess, have you read Dorothy's Sayers' short stories? They provide an excellent way to practice your puzzle-solving, deductive reasoning skills. I stumbled across this free audio book of "Striding Folly," a mystery story that also involves the game of chess.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

5 Favorites: Recommended Reading (About Reading)

In "Reviewing school books," Emily points out that, "Among journalists, there have been a number of studies showing up to an 80% decrease in copycat suicides when journalists follow certain guidelines." She discusses one family's loss of their high-school-aged son to suicide, and looks at how authors and teachers can responsibly address self-harm in a way that is less likely to lead youth to follow in a suicidal protagonist's footsteps.

We might wonder why youth should read "dark" books at all, but Nathan Wilson says that we owe our kids a "Dark-Tinted, Truth-Filled Reading List."

This review has made me eager to read Rachel Heffington's book as soon as it comes out. It will be very easy to remember the release date ("remember, remember, the fifth of November!").

Italo Calvino provides a delightful discussion about readers' interaction with the Classics.

Here is a beautiful discussion of "fantasy, realism, and telling the truth" for the writers and storytellers out there. I have ordered the book from which these extracts are pulled.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"I Will Pity Mrs. Jones for the Hugeness of Her Task"

What is this thing that stay-at-home mothers do, confined as they are with a household of small people who sport "delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms," as G. K. Chesterton affectionately said?

Mothers are painters who work with some of the broadest brushes in the world, because their canvas is hugely enormous and profound.

“Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”

G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World

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