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)



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.


1. 
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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.


1.
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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


Friday, September 26, 2014

Board Books as Evidence that the World Wants Classical Education


Have you ever read children’s books to a toddler? If so, you will realize that a large share of these books address a particular topic that is essential (apparently) to the proper socialization and education of toddler’s everywhere. The books explain that, “The horse says, ‘Neigh.’ The dog says, ‘Woof!’” These educational drills allow you to ask small children, “What does the kitty-cat say?” and receive an essentially reliable, uniform response. In fact, this response is so conditioned that a shy child who will not tell you his or her own name in the church playroom will probably tell you what a cow says.

Sometimes I wonder why all the babies of America have been set this curriculum. It is not as if the “standard animal sounds” even align with reality. Different languages spell and pronounce these sounds in different ways. Even older American books often spell the dog’s sound as, “Woah, woah,” or, “Bow, wow.” Thus, our focus on contemporary, Western, American versions of such sounds is clearly subjective and perhaps imperialistic. Worse, the knowledge has no obvious practical application, and it is taught through rote memorization instead of experiential learning and skill-building.

I think that there are three reasons why we provide our children with these little drills. One, the kiddos like it. Something within the soul of my eleven-month-old responds with joy to “The cow says ‘Moo’” (although he pronounces it as ‘Ooo’). It provokes a feeling of wonder. His desire to experiment with sounds and vocalizations, his laughter at anything that looks or sounds funny, and his eagerness to imitate all make the exercise a delight to him. Two, the activity has benefits beyond its direct content. That is, the “irrelevant” sounds help children to practice their vocal cords in ways that will equip them to tackle other, more mature words later. Three, deep down in our modern minds, we really do value common culture. We really do appreciate being able to laugh about the sound of a horse with children from any household and any part of town. The animal sounds bind us together and give us a sense of shared identity.


Surely all of this is analogous to a classical education. Classical education also aims to provide delightful material the speaks to the soul of a child even if he is not yet ready to explain or analyze it. It chooses curriculum that is sometimes removed from utilitarian practicality, yet prepares students for other learning. It binds a culture together.

Yes, I have a new definition (one of many) for Classical education: board books for all ages.

Speaking of which, this book looks pretty cool.



Linking-up to Trivium Tuesdays.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Need Every Child (Protagonist) Save the Day? Is that Even Healthy?



 Here are a few synopses of imaginary stories for children. They sound convincingly typical, right?

“Maggie’s friends all have special talents. George is a singer. Lily can make friends with any animal. Gertrude dances in a junior ballet troupe that is slated to amuse the troops on Endor. However, as the mean girls at school like to point out, Maggie doesn’t seem good at anything at all. Will Maggie find her true talent and build her self-esteem?” 
“Little Leggie is the only ant in the colony who likes to look at the stars at night and who decorates his bedroom with vintage astronomy posters. When an asteroid heads toward earth, Little Leggie thinks that he just might know the solution to saving all living species from extinction.” 
“Bobbie’s parents have started to whisper together when they think he is not looking, and he can tell that they are talking about something scary. Will Bobbie be able to discover the danger to his family in time? Will he believe in himself enough to ignore all of his parents’ house rules, and thus to save the world? Will they weep and apologize for not trusting him with news of their imminent foreclosure?”

Contemporary stories are filled with youthful characters who struggle with their identity and their place in the world. Almost inevitably, they discover that they are special, and that believing in their specialness is the way to achieve their dreams (even if their “dreams” might be better characterized as whims or wishful thinking). Sometimes they even save the world along the way. Any deviation from this pattern sticks out like a sore thumb

Are such tales are a good influence or a bad one? On the one hand, they are silly. They feed right into the ridiculous parenting culture that Mollie Hemingway describes here. Worse, they nurture the human tendency toward narcissism by teaching children to focus on themselves and their right to the limelight. Yet on the other hand, tales of triumphant underdogs and third sons come from a long and enduring tradition. It could even be said that Christian writers like Lewis and Tolkien were influential in creating a desire for stories about ordinary characters who find themselves in epic plots. Indeed, the idea that even the lowliest individual is valuable, special, and beloved by God comes straight from Christianity, and is probably an example of lingering (even if distorted) Christian influence on our culture.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Talking about History without Sounding Like a Crazed Conspiracy-theorist




When Conservatives write books about problems with modern culture, they usually include a chapter on the unsavory, nefarious, or at least shockingly-misguided history of the particular ideas behind the problem that they are critiquing. Thus, a book about abortion talks about the eugenics movement, a book about the perils of public schooling talks about Dewey and social engineering, and a book about the sex education movement shreds Mr. Kinsey.

All of this is of course useful (I have known a few Conservatives who seem to think of history merely as a series of exposés, but I'm not talking about them). Yet the approach can easily sound like an addiction to conspiracy theories as a way to explain the evils in the world. How can one write about the perils of bad ideas without falling into a conspiracy trap? How can one understand the people in the past with whom one disagrees?

I think that most people who campaign to change the world are genuinely trying to do good. It is important to remember this.

Out of this mental process came an article which is in The Federalist today.



When Goodness Goes Bad
Belief in the goodness of man addicts people to change for change’s sake 
and causes social polarization.

Approximately a decade ago, I applied for a retail job. The application included questions such as, “Do you think people are: (a) basically good or (b) basically bad?” It also inquired whether I thought that, given the opportunity, (a) all people, (b) some people, or (c) very few people, would commit theft. I knew perfectly well the department store was relying on the fact that dishonest people tend to believe most people are dishonest. If I (acting upon the historic Christian claim that we humans are all sinners) clicked on “people are basically bad,” the application would declare that I was “not a good psychological fit” and the retail chain would not hire me, because they would have no way of knowing my theological beliefs would also prevent me from pocketing their merchandise whenever the supervisors weren’t looking. Their algorithm was not prepared to process an outlook that did not mesh with popular social psychology.

Read the whole article here.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Just the Pretty Babies



I'm in The Federalist today.

The Pro-life Movement is About Sacrifice, Not Sentimentality
Gentle lighting casts a glow across the perfect, healthy, Caucasian newborn who sleeps in a cocoon of white blanket. The photographer has captured the baby-ethos that tugs on the heartstrings of any member of the human race with half a heart, and it is hard to look at the picture without an inward, “Aww.” The text that is superimposed over the photo says, “Not a mistake. Not a problem. Not a burden. Not an inconvenience. Not a nuisance. Not an accident. Not a punishment.” Then, in larger font, “A miracle.” It is all very lovely. And yet when I see the meme in my facebook feed, it makes me, a pro-life advocate and an ardent fan of babies, a little uncomfortable. 
“Baby J” is one of the reasons. His picture has also been posted to my feed. In his photograph, he lays in a hospital bed, his little face partially obscured with tubes and tape. This six-week-old has already undergone heart surgery. He depends on a ventilator to keep his lungs open, is expected to spend life breathing through a tracheotomy tube, and has been rejected by his biological family. He currently has no relatives to visit him in the hospital. The adoption agency that has posted information about “Baby J” states he will do best with a family that can provide one-on-one, lifelong care. Unlike the baby in the pro-life meme, this little guy does not glow beneath the lens of a camera.

Read the article here.


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I've also written semi-recently about modesty. "If the Skirt Fits, Wear It?"

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Edith Head (legendary costume designer of old Hollywood)

Read the article here.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Unfinished Manuscript: a Jane-Austen-Themed Party Game


One of my sisters  got married this summer, so, as a "bachelorette" activity, I prepared a Jane Austen-themed game that we could play over breakfast in a cafe.

It's called "The Unfinished Manuscript," and the concept is that the participants are completing the plot of a novel that Miss Austen was unable to finish.

The players are introduced to four gentleman of varying fortune. They (the players) must accumulate points in four categories (beauty, amiability, accomplishments, and finance) in their quest to obtain a husband. Finance points are earned by correctly answering Jane Austen trivia questions, conveniently divided into three levels of difficulty ("Very clever, moderately clever, or very dull indeed"). Strategic thinking is involved, because only the correct combination of points will secure the husband that one most prefers. Some of the players will fail to obtain any husband at all.

Because I am a generous person who also likes to provide the world with blog posts, I am (drumroll) sharing the game with you all! You can all play it! Your friends and family can play it! It will be delightful!

The instructions and trivia questions that I wrote are to be found here.

You will probably wish to also provide portraits for the four gentlemen whose descriptions are found in the instructions. I pulled regency portraits off the web, cropped them into ovals, printed them at Staples in the size of regency miniatures, cut them out, and hung them on ribbons with "wedding bands" attached. These portraits functioned as prizes. Thus:





Here are the images that I used:








Feel free to link to this post, should you wish to share the game with others, but, of course, please don't steal it or distribute it without providing credit.



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