Recently, I have become wise and venerable, by virtue of celebrating my 62nd birthday. Now I qualify for some more senior discounts! That's a good thing, because this was a very expensive birthday.
The first gift was a two-week trip to Switzerland, which ought to be enough of a present for anyone. But the trip's primary purpose was to assist Janet and the kids in coming to the U.S. for an extended stay, including a month living with us. On top of that, for eight days of that month Heather and her kids joined us, giving us all children and grandchildren here for a while, including Father's Day. Grateful as I am for Skype and other modern means of communication, there is nothing like physical presence and shared activities for building bonds, and I'm especially happy that the cousins had that time together. Living an ocean apart is tough. Overseas (or cross-country) travel with children drains the spirit, body, and pocketbook—but the rewards are incalulable. Yes, it would be better for all concerned if we lived in the same town and could see each other regularly on a more casual basis, but we make the best of what we have, and the cross-cultural diversity (family, state, country) is an important blessing, too. These visits are the most important to document, but such a post requires much more time—and organization of photos—so it will have to wait. At least now you know why this blog has been so silent recently.
Then there's the gift that deserves a post of its own, but for practical reasons will only get bold lettering here: Thanks to Heather (and Jon), we're expecting a ninth grandchild next Februay! Or maybe early March. For Father's Day I'd given Porter this mug, commemorating the visit of the cousins. Heather made their announcement by telling him it was nice, but out of date. :)
My most expensive birthday present—ever—was the "gift" of a new HVAC system for our house. The old one gave up the ghost in the middle of a Florida summer, and our used-to-colder-Switzerland guests were even more grateful than I was that Porter dove into the project and had us enjoying cool air again in record time. (We had known this was coming eventually; the system was 40 years old.) Let's just say that it's times like this that make me really appreciate having a pool. Kids get a lot less cranky in the heat if you let them swim as much as they want. We won't get to test the heating part of the system for several months.
Skipping the more affordable but none the less valued birthday presents, we come to a life-changing gift: we have finally joined the ranks of the smartphone users. Technically, Porter was one before, having a Blackberry, but that had belonged to IBM, which made the really interesting stuff off limits. I knew we would love smartphones when we finally broke down and got them, but was very reluctant to increase our phone spending by more than an order of magnitude. (Porter's was provided and mine—which works just fine for talk and text—cost $100 per year.)
But change comes to us all, even (especially?) those over 60. Being myself one hundred percent occupied with grandchild-related activities, I left the decision (like that about the HVAC) in Porter's capable hands. After much research, he chose AT&T (we've always had AT&T, except for when IBM forced him to use Verizon with his Blackberry, an unpleasant experience) as the provider, and Samsung/Android for the phones. He has a Note 3 and I a Galaxy s5, and we're both very happy with the choices. I find mine a little too big for comfort, especially in its OtterBox case (which I like a lot), but I do appreciate the screen real estate. I just have to figure out a decent way to carry it.
There's a lot I have to figure out. The phone itself is amazingly intuitive. Say what you like about us old folks, this is certainly no harder to figure out than PDP-12 assembly language and learning to follow a program's progress by turning up the volume on the speaker and listening to the changes in the accumulator register. It's the lifestyle changes that require more careful thought. I am determined to make my new phone a servant, not a master, which I acknowledge is a non-trivial endeavour. I'll probably be blogging more about that for a while than about the good stuff that requires organizing my photos, another non-trivial endeavour. Especially since I now have phone pictures as well as camera pictures.
Speaking of life-changing events, the impetus for our plunge into the smartphone world came when the higher-powers-that-be at IBM decided that Porter could do without his Blackberry—because they could do without his services. I have no doubt he could find another job, but what would be the fun in that? So as of June, Porter is officially retired! He expects to continue to do occasional consulting work; even now, the less-than-higher-powers-that-be at IBM—the ones who really know how good Porter is at what he does—are working hard to get approval to hire him back as a consultant. But for now we are greatly enjoying having him available to the family full time.
Not Exactly Normal by Devin Brown (Eerdmans, 2006)
As often happens at the Maggie P., we had some "relatives of a relative" come visit yesterday. One of them, a nine-year-old boy, brought with him this book. I picked it up, read a page, became intrigued, and then spent my spare moments devouring it before the family had to leave.
I appear to be on a roll here. Like The Silent Swan, which I also read and reviewed recently, Not Exactly Normal is a book written for young people, set in a school (middle school age this time), from a Christian perspective ... and I liked it! Two Christian authors in a row who include faith in their books naturally and reasonably, without the awkward, embarrassing, beat-them-over-the-head language of so much recent Christian fiction! Who'd have thought? Even though Not Exactly Normal deals with important philosophical issues, it is not what people think of as a religious book. It's a human book. And one with which I can identify much more than most books written for young people these days. One Amazon reviewer said,
I wonder whether the erudite family and school setting he is privileged to have would be something a "typical" American middle-schooler could really relate to.
But the family (though sadly, not the school) experiences are exactly why I relate to it—and not to most of what's out there. As the same reviewer also said,
Any text that includes discussion of John Donne's poetry, background on Good King Wenceslas, Pele and Mia Hamm, and excerpts from T.S. Elliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in a way that younger readers can understand and even enjoy is definitely to be recommended.
And, I might add, computing square roots by hand. (Taught in the classroom, though unfortunately not demonstrated in the book.)
Thanks to my NEHGS newsletter, I can point to where my own observations are confirmed (and explained) in print. The Summer 2014 edition of the Old Sturbridge Village Visitor reports on some historical myths, one of which is that everyone died young in the olden days. I get so frustrated when people attempt to explain something in the past by invoking, "because they only lived to be 40 years old." Many of my ancestors lived into their 70's, 80's, and even 90's. Here's the explanation:
While average life expectancy was shorter in 19th-century New England than it is today, many people then lived into old age, and some even lived beyond 100 years. The Bible says that expected lifespan 3,000 years ago was "70 years; 80 for those who are strong" (Psalm 90:10). But before the mid-20th century, people died regularly in all stages of life, not just in old age. Life expectancy at birth in early 19th-century New England was only in the mid-40s.
But as the old saying goes, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Statistics in the 19th century were skewed by high childhood mortality rates—especially in urban areas—largely due to infectious diseases such as pertussis, measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. (Thanks to vaccination, these diseases are rare today.) By the time a person reached age 30 his life expectancy jumped to 67 and the average 50-year-old could expect to live until age 73.
Note that this still puts many of my ancestors above average, but that's no surprise. :)
Janet was clipping Joseph's fingernails. When one of them suddenly spun into the distance, Joseph burst into song: The burden of my nail flew away ... I am happy all the day!
There are a thousand things I could write about related to my trip to Switzerland, but time is short and people at least want to hear something, so to appease both them and L'il Writer Guy, I'll mention one thing that has struck me while observing Joseph's and Vivienne's speech patterns.
Joseph, who is less now than a month from his fourth birthday, was clearly delayed in his speech when I was last here, nine months ago. Maybe, as I wrote then, "different" is a better descriptor, but in any case he was not as verbal as the majority of children his age.
Today is a different story. Where he is in terms of "average" I don't know, but his speaking ability has clearly exploded, from understanding pronouns (saying "it is mine" rather than "it is Joseph's," for example) to being able to answer questions about the past and the future. It reminds me again of how tricky it is to decide when a problem is best solved by intervention (and the earlier, the better) and when it is best simply to let the child develop in his own way, at his own pace. We'd heard a variety of advice, from simple exercises to a radical diet; no doubt each would be appropriate for some situations, but in this case, trusting and waiting were the best medicine.
There's no doubt that Vivienne is developing differently. At 29 months she is nearly as verbally competent as Joseph. She has a good grasp of pronouns, speaks fluently, and works with determination and persistence to correct her own vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.
All this is hardly news; even within a single family, children develop differently. What makes it especially fascinating for me is that all this development is taking place in two (or more) different languages, and that, too, differs from one child to another. Joseph was slow to speak each language (though he clearly understood both English and Swiss German extremely well), but now is fluent in both and never mixes them up. He can translate from one to another (a very different skill from just speaking) and to some extent from French and High German as well. Vivienne, on the other hand, mixes the languages freely and with enthusiasm, chattering one moment in Swiss German and the next in English, pulling words from the other language as the spirit moves her, a happy experimenter.
I'm reminded of the two types of computer programmers I've observed: one who meticulously plans every detail, "measures twice, cuts once," and whose programs often work the first time; and the other, who works iteratively, putting forth one version after another and converging on the solution. Both approaches work, though each kind of programmer frustrates the other kind no end. Not that Vivienne and Joseph experience any of that sort of frustration in their speaking. But it's a good analogy of how it seems to be working for them.
Enough. It's past bedtime again—but L'il Writer Guy is happier.
Chick-fil-A remains my favorite fast food restaurant, ever. I like the company; friends who have worked there say it's a good place to work. I like the fact that they are closed on Sundays. Well, okay, I've more than once wished I could eat there on a Sunday, but I do appreciate that they take—and give their employees—the day off. I also like the fact that, although not required here to do so, they post the calorie counts of their meals on the menu.
None of that, however, would of itself induce me to eat there. That takes good food. For the genre, it's great food. If we're in need (or want) of a quick, easy meal, and there's a Chick-fil-A nearby, and it's not Sunday, there's no debate: Chick-fil-A is my first choice. Their chicken sandwiches—especially the spicy versions—are the best I've eaten anywhere, including those from my own kitchen. Their waffle fries are very good, their lemonade is real, and their breakfast biscuits? ahhh!
Why this paean? We just returned from breakfast at our local Chick-fil-A: a spicy chicken biscuit for me, and their new grilled chicken sandwich for Porter. Ketchup and barbecue sauce came with our meals, but we brought them home untouched: the food was that good, unadorned. I could easily have eaten two of those spicy chicken biscuits—except, of course, for the above-mentioned calorie counts.
Even better: thanks to coupons, our breakfast was totally free. This is a case where I will not say a meal was worth what we paid for it! And despite our not spending a cent, the man who took our order was friendly, cheerful, and gracious, and did not hesitate to fix us the chicken sandwich (normally a lunch and dinner item) during early breakfast hours, only apologizing that we had to wait five minutes.
Now if only Connecticut would get with the picture. The closest Chick-fil-A to Old Saybrook is north of Springfield, Massachusetts!
From a Facebook friend, a facinating article on the schwa, which leads to this video on English as a stress-timed language. They mention Spanish and French as syllable-timed. I wonder about other languages, such as German and Swiss German, but do not have time at the moment to investigate. And I thought we were just being lazy.
The Locust Effect by Gary A. Huagen and Victor Boutros (Oxford University Press, 2014)
First world problems, even for the poor, really are different from those of the developing world. That doesn't mean they're not problems; dearth and excess are both damaging. Think starvation versus industrialized food and an obesity crisis; no schools versus an educational system with a stranglehold on our lives; lack of basic medical care versus a health care machine that takes birth and death away from home and makes us dependent on drugs.
We also have a hyperactive legal system that shackles our lives and has taken common sense out of the rule of law. The developing world? Rampant, violent crime and a legal system that protects the perpetrators and victimizes the victims.
Nearly fifty sticky-notes festoon my borrowed copy of The Locust Effect, but I don't have time to type them out. I could wait, but I'll never have time to do justice to the book—or more importantly, to its ideas. So I'm going to take the easy way out and suggest, strongly, that you check out the websites of The Locust Effect and of the International Justice Mission.
The Locust Effect is an extremely important book. Essential, really, for anyone who cares about the poor and suffering of the world. It lays out a strong and effective case that the most basic, most critical, and least recognized problem of the world's poor is the lack of an effective system of justice to protect them. Occasional police brutality and corrupt lawyers notwithstanding, we take it for granted that our legal system is there to protect us from crime. For much of the world, however, that is simply not the case. What good is it to provide seeds and farming tools if the land with all its crops is likely to be stolen? To promote the education of girls if they can expect to be raped on the way to school—or by the teacher? Why provide medical care if the man cured from his disease then rots in jail for 30 years just because he happens to be walking down the street when the police are out, press-gang style, looking for someone, anyone, to convict for a crime committed by someone who has paid well to be acquitted?
If the websites don't convince you, then by all means read the book. If you worry that the authors would take anything away from programs that feed the hungry, provide microloans to impoverished women, build libraries and schools, or otherwise meet other critical needs, then read the book. If you believe the need, but fear the problem is hopeless, read the book. The book's 346 pages provide exhaustive documentation of both the problems and approaches that have shown great success. But "exhaustive" is the operative word. As befitting lawyers, the authors dot every i and cross every t, and like Presbyterian preachers make their points over and over again. I highly recommend reading the book, but if there are easier and faster ways to get to the ideas, I'm sure the authors would still approve.
Violence against the poor is a difficult and dangerous problem to solve, but not impossible. There is no magic bullet; it takes courage and hard work and a whole lot of patience and perseverence. The first step is bringing this hidden and unacknowledged crisis to light, and The Locust Effect does that well.
Sunday, May 18, 2014. Thinking especially of a special person who celebrates her 50th birthday today!
Hosannah and Hallelujah! (Hope Publishing, C5688). No YouTube video this time; click on the link to listen.
They don't come any more enthusiastic about public transportation than us, so we were thrilled when SunRail brought a commuter train to Central Florida. There were many disappointments, such as learning that the engines are diesel instead of electric, and most especially with the schedule: the trains do not run on the weekend. During the week, the best frequency is every 30 minutes during rush hour, and midday the trains are one, two, or even three hours apart. What's more, the last train leaves downtown Orlando at 9:30 at night, making it completely useless for anyone planning an evening in town. This is not the way to win a very skeptical population to mass transit. But, we figured, it's a start. If SunRail can prove itself useful for commuters, perhaps it can grow into a real train for the rest of us.
On Friday we decided to check it out. I adore train travel. My life is full of positive emotional associations with trains, from commuting to my first job on the Philadelphia Main Line run, to a luxurious ride from Rochester, New York to Springfield, Massachusetts early in our marriage, to my unplanned "rest and recovery" trip from Florida to Connecticut on September 13, 2001, to the easy and relaxing tourist travel in cities at home and abroad. I planned to love the experience, sitting with Porter and a friend at one of the table seats, watching the world pass by out the window. It was a glorious day, too: sunny and dry, with temperatures in the low 70's.
Alas, it was not to be. Porter described our experience in his subsequent e-mail to SunRail: (More)
The Space Shuttle may no longer be flying, but yesterday we saw a perfect Delta IV rocket launch grace the sky to the east. What a lovely sight!
The weather was beautiful, too, with temperatures that kept our doors and windows open all day. I realize that for most of you such a statement means the weather was finally warm enough, but no: we've been enjoying a two-day respite from high humidity and temperatures in the 90's. At this very moment it is 67 degrees on our back porch. Heaven!
The Silent Swan by Lex Keating (AltWit Press, 2013)
Having found myself in the vicinity of Stephan's Kindle, I could not resist reading his copy of The Silent Swan. Were it not for his positive review, I would have passed on the opportunity, as coming-of-age stories and romances are both near the bottom of my genre preferences. (You can read his review here.) However, The Silent Swan is so much more than that. (The cover is unfortunate. Maybe not for the author, since in my observation that kind of cover sells. But it hardly does justice to the book.) What really hooked me is that the story is a mystery, and I'm a sucker for mysteries. Trying to unravel the truth kept me reading, and the ending did not disappoint. Overall, I give the book four of five stars. But for the romance/teen angst/school story genre, it deserves at least a ten. Ditto for the "modern Christian fiction" genre. The bar is really, really low in those categories, which makes The Silent Swan a standout.
It almost lost me in the first chapter. I suppose that if a character is going to develop gradually over 580 pages, it helps to start from a bad place. I really hate it when people do stupid things in books, and the protagonist was being really stupid. Granted, the action takes place in a school, among hormone-laden teenagers, which is practically a recipe for stupidity ... but still.
I've said this before—in my review of Stephen Lawhead's The Skin Map—but it's equally true here: "My least favorite [parts of the book] were the drawn-out descriptions of the physical appearance of every female character encountered, and the even more interminable battle scenes, both of which were obviously included for the more testosterone-laden among us." The Silent Swan is clean, almost grandchild-safe (and probably better than much of what our eldest has already read), but violence and sex still sell to some segments of the audience. I found the brotherly squabbles (and fights) annoying, even boring; and if this story provides an accurate description of what goes on in a teenage boy's mind whenever he sees a woman ... let's just say I'm feeling a lot better about burqas. It's not porn, but even I am enough of a feminist to find it outrageously insulting. (Yet this is 'way better than so much of what's available and aimed specifically for the teenaged audience.)
There are some points where the story stretches my "willing suspension of disbelief" too far. It is unfathomable that in any family these days, let alone a family with a full-time employed mom, kids could grow up so ignorant in the kitchen. Haven't they heard of cookbooks? Or allrecipes.com? I can see asking them to have meal responsibilities, but what parents expect so much from someone with no preparation at all? I actually know someone who was taught to swim by being thrown into the middle of a lake—but even then the instructor was there to keep her from drowning.
The main female character is also omni-competent in so many areas that for some that will be the least credible part of the book, but I see it as a strong point: I know teenagers can be and do so much more if allowed to break out of their media- and school-induced comas! If she is a bit too much of a superhero, she's also the most human and reasonable of all the characters, and in her courage, perseverance, intelligence, and (non-romantic) love is a positive female figure—something I find very rare.
I mentioned that The Silent Swan is a standout in the modern Christian fiction genre. Frankly, I don't know whether or not the author intended it to have that label. Certainly J.R.R. Tolkien would not have accepted such a designation for his works, and they are some of the best Christian fiction extant. But it deserves consideration, because I could see this book selling in a Christian bookstore. Certainly the cover looks like the Christian romances I've seen there. Yet one of its strengths is that it's a Christian novel that is hardly recognizable as a Christian novel. It's not The Lord of the Rings, but is nonetheless infused with Christian attitudes and values while completely eschewing overt Christian language. Stories with altar calls just. don't. work. At the same time, it's not one of those books by postmodern Christian authors, who throw in bad language and questionable content just to prove they're "authentic" and without religious hangups.
The Silent Swan is both too hard and too easy on the foster care system, so I'll average that out to okay.
All the sibling violence to the contrary, the protagonist's family is solid, full of mutual respect and love, and with no quarter given for disrespecting the parents. That, sadly, is a rare quality in the books that are pitched to children these days. And if his mind starts out one-dimensional when it comes to women, he does grow considerably, and in all the right directions. Respect for family; love as something greater than sex; the idea that life might be more serious than going to prom; basic honesty; resisting seduction; the importance of setting oneself up for success in potentially risky situations (e.g. being in a group rather than alone with your girl on a deserted beach)—these are not popular attitudes, especially in young adult books, but are presented as good, reasonable, and believable in The Silent Swan.
The Silent Swan is a well-constructed and clever take on one of Grimm's fairy tales, The Six Swans. I won't say the writing is great, but it's good, and that's saying a lot in these days of slap-dash writing, and of editiors and proofreaders who apparently have time to do neither. I've recommended it to our library for purchase, and I hope Lex Keating has another book in the works.
Note: Now that I have a Kindle, buying books is a harder decision. Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Renaissance World is still on my Amazon wish list; I would have bought it months ago if I could only decide whether to get the physical book or the Kindle version. Unfortunately, it's not part of the Kindle Matchbook program, where you can get the Kindle version for little or nothing if you buy the printed book. While writing this review, I decided to buy the Kindle version of The Silent Swan for myself (it's only $2.99), but then I noticed that it IS part of the Matchbook program, and what if I later decide to get the book, which at the moment is a pricey $17.99? I would have wasted the opportunity. Decisions, decisions. (Amazon Prime members can read the book for free, by the way.)
Sunday, May 11, 2014 The men of our choir, plus a few others from the church, took over for the women in honor of Mother's Day. I felt a little uncomfortable not sitting in the choir loft, but I did have a great seat: just about where the cameras were in the video below. The men sang twice (besides the regular service music): A version of Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in this Place (Lanny Wolfe, arranged by Elmo Mercer, Lanny Wolfe Music), which they did beautifully. What blew our socks off, however, was Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) (Tomlin/Giglio/Newton/Raney), Hope Publishing, C5644). We've done it as a whole choir before, but I just love what the men did with it.
This video is courtesy of our friend and fellow choir member, Beth, who deeply regrets not getting the whole song. It took a while for people to realize that this was a moment to be preserved. I didn't even think of my own camera, sitting under my chair in my purse. You may be able to see a longer—though still not complete—version if you are friends with me on Facebook. Or maybe not; I've discovered that when I share other people's posts, sometimes my friends can see them, and sometimes they can't. In any case, I'm so grateful to have this much for a reminder of how lovely it all was. (Heather, you know the guy behind Dad, too.)
I still have not read Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, recommended to me by a knowing friend, because (1) our library, which has otherwise been marvelously responsive to my suggestions for books to acquire, declined this one with the inexplicable excuse, "I'm sorry but this title does not fit our collection guidelines and we are unable to order it. It is a scholarly, university-level book."; and (2) while I expect I'll agree with much of what he says, I also suspect a sexist vein in his philosophy that would drive me nuts the way John Eldredge did. Someday, maybe.
In the meantime, Esolen continues to fascinate me. I can't personally say much about the new Common Core standards and all the kerfuffle they have generated, because I am blissfully beyond that stage of life in its practical application and therefore have not given the mess much attention. Nonetheless, I harbor an automatic suspicion of anything that moves educational decisions farther up the food chain, and so Esolen's How Common Core Devalues Great Literature sounds great to me.
The Common Corers get things exactly backwards. You do not read The Wind in the Willows so that you can gain some utilitarian skill for handling “text.” If anything, we want our children to gain a little bit of linguistic maturity so that they can read The Wind in the Willows. That is the aim. I want my college students to read Milton so that they can enter the world that Milton holds forth for us. I show them some of his techniques as an artist, since they’re mature enough to appreciate them, but not so that they can reduce the poem to an exercise in rhetoric. I show them those techniques so that they may understand and cherish the poem all the more. I want them to become “friends” with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I want them to climb with Dante and Virgil the glorious mountain of Purgatory. I want them to stand heart to heart with the Geats as they watch the flames devour the body of their deceased king Beowulf.
Those are the important things, the permanent things. If you are not reading The Wind in the Willows as Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and their children were reading it, then you should not read it at all. If you are turning Tom Sawyer into a linguistic exercise with a veneer of intellectual sophistication, then you should not read Tom Sawyer—in fact, you cannot have understood a blessed thing about Tom Sawyer. If you are reading The Jungle Book for any other reason than to enter the jungle with Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, then you had best stay out of the world of art, keep to your little cubbyhole, cram yourself with pointless exercises preparatory for the SAT, a job at Microsoft, creature comforts, old age, and death.
Preach it, brother!