Monday, September 24, 2007

Blog break

This computer is heading for a much-needed major overhaul, and I'm going to take advantage of the situation by shamelessly ignoring email and the Internet for a few days. Maybe even a whole week.

It's fall! Have you looked outside recently? (For my southern hemisphere readers: It's spring! Have you looked outside recently?) It might be, you know, like, nice weather with interesting vegetation changes or something...

Back soon. Or, soonish, at any rate.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Reform run amok

Andrew Ferguson looks at education reform in America, and also at some books about education, in the Weekly Standard article No Child Left Alone. The subhead is "An education reform run amok."

An excerpt:

Reformers are busy people, tireless people, whose displeasure with the world as it is inspires them to improve the lives of their fellow human beings no matter what, and they get cranky when you bring up the law of unintended consequences. They dislike the implication that the benefits they confer in one field might lead to a shrinking of benefits in another. Yet the decline in attendance at Laurie Verge's wonderful little museum is, indeed, an unintended consequence of NCLB--just one of many, and a small one at that. Though no one thought of it in the long, sweaty hours while the bill was being written, or mentioned it in the self-congratulatory giddiness surrounding its final passage, NCLB's exclusive emphasis on reading and math has led a high percentage of schools (around 40 percent, according to one recent survey) to cut back on the teaching of history, civics, and government to the country's schoolchildren.

The irony here is hard to avoid: Republicans, who used to lament the rising tide of "historical illiteracy," have now reformed the nation's schools in such a way that can only swell the tide. But there are lots of ironies in Big Government Conservatism. Luckily for us, a handful of new books provides an opportunity to think about NCLB and its many consequences--and, by extension, to ask the question: So how's this Big Government Conservatism thing working out for us?

Meanwhile, over at, Dennis Prager looks at current problems in education from another angle, in his column Why the Left Has Changed Journalism, Education and the Courts.

As the title says, the column is about more than education. An excerpt:

The question, then, is not whether the left has had such an impact, but why.

I learned a major part of the answer years ago in Idaho where I was the moderator of a panel of judges -- including a past California Supreme Court justice -- and lawyers connected to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I asked the panel members to give their view of the role of judges. The response of the liberal former California Supreme Court justice opened my eyes to the left's view of virtually everything in society.

He said that the purpose of a California Supreme Court justice, and for that matter, every judge, is to fight economic inequality and racism in society. I responded that I thought the one purpose of a judge was to render justice in the courtroom.

I might as well have responded in biblical Hebrew (that's where I got the idea of a judge's role anyway): He and the other liberals on the panel reacted as if I had offered a new and original notion of judges' roles.

Because the left views the purpose of judges as furthering a social agenda that transcends justice in the courtroom, the judicial process has been distorted for decades...

Hooray for Calvin & Hobbes, and E.T.'s Melissa Mathison

You just never know where kids will find inspiration.

You'll understand the first part of the above title when you get to the part about Hamlet's soliloquy and Calvin's yucky dinner. Heh. (Boys!)

The second part of the title comes from something that happened back in the 1980s.

One of my favorite assignments as a newspaper reporter was to interview grade school kids in a remedial reading class. They'd written to Melissa Mathison, the lady who wrote E.T. (a popular space alien movie), and she'd been kind enough to write back, answering their questions one by one. No form letter, this. I hope she'll forgive me for mentioning it, but the letter was obviously typed on a typewriter with some difficulty, with strike-outs and everything. Someone had sat down to answer a letter, and had backed up here and there to take a fresh go at the best answer or put slashes over a typo. Once I got over my surprise, I found the presentation strangely charming, and somehow friendly. Even back then, a typewritten letter (as opposed to printed) was becoming a rarity -- and one that wasn't sanitized into perfection was rarer still. It had personality, that letter. (Do not try this at home. You'll only look sloppy if you're insincere.)

I was sent to interview the kids, who had become schoolyard heroes overnight for having received a letter from a screenwriter of a very popular movie.

They had, before that, been taunted by classmates, who had designated them dummies, mostly by virtue of the fact that they'd been having trouble learning to read. Many of them were children of Mexican farm and factory workers, either migrant workers, or former migrant workers who had decided to settle down and become American citizens. Some of them, the teachers told me, regularly showed up at school in the firm clutches of a resolute grandmother, who had dragged the child to school kicking and screaming. Grandmother was determined the kid was going to learn to read English if it killed him, and otherwise get the best education ever attained by anyone in that family. The kid was tired of the humiliation. The grandmothers, fortunately for the kids, were stronger and didn't give up as easily.

I showed up with a plan to make sure every kid in the classroom got a chance to feel that the reporter had listened to him or her - I did this in all my classroom-related stories, by the way, but in this case I knew I was with kids who might not get another shot at being in the paper, so I was being extra careful not to leave anyone out.

As I was politely giving each child a chance to contribute something if he or she felt like it, one kid in the back exploded with "Can't you hurry?". The teacher tried to shush him with a reminder that it was nice of the newspaper to send the nice reporter lady to their school and it was rude to interrupt, but I was intrigued.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know you had something else planned," I said, fishing.

"We have to get to the library and look up more on Einstein!" another kid exploded. To which sentiment there was much enthusiastic seconding, I might add.

More on Einstein? More on Einstein? Little kids in a class for slow learners thought they were going to die if they didn't get to go do research on a famous physicist? Right now, no less? When faced with choosing between the fame of being in the newspaper and with getting to the library, the potential honor and fame lost? Hands down?

I wrapped up in short order (who am I to argue with miracles?) and the teacher dismissed the kids to go to the library and I had to duck between desks to not get knocked down. Outside, their chaperone kept yelling "Don't run!" but it was a losing battle on her end. The kids would dutifully slow down for a step or two or three or five or six, then shoot off again. All because a patient and considerate writer took the time to explain to a bunch of kids she'd never met that something about E.T.'s looks was based on Alfred Einstein, and from there Einstein had captured their imagination.

I don't know who wound up with that letter. I hope it's framed somewhere, or, better yet, kept lovingly in someone's drawer and brought out now and then for a tender rereading. It set some kids on fire, and in a very good way.

There's something else, too, that's stuck with me all these years. It's a bit hard to explain. It's not just that the kids were suddenly, for perhaps the first time in their lives, excited about learning and passionate about reading. Something about how they held themselves, something about their expressions, made me think about little kids in a wedding party, wearing wonderful, new, stiff, special clothes they weren't used to -- but with these kids it wasn't the clothes.

I remember sitting in my car for a long time trying to pin down what it was about those kids that was so astonishing besides their love of Einstein. I finally decided that what I'd seen was a whole group of kids who were proud of themselves, and not used to it. They were wearing a self-respect that was alien to them. They liked it, but there was no question they weren't used to themselves like that.

You did good, Melissa Mathison. Thanks.

At the time, I thought I'd like to try to track the kids down a decade or two later and see if the fire had stayed lit. But, later, when the decade came around, I found I couldn't do it. Or didn't want to. It would have broken my heart, I decided, if the kids had slid back into thinking of themselves as dummies. I invoked the "don't ask questions you don't want to hear the answers to" rule, and hoped for the best. I still do.

Sometimes, though, I wish I'd followed up. I can't help but think at least a few of the kids from that class kept that fire alive. It would have been a good story.

More to the point, now that I'm older I can't help but wonder if, had there been some falling away, that perhaps I could have done some good by sticking in my own words of encouragement, my own reminder of that day when all that mattered was getting to the library as soon as possible.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

See the test for yourself

Via Betsy's Page, here's where you can go to take that civics and history quiz that's behind the recent headlines bemoaning what college students know about America.

Betsy has some quibbles about the quiz, and so do I (on the whole my quibbles are different from hers, by the way), but I'll leave it to you to decide for yourself how fair a job the quizmakers did when setting up this survey.

If you're wondering, I got 52 right out of 60, which put me well ahead of the average so far for September, but well behind what I was aiming for.

Knowing and teaching...

... aren't quite the same things:

She knows that there is a step-by-step pattern, and she is aware that the larger part of the equestrian world understands it and communicates with it, but she cannot.

She can accomplish the tasks, she spent six years of sweaty, grimy, painful work acclimating her body to a culture that was quite foreign to her in the beginning.

She has absorbed the culture. She can mount the horse and perform the tasks without even thinking about them.

But that's the trouble, she can't think about them. Her body has learned the language, but the brain has not. It sort of happened by osmosis.

A student can ask her "How do you such and such?" and The Equuschick's response is "I actually have no idea."

Hence the closed eyes, the muttering, and the careful step-by-step parade across the arena.

OK, be honest here. If you're over the age of, say, seven, haven't you been in a similar situation, where you have learned something so well it's second nature to you, and therefore, especially at first, it's almost impossible to teach it to someone else? Haven't you been reduced to saying, "I don't know, I just do it," or "You add enough flour until the dough just feels right," or something else along those lines that's truthful but of precious little use to the person listening to you, if they don't already know what you're talking about?

Been there.

On the other hand, a point Equuschick makes at the end of her post is a good one. Sometimes the best way to learn is to teach. My husband likes to have his seasoned employees train the new employees, at least for part of the job. Sometimes it's even money which one learns more, the rookie or the pro.

Read the whole post here.

A face to go with the blog

A couple weeks ago or so I met someone who knows me through business, and through this blog, but whom I'd never met in person. I found I'd somehow built up a radically wrong picture of him in my mind. He didn't say how much I matched or differed from his guesses about how I looked, but he did say it was nice to finally have a face to go with the blog.

I'm dragging my feet on sharing my mug with the whole world, but Phil at Brandywine Books has dropped the curtain, and mugs shamelessly for this post.

Assuming that's really Phil, I have to admit I blinked. Not at all what I had in my head. Not that I had a clear image in my head, but whatever I had, I was mistaken. For one thing, somehow I thought he was older...

On the other hand...

... sometimes an innovative bit of Christian theater can be respectful in its own way.

If I describe it as something along the lines of hand theater in black light, I hope that doesn't keep you from clicking through. The kids are pretty good, I think.


C.S. Lewis - and others - on solemnity, or, more precisely, the older, richer, related solempne.

To which I say, amen.

"25 Skills Every Man Should Know: The List"

Via Peter Lawler, Popular Mechanics is discussing practical skills in this perhaps over-techno age. See 25 Skills Every Man Should Know: The List, Ready for Your Debate for more.

Feminists, you are invited to kindly stop gnashing your teeth. Nobody's saying we ladies can't learn these things. They're just noting that a lot of men these days haven't learned how to build or fix things or deal with emergency situations. And that can't be good, as far as I'm concerned.

Mrs. Judson's white-and-wheat pancakes

Since "whole wheat" breads, etc., taste bad to me, but at the same time I don't think using just white flour is all that healthy, I've had to adjust most cookbook recipes, or make up my own recipes altogether when it comes to breads and noodles and that sort of thing. (Somewhat-whole-wheat cooking hasn't been properly discovered yet, or something.)

After reading an aside in an old cookbook to the effect that it had been discovered decades before that sourdough starter wasn't needed for a foamy pancake batter - that plain old lemon juice would do in its stead - I dumped my sourdough starter (it was a bit too much like having a fussy pet, when it came right down to it - a pet that smelled, no less), and started in on devising my own faux sourdough, somewhat-whole-wheat pancakes. After a bit of experimenting, I came up with the following.

Right off the start I'd like to note that these do not have the tang associated with sourdough. They don't even have the tang I expected from the lemon juice. But they are airy and tasty, all the same.

Mix together: 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup whole wheat all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar.

Add: 2 tablespoons cooking oil, 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup milk, and 1/4 cup water.

Mix until smooth, and then add water a little at a time until you have the batter as thin as you like. (As a rule of thumb: the thinner the batter the thinner the pancakes will be.)

Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Let sit a minute or two to get foamy.

Pour by scant quarter cups - or whatever size you like - onto preheated fry pans or on a griddle. On my stove, a setting halfway between medium-low and medium works best. Cook until edges are dry and center is riddled with air holes, then turn over and cook the other side.

If you aren't used to cooking pancakes, don't worry if it takes a bit of practice to learn how to get them just the shade of brown you want. There's an old saying in cooking that the first pancakes of any batch are never as good as the ones that come after. It's all a matter of learning how the pan's heated up this time, and of course no two batters are exactly the same, and the weather might possibly be a factor, and...

Here, now, if you're a novice, don't let me scare you off. Making pretty good pancakes is relatively easy, with just a bit of experience. Making gorgeous pancakes, on the other hand, is where a bit of finesse comes into play, as well as a willingness to experiment a little. (Is that why so many men like to cook pancakes? I wonder... At any rate, it's the sort of cooking that rewards someone who develops a knack for it.)

I use nonstick frying pans, usually two at a time so I can keep the cakes coming. If you don't use nonstick, you might have to use more oil in the recipe, or else grease the pans. This last go-around I used olive oil, and we decided we liked it better than the veggie oil I'd used before. But we liked it with the veggie oil, too.

Added: Most cookbooks suggest cooking pancakes at high heat. My pans aren't supposed to be used at high heat, and I get fine results at the lower setting - but you might want to experiment with the higher heat, depending on your set-up.

The "Forgotten Man" in American politics

Pop quiz question #1: When Yale professor William Graham Sumner introduced the concept of "the forgotten man" decades before Roosevelt's New Deal, what did he mean by it?

Pop quiz question #2: When FDR first used it, what did he mean by it?

Pop quiz question #3: Why does it matter - enormously - that FDR twisted the meaning to his own advantage while he was in office?

Answers are in the text of "The Legacy of the 1936 Election," by Amity Shlaes, adapted from a lecture given in July, and printed in the September 2007 Imprimis. Shlaes is, among other things, the author of the bestselling history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The unexpected in Ramadi

Via Bookworm, news from Michael J. Totten, reporting from Iraq, from what used to be called the worst city on Earth (for very good reasons).

The post is well worth a read. It's longish, but I urge you to read it all, or you won't get the balanced picture.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A devoted outdoorsman

I am not a "fishing widow," but I've known of a few. This about takes the cake in the stories I've heard, though:

"Likes" to fish is a gross understatement. "Lives" might be a more appropriate substitute. On their honeymoon, Grandpa Ed bought Grandma Ruby a bunch of peaches and went fishing with a friend, leaving her to can all of the peaches. Grandma always laughs a little when she tells the story. Grandpa doesn't like that story all too much. Maybe if he'd known he'd be hearing about it for the rest of his life he'd have stayed and helped can peaches.
In that case, Grandma Ruby would probably have never heard the end of it, at a guess. 'On our honeymoon I had to help the little lady can peaches. Can you beat that?' Heh.

Changing to a semi-new subject, this evening I heard that the family of an old man who died a few days ago is requesting that anyone who comes to the funeral show up in cammo clothes. That would be hunter's cammo, as I understand it. No, I've never heard of that sort of request being made before now. It's certainly got the grapevine hopping. Some of the grapevine has it that cammo is required at the funeral. I haven't heard the radio report yet (around here, you find out about funerals by listening to the radio news), so I can't tell you what the official line is.

I've long since given up trying to understand this sort of thing. Avid hunters and fishermen have different quirks than I do, that's all there is to it, I guess.

Update: I caught the radio news. The funeral is at the cemetery, and the family is asking that those attending wear cammo clothes if possible.

Book note: The World Made New, by Marc Aronson and John W. Glenn

I will admit to a certain fascination with The Age of Exploration. Suzanne Temple is recommending a new book on the subject, which looks at how the events that followed Columbus's voyage changed the entire world.

Closed circuit for the folks who work at our bookstore: If anybody trades one of these in, I have dibs. OK? Pretty please?

Book note: The Women Who Raised Me, by Victoria Rowell

Living the Life will be featuring actress Victoria Rowell on Thursday, discussing her memoirs, in which she pays tribute to women who helped her during a childhood spent entirely within the foster care system.

The publisher's page on the book is here. A website dedicated to the book is here. A press release about the book is here.

Oh, good. When was the last time you heard anything positive about the foster care system?

(And, no, I don't know why the book is all about the women who helped her, instead of the men and women who helped her. But I doubt that Living the Life would have her on if the book wasn't inspiring, so I'm cutting some slack on that account, with apologies to the men who are kind enough to read this blog. If you've read this blog long, you know I'm huge on the value of daddies.)

Narrowing the idea of healthy

When kindergarten teachers forget who the Mom is, you get... The Food Police Go to Kindergarten.

Admittedly, some mothers are smarter about nutrition than others. But whatever happened to discreetly working one on one with a mother who is flunking in the food department, and leaving everyone else alone? Isn't diversity supposed to be good?

Besides, has swapping and sharing been abolished? (I suppose it might be. The Food Police seem to like to oversee everything...) I seem to remember that as kids we sometimes helped out kids who didn't have enough. As in, "Oh, look, here's an extra apple in my lunch bag. How did that happen? Do you want it? Otherwise I'll just have to lug it home again..." You know, stuff like that. Teachers used to approve of behavior like that, or, at the least, turn a blind eye to it. Why have they become so fussy and prissy and nosy?

OK. OK. Not all of them have. But it sure seems to be a trend... (And, OK, my fifth grade teacher was a rabid spoilsport on playground patrol. She freaked out easily, and seemed to be obsessed with the idea that a girl might get hurt on her watch - something which must be prevented at all costs, apparently, by the implementing of drastic preventive measures, such as a blanket prohibition of boys playing with girls. We thumbed our noses at that rule. Regularly. With malice aforethought. We despised her, the only teacher I remember despising, but I digress...)

Do you ever get the feeling that somehow most of the people who would have been bothersome old maids making life miserable for their immediate neighbors in eras past, have somehow drifted into positions of authority in our day and age, thereby expanding the reach of their humorless tyranny as far as possible? Sometimes I wonder.

Not that I mean that the kindergarten teachers in this case necessarily fall into that category. I'm just saying that so much of what passes for "liberal" causes these days sure seems like busybody old women who can't get along with anybody and blame it on other people not being as good as they should (by their definitions, of course). To be fair, a lot of Republicans in positions of authority seem to be doing good imitations of snippy old maids, too. Sigh. Does having power do that to people, or do people like that set their sights on those positions? Am I asking a chicken or the egg question here? Oh, never mind. I'm not sure I'm up to this sort of discussion today.

On a side note, this talk about food and school makes me think of the Japanese book Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window (available in English translation). Totto-chan's headmaster solved the problem of getting mothers to pack nutritious meals by asking them to try to remember to arrange for their child to have "something from the ocean and something from the hills" in addition to their rice. This made sure the children always had a combination of things to eat, and it also let him turn mealtime into educational time, because he'd quiz children about where their food came from. His wife would go around serving fish out of an "ocean" saucepan and potatoes out of a "hills" saucepan to anyone who had come up short that day. It was a simple system and they had fun with it.

Totto-chan broke sales records in Japan, has been translated into several language, and is still in print here in the United States. I suspect it - along with other work by the author, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi - has had more influence than some people would guess. Wikipedia has an article on the book here.

Another silly study taken too seriously

So, have you been hearing that a study published recently in Nature Neuroscience somehow proves that 'liberals' are smarter and more adaptable than 'conservatives'?

You might want to read Rigging a study to make conservatives look stupid. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine to see what the study actually tested and how it was carried out.

How people expect non-scientists to take science seriously when junk like this gets traction in the press is beyond me.

By the by, I put 'liberals' and 'conservatives' in single quotes in part because these days it seems to me that more 'liberals' are big on punishing people who don't march in lockstep as per their assigned group identity, and more 'conservatives' are in the freedom-loving, countercultural role. At any rate, the current use of the words doesn't match the traditional meanings of the words at all. (If you feel up to a lengthy, scholarly explanation, you might want to check out What Is Classical Liberalism?, by John C. Goodman, December 20, 2005, NCPA website, for starters.)

Finally, this might be related to the issue discussed in the Saletan article: Most science studies appear to be tainted by sloppy analysis, Daily Policy Digest, NCPA Idea House, Sept. 18, 2007.

A tribute to JR Salzman

Gateway Pundit has a tribute to JR Salzman, a former ESPN Outdoor Sportsman of the Year who is coming back strong after losing part of an arm in Iraq. These days, Salzman is a college student majoring in technology education.

See also: ESPN article on Salzman right after he was injured. (World champion logroller, ESPY winner Salzman loses arm in combat, Sam Eifling, — Dec. 27, 2006)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Gracie declares an emergency

Shortly after five this morning, our cat Gracie reached up and started moving things around on my bedside table. Sometimes she moves things around to amuse herself and sometimes she moves things around on the 'any attention is good attention' principle.

I tried to ignore her, on the principle that 'any attention is good attention' is a very bad idea to encourage. Especially at five in the morning.

I'll spare you the details of the escalation, but suffice it to say that wobbling stuff around was just an opening salvo. She soon made it clear that no amount of ignoring her or begging her to go away was going to do any good. If she had to destroy everything in the room she was going to get me out of bed. This was an emergency.

It hadn't been a good night. My husband suffers from bouts of serious and debilitating pain, and he'd had several bad sessions during the night. Neither of us had had much sleep. But an emergency is an emergency, and sometimes, after all, animals know when to be worried, so I dragged out of bed.

Gracie, upon seeing me start to sit up, had set herself up at the foot of the bed like a runner in the starting blocks at a race. When my feet hit the floor she was off like a shot, making rather remarkable speed for a cat of her age (not young) and athletic ability (not stellar). Definitely, she saw this as an emergency.

She galloped into the far side of the house, which was both a puzzle and a relief. This is not a cat known for bravery. She wasn't going to lead a charge into perilous conditions. But leading a charge she was, no question.

I got to the laundry room and found her stationed at her food dish. Her food dish had, oh, a couple or three rounded tablespoons left of dry food. About half of the bottom of the dish was visible.

"This is it?" I ask. "Your food is low? This is the emergency?"

Yep. No question. I added food to her dish and she fell to eating with a relief that was unmistakable. She ate, at a guess, about what had been left in her dish before I got there. Perhaps a bit less. But she was profoundly grateful that I had come to her rescue, all the same.

Our cat has apparently discovered the concept of a rainy day fund, which must not be touched if there is any way possible to tap into other sources of supply. Even, alas, at five in the morning.

Good thing I have a good sense of humor, that's all I can say. I'm hoping she doesn't do this again, but I had a good laugh over it all the same.

Our cat is, by the way, named for the comedienne Gracie Allen. Our Gracie doesn't provide the same sort of humor or laughs as her namesake, but she does crack me up regularly - usually during daylight hours, though, or, at least, when I'm awake, and up.

She and I need to have a bit of a chat about timing. I know all comedians struggle with timing at least from time to time, but this was ridiculous. The performance itself was pitch perfect, but it was definitely the sort of show for a matinee, I'd say... (with a yawn)...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Humble heroes honored

The Point is looking for everyday heroes to honor.

The ball's in your court.

Faith and military service

Ray Nothstine writes about spirituality on the battlefield. (Combat and Conversion, Acton Institute PowerBlog, September 12, 2007)

One of his many links is to this account from W. Thomas Smith Jr., who went to Iraq as a journalist. (‘God Bless and Semper Fi’, National Review Online, September 10, 2007)

The "Canon Wars" twenty years after "The Closing of The American Mind"

Rachel Donadio takes a look at academia's so-called "Canon Wars" twenty years after Allan Bloom's book about the failings of higher education hit the bestseller lists. There's some good news along with the bad in what, all in all, struck me as a thoughtful and thorough three-page article.

P.S. As of my post time, the article was free to the general public, but since it's in the New York Times, I don't expect that to last very long.

On things unseen

Laurie has a post featuring short passages from various books over at Fernnook Farmgirl, and this quote, from the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings), caught my eye:

I have a feeling that childhood has been robbed of a great deal of its joys by taking away its belief in wonderful, mystic things, in fairies and all their kin. It is not surprising that when children are grown, they have so little idealism or imagination nor that so many of them are like the infidel who asserted that he would not believe anything that he could not see. It was a good retort the Quaker made, "Friend! Does thee believe thee has any brains?"

Be nice, now. Just because you have a lovely new retort in your arsenal doesn't mean you should necessarily go out and use it the first opportunity that presents itself, you know.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

This and that

Well, amazing. I actually got on the internet. Let's see if I can get anything drafted before I get kicked off again. (Sigh. Technology is wonderful when it works.)

Plan A for today, when I went to bed last night, was to get up early and bake some bread as a Welcome to the Neighborhood gift. Or, rather, gifts. A couple has moved into the house next door and I've only met the husband in passing, and a Baptist pastor and his family just moved to town yesterday, and I haven't met any of that family yet, even though they're only half a block away, more or less. The plan was to show up bearing gifts, see if anybody needed anything, and then probably just scoot back out of their way until they got over the exhaustion of moving.

So much for planning. My husband was ill much of the night, so we were both rather unrested this morning. When I did drag out of bed it was with sneezing and sniffling and with a swollen, itchy eye. I don't know know about you, but if I just moved into a neighborhood and some stranger showed up on my doorstep sneezing and coughing and with an infected eye and presented me with a batch of homemade rolls that she said she'd just baked that morning, I have a funny feeling I wouldn't consider it a gift quite as much as an invasion. I might also wonder what sort of neighborhood I'd just moved into. So, anyway, the re-enactment of the scene from the movie It's a Wonderful Life got put on the shelf. Not that I intended to have a ceremony or anything, but, still, the tradition of bread-as-gift for people moving into a new home seemed like a good idea last night, but not today.

Between the bug and some sore muscles from overdoing it a bit in the heavy-physical-labor department on Tuesday, I was kind of slow today, both in mind and body, so I did some drudge work I'd been putting off, both indoors and out, both personal and business. It was a good day for drudge work. The bookstore is better off because of it, too. And so's the lawn. Such a deal.

I probably should have taken a nap somewhere along the line, but I am well and truly glued to a book I started the other day, and it took up all my spare time today. It's not one I was especially excited about when it showed up in a trade-in pile, but it caught my eye and I thought I'd browse through it before putting it out for sale. Browse? I'm eating the details.

The book is a biography of Bess Truman by her daughter, Margaret Truman. The title, plainly enough, is Bess W. Truman. I'm rather fond of biographies in general, but I usually avoid those written either by employees or family members. I'm not quite sure why I made an exception in this case, but I suspect that in part it's because I've read some mysteries by Margaret Truman and know she's a pretty good writer, and also in part because I have a weak spot for books from World War II and the years leading up to it.

To my surprise (I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but I was) Margaret Truman really did her research on this. I was afraid it was going to be something along the lines of I-remember-this and Somebody-told-me-that. But, no. I'm only about two-thirds of the way through, but I feel like I've already gotten more in the way of history lessons than found in most college courses. It's also making me rethink some of what I thought I knew about that time period. At any rate, despite some awkwardness that inevitably results from the author being the daughter of the two main subjects in the book, not to mention being a main character in her own right, I'd recommend it. (It's really as much a biography of Harry Truman as it is of his wife, with a healthy dose of autobiography on the author's part.)

I should probably mention that the author is definitely one of those I-calls-it-as-I-sees-it type of historian, which is a bit too bad for some of the people featured in the book (including, at times, her mother). On the other hand, the book doesn't suffer from, on the one hand, the cardboard people syndrome common to many history books - which seem to pretend that it didn't matter who was in place when events happened, because, you know, the events happened to them, or something like that - or, on the other hand, the over-wartiness of other history books, especially those of the important-people-should-be-torn-down-because-it-wouldn't-do-to-leave-any-heroes-standing-or-reputations-intact school. Truman is frank and sometimes-opinionated, but not vicious, from what I've seen so far.

There are some priceless quotes and passages, but for now I'm going to finish the book before I start getting into that. From what I've read so far, I've already moved it onto my Books I Wish Somebody Would Bring Back Into Print list.

Another recently read book I moved onto that list is The Foundling by Francis Cardinal Spellman, c. 1951. It's also on my Top Ten Coming-of-Age Novels of All Time list, or would be, if I were organized enough to have such a list. More on that one later, too, but in sum, a soldier returning to America after being grievously wounded in World War One is afraid to go home and have his mother and sweetheart see him scarred and crippled and, not knowing where else to go or what to do, he wanders into a cathedral and, after a while, exhausted, he falls asleep. When he wakes up he's all alone in the cathedral. Or he thinks he is. A baby cries, and he finds a baby boy abandoned in the church. The rest of the book is about the lives that intersect and intertwine because that soldier found that baby, and also about that baby growing into manhood.

Hmmm. I'm afraid that might make the book sound sappy, and it isn't. It's a rather hard to categorize book. Some of it's drop dead funny (it has, for instance, a great passage or two on a boy overcome with gallantry while in the throes of puppy love), and some of it's gut-wrenching. It's pro-America, unabashedly. But it's not blind to her faults (much of the book is a direct assault on the racism common at the time). It's, in a way, pro-military. But it's not blind to the difficulties faced by soldiers and their loved ones. It's ecumenical, in that there are Catholic, Protestant and Jewish main characters. But it's not so ecumenical that it pretends there aren't differences between Catholic and Protestant and Jew - in fact, much of the story turns on the fact that the soldier is Protestant and the baby is declared Catholic. But it is a compassionate book. And there I go, making it sound sappy again...

(Did I mention I'm buggy and not in top form today?)

I wish I knew more about classical music, because, as it happens, much of the book also revolves around the love of music, and 'highbrow' music at that. But it's not a highbrow book. In fact, Boston elitist types get portrayed as spoiled brats when the occasion presents itself.

(Did I mention that it's a hard to classify bit of fiction?)

Anyway, moving on to one more quick note before I head off to bed... I'm not going to try doing a link tonight, or a full review either, but if any of you are participating in the Apple tribute over at Semicolon (link in my sidebar) and are looking for a book with good apple information, Shrinking the Cat: Genetic Engineering Before We Knew About Genes by Sue Hubbell has a pretty interesting chapter on the history and science of apples. At least I thought it was pretty interesting.

I'd probably quibble with one or two things if pressed for a point by point review of opinions/attitude/style in this book, but overall it's a well-above-average science read aimed at laymen, and it's got some interesting history in it, too. In addition to apples, the book covers corn, silkworms, and domestic cats, among other things.

Friday, September 07, 2007

If you need a laugh...

... this admission that making it through college did not prepare her for having a son in pre-kindergarten is both enlightening and hysterical, I think. (I think it might also help explain why more and more mothers homeschool these days, but that's a wild guess on my part. But, hey, nobody sends your child home with a letter bucket if you homeschool, right?...)

Mississippi moves forward, without much media attention

Don't you hate it when you realize that the news media has got you trained almost as well as Pavlov trained his dogs? And yet, here I am... say Hurricane Katrina and probably 99% of the time the first thought in my head is New Orleans. Shame on me. I resolve to change that. See the blog post The State Which Must Not Be Named for news out of Mississippi, which, of course, got hard hit (that's an understatement), but which hasn't been whining like the media darlings of Louisiana. Kudos to Mississippi.

hat tip: Bookworm

Added: The blogger who wrote "The State Which Must Not Be Named" has several other good Katrina-related posts. I've been browsing through the archives here. If you're interested on "man on the ground" reporting and commentary, you might want to check it out.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Double death grip: or, don't get attacked by a moray eel

Via Pipsqueak, thanks to a technique called cinefluoroscopy, which is some sort of moving X-ray image, plus high-speed video, researchers have found that the auxiliary jaws in the throat of a moray eel don't stay in the throat as presumed. No, as it happens they leap into the main mouth area and help grab the prey. Info and X-ray pictures here (Moray Eels Attack With Two Jaws, by Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, Sept. 5, 2007).

Yinga. I predict outbreaks of moray eel play-acting amongst families with small boys once this news gets out. Does anyone want to bet against it? (Yikes.)

I had no idea that moray eels had two sets of jaws, so the fact that the second set is extendable/retractable is a surprise on top of a surprise for me.

Wanted: movie recommendations

Danielle Bean, Catholic mom and author, has asked for movie recommendations. Go tout your family-friendly finds here. (She's not looking just for kid-friendly flicks. Good-to-watch-as-a-couple films are wanted, too. And... well, go check it out.)

As of my post time, there are 73 comments over there, and we are talking an eclectic mix, including several that appealed to the menfolk of the household.

A Bloggityville Apple Fest

Semicolon is celebrating apples throughout the month of September, and Sherry is inviting readers to share in the fun with links and comments. And recipes. Among other things:

...this month I’ll be writing, in addition to the regular posts, about apples in literature, apple quotations, the history of apples, apple recipes, apple crafts, apple activities, apples in books for children, varieties of apples, and who-know-what-else —-all about apples. If you’d like to post about apples and link here, there will be a linky after each apple post where you can add a link to your apple idea or recipe or post...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Book market watch: I am a Mouse, by Ole Risom

I don't know how many people have walked into the bookstore over the years and told us, while handing over some books they want to trade in, some variation on 'We threw the kid's books out. We didn't figure anyone would want old kids books, and we didn't want to waste your time.' Whereupon your humble booksellers try not to scream or whimper, especially when the barterer adds that the books were in reasonably good condition, but were simply "out of date."

Now, books that are trashed are one thing. I don't like handling torn and filthy books, and neither do most people. But those "out of date" books sometimes are in pretty fair demand in the market, even in just fair condition in some cases. Sometimes they aren't, it's true, but children's books from a generation or two ago that have gone out of print can sometimes go a bit bonkers price wise, at least now and then, because there are a whole lot of people who crave to hold in their hands a copy of a book they loved as a child. Or they crave to give it to a beloved grandchild or something.

Board books can be especially likely prospects because the supply tends to be short. They aren't always printed in big batches to begin with, and babies will chew them into ruin.

As a case in point, in today's stack of used books for which I'm checking market prices is a copy of a Golden Sturdy Book, sort of a board book supreme, almost ten inches tall and almost five and a half inches wide, with sturdy cardboard pages, and wonderful, colorful illustrations by John P. Miller. The copyright is 1964. The title is I am a Mouse, and it's by Ole Risom. Risom, upon checking, did several books along this line.

The I am a Mouse title is in scarce supply, and the prices today pretty much start at $22 and range up from there, with the majority being between $25 and $50, but with several above that. This could change tomorrow (or even later today), but even on the sites that specialize in cheap used books the prices are up in this range.

The prices for I am a Puppy are also pretty good today, but if you want solid gold, find yourself a copy of I am a Bear in good condition. As of post time, on my usual sites there is only one bookseller with a copy for sale, and they're asking ninety bucks for it, and that's while admitting that it's foxed (i.e., has got brown age spots), and the spine is almost worn away and it's being held together after a fashion with tape, "but all boards are intact and beautiful." That's a c. 1967 book, by the way. There's no telling if anybody will bite at that price, but I wouldn't be surprised. I've seen crazier things happen once someone has decided to get his hands on a treasure from his youth.

(Oh, you say you have a copy in a box somewhere? May I politely suggest you try to remember where you put that box?)

Georgia's bloody and brutal past

Melik Kaylan writes about the The Museum of the Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi, Georgia. 'Occupation,' of course, is a very polite word in this case.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Submit yourself for inspection: John Edwards' health care vision edition

Uhm. Off the top of my head, I don't think making doctor visits mandatory is a good idea in a supposedly free society like the United States of America. Silly me, right? And I'm sure that for our federal government to require mental health evaluations would - somehow - be perfectly harmless, right?, and never mind that (as far as I know) everywhere else that something like that has been tried the folks in power have cheerfully declared people who oppose them mentally ill and in need of rehab (or worse). Shudder.

Thanks but no thanks, Senator. Last time I checked, the United States was still run by fallible human beings, with a heavy skewing toward the power mad in the upper levels. This, I guess, is how most governments in most places in most times are run, but the genius of American government is that it was set up with this in mind, and with an eye toward limiting the damage that wannabe tyrants (let us call them the overt dictators) and zealous do-gooders (many of whom fall into the covert dictators column) can do during any given citizen's lifetime, and from there forward into posterity. As it happens, the chief tool in keeping damage to a minimum is keeping the jurisdiction of government limited and the power of government curtailed. It's a quaint idea, I know, but it has tended to work reasonably well when given a chance. Or, at least, it's tended to beat the alternatives tried thus far, as far as I can see. And it does take human nature, warts and all, into account, which has probably saved us more than a bit of grief. (Call it preventive medicine, if you like.)

And, uhm, not to belabor the point, but last time I checked doctors were human and fallible and prone to enthusiasms and convictions, too. There are pros and cons to that, I think. (As an aside, I love how Richard M. Cohen, the author of Blindsided: Lifting a Life above Illness, mounted a campaign to, as he said, hijack his body back from his doctors. Been there, done that, hated that we had to remind a doctor or two that if it wasn't his life, it wasn't his life to do with as he pleased. But facts are facts, and some doctors are arrogant, and they can easily be in a position to harm you. This is not to mention that the revamped, abortion-and-euthanasia-are-OK-if-you-pause-before-proceeding Hippocratic Oath probably doesn't help much. See also, for instance, The Cruelest Irony of All: When "Those Who Heal You Will Kill You")

I know it's quite possibly unreasonable of me, but on top of all that I simply don't like the idea of, in essence, being sent to the vet by a well-meaning shepherd trying to keep his herd healthy. Not that I have anything against being healthy. And not that I don't know that's caricature. But... I've read some history and I want the freedom my ancestors had. Silly me again, right?

So, by all means, Senator Edwards, tout preventive care. Tout away. Preventive care is good, on the whole. And if you feel like launching a private initiative - a commune, a co-op, an insurance company, a club, a society, an apartment building, a new, planned community, whatever - which requires a person to agree to go to the doctor regularly as part of opting in, launch away. And may you prosper at it.

But when you start taking taxpayer money to do it, then we start to part company.

And that " can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years..." business? Sorry. You've lost me. I can't see where the government has the right to force people into medical offices for scheduled maintenance, all the more so since it would violate the religious convictions of many, and the common sense of others.

And don't get me started on what I think about some bureaucrat looking into his crystal ball recommended schedule and telling me what to do based on that...

BTW: Do you ever get the idea that some Democrats (like, say, John Edwards, possibly) read the dystopian cautionary tales of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and thought, "Wow. If I could be leader in a society like that, everything would be great!"? I do. The Clintons, for instance, have repeatedly made me think of Animal Farm, especially the repainting the messages on the barn theme, with the 'some animals are more equal than others' theme coming in a close second.

For the record, I'm pretty sure that Orwell and Huxley and company were trying to warn their utopian-dream-addled generation about the dangers of too-powerful leaders and too-pervasive government, etc., amongst other things. They were not advocating Big Brother leadership of grown men and women, even if any given Big Brother in question really and truly thinks it is for our own good. For the record, I'm with Orwell and Huxley on this.

For the record, I'm a fair bit concerned about some of the current Republicans with power, too.

FYI: For a brief rundown on what Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business (c. 1985), saw as important differences between what Orwell and Huxley feared, see this post at philosophical society. com. It's not a minor point, if Postman's analysis is correct.

Well, for instance, from the foreword:

...Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preocuppied with some equivalent of the feelies... As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.' In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right...

Hmmm. I'm going to have to mull this for a while. And I might have to check out that book. And maybe reread some classics. Hmmm.

What do you think?