Monday, March 31, 2003

I am much comforted after reading Alice Thomas Ellis's A Welsh Childhood. I've always loved reading memoirs, but they make me feel slightly inferior for not being able to remember every detail of my childhood. Unlike Proust or Marcel Pagnol, who seem to recall perfectly conversations held decades before, Ellis is refreshingly honest. While remembering an uncle who was wonderfully funny and always kept her in stitches, she admits that none of the things he said remain with her. At the end of the first part, which describes her idiosyncratic childhood, she remarks, "I have absolutely no faith in history since my memory of my own is so vague, conflicting and confused... if it wasn't for remembering the clothes she wore I would doubt that [my child self] ever existed." I'm inclined to agree, at least with the part about mistrusting history.

The second part of the book I found a little more interesting, perhaps because it was less scattered. It takes up after her marriage and production of seven children, following the difficulties of managing her own offspring as well as several strays in a damp and ancient house in the hills. Because they had no fridge or any way of getting to the shops regularly, cooking options were limited and her descriptions of everyday meals made me cringe (spam curry?!?). Everything was hard, and there were always crises, yet she remembers the time fondly, recognizing that it was happy despite outward appearances. It made me realize that perhaps a lot of parenting struggles today arise from having too few children. That sounds strange, but when there are so many small bodies that all one can do is "throw pieces of cheese at them as they run through the kitchen on some important mission", there's less time to worry about whether they're getting all the things they need.

After spending my work hours with children who have been raised with the best intentions so that every creative or imaginative impulse is carefully directed towards a more productive pursuit, it was refreshing to visit a friend last weekend when I was in Colorado. The above quote came from her as we sat in her kitchen surrounded by happy busy children amusing themselves with books, drawing, stick horses, animals, and musical instruments. Of course they are loved and given as much attention as possible, but more importantly they are allowed to discover the world for themselves. Children like these and like Ellis's may certainly come up with games or pursuits that seem questionable to an adult's eye (I can think of several from my own childhood that must have made my mother gulp a little, but I'm grateful that she didn't try to intervene), but in doing so they learn to think for themselves.

I read an article in Focus on the Family magazine the other day that spurred this train of thought, as the author listed results from a study on parenting and the things parents believe their children need to be taught--honesty, religious faith, prudence, and other such "values". It all comes back to the Meno, I suppose; Socrates' understanding that virtue simply cannot be taught should be more widely circulated. Everyone agrees that children learn by example and imitation, yet so many parents worry about how to teach and guide their offspring. I've come to believe that if one already possesses the qualities desirable for children to acquire, and believes them completely, they will be apparent in every action and thus available for children to observe and assimilate. If one builds a good house on a strong foundation, everyone around will be able to see it.

Reading Ellis's book only strengthened this burgeoning idea in my brain. The whole family is happier when the children are given, while not absolute license, the freedom to live and play and learn on their own. There is much that they do need to be taught, but it should never be done in a condescending or hypocritical manner. Give them the tools to become free citizens, and then let God and nature do their work. Instead of worrying about whether your children are being taught the proper "values", keep busy making sandwiches, as Ellis did, and try to appreciate happiness when you've got it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Okay, our Internet connection is back, and I'm back from a quick visit to see my dad this weekend. While away, I re-read Terri Windling's excellent fantasy novel The Wood Wife. It's so good that it makes me very irritated that the author spends all her time editing fantasy collections. The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, which she edits along with Ellen Datlow, is quite good, but I do wish Windling would give herself more time for original writing. Like Charles de Lint, she writes what they call mythic fiction, which has always been my very favorite genre. Unfortunately not many authors have mastered, or even been interested in, this genre, so I snap up anything I can find. The Wood Wife is the story of a poet turned journalist who inherits her hero's house and land in Arizona, as well as his unpublished writings and the unsolved mystery of his death. Maggie Black finds herself in a completely alien landscape and way of life, which becomes curiouser and curiouser when her eyes are opened to the spirit world and she is drawn deep into it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

I have several things to post, but our Internet connection is doing weird things, so I'll have to wait a while. In the meantime, I read through one of Iris Murdoch's short novels, The Italian Girl, last night, and was, if not deeply enriched, at least briefly entertained. I wish that I enjoyed her books more, since her life was so interesting (the recent movie was excellent, though I must say I think so partly because of the wonderful English cottage in which she spent her later years); however, so far the only others I've read are Under the Net, which I only vaguely remember and wasn't too impressed by, and The Nice and the Good, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Anyway, right now I'm at the library and am going to look for her biography, about which I hope to post at a later time.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

I'm feeling better about the towering stack on my nightstand after reading in Realms of Fantasy that Robin McKinley is currently working on "about eight feet of books". Actually, I spent my last few days off reducing my stack to a modest two or three (Independent People, is, I'm sorry to say, going back to the shelf unfinished, and I'm trying to decide about Blackberry Winter), although I'm not sure how virtuous that is since I also hit two different library book sales recently and have started new stacks on the floor. I was so happy when we finally acquired some two-by-fours and cinder blocks so that all our books could be respectably displayed away from the voracious nibbling of my pet rabbit. It couldn't last long, especially in the event of book sales.

I've been trying to finish library books (there is, of course, always an urgency about these, since they must someday return to their rightful home), so I haven't read too many of my book sale finds, but so far my favorite is the Common Reader regular The Hills Is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith. However, it defies description, so I can't say much about it except that the tale of an English writer seeking a rest cure in the Hebrides in the 1950's is delightful and highly amusing.

Today I started in on Barbara Holland's In Private Life, which is unfortunately a little too desperate to be funny. Her musings about her life as a housewife are very realistic, but she seems unable to make the choice to change her mood, or to try to be anything but wild-eyed, harried, and severely depressed. I did enjoy the list of sentences to which a mother's daily conversation is limited ("Go back and wash them again", "Brush your teeth", "Where does it hurt?", "I said no", etc.), but the opening description of scanning pantry shelves every evening in a desperate search for something to put in a casserole was too much. True, doubtless, but overwhelming in unadulterated form. Her wilfully helpless point of view reminds me unpleasantly of the things I didn't like about Anne Lamott, especially in Operating Instructions. I suppose I shouldn't speak too strongly, since as yet I have not been a wife and mother, but in general one's mood and point of view are dependent on will--in other words, you can change the way you look at and feel about things.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

And on a ridiculously light note (and to make up for not having posted all week), I went to see the movie "Old School" recently. Before you leave this blog in disgust, let me quickly explain that it was only to see my dear sister, who appeared as one of the students in the debate scene. She got a job as an extra last summer, but unfortunately didn't know the plot of the movie until after she participated--still, it's neat to see her on the big screen even though I could not sit through any more of that terrible terrible film once she appeared. Writhing-in-one's-seat, wanting-to-crawl-into-a-hole, insanity-inducing bad--I was not prepared.
On the lighter side, I discovered science fiction writer Connie Willis a few months ago when I happened to pick up Passage in the bookstore. I don't think I put it down again until the next evening, and since then I've eagerly devoured all the rest of her books available to me. Several of them were not quite worth my trouble, but for the most part she writes with a captivating style that makes it difficult to stop in the middle. For that reason I liked her short story collections (Miracle and Other Christmas Stories and Impossible Things) better, but Doomsday Book, Bellwether, and To Say Nothing of the Dog are well worth perusal. In general I prefer fantasy to science fiction, but Willis reminds me of Ray Bradbury with her general accessibility. A number of her books are about time travel, which I've always found particularly interesting, and deal with the difficulties very cleverly and seriously.
I spent nearly an hour the other day laughing over the letters to the editor in our local newspaper. The Sunday edition featured only letters regarding the war against Iraq, and, this being a generally liberal community, most of them spoke against said war. Now, because I don't know enough about the situation, I choose not to voice a public opinion--I rarely even discuss the topic with sympathetic friends. Yet so many people who know less than I feel compelled to let the world know what they think. Letters to the editor are slightly more proactive than bumper stickers, but still do no good when the writers are uninformed and uninsightful.

One man claimed that he couldn't "seem to come in contact with any rational people who support war against Iraq", to which I politely say, perhaps you ought to remove your head from your posterior. For one thing, people such as this gentleman are so sure they're right that they assume everyone agrees with them, and either ridicule or ignore differing opinions; for another, those who support President Bush are already getting what they want and have no need to squawk to the heavens. Besides, rational "pro-war" (which, incidentally, does NOT equal "anti-peace") advocates apparently are spending some of their time researching the issue instead of blathering on; whereas too many peace protestors care enough to have an opinion but not enough to seek full knowledge of the subject. As C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters, they have "a grand general idea that [they know] it all and that everything [they happen] to have picked up in casual talk and reading is 'the results of modern investigation'".

Well, I really didn't intend to splatter my personal opinion all over the gentle reader, so I should reiterate that my most troubling concern is the all-too-obvious inability of these people to educate themselves. Public schools have equipped them to know how to read, but do they? If they do, are they truly literate? Literacy is more than "C-A-T spells CAT"--it is comprehension of what has been read, and to read things that challenge and provoke. It is being able to assess and analyze the words, to think about them and compare them to other writings before forming an opinion. Adults who cannot or do not do this are intellectually still children and are not truly citizens. Education does not end with the awarding of a diploma; in fact, as Mortimer Adler posits, education doesn't even occur in schools--only after receiving the skills and inspiration to pursue knowledge can one being to be educated. We educate ourselves, or we do nothing. Unfortunately this is not generally understood except by those who have been fortunate enough to receive a "liberal education" (I use quotation marks to indicate the lack of a better phrase--Adler calls it Paideia).

Paideia is less concerned with test scores and academic results than with shaping free-thinking autodidacts, people who are continually learning and seeking knowledge. Adler claims, quite rightly, that no person can be free unless he has been given the liberty to think and learn, regardless of ability or IQ. It seems to me that this is becoming much too rare, due, sadly, to public education, which allows people to pass through life "with a smattering of mostly useless knowledge and a culture... easily satisfied with cheap tabloids, trite films, and the pulp library of crime" (A.S. Neill, Summerhill). I cannot bring myself to condemn public education qua public education, but in its current state it is beyond useless: it is downright harmful. Didactism creates a herd mentality, and stifles most honest desires for learning; while Paideia certainly is not failproof, I must agree wholeheartedly with Mortimer Adler and say that liberal education is the only way to go.

In writing this lengthy post, I was pleased to realize that the books I've been reading lately (I must quickly say that I mostly disagreed with A.S. Neill, but he did have a few good thoughts) have really started to cohere in my mind and blossom into my own little philosophy. It's still in the works, as I'm sure it always will be, but it's very exciting!

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Every time I re-read Pamela Dean's Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary (a book that defies reviewing--you simply must read it), I am inspired, if not actually to be an astronomer, to learn more about the heavens and all the wondrous mysteries that encircle our small globe. This is why I have a number of books pertaining to astronomy scattered throughout my library; sadly, however, I have managed to read very few of them. Like most branches of science, astronomy fascinates me to frustration--I can almost understand what's going on, but the facts refuse to stay in my head long enough for the big picture to become clear. I did get all the way through Seeing and Believing, by Richard Panek, recently, in part because it is a narrative rather than a technical tome. Also, being a history of the telescope, it doesn't reach the modern day (and the really incomprehensible stuff) until the last few chapters.

I was pleased to realize, in my own eccentric way, that with the discovery of all that really incomprehensible stuff, the adventure and excitement of the previous centuries waned. It may indeed be more comfortable to observe astronomical wonders with the click of a computer key, but it decidedly lacks the thrills of Galileo changing the world by overturning the Copernican system, of Huygens holding his breath as he constructed longer and longer telescopes and consequently solved more and more riddles of the universe, or of William and Caroline Herschel slogging through mud and snow to record observations of new comets (one of which turned out to be the planet Uranus). To these brave souls the universe was astounding; to us, today, it seems pretty neat. Because so much has already been discovered, I think the tendency is to become blasé in an assumption that someday we'll have it all figured out.

This is not Panek's conclusion, but it is how I felt what he praised the progress of modern technology in astronomy. I have nothing against technology in its place, but I can't help noticing the difference in perspective it has created. To astronomers in the 17th century, new discoveries were sources of sheer wonder and amazement. I have no doubt that modern astronomers get excited by every advancement, but there can no longer be the life-changing experiences that Galileo lived through. If humanity has changed over the years, the difference seems to be that lack of wonder caused by the comfortable, shock-free, technologically-padded cell in which civilization now rests. We are moved only by tragedy; we have lost our innocence.