Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Rhetoric

As those of you who have followed my blog from the beginning know, one of my favorite topics to talk about is education...especially the disciplines of language (i.e. spelling, literature, grammar & composition).  It has been far too long since I have written about writing, which is the next best thing to actually teaching it.  So I guess you could say this post is for me.

I have an uncompromising commitment to the notion that the best way to teach a child to write is through exposure to and imitation of The Masters.  Often, students are immensely frustrated with the writing process because, from an early age, we ask them to complete tasks for which they are not adequately equipped.  Namely, we require them to bring together all 5 main components of mature composition:

Invention - coming up with ideas and material
Arrangement - organizing the ideas and material into a coherent whole
Style - stating their ideas clearly and artfully
Memory - drawing from past learning in order to illustrate and defend their ideas
Delivery - engaging and persuading an audience (through written or verbal delivery)

A better method is to only expect them to execute 1 or 2 of these at a time while they are young.  Here is an example of one way to do that:

Provide the students with material.  When you give them a classic story to rewrite or an outline from which to write (narrative vs. expository), the aspects of Invention and Arrangement (which are usually the most difficult part of the process) are taken care of, freeing them up to focus on improving their Style and Delivery.  Below is an example of the quality of work a 6th grader can produce if he is not expected to invent and arrange an original story (plot, setting and characters), while simultaneously using  a variety of sentence structures, incorporating strong word choices, and engaging the intellect and imagination of his audience. 

In the following case, I presented the students with Mary Howitt's The Spider and the Fly (about which I blogged earlier today).  Is this subject matter too juvenile for 6th graders, you might wonder?  Absolutely not.  The classic fables, fairy tales, time-enduring morality tales, and Bible narratives, provide perfect material from which to work.  I required the students to retell the story in prose, paying special attention to the Style of their writing.  Here's what one young man came up with: (the artwork is his too!)

In an old doll house lived a cunning spider.  He was feared as the most deceitful bug alive.  And yet, many bugs, thinking themselves too wise for the infamous arachnid's flattery, wandered toward his dismal corner of the attic. 

This time, it was a fly.  A rather ugly fly, the spider decided.  He soon devised his scheme.  "I'll compliment her beauty, not that there's much to compliment.  I'll show her her 'delicate and beautiful' face in my mirror.  That usually works.  (Except on that crazy cockroach who thought he was a moth.  He screamed and ran away as soon as he saw himself.  He would have been tasty too.)" 

Soon, the fly was at the spider's door.  "Come in," a foreboding voice dared.  "Join  me for supper."  "MY supper," he added under his breath.  She cautiously stepped inside.  The fly, seeing the potential danger, fearing the spider's cunning, and knowing it was past her bedtime, boldly declared, "Um... I'm...uh... not...hungry."

"Nonsense," echoed the spider's dim voice.   "You'll just die for what's on the menu today."

"I hope not," the fly mumbled.  "It isn't 'Fried Fly' is it?"

"What!"  the offended spider declared.  "That would be like eating a juicy, mouthwatering,... I mean... disgusting butterfly!"

Maybe it was the spider's sardonic attitude, or maybe it was the fly's general distrust of anyone who knew what a butterfly tasted like.  Either way, the fly came out of the house with the speed you would expect from something really fast. [not this student's most luminous moment, I admit.  Perhaps coming up with "sardonic attitude" sapped his creative energy!] 

The spider called to her, "O, Pretty Fly, come back!  I was just beginning to get to know you.  Your eyes, your hair, even your multiple arms, amaze me.  Never before have I seen such grace."

The fly foolishly decided to come back.  Carefully she approached the door.  This time, the spider did not flatter her.  He pounced.  The fly screamed.  She died.  Soon she was just another head on his mantel. 

MORAL: Don't listen to flatterers.  Especially eight-legged ones.

Now that's not too bad for an 11-year-old.  Because he was handed a clever story from a wiser, more experienced source, he gains on every side.  He delights in a well-told story, he intuitively absorbs the elements of a finely-tuned narrative, he gains wisdom, and he discovers that he can add his own resources (humor, word bank, perspective) to creatively retell it.  And all of this was accomplished with little to no frustration on the part of the student OR the teacher.  And when it comes to writing...that is no small feat! 

Food of Fools 2

Here is the first of several tales that bring sharply into focus the dangers of flattery.  Howitt spins a great little story, but the book's real genius lies in its artwork, which brilliantly illuminates the wily character of the flatterer and the simple-mindedness of the one who succumbs to his charm.  (the book is not here in its entirety, so you'll have to buy one in order to fully appreciate it!)

The Spider and the Fly
by: Mary Howitt

Will you walk into my parlour?" said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've many curious things to shew when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."
(I've omitted 2 stanzas here)
"Sweet creature!" said the Spider, "you're witty and you're wise,
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I've a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,
If you'll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you 're pleased to say,
And bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."
The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly.
Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
"Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple -- there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"
Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little Fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue --
Thinking only of her crested head -- poor foolish thing! At last,
Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.

He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour -- but she ne'er came out again!
And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.
Proverbs 29:5 - "A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Food of Fools 1

Flatter (v) - from Old French flater: to smooth or caress

1.  to praise too much, untruly, or insincerely in order to win favor

2.  to please, or ingratiate oneself with, by praise and attention

3.  to gratify the vanity of

4.  to encourage falsely

The first definition captures the real danger of flattery: its primary motivation is selfish gain.   In its most fatal form, the goal is to deceive or ensnare its victim so that he can be guided (or manipulated) into satisfying some need or desire of the flatterer. 

The final definition also highlights the danger because flattery can easily come under the guise of genuine encouragement.  The recipient may be completely unaware of the flatterer's motives and thereby believe that he is being rightly evaluated, when in fact, he may only be fooled into thinking he's something he's not. 

Flattery is not a sin to be taken lightly since it can have devastating effects and leads others astray.

Proverbs 26: 28  "A flattering tongue worketh ruin."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eye Candy

My daily walking route sets before me a veritable feast for the eyes, which I feel compelled to share with you all.  Yes, of course, the effort to document this meant I couldn't keep my usual pace, but I was more than willing to sacrifice a little caloric burn for your pleasure and entertainment.  So, please, sit back, relax, and pretend to be entertained.

First of all, the variety and beauty of the architecture is breathtaking:

In spite of its rather dismal appearance, this Farmer's Club is a hopping dancehall (and middle-aged meat market) every Tuesday and Friday night.  

Then there's the government school where great feats of education take place...such as 7th grade Math students who can design an eco-friendly zoo space in which all the little animals would thrive and be happy.  I did NOT make that up, folks.

Does anyone rollerskate anymore?  There's actually a skating rink in my neighborhood...just down from the bowling alley.  Heh-heh.  We're high-class here in SoCo.  I always think it would be fun to have the church kids over for a skate party.  Today's young people are big into retro, right?  And rollerskating is definitely retro. Did ya'll locals even know this place existed?

Ah, yes.  What neighborhood would be complete without a doggy hospital?  I've been in this place 1 too many times...and therein I was denigrated for allowing my children's cockapoo to become 3 lbs overweight.  Hmph!

Then there's little gem: who in St. Louis hasn't heard of Becky's Carpet & Tile?  All I can say is that at least her commercials are more artistic than her building!

Even though these buildings are fascinating, my favorite sites along the walking path are the car parts.  I've seen entire bumpers twisted almost beyond recognition, remnants of shattered windshields, and whole tires.  I'm usually thankful that the accidents which produce this roadside clutter never seem to happen while I'm out walking.  All I found today, in the way of car parts, was this little pile of taillights and duct tape:

My trail is also strewn with abundant evidence of man's vices: 

And then there are these.  I don't even want to think about it...

But maybe I should use those to pick up and discard the carcasses I find:

I did happen to find one lovely and productive item today:
Which was, ironically, lying directly in front of this:

Could it be a sign from God (or Papa Joel) that I should switch banks? 

And finally, here is some eye-pleasing evidence of our poverty-stricken, wretched, declining economy: taxpayer-funded projects.  There are 3 of them on my 3-mile route.  But hey, without them, I would be denied my right to convenient access to a port-a-potty every mile!

One can only hope that, in the end, these projects improve the overall aesthetic of the neighborhood.  In the meantime:

I hope ya'll have appreciated sharing the beauty of my morning stroll.  It's easy to see why I can't wait to get up and go see this anew every morning, isn't it? 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wordsmith Wednesday

Remember way back when I used to publish these weekly?  My lack of discipline has been on display for quite some time now, but I plan to execute some strict self-government from now on.  Or at least for today.

Here are some new words I encountered in my most recent read: The Bonfire of the Vanities (more to come on that another day).

subornation - the crime of inducing another to commit perjury

lugubrious - sad or mournful in an exaggerated way

solecism - a grammatical violation; breach of etiquette

logorrhea - excessive, incoherent and uncontrollable talkativeness

dendrite - the branched part of a nerve cell that carries impulses

bathos - trite sentimentality

debentures - an interest-bearing bond issued without a specific pledge of assets

homunculus - a little man

vulpine - clever, cunning

cynosure - and person or thing that is the center of attention

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Accomplishments Bucket List

1.  Write a comprehensive SS curriculum with a classical mindset, a "Through New Eyes" approach, and astonishingly beautiful artwork which illuminates the imagery and symbolism that are prominent from Genesis to Revelation.

2.  Earn a PhD and teach at a university...OR earn an MD and open a practice dedicated solely to folks with special needs.

3.  Own my own business.

4.  Write a book worth publishing.

5.  Learn to play an instrument.

6.  Compose an integrated, aesthetically-pleasing, classical curriculum for grades K-6.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Men Who Hate Women

WARNING:  This post may hurt your feelings.  It may offend your modern sensibilities.  It may lead you to call me unpleasant names such as "elitist" or "prudish."  But, as you might very logically conclude from the fact that I am posting it anyway, I am willing to undergo this persecution for the sake of fronting my ever-so-humble opinion.    (Translation: "I'm OK with you not liking my opinion!"  Surprising, I know.)
I finished reading Steig Larsson's NYT bestseller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I found absolutely zero satisfaction in it.  In fact, I might go so far as to label it a literary and moral failure.  Harsh, I know.  (Sorry, Grandfather.  I hope you don't read my blog!)

My first complaint is that its characters remain highly underdeveloped.  If you strip away from each character (with one possible exception), the details of his job and his sex life, you've virtually nothing left.  And these two aspects are not portrayed in a way that builds understanding of or empathy with the characters.  They are simply the means (often unnecessary) to move the reader from one page to the next...or to fill in between elements of the plot.  I would go so far as to argue that the gratuitous views into the characters' active, and often perverse, sexual lives, is highly voyeuristic and might explain the book's popularity. 

I also take extreme issue with the elevation of the main man, Mikael Blomkvist, as The Good Guy of the bunch.  He strays thoughtlessly from one woman's bed to another's to another's, regardless of her age or marital status and with complete disregard for the women's heart and dignity.  Yet he is esteemed merely because he never forces himself on any of them.  The sex is consensual...therefore he is The Hero.  Hm.

I also find Larsson's depiction of the violent sex crimes sensationalistic.  They seem an excuse for this middle-aged male author (now deceased) to "legitimize" his sado-masochistic fantasies.  Bottom line: I find no entertainment value in the representation of sex crimes - perhaps because I've been too near one in real life (long story...here if you're interested...but it's decidedly NOT entertaining).  I suppose parents of a child who has been kidnapped don't appreciate novels about that subject either.

For those of you who may regret admitting to me that you LIKED the book...be assured that when you think I am looking askance at you and wondering, "How could you?", you're right.

OK...I'm kidding, of course.  Feel free to pick (or blast) apart my evaluation and enlighten me as the the story's redemptive value.  I'm listening.  But with a seriously negative prejudice...so be persuasive!

I think the series' original title, "Men Who Hate Women" may have been most apt.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I saw Inception last night for the first time.  One young man, who mistakenly believes I am working with a full deck, told me I would be blogging about it for 2 weeks.  Well, if I understood it, maybe I would.  I feel certain there is much that could be said, but in order for me to say it, at least 2 more viewings and months of processing will be required!

I will say this: I am baffled by the mind that creates this kind of story.  Crazy.  I just hope it doesn't turn out to be a Joe vs. the Volcano movie where everyone but me seems to "GET" all the deeper meanings.  No matter how many times I watch that movie, I just don't see what these theologically minded, geeky men see.  I've tried.

Anyway...I titled the post "Leonardo" because after watching Inception, I was mentally reviewing his body of work.  I'm not sure Inception required any depth of talent or character...the plot was the driving force not the acting (IMHO).  Don't misunderstand.  I'm not implying that the acting was sub-par or anything, just that it wasn't the reason behind the movie's success.

I suggest to you that DiCaprio's finest work remains his very first successful role - as Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  He was incredibly young and he represented his character perfectly!  If you haven't seen this movie, I highly recommend it.  It is a character-driven story (do not read that as "chick-flick!) which portrays moments of real depravity, but shines in its moments of love and redemption.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.   

Friday, August 6, 2010

Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

The distinct advantage to blogging about books I read is that people regularly recommend other books that they think I might enjoy.  The distinct DISadvantage to blogging about books I read is that people regularly recommend other books that they think I might enjoy.  My list grows faster than I can read!  But I really do appreciate the input, because I could easily get stuck in the ruts of literary classics, education, reformed theology, and my favorite eras of history.  Your suggestions take me outside my little box and broaden my horizons. 

Thanks to Rich Feil for turning me onto Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, a collection of writings by women about baseball.  Here is one of the little gems I otherwise would have never read: (it looks long, but it's a quick and delightful read, I promise!)

From Father, With Love
by: Doris Kearns Goodwin

The game of baseball has always been linked in my mind with the mystic texture of childhood, with the sounds and smells of summer nights and with the memories of my father.

My love for baseball was born on the first day my father took me to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.  Riding in the trolley car, he seemed as excited as I was, and he never stopped talking; now describing for me the street in Brooklyn where he had grown up, now recalling the first game he had been taken to by his own father, now recapturing for me his favorite memories from the Dodgers of his youth - the Dodgers of Casey Stingel, Zack Wheat, and Jimmy Johnston.

In the evenings when my dad came home from work, we would sit together on our porch and relive the events of that afternoon's game which I had so carefully preserved in the large, red scorebook I'd been given for my seventh birthday.  I can still remember how proud I was to have mastered all those strange and wonderful symbols that permitted me to recapture, in miniature form, the every movement of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges.  But the real power of that scorebook lay in the responsibility it entailed.  For all through my childhood, my father kept from me the knowledge that the daily papers printed daily box scores, allowing me to believe that without my personal renderings of all those games he missed while he was at work, he would be unable to follow our team in the only proper way a team should be followed, day by day, inning by inning.  In other words, without me, his love for baseball would be forever incomplete.

To be sure, there were risks involved in making a commitment as boundless as mine.  For me, as for all too many Brooklyn fans, the presiding memory of "the boys of summer" was the memory of the final playoff game in 1951 against the Giants.  Going into the ninth, the Dodgers held a 4-1 lead.  Then came two singles and a double, placing the winning run at the plate with Bobby Thomson at bat.  As Dressen replaced Erskine with Branca, my older sister, with maddening foresight, predicted the forever famous Thomson homer - a prediction that left me so angry with her, imagining that with her words she had somehow brought it about, that I would not speak to her for days.

So the seasons of my childhood passed until that miserable summer when the Dodgers were taken away to Los Angeles by the unforgivable O'Malley, leaving all our rash hopes and dreams of glory behind.  And then came a summer of still deeper sadness when my father died.  Suddenly my feelings for baseball seemed an aspect of my departing youth, along with my childhood freckles and my favorite childhood haunts, to be left behind when I went away to college and never came back. 

Then one September day, having settled into teaching at Harvard, I agreed, half reluctantly, to go to Fenway Park.  There it was again: the cozy ballfield scaled to human dimensions so that every word of encouragement and every scornful yell could be heard on the field; the fervent crowd that could, with equal passion, curse a player for today's failures after cheering his heroics the day before; the team that always seemed to break your heart in the last week of the season.  It took only a matter of minutes before I found myself directing all my old intensities toward my new team - the Boston Red Sox.

I am often teased by women friends about my obsession, but just as often, in the most unexpected places - in academic conferences, in literary discussions, at the most elegant dinner parties - I find other women just as crazily committed to baseball as I am, and the discovery creates an instant bond between us.  All at once we are deep in conversation, mingling together the past and the present, as if the history of the Red Sox had been our history too.

There we stand, one moment recollecting the unparalleled performance of Yaz in '67, the next sharing ideas on how the present lineup should be changed; one moment recapturing the splendid career of "the Splendid Splinter," the next complaining about  the manager's decision to pull the pitcher the night before.  And then, invariably, comes the most vivid memory of all, the frozen image of Carlton Fisk as he rounded first in the sixth game of the World Series, an image as intense in its evocation of triumph as the image of Ralph Branca weeping in the dugout is in its portrayal of heartache.

There is another, more personal memory associated with Carlton Fisk, for he was, after all the years I had followed baseball, the first player I actually met in person.  Apparently, he had read the biography I had written on Lyndon Johnston and wanted to meet me.  Yet when the meeting took place, I found myself reduced to the shyness of childhood.  There I was, a professor at Harvard, accustomed to speaking with presidents of the United States, and yet, standing beside this young man in a baseball uniform, I was speechless.

Finally Fisk said that it must have been an awesome experience to work with a man of such immense power as President Johnston - and with that, I was at last able to stammer out, with a laugh, "Not as awesome as the thought that I am really standing here talking with you."

Perhaps I have circled back to my childhood, but if this is so, I am certain that my journey through time is connected in some fundamental way to the fact that I am now a parent myself, anxious to share with my three sons the same ritual I once shared with my father.

For in the linkage between the generations rests the magic of baseball, a game that has defied the ravages of modern life, a game that is still played today by the same basic rules and at the same pace as it was played one hundred years ago.  There is something deeply satisfying in the knowledge of this continuity.

And there is something else as well which I have experienced sitting in Fenway Park with my small boys on a warm summer's day.  If I close my eyes against the sun, all at once I am back at Ebbets Field, a young girl once more in the presence of my father, watching the players of my youth on the  grassy field below.  There is magic in this moment, for when I open my eyes and see my sons in the place where my father once sat, I feel an invisible bond between our three generations, an anchor of loyalty linking my sons to the grandfather whose face they never saw but whose person they have already come to know through this most timeless of all sports, the game of baseball.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Hole In Our Gospel

I don't think of myself as a person who demands luxury or comfort in my daily life or circumstances. 

Even though I currently live in a greater degree of ease than I ever have, where all my material needs are satisfied...I eat good food, drink good wine, enjoy the luxuries of good music, reside in a beautiful and well-appointed home, own nearly every great book ever written, vacation in places like Costa Rica and Lake Tahoe, send my boys to the school of our choice...I still THINK of myself as someone who COULD live minimalistically if I had to.  Afterall, I spent much of my life in very poor or nearly-poor circumstances.  But I wonder...

I just finished reading The Hole In Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, president of World Vision.  He too lived in great luxury before he was called to leave his pursuit of wealth in order to pursue a ministry of carrying The Gospel to the poor, widowed and orphaned around the globe.  His story and the challenge he sets in front of us who call ourselves Christians (especially American Christians), made me uncomfortable...and I think that was the point.  We are surrounded by wealth, so we often don't see ourselves as wealthy, though compared to more than 90% of the world, we are.  Exceedingly so.  And let's face it...we use our wealth primarily in self-serving ways, don't we? 

Sure, we tithe and we give gifts to the needy within our own congregations and communities.  We even support several missionaries and church planters.  All of that is good and right, and we should continue in those things.  But Stearns' point is that we really could afford to do SO much more than we do.  Sometimes we're too shortsighted to see the difference we can make, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the global need, sometimes we are judgemental about the reason folks are so needy in the first place. 

But we underestimate the impact we could have if all of us who profess Christianity put our money where our mouth is and used our resources (time, talent, treasure, etc.) in purposeful ways.   But I can't excuse my own lack of intentional service by anyone else's lack...even if I only impacted 1 or 2 lives (outside of my children), they in turn can make a difference in their own families and communities.  Even a small contribution (I'm not just talking money, either) can ultimately affect change that matters.

I have not yet figured out what this middle-aged stay-at-home mom can do, but I hope I don't push aside Stearns' challenge simply because it makes me squirm and because it's hard to think about.   The thing is, since his challenge is biblically based, I cannot rightfully ignore it in favor of wallowing in comfort, can I?  

I guess no one ever said being a Christian was easy... 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Travel Bucket List

I have only ventured outside the United States on one occasion, but it's not for lack of desire.  I look forward to traveling...some day.  Here are my top 3 trip choices:

1.  Historical tour of Greece, Italy, Ireland & Scotland
2.  Literary tour through England
3.  Train tour through Alaska (I'd readily swap this one for a cross-country Harley tour)

For the first two, the emphasis would have to be on architecture, important literary or historical figures, & local culture and cuisine.  In other words, I don't want to go to Ireland and stay in "Americanized" hotels and feel like I'm in an American resort.  I want to get a feel for the land and the people as I acquaint myself with history.  Make sense? 

This list is much less likely to be fulfilled than my Adventure List, but a girl can dream, can't she? 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lori's Adventure Bucket List

I don't know how to narrow down all the things I'd like to do, see, accomplish or become to a single bucket list, so I've decided to create a variety of lists.  The first one has been easy to construct, because all of these things have been on a mental list for decades.   I've excluded those adventures which I suspect are impossible, such as my insatiable desire to ride in an SR-71, and have only included those which I think are doable and affordable.

1.  Skydive
2.  Hanglide off of Lookout Mountain
3.  Drive a racecar...on a racetrack

I think that'll do.  There are other adventures I would enjoy, but these are my top 3 "must-do's"! 

Join me anyone?