On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, August 25, 2006

My Father's Example

My niece Laura recently encouraged me to read a book entitled Nickle and Dimed. I didn't find it in our local libary immediately, and I seemed to be always at my book limit before I could look for it at the UVM library. The other day I mentioned to our local librarian that we didn't seem to have that book (I was sort of hoping she'd offer to buy it so I wouldn't have to). As it turned out they actually already had it and she waxed eloquent about what a wonderful book it was. So I brought it home and last night I read it, in one sitting!

When I finished the book I was sad and angry about what the author had described. I thought about what bothered me so much about it all morning. As I was driving to Rutland I was pondering some more, and I realized some of what made me so angry was that what was happening to the people the author was telling the story of would not have happened had they been my father's employees back in the 1950's and 1960's. My father did not grow up in a wealthy family. He didn't go to college. He didn't even finish high school. Before World War II he worked in a gas station, but not as a mechanic because he didn't have those particular skills. After the war he came back and opened his own Mobile station. He had to hire a mechanic to work for him and he usually had at least one or two other people working at least part time. He worked along side them, took the dirtiest jobs, took the worst shifts, and always treated his workers with respect. He co-signed loans for some of them, and when they defaulted he paid off the loans himself. He bought a farm when I was a year and a half old and had hired men run it for him for the most part. However, he worked on the farm too, when he could get away from the station. Again he took the hardest jobs, and worked harder than his employees. He went to the farm on Sundays so that the hired help could have a day off.

When I was 13 he bought a second farm, and we moved onto it when I was just about to turn 14. Again we had a hired man and he and my parents worked together. Again my father was up earlier, to bed later, and worked harder than his employee. The hired man got a day off, my father didn't. The summer workers always said that my dad could out work any 20 year old he hired. My father made sure his farm workers got hefty meals, and produce and meat that we raised. When he died, people who had worked for him who served as some of the pall bearers.

In Nickle and Dimed the workers are not only not paid a living wage and have to live in terrible conditions, they are treated disrespectfully by their supervisors and patronizingly at best by corporate higher ups. As children we saw an example of how to treat employees that I believe has always stayed with me. I still occasionally see someone running a family owned business who seems to have a similar attitude, but it certainly isn't the attitude of multi-national corporations.

My father was not a perfect person. As I mentioned earlier he had a pretty hot temper. But he gave us examples of hospitality, compassion, and the need to respect even people who weren't very lovely that I sometimes think is lacking today.

When my father was running the gas station he often went out of his way for people who were in trouble. One time a family's car broke down and my father didn't have the necessary part to fix it. The place where the part was sold wasn't open that late, so he couldn't get the part until the next day. The family had no place in town to stay. So my father opened our home up to them and we went and spent the night at my grandparents'. The next day my mother drove to Montpelier and got the part and soon they were on their way. My father wouldn't even take any money for giving them a place to stay. Another time some gypsies came through town and he let them park overnight at the gas station lot because they didn't have anywhere else in town that they could park where there would be toilet facilities (they had a camper type trailer). Again, no charge. The other gas stations in town were much more reluctant to help someone out after hours, so if the police found someone in vehicle difficulty they called my dad. He didn't call his employees to come in, or go out to tow a car in, he did it himself. If the difficulty wasn't so serious that it required the mechanic he took care of it himself, then and there.

My parents handed out food, they rented to people with less than stellar reputatons (and often lost money on the deal). They treated even drunks and felons with respect, despite the fact that both of them were convinced teetotalers. I may have learned Christian doctrine only from my mother, but I certainly learned Christian example from my father as well. When I look at what now gets called compassionate conservatism I have to wonder whether some of its proponents have any idea what compassion really is. Giving money that doesn't really hurt your own lifestyle significantly is not the example of my parents. Giving money when it means that your own kids are going to get their school clothes at the thrift store and that you aren't going to get a new winter coat for a decade, now that requires compassion. We didn't live like Dorothy Day exactly, and my father would have found much of Dorothy's philosophy foreign to him. He didn't like unions, he always voted a straight Republican ticket, and he thought FDR was one of the worst things that ever happened to the country. Yet in his personal life he behaved with far more real sensitivity to the real needs of his employees and customers than a lot of the Democrats who were pro-worker.

I sometimes wonder what my father would make of the current political scene. I suspect he'd probably not want to vote Democratic any more today than he did then. Yet, I don't know that he'd have a whole lot of respect for the current crop of Republicans as well. He wouldn't like what our governor just did with resepct to GMO seed, he wouldn't like what he's proposing relative to property taxes. Of course he never did have a whole lot of respect for politicians in general. I'm pretty sure he might well get up and have something to say at town meeting.

My father-in-law was similar in many respects. He also hired the guys who were down and out. He, however, was a Democrat and a union man through and through. Still he taught his children similar lessons.

I hope that my children, my sister's children, and my brother-in-law's chldren carry on that heritage. I suspect that the very fact that Laura recommended that book is an indication that she learned some of those lessons from her mom. She listed it as one of the books that changed her life. I can certainly understand why.

Thanks for recommending it, Laura. I hope some of the readers of this blog read it as well. And thanks to my Dad for being an example of the best kind of employer.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Choices, Choices, Choices

For at least the second time this summer I have been involved in a discussion where heat has been generated, either intentionally or unintentionally about different sorts of lifestyle choices people had made. I'm not talking about immoral lifestyle choices, or at least not what most Christians would view as immoral lifestyle choices. I'm talking about choices like where you live, how you educate your children, even what you choose to eat.

If we lived in Communist Russia in the 1960's we wouldn't be having those discussions. You lived, for the most part, where the government told you to. You sent your children to government schools. You bought whatever foods you could in the government stores You might manage to sneak off to an underground church, you might illicitly teach your children the Christian faith,you might shop in the black market, but the other things weren't under your control.

In America in 2006 a lot of things are a lot more under our control. Increasingly educational options have become more varied. For example, in the 1950's in our county you either sent your children to one of the Catholic parochial schools (but only if you were Catholic) or you sent your children to the local public school. If you were Catholic you had a choice, if you were Protestant you did not. You had perhaps chosen to live here, but your educational choices were now limited.

In 2006 in our county there are three different Protestant schools, one Catholic elementary/middle school, one Catholic high school, and two different private schools (only one of which goes through high school). In addition, there is now the option of homeschooling your children either full or part-time. Protestants now can send their kids to the Catholic schools as well.

The choices have increased substantially, but with choice comes the need for making a decision. It was far easier for my inlaws to simply send their kids off to the local public school than it is for similarly educated parents today. A parent today is making a choice to send their children there, and, at least part of the time, they feel the need to defend that choice, at least to themselves.

When someone makes a different choice, whether it's to homeschool or to send their child to one of the other alternatives, there is a pronounced tendency for the people who send their children to the local school to feel judged. It actually doesn't even matter how many times you tell them that each family needs to make their own choices, the fact that you have rejected their choice for another makes them feel judged.

The same thing is true as concerns where you choose to live. When you move from a rural area to the city, or move from the city to a rural area, the people you leave behind often look at your decision and say such things as, "but aren't you afraid for your children's safety," or "aren't you worried about all the cultural opportunities you are depriving your children of?" Now statistically speaking someone living in any urban area in this country is more apt to be a crime victim than someone living in say rural Maine. Statistically speaking someone living in rural Maine has a greater chance of dying when their vehicle is in a collision with a moose. It doesn't mean that every urban dweller is going to be a crime victim, nor does every Maine resident end their life with antlers coming through their car window. You make choices, hopefully educated ones, then you take precautions against the hazards of your particular choice.

But having choices does mean being aware of the hazards of the choice. If you drive down the road in rural Maine at night without considering the possibility of a moose running across the road in front of you, you will be more apt to be a moose victim. If you live in the South Bronx without locks on your doors, you will be more apt to be a crime victim. That's not an indictment of all the moose in Maine, nor is it an indictment of all the residents of the South Bronx, it's simply the way things are.

The same thing is true in a sense about educational choices. If you homeschool your child without being aware of the fact that you aren't necessarily going to be able to provide (at least from your own knowledge base) all of the subject areas they might want to pursue, you are an unwise parent. If on the other hand you send your child off to school and believe that there isn't a very different world view being asserted there than in your Christian home, you are also an unwise parent. The homeschooling family will have a very difficult time teaching chemistry in their kitchen (and I suspect that's true even if they are willing to spend the $1000 or so it would cost to buy all the chemicals and equipment that the BJU catalog proposes for their high school chemistry course). If your high schooler is going to do lab work in chemistry you probably are going to have to find a different option (and that option may involve the public school). On the other hand if you want your child to have an orthodox formation in the faith and want them to look at all subject areas with a Christian world view, don't count on Buddhist Mr. Jones' class in comparative world fiction to help you in that pursuit. To say that is not to make a value judgement, again it's simply stating the obvious facts.

When we actually have choices, we become responsible in a way that perhaps people without choices didn't feel responsible. This generation of parents do not have the fall back option of, "well I have to send my kids to school, it's the law." Consequently they have to make choices before God that my parents' generation did not have to make. To have to make choices is much more difficult. To have people around you who make different choices is a challenge to your own.

Around here the educational establishment is currently having a hard time. Local school populations are dwindling both because of all those choices and because the population of school aged children has become smaller. They are competing for a piece of a smaller pie, but they still have to pay basic costs to run their schools and they don't really want to lay off faculty. The situation is the same in the private schools as it is in the public ones. This means that every family that makes an education otherwise decision is one less family to boost the school census come October, or one less family making tuition payments to the local private schools. People who make different choices come under a lot of pressure from the administrators of the various educational establishments. Public school administrators jealously guard public money from going into private school coffers. Private school administrators who are parts of particular churches make concerted efforts to convince the memebers of those churches to send their children to their school not to the public school and certainly not to homeschool them. Parents get criticized by their friends who make choices that are not "loyal to the parish school" or "loyal to our town school" or even "abandoning the homeschool group" (although that last one is far less commonly heard). The latest public school attempt to lure in more clients is to provide public pre-school. You can guess how popular that is proving among those people who are day care providers or owners of private pre-schools. You can guess how popular it is among stay at home moms who really don't want their 3 or 4 year old going off to school just yet.

Choices about where to live can be equally divisive. I have friends who are pretty surprised when I tell them that I drive in the Bronx and go to see our family members there. The notion that we would spend time there and especially drive there seems outlandish to these rural people who would drive 50 miles out of their way to avoid driving on a New York City street. I have come to really see the positive aspects of the Bronx Swifts' lifestyle. It's very different from ours in some ways, it's pretty much like ours in others. They miss out on some of the positive things about living here, we miss out on some of the positive things about living there. I'm sure there are positive things about living here that they might take advantage of and we don't, I also know there are positive things about living there that they don't take advantage of either (like visiting the Cloisters or attending a Latin Mass parish!). There are disadvantages about either place. When my youngest niece comes here in the summer we have to plaster her with insect repellent and then still dose her with Benadryl because she is violently allergic to mosquitoes. We have hoardes of mosquitoes here in the summer. The Bronx is relatively mosquito free. Yet there are opportunities for fresh out of the garden while the water is starting to boil corn on the cob here, that they don't have there. Driving in the city isn't a whole lot of fun (well maybe if you're twenty one and not yet paying for the insurance...), and parking in the city is a pretty constant hassle, but you can walk down to Fordham Road and get some of the best shishkabob you'll ever find right on the street, for a whole lot cheaper than you'll ever find it here.

Life as a sheep is a lot easier. You follow the herd, you don't have a lot of choices. You eat what the guy with the bucket feeds you, you don't get to decide whether organic feed is better than regular commercial feed. Of course a sheep's demise is often at the end of a chute which they followed a bunch of other sheep down. People on the other hand are faced with choices all the time. The choices have become more numerous since the advent of the internet. We no longer have to buy our tea at the one local grocery store, we can buy it from all over the world, just by clicking on an icon with our mouse. We are no longer limited to the books that are available in the local bookstore, even out of print books have become far easier to find than they were even 10 years ago. And the story goes on and on and on.

Sometimes people find themselves almost paralysed by all the choices. They are so afraid to make a mistake that they try to avoid making a decision at all, or they try to make a sheeplike decision instead of examining the choices. They choose the school their parents chose, not because it's really right for their 9th grader, but because: "our family has always sent our daughters there." They send their kid to the local school because all the other kids in the neighborhood go there, or they send them to the local Protestant school because all the other kids in the Sunday School class go there. They feed their kids Wonder bread or Lucky Charms because: "I grew up on it and it didn't hurt me." They sometimes make these choices even contrary to the evidence simply because it's more a more familiar choice and so it seems comfortable. Faced with the person in their church or neighborhood who homeschools their child or feeds them Spelt bread they feel their comfort level threatened.

I think there are plenty of good reasons to resist buying Wonder Bread (or my own favorites, Dove bars, coca cola and cheetos) and I suppose you can make a moral argument about how someone feeds their child or themselves (plenty of people have). In the end it really devolves down to making an educated choice to either allow your child some "fun food" or to not. There are good reasons to not patronize places like McDonalds, but there can sometimes be good reasons to patronize them as well (cost, predictablity, even location). Even some people who never patronize fast food places find themselves buying things at them on the long trek across I-90 in New York State, in preference to getting off the interstate and trying to find an afforable local place to eat. Choices are not always doctrinaire or simple. Sometimes it simply comes down to a matter of whether your taste buds like shrimp or not (a topic of recent discussion).

In the same way there are lots of different reasons for making a variety of educational or place of living choices. Again as long as you are making an educated choice you probably can do well with it. Parents whose kids are in school are going to have a harder time being the primary influence in their kids lives, simply because kids tend to become like the people they spend the most time with. Those parents are going to have to be far more careful to craft out family time, to limit outside activities, to teach their kids the faith consciously than the family whose kids are at home all day long. It's far too easy for kids who are in school to spend only a few minutes a day in interaction with their parents. On the other hand families who homeschool are going to have to make a real effort to get their children involved with the community and out of family friends, especially ones who don't think, dress, and act exactly like they do. We do not live in a ghetto, we live in an increasingly complex world and you do your children no favor if you give them the impression that everyone who isn't just like your family is a person to be distrusted or a person with no value. We are supposed to be a light in the darkness we are not supposed to hide our light under a bushel, or keep it just in the safety of our own homes.

We have been enriched by the choices of other people and they by ours. We have had the fun of watching our niece's choral group perform with a symphony orchestra, we've had the joy of getting to know our adopted niece from China, I've had the fun of listening to some of the wierd music my nephew from St. Louis enjoys and reading things my niece recommended. We have pictures of a trip to our ancient family town from a trip my sister's family took. My niece had at least one sweater, I suspect, made from yarn from our sheep. Our adopted niece arrived in New York and got to wear handspun, hand knit mittens and hat from Aunt Liz's wheel and needles. Our world has expanded as other people made different choices. And their worlds have inevitably expanded because of ours (even if sometimes in ways they would not have preferred).

There are choices that involve moral decisions and even some of the choices I've mentioned can have a moral component to them. It's important to recognize that the moral component of these decisions is not equivalent to the decision for or against Christ. It's also important to realize that even if you can marshall all of the statistics to defend you particular choice, some of the other choices may simply work better for someone else. Even Wonder Bread and Lucky Charms may be the only food available to the family who has to get their food from the food shelf or the "dent store" instead of the supermarket.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Memories of Daddy

I was thinking about my father this week. It actually happened because of something my son said to me about gas stations and full service. I commented that in the fifties gas attendents were not only supposed to provide full service, but they were supposed to provide it in clean uniforms (tan uniforms at that). He asked whether my father did that. I said, "He always wore blue coveralls, and they weren't always clean." Actually my father thought that the company was pretty crazy to try to enforce those kinds of standards. He often went from working on someone's car on the lift, or fixing a tire, or working under the car in the pit to pumping gas. All of those other activities generally got grease on the person doing them, hence the uniform tended to get dirty. I think the company probably thought you should have a person dedicated just to pumping gas, but in a small town service station that simply wasn't economically feasible. So my father got chastised regularly (when the company inspector showed up) for not having his uniform clean enough. Imagine how dirty a tan one would have looked!

Just think how happy we are today to find a gas station where they still pump your gas! No one would complain at all about grease on the attendants knees.

Anyway those blue coveralls didn't get discarded when we finally moved onto the farm. My father continued to wear them to milk cows, to bale hay, to spread manure, to plant fields, even to pick stone. He wore them so much that it's hard for me to come up with a memory of my father when he wasn't wearing them.

What seems so strange to me now is that I'm probably the only person left in the world to have that memory. My cousins spent so little time with my father that I doubt they have it. My aunts and uncles are mostly dead, or too forgetful to have those kinds of memories, my mother is dead, my sister is dead. So the only one to remember Daddy, his blue coveralls, his black shoes and how he smelled is me.

How fragile human life is. How hard it is to capture some memories for posterity. My memories are so connected with my senses in an elemental way I find difficult to capture in words. I can tell you that he wore blue coveralls, I could probably be even more descriptive about the blue coveralls, but only I can really still remember the feel of the blue coveralls, the feel of the big black shoes when I put my small feet into them, the special smell that was my father (which had a goodly amount of petroleum odor connected to it nearly always between gas, and oil, and diesel fuel). Only I can remember the feel of those blue coveralls when they came off the clothes line and off the stretchers in the winter time. They would be frozen stiff and have to thaw and finish drying indoors.

Only I can remember the exact place on my father's arms where they changed from farmer's tan to pale. Only I remember his last morning when we were trying to figure out whether the chest pains he was having were significant or not and how I tried to reassure him. Only I can remember years early riding in his lap on a tractor down a dirt road and just how exciting that was. Only I can remember the sound of his laughter.

I wish so much that I could give those memories to my children, to my niece, and my nephew. There is just so much about all the grandfathers that these young people had that they have missed. My daughter had a grandfather until she was 13, my son until 16, yet they missed out on his healthy years. They only knew him as a retired person with chronic illnesses. My niece never knew either of her grandfathers and my nephew was only two when his other grandfather died. What an enormous loss they have suffered by not knowing them better (or in the case of my father, at all). I identify with them in a way because one of my two grandfathers died before I was born and the other when I was just about to turn 11. Like my children I was fortunate to live near my surviving grandfather and I have many lovely memories of him.

I am feeling the weight of being the keeper of the memories lately. I feel inadequate to convey them all. Sometimes the memories that I do try to share seem not so significant to the next generation. Some of the questions that they want the answers to I just wasn't paying enough attention to at the time. I wasn't interested enough in the details of planting and silage to be able to answer the questions I get asked. The work got done, the silage went in the barn. I could describe the hay rake, but not tell you what brand it was. I know we had two John Deere tractors, but I certainly don't know the year or the model.

But I could walk into the kitchen of that farm house and know exactly where to find doughnuts or chocolate cake, where the yeast was stored, where the glasses were, and where the scale to weigh the eggs would be found. I could find salt pork and raspberry jam, I could find the genetian violet my mother painted on sore throats or the peppermint extract that she kept for stomach aches, the drawing salve that my sister swore by. Except that I actually can't. That kitchen no longer exists, the people who bought the farm completely remodeled that part of the house. The kitchen only exists in my memory.

Yet the memory is so vivid that I could almost walk through the kitchen door, shove the dog out of the overstuffed chair and plunk down in it with my feet over the arm (as always) and proceed to complain about the amount of math homework I've been given. In my memory I walk into the living room with a, glass of milk, a dish of homemade applesauce and some sharp cheddar cheese (a gift from Uncle Merle, "the Cheese Man) plop down on the couch to watch To Tell the Truth or The Edge of Night. I spend a half an hour practicing piano, and all too soon it's time for supper. We almost certainly have warmed up potatoes (a sort of version of hashbrowns, but nowhere near as crispy)which I hate, and hamburg or cottage cheese with some sort of canned vegetable. There will probably be dessert, and hopefully it won't be my sister's raspbery crisp, which never has enough sugar, but instead will be wacky cake with chocolate frosting. If I'm lucky there's no major argument between my father and my sister. That possibility always makes suppertime tense. After dinner my sister and I fight about who's going to do which part of the dishes. She doesn't like me washing because she says I get soap in the rinse water. I hate to dry and put away. After we sort that out and get finished I'll think about doing my homework, but may well get distracted by either a good book or a not so great tv show. We'll all be in bed by 9 because my father gets up early and the living room is right next to my parent's bedroom so late night tv is out. I'll probably read for a long time because after all what else is there to do... What I don't do is think about someone 40 years later trying to figure out what sort of tractor is sitting out in the shed next to the barn. More's the pity.

I just captured for you a bit of what one afternoon and evening would have been like with some of the emotions that surrounded it. I really did hate my sister's raspberry crisp, but I also hated nearly everything else made with raspberries (except jam) simply because we were inundated with raspberries every summer and I just plain got sick of them. It was years before I enjoyed them again. And I really did hate warmed up potatoes, although I don't mind them all that much now. My sister and my father did seem to battle a lot at the supper table, although I can't really recall over what. The argument about the dishes was a perennial one. And I still hate the drying end of dishes (or more accurately the putting away part).

There actually were far more times when supper had my father telling a humorous story and he would sometimes laugh over stuff until the tears rolled down his cheeks. He always had compliments for my mother's cooking, except when she attempted steak. He declared she could turn a piece of beef into shoe leather faster than anyone else he knew. Consequently when we raised a beef he'd have the butcher grind most of it and put the rest into roasts. Of course all the roasts got turned into pot roasts.She couldn't cook a beef roast rare either.

My father was an incredibly hard worker. He never took a vacation, after we moved onto the farm he rarely left it. At 56 he could outwork every twenty year old that came to help during haying season and they readily admitted it. He had an awful temper, especially when he was frustrated over financial stuff (which he was most of the time during my teenage years). He was affectionate with my mother and always called her "the old lady," or "the boss," or "the old battle axe," but we always knew that those were terms of endearment. She didn't have any real term of endearment for him at all. He was determined that we would go to college, and not any Bible school either (that was what the pastor was advocating). He was generous to a fault about providing what he thought we needed (like a decent car when we were out of college), he even offered to provide me with the down payment on a house so that I wouldn't have to pay rent (stupid me, I didn't want the responsibility of a house!). Yet he was also frugal in the extreme with us to the extent that I never had a new bike or a new pair of ice skates until I was in my twenties and bought my own. We always had to make do with second hand ones. He was a brilliant man who never had a whole lot of educational opportunities. He had to quit school after eighth grade to work on his father's farm. But when I was taking Algebra and physics he was the one who helped me with my homework. We rarely had an extra money when I was growing up. Yet when he died he left enough money for my mother to live comfortably for another 25 years and for my sister and I to both have our homes financed by his estate. He was complex and I realized as I got older far more sensitive than I gave him credit for when I was a teenager. I used to think he wasn't proud of me because he didn't show up for things like the plays I was in. I know now that he simply didn't realize that his presence was important. There never were plays in his teenage life and his relationship with his own father was far from pleasant.

There are all those nearly tangible memories floating around in my head somewhere. I can see places, I can feel textures, I can smell odors, I can even taste particular flavors. Elemental memories of my father, my mother, all the different places we lived, they're all tucked in there somewhere. Yet there's not another person to whom I can say, "Do you remember?" "Do you remember Wally Hazleton and Waleco bars?" "Do you remember the coffee frappes, or the smell of the paper coffee cups at the service station?" "Do you remember Daddy opening the coke machine and letting us have the change?" "Do you remember picking wild flowers in the Gulf with Grammy Drown and Mommy?" "Do you remember sliding down the snow that Daddy piled up in the driveway?" "Do you remember getting locked out of the house and my having to go through the rose bushes to get in through the kitchen window and how scratched I got?" "Do you remember the night there was a peeping Tom outside of the kitchen window at the farm?" "Do you remember the day that Colonel the bull put Daddy through the fence?" I can tell those stories to my children, my niece, my nephew, perhaps someday to my grandchildren (God willing), but they will always be once upon a time stories, not do you remember stories. Once upon a time stories are great, but in the do you remember stories there is an element of understanding and even forgivness that is shared. That's what I miss, someone who truly does in every sense of the word remember all of it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

One down several to go...

Well I finished Northanger Abbey and read some of the accompanying criticism in the Norton critical edition. I need to spend a bit more time with the criticism, but the next order of business is to read Evelina, by Fanny Burney. It's to be the first book on the list for the girls, so I must get cracking here. According to the Austen criticism, the Austen family knew much of Evelina by heart, so it has to be considered as an influence on Austen. In Northanger Abbey she gives Anne Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho more attention. I managed to find that on line (it's definitely not in bookstores around here!) so I will be able to give the girls some taste of that as well.

I was pondering about all the lit class stuff yesterday and realized that I prepare as thoroughly for 3 girls as I ever did for a class of over 20. In fact, since I only have one prep instead of five, I probably prepare more thoroughly. I probably prepare nearly as thoroughly as I would for a college class. It is an exercise in self-indulgence to an extent because I get to spend time reading stuff I like to read, while being able to excuse it because of the class. I certainly don't get paid anything like a minimum wage for the time I put in. I never have, because frankly it's a labor of love, not a for profit occupation. I make back enough each year to cover the cost of books and gasoline to drive to Burlington to do my research, and parking fees while I'm at the university, and no more. As long as I'm not going in the hole, I figure it's worth it. I can't say that I don't wish I could find a way to make it pay enough to bring in a bit of extra money, but there simply isn't a big enough population out there for it to do that. When I had three tutoring sessions I was actually making a little money, but with only one, I just break even. Of course since I don't actually make any money it doesn't effect our taxes, it all comes out in expenses.

What I do gain in all of this is a wonderful relationship with some teenagers and the sense that I am making a difference in their lives. Because of the nature of the class, discipline issues are non-existant. We get to sit around and talk about books, I assign the occasional piece of written work and critique it after it's completed. We go off on tangents that largely concern our common Catholic faith. The girls tell me they've learned more from me than from all their years in CCD. It's sort of like being a grandmother, I get all the fun of being with them, discussing things with them, enjoying their company without being the one to tell them to clean their rooms, do the dishes, not argue with their siblings, or do their homework. I have them for a limited period of time and then I get to send them back to their parents. It's far better than a classroom where I have to monitor uniforms, gum chewing, note passing, and general disruption. Homeschooling other people's kids is actually even more fun than homeschooling your own, at least when the kids you're teaching are as nice as the ones I've had in recent years.

Now if I could keep doing this while still finding another way to generate a little income...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Good Old Book

I mentioned in my previous post that one of the books was currently reading is Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying it and have put it on my list for my lit girls. It has captured me much more quickly than Pride and Prejudice and I hope it will do the same for them. It is Miss Austen at her wittiest and most satirical. I already have a character that I loathe and one that I'm sort of put off by. The heroine is not the snappy witted Elizabeth Bennett, but she has a stubborn streak that hopefully will serve her well through the whole story (I've only just finished book 1). Miss Austen's defense of novel alone makes picking up the book worthwhile. While the women in the story seem naive and some of them even empty headed at times, at least one of the supposedly intelligent men seems, well just boorish.

What is so timeless about Austen is her characterizations. Even though customs have changed some of the ways that people behave has remained very much the same. I can pick out girls like Isabella and men like John Thorpe both among the young people I know now and the ones that I knew thirty something years ago. I have even put a face to them pretty much based on characters I've known. I spent much of book one waiting for Catherine to give Thorpe his "walking papers," but she hasn't quite done it yet, although she has stood up to him at least once.

Anyway it's a book that is engaging me on a level I didn't really expect. If you're looking for something that's entertaining and wholesome give it a try.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tag you're it!

Karen Edmisten has sent on a meme tag for book lovers. I couldn't resist being one of her tagees so here goes. I warn you that at the end I'm going to tag some people too, so be on the look out for your name and be ready to give us the names of some books. I'll follow Karen's lead and give more than one title (at least some of the time!).

l. One book that changed your life:

Rome Sweet Home, by Scott and Kimberly Hahn
Evangelical is Not Enough, by Tom Howard
What is a Family, by Edith Schaeffer
For the Children's Sake, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

2. One book you've read more than once:
Well, the three listed under number 1, but also:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Narnia Chronicles, by. C.S. Lewis
Eclipse of the Sun, by Michael O'Brien
A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L'Engle
(actually truth be told almost any book I've ever loved I've read more than once)

3. One book you'd want on a desert island.
The Bible
Eclipse of the Sun
I'm Just Here for the Food, by Alton Brown (cooking techniques will be needed)
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome
Jackie Fee's Sweater Workshop (on a desert island I might have time to knit). The Lord of the Rings (what can I say, it's long, and I'd have time to kill).

4. One book that made you laugh.

Cheaper by the Dozen, by Gilbreth and Gilbreth
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, by Farley Mowat
Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat
We Shook the Family Tree, by Hildegarde Dawson? (I truly forget the name)
Please Don't Drink the Holy Water, by Susie Lloyd

5. One book that made you cry:

The Bird's Christmas Carol (can't remember the author, but the book's a tear jerker)
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott
Plague Journal, by Michael O'Brien

6. One book that you wish had been written
How to Read all the Books You Have on Your List Before Your 90th Birthday and Still Have Time to Clean the House

7. One book that you wish had never been written

The Group, by Mary McCarthy
Peyton Place, by Grace Metalius
Lady Chatterly's Lover
Can we say scandalized as a teenager...Obviously someone's mom wasn't a very good censor.

8. One book you're currently reading:

Reader I Married Him
Jane and the Ghosts of Netley, by Stephanie Barron
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Mulieris Dignitatem, by Pope John Paul II

9. One book you've been meaning to read:

The Authentic Catholic Woman
The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G.K. Chesterton
Introduction to Christianity, by Pope Benedict XVI

10. Tag Five Others:

1. Abby Swift
2. Amanda Swift
3. Laura Hurlburt
4. Bronx Mama
5. Apostle on Water

The More Things Change...

This week I've begun, in earnest, doing my preparation for my fall "lit class with the girls" (that in fact is what I call it). This year we are going to be studying women authors. Now I could have just coasted. I did women authors with a previous group of girls and I still have tests, etc. on my computer. However, I really wanted this to be a fresh start for me as well. We are going to be doing at least a few different female authors (adding Flannery O'Connor and Fanny Burney at a minimum and probably eliminating Agatha Christie).

As is usual for my lit class prep, I headed out to the UVM library on Tuesday. I found way more books than my 10 book limit would allow me to bring home, so I settled on 10 with a promise to come back later for more. I've spent a significant chunk of time the last couple of days a. tackling a biography of Charlotte Lennox b. reading Dr Johnson's Women (which I actually own) and c. reading Mulieris Dignitatem(which I downloaded from the internet). Now while that may look a little like getting sidetracked, it's really not. One of the significant questions in looking at women authors has to do with the Christian concept of womanhood. In pursuing feminist goals many women authors abandoned Christianity, although not all did. The women authors we will read are of both sorts, although most of them started out in a Christian context, and all grew up in nominally Christian settings. So we will end up looking at women's roles in society at various points in history, how this is described by the authors, and what impact society has on the life of faith of both the characters in the novels and the authors themselves. In fact it's pretty hard to read Jane Eyre for example and not examine those questions.

Yesterday I was reading a book entitled Reader I Married Him, written by a non-Christian feminist. In it were several quotations from Elizabeth Gaskell, speaking about Charlotte Bronte. What struck me is how contemporary the comments seemed. "Henceforward Charlotte Bronte's existence becomes divided into two parallel currents -- her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Bronte, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each charcter -- not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled. When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him...But no other can take up the quiet regular dutie of the daughter, the wife, or the mother, as well as she whom God has appointed to fill that particular place; a woman's principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents... One thing is pretty clear, Women must give up living an artists life, if home duties are to be paramount. It is different with men, whose home duties are so small a part of their life. However we are talking of women. I am sure it is healthy for them to have the refuge of the hidden world of Art to shelter themseves in when too much pressed upon by daily small Lilliputian arrows of peddling cares; it keeps them from being morbid as you say, and takes them into the lad where King Arthur lies hidden, and soothes them with its peace. I have felt this in writing, I see others feel it in music, you in painting, so assuredly a blending of the two is desirable. (Home duties and the development of the individual I mean), which you will say it takes no Solomon to tell you, but the difficulty is where and when to make one set of duties subserve and give place to the other. I have no doubt that the cultivation of each tends to keep the other in a healthy state -- my grammar is all at sixes and sevens I have no doubt but never mind if you an pick out my meaning."

Several days later she added a postscript: "If Self is to be the end of exertions, those exertions are unholy, there is no doubt of that--and that is part of the danger in cultivating the Individual Life; but I do believe we have all some appointed work to do, which no one else can doso well; Wh is our work; what we have to do in advancing the Kingdom of God; and that first we must find out what we are sent into the world to do, and define it and make it clear to ourselves, (that's the hard part)and then forget ourselves in our work, and our work in the End we ought to strive to bring about."

Now does that not sound like the modern dilemma that faces serious Christian women who are called both to motherhood and some other vocation? Plus ca change... I do think that for contemporary Christian men the problem is not dissimilar. Fathers have become more aware of the need for active fathering than many men seemed to be at the time that Elizabeth Gaskell was writing. I truly believe that rural men of the soil, or craftsmen whose sons worked beside them probably even then were active fathers, but in the same way that the boss in Baby Boom saw home and family as his wife's responsibility, it was easy for the pater familias to simply leave domestic things up to his wife. Now it is also easy for a mother to leave domestic things to day care centers, or nannies and housekeepers, but I don't think that Elizabeth Gaskell would see that as an improvement. It seems to me that she saw the very balance between the human needs we are surrounded with and our intellectual pursuits to be a very good thing.

It was so encouraging to read these words and realize that here was someone who looked at the "Woman Question" from within the context of Christian faith. The author of the book was very dismissive of Gaskell's submission to Divine Will, no big surprise there. It was an example of how readers bring different world views to their reading of a passage. I happened to really relate to Gaskell, which means of course that my next library trip I'm going to have to search her out.

A message to my niece: So you see, Laura, I'm not unaware of the feminist side of things, even if I won't insist on the girls reading Simone Du Beauvoir or Sylvia Plath.