Culture, Els' Rabbit Trails, Links worth a look, style

Rabbit Trail: Talkin’ bout My Generation.

benetton

In general, I am not a big fan of the New York Times. As news outlets go, they are subpar despite their legacy. Nevertheless, they caught and held my attention with this recent style piece on my generation, GenX.  In This Gen X Mess, they described us this way:

Like many things considered “cool,” Gen X is pretty exclusive. You had to be born between 1965 and 1980 to get in to this gloomy, goofy club of forgotten middle children, and only about 65 million of us were. (Both boomers, at 75 million, and millennials, at 83 million, far outnumber us.)

The idea behind that “X” was about coming between. Gen X supposedly didn’t know what they were, or what they wanted. All they knew, they were told, was what they didn’t want — marriage, money, success — and then they shrugged and popped a Prozac.

As “Reality Bites” celebrates its 25th anniversary; as groups like Bikini Kill, Wu-Tang Clan and Hootie & the Blowfish reunite for tours; as generational idols like Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair publish memoirs; and as the first real Gen X candidates make a run for president, Gen X is in the air.

And you know what else Gen X is? Getting older. Its oldest members are 54; its youngest are preparing for 40. As we try to make sense of that fact, here’s a look at the stuff we loved and hated, as well as a re-evaluation of things like “The Rules,” grunge, CK One and 1994; an appreciation of John Singleton; a quiz to figure out which generation you actually are; and a visit with Evan Dando, plus some dynamite for the myths that have always dogged Gen X. So plug in your headphones, click on that Walkman and let’s travel through this time machine together.

I was born almost smack dab in the middle of the Gen X years, and am at exactly the halfway mark between the oldest GenXers (54) and the youngest (40). I remember many of the things they included in their retrospective. The youth culture which took place from the mid-80s until 1993, I remember quite well: Sony Walkman, the Challenger explosion, United Colors of Benetton, and the off-beat, quirky style of Lisa Bonet smudging the then squeaky clean image of Bill Cosby’s hit family sitcom.

walkman
picture credit

 

The items outlined from 1993 onward, I can hardly remember. While most of my contemporaries were plugged into popular youth culture in 1994, I was marrying and giving birth to our first child. The only thing I remember about the 1990s with any clarity is the music. There was always the music, but we had twins in 1995, so I spent the next three years in something of a sleep deprived fog. Somehow though, the music was always playing.

Our generation was also the first to be treated to parental advisory warning stickers on our music labels, courtesy of Tipper Gore. For some reason, I find that uproariously funny. I don’t recall the brouhaha, but I do remember the appearance of the stickers. My generation spent an obscene amount of money CDs that almost always got scratched and damaged, rendering them unusable. Then we spent even more money on those solutions and contraptions which claimed to repair scratched CDs; with mixed success.

The entire section discussing 1994 struck me as a bunch of things I have vaguely heard -more likely read about- in passing, but have no tangible memories of. I was, quite simply, not doing the typical 22-year-old thing. I do remember the Motorola pagers because my young husband -two years younger than I- had to carry one for work. Somehow, he remembers a lot more of the things that happened back then than I do. He must have been getting more sleep.

 

clueless backpack
Alicia Silverstone Clueless (picture credit)

Tiny backpacks were apparently a trend I missed courtesy of Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 film movie Clueless, but like all fashion trends, I get to witness it a second time around as our youngest daughters each carry a tiny backpack as a purse. I also didn’t see Clueless the year it debuted (busy chasing toddlers), but it turns out that I really enjoyed the very modern spin on Jane Austen’s Emma.

 

The NYT piece concludes, and I agree, that my generation was a mess:

Generation X, who came of age eating microwaved burritos and watching “Gomer Pyle” reruns while Mom and Dad were at the office, were depressed.

Enter Eli Lilly’s magical green-and-white pill, which was introduced in 1986, but became almost as defining to the gloomy 1990s as that other pill — “the pill” — was to the sexually liberated 1960s. Elizabeth Wurtzel and loads of other 20-somethings became citizens of Prozac Nation. Eventually, people started to murmur about the drug’s potentially dark complications, including sexual dysfunction and suicide. At the time, though, the biggest crisis this chemical-smiley-face equivalent posed was one of generational identity: If we children of the 1990s could no longer brand ourselves as sullen, nihilistic Kurt Cobain clones, what in the heck were we?

I was not depressed, another fortunate side effect of being too overrun with life stuff to really think about who I was and what I didn’t accomplish, but I do recall the number of women in the early 2000s who had few qualms about openly admitting they were on anti-depressants.

The most interesting part of the entire retrospective was the list of books that were published during those years (1984-1995), supposedly shaping a generation.

I haven’t read a single one.

 

 

children's books, fiction, homeschool, novels

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

Classics, educational, homeschool, In other's words, joys of reading, parenting

No Time for Reading Books?

More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.

John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.

Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:

In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.

When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:

Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.

This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:

That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.

Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.

 

In other's words, nonfiction, politics, quotable literary quotes

A Preview of Coming Attractions: The Two-Income Trap

Due to my haphazard style of reading several books at once, it often takes me longer to finish a book than it would if I’d just pick a book and stick through it already. My reading is much more targeted when I read fiction, and especially so if I am enjoying the characters and plot. With nonfiction, however, it may  take as long as two months to finish a book as I pivot from one volume to the next depending on the topic I’m in the mood to read about.

I’m currently moving -albeit glacially- through Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, which I’ve been reading for a few weeks. I should finish by May’s end, as I’m more than halfway through it at this point. However, in the interest of keeping my personal commitment to write more and post installments here with greater regularity, I decided to preview the forthcoming review with a rather profound insight from Mrs. Warren, found on page 67 of her book:

So how did families get sucked into the Two-Income Trap? The answer is unexpectedly simple: No one saw it coming.

The politics that surrounded women’s collective decision to integrate into the workforce are a study in misdirection. On the left, the women’s movement was battling for equal pay and equal opportunity, and any suggestion that the family might be better off with Mother at home was discounted as reactionary chauvinism. On the right, conservative commentators accused working mothers of everything from child abandonment to defying the laws of nature. The atmosphere was far too charged for any rational assessment of the financial consequences of sending both spouses into the workforce.

The massive miscalculation ensued because both sides of the political spectrum discounted the financial value of the stay-at-home mother. [emphasis mine]

Despite my feelings about Elizabeth Warren the politician, this is very insightful commentary from the Elizabeth Warren of 16 years ago, the professor.

I look forward to reviewing this work in a fuller context sometimes next week.

 

children's books, educational, In other's words

In Praise of Frog and Toad

FrogandToad1

Once again, Joshua Gibbs offers us plenty of encouragement and food for thought. In his recent article, Why We Need Frog and Toad More Than Ever, he extols the virtues of children’s books which offer opportunities for growth rather than banal celebrations for existing.

If I were not a Christian, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books would be my holy scripture. When I meet a sane adult, I assume his sanity comes largely from having heard Frog and Toad stories in his youth. Yesterday, I read my sophomore humanities students four stories from a Frog and Toad anthology. It would be impolite to assume you, noble reader, are not intimately familiar with all the Frog and Toad stories, but, in case too many years have elapsed between today and your last reading, I will briefly describe the four stories I read to my sophomores.

After offering synopses of the Frog and Toad stories entitled, “Cookies”, “The Lost Button”, “Tomorrow”, and “A Swim”, each as funny as they are profound, Mr. Gibbs points out the clear yet deftly presented lesson from each story:

Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth,” and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.

As an avid library patron as well as a teacher and homeschool parent, I can attest to Gibbs’ follow-up point. Namely, that most contemporary children’s stories fall far short of Frog and Toad when it comes to teaching relevant life lessons. It’s almost as if they fear children can’t handle real life opportunities to suffer -even on a small scale- and grow as a result:

However, children’s books have become increasingly squeamish when it comes to addressing genuine human problems, let alone the idea that vice must be painfully overcome through virtue. In the 1970s, a girl named Tina in a children’s book might be afraid to learn to ride a bike, then slowly learn with the help of her mother and friends. Today, the same book does not involve Tina learning anything, but is simply 1) a celebration of the fact Tina can already ride a bike or 2) a celebration of the fact Tina could learn to ride a bike if she so chose or 3) a celebration of the fact that while Tina cannot ride a bike, she can do 50 other interesting things. Granted, not all contemporary kids books are this banal, but one should not pick up a lately published children’s book and expect to find a character like Frog, who recognizes that he and his friend are gluttons and properly concludes, “We need will power.”

Now there’s a novel thought; that children benefit from learning self-control at an early age. Instead, and this not true of all contemporary children’s books, but I have seen this dynamic more than once:

Contemporary children’s books are big on celebrations. Were Frog and Toad stories rewritten today, Frog and Toad would feel no need to stop eating cookies but finish the bowl and celebrate their new curvaceous amphibian bodies. Toad would feel no need to clean his house but celebrate the fact that some people are simply messy and others are just neat. I also sense that Toad is— to us, at least— a lost button survivor, and that regardless of how unvirtuously he handled losing his button, he deserves a medal just for having something mildly unfortunate happen to him.

Gibbs makes an excellent point here, and all of this: the refusal to teach delayed gratification, suffering, and overcoming problems through strength of character, have lead us to the situation that many of us,old-fashioned as we are, lament today:

This current tendency (in children’s books and the world beyond) to sidestep problems and suffering and instead focus on praise and celebration has not made our lives more enjoyable, more satisfying, or more peaceable. While lately published articles suggest Americans are among the most stressed out people in the world, I am not content that “most stressed out” distinguishes handling a lot of stress well from handling a little stress very poorly. As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self.

I think I’ll end right there and invite you to click over and read the whole thing.

I know this much: I’ll never think of Frog and Toad quite the same way again.

Classics, fiction, short stories

More big ideas in short stories

leaf_by_niggle_tolkien

Short stories, done well, are a literary treasures delivering a wealth of food for thought.

First inspired by Lindsay Brigham Knott’s piece at Circe Institute’s superb classical education blog, then further by Maeve at Wanna Be Martha, I spent a little time during a road trip this weekend reading short stories. The stories, which ran the gamut in terms of content and message, are all well done, literary treasures which delivered a wealth of food for thought. Each of these three linked stories are enjoyable, although in wholly different ways:

  • Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes: When a young purse snatcher picks the wrong mark on her way home from work one night, he gets far more than he bargained for, in the most unexpected ways.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor: There’s not a whole lot to love here besides O’Connor’s deft turn of phrase and the uncomfortable irony which rounds out this strange tale. This is classic Flannery O’Connor. You kind of either love her work or hate it.
  • Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien: This one is last on the list, but certainly not least, as it’s the story I gleaned the most insight from of the three. Niggle fights the battle I have not yet conquered. It’s one which Lindsay Brigham Knott beautifully dissects in her Circe piece; the battle of mastering our time in such a way that we fulfill the duties of our vocations, fulfill our soul’s longings through our avocations, and get proper rest, all without being overwhelmed. Niggle learns this lesson “too late”. I interpret that Tolkien’s way of demonstrating how tough the battle is, even when, like Niggle, our hearts are “in the right place”.

If you happen to take the time to read any of these (or have read any of them), take a minute to include your opinions of them. I’m dying to know!

Related:

Classics, fiction, novels

A Girl of the Limberlost

girl of the limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.