Culture, Els' Rabbit Trails, In other's words, writing

Rabbit Trail: In Defense of Being Average

There are a few book reviews in draft for next week, including The Two-Income Trap, of which I offered a preview some time back.  In the meantime, I ran across this piece from Mark Manson that really struck a chord with me. Manson makes the case, complete with his characteristic smattering of colorful language, that our current cultural obsession with being exceptional has caused most people to lose sight of the glaringly obvious: most of us are average Janes and Joes. And that’s perfectly okay.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. But the fact is, most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re truly exceptional at one thing — say math, or jump rope, or making money off the black gun market — chances are you’re pretty average or below average at most other things. That’s just the nature of life. To become truly great at something, you have to dedicate time and energy to it. And because we all have limited time and energy, few of us ever become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all.

We can then say that it is a complete statistical improbability that any single person can be an extraordinary performer in all areas of their life, or even many areas of their life. Bruce Wayne does not exist. It just doesn’t happen. Brilliant businessmen are often f*ck ups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Most celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.

We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people. It’s the extremes that get all of the publicity. We all kind of intuitively know this, but we rarely think and/or talk about it. The vast majority of us will never be truly exceptional at, well, anything. And that’s OK.

Which leads to an important point: that mediocrity, as a goal, sucks. But mediocrity, as a result, is OK.

Few of us get this. And fewer of us accept it. Because problems arise — serious, “My God, what’s the point of living” type problems — when we expect to be extraordinary. Or worse, we feel entitled to be extraordinary. When in reality, it’s just not viable or likely. For every Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, there are 10 million scrubs stumbling around parks playing pickup games… and losing. For every Picasso or DaVinci there have been about a billion drooling idiots eating Play-Doh and slapping around fingerpaints. And for every Leo {expletive] Tolstoy, there’s a lot of, well, me, scribbling and playing at writer.

That last bit gave me quite a chuckle, as an aspiring writer myself, but I know he’s right. Thankfully, I’m depending more on my message than the medium should I finish what I have begun to write. Nevertheless, Manson is spot on. We live under what could almost be described as the tyranny of exceptionalism:

So here’s the problem. I would argue that we have this expectation (or this entitlement) more today than any other time in history. And the reason is because of the nature of our technology and economic privilege.

Having the internet, Google, Facebook, YouTube and access to 500+ channels of television is amazing. We have access to more information than any other time in history.

But our attention is limited. There’s no way we can process the tidal waves of information flowing through the internet at any given time. Therefore the only ones that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional pieces of information. The 99.999th percentile.

All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst. The greatest physical feats. The funniest jokes. The most upsetting news. The scariest threats. Non-stop.

Our lives today are filled with information coming from the extremes of the bell curve, because in the media that’s what gets eyeballs and the eyeballs bring dollars. That’s it. Yet the vast majority of life continues to reside in the middle.

You really should read the entire piece. The bell curves are informative, the graphics are entertaining, and the videos are funny.

I actually love my average life, as I have come to greatly appreciate a life filled with love, but there is one area where I am definitively on the right side of the bell curve: I’m 5 feet, 9 inches tall!

men_women_height

Y’all have a good weekend, and if your father is still with you, show him that he’s exceptional to you.

Happy Father’s Day to the dads who honor this little blog with your time and attention.

Content advisory: Manson drops the occasional f-bomb. If you hadn’t noticed.

 

children's books, Classics, humor, tales from the local library

Russell Hoban’s Frances Series

bedtime for frances

Some stories never get old or go out of style. The children’s picture books featuring Frances the Badger by Russell Hoban is a series which fits this bill. My children have aged out the books, or at least I thought so, but we’ll get to that a little later.

For the past several months, a lovely young homeschooling mother who is a friend of mine has been teaching our daughter to play the piano. Despite numerous attempts to offer her remuneration for her time and talent, the only thing she requests of me is that I read to her youngest children in exchange for the lessons. Since her native language is Korean, she’s determined that the time I spend reading to her kids is a valuable exchange.

Our home library is constantly evolving, so I’ve exhausted all the books we have which might sustain the interest of a three and five-year-old (even accounting for repeating books!). So yesterday I went to the library in search of books to read to the children this week. After reading through several newer children’s books and finding only two of nine worth checking out, I searched my mental Rolodex for specific authors that might suit my needs and narrow my search.

I originally thought of Arnold Lobel, but there was nothing on the shelf at that branch which sparked my interest. Then I remembered Frances, and all the stories about her that are funny, well-written, and teach lessons in ways that are profound and true without being preachy. My children thoroughly enjoyed the books when they were younger. I found copies of several books in the Frances series:

While preparing breakfast this morning, I noticed our 12-year-old sitting at the table with the entire stack of books in front of her, saying to herself, “Ooh! I love these books!” She cracked open Bedtime for Frances, and got my attention as she read a funny exchange from the book out loud.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep, and several trips to her mother and father with various excuses and fears about things that go bump in the night, Frances’s father puts his foot down, exasperated with her constant interruptions which are disrupting his sleep:

Frances said, “There is something moving the curtains. May I sleep with you?”

Father said, “Listen Frances, do you want to know why the curtains are moving?’

“Why?” said Frances.

“That is the wind’s job,” said Father. “Every night the wind has to go around and blow all the curtains.”

“How can the wind have a job?” said Frances.

Everybody had a job,” said Father. “I have to go to my office every morning at nine o’clock. That is my job. You have to go to sleep so you can be wide awake for school tomorrow. That is your job.”

Frances said, “I know, but…”

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you don’t go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.

“No,” said Father.

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.

“Right!” said Father.

“Good night!” said Frances, and she went back to her room.

We had a good laugh, and I realized that we never really age out of a good story. Russell Hoban, using Frances the little badger, provided children with great stories.

If you have young ones and you’ve never read these, you should check them out.

books for women, Christian, my friend wrote this book!, nonfiction

Coming Attractions: Beauty Destroys the Beast

I encourage everyone who reads this blog to click over to Hearthrose’s Ramblings to find out how to get your copy of Beauty Destroys the Beast, by Amy Fleming.  I haven’t read it yet, but I will be reading it soon, and can hardly wait to give it a proper review!

Hearthie is a dear friend of mine with a deep passion for helping women be all that we can be, not just for ourselves or our families, but ultimately so that we can fulfill our eternal purpose:

Are you like me? Like most women? Do you have an aching hole where the pain and confusion about physical beauty and its place in your spiritual life have eaten into your heart? Does that pain stop you from grabbing your sword and getting into battle – does it keep you from doing the things that you know you’re called to do in this life?

Do you want to address the hard questions about how to deal with this body you wear? Do you need some encouragement to be who God made you to be? I wrote this book for you, Christian sister. I wrote this book for those of us who are walking wounded, but ready to take back all that belongs to our King. For those of us who are tired of listen to fear and lies. It’s meant to change your life, and by changing your life, enabling you to change the lives of others around you.

Beauty can destroy the beast of lies – it’s time to set her free.

Seriously, click here to find out how you can get this book in your hands. It would be so great to be able to have a robust discussion of it with those of you who read here.

Hope you’re having a great weekend.

 

 

coming from where I'm from, educational, homeschool, writing

Continuing Education Adjustments- Writer’s Edition

Juggling the student ball with wife and motherhood balls is a delicate balancing act. I assumed that enrolling in Local U. via online classes would significantly reduce the need to carefully schedule my life. I was mistaken. I thought having done this before, I knew what it would be like, but my life is much different now than it was the first time I went back to college.

Back then, I had three children rather than five, and those kids were in school from 8AM-3PM, freeing up many hours to take care of everything that needed to be taken care of, without much interruption. Even when I accounted for my school volunteer time, I had at least 20 solo hours a week to dedicate to studying, housework, and self-care without missing very many beats.

This time, I have two children with me all day, every day, and I am responsible for their education as well as my own. It’s summer, so the demand is significantly less, which is why chose a summer session, but there are still demands to be met alongside the time I spend doing class work and participating on class discussion boards. My husband, the driving force behind me finally taking the plunge and hitting the books again, has been extremely helpful, as have our older children, but at the end of the day, I’m still the mistress of this little domain. As such, I always feel the pressure to make sure that I get done what needs to get done. Overall, it’s going quite well.

As an aspiring writer, I decided that current knowledge of industry information was paramount to accomplishing my goal. I’m not particularly interested in typing out my random thoughts, checking the grammar, and then self-publishing. There are millions upon millions of books out there which meet minimum standards of readability, but I desire to do more than that. And while I have heartfelt appreciation for the many people who have encouraged me over the years that I write well, and have something worth saying, even the roughest diamond needs a lot of polishing. When I write what is in my heart, I want it to shine.

One area of knowledge I believe is important is a thorough, working knowledge of current copy editing standards. The first round of classes I am taking will leave me with the certifications I need to be proficient as a professional copy editor. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time has noticed that my writing is often riddled with typos. Training my eye to see mistakes quickly, to notice deficiencies in syntax, and to make the most of my writing style can only help me as I combine my thoughts into something worthwhile.

The surprising thing about this new excursion has been discovering that I know much more than I realized. There have been moments, even in the scant three weeks since I started the first class, when I have felt woefully over prepared. I did well on my pre-assessment, when I expected to do much worse considering the years I’ve been out of the classroom- as a student. I haven’t run into any major difficulties yet. The temptation is rising in me to coast and not put in the effort to excel. I’m not sure if any real effort will even be required for me to excel. The area which has required the most mental diligence is the study of specific publishing indutry standards, of which I am woefully ignorant. This experience is teaching me something valuable.

My years out of the classroom (as a student) and at home, haven’t been void of learning, growth, or intellectual stimulation. Homeschooling my cildren, as well as teaching the children of other homeschooling families, has kept me sharp and up to speed on a lot of things I may have otherwise lost along the way.

Investing the time and treasure to pursue this continuing education is worth the shuffle. Whether I succeed at writing an inspiring tome, or simply make a few bucks as a freelance editor, this will, I pray, prove to be a rewarding encounter for years to come.

Culture, educational, homeschool, In other's words, writing

A Logophile’s Educational Musings

I really enjoy word games. Whether Words with Friends, Word Cookies, or Word Cross, they can keep me entangled and unproductive for longer than I care to admit. I love words in general, and my children have inherited many of my logophile ways. Grammar, turns of phrases, and puns are regular sources of conversation for us; as well as the origins of many idioms and axioms. Words fascinate me. More than fun or even useful, words are also powerful.

We throw them around far too carelessly, forgetting that words can be agents of uncommon inspiration or destructive demoralization. I am among the aforementioned we.  I’m not always careful with my words either. I’d like to think that as a lover of words, I’m more careful than most, but a subjective analysis isn’t worth much.

In a culture where nearly everything is dumbed down to its base level, is it any wonder that great ideas, expressed in beautiful prose, are lacking? Where does the ability to express ourselves and encourage others come from, whether verbally or in written form? If “intellectual stimulation” is gathered mostly through Twitter, television, YA fiction and Facebook blurbs, it doesn’t offer much to draw on for discussing big ideas.

Lindsay Brigham Knott examines what this means for helping students to develop as writers in her recent offering at Circe Institute’s Apiary blog.

Amongst the greatest gifts a classical school can bestow upon its students is the opportunity to become skilled in the use of words.

“Opportunity,” not “ability,” for no institution nor teacher nor curriculum can make good writers any more than one man can convert another: the student himself must labor to train his hands for the task, and pray for the Muse to animate them. But it is incumbent upon classical schools—which aim to make students more human, tend all their natural capacities into full blossom, unshackle their desires and discipline their wills towards the wise use of leisure time, and enable them to know and live “the good life,” all by nurturing them in wisdom and virtue—to commit a large portion of their and their students’ energies to word-training.

In other words, words and their usage are vitally important. A cursory glance or slightly perked ear easily reveals how words can be used to manipulate everything from our spending habit to political policies to social and cultural mores. She adds:

It’s in attempt to communicate this vision that I often begin writing classes by asking students to consider all the parts of their lives that involve words. By words we commune with family and friends who give our days meaning; by words we decree the rules and call the plays of sports that delight our bodies and imaginations; by words we advertise the commodities that flood the markets and saturate our desires; by words we scribble out daily lists of chores, assignments, groceries, goals, dreams that form us down the years; by words we struggle to illumine the murky impulses of our own mysterious souls; by words we receive God’s scriptural self-revelation and respond in prayer and praise.

The question this author poses is whether or not those of us committed to classical education are seeing the fruits of our labor as graduates from classical schools and programs are launched into the world. Do the students reflect a level of thoughtfulness in their use of language which reflects years of studying St. Augustine, Homer, or Spenser? She determines that the answer is negative, but that most of us barely notice or see this as a problem. After all:

…they made good grades in their classical schools. Their college professors compliment their uncommon ability to express individual opinions and formulate intriguing thesis statements. Their essays ruin the curve for the rest of the class. They do in fact use words well . . . in the supremely limited context of academic writing and speaking.

This dichotomy suggests that classical school students are, in fact, mastering what their schools give them opportunity to learn about using words—but that schools themselves may not be shaping those opportunities as holistically as they could. Consider: most classical schools do prioritize training in language. Indeed, many schools of the Classical Renewal so emphasize the subjects and sequence of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) that some onlookers may equate “classical education” with “linguistic and literary education,” consisting of lots of Latin, lots of old books, and lots of essays. But by and large, curricula and classroom instruction suggests that skill with words means merely correct grammar, proper essay structure, varied diction and syntax, and a tasteful sprinkling of rhetorical flourishes, for that is what they teach and assess.

In other words:

I wonder whether classical schools, in their laudable zeal to train students to write well, have unconsciously adopted a model of writing instruction that does not in fact cohere with their larger aims for students—humanness, rightly-formed desires, the good life, wisdom and virtue. Too often they have taken the best of the writing instruction that non-classical schools use, focusing exclusively on academic writing like persuasive essays, literary analysis, or research papers, and married it to classically-influenced content of old books and rhetorical terminology. The fruit of the union is a program that is more college preparatory than classical, and graduates whose skill with words differs from that of their peers only in the classroom.

You should read the whole thing.

What Mrs. Knott describes is the perpetual challenge homeschoolers of every stripe must overcome. For those of us who were traditionally educated, the tendency to transfer the strategies, pace and benchmarks to our kitchen tables –while using better literature- is a constant temptation. Old habits die hard and all that.

These habits, coupled with unhealthy media consumption and reading habit, don’t only create writers with less appreciation for using words well, they also fail to inoculate emerging adults with the foundational ideals necessary to counter the onslaught of propaganda and clever use of words they’ll encounter throughout their lives.

Words, read, spoken, and written, are powerful. We forget this to our peril.

educational, Els' Rabbit Trails, homeschool, Uncategorized

The Ever-Evolving Summer Break

flip flops

When I was a kid in school, the sound of the last school bell on the last day of school was a clear and crisp break from all things school related. Alice Cooper’s screechy anthem about school being out for summer is an apt description of how we felt.

One of the things I’ve noticed as we move away from homeschooling at the elementary grade level is that summer breaks are not the same as summer breaks when I was a kid. I was of course, educated in government schools, which played a large part in the way I experienced summer breaks. After spending time this week with other homeschool mothers, I realized that there are several differences contributing to the way our kids experience summer break today, regardless of how they are being educated.

Summer is often when we catch up on subjects that we didn’t finish during the school year while managing life. Dealing with the plumber, caring for aging parents, or even simple things like making dinner early in preparation for mid-week church activities cuts into time that might have been spent doing more school work. This is not an issue when kids are in school all day, leaving Mom the margin to tackle all those tasks without worrying that education is being diminished. Someone else is doing the heavy lifting of setting the pace and disseminating the instruction.

Even when we’re taking breaks for fun activities and summer vacations, preparation for the upcoming school year is always on our minds. Courses at the most popular tutoring and private schools which offer classes in partnership with homeschoolers fill up fast in the spring. There’s also the push to shop for the best curriculums at the best prices.

Another reason summer breaks of yesteryear were a lot freer is that for most of us, both parents were at work, so unless a kid was naturally an avid reader, summer could be pretty void of intellectual pursuits. In our house, there were more chores to do, such as yard work, cleaning house, and hanging laundry on the clothesline, and there is a lot of value in those things. Our culture underestimates the dimension it adds to a young person’s life when they contribute to the life of the family.  Additionally, we usually had activities in our immediate area to participate in; sports and camps at local schools which we could walk to rather than being stuck in the house because we couldn’t go anywhere without a ride from our parents.

The memory of walking to local activities reminds me of yet another difference between summer break then and now. We walked to these activities with other kids from the neighborhood. Friends were always nearby. We had time outside, exercise and a healthier overall environment than kids today. Our kids are spending a lot of time with their friends this summer. But they are only able to do it becuase their mothers, acting as social secretaries, carve out the time to make sure they get to one another. My closest playmates, however, lived on my street. None of this includes consideration of how many kids are more content staying inside playing on computers, video games, and smart phones than going outside.

Our kids have a lot of fun times to look forward to this summer. They’ll be learning new things in a fun environment, swimming with friends, and taking a few short trips; when they aren’t catching up on mathematics.

If this sounds like a lament that our homeschooled kids are not enjoying the identical flavor of summer break that I did, it isn’t. While things are unquestionably less idyllic than my summer breaks, there are many things that are much better.

First of all, they get to learn in a safe envirnonment.  I get to know them, for better or worse, in ways I wouldn’t if they were gone 7 hours a day. They have opportunities to develop life skills beyond things you can learn in a book. They also engage a wide variety of people -including kids across a wide age range- which is much more preferable to spending the entirety of their days sitting cheek to jowl with kids who are the exact same age as they are, a situation which offers very little opportunity to learn deep truths about love, life, and faith.

So while I’m noting that summer break is not as unstructured, school free, and carefree for my kids as it was for me, it’s still a great time of relaxation and fun. It’s not just a tme of relaxation and fun. Truthfully, continuing math and setting reading goals throughout the summer costs a little time while paying huge dividends. Things just aren’t as simple as they used to be, and you hardly see any suburban kids out and about, regardless of school type.

Maybe the unencumbered summer break is going the way of so many other relics of times past.

Is what it is.

 

 

 

 

Christian, Culture, nonfiction

Building the Benedict Option

building the benedict option

Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. by Leah Libresco. Published in 2018. 163 pages. Foreword by Rod Dreher.

File this one under, “What a misleading title!”

This book, inspired by Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, offers ideas and strategies for building Benedict Option style communities on a small scale so that fellow believers can forge lasting and meaningful relationships of support in a world where Christian values are increasingly coming under assault or being discarded.

Overall, I really like this book. The spirit of community and fellowship this author taps into through her ideas and recounting of her experiences and struggles to build intentional community are a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, I found the title misleading because what she describes and suggests falls far short of the proposition offered in The Benedict Option. In fact, I find that her prescriptions are more achievable, realistic avenues to community support than you’ll find in the original book, and here’s why.

The Benedict Option (BenOp, as it is referred to by those most familiar), is built on the idea of Christian families of like faith and values withdrawing from the dominant culture, building separate communities, and hunkering down to wait out the inevitable collapse of our current cultural and political house of cards. Those believers who remain when the dust settles will, theoretically, be able to rebuild on the foundation of a sane culture and a pure, robust faith.

At least, that was my initial understanding of BenOp, before I read and reviewed the book. The Benedict Option book provided a much less strict version of my original understanding, but it was still based on the idea of Christians’ near full withdrawal from the dominant culutre. It was more understanding of current reality, as well as our commitment to the Great Commission, but Christians were certainly called to be on the outside looking in as much as possible.

Building the Benedict Option, on the other hand, is more about building the kind of intentional community that provides believers a respite from the madness and a touchpoint with other Christians to pray, discuss matters of faith, and offer spiritual and emotional support. At no point does her book intimate that Christians should be completely withdrawn in a way that keeps them out of the loop of the world around them.

Libresco draws heavily on the idea of the beguines, Christian lay orders which existed in the 13-16th centuries. Although beguines were controversial at the time of their existence because the non-monastic orders were comprised solely of women, Libresco believes there is much we can learn from the model as we attempt to build intentional Christian communities. The basis of her idea is that we can start small gatherings of the faithful and watch our communities grow from there:

If you want to start creating community, look for examples around you to imitate, or even co-opt. If free pizza attracted people in college, maybe it will keep working now that you’re all (ostensibly) adults? If beguines shared their lives and had home-based trades, maybe you should take up…weaving. Or Etsy crafting. Or whatever it is the twenty-first-century equivalent that lets people be home and ready to welcome each other during the day. Branching out from what is already working or what you know has worked in the past isn’t a bad way to begin, but if you stop there, a lot will be occluded from your view.

From there she encourages Christians to go beyond things like books clubs or other types of events that have been done before, and to think more along the lines of events that can meet a real need that people across a wide life spectrum may have. It’s a great idea, and she does a great job laying out her case and examples. However, as I said earlier, this is not exactly BenOp in its purest form. Not as I understood it.

According to the parameters put forth in this book, our family has been steeped in BenOp activity for at least a decade, and especially so over the past three years. We have been cultivating deep friendships with other families, spending time in one another’s homes, celebrating and mourning together, and generally have a pretty tight social bubble even though our cadre of families attends different churches on Sunday. Which leads me to ask the question I’ve never quite been able to get a clear handle on, not even from its originator’s writings: What exactly IS the Benedict Option?

This book doesn’t answer that question, but it does do a good job of encouraging Christians to think more deeply about how much we need each other, even in our convenient, individualistic, atomized culture.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Leah Libresco, who authors this book, is Roman Catholic and the flavor of Catholicism is strong throughout the book. Rod Dreher, who wrote the forward for this book and the book which inspired it, is Orthodox. These are perspectives you should keep in mind as you read the book.