Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why I Love M.F.K. Fisher

Fisher as a young woman
I'll begin by saying I've read Fisher for many years, and instead of boring you with opinion, I'll launch right into a wonderful passage from From the Journals of M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher is in her early 30s. She's writing about her sick mother.

"...We came in to find Mother's door open and her in her Chinese robe in the Irish chair. She looked very pretty -- her skin was younger and fresher than it had been for years, and I felt that she smelled better, probably, in her intimate cracks -- and she was playing 'The Pretty Tyrant' as she had not played it since she was a bride, I wager. It has its boring side ... mainly because her twenty-five-year habit of talking anywhere in the house and expecting everyone anyplace else in the house to listen has become exaggerated by her power, as an invalid, so that she talks in her rather weak voice almost constantly and expects us to listen no matter where we are. That may be one reason why Rex is such an accomplished deaf person. Anyway, we are so relieved to have Mother still alive that we submit with fatuous and unbreathed gladness to her coquetry, and only occasionally do we admit to boredom." (477)

I read that, and whispered, Yes to myself. Such a familiar family experience. Such accurate description of both person and feeling. A sad admission that we know people like this, and a fearful worry that we are a bit like this ourselves.

Fisher is more careful and literary in her writings intended for publication. This is an everyday journal intended for the fire, eventually. At 32, she's already published her first successful book, Serve It Forth, but has not repeated that success. Instead she is struggling through the illness that will take her husband's life a few months from this time. Her prose is entering maturity. In a later entry she writes:

"Just now T. and I went out from the warm lighted study and the whuddering firelight of the living room to the porch and watched a half rainbow grow and die against the hills. Sunlight, long and yellow, flung itself against the middle distance of San Jacinto in an intense blot -- San Jacinto hills, not the mountain, which was blue and far from us. The hills showed their folds and meadows like old elephant hide, and in front of them the valley and the little lizard of land blazed with arsenic, Paris gray, as violent as dying California leaves can be, yellow and hideously beautiful. The rainbow curved up, more and more intensely, never higher than the quarter-arm but plainly from Soboba, and then it faded. We felt cold and came into the reassurance of the house. The harsh yet measured beauty of the scene before us was disturbing."  (T. is her husband.) (478)

When she wants to turn descriptive, lovely and literary, she can in a moment. A few sentences later she notes, "I am verbose but uninspired" today. "My mind is full of my own despair, muted fortunately. It is best to write of things like weather and furniture." Beautiful passages like the one above are a second choice to the things that truly fill her mind. She says in the next entry, "My heart is heavy, thinking of my friends in France and of England so hard pressed. I can hardly bear to think of anything at all these days, and dwell resolutely on the growth of a kitten or an acacia tree and the progression of clouds in a winter sky." It is late 1940.

I have loved M.F.K. Fisher for a many years. It is her voice that I love, so clearly and carefully revealing the inner woman, I thought, although her family and friends seem to indicate she kept herself well-concealed. She was prolific, and one could read her books alone for years, over and over. I'm on page 477 of her compiled journals. I have about ten other of her books.

The passage about her mother is wonderful in its honest accuracy, and her crafted, complex sentence structure. The passage about the hills is lovely in description. Some phrases are perfect, like "The hills showed their folds and meadows like old elephant hide" and "the little lizard of land" and "the reassurance of the house." All these are fresh, new, appealing. But "yellow and hideously beautiful" is over-done." I love the word "whuddering," which she seems to have invented, a very useful word for various sounds, like a fan in a dark, warm room, or one's heart swooshing blood around in the silence.

M.F.K. Fisher is an honest writer. I never feel that she's trying to impress me or overwhelm me with her verbiage. She writes what her inner voice has been rattling on about, all her life. Her pen is only the secretary. I may be diving into her books again, and if I do, you can expect more posts about her style. Most people write about her personal life, which was sometimes tabloidal, or her fame as a gastronome. But I prefer the woman as I found her -- stark, beautiful, self-aware and -assured, and sad.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Musing by the River

Until lately, I haven't spent much time doing this:
Or going to see this:
We used to go every day! Or sitting in one of these:
Julia was laboring with math, but that didn't seem to be any reason for me to be cooped up in the house yesterday. So I hopped on the bike, rode to the river, and mesmerized myself with the shimmer of water under sun.
This led me to ruminate on how people are. I have many lady friends who struggle to find time for themselves. Some are young moms with a passel of kids. Some are just innate givers, who pour out themselves for family and friends, and don't carve out minutes -- much less hours -- for self.
I do not suffer with this malady.
I see time to myself as a high priority -- not just something to be wished for, mind you, but something to be achieved. So I do. I just do. It may well be simple selfishness, or self-health. It's usually a matter of decision. If I'm sitting alone in my room and my child(ren)  or  husband is in the living room reading, do I feel obligated to go join him? No. I may later, after I've sat a while alone. I do not feel an obligation to spend time with others unless I know it will bring me pleasure, or if they need me. If I meet a person who needs me all the time, that's usually a clue to me that we will not make good friends.

I didn't sit at the river for long. My mind flits like a butterfly from thought to thought. I can focus if I need, but we women are (generally) mental multi-taskers, meaning that we keep a cluster of ideas, sometimes dozens, on our mental work tables all the time. For me, if the flitting from thought to thought gets too bothersome, I get up and do something. At the river, I take my camera along. I hop up, walk around, take photos. Being physically active focuses the mind. Sitting still frees the mind to fly around to this or that idea that I've been chewing on.

A man sat near me. I looked at him and thought, "Men. I'm almost 50, and I think I now understand men a little. That man down there has only three things in his head. He rotates among those three. I have about 25. If we switched brains for an hour, I'm sure it would kill us both." Men and women are very different, and we make good complements for each other.

We have two or three days of warm weather, and when we do, people start sprucing up. The Oriental Woman's Club is brightening its sign:
And glory be! The forsythia are coming out! I found two forsythia bushes beginning to bloom in town. Yippee!
I decided to get a little video along the river. Nothing special. But with the shimmer of light on the water (rather blinding actually), I wanted you to hear the slap and swoosh of the waves on the rocks. So soothing. The river water is always either blowing in or blowing out, an important consideration when weighing a day of sailing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Handling Death


Numbers 19:16-18, 20
Some people must think I'm balmy to be so fascinated with the Pentateuch. I find it such a rich story of an extended family's intimate relationship with God. Anyway, these verses in Numbers deal with how the Israelites should handle death -- or how they shouldn't handle it.

Clearly, God knew that occasionally people would have to touch dead things, or be in the same room with dead things. But He doesn't like it. If a person came in contact with a dead body (human or animal) or even a bone, or even just a grave, He wanted them to know that this is not normative behavior. You shouldn't be handling death.

So He told them, if they did this, they would be unclean. This isn't some meanness on God's part. It's just His way of giving them a consistent reminder that death is bad, and He didn't want them messing with it. He gave them a quick way to become clean again. It was no huge deal;  no permanent stain or damage resulted from touching dead stuff. But it's an issue about which God feels strongly.

Then there's verse 20: "But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him; he is unclean."

If you became unclean from touching a bone, grave, or dead body, it took a week for you to be clean again. You had to consider your situation. But any clean person could relieve you of this, over the week's time, by sprinkling this water on you. The only really serious penalty fell on someone who stayed unclean because he'd handled death. One week? Okay. Permanently? No!

This means that nobody in the Israelite camp could make a living as a coroner or a funeral home worker. Nobody could handle dead remains, bones or deal with graves on an ongoing basis. These were not "jobs" that any one person could do full time. So guess who did these jobs?  Everyone.  Just a little, when necessary.

If your loved one died in Israel, you couldn't call your friendly mortician. There was no fellow whose job it was to dig all the graves in your tribe. What about Joseph's bones, which were carried for over 40 years in the wilderness? They must have been passed around from person to person, tent to tent, so no one person remained unclean.

What's my point? Lately, I've been discussing death issues with some lady friends. I tend to lean toward the natural burial position;  I'd prefer a pine box, no embalming, no open casket, no cremation, and being planted in a rural cemetery rather quickly. (My family should take notice of these requests!) I think the family should handle such things, not strangers brought in, whose job day in and day out, is to handle death. Nobody should handle death every day, I think. I'm not disparaging funeral home people; I'm just stating that in my opinion that's not how God intended things to be.

So these crazy rules of His, although they ensure that no one of His people would handle death all the time, also ensured that all of His people might brush with it occasionally. And He gave provision for that. One week, after the event is over (whether a small brush with death, or a big one), you have in order to contemplate the seriousness of death, of how it breaks us all apart. Of how we need help to come back together after its impact.
The grave of one of my ancestors

The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Yesterday Julia and I took an impromptu field trip to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. By impromptu, I mean that I'd wanted to go for several months, but just decided on Saturday. Another homeschooling perk is that kind of flexibility.

The day was chilly and rainy. We caught the 8:15 ferry and drove out to Atlantic Beach -- I love the drive to the beach. It reminds me of happy times last summer. The aquarium had few visitors, mostly mommies with little children. We could easily wander and participate in all the exhibits, over and over. Very nice. This facility is new, beautiful, exciting, and well-staffed. Adult tickets are $8. Next time I'll contact them ahead of time and use my once-a-year school pass to get us in for free.

Out front -- a fish school sculpture
The facility is kept entirely in low light, I guess for the good of the creatures who live there. I had to set my horrible camera to its "low light" setting, so these photos are grainy.
 The exhibits take you through North Carolina, from mountains to piedmont to coast, examining water life in all these areas. They begin with a high waterfall -- lovely, but we've seen the real thing so many times on the road up to Highlands that we could pass this with a light shrug and keep going.
They even attempted some fake rhododendron.
 My absolute favorite exhibit was the otters. They're kept in a massive tank with two large windows, as you see. The 3 male otters were playful and interactive. They'd stop to look at you, putting their paws on the glass. They whipped and flipped and dived and were highly entertaining. Two comfortable benches allow you to sit and watch them to your heart's content.
 Some scary large mountain fish:
 Several tanks of salamanders. I wasn't convinced this large one was real, until Julia pointed out his throat, that it was moving as he breathed. Their tanks had little white crickets throughout, for them to eat.
 Oh -- here's an otter pic, the only good one I got of an otter face.
 The other pictures looked more like this:  a flash of silky brown fur!
 There were many turtles. Below is a whopping snapping turtle. He watched me for many minutes. It's odd to see big turtles with all their appendages extended fully.
 And alligators --
 Julia and I attended a "Creature Class" in one of the big rooms. The instructor taught us a lot about crocodiles and alligators. I must say, I was shocked and horrified when she extended the tape measure across the floor and showed us how long a full-sized salt-water crocodile from Africa grows to be.  It was a little terrifying. Julia got to touch the baby alligator the lady brought out to show us. Julia thought him adorable and named him Binky.
 I spent a bit of time at the open, shallow tank for the rays. An informative, chatty attendant stood there and taught us so much. You may touch the rays; their stingers have been removed. These are the bullnose stingrays. They were very friendly. (They were hungry.) So they came up to us and even stuck their little faces above the water. So fun! I stroked their backs with two fingers. One of them splashed at me, and I squealed.
 Another darker ray that didn't approach as often.
 I've long loved seahorses. The combination of cuteness and armoured primeval antiquity is so compelling. These two curled their tails around one another.
The largest exhibit, and largest tank, holds a full-sized replica of a German U-boat, plus 306,000 gallons of sea water. The aquarium is fortunate to be located so close to the ocean; their salt water is pumped from there, which is better for the animals and much cheaper for the aquarium. Sea water is evidently expensive to replicate.
Anyway, twice each day they have a "live dive" in this gargantuan tank. Two divers are in the tank and one attendant stood with us outside, looking in through a wall-sized window. He had a microphone, and we could talk with and hear a female diver in the tank. She's on the left, below.
 She was friendly, happy, informative. I, however, enjoyed watching her partner, a larger man. She told the little children about how nice the fish are, now sweet the sharks are. Meanwhile, her partner kept his focus, his whole body, riveted on one creature -- a tiger shark about 6 feet long (at least). I'm sure he is well-fed, and generally tame, but that fellow in the tank was taking no chances. His eyes tracked that tiger shark as it circled them slowly, and he didn't take his attention off it until it had receded into the darkness on the other side of the wreck.
These fish are huge -- it's hard to tell in the photo -- probably 3 feet long each?
 The lady diver insisted that the sticks they held were not for fending off an attacking shark. Quite the contrary, she said the tiger shark was swimming in a kind of daze, a somnolent state, and they held the sticks to keep the shark from bumping into the wreck and hurting itself. Hmm. Not buying that. If that were true, the beefy diver would have been following the shark around the tank, protecting it from all protrusions and hard surfaces. He didn't. That shark could have bumped into whatever, on the back side of the wreck, for all he cared. He was protecting the lady diver, clearly. They just didn't want to scare the little children with the truth.
So:  do we teach children lies about animals, to keep them from being afraid? The aquarium wants 2 year olds to see and experience tiger sharks. Very well. They want the kids to see divers at work. They want to push the edge of reality, for the learning experience of the little humans, so they love nature. However, there's no excuse for this misinformation. I told Julia the truth: sharks are dangerous. The man was there to protect the woman (and himself). Sharks are usually non-violent with humans, but they're unpredictable. Go watch Youtube if you doubt this.
 I do prefer otters! Below: the lady diver plays with the babies, while the diver behind her watches the sharks circling. It makes me slightly squeamish to think about it.
 The stripey fish is a sheepshead.
 Many of the fish seemed quite large, so plump and round.
 With a tank that large, it's easy to be under the shark and get a photo of his mouth, just to remind yourself that he's a predator.
 This huge tank has 3 viewing locations -- the large teaching window, but then two smaller windows where you can see the back of the wreck also.
The lionfish has attracted lots of attention. It is not native to our U.S. shores, but has become an invasive species. People released them into the waters around Florida from their private collections, and they are taking over in some areas and presenting a danger to native fish. Quite impressive to look at.
 Large lobsters and crabs had their own tanks too. We enjoyed learning a lot about horseshoe crabs, but I got no photos of them. There are many exhibits and events I can not cover here.
 The third viewing window into the big tank exhibit is tall and curved -- like standing in a tall, raised alcove, except the wall is a curved window. It gives the effect of standing inside the tank.

 This is the best shot I got of the U-boat replica.
 Good-bye, little fishes, until next time!
 We took the ferry home, with our own local aquarium flowing inexorably beneath us. All the animals we saw are indigenous to our area. The North Carolina coast is a marine biologist's dream with over 500 shipwrecks that attract so much marine life. How many cute sea horses, horseshoe crabs, sting rays, and tiger sharks pass under our ferry?
One aquarium worker told me about Mary Lee, a 16-foot great white shark who calls our Atlantic coast her home. She travels from Massachusetts to Florida, and has spent some time in the Pamlico Sound. You can track her travels online.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Making Educational Confession

Where to begin.
Julia with her nemesis, Math. See how she draws, to make it more tolerable?
We've done it all. Two sons spend two years each in public schools, and not great ones at that. All four kids spent many years in private Christian schools, with average to mediocre results. And we've homeschooled eight years total. The girls both loved it. The boys both hated it.

I've always defended homeschoolers. Even when I was a high school English teacher vigorously defending the rigors of the classroom, I supported their right to homeschool. I'd admit that some homeschoolers did rather well, and that excellent homeschool parents probably produced the best students around.

Lately, I've voiced a kind and moderate opinion: "Homeschooling works for some families (or even many) but not for most."  Penelope Trunk says this is a mean-spirited, classist statement by homeschoolers. One of her blog commenters said this: "We don't say 'homeschooling is not right for everyone' to be classist. We say it to make people feel better because they are not homeschooling their kids. I suspect most people know homeschooling is better. Deep down." (much truth in this)

I'm not a huge Trunk fan, but here's another post by her, "The Real Reason Parents Don't Homeschool." She makes two big points: 1) It's a lie to say you can't homeschool because of finances.You're making your child pay the price so you can have the standard of living you want, and 2) The real reason parents don't homeschool is because they'd rather their kids be bored in the classroom than for the parents to be bored at home.

There you go. Penelope never pulls punches. Don't read her if you don't want to be slapped up a little.

I'm trying to decide whether I agree with her.

Is it true that people know down deep that homeschooling would be better for their kids? That they ignore that niggling voice inside that whispers to them, "You ought to be homeschooling"? Really? I do not find this to be true of the parents I know who choose classroom education. They're often content with their choice. But is their happiness delusional?

And is it true that homeschooling is the best choice for all children?

Teachers tell me they know this is not true, because they see their children learning, growing, and enjoying themselves, every day. But that's no proof. They could feasibly learn, grow, and enjoy even more, at home. How do you know until you try?

We did try with our boys. Both ended up in public schools briefly. I personally felt they suffered academically, socially, and spiritually  in the public system. I wish we'd made different decisions, but we didn't. I wish the boys had accepted being at home, but they didn't. Will permanent damage be done? Perhaps not, probably not. Did they have the best educational situation possible?  No.

That's the question parents must ask:  "If I'm willing to sacrifice, what is the very best educational situation I can give my children?" And since most parents don't know much about education, nor about the huge potential of homeschooling, they answer that question (if they ever ask it) in ignorance.

Is your child bored with school? Does she find joy only in the social or athletic aspects? Are the academics she's getting there valuable to her at all? Do you even know? Do you assume because she says she's happy, that her school situation is the best one for her? Do you simply not want to rock the boat? Is your child inwardly miserable every day at school? (I was. My daughters both were.)

A gutsy, engaged parent who's willing to shake up family life and take some risks, has phenomenal potential to give the child a massive educational boost, and enjoy it. Does your child need his educational experience "shaken up"? Would you like to rouse him out of his academic drowsiness? Appeal for one year to the thing he desperately loves? Travel with him for 6 weeks? Build a boat? Rebuild a car? Focus on horticulture, chess, rockets, dance, art, or ancient Egypt? If you assume this is impossible, you've just robbed your child of a chance to re-energize his life with wonder.

Most of our homeschool days are loosely scheduled, and full of reading, and groaning over math problems. That's just real life. But Julia's learning tons. And she likes it. (If she didn't, I'd try something else more radical.) And she also does a great art workshop, plays chess with friends, and gets to boat on the creeks, weekly. This, and playing with the dog all day long, makes her life magical. I know that literature, writing, art, and history are also still magical to her. That magic is what I long to retain.

I know from being the teacher in the front of the classroom that the classroom is about the best place to kill the magic. It's built into the system to kill the magic. Maybe I should write a blog post on that too. But it's true.

I haven't decided yet whether Penelope Trunk is right in her assertions. But I confess I'm thinking about.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Crocheted Slippers

I've been longing to crochet slippers for quite a while. I found a cute pair at this site. This led me to the original pattern, given at this site. These yarn pros convinced me that slippers are easy-peasy. I did tweak their patterns some, as I'll discuss at the end of this post.
This is the first pair, following closely the original pattern, until I got to the heel. I could tell the slippers would be way too long, so I stopped with row 22. Here's the tidy heel:
They're cute, but they're too wide for my feet. I added the tie across the top of the foot, so they could be tightened a bit, if need be.
If you look carefully, you can see how I threaded the chain rope through the stitches on the top of the slipper, so it could be tightened there. It worked very well for giving some adjustment to the sizing.
Then I started a second pair. This time I wanted a pair that fit my size 9 foot like a glove. I narrowed the slipper from the very beginning at the toe.
When adding double crochets to the rows toward the back of the slipper this is how it's done at the end of the rows. You chain 3, and then double crochet immediately into the base of the stitch from which the chains come.
These turned out lovely. I added a green flower to each one, to spruce them up.
From the side. You can really see in this photo that I broke my left foot about 12 years ago. See how the top of the left foot bumps out more, and I have trouble turning it all the way?
Here's the directions I came up with for the pink slippers.  I used a size G hook and Impeccable yarn, which is acrylic worsted weight.

Row 1: Chain 4 and use a slip stitch to form a loop.
Row 2: Chain 3 (as your 1st DC) and then do 6 DC in the loop. Close with a sl st.
Row 3 & 4: begin with 3 chains and then do two DC in each stitch.
Row 5-11: begin with 3 chains and do one DC in each stitch. In row 8, I added one more stitch. In these rows, you're making the body of the slipper that goes around your toes and the front of your foot.
Row 12: Turn. Chain 3. DC in the next stitch, and one DC in each of the next 18 stitches. Counting the 3-chain, this gives you a total of 20 stitches around.
Row 13-22: Turn. Chain 3. DC in the next stitch, and one DC in each stitch across. In rows 17 and 21, I added one additional DC at each end of these rows, so that the slipper would come up a little higher as I worked toward the heel (see photo above). Tie off.
Fold the heel end in half and stitch closed on the inside of the slipper, with yarn and a tapestry needle.
I used the trim recommended in the original pattern, with one SC and one chain all the way around.
I'm in the U.S., so my single and double crochets are U.S. standards.
This slipper should give you a nearly perfect size 9 (U.S.). If you need a smaller slipper, look online for a conversion chart for women's shoe sizes and inches in foot length.