Friday, November 26, 2010

Wouldn't Change a Thing

At the beginning of the week, I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on NPR and heard an interview with Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life, in which he talked about his experience the summer after his senior year of high school, when he was driving and struck and killed a child on a bicycle. It was not his fault, but not surprisingly he felt a lot of emotions, guilt among them.

However, as he is looking back on it, he makes a striking comment, to the effect that of course if he could go back and stop this from happening, prevent this girl from dying, he would; however, if he could go back and change places with one of his friends who was also in the car--in other words, if he could make someone else responsible--he would not.

This was not so much a desire to spare anyone else what he went through so much as it was an acknowledgmenet of the fundamental ways that this awful experience had changed him for the better. One of the things he mentioned was that it made him more thoughtful (i.e. more of a thinker). Prior to that, he said, he didn't have much to think about, there wasn't much for him to reflect on. Besides this memoir, he's written a few novels, and he says that if this hadn't happened, he never would have been a writer.

Besides being changed for the better, though, it seems to me to represent the Nietzschean idea of living life such that you are so satisfied that you would want everything to repeat, because everything--the mistakes, the bad luck, the suffering--all went into being the person you are, the person you are glad to be.

I can relate to this. I'm thinking particularly of my father's death when I was 14. I had to grow up in some ways, and it certainly gave me food for thought. Looking back on it years later, it's not something I would want to go through, but looking at it in the rearview, it would be hard to change it, and it would profoundly change who I am today if it hadn't happened. Since I'm happy with who I am and where my life has come, how could I wish anything changed, even the tragedies, even the mistakes.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, 2010

At different times in my life, Thanksgiving has been different things, but it has always meant family.

Through most of my life before high school, Thanksgiving revolved around my father’s mother, Grandma Mom, especially since Mom’s family was all a day and a half’s drive away—too far for most holidays. Sometimes my mother would host, or my Aunt G, or one of my Uncle D’s daughters. Thanksgiving was a holiday filled with extended relations, cousins I only saw a couple times a year, from all three of my father’s siblings. As my father was the youngest in his family and he was 50 when I was born, there had been plenty of time for the extended family to grow rather large. After Grandma Mom’s death, however, the various branches of the family went their separate ways. Since Dad died soon after Grandma Mom, we had less and less of a connection with his family, but Aunt G and her large family always welcomed us. For quite a few years we had Thanksgiving and/or Christmas with them, and very much appreciated being part of their family. We haven't had Thanksgiving with them for several years now, but the years we did have were good ones.

One year, my mom’s family rented cabins at a state park and we had Thanksgiving with them. Usually we saw them over the summer at a family reunion, but that year the reunion was cancelled for a cousin's wedding, so we also did Thanksgiving. One year during graduate school, we had Thanksgiving with my then-girlfriend’s family and had a very nice time and a particularly excellent turkey.

Since I started dating--and then married--Lauren, we've melded our families pretty thoroughly for the holidays. My mom doesn't have any really strong ties (at least not ones that are geographically convenient for her!), so it's been easy enough for me and Lauren to combine our families for the holidays. This year, even though Lauren's brother is married, we have him and his wife at my mom's along with my other in-laws for Thanksgiving, and it's so nice that we do.

Combining families has meant some compromises from both sides. The menu selection is the easiest, because it's almost wholly additive--the more the merrier! The biggest difference has been the timing of the meal. No matter which of my own relatives we had Thanksgiving dinner with in the past, we’ve always had the main meal at or around noon. That’s just how the rhythm of things works. We spend all morning getting food ready, then we have a big feast, then we spend the afternoon sleeping, watching football, playing cards, or playing other games until supper rolls around and we pick away at the leftover before going our separate ways. It’s a nice system for minimizing the leftovers, and it’s always worked for us.

My in-laws, though, don’t eat their Thanksgiving feast until 5 o’clock. For them, “dinner” denotes a late meal, while in my family, the word simply means “the big meal of the day.” Thus, you could come home after church to have “Sunday dinner,” because supper would be a smaller meal. They typically have a late-morning brunch, then perhaps snack a bit, and finally eat the big meal late in the day.

Still, if that's the biggest obstacle we have to overcome, we'll be just fine, and for that I'm thankful. I'm thankful for all of our family members, both human and canine, but especially for our daughter who has her first Thanksgiving today. In a world where in-laws are commonly understood to be problematic, I'm thankful for the wonderful in-laws I have. And, of course, I'm thankful for my mother, who has been with me at every Thanksgiving except one.

And I'm thankful for you, dear reader. Thank you for stopping by--I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Looking Ahead by Looking Back

Given yesterday's topic, it seemed to me to make perfect sense to look ahead to Thanksgiving by looking back at Thanksgiving (don't worry, that will probably make sense in another paragraph or two!).

Twice in my past--either late in high school or in college, maybe even both--I participated in the Thanksgiving tradition of what was then my best friend's family. They were a farm family, and I knew all of them more or less well, so when they invited me out for Thanksgiving morning the first time, I said yes, even though they were inviting me out to work.

That's right, to work.

You see, every Thanksgiving, their family spends all morning chopping up this pile of logs that's been drying out over the course of the year and moving the chopped wood to the basement where their wood-burning furnace is. It takes pretty well all morning, as they are laying away enough wood for the next year. That was enough work for me, as I had a huge meal to get to at 1 o'clock! Their family, though, would be grabbing a quick meal for lunch and then going out to the woods to chop a new huge pile of wood to be drying out for the next year--you see the connection to yesterday's post by now: their Thanksgiving tradition was all about planning ahead. Only after they'd come back from the woods with more logs would they go in for the huge meal that their mother spent the afternoon fixing.

Now, just from morning, I can make a few observations. First, all the work I put in left me tired. I can only imagine how much more tired they were by the time they spent the whole day making firewood (of course, as farmers, they were mostly probably in better shape than me anyway!). But after putting in that work, I felt completely okay with everything I felt like eating--no guilt whatsoever, because I was pretty sure I'd already worked those calories off! Second, I really felt like I'd accomplished something meaningful, and how much greater would that feeling have been if I'd been doing it for my own family? It was also, for them--and I felt included in this--a great time of togetherness. Laughing, joking, and talking while working together.

I don't know. I feel like I'm still not doing this justice, because most of you are probably still not buying how spending your thanksgiving--does there exist a lazier holiday?--working could be such a good thing. And yet, it was. Maybe it was because of th way that the work seemed more meaningful than simply earning a buck. Maybe it was the social nature of the work. But there it was. I'm not someone who particularly likes to work just to work, and yet I felt it to be such a good and memorable thing that it has stuck with me.

What about you? If you haven't already blogged about it, drop me a comment with your most memorable Thanksgiving(s) or some Thanksgiving tradition that you like (or even that you don't like!). Tell us all a story about your Turkey-day! And regardless of whether you choose to share or not, have a good one tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Since I read Neil Postman's work when I was in college, I've found his arguments largely compelling. One of those arguments is about the way that the form of media shapes the content and, likewise, the form of the media shapes us as well.

From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning.

Among these other things, literate culture engenders patience and the ability to delay gratification. While I do believe that there's something to the idea that these traits have been eroded in our culture by the shift to television and later computers for our modes of meaning-making, that's not all there is to it.

Over the past several months, I've been exploring Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions cookbook with its traditional ways of preparing food. We love the oatmeal that's soaked overnight in water and whey (actually, we use yogurt--you know: whey plus). We love the brown rice, also soaked for hours. The point here is that a lot of these traditional methods of preparing food take a lot of time: hours or days. Making bread, of course, is like that too.

Recently, our power company cut down a bunch of trees and left the cut wood laying around. I collected it and stacked it to let it dry. Firewood, of course, should generally be dried at least a year before burning it. I've heard it said that how dry the wood is even more important than the type of wood. It's said that you need to plan at least a year in advance to make sure you have the firewood you need ready when you need it.

It occurred to me that traditional ways of living, in general, force people to plan ahead and delay gratification. Our ancestors a mere 100 years ago often couldn't decide what they wanted to eat for dinner at 6 o'clock at night, because their meals took longer to prepare--no microwaves, no electric stoves, not much going out for dinner on a whim either. And it wasn't just a matter of convenience: making a living was intimately connected to the ability to plan months and years in advance. Many, many people were essentially businessmen,

Compare that to today: planning ahead is more or less optional. We go to work and make the money we need to make a living, to buy food, and for years credit has been easy to come by, so we could routinely overspend without thinking about where the shortfall would come from. We don't have to plan much at all if we don't want to, so many, many people don't. It's understandable, but aren't we diminished as a result?

I'm not saying that we're incapable of planning ahead or delaying gratification. Many of us have jobs that require us to do so to one extent or another, but when you compare the extent to which we have to exercise these faculties compared to what many of our ancestors would have had to have done, it's striking how much more exercise those faculties must have gotten in them.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"First" Post

There's something daunting about a blank page. There's something daunting about a first blog entry.

But of course, this isn't a first blog entry. I've written 2,186 entries before this over the course of six and a half years. I've written about my life, about politics, philosophy, religion, politics, education, books, movies, food, board games, homesteading... the list goes on. Of course, the "first entry" feels like it should be something else. An introduction, perhaps? That's what's really daunting--how do I introduce myself?

As the topics I've written about show, I have a wide range of interests. I've long been a "Renaissance man." The flip side of that is that, although I wasn't one, I suffer from the "Valedictorian Syndrome." In other words, I'm pretty good at a lot of different things, but it's always been a case of "jack of all trades, master of none." In high school, I wrote a lot, I was in band, choir, and drama, played tennis, competed in quiz bowl, and had friends in every group within the school. In college, of course, you have to narrow your focus and choose a major, so I... double-majored: English and music. Within music, I sang, I played trombone, I got into conducting, I got into composing--again, I resisted narrowing. I went to graduate school, where I had to focus on one thing--or did I? Although I ended up not doing both theses, I double-majored in composition and choral conducting, and besides the conducting and music theory that went along with those majors, I took a lot of music education master's classes.

I was fortunate enough--if fortune it was--to get a job teaching both English and music at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, and if you know anything about boarding school life, you should know that being a generalist is an asset. Not only was I teaching in two departments, I coached tennis and--despite not playing either in an organized form since elementary school--soccer and basketball. It worked for me because I enjoyed learning new things. I taught there for five years, meeting my future wife while chaperoning a high school dance. She was very mature for her age, I swear (she was also a chaperone for the other school!). When she took a job in Massachusetts, I found a job teaching English in Rhode Island. We stayed in New England for two years, probably shouldn't have left, but did. We had one year at a school back in Pennsylvania and then went to Indiana, to another boarding school. My wife taught; I didn't. I did, however, become a father and a stay-at-home dad.

Now, since August, I've had my own job at the same school, but not as a teacher. Instead, I am a "counselor." No, I don't deal with crazy kids, except in the usual sense that they're all crazy and we all deal with them. No, I don't talk to kids about their feelings, at least not any more than any other adult in their lives. Like I said, the job title isn't clear about what I do. Instead, I'm the nexus of communication between parents, teachers, and students, overseeing residential life, and more or less being a stand-in dad for 50 boys while they're at school. It's probably just about the perfect job for a Renaissance man.

Blogging, likewise, is a good "job" for the generalist, at least for readers with similarly broad interests. I've heard it said that blogs should actually be focused on a single topic, but I doubt that I could maintain such a single-minded blog, so I won't.

If you find any--or many!--of my topics interesting, I'll be glad to have you along for the ride. Agree or disagree with a particular perspective, I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please do comment. In any case, be welcome.