Monday, July 5, 2010

Rotten At The Core

Vatel, starring Gerard Depardieu & Uma Thurman, directed by Roland Joffe, score by Ennio Morricone, 2000

I’m no friend of Robespierre. I hate his implacable, simplistic, kill-them-all philosophy. However, that does not mean that the Revolution-era French aristocracy were not ripe for judgment. If you need proof of that, just watch Vatel.

It is the sort of movie often described as a “lavish period film.” In the words of Ken Fox, it has “silly wigs, plunging d├ęcolletage, lavish banquets in ornate halls, a stirring score from Ennio Morricone and witty dialogue by Tom Stoppard (who adapted the original French screenplay into English). From mirrored halls to rats in the walls, rarely has a period film looked so authentic.”

But I would describe it as a devastating period film, one in which the rottenness beneath is constantly breaking out through the gilding. The king, his court, and the prince who is hosting them at his country home, all feel entitled a constant stream of the finest things. It only flatters them that the lives of the lower classes are used up and destroyed by their insatiable consumption. And even that is not enough; the court are consuming each other: bodies, reputations, and dissipated souls.

Depardieu plays Vatel, the “master of pleasures,” head cook, steward, and stage manager for the whole spectacle. He is a professional, an accomplished chef and event planner, who handles everything from the meringue to the fireworks. But he is still, essentially, a high-ranking servant. In the course of the week the film covers, Vatel is ordered about, threatened, insulted, propositioned by another man, bought and sold in a card game, and almost murdered. Through his experience, we see the violence inherent in the system. (In fact, the only skill in which the aristocrats show themselves to be competent is swordplay, when Vatel is ambushed by his court enemies, then rescued by a rival group.)

“Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come,” said Jesus. Reflecting on this film, I was reminded of His words. France reaped violence during The Terror, in large part because her kings had sown violence for many years before.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Free-Range Kids, Part 2: And Here Are Its Shortcomings

Free-Range Commandments 8 and 9 are “Study History: Your Ten-Year-Old Would Have Been Forging Horseshoes (or at Least Delivering Papers),” and “Be Worldly: Why Other Countries Are Laughing at zee Scardey-Cat Americans.”

In many ways, these two chapters provide a lot of helpful perspective. For example, Mark Twain started work as an apprentice printer when he was 11 or 12. Herman Melville went off on a whaling ship (a very hard life) at the age of 16, abandoned ship, and was captured by cannibals. Ben Franklin began his apprenticeship with his older brother when he was twelve. “In colonial America, especially in colonial New England, it was not uncommon to send off children who were very young – six, seven, eight, nine – to live with other families as servants” (page 70). Today, Skenazy points out, in most cities a kid cannot even get a job delivering papers. Cities are too spread out for bicycle delivery, and newspapers are worried about liability (page 71).

The point is well taken. The benefits of kids going to work - especially before the Industrial Age made hours longer and work unskilled, repetitive, and brutal – were that the kids were learning actual skills, with lots and lots of mentoring and practice. “Adults and children worked together, and there wasn’t such a huge gulf between them. Children were expected to rise to the adulthood all around them, not stew in adorable incompetence” (72 – 73). That is why those who did great achievements, often were ready to do so in their 20s, an age when many of us today don’t have any skills or experience yet.

Those are the benefits. However. The Cinderella story reminds us that the fate of a kid sent to be a servant in someone else’s home was not always the cheeriest. Colonial kids got the benefits of learning adult skills; they also got beatings, deprivation, pneumonia, etc. Skenazy’s point is not that their existence was ideal, merely that they survived to become competent and often compassionate adults. And if they could survive that, then our kids can survive learning to do a few things on their own.

My quibble is that Skenazy does not make this point very loudly. A sympathetic reader can infer that she is not recommending we send our six-year-olds to live in another state, but she does not actually say so.

It gets worse in the next chapter. Skenazy cites a range of practices found in other cultures, some of which are good for the kids, others not so much. Examples of good-for-you cultural practices: siblings and cousins playing together in a big field all day while their moms work (Liberia), or walking to the local chestnut tree to pick chestnuts (Germany). Not-so-good: “In more than one culture … the mother’s job is to reject the child so that the child has no choice but to join the group of youngsters who take care of each other and keep themselves occupied so their parents can work. The adored small child must suffer the trauma of growing into an object of contempt” (page 80 - 81). Gosh, surely there are ways to teach our children independence without subjecting them to rejection and contempt. But Skenazy assures us that “it just happens to work really well in about half the world.” In the polygamous Liberian family described, “the dad barely knew [his children’s] names” (page 81).

Once again, I believe Skenazy’s point is not that we should reject our kids and minimize their personal contact with their fathers. I believe her point is simply that kids can survive, and even thrive, with a lot less supervision than we think they “need.” However, that point remains latent. It comes off sounding as if Skenazy is actually recommending that we reject our kids because it will be so good for them.

This raises the whole question of what supervision is for. There are, after all, reasons to keep our kids close to us other than safety: to have fun, to express affection, to teach and mentor them. To observe their habits, likes, reactions and faults, so that we can encourage, correct, and guide them. We want children who have good character, and this takes a lot of face time and training so that they learn to have self-discipline, respect authority (in their case, primarily us), be considerate of others, etc. For a book-long development of this point, see the book or web site Raising Godly Tomatoes.

However, the kind of never-letting-the-kids-out-of-our-sight that Skenazy rightly deplores has as its main goal the kids’ physical safety. It is the classic mistake of paying too much attention to the body and not enough to the soul. The parents described in Free Range Kids keep close tabs on their kids because they’re worried about germs, skin cancer, kidnapping, bumps and bruises, not because they’re worried that their kid might have a habit of pride, rebellion or selfishness that is growing unchecked. Skenazy rightly points out that physical overprotection can be bad for the child’s soul (though she does not use that word). Unfortunately, she ends up implying that the children’s souls will be just fine with minimal input from their parents. This is just not true. Benign neglect is certainly much better for the child than obsessive overprotection, but better than both is an approach that involves lots of input and mentoring from parents combined with lots of opportunities for kids to learn adult skills, play on their own, and explore.

Free-Range Kids, Part I: This is a Great Book!

by Lenore Skenazy

“About a year ago, I let my nine-year-old ride the subway alone for the first time. I knew he was ready, so I let him go. Then I wrote a column about it for the New York Sun. I had no idea what was about to hit me.”
What hit was a barrage of TV interviews and a general brouhaha. “The media dubbed me ‘America’s Worst Mom.’” And she got a lot of hate mail. But she also got a lot of mail from people who were intrigued by this new-old idea of giving older kids a little freedom. So Skenazy, who is a journalist, wrote a book.

And lest you think that Skenazy is recommending we allow our kids to, in the words of one of her fan letters, “run wild and stay out of our hair,” here are some examples of the kind of overprotection that she is addressing. A mother flips out because her 10-year-old daughter was left “alone” at a party in an ice cream parlor with her middle-school friends and their parents (page 3). A suburban mother won’t let her daughter go to the mailbox (!) by herself because “there’s just too much that could happen” (page 5). A man in New Jersey won’t let his son play basketball in his own driveway (page 6). A grammar school in Chicago warns kids about the dangers of hula hoops. The kids are forbidden to swing the hoops around their necks or arms or roll them around the playground (page 44). These examples, and others like them, introduced me to a whole world of nonsense that I had heard a lot of generalities about, but seldom encountered in such specifics. It is this kind of extremity that Skenazy is suggesting we abandon – not those ordinary measures to protect our kids that are part of good parenting. But more detail about this later.

The first part of the book contains The Fourteen Free-Range Commandments, with titles like Play Dates and Axe Murderers: How to Tell the Difference; Avoid Experts; Boycott Baby Knee Pads; and Don’t Think Like A Lawyer. Yes, there is some repetition, but not as much as you would expect. Turns out the phenomenon of overprotected kids has many factors feeding into it, such as our litigation culture, sensational TV crime shows, perfectionism and competition among parents, and what Skenazy calls “the Kiddie-Safety Industrial Complex.” All these things appeal directly to a parent’s emotions. Once you have heard about something horrible that could happen to a child, you feel you must take steps to prevent it happening to your child. Your emotions do not care if the odds that it might happen are infitesimal. The most horrible fates tend to be very, very rare, but they also have a way of gripping the mind with imagined tragedy. In the words of one of Skenazy’s sources, “The public assumes that any risk to any individual is 100 percent risk to them” (page 7).

Skenazy answers our less realistic fears with facts and statistics. For example, the chances of any one child in the U.S. being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are .00007 percent. A child is forty times more likely to die in a car crash than to be kidnapped and murdered by a stranger, twenty times more likely to drown, ten times more likely to die in a house fire, and (sadly) eighty or ninety times more likely to be molested by someone they know than by a stranger (page 184). So, applying the same logic we use when trying to avoid kidnapping, we should not allow our children to ride in a car, swim, stay inside after school, or have contact with our friends or relatives.

Of course, if you feel you cannot trust the friend or relative, DEFINITELY don’t let them alone around your child! That is common sense. But that’s really what this book is about … using common sense instead of making extreme, inflexible rules based on unlikely scenarios. Some parents might say, “OK, so the odds of X or Y happening are small. But why not take the extra precautions just to be SURE it doesn’t happen?” The answer is that the act of taking precautions out of proportion to the actual danger, itself can do other kinds of damage. For example, using a mirror that allows you to look back at your baby in the car seat while driving (which I do!), causes you to take your eyes off the road more often, increasing the likelihood of an accident. This is an example of one precaution increasing one risk. But an even stronger argument is that using a lot of unnecessary and disproportionate precautions, all throughout childhood, is virtually guaranteed to make your kids more fearful, less adept and competent in the adult world, bored, and resentful. Skenazy reprints a letter:

I’m fifteen right now and get pretty much no freedom. I’m limited to what’s inside the house and the backyard. I can’t even go as far as the sidewalk – I might be “abducted or killed.” I used to walk to a bus stop, but my dad said it was too dangerous, so he started driving me there (it’s a five-minute walk), and eventually he just started driving me to school. Today, after playing video games for two hours or so, I went downstairs and realized that the only things I could do there were eat and watch TV.

While trying to protect from stranger danger, this child’s parents have neglected one of the main tasks of parenting: to help their child develop competence, independence, skills (apprenticeship, anyone?) and a work ethic. The restrictions they put on him or her might be appropriate for a war zone, or a completely lawless country. In fact, as Skenazy points out in her conclusion, the patronizing restriction of older children to just the home sphere is parallel to the restriction many suburban wives experienced in the 1950’s and 60’s, described in The Feminine Mystique. Not to mention that the only activities available to this poor kid are the ones that cause obesity!

The second part of Skenazy’s book is an index of various commonly feared dangers, with a brief discussion about the actual likelihood of each, and what precautions are reasonable. Topics include metal baseball bats, choking, germs, online predators, water and toddlers, SIDS, and the supposed dangers of not breastfeeding your babies. (Kidnapping and Halloween each get an entire chapter of their own.)

Thus ends Part I of my review, which is supposed to have been a sympathetic summary of Free-Range Kids’ arguments. In Part II, I will discuss some of the weaknesses of the book.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Current Reads

-Theophilus, by Michael D. O'Brien. Excellent historical fiction about the ancient world. The narrator is a Greek doctor with a very believable voice.
-Johann Christof Blumhardt: Life and Work, by Dieter Ising, translated from the German by someone I know. The translation is still very German sounding. It's a very scholarly work. Blumhardt is a wonderful person to get to know.
-Exodus. A mind-blowing book.

Wanting to read:
-Moby Dick, ever since I saw a TV special about whaling and the grisly incident with the ship Essex, that inspired the book. I read Moby Dick in the illustrated classics version as a kid, which means that I haven't read it, but have always assumed that I had.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Man Who Couldn't Wait

written by Joann Scheck, illustrated by Alice Hausner
an Arch book

This is one of an excellent series of illustrated Bible books for children, called Arch books because they are published in St. Louis. We had a ton of Arch books around the house when I was a kid. Most of them are written in rhyme, and they are illustrated by a great variety of artists in many different styles. The quality of the illustrations, the rhythm, and the rhymes varies within the series, but most are very well done. Now as I am starting to read Arch books to my son, some of the better-written ones come back to me very quickly as I read their catchy rhythms and rhymes. They are lines and refrains I once had memorized.

The Man Who Couldn’t Wait chronicles Peter’s journey with Jesus, from when they first meet until after Jesus ascends into heaven. The book begins by introducing Peter with his personality “bold as can be,” and shows us the growth of their relationship and of Peter’s understanding. Of course, not every incident or conversation is included. The story does not include Peter’s denial of Jesus on the night of His arrest, but it does highlight the incident when, in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter cuts off a man’s ear as he attempts to defend Jesus with a sword. This scene of confusion and violence gives us a sense of that awful night and day – the crucifixion is described, on the next page, in a single line. The last scene is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended with tongues of fire and gave Peter boldness to begin preaching about Jesus.

In short, the book gives us an overview of Peter's journey in the Gospels, and it includes some incidents with Peter that are not the most famous. I believe these are real strengths of the book.

Another strength is the illustrations. They are not cutesy or cartoony. They could even be described as a bit gritty, with gloom or suffused light very well portrayed in ways that are appropriate to each scene. The characters look like grown-ups. Some conventions are not followed; Jesus does not wear blue, and His hair is no longer than Peter’s. Peter, who is often portrayed with curly hair, here has hair that is straight and greying. The illustrator does follow the convention of never portraying Jesus’ face, but always showing Him from behind, from a distance, or at most in profile. When we do see His profile, He is rugged and dark-eyed. All in all, the illustrations communicate a sense of seriousness, realism and respect for the characters.

I was happy to rediscover this book in time to read it to my son before Easter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

I loved this poem in college. I put a copy of it on my dorm room door, and memorized it.

Notice how, in the second to the last stanza, Dickinson gives us our first nice, obvious rhyme of the poem (tree/see). And it's put, for the first time in the poem, where we expect in the stanza (second and fourth lines). Although the whole poem has had either half-rhymes or rhymes in unexpected places, we have gotten used to it and have learned not to expect a lot of satisfaction from the rhymes. This second-last stanza gives us a bit of poetic satisfaction, which moves us along faster to the final stanza and incidentally sets us up to expect to find another satisfying rhyme there.

But - PSYCH! - Dickinson is not going to give it to us. She sets up the rhyme with "sight," but delivers only "straight." (What were we expecting? "Right," perhaps?) This feeling of being let down - of disappointment, of loss - is perfectly fitted with the theme of the poem, and also with the content of the last line - "almost straight."

I don't mean she did this all on purpose. It probably "just came" to her, in a whole piece perfectly consistent with itself.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Theology of How To Train Your Dragon

Having just seen the preview, I think it’s going to be another movie that leaves me with very mixed reactions.
Naturally, there’s a level at which it’s immediately appealing. Because, well, it has dragons. And Vikings. I love stories about both.
But then there’s the message, which comes through very clearly in the preview. Apparently the whole point of the movie is that dragons are just sweet, friendly, trainable animals … not the world’s most ancient symbol of evil. Don’t be afraid of the dragon. Make friends with it. The dragon wants to be your friend. Especially if you are a tasty, I mean intelligent and sophisticated, young maiden, then the dragon really wants to be your friend.
And by analogy, this must apply to the Dragon himself. We’ve all been wrong! The devil is not evil after all! In fact, there’s no such thing as evil. Satan is just a harmless, Yodalike guru. He may even be wise. After all, how do we know it’s Lucifer who is lying? Maybe it’s God who is lying.
That is the message of this movie.

P.S. April 10, 2010 ... I was wrong about How to Train Your Dragon! I had not actually seen it. Granted, the preveiws gave me every reason to write the review above. But that review is wrong. Click here for a review by someone who's actually seen it. According to this review, (spoilers ahead!), The Dragon IS actually evil in HTTYD. And he is defeated in the end.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A sad day for racing-mystery readers

Author Dick Francis has died. I am glad to read that he still has one more novel coming out! I'll review his novels some day.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Brother Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters

When I read historical fiction, I like the dream to be vivid and continuous. I don’t want to have to worry that the plot will get thin in places because the author doesn’t know what he or she is doing, or that the characters’ motivations (or their speech for that matter) will start to resemble those of 1990s Californians, like Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

Ellis Peters (a pen name for Edith Pargeter) really knows her stuff. She knows the setting of her stories intimately … both the region of England (Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, near the Welsh border) and the period of history (the 1130’s and 1140’s). So her Brother Cadfael mysteries are really, really terrific historical fiction. For example, clothing terms. The men wear cottes, and sometimes capuchons. They carry things in scrips. Peters is familiar with the daily schedule in the abbey (Prime, Compline, etc.), the herbs that Brother Cadfael grows in his garden, and the processes by which he makes from them pills and ointments. She also knows the country round. Many of the books come with a map in the front to help us make sense of the story. Sometimes the map is just of the town of Shrewsbury and the Benedictine abbey where Brother Cadfael lives. Other times it includes the surrounding countryside, depending on where the action takes place. Some of the best books take us into Wales, where the customs and language are different. (Conveniently, Brother Cadfael speaks Welsh.)

But it’s not just period detail with no action. Peters’ plots often take a while to set up, but once they start to unfold, the drama just keeps coming. The realities of medieval life are what drive the plots and produce the drama. For example, of the three Brother Cadfael stories I just finished, arranged marriage figures crucially in all three plots. Between the three, they also feature a leper colony, stolen treasure, a jongleur, a castle siege, a duel, a kept woman who later becomes a nun, and a hostage situation. This in addition to the requisite minimum of one murder per story and one pair of young lovers. Sometimes there are two couples, often more than one murder. Brother Cadfael plays cupid as well as detective.

Overarching the events in and around Shrewsbury is the civil war between King Steven and Queen Maud that was raging throughout England in the 1130’s and 1140’s. Sometimes Steven and Maud figure crucially in the plot, other times they are just background. In many books they make personal appearances. The political background about Steven and Maud can be overwhelming if there happens to be a lot of it in the first Brother Cadfael book you pick up. But over time, as you read more of the series, you will get to know Steven and Maud just as well as the other regular minor characters. Neither Steven nor Maud is portrayed as being the “right” cause … indeed, a theme of the series is that there are good people and villains on both sides. It is admirable to be faithful to whichever monarch is your lord or lady, yet at the same time, the faithfulness of people on opposite sides also serves to perpetuate an increasingly senseless war.

The books are densely written and that can make them hard to get into. Some of them get off to a slow start, and you have to stick with them for several chapters before they become page-turners. The reason is that it can take Peters several chapters to lay down all the threads for an intricate plot. But when the net is in place and she starts pulling on it, things will happen fast! If you are looking for one of the more accessible BC books to start with, I recommend Summer of the Danes or Virgin in the Ice.