Friday, January 30, 2009

A Trio of Miscellaneous Tidbits

Well, it turns out that I have a couple of short things to share tonight, and instead of making three short posts (as much as I was tempted to), I figured they were short enough that there's only enough material for one decent-sized post. So, here we go.


Item: I finished reading the classic book Little House in the Big Woods to the Pillowfight Fairy today.

Now, one of my teachers read it to the class when I was a kid, and I only remembered bits and pieces of the book from that reading. That was a long time ago, and for the most part the book only remained in my memory as an impression; I remembered that "This book is good", but I didn't remember much beyond that.

Well, late last year the Fairy received a copy of the book from her beloved Auntie Wendy. Now, the Fairy is more into the kinds of books that are read in one sitting--children's picture books, that sort of thing. Although she can enjoy chapter books, most of the time she gets bored with them pretty quickly.

But this book was different. I'm not sure if it's because it covered a time in the author's life when she was but five and six years old (same age as the Fairy), or if it was that it was a true (autobiographical) story, or that the lives of the people were so different that it caught her attention, or if it was just written so well; but the Fairy really got into it. And the Fairy especially liked the stories-within-a-story that appeared in many of the chapters, as Pa took Laura and Mary on his knees and told them something that had happened to so-and-so once upon a time.

The Fairy was especially taken by the story in the chapter entitled "Sunday", which talked about how a much younger Grandpa and his two older brothers had been very naughty one Sunday when they should have been studying their catechisms. I won't spoil the story here of course, except to say that it involved a sled and a big black pig--and the story had the Fairy literally rolling on the floor with laughter. (I had a hard time reading it without laughing out loud, myself.)

So the book was a hit, and I'm very pleased about that. In fact, the other night the Fairy insisted on reading one of the chapters all by herself, which she did. The thing was twenty pages long, and the Fairy just read the whole thing! She did get pretty tired about two-thirds of the way through, and I had to give her lots of encouragement to get her to finish (and some correction now and again, as the Fairy has a tendency to misread, add, and delete words when she's reading too quickly), but she managed to read the entire thing by herself. I'm hoping in the next year or two, we can find some decent chapter books that she'll want to read without assistance.

I was particularly struck by the descriptions of how the people living on the frontier way back in the 1870s managed to get by. When we think of people living in the past--especially those living way out on the fringes of civilization--we tend to think of them as backward, and to think that we, today, know so much more than they do. And in some ways, that's right: I can tell you how a nuclear reactor works, and I can tell you how to back up your network, and I can tell you a bunch of other things that wouldn't have meant diddly back then.

But... They were not unlearned, in their own way. They knew how to make cheese--with nothing but fresh milk (straight from the cow), salt, and rennet. (Most people today don't even know what rennet is, and when you tell them, they swear off cheese forever.) They knew how to make hats. They knew how to butcher pigs, and at least four different ways of preserving the meat for the winter. They knew how to grow all their own crops, how to raise livestock for food, and how to hunt--even how to mold their own bullets for their guns. They knew how to make their own socks and underwear! They knew how to carve, and whittle; they knew how to spin, sew, and weave. They knew how to fiddle, and sing, and dance. And they knew how to work. Hard. And they knew how to enjoy their lives!

In short, if you gathered up a half-dozen or so of these people, plunked them down in the middle of the wilderness and left them for a year, by the time you got back you would find them living in cozy little log cabins, with smoked rabbit and venison hanging in the attic, with their little barns all filled with the grain they'd just harvested, and with enough firewood chopped to keep them through the winter. They would look stout and healthy. If you gathered up a half-dozen or so of us moderns and plunked us down in the middle of the wilderness, well... by the time you revisited us three months later, there would only be one left, but he would be very well fed....


Anyway, the Fairy enjoyed listening to the book, and she found it interesting to hear how they did all the things they need to do to survive back then. I'm looking forward to introducing her to the rest of the series.


Item: Who was it who said that life is a Tragedy for those who Feel, but a Comedy for those who Think? It was some Brit, I remember, back in the day when the Brits were still primarily a thinking race. (And that explains how their dry comedy came to be, I suspect.) Well, I've found myself enjoying the writing of Theodore Dalrymple lately. He's a British doctor who appears to be something of a throwback to the day when the British were the disciplined, stiff-upper-lip types. And he's a keen observer of British culture. He doesn't like what he sees; starting somewhere in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the British have been progressively abandoning their orderly, cultured, mannered approach to life and replacing it by something decidedly boorish and vulgar. And Dalrymple is enough of a Thinker that he can find some of the comedy in what he obviously sees as a terrible tragedy.

So here's an article he wrote recently after visiting a town in South Yorkshire. Basically, the local businessmen in the town of Rotherham have been having a problem all-too-common lately: gangs of youths hanging out in front of the stores, intimidating (and robbing) their customers. Of course, this is bad for business; but when the police either can't or won't do anything about them, what's a store manager to do?

Well, for a while they tried "the mosquito", which is a loud, high-frequency noisemaker. Turns out the human ear loses a big chunk of its high-frequency sensitivity shortly after turning 20. It's been discovered that there are sounds that kids can hear that we adults can't. And briefly there was a line of products based on this fact: with "the mosquito", you can create a teen-repellent sound field that grown-ups simply can't hear. But there were problems here--not the least of which, is that those teens can then sue you for damage to their hearing.

So some local businessman in Rotherham tried something different: he started playing music by Bach on the sound system, just outside his storefront.

It had a sudden, immediate effect--like light on cockroaches. Somehow, the music of Bach is completely incompatible with thuggery. If you're in the mood to intimidate people, the music of Bach becomes absolutely repellent to you. It's too square! It's too orderly! It's too civilized! It makes you feel ashamed at the intimidating thoughts you were just thinking. So the thuggish youths wander off, presumably to intimidate someone else who's not so obviously reminding them of their degraded state.

Dalrymple ends his article with some questions about what this episode says about the state of our culture.


Item: Speaking of the state of our culture, for the first time tonight I managed to play from beginning to end through Debussy's Clair de Lune.

Note: this video clip is not me. This , for those of you who aren't familiar with the tune, is the piece of music I've been learning.

Also note: I think he misses a few notes. Nowhere near as many as me, but still, I can tell. And I think he takes the middle way too fast. And I think he needs to use more left pedal....

Of course, I don't have the thing anywhere near polished yet. I have the last five (out of six) pages memorized, but I still have to sight-read the first page. And the first half of the piece is rather rocky still, although it goes more smoothly as I approach the end. After all, as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been learning it from the back to the front.

Oh, and by the way: the Pillowfight Fairy has been working her way through John Thompson's Teaching Little Fingers to Play, and is currently learning the last song in the book! I'm very proud of her. Not too long from now, the Power Household will be so full o' culture we'll be fit to bust!

Now if we can only get everyone around here potty trained....

1 comment:

Anna said...

Reading- The Little House books are on our list.
However, we've been reading other things that might catch the Fairy's attention.
First, the Elmer and the Dragon series, by Ruth Stiles Gannet. Short chapters, VERY engaging. We often read two chapters a night, and there were only around ten. In a week, you've read a whole chapter book. There are three books in total.
Currently, we're reading My Side of the Mountain, where a boy from Manhattan goes back to his roots (literally!) in the Appalachian mountains. It's a survival story, but very good. I suspected my 6yo wouldn't be interested, but she's enjoyed it so far.