• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 16/Grade 11, 14/Grade 9, and 13/Grade 8.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Kitchen addition progress

Tom and his crew, which includes the kids most days, are making good progress. Early this week they started insulating and putting up drywall, and yesterday they broke through the existing exterior wall.  Which meant we had Tom’s birthday dinner last night with a large sheet of plastic sheeting hanging in the room, between the table and the addition (though compared to the two-hour delay in the meal because the water heater all of a sudden collapsed after 17 years, spewing hot water all over the laundry room, the sheeting was minor).  And of course, with the ceiling supports and sheeting, we now have even less room than unusual in our bowling-ball-narrow eat-in area.  But with any luck not for long.

Insulating in progress,

Once the new windows were installed at the north end of the addition, the only way in or to out was through the old kitchen window, as Davy demonstrates.  The window with about 16 feet of wall are now gone, but the broom closet at left (part of the remodel 12 years ago) stays.  Soon to go will be the dreadful pink, white and gray vinyl sheet flooring Tom picked out 17 years ago (before we met),

Vapor barrier over the insulation, which looks rather ghostly,

The one bright spot in the kitchen at the moment; kitchen addition through the no-longer-in-existence window on the right; what you can see in the background is the cooking part of the kitchen.  Please disregard the 70-year-old popcorn ceiling over asbestos, as I’ve been doing; knowing that we would build a new house one of these days always helped…

The drywall going up; next week’s project is taping, etc.

The old kitchen window on its way out; you can see the lovely supports now temporarily part of the kitchen, to keep the ceiling in place,

When the wall was removed yesterday, the kids and I saw the original wallpaper for the first time. Tom had covered it up when he fixed up the house 17 years ago, just before we met, because it was faster and easier to lay drywall than to strip 50-year-old drywall,

Ta da — the wall is gone.  The view at dinnertime last night.  The Rubbermaid plastic wash tubs you can see on the floor at the bottom right are what Tom and the kids use to store their books and papers (work for Tom, school things for the kids); these will finally find a home in drawers/behind doors when the built-ins in the addition are completed,

Peeking in to the new addition from the existing kitchen after the wall came down,

Hee! Standing inside the new addition, looking toward the old kitchen.  It’s so much wider than I imagined it would be. If it were warmer, I’d move the kitchen table in there RIGHT NOW (it went down to -17 C last night, or not quite 2 degrees F, ugh),

Old and new,

Question of the week

‘Why, exactly, is a reader who comes to the website via Google or Facebook more desirable than someone who types in “www.nytimes.com”?’

Asks The Economist.

The New York Times has always been my hometown newspaper.  It was one of the few things I was sorry to leave behind when I left New York, even though it was getting smaller and skinnier by the year, even then, realizing as I did that home delivery of the Times would no longer be possible living in the country in western Canada. When we finally got internet, especially wifi the other year, it was wonderful to have daily, or depending on my schedule, weekly access to the Times again.  But now I may be losing it again, or at least if I want to read more than the five articles a day I can access for free via Google.

Lucky Canada is the guinea pig of the experiment.  As Arthur Sulzberger wrote on March 17,

Today, we are rolling out digital subscriptions to our readers in Canada, which will enable us to fine-tune the customer experience before our global launch. On March 28, we will begin offering digital subscriptions in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The cheapest option, nytimes.com and smartphone app, is $15/month or $180 a year.  I don’t have a smartphone, and it occurs to me a nytimes.com only and/or foreign resident option, for those of us who are unable to buy a print subscription to the Times (which automatically nets you digital access), would be a nice thing.  But it took the Times a year to figure out the newly premiered three-tier plan.

The pop culture perils of being relevant and engaging

From The New York Times the other day,

Every year, the SAT reduces more than a few teenage test-takers to tears.

But few questions on the so-called Big Test appear to have provoked more anxious chatter — at least in this era of texting and online comment streams and discussion threads — than an essay prompt in some versions of the SAT administered last Saturday in which students were asked to opine on reality television.

“This is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched TV,” one test-taker wrote on Saturday on the Web site College Confidential, under the user name “littlepenguin.”

“I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively,” he wrote, invoking the 19th-century social reformer. “I kinda want to cry right now.”

Less than a minute later, a fellow test-taker identified as “krndandaman” responded: “I don’t watch tv at all so it was hard for me. I have no interest in reality tv shows…”

The commenter ended the post with the symbol for a frowning face.

By Wednesday, comments on the now-infamous prompt — which included the question, “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” — had stretched across nearly 40 pages on College Confidential. Media coverage added to the scrutiny.

Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, said she did not think it was unfair to ask that question of students who had neither the time nor inclination to watch Mike Sorrentino on “Jersey Shore,” or Kim Kardashian on “Kourtney & Kim Take New York.”

“The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” she said.

This particular prompt, Ms. Garcia said, was intended to be relevant and to engage students, and had gone through extensive pre-testing with students and teachers. “It’s really about pop culture as a reference point that they would certainly have an opinion on,” she added.

How the other half lives, eh?  Am tempted to think that if Jacob Riis were around today, he’d find his tenements on television.

We have walls

for the kitchen addition.  Well, we’ve had the walls built for a while but just haven’t been able to stand them up until the -30C blustery weather and snow stopped.  For good, we hope, considering the date on the calendar, but who knows this year. Snow we expect through the end of the May, but -30 is usually a thing of the past by now.

Apologies for the pic quality, I took these from inside the house, which gives the best view.

Our telehandler helping out,

The west wall going up,

West wall attached; there will be built-in shelves with the window in the center (it was either that or two very narrow windows on the edges) with the countertop and cabinets underneath, as a sort of dining room/school room hutch.  There will be one “hutch” on each side, east and west,

The east wall going up,

The north wall; Laura was just telling us the other day that it’s time to get rid of the swing set, so we’ll pass it on to some friends with young children,

Next up, literally: trusses.

Pickle emergency

One of the foods I’ve missed most since leaving NYC 17 years ago is kimchi, Korean spicy fermented cabbage.

I’ve never bothered trying to make it because I hadn’t found any simple recipes to accommodate what’s not available here on the prairie, including Napa cabbage, sweet rice flour (which is available all over Amazon.com but not Amazon.ca), daikon radish, and fresh squid or oysters. So I was very excited the other day to discover Maangchi’s recipe for “emergency kimchi”, which is made with regular cabbage and without the seafood, which is always a problem here in our land-locked province; I’m not the only family member pining for seafood since at a recent 4H meeting, in response to a roll call question about their favorite foods, one landlocked child of mine answered “lobster” and another “crab”.

But I just stumbled over Maangchi’s “emergency kimchi” recipe, which is not only made with easy to find ingredients (think midwest chain grocery store where the shelf with organic canned tomatoes is considered wild and exotic) but quick, so that I don’t have to store the clay pot under my front door.  Preparation time is just 30 minutes, and the recipe uses regular cabbage and avoids the traditional porridge made with sweet rice flour.  It does still call for Korean hot pepper flakes, but I plan to use the supermarket brand (sigh…). If I’d found the recipe sooner, I would have stocked up last month on Korean hot pepper at the Korean greengrocer near my parents’ apartment. I do see a couple of Korean groceries in Edmonton listed on this page.  Thank you, Maangchi, for making kimchi a possibility out here.

If you live somewhere more civilized, here’s Maangchi’s traditional recipe, and here is the easy time-saving recipe with traditional ingredients.  You can find all sorts of Korean recipes, cooking tips, and even YouTube cooking videos, at her website.

Spring thoughts

Happy Spring thoughts, thanks to Book Depository,

Just don’t get me started on the idea of “pre-ordering” which is in the same category, for me, as pre-registration.  You can order, or register, early, but you simply cannot order before you can order.

In this case, I’ve placed my order before the book’s April 16 (re)publication date by Persephone Books, which brought out the delightful Miss Buncle’s Book not too long ago.

 

The princess and the pea

I know you’re supposed to replace a mattress every eight or 10 or 15 years.  But for the first eight, 10, 15 years and even longer, the mattress was just fine.  So fine that we didn’t think about it, though every so often the idea would flit through my brain, only to be dismissed by  concerns that, with my history of  back trouble, a new unknown mattress wouldn’t be as good as the old one. And that our sheets wouldn’t fit the new, thicker mattresses.  Last year the mattress started poking us, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?” and we knew then that we had run of out time.  But family emergencies and too many trips away from home meant that we weren’t getting to the nearest mattress venue — the Sears store in the little city an hour or so away — any time soon.

We finally got there the other weekend, while the kids were curling in a bonspiel.  It was an awfully long afternoon, though the choosing would have been much faster if we had been told at the beginning of the mattress testing process rather than at the end that one of our choices had been discontinued by the manufacturer, harumph. I made a point of avoiding the euro- and pillow-tops and focusing on the “slimmer” mattresses. After about an hour, we left, having paid for our new mattress and boxspring and arranged for delivery.  Since we live in the country, the mattress set would be shipped to our local Sears pickup depot, from where we’d collect it in the truck and bring it home.  Which Tom did at lunchtime today.  Which meant that about 10 minutes later, we were all standing around our lovely Henredon mahogany sleigh bed, staring UP at the mattress and boxpring that looked like something from the story of the princess and the pea.  It was all just so very high, so very tall, so much closer to the ceiling.  Too high, too tall, and quite odd.  Sitting in bed, my head is well above the top of the table lamp on the nightstand, and when I sit on the bed, my feet no longer touch the floor but dangle in the air about 12 inches off the ground. I think I’ve figured out that what we need is a “low profile” boxspring, so we’ll have to order a new new one and return the old new one.  It’s either that or a set of Victorian bed steps and a good memory from my perch in the middle of the night when I’m half asleep and in need of a glass of water. With any luck, our only difficulty will be exchanging the bedspring, and the mattress itself will be suitable.  We have 60 days to find out, with Sears’ return policy.

We still do much our reading aloud in this bed, and when the kids were little they would pretend we were on an island.  This is truly an island now, and I fear for books, the television remote, and especially my laptop should they happen to fall from on high. In the meantime, now that I can reach the ceiling fixture by standing up on the mattress, I may as well take advantage of the situation and change the lightbulbs.

UPDATED to add: The kids measured the old mattress/boxspring set and the new one, and the difference is 10 inches.  Yikes.

PS Oh joy, more snow on the way. Four inches.  Gah.

Not so light listening

With all of our recent truck travels, we became even keener audiobook listeners than usual.  So upon arriving home, I was sent off in search of more and browsing through the Naxos offerings through interlibrary loan, I found

Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, read by Simon Prebble, unabridged on four discs (based on the book)

Though I think we’ll have to reserve this one for the house rather than the truck…

I’m not sure if this project was Naxos’s impetus for their other “Nutshell” offerings which I’ve found, which include

Darwin — In a Nutshell

Afghanistan — In a Nutshell

Tibet — In a Nutshell

The French Revolution — In a Nutshell

The Renaissance — In a Nutshell

Not a substitute for a good book, or two or three, of course, but as a brief introduction or review, great stuff.

A little light reading

Very funny, very wicked — wickedly funny and funnily wicked — and very Canadian (featuring a Mountie and set on an island much like Salt Spring), not to mention very suitable for older children:

Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady

From which, a bit about the children, Christie and the orphaned Barnaby, delivering bread,

And then on to Lady Syddyns. Wearing her faded purple velvet dressing gown and floppy-brimmed hat, she was, as usual, doctoring her roses.

She opened her arms to them and declared they must stop for tea.

Barnaby only smiled absently and did not answer, but Christie, pointing to the undelivered bread, declined with regret.

Surely next week then, said the old lady.  They would have cucumber sandwiches and plum cake.  She thumped both their heads affectionately with an insecticide sprayer, gave them each a rose and went on with her gardening.

The title page of the Bloomsbury edition is the original cover with art by Edward Gorey, which is marvellous,

[PS Edward Gorey fans should go to Boston for the new exhibition at the Athenæum, "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey", running through early June

PPS Gorey illustrated an earlier book by Miss O'Grady, Pippin's Journal, republished as The Curse of the Montrolfes, still in print thanks to Second Chance Press]

When I read that The Bloomsbury Group would be republishing the 1963 classic Let’s Kill Uncle in July 2010, I put it on my wish list.  I was never a fan of the movie version, which is not only a very bad movie and poor adaptation, but is more malice than mischief.

According to Bloomsbury’s author page, “June Skinner [aka Rohan O'Grady] did not publish her first book until she was nearly 40, and she did her writing alone in suburban West Vancouver while raising three children.”  Shades of Shirley Jackson and Life Among the Savages

This biography at abcbookworld, complete with picture, seems quite comprehensive. The ending is moving: “Discouraged by minimal recognition, a lack of literary fellowship and slim earnings, June Skinner put away two unpublished manuscripts in the early 1970s, and stopped writing altogether. At 81, she does not regret giving up the writing life. ‘The creative juices don’t need to flow through a pen’, she says.”

Thoroughly deserving of more recognition — buy a copy of Let’s Kill Uncle and The Curse of the Montrolfes today.

You can find the new edition of Let’s Kill Uncle

at Chapters in Canada

at Amazon.ca

at Amazon.com

at Book Depository

Oh dear

Dear Reader,

I missed the news back in January about the rapidly vanishing “dear” as salutation, as noted by The Wall Street Journal in its article, “Hey, Folks: Here’s a Digital Requiem For a Dearly Departed Salutation”.  Apparently, according to a surprising number of people, “‘Dear is a bit too intimate and connotes a personal relationship’.”  Oh. It seems for some baffling reason that they are equating “dear” with “darling”.  More, from the story,

Across the Internet the use of dear is going the way of sealing wax. Email has come to be viewed as informal even when used as formal communication, leaving some etiquette experts appalled at the ways professional strangers address one another.

People who don’t start communications with dear, says business-etiquette expert Lydia Ramsey, “lack polish.”

“They come across as being abrupt,” says Ms. Ramsey, who founded a Savannah, Ga., etiquette consultancy called Manners That Sell.

“It sets the tone for that business relationship, and it shows respect,” she says. “Email is so impersonal it needs all the help it can get.”

I learned about this latest nail in the coffin of courtesy in today’s episode of the CBC radio show “Spark”, which continues the old saw that “It’s clear what the tone is in a text or a tweet, but in an email the tone is a bigger problem as we swing back and forth between casual and formal contexts”. Somehow Dr. Johnson, George Bernard Shaw, Abigail Adams, and Groucho Marx didn’t seem to have any problem conveying tone, and without relying on facial expressions or emoticons.  And as Miss Manners has explained, there are those “folks who believe that modern society is annoyingly characterized by generosity, gratitude and consideration for others, and we would all be better off if we behaved like — well, like them. Miss Manners has heard from such people, who believe that daily life is not acrimonious enough. She only hopes that their brow-beatings will not succeed in dumbing down the standards that some of us still meet.”  Several years ago, in a Wired interview, Miss Manners discussed the salutation situation:

Wired: You favor old-fashioned salutations in written correspondence: Dear So and So … Do you use salutations in email?

Miss Manners: Email is very informal, a memo. But I find that not signing off or not having a salutation bothers me. I am waiting to see if this is just a fuddy-duddy vestige I should divest myself of.

I wracked my Sunday brain, and came up with a few letters between correspondents without intimate and personal relationships, in other words, in the no love lost category.

From Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet:

DEAR SIR,

THE disagreement subsisting between yourself and my late honoured father always gave me much uneasiness, and since I have had the misfortune to lose him I have frequently wished to heal the breach; but for some time I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to his memory for me to be on good terms with any one with whom it had always pleased him to be at variance.”

– “There, Mrs. Bennet.” –

“My mind however is now made up on the subject, for having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England. As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered olive branch. I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters, and beg leave to apologise for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends, — but of this hereafter. If you should have no objection to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday se’nnight following, which I can do without any inconvenience, as Lady Catherine is far from objecting to my occasional absence on a Sunday, provided that some other clergyman is engaged to do the duty of the day. I remain, dear sir, with respectful compliments to your lady and daughters, your well-wisher and friend,

WILLIAM COLLINS.”

And since I don’t have a copy of the entire letter, including salutation, from Katharine White to Anne Carroll Moore concerning Stuart Little (a letter her husband suspected “set a new world’s record for poisoned courtesy”), here instead is a 1953 letter from E.B. White to a Margaret Halsey,

Dear Miss Halsey,

I had just read your piece in the ALA Bulletin about taking your daughter to the public library, where she liked “the little chairs and the books about fierce things,” when your letter arrived protesting the editorial in the April 18th issue about human rights.  Since I am the author of the offending remarks, it is up to me to answer your complaints.

The New Yorker isn’t against freedom from want and didn’t attack it or minimize it as a goal. But we’re against associating freedom from want (which is an economic goal) with freedom of speech (which is an exact political principle).  There is, I believe, a very real and discernible danger, to a country like ours, in an international covenant that equates human rights with human desires, and that attempts to satisfy, in a single document, governments and philosophies that are essentially irreconcilable.  I do not think it safe or wise to confuse, or combine, the principle of freedom of religion or the principle of freedom of the press with any economic goal whatsoever, because of the likelihood that in guaranteeing the goal, you abandon the principle.  This has happened over and over again.  Eva Peron was a great freedom-from-want girl (specially at Christmas time), but it also happened that La Prensa died and the Argentinians were left with nothing to read but government handouts.

If you were to pack croquet balls and eggs in a single container, and take them travelling, you would probably end your journey with some broken eggs.  I believe that if you put a free press into the same bill with a full belly, you will likely end the journey with a controlled press.

In your letter you doubt whether the man who wrote the editorial had given much thought to the matter.  Well, I’ve been thinking about human rights for about twenty years, and I was even asked, one time during the war, to rewrite the government pamphlet on the Four Freedoms — which is when I began to realize what strange bedfellows they were.  A right is a responsibility in reverse; therefore, a constitutional government of free people should not ward any “rights” that it is not in a position to accept full responsibility for.  The social conscience and the economic technique of the United States are gaining strength, and each year sees us getting closer to freedom from want.  But I’m awfully glad that the “right to work” is not stated in our bill of rights, and I hope the government never signs a covenant in which it appears.

My regards to your daughter, who (human rights or no human rights) is my favorite commentator on the subject of public libraries.

Sincerely,

E.B. White

Just two examples where dear is far from darling.

Sincerely,

Becky (who does in fact have sealing wax in the house, and is not afraid to use it)

The gift of gab

Go into any part of the country, North, East, South or West, and you will find multitudes of his brothers, car conductors in Philadelphia, immigrants of the second generation in the East Side of New York, iron-workers in the Pittsburgh region, corner grocers in St. Louis, holders of petty political jobs in Atlanta and New Orleans, small farmers in Kansas or Kentucky, house carpenters in Ohio, tinners and plumbers in Chicago — genuine Americans all, bawling patriots, hot for the home team, marchers in parades, readers of the yellow newspapers, fathers of families, sheep on election day, undistinguished norms of the Homo Americanus. Such typical Americans, after a fashion, know English. They read it — all save the “hard” words, i. e., all save about 90 per cent of the words of Greek and Latin origin. They can understand perhaps two-thirds of it as it comes from the lips of a political orator or clerygman. They have a feeling that it is, in some recondite sense, superior to the common speech of their kind. They recognize a fluent command of it as the salient mark of a “smart” and “educated” man, one with “the gift of gab.” But they themselves never speak it or try to speak it, nor do they look with approbation on efforts in that direction by their fellows.

In no other way, indeed, is the failure of popular education made more vividly manifest.

H.L. Mencken, “The American Language”, 1921

*  *  *

Are you still here after all that?

I just noticed that the Barnes & Noble Review has a mention of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth, a professor at the Boston University School of Law.  And from everything I’ve read, it’s a very good and useful book indeed, especially for classical home schooling types who enjoy their grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

In his Wall Street Journal review, author Henry Hitchings wrote,

The most immediate pleasure of this book is that it heightens one’s appreciation of the craft of great writers and speakers. Mr. Farnsworth includes numerous examples from Shakespeare and Dickens, Thoreau and Emerson, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. He also seems keen to rehabilitate writers and speakers whose rhetorical artistry is undervalued; besides his liking for Chesterton, he shows deep admiration for the Irish statesman Henry Grattan (1746-1820), whose studied repetition of a word (“No lawyer can say so; because no lawyer could say so without forfeiting his character as a lawyer”) is an instance, we are told, of conduplicatio. But more than anything Mr. Farnsworth wants to restore the reputation of rhetorical artistry per se, and the result is a handsome work of reference.

(Mr. Hitchings should know, since he is author of the new The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, which, as The Guardian‘s Deborah Cameron writes, “takes the reader on a Cook’s tour of complaints about English past and present in a bid to show that the obsessions of the complainers are (a) as old as the hills, (b) based on no linguistic logic, and (c) ultimately futile, since no one can stop language from varying and changing.”  Good stuff.)

Getting back to rhetoric, Carlin Romano, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, calls the book “Farnsworth’s feast”:

“Everyone speaks and writes in patterns,” Farnsworth begins, arguing that our choices among patterns still make a powerful difference in whether words work for us or not. Such rhetorical figures “tend to show up often in utterances that are long remembered” he notes—the Rev. Martin Luther King’s eightfold “I have a dream” repetition was pure anaphora, and JFK’s “Ask not… ” a case of pure chiasmus—so it’s worth identifying them.

At the same time, Farnsworth recognizes that rhetorical figures often fail because, in the hands of politicians, they‘re “strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy,” or they don’t sound “spontaneous,” or a speaker simply overdoes it.

How, he wisely asks, “does one study techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied?”

His answer: by piling on examples until any idiot can separate the spellbinding from the spectacularly flat.

I’ll need to get a copy of the book if only to determine how much of the snappy Mr. Mencken is included.  More Mencken, from his Creed, a masterpiece of conduplicatio:

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

I believe in the reality of progress.

I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

How to write a sentence

I rather feel as if I’m waking up from a long nap.  I’ve been so distracted, and away from home, for months that I wasn’t paying attention to much outside my own life.  For example, I had had no idea that Blake Edwards had died while we were in the West Indies preparing to return home via NYC, which I learned only from the Oscars’ annual memorial montage.

I also had no idea until yesterday that Stanley Fish has a new book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One (Harper, January 25, 2011). I don’t think it’s specifically meant for anyone but adults looking to improve their composition skills, but it seems ideal for high school students, especially those schooling at home.  I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fish’s aptly-named and well-written “Opinionator” blog for The New York Times, which I heartily recommend to you and which is the easiest way for you to decide whether Prof. Fish can write a sentence and whether he’s the one to teach you, or your child, to write one.  For extra added benefit, he does a good job of teaching one to think, too.

From NPR’s recent book review, shades of the progymnasmata (imitative writing), and which contains a healthy excerpt at the end,

Fish is something of a sentence connoisseur, and he says writing a fine sentence is a delicate process — but it’s a process that can be learned. He laments that many educators approach teaching the craft the wrong way — by relying on rules rather than examples.

Analyzing great sentences “will tell you more about … what you can possibly hope to imitate than a set of sterile rules that seem often impossibly abstract,” Fish tells NPR’s Neal Conan.

A good sentence may be easy to pick out, but learning to understand what makes it great, says Fish, will help a student become a stronger writer and a “better reader of sentences.”

Just as a student of art must learn how to describe the merits of a painting, aspiring writers must be able to articulate what constitutes a well-crafted sentence.

“If you can begin to understand an accomplishment in detail, and be able to talk about what makes it work, you will begin to know why your sentences work or don’t work,” Fish explains.

I much prefer my “how to write” books by those who can write.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve long treasured my father’s old copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, because William Strunk and especially E.B. White could write stylish circles around anyone else. Having read Susan Wise Bauer’s “Story of the World” history series, I appreciate the job she did making history come alive for younger children, but much of the time the language is clunky and falls flat.  It’s one of the reasons I gave Writing with Ease a pass.  I’ll be picking up a copy of Prof. Fish’s new book is because his sentences sparkle and crackle with life and meaning. The contrariness, a bonus, keeps you alert.  I’ll leave you with an example from an old blog post, “I Am, Therefore I Pollute”,

Some years ago, I beat back an attempt to eliminate paper towels altogether and replace them with re-washable rags. But there are too many battles to be fought and I find that I am losing most of them. I did retain the right to have a small supply of paper napkins in an out-of-the-way cupboard. (I hate cloth napkins; you always have to worry about soiling them; paper napkins you just throw away, which is of course the problem.) But my house is now full of environmentally approved lightbulbs. They are dim, ugly and expensive, but I am told that they will last beyond my lifetime. (That’s supposed to be reassuring?) A neighbor told me today that he is planning to stockpile incandescent bulbs in the face of a prediction that they will be phased out by 2012.

Quote of the week

Possibly of the month, possibly for 2011, courtesy of our little local weekly newspaper today:

“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”

Martha Custis Washington

The newspaper had the quote abbreviated, and my first thought was that it’s one of those crazy apocryphal misattributed quotes floating around the internet.  But a few minutes on Google turned up a White House page with the quote in its entirety, and it seems as though it may have been from one of Mrs. Washington’s letters to her friend, the writer and playwright Mercy Otis Warren.  Which led my curiosity to Mrs. Warren’s Selected Letters as well as the long overdue biography, The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Foundingof a Nation by Nancy Rubin Stuart, both of which I think would be as fascinating as difficult to find in a Canadian library.

All of which is a very roundabout way to say that I think Martha was on to something.

On deck

Next up on the (re)reading list, three books saved from my father’s shelves in the West Indies:

Poems for Gardeners, edited by Germaine Greer (Virago, 2003); I could use some poetry and green growing things in my life right now.

The Semi-Attached Couple & The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden.  I’ve read this several times over the years while visiting my parents, and like it enough to want to give it a home, especially since it’s no longer in print, and I have a weakness for the old Virago Modern Classic covers.  As the late great Noel Perrin wrote in his blurb on the back, “The Semi-Attached Couple is the answer to a good many prayers.  It is the book you go on to when you have run out of Jane Austen’s novels.”

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, which I think my father must have bought because he was a keen fan of her Amanda Cross mysteries.  I still have a way to go before 60, but having to deal with all that my father left undone, or not properly done, has given me quite an education about life’s golden years.  Heilbrun no doubt will be educating as well; the book was published when she was 71, and interestingly Heilbrun had, as she wrote, “long held a determination not to live past ‘three score years and ten”.  Her book, a celebration of that extra time, is especially poignant to read now knowing that she did ultimately commit suicide, in 2003 at the age of 77.  Her son, novelist Robert Heilbrun, explained at the time, “She wanted to control her destiny, and she felt her life was a journey that had concluded.”

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