The Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings

The facts don’t care about your feelings, but we will not regard those who fail to care about our feelings.  It is easy to live life like a harsh edge lord, dispensing unpleasant truth to those who are too sensitive to handle it, and to feel that one’s toughness with regards to grim and unpleasant reality makes one superior to those who are unable to handle the brutal truth brutally spoken.  Trust me, I speak from experience.  Continually in life we have to deal with the twin poles of human existence whose objective reality shapes what we are able to do and what success we are able to attain.  On the one hand, there is a grim reality that is at worst hostile or at best indifferent to our feelings and internal subjective reality, but on the other hand our response to other people is largely shaped by that very same subjective internal reality even if we are aware of its subjectivity.  These twin poles and their simultaneous pull on the lives of everyone–even cynical edge lords who may largely deceive themselves about how tough they are in the face of hostile and grim reality, including the hostility of others against them precisely because of their approach–dramatically shapes our communication and interaction with others and forces us to consider what it is we want from other people and how we expect them to respond to us.

It has been frequently said by people far more gentle than I am and far more skilled at the subtle arts of charm and persuasion that one must speak the truth to others with kindness, and the wisdom of that saying is in the way that it gently points out these two poles in a subtle fashion.  The truth is a nod to objective reality, and the fact that if we wish to influence others we must speak it in kindness is a recognition of the objective reality that human beings are highly motivated by subjective reality and will not generally allow themselves to be positively influenced by those who dismiss their feelings as unimportant.  It is not easy to speak the truth in kindness.  To be sure, we all want to be treated with kindness, and a great deal of the cynicism that leads to the proliferation of edge lords in the contemporary world is the harsh understanding that people so rarely do care about our feelings, which leads to a hardness that ceases to show concern for the feelings of others.  Instead of treating others the way we want to be treated, all too often we treat others as we have been treated.  And some of us have been treated so harshly and unkindly that it is monstrous and wicked to treat others the same way in turn.

What is it we want in expressing the truth to someone else?  If we wish to confirm our superiority to the person we are interacting with, we need not concern ourselves with politeness or gentleness or tact or anything else of that nature.  Expressing one’s superiority is most easily done by choosing the most unkind expression of one’s views as possible, putting the harshest possible construction and showing the most cavalier disregard for the feelings and sensitivities of one’s audience.  It can be done fluently with brutal logic that takes every flaw of one’s opponents and rivals–and those flaws will be many–and puts them in their baldest form and takes them to the most ridiculous extreme.  One can type such things fluently if one has a mind that is geared to such a brutal recital of unpleasant and unpalatable truths, and one will receive a predictably negative response as a result.  Few people–not even those who are most proficient at expressing unpleasant things–like having their words shorn of all human kindness and expressed bluntly and baldly and then ruthlessly skewered and ground into dust.  But I tend to think that most people at least, when they interact with others, desire more than simply to show themselves superior to the fools and idiots that they have the unfortunate burden of being forced to unpleasantly interact with, as consoling as that thought can be when one is engaged in online flame wars with other fools and idiots.

If we desire to influence others in a positive direction and to win them over to our way of thinking and living, our task is considerably more delicate and difficult.  We may find the way that someone else is behaving to be unpleasant and unacceptable and we may clearly see that someone is on the road to perdition and destruction because of some problem in their lives and behavior that they are simply not addressing.  Yet at the same time they may struggle with how to express that in such a way that it will lead to change.  As I like to comment on often, because it is so frequently relevant, I took an entire graduate course for a semester on resistance to change and found it to be the single most relevant thing I studied in that entire degree program on Engineering Management.  The nearly universal human resistance to change–resistance I must admit I possess in fairly large and sometimes unpleasant quantities–makes any kind of effort to influence others as difficult as finding a path through an unmarked Afghan minefield.  We may know how we wish for others to be, and we may even know that someone else desires to be the best that they can be for all of their flaws and shortcomings, but to convey difficult and unpleasant truths in such a way that it will encourage someone to act upon what we have to say and to think about us in a positive fashion is a very difficult matter.  Even if we respect and love the people we are trying to change, we know that they will resist change and resent any expression we make of a wish to change them, and so we are frequently torn between our knowledge that being honest and kind is an extremely challenging task.  Being aware that the truth only goes so far in shaping how other people think and feel and act does not make it any easier to engage in the delicate and immensely difficult task of seeking to influence others for the good.

After all, if God wanted it would be no difficult thing on his part to blast unworthy sinners from existence.  To destroy the wicked would be a trivial task if God set His heart to doing so.  The fact that we would all be blasted from existence as a result notwithstanding, it is clear that what God desires of us is that we should repent and change, that we should move from our present fallen and wicked state and develop the habits of righteous thoughts and deeds and the righteous character that He possesses.  In God’s working with us we are faced with struggles and difficulties, what God is able to do with us is mediated and influenced by our own ability to recognize His lead and to respond to His desires to shape us according to His will.  Even when recognizing that He is the potter and we are the clay, the nature of the clay is not always the same from one person to another or one situation to another.  The warp and weave of our nature influences what can be done with us and how we can be shaped.  There may be limits to what can be accomplished because some aspect of our nature is so deeply ingrained in us that it cannot easily, or sometimes at all, be smoothed out.  And if this is true of God, whose wisdom and power far exceeds our own, it is certainly true of our own efforts to change others into our own image or to shape the institutions and times in which we live.  And if the facts do not care about our feelings, may we hope that God and other people do care about such insignificant matters and allow those feelings to shape how they deal with us.  And may the feelings of others, as insignificant as they may be to us, shape in turn how we respond and behave towards others, for we are beings whose internal and subjective realities matter far more to us than the brutal and coercive truths that we work so hard to banish from our attention at every available opportunity.

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Book Review: Murder Your Darlings

Murder Your Darlings:  And Other Gentle Writing Advice From Aristotle To Zinsser, by Roy Peter Clark

This book could have been a really good one.  In many ways, the approach of this book is a sound one, providing plenty of personal stories about writing and the author’s own background while also pointing the reader to a great many guides for writing that span over the wide range of history and that demonstrate the wit and wisdom from a wide variety of writers who have sought to teach and guide others into writing better.  For the most part, I found this book to be enjoyable and instructive, with only a few problems.  But as the book went on, I found the author’s approach less and less enjoyable, especially as it became evident that the author was trying to carve out a space for the sort of behavior that biased contemporary journalists engage in but do not want to consider as illegitimate and blameworthy.  Ultimately, the fact that the author is a journalist and apparently a fairly ordinary one as far as it goes nowadays means that as this book went on and the author felt it desirable to defend his profession and that is something that I wasn’t willing to go along with, which decreased my enjoyment of the book towards the end considerably.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages and is divided into six parts and 32 chapters, some of which deal with more than one writing guide.  The author begins with five essays on language and craft (I) that discuss getting rid of precious words (1), cutting clutter (2), learning to live inside words (3), shaping a sentence for effect (4), and working from a plan (5).  The author then looks at matters of voice and style (II), including the tensions inherent within style (6), varying sentence length (7), using visual markings to spark creativity (8), tuning one’s voice to the digital age (9), and adjusting one’s sound (10).  Then comes some essays on confidence and identity (III) that focus on the steps of the writing process (11), persistence (12), free writing (13), identifying as a writer (14), and developing the habit of writing (15).  Six essays deal with storytelling and character (IV), including understanding the value of storytelling (16), preferring the complex character (17), writing for sequence then theme (18), distilling a story simply (19), adding dimension to characters (20), and reporting for story (21).  After that the author praises attention to rhetoric and audience (V) with essays on anticipating readers’ needs (22), embracing the power of rhetoric (23), influencing the emotional response of the audience (24), signing a social contract with the reader (25), and writing a bit above the level of the reader (26).  Finally, the author discusses mission and purpose (VI), with essays on strategies for reporting reliably (27), writing to grow one’s soul (28), writing to delight and instruct (29), seeking to become the eyes and ears of the audience (30), choosing advocacy over propaganda, as if they were different (31), and being a writer and more (32).  The book then ends with the usual afterword, acknowledgements, an appendix on books by the author, bibliography, and index.

In the end, this is a book whose reception depends on one’s view of contemporary journalism.  The author makes it explicitly clear that he believes there is a legitimate place in journalism for positive propaganda that he labels as advocacy even as he demonizes official propaganda that he labels as illegitimate.  Yet the advocacy of contemporary journalism, which the author probably engages in himself given some of the comments in this book, is clearly just as wicked as the propaganda he condemns for belonging to fascistic regimes.  The author’s framing leads one to believe in a certain double standard that makes this book impossible to wholeheartedly enjoy or recommend.  It would have been far better had the author not been a part of the corrupt contemporary journalistic establishment, but knowing his obvious filters and biases and worldview errors does explain so much of what is wrong with a lot of contemporary writing.  The author wants to condemn people like John McPhee for his privilege but doesn’t see how privileged he is as a writer himself, and this lack of self-awareness pervades the book as a whole, to the detriment of my appreciation of the author’s supposed wisdom.

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Book Review: Monster, She Wrote

Monster, She Wrote:  The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

There is a useful touchstone when it comes to reviewing books like this one that deal with obvious gender issues.  If a woman purports to be presenting a feminist account (as this book is) and delights in slighting and mocking Jane Austen, her professions to speak on behalf of a sisterhood of authors cannot be taken seriously.  We may call it the Austen line, that a praise of women writers that does not include Jane Austen fails to be properly inclusive enough of women, given Austen’s intense interest (expressed most notably in Northanger Abbey) of speaking on behalf of her fellow novelists and (expressed in Persuasion) of her intense focus on the importance of women speaking with their own pens.  The fact that this book celebrates the transgressive in all manner of ways while looking askance at those women who chose a more sophisticated and ironic strategy to disarm the contempt and disrespect of their audiences suggests that the ulterior motives of the authors to celebrate the transgressive outweighs their feminist desire to speak on behalf of women writers, and that is borne out by the contents of this book as a whole and not only their shoddy treatment of Jane Austen as a notable lady writer.

This book is about 300 pages long or so and is divided into eight parts and various biographical essays that mostly focus on individual writers and their contexts.  The authors begin with an introduction and then quickly move on to a look at the founding others of horror and speculative fiction, namely Margaret Cavendish, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Regina Roche, Mary Anne Radcliffe, and Charlotte Dacre, most of whom appear to be chosen for their misfit lives as much as for their writings.  After that the author looks at haunting tales from such women as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Ridell, Amelia Edwards, Paula Hopkins, Vernon Lee, Margaret Oliphant, and Edith Wharton.  The authors then turn to occult writings by Margorie Bowen, L.T. Meade, Alice Askew, Margery Lawrence, and Dion Fortune.  Pulp writers make up the next section, which includes essays on Margaret St. Clair, Catherine Lucille Moore, Mary Counselman, Gertude Bennett, Everil Worrell, and Eli Colter.  Women like Dorothy Macardle, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Toni Morrison, and Elizabeth Engstrom are focused on for their discussion of haunted houses.  Paperback horror is celebrated through such authors as Joanne Fischmann, Ruby Jensen, V.C. Andrews, Kathe Koja, Lisa Tuttle, and Tanith Lee.  More contemporary gothic writers are celebrated like Anne Rice, Helen Oyeyemi, Susan HIll, Sarah Waters, Angela Carter, and Jewelle Gomez.  Finally, the book discusses the future of horror and speculative fiction with five essays that look at weird fiction, vampire writings, the haunted house, apocalyptic fiction, and works on serial killers.

Even in a case where the approach and perspective of the author is not one that I particularly appreciate, I am still nevertheless pleased when, as is the case here, I find a great deal to enjoy as far as the writings discussed.  While I am by no means a great horror reader, I do enjoy fantasy and science fiction more, and found a lot of writers of the latter two genres represented here (although it was a bit baffling that the authors did not write about the well-rewarded Lois McMaster Bujold here, who definitely deserves recognition).  Even if my own reading tends not to focus on female writers of horror and related literature, I can still affirm that I have read and enjoyed the writings of such figures included here as Edith Wharton, Shirley Jackson, and Sarah Waters and that at least a few of the other women included here wrote about things that interested me.  I likely would have found more to interest me had the authors not deliberately chosen transgressive authors but would have been more interested in celebrating the full diversity of women as writers.  When a not particularly feminist reviewer has broader views of what women’s works should be celebrated than avowed feminists, there is a problem with the sort of feminism adopted here.

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Book Review: Elements Of Fiction

Elements Of Fiction, by Walter Mosley

What is it that makes people want to write about writing?  Part of the reason why, at least to me, is because writing is one of those crafts that has a high degree of impostor syndrome about it, where people self-identify as writers and then seek to justify their identities to themselves and others.  When one is engaged in a task where one’s achievements are perhaps a bit limited (although that is not the case here) or where one’s identity may be called into account, or where the legitimacy of one’s efforts are definitely less than obvious, the human tendency to justify oneself is immense and this book is certainly an example of that.  The author has a particular perspective and worldview and background and this book shapes that heavily, as the author tries to justify the “truths of his heart” that contradict the objective facts of existence that he finds somewhat unpleasant or even problematic.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that this is so, as it would likely be the case for anyone who is writing a book like this.  But that is why there are so many efforts like this one where people subjectively, out of their own biases and perspectives, seek to advice others as a means of helping them better justify themselves.

This book is a short collection of the author’s thoughts about writing that is a bit more than 100 pages.  The author begins with a preface that seeks to frame and justify this work and the author’s own perspective on writing and creativity in general.  After that the author discusses an introduction where he (as is customary in this sort of effort) also plugs another book he has written.  The author then discusses the structure of revelation that appears in the author’s writing (not surprising given the author’s interest in mysteries) while also wrestling with structure in fiction and the blank page.  The author uses his own writings and ideas to address the questions of scope, character, and context in literature.  The author spends some time looking at narrative voice and details and spends a few short essays on description.  The author also deals with questions of rewriting and originality while also discussing the need to take a breather and the question of both improvising and putting things together.  By and large this book feels like it was constructed out of blog entries, which is not the worst thing but is certainly far less universal and far more of a personal essay than the ponderous title would indicate.

That said, just because this book is an exercise in self-justification and that I do not necessarily find the author’s work all that edifying does not mean that this work is therefore pointless.  Even where (perhaps even especially where) one’s own perspective differs greatly from that of an author, a book is worthwhile in providing the point of view of an author, even apart from anything else that the book has to offer.  As someone who is not very acquainted with the author’s works, I probably did not get as much out of this effort as someone would who was more favorable to his writings.  That said, even without a close familiarity with the author’s other works, it was clear that the author was drawing upon his own writing (and presumably the body of experience and reading that his writing is informed by) as a way of making general points about writing.  As human beings we frequently seek to turn the particular matters we are most familiar with and then turn them into abstract and general truths that we seek to promote as being the case for areas where our experience is extremely partial and limited.  If this book speaks to you, use it.  If not, then know that it comes from the author’s own subjective experience and perspective and seek to find one that speaks to you more.

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The Problem Of Pronouns

One of the more awkward social situations I have been involved in–and this is saying something given my general awkwardness as a human being [1]–was when I attended a meeting on privilege and the people organizing the event had everyone stand up and list their preferred personal pronouns.  Like many people, I grew up in an age where assigning pronouns was pretty easy and could be done at birth.  In fact, I still believe things to be that way even now in an age where some people post lists of dozens of personal pronouns that one can be called if one chooses (I am particularly fond of Jim/Jam of some of the lists I have seen) that it is particularly easy to tell the gender of pronouns because grammar follows biology.  Whatever you may feel about your identity, your identity in an objective sense is an easy one to determine.

That said, pronouns are problematic in several ways, and English is not always the best when it comes to dealing with such matters.  Some languages have gendered nouns, so that one is used to calling things by genders even though they do not tend to have genders–the romance languages are particularly good for this but certainly not alone in that tendency, as Hebrew and other languages have that phenomenon as well.  Among those languages that have genders, some have a neuter or indeterminate gender already added, and some languages have more complex “genders,” a matter which I will leave for those who are linguists of such odd languages.  In English, though, we lack a standard second person plural as few people are willing to adopt the yinz or y’all solution that is found in some regional dialects that I happen to be familiar with.  This is not only a problem in English but is increasingly becoming a problem in other languages as the second person plural is increasingly not spoken except in formal occasions like sermons where there is a a clear matter of wanting to speak to an audience as a whole that has been assembled in large part to hear what one has to say.

Among the most personally baffling matter of pronouns to me is the way that some people who consider themselves to be non-binary (again, this is a matter of feelings and not of objective fact regarding their identity) desire to be called they.  One reason this has baffled me is that we already have a perfectly good indeterminate term when it comes to the third-person singular, and that is it.  Now, I can understand why someone might not want to be called it, because it could be judged as referring to someone as being beneath human dignity.  That said, they is hardly a more elegant solution, although if one is saying that one is being inhabited by an unfriendly demonic spirit whose malevolence is at least somewhat responsible for one’s identity confusion, then using the pronoun of they would be an accurate statement of what someone was dealing with.  Perhaps that is an implication that is not considered by those who desire to be referred to.

Indeed, one can rest assured that if you think it necessary to inform other people of your preferred pronouns and it cannot be guessed obviously by one’s name, bearing, and appearance, then there are more serious problems that likely need to be addressed.  I can safely say personally that I have never felt comfortable or been impressed with the thinking and reasoning of someone who feels it necessary to post a preferred personal pronoun.  That does not mean that they are beneath human dignity–as human beings we all have areas that test the patience of others–but it does mean that they are people whose grasp of objective reality is less than profound and thus are likely to be lacking in wisdom and insight in a wide variety of areas.  I am not sure whether this is generally understood, or whether solipsism is so common that objective reality is viewed as something to actively resist rather than something which bounds and limits us in any way.

It should be noted, though, that it is not as if problems with pronouns are a new thing.  The English language, like other languages, once had multiple second person pronouns, including ye as well as you and thou.  Ye was used both as a second-person plural pronoun as well as a way of talking to a single superior, who was assumed to be plural at least in part because of his office (another way in which one can point to the presence of a malevolent spirit seeking domination over others).  Ye seemed to fall to the wayside in terms of usage once more egalitarian sentiment spread in the United States.  The case for thou, the polite second person singular form of ye, is also interesting, as it was a term that was originally meant to express intimacy or familiarity, but its nearly exclusive use by Quakers to refer to others led it to be viewed with increasing disdain by those who were hostile to Quakers.  And since pronouns have been a matter of conflict for language politics for centuries, we should not be surprised that it is so in our own conflict-ridden age.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Everything Guide To Homeschooling

The Everything Guide To Homeschooling: All You Need To Create The Best Curriculum And Learning Environment For Your Child, by Sherri Linsenbach

Admittedly, I am not the ideal audience for this book.  I do not have any children nor do I at present have any direct involvement in the ordinary education of anyone else’s children.  That said, while I went to public school growing up, the idea of homeschooling in the future is of great appeal, and I think it is worthwhile to study even those areas that are not of immediate relevance.  Given my general mistrust of the public school system and my own experiences there as well as my belief that children would do better away from the prison-like atmosphere of contemporary schools and the indoctrination of contemporary educators, homeschooling is appealing even if it involves a substantial amount of work.  The popularity of this book and others like it is an indication of the popularity of homeschooling in a world where such suspicion as I have of the public education system and its flaws has become increasingly widespread.  This book may not include everything one may want to know about homeschooling, but it is a great resource for those who are thinking about adopting such a step and want to know the logistics involved.

This book is about 300 pages and is divided into twenty-four chapters.  The book begins with a discussion of the top ten benefits of homeschooling and an introduction.  After that there is a look at home education expectations that encourages parents about its feasibility (1) and a discussion of various learning styles and teaching methods that vary across children and parents (2).  There is a discussion on the legal issues of homeschooling (3) and various approaches that range from virtual schools to unschooling (4).  The author spends some time talking about socialization (5) and understanding unschooling and unit studies (6) as well as fun learning activities (7).  There is a discussion of frugal homeschooling options (8), choosing curriculum (9), and common core standards (10).  The author talks about scheduling (11), record keeping (12), organizing one’s homeschool (13), and dealing with typical and atypical days (14).  The next set of chapters then looks at the size of one’s homeschool (15) as well as the single-parent (16) and working parent (17) homeschools.  The author then discusses homeschooling in the early years (18), elementary years (19), middle years (20), and teen years (21).  The book then ends with a discussion of special needs children (22), avoiding burnout (23) for veteran parents, and college and beyond (24), as well as three appendices that provide resources (i), curriculum programs (ii), and national homeschooling organizations (iii), as well as an index.

What is particularly admirable about this book is that it does not assume a specific reason that someone may want to do homeschooling, nor does it assume that a parent would want to use a specific approach.  Indeed, the author’s unwillingness to promote a one-size fits all and the discussion of the importance of both parents (if possible) working with children for their education as well as the importance of being sensitive to how a child learns best is a refreshing one that ought to prompt the thinking of parents about such matters.  The author is comforting and encouraging throughout about the competence of parents to educate children and to gain resources that can teach areas where the parent may not have any particular expertise.  The encouragement of unit studies as a way of overcoming the segmentation and specialization of much of contemporary education as well as the encouragement of unschooling as a way to tailor education to the interests and passions of children–assuming that they have passions that can be channeled to reading and research–is definitely welcome as well.  The book certainly gave me some ideas as to what would be necessary to homeschool and some encouragement that it would not be so difficult to manage as a person who finds self-education compelling personally.

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Book Review: Galloping The Globe

Galloping The Globe:  The Geography Unit Study For Young Learners, by Loreé Pettit & Dari Mullins

From my youth I have been fascinated by the study of geography, and this book provides an example of a unit study for those who are homeschooling children in elementary school who wish to learn a bit about geography.  This book is hardly an advanced one, but it serves as a worthwhile introduction to a unit study, which looks at a particular subject not in isolation but in a context that includes its connections with other areas.  And though there are plenty of ways in which I found this particular book either extremely basic (which is no bad thing) or in error for one reason or another, the book certainly succeeds at prompting questions about the nations of the world and also provides a great many connections between political geography and other subjects that would be of interest to many parents and children.  As a result, this is a book that I can certainly recommend, albeit with some comment about how it may be improved or what sort of additional aspects of geography a parent may want to introduce as part of a lesson if using this book in instructing geography and related subjects.

This book is a reasonably short one at 261 pages and is divided by continent.  The book begins with instructions, which include getting started, a core book list, background information, a discussion of the CD-ROM, teaching tips and general activities, as well as a sample schedule and contact information for resources.  After that the author provides a brief discussion on how to use a map as well as basic geography.  After this the authors look at selected countries within all continents.  First the authors provide a look at Asia that focuses on China, South Korea, Japan, India and Israel.  The lessons for Europe include a focus on Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands (but not the Dutch territories in the Caribbean), and Spain (but not the Canary Islands or Cueta).  After this there is a discussion of the observance of Christmas around the world and then a short unit that discusses the North and South poles so as to give a bit of information about the Arctic Ocean as well as Antarctica.  The unit for North America unsurprisingly focuses on Canada, the United States, and Mexico.  The unit on South America looks at Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, and Argentina.  The unit for Africa then looks at South Africa, Kenya, Morocco (but not Western Sahara), Nigeria, and Egypt.  The unit for Oceania then focuses on Australia and New Zealand.  After this the book ends with an Appendix that discusses 3-D maps, a dictionary, and reports on biographies, countries, and animals, as well as answer keys and an index.

Among the more irritating aspects of this book for me was the inconsistency by which the author defined nations and geography.  For example, the basic maps of countries, which usually showed only the outline, were wildly inconsistent in the areas that were chosen as part of boundaries.  The map for France did not show Corsica, although the map of Italy showed Sardinia and Sicily.  The map for Great Britain did not show the Shetland Islands or Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands or Gibraltar or any of the existing British imperial possessions, while the map for Israel only included the 1948 borders and nothing won in the Six Days War.  The maps in general failed to show imperial territories, so we saw no Puerto Rico or Guam or American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands or Virgin Islands for the United States, nor New Caledonia or Martinique or Tahiti or French Guiana for France.  And so on and so forth.  The authors also show a consistent mainstream Christian approach that links the Bible, history, science, literature, recipes, puzzles, and games with geography and encourage the reading of a lot of sources that show missionary work in various countries as being essential to understanding the geography of places.  This is not problematic for me, but it is worth commenting on as some people may be surprised at an approach that encourages such in-depth study.

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Book Review: First Grade Readers

First Grade Readers:  Units Of Study To Help Children See Themselves As Meaning Makers, by Stephanie Parsons

This is the sort of book that ought to give someone pause when reading it.  A great deal of elementary education involves flattery of young students.  This is unsurprising.  Early elementary schoolers (as this book is written about) are generally new to reading and writing and in order to encourage them to engage in such tasks, a certain amount of flattery is to be expected.  If the teacher goes further along this process than I would prefer, it is because she tends to express a dislike of testing and encouraging a factual knowledge of something and is far more interested in encouraging their children to find their own meaning in texts.  Now, this whole aspect of finding one’s own meaning is something that has run rampant in contemporary society with extremely damaging results, and the author appears to be gung ho about supporting this tendency, which suggests that there are some substantial disagreements about the importance of education and the role of external reality in shaping our own mindset.  The author, it would seem, is not one of those who places a high value on objective truth, and that limits my own appreciation of her approach.

This book is a short one at just a bit more than 150 page and it is divided into seven chapters that are temporally organized in order throughout the school year.  The book begins with a foreword by Kathy Collins and the usual acknowledgments.  After that the author introduces the subject of reading and how it can be celebrated and encouraged for young learners.  After that the author encourages teachers to turn their students into a community of readers through a great deal of subtle manipulation and flattery (1).  The author then moves to helping encourage teachers to show students how to make sense of letters (2) and to use the developing skills in reading to bring books to life (3).  After that there is a discussion on encouraging young readers to read with a wide-awake mind (4) with the purpose of learning (5).  Discussions on speaking and acting out what is read encourage young people to sound like readers (6) when talking about books and then encourage the teacher to plan for independence and summer reading (7), after which there are appendices with handouts (i) and websites to help foster the habit of reading (ii).

By and large, there are some things that even a wary and suspicious reader like myself can take from this book and appreciate.  Certainly as a prolific reader I am appreciative of those who encouraged me to read and learn and to become the sort of independent-minded person I am when it comes to thinking–something not everyone appreciates.  Even so, it is hard to know what aspects of this book spring from a genuine love of seeing people read and learn and grow and what parts spring from a desire to encourage a certain sort of person who values their own subjective opinion and thinking more than objective reality as it can be recognized and understood by others.  Ideally, we should be aware of both our internal subjective reality and cultivate our creativity and our God-given talents as well as be aware of the external state of the world outside of us that exerts its pull on us, however much we may dislike it.  Yet it seems all too easy to either grade according to objective facts that are easy to regurgitate but that do not blossom into deeper love or passion or to encourage individual interpretations that are fanciful and not particularly on point as a way of flattering others into thinking they are more insightful than they actually are.  This book is clearly in the latter camp.

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On The Cantonization Of The United States

Some time ago I wrote about the cantonization of India [1] were large states were breaking apart based on the separatist pressures within them, a process I am keenly interested in in general [2].  Yet this process is an ongoing one that we see across the world and certainly in the United States as well.  The desire of temporary electoral majorities to reject minority rights and seek to enforce their own (frequently misguided) political agendas through control of political institutions has exacerbated the usual town and country debates around the world and created a space for secession movements to flourish.  Where politics is increasingly hostile and increasingly important, very often people come to the understanding that they simply cannot be a part of the same institutions any longer.  We have looked at this process over the years mostly at the national level by looking at secession movements within countries, but such movements also exist within lower levels of government as well, and it is worth discussing this process somewhat.

When I was a preteen, my mother, brother and I moved out of my grandparents’ place and rented a single-wide trailer from a local farmer who was active in a secession movement to create something called Alafia County from the eastern and southern parts of Hillsborough County.  Believing that the concerns of the rural and exurban hinterlands of Hillsborough County would never be addressed so long as Tampa and its immediate suburbs dominated Hillsborough County, he wanted to separate the area east of the Tampa Bypass Canal or so and south of the Alafia River into a new county that would be centered on Plant City.  The movement didn’t pick up steam, but it represents my own early experience with the centrifugal pressures that exist on the local level of governments.  Later on, as a young adult when I returned to Florida for a few years, the coastal islands of Pinellas County, the next county to the west of Tampa, explored splitting off from the rest of the small county and forming a county that would include just the islands, which would have been the smallest county in the state but one with considerable resources as well as concerns relating to beach erosion and bridges.  Suffice it to say that this has been a subject I have cared about for a long time.

In between the local level and the national level, we have the state level, and it is little surprise that secession movements here have been active recently.  For example, I have read reports of at least five of these movements existing at present, with the most serious ones being in Oregon for an expansion of Idaho or in Virginia for an expansion of West Virginia to escape intolerable progressive-run state governments.  Given the ruin that results from the adoption of progressive politics in places like New York and (especially) California, it would make sense that anyone who has any sense would want to escape that sort of fate by any means possible, even if it means becoming a part of Idaho or West Virginia.  What makes less sense is that many of the people who escape the ruin of those policies by moving to other areas still persist in voting for the sort of candidates that perpetuate that ruin.  Sadly, it is difficult to have any sense these days when it comes to matters of politics as they deal with the hard realities of practical life.

There are different ways that such secession movements can succeed.  In Switzerland, for example, the splitting of cantons into half-cantons is an orderly process that has helped to defray conflicts like that between Protestants and Catholics as well as the town & country conflict in Basel that threatened considerable disorder.  In the United States, the constitution requires that any secession movement within a state have the support of the state which is being seceded from.  Previously in American history Vermont came into the Union after having been viewed as a part of New York, and Maine was once a part of Massachusetts while Tennessee was part of North Carolina and Kentucky was part of Virginia.  More controversially, the Pierpoint government of Virginia (the Unionist government) approved the secession of West Virginia.  Since then there have been no such movements approved and the dilution of power and influence that would result from this process would seem to discourage any future attempts unless a Civil War force the issue to the surface again.

My own personal feelings are somewhat complicated regarding this matter.  Ideally, I would think it worthwhile for people to develop better skills at coping with disagreements so such matters do not get out of hand and threaten peace.  Yet at the same time as someone whose own communication and peacemaking skills are rather limited, I can understand the appeal of separation.  It does tend to lead to a lot of fragmentation and weakening in general, but such is the spirit of our times.  We live in an age where we can hold little or nothing together and where we lack the skills to be able to deal with conflict successfully and frequently even to put up with those we do not agree with.  And even when we do manage to preserve a superficial unity it is often nowhere near as successful as we would wish it to be.


[2] See, for example:


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Book Review: Ork!: The Roleplaying Game

Ork!:  The Roleplaying Game, by Jon Leitheusser, et al

When you are creating intellectual property for a text-based roleplaying game and you are trying to avoid problems with the intellectual property of others, you have to play things pretty carefully and the authors have managed to do so here.  That is not to say that everyone will appreciate this game, but if you enjoy being in character for characters that are not particularly bright, where only the Orkmaster can be clever and smart, this game has at least something entertaining to offer that can be of worth.  I’m not sure offhand that I know of anyone who would want to play this sort of game or would be able to do it well, but it is popular enough to have gotten a second edition and to have stayed in print for fifteen years, so that speaks something to a sense of enduring popularity for this particular game that seems a bit surprising to me but is still worthwhile to ponder.  This is a game whose enjoyment I can see, but you just have to be in the right mood for it and I’m seldom in the mood to play stupid, it must be admitted.

This book is eleven chapters and about 150 pages long.  The book begins iwth an introduction that assumes the reader of the book doesn’t really know what role playing games are.  After that the book covers names, attributes, skills, wounds (hit points), cheats, and equipment that are to be chosen, maybe (1) and then more detailed skills in several categories (2).  The book then covers the choice of cheats (3) and their consequences, then spends a fair amount discussing combat (4) as well as the dangerous hazards (including broccoli) that exist in the world for ork kind (5).  An entire chapter is devoted to things that the Orkmaster needs to know (6) before brief chapters provide information about ork society and language (7), growing up ork in the gunk pit where one has to do something glorious before getting named (8), and then the magic that is available to orks (9).  The last two chapters are far more length and contain interesting material about things to kill (10), which contains a list of stats for various enemies, and then a list of adventures as well as adventure seeds that can be used to play the game (11).  After this there is an afterword, an index, and appendix, and then a character sheet that can be copied for a party.

Despite the fact that this book is written mostly in an embarrassingly bad dialect that makes everything into the present progressive tense and is painful to read, it is clear that the authors to this book did do some sound thinking about the worldbuilding involved.  The authors portray the world as being a dangerous one and also show a sense of both allowing the characters to cheat and also punishing it, sometimes in entertaining ways.  The end result is quite intriguing, even if it’s hard to exactly approve of the way that the game works.  As someone who prefers to use my intellect and cleverness, this game’s absolute hostility to that is not something I really enjoy, although I have to say that there is somewhat appealing of playing against type from time to time.  And for those who enjoy doing that, I can appreciate why they would want to play a game like this.  I just think that if I played it, I wouldn’t have too much fun unless I was the Orkmaster, and I suspect that there are a great many others would agree that it would be most fun to play someone who is at least allowed and encouraged to be more than dumb and aggressive, although that is appealing enough for some to try.

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