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Posts Tagged 'rod dreher'

Can’t quite place you…

Rod Dreher returned to the blogging world last month; having left the Dallas Morning News (and Dallas) for the Templeton Foundation and Philadelphia last year, he is now at The American Conservative and is in the process of moving back to the homestead in Louisiana. This is utterly unsurprising for anybody who read the old Crunchy Con blog (which, alas, appears to be completely gone); he had commenters telling him three or four years ago that such a return was probably not only inevitable for him, the sooner he did it, the happier he’d be.

He posted this today, which reminds me a lot of some things he said a couple of years ago. That post no longer exists, but this was my response to it at the time, which excerpts a chunk of his words and meditates on them in the context of my own life experience. I love the sentiment, but my own circumstance remains that there’s nothing for me to return to in geographic, familial, or conceptual terms, so I don’t quite know what it should really mean for me in a practical way. Even if we define “the place to return to” as “where your parents are” (as mine have often insisted), the parent I’m closest to geographically I don’t presently have a relationship with and the parent I have a relationship with is a 10 hour flight away, so… yeah.

Along similar lines, this has been making the rounds, and I must say I’m curious about the book. Since Alaska isn’t even on this map, I was apparently born nowhere, but I grew up on the Left Coast and have lived for the last eight years in Greater Appalachia. My grandparents were originally from the Left Coast and Far West, and their grandparents were from either Denmark or New Netherland.

Culturally, at least in these terms, I’m not sure I’m really anything in particular. I never totally felt at home culturally in Seattle, nor do I feel totally at home in Indiana. From a cultural standpoint, I think I was raised pretty standard-issue single-child family suburban whitebread. To the extent that there was money, it was first (and last)-generation, and I’m a first-generation college graduate. I’ve heard my parents call themselves working-class, but they were/are very much on the professional end of working-class. Non-commissioned officer, in a manner of speaking. (On the other hand, my mom’s parents were very much working class; my dad’s parents were merchant-class.) My dad, Alaska-born after his dad fled the lower 48, had made a ton of money selling office furniture to the oil companies in Anchorage during the ’70s, only to have us lose everything by the time I turned 10 when the price of oil tanked. That makes me the offspring of ex-nouveau riche, I suppose.

Ironically, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a family mansion in Minnesota that my great-great-grandfather built (in Barrett, Minnesota, natch) that within two generations everybody had abandoned and forgotten about. Had those generations of the family gotten along, I might have wound up being culturally from Yankeedom. As it is, I’m chillin’ in Greater Appalachia wondering where in the world the jobs (assuming there are any) will take us once the PhDs are done.

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(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

Reflecting on shame and identity

Rod Dreher has what is, at least for me, a very thought-provoking essay over at Crunchy Con. Actually, “thought-provoking” is a euphemism. I’ll be blunt — it hits what is, for me, a permanently raw and open nerve. The next 3200+ words will reflect this. Turn back now if you don’t want me to take you there.

Mr. Dreher begins with a discussion about shame, obesity, and race, and how he has personally experienced them function and interrelate as someone who considers the American South home. He takes it someplace else, however, and the key part for here at the conclusion:

A fellow Southern exile once said to me that it’s so easy to love where we’re from when we don’t live there, because we can edit out the stuff that’s hard to live with. That’s very true. And yet, I confess it’s hard for me to feel quite at home anywhere else. When I go back to visit, there’s something about the place and its people I dearly love, and treasure as part of myself. […] [However,] I chose to separate myself from it (and anybody who thinks Dallas is the South is sadly mistaken; it’s the southernmost Western city)… [F]or me, [what motivates my writing is] a sense of cultural rootlessness, and a craving for a sense of belonging to a place. Too much has happened to me over the years to form the kind of man that I am to make me feel at home in my actual homeland. And yet, when I’m away from Louisiana, I think about it a lot, and long for it. True story: I used to walk around Brooklyn romanticizing Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana and after a few days, start pining for my old borough home in Yankee Babylon.

[…] For me, displacement and a resulting craving for authenticity. But the fact that I chose displacement and exile adds a shake of shame about disloyalty into the cocktail too. […] Me, I don’t have anybody to show anything to (this was the greatest gift living and working in New York City gave me). When I sit down to write, almost always I think not about showing myself, but about finding myself.

I’m somewhat circumspect about elements of my personal life in this forum. This is not out of any sense of needing to protect anything, exactly; leastways, it’s not about protecting myself. Anybody who happens upon this blog knows my real name, my wife’s name, and more or less where to find me; this may or may not be wise, but there we are. There are certain things I have not discussed here, like politics, because I don’t want to detract from my main objective — namely, some record of my path as an Orthodox Christian on the way to something vaguely resembling an academic career. It’s also, by far, primarily for my own use, rather than being intended as any kind of a public news service. So, since I find myself heavily burdened talking about politics — feeling in the main that I ultimately can’t pick a side because I’m not at all sure anybody is on my side — I just don’t go there for my own sanity.

Other things I haven’t discussed simply out of respect for the fact that the blog is public, and I have to be mindful of what that can mean. I was stuck in a horrible, horrible, horrible employment situation until April 2008 that I could not (and can’t) discuss here, because if certain parties were to run across my blog, it would only make things quite a bit worse. Even once I was out of that situation, I had to be careful about how I discussed the unexpected ways my grad school opportunities were developing, because out of respect for my new employers, about whom I cared very much, I needed to time how I told them what was happening in a particular fashion.

All that out of the way, Dreher’s essay hits home for me in a number of ways, not the least being shame over the struggle with weight I’ve had as long as I can remember, but even more in how he discusses his sense of displacement. Unlike him, I have no particular pride in any particular place as home — but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

There’s not much to say about my weight that’s, um, earth-shaking — as I’ve said before, my ancestors were swinging battleaxes in northern Europe; I grew up swinging a backpack full of books, there was never anything about sports that was terribly attractive to me growing up, and I have spent much of my adult life behind a desk of some sort. My parents both had weight struggles they didn’t want me to have, which unfortunately meant that my weight as a child was monitored with the unapologetic and militantly nasty use of shame as a motivating tactic. (This is still hashed over yet today from time to time, and the parent who primarily engaged in this practice continues to defend their techniques, saying that they did these things because they wanted me to be healthy, and the only alternative they saw was to simply not care. That what they did didn’t actually work is only evidence to them that they didn’t do it enough for it to truly be the behavioral deterrent it was intended to be.) A growth spurt in junior high made me tall and reasonably thin (not skinny, I guarantee you — my frame does lend itself to skinniness to begin with) for the first time in my life, and I mostly stayed that way strictly by virtue of having a teenager’s metabolism. I put on a lot of weight my sophomore year of college as a result of various stresses (which I will discuss), lost it the next summer from even more stress, gained it all back (and how) once the school year started up again, and then got back down to my freshman year weight (more or less) about ten years ago. It stayed off roughly until my wedding, at which point it crept back on. When I moved to Indiana, a fencing class and a soccer class my first semester here took care of a good chunk of it, but then required courses edged further such intentions off of my schedule, and it came back on. For the last fourteen months, I have diligently made use of a treadmill, which between August and June took about ten pounds off very slowly; walking around Athens for two months got rid of another fifteen, and while much of it came back once I returned to the States, the addition of hand weights and other exercises to my routine has gotten me down to within five pounds of where I bottomed out in Athens. I am down two belt holes from where I was in August of 2008 one way or the other, and while the weight loss is slow, there is some very clear weight redistribution happening, as well as a development of muscle tone that didn’t used to be there. It’s a problem that anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I know about; the irony is that I am not sedentary by any means — I walk everywhere I can, in addition to the intentional exercise I get — but I also still eat the teenager’s portions of an adult diet, so I have to be very intentional about being active. This is more difficult when I’m not happy about large chunks of my life, and that’s been the case for most of the last six years. In the last year that has changed in some big ways, and my hope is that the physical aspect will also change concurrently. So that’s that.

The displacement issue is more complex. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is where both of my parents had been born and raised and where the vast majority of their respective families were; when I was four, due to some disagreements over business matters within the family, we moved to Wenatchee, Washington where my dad tried to reinvent himself as a small businessman. Wenatchee wasn’t an active enough town for him, however, so we moved to the Seattle area when I was seven, he bought another small business that he was going to try to grow, and we built a big house with the intent of it being the family homestead. Four years later, a combination of factors, including economic collapse in Alaska and further business disagreements within the family, led to us basically losing everything. Over the next five years, we bounced from rental house to rental house, my mom went back to work, and my dad poured more and more of his soul that he wasn’t going to get back into a business that really couldn’t exist anymore (namely, office supplies) given the initial appearances of big box competitors in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

In 1993, Dad moved back to Alaska, having been offered a job by an old friend. As he likes to say, he was lured back to Anchorage with one word: “Saturday.” It was my senior year of high school, so the plan was for Mom and I to stay in Washington until I graduated, after which she’d move up there with him and I would start my freshman year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

My senior year was a real struggle; not having a father at home, that year of all years, was a nightmare, and it wasn’t easy for any one of the three of us. It wasn’t easy for the two of them getting along with each other, and it wasn’t easy for me getting along with either of them. It was made worse by the fact that I started dating for the first time that year, and I also developed a close relationship with a couple of male teachers as sort of surrogate father figures, all developments my parents had trouble regarding with anything but suspicion and resentment.

The day before I graduated high school (Inglemoor High School, class of ’94), my dad flew into town. The day after I graduated high school, he and my mom flew back to Alaska, leaving me behind to supervise the load-in of their moving truck. I spent the summer going back and forth between Anchorage and Seattle, decidedly not feeling at home in a place of which I had no particular memory, and not being allowed to feel at home in the place that had been home for the previous ten years.

Freshman year at Western was a disaster. I had been to the campus all of once before; we lacked the resources, in terms of time or money, to really launch any kind of a school visitation effort, and the main reasons we picked it were because it wasn’t University of Washington, but it was in-state, close enough to home, and yet far enough away. With my parents’ move, however, none of these really meant anything anymore. I was at a school with no good reason to be there. I had no family left in the place that I had considered home for two-thirds of my life, and had no place to go back to that I could really call home. The place where my family now was, despite being my birthplace, was unfamiliar, and being now at the beginning of adulthood I had no compelling reason otherwise to be where they were. In short, I felt like they had left me. Unfortunately, when it became clear this arrangement wasn’t making any of us happy, the rhetoric that I heard more often than not was that of me having left them.

I no longer belonged where I had grown up, so I was being told, and where I was being told I belonged by virtue of my parents having moved there just as I was starting college was not anyplace that felt like home, and since the end result was that I felt like I had no home, I never really felt comfortable at Western. My two and a half years there were a miserable attempt at trying to eke out an undergraduate existence with no familial or financial support; lacking any particular guidance, I made very poor decisions during that time regarding money, my heart, and school (among other things). I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Anchorage trying to figure out how to put my relationships with my family back together, and found that at that particular point, there simply wasn’t anything to reassemble. My parents couldn’t deal with each other at that stage of the game, let alone me, and that summer was the lowest I had ever been up to that point. I lost weight simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping for about a month; eventually a psychiatrist put me on both Soma and Serzone, and things evened out enough to be able to survive the rest of the summer. (I took myself off of both as soon as I returned to Bellingham.) After one quarter back, however, it was clear that college was something I just wasn’t in any position to be able to pursue properly, and I dropped out after having thoroughly ticked off virtually everybody in the Department of Music with my inability to cope and what had become a tendency to lash out.

I now had no particular reason to stay in Bellingham, I wasn’t going to move to Alaska, and that left me with no real place to go except back to Seattle. I started job hunting, selling classified ads in Bellingham for the time being to at least have some way to live, and after a year finally had the opportunity to take a contract position (which was fulltime within a year) with a Major Software Company.

Life settled into enough of an equilibrium over the next year, and my parents appeared to have put enough of their own lives back together, that there seemed to be some kind of peaceful relationship that could exist with me in Seattle and them in Anchorage. They still nudged and wheedled me to consider moving to Alaska, but the fact remained that beyond the two of them, there just wasn’t any reason for me to be there. I sometimes thought that maybe once they’d retired, they would move back to Seattle; I dreamed that, having made my initial couple million working in the software industry (with subsequent millions to be made as the Great American Hope of lyric tenors, of course), I could buy back the house they built that was supposed to be the Barrett family home and give it to them.

Except that, about the same time that Megan and I started dating, in the early spring of 1999 (she and I having met freshman year at Western, so I guess it wasn’t a total disaster), my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. This was not the first time they had made this announcement, but this time it was final. The one time my wife ever saw us all together, apart from our wedding day (when they studiously avoided each other as much as possible — the family photo has them at opposite ends of the line), was a few days before the divorce was finalized, and they were yelling at each other over a snowblower.

By 2001, we were married, and shortly thereafter my dad left Alaska to spend a couple of years in West Virginia. By 2003, we moved to Indiana so that I could finish my undergraduate degree; part of the idea was that we’d be five hours away from Dad, which would have been the first time in a decade that I had lived within driving distance of a parent. Shortly before I left for Bloomington, however, he headed off to Phoenix, Arizona to be near the older of his two daughters (from his first marriage) and her children. Living near family was simply not to be.

Six years later, we’re still here. We’ve lived in our little rental house for a tick over four years; at 32 (less than a month away from 33), it is the longest I have ever had the same address. Ever.

My dad is still in Phoenix; my mom is in Wasilla, Alaska. Megan’s family is in the Seattle area. There is no one place we can ever live and be reasonably close to everybody.

Jaroslav Pelikan once quoted Robert Frost in saying that “home” is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you, but “home” has come to mean, at least for me, where my wife and I are able to share a life. It has no meaning relative to roots or family, at least not for me; for it to take on that meaning would mean choosing between my parents individually, or choosing between her family and mine. Everybody has an argument for why we should do one thing or the other, but there’s nothing we can do without having to make a painful choice. In some ways, it seems best to live near nobody, thus treating everybody equally.

Like Mr. Dreher, I crave roots and something authentic, but unlike him, I feel at home precisely nowhere. I have never walked around Bloomington pining for Anchorage (or Seattle, for that matter), nor vice versa. My parents both live in houses in which I never lived, in zip codes I never visited until after I was an adult. The place where I grew up has exactly nothing to offer me now. I have lived for years with a lot of shame and pain because I belong nowhere, but not because of a sense of disloyalty — unlike Mr. Dreher, I didn’t choose this displacement. Ironically, my displacement is precisely because I didn’t choose it. Rather, my parents moved away just at the very moment I needed them to stay put. (I will emphasize that I say this descriptively, not to assign blame; they did what they had to do. This has not made it any easier over the years from an experiential standpoint, however.) No, my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant. A stray who married up and who gets to eat pretty well for a stray, but a stray nonetheless.

Like Mr. Dreher, much of the work I have chosen is implicitly a means of trying to “find myself”; unlike Mr. Dreher, I’ve been trying to “show them myself” for years — to show “them” that I’ve risen above the rootlessness, the struggles with finding a path, the forced independence, the displacement, the lack of any visible connection to anything except a woman who loves me with all her heart, the confusion about how to simply be that burdens me from lack of guidance. I’m still trying to “show them,” which I guess means I haven’t actually accomplished rising above any of those things yet.

I don’t know if this pain ever goes away. I managed to get saddled with it at 17, and I keep waiting to feel normal again, keep thinking that understanding of the last several years is right around the corner. I at least feel less stuck than I have in years, like I’m working towards something now, something productive, so maybe it really is right around the corner. I don’t know.

Gifted education

Rod Dreher has a post about plans in Louisiana to cut the budget of their residential public high school for gifted and talented kids. Read the whole thing, but these bits stick out to me:

It’s distressing to me how gifted education is typically seen in this country. We tend to spare no expense to provide for the needs of students who are handicapped or challenged in particular ways by the normal classroom experience. But we don’t spend nearly the energy or the money on gifted education — this, even though many gifted kids face their own set of challenges that cannot be easily overcome in a standard classroom. When I was in college at LSU, I remember getting into an argument with a friend over this; he believed that gifted kids had natural advantages by virtue of their cognitive skills, and didn’t need or deserve any special consideration.

I don’t believe that’s true at all. Of course nobody feels sorry for gifted kids, and nobody’s asking them to. The point is that to the extent that it’s feasible, all kids should be in an educational environment in which they can flourish to the extent of their own talents. If a kid cannot do as well as he otherwise could because of a particular learning disability, then insofar as it is possible to accomodate that child’s needs, we should seek to do so. Similarly, though, there are reasons why many gifted kids struggle in standard classrooms, and their needs should not be dismissed simply because of their intelligence. In my case, my grades were good in my old public school, but I struggled with depression because I was such an outsider, and was constantly picked on by the in crowd. The great thing about LSMSA — and I think lots of kids from small-town schools like mine felt this way — was not so much the superlative academics as the great blessing of not having to bear the emotional burden of being bullied and socially marginalized because you got good grades and liked books. […]

[The Louisiana School] was a place where, for the first time, we could feel accepted and affirmed, not marginalized and bullied as nerds and outcasts because we liked books and ideas. We could hardly believe our luck to be living and studying in a place where we didn’t have to keep our heads down and our mouths shut to avoid crossing the dominant peer culture in our hometown schools. When I graduated, I took with me a powerful sense of confidence, of being at home in the world, one that I had not known before. That gift was, literally, priceless.

I’ve talked extensively about my (mis)adventures in higher education (starting here); I’ve not really talked about more, shall we say, elementary matters. I’ll start out by saying that while it’s great that Dreher and people like him have had this experience with gifted education, it is worlds away from what mine was like. Perhaps, like so many things, the best thing to say is that gifted education is one of those things to which you either have to commit fully and do it right, or don’t do it at all, because to to do it in a, uh, half-fast manner will be worse than doing nothing.

I started to learn to read when I was probably 3. My parents claim that nobody taught me how to read; they would read to me, I would memorize the books they were reading to me, and (so they say) I started instinctively linking sounds to text. I don’t know; I don’t remember. I do know that when I was four or five, I was reading, and memorizing passages from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

When I started kindergarten, within two weeks somebody realized that things weren’t quite right. I was given a diagnostic reading test after school one day; a couple of days later, I was told I was being moved up to first grade. What I found out later was that I had scored at the twelfth grade level, and that they had wanted to move me up to fourth or fifth grade. My parents decided that was probably going too far, and agreed to the one-year bump.

First and second grade, to say the least, were a struggle. I had, really, two friends, and they were both two grades ahead of me. (Aaron Spencer and Jamie Metrokas, where are you guys, anyway?) I tended to get along with adults better than other kids. It was really tough for me to stay engaged in class, because I would just read and work ahead very quickly, which of course isn’t what my teachers or fellow students wanted me to do. I would bring other books to occupy myself when I was done with what was assigned in class, which also isn’t what anybody wanted me to do. I soaked up whatever anybody put in front of me, and I had a big imagination that would start transforming the information into other things, too. Numbers I wasn’t (and am not) so hot with, but what that meant (at least up until high school) is that I was done with assignments five minutes before everybody else rather than a half hour.

Also, being less than athletic, I was at once the Smart Kid and the Fat Kid.

Like I said, it was a struggle. I just wanted to read my books, write my stories, and get along with people, and I didn’t understand why it seemed so hard. My first grade teacher told my parents that, realistically, it wouldn’t be until college before I’d really “come into my own,” whatever that really meant.

Just before I started third grade, we moved from Wenatchee to Woodinville, which back in 1984 was a reasonably-affluent almost-rural suburb of Seattle (as opposed to the nouveau riche extension of the Microsoft campus that it is now). The Northshore School District, as it worked out, had a (now much re-worked and re-titled) program for third through sixth grade called, prosaically enough, Talented and Gifted (TAG). My parents enrolled me, and hoped that it would mean better things for me.

Eh, not so much. Not really.

The trouble was multi-part. First of all, the program was a “magnet” (in other words, it was based at a particular school and you went there, rather than it being at your home school), and at least when I got started, it was floating magnet, having been at two or three different schools in the four or five years it had been in existence. So, we were among the “normal” kids, but we were sequestered from them somewhat because we were told we were “different”. That made for a weird, weird, weird dynamic, let me tell you.

For years four through six, we were at our own school, but it was the oldest and most rundown building in the district (built in the 1920s, had asbestos, fun stuff like that), and we were put there with the special education kids. This posed its own problems — we felt like freaks and afterthoughts, to a certain extent, and there was a certain amount of normal kid stuff which was expressly forbidden specifically because administrators were worried that the special education children might try to imitate us. We were “different”, we were “special”, but the way were treated, these terms did not appear to mean anything positive. It seemed to mean we were a problem best shoved aside and kept out of the view of everybody else.

As well, we were still kids, and kids will stratify themselves. It’s what they do. We were all theoretically “the smart kids,” so the smart kids separated themselves into “the popular smart kids,” “the not-popular smart kids,” “the smart smart kids,” the dumb smart kids,” and so on. Because we were smarter, part of what that meant is that we knew how to hurt each other more efficiently. Ever read Ender’s Game? It was sort of like that. Two of my fellow students absolutely brutalized me emotionally on a daily basis from third grade through fifth grade — and I mean they sought me out every free moment they had, and they were as intentionally merciless as they could manage. Their hobby was making me miserable, they were really good at it. My teachers told my parents on a regular basis that there was nothing they could do about it until it became physical.

Which, at some point, it did, when one morning I got spray cleaner blasted right in my eyes. Then somebody did something about it.

Another practical issue was transportation. We were bused to and from the school; that meant taking the bus on our normal route to what would have been our normal school, and then another bus picked us up there to take us to the host school. Getting home meant a special set of buses. I lived roughly five minutes from the school, but since they were trying to get everybody home from the host school on two or three buses, it took an hour to get home.

Since this program ceased after sixth grade, that meant that we were dumped back out among the “normal” kids in junior high. We had an Honors English and History program at that point, but that was it. In other words, we’d been kept separate from everybody for the last four years, and now were expected to “mainstream” ourselves. Since large groups of kids knew each other from the mainstream elementary schools, knew they didn’t know us, and knew why they didn’t know us, the 5-10 of us former TAG kids were instantly easy targets. Junior high was a long, agonizing three years — it was going to be anyway, of course, but this way it felt even longer.

A lot of us TAG kids wound up doing theatre in high school and thriving in that setting, interestingly enough. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say, I’ve got really mixed feelings about so-called “gifted education”. I can’t lay all of this at the feet of TAG, necessarily; another issue was home life, which is its own long story. The relevant point I’ll share for the moment is that my parents, while not being stupid people by any means, are very practical people, and it was hard for them to relate to where I was. There were many times where I would tell them something I was excited about, and they would look at each other and say, “Are you sure this is our kid?” As a result, it was difficult for them to know what to cultivate in me or how to cultivate it, or to tell me how to deal with what I was going through.

Maybe the Louisiana School is a place that is able to do it right; maybe a residential high school, rather than a magnet elementary school, is a better way to go. If so, more power to it and to its students — but I’m not by any means going to cheerlead “gifted education” as an absolute.

Post-Lenten unwind

This last weekend was the most relaxed I’ve had in a couple of months. I didn’t have to set an alarm Saturday morning, and we were able to leisurely make biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

Yesterday, after Divine Liturgy, we had time and energy to walk to the movies in the afternoon, and then come home and make French Onion Soup for dinner (to use up the onions with which I had dyed eggs last weekend).

The movie we saw yesterday was State of Play, with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, and, in a standout supporting performance, Jason Bateman. (Can I say that I never thought I would ever type a sentence where “standout supporting performance” would modify “Jason Bateman”, the ’80s sitcom kid?) Anyway, it was interesting — it asks the question, how do you make a good newspaper movie when the newspaper itself is a  dying medium? An undercurrent of the story is blogging vs. print journalism, and also how journalistic ethics are jeopardized when a newspaper has a mandate to sell copies at all costs. I’ve posted here before about the death of the print version of one of the newspapers of my childhood hometown, and Rod Dreher blogs regularly about surviving the various batteries of layoffs at the Dallas Morning News which have occurred recently; these are things I think about as somebody who taps out a few words here and there in various places, and I found it to be an engaging treatment of the question. Could Watergate still happen in today’s information economy? Or would it be spun so fast that the story would be managed before anybody knew what happened?

As long as I’m thinking about movies — I’ve mentioned before that I watch a lot of DVDs while I use my treadmill. I burned through the entirety of the old Batman: The Animated Series, as well as Batman Beyond and a good chunk of Justice League Unlimited. I’ve also watched all three Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films plus the Peter Jackson commentary, and recently did all the commentary tracks and other supplemental material on the Blade Runner: Final Cut set. Well, Friday, I finally took the opportunity to watch the new Wonder Woman animated movie.

You know what? It’s actually not half-bad. It looks as good as any of the Timmverse stuff at its best, the writing is clever and entertaining, the voice acting is fun, and it does a pretty darn decent job of having a thoughtful take on the material and telling a good story about the character. It definitely borrows from 300 and Lord of the Rings in spots (which I thought on first viewing and which later was owned up to in the commentary), but parts of it also remind me of Gaiman’s Sandman (which I’d love to see taken on as one of the DCAU projects, but I’m not holding my breath).

Anyway — it was a really welcome change of pace to be able to sleep in on a Saturday and have a Sunday afternoon where it could be just the two of us. We’ve got six more weekends before I head off overseas (for a change), so hopefully we can have a few more like that.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s favorite band

With a tip of the hat to Rod Dreher, I find myself very intrigued by English folk/roots duo Show of Hands. Rather than attempt to describe them when I’m still getting familiar with their music myself, check out this song, “Roots,” for yourself:

It’s interesting encountering this at a time when I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings for the first time since a number of things began to clarify my own perspective on, well, what we might broadly describe as the things worth preserving (to say nothing of a first trip to England). I now see, as I never could before, Tolkien’s idealization of the English countryside and the attendant way of life — as well as his Catholic faith — as the protagonists every bit as much as Frodo and Sam. Tolkien understood very well the sentiment expressed in the line from “Roots,” “Without our stories or our songs, how will we know where we come from?” His particularly English mythopoeia was, however much of a retrofit as it may have been, his own reclamation effort on that front.

Anyway, if Show of Hands is available via iTunes US, I will be exploring further.

Words of wisdom from the Crunchy Con and the Khouriye

I’m always disturbed by what seems to be an enshrinement of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and lack of curiosity. Thankfully, an insistence on mistrusting those who can string five words together to make a sentence need not be a fundamental conservative value. From Rod Dreher’s blog:

There is a rich treasury of conservative thought waiting to be mined, contemplated, reinterpreted and adapted for our particular time and culture. […] We need to think hard within our own intellectual tradition. We need to understand why it is that we’re losing people, especially the young. To disdain intellection and intellectuals is a dead end. It’s a culture war in which we on the Right have turned our guns on ourselves.

Read the rest here.

As well, I submit the following from Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green, posted as a comment to “Where are the Orthodox Dominionists?” at American Orthodox Institute:

Our parish is full of young people, especially college students; the average age keeps getting *lower.* What I observe is firm pro-life views, strong interest in the environment (including the desire to eat and shop locally if possible), opposition to racism, “live-and-let-live” civil tolerance of homosexuality, resistance to war, and concern for the poor, at home and abroad. (Those are my views as well.) I’ve twice recently seen references in the New Yorker to that same profile among young evangelicals — what might look somewhat “left,” but with a strong pro-life stance in the middle; they are even “more concerned about abortion than their [evangelical] parents”. This is because they see abortion as an act of violence against helpless children, an urgent social justice concern–thus consistent, even necessary, for the young faithful on this surprising new “right” that looks kind of “left. ”

Seems to me there are dots to connect between the two, particularly as concerns Dreher’s exhortation to “understand why we’re losing people, especially the young.”


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