We Can Never Forget What They Did

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Diana Weyhenmeyer, Springfield, Illinois, and her father, Frederic Willard Parker, 97, Mt. Sterling, upon their return from the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., April 23, 2013.

On April 23, I was invited to be among those at Capital Airport who would welcome home more than 70 veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict back to Springfield from their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. It was quite a scene. A Bagpiper led a single-file parade of veterans, many in wheel chairs, and “guardians” — family members or friends who accompanied them on their one-day, whirlwind tour of our nations capitol.

I really had no idea what this was all about until Diana Weyhenmeyer, Springfield, a friend of ours, told us about her 97 year old father and how he would be making the trip. Her father, Frederic Willard Parker, Mt. Sterling, is as sharp or sharper than most people my age. It was clearly apparent that the day he spent with his daughter seeing the Korean War Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, and several other Washington D.C. landmarks was among the most special of his life. Her smile as they got off the flight fairly well summed it all up.

What struck me as I watched this parade of veterans, men who had once put on the uniform and placed their lives into the hands of fate, was how much I regretted that members of my own family who fought in World War II were not alive to see this, or perhaps to make this trip.

My father, John Henry Morris, had his teeth shot out in North Africa. My stepfather, Charles Russell, contracted Hepatitis (which was misdiagnosed as the flu and would kill him 30 years later), probably when he was among a troop of young boys who were “volunteered” to bury the remains of hundreds of prisoner of war camp victims. Fleeing Nazis simply left them to rot, some in trenches, others just piled up in fields. My uncle, E.P. “Red” Hohmann, had a lung shot out in Italy, and lived the remainder of his very productive years with only one. Another uncle, John Martin Hohmann, was lost and presumed dead when the Japanese sank his battleship. He survived, fortunately, but never spoke about those awful days.

It is easy to wax patriotic and spout bromides about what we owe these man–and women too; members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed (and rightfully so) the “greatest generation.” None of my uncles, nor my father or stepfather, spoke of what they endured. It has to be pried out of them. In my stepfather’s case, I learned nothing from him and it was only after his death when I uncovered a box with black and white photos of a young, gangly, curly-haired boy from Missouri helping to lift corpses into a trench. It was only then I realized what horror his young life had fallen into. Yet, he went gladly, willingly, because that was what he thought was right.

I also found a dim, black-and white photo of a beautiful young French girl, which has long been a source of speculation: was she someone he loved? Did she survive? We will never know.

So it is not an empty observation to say that we may owe more than we realize to the men and women who fought, bled, and died in a time most of us only know through the history books. The Honor Flight assembly of welcome is a fitting reminder of how much we should value their service. But somehow, it just doesn’t seem to be enough.

I got a kick out of one old vet who was walking around with a blue T-shirt on that read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” we laugh, because it’s funny; but we may also laugh because it is true.

Heaven help us if we ever forget what these brave men (and yes, women) did for us so many years ago. Their sacrifice is truly to be cherished.

New Years Irresolutions: Read. Read. Read.

I am not a big fan of the New Year’s holiday. Nor am I one to fall into the “resolution” trap. But I have been thinking about ways in which we all might make the coming year and whatever years we may be on this earth better for ourselves and for everyone else. So, here are some completely gratuitous thoughts in the issue.

  • I plan to stop watching people like Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews. They cleave. We should find ways to put together not to tear apart.
  • For that matter, the less TV we watch the better. Even situation comedies have an agenda any more, so there is nothing to laugh at just for the sake of laughing. Everything else makes me want to cry. We are subtly influenced by television in ways we don’t even realize.
  • Take crime, for instance. Remember that television news channels live on ratings. Because of our peculiar nature, we tune in when crimes are talked about. So, we have come to think that the world is a much more dangerous place than it is. We are scaring the joy out of our lives. Oh, yes, we must take care because humans are capable of anything. But when we avoid the sunshine for fear of the shadows, we may as well just die.
  • I hope that we can find the means to understand that school budgets and learning aren’t necessarily connected. When our kids don’t learn, we immediately start throwing money at the problem. How about throwing parental responsibility into the mix? Parents are as integral to the learning process as the teachers. Abraham Lincoln learned on a slate with the help of a mother (a step-mother, at that) who loved him and encouraged him. And good teachers can inspire just as effectively with a whiteboard as with PowerPoint (probably more so, because they rely more on their knowledge than on technology). Our children aren’t hampered because they don’t all have iPads. But without parents to encourage them, no degree of technology would matter.
  • I am sick of the argument about how God has been taken out of the schools. In public schools, this is appropriate. The real problem is that God has been removed from several generations of families. Whatever else you can say about religion, when kids went to church regularly they at least were exposed to the idea that the world is better when we respect one another. “Society” is a fiction. A society is a collection of individuals. And individuals are made–or broken–by the family into which they are born.
  • Although I am not one to become mired in politics I am horrified that many of our elected representatives seem to have forgotten that they were “hired” to act in our best interests–not in the interests of their party, of their lobbyists, or of their perpetuation in office. Entrenchment, not compromise, is the rule of the day; and the arrogance of many of these people–whom WE chose to serve US–is disgusting. The attitude seems to run through the halls of congress that these people know what’s best for us, and we should just accept that they are smarter than we are and let it go. If I were going to make a resolution, it might be to work hard to remove any elected official–regardless of his or her party–who is more concerned with anything besides working for the best result for the people who elected them.
  • I am sick of the focus on guns in society–on both sides of the divide. I don’t for one minute think that doing everything we can to take military style rifles weapons out of the equation is going to lead to the disarmament of the entire society. If history has taught us anything, it is that you can’t violate the American character–at least for very long–without suffering serious pushback, politically or otherwise. But who, in God’s name, needs an AR-15? I have yet to hear of a herd of deer counter-attacking. Let’s bring some common sense to this discussion–and not forget that it may have been the closing of the mental health facilities thirty years ago that–combined with improved weapons technology–has precipitated the recent horrors. Even if we ban the worst guns, people will get them. Doing nothing about mental illness is far more dangerous. Of course, this will all revert to the discussion in my previous bullet point about representatives looking out for our best interests as opposed to, say, their prospects for reelection.
  • Oh…and if you really want to make your life better, read, read, read. Encourage your children to read. Read to your chlldren. Have your children read to you.
  • And hug each other a lot.

So there. Happy New Year!

A Common Core: the new standard for learning

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

folder_curriculum_updatesThese words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address represent some of the most profound ever written or spoken by a leader of any country. Lincoln might have come out of the backwoods, but his mind was among the best to ever present itself on the American scene.

Lincoln was largely self-educated, but he was among the most gifted at articulation, both in writing and in speech, and could express the often ineffable, as he frequently had to do during our nation’s greatest crisis, when words failed in the face of the unthinkable. By his own admission, the books he read which influenced his thinking and his writing style the most were the King James Bible, and the plays of William Shakespeare (he had an especial fondness for Macbeth).

It now appears, however, the Common Core State Standards Initiative would have judged Mr. Lincoln’s preparation for his public career to be sadly deficient. And, fortunately,Common Core–the organization that establishes standards for 46 out of 50 states–has recommendations  for correcting this situation. According to an article in the London Daily Telegraph (“Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum,” December 7, 2012)  the “new educational standards have the backing of the influential National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and are being part-funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

The article goes on to say that the new school curricula will make it mandatory that 70 percent of required reading be non-fiction. “Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council.” Those who support this new curriculum say that it will help pupils to develop “the ability to write concisely and factually, which will be more useful in the workplace than a knowledge of Shakespeare.”

I couldn’t agree more! Lincoln’s reliance on the King James Bible and Shakespeare was simply a matter of necessity. I am sure that, had he had access to studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency his words would have been less cumbersome, and perhaps more meaningful to us today.  Had Lincoln been raised under this new curriculum, Lincoln’s address might have been more like this:

“We all hope this war will end soon. Slavery was the cause, and the thousands who died its inevitable effect. That’s just the way things work out. [Subtext: God is dead.]

“We’re not looking for payback. When this war is over, let’s just try to find a way to, I don’t know, all get along.”

How much better is that? Concise. Understandable. Clear to even those with short attention spans. Which, today, is just about everybody.

I wish Common Core the best as it seeks to find ways to improve our learning, our communication skills, and our ability to pass SAT and ACT tests so schools can claim that they prepare their students for the workplace. Preparing them for life goes beyond the scope of public education, after all.

Meanwhile, those silly Brits across the pond are taking a very different approach. Rather than move away from literature in the curriculum, they are taking a giant leap backwards by encouraging–yes! actually encouraging–children ages 14 to 18 to participate in a national poetry recitation competition every year. The Government is even funding this anachronism to the tune of a half-million pounds (roughly $800 million), according to another recent article in The Telegraph (“Teenagers to recite Ozymandias off by heart in schools,” December 6, 2012).

Fortunately for Americans, if the proposed standards take root, students won’t have to test their imaginations any further with books like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or any of those cursed plays by Shakespeare. It’s such a pain to have to think too deeply, and students will appreciate having this burden lifted from them. It’s not their job to think–that’s what the government is there for.

In the future, we can look forward to a workforce consisting of people with little imagination who will be much more efficient and who express themselves pithily. This is ideal for a “sound bite nation,” and will serve us all so much better with so much less bother. Look how well it has served politics, where judging by the recent performance of elected officials in Congress, not to mention the Illinois legislature, imagination is sorely lacking.

Yes, this new initiative bodes well for our future.

Yet somehow, although I know it is anachronistic to quote the classics, I am reminded of something the famous philosopher Daffy Duck once said:

“Somebody shoot me! Shoot me now!”

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

What do you think? Printed books or e-books? What is the future of reading?

When I am talking with friends about their reading habits, the advantages of e-books over bound books—or vice-versa—frequently become part of the discussion. “I just like having that book in my hand,” is a comment I hear quite a lot. “But you can read your (Kindle, Nook, e-book reader—just fill in the blanks) at night without having the light on,” or “I can carry dozens of books on the plane with my (Kindle, Nook, etc.), and I couldn’t do that with hardcover or paperback books.” All points are good ones, but one walks away with the feeling that the some people think that the issue is a dilemma that will only be resolved with the disappearance of print or with the relegation of e-book readers to the trashpile of faddish gadgets like the Walkman or the 8-Track Tape Player.

“Print is dead,” Egon (Harold Ramos) said to Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) in “Ghostbusters.” History would seem to side with those who see this innovation eventually making print go away. When Julius Caesar published his Gallic Wars, instead of having it displayed on hinged wooden tablets which could be written over, he bound the papyrus (probably) together in a notebook fashion. This wasn’t done widely for some time, but eventually the bound book—or codex—replaced the old tablet approach because it was so much easier to transport—and to save. With the invention of the printing press, there was no question that codices were the way to go (even though the word codex now refers only to handwritten bound books). So, the more practical, in the case of codices, clearly beat out the less practical, and book binding made it possible for everyone to own and easily read books of their choosing.

There is no question that the Kindle, the Nook, and other e-readers are cool, practical, and portable (if you want to take three dozen books on a long trip). But the question is—practical for whom? Not everyone is comfortable with the new technology, so for the time being I doubt you will see printed books going by the wayside. And, furthermore, you can read a printed book on the airplane on the runway, whereas you are sometimes asked to turn off your electronic devices. We can all learn a thing or two from Alec Baldwin’s experience!

Then there is the problem of vulnerability. Unless your books are stored in a cloud somewhere, if you lose your device you have lost your books. You may be able to pick up another copy of what you were reading in your next stopover (depending on how deep the book you were reading is!), but you will have to wait until you get to your destination to purchase another device.

Bound books appeared in the 2nd century and eventually became the standard. Will the e-reader to the same for printed books? Souce: Bing Images

I read books using a Kindle app and galleys using an Adobe e-reader. But I also still read “real” books. I can’t say I have a preference. I doubt I am alone in this. So, frankly, I think that the issues of e-reader versus real books is much ado about nothing. If the e-reader does displace print, it is not going to be for a long time. And there are many, many books that are not now—and I doubt they ever will be—available in electronic format. There is a treasury of knowledge that we must continue to be able to access, and who is wise enough to choose which should and should not be translated into electronic format just for the sake of coolness, practicality, and portability?

What do you think?

Do you think electronic books will displace printed books? Which do YOU prefer? What will the future of reading look like?

Meaning is what children’s books should convey — not agendas

Consider this fable that I just made up.

There was a family that lived in a cave and the mother and father loved and watched out for their children. The mother worked with each of her children and showed them how to fashion a ring of gold (gold was plentiful around these caves—work with me here, okay?) and when the children grew and left the cave she gave this ring to each of them to cherish—and to pass on. These children, remembering the love that they experienced in the cave, took the rings and fashioned more with their own children and when their children left they gave the rings to their children. And so on. But as you might expect, one of the children lost theirs and had no ring to pass on. So they didn’t bother any more. Then another. So that, in time, the families who knew the joy of sharing this beautiful experience together grew fewer in number, though the resources were still abundant all around them. It was a dark and stormy day.

Image Source: Enoch Pratt Free Library web site, Baltimore, MD.

I won’t be publishing this anytime soon, for obvious reasons. But here’s the point: the rings of gold are what the parents give their children when they read with them, and encourage them to read.

I still remember the thrill of laying in bed reading a book that my mother bought for me. Of course, she had spent many nights reading to me before I was able to read for myself. Those memories aren’t as crystal clear as are the ones where I read to my own children and grandchildren, and I can tell you how much it meant to be able to have them experience laughter, sadness, and love—and to talk about it with them afterward.

For laughs, I will never forget the series of books by Harry Allard about the Stupid family, Stanley Q. Stupid, Mrs. Stupid, Buster, Petunia, and their dog named Kitty. These include The Stupids Step Out (1977), The Stupids Have a Ball (1984), and The Stupids Die (1985). In one book, I remember how the family passed in front of a mirror and Stanley scolded the kids for staring “at those people.” Oh, and did I mention that the dog, Kitty, drives the family car?

Naturally, some people find these books offensive, so you don’t hear much about them any more.  Politics and political correctness have smeared themselves all over our children’s reading materials leaving a sticky brown bovine film. Read some of the comments abut the Stupids on Amazon and you will see what I mean. Like this one:

My preschooler loves this book, but she doesn’t know the actual title. We replace ‘stupid’ with ‘silly’. It seems more appropriate that way.

Or this one:

My 7 year old recently brought this book home from his school library. I found it very offensive, because I think it teaches children that it’s funny to call others “stupid”. I cannot think of a circumstance in which it is appropriate for a child or an adult to use this word towards another person. I was so upset that I wrote a note to the school librarian.

We all have our opinions, and I truly respect that. But the way I see it, and as Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.” I remember laughing out loud with my daughter at Allard’s books and the memories will go with me to the grave.  If you want to laugh with your kids or grandkids, check these out. They’re just silly. That’s all they’re meant to be.

For getting kids to understand how love works, there is no better book than The Giving Tree (40th Anniversary edition 2004, HarperCollins), by Shel Silverstein. This has been around since 1964, and the concept is simple. A tree loves a little boy, and the little boy takes all the tree has to give, even finally cutting the tree down to build a house. But when the boy is an old man, all he wants is a place to rest. The tree offers its stump. It continues to give. Children respond to this story, feeling sad for the tree, but I believe this story plants a seed in their minds about what true love is.

Oh, but even Silverstein is criticized. Why? Because the tree is abused. Apparently, the conceptual distinction between giving something to someone and having something taken from you forcibly escapes some people. Perhaps they should have been read to as kids.

Allard’s and Silverstein’s books are children’s classics (or, in Allard’s case, guilty pleasures), but don’t forget the other classics. We have a children’s version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at home, and one of our grandchildren loves to have this read to him when he comes to spend the night. Afterwards, he and his Nanny talk about it, and he asks questions like, “Why do people treat Jim (the runaway slave) like that?” Questions like that need to be asked by adults, and books like Huckleberry Finn can start that process when they are young.

Of course, as has been well publicized on more than one occasion in recent decades, the political correctness crowd has been after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a long time because it uses the “n-word.” Let’s see: a boy who lives in the 1840s in Missouri, a slave state, narrates it and he uses the “n-word?” How odd. But the book is perhaps one of the finest examples of how a human being can approach others with an appreciation for the humanity underlying our diversity that has ever been written. Yeah. That’s in there too. Talk about missing the forest for the tree.

The upshot of this is that parents’ involvement in our children’s education is critical to a child’s success in life. If we think we can just skate by and let the schools do it, then we are just . . . well, stupid. For one thing, all the kids will be reading are books that pass the “sniff test” of the political correctness crowd, and they may get books with agendas instead of books that have meaning. You don’t have to be educated, or even that bright, to pick up a book and read to your child. You are spending time with them, the most precious thing you have, and you are planting seeds that will pay off later in life. And you are keeping the gold in the family.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

When I Was A Child, I Made Half-Hearted Attempts

One of the joys of reviewing books is encountering writers I have never heard of before. The book I am reviewing here, a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson titled When I was a Child I Read Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; March 13, 2012), is one of those discoveries that will lead me to read more by this remarkable woman.

This is a collection of personal and critical essays that can be read leisurely, but should never be read lightly. Robinson, whose novel Gilead (Picador, 2006) won her a Pulitzer Prize, is an intelligent woman whose articulate use of language is admirable and enviable. She is also a deeply religious person, and her insights reveal her connection to Calvinist thinking that she applies to life as we live it today in ways that are compelling.

The word “essay” tends to send chills up and down the spine of those of us who remember hearing those dreaded words in high school or college: “compose an essay on the subject of….” I later learned that the word “essay” means “an attempt,” and many of my “essays’ were poor “attempts” at best. The challenge of saying something meaningful in a brief and well-organized manner, which is what one attempts to do in an essay, is indeed an effort of the spirit. And if your spirit isn’t in it–and what high school or college kid’s was?–it just isn’t going to work. In time, however, I came to appreciate this vehicle, especially as I began to write for publications. And I also came to appreciate some of the classical essayists, like Sir Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, and Jonathon Swift. In fact, my favorite is Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he sets forth a way of dealing with the number of poor children in Ireland. His solution: eat them!

But a book of essays is not standard fare in publishing today, which is why Robinson’s book is such a unusual treat. This collection contains ten essays, ranging in subject matter from freedom of thought to the origins of American liberalism (which she traces to Moses). Of course, the eponymous essay is the one that caught my attention, since Robinson is a near-contemporary (she is only 2 years older) and since I, too, could say the same thing. Reading began for her, and for me, as a treasured practice and memory of childhood.

Among the issues she raises is the current vacuousness of public life, and the brevity of historical memory, which seems to characterize our educational system and our public discourse.

I have spent most of my life studying American history and literature…. The magnanimity of its greatest laws and institutions as well as its finest poetry and philosophy move me deeply…. But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.

Such observations coming from a woman her age might be dismissed as sour grapes, as a humorous sort of “When I was a kid, I walked 5 miles a day to school, uphill both ways” sort of screed. But her observations about life in America today resound with truth. If anyone wants to listen. This is especialy true in her observations about fiction, or what passes for fiction in this day and age (as a writer, I perked up at this!). She writes, “We inhabit…a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.” The experiences we have in life from what we perceived, believe or assume, are what we must somehow place into a narrative that causes them all to flow together with an enhanced self-awareness. “I suspect,” she adds, “this self-awarenes is what people used to call the soul.”

Here her religious take on life becomes clear:

“So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.”

Reading Ms. Robinson should make us aware of how our perceptions of life, and of ourselves, have changed—in some ways for the worst—through the years.

Robinson writes from the perspective of a Christian believer—she was raised Presbyterian and is now a member of the Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), but readers with little or no religious belief will find her observations about freedom, American attitudes, and human aspirations enlightening on many levels. Her religious focus gives a depth to her secular observations, a depth that is often lacking in many commentators on modern life.

This is a great book to read in those quiet moments. You can read an essay at a time, and you can pick and choose from among them. She is a master craftsman with words, and this book has inspired me to pick up one of her novels, which I hope to read soon. I can’t help thinking she might have that same effect on anyone who reads this collection of her thoughts.

Rating (4/5)