Friday, September 14, 2012

Random Friday Five

It's Random Friday for the here are some totally random questions.

1. What is the best thing that happened to you all week?

Taking our new vicar (that's pastoral intern to some of you) up to the Leelanau Peninsula for a little cultcha. We had great fun. Chocolate and wine will do that.

2. If you were in a Miss, Ms., Mrs, Mr. Something Pageant, what would your talent be?

Cat whispering. I have a unique talent for getting cats -- even feral, human-averse cats to like me.

3. You've just been given a yacht. What would you call it and why?

Oh, I think I would call it the Mecklenburg, in honor of my ancestors who came from the Mecklenburg region of Germany. I think that's perhaps where I get my love of seashores and seafood.

4. If you could perform in a circus, what would your talent be?

Probably cleaning up after the animals. It's that whole Lutheran usefulness thing.

5. What do you have in your bag/wallet/backpack that best describes your personality?

My secret stash of money -- a legacy of my Depression-kid parents. I never feel financially secure unless I have an extra roll of money tucked away in an obscure pocket. Fellow Traveler used to think this was funny, but I've converted her to the wisdom of the secret stash.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Confessions of an Autodidact

Autodidact: It's a strange word. Something about it sounds suspect, possibly even nasty. She is a practicing autodidact.

But all it means is "self-teacher." And that's what I am. I like to teach myself stuff. Always have; even when I was a little kid looking through my parents' old schoolbooks and going through the lessons myself. Sometimes I've failed -- for instance, no amount of effort made me a successful music reader or practical sewer or shorthand writer. But sometimes I've succeeded: bread baking; knitting; enough German to bump me into the third-term class my freshman year of college (although I had the good sense to immediately demote myself back to German 101 before my deficiencies became apparent).

When I was a twenty-something slacker working in a bookstore, a couple came in one winter evening, back in those pre-Amazon days, with a long list of special-order books on two particular topics -- I think maybe a certain period in art history, and the Civil War. When I asked the middle-aged pair if they were taking classes in these things, they laughed and said no; but that, every year, each of them had committed to learning about one new thing. It was a New Year's tradition for them. I was charmed; I thought at the time that it was one of the coolest and most romantic ideas I'd ever heard of.

My embrace of that lifetime-learning ethic has been spotty since then; some years I pull it off, while other years not so much. But every now and again I feel that compulsion to learn in a systematic way. That's how I've felt this summer -- I think spurred in part by my recent experiences with brain  injury and my gradual return to feeling and thinking in a normal way. I no longer take it for granted, and I want to keep that sharpness sharp.

During my long recuperation this past winter I did some reading on homeschooling. We have shirttail relations who Waldorf-homeschool, and their children are so interesting and articulate that I decided to learn more about that particular school of thought. While parts of it appeal to me -- the integrated curriculum, for instance, and emphasis on arts -- much of it is, frankly, too oogity-boogity for me to take seriously; and I strenuously object to the Waldorf principle that actively discourages children from learning to read until they're 7 or 8. I don't care what the faeries or angels told Herr Steiner; it's a dumb idea. I learned to read when I was three, because I wanted to, and I'm grateful for that; I think it's criminal to hold children hostage to arbitrary developmental timelines.

Anyway, while researching that particular school of thought I was introduced to another pedagogical method that's gained some traction with homeschoolers and others: the Charlotte Mason method, named for a 19th century educational reformer. At first I got the impression that she was a darling of conservative Christian homeschoolers, and assumed that meant anti-intellectual nonsense wrapped in piety and Victorian sentimentality; but then I found out that plenty of homeschoolers without an overt religious agenda find Mason's ideas useful. And as I read more about Charlotte Mason herself, I learned that she was a pretty right-on woman for her time; an advocate both of girls' education and in giving all children, regardless of social class, a broad liberal-arts education based on the classical model and a lifelong love of learning. Her method includes short, focused lessons that allow the teacher to tackle many subjects; using "living books," books written by authors in love with the subject at hand instead of bland textbooks written and redacted by committee; emphasis on the out-of-doors, on nature study and play outside; teaching practical or self-improving activities instead of dumbed-down "twaddle";"dictation," by which she meant expecting students to be able to articulately summarize, aloud or in writing, what they've learned on a given day.

One thing led to another, and while reading about the Charlotte Mason method I discovered Susan Wise Bauer, a contemporary educator popular with classically minded homeschoolers. And -- yay! -- she's written a book for adults, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had, I stayed up until the wee hours reading it. In it Bauer lays out a general outline for tackling subjects as a self-learner, and also provides lists of books in different genres that can help a  motivated adult student deepen and broaden his or her understanding.

I feel like I've gotten my intellectual groove back. So I've been integrating some of the ideas I've been reading about into my own learning programme. I've had a lot of fun downloading lots of free Kindle e-books on Bauer's list, and have been leisurely working my way through the very oldest texts. I am also trying to check off a line item on my personal bucket list by undertaking Spanish, at least on a conversational level, toggling the Byki Deluxe program with an inexpensive Spanish grammar (because I just can't stand learning sentences without understanding the why of the sentences.) And -- I almost hesitate to mention this because it's so incredibly nerdy -- am revisiting the bane of my teenage existence, algebra, because I honestly think that without the performance pressure of misogynist math teachers and highly competitive fellow students, I might actually understand it this time around. Who cares if it's taken 40 years to summon the fortitude necessary to peel away this particular layer of shame? Game on!

I do one of the short Spanish units almost every day, or at least review the previous day; but the other stuff I just fit in, the way that I suspect female autodidacts throughout the ages have managed to steal learning time throughout the day. And -- thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Mason -- I am attempting to, every night, write myself a short summary of what I've learned. And cut down on the twaddle.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Five: Help!

Help me if you can
I'm feeling down
And sure appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you please, please help me?

Here's this week's challenge from the RevGalBlogPals:

"I hate to ask for help. I love to give it. You may identify with these feelings.
"So, for this Friday Five, please list four ways you have been helped when you didn't want to ask for it and one way you had a chance to help that meant a lot to you." 
I do identify very much with these feelings. I come from a family where asking for help was a sign of weakness and failure; where you were supposed to get it right on your own, preferably the first time. So I've been on a learning curve these five decades when it comes to asking someone to help me get my feet back on the ground. But when I have asked for help, here are four responses that have stayed with me through the years.

1. The merciful professor. I was sophomore in college; it was final exams week; I somehow misread my schedule and missed my German Lit exam -- a third of my grade. I was aghast and ashamed; here I was, a 4.0 student, and I'd blown my GPA, not to mention a good chunk of tuition money, because  of a moment of inattention. So I slunk up to the German Department offices and, winking back tears, asked my professor if I could take a make-up exam. To my surprise he didn't lecture me or tell me, "Tough luck." Instead, he said, "Well, these things happen," and made arrangements for me to take the exam later in the week.

2. My first therapist. I was working in Cadillac, finding myself at a multiple crossroads in my life, personal and vocational. I felt overwhelmed; paralyzed; defeated. So one day I worked up the nerve to call a therapist -- someone I picked out of the Yellow Pages -- and made an appointment. A week later I found myself circling her office building, so hesitant to park my car and go inside. But it turned out to be the best decision I could have made; gaining a caring but objective advisor and sounding board.

3. The long ride home. One of the ironies in dealing with the death of a loved one is the fact that, literally minutes after experiencing this loss, one is suddenly bombarded with bureaucratic questions related to release of the body. I was fortunate that after my mom died my pastor came to the hospital to walk me through this process. Then he asked me, "Would you like a ride home? Don't worry about your car; we'll take care of  it." I wasn't sure who the "we" was, but at that moment, pondering the prospect of driving back home to my empty house, I knew I wasn't clear-headed enough to get there safely. So I mumbled, "Okay," and collapsed into the passenger seat of the pastor's Jeep. It was just one of many gifts of kindness I accepted in the days that followed.

4. The fateful flat. I was nervous but excited; I'd just been invited to my first get-together with other lesbians...and it was just down the highway in a neighboring town. I was looking forward to whatever affirmation I could get at this luncheon meeting involving about a dozen women from a 40-mile radius.

Then I discovered the flat tire on my car; flatter than a flat thing that is flat. Oh, no.

I'm not a mechanic; not even a flat-tire-changer. And it was Sunday.

I called the organizer and asked if someone could give me a lift to the festivities. She was one of the more far-flung participants and had no real idea where I was on the map; she hesitated, then said, "Why don't you call _____? I think she lives near you." She gave me the number.

With some trepidation I called, realizing how odd my request would sound to a total stranger. It sounded like the premise for one of those Lifetime serial-killer dramas.

To my surprise, the woman who answered the phone agreed to find me and give me a ride to the luncheon.  "I'm not good with directions," she added, "so I might have to call you back."
Which she did, several times, including once from my neighbor's driveway.

And that's how I met Fellow Traveler. True story.,

5. The raggedy man in the woods. A few years ago we were on our way to one of our semi-frequent trips to the Leelanau Peninsula. We'd gotten an early start, this foggy morning and were feeling hungry about halfway along the route. We stopped at a local McDonald's for a quick to-go breakfast, then headed for a nearby city park to eat and give  the dogs some exercise  time.

We'd just parked the Jeep and had started unwrapping our food when a dark, wraithlike figure appeared from out of the woods and the morning fog that still swirled through the park. We watched as it drew closer.

It was a man -- a skinny old man, in ragged layers of clothes, headed for one of the park trash cans. Soon he was digging through the can, apparently looking for bottles to scavange for deposits...or maybe, we realized, he was looking for food. 

We knew what we had to do. We got out of the Jeep, McDonald's meals and hot coffees in hand, and gave everything to him.

"Thank you," he said.