Friday, October 31, 2008

It's a Soft World After All

While I'm tossing out the occasional post on my favorite homeschooling resources, let's put in a word for the Hugg a Planet pillow globe. Despite an awful name, a disconcertingly amateurish website, and a product photo that looks like the west coast is giving birth, this is a great globe. Not a novelty toy, the borders are accurate, the labels are abundant, the colors and markings are clear and bright: this is a real, working globe. But it's a real pillow, too: the cloth is tough and well-sewn, and the stuffing is soft and resilient. It's a cushion that's been built for abuse by energetic children.
Like all homeschoolers, a good globe was one of our first investments. But when you're cuddled up for reading time, and the book mentions Greenland or Fiji, the last thing anyone wants to do is hop down, fetch the globe, and hunt for the place. But the Hugg a Planet, I promise you, will already be in someone's lap (though sometimes we have to shove the cat off of it), making the location of foreign lands quick and fun.
For an extra ten bucks, the Hugg a Planet will include (literally; it's tucked inside a velcroed pocket just west of California) a Hugg a Moon, with seas and mountains labeled, as well as the locations and dates of American and Russian landings.
And then it won't be long before you're contemplating your genuine, if previously unrecognized, need for a Hugg a Mars.
UPDATE: Insanely, Amazon is asking $48 for the basic, no moon included, Hugg a Planet. Go straight to their website instead, or here for a $3 discount.

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Annual Halloween Rant: 2 Principles & 12 Questions

John Aielli, the dj for our local university radio station, just finished explaining the old chestnut of how the Church created All Saints' and All Souls' Days to preempt the pagan festivity of Samhain, now to be called Halloween. You see, the Church just renamed the pagans' favorite holidays, laid over a thin veneer of Christianity, and voila. So, you know, if you celebrate so-called "Christian" holidays, you're really celebrating pagan festivals.

This year, I will skip the argumentation and simply lay out some principles, followed by some questions for consideration.


1. Anyone who reads the accounts of early Christian missionaries (e.g. the Confession of St. Patrick) or the accounts of early Christian historians (e.g. Bede) will quickly discover the intense distaste the early missionaries had for anything and all things pagan. These guys were hardly poster boys for inter-cultural tolerance.

Go read some of these materials, and then come back and tell me how the monks "baptized" pagan holidays, customs, or other things so that the people could carry on with no changes in their lives--just new names for the old familiar paganism.

2. Despite the firm presuppositions of Victorian folklorists that most folk customs and holidays have ancient roots, scholars since have thoroughly debunked that notion. Customs and holidays die out quickly without reinforcement from the surrounding culture and real belief in the things represented by the customs.


1. If All Saints and/or All Souls were meant to "baptize" Samhain, why do they occur in the two days following Samhain, with the more appropriate day (All Souls, aka Day of the Dead) a whole two days off?

2. Why would significant feast days of the universal Church be established to supplant pagan festivals in small, outlying areas of Christendom?

3. If the Church cared so deeply about the Celtic areas, so as to establish major feast days simply to co-opt Celtic feasts (Christmas for Yule, Easter for Ostara-worship, All Saints/All Souls for Halloween), which major Christian holidays were established to co-opt pagan feast days in other parts of the Christian world: northern Africa, central Europe, Scandinavia, Iberia, etc.? If there aren't any, why not?

4. Why would feast days be established for the entire western Church to coincide with Celtic holidays, when it was typical for a feast day to be celebrated at different times in different places? Why wouldn't the day have been established/moved only for the Celtic areas?

5. Why did All Saints' Day first appear in the third century, when missionaries hadn't even reached Celtic areas?

6. Why are All Saints' and All Souls' celebrated in the Eastern Church, far from Celtic areas?

7. If the feast day was moved to coincide with Samhain, then besides Questions #1 and #2, what is the evidence that either (a) the feast day in the West was moved for that reason (remember, it was moved by Pope Gregory, who was off in Rome), or (2) the two festivals were even celebrated at the same time in Celtic areas?

8. Why, when most of the former Empire was Christianized anyway, would popes be establishing holidays (or moving them around) to accommodate pagan festivals?

9. How many festivals did the ancient Celts, and ancient Romans for that matter, have? How hard was it to establish a feast day that didn't fall on or near a pagan feast day?

10. Why do the feast days that supposedly used to be pagan festivals (Christmas, Easter, Halloween) happen to be the holidays that are the biggest deals in 20th century North American culture, when a little research will show that they were not, in fact, very important feast days until well after the Middle Ages? What are the "pagan" roots of Epiphany and Pentecost, which were the two most significant holidays in the Eastern and Western Churches for more than a thousand and a half years?

The big Question: Other than the coincidence (or near-coincidence) of dates, what actual evidence is there for the "took over Samhain/Yule/Ostara" theories?

The little Question: Whose interests are served by the conventional wisdom that Christian feasts and customs have their origins in paganism?


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Little Visits With God

So excommunicate me, but after looking fruitlessly for years for a decent Bible study resource for little people, I finally found exactly what I was looking for in a Lutheran book. Little Visits With God, which has been around since 1957, is a gentle and wonderful collection of two hundred short stories of boys and girls in everyday situations (a cut finger; helping with chores; arguing with siblings) who talk about each situation with a parent, looking at matters in the light of the Bible verse that begins each section. There are questions and an appropriate prayer at the end of each section, and then a longer Scriptural passage for the parent or older child to look up.

Little Visits manages to pull all this off without being treacly or preachy, which is pretty impressive given the low success rate this kind of material tends to have in that regard. Each section is short enough to keep little fidgety attention spans occupied; and the verses are short and (slightly) simplified (they're based on the KJV, which I prefer anyway since it's the language that's become part of our cultural heritage), easily memorizable by the very young. It's been perfect for introducing Offspring #2 to the Bible, and I heartily wish I'd known about it when Offspring #1 was younger.

Yes, it's Protestant: but it's Lutheran, and Lutheran theology is vastly closer to Catholic theology than most Catholics realize. While Baptist (for instance) materials are unusable without major reworking, there's very little in Little Visits that needs to be adjusted, and even then it's mostly a matter of addition--for instance, adding discussion of the Sacrament of Penance to sections on repentance and forgiveness. Substantive differences in theology are too rarefied to make an impact on a book for the very young.

Because Little Visits has been in continuous print for fifty years, it's pretty easy to find a used copy. Comparing my 1969 edition to the modern edition, the few changes are primarily formatting and an updating of children's names: Jerry has become Jeremy, Jim is Jordan, Winifred is Shanika. Check out the comments for more reviews by happy parents. (Don't be confused with its description in many of the Amazon comments as "devotional"; that's just Protestantese for "Bible Study with prayer," and not what Catholics would call a devotion.)

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beyond Debate

Debate is big among homeschoolers, particularly among Evangelicals, and most of my exposure to debate and public speaking comes through talking to Christian homeschooling moms, who are a pretty traditionalist, old-school set. So I was taken aback to learn from Joanne Jacobs that debate on the high school and, increasingly, college circuit has morphed into something quite different.
Scholastic debaters no longer aspire to combine erudition and inspiration. And neither do presidential candidates, nowadays. Debate in schools has been undermined from within and without.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on "post-modern debate," apparently approved of by many debating coaches as a legitimate approach. The main elements of the post-modern style are incomprehensible speed-talking, and meta-argument:

The policy topic for this year's debates is agriculture tariffs, and typically the team that goes first chooses a specific position to argue. The opening arguments in one round at Towson sounded like a tape recorder playing with the fast-forward button held down.

Elaine Zhou, a senior at New York University, spewed arguments about why the United States should end tariffs on ethanol from Brazil. Doing so would improve U.S.-Brazilian relations, keep Brazil from becoming a failed state that would seek nuclear weapons, reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, and thus help save the planet. The team had clearly done its homework, and Ms. Zhou gave citations for each argument.

But like many other participants, she fired those arguments so fast that the uninitiated might not recognize her sputtering as English. Ms. Zhou had nine minutes to make the first strike for her two-person team. The flood of words — and occasional gasps for breath — ended abruptly after a digital timer chimed that the first part of the round had ended.

Valarea Jones, a student at Towson University, sat at the other end of the table, scowling. She now had three minutes to cross-examine the NYU team. "Why did you make a conscious decision to read as fast as you did?" she asked. And later, "Do you think that debate is multicultural?"
Go read the whole WSJ article above for background (including the weird YouTube connection), but I thought the telling point was this:
This debating style began in the 1970s as a populist movement against the more traditional oratory that had always characterized both college debate and political speechifying.
No, really? The disastrous move in education has always been the one away from "All children must be given the education previously preserved for the social elite" to "What passes for education among the less socially privileged must be considered just as worthy as that given to the social elite." This is populism in the service of the upper classes, who have nothing to lose by praising ignorance and idiocy passed off as worthy learning, so long as their own children are guaranteed a genuine and rigorous education. From steering girls and racial/ethnic minorities into "just as good" home ec and vocational tracks in the 1950's, to lauding po-mo "oratory" in state schools today, educational faux populism guarantees the status quo. And sets up the masses for the first demagogue--who has learned from Cicero and the Lincoln-Douglas debates instead of from Laurence Tribe--who actually knows how to use the rhetorical arts to persuade.

And they'll be all the more vulnerable because they'll have been taught that they're the slick talkers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Plus, Our College Football Rocks

Forbes listed our lovely Jewel of the Hill Country as the number one "Best Bang for Your Buck" place to be in the coming Depr... er, prolonged economic correction, with the other Big Texas Cities also making it into the Top Ten. A little startling, perhaps, to those of us who remember the last property tax assessment we received (hey, when there's no state income tax, you've gotta get the money from somewhere), but nice. Unless it brings a new influx of Yankees. (Don't tell them about the allergies: it'll be an exciting surprise.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sure Hope the Hobos Don't Steal the Laundry From the Line

Yahmdallah links to an amusing Village Voice article on surviving the coming Depression. Some other article I was reading while surfing (this is like how the Desert Fathers would write "Somewhere in St. Paul's letters it says..." when they couldn't remember the link either) mentioned that homeschoolers might fare well, as they could sell their mortgage-laden houses and buy where the schools are lousy and the property concomitantly cheap. We'll see if it comes to that, but it's true, there's a certain advantage to the portability of homeschooling in this kind of economy: we can pick up and go anytime, anywhere, should Eudoxus' employment require it. (Not to mention that, unless the State goes out of business or he stabs the dean, we're in tenured security.)

Nevertheless, like everyone else, the Opinionated Household is looking for ways to lower the bills. I cracked out the clothesline at last and hung out some wash, rediscovering that solar-powered laundry drying is not just cheaper, but fast and easy in Texas weather pretty much year-round. I did have to get some more clothespins, and, assuming that the MegaloMart H.E.B. would have them, searched fruitlessly for a while before appealing to two lounging teens with employee badges for assistance. They moseyed over to the laundry aisle, and one rummaged around haplessly, then offered me a box of safety pins, asking "Is this what you're looking for?" I observed that those were not clothespins. "You know, I don't even know what those are that you're talking about." Feeling a hundred years old, I explained that some people dried their laundry by hanging it up on lines, by means of clothespins. "Oh! You mean those wooden things? I think I know what you mean. You know, I've never seen that done before." The other teenager then mentioned that they carried no such thing at H.E.B., but that oddly, several other people had asked for them in the last few days. Funny.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Tragic, And Yet Funny

If you're the parent of a moody adolescent, that is.

Yes, I know. Please don't leave angry comments.