An Irish Country Childhood

The Book of the Week is “An Irish Country Childhood” by Marrie Walsh, published in 1995.  This is the kind of book on which a movie or TV show (such as Meet Me in St. Louis or Little House on the Prairie) might be based.  It describes the spirit of the times of a particular culture in a certain era; in this case, an agricultural community in County Mayo, Ireland in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Walsh was born in 1929.  She attended public school where “The teachers were not local and they never mixed socially.  Teaching was a very prestigious job in those days…”  Her maternal grandmother and great aunt attended a Hedgerow School, which evolved during the enforcement of the Penal Laws (1695-1829), a time of oppression of Catholics by Great Britain.  Classes in Irish, Latin and English were held outdoors.  Tuition was in the form of corn or turf.

“Brought up on a daily diet of legends, myths and ghost stories,” Walsh and her many siblings were fascinated by the paranormal.  Various places mentioned in her anecdotes were haunted.  The author’s ancestors thought weasels were actually witches and were therefore scared of them.

The kids performed labor on farms in the community, and received compensation in the form of being taught a song or story, and perhaps some food.  They loved drinking buttermilk, and participated in daring episodes of pinching fruit from the neighbors’ orchards until they got caught.  Read the book to learn more about this and Walsh’s other adventures.

Reckless Courage

The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004.  This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II.  It also provides a bit of Norwegian history.  One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.

Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII):  Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school.  Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession.  Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.

When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.”  October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.

On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard.  There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house.  The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.”  Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.

Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.

My Childhood

The Book of the Week is “My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky, first published in 1913.  This slim volume describes the first sad ten years of Gorky’s life (1868-1878), although throughout, neither dates nor place-names are specified.  Gorky’s father died when he was very young, and his mother chose not to live with the author and her parents.  His (maternal) grandfather was physically and verbally abusive toward him and his grandmother.  Alcohol and violence flowed freely among them and his uncles, who ran a fabric-dyeing business.  Gorky felt his character was shaped by the “various simple obscure people” he met while growing up.  He learned to accept the way the Russians did, that “through the poverty and squalor of their lives, suffering comes as a diversion, is turned into a game and they play at it like children and rarely feel ashamed of their misfortune.”

His grandmother gave birth to eighteen children, but it was not made clear how many survived.  She frequently told him stories and advised him on culinary and religious matters.  Her meager income was derived by lace-making.  She had learned the craft at ten years of age from her mother who had become crippled.  Thereafter, they did not need to beg anymore.  Sometimes Gorky’s mother put in a brief appearance and later she quickly disappeared, leaving nothing at all to be remembered by.  He began short-lived bouts of formal education, and endured Bible-related and poetry teachings from his grandparents.  By the end of his first decade, Gorky had fallen in with a crowd of kids his own age with whom he hung out on the streets, and was taking care of a baby brother.

The Vineyard

The Book of the Week is “The Vineyard” by Louisa Thomas Hargrave, published in 2003.  It is a memoir about the first wine-grape farmers on Long Island in New York State.

In the early 1970’s, Louisa and her then-husband, Alex, wanted to grow grapes to make wine to sell.  “I [Louisa] decided that having a vineyard wouldn’t take much time, so I enrolled in chemistry and calculus courses at the University of Rochester while we scouted for vineyard property.”  They thought they would be able to spend more time with the children they planned to have, if they worked in the same place where they resided.  Running a winery seemed to fit the bill.  The endeavor turned out to be more difficult than they imagined.  The Hargraves had never managed a vineyard before, let alone any business, but prior to plunging in, they “did their homework” the best they could, were passionate about wine and were willing to work hard.

They purchased a plot in Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the first grape varieties they planted.  Fortunately for them, the soil was compatible with these high-quality varieties.  They released their first wine in July 1977, from fruit picked in 1975, aged in barrels.

Louisa provides a detailed account of the numerous risks grape farmers and wine makers face; the birds, bugs and weather, to name a few. She also recounts problems her family encountered, including educating their daughter and son and dealing with legal tangles concerning their business.   One particularly stressful episode involved fighting an extortion attempt by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite all the hardships, the Hagraves nurtured a successful vineyard because they possessed and/or acquired the passion, courage, focus, skills, talents and luck in sufficient amounts.

Sesame Street Unpaved

The Book of the Week is “Sesame Street Unpaved” by David Borgenicht, published in 1998.  This book commemorates (almost) thirty years of the scripts, stories, secrets and songs of “Sesame Street,” an award-winning American educational television show for very young children.  It went on the air November 10, 1969.  It features dialogues between human and combination-marionette/puppet characters, animated segments and music/video snippets.

There have been countless humorous features, such as the recurring early-episode bits when Big Bird kept flubbing the name of human store owner Mr. Hooper, calling him Mr. Looper, Mr. Blooper, Mr. Duper, Mr. Snooper, Mr. Pooper, Mr. Scooper, etc.  In one of many memorable skits involving puppets Ernie and Bert, the latter asks the former whether he’s aware that he has a banana in his ear.  Ernie asks him to repeat that.  Bert starts yelling.  Ernie yells back, “I’m sorry– You’ll have to speak a little louder, Bert!  I can’t hear you!  I have a banana in my ear!”

“Kermit the Frog” came into being around 1955, and in previous shows, his appearance evolved through the years.  For the sake of neatness, the puppet character “Cookie Monster” usually ate painted rice cakes rather than real cookies on-screen.  Another early, (but short-lived) popular character included Roosevelt Franklin.  A purple puppet featured in a classroom, he was booted off the air because some of the show’s creators felt he portrayed a “negative cultural stereotype” in that he was a smart-alecky, paper-throwing disruptive kid, and he appeared to be African American.

A host of celebrities have also visited the show, and have usually sung songs.  When Ralph Nader visited, he insisted on correcting a grammatical error in the song “People in Your Neighborhood” by changing a line to “…the people WHOM you meet each day.”

On one occasion, the Boston Pops accompanied the show’s cast in playing the song, “Rubber Duckie” but a union rule considered squeezing a rubber duckie (so it would squeak) to be an instrument additional to that each musician was already playing– requiring that extra wages be paid.  The rule was skirted by having only the percussionists play rubber duckies.

Sesame Street has garnered wide international appeal through the decades, airing in Kuwait, Turkey and Mexico, among many other nations.

The Cost of Courage

The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992.  This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives.  In so doing, he hurt his career.

In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college.   For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham.  Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.

Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans.  Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom.  In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink.  In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.

Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Book of the Week is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010.

This book appears to argue that the great American school system is moving closer to death.

Ms. Ravitch discusses how testing and accountability have “become the main levers of school reform… In the trade-off, our education system ended up with no curricular goals, low standards and dumbed-down tests.”

With the imposition of more standardized testing than ever before, education has been narrowed to only the subjects on the tests– literacy and mathematics.

The goal of some school districts, in implementing reform, has been to close the racial achievement gap.  For decades, students of certain ethnic groups (such as blacks and Hispanics) have shown lower test scores than their peers (who are whites and Asians).  There may be many causes for this (such as economic and demographic changes, to say nothing of test-question wording), but politicians think they can solve the problem through a formula. Ms. Ravitch provides an anecdotal example of this thinking in San Diego in the late 1990’s.

Teachers were resistant to “get with the program” due to the way in which it was forced upon them.  The outside educational coaches hired to work with the school personnel, were viewed as enforcers, rather than as collaborators.  The teachers were supposed to utter inane phrases, such as “I am a reflective practitioner.”  They were to spend a specific number of minutes on teaching a prescribed subject, and then move to another, even when the changeover was disruptive. Stress-related illnesses among the teachers, skyrocketed.

Ms. Ravitch covers a host of other issues, such as “No Child Left Behind,” controversies over standards, school vouchers, charter schools, use of private monies to fund education, the power of the federal and state governments concerning education, teaching-credentials, and a choice of schools for the students.

Politicians believe they are improving education by providing parents with an array of schools which their children can attend. The thinking is, choice will foster competition in the district.  This is a misguided notion, to say the least.

Ms. Ravitch states, “Julian Betts of U.C. San Diego questioned whether choice was even a successful strategy because his own studies found that choice had little or no effect on student achievement.”

Some charter schools accept students via a lottery system; other schools hand-pick their students. Even when unlucky students or those who require extra help are offered it– through extra school hours or free tutoring– it has been the tutoring companies that have profited handsomely.  There has been no quality-monitoring of the tutoring, so there has been no way to judge for sure whether students have shown any improvement.  One way to see, might be through standardized test scores, but scores’ validity and reliability have been questionable of late, for various reasons.

In many districts, there is grossly unfair funding allocation among schools.  A colossal amount of monies from billionaires (private sources) have been poured into charter schools and education reform initiatives that provide lucky students with special resources, while public schools have had to make do with scant taxpayer dollars and have had to go without, during times of severe budget cuts.

As for accountability, there is none. Ms. Ravitch writes that politicians have collaborated with nonprofit foundations because the latter are contributing megabucks to schools.  Consequently, they have acquired overwhelming power and influence.  “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one… they are bastions of unaccountable power.”

RIP, quality American education.

Square Dancing In the Ice Age

The Book of the Week is “Square Dancing In the Ice Age” by Abbie Hoffman, published in 1982.

This book is a compilation of essays from the most famous American Hippie of the 1960’s.  Hoffman’s name was best known because he engineered attention-getting stunts and advised his followers to engage in acts of protest that would infuriate law enforcement.  He also revealed the secrets to obtaining free merchandise and the details behind irreverent behavior.

In one essay, he pointed out instances of code language for cocaine in movies, such as the words “snow” and “blow.”  He also wrote that frequent visits to the dentist among people in Hollywood indicated that they were cocaine addicts.  They would have the drug rubbed in their gums for a faster high.

In another essay, Hoffman gloated about a prank he and his girlfriend pulled on 54 prestigious restaurants in Europe for six months between 1977 and 1978; some several times.  He wrote a well-crafted referral letter, forging the signature of Playboy Magazine’s Articles Editor, while purporting to be a restaurant critic for the magazine.  He showed the letter to the head chef in each restaurant, and was treated to thousands of dollars of fancy food, free of charge.  In the book, he reprinted the letter, a list of the ten restaurants he thought best, and Playboy’s reaction upon learning of the ruse. Read the book to find these out.