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Archive for the ‘Breaking Bad’ Category

Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires.

Hey, there’s Paul writing to the Ephesians. It’s the second reading for Sunday’s Mass, and, very conveniently, a decent hook for talking about the return of Better Call Saul.

Yes, Saul. 

better-call-saul3Better Call Saul – which begins its fourth season Monday night – is at once a prequel and (we think- I hope) sequel to Breaking Bad. In that (great) series, Saul Goodman emerged in season two as Walter White’s smart, opportunistic criminal defense attorney (“You don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”). Better Call Saul takes us back in the timeline to explore the question of where this guy came from.

Originally conceived almost as a joke, and, before production really got rolling, as a mostly comedic treatment of an already extreme character who lives life at a pace as rapid-fire as his quips, Better Call Saul has evolved into something quite different and surprising: an almost leisurely, affecting deep-dive into the question of identity: Who are we at a given moment – and how did we become that person?

(There are plenty of articles online about the series. This interview with showrunner Vince Gilligan is particularly good. And before I dig into the deeper stuff and get all meta and serious, let me say that the show is just wildly entertaining – masterful cinematography, compelling direction and great setpieces, hilarious and always surprising. It’s the only show I’m currently watching.)

It’s not dissimilar from Breaking Bad, which traced the descent of Walter White from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to cold-blooded meth king. The dramatic arc is a little different though – there was always a level of uncertainty about Walter White: would he ever turn back? Would he respond to opportunities to take a different path? With Saul Goodman, we already know the answer (in part). When we first meet him in Breaking Bad, he’s a slimeball. So there’s no suspense on that score. There is suspense, though – which shows you how skilled everyone involved in this is – because we don’t know how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman – and we actually care.

And why do we care? Because, as singular as this character’s life is – low-life con artist getting through law school (University of American Samoa represent!) and trying to make something of himself, it’s essentially, in the end, about that question of identity and choices, presented in an engaging way that doesn’t shy away from complexity. Jimmy could be – and, if we’re honest, probably is, in some way  – any of us.

For it would have been easy to take this character – Jimmy McGill – and make his trajectory a sure thing because of either all his own choices or all what others and life have done to him. A clear-cut perp or victim, either way. A victim of a background in which he saw his parents, particularly his father, taken advantage of, and then a victim of his brother’s arrogance and contempt, as well as the usual course of bad breaks. A victim of his own flaws – as his brother Chuck (who has his own issues)  growls at him, more or less constantly, You’ll never change. You’ll always be Slippin’ Jimmy.  Of course he turned out the way he did!

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But no.

Every step of the way, we see, sometimes in subtle ways, the choices Jimmy McGill makes – and could make. One step forward, two steps back – that’s his life – sometimes because of what happens to him, sometimes because of his own choices. Like every one of us non-fictional characters, he’s a mix of inherent goodness, the lingering effects of original sin and the impact of temptation, pure and simple. It’s a hard sell, and it’s relentless and it’s exactly what Paul is telling the Ephesians.  He’s being sold a bill of goods: that his old self is his true self and his desires aren’t illusory, but real, and they’re not corrupting him – they define him.

There’s really not a thing wrong with anything fundamental to his drive or character: he wants to make something of himself, he knows he’s got charm and creativity, he wants to live well. But how it all gets perverted: perverted by greed, fear, a desire for revenge, pleasure in seeing someone twist in the wind, and most of all, because it is the root of all sin – pride.

And all of this – good and evil, possibility and cynicism, surge, course and fight for the soul of a man  – is he Jimmy, Saul, Gene – or all of the above? Or none?

There’s more than one battlefield. With Gilligan and Gould at the helm, every character is fully-developed, every one distinct and interesting, every one moving in one direction or another, every one of them making choices, too, using what’s at hand, reacting and bouncing off one another. It’s such a fantastic cast all-round with my favorites being Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy McGill’s business and personal partner, Kim Wexler, and Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin, a partner in Jimmy’s brother’s firm. Both roles are played, not against type, but simply not as a type, which is refreshing on television. Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters on television – ever – hard-working, real, but intriguingly reserved. Kim and Jimmy’s relationship is subtle: there’s obviously deep mutual affection and support, but it’s understated – so understated that’s it weird to see them express affection –  and works as a foundation (up to this point), not a plot point. Howard initially strikes you as typical high-powered, aggressive jerk, but he’s much more as he navigates his way between everyone’s best interests. He really is one of the show’s secret weapons, and I suspect he’ll play an even greater role in the coming season, as he has to grapple with Chuck’s death. (No spoiler alert – it’s in the plot synopses).

(You notice that I’m not saying much about the other two major plot lines – the Gus Fring/Nacho/Hector trajectory and the Mike storyline. I enjoy them, but they just don’t interest me as much as the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim/Howard material – although they are certainly on their way to converegence.)

In a series full of heartbreaking storylines, probably the most heartbreaking of season 3, and the one that expresses all of the contradictions and temptations of Jimmy McGill, is this one:

In a previous season, Jimmy had stumbled upon the dishonest ways of an assisted-living facility corporation, and had, on behalf of some senior-citizen residents, sued this company. Using all of his charm, Jimmy worked his way to a settlement that would benefit these residents and, of course, himself. There was fallout from that settlement that led to all kinds of complications, but it reemerged in this season and Jimmy discovered that the settlement had not actually been settled yet – that the law firm he’d left the case with (not of his own choice) was holding out for more from the company. Settling at this point, would solve all of Jimmy’s considerable financial problems, so he went to work.

The work involved essentially isolating the woman who represented the class in the suit from her friends – putting the pressure on her so that she’d go ahead and accept the settlement. Joining himself to the mall-walkers and chair-yoga practitioners, he planted seeds of doubt in her friend’s minds, building hostility to the point where the holdout broke down in tears after Jimmy rigged the community bingo game in her favor, trusting that this would be the straw.

better_call_saul

And of course it worked. She settled, all the elderly got their money, as did Jimmy – but at what price? That’s always the question.

There are, of course, other story lines in the show – story lines that will eventually converge in a way that sets the stage for Breaking Bad. But it’s the character study that has me hooked. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Is the person I’m convinced I am at this moment inevitable?

Near the end of season 3, Kim Wexler, already a driven workaholic, takes on even more work to compensate for the partnership’s losses now that Jimmy McGill has been suspended from practicing law for a year. As a consequence of this and related choices, she dozes off while driving and ends up wrecked on the side of the road, her arm broken and documents scattered to the wind. This conversation between her and the future Saul Goodman encapsulates the moral questions at the heart of the show:

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

better-call-saul

This moral dimension plays out in the aesthetics of the show in a number of ways, but in my mind, most powerfully in an aspect that some critique: the show often proceeds, let’s just say, at a leisurely pace. There’s the “let’s take a third of an episode to watch Mike figure out a tracking device” or “let’s watch Nacho create fake heart pills for ten minutes” or “let’s watch Jimmy doctor documents for a while now” and  “let’s watch Chuck tear apart his house forever.”

What does this say? I’d imagine the directors and writers have their own rationales, but the way it strikes me is as a powerful visual expression of the conviction that everything matters. There’s no such thing as wasted movement in this universe, no such thing as a meaningless gesture. No, we don’t want to tumble into scrupulosity, but you remember what the Man said, right?  Even the very hairs on your head are numbered. That tight, sustained gaze of Better Call Saul  won’t allow us to forget: We’re adults.  Every choice we make takes us in one direction or another, towards greater clarity or even darker illusions about ourselves. Every single one.

better-call-saul10

 

 

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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Back-Cover

What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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— 1 —

Travel plans:  In a few weeks, we will be heading to Guatemala – Mayan ruins and wildlife are the destinations, a guide’s services have been retained (more on my motivation for that when I write about the trip) but here’s a question for you – if anyone knows of any Catholic charitable causes in the areas of San Ignacio, Belize or Flores, Guatemala, could you let me know? If there are any small needs that we might be able to help meet, we would like the opportunity.

(We will be flying in and out of Belize City – a lot cheaper from here than Guatemala City, and closer to the sites we want to see.)

— 2 —

This evening, we went to a performance of Fiddler on the Roof by one of our local companies, the Red Mountain Theatre. I’m continually amazed at the high quality of local theater – it really was an outstanding production, in every way. The actor who portrayed Tevye was the same fellow who played the lead in another company’s excellent Music Man last year (or the year before? Can’t  remember.) and there was just the slightest tiny hint of Harold Hill every once in a while, but really – if I hadn’t known it was the same guy, I wouldn’t have known. If that makes sense.

Bonus: Michael’s piano teacher played the keyboard, which we didn’t know until we got there and looked at the program.

It was the first time I’ve ever seen Fiddler – really. I liked it, but I was struck by a couple of things.

IMG_20170622_192514First, the sanitization of history gives me rather a sick feeling. Hey, we’re friendly Tsarist forces here to warn you about the coming pogrom so you have time to escape to America.  It gave off a very mid-century, post-WWII America vibe in that regard.

Although I will say that the very last scene was effectively done with just the right balance of resignation, hope and grief – and made me regret, just a bit, my decision not to go to Ellis Island on our last NYC trip.

Secondly, is there an “great” American musical that has a strong second act? Because I can’t think of one. That pesky problem of plot machinations and resolution seems to bog everything down, including the music. What do you think?

— 3 —

Current Read: How did this one catch my eye? Well, one of the things I try to do is read academic journal articles in religious history. It’s random on my end – I don’t have a particular period or area of study I’m focused on. It’s more about general knowledge and curiosity. How were people different? How were they the same?

(Spoiler alert: They are mostly the same.)

So to that end, I poke and prod the Internet, trying to find journals I can access at no charge. For example, via JSTOR, you can “store” three articles at a time on your “shelf” – but must keep an article for two weeks at a time. It works.

It was there I ran across an article by Dr. Emily Michelson, which led me to her book, which I purchased. Amazingly, since I rarely purchase books, relying instead on, you know, the library.  I just was too lazy to go through the interlibrary loan process on this one, plus I suspected it might be a keeper – at least for a while.  I’ll write a full post when I’m finished, but know for now, it’s a fascinating look at post-Reformation preaching in Italy, carefully dismantling our stereotypes about what the “Counter-Reformation” was all about. History, as it gets filtered through secondary and tertiary sources, is taught to us in school and then finally filtered through culture, ends up being a set of bullet points acted out by stick figures reflecting the narrative’s ideology. What really happened is far more complex and, if ultimately unknowable except only to God, still much more interesting than the stick figures acting out our preferred narratives.

Her basic point: These preachers understood the challenges of the era. They saw and accepted the gaps and weaknesses in Catholic life and saw it as their mission, not simply to defend Catholic truth against Protestant de-formations, but to encourage reform of Catholic life at both the institutional and personal level. It was a pastoral program in which there was flexibility and diversity of views and approaches – not a monolithic, defensive fortress of apologetics.

More to come.

— 4 —

Listening:

It’s been pretty rainy this week (a relief from last summer’s drought, to be sure), so walking has been limited. The one time I got out, I listened to In Our Time’s recent episode on Christine de Pizan. 

Who?

That’s what I said. As I listened, my question changed:

Why hadn’t I ever heard of this woman before? 

Who was she? A 14th/15th century woman, born in Venice, moved to Paris with her family by her father, who took a position in the court of Charles V.  Married – happily and willingly – at 15, by the time she was 25, she was widowed, her father had died, as had the king, and she was left with three children and an elderly mother to support. What to do?

Write. 

Christine de Pisan was one of the first European women – if not the first – to make a living at her writing. She had been well-educated by her father and in the court, and took to writing poetry and other literary forms, including works that took misogynist interpretations of history to task. Her Book of the City of Ladies is no less than a medieval her-story, galloping through the past, correcting negative interpretations of women’s actions and celebrating what the culture defined as weakness as, rather, strength.

Look, I’m not expert on anything at all, including French medieval history, but I have done my share of study and women’s history has been an important part of the picture – beginning back in the late 1970’s when her-story was at the center of much of what I encountered in college and then in graduate school in the mid-80’s. I can’t recall ever hearing of this woman before.

Why?

The question is actually addressed in the broadcast, near the end, in which the scholars admit that she doesn’t quite fit the narrative – the secular feminist narrative, I’d add. She was not an absolute rebel against her own culture, and she didn’t reject religion.

(But neither did Hildegard of Bingen, and she’s celebrated, even by secular feminists….so I’m still a bit stuck.)

Anyway, here’s the link to the program – and – great – one more thing to read. 

— 5 —

Oh, wait – I forgot. Add this. I also listened to the episode on American Populists. If you have any interest at all in American history – and if you’re an engaged American citizen, you should – this is worth your time. It puts a great deal of post-Civil War history into a helpful context, explains many of the current fault-lines an offers thoughtful insight into the dynamics of political parties and pressure groups – particularly important in a time such as ours in which both political parties are becoming increasingly indifferent and irrelevant to ordinary citizen’s concerns.

— 6 —

Well, much more time for reading now that My Shows are over – Fargo and Better Call Saul both wrapped up their seasons this week, and I’ll have more to say about both soon.

I’m thinking I’m going to go back to the queue and tackle The Americans. I have friends who say it’s great. I’ll take a deep breath and plunge in.

 

— 7 —

Ah, wait. I posted this, then I realized that I only did six takes. Well, here’s seven. Done.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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This is sort of long, and offered, not because it’s fascinating, but because I known many parents are working over these same issues. Here’s how I got to the place where my conscience couldn’t say anything but “yes” to homeschooling at a particular moment in time. Others have different experiences: they never considered anything but homeschooling or the school options were all so very bad, they really had no choice. That’s not my experience – this is, and perhaps it will resonate with someone else’s dilemma.

And I really didn’t need to write this post. Not really. Because yesterday, in a comment, Sally Thomas said it all in the succinct way a poet does:

And largely what motivated us to stop going to school was the feeling that school was largely an annoying middleman that wanted to dictate our schedules for us.

 

But since, I started…..

At some point in the winter of 2012, I made a suggestion, asked a question, wondered aloud.

“What would you think,” I asked the first and fifth grader, “about homeschooling next year?”

They were horrified. Honestly, even though I’d been the one asking the question, so was I.

But there it was. The equation had become unbalanced. It had seemed to be for a while, but now the tilt was undeniable.

It wasn’t that something had to be done. Nothing had to happen. But as life and school kept happening the way it was, it seemed more and more clear to me that something should happen. It was becoming a conscience issue for me.

As I said yesterday, and have written before, I see this formal education thing as an agreement. A deal. It’s no different than any other aspect of life: a job, for example. The question is: what are you willing to put up with in order to receive the benefits? Hardly anyone adores their job a hundred percent, and many can barely stand it, but most of us do what we have to do in order to be support ourselves and our families and make some tiny contribution to …something.

Another way to put it is: How would you like your aggravation served today?

For there will always be aggravation, stress and frustration, today and every day. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about it, but sometimes you do. With the last two kids’ educations, I did have a choice, and that’s the way I had finally settled on working out the question.

How do I want my aggravation?

Do I choose to take it as I deal with an institution’s structures, rules and procedures – the folders, the particulars of supply lists and uniforms, the inadequacy of curricula – or…

…do I choose to take it in the form of having us all together most of the time, of planning, of teaching almost everything myself, of sorting out their learning, of being on 24-hour alert for resources and opportunities?

In other words, do I want to be annoyed about what others aren’t teaching them or do I want to be stressed about what I’m not teaching them? Do I want to be worried about what I feel they’re missing by being at school or do I want to be worried about what they’re missing by staying at home?

What had moved me to this point at which something I had never even considered in over twenty-five years of parenting was suddenly looming as a real possibility?

 

Long-term Dissatisfaction

Before I get going on this, let me make clarify what wasn’t an issue:

  • Concerns about instructional content that outright violated my principles.
  • Learning issues.
  • Concerns about social or cultural context.
  • A preternaturally  gifted kid who needed and wanted ten hours a day to develop his talent

None of that. Nothing odd was being pushed, neither boys experiences learning difficulties, we don’t have figure skaters or genius violinists, and we liked everyone and didn’t feel any need to be set apart. That, by the way, is not a part of my mental framework anyway. I simply mention it because homeschoolers are often accused of want to put kids in a cocoon. My issue was, as you’ll see, actually the opposite. I was concerned that school was narrowing their vision and experience, and I wanted to give them more, not less.

I suppose I should also mention that this was an elementary school issue for me at the time. The boys were in first and fifth grades, and I was not thinking about high school. The question was about the rest of elementary school.

Oh, and a word about other options. Public school isn’t an option , even given my own background – I have just really come to believe that the daily faith formation offered in Catholic elementary education is invaluable for a child. The only classical schools around here, sadly, are those offered by Reformed churches, so that’s not happening. A Catholic Montessori school would be great, too, but there’s none of that around here, either. The one local Catholic school that is not of the parish model, St. Rose Academy, is run by the Nashville Dominicans, might have been an option (and is indeed where my younger son will be going next year), but at the time, as you’ll see, it wasn’t so much which school, but school in general that was the problem, and I didn’t think that making the kids change schools and adapt to a new set of kids and teachers was really the answer to the question hovering over our days.

So, I’ll start with matters that had been festering for a while – the basics are in the previous post, but let me take it in a slightly different direction. Go grab a snack and settle in.

As is the case with many of you, I’m sure, I have never been impressed with contemporary pedagogical fads, movements and materials. So that was always there: A grudging acceptance of the reality of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator materials. Catholic schools that for the most part embraced secular curricula and made not attempt to integrate faith into the entire program. Catholic schools that, if they were not appealing to the lowest common and non-denominational denominator, were running in the opposite direction, anxiously pursuing “blue ribbon” status in order to appeal to upper-middle class striver parents.

Over the years, my kids had experienced many good teachers, but always in the midst of systems that seemed determined to undermine authentic Catholic education by emphasizing the priorities of the Secular Pedagogical Flavor of the Month. I remember once going into one of my kids’ Catholic elementary schools in which for a couple of weeks, they had been all about the rainforest. They had been reading about the rainforest, writing about it, and were super proud of the hallways bedecked as little rainforests in between cinder block walls. So much effort put into the rainforest in a school that could not be bothered to celebrate a single saints’ feast day in a memorable way. But hey, they were a Blue Ribbon School, right?

And then time went on, everyone got older, and my concerns and issues focused and got more specific, nagging me and not letting go.

First, I was just tired. Of all of it. I had been doing elementary education as a parent for twenty-five years. I confess, this did play a part  in the decision. Six different Catholic elementary schools, hundreds of weekly folders and envelopes, thousands of hours spent quizzing, checking planners, interpreting teacher and administrator instructions, running over spelling words, going over the water cycle, looking at one more unit on the rainforest, and oh don’t forget endless fundraisers, one after the other, coming at me in fat envelopes and bleak, empty order forms.

I was 51, my husband had been dead for three years, my parents were dead, my older children were moving on, as they should, and here I was, still checking those freaking weekly folders. Older than most of the teachers and other parents, I was over this routine, tired of their systems and rules and tired of being frustrated by and paying for lame curricula and well-meaning if superficial Catholicity.

Geez, I would think, we could do so much more at home, couldn’t we?

Which of course was then promptly answered.

So. Why don’t you?

Wait. What?

Listen. I was not opposed to homeschooling – for other people. In fact, I admired and stood in awe of homeschoolers.

I didn’t know many in real life, but it did seem to me that everyone I “knew” online professionally homeschooled. I mean – everyone.

So why not us? Well, a few reasons.

  • As I had raised the older kids, it never really occurred to me. It wasn’t a thing among anyone I knew in that stage, and I didn’t meet any serious homeschoolers until we moved to Indiana in 2001. I didn’t think it was crazy or weird, it’s just that it wasn’t a part of the lives of people I knew for a very long time.
  • I didn’t see the need. Up to that point, it seemed as if the balance was still holding. School was school, and while imperfect and not my ideal, it still left space for the rest of life.
  • Finally, even as the possibility seemed more possible, and my conscience spoke more and more insistently, there was just a simple, Are you kidding? I don’t…want to.
  • I’m an introvert. I get my energy from being alone. It takes me about three hours after everyone has gone to bed at night for me to recalibrate and feel like myself. What was going to happen if we were together? All day? Every day? Would I just….go insane?
  • Finally, I was skeptical about how healthy it would be for them to be with me all day. Not that we would be alone, stuck in the house or inactive, I knew. But still. I came from a rather intense , controverted family situation and knew that being homeschooled would have been disastrous for me. Basically, would my kids…go insane?

(Almost done. Be patient)

So there you have all the vague dissatisfaction, the fears, the suspicion that there was a better way, but inability to see the way there. It might have continued, but for some rather specific moments during that 2011-2012 period. Some of these things are going to strike you as silly, and perhaps they are, but taken all together, along with a zillion other small school-related aggravations piled up on a quarter of a century of the same, they were enough:

  • This actually begins a couple of years before, when my older son started at this school. As one would expect, he had spelling words. The first few weeks, he was a spelling ninja, and then his grades started to fall. He was missing more and more on the spelling tests, having assured me during the week that he didn’t need to study, no thanks. Finally, after he almost failed one test, I asked him what was going on. He admitted that he didn’t study the words. Okay, but didn’t he study in class? Doesn’t the teacher go over the words, break them apart and talk about them? Oh no, he said, that’s not the way it works. They give us the words on Monday, and we’re just supposed to study them at home. We never talk about the spelling words in class. And I thought…wait. I’m paying you so I can homeschool my kid in spelling? What?
  • The reading program was horrible. All the parents hated it. For all I know, the teachers hated it, too. I’ll just straight out say that it was Pearson’s Reading Street and it sucked: Boring stories written in flat prose, with, worst of all, impenetrable and ridiculously random comprehension questions. And I thought…we could be reading Treasure Island. Charlotte’s Web. Shakespeare. Poetry.
  • The “special” classes – that is, music, art, computer, foreign language and PE classes – that my children were experiencing were all unfortunately mediocre, rifled with discipline issues and makework. I thought…we could be going to concerts and plays, studying Latin, going on hikes, learning instruments, taking quality art lessons, music…

Mad Men - Peggy Skates, Roger Plays

  • I had various and more or less constant questions about matters of Catholicity and other issues of curriculum including Common Core, which was starting to rear its head with no one batting an eye about it.
  • For a couple of years, one of my son’s classes were quite small. As in, fewer than fifteen children, all capable and motivated, in a class. A perfect opportunity for lots of hands-on learning which did not happen. He’d say, “We talked about plants today.” I’d say, “What plants did you look at and examine?” He’d say, “None. We just looked at diagrams.” And I thought, plants..microscope, kitchen chemistry, botanical garden classes, science center classes, homeschool classes at the zoo….

  • And then finally, two relatively small incidents gave me the final push. First, my older son complained about being bored in class when he got his work done. I said, “You always take a book to read to school. Just read your book.” He said, “We’re not allowed to. If you get your work done early, you have to put your head on your desk and just wait for everyone else to be finished.”
  • A few weeks later, there was a big, school-wide event for which all students spent much time preparing. It was a good event. The theme of this even this particular year was related to Eric Carle. It was late April, as I recall, and I was going through homework with my fifth-grade son. I said, “Social Studies?” And he said, “Oh, we’re done with social studies for the next couple weeks, probably for the year. We’re going to be working on our projects for the program.” Oh, I thought, they’re going to be writing and peer editing and such. Nice!No, he said, they (fifth graders, remember) were going to need the time to CUT OUT TISSUE PAPER CIRCLES FOR THE ERIC CARLE PICTURES.

 

Image result for hungry caterpillar book

 

 

I was done. That was it. We were out. Nothing personal, but these were my last two kids that I would ever be given the opportunity to raise and form, and if I can give them more than this…I have to.

We have to change this up. And just maybe…we can. 

It was not about rushing them home, slamming the door, and shrinking their world, but about blowing it open, throwing out worksheets and textbooks, getting outside, getting dirty. I was privileged. I didn’t have to work at a job, I had no other family responsibilities, I was healthy and had the means..I had no excuses anymore. What was I doing, sending them off to well-intentioned mediocrity while I sat at home doing a bit of work that really didn’t even need to get done? I’d written over twenty books by then. Who cared if wrote more. I didn’t.

It might not be forever, but they were frustrated and felt as if their time was being wasted. They were hesitant mostly about leaving the social setting, but they would stay connected to all those kids through the parish, scouts, sports and other social outlets, so it wasn’t like they’d never see anyone again. In the end, by that spring, they were ready to try a new way of learning and daily life, that the initial horror gave way to openness to the possibility that this ride might not be too bad, after all. Right?

Right?

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I have been hoping to be able to write about the show for weeks, but have been stymied by a few things. First, my brain is so crowded with other matters fighting to be written about, none of them victorious, hence Blog Stalemate.  Secondly, a writing project due in the next couple of weeks takes up whatever active brainwaves I can gather.  Third, by the second episode of this season, I had a clear sense that Better Call Saul is a novel, not a collection of short stories – not even thematically related short stories – and we don’t write reviews of novels until we’ve finished reading them, right?

But tonight’s episode got me thinking somewhat coherently, so here goes:

  • No, it’s not Breaking Bad, but as I wrote last season, it doesn’t suffer at all for it, and Gilligan and Gould have managed to create a fascinating, suspenseful show, all the greater of an achievement since we know that a good many of the characters we see onscreen are going to die in a few years and one of them is going to end up in witness protection managing a Cinnabon.  Doesn’t matter. Somehow, they’ve managed to create a world that engages us.
  • love the leisurely pace of this show. It’s leisurely in unspooling plotlines and leisurely in scene-building.  Scenes go on twice, three times as long as they would on other shows, even your other artsy prestige dramas. One of the things this pace does is give us a chance to see some sustained, excellent acting. Tonight I was particularly struck by Kim and Howard’s walk down the hall – him, absolutely stone faced until they hit the conference room when the he breaks out the smile for the clients, and her nervous glances. And the thing was, Howard’s stone-face wasn’t just generic non-reaction. Given the time the scene took, you had time to watch him and read the level of control he was attempting to exert over the situation through the impassivity.
  • Second was Kim’s scene with the opposing lawyer in the restaurant. Rhea Seahorn has had a lot of time reacting onscreen, and she’s fantastic at it – you get such a real sense of someone listening and processing what she’s being told.
  • What’s intrigued me the past two episodes is how little screentime Bob Odenkirk has had in the program named after his character.  The focus has all been on Kim and Mike, with a bit of Chuck. That’s another reason it’s a challenge to write about, but the basic takeaway is clear, even if the specifics aren’t yet – Jimmy McGill’s actions have consequences for other people’s lives, and here’s what they are.
  • Now, here’s the light that clicked for me tonight – I had been thinking this whole time that the way this was going to play out was “Jimmy gets fed up, something happens with Kim – she dies or just leaves his life – and he becomes Saul because bettercallsaulhe’s sad and disgusted. ” Tonight I thought…wait.  What if, instead it’s, “Kim and Jimmy have discovered this mutual passion for the scam, for manipulating others to get what they want – and get turned on, which is much the same thing…and go into the flamboyant personal injury law thing together. ”    And there’s your season 3, with the inevitable Thing-That-Takes-Kim-Away at the end of that.
  • Pretty interesting…..but after tonight, with Jimmy warbling his siren song Bali Ha’i, and Kim responding in a way, by initiating a scam, not for any gain, but just for the thrill of it, and her hesitation at the kind of dream job (albeit complicated) she’s been going through reams of post-it notes to find…the groundwork seems to being laid.
  • I’m less interested in the Mike story. It doesn’t drive me away, but it doesn’t fascinate me either, as much as I enjoy seeing the characters involved on his end (Tuco, Nacho, etc). I do confess that I’m a bit taken out of Mike’s story by the discontinuity related to his granddaughter’s age – that is, if she’s the age she is no on Saul, she’d be a teenager in Breaking Bad, when she’s the same age as she is in Saul. Call it the Bobby Draper Disease, I suppose.
  • Breaking Bad was about sin. If you want to understand Breaking Bad, read Genesis 1-11, which recounts the Original Sin, rooted in pride, and then how that sin impacts us as individuals, impacts family life, and eventually impacts the wider community. The central relationship of Breaking Bad was between Walter White and Jesse – a perversion of the teacher/mentor -student relationship at every turn, a callous turning of  the “Good Teacher saves the Wayward Student” motif.
  • Better Call Saul seems  to be about identity. Who are we, really? Is who we are innate? Can anyone ever really change? And what is it in life that prompts us turn that innate self for good or ill?
  • But I think I’ll have to read a few more chapters to be sure.

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Many new readers yesterday and today, so welcome.

Whenever I rouse myself to post something like this and get a pop in views,  also get a pop in Facebook friend requests – no offense, but don’t bother asking.  I don’t see Facebook as a means of interacting with everyone, just family, friends and colleagues, and even then in a minimal way. I am certainly not present on Facebook to argue or discuss.  If you want to follow this blog on FB, though, you can. 

I will be posting an exciting sequel that I’m calling “Barrier Methods”  at some point today, perhaps not even until this evening.  It’s a minefield, and I don’t want to fall into popesplaining myself.

  • Finishing off an insanely busy “home” school week, we attended a wonderful short performance of the Alabama Symphony – one of their “Coffee Concerts,” the pieces performed comprising half of the weekend’s evening program: Bach’s Ricecare, arranged by Webern, and Schubert’s Tragic Symphony. 
  • The conductor, Michael Morgan,  gave a very helpful 10-minute introduction, highlighting Webern’s particular approach to Bach and Schubert’s youth, and his positioning between Mozart and Beethoven.
  • I commented to my son that I was probably going to be the second youngest person there, and he the youngest. I wasn’t quite right -there was a scattering of other children and young people with parents as well. But also several retirement-home buses lined up outside.
  • Saturday was a piano competition thing, and then basketball. Not much the rest of the weekend. With one kid at a friend’s and the other sick-ish, there were no movies watched to report on.
  • I’m currently watching Fargo  the series, not the film. I’m midway through the first season, which is very good, building from apparently random grotesqueries and horrors to the slow but steady reveal of the persistence of goodness. And Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman…what a pleasure to watch such a cast, even if they are not having good days.
  • Better Call Saul continues tonight – hooray – and I’ll have a post up about that in the next couple of days as well. I started one last week, but then life got crazy.
  • Last week, I read Greene’s The Quiet American, which is one of the few Greene novels I had still not read.  I liked it quite a bit, although I couldn’t help but read it as allegory and as such, it felt a bit obvious.  But oh the writing. That not-quite-spare, but not-lush Greene way of description and characterization that is always just right. There is a 2 or 3 page scene in which Fowler is seeking a Mr. Chou and ends up in a ramshackle family dwelling, a scene that is a model of descriptive writing well worth study. I’m on it.
  • Researching a planning a summer trip I’m struck by two things: First, the genius of Booking.com is sending you into a panic that everyone else in the world is currently about to book the very last room in the B & B you’re looking at in the middle of nowhere.
  • The genius of AirBnB, on the other hand, is in exploiting the fashionable desire to connect with the individual rather than the corporation, to have uniquely curated experiences with interesting people off the tourist track and then making bank with it. I was looking something up regarding AirBnB policy and ended up on a property owner’s discussion board and learned that the way it works is that once a customer books with AirBnB they (as you know if you’ve done it) have to pay the whole cost up front, upon booking. But the property owner doesn’t get paid until check-in (which makes sense from a process point of view) – but which also means that the company has the customer’s money for perhaps months and is able to do some nice investing during that time. Of course. Because curated authenticity pays!
  • Hey, Happy Chair of St. Peter, guys! 

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