Book Read: The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersThe Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

At the time of this writing, George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president of the United States, has just been laid to rest. News coverage of his passing began, fittingly, with tributes, interviews, and video and audio clips that shed a positive light on his career and presidency. As the days of mourning passed, even before Mr. Bush’s remains were brought to his final resting place, news outlets began to air stories and commentary that shed light on some of the more questionable aspects of his career, especially his presidency. Being close to finishing The Good Neighbor, Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, I found myself comparing Mr. King’s treatment of his subject and the news coverage of George H.W. Bush’s memorial events.

Fred Rogers is a national hero. A third generation of American children now has access to his original programs and to new programs based on the characters he created. My children watched “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” in the 1980s; I watched it with them more than a few times. The older child married a distant relative of Fred Rogers, so two of my grandchildren are also distant relatives. One of the few television programs my four-year-old granddaughter watches is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Maxwell King’s biography, The Good Neighbor, does justice to the person, personality, and legacy of Fred Rogers. It borders on hagiography, but does not cross the frontier. As Fred Rogers himself would acknowledge, he was a complex, imperfect individual. Like George H.W. Bush, Fred Rogers has his detractors, and The Good Neighbor discusses some of the features of Fred Rogers’s work that his detractors find troubling. It doesn’t minimize or gloss over those features, but it doesn’t dwell on them.

The Good Neighbor is rich with stories that explore the private life of Fred Rogers, beginning with his childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The amount of detail in those stories is substantial but not overwhelming. Some of those details are surprising, but I will leave it to readers to discover those surprises for themselves. Maxwell King describes Fred Rogers’s family, friends, and associates, and his relationships with them, with candor, grace, and generosity.

Given the time of year in which I am writing this, The Good Neighbor would be a good gift for anyone who enjoys biographies and who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century. It is an enjoyable read and well worth the time invested in that effort.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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Book Read: Titans

TitansTitans by Armond Boudreaux

Andy Walsh’s book Faith Across the Multiverse carries this dedication: “To Ronnie Simon, who introduced me to X-Men comics in the 7th grade and changed my life.” Unlike Andy’s, my life is largely untouched by comics. I knew about comics when I was growing up, but I didn’t read or collect them. I can’t explain why except that I don’t recall seeing them in the stores I was likely to visit as a child. As I grew into into adulthood I probably adopted the attitude that comic books are for children. Andy’s book, and now Armond Boudreaux’s Titans, suggest that attitude might be shortsighted.

Knowing as little as I do about comic books I can’t really review Titans. It is an engaging book, but readers will benefit from a knowledge of superhero stories. Some chapters, especially the chapters on Marvel’s Civil War, are dense with references to characters and their actions. Others focus more on the conflicts that the characters face and the parallels in contemporary America. What is clear in all chapters is that superheroes are complex and often conflicted characters. What’s also clear in Boudreaux’s consideration of these characters is that these complexities and conflicts have parallels in real people in our time.

Even for someone who is comics- and superhero-illiterate, getting to the afterword on page 151 is worth the effort. With its subtitle “Where Do We Go from Here,” and section headings such as “What It Means to Be Reasonable,” it deserves to be read more than once. Karl Popper’s definition of rationalism, presented on page 151, is an important contribution to the discussion.

Titans is published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in Eugene, Oregon under their Cascade Books imprint. Wipf and Stock publishes a diverse list of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and academic titles. I have enjoyed Daniel Taylor’s Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (Slant Books) and Ragan Sutterfield’s Cultivating Reality (Cascade Books) from Wipf and Stock. Cultivating Reality in particular strikes me as a book that mainstream publishers might overlook.

If you dabble in comics, or if you are the first in line when a new Marvel Comics print issue or movie is released, consider reading Titans.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat

Why Is The Catcher in the Rye a Classic?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was recently ranked thirtieth out of one hundred books featured in the PBS series “The Great American Read.” It is one of the many books included in the PBS list that I had not read prior to the airing of the series, so I added it to my list. It wasn’t long before I began to understand why it was controversial and even banned by some authorities when it was first published, but in a world where a book entitled Swearing Is Good for You exists, the language and sexual references of Catcher in the Rye seem tame.

catcher_in_the_rye_cover

Having satisfied my curiosity about why The Catcher in the Rye was controversial, I wonder why it is considered a classic and why it would make it onto the PBS list. I have my thoughts, but rather than share them (read: bore readers with them), I thought I would ask anyone who happens to stumble on this post. What makes The Catcher in the Rye a classic?

You would make my day, my week, and possibly my month if you would take two minutes to leave a brief comment here with your thoughts.

Thank you for stopping by!

Pat

Cleaning Up Halloween

Is there a Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge character associated with Halloween? If there is, I am about to channel that character.

Halloween is a low-risk holiday that can be fun for so many people and for so many reasons. Creativity in costume design is the rule of the day. Kids get to dress up, pretend to be someone or something else, and ask perfect strangers for treats. Adults sometimes get in on the act, too. There are parties, games, parades, contests, and less of the sense associated with other holidays that everything has to be perfect.

Cleaning up after Halloween can be stress free, unless you spend lots of money and hours decorating your house. Yes, there may be some leftover candy if your neighborhood doesn’t see many trick-or-treaters—ours doesn’t—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We bought three bags of candy and we gave out about twelve pieces, so we have lots of leftovers. But we may need to give more thought to cleaning up Halloween.

pumpkin_november_2018

The morning after Halloween I had an errand to run on foot and what I saw in my travels got me thinking about the holiday in a different way. It started when I saw some neighbors putting their pumpkins into a plastic garbage bag. The pumpkins probably weighed several pounds each. Multiply that by the number of households in our neighborhood that had pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns on their front steps, and that’s a lot of organic matter that will end up in a landfill and that will have little chance of nourishing the soil. That’s not to mention the fuel that will be spent collecting them and hauling them to the landfill. In another neighborhood there might be enough squirrels and other pumpkin-eating creatures to provide a more environmentally friendly solution. If I had been less preoccupied I might also have taken the pumpkins to my compost pile. Shame on me for not thinking of that.

candy_wrapper_November_2018

Along my brief walk I also spotted plastic candy wrappers. Our neighborhood is pretty clean and litter free, so an occasional piece of trash doesn’t send me into a rage. But plastic is the demon substance of 2018, with good reason. Single-use plastic items, such as candy wrappers, the bags in which the candy is sold, and the bigger bags in which the bags of candy are hauled home from the store, account for so much waste that the state of New Jersey is looking to ban some of them. I picked up a few candy wrappers, but they will end up in the landfill with the pumpkins. Others will end up in municipal compost piles with the leaves and lawn clippings. Some may get washed into the storm drains and end up in the Passaic River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, where they may become hazards for sea creatures. The wrappers and bags can probably be recycled but the value of the resources required to clean them and gather them for recycling is probably several times greater than the value of the recycled plastic itself. That’s when there are markets for recyclable plastic, and some of those markets don’t exist or have shrunk dramatically.

lawn_decorations_November_2018

Finally there are decorations. Unless your house and several of your neighbors’ houses are decorated and lit up for Halloween, trick-or-treaters tend to skip your block. Durable decorations like these inflatable characters can be used year after year. (They do require electricity to stay inflated.) Much of what is sold for Halloween decoration consists of cheaply made plastic items that are designed to be used once or a few times then discarded. Think of the spider webs, skeletons, and gravestones that you see in the yards in your neighborhood. How many of them will end up in a landfill in a few days?

Where is this discussion headed? Not toward a proposal for a ban on Halloween. If Halloween celebrations were to cease, there would be a significant economic impact involving candy manufacturers and retailers, manufacturers and retailers of costumes and decorations, and the transport and logistics companies that get all of it from the manufacturers to the retailers and on to the consumers. The benefit for the environment might be negligible; little would arise from such a ban to improve the chances of avoiding a major climate catastrophe. The same might be said for a ban on plastic drinking straws, plastic grocery bags, and polystyrene foam take-out food containers when examined as a single isolated measure.

Still, if individuals are to have any positive impact on the environment and the climate, we need to pay closer attention to the complete life cycle of each product that we purchase and consume. What resources are used to make the product? What resources are used to get the product to us? What happens to the product when we’re done with it? What waste is generated along the way, and where does that waste go?

You may do some of your most creative thinking around Halloween. What ways can you think of to clean up the holiday, make less use of stuff that we send to the landfill a few days afterward, and still keep the fun in?

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Swearing Is Good for You

Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad LanguageSwearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language by Emma Byrne

Some months ago I borrowed a copy of a contemporary novel from the local library. The story had been made into a movie, but by the time I decided it might be worth seeing it had already ended its run in the theaters. I decided to read the book. I couldn’t get past the first page. I didn’t really make it past the first sentence. It contained a word that is still censored in broadcast media and print news sources but that is common in social media. So I closed the book and returned it to the library.

I could have gotten past the profanity, and in hindsight it might have been a good book to read in spite of that feature. I have recently read many other things that are laced with profanity, including The Hate U Give. The next book up in my to-read list is The Catcher in the Rye.

About the same time as I decided not to read the novel mentioned in the first paragraph, I became aware of Emma Byrne’s Swearing Is Good for You. It is quite readable and enjoyable. I have no grounds on which to question the validity of the research cited therein and I won’t attempt to do so, but I have concerns and Byrne gets to them early on.

On page 5 she writes, “Is this book simply an attempt to justify rudeness and aggression? Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want profanity to become commonplace; swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact in order to be effective.” Profanity is already commonplace in social media, in subscription-based entertainment, and in everyday conversation in some circles. That ship has sailed, and in some respects this book shovels coal into the boiler.

Dr. Byrne makes the point that swearing can act as a pressure-release valve, helping the user avoid violence in circumstances where anger and frustration have created the urge to act out. That is a worthy goal for any ethically sound behavior, but I wonder if swearing is still up to the task given how freely it is used. Efforts to restore civility to public speech and private conversation might be just as effective in this age of extreme polarization and aggression.

Dr. Byrne also argues that swearing can help new employees fit in, especially where in situations where they might struggle for acceptance by their coworkers because of gender bias. I can’t argue with this. In my industry gender equality is well established; no new employee should ever struggle for acceptance because of gender bias. My industry may be exceptional in that regard.

Neither can I argue against Dr. Byrne’s point that swearing can help alleviate physical or emotional pain. More on this in a bit.

With regard to gender and swearing, Dr. Byrne confronts efforts by one James V. O’Connor, a writer and motivational speaker who went on a crusade to rid the workplace of foul language. Mr. O’Connor observed this about women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1950s and 1960s: “[T]hey had to be one of the guys; they had to act like men, dress like men, wear suits and everything else, and try to talk tough, and they thought this had to include swearing.” (p. 100) Dr. Byrne responds with this question: “Is this what the fight against swearing comes down to? A nostalgia for a simpler, happier time? There are so many questions that I want to ask him about the points he’s just made, but his courteous certainty makes me lose my nerve. I thank him, wish him all the best, and scurry back to the twenty-first century, where language might be casual but at least I get to wear trousers if I want to.” That’s an interesting notion, and it’s not difficult to find people who yearn for simpler, happier times. But it’s not necessarily what an objection to swearing is about.

I question the need for swearing on the merits. Why do we need to swear? Why can’t we control the urge to swear as we would control the urge to hit other people when we are angry, or the urge to get in a car when we’re drunk and our reasoning faculties are compromised? We control the urge to steal from others, to cheat on our taxes, and to cheat on our spouses. Can’t we exercise some restraint in our speech as well, even when swearing might relieve momentary pain or anger?

Consider, also, what great resources we have to use in the place of foul language. The English language is so rich in vocabulary, borrowed from many other languages. Metaphors for expressing anger, frustration, sorrow, and pain have filled our literature for centuries. Surely we can find and make use of them with a little effort.

I challenge readers to think, too, of the countless hours of thoughtful broadcast-medium programming that are filled with content that cannot, because of government regulations, include certain words. We’ve created mechanisms for keeping swearing out of that environment. Even sports broadcasting must be free from foul language. Why must it be a large and growing part of everyday speech in other environments, especially social media, where it seems to be a means of establishing or maintaining credibility with certain audiences? I would submit that it does not need to be.

This is not an argument for greater censorship of speech, except perhaps for self-censorship. Free speech is a pillar of a free society. Nor is this an attempt to denigrate Dr. Byrne or run down her thoughtful, well-researched book. It is an attempt to say that we for whom English is a first language have adopted swearing as a normal and even normative part of our communication. To our harm. We can do better than simply accepting that.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Faith Across the Multiverse

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern ScienceFaith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science by Andrew S Walsh

In the early 1980s my wife and I were living in dairy farm country in upstate New York. One evening in late winter my wife and I were driving home from an engagement when a bright, fiery object streaked across the sky in front of us and landed in a nearby field. We stopped to investigate, and despite our trepidation we left the safety of our car and ventured into the field. The object turned out to be a twelve-foot-long, cigar-shaped metal craft of some sort. The ground and winter-killed vegetation around it were scorched, but the craft was intact and undamaged. A small hatch had opened, revealing a compartment that held a small child. The child was visibly upset, and smelled of a diaper that needed changing, but was not injured in any way.

We took the child to the local hospital where we learned the child was a boy. The police were summoned, and they investigated as well as they could given the astonishing circumstances of the child’s arrival. Unsurprisingly, no parents came forward to claim the child. We asked if it would be possible for us to adopt him, as we had already been considering starting a family prior to this incident. The adoption was arranged, and we raised the boy as our son, giving him the name Andy.

Andy Walsh can leap tall concepts in a single bound as he fights for truth, justice, and better communication between the sciences in which he was educated and the faith in which he was raised. I am astonished at his knowledge of so many disciplines, of popular culture, and of Scripture.

Because it is written by my son, you shouldn’t take my word for the quality of this book. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (you don’t need to read this review twice, though). Visit the Web page or Facebook page for more reviews and related information, including news about a discussion group. Then buy this book, and ask your local library to acquire it, and rave about it to your family and friends. You won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Frustration, Patience, Hope, Success

Thank you for putting up with so many book reviews in this blog. Now it’s time to return to the backyard and rejoice in a good year of yard work and gardening.

Frustration

In 2017 we had a bad infestation of grubs. The first creature to discover the infestation was the resident skunk. He excavated large sections of the front and back lawns over the course of several nights in his quest for his next meal. When the leaves began to fall on the lawns and raking was required, the rake easily disturbed chunks of the remaining lawn as if they were fragments of a shag carpet.

The previous owner of our house probably had the lawn sprayed for grubs and other insect pests. We were contacted in the spring of our first year in the house by the company that had the contract for the spraying. Petrochemical pesticides have a tendency to kill beneficial insects as well as pests, so our weapon of choice for treating grubs is milky spore. I had begun application of the milky spore last autumn, so it is frustrating to see that the grubs had returned this year. It is also frustrating to see the repeat of a serious weed infestation this year.

red_pepper
One of the many red bell peppers that will be ready to pick soon.

Patience

Restoring health to any ecosystem takes time. According to recent article about the New Jersey Meadowlands, cleanup efforts began in the early 1970s. They continue to this day and must continue for many more years, but they have yielded remarkable results. A suburban yard is not an ecosystem, certainly not on the scale of the Meadowlands, but it can include enough biodiversity to yield observable results for a cleanup effort.

Weeds present a different challenge. The weapons of choice are my hands, used to pull the weeds, and corn gluten, which retards seed germination. Two applications of corn gluten did little to stop the appearance of crabgrass this year, but maybe I need to do a better job of timing the applications so that I will catch the peak weed germination times. It’s also clear that some sections of lawn might need to be dug up and reseeded, but timing is important there because this year’s weeds have already seeded the ground for next year’s crop.

Hope

Milky spore requires multiple applications over a period of two to three years to be effective. So even though it’s disappointing, it isn’t surprising that there are still grubs attacking our lawn this year. I am encouraged that some of the grubs I am finding this year are showing signs of milky spore disease, which means that there won’t mature into adult beetles next summer and lay new eggs for a new infestation.

The best hope for reducing weed infestations might lie in replacing more of the lawn with garden. Since moving into this home we’ve replaced about one hundred square feet of lawn with a vegetable garden. On the other side of the backyard about twenty square feet is occupied by pollinator-friendly perennials: raspberries, purple coneflowers, milkweed, and black-eyed Susans.

The raspberries in particular are popular with bumblebees, honeybees, and even wasps, and we’ve seen skipper butterflies, black and tiger swallowtail butterflies, and a monarch or two on the raspberries and other perennials. This year we also observed a clouded sulphur butterfly for the first time, and a goldfinch checked out the coneflowers one evening while we were enjoying dinner on the deck. Just below the deck a short stone wall encloses a new patch of blueberries and strawberries.

new_garden
Our new strawberry and blueberry patch. Yes, the lawn needs help; we’re working on that.

In terms of overall biodiversity there are encouraging signs. The first year we planted a vegetable garden we saw few earthworms. Now they appear regularly whenever we disturb the soil. We see lots of fireflies throughout the summer; fireflies are often victims of the sprays used to eliminate insect pests. As I said earlier, a single suburban yard is not an ecosystem, but these signs and sightings give us some hope that our efforts are paying off on a small scale.

Success

For the fourth summer now we have enjoyed a fine harvest from our small vegetable garden. In May and June we had fresh salad greens almost whenever we wanted. The brandywine, Juliette, and grape tomato vines have provided ingredients for sauce, Greek salads, tossed salads, and caprese since early August. We’ve enjoyed some green beans, lots of basil, some beautiful red bell peppers, and even a few yellow onions and green onions. The freezer is full of garden produce that we will be enjoying well into winter. We might even have some late-season broccoli in a few weeks.

This is an overly long post. Thank you for your patience if you’ve read this far. We are very grateful for the opportunity to exercise stewardship over a small corner of the natural world. We are very grateful for the visual pleasure and small amount of food it provides us. We are very grateful that we’ve been able to learn and put into practice a few steps for restoring the health of the soil and the environment in general. God is very good to us.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Basin and Range

Basin and RangeBasin and Range by John McPhee

The highway known as U.S. Interstate 95 passes through a rock formation known as the Palisades as it approaches the George Washington Bridge from the New Jersey side. On a recent trip to Flushing, Queens, the driver of the vehicle in which I was a passenger remarked that John McPhee wrote a book, Basin and Range, about this and many other rock formations traversed by Interstate 80 (I-80). (As it happens, I-80 begins its westward journey in Teaneck, New Jersey, a couple of miles west of the Palisades, but that’s a minor quibble.)

John McPhee, writing about I-80 and geology? I had no idea. No one, at least no one who lives in the New York Metropolitan region, can claim to be literate without some exposure to John McPhee. Mine has been minimal at best to this point: I’ve read some short stories, but none of McPhee’s nonfiction. I’ve since come to learn that John McPhee is regarded as a pioneer of creative nonfiction, also known as literary nonfiction.

Basin and Range is a great example of creative nonfiction. It is a gift to the field of geology and to laypersons such as I who could stand to know more about it but who slept through those lectures in high school science classes. The genius of this book is that it tells the story of geology by telling stories about geologists and how they go about their work. To get those stories McPhee traveled and worked alongside several geologists, often performing work that graduate assistants might perform during field work seasons. We find McPhee and his subject standing just feet from a congested highway in Paterson, New Jersey or hiking into some remote location in Nevada to expose, excavate, collect, and sometimes even taste rock samples.

The term “basin and range” refers to series of parallel mountain ranges and intervening valleys. The mountains of the Eastern United States include some basin-and-range groupings, such as the First and Second Watchung mountains of New Jersey. These and the Palisades are places that I know, places that I’ve visited, so it is fun to read about them in this context. John McPhee goes into detail in describing the processes by which they were formed, and what the landscape would have looked like while they were being formed. He describes theories of continental drift early in the book; later he gives a history of the science of plate tectonics. Again, McPhee uses the stories of the scientists who put forth their theories and pioneered the disciplines within geology. We learn, for example, of a U.S. Navy officer who brought a device known as a fathometer along during his deployment on an attack transport vessel during World War II. The officer, Harry Hess, used this device to map the seafloor as he traveled and even as he participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

There is plenty of humor in the real-life adventures that McPhee experienced while researching and writing Basin and Range. There is also a funny passage about a dream that he had about a fire at Nasser Aftab’s House of Carpets, a real store in Paramus, New Jersey. The fire, which is fictional, destroyed the store. At the same time an incident in the adjoining ice cream factory created a scene where molten carpet fabric, ash, and liquified ice cream combined in much the same way that phenomena within and beneath the earth’s crust combined to create a specific set of geological features.

I have some work to do to explore more of McPhee’s nonfiction, and for that matter his fiction, but I suspect it will be worth the effort when I do.

Thank you for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Believe Me

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpBelieve Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea

At the time of this writing one of the more popular books on the Trump administration is yet to be published: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. From what I’ve heard and read about Fear, it describes the current state of affairs in the White House. It describes where we are now. Believe Me by John Fea describes how we got here: how Donald Trump was able to convince millions of evangelical Christians to vote for him.

Believe Me is well written and well documented, with extensive endnotes and an index. It will take a competent reader only a couple of hours to read, although it would also be worth the time to investigate some of the references as well. It should be read critically and thoughtfully.

There is little in the way of prescription. Many of us who call ourselves evangelicals and who did not vote for Donald Trump are eager for help in understanding where we go from here. John Fea does not provide much help, but that’s not a bad thing. He provides enough references for readers to find some of those answers themselves.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Where Were You When the White House Melted Down?

More likely than not the United States will survive the flames of crisis and chaos fanned by the publication of an anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times and by Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House. You may be glued to social media, cable news, or radio to hear the latest spin on these events. In a few days they will be pushed out of the news cycle just as they pushed the Kavanaugh hearings from the top of the news. Meanwhile, you may want to be physically and mentally present somewhere other than in front of a news feed. Here are a few places you may want or need to be. Feel free to suggest others.

  • Home sharing a meal with your loved ones
  • At your place of work giving one hundred percent to the most mundane tasks
  • In your garden, or at the produce market supporting local farmers
  • At the beach picking up plastic trash
  • At a hospital or nursing home visiting a relative or friend
  • In the woods or a neighborhood park listening to the birds and looking for butterflies
  • At your place of worship or community involvement joining in the proceedings with focused attention

Spending time in any of these places won’t douse the flames of crisis and chaos, but it may help you see that there are people who need you (or whom you might need) to help keep things in perspective, that there is work to be done, that there is a world that needs our care and attention.

Forest scene
Photo by Jens Cederskjold [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks for stopping by!

Pat