Spring blues

S’s been gone for three days on a sailing regatta with the BHS team. We’re missing her, including Tasha, who’s never quite herself when S’s gone.

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This was the regatta that the BHS sailing team hosted last month here in Eagle Harbor. It was a rare bright day, so I watched for a while from Pritchard Park.

It’s been a cold, rainy spring, the wettest on record. It’s been a challenging time for many reasons, full of wakefulness in the wee hours of the morning. Latest book finished this way: Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

G and P are off to Boston for awhile; we went to a surprise party for them on the 7:05 crossing this morning. When the boat’s almost empty, ferry parties are perfect in some ways–no one has to host, and there’s a clearly-defined end when external forces prompt you to say goodbye to the departing ones.

 

A Look at Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize in non-fiction for this book in 1964. It has likely never been more valuable reading than today.

His definition for anti-intellectualism is “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life” (7), as “intellect in America is resented as a kind of excellence, as a claim to distinction, as a challenge to egalitarianism” (51). Hofstadter reminds us that anti-intellectualism “is founded in the democratic institutions and in the egalitarian sentiments of this country” (407), and should be understandable, while lamentable.

Intellect is distinguished from intelligence–intelligence is universally prized, while intellect is another animal altogether.

Intelligence: –an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range; it is a manipulative, adjustive, unfailingly practical quality

–works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them

–seeks to grasp, re-order, adjust

–will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it

–tied to individuals as well as whole professions

Intellect: –critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind

–examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines

–evaluates evaluations, looks for the meaning of situations as a whole

–not tied to a vocation or profession, but individuals

–has a spontaneous character and inner determination

–has a peculiar poise, which is established by a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas: playfulness and piety

(24-28)

An intellectual views the life of the mind (reading, writing, thinking, conversing) as work done in the service of discovering truth, as a kind of moral imperative. This is what leads Hofstadter to refer to the “piety” of an intellectual’s attitude toward ideas. Then too, he notes that intellectuals as a class “have shown the largest and most consistent concern for the well-being of the classes which lie below…[they have] a passion for justice and order” (29).

At the same time, an intellectual’s mind is marked by a playful curiosity that is “inordinately restless and active…which gives a distinctive cast to its view of truth and its discontent with dogmas” (30). This playfulness can mirror the happy, grave concentration of a child trying to shape modeling clay; “there is no contradiction between play and seriousness” (30). And yet, the intellectual does not ask whether the end product of her thinking is practical, just as the child does not ask whether the end product of her modeling clay session is useful–that is beside the point.

Here I pause for a moment to ask what BHS aims to nurture in students–what aligns most closely with my AP English Literature course, for example?

Students must bring their intelligence to the prompt before them: they must read it quickly, grasp its nature and implications, and begin to rapidly formulate a response. However, students will not score in the higher tiers of the rubric if they do not bring their intellect to bear at this point. Their response must indicate a lively curiosity and ease with ideas–they must say something interesting and insightful about the text, not merely show that they comprehend what the original writer is saying.

Somewhere around the mid-point in the year, almost all of my teaching centers on nurturing my students’ intellect–I tell them to trust themselves, to reach within and find their own response, to bring all of their knowledge and ideas and inklings out on the page and to present them persuasively. To make connections between things large and small, and to make a claim about the meaning of the work as a whole. In this way, the task of an AP timed write is a perfect marriage of intelligence and intellect.

Hofstadter comments on intellectuals often aligning with the left side of the political spectrum, and on the tendency for anti-intellectual sentiments to arise in conjunction with the right–he shows that the progressive point of view is the same mindset of the 16th-century revolutionary Americans: the belief that life can be made better, that poverty and oppression do not have to be endured, that the pursuit of happiness is everyone’s business (44). He also shows why a conservative point of view is likely to be deeply unsettled by this, using John Dewey’s words: “If we once start thinking, no one can guarantee what will be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place” (45).

When we look at some of the strands of settlers of the American colonies, we see that they brought a strong intellectual influence with them; for example, the Puritan settlers “laid the basis of an educational system and…a community morale in matters of study which made New England and the New England mind distinguished in the history of American culture for three centuries. The clergy spread enlightenment as well as religion, fostered science as well as theology, and provided models of personal devotion to things of the mind in tiny villages where such examples might otherwise not have been seen” (61).

And yet the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s created a movement away from intellectualism, a movement in which individual, direct spiritual knowledge was regarded as more true, more pure, and more desireable than study and learning (70). This egalitarian infusion profoundly changed the character of American Protestant strains of religion–I am reminded of Harold Frederic’s 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, which features a Methodist clergyman deeply disturbed by the anti-intellectual bent of his new town in upstate New York.

During the revolutionary ferment, the shapers of our nation also prized learning and the life of the mind; “when the United States began its national existence, the relationship between intellect and power was not a problem. The leaders were the intellectuals” (145).

By contemporary European standards of administration, Washington’s initial criteria for appointments to Federal offices was high. He demanded competence, and he also emphasized both the public repute and the personal integrity of his appointees, in the hope that to name “such men as I conceive would give dignity and lustre to our National Character” would strengthen the new government (169).

“The first truly powerful and widespread impulse to anti-intellectualism in American politics was…the Jacksonian movement. Its distrust of expertise, its dislike for centralization, its desire to uproot the entrenched classes, and its doctrine that important functions were simple enough to be performed by anyone” (156) directly pushed back on the value of educated persons leading civic life in the country–and yet, it is clear that many intellectuals of the day (including Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne) generally went along with the Jacksonian democracy.

For all of my love of the English Romantic poets and the values they espoused, I see these values turned to grotesque and giddy support of Jackson as U.S. president: “Jackson, it was said, had been lucky enough to have escaped the formal training that impaired the ‘vigor and originality of the understanding.’ Here was a man of action, ‘educated in Nature’s school,’ who was ‘artificial in nothing’, who had fortunately ‘escaped the training and dialectics of the schools’; who had a ‘judgement unclouded by the visionary speculations of the academician’–Behold then, the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds…little versed in books, unconnected by science to the tradition of the past, raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour…What policy will he pursue? What wisdom will he bring with him from the forest? What rules of duty will he evolve from the oracles of his own mind?” (159).

We might as well say of Trump: He has been lucky enough to have escaped full literacy, to have been ignorant of biographies, histories, nuanced and reflective books which might have impaired his simplistic understanding of the world and his place in it. Here is a man of impulsive action, educated in business’s school to seize on every loophole and maximize profit without regard for human rights or suffering, a man who has a judgement unclouded by the complex realities revealed by academic knowledge–Behold then, the unlettered man of the people, the nursling of the xenophobic and the bigots…little versed in books, unconnected by science to the tradition of the past, raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour…What previously announced policies will he pursue? What wisdom will he bring with him from Fox News and his circle of inexperienced advisors? What rules of duty will he evolve from the oracles of Bannon’s mind?

Let’s take a closer look at what Trump’s business background means for anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter says, “No doubt there is a certain measure of inherent dissonance between business enterprise and intellectual enterprise: being dedicated to different sets of values, they are bound to conflict” (233). I agree with Hofstadter’s summary of American novelists’ treatment of businessmen characters: they are “almost always depicted as crass, philistine, corrupt, predatory, domineering, reactionary, and amoral” (233). Of course, real life is complex, and by some, business is considered to be a way of life; by others, a way to life, a single side of a many-sided existence (244), as with Andrew Carnegie. Despite the simplification, even unfairness of many novelists’ portrayals, such characterizations serve to warn society of the potential for business dealings to corrupt character. How many of those descriptors fit Trump to a T? No wonder he rang the alarm bells early on for those who read widely.

Returning to history, not until the Progressive Era did the country feel more at ease with intellectuals–and it was the “moral and intellectual requirements of the period” (198) that created a reliance on experts and an acceptance of them.

Scholars like John Dewey were “animated by the heartening sense that the gulf between the world of theory and the world of practice had been finally bridged” (205). At the same time, President Teddy Roosevelt gave voice to a false dichotomy that has long plagued the popular view of intellect when he said “character is far more important than intellect” (208); he spoke as if it is possible to only have one or the other in abundance. Positioning character as an opposite trait to intellect falsely paints the thoughtful, knowledgeable person as someone lacking in conviction, ethical standards, and principles.

As the Progressive Era faded, “the evolution controversy and the Scopes trial greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism” (130).

“When Clarence Darrow said at Scopes’s trial that ‘every child ought to be more intelligent than his parents’, he was raising the specter that frightened the fundamentalists the most. This was precisely what they did not want, if being more intelligent meant that children were meant to abandon parental ideals and desert parental ways” (127). Not put to rest in 1925, this conflict has risen larger than ever with the appointment of Betsy De Vos as Education Secretary. At issue is the very nature and role of education in a democracy.

Hofstadter claims, “ours is the only educational system in the world vital segments of which have fallen into the hands of people who joyfully and militantly proclaim their hostility to intellect” (51).  I would wager that Hofstadter’s words here have never been more true at the national level. At the same time, there are hamlets where intellectualism is acknowledged as a desirable quality of educators, and I live in one.

Hofstadter notes that Americans have expected education to “be practical and pay dividends” (299, from Rush Welter’s 1962 study on Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America).

As the sage-on-the-stage model of education gave way to John Dewey’s student-centered philosophy of education, Hofstadter notes that “there was very little place in Dewey’s schoolroom for the contemplative or bookish child, for whom schooling as a social activity is not a thoroughly satisfactory procedure” (383). I would add that as 21st-century education philosophy has embraced even more group work and project-based learning, one of the unfortunate side-effects is a potential disaffection of intellectual students, who often need quiet thinking time during the process, not only before plunging in with peers who may or may not usefully augment their complex ideas.

Inasmuch as intellectual work is creative work, Hofstadter brings up another salient point worth considering: “The truly creative mind is hardly ever so much alone as when it is trying to be sociable” (426).

A final note on anti-intellectualism as described by Hofstadter:

During the 1930s Europe lost its political and moral authority, and fascism sent refugee artists and scholars fleeing to the United States. The tidal flow of whole schools of art historians, political scientists, and sociologists made the U.S. the intellectual capital of the Western world (414-415).

I feel a tremendous sense of loss as America loses her political and moral authority. I also feel a tremendous sense of hope that the pursuit of truth and enlightenment is worthwhile, and that more than ever, thoughtful people are roused to read and reason and respond.

Further reading: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/11/richard-hofstadters-tradition/377296/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/books/review/06tanenhaus.html

From the book nook

• I just finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, written by the 37-year-old neurosurgeon as he was dying of cancer. His love and respect for both medicine and literature reflect conversations in our house, but the book is based on human connections even more fundamental than the subjects he studied. Like Montaigne, like Beckett, he is driven to identify what matters in life and how to go on in the face of death.

Straightforward in tone, the memoir made me wonder why I’d heard it was hard to read, even heartbreaking. Then I got to the last 50 pages and found the ending pulsing with sharp emotional flashes. It made me want to live better.

• Starting last week, S and I collaborated on a book that I’ve ordered in print. We made blind contour drawings to accompany a section of my late grandmother’s journal about her childhood in 1930s Indianapolis and young adulthood in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. All told, it took about four days, and I’m tickled pink.

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• This new biography is worth reading: Angela Merkel, Europe’s most Influential Leader. It caught my attention at the library last week, partly because I have my eye on Der Spiegel in addition to my usual online news rounds, partly because of Merkel’s humane, welcoming response to the Syrian refugees.

She’s exactly my mother’s age. Passages of note: “when Angela had become Chancellor Merkel, her attention to detail and her obsession with getting the facts right became almost legendary” (42).

Something that is sorely missing here in the U.S.: “that most German ideal of Bildung (education), the ideal that public servants should be intellectuals” (86).

• I’m finding some enlightenment in listening to the audiobook of The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. (Available to read free here.) He’s a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, knows a lot about why authoritarian leaders and followers are the way they are, and intentionally wrote in an accessible, straight-shooting manner.

Another audio book recommendation: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move: Why English Won’t –and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally), read by the author. He advocates translating Shakespeare just enough so that the 10% of the Early Modern English text that is no longer intelligible to us would become clear again. Fascinating stuff.

The Paris Librarian by mystery writer Mark Pryor is a worthy winter break fireside read.

• Tana French’s mystery novel The Trespasser has been out for months and I’ve been saving it just for this break. It didn’t disappoint–she’s still one of the finest novelists working within a defined genre.

Safe

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system” (53).

K avoided tragedy today but not trauma. Between classes a person in the same hallway had an assault rifle, at first concealed in a guitar case. As campus police shouted at everyone to get down and stay still, the person began running toward K’s end of the hall.

The suspect was arrested before anyone was directly threatened, and K was ushered out of the building safely.

As I talked with K this evening, I drew from a book I’ve recently finished: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, published in 2014. (You can read a terrific review here.)

It was lent to me by my colleague BH, and it’s a fascinating investigation into interpersonal neurobiology: “the study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us” (2).

On trauma:“Traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them” (17).

On how trauma affects the imagination: It curtails the ability to let our minds play and demolishes the mental flexibility that is the hallmark of imagination. (17)

Paradoxically, that seems to be one of the very things that can most help in overcoming trauma: as van der Kolk calls it, restructuring our inner maps. He explains, “It’s as if you could go back into the movie of your life and rewrite the crucial scenes. You can direct the role-players to do things they failed to do in the past” (301). Drawing pictures, writing stories, acting it out, recounting, “reexperiencing the past in the present and then reworking it in a safe and supportive ‘container’ can be powerful enough to create new, supplemental memories [that]…do not erase bad memories” (302).

He tells us that we stay traumatized until we can integrate the trauma into our lives and greet new experiences without outsized fear.

As for me, I’m so very glad K and everyone else on campus is safe. This is yet another incident that confirms the urgent need for vast reforms in gun laws. Washington’s attorney general is on the right track.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.  is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass, as well as a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

Lull

We’ve weathered one storm system without too much damage, and now this is the lull before the big storm. Alexander McCall Smith graciously kept his speaking engagement here at the BHS commons this wet and windy afternoon, and it was entirely delightful!

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(Fun connection to my life: He is the grandson of the doctor who founded Hokianga Hospital in Rawene, NZ, G.M. Smith.) His gentle wit, the way he giggles at his own tales, the string of anecdotes from around the world–I could listen to him for a couple of hours, even though in principle I agree with his view that no one should go on about anything for longer than 50 minutes.

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He spoke about his writing process: Wake at 4 a.m. and write for two or three hours, turning out an average of 1,000 words per hour. This is very unusual for a writer, and even more unusual because he very rarely revises. For him, the stories just come out the way  they are meant to be; he taps into a subconscious part of his brain that is constantly examining and questioning the world.

He said he doesn’t hear the characters’ voices, but rather hears rhythms and fits their words to the rhythms.

I’ve a penchant for noir, and McCall Smith doesn’t really write noir. His mysteries are gentle, almost employing the genre as a pretext to examine the humanity and warmth that we are capable of, rather than the dark complexity of, say, Mankell’s world. That being said,  I’m a big fan of McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, and the Isabel Dalhousie Mystery series, set in Edinburgh. Today he told some stories from his 44 Scotland Street series, and I’m intrigued–they’re on my to-read list.

The New York Times reviewed his short story collection recently–I love the way that review ends: “These stories trust in the liberal, humane values that are at the heart of all McCall Smith’s fiction. Can one have too much of that hopefulness? I doubt it.”

McCall Smith’s themes are above all, compassionate.  His books are soothing, even lulling. Though comparatively sweet and therefore seemingly less important than fiction that exposes a grim and splintery world, I would argue that right now, we’ve all had enough of that.

A ‘lull’ can connote a false sense of security, but it can also mean a welcome relief from a storm. Thank you, Alexander McCall Smith.

 

 

Beginnings

First two days of summer vacation: I have time to cleeeeaan!

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And time to go to Seattle! Here we are across from Seattle Central College, where K registered as a Running Start student for this coming school year.

More time for watching the Copa America (Dempseeeyy!) at Plate and Pint, and for going to movies (A Bigger Splash–whoa. We watched this at The Lynwood, where I wasn’t alone in reacting audibly, laughing, gasping, groaning.)

And more time for reading. bookcover-3d-mockup

I finished Lisa Damour’s Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. Notable parts: “People only make changes when they are uncomfortable” (187).

That’s a sentence worth sitting with for some time. One of the main premises of the book is that encouraging someone to change by making them uncomfortable with you doesn’t usually work. As a parent (or as a teacher) the goal is to allow kids to become uncomfortable with themselves.

On a very specific note, the author comments on online grade books “that give parents an easy way to keep daily tabs on their daughters’ assignments” (189); this would be our digital, real-time system here in our school district. Damour says that parents who closely monitor assignments can interfere with teens’ ability to plan for the future and learn from their failures.

In my experience, parents of struggling students feel like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In the interest of aligning with research on adolescent development and supporting positive family relationships, schools should only make periodic progress reports available to students and families.

On another note, I’ll spend several hours of this rainy Saturday fine-tuning a presentation for Monday on teaching gifted students (first time to present to a large group beyond my own school). I’m a little nervous but I’m hitting my stride in knowing what I’m doing.

 

 

 

 

 

Essaying

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A thoughtful gift from a student who remembered Tasha!

Having said goodbye to my seniors last week, today I gave my 1st period ninth graders their final exam, a written response to the question: What is the purpose of literature?

They did not know what the prompt would be ahead of time. Here are some of their thesis statements:

• Literature exists to reflect the variations in the human experience.

• Literature allows us to understand the complexities within ourselves, and in the world around us.

• The purpose of literature is to get people to listen.

• Literature confronts reality and explains it in a way that we can understand.

• Literature is meant to guide us in life, for it informs us, opens our minds to new possibilities, and enables us to change lives.

• The purpose of literature is to help us understand human situations, conflicts, and emotions.

• Literature creates ways for people to see and teach themselves about abnormal situations.

• Literature gives us a history of the world we could never know.

• Literature makes you wonder, think, and explore new ideas.

• Literature lets us take our intelligence and knowledge, and expand it into something greater.

• Literature inspires people to learn and allows many people to cross over from not wanting to be taught something to wanting to learn as much as they can about a topic.

I find myself continually delighted by my students’ perceptiveness and eloquence, and I’m looking forward to the last two days of school because I get to pose three more questions and read three more class sets of responses. (I’m being very careful to stay away from the word ‘essay’, which carries a weightiness and a dread for some students, let alone strict formal rules for what constitutes an Essay.  It’s a shame, really, because the word in the Montaigne-esque sense is what I want–an attempt to honestly and fully answer the question.)

Music, sailing, books

Through two shut doors, I can hear K warming up her voice. Tasha is in my room with me, resting her head on her paws, opening her eyes for a second whenever S hits a computer key louder than usual. S is stretched out on my floor, working on her homework, with Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” playing softly from her laptop.

S has only rarely been home before 6:30 p.m. since mid-March, but sailing is winding down for the season. It’ll be nice to see her more–many weekends the sailors leave for their regatta straight from school on Friday and don’t return until Sunday evening.

2016-05-22 16.52.13S’s on the far left in this lineup of some of the girls on the BHS sailing team. B spent Saturday and Sunday with the team at their last regatta of the year in Anacortes and came home with some pictures.

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A had a piano examination on Sunday, which spurred a terrific conversation between K and A afterwards when he told her about the strange and terrible stage fright he experienced for the first time, sweaty fingers slipping on the keys, a rushing in his ears during the ear training playback.

She reassured him and told him validating things about performing despite the nerves. 

I started a few new books during my quiet weekend. I’ve been making more time to tell my students about what I read for the sheer love of it as well as what I read because it’s informative or necessary.

It turns out I really like reading memoirs by neurotic people. (Running with Scissors, An Unquiet Mind, etc.) Susanna Kaysen’s Cambridge is proving to be a gently humorous, captivating vision of an eight-year-old’s world.

I’m reading another in this sub-genre (but not for long–it’s just a slip of a book): Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf.

 

 

“Your eyes like the stars”

You’re looking at the only student from Bainbridge High School to compete in Washington’s vocal Solo and Ensemble competition. Here she is before going into Bremerton High School’s main auditorium to sing Debussy’s “Nuit d’étoiles” and “Quella Fiamma” by Marcello. Interesting fact about “Nuit d’étoiles”: It was Debussy’s first published work, which he wrote when he was only 18.

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Ahh–there’s the sparkle I love. This is after she sang with such power and beauty that it took my breath away. A rare young full lyric soprano, she’s learned to contour her voice in interesting and compelling ways and to command the stage with her presence.

Her two voice teachers are perfect fits for her and have taught her so much. The times I see K the happiest are after her twice-weekly voice lessons, when she’s gotten praise for what she’s doing well and specific feedback about what to work on.

That’s what I aim for in my teaching practice–though it’s significantly more challenging as a classroom teacher; rather than a full studio of 40 students, I have a full studio of nearly 120.

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This is what one semester’s worth of graded tests and quizzes looks like for five classes. Out of my cupboard and headed for the recycle bin!

In the edges and corners of this very full week, I’ve managed a little reading:

The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (recommended to me by a colleague for use with my Eng 9 support class)–a quick YA read that touches on religious bigotry, homosexuality, censorship, death and loss, and friendship. It’s a book that invites discussion.

Dungeness by Karen Polinsky (my colleague!) This book is part history, part fictional narrative, beautifully designed and intriguingly told. It’s lyrical and profound, rich with resonant symbolism.

The End of December

 

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The Bloedel Reserve held a lantern-lit Solstice walk; the women’s chamber choir K and I sing with stood beneath a giant cedar and sang as the procession crossed the meadow and then again as the procession exited the woods near the manor house. My favorite canon in the solstice songbook P put together is this:

Though my soul may set in darkness

It will rise in perfect light.

I have loved the stars too fondly

To be fearful of the night.

(Music attributed to Joseph Haydn and text from “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams–you can hear a recording here.)

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Christmas Eve day games.

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And Christmas dinner. B’s dad made the wooden bowl holding the centerpiece. S made the individual Beef Wellingtons (out of this world). K made the kolcannon (also really delicious!).

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S’s Havisham-esque bûche de Noël, filled with whipped cream, slivered almonds, Nutella, and marzipan bugs. The best rotting log I’ve ever tasted! Look at these darling marzipan gnomes:2015-12-24 18.06.16

Two nonfiction book recommendations: How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds by John Powell and Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson. I read the first in the waiting room while K was getting her wisdom teeth out on the 22nd  (it was one of her Christmas presents). The second was a present from B and I devoured it in a couple of days–Victorian London is a fascinating subject; many reformers (including one primary figure, Lord Ashley) made gains in areas that still merit attention: the treatment of the mentally ill, the vast difference in living quarters and standards between the wealthy and the poor, overcoming political inertia to alleviate the suffering of human beings.