L.Frank Baum, Education And Aunt Jane’s Nieces

L.Frank Baum, the famous writer of many children’s books, had an undisguised distaste and wariness for formal education.  He satirized formal education in the character of the Highly Magnified Wogglebug, who, through a mix-up in a science experiment, became human size(“highly magnified”) with an air of superiority.  The Wogglebug thinks crude puns proof of a higher intelligence and mimics the attitudes of the professors whom he watched.  He establishes the Wogglebug College where “scholars” are given magic pills to swallow that are full of information for the next exam.  But the Wogglebug and his arrogance is out of place in Baum’s world where people usually don’t brag about their accomplishments but demonstrate them through action.  Baum is more concerned with the Latin root of education,”educare”, “to draw out”, rather than the formal curriculum that originated with the ancient Greeks.

Baum placed great emphasis on moral and social education as opposed to formal education.  It is significant that in Aunt Jane’s Nieces there is almost no mention of college or formal education.  To Baum, character development is the only meaningful kind of education.  He makes this clear through the personage of Uncle John in Aunt Jane’s Nieces on Vacation(The girls have proposed starting their own newspaper in Millville, which causes Arthur Weldon, Louise’s fiancee, to condemn the venture as madness.):  “I’m educating my girls to be energetic and self-reliant.  I want to bring out and develop every spark of latent ability there is in them.  Whether the Millville Tribune succeeds or fails is not important;  it will… tax their best resources of intellect and business ability…”  For Baum, intellect is sharpened through challenging experiences instead of studying books.  Baum was a doer and this spirit permeates all ten of the Aunt Jane’s Nieces volumes.

Baum believed that only through hard work, persistence and true friendship could an individual’s mental life unfold.   Using Uncle John as a kindly mentor, he subjects the nieces to difficult obstacles they need to overcome.  The nieces are exposed to violence, dissipation, rampant corruption, condescension and abduction, but they always persevere.  Despite being competitors for an estate, they learn to appreciate each others strengths and help each other to deal with their weaknesses.  The last volume in the series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces in the Red Cross, subject them to their toughest test:  the agonies of war.  This dark book, stark in its description of war casualties, shows the nieces as caring, active participants as they heal the wounded and deal with the psychological trauma of war.  But they have been well-trained by their teacher, Life, and are able to bring joy and comfort when needed, and so are educated in the highest sense of the term.   

Cello Player

                                                          CELLO PLAYER

A diffuse glow appears on the orchestra pit.

The music begins softly;  a faint, lilting melody rises…

Light slowly illuminates a tall girl playing the cello.

 

She plays the cello in total harmony.

Her body rhythm flows smoothly through brown hair and slim arms,

blending beautifully with the cello and escaping through the strings.

 

While she plays, my heart swings along her bow.

Sighing, the strings gently free the melody.

 

Hearing notes dance and leap,

tonal patterns bursting into stars,

her brown eyes ignite the music into a cosmic cry…

 

The chords slowly drift into empty space.

Her cello idles lazily at her shoulder.

She reduces the room to stillness.

 

So, too, I am reminded of my own rhythm.

In time, my strings will grow slack.

And I, too, must approach silence.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts About Scrapbooks, The New Year And Writing

My baby scrapbook, published by Richard G. Krueger, Inc. and designed by Ditzy in 1946. It was a gift from my godparents Aunt Jackie and Uncle Ralph.

My baby scrapbook, published by Richard G. Krueger, Inc. and designed by Ditzy in 1946. It was a gift from my godparents Aunt Jackie and Uncle Ralph.  At that time my name was “Rodger” Weiss, but was soon changed to Robert Weiss.

“Life may be a stage, but I wish I didn’t have a reserved seat!”–Uncle John from Aunt Jane’s Nieces by L. Frank Baum

Usually in the month of January I peruse my many scrapbooks.  I begin by looking at my baby scrapbook with its satin sheen cover and remarks about me by my mother, Twyla.  It takes me back to my childhood days of the 1950s, when people left their doors open, kids had vacant lots and piles of sand to play in, and lemonade stands were plentiful with lemonade one cent a cup.

However, time goes on and memories begin to fade as new memories take their place.  The almost unbearable slowness of  early childhood is exchanged for the almost unbearable speed of late adulthood.  And New Year follows New Year.  I think of lines by Robert Clairmont from Forever X:

When wrinkles cut your brow

And love goes gaily by,

Sing:  Young, old, tiny, tall,

Whatever happens, happens to all

When we leave this Odd Old Ball.

Indeed, this earth truly is an “odd old ball”.  Events follow events, triggering other events.

Like any mathematical curve, life has points that mark a change of direction.  Some of these points are obvious:  marriage, the birth of children, the loss of a beloved family member.  However, other points are not so obvious and I must admit that I envy Truman Burbank for he is able to “rewind” his life from the time he escaped his set up world to his birth.  Thus, he can see how certain events changed his thinking and further actions.  I am not so fortunate.  And when I look through old scrapbooks only pieces of experiences remain, so I have to reflect and guess at events that might have caused my life to shift dramatically.  Such critical points mark the essence of theater, novels and other writings where an author can juggle them and insert them where s/he wills.  Perhaps, that sense of power and completeness is what attracts us to literature.  The writer plays God just as Christoff does with Truman.  However, the individual must depend on his/her own wavering memories to try to understand the meaning of his/her life.

Crystal Spirit

 

CRYSTAL SPIRIT

 

Blue eyes hide a myriad of worlds.                                                                                                                                                                  Indian artifacts flow from nimble hands.                                                                                                                                                     Proud spirits of ancient chiefs keep watch.

She is a lady:  tall, noble, elegant.                                                                                                                                                                 She loves words, the magic of their sounds.                                                                                                                                             Colors are her joy:  red, blue, green…

A crystal of light shimmers                                                                                                                                                                         and traverses space on a cloud of thought.

 

 

“Where’s The Moon? I Don’t See The Moon!” Or, Mathematics To The Rescue

I was dragging myself up the stairs of Founders Hall.  The cement steps and barren walls reflected the darkness of the time ahead.  For, my next class was Speech Communication with Professor B.  I was not doing well in the course.  As my current lady would say:  “You’re going down, down, down!”  And so I was.  But perhaps, I should tell you something about Miss B and how I got into trouble.

Miss B was a tall, wiry lady with sharp, unforgiving eyes and a total lack of manners.  We didn’t get along from the start.  I remember her saying with a sarcastic tone:  “Look at that!  A little boy wearing his tennies!”  She was frank, if nothing else.  And when I tried to act out a favorite childhood verse, she would yell out:  “Where’s the moon?  I don’t see the moon!”  At the time, that comment stunned and hurt me, because I was quite fond of the verse I was interpreting.  Later, Professor B told me that the only thing that could save me was the final, which was a monologue of at least ten minutes.  I thought and thought about possible selections.  I knew if I picked something well-known I could be compared with the greatest and I’d come up way short.  Fortunately, at that time, I was reading some wonderful mathematical stories from Clifton Fadiman’s Fantasia Mathematica.  Bruce Elliot’s story, “The Last Magician” really appealed to me.  The main character was an old man who was fond of a magician’s helper and commits murder because of the cruel way the magician treats her when a futurist society has condemned her to death for misceganation(She was Martian and became pregnant by the magician from Earth).  So, the story had intrigue, action build-up and the main character was an old man.  And, growing up next door to my Dad’s parents, I knew my Grandpa Johnny quite well, so I thought I could act out the part with some accuracy.  Also, the story dealt with the magician trying to escape from a supposedly real Klein bottle

Attempt to picture a Klein bottle, a three dimensional surface that has only one side, which is impossible.

An attempt at constructing a Klein bottle, a three dimensional surface that has only one side, which is impossible.

and was mathematical in nature, so probably few, if any, people had seen it performed.  When I thought about all the advantages, I thought it would be an excellent choice for a monologue.  I would need to trim some parts, though.

Finally, the long-awaited day arrived.  Everyone was busy rehearsing their lines and trying to get into character.  Wouldn’t you know it?  I was the first person Miss B called on.  I knew if I wanted to do well, I was going to have to become an old man in every way.  I tried hard to imagine my Grandpa Johnny and become him.  I tried to walk with difficulty, struggle to get some of my words out and look confused.  And as I reached the podium, the words did come out.  “The harder he worked the worse he treated Aydah…  It seemed as if every time I turned around I’d find her hiding in some corner, crying… I knew she would have to die.  That was why I had pressed the button that switched the bottles the first time, before she ever did…  I guess I must be getting old;  lately I’ve taken to wondering about King Solomon.  He knew so much, I wonder if he knew about Klein bottles…”  Then, a loud applause.

“Well, Bob just disappeared!  A feeble old man replaced him!”  Professor B’s eyes sparkled with admiration and respect.   Mathematics had come to the rescue.

 

 

A Closer Look At A Chinese Dream, Part 1.

China has long had a great penchant and respect for literature in all its guises.  Beginning with the Book of Songs, that dates between 800-600 B.C., Chinese literature has blossomed throughout the passing dynasties.  And Chinese scholars made every effort to preserve the literature of each period.  The knowledge of literature and Chinese philosophy became a requirement for even the most median civil service job.  Candidates were also judged on their calligraphy.  In addition, they were expected to write an essay of note.  Those individuals that passed the examinations gained respect even if they came from the most humble villages.

Confucius was the philosopher that established moral and behavioral standards for Chinese life for centuries to come.  His life is described by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the Grand Historian of China, whose writings have been translated by Burton Watson in an excellent 2 vol. edition, published by Columbia University Press.  According to Ch’ien, Confucius lived from 551-479 B.C.  Thus, he was one of the earliest seminal religious and philosophical thinkers.  Unlike other religious doctrines, Confucianism was humanist, emphasizing human relationships and not immortality or mystical spirits.  Perhaps, Confucius’s most famous statement is “the measure of man is man”. How curious that the Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras, says the same thing.  But what was unique in Confucius was that he didn’t distinguish between politics and ethics.  As Lin Yutang states in his book, The Wisdom of Confucius, “… Confucianism stood for a rationalized social order through the ethical approach, based on personal cultivation.  It aimed at political order by laying the basis for it in a moral order and it sought political harmony by trying to achieve the moral harmony in man himself.”  Confucius was quite concerned with filial piety and proper ritual to accompany certain rites and ceremonies.  Music was important, and calm, harmonious music reflected the calm, harmonious nature of man and the political state in which he/she lived.  In China, Confucianism held sway for over 2500 years and still has its adherents, while adjusting to other cultural trends.

If you plan to read Chinese literature, however, and you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese culture, you will need more than an understanding of Confucianism to see you through.  I recommend that you purchase a book on Chinese mythology(especially critical for Wu Cheng-en’s long Buddhist allegory, The Journey to the West), a book on Chinese history such as the recent China:  A History by John Keay, and the indispensible guide to Chinese thinking, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan.  With the proper guides at your disposal, you should be ready for a preliminary investigation into Chinese literature.

The Chinese wrote in every possible genre, while truly excelling in poetry, which reached its peak during the T’ang Dynasty(618 A.D.-906 A.D.).  But I would like to concentrate on the novel.  To start with, there are six novels that the Chinese consider classics.  They are:  The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Lo Kuan-chung(ca.  1330-1400), The Water Margin by Lo Kuan-chung(authorship is still a matter of debate), Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en(ca.  1506-1582), Chin P’ing Mei author unknown(probably because of its many pornographic passages), The Scholars by Wu Ching-tzu(1701-1754) and the most famous Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Tsueh-ch’in(1715-1763).

Note:  For those readers who want to learn more about the Chinese classic novels, they can do no better than to read C.T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel.

What I would like to do is focus on the last novel which I will call The Story of the Stone after David Hawkes.  In it we see the rise and fall of the Jia family and the illumination of various characters as they play their different roles in a creative tapestry. We will take a closer look at this special stone and understand better the separation and intermingling of two different worlds.

 

“Have You Not Done Tormenting Me With Your Accursed Time!”–Pozzo, From Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

Bert Lahr As Estragon In Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

Bert Lahr as Estragon In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

In Act 2 of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, the previously conceited and self-assured Pozzo has lost the watch that regulated his life and gone blind.  His slave, Lucky, has become dumb, which is in stark contrast to the long, rambling, and disturbing speech he gives in Act 1.  In Beckett’s work, virtually all of his characters suffer from some physical ailment that makes life even more painful for them.  Vladimir, the more intellectual side of man, suffers from kidney problems, while Estragon, the more earthy side of man, suffers from pains in his feet.  The above photo shows Estragon suffering from acute pain, both mental and physical.  But Waiting for Godot is about more than pain;  it is about time and its manifestations.  The very title implies time.  In Beckett, time exists as an abstract entity, but it does initiate specific changes that are crucial to the dramatic power of the play.  It is not surprising that the play is often described in musical terms, because music embodies time and variations in tonal patterns.  When we examine the events of Act 2 as opposed to Act 1, we see some musical parallels.  On the whole, although Estragon and Vladimir don’t change in Act 2, the people around them do and they create a more menacing, threatening tone.  Pozzo, who dragged Lucky as his slave on a long rope in the previous act is now blind and guided by Lucky, who is now dumb and on a short rope.  Also, Lucky wears a different hat.  His previous one remains on the stage.  In the second act, Vladimir is alone with the Boy, Mr. Godot’s messenger, as Estragon is asleep.  Without Estragon’s loud, whiney voice, the scene is subdued and unbearably sad.  The hopelessness that Vladimir feels when he learns that Mr. Godot “does nothing” is tangible throughout the audience and the confined space of the theater.  “Tell him that you saw me” are the last words that Vladimir says to Godot’s messenger.  While Vladimir can recognize the Boy, the latter can’t recognize him.  Beckett appears to be saying that our existence is so meaningless that our individual characteristics count as nothing.  Quite a contrast to Pozzo’s trumpeting ego and arrogance in Act 1.  Time inevitably brings death to a human life and both acts deal early with words about death.  In Act 1, Vladimir and Estragon discuss the possibility of hanging themselves.  In Act 2, Vladimir sings about a dog that a cook beats to death with a ladle.  He repeats the last words of the song four times, the last line five times, “Then all the dogs came running and dug the dog a tomb.”  Time has done its job.  The crescendo arrives with Pozzo’s anguished outburst:  “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!…, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that enough for you?  Then, what follows is Beckett’s view of life that reverberates in several of his works:  “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”  Pozzo and Lucky go off, leaving an ominous silence.  But, throughout all the darkness and despair, the once barren tree has produced a few leaves and Vladimir and Estragon’s friendship will continue…