Keeping Busy (Plague, Day 28, March 31, 2020)

12:30pm Yesterday, I spent the day pulling together some random ideas into a 800-word semi-coherent essay about schools. At this point, I don’t think that there’s much new to say on the subject, but we’ll see what happens. At least, I got one essay out this month, which is actually the most popular thing thing that I’ve ever written. After sending the new essay out to the usual editors this morning, I turned my attention to used books.

Before the shit hit the fan, I managed to scramble out to a few estate sales, where I bought piles of books. Having a deep fear of boredom, I frantically bought stuff in the beginning of March to amuse myself during a lockdown. At the time, I had no idea if any of my purchases were worth anything or not. I just bought some cool stuff and hoped for the best.

In one house of a recently deceased doctor, I bought a bunch of vintage golfing books. I’m not a golf person at all, but figured that someone might like them. Turns out that old golfing books are worth a lot of money. Yay. I hope to have them all on the book website by the end of the day.

Here’s a picture of the hospital ship floating down the Hudson to hold all the sick city people. The picture was taken by one Steve’s colleagues who lives in Jersey City. Steve’s office, which has seen in over two weeks, is across the river.

On YouTube, John Kraskinski’s Some Good News show is pretty awesome. Are you watching The Tiger King? It’s pretty great, too.

Dinner tonight? Grilling pork chops with some Pixie Dust spice rub. Couscous, sautéed cabbage, salad.

Tip: Make a list of five friends/family members who need a phone call/face time chat at least once a week. Think about who is old, sick, isolated, grieving, overwhelmed right now. Write their names on a post-it note and stick the note to the edge of your computer screen.

Apt. 11D Gift Guide 2019 – Steve’s History Book Selection

by Steve, blog husband

For Father’s Day, Jonah got me a video game I’ve had my eye on for some time:  Total War – Three Kingdoms. I’ve been a fan of the Total War series for years.  This new game, however, was to be a departure from the rest of the other fightin’ and buildin’ games in the series.  This one was to focus on characters and their relationships with each other. Good friends help each other out. Two characters who hate each other, you can’t get them to cooperate.  How does a motley crew of random personalities turn into a harmonized team?

Which leads me to the only book I recommend this year.  It is the best I have read in a very long time. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese classic.  And for good reason. Lots of action, heroes and villains, drama across generations.

Romance takes place at the end of the Han Dynasty.  China is disorganized, warlords run amok. The brute Dong Zhou.  The mighty Lü Bu. The crafty Cao Cao. The loyal Lord Guan. The virtuous Liu Bei.  The brilliant Zhuge Liang. And the victorious Sima Yi.

They all have their weird quirks.  Cao Cao would ask his advisors for ideas and advice, and when one of them suggests something particular insightful he would exclaim “Just what I was thinking!”  That cracked me up every time. Liu Bei’s strict morals drove me nuts; always falling short of greatness because he would not sacrifice his better nature. No Machiavelli he.  I was actually sad for half a day when Lord Guan was captured and executed. Xiahao Dun, shot in the eye, pulls out the arrow and swallows his eyeball. Yikes! I’m still thinking about that.

Is it history?  Sort of. It is somewhat historical, based upon annals written during the era, with a lot of literary license taken by author Luo Guanzhong.  And the end product is so much the better because of Luo’s artistry. Rather than a chronology of who did what to whom, here is a ripping good saga, complete with tales of honor and treachery, not to mention quite a few tips on how to best manage people.  How does one balance differing personalities? What motivates a team? There is a reason why people still read this book 700 years after it was written.

Romance offers the reader a lot to digest (including Xiahou Dun’s eyeball!  Sorry, couldn’t help it). Read the Moss Roberts translation, it flows naturally yet is still direct, plus it includes notes and commentary.  Other translations are stilted, too literal, out-of-date. I will continue to turn to this classic for years to come.

Civil War Era Readers

I’m selling books on the Internet today. Thought I would share some pictures, as I’m going along.

Check out these two readers from around the Civil War. That’s before our system of public education had been established. These were probably used by a Laura Ingalls Wilder-type school teacher in one house school house. I haven’t researched them yet, but they’re cool.

What I Learned From Shopping at Estate Sales

I walked into to the estate sale at 9am on Saturday and immediately knew that this was this right sort of house for me.

The very modest two bedroom house was on a cul-de-sac in one of those modest suburbs that erupted around New York City after World War II. The wall to wall grey rugs were bunched up and thread bare. There was one of those automatic stair-chairs and unopened bags of Depends in the corner. And the house was packed to the brim with stuff – a grand piano that dominated the living room, shelves and shelves of book, artwork and prints spread out over the piano for sale, and little china cups every where.

Together, all that stuff was a horror show. There was just too much of all of it, and it was covered in dust. The guy who ran the sale told me that there was even more, but the basement had gotten flood last year and all that stuff down there were just dumped in a dumpster.

It was so sad that I almost walked out of the house. The house reeked of depression and OCD. The other people at the sale were Asberger’s types looking for yet another volume of Plato’s Republic or very poor people picking up a casserole pan for a $1. I was there looking for pretty, but not terribly valuable books.

I’ve been working on one writing project or another continuously for months. Even when I had a short break for a vacation or while waiting for an editor, there was always an article on the back burner using up brain space. I have some vague plans for my next projects, but I decided to really take a couple of weeks off before starting them. I’m very burned out.

So, I decided to lean into my sporadic hobby of selling books on the Internet. I don’t do it very often. Every few months, if I have spare time between articles or while waiting for interview subjects to return my emails, I post stuff on the Internet. It’s very, very low brain work. Time consuming, but it’s nothing like brain-hurtie job of wrangling ideas into palatable words.

I’ve learned a lot from this hobby. Not just that the Modern Library series is very collectable, and that homeschoolers love old children’s biographies. I’ve learned a lot about growing old.

Walking into that house on Saturday, I made a silent promise to myself. I will not go out like this — surrounded by “treasures” which confine movement and fill the air with moldy and musty smells. When I went into the house, the junk had already been cleared out by the estate sale people and the previous day’s buyers. It was probably even worse a few weeks ago.

When I hit 70, I’m going to start selling and giving away all my stuff. I’m already going through my basement and getting rid of crap. I want a nearly empty house by the time that I’m too old to do anything about it.

There were “treasures” in the house — books when dusted off and grouped with similar items that will easily sell to young home decorators. I picked up a stack of Modern Library books and some boxed sets of Heritage Series books. I’ll decide later, if I’ll sell the boxed books for $20 a pop or as a lot for $150. I can’t help buying this stuff, because it’s like finding $100 bills on the ground. Curated, the books are valuable. In that house, they were dumpster fodder.

But I don’t want my last years weighed down by crap, and have already stopped accumulating. I rarely buy a new dish or pan anymore, except to replace something that is broken. I only buy ebooks. All our photographs are online (though some should be made into neat little books). We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there.

I want to check out with dignity. I don’t want to burden my children with getting rid of our stuff. I want to fill my later years with family and experiences, not dusty books.

The Oldest Thing in My House #2 – Books

Probably the oldest stuff in the house are my books. Steve has some old crap in the basement, like a 100-year old tiger skin from China, but we’ll get to that later. Let me show you some of my oldest books.

About twenty five years ago, I was visiting a friend who lived in a small town outside of Boston. One day, we roamed through an antique shop, and I rummaged through a basket of old books under a table. I picked up this old copy of Little Women, which is one of my favorite books, and bought it for 25 cents. I promptly put it away in a box and forgot about it.

I found it last year and put it on my Etsy shop. After doing a little research, I found out that it was a I believe it was a second edition from 1870. I sold it in couple of months for $700.

I’ve got a Robert’s Rule of Order from 1876.

I’ve got “The Red Cross” by Clara Barton from 1899, but I haven’t listed it yet.

I love this illustrated history of the Civil War from 1895. I honestly don’t want to part with this one. (Click on the link for all the beautiful and horrifically racist images inside.)

I lost today to parenting chores. Ian was home from school for the Jewish holidays, and he needed a lot of help with an engineering project. For the rest of the week, I’m continuing my break from real writing and will the time listing a huge allotment of vintage textbooks that I bought a couple of months ago for $3. Engineering textbooks from the 1930s are surprisingly collectable.

Educated: A Book Review

Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir was in my mental folder: “Books that I should read, but really don’t want to” for the past year. I thought it would fit into the poverty porn books that I’ve already read, like Hillbilly Elegy.

Not that I disliked Hillbilly Elegy. I know that that liberals don’t like it’s pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps message, but it was a good read. Anyway, I thought Educated was going to be another Hillbilly Elegy, so I didn’t feel compelled to run out and buy it even though it was on every Best of 2018 book list.

That was an error. Educated was a page turner. I read the whole thing in two marathon reading sessions over one weekend.

Westover’s family struggles with the similar mental illnesses that plagued Vance’s family. Out in the woods in Idaho, the Westover family is led by a bipolar patriarch. He turns religion into a vice, which damages the family. The kids are supposedly home schooled, but really aren’t educated at all. The mom is forced to become a midwife, so they and their neighbors will never have to enter a hospital where the government will take away their rights. The kids don’t have birth certificates, and nobody is really sure what day Tara is born. The family compulsively cans peaches and hoards guns and gasoline waiting for Judgement Day or a massacre by the government, whatever comes first.

Family members keep getting seriously injured, because the father makes really bad decisions and because one of their jobs is salvaging metal from large broken cars. When a person got injured, medical help was some homemade pot of salve, rather than a doctor in a lab coat. Most of Tara’s family was permanently disfigured from untended medical injuries.

Westover’s family is a toxic combination of mental illness, extreme religion, and bunker-style libertarianism. She manages to teach herself math to get through the ACTs and then get scholarships to go to BYU. She meets the right people who take care over her. Boom. She’s got a PhD, travels the world, writes best selling books, and lives in New York City. Which I know, because I googled her and her family for an hour or two after reading the book.

All that salve that the mom cooked up to put on the burns and gashes on her family turned out to be very lucrative. She has a huge business selling that crap on Amazon now. She employs half the county.

Tara’s dad is a really interesting character. I mean he’s clearly off his rocker, but he’s also compelling. In someways, he’s more interesting than Tara herself.

The family’s poverty had nothing to do with his work ethic. In fact, the man works himself and his kids super hard building sheds and cutting sheet metal. The kids, while not formally educated, must have been getting knowledge from somewhere, because three of the six of them got PhDs. And Tara herself doesn’t really complain about the poverty. Her issues were the lack of schooling for the kids, the lack of medical care for the family, and an abusive brother, whose problems stemmed from an untended head injury.

I’ve met people who have escaped from that world — parents with too many kids to properly supervise, a weird fatalism that comes from believing that God takes care of all things, roving bands of angry teens who do bad things. I’ve heard about worse situations that Westover’s.

I couldn’t possible live in a more opposite world than the Westover family’s rural Idado. Hyper-educated, over scheduled kids don’t even the freedom to get a paper cut here. They are escorted fifty feet to the bus stop until they are ten. Thirteen year olds put in longer days than many Wall Street brokers. Six-year old girls are professionally groomed before their first communions.

Sometimes when the high pressure world around here gets on my nerves, I day dream about packing up my family for a farm in Vermont. Something quiet and simple. In my day dream, we’re doing some nice gentlemanly farming, making artisanal goat cheese or something. This book shatters those illusions by showing how rural isolation allows craziness to go unchecked with real damage to the individuals trapped in those situations.

Steve’s Book Recommendations: Gift Guide 2018 #4

by Steve, Blog-Husband

Happy Holidays, Laura’s Fan Club!  It’s that time of year again where I share with you all the great reads I’ve enjoyed over the past year.  This year I’ve gone down the rabbit-hole of the 17th Century Connecticut Valley, binding together the various branches of my Puritan forefathers.  Golly, were they a fertile bunch.  But I’ve learned a lot about early colonial New England, and I urge you to learn a lot too.  Let’s take a look at The Great Migration, shall we?

Fraser, Rebecca.  The Mayflower:  The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America.  A pretty good read, relatively light.  Fraser follows the Winslow family over the course of the mid-17th Century, with their successes and failures.

Leach, Douglas Edward.  Flintlock and Tomahawk:  New England in King Philip’s War.  A classic. Published over fifty years ago, this history is still among the standard studies of the era.

Rowlandson, Mary.  The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.  The first bestseller in American history, becoming the model of one of the most popular genres in early American letters:  the captivity narrative.  Everybody at the time wanted to read about Mary’s harrowing experience of King Philip’s War.

Williams, John.  The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion.  Another captivity narrative, this one occurring in the aftermath of the Deerfield Massacre of 1704.

Cooney, Caroline B.  The Ransom of Mercy Carter.  I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s in the queue.  The book is a little off the path for me; it’s teen girl fiction.  But it looks interesting, not only because Mercy Carter is my second cousin nine-times removed (yes, she is a real historical figure). It seems to be a well-regarded proper historical fiction.  Mercy was indeed captured at Deerfield, marched to Quebec, and voluntarily became a member of the Kahnawake community.  Tweens and teens captured by Native Americans did occasionally decide to re-identify themselves as members of a culture totally different from the one in which they grew up.