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Watch your language when you write

angrymobSeveral years ago I was invited to address a group of Christian leaders in Canada, about church writing groups and the need for Christians to write in a compelling manner in whatever marketplace writers may find themselves. My aim was to teach about worldview and about including God’s word in reaching a secular audience. (Before you read further, in my defense I will say that I had previously given this same talk to several different Christian audiences.)

I began to make a point about how your harsh words and insensitive writing will polarize an audience before even reaching your main point. Using a letter to the editor I had found, I began reading it aloud so they could hear a harsh, insensitive writer spouting venom about homosexuals. My second step was to dig into the letter together with my audience so that we could find a more appropriate way to make a point.

I’ll admit to the irony of what happened next.

Before I could finish reading the offensive letter out loud, a quarter of my audience had stood, turned their backs, and exited the room.

What could I have done differently? I warned them, up front, that this would be something we could–we should–all learn to do better. Perhaps I should have brought up my main points earlier on, so they could see that I myself intended no insult. Before planning my talk, I should have asked some questions of the conference organizers, in the hope of learning more about the attendees.

It has always been my policy to remember first what Paul instructed to his readers–and what I was going to teach my audience–to do:  “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (NASB Colossians 4:5-6). In this case, my message failed to reach many people in my audience because I didn’t understand how to “respond to each person.” 

Consider, though, that you can’t always anticipate how each audience member will react. Better to hold on to the truth than to water down your message.

Think about who your audience is: who reads your discourse or sits in your audience? Think about them and write so that they can understand.

This means you need to evaluate–or maybe anticipate–your audience before you write. Now, if you are a Rhetoric student, your audience is not so vast:

  • Your teacher
  • Your parents, who will proofread
  • Your classmates

Or maybe you have a larger audience:

  • Readers of your blog or other social media
  • Readers of your letter to an editor
  • Your youth group
  • Classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents at your school–perhaps in a graduation assembly or thesis defense

Perhaps you have a passionate response to something in the news, or you want to join a demonstration and make your voice heard. Who will be that audience?

Most importantly, you want to craft a speech or discourse in the best light so that your audience will be moved to take action. And alongside of that, you must keep in mind WHO your audience is, and be sure to write so that they understand what you’ve said.

In the situation above, what could I have done differently? Before I read aloud that offensive letter to the editor, I DID tell them what they were going to hear and that I wanted to work with them on less strident language. What can I conclude from their hasty departure? Either they didn’t hear my introduction, or they just couldn’t stomach what I was reading out loud. It’s hard to know now. Something about the subject caused them to shut down and walk off.

This is bound to happen sometimes. If we’re speaking the truth in love, at times it won’t matter that you have the best intentions. Truth offends. Often, though, we need to:

  1. Observe who we are trying to reach,
  2. Review what we’re going to say, and
  3. Commit our words and our presentation to the Lord, asking him for wisdom.

In his instructions to the faithful in Colossae, Paul writes a beautiful passage on how to speak with others both inside and outside of the church:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV Colossians 3:12-17, emphasis added)
Be that salt and light to your audience, whoever they are. Speak the truth in love. Have compassion for the lost. Put on love.
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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Rhetoric, Uncategorized, Writing

The Style of Good Rhetoric

Aristotle classified five “canons” of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Our own course of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is also divided in the same manner.

Style arrives midway through our course with good reason. Invention–the method of discovering what to write about and how to prove our point, and Arrangement–deciding how to argue and in what order it will happen, provide us with a strong foundation. We might call it the “bones” of an argument.

Once we have 1) arrived at our arguments and 2) arranged them effectively, then we must 3) skillfully and artfully weave our words together in a pleasing, clear, compelling manner. Consider this the clothing that covers the flesh and bones of your argument.

Skillful writing:

  • Uses proper grammar.
  • Chooses the right word for the right meaning. Vague writing will inevitably confuse the audience.
  • Finds compelling ways to paint a word picture in the mind of the audience. One homeschool writing curriculum calls it “dressing up” your writing.
  • Is not redundant: it does not repeat itself retelling in a repetitious manner. (Got it?)

Aristotle uses a bit of sarcasm when discussing what seems to be common sense: if you want to persuade, do not be ambiguous “unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something” (Rhetoric Book 3). Your audience might be momentarily charmed by clever words, but they can detect specious reasoning and a thin façade of argumentation.

Think about your favorite writers. Why do you love to read what they write? They probably weave together a great story that keeps you engaged, make characters come to life, hold you in suspense, make you love the protagonist and hate his enemy. I agree with all of that, and I’ll add another quality, because I love words: the best authors paint an engaging word picture that might make me pause and admire how that was done.

I just finished reading another book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Seriously, go pick up the first book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  and tell me what you think. Bradley goes into the mind of a genius 11-year-old girl, Flavia (rhymes with “gravy-a”, and she insists that you pronounce it correctly), in post-World War 2 Britain. She is funny, terribly clever, dreams of concocting poisons in the chemistry lab on her estate, and solves crimes.

Here are some brilliant uses of the language that continue to endear Flavia to me:

  • “I could see at a glance that sunlight was not welcome here.” Bradley could have said simply, “This was a gloomy room.” No, he wanted to use this room to create a setting for his reader.
  • “I raised an eyebrow at Dogger, who had told me that the word [‘momentarily’] meant ‘briefly’ rather than ‘soon,’ and was best avoided if one didn’t want to be mistaken for an American. But Dogger was wearing his unreadable poker face, and I was left to feel superior all by myself.” Flavia is smart and knows it. And she’s a bit disdainful about Americans. But notice how Bradley’s words don’t insult Americans outright; they are a soft nudge, tongue-in-cheek. Besides, Bradley himself is Canadian, so he doesn’t get it right every time either.
  • “When I woke up, the shadows of late afternoon had subtly rearranged my room.” Could Bradley have just said “When I awoke, I noticed that the sun was going down”? Sure, but his choice is much more evocative.
  • “The conversation was becoming like one of those absurd French dramas in which the characters stand about swapping nonsense dialogue while the audience pretend they know what’s going on.” I am certain Bradley meant Waiting for Godot. The icy, vague shadow of a nightmare rises up, along with memories of a sadistic professor who tried to convince us that it was a brilliant work of art. Bradley transported me back to a decade of frustrated reading (that was probably actually only a week long, but I can never get that time back), trying to discern any deep meaning in that play. It’s not worth your time, folks.

The third Canon of Rhetoric, Style, puts the icing on the cake, the jewels on the crown, the gold filigree on the tapestry… You see what I mean. And the more you pay attention to excellent writing, the more ways you will arrive at beautiful, compelling Style to prove your point and convince your audience.

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Rhetoric: Not as Negative as You Might Think

angry politicianGetting to know a new dental hygienist, she asked about my career. I told her I’ve retired from teaching, among other things, Rhetoric. “Rhetoric?” she paused. “What is that, anyway?” That’s the question I get a lot. I opened my mouth to answer, and couldn’t get the words out for the dental torture devices she shoved in my mouth.

So what is Rhetoric, anyway? Isn’t it just a lot of negative political double-talk? I get a lot of puzzled looks from people who have only heard Rhetoric referred to in a negative light–especially in our politically-charged atmosphere today.

Way back when Aristotle (384-322 BC) was writing and postulating on the nature of the world, he observed how people tried to persuade one another. He didn’t invent the art of persuasion; he observed and organized the concept and gave it a name: Rhetoric.

Aristotle’s lifelong pursuit seems to have been organizing, categorizing, labeling,  commenting upon, and teaching different aspects of the world as he knew it.  Scholars assembled his body of works, known as the Corpus Aristotelicum. Most scholars today dispute the inclusion of quite a few lesser works and argue that what is contained in the Corpus may actually be written in the style of Aristotle by students in his schools. Much of the Corpus, though, is indisputably his, and is classified in five categories: Logic; Metaphysics; Physics; Ethics and Politics; and Rhetoric and Poetics.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we are all engineered to argue; spend one day with a three-year-old or a middle school student and see what I mean.  Aristotle, far from wanting to encourage a child to argue, instead directs the more mature student “to discern the real and the apparent means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric Book 1).

In the classical tradition, the student of Rhetoric will have had an education in Logic, which sets a solid foundation on which to build his persuasive discourse. Aristotle’s thoughts on Logic confirm that fact: Aristotelian logic centers on the syllogism, which is (in very simple terms) an argument composed of two premises and a conclusion.

How do we get from Aristotle’s Logic to the definition of Rhetoric? If we, like him, consider it in terms of a scientific approach, then Rhetoric is the science of persuasion. He breaks down persuasive discourse in order to analyze it.

Similarly, our course of Rhetoric today does break down the component parts of Rhetoric in order to analyze its effectiveness. And the study of it, as detailed in Biblical Worldview Rhetoric (Second Edition coming soon), also explores and imitates the artful side of Rhetoric. We’ll look at the art of persuasion in another post.

But going back to one of our original questions: isn’t Rhetoric just a lot of negativity? It can be, most definitely. Sometimes it accuses, other times it defends, and very often it celebrates or remembers. For every angry, accusatory political discourse, I can show you several poignant, uplifting, inspirational ones. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be negative; it must always be persuasive.

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An Eclectic Stack of Books Read in 2017

My library gives evidence to the type of reader I have become: eclectic. I have always thought (rather snobbishly) that I only love classic literature (spoken with a decidedly British accent, nose in the air: lit-ra-toor). The people I love, though, have pushed me toward other books they have loved, and I am much richer for it. So in addition to the beloved classic novels I read and re-read with pleasure, I also enjoy mystery, intrigue, historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy novels. I know that when my grown children or husband say “You’ve got to read this,” nine times out of ten I totally agree.

After a very chilly cross-country move to California last January, my mother-in-law, excited to have us live close to her, told me that she and I just had to take a Jane Austen class at a nearby college. The class was offered as part of a program for seniors who want to expand their knowledge. After protesting that it was for seniors (and I am not yet a senior, thank you very much!), I admitted that rereading and talking about my favorite author might, after all, be fun. So off we launched into Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. Then I just needed to read a few more, so just like greeting an old friend, I also enjoyed Emma and Persuasion as well, listening to them on Audible while unpacking boxes.

Sticking with British novels a while longer, I picked up a book that I had received as a gift: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneel. This was book one of the Maggie Hope mysteries taking place during World War Two. Light, interesting, and well-written, her story drew me in, so I curled up with the next two:  His Majesty’s Hope and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. After taking a break from them, I will probably read a couple more.

The adjustment to dry and hot Northern California from the grey, cold, humid Midwest meant I had to study up on gardening (and raising chickens and tending vineyards) in our new environment. That has not been much of a chore! You might find me adding a few more of those to my list just for fun.

My husband and I like to listen to audiobooks when on a long drive, so we listened to John Grisham’s Camino Island and Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island (no, we weren’t on a nautical theme; it was just coincidental). Grisham is always a good read, and he never disappoints. Though DeMille’s book was peppered throughout with pretty bad language, the story was good and captivating. We also read Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly, a fascinating retelling of Japan’s brutal role in World War Two.

My son finished reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb and left it with me. In this fantasy, the main character is a young boy raised as the illegitimate son of a prince. The boy has a couple of skills: the empathic ability to communicate with animals and with people, even perhaps to alter people’s perception in order to change events. It’s an interesting premise, and the book, though slow-moving, was good. I picked up the second novel of that series, Royal Assassin, and was disappointed with the pace. It wasn’t simply slow, like the first book; this one churned around and around so sluggishly,  I just couldn’t stay with it (Have you ever watched cement dry? That slowly). I have a feeling that it might have ended up a good novel, but I didn’t have the patience to stick around long enough to find out.

One book on my to-read list from a year ago was Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants. Long ago I had loved his Pillars of the Earth, and since then I have optimistically tried others he has written. I think I am done trying now; his books are full of gratuitous sex, unnecessary to the plot or the characters’ development. It seems he just likes including the sordid details, but I don’t want to pollute my mind with those pictures. I set the book down (well, actually I deleted it from my reader, which is often rather satisfying) after about 25% into the book.

On the subject of books I couldn’t finish, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowall was enthusiastically recommended to me by the same son who told me to read Robin Hobbs. He said it would be a great complement to Pride and Prejudice. Now I begin to question his taste. It’s supposedly a fantasy-world-version of the beloved Jane Austen novel. Nope. I guess I’m a purist. This one didn’t even last as long as the latest Follett book before deleting it.

On a happier note, The Width of the World is the third book in the Vega Jane fantasy series by David Baldacci. He created a wonderful world replete with magical abilities, frightening creatures, and believable and endearing protagonists. It leaves me wanting more, so I will wait impatiently for book four. I highly recommend this series.

Next up was Belgravia by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey), a quick and easy read, but not as deep and rich as his successful television series.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck tells the story of women who survived World War Two and began putting their lives back together, trying to overcome the crushing blows they’d suffered, having lost everything. The book, while depressing and slow, was well-told. If you’re given to depression and dark moods, though, this book will not help brighten your outlook!

Since the movie will be coming out early this year, I have begun reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (from my to-read list a year ago). It’s a dystopian world, set in the future, of a contest reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps set in The Matrix. This contest takes place in the virtual reality of an online universe, designed by a man who had grown up in the 1980s. So far it’s a very good read, super-geeky and adventurous.

What a short list! I need to read more, and I need more to read, so I always enjoy seeing what my readers recommend! What’s on your list?

To read in 2018:

  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Rooster Bar by John Grisham
  • The Whistler by John Grisham
  • The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro
  • Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro
  • The Conquering Family: The Pageant of England, Volume 1 by Thomas Costain
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
  • Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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Careful writing cares for your audience

correctingNot many high school students would think about it this way, but careful writing communicates respect. Good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are every bit as important as answering a writing prompt for your teacher.

The audience of a high school student is usually only one person: the teacher. A conscientious student will make sure to stay within the guidelines of that assignment, including careful editing. But as they go on into university and/or the “real world,” young people would do well to continue caring for their varied audiences. Grammar, spelling, punctuation–and the message–remain important, regardless of the audience or the writer.

I try very hard not to be obnoxious about it, but I begin twitching when I see poor writing. Bad grammar, spelling, and punctuation–at least to me–communicates that you do not care enough to try to get it right. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t judge your character or level of education, and I admire that you are in business. Just spend a few extra dollars to have someone make sure you communicate well to your audience–and in this case, your customers.

Here are a few examples.

  1. Waiting for a local stage production to begin, we glanced at the ads flashing on the screen. A local fundraiser advertised a “Pankake Breakfast.” Wondering whether they meant to write it that way (twitch), I went to their website. No, it’s spelled correctly there, but some of their pages give evidence to their lack of care. One link was titled “Comming events.” Okay, local group, done quickly perhaps.tjtypo.jpg
  2. But then there’s Trader Joe’s, a great chain, one of my favorites. Set aside for a moment the distraction from how amazing the dessert looks. My question, upon reading this, is twofold: Is the shell buttery and tart (meaning acidic), or is it in a buttery pastry-tart shell? If the latter, that comma shouldn’t be there. If the former, why would you buy it? Think of the comma as meaning “and” in a list. bbq-cat.jpg
  3. And finally, this is most disturbing if you like cats. (I don’t, so I found it more amusing than troubling). This was in the calendar section of our local paper. I don’t care if the caption doesn’t belong to the photo above. It’s placed there, so I’m going to see it as such. (Really, would this poor feline be a main course in the fundraiser?) This can be blamed on the newspaper, not the advertiser.

So take my advice, whether you are a student or business person: Spend a few extra moments checking your work–essay, ad, news article, etc.–or find someone who can do it for you. It will save you some embarrassing moments, poor grades, or lost revenue. If you don’t care, that’s fine too. But I’m sure you’ll hear me twitching.

See some of my earlier posts about grammar, beginning here.

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Books read 2016, books to read 2017

As I look through the books I read in 2016, I note a couple of themes, and I’m thinking I should move away from them. Or maybe not…

Not really meaning to, I read mostly British novels, and mostly post-war or wartime themes. Without much apology, I have had a lifelong fondness for British novels. Maybe that love affair began with AA Milne when I was very young, with the beautiful turn of the phrase, and moving on to Shakespeare and then Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontë sisters, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–and all sorts of literature in between.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, O Jerusalem, Justice Hall, A Letter of Mary. The year began with a series of books from Laurie R. King, who takes the retired Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with a young woman. He takes Mary under his wing and trains her. It certainly helps that she is a genius in her own right–would Sherlock bother with someone who wasn’t? The books stay true to the Holmes universe, though at times they get a bit long-winded. King has quite a long series of books, and I made my way through the first five (beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) before deciding to take a break. They are quite good, and I will probably return to them at some point.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hall. Beginning in 1939, this is the story of two sisters in France whose lives take very different turns–one as a member of the Underground, and the other who works to protect her family and the children of Jews around the region. It is dark, hopeful, and devastating. Hall compelled me, all the way to the very end.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Told from the points of view of two children who grow up during World War 2, this is another beautiful and heartbreaking novel. A blind girl’s father constructs a tabletop reproduction of their village so she can learn how to find her way. An orphaned German boy who shows remarkable talent in electronics is conscripted to serve in Hitler’s Youth to detect the source of broadcasts by the Resistance.

Since I usually enjoy British detective novels, I tried the first book in three different series, sort of dipping my toe in the waters. Not every one of my attempts turns out well, but they are always worth a try. A Test of Wills by Charles Todd begins the Ian Rutledge series. Rutledge has returned from serving in the First World War, and now he is trying to settle back into his investigative work with Scotland Yard. The voice of Hamish, a Scotsman, lives in his head and mocks him. The psychological part of this novel was too dark and depressing, but it is understandable, given the darkness of the times. But as the book didn’t leave me satisfied, but rather depressed, I won’t return to the rest of his books.

On to another dismal series of British mystery books: the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Windspear. Maisie lives in the post-World War 1 era as well, and her world is just as depressing as Ian Rutledge’s. The two probably should never meet up and join forces, I’m thinking, because the end product would be simply miserable. So I only read that first book,  Maisie Dobbs, and won’t be moving on to the next.

A little gun-shy, I picked up the next British mystery novel that had been recommended to me: A Man of Some Repute by Elizabeth Edmondson. This series begins post-World War 2 with a returning veteran named Hugo Hawksworth. Hugo has been injured in some mysterious manner (which the reader hopes will be revealed at some point–and probably will be connected to some plot or deception we will encounter in a future novel). He is  unable to resume his former position as a detective with Scotland Yard, so he is assigned a somewhat bland desk job in the countryside. But, as most novels go, this does not turn out to be bland drudge-work at all. I liked the novel enough that I picked up the next book, A Question of Inheritance, and it did not disappoint. I’ll pick up the third at some point this year.

Yet another British detective series crossed my desk this year, beginning with A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch. This is the Charles Lenox series, of which there are currently ten novels. Lenox, according to the Amazon description, is a “Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer,” who leaves his armchair to help out his lovely neighbor and good friend, who reports a mysterious death. A decent read, well done, and might be a series to which I’ll return sometime soon.

So on we go to another British mystery novel, one that never fails, is the latest installment in the Flavia DeLuce series: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley. I’ve mentioned these books before on this blog site. Flavia is a 12-year-old genius/chemist/sleuth in post-World War 2 England, who finds herself in one adventure after another. Never mind how strange it is that in a quiet town in the countryside can be visited with so many strange deaths, nor how this young prodigy is always nearby to help solve them. That’s the fun in a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I highly recommend this series (which you need to read in order!).

Another novel that disappointed me was To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It comes highly recommended, and has won awards, but it couldn’t hold my attention. This one is a time-jumping multiple-genre mystery/comedy/sci-fi. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the characters, and the mystery just didn’t interest me.

Okay, enough of British mystery/detective novels for a while; on to other genres.

I was very excited to pick up JK Rowling’s newest work, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, written as a script for a stage show that is currently playing in London. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t satisfy at all. It’s a quick read, but a disappointing one. She tells an interesting story, picking up some 19 years after the final Harry Potter novel ends, but it doesn’t work for me. The Harry Potter universe needs to be magical and quirky. The story she tells here is both, but I fail to see how that can be done adequately on-stage. (On the other hand, I found the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them absolutely delightful, fitting right in to the Harry Potter Universe!)

This was also a year for re-reading, for different reasons, and all of them were worth the time.

First, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding because I taught Logic to an 8th grade nephew. If you haven’t picked them up, or have never read them before, they are both very quick reads but worth some worldview discussions around the dinner table or in a classroom.

Then Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. His allegory is rich and full of myriad points of discussion. Many of my former students had read this as young kids. Why not pick it up again and have an adult discussion about it?

Finally, Harry Potter. It never gets old. And while we are madly packing and cleaning in preparation for a cross-country move, the familiar story pulls me in with a smile.

To read and finish reading in 2017:

Worldview books such as Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey and The Cross of Christ by John Stott. I’m not done with them, but the first is the newest from Pearcey, whose Total Truth is a must-read for Christians wanting to think more “worldviewishly,” a term with which my former students and their parents should be familiar! How do we combat the subtle shift of thought in a post-modern world?  By knowing without a doubt what we believe, and by recognizing counterfeits of supposed biblical doctrine.

The Cross of Christ, our pastor told us, can be used as a devotional. Contemplating the meaning of the cross from a biblical perspective is a refreshing reminder of the central object of our faith: Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and second coming.

While in the midst of revising my textbook, Biblical Worldview Rhetoric, with my oldest son, I’ve picked up two books to study. If you are a student of Rhetoric, you might enjoy them: Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Traditions by George Kennedy, and Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth. Don’t roll your eyes at me–if you didn’t already know I am a geek, then you don’t know me at all!

Others on my to-read list (all recommended by various friends and relations):

  • Troubles by JG Farrell
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
  • Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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I didn’t need another dad

Jim2aI didn’t need another dad. My dad died when I was 15, and I mourned that loss for years. By the time I was in college, I was doing okay–at least I said so to anyone who asked–and didn’t want another dad. One stepdad had moved in and then out of our lives, and it wasn’t the best experience for anyone concerned. That confirmed that I had been right: I didn’t need another dad.

Married, done with college, another stepdad entered the scene, and I was determined not to like his imposition into our family. But I saw how much he loved my mom, and how he took my teenage sister under his wing. She really needed a firm hand during her rebellious years, and he did a great job. He might be okay for them, I decided. But me, I’m out of the picture.

A couple more years went by, and I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly, with pre-term labor at 30 weeks, I was on bed rest. And the stepdad (who I didn’t need) came to stay with us, to bring me lunch as I lay like a beached whale on the couch. He painted, set up the baby’s room, puttered around in the yard, and made sure I had plenty to eat and drink. I could see how well he might fit into our family.

Then when our son was born, there was Jim, video camera rolling, as proud as if our son was his very own flesh and blood. And as each child was born, there he was again, beaming. He’d already had his own grandchildren, but he was pretty thrilled with the crop of step-grandchildren he was getting from my sisters and me. So maybe he was going to fit in pretty well.

We moved a lot as a young family, and there were my mom and step dad, visiting, playing with the children. Jim and my husband undertook several remodeling projects wherever we lived. He brought a crowbar and hammer and loved every minute. And my husband felt pretty sure he could use a father-in-law like that.

High school and college graduations, and a wedding in our family, would find Jim beaming again, photographing every minute, the happiest grandpa in the room.

Thirty years later, we all gathered to wish Jim a happy 90th birthday. And suddenly I realized that I had needed a dad all along. He had been there, with a hug and a kiss, ready for adventure with the kids, for remodeling with my husband, for a raucous game of cards every evening, with a strong shoulder to lean on in joy or pain. He had been there all along, strong and steady.

He had been the only grandpa our children remembered. He had been the dad my teenage sister needed, and he did it well. He had been a dad to my older sister and me, in ways we didn’t anticipate. He was a father-in-law to Kyle, who loved thinking through home improvement projects while wandering with him through the Home Depot. He’d been our dad.

And on his 90th birthday, with all the family gathered together, we found that we were losing him. He was slipping away. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, to my husband, to our children, and to thank him for every loving thing he did for us. We were thankful that he heard us and responded with a hug, a hand squeeze, a little pat on the arm. We moved him into hospice at home and said goodbye to him, one child and grandchild at a time. What a miraculous gift, that most of us could gather together at the right moment.

I realized why I hadn’t wanted another dad. The pain of losing my own father was so great, it left a huge hole in my heart. No attachment to another dad meant no more great holes in my heart. But Jim snuck in there anyway. And I realized, in spite of myself, that the memory of all those loving years was even worth this sharp, momentary pain of loss right now. We are all the more rich now, because he was our dad. Our grandpa and father-in-law. Mom’s husband.

I love you, Jim. Thanks for being my dad.

James Eitel: husband, father, stepfather, grandpa. 1926-2016

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