31 March 2007

Spring Around the House

Look at the pictures below. They were taken six days ago. Only six days.

In that time, during which temperatures have been in the mid-to-high seventies every day, Tennessee has turned green before my eyes. I took some pictures on my property to share with the world how beautiful this is. (It goes without saying, I guess, that this is my first spring with a digital camera.)

Jenny planted these tulips last year around our anniversary. They are coming up along the wall that separates our driveway from the yard. You can see our ivy-dressed garage in the background.

Dogwood and redbud trees are the most colorful in Tennessee during the spring. Our property is just covered with them. There is a pair growing at the end of our driveway (above left). I tried to get an up-close picture of the dogwood flowers so you could see how beautiful they are.

A final gift of spring is that violets have just taken over our yard in about five places. These aren't the humble, plain purple violets, either. They are luxurious, proud two-toned purple violets. It's amazing. I love seeing them, but I'm scared to step or mow around my place because of how beautiful these things are.

Robyn & Meg, if you have any tips for bringing out more contrast on digital photos, I'd appreciate it. The distance pics of the trees just don't doo justice to the sight, but the close-ups turned out well.

26 March 2007

Spring in TN

Tennessee is a fantastic place to live if you love spring and fall. Tennessee falls are among the most vibrant in the country, with the colors beginning in early October and lasting through November. Temperatures get cool, but not so cold that we cannot enjoy ourselves outdoors right up until Christmastime, when the clouds come and mire our region in gray, wet winters.

Spring is even better. In early-to-mid February, daffodils start blooming (I had some come up at the end of January, but their boldness was stifled by a strong cold snap in mid-February). From February through early June (four, long, wondrous months), there is blooming, greening, breezing...all the best parts of spring.

Last Saturday, we loaded up the minivan and went down to the Natchez Trace, an historic route that runs from Nashville, southwest 470 miles, all the way to the Mississippi River at Natchez Mississippi.

Ellie just finished a school unit on Lewis & Clark, explorers of America's northwester wilds. Merriwether Lewis died at an inn along the Trace at the tender age of 35 from a gunshot wound. Most reliable accounts report that it was self-inflicted, although murder mysteries are a dime a dozen.

I wanted to post some pictures and let everyone around the world share in the beauty of our Tennessee spring.

Redbuds are the surest signs of spring. On Saturday, they were the only tree-things out. None of the leaves had yet emerged from the trees..
This brick house was built in 1817 by the Gordon family, who leased rights from the Chickasaw Indians to run a ferry across the nearby Duck River.

Owen and Jo-Jo checked out the minnow and crawdad action in the creek from a safe distance. Life is just bursting out everywhere. The Saturday before it was a blustery 50 degrees. Seven days later, it was 83!

Jenny and Ellie went wading in the creek, but still took time out to look beautiful.

20 March 2007

Making the Grade as a Teacher

My principal gave me an envelope today which contained my Tennessee Value Added Assessment Score. It tells me whether I'm a good teacher or not (an opinion that shifts from week to week, I assure you, as far as I'm concerned).

Of course America is addicted to tests. George W. Bush, in his quest for easy answers, blamed "failing schools" on teachers and their powerful unions, so now teachers are held accountable--even if students, parents, and politicians are not.

Anyway, my 9th-grade and 10th-grade students take tests at the end of each year they spend in my class. These scores are compared with scores from tests they've taken in previous years, and these scores demonstrate whether or not I've taught the kids enough. They call it the TVAAS Teacher Effect.

Here it is:
English 1 (2005)
TVAAS Teacher Effect = -4.69
TVAAS Percentile: 23%
Teacher versus State Average: Not detectably different

English 1 (2006)
TVAAS Teacher Effect = -0.77
TVAAS Percentile: 46%
Teacher versus State Average: Not detectably different

English 2 (2006)
TVAAS Teacher Effect = +2.33
TVAAS Percentile: 76%
Teacher versus State Average: Not detectably different

What does this mean? Considering that I was teaching Advanced Honors English 1 each year, it isn't a big deal. I didn't teach grammar to those kids, I taught The Odyssey and historical fiction and didn't give a patootie about tests. All the same, I consider myself a below-average English 1 teacher.

In English 2, I did a better job: a whopping above average, 76th percentile!

I guess you could say that I'm a below-average to above-average teacher for my students. Faint praise, I guess. Numbers don't lie, right?

15 March 2007

A Tribute to My Grandfather

My Grandpa died Tuesday, just one month shy of his 95th birthday. (That's him to the right 36 years ago, holding a most wonderful baby grandson. Just guess who!)

One month ago, I was called away from a church project. Grandpa was in ICU with an infection, a blood pressure of 60/30. My dad and his sister, Francie, had responsibilities at church that day, and they couldn’t stay with him. I dropped everything and hurried to the hospital.

Along the way, I stopped at home and chose a thick binder. It is one of three collections of letters Grandpa wrote my grandma in the early years of their marriage, and it was marked “War Letters 1941-42.”

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to bring these with me to the hospital. Grandpa was on the edge of death. Perhaps I felt that I could transmit some of the spirit of these letters back into the man who seemed an empty shell of himself, ravaged by his current condition as well as several years of dementia.

When I got to his room, I was struck by how sick he looked. His cheeks were pinched in, his eyes were glazed, and his open mouth took irregular, raspy breaths. The letters were disorganized. I rearranged them until I could have a sense of order. I skipped over the letters from March Field in Muroc, California, and looked for the letters that marked his journey across the Pacific in January of 1942. I began to read to him.

I read of his trip from San Francisco to Australia (it is hard to determine how long it took, because the dates were all cut out by Army censors). He performed an appendectomy on board the boat, but it was an otherwise uneventful trip, with so many medical personnel on board, that he was only on duty every third day. There was much of the mundane: requests for Grandma to send him razors, magazines, and socks.

There was one letter that I was unable to finish that day: a letter that left me too emotional to continue. It was postmarked January 11, 1942, the day he shipped out with little warning. It was a fond, eloquent goodbye to my grandma. Yet reading it there, amidst the constant beep of the monitors, it felt like a goodbye to me, too, along with anyone else who had loved him.

The spirit of 29-year-old Grandpa poured out of the pages I read: his sarcastic sense of humor (he admonishes Grandma, a saintly Christian woman if I’ve ever known one, to “BE NICE!”); and his love of wordplay. These things helped me to love all the more the 95-year-old shell of this great man.

Lt. A.G. Dittes
C 426499
APO 909
C/o Postmaster
San Francisco
608th Engineering

January 11, 1942

Dearest Elinor,

Well, I guess the time has come for me to say that the time has come for a little boat to go sailing over the blue waters, etc., etc. I am glad that I was able to get you off on the train as I did, because the next day (today) we were advised not to bring our wives over on the island. So, you can see that it was for the best…..you would have been sitting over there at the hotel wondering what to do, and it would have been quite heart-breaking all the way through. As it was, it was bad enough. I saw some people come off the train just before the train went off, indicating that I could have done the same thing myself. I waited on the outside till the train left. I looked into all of the windows, and behind the curtains, as best as possible, but was unable to see you behind any of them. When the train finally left, I really felt quite bad. I knew that the person who meant the most to me in this world had just pulled away for a long long time. Well, I guess I might say that it is all my fault in having joined the army in the first place; but I realize that it would have been only a mater of time until I would have had to go, and probably be taken in an outfit that would be a very dangerous one. As I have told you previously, the head officers of this outfit take a rather jovial outlook of it all, and from that I gather that we won’t be going anywhere’s near a dangerous zone of action.

I am hoping very much that we do get stationed in South America, near a large city,
as was suggested by the colonel. That would make the problem of your coming down to see me easy, as we discussed in the restaurant on our last day together here yesterday. As I have already told you, the thing to do is to get a book on Spanish, and learn the stuff, and find out how to get a plane to south American countries. Once we get stationed, we will be at our location for quite some time, and if things are going then as they are at present, it won’t be long until they send us back to the states. Well, let’s hope for the best for the country, and for our own personal selves. I know that I want to do what is expected of me, and do my ordinary duty like any other honest citizens, but I also want to be home with you, and to make a nice home for you, so that you won’t be alone as you are now. Well, as I see things, it won’t be too long until that happy event takes place.

I want you to take good care of yourself physically, as well as in every other way. Eat three good meals each day, and get good exercise, and visit with all of your nice female relatives, and have a good time with them. Go to all the amusements that you want to go to. Buy all the clothes that you see and desire. Travel to Colorado, and to your mother in Chicago, and have a good time. Be happy, and gay…..do your work as a nurse as you desire, and as you see a need for your services. No doubt you will see several situations where nursing care is a real necessity and the people can’t pay, and I think that it would be very nice if you would help out, since you are not entirely dependent (if at all) on a nurse’s salary…

[The letter breaks into a discussion of receiving shares of Grandpa’s army checks, recollections of their time in San Francisco together, and directions on how to handle family members.]

…Above all, I want you to be NICE (Just as I have always said it!)

Well, Elinor, sweetheart, I hope that you get my many cards, and that you soon become adjusted to not having me around all the time. Remember what I told you about how nice a job I have, and the conveniences that are given me, and all of that…..you saw most of it for yourself…..so don’t worry too much about what a mess I am in, etc., etc. I sort of take this like a little spot of adventure to brighten up an otherwise orderly medical life. I also consider it a terrible shattering blow to my present marital status, and condition, but know that it won’t be too long until that situation is remedied.

So, little Elinor sweetheart, for the moment I say so-long, “till we meet again” and so
forth, and so on. Give my regards to your mother and father, and to Aunt Lou and Genevieve and Pudd, and to Uncle Tony and Aunt Elizabeth, and all…..also remember me to the Dybdalls, and tell them that we will go on that weekend trip some day when he finishes interning. Saw the show tonight at the post theatre, and it was one of those gangster thrillers, in which the gangsters rounded up a bunch of fifth columnists, and everybody had a good time. There was lots of shooting and fighting, and in the end, all of the bad people were very unhappy.

I hope you are very happy at Glendale, and that you keep busy and active, and happy, and above all, keep in good spirits, and keep in good physical shape, because we want to do a lot of things when I get back.

--don’t forget that I love you very, very much and will be always thinking of you.

Very best wishes, and very best love

P.S. I think I love you
2 P.S. I am pretty sure
that I love you
3 P.S. I am quite certain that I love you
4 P.S. I am very certain that I do love you.
5 P.S. I know I love you.
6 P.S. Be sure to be nice, and to talk nice—for ever in ever [sic] be seeing you soon, little pal

Your sweetheart, etc., etc.------Al.
[As it would turn out, Grandpa went first to northern Australia. His unit was an engineering company, which built roads, ports and airstrips as the front against Japan moved north. Eventually finished his service overseas in Papua New Guinea. He returned home in 1943.]

03 March 2007

Book Review: Abraham, The First Historical Biography

My hero of the Bible is Abraham, plain and simple.

Jenny tells the story of a conversation we had in college. She asked me what my life's goal was, and I told her it was to be a "Patriarch."

I'm not sure what got into me at the time. Perhaps it was a love of history and a fixation on greatness. Part of it must have been the admiration I have for my own grandfather, who anchored my family all of my life and gave me much to emulate in my own life (and much to improve upon, too, I should add).

When I look back on the 15 or so years since I said that to Jenny, I realize that "Patriarch" is about the only college-era goal that I have achieved. I enjoy teaching, but my goals of law school and organizational leadership bit the dust years ago. My writing hasn't taken off. The one job I have done well has been to care for three kids and support Jenny in her own, successful, professional endeavors.

I don't focus on unfulfilled dreams, really, because I sit here surrounded by the luxurious trappings of patriarchy: I live in my grandparents' home, the Dittes family seat for over 50 years; I have positions of ministry within my church and service within my community; I am a father to three kids--Jenny nixed the whole "Twelve Tribes of Dittes" idea years ago, sadly. So when I study the Bible, I study Abraham.

When I saw the title to David Rosenburg's book in my book club, I jumped at the chance to read it. It is an outsider's look at Abraham. Rosenburg brings a strong knowledge of Sumerian literature, and from this base in Sumer (the culture which Abram and his father, Terah, left for Haran). He also speculates on the authors whose versions of the Abraham story became enshrined in our Bible. Finally, he introduces a fascinating concept, the "Cosmic Theater," which encapsulates the inheritance that we draw from Abraham.

I had known little about the culture of Sumer aside from a passing knowledge of "The Epic of Gligamesh." Yet it was one of the world's first great civilizations, carried over from India, whose mountains are represented in its pyramid-like ziggurats. By the time of Abram's birth in 1750 BC, Sumer was in decline, upstaged by Babylonians northwest along the Euphrates River. Under the energetic leadership of Hammurabi, Babylonians had coopted Sumerian culture, while elevating the minor Sumerian god, Markuk, to supremacy.

This revelation highlights one of the real ironies of the Old Testament: it begins in the same way it ends: with the exile of the first Hebrew from his home in Ur--a journey from Sumer to Canaan; and with the exile of the Hebrews from Canaan back to Babylon. It makes the Old Testament a complete idea, doesn't it?

Rosenburg doesn't find the God of the Hebrews among those of Sumer. He describes the Sumerian religious festivals and traditions--their penchant for dressing up their idols and feeding them every day. Rosenburg notes that Sumerians believed in gods who interacted with man: watching us even as mankind scans the heavens trying to understand them. He describes this as the "Cosmic Theater." Abraham and his descendants invented the idea of a God who takes an interest in the individual, interacts with men, and asks people to interact in this theater that transcends dimension, time, and death itself. He believes that Yahweh was a family god in Abraham's family who was elevated by Abram's faith--and who rewarded Abram in return.

(Consider the Egyptian gods, who ruled the sky and the afterlife, yet had little to do with daily life; or the gods of Gilgamesh who try to hide from him the secret to everlasting life.)

Rosenburg has written previously on the authors of the Old Testament. This is an area of theology that I'm not sure of, but Rosenburg makes the case that one author, J, was actually a female scribe in the court of Reheboam. She comes out in the strong female characters of Sarah and Rebekah, and in the unique voice of Abram's faith experiences. She is also a well-educated author, drawing from earlier Hebrew sources for the story of Abraham as well as a library of texts from Sumer and Babylon. She is named "J" because she uses the name "Yahweh" for God (which starts with a J in German, where this theory originated).

The other major author Rosenburg identifies is "E" for "Elohim," an author writing in the northern kingdom of Israel 200 years later. E is concerned with procedure and hierarchy, and he tries to fill in the blanks with numbers (the ages of Abraham and Sarah when they conceived and died). In reading these sections, it occurred to me that we have to realize that we use two lenses to understand history and the Bible: we try to understand these stories using our own cultural parameters, the cultural parameters of the people who wrote down the stories many years after they happened, and finally the factual circumstances that are told in these stories.

Rosenburg mentions one other author of the Abraham story: Isaac. The fact that he plays such a small role in Genesis may imply that he was the one responsible for recording his father's journeys and transmitting them to the next generation. Abraham never gives up the feeling of being an immigrant in Canaan (he buys a field to bury Sarah in, stating explicitly that he has no land of his own). In a way, it was through Isaac that Sumerian culture was transmitted to the Hebrew people and down into our lives today.

As you can see, Abraham is a pretty ambitious project--trying to connect so many divergent ideas together into the story of one patriarch. At some points, it sags under the weight of its ambition. I would have been satisfied with a mere discussion of Sumerian culture and its echoes in the Old Testament or with a dissertation on J and E and the authors of the Old Testament or a reflection of the history of the "Cosmic Theater." All in all, however, this is a fascinating book, one that I'm happy to add to my collection of Abraham readings.