By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
Learning As I Go, by Jeff Minick. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: North Charleston, S.C., 2013, 311 pages. Available at amazon.com.
Imagine sitting at a kitchen table and having a conversation with a native of North Carolina, an elderly gentleman with a lively mind and a bona fide liberal education, a widower with five children and rich life experience, a former bookstore owner and a teacher of Latin, literature, and history to home-schooled students, a person who cherishes family, simple pleasures, and the enjoyment of people, an articulate man of letters with a love of literature and a master of the English language, and a devout Catholic who honors and lives the Christian faith.
This is the impression that reading these essays, letters, and satires makes — stimulating conversation, strong convictions, genuine insights, bursts of laughter, and the warmth of the personal touch.
The conversation ranges over a multitude of topics from the impoverished state of the culture to the polarized political climate of America to the weaknesses of the Catholic Church to the abysmal status of modern education.
As one hears these reflections and constructive criticisms on a myriad of subjects from sexual morality to the importance of reading to the works of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mind receives abundant food for thought, extraordinary common sense, intellectual honesty, and the wisdom of the ages. Like Socrates in his quest for truth, Minick makes thinking and learning a labor of love.
Divided into six parts (Letters to the Bishop, The Public Square, Hobson and Uncle Samuel, Notes on Education, Observations, and Books and Writers), the book addresses many of the concerns and issues that touch everyone’s life in the 21st century.
In “Letters to the Bishop,” Joe Ecclesia (the author’s persona) writes to an imaginary bishop about the matters that trouble him the most: the rearrangements before the altar and the position of the tabernacle as potted plants replace candles and transform the holy place before the statue of the Holy Mother into “a miniature garden.” Joe asks the bishop about the meaning of a “gay and lesbian Mass,” and wonders if “a Drunkards’ Mass” and “a Thieves’ Mass” will soon follow.
A man of integrity, Joe speaks his mind and does not belong to “The Keep-’Em-Dumb-And-Dutiful Crowd.”
He laments “those straggling squads of readers and eucharistic ministers who descend every Sunday onto the altar of even the smallest parish” and criticizes the feminization of the chanceries and seminaries that fail to attract noble, manly men motivated by lofty ideals and heroic virtues. Joe finds it contradictory for the Church that provides great comfort for the dying and devotes All Souls’ Day to honor the faithful departed to neglect the great adventure of living an abundant Catholic life: “Why do we hear so few sermons promoting the joys — and yes, the sheer adventure — of living life to the hilt as a Catholic?”
This love of life with its fullness and richness, he adds, needs the vitality that comes from hikes, delicious meals, book discussions, and engaging conversations in the atmosphere of friendship and hospitality. Joe asks honest, searching questions like “How often do we hear manliness praised these days in the Catholic Church? How often do priests offer homilies touting such masculine traits as restraint, courage, duty, and honor?”
Joe is always a thinker, never a “yes man.”
In “The Public Square” Minick turns his penetrating mind to such topics as the elitist prejudice of the mainstream media, especially in its vicious attack on Sarah Palin and its “unmasked contempt” for those who do not subscribe to the liberal ideologies. He concludes, “The American people now fully recognize the reporters and broadcasters for the snobs and liars they are.”
In the essay “How Slaves Are Made,” Minick exposes the absurdity of a statement from the 2012 Democratic National Convention: “The government is the only thing we all belong to.”
How can a rational animal created in the image of God and endowed with a free will and the capacity to love reduce himself to a creature of the state? Using common sense, Minick states simple self-evident truths: He belongs to God, to the human race, to his ancestors, to his wife and children, to the past, to his work, and to the Catholic Church. He does not owe servitude to the government: “The government belongs to us….I pay them money through taxes.” Though government may consider citizens as the subjects of the state, “it is nonetheless the master who pays the servant.”
Wise men like Minick are not fooled and quickly detect nonsense.
In “Hobson and Uncle Samuel” an older man passes on his wisdom about romance, love, and women to a nephew in need of prudence. He warns him about disillusioned, embittered “crazy ladies” indoctrinated by feminist ideology and duped by the propaganda that “they could have it all: a prestigious job, a wonderful and loving husband, children who adored them, a beautiful home.”
He cautions Hobson about many educated women who consider themselves superior to men. He advises him on the protocol of courtship and the chivalry of gentlemen. Uncle Samuel does not let popular culture or the media cheapen the beauty of romance and the magnificence of marriage.
He explains “What Women Want From Men”: first, manners and respect (“A practice of basic manners will so startle the women around you that they will give you a second, and even a third, look”). Second, humor (“Bring a smile to a woman’s lips, bring her laughter, and you will be well on your way to winning her heart”). Third, the personal touch (“Put aside the iPod, click off Facebook, and ask out the woman you wish to date face to face”). Fourth, the use of the eyes (focus the eyes on a woman’s face and show a sparkle when gazing into them). Fifth, fearlessness (“Be bold. Allow yourself to fall in love. Become a romantic”).
In a culture that avoids, postpones, or fears marriage or substitutes “living together” for the real thing, Minick dares to speak of the adventure of this glorious chapter of life with a sanity that is glaringly absent from popular culture. Reminding Hobson that women desire attention, value speech and communication, and deserve the courtesy of gentlemen, Minick gladly plays the part of the old bird who teaches young birds how to fly.
In “Observations” he offers many incisive points that identify the boorishness of modern habits lacking propriety, good taste, and refinement. In the essay “Adolescent Adulthood” he argues that a large percentage of adults do not act grownup but dress, talk, and behave as teenagers.
These adults dress inappropriately in public, even attending Mass in sweat suits. They “live only for pleasure and entertainment” and talk of “nothing but restaurants and wine tastings.” They indulge in alcohol, soap operas, and greasy foods and live the life of consumers. They stoop to the lowest common denominator and live in a state of lukewarm mediocrity, devoid of all the virtues that distinguish adults.
He even offers advice on “how to behave like a grownup” — a more basic lesson than how to get ahead, how to make money, or how to be successful.
Observing “fat women and fat men in sweats, jeans, and shorts” in shopping malls, he explains that the first rule is “to avoid dressing like a slob except in the privacy of your own home.”
The second rule is to have a sense of propriety and “to dress up rather than down on all occasions.”
The third rule is to talk like an adult and not only avoid obscenity but also speak in complete sentences and not copy the language of adolescents with empty interjections: “He was, like, you know, the best.”
Throughout these articles Minick keeps before his audience the highest ideals as the true standards of living.
The fourth rule is for adults to exercise restraint and self-possession in the traditional ways taught by the virtues of modesty, patience, humility, stoicism, or custody of the tongue rather than stoop to the crassness, brazenness, and exhibitionism that are often on display. Adults show strength when they practice the neglected virtues of “silence, a holding back, a stoic approach” rather than erupt with emotional displays and fits of anger.
The fifth rule is a sense of responsibility, duty, and service that puts the needs of others first before personal desires. Adults accept suffering and inconvenience and “offer themselves in sacrifice to others.”
This theme of raising expectations recurs throughout the book both for the old and the young. He warns the young of the dragons that endanger their education, the “electronic beasts under the guise of pods, pads, and phones, game and laptops, emails, and Facebook” that rob them of the time for serious reading and a life of the mind.
He counsels the young to study history, to read great literature, to beware of the glib use of the term “crisis” as used by politicians for self-interest, to acquire courage and to study and practice the other virtues, to view life as an adventure, and to live their faith.
He exhorts both young and old to live well, not merely to exist and to consume; to distinguish between the way things are and the way things ought to be; to think and know the difference between education and indoctrination.
Never pandering to the young or compromising principles, Minick speaks coherently, consistently, and eloquently of the wisdom of the human race and the perennial truths of the Catholic faith as a light for all people to follow in all ages:
“To avoid being sheep, to avoid being herded about aimlessly by politicos, rumor mongers, and the windy opinions of our age, we must raise as our banners the ancient verities of the human spirit.”
In short, this is a most enjoyable book that features a lively mind, a human voice, a lighthearted touch, a cornucopia of food for thought, and a prescription for sanity.
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(Dr. Kalpakgian is a professor of humanities.)