LSS: Ah, civility…

Ah, civility.

Ah, courtesy.

Ah, chivalry.

The three C’s of yester-year?

In a country built on the virtue of democracy, common decency seems to be vanishing at an alarming rate. What most of us consider basic manners are practices rooted in ancient European nobility. Courtesy is derived from appropriate behavior at courtChivalry was behavior taught to chevaliers – knights.

With many cultures meeting in the middle, rules of behavior are sometimes unclear – and that lack of clarity shows. America has long been a melting pot of cultures, but how did early leaders cope?

Many believe one of the reasons George Washington was able to lead effectively was the respect he garnered by almost everyone, regardless of their social standing. Mason Locke Weems wrote the fable of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. He also wrote that it was “no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.”

History tells us that part of Washington’s ease in dealing effectively with many people from different social standings and cultures was his adeptness in civility. For that, at least partial credit goes to French Jesuits who, in 1595, wrote 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which Washington copied by age 16.

Richard Brookhiser wrote, “Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals.”

The Jesuit written-George Washington-imparted rules are good reminders for today’s society – myself included. Perhaps if parents and their children lived more by the manners of the man we call the Father of our Country, life would have much less strife for us all.

Though some are surely dated, most of the rules are as timely now as they were in 1595. In language of long ago – that’s worth figuring out, here’s a sampling:

1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

3rd Show Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.

4th In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

9th Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.

19th Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave.

24th Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.

41st Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of arrogance.

44th When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.

49th Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

110th Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

LSS: Make a positive difference in the wake of chaos

I have never been to Haiti.

Even before the earthquake struck, I didn’t think much about Haiti.

I knew it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I knew outrageous stories from former students and friends. They told me of the Caribbean island nation’s infamous leaders. I knew of its sugar cane connections to Acadiana. And, I knew a bit about its magic.

Even after the earthquake struck, I didn’t want to write about Haiti.

I didn’t want to see images from Haiti.

I didn’t want to think about Haiti.

Here in the good ole USA, my life was going just fine. I had other things to think and write about this week. I tried to avoid letting Haiti affect my world.

Except I know that is not the way the world works.

Even though personal connections with Haiti and Haitians may be slim and tenuous, when disaster strikes on the scale of the Haitian earthquake, it affects us all – whether we want it to or not.

Chaos during a disaster is only topped by the greater chaos that follows it. In Haiti, a country that has struggled with the depths of poverty, the ability to run an effective government and the capacity to create stable infrastructure, extreme disaster chaos boggles the mind. After a friend of mine visited Haiti last year – in the best of circumstances, she relayed stories of many Haitian children eating mud cakes to satisfy the hunger of an empty stomach.

Just think about Louisiana in the days that followed Katrina. Louisiana is a state in the richest country in the world with resources galore.

Haiti, on the other hand, is an island nation – with few resources. Even in the best of circumstances, the Haitian government is challenged to provide for its residents.

What will the Haitian survivors do? How can concerned people help?

I don’t have answers. I’m not sure what actions mere mortals in Louisiana can take to make a positive difference. However, I do believe that keeping Haitians in our thoughts – and prayers, if you’re so inclined – can make a positive difference.

I know first-hand the difference positive vibes can make. Four years ago, when my husband was sick and believed to be dying, I could feel people praying for us. I could also tell when many of them stopped. Out of crisis, people move on. It’s natural. I understood. But by the time my friends’ and loved one’s prayers were needed elsewhere, I had my footing and could make it.

The going in Haiti will be tough for a long time to come. The individual Haitians I’ve known are a lot like people I know in Acadiana. They are prepared to work hard to overcome their struggles. Haiti’s motto is “L’Union fait la force” which means, “Unity is strength.”

I’ve never been to Haiti, and may very well never go. However, I’d like to do what I can to help them find that strength.

LSS: Teaching and teacakes

One of the joys of teaching is learning.

When I realized I needed to teach a unit on historical fiction to my sixth-grade students, I was thrilled. I love reading historical fiction — which makes teaching an easier task. Students can tell when a teacher loves the subject matter. In fact, I’d say that students are able to decipher the truth about most anything. If a teacher’s heart isn’t in something, they know.

As I prepared to teach a novel about the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s son, I realized how little I knew beyond the basics about the Great Depression.

So, I found Depression era music. We studied the Dust Bowl, stock market, hobo lifestyles and food from the Depression.

Through Facebook, a friend introduced me to videos on youtube.com called “Cooking With Clara.” Clara is in her mid-nineties and cooks simple food in her simple kitchen. I showed a couple of the five-minute videos to my students. I explained that they needed to watch and listen carefully and write down at least one of Clara’s Depression-era recipes. I added that if anyone wanted to make any of the recipes, I would give extra credit.

Never did I expect the response I got. Students brought Clara’s food in all week. More than any of the recipes (including pasta with peas, homemade bread and egg and pepper sandwiches), students chose to make Clara’s sugar cookies.

When the first student opened the Ziplock bag, I had a strong déjà vu moment. I knew exactly what those cookies were going to taste like. In watching my students watch Clara making the cookies, I had not realized that I knew those cookies.

Clara was making my great-grandmother’s teacakes.

My great-grandmother passed away almost 20 years ago, but the aroma of those cookies was exactly the same as the one produced by opening one of my great-grandmother’s cookie tins.

It made sense.

Clara and my great-grandmother could have been contemporaries (though my great-grandmother would have been a few years older). I guess lots of people made a version of those cookies in the Depression. My great-grandmother just kept making them — and called them teacakes.

Throughout the week, as more students brought more batches of Clara’s cookies, my great-grandmother’s presence grew. The texture and shape of my students’ cookies varied as wildly as my great-grandmother’s did. Sometimes they were soft and chewy. Other times they were hard as brickbats — and as some of my students noticed, they hurt your teeth.

From an old friend I reconnected with online letting me know about a little old lady who cooks Depression era food in her simple kitchen to the unnamed person who beautifully edits those videos and puts them online to my students taking the time to make the recipes and bringing them to class to share, the whole thing was sweet.

I felt like I had a little visit with someone I loved and missed.

Jan Risher column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: Changing gears

Long ago, children received their drivers’ licenses at the tender age of 15. Shortly after my landmark driver’s license birthday, my father and I drove 30 miles to the nearest Toyota dealership and bought a blue Corolla.

He made it clear that this would be a family car, but I picked it out.

It was the first new car I remembered my family buying. As my daddy signed papers, I was about to hyperventilate with excitement. I kept sitting in the driver’s seat imagining the possibilities. I hadn’t been able to test-drive it since it was a standard, and I only knew how to drive an automatic.

But such tiny details mattered not.

Finally, the salesman took the car around back for a wash. My dad and I stood at the door and waited for it to reappear. When it did, the man jumped out and gave my dad the keys.

Daddy looked and me and said, “You want to drive it home?”

I could hardly speak for smiling.

“Of course,” I muttered, “but I don’t know how to drive a standard.”

And this is what happened next.

My father said, “It’s easy. This car has five gears,plus reverse. You start out in first. When you get up to 12 or 15 miles an hour, push the clutch all the way in with your left foot, and pull it down to second. Give gas as you let off the clutch. When you get to about 25, put it up to third. The pattern of the gears is there on the knob. Just go up, over and up again. Then when you get to about 35, pull it straight down to fourth.”

I stood there wide-eyed.

“You could keep it in fourth,” he continued, “but to save gas, put it in fifth when you get to about 55. I don’t think you’ll need reverse between here and home.”

He handed me the keys, got in his truck, cranked it up and waited for me to get in the Toyota.

When I did, he rolled down his window.

“Remember, don’t crank it unless you’ve got the clutch pushed all the way in,” he yelled, just before pulling out of the parking lot. I could feel his eyes watching me in the rearview mirror.

I did my best to remember what he had said.

I stalled several times, but before long before I was going lickety-split down Highway 35.

Last week, I went home for the holidays and drove another standard transmission car my parents recently purchased. Remembering how came easy. As I shifted gears, I smiled at my dad’s Outward Bound-learn-through-experience approach to child rearing. It kept my youth fun and exciting — and built self-confidence. He gave me the tools and knew I was up for the challenge.

These days, my father scoffs at what he considers to be my overly cautious parenting style. In this new year, I resolve to sprinkle limited doses of his wisdom in my children’s world.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.