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Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1989)
Moonshiner's Son by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1993)
Foster's War by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1998)

My oldest grandson recommended Shades of Gray to his mother, who recommended it to me; now I'm recommending it to you. Jonathan eats dense, thousand-page books for breakfast, so this 152-page historical novel must have been no more than a gulp for him, but I'm glad to say that he—like his mother and grandmother—is not too proud to enjoy a good book at any level. These three books are all our library has to offer of Reeder's many offerings.

Shades of Gray is a tale of post-Civil War Virginia, told with sensitivity and, as far as I can tell, historical accuracy. There are difficult moments, and times of courage; of returning good for evil, and standing up for one's beliefs, and recognizing the humanity of someone with whom one disagrees. For all this good edcational value, it's also a great story.

Moonshiner's Son is likewise, and gives a whole new appreciation for Appalachian Mountain culture and several sides of our country's well-meaning, but foolish, experiment with Prohibition.

About Foster's War I can't be so enthusiastic, perhaps because I read it last, but more because it is by far the darkest of the three. Again, there are good moments and bad, and a sensitive treatment of the challenges faced by families living in Southern California at the start of World War II. But it's grim.

Although in all three cases the main character is a boy, I can commend the author for the strong female characters she also includes. What distresses me is my suspicion that she may be working out problems she has had with men in her own life. Three books; three boys afraid of the father or father-figure in their lives, and desperately seeking approval. In Foster's War, the father is downright abusive to his whole family, which tiptoes around trying to avoid "setting him off." Plus, in that book there's a lot more of what I don't like about so many modern children's books: disrespect between siblings, and from older children to younger.

I do like that in Foster's War the author does not eschew the language that was common in that era, e.g. referring to the enemy as "Japs," but merely includes a note that that was then, this is now, and the term is now considered insulting—though I did note that she neglected to make the same explanation about "Krauts," referring to the Germans.

Random question: Why is it that books with content only appropriate for older children are written with such a low reading level?

Shade of Gray and Moonshiner's Son I recommend enthusiastically; Foster's War with qualifications. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 26, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Edit
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altA Bridge Too Far (the 1977 movie) 

I've seen the movie before, and read the book—but a long, long time ago. Since we are planning a visit to Arnhem—the place of the bridge that was, tragically, "too far"—it seemed good to take another look at the scenery, and the story.

I'm no fan of war movies, but A Bridge Too Far is well done, and well told. It strikes a good balance, showing both criminal stupidities and heroic actions, deftly avoiding both the Scylla of lurid anti-war films and the Charybdis of sentimental patriotism.

I can't recommend it unreservedly, because of the language, but that's rare and at least reasonable for the situations. As for general content ... well, it's rated PG, but it's 'way too sad and intense for most of our grandchildren. That's too bad, because it's a good history lesson, and some of them will be joining us in Arnhem and will see where the events of World War II's Operation Market Garden took place. At least I can highly recommend that our children see A Bridge Too Far, if they can, and maybe the oldest grandson. Or two, I can't be sure. If one likes to read about fictional battles, as they do, maybe it's not so bad to see a bit of what real war is like.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at 9:28 am | Edit
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March is a little late to be posting my Books Read list for 2017, but the time has slipped by. (Doesn't it always?)

Looking it over, I'm pleased with how well my reading was spread out over time this year. Only two months show fewer than four books: August and September, not coincidentally the months of vacation and family reunion. At one stage of my life, vacations were a time for reading; now they are filled with grandchldren, travel, or both. I read the most books (10) in June, which had more variety in terms of genre than December, its close competitor (9).

My reading for 2017 reflects three reading projects: Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint), plus a dip back into science fiction, the discovery of a new, enjoyable children's book author (N. D. Wilson), and two books written by friends (Blair Bancroft and Esther Moneysmith Gross). I missed my goal of reading the entire Bible this year, but did finish (and start anew) in February 2018. All in all, it was a good year.

Here's the alphbetical list; links are to reviews. Titles in bold I found particularly worthwhile. This chronological list has rankings and warnings as well.

  1. 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson
  2. Boys of Blur by N. D. Wilson
  3. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  4. Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers
  5. The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read
  6. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
  7. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  8. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  9. Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky
  10. Designed to Move by Joan Vernikos
  11. The Documents in the Case by Dorothy Sayers with Robert Eustace
  12. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life by David Coomes
  13. The Fall of Heaven by Andrew Scott Cooper
  14. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers
  15. Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
  16. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
  17. The Glorious Adventure by Richard Halliburton
  18. Hangman's Holiday by Dorothy Sayers
  19. Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers
  20. Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein
  21. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  22. Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté
  23. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown
  24. I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't) by Brené Brown
  25. In the Blood by Steve Robinson
  26. In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy Sayers
  27. Ingathering by Zenna Henderson
  28. Jim Bridger: Mountain Man by Stanley Vestal
  29. The Last Archer by S. D. Smith
  30. The Last Queen of England by Steve Robinson
  31. Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson
  32. Like Living Among Scorpions by Jennifer Fulwiler
  33. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  34. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
  35. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
  36. Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories by Dorothy Sayers
  37. The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez
  38. Miss Clare Remembers by Miss Read
  39. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers
  40. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers
  41. No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read
  42. The People: No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson
  43. Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N. D. Wilson
  44. Over the Gate by Miss Read
  45. Pilgrimage: The Book of the People by Zenna Henderson
  46. Red Planet by Robert Heinlein
  47. Rising Strong by Brené Brown
  48. Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein
  49. The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton
  50. The Shadow of Robbers' Roost by Helen Rushmore
  51. Shadowed Paradise by Blair Bancroft
  52. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
  53. Storm in the Village by Miss Read
  54. The Stranger in My Genes by Bill Griffeth
  55. Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
  56. Tangled Strands by Esther Moneysmith Gross
  57. To the Grave by Steve Robinson
  58. The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien
  59. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers
  60. Village Christmas by Miss Read (read twice)
  61. Village Diary by Miss Read
  62. Village School by Miss Read
  63. The Whimsical Christian by Dorothy Sayers
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 25, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Edit
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Ember Rising, the latest in S. D. Smith's Green Ember series, is now available!  I have just completed a delicious re-read of all the previous books—The Green Ember, The Black Star of Kingston, Ember Falls, and The Last Archer—and am almost halfway through my advance copy of Ember Rising.  It was hard to wait patiently to read the new book, but worthwhile to get the old stories clear in my head again.  (I am not like J. R. R. Tolkien, for whom there was only one "first reading" of a book.  I read voraciously, and I read fast—but I forget quickly, too, and don't really remember a book until I've read it several times.)

So, any of you Green Ember fans who didn't get advance copies, now's your chance!  Here's the link at S. D. Smith's store, and here's Amazon's.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, March 8, 2018 at 6:21 am | Edit
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TODAY, Februay 7, you can get the first two Green Ember books in Kindle format for FREE.   Enjoy!

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Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Edit
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It's the American way, and even more so the Japanese way, and apparently the Swiss way also: the professionalism of parenthood. School is no longer so much the place where one learns specialized skills that can't be picked up at home or on one's own, but a place expected to teach children nearly everything a society deems important. The Four R's: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic ... and all the Rest. Because, well, you know, the professionals can do it so much better, and who has the time, anyway?

Society is beginning to take notice that our children are getting to the once-upon-a-time age of adulthood without many of the life skills we take for granted, skills that enable them to live independently and hold down a job. Employers have noticed this for years, but the rest of us are finally beginning to catch up, if only in our derisive sneers at "Millennials." Is it the job of public education to teach these skills? Of course not—though I agree with those who insist that any institution that takes away most of a child's life, practically from the cradle, should be expected to return a lot more benefit from such a huge cost. But when a social need is found, it's likely to get dumped on the schools.

Enter the Let Grow Project for Schools, created to address this need. This is actually something different from the norm, in that the schools are only the vehicle for spurring action by parents and children. It begins with this basic homework assignment: Go home and do something your parents did at your age. The suggested activities are shocking: cooking, cleaning, buying something from the store, playing outside unsupervised, riding a bike in the neighborhood, briefly watching a sibling, walking to school. Shocking, apparently, for parents who have been conditioned to believe that such activities are too dangerous to think about; shocking, definitely, for those of us who grew up doing them in a world statistically more dangerous than the one we live in today.

Parents aren't stupid. They want their children to grow up to be independent, competent people. But it's hard to live against the grain, when the media, friends and colleagues, and sometimes even the laws of the land are telling you that overprotecting, even coddling children is simply good parenting. What the schools are doing here is giving parents permission to take that first step.

My only concern is that some parents will approach the project without common sense; the best way to learn to swim is rarely to be thrown out of the boat into deep water. (I know someone who was taught to swim that way, but she doesn't recommend it.) If our grandchildren are extraordinarily competent—and they are—it's because they've been taking baby steps toward independence all their lives. A child at age 11 can go through the steps faster if he wants to, but it still takes time and training.

I haven't seen it mentioned in the literature on this subject, but my theory is that a major contributor to over-dependent children is the modern trend toward small families. When parents have only one or two children, it's all too easy to do for them things they should be doing for themselves. (Mea culpa.) Larger families simply cannot. Training children to do their own laundry, to wash dishes, to shovel snow, to cook meals, and to entertain themselves is a matter of survival. And it pays big dividends, for parents as well as children. As my daughter (mother of six) proclaimed, referring to her then thirteen-year-old son, It was worth all the work (and that work did include tears, it's not like I'm forgetting) in training him in the kitchen from a young age to be able to say now, "Please make dinner on Thursday night. Quiche would be nice."

There's no reason why this can't happen in smaller families, of course. But it's like exercise.  Once upon a time, people got plenty of good exercise without having to think about it, because their daily lives were so active; now, our sedentary lives mean that this essential element of health and happiness requires deliberate action.

May the Let Grow Project help more families find the "child competence exercise program" that fits them best.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, January 25, 2018 at 7:55 am | Edit
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I've been waiting over a year for the next book in the S. D. Smith's Green Ember series. As I said at the end of my review of Ember Falls,

Bring on the next bookBring on the next Kickstarter appeal. I'll be there#RabbitsWithSwords

The time has come. Ember Rising is finally in the home stretch. The book is written, artwork done, cover chosen ... there's just that little matter of publication. Once again they are funding this through Kickstarter, which I see as a great way to support a good author and play a small part in getting these wonderful books out of his head and into the world. 

I'm now officially an S. D. Smith fan. I don't support projects for the sake of the rewards, any more than I donate blood for the t-shirts and gift cards. But they're still nice to have, and this time I chose a level with rewards that duplicate things I already have—such as Kindle versions of the books—because it also gets me physical copies of all the books published so far. I had some, from previous campaigns, but gave them away, because why take up bookshelf space when you have the Kindle versions? Unless, of course, you have decided that you really like the books, and you're a true bibliophile, and still love the feel of a real book in your hands. And want to be able to lend the books to friends, or attract the eye of a visiting grandchild. That sort of thing. You can read a Kindle book, but you can love a physical book, and some books deserve to be loved. Hence my extensive collection of George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Miss Read....

Anyway, here's the Kickstarter link and accompanying video, should you want to join this exciting project.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 at 8:50 am | Edit
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This is the third time I've used that handy title for a post. It may be recursive.

The inspiration for this occasion is a lament from Village Diary, by Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint). What is remarkable is not the sentiment, but that it was written in 1957.

The child today, used as he is to much praise and encouragement, finds it much more difficult to keep going as his task gets progressively long. Helping children to face up to a certain amount of drudgery, cheerfully and energetically, is one of the biggest problems that teachers, in these days of ubiquitous entertainment, have to face in our schools.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, November 30, 2017 at 6:56 am | Edit
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Math, art, travel, photography. What's not to like?

For some reason, probably all of the above, this photo of "Seventeen parallel flowlines running between Flow Station 2 and Drill Site 3, Drill Site 9, Drill Site 16, Drill Site 17 and Endicott at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field" really struck me this morning when I read David July's Mount Sutro post, The Linear Perspective Orthogonals. (The photo is from the Mount Sutro Gallery. License agreement here.)

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Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 6:06 am | Edit
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Google frequently suggests, through my phone, articles that it thinks I might find interesting. Most of the time it's not even close: Really, I don't want to know what President Trump tweeted, any more than I wanted to hear what President Obama said on Saturday Night Live. I consider both to be inappropriate venues for a President. But recently Google was whang in the gold, with its suggestion of the video below from musician Rick Beato.

Not the whole video, actually. Mostly it's about acquiring the musical skill known as perfect (absolute) pitch, and why Beato believes it must occur during a child's first two years of life. He makes a good case, but it's a controversial point, and he apparently takes no account of recent studies demonstrating neuroplasticity in adult brains—something previously considered to be impossible. In any case, Beato himself doesn't mean adults can't develop really, really good relative pitch and get quite close to absolute pitch; after all, he has created several YouTube videos on how to do just that. But babies ... they're still something special.

The part of the video I find most intriguing is from the 6 minute point to about the 13 minute point.

One thing that surprised me, although in retrospect it should not have, is that Beato's son's acquired his ability to discern and remember pitches well before he knew any note names. But this post is not really about perfect pitch. It's also not about me feeling guilty for the opportunities lost with our children, and certainly not about making anyone else feel guilty for their own omissions. We do what we can with what we know at the time, and regrets are part of every parenthood contract. My concerns now are more general and philosophical.

What strikes me here—and it confirms what I've learned from other sources—is that our teaching habits are upside down.

Apparently, what helps babies learn is complexity. Materials with high information content. Unexpected twists and turns. So what do we do? We simplify everything for children. We give them baby talk, controlled-vocabulary books, and three-chord songs, when their brains are craving adult conversations, complex language, Bach, and jazz. Sure, they learn anyway: Babies are so desperate to learn they'll use whatever tools they can get their hands on. But despite the best of intentions, we are building cages where we should be opening doors.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 15, 2017 at 6:23 am | Edit
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Warning: This is an unabashed Grandma-brag—but it has a generally-applicable point as well.

One of my recurrent themes here is the truth that children can do and be so much more than we usually expect of them, from toddlers to teenagers. While our thirteen-year-old grandson's accomplishment is not on a par with commanding a captured naval vessel at the age of 12, nor with captaining a trading ship at 19, I'm quite proud of him—and his parents.

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In his right hand is an oak board, similar to that from which he made the object in his left hand, which, when painted, will replace the barber-pole coat rack at a local barbershop.

When he approached the barber, who had advertised for someone to do the work, it took guts and skill to negotiate the commission, not to mention to persuade the barber that a young teen could do the job.

It was an ambitious project, and required working with some heavy-duty power tools—radial arm saw, lathe, planer, and jointer—knowing not only their operation, but proper safety equipment and procedures as well. It was a time-consuming job that required patience, persistence, and focus. That's pretty impressive at an age when many consider him too young to fly unaccompanied on a commercial airplane, to own a knife, or even to stay home alone.

He can cook full meals, too, and I don't mean just heating things up in the microwave.

Is he some sort of genius?  Of course he is, he's my grandchild!

But seriously, what distinguishes him the most from many young people is opportunity. His parents didn't just turn him loose among those dangerous tools, unprepared. He's been helping in the workshop (and the kitchen) since he was a toddler. So have his siblings. The kind of training that produces skills of this sort requires patience and persistence on the part of parents, too—and even more so, a willingness to stand up for the right of children to fly in a society determined to clip their wings.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 13, 2017 at 10:16 am | Edit
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The article may be a little heavy-going, but I know some of my readers will love it. It's not often number theory makes the headlines: Mathematicians Discover Prime Conspiracy. Maybe it's the idea of conspiracy—that always sells.

Two mathematicians have uncovered a simple, previously unnoticed property of prime numbers — those numbers that are divisible only by 1 and themselves. Prime numbers, it seems, have decided preferences about the final digits of the primes that immediately follow them.

Among the first billion prime numbers, for instance, a prime ending in 9 is almost 65 percent more likely to be followed by a prime ending in 1 than another prime ending in 9. In a paper posted online today, Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver of Stanford University present both numerical and theoretical evidence that prime numbers repel other would-be primes that end in the same digit, and have varied predilections for being followed by primes ending in the other possible final digits.

The discovery is the exact opposite of what most mathematicians would have predicted... Most mathematicians would have assumed ... that a prime should have an equal chance of being followed by a prime ending in 1, 3, 7 or 9.

Soundararajan was drawn to study consecutive primes after hearing a lecture at Stanford by the mathematician Tadashi Tokieda, of the University of Cambridge, in which he mentioned a counterintuitive property of coin-tossing: If Alice tosses a coin until she sees a head followed by a tail, and Bob tosses a coin until he sees two heads in a row, then on average, Alice will require four tosses while Bob will require six tosses (try this at home!), even though head-tail and head-head have an equal chance of appearing after two coin tosses.

Soundararajan wondered if similarly strange phenomena appear in other contexts. Since he has studied the primes for decades, he turned to them — and found something even stranger than he had bargained for.

What does this mean for ordinary mortals? Who knows? It may mean nothing ... or it may lead to the next big break in cryptography. With math, anything's possible.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 10:04 am | Edit
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"These are your presents, and they are tools, not toys." With these words, Father Christmas hands the Pevensie children the weapons with which they will battle evil in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The very best toys are indeed tools. Children use them to craft the adults they will become. Here's an article from three years ago that illustrates how favoring boys over girls with a particular type of toy/tool (computers) led directly to the "gender gap" among coders that developed in the mid-1980's.

A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.

Early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys. ... This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution.

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.

The girls had fallen behind before they even set foot on campus.

"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "

Nor is the phenomenon limited to computing. Upon taking her first course in optical engineering at the University of Rochester, our daughter found herself at the head of the class in the mathematics, but woefully behind her male classmates when it came to practical electronics. Our other daughter marvelled at her husband's facility with bicycle repair ... and his total lack of fear when tackling a new matter of practical handiwork. He had grown up working on such projects.

Not all boys do, but there's definitely a gender bias, perhaps because fathers are more likely to teach such work to their sons. Probably, too, girls are more susceptible to the fear of doing something wrong: it has long been known that when something goes wrong, women are likely to blame themselves, while men generally assign responsibility to the inanimate object. "I'm so stupid; I broke the dish" versus "The stupid dish slipped and broke."

Whatever the reasons, what is perfectly clear is that how our children play shapes their futures. By  no means am I advocating that parents should take still further control over their children's "free" time, as if preschool, after-school activities, computer camps, and travel soccer weren't enough of an intrusion. But perhaps every family's education budget should include plenty of toys that are actually high-quality tools—from art equipment and musical instruments to construction tools and electronics.

Everyone has an education category in the family budget, right? If not, you should; in the meantime, clue in the grandparents when they ask for gift suggestions.

Perhaps even more important than useful tool/toys would be to give our children the gift of freedom from the fear of making a mistake. Let them "waste" the expensive paints and paper; be prepared to see many repair jobs end with parts all over the floor before they learn to put anything back together; let them know by word and your example that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Our young neighbor became the go-to computer resource for our school district well before he graduated, because in middle school he had fearlessly crashed his home computer system over and over again, turning repeatedly to my husband for rescue—until he surpassed his teacher.

I wish I had been better at this when our children were young. With age comes wisdom, and what we lack in opportunity to implement our theories, we gain in opportunities to promote them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 26, 2017 at 9:16 am | Edit
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The Great Courses presented a contest this morning on Facebook: You're stuck on an island with the full Great Courses library and a way to enjoy them. Would you go with engineering/ homesteading to try to get off the island, or would you take advantage of the free time and enjoy your favorite subject?

I love this sort of challenge, and you all know how I try to get double duty out of my writing when I can, so I'm posting my answer here as well:

This is a fantasy, so I will dispense with all the worries about necessities, assuming that food, water, shelter, and whatever else might be needful—such as the equipment, power, and connection necessary for enjoying the Great Courses—will be readily at hand. I will assume that I am stranded, but not lost, and that I can anticipate rescue in a year. I will call this my Sabbatical Year—a time for learning and growing in preparation for living a more full and useful life upon my return.

Even with no distractions, a year is not long enough to experience all the Great Courses, nor even all that I would be interested in. But it would be sufficient for acquiring a great education, and one of the blessings of this fantasy would be not feeling the pressure I do now to make the most of limited time and money. I would not rule out any subject, but would attempt to sample broadly. Who visits a buffet and eats of only one food?

Perhaps I would start with astronomy, because this would be my best opportunity ever to gaze at a sky unburdened by light pollution. Then something from biology, geology, and oceanography, so as to understand my surroundings better. At that point, I would probably be in the mood for some health and exercise courses, to supplement my exploratory walks around the island. Those walks would also be a great opportunity for pondering the questions raised in the philosophy and religion courses. I would choose math and physics to keep my brain sharp, and music, art, and literature for my soul. Interspersed with all that I'd probably include a foreign language or two, and some lighter courses like cooking and travel.

Wait. Is this really a fantasy? In degree, yes, but not in kind. In real life, I do have to be concerned with food, shelter, power, and above all, time. Distractions abound. But the choice is still mine: the Great Courses are available, and I can take my Sabbatical Year one hour at a time. Learning and growing in preparation for living a more full and useful life can still be mine, even here, even now.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 31, 2017 at 10:34 am | Edit
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— Glad I learned how to sing harmony. Thanks, Mom, for all those choruses of "Found a Peanut" in three parts when I was a kid!

— We had fun singing in the car, didn't we, sweetie? "Found a Peanut," "Make New Friends,"  "Thou Poor Bird" .... happy memories.

— Lots more than these, too ... dozens and dozens ... you would sing the harmony and I would sing the melody ... it trained my mind for hearing the parts and eventually we could switch.

This exchange between a professional backup singer friend and her choir director mother inspired me to write about a question that has been troubling me: Where do today's young children learn to sing in harmony?  They are surrounded by music (of a sort, anyway) in a way my generation never was, whether by choice on their phones or by chance in the shopping mall. But it's passive; where do they learn to sing?

Many of my elementary school classrooms had pianos. (And bless the teachers, we occasionally were allowed to fiddle on them before and after school.) Sometimes the music teacher came in and sang with us, and sometimes the teacher herself led us in singing. Later, but still in elementary school, we could choose to participate in a chorus, where we learned two- and three-part harmony. By the time we were in eighth grade, there were enough boys whose voices had changed to make that four-part.

Does that sound like a swanky private school to you?  It was actually four different public schools in a very small town in upstate New York. (Even back then districts were fond of moving students around.)

My own children had an absolutely fantastic music teacher in elementary school, and she gave them many experiences I never dreamed of. But when it comes to harmony, I had the better deal. They also had a far more amazing high school chorus experience than I did, but I'm talking about younger children: few high school students chose chorus as an option, fewer still if they had not had a great musical experience earlier on.

Our children also gained an incomparable musical education in church, thanks to a choir director who was both a great musician and a great teacher. But for congregational singing, I was much better off than children in most churches since then.

The church we attended when I was young was not, generally, an enlightening experience, and I was glad when we stopped going and I had my Sunday mornings free. But it, too, deserves a lot of credit in my musical education. We sang from the wonderful red Hymnbook published by a group of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, a hymnbook complete with time and key signatures and four-part harmony for every hymn. Congregational singing was not as peaked in those days as it often is today, and that experience was foundational for my musical life.

Granted, I'm shy enough that I didn't feel at all secure in my singing until after many years of choir experience, and learning to improvise harmony came almost too late. I wish I'd learned more as a child. But I'm beginning to be convinced that, between school and church, I gained a better musical foundation in my tiny New York town than most children receive today.

What has been your musical experience?  Convince me that I'm wrong!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at 6:38 am | Edit
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