altHow I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown (Spiegel & Grau, 2010)

This book by a scientist—a Caltech scientist no less—was such a joy to read I took time to look for a ghostwriter. But I soon came to the conclusion that Mike Brown is just a good writer with the usual editorial assistance.

How I Killed Pluto is primarily the story of the discoveries and controversies that led to the loss of Pluto as our ninth planet—with just enough anecdotes from his personal life to keep it grounded. Brown is not the first person to have his life upended by a baby who arrived a few days before schedule, but the dominos that fell from that distraction rang 'round the world. Not that Brown has any regrets about paying more attention to his daughter than to writing a paper about his astronomical research.

Having been, for a number of years, the go-to computer person in a research lab, I am not burdened by the illusion that scientists are saints dedicated to the pursuit of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They are human beings and just as prone to pride, greed, and falsification as the rest of us poor sinners. If you retain any such illusions, How I Killed Pluto is a good antidote—yet without bitterness.

Mostly, however, How I Killed Pluto is a good, layman's guide to the rigors and beauties of astronomy, and the best explanation I've heard yet as to why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Pluto was not so much demoted as returned to its rightful place. As I read, I kept thinking of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. Raised from infancy by Mother and Father Wolf, the child Mowgli considered himself to be a wolf, as did his wolf family. But as he grew, and as he discovered other beings with a much greater resemblance to himself, it became obvious to all that he was no longer the simple Mowgli of the Seeonee Wolf Pack. His heart was there, but he didn't really fit. (Please try to ignore the images in your mind of the Disney version of the story, and concentrate on what Kipling wrote.)

Similarly, as more and more objects were found that orbit our sun, inclucing Brown's own Eris (originally nicknamed Xena), the discovery that precipitated Pluto's fall, it became clear that Pluto, long considered to be the coldest, smallest, and most distant of our solar system's family of planets, is instead one of the largest of another whole species of celestial objects.

I can live with that.

Side note 1: I really miss the good old days of punctuation. No, I'm not—in this case—referring to the rampant abuse of the apostrophe, but to the days when profanity in publications, if it occurred at all, was modestly represented by a mostly random sequence of punctuation marks. I do not call it progress that authors of otherwise perfectly delightful books somehow think it better to be explicit in their swearing. Except for one word—one word!—How I Killed Pluto would be a perfect gift for our oldest grandchild. I understand that Brown wanted to describe in detail his girlfriend's stunned response to his proposal, but would it have killed him to have left it at, "You are such a &%$*#"?

Side note 2: Many of the books on our overflowing bookshelves came from my father's collection, which had been amassed through eight decades of reading. In his later years, his daughter-in-law was a prime contributor to his collection. Today, nothing proclaims my status as family matriarch more than that I am now the recipient of her bounty. She knew my father well, and she knows me also; her books are almost always fascinating. How I Killed Pluto is one of them.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I have only one quotation—and that has nothing to do with astronomy.

Diane and I often joke about parents who think that everything their children do is exceptional. Intellectually, we always understood that Lilah would likely be good at some things, not as good at other things. Exceptional is a pretty high bar. But reading ... books about early childhood and watching Lilah develop, I finally understood. She is exceptional, because early childhood development is about the most exceptional thing that takes place in the universe. Stars, planets, galaxies, quasars are all incredible and fascinating things, with behaviors and properties that we will be uncovering for years and years, but none of them is as thoroughly astounding as the development of thought, the development of language. Who would not believe that their child is exceptional? All children are, compared to the remainder of the silent universe around them.

Amen and amen!

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 10:00 am | Edit
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I opened up Facebook this morning to be greeted by the following "Suggested Post."

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Some of my readers will immediately recognize the "Castle in Arquenay" as Château de la Motte Henry, where 10 years ago we celebrated Janet's birthday. We chose that fairy tale castle not because Janet is a romantic and highly imaginative person, although she is, but because the château happens to be the home of some dear friends, whose daughter would later be the flower girl in Janet's wedding. They are the most amazing hosts, and the experience was sublime.

The wonderful thing, as Facebook so cheerily told me, is that you, too, can have the Château de la Motte Henry experience! Well, not the friends-and-family perks, but let me tell you, these people know how to host an experience for their paying guests as well! Don't let the price tag put you off—share the cost with friends; it's a huge place! (No, I don't get a commission; I just love sharing something so special.)

If nothing else, take the time to go to the booking site, browse, and dream. Check out the amenities, marvel at the photos. I quote from the overview:

*JUST LISTED AS ONE OF "THE TIMES' TOP 20 CHATEAUX IN FRANCE" FOR HOLIDAY RENTALS!* -- (If you are a group larger than 14, please inquire about additional space & rates.) Live a fairytale dream in this romantic 19th century castle with its own private lake, swimming pool & cinema. Your senses will be dazzled with stunning views, gentle sounds of birds and rippling water, and the rich scents of roses and lavender. You will luxuriate in the privacy of 29 secluded acres, but only travel 2 km to reach all amenities. Whether you are a family, corporate group, or reunion of friends, the château offers pampering, fun and relaxation in a sublime setting for groups both large and small.

The château is an historically listed property, once open to the public, and now privately owned and operated. Featuring a motte (mound) from the time of Henry II surrounded by a moat, spectacular parkland, ancient trees, a private spring-fed fishing lake, and a Renaissance-inspired swimming pool within a secluded walled rose garden, the château is a haven of peace and tranquillity.

Here one can bask in the glorious French countryside, or discover the riches of the surrounding areas of the Loire Valley, Brittany & Normandy from this central location. Children & adults alike will delight in visits to the famous Loire châteaux, Mont St. Michel, D-Day Beaches, the fabulous Puy de Fou theme park and Zoo de la Fleche, all within a 1.5 hour drive. Within 15 minutes drive, one can experience beautiful gardens, golf, riding, nature-activity parks, river cruises, museums, stately homes & more. Or, you may simply never wish to leave the grounds of your very own château...

The château offers extremely spacious bedrooms, all with en-suite bathrooms; reception rooms comfortably yet elegantly renovated in keeping with the romantic style; & wonderful facilities for self-catering, such as a recently renovated designer kitchen with granite and marble-mosaic finishes, as well as three outdoor BBQs.

Special amenities include: Nespresso Machine, Bathrobes, Slippers, Large Welcome Basket, Champagne Reception on Arrival, Toiletry Kits in Bathrooms

Here's another view, Janet's own picture from a decade ago. Can you imagine walking through the woods and suddenly seeing this through a break in the trees?

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Facebook is scarily good at surprising me with relevant ads, but this one was the most amazing yet.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 11:04 am | Edit
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altRising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution by Brené Brown (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)

Once more, our library is making sure I read Brené Brown's books in the wrong order; my hold for Rising Strong, her most recent book, came through before I Thought It Was Just Me, one of her earliest. It was okay, though, because I've read enough by now to be more able to handle her style. (See Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.)  As with the other books, her style gets in the way for me—I don't mean so much her writing itself, which is fine, as the way she chooses to express herself, e.g. redefining terms to mean something other than as they are commonly understood, too much "psychology-speak," too many references to pop culture (music and movies), and her habit of sprinkling her paragraphs with profanities (which I consider unprofessional as well as rude). That doesn't change the fact that she has some important insights, it just means I have to dig a little harder to understand them. One of the strengths of this book is the many examples and anecdotes that illustrate her ideas.

After inadequately summarizing Rising Strong as how we can learn to get up stronger and better after falling flat on our faces, I'll move right to the quotations. (Bold emphasis mine.)

Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we're learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.

If there's one thing I've learned over the past decade, it's that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I'm not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer. You're feeling shame for forgetting your son's school play? Please—that's a first-world problem; there are people dying of starvation every minute. The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough. Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone there is not less of these qualities to go around. There's more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn't benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who's going through a divorce.... Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.

You can't skip day two. ... Day two, or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you're "in the dark"—the door has closed behind you. You're too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light. ... What I think sucks the most about day two is ... it's a non-negotiable part of the process. Experience and success don't give you easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace, a grace that whispers, "This is part of the process. Stay the course." Experience doesn't create even a single spark of light in the darkness of the middle space. It only instills in you a little bit of faith in your ability to navigate the dark. The middle is messy, but it's also where the magic happens.

We have to have some level of knowledge or awareness before we can get curious. We aren't curious about something we are unaware of or know nothing about. ... Simply encouraging people to ask questions doesn't go very far toward stimulating curiosity. ... The good news is that a growing number of researchers believe that curiosity and knowledge-building grow together—the more we know, the more we want to know.

That's what I've been saying for years about early childhood education; education in general, in fact. Which is why I've never been sympathetic to those who insist that young children should not learn "dry facts."  For young children, facts are anything but dry—unless we make them so.

[Explaining her insight as to why she and her husband each found it easier to handle life with their children when the other was out of town.] When I'm on my own for a weekend with the kids, I clear the expectations deck. When Steve and I are both home, we set all kinds of wild expectations about getting stuff done. What we never do is make those expectations explicit. We just tend to blame each other for our disappointment when they're not realized.

We accept our dependence as babies, and ultimately, with varying levels of resistance, we accept help as we get to the end of our lives. But in the middle of our lives, we mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those who help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.

It doesn't nullify her point, but babies don't happily accept dependence. They're fighting tooth and nail to "do it self" long before they can utter those words.  They can't help being born dependent, but the will to be dependent is learned. Lounged in a chair in front of the television or a video game:  "Mom, I'm hungry!" "Bring me a beer, honey!"

Most of us were too young and having too much fun to notice when we crossed the fine line into "behavior not becoming of a lady"—actions that call for a painful penalty. Now, as a woman and a mother of both a daughter and a son, I can tell you exactly when it happens. It happens on the day girls start spitting farther, shooting better, and completing more passes than the boys. When that day comes, we start to get the message—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—that it's best that we start focusing on staying thin, minding our manners, and not being so smart or speaking out so much in class that we call attention to our intellect. This is a pivotal day for boys, too. ... Emotional stoicism and self-control are rewarded, and displays of emotion are punished. Vulnerability is now weakness. Anger becomes an acceptable substitute for fear, which is forbidden.

Fault-finding fools us into believing that someone is always to blame, hence, controlling the outcome is possible. But blame is as corrosive as it is unproductive.

Breaking down the attributes of trust into specific behaviors allows us to more clearly identify and address breaches of trust. I love the BRAVING checklist because it reminds me that trusting myself or other people is a vulnerable and courageous process. [I've shortened the explanations a little.]

  • Boundaries—You respect my boundaries and when you're not clear about what's okay and not okay, you ask.
  • Reliability—You do what you say you'll do.
  • Accountability—You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
  • Vault—You don't share information or experiences that are not yours to share.
  • Integrity—You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
  • Nonjudgement—I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
  • Generosity—You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

"No regrets" doesn't mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.

People learn how to treat us based on how they see us treating ourselves. ... If you don't put value on your work, no one is going to do that for you.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 23, 2017 at 6:37 am | Edit
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altDesigned to Move: The Science-Backed Program to Fight Sitting Disease & Enjoy Lifelong Health by Joan Vernikos (Quill Driver Books, 2016)

You've heard it before: Sitting is the new smoking. Dr. Vernikos makes a convincing case for the rapid deterioration of both the body and the brain during as little as 30 minutes of sitting. As a health researcher with NASA, she observed that the bodies of astronauts "aged" ten times as fast in weightless conditions as at home on the earth. Then she observed the same results in people who sit for much of the day, i.e. all of us.

There are plenty of studies to back her up. The results are not always precise, because most of the data is from statistical analysis of studies that were not originally intended to be about sitting. But the pattern is clear enough, nonetheless.

I'll spare you the details; the writing is not the best, and tends to be repetitious. In a nutshell, however:

  • Gravity is our friend, no matter what you may think when you trip and fall flat on your face. Most of our bodily systems depend, one way or another, on motion in the presence of gravity to function correctly.
  • When we sit, we deprive our bodies of most of the beneficial effects of gravity.
  • Exercise is good, but it is not the answer to the problem of sitting. An hour of intense exercise at the gym does not counteract hours spent seated in front of a computer or watching television.
  • But there's really good news: what does counteract the problem of sitting is as simple as taking a break every 30 minutes to stand up, and sit down again. That's it. Of course, more movement is better. Frequency and variety are much more important than intensity. That said, if all you do is break up your sitting by standing briefly every half hour, you're doing your body and brain enormous good, even down to the biochemical level. If you're at the computer, you may want to set a timer—we all know how fast two hours can go without our knowledge. If you are watching commercial television, stand up during the commercials. Done.

If there is a word that defines the solution to our sitting woes, it is alternating—from sitting to standing, from standing to bending over to pick something off the floor, from squatting to jumping up, from stretching up to bending sideways, moving up every which way, kneeling down in prayer to touch your forehead on the ground and back upright again. Add frequent and variety to alternating and you have the keys to the solution.

From this persepctive, it's clearly healthier to be a sit-kneel-stand Episcopalian or a jump-dance-wave-your-arms Pentacostal than a sit-in-the-pew-for-an-hour Presbyterian. :)

And best of all to be a little child.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 20, 2017 at 7:53 am | Edit
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altDorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life by David Coomes (Lion Publishing, 1992)

I'm a long-time fan of the works of Dorothy Sayers, though I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that my reading has been almost—though not quite—exclusively of her detective fiction. That's a fault I'm working to correct, though sadly our library isn't of much help.

Coomes' book is a wonderful examination of the person behind the great mind and brilliant writer. I'd say it is a fair biography, doing Sayers justice, giving her due credit for her amazing accomplishments without whitewashing her character flaws or excusing her sins—of which she was very much aware.

Despite my respect for the author's work, I can't say the same for his proofreaders and editors. I know how easy it is to have read a manuscript so many times that you simply can't see the errors anymore, but I still wonder how everyone could have missed the amusing error that appears on every page of Chapter 6, in the title, 'The deadlines of principles.'  Having read Gaudy Night multiple times, and recently, I knew immediately that the title was a quote from that book, and that it was wrong. Even in the body of the chapter, where the passage in which the phrase appears is quoted in longer form, it is misquoted. The relevant sentence is, The young were always theoretical; only the middle-aged could realize the deadliness of principles. Not deadlines. Deadliness. Until now I had never noted the one-letter difference that changes the meaning so dramatically.

The mistake is repeated at least 16 times. That spell check failed to catch the error is understandable, since both are valid English words; that it slipped by all the humans is less so. But maybe they hadn't read Gaudy Night, where the deadliness of principles is not just a passing phrase, but central to the mystery, and to the book.

Much of the author's insight into the character of Sayers comes from her writings, especially her letters, and he quotes liberally. That is how it came to be that all the quotations below are Sayers' own words rather than Coomes'. As always the bold emphasis is mine.

I was [as a child] always readily able to distinguish between fact and fiction, and to thrill pleasantly with a purely literary horror...I dramatised myself, and have at all periods of my life continued to dramatise myself, into a great number of egotistical impersonations of a very common type, making myself the heroine (or more often the hero) of countless dramatic situations—but at all times with a perfect realisation that I was the creator, not the subject, of these fantasies.

"More often the hero"—that was true for me, as well. I believe it is the natural consequence of the sad fact that until recently nearly all the interesting roles in literature were taken by men.

For some reason, nearly all school murder stories are good ones—probably because it is so easy to believe that murder could be committed in such a place. I do not mean this statement to be funny or sarcastic; nobody who has not taught in a school can possibly realize the state of nervous tension and mutual irritation that can grow up among the members of the staff at the end of a trying term, or the utter spiritual misery that a bad head can inflict upon his or her subordinates.

I'm sure my teacher friends would agree.

I am still obstinately set upon [a certain producer for the play]. Very likely it is impossible. I do not care if it is. If the cursing of the barren fig-tree means anything, it means that one must do the impossible or perish, so it is useless to tell me it is not the time of figs.

I will not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till I have detected and avenged all mayhems and murders done upon the English language against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King, his Crown, and dignity.

A woman after my own heart.

[On the popularity of detective novels] Life is often a hopeless muddle, to the meaning of which [people] can find no clue; and it is a great relief to get away from it for a time into a world where they can exercise their wits over a neat problem, in the assurance that there is only one answer, and that answer a satisfying one.

Artists who paint pictures of our Lord in the likeness of a dismal-looking, die-away person, with his hair parted in the middle, ought to be excommunicated for blasphemy. And so many good Christians behave as if a sense of humour were incompatible with religion; they are too easily shocked about the wrong things. When my play was acted at Canterbury, one old gentleman was terribly indignant at the notion that the builders of that beautiful Cathedral could have been otherwise than men of blameless lives.

Certainly that attitude is a problem even today, but the indignant gentleman may or may not have been real. Sayers—who had worked in an advertising agency—and her publishers knew very well the publicity value of controversy, and were not above fueling the flames with fake letters of complaint. Truly, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

To achieve a great and godly work one should always employ a good architect who lives an immoral life rather than a poor architect who lives a blameless life.

The real question is, why aren't there more good architects who live blameless lives?

I do not feel that the present generation of English people needs to be warned against the passionate pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: that is not our besetting sin. Looking with the eye of today upon that legendary figure of a man who bartered away his soul [Faust], I see in him the type of the impulsive reformer, over-sensitive to suffering, impatient of the facts, eager to set the world right by a sudden overthrow, in his own strength and regardless of the ineluctable nature of things.

Every great man has a woman behind him ... And every great woman has some man or other in front of her, tripping her up.

It's not enough to rouse up the Government to do this and that. You must rouse the people. You must make them understand that their salvation is in themselves and in each separate man and woman among them. If it's only a local committee or amateur theatricals or the avoiding being run over in the black-out, the important thing is each man's personal responsibility. They must not look to the State for guidance—they must learn to guide the State.

[What the press clearly shows] is an all-pervading carelessness about veracity, penetrating every column, creeping into the most trifling item of news, smudging and blurring the boundary lines between fact and fancy, creating a general atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust. He that is unfaithful in little is unfaithful also in much; if a common court case cannot be correctly reported, how are we to believe the reports of world-events?

Once again, plus ça change....

To read only one work of Charles Williams is to find oneself in the presence of a riddle—a riddle fascinating by its romantic colour, its strangeness, its hints of a rich and intricate unknown world just outside the barriers of consciousness; but to read all is to become a free citizen of that world and to find in it a penetrating and illuminating interpretation of the world we know.

Ah, so that's my problem. I read Williams' The Place of the Lion, but found myself in a state of utter confusion. I need to read more.

What we say we want to abolish is the artificial inequality of goods & social status; but I am not sure that this is being accompanied as it should be any recognition of a real hierarchy of merit. I seem to detect a general disposition to debunk the natural hierarchies of intellect, virtue & so forth, & substitute, as far as possible, an all-round mediocrity.

It is arguable that all very great works should be strictly protected from young persons; they should at any rate be spared the indignity of having their teeth and claws blunted for the satisfaction of examiners. It is the first shock that matters. Once that has been experienced, no amount of late familiarity will breed contempt; but to become familiar with a thing before one is able to experience it only too often means that one can never experience it at all. This much is certain; it is not age that hardens arteries of the mind; one can experience the same exaltation of first love at fifty as at fifteen—only it will take a greater work to excite it. There is, in fact, an optimum age for encountering every work of art; did we but know, in each man's case, what it was, we might plan our educational schemes accordingly. Since our way of life makes this impossible, we can only pray to be saved from murdering delight before it is born.

Since I know that Sayers thought highly of the capabilities of children, and that she herself began to learn Latin when she was six years old, I don't think she's arguing against early education. But her point, here, would no doubt be understood by J. R. R. Tolkien, who stated that his book, The Hobbit, should not be read by anyone under thirteen. I don't agree, but he's the author.  I think that Sayers, at any rate, is more opposed to the inoculation against great works that can come when they are dumbed down.  Elsewhere she wrote, when told that the play she had written for children would go right over their heads,

I don't think you need trouble yourselves too much about certain passages being "over the heads of the audience." They will be over the heads of the adults, and the adults will write and complain. Pay no attention. You are supposed to be playing to children—the only audience perhaps in the country whose minds are still open and sensitive to the spell of poetic speech ... The thing they react to and remember is not logical argument, but mystery and the queer drama of melodious words ... I know how you would react to those passages. It is my business to know. But it is also my business to know how my real audience will react, and yours to trust me to know it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 16, 2017 at 7:45 am | Edit
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altThe Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1925)

Richard Halliburton was the Rick Steves of the early 20th century—with a few minor differences, such as not travelling with a camera crew, constantly putting himself into physical danger, and showing a marked disdain for societal conventions such as paying train fares.

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921, the year my father was born. Scorning a more conventional life, he and a friend signed on to a ship, as ordinary seamen, and worked their way to Europe. The Royal Road to Romance is an enjoyable narrative of Halliburton's adventures, with and without companions, tramping all over Europe; slogging through the jungles of Southeast Asia; venturing into forbidden Afghanistan; climbing Mt. Fuji, solo, in the dead of winter; supporting himself by great thrift, petty theft, and articles occasionally mailed home to magazines eager to appease the American appetite for travel stories.

This is travel, and this is adventure, but it's also chock-full of history and geography, made all the more interesting because it was written when the world's geography and politics were vastly different from today's. Imagine, too, a world in which Halliburton managed to pay homage to many of his favorite sites, now tourist meccas, from the fortifications on Gibraltar to the Taj Mahal to Angkor Wat to the Great Pyramid of Cheops—up close and personal, for hours, entirely in solitude.

The Royal Road to Romance came to my bookshelves from my father's library, along with two other Halliburton books, The Glorious Adventure and New Worlds to Conquer. I'm looking forward to more of his well-written and fascinating stories.

Halliburton's life is not one to be emulated—he died at 39 attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk—and his stories have a light-hearted amorality about them that can be a little disconcerting, as can the racial attitudes and language of the time. But understood in context, I think this would be a good book for older grandchildren—as long as they don't develop a taste for schwarzfahren.


The least commonplace of the routes [from Peking to Japan], in fact, the forbidden, abandoned route for tourists, was through northern Manchuria to Harbin, thence to Vladivostok by the Trans-Siberian and across the Japanese Sea. With my tiger's tooth no longer protecting me, with an arctic winter at hand, with a Chinese bandit army in control of one-half the railroad and the officious Bolsheviks the other, only a determined seeker after novelty would have cared to travel this route. Its disadvantages were so numerous, the possibility of being delayed and harassed so great, my enthusiasm was only half-hearted when I began to make practical investigation. However, when the American and Bolshevik authorities refused point-blank to give me a passport, my ardor for Siberia—heretofore a very negligible quantity—burst forth in a holy flame, and with a determination fired by hatred of this injustice I vowed that now I would go, and defied all the officials in Asia to stop me.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 at 9:50 am | Edit
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altJim Bridger: Mountain Man by Stanley Vestal (University of Nebraska Press, 1970; originally published 1946)

I read this book, not only because of my 95 by 65 project's goal of reading 26 existing, unread books from my bookshelves, but because I remembered Jim Bridger from Porter's stories of his 1973 vagabond trip across the United States. He was particularly interested in Yellowstone National Park, which Bridger was one of the first white men to explore, and "Jim Bridger stories" were an enjoyable part of his research.

Consequently, I read this book with an eye towards its possible use as an introduction for our homeschooled grandchildren to the history and geography of that part of the country. Although the book is more serious and adult than I was expecting, it still might serve that purpose. It certainly was enjoyable for me to read.

On the other hand, I'm having trouble figuring out what age group the author intended as his audience. The text switches, often with apparent randomness, between straight narration and narration in what I assume to be mid-19th century Mountain Man vernacular. After a while, I became accustomed to the language, but to me this attempt to add color to the story only made it feel as if it were intended for a young audience. On the other hand, the "adult" situations and language don't commend the book to children. While certainly not graphic by today's standards, one must wade through several "hells" and one "nigger" plus some unpleasant descriptions of carousing—and of atrocities. And if the term "Indians" offends you when used in referring to Native Americans, you will cringe every time at the Mountain Man talk, in which they are always "Injuns," more often than not "cussed Injuns."

On the other hand, that was the way of the Wild, Wild West, and you're not going to get a truthful history of the time and place without some of it. And truth is what impresses me most about this book. Written in 1946, the tales are blessedly free of the modern myth that Native Americans were innocent and righteous until the white men came and ruined everything. On the other hand, it is more than usually honest for the time about the stupidity and cruelty of the whites. In addition to being a well-researched biography of Jim Bridger, discerning the man in the mythos that grew up around him, the book appears to be a fair depiction of the complex clash of Indian, explorer, pioneer, and military cultures.

I think Jim Bridger: Mountain Man would be an excellent addition to any homeschool study of American history—but parents should read it first.

 


 

The Oregon Trail following up the Platte through the buffalo country had frightened the game away. And, when a hundred thousand forty-niners came swarming over that trail, heading for California goldfields, the Indians became thoroughly alarmed, suspicious, and resentful. Buffalo would not cross that broad beaten "medicine road" which cut the Plains in two. After 1850 there were two herds instead of one: the Buffalo North and the Buffalo South. The coming of the white man had turned that great pasture along the Platte into a barren desert.

Neither the passing white man nor the starving Indian saw anything to admire in the other. The whites passed through too quickly to discover how false their notion of the Plains Indian was—the notion which they had brought from the Dark and Bloody Ground, the notion that every Indian was a treacherous thief and murderer, thirsting for the blood of every stranger and delighting in torture of the helpless.

The Indian hunter, on the other hand, whose most necessary virtues were courage, generosity, and fortitude, could only despise the caution, thrift, and sharp practice of the Yankees as the meanest vices; each being in his eyes simply a species of cowardice.

Because of this dislike and misunderstanding on both sides, there was constant friction and increasing distrust. But the Plains Indian had no newspapers to state his case, and so, by 1851, had been given a thoroughly bad name in the States.

There was constant enmity between Jim Bridger and the Mormon settlers, particularly their leader, Brigham Young.  This excerpt also shows the integration of plain text and Mountain Man vernacular.

Some would have it that all the trouble between these two men originated in a woman's spite. These persons would have it that, after Bridger's Ute wife died in childbirth, July 4, 1849, Jim married a Mormon woman, that they fell out and parted, and that her spiteful, whispering tongue was the source of all the evil rumors about Bridger current among the Saints.

This story hardly fits Bridger's known circumstances, tastes, and habits. He had as much sense as any Mountain Man alive—and hardly any Mountain Man alive was fool enough to wed a fofurraw white gal from the settlements. Pale as a ghost, thin as a rail, and green as grass, a white gal was no good in camp or on the trail. Moreover, Mountain Men had lived so long among the pesky redskins that their idea of female beauty war an Injun idee, and you can lay to that. Bridger sincerely respected his Injun women, treated them as wives, and adored his halfbreed children. And in those days, even if he had wanted to wed a white gal—would she have had him?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 7:58 am | Edit
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altThe Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez with Malcolm McConnell (HarperCollins 1999)

Nobody likes the CIA. Even the TV shows, like NCIS, that otherwise respect governmental agencies and cloak-and-dagger work, generally don't treat the CIA well. The Master of Disguise is an authorized, but candid, behind-the-scense glimpse of why the  Agency deserves more respect than it gets. The situation reminds me of the Bletchley Park decoders in the United Kingdom, where the Official Secrets Act kept their heroic work unknown for decades. As we celebrate Memorial Day—which, for the record, should be tomorrow—it's good to be reminded that not all the sacrifices in the name of national and international security are made by people in uniform.

One of our friends worked for many years at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, which she referred to as "The Farm."  It is located across from the CIA, which she called "The Neighbors."  More than once she answered a call from the Neighbors to come remove escaped livestock from their property. As it turns out, the CIA also has land they call "The Farm," which serves as a training ground for their agents. Supposedly the two Farms are separate, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that our friend was secretly a spy. :)  She would be good at it.

As usual, the bolded emphasis below is my own.

As former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms noted in his speech at the Agency's fiftieth anniversary ceremonies ... there is no doubt that TSD [CIA Technical Services Division]  work overseas can be hazardous. Helms cited three of the Division's officers, who were released in 1963 from Cuba's Isle of Pines Prison, where they had been held for two years and seven months. They had suffered repeated interrogation under torture, and survived only because the U.S. government managed to negotiate a prisoners-for-tractors exchange following the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

One of the reasons they had lived through their ordeal was the quality of their alias documents and their ability to sustain their cover story during prolonged interrogation. These officers had been captured in Havana in 1960 while engaged in an audio penetration operation.... Even in that notorious prison, however, the three managed to run a successful intelligence collection operation, working with the grim knowledge that they might be tortured to death (the fate of many of Castro's prisoners) had this brazen effort been discovered.

This was thrilling to read because I realized that I had recently sung at the funeral of one of those three men.

Covert action propaganda printing, ranging in level of "plausible denial" by the U.S. government—from white to gray to black—was also a TSD responsibility. A white propaganda operation in the 1960s was merely promoting and packaging Western policy and culture, as with Voice of America programming. Gray propaganda might have involved writing and printing election campaign materials for a foreign political party friendly to the United States, or could have included planted news stories or editorial columns written for foreign press assets cooperating with the CIA.

Russians trying to influence American elections? That's old news!

Black propaganda had been in use for decades by the time I joined the CIA. Soviet overseas intelligence officers, dating back to the KGB's predecessors, were experts at this nasty business. During the social and economic turmoil of the 1930s, the NKVD ruthlessly spread rumors of government corruption, backed up by forged documents, designed to inflame class divisions in Western Europe. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets considered "disinformation" one of their important strategic weapons.

Equally cunning, American intelligence during the Cold War found it useful to encourage similar unrest among the workers at an arms plant in a Soviet-occupied country by circulating well-forged, ostensibly confidential official documents calling for an increase in labor quotas and a decrease in food rations.

"Fake news" isn't new, either.

During [World War II], printing near-perfect replicas of foreign documents—and enemy currency—had been a major part of the OSS graphic operation. Of the talented people who worked here, OSS legend Allen Dulles would later declare proudly, "Any intelligence service worth its salt should be able to make the other fellow's currency." ... But we could not counterfeit Soviet currency: Counterfeiting another country's money was officially an act of war, and the Cold War was not a declared conflict.

 

Our tradecraft was slowly evolving to become more adept at building neutral, "third-country" cover legends and aliases that were more innocuous and difficult to detect.... This level of spycraft requires years of patient preparation and had long been used by sophisticated services such as the KGB in their "illegals" (spies with nonofficial cover) program, which infiltrated hundreds of bogus "refugees" from Europe and South Africa after World War II.

Here is more old news that we ignore to our peril. Basic humanity requires stable nations to take the risk of welcoming refugees, but ignoring the danger is also criminal. The wisdom of the serpent is as necessary as the harmlessness of the dove.

Ultimately, America's costly involvement in Vietnam was a tragic defeat. From the perspective of an intelligence war, we had failed to understand the fundamental nature of the enemy. Successive administrations and CIA leadership could only perceive the North Vietnamese through the lens of the Cold War.

Misunderstanding the fundamental nature of the enemy is a mistake we are still making.

Only recently has it been revealed how close we came to World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Master of Disguise showed me that we faced a similar crisis during the Yom Kippur War in 1973: Intelligence revealed that the Soviets had shipped nuclear warheads to Egypt for their Scud missiles.

[The new information] was shocking. If the fragile cease-fire on the battlefield was broken and heavy fighting resumed, the war could quickly surpass the nuclear threshold. ... The CIA urgently informed National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who advised President Nixon to immediately order American military forces to DEFCON3, a high state of nuclear alert. It was a long night for the National Security team in the White House situation room. DCI Colby was in constant communication with Langley. American Polaris submarines refined the targeting data of their ballistic missiles, while our lumbering B-52 bombers held their orbits in the Arctic and Mediterranean, awaiting orders to proceed toward Soviet airspace. The Middle East powder keg seemed ready to explode. Indeed, the global security situation had not been so precarious since the Cuban missile crisis.

But the Soviets backed down. They canceled the orders of their airborne troops preparing to fly to the Middle East, withdrew the nuclear warheads already positioned at the Egyptian Scud sites, and recalled their ships. Two days later, when the White House was convinced of the Soviets' new intention, Nixon rescinded DEFCON3. In the ensuing confusion, Nixon's many critics accused him of orchestrating this crisis to divert the nation's attention from the heightened Senate Watergate investigation.

 

We were reeling from the effects of Watergate, the loss of the war in Indochina, and blatant Soviet attempts to subvert legitimate postcolonial struggles. Soviet bloc intelligence services and military missions had never been so active on a worldwide scale. At the same time, the conventional and nuclear war-fighting capability of the Warsaw Pact was being upgraded, while the KGB was running scores of black propaganda and subversion operations designed to undermine the NATO alliance. It was not just a coincidence that well-funded and well-organized urban terrorist groups flourished in Western Europe at the time. The United States and its allies desperately needed the skills and resources of the CIA's Clandestine Service, adn I was determined to do may part. Riding the little blue bus back from Langley to Foggy Bottom one day, I suddenly recalled a mantra my mother had taught me as a child when times were rough. "Focus on the task at hand, be of good cheer, and things will sor themselves out."

Sounds good to me.

As the title suggests, Mendez's specialty at the CIA was disguise. I remember, as a homeschooler, commenting on the value of serendipity in education: you never knew when a child's seemingly random and idle interest would turn out to be key to a larger educational undertaking. Who would have guessed that some of our most important spywork would have its origins in ... Hollywood? But who knows better how to make a man look like someone, or something, else? And not just people:

Bull wandered restlessly through the lab. "And, Jerome, maybe you could get me one of those cobweb machines you mentioned this morning." He rubbed his hands in delight. "That's just the gadget we've been looking for to cover our entry into an audio target through a wine cellar door that hasn't been opened in fifty years."  Jerome shared Bull's pleasure at the prospect of American spies using another movie illusion. "No problem, Bull. The special effects guys sell one in a nice little carrying case.... You can over a whole room with cobwebs in a couple of minutes."

 

I woke with a start in my hotel room to the shrill rings of the telephone. Richard was calling from the lobby. It was three in the morning and I should have been up at 2:15. My watch alarm had gone off, but I had slept through it. I jumped into the shower, dressed, and joined Richard in the lobby less than fifteen minutes later.

This incident took place at a critical point in the extraction of several American diplomatic personnel in Iran who had manage to escape the takeover of the American embassy in 1979. Their lives, and those of the people who were sheltering them, were at constant risk as the Revolutionary Guards combed the city. The story of this meticulously-planned and audacious rescue is worth the whole book. It also illustrates how small mistakes can bring down great enterprises. For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Fortunately for all involved, not this time.

What do you do when the digital revolution threatens to make your craft obsolete and leave you scrambling in the dust? You take the lead!

As succinctly as I could, I explained my "proactive" plan to prepare the Agency for the worldwide proliferation of computerized border controls and the threat of more sophisticated personal identity and travel documents, which were beginning to appear in both the East and the West.

"I think we can make inroads against these threats by helping to lead the industry in the right direction," I said. "State and INS want to include us in open symposia. This research activity would be in the public domain. We have friends in academia who can help lead our efforts."

Casey's nimble mind immediately grasped the implication of my proposal. Once the United States helped lead the world's experts on computerized security controls and high-tech documents, Soviet bloc spies and terrorists would find operating across borders more challenging. If the Agency acted swiftly, we wouldn't be caught out in the cold when a new generation of technology quickly emerged, as it always did, and we wouldn't have to reverse-engineer in order to catch up.

The Master of Disguise is almost 20 years old, and the eras it covers are older still. It's no less fascinating for that; I only wish I also had the author's perspective on more recent events.

NSFG (not safe for grandchildren) warning:  It's a great book, but there's a small amount of objectionable language.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 29, 2017 at 6:12 am | Edit
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altCry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (Scribner, 2003, originally published 1948)

I resisted reading this classic book for a long time; it's doubtful I would have read it this month were it not for the looming deadline for 95 by 65 goal #63. I knew nothing against Cry, the Beloved Country other than that it was something people read in schools, and that's enough to condemn it in my eyes. But the greatest reason is that it was just one out of hundreds of books in my life crying out to be read.

Cry, the Beloved Country is well worth reading and far, far better than anything school ever offered me. In truth, however, I'm not sure I was ready for it, even in high school. I didn't have enough experience, and certainly didn't have enough knowledge. In my classes, the history of South Africa hardly got beyond "Isn't apartheid terrible?"

Even more significant, however, is that it would be horrible to sit in a classroom and have this beautiful book picked apart. It is a book to be experienced, not analyzed, at least not on the first reading. It is a book to be pondered, to be savored, to be thought about with the heart. It is a beautiful book filled with grief and suffering and despair and hope and redemption.

It may even be a book my 13-year-old grandson could benefit from, despite my thoughts that I wasn't ready for it in high school. I don't know. It might be a gateway to further interest in Africa, a book to come back to again later. It talks about bad things, but in the way of books written in the 1940's, they are treated sensitively and are not at all "adult" meaning prurient or "graphic" meaning lurid.

Beyond his clear love of his native land, his sense of justice, and his fear for South Africa's future, Paton's style is a delight to read. It's different, but gives the feel of a foreign language and culture while remaining completely intelligible.

No quotations this time. Read the whole book. :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 24, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Edit
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altThe Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy Sayers (Collier Books, 1987, previously published as Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World; the original essay dates are from the 1940's through the 1960's)

I set myself a challenge to read all of the Dorothy Sayers books in our house, including all the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in chronological order. (This does not include the stories written after Sayers' death by Jill Paton Walsh. I just couldn't, even though some of them are based on Sayers' own unfinished work.)  So far I've read 16 of the 19, but I still have a long way to go. That's because the three remaining books are her translations of Dante's Divine Comedy. I had thought I was almost done until this morning, when I remembered those, which are in a separate section of our bookshelves.

Be that as it may, I'm not going to review them all, but I will take a pause now and talk about this collection of essays. It's the only book we own of her nonfiction, and it has made me want to find more, and also to explore her plays. Reading Sayers—even her detective stores, but especially her essays—makes me feel as if I have been ordering from the children's menu and was given a glimpse of the feast that's available if I could appreciate it. What a mind she had! How deeply and logically she thought! How well she could put words together! My multilingual family and friends will be interested to note that when she quotes (or has her characters speak) in another tongue, she rarely translates, on the grounds, I suppose, that all educated people should know enough Latin, French, German, and Italian to get the point. Fortunately, one can usually get the point even so.

The essays range from easily accessible to literary and deep, but even "Dante and Charles Williams," which I initially did not expect much from, I found to be fascinating. There, for example, is this amazing paragraph:

The image of woman is, of course, asserted in Beatrice, about whose person the theology of romantic love is assembled and displayed. I am not sure that Williams, in calling it "the image of woman," was doing full justice to himself or Dante. The image is not of femaleness as such—the ewig Weibliches about which Goethe and D. H. Lawrence and others have made so much to-do. It is a personal relationship of adoration, and Williams himself was the first to insist that the adoration need not be (though in literature it most frequently is) that of a man for a woman. It might, in the exchange of hierarchies, be that of a woman for a man; if, he would say, Beatrice had written her version of the Commedia, Dante himself might have figured in it as the "God-bearing image." Or the element of sex might not enter it at all. But in one way or another, the Image is that of the God-bearing person, whose earthly archetype is Mary, and whose heavenly archetype is Christ.

It's impossible to do justice to her thinking even with long quotations, but I hope these will give you taste of her ideas. If you'd like the full-course meal, most of the essays from The Whimsical Christian can be found online at this Google Books link.  The bold highlights are my own.

From "What Do We Believe?"

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of all things. That is the thundering assertion with which we start; that the great fundamental quality that makes God, and us with him, what we are is creative activity. ... Man is most god-like and most himself when he is occupied in creation. ... Our worst trouble today is our feeble hold on creation. To sit down and let ourselves be spoon-fed with the ready-made is to lose our grip on our only true life and our only real selves.

From "Creed or Chaos?"

This is the Church's opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people's readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real;  and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of Laissez-faire is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a recall to prayer. The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.

The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. "Take away theology and give us some nice religion" has been a popular slogan for so long that we are likely to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning.

The modern tendency seems to be to identify work with gainful employment; and this is, I maintain, the essential heresy at the back of the great economic fallacy that allows wheat and coffee to be burned and fish to be used for manure while whole populations stand in need of food. The fallacy is that work is not the expression of man's creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.

From "Toward a Christian Esthetic"

It may be well to remember Plato's warning: "If you receive the pleasure-seasoned muse, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and agreed principles."

Let us distinguish between and event and an experience. An event is something that happens to one, but one does not necessarily experience it. To take an extreme instance: suppose you are hit on the head and get a concussion and, as often happens, when you come to, you cannot remember the blow. The blow on the head certainly happened to you, but you did not experience it; all you experience is the aftereffects. You only experience a thing when you can express it—however haltingly—to your own mind. ...

When it is a case of mental or spiritual experience—sin, grief, joy, sorrow, worshop—the thing reveals itself to him in words and so becomes fully experienced for the first time. By thus recognizing it in its expression, he makes it his own—integrates it into himself.

The act of the poet in creation is seen to be threefold—a trinity—experience, expression, and recognition: the unknowable reality in the experience; the image of that reality known in its expression; and power in the recognition; the whole making up the single and indivisible act of a creative mind.

From "Creative Mind"  This is a long quotation, but necessary to get the idea of one example of Sayers' own creative mind. I'd long since heard the theory, from Creationists, that fossils exist because God created them at the same time he created everything else, although for what reason it was unclear. Of course that line of thinking was thoroughly mocked, but hear Sayers out: as a writer, such an idea was not at all strange to her. Here she reveals that a mind that can work out elaborate train timetables for a murder mystery can also grapple with a science fiction writer's view of time.

It was during the last century that the great war was fought between churchmen and men of science over the theory of Evolution.... The scientists won their victory chiefly, or at any rate largely, with the help of the paleontologists and the biologists.... It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species—to quote the text of Paradise Lost—‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea that creation was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist—then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact, have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.

I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.

Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination. And as he goes on writing the book, he will—especially if it is a long work, like The Forsyte Saga or the "Peter Wimsey" series—plant from time to time in the text of the book allusions to that unwritten past. If his imagination is consistent, then all those allusions, all those, so to speak, planted fossils, will tell a story consistent with one another and consistent with the present and future actions of the characters. That is to say, that past, existing only in the mind of the maker, produces a true and measurable effect upon the written part of the book, precisely as though it had, in fact, "taken place" within the work of art itself. ...

I think that if the churchmen had chosen to take up that position, the result would have been entertaining. It would have been a very strong position because it is one that cannot be upset by scientific proof. Probably, theologians would have been deterred by a vague sense that a God who made his universe like this was not being quite truthful. But that would be because of a too limited notion of truth. In what sense is the unwritten past of the characters in a book less true than their behavior in it? Or if a prehistory that never happened exercises on history an effect indistinguishable from the effect it would have made by happening, what real difference is there between happening and not happening? If it is deducible from the evidence, self-consistent, and recognizable in its effects, it is quite real, whether or not it ever was actual.

I am not, of course, giving it as my opinion that the world was made yesterday all of a piece, or even that it first came into being at the point where prehistory stops and history begins. I am only saying that if it had, then, provided the imagination were consistent, no difference of any kind would have been made to anything whatever in the universe. Though, of course, if we were willing to accept such a theory, we might find it easier to deal with some of our problems about time. ... All I have tried to do in this piece of fantasy is to show that where you have a consistent imagination at work, the line between scientific and poetic truth may become very hard to draw.

If you find this playing with time and reality rather strange, you should try quantum physics.

At the present time, we have a population that is literate, in the sense that everybody is able to read and write; but, owing to the emphasis placed on scientific and technical training at the expense of the humanities, very few of our people have been taught to understand and handle language as an instrument of power. This means that, in this country [1940's England] alone, forty million innocents or thereabouts are wandering inquisitively about the laboratory, enthusiastically pulling handles and pushing buttons, thereby releasing uncontrollable currents of electric speech, with results that astonish themselves and the world. Nothing is more intoxicating than a sense of power: the demagogue who can sway crowds, the journalist who can push up the sales of his paper to the two-million mark, the playwright who can plunge an audience into an orgy of facile emotion, the parliamentary candidate who is carried to the top of the poll on a flood of meaningless rhetoric, the ranting preacher, the advertising salesman of material or spiritual commodities, are all playing perilously and irresponsibly with the power of words, and are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or (as frequently happens) have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and become the victims of their own propaganda. For the great majority of those whom they are addressing have no skill in assessing the value of words and are as helpless under verbal attack as were the citizens of Rotterdam against assault from the air. When we first began to realize the way in which the common sense of Europe had been undermined and battered down by Nazi propaganda, we were astonished as well as horrified; yet there was nothing astonishing about it. It was simply another exhibition of ruthless force: the employment of a very powerful weapon by experts who understood it perfectly against people who were not armed to resist it and had never really understood that it was a weapon at all. And the defense against the misuse of words is not flight, nor yet the random setting off of verbal fireworks, but the wary determination to understand the potentialities of language and to use it with resolution and skill.

Written in England in the late 1940's, this absolutely is spot-on for here and now, except for the low numbers—from the emphasis on STEM subjects in schools to our powerlessness in the face of propaganda. To be clear: Left, Right, it makes no difference, and I'm not singling out any person or party.  It just is.

From "The Image of God"

In the beginning God created. ... And he created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

This far the author of Genesis. The expression "in his own image" has occasioned a good deal of controversy. Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures that display the Creator as a hirsute, old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognized to be purely symbolic. The image, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will; it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, set its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility. Its Trinity is wholly masculine, as all language relating to man as a species is masculine.

The Jews, keenly alive to the perils of pictorial metaphor, forbade the representation of the Person of God in graven images. Nevertheless, human nature and the nature of human language defeated them. No legislation could prevent the making of verbal pictures.... To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures. But continually, throughout the history of the Jewish-Christian Church, the voice of warning has been raised against the power of the picture-makers: "God is a spirit," "without body, parts or passions"; He is pure being. "I am that I am."

Man, very obviously, is not a being of this kind: this body, parts, and passions are only too conspicuous in his makeup. How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, "God created." The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and ability to make things.

From "Problem Picture"

It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity's proper attitude to the universe. We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us only further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life. It is dimly apprehended that the creative artist does, somehow or other, specialize in construction, and also that the Christian religion does, in some way that is not altogether clear to us, claim to bring us into a right relation with a God whose attribute is creativeness. Accordingly, exhorted on all sides to become creative and constructive, the common man may reasonably turn to these two authorities in the hope that they may shed some light, first, on what creativeness is, and, secondly, on its significance for the common man and his affairs.

If we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe ... we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or paint, or music, or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same pattern is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman. And, if it is, whether, by confining the average man and woman to uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook, we are not doing violence to the very structure of our being.

To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he [has at his disposal] such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that hte increase of scientific knowledge would give him the mastery over nature—which ought, surely to imply mastery over life.

Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of mastering one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.

From our brief study of the human maker's way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result that shall be final, predictable, complete, and the only one possible. The concept of problem and solution is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a solution of John and Mary's combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems. Even if ... we allow the touch of baby hands to loosen some of the knots into which John and Mary had tied themselves, the solution (meaning George or Susan) is not the only one possible, nor is it final, predictable, or complete.

From "Christian Morality"

I do not suggest that the Church does wrong to pay attention to the regulation of bodily appetites and the proper observance of holiday. What I do suggest is that by overemphasizing this side of morality, to the comparative neglect of others, she has not only betrayed her mission but, incidentally, also defeated her own aims even about morality. She has, in fact, made an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar, having used her for his own purposes, has now withdrawn his support—for that is Caesar's pleasant way of behaving. For the last three hundred years or so, Caesar has been concerned to maintain a public order based upon the rights of private property; consequently, he has had a vested interest in morality. Strict morals made for the stability of family life and the orderly devolution of property, and Caesar (namely, the opinion of highly placed and influential people) has been delighted that the Church should do the work of persuading the citizen to behave accordingly. Further, a drunken worker is a bad worker, and thriftless extravagance is bad for business; therefore, Caesar has welcomed the encouragement of the Church....

Unhappily, however, this alliance for mutual benefit between Church and Caesar has not lasted. The transfer of property from the private owner to the public trust or limited company enables Caesar to get on very well without personal morals and domestic stability; the conception that the consumer exists for the sake of production has made extravagance and thriftless consumption a commercial necessity; consequently, Caesar no longer sees eye to eye with the Church about these matters.... The Church, shocked and horrified, is left feebly protesting against Caesar's desertion, and denouncing a relaxation of moral codes, in which the heedless world is heartily aided and abetted by the state....

Perhaps if the Churches had had the courage to lay their emphasis where Christ laid it, we might not have come to this present frame of mind in which it is assumed that the value of all work and the value of all people are to be assessed in terms of economics. We might not so readily take for granted that the production of anything (no matter how useless or dangerous) is justified so long as it issues in increased profits and wages; that so long as a worker is well paid, it does not matter whether his work is worthwhile in itself or good for his soul; that so long as a business deal keeps on the windy side of the law, we need not bother about its ruinous consequences to society or the individual....

The best Christian minds are making very strenuous efforts to readjust the emphasis and to break the alliance with Caesar. The chief danger is lest the churches, having for so long acquiesced in the exploiting of the many by the few, should now think to adjust the balance by helping on the exploitation of the few by the many, instead of attacking the false standards by which everybody, rich and poor alike, has not come to assess the value of life and work. If the churches make this mistake, they will again be merely following the shift of power from one class of the community to the other and deserting the dying Caesar to enlist the support of his successor. A more equal distribution of wealth is a good and desirable things, but it can scarcely be attained, and cannot certainly be maintained, unless we get rid of the superstition that acquisitiveness is a virtue and that the value of anything is represented in terms of profit and cost.

The churches are justifiably shocked when the glamour of a film actress is assessed by the number of her love affairs and divorces; they are less shocked when the glamour of a man, or of a work of art, is headlined in dollars. They are shocked when unfortunates are reduced to selling their bodies; they are less shocked when journalists are reduced to selling their souls. They are shocked when good food is wasted by riotous living; they are less shocked when good crops are wasted and destroyed because of overproduction and underconsumption. Something has gone wrong with the emphasis....

From "The Other Six Deadly Sins"

We all know pretty well the man—or, perhaps still more frequently, the woman—who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy. The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenance accompanying the declaration are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devilborn and trembling on the verge of mania....It is very well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath. Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence. To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it.... You may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as easily as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity—and it is aimed, not at checking the offense, but at starting a pogrom against the offender.

Ungovernable rage is the sin of the warm heart and the quick spirit; in such men it is usually very quickly repented of—though before that happens it may have wrought irreparable destruction.

An odd change has come over us since the arrival of the machine age. Whereas formerly it was considered a virtue to be thrifty and content with one's lot, it is now considered to be the mark of a progressive nation that it is filled with hustling, go-getting citizens, intent on raising their standard of living. And this is not interpreted to mean merely that a decent sufficiency of food, clothes, and shelter is attainable by all citizens. I means much more and much less than this. It means that every citizen is encouraged to consider more, and more complicated, luxuries necessary to his well-being. The gluttonous consumption of manufactured goods had become, before the war, the prime civic virtue. And why? Because the machines can produce cheaply only if they produce in vast quantities; because unless the machines can produce cheaply nobody can afford to keep them running; and because, unless they are kept running, millions of citizens will be thrown out of employment, and the community will starve.

Hand in hand with covetousness goes its close companion—invidia or envy—which hates to see other men happy. The names by which it offers itself to the world's applause are right and justice, and it makes a great parade of these austere virtues. It begins by asking, plausibly, "Why should not I enjoy what others enjoy?" and it ends by demanding, "Why should others enjoy what I may not?"  Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are "my rights" and "my wrongs." At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.

The difficulty about dealing with envy is precisely that it is the sin of the have-nots, and that, on that account, it can always find support among those who are just and generous minded. Its demands for a place in the sun are highly plausible, and those who detect any egotism in the demand can readily be silenced by accusing them of oppression, inertia, and a readiness to grind the face of the poor.

The years between the wars saw the most ruthless campaign of debunking ever undertaken by nominally civilized nations. Great artists were debunked by disclosures of their private weaknesses; great statesmen, by attributing to them mercenary and petty motives, or by alleging that all their work was meaningless, or done for them by other people. Religion was debunked and shown to consist of a mixture of craven superstition and greed. Courage was debunked, patriotism was debunked, learning and art were debunked, love was debunked, and with it family affection and the virtues of obedience, veneration, and solidarity. Age was debunked by youth, and youth by age. Psychologists stripped bare the pretensions of reason and conscience and self-control, saying that these were only the respectable disguises of unmentionable unconscious impulses. Honor was debunked with peculiar virulence, and good faith, and unselfishness. Everything that could possibly be held to constitute an essential superiority had the garments of honor torn from its back and was cast out into the darkness of derision. ... It is well that the hypocrisies that breed like mushrooms in the shadow of great virtues should be discovered and removed, but envy is not the right instrument for that purpose, for it tears down the whole fabric to get at the parasitic growths.... Envy cannot bear to admire or respect; it cannot bear to be grateful. But it is very plausible; it always announces that it works in the name of truth and equity.

Here is a phrase that we have heard a good deal of late: "These services ... ought not to be made a matter of charity. We have a right to demand that they should be borne by the state."  Now that sounds splendid, but what does it mean?

Now, you and I are the state, and where the bearing of financial burdens is concerned, the taxpayer is the state. ... If the burden hitherto borne by charity is transferred to the shoulders of the taxpayer, it will inevitably continue to be carried by exactly the same class of people. The only difference is this: that people will no longer pay because they want to—eagerly and for love—but because they must, reluctantly and under pain of fine or imprisonment. The result, roughly speaking, is financially the same; the only difference is the elimination of the two detested virtues of love and gratitude.

I do not say for a moment that certain things should not be the responsibility of the state—that is, of everybody.... But what I see very clearly is the hatred of the gracious act and the determination that nobody shall be allowed any kind of spontaneous pleasure in well-doing if envy can prevent it. "This ointment might have been sold for much and given to the poor." Then our nostrils would not be offended by any odor of sanctity—the house would not be "Filled with the smell of the ointment." It is characteristic that it should have been Judas who debunked that act of charity.

From "Dante and Charles Williams"

[Charles Williams'] judgments were as free as any modern man's judgments could be from what we call a "sense of period." ... Period-sense is a thing of very recent origin—it scarcely begins to exist before the closing years of the eighteenth century. We may see this very vividly illustrated in the history of theatrical costume. Right down to Garrick's time, nobody thought it odd to play Coriolanus or Macbeth in a periwig, and all the classical heroines in panniers and powdered hair, any more than Shakespeare had boggled about making his Roman conspirators pull their hats about their brows, or giving Brutus a pocket in his gown. No doubt everybody knew that the custom worn in past ages was different from their own—they knew, but the did not feel that it mattered. They felt that the play was dealing with human beings in a human situation—not with historical personages conditioned by a historical environment. And this was a reflection of their whole attitude to the writers of the past—they judged them as though they were contemporaries, bringing their opinions to the bar of absolute, rather than of relative, truth.

From "The Writing and Reading of Allegory"

We are so much accustomed nowadays to take it for granted that romantic love between the sexes is one of the most important and sacred things in life, that it is hard to believe that, before  the twelfth century, such an idea never entered anybody's head—and, if it had, it would have been considered not only immoral but also ridiculous. That human beings did in fact fall in love, with very disturbing effects, was of course a fact that nobody in any age could possibly overlook; but it had never been customary to admire them for it. On the contrary, passion, as distinct from a decent conjugal affection, had always been held to be a bad thing, both in men and in women.... On this point, pagan and Christian were agreed. The passionate adoration of woman was a weakness, and worse....

And then, almost unimaginably, starting among the troubadours of Provence, and singing its way across Europe in all the Romance languages, came the new cult of courtly love. We cannot now stop to inquire what brought it into being; it is enough that it came, that it spread like wildfire, and established itself, changing the whole aspect of men's lives, and effecting one of the very few genuine social revolutions in history.

From "The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil"

The corruption of the will saps the intellect, and the Devil is ultimately a fool as well as a villain.

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altThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)

I'm reading Brené Brown's books in the wrong order, perhaps. I found The Gifts of Imperfection more accessible than Daring Greatly, though maybe that's because I'm more accustomed to her ideas and style now. I still say that it's good to see Brown on video first, and you can find some on my review of Daring Greatly. Even more, however, I appreciate Brown's ideas as they are filtered and expanded on the Blue Ocean Families blog.

It's easy to look at Brown's words and take your mind to all sorts of places not supported by her ideas. The title, for example, suggests to my mind the cry, from toddler to teenager to street thug to tyrant:  I don't have to follow the stupid rules; I gotta be ME!

But that's not what Brown means, and I believe she has tapped into a hidden problem that is the opposite of what we're always hearing as "what's wrong with the world today."

We're too selfish, too self-focussedWe love ourselves too much and others not enoughWe are takers, not giversWe drank too much of the self-esteem movement's Kool-Aid and think we're God's gift to the world.

Wait. We are God's gift to the world.

Given that the negative message has been proclaimed in loud voices from many eras and all over the world, I'm sure there's a lot of truth to it. Where I'm struggling is that the above description simply doesn't apply to so many of the people I know. They're humble, they are doing amazing work, and in the rare moments they take time for themselves it is always with an eye for preparing to serve others better. The work of their lives is for other people, and yet they are convinced that, deep down, they are lazy, selfish, incompetent, and unable to live up to their own expectations, let alone those of anyone else.

Ask these folks where they want to go to lunch, and they'll starve while trying to discern where the others would like to go.

For such people, the repeated message—from peers, from society, from churches, from self-help books, from their own hearts—is that they are selfish, miserable sinners, or as Brené Brown puts it, not good enough: not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not strong enough, not spouse or parent enough, not [fill in your favorite inadequacy] enough. This pours gasoline on lives that already feel as if they are in flames. Like the Pharisees of old, the promoters of such thoughts "tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men's shoulders" and have "disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men."

When I was a teen, I took a AAA-sponsored driver's education course. The instructor, having dealt primarily with cocky, over-confident teenaged boys, felt it his duty to knock out my confidence and give me a healthy fear of the massive weapon I was driving. He succeeded all too well, and left me with a phobia that handicaps me to this day. We do great harm when we use an axe to approach a job that requires an X-acto knife.

Enter Brené Brown. Her messages of self-care, of loving ourselves, and that we are "enough" to be deserving of love and belonging ring falsely at first to someone who all her life has bought into the message of failure. But it's worth getting over that. She doesn't mean there's no room for improvement!

We are God's gift to the world, but many of us have wrapped that gift up in so many layers of what we think we ought to be, that we no longer have any idea what's inside the box. That unique, authentic I—currently flawed and broken but no less worthy—is the person God created each of us to be. God creates individuals, not clones. If we bury ourselves and our abilities, are we not in danger of becoming the unfaithful servant who was condemned by his master for hiding what he was given to invest? I don't want to carry that image too far; no doubt God's view of a sound investment does not look exactly like our own.  But there's something there, and Brené Brown may be giving us tools for removing the wrapping without damaging the contents.

 


 

Some of the quotations make better sense in their context, but I present them anyway. Most are from earlier in the book, before I ran up against the due-date deadline. Bold type is my own emphasis.

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

It was clear from the data that we cannot give our children what we don’t have. Where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books.

I’ve learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happenIt does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen.

If we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior. ... When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.

True, at the core. But I've found it's certainly possible to do the acts of compassion from a place of resentment.  It's not healthy, but sometimes necessary.

Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.

As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seem to be struggling for it. That one thing is the belief in their worthiness. it’s as simple and complicated as this:  If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.

In a society that says, “Put yourself last,” self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. … Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.

Herein is one of my frustrations with Brown: In her attempts to nail down certain concepts, she simply defines words the way she wants to. They may ultimately be useful definitions, but it's a bit disorienting at first.

I found in my research that men and women who self-report as hopeful put considerable value on persistence and hard work. The new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness. When we experience something that is difficult and requires significant time and effort, we are quick to think, This is supposed to be easy; it’s not worth the effort, or, This should be easier; it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it. Hopeful self-talk sounds more like, This is tough, but I can do it.

I’ve also learned that never fun, fast, and easy is as detrimental to hope as always fun, fast, and easy. … Before this research I believed that unless blood, sweat, and tears were involved, it must not be that important. I was wrong. … Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast, and easy doesn’t mean that it has less value than a difficult goal.

Over the past two years I’ve become increasingly concerned that we’re raising children who have little tolerance for disappointment and have a strong sense of entitlement, which is very different than [sic] agency. Entitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

A critical component of Wholehearted living is play! ... [Dr. Stuart Brown] explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. ... Brown proposes seven properties of play, the first of which is that play is apparently purposeless. Basically this means that we play for the sake of play.  We do it because it's fun and we want to. ... Brown argues that play is not an option. In fact he writes, "The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression."

We've got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of our time.

There's no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was "taking the edge off" of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of good feelings, like joy. Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn't come with guarantees—these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.

All of Brown's references to pop music are lost on me, because she is of a far different musical generation, but if she were of mine, she would surely have quoted Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a Rock."

(For the record, Brown makes it clear that she loves the happiness writings of Gretchen Rubin and appreciates happiness even though she distinguishes it from joy.)

I was amazed at Brown's comments about joy because I was concurrently reading "Dante and Charles Williams," an essay by Dorothy Sayers. In it she says,

The capacity for joy and the capacity for something like despair tend to be found together.... Note that I say joy and not happiness—they are by no means the same thing. Indeed it would scarcely be untrue to say that people of a happy temperament are seldom capable of joy—they are insufficiently sensitive.

Leaving aside the problems of defining joy and happiness and whether or not the different authors mean the same things by those words, these two writers, from different eras, different countries, and greatly different backgrounds, one writing on social issues and the other on literary criticism, have come independently to similar conclusions.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 7:59 am | Edit
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altDeep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (Tyndale Momentum, 2017)

Back in March, I wrote a bit about the story of former KGB spy Jack Barsky. (See The Spy Who Stayed.) At the time I was eagerly awaiting his soon-to-be-published book. Rather than wait for the library to get a copy (which it now has)—and also to support the first book of a "friend of a friend"—I purchased the Kindle version to take with me on our recent cruise. I know, I haven't written about that yet, but it will come. Believe me, the irony of reading the story of a KGB spy while in Cuban waters was not lost on me.

Deep Undercover is well worth reading. It's 352 pages but reads very quickly. It is competently, though not excellently written. I hate to admit it, but I've been sorely disappointed by the quality of writing coming out of many Christian publishing houses; I'm happy to say that Barsky and Tyndale have done far better than average on that score. Besides, the imperfections give me more of an impression that I'm hearing the voice of Barsky, not of some ghostwriter. After all, chemistry, espionage, and information technology don't teach you all the nuances of storytelling. 

The story itself is riveting. First, because it is true. This is the real story of a brilliant young East German, born just three years before I was, who was recruited as a KGB spy, infiltrated American society, and ended up sending his daughter to the small, Christian school in upstate New York where my life-long friend had been principal for decades. I wanted to know how he got from Point A to Point B.

Because we are nearly the same age, it was especially interesting to see the contrasts between Barsky's childhood and my own, and to know, more or less, what was happening to and around me during the times he describes. There's a reason the Communists thought of Americans as lazy, undisciplined, and soft. It's a pity that self-discipline is so much harder to acquire when we're not under duress.

It's also sobering to realize how vulnerable the United States is to infiltration and attack. With money, skill, discipline, and smart young people who believe they are fighting for a great cause, it's apparently pretty easy to take on a country primarily committed to liberty and what it considers humanitarian virtues—especially if its people are also soft, materialistic, and somewhat lazy.  The KGB had all of that—and, I may point out, so does ISIS, among other scary entities. Barsky's activities were pre-9/11, but I'm far from convinced that infiltration and more dangerous nefarious activities would be that much more difficult now.

Be that as it may, it was their failure to understand American culture that undid most of the Soviet Union's efforts in America—just as America has been undone by our cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam and in the Middle East. Barsky found an America that did not fit what he had been told all his life.

It didn’t take long for me to see a wide gap between the Communist saga of the exploited worker in a capitalist society and the reality as I experienced it. For some reason, insurance companies were always near the top of the list of capitalist villains in Communist propaganda. But I never felt I was being exploited. Instead, I was quite comfortable in my job, everyone treated me well, and the paternalistic culture of the traditional mutual insurance company was very appealing to my statist roots. The chinks in my ideological armor began to grow into wide-open cracks.

I'm no pacifist, and acknowledge the need for governments to use all legal and ethical means to protect their people. Just being nice won't do. "Be wise as serpents" was uttered in the same breath as "[Be] harmless as doves."  Nevertheless, as far as what ordinary Americans can do, I really think kindness is our best defense. Barsky didn't abandon his mission for political or philosophical reasons. And while I'm not denying the importance of his religious conversion, that came much later. Barsky's heart was turned by the ordinary people he met while living an apparently ordinary American life, and it was the innocent vulnerability of his little daughter that broke through both his harsh upbringing and his hard-hearted training.

So if you fear your next-door neighbor might be a Russian agent, or a potential ISIS terrorist, be smart. Don't give him your housekeys. But genuine kindness might change someone's path for the better—even if he's just an ordinary American neighbor.

I didn't pick out many quotes from Deep Undercover, but here are a few random ones that caught my eye. (The bold emphasis is mine.)

Every evening, without fail, I spent an additional half hour listening to words on a phonetics tape and repeating them— listening and repeating, listening and repeating—ad nauseam. When it comes to basic life skills, repetition is the midwife of excellence.

The Moscow Metro is an example of the greatness that can be achieved if a dictator spares no expense to build a monument to himself.

“This is the final step in your preparation. We think that three months in Canada would be an excellent opportunity for you to practice your English and familiarize yourself with the culture and the way of life over there. After all, Canada is a lot like the US, only colder and with fewer people.” 

While walking between classes one day in early 1982, I saw a bulletin board notice for a current affairs group meeting, and I signed up immediately.

Led by history professor Selma Berrol, the group of about twenty students met on Wednesdays at lunchtime to discuss current world affairs and American politics. For purposes of these discussions, I positioned myself on the left of the political spectrum, with some sympathy for the Western European brand of socialism, but firmly anti-Communist.

Over the next couple of years, this group provided great insight for my reports to the Center about the mood of the country—particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet reignited tensions between the US and the Soviet Union that had largely diminished during the period of détente in the 1970s. There was widespread concern in our group that Reagan might push the world to the brink of nuclear war with his aggressive approach to international diplomacy.

Only one person in the group, a guy named Fred, sided with Reagan. Fred was ultraconservative, and the rest of us would chuckle or roll our eyes when he started on one of his rants. “I’m telling you, the Russians are deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. We need to show them that we are serious. Historically, appeasement has never worked, and it will not work today. And if the Russians try to keep up with us in this race, they will simply go bankrupt.

In his own way, Fred actually expressed historical truth before it became evident.

It is my personal belief that the Russians’ irrational fear of President Reagan contributed significantly to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union—an event that was not yet foreseeable in 1984.

Here's a short video (8 minutes) in which Barsky is asked about Russia's influence on the past election; what strikes me as most important is his take on the clear and present danger of cyber warfare.

And here's an interesting interview that covers some of the stories in the book.  It's long (nearly an hour) but worthwhile, at least if like me you can listen while doing something else.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 8:29 am | Edit
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altDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (Gotham Books, 2012)

It's possible that Brené Brown's message is as important as that of Gordon Neufeld in Hold On to Your Kids. I'm not ready to say that yet, but I can tell that her work is too important to be missed. I can also say that I would love to see Neufeld and Brown in the same room, discussing their theories. Although they come from different fields and perspectives, when it comes to the problem of peer-orientation (though Brown never mentions the subject) and what children need from their families, I'm sure they'd be substantially in agreement.

Normally I prefer my information in written form, preferably in a book with all its potential for logical organization and corroborating detail, but aside from some tantalizing hints on the Blue Ocean Families blog (from the home page, search for "Brené" to find some references to her work), my best introduction to Brené Brown came from some videos. Here are several to choose from.

The Power of Vulnerability (20 minutes)  The TED talk that put Brené Brown on the map.

Listening to Shame (20 minutes)

Daring Greatly to Unlock Your Creativity with Brené Brown at Chase Jarvis LIVE (90 minutes). Yes, the interview is an hour and a half long. But it's worth it, it's really worth it. Including the questions-from-the-audience part at the end.

There's more, including at least two more Chase Jarvis LIVE interviews that I haven't listened to yet because, well, because they're 90 minutes long. Start with the TED talks.

The only warning I have to give is that Brown's language is not exactly SFG (safe for grandchildren), either in the talks or in her books. It's not all that bad, by modern standards; such language is so common I've gotten used to it somewhat. I do wonder why people feel they have to talk that way, but that's another issue. I definitely recommend that you not let it make you avoid Brené Brown's work.

Now to the book. Daring Greatly is only one of Brown's books, not the oldest and not the most recent—merely the first that was easily available at our library. I had my struggles with it, but that won't stop me from reading the others as I can. I believe a good deal of my struggle was similar to one I had with Hold On to Your Kids. Maybe it's generational, maybe it's because I avoided social sciences and humanities as much as possible when I was in school. Whatever the cause, these people keep using words that I think I know, but which they endow with specialized meanings. It's confusing. It reminds me of the old creeping vs. crawling problem:

Everyone knows that babies first start creeping along the floor, then crawl on their hands and knees, then walk. That's the normal progression. But not to people in the child development and physical therapy fields, for whom "crawling" is on the belly, and "creeping" on hands and knees. In their professions, they know exactly what they are talking about, but it sure confuses the rest of us.

So here. She has specific interpretations of "shame," "guilt," "vulnerability" and more terms that are essential to her discoveries. I'm glad I watched the videos first.

I also struggled with integrating her ideas with my Christian beliefs. Brown makes no apology for being an Episcopalian, but her work is entirely secular. That's not a bad thing: most of the discoveries in this world have universal application, and a secular approach makes them available to far more people. Again, it's a matter of language. Cognate words can help one understand a foreign language, but there are also false cognates, and it all must be sorted through. Her descriptions of love, acceptance and belonging due to our position rather than to our deserving is a very Christian message, but for someone as steeped as I am in the horrors of the sin of pride and in the need to put others before ourselves, her points about self-care, self-worthiness, and treating ourselves well require some wrestling. I totally get the airlines' message to put on one's own oxygen mask before assisting others, and I'm properly horrified that I frequently (read: all the time) say cruel things to myself that I hope never to say to someone I love—but it still requires working through.

There's a lot that requires working through in Brené Brown's ideas. I'm sure I could benefit much from her books, a blank notebook, and a long stretch of solitude. But this is a review, not a confession, and the book goes back to the library soon. I'm not even clear enough to summarize her points, but with the videos above, and the quotes below, you can begin your own journey. (The bolded emphasis in the quotations is mine.)

Brown quotes Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money, on scarcity.

“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next is ‘I don’t have enough time.‘ Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day….” 

In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. … This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. … The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved.

My reaction, when I read this, is that this is crazy. We are so much better off than most of the world, for most of history. However, as I wrote in my Good Friday post, if our personal suffering is overall less, our vicarious suffering is off-the-charts worse. Brown acknowledges this later on:

Most of us have a stockpile of terrible images that we can pull from at the instant we’re grappling with vulnerability. I often ask audience members to raise their hands if they’ve seen a graphically violent image in the past week. About twenty percent of the audience normally raises their hands. Then I reframe the question: “Raise your hand if you’ve watched the news, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, or any other crime show on TV.” At this point about eighty to ninety percent of the audience hands go up.

I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

Among some folks it’s almost as if enthusiasm and engagement have become a sign of gullibility. Being too excited or invested makes you lame.

Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. ... We can’t always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don’t bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don’t lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” … [S]haring appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships .... The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement. 

Churches make this mistake a lot, trying to force community like a hothouse bloom, rushing the process through unearned intimacy.

You can’t use vulnerability … to fast-forward a relationship.... When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them—people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are the crucial connection questions.

Here’s one strategy Brown uses for coming out of what she calls a shame attack:

[I talk] to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back. Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.

[W]e have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections. To be kinder and gentler with ourselves and each other. To talk to ourselves the same way we’d talk to someone we care about.

Shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.

Feeling disconnected can be a normal part of life and relationships, but when coupled with the shame of believing that we’re disconnected because we’re not worthy of connection, it creates a pain that we want to numb. 

When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.

The two most powerful forms of connection are love and belonging—they are both irreducible needs of men, women, and children. As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seemed to be struggling for it. That one thing was the belief in their worthiness. It’s as simple and complicated as this: If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

[As parents we] don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action.

What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance.

When we obsess over our parenting choices to the extent that most of us do, and then see someone else making different choices, we often perceive that difference as direct criticism of how we are parenting.

Wholehearted parenting is not having it all figured out and passing it down—it’s learning and exploring together. And trust me, there are times when my children are way ahead of me on the journey, either waiting for me or reaching back to pull me along.

It’s easy to put up a straw man … and say, “So we’re just supposed to ignore parents who are abusing their children?” Fact: That someone is making different choices from us doesn’t in itself constitute abuse. If there’s real abuse happening, by all means, call the police. If not, we shouldn’t call it abuse. As a social worker who spent a year interning at Child Protective Services, I have little tolerance for debates that casually use the terms abuse and neglect to scare or belittle parents who are simply doing things that we judge as wrong, different, or bad.

Worthiness is about love and belonging, and one of the best ways to show our children that our love for them is unconditional is to make sure they know they belong in our families. I know that sounds strange, but it’s a very powerful and at times heart-wrenching issue for children.

Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories. Engaged parents can be found on both sides of all of the controversial parenting debates. They come from different values, traditions, and cultures. What they share is practicing the values. What they seem to share is a philosophy of “I’m not perfect and I’m not always right, but I’m here, open, paying attention, loving you, and fully engaged.”

What do parents experience as the most vulnerable and bravest thing that they do in their efforts to raise Wholehearted children? I thought it would take days to figure it out, but as I looked over the field notes, the answer was obvious: letting their children struggle and experience adversity.

I used to struggle with letting go and allowing my children to find their own way, but something that I learned in the research dramatically changed my perspective and I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. … Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle.

Hope is learned! …[C]hildren most often learn hope from their parents. To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.

If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.

I explained [to my daughter] that I had spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and how those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave. I said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 7:35 am | Edit
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altIngathering: The Complete People Stories by Zenna Henderson (NESFA Press, 1995)

In the days of my youth, to use a common expression of my father’s, I was quite a science fiction fan. My tastes were almost exclusively for what I’d call hard science stories—those in which the science was paramount, and reasonably accurate—from authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. But I made a few exceptions, and among my very favorites were Zenna Henderson’s fantasy stories about The People.

The People are beings from another planet who become stranded on Earth around the end of the 19th century. They are indistinguishable from Earth humans, except for their many special powers, such as lifting (flying), healing, and nonverbal communication. Henderson's stories were published individually, then gathered together into books with connecting stories woven around them (Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, and The People: No Different Flesh). Ingathering includes all these stories, plus a few more from other sources.

I once had four of Zenna Henderson's books, but in a fit of foolish decluttering I gave away my two least favorites. (Henderson's People stories are excellent, but some of her others are a bit weird.)  I don't mean the decluttering is foolish, but the mistake I made was in thinking that there was no point in keeping books I could get out of the library. Let the library be my storage site! That was a good idea, but did not take into account our library's even more foolish idea that it should only be a repository for new and popular books. Instead of seeing themselves as a storehouse of treasures old and new, they focus on books that are easy to find elsewhere and get rid of those that are hard to find but less popular. Very short-sighted, I think. That's when I radically slowed down my book-paring, when I learned that I would have to be my own museum.

I recently re-read Pilgrimage and No Different Flesh, and discovered that my copies were disintegrating. I had hoped to purchase versions for my Kindle, but there are none to be had. Fortunately, I found Ingathering on amazon.com and snatched it up.

Not only did I now have the stories preserved in a form that was not crumbling in my hands, but—wonder of wonders—included were four People stories that were new to me. To have even one new People story after all these years!

 


 

I understand the impulse to want to tie all the stories together, but re-reading them with an eye toward introducing them to others makes me realize the weakness of the "interlude" stories, at least the first one. The original tales stand well on their own, and that's the way I encountered my first one, Pottage. It's one of the best, and so impressed me that when I encountered it again much later I didn't find the interlude stories a bother. As a first-timer, I might have been tempted to say the book gets off to a slow start.

Not all the stories are of the same caliber, but most are good and some are great. In the introduction to Ingathering, I learned that Henderson's stories are today considered sentimental, even mawkish. How sad for this generation! Must everything be edgy, sad, and disturbing? Henderson's writing is well-crafted, and her fantasy is believable: that is, consistent within its own parameters, and having characters whose emotions and reactions we can understand. The best of the stories are far from sentimental: they are sublime. Beautiful, uplifting, and they pass my own personal test—they make me want to be a better person.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 17, 2017 at 7:42 am | Edit
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altHold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté (Ballantine Books, 2004)

If you can read only one book about parenting, this is it.

If you can read only one book about the future of America, or even the human race, this is it.

How is it that Hold On to Your Kids is more than a dozen years old and I'd never heard of it until our daughter in Switzerland brought it to my attention? If ever America needed to hear a message about our future, it is now, and this is it.

The message is not just for parents. What Neufeld and Maté are describing is a phenomenon that has radically changed society, and appears to be headed for a train wreck of mammoth proportions: the peer orientation of our children.

Mind you, I initially approached the book with skepticism. Not about their conclusions, but about why it took them so long to discover the obvious. The way we react when someone publishes the conclusion—from a multi-year research project, funded by millions in Federal funds—that we need to eat more vegetables. Don't we all know that? Haven't our parents and grandparents told us that all our lives? Similarly, I found it laughable that someone published, as a new discovery, what homeschoolers have always known: peer socialization is almost always negative.

And yet, Hold On to Your Kids turns out to be a valuable compendium of evidence that, beginning after World War II, we have become a society of children raising children—and I'm not talking about teenage mothers. Parents, often with the best of intentions, have unconsciously abdicated their natural role as guardians and guides of their children. Into the void has swept peer influence—actually, peer dependency—on an unprecedented and dangerous scale. Parents have lost their power and authority in favor of the peer group, with the result that rearing children has become much more difficult than previous generations could have imagined.

The authors point to two modern phenomena as evidence for this bewildering loss of parental influence: an explosion of books on parenting, and an equal burgeoning of medical diagnoses (such as "oppositional defiant disorder") to explain why today's children are so hard to manage. But the real disorder, they insist, is with the attachment bond between children and their parents. Children are equipped—for survival—with a great need to attach to their caregivers, and if that bond is not well established and maintained, other attachments will rush in to fill that need. Increasingly, and at an increasingly young age, children's primary attachments are being given to people their own age, who have neither the love nor the knowledge nor the skill to help them grow up properly.

It is essential to the survival of a civilization that its culture be passed on from one generation to another. Today's children are not receiving culture, they are inventing it as they go along. We are into the third generation of this problem, and appear to be reaching a tipping point. If the idea of peer culture being more important to children than their family culture doesn't seem strange and wrong to us, it's because that's how we grew up, too.

Every time I hear someone whine that rearing children is more difficult than it used to be, I respond that parents have been saying that for millennia. Neufeld and Maté have almost convinced me that today's parents really do have a much harder row to hoe.

I found Hold On to Your Kids a difficult book to read, and I'm not sure why. The language is well-written and easy to understand. It's true that the authors spend a lot of ink making their basic point over and over again, from different angles, and that can get as tiresome as a Presbyterian sermon, but given what they're trying to do, they need to be thorough, and each section contains important points not covered elsewhere. Perhaps reading the book was somewhat of a hard slog for me because it's so depressing.

And yet the authors are optimistic. I was frustrated that they seem to give modern societal practices too much of a pass: they acknowledge that divorce, the two-income family, daycare, school, high mobility, and social media are major contributors to the problem, but don't even consider what society might do to try to reverse some of these trends. For example, instead of focussing on creating conditions in which families can be together more, they advocate better-trained parent-substitutes. Instead of encouraging more parents to work out differences rather than divorce, they push for divorcing parents to pay more attention to their children's attachment needs in the process. No doubt this is the more practical approach, but I like to see the ideal set out clearly even if we know we must settle for something less. It's far more important to encourage parents to provide for their own children than it is to promote better substitutes, though of course we need both.

Be that as it may, as tragic as the authors believe our situation to be, they do believe it is reversible, as long as parents and other caregivers are aware of the problem. In the latter part of the book, they give some practical ideas, but the main problem is simply awareness.

Just what the authors mean by attachment is key to the book's arguments, one reason there are so many introductory chapters before they get to solutions. I'll clear up one misconception that I had going in: it's not about the childrearing approach known as Attachment Parenting, although it certainly encompasses the latter in its overall philosophy.

How important do I think Hold On to Your Kids is? Enough that even as I returned the library's copy, I ordered a Kindle version, even though I hate paying as much for an ebook as I would for a hard copy. I wanted to be able to have a record of the multitudinous sticky notes festooning the book's pages without typing them all out by hand. I had over 50 pages marked, and that leaves out many that I would have marked had I not simply given up. I should have gotten the Kindle version first—but I had no idea.

By the way, there was another advantage to buying the Kindle version, versus the hardcover book our library has: the ebook includes an additional chapter, devoted to electronic devices and social media, which have changed our children's world even more dramatically since 2008.

What do I like best about Hold On to Your Kids? A few things.

  • The facts  This is a compelling collection of observations and research from school experiences to brain studies. Even if some of us have "known this for 30 years," it's nice to have documentation.
  • The authors' optimistic attitude  If I think he's too easy on modern culture for encouraging the practices that directly foster peer dependency, and outright discouraging the practices that support the healthiest nurturing environment for children, I very much appreciate their belief that we can make significant progress starting from wherever we are, and that small steps can make a great difference.
  • Their acknowledgement that every situation is different They lay down principles, but not rules. They give facts and opinions, and let parents figure out how they apply to their particular families. They present no magic bullet, but sound ideas and advice.

If you're like me, you'll have to get over the occasional use of psychology-speak. (I would have said psychobabble but I'm being polite.)  It's not all that bad, and what else could you expect from a developmental psychologist?

Don't worry; you won't get all 50+ pages of quotes here. I'll just whet your appetite. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or think you might become one, or if you just want some keen insight into social changes over the last half-century and some of their consequences, I highly recommend Hold On to Your Kids.

 


 

This YouTube video is a long introduction to the ideas (an hour and 40 minutes), but if you like the video/audio approach you can hear Dr. Neufeld speaking at a child development conference.

 


 

It's so hard to choose the quotations! But I promised to whet your appetite, not drown you.... I've marked in bold a few special points.

[Update, now that I've actually put in the quotes: I failed utterly in not drowning you, but you should see what I left out. Everything is so important! Take advantage of it all or not, as you wish.]

According to a large international study headed by the British child psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter and criminologist David Smith, a children’s culture first emerged after the Second World War and is one of the most dramatic and ominous social phenomena of the twentieth century. This study, which included leading scholars from sixteen countries, linked the escalation of antisocial behavior to the breakdown of the vertical transmission of mainstream culture. Accompanying the rise in a children’s culture, distinct and separate from the mainstream culture, were increases in youth crime, violence, bullying, and delinquency.

We struggle to live up to our image of what parenting ought to be like. Not achieving the results we want, we plead with our children, we cajole, bribe, reward, or punish. We hear ourselves address them in tones that seem harsh even to us and foreign to our true nature. We sense ourselves grow cold in moments of crisis, precisely when we would wish to summon our unconditional love. We feel hurt as parents, and rejected. We blame ourselves for failing at the parenting task, or our children for being recalcitrant, or television for distracting them, or the school system for not being strict enough. When our impotence becomes unbearable we reach for simplistic, authoritarian formulas consistent with the do-it-yourself/quick-fix ethos of our era. 

Historically ... it was simply the natural order of things that the innate attachment drive itself bonded the young with caregivers—adults of the same species—until maturity. That is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the young into healthy adulthood. It is the context in which the young are fully enabled to realize their genetic potential and in which their instincts are best given full and vigorous expression. In our society, that natural order has been subverted. From an early age, we thrust our children into many situations and interactions that encourage peer orientation. Unwittingly, we promote the very phenomenon that, in the long term, erodes the only sound basis of healthy development: children’s attachment to the adults responsible for their nurturing. Placing our young in a position where their attachment and orienting instincts are directed toward peers is an aberration. We are not prepared for it; our brains are not organized to adapt successfully to the natural agenda being so distorted.

Shouldn’t it be possible for children to be connected with their parents and teachers and, at the same time, with their peers? That is not only possible but desirable, as long as those several attachments are not in competition with one another. What does not work, and cannot work, is the coexistence of competing primary attachments, competing orienting relationships—in other words, orienting relationships with conflicting values, conflicting messages.

Peer-oriented kids are repelled by similarity to their parents and want to be as different as possible from them. Since sameness means closeness, pursuing difference is a way of distancing. Such children will often go out of their way to take the opposite point of view and form opposite kinds of preferences. They are filled with contrary opinions and judgments.

We may confuse this obsessive need for difference from the parents with the child’s quest for individuality. That would be a misreading of the situation. Genuine individuation would be manifested in all of the child’s relationships, not just with adults. A child truly seeking to be her own person asserts her selfhood in the face of all pressures to conform. Quite the reverse, many of these “strongly individualistic” children are completely consumed with melding with their peer group, appalled by anything that may make them seem different. What adults see as the child’s individualism masks an intense drive to conform to peers. ...

There is a foolproof way to distinguish peer-distorted counterwill from the genuine drive for autonomy: the maturing, individuating child resists coercion whatever the source may be, including pressure from peers. In healthy rebellion, true independence is the goal. One does not seek freedom from one person only to succumb to the influence and will of another. When counterwill is the result of skewed attachments, the liberty that the child strives for is not the liberty to be his true self but the opportunity to conform to his peers. To do so, he will suppress his own feelings and camouflage his own opinions, should they differ from those of his peers.

It is not both parents working that is so damaging. The key problem is the lack of consideration we give attachment in making our child-care arrangements.

If there were a deliberate intention to create peer orientation, schools as currently run would surely be our best instrument. 

The authors clearly want children to form strong attachment relationships with their daycare providers and teachers. Most parents, I think, are naturally against that, wanting the attachment to stay with them. Who, even in the strongest homes, hasn't had to deal with a child who rejects what his parents say just because Teacher says differently, from how to do math to moral behavior? But the research suggests it's a Hobson's choice: children bond with the people they spend time with, so if it's not the teacher, it will default to the other children.

Superficially, one could argue that their attachment with peers is serving them well if it keeps them from being lost and bewildered. In reality, it does not save them from getting lost, only from feeling lost.

In today’s society, attachment voids abound. A gaping attachment void has been created by the loss of the extended family. Children often lack close relationships with older generations—the people who, for much of human history, were often better able than parents themselves to offer the unconditional loving acceptance that is the bedrock of emotional security. The reassuring, consistent presence of grandparents and aunts and uncles, the protective embrace of the multigenerational family, is something few children nowadays are able to enjoy.

today’s children are much less likely to enjoy the company of elders committed to their welfare and development. That lack goes beyond the family and characterizes virtually all social relationships. Generally missing are attachments with adults who assume some responsibility for the child. ... The family physician, ... the neighborhood shopkeeper, tradesman, and artisan have long been replaced by generic businesses with no local ties and no personal connections with the communities in which they function.

The next issue is one I've dealt with personally and find vitally important. CHURCHES, LISTEN UP! In a world that insists on dividing families at every turn, we are exacerbating the problem. Shouldn't we be demonstrating a better way rather than following society's lead?

Another attachment void has been created by the secularization of society. Quite apart from religion, the church, temple, mosque, or synagogue community functioned as an important supporting cast for parents and an attachment village for children. Secularization has meant more than the loss of faith or spiritual rootedness; it has brought the loss of this attachment community. Beyond that, peer interaction has become a priority for many churches. For example, many churches divide the family as they enter the door, grouping the members by age rather than by family. There are nurseries and teen groups, junior churches, and even senior classes. To those unaware of the importance of attachment and the dangers posed by peer orientation, it seems only self-evident that people belong with those their own age. Large religious organizations have evolved to deal with only the youth or the young adult, inadvertently promoting the loss of multi-generational connections.

Divorce rates have soared. Divorce is a double whammy for kids because it creates competing attachments as well as attachment voids. Children naturally like all their working attachments to be under one roof. ... Furthermore, many children are attached to their parents as a couple. When parents divorce, it becomes impossible to be close to both simultaneously, at least physically. Children who are more mature and have more fully developed attachments with their parents are better equipped to keep close to both even when they, the parents, are apart.... But many children, even older ones, cannot manage this.

When parents lose each other’s emotional support or become preoccupied with their relationship to each other, they become less accessible to their children. Deprived of emotional contact with adults, children turn to their peers. Also, under stressed circumstances, it is tempting for parents themselves to seek some relief from caregiving responsibility. One of the easiest ways of doing so is to encourage peer interaction. When children are with each other, they make fewer demands on us.

Modern society has completely undercut parental authority, and in the ensuing chaos we have turned to two explanations that boil down to: (1) It is the parents' fault, and/or (2) It is the children's fault.  Childrearing is no longer considered to be a natural process, but a special skill to be learned—under the teaching of professionals. The reasoning behind parenting as a set of skills seemed logical enough, but in hindsight has been a dreadful mistake. It has led to an artificial reliance on experts, robbed parents of their natural confidence, and often leaves them feeling dumb and inadequate.

To manage children when our parenting power has been cut is ... next to impossible, yet millions of parents are trying to do just that. ... Too often the children are blamed for being difficult or the parents for being inept or their parenting techniques for being inadequate. It is generally unrecognized by parents and professionals that the root of the problem is not parental ineptitude but parental impotence in the strictest meaning of that word: lacking sufficient power. ...

The absent quality is power, not love or knowledge or commitment or skill. Our predecessors had much more power than parents today. In getting children to heed, our grandparents wielded more power than our parents could exercise over us or we seem to have over our children. If the trend continues, our children will be in great difficulty when their turn comes at parenting. The power to parent is slipping away. ... [Power does not mean force, but] the spontaneous authority to parent. ... The loss of power experienced by today’s parents has led to a preoccupation in the parenting literature with techniques that would be perceived as bribes and threats in almost any other setting. We have camouflaged such signs of impotence with euphemisms like rewards and “natural consequences.” ... The power we have lost is the power to command our children’s attention, to solicit their good intentions, to evoke their deference and secure their cooperation. Without these four abilities, all we have left is coercion or bribery.

Some parents may avoid giving direction in the naive belief that they have to leave room for the child to develop his own internal guides. It doesn’t work like that. Only psychological maturity can grant genuine self-determination. While it is important for their development that children be given choices appropriate to their age and maturity, parents who avoid giving direction on principle end up abdicating their parenting role. In the absence of parental direction most children will seek guidance from a substitute source, likely their peers.

Difficulty in parenting often leads to a hunt to find out what is wrong with the child. We may witness today a frantic search for labels to explain our children’s problems. Parents seek the formal diagnoses of a professional or grasp at informal labels—there are, for examples, books on raising the “difficult” or the “spirited” child. The more frustrating parenting becomes, the more likely children will be perceived as difficult and the more labels will be sought for verification. It is no coincidence that the preoccupation with diagnoses has paralleled the rise in peer orientation in our society. Increasingly, children’s behavioral problems are ascribed to various medical syndromes such as oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit disorder. These diagnoses at least have the benefit of absolving the child and of removing the onus of blame from the parents, but they camouflage the reversible dynamics that cause children to misbehave in the first place. Medical explanations ... ignore scientific evidence that the human brain is shaped by the environment from birth throughout the lifetime and that attachment relationships are the most important aspect of the child’s environment. They also dictate narrow solutions, such as medications, without regard to the child’s relationships with peers and with the adult world. In practice, they serve to further disempower parents.

The wisdom of well-seasoned cultures has accumulated over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Healthy cultures also contain rituals and customs and ways of doing things that protect us from ourselves and safeguard values important to human life, even when we are not conscious of what such values are. An evolved culture needs to have some art and music that one can grow into, symbols that convey deeper meanings to existence and models that inspire greatness. Most important of all, a culture must protect its essence and its ability to reproduce itself—the attachment of children to their parents. The culture generated by peer orientation contains no wisdom, does not protect its members from themselves, creates only fleeting fads, and worships idols hollow of value or meaning. It symbolizes only the undeveloped ego of callow youth and destroys child-parent attachments.

Despite our attempts to teach our children respect for individual differences and to instill in them a sense of belonging to a cohesive civilization, we are fragmenting at an alarming rate into tribal chaos. Our very own children are leading the way. The time we as parents and educators spend trying to teach our children social tolerance, acceptance, and etiquette would be much better invested in cultivating a connection with them. Children nurtured in traditional hierarchies of attachment are not nearly as susceptible to the spontaneous forces of tribalization. The social values we wish to inculcate can be transmitted only across existing lines of attachment.

In response to the intensifying cruelty of children to one another, schools all over this continent are rushing to design programs to inculcate social responsibility in youngsters. We are barking up the wrong tree when we try to make children responsible for other children. In my view it is completely unrealistic to believe we can in this way eradicate peer exclusion and rejection and insulting communication. We should, instead, be working to take the sting out of such natural manifestations of immaturity by reestablishing the power of adults to protect children from themselves and from one another.

The key to activating maturation is to take care of the attachment needs of the child. To foster independence we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close. We help a child let go by providing more contact and connection than he himself is seeking. When he asks for a hug, we give him a warmer one than he is giving us. We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it.

Isn't the follwing a lovely expression of the Gospel? And a clear reminder that we shape our children's view of God, whether we want that responsibility or not!

Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love—in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost.

Owing to their highly conditional nature, peer relationships ... cannot promote the growth of the child’s emerging self. One exception would be the friendship of children who are secure in their adult attachments; in such cases the acceptance and companionship of a peer can add to a child’s sense of security. Feeling fundamentally safe in his adult relationships, such a child gets an extra glow from peer friendships—not having to depend on them, he need not feel threatened by their inherent instability.

A major problem with peer orientation is the extinguishing of a child's healthy curiosity. Peer-dependent children have adapted to school, because that's where they meet their friends, but are at a severe disadvantage when it come to education. The following quote is long, but important. And still less than I want to share from this section....

Ideally, what should lead a child into learning is an open-minded curiosity about the world. The child should ask questions before coming up with answers, explore before discovering truths, and experiment before reaching firm conclusions. Curiosity, however, is not an inherent part of a child’s personality. It is the fruit of the emergent process—in other words, an outgrowth of the development responsible for making the child viable as a separate being, independent and capable of functioning apart from attachments. Highly emergent children usually have areas of keen interest and are intrinsically motivated to learn. They derive great satisfaction from forming an insight or in understanding how something works. They create their own goals around learning. They like to be original and seek self-mastery. Emergent learners take delight in responsibility and spontaneously move to realize their own potential.

For teachers who value curiosity, invite questions, and give the child’s interests the lead, emergent learners are a delight to teach. For such children, the best teachers are those who serve as mentors, fueling their interests, igniting their passions, putting them in charge of their own learning. If emergent learners don’t always perform well in school it is probably because, having their own ideas for what they want to learn, they experience the curriculum imposed by the teacher as an unwelcome intrusion. Curiosity is a luxury, developmentally speaking. Attachment is what matters most. Until some energy is released from having to pursue safe and secure attachments, venturing forth into the unknown is not on the developmental agenda. That is why peer orientation kills curiosity. Peer-oriented students are completely preoccupied with issues of attachment. Instead of being interested in the unknown, they become bored by anything that does not serve the purpose of peer attachment. Boredom is epidemic among the peer-oriented.

A dangerous educational myth has arisen that children learn best from their peers. They do, partially because peers are easier to emulate than adults but mostly because children have become so peer-oriented. What they learn, however, is not the value of thinking, the importance of individuality, the mysteries of nature, the secrets of science, the themes of human existence, the lessons of history, the logic of mathematics, the essence of tragedy. Nor do they learn about what is distinctly human, how to become humane, why we have laws, or what it means to be noble. What children learn from their peers is how to talk like their peers, walk like their peers, dress like their peers, act like their peers, look like their peers. In short, what they learn is how to conform and imitate.

If we took our cues from the natural sequence of development, our priorities would be clear. First would be attachment, second would be maturation, and third would be socialization.

Necessary as we may consider it to impose order on a child’s behavior, it is much more important to impose order on a child’s attachments. We have two jobs here: establishing structures that cultivate connection, and restrictions that enfeeble the competition. And believe me, if we saw the situation clearly, we would realize that in our culture it’s a knock-out-drag-out, no-holds-barred, no-quarter-given, winner-take-all and loser-gets-nuthin’, devil-take-the-hindmost struggle for our kids hearts and minds!

Structures and restrictions safeguard the sacred. Part of the role of culture is to protect values that we cherish but that, in our daily lives, we do not experience as urgent. We recognize, for example, that exercise and solitude are important for our physical and emotional well-being, yet seldom is our sense of urgency powerful enough to induce us to honor those needs consistently. Cultures in which exercise and meditative solitude are built-in practices protect their members from that lack of motivation. As our culture erodes, the structures and rituals that protect family life and the sacredness of the parent-child relationship—vitally important but not urgent in our consciousness—are also gradually eroded.

The current tendency in the parenting literature is to cater to the demand for parenting skills or parenting strategies. That is not what parents need. Strategies are far too definitive and limiting for a task as complex and subtle as parenting. They insult the intelligence of the parent and usually the intelligence of the child as well. Strategies make us depend on the experts who promote them. Parenting is above all a relationship, and relationships don’t lend themselves to strategies. They are based on intuition. These seven principles are designed to awaken or support the parenting intuition we all possess. We do not require skills or strategies but compassion, principles, and insight. The rest will come naturally—although I’m not saying it will come easily.

The following is obvious to parents who teach their toddlers to say please and thank you, but perhaps it's not so obvious that the technique should continue beyond toddlerhood.

There is another way to deal with immature children: rather than demanding that they spontaneously exhibit mature behavior, we could script the desired behavior. Following our directions will not make the child more mature, but it will enable him to function in social situations that otherwise she is not yet developmentally ready for. [The book generally does a good job of mixing up the personal pronouns; this is evidence that mistakes sometimes slip through multiple proofreaders, not that the authors are obsessive about gender issues.]

We have been taken in by peer orientation, much like the ancient people of Troy were fooled by the Trojan Horse. Perceiving this large wooden horse to be a gift from the gods, the Trojans brought it within the walls of their city and set the stage for their destruction. In the same way, today’s parents and teachers view early and extensive peer interaction in a positive light. We encourage it, unaware of the risks that arise when such interaction occurs without adult leadership and input. We fail to distinguish between peer relationships formed under the conscious and benign guidance of adults and peer contacts occurring in attachment voids. Unwittingly, we encourage peer orientation to sabotage our children’s attachments to us. ... The Trojan Horse of peer orientation is perceived as a gift rather than the threat it is.

Our failure to foresee the ill effects is understandable, since the early fruits are appealing and enticing. At first glance peer-oriented children appear to be more independent, less clingy, more schoolable, more sociable and sophisticated. ...

In the first days of school in kindergarten, a peer-oriented child would appear smarter, more confident, and better able to benefit from the school experience. The parent-oriented child, impaired by separation anxiety would, by contrast, appear to be less adept and capable—at least until he can form a good attachment with a teacher. Peer-oriented kids have all the advantages in situations that are adult poor and peer rich. Because peers are plentiful and easy to spot, the child need never feel lost or without cues to follow. Thus, in the short term, peer orientation appears to be a godsend. And it is undoubtedly this dynamic that research taps into when discovering benefits to early education. In the long term, of course, the positive effects on learning of reduced anxiety and disorientation will gradually be canceled by the negative effects of peer orientation. Thus follows the research evidence that early advantages of preschool education are not sustainable over time.

The belief is that socializing—children spending time with one another—begets socialization: the capacity for skillful and mature relating to other human beings. There is no evidence to support such an assumption, despite its popularity. If socializing with peers led to getting along and to becoming responsible members of society, the more time a child spent with her peers, the better the relating would tend to be. In actual fact, the more children spend time with one another, the less likely they are to get along and the less likely they are to fit into civil society.

What is praised as getting along in children would, in adult life, be called compromising oneself or selling oneself short or not being true to oneself.

Developmentally, children have a much greater need for a relationship with themselves than for relationships with peers.

Kids have always had playmates their age, in all societies throughout history, but in most of those societies there was no danger of peer contacts being transformed into peer orientation. Children’s interactions occurred in the context of strong adult attachments. Today’s parents also cannot be expected to isolate their children from peers, but they do have to be aware of the dangers.

Peer interaction is routinely prescribed for yet another purpose: to take the rough edges off children who may be a bit too eccentric for our liking. We seem to have an obsession in North America with being “normal” and fitting in. Perhaps we as adults have become so peer-oriented ourselves that instead of seeking to express our own individuality, we take our cues for how to be and how to act from one another. ... What is regrettable is that we as adults should dignify this homogenizing dynamic by honoring it and deferring to it.

We must understand ... that peers are not the same as siblings and that siblings are more than playmates. Siblings share the same working compass point. The unique attachment with the sibling is the natural offspring of the attachment with the parent. ... More appropriate substitutes for siblings are cousins, not peers.

The way we socialize also needs to change. Socializing tends to be peer-oriented in North America, splitting along generational lines. Even when several generations are together, the activities seem to be peer-based: adults hang out with adults, children with children. [In Provence, France] we saw that socializing almost always included the children. Meals were prepared, activities were selected, and outings were planned with this in mind. ... The greater the number of caring adults in a child’s life, the more immune he or she will be to peer orientation. As much as possible, we should be participating with our children in villagelike activities that connect children to adults....

Under today’s conditions, in many families both parents need to work—to say nothing of the growing number of single-parent families. We cannot turn the clock back to some idealized past when one parent, usually the mother, stayed at home until the children were grown, or at least in school. Economically and culturally we have reached a different stage. But we do have to ensure that our kids form strong relationships with the adults we entrust to take our place.

That is the sad realism of the book. I understand, but I also strongly believe that we could do better in recognizing that chronological progress is not necessarily progress in all areas, and that we would do well to work hard to retain the best of past practices and structures. I know many mothers who would love to be able to full-time homemakers—what, after all, can be more honorable and important than making a home?—but believe that they can't. Surely society could to more to encourage parents not to give their children into the care of others for large portions of the day.

The cultural milieu in which our book was written was already characterized by the increasing peer orientation of our young people, but that was before Facebook was launched and Twitter came on the scene, before videogames came to preoccupy our youth and online pornography accounted for 30 percent of Internet activity, and before anyone would have thought that within a few years 90 percent of children ages eight to sixteen will have viewed pornography online. Doctors had not yet expressed their concerns about the deleterious effects of screen time on children’s health, nor had they yet issued their warnings of rising Internet addiction.

How do peer-oriented kids keep close to their peers in the evenings and on weekends and on holidays? And what about when they leave school? As we all know and have experienced, there is nothing more impactful psychologically than facing separation from those we are attached to. The resulting alarm is immense, and the pursuit of proximity desperate. The motivation to close the gap becomes all-consuming. I believe this was the force that bent the digital revolution into the shape we see now. Remember that attachment is the strongest force in the universe. The digital devices designed to serve school and business became repurposed to connect the peer-oriented with one another. The digital revolution has become, for all intents and purposes, a phenomenon of social connectivity.

I often wonder what would have happened if the digital revolution had occurred before peer orientation took hold, but after increasing mobility, job scarcity, and high divorce rates had separated us from those we love. Without peer orientation, perhaps a culture would have evolved to digitally connect children to their parents and teachers, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Parents might be reading bedtime stories to their children through these digital tools when away from home; teachers and students creating a context of connection to facilitate learning; grandparents connecting with their grandchildren when far away. ... There are many who use digital devices and social media for this purpose, and this should be applauded. But the facts and figures suggest that those of us who use social networking this way are not the ones shaping this phenomenon. It is the peer-oriented who rule the Internet waves.

The digital revolution is irreversible. There is nothing inherently bad about these devices; the concern is about their use, especially in the hands of our children. When to introduce and when to discourage such use is the question. ...

We have many precedents for dealing with things that are inevitable, even good, but with potentially damaging side effects for children. ... We don’t prohibit desserts, despite their being relatively empty of nutrients. We control the timing. After dinner is the rule, at least until the child is mature enough to have formed healthy intentions and to control impulses. In other words, cookies are okay as long as a child is full of the good stuff. The less a child feels the need for a cookie, the less harmful the empty food is. Timing is always the key issue in healthy development. For everything there is a season. The secret to handling potentially damaging experiences is not prohibition, which can be an exercise in futility and act as a potent trigger for counterwill. The secret of reducing the damage is in the timing of things. We want children to be fulfilled with what they truly need before they have access to that which would spoil their appetite....

An activity is genuine play when it is not outcome-based. In true play, the fun is in the activity, not in the end result. True play is for play’s sake, not for winning or scoring.

There is a deep and disturbing paradox to the information age. Humans, and most certainly children, were not designed to handle the amount of information they have been subjected to, even before the digital revolution. The only way our brains can process information in the first place is by tuning out 95 to 98 percent of the sensory input. The human problem is not that we don’t have enough information, but rather that we have much more information than we can possibly make use of. The ultimate and paradoxical effect of increasing access to information is to evoke further defenses against it. ...

Attentional systems cannot develop properly while dealing with a constant onslaught of incoming information. Studies show that we need downtime, time away from stimulation, to integrate the information we receive. ...

There are no shortcuts to getting ready to take in the world, and there is a heavy price to pay for being too much in a hurry. Childhood should be primarily about coming out as a child, not about taking in. The inflow of information is interfering with the outflow of emergent ideas that was meant to happen first. First curiosity, a willingness to learn and to receive, then information.

Although I agree with most of the above—I certainly experience it as an adult—I do fear that some will take this as a reason to deprive young children, even infants, of what they crave at least as much as food: opportunities to learn. Despite what the authors say elsewhere about curiosity being a fruit of maturation, I know that infants are born with an insatiable curiosity and are all about learning and growing in every way. I believe the authors would agree with that, while emphasizing that parents need to be careful that the information received is appropriate and controlled, and that their children have plenty of time and space to process what they take in, remembering that processing takes much longer than input.

What we offer here is not a precise recipe but an understanding, an explanation, along with broad guidelines. How these will apply to each child and each family will depend on the parents’ ability to foster the necessary relationship with their offspring. No age-specific recommendations are possible—a child’s relationship with the parents and his or her level of emotional maturity dictate what needs to be done. It is futile to suggest universally applicable, rigid rules.

Neufeld and Maté are waving an enormous red flag as we race headlong into the future. They offer no once-size-fits-all solution, but they do offer awareness—the vital first step—and hope.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 28, 2017 at 10:27 am | Edit
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