It's about time for another word from my favorite Canadian lawyer, who is struggling to balance principles and parenthood. (12-minute video)
Maybe it's a good thing that my only Australian source concentrates on cooking. I hear the situation is even worse there.
Southwest Airlines has been getting some bad press recently, but we've recently had a wonderful experience.
I'm very disappointed that they caved in to pressure to implement a vaccine mandate for their employees. I would have respected them much, much more if they could have held out against this wrongful policy.
That said, I was impressed, and pleasantly surprised, by what happened to us.
We were scheduled to fly Southwest, and more than a little concerned about their recent cancellations, especially the news stories of people waiting several hours to get help, and not being able to reschedule any sooner than three days away.
Sure enough, the night before we were scheduled to fly, we received notice that our flight was one of the ones that was cancelled. Before we could even get through to the Southwest website, however, we receive another notification:
We have rebooked your flight for you.
Not only did it happen quickly, and with no effort on our part, but they had actually put us on a better flight than the one that was cancelled. It left three hours later, giving us a more comfortable start, yet arrived at our destination an hour earlier, because it was a direct flight instead of requiring a plane change in Baltimore. True, our new flight was packed to the gills and we were among the last five people to board the plane, but at that point we felt nothing but gratitude.
Kudos to Southwest for making a potentially terrible situation into something almost pleasant.
And many thanks to all of you who prayed for our trip!
Happy Columbus Day!
(On my calendar it is October 12, no matter what the USPS says.)
If you don't celebrate Columbus Day, have a happy day anyway.
So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport (Business Plus, 2012)
I can't resist a Cal Newport book. My first was How to Be a High School Superstar (published 2010), then Digital Minimalism (2019) then Deep Work (2016). If the advice in any of them is out of date, I haven't noticed anything major.
So Good They Can't Ignore You is—like the others—both strong and weak but filled with interesting ideas that are contrary to much conventional wisdom. This time Newport tackles the "follow your passion" philosophy of choosing a career that was popular when the book was written. I don't think the appeal of that idea has lessened, despite the great number of college graduates who thought they were doing just that but ended up with unmanageable debt and a job at Starbuck's.
Much of his thesis is just what used to be called common sense: The work you choose doesn't matter nearly as much as how you approach it; focus on what you can offer the world rather than what the world can offer you; work hard; cultivate excellence. If that sounds boring and Puritanical, read the book to find out how it turns out to be the secret to having a career that's enjoyable and personally fulfilling. Newport fleshes out the ideas nicely, if sometimes a bit too repetitively, with explanation, analysis, and real-world examples.
As with Newport's other books, this one is business-oriented, making it hard to apply directly to non-business careers like homemaking and rearing a family. In fact, part of me wonders if it's possible to do what's necessary to achieve the skills he expects without neglecting other important parts of life. However, it must be noted that the really intense effort he recommends works best when one is young, and leads to far more autonomy and flexibility than standard career paths. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.
At present, the Kindle version of So Good They Can't Ignore You is currently on sale for $3.99. It's well worth the investment of your time and money, or a visit to your local library.
Point 1: What is the good of euphemisms? They enable us to express something without resorting to offensive words (whatever the offense may be). That's better for the ears and hearts of the listeners, certainly. But does it do anything for the speakers? If I say "darn" instead of "damn," what do I gain? Is the attitude of my heart any better for it? I think that's a good question to ponder.
Point 2: As I've said many times, of presidents from both parties: our chief executive deserves respectful treatment by virtue of the office he holds—not to mention as a human being. Chanting "F--- Joe Biden" like a football cheer is puerile at best. Moreover, it's probably worse than useless, venting people's frustrations without driving them to work toward changing the policies they hate. If I were President Biden, I would hear those chants and think, "As long as they're shouting and not actively working for my opponents, I'm okay with that."
That said, I have to admit that I find the whole "Let's Go, Brandon!" story hilarious. And maybe even a little useful.
Good humor can be an effective antidote to hate, and it's hard to say, "Let's Go, Brandon!" without smiling.
My constant prayer since the start of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines has been that the knowledge gained would lead to an effective vaccine against malaria.
When I last checked the Johns Hopkins site, the total estimate of COVID-19 cases since we started keeping track have been a little less than 237 million. (Just how accurate that guess is, is another issue.)
In that time period, there have been approximately 382 million cases of malaria, a debilitating disease that cripples economies, and preferentially kills young children.
But there is good news. While there is still much room for new vaccine-development techniques to improve the situation, there is now a vaccine for malaria. It was developed by GlaxoSmithKline* and proven effective six years ago. Finally, after futher testing, has been given the green light for mass vaccinations in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Effective," in this case, is only 40%—I said there was room for improvement—and requires a series of four shots, given at five, six, seven, and 18 months of age. In a part of the world where health care is often less than stellar, I imagine this will be a challenge to implement. But malaria is a much trickier disease than, say, COVID ("comparing them is like comparing a person and a cabbage") and this is a huge milestone.
Last Sunday we might almost have been on vacation, with visits to one church, two art museums, and a restaurant. Double or triple the number of churches and museums and we could have been back in Rome. Even the temperature was about right.
The church was our own Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. It has no great art masterpieces, but the building is really beautiful and we get to sing there. :)
The first museum was the Mennello Museum of American Art. It's one of our favorite little museums, perfect for a quick cultural break. This time we stayed a lot longer than we had expected. The current special exhibit (through November 7) is "Floating Beauty: Women in the Art of Ukiyo-e." I've learned through experience that art exhibits that make political statements are likely to be annoying, and worse, boring. That's what I expected here and I couldn't have been more wrong.
Here's the description of the exhibit, taken from the museum's website:
Examines historical perspectives on women and their depiction in art in Edo Period Japan (1615 – 1858). Made up entirely of woodblock prints created in the ukiyo-e style, this exhibition highlights female characters in literature, kabuki theatre, and poetry; the courtesans and geisha of the Yoshiwara district; and wives and mothers from different social classes performing the duties of their station, in order to gain some insight into the lives of women in pre-modern Japan.
The prints, on loan from the Reading Public Museum, were beautiful, and educational. Several were by Utagawa Hiroshige, recognizable because of the book of his art I created for our grandchildren back in 2015. Even though it does not depict women, the exhibit included one of the many prints of Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa. This is from the artist's series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and immediately brought to mind our visit to Janet in Japan, where we took a long walk to another small museum with great richness of art, including the Thirty-six Views.
[Pandemic note: the website said we'd have to have our temperatures taken to enter the museum, but that wasn't true. They did, however, require masks inside.]
Our next visit was to the Orlando Museum of Art, across the street. Having been brought up on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it has taken me a while to appreciate Orlando's, which, I'm sorry to say, tends toward art that is modern, infused with politics, and—as I said—boring. But every once in a while they have a major success in my book, and this was one of those times.
Two new exhibits opened September 25. There is no ending date posted on the museum site—it merely says "ongoing"—but both are on loan from elsewhere, and excellent, so be sure to check them out if you can.
The first exhibit we saw at the OMA was Treasures from the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University: Five Centuries of Old Master Painting. I had no idea Bob Jones had such treasure. This is such a change from what OMA usually has to offer! Another big plus for me was the excellence of the descriptions that accompany the paintings. All too often in American museums I find these commentaries to be poorly written: filled with spelling, grammatical, and compositional errors; sometimes, when it's a subject I know something about, even errors of fact. These were all I could want in that respect, and provided accurate explananations of both the Biblical/Classical context of the paintings, and the symbolism so often present in such works.
Van Dyke, Rubens, and Tintoretto are among those represented here. And also this, Carlo Dolci's Madonna and Child.
I wonder if anyone else in my family will do a double-take at Mary, as I did. You might want to click on the image to enlarge it.
The second special exhibit is Connoisseurship & Collecting: Masterworks of European Painting from the Muscarelle Museum of Art. More great masters, more excellent descriptions, definitely worth seeing. We could have spent more time with it, but we were tired out from the first two exhibits and hungry because it was now going on three o'clock. As we walked out of the museum, we paused to pay homage to their excellent collection of Louis Dewis works, now featured in a better place than the last time we were there.
[Pandemic note: "Face masks are encouraged but not required." As usually seems to happen in these situations, people's mask use and non-use were regulated by some pretty good common sense.]
The final work of art? Avocado egg rolls at the Cheesecake Factory.
[Pandemic note: It's a restaurant; we were eating. The servers wore masks, and we didn't.]
It causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark. — Revelation 13:16-17
College is a time for wide-ranging, speculative discussions, and among my fellow students in the early 1970's this Bible verse was a popular topic. We were hard-pressed to imagine a world in which people would consent to having marks imposed on their bodies: tattoos were so rare that most of us had never seen one, and the now-common practice of implanting informative microchips in pets was 15 years in the future. The microchip itself had barely made any impression on our lives—my choice when doing my physics homework was between long, laborious hand calculations and a long trek through the snow to a small room where half a dozen chunky, very basic calculators had been made available to students.
Even more puzzling was how having or not having this "mark of the beast" could be the gateway to commerce. The marketplace still ran on cash and checks.
How much can change in 50 years.
Suddenly, in Canada, in Australia, in Switzerland, and in parts of the United States, the marketplace and much more are now gated by vaccination status. Society has been divided as by a sharp sword between the haves and the have-nots; the clean and the unclean; the ones who are free to travel, attend school, eat at restaurants, and even hold their jobs, and those who are not.
I am not saying that the COVID-19 vaccine is the Mark of the Beast. It seems clear that the Mark will involve some form of blasphemy and idolatrous worship, and this does not—although, frankly, the efforts to invalidate religious exemptions to vaccine mandates have me wondering a bit about that.
However, it is now crystal clear is that what seemed impossibly fanciful back in my college days is not only possible, but can sweep over even a free and democratic country with little effective opposition. Whatever that Mark may be, we have opened the door.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin Books, 2000)
I read Moby-Dick my freshman year in college. It was a long slog, even for an avid reader like me. But back then my tastes did not run to "literature," much less literature required by English teachers; perhaps I would appreciate it more now. In fact, I'm tempted to give it another go, now that I've read In the Heart of the Sea. The tale of the Essex was Herman Melville's inspiration.
I'd encountered Philbrick once before: His Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, which greatly impressed me back in 2010. In the Heart of the Sea gets the same good rating, but with a warning: As much as I found it fascinating, I found it depressing. Possibly this is merely a reflection of my own darker mood, induced by events associated with going on two years of pandemic. I find the sinful nature of humanity revealed a little to graphically here; ditto the grisly business of butchering a whale.
But there's no doubt it's a fascinating story, impeccably researched and dramatically told. Maybe it's time to dig up Moby-Dick and see if it's as painful as I remember.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
I ran into this quote, called Hanlon's Razor, in an episode of the detective series New Tricks. It was new to me: as far as I can remember I'd never heard it before. However, it is sufficiently like one of my own favorite sayings that either (1) I heard it somewhere and filed it away subconsciously, or (2) it's so obvious that there must be dozens of variations on the same theme, or (3) I'm just brilliant.
Wikipedia attributes this form to Robert J. Hanlon, from about 1980, though, as I suspected, the idea's been around a long time. If I did pick up the idea subconsiously, I suspect it would have come from the Robert A. Heinlein story referenced in that article.
Here is one of my variations on the idea:
Most so-called conspiracies can be more readily explained by simple human stupidity.
I'm overwhelmed with all the news that begs comment and threatens to overwhelm the ordinary life events that I like to post for family and friends. This one pops to the top of the backlog because it is good news, and we can always do with some of that.
The story started in March 2020, when a 16-year-old high school student went on a trip with her band to Disney World in Florida. Nothing unusual about that: it happens evey year, from all over the country. Our kids did it with their band—though they didn't have so far to go. In fact, my siblings did the same thing, coming from Pennsylvania, some 40 years ago.
But this was early 2020, and a week after returning, the girl came down with symptoms that caused her doctors to believe she had COVID-19. She was hospitalized for a day or so, and posted to her friends, on Instagram, a photo of her with a breathing mask that said that she had beaten the coronavirus and that they should "stay home and be safe."
It is anyone's guess how and why this led to the police knocking on her door and demanding that she delete her post, under threats that included arrest for either her, her parents, or both. I'm guessing that the school got tired of fielding panicked calls from parents who feared for their own children and it snowballed from there, but who knows? The girl complied, removing her post, but subsequently filed a lawsuit on the grounds that her First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated.
Here's a 15-minute analysis with more detail.
It is indeed good news when the courts rule in favor of our Constitutional rights, even in a very small case, because small cases can set very big precedents. My only regret is that it takes so long for the judgement to come. Vital as such judgements are, they can't undo the harm done. In the 18 months since that fateful Instagram post was taken down, how much other damage was done? How much damage will continue to be done by those who disagree with this judge and believe they can get away with violating the Constitution, at least for long enough to accomplish their purposes?
American Journeys Volume 1 by Lois Lenski (includes Indian Captive, Judy’s Journey, Flood Friday, Texas Tomboy, Boom Town Boy, Coal Camp Girl, and Mama Hattie’s Girl)
American Journeys Volume 2 by Lois Lenski (includes Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Bayou Suzette, Blue Ridge Billy, Corn-Farm Boy, San Francisco Boy, and To Be a Logger)
Lois Lenski's children's books are a true treasure that all too few children—and parents and teachers—have discovered. I loved Indian Captive as a child, but didn't discover Strawberry Girl until I was an adult. Ocean-Born Mary came later still. Lenski's other books should not be so hard to find in our libraries! I discovered the fourteen above thanks to a sale on the Kindle versions of these collections, and what a treat they are! There are four other books in Lenski's American Regional series: Houseboat Girl (also available on Kindle), Cotton in My Sack, Deer Valley Girl, and Shoo-Fly Girl. Sadly, the last three are not available on Kindle.
These books are a much-needed antidote to what I call a chronological snobbery approach to teaching history. The term "chronological snobbery" isn't mine; I learned it from C. S. Lewis. All too often we look at the people and events of the past through ignorant, prideful eyes, as we are very good at seeing the areas in which we consider ourselves to be superior to our forebears, and very bad at even considering that there might be areas in which our forebears would justifiably consider us vastly inferior to themselves.
Lenski's books do an excellent job of avoiding that, for at least two reasons: they were largely written contemporaneously with the events they describe, and Lenski's research was meticulous and personal. She made a point of living in the situations she wrote about, getting to know the families, the work, and especially the children. For books where that was impossible, like Indian Captive and Ocean-Born Mary, she substituted thorough research and a heart sympathetic to all cultures.
Modern Americans may well be shocked by some of the situations in these books, but it is good for us to realize that our ways aren't the only ways that make for happy families and a healthy upbringing. Not to mention that other cultures may have done some things better than us. Nearly all the children in these books, for example, have many more responsibilities and at the same time much more freedom at younger ages than most modern parents can imagine.
The inspiration to write a review at this particular time? Amazon Kindle is currently (9/25/21) offering the second volume of these books for $3.99. Volume 1 is $31.99, so don't even think of buying it at that price. In my experience, with patience you will see it for $3.99 as well, and the individual books at $1.99. I highly recommend using (and supporting) a service called eReaderIQ, which will alert you when books or authors you are interested in go on sale.
I was pleased to see the following display at our local Publix. It's certainly a healthier alternative to the cookies that are usually offered to children at grocery stores.
Then I thought a bit about it. It may be a healthier treat, but there's one thing missing: it's just a bin of fruit; there is no human interaction.
Years ago, when our kids went to the bakery to receive their much-anticipated free cookies, it was a social event. The interaction with the "cookie lady"—the smiles, the brief exchange of words, the opportunity to practice basic courtesies such as saying "thank you"—was a small but significant part of their social education. Reaching into a bin is impersonal.
Something is gained, but something is lost.
Many years ago our Swiss relatives marvelled at how much of American society is not automated. Switzerland automates where it can—in paying tolls and parking fees, for example—because labor costs are so high there. It is good to have work in Switzerland, because jobs pay well and workers are respected. But of course in consequence there are fewer jobs and they require higher levels of training.
Like it or not, the move toward automation is accelerating in America, spurred on by our response to the pandemic and the consequent labor shortage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there's no doubt that whenever we make a purchase online, choose a self-checkout line at the grocery store, take a course online instead of in person, listen to a sermon or watch a service online instead of attending a local church, or watch a movie at home instead of in a theater, we are giving up an opportunity for meaningful interaction with others.
I'm a cast-iron introvert, and my first reaction is, "So what?" The less personal option is usually more efficient, more convenient, and avoids the risk of having to deal with rude sales clerks and cranky classmates. Automation and online opportunities open up a huge world of information, possibilities, and choice.
The danger is that they can close off another world: the messy world of having to control our nastier impulses and deal with the personalities, cultures, viewpoints, and yes, nastier impulses of other people; the beautiful world of personal encounters that force us to see the humanity of those whom we might be tempted to hate if our encounter were in an online political forum instead of a line at Home Depot.
I am not one of those who likes to rail against the United States Postal Service. We have always had excellent, friendly service from our local post office, and almost all of our mail carriers have been people who care about their customers and serve above-and-beyond. Overall I think the system works well.
Further up the chain of command, however, I sometimes have my doubts. The following notice came from our bank this morning:
Effective October 1, 2021, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has revised its service standards for certain First-Class Mail items, resulting in a delivery window of up to five days. Please note that this may delay your receipt of mail from us and our receipt of mail from you (including mailed payments). Please take this change into account when mailing items to us via USPS.
Here's an explanation from the USPS website:
After carefully considering the Postal Regulatory Commission’s (PRC) July 20th advisory opinion, the Postal Service plans to move forward with adjusting service standards for First-Class Mail and Periodicals. The PRC concluded that the Postal Service’s proposed changes, in principle, are rational and accord with statutory requirements. The PRC made a number of recommendations for how the Postal Service should implement its changes, which the Postal Service is largely adopting. Additional details will be provided in an upcoming Federal Register notice. A majority of First-Class Mail and Periodicals will keep current service standards, with 70 percent of First-Class Mail volume having a delivery standard of 1-3 days.
The service standard changes are part of our balanced and comprehensive Delivering for America Strategic Plan, and will improve service reliability and predictability for customers and enhance the efficiency of the Postal Service network. The service standard changes that we have determined to implement are a necessary step towards achieving our goal of consistently meeting 95 percent service performance.
So, practically, mail service may seem the same for much of the time. But read that last line again: The service standard changes that we have determined to implement are a necessary step towards achieving our goal of consistently meeting 95 percent service performance.
I should not be surprised. Over several decades, I've seen it happen in our educational system, in business practices, in government services, and in social expectations. We talk a good game, but when it comes to actual accomplishment, time and time again I've seen organizations choose to meet their goals by bringing the goals down to their level of achievement, rather than the other way around.
Maybe the new standards are more realistic. Maybe there are a thousand excuses for not achieving what we set out to do. Certainly I've had to revise my personal goals too often. But if the purpose of the new goals isn't to help us move beyond them—further, better, higher—we can trap ourselves on a downward spiral of lowered expectations.
Subsequent events have shown that we—as a country and individually—are not much more prepared to have our world turned upside down in an instant than we were on September 11, 2001, and I include myself as chief of sinners. (Five-minute video. Warning: some language, and it will probaby tear you apart.)
Somehow, we must do better.
Living unprepared is foolish. Living in fear is faithless.
Somehow, we must do better.