altC. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

I'm already convinced I made the right decision to begin my C. S. Lewis "retrospective" with biography. Learning about an author's personal life may not be the best introduction to his works, but when I'm facing a list of nearly 50 books that range from those I haven't yet read (e.g. The Discarded Image) to those I've read literally dozens of times (e.g. the Narnia books), it's probably a good idea to remind myself of the man behind the words.

I can recommend this biography without qualification, even though there were one or two spots that annoyed me, such as when the authors accuse Lewis of exaggerating the horrors of one of his childhood schools. "Oh, come on; it isn't that bad" are harsh words for a sufferer to bear. Lewis was safely dead ten years before the book was published, but I'm sure he heard similar comments in his lifetime.

What struck me most about Lewis this time was how brilliant he really was, from his earliest days. The sheer volume of his reading is phenomenal, and it seems he forgot nothing. He read adult books as a child and children's books as an adult, enjoying them strictly on their merits. He suffered greatly in the normal British educational system, but absolutely thrived in his two and a half years, beginning at age 14, with a private tutor (William T. Kirkpatrick) who would have terrified most children. "Some boys would not have liked it [but] to me it was red beef and strong beer."

"If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk*", Lewis decided, and his own acutely logical mind was to a great extent formed and sharpened by Kirkpatrick's. Kirkpatrick's outstanding conviction was that language was given to man solely for the purpose of communicating or discovering truth. The general banalities and "small-talk" of most people did not enter into his calculations. "The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation." To a mere "torrent of verbiage" he would cry "Stop!", not from impatience, but because it was leading nowhere. More sensible observations might be interrupted by "Excuse!", ushering in some parenthetical comment. Full approval would be encouraged by "I hear you"—but usually followed by refutation:  "Had I read this? Had I studied that? Had I any statistical evidence? And so to the almost inevitable conclusion: 'Do you not see then that you had no right...' "

Lewis arrived ... on Saturday, 19 September 1914, and two days later he was flung straight into Homer, of whom he had never read a word, nor had any introduction to the Epic dialect, having only studied the straight Attic of Xenophon and the dramatists. Kirkpatrick's method was to read aloud twenty lines or so of the Greek, translate, with a few comments and explanations for another hundred lines, and then leave his pupil to go over it with the aid of a lexicon, and make sense of as much of it as he could. It worked with Lewis, who had no difficulty in memorizing every word as he looked up its meaning. Kirkpatrick at this stage seemed to value speed more than absolute accuracy, and Lewis soon found himself understanding what he read without translating it, beginning to think in Greek.

Of Lewis, his tutor said,

He was born with the literary temperament and we have to face that fact with all it implies. This is not a case of early precocity showing itself in rapid assimilation of knowledge and followed by subsequent indifference or torpor. ... It is the maturity and originality of his literary judgements which is so unusual and surprising. By an unerring instinct he detects first rate quality in literary workmanship, and the second rate does not interest him in any way. ... [He] has a sort of genius for translating. ... He has read more classics in the time than any boy I ever had, and that too very carefully and exactly. In Homer his achievement is unique. ... In the Sophoclean drama, which attains a high level in poetic expression ... he could beat me easily in the happy choice of words and phrases. ... He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met.

With that as background, consider how near Lewis and Oxford University—with which he had fallen in love at first sight—came to missing out on each other. Without trying to understand and explain the British university system, I can boil it down to this: Lewis was accepted to Oxford pending the successful completion of a particular examination. In this, the brilliant student failed the mathematics portion. He was admitted anyway, because he had volunteered for Army service (World War I) and he went through the Officers' Training Corps there. The theory was that he would be working on algebra (his downfall) as he could and would re-take the exam after his service ended. He tried, but never mastered the subject well enough to pass the exam. Fortunately for all of us, after the war veterans were specifically exempted from the need to pass that exam. "Otherwise," Lewis observed, "I should have had to abandon the idea of going to Oxford."

I shudder at the close call, and while I have difficulty fathoming the idea that someone so intelligent, skillful, and hard-working could fail to understand algebra, I offer this story as encouragement to those who may find themselves struggling now that so many high schools have made the subject a requirement for graduation. You can be brilliant and successful without algebra! I just hope you don't have to fight a war to get where you want to go, and that you will be able to afford an assistant to help you with the math of daily life. Algebra was not Lewis's only problem: He never managed to grasp the difference between gross and net profit when it came to his book sales, and had to be saved from dire financial straits by friends who set up a system whereby he could be exceedingly generous to others without going bankrupt himself.

If you are new to the works of C. S. Lewis, his own writings are the place to start. I would suggest beginning with either the Narnia books or Mere Christianity, depending on your temperament. But if you're interested in learning more about the brilliant, complex, surprising person behind all the books, Green & Hooper's book is a good bet.

*Some would say Spock, not Kirk, but that's another story.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 8:02 am | Edit
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Words of wisdom for our time from George MacDonald (from The Hope of the Gospel: "God's Family").

One thing is plain—that we must love the strife-maker; another is nearly as plain—that, if we do not love him, we must leave him alone; for without love there can be no peace-making, and words will but occasion more strife. To be kind neither hurts nor compromises.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 at 11:34 am | Edit
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One hundred years ago today, on November 11, 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice was signed that ended battle on the Western Front of World War I, the war that devastated a generation of Europeans, and set the stage for World War II two decades later. The cost was personal on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Veterans' Day is a time for honoring all veterans, but this year it seems appropriate to feature WWI. Those closest to us include:

Hezekiah Porter 

Hezekiah Scovil Porter, son of Wallace and Florence (Gesner) Wells Porter. Porter's granduncle on this mother's side. Army, 26th Division, 101st Machine Gun Battalion. Killed in action near Chatêau-Thierry, France, July 22, 1918. His story is elaborated here: The Complete World War I Diary of Hezekiah Scovil Porter.

 

 

 

Harry Faulk 

Harry Gilbert Faulk, son of Olaf Frederick and Hilma Justina (Reuterberg) Faulk. Porter's granduncle on his father's side. Army, 26th Division, 101st Machine Gun Battalion. Wounded in action near Chatêau-Thierry, France, July 25, 1918. Died of his wounds later that day. Here is a (mostly accurate) article about him.

 

 

 

Howard Harlan Langdon, WWI

 

Howard Harland Langdon, son of Willis Johnson and Mary Lucy (Wood) Langdon. My grandfather on my father's side. Army, 219th Aero Squadron, served in England. He didn't fly the planes, but kept them air-worthy.

 

 

 

George Cunningham Smith, Sr., WWI

 

George Cunningham Smith, Sr., son of Nathan and Issyphemia (Cunningham) Smith. My grandfather on my mother's side. Army, 5th Engineers, Company B, served in France. His father fought in the Civil War (16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company B).

 

 

Thank you to all who have stood "between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation."

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 11, 2018 at 7:54 am | Edit
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altC. S. Lewis: Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby (Eerdmans, 1973)

This book of photos—places, people, manuscripts—from the world of Clive Staples Lewis was a gift from Porter eons ago, probably not many years after its publication. I read it then, of course, and just re-read it as part of my newest reading project: binge-reading all the books in our home library by or about a particular author. I have previously tackled George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare (plays only, read or viewed), and Miss Read (Dora Jesse Saint). Since the C. S. Lewis collection is exceeded only by our George MacDonald books, this is no small project.

Often I read the books in publication order, because I think that gives insight in to an author's growth and development. I'll do some of that with Lewis, but I thought I'd start with a biography, and this book seemed good to read even before that ("Book 0"), to give context to what I will be reading. It was a good choice.

It's largely a picture book, no surprise, so there's not a lot to quote from, but there were two I couldn't resist marking.

In spite of his academic success [at Malvern College], Lewis wrote home in March 1914, imploring his father to take him away. His brother Warren commented: "Much to my surprise, my father reacted to this letter by making an immediate and sensible decision. Jack was to leave Malvern at the end of the school year.... The fact is that he should never have been sent to a public school at all. Already, at fourteen, his intelligence was such that he would have fitted in better among undergraduates than among school boys; and by his temperament he was bound to be a misfit, a heretic, an object of suspicion within the collective-minded, and standardising, Public School system."

Granted, what the Brits mean by "public school" is not the American version, but the point about how school life treats those who don't fit in—especially if they are particularly intelligent—is still the same. It is worth noting that Warren himself was very happy at Malvern, yet he also said (taken from another source), "He was, indeed, lucky to leave Malvern before the power of this system had done him any lasting damage."

After almost 30 years as a professor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College of Oxford University, Lewis became Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It's a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they're all so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and "old woman" here I shall become the enfant terrible there. 

I can identify with that. Put me with liberals, and my conservative side predominates. Put me with conservatives, and my liberal side comes to the fore. Always the troublemaker.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 9:43 am | Edit
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Some of my friends predicted a Blue Wave. Some of my friends predicted a Red Wave. Instead, I awoke this morning to a sea of purple.

I'm good with that. I'm a purple kind of person, politically. I belong to a particular party only so that I can participate in the primary elections. Yesterday I voted for some Democrats and some Republicans. I won some races and lost others. Of one thing only am I certain: the victors will be neither as bad as I fear nor as good as I hope.

I'm also fine with what they're calling a "mixed government." No party should have an easy time pushing its own agenda: we lose the checks and balances that allow the voices of the rest of the country to be heard.

However, I do have a few words for the winners:

  • If you won your race by a 51/49 margin, do not intone, "The people have spoken" and think you have a mandate for your ideas. Never forget that half your constituency do not want you as their leader.
  • If you won by a landslide, I say the same thing. A rare 60/40 victory, or even an unheard of 90/10, does not mean you have the right to ignore the minority. Never forget that you are now as responsible for looking after their interests and considering their needs and values as you are those of the people who voted for you.
  • Remember that you were elected to serve, not to be served.

That would make American great.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 6:23 am | Edit
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The Kindle edition of all three of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy books in a single volume is currently $1.99, a 91% price decrease.  I don't know how long that will last, but it's unbeatable if you are at all interested.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Edit
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Today being the REAL Election Day, I voted. I can't say it was the pleasant experience it usually is. Oh, the poll workers were as friendly and as helpful as usual, but the room was chaotic and I left not feeling so confident about some of my fellow-voters. I write this now, before the results are known, so I can't be biased by the results, whatever they may be.

Several people seemed to be having procedural compliance issues.  Now the voting procedure in Florida is easy: be registered, and show up with an acceptable photo ID with signature. There are other ways, such as a photo ID without signature plus some other ID with signature. Or voting a provisional ballot and having your signature matched with your voter registration signature. They really bend over backwards to make voting easy here. They also make it very clear before you go to vote what you need to bring with you to the polling place.

For just one example of the confusion, the man in front of me was insisting that they accept his driver's license. Normally, that's the easiest way: they can scan your license and you're in. But this man's license was from another state.

Poll worker: When did you move here?

Voter: Eight months ago. And I registered to vote.

Poll worker: But you didn't transfer your driver's license. You must do that within 30 days of moving here. This license is not valid.

Voter: Why should I get a new license? This one hasn't expired yet.

(In case you are wondering, this wasn't a language issue.)

At least those who believe that the mere act of voting is meritorious in and of itself will be happy. With all the other ways Florida has of casting one's ballot, and the fact that I usually vote mid-morning, the polling places are usually pretty empty when I arrive.  Not this time!

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:44 am | Edit
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I was taught to view voting as a civic duty, and have always believed that. I still do. It's almost a civil sacrament, the "outward and visible sign" of good citizenship. With that in mind, I have observed that Americans have made some of the same mistakes with regard to voting as the Christian Church through the ages had made with its own sacraments.

Ideally, the sacraments are made available to all Christians ("citizens") who are deemed to have sufficient understanding of and respect for what they are doing. Different churches disagree considerably on what constitutes sufficiency, but that's the general idea. Two extremes may be noted, however.

  • Some churches, especially in the past, have greatly restricted the sacraments: to those of their own church, those who are of at least a certain age, those who have undergone sufficient instruction, those who have been thoroughly examined and been found to be fit, etc. They take very seriously the Bible's admonitions not to partake of the sacraments lightly—but by doing so have excluded many who should be welcomed.
  • Some churches, taking seriously the idea that the effectiveness of the sacraments is based on God's grace, have thrown wide the doors with no concern that the participants have genuine faith or knowledge of what they are doing. Historically, this has resulted in politically- and economically-motivated, or even forced, "conversions," to the great detriment of the Church (not to mention the individuals involved).

As regards its secular, civil religion, America has certainly been guilty of the former. Today, however, we appear to have veered crazily toward the latter. The effectiveness of voting in and of itself is touted as enthusiastically as in the most egregious historical misuse of ex opere operato by the Church.

Everywhere, I am surrounded by the admonition to VOTE! Not a word about being educated on the issues and the candidates, not a word about considering the needs of others and the good of the country rather than one's own self-interest, not a word about casting an intelligent and wise vote—simply VOTE! Cast your ballot and let the magic of voting do its work.

Baptize a man against his will and he becomes a Christian. Require a man to attend Mass on Sunday, and it doesn't matter if he's a Mafia Don.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 5, 2018 at 7:20 am | Edit
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What's this "set your clocks back" warning I heard all over the media yesterday?

What's a clock?

I wonder how archaic this advice really is. I also wonder why people raise so many objections to "changing the clocks" twice a year.

Yes, I know: I've campaigned against the time changing. But that's because I want to stay on Standard Time (aka real time, sun time, normal time) all year 'round and not use Daylight Saving Time—one of Ben Franklin's less reasonable ideas—at all. The change itself is trivial for one accustomed to dealing with time zone changes.

But when you woke up this morning, how did you know what time it was?

I'm betting most people checked their phones—phones which are smart enough to make the time change without our help.

If I had set my computer clock back an hour, it would now be wrong.

Yes, we changed our clocks yesterday—and I remarked that we have far too many of them that need changing. I can't help believing that they are an anachronism. Houses in the future may still have clocks, but I'm betting more and more of them will be smart enough to change themselves. And in any case, people will still rely more on their cell phones to wake them up in the morning and get them where they need to go on time.

The "change your clocks" sermons are being preached to an ever-dwindling congregation.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 4, 2018 at 6:31 am | Edit
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Pardon me while I briefly indulge my Inner Cynic.

Strangers cross your borders unbidden. They are miserable, hungry, and lack the skills necessary to live in your land. You are compassionate. You welcome them, feed them, and teach them survivial skills. You enjoy the boost they bring to your economy.

Ask the Native Americans how that worked out for them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 6:52 am | Edit
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altLeave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan (Vintage Books/Random House, 2005)

For a book with such a promising title, there was surprisingly little I could identify with here. I was expecting something lighthearted about introverts, but it's much more personal and introspective and has nothing to do with introverts, per se. The author is a self-professed leftist, feminist college professor who reviews books for NPR's Fresh Air show and is "ambivalent about the constraints of family and community." In other words, other than a love of books, we don't have a lot in common. That doesn't mean her book can't be interesting, but it was depressing, and if I want that, I can go to Facebook.

Given all the books Corrigan has read, and all the books I've read (though I can't hold a candle to her consumption), we have surprisingly little intersection. Before starting the book I skimmed the recommended reading list in the back, and most of the books I've never heard of, let alone read. However, a (very) few items on the list had the merit of not only being books I love, but ones that most other people I know don't share with me: Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors, and Marie Killilea's Karen and With Love from Karen. That's about it. What kept me going past the first chapter, which I did not like at all, was my eagerness to see what she thought of these favorites of mine.

As it turns out, we may have read (and loved!) the same books, but we sure didn't read them the same way. Truly, what one gets out of a book depends much on what one brings to the experience. Reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading was a vivid reminder of why I hated English class in high school, and why I majored in math in college. Maybe the authors did mean all the weird things that literature teachers pull out of their stories, but if so, I don't really want to know about it. (The only exception I can think of is Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, which I'm fairly certain Corrigan has not read.)

Still, a few quotes stand out.

I learned ... about the void that all devoted readers dread—the void that yawns just past the last page of whatever good book we're currently reading.

With this, I identify completely. I usually start planning my next book before finishing the current one.

More puzzling still is the mystery of what happened to Kingsley Amis himself after writing his masterpiece. Amis transformed from an Angry Young Man to a club-going, Merrie Olde England Tory bag of wind. How can such things be? Similar invastion-of-the-body-snatchers-type conversions besmirch literary history: the defection of New York Intellectual Norman Podhoretz to the right; the mutation of progressive reporter Joe Klein, who had written a moving boigraphy of Woody Guthrie, no less, into a centrist pundit and author of the anonymous Clinton parodic novel Primary Colors. Why? Why? Why? If reading good books doesn't necessariy make you a better person, apparently neither does writing them.

There's only so much of that I can stand. This is the same attitude that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Even if you really do think of half your potential audience as Deplorables, it's rarely good policy to say so out loud.

One of the great pleasures of writing book reviews is that I get to say what I think when I also have the time and space to say it right. Nobody interrupts or intimidates—it's just me and my computer. But I'm much more comfortable voicing my opinions, especially the controversial ones, in print than in person.

Me, too on that one.

Corrigan, who calls herself a "skeptical Catholic"—I would say very skeptical, and that her Catholicism owes more to culture than to belief—finally marries, despite some ambivalence.

It now seems quaint, but one of the big obstacles to matrimony ... was that Rich is an atheist Jew and I am a Catholic, sort of. My parents were upset. ... Richard's parents were also unhappy.

It seems "quaint" to Corrigan that her parents were worried about a marriage starting out with the two parties in disagreement on the very basic bedrock of truth? Despite their different labels, apparently they do agree: on the idea that the truth about the nature of the universe matters a lot less than the fact that they both value books and solitude. But that sort of tolerance is no excuse for thinking you're a liberal, progressive person, enlightened and open-minded—it just means you don't care much about the issue. I'm certain Corrigan would not have married a Republican, because that represents a difference that matters to her.

In the opening scene, a scruffy bunch of Irish Catholics, family and friends, are sitting around a restaurant in Queens. Every time the waitress comes by to fill their water glasses or put down a plate, people at the table quickly say "Thank you." I find myself doing that, too—scrupulously thanking anyone in a restaurant or store who's serving me. It's a holdover from the world of my childhood where we were taught to feel gratitude for any service done for us—and where all the parents we knew held down blue- or pink-collar jobs, so there was no sense of superiority to someone working as, say, a waitress. These days, I sit at too many restaurant tables with people oozing privilege who barely acknowledge the waitperson.

No. This is not a "class" difference. My father was an engineer and my mother a mathematician, and we also were taught to feel (and express) gratitude for service done. Not that we had much chance of trying it out on waitresses, since eating out was not in the budget except on vacation and not often even then. But the lesson was clear, by precept and example, and I still say "thank you" when the waiter fills my water glass or brings my dinner. Common courtesy is not a mark of lower class subservience, and its lack is not "privilege"—it's just rudeness.

Literature doesn't work on readers in predictable ways. Sometimes we readers put up with views we don't like in a novel or any other kind of art in exchange for other compensations.

Indeed. If I rejected every book with what I see as serious flaws, my reading list would be mighty short. But even though I don't regret reading it, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading did not provide sufficient compensation to justify its continuing to take up bookshelf space.

Except for the title: that's a keeper.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at 8:57 am | Edit
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Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?

This isn't one of those silly Facebook quizzes, like the one that purports to tell you what voice part you should sing based on personality questions—the one that told me I should be singing low bass. It's from the Pew Research Center, and consists simply of 10 political statements for you to classify as factual or opinion. I thought they were all obvious and scored 5/5 on the factual statements and 5/5 on the opinion statements. Alas, the "nationally representative group of 5,035 randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online between February 22 and March 4, 2018" did not do so well: only 26% had a perfect score on the factual part, and 35% on the opinion section.

If you take the quiz (which does not require an e-mail address, signing in, or anything else intrusive), you'll get to see not only your results but a breakdown of the people who answered each particular question correctly, based on political party affiliation and how much they trust national news organizations. The first is particularly interesting, if somewhat depressing. Unfortunately for partisans, there's no evidence that Democrats are smarter than Republicans, or vice versa. Sometimes one party fared better, sometimes the other. What is clear is that both parties have a strong tendency to label statements consonant with their own beliefs as fact, and statements that they disagree with as opinion. This despite the clear instructions: 

Regardless of how knowledgeable you are about each topic, would you consider each statement to be a factual statement (whether you think it is accurate or not) or an opinion statement (whether you agree with it or not)?

What I find find disturbing is the apparently lack of understanding that a statement of fact can be wrong. "I have red hair" is a statement of fact—one that happens to be false. So is "I like to eat liver" (also false). The latter statement is factual, not opinion, even though it states my opinion of the taste of liver. "Liver is disgusting" is an opinion statement, and my agreeing with it does not make it factual.

It seems we have carried "I'm right, you're wrong" to a whole new level.

Take the quiz yourself here.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 6:41 am | Edit
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I don't need to agree with Elizabeth Warren to recognize that she doesn't deserve all the grief she's getting for celebrating her Native American ancestors. Not from President Trump, not from the Republicans, not from the Democrats, and not even from Native Americans themselves.

Warren's memory of family stories is that somewhere among her forebears were some Native Americans. As a genealogist, I know that this is a fairly common family mythology, and that most of the stories turn out to have no basis in fact. Porter's family had just such a story about "our Indian ancestor," but I've found nothing to back that up in any of my extensive research. (That's okay; he has plenty of other interesting ancestors.)

Donald Trump mocked Warren for this claim, and challenged her to back it up with DNA testing. Recently she released the results: it's likely that somewhere, several generations back, she did indeed have Native American ancestry (from North, South, or Central America). More specific than that can't be said.

But now everyone is jumping on her, from the President to speakers for the Native American communty (not that they all agree), from the Left to the Right. The ancestry, if it exists at all, is too far back to count, they say. Tribal identity is not determined by genetics.

The report states that Elizabeth Warren's most recent Native American ancestor is six to ten generations back. According to many, that makes her heritage insignificant.

As far as I have been able to determine in my research, my own most recent immigrant ancestor is five generations back; most are ten or even more. All of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents were native-born Americans. So were all but two or three of my 32 great-great-great-grandparents. Beyond that, the data is not complete, but the percentage of native-born great-great-great-great-grandparents is at minimum more than 50%, and most of them were born before the United States even existed. If ancestors that far back don't count, does that make me Native American?

Of course not. And if Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry starts back six to ten or even more generations, it's still her own ancestry. Even if her DNA results had come back negative, it's still quite possible that her ancestry includes Native Americans, because the random recombination that happens from generation to generation means that you have ancestors who didn't give you any of their genes. Genetics isn't genealogy, and genealogy isn't genetics. Your great-great-grandfather is still yours, even if his genes aren't.

So what does this mean for Elizabeth Warren? Can she expect preferential treatment because of her Native ancestry? No, nor as far as I know, has she asked for it. Can she claim membership in a particular, modern tribe? Again, no. Even if the DNA test were tribe-specific, which it is not, qualifications for tribal membership are not based on DNA tests. Again, I believe she has not asked for any such thing.

But to celebrate one's ancestors and ancestral heritage, no matter how small? That's everyone's right. The current government of the Netherlands has no reason to grant me citizenship, but they can't deny my Dutch 9th-great-grandfather, and visiting Holland this summer was a bit more special because I know he existed. Similarly, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, and France hold a special place in my heart because of my ancestral roots. Should I not feel a special thrill standing on English soil because it has been three and half centuries since my English ancesors crossed the Atlantic?

I will celebrate my heritage, no matter how far back. I will also feel connected to Australia, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, The Gambia, and any other country I have been privileged to visit, even if we have not a single gene in common. I will enjoy their cuisine and their culture, take an interest in their history and politics, and care about their people. If this be treason, I'll make the most of it.

Go, Ms. Warren! Celebrate your heritage and let the chips fall where they may.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 5:52 am | Edit
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Unlike most of my friends, I did not grow up fantasizing about getting married and having children. My fantasies were more inspired by the books I read: becoming a research scientist, an explorer, or a detective; flying an airplane, fighting for an important cause, having adventures. My mother thought this peculiar, and at one point asked me, "What's wrong with our family that you don't want to have one of your own?"

She had completely missed the point. Why should I want to do that? I already had the perfect family. In her defense, I had not actually verbalized my thoughts, which were more gut-level than reasoned out. But why would I want anything different?

Eventually I caught on to the fact that life doesn't remain static, and part of the purpose of a family is to reproduce itself, albeit in a theme-and-variations sort of way. I might still have missed out, though.

When we married, our friends thought the timing peculiar, since it was in the dead of winter and the groom was still a few months away from graduation. They wondered if perhaps I was pregnant—which was decidedly not the case.

To this day, I don't know why we were in such a hurry to get married—but the young, as a rule, are not particularly patient. However, there's a very good reason why I'm grateful for the timing: three months later my mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly. Not only would she have missed the wedding, but I might have succumbed to the temptation to quit my job and move back home to help my father and three much-younger siblings. And then life would have taken a decidedly different turn.

Who knows? That probably would have turned out to be good, too. But from where I stand now, it's unthinkable, because it would have been without the people who taught me that motherhood wraps up most of my childhood fantasies into one glorious package: being a research scientist, an explorer, and a detective; fighting for important causes, and having incredible adventures. I haven't yet flown a plane, but I'm okay with that.

All this rumination is prelude to wishing one whose entry into this world changed our lives forever a very Happy Birthday! (I also wish we could be there to hear the handbells ring and taste the chocolate mousse.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 21, 2018 at 8:40 am | Edit
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altHighest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009)

It's not often I like a movie better than the book it's based on (The Martian is the only one that comes immediately to mind), but in many ways that's true of the story of Captain Sullenberger's amazing landing of USAirways' Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Sully, the movie, shows excellence of craftsmanship that's lacking in the book. Not surprising—Sullenberger is a pilot, not a writer. Nonetheless, Highest Duty is well worth reading and contains much important information not relevant to (and therefore not included in) the movie.

January 15, 2009. It's hard to realize how unconnected we were back then. We were caught up in our own lives—having just returned from our daughter's wedding in Switzerland—and I missed the event completely; at least, I have no memory of it. We owned a television set, but it was rarely turned on, and we were much more likely to be listening to CD's than to the radio. Porter was on the road, in Arizona I think, and while I'm sure he was aware of the incident, it didn't make the list of important topics to cover in our daily phone call. Today, I'm still pretty unconnected to news when it comes from television or radio, but if anything big happens, I can count on my friends on Facebook to start talking about it, and plenty of internet sources to flesh out their stories. I can (and frequently do) ignore the stories that are currently causing the world to buzz, but I can't miss them.

What I enjoyed most about Captain Sullenberger's story were the glimpses into what makes it possible for me to walk onto an airplane in one city and walk off, a few hours later, in another. These are woven in and out through the book, and the picture that emerges is both awe-inspiring and frightening. I've always felt safer in a plane than in a car, and statistically that's correct. Still, without feeling any less unsafe in a car, I'm a little more nervous about air travel than I was before reading Highest Duty.

People have incredibly high expectations for airline travel, and they should. But they don't always put the risks in perspective. Consider that more than thirty-seven thousand people died in auto accidents in the United States last year. That was about seven hundred a week, yet we never heard about most of those fatalities because they happened one or two at a time. Now imagine if seven hundred people were dying every week in airline accidents; the equivalent of a commercial jet crashing almost every day. The airports would be shut down and every airliner would be grounded.

Sullenberger is no complainer, and this is not the focus of his book. But the picture that emerges is of an airline industry in trouble, and I don't think it's gotten much better since 2009. He blames a lot on airline deregulation, but as I wrote in my previous post, the negative changes that have come to the airline industry are widespread throughout most industries and organizations. Some changes are technological, and many are societal.

A lot of people in the airline industry, and especially at my airline, US Airways, feel beaten down by circumstance. We've been hit by an economic tsunami. Some people feel their companies have held a gun to their heads, demanding concessions. We've been through pay cuts, givebacks, downsizing, layoffs. We're the working wounded.

People get tired of constantly fighting the same battles over and over again every day. The gate agent hasn't pulled the jetway up to the plane in time. The skycap is supposed to bring the wheelchair and hasn't. (I've helped more than a few older people into wheelchairs and pushed them into the terminal myself.) The caterer hasn't brought all the first-class meals. Catering companies always seem to be the lowest bidders with the highest employee turnover. At the end of a long day, you and your crew will get off the plane and make your way out of the terminal, but the hotel van isn't there when it's supposed to be.

All of this stuff beats you down. You get tired of constantly trying to correct what you corrected yesterday.

Many pilots and other airline workers feel that if they keep picking up all the slack, those who run the companies we work for will never staff the airlines properly, or do the training necessary, or hire the contractor who will be more responsible about bringing wheelchairs. And my Colleagues are right about that. In the cultures of some companies, management depends heavily on the innate goodness and professionalism of its employees to constantly compensate for systemic deficiencies, chronic understaffing, and substandard subcontractors.

At all airlines, there are many employees, including in management, who care deeply and try to make things better. But at some point, it can feel like a fine line between letting passengers fend for themselves and enabling the airline's inadequacies.

In my parents' generation, there was an unspoken agreement between big companies and their employees, at least at the level at which my father and his friends worked (somewhere between union workers and management): the employees would be hard-working and loyal, and the company would provide a decent salary, good benefits, a reasonable amount of job security, and a pension one could live on after retirement. That changed for my generation, and if the next generation seems deficient in the hard-work-and-loyalty department, it is good to remember that in their formative years many of them saw that the reward for such behavior looked an awful lot like betrayal.

It's fashionable to disparage "Millennials," by which most people seem to mean not people born between two specific years, but "the current crop of lazy young adults with no ambition, few skills, and a pathetic work ethic." Interestingly, the glimpse I have into the lives of actual people who would otherwise fit into that demographic shows them to be among the hardest-working and most dependable people I know, with very admirable skill sets. It is as if they are trying to make up for those who give the generation a bad name. And the bad apples do exist in high numbers, at least if my conversations with employers and teachers are accurate.

One young employee approached an evaluation convinced that she deserved a raise. When asked why, she responded not with a list of her accomplishments for the company, but with the assertion that she showed up for work every day. Which may be less astonishing than it sounds, given that her boss's complaint about the girl's co-workers was that they didn't show up much of the time.

Apparently the National Guard is authorized to send the police after its recruits that don't show up when expected. But in one town I heard about the Guard is trying to find another approach, since there aren't enough police to deal with the large numbers of no-shows.

Do you want someone with so little sense of responsibility sitting in the pilot's seat on your next flight?

Then there's the matter of experience. It is clear that what enabled Captain Sullenberger to take the actions that saved the life of every single person on board his airplane was a lifetime's worth of intense aviation experience. The older generation of pilots often had military backgrounds, and had put in an enormous number of flight hours before becoming commercial pilots. This included extensive training designed to hone their responses to dangerous, emergency situations. Military pilots still often transition to commercial piloting—I know a Southwest pilot who did just that—but with military cutbacks, civilian flight training is becoming more common, and pilots are graduating with many fewer hours of experience under their belts. Plus, I'm certain they don't get the kind of emergency experience the military pilots do: such training is dangerous—some pilots always die. The risk is necessary for the military, but can a civilian organization take those chances?

Technology, and the availability of simulators for training can probably do a lot to mitigate the situation. There is no substitute for real-life experience, but maybe pilots will do as well—or better—with a percentage of the hours done in the new forms of training. And automation can reduce some pilot error; we're told that in most situations driverless cars make better decisions than live drivers do. On the other hand, there are those other situations—the kind that leave you choosing to land in the middle of a river.

Automated airplanes with the highest technologies do not eliminate errors. They change the nature of the errors that are made. For example, in terms of navigational errors, automation enables pilots to make huge navigation errors very precisely.

Me? I'm not about to stop flying, but I'll do it with more respect and appreciation for those who make it possible. And I'm counting on those ambitious, talented, hard-working, and enthusiastic Millennials that I know are out there to continue to pick up the slack and do the right things. And then move into management and do the right things there, too.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 18, 2018 at 11:00 am | Edit
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