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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Big things matter. Ask an employee what he wants from his employer, and you'll likely—and rightly—hear about salary, benefits, and a workplace that is physically and emotionally safe. He probably won't think the little things are worth mentioning, but businesses need to be more aware that small investments in employee relations often have a disproportionately large impact.

Back in the days when long-distance telephone charges were a significant item in a family's budget—I know that for many people that sets the time back in the Civil War, but it wasn't—one of the benefits we enjoyed from Porter's job with AT&T was a $35/month credit for long-distance services. In strict financial terms, it was a pittance, and hardly could have made much of a difference to the bottom line of such a big company, but what it bought in feelings of goodwill toward AT&T on the part of its employees' families made it one of their better investments.

When corporations start feeling a financial pinch, however, those whose job it is to find ways to save money do not always see the whole picture.

I'm currently reading Highest Duty (by Captain Chesley "Sullly" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow; thanks, DSTB!), the book on which the movie Sully is based. This is not a review, though I will say that so far I'm enjoying the book. But one incident haunts me, unexpectedly.

Captain Sullenberger was a pilot for USAirways, but I've no doubt that with all the financial problems of the industry, other airlines were and are no better. Indeed, the financial story is true for industries across the board, and mirrors the experiences we had with AT&T and IBM. Pilots' salaries were slashed, and their pensions gutted—but that's not what haunts me. It's the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Airlines once provided their pilots and flight attendants with free meals on long-haul flights. A small enough service, surely! But that, too, was cut, and Sullenberger began brown-bagging his lunches. Ask a pilot his priorities, and safety, salary, and benefits will top the list. But we should never underestimate the corrosive power of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich whilst inhaling the scents of beef tenderloin that waft in from First Class. Providing a few extra meals on long flights would seem a prudent investment in employer-employee relations, with the potential return in good will and good feelings disproportionately high compared with the cost.

I can't change corporate culture, but I wonder: What small investments of our time, money, and attitudes can we, as individuals, make that carry the potential for high return in someone else's life?

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, October 15, 2018 at 9:14 am | Edit
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altaltThe Glorious Adventure by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1927) 
New Worlds to Conquer 
by Richard Halliburton (
Garden City Publishing, 1929)

Last year I reviewed Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road to Romance. I read The Glorious Adventure soon thereafter, and finished New Worlds to Conquer just now.

In The Glorious Adventure, Halliburton describes his efforts to recreate The Odyssey, following the trail of Homer's hero, Ulysses. New Worlds to Conquer is set in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, and is my favorite of the three, probably because it is the only one I remember reading as a child. I'm not good at remembering the content of books that I've read, and the rest of New Worlds was foreign to me on re-reading, but I've never forgotten that Halliburton swam the Panama Canal from one ocean to the other, including through all the locks. I particularly remembered that when asked how he proposed to meet the lock fees, he replied, "Just as the other ships meet it, sir. I'd pay according to my tonnage." It cost him thirty-six cents.

There is an inscription in New Worlds to Conquer indicating that it was a gift to my father from his parents. I wonder how young he was when he received it; he was eight years old when it was published.

What I wrote about The Royal Road to Romance is equally true here.

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.

There is a good deal of history, geography, and literature woven throughout Halliburton's books, but the educational value does not detract; indeed, it adds much to the adventures. And adventures they are. Halliburton is a poster child for what can be accomplished through guts and gall. A man who doesn't hesitate to throw himself 70 feet into the Mayan Well of Death at Chichen Itza—twice—and voluntarily gets himself incarcerated with France's most notorious prisoners in its even more notorious prisons off the coast of French Guiana, is not likely to live a long life. Halliburton lived only four years longer than Mozart, but like the composer, his accomplishments in those years were prodigious.

I wonder what the Richard Halliburtons of today are doing? The world was looser back when he had his adventures. From Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu, he climbed all over the wonders of the world, and experienced them in solitude. Now there are fences, and guards, and rules—and a very good thing, too, given the hordes of tourists who now descend. But the discovery of Machu Picchu was less than 20 years old when Halliburton visited, and very few tourists would go through what he did to get there.

A careless disregard for personal safety, a rejection of traditional responsibilities, a burning internal drive, and a charming personality can be a recipe for a totally selfish life. But timid folks like me are awed by how much such boldness can achieve.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, October 12, 2018 at 6:27 am | Edit
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For those of you who think I'm just a classical music snob....

I don't remember where I came across this beautiful country song—odds are it was somewhere on Facebook—and I hesitate to share it, since embedded YouTube videos are no longer working for me. But you can click on the image to hear John David Anderson's haunting Seminole Wind.

It's a song to tear at the heart of a Floridian, even a semi-native such as I. In addition to all the other emotions it evokes, it takes me back to the days when the YMCA wasn't ashamed to call its Parent-Child programs "Indian Guides" and "Indian Princesses." Now it's "Adventure Guides" and the Native American connection is lost. Back then, the Florida Indians—who at that time preferred "Indian" to "Native American"—welcomed the Y tribes to their own pow-wows. I can still hear the drums, the voices, and the prayers, and taste the fry bread....

Not to mention that a love of wilderness areas was bred into my bones, whether New York's Adirondacks or Florida's wetlands, scrubs, and hammocks.

And I'm a sucker for Dorian mode.

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Men would search for wealth untold
They'd dig for silver and for gold
And leave the empty holes
And way down south in the Everglades
Where the black water rolls and the saw grass waves
The eagles fly and the otters play
In the land of the Seminole

So blow, blow Seminole wind
Blow like you're never gonna blow again
I'm callin' to you like a long-lost friend
But I know who you are
And blow, blow from the Okeechobee
All the way up to Micanopy
Blow across the home of the Seminole
The alligator and the gar

Progress came and took its toll
And in the name of flood control
They made their plans and they drained the land
Now the Glades are goin' dry
And the last time I walked in the swamp
I stood up on a cyprus stump
I listened close and I heard the ghost
Of Oseola cry

So blow, blow Seminole wind
Blow like you're never gonna blow again
I'm callin' to you like a long-lost friend
But I know who you are
And blow, blow from the Okeechobee
All the way up to Micanopy
Blow across the home of the Seminole
The alligator and the gar

Songwriter: John David Anderson
Seminole Wind lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 at 7:38 am | Edit
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Many of my friends are long-time fans of extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO as they call it. I've felt the pressure to use this "healthy" oil, but had always dragged my feet. Olives, to put it plainly, nauseate me. It would be much more convenient if I liked them, but I don't.

Nonetheless, over the span of a year or so I was able to train myself to tolerate EVOO. Then in 2016 I discovered the oil from California Olive Ranch, which not only passed the tests of quality and freedom from Italian Mafia interference (I hope that's still true), but tasted great. I've never looked back.

I've moved forward, too. Combine my new love of EVOO with an overflowing herb garden and the desire to not waste its bounty, and you get this:

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Making an olive oil infusion is easy and fun. I clean the herbs, put them in a bottle, and pour EVOO on top. The bottles you see here are not the ones I use to make the infusions, which have larger mouths. After a few days, I strain the oil into the dispenser bottles. These bottles are some I had on hand (previously holding oil, vinegar, even maple syrup), chosen for neck sizes that would fit my pourers, which are Cuisenart, purchased from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

For the garlic oil, I tried crushing the cloves for one batch, and chopping them for the next. I think I prefer chopping, despite the smaller surface area, because it makes the oil less cloudy—though still not as clear as the other varieties.

Our jalapeño crop did not come through this year, but the chili oil came out just fine using dried red pepper flakes.

The one herb you might not be familiar with is lemon balm. I started out with a small batch, because I didn't know how I'd like it. It has turned out well, adding a brightness to food without increasing acidity.

The bottle labeled "herb oil" is a mixture of rosemary, basil, oregano, lemon balm, garlic, and peppercorns (this time; it will be different as the garden changes). No particular quantities, just what came from trimming our plants. It's wonderful as a dip for good bread. I suspect that with some balsamic vinegar it would also be lovely on a salad.

All the oils have been great to have on hand for cooking. I would say my efforts to embrace extra virgin olive oil have paid off handsomely.

I thought my success might make me more favorably inclined to olives themselves, but that goal still eludes me.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 6, 2018 at 6:39 am | Edit
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It's official: our church has a new rector, Father Trey Garland. He's from Texas, so I assume he's up for a big job: taking over for a popular retiring priest without splitting the church. Our church in Massachusetts, which ended its 18-month-long search for a new rector just as we moved back to Central Florida, suffered just such a split. Some would say we took the coward's way out, figuring that quitting one's job, tearing up the family's roots, and moving 1300 miles is preferable to having one's church blow apart. They have a point.

Our current church is not an easy church to pastor, being both highly diverse and highly opinionated in our religious and political views. On the other hand, we do manage to love, respect, and care for each other while working together to get the job (whatever it is) done—a trick our country could learn.

Besides, I have high hopes for Father Garland: he plays the bagpipes. No joke. He went to college on a bagpipe scholarship.

We learned the identity of our new rector on Sunday, and—because I have a reputation as The One Who Looks Things Up—our choir director said he expected me to have a full report Monday morning. He was joking, but that's what I do. I look things up. Our children quickly learned that there was no need to consult the dictionary or an encyclopedia with a question: just ask Mom, and she won't be able to rest until she finds the answer. (I'd say, "look it up," and they'd say, "I don't want to know that badly," and eventually I would look it up myself, because I wanted to know that badly.) There are some people, of course, who find this behavior annoying. My sister-in-law has learned not to idly wonder how tall the Eiffel Tower is, for example, when we're in the middle of playing a game, because I will not rest until I've looked up the answer, even if it is my turn. To me, "idly wonder" is an oxymoron.

That said, I'm a bit peculiar in what I choose to wonder about.

Believe me, I take the situation of having a new rector very seriously. There are many issues that matter, issues that have split churches and driven long-time, faithful, hard-working pillars of the church away. When asked in a church survey what questions I would like to ask a candidate for the position of rector, my suggestions were along the lines of, Who is Jesus? How do you view the authority of the Bible? Of Church history and tradition? How do you promote grace, mercy, and compassion without compromising truth or condoning sin? What is your view of families with young children worshipping together in the service? Do you think we should reshape the worship service to be more attractive to young people? What is your philosophy of music as it relates to worship? What is your vision of the church's role as a member of the community? What is your vision of missions and outreach?

The answers to these questions I await with fear and trembling. But my actual research? Priorities, you know! Here's what I've learned:

I have it on the highest authority (the world-renowned piper who played for Heather and Jon's wedding) that the bagpiping program at our new rector's alma mater is highly respected, and we should encourage Father Garland to make piping a regular part of the service.

I'd settle for Christmas and Easter. And maybe the weekend of the Highland Games.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 3, 2018 at 7:20 am | Edit
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alt alt

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Lincoln's Last Days: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Dwight Jon Zimmerman

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Six years is a long time to hold a debt, and I consider a gift book unread to be a debt unpaid. But my father-in-law, who so kindly gave us both of these books for Christmas 2012, is not alone among our creditors. Most Americans have credit card debt; I have bookshelf debt. These shelves in my office are only representative, by no means comprehensive. But I plow on, one book at a time.

Or in this case, two books. Lincoln's Last Days is really a much-shortened version of Killing Lincoln, with the addition of many illustrations. To me, this makes Killing Lincoln the far more interesting book. With apologies to the world's illustrators, I rarely appreciate their work. Pictures are great in their place, but to my mind their place is rarely to be cluttering up a book. They annoy me by interrupting the flow of the words, and by breeding conflict: I want to keep reading — I really ought to look at the pictures — but they always break my train of thought — if I skip the pictures can I really say I've read the whole book? — does it count if I give them a cursory glance? — ugh. I often don't even look at the illustrations in children's picture books when I read them to our grandchildren, another reason I dislike the modern trend of not including the whole story in the words alone. You can guess how I feel about those books that don't have any words at all!

But this isn't about my quirks. And I'll admit that the shortened, illustrated version was a good gateway book for me. I'm not above letting prejudice affect my actions, and I had an unreasoned, gut-level prejudice against Bill O'Reilly. I say unreasoned because I knew nothing about him, had never seen him, had never heard him except accidentally in the background. But what I had soaked in from the world around me was negative. And I had noticed that he seems to have a predilection for writing about killing people: Killing Lincoln, Killing Patton, Killing Reagan, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, Killing England, etc. Which left me with a bad taste in my mouth for reading anything of his. Okay, maybe this really is about my quirks.

However, since 2009, when I wrote Finding Truth in Unexpected Places, I have encountered more examples than I can count of my (then) newly-made proverb, the wise man recognizes truth in the words of his enemies. Not that Bill O'Reilly is my enemy, but you get the idea.

Much to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed both books.

Perhaps someone who knows more about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War would not be as impressed, but I learned a lot. What's more, the stories are well-written and gripping and I found it hard to put the books down, even though I knew how they turned out. There are a few minor annoyances, such as some of the physical descriptions, e.g. "Laura Keene steps aside. She can't help but marvel at Lincoln's upper body, still possessing the lean musculature of the young wrestler renowned for feats of strength." This, while Lincoln was dying in her presence? Was that really necessary? Not to mention the use of "can't help but," a pet peeve of mine.

If you want to feel good about human nature, this might not be what you're looking for. We don't seem to have progressed much from the mid-19th century, when people celebrated by drinking and rioting, mourned by drinking and rioting, and protested by drinking and rioting; when the nation's leaders thought it reasonable to violate the Constitution in the name of security; and when the American people discarded justice—let alone compassion—in favor of vengeance.

There is a lot of interesting detail here, and the books appear to have been well-researched; don't expect much nuance, however. If you have any thought that the Civil War was about more than just slavery, or that Abraham Lincoln was not a saint in every possible way, Bill O'Reilly is not your man. But nuance comes best from reading many sources (or watching—Ken Burns' PBS Civil War series is excellent), and these well-told stories deserve a place in that collection. I highly recommend reading either book, but especially Killing Lincoln. It would be appropriate—and easy reading—for my two oldest grandchildren.

I notice that our local library has many of O'Reilly's other books. Despite my initial prejudices, I'm inclined to check out some of the other people he has "killed." This is another reason why the unread books on our shelves are slow to change their status.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 10:16 am | Edit
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Jennifer Fulwiler published this photo on Facebook, stating that this is what her son wanted for the candles on his 14th birthday.

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I couldn't figure out how to share it on Facebook without sharing her explanation also, which spoils the fun. Enjoy!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 30, 2018 at 7:28 am | Edit
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I came upon the following in a book I'm reading: 

During the 1800s, a person got from one place to another one of four ways: by foot, animal (usually a horse), ship, or boat. By the second half of the century there was a fifth option—train.

The nautical people in my family would not have been surprised, as I was, to see "ship" and "boat" listed separately. Wikipedia starts its entry for Ship with "Not to be confused with boat. Which I do, a lot. And the nautical people in my life feel insulted, especially if they have boats of their own—or ships, or something else that usually floats and costs a lot of money.

Here's a summary of some of the differences between a boat and a ship. It's not so much that I don't know, as that I don't care—which is probably still more offensive to those of the sailing persuasion.

On the other hand, I suppose that in the 19th century, along America's eastern shoreline, the difference between "boat" and "ship" was as significant as that between "pistol" and "rifle," or maybe "rifle" and "cannon." And I have at least one friend who would no doubt be similarly insulted if I called his 1899 Swedish Mauser a "gun."

Still, I was surprised enough to go back and reread the sentence, convinced I'd read it wrong.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 27, 2018 at 11:06 am | Edit
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altAmerican Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Water, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Score one more for my sister-in-law's library book sale sense, though why the public library in Simsbury, Connecticut saw fit to discard this excellent book is unfathomable. The author of the Fruitless Fall and Chocolate Unwrapped has produced another beautiful book about food, reminiscent of both John McPhee's Oranges and Michael Pollan's Cooked.

My generation grew up on standardized food. Living in Upstate New York, I knew that apple cider was a living drink of complex and unmatched flavor, bearing zero resemblance to the apple juice on grocery store shelves. I knew that the flavors in the blueberries I picked from a friend's farm were so far from those available in the mass market that they ought not to be sharing the same name. It was years, however, before I realized that the same was true of milk, orange juice, bread, oil, lettuce, and other dietary staples. We have not entirely sold our birthright for a mess of pottage—making inexpensive foods available to those who live away from the source is a good thing—but the loss of flavor and variety may bear some responsibility for the rise of obesity: we are eating more and enjoying it less.

Searching for the role of place—soil, climate, altitude, farming practices, and other environmental factors—on iconic North American foods, Jacobsen's essays cover maple syrup, coffee, apples and apple cider, honey, potatoes, mussels, wild forest foods, oysters, avocados, salmon, wines, cheese, and chocolate.

American Terroir is good all through, but the first sip was the best: the chapter on maple syrup.

Anybody can make the late-season treacle, but pulling off a batch of super-delicate Fancy requires skill, experience, and luck. You have to use the first sap runs of the year, which are higher in sugar content and thus require less boiling, because the longer you boil syrup, the darker it gets. And you have to boil right away, because if sap sits, microorganisms flourish in it, and these "impurities" are what make the syrup dark and strong....

Of course, nobody really cares except the handful of remaining maple sugar manufacturers and the old-time New Englanders who continue to go to great lengths to keep flavor out of their syrup. Until recently, they even charged more for it—a really bizarre situation, since most everyone who didn't grow up in a sugaring family prefers the rich, chewy, darker grades....

Fancy is the color of vegetable oil, Medium Amber the color of honey, Dark Amber the color of Amontillado sherry, and B the color of iced tea. Commercial, which has the color and flavor of motor oil, can't be sold retail and is shipped by the barrel to the packaged-food industry for products "made with real Vermont maple syrup."

The chapter on apples is fascinating, but also disappointing. Jacobsen correctly makes the point that pasteurization and the loss of heirloom apple varieties have ruined what the grocery stores call "apple cider," but he errs in insisting that the only brew worthy of that name is alcoholic. Of the apple's ambrosial nectar—cider that is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and made from small, old-fashioned apples with unfamiliar names—he makes no mention at all.

Reading what Jacobsen learned about coffee almost made me want to start drinking the stuff. Reading about wine, on the other hand, nearly had me taking the pledge.

Few wines make it through the chop shop untouched. Yet none of this is revealed by the label. Wine is not, according to the U.S. government, a food, so the Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over it. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has never been big on ingredients lists, does. The only thing a wine label need reveal is the presence of sulfites, which are added to all but organic wines....

Here's the label I'd really like to see: "At Wacky Wallaby Wines, our lifeblood is selling wines in the United States at 5.99 a bottle. A couple of years ago we tried raising our price to $6.99, but we lost market share to Chile, so $5.99 it is. To survive at that price point, we scour Australia for the cheapest grapes we can find, and we buy them in massive quantities, which allows us to really shaft the growers for every nickel. All those grapes come from vineyards that maximize yield, meaning there isn't a whole lot in them other than sugar and water. Unsurprisingly, these grapes tend to make wine that tastes like Hi-C with grain alcohol sprinkled over the top. But here's where we at Wacky Wallaby go the extra mile so that you, the consumer, can have drinkable wine for the price of a Double Whopper meal deal. We start by dusting the juice with powdered acid, the better to approximate the fresh juiciness of Hi-C, plus a quick shot of Ultra Red to give it the inky blackness that usually only comes from low-yielding, expensive vines. Next we order a yeast, developed in Australia's finest lab, that gives the aromas of jam and chocolate to red wines. (Taste tests have shown that you, the consumer, really, really like anything that tastes like chocolate.) We use sulfites to kill any indigenous yeasts in the juice (indigenous yeasts can be so unpredictable), then add the choco-yeast and ferment the juice. The resulting wine is wildly alcoholic because the sugar content of the grapes is so high (hey, that's what happens when you grow vines in a dessert!), so we throw it in the ol' reverse-ossy [reverse osmosis] and remove enough alcohol to drop it to a drinkable 14 percent. We could go further, but you, the consumer, have shown that you like to get hammered. Independent studies have also shown that you actually prefer the taste of Hi-C to that of wine, so our next move is to push the flavor profile in that direction. To soften that rough, tannic taste of red wine skins, we micro-oxygenate. The same thing would happen naturally if we stuck the wine in our cellar and let it age for six years, but we at Wacky Wallaby have to service our debt long before then, so micro-oxygenate it is. Next, we shovel mountains of wood chips into the vat to give a vanilla flavor. And you, the consumer, have shown that the only flavor you like even more than chocolate is vanilla. You like it in everything, and, much to even our shock, you like more than we ever could have imagined. So on those rare occasions when we suffer an attack of standards and consider stopping, we remind ourselves that wineries are going under right and left, and we start shoveling wood chips again. Our commitment to you, the consumer, is that we will follow you to the vanilla-candle-scented ends of the earth if it makes you happy!"

Maybe I won't take the pledge after all. On another front, the Prohibitionists have a lot to answer for.

From a riotous diversity of form, color, and flavor, reflecting the multitude of ends we asked the apple to meet—food, dessert, refreshing drink, inebriator—the apple tree suffered a biodiversity crash in the nineteenth century, brought down by the temperance movement. The campaign to chop down every cider tree drove cider underground and impoverished the drink in a way it is only now recovering from. The apples that survived the purge were the ones that could legitimately claim to be for eating, not drinking. Most of the tannic, astringent apples disappeared, replaced by apples with abundant sugars and enough acid to keep things interesting.

American consumers are not without fault.

It turns out that, given a choice, people overwhelmingly go for the reddest apples. So growers kept selecting for the reddest. They were not, however, selecting for the tastiest. Eventually, Red Delicious apples eclipsed fire-engine red and reached a color imaginatively described by the industry as "midnight red." And most are virtually inedible, with dry flesh and thick skin. Good-tasting apples have small, tightly packed cells that break apart at first bite, spilling their juice in all directions. Red Delicious have cottony, dry cells with too much air in between. This has not been lost on the industry, but until recently, it didn't care. The mealiest Red Delicious outsold the tastiest McIntosh. Why not give the people what they want?

Did you know this?

Today China dominates the apple business, with more than 60 percent of world production. The second-place United States is a speck in China's rearview mirror, with 6 percent, two thirds of which comes from Eastern Washington.

I had the sense to birth Heather during apple season; why is it that her family celebrates half of their birthdays in February? We seem to have developed a pattern of visiting New Hampshire in either the hottest part of the summer or the coldest part of the winter. It's high time we broke the pattern, because New Hampshire has some of the most wonderful apples ever, no matter what Eastern Washington might think.

For my taste, American Terroir's finish is not as strong as its beginning, probably because he is unkind to dark chocolate. That's a pattern throughout the book: the best and most interesting flavors are found in the lighter versions of food: Fancy grade maple syrup, lightly roasted coffee, and chocolate without the compounds that give dark chocolate its signature flavor (and its health benefits).

Two other patterns stand out, repeated over foods as diverse as the book:

  • Consistently, the best-tasking food is produced under stress. Altitude, temperature, climate—an easy life leads to bland fruit. Struggle produces character. What doesn't kill you makes you—or at least your children—interesting.
  • Yuppies, rich people, capitalists, and food snobs: we love to hate 'em. But it is their tastes, their interest, their efforts, and their money that are rescuing and promoting low-volume farmers and businesses, heirloom (read: flavorful) food varieties, and healthy, sustainable practices. The rest of us only perpetuate our factory-farmed, monoculture-crop system, because—well, because who in his right mind would pay that kind of money for a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, a piece of cheese, or an apple?
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 24, 2018 at 8:53 am | Edit
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Altamonte Springs, Florida has been working on innovative water solutions as long as I can remember. It wasn't long after we moved here in the 1980's that Project APRICOT came online, which reclaims wastewater and delivers it almost everywhere in the city for irrigation. That's what waters our plants. Then treated stormwater runoff was added to the mix.

Recently, the city was honored for its pureALTA project, which aims to achieve the last mile, and purify that reclaimed water "to meet or exceed all drinking water quality standards without using expensive, energy-consuming reverse osmosis." You can find a short video about it here, and a news story here.

The IWA Project Innovation Awards were presented at the 12th annual World Water Congress, which focuses on overcoming challenges through the development and implementation of creative water solutions. This global event helps shape the conversation on future water needs. Over 5,000 water leaders representing over 100 countries joined together to share the latest trends, innovative technologies and pioneering sciences to build partnerships that will deliver solutions for major water and wastewater challenges faced around the world.

pureALTA was recognized for its forward-thinking applications and solutions to advance clean and safe water goals, taking home a top award in the Market-changing Water Technology and Infrastructure category.

Altamonte Springs brought home the silver in that category. The gold entry was from Sweden, and the bronze from China. The tiny city of Altamonte Springs was the sole representative of the United States.

This is government at its best. This tiny city (about 9.5 square miles with a population of approximately 45,000) has for decades received national and international acclaim for creating and implementing these innovations, assisted by the local St. Johns River Water Management District. This is not the work of a large, well-heeled corporation, nor the product of Federal government subsidies. This is local government using its tax revenues responsibly and with an eye to the future. I'm proud to pay taxes to  Altamonte Springs—taxes that much of the country would consider incredibly low, to boot.

I love our city.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, September 22, 2018 at 9:41 am | Edit
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Some friends of mine live most of the time in Papua New Guinea, but are currently living in North Carolina.

Truthfully, I've never met these "friends," who are actually friends of the daughter of someone who is a real-life, in-the-flesh type friend of ours.  But I've followed their story and prayed for them ever since they came to the United States to deliver quintuplets, six years ago.

Last I knew, they were still doing fine in North Carolina, and this is what they had to say about their experience, despite school and church closures and curfews:

The rain we've had from Florence is much less than we have on a near-daily basis in PNG.

Granted, they're not in the area hardest-hit by the hurricane.  But it still offers an eye-opening window on other climates.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Edit
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I recently had the opportunity to read The Excellence Habit: How Small Changes in Our Mindset Can Make a Big Difference in Our Lives by Vlad Zachary. As a whole, I did not find the book helpful, because despite the promising title, it is primarily directed at the business world. However, the following passage clearly applies to us all.

The one stress factor that always reduces our choices and affects how we react is the availability of time. ... At any moment we are hurried, or feel hurried, we will exhibit a diminished ability to respond in line with our circumstances. Even when we encounter new, unfamiliar, and potentially dangerous circumstances, if we had plenty of time, we would have a better chance of self-control and adequate response. When time starts running out, so does our capacity for reaction, problem solving, and creativity. This is almost universal as a response to time pressure.

Having read that, my reaction was to be confirmed in my belief that we need to build more time-space into our lives by reducing our commitments, beginning preparations well in advance of an event, building deliberate open spaces into our schedule, and not getting into the car with just enough time that if all the lights are green and there are no slower drivers in front of us, we will just make it to our destination as the event begins.

The author, however, heads in a different direction.

Awareness and preparation, therefore, are critical to how well we perform when short on time. ... Practice and how well we do under pressure are positively correlated. ... The more we prepare, the better we will perform when it matters.

I can see that, too. The correlation is obvious among athletes, musicians, artists, the military, and my friends who carry guns: practice is the only way to build up the good habits and automatic responses that will enable us to react correctly and effectively under pressure.

I would go further. For any positive trait we wish to acquire, or instill in our children—compassion, timeliness, responsibility, courtesy, self-control ... good handwriting, mathematical facility, driving skills ... the ability to handle pain, to resist temptation, to follow the right course in the face of opposition—without correct, consistent, and constant practice under more favorable circumstances, a crisis situation will leave us wide open to panic, paralysis, poor decision-making, and the betrayal of our own values.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 13, 2018 at 6:32 am | Edit
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Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Not long ago I had a chance to view this 2017 movie of Heidi. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't have it, but that link will take you to the Amazon version. The film endeared itself to me immediately because the grandfather is played by Bruno Ganz, whom I first met as the amazing grandfather in Vitus (another great movie set in Switzerland).

I remember having seen a movie version of Heidi many years ago, but which one it was I have no idea. All I remember about it is that this new one struck me as quite different. Having never actually read the book (yes, I'm embarrassed), I decided it was necessary to remedy that omission and learn the truth.

Normally I prefer reading a book before seeing any movie version, so as not to have someone else's ideas and images come between the author and my experience. However, in this case, the movie is good, and true enough to the book that seeing it first is fine—and the movie would be worth seeing for the Swiss scenery and culture alone. If I'd read the book first, I'd probably not have enjoyed the movie as much, because my mental commentary always intrudes: That's not right, that didn't happen, why did they change that scene?, why did they leave out the best parts???

So go ahead, see the movie. But be sure to read the book! There really is a lot to this beautiful story that's left on the cutting room floor for the film. I strongly recommend reading the book, especially for anyone lucky enough to have friends or family in Switzerland. It would be a great read-aloud choice, and the Kindle version is free. Unfortunately, I can't find any information on the translator for the Kindle edition. I like the translation very much, because it's fine English but retains just a little flavor of the German—for example, the neuter gender of das Kind—which adds to the atmosphere. The only time I notice this getting in the way of understanding is that apparently the word for "yawn" is translated "gape," which can lead to some confusion in one chapter. Otherwise, it's just delightful.

It's lovely to be able to recommend a book without reservation!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 10, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Edit
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When you are young you write either romantic or depressive poetry or both. When you are older, you write stories of whatever genre. But you know you are really getting old when you start writing essays!

— Anaya Roma, The Mindverse Chronicles, "Going to Hell."

I am officially old, and have been much of my life.

Not because of the grey in my hair;
Not because I'm on Medicare.
Not for the wrinkles on my face,
Or because my grandson can sing bass,
And today my granddaughter is turning ten.
No, I am marked by the strokes of my pen:

Sad poems and novels were never my art;
The essay's the form that speaks from my heart.
My muse was set in the days of my youth:
To seek, and ponder, and write the truth!

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 7:33 am | Edit
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