altAs Porter handed me the large, wrapped, rectangular box, he told me that my birthday present came at the recommendation of a friend from choir. I confess that my heart sank a little. As dear as our choir friends are, there's not one of them that knows me well enough to have any idea what would or would not make a good birthday present.

I was wrong.

It turns out the recommendation was general, not specifically for me, and Porter made the connection with the occasion. But even he had no idea how successful a gift it would be. Neither did I, at first.

It's an RTIC tumbler. It holds 20 ounces, and is so well insulated that if you load it up with ice and a cold drink it will stay cold for hours. (I'm told it's equally good with hot drinks, but mine's a summer birthday, so there has been no occasion to try that out.)

But what, you ask, makes that so special to me?

It's a matter of the right innovation at the right time.

I like to keep a drink handy throughout the day. It's usually a cup of tea, even in the summer. I've often thought water would be better, for several reasons:  drinking more water, not drinking quite so much tea, and having something cold instead of hot in the summer. But It's never quite worked out. Ice melts quickly here, and I'm not much in favor of lukewarm drinks. True, hot drinks cool quickly, but that's what microwave ovens are for. Whenever my tea cup goes missing, I'm most likely to find that I've left it in the microwave.

Glasses of water are more prone than mugs to being knocked over and spilled—not a happy thought when working near electronics. Water bottles are safe, but I get annoyed having to open them every time I want a drink. Moreover, no matter what the container, ice water makes it sweat profusely, either making a mess or sticking to the coaster—or both, as the coaster falls off with a loud clatter and a spray of water all around.

I know—First World Problem. Whine, whine, whine. I'm not justifying my complaints, but explaining why the RTIC tumbler was perfect for me.

It keeps my drink cold. It can still be knocked over, but less easily than a glass, and the lid makes a spill less extreme. You don't need to use a straw, but I like to, and the opening is just right for the large-diameter straw I prefer. The insulation makes it comfortable to hold, and the cup doesn't sweat at all.

Sometimes, the best way to encourage a good habit is to have the right tool, and the insulated tumbler turned out to be the perfect too for me. I still enjoy my cups of tea, but now I'm drinking a lot more water instead.

Ice cold water on a hot summer day, there, handy, whenever I want a drink. Nailed the habit of better hydration in one simple, inexpensive gift. Priceless.

Caution:  The cute Swiss flag sticker is not original equipment. Porter bought a tumbler for himself as well, and we needed to distinguish them. His has a blue-and-white Luzern flag sticker.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, August 28, 2016 at 8:11 am | Edit
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altHiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 - September 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya, M.D., translated and edited by Warner Wells, M.D. (University of North Carolina Press, 1955)

Dr. Hachiya was at his home in Hiroshima when the Enola Gay flew over. Critically injured, he somehow made his way to his hospital, which was only a few hundred meters away. The diary chronicles his experiences as observer and victim, patient and doctor, human being and Japanese citizen. I recommend this book highly. Even though my copy is from 1955, Hiroshima Diary is not hard to find, even in Kindle form—though the Kindle version is surprisingly pricy for an old book.

Nobody said it better than William Tecumseh Sherman: War is hell. Even when it's necessary, even when it's the most merciful option, there's no getting around that point. And even if we believe that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to less suffering than a protracted war would have, it's good to take an up-close-and-personal look at the collateral damage.

Hachiya's description of the wounds, the burns, the heat, the lack of essential supplies, the incessant rain, the filth, the flies, the fear, and the grief-stricken cries could be from almost any war or natural disaster. Unique to Hiroshima, however, was the great unknown. The horror of a city suddenly gone. Except for a very few hulks that had been well-constructed buildings, Hiroshima was just gone. Even to a people accustomed to bombs and destruction, there was nothing like this. Doctors stitched up wounds and treated burns, but what was it that caused the skin to blotch and the hair to fall out?  Why did people without a burn or a wound suddenly sicken and die?  I was reminded of the years of the Black Death, when large numbers were dying a horrible death, no one knew how to treat or prevent it, and anyone who stayed or came to help feared he was signing his own death sentence.

Reading Hiroshima Diary is a good exercise in seeing "the enemy" as human beings with the same loves, joys, concerns, fears, and hopes that we have. The same virtues of self-sacrifice, kindness, concern for others, generosity, and patient suffering.

And, lest we make the opposite mistake of idealizing the victims, they have the same vices, too.

Following the news that Nagasaki had been bombed, a man came in ... with the incredible story that Japan had the same mysterious weapon, but until now, had kept it a strict secret and had not used it because it was judged too horrible even to mention. This man went on to say that a special attack squad from the navy had now used the bomb on the mainland of America.... If San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles had been hit like Hiroshima, what chaos there must be in those cities! At last Japan was retaliating! The whole atmosphere in the ward changed, and for the first time since Hiroshima was bombed, everyone became cheerful and bright.

Crime, too, became a problem: from Jean Valjan-style stealing to keep a loved one from dying, to "mere" selfishness, to unspeakable abuse of power.

What a sorry spectacle, I thought, to have such ugly behavior added to the burden of people already crushed by defeat. The ruthless and greedy were ruling the city whereas never before had there been such need for unselfishness and good breeding.

The old proverbs: "Justice is strength" and "Better is character than birth" were no longer applicable. At least they were not adhered to. It seemed to me that the discipline of education was effective only during peace time when there was law and order. Character cannot be improved by education. It reveals itself when there are no police to maintain order. Education is a veneer, a plating. Educated or not a man exposes his true character in times of stress, and the strong win. The proverbs invert and strength becomes justice, and birth more important than character. Force then rules the country.

We are the same in virtue and in vice—and yet different, too. I understand Hachiya's anger and frustration with the Japanese army, which he (and apparently many others) faulted for driving the Emperor into war, as well as for general abuse of the public. What I, as an American, don't get is their absolute adoration of the Emperor. And not him only, but even his picture.

A visitor interrupted my meditation. He was an employee in the General Affairs section of the Bureau who had had the grave responsibility of protecting the Emperor's picture in case of emergency. He was on a streetcar which had just reached Hakushima when the bomb exploded. Making his way through the darkened streets and around fallen houses, he managed to reach the Bureau ahead of the fires. His first act on arriving was to run to the fourth floor where the Emperor's picture hung and pry open an iron door behind which it was kept. With the assistance of Messrs. Awaya, Oishi, and Kagehira, he carried it to the chief's office and discussed with Mr. Ushio what should be done with it. After much discussion it was decided the safest place would be the Hiroshima Castle, where less smoke appeared to be rising than elsewhere. Thereupon, the picture was placed on Mr. Yasuda's back and with Mr. Kagehira in the lead, Mr. Ushio guarding the rear, and Mr. Awaya and Mr. Oishi covering the flanks, they made their way to the inner garden of the Bureau and announced they were going to take the Emperor's picture to a safer place. Two or three times they repeated:  "The Emperor's picture will be transferred to the West Drill Field by the Chief of General Affairs!" Those among staff and patients who heard this announcement bowed low and the procession went out through the back gate. Suddenly, it was realized they had forgotten the Communications Bureau flag, a part of the ritual necessary when the Emperor's picture was moved from one place to another, so Mr. Awaya was chosen to go back for it. Before he could return with the flag the party was threatened by fire and went on without him. At the castle entrance they explained to a soldier the purpose of their mission and asked the nearest way to the drillfield. The soldier told them the field was threatened by fire, so they changed course and went in the direction of the Asano Sentei Park. Reaching the dikes of the Ota River skirting the part Chief Ushio got the picture across to a safer place.

During its flight, the party encounered many dead and wounded, as well as soldiers near the barracks, the number increasing as they neared the dikes. Along the streetcar line circling the western border of the park they found so many dead and wounded they could hardly walk. At one point it became impossible, so great were the masses of people around them. The party shouted, "The Emperor's picture! The Emperor's picture!" Those who could, soldiers and citizens, stood and saluted or bowed. Those who could not stand offered a prayer with hands clasped. Miraculously, the crowd opened and the picture was borne triumphantly to the river's edge!

"Oh, it was magnificent!" Mr. Yasuda exclaimed. "When I gave the Emperor's picture to Chief Ushio and when the chief got in a boat someone unaccountably provided, I was desolate. An officer drew his sword and gave orders in a loud voice for the crossing and in response all the officers and soldiers lining the river bank stood at attention and saluted. Civilians stood in line and bowed."

One more thing, for those of you who have or have considered stockpiling supplies, from food and water to weapons and ammunition, in case of dire emergency:  have you considered cigarettes? Farthest thing from my mind. But nothing has convinced me more of the addictive properties of nicotine than this, written just 17 days after the bomb fell.

Mr. Shiota was our manager and for several days had been back at his post. When he was able to walk, one of the first things he did was to show up with two bags, each of which contained fifty packages of cigarettes. Where and how he got them I will never know, but you can imagine our surprise and delight. ... For a while, we kept the packages on display the better to enjoy this unexpected bounty. Throughout the hospital habitual smokers drew a breath of relief. Why, a good, strong, working man could do more work with a pack of cigarettes. By the same token, the efficiency of our student helpers could be measurably increased. We could do anything as long as we had an abundant supply of cigarettes. This luxury had become exceedingly scarce in Hiroshima because of its value in barter.

In the ruins of Hiroshima money was valueless and cigarettes took over as a medium of exchange.

Perhaps nicotine addiction is not so widespread at this time, but is there something else—small, easily transported, and not prone to spoilage—that might be a useful form of currency in a situation where money has lost its value?  It's worth thinking about.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 24, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Edit
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The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him ... to make him think things for himself.

 — George MacDonald

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 19, 2016 at 9:41 am | Edit
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Here we go again. The series in response to the Fowler essay starts here.

American Christians are not under attack. We are not being persecuted. We wield so much power in this country that politicians pretend to be Christian just so we will vote for them. No one is trying to take your bible away from you. The gay people are not destroying our families — we don’t need any help from them, thank you. We do a fine job of that by ourselves. So stop saying we are persecuted. You sound stupid.

Well, this covers a lotWhere to begin?

Persecution?  On the one hand, of course we are not experiencing persecutionIt is not illegal to be a Christian in AmericaUnlike people in many other countries, we do not risk our lives by walking into a churchIf we want to become Christians, or atheists, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or whatever, our families may disapprove, but they're not likely to kill usWe can be Christians and still get jobs, write books, speak in public, educate our children according to our beliefs, and many other freedoms others are dying for.

On the other hand, I think Christians are right to be vigilant, and concerned. Persecution rarely starts out large and obvious. There's sufficient evidence that in the extraordinarily influential spheres of both academia and the media, there is plenty of intense, deep-seated prejudice against Christians. (Against conservatives, too, but that's a different issue—and the failure of so many to recognize the difference is a big part of the problem.)  If it's not illegal to be a Christian in the United States, there are more and more social and yes, legal restrictions on how we act as Christians, and belief without action can hardly be called faith.

Where does he get the idea that we think people are trying to take the Bible away from us?  He's right; that does sound stupid. But I don't know anyone who believes that. What's more, unlike Islam, in which the Qur'an, the book itself, is considered holy, it's only the contents of the Bible that matter. While it's certainly possible for Bibles to be banned in the U.S.—and it could happen faster than we'd like to believe—I'm far more concerned about the many of us who have Bibles but don't read them, or read them and don't care to apply what we learn. In any case, Fowler is knocking down a straw man again.

"Gay people" destroying families?  Yet once again he's taking a very complex issue and making it something it isn't. A hollow straw man. 

Our local Publix grocery store often gives out samples of products and recipes. The other day I was offered what was called non-dairy chocolate pudding. I'll grant that it was non-dairy, but chocolate pudding it was not. Made of bananas, avocado, cocoa powder, and who knows what else, it did meet the Merriam-Webster simple definition of pudding: a thick, sweet, soft, and creamy food that is usually eaten cold at the end of a mealAnd it wasn't unpalatable, if you like bananasBut it certainly was not that lovely concoction of milk, sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch that said "chocolate pudding" to generationsTo pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

Family—that lovely concoction of husband, wife, many children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in all its inclusive, complex, and messy glory—is indeed under siegeIt's not the fault of "gay people." The redefinition of the ideal and purpose of marriage and family began decades before homosexual marriage was ever considered an option instead of an oxymoronFrom the misuse of birth control to helicopter parenting, from the worship of sex to the devaluation of single people, from rampant abuse to rampant divorce, from hyper-patriarchy to the exclusion from our families of those who differ from the norm, and above all because of selfishness and the coldness of our hearts, Fowler is indeed right that we are our own worst enemiesBut knowing it's wrong to single out one crack in the dam among many doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned that the edifice may collapse and flood the valley.

I may have to eat your banana-avocado-cocoa dessertI might even enjoy itBut don't tell me I have to pretend it's chocolate pudding.  And don't try to make me stop promoting the real thing.

Christians in America are not being thrown into the arena with wild beasts, nor used as human torches, beheaded, tortured, stoned, torn to pieces, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery—at least not solely for their faith. But would you have us wait until it gets to that stage before being concerned?  If you really have no idea how quickly a society can go from mere prejudice to the gas chambers—ask a Jew.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 at 8:37 am | Edit
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There aren't many movies I'm so excited to see that I'll venture into a movie theater, but Hidden Figures is one of them. A movie about mathematicians and the early space program? I can't wait. The embedded YouTube trailer will probably not come out. Something has gone wrong and none of my embedded videos currently work in Chrome, Firefox, or IE—at least not for me. On the other hand, they do work on my phone, so I don't know what's going on. But this link will take you there in any case.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 8:55 am | Edit
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altMark and Livy:  The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him by Resa Willis (Atheneum, 1992)

Mark and Livy was a gift from a friend, who thought I might be interested because Samuel Clemens' wife was a Langdon. As it turns out, we are not related through the Langdon line—unless our common ancestor was back in England and in the 17th century or earlier. The book sat on my shelves until my 95 by 65 project (goal #63) encouraged me to pick it up.

I was going to say that Mark and Livy does not meet my primary criterion for being a "good book":  that it inspire me in some way to become a better person. On reflection, however, I realized it has left me with a determination (which needs to be won repeatedly) to be less judgemental of others, especially those of other times and cultures. There are so many advantages we take for granted here and now—and how easy it is to believe that our good characteristics are the outflow of our good character, and not simply because we are not in pain!

Samuel and Olivia Clemens lived in the latter half of the 19th century. They died years before antibiotics were available. They didn't even have aspirin. Common vaccines had yet to be developed. Diphtheria took the life of the Clemenses' firstborn when he was not yet two—as it did so many children of the time. Headaches could last for weeks, and infections linger for months. In an age of great medical ignorance, treatments were often worse than the diseases. It is now known that even three weeks of remaining in bed does terrible damage even to healthy bodies, but at that time bed rest was the go-to cure for everything. As a teenager, Olivia was kept in bed for two years. Even mental exertion was considered harmful and to be avoided as much as possible.

No wonder so many middle- and upper-class women of that time suffered from a malaise sometimes called nervous prostration. With careers and mental stimulation mostly closed to them; with cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, wet nurses, nannies, and tutors doing all the meaningful work around the house; and with every illness sending them into darkened bedrooms, deprived of most human contact (visitors, even beloved husbands, put too much strain on the system)—they were bored out of their minds. And out of their health much of the time as well.

Some things never change: Doctors blamed the problem on the demands of modern life:  "...the fast ways of the American people, with their hurried lives, late hours, and varied excesses, wear upon the nervous system of all, especially that of sensitive, impressible women."

Should I be condescending over Mark and Livy's susceptibility to every quack and crackpot philosophy that came down the pike?  Needs must when the devil drives.

For more about health and medical care in the 19th century, don't miss The Luxury of Feeling Good from The Occasional CEO, coincidentally published this morning.

Langdon Clemens, the couple's firstborn son who died young, was considered sickly all his life. He was born a month premature and never seemed to be healthy. It was diphtheria that killed him in the end—it killed many who were otherwise healthy—but the book gives no clue as to what caused him to be "sickly."  What struck me, however, was that he was considered "slow" in his development. Perhaps he was, but I'm not convinced by the concerns that he wasn't walking by nine months, nor talking when he was "almost a year old"!  What did they expect in those days?  And of a preemie who started life a month behind?

Here's a fun fact:

Livy and Clemens felt the need to get away [from Hartford's summer heat]. In July they left for New Saybrook, Connecticut ... where all could enjoy the cool winds off Long Island Sound.

New Saybrook?  Old Saybrook I know well enough!  But New Saybrook?  Where on earth is that?  Here's a hint:

...they lodged at a hotel called Fenwick Hall....

New Saybrook, it turns out, is an old name for Fenwick!  Here's a bit of its history in a New York Times article from 1995, though it doesn't mention a thing about the best-of-all-Fenwick-houses. Still, it's rather amazing to think that Mark Twain could have walked past where the Maggie P. now stands.

Despite being wealthy enough to vacation at Fenwick, the Clemenses had endless money problems and often lived in Europe because that was less expensive for them. That tells less about Europe than about the difficulties of living up to the expectations of their Hartford social set, I'm afraid. Still, it was fun to read:

Clemens ... walked to the top of the Rigi in the Alps.

We've been there!  We did not walk, however. I wonder from which point he started his hike?

Despite the strictures of the day and her onerous social obligations, Livy found some outlet for her considerable intelligence. The best part of her day was when she felt free to teach their children:

After breakfast and after she had given the servants their orders for the day, Livy and her daughters worked diligently in their schoolroom on the second floor. Their studies included German, geography, American history, arithmetic, penmanship, and English, with some extra diversions of tossing beanbags, gymnastics, and sewing. [The girls were five and seven at the time.] If they finished their lessons before twelve-thirty, Livy read to them. [Clara] at five and eager to please, knew all the answers but often got her questions confused. When her mother asked, "What is geography?" she replied, "A round ball." When asked what was the shape of the earth, she replied, "Green."  

Moreover, Livy was Mark Twain's most important editor, smoothing off the rough edges of the wild writer from the West and making his books acceptable and marketable.

This she far preferred to her social responsibilities as the wife of a famous author and the scion of a wealthy family. (Yes, the Langdons were wealthy—further proof that we're not closely related.)

She increasingly questioned her role as hostess and felt bad because she did.

This is my work, and I know that I do very wrong when I feel chafed by it, but how can I be right about it? Sometimes it seems as if the simple sight of people would drive me mad. I am all wrong; if I would simply accept the fact that this is my work and let other things go, I know I should not be so fretted; but I want so much to do other things to study and do things with the children and I cannot.

In the plus ça change department, do you think we suffer from helicopter parenting today?  The Clemenses kept their daughters close in what today would probably be considered an unhealthy relationship of mutual dependence. Further,

[Clemens] insisted his daughters be chaperoned everywhere they went, and Clara was until she married at the age of thirty-five [emphasis mine].

That makes being on your parents' health insurance until 26 seem almost reasonable.

And still more:  I'll admit I'm weak in history. I knew about the Great Depression, but if I thought of it at all, saw it as an anomaly, a one-time, terrible event. Thus the economic problems we have been having lately have been particularly concerning. I had no idea, until reading Mark and Livy, how common market crashes, panics, and recessions have been throughout history.

Just as John Marshall Clemens never recovered from the Panic of 1837, this panic [of 1893] nearly destroyed his son. It began who knows where but was aided by a drain on the gold reserve by foreign investors who sold their securities and withdrew them in gold from the U.S. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, allowing gold to be used to purchase silver, further depleted the federal gold reserve by nearly one hundred million. Gold meant confidence. Without either, the dominoes began to fall. The stock market crash eventually took with it 160 railroads, five hundred banks and sixteen thousand businesses. It was estimated by 1894 that 20 to 25 percent of the work force was unemployed. Those with jobs went on strike to get decent wages as there seemed to be no money anywhere. Miners across the nation refused to work. Eventually the Langdon coal mines and Livy's income shut down.

Rich or poor, black or white, first- or third-world, centuries ago or yesterday morning:  our tragedies and our trials, our worries, our hopes, and our joys are more universal than not.

We are humanity.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 15, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Edit
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altMy father was left-handed, and so was my mother-in-law.  Hence we were not surprised when Heather turned out to be left-handed, too.  I believe there are left-handers on Jon's side of the family as well, so it is a little surprising that only one of their kids (possibly two, it's too early to tell) joined the lefty club.  Probably they all are somewhat mixed dominant, anyway, as most of our family is.  I, for example, am strongly right-handed—scoring 24% on this left-handedness quiz—but nonetheless am left-eyed, left-eared, and have some other left-handed traits (the arm position questions on the quiz).

Be that all as it may:  To Heather, and Jeremiah, and any reader I'm leaving out (feel free to chime in with a comment), I wish you a


Happy Left Handers Day!


(And a Happy Birthday to my friend for whom this day was special long before there was an official Left Handers Day.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 13, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Edit
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altOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts (Noonday Press, 1991; original published 1962)

This is must reading for the generation that never knew the Cold War.  It's short and quick reading, 182 pages of fairly large print.  Not easy reading, because of the subject (Soviet prison camp life), but although it's a little coarse in places, I'd still highly recommend it for our not-quite-13 grandchild.  Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel prize winner with good reason, though America liked him a lot better when he was criticizing the Soviet Union than when he subsequently criticized the United States.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 12, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Edit
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One year ago I was part of a spectacle that entertained a small segment of the population of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and gave their emergency responders a chance to exercise their vehicles. I guess life in a small town like Old Saybrook must be a little on the slow side, even in the high season of summer, if capsizing a small boat and swimming to shore causes so much kerfuffle.

This year, Noah, now 10 years old, invited me for another sail in his Sunfish. It was at that point that I realized I had left my bathing suit at home, but that did not deter me:  the wind was fresh but not difficult, and what were the odds we'd capsize again?

Pretty good, apparently. After several minutes of uneventful, enjoyable sailing, it happened. One moment we were coming about, or jibing, I don't remember which; the next we were in the water. I'm a little hazy on just why—I think I heard later that a sheet wouldn't release from a cleat, or something....

Whatever the cause, this flip was a piece of cake compared with last year's. We were closer to shore and therefore not in danger of being driven onto the causeway, our greatest problem last year. Noah had a year's growth on him, and this time needed no help quickly righting the boat.

The tricky part came when I tried to climb back on board. Despite having written, in last year's story, about the wisdom of climbing in over the stern instead of the side, I completely forgot that advice. I did remember my own determination that if I capsized again I'd take off my life jacket, because that's what makes it so difficult to climb back aboard, though I didn't do it. I would have, but decided to make an effort first, and after a couple of tries, developed a successful strategy. Since the life jacket would not slide along the deck, I would give a strong kick with my legs, which lifted me briefly and made it possible to make forward progress by pulling with my arms. After a few heaves I was back in place, and we were sailing once again.

Why was I able to get back on the boat this year when I didn't succeed a year ago?  A number of factors, I suppose. My new strategy, the fact that the water was less rough and we weren't worried about crashing into the rocks, and certainly the arm-strengthening swimming and brachiation exercises I've been doing. Oh, and one more thing: my absolute determination to get on our way again before some well-intentioned but interfering onlooker called 911....

Noah is a remarkable person. Barely 10 years old, he handled himself like a pro. He didn't panic; he never even got upset. He just fixed the problem. Best of all, unlike most of the rest of the world, he never thought about who was to blame. He didn't yell, he didn't accuse, he didn't apologize. Capsizing was just something that happened and could be fixed, so he quietly did what needed to be done. That's character.

So next year I'll be happy to capsize with him again. I hope this time I remember to bring my bathing suit.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 11, 2016 at 9:27 am | Edit
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I started playing with Duolingo back when it was in private beta, though I didn't make it a regular habit for another year or so. I've been pretty regular since early 2014, however, and I think it's great. I've been doing French and German the longest. I'm at Level 24 in each of them, and have finished all the lessons available in French. I had been on track to finish German not much later, but suddenly the German lessons were revised to add a whole lot more material. I'm not complaining, and hope they will do so for the French at some point. For now, I'm still making my way through new German lessons while constantly reviewing the French. I chose French because that's the language I spent 3.5 years learning in school, and German because of our Swiss family. Sadly, Duolingo has no Swiss German lessons, so High German will have to do. High German is more generally useful, anyway, but I do find myself resenting having to type the eszett, which isn't used in the Swiss version of High German but is required by Duolingo.

At some point in 2015 I added Spanish (now Level 13), out of a feeling of obligation. I live in Florida, and that makes Spanish the most practical foreign language to learn. No doubt because I am learning it for duty rather than love, it is my least favorite of the languages. I'm hoping I'll like it more as I get better at it. It took me quite a while to start liking German....

This spring, when we travelled to Venice, I added Italian (now Level 9), just for fun. I'm enjoying it, especially when I note the similarities and differences with Spanish and French. I'm hoping we'll eventually manage a trip with friends to Cortona, where it will be polite to have at least a little Italian.

Am I learning anything? I'm certainly not becoming fluent. (I have yet to figure out how Duolingo does its calculations. It claims I'm 49% fluent in Spanish, a bald-faced lie if there ever was one.)  And even though I practice speaking along with reading and writing, I know I couldn't carry out a decent conversation in any of the languages. Or even a halting, broken conversation.

However, that does not trouble me. What I am doing is increasing my familiarity with the languages, educating my ear and my speech, picking up some grammar and vocabulary, and preparing pathways in my brain for a time when I might have the opportunity to learn in a more interactive situation. I hope that by laying a foundation now, I will make faster progress at that hypothetical time. In any case, it's fun to understand a few things I did not before: When I saw a restaurant named Cena, I recognized the Italian word for "dinner."

It has also been interesting to note changes in my learning as I progress. At the beginning, I made sure to separate my language learning sessions. If I studied French in the morning, I'd tackle German in the evening. Otherwise, I'd get confused. Then suddenly, I didn't. And I really mean suddenly. All at once I could switch between languages with no interval in between. I don't mean that the German word won't sometimes come to me first when I'm working in French, or vice versa, but it doesn't happen often, and it no longer bothers me. The hardest, now, is between Italian and Spanish, because both are new to me and so many words are very similar but not identical.

I do Duolingo both on my laptop and using the app on my phone. The interfaces are different, and each is valuable in its own way. Right now I'm in a routine of using the phone most of the time, because I do my Duolingo lessons as part of my daily exercise (more on that later). For each language I generally do the suggested review ("strengthen") and then one additional lesson (except in French, where I've reached the end). The process is slower on the phone, but since I'm exercising at the same time, that's not a problem. Obviously I can't keep the same learning schedule when we're travelling, but as long as there's an Internet connection available, I can do enough that catching up is not difficult.

It's even more fun to share Duolingo with family members and friends!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 7:50 am | Edit
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Now I'm realizing how long LaMonte Fowler's essay really is. But I plod ahead with my even longer series in response.

Racism exists. And you are probably a little racist and should work on that. Seriously.

Yep. Guilty as charged. Human beings—and most animals—have always assessed a situation by matching up observable facts with previous experience as quickly as possible. That's how we survive. If you're a rabbit and see a shadow that could be an eagle flit by, you don't stop to think that it might be a seagull, or an eagle with something other than dinner on his mind; you dive into the nearest briar patch. If all your experiences with law enforcement have been negative, you duck around the corner at the sight of a policeman, no matter how innocent you are. If you are ever mugged by an old lady wearing a hoodie and quoting Shakespeare, you'll never look at old ladies, hoodies, or Shakespeare the same way again. You won't look at anything the same way again that you don't immediately recognize as familiar and safe. This gut reaction is not wrong; it's a hard-wired survival skill.

It's also far from limited to racism. In myself I recognize "culturism":  my instinctive prejudice kicks in much faster in the presence of tattoos, body piercings, falling-down trousers, foul language, or blasting music than it does for a mere difference in skin shade. But I'll continue to use "racist" as a catch-all term, since that's the one Fowler used.

Because this kind of prejudice is instinctive, not rational, it's useless to try to counter it through rational means. What we can do, through argument, laws, and social pressure, is counter what happens after we've had a chance to analyze a situation and rethink our instinctive response. We can't control our reactions, but we can and must control our actions. It's no sign of guilt to instinctively duck into the alley at the sight of a police car, but when we are stopped by the police, it is our responsibility to speak and act with respect and reasonableness. We may legitimately feel the grip of fear at the sight of a hoodie-wearing old lady with Macbeth under her arm, but that's no excuse for gunning her down—or even for calling the police.

In working on this kind of racism, it's not helpful to call someone a racist. What good does that serve?  It would be much better to point out racist actions. One of the first things new parents learn is to separate a child's actions from the child himself. You might say, "It's wrong to hit your sister," or "I can't allow you to hit your sister," or "It hurts your sister when you hit her," or any number of alternatives, but you do more harm than good by saying, "You hit your sister!  You're a bad boy!"  What is your goal? To built yourself up by making other people feel bad, or to make real progress in human relations?



There is a way to work on the internal racism as well, though it has nothing to do with laws or reasoning or shaming. What alters our instinctive survival reactions?  Experience. The more we have positive interactions with people of different races and of different cultures, the less their appearance on our internal radar screen will provoke negative responses. As I've said so many times before, the best antidote to the irrational hatred that is sweeping our country is to seek out the commonalities that show our enemies to be human beings much like ourselves.

Sadly, the process of really getting to know others is often difficult, and always slow. However, it turns out that our brains are remarkably indiscriminate as to what constitutes experience. Studies have shown, for example, that violence in television and movies (and no doubt in video games as well, at least the more realistic ones) provokes neural responses similar to actual, physical violence. The influence of the shows we watch, the games we play, the music we listen to—and also, I would say, the books we read, though many these days give books a free pass—is astonishing.

That influence can do terrible harm. Do we really think we can listen, day in and day out, to lyrics that extol the virtues of raping women and shooting cops, and not see a negative impact on real women, real police?

But it can also do significant good. The power of positive images is enormous. If our favorite TV shows feature likeable, intelligent, kind, positive characters that we can for other reasons identify with, be they black women, Norwegian children, homosexual bankers, Jewish homeschoolers, or Shakespeare-toting old ladies, our deep-seated impressions of the classes of people they represent will be changed—because our experiences, however virtual, have been changed.

This is "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws," squared.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 8, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Edit
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Thanks, DianaDR, for sharing this.  I've never had anything to do with Pokémon in any form, but with several nephews playing the game, even I can't miss the Pokémon GO phenomenon.  I enjoyed this video for both the fun of it and the views of one of my favorite cities.  I hope you do, too.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 4, 2016 at 5:50 am | Edit
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altWill Rogers:  Wise and Witty Sayings of a Great American Humorist (Hallmark, 1969)

Perusing my bookshelves with an eye on my 95 by 65 goal #63 (Read 26 existing but as yet unread books from my bookshelves), I came upon this little book of quotations from Will RogersHe lived from 1879 to 1935 and much of his wit is just as appropriate today. 

Rogers was the eighth child in his family. Developing a sense of humor was probably self-defense.


We will never get anywhere with our finances till we pass a law saying that every time we appropriate something we got to pass another bill along with it stating where the money is coming from.

No nation in the history of the world was ever sitting as pretty. If we want anything, all we have to do is go and buy it on credit. So that leaves us without any economic problems whatsoever, except perhaps some day to have to pay for them.

Let advertisers spend the same amount of money improving their product that they do on advertising and they wouldn't have to advertise it.

Why don't they pass a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything?  And if it works as good as the Prohibition one did, in five years we would have the smartest race of people on earth.

Personally I think the saloon men put this prohibition through, as they have sold more in the last year than in any ten previous years before.

A good man can't do nothing in office because the System is against him, and a bad one can't do anything for the same reason. So bad as we are, we are better off than any other nation, so what's the use to worry?

If we didn't have two parties, we would all settle on the best men in the country and things would run fine. But as it is, we settle on the worst ones and then fight over 'em.

The Republican Convention [1928] opened with a prayer. If the Lord can see his way clear to bless the Republican Party the way it's been carrying on, then the rest of us ought to get it without even asking for it.

There has been many who has had to say, "Mister, can you spare a dime," but President Roosevelt is the first man in the history of the world who looked a nation in the face and said, "Mister, can you spare ten billion dollars?" Well, Congress and the American people considered it such a compliment to be asked for that much that they really liked it.

One way to solve the traffic problem would be to keep all the cars that are not paid for off the streets. Children could use the streets for playgrounds then.

We have killed more people celebrating our Independence Day that we lost fighting for it.

If all the time consumed in attending dinners and luncheons was consumed in some work, the production of this country would be doubled.

It's funny how quick a college boy can find out that the world is wrong. He might go out in the world from high school and live in it, and make a living in it for years and think it wasn't such a bad place, but let him go to college and he will be the first one down on the square on May Day to shout down with the government. But as soon as they grow up and go out and if they happen to make anything, why, they backslide.

The banker, the lawyer, and the politician are still our best bets for a laugh. Audiences haven't changed at all, and neither has the three above professions.

If we can just let other people alone and do their own fighting, we would be in good shape. When you get in trouble five thousand miles away from home you've got to have been looking for it.

Nobody wants his cause near as bad as he wants to talk about his cause.

Heroes are made every little while, but only one in a million conduct themselves afterwards so that it makes us proud that we honored them at the time.

A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics has ever read.

No nation has a monopoly on good things. Each one has something that the others could well afford to adopt.

You know I have often said in answer to inquiries as to how I got away with kidding some of our public men, that it was because I liked all of them personally, and that if there was no malice in your heart there could be none in your "gags," and I have always said I never met a man I didn't like.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 1, 2016 at 8:00 am | Edit
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