altA Preface to "Paradise Lost" by C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 1942)

When C. S. Lewis writes a preface, it isn"t just a few pages stuck on the front of a book.  His A Preface to "Paradise Lost" is itself a book.  It's not one we have in our large collection of books by and about Lewis, but I was able to find it in PDF form and read it on my Kindle.

Confession:  I have not read Milton's Paradise Lost.  I'm sure my education is the worse because of that omission, and I could certainly see books that my teachers did inflict on me that Milton should have replaced.  When, if ever, it will climb to the top of my current, very long reading list, I don't know.  But at least now it is on my radar, and I know that I am better prepared for having read Lewis first.

I only have two quotes, not because there isn't much more of value in the book, but because the format made it a lot harder to keep track of them.

pp 62-65

How are [the] gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. ... How if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it.... I do not say that even on these terms we shall not get some value out of our reading; but we must not imagine that we are appreciating the works the old writers actually wrote.

Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries... To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work "in the same spirit that its author writ"....

We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor [Denis] Saurat when he invites us "to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton"s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest." This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the "rubbish" of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic architecture without the pointed arches. Milton's thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist. Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the "rubbish," to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.

This puts me in mind of the way I've heard that actors prepare for their rôles:  To play Richard III one must as much as possible become Richard III.  I see why acting can be a spiritually dangerous profession!  I read recently of an incident where actor Michael Weatherly was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to one of his coworkers.  No matter what one might think of his supposed comments, I don't see how anyone can be shocked that he might say something inappropriate given thirteen seasons of total immersion in the NCIS character Tony DiNozzo—whose stock-in-trade was just such language and actions.

Pages 100-101

In all but a few writers the "good" characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash.... But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their "good" characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the ... blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

It is worth noting that elsewhere Lewis praises George MacDonald for being that very rare writer who can portray goodness much better than evil.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 22, 2019 at 7:34 am | Edit
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altThe Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981)

It may seem as if I've copied the whole book, but is a lot of value in those 463 pages.  It's too long, perhaps, for anyone not a Tolkien fan, but it's a fascinating look not only into the life and mind of the creator of The Lord of the Rings, but into his times and society as well.

Herewith only a small sample.

Page 17

An American publisher showed interest in The Hobbit, adding that they would like more illustrations and suggesting the employment of good American artists. Tolkien was amenable but had one concern:

It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them—as long as it was possible ... to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).

Page 46

At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts.

Page 68

[C. S. ] Lewis is as energetic and jolly as ever, but getting too much publicity for his or any of our tastes. [One publication], usually fairly reasonable, did him the doubtful honour of a peculiarly misrepresentative and asinine paragraph.... It began "Ascetic Mr. Lewis"—!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was "going short for Lent." I suppose all the stuff you see in print is about as accurate about Tom, Dick, or Harry. It is a pity newspapers can't leave people alone, and don't make some effort to understand what they say (if it is worth it): at any rate they might have some standards that would prevent them saying things about people which are quite untrue, even if not actually (as often) painful, angering, or indeed injurious....

Pages 97-98

Both the sexual and the sacred [curse] words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion. I don't mean that it is not a bad thing, and it is certainly very wearisome, saddening and maddening, but it is at any rate no blasphemy in the full sense.

Page 98

I include the following fan letter excerpt simply for the name of the school, which will have meaning to our family.

Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?

John Barrow 12 yrs.
West town School, West town, Pa.

Page 111

Jive and Boogie-Woogie [are] essentially vulgar, music corrupted by the mechanism, echoing in dreary unnourished heads.

The appalling destruction and misery of this war mount hourly: destruction of what should be (indeed is) the common wealth of Europe, and the world, if mankind were not so besotted, wealth the loss of which will affect us all, victors or not. ... There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour. By which I do not mean that it may not all, in the present situation ... be necessary and inevitable. But why gloat! We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling, world-catastrophes.

Pages 122-123 (from a letter to his publisher)

The thing is to finish the thing as devised and then let it be judged. But forgive me! It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other. I fear it must stand or fall as it substantially is. It would be idle to pretend that I do not greatly desire publication, since a solitary art is no art; nor that I have not a pleasure in praise, with as little vanity as fallen man can manage (he has not much more share in his writings than in his children of the body, but it is something to have a function); yet the chief thing is to complete one's work, as far as completion has any real sense.

Page 128

I write only because I find it easier to say such things as I really want to say. If they are foolish or seem so, I am not present when they fall flat.

Page 131

This university business of earning one's living by teaching, delivering philological lectures, and daily attendance at "boards" and other talk-meetings, interferes sadly with serious work.

Page 218

My work did not "evolve" into serious work. It started like that. [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as "for children," in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children.

I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty.

I am affable, but unsociable.

Page 220

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

Page 249

I find that many children become interested, even engrossed, in The Lord of the Rings, from about 10 onwards. I think it rather a pity, really. It was not written for them. But then I am a very "unvoracious" reader, and since I can seldom bring myself to read a work twice I think of the many things that I read—too soon! Nothing, not even a (possible) deeper appreciation, for me replaces the bloom on a book, the freshness of the unread.

Page 257

[The completion of The Lord of the Rings] still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion.

Pages 266-267

In 1958, Tolkien and his publisher were considering a film proposal that eventually fell through.

[The story line document] is sufficient to give me grave anxiety about the actual dialogue that (I suppose) will be used. I should say [Morton Grady] Zimmerman, the constructor of this s-l, is quite incapable of excerpting, or adapting the "spoken words" of the book. He is hasty, insensitive, and impertinent.

He does not read books. It seems to me evident that he has skimmed through the L.R. at a great pace, and then constructed his s.l. from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original. Thus he gets most of the names wrong in form—not occasionally by casual error but fixedly (always Borimor for Boromir); or he misapplies them: Radagast becomes an Eagle. The introduction of characters and the indications of what they are to say have little or no reference to the book....

I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of Z and his complete lack of respect for the original (it seems wilfully wrong without discernible technical reasons at nearly every point). But I need, and shall soon need very much indeed, money, and I am conscious of your rights and interests; so that I shall endeavour to restrain myself, and avoid all avoidable offence.

Page 271

In another letter, Tolkien sets out in detail some of his objections.  I fear he would also apply the following judgment (as well as many others that I won't take the space to quote here), to Peter Jackson's version, had he had the chance to see the film that is now nearly synonymous with his book.

He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale....

Page 297

When I published The Hobbit—hurriedly and without due consideration—I was still influenced by the convention that "fairy-stories" are naturally directed to children (with or without the silly added waggery "from seven to seventy"). And I had children of my own. But the desire to address children, as such, had nothing to do with the story as such in itself or the urge to write it. But it had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected. Intelligent children of good taste (of which there seem quite a number) have always, I am glad to say, singled out the points in manner where the address is to children as blemishes.

Page 310

Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabulary to what you suppose to be within their reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.

Page 321

There was a great tree—a huge poplar with vast limbs—visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs—though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.

Page 323

Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no "commercialism" can in fact defile—unless you let it.

Page 336

Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Write. "What do you take Oxford for, lad?" "A university, a place of learning." "Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that into your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on."

Alas! by 1935 I new knew that it was perfectly true.

Page 394

The "protestant" search backwards for "simplicity" and directness—which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because "primitive Christianity" is now and in spite of all "research" will ever remain largely unknown; because "primitiveness" is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian "liturgical" behaviour from the beginning as now. (St. Paul's strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because "my church" was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history—the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the "mustard seed" and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree.

Page 396

I have only since I retired learned that I was a successful professor. I had no idea that my lectures had such an effect—and, if I had, they might have been better. My "friends" among dons were chiefly pleased to tell me that I spoke too fast and might have been interesting if I could be heard. True often: due in part to having too much to say in too little time, in larger part to diffidence, which such comments increased.

Pages 401-402 (written in November 1969)

What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in—especially for those who have also the burden of age, whose friends and all they especially care for are afflicted in the same way. Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of This World flying: but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them; but the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras' heads.

Page 403

I am wholly in favour of the "dull stodges." I had once a considerable experience of what are/were probably England's most (at least apparently) dullest and stodgiest students: Yorkshire's young men and women of sub-public school class and home backgrounds bookless and cultureless. ... A surprisingly large proportion prove "educable": for which a primary qualification is the willingness to do some work (to learn) (at any level of intelligence). Teaching is a most exhausting task. But I would rather spend myself on removing the "dull" from "stodges"—providing some products of [B to B+] quality that retain some sanity—a hopeful soil from which another generation with some higher intelligence could arise. Rather—rather than waste effort on those of (apparently at any rate) higher intelligence that have been corrupted and disintegrated by school, and the "climate" of our present days. Teaching an organized subject is simply not the instrument for their rehabilitation—if anything is.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 at 5:48 am | Edit
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Dost thou ever feel thus toward thy neighbour—“Yes, of course, every man is my brother; but how can I be a brother to him so long as he thinks me wrong in what I believe, and so long as I think he wrongs in his opinions the dignity of the truth?” What, I return, has the man no hand to grasp, no eyes into which yours may gaze far deeper than your vaunted intellect can follow? Is there not, I ask, anything in him to love? Who asks you to be of one opinion? It is the Lord who asks you to be of one heart. Does the Lord love the man? Can the Lord love, where there is nothing to love? Are you wiser than he, inasmuch as you perceive impossibility where he has failed to discover it? Or will you say, “Let the Lord love where he pleases: I will love where I please”? or say, and imagine you yield, “Well, I suppose I must, and therefore I will,—but with certain reservations, politely quiet in my own heart”? Or wilt thou say none of all these things, but do them all, one after the other, in the secret chambers of thy proud spirit? If you delight to condemn, you are a wounder, a divider of the oneness of Christ. If you pride yourself on your loftier vision, and are haughty to your neighbour, you are yourself a division and have reason to ask: “Am I a particle of the body at all?” The Master will deal with thee upon the score. Let it humble thee to know that thy dearest opinion, the one thou dost worship as if it, and not God, were thy Saviour, this very opinion thou art doomed to change, for it cannot possibly be right, if it work in thee for death and not for life.

George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, "A Sermon"

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altThe Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan Books, 1980; talks originally given from the 1930s through the 1950s)

Once again, this is not a review—though I highly recommend the book—but a collection to replace the sticky notes I had affixed to this book as I re-read it recently. With some comments. The emphasis is my own.


From "Learning in Wartime"

A cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren.... Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that the seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come.

From "Why I Am Not a Pacifist"

Why I am not a fan of the movement to "not impose our moral and religious values on our children, but leave them free to make up their own minds."

Human beings must be trained in obedience to the moral intuitions almost before they have them, and years before they are rational enough to discuss them, or they will be corrupted before the time for discussion arrives.

We have seen that every moral judgment involves facts, intuition, and reasoning, and, if we are wise enough to be humble, it will involve some regard for authority as well. Its strength depends on the strength of these four factors. Thus if I find that the facts on which I am working are clear and little disputed, that the basic intuition is unmistakably an intuition, that the reasoning which connects this intuition with the particular judgment is strong, and that I am in agreement or (at worst) not in disagreement with authority, then I can trust my moral judgment with reasonable confidence. And if, in addition, I find little reason to suppose that any passion has secretly swayed my mind, this confidence is confirmed. If, on the other hand, I find the facts doubtful, the supposed intuition by no means obvious to all good men, the reasoning weak, and authority against me, then I ought to conclude that I am probably wrong. And if the conclusion which I have reached turns out also to flatter some strong passion of my own, then my suspicion should deepen into moral certainty. By "moral certainty" I mean that degree of certainty proper to moral decisions; for mathematical certainty is not here to be looked for.

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whtever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made, just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

From "Is Theology Poetry"

We should distinguish Evolution in the strict [biological] sense from what may be called the universal evolutionism of modern thought. By universal evolutionism I mean the belief that the very formula of universal process is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate, the belief which makes people find it natural to think that morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustments, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos. This is perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world. It seems to me immensely unplausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of nature we can observe. You remember the old puzzle as to whether the owl came from the egg or the egg from the owl. The modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the owl's emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. 

From "Membership"

This lecture was given in 1945. Read the next paragraph and try to imagine what Lewis might think nearly 75 years later.

When I first went to Oxford the typical undergraduate society consisted of a dozen men, who knew one another intimately, hearing a paper by one of their own number in a small sitting-room and hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning. Before [World War II] the typical undergraduate society had come to be a mixed audience of one or two hundred students assembled in a public hall to hear a lecture from some visiting celebrity. Even on those rare occasions when a modern undergraduate is not attending some such society he is seldom engaged in those solitary walks, or walks with a single companion, which built the minds of the previous generations. He lives in a crowd; caucus has replaced friendship. And this tendency not only exists both within and without the university, but is often approved. There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude still exists. ... If an Augustine, a Vaughan, a Traherne, or a Wordsworth should be born in the modern world, the leaders of a youth organization would soon cure him. If a really good home, such as the home of Alcinous and Arete in the Odyssey or the Rostovs in War and Peace or any of Charlotte M. Young's families, existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be ... never less alone than when alone. We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

I have wanted to try to expel that quite un-Christian worship of the human individual simply as such which is so rampant in modern thought side by side with our collectivism, for one error begets the opposite error and, far from neutralising, they aggravate each other. I mean the pestilent notion ... that each of us starts with a treasure called "personality" locked up inside him, and that to expand and express this, to guard it from interference, to be "original," is the main end of life. This is Pelagian, or worse, and it defeats even itself. No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work's sake, and what we call originality will come unsought.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 7:23 am | Edit
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I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.

You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.

Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.

Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.

Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.

And then Penzeys closed our store.

I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.

You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed job. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.

They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.

On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!

Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.

The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes.  Here's one of the latter that came this time:

It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.

For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?

Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!

But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.

Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.

I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Edit
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This blog is my storehouse for a good deal of miscellany, since combined with Google's search capabilities, it's a good way to find things at some future time when I've forgotten them, despite assurances to myself that of course I wouldn't forget that.

Smart Lock is a feature on the Galaxy S9 (and other phones too, I'm sure, but this is the one I know about) that allows me to lock my phone yet not have to deal with the inconvenience of unlocking it every time I pick it up. You tell the phone that certain places are trusted, such as home, and it won't require unlocking when you're in that place. Yay! It worked like a charm—for the first few days.

Then, as charms are wont to do, it became fickle. I found myself having to unlock my phone all the time. It was driving me up the wall. I tried this, that, and the other thing, all to no avail. Finally, I took the problem to Dr. Google. There I found a suggestion that the poster said was crazy, but effective:

I, like most people, had accepted the phone's suggestion of my home address for a trusted site. I don't know if it's Google's fault or something else, but people have found that to stop working after a few days, as it did for me. Who knows why? The secret, they said, was to edit the home location and move the marker a bit to reset it.

That didn't work for me. Perhaps I didn't move it enough, but since Google warned that doing so would affect the location of my home in several other of its applications, I didn't want to move it too much.

Instead, I took a different approach. I set up a second trusted site that was in the correct location, but not associated with my address—it's known to the system by its latitude and longitude. That worked perfectly.

Until it didn't, and I was back to having to unlock my phone every time.

I opened the SmartLock settings again, and added yet another trusted location—the place that my phone apparently thought it was, right then

And that worked, until it didn't. The pattern seems to be this: For a day, my phone would stay unlocked. Sometimes I'd get more than one day out of it, but generally the next morning I'd wake up back at Square One.

Actually, not quite back to the beginning—I'm gradually accumulating a collection of trusted places around our house. Despite the fact that SmartLock claims to be trusting a fairly large circle around a given location, that's not they way it's acting. The trusted places on my list show differences by 0.1" in either latitude or longitude. I hoped that eventually I'd have all the bases covered....

I'm still hoping that, but it seems to be a very slow process. Apparently the latitude and longitude measurements have a finer granularity than what is displayed. The process I have settled into is this:

When I first open my phone in the morning, I must unlock it. That's what I would expect after a long pause in use. But then the next time I try to use it, the phone is locked again. So I go into the SmartLock settings and add a new trusted place—wherever the phone thinks it is. After that, the phone is good for the rest of the day. I must do this every day.

It's a pain, and it shouldn't be that way, but it works for me. For now. I'll update this if I ever figure out something better.

UPDATE 2/7/19 There is hope that my phone will eventually learn that our home is a safe place. Today began with the usual problem: I opened the phone and needed to unlock it. The same thing happened the second time, but I was too lazy to go through the process of adding a new Trusted Location. Somewhere along the line—third or fourth time, maybe?—the phone opened with no need for unlocking. Was that because I was at that point in a different room of the house, one the phone recognized? Who knows, but it gives me hope to keep observing and experimenting.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 7:12 am | Edit
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I respect doctors, and am grateful for their skills, knowledge, and compassion. But that respect and gratitude are much the same as my feelings about teachers: individually and personally they can be fantastic, but as a bureaucracy (the medical/educational "establishment") I have serious doubts.

In my own life, the medical establishment's attack on my health began at birth. I don't know the details of my hospital birth, but I know the official policies were long on interference and very disrespectful of the natural birth process. What I know for certain was that my mother was discouraged from breastfeeding and told to feed me "formula," which in those days was a mixture of water, evaporated milk, and Karo corn syrup. (You read that right.)

Somehow i survived that abomination of an infant diet, which also included introducing solid foods at a few weeks of age. But it didn't stop there: I grew up right in the middle of the big push to get people to eat margarine instead of butter. My parents followed that recommendation, too—probably quite willingly, because margarine was so much cheaper than butter. I don't blame them for that, but I do blame the medical establishment for pushing margarine as far healthier than butter. Of course they now tell us just the opposite. Several years ago I made the switch back to butter, but not before exposing our own children to far too much margarine in their diets.

When I was young, my family also switched from drinking whole milk (delivered in glass bottles, with the cream risen to the top) to the skimmed variety, again at the recommendation of the doctors. That one stuck with me—to this day I prefer skim milk, and with skim milk we fed our children. But it would probably have been better if I had never lost my taste for milk with its full complement of fat and natural vitamins. Even the doctors no longer recommend skim milk, though they're still pushing less than the full 4% butterfat version.

I've lived long enough to see doctors insist that all babies must sleep on their backs, then that all babies must sleep on their stomachs, then back to their backs, then their sides...with never an apology for giving the "wrong" advice for so many years. I'm glad that my knowledge of official fickleness enabled me to stand firm in my own decision not to let flip-flopping doctors determine how our babies would sleep. At least we got that one right.

Now there are indications that the intense campaign to come between American skin and the light of the sun is causing problems much more severe and widespread than the skin cancer it's supposedly preventing. The push to slather sunscreen on every time we leave the house has resulted in widespread vitamin D deficiency, and a re-emergence of the bone disorder, rickets. Moreover, the article, Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?, makes the case that sun exposure is necessary for our cardiovascular health, especially for healthy blood pressure levels. Many doctors are now saying that we need to ease up on the sun-phobia, though it's still controversial.

One of the leaders of this rebellion is a mild-mannered dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh named Richard Weller. For years, Weller swallowed the party line about the destructive nature of the sun’s rays. “I’m not by nature a rebel,” he insisted when I called him up this fall. “I was always the good boy that toed the line at school. This pathway is one which came from following the data rather than a desire to overturn apple carts.”

Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.

It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?

Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level.

Other studies have found more benefits of sun exposure.

Pelle Lindqvist, a senior research fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute... tracked the sunbathing habits of nearly 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years. Originally, he was studying blood clots, which he found occurred less frequently in women who spent more time in the sun—and less frequently during the summer. Lindqvist looked at diabetes next. Sure enough, the sun worshippers had much lower rates. Melanoma? True, the sun worshippers had a higher incidence of it—but they were eight times less likely to die from it.

So Lindqvist decided to look at overall mortality rates, and the results were shocking. Over the 20 years of the study, sun avoiders were twice as likely to die as sun worshippers.

On the other hand,

“I don’t argue with their data,” says David Fisher, chair of the dermatology department at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But I do disagree with the implications.” The risks of skin cancer, he believes, far outweigh the benefits of sun exposure. “Somebody might take these conclusions to mean that the skin-cancer risk is worth it to lower all-cause mortality or to get a benefit in blood pressure,” he says. “I strongly disagree with that." It is not worth it, he says, unless all other options for lowering blood pressure are exhausted. Instead he recommends vitamin D pills and hypertension drugs as safer approaches.

Seriously? Vitamin D supplements have been shown to be ineffective, probably because there's more to the benefits of sun exposure than the vitamin. And can he honestly believe that exposure to the risks of hypertension drugs is better than a little sunshine? I generally take with a grain of salt the blanket pronouncements of some of my more radical friends that the medical industry has no interest in anything they can't make money from. In most of life I'm inclined to attribute bad effects more to ignorance than to evil intent. However, sometimes that optimism is shaken.

Me? I live in Florida. I know the power of the sun, and am grateful for sunscreen when I deem it necessary. All the doctors agree that sunburn is bad. But even in Florida I've always known that some sun exposure is important—another thing I think we got right with our kids.

I still feel guilty about the margarine, though.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 4, 2019 at 9:17 am | Edit
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Here are four poems that struck me in particular from a book of C. S. Lewis' collected poems.


Irresponsible actions have consequences.

Pan’s Purge

I dreamt that all the planning of peremptory humanity 
Had crushed Nature finally beneath the foot of Man; 
Birth-control and merriment, Earth completely sterilized, 
Bungalow and fun-fair, had fulfilled our Plan; 
But the lion and the unicorn were sighing at the funeral, 
Crying at the funeral 
Sobbing at the funeral of the god Pan.

And the elephant was crying. The pelican in his piety 
Struck his feathered bosom till the blood ran, 
And howling at humanity the owl and iguanodon, 
The bittern and the buffalo, their dirge began, 
But dangerously, suddenly, a strange ecstatic shuddering 
A change that set me shuddering 
Through all the wailful noises of the beasts ran.

No longer were they sorrowful, but stronger and more horrible, 
It had only been a rumour of the death of Pan. 
The scorpions and the mantichores and corpulent tarantulas 
Were closing in around me, hissing, Long Live Pan! 
And forth with rage unlimited the North Wind drew his scimitar 
In wrath with ringing scimitar 
He came, with sleet and shipwreck, for the doom of Man.

And now, descending, ravening, loud and large, the avalanche, 
And after it the earthquake, was loosed upon Man.
Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, 
Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man; 
Except where saints and savages were kept from his ravaging, 
And crept out when the ravaging 
Was ended, on an empty earth. The new world began.

A small race — a smiling heaven — all round the silences 
Returned; there was comfort for corrected Man. 
Flowered turf had swallowed up the towered cities; following 
His flocks and herds where nameless, untainted rivers ran, 
Leisurely he pondered, at his pleasure wandering, 
Measurelessly wandering... 
Clear, on the huge pastures, the young voice of Man.


Shades of the Irish Rovers!

The Late Passenger

The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,
And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.

The beasts were in, but Japhet said, “I see one creature more
Belated and unmated there comes knocking at the door.”

“Well, let him knock or let him drown,” said Ham, “or learn to swim.
We’re overcrowded as it is; we’ve got no room for him.”

“And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,” said Shem. “Its feet
Are hard as horn—but oh the air that comes from it is sweet.”

“Now hush!” said Ham, “You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see
What’s at the door, it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.”

Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below,
“Some animal is knocking. Let it in before we go.”

Ham shouted back, and savagely he nudged the other two,
“That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.”

Said Noah, “Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.”
Said Ham, “Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.”

Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head;
His face went grey, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said,

“Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight.
Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

"Even if I could outrun it now, it would not turn again
—Not now. Our great discourtesy has earned its high disdain.

"Oh noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;
In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

"Oh golden hoofs, oh cataracts of mane, oh nostrils wide
With indignation! Oh the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

"Oh long shall be the furrows ploughed upon the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

"And dark and crooked all the roads in which our race will walk,
And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower with broken stalk,

"And all the world, oh Ham, may curse the hour when you were born;
Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.”


It's presented as a poem, but to anyone familiar with the hymn, "Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us" it's a song that sings itself.

Evolutionary Hymn

Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future's endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.

Wrong or justice, in the present,
Joy or sorrow, what are they
While there's always jam-tomorrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we're going,
We can never go astray.

To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.

Ask not if it's god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature's simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
"Goodness = what comes next."
By evolving, Life is solving
All the questions we perplexed.

On then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it may well be).


And finally,

The Apologist's Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 1, 2019 at 9:07 am | Edit
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