C. S. Lewis wrote the Preface to a book by B. G. Sandhurst entitled How Heathen is Britain? This essay has been republished as the thirteenth chapter of Lewis's book, God in the Dock, which I recently finished re-reading. I deemed the excerpts below too extensive for my review of that book, so here they are in their own post.

The essay, written in the mid-1940's, deals largely with the effect of state education on students' beliefs and attitudes about the Christian faith. A few quotes can't do justice to the logic of the argument, but should suffice to give the flavor. All bold emphasis is my own.

The content of, and the case for, Christianity, are not put before most schoolboys under the present system; ... when they are so put a majority find them acceptable. ... [These two facts] blow away a whole fog of "reasons for the decline of religion" which are often advanced and often believed. If we had noticed that the young men of the present day found it harder and harder to get the right answers to sums, we should consider that this had been adequately explained the moment we discovered that schools had for some years ceased to teach arithmetic. (p. 115)

The sources of unbelief among young people today do not lie in those young people. The outlook which they have—until they are taught better—is a backwash from an earlier period. It is nothing intrinsic to themselves which holds them back from the Faith. This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. (p. 116)

No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are skeptical we shall teach only skepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. ... Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. (p. 116)

A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law. We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.

The State may take education more and more firmly under its wing. I do not doubt that by so doing it can foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point; the power of the State to deliberalize a profession is undoubtedly very great. But all the teaching must still be done by concrete human individuals. The State has to use the men who exist. Nay, as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers. And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control. And as they come to be, so will they teach. ... Let the abstract scheme of education be what it will: its actual operation will be what the men make it. ... Your "reform" may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching. (pp. 116-117)

Where the tide flows towards increasing State control, Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact (though not for a long time yet in words) be treated as an enemy. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State. Hence Rousseau, the father of the totalitarians, said wisely enough, from his own point of view, of Christianity, Je ne connais rien de plus contraire à l'esprit social ("I know nothing more opposed to the social spirit"). ... Even if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils' hearts. (p. 118)

I am speaking, of course, of large schools on which a secular character is already stamped. If any man, in some little corner out of the reach of the omnicompetent, can make, or preserve a really Christian school, that is another matter. His duty is plain. (p. 119)

What a society has, that, be sure, and nothing else, it will hand on to its young. The work is urgent, for men perish around us. But there is no need to be uneasy about the ultimate event. As long as Christians have children and non-Christians do not, one need have no anxiety for the next century. (p. 119)

Clearly Lewis did not anticipate that Christians would embrace the radical move to very small families nearly as much as secular society did. I'm thankful for those who are now reversing that trend. The idea is mocked today ("evangelism by procreation"), but Lewis—though he had a difficult home life and no biological children of his own—clearly recognized the life- and faith-affirming value of begetting and bearing children in Christian families.

As for the rest of the quotations: it is still true that democratic governments have much less control over what children think and learn than they would like. But the same is now also true of teachers. Lewis was thinking of the influence of teachers when he wrote,

Planning has no magic whereby it can elicit figs from thistles or choke-pears from vines. The rich, sappy, fruit-laden tree will bear sweetness and strength and spiritual health; the dry, prickly, withered tree will teach hate, jealousy, suspicion, and inferiority ... [no matter what] you tell it to teach. (pp. 117-118)

This is even more true, now, of the movies, music, and other media that are the very air our young people breathe (and rarely think about), and of the peer-oriented society we have bequeathed them. As I wrote in my review of Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté's book Hold On to Your Kids (a book I strongly recommend to all parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and anyone else who cares about children),

It is essential to the survival of a civilization that its culture be passed on from one generation to another. Today's children are not receiving culture, they are inventing it as they go along. We are into the third generation of this problem, and appear to be reaching a tipping point. If the idea of peer culture being more important to children than their family culture doesn't seem strange and wrong to us, it's because that's how we grew up, too.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 29, 2020 at 10:46 am | Edit
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I've never liked William Golding's book, The Lord of the Flies. Why high school English teachers think it helpful to assault students' spirits with the distressing imaginations of disturbed minds, I cannot imagine. My daughter hated it even more than I did, and although she finished reading the book weeks before the school exam, she steadfastly refused to reread or study it in any way. She'd rather fail, she insisted. (Actually, she aced the test. Having a good memory is both a curse and a blessing.)

The Lord of the Flies certainly hit a chord with popular society, and like it or not has become part of our culture. Say to someone, "it's a Lord of the Flies situation there," and he knows exactly what you mean. It has also contributed to a good deal of negative and cynical thinking.

My sister-in-law, who knows my feelings on the matter, sent me this marvellous story about a real-life event that illustrates just the opposite about human behavior. (Warning: if you read the article, you may have to ignore some incidental, intense political ranting; I don't know what extras might be showing when you get there, but the last time I saw it I almost decided not to include the link. But credit must go where credit it due.) Here are some excerpts with the bare bones of the story:

This story [of the degradation and brutal behavior of castaway English schoolboys] never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951—his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side. (emphasis mine)

Years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.

I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip ... Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

It took some work to uncover the source of the story, as the date given was incorrect; the real year was 1966.

The real Lord of the Flies ... began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys—Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano—all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku‘alofa [the capital of Tonga]. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.

The boys "borrowed" a small sailing boat, and their voyage started out fine, with fair skies and a mild breeze.

But that night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep. A few hours later they awoke to water crashing down over their heads. It was dark. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Next to break was the rudder. “We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening. Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean.

These days, the island is considered uninhabitable. But by the time the boys were rescued, 15 months later,

[They] had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat ... and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

They were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.

The article has much more of the story, including how the rescued boys were immediately clapped into jail for having stolen the boat. (It ends well.)

This is a much better story than The Lord of the Flies, and it's true. Sadly, it's unlikely to have the social impact of Golding's book. But I hope all English teachers who insist on teaching Golding will be inspired to include the real story in their discussions. At the very least, parents now have an antidote to offer their distressed children.

And we all have an antidote to the evening news and social media.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 9:33 am | Edit
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The school lunchbox is dead in Italy.

The Italian Supreme Court has ruled against parents who want to send lunch to school with their children. Their logic? Not eating the school-provided lunch is "a possible violation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination based on economic circumstances."

Even the United States isn't that crazy—yet—despite pushes in that direction by busybodies experts who worry that food from home might not be "good enough," and school-lunch providers who have a deep financial stake in forcing parents to buy their product.

Parents, naturally, are not happy.

Lorenza, who has two children at a Turin school, told a local TV station she spent more than €2,000 (£1,823) on school meals, more than her monthly salary. "My older daughter was not happy because the quality of the food didn't justify the cost, and also because of the hygiene issues with the canteen. "She would often complain that the cutlery was dirty, that the glasses were not particularly clean, or that there would be hairs on the plates," she said.

As with many news reports, this paragraph does not give enough information for us to know just how outraged we should be. Over what time period did this mother spend $2200 dollars? One month, as implied by the comment that the cost was "more than her monthly salary"? Annually per child? Over the entire school experience of all of her (possibly, though not likely, many) children?

Never mind. It doesn't matter. Even if the meals were totally free (where by "free" we mean paid for by other people, of course), it would still be an outrage.

School lunches may be a necessity for some children, who would otherwise not eat—though I've never been able to answer satisfactorily a friend's question, "Isn't that what SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and WIC programs are all about? Why do we also need free school lunches?"

School lunches are certainly a convenience for busy parents—though there is no reason why a child of school age shouldn't be able to pack his own lunch.

But there was never any doubt in my mind that my own packed lunch was vastly superior to what was offered in the school cafeteria, and apparently our children thought so, too. Even if they often traded their carrot sticks to other children for cookies—at least some child was eating healthful food. I'm reminded of one family I know who qualified for free meals for their children. The children gave it a try, determined that the food at home was better tasting, more nutritious, and even more plentiful—and wisely opted out. At least here they had that option.

More to the point: whatever the Italian Supreme Court may say, being able to feed our children as we think best is a basic, human, family right—right up there with being able to birth, educate, and otherwise rear our children as we think best. As all totalitarian governments know, once you come between parents and their children, most other freedoms become meaningless.

For those families who cannot or will not handle these responsibilities on their own, we rightly make assistance available. That's called charity. But forcing that "assistance" on those who do not want it? That's called tyranny.

And the "principles of equality" the court found so important? Should we make everyone feed their babies formula because some mothers can't or won't breastfeed? Dumb down the school curriculum to the lowest common denominator? Put every child in daycare because some families need that service? Force every child into public school because some parents can't or won't provide private or home education? Make every woman give birth in a hospital because some babies need a doctor's care? Ban unpasteurized milk, orange juice, and cider because not everyone has access to safe sources of these delicious drinks? Forbid handmade clothing because not every mother can sew? Put handicapping weights on the feet of the best dancers to eliminate their advantage over the klutzes?

Oh, wait. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 5:23 am | Edit
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People on Facebook and elsewhere have been wishing Florida students "happy first day of school." Leaving aside that I agree with C. S. Lewis that "the putting on of the school clothes was, I well knew, the assumption of a prison uniform," and that I am so glad to be past that part of our lives, I just have to say that August 12—the start date for many here—is a ridiculous day for the school year to commence.

Here in Florida it's not so bad, as all the buildings are air conditioned, and summer isn't the nicest season of the year anyway. But when our kids were in school and the district flirted with starting mid-summer, our kids had to choose between skipping some wonderful summer educational programs elsewhere in the country and skipping the beginning of school. (We chose the latter, but would rather not have had to do that.) Perhaps I shouldn't complain too much about that, however, or someone will suggest that school schedules should be set nationally, and I'm highly in favor of local control of schools. If people are going to wear chains, at least let those chains be of different colors.

Someone pointed out that we make up for starting early by getting out at the end of May, which is true. There's something to be said for that, though I'm not sure why one would cut off days at one end of summer just to sew them back on to the other end. The weather in June is sometimes nicer than in August, but you sure can't count on it. Still, shifting the calendar is at least better than the other thing schools have been doing: shrinking summer vacation and adding vacation days here and there throughout the year. I'm of two minds there. Granted, it's lovely to have days off in the middle of the school year, especially when the weather is nicer.

But nothing beats the traditional long, idyllic stretch of the summer, where the days are free for reading, exploring, playing pick-up games with the neighbors, or just stretching out on the ground (or up in the treehouse) and watching the sky. The summer mindset doesn't come quickly. I noticed with our own children that a week's vacation from school wasn't nearly enough, because the beginning of the week was filled with what we called detoxification—as the children re-learned to order their own days—and the end with anticipation of the return to school. Summer was long enough for freedom to take hold in our hearts. I suspect teachers feel much the same way: after each return to school, it takes students time to settle back in, and as an anticipated vacation approaches, their focus is broken. Time is wasted when durations are too short.

All that aside: Be you student, teacher, or parent, if you've chosen (or had chosen for you) the life of being tied to the School Year—I do wish you the best: a happy first day of school and all the rest of them as well.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 at 7:48 am | Edit
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It's been a while since I posted in my Conservationist Living category, which is this post's primary classification, though I've assigned it to several others as well.

America is going to hell, right? Everybody says so. Including a whole lot of people who fervently believe there is no such place as hell, which is an interesting conundrum. But they all believe with equal fervor that we are going there rapidly. Believer or non-believer, left-wing or right-wing, we are convinced that we're in bad shape and on course to get much, much worse. What we disagree on is the attitudes, events, actions, and pathways that are taking us hell-ward.

Believe me, I'm not immune to such pessimism. Neither are you, so I'm going to tell you a small part of the story of Dave Anderson.

The Andersons are friends of our daughter's family, from their Pittsburgh days. Dave's success at building a good life for his family while reclaiming a worn-out strip mine and putting to good use many hundreds of tons of refuse every year was featured last month in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

I made the 45-minute drive to Echo Valley Farm this week because I wanted to meet the man who’d turned strip-mined land in northwest Beaver County into 26 grassy acres on which beef cattle thrive. Mr. Anderson had told me he revived his land by mixing hundreds of thousands of used paper cups from the Pittsburgh Marathon with manure, hay, banana peels and restaurant refuse.

You'll want to read the whole article to learn about the symbiotic relationship between the farm, needing nourisment, and both private businesses and local governments, needing waste disposal, that's a win for everyone involved.

It all works because there’s something in it for everyone. Mr. Anderson said that 14 years ago, the field over my shoulder produced 6,000 pounds of hay at the first cutting. The cutting in [the] same field last year brought 37,000 pounds.

Plus, the farm is a great place to raise kids.

I ask if it’s just the two of them and he says, no, he and his wife, Elaine, have six girls and a boy. They range in age from 10 to 24. All seven of them comprise Echo Valley, a bluegrass/​gospel/​Celtic band, that just played in Harrodsburg, Ky., Saturday night.

Several years ago—it was probably more than ten, though I'm finding that hard to believe—we visited the budding farm for one of their many social gatherings of food, music, and fun. Kids and animals were everywhere. The children were much younger then, of course, but they were already solid musicians. Here is a more recent video of the group.

and one of my favorites from earlier, just for fun.

Mr. Anderson, an inveterate reader who doesn’t own a TV, and who also was an air traffic manager until he retired last Friday, figured out how to turn desolate land into a lush farm that supports a family of nine with 30 head of beef cattle, six miniature donkeys, 40 laying hens, two turkeys, four guinea fowl, three geese, three ducks, two Australian cattle dogs and six pups.

Not to mention a number of cats, as I recall.

I hope this brightened your day. If America is, indeed, going to hell, people like the Andersons are pulling mightily in the other direction.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at 9:46 pm | Edit
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There's no doubt that video games and manipulating phones and tablets develop certain skills. But if we think all that button pushing and finger-swiping are improving manual dexterity, apparently it's not doing so in ways that still matter greatly—such as the skills needed by a surgeon.

Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. ... "It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things—cutting things out, making things—that is no longer the case," says Prof Kneebone.

Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade. ... Students have become "less competent and less confident" in using their hands, he says. ... "We have students who have very high exam grades but lack tactile general knowledge."

Such skills might once have been gained at school or at home, whether in cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that's broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument.

Is this something to be gravely concerned about, or will we simply turn surgery over to robots the way we have turned shifting the gears in our cars over to automatic transmissions?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 8, 2019 at 7:02 am | Edit
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altUnplanned
The Movie

About once a year or so we actually go out to a theater and watch a movie. I knew I wanted to see Unplanned, and did not have any confidence that it would eventually make it to Netflix. So Porter bought tickets online for our local AMC theater, and we made a date of it.

"Date" is an appropriate word, because despite the seriousness of the subject and a couple of horrifying scenes that probably earned it its "R" rating, Unplanned is basically a love story: The unconditional love of parents for a child who has made lifestyle choices in complete opposition to their own deeply-held values; the steadfast love of a man in support of his wife despite his conviction that her chosen career path is an immoral one; the love that leads us to embrace our common humanity in the face of chasmic differences; and the relentless love of God for his hurting world—"unresting, unhasting, and silent as light."

Abby Johnson's desire to make a difference in the world, to support the rights of women, and to help women in crisis situations led her, beginning as a student volunteer at the local Planned Parenthood clinic, to a promising career with that organization. She became one of the youngest-ever clinic directors, and won an Employee of the Year award in 2008.

And then that same heart-felt desire to help women led her to quit. Unplanned is her story.

The story is well told. The movie is beautiful—except of course where it's ugly. I particularly like the fact that it is not a black-and-white, one-dimensional story of a sudden conversion, despite the "what she saw changed everything" subtitle. As much as can be done in a movie less than two hours in length, we see Abby's growth through time and experience. Her change of heart seems more of a tipping point than a crisis, though there are certainly elements of the latter as well. Abby at the end of the movie is more knowledgeable, more experienced, certainly less naïve, and moving in a different direction in more than one area of her life—but still Abby.

The only fault I find is the portrayal of Abby's boss, who is indeed one-dimensional; we never see her human side. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said about George MacDonald, that he was rare among authors in being able to portray good much better than evil: "His saints live; his villains are stagey." It's certainly possible that this woman was as nasty as she seems, and as I said, it's a short movie, but I would like to have seen something redeeming about her character.

Do I recommend seeing Unplanned when you have the chance? Absolutely, 100%, a hundred times over. Do I recommend it for our grandchildren? Eventually. They're all under age for the rating at this point, anyway. Maybe the oldest one or two could handle it well, if their parents watch the film first and agree. Anyone younger than that would be traumatized, maybe scarred for life—if they understood it at all. At first I wondered about the R rating, given the horrible things I've seen in PG-13 movies, but I believe the MPAA got it right in this case. Unplanned is a beautiful movie, and an important one, but there's no denying that it's disturbing in a way no child should be asked to handle. Not that so many kids haven't already seen worse. And it's rather bizarre to require parental consent for a child watch a movie with a few abortion scenes, when that same child could actually have an abortion without it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at 11:11 am | Edit
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It took a long time for me to dip my toes into the DNA testing waters, being both an avid genealogist and a very private person. But just as giving birth changed my relationship to modesty, starting a blog changed my relationship to privacy. I'm still both modest and private, but not in the same way. The biggest obstacle to DNA testing was knowing I was dragging my family along. As recent events have shown, criminal behavior (and other indiscretions) can be found out by DNA through relatives' information available on genealogy websites.

But I discovered long ago that privacy as we knew it is dead. I remember working with a family researcher who was writing a book on one side of our family. At one time, I would have refused to contribute any information, but had since been helped so much in my research by a book on the Wightman Family that I wanted to help others the same way. The Wightman book, incidentally, has information on me and our family that was contributed without my knowledge or consent. At the time I was not happy, but I got over that and now appreciate it. Except for where the data is wrong....

The point, however, is that while such direct contributions help researchers, they're not all that necessary. When one of my family members declined to contribute his family's information to the project I was helping with, the researcher understood his reluctance—but he added, "Let me show you the information I've already obtained from public sources." He already had just about everything he could use. As Illya Kuryakin Dr. Mallard said on NCIS last night, The Internet will be the death of us. Or at least of privacy.

In light of all this, Porter and I each decided to submit a sample to AncestryDNA.com, and eagerly awaited the results. Later we uploaded the DNA data to MyHeritage.com, and eventually gave another sample to 23andMe.com—the latter for both the ancestry and the health screening.

This post is not for a detailed analysis of the results, but an overall impression of the value of the DNA testing. First, from the point of view of genealogy.

For us, the Ancestry.com screening was the most useful. This is for two reasons.

  • They have the largest database from which to work, and that is what makes the testing useful—comparing your DNA to that of other populations. For this reason it is also most useful for those of European background, because of the large numbers of that population who have participated. The testing services are working to improve the experience for under-represented populations, but for now the data is not so robust.
  • I have uploaded our family tree, with its nearly 15,000 individuals, to Ancestry.com, and that's largely what makes their DNA service helpful for genealogy. This gives context to our DNA matches, and I've already confirmed known relatives while learning of several more. My tree is at the moment private on Ancestry, which means people have to ask me about the information, which is a good way to get to meet them. Someday I will make it, or at least a version of it, public, but the tree itself isn't ready for that exposure yet.

No doubt MyHeritage would be more useful if I put a tree up there as well, but that's on the "Someday/Maybe" list. I only uploaded our data because at the time they gave free access to their resources if you did. So far they've only found us "third-to-fifth cousins"—tons of them—which is not of much use without trees to compare, and most people seem to have no trees or very small ones. Third cousins share a great-great-grandfather, so it requires a significant amount of family history knowledge to make the connection.

23andMe is in the same situation as far as genealogy goes. So far nothing found even as close as second cousin (sharing a great-grandfather).

How has this helped my genealogy research? Well, through Ancestry.com I've connected with a few previously unknown cousins, a couple close enough to be useful in sharing information. Even the ones that are more distant have been useful in providing some confirmation of my research. Overall I'm glad I took the plunge, if only for this reason. It also has a lot of potential for more and better information as time goes on. One important caveat: There is a lot of error in online family trees. Even with DNA support, this information is best taken as inspiration for further research, and for mutual sharing of data sources.

Now for what most people want out of DNA testing: heritage and ethnicity information. This is an estimate only, and each company has its own data and algorithm for making its "best guess." Sometime after we had our samples analyzed, Ancestry.com upgraded their system and re-analyzed our data. The results were not terribly much different from the first attempt, though probably more accurate.

The analysis from MyHeritage was closer to Ancestry's original analysis. That from 23andMe was different from any of the others, though quite similar overall.

My impression? The DNA analysis is very good as an overall picture, not so good on the details. For example, Porter's great-grandparents came to the United States from Sweden, and it is well known where they lived before emigrating. In fact, when his dad visited Sweden, he was told he looks just like people who live in that area. Thus when his father's AncestryDNA analysis came back showing his largest ethnicity to be Norwegian, we were taken aback. However, the area he's from may be called Sweden, but it's right on the border with Norway. One can definitely say from his DNA that he is of Scandinavian origin, but that he is specifically Swedish comes from genealogy. One must also remember that the smaller percentages are suspect: of the three analyses, 23andMe was the only one that gave me "broadly East Asian and Native American" ancestry, and that was at just 0.1%, so highly doubtful.

Finally, there's the analysis of genetic health data. This comes primarily from 23andMe, though we also paid an extra $10 post facto for Ancestry's "Traits" screening. I've written about the latter experience before. 23andMe analyzes many more traits than Ancestry's small sample, from "Leigh Syndrome, French Canadian Type" carrier status, to estimated risk for late-onset Alzheimer's Disease, to Lactose Intolerance, to Asparagus Odor Detection.

My thoughts? Interesting, but not quite ready for prime time. Where I have independent data it sometimes confirms, sometimes contradicts the DNA reports. Ancestry says I likely have a "unibrow" but 23andMe says the opposite. Both of them say I probably hate cilantro, and I love it. And so on. So I'm taking the rest of what they say with a few grains of salt. I'm sure there's something to it, and that the data will get better with time, but for now it is more entertainment than useful information. Actually, I take that back: Just as DNA ancestry data is useful as a starting point for further research, the discovery of certain traits might be useful for suggesting further, medical, genetic testing.

There's a lot more to DNA analysis for the serious genealogy researcher to investigate, such as sites that will take your data and give you tools to learn much more about which particular genes you and a DNA match share. I'm not there yet; I have too much to do with my regular research to explore that path further. But it, and my data, are there when I'm ready.

Am I glad I decided to "spit in the tube"? Absolutely; I'd do it again and may later go further with it. I'm very grateful to family members who have taken the plunge as well, because that provides a look at the puzzle from more angles. But it's always important not to expect too much. It's never as simple as trading your kilt for lederhosen, as the Ancestry.com ad blithely shows. Plus there's a risk of finding out things you don't want to know—about family or about health. It's a very personal decision and I understand those who are reluctant to take the risk.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 7:05 pm | Edit
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March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day.

Temple Grandin wrote:

It is likely that genius is an abnormality. If the genes that cause autism and other disorders such as manic-depression were eliminated, the world might be left to boring conformists with few creative ideas.

Down Syndrome is not genius, at least not in the intellectual sense. If I could wave my hand and eliminate that third copy of the 21st chromosome, I imagine I would do so. But would that be a good thing? The more I hear from families of children with Down Syndrome, the more I wonder if these people have something important to offer the world that shouldn't be thrown away.

Even if eliminating the genetic defect that results in Down Syndrome would be best for all concerned, I know for a fact that eugenics is not the right way to effect a cure.

The population of people with Down Syndrome is diminishing rapidly, not because someone has cured the condition, nor found a way to prevent its occurrence, but simply because more and more babies with Down Syndrome are killed before they have a chance to be born. Prenatal testing to determine the presence of that extra chromosome is widespread, and more and more parents are opting for abortion rather than meet this challenge.

It's not my place, here, to judge another person's response to a difficulty I have never faced. But as a society we need to be aware of exactly what we are doing. There have been other times in our history when we have made deliberate efforts to eradicate the "unfit," and those actions have been rightly condemned by subsequent generations.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, March 21, 2019 at 12:56 pm | Edit
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C. S. Lewis wrote about peer orientation?  Certainly not by that name.

But recently, as part of my C. S. Lewis retrospective, I came upon a passage in Mere Christianity that immediately brought to mind the epidemic of children taking their culture and direction from peers, rather than from parents or other adults, which has been going on in our society for at least three generations.

What Lewis was actually writing about was the central tenet of Christianity: what it is and what it is not.

The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.  Theories as to how it did that are another matter.  A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.

As part of his explanation of one of those theories, Lewis likens God's work in us—enabling us to repent, reason, and love—to a teacher who helps a child learn to write by holding the child's hand and forming the letters with him.  Later he writes [emphasis mine],

I have heard some people complain that if Jesus was God as well as man, then His sufferings and death lose all value in their eyes, "because it must have been so easy for Him." Others may (very rightly) rebuke the ingratitude and ungraciousness of this objection; what staggers me is the misunderstanding it betrays. In one sense, of course, those who make it are right. They have even understated their own case. The perfect submission, the perfect suffering, the perfect death were not only easier to Jesus because He was God, but were possible only because He was God. But surely that is a very odd reason for not accepting them? The teacher is able to form the letters for the child because the teacher is grown-up and knows how to write. That, of course, makes it easier for the teacher; and only because it is easier for him can he help the child. If [the child] rejected him because "it’s easy for grown-ups" and waited to learn writing from another child who could not write ... (and so had no "unfair" advantage), [the student] would not get on very quickly. If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) "No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank"? That advantage—call it "unfair" if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?

Rejecting the help of those who are stronger than ourselves is what we have been doing for decades.  We turn for help and advice—for the very shaping of our lives—to our peers, and we not only tolerate, but encourage, the same in our children.  Unlike all generations before the 20th century, we do not acquire our culture from our parents, but from agemates who have no more experience, knowledge, and wisdom than we ourseves.  We ignore history, throwing out all mankind has learned from the beginning of human life on earth, on the grounds that the benighted, ignorant savages that came before us have nothing to say to our modern world.  The latest TED talk or Huffington Post article gets more respect and attention than the wisest writings of the past.

No wonder we're in a mess.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 at 8:34 am | Edit
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One key to holding on to our sanity is realizing that it is in the interest of so many others to keep us in a state of fear. Fearful people stay riveted to news programs, they buy lots of stuff they don't need, they indulge in expensive and unhealthful habits to dull the pain, they give up their vital freedoms and basic rights in the name of security, and their anxiety is all too easily turned to anger and hatred. Fearful people are sheep, easily manipulated and ready prey for the politician, the salesman, the agitator, the televangelist, the gang leader. 

Another key is to understand that as horrific as are the events we hear about on the news, they are much more rare than we are led to believe by those who profit from our fears. From school shootings to vaccine reactions, from raw cookie dough illnesses to child kidnappings by strangers, we are given the impression that statistically infinitesimal risks are looming over us daily. They're not.

Generally, crime rates in America are much lower now than they were when my own children were young, but it's today's parents who are afraid to let their kids walk to school—or even play in the back yard without an adult present—and won't leave 11-year-olds alone at home for a few hours. (Twenty years ago, 11-year-olds were considered responsible babysitters.) When one is bombarded daily, and repeatedly, with stories of crime, and crimes against humanity, it's hard not to think that our world is worse than it is. More concerning still, studies show that fictitious violence (movies, television, video games) has the same effect on our gut as real news stories.

In any case, here's the very important paradox: No matter how bad we may think the world is, the way to raise healthy, well-adjusted children—the kind who will contribute to making the world better—is to avoid passing on our anxieties. Children need to know that the world is, generally, a safe place, beginning with their own families, and that where it is not, it can be faced with courage and hope. Growing up fearful is not conducive to good mental health.

How to resolve this? For one thing, we should help our children to become as competent as possible in basic life skills, so that they have—and know that they have—the tools to face the world as it comes to them. I also recommend the Fred Rogers quote about the importance of looking to the helpers in any bad situation. And stories. Lots of good stories, from biographies of heroes to heroic fairy tales, where evil is defeated by goodness and strength and courage. As C. S. Lewis said, "Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage."

Maybe that can work for adults as well. It's worth a try.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, January 28, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Edit
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I almost cried in church today. Instead, I fist-bumped Porter.

We are learning more and more about our new rector. I don't expect always to be pleased with what we learn, but if I heard him right, today was huge on the plus side.

He was talking about the Confirmation class he will be teaching, explaining that unlike some rectors he prefers to teach everyone together instead of separating children from adults.

He went further. Families, he said, belong together in church. He reminded people that we have an alternative children's activity that families are welcome to take advantage of if they wish, but added that in his view the norm is for famlies to worship together and children are welcome in the service. He didn't explain any further—this was more of an aside during the announcements—but I very nearly broke my staid choir persona and shouted, "Amen!" It's a personal, as well as a philosophical, issue for us.

It's too bad Lucerne and New Hampshire are so far away.  I can't wait till 2020 when I anticipate bringing 10 grandchildren and their parents to sit in the front pews. :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Edit
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It was a grandmother moment.

I woke up today to this report from six-year-old Vivienne:

I get to open the Advent calendar!  It's my first and only composite!

That's my girl!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 7:41 am | Edit
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We had a deep fryer once, long ago, and I found the whole process messy and rather more of a pain than it was worth. However, having recently experienced some really amazing fried food at the Melting Pot, I thought I'd investigate what new technology might now be available. (Who knew that deep-fried kale would be so awesome?)

I haven't made up my mind about anything yet. What holds me back the most is knowing I'd have to find a place to store a new appliance.

Be that as it may, look what I found in a review of the Presto Cool Daddy 6-Cup Electric Deep Fryer:

  • Ideal for a small family up to six people.

I like the way they think.

Revealing my age, I can say that I remember the days when a family of six was considered small; now our children's families (of six and eight) attract attention wherever they go.

Back then we didn't have Presto fryers, nor frozen French fries: my mother made fries for our (small) family of six starting from whole potatoes, and using a pot of oil on the stove.  And they were so good!  As time went on, she did switch to using frozen French fries, which was definitely easier, though not better.

Does anyone have thoughts about deep fryers to share? I'm interested—if I am interested; I'm still not sure—in something small, since our current household is small by any standards (two).

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 9, 2018 at 7:29 am | Edit
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Unlike most of my friends, I did not grow up fantasizing about getting married and having children. My fantasies were more inspired by the books I read: becoming a research scientist, an explorer, or a detective; flying an airplane, fighting for an important cause, having adventures. My mother thought this peculiar, and at one point asked me, "What's wrong with our family that you don't want to have one of your own?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, October 21, 2018 at 8:40 am | Edit
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