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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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 laughed, I cried, I groaned, I was on the edge of my seat till the very end!

A romance novel? An thriller? Murder mystery? Action-packed drama?

Well, no. The most recent blog post from The Occasional CEO, entitled, "25 Rules for Writing a Book." This actually showed up in my feed reader at the same time as the announcement of a new book by another friend, who writes as Blair Bancroft.

Eric Schultz writes completely different books from Blair Bancroft, though I wouldn't be surprised if Blair recognizes herself in some of Eric's points. I'm pretty sure that in this post he's writing about a book I've been waiting years for, ever since he dropped a hint in another post. If you read his 25 rules, you'll understand why I say I hope it's still the book I've been looking forward to.

To Eric:

  • Don't throw anything away! No experience is ever really wasted, but becomes fodder for something in the future. You never know when you might find it useful. (That attitude is why I have trouble decluttering my house, my photos, and especially my computer.)
  • When I accidentally deleted and had to rewrite a very long blog post, you assured me that the re-written post was guaranteed to be better. Based on this, I predict that when the new book is finally published, it will be your best ever.
  • I'm an Oxford comma person. But I also like semicolons.
  • #9!
  • Finish the hat???
  • Love the snowy owl!
  • I'm still looking forward to reading it, even if it is now more of a business book than a history book.

To everyone else: read it. Even if you don't consider yourself a writer. It's not just about writing; it's about life. Mothers especially can relate.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 13, 2019 at 8:19 am | Edit
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altThe Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1986; originally published 1940)

This is not a review, 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.

 

 

Chapter Three: Divine Goodness

The association of ... man and dog is primarily for the man's sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog's interests are not sacrificed to the man's.  The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, nor can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it. Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the "best" of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love—of course with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man's love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the "goodness" of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts.

The man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and give all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but ... we are asking not for more Love, but for less.

Chapter Four: Human Wickedness

This chapter will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and party because experience shows us much goodness in human nature. Nor am I recommending universal gloom. The emotion of shame has been valued not as an emotion but because of the insight to which it leads. I think that insight should be permanent in each man's mind: but whether the painful emotions that attend it should also be encouraged, is a technical problem of spiritual direction on which, as a layman, I have little call to speak. My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to "rejoice" as much as by anything else. Humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue: it is the high-minded unbeliever, desperately trying in the teeth of repeated disillusions to retain his "faith in human nature" who is really sad.

It's important to realize that when Lewis talks about sadness as being bad, he's not referring to the kind of sorrow, for example, that we feel when someone we love dies. The chapter is about sin and human wickedness.

Chapter Seven: Human Pain, continued

We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk, about the "unimaginable sum of human misery." Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.

I'm not sure I buy this argument completely. I'm quite certain God knows (and feels) the fullness of that "composite pain"—though if there's a human limit, Jesus as man could not have experienced more than that. Lewis is speaking of human suffering so maybe what Omniscience knows doesn't count. And I do believe that to some extent pain is additive (or multiplicative): If I am sufferning x, and my child is suffering x, if we remain ignorant of each other's suffering, then we are indeed each only experiencing x. But if we know, if we can see, if we can hear each other's agony, then our own pain becomes greater: 1.5x, 2x, 10x, whatever—but definitely greater. This is why the media's fascination with reporting tragedies in all their gory details, over and over, is a problem. The graphic portrayal of even false suffering (think movies, TV shows, and video games) affects us badly. It might be worthwhile if it resulted in an outpouring of effective efforts to address the needs represented, but I believe the net effect is actually an increase in the natural responses to viewing suffering we cannot alleviate: depression and callousness.

Chapter 10: Heaven

Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all the blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints. If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the "My God" whom each finds in Him whom all praise as "Our God."

Union exists only between distincts; and, perhaps, from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is a creed not so much false as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness. ... Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that the Word should be God, it must also be with God. The Father eternally begets the Son and the Holy Ghost proceeds: deity introduces distinction within itself so that the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 11, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Edit
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[The preacher] began to discover one peculiar advantage belonging to the little open chamber of the pulpit—open not only or especially to heaven above, but to so many of the secret chambers of the souls of the congregation. For what a man dares not, could not if he dared, and dared not if he could, say to another, even at the time and in the place fittest of all, he can say thence, open-faced before the whole congregation; and the person in need thereof may hear it without umbrage, or the choking husk of individual application, irritating to the rejection of what truth may lie in it for him.

This passage from George MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold, Curate (chapter 7) applies not only to the pulpit, but also to the blog. The trouble with opinions, complaints, suggestions, and exhortations spoken in person (or e-mail, or text—anything addressed to an individual or a distinctive group) is that the hearer often takes the words personally, as directed towards himself, even when they are not. A blog post, on the other hand, is an offering, one of many in a smorgasbord, presented to the world so that one might take, and another reject the offering, in whole or in part, without offense to either the giver or the recipient.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 at 4:47 pm | Edit
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Rather than spending Christmas Eve writing the same sentiments in a different way, I'm making a few modifications to my Christmas post from two years ago. It's still appropriate.

Once upon a time, the War on Christmas was led, with good reason, by Christians themselves. Over time, I've come to be more understanding of those, like my Puritan ancestors, who banned the celebration of the holiday. It had become anything but a holy-day, filled with drunkenness, lewdness, and all sorts of riotous and unseemly behavior, hardly appropriate to the sublime occasion. If our moral behavior is no better these days, at least the holiday is kinder to children.

It is unfortunately fashionable among Christians to mock other Christians who worry about what they think is a secular war on Christmas. Despite Martin Luther's approval of its use in certain circumstances, I think mockery is a very low form of argument, hardly suitable for one human being to use against another. Be that as it may, I don't think there's an actual war being fought against Christmas.

Call it cultural appropriation.

Christmas is one of the greatest festivals of the Christian year—among many Christians the celebration lasts 12 days. Some would say Easter is more important, but if it is unique and astonishing that a man so clearly dead should in three days be so clearly alive, and alive in such a new way that he has a physical body (that can be touched, and fed) and yet comes and goes through space in a manner more befitting science fiction—is it any less unique and astonishing that God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, should become a human being, not in the shape-shifting ways of the Greek gods, but through physical birth, with human limitations?

Christmas is the celebration of this Incarnation: The God who in the act of creation made the world separate from himself, at a specific time in history implanted himself in that world, not from the outside like some alien visitation, but from the inside, as deep and physically inside as a human baby in a woman's womb. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is beyond astonishing, and absolutely requires the Virgin Birth. Take away either the unique conception of Jesus, or his physical resurrection, and you are left but a religion of good intentions and wishful thinking.

However, just as there is commonly a lot more involved in the celebration of a wedding than the legal act of marriage, many traditions have enriched the essential celebration of Christmas. From gift-giving to special foods, from carols to children's pageants, from decorated Christmas trees to stockings hanging by the chimney, beautiful customs have grown like many-faceted crystals around the core meaning of Christmas.

Indeed, these traditions are so special that millions hang onto them who reject the idea of God entering the world as a particular baby at a specific place and time. They even retain the name "Christmas" for this eviscerated holiday. Once upon a time that bothered me, but then I recognized that the symbols and traditions of Christmas are so rich and so powerful that—like a Christmas tree—they can retain life and beauty and a pleasing aroma for quite a while even when cut off from their roots.

Using the term "Christmas" for a celebration that no longer acknowledges nor respects the holiday's origin and history may be what is derisively called cultural appropriation, but I'm no longer convinced that's a bad thing. Christmas carols are very popular in Japan, a country where less than 2% of the people believe the words they are singing. In Europe, Christian holidays are celebrated by people who probably know no more about the meaning of the days than that the stores are closed and they don't have to go to work. In America, children eagerly count the days till Christmas who neither know who Christ is nor have ever been to mass.

More power to them. Cultural appropriation at its best is a terrific learning opportunity. For ourselves, let's take pains to celebrate the whole tree, root and branch. Beyond that, I see no need to fret about keeping Christ in Christmas. He's there, in every lovely symbol and custom, waiting patiently, as he always does, to be revealed at the right time.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, December 24, 2018 at 7:08 pm | Edit
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Not long ago, I was eating lunch with a woman whom I had just met, and she asked me the oddest question: What are your hobbies?

The question threw me, not only because I hate personal questions that come out of the blue like that, but because I had no idea how to answer it. I answered simply, "I don't have any," hoping she would drop the subject. Porter tried to help by mentioning a few projects of mine, but as I had absolutely no desire to talk about any of them, much less explain why they were certainly not hobbies, I resorted to my usual strategy in such situations, and flipped the question as quickly as possible to her own "hobbies." Works almost every time.

Nonetheless, the encounter brought home once again the thought that I apparently have very different idea about work from the rest of the world. Some would say that is because it has been almost 40 years since I worked for a paycheck, but I don't believe money comes into the equation at all. Certainly my attitude towards work and leisure predates my wage-earning.

Work is what I do.

I have no memory of a time when my life was separated into "work" and "leisure." Some work, e.g. school before college, was more annoying and unpleasant than other work. Some was associated with a paycheck, some not. But neither monetary gain nor whether or not I enjoy a task marks it as work or not work for me.

My first memorable encounter with someone else's definition of work was in high school physics, when our teacher told us, "if you are holding a 100-pound weight above your head but not moving it, you are not doing any work." I had a problem with that. Of course, that problem is just a quibble, because physics has a specific, particular definition of the term "work," independent of how the word might be used by ordinary human beings. I can handle that. However, society's definition of work, although fuzzy and unstated, is no less restrictive.

A friend of mine creates beautiful quilts, much sought-after as gifts. I think she must realize that she is an artist, but seems to have bought into the idea that quilting is a "hobby." She's a writer, also. Unlike me, she gets paid for her writing! I consider myself a writer, and writing to be (one part of) my work. Vocation, not avocation. But again, she considers her own writing to be a leisure-time activity. She is also an avid gardener—another hobby. I know she recognizes that what she does is of value—and she certainly knows how much effort goes into it and that the alternative would be to pay someone else to do the job—but she still accepts the world's idea that her work is somehow unimportant because...well, I'm not sure why. Because she doesn't live on the income? Because she has no degree in the field? Because each one is not her sole interest? I don't know.

What I do know is that I like the definition of work given pride of place in Google's definition:

[Work is] activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result

That expresses exactly what I have felt intuitively all my life.

Everything I do has a purpose. Usually a deliberate, serious purpose. Preparing a meal? That one's obvious. Sifting through census records? Genealogy research, and the last person who called that a "hobby" got a vicious evil eye from me. Reading a book? Education. Walking? Exercise. Doing a puzzle? Mental exercise. Sleeping? Much-needed mental and physical rest. Writing? That one's tough, because there's so much to it, but it is sufficient to say: I write for the same reasons I eat.

How about watching television, which is high on just about everyone's list of worthless activities (even if it fills much of their time)? For me, the primary purpose is as a social activity, usually with my husband. Depending on the show there may be other purposes, notably education. But with or without that, the social result is the activity's primary purpose.

Staring into space? Yes, even that is purposeful and deliberate. If I look zoned out, with eyes open or eyes closed, one of three essential activities is going on:

  • I'm listening. I hear better if I can shut out, mentally or physically, the visual stimulus.
  • I'm thinking. I'm concentrating on something, or working out a problem.  For what it's worth, in my own brain, this usually takes the form of unwritten writing.
  • I'm not thinking. I'm letting my mind free-range, as a butterfly flits from flower to flower, or I'm resting in the silence. This is vital for creative activities (read: life).

Okay, so there's one other possibility, and any of the above may transition seamlessly into the fourth:

  • I'm sleeping.

If an activity has a purpose, it's work. If not, what is it? I don't know—boredom? Fortunately, I'm almost never bored.

What do you do for fun? is another question that throws me for a loop. Usually I can manage to respond with little more than a pathetic, "I don't do anything for fun." Perhaps it would be better to say, "I do everything for fun."

Fun is a travelling companion of work.

A rather fickle companion, it is true: unpredictable, here today and gone tomorrow, disinclined to come when called but also showing up in the most unexpected places. Some of my moments of intensest joy have occurred while doing simple housework. Anything I do can be fun, tedious, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting, or refreshing.

The only downside I see to having my own, skewed definitions of words such as work, play, hobby, leisure, and fun—besides communication problems with others—is that it is difficult to decide what is and what is not an appropriate Sabbath day activity. If everything is work, how to I handle the command to "do no work"? I tend to lean in the direction of grace, on the grounds of "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." It doesn't matter what the particular activity is: if the net effect is restful, refreshing, or uplifting, it's a good Sabbath occupation. If it's stressful, frustrating, or exhausting—necessities excepted—better put it off for another day.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 8, 2018 at 11:45 am | Edit
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Is it better to be hated, or ignored? To be thought evil, or irrelevant?

It's a common saying that hate is not the opposite of love—indifference is. Because the former indicates one cares, it can be more easily turned around.

I'm not so sure what I think about that now.

Secularism in America tends to be aggressive, even nasty. It is not neutral, but negative; not impartial, but specifically anti-Christian. (The latter is not too surprising, as we tend to be hardest on that which we think we are rebelling against.) Secularism, as practiced by most Americans, is also uneducated. We reject any number of faiths without knowing, much less understanding, their most basic tenets.

I know very little about Europe, and fully expect to be corrected by those who live there. But my experiences and impressions lead me to believe that European secularism is of a different sort. They are proud of their Christian heritage. They love their big, beautiful churches, and can give you a decent explanation of the facts of the faith and history that inspired them. They have respect for the value of education in the facts about a religion, even if they no longer believe them to be valid.

America's fierce secularism about holiday names must perplex the Europeans who have the sense to take whatever holidays they can, and have no problem calling them by their traditional names, whether Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or even Mariähimmelfahrt. (I remember the last because it makes it appear that they close the stores in Lucerne for my grandson's birthday.) No "Winter Holiday" nonsense there.

But for most Europeans this surface Christianity has no impact on their lives. They are proud of their heritage and churches in the same sense that they are proud of their classical heritage and the Parthenon. They think no more of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost than we think of Thor on Thursday. The best use of those big, beautiful churches seems to be for generating tourist income—or, as one resident of Amsterdam explained to us, as party venues. Europeans know the basic facts, but think them irrelevant.

So ... is it better to be hated or to be ignored? I've seen enough hate on Facebook alone to make me doubt that the one is more easily turned than the other. Europe may be letting its active Christianity languish, but the foundation is there, ready to be unearthed by some curious archaeologist. America is iconoclastic and shares with ISIS, the French Revolution, and Byzantine Emperor Leo III the belief that it's better to destroy priceless art and history than to risk the curious being led astray.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, November 29, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Edit
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One hundred years ago today, on November 11, 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice was signed that ended battle on the Western Front of World War I, the war that devastated a generation of Europeans, and set the stage for World War II two decades later. The cost was personal on this side of the Atlantic as well.

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

Hezekiah Porter 

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

 

 

 

Harry Faulk 

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

 

 

 

Howard Harlan Langdon, WWI

 

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

 

 

 

George Cunningham Smith, Sr., WWI

 

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

 

 

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

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 11, 2018 at 7:54 am | Edit
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What's this "set your clocks back" warning I heard all over the media yesterday?

What's a clock?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask the Native Americans how that worked out for them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, November 2, 2018 at 6:52 am | Edit
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Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements?

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

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

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

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

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

Take the quiz yourself here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 5:52 am | Edit
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Big things matter. Ask an employee what he wants from his employer, and you'll likely—and rightly—hear about salary, benefits, and a workplace that is physically and emotionally safe. He probably won't think the little things are worth mentioning, but businesses need to be more aware that small investments in employee relations often have a disproportionately large impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, October 15, 2018 at 9:14 am | Edit
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For those of you who think I'm just a classical music snob....

I don't remember where I came across this beautiful country song—odds are it was somewhere on Facebook—and I hesitate to share it, since embedded YouTube videos are no longer working for me. But you can click on the image to hear John David Anderson's haunting Seminole Wind. (That's fixed now; see below.  I've also made minor changes to the lyrics transcription.)

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

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

And I'm a sucker for Dorian mode.

alt

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

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

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

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

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

Here's the video now; thanks to Lime Daley for fixing my problem.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 at 7:38 am | Edit
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