As I neared the end of my C. S. Lewis retrospective—reading (mostly re-reading) all the books we own by or about the prolific author—I was challenged by my friend, The Occasional CEO, to relate a few of the most significant things I have learned from Lewis. I began with the idea of trying to distill a Top Five from his many areas of influence in my life.

It soon became clear that of everything I have learned from Lewis—from faith to literature to history to the changing meaning of words to the critical importance of one's model of the universe—two stood out, orders of magnitude greater than the rest. 

All is gift. I am Oyarsa not by His gift alone but by our foster mother’s, not by hers alone but by yours, not by yours alone but my wife’s—nay, in some sort, by gift of the very beasts and birds. Through many hands, enriched with many different kinds of love and labor, the gift comes to me. It is the Law. The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not his own.” (Perelandra)

The first gift I received from C. S. Lewis was his Narnia stories. I was introduced to them in mid-elementary school: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a gift from my mother, who brought it to me in a stack of books from the library when I was sick in bed. The remainder of the series came about two years later, a gift from a neighbor, who owned all seven and shared them around our group of friends. I was delighted, enthralled. However, my attempt to find similar delight in his other fiction was at the time unsuccessful. I tried the first of his Space Trilogy, but I was a hard-core science fiction fan—Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke—and Out of the Silent Planet was not sufficiently science-based for me. One of Lewis's earliest books, it lacks the beauty and enchantment of the Narnia stories, and was intended for an adult audience. I have since come to enjoy it, but I wasn't ready then.

I rediscovered Narnia in college, thanks to the University of Rochester's Education Library, which was well-stocked with children's books. There I also first encountered Mere Christianity: the gift of my roommate, and my introduction to Lewis's nonfiction. To my shock, there I discovered that all the delight—the goodness, truth, and beauty—that I had encountered in Narnia was for Lewis an expression of reality, a reality far greater than he could depict, even in fantasy. I came later to respect the background in Christianity I had received in my childhood, but it was through Lewis and Narnia that the reality of God began to make sense to me.

This is the first and great gift, and the second is like unto it.

I went on to read more of Lewis's non-fiction, and to gain from it, but his next pivotal gift came many years later, through a friend—all is gift—who shared with me Lewis's George MacDonald: An Anthology.

If Narnia had shown me a God who made sense of the world, MacDonald showed me a God I could love.

George MacDonald is another author I had met before—as a child through his Curdie books and At the Back of the North Wind—but I'd never followed through to find what else he might have written. To be fair to myself, his other books weren't easy to find back then.

Of MacDonald, Lewis wrote,

In making these extracts I have been concerned with MacDonald not as a writer but as a Christian teacher. If I were to deal with him as a writer, a man of letters, I should be faced with a difficult critical problem. If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages, many of them in this collection, where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament (it runs right through them from Dunbar to the Waverly Novels), sometimes an oversweetness picked up from Novalis. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Lewis's preface to George MacDonald, An Anthology.)

MacDonald's works can be divided roughly into three parts, though they overlap: the fantasy that so impressed Lewis; books of sermons; and his many adult novels—the craft of which left Lewis so unimpressed—which served both to feed his family of thirteen and as vehicles for reaching a wider audience with his preaching. The last sounds dreary, but in reality the preaching is what makes his novels shine. (Those who know my lack of appreciation for most sermons will recognize the peculiarity of such a statement coming from me.)

Having been reawakened to MacDonald by Lewis's Anthology, I looked around for more, and the best I could find were modern re-workings of his novels, some by Michael R. Phillips and some by Dan Hamilton. I give credit to both authors for their obvious respect for MacDonald, and their faithfulness to his ideas, even though in their efforts they exaggerated the parts I like least from the originals (the Romantic elements) and reduced the best (the preaching). The library had most of them, and I wolfed them down.

Most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another.

The next contributor to my journey was a church secretary who had obtained photocopies of all three Unspoken Sermons books, which she graciously shared. I wonder if the generations who grew up with easy access to a universe of electronic resources can even imagine how valuable bound photocopies could be. Or what an incredible gift it was to the world when, in the 1990's, Johannesen began republishing all of MacDonald's works, in beautifully-crafted sets. All of these treasures were given to me, over several years of birthdays and Christmases, by my father. He himself had no particular appreciation of MacDonald—I doubt he read any of the books—but a great deal of love for his children and grandchildren, for whom I consider the collection a legacy. Now, Kindle versions of almost all of MacDonald's works are available at no cost.

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. 

Lewis is not exaggerating the frequency of MacDonald's influence on his own works. Having tackled my MacDonald retrospective first, I easily recognized his ideas and often his words when I encountered them in Lewis.

I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read George MacDonald. (from a letter of Lewis to Arthur Greeves)

I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.

What greater endorsement could there be?

Lewis was puzzled as to how people could idolize him and ignore MacDonald. I have some ideas. MacDonald's books were old, even then—he had died before Lewis turned seven—and our society's "chronological snobbery" was well established. Although full of gold, many of his books are difficult to read, even those not laden with Scottish dialect. I can now say that it's well worth the effort, and the reading and understanding get much easier with practice. But I can't forget that I had actually encountered MacDonald's novels years before, deep in the stacks of our main college library. But apparently this, too, had to wait to be a gift rather than my own choice: to my everlasting embarrassment, I turned aside from those unattractive, ancient, brown, and dusty tomes. Perhaps it was the library's revenge that I later became a genealogist, whose blood now quickens at the mere scent of such books.

Then, too, from the beginning MacDonald was plagued by charges of heresy and branded "Universalist" for his belief that, in the end, God's love would triumph. Lewis did not see him that way, but it led (and still leads) some to dismiss MacDonald out of hand.

Reaction against early [strict Scottish Calvinist] teachings might ... have very easily driven him into a shallow liberalism. But it does not. He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent.

Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.

Inexorability—but never the inexorability of anything less than love—runs through [MacDonald's thought] like a refrain; "escape is hopeless"—"agree quickly with your adversary"—"compulsion waits behind"—"the uttermost farthing will be exacted." Yet this urgency never becomes shrill. All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder which prevents it from doing so. MacDonald shows God threatening, but (as Jeremy Taylor says) "He threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."

The effect of C. S. Lewis's writings on my thinking is incalculable, and not just from his most popular books. Who would have guessed, for example, that I would give a five-star rating to Studies in Words—a book on philology, addressed to scholars, of which I understood less than half? But I was fascinated, and my eyes were opened to the pernicious habit (especially common among both literary critics and high school English teachers) of simply seeking meaning in what we read, instead of seeking what the author meant by his words and what his contemporary audience understood him to be saying.

There's no doubt that Lewis was quirky, humble, and absolutely brilliant—all the more brilliant that so many of his writings were written to be accessible to the ordinary British public, yet there's no hint of condescension. I could start my Lewis retrospective over again from the beginning and learn a lot more.

But for all that, Lewis's greatest influence on my life came less through my mind than through my spirit. Lewis said that reading MacDonald's Phantastes "baptized his imagination." The Narnia books first, and then George MacDonald directly, did the same for me.

This surprising realization came nearly sixty years after my first encounter with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and was itself a gift—thanks to my friend's challenge.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 4, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Edit
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I think maybe this confinement is getting to me. It's not that I particularly miss going out, though I do really miss the good times we had getting together with other people. I love being home and have more work to do here than I could complete in a hundred pandemics. But I really miss church activities, and two opportunities have already slid by in which we would normally have gotten together with far-away family. At least two more are threatened. We have missed one wedding and are hanging onto hope for another. Our grandchildren have grown and changed so much since we saw them last! The year of 2020 will be the first year since 2005 I have not travelled out of the country to be with family.

I know, I know. Before anyone says it, I know we're still blessed beyond measure and I honestly expect much good to come out of this pandemic. Much already has.

And yet it's invading my dreams.

I love to be outside very early in the morning. Every day I go out to our back porch swing, and listen. I listen to the insects and the frogs, and to the armadillo as he waddles back to his den after his nocturnal adventures. I listen to the barred owls, and to the songbirds when they awaken. Though I don't listen for them, I can't help hearing the traffic noises, pool pumps, and air conditioner compressors. I listen to my own thoughts, and then struggle to still them and listen for the whispering voice of God. Sometimes, in my listening, I fall back to sleep, as I did today. And today I dreamed.

In my dream, I was also dozing. Not on the porch, but in our family room; I must have been doing some work using my computer and my phone, for they were both there with me. In my dream I awoke, and all was changed. Every window had been boarded up, as we sometimes do when a hurricane is approaching. (Clearly Isaias had  also found its way into my dreaming.) But instead of plywood, this was cement board—and unbreakable. And it was not just the windows that were boarded up, but all the doors.

We were completely shut in. There was no way out. There was no view out. Between one moment and the next, we had been cut off from the world outside.

What caused me the most distress was the back door. I couldn't stop looking at the cement board blocking what should have been a green, leafy view. Then somehow—the details are vague—a small view opened up so that I could see into the back yard. Gone were the trees, the plants, the insects, the frogs and the birds. In place of the porch, pool, and yard was a vast expanse of concrete with a single exercise trampoline off to one side, and a bulldozer off to the other.

Still half-asleep, I struggled to think. My computer and my phone were no more responsive than my thoughts. Finally, a little girl's voice asked, "Are we just going to watch the paint dry?"

Still fighting to come to full consciousness in my dream, I awoke to a like struggle to come out of what must have been a very deep sleep. But there I was on my swing, on our porch, with the blue of the pool and the green of the foliage in front of me. Dawn had come, and the birds were singing.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, August 2, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Edit
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After reading the Occasional CEO's post on Moxie (My favorite line? "Moxie is the durian of carbonated drinks."), I was inspired to write about my favorite New England carbonated drink, Undina Birch Beer from Higganum, Connecticut. I'm not generally a fan of carbonated drinks, nor of alcohol for that matter, but this white birch beer, with its 1% alcohol content, was exceptional. And nothing like the darker birch beers I had tasted in other parts of the country.

This Haddam Historical Society webpage has a small section, "Granite Rock Springs/Undina Soda," on the Undina Beverage Company and their white birch beer. 

In the 1870’s Otto Carlson started making commercial root beer and birch beer in Swede Hill (upper part of Christian Hill Road) in Higganum. Carlson had a nostalgic longing for a drink remembered from his boyhood in Sweden, ‘bjord drick’ made from sap tapped from Sweden’s prolific birch trees. Not having enough birch trees around Higganum for commercial scale tapping, Otto developed a formula using cut up birch trees and steaming out their oils and juices. This became the commonly used commercial method of producing the popular birch beer.

Who knew white birch beer was Swedish? With all the Swedes on Porter's side of the family, it's no wonder the drink was a favorite. Sure seems a shame to cut up a tree to get it, though. Maybe we can have commerical birch groves for tapping like maple trees.

Needing a large quantity of water for his company, Carlson discovered a large bubbling spring in a cleft of granite rocks on the western slope of Ladder Pole Mountain in Higganum. This was “pure spring water,” above and beyond any possible contamination. Granite Rock Springs was 450 feet above sea level, up hill from Otto’s shop and overlooking the present Route 81. Otto Carlson named his beverage company UNDINA, meaning the Goddess of Water.

A write up on the spring notes that the “no part of its watershed is exposed to the seepage of cultivated fields or the impurities of inhabited areas. Its home is in the wild heart of nature and it gushes forth, a living, crystal clear stream of pure, soft water, a stream so large as to form the source of a mountain brook that is never dry but continually leaps and dances down the mountain-side until its waters finally join those of the Connecticut.

This delightful spring was used to make their white birch beer until 1980, when production outstripped its capacity. I could tell you that I noticed the difference, but that's probably stretching memory too far.

In the early 1900’s Undina was a popular brand of soda pop, with white birch beer its most popular flavor. Undina was distributed throughout Middlesex County and other parts of Connecticut and upstate New York. ... In 1945 Undina Beverage Company was purchased by Carl Anderson of Higganum and Eric Johnson, both of whom also remembered the cool refreshing ‘bjord drick’ in Sweden and took pride in maintaining production of the white clear drink.

Still Swedish!

By the 1950’s Undina Bottling Works was thriving and producing 500 cases of soda per day. It remained at the same site as Carlson’s original shop, although the extraction was no longer done there. In 1960 the company was purchased by Middletown residents Trean Neag and Fred Norton.

No longer Swedish except in origin. (Neag was Romanian; Norton I couldn't trace back far enough to find out.) The American Melting Pot in action!

The article doesn't mention when Undina closed. It was after our children were old enough to fall in love with their white birch beer, but much too long ago to pass that on to their own children. It sure was a sad day when they closed. I've heard that it lasted till Fred Norton retired; I'm sure the economics of running a small, local business in the days of soda behemoths contributed to its demise.

Perhaps now that microbreweries have become so popular and successful, someone will attempt to revive Undina. I hope so. You can still buy white birch beer if you try hard enough, and I'm grateful for that. But of course it's not the same.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 at 11:08 am | Edit
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I know what it means to have a special, local grief that "outsiders" simply cannot understand. Most of my out-of-state friends had no idea how profoundly the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger affected the space enthusiasts of Central Florida: many of us had watched the actual explosion on that cold, January day, and have the image of the falling pieces burned deeply into our memories.

Remembering this helps me when I shake my head in puzzlement at the emotion-packed remembrances that return each year on the anniversary of Orlando's Pulse nightclub shooting.

Although I live in Central Florida, I was 1300 miles away when the shooting occurred. It was not exactly big news in small-town New Hampshire, and I had better things to do than pay close attention to news reports. So for me the event lacks the personal element that made the Challenger disaster so painful.

Thus, I can point out what is obvious to an outsider, and ask the question: What is so special about the lives lost in one small nightclub in the city of Orlando on June 12, 2016? Why has the area become a shrine? Why are there so many remembrances and memorials every year? Why does the event have its own Wikipedia entry?

To put the deaths into context, here are some statistics for Florida's Orange County, of which Orlando is the major city. The data are from 2018 because I have nothing more recent.

Fifty people died in the Pulse nightclub shooting. On average in Orange County, 50 people die every two days, week in and week out, year after year. In a little over nine days that many will die of cancer. Car crashes will take fifty lives every three and a half months, and in four months there will be that many suicides. The pre-COVID-19 influenza and pneumonia deaths reach 50 in less than five months. Ordinary murders? Five and a half months. (Here's the site from which I grabbed the numbers; play around with it if you wish.)

To see it another way, Orange County's COVID-19 death toll currently stands at 48, only two short of the number of people who died in the Pulse shooting.

The truth is, there's a lot of death going around. Every day. And there is absolutely nothing new about that. As the saying goes, the death rate is the same everywhere: one person, one death, sooner or later. Only a very few of those deaths come peacefully and painlessly, after a long life well-lived. I cannot see how being shot in a nightclub is any worse, more tragic, or more worthy of remembrance, than being knifed in the dark, or dying in a car crash, or drowning, or becoming a COVID-19 statistic. It puzzles me.

Then I remember Challenger. We all have our own, private griefs. But it still puzzles me why the Pulse event is such a public grief, or should I say such a private grief to so many people who lost no one there and had never even heard of that once-obscure Orlando night club.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Edit
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Up front disclaimer: I write with little knowledge of the details of recent events in America. What I say comes from more than half a century of observation and analysis, including the intense conversations and scrutiny that came from being a high school student in the mid-to-late 1960's. The extent of my own, personal participation in physical, political activism was one political campaign demonstration and one anti-abortion event.

One of the most common questions I have heard coming from people observing riots and violence from the position of outsiders is, "Why are these people burning their own neighborhoods and destroying the very businesses they depend on?"

The answer, of course, is that "they" are doing no such thing.

Peaceful protests are turned into riots and looting when people get involved for whom riots and looting are IN THEIR OWN INTEREST. The community is not turning against itself: intentional agitators—those opposing the protesters along with those ostensibly supporting them—well-meaning but ignorant outsiders, and the guy who just wants that large screen TV, do not think of the neighborhood as "their community." They see civil disorder as opportunity, and don't hesitate to make opportunities happen for their own benefit.

That's the foundation for a riot. What happens next depends on how we react to those provocations. By "we" I mean anyone involved, from law enforcement to the original protesters to innocent friends and neighbors.

Unfortunately, it's all too easy for people who are scared, hurt, or angry to get pushed in a violent direction, or simply caught up in a mob, against what would be their better judgement in cooler times. Have you seen what cities look like after the home team wins a World Series or a World Cup? And those rioters are the HAPPY WINNERS.

I don't agree with the adage, "any publicity is good publicity," but I understand the unfortunate situation that peaceful actions do not generate the same kind of media attention that anger and violence do. If the protest in Minneapolis against the death of George Floyd had stayed peaceful, how many media outlets would have covered it? Would it have remained headline news to this day and spread its message all over the country, and the world? Would we still be talking about George Floyd and why and how he died? Sadly, we know that would not be the case.

Even if you believe the destruction was acceptable collateral damage in the quest for justice—which, I hasten to add, I do not—the job of getting out the word is done. NOW STAY HOME. (Aren't we supposed to be doing that anyway?) It's time to stop the violence, to stop spreading COVID-19 in areas already especially vulnerable to the disease, to heal and to build up the devastated neighborhoods, and to take advantage of opened pathways of communication while people are still willing to listen.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 1, 2020 at 10:15 am | Edit
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A friend sent me this interview, from the Indianapolis Star, about our current situation.  The interviewees were two area residents, each 102 years old. Clearly they've seen a lot. Here are a couple of their responses that I found particularly interesting.

Did your parents ever talk about what it was like to have a newborn [during the Spanish flu pandemic]?

I don't think they talked to me that way. They didn't talk much politics at home. They just put their head down ... and went ahead and worked and scraped and tried to keep food on the table.

What were your concerns [about polio] as a parent?

We all were worried but didn’t talk about it; it wasn’t blown up like this virus is.

Just like we would be now, when there's no vaccine. You were helpless. You just hoped for the best. ... I don't think we were organized enough to do anything (like this). The government didn't step in and do anything for you.

But my absolute favorite part of the interview came in the interviewer's reaction to one lady's suggestion for ways to save money based on her Depression-era experiences (emphasis mine).

To save money, the little things add up. Roush has always washed Ziploc bags, for instance. 

To which my reaction, as well as that of the friend who sent me the article, was, "Is she suggesting that most people don't wash and reuse their Ziploc bags?"

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 22, 2020 at 9:01 am | Edit
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I thought these had disappeared decades ago, yet look what showed up when I cleaned out our closet! (Click to enlarge.)

I shouldn't have to tell anyone how old they are.

My idea is to take the flags off the poles and wash them gently, then frame them to hang on the wall. I'd have done it already but shopping for frames online is not yielding any joy right now. Normally I go to JoAnn's and spend a lot of time pawing through their frames to find something that looks right and is in good shape, a practice that is currently frowned upon. I'd consider taking a chance at buying them online, but I can't find the right sizes in stock. So I wait.

But I'm so happy to have found these flags that I had to share them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 7:26 am | Edit
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On this unusual Good Friday, in an unusual Holy Week, in an unusual year, I'm reviving a post I wrote ten years ago.

Is there anything worse than excruciating physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual torture and death?

Maybe, just maybe, it would be watching your child endure that.

It takes nothing from the sufferings of Christ commemorated this Holy Week to pause and consider a couple of other important persons in the drama.

I find the following hymn to be one of the most powerful and moving of the season. For obvious reasons, it is usually sung on Palm Sunday, but the verses reach all the way through to Easter. [Cue WINCHESTER NEW]

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;
Thy humble beast pursues his road
With palms and scatter'd garments strowed.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
O'er captive death and conquer'd sin.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
The wingèd squadrons of the sky
Look down with sad and wond'ring eyes
To see th'approaching sacrifice.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
The Father on his sapphire throne
Awaits his own anointed Son.

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, thy pow'r, and reign!

"The Father on his sapphire throne awaits his own anointed Son." For millennia, good fathers have encouraged, led, or forced their children into suffering, from primitive coming-of-age rites to chemotherapy. Even when they know it is for the best, and that all will be well in the end, the terrible suffering of the fathers is imaginable only by someone who has been in that position himself.

And mothers?

The Protestant Church doesn't talk much about Mary. The ostensible reason is to avoid what they see as the idolatry of the Catholic Church, though given the adoration heaped upon male saints and church notables by many Protestants, I'm inclined to suspect a little sexism, too. In any case, Mary is generally ignored, except for a little bit around Christmas, where she is unavoidable. 

On Wednesday I attended, for the second time in my life, a Stations of the Cross service. Besides being a very moving service as a whole, it brought my attention to the agony of Mary. Did she recall then the prophetic word of Simeon, "a sword shall pierce through your own soul also"? Did she find the image of being impaled by a sword far too mild to do justice to the searing, tearing torture of watching her firstborn son wrongly convicted, whipped, beaten, mocked, crucified, in an agony of pain and thirst, and finally abandoned to death? Did she find a tiny bit of comfort in the thought that death had at least ended the ordeal? Did she cling to the hope of what she knew in her heart about her most unusual son, that even then the story was not over? Whatever she may have believed, she could not have had the Father's knowledge, and even if she had, would that have penetrated the blinding agony of the moment?

In my head I know that the sufferings of Christ, in taking on the sins of the world, were unimaginably greater than the physical pain of injustice and crucifixion, which, terrible as they are, were shared by many others in those days. But in my heart, it's the sufferings of God his Father and Mary his mother that hit home most strongly this Holy Week.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 10, 2020 at 4:05 pm | Edit
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This is my father's journal entry for Monday, the 22nd of October, 1962.  David and Alan are my brothers, then five months and three years old.

Spent some of this evening doing some repair work on David's sitting-carrying device in an effort to keep the bent-wire stand from coming out of its assigned place and poking him in the back. Alan worked in the basement with me, sawing, pounding nails, and finally sweeping the floor. The latter part of the evening was spent peeling and cooking apples for applesauce. We probably peeled a total of about 1/3 bushel.

That's it. There's no indication, there or in subsequent pages, that President Kennedy had just told the country we were on the brink of nuclear war.

I'm currently reading Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. Despite my prejudices against Mr. O'Reilly, I learned from Killing Lincoln that he can produce well-written and interesting books of history. This is my second, and so far I am not disappointed. I'm finding it fascinating to learn more about the times that shaped my childhood, especially those from which I was largely sheltered.

I was ten years old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if it had any effect at all on my daily life I retain no memory of it. Sure, I lived in the days where "air raid" drills were as common in school as fire drills, but that was just one of many peculiar things about going to school. No child I knew had any concerns about nuclear annihilation, and if the adults talked about it, they certainly didn't do so in front of us. I really doubt it had much effect at all on my parents' everyday lives; it didn't even make the pages of my father's private journal. And he was far from ignorant, having himself worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

In many ways that was a much saner time than today.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 13, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Edit
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This essay was a homework assignment for our weekly Rector's Class (formerly our Church History class; we're now studying Fulton J. Sheen's Life of Christ). I like to make my writing to double duty when I can.

The question was, "How do you meet temptation? How do you respond?"

My gut reaction? "How do I meet temptation? I try not to!"

There's more to that than a glib response. Someone once explained to me that the Bible enjoins us to resist the Devil, but to flee temptation, and I've taken that to heart. I read that Gandhi strengthened his will by sleeping between two beautiful, naked young girls; if true, that seems to me utterly foolish.

Let me give assurances that I believe there is nothing inherently sinful in eating ice cream, drinking alcohol, walking into a bar, or even (for some people) sleeping next to a naked woman (maybe not two). "The gifts of God were made for man." But nearly everything can be sinful when taken in the wrong way, or for certain people at certain times. In my examples below, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

  • At what point is it easiest to resist the temptation to eat ice cream? Walking past the display at the grocery store? When the carton is buried deep in your freezer? When it's visible every time you open the freezer door for ice cubes? When your husband gets out two bowls, scoops up some Publix Chocolate Trinity for himself, and asks, "Would you like some?"
  • If temptation of any sort meets you in bars, stay out of bars. Meet your friends somewhere else. 
  • Do you often regret your behavior when you get together with certain people? Seriously consider spending your time with those who encourage you to be your best, not your worst. 
  • Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry, tired, or depressed.
  • If you find that your prayer meetings end up being more about gossip than prayer, maybe your should find a different prayer group.
  • We seriously underestimate the effect of the books we read, the movies we watch, the ads we see, and the approval or derision of our friends, on our ability to handle temptations to do or to say that which is wrong. Maybe we should be more careful about correlating our input with our desired output. Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. 

 

On the other hand, my more honest response to the question of how I handle temptation is, "I rationalize it."

  • I'm paying for this restaurant meal whether I eat nothing or everything. It's wrong to waste food.
  • It's the Sabbath! It's right to feast, and a bowl of Chocolate Trinity would be a great way to celebrate.
  • This isn't gossip, it's a prayer request.
  • We have guests for dinner—I have to provide dessert.
  • I'll do my work better if I take a break now.
  • I'm weary/worn/mistreated/sad—I need this drink/break/bag of potato chips.
  • I've worked hard and accomplished something important—I deserve this drink/break/bag of potato chips.
  • I know there are dishes in the sink and I have 200 e-mails to deal with, but this is a good book, important for me to read!
  • Many of my friends, what I hear in the media, and sometimes even my church thinks I'm foolish (or evil!) to believe that X is a sin. Why fight it any longer? Maybe I'm wrong.
  • Etc.

 

When avoiding temptation fails, I have a few other strategies that sometimes help.

  • Delay. Yes, I can have that snack, read my book, work on a puzzle, make that negative Facebook post—in 30 minutes. It's amazing how much even a short delay can weaken a seemingly irresistible temptation.
  • Distraction. It's Ash Wednesday and painfully obvious that many hours remain before I can eat even the healthiest of foods. What kind of distraction works for you? Today I spent several hours writing this post. Later I might read, or tackle a Sudoku puzzle. Does that mean I'm fighting one temptation by giving in to another? Maybe. Sometimes you have to choose your battles.
  • Make the correct path easier. I have a rule about my work: End with the beginning in mind. I try not to leave a task without making it easy to take it up again, which means I get started—even if it's the tiniest bit—on whatever the next step is. Anything to make later procrastination more difficult.
  • Talk with someone who understands both the temptation and the importance of not giving in. To be honest, I'm not good at this. I'm more of a solo fighter. But I know it's the backbone of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it's sure better than putting yourself in the company of people who will only encourage you to take the wrong path.
  • Find some supportive structure. It's easier to keep on task in an office, when those around you are (in theory) working hard, than when working from home, with all its distractions. Ash Wednesday is traditional for making the discovery that one can, indeed, live a whole day without eating, especially in a community of similarly-minded folks. The structure of Lent can be encouraging for trying out better habits of any kind—particularly since Easter always comes. :)
  • If necessary, shut the door. It's often easier to abide by a firm "no" than to handle "responsible use." It's better to be able to control one's intake of alcohol, but the only safe level of alcohol for some people is none.  All of our grandchildren are growing up without television sets in their homes, eliminating one potential battleground for their parents as well as opening their lives to many wonders they would otherwise miss. Sometimes I think it's a shame that the total abstinence option is not available for those whose besetting sins involve eating. A day of fasting can be more bearable than a week of eating less.

All of this may or may not be of more use than Oscar Wilde's "I can resist everything except temptation." But it did keep me all Ash Wednesday morning from dwelling on the lack of breakfast.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 6:46 am | Edit
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I loathe rummage sales. Garage sales, tag sales, used-book sales, eBay listings, charitable donations, call them what you want—if they involve putting anything of mine out for others to paw through and judge, I come out of the process feeling defeated, dirty, and discouraged.

Granted, such entities serve a useful purpose. So do sewage treatment plants. Our lives and our homes must be regularly tidied up, and it's good there are alternatives to storing our stuff till it moulders, or heaving it directly into a landfill. And in theory it's a great idea: you sell/donate to a a good cause something you no longer need, and instead of being discarded it blesses someone else. Sounds good. But....

I think it began with Wormy. Back when our daughter was very young (I'm guessing kindergarten, or earlier), our then-church was collecting toys for children. Their appeal made a big impression on her, and she picked out one of her stuffed animals to give to "a poor child who has no toys." Later, she was very sad because she missed Wormy a lot. We dealt with it, and she survived, but to this day I blame the church leaders for actively encouraging little children to make such sacrifices—and myself for allowing it. Particularly since I later learned that organizations that give toys to children are not really interested in used toys no matter how much love and sacrifice they represent. They only want new-in-box, tags-on toys, or cold-hearted cash with which to buy them. In some ways I can see the point, that children who already feel second-hand should not have to make do with second-hand toys—but I also can't help feeling that it takes love out of the equation.

Back in World War II, households were asked to provide metal "for the war effort," giving up precious pots and pans so that their sons serving overseas could have the aircraft and ammunition they needed. The recording industry even gave up irreplaceable, original recordings to the scrap drives. And for what? A small amount of the material collected helped a bit, but most, it appears, was of no use—meaning your great-grandmother's sacrifice was just wasted. The point, we're now told, was to make the population feel more involved in the war effort, to buy into it, and to believe that they were actively helping to keep their boys alive. I call that criminal deception.

It's okay to ask people to make sacrifices. But to no point? That's just wrong.

Many, many years ago I looked at the books overflowing our shelves and decided it was selfish to keep so many books in our own home when we could donate them to the library and make them available to everyone. After all, even though I love to re-read books, I rarely need them handy at all times; as long as I could check them out of the library at will, that would be fine.

You are all laughing at me for being so naïve. But it came as a true shock to discover that my beloved books were not on the shelves to be checked out, but had been sold (for pennies!) at a library fundraiser. I haven't quite gotten over that. I still donate books to the library, but with a heavy heart and a feeling more of amputation than of the relief that's supposed to accompany "decluttering" a household. Also, our shelves still bulge, because I'm now exceedingly reluctant to get rid of an old book I might want to read again. Modern libraries don't want to carry on the function of providing books that are otherwise difficult to obtain, preferring to stock books that are recently-published and in high demand.

When we moved from a four-bedroom house to a small apartment, we tried to give away our excess furniture. No one wanted it. They would only take furniture in pristine condition, for resale. Our daughter, who lived in Pittsburgh, said it was it was a pity we didn't live near a university. In her neighborhood, furniture left at the curb, no matter how worn, was quickly snapped up by students. But in Central Florida, apparently, no one is poor enough to want someone else's couch.

Have you ever tried to "clothe the naked"? Given the shirt off your back to someone in need? Do you know what often happens to donated clothing? It's not given to someone who needs a shirt—it's sold, in bulk. Maybe someone, somewhere, eventually wears it, or maybe it ends up shredded for other purposes. In any case, it's not what you gave it up for.

But enough of the memories dredged up as I pondered the most recent incident, and back to rummage sales.

I am not generally a hoarder (books may be an exception), and not particularly selfish when it comes to things. (Don't ask about how selfish I am with respect to time. That's a terrible struggle for me.) I can give up a treasure to a good home—to someone who will love and appreciate it. But that's not, I've found, what generally happens at rummage sales. It's a lesson I have to learn over and over again.

The particular event that inspired these morose thoughts was a benefit for our church's Kairos Torch Ministry, which makes a difference in the lives of incarcerated young people. I did not have the stomach to work the sale itself, but we were there to help with the setup, at 6:30 Saturday morning, and the cleanup when it was over.

As usually happens at such sales, everything was priced far under value. I've become somewhat reconciled to that: 45 years of being married to an economist have made me understand the stark monetary equation that an item's value is precisely what someone is willing to pay for it. When a brand-new man's shirt with the tags still attached is priced at $1, and the buyer insists on paying half that, the hard truth is that it's only worth 50 cents.

What I find harder to believe is the people who will drive such a bargain at a charity fundraiser. Not to mention the light-fingered customers who come through and slip pieces of jewelry into their pockets, even when the price marked is only a quarter! Except for the tireless work and quiet cheerfulness of the volunteers, I have not found rummage sales to be encouraging about the nature of humanity.

Worse is when items don't sell, even at such deep discounts. After the sale was over, we "gathered the fragments," took the unsold books to the Friends of the Library, and turned the rest over to the local Goodwill site. So there's a possibility the items will eventually find a good home; I cling to that.

Nonetheless, my overall impression is that there is a large disconnect between our family and modern society. Is no one poor enough to appreciate the books, furniture, and household items we have loved but can do without? If I believed that, it would be good news, but instead I just feel awful. Almost exactly the same way I feel when I look at all the plastic and Styrofoam waste that enwraps nearly everything I buy, including our food.

Fortunately, I find writing therapeutic. Thanks to this post and a great church service yesterday—plus, I confess, a bag of potato chips—I have largely recovered from Saturday's depression. I comfort myself with the thought that Kairos Torch did gain from the sale (whether it was worth the effort is another question, and one I can't answer), and in the knowledge that many of the items we had contributed did sell, presumably to people who will appreciate them.

If nothing else, our house at least has a little more elbow room now. The night before, I actually felt pretty good. I'll probably participate in the same rummage sale again next year, perhaps—this time—with more realistic expectations.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 24, 2020 at 7:22 am | Edit
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The world is going to hell, right? Everybody tells me so, although there are nearly as many different assertions as to why this is the case as there are people with opinions. I hear it from the right and the left, from the rich and the poor, from the smart and highly-educated to ... well, let's just say to the rest of us.

This is Worst-First Thinking on steroids. That's a term I first heard a decade ago from Lenore Skenazy, who now writes at Let Grow, and it means acting as if the worst-case scenario is actually the norm. Why is that a problem? After all, terrible things are happening in the world and we need to deal with them, don't we?

Yes, we do. But whether we're talking about not letting a child walk to the store by herself (which once was considered a good thing, even on Sesame Street), or not working to reduce world poverty because it's a losing battle, or instituting oppressive regulations in an effort to prevent tragic events that are already extremely unlikely, our pessimistic attitudes often hinder the exact behaviors needed to counteract the evil. Children who are over-protected don't learn the skills that would help them protect themselves, and seeing a "gun-free zone" sign makes me feel less secure, not more. Misinformation leads to negative attitudes, which lead to depression, which induces loss of hope and results in paralysis when it comes to positive actions that can really make a difference.

This is a subject to which I will return later, but for now, How Not to Be Ignorant about the World is an enlightening and entertaining TED talk by Hans and Ola Rosling with some encouraging news, and tips on how to assess the world with more success than a roomful of chimpanzees. It's 19 minutes long, but I think well worth it. If you start at the 14-minute point, you'll get their quick rules of thumb for making better statistical judgements, but you really don't want to miss what leads into that.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 18, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Edit
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This is on the surface what they call a First World problem, but it may be symptomatic of larger concerns, so I'll report it.

Recently I decided to place an order at Target.com. Easy-peasy, right? It would have been, had I not noticed, at nearly the last step, that something was wrong with the arithmetic in my shopping cart.

Some of the items were on sale. The subtotal was correct for the regular prices, but I should have received a 69 cent discount on each of two items, and a 79 cent discount on another two, for a total of $2.96. Instead, the discount was a mere 10 cents.

What's more, I found that I could vary the amount of the discount (though never to the correct number) by adding and removing other, non-related, non-discounted items from my cart. I will spare you the details of my calculations, which were complicated by the fact that the Target cart did not show the discounts individually, and kept wanting to assume I was using my Target credit card, which gives a 5% discount itself, while I wanted to use a gift card instead. So the correct discount was not as easy to figure out as I made it appear above.

Finally, however, I was certain enough of my data to initiate a customer service chat. In record time I was transferred to someone higher up the food chain. I was pleased that he understood my problem easily enough. However, when he on his end looked at my cart, the numbers were correct! He wasn't seeing what I was seeing.

I did the usual things: refreshed my cart, got out and back in again.... Nothing worked. I still had the wrong numbers. Finally, he said to go ahead and place the order and see what happened. So I did—and my card was charged the wrong amount. The agent issued me a credit by e-mail to cover the mistake. (It actually was a little more complicated than that, but I'm sparing you the details.)

After about an hour's worth of work, I saved just under three dollars. Was it worth it? In money, no. But supposedly the issue is being reported to the relevant people, and I believe this is more than a three-dollar problem.

Target was friendly and quick both to believe me and to give me the correct discount. (Well, almost correct, but again that's an unnecessary detail.) But I refuse to believe that I am the only one this has happened to. How many others decided it wasn't worth the effort to complain? How many didn't even notice the discrepancy at all?

It's not good when an online retailer can't get the arithmetic right. And is this kind of thing happening in far more critical areas? How many things in this world are just plain wrong that we can't see, don't notice, or don't have the ability, will, or time to check out? 

There's been a change over the years in how software is being implemented. We've gone from "work carefully, and test, test, test so you know it's good before the customer ever sees it," to "hurry, hurry, hurry, get the product out there; we'll make fixes if the customers complain."

Here's my speculation: Target made a change in their system, and it was put in place without proper testing. Instead, they decided to do consumer testing: Have a special promotion—in this case, spending $50 gets you a $10 gift card—to encourage extra traffic, and see how it works. Just a wild guess, but that's what it feels like.

I'll confess: as a programmer, I actually prefer the iterative method of write it-test it-refine it, instead of spending a lot of time perfecting the code before the first test run. But that's on the coding side of the process, well before it goes into production. I'm certainly not a fan of the "we have to pass the law before we understand what it actually says" school. Don't build a bridge and let traffic determine whether or not it's going to collapse.

Let's get it right. Let's not be in such a hurry that we risk major problems, such as a very expensive satellite ending up in a useless orbit because the clock was set wrong. Or far worse.

A few cents at Target? No big deal. But our credit union recently updated their system, and the immediately obvious flaws make it clear that it had not been sufficiently tested. If that's happening at a level customers can notice, what's going wrong behind the scenes?

I know that approaching 100% correctness, or 100% safety, is almost always too costly, even if possible. We all make cost/benefit decisions that require us to take risks. We have elective surgery, despite the dire warnings in the pre-op paperwork; we vaccinate our children, knowing that a few children will have life-altering, maybe fatal, reactions; we even drive our automobiles after watching the daily litany of car crashes reported on the news. I know that life, and business, can't go on without taking some risks.

Whether it's business, government, military, medical, educational, or personal, we must live with the fact that we and others are knowingly making choices that will put us in harm's way. We must act, for our own sanity and that of our children, as if these decisions are informed, wise, and correct.

My Target experience shook that faith, just a little.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 at 8:11 am | Edit
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This is an actual sign that we encountered in an actual rest stop parking lot in Connecticut. I immediately began wondering:

Is effectively reducing the number of parking spaces available really Connecticut's best solution to inadequate facilities?

How do they know the vehicle is travelling with multiple occupants?

If they patrol the lot, giving tickets to offenders, should we leave two people in the car and use the restroom in shifts? On this trip, we could have done that.

However, we are often travelling with just the two of us. A car with two people in it is certainly a "multiple occupant vehicle," but leaving just one in the car while the other uses the facilities might lead to an unpleasant encounter with the guard, since he would see only one person in the car.

Is there a surveilance camera in the lot? There probably is. When you drive in, does it detect how many people are in the car, then automatically mail you a ticket if it records you parking in the wrong spot?

In the end, we just parked in an "everyone is welcome" space and entered the building together.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 2, 2020 at 6:04 am | Edit
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I don't like liturgical worship. It's stiff and formal, not to mention confusing. It doesn't leave enough room for the Holy Spirit. Prayer should be sponataneous; reciting set prayers is just meaningless repetition. And what's with the "smells and bells," anyway?

That's what I hear from the many people who look with suspicion on Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox forms of worship.

Those who know how much I love the heart-piercing beauties of traditional, "high church" worship can be excused for thinking I must have been born and raised in one of those denominations. That I'm just an elderly lady clinging to the good old days of her roots.

Not at all.

In my childhood I went to a Dutch Reformed church in a small village in Upstate New York. Since then I've experienced worship in a great variety of church denominations and non-denominations, including an atheist period in no church at all. And I've noticed something.

All churches have liturgy.

Liturgy, literally "the work of the people," is what happens in the worship service of any church. No matter how informal, every church service has a flow, a pattern, a set way of doing things that is comfortably familiar to regulars and confusing to visitors. Even the church I know that proudly proclaimed, "we have no liturgy," only meant that theirs was different from what you would experience at the Catholic church down the street. All churches have liturgy, and arguing over which brings you closer to God is like debating whether Johann Sebastian Bach or Louis Armstrong was the better musician.

In fact, I think music is a good analogy here. If you make music in an orchestra, or a jazz band, or a choir, you're going to feel uncomfortable at first if you're sightreading the music, or even the musical style. You'll play some wrong notes and miss the rhythm and maybe feel awkward and embarrassed. But after a while, with experience, the music begins to soar through you, and there is very little more glorious.

That's how I feel about Anglican worship. The set prayers, the gestures, the standing and kneeling, the chanting, and even the bells and the incense—these are all notes in a complex and beautiful symphony. I'm still learning; I don't hit all the right notes and my rhythm isn't perfect. But the music soars through me.

And when I visit other churches, I need to remember that my awkward, uncomfortable feeling is not because they are all wrong, but because I'm still sightreading their liturgy.

(Unless the music is too loud, as it so often is these days. In that case what I'm experiencing is plain, naked pain, which can't be overcome by time and practice.  But that's another issue.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, January 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm | Edit
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