Here Shall I Die Ashore: Stephen Hopkins—Bermuda Castaway, Jamestown Survivor, and Mayflower Pilgrim by Caleb Johnson (Xlibris 2007)
I discovered Caleb Johnson's Mayflower History website while researching for Porter's application for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. Of the three Mayflower ancestors Porter's family lore put forth as candidates, I chose to pursue Stephan Hopkins soley because that line appeared to be the easiest to document.
MayflowerHistory.com was one of the most interesting sources I found. After some initial skepticism—the value of genealogical information that can be found online ranges from fantastic to abysmal—I recognized Johnson as an authoritative source and entertaining to boot. After proving Porter's descent from Stephen Hopkins to the satisfaction of the Mayflower Society, I gave him Here Shall I Die Ashore for Christmas.
Even before reading the book, I posted a brief summary of Hopkins' life that will give you the gist of his story. But the book is ever so much more than that, a story better told and with more history, context, and detail. I learned a lot I didn't know about the early days of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and Plymouth in Massachusetts, as well as about Stephen himself.
We all know the Native Americans did not get what they were hoping for out of the arrival of the colonists from England. What I hadn't realized is that nobody involved in these expeditions did. And nobody had a clue how bad the colonists' situations were and how much worse they were going to get. Just when a colony began to (just barely) get a grip on providing food for itself, the folks back in England, frustrated by failed promises of return on their investments, kept sending, not badly-needed supplies, but more hungry mouths to feed. (A number of my own ancestors were on those ships that followed the Mayflower.)
You can't build a healthy colony without women, but women didn't do the kind of work that produced trade goods, so investors were reluctant to allow them to take up space on their ships. It's easy to see the financial backers as heartless, but I'm quite sure most of them were merely clueless. Even in these days of instant communication and near-instant travel, how many of us know what our financial investments—and our charitable contributions—are really doing? And who wouldn't be upset with tenants who don't take care of the property and refuse to pay rent?
Following the initial financial difficulties, long-time Leiden church member and Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton was appointed to return to England, to start negotiations with the London shareholders and other financial backers. In November 1626, an agreement was reached. The Plymouth colonist-shareholders would purchase the outstanding shares of the company from all the remaining English investors...and assume the colony's debt. The overall adventure was a substantial loss to the London investors—most only got back about a third of their original investment—but the forty-two remaining London shareholders were happy to get out with whatever they could, as most now expected they would eventually lose everything. (pp. 123-124)
Plymouth fared better than Jamestown, thanks to having a population experienced in self-discipline and hard work. Too many of Jamestown's people were of a class accustomed to being served, and whose skills were a very bad mismatch with what the colony needed to survive.
One very important lesson was learned at Plymouth after the ship Anne arrived in 1623, bringing much-longed-for wives, children, and single women.
Up until the Anne's arrival, the Plymouth colonists had worked and farmed collectively; all the crops were brought into a collective company storehouse and then rationed back out to everyone (the employees) in equal allotments. But Governor Bradford and the others soon realized this was not working out as well as had been intended—the productive individuals were getting allotted the same amount as the lazy do-nothings of the colony, and this was killing morale. Bradford's solution: allot everyone their own lots of land, for their own benefit and subsistence. Every person (man, woman and child) received an acre of land, which were logically combined together into larger family plots. (p. 121)
Credit the women, credit free enterprise, or credit finally being out from under the thumbs of clueless managers, but Plymouth finally began to thrive. And so did the Hopkins family.
Most readers will happily stop halfway through the book, where the story of Stephen Hopkins ends. But 115 pages of appendices include much of interest to genealogists and historians, including scholarly articles on the identity and origin of Stephen Hopkins, his descendants to the first three generations, three original-source documents covering Bermuda, Jamestown, and Plymouth, and Stephen's will and estate inventory.
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, September 2020)
My previous book having been Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, this book's 256 pages might have made it seem like a beach read.
Not by a long shot.
I was struck by how much Live Not by Lies reminded me of The Fall of Heaven, although they are two very different books with very different subjects. The latter details Iran at the time of the 1978 revolution, while this book is largely based on stories from the survivors of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. What do they have in common? The warning that it CAN happen here. America is not so far off from totalitarianism as we naïvely think.
There always is this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.” Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
This was certainly the fallacy I believed in.
When I was a child, Nazi Germany was a very near memory for my parents, and the horrors of Communism an ever-present reality. But I knew for certain that it couldn't happen here and it couldn't happen now, because America was free and the democracies had grown beyond all that totalitarian stuff. True, I was forced in school to read 1984 and Brave New World, but such situations were as alien to me as the farthest galaxies. Ah, the optimism of youth.
Did I say youth? If you'd asked me five years ago I would have pretty much felt the same way. But the last few years have shown just how quickly radical change can happen.
Enter Live Not by Lies. Dreher was inspired by the stories and concerns of those who escaped totalitarian societies (largely from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) only to see frighteningly similar patterns in present-day America. He is careful to distinguish what he calls "hard totalitarianism" with its secret police, gulags, and material deprivation, and the sneaky, but effective, "soft totalitarianism" that threatens us today. He comes down very hard on the Left, but neither does he spare the Right. Evil is most effective when it uses both halves of the nutcracker.
As indicated in the title, Live Not by Lies is written for Christians. But it would be a great mistake for others to pass it up for that reason. The most effective resistance to the hard totalitarianism of Nazism and Communism came from diverse coalitions of dissidents, and that's just as important now. These are dangers that affect us all.
It's not a totally satisfying book, the second half being less powerful than the first—at least if I judge by the relative number of passages I highlighted. I could include a great number of quotations in this review, but I'm not going to. Live Not by Lies is only $4.99 in Kindle form. Give up one fast food meal and get a book that just might open your eyes and strengthen your spine.
The following, rather long, excerpt from the introduction explains well the form and scope of the book.
Part one of this book makes the case that despite its superficial permissiveness, liberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War. It explores the sources of totalitarianism, revealing the troubling parallels between contemporary society and the ones that gave birth to twentieth-century totalitarianism. It will also examine two particular factors that define the rising soft totalitarianism: the ideology of “social justice,” which dominates academia and other major institutions, and surveillance technology, which has become ubiquitous not from government decree but through the persuasiveness of consumer capitalism. This section ends with a look at the key role intellectuals played in the Bolshevik Revolution and why we cannot afford to laugh off the ideological excesses of our own politically correct intelligentsia.
Part two examines in greater detail forms, methods, and sources of resistance to soft totalitarianism’s lies. Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition? How does faithful fellowship provide resilience in the face of persecution? How can we learn to recognize totalitarianism’s false messaging and fight its deceit?
How did these oppressed believers get through it? How did they protect themselves and their families? How did they keep their faith, their integrity, even their sanity? Why are they so anxious about the West’s future? Are we capable of hearing them, or will we continue to rest easy in the delusion that it can’t happen here?
A Soviet-born émigré who teaches in a university deep in the US heartland stresses the urgency of Americans taking people like her seriously. “You will not be able to predict what will be held against you tomorrow,” she warns. “You have no idea what completely normal thing you do today, or say today, will be used against you to destroy you. This is what people in the Soviet Union saw. We know how this works.”
On the other hand, my Czech émigré friend advised me not to waste time writing this book. “People will have to live through it first to understand,” he says cynically. “Any time I try to explain current events and their meaning to my friends or acquaintances, I am met with blank stares or downright nonsense.”
Maybe he is right. But for the sake of his children and mine, I wrote this book to prove him wrong. (pp. xiv-xvi)
I'll let Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have the last word.
After the publication of his Gulag Archipelago exposed the rottenness of Soviet totalitarianism and made Solzhenitsyn a global hero, Moscow finally expelled him to the West. On the eve of his forced exile, Solzhenitsyn published a final message to the Russian people, titled “Live Not by Lies!” In the essay, Solzhenitsyn challenged the claim that the totalitarian system was so powerful that the ordinary man and woman cannot change it. Nonsense, he said. The foundation of totalitarianism is an ideology made of lies. The system depends for its existence on a people’s fear of challenging the lies. Said the writer, “Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!” You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe. You may not be able to overthrow totalitarianism, but you can find within yourself and your community the means to live in the dignity of truth. If we must live under the dictatorship of lies, the writer said, then our response must be: “Let their rule hold not through me!” (pp. xii-xiv)
It's time for my annual compilation of books read during the past year.
- Total books: 85
- Fiction: 66
- Non-fiction: 19
- Months with most books: a tie between July and September (12)
- Month with fewest books: April (2)
- Most frequent authors: Randall Garrett (19), Lois Lenski (16), Tony Hillerman (10), Brandon Sanderson (7). Hillerman is the only author to make the top four both last year and this, as his excellent Leaphorn & Chee books spanned the two years. Garrett and Lenski made such a strong showing because they were each the subject of a particular focus, and their books are generally short. Sanderson, on the other hand, though he's only represented by seven books, is the runaway leader in number of pages.
Here's the list, grouped by author; links are to reviews. The different colors only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. The ratings (★) and warnings (☢) are on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest/mildest. Warnings, like the ratings, are highly subjective and reflect context, perceived intended audience, and my own biases. Nor are they completely consistent. They may be for sexual content, language, violence, worldview, or anything else that I find objectionable. Your mileage may vary.
|Matthew Wolfe 2: The Adventures Begin||Blair Bancroft (Grace Kone)||★★★ ☢|
|Matthew Wolfe 3: Revelations||Blair Bancroft (Grace Kone)||★★★|
|The Art of Evil||Blair Bancroft (Grace Kone)||★★★★ ☢|
|Mistborn 1: The Final Empire||Brandon Sanderson||★★★|
|Mistborn 2: The Well of Ascension||Brandon Sanderson||★★★|
|Mistborn 3: The Hero of Ages||Brandon Sanderson||★★★|
|Stormlight 1: The Way of Kings||Brandon Sanderson||★★★|
|Stormlight 2: Words of Radiance||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★|
|Stormlight 2.5: Edgedancer||Brandon Sanderson||★★★★★|
|Deep Work||Cal Newport||★★★★★|
|So Good They Can't Ignore You||Cal Newport||★★★★★|
|Rosefire||Carolyn Clare Givens||★★★|
|A Child's History of England||Charles Dickens||★★★ ☢|
|The Light in the Forest||Conrad Richter||★★|
|Just David (aka North to Freedom)||Eleanor Porter||★★★★|
|Just David (read a second time to check for differences between the original and the modern editions)||Eleanor Porter||★★★★|
|Brian's Saga 1: Hatchet||Gary Paulsen||★★★ ☢|
|Brian's Saga 2: The River||Gary Paulsen||★★★ ☢|
|Brian's Saga 3: Brian's Winter||Gary Paulsen||★★★ ☢|
|Brian's Saga 4: Brian's Hunt||Gary Paulsen||★★ ☢☢|
|Brian's Saga 4: Brian's Return||Gary Paulsen||★★ ☢|
|Why Good Arguments Often Fail||James W. Sire||★★★★|
|Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual||Jocko Willink||★|
|Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook||Joetta Handrich Schlabach||★★|
|Greenglass House||Kate Milford||★★★|
|Kisses from Katie||Katie Davis with Beth Clark||★★★|
|Bayou Suzette||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Blue Ridge Billy||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Boom Town Boy||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Coal Camp Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Corn Farm Boy||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Deer Valley Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★|
|Flood Friday||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Houseboat Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Indian Captive||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Judy's Journey||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Mama Hattie's Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Prairie School||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|San Francisco Boy||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Shoo-Fly Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★|
|Strawberry Girl||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Texas Tomboy||Lois Lenski||★★★★|
|Out of This World||Lowell Thomas, Jr.||★★★★|
|Talking to Strangers||Malcolm Gladwell||★★★★|
|Humble Pi||Matt Parker||★★★★|
|In the Heart of the Sea||Nathaniel Philbrick||★★★ ☢|
|The Wild Robot||Peter Brown||★★★★|
|The Wild Robot Escapes||Peter Brown||★★★★|
|A Spaceship Named McGuire||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Anything You Can Do||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|But, I Don't Think||Randall Garrett||★|
|By Proxy||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Cum Grano Salis||Randall Garrett||★★★★|
|Damned If You Don't||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Despoilers of the Golden Empire||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|His Master's Voice||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Nor Iron Bars a Cage||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Or Your Money Back||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Pagan Passions||Randall Garrett||★★ ☢☢|
|Psi-Power 1: Brain Twister||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Psi-Power 2: The Impossibles||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|Psi-Power 3: Supermind||Randall Garrett||★★|
|Quest of the Golden Ape||Randall Garrett||★★|
|The Eyes Have It||Randall Garrett||★★★★|
|The Foreign Hand-Tie||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|The Highest Treason||Randall Garrett||★★★|
|The Penal Cluster||Randall Garrett||★★|
|Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics||Stanley F. Schmidt||★★★★|
|Life of Fred: Australia||Stanley F. Schmidt||★★★★|
|Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics||Stanley F. Schmidt||★★★★|
|Life of Fred: Trigonometry Expanded Edition||Stanley F. Schmidt||★★★★|
|Coyote Waits||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|Hunting Badger||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|Sacred Clowns||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|Skeleton Man||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The Dark Wind||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The Ghostway||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The People of Darkness||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The Shape Shifter||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The Wailing Wind||Tony Hillerman||★★★|
|The Bible (English Standard Version, canonical)||★★★★★|
|The New Testament (King James Version, canonical)||★★★★★|
It's amazing how uplifting a little light and beauty can be when the world has gone mad. Take a few minutes and get 2022 off to a pleasant start with the latest two episodes of Chateau Love.
The December 27 episode (21 minutes) features a private tour of the Christmas decorations at Château Gaillard Amboise (not to be confused with the Château Gaillard built by Richard the Lionheart). This castle is historical as well as beautiful, and I felt as if I were walking through a famous European museum. Unfortunately, YouTube is not allowing me to embed this video, but you can watch it directly on YouTube here.
For New Year's Eve, the show is twice as long (41 minutes) but much more personal, including a flashback visit to Tuscany, with a guest appearance of Vivienne's sister Ashley. Visit a magical European Christmas market and accompany Vivienne and Simon as they shop, create, and decorate in preparation for Christmas at their own château. Best of all, Vivienne's amazing artistry shines in this episode. Christmas decorations from citrus slices. Stunning hand-painted bird plates. Amazing food, artistic table settings, and indescribably beautiful decorations gilding an already beautiful home.
I was swept right back to our own magical Easter visit, nearly 15 years ago, to Simon and Vivienne's previous French château.
I hope you enjoy this delightful break from all the troubles of the world, and head into 2022 with a lighter heart.
Out of This World: Across the Himalayas to Forbidden Tibet by Lowell Thomas, Jr. (Greystone Press, 1950)
This book is a legacy from cleaning out Porter's father's house. Through no fault of its own, it was a bit of a struggle to read, as its mustiness survived my attempts to clean it and reading took its toll on my upper respiratory system.
It was worth the effort.
Written in 1949 by Lowell Thomas, Jr., it is the story of his trek with his more famous father to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in a time when that country was almost completely closed off to foreign visitors. Arduous is not an adequate word to describe this expedition, which left me astonished at the courage and endurance of these men, not to mention the local people—and animals—who went along as translators, guides, and bearers.
The Thomases' rare admission to Tibet and almost-unheard-of admission to Lhasa were born out of desperation on the part of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan officials. The people of Tibet, who only wanted to be left alone, were being threatened by a Chinese takeover, and they were hoping that the Thomases and their stories would raise Western awareness and get them some help. Sadly, we know how that turned out.
Nonetheless, the story is of much value, not only for their adventures, but even more for the historical and cultural insights (both Western and Tibetan).
What was happening at the beginning of the 1960's?
I've long been a fan of Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy books, so when I found the Kindle version of Randall Garrett: The Ultimate Collection for 99 cents, I leapt at the chance to read some of his other stories. Nothing so far has come close to the Lord Darcy books in quality, but they've mostly been fun to read.
Recently I read The Highest Treason. It's short, under 23,000 words, and was originally published in the January 1961 issue of the magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction. You can find a public domain version at Project Gutenberg.
The Highest Treason deals with a subject familiar to me, one I first encountered in Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, first published in October 1961, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. That one is much shorter, only 2200 words, and can be found here in pdf form.
C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Proposes a Toast was next—and my favorite. You can read it here, in the December 19, 1959 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I don't have a word count, but it is also quite short.
December 1959, January 1961, October 1961. Three stories written as the 1950's passed into the 1960's.
All three have as their premise the consequences of a culture of mediocrity, in which excellence in anything—beauty, art, sport, thinking, work, character—is abolished for the sake of making everyone "equal." There must have been something going on at that time period to make it a concern for at least three such varied authors.
What would they think today? From the demise of ability grouping in elementary schools, to "participation trophies," to branding as racist and unacceptable the idea that employment and leadership positions should be awarded on the basis of merit and accomplishment, we have come a long way down this path since 1960.
Here's hoping it doesn't take near-annihilation by space aliens—or the flames of hell—to wake us up.
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So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport (Business Plus, 2012)
I can't resist a Cal Newport book. My first was How to Be a High School Superstar (published 2010), then Digital Minimalism (2019) then Deep Work (2016). If the advice in any of them is out of date, I haven't noticed anything major.
So Good They Can't Ignore You is—like the others—both strong and weak but filled with interesting ideas that are contrary to much conventional wisdom. This time Newport tackles the "follow your passion" philosophy of choosing a career that was popular when the book was written. I don't think the appeal of that idea has lessened, despite the great number of college graduates who thought they were doing just that but ended up with unmanageable debt and a job at Starbuck's.
Much of his thesis is just what used to be called common sense: The work you choose doesn't matter nearly as much as how you approach it; focus on what you can offer the world rather than what the world can offer you; work hard; cultivate excellence. If that sounds boring and Puritanical, read the book to find out how it turns out to be the secret to having a career that's enjoyable and personally fulfilling. Newport fleshes out the ideas nicely, if sometimes a bit too repetitively, with explanation, analysis, and real-world examples.
As with Newport's other books, this one is business-oriented, making it hard to apply directly to non-business careers like homemaking and rearing a family. In fact, part of me wonders if it's possible to do what's necessary to achieve the skills he expects without neglecting other important parts of life. However, it must be noted that the really intense effort he recommends works best when one is young, and leads to far more autonomy and flexibility than standard career paths. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.
At present, the Kindle version of So Good They Can't Ignore You is currently on sale for $3.99. It's well worth the investment of your time and money, or a visit to your local library.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin Books, 2000)
I read Moby-Dick my freshman year in college. It was a long slog, even for an avid reader like me. But back then my tastes did not run to "literature," much less literature required by English teachers; perhaps I would appreciate it more now. In fact, I'm tempted to give it another go, now that I've read In the Heart of the Sea. The tale of the Essex was Herman Melville's inspiration.
I'd encountered Philbrick once before: His Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, which greatly impressed me back in 2010. In the Heart of the Sea gets the same good rating, but with a warning: As much as I found it fascinating, I found it depressing. Possibly this is merely a reflection of my own darker mood, induced by events associated with going on two years of pandemic. I find the sinful nature of humanity revealed a little to graphically here; ditto the grisly business of butchering a whale.
But there's no doubt it's a fascinating story, impeccably researched and dramatically told. Maybe it's time to dig up Moby-Dick and see if it's as painful as I remember.
American Journeys Volume 1 by Lois Lenski (includes Indian Captive, Judy’s Journey, Flood Friday, Texas Tomboy, Boom Town Boy, Coal Camp Girl, and Mama Hattie’s Girl)
American Journeys Volume 2 by Lois Lenski (includes Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Bayou Suzette, Blue Ridge Billy, Corn-Farm Boy, San Francisco Boy, and To Be a Logger)
Lois Lenski's children's books are a true treasure that all too few children—and parents and teachers—have discovered. I loved Indian Captive as a child, but didn't discover Strawberry Girl until I was an adult. Ocean-Born Mary came later still. Lenski's other books should not be so hard to find in our libraries! I discovered the fourteen above thanks to a sale on the Kindle versions of these collections, and what a treat they are! There are four other books in Lenski's American Regional series: Houseboat Girl (also available on Kindle), Cotton in My Sack, Deer Valley Girl, and Shoo-Fly Girl. Sadly, the last three are not available on Kindle.
These books are a much-needed antidote to what I call a chronological snobbery approach to teaching history. The term "chronological snobbery" isn't mine; I learned it from C. S. Lewis. All too often we look at the people and events of the past through ignorant, prideful eyes, as we are very good at seeing the areas in which we consider ourselves to be superior to our forebears, and very bad at even considering that there might be areas in which our forebears would justifiably consider us vastly inferior to themselves.
Lenski's books do an excellent job of avoiding that, for at least two reasons: they were largely written contemporaneously with the events they describe, and Lenski's research was meticulous and personal. She made a point of living in the situations she wrote about, getting to know the families, the work, and especially the children. For books where that was impossible, like Indian Captive and Ocean-Born Mary, she substituted thorough research and a heart sympathetic to all cultures.
Modern Americans may well be shocked by some of the situations in these books, but it is good for us to realize that our ways aren't the only ways that make for happy families and a healthy upbringing. Not to mention that other cultures may have done some things better than us. Nearly all the children in these books, for example, have many more responsibilities and at the same time much more freedom at younger ages than most modern parents can imagine.
The inspiration to write a review at this particular time? Amazon Kindle is currently (9/25/21) offering the second volume of these books for $3.99. Volume 1 is $31.99, so don't even think of buying it at that price. In my experience, with patience you will see it for $3.99 as well, and the individual books at $1.99. I highly recommend using (and supporting) a service called eReaderIQ, which will alert you when books or authors you are interested in go on sale.
The heart of Chateau Love is clearly Vivienne. She's the hostess, writer, director, artist, and star. As I commented to Porter during one of the episodes, "Vivienne was born for this!" I love looking at her background—from her childhood in Memphis, to a lifetime's immersion in music, art, and beauty, to her work as a cruise ship social director and hostess extraordinaire—and seeing how it all blossoms into Chateau Love.
But Vivienne's vlog is only one of many vlogs about chateau life and renovation. (Who know chateau vlogging was a "thing"?) So, other than our friendship with the family, what makes Chateau Love special? How do they have over seven thousand subscribers to a channel that is only five months old and was started simply as a way to keep in touch with friends and family during pandemic lockdown?
Most of Simon's work may be behind the scenes, but when he appears he is the perfect foil for Vivienne's personality. Without Simon, Vivienne's excitement and enthusiasm could come across as over-the-top. But as a splash of lemon cuts through the richness of a dish, Simon brings the story back to earth. When Vivienne and Isabella are singing the praises of chèvre in their cheese-of-the-week segment, Simon, with all the aplomb of the British gentleman he is, announces that "goat cheese tastes of goat's bottom."
It is Vivienne-and-Simon that makes Chateau Love what it is. The combination works.
UPDATE: Wouldn't you know it, as soon as I finish writing this post about the importance of Simon's contributions to Chateau Love, Episode 14 comes out without even a glimpse of him. It is still fun, as Vivienne has a "girls' adventure" with a friend from childhood, but nonetheless, Simon, we missed you!
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2019)
I can't resist Malcolm Gladwell's books, even though they never fail to frustrate as well as intrigue. He reminds me of Steve Landsburg on economics, and other authors who turn conventional thinking upside down and reveal surprising truths. As I said about Gladwell in my review of What the Dog Saw, his ideas may not always be right—in fact I'd lay odds that they're often wrong, or at least greatly oversimplified—but they're always interesting, and always give new insight into what we don't know about what we thought we understood.
Talking to Strangers is no exception. For me, it started slowly, and only an impending library deadline forced me to prioritize reading it past the introduction and first chapter. After that, I was hooked and the rest of the 400 pages went by in a flash. Gladwell's like that. I get frustrated by his prejudices, errors, and simplifications, then get hooked by his discoveries and can't put him down.
People, Gladwell posits, are shockingly bad at determining whether or not they are being lied to by those they do not know. And by people, he means nearly everyone. The professionals, like Securities and Exchange Commission auditors, FBI agents, and judges, are no better at that job than the most innocent little girl lured to the big city with promises of an acting career. In fact, when it comes to making decisions about setting bail conditions, judges who meet face-to-face with alleged criminals have been shown to make far poorer decisions than computer models working with nothing but bare facts.
Part of the problem is that most of us "default to truth." When we interact with another person we're pre-programmed to assume he's honest and truthful, and it takes a great deal of evidence of malfeasance to overcome that. A few people are not like that—we call them paranoid. For example, a man named Harry Markopolos was aware of the massive deception pulled off by Bernie Madoff long before anyone else was, but no one believed him. They trusted Madoff and they trusted the system that was supposed to keep bad things from happening. Markopolos saw the truth because he didn't trust anybody.
But here's the thing: that's no way to live.
In real life, ... lies are rare. And those lies that are told are told by a very small subset of people. That's why it doesn't matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting thirty seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth. (pp. 99-100)
[H]uman beings never developed sophisticated and accurate skills to detect deception as it was happening because there is no advantage to spending your time scrutinizing the words and behaviors of those around you. The advantage to human beings lies in assuming that strangers are truthful. ... [I]t's easy to see all the damage done by people like ... Bernie Madoff. Because we trust implicitly, spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives are damaged. [But] the price of giving up on that strategy is much higher. If everyone on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street—but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street. (pp. 100-101)
Referring to the infamous Penn State pedophilia scandal that broke in 2011, which turns out to be a whole lot more complex and confusing than we thought based on the media stories at the time:
If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure. (p. 141)
Another mistake we make in judging strangers is pure hubris: we think we can tell what people are thinking or feeling by their facial expressions and body language. Nope. We're really terrible at that, too, especially if the stranger comes from a different cultural background. It reminds me of my mother's experience, years ago, as an elementary school teacher's aide. She was frustrated in her attempts to get the teacher to deal with the bullying of a small, Asian child—given the time period, he may have been a Southeast Asian refugee, but I don't know that for sure. "Surely it doesn't bother him," insisted the teacher. "You can see that he's smiling." My mother was certain that the "smile" indicated fear, not pleasure.
Transparency is a myth—an idea we've picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero's "jaw dropped with astonishment" or "eyes went wide with surprise." (p. 162)
The transparency problem ends up in the same place as the default-to-truth problem. Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we're terrible at it. (p. 166)
It could be worse. One of the scariest sections of Talking to Strangers is about the Amanda Knox case. Amanda Knox, an American exchange student in Italy, was wrongfully convicted of the 2007 murder of her roommate.
I could give you a point-by-point analysis of what was wrong with the investigation of Kercher's murder. It could easily be the length of this book. I could also refer you to some of the most comprehensive scholarly analyses of the investigation's legal shortcomings.... But instead, let me give you the simplest and shortest of all possible Amanda Knox theories. Her case is about transparency. If you believe that the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel, then you're going to make mistakes. Amanda Knox was one of those mistakes. (pp. 170-171)
Amanda Knox was different from the "social norms," as so many of us are.
"I was the quirky kid who hung out with the sulky manga-readers, the ostracized gay kids, and the theater geeks," she writes in her memoir. ... In high school she was the middle-class kid on financial aid, surrounded by well-heeled classmates. "I took Japanese and sang, loudly, in the halls while walking from one class to another. Since I didn't really fit in, I acted like myself, which pretty much made sure I never did." ...
"We were able to establish guilt," [the lead investigator] said, "by closely observing the suspect's psychological and behavioral reaction during the interrogation. We don't need to rely on other kinds of investigation." ... At every turn, Knox cannot escape censure for her weirdness. ... Why can't someone be angry in response to a murder, rather than sad? If you were Amanda Knox's friend, none of this would surprise you. You would have seen Knox walking down the street like an elephant. But with strangers, we're intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside expectations. (pp. 179-183)
I have many times been accused, even by my friends, of being angry, or sad, or some other emotional state that doesn't at all reflect my feelings, based solely on my facial expression. No amount of denial on my part seems to convince them, as they then assume that I am either lying or don't know my own "true feelings." There have also been times when I have been deeply saddened without showing any of the commonly expected signs. I think I'd be in trouble in court.
A trained interrogator ought to be adept at getting beneath the confusing signals of demeanor, at understanding that when Nervous Nelly overexplains and gets defensive, that's who she is—someone who overexplains and gets defensive. The police officer ought to be the person who sees the quirky, inappropriate girl in a culture far different from her own say [something inappropriate] and realize that she's just a quirky girl in a culture far different from her own. But that's not what we get. Instead, the people charged with making determinations of innocence and guilt seem to be as bad as or even worse than the rest of us when it comes to the hardest cases. ... [W]e have built a world that systematically discriminates against a class of people who, through no fault of their own, violate our ridiculous ideas about transparency. (pp. 185-186)
On the problem of sexual assault, particularly in a college setting:
[S]tudents were asked to list the measures they thought would be most effective in reducing sexual assault. At the top of that list they put harsher punishment for aggressors, self-defense training for victims, and teaching men to respect women more. How many thought it would be "very effective" if they drank less? Thirty-three percent. How many thought stronger restrictions on alcohol on campus would be very effective? Fifteen percent. These are contradictory positions. Students think it is a good idea to be trained in self-defense, and not such a good idea to clamp down on drinking. But what good is knowing the techniques of self-defense if you're blind drunk? Students think it's a really good idea if men respect women more. But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently. (pp. 225-226)
On interrogation techniques:
One exercise involved crews of the bombers that carry nuclear weapons. Everything about their mission was classified. If they were to crash in hostile territory, you can imagine how curious their captors would be about the contents of their planes. The SERE program was supposed to prepare a flight crew for what might happen. [One exercise involved] one of the oldest tricks in the interrogation business: the interrogator threatens not the subject, but a colleague of the subject's. In [interrogation expert James Mitchell's] experience, men and women react very differently to this scenario. The men tend to fold. The women don't.
"If you are a female pilot and they said they were going to do something to the other airman, the attitude of a lot of them was, 'It sucks to be you,'" he said. "'You do your job, I'm going to do mine. I'm going to protect the secrets. I'm sorry this has happened to you, but you knew this when you signed up.'" Mitchell first saw this when he debriefed women who had been held as POWs during Desert Storm. They would drag those women out and threaten to beat them every time the men wouldn't talk. And [the women] were angry at the men for not holding out, and they said, "Maybe I would have gotten a beating, maybe I would have got sexually molested, but it would have happened one time. By showing them that the way to get the keys to the kingdom was to drag me out, it happened every time. So let me do my job. You do your job." (pp. 241-242)
The final two chapters shed some much-needed light on our current problems with law enforcement, making me more sympathetic to all sides. Some intriguing studies have shown that we are not looking at crime problems in fine enough detail. It seems that everyone in a city knows the "bad neighborhoods" for crime, but it turns out there are not so much bad neighborhoods as bad blocks. In any given high-crime area, the majority of the territory is not a problem. Most of the crime occurs in a few, much smaller locations, and focussing police action in these areas can cut crime rates dramatically. But the aggressive policing that makes such a difference in the hot spots has been adopted in areas for which it is is totally inappropriate. (Recognize that I am greatly condensing and simplifying here.) On top of that, police officers are no better than the rest of us at making judgements about strangers—and yet their jobs, and their very lives, require them to do so, quickly and under conditions of great stress.
This has been a book about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages anymore. Police officers have to stop people they do not know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't. What should we do? (pp. 341-342)
We could start by no longer penalizing one another for defaulting to truth. If you are a parent whose child was abused by a stranger—even if you were in the room—that does not make you a bad parent. And if you are a university president and you do not jump to the worst-case scenario when given a murky report about one of your employees, that doesn't make you a criminal. To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse. (p. 342)
What is required of us is restraint and humility. (p. 343)
I love cooking shows. Most of them are on cable television, which we have never had and I hope will never feel the need to have, but they're a favorite of mine when available on long overseas flights. And then there's YouTube.
Ann Reardon's How to Cook That channel first caught my eye because of her "debunking" videos, in which she tries out and exposes too-good-to-be-true internet "hacks," mostly related to her specialty, food. Here's one (16 minutes).
And here's one for our daughter who has always loved miniatures (6.5 minutes). So has Ann, and in her "Teeny-Weeny Challenges" actually bakes in her miniature kitchen.
These are just some of the sidelights of her channel, however. Mostly she focusses on amazing desserts, and has recently published a cookbook called Crazy Sweet Creations. Here's a basic video on working with chocolate (13.5 minutes).
Are you hungry yet?
Most of Ann's creations are too complex to interest me in attempting them, but they are fun to watch, and I can pick up some interesting tips and tricks along the way.
The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown (Little, Brown 2016, 2018)
When everyone in the house (adult, 17, 14, 12, 10, 8, and 6) approves of a book, I generally find it worth looking into, despite my well-ingrained—and more often than not justified—prejudice against recently-written children's books. Peter Brown's Wild Robot books were definitely worth the reading.
Brown's story of a robot cast away on an uninhabited (by humans) island and how its programming directs its adjustment there, and in later adventures, is very well done, reminding me of Isaac Aimov's treatment of the practical and ethical issues of a society that includes multitudes of robotic machines.
There's love and conflict and tragedy and emotional struggles, all handled sensitively. I can't say I like these books better than S. D. Smith's Green Ember series, which my readers know I love greatly, but they are less dark—and less violent, despite some scary adventures. I detected no warning bells for my very sensitive grandchildren on the other side of the family. They may especially enjoy that the main character is female (if one can say that about a robot) who is strong and smart, gentle and motherly.
Sure, I could make some complaints, but they're minor and overshadowed by the good.
A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens (public domain, 1851-1853)
Dickens' book is, unsurprisingly, in the public domain. I read the free Kindle version and it was fine, though it might be worth springing for another $2 and getting the original illustrations as well.
A Child's History of England is a maddening book, yet a valuable one. According to its Wikipedia article, it "was included in the curricula of British schoolchildren well into the 20th century." It never could be now—which may be an indication that it should be. It is one man's very biased view of English history, hence valuable to balance other biases.
What's good about it? Well, I appreciated the organized layout of English history from ancient times up to the reign of William and Mary, with a very quick summary thence to Queen Victoria. Bit by bit, through several sources, I am gaining knowledge of the history of the lands that were home to many of my ancestors and played a significant part in the development of Western Civilization. The book, being designed for intelligent children, is both readable enough and interesting enough to read much more like a story than a textbook.
What didn't I like? To begin with, it is obviously and admittedly a propaganda piece. Dickens himself said of his book,
I am writing a little history of England for my boy ... For I don't know what I should do, if he were to get hold of any conservative or High Church notions; and the best way of guarding against any such horrible result is, I take it, to wring the parrots' neck in his very cradle.
Dickens does not appear to have liked England very much. He praises the Saxons, and holds Alfred the Great in very high esteem. Henry V wasn't too bad, and Oliver Cromwell gets too much credit for not being as horrible as the kings that preceded and followed him. Other than that, Dickens doesn't seem to have much respect for any of the British monarchs and their hangers-on. He also passionately hates the Catholic Church, and much of the undivided Church itself before the Reformation. The Puritans are heaped with scorn as well. He clearly claims to be a Christian, just as he claims to be an Englishman, but doesn't seem to care much for either Christianity or England. Sometimes the book feels less like a history and more like a series of ad hominem attacks. He even manages to draw a caricature of Joan of Arc as a mentally deficient peasant girl abused for others' gain.
Part and parcel of his prejudice, I believe, his his annoying habit of inconsistently referring to people sometimes by name, sometimes by title, often by nickname, and even by insult. I found this to make keeping the characters straight difficult, and I tired of flipping back several pages to try to figure out which particular duke was currently meant. It certainly doesn't help me to remember that he's talking about King James I when most of the time Dickens refers to him as "His Sowship."
For all that, I do recommend reading A Child's History of England, though only in the context of competing viewpoints. It does a good job of helping to put together the pieces of the complex puzzle that is the story of England.
Thinking further about Cal Newport's Deep Work, here are two more valuable quotations I should have included.
First, on the importance of a "shutdown ritual" for ending the "work day" (however that is defined for us) and not letting it take over the rest of our lives. I see it as less about employment and more about being able to switch cleanly from one activity to another (including rest).
The concept of a shutdown ritual might at first seem extreme, but there's a good reason for it: the Zeigarnik effect. This effect ... describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, "I'm done with work until tomorrow," you'll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik's experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening.
At first, this challenge might seem unresolvable. As any busy knowledge worker can attest, there are always tasks left incomplete. The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy. Fortunately, we don't need to complete a task to get it off our minds. ... In [a study by Roy Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo], the two researchers began by replicating the Zeigarnik effect in their subjects (in this case, the researchers assigned a task and then cruelly engineered interruptions), but then found that they could significantly reduce the effect's impact by asking the subjects, soon after the interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. To quote the paper: "Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits."
The shutdown ritual ... leverages this tactic to battle the Zeigarnik effect. While it doesn't force you to explicitly identify a plan for every single task in your task list (a burdensome requirement), it does force you to capture every task in a common list, and then review these tasks before making a plan for the next day. This ritual ensures that no task will be forgotten: Each will be reviewed daily and tackled when the time is appropriate. Your mind, in other words, is released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment—your shutdown ritual has taken over that responsibility. (pp. 152-154, emphasis mine).
I find I need to re-learn the following every day.
The science writer Winifred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis. ... [A]s she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: "This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead." The cancer treatment that followed was exhausting and terrible, but Gallagher couldn't help noticing, in that corner of her brain honed by a career in nonfiction writing, that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life—"movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini"—worked surprisingly well. Her life during this period should have been mired in fear and pity, but it was instead, she noted, often quite pleasant. Her curiosity piqued, Gallagher set out to better understand the role that attention—that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life. After five years of science reporting, she came away convinced that she was witness to a "grand unified theory" of the mind:
Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren't that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. ... [D]ecades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: "Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on." (p. 76-77, emphasis mine).