This time we tried a few new things, but made a point of revisiting some favorites.
Greenhouse Guru Mini San Marzano Tomatoes. Almost everything at the Festival is overpriced, but this is the only one I'd call an out-and-out ripoff. I was hoping for something fresh and tasty, you know, like a real tomato. This was a small bag of the kind of tomatoes I can get any day (for a much better price) at Publix. On top of that, they had been refrigerated.
Chocolate Studio Ghirardelli Chocolate Raspberry Torte. It was every bit as good as it sounds.
Canada "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle-Butter Sauce. One of my favorites. You have to special order if you want it to be cooked rare, but it's worth it. PLUS, I had gone ahead to grab a table, and when Porter found me he was bringing not only the filet but a small cup of hideously expensive but delicious apple ice wine. He was spoiling me....
France Boeuf Bourguignon: Cabernet Sauvignon-braised short Ribs with Mashed Potatoes, AND Soupe à l'oignon au Gruyère et Cognac. Old favorites that are too good not to indulge in both.
Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. Another well-worthwhile repeat.
Craft Beers Piggy Wings: Fried Pork Wings with Korean BBQ Sauce and Sesame Seeds. This must be what you get when pigs fly. The pork was small, fatty, and bony (like a true wing), but the barbecue sauce was good.
China Sichuan Spicy Chicken. Everything at the Chinese kiosk sounded delicious, but I remembered how good the chicken was. If we return before the Festival is over, maybe we'll try something different.
We also visited the Ghirardelli booth twice this time. It's a little disappointing that the sample chocolate square is always milk chocolate caramel instead of a chance to taste more of their many, different, delicious varieties, but it's hard to complain about chocolate caramel.
For all the times we've visited EPCOT, we'd never done the Soarin' Around the World ride, so we remedied that deficiency. In contrast to most of the new rides at the theme parks around here—and despite the dire "lawyer warnings"—Soarin' does not bounce you around and slam you into the sides of the car. It only lifts you a bit into the air; the awesome effects are all from the movie that nearly surrounds you. Nor did it make us queasy at all, though it was nearly impossible to avoid flinching at some of the apparent close calls as we soared around the world, from the Matterhorn to Sydney Harbour to the mighty Iguazú Falls. You can see the ride, sans special effects (which included scents), here.
But my absolutely favorite was the one before Cronkite's. I can find no video online (this was in the early 80's, after all), but you can see some pictures and most of the text at Walt Dated World. I've extracted the text below so you can compare the language with the prosaic (boring) lecture-style of today.
Narrator: Where have we come from, where are we going? The answers begin in our past. In the dust from which we were formed, answers recorded on the walls of time. So let us journey into that past, to seek those walls, to know ourselves and to probe the destiny of our Spaceship Earth.
Narrator: Now, suns reverse, moons re-phase, let us return to ancient caves where first we learn to share our thoughts-and to survive.
Narrator: Where are we now? It is the waiting dawn where vast things stir and breathe. And with our first words and first steps, we draw together to conquer the mammoth beast. It is the dawn of a new beginning, the dawn of recorded time.
Narrator: On cave walls we inscribe our greatest triumphs, a growing record of our deeds, to share with others so they too may greet tomorrow's sun.
Narrator: Ages pass and more walls rise in the valley of the Nile. Man-made walls of hieroglyphics. Then with new symbols, we unlock our thoughts from chiseled walls and send them forth on papyrus scrolls.
Narrator: On fine Phoenician ships, we take our scrolls to sea. Real scrolls simplified by an alphabet, eagerly shared at distant ports of call.
Narrator: Deep in the shadows of Mount Olympus, our alphabet takes route, flowering with new expression. Hail the proud Greeks: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. The theater is born.
Narrator: North, south, east, and west, all roads lead from Rome, a mighty network reaching across the land, welding far-flung garrisons into a growing empire.
Narrator: Glorious Rome, until consumed by the flames of excess. Imperial Rome, lost in the ashes of darkness.
Narrator: Far from the dying embers, Islamic wise men preserve ancient wisdom and weave a rich network of new knowledge linking east and west.
Narrator: In western abbeys, monks toil endlessly transcribing ancient wisdom into hand-penned books of revelation.
Narrator: At last! A new dawn emerges. The dawn of the Renaissance-and a wondrous machine performs as a thousand scribes. Now for all: the printed word.
Narrator: Our books fuel the fires of the Renaissance. It is a time to discover anew the worlds of poetry and philosophy, science and music. As our minds soar, our hands find new expression in the flourishing world of art. Behold, the majesty of the Sistine ceiling.
Narrator: The Renaissance: a beacon through the mists of time, guiding us to a new era. A time of invention and exploding communication.
Narrator: With each day come more paths, more ideas, more dreams, and we build new machines: computer machines that think, that store, sift, sort, and count, that help us chart our course through an age of boundless information.
Narrator: With these machines comes a wondrous new network of communications, a vibrant maze of billions of electronic pathways stretching to the very edge of space.
Narrator: Poised on the threshold of infinity, we see our world as it truly is: small, silent, fragile, alive, a drifting island in the midnight sky. It is our spaceship. Our Spaceship Earth.
Narrator: Now our Future World draws near -and we face the challenge of tomorrow. We must return and take command of our Spaceship Earth. To become captains of our own destiny. To reach out and fulfill our dreams.
Woman: GPC report. Odyssey is complete with position home.
Man: Can you switch to manual payload?
Woman: No problem. Manuel payload is activated. Signal from command execution.
Man: Roger. Are you getting video?
Woman: Affirmative. Delta camera is on and tracking.
Narrator: Our journey has been long. From primal caves we have ventured forth traveling the endless corridors of time seeking answers to our tomorrow. With growing knowledge and growing communication, we have changed our lives, changed our world.
Narrator: From the reaches of space to the depths of the sea, we have spun a vast electronic network linking ourselves as fellow passengers together, on Spaceship Earth.
(Ride vehicles pass by several TV screens.)
Narrator: Today our search for understanding is unbounded by space and time. Vast stores of information, knowledge from everywhere, standing ready at our beck and call to reach us in an instant. With our great network, we harness our knowledge, give it shape and form to serve us, to help create and communicate a better awareness of ourselves, and our world.
Narrator: Ours is the age of knowledge, the age of choice and opportunity.
Narrator: Tomorrow's world approaches, so let us listen and learn, let us explore and question and understand. Let us go forth and discover the wisdom to guide great Spaceship Earth through the uncharted seas of the future. Let us dare to fulfill our destiny.
One of the perks of having an annual Disney pass is the ability to make the spontaneously suggestion, "Do you want to go to EPCOT for lunch?"
Continuing from our list of food experiences,
New Zealand Steamed Green-Lipped Mussels with Garlic Butter and Toasted Breadcrumbs, and Seared Venison Loin with Wild Mushroom Marsala Sauce and Kumara Dumpling. I passed on the mussels, but Porter said they were delicious. The venison was as well, though he said it was not as good as the venison he had in New Zealand itself, being less flavorful. Most of the food at Disney is made more bland than it should be.
Australia Grilled Sweet and Spicy Bush Berry Shrimp with Pineapple, Pepper, Onion and Snap Peas. Good, with more spice than I've come to expect from Disney, probably too much for our friends who like their food mild.
China Sichuan Spicy Chicken. Delicious! Definitely too spicy for our friends who prefer their food mild.
South Korea Korean-style BBQ Beef with Steamed Rice and Cucumber Kimchi. Good, but nothing special, and far too mild. I would have said the salad was cucumber slices with a dash of vinegar—hardly kimchi.
Japan The shaved ice is becoming a tradition. Because we've had the tangerine flavor twice, we tried cherry this time. Good, but tangerine is still the best. Of cousre we had the sweet milk sauce; I need to figure out how to make that at home.
Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. Delicious! Surprisingly, the concoction was not too sweet, which made it delightful.
Morocco Kefta Pocket: Seasoned Ground Beef in a Pita Pocket. Very good.
France Boeuf Bourguignon: Cabernet Sauvignon-braised short Ribs with Mashed Potatoes. Porter voted this even better than Canada's Filet Mignon (see previous post). Good as it was, I disagreed, and had planned to reassure myself on that point, but...
Canada Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup served with a Pretzel Roll. By the time we had eaten our way to Canada, I was too full to appreciate the filet, so we chose the bacon-y cheddar soup instead. It was very good, but next time I'm saving room for the beef.
As we made our way to the park's exit, we stopped by the Festival Center's Ghirardelli booth to top off our meal with some complimentary chocolate.
We're not finished, I hope, with our visits to EPCOT's Food and Wine Festival, but someone asked which were our favorites, so I'll make my answer into a review, albeit one that will need updating.
This annual event at EPCOT is not for the epicure who can find cheaper and more authentic ethnic food nearby. This is Disney, after all, and thus the food is more Americanized that we would like. But for us—living here and having annual passes—it's a delightful way to enjoy many little tastes of different foods. Not having to pay for admission and parking makes us feel more free to spend what amounts to a lot of money for the quantity of food consumed.
Our procedure for getting the most out of our tasting experience is to order one item at a time from each kiosk, and share it. The portions are very small, so we can eat from many countries before running out of appetite. At those prices ($4-$8 per taste) there's no temptation to eat when we can't truly appreciate the food.
So far there has been nothing we didn't like, though some dishes were more impressive than others. In the list below, assume we liked it unless I note otherwise. If it was really special, I'll note that, too.
Ireland Irish Cheese Selection Plate: Irish Cheddar, Dubliner, and Irish Porter.
Belgium Beer-braised Beef served with Smoked Gouda Mashed Potatoes.
Japan Tangerine shaved ice with sweet milk topping. It's basically a glorified snow cone, but delicious and just right for a hot day. The "sweet milk" topping costs an extra dollar, but is the reason we bought this in the first place, having fallen in love with sweet milk ice cream on our visit to the real Japan.
Hawai'i Spicy Tuna Poke with Seaweed Salad and Nori Rice. It left me craving one of those big chunks of raw tuna they celebrate with in Japan.
Canada "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle-Butter Sauce. The beef was delicious and tender, though hardly the "rare" we were told it would be. The wild mushrooms and the truffle butter were fantastic.
France Soupe à l'oignon au Gruyère et Cognac. Awesome. We're coming back for this a second time, though all of the offerings at France look delicious and will need to be sampled.
Brazil Pão de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread). Okay, but not worth buying again. The bread was good, but the cheese bland.
Belgium Belgian Waffle with Berry Compote and Whipped Cream. Delicious! Surprisingly, the concoction was not too sweet, which made it delightful.
Morocco Spicy Hummus Fries with Cucumber, Tomato, Onions, and Tzatziki Sauce. It seems disingenuous to call these "fries." "Fried hummus" would have been more accurate. But they were good. Morocco is always one of our favorite places to eat at EPCOT.
Japan Reprise of the tangerine shaved ice with sweet milk sauce. The days are still hot in Florida. There are other flavors, but the tangerine is so good....
We travelled counterclockwise around World Showcase, but stopped eating mid-way around. We'll have to go the other way next time, and catch the many countries we had to walk reluctantly past.
We did, however, stop at the Festival Center on our way out of the park, for the free samples of Ghirardelli chocolate.
Now I'm hungry just writing about it.
Ember Falls: The Green Ember, Book II by S. D. Smith (Story Warren Books, 2016)
It was with a heroic effort I refrained from reading Ember Falls until this week. I'd received an advance copy because of supporting its publication on Kickstarter, and when it arrived I nearly drooled on it, but I had decided to wait until I finished some other books—not more important, but important in a different way—and also so that I could reread the other two books in the series: The Green Ember, and its prequel, The Black Star of Kingston. It had been almost exactly a year since I'd read them, and I figured I'd enjoy Ember Falls more with a little refresher.
But finally the day came, and Ember Falls was mine to devour. It didn't take long, even though I refused to let myself stay up all night to finish it. I'm not that crazy. And in any case the story didn't end: I'm already panting for Book III.
Not that the ending of Ember Falls is unsatisfactory, but it isn't an ending.
Pretty much everything I had to say in my review of the previous books applies here, so I'm going to quote a big chunk of it. At the end I'll add some Ember Falls-specific comments.
The Green Ember is just a story. It's not a lesson, it's not a sneaky vehicle to teach you something. It's just a story. But I believe in the power of stories. — S. D. Smith
I also believe in the power of stories, whether from a book, a movie, a video game, or any other medium. Even at my age I must be careful what stories I let myself experience, because I'm so vulnerable to their effects. By now most of you know what's coming, my definition of a good book, slightly paraphrased: A good story inspires me to be a better person. These are good stories, not at all in a syrupy way, but shot through with reality, life, action, and beauty.
It was a little jarring at first to wrap my head around the idea that the rabbits have both human and rabbit physical characteristics. That is, they are fully capable of using their front paws as hands (e.g. wielding swords, making stained glass windows, knitting), while their hind legs are rabbit-style powerful weapons. But it didn't take me long to get over it.
Let's see, what do I like about this book, other than its positive impact and the fact that I was immediately entranced and didn't want to put it down?
- The primary protagonist is a strong female character. I've mentioned before how I grew up with books that made me embarrassed to be a girl, and nearly always identified with the male characters instead. Here's a female character who can think, fight, nurture, worry, and push herself beyond her limits.
- This rabbit heroine is named Heather!
- The secondary protagonist, Pickett, is highly intelligent and mathematically talented, and his gifts don't make him a freak, but rather a valuable asset in the community.
- Due to his young age and the trauma in his life, Pickett has some dangerous emotional issues. The wisest rabbits in the community don't seek to make him "normal," but instead help him find healing through becoming more, not less, himself.
- This is very much a medieval rabbit world. They fight with swords and arrows—and feet and just a little bit of gunpowder. They make clothing by hand. Skills are learned through apprenticeship. Somehow chivalry and honor and high callings fit better in a medieval-themed world, as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis amply demonstrated. Even George Lucas filled his high-tech future with swords and knights.
- The rabbit community values, supports, and praises excellence in every good endeavor, from cooking to fighting to building to storytelling. The end of the rabbits' world seems imminent, yet they emphasize the importance of the arts, and value doing the work of ordinary life extraordinarily well.
Ember Falls did not disappoint. I'll admit that of the three books thus far, it's not my favorite. That would be The Green Ember, because it shows more of the beauty of ordinary life done well. Ember Falls is clearly a middle book, necessarily darker and more filled with battles. (You all know how much I dislike battle scenes.) There are wonderful moments, definitely: goodness, truth, and beauty still pierce the darkness. But sometimes life is hard, calling for courage, loyalty, sacrifice, wisdom and forgiveness to shine more brightly than in happier times. At this Ember Falls succeeds abundantly.
I'm still very pleased with the way Smith handles his female characters. They are determined, and strong as steel, yet gentle and nurturing. If I have one complaint it is that Pickett, the young genius, hasn't yet been allowed to use his mathematical abilities for anything more than an extraordinarily good sense of spatial relations. But maybe that's necessary in war—and I am glad that Smith breaks the stereotype that associates mental gifts with clumsiness and lack of common sense.
Bring on the next book! Bring on the next Kickstarter appeal. I'll be there. #RabbitsWithSwords
This is my 100th post for the year. Apparently I'm pretty consistent. Last year I wrote my 100th post on September 21.
Saturday is baking day, and I was just taking the first sheet of chewy M&M cookies out of the oven when Porter came into the kitchen and announced, "If we can get there in 40 minutes, we can catch the $6 showing of Sully."
I judged I could get the second sheet baked while cleaning up the kitchen and getting myself ready to go, so I thrust it in the oven and got to work, putting the remainder of the dough in the refrigerator to be baked later. (I had originally written simply, "for later," but there are those among my readers who would suspect me of setting aside the dough to be eaten raw. That has been known to happen.)
We arrived at the theater in time to sit through 20 minutes' worth of ads and previews that convinced me there was nothing I wanted to buy and no more movies I wanted to watch.
But I certainly am glad I watched Sully.
There's a wee bit of bad language, but nonetheless I highly recommend the film for our older grandchildren. The true story of the 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" is awe-inspiring, and very well crafted. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time despite already knowing the outcome. I understand the filmmakers were a little hard on the National Transportation Safety Board for dramatic purposes, but otherwise I believe the movie is true to the facts.
I walked out of the theater with renewed appreciation for the value of experience, practice, and preparedness. For what it takes to be an asset rather than a liability in an emergency situation. And for always knowing the nearest exit and where to find your life vest, even if you've heard the spiel a thousand times.
As others warned us, don't leave without watching the credits.
Hiroshima: The Unforgettable Account of the Event that Opened the Atomic Age by John Hersey (Bantam Books, 1946)
The paperback copy I read shows an original price of twenty-five cents; the pages are darkened and some are coming unbound. Hersey was the Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Bell for Adano. Hiroshima was his next book, arising from his experiences in Japan. (Our bookshelves also hold another of Hersey's many books, written forty years later: Blues. Based on Hiroshima, I've moved Blues higher up on my reading list.)
The story—actually, a compilation of stories from several survivors of the bombing—is not surprisingly very similar to the events in Hiroshima Diary, but from other perspectives and enough difference to make it worth reading both.
Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 - September 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya, M.D., translated and edited by Warner Wells, M.D. (University of North Carolina Press, 1955)
Dr. Hachiya was at his home in Hiroshima when the Enola Gay flew over. Critically injured, he somehow made his way to his hospital, which was only a few hundred meters away. The diary chronicles his experiences as observer and victim, patient and doctor, human being and Japanese citizen. I recommend this book highly. Even though my copy is from 1955, Hiroshima Diary is not hard to find, even in Kindle form—though the Kindle version is surprisingly pricy for an old book.
Nobody said it better than William Tecumseh Sherman: War is hell. Even when it's necessary, even when it's the most merciful option, there's no getting around that point. And even if we believe that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to less suffering than a protracted war would have, it's good to take an up-close-and-personal look at the collateral damage.
Hachiya's description of the wounds, the burns, the heat, the lack of essential supplies, the incessant rain, the filth, the flies, the fear, and the grief-stricken cries could be from almost any war or natural disaster. Unique to Hiroshima, however, was the great unknown. The horror of a city suddenly gone. Except for a very few hulks that had been well-constructed buildings, Hiroshima was just gone. Even to a people accustomed to bombs and destruction, there was nothing like this. Doctors stitched up wounds and treated burns, but what was it that caused the skin to blotch and the hair to fall out? Why did people without a burn or a wound suddenly sicken and die? I was reminded of the years of the Black Death, when large numbers were dying a horrible death, no one knew how to treat or prevent it, and anyone who stayed or came to help feared he was signing his own death sentence.
Reading Hiroshima Diary is a good exercise in seeing "the enemy" as human beings with the same loves, joys, concerns, fears, and hopes that we have. The same virtues of self-sacrifice, kindness, concern for others, generosity, and patient suffering.
And, lest we make the opposite mistake of idealizing the victims, they have the same vices, too.
Following the news that Nagasaki had been bombed, a man came in ... with the incredible story that Japan had the same mysterious weapon, but until now, had kept it a strict secret and had not used it because it was judged too horrible even to mention. This man went on to say that a special attack squad from the navy had now used the bomb on the mainland of America.... If San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles had been hit like Hiroshima, what chaos there must be in those cities! At last Japan was retaliating! The whole atmosphere in the ward changed, and for the first time since Hiroshima was bombed, everyone became cheerful and bright.
Crime, too, became a problem: from Jean Valjan-style stealing to keep a loved one from dying, to "mere" selfishness, to unspeakable abuse of power.
What a sorry spectacle, I thought, to have such ugly behavior added to the burden of people already crushed by defeat. The ruthless and greedy were ruling the city whereas never before had there been such need for unselfishness and good breeding.
The old proverbs: "Justice is strength" and "Better is character than birth" were no longer applicable. At least they were not adhered to. It seemed to me that the discipline of education was effective only during peace time when there was law and order. Character cannot be improved by education. It reveals itself when there are no police to maintain order. Education is a veneer, a plating. Educated or not a man exposes his true character in times of stress, and the strong win. The proverbs invert and strength becomes justice, and birth more important than character. Force then rules the country.
We are the same in virtue and in vice—and yet different, too. I understand Hachiya's anger and frustration with the Japanese army, which he (and apparently many others) faulted for driving the Emperor into war, as well as for general abuse of the public. What I, as an American, don't get is their absolute adoration of the Emperor. And not him only, but even his picture.
A visitor interrupted my meditation. He was an employee in the General Affairs section of the Bureau who had had the grave responsibility of protecting the Emperor's picture in case of emergency. He was on a streetcar which had just reached Hakushima when the bomb exploded. Making his way through the darkened streets and around fallen houses, he managed to reach the Bureau ahead of the fires. His first act on arriving was to run to the fourth floor where the Emperor's picture hung and pry open an iron door behind which it was kept. With the assistance of Messrs. Awaya, Oishi, and Kagehira, he carried it to the chief's office and discussed with Mr. Ushio what should be done with it. After much discussion it was decided the safest place would be the Hiroshima Castle, where less smoke appeared to be rising than elsewhere. Thereupon, the picture was placed on Mr. Yasuda's back and with Mr. Kagehira in the lead, Mr. Ushio guarding the rear, and Mr. Awaya and Mr. Oishi covering the flanks, they made their way to the inner garden of the Bureau and announced they were going to take the Emperor's picture to a safer place. Two or three times they repeated: "The Emperor's picture will be transferred to the West Drill Field by the Chief of General Affairs!" Those among staff and patients who heard this announcement bowed low and the procession went out through the back gate. Suddenly, it was realized they had forgotten the Communications Bureau flag, a part of the ritual necessary when the Emperor's picture was moved from one place to another, so Mr. Awaya was chosen to go back for it. Before he could return with the flag the party was threatened by fire and went on without him. At the castle entrance they explained to a soldier the purpose of their mission and asked the nearest way to the drillfield. The soldier told them the field was threatened by fire, so they changed course and went in the direction of the Asano Sentei Park. Reaching the dikes of the Ota River skirting the part Chief Ushio got the picture across to a safer place.
During its flight, the party encounered many dead and wounded, as well as soldiers near the barracks, the number increasing as they neared the dikes. Along the streetcar line circling the western border of the park they found so many dead and wounded they could hardly walk. At one point it became impossible, so great were the masses of people around them. The party shouted, "The Emperor's picture! The Emperor's picture!" Those who could, soldiers and citizens, stood and saluted or bowed. Those who could not stand offered a prayer with hands clasped. Miraculously, the crowd opened and the picture was borne triumphantly to the river's edge!
"Oh, it was magnificent!" Mr. Yasuda exclaimed. "When I gave the Emperor's picture to Chief Ushio and when the chief got in a boat someone unaccountably provided, I was desolate. An officer drew his sword and gave orders in a loud voice for the crossing and in response all the officers and soldiers lining the river bank stood at attention and saluted. Civilians stood in line and bowed."
One more thing, for those of you who have or have considered stockpiling supplies, from food and water to weapons and ammunition, in case of dire emergency: have you considered cigarettes? Farthest thing from my mind. But nothing has convinced me more of the addictive properties of nicotine than this, written just 17 days after the bomb fell.
Mr. Shiota was our manager and for several days had been back at his post. When he was able to walk, one of the first things he did was to show up with two bags, each of which contained fifty packages of cigarettes. Where and how he got them I will never know, but you can imagine our surprise and delight. ... For a while, we kept the packages on display the better to enjoy this unexpected bounty. Throughout the hospital habitual smokers drew a breath of relief. Why, a good, strong, working man could do more work with a pack of cigarettes. By the same token, the efficiency of our student helpers could be measurably increased. We could do anything as long as we had an abundant supply of cigarettes. This luxury had become exceedingly scarce in Hiroshima because of its value in barter.
In the ruins of Hiroshima money was valueless and cigarettes took over as a medium of exchange.
Perhaps nicotine addiction is not so widespread at this time, but is there something else—small, easily transported, and not prone to spoilage—that might be a useful form of currency in a situation where money has lost its value? It's worth thinking about.
Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him by Resa Willis (Atheneum, 1992)
Mark and Livy was a gift from a friend, who thought I might be interested because Samuel Clemens' wife was a Langdon. As it turns out, we are not related through the Langdon line—unless our common ancestor was back in England and in the 17th century or earlier. The book sat on my shelves until my 95 by 65 project (goal #63) encouraged me to pick it up.
I was going to say that Mark and Livy does not meet my primary criterion for being a "good book": that it inspire me in some way to become a better person. On reflection, however, I realized it has left me with a determination (which needs to be won repeatedly) to be less judgemental of others, especially those of other times and cultures. There are so many advantages we take for granted here and now—and how easy it is to believe that our good characteristics are the outflow of our good character, and not simply because we are not in pain!
Samuel and Olivia Clemens lived in the latter half of the 19th century. They died years before antibiotics were available. They didn't even have aspirin. Common vaccines had yet to be developed. Diphtheria took the life of the Clemenses' firstborn when he was not yet two—as it did so many children of the time. Headaches could last for weeks, and infections linger for months. In an age of great medical ignorance, treatments were often worse than the diseases. It is now known that even three weeks of remaining in bed does terrible damage even to healthy bodies, but at that time bed rest was the go-to cure for everything. As a teenager, Olivia was kept in bed for two years. Even mental exertion was considered harmful and to be avoided as much as possible.
No wonder so many middle- and upper-class women of that time suffered from a malaise sometimes called nervous prostration. With careers and mental stimulation mostly closed to them; with cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, wet nurses, nannies, and tutors doing all the meaningful work around the house; and with every illness sending them into darkened bedrooms, deprived of most human contact (visitors, even beloved husbands, put too much strain on the system)—they were bored out of their minds. And out of their health much of the time as well.
Some things never change: Doctors blamed the problem on the demands of modern life: "...the fast ways of the American people, with their hurried lives, late hours, and varied excesses, wear upon the nervous system of all, especially that of sensitive, impressible women."
Should I be condescending over Mark and Livy's susceptibility to every quack and crackpot philosophy that came down the pike? Needs must when the devil drives.
For more about health and medical care in the 19th century, don't miss The Luxury of Feeling Good from The Occasional CEO, coincidentally published this morning.
Langdon Clemens, the couple's firstborn son who died young, was considered sickly all his life. He was born a month premature and never seemed to be healthy. It was diphtheria that killed him in the end—it killed many who were otherwise healthy—but the book gives no clue as to what caused him to be "sickly." What struck me, however, was that he was considered "slow" in his development. Perhaps he was, but I'm not convinced by the concerns that he wasn't walking by nine months, nor talking when he was "almost a year old"! What did they expect in those days? And of a preemie who started life a month behind?
Here's a fun fact:
Livy and Clemens felt the need to get away [from Hartford's summer heat]. In July they left for New Saybrook, Connecticut ... where all could enjoy the cool winds off Long Island Sound.
New Saybrook? Old Saybrook I know well enough! But New Saybrook? Where on earth is that? Here's a hint:
...they lodged at a hotel called Fenwick Hall....
New Saybrook, it turns out, is an old name for Fenwick! Here's a bit of its history in a New York Times article from 1995, though it doesn't mention a thing about the best-of-all-Fenwick-houses. Still, it's rather amazing to think that Mark Twain could have walked past where the Maggie P. now stands.
Despite being wealthy enough to vacation at Fenwick, the Clemenses had endless money problems and often lived in Europe because that was less expensive for them. That tells less about Europe than about the difficulties of living up to the expectations of their Hartford social set, I'm afraid. Still, it was fun to read:
Clemens ... walked to the top of the Rigi in the Alps.
We've been there! We did not walk, however. I wonder from which point he started his hike?
Despite the strictures of the day and her onerous social obligations, Livy found some outlet for her considerable intelligence. The best part of her day was when she felt free to teach their children:
After breakfast and after she had given the servants their orders for the day, Livy and her daughters worked diligently in their schoolroom on the second floor. Their studies included German, geography, American history, arithmetic, penmanship, and English, with some extra diversions of tossing beanbags, gymnastics, and sewing. [The girls were five and seven at the time.] If they finished their lessons before twelve-thirty, Livy read to them. [Clara] at five and eager to please, knew all the answers but often got her questions confused. When her mother asked, "What is geography?" she replied, "A round ball." When asked what was the shape of the earth, she replied, "Green."
Moreover, Livy was Mark Twain's most important editor, smoothing off the rough edges of the wild writer from the West and making his books acceptable and marketable.
This she far preferred to her social responsibilities as the wife of a famous author and the scion of a wealthy family. (Yes, the Langdons were wealthy—further proof that we're not closely related.)
She increasingly questioned her role as hostess and felt bad because she did.
This is my work, and I know that I do very wrong when I feel chafed by it, but how can I be right about it? Sometimes it seems as if the simple sight of people would drive me mad. I am all wrong; if I would simply accept the fact that this is my work and let other things go, I know I should not be so fretted; but I want so much to do other things to study and do things with the children and I cannot.
In the plus ça change department, do you think we suffer from helicopter parenting today? The Clemenses kept their daughters close in what today would probably be considered an unhealthy relationship of mutual dependence. Further,
[Clemens] insisted his daughters be chaperoned everywhere they went, and Clara was until she married at the age of thirty-five [emphasis mine].
That makes being on your parents' health insurance until 26 seem almost reasonable.
And still more: I'll admit I'm weak in history. I knew about the Great Depression, but if I thought of it at all, saw it as an anomaly, a one-time, terrible event. Thus the economic problems we have been having lately have been particularly concerning. I had no idea, until reading Mark and Livy, how common market crashes, panics, and recessions have been throughout history.
Just as John Marshall Clemens never recovered from the Panic of 1837, this panic [of 1893] nearly destroyed his son. It began who knows where but was aided by a drain on the gold reserve by foreign investors who sold their securities and withdrew them in gold from the U.S. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act, allowing gold to be used to purchase silver, further depleted the federal gold reserve by nearly one hundred million. Gold meant confidence. Without either, the dominoes began to fall. The stock market crash eventually took with it 160 railroads, five hundred banks and sixteen thousand businesses. It was estimated by 1894 that 20 to 25 percent of the work force was unemployed. Those with jobs went on strike to get decent wages as there seemed to be no money anywhere. Miners across the nation refused to work. Eventually the Langdon coal mines and Livy's income shut down.
Rich or poor, black or white, first- or third-world, centuries ago or yesterday morning: our tragedies and our trials, our worries, our hopes, and our joys are more universal than not.
We are humanity.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts (Noonday Press, 1991; original published 1962)
This is must reading for the generation that never knew the Cold War. It's short and quick reading, 182 pages of fairly large print. Not easy reading, because of the subject (Soviet prison camp life), but although it's a little coarse in places, I'd still highly recommend it for our not-quite-13 grandchild. Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel prize winner with good reason, though America liked him a lot better when he was criticizing the Soviet Union than when he subsequently criticized the United States.
I started playing with Duolingo back when it was in private beta, though I didn't make it a regular habit for another year or so. I've been pretty regular since early 2014, however, and I think it's great. I've been doing French and German the longest. I'm at Level 24 in each of them, and have finished all the lessons available in French. I had been on track to finish German not much later, but suddenly the German lessons were revised to add a whole lot more material. I'm not complaining, and hope they will do so for the French at some point. For now, I'm still making my way through new German lessons while constantly reviewing the French. I chose French because that's the language I spent 3.5 years learning in school, and German because of our Swiss family. Sadly, Duolingo has no Swiss German lessons, so High German will have to do. High German is more generally useful, anyway, but I do find myself resenting having to type the eszett, which isn't used in the Swiss version of High German but is required by Duolingo.
At some point in 2015 I added Spanish (now Level 13), out of a feeling of obligation. I live in Florida, and that makes Spanish the most practical foreign language to learn. No doubt because I am learning it for duty rather than love, it is my least favorite of the languages. I'm hoping I'll like it more as I get better at it. It took me quite a while to start liking German....
This spring, when we travelled to Venice, I added Italian (now Level 9), just for fun. I'm enjoying it, especially when I note the similarities and differences with Spanish and French. I'm hoping we'll eventually manage a trip with friends to Cortona, where it will be polite to have at least a little Italian.
Am I learning anything? I'm certainly not becoming fluent. (I have yet to figure out how Duolingo does its calculations. It claims I'm 49% fluent in Spanish, a bald-faced lie if there ever was one.) And even though I practice speaking along with reading and writing, I know I couldn't carry out a decent conversation in any of the languages. Or even a halting, broken conversation.
However, that does not trouble me. What I am doing is increasing my familiarity with the languages, educating my ear and my speech, picking up some grammar and vocabulary, and preparing pathways in my brain for a time when I might have the opportunity to learn in a more interactive situation. I hope that by laying a foundation now, I will make faster progress at that hypothetical time. In any case, it's fun to understand a few things I did not before: When I saw a restaurant named Cena, I recognized the Italian word for "dinner."
It has also been interesting to note changes in my learning as I progress. At the beginning, I made sure to separate my language learning sessions. If I studied French in the morning, I'd tackle German in the evening. Otherwise, I'd get confused. Then suddenly, I didn't. And I really mean suddenly. All at once I could switch between languages with no interval in between. I don't mean that the German word won't sometimes come to me first when I'm working in French, or vice versa, but it doesn't happen often, and it no longer bothers me. The hardest, now, is between Italian and Spanish, because both are new to me and so many words are very similar but not identical.
I do Duolingo both on my laptop and using the app on my phone. The interfaces are different, and each is valuable in its own way. Right now I'm in a routine of using the phone most of the time, because I do my Duolingo lessons as part of my daily exercise (more on that later). For each language I generally do the suggested review ("strengthen") and then one additional lesson (except in French, where I've reached the end). The process is slower on the phone, but since I'm exercising at the same time, that's not a problem. Obviously I can't keep the same learning schedule when we're travelling, but as long as there's an Internet connection available, I can do enough that catching up is not difficult.
It's even more fun to share Duolingo with family members and friends!
Will Rogers: Wise and Witty Sayings of a Great American Humorist (Hallmark, 1969)
Perusing my bookshelves with an eye on my 95 by 65 goal #63 (Read 26 existing but as yet unread books from my bookshelves), I came upon this little book of quotations from Will Rogers. He lived from 1879 to 1935 and much of his wit is just as appropriate today.
Rogers was the eighth child in his family. Developing a sense of humor was probably self-defense.
We will never get anywhere with our finances till we pass a law saying that every time we appropriate something we got to pass another bill along with it stating where the money is coming from.
No nation in the history of the world was ever sitting as pretty. If we want anything, all we have to do is go and buy it on credit. So that leaves us without any economic problems whatsoever, except perhaps some day to have to pay for them.
Let advertisers spend the same amount of money improving their product that they do on advertising and they wouldn't have to advertise it.
Why don't they pass a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? And if it works as good as the Prohibition one did, in five years we would have the smartest race of people on earth.
Personally I think the saloon men put this prohibition through, as they have sold more in the last year than in any ten previous years before.
A good man can't do nothing in office because the System is against him, and a bad one can't do anything for the same reason. So bad as we are, we are better off than any other nation, so what's the use to worry?
If we didn't have two parties, we would all settle on the best men in the country and things would run fine. But as it is, we settle on the worst ones and then fight over 'em.
The Republican Convention  opened with a prayer. If the Lord can see his way clear to bless the Republican Party the way it's been carrying on, then the rest of us ought to get it without even asking for it.
There has been many who has had to say, "Mister, can you spare a dime," but President Roosevelt is the first man in the history of the world who looked a nation in the face and said, "Mister, can you spare ten billion dollars?" Well, Congress and the American people considered it such a compliment to be asked for that much that they really liked it.
One way to solve the traffic problem would be to keep all the cars that are not paid for off the streets. Children could use the streets for playgrounds then.
We have killed more people celebrating our Independence Day that we lost fighting for it.
If all the time consumed in attending dinners and luncheons was consumed in some work, the production of this country would be doubled.
It's funny how quick a college boy can find out that the world is wrong. He might go out in the world from high school and live in it, and make a living in it for years and think it wasn't such a bad place, but let him go to college and he will be the first one down on the square on May Day to shout down with the government. But as soon as they grow up and go out and if they happen to make anything, why, they backslide.
The banker, the lawyer, and the politician are still our best bets for a laugh. Audiences haven't changed at all, and neither has the three above professions.
If we can just let other people alone and do their own fighting, we would be in good shape. When you get in trouble five thousand miles away from home you've got to have been looking for it.
Nobody wants his cause near as bad as he wants to talk about his cause.
Heroes are made every little while, but only one in a million conduct themselves afterwards so that it makes us proud that we honored them at the time.
A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics has ever read.
No nation has a monopoly on good things. Each one has something that the others could well afford to adopt.
You know I have often said in answer to inquiries as to how I got away with kidding some of our public men, that it was because I liked all of them personally, and that if there was no malice in your heart there could be none in your "gags," and I have always said I never met a man I didn't like.
The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer (W. W. Norton, 2013)
Three years ago, when I finished reading Bauer's The History of the Medieval World, I wrote a brief review. With very minor tweaks it could serve just as well for a review of her history of the Renaissance. I'm still looking forward to her next installment, whenever that may be; I'm still tired of "kings and battles and political intrigue" factor and want to hear more about art, music, and everyday life; I'm still hopelessly confused by the endless repetition of the same names for European rulers and the unpronounceable names of rulers everywhere else; and I still love seeing the connections between European history and my genealogical research.
Slowly, slowly I am building up a historical framework in my mind. When I was in school, I didn't have the least interest in history. I had negative interest in history, actually. Math was important, science was important—but history? Boring and useless. Out-of-date. Now I know better. For all I know, history in schools may still be boring, but that tragedy doesn't diminish its importance. Without knowing where we've been, we don't know where we are, and we certainly don't know where we should go and how we might get there.
I would still put the ability to read well and excellence in mathematics at the top of my list of educational priorities, but a solid grounding in history would come next.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2012)
After reading this book, I have the uneasy feeling that it is sometimes oversimplified and doesn't tell the whole story. It is, however, heavily documented—when I read the last sentence of the text my Kindle told me I was merely 75% through the book—and anyone who wants to take the trouble to dig further can do so. More importantly, anyone who wants to test out Duhigg's theories of the power of our habits can easily experiment in the laboratory of his own life.
There's a lot in The Power of Habit that will be familiar to the circle of my readers who are working hard on personal change and challenge. We already know the importance of habit and routines, of baby steps and small wins. But Duhigg's numerous examples and summaries of scientific research are valuable and inspiring.
Our habits aren't just part of our lives—they are what make the rest of our lives possible. Habits are the infrastructure that takes care of the basics and frees our brains for higher work. As habits become part of our brain's structure, they make the difference between sounding out c-a-t and enjoying a novel, between learning to drive and toolin' down the highway.
So habits are good. Well, good habits are good. But the brain doesn't distinguish between good and bad habits. (I'm not sure that's true. Why else would a good habit take weeks to establish but a bad habit seems to stick after a few days?)
Good or bad, habit formation has a basic structure:
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.... Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually ... a habit is born.
And it never really goes away. It's always there, in the brain. That's good, because it means that after falling out of a good routine we can get back in less time than it took to establish it. But it also means that the bad habits we thought we had conquered are lurking there, ready to ensnare us again if we aren't wary.
Habits aren’t destiny. ... [H]abits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It.
How is this accomplished? By following the cue, which triggers the bad habit, with a different routine, but the same reward. It's a little more complicated than that, or the book would be a lot shorter. One important factor is identifying what is truly rewarding the action. Do I eat a doughnut every morning because I'm hungry, or because I crave sugar, or because it provides an excuse for socializing with my coworkers? Only when you know what the reward provides can you determine an appropriate good routine to replace the one you want to eliminate.
[H]abits are so powerful [because] they create neurological cravings.
[C]ountless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
More good news lies in the concept of keystone habits. It turns out that very often changing one habit, conquering one problem leads in a domino effect to victories in other areas.
The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.” They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious. ... A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.
Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.
“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
For almost all our married life, we have kept track of every penny earned and spent. It's the best way we know of to learn where our spending habits are on track and when they're veering off into trouble. I've always been surprised at how few people do that—even people who have far more cause to be concerned about money matters than we do. I mention it because that exercise turns out to be one of the ones researchers have used for building "willpower muscles."
Participants were asked to keep detailed logs of everything they bought, which was annoying at first, but eventually people worked up the self-discipline to jot down every purchase.
As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
An important concept in strengthening willpower is recognizing inflection points—situations in which one is most vulnerable to temptation—and creating a plan to deal with them. Then rehearsing the desired response to the point where the temptation cue triggers the healthy action.
This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.
A better response to apparent failure (backsliding, falling off the wagon, slipping out of one's organizational routine yet again) is also critical:
Studies suggest that this process of experimentation—and failure—is critical in long-term habit change. Smokers often quit and then start smoking again as many as seven times before giving up cigarettes for good. It’s tempting to see those relapses as failures, but what’s really occurring are experiments.
If you choose pressure-release moments ahead of time—if, in other words, you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery—you’re more likely to snap back faster.
There is much, much more to The Power of Habit than personal change. That is only Part One. Parts Two and Three are about the habits of organizations and societies. That I'm skipping lightly over them in this review does not mean they are uninteresting or unimportant. If you want to know more about the news story that broke a while back, in which Target knew, from her buying patterns alone, that a teenage girl was pregnant (including her approximate due date) before her family did—this is the place.
And it was here that I finally learned the sad, sad story of Febreze. Proctor and Gamble serendipitously discovered a chemical that could actually eliminate odors, removing the cigarette smell from clothing, and pet odor from carpets, instead of simply masking them.
P&G, sensing an opportunity, launched a top-secret project to turn HPBCD into a viable product. They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor. The science behind the spray was so advanced that NASA would eventually use it to clean the interiors of shuttles after they returned from space. The best part was that it was cheap to manufacture, didn’t leave stains, and could make any stinky couch, old jacket, or stained car interior smell, well, scentless.
But it didn't sell, because people don't notice the stinks closest to home. The product was almost trashed, until P&G gave it a strong scent.
[A]fter the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting—craving—the Febreze scent. ... “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now."
“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”
And that's why the one bottle of Febreze I bought, many years ago, sat unused after the first spray. I had bought an odor eliminator, or so I had thought, and had ended up with an odor-creater. Yuck. I do crave scentlessness: in my cleansers, in my paper products, in my greeting cards, in anything that's not supposed to have a smell. In my garden I love odors: roses, gardenias, orange blossoms. In my kitchen I love odors: baking bread, bubbling stew, cookies fresh from the oven. But not in my clothing, linens, and carpets!
On a more serious note, consider this response from a major gambling establishment, accused of unethical behavior in the case of a compuslive gambler:
Like most large companies in the service industry, we pay attention to our customers’ purchasing decisions as a way of monitoring customer satisfaction and evaluating the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns. Like most companies, we look for ways to attract customers, and we make efforts to maintain them as loyal customers. And like most companies, when our customers change their established patterns, we try to understand why, and encourage them to return. That’s no different than a hotel chain, an airline, or a dry cleaner. That’s what good customer service is about.…
“But what was really interesting [in an MRI study of gamblers] were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”
Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable. “Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire,” said a state lottery consultant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “You want to know why sales have exploded? Every other scratch-off ticket is designed to make you feel like you almost won.”
In the late 1990s, one of the largest slot machine manufacturers hired a former video game executive to help them design new slots. That executive’s insight was to program machines to deliver more near wins. Now, almost every slot contains numerous twists—such as free spins and sounds that erupt when icons almost align—as well as small payouts that make players feel like they are winning when, in truth, they are putting in more money than they are getting back. “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” an addictive-disorder researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine told a New York Times reporter in 2004.
If you think all that's scary, try this:
[W]ise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told a conference of chief executives in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, soon after he was appointed as President Obama’s chief of staff. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Soon afterward, the Obama administration convinced a once-reluctant Congress to pass the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan. Congress also passed Obama’s health care reform law, reworked consumer protection laws, and approved dozens of other statutes, from expanding children’s health insurance to giving women new opportunities to sue over wage discrimination. It was one of the biggest policy overhauls since the Great Society and the New Deal, and it happened because, in the aftermath of a financial catastrophe, lawmakers saw opportunity.
Once you realize what's happening, you see it everywhere. From the Great Depression and the New Deal, to the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the Patriot Act, to school shootings and the campaign against gun ownership, people are frightened and vulnerable in times of crisis. That's when we are most prone to demagoguery, and our leaders most likely to make serious mistakes.
The author actually presents this vulnerability to change in crisis as something positive, a chance for hide-bound corporations to make much-needed changes. To me, it brings new light to the tendency of politicians, activists, and the media to pour incessant hype on every negative event.
They're Your Kids: An Inspirational Journey from Self-Doubter to Home School Advocate by Sam Sorbo (Reveille Press, 2016)
I usually ignore the suggestions my Kindle pops up for me to read, but I'm a sucker for homeschooling stories, especially at $2.99. This one both pleased me and was woefully disappointing.
The pleasure came in the second part of the book, which describes the family's experience with homeschooling. I love these personal tales, whether the author shares my own educational philosophies or not. Homeschooling stories are infinitely varied and, to me, endlessly interesting. The Sorbos' adventures are no exception.
The disappointment came, as disappointment usually does, through foiled expectations.
I had read that the inspiration for the family to begin homeschooling came because the parents' careers (acting, modelling, writing) took them on the road a lot. "Aha," I thought. This could be the solution to a problem that has been troubling me.
Because we were homeschoolers before that educational option became popular—indeed, before it became legal in many states—my lovingly amassed collection of homeschooling stories is very old. Not that anyone's personal experiences can really become outdated, but I know that those currently homeschooling or considering the option would like to hear voices from the current century.
Moreover, while homeschooling was initially primarily a left-wing, "hippie" kind of movement, it was later enthusiastically adopted by Christians who had their own reasons for distrusting government schools, and many of the more recent stories have an unabashedly religious base. Nothing wrong with that—but it muddles the issues in some people's minds.
Knowing that They're Your Kids was from a family of traditionally secular, left-wing professions, I anticipated that it would provide a much-needed, different perspective.
It doesn't. Far from it. The beginning of the book is filled with the kind of anti-public-school ranting that the more secular folks associate with right-wing extremism, and which embarrasses so many of us who still consider ourselves both Christian and politically more right than left. Especially painful is that the author, like so many others, fails to distinguish the Common Core standards from some of the highly objectionable implementations. It's the kind of diatribe that may pump up those who already agree, but will turn off nearly everyone else.
Despite all this, I certainly don't regret buying They're Your Kids. It costs more than $2.99 to buy a bag of chips! What I'd recommend is skipping over the first part of the book and getting right into the Sorbos' story. Every homeschooler's story has a unique perspective and new ideas
I do have one more warning; it's for my readers who are trying to teach multiple levels and wrangle toddlers at the same time: Just ignore the part where she says her three kids get everything done in three hours. (We only had two and never finished in three hours.)
Herewith some of my favorite quotes:
“No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest - for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.” — T. S. Eliot
As good a job as the educators [at the Classical Christian school] were doing, I realized Shane was no longer at liberty to pursue his mathematics to his heart’s content. Now he was on a treadmill, along with his entire class.
I realized that teachers are, in fact, traffic control cops, and so my son was simply good at being herded. “What about his academics?”
“He’s doing fine...”
“Fine” was an unacceptable accolade, when I’d seen him love learning at home.
[Schools] adopt a plan that levels the expectations, by slowing down the better performers. Although this approach may seem counter-intuitive, it’s much easier to hold back the advanced students than try to accelerate the less gifted ones.
If revered institutions don’t complete the textbooks, why was I holding myself to such a high standard? Because I’m a perfectionist… but that’s unhealthy for my kids and me. I decided that just because I have high standards doesn’t mean I must follow and complete an entire curriculum to find educational satisfaction.
Keep your eye on the ball. Learning is the goal, the textbook is just a tool.
[A]t the risk of losing them to boredom or frustration, I err on the side of caution—everything in moderation. We cover the basics until I see they understand, confident that review is coming. This way, the loves of my life aren’t burdened with my obsessive perfectionism, agonizing to complete tomes of structured learning. I’d rather we concentrate on enjoying the process instead.
Early in life I’d learned to choose the hard thing, because boredom was worse than hard work.
Sometimes, you have to do something that’s hard simply because it is hard—to practice, to build strength.
Last year I had the privilege of reading and reviewing S. D. Smith's The Green Ember and The Black Star of Kingston. I'm thrilled to report that a new episode in the adventures of #RabbitsWithSwords will be available soon. The Kickstarter campaign for Ember Falls is almost over and has exceeded its goal—though I'm certain that if anyone wants to become a last-minute backer they will be as welcome as the earliest.
For some reason, the trailer isn't imbedding properly here and I can't find it on YouTube, but you can see it at the Kickstarter link.