altMark 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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 15, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Edit
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altOne 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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 12, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Edit
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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!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 7:50 am | Edit
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altWill 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 RogersHe 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 [1928] 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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 1, 2016 at 8:00 am | Edit
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altThe 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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Edit
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altThe 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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, July 10, 2016 at 9:22 am | Edit
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altThey'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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Edit
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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.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 8, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Edit
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altThe Lion of Saint Mark: A Tale of Venice in the 14th Century by G. A. Henty (Preston-Speed, 2000; originally published 1889)

When we decided to make a visit to Venice, Porter reviewed the appropriate lectures from our Great Courses Guide to Essential Italy and studied Rick Steves' website and Venice travel guide thoroughly.

Me?  I read G. A. Henty's The Lion of St. Mark.

Because Henty's works are primarily about young men and written with an audience of boys in mind, they devote more print to battle scenes than I would prefer; nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure novel set in historical Venice. The story was fun, I liked the characters, and the historical setting seems reasonably accurate based on what I learned from our time there. Now that I've actually walked through the setting, I'm re-reading the story and enjoying it even more.

Henty's books have been republished, and I had a hardcover copy to read. But The Lion of St. Mark is also available as a free Kindle book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 8:24 am | Edit
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How far should we go in an effort to understand someone else's pain?  Although the Catholic Church strongly discourages the practice, in the Philippines there are people who even experience some aspects of crucifixion on Good Friday. I think we can all agree that's going too far.

Part of the raison d'être of the arts is to show us worlds outside of our own, to help us enter into other people's experiences. Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical drama Long Day's Journey into Night provides the audience with an intimate and painful glimpse into the lives of a highly dysfunctional family of New London, Connecticut in the early 20th century. Why someone would want to enter into that experience is beyond me, but apparently the American literary world has more in common with the Philippines than I thought.

Recently we had the opportunity to attend the Mad Cow Theatre's production of O'Neill's masterpiece. I have to acknowledge its masterpiece status: it's considered O'Neill's best work and won both a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play. Any English teacher would assure me of its literary significance. And the local newspaper critic loved this performance. Porter and the friends who were with us thought it was great, too. I realize I stand alone here, but I'm still struggling to find something redeeming about the play.

Oh, the evening was great!  A delicious lasagne dinner, good company, good conversation. Being with friends even made the 45-minute wait to get out of the parking garage almost pleasant. But the show?  Not so much.

As I've said many times in the past, as far as I'm concerned a good book (movie, play) is one that inspires me to be a better person. Strike one against O'Neill's magnum opus. Mostly what it inspired me to do was to run screaming from the room, though that was too impolite to be possible.

I have nothing against the actors, who as far as I could tell did a fine job. Mad Cow actors usually do. But the play was a Presbyterian sermon on steroids. You know what I mean:  A Presbyterian sermon usually makes a good point, but takes three times as long as necessary to say it. Long Day's Journey into Night is a four hour play, with two intermissions, and it says the same things over and over and over and.... The first hour was more than enough. Strike two.

I realize I'm more sensitive to some things than most people, from shirt tags and wrinkles in my socks to the smell of mildew to suspense and horror in movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made me want to vomit and it took months before I managed to suppress the memory of some scenes. I've learned that there are some (many) productions I'm just better off not viewing. Long Day's Journey into Night turns out to be one of them. Fortunately, the horror is verbal, not visual, so I'm not having to repress images. I've also gotten better, since the Cuckoo's Nest days, at protecting myself during the event. When the onslaught of anger, black thoughts, verbal abuse, and insane repetition became too much to handle, I simply blanked it out as much as possible: I closed my eyes, focused my thoughts on something else, and sometimes even fell into the oblivion of sleep. Those episodes were short, but necessary. How can I explain why?  The anger and hurtful words were like a physical assault. If you've ever experienced Restless Legs Syndrome, imagine that same feeling over your entire body. As I said, running from the room screaming was not an option, so I took the next best course of action. :)  It was the third and final strike.

Believe it or not, I'm glad I attended the show, but for some of my readers I highly recommend that if you want to experience this apparently important literary work, you do not attend a live performance, but either read the play or see a film version, where you can stop at any point and take time to process what you've seen—or abandon the effort altogether. You know who you are.

One of our daughters, being an avid and quick reader, would finish her assigned high school English books well ahead of the progress of the class, so that by the time the exam was given, several weeks had passed. Usually she would take some time to skim the book again before the test, to freshen the events in her mind. When the assignment was Lord of the Flies, however, she stated fiercely, "Mom, I will fail the exam before I will open that horrible book again."

She, at least, will understand. (And she aced the test anyway.)

When I complained that Long Day's Journey into Night was unrealistic, more than one person in our party assured me that it resonated well with their own experiences, making me all the more grateful that I grew up in a family where people did not scream, swear, and demean one another. I'm sure it's important that I know of this pain that hides in other people's lives, but this experience was a little too Filipino-Good-Friday for me.

It's not that I want my stories to be all sweetness and light, without complexity or ambiguity. Far from it. But they must always have hope.

Art without hope is failure.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 1, 2016 at 7:50 am | Edit
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altCure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant (Crown Publishers, 2016)

Jo Marchant is a scientist and a skeptic when it comes to alternative medicine, but could not deny the anecdotal evidence of its successes. In Cure she documents the efforts of researchers to figure out just what is going on with that, and concludes that the interaction of our minds and our bodies is a lot more complicated than we currently understand.

The placebo effect, and its evil twin, the nocebo effect, turn out to be much more powerful than initially believed, creating observable, measurable changes in our brains, and there are several ways to trick our minds into healing our bodies, some of them bordering on the absurd:  people can be healed by placebo pills even when they know they are placebos, even when they know the capsules they are swallowing are filled with nothing but air.

Hypnosis is fighting its way back from its circus sideshow beginnings and proving to be a powerful tool, especially in pain relief and autoimmune disorders. Meditation, too, is shedding its spiritual roots and looks promising for physical as well as mental problems. So does biofeedback. Virtual Reality therapy can apparently do a better job of controlling acute and chronic pain than high doses of addictive drugs.

As medical practitioners are pressed more and more to cut the time they spend with patients, evidence is mounting that health outcomes are greatly improved by listening, caring, reassurance, and ditching the traditional doctor-patient relationship for one in which the patient is considered a full partner in his health care. Family, friends, and social support also have a tremendous impact on health.

Cure is a fascinating book with two important drawbacks. The first one, the author recognizes:  acknowledging the power of the mind to affect the body may lead people—and/or their caregivers—to believe that their real, physical illnesses are "all in their heads"—or worse, that it's their own fault if they don't get well. Marchant hastens to explain that the mind-body interaction is a whole lot more complicated than that. I was reminded of the advice given by a pastor to the woman who reported that people were telling her she could throw away her cane if only she had enough faith. "Next time they tell you that," he advised, "Whack them over the head with your cane and say to them that it only hurts because their faith isn't good enough."

The second problem I doubt Marchant sees herself.  But the only section that disappointed me is where she tackled the possible effect of prayer on healing, and abandoned her otherwise balanced and open-minded approach. It shows through clearly that she didn't want to find any consequence of prayer that couldn't be chalked up to the placebo effect or a supportive social situation. Even worse, as is true of many researchers she treats "prayer" as if it were an abstract force independent of the particular faith of the pray-er and of whatever entity is on the receiving end of the prayer. As if the cause of a prayer's effect must be solely inside the person praying, so that there can be no difference whether one prays to Allah, Jesus, Thor, or the kitchen sink. With this weakness in methodology, it would have been better to skip the section on prayer entirely.

Here are a few quotes that stood out:

Big pills tend to be more effective [as placebos] than small ones. ... Two pills at once work better than one. A pill with a recognizable brand name stamped across the front is more effective than one without. Colored pills tend to work better than white ones, although which color is best depends upon the effect that you are trying to create. Blue tends to help sleep, whereas red is good for relieving pain. Green pills work best for anxiety. The type of intervention matters too: the more dramatic the treatment, the bigger the placebo effect. In general, surgery is better than injections, which are better than capsules, which are better than pills. There are cultural differences.... [A]lthough blue tablets generally make good placebo sleeping pills, they tend to have the opposite effect on Italian men.

[T]he placebo effect has a dark side. The mind might have salutary effects on the body, but it can create negative symptoms too. The official term for this phenomenon is the "nocebo effect" ... and it hasn't been much studied because of ethical concerns. ... Nocebo effects are even one explanation for the power of voodoo curses. ... [M]ost of the side effects we suffer when we take medicines are not due directly to the drugs at all, but to the nocebo effect. ... Italian researchers followed 96 men.... Some did not know what drug they were taking, whereas others were told about the drug and that it might cause erectile dysfunction. The percentage of patients in each group who subsequently suffered this side effect was 3.1% and 31.2%.

When we were prescribed Malarone as an anti-malarial, we deliberately did not read about the side effects, although I packed the information sheet just in case one of us started having weird symptoms. I guess that was a good idea.

[P]erhaps the most fundamental lesson from research on placebos [is] the importance of the doctor-patient encounter. If an empathetic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under threat, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.

Unfortunately, despite the public health disaster being wrought by prescription painkillers, there is relatively little research interest in non-pharmacological methods to help people deal with pain.... [P]art of the reason for the lack of enthusiasm is economic. Pain relief is a billion-dollar market, and drug companies have no incentive to fund trials that would reduce patients' dependence on their products.... And neither have medical insurers, because if medical costs come down, so do their profits. ... [T]here's no intervening industry that has the interest in pushing it.

That could be about to change, however. In March 2014, Facebook bought a little-known California startup called Oculus for $9 billion. The company specializes in VR [virtual reality] gaming and has just developed a headset called Oculus Rift, similar in size and shape to a scuba mask. Whereas the VR equipment [used with stunning success for pain relief] costs tens of thousands of dollars, Oculus sells its headsets for just $350 each. That promises to bring virtual reality within reach of ordinary consumers, who will be able to run wireless masks from their tablets or smartphones. ... Developments like this mean that people will soon be able to use virtual reality pain relief ... at home. It also means that virtual worlds are about to get much more sophisticated ... as video game companies throw resources at developing software to go with the new headsets. As well as better games ... that could lead to better pain therapies.... [W]e might soon see pain relief trials funded not by drug companies, but by the gaming industry.

Randomized trials comparing planned home and hospital births are almost impossible to do, because it's not practical or ethical to force women to give birth in a particular place. But there are plenty of large, observational trials.... These studies compare women who choose hospital birth with those who try to deliver at home (regardless of whether they have their babies there or end up transferring to hospital for pain relief or medical intervention). It turns out that simply by choosing home birth, women are less likely to require drugs to induce or speed up labor or relieve pain; less likely to be cut open or to tear; and less likely to need a C-section or instrumental delivery. Their babies are born in better shape and are more likely to breastfeed. ... It seems that when you replace easy access to technology with caring for a woman's emotional state, she and her baby fare much better—not just mentally but physically too. ... [T]he reassurance of someone we trust is not a trivial luxury. The right words can be powerful enough to replace aggressive medical intervention and transform physical outcomes.

All too often when we receive medical treatment, our mental state is seen as a secondary concern, and our role as a patient doesn't go much beyond signing consent forms and requesting pain-relieving drugs. ... The three projects described [in Chapter 7]—midwives supporting women during childbirth; radiologists changing how they talk to patients; and doctors discussing difficult questions with the terminally ill—instead give patients an active role to play. These might seem like commonsense interventions, but they all embody a fundamental (and for our medical system, revolutionary) shift in what it means to care for someone. Medicine becomes not an all-powerful doctor dishing out treatments to a passive recipient, but a partnership between equal human beings. This principle is at the heart of many of the other cases we've seen so far, too.... Instead of medicating their way out of problems with ever-greater doses of drugs and interventions, these medical professionals are harnessing their patients' psychological resources as a critical component of their care. They're doing this for adults and children; for chronic complaints and for emergencies; from birth until death. This approach provides a better experience for patients. It costs less. And it improves physical outcomes. Patients suffer fewer complications, recover faster and live longer.

[E]xperiences of social exclusion or rejection—such as being shunned in a game, receiving negative social feedback, or viewing images of deceased loved ones—activate exactly the same regions of the brain as when we are in physical pain.

The impact of loneliness ... depends not on how many physical contacts we have but how isolated we feel. You might have only one or two close friends, but if you feel satisfied and supported there's no need to worry about effects on your health, [researcher John] Cacioppo tells me. "But if you're sitting there feeling threatened by others, feeling as if you are alone in the world, that's probably a reason to take steps."

The most resilient kids were brought up by firm, vigilant parents.... But crucially, these parents were also affectionate, communicative and highly engaged in the children's lives. ... These kids knew where the boundaries were, and that there would be sanctions for bad behavior. But they also knew this was because their parents loved and cared about them.

I'm not sure why we needed a study to tell us that one.

Western medicine is (rightly) underpinned by science and trial evidence, and to many policy-makers and funders, physical interventions just "feel" more scientific than mind-body approaches do. Bioelectronics researcher Kevin Tracey is now enjoying millions of dollars of private and public funding to pursue his idea of stimulating the nervous system with electricity, even though as I write this, his largest published human study is in eight people. Gastroenterologist Peter Whorwell, by contrast, can't persuade local funding agencies to pay for his [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] patients to receive gut-focused hypnotherapy despite decades of positive trials in hundreds of patients.

At the heart of almost all the pathways I've learned about is one guiding principle: if we feel safe, cared for and in control—in a critical moment during injury or disease, or generally throughout our lives—we do better. We feel less pain, less fatigue, less sickness. Our immune system works with us instead of against us. Our bodies ease off on emergency defenses and can focus on repair and growth.

[R]ather than putting our faith in mystical rituals and practices, the science described in this book shows that in many situations, we have the capacity to influence our own health by harnessing the power of the (conscious and unconscious) mind. If you feel that alternative remedies work for you, I don't see any need to abandon them, especially when conventional medicine does not yet provide all of the same elements. But be critical of the advice that you may be offered by alternative therapists. And give your brain and body some credit. It's not necessarily the potions or needles or hand waving that make you feel better. Consider the possibility that these are just a clever way of pushing your buttons, enabling you to influence your own physiology in a way tha teases your symptoms and protects you from disease.

Or as Michael Pollen famously said, "Be the kind of person who takes supplements—then skip the supplements."

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Edit
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altThe Road to Character  by David Brooks (Random House, 2015)

I read this book on the recommendation of our rector, so I'm sorry to say how much I dislike it. I read it through to the end, hoping it would improve—and because I'm the kind of person who finds it very hard not to finish a book once I've started it, even if I find it depressing.

Generally, I don't read depressing books. If I want to be depressed, I can turn on the news, or spend too much time on social media. As I've said so often, a good book is one that inspires me to be a better person. I don't need books that inspire me to throw up my hands in despair at the state of the world and crawl back into bed.

The sad thing is that this book was intended to have just the opposite effect. From the introduction:  This book is about ... how some people have cultivated strong characterIt's about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart.

Here's a mystery for you. The above is as much as I had written on this review back in January. The book has long since been returned to the library, and I have absolutely no desire to read it again, not even for a review. But I have pages of quotations that represent a lot of work and would be a shame to waste. In addition, there's the following intriguing quote from C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, which I remember that I included because it struck me as representative of what bothered me about several of the people the author chose to use as his postive role models.

"Well, then, it was jolly rotten of you," said Digory.

"Rotten?" said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look.

"Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I'm sure, and I'm very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys - and servants - and women - and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny."

As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle's face ... and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew's grand words. "All it means," he said to himself, "Is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants."

To the best of my recollection, my quarrel with David Brooks was largely over this attitude; he appears to justify heinous behavior for the sake of a particular character trait he respects. I'm sorry I can't give concrete examples, but the book really isn't worth rereading to find them. Take my word for it, or not.

But the book's not all bad, so here are the quotations:

From the introduction

Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.

They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments. They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either— but right through every human heart.”

These are the people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. ... These are the people we are looking for.

From Chapter 1:  The Shift

It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II. This little contrast set off a chain of thoughts in my mind. It occurred to me that this shift might symbolize a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self-promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.”

For example, between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn't 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls.

Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention… I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary… Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”

Along with this apparent rise in self-esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals. In one study, middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second, and Paris Hilton third. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant— for example, Justin Bieber’s—than president of Harvard. (Though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure the president of Harvard would also rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.)

Frankly, if I learn that the last statement is true, I will lose all respect for the president of Harvard.

People who live this way believe that character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core. If you don’t have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will happen.

[C]haracter is built not only through austerity and hardship. It is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and then absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and earn their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions. Through devotion to some cause, you elevate your desires and organize your energies. Moreover, the struggle against the weaknesses in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside— from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way.

The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage this struggle well—joyfully and compassionately. [British author Henry] Fairlie writes, “At least if we recognize that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.”

People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”

From Chapter 3:  Moderation (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

[T]he moderate knows she cannot have it all. There are tensions between rival goods, and you just have to accept that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life, devoted to one truth or one value. The moderate has limited aspirations about what can be achieved in public life. The paradoxes embedded into any situation do not allow for a clean and ultimate resolution. You expand liberty at the cost of encouraging license. You crack down on license at the cost of limiting liberty. There is no escaping this sort of trade-off. The moderate can only hope to have a regulated character, stepping back to understand opposing perspectives and appreciating the merits of each. The moderate understands that political cultures are traditions of conflict. There are never-ending tensions that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism. The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate can only hope to achieve a balance that is consistent with the needs of the moment. The moderate does not believe there are some policy solutions that are right for all times (this seems obvious, but the rule is regularly flouted by ideologues in nation after nation). The moderate does not admire abstract schemes but understands that it is necessary to legislate along the grain of human nature, and within the medium in which she happens to be placed.

The best moderate is skeptical of zealotry because he is skeptical of himself. He distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity because he know that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right.

Let's hear that again:  in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right.

Eisenhower warned the country against belief in quick fixes. Americans, he said, should never believe that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” He warned against human frailty, particularly the temptation to be shortsighted and selfish. He asked his countrymen to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” Echoing the thrifty ethos of his childhood, he reminded the nation that we cannot “mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” He warned, most famously, about the undue concentration of power, and the way unchecked power could lead to national ruin. He warned first about the military-industrial complex—“a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” He also warned against “a scientific-technological elite,” a powerful network of government-funded experts who might be tempted to take power away from the citizenry. Like the nation’s founders, he built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.

This was the speech of a man who had been raised to check his impulses and had then been chastened by life. It was the speech of a man who had seen what human beings are capable of, who had felt in his bones that man is a problem to himself. It was the speech of a man who used to tell his advisers “Let’s make our mistakes slowly,” because it was better to proceed to a decision gradually than to rush into anything before its time. This is the lesson that his mother and his upbringing had imparted to him decades before. This was a life organized not around self-expression, but self-restraint.

Although I was around during Eisenhower's administration, I knew nothing of his politics (and, frankly, that's still true). But this chapter makes me wish he'd been the one to craft our national health insurance policy. "Let's make our mistakes slowly" is so far from today's attitude, prevalent among politicians, manufacturers, and software developers, of "Let's throw something together and fix it later."

From Chapter 4:  Struggle

[quoting Dorothy Day] “one of the hardest things in the world is to organize ourselves and discipline ourselves.”

From Chapter 5:  Self-Mastery

The work of the Roman biographer Plutarch is based on the premise that the tales of the excellent can lift the ambitions of the living. Thomas Aquinas argued that in order to lead a good life, it is necessary to focus more on our exemplars than on ourselves, imitating their actions as much as possible. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.” In 1943, Richard Winn Livingstone wrote, “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal. We detect in others, and occasionally in ourselves, the want of courage, of industry, of persistence, which leads to defeat. But we do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good.”

One more time:  We do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good.

From Chapter 7:  Love

Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses, and general disruption that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer programs to improve their lives, but they may not take full advantage of them because they don’t have confidence that they can control their own destinies.

Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self-control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don’t have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening. But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. A person who loves his town does not love his country less. Love expands with use.

He's right about love, but I’m certain, despite recent studies, that he is wrong about self-control. Perhaps it is true in the short term, but I’m convinced that over time, self-control gained in one area makes it easier to gain self-control in another. Using his own analogy, muscles grow by use.

From Chapter 9:  Self-Examination

The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit—loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness.” This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.

Today many writers see literature and art only in aesthetic terms, but [Samuel] Johnson saw them as moral enterprises. He hoped to be counted among those writers who give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.” He added, “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better.” As [literary critic Paul] Fussell puts it, “Johnson, then, conceives of writing as something very like a Christian sacrament, defined in the Anglican catechism as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us.’  ”

Many try to avoid sorrow by living timid lives. Many try to relieve sorrow by forcing themselves to go to social events. Johnson does not approve of these stratagems. Instead, he advises, “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment…. Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away. It is the putrefaction of stagnant life and is remedied by exercise and motion.”

From Chapter 10:  The Big Me

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.

According to an Ernst & Young survey, 65 percent of college students expect to become millionaires. … parents with college degrees invest $5,700 more per year per child on out-of-school enrichment activities than they did in 1978.

I include the statements in the last paragraph just because they exemplify one of my pet peeves with writers who throw numbers around casually. The author thinks he is supporting his points, but these numbers are meaningless. "Millionaire" does not mean the same thing in 2016 as it did 100 years ago, when there were just over 200 in the whole country of 102 million people.* And a bare figure like "$5,700 more" means nothing unless you know whether or not it has been adjusted for inflation, which between 1978 and now was 363%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  What's the point of using numbers in this way? At best they confuse; at worst they deceive.


*I know you're curious. Today American millionaires number about 10.4 million out of a population of 323 million or so.  If you think there's been a lot of inflation since 1978....

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, March 11, 2016 at 11:48 am | Edit
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altThe Fatal Tree by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson, 2014)

This is the final book in Lawhead's Bright Empires series, of which the first four were The Skin Map, The Bone HouseThe Spirit Well, and The Shadow Lamp.  I enjoyed reading The Fatal Tree, which only took me a few hours, but was nonetheless disappointed.  As with my experience reading the Harry Potter books, this series got better and better for the first three books, then largely fell apart.

The premise—combining the concept of ley lines with quantum physics and multiverse theory—is brilliant, as are many of the ways the author works the concepts out in the lives of his characters.  I wish the last two books had fulfilled the promise of the first three.  The confusion of so many characters from many times and places, and the dizzying way the book jumps around, enhance the story in the early books, mimicking the confusion of ley travel and multiple universes, but sadly the last book does not draw all the threads into a coherent whole.  Rather, it feels hasty and incomplete.

What's more, Lawhead is a Christian writer, and where his faith is kept in the backgound it adds depth and beauty to the stories.  Unfortunately, when it becomes explicit, as in the last two books, it feels forced and awkward.

I still recommend the Bright Empires series, because Lawhead had a wonderful idea and worked it out in some very clever ways.  I'd rank it well below The Lord of the Rings but well above Harry Potter.  It's just a pity that Lawhead, like J. K. Rowling, stopped at good when he could have reached great.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Edit
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Manjiro:  The Man who Discovered America  by Hisakazu Kaneko (Riverside Press, 1956)

This book was apparently my paternal grandmother's:  her name is scrawled with some other notes on the back of the dust jacket.  I suspect it made its way to my bookshelves in one of the eight large boxes I took home when my father—a book lover indeed—moved out of our family home.  Inspired by my 95 by 65 goal to read some of those books at last, I chose Manjiro to be my final book of 2015.

The only problem with this project is that I was hoping to declutter at the same time—but I keep finding such interesting books!

Manjiro was the impoverished, uneducated son of a Japanese widow, who by working on fishing boats helped his mother eke out a living.  When he was 14, he was shipwrecked by a storm and rescued from a deserted island by an American whaling ship.  Proving himself both bright and ambitious, he could have made a good life in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the home of his rescuer and foster father.  But Manjiro had dreams of helping his insular country open its doors to the wider world, and eventually made his way back home, not long before the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853.

This book is not the only one written about Manjiro's experiences, but I love its style, which retains a feeling not only of 1950's America, but of Japanese culture as well.

There's more to the book than the quotes below, but I especially enjoyed his observations of mid-19th century America.

When he was invited by the Tokugawa Government, soon after Commodore Perry and his fleet appeared in the Bay of Uraga in 1853, he had a vital role to play for the wakening of the Japanese people to world civilization. Upon his arrival in Yedo, the former capital of Japan, he was examined by Magistrate Saemon Kawaji before he was officially taken into government service.

Answering the questions put to him by the investigating official, he revealed his own observations about America to the amazement of his listeners. Never can we overestimate the value of these observations which undoubtedly influenced the policy of the Tokugawa Government in favor of the opening of the country to foreign intercourse when Commodore Perry revisited Japan in February, 1854.

The next quotes are from Manjiro himself:

The country is generally blessed with a mild climate and it is rich in natural resources such as gold, silver, copper, iron, timber and other materials that are necessary for man's living. The land, being fertile, yields abundant crops of wheat, barley, com, beans and all sorts of vegetables, but rice is not grown there simply because they do not eat it.

Both men and women are generally good-looking but as they came from different countries of Europe, their features and the color of their eyes, hair and skin are not the same. They are usually tall in stature. They are by nature sturdy, vigorous, capable and warmhearted people. American women have quaint customs; for instance, some of them make a hole through the lobes of their ears and run a gold or silver ring through this hole as an ornament.

When a young man wants to marry, he looks for a young woman for himself, without asking a go-between to find one for him, as we do in Japan, and, if he succeeds in finding a suitable one, he asks her whether or not she is willing to marry him. If she says, "Yes," he tells her and his parents about it and then the young man and the young woman accompanied by their parents and friends go to church and ask the priest to perform the wedding ceremony. Then the priest asks the bridegroom, "Do you really want to have this young woman as your wife?" To which the young man says, "I do". Then the priest asks a similar question of the bride and when she says, "I do," he declares that they are man and wife. Afterward, cakes and refreshments are served and then the young man takes his bride on a pleasure trip.

Refined Americans generally do not touch liquor. Even if they do so they drink only a little, because they think that liquor makes men either lazy or quarrelsome. Vulgar Americans, however, drink just like Japanese, although drunkards are detested and despised. Even the whalers, who are hard drinkers while they are on a voyage, stop drinking once they are on shore. Moreover, the quality of liquor is inferior to Japanese sake, in spite of the fact that there are many kinds of liquor in America.

Americans invite a guest to a dinner at which fish, fowl and cakes are served, but to the best of my knowledge, a guest, however important he may be, is served with no liquor at all. He is often entertained with music instead when the dinner is over.

When a visitor enters the house he takes off his hat. They never bow to each other as politely as we do. The master of the house simply stretches out his right hand and the visitor also does the same and they shake hands with each other. While they exchange greetings, the master of the house invites the visitor to sit on a chair instead of the floor. As soon as business is over, the visitor takes leave of the house, because they do not want to waste time.

When a mother happens to have very little milk in her breasts to give her child, she gives of all things a cow's milk, as a substitute for a mother's milk. But it is true that no ill effect of this strange habit has been reported from any part of the country.

On every seventh day, people, high and low, stop their work and go to temple and keep their houses quiet, but on the other days they take pleasure by going into mountains and fields to hunt, while lower class Americans take their women to the seaside or hills and drink and bet and have a good time.

The temple is called church. The priest, who is an ordinary-looking man, has a wife and he even eats meat, unlike a Japanese priest. Even on the days of abstinence, he only refrains from eating animal meat and he does not hesitate to eat fowl or fish instead. The church is a big tower-looking building two or three hundred feet high. There is a large clock on the tower which tells the time. There is no image of Buddha inside this temple, where on every seventh day they worship what they call God who, in their faith, is the Creator of the World. There are many benches in the church on which people sit during the service. All the members of the church bring their Books to the service. The priest, on an elevated seat, tells his congregation to open the Book at such and such a place, and when this is done, the priest reads from the Book and he preaches the message of the text he has just read. The service over, they all leave the church. This kind of service is held also on board the ships.

Every year on the Fourth of July, they have a big celebration throughout the land in commemoration of a great victory of their country over England in a war which took place seventy-five years ago. On that day they display the weapons which they used in the war. They put on the uniforms, and armed with swords and guns, they put up sham fights and then parade the streets and make a great rejoicing on that day.

As the gun is regarded as the best weapon in America, they are well trained how to use it. When they go hunting they take small guns, but in war they use large guns since they are said to be more suitable for war. Ports and fortresses are protected by dozens of these large guns so that it would be extremely difficult to attack them successfully. Before Europeans came to America, the natives used bows and arrows, but these old-fashioned weapons proved quite powerless before firearms which were brought by Europeans. Now the bow and arrow has fallen into disuse in America. To the best of my knowledge, they have never used bamboo shields, as we do, although they use sometimes the shields of copper plates for the protection of the hull of a fighting ship. They are not well trained in swordsmanship or spearsmanship, however, so that in my opinion, in close fighting, a samurai could easily take on three Americans.

American men, even officials, do not carry swords as the samurai do. But when they go on a journey, even common men usually carry with them two or three pistols; their pistol is somewhat equivalent to the sword of a samurai. As I said before, their chief weapon is firearms and they are skillful in handling them. Moreover, as they have made a thorough study of the various weapons used by foreign armies, they believe that there are hardly any foreign weapons that can frighten them out of their wits.

More and more both fighting ships and merchant ships driven by the steam engine have been built of late in America. These steamships can be navigated in all directions irrespective of the current and wind and they can cover the distance of two hundred ri a day. The clever device with which these ships are built is something more than I can describe. While in America I had no chance to learn the trade of shipbuilding, so that I would not say that I can build one with confidence. Since I have looked at them carefully, however, I shall be able to direct our shipwrights to build one, if I could get hold of some foreign books on the subject.

While I was in America I did not hear any good or bad remarks in particular about our country but I did hear Americans say that the Japanese people were easily alarmed, even when they see a ship in distress approaching their shores for help, and how they shoot it on sight, when there was no real cause for alarm at all. I also heard them speak very highly of Japanese swords, which they believe that no other swords could possibly rival. I heard too that Yedo of Japan, together with Peking of China and London of England, are the three largest and finest cities of the world.

The book ends with a letter written to Manjiro's eldest son by U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

My dear Dr. Nakahama:

When Viscount Ishii was here in Washington he told me that you are living in Tokyo and we talked about your distinguished father.

You may not know that I am the grandson of Mr. Warren Delano of Fairhaven, who was part owner of the ship of Captain Whitfield which brought your father to Fairhaven. Your father lived, as I remembered it, at the house of Mr. Trippe, which was directly across the street from my grandfather's house, and when I was a boy, I well remember my grandfather telling me all about the little Japanese boy who went to school in Fairhaven and who went to church from time to time with the Delano family. I myself used to visit Fairhaven, and my mother's family still own the old house.

The name of Nakahama will always be remembered by my family, and I hope that if you or any of your family come to the United States that you will come to see us.

Believe me, my dear Dr. Nakahama,
Very sincerely yours,

The letter was written on June 8, 1933, just eight and a half years before our two countries would be fiercely at war.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Edit
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altThe Billion Dollar Spy  by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday, 2015)

This is not a book I would necessarily have picked up myself, but Porter thought so highly of it that I couldn't resist.

He was right.

There are many, many reasons why the Berlin Wall finally came down and the Cold War ended, as varied as President Reagan's firm stand, internal weaknesses created by Communism, and the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland.  The Billion Dollar Spy reveals yet another:  Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian engineer who fought the system he loathed with the best weapon he could:  giving critical information on Soviet military technology to the country best able to make use of it:  the United States.  This knowledge was beyond value.

Not that we didn't bungle again and again his attempts to help us.  The incompetence of the CIA at certain times in history and its unfathomable paralysis at others had me cringing as I read.  And in the end Tolkachev and his mission were brought down by a disgruntled former CIA employee who betrayed him to the KGB. 

In the meantime, his work exceeded the CIA's wildest expectations, and the story as Hoffman tells it makes for great reading.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 15, 2016 at 7:23 am | Edit
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