Book Review: The Scotch-Irish: A Social History

The Scotch-Irish:  A Social History, by James G. Leyburn

As someone who has a great deal of Scot-Irish in my background, which is evident in my light skin with freckles, I picked this book up as a way of reading about the social history of one of the prominent elements of my own background.  Given that this book was published more than 50 years ago, it manages to avoid many of the bad clichés of contemporary social history [1], although the author freely admits that even in his own time social history was viewed as being a place for ethnic stereotypes, whereas today social history is known for being the haven of Marxists writing about class warfare.  And, to be sure, this book is on the front end of that curve, being an effort to present the Scotch-Irish as the quintessential material for the transmission of a middle-class culture without a great deal of aesthetic pleasure.  For all of the book’s dodgy class ideas, it offers something worthwhile for those readers who wish to know more about the Scot-Irish population of the United States, for it should be noted that the Scotch-Irish are known that only in the United States, and, it should be noted, largely as a way of separating the Scot-Irish from the Catholic Irish.  There’s nothing like a desire to separate oneself from the stain of vile popery than to come up with an awkward hyphenated identity, after all.

The contents of this book are focused on areas where people do not know much about Scot-Irish history.  The following questions are explored by the author, and they are questions that people, whether they are of Scot-Irish heritage of not, might actually have:  What was Scottish life like before the union with England?  What led Scots to leave their homeland to settle in Northern Ireland?  Why did many of the Northern Irish Protestants then leave for the American colonies?  Where did the Scot-Irish settle?  How and when did they get their name?  How did they get a reputation for being rebels?  These are worthy questions—and the author does a good job at answering those questions, giving answers that many readers will not likely know, and answers that are truly very interesting—examining the rise of bourgeois American culture, the negative effects of the planter elite on the political legitimacy of the American patriot regime in the Carolinas, and the uncertain relationship between the Irish immigrants and the more staid and responsible German immigrants who also make a lot of my background also.  Apparently the two did not greatly mix at first and settled in neighboring valleys and counties with a bit of bad blood between them.

So, although the book is not a perfect, and even if its class consciousness is a bit forced and even if it does not include as much information about the conflict that the Scot-Irish had their native neighbors whose land they appropriated as I would prefer.  The author even avoids talking about some of the obvious matters of Scot-Irish effects on the United States, like the rise of Jackson, for example.  The author discusses the transit of Scot-Irish from Ulster to rural Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and then figures the Scotch-Irish as having been sufficiently diluted into the generic American identity that that they were not a distinctive element of their own.  That is not something I completely buy, since making fun of freckled gingers or sandy-haired people is still a phenomenon even apart from any Catholic questions.  There are still jokes about whether gingers have souls, and jokes about freckles making black skin if they were all combined together.  I still hear these jokes, and hear them made about others.  So no, the Scotch-Irish are still a distinctive element even without the clan identity of Highland Scots, and even without the Catholic identity of the Southern Irish.  Of course, the book is already over 300 pages and giving a proper history of the Scotch-Irish that continues beyond independence would have made the book even longer, but also likely even more enjoyable.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Trip From Biggs Junction To La Grande Via The Hell’s Canyon Scenic Bypass

Given that yesterday evening I drove from the Portland area to Biggs [1], and that I have traveled a good deal more than usual this month with my mother in town [2], I figured I should continue the theme of my travels by discussing them, and today was a day full of interest, as well as travel to unusual places that many people are unlikely to be familiar with, which gives all the more reason for me to give a more hipsterish than usual account of such travels. To be sure, many readers are unfamiliar with my blogs about travels, but when I lived in Thailand, I would regularly blog about the fairly mundane trip between Chiang Mai and Mai Sai [3], so I hope my readers will tolerate, and perhaps even enjoy, hearing me talk about a more dramatic than usual trip to an unusual and beautiful series of places that I was able to take some photos of. Hopefully my friends on Instagram and Facebook will be able to enjoy those photos when I figure out how to upload them from my phone.

When I woke up this morning, I figured it would take a little time for all of us to get ready. We had set an ambitious goal of leaving by 6AM, but given that I fell asleep with the computer on sometime around 11PM or so, I figured it would take a little longer than that for all of us to be ready. As it happened, I got up and typed my post about last night while the other members of my party got ready, and then after fighting off a nosebleed I took a quick shower and then grabbed a bit of the free continental breakfast while we waited for the person at the desk to take our keys. Seriously, the town of Biggs has among the most uninspired workforce I have ever seen. It should not be difficult for people who live in a tiny town dependent on tourist income to smile and have a bit of a spring in their step when dealing with people. I would like to think that even in tourist mode that I am a friendly person and that it should not be difficult to serve. Anyway, at about 8:30AM or so we filled Wheezy, my car, with gas and were off on an epic adventure.

The first part of the trip consisted of a drive along I-84 from Biggs to La Grande. I counted the happy and unhappy pedestrians. Wheezy was able to make up to the summit of the Blue Mountains and then down again to the basin on the other side. I listened to several cds of a book on John of Gaunt’s mistress. The other people in the car happened to sleep while I drove, and as we approached La Grande, my snoring navigator thought we had missed our turn, and so we went to the Chamber of Commerce in town, where I met a lovely young woman behind the desk who happened to have lived in both Portland and the Tampa Bay area, and who now made a living answering the question of lost tourists in a small town in Eastern Oregon. We chatted with her and with her coworker for a while and ended up with lots of maps, something I consider a success, and then we were off, having realized that we had not arrived at our road, which was only a mile or two off. Finding OR-82, we were off on a large loop that the people in La Grande told us would take about five or six hours, and we were given the advice to get gas in Joseph because we would not be seeing any gas stations for a long while. It was advice I would have been wise to take.

In driving along OR-82, it was clear that the countryside we were traveling through was very lovely. There were hay fields green with irrigation, houses and barns well-taken care of, classic cars, and the other trappings of old-fashioned but prosperous life. The small towns were filled with lovely buildings and even warned motorists of speed traps. One town even invited those passing through to hug a cop. I would rather hug other working people first, like the cashiers or waitresses who bring or facilitate my purchase of food, so long as they didn’t mind it or find it uncomfortable. Once we got to Joseph, we drove by the grave of Chief Joseph twice, once each way to Wallowa Lake, where we spent a few very enjoyable hours. For one, the lake and its surrounding mountains were immensely beautiful. We went to the tramway and got tickets (they were a bit spendy at $31 a person) and went up to what was not entirely truthfully called the summit of Mt. Howard, 8150 feet above sea level. Having arrived at the top, we walked in a loop, seeing beautiful views of the highlands and the summit, seeing a glorious buck, some beautiful but fragile looking alpine flowers, and seeing some of the most obese pocket gophers that one can imagine. While I was having lunch, the gophers acted like the squirrels at USF, begging for food and showing no fear whatsoever of human beings. It was both amusing and entertaining as well as alarming, which describes a fair amount of what goes on in my life, I suppose. Anyway, lunch was tasty, the gophers ended up even more obese after eating a lot of crutons and fries, and we were off down the hill to ponder amazing views and to resume our travels.

At this point, after retracing our steps into Joseph once again, we went off towards Hell’s Canyon, which happens to be the deepest canyon in North America, even deeper than the Grand Canyon. The drive was a bit rugged, fortunately it had been paved since last year, even if there were a lot of pot holes and even one occasion where we had to carefully navigate around some black angus cattle that were in the road. After a long and fairly slow drive through the rough roads, we finally made it to the Hell’s Canyon overlook, which gave some amazing views and also very sparse numbers of people there. It is difficult to understand how such an amazing place with such wonderful views can be enjoyed by so few, even if it does require some pretty extensive traveling through the middle of nowhere to get there. It seems like a particularly hipster vacation spot–not accessible enough for the masses but greatly enjoyable for those who are willing to take the effort and time to get to know it well. One wonders whether there is even the interest in making such a place accessible to more people, if that would damage it. Some things are just meant to require a lot of work, I suppose.

After viewing Hell’s Canyon we went the rest of the way along the loop, passing more beautiful mountains, seeing some more cows, and passing some more beautiful but remote country, but all the way back to La Grande there was one thing we did not see at all along the way–a gas station. For the last 40 or 50 miles of the trip or so, until we finally arrived at the Flying J while I was running on fumes with the idiot light on, I was praying that we would be able to make it and looking in vain for a gas station along the route. So, if you are a fellow hipster traveler looking to enjoy a less than mainstream travel destination, heed the advice of those who gently urge you to get gasoline while you can. It may be a long time in Eastern Oregon before you happen to see a gas station yourself. Anyway, we ate dinner at the Flying J, which was tasty and with excellent service, then did some extremely last minute grocery shopping for tomorrow’s pot luck in this small and somewhat remote congregation in La Grande, and then went to the trailer of the friendly widow with whom we are staying. It was a long day, but all in all it was a very good day, and full of thought-provoking incidents and memorable situations.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Night Drive Across The Cascades

Although for the most part I am a fairly plain person, perhaps even almost boring in the regularity of my patterns, at times I do things that are unexpected and am willing to engage in travels without a great deal of lead time for planning and preparation even if it is a bit stressful.  After finding out earlier this week that I would be able to use one of my days off from work on Friday, I found myself working on plans for yet another trip in exploring Oregon [1], this time going to Eastern Oregon to see Hell’s Canyon, something my mother particularly wanted to see while she was here.  Never having visited Eastern Oregon, I was game for some exploration, even if the logistics were a bit challenging.  Of course, upon being told that they would have visitors in the remote area of La Grande I was told that I had a sermonette to give, so there was that planning as well.  So it was that I found myself fighting through traffic after work only to immediately begin another drive, trying to work out in my head what we could see with the little amount of daylight that was left, and fussing even more than usual over the wasted time from slow people.

So it was that when I arrived at home and expected to leave right away that I was delayed for about twenty minutes or so not only by putting items in the car, which found themselves packed in rather tightly, but also by the need for at least one member of our party to hunt around for things that had been forgotten.  I suppose some people are very much driven to leave at certain times and others are more concerned about the process, and more concerned about enjoying themselves.  Being a somewhat overscheduled myself, I find that it is easy to lose enjoyment in the moment or in the journey because one is concerned with the time that is being lost or wasted.  Such a mindset can easily lead to a lack of fun in life and a difficulty in simply enjoying life, and I can certainly understand how it might be less than enjoyable to travel when one is trying to do a lot in a little time, where one feels under the gun, which is not conducive to enjoying oneself as much as would be the case otherwise.

When we finally left the traffic was sparse, as we were traveling through the remote countryside of rural Clackamas County before going through Troutdale.  Once in Troutdale, we took the Historic Columbia Highway to see portions of the trail we had not seen before between that town and Corbett, where we had gotten on the interstate in our previous trip along this lovely but not particularly speedy road, and we were able to make it to Multnomah Falls as the sun was setting and hike up to the bridge at least, to view the falls from a closer angle, which was an enjoyable experience and not that was not crowded, because it was a Thursday night and most people were not in their full touristy mood at that particular time, unlike the previous time we had driven by the falls where it was crowded and where parking was a nightmare.  At times traveling outside of the usual schedule can allow for a more relaxed pace, and I agree that I did not feel rushed or crowded this particular time, given that there was no one fighting for a spot or pushing for a hike.  Being someone who likes my space, it was a pleasing moment.

After that we pushed on to Biggs, which is where we had planned to spend Thursday night at the Three Rivers Inn and eat at one of the local restaurants for dinner.  By this time it was rapidly growing dark and there was a lightning show in the sky, and sometimes a bit too near for comfort, and it was about 10:00PM by the time that we arrived in Biggs after the trip, much of it spent driving my little Kia Spectra chariot furiously.  When we arrived at Biggs at the hotel, the person at the front desk did not seem particularly motivated to work or particularly competent at his work, and we wandered about looking for food.  What we found was not particularly encouraging.  It had not been since my times in Jekyll Island that I had found less to eat at 10:00PM.  They say that an army marches on its stomach, and this particular army which had not eaten dinner because there had been nothing along the way that interested the party ended up eating at a McDonald’s because it was the only 24 hour place in town.  From what I could see, this was a common sentiment, and they were not on their A game either, putting mayo on a chicken sandwich when they were told lettuce only and running out of sweet tea.

Nevertheless, after we ate, however belatedly, and returned to our room, it was time to prepare for bed.  Most of the people in our party had little problem going to sleep, and even those of us that had ambitions to do a bit of writing fell asleep with the lights and computer on because the trip was so exhausting.  That said, being several hours closer to one’s destination in the morning for some traveling and sightseeing, and the possibility of having a relaxing Sabbath in an area where one has never traveled is a good thing, even when the food is subpar and even when the trip is somewhat grueling itself.  Let us make no mistake about the importance of logistics–travel experiences can be the cause of many funny stories and inside jokes over time, and there is something about travels in more remote areas that provokes a sort of humorous reflection on life that our more mundane experience does not, largely because when we take ourselves out of familiar areas we find insights, if we choose to look, simply by seeing how we deal with the unfamiliar and the irritating.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Sad Fate Of Ignace Pleyel

The odds are that you have never heard of Ignace Pleyel, like anyone else whose sad fate I would reflect on [1]. I would not have heard of him either, had it not been for listening to a cd of music owned and played by Jane Austen [2]. Jane Austen really liked to play the music of Ignace Pleyel, so much so that his sonatas made up a large part of the music on the cd. And there is something interesting in that fact, that we would have little reason to remember a once-famous composer except that his music was beloved by a famous writer who also happened to enjoy playing the pianoforte. It is likewise intriguing to note that during her life, Jane Austen was a relatively obscure member of the gentry who happened to be an officially anonymous lady writer, while Ignace Pleyel was well-off and feted by the rich and famous, his music accessible to a large audience and often played, and yet Jane Austen’s reputation as a writer soared after her early death while Pleyel, towards the end of his long life, saw his approach to music repudiated and his own style eclipsed by a later generation of romantic composers like Beethoven whose reputations were much more lasting than his own.

There are many ways that one can have a sad fate. The fate of Pleyel was sad not because he died young, because he lived from 1757 to 1831. It was not sad because he died a pauper like, say, his contemporary Mozart, because he was a successful businessman, selling pianos and sheet music in addition to being a composer of note. He was a student of Josef Haydn, and his music was not only found in the music collection of Jane Austen, but it even reached the United States, where there was once, hard as it is to believe, a Pleyel society in New England [3]. Contemporaries noted that his music was amazingly popular and that he was a popular composer of great contemporary fame. Yet even before he died he had become much less well-known, to the point that I had never heard of him before despite playing sonatas and symphonies for many years, regularly playing Mozart and Haydn pieces, it should be noted. While rock musicians and movies honor Mozart, Pleyel isn’t even remembered as Antonio Salieri was, for being a bad guy. He is simply not remembered much at all.

What is it that led to Pleyel being forgotten so completely? There is some evidence of expedience in the approach that Pleyel had to music that was likely held against him. For example, his music is known to be particularly easy, focusing on the charm of simplicity and feeling and being far less intricate than his master Haydn. His music is commonly used today in teaching children on the violin and flute, probably the only way his music is remembered, and that not proudly [4]. Other areas of his life that demonstrate his expedience include the fact that although Austrian-born and initially popular with aristocratic French audiences, he became a naturalized French citizen and survived the Terror by writing patriotic songs for the French republican regime. It is likely that writing undemanding music for bourgeois audiences and pandering to brutal revolutionary regimes harmed his reputation later on after the return of the ancient regime to France and other nations. It was likely his lack of credibility either in appealing to restored aristocrats who would have remembered his betrayal of the aristocracy in decades before or his lack of national identity as an Austrian-born Frenchman that kept him from being able to ride the trends of 19th century music with its romanticism and nationalism, two trends that Pleyel was simply not well-placed to capitalize on.

And so Pleyel was nearly completely forgotten. Even if his music was shockingly easy, according to Jane Austen’s own niece, who was somewhat amazed that her talented aunt would play music that may have been misjudged as being from a talentless hack, he had surely done enough to be remembered, one would think. His family business made pianos that were performed by Chopin, but his music lacked the sort of artistic credibility that would have kept his music in the repertoire of later generations of classical musicians. Yet his music was beloved by the pianists of his time, who appreciated music with sensibility that was not too difficult to play, and because so much of it was in Jane Austen’s library, those who want to listen to the music that Jane Austen practiced for herself and played for her friends and family, we have Ignacio Pleyel to thank, even if he was living and working in France while Jane Austen was living and writing in contemporary England. If Pleyel needs people like Jane Austen to be remembered today, so that people might play his simple and undemanding music on the piano in the future. In fact, let us hope that the fondness of Jane Austen for his music helps Pleyel be remembered today—we can always use music that is easy to play and pleasant to listen to, whatever time period we happen to live in.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

[4] Zuckermann, Wolfgang (1969) The Modern Harpsichord. New York: October House, p. 162.

Posted in History, Music History, Musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Mr. Darcy’s Daughters

Mr. Darcy’s Daughters:  A Novel, by Elizabeth Aston

If you read this novel, you likely know what you are going to get, and will likely not be too disappointed by it.  It is a mostly competently written Regency fanfiction sequel to Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice, and even if it is an unnecessary work with some seriously weak characterization, it happens to be an enjoyable sort of work if one does not think too hard about it.  There are many worse books that I have read than this one, and at no point in the frothy novel about five girls and their romantic misadventures did I feel that I was wasting my time.  Some books have massive and colossal ambitions, while others aim modestly and achieve their target.  This book is clearly within the second camp, a pleasing and modest genre piece that brings a few hours of reading pleasure.  As someone who likes both genre fiction [1] and the writings of Jane Austen in particular, at no point did I feel this book was an insult to Jane Austen or a diminution of her excellence, even if the author clearly draws the most insightful aspects of her inspiration from Austen rather than creatively.

The enjoyment of this novel consists of two different levels.  For one, the novel itself contains a great deal of wit and humor, much of it consisting of winking and nodding references that readers will appreciate, largely because no one would possibly read a book like this without being fond of Regency romances as a whole, and once you are familiar with and fond of a particular literary world, it is enjoyable to slyly reference other works.  Second, and more originally, the plot of his novel is bubbly and sparkling, like a pleasing glass of Martinelli’s apple or grape ciders after a long day of work.  Five daughters of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy have a disastrous but ultimately successful season of socializing in London in a novel that deals in a breezing way with such problems as dating or courting homosexuals, teen pregnancies, falling in love with the fiancé of a relative, dealing with religious hypocrites, and having powerful and unscrupulous enemies.  If you strip away the setting of the late 1810’s that this novel takes place—more on that in a bit—this novel contains a story that could easily be told about people I happen to know.  The changed time period merely makes it less objectionable to see middle-aged people hitting on teen girls, because that sort of thing is extremely awkward in real life, and merely classy and charming here.  Context matters a great deal in life, and suggest that some of the book’s readers likely missed their calling as heroes or heroines in a frothy regency romance novel by being born out of time.  Although I managed to pick up the book from the library, I was the fourth person to read the particular copy of the book after checking it out, and at least two of the other people—one of them who was my mother—both enjoyed it and enjoyed talking about it, so much so that I had to tell them not to give spoilers before I had the chance to read it myself.

There are really two grounds on which to criticize this book that keep it from reaching the achievement of Jane Austen herself, aside from the fact that this is clearly and obviously a derivative work.  For one, the characters in this novel are very thin, some of them to the point of being unconvincing even as cardboard pictures of people.  The worst offender here is the oldest daughter, Letitia, who is entirely unconvincing as a human being.  Most of the other characters fare a bit better, and it is clear that the second-born Camilla is the star of the show.  Even by the random odds of genes, along with the environmental benefits of being born a Darcy, the girls should have ended up with a happier set of personality characteristics to go along with their wit and looks.  The second problem is a more substantial one, which would have likely hindered Jane Austen from enjoying this novel, as flattering as it would have been, and that is the problem that the author is obviously writing from the point of view of a contemporary woman—the social issues being dealt with, like teen pregnancy and homosexuality, are clearly matters of contemporary social importance, and there is no way that a cultured lady would have thought and spoken like the characters, or written like the author, who is writing a costume drama.  To the point, Jane Austen herself once counselled a young relative of hers who was trying to be a novelist to write what she knew, and to leave aside detailed description of places and time she was not familiar with where her lack of knowledge would expose her.  A large part of what makes Jane Austen’s novels so compelling is that they were written by an immensely talented and witty and observant writer about the people and the world that she turned her wit and powers of observation and description to.  Merely competent costume dramas written two centuries after the fact cannot hope to compete on that level, even if they do offer a few hours of enjoyable reading so long as one does not think too much about the dodgy chronology and the unrealistic behavior of the barely two-dimensional characters.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:


Posted in Book Reviews, History, Love & Marriage | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Jane Austen Entertains

Jane Austen Entertains:  Music From Her Own Library, by Miss Sara Stowe (soprano), Miss Jenny Thomas (German flute), and Dr. Martin Souter (pianoforte)

This is an album that knows its fanbase and aims squarely at it—this music is all about Jane Austen.  It answers a question many people may have but never think to ask—what kind of music did Jane Austen like and play.  After all, this is a project that is focused on mimicking the sound that Jane Austen would have made playing for her friends and family.  There are two elements that seek to provide particular credibility as a Jane Austen project.  For one, this music is recorded in the Chawton home where Jane Austen spent most of her later years [1].  For another, the music actually comes from her library, much of it copied in her own hand.  There are two sort of people who will appreciate this album—Jane Austen fans who want to listen to the music that she liked, and people who fond of obscure composer, most notably Ignace Pleyel, who is the real star performer here in that three of his works show up here.  Since the music is mostly undemanding and similar sounding, I will not attempt a track by track review.  It is worthwhile to reflect a bit upon the different selections included here:

The Yellow Hair’d Laddie (flute)
Hooly & Fairly (vocals)
Waly, Waly (vocals)
Sonatina No. 5 in G major for pianoforte solo by Ignace Pleyel (Adagio non troppo, Un poco piu moto, Rondo Allegro)
The Egyptian Love Song (flute)
Betsy Bell & Mary Gray (vocals)
Polwart on the Green (vocals)
For Tenderness form’d in Life’s early day (flute)
Sonata No. 2 in G major for flute and pianoforte by Johann Sterkel (Allegro con brio, Rondo Andante)
The Last Time I Came O’er (vocals)
The Banks of Forth (vocals)
Katharine Ogie (vocals)
Sonatina No. 10 in B flat major for pianoforte solo by Ignace Pleyel (Andante Grazioso, Menuetto Allegretto)
My deary, if thou die (vocals)
Sonata No. 4 in A major for flute and pianoforte by Ignace Pleyel (Allegro, Andante, Rondo Allegro assai)

Looking at the organization of this, it is clear that the producers sought to mix the pieces together, dividing up the sonatas along with various folk tunes, some of which are impressive and many of which sound exactly like something you would expect to see from a talented young woman who wrote romance novels.  The sonatas are undemanding but lovely, many of the folk songs deal with handsome boys, relationships, fears of losing a lover to death, and pretty girls.  The classical music as a whole would work well for offertory music at church or played at a concert hall, or performed while one is attempting to draw the attention of a gentleman who happens to like good music.  It should be noted that Pleyel, who composed more than a third of this album, was a student of Haydn’s who was prolific and popular during his lifetime, largely because his music was not very hard to play, but he is very obscure nowadays.  It’s a pleasure to listen to, though.  It is a shame that the recording volume is so low that I had to turn up the audio to 25 to hear it properly, but that is a mere quibble, as the songs are performed well and are pleasing to listen to, besides being of historical note since they form part of the soundtrack for the life of Jane Austen, who happened to be the only musically inclined person in her family.  This is the next best thing we can get to being entertained on disc by Jane Austen herself, and it’s a worthy album for people who are fond of classical music and Jane Austen.  What’s not to like about those two things put together?  There’s only one thing this album needs to be even better—a violist.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in History, Music History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

An Accidental Lifehack

Yesterday night, after I got home from work, I found an e-mail from a longtime friend of mine [1] that came with an apologetic introduction that I probably already knew the contents of the article that he sent.  While that may be true, I thought it was a good article anyway [2] and it reveals one of the lasting and consistent motivations for my prolific writing over the course of my life, if an unconscious one.  It should come as little surprise that I met this friend when I was a student at the University of Southern California and he was the instructor of a class for writing for engineers.  Admittedly, both at that time, long before, and to this day, my writing was far beyond the scope of the class itself, which was focused on the sort of writing that engineers would be expected to do, from the preparation of presentations, the writing of lengthy reports, and even the occasional op-ed to explain technical matters to an audience of non-technical readers.  It was an immensely practical class, even if I struggled at times to create distinct authorial voices for different genres of writing, given the relentlessly consistent authorial voice I tend to have in everything I write from poems to plays to personal essays to my few attempts at prose fiction.
 Given that I started reading at the age of 3, and that I have always had a lot to say, it was probably inevitable that I would be a writer of some kind.  Being fond of books and possessed of way too much on my heart and mind, it was probably inevitable that thoughts and, to a lesser extent, feelings, would pour out of me.  This does not make it any more welcome to the outside world, or to the other people involved, but it was probably inevitable.  From the beginning of my writing, in beast fable plays about talking skunks and sardonic limericks, there was a strong ironic distance where the content created had multiple layers, with the true motivation and point of the work not on the surface level, but requiring the reader to ask questions like, “Why would someone write about a morbidly gloomy chicken afraid of becoming someone’s supper?”  Few people, it seems, ask questions like that of their writing.  Yet it remains true, no matter how often it is forgotten, that people do not write without reasons.  Not all writers are as clumsy in their agendas as some of the authors I read [3], but it requires a conscious decision for someone to sit down and spend many hours planning, writing, and editing writings, or to organize the writings of others.
 Over the course of my life, the contents of my writings have been greatly varied.  Until I graduated high school, I primarily wrote poetry, along with the occasional play and short personal essay.  Alongside that public writing, I kept a diary as soon as I had some privacy, once my brother moved in with our father.  From that point until the death of my father in my mid-20’s, I primarily wrote plays that grew increasingly philosophical and reflective in nature, aside from the essays and papers I had to write for my lengthy schooling.  Since that time I have written mostly personal essays of various size with the occasional play and poem [4], although usually these poems have been embedded within some larger personal essay or critical commentary.  I do not know if my writing will shift in its form in the future, but if it does, it will likely retain, as it has in the past, an orientation that combines observation of my surroundings, meditation and reflection upon internal matters of thinking and feeling, and a focus on history and context, all of which has remained consistent over the course of my writing so far.
 So, how is writing a lifehack?  Those who are not writers themselves may not realize what it is that writers gain through their writing given the fact that it often takes considerable time and costs a great deal in terms of privacy and admitting at times that it would be wisest or most obvious to conceal about the mess of our own lives.  For one thing, writing is therapeutic, allowing people the chance to reduce their stress and improve their mood and well-being.  It also offers practical benefits in allowing people increased skill in conveying and communicating that which is difficult to express, whether that exists in the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual realms of life.  Writing can also help cope with hard times, even if it may temporarily make them worse.  It improves learning, which is one of the main reasons I write, to better understand for myself, and hopefully to help others as well, even as it helps people deal with the hectic and complicated nature of life.  At other times, writing can be a way of developing one’s capacity for leadership by building a personal brand that demonstrates skill and competence in writing.
 In this light, it is little surprise that many of us write.  Whether we write personal blogs, articles and essays and editorials for external publication, or even turn our hand to writing larger works like books, we are engaged in the process of taking information content, organizing it, and placing it before others.  We often do this with multiple motives.  An acquaintance of mine, and not someone I would consider a particularly literary person at that, has engaged on a task to write about a technical area related to his work.  He found himself possessed of a certain degree of expertise through his years of work, found that there was a lack of material about that particular area extant, and decided to fill that void through writing.  This is often what drives people to write, regardless of the genre that they write, in that a perceived level of personal expertise alongside a niche that is not being filled satisfactorily practically amounts to a felt calling to fill that niche with one’s own writings.  Through such means people become writers and engage in accidental lifehacking, and hopefully making the world a better place in the process insofar as our words are read, understood, and properly acted upon.  To write is to hope, and many of us could use a bit more hope and optimism in our lives.
 [1] See, for example:
 [3] See, for example:
 [4] See, for example:
Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Sun-Maid Raisins & Dried Fruits

Sun-Maid Raisins & Dried Fruits:  Serving American Families & The World Since 1912, by Anna L. Palecek, Gary H. Marshburn, and Barry F. Kriebel

[Note:  This book is advertised for free for those who buy Sun-Maid dried fruit products, and can be found at://]

If you don’t already happen to know, I really like raisins.  Among my favorite desserts are such classics as rice pudding with raisins, carrot loaves with raisins, and oatmeal raisin cookies, all of which are recipes in this book.  (I also really like pumpkins, but I haven’t read any books relating to pumpkins yet.)  As someone who is not only fond of raisins to the point that I regularly buy them for snacking on at work, it was probably only a matter of time before I got around to reading the book that was released by Sun-Maid, the California co-operative that makes and markets the raisins that I eat so frequently, as reading corporate histories is something that I have been known to do from time to time [1].  Given that this book is freely available and obviously a product of corporate advertising, how does it shape up as a book, being slightly less than 200 pages and being transparent about the fact that it exists as a way of promoting and explaining Sun-Maid’s view of its own corporate history?  It ends up being a remarkably enjoyable book to read, and clearly designed with some excellence in graphic art, and it happens to be useful and informative as well, if you happen to be a fan of raisins.

The contents of this book are quite complete, far more than one would be led to expect as a merely corporate product.  The book is made of six chapters.  The first chapter provide the basics on Sun-Maid’s history, including a few timelines to put the corporate history in a chronological perspective, as well as the uses of raisins and other dried fruits, festivals and holidays that use dried fruits, as well as a discussion on serving sizes.  The second chapter gives the background story of raisins and dried fruits throughout history, including ancient history, their uses in the old and new world, how they came to California, and stories about irrigation water in the San Juaquin Valley as well as a discussion of the Thompson Seedless grape, the star of the California raisins I eat so much of.  The third chapter discusses the corporate history of the Sun-Maid co-operative itself, including the Sun-Maid girl, who was once a raisin ambassador at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, as well as the fondness of painter Norman Rockwell for raisins, which made it into a surprising number of his paintings.  Who knew?  The fourth chapter of the book looks at the process by which raisins are grown, harvested, dried, processed, packed, and distributed to places like Portland, Oregon and Lakeland, Florida, as well as many countries around the world.  The fifth chapter of the book looks at some facts on raisins and other dried fruits like apricots, prunes, figs, dates, peaches, apples, and pears, including the role of raisins as a star of various international food guidelines.  The sixth and final chapter contains some amazing recipes for foods that I love, like the aforementioned oatmeal raisin cookies, as well as foods that I would really like to try, such as Dolmas salad, raisin serrano quesadillas, chicken and asparagus with raisin-wine au jus, Moroccan garbanzo beans with raisins, quick chicken curry, and turkey empanadas.  Seriously, I’m getting hungry writing this.  I hope you’re getting hungry reading this.

There is a lot that makes this book successful, and a work of corporate history worthy of emulation.  For one, this book brings the goods, including some excellent history, some tasty recipes, some classy graphic design as well as plenty of paintings from Norman Rockwell, and even a lovely animated version of the Sun-Maid girl.  The book pays a great deal of attention to American history, particularly California, and makes sure to promote the use of raisins and other dried fruits in various religious traditions ranging from Roman Catholicism, to Sweden’s St. Lucia’s day, to Diwali and Ramadan, even to Jewish dishes.  This is a book that knows that a large portion of its audience appreciates foods from around the world and that dried fruits are an important part of many religious festivals, making the sensitive approach taken by the people responsible for writing this book a winner.  This is a book that not only wants to sell raisins, but to sell them as a healthy and culturally important food, and to sell Sun-Maid as a worthwhile company in providing a worthwhile product that is healthy and sustainable.  Mission accomplished.  Other companies would do wise to study this book, take some notes, and emulate what makes it work so well, if they can.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews, History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

An Introduction To The Songs Of Ascent: Part Three

[Note:  This post is part of a series of posts [1].]

Having discussed why Christians should care about the Songs of Ascent in light of the importance of “going up to Jerusalem” and having introduced the songs themselves and some basic questions about their essential unity and their largely unknown authorship, it would be worthwhile to examine these psalms to look at what we learn about the festivals of God, as they were observed in the Second Temple period, from the psalms themselves and their overall narrative arc.  Can we see a narrative within the psalms as they are collected together that is apparent when they are taken as a larger unit, rather than from examining them in a verse-by-verse fashion?  Is there a flow where themes are connected and where there is a sense of movement along the set of psalms from beginning to end, and does it help us better understand our own experiences traveling to the festivals of God as contemporary believers?  Let us at least to attempt to answer such questions briefly today.

Since we have already quoted the fifteen psalms of this collection, let us briefly summarize what the psalms say to see if there is a narrative they form when placed together.  As we noted previously, there are clearly some aspects of the psalms that combine with each other concerning the particular recapitulation of the beginning and also certain expressions being repeated throughout several of the psalms.  Let us, for now, content ourselves with seeking to summarize the place the psalms are coming from to see if it takes the believer on a particular journey.  Psalm 120 begins with the psalmist in a state of distress from people who have lying lips and who hate peace.  This is a place that many of us can relate to.  I know I can.  Psalm 121 has the psalmist looking towards the hills, where Jerusalem was located, from where God promises to keep us and deliver us and preserve us from evil in our coming and going.  Psalm 122 expresses gladness at going up to the house of God, and then focuses on the city of Jerusalem itself, its place as the location of judgment, expressing the desires of the psalmist for the peace and well-being of that city.  Psalm 123 shows the psalmist in distress, lifting up the eyes again to God, seeking to follow the example of God and asking for God’s mercy.  Psalm 124 reflects on the historical blessings that God has provided, preventing us from being overwhelmed with our sorrows and difficulties as was Heman in Psalm 88 [2].  Psalm 125 points to Mount Zion, another well-known Jerusalem landmark, pointing out the blessings that God gives to those who remain in righteousness.  Psalm 126 looks at the return of the captives to Jerusalem and the fact that even Gentiles are able to recognize what God has done for his people.  Psalm 127, perhaps the most ironic psalm that could have been penned by Solomon, reflects on the vanity of human attempts at splendor and security apart from righteousness and the continuing of blessings from God, and praises having a lot of children.  Psalm 128 seeks for believers happiness and fruitfulness and the peace and well-being of Jerusalem.  Psalm 129 reflects on a lifetime of sorrows that nevertheless have not spelled defeat or destruction, seeking blessings for the godly and ignominy and shame for those who hate God’s people.  Psalm 130 points out that believers cry out to God in sorrow and depths of grief, but that God is full of mercy and redemption.  Psalm 131 points our attention to being calm and quiet in spirit, rather than being troubled and anxious over matters beyond our comprehension.  Psalm 132 looks to the promise of salvation and joy that God gave to David, promises including the Messiah, as well as for God’s headquarters being Jerusalem, millennial promises that have yet to be fully fulfilled.  Psalm 133 praises the unity of brethren with a vision of a priest being anointed with oil that hints at the royal priesthood of believers, and Psalm 134 closes the Songs of Ascents with a blessing given to God from the servants who stand by night in God’s house, a perfect song to sing from the temple itself on the opening night of a Holy Day.

Looking at the psalms together, it is clear that there is a larger structure that begins from where believers start, living among the heathen who live lives contrary to God’s truth, and that ends with the believers praising God from within His house.  The songs look back to God’s workings through history as well as his promises yet to come.  The emotional content of the psalms when put together is one of great nuance and complexity.  There is praise, there is gratitude, there is hope and expectation, and there is sorrow and grief.  While individual psalms within the collection may focus on different aspects, when put together there is a larger picture that puts everything in its proper context, with God in control but with our own lives presenting us with a great deal of material to reflect on and to grow from.  There are a lot of references to children, from our being the children of God and to our being fruitful with many children of our own.  It is a collection of songs that focuses on Jerusalem as a destination of the faithful, and of believers as being a part of human and spiritual families.

If we compare and contrast the Songs of Ascents with our own worship practices and with what we know of the way that Jews in the Second Temple period traveled to the festivals, we can further insights.  For one, we do not see from the psalms any felt need to hide the complexity of our emotional state.  Whether the feeling was praise of God’s workings in life, grief over the troubles we face, or anxiety over the vanity of our attempts to find security and glory apart from God, that feeling is expressed honestly, but without losing sight of the larger picture.  Indeed, the songs as a whole, even as focused as they are on Mount Zion, the city of Jerusalem, and the temple of God, have a cosmic scope, looking not only at Israelites but at Gentiles as well, and looking at God as the creator of the universe, Jesus Christ as the savior and redeemer of humanity, and look at history as well as prophecy.  This sort of grand scope is often lacking from our own lives and from our own approach.  We would do well to recapture that approach for ourselves.

After all, the themes of these songs relate strongly to the larger themes of the plan of God as expressed in the Holy Days.  We see themes of salvation, of God’s working through believers in history, in the unity of believers and their preparation for positions of honor in judgment and in priestly service, and we see a look at the millennial blessings that God has promised.  In looking at the psalms as a whole, we begin in our departure from a world in darkness, and the collection ends in nighttime as believers praise the light of God triumphing over the darkness of the world.  And so it is in our lives as well as believers.  Indeed, should we focus a great deal of attention on the Song of Ascent, we will have little surprise that people have been inspired to write and reflect upon these psalms individually even if they have seldom been examined as a large body.  As we prepare for the Feast of Tabernacles, let us study and examine these songs so that we may better understand the mindset of those who came before us, whose writings and reflections were collected in scripture for our edification and growth.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Music History, Musings, Psalms | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Tranquilize Until The Day We Die

Between 1969 and 1972, a television show featured an unusual household, made up of a thirty-something businessman, his freckled and precocious son Eddie, and their Japanese housekeeper, Mrs. Livingston [1].  The television show, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” featured the son scheming and matchmaking on behalf of his father, with the general sympathies of Mrs. Livingston as well as, one presumes, a large part of the audience.  Despite the fact that this show only ran for three years, it looms large in cultural importance, both because a large number of successful actors and actresses got their first break on the show, and because it deals with the subject of courtship in a way that is thoughtful and that pushed the thinking of people towards the thorny and increasingly relevant problem of divorce and remarriage in a way that did not trigger a great deal of hostility for Eddie’s father.  After all, few people will blame a widow or widower from seeking to marry again, after a respectful period of mourning, and few people will complain about someone who shows an obvious distaste for loneliness when they are viewed as blameless in the matter, in stark contrast to those who are blamed for the state that they are in because a marriage has broken down.  Widows and widowers have a lot more goodwill than divorcees have.  The idea of the show to take advantage of this fact was a clever one, and one that is far more important than its short first run on television would indicate in the grand scheme of our culture.

Why do I bring up long-canceled television show from more than 40 years ago?  In many ways, my life resembles a sitcom, but not one that I find very much enjoyment in.  Yesterday morning, for example, I was rushing off to work and opened the car door only to see a paper bag sitting on it.  My first response was to be a bit panicky and alarmed about it, that someone had opened my car, even to deposit something, and upon looking at the contents of the bag I saw that someone had made lunch, and I had a shrewd, and ultimately correct, guess as to who it was.  After returning from a long day at work during dinner there was a part of the conversation where this person had commented on a time she had made dinner for her estranged husband to the ridicule of his coworkers.  I felt deeply uncomfortable about it, wondering if the desire to help prepare a lunch was meant as a way of appealing to a man’s heart through his stomach.  Jokes about poisoning aside, which were made by at least one person, I felt rather uncomfortable with the thought that someone showing an interest in what I enjoyed eating would be attempting to fulfill some sort of personal agenda, one that I found unacceptable on several levels.  Is it right that I should be so uncomfortable about such matters?  Surely courtship ought not to be a matter of terror, even for someone as timid and skittish as I am.  Yet my feeling is of being a prey animal surrounded by predators.  This is not how it should feel like, I am aware of that, but whether I like someone or not, I tend to be extremely sensitive to the way that others behave in ways that I find as predatory.

Yet this is not the only problem I face on a regular basis.  Just this weekend, while playing Payday with the family of the host, one of the members of the family, who happened to be the banker, commented to her sisters that I was too old for anyone to date, and then realizing it sounded rude clarified that I was too old for any of them to date.  Given that I was playing a board game with mostly preteens, I did not think that needed to be said.  I felt it unnecessary to comment or draw attention on what was said, but it is worth pondering about.  What is it that would lead people to tease others about me?  I was playing a board game with people who remind me in some ways of my own cousins, which happens often as that is my sole frame of reference for thinking of younger women who are related to me at this point, and so it happens to be a fairly common frame of reference.  At any rate, I would never make fun of someone else for enjoying spending time with a friendly person of any age, gender, or any other quality.  Nor do I find it just that other people would be made fun of for enjoying my company.  Life is hard enough to enjoy as it is—one doesn’t need to make it more hard to enjoy by making fun of others for who they happen to find enjoyment being around in innocent fun.

A few days ago I happened, by chance, to listen to a song by a band I happen to really like called Finish Ticket [2] that reminded me why people self-medicate.  I tend to strongly avoid the temptation of self-medication, but I can totally understand why people do it.  I get that people do not want to feel neurotic and panicky all the time, and that many people choose the wrong things to calm them down.  We eat too much, drink too much, smoke or do drugs, or try to distract our anxieties and worries with the wrong kind of subject matter to think about.  None of that is hard to understand, because to do what we know to be destructive is seen as somehow the lesser of the evils when the alternative is to feel awkward and out of place all the time.  Yet it is in that awkwardness, in that tension and lack of comfort that we come to a great deal of insight about our lives.  Somewhere between the extreme external restraint and the vibrant internal emotional and mental life there is insight and wisdom to gain from those who can bear the immense burden.  I suppose that it is my burden to bear, as well as I can, because there has to be something on the other side, and the only way to get there is to push on through despite the uncomfortable nature of the issues.

If nothing else, I am led to ponder what life would look like if it was not so painfully awkward.  What is it that makes life so awkward?  Well, for one, I am painfully and obviously aware of those around me.  A great deal of the awkwardness of my life comes from being aware of others around me that others tend to ignore, whether that means listening to others or noticing and showing concern for little ones.  If I noticed other people less, I would be less awkward, but because I cared less about others and was less curious about and interested in them.  That would increase isolation, but would not do much to resolve the essential tension in a worthwhile way.  A great deal of the rest of the awkwardness springs from the tension between intimacy and isolation, much of which springs from matters which are not simply going to go away.  Perhaps I will always be awkward and complicated, always live on that razor’s edge between intense longing and intense panic and anxiety, the sort of existence that does not appear destined to last very long in this life, since it puts a lot of strain on one’s heart, mind, body, and spirit, all of which have lived under some pretty intense stress for my entire life, none of which appears to be going away anytime soon, unless there be some sort of miracle involved.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

Posted in Love & Marriage, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment