The Other I

November 21, 2014

Don’t think about it that way

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making.  Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal.  His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience.  What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify.  Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists.  And vice versa.  For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.

The potential catastrophe is terrifying.  (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.)  Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change.  That has now changed.  A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years.  If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures.  That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years.  40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions.  1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire.  Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th.  2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater.  That’s in 60 years from now!  And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.

Why aren’t we doing something about this!?  

Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.

Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do.  Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive?  if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering?  if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs?  if I don’t turn on the lights at all?  if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven?  The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.

I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.

In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.”  They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets.  And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem.  But it would be a huge start.  And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.

http://logisticsviewpoints.com/

Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.

 

November 19, 2014

The liberation of being wrong

I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient.  There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong.  We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way.  I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day.  There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.

But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing.  People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light.  I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.

Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head.  I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance.  In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil.  Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell.  Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.

Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this.  But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous.  Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom.  In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write.  Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.

But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations?  I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion.  More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.

But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable.  I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue.  Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself.  Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.

Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.

I’m a human being.  That is fantastic!  How lucky I am!  For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature.  We all make mistakes.  We’re all incomplete.  We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion.  That doesn’t change the reality.  We are each simply incredible.  We are each simply wonderful.

Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong.  Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.

Dance anyone?

 

 

November 16, 2014

Today’s news

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:48 pm
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This Sunday’s paper carried a story today about Muriel Spark (the author probably best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).  As a teenager, she wrote letters to herself from imaginary admirers and pushed them between the pillows of the couch for her nosy mother to find.  One such letter included a pseudo reply from Muriel which read “Dear Colin,  You were wonderful last night!”

Ah, what a good little girl I was by comparison.  I completely lacked the creativity to even think up such naughtiness, but even if I had, I was a rigid rule-follower.  I didn’t even break the “no-talking-after-lights-out” rule at the boarding school I attended as a teenager.  I can only hope I’ve grown up a little in that regard.  One thing I do know is that I no longer have all the right answers I had then.

The second item that struck me from the papers today is an advertisement from Harrod’s department store for a Gingerbread House.  It’s quite a fabulous house, and resembles the houses we used to make at my German  grandmother’s house every Christmas Eve.

http://kidspagess.com/

Harrod’s is selling their Gingerbread House of £150 (about $250).  We children might not have eaten our houses so readily if we thought we could make so much money from our efforts.

November 11, 2014

Selling God

We get a lot of unsolicited calls at our door in this little village.  If it’s not a delivery of something we have ordered, it is inevitably a request for money or a workman offering to give us a price to pressure-wash our drive or roof, or do work on our garden.

Yesterday, when my husband answered the doorbell he was met by a well-dressed woman, probably in her mid-sixties, who spoke with a mid-west American accent.  She was carrying several bibles.  I was on my way out to the garden and so by chance was standing in the entrance hall.  The conversation went something like “Good morning, Sir.  It is a lovely morning, isn’t it?  I was wondering:  have you ever thought about what makes you happy?”

I let out a noise which can probably best be described as something between a cough and a snort.  My husband paused, and then said in a not-unlikely but firm voice “Go away.  Just go away.”  She smiled, replied “”All right.  Have a good day” and left.

I have been wondering what I would have said had I been the prime combatant – err, I mean conversationalist – at the door.  I would have been tempted to ask how anyone can sell happiness as a payment for Christian belief in a crucified Saviour.  Or I might have mentioned the quote from Aristotle taught to us as children by my father who said that happiness is a by-product, not something that can be acquired by going after it directly.  Or if I was really going to take her on, I might have mentioned that I was a psychologist, and thinking about what makes people happy is something I have done all my professional life.

Come to think of it, I think it was a good thing I wasn’t the one who answered the door.

What do you think?  What would you have said:  Have you ever thought about what makes you happy?

November 6, 2014

The socialization of oldest sisters and Catholic priests

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:43 pm
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In the supermarket this morning, I watched a little girl, probably about five, showing her little sister, about age three, how to push a shopping trolley for groceries.  The youngest was clearly immensely pleased and very proud to be given instructions for carrying out such a grown-up activity.  The older sister was very kind and patient.  And definitely in charge.  It was like watching myself in a time-lapse episode.

Photo from Kid Costs || Child Support Budgets

By the time I was a year and a half old, I had a younger sibling.  By the time I was thirteen, I had four younger sisters, four younger brothers, and a great deal of authority countenanced by my parents.  By the time I was a teenager, “Terry said I could do it” held as much justification for my younger sibs as permission received directly from Mom or Dad.  I took them swimming.  I took them shopping.  I helped them with their homework.  They sat on the kitchen cupboard and “helped me” make cookies, which meant they got to lick the spoon and anything left in the bowl.

I’ve often thought of the effect this subtle but constant socialization as the oldest sister has had on my psyche.  I was the oldest.  Whether I was intrinsically the smartest might be questionable, but I was always the most experienced, always the biggest.  I didn’t ask my sibs for advice.  I figured things out for myself.  I always knew better.  And I didn’t just know it.  All my brothers and sisters knew it.  They would no more say to me “Don’t tell me what to do” than they would have said it to either of our parents.

I have, as we all moved into adulthood, relinquished my absolute sense that I always know best.  I sometimes do ask various brothers and sisters for their opinions and advice in areas where their expertise greatly out-ranks mine and take them seriously.  I’ve learned a lot from them.

But I realized some time ago just how much of an oldest sister I still am.  I got caught in the middle of a conversation with two men squabbling with each other, and I spontaneously more or less scolded them and told them to stop.  The wife of one of the men looked at me and said “You sound just like Father Patrick!”

I have since been reflecting on how much like a Catholic priest I am capable of being.  I assume an authority based on years of living in a world where my word was never questioned, was always accepted as right, where my authority was never resented but rather accepted as a sign of my concern.  And like most Catholic priests I have known, however kind and wise many of them have been, I don’t expect to be told what to do or what to think.  Discussion, yes.  Dictation, no.

Rather like the girl in the supermarket who by the age of five was already “the oldest.”

 

October 9, 2014

My absurd idea

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Albert Einstein

I have often been mystified by some of the world’s greatest scientists who believe that the world of numbers has a real existence.  It’s a kind of modern version of Plato’s world of perfect forms, which exist in what most of us think of as “the real world” only in degraded form corrupted by matter.  As a cognitive psychologist, I have been pondering for years how a modern thinker in the world today could reach a conclusion that to me sounds so preposterous.

I don’t have the answer, of course, but I’ve been also thinking about a similar problem of my own, and I do have an idea.  My personal version of the numbers problem is with music.  When I listen to some of my favourite classical or folk musicians, I often seem to go into another world, to experience a different reality, to become convinced of things that are mere ideas in my every day state in which I generally view the world using scientific principles.  I listen to music, for instance, and the conviction that the mere act of existence is valuable, becomes overwhelming.  Faithfulness to existence seems to me to be the greatest good.  In everyday life, that more or less takes the form of respect, of kindness, of love for everyone and everything.  It’s a principle I can more or less defend intellectually using scientific principles, but it is one empowered with profound emotion and a certainty comparable to what some people seem to experience in relation to their religious beliefs.  I don’t have any convincing scientific proof.  And yet I feel I know it through direct experience.

Can this certainty nevertheless be wrong?  absolutely yes.    Just as scientific conclusions can also be wrong:  time and space are not unchanging absolutes as Newton thought they were.  Just as our sensory experiences can be wrong:  I might mistake a stick for a rifle, a bird for superman, the roar of an overhead plane for thunder.  Just as our memories can be wrong:  almost everyone has asked if some “memory” actually happened or was only a dream;  conversely many of us have a seemingly clear memory of something that could not possibly have happened.

My insights gained through music might be equally erroneous or incomplete.  They could be catastrophically wrong.  I might, for instance conclude that God is commanding me to behead anyone who disagrees with my religious beliefs. Just as the conclusions of those geniuses who describe the world in terms of numbers may be wrong, or at least incomplete.  

My hypothesis is that we are each like those blind men in the Indian story standing around an elephant.  They each experience a different aspect of the elephant, and are convinced by their own experience that they are right.  The challenge is to recognize that what we see is incomplete.  So that  even people who fundamentally disagree with us might be right too.

I don’t think there are separate words we call heaven or hell.   I don’t think the world of music or numbers or science or the arts have a separate existence from the “real world” we live in either.  But they are different perspectives, each of which tells us something different about the elephant around which we blind men are standing.

So I’m going to stop thinking that the “insights” I gain through listening to music, or that other people gain through the arts, or by walking in the mountains, or even through meditation, are somehow inferior to the conclusions I can buttress with scientific data.  Those insights derived from non-scientific sources deserve to be taken seriously.  I don’t think they are infallible, at least in terms that any individual human being can express them.  But they are valuable.

Okay, I’ll stop.  Just let me say that I do appreciate that Einstein said that if an idea is not at first absurd, there is no hope for it.  He didn’t say that all absurd ideas were brilliant.

 

 

 

October 6, 2014

A saga of senior moments

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
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For the uninitiated, senior moments are when you can’t remember something you know perfectly well, but which you convince yourself happens to everybody over the age of 50, and is nothing to worry about.

Except at 2 o’clock in the morning, when all the rules change.

Yesterday I transferred a substantial payment on-line to what was supposed to be the account of our roofer who is replacing our aging and rotting fascias, soffits, and gables.  When I asked for the transfer to be made immediately, the bank noted, along with the question “Are you sure you want to make this transfer?”  that it could not be reversed.   Yes, I said, I’m sure, and authorized the transfer of about $3500.

At 2 o’clock this morning I woke up.  OMG, I thought.  Are you sure you typed in the right bank account?  What if you accidentally sent it to the wrong person?  Did you even bother to double-check?  And you haven’t received an acknowledgement from the roofer.

Well, you did send it on a Sunday, said my rational self.  The office was almost certainly closed.

Not to be put off by something as flimsy as reasonable logic, my righteous panic was undeterred.  I finally fell back into a fitful sleep with nightmares about small claims court interspersed with wondering how I was going to confess this financial conflagration I had engineered to my husband.

Nonetheless, I wisely decided the next morning not to mention this dreadful possibility to him over morning coffee but to wait until I had the chance to call the roofer’s office.

The transfer has been made to the right account, and the work is still on schedule to be done next week.

Well, as I’ve said before  -  getting old is interesting.

 

September 30, 2014

Update on the no-sugar regime

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm

When I was a growing up, we all routinely made Lenten resolutions covering those six weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  My childhood resolutions usually took the form of giving up candy or cookies or even desserts altogether, and as I recall, I rarely broke the resolutions.

As an adult, I have often wondered why I haven’t been able to go for as long as two days to keep a resolution to stay away from sugar, when I did so with so little fanfare as a child.

I’m now into the third week of a no-refined sugar regime, and there are a few things that have surprised me.

First of all, as Sanstorm in her comment predicted, it has not been nearly as hard as I have expected.  When I have felt a sugar-craving, I’ve usually reached for a small handful of raisins and nuts, and moved on.  What I have not done is to continue to discuss the issue with myself.  I have not gone down the increasingly self-serving reasons about why, despite my resolutions, I simply should have a sugar-kick.  It’s rather like the Lenten resolutions of my childhood.  The decision is not up for discussion.

The second thing that has surprised me is that, although my joints are not absolutely pain-free — especially after I’ve spent a couple of hours scraping moss off the roof — I seem to have a lot more energy.  I absolutely never expected that.  But it seems to be true.

And of course, having more energy, especially at my age when I am aware of its decreasing supply, is absolutely fantastic.

I had no intention of giving up refined sugar forever.  But under the circumstances, I think I might.

PS:  I do have one small confession to make in the face of this proclamation of victory:  one day I broke down and consumed two fruit-and-nut bars.  To the tune of about 1000 calories.  I felt great for about five minutes.  (But it did taste fantastic.)

September 24, 2014

Mine’s better than yours

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:22 pm
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Earlier this week, a neighbour knocked on our door and asked me to submit something from our garden to the village horticultural competition being held next Saturday.

I gagged.  Almost literally.  The thought of entering a competition using the fruit and vegetables we are growing repelled me with an intensity that surprised me.  The thought of actually winning the competition is even more appalling.

I offered to give him something if he would submit it in his name and keep me out of it, but he said he couldn’t do that.  I offered to donate something to the horticulture committee outside the competition if the produce was going ultimately to a charity or soup kitchen.  He was unimpressed.

So I’ve been analyzing my response.

First of all, I’m not against all competition.  But I do know that generally women do better in cooperative situations while men will often thrive in competition.  This has always been true for me.  I freeze in the face of competition, but love working together.

In our capitalist societies, there is a place for competition:  There is a place to try to make a better, more efficient, or cheaper product.  There is a place for competition to solve all kinds of problems, whether it be to find a cure for cancer, less-polluting energy sources, or more and better ways to feed the hungry.

Just as importantly, we can benefit from knowing how our gifts compare with those of our peers if we want to make a contribution, and in that sense, competition can be a source of valuable self-insight.  When I was teaching courses in educational psychology, I often required my students to generate their own grades, assessing how well they thought they did in the course relative to their own gifts.  In other words, to assess whether they thought that they had done their A-level best, or not, and why.  This was the grade in which they evaluated themselves.  I also gave them a grade, which reflected an individual’s achievement as I saw it relative to everybody else in the class.

I think both of these assessments are valuable for different reasons and in different ways.  The first is rooted in oneself.  It teaches us to make our own judgements, to take responsibility for our own actions, and makes us less dependent on others’ approval.  The second gives us some idea of how our particular gifts compare with others.  The thing that is often not realized is that we need to know which of our gifts may be outstanding every bit as much as we need to know which of our talents may be pretty mediocre.  It’s not a question of hubris on the one hand, or lack of self-confidence on the other.  We all have gifts and we all are incomplete.  We need to know that.

Okay, what does this have to do with our village fruit and vegetable competition?

Well, I don’t grow vegetables to impress other people.  I grow them to eat.  And sometimes to share.  But not to do a one-upmanship.  Not to gain status.  Not to be better than somebody else.  The whole idea seems so ghastly, to rob the entire experience of growing things of it intense intrinsic reward.

Anyway, I don’t think the neighbour understood.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain it or not.  If I try, I will make sure his wife is there too.  I think she might understand.  She’s a woman, after all.

September 20, 2014

What does ISIS want?

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 8:56 pm
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According to the papers, ISIS – or ISIL or the Islamic State – has released another gruesome video, this one a full 55 minutes long showing various torture scenes and hostages being forced to dig their own graves.

What is ISIS trying to accomplish?

I suppose they might argue that they are carrying out the wrath of God against those who defile His commands.  But the campaigns are too slick, too cruel, too obviously being directed by  a master-mind with some specific goal in mind.

Are they trying to terrify local inhabitants into submission?  I think that, although that is one of their goals, the videos would not feature the torture and beheadings of foreigners if they were targeted specifically at the local population.

So are they trying to use the anti-American feeling and resentment built up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation?  The U.S. certainly did not know what they were doing in Iraq, and often made things worse for millions of people than they were under Saddam Hussein.  Nor did the U.S. manage to reduce the ethnic tensions that had built up between the various religious groups.

I think they are trying to accomplish something more than that. I suspect ISIS trying to goad the US and UK into sending military to join the ground fight –  that are they reasoning that the presence of American and other Western troops will so alienate the people in Iran and Syria and other neighbouring countries that they will support ISIS instead.

I absolutely support President Obama’s attempt with John Kerry to bring together a real coalition of middle-eastern countries to join the fight against ISIS.  Because if the people there are not determined to overthrow ISIS, in the long run, ISIS will win.  For the same reason, I think it would be a dreadful mistake to send our own ground troops in.  We are using air power to support those indigenous fighters already there.  It’s got to be their fight this time, not that of the West.  We can help.  We can  give support.

But we will only make things worse if we make it our war.

September 16, 2014

Dragon fruit

  We were in the grocery story this morning, and I saw a “dragon fruit” for sale on the shelf.  I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life, and since it was £2 (less than $4), I bought it, and we had  it for our evening dessert.  It’s a popular Asian fruit,  quite sweet, and supposed to be one of those super-foods full of anti-oxidants and vitamins and all those things with complicated names that they try to jam into vitamin tablets.

But I also discovered something else today that scientists are presenting as the newest forbidden fruit of our age.

It’s sugar.

I’ve known most of my life that processed sugar doesn’t really have any substantial nutritional value.

But what I learned today is that it is the sole (the sole!) cause of tooth decay.  There are villages still in this world where not a single person has any tooth decay whatsoever, because they have no access to processed sugars.  In this country, more children end up in the hospital to have a mouthful of rotten teeth extracted as a result of a sugary diet than for any other single cause.

Despite its name and appearance, it is not Dragon Fruit that grows on the new forbidden tree of our age.

 

September 9, 2014

But I want!!!

Filed under: Diet,Illness and disease,Just Stuff,Osteoporosis — theotheri @ 2:42 pm
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There are several things I’ve known for many years, but have cleverly managed not to put together.  I’ve known, for instance that:

  • possibly as much as 90% of long-term joint pain and arthritis are due to allergies
  • these allergies differ drastically among people
  • the things we may be allergic to might be obviously not good for us, especially in excess – like alcohol, drugs (both legal and illegal), and fast food
  • allergies might also be less obviously evil – nuts, red meat, various grains, night-shade vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, paprika, tea and coffee

I’ve also known that those of us not physically prone to alcohol addition often instead are apt to be vulnerable to sweets, in other words, to develop a sugar addition.

I realized in my early forties that my evening pre-dinner glass of wine was making my joints sore.  I never became a teetotaler, but I rarely now have more than a single drink in a week, and when I do, I immediately pay the price in pain and sleepless nights.  I’d rather be able to drink a little more, but in truth, my restraint has been more than worth paying for the price of remaining pain-free.

But about three months ago I developed a pain in my left shoulder and arm that has made it impossible for me to engage in several yoga stretches I’ve been doing for more than four decades.  I thought I must have strained a muscle, possibly carrying a bag of garden soil, and expected the pain to disappear quite quickly.  Well, it hasn’t disappeared, and its high time for it to be gone.
And that is when the terrible possibility crossed my mind:  am I developing arthritis as a result of sugar intake?   In other words, can sugar in one’s diet cause arthritic pain?

If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask Google.  The unfortunate answer is yes.  People with osteoporosis  are particularly vulnerable.

The standard medical advice is to eliminate a potential culprit for about four weeks.  If joint pain has disappeared or even significantly decreased, one may have found the culprit.  If the pain returns after a return to normal habits, that may be the trigger that has to be kept under control

WHAT!?? my two-year-old self is screaming.  No cookies with lunch?  no desserts with any sugar?  no apple pie?  no ice cream?  no chocolate?

I have watched myself occasionally play the same games that alcoholics and drug addicts play, that narrowing of consciousness that eventually reduces all reason to a total focus on the forbidden object, ultimately coming up with any reason whatsoever that results in surrender.  But I don’t have a weight problem, and I have never had to make a serious long-term effort to reduce my sugar intake.  I’ve never tried to go without processed sugar for as long as four weeks.

I don’t know if I can do it.

The avoidance of arthritic pain as I lope through my 70′s is a big enticement if it works.  But even to carry out the experiment to see if it does might be a challenge greater than I can win.

At the moment, I have 27 more days to go before I have the evidence one way or other.  If I never bring the subject up again, you’ll know it’s because I’m eating a chocolate bar.

 

 

September 7, 2014

I’m right, and you are wrong: so I’m good and you are evil

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:28 pm
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Richard Rohr is a Catholic theologian who posts a daily blog of spiritual thoughts.  I find his thinking a little too pious to suit me, but a friend recently sent me one of his meditations that on first reading I thought was terrific.   It’s Rohr’s understanding of the tree of knowledge of good and evil described in the book of Genesis, and the eating of which resulted in Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden.

Rohr suggests that what Adam and Eve did was to take unto themselves the right to judge good and evil — not only in themselves, but in everybody else as well.  This is what destroyed Paradise, and it is the great sin still practiced by some of the great religions of the world.  We have been doing it for thousands of years.  Christians for centuries throughout Europe stretched heretics on the rack, burned them  at the stake or beheaded them if they failed to submit.   They even set out in heroic crusades against the infidel, murdering, stealing and raping in religious zeal,  Today, Muslims are continuing this righteous slaughter.

It is easy for me to sit here today in horror over these and thousands of other similar events:  the settlers in America who engaged in a pogrom of ethnic cleansing for centuries against the American Indians, Spanish explorers throughout the Americas who even wrote to the Pope to determine whether the natives were actually human, slavery which continues in many parts of the world today.  It’s easy for us in what we call the “free world” to condemn the absence of religious freedom and the coercion of non-believers on the grounds that those in power are enforcing God’s will.

Unfortunately, it is also easy for us not to see ourselves doing the same thing.  Positions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, extra- and pre-marital sex, assisted suicide and capital punishment, among others, are being fought almost solely on religious grounds in our own countries practicing what we believe is “religious freedom.”  It is not only ISIS Muslims beheading anyone who disagrees with them who argue that they have the absolute truth, and therefore the God-given duty to impose that truth on the world.  The Roman Catholic Church has declared itself to be infallible, to be not only a true church, but the one and only true church.  Many fundamentalists of various persuasions are convinced that anyone who does not accept their doctrines is living with falsehood.  It is a stance different not in principle, but only in content, from the absolutism of many Muslim believers.  Most Christian churches no longer have the secular authority they once had to carry out beheadings and burning at the stake.  But many have not given up the belief that they have a unique unchallengeable insight into God’s Truth.

 

“The Fall of Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder

And so this is my problem with Rohr’s interpretation of Genesis:  it is incomplete.  If we are going to say that we cannot judge others in terms of good and evil, that this is the great sin that destroyed Paradise, then we must face the reality that our own grasp of the Truth, of good and evil, is at best incomplete, and sometimes even positively wrong.

Why do so many of us seem to need this absolute certainty?  this conviction that God is on our side?  Are we afraid of uncertainty?  Is it a search for power?  Is it what so often holds our community together, that gives us a personal identity or sense of belonging ?

 

August 21, 2014

What makes living worth it?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:04 pm

Global communications seem particular laden right now with earth-shattering crisis.  Just the front page today includes bombings and rocket attacks in Israel and Palestine, beheadings and live burials in Iraq and Syria, the military confrontations in Ukraine, the militarization of police “protection” in Ferguson in the United States, the Ebola virus in Africa.  The temptation is to despair at being so helpless in the face of it all, when one’s whole impulse is to STOP IT! 

But I myself live in a small world – not in the Middle East or Africa and I am now retired. Perhaps I did some small good as a university professor, perhaps sometimes as a friend, and in the partnership with my husband.   But now there are no students to spend energy trying to help, no fellow faculty, no ongoing research or books to be written.  I’m not overwhelmingly useful except to my husband, who is equally important to me.    In terms of achieving something significant for mankind, I am definitely no longer making the grade.

What then is the value of my life now?

Somehow life itself seems intrinsically valuable to me.  I don’t mean my life.  I mean life.  It’s amazing.  Incredible is life.  I can’t think that there is a way that this great gift can be earned or even paid for.  The only thing worth doing with it is grabbing it with both hands in gratitude and joy and respect for the capacities, as well as the limitations of what it is to be human.

Admittedly, now I come to the tricky part.  I have the great gift of life.  And yet it is a mystery.  In what is the fulfillment of a human life?  Some of the ideals I was given during my Catholic socialization now sound bizarre.  Martyrdom, for example.  I thought I would like to be a martyr when I was a child.  I’ve been remembering that now with some trepidation as martyrdom is once again held up in the Muslim world as a great act, and as we have been commemorating the beginning of World War I when more than 6 million military laid down their lives for their countries.

I’ve been playing with a thought that I think also comes from somewhere in the bowels of my Catholic upbringing:  that if we truly love just one other person, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.  The version I was no doubt first socialized to probably was something more like “reached true sainthood,” or some such, but the point is potentially relevant.

Loving is something that as a human I need to do as much as I need to eat and sleep.

I do not know if the human race is going to survive, or if war or disease or climate change, or a meteor strike, or some other calamity will bring our species to an end in the near future.  Whatever the dangers, there is not much I can do to influence the course of events.

But I can honor life by refusing to let it be diminished by anger or despair or hopelessness.  Wherever my life in particular, and life in general is going, whenever and however it ends, it is worth living now.  I don’t have to earn it.  I can’t earn it.

Life is simply a great great gift.

August 12, 2014

What do you do with a problem like — Courgette?

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:38 pm
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So we all know what I’m talking about, let me begin by saying that what are called courgettes here in England are called zucchini and summer squash in America.  Having sworn off farming in the U.S. at the early age of about six, I do not know if these vegetables are as dependent on the weather as they are here,  but over here they are fussy prima donnas.  Last summer was not a productive year.  So this year, Peter sewed twice as many.

Being a Yorkshireman, he’s been announcing for months that they were a failure once again this summer.

Maybe.  But at last count, 10 plants have produced at least 50 courgettes, and they are still madly producing.  At the moment, there is  no end in sight.  I think they are even beginning to multiply in our refrigerator drawer.

So what do you do with what feels like a steady supply of about 3 courgettes coming into your kitchen on a daily basis for maybe as long as 8 weeks?  They’re not easy to freeze because of their high water content, so the solution isn’t to throw them into a freezer bag for mid-winter use.  At the very least, they have to be cooked first.

So far we’ve had courgettes baked, curried, stuffed, battered and au-provincial.  We’ve had courgette fritters, courgettes grated with cream and pancetta,  courgette tart, courgette cake, courgette soup, courgette in salad,  in a stir-fry, and used them as pasta substitutes with spaghetti.  And oh, I forget to mention:  courgette flowers are supposed to be a superb delicacy.  We haven’t tried that yet.

And to think I used to think they were a boring old vegetable.

 

 

 

 

August 5, 2014

We will remember…

It was 100 years yesterday that World War I began.  There were remembrance ceremonies in Britain, Belgium, and France that I found moved me almost to tears.  It was the first war in which weapons – tanks, aircraft, submarines, machine guns and mustard gas – produced en masse by the industrial revolution were used to kill  an average of 10,000 fellow human beings every single day for four continuous years.  By the end of the war, 8 million troops and 6.5 million civilians were dead.

Yesterday government representatives, military, and relatives of the dead gathered together in ceremonies of reconciliation.  “We will remember” was promised again and again.

Perhaps it is because of the current massacres in Gaza right now, but somehow, to me, “we will remember” isn’t enough.  We will remember those who died for our liberty.  We will remember those who died so young that we might live in security.  We will remember the brave.  We will remember the wives who lost their husbands, the children who grew up without their fathers, or brothers.

But I only heard one person say “we must learn.”  It’s not enough to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives.  Those deaths were too terrible and too many.  We desperately need to learn better ways of resolving our differences, even of finding justice, than by killing on the mass scale that modern warfare makes possible.  The determination to negotiate must be our goal.  We must honor those who can find peace for their peoples through listening and giving and compromise.  Today we need them even more than we need those willing to lay down their lives.

We will remember.  We will feel sorrow.  We will honor those who were lost.  We will be appalled by the tens of thousands of graves spread throughout Europe.

But will we learn?

 

 

July 19, 2014

“Those who live by the sword…”

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:59 pm

As readers of this blog know, I have understood for many years that violence only breeds more violence.  And I have been disturbed by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians for a very long time, and have reflected that even the Israeil’s who suffered the awful brutality of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing did not seem to fully understand that peace will never be established in the Middle East through military means.

But I was not prepared for the shock and almost physical revulsion I have felt since I read the details of a Face Book posting by an Israeli MP saying that “Mothers of all Palestinians should be killed.”   All the Palestinian people are our enemy, she wrote, and even the mothers ” have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”

A two-state solution is the only possible resolution of this conflict which – let us not forget – displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians in the first place from the lands in which they had lived for hundreds of years in order to create an Israeli state.

How can the United States and Britain simply maintain the position reiterated by President Obama that the Israelis have a right to defend themselves?  As of today, the Israelis have killed 333 Palestinians.  Palestinians rockets have killed one Israeli.

July 15, 2014

Music for growing old

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 1:47 pm

I have lived, even by the most optimistic projections, at least three-quarters of my life.  So whether people think I look my age or not, whether I am more agile than some, or have on occasion a modicum more energy, I am elderly.

And I must say that I am finding it one of the happiest, and fascinating periods of my life.  Admittedly, I am not suffering from overwhelming physical pain, financial anxiety, or dementia.  How well I would (or will) stand up to any of these possibilities in the future I do not know.  What I do know is that there is a beauty in old age that I find almost breath-taking.  It can bring with it a kind of joy and peace and even wisdom that I didn’t so much as imagine in my youth.

Several days ago I stumbled on this you-tube from a group whose music has for many years delighted me.  They are a group of Cornwall fishermen who have been singing together now for more than two decades, and I have watched them age.  Their latest release demonstrates for me just what I mean about getting old.  Although I am sure their average age is well below mine, I can see that joy and letting go of conflict that old age can offer.

Just watch this video.  There is the physical beauty of the landscape, and the hypnotic rhythm of the tune they are performing.  But for me, the most beautiful part lies in the faces of the singers.  They are simply having a wonderful time.  One of them is even collapsing with laughter.

There’s a beauty there that all the make-up products and hair salons in the world cannot produce.  All those signs of aging don’t have to be rubbed out for someone to be beautiful.

My hair hasn’t turned grey yet.  But when it does, there’s no way I’m going to try to hide it.

July 10, 2014

The peace of the incomprehensible

A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read.  So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

No.  I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.

I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance.  I don’t have all the answers;   I never will.  I live surrounded by mystery.  Somehow I am immensely comfortable here.  That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic.  There were several other significant steps as well.

One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation  e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along.  Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.

Why is this so exciting?  Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world.  Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness.  Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body.  Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness.  But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place.   It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things.  I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.

In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us.  I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe.  I am not living in exile.  For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong.   And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell.  However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.

Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.”  “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines.  This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century.  Until then, the  essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female;  we are all one.”  In other words, we are all — all — in this together.  All of us in the human family.

Refusing to reduce faithfulness and universal love of all humanity to a set of doctrinal and liturgical rituals might diminish the power of religious leaders.  It certainly destroys the “one of us” attitude of so many religions, and the claims of any single religious tradition that it is the “one and only true church.”   Roman Catholicism with its proclivity today for excommunicating dissidents and its insistence on papal infallibility is benign compared to its torture and execution of those who refused to accept church authority for over a millennium until papal power was finally separated from the secular authority of the state.  But this commitment to literally killing those who disagree with us is still rife in the world today.  Turn on the news tonight and look at what is going on in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, even in the United States where some fundamentalists are trying to change the law to match their own religious beliefs.  In this war-torn, trigger-happy world, we badly need to understand the original Christian message that we are all one.
One doesn’t  have to be a Christian to understand that.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  one can think of oneself as a Christian and not understand it.

 

July 8, 2014

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:53 pm

I learned something new yesterday.  I was looking for some clever way to keep our strawberries from being spoiled while they were ripening lying on the earth around the plant.  “The old-fashioned method,” my husband told me, was to put straw around the plant.  “It’s why they are called strawberries,” he said.

My goodness:  this has opened a whole new world of berry-naming to me.  Without any help at all, I figured out all by myself why the berries on another bush are called “blueberries.”  And perhaps raspberries are named after their raspy surface?  I doubt elderberries were named after the village elders, though, or that barberries are named after the barbarians, and if currants are supposed to be contemporary, the name isn’t even spelled right.

 

 

 

 

Maybe, though, gooseberries are named after geese.  I had to climb down on my hands and knees yesterday to pick them from underneath the pickly gooseberry branches.  Would have been much easier for a goose than it was for me.

July 5, 2014

A heroic lesson still unlearned

The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post  Why do abused children become abusers?    Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused?  Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is?  The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example.  We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.

I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive.  Not just murdered.  Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.

Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act?  This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews.  This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”

This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge.  I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.

But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?

I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be.  Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”

But history shows us it doesn’t work.  The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.

It will not bring peace.

July 2, 2014

The limitations of prediction

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 8:41 pm
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I’ve been pondering the fact that the number of posts I have been writing in recent months are getting fewer and fewer.

Why, I wonder.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to blog about.  I find it impossible to read about what is going on in the world and not find myself mentally blogging.  It might be about economics, climate change, war, religion, even the possibilities of humans managing to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth.  Or it might be more light-hearted things – like Dolly Parton being the most popular act at the Glastonbury music festival last week.

So why aren’t I writing more?  it’s something I have been doing since I was ten years old.  What’s happening?

I don’t know.  I am finding myself driven out doors to be more physically active than I can ever remember. Since I tire more easily, I often sit here in front of my computer screen too exhausted to string three coherent sentences together.  But I don’t know why I’m choosing to work outside rather than write more.

One of the things that is fascinating me is how hard it is to plan reasonably about how to get old.  When we’re young, barring the unexpected, we have some idea of how our capacities will develop over the years.  We have some idea ahead of time what it’s going to be like to be 20 or 30, or even 60.  But the energy and health levels get more and more unpredictable as we move into our 70′s and beyond.  Will we be able to handle this garden in ten years?  even in five years?  will I reach a point when I can’t handle my own bank accounts, or do my own tax returns?  What about cleaning?  and cooking? in  fifteen years?  twenty?

I’m beginning to understand how life overtakes people in their old age.  I have no desire to move into a care home at this point.  But when or if I need to, will I be too old to engineer it?

I’m not afraid of dying, although I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving this fascinating place we call life on earth.  I’m just not 100% sure how not to let my last precious years drizzle away in an unfocused haze.

Getting old is a different kind of challenge than I thought it was going to be.

June 25, 2014

How we think about God

I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology.  It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain.  Using magnetic resonance imaging  or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions.   Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions.  Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.

Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.

This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.”  What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.”  This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence.  During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.

Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.

In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear.  Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.

Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health,  better social relationships and a sense of well-being.  Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.

How strong any of these trends are is not clear.

In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us.  Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes.  It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.

There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers.  That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion.  This isn’t so.  We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight.  It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.

Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this.  I know I do.  But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 16, 2014

Scottish Independence

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

We’ve just returned from a week in Scotland.  Peter spent much of his professional life there, so he knows it well.  We’ve also spent many holidays there, but every time we go back, I seem to learn something more.  This time seeing Scotland up close as they grapple with the question of independence was particularly stimulating.

The referendum in which Scots will vote on whether to separate from Great Britain and become a totally independent country on its own is taking place in almost exactly three months, and the debate is becoming heated.  I was a little surprised at some of the name-calling and accusations that those who don’t want to vote yes to independence are unpatriotic.  Some of the debates within families are also becoming quite strained.  I hadn’t realized how psychologically complex the issue is for some.  It seems to resemble some of the religious debates among various believers all of whom are convinced that only they possess the Truth.

Scotland is an incredibly beautiful country, even when it’s raining, which is often, with a unique, rich, old culture of its own which I enjoy immensely.  That is one of the arguments I heard for independence, but not one which I found convincing.  Other areas in Great Britain can make similar claims.  Yorkshire is as different from London as Scotland is.  Or Cornwall, or Wales.  It’s the same in the U.S. where the north-east coast has a different culture  and different history than Texas, for instance.  (Interesting, though, that we did fight the Civil War which was basically over states’ rights before some compromise between the authority of Washington and that of the individual states was finally agreed.  Scotland and London have agreed to settle it with a vote.)

My own hope is that Scotland votes to remain within the United Kingdom, and that this results in greater devolution, so that more decisions are the responsibility of local people and not dictated from London.

It’s the kind of  challenge that is facing many parts of the world, including the European Union:  how to benefit from cooperation without over-riding individual cultures and the great benefits of our diversity.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when President Obama said he hoped Scotland would not become independent.  But to my astonishment, I read yesterday that Pope Francis also has expressed his view that Scotland should not vote for independence.   If I understood, he thinks it is a world-wide challenge for us all to learn to cooperate and to live together, and to break up  a partnership that has worked for centuries is a step backward.  The Yes campaign in Scotland apparently took a hit as a result.  But whether they become a separate country or not, they are independent  in themselves, and the Scottish people will make up their own minds.

June 3, 2014

Anybody you recognize?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:56 pm
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My father was the son of first and third generation German immigrants.  In America they made their living as lawyers, musicians, farmers, and engineers.  The inheritance is evident among my 5 brothers and 4 sisters.

Two days ago, my lawyer-brother sent the family an engineer test, with the question:  “Does anyone recognize anyone in our family?”  The gasp of recognition was heard throughout cyberspace.

Since then we have been exchanging stories all suggesting that the incipient characteristics of the engineer were evident from an early age.

I remember –  I’m probably the only living person who does — that when I was about three years old, my oldest brother, who was four at the time,  decided I needed a cross on my doll house.   He didn’t discuss it with me, but I went out one day and there was this big ugly thing nailed onto the roof of my lovely little house.  We all had crucifixes over our beds, and there was Tom deciding that my dolls needed one too.  Actually, I doubt he was making an attempt to rescue my dolls from the clutches of paganism.  He just decided to try out his incipient skills as a construction engineer.  It was terrible and I remember asking Mom for her scissors so I could cut it down.  The adults in my life thought that was hilarious.  My sister – who wasn’t around at the time – says she is sure it wasn’t supposed to be a cross at all but a lightning rod.

I have another engineering brother who at about the age of six thought that taking off one’s clothes to go to bed at night was a total waste of time, when you simply had to put them all back on again in the morning.  So he developed a masterful time-saving plan:  put one’s pajamas on over one’s clothes.  When Dad found out, he called him to “come here immediately” in a scary authoritative voice of judgement he could use, so there wasn’t time to do anything but appear in full regalia.  What those of us who witnessed the confrontation knew was that Dad was laughing so hard he could barely hold it together.  Personally, I think that brother showed the ingenuity of a budding engineer.

Even my husband Peter (who grew up in a coal-mining village during WWII in England) could not believe the outfit Dad put on to “work on the farm.”  It was the outfit his second wife forbid him to wear above the basement level.

Which demonstrates why we are all unanimous in our gratitude to the partners of the engineers in our family for supplementing the lacunae in their undoubted skills.

If you know any engineers, I’d love to know if you recognize any of the hall marks too.   Double click on the test for engineers for the full authentic list.

 

May 28, 2014

Look who said it!

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:36 pm
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It might not be all that surprising to hear bankers castigated for greed one more time.  But when the head of the Bank of England says it, I’m surprised.

Mark Carney is the Canadian brought in last year as the best possible head to direct the Bank of England.  So far he’s been doing a good job in a position that takes economic as well as political skill.  But I never expected to hear him say that modern capitalism will fail if banks continue to be too big to fail, if they are not run ethically as a service to their clients rather than as a way to make huge personal fortunes.

He also said that the huge discrepancies that exist globally between the small minority of the very rich and the huge numbers of very poor is destabilizing.  I would not have been surprised to hear Pope Francis say something like that, or even a socialist leader, but not the head of the Bank of England.

If you are interested in reading or hearing more, take your pick:

It gives me hope.

May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

Filed under: Food chains,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:15 pm
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My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney.  But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of  virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing.  The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.

But at heart, my father was not really a farmer.  He went to his law office  5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming.   One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding.  Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road.  My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office:  “Claude, the cows are out again.”

For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York.  After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his.  It’s worked out well.  The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.

Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try.  I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table.  Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do.  Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.

I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though.  Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and  planted two dozen plugs,  I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons.  It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground.  It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new.  The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well.  It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.

Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here.  I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.  You aren’t going to like this at all.”  We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again.  I started to laugh.  My husband looked at me quizzically.

“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.

I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars.  And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat.  I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.

 

 

May 13, 2014

Money matters

Despite my silence, I have been giving some hard thought to just what it is that makes us all equal, and what inalienable rights and responsibilities flow from that fundamental equality.  I said in my last post that this equality obviously cannot be defined in monetary terms.  And of course it can’t.

But on further thought, it doesn’t seem that simple.  Almost the world over, we need money to meet some of our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing.  Without a financial base, we cannot get an education, hope to do many of the jobs that are essential to a functioning society,  even to raise a family.

Seeing this, many people concerned with fairness and justice support the concept of a minimum wage – the belief that people should, by law, be paid enough for the work they do to live responsibly in dignity, to develop their individuality and skills, and to contribute to the common good sufficiently to help care for those who cannot work at a paying job.

So far so good.  In theory this should allow us to use our talents to contribute to the diversity that is so essential to the human community.  So we will ultimately be quite different in our contributions, our levels of education, our social and financial status, our popularity, our physical abilities.

But we’re human beings.  We often try to game the system.  Or turn it around in a complete reversal of values.  So on the one hand, there are those who will try to get social and financial support without working, even when they can.  Or we somehow conclude not that we pretty much all need some basic financial base in order to develop and flourish, but that if we have more money we must, by that fact, be more important, more valuable, even more virtuous than those who don’t.

Today, for instance, we have the far right who think that social security or health care should be earned, and if you don’t earn it, that’s your lazy fault and you should get along without it.

And we have those on the far left who will strike for unconscionable wages, whatever it costs the community. Similarly, there are many who think that no other criteria should be required except that one has at least one child, and that the more children one has, the more funding should be given, no questions asked.

I can’t buy either of these conclusions.  I think the far right are wrong in failing to appreciate how much we each need to be given what we have not earned.  We need to be loved, we need  opportunities, we need encouragement, and forgiveness and even to be given the chance to overcome failure and mistakes – sometimes big mistakes.  Personally, I am revolted by the idea of the Great and the Good.  I’m revolted by the idea that “success” is defined in terms of money.  I’m revolted by the idea that more elevated human beings must help “the poor”.  Whatever our finances, we need to help each other just as much as we need to be helped — all of us.

But I think the far left too often do not appreciate that we each need to feel that we are needed, that we need to make a contribution.  And just as having greater wealth does not necessarily make us more or less virtuous, neither does being poor.  The poor are not intrinsically either more virtuous or more criminal.

All of which gets me, rather tiresomely I fear, back to the conclusion that we are all part of an incredible universe.  We are all incomplete by ourselves, and we need each other every bit as much as we need to be individuals.  We’ll make mistakes.  Some of will make big, destructive mistakes.  Even when we are trying to be heroic, to make a significant contribution.  But that’s the way we were made.

So after this little sermon to myself, I will continue to do my hum-drum best.

And be grateful beyond words for a chance to share in this great incredible mystery of life.

 

 

April 30, 2014

What makes us equal?

Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea.  Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.

Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world.  Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.

But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word.  Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?   or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated?  or the religious exhortation to “love one another”?  These are principles which many of us support.  But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity.  It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period.  But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still  manage to have more money at the end of the week than others.  So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.

Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents.  We are all different.  And we need to be different.  We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves.  We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter.  We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex.  Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much.  Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians.  Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities.  Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others  have acute sensory abilities.  There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers.  The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.

The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality.  In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful.  Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity.  If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.

But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift.  Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.”  Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior.  We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”

Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics.  And yet there is a bottom line.  There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are.  And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.

I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers.  I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name.  But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.

 

 

 

April 25, 2014

“Made in the USA”

A friend has just sent me a You-tube arguing that Americans should stop buying imported goods and instead “Buy American.”  It presents what initially might sound like a rather convincing argument:  if we stopped paying foreigners for making things for us, and instead put our workers back into our own factories, America would completely eliminate unemployment.

It sounds well-informed with all sorts of statistics to back up its argument.  But I think it is economically and perhaps even morally quite naive.  Inward investment – ie:  investments from companies setting up businesses in poorer countries – has been the single most effective means of reducing poverty in the emerging economies in the last 20 years.  So now America brings all those jobs back “home”?  What happens to the families of those workers who have been working to support their own families in other countries?  young women who are supporting their families are driven back onto the streets, children no longer have any chance of an education, medical help is harder to get, starvation increases.

 
And trade is reduced not only for the emerging economies but for America.  America sells our cars, our computers, our food, etc. to the people in other countries who can now afford them.  That’s why free trade, when it is done well, is a win-win situation.  Each country sells to the other what they can best produce or grow, and buys from the other those things that are better done in that country.
 
Under the influence of Gandhi, India tried the Totally Self-Sufficient policy — we will make our own clothes, grow our own food, build our own trains & cars, etc.  It was in response to a one-sided trade arrangement that Britain had set up which had been great for the British — they imported Indian cotton, brought it back to the UK, turned it into cloth and clothes and sold it back to the Indians.  So it was understandable that India thought they could do it for themselves.  But it is only in recent decades when they opened the country up to international trade that they seriously began to reduce grinding poverty in the country. China tried it too, closing its doors to foreigners, and as a result, the West went galloping ahead.
 
No, Buy American is, in my opinion, an ignorant and destructive economic policy.
 
Yes, what we call “free trade” can be lopsided and destructive, and in some cases needs serious rebalancing.  But my own concern is not fundamentally with free trade.  Actually, many jobs are now coming back to the U.S., as transportation is getting cheaper, and workers in developing countries are demanding better pay.  So the issue is not essentially that foreigners are taking all our jobs, but rather that so few at the top of American society are taking such a great proportion of the profit.  For at least 30 years, the middle classes in the U.S. have been getting less and less of the profits while the CEO’s and those in the top 5% are making mind-boggling profits which are not filtering down to the workers.  And if you want to add another problem, it is technology.  A lot of jobs are simply disappearing, and being replaced by automation and robots.  
 
So we might very well find ourselves back to the question Henry Ford asked a century ago about his cars:  how can I make them affordable enough for people to buy them?  The whole entire global economic system is changing, and solutions like “buy American” aren’t going to work.  I think ultimately it could make things worse.

 
Because we are all in this together  It’s a global society now, and we can’t solve our own problems without worrying about everybody else.  This isn’t Christian charity.  It’s hard economic fact.  The bottom line is that I have to worry about you for my own self-interest.

April 22, 2014

“Forgive us as…”

For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy.  One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.

In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others.  In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father,  the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”  But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.

Last week,  something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.

Maryam Hosseinzadeh, standing on a chair, slaps Balal.Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran.  Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged.  There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim.   The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck.  The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner.  She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!”  She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.

There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.

This story seems to have been in all the international news media.  But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless.  As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium.   Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart.  I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger.   And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.

But I have never known anyone who has achieved  it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice”  for the murder of her son.

I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.

But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.

April 16, 2014

“I don’t know” is a big step forward

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:12 pm
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With eight younger brothers and sisters, I didn’t need to say “I don’t know” very often when I was growing up.  I was in my middle age before my sisters started to tease me, suggesting that perhaps I didn’t always still know better than they did about any conceivable subject we might talk about.

Ah, I thought, I might be able to stand up in the classroom and deliver lectures like I’m more knowledgeable than anybody else in the room.  But in social relations I needed to make a small adjustment.

Being a master at rationalizing, I began to notice how often people who are experts in their field were able to say “I don’t know,” and make it sound like a really really intelligent insight.  First of all, I often didn’t even understand the question, let alone be in a position to acknowledge that I didn’t know the answer.  But I also began to realize that if we can’t say “I don’t know,” I’m not going to learn anything more than I already know.  So actually, the ability to say “I don’t know” is a very big step forward from ignorance.

I’m thinking about this today because I have  just had a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in evolution.  “God didn’t make me from a monkey,” he stated firmly.  “What about the science?” I asked.  “Oh, I don’t know the science”, he replied.  “I just know that evolution is just a theory.”

I didn’t dare ask about global warming.

Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/NpZkG

April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates.   The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable.  The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.

I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible.  How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic?  The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.”  They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”

But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself.  Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of  Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”

In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught.  For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”

Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic?  It’s not that I don’t feel welcome.  It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, to sexually neurotic, so authoritarian.  But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off.   Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?

It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.  And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.

This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of  Christianity:  that we are all one.  We are all in this together.  Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners.  He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics.  I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists.  We are all of these things.  Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings.  All human beings.

This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion.  Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life.  Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures.  We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions.  But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness.  We have incalculable benefit  to gain from embracing our differences.

So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences.  It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other.  Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.

Am I, I wonder, a minority?

 

April 1, 2014

When did we start making fools of ourselves?

Filed under: For when nothing is going right,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:14 pm
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The origins of April Fools day are not clear.  Some people say it began with the Roman festival of Hilaria held at the end of March.  Others say it began in the 1500′s with the switch to  the Gregorian calendar that reduced the year from 13 equal lunar months to 12, and moved the celebration of the new year from April 1 to January 1.  Others point to beginnings in India and Iran.  Some Biblical-based claims have even been made that it was Noah with the animals on his ark who began it all.

But really, it’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?  when we can laugh at ourselves and each other for being either clever or naive.

My favourite April Fools’ story is still the BBC’s documentary on the failure of the spaghetti crop in Italy.

But I do rather like the story about the business student who replaced the filling in chocolate Oreo cookies with toothpaste and served them to a friend.

 

With best wishes for a laugh-filled day.

March 27, 2014

Magnifying a ray of sunshine

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:35 pm
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Tesla is an electric car company that has recently announced plans to build a “gigafactory”  possibly in Arizona.  The goal is to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries while reducing the cost by 50% by 2020  for batteries that charge faster with a higher storage capacity than anything on the market today.

It’s potentially a serious game-changer.  If  Tesla succeeds, we are much closer to affordable storage batteries for individual homes which charge up when the sun shines or the wind blows and then give us heat, light, and power when the sun goes down.

Ultimately, this could do a great deal to reduce environmental pollution and climate change.

But it will be highly disruptive.  The role of traditional energy companies will change radically.  Energy companies in Germany are already facing huge losses as a result of renewables there. (One company posted a loss of $2.76 billion last year.)   Traditionally, energy companies have smoothed out the delivery of electricity to our homes and businesses, so that we mostly experience a steady steam of electricity whether the sun is shining or not, or however much electricity is being pulled out of the grid at any given peak time.

Of course, there aren’t any simple answers for problems as huge and complex as our increasing global use of energy.

But part of the solution lies in human ingenuity.

This might be a big one.

March 22, 2014

Last voucher?

Filed under: Growing Old,Illness and disease,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:33 pm
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In 1957 I was a teenager when I caught the Asian flu.  I was very sick, but the doctors said it was a new strain and those of us who got it would probably have immunity to the flu for many years.  It was 30 years before I had the flu again, and another 15 before I got it a second time.  I was sick enough that time to think I might die, but also sick enough to go back to sleep and promise to worry about it if I woke up.

Two weeks ago I came down with the 2014 version of the flu.  I haven’t been sick enough to think I was dying, but I do understand why it kills people, especially the elderly.  The worst of it, after the incessant hacking cough, is that I can’t get rid of it.  Every time I think I’ve finally vanquished it, I start coughing again, or fatigue sweeps over me and even the most mundane daily jobs seem gargantuan.  Which is why my last post was March 15.   I’m missing my cyber-conversations, though, so hope to return without too much delay.

But I am thinking perhaps I’ve used up my last flu-protection voucher issued in 1957.

 

 

 

March 15, 2014

How not to be a victim: a demonstration

Knots

Credit: ChristArt

There is a great delight in watching a two- or three-year old stubbornly insist on buttoning his own shirt.  It might be crooked, but he did it.  Or insisting on tying his own shoe laces – whatever the outcome.  Similarly, I remember a student once saying to me about some advice she’d been given by her well-meaning adviser:  ” I might be wrong.  But I’d rather take responsibility for making my own mistakes than to let her tell me what mistakes to make.”

After my post yesterday, it occurred to me that victimhood and smoldering anger are quite similar.   Because they both rob the person of the belief that metaphorically they can “tie their own shoe laces.” They both place the total blame on what has happened to them on someone else, and in the process convince themselves that they are powerless.  Certainly, for better and worse, what happens to us is in part a result of what others do.  But victimhood and long-term anger give away that critical self-determination that is evident in that two-year old with the crookedly buttoned shirt or knotted shoe lace.

I have long thought that anger is one of the most destructive emotions we humans generate.  I’m not talking about that short burst of adrenalin-fired anger that gives us the wherewith-all to fight off danger, but the bitterness and anger that burns relentlessly for years, for a lifetime, even for generations.  What seems to me so destructive about it is that, like victimhood, it too  focuses the blame on  what someone else did, rather than on what we might be able to do about it.  That then degenerates into the pursuit of revenge, the determination to get even.

But ultimately what enduring anger and being a victim do is to rob the life of the angry person.  They come believe they are powerless to do something positive, something life-enhancing, because some opportunity has been robbed from them by somebody else who had no right to take it.

It is true that they may truly have been hit, even are still being hit, by terrible misfortune caused by someone else.  But that does not make one powerless.  It does not mean there is nothing that I can do that is meaningful and which can give me joy or a sense of accomplishment.  My misfortune might even give me insights into how to help others that I would not otherwise have had.

Anything I might say, however, cannot possibly compete with Maysoon Zayid.   She may be handicapped because a doctor in New Jersey was drunk on the job when she was born.  But a victim she is not

http://www.ted.com/talks/maysoon_zayid_i_got_99_problems_palsy_is_just_one

transcript of video

 

March 14, 2014

Not powerless!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

Tony Benn, a leader Labor politician died at the age of 88 today.  He was a man of principle, and has been praised even by those politicians who didn’t always agree with him.

But one leading politician praised him for “defending the powerless.”   I found myself bristling.

From my limited perspective, Benn did not degrade members of the working class whom he represented  by calling them powerless.  He did not suggest that people with less money, less education, or with other social or economic disadvantages were merely helpless victims who had to be helped by the more fortunate.

Yes, he fought for justice.  Yes, he fought tenaciously for human rights, for democracy, for education.  But I never heard him suggest that anybody is without choice, that anybody must submit to being a victim because they are powerless.

Do we need help sometimes?  Absolutely!  But the first step in not being a victim is to refuse to be one.  One of the things counselors for rape victims sometimes find is that some women insist on identifying some behaviors in which they engaged which may have been interpreted – however wrongly – as a come-on.   What the women are saying is that they can take some responsibility for what happens to them in the future, that they are not powerless, that they refuse to be nothing more than victims to explain what happens to them.

We might not always like our choices.  But as long as we are conscious, we can choose.

March 10, 2014

What does genius look like?

It is amazing sometimes how ordinary extraordinary people look.  Sometimes they even look like outstanding failures.  Churchill was a miserable student, Einstein’s teachers thought he was lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate.  Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  Walt Disney was once fired from a job because he had no imagination.   Beethoven’s music teacher said that as a composer, he was hopeless.

Here in Cambridge, England, a hot-house of geniuses, one learns not to presume.  That man in the wheel chair making his way across the greens might be Stephen Hawking.  But many other extraordinary men are not so easily recognized.  In fact, they might even be women.  But the ordinariness of greatness is not just true in Cambridge or Silicon Valley or other places where known geniuses gather.

I have just read what may be my all-time favourite story of the sheer doggedness that I think explains why genius so often looks like failure to us ordinary folk.  There is a self-determination that comes from within and that refuses to be daunted by society’s prosaic standards of success.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was a school dropout from a poor family in southern India.  He did not develop the vaccine that eliminated small pox, or that can prevent polio or aids or malaria.  He developed a machine that women can use to make cheap sanitary pads.  Since poor menstrual hygiene causes some 70% of all reproductive diseases in India and an unknown number of maternal deaths, it matters to a lot of families.

But not only was Muruganantham a school dropout.  He risked his family, his money, and his reputation in the process.   They thought he was crazy, that he himself was suffering from some bizarre sexual disease, and should be ostracized.  Nobody, but nobody, believed in the truth or value of what he was doing.

Shortly after he was married in 1998, he discovered the filthy rags his wife used during menstruation.  When he asked her why, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household  if she bought sanitary pads.  Later he learned that along with rags that they were too embarrassed to disinfect by drying in the sun, women also used other substances like sand, sawdust, and leaves.

So Muruganantham decided to buy his wife some sanitary pads.   That’s when he found out that pads themselves cost 40 times more than the 1/2 oz of cotton out of which they were made cost.  He decided he could make the pads cheaper himself.  The problem — well, one problem anyway – was that he could not get women to test out his pads.  So he decided he would have to test the pads on himself .  He created a source of bleeding by punching holes in a football bladder and fillin it with goat’s blood.  Then he went about the daily activities of life constantly pumping blood to test his pad’s absorption.  

Villagers believed he was a pervert, or possessed by evil spirits.  He avoided being chained upside down to a tree by agreeing to leave the village.  His wife and mother had already left him.

It took four and a half years before he finally discovered the process required to make sufficiently absorbent pads.  The machines cost thousands of dollars.  So he set about designing his own.

And that is the gift he is giving to India.  The machine is simple and affordable, and not only provides hygienic sanitary pads for India’s women.  It also provides a source of income for thousands of women who can now make and sell them to others.

Muruganantham stands next to his invention in a still from the documentary Menstrual Man

A year after he had made the first machine, someone entered it into a national innovation competition.  It came out first among 943 entries.  The award he received from India’s president put him in the limelight, and is helping to sell the machines.  It also redeemed him in the eyes of his wife, his mother, and the village which had ostracized him.

The machine could make Muruganantham a rich man.  But that’s not what he wants.  People don’t die of poverty, he says.  They die of ignorance.  That’s what he wants to change.

March 1, 2014

The question of war in Ukraine

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks,  germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches.  I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.

I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed.  I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it.  I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.

BelgiumThe first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about.  Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind.  History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914  when  a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the  heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo.  This took place in the context of  an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans.  Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia.  It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing.  But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia.  Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.

It almost worked.  There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement.  It included parts of France and Russia.  But they lost the battle and had to retreat.

That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved.  First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them.  This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel.  Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire.  Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled.  Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.

America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation.  For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them.  Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker.  But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid.  Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America.  As in Britain, the American public  swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.

World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.

The news today is about Ukraine.  It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914.  Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine?   Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion?  should we pretend that we don’t think  the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian?  Should we say it’s not worth the fight?  - after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea.  And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI?  And if so, was it worth fighting then?  Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether?  Could the Crimea become another Belgium?  Should it?

I don’t know.  Ukraine does not have a functioning government.  It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution.  The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day.  Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war?  Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?

We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge.  And good fortune.

February 25, 2014

I broke my fingernail and it’s your fault

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:01 pm
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Below are 19 complaints received by Thomas Cook, a British travel agency, from dissatisfied customers.  You will notice that they all blame somebody else — it’s never the fault of the complainer.  I’m inclined to think that in part this failure to take responsibility for what happens to oneself is a result of a government that believes it is the government’s responsibility to provide the basics of food, housing, and education to everyone under all circumstances.

On the other hand, the litigious “I’ll sue you” response so rampant in America is not nearly as pervasive here in Britain.

 ACTUAL COMPLAINTS RECEIVED BY THOMAS COOK VACATIONS:
1. “I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”
 
2. “It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers in  Puerto Vallarta  to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time — this should be banned.”
 
3. “On my holiday to Goa in India , I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”
 
4. “We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price”
 
5. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”  
 
6. “We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”
 
7. “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”
 
8. “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”
 
9. “Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”
 
10. “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”
 
11. “The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”
 
12. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England . It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”
 
13. “I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends’ three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller.”
 
14. “The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort’. We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”
 
15. “When we were in Spain there were too many Spanish people there.”
“The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”
 
16. “We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”
 
17. “It  is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”
 
18.   “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”
 
19. “My fiancé and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”
.
 I  would love to see a comparable list of travellers’ complaints from an American travel agency.  How about “I caught a cold using the swimming pool, and nobody warned me it would be so dangerous”?  Or “I suffered from jet lag for the entire week I was in Australia.  The Australians should do something about that”?  Or maybe “No egg-slicer in the kitchen.  I’m suing for a million dollars!”
Any other suggestions?
                    
 

 

 

 

February 21, 2014

Life on the street

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

Yesterday I sent a link to a newspaper article to a friend originally from Norway.  The story is about a ten-year-old boy near Oslo who, very early one snowy morning this week, put his little sister in the back of the car, and began a 68-mile drive to visit his grandparents.  Unfortunately – or otherwise – he drove into a snow bank 6 miles down the road, and was eventually found stuck but unhurt by a snowplow driver.  When the police arrived, the ten-year-old told them he was a dwarf and that he’d left his license at home.

Having grown up on a farm where several of my brothers were driving tractors and even cars around the property by the age of ten, my first thoughts as I read the story was about recent research suggesting that creativity tended to be associated with a relaxed attitude toward rules.  My friend who lives in New York city took a slightly more concerned view and wondered if something of concern was going on in the family home from which the boy was trying to escape.

She also sent me, at the same time, another story from life on the street subject to more than one interpretation:

A young nun who worked for a local home health care agency was out making her rounds when she ran out of gas. As luck would have it there was a gas station just one block away. She walked to the station to borrow a can with enough gas to start the car and drive to the station for a fill up. The attendant regretfully told her that the only gas can he owned had just been loaned out, but if she would care to wait he was sure it would be back shortly.
Since the nun was on the way to see a patient, she decided not to wait and walked back to her car.  After looking through her car for something else to use, she spotted a bedpan she was taking to the patient.  Always resourceful, she carried it to the station, filled it with gasoline, and carried it back to her car.
As she was pouring the gas into the tank of the car, two men watched her from across the street.  One of them turned to the other and said “I know that Jesus turned water into wine, but if that car starts, I’ll become a Catholic!”

February 17, 2014

Us and Them

Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.  The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.

But the situation is becoming tetchy.  Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency.  Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London.  The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run.  The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies.  And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote.  Etc., etc.

I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened.  My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.

All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world.  Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?

It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible.  Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers,  the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others.  Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics.  Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior.  Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.

I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development.   Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences.  The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war.  But more than a functioning economy is required.  Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires.  Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.

It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy.  I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain.  But that’s not the only issue.  Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.

As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation.  If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success.  But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.

I suppose it’s the same way with countries.  Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question.  But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own.  Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.

Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.

February 12, 2014

Taking the weather seriously

Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to.  Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme.  Droughts would occur more often and last longer.  So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.

For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic.  They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.

Well, this might not be global warming.  One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.

But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records.  Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December.  Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back.  Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble.  Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England.  A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night.  Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses.  Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets.  Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.

The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.

What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight.  These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes.  When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble.  I know what that kind of snow is like.  But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.

We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it.  Roads are closed and fields are flooded.  Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.

But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.

I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now.  I won’t say they aren’t angry.  And they certainly aren’t enjoying it.  But they are pulling up their boots.

If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain.  They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.

In the meantime, it’s wet.  And depressing.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea

 

 

 

 

February 10, 2014

Alternative to innocence

I have just this minute finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, the volume in her trilogy that explores how America finally entered WWI.  It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and makes me realize how uninformed I have been.  It has convinced me that it is not enough to take a principled stance against war.  We need more.

President Wilson adamantly stayed out of the war for two years on the grounds that America had to remain uninvolved militarily in order to negotiate a peace between Germany and Britain.    He believed that America’s entering the war would simply harden the implacable lines of disagreement.  He did this despite the fact that by 1916 German troops bestrode Europe from the English Channel to the frontiers of Russia, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas, occupying Poland, Romania, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and industrial France as far west as Reims.   In addition, German allies, the Austria-Hungary empire, and Turkey held the Balkans from Italy to Greece, and from Baghdad to Jerusalem.  German u-boats had sunk the Lusitania which was not a military ship with huge loss of life.   Even when Germany announced that any ship, even of a neutral country, would be attacked by German u-boats,Wilson remained determined to keep America out of the war.

It was only when German u-boats sank three US military ships with massive loss of life, and shortly after that, when Wilson got incontrovertible evidence that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join forces with Japan to invade the U.S. and  take back Texas and Arizona that he – and the American public – decided that war was unavoidable.  It was, Wilson said, democracy or dictatorship.  It was a cause more important than peace.

I have no doubt that had I been alive then, I would have supported the war.  I think that the evidence still supports the evaluation that Germany was set on world domination and the destruction of democratic governments in Britain and America.

But today I ask  Wilson’s own anguished question:  “For God’s sake, is there no other alternative!?”

I am convinced that a stance of pacifism is not enough.  It might be moral.  It is undoubtedly often courageous.  Yes, we need to stop glorifying war.  Yes, we need to stop using it as our weapon of choice when we feel threatened or outraged, even legitimately so.  But pacifism by itself is not enough.  It is not enough to say “never again.”  By itself,  it will not stop the almost unimaginable carnage wrought by modern warfare.

It is a hundred years since World War I began.  It is even more imperative, for our sakes, not for God’s, that we commit ourselves to find and implement alternative solutions to our differences.

Far greater minds and hearts than mine have struggled with this question, and have paid a far higher price in the search for answers.  The world is not going to be revolutionized by my search.  But it is a small step.  It is replacing a cozy innocence that belongs to childhood.

February 9, 2014

Gonna study war some more

Since I was old enough to think about it at all, the question I have always asked about a war was whether it was morally justified.  Were the wars being fought because of injustice so grave that it merited killing and dying for?  If all other alternatives had been exhausted, if negotiations or economic forces failed, genocide obviously seemed a cause worth opposing to the death.   Mass starvation, slavery, unjustified invasion for the purpose of taking over a land to which one has no right or need also seemed justifiable reasons to go to war.

But I am now reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb  trilogy examining the events preceding and during World War I - The Proud Tower, The Zimmermann Telegram,  The Guns of August – and I am realizing how very much more complicated the question of war is beyond questions of morality.  In the stories we tell ourselves afterwards, we inevitably make the victors of war into heroes, even saints provided we are the victors, and into villains if we are the losers.  But it’s much much more complicated than that.

It’s not just about good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.

As I look at this question, I feel much the way I felt when 15 years ago I decided to grasp the events of  time since the Big Bang, and ultimately wrote The Big Bang to Now.  My ignorance to begin with was vast.  But I was fascinated, and bit by bit I got a hold of time and the major events of the last 14 billion years – at least those we know about.

I am now staring at the abyss of my ignorance about  war.  I doubt I will achieve sufficient wisdom to write a book on the subject, but this blog has always been primarily my platform for thinking out loud.  So I am going to think out loud as I continue to read.  Any comments or suggestions will be accepted with appreciation.  Not, perhaps, always with agreement.  But I am emphatically in a learning mode right now and am seriously listening.

January 31, 2014

Generation gap

Filed under: The English,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 2:09 pm
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Yvettte Cooper, a leading Labour Party member of Parliament, told the annual Labour party conference today about her parental limitations.  

“I have to be realistic,”  she admitted.  “I have to ask my kids how to use the parental controls. “

January 29, 2014

I ain’t gonna study war…

I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog.  Then this morning I found  Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago.  I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60′s and 70′s all day.

I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life.  I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor.  And I thought again that we were right.

Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple.  But we were right about war.  We were right about loving each other.  We were right that we needed to care about each other.  And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right.  We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty.  People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.

But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was.  I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact.  Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.

We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex.  I think we still don’t.  Actually,  we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more.  We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.

Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic?  The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now.  I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war.   What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent.  So they saw no alternative to war.   Was there?  Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians?  Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?

This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria.  Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.

I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.

But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone.  In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair.  We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people.  Our kindness can reach only a very small circle.  Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all.  We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.

We’re all in this together.  Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.

 

 

 

 

January 28, 2014

Fried eggs or a copper pot

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:28 pm
Tags: ,

A friend who knows I am also a cognitive psychologist just sent me an email she thought I might find of interest:

“A cognitive psychologist friend of mine sent on a piece of trivia:  research has shown that intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair.  i am now wearing my copper pot as a hat.    hope it works.   on the street today as i took my daily walk, folks seemed to be treating me with more respect… “

 

 
 

Under the influence of Bette Midler, I’ve always thought the magic trick was a fried egg.  I do try to wear it on the inside though.  I  think it’s more considerate of others not to parade my gifts.

January 27, 2014

The first level below godliness

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

We had a strange fishy smell in our refrigerator yesterday.  I couldn’t see any cause for the offending order, so I gave it a deep clean this morning.  This is not my usual procedure, which may be why, as I was trying to make the 20-year-fridge look like new, I was remembering that it was nuns who set my much-abused standard for “really clean.”

Image from e-How:  How to Mop a Floor

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” was the motto of the nun who directed my scrubbing the convent pantry floor every afternoon for several years.   The unambiguous implication of Sister Teresita’s daily repetition of her motto was that I was unfortunately lacking in sufficient godliness.

By that standard I’m still not going to make it to the top celestial tiers.

But these days I’m more inclined to think that kindness is closer to godliness than cleanliness.

Unfortunately, compared to some of the acts of kindness I’ve seen in others, I doubt I’m going to make it to the top tiers on that score either.

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