The Other I

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.”
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 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
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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.

January 26, 2014

New Year’s resolution adjustment

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:57 pm

My New Year’s resolution just over three weeks ago was to read at least one hour every day.  I’ve now tweaked it a little.  Because I can’t read a full straight hour anymore without starting to nod.  So the second half hour of my “reading” was pretty much wasted.

My first alternatives to reading were to play another computer game, or to grab something surgary, preferably something sugary with chocolate.  That, the snake in the tree said to me, would give me a boost of energy and then I could return to reading with a more lively mind.

All right, I knew the snake was leaving out half the consequences of this latter solution.  My fatigue would return quite quickly, and it would not take long for that sugary chocolate to transform itself into a little bit more stored fat than I needed.  More sensibly, I thought about introducing a daily nap in to my schedule.  But I found I wasn’t tired enough.

So I’m now onto an adjusted resolution.  I’m reading for two half-hour bits every day.

In the process, I’ve discovered something else.  It might be the German in me, but I like living on a schedule.  I am now scheduling my day much more definitively in 30-60 minute slots, and I’m getting much more done.  Or at least, I think I am, and I feel much less unpegged and potentially anxious.  I haven’t got much time to play computer games, which I didn’t enjoy anyway, even as I compulsively pressed the icon for one more game of mahjong.

Of course, life has a way of interfering with schedules.  So I have to be a little bit flexible when we wake up to find the kitchen floor flooded with last night’s rain.  Or I break another molar, requiring three previously unscheduled visits to the dentist.  Or the electricity shuts off and it takes the entire afternoon of experimentation to discover that the immersion heater in the hot water tank is what keeps shorting the system.

Whatever else though, 2014 has not been boring.  Though I do have a few suggestions to the gods of fate for future diversions.  Winning the lottery would be interesting, for instance.

January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

As far back as my teenage years, my friends and university colleagues have inevitably been politically left-wing.  And I have almost as inevitably been slightly to their right.  I usually agreed that something was wrong that we needed to try to put right.  But what I have found myself saying more and more often is that the solutions are not nearly as obvious as those on either the right or the left seem to think.

Actually, I can’t stand them, but I think the Tea Party isn’t totally wrong when they say that giving people hand outs keeps them from feeling responsible for going out and finding a paying job.  I live in Britain now, but even when I lived in the US, I personally knew people who bragged about lying and getting free hand-outs from the system.  There are people who say the same thing about the far more generous system over here.

On the other hand, not everybody who is hungry or living on the street or struggling to make ends meet are in that situation because they are too lazy to work, or because they think the system owes them a living.  People do lose their jobs and they can’t get another one — even cleaning toilets or making the beds in hotels.  People do get sick and the medical costs are beyond what anyone but the wealthiest can afford.  In other words, there is a place for a safety net in a society that is not inhabited solely by uncaring egocentric self-absorbed know-it-alls.

I was reminded again that this issue of hand-outs and government supported programs has two sides by an article in The Daily Mail, which is by and large admittedly a rag.  One reads it for titillating gossip – like the fact that the First Lady in France has just trashed her husband’s office after finding out that he’s been having an affair with an actress.  But the article yesterday was written by a woman, a doctor and avowed socialist who serves the poor and needy here in Britain, and who sees both sides of the coin.  Do read it if you are convinced that either the left- or right-wingers have all the answers.

As I see it, no system is without potential abuse.  To make matters even more complicated, what looks like abuse to one person may look like real need to someone else.  I rather admire Britain for deciding after World War II that there was something terribly wrong with asking people to sacrifice for their country, even to fight and die, but refusing to provide medical help when they or their children needed it if they couldn’t pay for it.  I rather admire a country that will not force families, including children, to live on the street if they can’t pay the rent.  And at the same time I rather like the American can-do attitude of independence and responsibility with which so many immigrants have come to the States and which has made our country so prosperous.

What the British system risks is that some people will think the system owes them a living.  What the American system risks is a failure to appreciate that sometimes people need a helping hand simply to get food on the table.

But the one system I fear is Utopia.  As Thomas Merton said in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

The terrible thing about our time is precisely the ease with which theories can be put into practice.  The more perfect, the more idealistic the theories, the more dreadful are their realization. We are at last beginning to rediscover what perhaps men knew better in very ancient times, in primitive times before utopias were thought of: that liberty is bound up with imperfection, and that limitations, imperfections, errors are not only unavoidable but also salutary.  The best is not the ideal.  Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everyone as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good.  The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.

January 18, 2014

What do you think about your mother?

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Teaching,The English — theotheri @ 4:53 pm
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Shortly after leaving the convent and before I met my husband, someone gave me a piece of advice that still looks brilliant to me.  “If you want to know whether your perspective husband will see you as an equal, don’t look to his father;  find out what he thinks about his mother.”

It worked for me.  My husband’s mother wanted to be a teacher, but she had to leave school at the age of twelve to support her family.  Nonetheless, Peter thought she was extremely intelligent, with equal amounts of determination and energy.  When I met her I agreed.  At the time, I was wondering whether I was wasting my life as an educator.  She never expressed regret about the opportunities life had not offered her.  But just knowing her  convinced me that giving an education to a young person is one of the most wonderful gifts we can bestow.

I was reminded of that advice recently.  I am now in my 70′s and sometimes subject to the kind of prejudice against the elderly that unfortunately I see quite often here in Britain.  It may be compounded for women compared to men,  and in addition I rarely tell people that I have a Ph.D.  So if young people, particularly young men seriously listen to what I have to say, I notice.

I have a new dentist who I bet has a mother whom he respects.  He’s young, and on my first visit told me that I hadn’t just lost the filling on the tooth I was concerned about, but needed a root canal.  So I grilled him.  I told him I’d already had one root canal done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and that I did not approach another procedure with automatic trust.  I asked him about his background and experience, and he was completely unthreatened.  I couldn’t look up his record the way I could in the U.S., but I decided that someone who was able to answer my questions without being aggressive or defensive felt confident in his abilities.  So I decided to stay with him.  Yesterday he put the crown on the finished job.  It looks and feels terrific.

I didn’t think that I had the right to ask him what he thinks about his mother.  But I bet he has a high opinion of her.  Or if not his mother, a grandmother, aunt, older sister, or teacher.

I’d love to know.

January 15, 2014

Even my senior moments are organized

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 3:27 pm
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I think it is my German DNA, but I am, above all else, organized.  Not obsessively clean — a layer of dust or a stray spider web in the corner don’t bother me much.  But I am an obsessive organizer.

Yesterday I realized this extends even to my “senior moments,” which occur most often in terms of names.  You’d  think that if one can’t remember something that by definition it can’t be organized.  My insight to the contrary came as I was trying to remember the name of a plant in our garden given to us by a friend several years ago.  I spend five frustrating minutes using the usual trick of describing the object I’m trying to remember, which often leads to success, but still came up with that irritating tip-of-the-tongue blank.  Except that I was pretty sure the plant’s name began with an “A.”

So I went to Google, typed in “perennial plants in the UK,” in the search line and went to a gardening site which listed their offerings in alphabetical order.

Sure enough, there it was – Acanthus!

January 14, 2014

My musical blind spot

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:27 pm
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Earlier this month I read a blog post by pianomusicman who discussed a you-tube of Mahler’s 1st Symphony that he thought was without equal.

So I listened to it.

I listened to it carefully and attentively.

And I was reminded again about a musical blind spot that I’ve never read any research about, but which I know is real.

I have perfect pitch, and my music teacher in high school told me my musical abilities were way above average – that my understanding of the nuances of rhythm and chords was excellent.  What she didn’t know, and what I didn’t discover until years later is that there is a “blind spot” in my musical memory.  When I hear a piece of music, I know whether I have heard it before.  I recognize it, and know how it is going to develop.  But I am almost completely unable to identify it.  If the melody has words, I might be able to figure it out.  But that’s cheating anyway.  Even worse, if I hear the same melody in different contexts, I  don’t recognize that they are the same.

I didn’t know this in my youth, because  the record or CD or musical page I was playing always included the composer.  So I had no idea that if I weren’t told, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a familiar Beethoven or Mozart.  I can tell the difference between Stravinsky and Bach, or between Vivaldi and the Beetles because the structures of their music are so different. (or at least they are to me).   But I would have to guess between Vivaldi’s Spring and Summer.  And hundreds of other classical and popular pieces of music.

So in some very profound way I’m an idiot when it comes to music.  In relation to music, I’m rather like a color-blind painter.

And yet, I understand music in some profound way.  It has taught me things that I do not understand through any other medium.  Only poetry comes close.

I wonder if there’s a partial disconnect between the two halves of my brain.  Perhaps it keeps my analyzing right brain from jumping in and “explaining” before the other half of my brain has a chance to simply absorb the experience itself.

Whatever the reason, the paradox is that my problem might just be the reason why music call tell me things I don’t know in any other way.

January 2, 2014

My 5-minute trick supplement

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:54 pm
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In my earlier post about New Year’s resolutions I described The “5-minute trick” I use to keep my craving for sugar under control.  I have found that if I can delay my urge to have “just one more” for 5 minutes, and if during that five minutes I concentrate on something else besides that blessed temptation shouting out at me, the chances are greatly increased that the craving will greatly diminish or even disappear.
Since then, I was reading an research article about exercise as an aid to dieting, which reportedly found that one of the most effective techniques for dealing with food cravings is to engage in ten minutes or so of aerobics.  But another piece of research found that engaging in as little as 3 sessions of 45 second intense aerobic exercise at 3 minute intervals has an even greater effect for some individuals.  The theory is that it works because aerobic exercise stimulates that part of the brain where rational thought predominates, and so reduces the influence of the part of the brain that is responsible for irrational and often destructive cravings.  Short bouts of intense exercise can also, for some people, actually increase overall energy.

So I’m going to try it.  It might be another one of those crazy ideas like cabbage-soup diets or those other fads that eventually return to the oblivion which they deserve.

But I can’t see that I have anything to lose.  And those five minutes with a couple of aerobic bouts might work.  In which case, it’s a 2-for-1 gain:  less sugar, more energy, better brain.   At least I might be able to tell myself it’s making a difference…

I’ll report back in the spring with my assessment.

 

 

 

December 31, 2013

A blue-blooded compliment

Filed under: Thinking about it: Angst amongst the Thickets — theotheri @ 5:22 pm
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I grew up thinking that to describe someone as “blue-blooded” was a compliment to their genuineness, their gracious generosity, their unselfish nobility of spirit.  I guess it did.  But that claim to unselfish nobility came from a rotten core of arrogant self-elevation.

I had no idea until today where the term originated, and it certainly never occurred to me it was racist.

But according to Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, it began in Spain in the 15th century with European colonial aggressions into north and south America.  Throughout the Middle Ages, vicious discrimination existed between “Us” and “Them” but it was based primarily not on genetic or even cultural identity but on religious affiliation.  Jews and Muslims could agree to be baptized, and if their conversions were deemed to be sincere, they would be spared persecution.

But with the discoveries of the “New World,” it seemed that these creatures living there might not be humans like us at all.  Some of them didn’t wear any clothes whatsoever, and their skin seemed to be of a different hue.  They were a different breed.  You could tell, because you could see the blue blood running through the veins on the back of the hands of the white man, indicating that his superiority was not religious, but more fundamental than that.  They were of a different race.

In this sense, modern racism was invented by Europeans – and the first European immigrants brought it with them not only to Central and South America but also to North America.  Fully 95% of the North American Indian population died as a result of either the diseases imported from Europe and to which the Indian population had no immunity, or as the result of the harsh working conditions of what was essentially serfdom imposed by the newcomers who laid claim to the land in the names of their originating country.

And so I profoundly hope I am not blue-blooded in the original sense of the term.  I know for sure my blood runs runs red just like everybody else’s.

December 29, 2013

My 5-minute New Year’s resolution

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:24 pm
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Whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, drugs, calories, temper tantrums or finger-nail biting, I suspect that resolutions about addictions are the single most frequent source of  New Year’s resolutions.

The addiction to which I am prone is sugar, especially if it is cuddled up with chocolate and nuts.  I don’t have a weight problem as such, but the only reason I still wear the same size jeans today as when I was 18 is that Lands End size 8 is a good deal more generous than it was 4 decades ago.  And every Christmas I demonstrate to myself just how easily I could slip on another ten pounds a year.  I know my potential to lose control of my sugar intake is very much like that of the alcoholic in relation to alcohol.

The challenge for the addict or potential addict is that additions have the power to overcome almost any resolution by narrowing our consciousness to that single obsession.  I think sometimes that the reasons an addict can find for indulging “just this once” are among the most creative and ingenious known to man.  I knew a man once who actually chained himself to his sofa to make it impossible for him to leave the house to buy cigarettes.  George Best dressed up in his wife’s clothes and posed as a woman in order to get the barman to serve him a drink — or two — or ten.  If you or anyone you love is struggling with an uncontrolled addition, you know the routine.

A long time ago, though, I learned a small trick from a monk who finally managed to lose weight.  The only rule he had was that when he was going to break his diet, he would brush his teeth first.

I never tried that particular distraction, but I have found what works for me is my “five-minute delay.”  You can have that second cookie/candy/piece of cake, I say to myself, if you still want it in five minutes.  In the meantime, get on with what you were doing.

I am still amazed at how often this works for me.  That mad irresistible irrational impulse needs the breath of attention to survive.  And five-minutes is its starvation point for me.  On the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I give myself the promised forbidden fruit.  But then I apply the 5-minute delay rule to the inevitable impulse to grab a third bite of that tree of the Knowledge of Failure.

I am sure my need to control my sugar intake will remain with me for the rest of my conscious life.  So just to add a little diversification to my annual resolutions, I am also resolving this year to set aside an hour each day for concentrated reading.  Reading is so intrinsically rewarding that you’d think no intelligent person would need to resolve to read.  But I’ve been watching myself develop an eerie preference for playing Free Cell or Solitaire.  It doesn’t give me any satisfaction whatsoever – it’s just a compulsive excuse to waste time.

So I’m simply going to try to crowd it out by doing something I enjoy more.

Whether additional concentrated reading will be evident in a display of brilliant posts is in doubt.  But I rather think it will be one of my more enjoyable resolutions.

December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:44 pm
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For those of you who may not yet be acquainted with this courtesy, wishing friends and acquaintances in the United States a “Merry Christmas” risks being seriously politically incorrect.  The correct form is a neutral “Happy Holidays.”

I am happy to say that this is one Americanism which has not crossed the pond to England.  Quite possibly because no one has found an economic advantage in eliminating a merry Christmas.  But I was startled to realize several times this week how much I missed that simple greeting.  The owner of our local store, and even my dentist wished me a hearty Merry Christmas, and I realized how wonderful it sounded.

Strange, too, because I really don’t like Christmas, and most of the Christian myths do nothing to lift my spirits.

But Christmas was not originally a Christian holy day.  It was hijacked by the Roman Church from the pagans who were celebrating the winter solstice.  The Christmas tree itself came from Celtic tribes in Germany, where the evergreen tree remained green even in the midst of deep winter, and candlelight helped conquer the darkness.

And so I can’t see that wishing someone a Merry Christmas really should be politically incorrect, even if one is speaking to a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, or atheist.

In that spirit, I wish you the Merriest Christmas, whatever your beliefs.

(And a Happy New Year, too — though perhaps  that could become a little more religiously complicated, given the various new years we celebrate around the globe.)

December 17, 2013

Equality is a dangerous word

Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me.  We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.

But what does it mean?  What does equal mean?  In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal.  We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few.  And we can only be grateful that this is true.  We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.

And that’s the problem with the word “equality.”  Equal does not mean identical.  It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.

And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble.  Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism.  If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.

And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce.   When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?

And that is part of the problem.  How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed.  The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate.  India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism.  American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.

But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality.   Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment.  To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment.  Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.

I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality.  The first is opportunity.  Not every job should pay equally.  But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them.  This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society.  And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers.  Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious.  In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it.  My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.

Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need.  Let us worry about the poor.  But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving.  When  our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive.  But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end.  So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading  penury.

The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity.  Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have.    We are all in this together.  We need each other.  We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched.  We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.

The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board.  We need inequality.

But we all need love and respect and dignity.  That is how we are equal.

We all need to give and we need to receive.  We do not need to be all the same.

December 14, 2013

Travels of the pumpkin

Pumpkins have not always been available in British supermarkets.  They only began to appear in the 1980′s with the return of Halloween, and then only for a few days.

Today British farmers grow fields of this vegetable, and so I was surprised when my neighbour told me she had no idea what to do with her jack-o-lantern now that Halloween celebrations were well and truly buried for the year.

Don’t know what to do with a pumpkin!?  I said, running down a long list of possibilities in my head – savory mash, pumpkin soup, baked pumpkin wedges, pumpkin bread, and of course the quintessential pumpkin pie.

“I’ll make a pie for you, if you’d like,” I volunteered.  “Oh would you?” she said, clearly relieved of the burden of recycling her great orange visitor on the window ledge.

So I went around two days ago to pick it up.  It was a very big pumpkin.  In fact, we both agreed that it was too big for me to carry back home, and she agreed to drop it by on her way out later in the day.

By sheer coincidence, that afternoon an American friend emailed me about an old British cooking programme by the Two Fat Ladies she’d been watching.  Apparently, Clarissa’s advice was never to let an American near your pumpkin.  They will turn it into a pumpkin pie with too much sugar and too much cinnamon, she said.  Later in the day, my English husband warned me that pumpkin pie was an acquired taste.  He too said that the first time he’d had it – at a Thanksgiving dinner in my family home some forty years ago – he had found it too sweet and the taste of cinnamon over-powering.

So I went to Google and looked at the pumpkin pie recipes being offered by contemporary British cooks.  Sure enough, every single one of them call for between a quarter and half the spices I use in my American recipe and half the sugar.

So I adjusted the recipe for the pie I was making for my neighbour.  When I took it over to her this morning, I told her I’d reduced the cinnamon and sugar but that it might nonetheless be an acquired taste, and that I would not be insulted if the most complimentary thing she could say about it was that it was “interesting.”  “Oh, but I love cinnamon!” she said encouragingly.

I’m not confidant I will ever get the full unvarnished truth about what she thinks about my American pumpkin pie adapted to British tastes.  After all, it took me 40 years to find out my husband had to “acquire” an appreciation for my superbly pure American recipe.

In any case, I am turning the rest of the jack-o-lantern into a savoury soup using a recipe from India.  It calls for root ginger and chili peppers, and not a grain of cinnamon.

December 7, 2013

Mandela’s gifts

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:13 pm
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The news is reporting today that Mandela’s funeral is predicted to be the largest funeral the world has ever seen.   Hours – no, days – of media coverage have been given to the life of this extraordinary man.  Hundreds of people, famous and not, have talked about the ways in which he changed their lives.

Three things that stand out for me.

The first is that this man of peace refused to renounce all forms of violence as a condition for being released from prison.  Instead, he chose to spend more than a quarter of a century locked up with no promise of freedom.  I have struggled for years with philosophies like Gandhi’s.  It is a philosophy which is undoubtedly both heroic and courageous.  But I could never quite agree with it 100%.  Never respond with violence?  Never?  under any conditions?  Mandela seems to have demanded something of himself which seems to me as heroic and courageous as Gandhi did.  But it was not an absolute refusal ever to engage in physical violence in the face of gross injustice and when no other approach seemed to work.

This stand makes the second thing Mandela did so outstanding.  He was able to let go of his anger.  Was his anger justified in the first place?  How can one possibly say it was not?  And yet he walked out of that prison in 1990 after 27 years not with a message of vengeance but of reconciliation.  And he lived by that for the rest of his life.  I’ve seen people learn to let go of anger, even justified anger, but never on such a scale.  And yet we need to learn to let it go.  It is destroying millions of people, filling us with hate and revenge.

Related to letting go of his anger was Mandela’s exceptional willingness to look at other people’s point of view.  Understanding another’s concerns and perspectives doesn’t mean agreeing with them.  But understanding what one’s opponent is worried about is a huge part of resolving differences.   In Mandela’s case, the last president of South Africa under apartheid was Frederik Willem de Klerk who said of Mandela yesterday that he was one of the greatest men of all time.

South Africa today has many problems to solve.   But it did not descend into outright civil war after apartheid was ended.

Could that have happened without Mandela?

And we can still learn from him so much that is critical to our survival.

November 30, 2013

“You’re welcome.”

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:24 pm
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Image source: http://community.ebay.ca/t5/Canada-Town-Square/TWAS-THE-NIGHT-OF-THANKSGIVING/td-p/153843

If you are an American, you will never believe this.

But the British have imported Thanksgiving.

I’m not kidding, they really have.  Turkeys and all.

Well, also including Black Friday, as well, so it may have a little consumerist motivation and is not all a deep appreciation for all the gifts of life and family and friends.

On the other hand, perhaps they really are grateful, in retrospect that those rebels left England on three ships and didn’t come back?  I haven’t heard anybody say so.  But perhaps British politeness…

November 28, 2013

Way more than my share

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 3:01 pm
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Thanksgiving is the only holiday in the year that I celebrate without any qualifications.  What else can I possibly say but Thank You for so much that has been given to me in abundance?

This year I’ve been thinking particularly about how much my students gave to me during my university teaching years.

They were, first of all, challenging.

I’m sure they had little idea how much reading I did to address the questions they were asking.  And how exhilarating I found it.

I also often tried to put them in contact with their own gifts, talents and abilities that many of them did not realize they had.  And once in a while one of them would come back and tell me I’d changed their lives.  Or that I was the best teacher they’d ever had.  Or some other act of appreciation that was way beyond what I deserved.

So getting up at 6:30 am to review my lecture material, or reading hundreds of student papers to give them detailed feedback, was repaid a thousand times over.

I will admit that I always seemed to appreciate the joys of teaching more during the summer break than during the bleak cold winter.

But seriously, being a university professor ranks as one of the greatest joys of my life.

And I don’t think I have ever so much as said a single thank you to those students who gave me so much.  I suspect it’s a little too late now.  But I do know on this Thanksgiving that I have been given far more than I ever earned.

Thank you.

 

 

November 26, 2013

Us and them

One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large.  Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates.  Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations.  Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.

We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle.  And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.

Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims.  Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.

The St Andrews Cross and the Union JackToday the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September.   If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago.  But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures.  The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.

Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority.  But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go.  There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose.  For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies.  The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.

The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union.  All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries.  They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed.  But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development.  It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.

As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence.  As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me.  But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote.  I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel.  Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail.   Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.

But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?

My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.

But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.

Thank goodness.  I have enough to worry about as an American.

November 23, 2013

Comic sense

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:46 pm
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Snopes says it wasn’t written by Schultz, but The Philosophy of Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts feels like it should have been.  The fundamental question is who we remember over time, who makes a difference in our lives.

The point is obvious – people who are kind to us, who go out of their way to help us, whom we enjoy, are the people who have made a difference to us.  It is not the celebrities or the famous whom we remember.  If I’d read this as an adolescent, I would have thought I understood and lived by those values.  After all, I was going to be a missionary nun and spend my life serving the poor.  I was going to make the world a seriously better place.  I didn’t think I was worried about celebrity or wealth or fame.

But with a little rueful self-knowledge that comes with years, I know I didn’t really understand.  In fact, I think if I’d been growing up in the world today, I might very well have thought that the number of friends I had on Facebook was an indicator of just how successful and important I was.  But I was socialized as a serious Catholic.  So my version of celebrity was sainthood.  It certainly wasn’t anonymity!  I was going to be right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, telling popes how to run the world.

In fairness to my parents, I wasn’t named after Therese of Avila but after Therese the Little Flower who was supposed to illustrate that holiness resided in little things.  I thought that meant things like picking pieces of paper up off the floor, or drying the dishes so they were really dry all over.  I didn’t understand it meant kindness or doing obvious mundane things like cooking for the family every day or doing the laundry, or working hard with one’s students or patients or clients.  I thought to be a really great saint one had to be noticed.

In retrospect, I don’t think I was an exceptionally self-centered adolescent focusing only on my own future and fame.  I think I was inescapably young.  It is part of the human condition.

The great feature about our human species is our incredible capacity to learn.  But the other half of this great potential is that we are not born with the variety of instinctive behaviors that include all the essentials we need to survive.  We need to learn from experience, from being taught, from watching others.  If we don’t have them, it’s a lot harder to learn to love, to work, to think.  I’ve had some wonderful people in my life to learn from.

And so if I no longer have the slightest regret about not being a celebrity in any sense of the word, I have a lot of people to thank.  Becoming a saint was my adolescent mid-west Catholic version of being famous.   No doubt as an adolescent today my version would look rather different.  But at the heart of it, it would be the same.

Because I think we have to learn that recognition and adulation isn’t really the mark of ultimate success.  In that context, one of the compliments I once received that I treasure almost above all others was the statement from an old friend who said “You were always so kind.”  Fifty years ago I suspect I would have disregarded a description of myself as “kind” as wimpish and pretty common.  I was aiming for something much greater than mere kindness.  Now my greatest regret is those times when I failed to be kind.

November 20, 2013

Do you have to be religious to be a hermit?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:16 pm
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A couple of months ago, I read about a woman here in England who has taken a vow to be a hermit.  At first, her bishop said there wasn’t such a vow, but a search through canon law proved him wrong.

File:Hermits Cave (The Hermitage), Hermits Wood, Dale Abbey, Derbyshire - East Midlands of England - (1).jpg

I was looking for the reference to this modern hermit, and was quite surprised to discover how many hermits seem to living in Britain today.  And that’s only the ones Google knows about.  I would not be surprised if the number is multiplied by thousands in the U.S.

I remember thinking as I was reading about her life that being a hermit actually sounds quite appealing.  Especially the modern version, which does not involve living in a cave and isolation 24/7, seems to include having a computer and an email address, and even occasional visits to family and friends.  It also seems to me that living the life of a hermit does not require a religious commitment.

Personally, I think I could be quite a good non-religious hermit.  I’ve always had a need for long hours alone, it does not make me feel lonely or unloved.  In fact, too many people around for too long drives me a little crazy.  I hate cocktail parties and making small talk.

Come to think of it, I bet there are a lot of us.  Maybe we’re what might be called “closet hermits.”

 

November 18, 2013

Christians and Catholics and everybody else

 

A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.

For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment.  Yes, I thought,  being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”

But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.

It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t.  I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.

Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications.  But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”

There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor.   Not all are religious.  NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion.  Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor.  Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue.  And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.

This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.

I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers.  Loving others might be a central value  of Christianity.  But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity.  Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour.  It’s just not the only one.

November 17, 2013

Against all odds

Filed under: Illness and disease,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:08 pm
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I have just read an absolutely amazing story.  It’s the obituary of an Italian World Bank economist who simply would not accept the death verdict of his son from the medical establishment.

Augusto Odone was working for the World Bank in Washington in the 1980′s when his six-year-old son began to stumble, mumble, and was turning deaf.  The doctors said he was suffering from a rare and terrible disease called ALD for short, and that there was no cure.  Put simply, fatty acids were destroying the myelin sheath that insulates the nervous system.  The doctors told him and his wife to go home and wait for their son to die, mute, blind, and paralyzed.

Odone was an economist, not a chemist, a biologist, or medical doctor.  But he was a cook, and he began to read voraciously to understand what was happening to his son.  A mix of olive and rape seed (canola) oil, he finally reasoned, should counteract the corrosive acid attack.  The doctors laughed.  The researchers poured scorn on this ridiculous crank.

But Odone was right.  His oil halted the further development of ALDs symptoms.  Unfortunately, although the oil could stop further corrosion, it could not reverse the terrible damage already done to Lorenzo,who lived immobile and unable to communicate until the age of 30.  Yet, although Lorenzo’s Oil could help keep other children from the devastating impact of the disease, the medical profession continued to evaluate the treatment as akin to snake oil.

Odone refused to concede defeat.  Scientists wouldn’t listen, but Hollywood did, and in 1992 “Lorenzo’s Oil.” was made into a movie.  It did exaggerate the good news, implying that Lorenzo had recovered, which he had not.  The oil had merely prevented further deterioration.  But researchers at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute of Baltimore decided to take the treatment seriously.

8 years ago, their study showed that Lorenzo’s Oil prevented the ongoing development of ALD symptoms in three-quarters of the cases studied.

I’m going to remember this story for those many days when the future of the human race looks so hopeless.  When it looks as if our greed or ignorance or simply inertia will kill us, I’m going to remember this astonishing man.

Adone’s obituary is written by his son-in-law who is the International Editor of the Economist.

 

November 15, 2013

Laughing Sinner

Steiff Lotte Teddy Bear with Cap and Lolly - 111501R. D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who believed that a great deal of what we call “mental illness” is learned.  An example I remember his giving once was the angry correction administered to a child who dared to laugh.  “How do you dare to laugh,” he was castigated, “when Jesus died on the cross for you?”

I was thinking about this yesterday when I contemplated writing a rather frivolous post.  I didn’t, reflecting that given the death toll and continued catastrophe for millions in the Philippines it might be rather tasteless.

Well, I think that’s ridiculous.

If we can’t laugh, if we can’t be frivolous in the face of suffering, when can we dare to even smile?

In face, people who can laugh and even joke in the middle of tragedy are often beacons of light and strength.  They certainly have been for me.  One of my favourite blogs is a breath of fresh air – and it is nothing but jokes.  (Mostly good ones, which of course makes a difference.)
I’m not sure I have any great talent as a comedian.  But I’m pretty accomplished at frivolity.

So from now on, if the only thoughts I have are frivolous, I’m going to write a post anyway.

I hope as the reader you may be able to grin and bear it. 

 

November 12, 2013

I might be a genius

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:41 pm
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I’ve never had a brilliant memory.  I remember discovering in second grade that it was often easier to figure things out than to rely on brute remembering.  I did manage to memorize the multiplication tables up to 12, but Peter can still quote long passages from Shakespeare and poets like W.H. Auden and remembers facts that have passed into oblivion for me.

And these days I’ve noticed I am increasingly searching for lost words.  Being a compulsive researcher, I even contemplated keeping track of just how many words I found myself searching for in a week.  I now sort of wish I had gone through with it, because something interesting has happened.

Lack of vitamin B12 is often a cause of memory loss, particularly as we get older, so a month ago I started to take a vitamin B12 tablet every morning with breakfast.

The question is whether my memory has improved.

I am lacking any hard data on the number of times I am currently searching for lost words.  But I do play various computer  games like Solitaire and Free Cell, which keep track of my win/loss rate.  My Solitaire win rate has gone from 20 to 35%, and I’m winning all 100% of the games on Free Cell.

I know it’s not an intelligence test.

But do you think I might be developing into a genius?

November 9, 2013

Not as obvious as it is obviously obvious

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:12 pm
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One would think that at least our understanding of space was universal.  An inch is the same length wherever you are in the world, a mile isn’t shorter if you are measuring straight up or side ways, or whether the observer speaks Hindi or Chinese or Swahili.  But actually, both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics argue against this.  Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relative, and quantum physics says that even concepts like inside and outside, near and far, up and down don’t operate in the quantum world the way we expect.  Even here in our world of everyday, our concepts of space are much more culturally influenced than most of us appreciate.

My husband, for instance, has a better sense of direction than I do.  But when I ask him what direction we are going in, he often doesn’t know.  His sense of direction isn’t based on the fundamentals of north, south, east and west.  He understands cardinal directions, of course, but they aren’t always essential to him.  For me, if I’m the map reader, and I can’t put us on the map at least mentally, my response is that we need to ask someone for directions.  Peter, on the other hand, will keep going.  I used to think it was male vanity that didn’t want to ask for help.  But he found his way too often for me to continue to hold onto this hypothesis.  His sense of direction simply operates differently.  And it frustrates the life out of me that I don’t have a clue how he does it!

I read another study recently comparing the sense of direction of an Aboriginal group who do not learn left and right as we do, but only north, south, east, and west.  Along with a comparable group of Westerners, they were led through a tangled maze of buildings, repeatedly turning this way and that.  At the end, the Aboriginals were much better at orienting themselves than the Westerners, and could identify north accurately, while the Westerners could not.

I can see that for a hunter-gatherer society, the Aboriginal sense of direction would be a much more valuable survival skill than depending on knowing one’s left and right.  But I wonder if there are skills in  a developed society where being able to identify one’s left and right would be as important.  Though knowing to set a table with the fork on the left and the knife on the right doesn’t seem quite significant enough to matter that much, does it?

Either way, it does suggest that the measurement of spatial skills in traditional IQ tests may be culturally biased.  So if I’m ever lost in a desert or jungle, I’m going with the Aboriginal.

Unless you have a compass, of course.  And even then…

November 8, 2013

Up, Down, or around?

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:42 pm
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Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’  nests.  Why?  I wondered.  And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests?  Did they cook them first?

Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences.  They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.

Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.

I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well.  But there is still room for surprises.  We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit.  I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.”  Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”

Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement.  “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”

Then I remembered.

Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south.  So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.

I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from.  The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status.  Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.”  And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.

Fascinating.  It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes.  But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.

November 3, 2013

Turn left after turning right twice after passing the stop sign on the left, and then…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:27 pm
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When I was living in Spain, I found that my high school Latin American Spanish skills were often insufficient to understand many of the Spanish dialects spoken in Spain.  So I often had to ask the speaker to tell me again more slowly what he or she had said.  Males inevitably spoke louder, but not more slowly.  Females, on the other hand, seemed to know intuitively how to help me.  They spoke more slowly, and often added gestures or examples that gave me an idea of what they were saying.

Intelligent tests from around the world show that females generally have better verbal skills than men, who tend to excel in mathematical and spatial skills.  These are averages, and do not always reflect individual differences.  And we don’t know how much these differences are due to genetic differences and how much to environmental opportunities.  But right now, women are on average better explainers.

In my last post, I said I was seriously challenged by trying to figure out how to get our new tablet to connect to the internet.  Well, we’ve finally solved the problem.  And it wasn’t all me who was the cause of difficulty.  The directions are abysmal!

It fits a pattern that I’ve noticed for years.  It’s almost as if the more clever a new object, the more obtuse the directions.  This seems to follow whether it’s a bookcase, a washing machine, a  vacuum cleaner or computer equipment,  I think part of the problem is due to the directions being written or translated by someone for whom English is a second language.

But I strongly suspect part of the problem is that the person who originally invents this clever piece of kit is also the one who first writes the directions.  And I bet more often than not they are male, and that their directions are the equivalent to those men in Spain who seemed to think that saying something more loudly makes it clearer.

So I have a suggestion.

I think all directions should be written by women.   I think the hours of frustration that this would eliminate world-wide could probably add a percentage to the GDP of every country in the world that implemented this directive.

November 1, 2013

Learning from the children

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:36 pm
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I read once that Einstein said that the idea of relativity of time first came to him from a child.

I am under no illusion that my current learning from children will lead to an insight comparable with the relativity of time, but I do find myself giving myself the kind of advice I used to give to children when they were learning something new.  Things like “yes, you can do it, but you have to be patient.”  And “Just take it one step at a time.”  Or “Don’t try to do it so fast;  you’ll figure it out faster if you go slowly.”  “Blaming somebody else won’t solve the problem.  Neither will getting mad.”

On a more encouraging level, I keep myself going by self-feedback like “That’s a good idea!  Let’s try that and see if it works.”  or suggestions like “Take a break.  Sometimes you figure things out when you’re doing something else.”

And then there’s the fall back “You can ask for help.”

We got a new tablet today and I have used every one of these strategies to get it to connect to the internet and more.

Unfortunately, it’s still not working.  I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with it.

On the other hand, I’m old enough to suspect that the chances are that the locus of the problem isn’t with the tablet.

But I’m going to take my advice and close down for the night.

October 30, 2013

Hope

It’s practically an article of faith for me that there’s always another way of looking at things.  Sometimes “the other way” is threatening, or surprising, or funny.

But sometimes it’s positively hopeful.

I think on my really bad days when I feel despair at the possibility that  human stupidity,  arrogance, violence, or sheer selfishness is going to mean the end of life for all of us on this planet, I’m going to revisit this u-tube.  It was written by a 20-year-old for a contest entitled  “u@fifty.”  Maybe human creativity and generosity and a sheer love of all of life will win out after all.

Be sure to listen – and read – it all the way back to the beginning.  Or you’ll miss it.  

 

October 20, 2013

Sign language in Scotland

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:08 pm
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We have just returned from a wonderful week in Scotland.  I’ve been there many times before, and Peter knows it well from his years on the Edinburgh University faculty.

But I’d never noticed the signs before.  As we were driving along, I found myself laughing and wondering how they would go down in America.  Or even in neighbouring England.

A no-parking sign read:

“No parking on the zig-zag lines.  It’s both dangerous and selfish.”

Another sign warned:

“Delays due to maintenance.”

 It  was followed by what I thought at first was an admonition to the impatient driver but turned out to be the name of the town:

 “Rest and Be Thankful.”

Or what about a sign flashing across the motorway reading:

“Be a courteous driver.”

My favourite actually lured us inside a chocolate factory and shop:

 “Money won’t buy happiness.  But it will buy chocolate.” 

October 13, 2013

Peanut butter panic

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
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Last night at about ten o’clock, I read a review of  some introductory research suggesting that the loss of the sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia.  Specifically, if the sense of smell is more impaired in the left nostril, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.  If the greater impairment is in the right nostril, it may indicate some other form of cognitive impairment.

The research used about a tablespoon of peanut butter with a blind-folded patient who was instructed to indicate when they could smell it.  A difference of about ten centimeters (four inches)  in the distance between  when the peanut butter was detected by the right and left nostrils turned out to be significant.

I dashed into the kitchen and dished up a soup -spoon of peanut butter.  It could hardly be called a blind study, since it was self-administered, but it seemed to me I couldn’t smell peanut butter with either or both nostrils, at any distance.  I dug around the cupboards for something more strongly scented, but although curry powder made me sneeze, I couldn’t actually say I could smell it.  Ditto for the vinegar, orange, and tomato juice.

My scientifically validated conclusion, based on this evidence, is that either a) my allergies are still acting up, b) I’ve never had a good sense of smell, c) peanut butter doesn’t have a smell, or d) I’m in the late stages of cognitive impairment.  (Notice how I have cleverly omitted the possibility that I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)

I have noticed, though, that I have to concentrate harder than I used to when I’m working on cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a problem — like how to make some new gadget work that three-year-olds can figure out in about as many minutes.

I also  concluded many years ago that achieving true and honest self-knowledge makes understanding quantum physics look easy.

So if I’m really loosing it, some complete stranger reading this blog will probably know it well before I do.

October 11, 2013

Which is the worsest?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 7:08 pm
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Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.

Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it.  But that is for the future.  The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.

I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.

But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.

The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment.  It is terrible to refuse to help them.  But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty.  It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.

And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.

I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American.  We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.

September 30, 2013

Like you know has been updated!

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:57 pm
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Like, you know, I mean… 

I can’t say I’ve actually known it all my life, but I have known for many years that inserting words like “like” and  “you know” in the middle of what we are saying, sometimes several times in a single sentence,  is often a way of giving our brain a few extra milliseconds to think through what we to communicate.

But I mean, you know, I think it’s gone too far.  I often hear journalists not only add an extra two syllables to “you know,” in mid-stream, but it is not uncommon to hear them begin a question with “I mean, you know.”  Do such people have the required communications skills to do their job?

But what is really irritating is that I now hear myself doing it.  This morning I heard myself ending an answer to a question with “I mean.”

I mean, that really was my concluding statement.  

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