The Other I

August 4, 2019

It’s a circle, not a ladder

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:33 am

During my teaching career at university, I put a high priority on helping students identify their strengths because I wanted to do everything I could to help them maximize the contribution they might make in choosing their careers.  I was aware that ethnic minorities and women were less likely than their white and male counterparts to recognize their gifts, and were thus less apt to consider work that has traditionally been considered beyond their reach.  I am profoundly grateful to those students who have told me that I changed their lives with this advice.

But as I have grown older, and hopefully a little wiser, I see this advice reflecting too much of a ladder.  In many ways, I was advising my students to climb onto higher rungs than they would have considered.  That’s great.  But none of us is complete.  We might be geniuses in some areas, but there are always limitations.   In fact, by our very nature, none of us can survive without the contributions of multiple aspects of life around us.

Art by Sam Brown;

We can’t even survive without the micro-organisms in our guts on which we depend to digest our food every bit as much as they depend on us.  We depend on the plants and trees to give us the oxygen we need to breathe.  We depend on thousands of different kinds of life to give us the food we eat.  We depend on the skills and contributions of our fellow human beings to teach us to cook, to read, to play games, to take care of ourselves.  Even learning to talk is an interpersonal enterprise.

So if I were still teaching, I would encourage my students to identify their strengths, but also to identify what they need most from others.  It might be in the form of music, building, engineering, cooking, space exploration, verbal or mathematical abilities.  The list is endless.

One of the least and probably most important contributions that are under-appreciated is in the area of what today is called Social Intelligence.  That is the ability to intuit the needs and wishes and meaning of others.  It is a skill that makes one a good partner and also a good parent.  It is also a skill needed to understand other cultures and ethnic minorities providing very different insights than analytical thinking.

Learning one’s own limitations, whatever they may be, makes it clear that we are not perched on rungs of a ladder, but rather live within a circle, where we all need each other and our differences.  It helps me realize that my answers are not absolute.  No matter how right I think I am, I still need the contributions of life around me.

Even those organisms digesting my breakfast this morning are as important to my survival as those Great and the Good, the Celebrities, the Great Leaders, who are held up as models whom we should emulate and whom we too often try to equal.


July 4, 2019

The surprise unexpected

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:51 pm

I have said before that it seems to me the older I get, the less predictable my days become.  Most of my plan for any day ends with the stipulation “barring the unexpected.”

But last weekend this took on a new dimension.  Most of the unexpected things in my life these days aren’t actually surprising.  They are mostly simply unplanned.  Like something breaks in the house, or a neighbour asks for help, or I get a phone call from a family member telling me about a doctor’s visit, or the rainstorm floods the drive and blows down a tree.

The surprise began on Friday morning when I went to prune the rose bushes.  There was our neighbour’s chicken, called Boudica*, energetically clucking around.  She’s gotten out before, and I’ve called the neighbour who comes over and, usually after a serious hour or so of hide and seek, eventually catches her and takes her home.

This time wasn’t to be so simple.  The neighbours were not answering their phone.  Peter suggested that we use a trick he’d learned from a farmer in Yorkshire to catch errant hens.  So I got a bed sheet that had been demoted to the rag cupboard, chased our uninvited visitor into a corner and prepared to throw the sheet over her.  But she jumped  five feet into the air, and then scrambled under the bird netting into our berry patch.  I hurriedly pinned down the netting so Boudica was trapped and went into the house to phone her owner again and left another message.

Five hours later I began to worry that the entire family were gone for the weekend.  Boudica began to suspect the same thing and was making a lot of noise about being trapped in a berry patch for so long.  She did try out the strawberries, but they were not to her taste.

I grew up on a farm, where we fed our chickens grains from the field.  What could I feed our uninvited visitor, or give her to drink if she was going to be here for the entire weekend?

Google suggested green vegetables, cooked or raw, and a bowl of water.  That worked, so I replenished the supply for her supper, and again for her breakfast the next morning, when she was waiting patiently by the netting gate.

Then the door bell rang.  The neighbours had been home all the day before, but the weather had kept them outside, and they did not check their phone messaging service until the next day.  It took an hour for three of us, with the help of the sheet, to catch their errant chicken.

After they left, I found that Boudica had left a thank you egg.

It was beautifully fresh and delicious.  But a little more work to acquire than lifting a box of free-range eggs off the supermarket shelf.

*Boudica was a queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60 or 61. She died shortly after its failure and was said to have poisoned herself. She is considered a British folk hero.  Wikipedia


May 20, 2019

Yes, we CAN!

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:19 pm

The temptation is to despair, to become so depressed that we stop reading the news, and can’t even maintain a coherent conversation about it.  The temptation is to accept that if the American government doesn’t take climate change seriously, if the President even says he doesn’t believe in it, the human species may very well destroy this planet we call home so profoundly that we can no longer survive in it.

But I have just read one of the most encouraging pieces of research in relation to saving the coral reefs that has convinced me our worst enemy is the temptation to give up trying.

A paper just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes research by two professors who have tested out their idea that some coral reefs survive dramatic increases in water temperature that is bleaching and killing so many of our critically important coral reefs around the world.  In fact, we are beginning to realize that coral reefs are not just beautiful under-water structures.  They are home to many different kinds of life,  and often provide critical barriers to the lang masses on which we live.

Coral reefs are built by fixed animal organisms that eject algae with which they develop a symbiotic relationship.  The algae provide nutrients to the coral, which in turn provide shelter for the algae.

But when there are sudden increases in temperature, the algae can be bleached and die and if the temperature changes are long enough or high enough, the entire reef can be destroyed.

But what these two professors noticed was that not all coral reefs respond to temperature increases in the same way.  Some algae seem to be much more resistant to the destruction of increased heat.  And so they nurtured algae from coral reefs that seemed more able to survive temperature increases, and transplanted them to reefs that were more susceptible to heat damage.

And they found that the transplanted algae did a great deal to protect reefs where algae were clearly under threat.

The research is now being extended.  If results occur on a broader scale, we may have found a way of saving our coral reefs and all the life it sustains even in the face of unprecedented global warming.

This particular research has a deeper message, though, than how to protect just our coral reefs.  I think it is one example of why it matters that we believe in ourselves, believe that, despite the enormous challenges involved, the entire human species is not sitting back, paralyzed with disbelief or hopelessness.

Auto makers are making far-less polluting electric cars, for instance.  There are experiments with developing commercial airplanes driven by solar power.  Renewable energy sources are multiplying across the world.

There is not the same disregard for tossing plastics into our waters, and there are several ingenious methods being tested for removing the millions of tons of plastics that are already killing so much of the fish life in our seas.   Many farmers are growing their crops without using the insecticides that are decimating the bees and other insects so essential to fertilizing the food on which we humans depend simply to stay alive.

We all will have to do our part, sometimes something as small as not leaving our picnic trash behind on the ground, or tossing an empty coffee cup out the car window.  Sometimes they are major scientific breakthroughs.  But we’re all in this together.

We can each make a difference.


April 25, 2019

Witchcraft relics in our strawberry patch

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

The most exciting thing that has happened at Stocks Lane here in Cambridgeshire, England is finding two witch-craft stones in our garden.  We asked Google about them, and they are called “Hag’s stones”.  I’ve also discovered that originally, calling somebody an old hag was calling them a witch, and nightmares were called “hagmares.”

Hag stones are purported to bestow good luck, and wearing one can protect one from evil spirits, illness, hexes, and curses.  Put it in your bed or hang it on the bed post, and the sleeper will be protected from nightmares and even from those marauding wanderers living in dark places like under the bed.  I haven’t been able to provide evidence for this, but it is said that looking through the hole of the stone with one eye, one will see Fairy Folk.  Perhaps our stones are too old and worn out.

Hag stones are also a mark of fertility, but at the age of 79, it would truly require witchcraft to make me fertile.

Our finding hag stones is an example of one of the things that’s so fascinating about living on land that has been inhibited by various different human species even before the last ice age began to end 17 thousand years ago.   If you find the beliefs that surround them as fascinating as I have, you might find the following youtube creates a surprisingly rewarding five minutes view.

April 5, 2019

Young-old or Old-old?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:06 pm

My youngest sister by 12 years insists that she’s not getting “old,” just “older.”  I tell her that’s because she’s still “young-old”, that she has the mental and physical energy to do the kind of things she has done all her adult life.  But that somewhere around the age of 80, even for healthy active people like her oldest sister, one doesn’t just get older.  One is old.

But I’m a cognitive development psychologist and have spent my career studying how we change throughout life.  And I know not only from personal experience but from research studies as well that the stereotypes of “old” are – to put it charitably – incomplete at best.

For instance, one stereotype suggests that young people are smarter than older generations.  Initially research even suggested that we generally reach our peak intelligence levels around the age of 30 and it’s a slow down-hill after that.

But we know now that as we age, we are just as capable of growing new brain cells as we were when we were young.  What has radically changed – and continues to change at a rapid pace – are the practical things we need to know in order to function in everyday life.  Throughout our lives today we have to keep learning how things work today – everything from telephones to computers, from cars to remote control mechanisms, from emails to banking on-line.  We have to learn the meaning of new words that accompany new concepts, new cultural concepts quite possibly simply to communicate with the neighbours next door.  There are new medicines, new household appliances, new electrical systems. even new laws sometimes requiring new reporting systems in relation to income and taxes.  The list of things we need to keep learning is endless and non-stop.

But as we get older, we don’t expect to have to keep learning these practical things.  When I first bought a desk top computer, I had to learn DOS, and in Spain we had to learn DOS in Spanish.  That is totally a completely useless skill today, just as the software we used to set up our websites is now out of date.  But we nonetheless have to keep learning computer skills to stay in touch with changes in the digital world.

We haven’t gotten stupider with age, or young people smarter.  We just don’t expect to have to spend as much time and energy learning the same things today as we did when we were younger.

Yes, we oldies have less energy.  Yes, our bones are decidedly creakier, and we don’t remember things rather more often.  But we have a lot more to remember than we did when we were young and so in truth, despite what we may have forgotten,  most of us have more memories than the young have.

There are even things that old people often know that younger ones don’t.  Erik Erikson called one of the most important things “wisdom.”  Older people often appreciate the importance of simple acts of kindness, for instance.  They often are more forgiving, having discovered that they themselves have made mistakes or made self-serving choices for which one asks forgiveness.  It’s why grandparents are often so extremely valuable.

Can old people also be selfish, resentful, even mean bullies or vicious and vengeful?   Yes.  Unfortunately, that is not something that separates us from the young.

I can say from first-hand experience that being old is different from being young.  But for me, at least, it’s not different in the way most stereotypes predict.

March 19, 2019

My home-made explosive

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:47 pm

These days the news is filled with reports of hand-made explosives used to blow up in buildings, cars, military outfits, and public places of all kinds.

Well, I’ve discovered a new one for use exclusively in the kitchen.

Two days ago I hard-cooked some eggs, removed the shells, and put them in the fridge for yesterday’s kedgeree.  When I was preparing to serve the meal, I removed the kedgeree from the oven, and put two of the cold hard-cooked eggs in the microwave to heat them up before serving them atop the main dish.  I set the timer for 30 seconds.

Immediately after taking them out of the microwave, I plunged a knife into the middle to cut the first egg in half.


It exploded.

I don’t mean it spluttered a bit.  I mean it exploded.  It splattered in a ten foot circle,  over the front of the fridge, the cupboards, the oven, the floor, even the ceiling lights.  I was still finding bits of egg this morning on the open pages of a cookbook.

I’m grateful I did try to cut the eggs in half before serving them.  I can only imagine what it would have been like for us and two guests sitting around the dining room table enthusiastically stabbing into our eggs.

My advice is not to try this at home.

I certainly won’t.


March 4, 2019

Thinking about it

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

I was talking to a friend recently about research suggesting that one way to reduce dementia is to keep one’s brain active.  Do this by challenging it with new tasks or new ways of doing old things.  So cross-word puzzles is a frequent suggestion, or learn a new skill like knitting or take up art.

Some suggestions, though, actually are quite simple.

Brush your teeth, comb your hair, or unlock a door with your non-dominant hand, for instance.  Or in the kitchen stir pots in counter-clock-wise direction instead of the usual clock-wise.  Find new kinds of tasks – in the garden, around the house, re-arrange items in the car, the bedroom, kitchen.

I’ve even tried writing with my left instead of my right hand, but the disadvantages are possibly too significant.  It takes at least five times as long to write out my shopping list and then half the time I can’t read it.

But I do have another idea:  What about learning a new computer game?  Keeps kids young.  Why not us oldies?

Ten Computer Games Your Kids Should be Playing, MakeUseof. Com



February 19, 2019

Do our values make it hard to listen?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:25 pm

When was the last time you had a serious discussion with someone with whom you disagreed about:

  • politics?  eg: should Trump build a wall on the Mexican/US border?

  • science?  eg:  is climate change real?  if so, is it important enough to understand it in order to reduce its effects around the world?

  • poverty?  eg:  whether a greater proportion of people would be poor if the government provided universal support for basic food, shelter, and medical needs?

  • religious values?  eg:  is abortion fundamentally an act of murder which should be treated as such?

  • euthanasia?  eg:  does in individual have a right to take his own life?  should medical assistance ever be provided to help them die with minimum pain?

  • when is war justified?  eg:  is sending troops to countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, or Macedonia justifiable on the same grounds as sending troops to fight the Nazis in WWII?

Research shows that the stronger we feel about questions like this, the less we are apt to listen respectfully to those who disagree.  Families frequently are forced to avoid  religious, political, or even scientific discussions about subjects like these in order to remain on speaking terms at all.  Similarly, we don’t tend to listen to tv, radio stations, or read newspapers that fundamentally disagree with us.

Scientists call this burying one’s head in the sand “the partisan brain,” and hypothesize that this almost universal tendency may even be hard-wired in the brain. Historically, this has not always been a disadvantage.  Rather it has helped affirm a group’s identity and added to mutual community support that can be essential to actual survival.

But in today’s globalized world, this intolerance of our differences is as often destructive as it is constructive.  Not, of course, that there aren’t times and situations in which avoiding some topics is a mark of wisdom.

But often, I fear, we simply cut off those “bigots,”  “foreigners,” those proponents of “unintelligent,”  “racist,” “prejudiced,” “self-centered,” even “criminal” and “immoral” values.

But there is benefit to listening to these values and opinions to try to understand why these positions make sense to them.  There is a chance that if we can understand we might be able to change people’s minds.

And we might actually learn something ourselves!


January 12, 2019

Keeping America White Again

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:33 pm

My father was a second-generation immigrant from Bavaria, Germany;  my mother, fluent in both Polish and English was a third generation immigrant. The head nun in the Catholic parish where they were married remarked at the time that it was a shame, that a union between a German and Polak would never be successful.

It lasted long enough for my mother to give birth to ten children, and until she died of cancer.  As children we would occasionally laugh at the remark of that mother superior who predicted abject failure of our parents’ marriage, but it was never even hinted to us that perhaps the problem she foresaw was one of social class, that a man, even an immigrant, of German descent could be ever truly satisfied with the daughter of a highly-successful a Polish grocer from Evanstan, Illinois.

fb race2 Flawed Fight for Racial Equality

But both my parents had a deep belief in human equality.  Our family dinner table conversations frequently centered on the unquestioned immorality of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, and in America of the segregation imposed on those then referred to as “Negroes.”  After WWII, my father, who was then a practicing attorney of law in the city, was asked by one of his clients if he could help an ex-soldier whose life was being made intolerable by fellow workers at the construction site where he had employment.   My father hired him to work full time on our farm, and provided him and his partner, Ethel – a white woman with whom he was living but not married to – with a house on our land.  His name was Phil, and we all got along with him and Ethel, often visiting them and sharing the inevitable snack on offer.

We had no idea whatsoever that this arrangement might have been in the face of deep racial prejudice, even in the church community of which we were a part, and that it could have seriously threatened the success of my father’s law practice.  But as Dad once put it, “You cannot be both a Christian and prejudiced.”  We took it for granted.  And, whatever other limitations any of us might have, I don’t think there is a bone in any of us that is prejudiced today.

And so it was quite a shock to realize as an adult the kind of risk my father took in relation to his law practice by hiring and housing Phil, a Black man living out of wedlock with a white woman.

It is with even greater shock that I have only in recent years discovered ways in which views of white superiority extend even further into America’s past, and even more disturbing, into our present.

I think the discovery that I find the most un-Christian, most un-American, and most damaging against Blacks to this very day occurred under President Franklin Roosevelt.  Legislation passed under his auspices authorized federal funds to build homes outside the industrial heartlands of the cities where workers were often living in slum-like conditions.  The outrage, though, is that houses in settlement built with these funds could only be sold to whites, which meant only to those who had NO Negro genealogy whatsoever.  They could not even be re-sold to anyone “of color.”

Graphic of money bill that is half black, half white.

Economists are now showing that this legislation, which was not changed into the mid-1970’s, is the single biggest reason why a far greater percentage of whites today are middle class than are Blacks.  Whites have benefited from getting close to a century of increased house values, far outstripping the value of urban properties which even those Blacks who could afford to buy their own homes were forced to buy.

This legislation is also one of the major reasons why so many Blacks are still crowded into urban slums and less well-off.  Since schools are funded by local property values, it means that the majority of Black children today are still sent to poor schools and receiving a second-class education.

If you are interested in learning more about these deeply segregationist practices permeating this country of ours which we so proudly call “the Land of the Free,”   I found  a good place to start.


December 25, 2018

Holiday Wishes

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:27 pm

Image result for enlightenment


May these dark days bring light to all of us, however we mark it.

December 18, 2018

It’s not fair!

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:29 pm

Most parents I know have been made familiar with their child’s outraged argument when they discover that a friend doesn’t have to obey the same rules that he/she does.  Parents are told in no uncertain terms that  it’s not fair that the kid next door doesn’t have to go to bed until nine, when I have to go to bed at eight.  It’s not fair that the time I can spend playing computer games is limited to an hour, when Johnny is allowed to play any time he wants.  It’s not fair if my allowance is smaller than his, or if she doesn’t have to make her own bed when I do.  Etc, etc.

“It’s not fair”

The next stage, if the child does not remain stuck in this rut, is to realize that I don’t really want fair.  I only want to be able to have and do the same things other kids do that I also want.  But I don’t want to be hungry all the time the way some kids are, or to sleep in the street or search in the garbage for stuff to sell, or not  be able to go to school.

By adolescence, if society or religion or my community can give me a good explanation for why I can’t have some things that other people can, I will often accept it for the rest of my life.  Gender roles are an outstanding example, so often are social classes, and hierarchies of all kinds, whether in business, religion, politics, or simply in the neighbourhood.

But I’ve just read some research which suggests to me that globalization is having a significant effect on what we consider fair and the level of equality we seem to need not to be consumed by that kind of outrage we first experienced as children when we discover that the same rules don’t always apply to everybody else.

Research across the world has found that people in countries where inequality is smallest are the happiest.  Norway is a key example.  Taxes are relatively high here, but they are not used to support the super-rich but rather to insure adequate shelter, education, medical care, and job opportunities for everyone.  This is what people want.

Thus, as the world gets smaller, we are no longer excusing differences on the grounds that they are approved by God and that some people are given divine rights or positions of superiority and authority denied to others.

Christianity, the religion with which I am most familiar, was initially based on the view that we are all equal on some fundamental level.  Nonetheless, by the third century, Christianity abandoned this view and for over a millennium, it was built on a rigid hierarchy, claiming even the right to execute those who disagreed with the doctrine currently in power.

Many of us still have an “us and them” mentality that is sweeping the world under the name of “populism.”  We are still battling the conclusion that different ethnic groups, different cultures, or people of different physical appearance are not “equal” in the same sense.  Some of us still think we have rights others do not.

Will globalization force us to evolve to a greater sense of fundamental equality?

Or will we tear ourselves apart?

December 14, 2018

How to recognize fake news

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:07 pm

We grow up believing time is absolute – that is, that a day is a day no matter where we live, an hour is an hour in China and America, a minute might seem like a long time if your head is under water, but it’s the same 60 seconds in the open air.

But Einstein’s theory says time is relative.  In different parts of the universe, things can go much more slowly, or much faster.  Scientists have even been able to show that time runs at a different rate on our highest buildings than it does where we have our feet on the ground.

Time is Relative

Well, I don’t have to climb to the top of the Empire State Building to prove to myself that time is relative.  The older I get, the faster time gets.  The second millennium began 18 years ago, you say?  No.  For me it was about two years ago.

Oh, and weights don’t stay the same either.  A bag of groceries weighs about twice as much as it did in the year 2,000.

Don’t tell me this is fake news.  I KNOW IT first hand!

December 7, 2018

Can religion make us stubborn and stupid?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:30 pm

When I was young and knew everything, I was convinced that, as St. Paul said, “love is the greatest of these.”  I thought it was simple, obvious, and all-encompassing.  It gave me the answers to all the important issues.

Gradually, I came to realize that in actual fact and in real-life situations, the truly loving act is often not at all obvious.  Generosity sometimes is misplaced and can rob the poor or even our children of the chance to forge their own directions, to take responsibility for their own choices.  I remember the first time I heard the motto “it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him bread” and realizing that hand-outs, while sometimes obviously the most loving response to the poor, can often be controlling and patronizing.

I also remember thinking as I was preparing to work as a missionary nun among the poor that we had to be very careful, as we were providing education or medical service to the poor, that we were not using these things as bribes to convince the people to become Catholics.

Today use of  religious principles for our own ends is erupting around the world.  In country after country we are tearing ourselves apart using religious principles.  And it’s not just in far-away undeveloped countries.  This very day, the state of Oklahoma in the United States is trying to pass a law making abortion a felony punishable by life imprisonment.  This leaves no room for situations when, as even St. Thomas Acquinas suggested, abortion is the most loving response.

Today I find myself asking if religion can make us stubborn.  Even stupid and bigoted, unwilling and unable to listen to alternative points of view because we already have the Right Answers.

I’m not suggesting that non-believers are by definition more intelligent, more loving, more open to other opinions.  The daily news reporting attitudes of politicians, philosophers, economists, climatologists, educators can disabuse one of such naivete.  And I’m well-aware that religious practice is sometimes the foundation of heroic generosity and courage.

But religion isn’t necessarily the source of all the right answers.  It can even be the foundation of what looks to me to be simply terrifyingly cruel and destructive.



October 24, 2018

Us and Them

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:49 pm


An American friend who has lived many decades in another culture and who also has significant language skills asked me what negotiators were referring to when they said our Brexit negotiators were arguing about a “backstop” in relation to the border between Ireland and Britain.  I said I thought it more or less referred to a back-up position if the original agreement didn’t work, but that as far as I knew, it was a word the English had just made up.

Wrong.  I learned from Peter that it’s a defensive position in the game of cricket, whose job is to stop the ball if the wicket-keeper (i.e. catcher) misses it because if the ball gets past the fielders to the end of the boundary, the batsman earns four runs for his team.

I’ve noticed that whichever side of the pond we are from, immigrants from both countries often think that because we speak the same language (well, more of less), we understand each other.

But whether it’s body language, facial expressions, courtesies, or even swear words, we often do not understand each other.

I have been a permanent resident here in Britain for more than twenty years.  But there are ways in which the longer I live here the more like a foreigner I feel.  Paradoxically, it’s because I am increasingly at home here.

The other day I remarked to a neighbour whom I’ve known for many years that in many ways I feel like a foreigner here.  “Oh no, Terry,” she responded.  “People don’t think of you as a foreigner.  You are very well liked.”

The point of this story is not that people like me.  It is the assumption in the response that someone who is well-liked isn’t foreign.

Isn’t this the underlying assumption of the political populism that is sweeping the world?  In country after country, including America (that Land of the Free), Britain, and countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, an intolerant, sometimes deadly, attitude of “us and them” is emerging.  Immigrants are not wanted.  They are different and should be sent back to where they came from.  If not left to die or killed outright.

I don’t know why I am so fortunate.  But almost all my life I have found our differences fascinating.  I like foreigners.

In fact, I even married one.

And now I’m the foreigner living in his country.



October 20, 2018


Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:19 pm
Tags: negligence manslaughter is among the offences that prosecutors will consider over the Grenfell Tower fire

Two years ago, a fire in a housing tower block, Glenfell Tower in London, raced up 22 floors outside of the building from the second floor to the top, blocking the exits for many and killing 72 people.  An investigation looking for the reasons the newly-install outside cladding was not fire resistant, and how many other tower blocks may be similarly affected is still ongoing and receiving broad media coverage.

The surviving residents were moved into hotels or other accommodation, many of whom are still not permanently resettled elsewhere.  The trauma for hundreds of families, relatives, and friends is beyond my words to encompass.

But something quite extraordinary and quite beautiful has emerged from this disaster.  A nearby mosque opened its kitchen to Glenfell women who no longer had kitchens, who could no longer cook for their families.

We know about it because Megan Markel, now the wife of Prince Harry, had watched the tragedy unfold on the news when she was still living in Canada.  After her marriage, she wanted to get to know organisations working in her local community in London.  And so one day she quietly visited the mosque kitchen.  She found women, some with their children, whose cultural roots came from at least 15 different countries, including Uganda, Iraq, Morocco, India, and Russia. They were cooking;  and laughing, talking, sharing a cup of tea, playing with their children.

Megan said anyone going there would feel joyful in their company, and leave counting the days until they came back.

Which Megan did.

But why, she asked, given its huge benefit and success, was the kitchen open only two days a week?  “Funds,” the women told her.  The women thought she was joking when she responded by saying ‘well, how about making a cookbook?’

But she wasn’t joking, and the cookbook, “Together, Our Community Cookbook” has been published and is now available on Amazon and many other bookstores.  All proceeds are going to charity, to help spread the healing power of sharing food.

We’ve bought the book and some of the recipes are fantastic.  And not difficult.  I’m grateful for the diversity it has brought to our kitchen.

In addition, I can’t help but reflect on how these women are addressing one of the most profound problems facing the human species today: the hardening of borders between Us and Them.  What determines “Us” versus “Them” varies.  Sometimes it is race, color, gender, religion, money, power, culture.  Most often it is a mix but with globalization, it is becoming increasingly vicious and intolerant around the world.  And here these women are, breaking down those barriers around something basic and familiar to every living human:  preparing and sharing food.

Truly, they have found the bread of life.

Image result for Together: Our community cookbook


October 10, 2018

“I don’t believe…”

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

After the United Nations published its report saying that mankind had no more than 12 years to avoid the disaster of climate change world wide, a neighbour said to me that he didn’t “believe in climate change.”

I asked him why.  He said because we’ve had climate change for thousands of years.  Yes, I said, but we are talking about a level of change in temperature, in atmosphere, in the oceans’ acidity that we have not seen for hundreds of thousands of years, before even the appearance of the human species on this planet.  Well, he said, I don’t see how they can prove it.

I dared to ask him if he believed in God.  Absolutely, he said, of course.  It’s obvious.

There are many scientists who believe in God, I said, but there are no scientists who think there is scientific proof of God’s existence, that it is obvious in the sense that it is even potentially a scientific fact.

He asked me to explain.

Scientific fact, I said, is based on evidence, on things we observe and test and therefore try to explain.

1300x1115 Catholic Religious Symbols Clip ArtBelief in God, on the other hand, is based on faith, which by definition is NOT based on evidence.  It is often a deeply held conviction that shapes our lives, our choices, our deepest values, but cannot be proved.

One of the most interesting things for me about the difference between scientific fact and religious faith is that what is accepted as fact often changes when we make new discoveries, find new evidence, or even develop new theories.  Less than two hundred years ago, for instance, many scientists were convinced that evidence supported the view that our planet first formed a mere 4,000 years ago.  Today we think it is closer to 67 billion years.

Religious faith, on the other hand, is not subject to change in that way.  When the inexplicable happens, a person of faith often says it is a mystery we cannot understand, but that it is in”the hands of God.” Although once again, people often lose their faith altogether in the face of what seems inexplicable tragedy.

The prediction of tragically destructive climate change made by scientists in the UN report is based on scientific evidence.  Climatologists know,  therefore, that it could be wrong.  It could be that we are missing critical evidence, or are misinterpreting the evidence we do have.

But unless we can look at the evidence and can make a strong case for arguing that climate change isn’t happening and is not going to continue to happen unless we change our behaviour, we are taking a terrible risk for the future of life on our planet.  It is rather like jumping out the window from the 20th floor, on the grounds that the evidence is not absolutely conclusive that I will die as a result.

Only this time we are talking about the entire planet.

Harry Taylor, 6, played with the bones of dead livestock in Australia, which has faced severe drought.CreditCreditBrook Mitchell/Getty Images

September 27, 2018

Learning how to say no

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

I am currently watching the Senate committee’s interview of Dr. Blasey Ford who is testifying that Brett Kavanaugh sexually molested her as a teenager.  The committee is now taking a break and so I am too.

During these recent weeks, I have thought a lot about my experiences in the first years after I left the convent after nine years and moved into New York City, which was one of the main centers of the new sexual liberation attitudes arising out of the hippie movement.  I was a graduate student, very attractive, and unbelievably naive.

I look back now and try to understand some of the situations in which I found myself and why I was sometimes taken advantage of sexually by men.  There were young men who were as naive and innocent as I was.  I didn’t enjoy sex with them and none of these relationships were long term.  There was another group of men, though, whose power made them invincible.  In my life, they tended to be university professors, but the news in recent years makes it clear that men in power in every field, have abused their position, whether they are comedians, priests, politicians, CEO’s, managers, movie directors, celebrities, or tv personalities, among others.

Yes, these men have taken advantage of women.  But we women have played a role in sexual misconduct as well.  There are women who have gained their promotions “on their backs,” as the saying goes.  That is not something I am aware of having done.

But I often did not say no when I wanted to.  I was socialized as a girl to believe that our role as females was to be generous, kind, supportive, insightful, and loving.  In particular, it was my role to please the men in my life.  I still try to be generous, kind, and loving, not in relation only to men, but in relation to anyone in my life.

But I had to learn how to say no kindly but firmly when I wanted to.

And as I listen to young women today, even in this day of women’s liberation, I think this is something they still need to learn.  I think older women might also be able to provide some advice to the younger generation as well.  Exactly what to say or do depends in part on the individuals involved and their cultural backgrounds.  But we all need the self-belief and confidence to communicate a lack of interest with the same clarity that we communicate other decisions in our lives.

September 18, 2018

More than Pope Francis can deal with?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:17 pm

Concept conceptual yellow cross religion symbol silhouette in nature over sunset or sunrise sky Premium PhotoI have been surprised at the scope and depth of responses to my last post discussing what Pope Francis should do about the problem of pedophilia and other sexual misconduct among supposedly celibate priests.  Most of the responses have come to me privately, almost all of them with deep feeling.

Some responders think Pope Francis should resign, along with all the other hierarchy who over the years have failed to deal effectively with errant priests.  Others have argued that, although Francis is out of his depth, at least he acknowledges his mistakes, and if he were to step down from the papal throne, there is a significant danger that he would be replaced by a cardinal who thinks the problem is basically homosexual priests, and that in any case, it should be the sole authority of the Roman Catholic Church to deal with the problem, that it should not be put into the hands of the political justice system, and that, as far as possible, the abuses should remain out of the public domain.

But by far the most arresting response that I had never thought of before is the doctrinal one.  An ex-Protestant minister told me that the reverence the Roman Catholic laity give to Catholic priests is far greater and even essentially different from the respect offered to Protestant ministers and even Anglican vicars.  Catholics believe priests are ordained with an irrevocable ability to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This ability lifts them onto a level of sanctity even in this life that the mere laity cannot achieve.

As someone else pointed out, even Vatican II did not suggest that priests should not be addressed as “Father,” rather worrisomely the term used to address God.  She and her husband have left the Catholic Church and attend a Unitarian Church whose vicar is a woman.  She says the difference between the unquestioning obedience by her Catholic friends to their priests is qualitatively different from the respect given to their vicar whom they are even free to address by her first name.

I fear the hypothesis that belief in the unique power of the priest to consecrate bread into the body of Christ might be more supportive of clerical sexual misconduct than most people think.  If so, the problem is far more difficult to address effectively than I have appreciated.

The fact that so much misconduct is being exposed today, in the context of so many people’s loss of faith in the infallibility of Catholic doctrine, may support the suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church needs a “Protestant Reformation.”

September 11, 2018

What should Pope Francis do?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:31 pm

I was never abused by a pedophile priest, but I have been closely acquainted with several people who have, and I am intimately aware of the overwhelming number of Catholic priests who engage in sexual activity while claiming to be “celibate.”

But in truth, I was unprepared to discover how angry I was when Pope Francis during his recent visit to Ireland offered the suffering of the abused “to the arms of Mary,” but did not mention anything at all about the abusing priests themselves.  This is a Church that imposes a sentence on those who confess their sins in order to be forgiven.  It is even a Church that threatens serious sinners with eternal hell fire if they do not repent.

Why, then, does not Pope Francis insist that pedophile priests, bishops, and cardinals or those who knowingly covered up sexual abuse against children be brought to task?

I thought at first that Pope Francis should insist that guilty hierarchy resign.  But on reflection and reading, I now doubt that would get to the root of the problem.  First of all, Francis himself in the past has not insisted that bishops with a record of cover-ups should resign.  He, therefore, can in some ways be counted among the co-conspirators by  those members of the hierarchy who think the basic problem is that too many priests are homosexual.  They would love to see Pope Francis unseated and replaced by one of them.  But I think it is laughable to say the problem of pedophilia is fundamentally a question of homosexuality, and replacing Francis with a pope who thinks it is will merely bury the problem deeper.

In any case, the essence of Christianity from the very beginning was not in power but in love, in the community.  In many ways, that is what has been lost.  For centuries – even millennia – the lay community has been disenfranchised, and all the power put into the hands of ordained men.

I think it is once again the lay community that must be the essence of Christianity.  The priest, the minister must once again be the servant, not the master, of the people.

Practically, this means that lay people must be the core of institutions examining the sexual behavior of their priests.  This is occurring, of course, in the states in America which are setting up legal investigations into child abuse by priests similar to the recent investigation just concluded in Pennsylvania.  The effectiveness of actions of the lay people is also evident in Boston, laid out in stark detail in the documentary film Spot Light.   But we also need institutions dealing with community needs not only on the non-religious and political levels, but within each parish in the world.

So what do I think Pope Francis should do?  Maybe he already is doing it.  Maybe he is already encouraging lay people in dioceses and parishes throughout the world to take the initiatives that will pull away the veil of secrecy and immunity  currently bestowed on the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Maybe Francis doesn’t want to be seen to be taking charge.

Because he doesn’t want Christians to think he is the solution.  Because he wants to decentralize the Church and give back to the community the responsibility that only the people can fulfill.

August 12, 2018

Pondering the burka

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

You may already be aware that last week a leading politician here in Britain, Boris Johnson, wrote in a newspaper article that, although he did not believe the wearing of the burka should be outlawed in this country, women wearing them did resemble a letter box or a bank robber.

Woman wearing a Burka

The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.

The remarks have stirred up a huge controversy and been making front page news ever since.  Some people think Johnson  should be investigated and expelled from the Tory party.  Some argue that it is a woman’s human right to wear the clothes she chooses, others that it is a God-given demand included in the Koran that women must fully cover themselves in public.

Several imams have said that it is not a command included in the Koran.  Others have argued that these kind of remarks are characteristic of British humour and point out that similar, even identical, remarks have been made in the past, not only about burkas but about other various outfits that both males and females may wear.  The habits of nuns, or outfits of priests and clergy are example.  They believe that to punish such remarks would inappropriately limit freedom of speech.

Personally, what I think has been insufficiently emphasized is that the way we dress is a kind of communication,.  We send out different messages by the clothes wear.  I don’t wear the same clothes to a wedding as I would to go grocery shopping.  In fact, the clothes I am wearing often indicate the role I am playing.  Only the bride wears a wedding dress and veil, for instance.  Imagine the uproar that would be caused if the bride’s mother showed up wearing the comparable outfit.

To complicate matters further, the meaning of our dress codes varies in different cultures every bit as much as the languages we use.  I would feel extremely uncomfortable walking bare-breasted down Broadway in New York City because I know I was sending a completely different message than a bare-breasted woman living in a social group where that is the norm.

Furthermore, these messages are deeply ingrained in our psyches, usually from childhood.  I remember my mother sending me upstairs to put some clothes on when at the age of about three I came stark naked into the kitchen where the family was gathering for breakfast.  I eventually learned to feel embarrassed, even ashamed, to be seen unclothed in various public situations.

In that context, I wonder how I would feel if, instead of being reared in a western culture, I had been taught from a very young age that showing even my face in public to a male not an intimate family member was a totally inappropriate exposure of my private self, and even potentially sexual provocation.  How would I feel walking down the street with my face exposed?  I suspect it would be excruciatingly uncomfortable, made even worse if the men I passed in public understood the meaning of my exposure the same way I did.

On the other hand, in western cultures, covering up one’s face is not usually considered modest, but often inappropriate.  Because in our cultures, facial expressions are broadly interpreted to understand behavior.  I look at someone’s expression to see if they are joking, angry, lying, loving, confused, needing help, experiencing pain.  They are important in almost every public interaction we have.

And so personally, I think it is quite appropriate for different cultures to mandate when a burka may not be used to cover one’s face in public.  If I am going to live in another culture, I need to understand and respect it.  I know from personal experience that this is by no means a simple matter.

But I do not think I have a right to voluntarily move into another culture and to gain from the benefits of living there while insisting that I do not need to abide by fundamental customs and laws of that culture.  Yes, I can try to explain why I disagree or would like to expand some practices.  But it would not be appropriate for me to insist that my customs and practices are inviolable while yours are not.




August 5, 2018

Norweigian Cool

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:37 pm

Image result for heat wave

BBC:  London

We’ve just had a two-day break from the heat wave when temperatures dropped to the mid-seventies fahrenheit (about 25 celsius), but it is now back into the mid-high 80’s, and still no rain.  In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot about temperatures and dehydration.  Most surprisingly, I learned that high temperatures and high humidity is far more deadly than dry heat.  125 degrees in low humidity is much less uncomfortable, and more importantly, less deadly than high humidity and temperatures in the mid-90’s (35 celsius), even for a healthy teenager.

It seems to me to be quite worrisome for the future of our species.

In the meantime, I have also been researching methods for staying cool in this land where air-conditioning has rarely been needed.  Cooling fans are a new idea for reducing temperatures, but they increase humidity in the process, and so I have been reluctant to invest.

Following professional advice, I have been drinking about 3 quarts of water a day, and have tried out an idea from a friend who grew up in Norway during World War II.  She told me they would get a great slab of ice where it was kept all year round in a barn building, and place it in front of a fan.

Image result for ice blocksWell, we don’t have great slabs of ice, so I experimented with freezing a 5-quart container and putting it in front of a fan in our bedroom.  Before the ice had melted, the temperature in the room was reduced by 2 degrees to 88.   And it did provide a slightly cooler breeze for several hours.

But I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.  It took up critical space in our freezer, and left a tray of water in which the ice had been standing overnight.

If we’re going to have another summer of this kind of heat, I think we might invest in a cooling fan.  And maybe a dehumidifier?

July 27, 2018

Heat Heave

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

I grew up in Ohio, with very hot summers, lived in New York City for two decades, and lived for ten years in Spain where temperatures into the 100’s were normal for most of August.  But we had a lake in Ohio, air conditioning in New York, and both a pool and the breeze wafting over us from the Mediterranean in Spain.  When I read that 56,000 people died in the 2010 heat wave in Russia, and more than 35,000 in the 2003 in Europe, it did not feel personally relevant.

Image result for heat wave

Until a week ago, that was equally true about our current record-breaking heat wave here in Britain. Temperatures have soared into the 90’s day after day, compounded by a drought, so that we have not had any significant rain for more than two months.  Our rain barrels are dry, the grass has turned brown, and plants and bushes have died.   It  felt uncomfortable and inconvenient, but not life changing.

But last week I experienced something new.

It’s called dehydration, and I thought at one point as I lay vomiting on the floor that I had perhaps mere minutes to live.

Obviously I had a little longer than 3 minutes left before moving on.  But I’ve learned a lot about dehydration, and am I taking it seriously!


Heatwave scorches Europe, from London to Siberia The

The first piece of advice is to drink plenty of liquids.    The general recomendation is to divide one’s weight in pounds by 2, and to drink that number of liquid oz’s a day.  That’s 2 quarts for me.  But the Mayo Clinic advises someone of my age, gender, and weight to drink 5 quarts of liquid a day! I have found that a bit of a challenge, but I’m reaching for it.

Equally important, the National Health Service here  is advising people in their 60’s and over to keep as cool as possible and to stay inside during the day with their windows and doors closed.  We have a couple of  circulating fans going, but staying cool here in Britain is much more of a challenge than it was in New York City, where installing a window air conditioner was almost standard practice.  This kind of cooling has never been required for more than a few days here in the UK, and windows are constructed in a way that will not even accommodate an air conditioner.

I have talked to a friend who grew up in Norway during WWII, however, and am trying to adapt the method she told me yesterday they used when air conditioners were still in the mind of the inventor.

I will report on its effectiveness within a week.  The heat wave is predicted to continue for as long as another six weeks, so there will be time to seriously test out this “old-fashioned method.”




June 26, 2018

Are we getting dumber?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

Brand Quarterly

A very interesting study has just been published suggesting that the generational increases in intelligence which began after World War II  have gone into reverse.

Specifically, children born after 1975 have lost an average of 7 IQ points in each succeeding generation.

It’s an authoritative study including hundreds of thousands of children and young adults compared over generations.  There has been enough data collected for long enough to compare children with their parents at similar ages,  and at comparable ages, the parents score anywhere from 3-7 points higher on scales of intelligence than their children when they reach that age.

But what is really going on?  Are our children really getting dumber than we are?

Well, intelligence is a function of genetics and environmental factors including nutrition, education, and opportunity.

But intelligence is also something else which traditional intelligence tests overlook.  Essentially, intelligence is the ability to survive and adapt to the environment in which we live.  And so, as environments change, different skills often are seen as intelligent.  Jared Diamond, the anthropologist, points out when he was studying Aborigine tribes, that they knew how to survive in the forest.  They knew what wild mushrooms were poisonous and which were safe to eat.  They could recognize tracks of animals that he could not.  They had a sense of direction that colonialists completely lacked without a compass.

Similarly, children of ten might be able to teach their grandparents how to work an i-pad.  But if the cyber-world should crash, or electrical output was out for months, would that ten-year-old be the person you turn to to put food on the table or build a fire to replace the stove?

I strongly suspect that what this study is showing is not that generations are getting dumber or smarter.  What is happening is that environments – physical, political, and technological – are changing so fast that intelligence tests can’t keep up.

And those environments are going to continue to change, in some cases going back to the older ways, in some cases emerging in ways humans have never seen before.

In which case, we are going to need listen to each other more and more.  We are going to need our differences simply to survive.

Image result for intelligence

June 20, 2018

What number are you calling?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

It’s not like our earlier years when we have some clear idea of the developmental process.  It’s even different from what I call “young old.”  Getting old-old is an experience most of us have to discover for ourselves.

At least I did.

Obviously, as we move into our 70’s and 80’s we have less energy.  But one thing I wasn’t prepared for was my mistakes.  I’m not suffering from dementia, but I do make mistakes that in the past I might have called simply stupid.

But it took me some time to discover this.  I just thought other people were being stupid.

And sometimes they still are.  I run into it most often in dealing with computer systems.  Software systems, especially, might have been devised by some brilliant minds in some university bedroom.  But as banks and companies know around the world, they sometimes crash.  Or are hacked.  Or the people using the system do not share the brilliance of the original inventors.

So when I have a problem with some institution, I begin by being very nice.  I’m not sure it’s my mistake, but if it isn’t, I get credit for being patient and understanding.  And if it was my fault, at least I haven’t added to my embarrassment as a result of my little temper tantrum.

So today when I called the dentist’s office to set up my annual appointment, I was grateful for this strategy.  Because when the reception told me that Dr. Roberts has never worked there, instead of assuring her she was wrong, I said that struck me as strange.   “Are you sure,” the receptionist asked “that you are calling the correct surgery?”  Whereupon I realized I’d phoned not my dentist’s office but our doctor’s office.
Image result for telephone directory

As I say, at least I hadn’t make a greater fool of myself.  We both even had a laugh together.



June 5, 2018

Back to the old way

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

Very shortly after I left the convent in my late 20’s and began to indulge in “grown-up drinking”, I  discovered that I am extremely sensitive to alcohol.  So sensitive, in fact, that I have been drunk only twice in my entire life.  The experience was so unpleasant that I learned very quickly to limit my intake.

But I never gave up alcohol completely and for more than a decade my husband and I routinely shared a glass or two of wine before our evening meal.  But then I began to experience joint pain, and after doing a little serious research, concluded that alcohol was the main contributing factor.  Consequently, I reduced my wine intake to 3 very small glasses of wine a week at most.  I missed the wine, but have always considered myself very lucky to know how to control the pain.

For the last couple of years I’ve been backtracking on this high-minded discipline, and have been indulging in a small glass of wine with dinner most evenings.  I’d read the research saying that half a glass of wine a day was actually good for you, and could add as much as five years to one’s life.   I thought perhaps I’d outgrown my allergic reactions to alcohol.

Well, I haven’t.

For the last three weeks I have given up any alcohol whatsoever.

Truly, I am amazed at what seems to be the result.  My joint pain, which I had assumed simply to be the result of aging, is greatly reduced.  My sleeping has improved, and best of all, my energy levels are close to where they were 10, maybe even 15, years ago.

I still don’t like giving up alcohol.  But the rewards for me are so immediate and broad, I have to admit I feel very very lucky.  I think it’s in my genes.  So I owe a big thank you to either my mother or father for that gift.

Image result for glass of wine


To Mom and Dad  –  Cheers!

May 22, 2018

Barring the unexpected

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:05 pm

I know life is unpredictable, but the older I get, the more my days seem to deviate from the rather staid plans I make for them.  More and more when I agree to do something, make an appointment, or even agree to a telephone call,  I find myself adding “barring the unexpected.”  Because the unexpected is almost becoming the norm!  It’s not that the unexpected is hugely traumatic.  It’s just surprisingly disruptive.   Sometimes it’s a blocked drain, a glitch in the wash machine, an inconvenient electrical fault.

Today, for instance, my plan was to take a walk around the village, stopping at our local store to pick up a pint of milk for the ice cream I was making this afternoon, mail a letter, and then plant-out some newly arrived strawberry plugs.

I got my wallet and was heading out, but thought on my way out I’d put the kitchen garbage into our outside trash bin for the pick-up tomorrow morning.  It was sort of a shock to open up the waste basket and discover it was crawling with what looked like hundreds of maggots.  I don’t put food into the kitchen basket, but clearly something edible got inside.

Image result for maggotsI obviously couldn’t risk cleaning the maggots out in the kitchen, so I dragged the basket into our back yard, away from the picnic and barbecue area,  hooked the outside hose up to the strongest nozzle spray we have and attacked.  They might be little squiggly things but I’ve learned that little doesn’t mean lacking in power and those maggots put up a determined fight.

Finally I declared a victory, dried down the basket, and eventually set out for the store — an hour and a half later.

I know as a member of a generation born in the first half of the 20th century, I am not at the cutting edge of texting.  But I have played with inventing a new text companion to lol (Lots of Laughs) and btw (By the Way).  Unfortunately, btu has already been assigned to represent British Thermal Units, so I suspect my moment of fame does not lie text invention.

Anyway, I’m now off to plant the strawberry plugs.  btu, of course.

May 14, 2018

In the end…

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:03 pm

“In the end, what gives life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close.”

Baroness Tessa Jowell

Image result for tessa jowell Independent


Two days ago, Tessa Jowell, a member of Parliament, died of brain cancer.

She had been an extremely active and accomplished member of Parliament, and was deeply respected – I think even loved – by members of all parties.  She was described as one of the kindest and hard-working MP’s by fellow Labour party members as well as those from the Tory and Liberal parties.

In January, she addressed Parliament for the last time, asking them to do more to improve treatment for cancer patients.  Britain’s National Health Service lags behind most developed countries in treating cancer, and although it was too late for her, she spent her last months still working for others.  She brought the Parliament to tears with her address and received a standing ovation.

Since her death, I have been reflecting on how unusual her approach to her own death seems to me.  When I was 18, my own mother, suffering from cancer, was given 8 weeks to live.  She spent that time preparing her husband and her ten children between the ages of 7 and 19 for life after her death.  She talked to us openly about dying, and I am sure she agreed with my father to his remarriage which was announced within weeks after she died.

None of us, including my mother, could possibly have appreciated the strength of the legacy she was leaving us with her courageous and honest facing of the painful reality of her death at the age of 48.  But when my father died 19 years later, then my younger sister, and recently a younger brother died, they each built on that legacy, facing with courage and honesty the reality of death, and leaving their own legacies to the loved ones who survived them

I didn’t realize until I moved with my husband to England to care for his dying father how unusual this legacy was.  I remember my first insight was in the hospital emergency room when I said to the attending nurse that I did not think my father-in-law was dying.  The look of shock on her face showed her amazement that I would so much as use the term “dying.”  During the year in which we cared for him, I learned more than once that death was not something one spoke about out loud, no matter how imminent it was.

And so Tessa Jowell’s speech to Parliament impressed me as both courageous and culturally quite exceptional.

And now I find myself wondering about other cultures.  Obviously it isn’t something I can explore on Google.  I’m not aware, in fact, of any research comparing cultural attitudes like this.  But the reality of death is not fake news for any of us.  How do different communities face it?  And what are the different ways in which we support each other?


May 11, 2018

Silence might be called for

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:06 pm


Blogging has changed a lot since I started more than ten years ago.  In those early days, I thought I was anonymous and that nobody who knew me personally would ever stumble on my ramblings.

But within a year,  not only was I recognized by an ex-Maryknoller, but I had begun to develop true “cyber friends” whom I have never met in the flesh but with whom I feel a real bond.  In the process, I came to understand how young people especially could actually think they had met the love of their life, even if the only exchanges they have ever had was in cyberspace.  I don’t mean I’ve fallen in love with any one online, but I do feel a personal relationship with more than one reader.

As social media have ballooned, however, and as people have shared what I would consider incredibly personal experiences and information with the cyber world, I have developed, instead, a great consideration for protecting my privacy, and even more, the privacy of my family and friends.  I don’t have the right to share the details of others’ lives that they share with me as a sister, brother, spouse, or friend.

In the last eighteen months, several members of my family and also close friends have faced the challenges of dying, and I have been privileged to share in these experiences with them.

That is the main reason why I have written so few posts of late.   In that context,  have thought about other blogs I have followed but which have slowed down or even stopped.  I don’t know the specific reasons, but I understand now, and respect the unannounced withdrawals.  Life proceeds in unexpected ways.

Still, I have missed blogging and the interactions that come with it.  In many ways, blogging is a bit like teaching was for me.  I’m sure I learned at least as much as my students in the process.

I hope I have a few more posts left to write.   Thank you for being here.


March 26, 2018

A Happy Easter story

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 12:11 pm

In 1990, 54% more children under the age of five in Bangladesh died compared to the world average.  Diarrhoea is the biggest killer.

Today 16% fewer under-five Bangladeshi children die than the world average.  That is a huge difference.   How did it happen?

The surprising answer is that the solutions need not always be hugely expensive, and are not totally dependent on government-sponsored mega-structural changes that provide clean, chlorinated water, and sewage systems with pipes to treatment plants.  Yes, such changes are certainly desirable.  Various bacteria causing diarrhoea, including cholera and dysentery, typically are a result of contaminated food and water, or contact with the feces of an infected person, which is most often a result of defecating in the open.  India’s strategy of building more latrines seems like an utterly sensible, even necessary, first step.

But a comparison between Bangladesh and India suggests that even this seemingly-essential solution requires other changes that are simple and inexpensive.

Image result for pit latrine images

Like India, Bangladesh has also built latrines, often small-pit latrines with separate tubewells for water, both near people’s houses.  But Bangladesh has done a great deal more to stigmatize open defecation.  They have subsidized latrines for the poor and then prod the better off to do the same for themselves.  It’s working better than a strategy that encourages the poor to emulate the better off.

Critically Bangladesh has also shown that simple basic hygiene is absolutely essential.  Flush toilets and access to chlorinated water cannot take the place of teaching mothers to wash their hands before preparing food and to reheat it if necessary, two simple practices that can wipe out most bugs causing deadly diarrhoea.

Were you told as often as I was when I was growing up to wash my hands after using the toilet?    It might have felt rather like being bossed around by a fussy mother figure.  But it very well might have been a life-saver.

As the Economist puts it:  “The training is cheap.  The benefits, in disease avoided and lives saved, are enormous.”




March 14, 2018

Discussing the universe with God

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:33 pm

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

Stephen Hawking

The scientist Stephen Hawking, who lived and worked here in Cambridge, died yesterday at the age of 76.  Given that he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his early 20’s and given 1-2 years to live, it is amazing.  I didn’t know until I was reading his obituary that he had an absolutely wicked sense of humor.  And I also just realized that one of his best known books is titled: From the Big Bang to Black Holes: A Brief History of Time.  I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to title my own book The Big Bang to Now:  A Time Line, if I’d realized who I was imitating.  I was having my hair cut today, and my hairdresser said she imagines Hawking will be quite a handful for God when he reaches the gates of heaven.  He will no doubt be explaining to God just how he created the universe.

I also learned that, like Einstein, Hawking wasn’t a very good student.  And he turns out to be one of the greatest geniuses of the century.  I wonder how many other students there are who did not become famous, but who turned out to do great things – even if they did not become famous.

If, like me, you don’t altogether grasp Hawking’s physics and theories about black holes, do go to Google’s list of Hawking’s jokes:  The list includes more than 37000 you-tubes.  He might have lost his voice and had to communicate with the help of a computer voice (with an American accent yet), but he certainly lost neither his intelligence nor his sense of humor with age.

I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.

Stephen Hawkins


March 6, 2018

Who is the bell tolling for?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:39 pm

Image result for tolling bellIf you were given the same grammatical  schooling I was around the age of ten, you might be cringing at a sentence like “Who is the bell tolling for?”  To be classically correct, I should be saying “For whom is the bell tolling?”, not mixing up the correct use of the words who and whom, and adding to the mess by ending the sentence with a preposition.

I’ve just finished reading a column in The Economist by a writer going under the name of “Johnson” who says that whom  is quietly going out of use, so much so that it is quite acceptable to use who instead of whom in almost every situation.  He believes whom’s existence is even threatened in the most formal use of language, such as in courtrooms and prayers.

Reading the article helped me realize what I love – and respect – about English as a language. It’s not rigid.  Its right answers are relative, not absolute.    It is respectful of  changing perspectives and situations.  It’s far better than French, for instance, in developing new words to fit new concepts or ideas.  The French far more often are reduced to hi-jacking the English words.  English also has adapted to the millions of immigrants who have changed English by the very fact that they are learning and using it from so many different language perspectives.  Ethnologists say that this flexibility of English is one of the reasons why it is spoken so widely, even in countries where it was not brought in by colonialists.  English doesn’t aim to be perfect.  It aims to listen.  It aims to communicate.

When I grow up, I hope I can speak that kind of English.

February 28, 2018

Waiting for the weather

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:55 pm

Bad weather is expected to hit the Island this week

Isle of Wight County Press

Weather forecasters have been warning all of us in the UK that we are facing one of the worst storms to hit the country in more than 25 years.  Tomorrow is scheduled to be the coldest day on record in London, where tens of thousands of people are struggling to get home with cancelled trains due either to the snow or freezing temperatures that disable the track signals and so make trains too dangerous to run.  Scotland is in lockdown, and blizzards are on their way bringing vicious winds and snow.

Very shortly after we started to live together in New York, Peter suggested that we buy a camping stove.  For heavens sakes why, I asked.  We have a perfectly good stove.  Because, he said, a back-up is often the difference between an emergency and inconvenience.

I learned that lesson early, and I can’t count the number of times I have been grateful in the last 45 years for one kind of back-up or other.  Sometimes it was spare cash, sometimes food in the refrigerator, sometimes a blanket in the back of the car.

So when the forecasts predicted this coming storm, we went to the grocery store and stocked up.  We checked our camping stove, lanterns, flashlights, radio batteries, butane heater, i-pad batteries, and cell (mobile) phones.  We even got an extra bottle of gin and supply of tonic.  We are now waiting for the weather, all braced for inconvenience of being snow-bound without electricity or central heating as we hunker down in our warm house.

The irony might be that we are in a small cul-de-sac just south of Cambridge and north-west enough of London to miss the worst of the storms blasting in from Siberia, and northern Europe.

I’ll be a little disappointed if it doesn’t hit us, to tell you the truth.  I was looking forward to being a stalwart survivor.

February 18, 2018

Not me too

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:00 pm

A friend has just told me about an alternative feminist response to the #Me Too approach of the thousands of women who are describing sexual abuse which they have experienced.  She called this alternative Not Me Too.

I am astonished by the depth of my response to this alternative.  Yes, yes, yes!  Not Me Too doesn’t mean “I haven’t been abused.”  Nor does it mean that I’m not joining those who have been wretchedly abused, whether they are women, children, or even men.

Rather Not Me Too is a response that says “I will not be a Victim”.  I will fight, I will not hang my head in shame or fear of not being believed or of not getting whatever the abuser has to offer in exchange for my sexual acquiescence.  Not Me Too includes both males and females, young and old, celebrity or unknown, abused or not.  It is an approach that enables all of us to fight against abuse, and to give support and encouragement to whose abused who speak out against their treatment.

I said in a recent post, I have no doubt that sexual abuse is real, and I do not condone it.  But as I have said for years, this is not always a black-and-white question of pleasure-seeking men who have little respect for the opposite sex.  I lived through a period in my own life in which I was culturally naive and sent out signals to men that were misinterpreted.  I think sometimes I might as well have walked topless down Broadway in New York City in terms of the signals I was unwittingly sending.  And of course, there are not only cultural signals of which we are unaware, but children must learn the cultural norms in which they are growing up, and taking advantage of their innocence is, at best, the work of a damaged individual.

But what concerns me immensely about today’s #Me Too movement is that it suggests that the only response on the part of women who have been abused is that of victim, and men are always the perpetrators.  That is not so.  We don’t have to be victims.  We can fight back.  There are women who have said they will not advance their careers on their backs – that giving up one’s freedom in this regard is a ransom too high to pay for any amount of money or celebrity or professional success.  It may come with a high price to scream, to  kick, to lose one’s job, but there are those who will not be quiet if this kind of abuse is happening to them or to anybody they know.

Are there times when I would understand – and would support – a woman who uses sex to make money?  Yes.  I understand a mother with no other options who would use sex to get enough food for her children.  Or perhaps during war, to save a life of someone being unjustly threatened with death- a Jew perhaps.

That’s not what Not Me Too means.  It is not in favour of keeping females safe by hiding them away, by making it clear that they are never first in command, by limiting their education or even by refusing to let us, under appropriate circumstances, make our sexuality, and sexual preferences and desires clear.

It is about making women equal.  That does not mean wiping out our individual differences, whether they are based on biology or personal preferences.  Rather it is a commitment to listening, to reaching consensus rather than imposing sheer power, whether that power lies in physical, political, or economic strength.

I have just read the obituary of a woman who exemplified the Not Me Too philosophy, and I am in deep admiration and regard.  The Economist describes Asma Jahangir as “Pakistan’s loudest voice for democracy and human rights.”   (   She was an independent teenager, complaining at her convent school about the undemocratic selection of the head girl.  Later, as a mother even with a law degree she was forbidden to work.  So she set up the first all-women law firm, defending the helpless, such as girls raped and facing flogging, a young Christian boy facing the death penalty for scrawling on the wall of the village mosque.

It is worth going to Google Search and searching for Asma Jahangir.  She is a model I would offer to anyone.

February 13, 2018

“You can’t afford to leave”

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:18 pm

                                           Image result for british flag emoji          Image result for eu flag emoji

Trump’s dumps are sending most of my family and friends in the U.S. into a frenzied survival mode.  Here in Britain Brexit and Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) is just as momentus.

As an American, I don’t have a vote on the issue, but I absolutely have an opinion.

My husband and I were originally of the view that Britain should remain in the EU, where it could continue to benefit from the trade benefits and work from within to reduce the Democratic Deficit – the term used to describe the authority imposed, without democratic authorization, by the bureaucracy in Brussels.  We also disagreed with those British who – like many Americans who voted for Trump – believed that immigrants were taking their jobs away.  As I watch the withdrawal negotiations, however, I am amazed at the complete turnaround of my views about withdrawal.  Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, as said explicitly that he is determined “to punish” (these are his exact words) Britain for its withdrawal.  His aim is to damage Britain’s economy so profoundly that no other dissatisfied country currently in the EU will consider withdrawal.  He is determined to make it clear to everyone that Britain can’t afford to leave.

Well, I don’t think he understands Britain.  Does Barnier not reflect on the fact that Britain fought two world wars against Germany and their allies in Europe?  Does he not remember that Germany bombed the UK relentlessly on the view that enough bombs would make the British surrender?  Did he not notice who won both those wars?

Don’t tell the British they can’t afford to leave.  There are more important things than money.  Yes, of  course there is real poverty.  Not being able to afford sufficient food, clean water, medical help when it’s needed, adequate shelter, and education are all markers of real poverty.  But that is not the kind of poverty Barnier can impose.  Countries including the US and Australia and diplomats from a good many others, are eager to implement trade deals with the Britain when it withdraws from the EU.  But just as important, there are important things in life that money can’t buy – self-determination and creativity, a government responsive to the people it serves, love and respect are not worth giving up for money.

Britain can’t afford to leave the EU?  Oh yeah?  I’m beginning to think – and certainly hope – that the EU is in for a big surprise.

February 1, 2018

Learning from the elephant

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:35 pm

A friend just sent me this u-tube with the short message: “inspiring  when so often these days, i want to give up…..”


Isn’t it amazing what a difference not giving up can make, even when we feel helpless?

Whether it’s our environmental destruction, our tribalism, or all the other things that clog our headlines these days, I never expected to take a lead from an elephant!

January 1, 2018

Happy — err, just give me the money

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:07 pm

Today is New Year’s Day.  At least in the part of the world where I live.

But I have just read a diary entry belonging to Alan Bennett, the British playwright.  He is describing last Halloween when he was in his holiday cottage in Yorkshire.  The doorbell rang, and he was ready for the beggars.

When he opened the door, he was greeted by a young boy wearing some kind of wig on his head and a scowl on his face.  After a short, fairly unsociable exchange, the lad put out his hand, and said “just give me some money.”  So Bennett dug into his pocket and produced 50 pence (and 75 cents in American money), and the young-un broke out with a huge smile.  As they turned to leave, the adult accompanying the boy, turned to Bennett and said “he’s masquerading as Donald Trump.”

Image result for cartoon of donald trump's hair

I don’t have a Happy New Year’s story to match this.

So can I wish you a happy — err, Halloween?

December 25, 2017

Season of Returning Light

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:17 pm

We here in the globe’s northern hemisphere have been celebrating the return of the God of Light for tens of thousands of years, beginning with tribes now often bunched together as “pagans.”  Actually, we know a great deal about pagan beliefs, partly as a result of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire after Constantinople accepted the Christian God into the Roman retinue.  Christian authorities then realized that pagan temples were often in dominating positions and with powerful rituals.    Rather than destroying them, Christianity adapted them.

Even in tn the fairly small village where we live just outside of Cambridge (England, that is), our towering church is built on the site of a pagan temple.  Photo:St Andrew's Church, September 2012

I don’t know much about the ancient celebrations and rituals greeting the winter solstice occurring in June in countries south of the equator.  It is only as  I write this that the chauvenism of my knowledge is becoming apparent to me.  But that is research for another day.

Today, I want to send holiday wishes to all the readers of this blog.  I hope that, whatever you call it and however you celebrate it, it is a merry day and a happy 2018.

Thank you for being here.


November 26, 2017

Stir-up Sunday

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:16 pm

Until yesterday I might have said that today was the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Or if I were a millenial, I would probably be more apt to say it’s the Sunday after Black Friday.  Or if I were really reaching back into history, that it’s the last Sunday before Advent, which is the beginning of the 4 weeks before Christmas.  Advent was a kind of mini-Lent during my childhood during which we made various resolutions, usually around abstaining from sweets or some such.

But what I’ve just learned from my English husband is that today is Stir-up Sunday.

Stir-up Sunday is always the last Sunday before Advent and was widely celebrated during Victorian times.  Its name is based on the prayer said on this day in Anglican churches which calls upon the Lord to  “Stir-up, we beseech thee, oh Lord,  the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Image result for christmas pudding

Then families went home for the really important ritual of the day.  That was to stir-up all the ingredients for the Christmas pudding.

Each member of the family took a turn to stir-up the ingredients, meanwhile making a wish.

The pudding was then put aside for Christmas except for the regular dollops of brandy which were added.

For spiritual reasons, of course.

These days, most people don’t make their own Christmas puddings, but buy them from the market.

Great loss, I would think.

For spiritual reasons, of course.


November 25, 2017

An original Thanksgiving gift

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:37 pm

Image result for cyber space

These days my friends and family are spread around the globe.  So our Thanksgiving thanks typically take the form of family phone calls held metaphorically around the turkey and pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving in our house this year, however, was quite different.  And unexpected.  For almost four days we were without internet access, and without telephone connection for three.

That’s when I learned quite specifically what Jack Ma, the founder and head of the Chinese on-line supplier comparable to Amazon, meant when he called for the importance of incorporating love into cyber world companies.  What he means by love isn’t sexy or even homey.  It is just as often service-oriented, an offer of a helping hand, or a friendly suggestion, easily from complete strangers.

On Tuesday our internet connection went down.  After checking that it was not a problem of a loose connection on our part, I phoned our internet provider, who eventually confirmed that the workmen had made an erroneous connection on the circuit board down the block.  They promised the fault would be corrected “within 1 to 5 days.”  This sounded ominous, so I phoned my sister in Chicago to tell her to contact me by phone if there was a family emergency, and to promise to join the family phone-in on Thursday.

But then I began to get phone calls for someone named “Morley.”  I began to suspect that, along with our internet connections, there was a problem with crossed telephone wires as well.  On the 4th call, I advised the caller that he had probably not dialed the wrong number.  On further exploration, we discovered we live in the same village, less than ten minutes walk apart.

Two hours later, our phone landline also went dead.  We were living in a world of communication not known in the Western world since the first decade of the 20th century.  I was worried for several nights that if there was a medical emergency or possibly a fire or burglar.  We do have cell phones but because of the church tower, we cannot receive a signal without going outside onto the street.  In the middle of the night in freezing temperatures this was not a comforting thought.

On Friday morning our neighbour whom I had just “met,” as a result of his attempted call to Morley knocked on our door.  He introduced himself and told me that the telephone and internet engineers were currently working on the circuit board, and that I might want to go up the road to make sure they were addressing our problem.  I did and by Friday afternoon we were back in the “real world” of 21st century cyber space.

I have since received an inquiry from our internet provider asking if I would give them feedback on my satisfaction with George, the person who had taken my original call telling them our internet connection had broken down.  I said I would be happy to do so.  George was a good listener as I explained the problem and my fruitless efforts to solve the problem myself.  I asked him on this call if a further problem developed I could contact him.  No, he said;  he was located close to a thousand miles away in Bavaria and so many different people manned the phones that it would be impossible to reach him.  In other words, he was limited in what help, or even support, he could give.

That was not George’s fault.  It is a result of the emphasis on the part of the company on organization and efficiency.  But it does not take into account the needs of their individual customers.

I read a book review recently by a woman working for one of the big cyber-net companies saying that, although they claim to be unprejudiced in terms of gender, the great majority of their employees are men, and the philosophies of the companies are very male-oriented.

I know now what she means.  George was not able to offer me further support in the event I needed it – which I did.  It was not his fault.  His limitations were built into the structure of the company’s organization arising from its emphasis on problem-solving for the company, not for the individual they are meant to serve.

But let me not carry this too far.  The real personal support I received was from our neighbour.  And he’s a man.


November 20, 2017

Independence Day

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:31 pm

Related image

A friend of mine just told me about her niece.  She walked into the room and announced to her parents sitting there:

“You’re not in charge of me anymore.”

“Oh”, said her parents, “who is in charge now?”

“I am,” she said.  “I’m in charge of myself.”

She is three years old.

Teaching our children to be responsible for the consequences of their own actions is one of the great challenges of parenting.  But this kind of statement of independence usually comes in the teenage years, often accompanied by an unwillingness to listen at that point to any  parental advice.

But can you imagine rearing a child who makes this announcement at the age of THREE?

Good for her!  I wish her the very best of a very productive and satisfying life.  Not necessarily easy.  But fulfilling.

(Oh, and I do hope she learns at an equally-surprising young age that if she’s in charge, she is responsible for the consequences of her decisions — even when they aren’t what she was planning on.)


November 15, 2017

Test of ingenuity

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:31 pm

The following exam results were sent to me by a friend who found them posted on the internet by a supposedly unknown teacher.  Whoever he or she may be, the person I would like to meet is that supposed student.

THE STUDENT WHO OBTAINED 0% ON AN EXAM (No laughing allowed)

 I wanted to give him 100%! but I was told that it wouldn’t be politically correct.  Each answer is absolutely grammatically correct, and funny too.

 Q1.. In which battle did Napoleon die?

>>>>> *His last battle

Q2.. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?

>>>>> *At the bottom of the page

Q3.. River Ravi flows in which state?

>>>>> *Liquid

Q4.. What is the main reason for divorce?

>>>>> *Marriage

Q5.. What is the main reason for failure?

>>>>> *Exams

Q6.. What can you never eat for breakfast?

>>>>> *Lunch & dinner

Q7.. What looks like half an apple?

>>>>> *The other half

Q8.. If you throw a red stone into the blue sea, what will it become?

>>>>> *Wet

Q9.. How can a man go eight days without sleeping?

>>>>> *No problem, he sleeps at night.

Q10. How can you lift an elephant with one hand?

>>>>> *You will never find an elephant that has one hand.

Q11. If you had three apples and four oranges in one hand and four apples and three oranges in other hand, what would you have?

>>>>> *Very large hands

Q12. If it took eight men ten hours to build a wall, how long would it take four men to build it?

>>>>> *No time at all, the wall is already built.

Q13. How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?

>>>>> *Any way you want, concrete floors are very hard to crack.

I sent this to one of my brothers who has an enviable memory of historical facts, who pointed out that Napoleon died in his bed.  He suggested the question should be about Nelsen, not Napoleon.  Possibly to distract from my own ignorance, I told him that I thought both he and the teacher missed the point.  The brilliance of the answers isn’t in their grammatical or historical accuracy.  It’s the ability to quite legitimately see every single question from a different perspective.

Kant would be proud.

Me, I’m just still laughing.

Hope you enjoy.

November 13, 2017

Still the greatest of these –

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:20 pm

I was accompanying someone to the outpatients department of our local hospital here in Cambridge last week.  In terms of the professional competence of the medical staff, it is probably among the best in the world.  But in terms of convenience, it emphatically is not.  The parking for the disabled is so limited that the only realistic option for the disabled patient is to be dropped off at the accident and emergency entrance where wheel chairs are available, before the driver parks the car in the parking lot before returning to wheel the patient to the outpatients building.  This takes up to 20 minutes on a good day.  Inside the halls are crowded and many patients are disoriented.

But in the midst of this jungle something else is flowering besides confusion.  We were offered help by staff, by other patients, and by those accompanying other patients.  Someone helped me unlock the wheel chair, someone else offered to give up his seat, someone else walked the length of the hall to escort us to the x-ray department, hidden around several bends and a corner.  I lost count of the number of people who simply smiled or stepped out-of-the-way.  When I compare it to the disregard that typically takes place in our local supermarket, it really was quite amazing.

When I got home, I thought again about the fact that in this world of global and almost instant communication, we as individuals often feel so inconsequential, so small, so unable to make a meaningful difference.  And social media doesn’t help, encouraging so many of us, as it does, to search for celebrity or mass influence.

But there is no substitute for what the individual can do.  That act of consideration, or kindness, that simple smile, the touch on the arm can only be given by another person.  No system, however efficient, can make up for personal indifference.  Fame or celebrity doesn’t reach out in kindness and love.  Systems might get things done.  But they don’t give us that most essential thing of all – love.

I do not generally find myself depressed by the news.  Worried, yes!  But also often engaged in analyzing the economy, politics, climate change, immigration, war.  I think this is important to a functioning democracy.

But increasingly I think how important it is not to let the global picture crowd out the close-up, the person, often the stranger, with me in the immediate here and now.  This moment is all I ever have within which to give and receive.

Image result for the greatest of these is love

November 2, 2017

Me too’ism gone viral

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:08 pm

Image result for sex pestsIn several of my Life as a Nun posts on this blog, I have described my experiences as an attractive, intelligent, and above all incredibly naive 27-year old emerging from convent life to the “real world” of hippie New York City.  I am remembering what I learned during those days as I try to understand the “Me too’ism” unleashed by the galley of allegations of sexual abuse against Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein.  It is hitting the headlines here in England, displacing terrorism, Brexit, and many other international events of global significance.  Already a highly placed political figure in Parliament and cabinet has been displaced, and accusations of many others are rampant, some potentially serious, many unsubstantiated.

Before going further,  I want to make it clear that I consider sexual abuse to be a profound violation of human rights, often deeply and permanently damaging, and also, unfortunately, widespread throughout many different cultures around the world.  I give my total support to the view that we should do everything we can to stop it.

But I am convinced that the problem is not nearly as black-and-white as some people seem to think.  Many of the accusations surfacing seem to be serious.  Others are appallingly trivial.  The senior politician who was displaced was accused of putting his hand on a young woman’s knee thirty years ago.  Nothing more.  Even the journalist who made the accusation has been explicit that it was nothing more.

I have my own Me too-ism stories.  After leaving the convent I had to learn that I was sending out signals of apparent acquiescence that I meant to be understood merely as acts of kindness and friendship.  Following on that, I had no idea how to say “no.”  Consequently, I ended up on my back when, in truth, I had no wish whatsoever for a sexual encounter.  But as I look back, I think that most often the man involved in our encounter was as naive as I was, but in a different way.

I had been socialized as a girl to do what I could to support men whom I was taught to believe placed me as a female on a virginal pedestal.   Men were socialized that they had responsibilities to care for the women in their family by taking a leadership position.  As these assumptions began to break down in the 1960’s, members of both sexes were unaware that females might send messages differently than males’.  As premarital and extra-marital sex became acceptable, men often assumed that an hour of sexual pleasure was as rewarding for women as it was for them.  It didn’t matter if they were priests, university professors, workers, fellow students, or friends with whom one participated in civil rights or anti-war demonstrations.  In my experience, for men sexual intercourse typically did not involve a commitment any more serious than enjoying a good meal together.

But I didn’t think that.  I didn’t expect an offer of marriage, but I did expect an ongoing relationship.  I did not expect to become a one-night stand.  Or less.  I gradually became angry, and bitter, and mistrusting of men when I discovered more than once that that is exactly what I was.  One of the best things that has ever happened to me was that I met a man whom I found sexually attractive, intelligent, educated, and who did not think of me as a one-night stand.  He saved me from becoming locked into permanent hostility against men.  We have been living together for close to half a century now.

In the context of this relationship with my husband, I learned how to become more discriminating.  And I learned how to say no without making too much of a fuss to men who come on inappropriately.  I know that as a university professor I was respected, I was influential, and my colleagues understood that I was, as one described it,  “very married.”

Image result for sex pestsI see now that sexual abuse and misunderstandings are often a two-way street.  Learning to send and also to read signals from members of the opposite sex is not simple.  A pat on the knee, an arm around the shoulder, a particular facial expression may or may not be a come-on.  How close people are physically, whether sitting or standing, is particularly cultural.  Both men and women may deliberately or unconsciously, send signals through the clothes we wear, the way we walk, our behavior when we are in a bar or disco.  And the meaning of those signals often changes in the context within which they occur.

Image result for sex pestsYes! some behaviors in any culture, whether by men or women, are serious and abusive and should be condemned.  Outright rape, use of over-powering physical or financial control, by either men or women, threat to one’s career prospects if one does not acquiesce to sexual demands, all are examples of down right, unforgivable abuse in my book.  But every apparently sexual innuendo experienced by a woman is not, in my strong opinion, an  example of serious sexual abuse.

And it is not always obviously uniquely a male problem.

October 25, 2017

Happiness formula

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 2:19 pm
Gal Winner, owner and manager of the Winner's auction house in Jerusalem, displays two notes written by Albert Einstein, in 1922, on hotel stationary from the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (22 October 2017)

Yesterday, a one-sentence prescription for happiness written by Einstein on the letterhead of a hotel where he was staying in Japan in 1922 while giving a series of lectures was auctioned for over $1.5 million.  Einstein wrote it for a courier who delivered the notification that Einstein had just been awarded the Nobel Prize.  He gave the note to the courier in lieu of a tip because he didn’t have any money at the moment and said “it might be worth something someday.”

The advice was:  “A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

My favourite Einstein quote, though, is “If at first the idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it.”

Unfortunately, on the other hand,  I suspect most absurd ideas – including my own – are simply absurd.  It takes a genius to turn them into a theory of relativity or a string theory.  Or a mere gravitational wave!

October 14, 2017

Uncertainty is scary

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:26 pm

In his comment of one of the blogs I read regularly, the author says:

“I do not believe there is a One True and Only Infallible anything – and I’m including all organized, semi-organized and disorganized religions, voodoo cults, talk show hosts, diet plans and scientific theories. (I’m hoping I’m wrong about diet plans, but evidence hasn’t been encouraging so far).”

I was amazed.  Not because I don’t agree because I do.  But because it seems to me to be a view held by so few people.   I know many people who have given up religious belief, and others who simply dismiss scientific findings like evolution or climate change because they do not mesh with their values.  But religious believers whom I know don’t usually appreciate that “faith”, by definition, means that it is beyond proof.  And scientific followers often think that facts are proven by evidence beyond dispute.  But a study of the short history of science demonstrates that absolute “facts” supported at one time by science are no longer considered valid.  Newton, for instance, thought that the entire universe ran like a huge totally determined mechanical clock, and that theoretically, at least, it is possible to know not only what has happened in the past but what is already determined to happen in the future.  As little as a century and half ago, eminent scientists thought planet earth was less than 4,000 years old.  They now think it is closer to 6 billion years old.

I used to think that people didn’t understand this reality of our inescapable human uncertainty because they were not intelligent or educated enough.  I don’t think that anymore.  Of course what ideas any of us have are in part dependent on the opportunities our culture might expose us to.  But as I look at both myself and others, I think the ability to live in what I call mystery, but which might simply be called uncertainty, is determined more by one’s psychology.

Living in mystery or ultimate uncertainty doesn’t mean one doesn’t live by principle or values.  But it does mean that I need to understand that I might be wrong.  Especially I might be wrong in the way I am applying my values.  An inability to tolerate dissent or disagreement is often a dead give away that I haven’t achieved that understanding.  Even something that at first seems as simple as Love is subject to huge diversity in our beliefs in what it means.  Should we beat the devil out of our children when they tell a lie or steal something, for instance?  Or explain why telling the truth and respecting other people’s property is important?  Is it immoral to save the life of the mother if it means losing the life of the unborn baby?  What about war?  Is there such a thing as a just war?   And of course there is the consolation offered by many religious faiths that death is not the end of life, but instead teaches that we each will continue to live “in the next world,” and that our separation from loved ones is only temporary.

Actually, this might sound like a fairly academic discussion.  But it’s not.  If I’m sure I am right, I am more willing to force others to behave by what I believe are my unassailable moral positions.   Throughout the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church felt justified in burning heretics to death,  for centuries all western Christian persuasions justified slavery and racism as the will of God.  Christians have engaged in centuries of warfare with other Christians with whom they disagreed, and today ISIS and other radical groups believe they have a God-given right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

The world is convulsed with discrimination.  Perhaps it has always been, but with population growth, globalization, increasingly destructive weaponry, and climate change, these attitudes of intolerance are becoming increasingly dangerous to the very survival of our species.  In some ways, I think our biggest danger lies in our inability so often to live in the uncertainty and mystery intrinsic to the limitations of human consciousness.



October 7, 2017

The Intelligence of Love

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I read a post a couple of days ago that I can’t stop thinking about.  It’s about Jack Ma, the founder of the hugely successful Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba.

So what? I thoughtat first.  He’s another Bill Gates who founded Microsoft, or Steve Jobs of Apple Computer fortune, or Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  Or, or, or…  It’s not really a short list.

But Jack Ma grew up in China, not in a privileged family, but as a poor boy.  He failed university entrance exams twice, and despite dozens of attempts, could not get a job.  Now he’s worth 29 billion dollars, and people are listening to him.  What he’s saying might not be all that surprising if he were a religious leader or even a university professor.  But coming from a very rich man who is talking, not about how to make it to heaven, but how to build a successful business in this age of high tech and computerization, it’s extraordinary.

Last month he addressed the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City attended by heads of state and global business leaders discussing the challenges of economic growth.

So what did this poor boy who’d failed university entrance exams recommend?

Something he calls “LQ,” the Quotient of Love.  Not mathematical genius, not even emotional intelligence.  But love.  Love, he argued, should be a leading influence in decisions about hiring, promotions, customer needs, and he gave a lot of concrete examples, if you are interested.  Ma argues that only humans, not robots or other techniques using advanced artificial intelligence, can love.  Only we can add that human touch that makes all the difference.  Any of us who have been stuck at the other end of an automated telephone answering system with its mechanical directions to “press 1 if …” and so on, or has been on the other end of a phone call from some distant country trying to sell something, would agree.  Sometimes a spontaneous laugh from the real live person on the other end of the communication makes all the difference.

Ma recommends LQ be taught in schools along with mathematical and verbal skills.    Sounds like a good idea, but that doesn’t sound like the full solution to me. How can LQ be taught?    I doubt it can be done using traditional methods of testing and teaching.  I do think people sometimes learn life-changing skills from their teachers, but I strongly suspect it can be taught only by those who show it in vivo to the student.

Where did Jack Ma himself learn how to apply the Quotient of Love?  I doubt it was in school.   Did he learn it in his family?  did he have a mother or father who were examples of the LQ?  does he have brothers or sisters, neighbours, or other relatives from whom he got examples?  This was China, so I doubt it was from an overtly religious source.  Nor does that surprise me.  My own experience is that love is not necessarily in evidence in many religious strongholds.

If I were not already retired, I would be tempted to carry out some research to try to identify some of the variables that increase LQ, whether in business, family, or communities.  Maybe Jack Ma would even be willing to fund it!

September 21, 2017

A vocation of love

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:30 pm
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When I entered the convent of Maryknoll nuns in 1958, about 70 of us spent our first three years in training at the Motherhouse in Ossining, New York.  Another 25 or so were trained for that time in Valley Park, Missouri.  The two groups met each other for the first time when most of us were assigned to the Motherhouse after taking our first temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The two groups were very different.  We from the Motherhouse group mostly felt that the Valley Parkers were too rigid, too rule oriented.  We, on the other hand, were more rebellious, many of us having immersed ourselves in the encyclicals and theological writings surrounding Vatican II.

It was during this time that I met  Jean Pruitt by the name of Sister Raymond Claire.  In those days, nuns were expected to leave their families and all our past behind us.  The Maryknoll Sisters have since changed this mandate, on the grounds that we were not dedicating our lives to cutting out loved ones but rather to broaden our love to all humanity.  With the change in rules, many Maryknollers, including Jean, returned to their family names.

Jean was a Valley Parker and although we got along well enough, we never became close friends.  I always assumed that she believed that holiness required doing what our superiors told us to do without dissent.  She was, I thought, someone who honoured obedience above all else.

Sister Jean with the children of Dogodogo

Jean, was finally sent to the missions in Tanzania, Africa, in 1968 and I pretty much lost touch with her activities until about ten years ago.  By that time, not only the Roman Catholic Church, but even more so, the Maryknoll Sisters had changed dramatically.  I learned that Jean was supporting not only herself as an artist but had legally adopted four African boys and was caring for many more as, for years she fought to defend children’s rights.  Today, at least two of those adoptees have earned college degrees and made Jean a grandmother.

I have been deeply saddened to learn that Jean died suddenly and unexpectedly last week.  It is a small consolation that she will not be forced to return to the Motherhouse in New York for retirement.  She had made Tanzania and its people her home, and felt more like a foreigner in the States.  Her funeral is being celebrated by the African bishop of Bukoba, Tanzania, with whom Jean had become good friends.  She will be missed by many.

Since my day, the Maryknoll sisters have changed substantially.  But in some ways, I think Jean was more tolerated by the institution than encouraged.  For me, Jean became my ideal of a Maryknoller.  What mattered was not slavishly obeying the rules.  What she did was to see orphaned children in need of care, and she gave it to them.  She didn’t ask if this was what other Maryknoll Sisters were doing.  She saw what she could do, and used all her love and creativity and ingenuity and energy to do it.


September 14, 2017

Our Dorothy Day Exceptionalism

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:15 pm

In the last two posts I described growing up on 70-acre piece of land that my parents converted from barren hills surrounded by swamps into complex farm fields, and a vibrant lake.  I said it sounds idyllic, and in many ways it was.  The gifts I received from my parents in the first eighteen years of my life are the foundation of a sense of fulfillment and happiness that I know is very great.

But life on the farm was a mixed blessing.

The very gifts with which our family grew up created, I think, a kind of exceptionalism in each of us.  We were the place where our classmates came to swim and ice skate and picnic.  We were a preeminent family in our parish.  Once a week, the Maryknoll brothers studying in the novitiate in Akron came to swim, work on the farm, picnic, or sled down the snowy-laden hills with us.  My father was a leading lawyer in the city, and his best friend, Father Basil, who was a professor of history at a university in Cleveland, spent every Saturday afternoon and shared evening dinner with us, where we inevitably listened to high-level discussions of current ethical, philosophical, or theological questions.  At school, if any of us of whatever age said “Father Basil says…”, the nuns inevitably acquiesced.  We always had the upper hand on that one.

These experiences and so many like them gave us a sense of confidence and identity.  But it also gave us a false sense that we were right.  Like our big house on the hill, we stood above others.  Yes, we had responsibilities and obligations, which profoundly shaped the decisions we made about our lives and futures.

But we weren’t always as right as we thought we were.  And our Right Answer assumptions often led us to presenting our views with an unappealing self-righteous arrogance.  And interestingly, a lack of creativity.  We had the right answers.  We didn’t have to search for solutions.

It also left us with somewhat limited social skills.  We didn’t really know how even our school friends lived.  They spent more time in our house than we did in theirs.  Even today, many of us agree that we find it extremely difficult to make small talk.  Yes, we can enter into in-depth discussions about the meaning of life, death, the existence of God, abortion, the poor, racism, and politics.  But we are a deadly serious lot.  Most of us have had to learn from our life’s partners that very few people are quite as eager to endure our endless debates as we are.

Life on the farm also left us, especially the girls, unusually naive.  That wasn’t only a result of the protective isolation of living on the farm (which perhaps by now I should begin calling an “estate,” rather than a farm).  It was in part due to the times and the Catholic religious culture we lived in.   We learned to be supportive and to some extent even subservient to men, but we did not learn how and when we had the right to say No.  Consequently, as adolescents and young adults we got ourselves into sexual encounters that we misread.  We felt betrayed and angry at unspoken promises we felt had been made, and which, from a more mature perspective, obviously had not been offered.

Unfortunately, our idyllic life on the farm came to a crashing end with the death of my mother of cancer at the age of 48.  Eight months earlier I had entered the convent, and my mother, who knew she had only weeks to live, made it clear to me that I had a calling from God, and that I was not to come back home to care for my eight younger brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was 7.   My mother also, I am sure, agreed with my father that he would marry the women we all called “Aunt Mary.”  She had been married to my mother’s brother who had also been my father’s law partner until his death 5 years earlier.  She and my father married four months after my mother’s death.

That’s when everything changed.  My father directed that everyone still living at home should address her as “mother,” but she was not a mother they recognized or felt loved by.  We always refer to the time after my mother died as “The Second Regime.”

As children we were never told we were growing up on a Dorothy Day farm.  After Dad died and we discovered their correspondence, it had little value to us and the letters were destroyed.  Because neither the joys of the first Regime with Mom, or the pain and the anguish of the Second Regime are due principally to the fact that we were living on a farm.  They are due far more to the love and generosity, to the limits and tragedies, of those individuals living there.

As Communism has demonstrated most recently, utopia does not exist independently in the system.  Right now,  we see today in countries throughout the world, including the United States and Britain, no system in itself operates independently of the people who are living within it.  As Thomas Jefferson said, freedom is something we must work constantly to protect.  The same is true of love.   The system can’t do it for us.





September 4, 2017

My Dorothy Day childhood

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

To explain why, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to live in New York, I think I need to begin with my mother.

Like my Dad, Mom was a second generation immigrant.  Her family emigrated from Warsaw, Poland,  she was bi-lingual, had three older brothers, earned a BA, and was very attractive.  Unlike Dad, she accepted Roman Catholic beliefs  with unquestioning peace.  Also unlike Dad, she did not possess the incisive analytical intelligence which made him such a successful lawyer, and which is by and large still thought of as an indicator of a high IQ.  That is how I grew up believing that girls could never be as smart as boys, and why, until my older brother demolished my plan, I planned to be a man when I grew up.

Today cognitive psychologists understand that intelligence is much more complex than the verbal, spatial, and mathematical skills measured in traditional IQ tests.  Howard Gardener of Harvard University identifies 9 independent kinds of intelligence  including interpersonal intelligence, or empathy, which is the ability to  understand the feelings and motives of others, even when it is different from what one is experiencing oneself.

In retrospect,  I think my mother was on the genius level in terms of interpersonal intelligence.  But as a child, I just thought it was what one would expect of a mother.  I didn’t realize it was smarts, that it was an immensely valuable contribution to holding the family together.  She moved with Dad to the farm because she was a loving, committed wife.  But Dad wasn’t a farmer.  He was a lawyer and didn’t live his dream on the farm seven days a week.  He went off to the city five and a half days, and really worked the farm on Sunday afternoons as a recreational escape.  Mom, though, lived on the farm seven days a week.    She never complained, but she was very sociable and liked having people around.   She was lonely on the farm.  We did have a telephone, but obviously no internet or TV.  We didn’t even have a radio in the first years.  Although she always made people welcome, we lived on that house on the hill.  She was not, in that sense, a part of a village, or a community.

I didn’t want to be like my mother.  I thought she belonged in second place.  When I was told I looked like her, I was insulted.  I wanted to look like my Dad.  But as I look back now, I realize I shared her loneliness.  I had four brothers by the time I was six, but no sisters.  And when I finally got a sister, I remember being appalled that she was just a baby!  She wasn’t going to be any good as a playmate.  I couldn’t wait to start school, and when I did,  I loved it.  I got good grades and the only C I ever remember getting in my life was for penmanship, of which I was very proud, because I thought Dad’s writing was almost illegible too.

I would like to believe now that I also inherited some of my mother’s social intelligence.  Coming from my father’s side of the family, however, we have a streak of Asperger’s syndrome – the exact opposite of social intelligence – and I do not know how empathetic I might be.  I do know that I am a city person, that I find even village life too isolating.

In any case, I know now that it was not just my father, but equally my mother, who made my childhood so enriching.  She was a wonderful, loving teacher.  She was not competitive with us.  She did not, for instance, need to demonstrate that she was a better seamstress or cook or card player with us.  She enjoyed her children, she was proud of us, and encouraged us to be our unique selves.

I think I inherited my particular capacity for loneliness from her.

And that is why, by the time I was six, I’d made up my mind that I was going to move to New York.

That’s my personal story.  I also think, though, that our idyllic life on the farm had some long-term limitations for all of us.  We paid a price for living in that idyll.  About which, more on my next post.

Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

Picture by Eric Upton;;  Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

August 31, 2017

My life on the farm

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

The land my parents bought was, to put it mildly, undeveloped.  There were three hills, surrounded with acres of low-lying swamp land.  But they were the foundation of my father’s Dorothy Day dream.  On top of the biggest hill he built the main family house.  He called bulldozers in to build a dam, and transformed the biggest stretch of swamp into a five-acre lake which was ultimately stocked with the blue gill and bass fish which provided us with our Friday suppers.  Another elevated spot by what became the lake provided housing for Dad’s parents – our grandmother and grandfather – and for his brother and sister.  Another swamp was converted into a celery farm by his brother when he returned battered and bruised from his war-time military service.

Another house eventually became the home of the Black man, Phil, and his common-law White wife, Ethel.  Phil had also served in the military during the war, but racism was still so blatant that he could not get a job with any construction crew.  Despite the fact that he risked his reputation as a lawyer, Dad hired him, telling us that no Christian can be a racist.  Phil was essential to the running of the farm, and, although I’m sure he never knew it, is the reason none of us are prejudiced.

The Big House on the Hill, early 1950’s

By the early 1950’s, the house had several additional wings added to the original square box to accommodate the growing family.  Fields had been turned into pasture land for the cows which provided milk and eventually meat for our daily sustenance.   The calves’ liver that marked our Saturday evening dinners stand out in my mind, as the multiple chicken dinners stand out in the memory of one of my brothers.  Apple and pear trees populated what became an orchard, and Quonset huts, no longer wanted by the military after the war, were converted into chicken huts, cover for the pigs, barns for storing hay, stables for milking the cows, and a beach house by the lake that became our summer playground for swimming, our winter playground for skating and sledding down the hill and over the ice.  We played hide-and-seek in the summer wheat fields, and joined in the harvesting picnics in August.

By then we had become The Big House on the Hill.

It looks enviable, doesn’t it?  And yet by the time I was six years old, I decided I wanted to live in New York, and by the time I was seven, I had devised a plan.

Yes, it was beautiful.  In all seasons.  I remember with deep gratitude the richness that has lasted a lifetime that my childhood there gave me.  We were very fortunate.  But it wasn’t utopia. I hope to explain in my next post why I didn’t – and still don’t – share Dorothy Day’s Dream.

August 15, 2017

My Dad

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

Recently a friend said she would be interested in hearing more about my parents.  I realized she was right, and that I’d written a lot about my Family and Growing Up, but not very much about my parents’ own childhoods.  So I am writing a few posts now about them.

My Dad was a second generation immigrant from Bavaria, Germany on his father’s side.  In Bavaria, my grandfather had been chosen by his family to be a priest and sent to a seminary with all the constraints and opportunities that life offered.  My grandfather didn’t like the option and applied to study “as a seminarian” in the United States.  The seminary in Germany agreed and sent him for further study to America.  Upon reaching America, however, he went to a town in Wisconsin where many of his fellow-countrymen had already immigrated and were making a living either as farmers or as practicing lawyers.

He never began his studies as a seminarian.  He was a gifted musician and began to make a living playing the organ in churches, movies houses, and other recreational areas.  He met my grandmother and when they were married began a life that was frequently on the move, not infrequently flitting town at night leaving their debts behind.

My father was their oldest child, and he quickly developed a sense of responsibility for his parents and his younger brother and sister.  By the age of eleven, he was selling newspapers on the street to bring home enough money to feed the family that night.  He attended a Catholic high school where he developed a close friendship with the man who was later to become “Father Basil,” who visited our home and ate supper with us every Saturday for more than 20 years until my own mother’s death.

After high school my father attended John Carrol University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, and then earned a scholarship to study law at Harvard University.  He supplemented his scholarship by playing the guitar, which he later gave to me, and which I left behind when I left the convent at the age of 27.  He also finished Harvard’s 4-year degree in 3 years, graduating with honors.

Dad then returned to Akron, Ohio where his family was living and began his law practice in the 1930’s.  Despite the Great Depression, he somehow managed to pay to put his younger sister through college.  He married my mother in 1937, their first child was born in 1939, and I followed a year later.

In 1941, in the middle of World War II, my parents bought 70 acres of land from Ohio State.  It had never been owned by immigrants before, included a huge swamp, and not much else.  Inspired by Dorothy Day who was convinced that farm life was the most wholesome life style children could possible be given, my father and mother set up the home where I grew up.

More about our Dorothy Day farm in my next post.

August 9, 2017

Retirement surprises

Filed under: Stuff of Life: Current Exploits — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

“I need to go back to work so I will have more free time!”

The quote above is from a friend.  I told her I’m stealing it for myself — it describes my experience of getting old to a T.  How did I ever hold down a full-time job, keep the house clean, walk the dogs everyday, cook, pay the bills, and watch television all in the same day!?  We even had a garden which I occasionally weeded, I tiled a bathroom, stained the deck,  visited family, and went on vacations.

My guess is that you don’t qualify as elderly yet if you don’t know what we’re talking about.

August 4, 2017

Test of my faith

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:15 pm

As the regular readers of this blog know, I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, and spent 9 years in an order of nuns which I believed was rather like becoming a life-time Peace Corps worker for the poor and disadvantaged.  But I was never sent to work among the poor and finally left the convent.

A t the same time I came to understand the bible as the Hebrews understood most of its stories – as metaphors and parables, rather than as literal truths.  And I came to accept the Hebrew translation of “faith” as “faithfulness,” rather than adherence to a strict set of doctrinal beliefs.  Eventually, what remained for me was a belief beyond either proof or disproof that existence is good.  That however mysterious it may seem, to be is its own meaning, and that consequently to respect, to love, to care for the world and for the living organisms within it is my greatest fulfillment.

For the first time in years that conviction was shaken when I read two articles  earlier this week by scientists giving us no more than a 5% chance of ultimately avoiding irreversible climate change so drastic that the human species, and potentially all of life on this planet, could be destroyed.

I’ve been aware of the extreme dangers of the climate change we humans are producing and I have taken it seriously.

Image result for the universe

But the potential of our losing this battle and of our becoming one of the millions of extinct species that have inhabited earth filled me not only with sadness, but with something closer to despair.  Are those who believe that life has no meaning right after all?

I haven’t reached that conclusion.  I continue to live by the conviction that it is we who must help create the meaning of existence, of life, of our individual lives.  And “Love” is still for me the best summary of the way I believe we can best live in this Mystery of Life.

But it hasn’t been since my adolescence that I appreciated that “faith” in this sense is no simple achievement.

July 23, 2017

I always thought I was an optimist…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:59 pm

When I was about 12 years old, I remember telling my father, as he predicted the imminent death of my mother’s brother and his law partner, that he was an impossible pessimist.

He looked at me thoughtfully, and finally replied “No, Terry, I’m a realist.”

And so in this case, he was right.  My uncle was dead within months.

Today, more than 5 decades down the line, I am thinking about the virtues of the realist who has the courage to recognize that coming events may not be those we are hoping for.  Not merely disappointment, but disaster, death, betrayal, anguish, pain, loss.  All these things happen, and however fortunate any us may be in our lifetime, none of us will escape them completely.

The news today almost inevitably contain items that can fill me with anger and despair.  We are threatening and killing each other with weapons of mass destruction and calling it heroism (at least if it’s our side that’s doing the killing;  if it’s the other side, it’s terrorism and evil).  We are destroying the eco-system, the air, water, and other living organisms on which our very survival depends and saying we don’t believe it.  We create a system in which individuals can become seriously rich on the backs of those who can barely make a living, and call it “the Great American way.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could just dismiss the implications of these news stories as unrealistic pessimism, to be dismissed with an optimistic smile and a loving assurance that everything will turn out for the best.  But seriously, I can’t.

And I find myself looking to those in the past who have faced close-up the realities of war, of sickness, of starvation, or terror, and ask which of those responses do I want to emulate?



First of all, I want to be a realist.  I want to face the fact that some of my fears are not only reasonable but might actually occur.

I don’t want to run away, but I don’t want to simply give up either.  I can’t solve all the world’s problems — I can’t even solve all my own problems.  But I can do something besides pretend it isn’t happening.  Right now in my life they are very small, unheroic mostly everyday things I can do.  It means trying to help when I can.  It means turning off the news sometimes when it’s using up more energy than I can spare or is riling up feelings of irritation and anger in my heart that get in the way of doing those small things that I can do.  It means getting enough sleep.  It means using whatever skills I have to take care of myself so that I can also take care of others.  Perhaps someday it will simply mean letting others help me.

Yes, I’m an optimist,  And that has often given me the energy to accomplish things I might not have tried if all I’d seen was the dark side.

I won’t live long enough to know how some of our biggest struggles will end.  But these days I strive for the courage to be a realist, and to face that reality with hope rather than depression and despair.



July 18, 2017

Why don’t I change my mind?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:24 pm

I have often wondered – sometimes in this blog – why people are sometimes adamantly convinced they are right, even in the face of little corroborating evidence, or sometimes no evidence at all.  Politics and religion seem to be the two areas where feelings run deepest, and where it seems to me rational thought is least in evidence.  But even when we make outright mistakes with obvious consequences, sometimes dire economic consequences, whether they are personal or across the entire society, we often refuse to admit that we have made a mistake.

It has recently occurred to me that the place to start to get at least a little insight into this question is with myself.  I have values and convictions which I can hardly claim are as scientifically or rationally justified as even Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Last month I stumbled on a developing framework within which to examine this problem.  Roland Benabou of Princeton University and Jean Tirole of the Toulouse School of Economics suggest some interesting hypotheses:

  • Some beliefs help us make good decisions.  If I think I’m a good teacher, engineer, salesman, or almost anything else, that belief tends to give me confidence, and I’m apt to work harder at accomplishing it than if I believe I’m unskilled in that area.  Similarly, sometimes religious beliefs help build the kind of self-discipline that can increase productivity and healthier life styles.  I remember as a child giving up candy during the six weeks of Lent before Easter.  I didn’t do it to learn will power, but that is certainly one of the things it helped me accomplish.  I’m sure that is true of many other religious practices.
  • But there are other times when we engage in what Benabou calls “strategic ignorance,” avoiding, ignoring or even denying evidence that does not support our views.  Paradoxically, mass communications makes this easier.  We can choose which news we want to listen to, and rarely listen to people we know we disagree with.  I rarely listen to Fox News, for instance, or read tabloid papers.  In the worst cases, I suppose I dismiss what I disagree with most fervently as “fake news.”  (Though if you’ve read this blog at all, you can probably guess that is not the term I would use.)
  • Other times we engage in “self-signalling.”  Better-educated people are particularly good at this.  We look at a narrow set of experiences or scientific research, or even just rationalize our beliefs, and convince ourselves that this “proves” we are right.  I have a dear friend who has convinced himself he has a genetic make-up which enables him to smoke without fear of it causing lung cancer.  I don’t smoke or abuse alcohol, but I do perhaps argue that chocolate “in small doses” is good for you.  Right.  But how much is “small,” my dear?
  • Finally, there is the influence of “groupthink.”  To the extent that my sense of self-worth, or perhaps the success of my career, or even my very survival, depends on belonging to a particular group, then the influence of the group will be far more tenacious than under other circumstances.  It’s hard, it’s scary, even dangerous, to be a whistle-blower.  It can often be hard to stand up and admit that one has changed one’s mind and face accusations that one can’t stand by one’s convictions, especially if the price, as it so often is, that the group itself will turn against you.  When I was a nun, we were not permitted to have any contact whatsoever with nuns who had left.   That order has now dramatically reversed this stance, which I deeply admire.  But churches, political parties, university faculties, social groups of every kind, often block out people who disagree or who are merely different. The world itself today is convulsed with violence based on these kind of disagreements.

If we are going to survive as a species, we need to learn to listen to points of view other than our own, and understand, even though we might not agree, why they are convincing for others.

And we need to learn to say about our own opinions sometimes “I was wrong.”

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I think that might include me.  Hmmm.   ME!??





June 29, 2017

Questions if not answers

My post ten days ago “I missed something big” has generated a number of online comments and even more to me personally.  It’s stimulated my thinking enough to provide another post.  So for what it’s worth —

I think I will stop using the word “socialism.”  Its meaning is too varied, stretching from various forms of Communism to simply a concern for the poor, in whatever way the problem may be addressed.

Nonetheless, the economic question being discussed does seem to revolve around how problems of injustice, unfairness, and gross inequality should be addressed.  There are those like Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes who offered different solutions, but both believed that the essential solution lay with government policy.  Marx, of course, developed Communist theory.  Keynes, on the other hand, believed that in times of depression, governments should shoulder significant debt in order to create jobs and thus stimulate the economy.

This theory was given a credence by the fact that military spending during the Second World War ended the depression in the United States and after the war, set in motion decades of growth and programs such as social security to provide pensions for the retired who no longer could earn a living by working.

But excessive government spending, unfortunately, does not always create better fortune for the many.

  • Corruption is a frequent crippling drain as is clear today in governments in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.
  • But corruption is not the only problem.  Governments can’t always sustain the debt they incur, and once again, people are plunged into life-threatening poverty.  The dramatic drop in the price of oil has been extremely destructive for governments which have been dependent on oil.  Venezuela today is an outstanding, if not sole, example.
  • Finally, there is the call, made by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party in the UK today, to tax the rich to increase the minimum wage, and relieve poverty by providing government subsidies for university tuition, child care, parental leave, and more social care for the elderly and disabled.  Unfortunately, as the world becomes increasingly globalized, this taxing the rich policy must be applied very carefully.  When it was tried in Britain in the 1970’s, it led to a “brain drain” out of the country, and the economy faltered so badly that it needed help from the IMF.

The alternative to government spending which is particularly popular in the United States under the Republicans is to lower, rather than raise, taxes for the rich.  The theory is that it is the rich who generate jobs through the companies they manage, the people they hire to meet personal needs, in other words, through the money they make and spend.  And in some cases this seems to be true.

But like increased government spending, this approach does not always work in practice exactly the way it does in theory.

  • For one thing, the rich save a much larger proportion of their money than do the less well off.  In other words, much of their money does not generate jobs — except possibly for bankers.   It is not necessarily the rich who have “made America great.”   Many of the most productive companies in the US employing tens of thousands of Americans today were founded by immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but a willingness to work and a creative energy.
  • Thomas Piketty, who has had the chance to analyze several centuries of data, shows that capitalism is not intrinsically a system which rewards hard work and talent.  It frequently develops in such a way as to build in greater rewards for those who already are better off and to reduce the welfare of those who aren’t.  The effects of this reality have been substantial in the United States where the difference between the top 10% of the population and the workers has increased dramatically in the last 3 decades, gutting the middle classes and increasing serious levels of poverty.

The differences between these two approaches, as we have seen, is infused with a strong sense of  Right and Wrong, and so often becomes not only heatedly political, but theological.

I do not pretend to have the answers.  I do know I ask more often than most people I dialogue with how politicians propose to solve the problems of injustice they argue against, and I sometimes find those solutions – from whichever direction they come – untenable.  Just because the Republicans or Tories or etc might be wrong doesn’t make the Democrats, or Labour or anyone else right.

I have reached the conclusion in economics and government, just as in parenting, or in any other field,  it is important to remember that just because our intentions are good, that the consequences of our choices might be vastly different.  And so I am convinced that, important as any particular governmental policy might be, no system is going to be the total solution.  Our lives need to be imbued with both love and creativity to make any system work.

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Oh yes:  and the ability to recognize that we might just be wrong.

But that’s the topic of my next post.




June 22, 2017

Would you work if you didn’t have to?

Trump’s appeal to his core supporters is often based on his promise to bring jobs back to America from countries where workers are paid less.  But more and more jobs are becoming extinct as factories and even many aspects of the service industry are being taken over by robotic technology.  Those jobs aren’t coming back from China or Mexico or anyplace else.  They are disappearing.

In the list of these developments which are scheduled to increase perhaps exponentially, economists are wondering how people are going to earn a living if there aren’t enough jobs.  One fascinating idea is for the state to give every adult a basic unearned income which will not provide any luxuries, but will provide enough income to cover basic shelter and food.  The idea is highly controversial.

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Where, for instance, would the state get the income to pay these basic costs if nobody is working or paying income tax?

The proponents of the theory think that people will work even if they don’t have to:

      They will work because they want to do or to buy the things that money can buy.

      They will also work because many people find work intrinsically rewarding.  Yes, they would expect to be paid, but, this argument goes, many people don’t work just for the money.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, builders, security workers and police, artists, musicians, researchers, cooks, caretakers, to name just a few, do work which they find rewarding in its own right.  They are happy to spend their lives getting up in the morning and spending their days working.   I certainly did.  I loved working.

     Others would use the basic income to support themselves while they start their own business, start-ups they may not have the confidence to try if they risk starving themselves and their family should the business fail.

The counter-argument questions if people really would go through the processes of education in order to engage in a lifetime of work for which they are paid, and which gives them many more opportunities like travel or the ability to buy things which are not strictly required for survival?  Because, in addition to having to learn their special skills, their earned incomes would be taxed, in part to support people who don’t want to work at all.

Now this theory is going to be tested in real life.

Finland is beginning a two-year trial among a randomly selected group of unemployed who, instead of receiving unemployment income, will get an unconditional monthly income.  They can also earn unlimited additional income without reducing the basic pay.

If you find this as fascinating as I do, there is a fuller description online.

They say international interest is intense.

Mine sure is.

June 19, 2017

I missed something big

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

When I was a Maryknoll nun hoping to work with the underpriviledged in a developing country, my hopes and plans could be summed up in a single motto:

It is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish.

I have had the same values ever since, whether I was thinking about religion, politics or the economy.  Consequently, I have tended to favour government policies aimed at creating jobs rather than primarily charitable hand-outs.  It’s an attitude of many Americans who came to this land for a chance to work hard, not for hand-outs.  The assumption was always that if one worked hard enough, one could improve one’s lot.  And for millions of Americans, that has been true for many years.  Even today, some of the most successful companies in America were founded by first or second generation immigrants.

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Personally, it is an attitude that suits my own psychology.  I am keenly aware of the often unearned help I have been given in my life.  But whenever I can I want to do things myself.

These values also permeated the way I taught at university.  When students produced an unsatisfactory assignment, my policy was to tell them how to do it better.  And then to give them a chance to do the assignment again.  That way, they had a chance not only to earn a better grade, but more importantly, they had help developing skills that would serve them for a life time.

I still hold these values.  But I think now I was missing something big developing in unrecognized steps for probably the last 30 years.   I did not see how, little by little, hard work was not being rewarded.  Rather the middle class was shrinking, as a small number moved into hugely financially rewarding jobs, but an increasing majority were paid for work that did not keep up with the increasing cost of living, or were made unemployable altogether.

I think this might be the key explanation for the far right support for politicians like Trump, and far left movements here in the UK and Europe.  I was never even tempted by the far right, and here in Britain the far left reminded me too much of the failed and corrupt Communists governments which have been overthrown in Eastern Europe.  Too often it seemed to me, everybody except corrupt government officials were punished for raising their heads above a level playing field.  Innovation was punished if it was too successful.  For the “working class,” it was criminal to be rich.

In the meantime, as a species we are experiencing increasing resentment of others and violence against people we consider to be “different.”  Rather than benefiting from our differences, we are trying to obliterate them.

I don’t have the answer to this increasing inequality.  I do read a lot of analyses by economists but I find I can analyze wrong answers much more easily than I can identify answers that will start righting this hugely destructive inequality which condemns too many people to their station in life, no matter how hard they work.  Taxing the rich too strongly risks re-creating the kind of brain drain out of the high-tax country that the Labour government created by its taxing policies in the 1970’s.  But the view favoured by the Republicans like Trump that it is the rich who create jobs has shown not to be accurate either.  And the risk of making people dependent on government for basics such as food and housing and child care condemns those people to the potential of life-long dependency on the state.

I still think it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But as I say,  I missed something big.

And I don’t really know the answers.



June 15, 2017

Tower tragedies

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

Image result for Glen Fell Tower

Watching the evolution of the Glenfell Tower in Kensington, London brought back the emotions I felt the day we watched the tragedy evolve on 9/11 after the bombings of the Twin Towers.

In both situations, people were trapped and the disaster was ongoing for hour after hour.  People jumped out windows, here in London children were thrown out windows in the hope they would survive.  In both cases, the firemen and other service personnel were heroic.

But there is one critical difference.  9/11 was caused by suicide pilots belonging to AlQaeda.  The London fire two days ago was the result of human actions, almost certainly reflecting disregard for the inhabitants of Glenville Tower.

Kensington, London, is one of the richest areas in one of the richest cities in one of the most developed countries in the world.  But Glenfell Tower, like many similar apartment towers throughout the country, was built by the government to house the less well-off.  The inhabitants of Glenfell Tower were often elderly or disabled;  they were often immigrants and their children, seeking an alternative to the civil wars in the Middle East and Africa.

All of the evidence is suggesting that Glenfell Tower was a tragedy waiting to happen.  There were no fire alarms, no sprinkler systems, only a single staircase ascending from the first to the 24th floor. Possibly worst of all, it was refurbished several years ago at the cost of several million pounds.  Unfortunately, the refurbishment consisted of  exterior cladding that seems not to have been fire-resistant, and quite possibly was the cause of the fire’s rapid spread from the 4th floor where it began when a cheap refrigerator exploded to the top, 20 floors higher, in less than 30 minutes.  It was also the middle of the night.

Apartment dwellers had complained to the relevant government departments for years.  But it looks as if these people just weren’t important enough.

Politically I guess I would have to say I am a capitalist rather than a socialist.  It looks to me as if socialism too often leads to a resentment of achievements of others, and a dependence on governments by too many people for everything from cradle to grave.  It’s a system that too often does not value diversity, and actively discourages creativity and innovation.

But it is clear that in any system, there are some things that only government can do.  Our federal superstructures – highways, bridges, electricity, financial stability, immigration – are projects that can only be accomplished cooperatively.   I also believe in a safety net in relation to the basic necessities provided for by governments, which the U.S. Republicans today do not.

It is clear to me that capitalism can – and sometimes has -gone just as disastrously wrong as various forms of socialism have done in the last century.  Capitalism unhindered too often gives honor and privilege and status to those with money.

I fear that is what has happened in relation to Glenfell Towers.  Governments – both Tory and Labour – have disregarded calls for basic safely mechanisms in the very buildings they have subsidized for the poor.  Even today, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, finally visited the site of the Glenfell fires.  She met with the firemen and police.  But she did not meet with a single victim, not a single person who lost everything but the clothes on their backs, which, since the fire occurred at night was often little more than night clothes.  People have been incredibly generous, providing donations of food, clothing, money, even sometimes opening spare rooms in their homes.  Theresa May said she was deeply saddened by the tragedy and promised an investigation to learn whatever lessons we could.

But that’s a promise that’s been made when fires like this broke out 3, 5, even 10 years ago.  One earlier tower block fire even pointed directly to the inferior cladding, which looks like the prime suspect in this fire.

Why was this allowed to happen?

I did not want to see Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party win the last election.  And they didn’t.

But I am beginning to think that it might be better if today’s fragile Tory government falls and there is another election sooner rather than later.   Despite profound reservations, I’m beginning to think it would be better if Labour won.

And I rather think I might be part of an increasing majority.


June 12, 2017

Better stop complaining

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Yesterday my sister and her partner were out for a local walk and ran into a woman using a walker who stumbled.  They didn’t reach her until she had righted herself, but then asked if she was all right.

“Well,” she replied, “I can talk, I can eat, I can sleep, I can walk, I can love.  And I am loved.  I think I’m all right.”

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June 3, 2017

My new housekeeper

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

Image result for spider in a web

I’ve taken to watching a spider in its web on my bathroom ceiling.  Usually I try to get them back outside, or vacuum them up with an apology about their having landed on a foreign planet.  But Trump’s climate change denials have made me increasingly aware of just what a special, unique place Earth is, and I’m observing even the most ordinary things with fascination and even awe.

Besides, a new study estimates that spiders consume up to 800 tons of insects every year.  We humans consume a mere half that total in meat and fish.

So I thought perhaps I would not, as is my custom, try to move the spider outside, or vacuum it up.  This time of year, a whole feast of insects make their way through the sky light into the bathroom.  I’m welcoming the spider as my housekeeper.

As long as it stays out of the bed anyway.

May 23, 2017

Is “Evil Loser” a useful diagnosis?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:13 pm

We woke up this morning to the news of the bombing at the concert in Manchester last night.  A suicide bomber seems to have slipped into the hall just as the concert ended, killing himself along with at least 20 people including children.  Donald Trump, in sending his condolences, described the bomber as an “Evil Loser.”

This description does not impress me as a very helpful diagnosis.   It doesn’t tell us anything about the bomber, or carry any practical implications about how we might prevent other potential murder-suicides like this.   If past incidents are anything to go by, ISIS is right in their claim today that this is an act they have inspired.

If so, then this bomber, like jihadists before, was engaged in a struggle to belong, to be important, to be a celebrity whose value would be rewarded even into eternity.  He was probably someone who felt alienated and unrecognized by the society in which he lived, and was engaged in the task of adolescence:  to develop an identity that is recognized and appreciated.  It is a need to belong – a need that, as a comment following my post yesterday points out, Hannah Arendt describes in The Origins of Totalitarianism.  The communists may have made use of this need, just as it was used to motivate the kamikaze pilots of Japan.  But also those who fought for what we call “the good side” in all the wars in which we have fought.

If the need to belong is the evolutionary foundation of religion, then the need to belong, the need to be loved, to be recognized, is an essential foundation of the ability to love and to care for others.  Perhaps as a species we are still in the state of adolescence, where too many of us are shouting to be noticed, to belong to something.

Perhaps the Manchester bomber was not an Evil Loser.  But someone screaming that he was important too.


May 22, 2017

We need a buzz

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:52 pm

I’ve just read what for me is a fascinating idea about us and about all of life.

The anthropologist Dr. Barbara King of the College of William and Mary in Virginia hypothesizes that our need to belong is even deeper than our need to survive.  She describes research among young primates who, given the choice between making use of a wire structure providing them with life-giving milk, and cuddling up to a warm furry “teddy bear”-type construction, will choose the latter, even to the point of starvation.

Image result for beehiveThis need to belong, she believes, is the evolutionary source of all religion.  It would explain why we sometimes cling to our religious identity in the face of overwhelmingly contradictory evidence.  We will die for this right to belong.   And as both history and contemporary events unfortunately demonstrate, we will not only die for it.  We will kill for it.  We are born with a need to belong, and to be deprived of this essential need leaves us devastated, disoriented, even destroyed.

Darwin’s theory seems to suggest that survival is our greatest need – that ultimately survival is our bottom line.  But if Dr. King is right, it’s not quite that simple.  It might be, rather, that those species whose individuals need to belong have a much greater chance of long-term survival than those species where individuals are determined to save their own genes and those of their offspring at the cost of all else.

Interesting that many of the great religions of the world have emphasized our oneness with the universe of life.  They did not flourish with an “Us versus Them” theology that today has come to characterize so much of both Christianity and Islam, and is ripping nations apart in identity crises around the world.

On a personal note, I see in my own family how important this struggle to belong became for my younger sibs after my mother died and my father remarried.  The younger ones have all struggled with a sense of belonging.  Even into adulthood, they have struggled with temper tantrums in a way none of us older ones did, and have had more struggles with their adult relationships.

Image result for beehiveThe Romans held up the honeybee as one of the most admirable of all living organisms.  They work as a group for the good of the whole, not simply for their own individual well-being whatever happens to every other bee.  Not only that, but the work of the bee actually adds values to the plants it pollinates and from which it extracts its own life-sustaining nutrients.

In her book, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive,  Dr. Marilyn Hamilton.    talks about our need to change the way we live, realizing that we are all in this together.  We need to value the multiple intelligences of our diverse species and protect eco-systems so that the whole of life can thrive. Hamilton is working with city planners to change the nature of life in our cities from one in which we so often take whatever we want, and throw our waste away in a destructive disregard that is actually killing the life-giving sources on which we ourselves actually depend.

We need to grow beyond our adolescence and realize that we are not a privileged superior species that can do whatever we want.  We need each other, and if we don’t realize that we all belong here, we will all perish.  And it is we, that species who thinks we are so superior, so smart, who will be responsible.





May 17, 2017

We’re all in this together

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:58 pm

Image result for we're all in this togetherI’m beginning to sound like a broken record to myself.  I keep reaching the conclusion that, for better or for worse, we’re all in this together.

Several hours ago, for instance we received a delivery of a package by two young men.  It was rather large and they offered to deliver it inside for me, rather than my having to drag it in after I’d signed for it.  I accepted their offer, and in the process thought I’d recognized the accent.

“Where are you from?”  I asked.  There was a pregnant hesitation before the older man said  “Poland.”

I understood immediately.  Many of the Brexiteers here in Britain, particularly the elderly, voted for Britain to leave the European Union because they claimed immigrants were taking jobs away from the native British and we couldn’t stop them because the EU is based on the free movement of people among all 27 EU countries.  Polish plumbers are for some reason inexplicable to me, pointed out as a particular source of ire.

“I thought I recognized your accent,” I replied.  “My mother was a second-generation immigrant from Poland.”

The atmosphere changed to smiles immediately.  “It’s a small world,” he responded.

They left, probably feeling lightened by a sense that, in this house at least, they were welcome to live and work here.

But one of the most interesting things for me was the sense of identification I felt with them.  I don’t know their names, why they came to Britain, whether they are supporting families in Poland, or anything else about them.  And yet, I felt a special sense of identification with them, a kind of warmth that one might feel about a family member one is meeting for the first and possibly last time.

As I closed the door, all I could think was how we are all in this together.  I meet two complete strangers for less than five minutes, and I can understand the age-old and universal drive to survive, to care for one’s family, to work hard for years for a better life.

But there was also something special about the fact that we shared a common heritage.  I would not have felt hostile had those delivery men been from Romania or Vietnam or Sudan.  I would have tried to make them feel welcome and respected.  But I wouldn’t have felt that special relationship I felt for a Polish immigrant.

What I’m thinking is that I may actually have something in common with the Brexiteers.  Or (God help me) with the Trump followers who want to make America great again.  Or even the Germans who were fighting for The Third Reich.  There is some special identification we experience with those with whom we share a heritage.


May 13, 2017

A decade of blogging

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

Image result for bloggingI’ve just realized that I began blogging here in March, 2007, more than ten years ago.  During that time, I’ve taken several breaks, one to write the second edition of my recent book “The Big Bang to Now,” and several others for family reasons, which has been the case for the last several months.  As before, I’m finding it difficult to get started again.  Every time I think “oh, I’ll blog about that today,” the idea suddenly seems utterly trivial or boring.

I’ve seen other personal blogs which I have enjoyed stutter or even come to a full and an apparently permanent stop, and I miss them.

And I miss the thought and interaction and even support that comes with blogging myself.

And so, barring the unexpected, unforeseen, and unplanned, I’m going to return to making an effort to post at least twice a week.  I’m not going to worry about being boring or irrelevant.  I have enough cyber-experience to know it’s a lot easier to escape from a boring blog than from a live conversation.

So, Dear Reader, I very much appreciate that you are there.  More than I can say.  But l will fully understand if you click yourself away.

May 3, 2017

Just another age-old story

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:29 pm

I began the day gardening.  Good start, feeling fit and energetic.  Until I pulled an abductor muscle in my leg carrying an 80 liter bag of compost.

So I decided to limp the few blocks to our local store.  Yesterday when I’d picked up about £7-worth of greeting cards and then bought stamps to send them to America, I’d walked out without paying for the cards at all.  By the time I realized what I’d done, the cards were ready for the post.   To my chagrin, as I was paying the errant bill today, I realized my credit card wasn’t in my wallet.

Limping back home and absorbed with trying to figure out where the card might be — hoping it wasn’t in the grip of a handy thief — I ran into a fellow villager and long-time friend who has just lost her husband.  I called her by somebody else’s name.

When I finally made it home, I went through my coat and jeans pockets looking for the lost card, in drawers, in the shopping bags I’d used, on the floor, in the car, even under the car.  I finally called the supermarket where we’d been shopping on Monday, and was relieved to learn that I’d left it in the credit card check-out machine.

Did I say I’m finding old-age interesting?

I think I might need another adjective.  Exasperating, perhaps?

April 12, 2017

Sizing up the situation

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

Image result for celebrity logo

If by any chance you grew up like me with the goal of becoming a member of the Great and the Good, you might recognize my current thoughts not as an admission of failure but as a worthwhile achievement.  Given my Catholic background, I was planning on becoming a saint, preferably one like Mother Teresa who was recognized before she died.  I will confess I also wanted to be physically attractive and smart but thought that wanting to be rich would demean my high moral standards.

What I’ve grown beyond is the desire for public recognition.  Celebrity, whether it’s packaged as friends on Facebook, canonization by Rome,  or ranking for the Big Prize in sports, politics, or entertainment aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

What has taken its place in my mind is an appreciation of the nature of human consciousness and so of our first and more important responsibility:  to care for those nearest to us.  For all of us around the world, the closer something is to us, the more emotional energy it stimulates.  And indeed, almost always, that is where the greater the possibility is that we might be able to respond in some meaningful way.  Like most people reading this post, I feel deep sympathy and care about the seven million people, several million of whom are children, who are on the edge of starvation caused by war and drought.

But you know, the child next door who is being abused by his parents can use up more of my time and energy and attempts to help than the entire Syrian, Yemen, and African crisis.  When I have to choose between those closest to me and those further way, I think my first responsibility is to those closest to me.  If I have to choose between my family and yours, I think my first — though not only — responsibility is my family.

Which is a very long convoluted way of trying to explain the conundrum I am currently facing when I sit at my computer to write a post.  There are the immensely complex and critically important things happening in the world. But there are also life-changing events going on in my immediate family.  A brother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, a sister walked into her bedroom two weeks ago and found her partner lying dead on the floor.  The double tragedy is that 40 years ago something similar happened with the death of her first husband.  I won’t write any further about these things because I do not want to invade their privacy by posting about their experiences here.

But being there with them is focusing my energy.  I’m not able to spend as much time staying abreast of current affairs, and am making do with reading headlines.  When I distract myself with trivia I feel shallow and self-absorbed.

But that’s a mistake.  Putting food on the table for my loved ones, keeping the house half-way clean, getting enough exercise and sleep to maintain my own energy and health, watching entertainment television or reading escapist novels might feel trivial.  But they are part of what I can do to support those nearest to me.  And to receive in turn the love which sustains me.

So from now on when I write a post, whether it’s silly or serious, I’m not going to feel guilty and self-absorbed.

Okay, I got that off my chest.  Thank you for listening.


April 9, 2017

Washing-up liquid

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

My husband and I were having lunch in our sunroom this afternoon when his fork dropped to the floor.  He picked it up immediately and reached for his paper napkin, which I thought made sense because both the fork and the floor were clean and dry.  But before wiping the fork, he dipped it into his glass of wine.

What are you doing!?! I asked in disbelief.  Cleaning the fork, he replied.  Germs, he explained, don’t survive in wine.

I’m not sure about the science behind this assurance, but I did find myself reflecting on the history of drinking alcohol instead of water.

Less than a century ago, a source of clean water was not available even in what today we consider our developed Western cities.  Streets in London and New York, for instance, were littered with the manure of horses used to pull carriages.  There was no garbage pick-up, and the rivers were badly polluted.  So what water was available coming into houses was also badly polluted.

This was true even during my husband’s childhood where he grew up in a coal-mining village in Yorkshire.  The only toilet facilities were a pit toilet outside, and a tub in the kitchen which was filled from water heated on the wood-burning stove and used by the women of the house when the men went to the pub.  His grandfather made use of the public baths once a week.

Water was inevitably disease-ridden – rather the way we see it is in Haiti today or in parts of the undeveloped world.  It was, indeed, healthier to drink alcohol than water.

Can’t say I long for the good old days.  But there are those who still swear by the health benefits of alcohol.

Image result for cheers


Cheers to the good old days!

March 29, 2017

The breath of life

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:20 pm

One of the best things about a good marriage, I suspect, is a couple’s differences.  My husband, Peter, and I are good at different things, and by definition close to helpless in others.  Discovering this, of course, does not come without cost.  It means learning to listen to another point of view that often feels like a direct contradiction of our own and taking it seriously.

Peter, for instance, is a born pessimist, I a born optimist.  Once I learned to take his pessimism seriously, I saw the benefit of preparing for possible undesirable outcomes.  I learned, as Peter put it, that the difference between an emergency and an inconvenience is often a back-up.  So we have savings I would not have thought useful.

Or when Peter would come up with a brilliant idea, followed with the inevitable statement it would be impossible for us ever to implement, the optimist in me began to see the possibilities.  So we figured out how to buy a house.

In the kitchen, we both cook, but very differently.  I am practical.  I can put a meal on the table in 30 minutes.  Peter, on the other hand, has taste buds far more sensitive to mine.  He denies this, but he is really a gourmet cook who has never used recipes as rules but merely as suggestions.  And often makes it up after looking to see what’s on the shelves or growing in the garden.  He inevitably announces the result is “a disaster,” but I cannot remember a single time in the last 44 years that it has been inedible.

Many of our skills are a reversal of those that are typically identified with males and females.  I am good at mathematics and have some mechanical skills, albeit untrained.  Peter, on the other hand, has a grasp of literature and social structures, and interestingly, some computer skills, that far outstrip mine.

So we have learned to ask each other for help.

Two days ago, Peter said the lawn mower would not start.  It looked either as if the start button on the mower wasn’t working or that the battery wasn’t recharging and had reached the end of its life.  We decided the best choice was to order a new battery, rather than a new mower.  The battery came yesterday, and after recharging it, he put it into the mower.  It still wouldn’t start.  So he called me, really just to confirm that we were going to have to buy a new mower after all.

I don’t mow the lawn, and I wasn’t familiar with the machine.  But I took out the battery, looked at it, and wondered if the problem was not with the battery after all but with the battery charger.  Before trying to decide if we could figure out if this was the problem, I noticed that a few very small scraps of grass cuttings had slipped into the battery cage.  “Oh,” I said, “I wonder if this is the problem.”  “No,” Peter assured me.  “We’ve had this mower for eight years and that’s never happened.”  “Okay,” I said, blowing at the offending bits of green and displacing them into my face.  “I’m sure you’re right and it won’t work, but let’s give it a try – there’s no-…”

I hadn’t finished stating my expectation of failure when Peter pushed on the starter lever.  The mower started.

“Ah!” said Peter, “you are the breath of life!”

Well, I must confess it was more like a stroke of luck than the breath of life.

But it’s true:  he couldn’t have done it without me.

Love and life are made up of a lot of little things, aren’t they?  even little bits of grass.

March 8, 2017

Escaping the revolving prison door

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Teaching — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

I have just read a review, Scholars Behind Bars, in the current New York Review of Books .  It is mainly about a program set up by Bard College 18 years ago  which provides a college education to inmates in several high-security penitentiaries in New York.

I remember my time on the faculty at Bard as among the best years of my life.  I had no idea, though, that President Leon Botstein had applied the principles that guided the college during my years there to prisons.  The statistics suggest that the value of this program are almost unbelievable.

Apparently, the enthusiasm of the inmates to earn admittance to the program is very great.  They will not be accepted until they pass a written test and oral interview demonstrating that they have the reading and writing skills they need.  Unlike some colleges, the program does not provide remedial courses for freshmen.  The perspective applicants have to do that for themselves.   It’s a rigorous program, and not for softies.

Nor does the enthusiasm diminish once students are taking courses.  They ask for feedback on essays they have written that may not even have been for a class assignment.  The discussions both with faculty and other students show that students are reading books beyond those assigned for a course, and may simply be in order to follow-up on philosophical questions they find intriguing.  Like “how do we know what is or isn’t fair?”   They are not put off by controversy or disagreement or even insults.

Most astonishing for me is the recidivism rate of graduates from Bard’s program compared to the average number of released prisoners who re-offend.  Nationally, the re-offend rate is 50%.  It is 2% for graduates from the Bard program.  It’s also notable that almost all of the Bard students have been convicted of violence crimes.  Many very serious violent crimes.  Not dealing dope or other so-called victimless crimes.  That’s why they are in a high-security prison.  Yet on their release, most of these students go into teaching, social work, youth work, counselling – the kind of jobs where quite possibly they uniquely may be most effective.

This doesn’t happen to me very often, but as I read the review I was flooded with a feeling of recognition and sheer gratitude that the kind of education I had known characterized Bard was still going on in the most surprising places. I wish I weren’t too old to join the faculty there.


March 5, 2017

Cracking up

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:57 pm

Several days ago, I’d finished a dental floss roll, and so I took an unopened container from the bathroom cupboard.  When I tried to pull the metal piece on the top of the container holding the floss in place I couldn’t get it off.  My finger nails are getting softer with age, so I got an unused knife to wedge it off, but that didn’t work either.  I even tried to split the case open by inserting the knife into the side where the two pieces of casing met but although I could get it to open slightly, it still wouldn’t open.

So I got two wood-carving knives I’d inherited from my father-in-law.  They were strong enough and thick enough to split the case apart.  The roll of dental floss fell onto the floor, but at least I’d managed to get access to it.

Image result for dental flossWhy, you might ask, am I writing about such an inane event?

The reason is so inane that you might suspect I’m making it up.  It’s even hard for me to imagine in retrospect how I managed to accomplish this great feat.

I did it because I was working on the bottom of the casing.  I’ve been using dental floss for decades.  I know the top just flips open.  But somehow I held the case upside-down to start out with and through all my shenanigans with knives didn’t think to turn it around.

I think it might not be the dental floss case that’s cracking up.

February 25, 2017

What has happened to my America?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 5:00 pm

Image result for taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut

The English

I read with horror and anguish that some mainstream, accredited news media were shut out of the White House press conference yesterday.

It is not that I have not been appalled by the Trump administration’s behavior in relation to immigration, to trade, to climate change, or Trump’s behavior toward those who disagree with him.  I have.

And it’s not that I think America has lived up to its ideals of equality and justice and democracy for all.  It emphatically hasn’t.

But I have never seen an attack on this level against freedom of speech.  It’s what dictators do – take over the press and media.

Nothing has frightened me so profoundly.

It’s not much, but I’ve just taken out a paid subscription to the New York Times, a paper which I always thought of as rather center of the road.  Hardly revolutionary.  And as British residents, we pay for our BBC license fee.  Way too truthful for Trump as well.  My appreciation for them also just went up a notch.  And of course there was no room at the news conference either for the Huffington Post or Politico or CNN.  All way way too revolutionary for the likes of Trump & Co.

February 22, 2017

Keeping the world at bay: my sanity strategy

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:17 pm

Image result for child on the internetParents are repeatedly advised these days to make sure their children are not becoming addicted to the internet, unable to tear themselves away to get healthy exercise and face-to-face conversation with real people.  Another problem is the “sound-bite” approach to learning, which limits children’s ability to learn to follow complex arguments through to the finish.  The temptation is to read the headlines and think you know the whole story.

I agree this is critically important for children.  But what I’m discovering for myself is that it’s critically important for us retirees whose computer skills make us subject to the same temptations as our grandchildren.

         The One

I’m not preparing lectures anymore, not grading student papers, not driving off to work, not writing academic articles, or examining research findings to determine how well they do or don’t stand up to their headline conclusions.  Nonetheless I find myself fascinated by the world, and the internet provides a store of information the like of which has never been available to us before.

But there’s so much to know, and so much that seems critically important, so much that it seems to me a responsible, educated person ought to be aware of.

And there’s the catch.

It simply is not possible for a single individual to examine every important issue in depth.

And so I have discovered that I’m capable of spending literally (and I do mean literally) hours a day running around reading a headline here, a two-line summary there, a forgotten promise to read something else in depth, a blog paragraph or two there.  As a result, I’m also not getting the regular exercise I need to maintain my energy levels.

But I’m not really getting better informed either.  I fear that in my own left-wing-ish kind of way, I’m joining the masses who make up their minds without examination and use headlines simply to confirm their own prejudices.  When I hear people say things like “I don’t believe in global warming” or “Nothing the Republicans say these days is reliable” I want to scream.  But I’m beginning to fear I have my own versions of unsubstantiated convictions that deserve more examination.

Since I don’t have the mental ability or time to be fully-informed about every issue I know is important – maybe even critical – I have been concentrating on finding another way.

Image result for "So I got it wrong"First of all, more than ever it’s necessary for me to remember that I am not all-knowing and infallible.  I obviously make assessment and decisions and try to live by my values.  But I need to remember that I might be wrong.  Even very wrong.  On things that are little.  But also about things that might be very big.

Secondly, on days when we’re not out entertaining ourselves or we don’t have guests, I am limiting my computer time to a hour at a time.  Then I get up and do something else for at least a half hour, and preferably for an hour.  Sometimes I go for a walk, do some cooking or cleaning, shopping, gardening, maintenance work, have a real live conversation, read, listen to music,  do my daily exercise stint, watch tv.

Yes, I know.  It sounds like a hum drum list.  But it really works for me.  I’m much less tired, more productive both at the computer and in everything else.  I’m even feeling younger.

I love the internet.  And I love working at my computer.  But I’m not going to let it steal my life.

February 17, 2017

The power of the powerless

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 12:10 pm

People overestimate what they can get done in two years and underestimate what they can get done in 10 years.

Bill Gates



We also often overestimate what an individual can do

And so are tempted to give up in despair in the face of the helplessness we think our anonymity bestows on the great majority of us who are not celebrities, high-profile leaders or recognized candidates for sainthood.





And paradoxically, underestimate what we can accomplish together.

Image result for time

February 16, 2017

Stepping Stones for the Aging

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

As we’re growing up, most of us have stepping stones as we achieve the awesome task of “growing up.”  There are birthdays (“I’m three years old!”), Christmas (“Is there really a Santa Claus?”), starting school, graduations, the senior dance, career choices, partners, promotions, anniversaries, and if one has children the whole cycle begins again.

But I’ve never thought of stepping stones for aging.  There are various medical events, of course – cataracts, joint replacements, hearing aids, surgery for both insignificant and serious needs.  And perhaps there are significant anniversaries, especially if one makes it to the “golden years.”

Yesterday, however, I stumbled on a big stepping stone for us elderly.  Perhaps I should call it a boulder.  My husband and I were going out to a new restaurant to celebrate the 44 years we have been living together.  We left for an early meal – 6:00 – when the rush hour was at its height and it was fully dark.  But we were driving on roads with which we are very familiar, and the drive was not more than 20 minutes.  Night driving, even all-night driving both in the US and here in the UK and Europe, is something we have done probably thousands of time.  It never daunted us.

Last night was different.  It was awful.  Cars were speeding, failing to dim their head lights, and traffic was even held up by a road work vehicle.  But that wasn’t really the problem.

We’re the problem.  Our responses are getting slower, our supply of energy is less, our capacity for dealing with stress reduced.  We both found ourselves staring into the lights glaring out of the dark saying emphatically “Never again!”  We will never again voluntarily drive in the dark for recreational purposes.  If we can’t take a taxi, we’ll stay at home, cook our own dinner, and watch television.  Or go out to lunch or wait until the long days of summer.

So how is this a stepping stone?  Well, it’s really the vestibule.  I have seen in a generation before mine that facing the reality of not driving takes honesty and courage.  Giving up one’s driving license is the Great Stepping Stone.  It’s the great recognition that one is getting old.  Not older.  Old.

I think it’s unlikely that I will live long enough to indulge in driverless cars.
Image result for stepping stones quotes

So if something else doesn’t stop me first, I’ve had my first glimpse of that Great Stepping Stone that just got a little bit closer.  The great question is what I will make of it.

February 8, 2017

My 4th dimension

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:58 am

Music . . .

can name the unnameable

and communicate the unknowable

Leonard Bernstein

For whatever mix of genetic and environmental influences, I have been predominantly an analytic thinker most of my life.  That has made me a good organizer, a committed researcher, fairly good at mathematics, not a complete loss in relation to physics.  I choose to read articles on economics rather than poetry, political analyses rather than fiction, to write about theories of intelligence rather than the history of art.

The one glaring exception to this rational analysis all my life has been music.  It possibly hasn’t saved my life.  But I think it has saved my sanity.  Or perhaps more accurately, it has added a completely new dimension to my life and consciousness.


The arts – whether it be painting, poetry, sculpture, music, or literature- addresses a reality which is beyond human analysis or reason.  The meaning of life, of love, of beauty, of loyalty, of faithfulness, the purpose or at least the usefulness of suffering, of death, or loss can, of course, be discussed philosophically.  But the arts are beyond words and can give us a direct experience of their mystery in a way that analysis can’t.

I am not suggesting we don’t need analysis or that it is an inferior source of wisdom compared to the arts.  We need analysis to save us from superstition, from unsubstantiated conclusions, even from the arrogance of the certainty that ignorance so often supports.

Nor do all the arts speak equally to everyone.  In fact, I think education has failed too many by failing to distinguish between the ability to analyze the arts and to appreciate them.  First of all, I think we should be encouraged to discover which arts speak to us personally.  Is it music? poetry?  painting?  Would you rather go to a concert tonight or a museum?  Would you rather go through a park dotted with sculpture or sit comfortably reading a great work of literature?  And when we look or listen, the first question we should ask is how it speaks to us, not whether we can categorize it as if we were being asked a test question.

For me, the great classical works, especially of Beethoven and Mozart, and paradoxically, folk music, have been my great avenues to this other world of mystery beyond rational analysis.  I have also just recently discovered what a difference the conductor can make in my appreciation.  I grew up in Ohio and even as a child was taken to listen to George Szell conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.  But today, the exuberance and energy of Leonard Bernstein takes me into that other world in a new way.  My reserved brother who knows more about music than I do thinks Szell is far better.  But I think our different assessments are equally due to differences between us.  Bernstein’s exuberance does not speak to him as it does to me but gets in the way and he prefers Szell’s reserve which I personally find just a little inhibiting.

Whatever our particular preferences and whatever art may speak most strongly to us, I think the human psyche needs the arts to reach our fullest wisdom as much as we need food and shelter.  And analysis.

Because art is beyond words.  It can name the unnameable.  And communicate the unknowable.


February 1, 2017

The Times – They are a-changing

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

Image result for birthday cakeI have the feeling that the changes that are taking place in my own life keep galloping ahead in the same way that the world is changing.  On the one hand, I feel such a small part of our globalized world, and at the same time as I listen to the world news, it feels like a mirror of my own life these days.

As I’m studying political and economic events, I’ve realized that the world has gone through fundamental changes like this before.  And it’s not going to stop.  It isn’t just the industrial revolution that was so revolutionary.  There are events like this as far back as we can see.  The Black Death killed somewhere between 30 and 50% of the population.  By the time it had subsided, people had lost their faith in the promises of religious leaders and the political power of the Roman Church had been profoundly undermined, eventually reduced to a small country we now call “The Vatican.”  And because workers were now at a premium, serfs were freed from their economic slavery, able instead to offer their services to whomever paid them the most.  That might have meant freedom, but it was also a loss of security that people had relied on for centuries.  Then the confirmation that earth could be circumnavigated changed trade, and introduced a new kind of serfdom, slavery in which people were shipped like bags of coal dumped into the bowels of ships.

Today we are entering into mega-changes brought about by two forces.  The first is not, as Trump thinks, the destructiveness of global trade.  The movement of multi-national countries returning to their home bases began some years ago.  Companies are discovering that with new technological developments, companies that are selling what they produce in their countries of residence are more productive.  The force that is going to change things so drastically around the world is technological creativity, not international trade.

Widespread electricity isn’t a century old, neither is the car, but most of us take these changes as old hat.  Even the internet feels utterly familiar to millions of people.  But the changes that technological developments are going to continue to bring about in the work place and even in our home lives are going to continue to race ahead.  The unemployed factory workers of today aren’t going to get their jobs back.  But even people who are employed today are going to find that if they don’t keep learning all their lives, they are also going to be in the same unemployable position before they are ready to retire..  Work is changing and it is going to continue to do so at increasing pace.

The second force that is going to change our lives for the foreseeable future is climate change.  It won’t go away just because Trump says he doesn’t believe in it.  Droughts, floods, temperature changes, rising sea levels, storms are going to bring about changes in the kinds and places where we can produce our food, in the kind of houses we can live in, in our water sources, even where human habitation is possible.

None of us is going to live long enough to see these forces through to their finish.

My own hope is that somehow our creativity will outstrip our ignorance, and that our love for our fellow man will outstrip our impulse to pick up our toys and go home and slam the door.




January 28, 2017

Immigrants made America rich

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:26 pm
Image result for the Statue of Liberty
It’s not just people who voted for Donald Trump in the U.S. or for Brext in the U.K.  
In countries around the world, there are strong populist demands that their borders be closed to immigrants.  Here in Britain, the argument for this policy I hear most frequently is that immigrants coming in from eastern Europe are doing jobs for less pay and in worse conditions than British men and women demand, and so are basically making them unemployable.  In the United States, Trump and his followers argue that big companies have exported factory jobs to China and Mexico and other countries where people are willing to work for less money and in poorer conditions, and in the process disenfranchising hundreds of thousands American workers.  In both countries there is fear that terrorists are getting into the country under the guise of refugees.  In other areas, the argument is one of culture and the fear that our language, our values, our rule of law are all being threatened.
All these fears are legitimate, if often exaggerated or distorted.
What seems so strange to me though is how it is possible to overlook the huge benefits of immigration.
  •  Immigrants are twice as likely to begin their own companies than people already living in the United States, and employ 1 out of every 10 people in the country.
  • Immigrants or their children have been included in start-ups of  41% of the Fortune 500 companies in the U.S., and a third of the top U.S. tech companies.
  • immigrants have been included in start-ups of Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs, ebay, Radio Shack, Pfizer drugs, Yahoo!
  • the chances are that all of the readers of this blog living in America are descendants of immigrants.  I am.
Are all immigrants so wonderful?  Of course not.  Native Americans might reasonably argue that the first European immigrants to America engaged in ethnic cleansing, bringing disease and war with them, and appropriating the land by force belonging for centuries to Indian tribes.  European refugees landing on Ellis Island might suggest that assessing them with intelligence tests in English reflected the same kind of xenophobia responsible for building walls today.
And the men and women who voted for Trump because they believed they lost their jobs in late middle age when it was too late to find another job have a right to feel betrayed by both of the main US political parties.   The Democrats claimed to represent the workers but signed major trade deals while doing little to help American workers whose jobs were outsourced to other countries.  The Republicans were even stronger defenders of international trade and its many benefits, but they too did nothing to help the Americans their policies made unemployable, hiding instead behind the argument that these people should not be given free medical help, food stamps, or housing when they were made jobless but provide for themselves.  That, they argued, is the American way.
Oh yes?
We woke up this morning to hear that Trump is claiming to address the immigration issue through executive order with wholesale stopping immigration from 7 Muslim countries.
If you think this is a good idea, I’m sure you won’t be convinced by anything I can say about American values or the importance of immigration to developing and maintaining the economy.
Personally, I’m hoping that Trump’s executive orders are illegal.  In 1965, standing in front of the statute of Liberty, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill into law which had been passed by Congress making it illegal to deny immigration rights on the basis of sex, nationality, religion, or place of birth.

January 17, 2017

The world’s 8 richest men

Oxfam has just published figures suggesting that the world’s 8 richest men own between them as much as the poorest half of the entire world.  Whether these figures are exactly right is questionable, but the evidence is pretty strong that the world’s richest people have so much more wealth as the poorest as to be shocking.

In outrage, the article is suggesting that these rich men are unethical grabbing tax cheats.  They did not refer to the possibility that any of these super-rich people may have made a valuable contribution to our ways of life in the modern world.  Instead, they simply argue that governments world-wide should agree to close tax loop holes and safe havens where these fortunes are stashed away.  Taxes should be given to governments to spend on the poor and starving.

If only the solution were  so simple.   It’s not for me

Yes, the tax systems too often favour the rich and I strongly support changes.  I would especially support (as does Bill Gates, by the way) a limitation on tax-free inheritance.   But that isn’t going to come close to addressing the essence of the challenge of poverty.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, for instance, are two of the three of the world’s richest men.  They also spend billions (yes, billions) of dollars a year on charitable organizations dealing with, among other things, global health.  Do you think it would be better spent in the hands of government?  I’d much prefer this wealth is in the hands of Gates and Buffet than in the hands of most of the governments where the poorest people live in Africa and other of the world’s poorest countries.  The chances are too great of taxes collected by governments in these countries for “the poor” ending up in overseas bank accounts of government officials.

Image result for money tree

Yes, corruption exists in the developed world.  But research suggests that the biggest cause of economic well-being is not natural resources, population density, or even educational levels, but a commitment to the rule of law and strong institutions.

Jeremy Corbyn, the current head of the Labour government here in the UK is suggesting that along with increasing taxes on the rich, the government should cap how much any individual can earn.  I agree that what he calls the “telephone number earnings” of many CEO’s is mind-boggling, particularly when they sit atop companies with workers barely earning a living wage.  There might be a place to find ways to support the increasing pressure coming from shareholders to address this exorbitant inequality.

But I would be loathe to put a cap on the earnings of some of society’s most creative, innovative, intelligent, hard working individuals who are meeting needs and creating opportunities that in profound ways are making the world a better place.  And many of whom are contributing significantly with their earning to improving our environment, educational systems, health, and working conditions.  Gates & Buffet are not the only ones doing so.

We need to resist the  temptation, I think, to believe that the answers to all our problems lie in changing the system without the constant ingenuity, dedication, and drive of the individuals who comprise it.  That’s all of us.

Even the little people like me.


January 13, 2017

Bad or Beautiful?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:21 pm

Following my post yesterday, someone asked if there were any expert opinions about altruistic behavior in the living world.  It seems a fascinating question, and led to such a long response on my part that I am posting it here, with the hope that there may be others who can broaden my own musings on the subject.

There are, of course, theories of redemption offered by various religious theologies.  I won’t elaborate on them.

In terms of science, there are several theories in psychology which do suggest that we go beyond basic survival and self-seeking pleasure, although none of them deal with altruistic behavior specifically and insofar as they suggest it, it is something which develops with maturity, and that you would not expect to find in a child, and certainly not in any other species outside of us humans.

Eric Erikson’s 8th stage – the last one – is wisdom vs despair which while not exactly explaining altruism does suggest that we go beyond the undiluted reality of self-service.  Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also argues that we grow beyond what he called our basic deficiency needs for food and shelter, and even beyond our social needs for belonging and recognition, to “Being needs” for self-fulfillment.  Lawrence Kohlberg also developed a theory of moral reasoning elaborating Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.  In Kohlberg’s highest level we have grown beyond the simple reward/punishment thinking of level 1, and also beyond the social reasoning of level 2 in which we worry about what other people think.  In the highest level, we are guided by universal principles such as equality and a commitment to justice for all.

The idea which personally I find holds the greatest resonance for me is the Buddhist concept of Incompleteness.  It seems to describe my own observations.  No matter how gifted, intelligent, loving, or fortunate, none of us are absolutely complete, none of us ever without needs which only someone else can meet.  Our consciousness may be circumscribed, but life itself is a single whole.  We all need each other.  And by “we”, I think one must mean “all living things.”  We can’t survive without them.
Image result for incompleteness
However one explains it, I think there is a goodness, a capacity for caring for others, at the very heart of every living creature.  There’s more to each one of us than pure selfishness — whatever the nightly news might suggest.
But to be completely beautiful, we need each other.

January 12, 2017

Love is as deep as selfishness

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:26 pm

Whichever way one turns in the world these days, there seems to be a plethora of disturbing, scary, depressing news.  And whether it’s war, climate change, rates of extinction, or “false facts,” so much of it seems to be our doing.

I don’t pretend I find comfort by walking around saying “I don’t believe that.”  I wish I could, but although I’m highly skeptical of a lot of reporting, I can’t argue that I think the world is really a jolly great place right now with a bright future we don’t have to worry about.

And religion and science add their discouraging bit.  Modern Christianity teaches that Augustine of Hippo was right when he said we’re all born in a state of sin.  Freud argued that what really motivates us is sex.  Not love, not reason, but pleasure.  Orgasms.  Today sociobiology says the same thing is a slightly more esoteric form, arguing that what drives us all is the continuation and spread of our own genes.  Those who do not engage in overt sex, like worker ants or celibate priests or nuns do so in order to protect and care for their own and so increase the likelihood of their own group survival.  Other theories posit survival as our strongest motivating source as well.

All of these ideas basically say that each of us is fundamentally driven by self-service.

What none of these theories can explain adequately, however, is intra-species altruistic behavior.  Why would dolphins save the lives of swimmers from an attacking shark?  Why would a lion save the life of baby monkey that’s fallen from the tree?  Why would a bear share its food with a starving cat that got inside its cage?  Why did crows bring those trinkets to the little girl who left them food?  There are millions of examples of this kind of behavior in the world every day.

Why is this policeman comforting Panda, scared after the
earthquake in Japan?

I am quite committed to the view that we are each responsible first and foremost for ourselves.  Without a sense of self-preservation, we remain in psychological babyhood, needing someone else to care for us.  But I think there is a deep spontaneous altruism, a sense of mutual responsibility, in all of us as well.  In fact, I believe it is evident in all living things.  Even trees are known to communicate to each other that a dangerous disease is in the air.

I just went to Google and typed in “animals helping each other.”  There are thousands of examples, photos and videos.  Here is one video.  I suspect that you have examples of your own.

Two year-old Chimpanzee feeding
milk   to “Aorn”, a small tiger 60 days


January 7, 2017

God save WHO?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:45 pm

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Vice-president Joe Biden just ended the last congressional session before President-elect Trump takes office.

As he signed off and closed the book, he was heard to say audibly: “God save the Queen.”

I don’t think he was worrying about Brexit.

I notice he didn’t mumble anything about keeping calm either.  Sounds like good advice to me.

Though I’m tempted to supplement it:

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January 1, 2017

A drink to the New Year

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:12 pm

It’s not hard these days to find health warnings against the abuse of alcohol.  There is even research suggesting that even moderate amounts of alcohol may be related to increased incidence of the three big killers cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

I discovered early in my drinking life that I am subject to vicious hangovers, once lasting for three days.  Even when I drink moderately, alcohol tends to interfere with my ability to sleep through the night, and makes my joints sore.  I used to think I was unfortunate in that I had to forego the short-term pleasure of even a single drink if I wasn’t willing to pay a higher longer-term price, and I used to console myself that at least I knew what it was that was responsible for my pain.

I am a lot luckier than I realized.  Today we might be bombarded with so many appeals for money to provide safe drinking water for the poor and dispossessed in so many countries that history has forgotten just how universal this problem has been until recently.  Very recently.

Even in the early 20th century, the majority of earth’s population did not have access to safe drinking water.  It wasn’t an addiction to prefer beer, wine, and coffee to water.  In moderate amounts, at least, alcohol wasn’t lethal.  Water was.

The primary reason for this was sanitation and the disposal of faeces and urine.  Few people had toilets of any kind, and even those built by the Romans or installed in medieval castles did not provide for adequate sewer systems.  On farms, water wells were dug close to the house and barnyard animal droppings and cesspools often dug in basements contaminated the water.  Cities were even worse.  Toilets were sometimes built by rivers, but this eventually polluted cities’ entire water supply.  When toilets were unavailable – which was most of the time – human waste was dumped directly onto the streets, where horses also contributed their droppings.  These conditions led to massive outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera, and accounted for more than half of all infant and child deaths.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that scientists discovered how much disease was carried by water-borne infections.  So it wasn’t until the late 1800’s and early 20th century that even major prosperous cities like London and New York began to filter and chlorinate water and set up systematic garbage collections.  Records show that life expectancy increased more rapidly in the US as a result of these changes than in any other time in American history.

Since 1980, the change in sanitation standards in less developed countries has been phenomenal.  Today 82% of the world’s urban population and 51% of the rural population have proper sanitation facilities, and the advances are continuing at a rapid pace.  For the last 25 years, an average of 285,000 people a day have been given access to clean water and sanitation.  That’s 12,000 people an hour, every day for quarter of a century.  I’ll drink to that.

I might even feel tremendously lucky to click my glass of clean water against your goblet of wine as we wish each other a happy and prosperous New Year.

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Happy 2017 – whatever it visits upon us!

December 25, 2016

Best wishes and hope for us all

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:10 pm

Whether you are alone, with friends or family

Whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah,

the coming Year of the Rooster, waiting until the 1st Day of Chaitra,

or your new year already began with the new moon in September

Whether your calendar is lunar or solar, your solstice summer or winter


Whether you are celebrating “con brio” or in a more quietly pastoral mood

I hope peace and joy will knock on your door today asking for lodging.

December 11, 2016

Nastiness isn’t just in the big things

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:11 pm

But neither are the wonderful things!

November 30, 2016

My Dorothy Day puzzle

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

After my father died, we found several letters from Dorothy Day to him in the boxes of files he’d stored in the loft.  We didn’t know about the letters, but we certainly knew about Dorothy Day.  Because she was the reason we were living on that farm in Ohio.  My father was a lawyer and had little skill as a farmer.  But he was convinced by Dorothy Day that this was the ideal place to raise a family, away from the evils and temptations of the city.

Why?  Dorothy Day spent her entire life in New York city.  Why did she think there was some elevated goodness to be found in a country life she herself did not live?

There was, indeed, innocence.  And naiveté.  My parents were dedicated, loving, generous, sacrificing anything they had if they thought it was for our betterment.  And my father created what became an idyllic setting with a lake, fishing, swimming, ice skating, fields of wheat, cattle, chicken, pigs, fruit trees.

But was the isolation of farm life a better preparation for life than city life?  I’m not convinced.

Our “innocence” might better be described as ignorance, particularly in relation to sex.  I am not talking about our physical sexual differences – in a family as large as ours with newborns arriving almost semi-annually, one could hardly be unaware of our genital differences, beginning with the simple act of learning to urinate into the toilet.  But there was a general embarrassment about events such as menstruation, and the actual act of sexual intercourse.

I have more insight into the ways in which this simplicity, shall we call it, effected us girls.  The dynamics, I think, were just as profound for my brothers but they were different.  We sisters learned how to be generous and kind, but we did not learn how to say no when it was appropriate to do so.  We also did not learn the difference between sending signals of sexual interest as opposed to signals of friendliness.  We trusted too much, and I think each of us had to find out that male interest in having an affair was often interest in pleasure, but not a prelude to anything resembling a commitment or even wanting any kind of personal relationship at all.

Was all of this the result of growing up on a farm?  Of course not.  My own adolescence preceded the 1960’s and 70’s.  We were not the only ones to have naively misunderstood the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.  Many of the “city girls” I met at that time also confused the meaning of the flower children and hippies with a moral superiority that we thought was going to create a new world of love and liberation.

Nonetheless, admirable as she was, I think Dorothy Day was wrong in elevating country life, presenting it as somehow morally superior to city life.  As I said in my last post, I’ve seen too much love for complete strangers in one of the biggest cities in the world to accept that.

PS:  A friend who read my last post suggested that I might enjoy reading the Metropolitan Diary in the New York Times.  They are everyday stories about New Yorkers, and they will warm your heart.  I’m now making the diary part of my morning wake-up call.

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November 27, 2016

Why I still love New York

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

I was seven years old when I made one of the most important choices of my life.  I was getting off that idyllic farm in Ohio where I was growing up and going to New York.

I didn’t get there, as I planned then, by the time I was 14, and I did make a by-stop as a Maryknoll nun where I thought I was going to be able to work among the poor in an underdeveloped country.  When that didn’t happen, I moved into a studio apartment in Greenwich Village in Manhattan (it was still affordable in those days), where I earned my PhD and basically spent my career until moving to Europe with my English husband to care for his aging parents.

I’ve learned to love London and enjoy Copenhagen, Paris, and cities in general.  But for me New York is still special.

Yesterday I was reminded why.  Several people have sent me photos and news articles about the subway (known as the Underground, here in Britain) Wall of Sticky Notes at Union Square in the Village.  It goes on for blocks.

I wasn’t wrong when I decided I was getting off that farm and going to New York.

It’s not niverna 24/7.  It’s a place that I found paradoxically was often its best on its worst days – during black-outs or floods or fires – or post-elections perhaps? – when people were so often willing to do so much to help out complete strangers whom they would otherwise ignore without a thought.

There’s a country western song in which the cowboy sings “When I die, let me go to Texas.”  When I die, I want to go to New York.


November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving for the simple gifts

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:21 pm

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I don’t usually have to think about giving thanks on Thanksgiving.  The gifts that have been given to me are plentiful and unearned.

Yet today as I scanned the news, I’ve had to struggle a bit.  I won’t give you the list of worries and sources of anguish.  I’m sure you’ve got your own.

The answer has come in a Thanksgiving wish from a friend.  It is a wish of the simple gifts that come to us from those who love us and whom we love.  It comes from a hug.  It comes from gathering in the kitchen preparing the turkey and pumpkin pie.  It comes from standing around the piano and singing together.

Is there anything that can possibly take the place of being loved and loving?

I wouldn’t trade it off to keep Trump out of the White House.  Would it even be worth saving our environment if the price were sweeping the world clean of love?   Perhaps there are those who think power and righteousness would be worth giving up love.  But not for me.

I cannot but say thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you for so many who still give me more love than I could possibly measure.

Happy Thanksgiving.


November 14, 2016

Front door dialogue

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:46 pm

Many members of my family have been exchanging views about the result of the U.S. election, and asking what we can do about the geysers of hatred and resentment that seem to be gushing up around us.

One of my sisters reminded us of what we call our family “Table Discussions” which characterized so many of our evening meals.  My father was a lawyer and during these discussions he taught us one of the most important things I’ve ever learned – that to win an argument, it is important to understand the opposition’s argument from their point of view.  So we would often assign ourselves to argue for a position that, in truth, we thought was wrong.  It helped us realize that the point of view of those who disagree with us sometimes makes a lot of sense.

Image resultSo about half an hour ago, our door bell rang.  It was two Jehovah Witnesses.  I confess I could not resist the temptation to engage in what I’d learned around that family dinner table.  In response to their reading to me from the Bible to illustrate just how selfish and materialistic people are today, I quoted the Bible back to them to support my reasons for seeing love and care for their families and communities reflected in the unemployed who had voted for Trump in the States and for Brexit over here.

Very friendly and respectful, but quoting the bible back to them in support of my disagreement was not a strategy they were equipped to deal with.  When I told them I thought the solution was love, she stumbled and said but there was something more — and then to her credit said “well there really isn’t anything greater than love, I guess.”  “Yes, God is love,” I said, at which point the mail man showed up at the door.  I think they were hugely relieved to say thank you and use that as an excuse to depart.

Not sure I should be proud of myself.  I enjoyed it too much.  And anyway, I wasn’t arguing for the side I disagreed with.


November 10, 2016

What do we do about Trump now?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:34 pm

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It seems as if everybody is either writing or talking, in celebration or anguish over the election results.  Interestingly, Clinton won the majority of votes, but Trump won the most electoral delegates and so will be the next U.S. president.

My question is: what should those of us in the (admittedly small) popular majority do now?  I understand the reported impulse to immigrate to Canada or New Zealand.  But I don’t think it’s time to withdraw.  That is to give in to some of the most terrifying threats Trump made during the election campaign.  Trump has already identified climate-deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency, an act that may be potentially the most destructive act of his entire presidency.  Because if we do not stop destroying our climate, we will ultimately destroy ourselves.  Economic ruin would look like nirvana by comparison.

But how should we go forward in a constructive way?

My own thoughts are that the first thing we need to do is to understand the vote.  That divides into 3 parts: why so many people voted for Trump,  why the Democratic Party did not make Sanders, who was addressing the same questions of economic inequality as Trump, their presidential nominee, and why subsequently enough people did not vote for Clinton.  The answers are complex, personal, sociological, political, and economic.  What the answers are NOT is simple.  We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t listen, if we’ve already made up our minds that those who disagree with us are White supremacists, unpatriotic, anti-feminist, bigoted, ignorant, fascist, or just stupid.  Even if some of those labels turn out to be valid, the deeper question is why.

Why do so many people distrust Washington politicians?  Why do so many people resent immigrants?  Why do so many people want to limit free trade?  Why are so many people climate-deniers?

I’m inclined to think that the most fundamental reasons are economic.  When people are struggling to survive, needing to get their next meal from a food bank, cannot heat their homes, or care for their children because they cannot get a job or a job that pays them enough to care for their families, they ask why?  If that were you, what would you say?

Would you not think immigrants are taking the jobs you used to do?  or that international trade is sending those jobs to foreign countries?  Would you suspect that corruption explains why for white male workers without a college degree, median incomes have fallen since 2007 by more than 14 percent, after adjusting for inflation and have fallen by more than 20 percent since the 1970s?  Would you not look at the Washington politicians and ask why they have done nothing about the fact that 2 million American jobs were lost as a result of the trade agreement made during the Clinton administration with China?  Or why the same administration permitted banks to begin to invest savers’ money in risky adventures that eventually brought them to the edge of bankruptcies in 2008 that even with massive government bail-outs lead to an extremely painful recession?  Would you not wonder about a tax system that has permitted those 2% to have become so much richer in the last 40 years while gutting the American middle class?

I am appalled and terrified by what the Trump administration might do.  But my biggest reason for fear is that Trump and his followers think that limiting free trade and immigration, that building walls on our borders, and continuing to destroy our environment will solve these problems.  Unfortunately, understanding our global economic system is not as simple as handling a personal budget.  Limiting free trade and immigration profoundly risks making all our problems much worse,  and especially the job-problems of the white men today without college degrees.

The more I read about economics, and it’s more than the average person, the more complex I realize it is.  Human behavior and the systems we build is perhaps the most complex thing we try to understand.  I think, actually, it’s more challenging than understanding physics and the universe, more complex than figuring out climate change.

We’re never going to get it totally right.  But any system in which sympathy and respect and care has been drained away is certain to fail.

That’s why I think the first thing we need to do is listen.  To listen with openness and respect.  That does not mean we agree.  But it is possible to have sympathy for another’s point of view even when one totally disagrees.

Then perhaps we can communicate that we do indeed care about all the disadvantaged, not just those from groups for whom we have a natural sympathy.  I think we have to do that before we can effectively create a society which the majority of people, whatever their situations, experience as more fair, free and open society, giving everyone an equal opportunity to express their unique individuality.

November 9, 2016

umpty Trumpty

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:46 pm
Well, “shock” is the word contained in almost every headline I’ve read since I got up this morning, barely ten minutes before Trump’s presidency and congressional majorities were confirmed beyond doubt.  Here in Britain, the response reminded me that several hundred thousand people signed a petition about a year ago asking Parliament to forbid Trump entrance to the UK on the grounds of his attitudes toward Muslims.  On the other hand, the Brexit vote here to withdraw from the European Union had a lot in common with the attitudes expressed by the Trump campaign.
I saw an interview yesterday with a highly reputable British pollster who said he wasn’t convinced by the polls predicting a Clinton win.  He said he thought there very well may be a meaningful number of people – including registered Democrats – who would not admit publicly that they were supporting Trump but who could very well swing the vote.  That sounded like a rather terrifying possibility to me, and so this morning when the results were clear, I was more shocked than surprised.
What I wonder now though is whether even those who feel they have been disenfranchised by the wave of immigrants coming into the States will actually be any better off as the result of the policies Trump & his Republican congress will implement.  Same question we are asking over here about those people who voted for Brexit on the grounds that immigration should be limited.
The thought that Trump will now be the deciding factor on the next Supreme Court judges – including replacing Scalia as soon as he gets into office – is scary as well.
Just read an article arguing that what the Trump voters really want is to re-establish White supremacy.  How strong that kind of racism is compared to a realistic sense of economic disenfranchisement by workers displaced by either migrant workers or international trade, I don’t know.  I suppose one might ask a similar question about British colonial rule.  Both US and UK governments, in my view, have under-estimated the resentment and done too little to solve very real problems of joblessness and the increasing gulf between the 2% and the shrinking middle class and stunted social mobility.  It’s not what Americans have been taught to believe is right for a country where hard work is promised to reap rewards.
My only (small) hope is that reality may force Trump to modify some of his worst promises and prejudices.  In any case, his election will certainly change attitudes of nations toward the U.S.  I remember back in 1969 an NYU professor  of political science said that China’s power lay partly in the fact that other countries simply did not know what to expect.  That is now true of the U.S.

November 8, 2016

How big are the little things?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 10:47 am


The older I get, the more grateful I am becoming for things I used to think were trivial.

It’s too late for me to say thank you for so much.  So I’m trying  to pass the debt onto somebody else with my own trivials.

October 22, 2016

Why I still like capitalism

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:45 pm

Before I say my few words about liking capitalism, let me begin by saying that I am fully aware that sometimes it is not perfect.  In fact, sometimes it is simply awful.  It is a system that can run awry, motivated by unbridled selfishness and destructive greed.  It can, and has, been a system which can trap people in terrible poverty and suffering.  Capitalism is a system that cannot be let to run free of any social discipline and government controls.  It is one that sometimes fails people and where safety nets by social services are sometimes needed to provide the basic necessities of life, including food, shelter, medical care, and education.

Capitalism is a system that always has risks, because it allows people to try out new ideas.  And those ideas might fail.  So capitalism needs constant surveillance to guide or even reign in ideas, businesses, banks, or any organization that become too destructive, too domineering, too controlling.

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Having said that, I still think capitalism is the best system we have devised so far for the welfare of humanity.

When I was young and still ignorant enough to think I had all the answers, I thought that it was possible to set up a system where the risks of capitalism were eliminated.  In other words, I thought Utopia was possible.  I flirted with communism, and various versions of dogmatic socialism that remain popular today.

I abandoned communism and most forms of rigid socialism because they did not permit people to think for themselves, and because by the time I was in my 30’s, it was clear that it did not work any better at eliminating poverty than capitalism.  In fact, capitalist countries with democratic governments were providing a higher quality of life than communist-led countries.

I was also influenced by my nine years living in an order of nuns committed to helping others.  It was a rule-oriented life, highly disciplined and organized.  It wasn’t too different from living within the military, except that our goals were to serve the poor.  But room for creativity, for spontaneous acts of kindness – telephone calls, conversations, letters, even had to be made within certain guidelines – were severely limited.  (In the order of nuns I was in, that has changed very substantially, but Rome doesn’t like it, and would like to put all nuns back in their full religious habits and kept within bounds.)  But one of the things that convent life taught me was that all the answers can’t be found by confining people within rules, no matter how well-intended.

And today I read two blog posts that made me want to ring the bells for capitalism.  They gave examples of ingenious kindness that I think are far more possible within capitalism than within strict systems, even if those systems are deliberately designed for the good of all.  One post is from Help Scout, 10 inspirational stories of customer service, the other is about customer service that simply incorporates thoughtfulness.

There are thousands of examples like these, of course, but I read each of them and danced.  I’d love to hear if you do too.

Thank you to Raghu, author of About This and That, one of my favourite reads who sent me to the posts above.


October 16, 2016

The Good Old Days of Breadmaking

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:40 pm

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts recently, we elderly are subject to the temptation of wiping out the negative aspects of the past from our memory banks, leading to a rather one-sided longing to return to a mythical “Good Old Days” that never really existed.

But the more I read about the history of Christianity, the more I wonder if I might still be committed to the Christian faith if I’d lived several thousand years ago before church leaders decided that the diversity of beliefs held by various sub-groups was unacceptable, and declared anybody who did not agree with them to be heretical.  Up until then, “faith” was not seen as synonymous with doctrine, but with faithfulness.  And until then, love was still, as St. Paul wrote, “the greatest of these.”

At about the same time, Constantine decided that the Christian God was a better backup for governments trying to hold onto power than the fickle gods of the pagans.  So the Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion, moved the clergy into palaces and cathedrals, gave them royal robes and head-gear, gold crosses and incense burners to demonstrate their “lordship”.

But I’ve just learned that it was at about this time, and almost certainly a result of these changes, that the meaning of “lord” and “lady” changed dramatically.  Until then, these terms did not refer to any kind of authority or royalty.  The “lord” simply referred to the “keeper of the bread,” and the “lady” was “the maker of the bread.”

That makes a lot of sense to me.  And it seems to fit so much better with the original message of Christianity.

Perhaps the change in meaning is another example of the original biblical warning that where there is power or money, there is always temptation.  Pope Francis has just said it again.


October 9, 2016

International Trade: The devil’s own?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In my last post, I reviewed what I found to be the astonishing feat we humans have accomplished in providing nourishment for literally billions more people than populated our globe a mere 75 years ago.  This is an incredible feat for which we as species can be proud.

Most of us have no idea of the size of this gigantic accomplishment nor that it could not have been achieved without international trade.

The great risk of this ignorance is that many of us, especially in the developed world, are undergoing a mega-temptation to close off the very processes of this source of enrichment.

This might just sound ignorant, selfish, or racist on the part of people who are just too lazy to work.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce the problem to bigotry or a preference to depend on hand-outs.. Vast swathes of joblessness resulting from international trade has created real problems for hard-working people who have been driven from a middle class life style to the edges of serious poverty.  This has happened before, but perhaps never so rapidly and without the accompanying awareness made possible by our modern communications system.

Worldwide international communication conceptHere’s an example.  China was accepted into the World Trading Organization in 1993, it looked like an unalloyed win-win situation for the world.  It indeed has been a win for Chinese workers who now supply 20% of world-wide manufacturing exports.  China has been transformed from a poor to a middle-income country, taking hundreds of millions out of poverty.   And in the developed world, the less well-off benefited hugely from cheaper imports of everything from computers to solar panels.

But the developed world did not foresee the millions of  factory job losses in countries benefiting from cheaper products being imported from China.  Today, economists estimate that up to 2.4 million jobs in America alone may have been lost as a  result of Chinese imports.

And these jobs were not replaced.  Workers could not simply move to another part of the country.  The kind of jobs for which these unemployed workers were trained no longer exist in sufficient numbers in the developed world.

It is easy to understand why people on the ground resent international trade.  It’s a resentment swelling up in Europe, Australia, North and Latin America, the Middle and Far East.  But the solution, unfortunately, is not to build walls, to slam the door shut, to go back to the mythical days when we were supposedly all able to take care of ourselves.

The problem is extraordinarily complex, and solutions are not simple.  But there are things we can do which will not destroy the huge benefits which so many have received as a result of international trade.

Culturally, the human species has always had to walk that narrow road between benefiting from our great diversity of gifts and being quite realistically threatened by them.  But we are all in this together, and with increased globalization, it is increasingly important that we learn to appreciate the huge value of our differences.

Politically, we also need to make changes.  The America government has been particularly – but not uniquely – slow to appreciate the scope of job-losses resulting from China’s rapid industrialization.  Some countries – Denmark, for instance – have done a better job of providing job retraining and meaningful unemployment benefits for those actively seeking for work.  Governments can also create jobs.  In the U.S. the needs for upgrading our transportation, electricity, and other superstructures is significant.  Few countries are without similar needs.

There are also world-wide problems of reduced competition and tax avoidance by international companies which is increasing joblessness among former factory workers.  Internet giants by and large pay above-average pay to all their workers.  But they crowd out small businesses or buy them up, reducing competition.  These are not easy problems to solve, but we must grapple with them if we don’t want to lose the benefits of international trade which enriches us all.

September 30, 2016

Why aren’t we all starving anymore?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

The norm  for most of the time humanity has existed on this planet has been one of repeated famine.  As Malthus pointed out, this meant that the human population was destined to a certain limit, because when populations increased – as they did – renewed famines would always impose an even higher toll.

Precise world-wide figures until recent centuries are lost.  But here is an indication of the norm:

  • In France, 26 major famines occurred in the 11th century, 2 in the 12th, 4 in the 14th, 7 in the 15th, 13 in 16th, 11 in the 17th,  16 in the 18th century.  People resorted to grass and ground tree bark as staple foods.  Cannibalism was not unknown.
  • The world population increased from 1/4 billion people to 1 billion in the 800 years between 1000 and 1800 A.D

Then in the next 100 years world population leapt to 1.6 billion;  even more dramatically by 1927, it had reached 2 billion.  Today the world population is 7.4 billion.  Why are we not starving as we were before?

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The change began in the 18th century.  Farmers began to get individual property rights.  They were not tied to the land and landowners no longer dictated what, when, and how much they planted.  At the same time, as borders opened to international trade, regions began to specialize in growing crops best suited to their soil, climate and skills.

Also in the 18th century, democratic governments began to develop in America and Europe.  Interestingly, famines no longer occur in democracies in the world today.  Rulers depend on votes and so make every possible effort to avoid their starvation.  And a free media helps increase public awareness.  Malnutrition and even severe levels of starvation, on the other hand, continue to occur in many authoritarian and Communist countries where agricultural workers were – and sometimes still are – under the control of government leaders for whom the lives of its citizens are expendable.

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the value of individual freedoms comes from China.  As a result of “the Great Leap Forward” beginning in 1958 under Mao Zedong during which farms were made into collectives and agricultural workers deemed excessive to farming needs were forced into industrialization projects, 40 million people died of starvation and life expectancy collapsed by 20 years.  In 1978, 18 families in a small village met in secret one night and agreed to make their own decisions on what and how to farm an allotted parcel of their communal farm land.  The agreement was written down and fingerprinted.  They knew that if the government found out, they would be severely punished.  In the first year, the village produced 6 times more grain than it did under the collective regime.  The secret of their success in feeding themselves got out and eventually reached government officials.  Everybody expected drastic punishment.  The leader of the project hid in a bamboo shoot in the roof of his house.

But this grassroots reform was incredibly popular and amazingly, the government realized this.  In 1982, just four years after the first village night gathering, the Communist party endorsed the reforms.  Within two years, all the collectives in China had been abandoned.  Within just 20 years after the worst famine in its history, China began to produce surplus food for world markets.

In addition to social and political change, several dramatic agricultural technologies began to kick in in the 20th century.  The first was the development of artificial fertilizer, particularly nitrogen.  The productivity per field burgeoned.  The second technology has been the introduction of tractors to plant and harvest crops.  150 years ago it took 25 men all day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain.  Today one man or woman on a tractor does it in 6 minutes.

Finally, there has been the development of genetically engineered crops.  After working with thousands of crossings, the biologist Norman Borlaug developed a parasite-resistant wheat which was not sensitive to daylight hours.  In addition, it was a dwarf variety which did not expend its energy growing inedible stalks.  Borlaug introduced his wheat in Mexico in 1963.  Amazingly, the harvest was six times larger than 20 years earlier.  Mexico became a net exporter of wheat.  Several years later Borlaug introduced his seeds to India and Pakistan.  Within several years, these two countries were self-sufficient in the production of cereals.

When he was given the Nobel prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited with saving 12 million square miles of forest, preserving the lives of wild creatures and plants living there.  He is probably the first person in history to save a billion human lives.

So is everything honky-dory now?  Have we cracked the nut and if we continue to do what has worked so well, will humanity soon have eliminated the scourge of malnutrition worldwide?

Would you believe me if I said yes?  Well, don’t believe it.  The next post is about some of the problems we still face and that even our incredible solutions have themselves produced.


September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

To put that estimate in context, here are a few more relevant facts:

  • in 1945 at the end of two world wars, the global population was 2 billion, 50% of whom the Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nation estimates were undernourished;  that’s about half a billion people
  • in the 60 years since then, the world population has swelled to 7.4 billion, an increase of the human population never seen in the history of our species

I was astonished to read that today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 11% of the human population is malnourished.  That’s a painful 8 million people.  But somehow, even with a burgeoning increase in the human population, the percentage of malnourished has dropped in 60 years from 50% to 11%.  Instead of more than 3 1/2 billion starving people today, the problem has shrunk dramatically.

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.


September 21, 2016

The danger of the Good Old Days

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was.  Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.

I don’t think of the past as a time to which I would like to return.  But I was rather surprised by the conversation I had with a friend last week in which we both seriously wondered if the world was in a worse state now than it has ever been.  What with our environmental destructiveness, our resistance to immigration, a seeming growth in those who believe that they have a God-given obligation to murder those who disagree with them, and the millions of starving and displaced refugees, most of whom are being refused entrance to countries who see them as dangerous and different, things seem pretty awful.

But I’ve discovered one of the most amazing books I’ve read in perhaps 15 years.  It’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.

One cannot accuse him of naivete or denial.  He begins with a brief statement of the state of the world:”Terrorism.  ISIS.  War in Syria and Ukraine, Crime, murder, mass shootings.  Famines, floods, pandemics.  Global warming.  Stagnation, poverty, refugees.”

And yet the gist of his book is a strongly research-based argument that things are better now than perhaps they have ever been, and that the most dangerous thing we can do is to pull back from the conditions that have reduced famines, increased life-span, even reduced war.  The book is divided into 10 chapters, examining dramatic improvements in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, and equality.

Norberg is not suggesting that everything is going to work out.  He is quite aware that we could destroy our environment and ourselves to the point of extinction.  But his argument is that we don’t have to wring our hands in despair.  In the last century we have already made incredible progress.

I think it is worth studying what he is saying, and I am hoping to write a series of posts summarizing what I am learning.

Right now I’m beginning to suspect that The Good Old Days might be far more than a benign fantasy of old age and instead a very dangerous myth.



September 14, 2016

Wisdom for the old

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:10 pm

Image result for foolWhen I was about ten years old, I remember my dad saying that when you are sure you are right, you can afford to be gracious and open to opposing arguments because ultimately the other person was going to demonstrate that you are right.  He was talking at the time about what he had learned as a practicing lawyer in a court of law.

I am discovering that it is equally good advice for many of us oldies.

I don’t think I am suffering from dementia, but I am emphatically slower on the uptake than I used to be, and in addition there are many things that young people take for granted in this post-modern world that are a complete mystery to me.  As a result I am discovering that I am wrong much more often than I used to be in the world in which I lived just a couple of decades ago.

But the reason my father’s advice seems to me to be newly relevant isn’t because I’m sure I’m right when I am, but much more often these days I’m sure I’m right when I’m not.

And so when a friend, a husband, a sib, or some stranger at the end of a telephone line or internet connection seems to me to be doing or saying something stupid, I have saved myself a great deal of embarrassment by being considerate even when I’m sure I’m right.  Because when I discover that I’m the one who has misunderstood, I haven’t made a double fool of myself.



September 4, 2016

Not one of us?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:09 pm
VImage result for the burka

A survey published today suggested that 57% of Britains think that wearing the burka in public should be outlawed.  It is already illegal in Britain to insist on wearing the burka while giving testimony in a court of law and for teachers in the classroom, both situations when a person’s full face must be revealed.

I don’t disagree with this policy.  But personally, I’d be very very careful about framing laws about what women may or may not wear in public.

Diane Keaton as Sister Mary

Diane Keaton as Sister Mary: CREDIT: PA




September 1, 2016

Energy restorer for the elderly

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:02 pm

Image result  candy page

As I’m getting old  (not older, old), I find I need to pay much greater attention to the difference between feeling hungry and feeling tired.

These days when I’m tempted to reach for a square of chocolate, a handful of nuts, or even a cup of coffee, what I need is not calories or caffeine but rest.  Sometimes all I need is to put my head back and close my eyes for five minutes.  Sometimes I need as much as 30 minutes on a bed with a pillow.

I don’t need nearly as much food as I used to.

But I do need more frequent energy-restorers.

August 29, 2016

I can no other answer make…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

But thanks, and thanks

and ever thanks

Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

Over the years, I have used and greatly appreciated the internet.  But I have often worried about the potential limitations of using it for hours every day.  I have worried that it is teaching us to think in sound bites and limiting our ability to concentrate.  I’ve worried about widespread use of replacing personal interchange with cyber-communication, limiting our ability to communicate directly with other people present with us in the here and now.  I have worried that it robs us of our ability to be quiet, to observe what is happening around us or within our own thoughts.

I had no expectation when I wrote the post on yesterday’s blog that I would get any responses at all.  I didn’t write it to get solutions or even support.  I certainly did not expect responses that would give me a foothold, and that I would find so energizing.  Taken together, the comments and “likes” have somehow taken me to a new dimension of insight.

Each of the comments are unique.  But they have helped me put things in a far better perspective.  I have learned that, for all its potential limitations, the internet can also be a powerful, meaningful source of human exchange.  And it has helped me learn that simply offering support and understanding is sometimes the greatest gift we can give.

It has certainly been a great gift to me.

And so I thank you.  I can no other answer make…


August 28, 2016

Silent thoughts

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

You may not have noticed, but I’ve not blogged very often in recent months.  I’ve missed the sharing, especially with some readers whom I have come to feel are friends, even though we’ve never met.

I’m the oldest sister in my family and several of my younger sibs are facing serious illness.  But unlike our growing-up years, I don’t have a store of right answers and suggestions.  It is now they who are finding the wisdom.

I suspect my relative silence may continue for a while, because sharing the thoughts which are swirling around my head almost 24/7 may compromise the privacy of those who deserve it, and so it is not time yet for me to think out loud as I usually do in this forum.

I do hope to be able to dig up some trivia to share occasionally, if only to keep myself going.  Perhaps a few Trump stories?


August 12, 2016

I don’t believe that

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

The more we understand about human intelligence the more we realize how much room for doubt there is in our conclusions.  But it seems to me that whether it be in relation to religion or science or politics, I’ve been hearing “I don’t believe that” more often these days than I used to.  Why?

There is always room for legitimate doubt in whatever field we look.  Science is based on observable evidence, and as our observations expand, so do our interpretations.  Which means that what we think of as “facts” change, and science is constantly re-assessing the validity of earlier conclusions.  Today, quantum physics and the Standard Theory, both theories about the very nature of matter and the universe are not even in agreement with each other, and both are being questioned by recent findings.

But the areas of scientific dispute are almost without end.  Is drinking alcohol in moderation good for health?  What about fats?  or more than 3 eggs a week?  or various grains?  or super-aerobic exercise like jogging every day?

Religion, of course, is a completely different matter.  Religious beliefs, by definition, cannot be verified.  They are accepted on “faith” without proof.  Believers think that their beliefs are divinely revealed and  are the true ones, but since so many religions believe so many contradictory things, somebody must be wrong.

So how do we decide what it is that we believe, or not believe?  And what determines how certain we are that the beliefs we hold are right?

I don’t know the answer to this.  When I was young, I thought it was a question of intelligence and education, but that obviously isn’t so.  It’s partly culture, both secular and religious.  I was reared as a Roman Catholic, which argues even today that it is the one and only true Church.  As a young person, I thought, therefore, that I had all the right answers to all the fundamentally important questions.  Today, I see the Church’s position as limiting.  (I would even use the words arrogant, destructive, and ignorant, if I might not be misunderstood to be saying that all Roman Catholics are arrogant and stupid, which obviously they are not.)

Of course on a daily level we cannot go around questioning every aspect of reality.  If we did we’d never get anything done.  But we are engaged in mass killings of our fellow human brothers and sisters simply because they disagree with our religious or political beliefs.   Why are we so varied in our ability to tolerate uncertainty on such a profound level?

In part, I wonder if it’s economic.  In societies where men, particularly, cannot get employment, religious and political fanaticism seems to proliferate.

If that’s so, then understanding economics and creating systems where swathes of the population are not disenfranchised is critically important to human survival.  It’s what America thought capitalism was about, but research shows that it is not as automatic as we thought for so long.  Without government intervention, the wealth of that 2% may be entrenched.  Creating equality is what Communism set out to do as well, but it also has not succeeded.  The temptation of various forms of contemporary socialism is to take from the rich, variously defined as anything from the top 2% to anybody who has more than anybody else.  And I’m dead wrong if Trump has the answers to “make America great again.”

In the long-term, we have not yet found a system that sustains development and opportunity across the board.  But in my old age, I find myself tending to study the problem from the point of view of economics rather than from theological or psychological perspectives.





July 26, 2016

A stand against sexual discrimination

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

Unlike in the States, schools did not begin their summer break until last Friday here in England.  But in recent days the weather has been extremely hot climbing well into the 90’s in some areas.

Several high school boys at a co-ed high school, therefore, asked for permission to wear shorts in order to be a little cooler, but the word came back that all students were required to wear the regulation uniform consisting of either long pants or skirts.

Four boys took the ruling at its face value and showed up in skirts.

From left: George Boyland, Jesse Stringer, Kodi Ayling, Michael Parker

I know from experience that skirts are indeed much cooler than long pants.

Though I’m not sure the skirts cooled things off in all senses of the word.


July 25, 2016

How much is 1+1?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:29 pm

My nephew who is a qualified engineer and is retiring from industry to take a position as a university lecturer  was visiting us last week, and we began to talk about creativity and how to teach it.

I shared with him Einstein’s view that “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

In other words, we have to learn to recognize the assumptions on which our “right answers” are based, and then to think out of the box.

I said I sometimes gave my students the assignment of coming to class with at least one concrete example of times when 1 + 1 does not equal 2.

My nephew immediately came up with an idea I’d never thought of before.  If a computer is programmed to round off numbers to eliminate decimals, then any number between .50 and 1.49 will read “1.”  If you then tell the computer to add these numbers in pairs,  it will round off as “1”all the pairs that add up to less than 1.49.  For example,  .74 + .74 which equals 1.49 which round off as 1.

And just to add another twist, all the pairs that equal 2.5 or more will round off as 3.

Not, I admit, quite as brilliant as Einstein’s ability to give up the assumption that time and space are absolute.

But it delights me nonetheless.

July 22, 2016

Going bananas

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:07 pm

I’m beginning to think that the wisdom of old age consists less of learning something new than it’s a process of unlearning something old.

I grew up being told by my mother than bananas should never be put in the refrigerator.  I learned about a year ago from a friend that isn’t quite so – that they can be frozen and used in a variety of different ways.

But now I’ve discovered that putting bananas in the refrigerator are an excellent way of preventing them from getting rotten.  Chiquita bananas, who were responsible for the original advice, have even said so.

There’s a trick, though.  You shouldn’t put them into the refrigerator until they have reached the stage at which you want to eat them.  Because although the skin will blacken, the fruit will not ripen once the fruit has been refrigerated — even after it is taken out of the fridge.

I’ve kept them green for more than two weeks.  Just out of curiosity, I’m tempted to put a test banana in the fridge and see just how long it will last.  As long as an apple?  a potato?  a grapefruit?

July 9, 2016

The orange glow

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 8:28 pm

I was intrigued when I was recently reading what I thought initially was a serious review of the research into dementia.  The author – a medical doctor – claimed that curcumin (which includes the spice tumeric) drastically reduces the rate of Altzheimer’s disease, a fact demonstrated by India, where the reported percentage of this debilitating disease is lower than in any other country in the world.

Then I realized what I was reading was an advertisement for tumeric supplements.  Not just any tumeric supplements either.  Only high quality supplements will bring about the desired results.

I started to ask a few obvious questions:

  • What percentage of the population over the age of 60 in India have been in contact with a qualified professional who might have made a diagnosis of some kind of dementia?  I know more than one case in both the US and Britain where an elderly person suffering from dementia is being taken care of by family members and who have not seen a doctor in years.
  • To make matters even less clear, a certain diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is extremely difficult if not impossible without a post-mortem examination of the brain of the affected person.
  • And since the advertisement insisted that the quality of tumeric supplements was important, it may be relevant to ask just what kind and how much of this treasured spice is consumed on average every day in India.

There was no discussion of any of these issues vital to substantiating the claims made.

So to claim that India has a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease than any other country in the world, let alone to claim that this is a result of the fact that so many Indians eat curry spiced with tumeric, is highly dubious.

I have tumeric in something I eat almost everyday because I like it.  I am aware that claims for it are made for curcumin as an antioxidant, for reducing joint pain, the incidence of cancer, brain & heart disease, depression and the side effects of many cancer treatments.  I strongly suspect that tumeric, like many herbs and spices, is very good for us.

But if it’s a miracle, science has not yet proven it.

Sometimes I think the differences between religious faith, political promises, and scientific claims are indiscernible.





June 29, 2016

Still learning

When I was a university lecturer, I found that I learned a lot by giving lectures, because in the process I inevitably kept thinking, not only from the questions my students asked but from the additional questions the process of interaction stimulated.  I doubt many students knew it, but I was paradoxically learning as much as they were.

I am not an economist – to my frustration sometimes as I try to understand this world – but have been experiencing a similar learning process as I did as a lecturer as I am writing now about Brexit and its global implications.

I said in an earlier post that the issues underlying Trump’s “make America great again” were radically different from the sovereignty issues raised by membership in the European Union.  Yes, on one level it is.

But digging a little deeper, Trump and Brexit are responding to similar economic and political issues exacerbated by the globalization of capitalism.  Specifically, the working class has been disenfranchised either by an influx of immigrants from poorer countries taking the jobs of locals because they are willing to work for less pay under less salubrious conditions.  Or factory work and increasingly services have been outsourced to countries where workers are paid less, and their products shipped back to Britain or the U.S.  This has not protected the working conditions of those who are actually doing the work either overseas or as immigrants, and it has put thousands of non-immigrants out of work or reduced their pay and working conditions dramatically.

At the same time, management and those at the top of international corporations are reaping the profits.  Since the early 1980’s, incomes of those at the top of the ladder have increased dramatically while those further down have not kept up with the cost of living.  So today the gap between the upper and lower classes is greater than it has been for close to a century, and the middle classes are being gutted.

So prejudice and bigotry and the increase of hate crimes particularly among the working classes against those labelled as outsiders is understandable.  But something has gone terribly wrong with the system.  Unfortunately, neither the Brexit or Trump campaigns to slam the door shut against immigrants is  a solution and will not return prosperity to either America or Britain.  But far left-wing socialist systems tried and still being tried throughout the world have not been the solution either.  Somehow, they too produce an elite while too many workers had little freedom of choice and few opportunities.

thomas-piketty.jpgToday, Thomas Piketty, a leading left-wing economist, resigned as an adviser to the Labour Party for its failure to effectively fight against Brexit in the referendum debate.  He’s got some interesting ideas and I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts over the coming months.

Now I’m going to try to restore a little sanity, and watch Wimbledon tennis.


June 26, 2016

The blonde bombshells

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:39 pm


Donald Trump, Republican, running for President in the USA                                  Boris Johnson, Tory, successful leader of UK Brexit


Someone just asked me if I thought these two men had anything in common apart from their blonde mops.  It isn’t a question that had occurred to me.  But now that I think of it, it seems to me that they share a surprising number of things.

  • Both politicians are personally well off financially.  Trump may be several zeroes better off than Johnson, but beyond a certain point, what do a few zeroes on the end of one’s net worth matter?
  • Both politicians are offering far-right solutions to voters who feel disenfranchised by economic changes both global and local, many of whom want to go back to the mythical “good old days” and make their country great again.
  • Both politicians are addressing issues which are often legitimate and which have not always been successfully addressed, or sometimes even recognized, by current governments.
  • Both have made promises to change things if they are successful, promises which unfortunately are sometimes unrealistic, uncosted, or mistaken, and in relation to which they both have begun to row back on.  These include promises about immigration and health care.
  • Trump’s pronouncements have sometimes been openly racist, while that is not true of Johnson personally, although it is true of members in his camp.  Both camps appeal to an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign mentality, and whether they mean to or not, have benefited from it.


June 25, 2016

All the King’s horses

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:46 pm

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall


Some of the implications of Thursday’s referendum in which Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union are beginning to emerge with some frightening possibilities.  The Brexit leaders are now saying that two of the most convincing arguments for withdrawal are false and the claims should never have been made.  They say that immigration from other EU countries is unlikely to be reduced significantly, and the weekly additional £375 million promised to the National Health Service was “a mistake,” and will not occur.

People living in Cornwall, a region in southwest England which voted for Brexit and which receives significant money from the EU are only now realizing that these funds will no longer be paid.  They say they expect London to pick up the tab.  Airlines  will no longer be permitted to fly between the UK  EU countries without authorization as “foreign planes.”  Tour companies are already raising their prices, there will no longer be automatic health insurance coverage for UK citizens travelling or living in the EU, UK driver’s licences will not be valid on the continent, and of course, UK passports will no longer include automatic admittance into or out of EU countries.  Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating and Standard & Poors says they are considering a similar downgrade.

Some people are already regretting their Brexit vote, thinking it was a protest vote that would never pass.  More than a million people have signed a petition asking for another referendum.  Even Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexiteers and probably the next prime minister, is saying that there’s no hurry to extradite ourselves from the EU.  Personally, I tend to give credence to those who suggest that he never expected to win, but was merely positioning himself to run as leader of the Tory party and prime minister in 2020.

Nothing would please me more than to be dead wrong.  But I fear what has been done cannot be undone and that Britain has inflicted a great wound upon itself.

And all the King’s Men

And all the King’s Horses

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

June 24, 2016

Brexit the morning after

I was up an hour earlier than usual this morning, and was stunned almost speechless to see the Brexit result.  My thoughts are now tumbling on so fast that I don’t know where to start.

As I made clear in my last post, I was committed to the Remain-in-the-EU side because, although I deeply appreciated the limits of the EU, I thought Britain would be in a better position to influence change – for itself, for the EU, and for the world – in rather than out of the EU.

But probably the most appalling thing I heard today was from Donald Trump who claims that it was his influence that swung the British to the Brexit vote, and that he now wants to instigate the same thing in the USA as president.

Why is that so appalling?  First, because I assure you Trump did not swing that vote.  Hundreds of thousands of British people signed a petition asking that he be barred from ever coming to this country.  And because the issues over Britain’s position in the EU are in no way the issues facing the US.

The essential problem for Britain in relation to the EU is a democratic deficit that the US would never tolerate.  The US would not tolerate another country telling it that it MUST accept any migrants from 26 other countries who wish to live there.  It would not tolerate a ruling that convicted criminals – rapists, murderers, gangsters – may not be deported back to their own countries after they have served their sentences if it would “violate their human rights.”  In one case, the human right being violated was that the ex-convict would be separated from his pet cats.  (I kid you not.)  The US would not tolerate thousands of dictates a year from an un-elected bureaucracy in another country which they are bound to implement.  Everything from how much cargo must be carried on trains to the size of pans one may use in their kitchens.  The US would not tolerate a Supreme Court making the final decisions about whether its laws are legitimate.

Nor was this vote primarily motivated by bigotry or racism or religious intolerance.  It was a vote about sovereignty.  As one person said to me yesterday at the check-out counter of our local farm shop:  “It’s about making our own rules for ourselves.”

In any case, the decision has now been made, and the implications are huge, if not yet clear.  Both the Tory and Labour parties here are already feeling the repercussions.  So have the pound sterling and the stock markets.  How it will eventually affect the economy here is unclear.  Will it eventually break up the United Kingdom?  Scotland says another independence referendum is now on the cards, Northern Ireland shares an open unmanned border with Ireland which is member of the EU, a problem which must be addressed.  Hundreds of issues in relation to trade with the EU and with non-EU countries around the world will need to be negotiated.  And the EU itself, deeply shaken by this unexpected vote, must decide how to relate to an independent Britain and its effect on countries already within the EU that also want big changes in relation to the authority in Brussels.  The EU itself may not survive.

Enough blathering for now.  I am now off to have a Friday gin & tonic, followed by some very English fish & chips.

June 21, 2016

BR-Exit or BR-In?

Flag of Europe.svg        or       Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg

The day after tomorrow is the referendum in which Britons decide whether to stay or leave the EU.  I decided years ago not to make this blog into a political commentary since I would inevitably be repeating what those closer to the source would be writing.  But this week I have received a month’s worth of communications asking me what I think – should Britain stay or leave?  So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Today someone sent me John Oliver’s thoughts on the question.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but he pretty much expresses both my own views on the subject as well as my feelings.  At the heart of the EU is a democratic deficit replaced by a bureaucratic minefield of infuriating finger-wagging.  I even have reservations about the European Court of Justice.

If I concentrate on what drives me crazy, the overwhelming temptation is to join Brexit, pick up one’s ball and say we don’t want to play anymore.
But that won’t make things better.  That’s not the solution.  It’s infuriating, but Britain is crazy to think it will be better off without Europe.  Besides, during the last century, Britain has done a great deal to make Europe far far better – politically and economically.  And if we paid a little more attention to whom we are electing when we send representative to the European Parliament, we might be able to make a dent in that gaping hole of democratic deficiency.  As it is, most British citizens have no idea who their EU representatives are and don’t care.
I do agree with those who say that this is quite possibly the most important vote every eligible voter in the UK today will make in their life time.   We must stay in and continue to fight – for our sakes, for Europe’s sake, and for the sake of the entire global economic and political world.
Don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wake up on Friday morning…
But at least there’s Andy Murray.

June 18, 2016

My unsolvable problem

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:01 pm

So here we are in a world that feels like it’s ripping itself apart.  I doubt you need the list – environmental destruction, ocean acidification due to our carbon emissions at the highest it’s been for 300 million years, the biggest mass shoot out ever recorded in an Orlando pub catering to LGBTs, a vicious stabbing and murder by a neo-Nazi in Yorkshire of a woman in Parliament apparently because she was supporting the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, not to mention a debate here in Britain as destructive as that being carried on by Trump in the U.S.

It feels rather overwhelming this week somehow.

So last night I tossed and turned worrying about one of the great unsolved problems of the world.

I spent the night trying to figure out what percentage of the card game of Solitaire are potentially winnable if good luck, card counting, and maybe even a little bit of cheating are all part of the mix.  The first step was easy:  figuring out the number of different games a 52-card pack could yield.  It’s 52x51x50x….3×2.  But very soon after that when I started trying to figure out the percentage of potential wins, I get stumped.  “Go back to sleep, dummy,” I advise myself.

So part of myself takes the advice.  Until the other part of myself wakes me up starting the whole process over again.  It went on all night.

I would like to hope that what my dream – or nightmare –  was telling me is that I can’t solve all the world’s problems.

I hope it doesn’t suggest that I really have my priorities screwed up.


June 10, 2016

The minute two lives changed

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:46 pm

As I said in my last post, two people have sent me stories about wonderful, unplanned, and unexpected reunions following devastating separations of World War II.

The first story was sent to me by a friend whose own childhood was in Norway during the war, and who now lives in Brooklyn.  She knew Golda Steinberg personally.  

During the war, Golda and her husband were separated and sent to different concentration camps in Poland.  After the war, Golda immigrated to the United States,  earned her degree in Social Work, married and had several children.  She also eventually taught at Columbia University school of social work, at 110th Street and Broadway.

One day, when she was in her 60’s, as she was walking down Broadway, she saw – and recognized – her first husband from Poland.  He had also immigrated to NYC, and now lived with his wife in the immediate area.  Both couples became steadfast friends.

The second story was told to me by someone who did not know the people involved personally but saw it told on a tv documentary.   When a mother was sent with her young daughter to a concentration camp, she was given the opportunity to pack a few things.  Like many others, she took various items of food.  When they reached the camp, she took out a chunk of chocolate and gave it to her daughter.  

“This is not for eating now,” she told her.  “It’s for you to keep for a day when you may have nothing else to eat and may be starving.”

One day a detainee in the camp who was about to give birth was also starving, and the girl’s mother asked her if she would be willing to give her the chocolate.  She did, and undoubtedly contributed to saving the lives of both mother and her new-born daughter.

Many years later, the child who had given up her chocolate had immigrated to the States and obtained her nursing degree.  One day she was giving a talk to others who, like her, had survived their time in concentration camps and made their way to the U.S.  In the talk, she told the story of giving the chocolate to a starving mother.

After the talk, a women who had also attended the conference, came up to her and said “I know you.  I have known you all my life, because you saved my life.  My mother told me about that gift of chocolate and that she believed we would have starved without it.”


June 4, 2016

“The Tablecloth”

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:28 pm

Below is an allegedly “true story” was sent to me last month by an old high school friend.  It is, I admit, a lovely story which I appreciate might actually be true.  But I was seven years old when I asked my father why, if God loved us so much and if He could do anything He wanted, He let so many good people suffer so many bad things.  It is a question to which there is no logical answer:  good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

And so I found the final paragraphs of the communication below so unconvincing and even naive that I wondered about whether the story was simply made up.  So I sent the story to several friends whom I thought might be familiar with it and could verify or refute it.

I got several amazing answers, which I will write about in my posts later this week.  But first, read this story yourself:

The brand new pastor and his wife, newly assigned to their first ministry, to reopen a church in suburban Brooklyn, arrived in early October excited about their opportunities. When they saw their church, it was very run down and needed much work. They set a goal to have everything done in time to have their first service on Christmas Eve.  They worked hard, repairing pews, plastering walls, painting, etc, and on December 18 were ahead of schedule and 

just about finished. 

On December 19 a terrible tempest – a driving rainstorm hit the area and lasted for two days. 

On the 21st, the pastor went over to the church.His heart sank when he saw that the roof had leaked, causing a large area of plaster about 20 feet by 8 feet to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit, beginning about head high. 

The pastor cleaned up the mess on the floor, and not knowing what else to do but postpone the Christmas Eve service, headed home. On the way he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity, so he stopped in. One of the items was a beautiful, handmade, ivory colored, crocheted tablecloth with exquisite work, fine colors and a Cross embroidered right in the center. It was just the right size to cover the hole in the front wall. He bought it and headed back to the church.

 By this time it had started to snow. An older woman running from the opposite direction was trying to catch the bus. She missed it. The pastor invited her to wait in the warm church for the next bus 45 minutes later.

 She sat in a pew and paid no attention to the pastor while he got a ladder, hangers, etc., to put up the tablecloth as a wall tapestry. The pastor could hardly believe how beautiful it looked and it covered up the entire problem area.

 Then he noticed the woman walking down the center aisle. Her face was like a sheet. “Pastor,” she asked, “where did you get that tablecloth?” The pastor explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crocheted into it there. They were. These were the initials of the woman, and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before, in Austria .

 The woman could hardly believe it as the pastor told how he had just gotten “The Tablecloth”. The woman explained that before the war she and her husband were well-to-do people in Austria. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week, but he was  captured, sent to prison and she never saw her husband or her home again.

 The pastor wanted to give her the tablecloth; but she made the pastor keep it for the church.  The pastor insisted on driving her home. That was the least he could do. She lived on the other side of Staten Island and was only in Brooklyn for the day for a housecleaning job.

 What a wonderful service they had on Christmas Eve. The church was almost full. The music and the spirit were great. At the end of the service, the pastor and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return.

 One older man, whom the pastor recognized from the neighborhood continued to sit in one of the pews and stare, and the pastor wondered why he wasn’t leaving.

 The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall because it was identical to one that his wife had made years ago when they lived in Austria before the war and how could there be two tablecloths so much alike?  He told the pastor how the Nazis came, how he forced his wife to flee for her safety and he was supposed to follow her, but he was arrested and put in prison. He never saw his wife or his home again all the 35 years between.

 The pastor asked him if he would allow him to take him for a little ride.  They drove to Staten Island and to the same house where the pastor had taken the woman three days earlier.  He helped the man climb the three flights of stairs to the woman’s apartment, knocked on the door and he saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could ever imagine.

 This is a true story – submitted by Pastor Rob Reid who says God does work in mysterious ways.

I asked the Lord to bless you as I prayed for you today, to guide you and protect you as you go along your way. His love is always with you. His promises are true, and when we give Him all our cares we know He will see us through.   So when the road you’re traveling seems difficult at best, just remember I’m here praying and God will do the rest.

Pass this on to those you want God to bless and remember to send it back to the one who asked God to bless you first.

When there is nothing left but God, that is when you find out that God is all you need.  Take 60 seconds and give this a shot! All you do is simply say the following small prayer for the person who sent this to you.


Father, God, bless all my friends and family in whatever it is that You know they may be needing this day!

May their lives be full of Your peace,prosperity and power as they seek to have a closer relationship with You. 

 Then send it on to five other people, including the one who sent it to you.  Within hours five people have prayed for you and you caused a multitude of people to pray for other people. Then, sit back and watch the power of God work in your life.

May 25, 2016


A friend recently sent me an article commenting on Pope Francis and his attitude toward the poor.  The view of the author is that Francis’ views is Marxist and betrays the essence of Christianity.

Francis sounded at first like such a breath of fresh air in the face of a rigid and often uncaring and out-of-touch Vatican hierarchy.  But  I’ve started thinking once again about the Eight Beatitudes and what the Sermon on the Mount really says with its proclamations that the poor are “blessed.”

If “blessed are the poor” means, in modern day language, that celebrity or mega-wealth or a Facebook full of friends are rarely goals worth pursuing in their own right, then I agree.

But that’s not what Christianity has, by and large, been teaching for the last several thousand years.  Taking a vow of poverty, for instance, automatically lifted someone to a higher plane of holiness, even if the vow did not remotely entail the imminent danger of being hungry or cold or dispossessed.  Apart from that group of well-cared for allegedly poor nuns, monks, and brothers, most of those elevated to the official status of saints were not poor.  They were among the Great and the Good, people in positions of power and authority who treated their servants with a certain amount of fairness, or who took up the sword to slay the enemies of Christianity.  Or sometimes merely the version of Christianity currently in favour.

So what is essentially “Christian” about being poor?

Well, for starters, the translation of the beatitude about the poor in the Bibles with which I am acquainted does not say “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It does not bless poverty in the economic sense.  It does not suggest that being hungry or living in squalor or unable to obtain an education for lack of funds is intrinsically blessed.  Conversely, it does not support the conclusion that people like Donald Trump, among others, who have declared themselves legally bankrupt on occasions are subsequently automatically “blessed.”

It seems to me that, challenging as economic poverty may be, “blessed” is a great deal more difficult to achieve.  In some ways, we are all “poor.”  We are all incomplete, all needy in different ways, we all need support and help from others.  It’s not being “poor” that is blessed.  It’s what we do with those challenges presented by our incompleteness.

Do we respond with violence, jealousy, resentment, with passive acceptance or helplessness?  Admittedly society is apt to respond to those who respond to their economic poverty with physical violence with a tit-for-tat punishment such as prison sentences and exile.  Those whose poverty is not economic are rarely punished with the same vindictive anger by society.  Partly because the violence of the well-off is less apt to be overtly physically abusive, and more apt to be manifest in betrayals, and scams.  But in either case, neither being rich nor poor or somewhere in-between is, all by itself, “blessed.”

By the same token, “serving the poor” in the economic sense of poverty, is not somehow holier than meeting all the other human needs we have besides those for food and shelter.  We need love, we need to feel special, we need guidance too.

And we need to give every bit as much as we need to receive.  The overt “giver” is often, in the very act, the true “receiver.”

I suspect that “poor” is much deeper, more complex, and more universal, than either Christianity or Marxism would have us believe.


May 16, 2016

Am I a mystic?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

I’ve never thought I was a mystic.  Well, not counting that time when I was about seven when a friend told me she thought she was developing the stigmata — marks of nails on one’s hands and feet in identification with the crucified Jesus.  But when no similar marks appeared in my own hands, I decided not to take matters into my own hands (excuse the pun), and decided it was not going to be my path to sainthood.

Many years later as a psychologist, I wondered in passing if many manifestations of “mysticism” weren’t really a form of neurosis or even psychosis.

But more recently I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences almost of euphoria in response to music and also of some studies of nature like quantum physics or animal consciousness.  My responses aren’t irrational, but they are somehow beyond reason, accompanied by this sheer sense of awe and joy in the presence of such almost-infinite beauty.

Then a couple of days ago I stumbled on a website discussing how quantum mechanics, mysticism, and vendata-yoga are influencing western thought today, and I began to ask myself what actually a mystic is.  How do they know something that us ordinary folk do not comprehend?  And how does one tell the difference between a mystic and someone who simply claims to know the Truth by some path which the rest of us have not attained?

So I went to the font of all knowledge in this second millennium and Googled “What is a mystic?”

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is of the opinion that “mysticism is popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but may refer to any kind of ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.”   Maybe one needs simply to get a hold of the right drugs then, and interpret it as a spiritual experience.

Another website offered to help clarify my inquiry, with a set of ten telltale sign of a mystic.

Here are the signs and my thoughts about whether I qualify:

You value experiences above all else.  That means you trust your own experience above doctrine and laws and abstract principles.  Personally, I don’t trust anything, doctrine, laws, abstract principles, or my personal experience absolutely.  I think about them, I listen.  Some things make more sense than others and I use them as guidelines.  But I can’t say I value my experience above all else.

You question existence.  You constantly ask why we are all here, and have a natural curiosity about the physical and spiritual world.  I used to think the answer to this question was “God,” until I realized the concept of  “God” is unfathomable to the human mind.  Although I have a driving, almost endless curiosity about the physical world, including curiosity about consciousness which seems evident in all living things, I prefer to accept that I live in mystery to which I do not have the answers and do not believe I ever will.

You are comfortable with uncertainty.  Yes!  In fact, I am hugely uncomfortable with certainty – about almost everything.  I don’t trust absolute answers about anything from anybody no matter who they are.  Hmm, does that make me mystical?

You value intuition.   I value intuition, but I don’t trust it without testing it out.  My intuition is sometimes a leap into the light.  It is also sometimes dead wrong.

You are uncomfortable with spiritual hierarchies.  Mystics do not believe there is only one correct way.  No, neither do I.  We are each unique.  At least in this universe.

You have your own set of rules, looking beyond what may be socially accepted or mandated by leaders or society.  I’m not by nature a rebel and I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being socially awkward or insensitive.  But from a very young age I’ve always wanted to do things for myself and make my own decisions.

You value internal growth.  If this means, do I value it more than money or fame or public success, yes.  This strikes me more as a sign of maturity than mysticism, though.

You believe you are a conduit for power, not the source.  The answer for myself depends on what one means by “source.”  I’m inclined to think there is an intrinsic evolution in the universe, but I’m not inclined to believe it was created by some external power many people would call “God.

You believe love is the source of life.  Again, I might quibble with the use of the word “source.”  But love does seem to me to be the essence of the creative force in the universe.

You don’t know everything.  Agree.  But I’m pretty sure I haven’t discovered this because I’m a mystic.   I discovered it because I still have so many unanswered questions.

Well, I don’t seem to be a truly qualified mystic.   I’m also not convinced mysticism is intrinsically some higher way of knowing.  But I do think it might be a legitimate way of knowing.  The psychologist Carl Jung believed that we humans tend to favor reason or intuition during the first part of our lives, and somewhere around middle age begin to switch to whichever mode has been less dominant in our youth.  I suspect that mysticism is an intuitive approach applied to questions that are beyond the scope of science.  It is not always right, but it isn’t necessarily neurotic either.  It’s a legitimate way of trying to explore the question of existence and its meaning.

April 25, 2016

Which lesson have we learned?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is Why do abused children become abusers? published more than six years ago.  In it I ask why some children who are abused grow up to be abusers themselves.  Would not children who are abused understand above all how painful, destructive, indeed awful abuse is?  Some children do grow up to be loving, caring parents.  But research shows that a surprising number of adult abusers were themselves abused as children.

Among other things, what they so often learned wasn’t that bullying is bad but that it is the biggest bully who gets his or her way.

I have just read another blog post, Are African Americans Our Palestinians?, that has led me to conclude that something similar sometimes happens to whole cultures, or at least sub-cultures.  In Israel today it seems to me that today’s government has come to believe that to achieve that oft-repeated vow, “never again”, it must be the biggest bully on the block.

And do you know who are Israel’s biggest supporters in this endeavour?  The Land of the Free.  The land where immigrants arrived and in the name of Freedom began a program of bullying the natives already living there.  It was effectively a program of ethnic cleansing, eventually reducing the native American Indian population to a mere 5% of its original size.  That lay the ground work for the importation of slaves, who even today in America suffer the effects of widespread prejudice.

We Americans and Israelis are not the only cultures, of course, to develop this pattern of bullying abuse.  Nor are the citizens of any bullying country all guilty of self-delusion either.  But we humans so often see the speck in our neighbor’s eye while missing the boulder in our own.

One further qualification:  I myself have struggled for most of my life over the problem of using brute force.  I do know that punishment is rarely as effective in child-raising or in changing behavior in general as encouragement and reward.  But sometimes it seems to me behavior must be stopped by force.  If force is necessary, I would use it on a two-year-old child heading for an open fire.  I would shoot a man, given the chance, who was threatening to murder his wife.  But would I support sending government troops to defend people threatened by ethnic cleansing?  That gets more complicated, but if I thought I could stop such an outrage, I would.

April 12, 2016

My pocketful of stones

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:52 pm

I was washing a down comforter in our washer-dryer several days ago, and remembered that putting something like an old tennis shoe or a couple of tennis balls into the drying cycle helps to fluff up the down.

I didn’t have any tennis balls or old shoes around though, and was reluctant to risk a shoe that is still wearable.  After all, the rubber could melt and ruin not only the shoe but also the comforter.  I’m not that dumb.  I mean, let’s be sensible here.  So I decided to be creative.

I found a couple of plastic jars and filled them with small decorative pebbles and added them to the drum.

All went well.  But when the drying cycle was finished and I opened up the door, I saw the lid had come off one of the jars and pebbles were spread all over the place.

I took the comforter outside and shook the errant pebbles out.  But I was a little worried that some of them might have gotten into the machine’s drainage system, so it seemed a good idea to check the drainage catchment area.

It wasn’t a good idea.

When I opened it up, an alarm started and a message came up saying “Emergency flood control alerted.  Call serviceman.”

A Mickey Hands T-Shirt 

I spent another half hour reading the trouble-shooting section of the machine’s directions and fiddling with ideas of my own to determine that the only thing I could do was to follow Miele’s single line of advice and call the serviceman.  I did turn off the alarm by pulling the electric plug, but that was the height of my achievement.The serviceman came the next day but I was too embarrassed to tell him I’d done something so stupid as to actually put a couple of jars full of stones into the machine.  So I told him I’d accidentally put laundry into the wash with a pocketful of stones.  That at least impressed me – if not the serviceman – as careless rather than creatively stupid.

But stupid it was.

And it only cost me $125 to get it fixed.

Maybe I should give up trying to be creative, and simply go back to obeying rules?

On the other hand, there isn’t anything in the directions that says anything about not putting jars of stones in the laundry.

April 4, 2016

How to avoid hell fire

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Last night we watched a BBC adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  The Bronte sisters lived in Yorkshire in the mid-1800’s, and were the children of a minister.  But the three sisters seemed to have a drive for independence and survival that I recognize to this day in the Yorkshire culture.  The Bronte sisters sat around their table and wrote, works that were eventually published.

It was a hard life, fought against death, starvation, unemployment, and a religious fanaticism that is recognizable in the various forms of fundamentalism today, whose leaders believe that anyone who disagrees with them is disobeying the sacred word of God, and whose salvation depends on being given a taste of hell on earth.

Jane Eyre was subject to the humiliation and beatings deserved by anyone arrogant enough to stand up for herself.

In one scene which I doubt I will forget in my lifetime, Jane is being publicly castigated.  “Do you know what happens to people who go to hell?” she is asked.  “Yes, sir,” she replies, “they burn in fire forever.”  “And do you know what you have to do to avoid going to hell?” the minister demands.  “Yes, sir,” Jane answered.  “You have to live a healthy life so you don’t die too soon.”

I love it!  At Jane’s age, I was too good at knowing the Right Answers to have come up with an answer that so obviously violated the Truth with which Jane was being so ruthlessly beaten.  In fact, even though I openly disagreed with my superiors when I was a nun, it was still with the conviction that I had the Right Answers.  I had Vatican II on my side, after all, and John Kennedy, and Karl Rahner.

Now at least I know there are a lot of ways to be Right.

And, I fear, even more ways to be Wrong.


March 27, 2016

Day of Hope

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:23 pm

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always liked Easter a lot better than Christmas.  Not because I like rabbits and chocolate eggs better than Santa Claus’s and Christmas trees.  But because it’s a celebration of hope when everything seems so beyond hope.

In the world today, it seems to me that we need hope perhaps more than ever.  I don’t mean the everyday kind of hopes that permeate our lives.  You know, I hope it won’t rain today, or I hope I get over this flu soon, or I hope I can find my lost set of keys, or that I get the job I’ve applied for.

I don’t even mean hope that the worst isn’t going to happen.  Because it might.  We might destroy ourselves with war, or epidemics, or sheer environmental destruction.  Is hope possible in the face of such final death, in the face of the darkness of such an ultimate Good Friday?

Easter, for me, is a commitment to hope that it is.  That whatever happens, being is good, that simply to be alive has an intrinsic value.  That whatever happens, it is worthwhile, even wonderful, however despairing it may look.

It’s the only act of faith of which I am capable.  On the dark days I sometimes have to work on it.

The egg is the symbol of new life (– if it’s not boiled first, of course.)

Happy Easter to everyone reading this.  

March 26, 2016

Be careful what you say!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 5:28 pm

The philosopher of great renown, Hilary Putnam, died several weeks ago.  He wrote about a lot of things, including the meaning of meaning, pointing out that when we use a word, its meaning depends on the context in which we understand it.  Putnam gave the hypothetical example of identical twins living on planets identical in every way except for the molecular component of what each twin called “water.”  Putnam pointed out that although each twin would be using the same word, they would be referring to fundamentally different things.

But one need not go extra-terrestial to find examples of the importance of context in giving words different meanings even to individuals speaking the same language.  I have found hundreds of examples merely by crossing the pond.  Men here routinely address me as “love,” or “loverly” in contexts that I would find inappropriate in the States but rather enjoy over here.  Alternatively, as I have mentioned before, my husband had to caution me not to use words such as “bloody,” or “knackers” with the freedom I might have used them in the new world.

I stumbled on another emerging example yesterday of the influence of context on meaning.  It’s in relation to rapeseed oil which is called canola oil in America.  The word “rape” is derived originally from the Latin term for turnip, but in America the name was changed for marketing reasons.  It is still called rapeseed oil here in Britain.

But the marketing inhibitions associated with the term rape have recrossed the pond returning to Britain in a different context.  Aldi, a superstore, has agreed to change the name of its Rape Yellow paint after a woman who had been sexually assaulted complained that Rape Yellow did not remind her of bright and cheerful sunshine but of a darker more disturbing event.

Hmm:  learning a different language is even harder than I thought.

March 24, 2016

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:17 pm

One of the things I find fascinating about living in Britain is names.  They are so pregnant with history.

Names in America often indicate something about their origins, too, of course, but names on this side of the pond go back thousands, even occasionally, more than ten thousand years.  In America only names left by the original American Indians have a history that go back more than 500 years or so.

We live, for instance, on Stocks Lane.  The village was founded in 543, and our house is just below the hill from where the church tower dominates the residents.  There is no doubt in my mind that the “stocks” were not for cattle or fruit, and obviously not for trading stocks & shares.  It was the local “correction centre.”

Further afield there is Roman Hill, which was carved out by the Romans who were here until the year 410 AD.  I have not been able to discover yet whether it was people or pigs or sheep washed at Wash Pit Lane, but perhaps it was all three.   Even in the 20th century, there was many villages where people used public baths and out houses because bathrooms were not included in the houses.

There are thousands of names like these:  Cheddar Lane, Prime Close, Abbey Gate House, Kings Cross.

But I’ve just been introduced to another newly-minted name, which nonetheless is resonant with the past.

Food Mug - I Love Stinking BishopIt’s Stinking Bishop Cheese.

Seriously, it’s a cheese made in Gloucester which seems to be tremendously expensive and popular not only here but in France.  It became the rage about ten years ago when it was used to revive Wallace from the dead in a Wallace & Grommit film.  The politically acceptable version of where the cheese got its name is that the Cistercian monks used to produce cheese in a highly odoriferous process.

Yes, but what’s that word “Bishop” doing there?





March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:36 pm

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing





February 27, 2016

However it’s said…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:53 pm


“Three things in human life are important:

the first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.”

— Henry James

However you say it, whether it’s the Golden Rule, or St. Paul’s Greatest of These, it’s love that turns out to be what matters in the end, isn’t it?

Henry James, the writer, died 100 years ago tomorrow.  His work is still vibrant, and in coming months, museums, libraries, and universities are exploring his legacy in conferences across America and Europe.  

February 14, 2016

Speaking of love…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:01 pm

I stopped by the news stand to pick up our Sunday newspaper this morning, and the young man at the check out greeted me with “Hello, love.”  “Oh,” I responded “you’re from Yorkshire!”

Because I know this greeting has nothing to do with the fact that today is Valentine’s Day.  “Love,” is a standard greeting in Yorkshire and Lancaster, and everyone one from the postman to local workmen have used this term to greet me.

Here in the south of England, “love” comes in a slightly different version.  When we went to pick up our Friday fish two days ago, the fish monger greeted me with “Hello, Loverly, how are we today?”  “Great,” I replied as an American.  Here in England, in my experience no true Englishman would suggest anything more enthusiastic than “not so bad.”  “I can’t complain” is close to euphoric.

But there is an interesting adjustment to an American greeting that has crossed the pond in recent years.  It is often adjusted from the rather neutral “Have a nice day” to “Have a lovely day.”

I love it!

Best wishes for a happy Valentine’s Day — which, come to think of it, itself has little to do with St. Valentine who was shot through the heart by the Romans for refusing to pay homage to their gods, a dangerous practice that rulers could not tolerate on the grounds that it was the gods who control a people’s good or bad fortune.

Actually, perhaps not much has changed after all.

February 9, 2016

In the Good News Department

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:11 pm

As you have probably noticed, bad news makes news;  good news has to struggle to hit the headlines.

Just today, for instance, the news is about a train crash in Bavaria, Germany which has killed 9 people and seriously injured another 50.  The second headline I saw featured a man who died after setting himself on fire this morning outside Prince William and Kate’s home in London.  Headline number 3 featured the violence in Hong Kong, followed by a revenge killing in Dublin, and the starving refugees fleeing Syria.  Your list might feature different bad news, but I bet it’s mostly depressing.

I’m not blaming the media for this.  Good news is hardly ever as surprising as bad news.  And it’s often boring.  A train crash is news:  the thousands of trains throughout the world today that ran smoothly isn’t.  Or what is there to say about an ordinary shopping day in Dublin or London or Hong Kong?

But I did read some seriously good – and interesting – news today.

The prevalence of dementia among people over the age of 65 in Britain over the last two decades has dropped by some 22% per cent.  And they don’t expect that decline to reverse itself.  Because the improvement seems to be due to improved life style and better health care in general.

As someone who is well over 65, I find this especially good news.
Dorothy & Cathy at about 2 &4 yrs

And especially grateful for parents who gave me an appreciation of the importance of nutrition and exercise on that Ohio farm where I grew up. 


February 7, 2016

Yes we can!

As I said in an earlier post, I believe that the environmental change we humans are effecting on our planet is the biggest challenge facing the world today.  In so far as it could lead to our own extinction as a species, it may actually be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.

I do not agree with those who argue that the emergence of this challenge is a result of human greed.  It is the outcome of evolution, of the drive for survival which lies at the very core of every living organism.  Millions of species that survived for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, are now extinct because they were unable to adapt to the environmental change which they themselves often orchestrated.

In the last century, lighting and heating our homes and offices by burning coal and oil, increased transportation by road and rail traffic, industrialized farming, the domestication of farm animals, all have kept millions of people from starvation, poverty, the effects of deadly weather, and disease.

These innovations were spread by loving, creative, hard-working people around the world often making sacrifices for their children and communities.  We didn’t know it then – we had no idea – that carried to an extreme, we could be destroying the potential of our very existence.

Yet we may be the only species that can now see that many of the very solutions to the problems we have been intelligent enough to solve in the past in order to insure our survival have now created the very problems we need solve in order to insure our continued survival.

We have the intelligence to solve these problems without destroying ourselves.

In New Zealand today, research is being carried out which is already producing cows and sheep which expel less methane.  In Europe, scientists who have discovered that the huge expanse of man-made forests consisting of conifers isn’t reducing global warming but increasing it are moving to replace the conifers with nature’s original choice of broad-leaved varieties.  We are identifying new and clean ways of tapping into the sun’s energy using the ocean waves, pedestrian traffic, even the tires rolling on the road might someday be used to charge car batteries without their ever needing to be plugged into a socket.

There are hundreds – no, thousands – of examples like this.  Some are already being implemented, some are still in the experimental or even conceptual stage.  The solutions are not yet all obvious. Nor will the problem be solved in one fell swoop, with one big single answer.  It needs many steps, some small, some large.

But if we believe in ourselves and in our responsibility to care for this planet that has been given into our care, we can make it even better than it has ever been.

We are the ones who have to do it.  And we can!



January 22, 2016

Is global warming just a joke?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:44 pm

Scientists have announced that the world for the year 2015 was an average of 1 degree celsius (that’s about 2 degree fahrenheit) warmer than has ever occurred in recorded history.

But 1 degree?  That doesn’t sound like the potential catastrophe of droughts, floods, extinctions, starvation and global disease scientists say could occur if the planet warms more than just one more degree.

Is this serious, is it mere hysteria?  is it a fraud?

Nothing would please me more than to write that scientists are exaggerating the problem.

But let us put 1 degree celsius into context.  A decrease of just five degrees celsius would plunge the world into an ice age.  So a change of a mere five degrees can dramatically change our planet.  Unfortunately, it can do so in the opposite direction as well.

Global warming in the form of 2-3 degree celsius can be devastating.  The melting of glaciers could raise the oceans’ water level by as much as 6-8 feet.  Think of how many of the world’s greatest cities will be underwater, how many islands will disappear, how much land will be lost to the sea.  As sea water becomes increasingly acidic, much of sea life will be lost.



Extreme weather patterns, some of which we have already seen this year, will proliferate.  Floods will sweep entire towns, fields and farm land away.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons will flatten anything and anyone in its torrential path.

Electricity, communication media, and travel could be devastated, leaving survivors isolated.  Water supplies will be corrupted.

Fifteen years ago when I first read about global warming, I thought it sounded quite comfortable.  Some of us would perhaps have to sacrifice our winter snow and skiing vacations.  But our heating bills would be greatly reduced, and the growing season for our crops would be lengthened.

But that’s not what’s happening.  Environmental change, even environmental destruction, would be a much better term for what we call global warming.  Yes, the temperatures are increasing, but the effects on our mother earth are not benign.

Can we stop it?  Yes, I believe we can.  It doesn’t have to happen.  With research, with ingenuity, if governments, if businesses, if individuals are determined to save our planet we can do it.  The ways of producing clean energy now being provided by polluting fossil fuels is developing fast.  Solar panels are becoming cheaper.  More efficient, lithium batteries are getting smaller and are even being used to store electricity in houses, making them independent of the grid.  We’re even finding ways of tapping into the energy that Einstein discovered pervades every inch of our atmosphere.

But we can’t walk around and deny the problem created by our unlimited use of fossil fuels.  Or count on somebody else to fix things.

We all have to do our part, no matter how small that might feel.  But we can do it if we choose.  We don’t have to be victims.

January 12, 2016

Another perspective

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:20 pm

Alan Bennett Lady in the VanThe English playwright Alan Bennett recently told a story about one of his plays.  It includes a scene where a couple routinely sit at a table without a cloth enjoying their morning tea and who are overlooked from her window by a nosey righteous neighbor.

The play was sufficiently successful to be translated for a slot on French tv.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s description of the table laid without a table cloth was translated to something resembling “the two of them sitting there every morning without any clothes on.”

Not exactly what I would have meant when I try to remember that it’s valuable to try to see things from other people’s perspectives…


December 27, 2015

Am I still a Catholic?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

Several weeks ago, I received a comment asking several questions on this blog post of June 19, 2007  “The night I left the convent.”  The questioner asked if I was still a Catholic, if I believed in God, and if I’d felt a “desire to serve Jesus” when I’d entered the convent.

The questions might sound simple, but the answers aren’t.  “Am I still a Catholic?” doesn’t have a black & white Yes or No answer.  It depends on what being “Catholic” means.

I do not think the essence of being a Catholic  or a Christian – by any definition Catholic or Protestant – lies in doctrine.  It is a tragic mistake to think our salvation is based on what we believe and has led to centuries of religious slaughter.   The fundamental Christian message is one of love.  Nothing can replace it.  And love can make up for all – all – the other deficits which might afflict us.

And so no, I am not still a Catholic by the demands of those who insist that I agree with the decrees of the Catholic hierarchy.  I do not believe in  the doctrines most traditional Catholics would accept as essential to Catholic belief.  I have no doubt that by most standards I would be excommunicated.   I would not even try to partake in communion.

In fact, I do not believe in what most believers mean when they use the term “God.”  By definition, I cannot see how “God” can possibly be as human as most people conceive this concept.  But more profoundly, I  emphatically reject the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving creator who is prepared to send his creatures to an everlasting hell fire should they step over the mark and not manage to get to a priest for official forgiveness before death overcomes him.   I was taught that even so much as eating a single bite of meat on Friday was a mortal sin, an act so evil that it would dam me for eternity if I didn’t get to confession and receive forgiveness.  I won’t go on further at how hideous I experience this God to be.  Yes, we live in mystery.  We do not understand our universe in any ultimate sense.  But I do not give “God” as my answer to those ultimate questions.

Yet there are other ways in which I am still a Catholic.  The version of Catholicism I was given taught that all humankind are brothers.  We are called on to love all of our fellow mankind, and to care for all living things.  For me, the core of Christianity is “the greatest of these”.  That, as St. Paul said, is love.

That really does mean, though, that we cannot divide the world into “us” and “them.”  The important distinctions are neither Jew or gentile, male or female, Black or White, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, believer or non-believer, the saved or the unredeemed,  the right and the wrong.

We are all incomplete.  We all need each other.  We all need both to love and to be loved.  And none of us are 100% right.

There are other ways as well in which I am still culturally a Catholic.  I still like right answers, a preference which to some extent was reinforced by being socialized as a member of what I was told was the “one and only true church.”   I was quite good when I was young at explaining and defending those “right answers.”  I have found this tendency in general has often been useful in solving practical problems.  But an attitude like that can interfere with creativity, and I have often failed to distinguish between rigid rules and principles.   It was only in my later years that I have come to fully understand that rules are valuable suggestions that may be useful in achieving ones goals.  But disobeying a rule or even a law isn’t the same thing as committing a sin.

I have never felt any particular passion to “serve Jesus.”  Most of my life I have found great pleasure in helping others.  I loved teaching, for instance, with a passion.  And there was a time when I thought I was wise enough to construct a world that would eliminate injustice and unfairness and suffering.  I wasn’t, and I am hugely grateful I was never given the power to demonstrate my ignorance.

So am I still a Catholic?

Depends on what that means.

Now I have to stop or I will end up moving this post to trash in sheer embarrassment.





December 25, 2015

Hope of the light

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:48 am

For tens of thousands of years before it was a celebration of Christmas, this time of the year was celebrated as the time of hope.  Because it was the time when the light began to return.  Until less than perhaps a thousand years ago, it was not universally clear why the coming of the sun waxed and waned, and it was never certain that this life-giving sun just might not come back.

Most people in the world today no longer literally worship the sun as a great moody god who must be adored, bribed, and propitiated.  But we are living in a time of possibly unprecedented uncertainty.  There is powerful evidence that we are seriously damaging, possibly even destroying, the environment on which our very lives depend.  We have as much reason for concern as did our ancient ancestors.  Worries about the global destructiveness of war and terrorism, potentially lethal diseases, starvation and drought are not paranoid fantasies but  realistic possibilities.

And although we no longer think the sun worshippers and their virgin sacrifices are what convinced the sun to return each year, we do know that what we humans do will profoundly affect both our short-term and long-term futures.

Will we do what needs to be done to maintain our creative relationship with the universe?  Can we do it?

Yesterday by coincidence I stumbled on an article about Albert Einstein.  I didn’t realize that he’d received the Nobel Prize for his discovery that the atmosphere is chock full of energy generated by the sun.  (I’d always assumed it was for his theories of relativity.)  At first scientists thought Einstein  was wrong.  They didn’t think there was close to an infinite amount of energy floating around us.  And then when they became convinced, nobody knew how to tap this energy at anything like an affordable cost.  Oil, gas, coal, wood were all much much cheaper.

But now that nut is being cracked.  Researchers and companies are discovering how to tap this energy at costs that dwarf the cost of fossil fuels.  It’s already possible to get enough energy to charge a mobile phone for free.  But here are a few of the other possibilities, some of which are already being implemented:

  • a transparent decal-type of addition to windows that turns them effectively into transparent solar panels
  • house paint that generates electricity
  • batteries that store enough electricity to make houses individually independent of the need to be connected to the grid — eliminating the need for electricity companies
  • roads that generate electricity as cars pass over them, so that cars never need to fill up at a gas station
  • solar panels that produce electricity 24-hours a day

These are not pipe dreams.  Some oil companies are so threatened that they are lobbying the US Congress to outlaw it.  Even in this day of big money lobbies, they are unlikely to succeed.   Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Amazon, some oil and electricity companies themselves, even governments in India, China, the US Defense Department in the United States are pouring billions of dollars into this revolutionary — and clean — source of energy.

And so this Christmas – this solstice – this Celebration of Light – does seem to me to be a very special, even unique, Celebration of Hope.

With best wishes for us all as we move into this new year. 

December 19, 2015

May I introduce my 5-year-old?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:30 pm

I was seeing my GP several weeks ago for my general annual check-up which I try to have at least once every five years.  He said high blood pressure was a frequent problem for people my age and took out his blood pressure monitor.  “Oh,” I said, “I have white coat syndrome;  it will be very high.”

“You’re worried about what I might tell you?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “I’m 75 years old.  But there’s still a 5-year-old inside me that’s worried about what you might think about me.”

“What are you worried I might think?” he asked.

After a short reflection, I answered truthfully:  “Whether I’m smart or not.  I can’t walk into a doctor’s office and take a test without feeling that I have to get an A grade.  If I don’t, I’ve failed.”

The doctor demurred.

And my 75-year-old self does too, of course.  But that 5-year-old stubbornly wants the approval of passing the test.

To my surprise, I found making this confession out loud quite liberating.  It’s obviously so neurotic. Even now, I’ve found myself tempted to try to fake the tests – something which I’ve found it is sometimes surprisingly easy to do.  But what a stupid self-defeating thing to even contemplate.  And does it make me smarter to pass an exam meant to find out if I have a medical problem?  No, it make me stupid.

I’ve told this story to several friends and discovered that a good many of us seem to harbor these stubborn 5-year-olds within.  One 5-year-old – resident in a very attractive mature and not over-weight woman – screams that she’s fat.  Another one that she’s lazy – she is one of the most industrious workers I know.

Some children just don’t grow up, do they?

(I am glad to say I did not fiddle the blood-pressure figures the doctor had me take for three days at home.  I thought the figures were not A+.  But the doctor says I’m in “good nick.”  Glad he’s not been deluded by my resident 5-year-old.)

December 13, 2015

Truly Tidings of Good News!

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

We watched the negotiators in Paris yesterday when the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that almost 200 countries in the world had reached agreement on climate change.  There was a moment of dumb silence, and then an explosion of celebration.  They had done it!

Christiana Figueres and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcome the final agreement.


Yes, I know it is only the first step to saving the only planet on which we live, and which is uniquely ours.

Yes, I’ve read enough of what is contained in the legally binding agreement to know that without good will, determination, generosity, and creativity we will continue down the road to destroying our only home.

So the problem is not done and dusted.  There is a great deal of hard work and sacrifice still facing us.  Governments, business, communities, and individuals must all do our part.

But we have taken an absolutely huge and essential first step without which no progress at all could be made.  And until the last minute, that was by no means assured.

And so I am celebrating the future of mankind today.

Truly it is a day that brings us Tidings of Good News.

December 8, 2015

I wish I’d said that!

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb

Richard Feynman, American nobel-prize physicist

Richard Feynman Nobel.jpg

 Click here if you want to know how “dumb” he was

Impresses me as a better alternative than “I’m too smart to be wrong.”

December 5, 2015

Even at heaven’s gate

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:50 pm

The day finally arrived.  Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven.

When he arrives, however, the Pearly Gates are closed, and Forrest approaches St. Peter keeping the gates.  St. Peter says “Well, Forrest, it is certainly good to see you.  We’ve heard a lot about you.  But I must tell you that the place is filling up fast and we have been administering an entrance examination you have to pass before you can get in.”

Forrest says “It sure is good to be here, sir.  But nobody ever told me about any entrance exam.  I sure hope the test ain’t too hard.  Life was a big enough test as it was.”

‘Yes, I know, Forrest,” St. Peter replied, “but the test is only three questions:
What two days of the week begin, with the letter T?
How many seconds are there in a year?
What is God’s first name?”
Forrest leaves to think the questions over.  When he returns the next day, St. Peter waves him over:  “Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers.”

 Forrest replied, “Well, the first one — which two days in the week begins with the letter ‘T’?    Shucks,  That would be Today and Tomorrow.”

St. Peter’s eyes opened wide.  “Forrest, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next one? – ‘How many seconds in a year?’ ”

 “Now that one is harder,” Forrest replies, “but I thunk and thunk about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve.”

Astounded, St Peter said, “Twelve? Twelve? Forrest, how in heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”

Forrest replied, “Shucks, there’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd… ”

“Hold it,” interrupts St. Peter.  “I can see your point, though that was not quite what I had in mind…  But I will have to give you credit for that one, too.  So let us go on with the last question.  Can you tell me God’s first name?”

 “Sure,’ Forrest replied, ‘it’s Andy.”

The Economist cover, Dec 5, 2015
I must point out, however, that it is not featuring St. Peter)
“Andy?!?”  exclaimed St. Peter.  “Forrest, how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as God’s first name?”

“Shucks, that was the easiest one of all,” Forrest replied. I learnt it from the song,

St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates and said “Run, Forrest, run.”

November 30, 2015

Solar-powered celebrations

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:20 pm

There is a company called Plantscape that sells or rents solar-powered Christmas trees and other decorations.

Hanging Christmas tree. Image: Plantscape

Don’t you wish you’d thought of that!?  And Christmas trees seem such a fitting spot to capture our winter sun.  After all, Christmas was originally introduced by the pagans as a celebration of the returning light of the sun.

It’s another example of human ingenuity suggesting that tackling environmental degradation doesn’t necessarily require a return to primitive life styles.  We don’t even need to contemplate pre-industrial life styles.  We just need to use our creative determination.  Plantscape has been in business for 8 years and still growing.

November 26, 2015

Giving thanks

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:20 pm

It is hard to keep in touch with current events in the world today without fearing that we may be facing challenges whose outcome could determine whether life actually survives on planet earth for very much longer.  And it could be ended by our own hand.

And yet on this Thanksgiving Day, I have found myself looking out at the world and feeling an incredible joy.   I cannot claim that it is rational.  It’s more like the high one might get on a drug.  Except that I am absolutely sober.  Life – all life – seems so beautiful – so ingenious – so dynamic – so giving.  I feel it is a great unearned privilege to be alive in this moment.

I can no other answer make

but thank, and thanks,

and ever thanks.

Shakespeare   Twelfth Night

November 23, 2015

Should we bomb Syria?

Britain right now is in the grips of a debate over whether to join the coalition bombing IS in Syria.  The Tory government thinks we should.   Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the opposition Labour party and long-time pacifist is adamantly against it.  He believes that all conflicts should be solved by diplomacy, and initially in the face of a terrorist threat in London similar to the one in Paris, objected to increased armed police on the street.

I think we should bomb Syria IF – and only IF – we address the fundamental issues.  IS, in my view, is like a 2-year old who’s got a hold of a stack of papers he’s lighting with the wood fire in the living room and throwing them around the house.  He has to be stopped immediately – not through negotiation or discussion.  If it involves smacking him – or bombing them, then I would do that.  But just as with the child, you can’t stop there.

We were “successful” in our bombing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libia, but were arrogant idiots in our ignorance about the underlying problems there and ultimately made the fundamental conflicts within those countries worse.  Every one of those countries now have much stronger pockets of IS,  unknown numbers of trained committed jihadists – perhaps as many as several hundred thousand by some estimates – serving as recruitment and training centers for countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

In addition, IS has money, and a sophisticated plan to convince Muslims, especially in Europe & America, that they are not welcome there, and are seen as inferior.  IS (quite rightly, I think) believe that this is helping them recruit jihadists from those countries, especially among young men who can’t get jobs.  America has just played into their hands with its latest vote on Syrian refugees.
And there is an even deeper problem within middle-eastern countries than feeling thought inferior and unwanted by Western countries.  The Sunnis & Shias are as adamantly opposed to each other as were the Catholics & Protestants during the religious wars for several centuries in Europe.  They believe Allah has given them a mission to destroy the heretics who do not agree with them.  So if we go into those countries, victory will require boots on the ground.  But military presence wouldn’t be enough.  We need a strategy for what happens if/when IS per se is defeated to control the forces that are making it so attractive to so many.  Otherwise, it will simply re-emerge, perhaps under a different name, but no less destructive.
I’ve read some interesting possibilities on that.  But they will require significant skill to implement them.  China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Turkey, the US and others may be united against IS but we are not in agreement about the alternatives either politically or economically.  Without that, what good would bombing do?  “Isis” will just turn up again, under a different name perhaps, but with the same deadly intents and possibly in even greater strength.
Climate change and globalization have both been significant factors in amplifying these conflicts.  Resolving them – even moderating them sufficiently to ensure the survival of the human species – I think is one of the biggest conflicts we have ever faced.  Unfortunately, neither slamming the door nor dropping bombs will resolve them.

November 20, 2015

Are we doomed without religion?

In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.

Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.

One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species.  We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo.  There are thousands of examples.  If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.

Where does this altruism come from?  In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief.  Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes.  It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations.  But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.

Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures?  Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?

If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?

Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment.  But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself,  as if we need to be bribed to love others.

We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals.  We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.

Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?

Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.

But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.

Could we survive without religion?  could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?

As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer.  I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse.  Religion does not do a lot for me these days.  I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding.  Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.

I don’t know.  I would be interested to know what you think.

November 19, 2015

Does religion make us feel superior?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

For the first 6 years when I was a nun, we dressed in traditional habits, covering everything except our faces and hands.  Obviously, no one would mistake us for anything but nuns, Christians dedicating our virginity to a higher calling.  We younger nuns eventually received permission to wear habits that were a little less traditional, but the mark of our “chosen way” of life was still pretty clear.  Everybody with whom we worked knew who and what we were.MM%2520group%25202

(FYI, I am in the middle of the bottom row)

When I left the convent after nine years and began life as a student in New York City, I realized that I’d been divested of a cloak of sanctity.  Strangers on the streets no longer held doors open for me, for instance, or offered me a seat in place of theirs on the subway.

But the bigger change was in myself.  I no longer thought of myself as holier than a mere  lay person.  And I realized that just putting on that habit had made me feel morally superior to the layman who did not aspire to the level of sainthood which I sought for myself.  Indeed, which to some extent I assumed I had already achieved for myself.

That insight was close to half a century ago and I have tended to reflect on it occasionally with some embarrassment at my arrogant egocentrism.

But I read a research review in the Economist this month, Matthew 22:39, that has made me wonder if my personal experience is not far more significant and widespread than I realized.  Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago has studied more than a thousand children between 5 and 12 years of age in America, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey from many different religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Decety and his colleagues played a game with each of the children in which they had a chance to share their winnings with other children who had not had a chance to win anything.

Children of families of non-believers were willing to share significantly more of their winnings than were children of families who said they were religious.  Not only that, but religious parents predicted with a fair amount of confidence that their children would be more generous than children of families that practiced no religion.  Their predictions were wrong.  Children raised in religious families were less generous than children with no religious background.  Significantly so.

As the world today is facing repeated murderous onslaughts from young people who believe they are killing and dying for the One and Only True Religion, I am beginning to wonder in a way I have not done before if the problem is not one religion or another, but the underlying message, whatever version it may be.  Does teaching a child that they belong to the One and Only True Church – whether it is Roman Catholicism or extreme Islam or all those True Religions in between convince us by that very fact that we are intrinsically morally superior?  Is it equivalent to donning that nun’s habit which somehow transformed me into someone wiser, holier, more righteous than everybody else?

Wars, as we know, are often fought flying religious banners, often on both sides.  This has led some thinkers to argue that religion causes war.  I’ve always tended to think that if there is a causal link between the two that it is not religion that causes wars but rather that religion was a potent force for energizing those who were fighting for their own people, their values, their identity, and most especially, for greater wealth.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.  Does religion itself make us feel superior?  is it in the very nature of religion to convince us that we are right, that we deserve everything that is given to us and that anybody who opposes us are on the side of the devil whom we must fight with all our strength and energy?  Obviously, that fight does not necessarily manifest itself in war.  But I wonder if, even in our charitable activities,  it does not manifest itself in an attitude of moral superiority.


November 15, 2015

Magical balloons

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:11 pm

The news this weekend seems particularly depressing.  The multiple terrorist attacks in Paris seem especially terrifying and unexpected – on the par with 9/11 in terms of its shock value.

In the midst of this global awfulness, I stumbled on what might really be seriously important and good news.  Hang on:  this could sound utterly boring, but it might have implications for all of us and those we love and care about.

A group of international scientists have just published a report in Nature (highly respected science journal) in which they report having invented an ultra-porous liquid which contains huge (well, huge in atomic terms) bubbles.  What is potentially significant about this invention is that these bubbles may be able to contain vast amount of carbon-dioxide — the greenhouse gas we are throwing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels which is so destructive of our environment.

If we can capture the carbon-dioxides we are currently pumping into the air we might be able to avoid disaster.  That is, we may be able to avoid the droughts, starvation, wars, diseases, flooding, mega-storms, and destruction of our oceans that global warming is already beginning to visit on us.

Above all, it may make a significant contribution to earth’s not hitting what scientists call a tipping point.  One of the most dangerous tipping points we could trigger is the melting of the arctic ice to such a degree that it releases the vast amounts of methane gas currently trapped there.  Methane gas is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and once it escapes, it will be too late for us to turn things around.

When I was a child, I thought balloons were magical.  Maybe I was right.

Image from

October 26, 2015

Helpless and hopeless?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm

I’ve suspected for some time that people’s denial of the human contribution to environmental destruction arises out of a sense of helplessness.  Despite the fact that evidence is building up that we ourselves are potentially making planet earth uninhabitable, an astonishing number of people simply refuse to take the possibility seriously.  Many of these climate change deniers are religious fundamentalists.  Many believe that they will be among the Saved when four horsemen usher in the end of the world, and so they don’t have to worry.  (Not, I will admit, a very Christian attitude for those exhorted to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  But common, nonetheless.)  Others simply quote Jesus’ exhortation for us to “look at the lilies of the field,” and convince themselves that God can cure climate change “with the snap of his fingers” if he wants to.

Some recent research into the workings of the brain began to make this kind of reasoning make some kind of sense to me.  Researchers have found that we may very well use the same part of our brain for problem-solving as we do for at least some of our religious thinking.  In other words, religious belief may actually be a problem-solving exercise.

This has certainly been true historically.  What we now think of as religious belief was the explanation for why the sun seemed to go into a sulk every year and needed to be coaxed back by the sacrifice of a virgin or two.  Religion explained why the stars did not fall down on our heads, and even today is used by some preachers to claim that our sinfulness is the cause of events like tsunamis and earthquakes.

Religion, therefore, can often solve problems that otherwise seem unsolvable.  It saves us from a sense of hopelessness and despair.

I that context, I wonder if a lot of people deny climate change – or at least our contribution to it – because the problem seems unsolvable.  I will admit that until very recently, my main hope was not that the governments of the world would agree to the measures we all must take around the world to save us from destroying ourselves.  My most optimistic scenario was that a sufficient number of humans would survive the inevitable global droughts, starvation, wars, and disease that would reduce our numbers from the current 7 1/2 billion to a more manageable billion or so, which will have learned the lesson that God does not intervene when we ourselves are creating our own problems.

But I am reading a book, which frankly, I am finding astonishing.  It is Adventures in the Anthropocene:  A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by an Australian journalist Gaia Vince.  She does not by any means minimize the size of the problem we have created for ourselves.  With terrifying clarity she visits and describes the problems that are already evident – the air that is killing us, temperature changes that are moving populations, melting glaciers, depleting water tables and creating a rate of species extinction on a mega-scale, the destruction of farmlands and forests on every continent.

But she is also identifying solutions that creative individuals have designed that have addressed these problems, transforming entire villages, farmlands, cities.  Some of them are simply amazing.

It is convincing me that we can solve this problem of environmental destruction if we do not give up in despair.

And it is not up solely to governments.  In fact, many of the solutions have already been found on a small scale.  They have been found by creative, determined individuals and small groups who have refused to simply ring their hands in despondency, saying there is nothing they can do that will make a meaningful difference.  Governments need to look at these local solutions, study them, and find ways to spread them across the world.

No one – not even the most creative or powerful – is going to turn this problem around alone.  Nor are governments going to be able to do it alone.

But the human race is incredibly ingenious.

Jesus didn’t look at the lilies of the field and suggest that we should just sit back and trust that supper will somehow miraculously appear on the table tonight.  It is not telling us to sit passively in the trust that God will take care of everything and we don’t have to do anything to make things better.  Today, this parable, I think, is urging us to trust that we do not need to despair, that we have been given the capacity to solve the problems of environmental change.

But we do have to work at it.  We do have to take responsibility for what we are doing.  Almost all of us can take small steps that add up.  A few can take giant steps that we can emulate and apply.

Over the next months, I plan to describe some of the solutions Vince lays out in her book.  I hope it will help spread hopefulness, rather than helplessness.


October 25, 2015

Fab Fibs

Filed under: Just Stuff,Osteoporosis — theotheri @ 5:19 pm

One of the more surprising – and hopeful – things I’ve noticed about my life is how often the best things and the worst things that happen to me are the same things.

Fifteen years ago, for instance, when test results showed that my bones were losing density at a dangerous rate, my doctor laid out before me the possibility of an agonizing end of life.  Frankly, this was unambiguously Bad News.

The recommendation was that I start immediately on a regime of biphosphonates.  As I’ve laid out in this blog under the topic of osteoporosis, I decided instead to radically alter my life style, changing my eating habits, started taking calcium supplements and engaging in 30 minutes of targeted exercise daily.

The Good News isn’t just that tests over the last 15 years show that I have increased my bone density and am no longer osteoporotic.

The seriously Good News is all of the other benefits that seem to be flowing from what I have called my FAB-FIBS.

I’m not talking about fabulous fibs I tell myself.  It’s my daily routine of Flexibility, Aerobic, and Balance exercises, followed by another series of Flexibility, Impact, Balance and Strength exercises.  The benefits are multiple.  My strength and energy levels have not degenerated as fast as they other-wise would.  I find that I get an amazing psychological boost from the increased serotonin generated by exercise, and just as surprising, I also find solutions to problems while I’m exercising that evade me when I think about them sitting at the computer screen.  Research suggests that I’m also reducing my chances of cardiac arrest and cancer.

Now seriously:  isn’t that really Bad News that is one of the best things that could have happened to me?

September 29, 2015

What makes the system work?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:16 pm

I’ve been going to the same dental surgery here in Cambridge, England for nine years.  During that time, I have been re-cycled to six different dentists working in the office.  Several of the dentists have been quite good.  Nonetheless, it has been a de-personalizing experience.  It makes me feel like a mechanical mouth with teeth that need adjusting occasionally.  The situation is similar with the doctor whom I have been seeing for the last nine years.  His appointments are scheduled to last seven minutes.  This is not his fault.  It’s what is considered efficient management, and although he has never rushed me out of his office before covering the essentials for whatever reason I might be there, he knows, to this day, almost nothing about me as a person.   I saw something similar beginning to happen in the university where I was teaching in the States.  Students were too often becoming numbers – not individuals.

Britons are quite rightly proud of their health service which provides medical help without charge to the individual when they need it – whether they are rich or poor or belong to any other category of the dispossessed.  It was set up by a Labour government after WWII when the country saw families of men and women who had sacrificed their lives for their country unable to get even the simplest medical help when they needed it.

That sense of fairness is deep in this country, and I admire it profoundly.  By and large, there is a sense that, regardless of cost, people should not starve, children should have an education, families should not be forced to live on the street.  There is a national commitment to what one might call a “safety net,” and a recognition that, whether it be bad luck, immaturity, poor judgement, or even sheer self-interest gone array,  all of us at some point in our lives need a helping hand.

But the history of the last 100 years demonstrates that there are downsides to systems intended to serve all the people equally.

Two of the most widely recognized are corruption by those in positions of power and authority who, instead of serving others, are using the funds intended for this laudable purpose to enrich themselves.  The second problem is that there are inevitably people who decide to rip off the system by receiving benefits instead of working, even when jobs are available and they are able to work.

But there is another downside to thinking that any system can create a just and fair society by itself.  It doesn’t matter what that system is – whether it is religious or not, whether it is democratic or not, whether it was designed in the first place to support a generous and loving society.

A system that works must be operated by individuals who care about the people they serve.  If people running the system  care more about their careers than they care about the people they are serving, the system breaks down.  If teachers work primarily for a salary and not first because they care about Jerry or Susan sitting in front of them, if doctors treat patients because they care more about their promotions than because they care about that person with a medical need, if social workers care less about the individual they are caring for than they care about getting paid, the system doesn’t work.  If workers unions fight only for the material benefits of their members without concern for the individuals whom they are meant to be serving, the system cannot achieve its end.  Or if, in the name of efficiency, the system squeezes out the individual and reduces him or her to merely a symptom, a number, an object, the system is broken.

The system needs people who care as much for the people they are intended to serve as they care for themselves and their own careers, and who are given sufficient leeway to express that care.  The system needs them from top to bottom.

As an adolescent, I thought I was smart enough to implement a system that could transform human suffering.  I thought I would be a Very Important Person, someone who was recognized as having made a great contribution to mankind.

But even if I’d been a great deal smarter than I am, I could not have done it.  Because systems need individuals who care, who love the people they are serving.  No system, no organization, no religion or system of government, even ones set up “for the people by the people” can ever work without each of us.  We might feel like small little cogs in a system that hardly matter, that can’t really make a difference.

But it’s not the system that holds your hand when you are frightened.  It’s not the system that gives you a smile when you are feeling lonely or depressed.  It’s not the system that gives you that special encouragement you need to learn how to read when you are stumbling.  It’s a single person who knows you, who cares about you as a unique person, for yourself.

And there’s no replacement for that.  There isn’t any substitute in any system in the world.  A system that is not filled with people who care cannot work.


September 16, 2015

The upside of the downside

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

A friend just sent me a you-tube with an accompanying explanation.  If you haven’t seen it, you might enjoy it.

A Canadian musician from Halifax named Dave Carroll recently spent over 9 months trying to get United Airlines to pay for damages caused by baggage handlers to his custom Taylor guitar on his flight from Chicago O’Hare airport.During his final exchange with the United Customer Relations Manager, he stated that he was left with no choice other than to create a music video for YouTube exposing their lack of cooperation.

The  Manager responded: “Good luck with that one, pal.”

So he posted a video on YouTube.  It has since received over 15 million hits.

United Airlines contacted the musician and attempted a settlement in exchange for pulling the video. His response was: “Good luck with that one,  pal.”

Taylor Guitars sent the musician 2 new custom guitars in appreciation for the product recognition from the video that has led to a sharp increase in orders.

Click here to see the video.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this video gives me such delight.  It’s not just that justice was done.  A court ruling even with a generous addition of compensation for Carroll’s treatment would not have been nearly so satisfactory.
I think what I like so much is that Carroll didn’t sulk or choose to be a victim.  But he didn’t just become angry and aggressive either.  He didn’t plant a bomb in the next suitcase he sent through United’s baggage services.
He just stood up, used his talent.  And evened the score  (if you’ll excuse the pun).

September 8, 2015

The heart vs the brain

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:18 pm

I’ve not karumphed over my interpretation of religious obedience for many years, but a friend has just reminded me of the kind of advice we were given over 50 years ago as young Maryknoll sisters:

“God doesn’t want your brains, but your love …so don’t get upset after we teach you all this smart missiology and anthropology stuff when the bishop hasn’t opened a book in 40 years!  Just obey the bishop and please God.”  “I bet they don’t think like that now,” she added.

I suspect most American nuns might not think that way now, which is why the Vatican still has so much trouble with them.  Because I know a good number of priests and bishops who certainly still think like that.

This distinction between heart and brain, in other words, between love and intelligence, is bogus power-hungry advice posing as religious humility to keep people in their place.  Isn’t it, after all, the excuse that the Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials to justify the death of 14 million innocent people in the gas chambers of their concentration camps?  “I was merely following orders.”

As human beings, we survive by using both our capacity for love and for intelligence, and they are inseparable.  Does it not take intelligence to care for the sick?  to develop a vaccine for ebola or polio or small pox?  Does it not take intelligence to teach children to read or develop mathematical skills?  Does it not take intelligence to provide balanced meals for the family?  Does it not take intelligence to represent a defendant in court?  Does it not take intelligence to treat the mentally ill?  Does it not take intelligence to respond with compassion to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and starvation in the world today?  Does it not take intelligence to run a farm that produces food for an entire community?

No:  don’t tell me that God doesn’t want my brain.  Do not tell me that I will please God if I do what the bishop or president or even the pope tells me to do – no matter how ignorant or damaged or unloving he has on occasion been known to be.  I know I might be wrong myself.  But I will take responsibility for doing my best to make a judgement based on respect for the life that surrounds me.

I will not willingly denigrate intelligence as merely a form of hubris, or elevate ignorance to the level of unquestioning obedience.

Whew!  I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about this.  I think I owe it to what I learned from my parents – one who, when I was growing up, I thought was The Brain, and the other whom I thought was The Heart.  But they worked together in socializing their children.  I learned something essential from that.

September 3, 2015

Can barbed wire fences save Christianity?

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

A woman carrying a child stands outside a train carrying migrants that was stopped in Bicske, Hungary - 3 September 2015

Image from the BBC

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants escaping from war in Syria, Afganistan, and Africa are fleeing to Europe.  It is the biggest refugee influx since the second world war, and European governments are in conflict over how to deal with the increasing crisis.

This morning, Hungarian police put hundreds of migrants, mostly families with children, all of whom believed they were heading for a welcome in Germany, onto a train in Budapest.  Then several miles out of the city, stopped the train and everyone was ordered to disembark.  They were met by armed police who told them that they were being sent to camps where they would be “evaluated.”  If they refused to go, they would be arrested.

Today, the President of the European Union, Donald Tusk responded to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban who is warning that the influx of migrants threatens Europe’s “Christian roots” and should be stopped.  Mr Tusk responded

 “For me Christianity is a duty to our brothers in need.

“For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”

I agree.  I can’t see that loving each other comes with the limitation of a barbed wire fence.  Yes, I know:  there are Islamists bent on destroying Christianity and European civilization who almost certainly are infiltrating the migrants, posing as refugees.  But is a schreeching YOU CAN’T COME IN! the best solution we can come up with?  My experience is that, in fact, one needn’t be a Christian to find a more loving, creative, and ultimately effective response than that.

Isn’t that the point Jesus was making talking to the woman at the well?

August 25, 2015

Eyes like big sunshine…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:06 pm

Maybe it’s the oldest sister in me, but I think this you-tube is just fantastic.  I love it!

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