The Other I

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.

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.

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




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?





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…


January 28, 2015

Now listen carefully!

When I was a Maryknoll nun and also when I was a graduate student at university, I took many courses learning about other cultures.  I read the work of many anthropologists who had spent years studying and writing about them.  Understanding another culture is not so easy as those demanding “political correctness” sometimes seem to suggest.  It is not simply a matter of observing the protocols of mere politeness we may have been taught as children.  Nor is it a matter of merely learning the languge.

I received a substantial number of private emails after my last post asking for reactions to the letter to British imams from the community secretary after the Charlie Hebdo massacres.  Most felt that it was not an inappropriate letter, but there was some concern that the assurance that Muslims shared British values might have sounded pretentious.  It’s probably not possible to get it right all the time for everybody.

It may be an increased awareness of the challenge, or only a coincidence, but the media seems to reporting an unusual number of these apparent cultural “misunderstandings.”

After an interview with President Obama by an Asian journalist recently, she gave him a gift “for your first wife.”  Obama rolled his eyes and said to her “Do you know something I don’t?”  Obviously, the term the journalist meant to use was “first lady.”

Then a member of the British foreign office visiting Taiwan brought a gift for the prime minister – a very very expensive watch.  But when the prime minister opened it, he was dumbfounded.  In the Chinese culture, giving someone a watch is a suggestion that their “time is up.”  The prime minister’s office later said the watch had been “disposed of.”

And I wonder whether Pope Francis really meant to convey the insult suggested to some large families that earth does not need Catholics “to breed like rabbits.”

Benedict Cumberbatch has expressed acute embarrassment for his reference to “coloured people.”  He says he was devastated to have caused offense, and is an idiot.

Sometime ago we ran into a friend in our local supermarket who was excruciatingly embarrassed because he had just asked a Black supermarket worker where the “black treacle” was. (For Americans not familiar with the word, we call it blackstrap molasses.)  We assured him that we doubted it was considered a racial slur.  But he was really worried.

Just yesterday when I was waiting at the supermarket checkout, the woman before me made a derogatory remark to the checkout clerk about America.  The clerk knows I’m American, and he was greatly concerned that I might be insulted.  I told him I had enough criticisms of my own of America not to take personally everything that is said about the U.S.

But I will admit that I have often both misunderstood and been misunderstood.  It’s sometimes embarrassing, sometimes irritating, inevitably fascinating.  Sometimes we just get it wrong out of ignorance.  I think in our increasingly globalized world, we need to be very very careful about being insulted.

Though I will confess that I do wish Charlie Hebdo was a little more restrained.  Just because one can legally lob insults doesn’t mean one should.

January 22, 2015

Bad spelling: right/write!

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:29 pm

During most of the time I taught in university, texting was not yet a known form of communication.  But what I called bad spelling was common, and I deducted points for papers that contained uncorrected spelling and typographical errors.  In one classic example, I remember identifying 122 errors.  (I did give the student a chance to re-write the paper.)

But I’m not so black-and-white anymore about spelling.  First of all, there now is texting, which involves quite a clever way of communicating with a reduced number of letters.  And there are also increasing numbers of people, educated and non-so-educated, for whom English is a second language, and for whom the arcane and often inconsistent spelling rules in English are a mine-field.  And yet it is perfectly possible to know what the person is trying to say.

A much bigger communication problem than mis-spellings is the inter-cultural communication problem I touched on in my post yesterday.  We can usually identify the words a person is using;  it’s the meaning of the message that we so often misconstrue.

And so if I were still teaching, I would suggest to my students that what we have traditionally called “correct spelling” is one of the languages we need to learn.  If you want to submit a job application or research paper, or a letter of complaint, using this language is apt to be more effective than more original, phonetically-correct spellings that are less traditional.  In less formal situations, let’s delight in creativity.

So their!  or  they’re!  or there!  My version is thair!

But you can spell is ther! if you want.

I know what you mean meen.

December 14, 2014

Merrily we lie along

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:18 pm

Almost at the top of the Christmas music charts this year here in Britain is a coral rendition of Dulcissima virgo Maria (Most Sweet Virgin Mary) .

From the British Library

It was given by the Bavarian composer, Almire, to Henry VIII, along with the choir book, a manuscript that was highly valued then and is still one of the great treasures of the British library.

It sounds like a beautiful work of peace and love and salvation, haunted with the hopes of a new-born Saviour.

One small difficulty is that it is shot through with perfidy.  Almire was a spy.  No, worse.  He was a double agent, trusted by the courts of Henry VIII and by his Yorkist rival bent on taking the English throne on which Henry VIII sat.  No doubt Almire thought he would win no matter who the king was.

Perhaps he was right.  He does not seem to have been identified during his life time.  Richard de la Pole died in 1525 before he could invade England in partnership with the king of France, Francis I.

It’s beautiful music, though.

PS:  I have just read a blog post describing Rothstein’s research on the disenfranchisement of Blacks from the property market from which so many of us middle class whites have profited so richly, which I mentioned in my previous post.  The blog’s author, like me, didn’t know it was happening, but on looking back, now sees events in quite a different perspective.  It’s an easy read – and worth it.  Hands up!  Why We All Can’t Breathe

December 7, 2014

Rudolph for dinner?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:22 pm

Treat: Budget chain Lidl is to sell reindeer steaks for £7.99 a pack as part of a 'Deluxe' range to tempt middle-class shoppers

This year a German supermarket, Lidl, whose chain has been undercutting the big British supermarkets is featuring reindeer steak imported from Lapland.  The protests outside its stores are considerable.

I know that Britain is becoming an increasingly secular society.

But I doubt it would be a good move for Lidl to market discount pet rabbits for Easter dinner next April.

November 30, 2014

The subtle culture of compliments

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

I think it probably goes without saying that all of us, whatever our culture, value compliments from some sources more than others.

Living here in Britain, I’ve come to appreciate that by the same token, some compliments reflect social class.  They may be delivered kindly but they clearly suggest that the person bestowing the compliment considers themselves somewhat superior.  When we were living in the Lake District, a woman whose accent resembled that of Prince Charles complimented me on the quality of the insulation she saw I was installing on one of our outside walls, and encouraged me to continue with “the good work.”

I can tell you without a doubt that I knew far more about insulation than she did.  But she fancied herself as one of the Great and the Good.  She probably handed out turkeys for Christmas dinner to the peasants working on the fields of her estate.  Personally I found her patronizing and pretentious.

This morning, however, after I bought our Sunday paper from our local newsstand, I had a horrible thought.  The newsboy is new, from Sri Lanka, I think, and is simply lovely.  When I make a purchase, I generally thank him and wish him a good day.  This morning I also asked him how much longer he had to work, and when he said he’d almost finished for this Sunday, I mentioned that he had a lovely sunny day in front of him, and said I hoped he’d enjoy it.

Pretty innocuous, you might think. And it was.  But I had the terrible thought, that with my American accent here in England, and speaking to a young immigrant just making his way, I sounded exactly like one of those pretentious, patronizing superior types I so despise.  By and large, the English do not give out compliments the way Americans do, and I’ve been aware recently that I have embarrassed several people simply expressing my appreciation for a job exceptionally well done.

Who know how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth?.

February 25, 2014

I broke my fingernail and it’s your fault

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

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

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

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




January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

For those of you who may not yet be acquainted with this courtesy, wishing friends and acquaintances in the United States a “Merry Christmas” risks being seriously politically incorrect.  The correct form is a neutral “Happy Holidays.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2013

Travels of the pumpkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 12, 2013

A cultural discovery

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Food chains — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

Cuts of meat are not the same everywhere in the world.  A cow might be a cow, and when it is slaughtered, the cuts might be called “beef,” but after that, the variation in cuts is huge.  I have found that cuts in Spain, in France, and here in England have all often been quite mysterious, and I have come home with little idea of how to cook what I have purchased.

But I certainly was unprepared just recently for the biggest surprise of all.  Bavette and onglet are the names of two of the most delicious French steaks I have ever eaten.  Better even than rib eye or sirloin.  And very easy to cook – 3-4 minutes on each side a very very hot grille, followed by a (mandatory) 15 minute rest while you get the rest of the meal finished.

So what’s the surprise?

It is the discovery that bavette and onglet are what Americans call skirt and flank steak.

Skirt and flank steak were always fairly inexpensive cuts of meat in my day, because they require long slow cooking in order not to be tough.

But they aren’t tough if they are not cooked beyond medium rare.  They are simply superb served with sautéed mushrooms, and positively luxurious with a glass of red wine on the side.

Try it.  I’d love to hear what you think if you do.

March 6, 2013

The high ground

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

Britain doesn’t have Main Streets.  People in Britain know what a main street is – the street with the main shops in a town or city.  But they invariably call it “High Street.”  I don’t remember ever seeing a street actually named “Main Street.”

Although it’s where the banks and businesses are generally located, High Streets are not named after the High and Mighty.  The names were generated almost two thousand years ago by the road system built by the Romans.  They chose the highest possible location for the road in order to avoid periodic flooding.  So the main road running through towns here are literally the highest streets.

It’s quite interesting to try to guess on entering a town for the first time which is the High Street.  I don’t get it wrong very often.

It’s not because I’m so smart.

It was the Romans who were the smart ones.

February 18, 2013

A British obituary

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 4:44 pm

One of the first things I noticed living in England is that British obituaries are just a little different from what I expect to read in America.  An obituary will typically include all the expected details about the deceased’s contributions to his or her profession and surviving relatives.  But over here an obituary will far more often also include some unexpected racy detail or short-coming that all his acquaintances probably knew or suspected, but would often be glossed over in other cultures.

My introductory British obit, for instance, discussed the individual’s academic contribution, but added “he could have done so much more if he had not been an alcoholic for so many years…”

This might sound somewhat tasteless to American sensibilities, but when my sister died in her mid-forties, several of her sibs got together and wrote a private “British obituary” for her.  A sanitized politically correct version is the one that was published in the papers.  But just telling the truth among ourselves was cathartic and helped us deal with a loss that we found devastating.

I was reminded yesterday about this particular British trait reading an obituary of an English civil servant.  Serving in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980’s, he decided that something had to be done about the quality of reports being written by the staff.  It’s important, he argued.  Even something as simple as an apostrophe can completely change the meaning of what one intended to say.  For instance, he pointed out, during World War II, one report omitted the apostrophe following the word “Germans.”  The result read “Germans push bottle up rear of French offensive.”

I know this story because it was included in his obituary.

My husband said he always did have a wonderful sense of humour.  (And of course, the British have a sense of humour;  Americans – the lucky ones, anyway – have a sense of humor.)

February 10, 2013

The conundrum of freedom

In a recent post from the Writer’s Treehut, the author explores the question of free will.  He looks at how our ideas of free will have changed over time.  We no longer seriously accept “the devil made me do it,” as an explanation for behavior, for instance, and see “God told me to do it” as either unacceptable or insane.  Recent brain research, on the other hand, is suggesting that close to 90% of the activity of the brain does not reach consciousness.  Even more surprising is the discovery that most of the decisions which we think of as “conscious and deliberate” are accomplished in the brain before we are aware of it.

Much of modern thought on free will stands simultaneously on two opposing sides of the teeter totter.  With democracy, we defend the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility.  At the same time, we are faced with increasing evidence that we are not as in control of our own choices as we often think.

Almost everyone will agree that free will is not without its limits.  I cannot voluntarily kill myself by holding my breath.  I cannot jump out a fifth-floor window and fly safely to the ground.  I cannot survive without minimum amounts of food and drink.

But what about that huge grey area over which some people sometimes seem to be able to make choices and others cannot?  How long can I choose to stay awake?  What about the endless diets that are broken within days?  what about addictions to alcohol, caffeine, drugs?  What about breaking into a cold sweat in response to perceived danger?  Can we suppress that adrenalin rush supporting a flash of anger or sexual arousal?  Can I hide an embarrassing blush on my cheek?  or suppress an involuntary startle?

What about those responses which are learned from our culture?  What clothes I can remove in public without embarrassment is largely learned.  My sense of injustice is greatly influenced by religious and cultural values which I have been taught.  Food that I can eat without positively gagging is often determined by custom.  My beliefs about when I might legitimately kill another person, my response to rape, my evaluation even of the expression on a person’s face are learned.

And yet they all seem to become involuntary, beyond my conscious control and free will.

Since we are all different both in terms of our genetic inheritance, and our physical and social environmental histories, it seems to me it is simply impossible for us to judge just how responsible someone else is for their own behavior.  I don’t even know for sure just how free my own choices are in any particular circumstance.

Having said all that, I am not willing to make the jump made by so many liberal thinkers that we are all responsible for what happens to others.

It is not that I don’t think I could often live your life quite well enough.

But there is no way I want someone else to take responsibility for my choices.

Yes, I am grateful for advice.  Yes, I am hugely indebted to those in my lifetime who have given to me great gifts that I in no way deserved.  Yes, without the good fortune that has been granted me, I could be a far more vicious  self-serving, insensitive human being than in my worst moments I have perhaps sometimes been.

But you are not responsible for me.  And in the same sense, I am not responsible for you.

That does leave us a problem, though.  Societies cannot survive, human beings cannot live, without rather large swathes of behavior control.  Society must control the expression of some behaviors or cease to exist.

So do we hold those violators – mass murderers, for instance? – responsible?  Do we try to inhibit that kind of behavior through use of punishment?  Do we simply lock people up for their own and our safety, even if they are not “guilty” in the sense that they are not responsible for what they have, or might, do?

Personally, I think we each experience ourselves as making choices.  I think that experience is part of our survival mechanism.  But perhaps our free will is an illusion, in the same way our experience of  Earth as flat is an illusion.

Just how free we actually are is a fascinating question to which we haven’t a clear answer.  Maybe we don’t even have a clue.

January 29, 2013

The lore of the lur

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:09 pm

The lur is a musical instrument probably first created in the Bronze Age and used in Scandinavia 3-4,ooo years ago.  A lur dating back several thousand years ago was found several hundred years ago in a Danish peat bog.  It is still in working order today, with a haunting sound, that can call across the mountains.

The lur is still immensely popular in Denmark, and has given its name to  –

 A wonderfully smooth, haunting pack of — BUTTER!

January 20, 2013

An interesting life

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 9:16 pm

I was interviewed for several hours some years ago for a BBC program about nuns and ex-nuns.  At the end, the interviewer said to me “You’ve lived an interesting life.”

Yes, I have.  And there are times when I have understood why “May you have an interesting life” is purportedly a Chinese curse.  But in truth, I do not think an interesting life is a curse.  I think it is a challenge.  I think every life is interesting.  In that sense, every life is a challenge.

But I will admit that once in a while, the life someone has led does stand out.  Beate Gordon whose obituary appeared last week in The Economist lived an interesting life.  Before World War II between the ages of 5 and 15, she lived in Japan.  Her father was a Ukraine concert pianist who taught at the Imperial Academy.

When the war ended, Beate had just become an American citizen, and was fully bilingual in English and Japanese.  In the hope of finding her parents, she tagged onto General MacArthur’s occupation team as an interpreter.  To her amazement MacArthur selected her with a group of several dozen men to write a new constitution for Japan.  She was given the job of writing the section about women’s rights.

At first she was thrilled, then astonished.  She was 22 years old, she was not a lawyer, but she knew Japan and she knew America.  She was committed and skilled.  Women had been subservient in Japan.  By the time Beate was finished, they had equal rights.

For the rest of her life, she worked to interpret Japan and America to each other.  Whenever she visited Japan, women, even years later, still wanted to take her photograph, to say thank you for her gift to them.

Beate Gordon died December 30th, 2012 at the age of 89.

She lived an interesting life.  I don’t think anyone would call it a curse.  Certainly not the women of Japan.

January 2, 2013

Washing machine wisdom

Many years ago, I stood on the naya of our home in Spain and watched the men installing the pool in our back yard.  One workman spent the whole of two working days carrying soil in a bucket up from a lower terrace to fill in a hole to build up the foundation on a higher level.  A bulldozer would have accomplished the task in ten minutes.  But he didn’t have a bulldozer, he had a bucket.

What I learned from watching him – a piece of information that I have utilized frequently since then – is that if the only way a job can get done is in small steps, take the small steps.  It will get the job done in the end.  Fretting that I don’t have the equivalent of a bulldozer won’t.

I also watched the men lay down the pipes across the bottom of the pool, then cover them with cement which was then faced with decorative pool tiles.  THEN they tested the pipes to see if there was a leak anywhere in the system.  When the system failed, it required removing the tiles, drilling through the cement, fixing the leak, and then putting everything back again.

I watched them with a kind of self-recognition.  They didn’t need to test what they were doing beforehand because they knew they had the right answer.  They didn’t need evidence or testing.  This wasn’t a suggestion.  This was Right.  It was a great deal more like the faith Roman Catholics are taught to have in relation to infallible dogma than it was like science.  Or even like a set of directions.  There was no room for doubt.  No room for being wrong.  Over the years I’ve tried to learn that lesson too – not to assume that my answers are right, not to assume that my answers don’t need testing or evidence.

You’d think I didn’t need to keep learning that.

But several days ago I noticed a small leak in our washing machine.  I was pretty sure that the outlet hose had begun to work itself loose and that if it went on for too long, it would eventually lead to the entire load of dirty wash water being deposited on the utility room floor.

Unfortunately, the outlet hose is connected to the washing machine at the back and close to the floor.  To get at it I had to pull what felt like a ten-ton machine out from the wall, and then lie on the floor to unscrew the ring that was securing the hose.  In theory it was very simple.  In practice, it was very difficult because the ring was located behind other parts of the works and difficult to unscrew.  Finally, after several hours of various experimentations, I finally got the hose re-positioned and tightened.  I pulled on the hose to make sure it was tight and put the edges of the machine on a piece of cardboard to make it easier to shove back into place.

Once I had it pushed back into place, I decided to test it.

Okay, I’m sure you’ve figured out already.  It leaked.

It took me another two hours to pull the machine back out from the wall which was now astride a piece of soggy cardboard and fix it right this time.  And test it.

Meanwhile, Peter came in and offered – in all sincerity – to buy us another washing machine.

We don’t need a new machine.

But I hope I don’t revert to what I think of as my Spanish pool-building mentality again.  I would have thought that my learning the lesson once would have been enough.

Anyway, if the machine starts leaking again, I’m calling the repairman.  Well, I think I will.  On the other hand, it would be a shame to ruin all this renewed learning, wouldn’t it?

December 17, 2012

Asperger’s Syndrome misunderstood

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 3:12 pm
Tags: ,

It is certainly understandable that so many people are trying to understand the gun spree during which Alan Lanza murdered twenty 6-and 7-year-old children and six women before turning the gun on himself.  But I have been appalled over recent days to see how many reputable sources are suggesting that Lanza suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome as if this explains his psychopathic behavior.

Albert Einstein probably suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

People suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome are not intrinsically psychopathic murderers.  Lanza may very well have been suffering from Asperger’s, but it is no more of an explanation of his behavior than it is to say that he was unusually intelligent, or that his parents had been divorced, or that he had brown hair.  Asperger’s is a learning disability in relation to understanding the feelings and thoughts of others.  It is not a mental illness.

The evidence available to the public at this point does suggest that Lanza was suffering from both Asperger’s Syndrome and mental illness.  But they are two completely different things.  Asperger’s is a relatively new diagnostic category and sometimes difficult to identify.  It is a terrible misunderstanding of those individuals who do suffer from this learning disability to shout “Asperger’s!” in relation to this tragic incident.

But even the diagnosis of mental illness is an incomplete explanation.  Psychiatrists and psychologists recognize that the form mental illness takes in an individual is shaped by the values of the culture in which it is manifest.  For a period of time in the 1950- and -60’s, an unusual number of Puerto Rican women living in New York were diagnosed as schizophrenic.  Diagnostic levels returned to normal with a better understanding that some manifestations manifestations of grief or anger were seen as quite normal and acceptable in some Hispanic communities and were not intrinsically pathological.

And so we individual Americans who would not ourselves in a million years walk into a class full of first graders and shoot them all can still ask if there are deeply held American values which are reflected in our recurring gun crime.  Our country was conquered by the gun.  Our heroes of the wild West ruled by the gun.  We shoved the Indians onto reservations at the point of a gun.  We finished World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.

Why is gun crime so prevalent in America compared to other countries where just as many people have guns?  Do we think America is great because we have the biggest weapons?  Is someone an achiever because he has the fastest gun in town?  Are guns really our best protection?  Is this our strength?

Or also our weakness?

December 11, 2012

Accidental racism

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:13 pm

A friend who has just read my book, The Big Bang to Now:  All of Time in Six Chunks has asked me what the difference is between Orientals and Asians.  I thought the terms were more or less synonymous, both meaning “Eastern.”

But according to the Urban Dictionary, the definitions are by no means simple.  In America, it is politically incorrect to refer to people as “Orientals.”   Oriental describes objects like rugs and fans, Asian describes people.   In fact, one person even suggests it is derogatory and racist to refer to people as Orientals because the term carries with it overtones of European colonialism in China and is equated with terms like Negro, Coon, Paki, and Mic.

Here in Britain, Asian refers to people from south-east Asia, mainly India and Pakistan, but not to people from China or Japan.  Oriental is not considered derogatory, even by Asians.

So what Asian and Oriental mean depends on who is  talking or listening.  The safest option seems  to refer to the individual countries by name whenever possible.

If I were writing my book again, I’d steer clear of the word oriental altogether.

And I apologize to anyone who may feel I have used to term to suggest that people from Asia are mere objects.  The very idea is obviously ridiculous.

December 6, 2011

Happy Saint-a-Claus Day

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 3:30 pm

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, the original bishop from Holland, who has morphed into Santa Claus.

In my childhood we celebrated Christmas, but maintained the custom from our Dutch heritage and also celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas when we put our shoes outside to be filled with a gift from the saintly bishop.

My sister has just shared with me her efforts to spread this lovely tradition further afield.  Years ago she and her husband were friends with a family with 3 children, and they encouraged them to let them start the St. Nicholas tradition.  My sister surreptitiously asked each of the children what they wanted St. Nicholas to bring them.and received a request for a baton, and chocolate chip cookies.  Jason, the youngest,  said he hoped St. Nicholas would bring him a loaf of banana bread like the ones my sister makes.    So the night of December 5, she and her husband went over to the house and after the kids were in bed, left the treats in their waiting shoes.

The next morning, Jason asked his mother why St. Nicholas brought him a meat loaf.

And do you know what?  My said sister still doesn’t label the food she puts into her freezer.



October 29, 2011

Looking for happiness

True Happiness David ChernoffHappiness these days seems to be a popular research topic.  What makes us happy?  what kind of people are happy?  is it genetic?  how much does it depend on our circumstances?  does enough money make us happy?   does more money make us happier?  Do the same things make people happy or cause them unhappiness?

If I were still an active academic, I think I would write a summary of this fascinating research in progress.  Happiness is a lot more complicated than I would have believed.

Many things influence happiness.  Generally speaking, the employed are happier than the unemployed, the young and old tend to be happier than the middle-aged, extroverts are happier than introverts, confident people are happier than their less confident contemporaries.  There are people who believe  we can teach ourselves to be happier, or that we need sunshine to be happy.

One study about a “happiness gene” has particularly intrigued me.  Researchers have known for some time that the capacity for happiness is partly genetically controlled, and have identified the gene that seems to be principally responsible for these differences.

A recent study found that Asian Americans tend to have fewer “happiness genes” than  White Americans and  Black Americans have more than White Americans.

There is a need for much broader study before reaching too-far reaching conclusions, but studies suggests that these serotonin-transporter or happiness genes tend to concentrate in ethnic groups, and so may reflect fundamentally genetic differences in societies, even in countries.

Furthermore, in societies such as China and Japan which have lower levels of effective mood elevating genes, people seem to prefer political systems that emphasize harmony and provide relatively high levels of security.  Entire countries with different levels of happiness genes may prefer greater levels of individual independence even at the cost of greater risk.

So the happiness question isn’t just of interest to psychologists anymore.  Politicians and economists are equally interested for reasons of their own.

In any case, it seems clear that one size does not fit all.  There isn’t going to be a system out there that will make everybody happy.





August 9, 2011

Not an Arab spring

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

Woman jumping from her London apartment last night 

Police in towns and cities throughout Britain are bracing themselves for a 4th day/night running of looting, rioting, and fires.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, have both returned home early from their summer vacations, and Parliament has been recalled to meet tomorrow.

An initial peaceful demonstration in one of the less wealthy suburbs of London on Sunday to object to the very strange police shooting of a local man turned violent.  Looting and violence has now broken out in cities across England and in at least ten separate suburbs of London.  Apartment blocks, stores, and cars have been burned to the ground, people have been hurt, one man died of gun shot wounds this morning, and the main streets in town after town have been devastated.  It is quite terrifying.  

The police have thus far simply been outfaced.  Tonight they are bringing in almost three times as many officers as yesterday, local people have been trying to clean up the streets where possible, and shops in London are already closing for the day.

Some people are calling for the government to call in the military, but I think it is highly unlikely.  It will be interesting to watch, though, what will happen if the rioting continues again tonight.  On the one hand we are urging Syria and Libya and other Middle Eastern governments not to use military force against their own protesters.  It would hardly set an example to bring them into London. 

The police, however, may be given permission to use water cannon if the destruction continues.  The government is hoping, though, that the communities themselves will exert enough influence on the rioters to keep most of them at home and that this won’t be necessary.

In the meantime, I heard a journalist who lives in one of the areas where a furniture store was burned down last night and the main street ransacked say this is a continuation of the “Arab spring.”  He is arguing that young people are rising up and demanding respect and freedom which they have been denied.

There are, of course, long-term and deep social causes that have contributed to this conflagration of violence.   Personally, I suspect, among other factors, that we may be reaping the result of too many single-parent families.  Children need fathers and Britain has the highest percentage of single mothers in all of Europe.  The unemployment rate for the young is disproportionately high, and though society has done a lot to reduce sexist inequality for women, it has not done enough to help young men find roles in society which are meaningful.

But to say that this rioting is our version of the Arab Spring is ridiculous.  The protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square did not trash it.  They directed traffic and after Mubarak had fallen, they came in and cleaned up their trash.  They did not burn people out of their homes and loot stores.

No, this is no Arab spring.  This is common thuggery.

July 30, 2011

A woman’s place wasn’t always in the home

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:52 pm
Tags: ,

I just come across some of the most fascinating research I’ve read in years.  I hope to study it in greater detail but for now here is the gist.

About seven thousand years ago in what is now Iraq, the god whom the people worshipped changed from an all-powerful mother goddess to male gods served predominantly by male priests.

This has been well-documented for a long time and is no surprise.  What is astonishing is that this change took place at the same time as men took over tilling the fields.  Up until then, it was the women who hoed the fields and produced the food on which the society survived.
But in 5,000 BC the plough was introduced.  A plough requires more upper-body strength than a hoe, and men, on average, possess more than women.  Men took possession of the plough and women were forbidden to use it.

So at the  point that the plough was introduced, not only did the top gods become male.  The work of women was transferred to the home.

But here is what I find mind-boggling:  Today, in societies that replaced the plough with the hoe thousands of years ago, women’s place is still seen to be  predominantly in the home.  But in societies where the plough was not appropriate for the crops – like rice, for instance – and that did not benefit from the plough, women are much more likely to work outside the home.

The figures seem to be quite dramatic.  Despite industrialization, despite the fact that the plough itself has been mostly displaced by a tractor which can be driven equally well by members of both sexes, huge differences persist.

For example 25% of women in the Arab world work outside the home.  91% of the women in Burundi, a formerly hoe-using country, do.  Women from hoe-using countries like Kenya are much more likely even today to work outside the home than those from former plough-using countries like India or Egypt.  In America, daughters of immigrants from plough-using societies are less apt to work outside the home than their counterparts whose ancestors used hoes.

Modern attitudes towards the appropriate roles of women follow the same pattern.  Plough-using descendants believe that in times of unemployment, men should be given jobs before women and that men make better political leaders than women.

Still, although these stereotypes may have lasted thousands of years, they are not totally immune to change.  During the second world war, women took over many of the “male” jobs on farms and in factories because the men were away.  A larger percentage of women still work exclusively at home than do men.  But the war did seem to make a permanent difference.

I grew up on a farm.  By the time I was six, I had a plan to get out of there and move to New York City.  I wasn’t abused as a child – I wasn’t running away from an abusive home.  I just didn’t want to be stuck on a farm with the cows and fields and chickens.  

I wonder if my ancestors were hoe-users.

July 28, 2011

…until death do us part

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 8:43 pm

As anthropologists know, the Western ideal of romantic love in which a man and woman fall passionately in love and live in mutual delight for the rest of their lives has not been shared by most other societies.  Even in Western societies, the combination of romantic love, sexual delights, and familial responsibilities is a fairly recent ideal.

The first component of this ideal, romantic love, is epitomized by the troubadours of the 12th century.  Their cavalier approach to a beautiful woman did not include the intention of raising a family with the person of one’s fascination.  It did not even necessarily involve sleeping together.  Troubadours were too much on the move for more than a fleeting flight of imagination, and women as well as men were well aware of this.  These “relationships” were not a prelude to the security of marriage and family.

The second component of  romantic love was also separate from the expectation of life-long companionship and family responsibilities.  This component is, however, overtly sexual.  Initially  the game was usually far more subtle than it is often played today.  Although there was no pretence of commitment, the thrill of pursuing hidden and forbidden fruit was often developed into elaborate forms of seduction.

Acccording to the philosopher Alain de Botton, the ideal of combining for a lifetime romantic, sexual, and family activities arose with the bourgeoise.   With the economic emancipation that came with the industrial revolution, many were no longer living in grinding poverty.  But although they were better off, they did not have the economic luxury required by parlour-room titillation.

The combination, deBoton believes, was a kind of all-in-one lifetime investment.  Romantic fascination, sexual fulfillment, and the benefits of family could be had as a permanent acquisition if one chose the right partner.

As we know, for the seriously rich, this economy was never necessary, and both men and women in the upper classes were often unperturbed by their spouse’s extra-marital activities.  With affluence, this attitude has spread to the less wealthy.  One’s spouse should be protected from public humiliation or even embarrassment.  But sexual activity outside the marriage bond is not necessarily, for either man or wife, a manifestation of infidelity.

Personally, I have found that the discipline and commitment of a monogamous relationship has brought me great benefits.  It is a life style I would choose again, and often recommend to others.

But it’s not the only way.  Every individual is unique, and there are an almost limitless number of different societies sanctioning sometimes radically different expectations of men and women.

Every marriage, then, every relationship between man and woman, is significantly different from any other relationship in the universe.

I’m not counselling unbounded free love.  But I do suspect that many marriages would be happier if our Western ideal were a little less unrealistic.

July 25, 2011

Proud to be a thief

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

In response to my last two posts, a friend has sent me a word tree on display on Ellis Island.  (Ellis Island was America’s Great Immigrant Gateway from the late 19th century until 1924.)  The tree sprouts American words now in popular use which have been adopted from the original languages of immigrant Americans, including from Native Americans who were here centuries before Columbus “discovered” America.

The English have given us 50 of their cringe-making Americanisms.  Here are 50 of my own  favourites, which I use with pride.

  •  Native American words:  chipmonk,  podunk,  kayak, skunk,  toboggan,  papoose,  powwow,  hurricane
  • from Africa: bad mouth,  jukebox
  • from China:  gung ho
  • Dutch words:  caboodle,  yankee,  Santa Claus,  hunkey dorey,    filibuster,  sleigh,  spook,  caboose,  boss,  poppycock,  bowery
  • from France:  shanty,  picayune, prairie,  rapids,  sashay
  • German words:  hoodlum,  coffee klatsch,  flak,  spiel,  seminar,  bummer,  hex,  nix
  •  from the German-Dutch or -French:  poker,  kutlz,  nosh
  • Yiddish words:  schlock,  schmo,  mench,  schmaltz,  kibitz,  schnook
  • Italian:  mezzanine
  • Japan/China:  tycoon, honcho
  •  Mexican/Spanish:  boondocks,  savy
  • Tagalog:  voodoo

For Americanisms with an English origin, see Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary.

English-isms with an American origin are fewer in number than those going in the other direction, but we’re proud to share!  And I’m sure you won’t mix us up again with Shakespeare.  (See Americanism #27 on the BBC list and comment # 1294.  )

July 23, 2011

Gallows humour

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 2:51 pm

When my mother was dying, a friend came for a visit bringing two bottles – one filled with Lourdes water, the other with Scotch whiskey.  “If one doesn’t work,” my mother said, “the other will.”  (For the uninitiated, Lourdes water is from a place in France where the mother of Jesus appeared to three peasant girls, and is now associated with miraculous cures.*)

  My mother did not think a miracle was likely, and she did not drink much.  So when she died there were several miracles still left in each bottle.  I don’t know what actually happened to the Lourdes water, but I can make a pretty good guess about the Scotch.  

This story is my justification for gallows humour, which, in my mother’s case, I think is a rather marvellous example of her courage.  If she could make jokes about dying at 48 with ten children under the age of 20, one can’t argue that laughing is to dismiss the gravity of the issue.

Which is my justification for a further discussion of Americanisms even in the light of the current state of the world.  This morning I turned on the news to see that at least 84 young people were dead after being shot by a 32-year-old Norwegian dressed as a policeman.  He went to an island where they were gathered after planting a bomb that devastated the center of Oslo.  The gunman now in custody does not seem to be an Islamist but is native Norwegian with a far-right Christian orientation.

If that weren’t enough, the story following this is that the talks collapsed last night between Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise to prevent the U.S. from defaulting come August 1st.  If they don’t reach some agreement, my own fear is that serious suffering will hit far more than 84 innocent families.  Tens of thousands of people could be affected.  That elected government representatives should be behaving with this kind of cavalier attitude is despicable.

So back to Americanisms.  A few people have shared their own pet cringe-making phrases.  Like “as of yet…”

As I was reading the expanded list, I began to change my assessment of Americanisms.  I know they sometimes come from carelessness or a failure to reflect on what we are actually saying.  But often they are quite creative.  And why shouldn’t we be creative with words?  They are no more static than poetry or art or architecture.

One of the reasons why I think Americans are so apparently inventive is that the population has originated from so many different countries.  So English (for English readers, excuse me for calling it that) for so many people was learned as a second language.  Many of our phrases, therefore, are a result of applying the rules of  our first language to English, or are a mistaken application of English rules.

I noticed that one person asked where “gotten” came from.  It was a term my mother used.  Okay, “gotten” wasn’t originally a correct past participle, but doesn’t it sound right?  Get, Got, Gotten?  Is this any stranger than the child who says it’s “winding and raining”?  Or thinks the plural of mouse is “mouses”?

Other Americanisms are direct translations from the original language.  The use of the double negative, for instance, has come to be associated with a lack of education.  But it began as a literal translation from languages that do appropriately use double negatives.

I’m sure “enough already” must have come from the original Yiddish, and I do know that “what for?” is a literal translation of the Spanish “why?”  Unfortunately, I cannot not, as of yet, provide any reasonable defense of “You know, I mean.”

Hmmm, I’m not sure this discussion actually qualifies as gallows humour.

I hope life doesn’t decide any time soon that I need some real-life practice.

* Whoops!  Really Important Correction:  Lourdes isn’t where the Blessed Virgin appeared to three peasant girls.  That’s Fatima.  The Lourdes appearance was to Bernadette.  Given that Bernadette was my name as a nun for 9 years, you would think I wouldn’t have gotten (sic) that mixed up.  

July 13, 2011

Why don’t Americans live longer?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:59 pm

People in the United States spend more on medical care than any other country in the world.  Why don’t we live longer than the average person in Great Britain, in Canada, in Australia, or in Japan?

According to a recent report carried out jointly in America and Britain, not only is there a significant gap between us Americans and many other countries.   The researchers were surprised to discover that the gap is actually getting bigger.

Just as surprisingly, the explanation does not seem to lie in economic factors.  It is not the poor who are pulling down the average for the middle and upper classes in America.

The biggest contributors seem to be life style factors.  America has exceptionally high rates of obesity, stress, and smoking, high levels of salt in our diets, and alcohol and other drug abuse.

Interestingly, it might also be because Americans spend so much on specialist care to the neglect of primary care.  Even the middle and upper classes in America may not be getting their money’s worth because so much more money can be made by doctors specializing in things like plastic surgery than in more basic but less exotic areas.  The irony is that Obama’s health care plan really might benefit everyone – even those who can already afford expensive health care.

 There is some encouraging news.  Women in Florida have life expectancies equal to those of Japanese women, which makes them among the highest in the world.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the lifestyle of women in Florida might bear some examination.

June 20, 2011

No, No, NO!

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 2:42 pm

There was a hair-raising story on the news today about a 50-year-old mother in Pakistan.  Some days ago, a group of men from her village broke into her home, dragged her out into the public square, and stripped her naked.  For an hour they taunted and beat her in front of the other villagers, including the children.  They did what they did as a punishment because her son had had an illicit affair.

It is apparently not unusual for women in Pakistan to be punished for the transgressions of their male relatives.

Following the incident, a Western journalist was able to interview the abused woman.  The journalist interviewed her with great sympathy, and the woman seemed to be to be amazingly self-possessed under the circumstances.

But what I find most appalling is that the woman says that she has been so dishonoured that she will never be able to return to the village.  She says before they were poor but they were respectable.  Now she cannot look even her own sister in the face.

That is what I find the worst – that the woman believes that it is she who lost her honour.

How I wish she would walk down the middle of the street in her village with her head up, and defiance in her eye.

It is not she who is dishonoured.  It is the men who stripped her who are dishonourable.  It is the villagers who will not talk to the police.  It is those who cannot meet the eyes of the woman, who think that she should be feeling shame, not anger.

May 28, 2011

Memorial Day

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 4:06 pm

It is my experience that Americans talk about death more candidly than most English people I know.  It is also my experience that we talk about death in my family more candidly and more often than most Americans.  We talk about it a lot – how so many deaths in our childhoods affected each of us, about our own deaths and how we hope to face it.

This is probably due first to my mother.  When at the age of 46 she was told she had six weeks to live, she did not pretend.  For those of us old enough to understand, she talked to each of us as individuals about her hopes for us, her love for us, the strengths and struggles she foresaw for each of us.  My father faced death twenty years later with equal honesty, and so did my younger sister when she learned, also in her mid-forties, that her cancer was terminal.

Last week, my half-sister suffered a stoke, and she is now in a hospice with no more than days to live.  I never lived with her and we were not particularly close.  But so much of the past is coming back to be remembered again.

And now, as in the past, I have turned to music.  Not to my analytic words, not to my store of scientific knowledge, but to that medium that has never failed to take me to some level that I have never reached in any other way.

I can’t understand Death – real death of people I love or of my own death – through sheer intellectual analysis.  It doesn’t make sense that way.  I can’t accept it.

But music says something to me I can understand in no other way.  Sometimes it is folk or country, sometimes it is jazz.  But when I am staring at the loss of someone I love, it is Beethoven.

A poet may be able to say it in words, an artist with paint.  But for me, music is my meditation.  Music shows me a world I can see in no other way.

I have listened again today to Beethoven’s 8th symphony.  And I thought again, as I have often thought before, that if I know I am dying, I will play Beethoven’s symphonies, and I will not know when I slide from this world into whatever happens after death.  Because I will already feel that I have arrived.

February 19, 2011

A small dispute about cannibalism

Cannibalism has appeared in the news several times recently.  First is the evidence that cannibalism may have been developed to a rather high art among humans in Britain about 15,000 years ago.

The second appearance is rather more recent.  The book just published about the 33 miners in Chile suggests that the idea of cannibalism had occurred to some of the men as they moved into their third week trapped underground.  The miners were reduced to a single spoonful of tuna every three days with no assurance yet that they would be found.  In the end, actual cannibalism did not become an issue before day 17 when the drill bit broke through.

I suggested to my husband that cannibalism, even when it was not motivated by outright starvation, was not necessarily dehumanizing.  I said I thought it quite possible that eating parts of another human being was a sacred ritual in which the survivors were symbolically incorporating the best of the deceased person into their own lives.  I pointed out that hunting societies frequently saw the killing and eating of animals as a sacred act, and that these activities were often accompanied by ritual.  Perhaps this also motivated a group of modern cannibals discovered some years ago in Papua New Guinea who ate the heart and the brain of the loved one in carefully prescribed rituals.   

My husband disagreed.  His view is that cannibalism is dehumanizing, and does not reflect some sense that we are all part of the same world.

Some time later I wondered if my Roman Catholic upbringing, in which I was taught that the bread and the wine consecrated during mass literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus, explained my sense that consuming the flesh of another human being could be a sacred act.

Not, of course, that I ever thought of receiving the Eucharist as cannibalism.

But then, my point is that I think cannibalism isn’t always cannibalism in the terms we in the modern world generally understand cannibalism.

February 4, 2011

Celebrations of the Rabbit

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese New Year.  This year it is the year of the Rabbit.

I’m not completely ignorant of the year’s of other cultures besides my own.  Our school calendar always provided for the Hebrew calendar and latterly for the calendar of Muslims.  But apart from vaguely noting that the Chinese seemed to name their years after animals, I was pretty uninformed.

Having checked it out on Wikipedia, I fear I now know why.  There are twelve animals after which the years are named.  But some years are yin and others yang.  There are also five elements – wood, water, fire, earth, and metal – and positive and negative “stems” that run in ten-year cycles.  It takes 60 years to repeat a new year with exactly the same characteristics.

Besides that, the Chinese year is calculated on a “lunisolar” basis, and starts on various days usually sometime in January or February.

Celebrations last for fifteen days.  And just to make things more complicated, it’s called a “spring” festival.

I’m beginning to understand why the Chinese have a reputation for being so good at math.

Personally, I can’t even calculate on my own when Easter is going to occur each year.  So in relation to Chinese new year, I myself would opt for looking it up on a calendar.

I did, though, look up the rabbit, whose year it now is.  People born in the Year of the Rabbit are supposedly articulate, talented, ambitious,virtuous, reserved, and have excellent taste. Rabbit people are admired, trusted,  like to gossip and seldom lose their temper.

Didn’t look a bad group to be associated with.

But I seem to have been born in a year of the Dragon.  That might be why I fall down on those “talented, ambitious, and virtuous” parameters.

November 14, 2010

A little bit of really good news

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:16 pm

Since 9/11, prejudice against Muslims in the West has increased.  The increase isn’t just on the paranoid right, but is evident even among people whom one might consider moderate.  Even among those who claim that “some of my best friends are Muslims.”

I guess it’s understandable.  Even if unjustified.

But here is the good news:

A report on violent extremists in the United States recently found that Muslim-American communities helped foil close to a third of al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening the country since September 11, 2001.

And what might not exactly be called “good” news but is certainly surprising for those who believe that Americans are all non-violent, tolerant and reasonable, the study also found that since 9/11,  terrorism plots by non-Muslims greatly outnumber those attempted by Muslims.

So there!

March 22, 2010

More better than bad

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 9:58 pm

I will admit I was not prepared for the virulence of the debate -if one can elevate much of what was said in relation to the Health Care Bill to the level of “debate”.   But I’m glad something finally made it through Congress.

I have been trying to find out what actually was finally passed, because I strongly suspect the bill may contain some grave weaknesses:  there are still ten million Americans who are not covered by any health care insurance;  there is no public option;  the country may not be able to afford the delivery of the medical treatment it promises;  what is meant by providing “best practice” is horribly complex and may exclude the use of innovative or controversial treatments;  abortions or procedures to which some object on medical grounds may not be covered even for those whose religious beliefs do not exclude them.

But I think the bill, nonetheless, is far better than nothing.  Apart from the sheer inhumanity of refusing to treat the sick because they are too poor, America will not be able to remain competitive in the world economy if we do not reign in our medical costs and take them from the shoulders of employers.  There is no question that medical insurance was one of the factors that brought the American car industry to its knees.  And Obama had to get it passed if his Presidency was not going to become a dead duck less than half way through his first term in office.

Besides, we can make the system better.  When social security was introduced in the 1930’s, it was not a very good program.  But it got better.

Over here in England, the debate is when someone who participates in assisted suicide should face criminal charges.  Somehow, I don’t think America is ready for that one yet.  More on that subject tomorrow.

Unless the world falls in, which would be more interesting.

February 24, 2010

Was Plato left-handed?

I know:  along with deciding what to put on the table for this evening’s meal, whether Plato was left-handed is the most urgent question facing most of us as we press forward with our daily lives.  

So how did I think up this vital question?  The reason I’ve been wondering is that there is a pattern among a small group of people – mostly men.  They are often brilliant mathematicians, are left-handed, and think that the world of absolute numbers actually exists in a separate universe from the imperfect world we inhabit.

Today, the majority of people who believe in another universe besides ours do so for religious reasons – it is where God and the angels and the departed who have achieved sainthood live.  But it didn’t start as a religious idea.  Plato lived four centuries before Christ, and his “perfect world” was not one inhabited by God but by perfect forms.  Today, people in the modern world who believe in other universes for reasons that are not religious tend to be mathematical geniuses.  There are also cultures where people believe that the world into which they move in their dreams also has an objective existence.

They think they have direct experience of this other universe in the same way most of us feel we have direct experience of the ordinary world around us.  We “ordinary people,” occasionally might get a glimpse of why this alternative world feels so real when we ourselves can’t remember if we dreamed something or if it really happened.  Our memory of the experience is the same, and sometimes we even have to ask someone else if it happened or not.

So I’ve begun to wonder just when, and how far, and under what conditions we can trust the validity of our own experiences.

Anyway, that’s why I began to wonder if Plato was left-handed.  I’m pretty sure he was brilliant.  And I’d guess he was mathematically gifted.  And I’m pretty sure he experienced that world he described where perfect forms exist.

For myself, I don’t think so.   Even though that leads to a lot of philosophical problems that I’m not even going to begin to get into tonight.

Besides I’m still fighting the tail-end of the flu.  Can you tell?

January 17, 2010

Thought for Sundays

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

How beautiful it is to do nothing,

and then rest afterwards

Spanish Proverb

January 1, 2010

1752 and all that

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:58 pm

I’ve always thought of New Year’s Day as sort of God-made.  I obviously have never thought about it very seriously, but the beginning of the New Year seemed to me to have been lost far back in pre-history.  And since then possibly even confirmed by scientific theory.

Well, that is ridiculous, but it was a surprise to discover yesterday that in England, the beginning of the New Year wasn’t celebrated on January 1st until 1752.  Before that, it was celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas, when the angel was supposed to have announced to Mary that she was pregnant.

In 1522 Venice adopted January 1st as the start of the new year, going back to the Roman custom that celebrated the first day of the month dedicated to their god Janus.  Janus had two faces, enabling him to look both back and forward.  Before Janus, however, the Romans had only ten months in their year, and their new year began in March.  It’s probably where the English first picked up the idea.  After Christianity arrived the start of the new year was given a Christian interpretation.

The custom determining that each New Year dawns somewhere near Australia is even more recent.  The Greenwich mean line near London marks 0 longitude, and in 1884 was made the basis for Universal Time.  So when it’s noon in London, half way around the world it’s midnight.  On one side of the line it’s the start of new day, on the other side the end of the day before.

Given the flexibility of when a new year is deemed to start – even today Orthodox Christians and the Chinese mark different new years – January 1st might not be in a privileged a position forever.

December 27, 2009

American snow isn’t like English snow

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 2:54 pm

Early last week, we got about 8 inches of snow.  Somehow our snow shovel never made it from New York as we passed through Spain and since it only snows here seriously once or twice a year, we’ve never replaced it Once or twice a year, we resolutely promise we will.  But like the man whose roof doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain, somehow the snow shovel never makes it onto our shopping list when we are actually in the vicinity of a snow-shovel shop.  That may be because snow-shovel shops do not feature widely here in Cambridge, England.

So we cleared our drive and front sidewalk yet again with our garden shovel, yard broom, and hoe.  When two more inches fell, I went out again and swept the drive before the snow had a chance to melt and then turn to the more treacherous and stubborn ice.  I repeated the exercise – which took about ten minutes – a third time when another inch fell.

And do you know what?  Ours was the only – I mean only – drive in the entire village of several thousand people whose drive was swept.

Every once in a while, something happens and I realize that being an American is just a little different from being English.  It just doesn’t snow here often enough for people to relate to it.  One neighbour even seriously asked me what a snow shovel looked like compared to an “ordinary” shovel.  I told him there is a complete technology of shovels including shovels with big wheels, small wheels, and wheels for gravel drives, shovels with ergonomic handles, folding shovels, shovels for children, shovels to fit into the car trunk (which is called boot over here) and even snow blowers,.  He was gob-smacked.

Here in this part of England, they just hunker down or slide around in their cars or pull their children on their sleds for a few days and simply wait for it to pass.

And it does.  Today all the snow except for a few harmless patches has disappeared completely.

November 15, 2009

Scottish reverie

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 2:22 pm

If you’ve ever been to Scotland and heard the bagpipes calling over the rolling hills, or racing the heart at a memorial ceremony at Edinburgh Castle, or simply raising the spirits around the tables in a pub, you may already know what I am talking about.  It’s about Scottish intuition.

This story is about a Scottish woman who with her husband had been good neighbours of my husband’s parents for decades.  After the death of her own husband and of Peter’s mother, Jane had become an important support to Peter’s father, Ernest.  Peter and I had been living in Spain, at least 24 hours drive and a ferry crossing at the English Channel away.  We tried to get Ernest to come live with us, but his promises always reverted to his inevitable refrain “I’m stopping here.”

We visited him in northern England for months at a time, occasionally as a planned journey, but most often it was a mad dash after late-night calls from Ernest telling us we’d better get there in a hurry or we’d find him “in his coffin.”  By the time this had happened for the third time, we no longer took his announcements of imminent doom too seriously.

But we did finally close up our house in Spain and moved into the back bedroom of his house in England so we could look after him.

One evening we returned home from the supermarket to find Ernest lying in bed with Jane and another neighbour in tears at his bedside.  As we came into the bedroom we heard him saying “The time comes to all of us.  It came to Churchill.”  (Long pause.)  “It came to Roosevelt”  (Long pause).  “It came to King George.”  (Ahem)  “And now it is coming to me.”

Peter and I burst out laughing, and suggested that he sit up to have supper.  Jane was appalled and furious.  “How can you?!” she said aghast.  “He will be gone by tomorrow morning and you’re laughing.”

He won’t be gone by the morning, we assured her.  “I’m Scottish,” Jane returned, “and I know about these things.  I’m sure he has less than 24 hours to live.”

I don’t have a lot of it myself, but I’m a great believer in intuition.  And the Scots do tell some extraordinary stories which I tend to think often have a grain of truth.

But like every other kind of human knowledge, it’s not infallible.  No matter how certain it feels.

Ernest died six months later.

November 9, 2009

Halloween update

It seems that the mythology surrounding Halloween with which I was indoctrinated as a child is historically untrustworthy.  We were not, in fact, joining the souls in purgatory asking for prayers in time to be released into heaven to celebrate All Saints Day on November lst.

The Vatican says Halloween is a pagan festival that is anti-Christian, a celebration of terror and death dancing hand-in-hand with the devil.  Besides that, trick-or-treating is not safe, puts children in danger and frightens the elderly, and should be stopped.

The original offending pagans apparently were the Celts who wore costumes with animal heads to celebrate their new year which fell on November 1st.  Crops and animals were burned as offerings to the gods,  and people  sat around the fire telling fortunes.

The Romans adapted the festival to honour Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees.  It’s probably where bobbing for apples started.

Today, Americans of almost any religious persuasion and none at all spend almost 7 billion dollars on Halloween each year.

No wonder the bishops think it’s the devil’s work.

October 31, 2009

Halloween History

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:43 pm

I read somewhere that Halloween was brought to America from Ireland.  As a child, I was taught that the beggars represented souls in Purgatory who were going from door to door to ask for prayers so that they could be released in time to get to heaven for All Saints Day on November 1st.  Halloween didn’t make it to England until about a decade ago – brought, I strongly suspect, from America by stores looking for something to fill the retail gap between summer and Christmas.


106th Street, NYC

My favourite personal Halloween experience was when I was living on 106th Street in New York City.  It was a neighbourhood influenced by Columbia University a few blocks north, and by the ethnic groups which gave the area its quite outstanding neighbourhood restaurants.  There was an edge in the neighbourhood which delighted me.  There was the old lady who sat at her ground floor window and asked passers-by to pick something up for her at the grocery store.  And our bag lady who accosted you if you put your trash into the bin after 10 a.m., when she’d already gone through the garbage on our street.

But for Halloween, the best was our local street panhandler.  He always waited until the morning after the night before, and stood on the corner calling out “Trick or Treat:  Last Chance for Trick or Treat.”

I remember him with such fondness that I wish I’d given him more than my standard quarter.

October 18, 2009

Feast of Light

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

President Obama wishes a Happy Diwali to all who celebrate this Feast of Light.

Light is one of the great gifts of life, isn’t it?  Light of every kind.  So I am going to spend a moment being grateful for Light too.

Thank you for the sun.

Thank you for the my sight.

Thank you for loving and being loved.

Thank you for being alive.

Thank you for the Universe

September 14, 2009

It’s worked for 150 years

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

150 years ago, an isolated village on the west coast of Ireland began a matchmaking festival.  It was for the benefit of the young farmers who had little chance to meet eligible women who might be willing to share the beauty, the long hours, and the loneliness of life on their distant farms.  The festival was run by an official matchmaker who often matched two people as he introduced them.  And it often worked.

The farmers still meet few women and the matchmaking festival is still held for five weeks each summer in Lisdoonvarna.  Farmers still come to meet someone whom they might marry and there is still an official matchmaker – the great grandson of the original matchmaker.

But now it is an international festival, attended by 40,000 people from around the world.

I’m not quite sure it’s exactly how I would prefer to meet the man of my dreams.  But I bet the music is fantastic.  And the dancing goes on all night.

June 9, 2009

A cross-cultural study of bathroom behavior

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 4:36 pm

On the way back from France two days ago, we stopped at a rest area on the auto-route.  On first appearance, rest areas in France look just like they do in America, in Britain, and in every other European country I have visited.  But there are differences.

At road stops that provide no more than a picnic table and toilets, the women’s toilets are usually holes in the floor.  It saves one the worry of making contact with a filthy toilet seat, but I worry about the day when I may no longer be able to squat without support.  And I find that it is sometimes quite tricky to leave the cubicle before the water flushes over the floor.

Even in the modern rest areas with restaurants and shops, different attitudes are noticeable.  On this occasion, I went into the complex before Peter to pay for gas and then headed for the ladies restroom.  On the door was a sign saying “Cleaning in Progress:  please use restroom next door.”   The restroom next door was the men’s restroom.

As I was reading the sign, however, a man came out, so I thought perhaps I might venture in despite the sign.


My understanding of French is limited, but the cleaning woman made it clear with unrivalled authority that her cleaning was still in progress.

So I went back into the hall trying to look composed.  Peter was unlikely to stop by the ladies room on his way to the men’s, so I decided to forestall the shock of his seeing me in the wrong place by waiting for him.

Besides, I will admit, that although I’ve seen this blaze attitude before in France toward uni-sex restrooms, I felt a vaguely immoral disquietude toward walking brazenly into the men’s toilet.  While I waited, I watched the French women read the sign without a pause and proceed next door.

Eventually Peter arrived and we went into the rest room together.  I emerged unscathed.

In Japan I am told they play music or even provide white noise to save users the embarrassment of being overheard while they are using the toilet cubicles.

I rather prefer the French attitude.

But then, that might be because at heart I’m really more like the Japanese.

May 4, 2009

New take on globalization

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 1:37 pm

The president of Iran, Mahmoud Almadinejad, is running for re-election in June.

His campaign motto is “Ma mitavanim!”  That translates from Farsi as “Yes we can!”

He’s the one who denies the Holocaust, who wants to anihilate Israel, and who claims that his nuclear research is solely for peaceful purposes.

I couldn’t have made it up.

February 24, 2009

Alternative alternatives

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

I met a woman at a dinner party the other night whose views of life are emphatically not my own, but which are nonetheless intriguing.

Eleanor has lived on all five continents, including Africa, Greenland, America, India, and several countries of Europe.  Unlike many people here in Britain, she has not done this as part of a military family, which tends to cacoon its members from a full exposure to the cultures where they are living.  She lived, often with her husband and children, immersed in the culture – living in the same kinds of home they did, eating their foods, adopting their life styles, becoming acquainted with the values and survival strategies of the people there.

Taking strands of the cultures of the many primitive peoples with whom she has lived, she has cobbled together a kind of – well, what shall I call it? – a kind of alternative spirituality.  It involves religious practices, alternative medicine, and a philosophy of life put together in a unique montage.  

She calls herself a psychotherapist and healer, and offers to guide people who are confused and in pain toward enlightenment.  Many people claim that their lives have been transformed as a result of their journey with her.

Fascinating as her life story is, and courageous as some of her struggles seem to be, I personally have to swallow hard.  I neither want nor trust somebody else’s “enlightenment.”

Not that I can’t learn from the wisdom of others.  I have benefitted immensely and often from their  greater lights.  But don’t give me Right Answers.  I don’t believe them.  Don’t introduce me to The True Way.  I don’t trust it.

I don’t think enlightenment comes easily and it rarely comes quickly.  Above all it doesn’t come from somebody else.  One has to find it for oneself.

February 23, 2009

The best of times

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:11 pm

Some recent research says that it has found that the topsy-turvy life styles so many of us have adopted in modern life isn’t good for us.  Apparently, we should do our thinking jobs between about ten and lunch, go to the gym after four pm, avoid driving after lunch, and make our evening meal comparable to a light snack.  Above all, we should live according to a fairly regular schedule, and abolish shift work.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.

I’m not even sure it would be a good idea.  

I’ve also been reading about the life styles of a tribe living in the Brazilian forest.  They do pretty much what they feel like when they feel like doing it.  They rarely indulge in an uninterrupted night’s sleep, but get odd hours as they feel the need.  The night, for them, is as full as the day.    It seems to suit them fine.  

Besides, research results like this tend to report on what the average person needs, but rarely divulges how many people aren’t actually average.  I, personally, am a night person, while my husband functions better in the very early morning, which means that neither of us is average, but are also different from each other.

On the other hand, maybe if I wrote these posts in the mornings instead of in the late evening, it might raise their intellectual calibre.  But I doubt it.  I suspect it’s too late.  Or too early, as the case may be.

January 28, 2009

It’s hop scotch next

Somewhere in the hazy memories of my childhood, I have a vague recollection that “hocus pocus dominocus” was somehow profane.  But it may have been only that we used the phrase as a kind of magic.

It is obvious to me now, with my smattering of high school Latin, that it was indeed profane.  It seems to have been derived by the Puritans from  “Hoc es enim corpus meum” – “this is my body” – the words used by Roman Catholic priests to accompany the trans-substantiation of the bread and wine during Mass into the body and blood of Christ.

The Puritans thought the whole idea of trans-substantiation was heretical, a belief in magic that was wholly perpostrous.  So my childhood memories seem based on some actual information probably passed on by the nuns who taught us in grade school.

But memories run far deeper than back to my relatively recent childhood.  Catholics and their Cardinal Keither O’Brien in Scotland are objecting to the Rangers football club which has historically represented Protestants and remains a keen rival of the Celtics, a predominantly Catholic football club.  Ranger fans have been doing the Hokey Cokey, at Rangers-Celtic games, a song that the Catholics have decided is politically incorrect because it derides their beliefs.

They are calling for an investigation to determine whether it represents a “faith hate crime” under present British law.

January 15, 2009

An intriguing alternative

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:50 pm

We have been invited to a dinner party next month to welcome to the village a new neighbour, the widow of an arctic explorer who was given a knighthood for his achievements.  She herself sounds to have lived quite a fascinating and adventurous life.  Among other things, she lived with her husband and young daughter among the Innuit for several years in Greenland where her young daughter actually learned to speak their language before she learned English.   

She is also a self-described healer, which gives me some pause.  Healers in non-Western societies are a concept with which I am comfortable, but people who describe themselves as “healers” in a society where the standards of Western medicine are routine bring about a response of ambivalence in me.  

It is not that I do not think some people do indeed effect healing in others.  But it is a complex and unclear process with little controlled research to separate out the effects of placebos, charlatans,  and unreliable “cures.”  And so by and large I do not easily trust people in Western societies who take this title unto themselves.

Still, I am looking forward to meeting her, and am already giving myself little sermons that I should refrain from applying the interrogation methods learned at the knee of my lawyer father.  They might be appropriate for court room examinations, but not for English dinner parties.

Watch this space in late February.

December 9, 2008

Listening is hard to do

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:54 pm

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the day the United Nations declared that all human beings have the right to live in peace and dignity.  The right to escape the degradation and limitations of dire poverty has often been one of the high lights of these rights. 

I think the right to think and believe whatever one chooses is today also one of the most important rights we need to fight for.  Governments, communities, religious institutions, schools, friends and families all are capable of exerting degrading influence to prevent people from holding what are considered to be objectionable views and values.  Some  may indeed be degrading and destructive.   

Often they are not:  the ideas of others are merely threatening.  But whatever the case, refusing to listen to another point of view will not make it go away.  It will simply make it impossible to try to convince someone of another alternative.  Or to be convinced oneself.

One of the things I like best about President Obama is his capacity to listen to a lot of points of view he disagrees with.  If that weren’t true, he wouldn’t be appointing such a variety of dissenting opinions to positions in Washington.  Clearly he is not threatened by those who don’t necessarily agree with him – even on very important things.  And so I believe him when he says he is willing to talk to Iran or other countries whom President Bush has said have not met his preconditions for discussions.

For the last couple of months several people have objected most vociferously to my book “The Big Bang to Now” on the grounds that it is not grounded in Truth as it is revealed in scripture.  Obviously it is not a view I share, but it is a view that I am willing to discuss.  But a lot of people aren’t.   Either they want to declaim without listening, or simply don’t  want to get involved in controversy at all.  More than once, people have suggested that the topic simply be closed to further debate.

I won’t go so far as to say that silencing debate is equivalent to killing those who do not accept your particular beliefs, but I think it springs from the same fear.

But I also appreciate that discussion and debate on important issues is a lot harder than I thought it was when I was young.  And it’s dangerous.  Whether it’s religion or politics, families, friends, and communities all over the world have found that relationships can founder and be ripped apart when we disagree on issues that reflect our fundamental values. 

And yet one of the biggest challenges facing us on our planet today is to learn to live together.  All the Muslims are not going to convert all the Christians, all the fundamentalists are not going to become liberal, all the Palestinians are not going to become Israelis, of the Irish Catholics become Protestant.  We need to do something beside slam doors.

I recognize the impulse in myself not to talk to people who I think are somehow “beyond the pale,” and I fight it.  But sometimes I do not have the strength or the wisdom to carry on a dialogue that is constructive rather than alienating. 

I think sometimes that the challenges of global warming look simple compared to the challenge of accepting our differences.

November 8, 2008

The bread we eat

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 10:26 pm

People in the upper echelons of society began to be called “the upper crust” in the kitchens of medieval England.  Bread, in those days, was baked directly on the fire, and the bottom crust was therefore inevitably burned and blackened.  So the bottom half was cut off and kept for those “below,” and the upper crust was sent to the table of the great and the good upstairs.

In France, the upper crust are called “the big vegetables.”

In the United States, however, everybody – absolutely everybody – is “middle class.”  The only distinguishing concessions permitted lie in the adjectives “lower,” “middle,” and “upper.”

September 1, 2008

Limitations of modern communications

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:58 pm

There are limitations to modern communication devices.  Today the news is filled with people leaving New Orleans before Gustav gets there, with in-person reports from Louisiana on every news programme on TV.  Not so much has been said about the two million people displaced by the floods in India, presumably because getting there to send an on-the-spot report is so much more difficult than flying to the States from London.  But this does tend to distort the relative effect of the weather events in the two different locations.

There was also a report of a trucker coming from Turkey with a consignment for Gibraltar.  For the geographically challenged, Gibralter is an island off the southern tip of Spain controlled by Britain and about 1300 miles (2200 kilometers more or less) south of London.  This seems to have been the trucker’s first delivery to Gibraltar, and so he very carefully followed the directions of his satellite navigation system.  Unfortunately, he did not seem to supplement the sat nav with information from an old-fashioned map, which might have made him suspicious when he crossed the Channel Tunnel into England and headed north.  He kept going for hours as the roads got narrower until he was finally brought up short, unable to go either forward or backward, spread-eagled across two country roads.

That’s when he found out there is a (very small) town called Gibraltar in the north of England.

August 30, 2008

El Convento

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

After the rescue by teenage boys and octopus fishermen on the mountain road in central Puerto Rico I described in yesterday’s post, we finally arrived in San Juan.  Instead of catching our scheduled flight back to New York, we decided to spend an extra two days at El Convento, a luxury hotel converted from a defunct cloistered convent.  The rooms were theoretically the original cells in which the nuns lived, but I was acquainted with the real thing, and the rooms we were put into represented about three cells which no doubt had been knocked together.  I doubt very much that the original cells were en suite, and the oak furniture, although having the look of belonging to a time several centuries earlier, most certainly were not the spartan furnishings provided to the original inhabitants.

The restaurant was the converted chapel, and an evening show featuring flamenco dancers was in the original sanctuary.  It felt vaguely sacrilegious.  But the food was good, the service exquisically lackadaisical, and the location in the old town marvellous.

We returned to the mad scramble of our lives in New York City and the news that my father was dying.  We were glad for the oasis and the reserves it gave us to cope with the hard winter and painful spring.

I have just Googled Hotel El Convento.  It is still there, with double rooms for between $175 and $250 a night.  It was expensive when we were there too, but we’ve never regretted the splurge.

August 18, 2008

The glories of garbage

Given the chance, human ingenuity seems to be without limits.  I’ve just read that the recycling industry in America is now mining rubbish tips.  Discarded plastic at present-day prices is worth $400 a ton, which makes it worth the effort to dig it back up.  Landfills also yield worthwhile amounts of valuable metals like copper and aluminum.*  So recyclers are planning to start digging up rubbish here in Engand too.

We in the Western world are catching up with less developed countries, where trash poses different opportunities.  In India, every ounce of rubbish is combed through by thousands of people, many of whom subsist on their earnings from recycling everything that can possibly be sold for re-use.

*What in America is called aluminum in Britain is called aluminium.  There was a mistake in spelling on the customs forms when aluminium was first sent to the States and it never got corrected.  As they say in the song “you say tom-ay-toes, we say tom-ah-toes…”

July 2, 2008

The English really are different

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

It’s been at least thirty-five years since I first realized that whenever I said something complimentary to my husband, he batted it away like a cobweb interfering with the clarity of his vision.  Somehow he always seemed to manage to explain his achievement in such a way that it did not reflect directly on him.  The meal he cooked was delicious because it was a good recipe, the garden he’d planned was stunning because the plants were of such good stock, his grasp of the sociology of law was due to a fantastic professor he’d had at university.  Etc. 

Over the years, it became a game between us.  I would try to trick him into accepting a compliment unawares, while he honed his skills at dodging my bullets and finding some other explanation than anything meaningful he himself might have contributed.  Over the years, I have probably increased my success at getting behind his cover to about 1%.  He is either very good at dodging, or I am very bad at aiming.

At first I thought his dismissive strategy was an individual quirk, probably exacerbated by his natural tendency toward depression and pessimism.  My first hint that it might have a cultural component came from his mother.  An English team had just won a big soccer cup, and were celebrating with exuberance.  “They should be careful,” my mother-in-law said to me;  “They might not win the cup next year.”   The English find it uncomfortable to be unambiguously acknowledged as the best at anything.  It’s not that they don’t think they are very good very often.  It’s just that one shouldn’t say so.   They prefer understatement and find the bald statement of fact vulgar.

So I suppose I should not have been surprised when I commented to our neighbour, a retired Air Force officer, who has been developing his garden since he moved in last summer, on his beautiful plantings and marvellous display of colour.  “Oh, I haven’t any skill as a gardener,” he said.  “It’s just a lot of hard work.”  I said I hoped the Air Force used a slightly higher standard in selecting its pilots than how hard he flapped his arms. 

I thought I’d won that round, but several hours later he came up to our shared property fence I was repainting on our side and asked if the paint was intoxicating.  “Oh no,” I said, unaware of the consequences of this naked truthfulness,  “not at all.”  “What a shame,” he said, “what a shame,” as he went over to check on the progress of the tomatoes.  Being an American, I laughed out loud, which is okay because as an American I am forgiven certain ostentatious displays. 

But if I were English, the appropriate response would have been to show my appreciation for his humour with a deadpan expression, preferably accompanied by an equally clever remark, which even now evades me.  Good thing I can get away with laughing.


June 28, 2008


There was a mega-concert in Hyde Park, London, last night to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.  It is impossible, I think, to exaggerate the respect and honour given to him for his statemanlike magnanimity and the scope of his forgiveness after being held in prison for more than twenty years for refusing to give up his fight against aparteid in South Africa.  He is the only person in the world known to address the present Queen of England as “Elizabeth.”

Although when Queen Elizabeth was visiting the States several years ago, there was a marvellous photo of a Black woman welcoming “Elizabeth” into her home in Baltimore with a huge hug.  If I recall correctly, she said “welcome to my house, Queen.”  This may not sound like a big deal, but I think the correct protocol is to address the Queen as “madam,” and certainly forbids even shaking hands with her unless she offers her hand first.  Most women practice learning to curtsy if they know they are going to meet the Queen, and nobody ever presumes to hug her.  The prime minister of Australia once called a diplomatic furore for putting his hand on her back to guide her in the right direction.  So the privilege of foregoing these pretty rigidly enforced rules of etiquette is no small thing.

Meanwhile, the knighthood awarded to Mugabe some years ago has been withdrawn, and Mandela himself spoke out against the outrage that is occurring today in Zimbabwe.  I’m not sure the situation in Zimbabwe is getting a lot of coverage in the US press, but it is the leading story in the news here day after day.  It is a terrible, terribly heartbreaking story of torture and murder of anyone not supporting Mugabe.  The irony is that he was the original freedom fighter who finally threw out white rule in what was then called Rhodesia.  And now it is he who is the dictator. 

May 4, 2008

Good will isn’t enough

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:22 pm

Since I returned from my visit to Maryknoll, I have been thinking about Sister Mary Edith who was the first person I remember suggesting that good intentions are not enough.  We were studying the Greek tragedies, and she said their basic message is that it isn’t sufficient to want to do the right thing.  If we do the wrong thing, there will be consequences that are often as disastrous as they would be if we had deliberately chosen to do evil or even innocently made a mistake.

This has become an important principle, and I’ve reflected on it in hundreds of different situations big and small.  If I mean to give my child an aspirin but give him a capsule of something less benign – Viagra, perhaps, or Valium – the consequences will be as bad as they would be if I had done it deliberately.  If a workman doesn’t close the cargo door before a plane takes off, it is as destructive whether it was on purpose or not.

I had this same nagging worry when I left Maryknoll last Sunday too.   Maryknollers are intelligent, educated, outstandingly caring and hard working.  But the majority I think, like most workers in developing countries, are not by nature analytic thinkers.  They are doers.  I’m not sure why this is so.  Is it a reflection of the basic attitudes of Christianity with the Pauline emphasis on conversion?  Is it the fundamentally doctrinaire approach of Roman Catholicism with its insistence on papal infallibility and its doctrinal rigidity?  Does it grow out of a conviction that however much we might strive to help the poor, material well-being is less important than obedience to God’s will and his commandments?  It may be all or some or none of these.  Whatever they may or may not be, I found myself wondering if Maryknoll’s outstanding capacities and dedication could be more effective if it were founded on a broader foundation of economics and social and political theory.

For myself, I had reached the conclusion even before leaving Maryknoll that striving to convert others was an assault on their dignity and culture.  I still believe that the only worthwhile thing to do is to live with as much integrity and love as one can, to be responsible for oneself in the service of others, and to let that speak for itself. 

I know now I never belonged at Maryknoll for the longer term, and it wasn’t because Maryknoll hadn’t changed fast enough or had left me to work in the kitchen and sewing room for almost nine years with decreasing hope of ever going to the missions.  I do not have the talents to be an activist.  I’m an academic.  I can think about social problems, understand economic theory, and explore the complexity of solving problems of poverty and education and injustice.  I can compare the effectiveness of different programs, and discuss their relative potential versus possible limitations.  But when it comes to putting these theories into practice, I am far less talented and lack the perseverence that is so outstanding among so many Maryknollers.

And I live with the terror of believing that simply wanting to do the right thing isn’t enough.  Hard-working, dedicated, intelligent people of immense good will don’t always achieve the good they hope for.  They We can also do terrible damage.

April 17, 2008

Talks with my grandmother

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 9:32 pm

We were watching a BBC programme tonight on the thought processes and entire world view of the medieval mind.  Although they never saw them, almost everyone, educated and uneducated alike, were convinced of the existence of strange creatures in far off lands.  Whether dog-headed men, for instance, were human was a significant theological question considered to be critically important for missionaries who might meet them.  The pope actually ruled that pygmies in South America were human, so that it was appropriate for missionaries to convert them to Christianity. 

Lest we in the modrn world are tempted to feel a superior disdain for such ignorance, it is worth reflecting on just how many things in our own world view we have never seen but are just as real to us as dog-headed humans.  It is science that tells us about worm holes and gravity, about atoms and quarks and even dinosaurs. 

I was reminded of one of my African students studying at the university where I was teaching who told me that he’d talked to his grandmother the night before.  This was not remarkable until I realized he hadn’t talked to her on the telephone as I’d assumed but in a dream.  Perhaps still not immensely remarkable until I realized he believed it was actually his grandmother who had visited him in the night, and not a mere figment of his dreaming imagination.

But the real revelation, and the one that has influenced my thinking ever since, was the realization that there is no way to prove whether his perception of the world was the right one or whether mine was.  It is a question simply beyond the capacity of science to answer:  which of our perceptions are “real” and which are not? 

The best scientists can do is to say that only events that are potentially observable by more than one person can be scientifically verified.  Private experiences like dreams and feelings and hallucinations that cannot be shared by others are beyond the scope of the scientific method.  Science can study what people say they dreamed about, or the brain waves or other physiological changes that accompany various thoughts and feelings, but science cannot study private experience directly.  This insistence that scientific observations be verified by other observers or in repeated experiments has eliminated a lot of false reports.  However, that still skirts over the phenomenon of mass delusions when entire crowds of people are convinced they see or hear something like an apparition the rest of us think perhaps wasn’t really there. 

We live in mystery.  Even when we think we know something absolutely, there is always room for an alternative possibility, and that, god help me, I might be wrong.

March 29, 2008

About fathers and elephants

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

By coincidence after my ruminations about cruelty yesterday, I read some fascinating statistics about violence.

But let me begin with a story about an elephant cull that took place in Africa some years ago.  The elephant population in one of the nature reserves was becoming too large.  It was invading the fields of farmers nearby and authorities decided a cull was necessary.

In a misbegotten attempt to keep the females with the youngsters as well as to slow future population growth, the cull was limited to male elephant bulls whose numbers was drastically reduced.  But over the next few years, juvenile male elephants began to get out of control, causing much greater mayhem that even the larger population before the cull.  The keepers eventually realized that the problem was that the adult male elephants had exerted a socializing and moderating effect on the young males, and without them, the young males were simply running wild.  With the re-introduction of adult elephant bulls, the problem gradually subsided.

Today, I stumbled on a case for a human counterpart.  A recent analysis of the history of violence suggests that young men are more apt to believe that problems can be solved through violence than any other group in society.  And a study of demographcs seems to suggest that when there is a bulge of young males in a society, there is an upsurge of violence.  Without young men, violence is much less apt to occur, even in the fact of  social upheaval, injustice, or subjugation.  Nor is it necessarily reduced by increasing levels of education and affluence.

This pattern is not limited to any particular ethnic group nor is it limited to our present age.  It shows up in our prisons repeatedly.  It happened in the U.S. and Britain in 1968, in 17th century England, in Germany in WWI, during the French Revolution, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China, the troubles in Ireland, in Palestine, and Afghanistan.   Today there are 67 countries where 15-29 year olds make up more than 30% of the population.  There are significant levels of violence in 60 of them.

Do high levels of unemployment make a bad problem worse?  How significant is the influence of social injustice?  I don’t know.  I don’t know either how big an impact being raised without a father has on human male juveniles.  I’m sure fathers are by no means the whole solution.  But the number of children being raised without fathers in the world today worries me.

The best hope, perhaps, is that young males between the ages of 15-29 don’t stay that age.  And when they grow up, fighting it out doesn’t seem like such a good solution anymore.

March 10, 2008

Honourable titles

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

I was wondering today how it happened that rivers in England are named with the word “River” first, while in America it is just the opposite.  So in London it’s “River Thames” and in Cambridge “River Cam,” but in New York it’s the “Hudson River” and in the midwest “Mississippi River.”  

It’s almost as if in England “River” is an honourable title.  The way one might say “may I introduce “Lord and Lady Hathaway,”  while in America it’s a family name.  One sees the influence of pre-Christian and pagan communities more obviously here in England than in America.  Not surprisingly since these islands have been inhabited by humans on and off for at least 15,000 years. 

So perhaps the title “River” really does honour the river as so many peoples have honoured the sun.

March 9, 2008

Mother’s Day Special

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:05 am

Mother’s Day, called “Mothering Day” here in England, comes in March rather than May as it does in the States.  But I’m living in England, which is why I happen to be reviewing the various bits I know about where Mother’s Day came from (or perhaps I was learning it for the first time:  I’m not always sure of the precise difference these days).

 The Egyptians had a goddess Isis who sat on a throne with a pair of bull horns wrapped around the sun.  After much murder and skullduggery, she managed to conceive a son through her own magical powers but who she nonetheless had to keep hidden in reeds to keep safe.  (History suggests that Egypitian reeds were a favoured place for hiding important babies.)  Isis was often depicted cradling and suckling her son who became the first Pharoah, so she was honoured as the Mother of All Pharoahs. 

The Romans celebrated Mother’s Day by honouring the Greek goddess Rhea, the Mother of Gods, and the early Christians celebrated it by honouring Mother Church on the 4th Sunday of Lent.  The early Americans did not celebrate Mothering Day, rejecting the British tradition as too full of pomp for their no-frills Puritanism.

Mother’s Day was established in America by Julia Ward Howe, who composed The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  She was so distraught by the destruction and death wrought by the American Civil War that she called on all mothers to unite against this carnage of mothers’ sons everywhere.

Contemporary celebrations of Mother’s Day may not be faring so well though.  Just before Mothering Day last week there was an ad in the window of one of our local supermarkets: 

“Special Mother’s Day Offer:  Double Six Pack Premium Beer at half price.”

Is something missing here?

March 7, 2008

Santa Faz

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

The thing about culture shock is that no matter how much you know about it theoretically, it’s still a shock.

Moving to live as permanent full-time residents to Spain was a shocking experience.  Not understanding the difference between courtesy and deliberate deception, for instance, I concluded that Spaniards were the most outrageous liars I’d ever met.  “Manana, senora,” for instance, does not mean “tomorrow.”  It means “not today.”  Taking it literally and then assuming that the smiling workman who doesn’t show up “manana” is a liar is like saying the secretary who says, smiling to the client, “I’m sorry, he isn’t in right now” is lying because he is sitting at his desk eight feet away.

I was equally shocked to discover that rain was so rare that it was treated like a snow day.  Nobody went to work.  And Peter, who is not the born and bred Catholic that I am, was amazed to discover that every single day of the year is dedicated to at least one saint.  You might not notice this in the United States because workers do not take off work because it is the feast day of their village saint, or of the saint representing the electricians or plumbers or carpenters, or even of the worker’s mother or wife.  But they do in Spain.

In an attempt to predict work stoppages ahead of time, I pulled out my old missile and kept a running commentary going about the upcoming feast days and what to expect.  I was baffled, though, by Santa Faz.  I’d never heard of her, and she wasn’t anywhere in my missile or breviary or any other dusty books I consulted.  And it was a big deal.  All of Alicante and the surrounding villages for miles around were celebrating with parades and fireworks, and of course, no work.  Eventually I discovered that Santa Fax isn’t a “she” but a “face.”  A convent in Alicante possesses what they believe is the veil used by St. Veronica to wipe the face of Jesus as he was carrying the cross to his crucifixion and which now bears his image.

So the feast of Santa Faz is the feast of the Holy Face.  Not all the Spaniards believe it, but they all celebrate it.   Not unlike, I think, Christmas in New York.

March 4, 2008

The problem of evil

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:16 pm

“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.”  Jules Renard (19th-century French author)

I do have relatives and acquaintances who would consider it irreverent, and I suppose the fact that I think the above is marvellously funny explains why I never exactly fit in as a nun.

But you have to admit it one of the most succinct summaries on record of the difficulties posed by the problem of evil for the existence of God.

March 2, 2008

In praise of small steps

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Diet,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:51 pm

When Peter and I moved to Spain, we bought a villa (which refers to mostly anything we would call less elegantly “a house”) on a disused vineyard.  It was on a hill and was terraced, so the property stepped down close to 50 feet from the entrance gate to the property line below.  One of the first things we did was to hire Spanish workers to build a fence so our dogs could run free, and then we had a pool installed.

The three months during which the workers were on our property was an unusual introduction to Spanish culture.  Immediately after they arrived in the morning, one of the men built a fire while another went across to the local supermarket for their bottle of brandy and bread.  On his return, the crew sat around the fire eating and drinking breakfast, and eventually started work.  I think some of them were functional alcoholics, but they were functional.  At noon, the process was repeated, followed by the siesta.  Each of the men stretched out on the ground and went to sleep.  Those in search of greater luxury slept on a piece of old cardboard. 

One of the things I learned watching them was how much could be accomplished in small steps.  After the mechanical digger had dug the hole for the pool, an adjacent hole about ten feet deep and about twice as wide had to be filled with earth.  The earth, however, was about twenty feet lower on the property.  In the U.S., a mechanical shovel would have been used to transfer the earth into the hole.  In Spain, they used a plastic bucket.  One of the men walked up and down dumping earth, one bucket at a time, bucket after bucket, for days. 

But you know, the hole got filled.  And it left me with an appreciation of just how much can be done one step at a time.

All of which is a prelude to my next thoughts on my presently incomplete diet which I will save for tomorrow’s posting.

February 22, 2008

Alternative lives

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

I just had an email from a friend I’d not heard from for several years.  She’s about my age, and in between university teaching has been travelling around the world – all over Africa, Russia, Turkey, Crete, China, South America.  It sounds quite exciting too – not the kind of trips where you are kept cosseted from the discomforts of life as real people live it, but in tents, in homes, and with people of quite different backgrounds.

I’m wondering why I am not consumed with jealousy, because it sounds like exactly what Peter and I were planning for our retirement.  We’re not doing a lot of it partly because we don’t have quite the finances to support a life of intense travel, partly because our energy quotient per day is not quite as high as it used to be, and partly because every time we consider a trip, we find ourselves not terribly interested in about 90% of what’s on offer. 

It’s this latter that intrigues me. 

Though I can respect many alternative cultural activities, I am usually more interested in reading about them and trying to understand their roles within the cultures that support them.  Personally participating in them rarely sounds enticing.  Even a garland of flowers placed around my neck by smiling locals, certainly one of the more benign tourist welcomes, makes me want to cancel my reservations.  The mere thought of attending a circumcision ceremony is a one-in-a-lifetime experience too many for me.

Having lived for ten years in Spain and become more immersed in the culture on every level than we thought possible and more than, frankly, we wanted, I tend to see the dark underside more quickly.  The poor also bother me a lot more than they used to, so I can’t do the sightseeing bits without worrying about them more.  It seems unfair that I should be enjoying their heritage when they so often cannot.  Yes, I know tourism is a major part of many of their economies, but that does not make the experience any the more enjoyable or relaxing for me.

On the other hand, I might get over all my high-minded doubts if I won the lottery.  I suspect I will never know.

January 4, 2008

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 10:40 pm

I walked into our village store this morning to pick up The Times published here in London (England, that is), and the front page photo was of Obama after his victory in Iowa.  As I stood in the queue waiting to pay for my paper and eggs, an animated conversation started about the American elections.  A well-preserved but quite old woman leaned on her cane and asked me if I thought he could actually make it.  The young Asian man at the counter said Obama looked very different from the usual American president.  He doesn’t trust Hilary Clinton – there’s something shifty about her, he thinks.  Someone else expressed surprise that religion was so important in the vote for Huckabee.  A neighbour added that politics in America are different from politics here in Britain.

Different they may be, but people here are finding the whole process over there right now somewhat infectious.  I actually think they are finding it rather hopeful.  It’s not just America’s business.  They know what America decides matters for the whole world.  And America’s conviction that this tired cynical world can change is refreshing in this Old World.

I remember I was young when Kennedy fired us up with the hope that we could make the world a better place.  Not just make more money, but really make things better.  “Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”   He started the Peace Corp.  One reason I entered Maryknoll was because I didn’t want to help build a better world for just two years.  I wanted to spend my life doing it.

Now I know changing things for the better is a lot tougher than I ever suspected when I was that age.  In fact, I know that even when you’re really trying flat out, it’s possible to try to do good, and yet to contribute to making an even bigger mess of things instead.

And yet I listened to Obama’s speech and his talk about hope.  I’m 67 years old and a lot wiser and older than I was when I first listened to John Kennedy.  But I found myself with a spark of that same innocent hope once again that we maybe, just maybe, we could, after all, make a better world.

January 3, 2008

Watching Iowa from afar

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 10:56 pm

It is quite astonishing how involved the English media are in the Iowa caucuses, and in the whole U.S. election process.   I’ve read several columns expressing appreciation and almost envy at the dynamic rough and tumble by which the party candidates are selected, and the Iowa vote today is a key news item on all the television news hours and major newspapers. 

It is almost impossible to describe, unless you are living outside the United States, the change of attitude that has taken place in relation to America.  When 9/11 happened, the identification with Americans and the support for America and our values was deeper and broader than I’ve ever seen it.  Since the Iraq war went forward without the support of the United Nations and then when Abu Graib and Guantanamo and the secret renditions were revealed, respect for our values has plummeted.  We are not respected for standing up for what we believe in, for fighting for democracy, but are seen as bullies and thugs.  Albeit very strong and fairly rich bullies and thugs.

Now, at least here in England, they are watching the election process, and people are desperately eager to know the outcome. I think much of Europe is hoping as much as many of the votes in the U.S. that we will find our way again.

 I don’t think a Democratic president will be absolutely wonderful.  But I think it’s essential that the Republicans are not allowed to hold onto the White House.  Not electing a Republican is the only signal Americans can send that says we respect human rights, not just for Americans, but for all humans.  That says that wire tapping without a court order, that holding people in prison  without charge or trial for years without foreseeable end, that torture and destruction of evidence violates our most fundamental values. 

And then, of course, one can only hope that a Democratic president might at least appear to care more about the global environment than our present oil-loving president and vice-president.

January 2, 2008

Polish plumber

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:51 pm

When I grow up, I think I’ll be a Polish plumber.  I’ve already accomplished the Polish part and I think I am well on the way to mastering the plumbing and heating services part.

Yesterday, I noticed that the radiator in our bedroom wasn’t warming up.  I could see that the heat was getting as far as the temperature regulator on the radiator so I figured the valve must be stuck in a closed position.  Unfortunately, my various methods of attacking problems like this – hitting, tapping, turning in clock and counter-clockwise directions and other similarly creative approaches –  failed to produce any results.  So we had Alan our dear dear plumber back this afternoon.

It took him about one minute to show me how to fix it.  That’s why I think I’ll be a plumber when I grow up.  Since Poland joined the EU, Polish plumbers have been coming over here to England because there is so much work for them.

On the other hand, maybe I won’t be a Polish plumber.  I’m already running out of patience with pipes and pressure valves.  I just want things to work. 

December 27, 2007

Christmas Lite

Actually, it was a lovely Christmas.  I wouldn’t want to spend it this quietly every year, but as it turns out, it wasn’t quite as quiet as we’d planned.  And under the circumstances, Peter and I were glad we were not entertaining guests after all.

It started Christmas Eve morning.  Peter stepped out of the shower and it wouldn’t turn off.  We have an Aqualisa, the kind that holds its temperature constant, even when somewhere else in the house someone else flushes a toilet or decides to start the dishwasher.  It does this by the magic of electronics, which is pretty much all I know about how it works.  I can describe several ways in which the Start/Stop function does not work, however.  Or at least the Stop function.  It won’t stop if you take a kitchen knife and scrape the calc out around the edges of the Control Button.  It won’t stop if you take the front off the button and use a wooden toothpick to press the little outlets inside.  It won’t stop even if you get very wet and speak to it in language my mother didn’t know I’d learned.  Even if it’s Spanish.

It will stop if you go outside and turn off all the water coming into the house.  Unfortunately, this also stops water coming into the kitchen, the toilets, the sinks, and even the outside garden outlets.  Not such a great solution on Christmas Eve.  So I climbed into the attic (or loft as attics are called here in England), and found the valves controlling the water going into the master bathroom.  Turning them off gave us water in the rest of the house, but the entire master bathroom was dry.  It is also how I discovered that the valves were leaking, and that if something were not done about them soon, the bathroom water supply would be coming directly into the shower below through the ceiling.  I got a large plastic sheet that used to be a shower curtain to provide a temporary retainer.

Then I called our wonderful plumber, and apologized to his nine-year-old daughter for calling her Dad on Christmas Eve.  Oh, that’s okay, she said.  Can I have him phone you when he gets home?  Which he did.  I told him it was not a call-out emergency, but did he have any stop-gap solutions until he could come after the holidays.  He said to go back into the loft and turn the electrical supply to the shower off and then back on again.  “I don’t know why,” he said, “but this sometimes happens with your kind of shower, and this sometimes works.”

And it did work.  So by the time the church bells were ringing calling the faithful to midnight services, we once again had a functioning bathroom, shower and all.  Not what we’d thought twelve hours earlier we were hoping for Christmas, but glad for it after all.

Alan, the plumber, is coming next week to replace the faulty valves.  We’re hoping for a happy New Year.  That does mean, much as I appreciate him, seeing a little less of Alan in 2008 than we saw of him in 2007.

If you are wondering about my diet, I did lose a pound before Christmas.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I put it back on, and besides that, I also think my scale is off by about three pounds.  That means I really want to lose six pounds instead of three.  I wonder if learning to love fat would be easier than getting it off?

December 21, 2007

Politically correct Christmas carol special

A row has broken out in the press here in England about singing Christmas carols.  Specifically, the question is whether non-believers should be allowed to sing Christmas carols, or whether they are showing disrespect for believers by singing along all the while doubting the Christmas story.

Richard Dawson, author of “The God Delusion” confesses to enjoying a belt of Christmas carolling, and several prominent Jewish columnists have made similar admissions with equally dubious belief systems to buttress their rights to this cultural treat.

My favourite story, however, comes from a former student at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Saffron Walden near here.  At the school’s annual carol concert, their music director (who at the time was John Gardner, now aged 90) divided the congregation in half.  One half sang “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” while the other half sang harmony with “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?”

I suppose there’s no hope for me.  I think it’s a wonderful idea and have been looking for someone to sing “I Saw Three Ships” while I harmonize with the “Drunken Sailor.”

December 14, 2007

The black art of political correctness

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 4:20 pm

I have just heard from a university friend that the faculty there is greatly exercised over whether it is politically correct to refer to a “white paper.”  Presumably this is an offensive slur against people whose skin is not white.

I was reminded of another friend here in England whom we ran into in the supermarket.  He was quite embarrassed because he had just asked a Black girl stacking the shelves if she could tell him where the black treacle was.  He seriously thought this would be interpreted as an ethnic slur, the way, for instance, calling a shade of shoe polish “nigger brown” is a slur.  He really seems to think that even hinting that one observes the obvious cultural and biological differences among us humans is crass insensitivity.  I don’t think he himself is prejudiced.  But he can’t tell the difference between noticing group differences and racism. 

In that context, I treasure the comment made to me once by a Jewish colleague who was talking about what it was like to be Jewish but to have a name, which he did, that sounded Italian.  People say all kinds of things about Jews to me, he said, because they don’t suspect I’m Jewish.  Then he turned to me and said “you aren’t prejudiced.”  Several years later I prevented one of my Black students from graduating with her class because she had not earned a grade for the class she was taking with me.  As a result I earned a reputation among the close-knit group of Black students as a racist.  But a year later, one of the Black students with whom I was working looked at me with surprise as we sat discussing his work in my office and said “You aren’t racist, are you?  They say you are, but you aren’t.”

No, I don’t think I am.  I am also comfortable with people from minority groups.  And the reason for that is Phil.

Phil was a Black man who couldn’t get a job after he’d served in the Army during World War II because he was living with a White woman.  At great professional cost, my father hired him to work on our farm, and gave him and Ethel, his common-law wife, a house on the land to live in.  He was there for about ten years. 

Phil is another one of those people who died before I ever knew what a gift he was in my life and for all my brothers and sisters.  I know he himself didn’t know.  It’s a long story so I’ll write about Phil’s time with our family in a separate post tomorrow.  

December 5, 2007

The miscommunications of mass communications

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:57 pm

Well, I was wrong.  Or perhaps to be more accurate, I’ve changed my mind, which admittedly is not exactly the same thing.

Several days ago, I wrote about Gillian Gibbons, a English woman who was then in a Sudanese prison for letting her second grade pupils in a Christian-run school there name their teddy bear Mohammad.  My impression from the TV coverage and newspaper photographs of her was of a good-hearted but naive woman with little cross-cultural sensitivity and more concern with her own need to do good than to make a real, if necessarily fairly anonymous, contribution to the education of Sudanese children.

She was pardoned by the Sudanese president and released, and on her arrival back in England yesterday gave an interview.  My impression is radically different from the one I had before her release.  I do not mean that the story was deliberately distorted by the press and TV coverage.  It wasn’t.  But this second grade teacher was not the doughty do-gooder I had expected.  She is not particularly attractive, but her smile is so disarming that it could steal your soul.  She has a self-deprecating sense of humour, and most of all, came away from her ordeal with her love of the Sudanese undiminished.

She even pointed out that a Sudanese school is urgently in need of a second-grade teacher, a  job she highly recommends it to anyone looking for a fulfilling employment opportunity.  Just don’t bring your teddy bear along.

December 1, 2007

40 lashes

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

A 54 year old teacher from Liverpool, England, is currently in a Sudanese prison for letting her class name their teddy bear “Mohamed.”  She’s been teaching in a Christian school there for several months, and in her naivete wrote to her pupils’ parents to share with them the results of this small manifestation of democracy.  To the horror of Britain and a good number of Muslim organizations and individuals, she was put on trial within days, threatened with imprisonment and 40 lashes administered in public. 

She was sentenced to 15 days in prison, but men are marching the streets calling for her public execution.  She’s being kept in police custody for her own safety rather than being transferred to the disease-ridden and over-crowded women’s prison to serve her sentence before being deported back to England. 

The press here is outraged at the Sudanese reaction to what was clearly a naive mistake made with the greatest good will.  But I remember Sister Edith at Maryknoll saying that too many of us were going as missionaries to other countries in a comparable state of ignorance, believing that because we meant to do good, we would do good.  Of course, to want to do good is better than aiming for evil, but it’s not enough.

Unfortunately it is so much easier to rage at people who are different.  It seems hard for all of us humans to recognize ourselves in people whose skin is a different color, whose language sounds foreign, whose cultural practices don’t resonate.  We all seem to be subject to doing it.  Europeans and Americans have a history as terrifying as anybody else.

Somehow, we’re all subject to thinking that if you’re different, you’re just a little less “one of us,” whoever “us” might be. 

November 21, 2007

English Thanksgivings

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:50 pm

Like much else American, Halloween, with the pumpkins and beggars, has made it across the Atlantic from America in the last ten years.  Halloween probably arrived in America with the Irish, so in a way it is merely returning home with the added gloss acquired in the New World.

Thanksgiving, given its Puritan roots, will unfortunately have a harder time making the return crossing to these English shores.  Thanksgiving in its modern version is by far my favourite holiday of the year, and I enthusiastically wish our English friends a happy Thanksgiving, making sure they know they are included in my list of gifts for which I am grateful.  But somehow our neighbour’s suggestion that I hang the American flag out my window to celebrate rather misses the point. 

Well, perhaps not.  He was also the one who reminded me that the first American Puritans left England having tried to impose a regime of puritanical (it’s where the word came from) rigidity in England, becoming one of the parties to the religious wars waged in Britain during much of the 17th century.  It was a time in which the religion of the land was determined by the ruler, so disagreement with the government and disagreement with God were tantamount to the same thing.

In those days disagreement was exceptionally dangerous to ones health.  It still is, I suppose, though we in “advanced” countries try to be more subtle about it than staging the public be-headings of those we deem to be ungodly.

November 17, 2007

Carol’s unknowing knowing

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Teaching — theotheri @ 5:43 pm

I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, a good woman who does a lot to try to make the lives of those around her better.  We were talking, as we do, about the problems of the world, and she said she’d heard a talk by someone saying that Africans will never be able to live up to the standard we have because they are genetically less intelligent than we are.

I swallowed hard. 

When I was a young professor just starting out in my university career, I was assigned as the dissertation adviser to a young student completing her senior thesis.  She was Black and her name was Carol, and she wanted to write a thesis proving that the research supporting the argument that Blacks were less intelligent than Whites was wrong.  I was too inexperienced then to know that this subject is far too complex for even a highly gifted and motivated student to tackle in a single senior thesis.  Instead of suggesting that she tackle a small part of the question, I let her go ahead.

She wrote a poor thesis that, at best, deserved a C, but her board talked her into taking a pass/fail option and we gave her a pass.  What I remember most about her defense was that, in the teeth of research results she could not explain, she simply sat there and said they were wrong.  Why, we asked.  “Because they are,” she said;  “I know they’re wrong.”  Well, that’s not an approach that leads to a successful academic argument. 

And yet, I thought Carol was right.  History is filled with arrogant conclusions about European superiority.   We’ve declared ourselves superior to the immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, to the Japanese after World War II, to the Aborigines in Australia, to the Indians in Central and South America, or the inhabitants of India and China.  We even argue that Homo sapiens was smarter than Neanderthal man.

Carol couldn’t prove her view, she couldn’t even argue it persuasively.  But I had a Ph.D., I was trained in research, and I was an academic, and I spent the next ten years immersing myself in the IQ controversy, studying the research and arguments and teaching courses on the subject.  I am convinced that the research does not support the conclusion that Blacks or Africans are genetically less intelligent than Whites.  James Watson, the scientist who unravelled the DNA spiral, recently said he thinks they are.  I think he is too rigid to look at the data objectively.  The evidence just isn’t there.

I know one of my few gifts is that I can often explain extremely complex issues in a way that makes them understandable to many people who otherwise find them baffling.  And I’ve wondered, sometimes, if even now, I should not write about this controversy. 

But most of all I think about Carol who never had the slightest inkling how much her stubborn insistence influenced the direction of my professional thinking.  I still think, Carol, that you were right.

November 16, 2007

A very English approach to taxes

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

The immensely good news is that I have just received an email from my UK accountant.  I do not, after all, owe thousands of dollars in back taxes here in England.  In fact, I don’t owe anything.  So this brings to a conclusion six months of an intensely anxious learning experience during which I processed five years’ worth of numbers, most of them more than once because I’d calculated them using the wrong method the first two or three times round. 

I had a large gin and tonic tonight in celebration.  I will never, I suppose, know for sure how much of the angst and confusion during this whole process was my own making and how much of it was due to the fact that I think my file was moved in the accountancy office to the desk of a newcomer who was only several steps ahead of me, and not clear in giving directions.  In my less hysterical moments I did rather enjoy my exchanges with her, and hope that it has not been a totally frustrating experience for her either.

I did have further confirmation today that there are real cultural differences in the way the English typically approach taxes compared to the way I as an American approach them.  I was reviewing the 36 pages of directions from the tax office dedicated solely to calculating how much taxes one owes after one has gathered together the totals of moneys one has earned or received in the last 12 months.  The box that caught my eye said:  “If you have an entry in box c5.5 and an entry in box 6.2c on the Foreign Pages, this calculation may charge too much tax.  Please ask us or your tax adviser to do the calculation for you.”  There is no indication of how the alternative calculation might be carried out, no suggestion that the taxpayer him or herself might be capable of actually carrying it out.  Again, just a patronizing direction:  Give us the numbers and we will do it for you.

Despite a traumatic six months, I admit that I still find the differences between our two cultures quite fascinating.  On the other hand, I am looking forward to a prosaic month or two in which the unexpected is kept firmly at bay.

November 15, 2007

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 10:31 pm

Peter and I have just spent two days in the Lake District where we lived before coming to Cambridge, and I was reminded again of one of the things I like so much about living in England.  It’s the history, the people who have lived here before that permeates everywhere.  Buildings, roads, hills, caves, rivers, stones, places so often openly bear the marks of their ancient past.  It gives me a sense of depth, of grounding in the human condition which we share with people who have been living in these very places for tens of thousands of years.

I was thinking today particularly about the names of places.  In the States, I thought “Cuyahoga Falls” where I grew up was an old old name, since it had originated with the Indians who lived there before white settlers even arrived in their three boats in Massachusetts.  But names here in England sometimes go back thousands of years proceeding even the Romans who left their mark two millennium ago.  Several miles from here is a place called “Roman Hill,” and we used to live in “Great Howe,” which meant “Big Hill” to the Vikings thirteen hundred years go.   Names like “Cathedral Close,” “Kings Cross,” “Gates Head,” “Oyster Lane,” or “Threadneedle Street” are all, on a few moments of reflection, self-explanatory.

I have just realized why the street where we now live is called “Stocks Lane.”  Until now I thought it was quite innocuous and probably referred to a place where grain was stored over the winter for spring planting.  But I am sure now that Stocks Lane is where people were put into stocks for public shaming.  We are right around the corner from a magnificent church first built in the 12th century and that still dominates our village.  It makes sociological sense that the stocks should be located here.

The stocks were torn down long ago, and nobody remembers any more where exactly they were.  I know it really doesn’t matter, but I hope they weren’t erected on the land where we now plant our potatoes and grow our sweet peas.   I have a lot of sympathy for people locked into position to be gaped at by everyone who passes by.  And am grateful that I was never on either side of this attempt at social control.

November 8, 2007

Losing it

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:57 pm

There’s a lot of things I don’t worry about anymore that used to cripple me when I was young.  Things like – do people like me?  did I just say something utterly stupid or insensitive?  am I making a worthwhile contribution in payment for the time and space I’ve been given on this planet?  do I look good in this outfit? 

But as I am getting old, I have found a few new things to worry about.  Like forgetting words or people’s names.  So I think the email from the accountant yesterday indicating that I’d vastly miscalculated my final tax bill was so shocking because I was afraid I was losing my faculties.  I was more shocked that I could have made a mistake of such proportions than I was upset about the tax I’m probably going to have to pay. 

The tax material came from the accountant today.  I’m afraid the final bill is going to be uncomfortably big, but I was hugely relieved to see that the reason I’d calculated quite a different sum was not because I am losing it.  I didn’t know that some calculations are applied differently to my tax return because I am an American than they are to my husband’s return who is English.  People here don’t seem to expect to know the tax rules.  They just give their numbers to an accountant and sign on the bottom line when the form is filled in for them, so it is difficult to get accurate information. 

Mostly I like the way the English do things.  But when it comes to understanding my own tax return, I’m thoroughly and irrevocably American.

October 9, 2007

A Protestant solution to Maryknoll

During the last weeks, I have heard many stories from the Maryknollers who were in the convent during the same turbulent time I was also there.  One which delighted and surprised me more than most came from someone in our group.  At the age of 17, contemplating her future in the Midwest, Karen learned about the Maryknoll Sisters.  They spent their lives working among the poor in foreign lands, learning the language and participating in their culture –  a kind of life-time  dedication to the Peace Corps.  This sounded exactly like the kind of life she wanted to lead.

So she came home one day and told her family:  I’ve found my life’s career:  I want to be a Maryknoll Sister.  That’s fine, her father told her, but you have just one small problem:  we’re not Catholics.  Well, then, said Karen, I’ll become one.  So she went to the local Catholic church, took instructions,  was baptized as a Roman Catholic and was almost immediately accepted by the Maryknoll Sisters.  Maryknoll actually has a rule that new converts must wait at least two years after converting before entering, but somehow no one asked, and Karen entered Maryknoll at Valley Park, Missouri in 1958.

Only someone who has lived in a completely different culture than the one in which they were raised can begin to appreciate the magnitude of change this must have involved.  It was shock enough for those of us raised as Catholic girls in the 1950’s to be faced with the monastic practices of even modern convent life.  But Karen came from a family with a single sibling;  all the other Catholic entrants came from families of six to twelve. She had not said the family rosary almost every evening of her life, received Holy Communion in a white dress at the age of six, worried about going to hell for eating meat on Friday, or learned to distinguish the fine minutiae between sins that were venial (which earned time in purgatory before making it to heaven), and mortal (which sent one irredeemably and permanently to hell if one didn’t manage to get it wiped off ones soul by going to confession before death).

The culture of Catholicism is deeply ingrained and mostly unconscious and inevitably outlasts belief or religious practice.  It’s the impulse to bow ones head on speaking the name of Jesus even if one no longer accepts his unique divinity.  It’s the automatic response of genuflecting on entering a Catholic church.  I heard it in my voice when I phoned the local priest recently to inquire the times of Sunday Mass so our guests could attend.  “Thank you, Father,” I said after I had been given the information.  And I heard in my own voice the years of acculturation.  Only a woman who had learned to say “Father,” to priests since she could walk and talk could say it with quite that inflection.

When we were nuns together, I always enjoyed Karen’s slightly iconclastic attitudes suggesting just a shade of not taking it all with the profound seriousness to which the rest of us had been born and bred.  I had no idea then where it had risen from.  Now that I do, I remember it with even greater delight, and her fortitude with even greater admiration.

September 10, 2007

Well done

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 9:07 pm

It’s taken me a little while to figure this out, but “well done” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in English as it does in American.  My first inkling that this was so was the morning after my second cataract surgery.  It was six a.m. and after a restless night in the hospital I was feeling a little disoriented.  Snead does his rounds to check on the results of surgery the day before at this bright and chirpy hour and out of sheer gratitude for what I already knew was 20/20 vision in at least one eye, I was doing my best to appear coherent.   After shining lights into my eyes at various angles and asking me how I was, he finished up by saying “well done.”

“Well done!?” I screached.   Well, I now know that when Snead says “well done” it means roughly the same thing as Americans saying “Have a good day.”  In other words, this brings our business for the day to a satisfactory close.

Not understanding this then, I said “I’m not the one who has done well.”  To his credit, Snead did not miss a beat.  It’s a team effort, he said.  I thought then – and still do – that this was a refreshing exception to the Brag and Blame strategy of so much of modern life.  Politicians especially have raised the strategy to dizzying heights, taking full credit for anything good that happens and blaming somebody else for what isn’t.  Seeing someone share credit for what is manifestly outstanding success isn’t your everyday experience, is it?

I hear the phrase “well done”  often these days and am reminded how I learned what it means in these parts of England.  But in truth when I talk about Snead and my cataract surgery, that little bit of American in me still means “well done” the way Americans mean it.  In fact, I mean fantastic. 

August 11, 2007

The family on the farm: babies aren’t real sisters

Filed under: Cultural Differences — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

At the age of six, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that boys were not the same as girls.  I was beginning to feel lonely with the company of four brothers and began badgering my mother for a sister.  I was terribly excited then, when I learned that my mother was coming home with my sister Bernadette.

But when she arrived, I was aghast.  This wasn’t a proper sister.  She was a mere baby who couldn’t even talk or walk and would be no use to me at all.  I don’t quite know why I was so surprised.  My three brothers had all arrived as mere babies, but somehow I expected a sister to arrive fully formed.  It took another 25 years before we developed a relationship of equals.

Bernadette, like Mom, was, and is, above all a people person, while I am much more an idea person who needs to take people in measured and controlled doses.  Bernadette makes friends with everyone from the store clerk, the furnace repairman, the school janitor, her students, the woman living across the street, and above all, children anywhere.  She has a gift with children of which I, who treat all children like short adults, am totally bereft.

Bern spent her childhood as a middle child trying to gain admittance to the Big Kids.  We Big Kids were unwilling to dilute our status by expanding membership, and when Dorothy, the tenth child, was born, we argued with impeccable mathematical logic that while Bern could stake a legitimate claim to being the “Biggest Little Kid,” she could never break through to membership in the upper half.

Bern never did make it to the Big Kids circle, but she did make it from the middle to the center of the family.  Today we rely on her to remember a prodigious list of birthdays, telephone numbers, email addresses, and anniversaries.  As we are getting older, we are even depending on her to remind us of critical names that may have slipped from memory.  Living in Chicago she is also centrally located, and hosts more than her share of family get-togethers.  One of which is scheduled for the end of September.  No doubt I will write a post about it.

August 9, 2007

The arcane subleties of English tax law

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

Several months ago I was told I may have misunderstood the rules that dictate what income tax I should pay here in England on my American income.  There are few agencies in the world for whom I have greater respect, albeit based almost exclusively on sheer fear, than tax collecting authorities, and I do not deliberately try to cheat.  Use the legitimate tax loopholes available, yes.  Tell out and out lies, no.

So I have been assiduously trying to find out what the rules are that I should have been following.  After three conversations with a representative of Her Majesty’s Custom and Revenue service (the counterpart to the IRS in the US), and about 25 emails with a tax adviser who charges about $350 an hour, I am still uninformed.  And it’s not that I don’t have a head for taxes.  I’ve filed my own returns in the U.S. for 40 years and they weren’t the simple version either.  But I keep being told something different.  And that makes me very nervous;  it is not apt to be a robust defense if I were ever to be audited.

In Spain we used to look with amazement at the Spanish approach to inconvenient rules.  If they didn’t think they made sense, they simply made their own independently-arrived at adjustment.  Builders, for instance, calculated before they laid a single brick whether it would be cheaper to get the necessary building permissions before starting, or pay the fine for not doing so when they were finished.  When I pointed out to a neighbour that it was against the law for him to build up to our property line, he smiled and said “El ayunamiento es loco” – “the townhall is crazy” – and that ended the discussion.  His garage formed part of our property line.

When the Nat West bankers were recently extradicted to America for violating American law even though they had never left Britain, there was a great deal of sympathy over here, and a lot of writing about how the British regulations are based on principles, while American law legislates specific behavior. 

When it comes to paying whatever UK tax I owe, I feel like one of those Nat West bankers in reverse.  Even as I sit here, I await an email from my adviser clarifying those subtle distinctions on which my ultimate tax bill, and possible penalty, rests. 

She has already warned me that the process is unlikely to be simple.  On that we are in total agreement.

August 8, 2007

Directions for the correct use of shopping trolleys

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

I was returning the trolley – what is known to Americans as a shopping cart – to the stand at our local DIY store today when I noticed a sign reading:  “Directions for use are printed on the handles of all trolleys.  For further help, please ask at the customer service desk.”

Have you ever felt the need for directions in how to use a shopping trolley?  I have seen children quite as young as three manage it without any previous training whatsoever, though they may benefit from the suggestion to grow a little taller.

If it were in America I would say posting the directions probably had something to do with avoiding legal liability for dangerous activities like wheeling one’s pet monkey around in the trolley, or perhaps trying to use it on an escalator or standing in it to reach merchandise on the upper shelves.  But England doesn’t tend to be that litigious yet.

The next time we are there, I will read the directions for trolley use.  I may learn I have not been driving the trolley correctly for my entire life.

August 7, 2007

Another marvellous failure of dogma

You may have to be fairly well-versed in Catholic dogma to fully appreciate the irony in the following, but I personally find it as marvellous as the Chinese Communist party insisting on the ultimate control of reincarnation.

Since 1947, Edinburgh has hosted what has become the largest international arts festival in the world.  It features thousands of shows each year, running the gamut from serious and professional concerts and plays to the new and untested in what is called The Fringe.  The Fringe is where the zany, the experimental, and sheer nutty hold forth.  It is often where acts and groups first start out which ultimately become world famous.  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were here, so were Monty Python, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie.

This summer the Roman Catholic Church in Edinburgh is participating by throwing open the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to anyone, Catholic or not, who wishes to go to confession and receive forgiveness for their sins.  Confession traditionally takes place in what might best be described as a dark closet, with a priest sitting on one side of a screen, and the penitent kneeling on the other.  It is an absolutely private exchange, in which sins are confessed, and forgiveness, along with usually a token penance, are dispensed.  This granting of absolution by the priest is considered one of the Seven Sacraments, holy rites which include Baptism, Communion, and Matrimony.  The Pope has just recently reiterated the ruling that only practicing Catholics may receive Communion.  Even Tony Blair, England’s prime minister until last May, is forbidden to receive communion when he attends Mass, as he does regularly, with his Catholic wife and children.

Apparently, this stricture does not apply to confession.  Anyone will be permitted to go to confession during the Festival.  Because the traditional confessional box may feel claustrophobic to the uninitiated, the Cathedral is setting aside a large “Reconciliation Room” with a screen.  A priest will be there, and any individual who wishes may confess his sins.  His or her privacy will be assured, but should the pentitent wish, he may confess face-to-face rather than confessing anonymously.

The priest announcing to the press that this facility was being introduced seemed immensely pleased, suggesting that this was a great contribution by the Church to the historic festival.  Given the complete lack of reverence that has traditionally characterized Fringe shows, I have my doubts.  I rather think the Father Confessor should be prepared for revelations meant to take the mickey:  “Father, I flushed my gold fish down the toilet.  It was cold-blooded murder.”

Since confession is a matter of strict secrecy, we no doubt shall never know.  Unless it becomes material for one of the Fringe shows.

August 1, 2007

Thoughts on planning a murder

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:10 pm

In a post several days ago I remarked on the bullying attitude of the male hierarchy that runs the Roman Catholic Church.  One might think therefore that I’m a committed and ardent feminist.  Committed and ardent, but not without ambivalence. 

A friend remarked to me today that we might be on the cusp of the re-emergence and even dominance of feminine perspectives.  Perhaps, but let us not assume that feminine perspectives are necessarily more understanding and tolerant, more sympathetic and peace-loving then male perspectives.  Our strategies are often different because of our different strengths and weaknesses relative to men and our different positions in society.  My personal experience is that we are capable of just as much vicious hatred and aggression as men.  It just often takes a different form.

One of my most terrifying moments of self-knowledge came when I realized that, in cold blood, I had seriously planned in great detail how to murder someone.  And I don’t just mean theoretically.  I figured out how to commit a real murder and how not to get caught.  Had I done it, it would have been a devious betrayal of someone who would have believed that I could be trusted with his life.  Someone who had volunteered to care for him during his last months.   And I could very well have stood by his bedside saying soothing words – a kind of terrible Florence Nightingale in disguise.  My proposed method was typical of my feminine way of operating.  I would not stop appearing to be kind and caring.  I would just slip small amounts of aspirin into his food that in his case would slowly kill him.  I even mixed some into applesauce one day and tasted it to see if it could be detected.

I didn’t do it in the end because I thought under the circumstances I had no conceivable right to take this man’s life.  I was not being forced, I wasn’t being pressured by my husband or father or friend, and there were other ways out of the dilemma in which I found myself besides murder.  But even now I sometimes shudder when I remember what part of me is capable of.   I who, on one hand, am incandescent when I read of honour killings also contemplated killing someone whom I found inconvenient.  So I’m not so sure that should a feminine perspective replace male dominance that truth and love and goodness would always be the victor.  I’m not sure we would put an end to wars.  We might just fight with different methods. 

We women have a dark side too.  Just as dark as men.  A lot of times I think we’re just sneakier. 

July 2, 2007

It’s a gutzy country is Britain

I had originally planned to begin a short series of posts about my Catholic childhood on the farm in Ohio today.  But that will have to wait.  Right now I want to write about what it’s been like as an American living here in Britain these last few days. 

People’s responses to the failed terrorist attacks in London and the Glasgow airport are that they aren’t going to be cowed.  They just aren’t going to break.  They know what is happening, but simply are not going to stop living.  And they certainly have no intention of giving up what they consider the British way of life.  I guess it goes at least as far back as the second world war when the constant bombings killed hundreds of thousands of people, and destroyed whole cities.  Then there were the bombings by the IRA that went on for decades and had all the characteristics of today’s terrorist attacks.

During the attempt to ram a Jeep loaded with explosives into the airport, a young man who was a returning passenger saw the driver on fire in the Jeep struggling with security men.  “Hell, no,” he said- or words to that effct- , “we don’t do that kind of thing around here.”  He went over and punched the flaming man to the ground, from which position the security men were able to take control. 

“Hell, no, we don’t do that kind of thing around here” seems to me to just about sum up the attitude of the majority of people.  Yes, there’s debate and disagreement about legislation, and resources, and security measures.  Yes, I get exasperated with the spin and the excuses and the complaining sometimes.  And yes, Britain has changed a great deal since the end of World War II.  Yes, Britons girate between thinking they are abject failures and the best thing that’s happened to the human race since sliced bread.  But young and old, they are a gutsy determined people who know what they stand for.  When push comes to shove, you aren’t going to shove very far. 

I think it has been raining almost non-stop for about three weeks, and weathermen – well, my husband – say it might not stop until the wind patterns change at the end of the summer.  That’s depressing.  But this is still a fantastic place to live.

June 27, 2007

Chinese curse

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

My sister DP pointed out to me that the culture that has given us that most wonderful of all curses, “May you have an interesting life,” has also bequeathed us another pearl.  The two Chinese characters that make up the written word for “crisis” are “danger” and “opportunity.”

June 22, 2007

Taxes: SuDoku is more fun

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 8:10 pm

The idea of taxes seems to have been thought up about 6,000 years ago by the Sumerians who lived in what was called Mesopotamia and is now called Iraq.  They thought up a lot of things, like a coherent musical scale, writing, and even mortgages for which I am grateful.  But I do wish the idea of taxation had died out with stone tools.  Unfortunately, it is alive and well, and with computerization, seems to have taken on a global vibrancy of its own.

I have compiled my own tax return for the last 40 years.  I try very hard not to pay more than I absolutely have to, but I don’t try to cheat.  That is not a result of virtue so much as sheer terror.  I do not have the psychic fortitude to sit in front of a tax official and knowingly try to lie my way through.

I’m an American who lives in England, and so must file returns each year in both countries.  I have just discovered, to my horror, that for possibly the last five years I have been misinterpreting UK tax law.  I’ve spent hours today going through my accounts.  If I do owe any taxes in the end, the result will not be devastating, but even a few hundred pounds will be painful.  Not to say embarrassing.

I’m trying to put a brave face on it and telling myself that this kind of thing is good exercise for my brain.  I’m thinking though that I’d rather play Su Doku.

May 21, 2007

Spin, bragging, and down home failures

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

I’ve been thinking today about the similarities between spin in Britain and bragging in the U.S.  Both are egocentric presentations of one’s accomplishments, laced with liberal lashings blaming someone else for anything that has gone wrong.  I find both rather distasteful, but it seems to be standard fare for political success and career advancement. 

The alternative to spin here in England is a quiet confidence that makes a fairly realistic judgement of one’s accomplishments and shortcomings, and that doesn’t place much credence in others’ positive or negative evaluations.  It’s Peter’s style, which I have always found attractive.  I have spent years trying to trick him into accepting a compliment but his skill at improvising alternative interpretations for any of his achievements improves as I do, so my lifetime success rate still hovers at around 1%.

This kind of confidant diffidence may becoming increasingly rare even here in Britain, though  I have seen flashes of it here in Cambridge and Oxford.  Unfortunately, the very expensive and very heavy shower door I installed in the bathroom I tiled last month has just fallen off.   It did not break, but I am looking for someone besides myself to blame. 

Wish I could spin better.

April 29, 2007

Clowns walking backwards

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 10:04 pm

Native American tribes have a figure called a Sacred Clown.  The clown is to their communities what comedians often are for us.  They make us laugh at ourselves, our pomposity and arrogance.  They mimic, they exaggerate, they sometimes help us realize the hypocrisy of what we’re saying by saying the exactly the opposite.  Clowns in sacred ceremonies sometimes walk backwards – just to remind us that we should never take even the most serious things too too seriously because we just might have got it all backwards.

Being half German, I usually take myself and the world with dead seriousness.  So I really need clowns in my life, and people who can make me laugh.

April 28, 2007

A self-destructive strategy

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:36 pm

For more than a year when Peter and I have walked to the local shop, we have often passed a man walking alone.  We greet each other, but no more.  Even as an American who is frequently unsure whether my particular form of polite greeting may be perceived as intrusive, I am careful not to slow my walk as we pass, for fear of threatening the possibility of actually having a conversion.  His expression makes it clear that to so much as a comment about the weather would be unwelcome.

This morning as Peter and I walked to pick up the newspaper as usual, we saw him on the sidewalk ahead accompanying a woman in a wheel chair.  As we passed, I greeted them in the usual way.  The woman returned the greeting with a smile of long-suffering martyrdom, of someone who has been asked to bear an unfair burden that she resents but probably feels she is carrying with stoic heroism.  Rightly or wrongly, I thought almost at once that I now understood the self-contained independence of the man who is presumably her husband.  My guess was that he is burdened with a complaining wife whom he in turn resents but who is determined not to mirror her grievance.

I know nothing about this couple and my hypothesis may be completely wrong.  I do hope, though, that I will never face my own life resenting the cards I have been dealt.  Even if I can never read again after my cataract surgery next Wednesday, I am determined not to be sorry for myself.  Life is too exciting, too wonderful a gift.  Still, I am aware that I am an immensely fortunate person.  I have never been tested by an event that seemed unbearable or a disappointment that could not be healed.  I have never had to bear the loss of a child, worry about where my next meal is coming from, endure unstoppable pain, an abusive husband, or most horrors that cross our television screens and papers every day. 

April 13, 2007

Cambridge women

I like being a woman in Cambridge better than any other place I have ever lived.  Like being old, I think the attitudes here are due to the university.  There have been too many accomplished women for people to risk assuming that any particular woman might not be an internationally recognized figure in some field or other.  So all women benefit from a general respect for what they may be able to accomplish.

The idea is today so politically incorrect that nobody would dare to express it quite so baldly, but I grew up in a Catholic family where the assumption was that males were inherently smarter than females.  Getting the right answer to a logical problem was superior to having insight or empathy, being smart might even have been superior to simply loving someone, and it was an assault on their masculinity for a female to be demonstrably smarter than a male counterpart. 

As a fairly smart little girl, I thought I had figured out my solution to this inequality.  I’d decided by the time I was three (thinking that this kind of thing belonged in the same category as deciding to be a lawyer or teacher) that I was going to be a man when I grew up.  I casually mentioned this decision to my brother Tom who told me in no uncertain terms that I had no such choice, and just to make sure I knew it, he told Mom, who asked me if I didn’t want to be a woman.  I remember emphatically saying that I did not.

I did, however, work out another plan which, as it turned out, worked pretty well.

April 11, 2007

Cambridge life

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

Living in Cambridge, I feel both that I have come home, and that it is full of strangers speaking a different language.  It’s different from America, and different from the North of England where we lived before.

It’s the university that makes Cambridge.  Being retired, we aren’t an intimate part of the academic buzz.  But the attitudes here are different than in the north, especially toward the elderly (which seems to be almost anybody over the age of 55) and toward women.  In the north, grocery clerks would address Peter as “dear,” suggest to him that the peppers he just bought might be too hot for him, or the grapes too expensive.  Nothing like that has happened here.

I think the danger is too great that the stooped old man or woman being patronized might be a Nobel winner or some great international scholar.

March 30, 2007

Looking for What I’m Looking For

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 3:08 pm

I was drilled from an early age to understand the difference between any old “eye doctor” and an ophthalmologist, because just any old eye doctor wasn’t going to understand my eyes.  I was wearing glasses by the time I was five, had surgery for a wandering eye when I was six, and could have been declared legally blind if it weren’t for contact lenses.  With lenses I can read with my left eye, which enabled me to survive as an academic. 

Here in Britain, the professional titles are different, and I apparently need to look for an ophthalmic optician.  Yesterday I asked the receptionist at our local doctor’s office if she could recommend someone.  She looked at me as if I had asked for directions to the nearest brothel.  One of the nurses recommended the local pharmacy where they do routine eye checks. 

The local pharmacy definitely will not do.  I can’t believe I can’t find someone in Cambridge.  The information on the internet is basically the phone book, and seems to be based on the assumption that people will be satisifed if they can find someone in the vicinity. 

In the teeth of my ignorance, I’ve decided to make an appointment with DJThomas whose listing says he does a series of computer-generated tests, and he’s in Cambridge.  Not a whole lot to set him apart from the others, but I can’t see how I can learn more.  Peter says asking our GP is what he would have done, but I wasn’t encouraged by the response I got from the front desk.

March 29, 2007

North-South Divides

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

In England, as in so many other countries, there is a clear difference between the customs and attitudes of people in the north and south.  We visited friends in the North yesterday, and Diana asked me whether I found living in Cambridge (which is in the south) very different from living in the northern Lakes.  Diana was born and raised in the south and moved north when she got married.  She said what at first she thought was nosiness by northern busy bodies she now thinks is often really a form of friendliness. 

I find this an intriguing possibility.  I’ve often thought as an American over here in Europe that what as an American I think of as polite interest is perceived as intrusive.  I remember asking a Belgian woman once why she’d moved to Spain.  She told me more about a distressing and abusive relationship with her husband than either of us felt comfortable with, but I had the impression that she didn’t know how not to answer my question without being impolite herself.  Even now I am not always comfortable asking people about themselves for fear my interest will be misunderstood.

I would find it interesting to hear about the experiences other people have had:  of Americans, by Americans as well of Europeans and by Europeans, and especially of and by the English.

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