December 11, 2016
November 19, 2014
I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient. There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong. We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way. I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day. There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.
But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing. People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light. I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.
Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head. I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance. In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil. Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell. Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.
Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this. But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous. Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom. In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write. Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.
But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations? I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion. More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.
But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable. I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue. Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself. Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.
Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.
I’m a human being. That is fantastic! How lucky I am! For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature. We all make mistakes. We’re all incomplete. We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion. That doesn’t change the reality. We are each simply incredible. We are each simply wonderful.
Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong. Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.
April 1, 2014
The origins of April Fools day are not clear. Some people say it began with the Roman festival of Hilaria held at the end of March. Others say it began in the 1500’s with the switch to the Gregorian calendar that reduced the year from 13 equal lunar months to 12, and moved the celebration of the new year from April 1 to January 1. Others point to beginnings in India and Iran. Some Biblical-based claims have even been made that it was Noah with the animals on his ark who began it all.
But really, it’s a wonderful day, isn’t it? when we can laugh at ourselves and each other for being either clever or naive.
My favourite April Fools’ story is still the BBC’s documentary on the failure of the spaghetti crop in Italy.
But I do rather like the story about the business student who replaced the filling in chocolate Oreo cookies with toothpaste and served them to a friend.
With best wishes for a laugh-filled day.
March 10, 2014
It is amazing sometimes how ordinary extraordinary people look. Sometimes they even look like outstanding failures. Churchill was a miserable student, Einstein’s teachers thought he was lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Walt Disney was once fired from a job because he had no imagination. Beethoven’s music teacher said that as a composer, he was hopeless.
Here in Cambridge, England, a hot-house of geniuses, one learns not to presume. That man in the wheel chair making his way across the greens might be Stephen Hawking. But many other extraordinary men are not so easily recognized. In fact, they might even be women. But the ordinariness of greatness is not just true in Cambridge or Silicon Valley or other places where known geniuses gather.
I have just read what may be my all-time favourite story of the sheer doggedness that I think explains why genius so often looks like failure to us ordinary folk. There is a self-determination that comes from within and that refuses to be daunted by society’s prosaic standards of success.
Arunachalam Muruganantham was a school dropout from a poor family in southern India. He did not develop the vaccine that eliminated small pox, or that can prevent polio or aids or malaria. He developed a machine that women can use to make cheap sanitary pads. Since poor menstrual hygiene causes some 70% of all reproductive diseases in India and an unknown number of maternal deaths, it matters to a lot of families.
But not only was Muruganantham a school dropout. He risked his family, his money, and his reputation in the process. They thought he was crazy, that he himself was suffering from some bizarre sexual disease, and should be ostracized. Nobody, but nobody, believed in the truth or value of what he was doing.
Shortly after he was married in 1998, he discovered the filthy rags his wife used during menstruation. When he asked her why, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household if she bought sanitary pads. Later he learned that along with rags that they were too embarrassed to disinfect by drying in the sun, women also used other substances like sand, sawdust, and leaves.
So Muruganantham decided to buy his wife some sanitary pads. That’s when he found out that pads themselves cost 40 times more than the 1/2 oz of cotton out of which they were made cost. He decided he could make the pads cheaper himself. The problem — well, one problem anyway – was that he could not get women to test out his pads. So he decided he would have to test the pads on himself . He created a source of bleeding by punching holes in a football bladder and filling it with goat’s blood. Then he went about the daily activities of life constantly pumping blood to test his pad’s absorption.
Villagers believed he was a pervert, or possessed by evil spirits. He avoided being chained upside down to a tree by agreeing to leave the village. His wife and mother had already left him.
It took four and a half years before he finally discovered the process required to make sufficiently absorbent pads. The machines cost thousands of dollars. So he set about designing his own.
And that is the gift he is giving to India. The machine is simple and affordable, and not only provides hygienic sanitary pads for India’s women. It also provides a source of income for thousands of women who can now make and sell them to others.
A year after he had made the first machine, someone entered it into a national innovation competition. It came out first among 943 entries. The award he received from India’s president put him in the limelight, and is helping to sell the machines. It also redeemed him in the eyes of his wife, his mother, and the village which had ostracized him.
The machine could make Muruganantham a rich man. But that’s not what he wants. People don’t die of poverty, he says. They die of ignorance. That’s what he wants to change.
November 15, 2013
R. D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who believed that a great deal of what we call “mental illness” is learned. An example I remember his giving once was the angry correction administered to a child who dared to laugh. “How do you dare to laugh,” he was castigated, “when Jesus died on the cross for you?”
I was thinking about this yesterday when I contemplated writing a rather frivolous post. I didn’t, reflecting that given the death toll and continued catastrophe for millions in the Philippines it might be rather tasteless.
Well, I think that’s ridiculous.
If we can’t laugh, if we can’t be frivolous in the face of suffering, when can we dare to even smile?
In face, people who can laugh and even joke in the middle of tragedy are often beacons of light and strength. They certainly have been for me. One of my favourite blogs is a breath of fresh air – and it is nothing but jokes. (Mostly good ones, which of course makes a difference.)
I’m not sure I have any great talent as a comedian. But I’m pretty accomplished at frivolity.
So from now on, if the only thoughts I have are frivolous, I’m going to write a post anyway.
I hope as the reader you may be able to grin and bear it.
February 25, 2013
It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t tranquil, and as usual most of the news was about something else that’s gone wrong. But this morning news did result in a couple of block-busters resulting from media dissemination, and suggests that staying in contact with the news is perhaps worth the angst.
The first block-buster has created disarray in the British Liberal Democratic party. Last week a television documentary revealed that in the last ten years or so, complaints by women of unacceptable sexual harassment by a leading member of the party had been brushed under the carpet. The party leader, Nick Clegg, said he didn’t know anything, a story gradually being adjusted as emails and female victims come forth indicating that not knowing anything is not quite synonymous with the truth. His leadership position right now is under severe strain.
The second block-buster is that the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal O’Brien, has resigned with immediate effect, and is not, after all, going to join the College of Cardinals in Rome to elect the new pope. O’Brien has been accused of “inappropriate sexual behaviors” by three priests and one former priest in his diocese, and their formal complaint to the Vatican has just been made public.
Who knows? maybe we can stop the US policy of drone strikes too, if it gets enough publicity. From what I’m reading, the number of deaths of innocent women and children is creating a ground swell of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Addendum: What I find particularly interesting about all the emerging sex scandals in the RC Church is that if the Vatican were not so backward and frightened of sex, most of the scandals in relation to women and to homosexuality would be greatly reduced. It’s the hypocrisy of so much of this behavior that is so despicable. A less neurotic attitude toward sex might even have reduced the actual number of paedophilia attacks, since seminarians with a propensity for children might have been recognized earlier and many of the potential offenders might never have been ordained. At least they would have been brought to book, treated and removed from temptation much earlier and more often.
November 18, 2012
A friend sent me this. It’s a magnet on her fridge door, presumably for those times when one feels like tossing the entire lot into the garbage, and pouring yourself a drink. Preferably a double.
July 13, 2012
London is hosting the Olympics this summer. You may have heard. The goal is to be better than the Chinese Olympics, which apparently were quite spectacular.
London has a lot to offer: Westminster, the historic River Thames, Canary Wharf, Hyde Park, Windsor Castle, Trafalgar Square – I’ll stop. It’s an historic city where people have lived for at least seven thousand years. It’s inexhaustibly fascinating.
Oh, but do you know what we have for the Olympics? (You are really going to envy this)
The Olympics is featuringPause here for Trumpets Please
The largest McDonalds in the World!
A view of the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant; London’s the Olympic Park
July 19, 2011
Nelson Mandela celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday.
He asked for the most marvellous birthday present.
He asked people to spend 67 minutes on the day doing something for somebody else.
It sounds like hundreds of thousands of people did.
12.5 million schoolchildren sang “Happy Birthday” before starting class. Television and radio stations urged the nation to join in. From what it sounded like on the news coverage here, practically the entire nation was singing Happy Birthday at 10:30 yesterday.
67 is the number of years Mandela spent in active public service. Counting the 27 years in prison. They must have been the hardest. To keep hoping for so long, against what must have seemed insuperable odds that it mattered at all, to keep on believing that being locked up for so long could make any difference.
It sort of makes any excuses I offer for feelings of despair in the face of my helplessness look pretty thin.
I think, though, that Mandela would say he is one of the lucky ones. He has lived to see the fruits of his struggle. A lot of others didn’t.
But they mattered just as much as Mandela in the fight for freedom.
December 26, 2010
Bad news inevitably makes better news than good news. Good news gets put into a small specialty spot to create a feel-good moment, but unless its our team that has just won, it hardly ever makes the headlines.
For instance, which of these headlines do you think are most apt to make the front page of The Times:
In a ten-year record, 20,000 workers at Zepagoni resist repeated opportunity to steal factory goods!
Factory head indicted for stealing factory goods over a period of ten years!
When things are getting better, it’s really hard to tell.
So on this dark day of 2010, here is a statistic that is actually honestly real. And it really is good news.
Two hundred years ago, only two countries in the entire world had an average life expectancy above 40 years. And even in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, where life expectancy was above 40, it was only by a few years.
This is in spite of two world wars, in spite of an unprecedented increase in population, in spite of AIDS and a flu epidemic. In spite of our selfishness, our greed, our stupidity. In spite of everything else we think is wrong. That is wrong.
Okay, okay, I agree. That doesn’t mean things are going to continue to get better. It doesn’t even mean we might not still destroy our environment and ourselves in the future.
But still, I had no idea that the change in two hundred years had been so encouraging.
An awful lot of what a lot of people have done must have been worth it after all.
For an easy to digest view of changes in the last 200 years, see http://www.flixxy.com/200-countries-200-years-4-minutes.htm
November 14, 2010
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.
October 13, 2010
I don’t usually make this blog a commentary on current events – the contributions from people who know more than I do would usually render what I might say redundant if not downright embarrassingly trivial.
But I can’t help but reflect on the rescue of the Chilean miners. It is such a good-news story in a world where it’s so much easier to find just the opposite.
Yes, I know. The miners are stepping out from the pit of the earth into the quick sand of unforeseen celebrity, money, and the trauma of having spent 17 days facing death up close and another 50 days under pretty difficult circumstances.
I must say, those miners are tough. I sat watching a the news feeds with my husband – BBC has had 24-hour coverage for the last couple of days. And it occurred to me that although my husband is a retired academic, he comes from generations of miners. As a child during WWII, he looked out the window and watched the bombs being dropped on the mine where his father was on the night shift. His grandfather was trapped underground once too, and eventually walked to safety, stopping my husband says, at every pub on the way. The whole town, really, was a mining town. Peter knows the deep down toughness of miners in a way that makes me feel like a fragile flower. Watching this story unfold must have touched roots that I could not imagine.
This time it seems the whole world not only was watching, but some of the most extraordinary people were able to contribute something to winching those men to safety. Drillers came from America, NASA sent a team with both expertise for men confined in small spaces for long periods and equipment which is being used to monitor the men’s vital signs as they are being winched up. Mining rescue teams from South Africa were involved, sunglasses were even donated by a prestitious company in California.
And that is only the beginning of the list of people who in the last two months have been simply marvellous. Not least the Chilean people, their president and their minister of mining whose approval rating in the country is now something like 89%.
So for now I want to suspend worry about the challenges the miners and their families face now that they are coming to the surface.
I’m going to spend just a little time in undiluted delight at what human beings can do.
September 8, 2010
My mother taught me how to cook and bake. She was a much better teacher than I gave her credit for, not because she was such a brilliant cook herself but because she so effortlessly made me believe that I could do it.
Then in the convent I was assigned to work for several years with Sister Anne Cecilia in the bakery where we did all the baking for a community of 300-400.
So in my life time, I have baked tens of thousands of loaves of bread, pies, cakes, cookies, frozen desserts, puddings, tarts, meringues, and pastries. But I have never made a cake without flour before.
Today I did. Peter pointed out a recipe in Sunday’s paper called simply Temptation. It was aptly named: the entire ingredients include only a pound of 90% cocoa chocolate, melted butter, five eggs, sugar, and a wisp of vanilla extract. The interesting part for me was the discovery that if you whip the eggs and sugar long enough, it will turn into a thick mousse-like batter. The recipe said it would take about five minutes. It took me fifteen but it seemed to work.
At least the cake is now out of the oven and it looks like a proper cake. With all that chocolate, I’m sure it will be heavenly.
All temptations are, aren’t they?
August 5, 2010
When I left teaching for the last time, one of my students gave me a poster:
A teacher affects eternity:
he can never tell where his influence stops
It still hangs on my study wall.
May 12, 2010
I’m not naturally drawn to breaking the law – in fact, it usually seems to me to be worth a fair amount of inconvenience not to – for myself and for society in general. An attitude of indifference to the rule of law, if too widespread, leads to anarchy.
It goes without saying there are some times when the law is immoral. I was five years old when World War II ended, but my second-generation German lawyer father never let us doubt that there are times when governments must be defied.
But sometimes the law is simply idiotic. Aspects of health and safety legislation here in Britain belong firmly in this category.
And so it was with great delight and relief that I read the story about three teenagers who defied the police and jumped into the River Clyde to save a drowning woman. The police were lined up on the river bank keeping observers away but refusing to go into the water themselves to help. “It’s not our job,” they argued. They were waiting for the fire department to arrive. By which point the woman would clearly have been dead.
As I heard the story, I half expected to hear that the three teenagers, having saved the woman’s life, were then arrested for breaking the law.
But they weren’t.
Some true stories do have happy endings.
January 23, 2010
Saints are just sinners who never stop trying. Willie Nelson
Or to put it another way:
Success is the ability to go cheerfully from one failure to another with no less enthusiasm. Winston Churchill
By this criteria, I think my entire life might be a stunning success.
At the very least, I’ve had a lot of practice.
December 29, 2009
Okay, this is a really serious post. I mean, about things that really really matter.
I found the gold chain necklace Peter gave me 35 years ago, and that I thought, on Christmas Day, I’d lost.
Don’t ask. Suffice to say that it wasn’t
- in the large bag of household garbage that had been collecting for two weeks
- under the car seat or floor mats
- fallen into or under any chairs, mattresses, or rugs
- returned by someone who found it on our drive or sidewalk
- in anybody’s pockets or shoes
- in the room where we stayed in London
- around my neck.
Okay, I’ll confess.
It was in my jewelery box.
(But it had slipped down between the lining, which was why I didn’t find it the first three times I looked.)
December 23, 2009
Two nights ago the snow started to pelt down just before rush hour in High Wycombe. By 5:00, gritting trucks, buses, vans, commuters, and shoppers were stuck in gridlock. Even the four-wheel drives couldn’t move forward because the vehicles in front of them weren’t moving.
When it came time for the local branch of the John Lewis Department Store to close, the manager looked out and said “I can’t send people out into that.”
Trapped inside were about 50 customers, half of whom were children and more than 50 staff. So the store turned over its bed department, made up the beds from stock in its linen department, and brought in food from its cafe.
It looks as if they opened up the toy department too.
John Lewis Stores have a philosophy that makes this kind of consideration less surprising than it might seem in the cut and thrust of so much of modern capitalism. Their staff share in the profits, their supermarket wing, Waitrose, stocks line-caught fish and local produce. And customers are treated like human beings rather than paying commodities.
I know. It’s why we shop there. Well, and because it’s the best supermarket within range.
November 13, 2009
The story below is copied from the blog of the Lost Bagpiper.
As a bagpiper, I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery in the remote countryside and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.
As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost and being a typical man, did not stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late. As I drove up, I saw the backhoe and the crew who were eating lunch but the hearse was nowhere in sight.
I apologized to the workers for my tardiness and stepped to the side of the open grave where I saw the vault lid already in place.
I assured the workers I would not hold them up for long but this was the proper thing to do. The workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I played out my heart and soul.
As I played the workers began to weep. I played and I played like I’d never played before, from Going Home and The Lord is My Shepherd to Flowers of the Forest . I closed the lengthy session with Amazing Grace and walked to my car.
As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I overheard one of the workers saying to another, Sweet Jeezuz, Mary ‘n Joseph, I have never seen nothin’ like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years…
Usually I manage to write my own posts, but I have been laughing all day since a friend forwarded this to me. I suspect it’s so funny because it’s somehow the kind of thing I could do.
If I could play the bagpipes, of course.
October 8, 2009
There is a news story today about Ed one of Britain’s fairly young cabinet ministers. He was in Moscow yesterday giving an interview about the environment and a woman phoned in.
She said she was his relative, Sofia Davidovna Miliband. The telephone operator thought it was a hoax.
But she really is a relative about whom Ed and his entire family in Britain were unaware. Ed’s grandfather left the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in the 1920’s and during World War II, escaped the Nazis by getting into Britain on forged papers. Sofia’s wing of the family went to Russia. She is now 87 years old.
The Milibands, both in Russia or England, are an interesting family. Sofia Miliband was a leading academic on the faculty Moscow School ofOriental Studies and is recognized expert on Iran. Her latest book was published last year. Ed’s father was a sociologist and political scientist at the London School of Economics, and now both of his sons are members of the current UK government.
So much for Hitler’s vision of a pure society. Thank God he failed.
September 7, 2009
I’ve known for a long time that music can take me places I could never arrive at through reason or logic or scientific analysis. But where music has taken me has always been some place transcendent, vaguely religious, I suppose. Beethoven and Mozart have given me hope in the darkest places.
Saturday night’s concert did not begin well. I have never understood or responded to modern 20th century classical music and the first 17 minutes of something by Janacek was, for me, irritating noise. But I knew a horn concerto by a composer unknown to me followed, so I mentally cleaned my kitchen, and by the time I’d mopped the floor, Janacek was finished.
But the horn concerto was also 20th century modern. I no longer had the housecleaning fantasy to keep me distracted, and found myself instead thinking about how terrorists would blow up the theatre. Where would a suicide bomber place himself to do the most damage? I counted the levels – five. And the arches behind the audience that circled the entire hall – 45. Hmm. This would have to be a much bigger project than a single bomber. Perhaps a gang of up to 25. How many terrorists took over the Moscow theatre several years ago? Anyway, how big an explosion can a person wearing a suicide vest produce? Okay, I have 25 potential bombers. Where would they place themselves?
By this time, I’m happy to say, the concerto was finished, and the composer had joined the orchestra on stage to take a bow. I was free to abandon my cogitations about how to engineer an escape along with the thousands of other people bent on the same endeavour.
The second half of the concert – Dvorak’s New World Symphony – made the noise torture of the first 41 minutes worth it.
It was magnificent. Even in this world of so much anguish and cruelty and deceit, it made life worth living.
My real fantasy is to die listening to Beethoven’s 5th.
July 25, 2009
I think the best way not to feel like a failure is to set ones sights very low. Or perhaps not to set any sights at all.
I was thinking about how many things we hope the Obama presidency might accomplish – tackle universal health care, education, climate change, the economy, equal rights, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Israel, torture, N. Korea, and terrorism for starters.
Of course there are going to be failures. Big ones.
Just undoing the fiasco of the Bush years seems enough and we are hoping for so much more.
Well, I am.
So I’ll forgive Obama a lot for what doesn’t get done in the next four years. Just starters on one of the above would be a mega-success in my books.
July 1, 2009
According to Chaos Theory, some small event – like the flapping wings of a butterfly – can ultimately lead to some very significant event — like a hurricane that is first felt thousands of miles away.
Given its name, I suppose it’s not surprising that the theory is used most often to explain catastrophic events caused by some minor seemingly-unrelated and distant disruption.
But I would like to propose a twin theory which I have called Reverse Chaos Theory. This brilliant idea is the result of a few moments I spent this morning in the parking lot of our local DIY store. We were lifting some sharp-edged lawn equipment into the car when it slipped. In the process of trying to catch it, I put the can of oil I was also carrying on the roof of the car. After arranging our purchases in the trunk, I slammed down the door and started to get into the passenger seat.
A stranger passing by called over that I’d left something on the roof. It was the can of oil. I expressed my gratitude effusively.
My gratitude was effusive because, along with the can of oil, my wallet – containing my credit cards, Peter’s credit cards, store and loyalty cards, my driver’s license and insurance, and about $50 – was also on the roof.
I was shaking as I got back in the car. The oil was nothing. But the upheaval of losing my wallet somewhere on the road between Cambridge and home still elevates my heart rate.
I doubt very much that stranger is sitting at home tonight thinking she did a good deed. But I know she did. And if she’d just passed by deciding that can of oil was none of her business – or if she’d passed by sixty seconds sooner or later – my life right now would be in chaos.
So I’m dedicating this theory to her. I don’t know her name, so I’ll just have to call her Reverse Chaos.
June 16, 2009
The parking lot attendant at Bristol Zoo didn’t show up for work recently, so eventually, the zoo management called the local council and asked for a replacement.
After a certain number of tense exchanges, it emerged that neither the zoo nor the local council had hired the attendant, and had never paid him. But neither had they ever collected any of the money that had been paid by cars and buses using the parking lot for the last 25 years.
The estimate is that something like $7.6 million dollars is funding the retirement of a nameless parking lot attendant now living comfortably somewhere in Spain.
My first thought was that perhaps I should have become a parking lot attendant instead of a cognitive psychologist. Then I remembered the bankers. They made that kind of money in a week. Only the working classes have to slog away for 25 years before they can retire in luxury.
Whoops! Snopes says this story is two years old and an urban myth. Well, it’s a nice urban myth anyway. If I sort of stretch my moral problems with stealing things.
June 10, 2009
This is a story for those times (about 18 out of every 24 hours for me) when one fears for the future of humanity.
It’s written by a former economics correspondent for the BBC who decided to confess -voluntarily – to the UK tax authority, that he’d been understating his income, and that he wanted to pay what he owed. He hadn’t been dragged in, hadn’t received a notification that he was being audited. He just wanted to put his life straight.
The tax officer was flabbergasted. Eventually he levied a nominal fine and assessed what was owed.
Then the journalist decided to confess to the BBC that he’d fiddled his expenses for ten years or so and wanted to pay back what he had obtained by lying.
The BBC was likewise flabbergasted, but finally agreed to a donation to the war memorial fund.
So the journalist told his 7-year-old son what he’d done. His response was more forthright than flabbergasted: “Well, if you’d been honest in the first place, you wouldn’t be in trouble now!”
But some weeks later his son came downstairs with the confession that he’d been stealing sweets from the local shop. His father asked him what he thought he should do.
“I think I should give him all my money.”
“How much is that?”
“Thirty pence” (That’s about 50 cents in American money.)
Mr. Gotelier at the local shop didn’t want to take the money, but the boy insisted.
Since reading this story, I’ve been going over my life and examining whether I really should be paying anything back to anybody. I have a lot of debts, but most of them are unpayable. Too many people who are no longer here gave me too much out of sheer generosity that I didn’t appreciate then and didn’t reciprocate.
At the very least, I can live in gratitude for the gifts I didn’t deserve. And occasionally to give to those whom I judge to be as undeserving as I have been. It might help a little to reduce my debt.
May 1, 2009
Chrysler Auto Company filed for bankruptcy yesterday, and GM might follow by the end of May. The only American car company getting through on its own is Ford.
The implications of this must be huge. Tens of thousands of job losses, many companies that support the automakers will also go to the wall, along with those jobs and services which in turn depend on them. Pension and health plans will be slashed, many skilled workers will be facing the liklihood that they will never be in paid work again. Many families tonight must be in anguish that they may lose their homes, parents that they will not be able to afford to send their children to college, some perhaps not even able to feed and cloth them adequately. Domestic abuse and crime tend to increase under these circumstances.
I wonder if whether the “creative destruction” for which America has been such a leading advocate will result in new companies, new ideas, creative products that will rise from the ashes of our car industry.
I wonder. I worry. I hope. But apart from that, I don’t think there is anything I can do.
And so I invite you to join me with the dancing parrot in celebration of all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is surprising in this extraordinary world in which we live.
If the parrot can dance, we can too.
April 25, 2009
Yesterday I noticed what I thought at first was a peony whose schedule had been disoriented by global warming. But on closer inspection, I saw that a brightly-coloured ball had quietly make its way into our garden.
Obviously it was accidentally kicked over the six-foot high fence from one of the adjacent properties. I looked at the ball and considered which fence to throw it back over. Two the left is a couple in their 80’s. He is still amazingly active, but a game even of slow-footed soccer seemed unlikely. Two techies live directly to our right and I thought it unlikely to be theirs either, even if they were not presently at work, which they were.
So I opted for the property that sits caticorner to ours. Two girls often climb into their tree house there, but since we share a property line of not more than five feet, we do not have what you might call an “over-the-fence” relationship.
Today I was outside and I heard the two girls playing. Then one shouted excitedly “Look, they’ve thrown our ball back!” And then rather more loudly “Thank you!”
Sometimes the small joys of life come with an extra kick because they come as a surprise as well.
April 20, 2009
“I failed to make the chess team because of my height.”
Woody Allen (b 1935)
April 19, 2009
Nadia Kohts was a Russian scientist who tells the story about the chimpanzee whom she raised. Occasionally the juvenile chimp escaped and climbed to the roof of the house, from where Nadia was unable to get him to come down. She cajoled, she tempted him with his favourite food. Climbing a ladder to the roof herself would obviously lead to a chase over the roof in a contest she was bound to lose.
But one thing worked. If she sat down and and sobbed, the young chimpanzee would rush down to console her and put his arm around her shoulder.
If these are our ancestors, we can’t be all bad, can we?
April 15, 2009
This is a post for one of those days when nothing seems worth it. For a day when only the most neurotic Pollyanna keeps hoping. For when everybody secretly thinks you are too old for your ridiculous escapades.
I won’t describe this You-tube video. The self-satisfied smug superiority of the judges and the audience at the sight of dowdy, middle-aged Susan Boyle needs no translation.
But what happened is simply amazing. It is wonderful. Just Listen to this!
(There are several videos on U-tube of this performance. I have linked to what I think gives the best picture of what happened. It’s 7 minutes long, but worth every minute. Even if you aren’t a U-tube kind of person.)
April 3, 2009
It hasn’t solved all the world’s problems – not even all its economic problems. But we didn’t sit here in England watching the media coverage of the G20 cringing every time the President of the United States appeared on camera with that smug smirk that so alienated the rest of the world for the last eight years.
On the contrary, everyone one from heads of states to children in the schools wanted to see the Obamas.
People lined the streets with the hope of getting a glimpse of Michelle. The Queen told the Obamas to “keep in touch,” not a usual royal invitation. She hugged Michelle, or perhaps it was the other way around. And Silvio Berlisconi, the Italian prime minister, was caught on camera chanting “Obama! Obama!” Today, President Sarkozy welcomed the Obamas with a French enthusiasm possibly not seen since American troops marched into Paris in 1945.
I’m savouring the feel-good factor. There haven’t been a lot of them around for Americans in the last decade. For a pick-me-up, I foundMichelle Obama in action in London. One reporter said she is going to be “the new Diana.”
March 20, 2009
This sounds like the kind of thing everybody already knows, but I didn’t. Ernest Hemingway said that a story can be told in six words. The argument against his position is immediately lost with his illustration:
“For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
I’ve been working all day at composing six-word stories of my own, but must conclude that I do not have the genius of Hemingway. My shortest story thus far is closer to a dozen. I’m not even insisting on autobiographical authenticity but it’s obvious that my compositions are not up to his standards. And they aren’t even subtle. E.g.:
“When I lost the ring, I didn’t tell him.”
“He was the best thing that ever happened to me. But I wasn’t his best thing.”
“Don’t tell her. It will break her heart.”
Perhaps you can think of something better.
PS: I can’t even claim originality for this post. The idea was lifted from one of blogs I read regularly. Sometimes it’s not worth the time or I am utterly uninterested. But every once in a while there is a flash of humor or compassion or insight that keeps me coming back.
http://beversluis.blogspot.com/ : post for March 15.
February 6, 2009
“When life is very bad, two things make life worth living – Mozart and quantum mechanics.” Victor Weisskopf, nuclear physicist, 1910-2002
I know what he meant.