The Other I

April 12, 2017

Sizing up the situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 9, 2017

Washing-up liquid

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:58 pm
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My husband and I were having lunch in our sunroom this afternoon when his fork dropped to the floor.  He picked it up immediately and reached for his paper napkin, which I thought made sense because both the fork and the floor were clean and dry.  But before wiping the fork, he dipped it into his glass of wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Huffington Post.com

Cheers to the good old days!

March 29, 2017

The breath of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we have learned to ask each other for help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 8, 2017

Escaping the revolving prison door

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

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

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

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

http://risingsunoverport.co.za

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

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

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

 

March 5, 2017

Cracking up

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:57 pm
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Several days ago, I’d finished a dental floss roll, and so I took an unopened container from the bathroom cupboard.  When I tried to pull the metal piece on the top of the container holding the floss in place I couldn’t get it off.  My finger nails are getting softer with age, so I got an unused knife to wedge it off, but that didn’t work either.  I even tried to split the case open by inserting the knife into the side where the two pieces of casing met but although I could get it to open slightly, it still wouldn’t open.

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2017

Keeping the world at bay: my sanity strategy

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:17 pm

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

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

         The One Spy.com

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

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

And there’s the catch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2017

The power of the powerless

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

Bill Gates

 

 

We also often overestimate what an individual can do

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

 

 

 

 

And paradoxically, underestimate what we can accomplish together.

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February 16, 2017

Stepping Stones for the Aging

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think it’s unlikely that I will live long enough to indulge in driverless cars.
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So if something else doesn’t stop me first, I’ve had my first glimpse of that Great Stepping Stone that just got a little bit closer.  The great question is what I will make of it.

February 8, 2017

My 4th dimension

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


can name the unnameable


and communicate the unknowable

Leonard Bernstein

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

January 28, 2017

Immigrants made America rich

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

January 17, 2017

The world’s 8 richest men

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for money tree

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

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

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

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

Even the little people like me.

 

January 13, 2017

Bad or Beautiful?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:21 pm
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Following my post yesterday, someone asked if there were any expert opinions about altruistic behavior in the living world.  It seems a fascinating question, and led to such a long response on my part that I am posting it here, with the hope that there may be others who can broaden my own musings on the subject.

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2017

Love is as deep as selfishness

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:26 pm
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Whichever way one turns in the world these days, there seems to be a plethora of disturbing, scary, depressing news.  And whether it’s war, climate change, rates of extinction, or “false facts,” so much of it seems to be our doing.

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

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

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

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

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BJbNbUICcAAd4_K.jpg:large

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

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

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

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BJNp5quCQAE7MsY.jpg:large

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

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January 7, 2017

God save WHO?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:45 pm
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Image result for god save the queen

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

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

I don’t think he was worrying about Brexit.

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

Though I’m tempted to supplement it:

Image result for stay vigilant

 

 

January 1, 2017

A drink to the New Year

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:12 pm
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It’s not hard these days to find health warnings against the abuse of alcohol.  There is even research suggesting that even moderate amounts of alcohol may be related to increased incidence of the three big killers cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for drink a toast

http://www.isciencetimes.com/

Happy 2017 – whatever it visits upon us!

December 25, 2016

Best wishes and hope for us all

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

Whether you are alone, with friends or family

Whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah,

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

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

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

 

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

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

December 11, 2016

Nastiness isn’t just in the big things

Filed under: For when nothing is going right,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:11 pm

But neither are the wonderful things!

November 30, 2016

My Dorothy Day puzzle

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result

 

November 27, 2016

Why I still love New York

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm
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I was seven years old when I made one of the most important choices of my life.  I was getting off that idyllic farm in Ohio where I was growing up and going to New York.

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

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

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

http://gothamist.com/2016/11/20/copycat_sticky_note_subway_therapy.php#photo-4

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

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

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

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November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving for the simple gifts

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

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http://weightwise.com/thanksgiving-2016/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

November 14, 2016

Front door dialogue

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 12:46 pm
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Many members of my family have been exchanging views about the result of the U.S. election, and asking what we can do about the geysers of hatred and resentment that seem to be gushing up around us.

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

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

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

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

 

November 10, 2016

What do we do about Trump now?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:34 pm
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http://www.watermarkonline.com/

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

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

But how should we go forward in a constructive way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 9, 2016

umpty Trumpty

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

November 8, 2016

How big are the little things?

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 10:47 am

http://brightside.me/creativity-photography/15-inspirational-images-that-will-convince-you-to-make-the-world-a-better-place-194205/#image3162455

© reddit.com 

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

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

October 22, 2016

Why I still like capitalism

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

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

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

Image result

https://www.papermasters.com/capitalism.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 16, 2016

The Good Old Days of Breadmaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 9, 2016

International Trade: The devil’s own?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:41 pm
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In my last post, I reviewed what I found to be the astonishing feat we humans have accomplished in providing nourishment for literally billions more people than populated our globe a mere 75 years ago.  This is an incredible feat for which we as species can be proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 30, 2016

Why aren’t we all starving anymore?

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

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

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

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

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

hungry (1)https://dausonstimpsongagnon.wordpress.com/tag/feeding-the-hungry/

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there has been the development of genetically engineered crops.  After working with thousands of crossings, the biologist Norman Borlaug developed a parasite-resistant wheat which was not sensitive to daylight hours.  In addition, it was a dwarf variety which did not expend its energy growing inedible stalks.  Borlaug introduced his wheat in Mexico in 1963.  Amazingly, the harvest was six times larger than 20 years earlier.  Mexico became a net exporter of wheat.  Several years later Borlaug introduced his seeds to India and Pakistan.  Within several years, these two countries were self-sufficient in the production of cereals.

When he was given the Nobel prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited with saving 12 million square miles of forest, preserving the lives of wild creatures and plants living there.  He is probably the first person in history to save a billion human lives.

So is everything honky-dory now?  Have we cracked the nut and if we continue to do what has worked so well, will humanity soon have eliminated the scourge of malnutrition worldwide?

Would you believe me if I said yes?  Well, don’t believe it.  The next post is about some of the problems we still face and that even our incredible solutions have themselves produced.

 

September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 3:31 pm
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Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

To put that estimate in context, here are a few more relevant facts:

  • in 1945 at the end of two world wars, the global population was 2 billion, 50% of whom the Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nation estimates were undernourished;  that’s about half a billion people
  • in the 60 years since then, the world population has swelled to 7.4 billion, an increase of the human population never seen in the history of our species

http://www.fooddepot.ca/en/page.php?id=325

I was astonished to read that today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 11% of the human population is malnourished.  That’s a painful 8 million people.  But somehow, even with a burgeoning increase in the human population, the percentage of malnourished has dropped in 60 years from 50% to 11%.  Instead of more than 3 1/2 billion starving people today, the problem has shrunk dramatically.

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.

 

September 21, 2016

The danger of the Good Old Days

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:54 pm
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As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was.  Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.

I don’t think of the past as a time to which I would like to return.  But I was rather surprised by the conversation I had with a friend last week in which we both seriously wondered if the world was in a worse state now than it has ever been.  What with our environmental destructiveness, our resistance to immigration, a seeming growth in those who believe that they have a God-given obligation to murder those who disagree with them, and the millions of starving and displaced refugees, most of whom are being refused entrance to countries who see them as dangerous and different, things seem pretty awful.

But I’ve discovered one of the most amazing books I’ve read in perhaps 15 years.  It’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.

One cannot accuse him of naivete or denial.  He begins with a brief statement of the state of the world:”Terrorism.  ISIS.  War in Syria and Ukraine, Crime, murder, mass shootings.  Famines, floods, pandemics.  Global warming.  Stagnation, poverty, refugees.”

And yet the gist of his book is a strongly research-based argument that things are better now than perhaps they have ever been, and that the most dangerous thing we can do is to pull back from the conditions that have reduced famines, increased life-span, even reduced war.  The book is divided into 10 chapters, examining dramatic improvements in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, and equality.

Norberg is not suggesting that everything is going to work out.  He is quite aware that we could destroy our environment and ourselves to the point of extinction.  But his argument is that we don’t have to wring our hands in despair.  In the last century we have already made incredible progress.

I think it is worth studying what he is saying, and I am hoping to write a series of posts summarizing what I am learning.

Right now I’m beginning to suspect that The Good Old Days might be far more than a benign fantasy of old age and instead a very dangerous myth.

 

 

September 14, 2016

Wisdom for the old

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:10 pm

Image result for foolWhen I was about ten years old, I remember my dad saying that when you are sure you are right, you can afford to be gracious and open to opposing arguments because ultimately the other person was going to demonstrate that you are right.  He was talking at the time about what he had learned as a practicing lawyer in a court of law.

I am discovering that it is equally good advice for many of us oldies.

I don’t think I am suffering from dementia, but I am emphatically slower on the uptake than I used to be, and in addition there are many things that young people take for granted in this post-modern world that are a complete mystery to me.  As a result I am discovering that I am wrong much more often than I used to be in the world in which I lived just a couple of decades ago.

But the reason my father’s advice seems to me to be newly relevant isn’t because I’m sure I’m right when I am, but much more often these days I’m sure I’m right when I’m not.

And so when a friend, a husband, a sib, or some stranger at the end of a telephone line or internet connection seems to me to be doing or saying something stupid, I have saved myself a great deal of embarrassment by being considerate even when I’m sure I’m right.  Because when I discover that I’m the one who has misunderstood, I haven’t made a double fool of myself.

 

from Quotesgram.com

September 4, 2016

Not one of us?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:09 pm
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VImage result for the burka

www.abc.net.au

A survey published today suggested that 57% of Britains think that wearing the burka in public should be outlawed.  It is already illegal in Britain to insist on wearing the burka while giving testimony in a court of law and for teachers in the classroom, both situations when a person’s full face must be revealed.

I don’t disagree with this policy.  But personally, I’d be very very careful about framing laws about what women may or may not wear in public.

Diane Keaton as Sister Mary

Diane Keaton as Sister Mary: CREDIT: PA

 

 

 

September 1, 2016

Energy restorer for the elderly

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:02 pm

Image result

a2ua.com:  candy page

As I’m getting old  (not older, old), I find I need to pay much greater attention to the difference between feeling hungry and feeling tired.

These days when I’m tempted to reach for a square of chocolate, a handful of nuts, or even a cup of coffee, what I need is not calories or caffeine but rest.  Sometimes all I need is to put my head back and close my eyes for five minutes.  Sometimes I need as much as 30 minutes on a bed with a pillow.

I don’t need nearly as much food as I used to.

But I do need more frequent energy-restorers.

August 29, 2016

I can no other answer make…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

But thanks, and thanks

and ever thanks

Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

Over the years, I have used and greatly appreciated the internet.  But I have often worried about the potential limitations of using it for hours every day.  I have worried that it is teaching us to think in sound bites and limiting our ability to concentrate.  I’ve worried about widespread use of replacing personal interchange with cyber-communication, limiting our ability to communicate directly with other people present with us in the here and now.  I have worried that it robs us of our ability to be quiet, to observe what is happening around us or within our own thoughts.

I had no expectation when I wrote the post on yesterday’s blog that I would get any responses at all.  I didn’t write it to get solutions or even support.  I certainly did not expect responses that would give me a foothold, and that I would find so energizing.  Taken together, the comments and “likes” have somehow taken me to a new dimension of insight.

Each of the comments are unique.  But they have helped me put things in a far better perspective.  I have learned that, for all its potential limitations, the internet can also be a powerful, meaningful source of human exchange.  And it has helped me learn that simply offering support and understanding is sometimes the greatest gift we can give.

It has certainly been a great gift to me.

And so I thank you.  I can no other answer make…

 

July 26, 2016

A stand against sexual discrimination

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:02 pm
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Unlike in the States, schools did not begin their summer break until last Friday here in England.  But in recent days the weather has been extremely hot climbing well into the 90’s in some areas.

Several high school boys at a co-ed high school, therefore, asked for permission to wear shorts in order to be a little cooler, but the word came back that all students were required to wear the regulation uniform consisting of either long pants or skirts.

Four boys took the ruling at its face value and showed up in skirts.

From left: George Boyland, Jesse Stringer, Kodi Ayling, Michael Parker

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-36868781

I know from experience that skirts are indeed much cooler than long pants.

Though I’m not sure the skirts cooled things off in all senses of the word.

 

July 25, 2016

How much is 1+1?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 8:29 pm
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My nephew who is a qualified engineer and is retiring from industry to take a position as a university lecturer  was visiting us last week, and we began to talk about creativity and how to teach it.

I shared with him Einstein’s view that “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

In other words, we have to learn to recognize the assumptions on which our “right answers” are based, and then to think out of the box.

I said I sometimes gave my students the assignment of coming to class with at least one concrete example of times when 1 + 1 does not equal 2.

My nephew immediately came up with an idea I’d never thought of before.  If a computer is programmed to round off numbers to eliminate decimals, then any number between .50 and 1.49 will read “1.”  If you then tell the computer to add these numbers in pairs,  it will round off as “1”all the pairs that add up to less than 1.49.  For example,  .74 + .74 which equals 1.49 which round off as 1.

And just to add another twist, all the pairs that equal 2.5 or more will round off as 3.

Not, I admit, quite as brilliant as Einstein’s ability to give up the assumption that time and space are absolute.

But it delights me nonetheless.

July 22, 2016

Going bananas

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:07 pm

I’m beginning to think that the wisdom of old age consists less of learning something new than it’s a process of unlearning something old.

I grew up being told by my mother than bananas should never be put in the refrigerator.  I learned about a year ago from a friend that isn’t quite so – that they can be frozen and used in a variety of different ways.

But now I’ve discovered that putting bananas in the refrigerator are an excellent way of preventing them from getting rotten.  Chiquita bananas, who were responsible for the original advice, have even said so.

There’s a trick, though.  You shouldn’t put them into the refrigerator until they have reached the stage at which you want to eat them.  Because although the skin will blacken, the fruit will not ripen once the fruit has been refrigerated — even after it is taken out of the fridge.

I’ve kept them green for more than two weeks.  Just out of curiosity, I’m tempted to put a test banana in the fridge and see just how long it will last.  As long as an apple?  a potato?  a grapefruit?

June 29, 2016

Still learning

When I was a university lecturer, I found that I learned a lot by giving lectures, because in the process I inevitably kept thinking, not only from the questions my students asked but from the additional questions the process of interaction stimulated.  I doubt many students knew it, but I was paradoxically learning as much as they were.

I am not an economist – to my frustration sometimes as I try to understand this world – but have been experiencing a similar learning process as I did as a lecturer as I am writing now about Brexit and its global implications.

I said in an earlier post that the issues underlying Trump’s “make America great again” were radically different from the sovereignty issues raised by membership in the European Union.  Yes, on one level it is.

But digging a little deeper, Trump and Brexit are responding to similar economic and political issues exacerbated by the globalization of capitalism.  Specifically, the working class has been disenfranchised either by an influx of immigrants from poorer countries taking the jobs of locals because they are willing to work for less pay under less salubrious conditions.  Or factory work and increasingly services have been outsourced to countries where workers are paid less, and their products shipped back to Britain or the U.S.  This has not protected the working conditions of those who are actually doing the work either overseas or as immigrants, and it has put thousands of non-immigrants out of work or reduced their pay and working conditions dramatically.

At the same time, management and those at the top of international corporations are reaping the profits.  Since the early 1980’s, incomes of those at the top of the ladder have increased dramatically while those further down have not kept up with the cost of living.  So today the gap between the upper and lower classes is greater than it has been for close to a century, and the middle classes are being gutted.

So prejudice and bigotry and the increase of hate crimes particularly among the working classes against those labelled as outsiders is understandable.  But something has gone terribly wrong with the system.  Unfortunately, neither the Brexit or Trump campaigns to slam the door shut against immigrants is  a solution and will not return prosperity to either America or Britain.  But far left-wing socialist systems tried and still being tried throughout the world have not been the solution either.  Somehow, they too produce an elite while too many workers had little freedom of choice and few opportunities.

thomas-piketty.jpgToday, Thomas Piketty, a leading left-wing economist, resigned as an adviser to the Labour Party for its failure to effectively fight against Brexit in the referendum debate.  He’s got some interesting ideas and I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts over the coming months.

Now I’m going to try to restore a little sanity, and watch Wimbledon tennis.

 

June 26, 2016

The blonde bombshells

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:39 pm
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Donald Trump, Republican, running for President in the USA                                  Boris Johnson, Tory, successful leader of UK Brexit

 

Someone just asked me if I thought these two men had anything in common apart from their blonde mops.  It isn’t a question that had occurred to me.  But now that I think of it, it seems to me that they share a surprising number of things.

  • Both politicians are personally well off financially.  Trump may be several zeroes better off than Johnson, but beyond a certain point, what do a few zeroes on the end of one’s net worth matter?
  • Both politicians are offering far-right solutions to voters who feel disenfranchised by economic changes both global and local, many of whom want to go back to the mythical “good old days” and make their country great again.
  • Both politicians are addressing issues which are often legitimate and which have not always been successfully addressed, or sometimes even recognized, by current governments.
  • Both have made promises to change things if they are successful, promises which unfortunately are sometimes unrealistic, uncosted, or mistaken, and in relation to which they both have begun to row back on.  These include promises about immigration and health care.
  • Trump’s pronouncements have sometimes been openly racist, while that is not true of Johnson personally, although it is true of members in his camp.  Both camps appeal to an anti-immigrant, anti-foreign mentality, and whether they mean to or not, have benefited from it.

 

June 25, 2016

All the King’s horses

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

 

Some of the implications of Thursday’s referendum in which Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union are beginning to emerge with some frightening possibilities.  The Brexit leaders are now saying that two of the most convincing arguments for withdrawal are false and the claims should never have been made.  They say that immigration from other EU countries is unlikely to be reduced significantly, and the weekly additional £375 million promised to the National Health Service was “a mistake,” and will not occur.

People living in Cornwall, a region in southwest England which voted for Brexit and which receives significant money from the EU are only now realizing that these funds will no longer be paid.  They say they expect London to pick up the tab.  Airlines  will no longer be permitted to fly between the UK  EU countries without authorization as “foreign planes.”  Tour companies are already raising their prices, there will no longer be automatic health insurance coverage for UK citizens travelling or living in the EU, UK driver’s licences will not be valid on the continent, and of course, UK passports will no longer include automatic admittance into or out of EU countries.  Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating and Standard & Poors says they are considering a similar downgrade.

Some people are already regretting their Brexit vote, thinking it was a protest vote that would never pass.  More than a million people have signed a petition asking for another referendum.  Even Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexiteers and probably the next prime minister, is saying that there’s no hurry to extradite ourselves from the EU.  Personally, I tend to give credence to those who suggest that he never expected to win, but was merely positioning himself to run as leader of the Tory party and prime minister in 2020.

Nothing would please me more than to be dead wrong.  But I fear what has been done cannot be undone and that Britain has inflicted a great wound upon itself.

And all the King’s Men

And all the King’s Horses

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

June 21, 2016

BR-Exit or BR-In?

Flag of Europe.svg        or       Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg

The day after tomorrow is the referendum in which Britons decide whether to stay or leave the EU.  I decided years ago not to make this blog into a political commentary since I would inevitably be repeating what those closer to the source would be writing.  But this week I have received a month’s worth of communications asking me what I think – should Britain stay or leave?  So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Today someone sent me John Oliver’s thoughts on the question.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but he pretty much expresses both my own views on the subject as well as my feelings.  At the heart of the EU is a democratic deficit replaced by a bureaucratic minefield of infuriating finger-wagging.  I even have reservations about the European Court of Justice.

If I concentrate on what drives me crazy, the overwhelming temptation is to join Brexit, pick up one’s ball and say we don’t want to play anymore.
But that won’t make things better.  That’s not the solution.  It’s infuriating, but Britain is crazy to think it will be better off without Europe.  Besides, during the last century, Britain has done a great deal to make Europe far far better – politically and economically.  And if we paid a little more attention to whom we are electing when we send representative to the European Parliament, we might be able to make a dent in that gaping hole of democratic deficiency.  As it is, most British citizens have no idea who their EU representatives are and don’t care.
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I do agree with those who say that this is quite possibly the most important vote every eligible voter in the UK today will make in their life time.   We must stay in and continue to fight – for our sakes, for Europe’s sake, and for the sake of the entire global economic and political world.
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Don’t know what it’s going to be like when we wake up on Friday morning…
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But at least there’s Andy Murray.

June 18, 2016

My unsolvable problem

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:01 pm

So here we are in a world that feels like it’s ripping itself apart.  I doubt you need the list – environmental destruction, ocean acidification due to our carbon emissions at the highest it’s been for 300 million years, the biggest mass shoot out ever recorded in an Orlando pub catering to LGBTs, a vicious stabbing and murder by a neo-Nazi in Yorkshire of a woman in Parliament apparently because she was supporting the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, not to mention a debate here in Britain as destructive as that being carried on by Trump in the U.S.

It feels rather overwhelming this week somehow.

So last night I tossed and turned worrying about one of the great unsolved problems of the world.

I spent the night trying to figure out what percentage of the card game of Solitaire are potentially winnable if good luck, card counting, and maybe even a little bit of cheating are all part of the mix.  The first step was easy:  figuring out the number of different games a 52-card pack could yield.  It’s 52x51x50x….3×2.  But very soon after that when I started trying to figure out the percentage of potential wins, I get stumped.  “Go back to sleep, dummy,” I advise myself.

So part of myself takes the advice.  Until the other part of myself wakes me up starting the whole process over again.  It went on all night.

I would like to hope that what my dream – or nightmare –  was telling me is that I can’t solve all the world’s problems.

I hope it doesn’t suggest that I really have my priorities screwed up.

 

June 10, 2016

The minute two lives changed

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:46 pm
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As I said in my last post, two people have sent me stories about wonderful, unplanned, and unexpected reunions following devastating separations of World War II.

The first story was sent to me by a friend whose own childhood was in Norway during the war, and who now lives in Brooklyn.  She knew Golda Steinberg personally.  

During the war, Golda and her husband were separated and sent to different concentration camps in Poland.  After the war, Golda immigrated to the United States,  earned her degree in Social Work, married and had several children.  She also eventually taught at Columbia University school of social work, at 110th Street and Broadway.

One day, when she was in her 60’s, as she was walking down Broadway, she saw – and recognized – her first husband from Poland.  He had also immigrated to NYC, and now lived with his wife in the immediate area.  Both couples became steadfast friends.

The second story was told to me by someone who did not know the people involved personally but saw it told on a tv documentary.   When a mother was sent with her young daughter to a concentration camp, she was given the opportunity to pack a few things.  Like many others, she took various items of food.  When they reached the camp, she took out a chunk of chocolate and gave it to her daughter.  

“This is not for eating now,” she told her.  “It’s for you to keep for a day when you may have nothing else to eat and may be starving.”

One day a detainee in the camp who was about to give birth was also starving, and the girl’s mother asked her if she would be willing to give her the chocolate.  She did, and undoubtedly contributed to saving the lives of both mother and her new-born daughter.

Many years later, the child who had given up her chocolate had immigrated to the States and obtained her nursing degree.  One day she was giving a talk to others who, like her, had survived their time in concentration camps and made their way to the U.S.  In the talk, she told the story of giving the chocolate to a starving mother.

After the talk, a women who had also attended the conference, came up to her and said “I know you.  I have known you all my life, because you saved my life.  My mother told me about that gift of chocolate and that she believed we would have starved without it.”

 

June 4, 2016

“The Tablecloth”

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:28 pm
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Below is an allegedly “true story” was sent to me last month by an old high school friend.  It is, I admit, a lovely story which I appreciate might actually be true.  But I was seven years old when I asked my father why, if God loved us so much and if He could do anything He wanted, He let so many good people suffer so many bad things.  It is a question to which there is no logical answer:  good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

And so I found the final paragraphs of the communication below so unconvincing and even naive that I wondered about whether the story was simply made up.  So I sent the story to several friends whom I thought might be familiar with it and could verify or refute it.

I got several amazing answers, which I will write about in my posts later this week.  But first, read this story yourself:

The brand new pastor and his wife, newly assigned to their first ministry, to reopen a church in suburban Brooklyn, arrived in early October excited about their opportunities. When they saw their church, it was very run down and needed much work. They set a goal to have everything done in time to have their first service on Christmas Eve.  They worked hard, repairing pews, plastering walls, painting, etc, and on December 18 were ahead of schedule and 

just about finished. 

On December 19 a terrible tempest – a driving rainstorm hit the area and lasted for two days. 

On the 21st, the pastor went over to the church.His heart sank when he saw that the roof had leaked, causing a large area of plaster about 20 feet by 8 feet to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit, beginning about head high. 

The pastor cleaned up the mess on the floor, and not knowing what else to do but postpone the Christmas Eve service, headed home. On the way he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity, so he stopped in. One of the items was a beautiful, handmade, ivory colored, crocheted tablecloth with exquisite work, fine colors and a Cross embroidered right in the center. It was just the right size to cover the hole in the front wall. He bought it and headed back to the church.

 By this time it had started to snow. An older woman running from the opposite direction was trying to catch the bus. She missed it. The pastor invited her to wait in the warm church for the next bus 45 minutes later.

 She sat in a pew and paid no attention to the pastor while he got a ladder, hangers, etc., to put up the tablecloth as a wall tapestry. The pastor could hardly believe how beautiful it looked and it covered up the entire problem area.

 Then he noticed the woman walking down the center aisle. Her face was like a sheet. “Pastor,” she asked, “where did you get that tablecloth?” The pastor explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crocheted into it there. They were. These were the initials of the woman, and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before, in Austria .

 The woman could hardly believe it as the pastor told how he had just gotten “The Tablecloth”. The woman explained that before the war she and her husband were well-to-do people in Austria. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week, but he was  captured, sent to prison and she never saw her husband or her home again.

 The pastor wanted to give her the tablecloth; but she made the pastor keep it for the church.  The pastor insisted on driving her home. That was the least he could do. She lived on the other side of Staten Island and was only in Brooklyn for the day for a housecleaning job.

 What a wonderful service they had on Christmas Eve. The church was almost full. The music and the spirit were great. At the end of the service, the pastor and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return.

 One older man, whom the pastor recognized from the neighborhood continued to sit in one of the pews and stare, and the pastor wondered why he wasn’t leaving.

 The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall because it was identical to one that his wife had made years ago when they lived in Austria before the war and how could there be two tablecloths so much alike?  He told the pastor how the Nazis came, how he forced his wife to flee for her safety and he was supposed to follow her, but he was arrested and put in prison. He never saw his wife or his home again all the 35 years between.

 The pastor asked him if he would allow him to take him for a little ride.  They drove to Staten Island and to the same house where the pastor had taken the woman three days earlier.  He helped the man climb the three flights of stairs to the woman’s apartment, knocked on the door and he saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could ever imagine.

 This is a true story – submitted by Pastor Rob Reid who says God does work in mysterious ways.

I asked the Lord to bless you as I prayed for you today, to guide you and protect you as you go along your way. His love is always with you. His promises are true, and when we give Him all our cares we know He will see us through.   So when the road you’re traveling seems difficult at best, just remember I’m here praying and God will do the rest.

Pass this on to those you want God to bless and remember to send it back to the one who asked God to bless you first.

When there is nothing left but God, that is when you find out that God is all you need.  Take 60 seconds and give this a shot! All you do is simply say the following small prayer for the person who sent this to you.

 

Father, God, bless all my friends and family in whatever it is that You know they may be needing this day!

May their lives be full of Your peace,prosperity and power as they seek to have a closer relationship with You. 
Amen.

 Then send it on to five other people, including the one who sent it to you.  Within hours five people have prayed for you and you caused a multitude of people to pray for other people. Then, sit back and watch the power of God work in your life.

May 25, 2016

Mullarky?

A friend recently sent me an article commenting on Pope Francis and his attitude toward the poor.  The view of the author is that Francis’ views is Marxist and betrays the essence of Christianity.

Francis sounded at first like such a breath of fresh air in the face of a rigid and often uncaring and out-of-touch Vatican hierarchy.  But  I’ve started thinking once again about the Eight Beatitudes and what the Sermon on the Mount really says with its proclamations that the poor are “blessed.”

If “blessed are the poor” means, in modern day language, that celebrity or mega-wealth or a Facebook full of friends are rarely goals worth pursuing in their own right, then I agree.

But that’s not what Christianity has, by and large, been teaching for the last several thousand years.  Taking a vow of poverty, for instance, automatically lifted someone to a higher plane of holiness, even if the vow did not remotely entail the imminent danger of being hungry or cold or dispossessed.  Apart from that group of well-cared for allegedly poor nuns, monks, and brothers, most of those elevated to the official status of saints were not poor.  They were among the Great and the Good, people in positions of power and authority who treated their servants with a certain amount of fairness, or who took up the sword to slay the enemies of Christianity.  Or sometimes merely the version of Christianity currently in favour.

So what is essentially “Christian” about being poor?

Well, for starters, the translation of the beatitude about the poor in the Bibles with which I am acquainted does not say “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It does not bless poverty in the economic sense.  It does not suggest that being hungry or living in squalor or unable to obtain an education for lack of funds is intrinsically blessed.  Conversely, it does not support the conclusion that people like Donald Trump, among others, who have declared themselves legally bankrupt on occasions are subsequently automatically “blessed.”

It seems to me that, challenging as economic poverty may be, “blessed” is a great deal more difficult to achieve.  In some ways, we are all “poor.”  We are all incomplete, all needy in different ways, we all need support and help from others.  It’s not being “poor” that is blessed.  It’s what we do with those challenges presented by our incompleteness.

Do we respond with violence, jealousy, resentment, with passive acceptance or helplessness?  Admittedly society is apt to respond to those who respond to their economic poverty with physical violence with a tit-for-tat punishment such as prison sentences and exile.  Those whose poverty is not economic are rarely punished with the same vindictive anger by society.  Partly because the violence of the well-off is less apt to be overtly physically abusive, and more apt to be manifest in betrayals, and scams.  But in either case, neither being rich nor poor or somewhere in-between is, all by itself, “blessed.”

By the same token, “serving the poor” in the economic sense of poverty, is not somehow holier than meeting all the other human needs we have besides those for food and shelter.  We need love, we need to feel special, we need guidance too.

And we need to give every bit as much as we need to receive.  The overt “giver” is often, in the very act, the true “receiver.”

I suspect that “poor” is much deeper, more complex, and more universal, than either Christianity or Marxism would have us believe.

 

May 16, 2016

Am I a mystic?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:40 pm

I’ve never thought I was a mystic.  Well, not counting that time when I was about seven when a friend told me she thought she was developing the stigmata — marks of nails on one’s hands and feet in identification with the crucified Jesus.  But when no similar marks appeared in my own hands, I decided not to take matters into my own hands (excuse the pun), and decided it was not going to be my path to sainthood.

Many years later as a psychologist, I wondered in passing if many manifestations of “mysticism” weren’t really a form of neurosis or even psychosis.

But more recently I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences almost of euphoria in response to music and also of some studies of nature like quantum physics or animal consciousness.  My responses aren’t irrational, but they are somehow beyond reason, accompanied by this sheer sense of awe and joy in the presence of such almost-infinite beauty.

Then a couple of days ago I stumbled on a website discussing how quantum mechanics, mysticism, and vendata-yoga are influencing western thought today, and I began to ask myself what actually a mystic is.  How do they know something that us ordinary folk do not comprehend?  And how does one tell the difference between a mystic and someone who simply claims to know the Truth by some path which the rest of us have not attained?

So I went to the font of all knowledge in this second millennium and Googled “What is a mystic?”

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, is of the opinion that “mysticism is popularly known as becoming one with God or the Absolute, but may refer to any kind of ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.”   Maybe one needs simply to get a hold of the right drugs then, and interpret it as a spiritual experience.

Another website offered to help clarify my inquiry, with a set of ten telltale sign of a mystic.

Here are the signs and my thoughts about whether I qualify:

You value experiences above all else.  That means you trust your own experience above doctrine and laws and abstract principles.  Personally, I don’t trust anything, doctrine, laws, abstract principles, or my personal experience absolutely.  I think about them, I listen.  Some things make more sense than others and I use them as guidelines.  But I can’t say I value my experience above all else.

You question existence.  You constantly ask why we are all here, and have a natural curiosity about the physical and spiritual world.  I used to think the answer to this question was “God,” until I realized the concept of  “God” is unfathomable to the human mind.  Although I have a driving, almost endless curiosity about the physical world, including curiosity about consciousness which seems evident in all living things, I prefer to accept that I live in mystery to which I do not have the answers and do not believe I ever will.

You are comfortable with uncertainty.  Yes!  In fact, I am hugely uncomfortable with certainty – about almost everything.  I don’t trust absolute answers about anything from anybody no matter who they are.  Hmm, does that make me mystical?

You value intuition.   I value intuition, but I don’t trust it without testing it out.  My intuition is sometimes a leap into the light.  It is also sometimes dead wrong.

You are uncomfortable with spiritual hierarchies.  Mystics do not believe there is only one correct way.  No, neither do I.  We are each unique.  At least in this universe.

You have your own set of rules, looking beyond what may be socially accepted or mandated by leaders or society.  I’m not by nature a rebel and I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being socially awkward or insensitive.  But from a very young age I’ve always wanted to do things for myself and make my own decisions.

You value internal growth.  If this means, do I value it more than money or fame or public success, yes.  This strikes me more as a sign of maturity than mysticism, though.

You believe you are a conduit for power, not the source.  The answer for myself depends on what one means by “source.”  I’m inclined to think there is an intrinsic evolution in the universe, but I’m not inclined to believe it was created by some external power many people would call “God.

You believe love is the source of life.  Again, I might quibble with the use of the word “source.”  But love does seem to me to be the essence of the creative force in the universe.

You don’t know everything.  Agree.  But I’m pretty sure I haven’t discovered this because I’m a mystic.   I discovered it because I still have so many unanswered questions.

Well, I don’t seem to be a truly qualified mystic.   I’m also not convinced mysticism is intrinsically some higher way of knowing.  But I do think it might be a legitimate way of knowing.  The psychologist Carl Jung believed that we humans tend to favor reason or intuition during the first part of our lives, and somewhere around middle age begin to switch to whichever mode has been less dominant in our youth.  I suspect that mysticism is an intuitive approach applied to questions that are beyond the scope of science.  It is not always right, but it isn’t necessarily neurotic either.  It’s a legitimate way of trying to explore the question of existence and its meaning.

April 25, 2016

Which lesson have we learned?

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is Why do abused children become abusers? published more than six years ago.  In it I ask why some children who are abused grow up to be abusers themselves.  Would not children who are abused understand above all how painful, destructive, indeed awful abuse is?  Some children do grow up to be loving, caring parents.  But research shows that a surprising number of adult abusers were themselves abused as children.

Among other things, what they so often learned wasn’t that bullying is bad but that it is the biggest bully who gets his or her way.

I have just read another blog post, Are African Americans Our Palestinians?, that has led me to conclude that something similar sometimes happens to whole cultures, or at least sub-cultures.  In Israel today it seems to me that today’s government has come to believe that to achieve that oft-repeated vow, “never again”, it must be the biggest bully on the block.

And do you know who are Israel’s biggest supporters in this endeavour?  The Land of the Free.  The land where immigrants arrived and in the name of Freedom began a program of bullying the natives already living there.  It was effectively a program of ethnic cleansing, eventually reducing the native American Indian population to a mere 5% of its original size.  That lay the ground work for the importation of slaves, who even today in America suffer the effects of widespread prejudice.

We Americans and Israelis are not the only cultures, of course, to develop this pattern of bullying abuse.  Nor are the citizens of any bullying country all guilty of self-delusion either.  But we humans so often see the speck in our neighbor’s eye while missing the boulder in our own.

One further qualification:  I myself have struggled for most of my life over the problem of using brute force.  I do know that punishment is rarely as effective in child-raising or in changing behavior in general as encouragement and reward.  But sometimes it seems to me behavior must be stopped by force.  If force is necessary, I would use it on a two-year-old child heading for an open fire.  I would shoot a man, given the chance, who was threatening to murder his wife.  But would I support sending government troops to defend people threatened by ethnic cleansing?  That gets more complicated, but if I thought I could stop such an outrage, I would.

April 12, 2016

My pocketful of stones

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

I was washing a down comforter in our washer-dryer several days ago, and remembered that putting something like an old tennis shoe or a couple of tennis balls into the drying cycle helps to fluff up the down.

I didn’t have any tennis balls or old shoes around though, and was reluctant to risk a shoe that is still wearable.  After all, the rubber could melt and ruin not only the shoe but also the comforter.  I’m not that dumb.  I mean, let’s be sensible here.  So I decided to be creative.

I found a couple of plastic jars and filled them with small decorative pebbles and added them to the drum.

All went well.  But when the drying cycle was finished and I opened up the door, I saw the lid had come off one of the jars and pebbles were spread all over the place.

I took the comforter outside and shook the errant pebbles out.  But I was a little worried that some of them might have gotten into the machine’s drainage system, so it seemed a good idea to check the drainage catchment area.

It wasn’t a good idea.

When I opened it up, an alarm started and a message came up saying “Emergency flood control alerted.  Call serviceman.”

A Mickey Hands T-Shirt 

I spent another half hour reading the trouble-shooting section of the machine’s directions and fiddling with ideas of my own to determine that the only thing I could do was to follow Miele’s single line of advice and call the serviceman.  I did turn off the alarm by pulling the electric plug, but that was the height of my achievement.The serviceman came the next day but I was too embarrassed to tell him I’d done something so stupid as to actually put a couple of jars full of stones into the machine.  So I told him I’d accidentally put laundry into the wash with a pocketful of stones.  That at least impressed me – if not the serviceman – as careless rather than creatively stupid.

But stupid it was.

And it only cost me $125 to get it fixed.

Maybe I should give up trying to be creative, and simply go back to obeying rules?

On the other hand, there isn’t anything in the directions that says anything about not putting jars of stones in the laundry.

April 4, 2016

How to avoid hell fire

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:00 pm
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Last night we watched a BBC adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  The Bronte sisters lived in Yorkshire in the mid-1800’s, and were the children of a minister.  But the three sisters seemed to have a drive for independence and survival that I recognize to this day in the Yorkshire culture.  The Bronte sisters sat around their table and wrote, works that were eventually published.

It was a hard life, fought against death, starvation, unemployment, and a religious fanaticism that is recognizable in the various forms of fundamentalism today, whose leaders believe that anyone who disagrees with them is disobeying the sacred word of God, and whose salvation depends on being given a taste of hell on earth.

Jane Eyre was subject to the humiliation and beatings deserved by anyone arrogant enough to stand up for herself.

In one scene which I doubt I will forget in my lifetime, Jane is being publicly castigated.  “Do you know what happens to people who go to hell?” she is asked.  “Yes, sir,” she replies, “they burn in fire forever.”  “And do you know what you have to do to avoid going to hell?” the minister demands.  “Yes, sir,” Jane answered.  “You have to live a healthy life so you don’t die too soon.”

I love it!  At Jane’s age, I was too good at knowing the Right Answers to have come up with an answer that so obviously violated the Truth with which Jane was being so ruthlessly beaten.  In fact, even though I openly disagreed with my superiors when I was a nun, it was still with the conviction that I had the Right Answers.  I had Vatican II on my side, after all, and John Kennedy, and Karl Rahner.

Now at least I know there are a lot of ways to be Right.

And, I fear, even more ways to be Wrong.

 

March 27, 2016

Day of Hope

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:23 pm
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always liked Easter a lot better than Christmas.  Not because I like rabbits and chocolate eggs better than Santa Claus’s and Christmas trees.  But because it’s a celebration of hope when everything seems so beyond hope.

In the world today, it seems to me that we need hope perhaps more than ever.  I don’t mean the everyday kind of hopes that permeate our lives.  You know, I hope it won’t rain today, or I hope I get over this flu soon, or I hope I can find my lost set of keys, or that I get the job I’ve applied for.

I don’t even mean hope that the worst isn’t going to happen.  Because it might.  We might destroy ourselves with war, or epidemics, or sheer environmental destruction.  Is hope possible in the face of such final death, in the face of the darkness of such an ultimate Good Friday?

Easter, for me, is a commitment to hope that it is.  That whatever happens, being is good, that simply to be alive has an intrinsic value.  That whatever happens, it is worthwhile, even wonderful, however despairing it may look.

It’s the only act of faith of which I am capable.  On the dark days I sometimes have to work on it.

The egg is the symbol of new life (– if it’s not boiled first, of course.)

Happy Easter to everyone reading this.  

March 26, 2016

Be careful what you say!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 5:28 pm
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The philosopher of great renown, Hilary Putnam, died several weeks ago.  He wrote about a lot of things, including the meaning of meaning, pointing out that when we use a word, its meaning depends on the context in which we understand it.  Putnam gave the hypothetical example of identical twins living on planets identical in every way except for the molecular component of what each twin called “water.”  Putnam pointed out that although each twin would be using the same word, they would be referring to fundamentally different things.

But one need not go extra-terrestial to find examples of the importance of context in giving words different meanings even to individuals speaking the same language.  I have found hundreds of examples merely by crossing the pond.  Men here routinely address me as “love,” or “loverly” in contexts that I would find inappropriate in the States but rather enjoy over here.  Alternatively, as I have mentioned before, my husband had to caution me not to use words such as “bloody,” or “knackers” with the freedom I might have used them in the new world.

I stumbled on another emerging example yesterday of the influence of context on meaning.  It’s in relation to rapeseed oil which is called canola oil in America.  The word “rape” is derived originally from the Latin term for turnip, but in America the name was changed for marketing reasons.  It is still called rapeseed oil here in Britain.

But the marketing inhibitions associated with the term rape have recrossed the pond returning to Britain in a different context.  Aldi, a superstore, has agreed to change the name of its Rape Yellow paint after a woman who had been sexually assaulted complained that Rape Yellow did not remind her of bright and cheerful sunshine but of a darker more disturbing event.

Hmm:  learning a different language is even harder than I thought.

March 24, 2016

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:17 pm
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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?

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Food-Mug-Love-Stinking-Bishop

 

 

 

 

March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing

 

 

 

 

February 27, 2016

However it’s said…

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

 

“Three things in human life are important:

the first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.”

— Henry James

However you say it, whether it’s the Golden Rule, or St. Paul’s Greatest of These, it’s love that turns out to be what matters in the end, isn’t it?

Henry James, the writer, died 100 years ago tomorrow.  His work is still vibrant, and in coming months, museums, libraries, and universities are exploring his legacy in conferences across America and Europe.  

February 14, 2016

Speaking of love…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:01 pm

I stopped by the news stand to pick up our Sunday newspaper this morning, and the young man at the check out greeted me with “Hello, love.”  “Oh,” I responded “you’re from Yorkshire!”

Because I know this greeting has nothing to do with the fact that today is Valentine’s Day.  “Love,” is a standard greeting in Yorkshire and Lancaster, and everyone one from the postman to local workmen have used this term to greet me.

Here in the south of England, “love” comes in a slightly different version.  When we went to pick up our Friday fish two days ago, the fish monger greeted me with “Hello, Loverly, how are we today?”  “Great,” I replied as an American.  Here in England, in my experience no true Englishman would suggest anything more enthusiastic than “not so bad.”  “I can’t complain” is close to euphoric.

But there is an interesting adjustment to an American greeting that has crossed the pond in recent years.  It is often adjusted from the rather neutral “Have a nice day” to “Have a lovely day.”

I love it!

Best wishes for a happy Valentine’s Day — which, come to think of it, itself has little to do with St. Valentine who was shot through the heart by the Romans for refusing to pay homage to their gods, a dangerous practice that rulers could not tolerate on the grounds that it was the gods who control a people’s good or bad fortune.

Actually, perhaps not much has changed after all.

February 7, 2016

Yes we can!

As I said in an earlier post, I believe that the environmental change we humans are effecting on our planet is the biggest challenge facing the world today.  In so far as it could lead to our own extinction as a species, it may actually be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.

I do not agree with those who argue that the emergence of this challenge is a result of human greed.  It is the outcome of evolution, of the drive for survival which lies at the very core of every living organism.  Millions of species that survived for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, are now extinct because they were unable to adapt to the environmental change which they themselves often orchestrated.

In the last century, lighting and heating our homes and offices by burning coal and oil, increased transportation by road and rail traffic, industrialized farming, the domestication of farm animals, all have kept millions of people from starvation, poverty, the effects of deadly weather, and disease.

These innovations were spread by loving, creative, hard-working people around the world often making sacrifices for their children and communities.  We didn’t know it then – we had no idea – that carried to an extreme, we could be destroying the potential of our very existence.

http://www.datainfomobility.com/solutions/

Yet we may be the only species that can now see that many of the very solutions to the problems we have been intelligent enough to solve in the past in order to insure our survival have now created the very problems we need solve in order to insure our continued survival.

We have the intelligence to solve these problems without destroying ourselves.

In New Zealand today, research is being carried out which is already producing cows and sheep which expel less methane.  In Europe, scientists who have discovered that the huge expanse of man-made forests consisting of conifers isn’t reducing global warming but increasing it are moving to replace the conifers with nature’s original choice of broad-leaved varieties.  We are identifying new and clean ways of tapping into the sun’s energy using the ocean waves, pedestrian traffic, even the tires rolling on the road might someday be used to charge car batteries without their ever needing to be plugged into a socket.

There are hundreds – no, thousands – of examples like this.  Some are already being implemented, some are still in the experimental or even conceptual stage.  The solutions are not yet all obvious. Nor will the problem be solved in one fell swoop, with one big single answer.  It needs many steps, some small, some large.

But if we believe in ourselves and in our responsibility to care for this planet that has been given into our care, we can make it even better than it has ever been.

We are the ones who have to do it.  And we can!

 

 

January 12, 2016

Another perspective

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:20 pm
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Alan Bennett Lady in the VanThe English playwright Alan Bennett recently told a story about one of his plays.  It includes a scene where a couple routinely sit at a table without a cloth enjoying their morning tea and who are overlooked from her window by a nosey righteous neighbor.

The play was sufficiently successful to be translated for a slot on French tv.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s description of the table laid without a table cloth was translated to something resembling “the two of them sitting there every morning without any clothes on.”

Not exactly what I would have meant when I try to remember that it’s valuable to try to see things from other people’s perspectives…

 

December 25, 2015

Hope of the light

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:48 am

For tens of thousands of years before it was a celebration of Christmas, this time of the year was celebrated as the time of hope.  Because it was the time when the light began to return.  Until less than perhaps a thousand years ago, it was not universally clear why the coming of the sun waxed and waned, and it was never certain that this life-giving sun just might not come back.

Most people in the world today no longer literally worship the sun as a great moody god who must be adored, bribed, and propitiated.  But we are living in a time of possibly unprecedented uncertainty.  There is powerful evidence that we are seriously damaging, possibly even destroying, the environment on which our very lives depend.  We have as much reason for concern as did our ancient ancestors.  Worries about the global destructiveness of war and terrorism, potentially lethal diseases, starvation and drought are not paranoid fantasies but  realistic possibilities.

And although we no longer think the sun worshippers and their virgin sacrifices are what convinced the sun to return each year, we do know that what we humans do will profoundly affect both our short-term and long-term futures.

Will we do what needs to be done to maintain our creative relationship with the universe?  Can we do it?

Yesterday by coincidence I stumbled on an article about Albert Einstein.  I didn’t realize that he’d received the Nobel Prize for his discovery that the atmosphere is chock full of energy generated by the sun.  (I’d always assumed it was for his theories of relativity.)  At first scientists thought Einstein  was wrong.  They didn’t think there was close to an infinite amount of energy floating around us.  And then when they became convinced, nobody knew how to tap this energy at anything like an affordable cost.  Oil, gas, coal, wood were all much much cheaper.

But now that nut is being cracked.  Researchers and companies are discovering how to tap this energy at costs that dwarf the cost of fossil fuels.  It’s already possible to get enough energy to charge a mobile phone for free.  But here are a few of the other possibilities, some of which are already being implemented:

  • a transparent decal-type of addition to windows that turns them effectively into transparent solar panels
  • house paint that generates electricity
  • batteries that store enough electricity to make houses individually independent of the need to be connected to the grid — eliminating the need for electricity companies
  • roads that generate electricity as cars pass over them, so that cars never need to fill up at a gas station
  • solar panels that produce electricity 24-hours a day

These are not pipe dreams.  Some oil companies are so threatened that they are lobbying the US Congress to outlaw it.  Even in this day of big money lobbies, they are unlikely to succeed.   Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Amazon, some oil and electricity companies themselves, even governments in India, China, the US Defense Department in the United States are pouring billions of dollars into this revolutionary — and clean — source of energy.

And so this Christmas – this solstice – this Celebration of Light – does seem to me to be a very special, even unique, Celebration of Hope.

With best wishes for us all as we move into this new year. 

December 19, 2015

May I introduce my 5-year-old?

I was seeing my GP several weeks ago for my general annual check-up which I try to have at least once every five years.  He said high blood pressure was a frequent problem for people my age and took out his blood pressure monitor.  “Oh,” I said, “I have white coat syndrome;  it will be very high.”

“You’re worried about what I might tell you?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “I’m 75 years old.  But there’s still a 5-year-old inside me that’s worried about what you might think about me.”

“What are you worried I might think?” he asked.

After a short reflection, I answered truthfully:  “Whether I’m smart or not.  I can’t walk into a doctor’s office and take a test without feeling that I have to get an A grade.  If I don’t, I’ve failed.”

The doctor demurred.

And my 75-year-old self does too, of course.  But that 5-year-old stubbornly wants the approval of passing the test.

To my surprise, I found making this confession out loud quite liberating.  It’s obviously so neurotic. Even now, I’ve found myself tempted to try to fake the tests – something which I’ve found it is sometimes surprisingly easy to do.  But what a stupid self-defeating thing to even contemplate.  And does it make me smarter to pass an exam meant to find out if I have a medical problem?  No, it make me stupid.

I’ve told this story to several friends and discovered that a good many of us seem to harbor these stubborn 5-year-olds within.  One 5-year-old – resident in a very attractive mature and not over-weight woman – screams that she’s fat.  Another one that she’s lazy – she is one of the most industrious workers I know.

Some children just don’t grow up, do they?

(I am glad to say I did not fiddle the blood-pressure figures the doctor had me take for three days at home.  I thought the figures were not A+.  But the doctor says I’m in “good nick.”  Glad he’s not been deluded by my resident 5-year-old.)

December 8, 2015

I wish I’d said that!

I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb

Richard Feynman, American nobel-prize physicist

Richard Feynman Nobel.jpg

 Click here if you want to know how “dumb” he was

Impresses me as a better alternative than “I’m too smart to be wrong.”

December 5, 2015

Even at heaven’s gate

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:50 pm
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The day finally arrived.  Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven.

When he arrives, however, the Pearly Gates are closed, and Forrest approaches St. Peter keeping the gates.  St. Peter says “Well, Forrest, it is certainly good to see you.  We’ve heard a lot about you.  But I must tell you that the place is filling up fast and we have been administering an entrance examination you have to pass before you can get in.”

Forrest says “It sure is good to be here, sir.  But nobody ever told me about any entrance exam.  I sure hope the test ain’t too hard.  Life was a big enough test as it was.”

‘Yes, I know, Forrest,” St. Peter replied, “but the test is only three questions:
First:
What two days of the week begin, with the letter T?
Second:
How many seconds are there in a year?
Third:
What is God’s first name?”
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Forrest leaves to think the questions over.  When he returns the next day, St. Peter waves him over:  “Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers.”
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 Forrest replied, “Well, the first one — which two days in the week begins with the letter ‘T’?    Shucks,  That would be Today and Tomorrow.”

St. Peter’s eyes opened wide.  “Forrest, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next one? – ‘How many seconds in a year?’ ”

 “Now that one is harder,” Forrest replies, “but I thunk and thunk about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve.”

Astounded, St Peter said, “Twelve? Twelve? Forrest, how in heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”

Forrest replied, “Shucks, there’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd… ”

“Hold it,” interrupts St. Peter.  “I can see your point, though that was not quite what I had in mind…  But I will have to give you credit for that one, too.  So let us go on with the last question.  Can you tell me God’s first name?”

 “Sure,’ Forrest replied, ‘it’s Andy.”

The Economist cover, Dec 5, 2015
I must point out, however, that it is not featuring St. Peter)
“Andy?!?”  exclaimed St. Peter.  “Forrest, how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as God’s first name?”

“Shucks, that was the easiest one of all,” Forrest replied. I learnt it from the song,

ANDY WALKS WITH ME,
ANDY TALKS WITH ME,
 .
ANDY TELLS ME I AM HIS OWN.’
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St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates and said “Run, Forrest, run.”
 
 

November 26, 2015

Giving thanks

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:20 pm

It is hard to keep in touch with current events in the world today without fearing that we may be facing challenges whose outcome could determine whether life actually survives on planet earth for very much longer.  And it could be ended by our own hand.

And yet on this Thanksgiving Day, I have found myself looking out at the world and feeling an incredible joy.   I cannot claim that it is rational.  It’s more like the high one might get on a drug.  Except that I am absolutely sober.  Life – all life – seems so beautiful – so ingenious – so dynamic – so giving.  I feel it is a great unearned privilege to be alive in this moment.

I can no other answer make

but thank, and thanks,

and ever thanks.

Shakespeare   Twelfth Night

November 23, 2015

Should we bomb Syria?

Britain right now is in the grips of a debate over whether to join the coalition bombing IS in Syria.  The Tory government thinks we should.   Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the opposition Labour party and long-time pacifist is adamantly against it.  He believes that all conflicts should be solved by diplomacy, and initially in the face of a terrorist threat in London similar to the one in Paris, objected to increased armed police on the street.

I think we should bomb Syria IF – and only IF – we address the fundamental issues.  IS, in my view, is like a 2-year old who’s got a hold of a stack of papers he’s lighting with the wood fire in the living room and throwing them around the house.  He has to be stopped immediately – not through negotiation or discussion.  If it involves smacking him – or bombing them, then I would do that.  But just as with the child, you can’t stop there.

We were “successful” in our bombing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libia, but were arrogant idiots in our ignorance about the underlying problems there and ultimately made the fundamental conflicts within those countries worse.  Every one of those countries now have much stronger pockets of IS,  unknown numbers of trained committed jihadists – perhaps as many as several hundred thousand by some estimates – serving as recruitment and training centers for countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

In addition, IS has money, and a sophisticated plan to convince Muslims, especially in Europe & America, that they are not welcome there, and are seen as inferior.  IS (quite rightly, I think) believe that this is helping them recruit jihadists from those countries, especially among young men who can’t get jobs.  America has just played into their hands with its latest vote on Syrian refugees.
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And there is an even deeper problem within middle-eastern countries than feeling thought inferior and unwanted by Western countries.  The Sunnis & Shias are as adamantly opposed to each other as were the Catholics & Protestants during the religious wars for several centuries in Europe.  They believe Allah has given them a mission to destroy the heretics who do not agree with them.  So if we go into those countries, victory will require boots on the ground.  But military presence wouldn’t be enough.  We need a strategy for what happens if/when IS per se is defeated to control the forces that are making it so attractive to so many.  Otherwise, it will simply re-emerge, perhaps under a different name, but no less destructive.
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I’ve read some interesting possibilities on that.  But they will require significant skill to implement them.  China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Turkey, the US and others may be united against IS but we are not in agreement about the alternatives either politically or economically.  Without that, what good would bombing do?  “Isis” will just turn up again, under a different name perhaps, but with the same deadly intents and possibly in even greater strength.
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Climate change and globalization have both been significant factors in amplifying these conflicts.  Resolving them – even moderating them sufficiently to ensure the survival of the human species – I think is one of the biggest conflicts we have ever faced.  Unfortunately, neither slamming the door nor dropping bombs will resolve them.

October 26, 2015

Helpless and hopeless?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm
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I’ve suspected for some time that people’s denial of the human contribution to environmental destruction arises out of a sense of helplessness.  Despite the fact that evidence is building up that we ourselves are potentially making planet earth uninhabitable, an astonishing number of people simply refuse to take the possibility seriously.  Many of these climate change deniers are religious fundamentalists.  Many believe that they will be among the Saved when four horsemen usher in the end of the world, and so they don’t have to worry.  (Not, I will admit, a very Christian attitude for those exhorted to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  But common, nonetheless.)  Others simply quote Jesus’ exhortation for us to “look at the lilies of the field,” and convince themselves that God can cure climate change “with the snap of his fingers” if he wants to.

Some recent research into the workings of the brain began to make this kind of reasoning make some kind of sense to me.  Researchers have found that we may very well use the same part of our brain for problem-solving as we do for at least some of our religious thinking.  In other words, religious belief may actually be a problem-solving exercise.

This has certainly been true historically.  What we now think of as religious belief was the explanation for why the sun seemed to go into a sulk every year and needed to be coaxed back by the sacrifice of a virgin or two.  Religion explained why the stars did not fall down on our heads, and even today is used by some preachers to claim that our sinfulness is the cause of events like tsunamis and earthquakes.

Religion, therefore, can often solve problems that otherwise seem unsolvable.  It saves us from a sense of hopelessness and despair.

I that context, I wonder if a lot of people deny climate change – or at least our contribution to it – because the problem seems unsolvable.  I will admit that until very recently, my main hope was not that the governments of the world would agree to the measures we all must take around the world to save us from destroying ourselves.  My most optimistic scenario was that a sufficient number of humans would survive the inevitable global droughts, starvation, wars, and disease that would reduce our numbers from the current 7 1/2 billion to a more manageable billion or so, which will have learned the lesson that God does not intervene when we ourselves are creating our own problems.

But I am reading a book, which frankly, I am finding astonishing.  It is Adventures in the Anthropocene:  A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by an Australian journalist Gaia Vince.  She does not by any means minimize the size of the problem we have created for ourselves.  With terrifying clarity she visits and describes the problems that are already evident – the air that is killing us, temperature changes that are moving populations, melting glaciers, depleting water tables and creating a rate of species extinction on a mega-scale, the destruction of farmlands and forests on every continent.

But she is also identifying solutions that creative individuals have designed that have addressed these problems, transforming entire villages, farmlands, cities.  Some of them are simply amazing.

It is convincing me that we can solve this problem of environmental destruction if we do not give up in despair.

And it is not up solely to governments.  In fact, many of the solutions have already been found on a small scale.  They have been found by creative, determined individuals and small groups who have refused to simply ring their hands in despondency, saying there is nothing they can do that will make a meaningful difference.  Governments need to look at these local solutions, study them, and find ways to spread them across the world.

No one – not even the most creative or powerful – is going to turn this problem around alone.  Nor are governments going to be able to do it alone.

But the human race is incredibly ingenious.

Jesus didn’t look at the lilies of the field and suggest that we should just sit back and trust that supper will somehow miraculously appear on the table tonight.  It is not telling us to sit passively in the trust that God will take care of everything and we don’t have to do anything to make things better.  Today, this parable, I think, is urging us to trust that we do not need to despair, that we have been given the capacity to solve the problems of environmental change.

But we do have to work at it.  We do have to take responsibility for what we are doing.  Almost all of us can take small steps that add up.  A few can take giant steps that we can emulate and apply.

Over the next months, I plan to describe some of the solutions Vince lays out in her book.  I hope it will help spread hopefulness, rather than helplessness.

 

October 25, 2015

Fab Fibs

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Osteoporosis — theotheri @ 5:19 pm
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One of the more surprising – and hopeful – things I’ve noticed about my life is how often the best things and the worst things that happen to me are the same things.

Fifteen years ago, for instance, when test results showed that my bones were losing density at a dangerous rate, my doctor laid out before me the possibility of an agonizing end of life.  Frankly, this was unambiguously Bad News.

The recommendation was that I start immediately on a regime of biphosphonates.  As I’ve laid out in this blog under the topic of osteoporosis, I decided instead to radically alter my life style, changing my eating habits, started taking calcium supplements and engaging in 30 minutes of targeted exercise daily.

The Good News isn’t just that tests over the last 15 years show that I have increased my bone density and am no longer osteoporotic.

The seriously Good News is all of the other benefits that seem to be flowing from what I have called my FAB-FIBS.

I’m not talking about fabulous fibs I tell myself.  It’s my daily routine of Flexibility, Aerobic, and Balance exercises, followed by another series of Flexibility, Impact, Balance and Strength exercises.  The benefits are multiple.  My strength and energy levels have not degenerated as fast as they other-wise would.  I find that I get an amazing psychological boost from the increased serotonin generated by exercise, and just as surprising, I also find solutions to problems while I’m exercising that evade me when I think about them sitting at the computer screen.  Research suggests that I’m also reducing my chances of cardiac arrest and cancer.

Now seriously:  isn’t that really Bad News that is one of the best things that could have happened to me?

September 29, 2015

What makes the system work?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:16 pm
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I’ve been going to the same dental surgery here in Cambridge, England for nine years.  During that time, I have been re-cycled to six different dentists working in the office.  Several of the dentists have been quite good.  Nonetheless, it has been a de-personalizing experience.  It makes me feel like a mechanical mouth with teeth that need adjusting occasionally.  The situation is similar with the doctor whom I have been seeing for the last nine years.  His appointments are scheduled to last seven minutes.  This is not his fault.  It’s what is considered efficient management, and although he has never rushed me out of his office before covering the essentials for whatever reason I might be there, he knows, to this day, almost nothing about me as a person.   I saw something similar beginning to happen in the university where I was teaching in the States.  Students were too often becoming numbers – not individuals.

Britons are quite rightly proud of their health service which provides medical help without charge to the individual when they need it – whether they are rich or poor or belong to any other category of the dispossessed.  It was set up by a Labour government after WWII when the country saw families of men and women who had sacrificed their lives for their country unable to get even the simplest medical help when they needed it.

That sense of fairness is deep in this country, and I admire it profoundly.  By and large, there is a sense that, regardless of cost, people should not starve, children should have an education, families should not be forced to live on the street.  There is a national commitment to what one might call a “safety net,” and a recognition that, whether it be bad luck, immaturity, poor judgement, or even sheer self-interest gone array,  all of us at some point in our lives need a helping hand.

But the history of the last 100 years demonstrates that there are downsides to systems intended to serve all the people equally.

Two of the most widely recognized are corruption by those in positions of power and authority who, instead of serving others, are using the funds intended for this laudable purpose to enrich themselves.  The second problem is that there are inevitably people who decide to rip off the system by receiving benefits instead of working, even when jobs are available and they are able to work.

But there is another downside to thinking that any system can create a just and fair society by itself.  It doesn’t matter what that system is – whether it is religious or not, whether it is democratic or not, whether it was designed in the first place to support a generous and loving society.

A system that works must be operated by individuals who care about the people they serve.  If people running the system  care more about their careers than they care about the people they are serving, the system breaks down.  If teachers work primarily for a salary and not first because they care about Jerry or Susan sitting in front of them, if doctors treat patients because they care more about their promotions than because they care about that person with a medical need, if social workers care less about the individual they are caring for than they care about getting paid, the system doesn’t work.  If workers unions fight only for the material benefits of their members without concern for the individuals whom they are meant to be serving, the system cannot achieve its end.  Or if, in the name of efficiency, the system squeezes out the individual and reduces him or her to merely a symptom, a number, an object, the system is broken.

The system needs people who care as much for the people they are intended to serve as they care for themselves and their own careers, and who are given sufficient leeway to express that care.  The system needs them from top to bottom.

As an adolescent, I thought I was smart enough to implement a system that could transform human suffering.  I thought I would be a Very Important Person, someone who was recognized as having made a great contribution to mankind.

But even if I’d been a great deal smarter than I am, I could not have done it.  Because systems need individuals who care, who love the people they are serving.  No system, no organization, no religion or system of government, even ones set up “for the people by the people” can ever work without each of us.  We might feel like small little cogs in a system that hardly matter, that can’t really make a difference.

But it’s not the system that holds your hand when you are frightened.  It’s not the system that gives you a smile when you are feeling lonely or depressed.  It’s not the system that gives you that special encouragement you need to learn how to read when you are stumbling.  It’s a single person who knows you, who cares about you as a unique person, for yourself.

And there’s no replacement for that.  There isn’t any substitute in any system in the world.  A system that is not filled with people who care cannot work.

 

September 16, 2015

The upside of the downside

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:53 pm
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A friend just sent me a you-tube with an accompanying explanation.  If you haven’t seen it, you might enjoy it.

DISGRUNTLED PASSENGER’S REVENGE  
A Canadian musician from Halifax named Dave Carroll recently spent over 9 months trying to get United Airlines to pay for damages caused by baggage handlers to his custom Taylor guitar on his flight from Chicago O’Hare airport.During his final exchange with the United Customer Relations Manager, he stated that he was left with no choice other than to create a music video for YouTube exposing their lack of cooperation.

The  Manager responded: “Good luck with that one, pal.”

So he posted a video on YouTube.  It has since received over 15 million hits.

United Airlines contacted the musician and attempted a settlement in exchange for pulling the video. His response was: “Good luck with that one,  pal.”

Taylor Guitars sent the musician 2 new custom guitars in appreciation for the product recognition from the video that has led to a sharp increase in orders.

Click here to see the video.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this video gives me such delight.  It’s not just that justice was done.  A court ruling even with a generous addition of compensation for Carroll’s treatment would not have been nearly so satisfactory.
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I think what I like so much is that Carroll didn’t sulk or choose to be a victim.  But he didn’t just become angry and aggressive either.  He didn’t plant a bomb in the next suitcase he sent through United’s baggage services.
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He just stood up, used his talent.  And evened the score  (if you’ll excuse the pun).

September 8, 2015

The heart vs the brain

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:18 pm

I’ve not karumphed over my interpretation of religious obedience for many years, but a friend has just reminded me of the kind of advice we were given over 50 years ago as young Maryknoll sisters:

“God doesn’t want your brains, but your love …so don’t get upset after we teach you all this smart missiology and anthropology stuff when the bishop hasn’t opened a book in 40 years!  Just obey the bishop and please God.”  “I bet they don’t think like that now,” she added.

I suspect most American nuns might not think that way now, which is why the Vatican still has so much trouble with them.  Because I know a good number of priests and bishops who certainly still think like that.

This distinction between heart and brain, in other words, between love and intelligence, is bogus power-hungry advice posing as religious humility to keep people in their place.  Isn’t it, after all, the excuse that the Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials to justify the death of 14 million innocent people in the gas chambers of their concentration camps?  “I was merely following orders.”

As human beings, we survive by using both our capacity for love and for intelligence, and they are inseparable.  Does it not take intelligence to care for the sick?  to develop a vaccine for ebola or polio or small pox?  Does it not take intelligence to teach children to read or develop mathematical skills?  Does it not take intelligence to provide balanced meals for the family?  Does it not take intelligence to represent a defendant in court?  Does it not take intelligence to treat the mentally ill?  Does it not take intelligence to respond with compassion to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and starvation in the world today?  Does it not take intelligence to run a farm that produces food for an entire community?

No:  don’t tell me that God doesn’t want my brain.  Do not tell me that I will please God if I do what the bishop or president or even the pope tells me to do – no matter how ignorant or damaged or unloving he has on occasion been known to be.  I know I might be wrong myself.  But I will take responsibility for doing my best to make a judgement based on respect for the life that surrounds me.

I will not willingly denigrate intelligence as merely a form of hubris, or elevate ignorance to the level of unquestioning obedience.

Whew!  I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about this.  I think I owe it to what I learned from my parents – one who, when I was growing up, I thought was The Brain, and the other whom I thought was The Heart.  But they worked together in socializing their children.  I learned something essential from that.

August 25, 2015

Eyes like big sunshine…

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:06 pm
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Maybe it’s the oldest sister in me, but I think this you-tube is just fantastic.  I love it!

August 21, 2015

Senior moments aren’t for dummies

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

In a recent birthday party given for him in the town where he lives, Billy Graham told a story about Albert Einstein.

Einstein was on a train when the conductor came around for the passengers’ tickets.  Einstein began looking in his wallet and then in each of his pockets but couldn’t find his ticket.  The conductor assured him that it was all right – that he knew who Einstein was and that he knew he didn’t try to sneak onto trains.

But when the conductor had moved on to the next car, he looked back and saw Einstein on his knees searching under the seat.  The conductor returned to Einstein’s car and assured him that he did not have to find his ticket.  “I know who you are,” he said.

“Yes,” replied Einstein, “I know you know who I am.  And so do I.

“But I don’t know where I’m going.”

August 19, 2015

The distant future in 2 seconds from now

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:51 pm
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I’ve often reflected when there is news of an accident, terrorist attack, or natural catastrophe that once in a while death is only seconds away and yet one has no premonition of it whatsoever.  Some of those killed by the bomb in Thailand two days ago must have experienced something like that.

Last night so did I.

Peter and I were having our evening meal, and I suddenly began to choke on a piece of lamb.  I began to gag almost immediately and knew that I was not going to be able to cough it up myself.  I signalled to Peter that I needed him to do the Heimlich maneuver, which he did, but my gagging got worse.  It went on for several desperate minutes.  Between gagging, and Peter shouting “Terry!” I could feel the air in my lungs depleting and I knew that if I couldn’t start breathing I had literally seconds of consciousness and then of life left.

My first thought was that Peter knew where our wills were.  Then I thought what a waste of money the replacement lumber I’d ordered earlier in the day to repair our property fence would be.  Gag!  “Terry, breathe!”  Gag!

And then, although I was still gagging, I knew I was getting air into my lungs.  If I concentrated I could breathe and wasn’t going to die.

Eventually I sat down, my heart pounding and my blood pressure probably reaching 200/150.

“Can I get you anything?”  Peter finally asked.

Yes, I said, a large glass of sherry.

I’d already had a glass of wine before dinner, and I rarely – never, in fact – have more than a single drink.  I am too sensitive to alcohol and quickly feel sick.

But I sat there and drank the sherry.  My heart rate and blood pressure gradually returned to normal, and even when I’d finished a very large glass of sherry, I was still stone cold sober.  But I’m afraid I couldn’t eat another bite of food.

Peter made my promise never to do something like that again.

weaverswines.com

 

I’ll do my very best.  At least I’ll get the property fence repaired before I try that trick again.  Anyway, I don’t feel afraid of being dead.  But chocking to death isn’t my preferred method of departure.  Especially on a stupid little piece of lamb.  It’s definitely not worth it.

August 13, 2015

Back in cyber space

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:56 pm
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The phone engineer called to give us the good news that our internet and phone connections are working again.  His version is that “an underground connection was cut,” trying, I think, to give us the impression that some wire had been cut by some passing machinery.  I think, myself, that the engineer accidentally disconnected our wire in the box when they were working there last Saturday.

 

In any case, to my surprise, four days of cyber-silence was actually quite refreshing.  I spent my extra time reading Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday:  What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? and have been totally fascinated.  I’ve thought for years that Guns, Germs & Steel was one of the best books I’ve ever read, but this one is possibly even better.

Just as the world today is re-discovering that other living species (probably all living species) have intelligence that in the situations in which they are surviving often outstrips human intelligence, we’re learning the same thing about those humans who live in a “primitive world” so different from ours.  We’d be as lost in their worlds as they are in ours.  The irony is that when the world changes, we not only gain knowledge and skills, but we also lose.  I read the other day that many young people in the modern world today don’t know how to tie knots.  Or their home telephone numbers — because it’s stored for them in their i-phones.

And I’ve also discovered that I overwhelmingly prefer to read a book in hard copy than to read an e-book on my Kindle.  I find it physically much less tiring and I can concentrate more easily.  I have no theory to explain this.  Is it simply a question of the world of books in which I was originally socialized?  Or do the two different mediums filter through the brain differently?

August 8, 2015

Another Me-First event

Filed under: Just Stuff,Stuff of Life: Current Exploits — theotheri @ 4:18 pm
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When we lived in Spain, it felt as if we had returned to about the 1920’s.  Among other things,  we were unable to get a telephone into the house and had to walk fifteen minutes to the public telephone boxes on the beach.  We were thrilled when after several years we were able to get a proper land-line phone in the home for a mere $5000 (about £3000).

I was working at my computer this morning about 10:30 when I was interrupted by a message saying that my internet connection was being cut and would be off line for up to a half hour.  In the event, it was only about 5 minutes.  But to my dismay, I discovered that we had no telephone connection whatsoever.  Nada.  No dial tone.  Nothing.

I went on line to our internet & phone company and followed all their directions.  Still total silence.  I checked with our neighbour who is not having any problems.

I won’t describe the rest of the process.  If you live in the 21st century you can probably make up a version of the story with a fair amount of accurate detail.

The short rendering is that it is an external problem and we will be without a telephone connection of any kind for at least four days.  We’ve also been warned to expect our internet connection to be cut as well.

In fact, I have just this minute received a warning to that effect.

Wonder what four days of cloistered silence is going to feel like.

July 26, 2015

A little bird told me

 

 

 

My husband and I were sitting in our sun room yesterday having a pre-dinner drink when a very frightened little bird frantically flew into the room through the open door.  It hid underneath one of the unoccupied chairs, while we pondered what to do next.  But before we’d closed the door to the rest of the house, the bird suddenly flew into the next room and hid itself in a hanging pot plant.

Little Bird Wallpapers

A little belatedly we closed off the rest of the house, and explored the best way to help.   The plant was hanging in front of a window but it was locked and opening it would clearly be more terrifying than reassuring.  Should we go away and leave the door open outside?  But the bird looked quite comfortable there in the maiden hair fern.  What if it didn’t leave before night fall and was frantically flying around the room like the caged animal it was?

I decided to try to grab it.  In the process, it became clear it was a baby bird that didn’t yet understand that it couldn’t fly to freedom through glass and kept bashing itself against the window.  I kept talking to it in quiet tones, and finally caught it.  As my fingers wrapped around it, I felt it go limp.  I kept talking to it, reassuring it that everything was going to be okay, and carried it outside.  When I released it on the lawn, it flew speedily away across the property fence.

We returned to our drinks with a feeling of quiet pleasure that the bird had flown in when we were there and that we’d been able to help rather than discovering a battered bird on the floor the next morning.

Like that little bird, I would like to say thank you for the comments following my post of despair yesterday.  What you reminded me is that none of us can reconstruct the world to eliminate all suffering and injustice.  Yes, systems matter.  And there are good systems and bad systems.  But no systems can work if the individuals living in them don’t take care of each other in the small and sometimes big ways that fly through the door unannounced.

Your comments really did help me remember that.

Thank you.

 

July 25, 2015

My existential conundrum

I don’t remember ever having this thought in my life.  But I was sitting at my desk today and felt a huge desire to stop worrying about the world.  I even want to stop knowing about it and understanding it.  What good, I wonder, does it do me or anybody else for me to understand the problem of the Greek bailout and the faulty foundation of the euro?  or the problem of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria? or the Ukraine conflict? or the economic problems for Scotland if it became independent? or racism, or religious intolerance, or the problem to democracy of the U.S. Supreme Court giving corporations the right to pour unlimited money into political lobbying?  And then there’s Africa, and the entire middle east, and Latin America, and China, and Russia, and climate change, and the rate at which humans are responsible for the extinction of other species.

I will stop.  Probably half the readers of this post have given up reading already.

It seems obvious that the first step to solving any of these problems is to know about them.  But as I look around, I’m not sure that’s happening.  So many of the solutions being offered by both the left and the right seem ill-thought out but at the same time cursed with the kind of righteous certainty that only ignorance can support.

When our problems become too overwhelming, do we as a species resort to this kind of simplistic reasoning we see so often disguised as religious and/or political principles?  or barring that, the temptation with which I am struggling, a self-imposed indifference, a refusal to worry or get involved?

 Is “Digital” the Real Sixth Sense?  www.pcdrome.com  

I have always felt at home with globalization made possible by the digital world.  Terrifyingly so, perhaps.

Because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.

 

 

July 19, 2015

Me First, Retirement Version

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:13 pm
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Parents of young children know the syndrome.  It starts with the first arrival.  It might be the middle of the night but the new baby wants to be fed and will not let you sleep until her needs have been met.  Then there are the unscheduled needs for diaper changes, which gradually emerge into tending to the tears of scratched knees and lost toys.  Then it’s help with homework, parents meetings, walks, bedtime stories, birthday parties, sports events, to name but a few.

Me First demands like these are gradually replaced by “I can do it myself!” demands which, paradoxically, merely change the kind of responses expected of parents.  But Me First demands of work also begin to muscle in at this point too.  Whatever the weather, however tired one may feel, work pressures are real and continuous.

And then comes retirement.  You might think, as I did, that the retired can at last make Me First demands for themselves.

That is emphatically not been my experience.

The last three days are an example.   Thursday night I was awakened shortly after falling asleep about midnight by a ferocious thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain.  I got out of bed to check that our skylights were securely closed, and fell asleep again.  About an hour later, as the storm continued to rage, my husband and  were both awakened by toilets gurgling.  The outside water was not running through the outside drains quickly enough, and was noisily backing up.  When I’d contemplated the possibility of flooding in our house in the past, it did not include black water rushing out the toilets as the first sign of trouble.  The good news is that the toilets did not eventually over-run, for which I was grateful.

The next morning, though, there was two inches of water in our sun room, soaking the rya carpet, and miscellaneous pools of water in our kitchen, bathroom, hall, and entrance lobby.  Outside was a mess.

Fortunately the day was sunny and we spent the next two days cleaning up, drying out, and clearing moss from the roof which had interfered with water running efficiently into the gutters.  We even felt rather fortunate when we discovered that many places had suffered really serious damage.  The accident and emergency department of our local hospital is closed for another two days as a result of flooding, for instance.

But last night as I was preparing for bed, I switched on a light, and every plug in the house blew.    I got dressed, went out to the meter room and tried to switch the wonky circuit breaker back on.  It didn’t work, and I went to bed.

So this morning I woke up with a brand new Me First demand muscling out my normal Sunday plans.

You see what I mean?  Some thing is always lurking in the background ready to demand attention – whatever you’d been planning on doing.

PS:  I did get the circuit breaker fixed this morning.  If I hadn’t,  I couldn’t be writing this.  I wouldn’t even have had my morning cup of coffee.  Not a bad day so far.  Even if it wasn’t what I’d been planning on.

July 6, 2015

Computer-speak

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:29 pm
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We’ve known for a long time that young children learn a second language much more easily than adults.  They can even speak it without a telltale accent imposed by their first language.

And most of us in the developed world, at least, whether we are young or old, have discovered that the young who were introduced to digital languages almost as soon as they could press a button on the tv remote control, are more fluent in computer languages than their elders.

In that context, the very best example of this generational divide was confessed to me by a mother who asked her son in exasperation: But which one is the “any key”?

June 26, 2015

Sinner or saint

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

“The biggest deception of the past thousand years is this:

 to confuse poverty with stupidity.”  

Orhan Pamuk

Or, I would suggest, with crime.

Or race.

Or sanctity.

Poverty, however one defines it, is too complex for such simplicity.

June 9, 2015

My kind of nun

NUNSA friend just sent me the link to an eulogy in the Huffington Post, The Atheist and the Nun.  She sent it to me with the note “Thought of you … your kind of nun!”  It is a tribute to a nun whom the columnist, Alice McManus, had known as a student in high school.

Alice was routinely expelled from classrooms and clubs for defending gay rights in the Catholic schools where her parents hoped she would get a good education.  But Sister Pat was different from all the other teachers.  She did not teach me to love God, says Alice.  She taught me to love people.

“I’m still an atheist,” she writes. “But Sister Pat wouldn’t have minded. … Ironically, she also taught me to have faith. Not in God, but in people. Because there are people out there who are just amazing through and through. Who do good everyday for all the right reasons. And for me, that’s even more impressive than an all-powerful being.  Sister Pat herself was a beacon of light and hope — but one that you could touch and hug.  She will be missed.”

I am deeply moved that someone sees Sister Pat as the kind of person I admire, whom I would like to be like.

I do not call myself an atheist.  I do totally dismiss the popular demagogue of a supposedly all-loving, all-forgiving God who can somehow be placated by the tortuous crucifixion of his son, but whose forgiveness nonetheless includes sending people to eternal hell fire for eating meat on a Friday.  But atheists too often in my experience are just as intolerant of believers as some believers are of those who disagree with them.  I prefer to live in the amazing mystery of the universe with the knowledge that understanding it fully is beyond the bounds of human capacities — even those of the great genius.

What I do find astonishing is that praise of people like Sister Pat is so rare.  How did Christianity ever become so distorted as to assign to itself the right to judge which sinners are not “one of us,” to cast them out, to refuse to break bread with them?  How did doctrine ever become more important than loving one’s fellow human beings?

Today, becoming a saint isn’t nearly as popular an ideal as it used to be.  The achievement of sainthood, marked by inexplicable miracles seemingly beyond natural causes, is broadly seen as superstitious unscientific ignorance.  It is being replaced by a desire for celebrity, to be very beautiful, acquire great wealth, or possibly die as a martyr (also known as freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view).

But in some deep and terrifying ways, aren’t they are all self-seeking goals for self-aggrandizement?

The older I get, the greater becomes my appreciate for those who love others.  Period.  They don’t need praise or recognition.  Love of those around them is what their lives, ultimately, are for.   I cannot think of any other achievement that I value or admire, however significant, if it is not at the same time imbued with this love of neighbour.

May 29, 2015

Right answers aren’t as smart as I thought

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 1:41 pm

Success in educational exams is based almost exclusively on giving the right answers.  The ten-year-old who says the answer to 2+2 is “5” or that “surprise” is spelled “serprize” or that Columbus landed in the new world “in  1940” almost certainly needs additional tutoring rather than a promotion.

But I wish I were in the classroom again.  Because we educators rarely appreciate the value of intelligent questions.  And yet, the more we know about any subject, the more penetrating and numerous our questions become.  I would love to construct a test in which I asked students to pose as many questions as they could about a specific subject.  My guess is that one would be able to evaluate who knew as much by the questions alone as one could by the answers.

For instance, suppose one is asked to pose questions about quantum mechanics.  How do questions like:  Is it about machines?  Isn’t it part of  Einstein’s theory of relativity?  Is it a theory about space travel? compare with questions like: In what way is the Standard Theory related to Quantum Mechanics?  Why did Einstein reject the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?  How does the Higgs Boson explain mass?

Or in relation to cooking, a field with which many of us may be more familiar, how do questions like:  Why is this pastry so tough?  How long does it take to cook dried kidney beans?  How do you cook a fish?  compare with What other ingredients besides eggs can be used as thickeners?  Are there other ingredients besides yeast one can use to make bread rise?  Why will some meats become tough if they are over-cooked, while others are tough if they are under-cooked?

I’ve learned not to trust either myself or other people in areas where they have more answers than questions.  That includes everything from religion, philosophy, physics, math, computers, and psychology to sewing, cleaning, building construction, finances, and lawn-mowing.

You have to know what you’re talking about to ask really intelligent questions.

But now I have to go out and mow the lawn.

Whether I know what I’m doing or not.

 

April 29, 2015

Life by interruption

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:18 pm
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I have been terribly busy these last two weeks figuring out the universe.  I’ve been struggling, for instance, with the question of Plato, and whether his perfect world of ideal forms has been perhaps the single most alienating influence in the Western world, an influence which is alive and well and has convinced millions of people that we really don’t belong here on earth at all.

Alternatively, I’ve been speculating that the “not one of us” mandates supported by so many religions is the most destructive and evil influence in the world today, out-ranking greed, the desire for revenge, weapons of mass destruction, even vast swathes of environmental destruction.

Then something a little less esoteric appeared in our back yard.  At first we thought it was one of the many wood pigeons that make this patch their home.  It seemed unable to fly and we wondered if it had been attacked by a local cat.  Then we realized it wasn’t a wood pigeon at all.  It’s feathers were a different color, and it bore a band on each of its legs.  It didn’t belong in our yard:  it belonged to somebody.  But it walked- literally – up to our sun-room door clearly asking for help.

I went to Google and confirmed that it was a racing pigeon, possibly worth several thousand pounds.  The professional advice was to hope that our pigeon was not lost but merely exhausted and we were a potential pit stop.  If so, putting out water and grain for 48 hours would be sufficient and then “Fred” (the name given by said expert) would be reinvigorated sufficiently to continue his journey home.  A friend put me in contact with a neighbour who said a racing pigeon had been blown off course during a storm several years ago onto their property, and offered her help.  Her daughter, she said, was an expert.  Well, not exactly an expert, she later clarified.  Her daughter was eleven years old.  But she’d bonded with their pigeon, and would love to be able to help.

I gathered some uncooked grains and seeds together from our kitchen and took a tray and a bowl of water out to Fred, who greeted me with a whoop of enthusiasm.  This went on for 36 hours, and we could see the pigeon was gaining strength, flying onto the high roofs of nearby houses, and returning regularly for sustenance.  But after 48 hours it was time to suggest to Fred that he should now go home.  I bravely went out and withdrew the grain and seeds.  Fred was nowhere in sight and I was relieved.

But at 5:00 he came for his evening repast.  Seeing that there was nothing there, he came up to the sun-room door and pointed out that it was time for dinner.  No, I said, you need to go home.  You are strong enough and competent enough — you do not need me any more to baby you. But I felt like a wicked witch.

The next morning he was perched on the low edge of the roof looking forlornly down at the empty spot where the food had been.

All right, I said, if you are still here tomorrow morning, I will borrow the unused cat cage I’ve been offered, and put the food in there.  That way I can read the numbers on your leg band and contact your owner.  You might even have his name and telephone tucked under your wing.  But I had to walk away.  I could hardly bear my own cruelty – even if my head was telling me that what I was doing wasn’t best for me – it was best for Fred.

By early afternoon, he was gone.  I spent the next day hugely relieved that I’d been strong enough to send him on his way when it was time.

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story!

Two days later he was back at our door.

I went immediately and put some grain in a bowl, but by the time I returned just minutes later he was gone.

We haven’t seen him since.  I’ve decided that he found his way home.

But you know, somehow I think it was a lot more important that I worried about Fred, than that I worried about Plato.

 

April 11, 2015

Fat Chance

Filed under: Diet,Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:08 pm
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Almost two months ago I started my annual task of taking off the excess three pounds weight I’d put on during the Christmas & New Year holidays.

So far I’ve lost two pounds – that’s an average of one pound a month.  Our weather has finally turned the corner, and despite occasional cold and rainy days, we are clearly headed toward spring and working in the garden has increased my opportunity for faster calorie burn.  So I expect to reach my goal by the end of the month.

My arguments with my two-year-old self, however, hit a barrier two days ago with the publication of research here in the UK showing that obese people are less subject to dementia as they age than groups with lower BMI’s.

“YOU SEE!”, said my two-year-old self.  “That chocolate cookie would really be good for me.  And you won’t let me have it!”

So I looked at the research a little more carefully.  Sure enough, obesity – defined as a BMI greater than 26.5 – that begins in middle age, seems to provide some kind of protective factor against dementia, even when factors like alcohol and smoking are taken into account.  Being significantly under-weight in younger years is an even bigger factor predicting dementia, but I’ve never had a BMI approaching 20, which was the dangerous bench mark.  So my two-year-old is eyeing up that chocolate bar.

But there is also significant research suggesting that obesity is associated with increased risk of cancer.

And I do notice that nobody is recommending that people gain weight throughout middle age in order to stave off dementia.  (Although, of course, researchers do think it’s worth finding out what the protective factors are in obesity that seem to reduce dementia risk.)

So right now, I think I’ll stick with my BMI where it is – minus a pound that is.

And No, two-year-old, you can’t have that bar of chocolate until you lose another pound!  And I don’t want to hear from you again that chocolate is good for you.

April 6, 2015

Faux encouragement

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:43 pm
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In order to illustrate my brilliant insight, I must first confess to downloading a game of Klondike Solitaire, my preferred time-waster that had to be replaced after my recent computer crash.  I’ve been playing it on and off now for close to a month, and I find it so irritating I might have to give it up.

My irritation is that whenever I win a game, the screen shouts “Congratulations! You won!”

Fine.  But when I lose, the screen says “You have run out of moves.  Good Game!”

And that’s what I find so irritating.  It reminds me of an enabling teacher or parent who tries to build self-confidence in their child or student by praising them even when they fail.

That is not how mature self-confidence is built.

Because self-confidence doesn’t come from others’ opinions of our accomplishments.  It doesn’t even come from always succeeding.  It comes from confidence in our own ability to assess what we have done.  We need to be able to say “Yes, I did my best,” or “I did as well as I wanted to,” or “I didn’t get this right;  can I do it better?  Do I want to do better?  If so, how?”  At that point, we might ask for advice.  But that is quite different from encouragement based on false praise.

Yes, we need to know that we are loved.  That is not the same thing as needing indiscriminate praise.  We need to learn to be proud – or not – of ourselves.  What parents and teachers need to help children do is to evaluate themselves.  “What do you think about that work you just did?” is potentially a more helpful response than offering our own assessments as if our opinions were what really matter.

If we can’t judge our own accomplishments (or failures), we remain dependent psychologically.  We can’t stand on our own two feet.  And as human beings, we need to be able to stand up for what we believe in, for what we decide is important, even when it seems that everybody else disagrees with us.  We decide, for instance, that we have to be thinner, more beautiful, smarter, richer, more popular, more famous because that’s what everybody says.

But it’s not the recipe for happiness.

So was this a good post?  can I play another game of Solitaire now?

April 3, 2015

Menu for Good Fry Day

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

In Scotland, deep-fat fried Mars bars are almost as familiar as french fries and battered fish.

But today, every item on the menu for the day at the restaurant Fry Hard is fried.  They fry roast, yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, pickles, parsnips, carrots, turnips, all sorts of greens.  They even apparently experimented deep-fat frying gravy, but that didn’t work.  The menu does include all the old favourites, however –  battered deep-fat fried Mars bars, Snickers and Creme Eggs.

Deep-fried Toblerone ... "inedible".Which, as the Guardian newspaper put it, might be “a case of batter the devil you know.”

 

March 27, 2015

Still living and learning

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 10:24 pm
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When I was a teenager, I had a friend who was genetically Black, but whose skin was light enough for her to pass as white.  I remember her trying to decide as she was preparing to go to university whether she should pass as a white person.  In those days in America there was even more overt prejudice against Blacks than today.  Blacks were forbidden – by law – to eat in the same restaurants, use the same rest rooms, or stay in the same hotels as whites.  They were not allowed to sit in the front seats of the bus, and were expected to give up even their seats in the back if a white person would otherwise be forced to stand.

My friend decided, nonetheless, not to pass as a white.  I’m Black, she said.  Whatever the challenges that come with that, I’m not going to try to pretend my way out of that.

Ten days ago I celebrated by 75th birthday.  To my delight and surprise, so did many friends and family.  They really made me feel like it was a big deal.

But as a 75-year-old I am now subject to some of the considerable prejudice that is often felt toward the elderly in this modern world.  Especially as the baby boom is reaching old age, the younger generation often expresses the view that the old should get out of the way.  These feelings seem to me to be greater here in England than in America, but they exist in both countries and no doubt beyond.

I still don’t look my full age (at least on good days) and  I now have the choice of pretending to be younger than I am  –or at least pretending to myself that I’m fooling other people about my true age.

I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend.  Being 75, like every other year in my life, comes with both its unique challenges and unique joys.   I suspect much of the prejudice against the elderly is a result of our rapidly changing world.  Three-year-olds these days can sometimes explain computer games and devices to their grandparents.  8-year-olds can write code to create apps for the internet browser.  15-year-olds are often taller and stronger than anybody in the family’s older generation.  And often, neither the younger nor the older generation appreciates the well of wisdom and knowledge and even intelligence that this apparently simple grandparent possesses.

There are some things, though, that one can only learn with time. It takes decades to learn that what other people think about you isn’t the final arbiter of worth.  It usually takes just as long to learn that physical beauty or celebrity or money do not automatically generate peace or happiness.  It takes long and hard work to discover that a successful life partnership requires more than sexual passion.  But once one has learned these things, they are a source of great contentment and leave room for much greater joy in things that do indeed make life worthwhile.

Admittedly, I am not suffering from the ill-health, loneliness, mental deterioration, or worries about money that plague many of the elderly.  As for the future, I know no more than anyone else when and how my life will proceed, or how many years I still have to live.

But that does not that mean I cannot embrace the intense joy I so often feel now just because I am alive today.

I’m 75 years old!  And I love it!

 

March 17, 2015

An environmentally friendly concoction?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:53 pm
This is a photo taken by a real estate agent here in England, presumably to actually find a buyer for the house where this ingenious installation was accomplished.
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Optimisation of space taken to the extreme
I will admit to a certain admiration for the person who figured out all that clever piping to save water and space.  Well, I guess that’s what they were trying to do:  I’ve been trying to figure out what happens to the excess grey water from the machine when the cistern is full.  Or how the toilet flushes when the cistern is empty.
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And sitting on a toilet underneath a 500 lb washing machine seems a rather high price to pay for recycling, doesn’t it?
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I come from a family of engineers, some of whom have tried out some ideas that I think could legitimately be categorized as wacky.  But I am extremely grateful that the none of the engineers I know and love have ever tried to replace the picture above with toilet with a washing machine.

March 16, 2015

We all need each other

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:41 pm
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From the best I can tell, this is a true story.  It was sent to me by a friend in honour of Friendship Week.

Fleming was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog.  There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself  as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved.

‘I want to repay you,’ said the nobleman. ‘You saved my son’s life.’

‘No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,’ Fleming said.

At that moment, the farmer’s son came to the door of the family hovel.  ‘Is that your son?’ the nobleman asked.  ‘Yes,’ the farmer replied proudly.  ‘I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy.  If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to be a man we both will be proud of.’

And so Farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and in time, graduated from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.

Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia.  What saved his life this time?

Penicillin.

The name of the nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill.

His son’s name was Sir Winston Churchill

March 13, 2015

The vista of uncertainty

Before I was rudely interrupted by a crashing computer, I was preparing a post exploring how we know what we think we know.  Many people in the modern world think that the only way we can know anything is through reason and some form of what today we call science.  I have a huge respect for science.  I am a scientist.  Science has been an incalculable contribution to my understanding of the world, and has, at times, willed me with awe.

But valuable as science is, I am under no illusion that it is a potential source of infallible truth or certainty.  Scientific “facts” are not absolute, and are changing far more often than most people realize.  Facts must constantly be verified with evidence.  And then re-verified and re-verified in an unending process.  When we learn something new or take a different perspective, we often change our minds. Things which we assumed to be absolutely beyond question are no longer accepted.  Science, in other words, is our best guess based on the evidence we have before us at any given time.  But its conclusions are never beyond the possibility of doubt.

If logical reasoning or science can’t give us certainty even about this world here and now,  can we answer questions which are beyond the scope of science with any certainty at all?  questions like what happens after we die?  what is the purpose of life?  is warfare ever morally justifiable?  does my husband love me?  what career should I choose?  is there a God?  does prayer ever change what happens? should I have a child?  should I get a divorce?

Again, for some people the answer to these questions lies in religious faith.  Within this perspective, answers to these and many other questions are revealed to us by God.  These answers cannot be verified by proof, and are therefore beyond question.  Doubt therefore, for many believers, is a form of sin, because it is seen to be questioning God’s revelation.  In this sense, faith can give us absolute certainty.

When the same faith is adopted by the whole culture we live it, it is often highly convincing and supportive.  But the problem with faith becomes apparent when we come in contact with others whose faith leads them to different conclusions about what God has revealed.  Our globalized world today is awash with violence justified by millions of people who believe that their faith is the only valid revelation from God, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.  Some of these people believe they have a God-given mandate to wipe the earth clean of anyone who disagrees with them.  Given such disagreements, it is obvious that somebody’s faith must be wrong however certain the individual may be that they are right.

So what about intuition?  Can we intuit some realities by some other method, through some other medium than scientific reasoning or blind faith?   Can I learn something from Beethoven’s Fifth?  Or the expression on the face of a child?  Can a poem teach me something I could never learn in church?  or from a scientific study?  Is that inexplicable sense of awe one achieves after hiking to the mountain top a valid insight into a reality that cannot be expressed adequately in mathematical equations or religious dogma?  Can I learn something holding my newborn child in my arms that I could not learn in any other way?

I am willing to live by – and even die for – some of the insights I have learned through intuition.  I would stake my life on the certainty that my husband loves me.  I live every day with the conviction that existence is good, that all life is worthy of respect, that although I do not understand it,  “the universe is unfolding as it should”.  But like acts of faith, these intuitive certainties are not necessarily universal.  I might be willing to live by them, but other people have reached intuitive conclusions, sometimes in the context of deeply profound experiences, with which I do not agree.  So on some level, I know I might be wrong.  My knowledge at the very least is seriously incomplete.

So is uncertainly the inescapable human condition?  Can we never know anything for certain?

My own guess is that the answer is both yes and no.

Personally, I deeply distrust absolute certainty.  I prefer to live in mystery.  But I have come to appreciate that for some people, certainty is a source of strength.  I am not as dismissive of religious faith, for instance, as I used to be.  Religious belief is not always stunting, it does not always constrict the world, or limit concern to those one might consider “one of us.”  Even those who interpret  the metaphors of revelation literally sometimes gain great strength and wisdom from them.  I remember my own mother facing her death at the age of 48 and leaving behind 10 children, the youngest of whom was 6 years old.  Expecting to be standing before the gates of heaven and telling St. Peter that she had accepted and loved all the children God sent to her gave her the strength and peace she needed to accept her death with great generosity.

To this day, I am not confidant I could do what she did.

 

 

 

March 8, 2015

Upgrade to the 21st century

Filed under: Just Stuff,Stuff of Life: Current Exploits — theotheri @ 1:11 pm
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https://i0.wp.com/www.animalsneedhelp.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/stop-animal-cruelty1.jpg

 I don’t know what’s wrong, but my computer isn’t working, and my mouse is missing

Image from Seaspray-itsawonderfullife.blogspot.co.uk/

Just as I finished my last post two weeks ago, my computer began to stutter.  Within a day it had crashed, pushing me back into what rapidly began to feel like the pre-industrial age.

Although I grew up with electricity and telephone and radio, we didn’t have television, and I didn’t start using even the most primitive personal computers until I was in my 30’s.  My first computer boasted a phenomenal 640K RAM and a DOS manual, leading my colleagues to remark that I was “seriously into computers.”  But I have always preferred to get information from the printed word rather than from tv or video documentaries and walls of our house are lined with book cases stuffed full of books.

So although I always knew I valued my computer as a thinking tool, I had no idea I would be so completely disoriented without it.  And it got worse.  I managed to get through the first week while I waited for our computer doctor to arrive and replace the start-up motor, which I was convinced was the cause of my problem.  Unfortunately, after two hours of diagnostics, he decided I needed a new computer.

Oh eek:  it wasn’t the cost.  It was the fact that I would have to upgrade from Windows 7, with which I was totally comfortable, to Windows 8.1, which sounded way too much like a screenful of Apple-inspired icons replacing the word-menus which Microsoft has used for half a century.  I decided, however, that I might have enough years left in me to out-live Windows 7, and if I was going to have to learn a whole new system, I’d be better off doing it sooner rather than later.

All right, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  I expected to have to work at learning it, which paradoxically made it easier.  It didn’t look at all like MS 7 or Vista or XP, so I faced it as a whole new challenge and didn’t get irritated when I had to figure out how to shut the computer down.  Or find the desk top instead of the Start page, or sign into my Microsoft account to boot up Windows.  Or to figure out how to delete the screen full of icons each more or less shouting that I could not live without them, and with which I was equally sure I could not live with. I am now comfortable with Windows 8.  In fact, I rather like it.

So I feel I have left the pre-industrial age and entered the 21st century.  I wasn’t thrilled, though, to see that Windows 10 is already being moved to the launch pad.

I do hope to start blogging again though.  I’ve missed talking to you.

February 23, 2015

How do I know what I know I know?

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would still smell just as sweet, but the rose as it is seen or smelled by a bee gathering pollen is very different from the Valentine rose I received .

This example of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology has had a very big influence on my understanding of the world.  Kant said was that what we perceive is always a result not just of the object we are perceiving, but also of the organism which is perceiving it.  There is no way, he argued, to get around that.  We will always be limited to perspectives we  are capable of taking.  So a color-blind person can’t see the difference between red and green.  He might believe other people when he is told there is a difference.  But  he cannot himself perceive it.  When I hear a foreign language, I don’t hear the meaning that someone who speaks that language can hear.

I am not a philosopher, however, and I was shocked to learn that Kant had also argued that music could never be anything more than entertainment, because it did not deal with ideas.  I am sure that any well-read philosopher knows this, but I had no idea Kant was such an intellectualizer.

This matters to me because I often intellectualize.  If I can’t think something through intellectually, I haven’t been convinced I know it.  I often haven’t, in other words, trusted my feelings or my intuition.

I love music, but it is only in my very adult years that I have come to appreciate that I learn something through music that I can’t learn by logic or by applying the scientific method.  The same can be said for all sorts of other kinds of experience which are not strictly-speaking rational or logically arrived at, or which I don’t have the opportunity to examine scientifically.  Being open to my intuitions has almost been like discovering a brand new universe.

I’m not suggesting that intuition is somehow better than scientific reasoning or logical conclusions.   But it is different.  We can understand differently depending on how we arrive there.

And both approaches are subject to error.  Our religious, ethical, or moral convictions may be based on intuition or reasoning.  Either way, we can be wrong.  Obviously sometimes we are, because not only do we personally sometimes change our minds, but the world even today is rife with examples of people defending with their very lives opposing beliefs and principles.  We know that sometimes, somebody is horribly wrong somewhere.

I am not a believer in any religion.  But I am beginning to wonder if we do not need what many people may call their religious convictions, and which I might, these days, call my intuitions.  This whole question of intuition and thinking seems to me to be related to the issue of science and religion.

A subject on which I suspect I am going to risk embarrassing myself by blogging in upcoming days.

February 21, 2015

Beyond red wine: Secrets of a long life

Filed under: Growing Old,Illness and disease,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:48 pm

The following is an interview with Hattie Mae MacDonald of Feague, Kentucky, in the United States.  Hattie is 101 years old.

Reporter:  Can you give us some health tips for reaching the age of 101?

Hattie:   For better digestion I drink beer.  In the case of appetite loss  I drink white wine.  For low blood pressure I drink Red  Wine.  In the case of high blood pressure I drink scotch.   And when I have a cold I drink Schnapps.

 Reporter:  When do you drink water?

 Hattie:   I’ve never been that sick.

 

 

 

February 14, 2015

Love is enough

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:25 pm
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Happy Valentine PhotosWe celebrated Valentine’s Day when I was growing up.  Except we called it St. Valentine’s Day.  We were taught that the day began in the 3rd century with the martyrdom of St. Valentine by the Romans who tied him to a stake and shot him through with arrows.  Actually, that story is somewhat apocryphal.  The latest version is that Valentine was a priest who performed marriage ceremonies for soldiers serving in Emperor Claudius’ army who were forbidden to be married because Claudius believed marriage interfered with their being effective soldiers.   And Valentine was probably beheaded, not shot through with arrows.

But my understanding of the meaning of  Valentine’s Day was more deeply erroneous than these historical details.  I was taught that love was important to living the life of a true Christian.  I was even taught, as St. Paul wrote, that there is faith, hope, and love, and that the greatest of these is love.

But I was a mature adult before I discovered that “faith” is more accurately translated from the original Hebrew as “faithfulness” than as “belief.”  And so I grew up being taught that this God of Love sent people to eternal damnation not only for failures to love, but in some ways more critically, for a failure to believe.  Abandoning the beliefs of Catholicism was, in practice, far more damning than a failure to love.

Today, I celebrate Valentine’s Day with great joy.  It is the day, 42 years ago, that the man who is now my husband and I first moved in together in a 5th-floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan.

During these years I have come to the conclusion that love is not only the “greatest of these.”  In some ways, it is the only thing that matters.

Love is what makes us feel worthwhile.  It is what makes it possible to forgive others.  And to forgive ourselves sometimes.  It is what we appreciate and often remember most in others, what makes the biggest difference to our happiness.  Small acts of kindness are sometimes amazingly important.

Love is far more important than money or celebrity or good looks or creativity.  It’s more important than health or intelligence or living a long life or being recognized as a great leader.  I do not mean that doing a good job in many different ways is not important.  But if it is not done in the context of love, I do not trust its value to humanity.

As Chris Lawrence said many years ago in his blog thinking makes it so,

 “Love is hard enough.  But it is also enough.”

Enough said.

 

February 4, 2015

Weather reporting

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:58 pm

I have noticed as I’ve gotten older that the kind of errors I make when I’m typing have changed.  I don’t think, even with the help of the spell-checker, that they are reduced in number.  But they are different.  Instead of mistakes like writing “teh” instead of “the”, or “winder” instead of “winter,” my fingers seem to tell my brain that they already know what I want to say.  So instead of typing “arrived,” my fingers make up their own words and type “arround” — with 2 r’s yet.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have seen some examples of similar don’t-tell-me-what-to-do wilfulness that escaped my notice and so did not get scrubbed out.

Today, though, I got an email from a friend describing the record-breaking weather in America that I would be proud to say I had authored.  Apparently, NYC has had two accumulations of 5-8 inches of “know.”

But then, may it really was “know.”  She’s settled down in her apartment with a book.

And maybe a glass of wind wine?

February 3, 2015

Out of sight, out of mind

Filed under: Diet,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:52 pm
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Every year I say it won’t happen again, but every year during the December/January holidays I manage to put on three pounds of weight.  So every February I go on a diet to lose it.  Last year I landed on a strategy that, unlike every other dieting strategy I have ever tried, actually worked.

It’s my Just-a-minute strategy.

I discovered that telling myself NO doesn’t work.  “No, you can’t have that cookie now”,  “No, you can’t have that piece of chocolate now”, “No, you can’t have another piece of pie” inevitably started a dialogue with my two-year-old self.  It went something like “Why?  just this once.  Then I’ll be good, I promise.  Just one won’t hurt.  Besides I’m so hungry…”  And the embarrassing thing is that I inevitably lost that juvenile argument.

          http://www.startrightpt.co.uk

I finally realized that for me, saying “No” doesn’t work because I inevitably keep thinking about that forbidden fruit, and my two-year-old self keeps nagging with arguments about why she should have it.

So I decided to treat myself like the two-year-old who kept winning the argument.  Last year instead of saying “No” to myself, I say something like  “yes, you can have it, but read this article first.”  Or “yes, but first get the laundry ready.”  Or “after you’ve finished doing your budget for this month.”  Or “take the trash out first.”  And I respond just like a two-year old:  out of sight is out of mind.  It’s amazing but it breaks that compulsive obsession and I rarely come back after that initial ten or fifteen minutes saying “But you promised!  Can I have it now?”

So this year I have three pounds to lose once again.  I’m using my “Just-a-minute” strategy.  Next month I will make a report on how it’s worked this year.  I suspect part of me is still two years old.

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
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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.

January 21, 2015

What do you think?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:06 pm
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After the Paris bombings earlier this month, the British Community Secretary  wrote a letter to all the imams practicing here in the UK asking for the imams’ help in relation to  Muslim extremists in the UK, some of whom have left Britain to fight with Isis and other terror groups, some of whom have returned to Britain, trained to carry out terrorist attacks here.  The response to the letter has been mixed.  Some people thought the letter was patronizing and made Muslims feel like outsiders even if they are UK citizens.  Others thought it recognized the importance of imams in Muslim communities, and reached out with respect and appreciation

I have lived in four different countries in my life and at least twice that many sub-cultures.  Besides that I am married to a man from a different cultural background than the one I grew up in.  During that time, I have realized repeatedly that understanding another culture demands an understanding far more subtle than speaking the language.  I have sometimes put my foot in my mouth, and used it to trip up others more often than I meant to.  The only thing I am sure I have learned so far is that I have a lot more to learn.

I have read the letter to the imams with a deep appreciation of cultural subtleties.  But I wonder what the readers of this blog make of it.  People who follow this blog come from all over the world and have hugely diverse cultural backgrounds.  I’d love to know what you think.  Does a Catholic or Jew living in New York read it differently than a Muslim in Delhi?  than an American immigrant in Mexico or Peru, a nurse in Cambodia, an aid worker in Africa, a mother in Scotland, a Korean or American philosopher?

Here’s the letter.  If you have any thoughts, please do consider commenting on this post.  What do you think might have been said differently?  or not at all?  what might have been added?  I’d love to hear from you.  And, I suspect, you could teach me something.  Thank you.  Most seriously – thank you.

Assalamu Alaikum

We have recently seen terrible atrocities committed in Paris. Finding the right response to these events is a challenge for everyone. The hijacking of a great faith to justify such heinous crimes sickens us all. As Muslims around the world have made clear, such actions are an affront to Islam.  And yet, amid the carnage, came a sign of hope – over three million people of all backgrounds, marching to defeat the gunmen and to protect   our values: free speech, the rule of law, and democracy.

We are proud of the reaction of British communities to this attack. Muslims from across the country have spoken out to say: not in our name.

 But there is more work to do. We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy. We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.

 Three ways you can help:

1) Email us about the work you are doing to promote the positive image of British Islam

2) Visit the LawWorks website. If you need  legal advice to tackle extremists, they may be able to help

3) Report Anti-Muslim Hatred to the police online at http://www.report-it.org.uk

 Let us  assure you that the Government will do all we can to defeat the voices of division, but ultimately the challenges of integration and radicalisation cannot be solved from Whitehall alone. Strong community-based leadership at a local level is needed.

 You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. We believe together we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today. There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country. We know that acts of extremism are not representative of Islam; but we need to show what is.

 British values are Muslim values. Like all faiths, Islam and its message of peace and unity makes our country a better and stronger place, and Britain would be diminished without its strong Muslim communities. Every day, mosques and other faith institutions across the country are providing help for those in need, and acting as a centre for our communities. It is these positive contributions that are the true messages of faith and it is these contributions that need to be promoted.

 We would also like to reassure you that in recent days we have met with police chiefs to make sure they are providing the support that mosques need, a concern that some of you have expressed in our recent discussions. We have also met with the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group to hear their concerns about responses to the recent attacks and what more can be done.

 Anyone experiencing violence should report it to the police online on the True Vision website or to TELL MAMA, a service to provide support specifically to Muslim victims of hatred. The vitriol espoused by the thugs of the English Defence League and Britain First is just as much an affront to British values as the teachings of preachers of hate. For organisations experiencing problems with such preachers, information about free legal advice is available from LawWorks at http://www.lawworks.org.uk/community-groups or the Bar Pro Bono Unit at http://www.barprobono.org.uk, and the Charity Commission has published a toolkit for charity leaders to help protect their organisations from abuse by extremists. This toolkit is available at http://bit.ly/1xTTH2W.  We welcome your thoughts, ideas and initiatives on how to ensure that Islam’s true message of peace triumphs over those who seek to divide our communities. Thank you for all the positive work you are doing, and we look forward to working with you further. We continue to appreciate all your insights. Please feel free to contact our team at integration@communities.gsi.gov.uk. We look forward to hearing from you.

 THE RT HON ERIC PICKLES MP

LORD TARIQ AHMAD OF WIMBLEDON



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January 19, 2015

Enough is enough

I have long been suspicious of politicians who talk about equality.  With increasing irritability, I find myself inevitably asking what kind of equality they are talking about.  As I become increasingly aware of my own gifts and limitations, it is obvious that I need other people with different gifts and limitations in order to so much as survive.  And our need for diversity applies to all living organisms.

On a slightly more limited level, I am highly suspicious of political and economic policies that seem to suggest that we should all have more or less equal wealth and opportunities.  We don’t all have the same hopes, the same things don’t make us happy, our abilities benefit from different kinds of opportunities and challenges.  We don’t want a society in which everybody is the same, and we can’t create a “fair society” in which nobody has a need to strive or struggle or compete.  Nor can we create a society where corruption or greed or self-serving laziness are eliminated.

But today I hit the limit  of my inequality tolerance.

Oxfam has just released figures preceding the annual meeting of the world’s financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland that even I find unconscionable.  In 2014, 48% of the world’s wealth was help by a mere 1% of the world’s population.  By 2016, it is set to exceed more than 50%.

Not only is it unconscionable.  This huge disparity is extremely dangerous.  Perhaps even more dangerous to the survival of humanity than extreme climate change.

Why?  Because it is this kind of inequality that leads to the kind of vicious, often religiously based, intolerance we see sweeping across the world’s continents today.  It isn’t being poor that makes people angry.  It’s being trapped.  It’s having no way out of seeing one’s children die of starvation, of living in hovels surrounded by sewage ditch streets, of having no access to education, or facing job opportunities that consist of scrounging through garbage dumps or working the streets through prostitution.

Today the hot spots of Islamic militants are where the poverty is.  In countries where the wealth disparity is not so immovable, Islamism tends to be far more tolerant.  Even in America, the land of opportunity, the land where the boy born in a log cabin can become president, the dream is beginning to lose its potential.  It’s beginning to look as if hard work does not necessarily dig oneself and one’s children out of poverty.  The top 1% are taking all the cream, even protected from higher taxes, while the working man and woman remain stuck in a rut that hard work, ambition, and even talent often cannot conquer.  And we see the lines of intolerance hardening.  Immigrants are no longer welcome by many, even those qualified to be of great benefit to America.  The tax system is based on a “top-down” system that says the rich should be allowed to keep the money they earn because it will “trickle down” to the masses.  Except it doesn’t.

What is the solution?

One’s first impulse, as even Pope Francis illustrated, is to punch back, not merely with a punch in the face but with economic sanctions, as well as drones, guns and bombs.  I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist – I suspect that some physical force is often called for.  But if the underlying economic strangle holds are not addressed, military might will eventually fail.

There are changes that can – must – be made in the economic systems which govern.  Obviously, fairer tax systems world-wide, less corruption, more job opportunities and education.  There are changes that must occur in some religious teachings, and cultural values as well.  But no system is fool-proof.  We will always have people who game the system.  There are others who manage to make disproportionate amounts of money through creativity and good luck even when that has not been their original motivation.  We don’t want to revert to those systems that pursue a fairer system at the cost of repressing creativity and originality.

In our global and rapidly changing world, our economic and social systems need constant adjustments.

I think it is only a sense of justice and community, that basic altruism and love of neighbor that can ultimately insure an economic and social system in which all of us can thrive and benefit from our mutual gifts.

 

January 17, 2015

Updating the worry list

 

Should we be unable to generate a list of our own, one of Britain’s major newspapers has just helpfully published a list of the most important things we humans might worry about for the next ten years.

Climate change:  The world has made literally no progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the first Kyoto agreement, and scientists are warning us of increasing deadly droughts, floods, water and food shortages, acidic oceans, air pollution, uncontrolled fires, and mega extinctions of up to 25% of all mammal species possibly within the next 50 years.  Oh, and 2014 has been the hottest year on record.

The global spread of a viral epidemic like SARS or Ebola:  The Black Plague swept over the world, reducing populations by 50 -75% of the population when it struck.  It is not inconceivable that a virus could jump on the back of our global communications systems today and outpace the ability of scientists to develop a cure or immunization to outwit it.

An implosion of failed states and states being taken over by religious fanatics.  Theoretically religion is supposed to make us better, more loving, more caring.  Again and again, though, it is the reason for torture and killing.  Western countries today look with horror at the terror being visited on peoples in Africa, Europe, America, and Asia by Islamists.  But Christians have more than a thousand-year history of doing exactly the same thing.  In fact, ethnic cleansing and rampant racism in our own back grounds suggest that we are even now not immune to persecuting those who are different from us.

Economic collapse:  An economic collapse similar to the one that shook the world in 2008, only bigger and longer and more universal worries some economists the way climate change worries climatologists.  Governments are still facing the problem of what to do about banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and big corporations spent vast amounts of money lobbying state officials to make sure that legislation will not damage them.  Meanwhile, the gap between the richest and poorest is growing, not closing, and recently economists have produced research suggesting that this might be an endemic tendency of many modern capitalist societies, including America.  Historically, situations like these fester and simmer, until one day blowing up into outright rebellion and warfare.  Endings are not necessarily happy ones.

I think these are worries worthy of concern.  Great concern that singly or together they could even lead to the extinction of the Homo sapiens.  My problem with worries, though, especially when the worries are big and serious and global as these, is that they tend to turn people off.  We look at them and quite realistically realize that not one of us as a single person can solve any of them.  So we either deny they are happening at all, sink into despair or anger, or hope that God will do something about it rather than leaving it to us.

But the whole point of democracy, of community, or responsibility is not to say a single voice doesn’t count.  It says that lots of single voices is what change the world.  To give into the temptation of helplessness is the very thing that will contribute to our worst worries coming true.

What can I do?  Lots of little things that will change the world if a lot of us do them.  In relation to the environment, I can use my vote to make sure that I don’t help elect a climate-change denier or someone so indebted to big business that they won’t support reductions of fossil fuels and support renewables;  I can sign petitions supporting policies that I think will support work toward a creating economies that don’t destroy the environment;  I can do my best not to waste energy, turn off lights I’m not using, install solar panels, buy an energy-efficient car.  Ride a bicycle.

Etc.

We can’t solve any of these problems by ourselves.  Just as we couldn’t create any of them by ourselves.  We are just single human beings.  But for better or worse, what each of us does adds up.

pbs.org

January 13, 2015

Wonderful things do happen

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:54 pm
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Several months ago, the first group of nurses from the UK National Health Service volunteered to go to Africa to care for Ebola patients there, who are in dire need.  It seemed an immensely heroic thing to do, given the lethal nature of Ebola and the ease with which it can be contracted from patients suffering overt symptoms.

Just before Christmas, a Scottish nurse, Pauline Cafferkey, returned from her stint in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  She was checked repeatedly at airports on her return and was deemed to be healthy.  But she had not been home for more than a few days when she developed a fever and tested positive for the Ebola virus.  She was transferred to an isolation unit in a London hospital, where she was given treatment but she slipped into a critical condition.  The most optimistic assessment was that she had a 50/50 chance of survival.

Yesterday the hospital announced that she was no longer on the critical list.  The chances of her surviving have sky-rocketed.

Pauline Cafferkey

It sounds like it could be the kind of happy ending that appears more often in a Hollywood-produced fantasy than on the front pages of our real-life media.

I’m taking this opportunity to dance a little.

January 12, 2015

Don’t distract me with the facts

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:16 pm
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Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement-en.svg

I am old enough to have discovered rather more often than I’d like to admit that I’m wrong.  But given our fallible natures, I’m not often upset when people disagree with me.

Except when people make pronouncements that are simply contradicted by the facts.  You know, the “don’t distract me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind” approach.  If people don’t believe climate change is occurring, they don’t know the facts.  Or if they don’t think it’s at least partly caused by human actions, given what we know today, it takes a lot of explaining.

But climate-change deniers are amateurs compared to Steven Emerson. How could someone who calls himself an expert on terrorism say on Fox News that only Muslims live in Birmingham, and that non-Muslims never go into the city?  Or that in London Muslim religious police patrol the streets and  beat “anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire”?

Okay, so Emerson apologized for his error.  That’s not good enough.

I’ve never had a whole lot of respect for Fox News.  But what kind of responsible network ever identified this man as an expert on terrorism in the first place?  I think the blame doesn’t stop with Emerson.  And I don’t think an apology is enough.  I think Fox News needs to investigate its principles of journalism.

Still, the avalanche of ridicule from Twitter after Emerson’s comment is satisfying.  As ju suis charlie says, ridicule can be a powerful force.

January 11, 2015

Let us remember what we’d like to forget

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:51 pm
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Officials join hundreds of thousands of people on a Je Suis Charlie march in Nice, France

The Guardian Newspaper

Perhaps as many as a million people today are marching in silent solidarity in France today.  It is a testimony to the 17 people murdered by terrorists during three terrifying days last week, and a determination not to let them destroy the freedom that is a hallmark of France.

What I am hoping is that the western world will also be able to overcome the tendency to blame Muslims because they are Muslims for these acts of terrorism.

They are terrible, and there is no way I can condone defending one’s perceived rights using the barbarism we saw on 9/11,or have seen on the Parisian streets this week or in the agonizing viciousness taking place in Africa or the Middle East, or perhaps in disguised forms, in our own countries which separate church and state.

If Christians are in the slightest way tempted to blame the Muslim religion itself for these acts, perhaps we had better look at ourselves.  Look at the burnings at the stake, at the stretchings on the rack, at the beheadings, at the mass destruction of cities and peoples orchestrated by institutionalized Christianity that went on for centuries.  The Crusades were barbarous.  Raping and murder were justified on religious grounds.  Then look at how Rome evaluated thinkers like Galileo with whom they disagreed solely on scientific grounds.  And then let us remember the religious wars which ripped through Europe and beyond as people used the battle cry of Christianity to slaughter other Christians who disagreed with some article of supposedly unquestionable faith.

No, it isn’t being a religious Muslim that turns people into terrorists.

As Kathleen Armstrong points out in her recent book, Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, all wars have not been fought on religious grounds.  In an exceptionally well-researched study, the author shows that for thousands of years, religion has been used to justify and support violence, but has also often shown people how to choose a different alternative to conflict.  Religion, like politics, is used to defend whichever path we choose to tread.  Sometimes it is violent.  But sometimes it is a path of negotiation, of compromise, of peace.

Product DetailsIt is possible to read Armstrong’s Introduction, and a superb Afterword on Amazon.  I found it well worth the 15 minutes. 

January 10, 2015

Banks not to bank on

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:09 pm
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I was dumbfounded to learn earlier today that the  U.S budget bill passed by the U.S. Congress several weeks ago managed to sneak in a provision that would once again bail out banks that are “too-big-to-fail” if they get into trouble.  But this time, if Citi or Chase or any of the other big investment banks face insolvency, they will be permitted to take their depositors’ cash in savings accounts and CDs and replace with them a bank stock certificate — which may, of course, be of dubious value.  This applies even to deposits that are FDIC insured.

That’s bad enough.  But I also learned that banks may once again be on the edge of the same kind of disaster that floored them in 2008.

Deutsche Bank thinks that the falling oil price could trigger a huge wave of defaults because banks have lent so much money – more than a trillion dollars – to fracking companies which are now in deep water way over their heads.  To make a profit, shale gas and oil needs oil to sell on the world market for a minimum of $85/barrel.

It is now selling for under $50.

It’s nice to be able to fill one’s car with gas for so much less than it cost six months ago, or keep the house warm this winter.  And one can’t help but feel that Putin deserves to be in as much trouble as he is.  And it may encourage Iran to reach a compromise concerning its nuclear capacities.

But I wouldn’t leave any substantial savings with a big U.S. investment bank.  For the record, the ten biggest are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley,  JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, and Barclays.

January 4, 2015

What are we doing here?

We are at last moving out of the frantic Christmas season celebrations most of us enjoy – or endure – with the coming of the new light.  Theoretically at least, it has been a celebration of new life, of hope in the future.

But what of  those of us who no longer believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, who possibly no longer believe in a transcendent God who created this world with some final goal of perfection in mind?  What, for us, is the meaning of life, what are we doing here, what drives us, on what principles do we make moral choices?

A frequent answer given by those immersed in science is that survival is our over-arching principle.  Some philosophers argue that survival is the essential driving force of the entire universe. Here on planet earth, sociobiology says that the preservation of our genes is what ultimately drives us.  Sex, with the goal of instigating successful procreation as broadly as possible is our driving force.  Paradoxically, this is in agreement with both Freud’s theory of the id and the teaching of Catholicism that it is sinful ever to interfere with the act of sexual intercourse with the goal of preventing conception.

I’ve got a problem with survival, though, as the ultimate driving force.  In terms of the universe as a whole, physicists simply don’t know what is going to happen.  Some theories suggest that the universe will keep expanding into an infinity of space.  Others think it will return into the singularity of energy out of which the Big Bang first burst.  Or perhaps our universe will be swallowed up by a bigger universe.  But we have no evidence.  We just don’t know.  So survival on a universal scale impresses me as pretty theoretical and not very exciting.  Not the way being alive is exciting.

On the other hand, if we are talking about survival on a personal level, we are all doomed to failure.  Total failure, and even for the very-longed lived, failure in what is actually a very short-term.  Secondly, survival of the individual as a driving force does not explain altruistic behavior, something which we see throughout the living world.  Why, if my personal survival is the ultimate value, would I willingly give up my life to save another?  Why would I share my last piece of bread with a stranger?  Why would I dive into the water to save a drowning swimmer?  Why would I dedicate my whole life to serving others?   Why would a doctor volunteer to serve Ebola patients, putting his or her own life in profound danger?  Nor does this kind of behavior occur just among religiously dedicated humans.  It occurs among animals.  So personal survival does not work for me as an over-arching principle.  I’m doomed to fail by that standard, and it doesn’t explain the evidence anyway.

What, then, about survival of the human species as a whole as a driving force and over-arching principle?  or of the survival of life in general?  This has more potential for me, with the value it places on life.  But we know that extinction of all life on planet earth is inevitable when the sun has burned out in perhaps another 5 billion years.

Rather than focus on survival, I prefer embracing the fullness of the amazing, incredible reality as we can see it in the lights given to us in this 21st century.  Where we are going eventually is a mystery beyond our capacity to know.  In fact, what we think we understand reasonably well is matter, which consists of a mere 4% of the universe.  We have some glimmer of what another 23% consists of, called “dark matter,” but no idea at all of what 73% of the universe which consists of “dark matter” is.  There is, though, sound scientific reason to conclude that energy is eternal.  And we know from Einstein that matter and energy are convertible.  So the matter and energy out of which each of us is made is eternal.  What happens to “me” when I die is a mystery.  But the matter and energy of which I am made will continue on forever.

So each of us is participating in a potentially infinite and eternal process.  The glimmers of it we get today are fantastic.  I find this process utterly overwhelmingly wondrous and amazing.  To actively participate in it is a huge privilege.

To be faithful to this process to the best of our understanding seems to me to be a glorious challenge.  It’s my understanding of the biblical metaphor of God’s command to Adam and Eve to be stewards over all creation.  It’s why destroying the environment is such a denial of what we are.  It’s why caring for others, even at the cost sometimes of our individual benefit or even survival, can still drive us, and why we value that selfless love so highly.  It’s why figuring out problems – little ones and big ones – is so rewarding.  It’s why daily jobs like cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes aren’t menial jobs to be denigrated but essential to the whole process of an ongoing universe.

And when I die, I will continue to be part of that glorious challenge.  Even if I don’t know how that may evolve, and I don’t know what “I” becomes.

January 1, 2015

Thoughts on worms and pigs

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 10:05 pm
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When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disunited, many people thought that the system of democracy and capitalism, particularly as it was exemplified in America, had proven to be a superior system for everyone.  Today, though, many people are looking at the huge disparities of wealth in America and at the number of people struggling with profound poverty, and are looking for another system.

I think there are significant changes for the better that could be made in the American system, and I plan to write about them in upcoming posts.  But this is a prelude to any thoughts I might express about systems.

The answers do not lie first and foremost in the system.  The total answer does not lie in any system, no matter how noble, how intelligent, how meant to serve humanity, how righteous.  The Roman Catholic church tried it for centuries through the Middle Ages;  Muslims and Communists have not succeeded in re-creating a Garden of Eden, nor have societies guided by Buddhism or indeed the myriad of societies and communities which have appeared, sometimes prospered, and then disappeared over the 200 milleniums humans have walked this earth.

Why?  Two reasons, I think.  First, the needs of any society are vastly diverse.  What works depends on culture, on religious values, on the natural resources, on populations, on educational levels and on technological resources which have been invented and implemented.  Not only that, but all of these variables are constantly changing with immigration, communication systems, environmental changes and disasters, sometimes disease.

But the second reason is even more fundamental.  All systems operate for but also by individuals.  Groups are always made of separate people, and we are immensely diverse.  We want different things, we have different talents, different needs, different ideas and values, life deals each of us a different hand.  And so there will always be individuals whom the system does not serve well.  And there will always be individuals who can subvert the system to their advantage or invent ways to improve it.  It might or might not be ethical or even legal, but for better or worse, no system has ever succeeded in totally suppressing individual creativity and innovation.  Some systems will slow diversity and creativity down, will divert it, will punish it.  But if they stop it altogether, history shows us that the system will ultimately destroy itself.

Each of us as individuals often feel very small and helpless. But that is not exactly the case.  There isn’t and, despite our adulation of heroes of the past, there never has been a person who has changed the world alone.  It is often possible for relatively small numbers to change societies, sometimes for better, sometime for worse.    But the changing organisms are always individuals and remain individuals.  There is no substitute for the individual, either to make the whole work, or to bring it down.

I sometimes find myself feeling almost hopeless about the insignificant part I can possibly play in making the world a better place.  And then I ask if I would rather find myself in a place like Nazi Germany with someone who is willing to try to help me escape being sent to a concentration camp.  Or would I rather be a Black teenager facing a racist policeman with a gun in a country that says it guarantees equal rights for all.  In other words, would I rather be in a bad system surrounded by good people, or in a supposedly good system faced with a person bent on destroying me.  The deciding factor for me is not the system but the individual whom I am facing.

It might take thousands of worms to make silk for a purse.  But a pig is never going to produce anything but a sow’s ear, however insignificant worms might look in comparison.

December 29, 2014

Scandalous, no?

I have never thought of myself as wealthy.  I’m comfortable but I have never been able to spend money without regard for the bottom line.  Still, although I’ve often been careful, I’ve never had to choose between eating and heating, which is sort of my short-hand definition of poverty.  And I have been given the almost priceless gift of an extremely good education.

I am not a die-hard socialist, but I have a deep concern about the kind of poverty people cannot escape, no matter how hard they work, how careful and disciplined or clever they may be.  Systems in which there are extremes of extraordinary wealth and inescapable poverty seem to me to be one of the greatest moral outrages our economic systems can sustain.

And so I have been rather piously outraged when I read statistics that in 2013:

  • 8.4% of the people in the world own 83.4% of all household wealth – that is, property and financial assets like stocks and bank accounts
  • while at the same time, 67% of the world’s population have a net worth of less than $10,000
  • which includes 64% – that’s 3.2 billion people – who have no net worth at all: no property, no bank accounts, nothing.

Then I found where I belong.  Sort of slipped into the statistics is the information that only 393 million people in the world have a net worth of $100,000 or more – including property and financial assets.  That’s in the global top 10%.  10% of us own 86% of all the wealth in the world.

I’ve always known that life isn’t fair.  And I’ve always known that I’ve been given more than my equal share of good fortune.

I don’t feel guilty that I’ve been so lucky.  And although I think there is obviously a place for charitable giving, living on state or charitable hand outs simply because one doesn’t like work is as immoral as outright theft.  We need to pay our way, we need to be needed, we need to make a contribution.

But how to create systems which support human dignity and opportunities for work for everyone with our huge diversity of abilities and preferences has challenged far greater minds than mine.  The answers are not simple, however morally outraged I and many others might feel about the existence of so much profound poverty in the world.

I do think that it’s one of those problems – like the problem of human-created environmental destruction – that is worth struggling with though.

The statistics for the United States in a way are more disturbing than the global statistics although possibly more hopeful if we want to do something about it.  But enough for today.  I will tackle the subject of inequality in my own country in the next post.

 

 

 

 

December 28, 2014

My suggestion for heaven

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 9:37 pm
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My musician sister sent me the Colbert farewell YouTube video.  It was removed from the internet by Viacom who owns the copyright, so attached here in Vera Lynn’s rendition that gave hope to so many during WWII.

I have heard the Vera Lynn version many times and understood why it meant so much to so many.  But this post is about my unexpected response to the Colbert version.

First of all, let me assure any doubters that I personally do not believe in heaven as most people understand the term.  And if I did, I would not be motivated to try to get there.  Sitting around in a perfect world, with no problems ever to solve, with no one in need of an extra act of thoughtfulness, with no creativity because everything is already perfect sounds excruciatingly boring.

But as I watched the Colbert video, I suspended my unknowing, and began to wonder if, in some mysterious way that I cannot fathom, we will, indeed “meet again” in a next life.  What would that be like?

I imagined sitting around a fire, when our two dogs burst into the room, barking in wild enthusiasm as they recognized us.  And then Mom and Dad and my sister Mary who died almost twenty years ago joined us.  We each had a glass of wine and began to exchange stories.  And I asked them all the questions about what they thought about this and that, questions I couldn’t ask after they’d died.  And then four more dear friends came, and we continued to talk late into the night.

Of course, I would want them all eventually to leave.  Except the dogs.  I mean, sitting around the fire with a glass of wine forever would get to be pretty boring too.  I need sleep.  And besides, I don’t have a very high tolerance for alcohol.

So I don’t think I’ve figured out the great mystery of life and the universe in which it is evolving after all.  The scenarios offered by various religions are inadequate metaphors at best.  Some super-mathematical scientists suggest that there are an infinite number of universes in which life repeats itself in every possible version.  And another scientist has just seriously suggested that when the Big Bang happened, Time began to run both forward and backward in two different parallel universes.  Maybe we are in the universe where time is running backward and will eventually run into the universe where time is running forward.  I confess it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The best I can hope for is that when we die we become part of some kind of transcendent consciousness.  And I say that only because I haven’t the faintest idea of what that means either.

I think I’ll just listen to the Vera Lynn YouTube again and be grateful for the mystery of life that has been given to me right now.

 

December 26, 2014

Advice that looks wiser every year

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:14 pm

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
Stop Comparing Comic by ChibirdIf you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927

December 20, 2014

That which was lost…

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:17 pm

A short time after my husband and I started to live together, I got a phone call from him at the university where I was teaching, saying that he was stuck in the apartment because he couldn’t find his keys, and had I accidentally taken them with me.  No, I said, and suggested several places where he might look

I was teaching late that night and by the time I got home about 9:30, the keys had not been found, and Peter was climbing up the walls in a near panic of claustrophobia.  “I’ll help you look,” I said and started to go through the pockets of his jacket.  “Don’t look there,” he said;  “I already did and they aren’t there.”

Well, I looked there anyway, and found them.

Now it was just a plain pocket.  Not a fancy one with velcro or buttons or a zipper or a hidden compartment.  It was just a plain pocket, with nothing else in it, and I couldn’t imagine how anybody could actually look in it and not find something as substantial as a set of keys.  You may understand why I thought I could find things better than he could.

That was before we began to go into grocery stores together.  Over the years, we have been in grocery stores, big and small, on four different continents, and in more countries than I can count.  Peter’s parents ran a grocery story when he was growing up and he spent a lot of time stacking shelves and making deliveries.   To this day he not only sees things on shelves I miss completely.  He stands at the store entrance of a completely strange store and has a sense of where to go to get whatever it is we want.

It happened again yesterday.  I was looking for unsalted French butter and couldn’t find it.  Peter didn’t even have to try.  He just walked over to the shelf and put the butter in our cart.

But just in case I still harboured the illusion that I can always find things better than he can, he found the key fob to my car that I’d lost more than a year ago and that had cost me $200 to replace.

At least it wasn’t in my pocket.

But it was under the car seat.

 

December 18, 2014

The Peacock Question

Birds Gallery.net.

I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching.  This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research:  are men and women the same?  are there cultural or religious differences?  does age have an influence?  what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?

Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience:  the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe.  I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service.  When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things.  People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit.  That might not be too surprising.

But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit.  I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice.  I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue.  I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception.  Or self-deception.

The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots.  The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose.  It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.”  “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.”  For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.

As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.”  I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.

But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic?  I’ll dress for it, of course.

December 14, 2014

Merrily we lie along

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:18 pm
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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) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29693410 .

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 10, 2014

Oh my dear America, what has happened to us?

I am feeling today rather like a woman who after 50 years of marriage, has just discovered that her husband has never been faithful to her.  She might have known that he was a womanizer, even occasionally had a one-night stand or passing affair.  But now she finds out that he has a family in three different ports.  Or is wanted for extortion and murder or war crimes in another country.

I have just read as much of the report on the CIA torture of terrorist suspects as I can bear.  And I am almost vomiting.

My America!  have you ever been what I thought you were?  The very foundations of this country began with the ethnic cleansing of 80-90% of the American Indians who had been here for hundreds of years.   Today, the treaty violations continue.  How many of us have ever equated this with the ethnic cleansing in other places in the world which we hold in such abhorrence?  Or ever thought that perhaps, we like other countries, have re-written our history to eliminate this shameful guilt?

And then there were the African slaves, brought in like cattle on the ships.  They might have been technically freed by Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, but even the Christian churches continued to assure the white man that they were inferior to us white folk.   So they still could not drink at the same water fountains, use the same rest rooms, sit in the front of the bus, eat in “white” restaurants or stay in the same hotels.

Two days ago I listened to a newscast and read a report which has just been published that shocked me to the core.  The ghettos in which, even today, Blacks are crowded, is a result of federal law requiring that housing be segregated.  Ghettos then were not and are not today the result of White prejudice or of Black poverty.  Initially, it was the law of the country that appropriated land for Whites Only which was highly preferable.  It was not zoned, as Black residential areas were, for polluting factories and where houses of prostitution were tolerated.  Nor were mortgages granted to Blacks by the banks.  This law was not found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1955.  By that time, Whites had amassed significant wealth in the real estate they owned.  That pattern has continued, and today, the great difference between average Black & White wealth in America is a result of the value of the homes they own.  Generations of Blacks have been disenfranchised because of these discriminatory laws.  I think we need a new kind of affirmative action to right this injustice.

And now we have George W Bush, a former president of these United States, and Dick Cheney, his defense secretary, saying that the CIA torture of terrorist suspects was justified and that those torturers are true patriots.  What Cheney objects to is the publication of the reports.  “The transparency and honesty found in this report represent a gross violation of our nation’s values,” he says.  “As long as I have air to breathe, I will do everything in my power to wipe out the scourge of torture reports from the face of the Earth.”  As far as I have seen, he has not objected to the torture.    It’s that it is being published.  The sheer hypocrisy of it.

I know that we are a country that loves guns.  I know we are a country that thinks we are the best because we have the biggest bombs.  I knew we went to war in Iraq over oil, not over the weapons of mass destruction that some politicians knew were not there even before the war began.

But I didn’t realize how often and deeply we really really don’t mean what we say.  Do we really believe in the rule of law?  Are we really committed to freedom for all?

Oh America, my America.  Who are we after all?  Are we going to say NO! WE WON’T HAVE IT?    When we reach the tipping point, which way will we tip in the end?

PS:  I have just read a blog post covering the 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.  The 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 8, 2014

Our Thanksgiving turkey

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:25 pm
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Here in England, for obvious historical reasons, Thanksgiving is not a national holiday.  But surprisingly, 1 out of 6 families do celebrate Thanksgiving.  We are one of the 1/6th.

This year we had no visiting relatives or friends, and we decided to forego the traditional turkey.  Canadian waters have produced a surfeit of lobster that are now flooding our supermarkets, and we thought instead of the turkey, we’d indulge in lobster.  We prepared a festive dinner, and after a few pre-dinner drinks, finished preparing the dinner by putting the lobsters into boiling water for the prescribed number of minutes.  The table was set, but we decided to crack open the lobsters and remove any inedible bits before taking them to the dining room.

Unfortunately, when we opened them, the lobsters contained very little meat.  I learned today from a friend that in America, lobsters weighing less than a pound are called “chicken lobsters.”  They look like adults but are not yet mature and have little meat.

Well, they might be called chicken lobsters in the States.  But ours were real turkeys.

We still celebrated Thanksgiving.  I reached into the freezer and took out a couple of pizzas we’d made earlier in the month.  The champagne helped the thanksgivings along.

December 7, 2014

Rudolph for dinner?

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

December 3, 2014

Intolerance vs conviction

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:14 pm

For more than the first quarter of a century of my life, I was a practicing Roman Catholic.  That means that I was a committed member of a church that required us to believe, under penalty of excommunication and potentially an eternity in hell, that certain teachings were infallible.  That is, they were beyond question.  They were absolutely true.  For nine years, I was a Maryknoll sister, a member of an American missionary society dedicated to working with the poor primarily in underdeveloped countries.

But even in those days, there were many of us – perhaps in the order of which I was a member, most of us – whose mission was not to convert but to serve.  To us, setting up schools and medical facilities were ends in themselves, not bribes to get people through the church door.  Our goal wasn’t to convince people that our beliefs were right and theirs were wrong

By the time I was thirty, I was no longer a nun nor either a practicing or believing Catholic.  But somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that a refusal to tolerate questioning certain beliefs or assumptions spreads far beyond Roman Catholicism.

Even more surprising was the discovery that this insistence is by no means limited to religious belief.  Almost paradoxically, I found it just as active among scientists and even atheists.  I saw, for instance, faculty not given tenure because they did not toe the party line, did not hold the assumptions of the particular professors holding decision-making powers at the time.  The issues were not religious, but were just as contentious.  “Is human behavior best studied and explained as a result of environment or genetics?” was a frequent disputed question at the time among psychologists, dividing faculty into divisive factions.  Scientism or reductionism is another such issue in all branches of science.

Today, now that atheism is not socially quite as disreputable as it used to be in Western society and many more people admit to having no belief in God, I see a similar pattern.  Many atheists, like many scientists and many religious believers, are highly tolerant of those who do not agree with them.  But some are as vicious in their attacks on religious belief as any religious fanatic.  Russian communism is no longer as vibrant as it used to be, but Chinese communism and communism in North Korea still offer serious opposition to religious belief.  And there are Western individuals of some prominence and education whose writing suggests a disdain for those religious believers presumably naive or frightened enough to continue to believe in God.

So I find myself still wondering what the fundamental difference is between conviction and intolerance.  It’s not content.   Nor is intolerance simply disagreement.  It isn’t even being convinced that I am right and you are wrong.  It’s an insistence that you have no right to hold the beliefs that you do if you disagree with me.   Conviction, on the other hand, reflects a willingness to live by certain principles, even to die for them.  But it does not necessarily insist that everybody agree with those convictions.

I’m a psychologist, so I suppose my own hypothesis reflects that background.  I think intolerance arises from a deep personal insecurity.  It’s a defense against a black terrorizing fear that if I am wrong I am without worth, without respect, without any value.

I suspect it is the grip of a similar mesmerizing fear I sometimes feel in the pit of my stomach when I think I’ve just made a terrible mistake that is going to have some serious consequence.  Or when I wonder if I’m suffering from some terminal, un-treatable disease like cancer.  Or when I remember something stupid or insensitive that I’ve said or done and writhe in embarrassment or regret.

What if those fears were multiplied to the depth of my being?  what if I could not look to anything I’ve ever done that seems successful or rewarding or worthwhile or truly loving?  Would I feel quite as liberated as I do looking out at the mystery of life and of the entire universe, knowing that I do not understand?

Would I feel driven to grab onto some religious, scientific, or philosophical positions as if my life depended on it?  Yes, I’m pretty sure I would.

Of course, even if my insecurity hypothesis is right, that still only answers half the question.  It might indicate the source of intolerance.  But it doesn’t really identify the bedrock of conviction that is life-sustaining without an accompanying intolerance.

 

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?.

www.pinterest.com

November 27, 2014

The darker side of Thanksgiving

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:22 pm

Today is Thanksgiving in America.  It is one of the most beloved holidays in the country, unburdened by the stresses of gift-giving, religious belief  and cultural practices that so often permeate the Christmas period.  Mostly it is a day when Americans, and increasingly those who aren’t Americans, simply give thanks for the gifts life has bestowed on us – gifts of love and family and friends, of the joys and challenges of work, sometimes even of illness or other limitations that, paradoxically, have also opened us up to something deeper and more valuable in ourselves and others that we had not known before.

But today I’m also thinking about the very first Thanksgivings in which the Pilgrims gave thanks for the new land, and for the welcome given to them by the American Indians already living here that enabled them to survive those first harsh winters.

We celebrate Thanksgiving for the best of what America wants to stand for:  a welcome to those who want a chance to live, to work, to breathe free.  What we rarely remember on Thanksgiving, or on any other day, is that as a result of the arrival of the white man, 80 to 90% of those American Indians who had welcomed the first settlers had died.  They died because we killed them with our guns, because we drove them off their hunting grounds and off the lands where they had lived for hundreds of years, they died of the small pox we brought with us, from the alcohol to which we introduced them.  The terrible truth which few of us admit to ourselves is that America is built on an ethnic cleansing as ruthless as any 20th century Holocaust.

Science has now discredited the entire concept of “race,” but the terrible, agonizing truth is that this arrogant belief in our racial supremacy has continued.  Whether the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri should have been indicted for shooting an unarmed Black teenager to death last summer, I do not know for certain.  But what I do know for certain is that there remains a deep river of prejudice against Blacks in America.  Black Africans were brought to America unwillingly as slaves.  There are Whites who still believe that they should be their masters.

We could concentrate on trying to change these attitudes.  But I suspect there are more immediate viable steps we can take.  If neighbourhood police wore cameras, for instance, experiments in California and in other countries show that complaints against police brutality drop significantly.  This is because false claims are now often disprovable.  But it’s also because police, who are now held accountable for their actions, engage in far less bullying and unnecessary force.

There are other practical steps we can take.  We do not need simply to ring our hands in frustrated anger and helplessness.

But enough for now.  Wherever you live, and whoever you are, I would like to wish you and those you love a Thanksgiving in which you are overwhelmed with gratitude for so much that we each have been given.

November 24, 2014

Gothic fears

I’ve never been particularly taken with Gothic monsters like Frankenstein or vampires like Dracula, nor did I understand why mature men and women wrote or enjoyed reading these kind of fantastical stories.

But I’m beginning to understand.  The Gothic revival that produced these Gothic fantasies emerged during the Industrial Revolution when it was glaringly apparent that the old ways were disappearing.  People were moving off the farms and into often wretched hovels in the city to work in factories in which lives were at risk, hours long and for which there were few safeguards.  If your arm was cut off in a spinning wheel, or your legs smashed in a mining accident, there was no recompense.  There wasn’t even anything resembling disability payments or unemployment compensation.

Technology and science were drastically changing the world, and for huge numbers, it seemed to be producing a machine that was grinding inexorably to destroy human society as we know it.

And that’s what Dracula was – a metaphor of an economic system run amok, draining the life blood of the very people who fed it.  That is what Frankenstein was – a terrible invention of science stalking the lives of ordinary people without consideration of any kind.

The interesting thing is that these Gothic monsters still stalk us.  In metaphorical terms they appear, most blatantly, in science fiction novels and movies.  They are terrible creatures of evil from another universe totally without kindness, seeking only power.

What are these modern Gothic monsters really for those of us living in the 21st century?

For some it is climate change and the destruction of our home planet Earth.  For some it is capitalism, or immigration, terrorism, or the horrifying tools of modern militaries.  For some it is materialism, or sexual liberation, or the unstoppable spread of a deadly virus sweeping around the globe.  For some it is an Apocalypse sent forth by an angry God.

Perhaps our Gothic metaphors are a way of trying to deal with these very real fears.  Perhaps they are a way of disguising them to ourselves, or ways of convincing ourselves that our fears, like the metaphors, are fantastical.

However we deal with them, I now see that they arise from deep within the human psyche.  And I can see why they grow so strong in times of turmoil and uncertainty.

November 16, 2014

Today’s news

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

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

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

http://kidspagess.com/

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

November 11, 2014

Selling God

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 6, 2014

The socialization of oldest sisters and Catholic priests

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

Photo from Kid Costs || Child Support Budgets

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 9, 2014

My absurd idea

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

Albert Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

October 6, 2014

A saga of senior moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 30, 2014

Update on the no-sugar regime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2014

Mine’s better than yours

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

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

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

So I’ve been analyzing my response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, I don’t think the neighbour understood.

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

September 16, 2014

Dragon fruit

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

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

It’s sugar.

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

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

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

 

September 9, 2014

But I want!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know if I can do it.

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

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

 

 

August 21, 2014

What makes living worth it?

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

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

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

What then is the value of my life now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is simply a great great gift.

August 12, 2014

What do you do with a problem like — Courgette?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

July 19, 2014

“Those who live by the sword…”

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

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

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

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

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

July 8, 2014

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

June 25, 2014

How we think about God

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strong any of these trends are is not clear.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 16, 2014

Scottish Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

April 30, 2014

What makes us equal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

April 25, 2014

“Made in the USA”

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

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

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

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

April 16, 2014

“I don’t know” is a big step forward

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

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

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

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

I didn’t dare ask about global warming.

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

April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I, I wonder, a minority?

 

April 1, 2014

When did we start making fools of ourselves?

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

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

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

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

 

With best wishes for a laugh-filled day.

March 22, 2014

Last voucher?

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

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

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

 

 

 

March 14, 2014

Not powerless!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2014

What does genius look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 25, 2014

I broke my fingernail and it’s your fault

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

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

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

 

 

 

February 21, 2014

Life on the street

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

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2014

Alternative to innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2014

Fried eggs or a copper pot

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:28 pm
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A friend who knows I am also a cognitive psychologist just sent me an email she thought I might find of interest:

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

 

 
 

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

January 27, 2014

The first level below godliness

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

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

Image from e-How:  How to Mop a Floor

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2014

New Year’s resolution adjustment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 18, 2014

What do you think about your mother?

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love to know.

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