The Other I

October 20, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Megan did.

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

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

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

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

Truly, they have found the bread of life.

Image result for Together: Our community cookbook


October 10, 2018

“I don’t believe…”

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

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

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

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

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

He asked me to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only this time we are talking about the entire planet.

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

March 26, 2018

A Happy Easter story

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for pit latrine images

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

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

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

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




February 18, 2018

Not me too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 1, 2018

Learning from the elephant

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

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


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

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

June 22, 2017

Would you work if you didn’t have to?

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

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

Image result for basic income finland 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They say international interest is intense.

Mine sure is.

June 3, 2017

My new housekeeper

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

Image result for spider in a web

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

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

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

As long as it stays out of the bed anyway.

April 9, 2017

Washing-up liquid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for cheers


Cheers to the good old days!

March 8, 2017

Escaping the revolving prison door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 17, 2017

The power of the powerless

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

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

Bill Gates



We also often overestimate what an individual can do

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





And paradoxically, underestimate what we can accomplish together.

Image result for time

January 7, 2017

God save WHO?

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

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

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

Happy 2017 – whatever it visits upon us!

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

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

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

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

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.


September 21, 2016

The danger of the Good Old Days

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was.  Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



February 7, 2016

Yes we can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



December 13, 2015

Truly Tidings of Good News!

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

We watched the negotiators in Paris yesterday when the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that almost 200 countries in the world had reached agreement on climate change.  There was a moment of dumb silence, and then an explosion of celebration.  They had done it!

Christiana Figueres and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcome the final agreement.


Yes, I know it is only the first step to saving the only planet on which we live, and which is uniquely ours.

Yes, I’ve read enough of what is contained in the legally binding agreement to know that without good will, determination, generosity, and creativity we will continue down the road to destroying our only home.

So the problem is not done and dusted.  There is a great deal of hard work and sacrifice still facing us.  Governments, business, communities, and individuals must all do our part.

But we have taken an absolutely huge and essential first step without which no progress at all could be made.  And until the last minute, that was by no means assured.

And so I am celebrating the future of mankind today.

Truly it is a day that brings us Tidings of Good News.

November 15, 2015

Magical balloons

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:11 pm

The news this weekend seems particularly depressing.  The multiple terrorist attacks in Paris seem especially terrifying and unexpected – on the par with 9/11 in terms of its shock value.

In the midst of this global awfulness, I stumbled on what might really be seriously important and good news.  Hang on:  this could sound utterly boring, but it might have implications for all of us and those we love and care about.

A group of international scientists have just published a report in Nature (highly respected science journal) in which they report having invented an ultra-porous liquid which contains huge (well, huge in atomic terms) bubbles.  What is potentially significant about this invention is that these bubbles may be able to contain vast amount of carbon-dioxide — the greenhouse gas we are throwing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels which is so destructive of our environment.

If we can capture the carbon-dioxides we are currently pumping into the air we might be able to avoid disaster.  That is, we may be able to avoid the droughts, starvation, wars, diseases, flooding, mega-storms, and destruction of our oceans that global warming is already beginning to visit on us.

Above all, it may make a significant contribution to earth’s not hitting what scientists call a tipping point.  One of the most dangerous tipping points we could trigger is the melting of the arctic ice to such a degree that it releases the vast amounts of methane gas currently trapped there.  Methane gas is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and once it escapes, it will be too late for us to turn things around.

When I was a child, I thought balloons were magical.  Maybe I was right.

Image from

September 29, 2015

What makes the system work?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 3, 2015

Can barbed wire fences save Christianity?

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

A woman carrying a child stands outside a train carrying migrants that was stopped in Bicske, Hungary - 3 September 2015

Image from the BBC

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants escaping from war in Syria, Afganistan, and Africa are fleeing to Europe.  It is the biggest refugee influx since the second world war, and European governments are in conflict over how to deal with the increasing crisis.

This morning, Hungarian police put hundreds of migrants, mostly families with children, all of whom believed they were heading for a welcome in Germany, onto a train in Budapest.  Then several miles out of the city, stopped the train and everyone was ordered to disembark.  They were met by armed police who told them that they were being sent to camps where they would be “evaluated.”  If they refused to go, they would be arrested.

Today, the President of the European Union, Donald Tusk responded to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban who is warning that the influx of migrants threatens Europe’s “Christian roots” and should be stopped.  Mr Tusk responded

 “For me Christianity is a duty to our brothers in need.

“For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”

I agree.  I can’t see that loving each other comes with the limitation of a barbed wire fence.  Yes, I know:  there are Islamists bent on destroying Christianity and European civilization who almost certainly are infiltrating the migrants, posing as refugees.  But is a schreeching YOU CAN’T COME IN! the best solution we can come up with?  My experience is that, in fact, one needn’t be a Christian to find a more loving, creative, and ultimately effective response than that.

Isn’t that the point Jesus was making talking to the woman at the well?

July 26, 2015

A little bird told me

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:10 pm




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.


March 16, 2015

We all need each other

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:41 pm

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?


The name of the nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill.

His son’s name was Sir Winston Churchill

February 21, 2015

Beyond red wine: Secrets of a long life

Filed under: 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.




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.


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.

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.

August 5, 2014

We will remember…

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

It was 100 years yesterday that World War I began.  There were remembrance ceremonies in Britain, Belgium, and France that I found moved me almost to tears.  It was the first war in which weapons – tanks, aircraft, submarines, machine guns and mustard gas – produced en masse by the industrial revolution were used to kill  an average of 10,000 fellow human beings every single day for four continuous years.  By the end of the war, 8 million troops and 6.5 million civilians were dead.

Yesterday government representatives, military, and relatives of the dead gathered together in ceremonies of reconciliation.  “We will remember” was promised again and again.

Perhaps it is because of the current massacres in Gaza right now, but somehow, to me, “we will remember” isn’t enough.  We will remember those who died for our liberty.  We will remember those who died so young that we might live in security.  We will remember the brave.  We will remember the wives who lost their husbands, the children who grew up without their fathers, or brothers.

But I only heard one person say “we must learn.”  It’s not enough to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives.  Those deaths were too terrible and too many.  We desperately need to learn better ways of resolving our differences, even of finding justice, than by killing on the mass scale that modern warfare makes possible.  The determination to negotiate must be our goal.  We must honor those who can find peace for their peoples through listening and giving and compromise.  Today we need them even more than we need those willing to lay down their lives.

We will remember.  We will feel sorrow.  We will honor those who were lost.  We will be appalled by the tens of thousands of graves spread throughout Europe.

But will we learn?



April 22, 2014

“Forgive us as…”

For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy.  One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.

In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others.  In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father,  the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”  But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.

Last week,  something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.

Maryam Hosseinzadeh, standing on a chair, slaps Balal.Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran.  Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged.  There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim.   The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck.  The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner.  She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!”  She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.

There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.

This story seems to have been in all the international news media.  But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless.  As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium.   Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart.  I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger.   And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.

But I have never known anyone who has achieved  it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice”  for the murder of her son.

I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.

But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.

March 15, 2014

How not to be a victim: a demonstration

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:45 pm
Tags: ,


Credit: ChristArt

There is a great delight in watching a two- or three-year old stubbornly insist on buttoning his own shirt.  It might be crooked, but he did it.  Or insisting on tying his own shoe laces – whatever the outcome.  Similarly, I remember a student once saying to me about some advice she’d been given by her well-meaning adviser:  ” I might be wrong.  But I’d rather take responsibility for making my own mistakes than to let her tell me what mistakes to make.”

After my post yesterday, it occurred to me that victimhood and smoldering anger are quite similar.   Because they both rob the person of the belief that metaphorically they can “tie their own shoe laces.” They both place the total blame on what has happened to them on someone else, and in the process convince themselves that they are powerless.  Certainly, for better and worse, what happens to us is in part a result of what others do.  But victimhood and long-term anger give away that critical self-determination that is evident in that two-year old with the crookedly buttoned shirt or knotted shoe lace.

I have long thought that anger is one of the most destructive emotions we humans generate.  I’m not talking about that short burst of adrenalin-fired anger that gives us the wherewith-all to fight off danger, but the bitterness and anger that burns relentlessly for years, for a lifetime, even for generations.  What seems to me so destructive about it is that, like victimhood, it too  focuses the blame on  what someone else did, rather than on what we might be able to do about it.  That then degenerates into the pursuit of revenge, the determination to get even.

But ultimately what enduring anger and being a victim do is to rob the life of the angry person.  They come believe they are powerless to do something positive, something life-enhancing, because some opportunity has been robbed from them by somebody else who had no right to take it.

It is true that they may truly have been hit, even are still being hit, by terrible misfortune caused by someone else.  But that does not make one powerless.  It does not mean there is nothing that I can do that is meaningful and which can give me joy or a sense of accomplishment.  My misfortune might even give me insights into how to help others that I would not otherwise have had.

Anything I might say, however, cannot possibly compete with Maysoon Zayid.   She may be handicapped because a doctor in New Jersey was drunk on the job when she was born.  But a victim she is not

transcript of video


January 29, 2014

I ain’t gonna study war…

Filed under: Survival Strategies,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 3:54 pm

I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog.  Then this morning I found  Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago.  I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60’s and 70’s all day.

I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life.  I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor.  And I thought again that we were right.

Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple.  But we were right about war.  We were right about loving each other.  We were right that we needed to care about each other.  And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right.  We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty.  People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.

But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was.  I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact.  Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.

We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex.  I think we still don’t.  Actually,  we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more.  We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.

Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic?  The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now.  I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war.   What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent.  So they saw no alternative to war.   Was there?  Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians?  Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?

This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria.  Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.

I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.

But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone.  In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair.  We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people.  Our kindness can reach only a very small circle.  Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all.  We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.

We’re all in this together.  Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.





December 7, 2013

Mandela’s gifts

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:13 pm

The news is reporting today that Mandela’s funeral is predicted to be the largest funeral the world has ever seen.   Hours – no, days – of media coverage have been given to the life of this extraordinary man.  Hundreds of people, famous and not, have talked about the ways in which he changed their lives.

Three things that stand out for me.

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

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

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

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

Could that have happened without Mandela?

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

November 20, 2013

Do you have to be religious to be a hermit?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:16 pm

A couple of months ago, I read about a woman here in England who has taken a vow to be a hermit.  At first, her bishop said there wasn’t such a vow, but a search through canon law proved him wrong.

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

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

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

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

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


November 17, 2013

Against all odds

Filed under: Illness and disease,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

I have just read an absolutely amazing story.  It’s the obituary of an Italian World Bank economist who simply would not accept the death verdict of his son from the medical establishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 15, 2013

Laughing Sinner

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

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

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

Well, I think that’s ridiculous.

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

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

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

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


November 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I have a suggestion.

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

November 1, 2013

Learning from the children

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:36 pm

I read once that Einstein said that the idea of relativity of time first came to him from a child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 30, 2013


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

But sometimes it’s positively hopeful.

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

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


August 16, 2013

The olden days

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:35 pm

My husband’s parents and grandparents grew up before the National Health Service was set up in Britain after WWII, and access to professional medical help was available only to those who could afford to pay for it.  In the coal mining villages of Yorkshire, a lot of people relied on what today we would probably call folk medicine.

When we were taking care of Peter’s father, aged 90, we discovered a collection of various medicines in his cabinet that I had never heard of.  What was interesting to me as an American with an anthropological bent was that it was impossible to distinguish between what worked and what didn’t, what was  superstition, and what was truly effective medication — some of which quite probably have been re-named, re-packaged, re-priced, and re-marketed by today’s pharmaceutical companies.

Although ultimately most of the medicines in the cabinet were discarded, if only because they were well past a sensible use-by date, I never lost my respect for the processes which had led to the collection.

When a friend who grew up in Europe during the war told me about the uses for hydrogen-peroxide I was amazed, but not incredulous.  The only use for peroxide I’d ever heard of was as a hair lightener.   I’ve now learned that it consists solely of hydrogen and oxygen and was used during WWI as a disinfectant, and treatment for wounds.  It can used as a mouth wash or stain remover on leather and other upholstery.  It can be added to steam cleaners,  humidifiers and laundry, will remove mold, and combined with vinegar, it is more effective at killing pathogens than bleach.  Surprisingly, it can also be used in food preparation to sanitize meat and wash salad vegetables.  It will even aid sprouting seeds and house plants love it as a refreshing spray.  There are 42 uses suggested by Fluster Buster.  Googling “hydrogen peroxide uses” brought up a page full of sites with long lists of potential uses.

So three days ago I went to our local pharmacy and bought a bottle of hydrogen peroxide mouthwash.  To my delight, within hours it had removed the rust and mold stains on the white blinds in our sun room.  So I tried it on an irritating fungal rash I’d picked up in the garden last week that was itching but not showing any signs of going away.  The rash is now gone.

They say it also works as a teeth whitener.

I bet it does.  And whatever else chlorine bleach might do, I don’t think it’s recommended for a bright smile.

I knew those old medicine cabinets weren’t all filled with silly superstitions.

August 9, 2013

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:25 pm

Perhaps it’s the heat, perhaps it’s age.  Perhaps it’s a need for a period of quiet contemplation.   Whatever the reason, I feel a need to stop worrying about the world for a while, to trust that existence has its own intrinsic direction of which I am a part but for which I am not wholly responsible.

I increasingly find myself reluctant to blog right now.  I’ve wondered if I should give it up altogether, but every time I consider it, a sense of loss overwhelms me.   Writing is how I think and how I communicate, and blogging has become a way of staying in contact with the human community so essential to a fulfilled life.

But I need  to stop talking out loud so often right now.

  I might even learn something if I listen a little more.

June 4, 2013

Learning from the Neanderthals

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:21 pm

We all know that we can’t predict the future with any certainty.

But I’m beginning to think what has happened in the past is just as uncertain.

This week we’ve been trying to figure out events in my family a mere generation ago.  Simple questions like “Who was it that was engaged to my mother before she married dad?  When did our parents meet, and who introduced them?”  have baffled us.

And now scientists are telling us that the evidence suggests that we Homo sapiens did not co-exist with the Neanderthals for any length of time in Europe.  Newer dating techniques suggest that the Neanderthals were probably extinct in Europe 40,000 years ago, ten to fifteen thousand years earlier than we thought.

Why did the Neanderthals die out when Homo sapiens did not?  The Neanderthals had brains as big as ours, and had survived in Europe for tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens even left Africa.

And the Neanderthals were as big and as fast as Sapiens, so it is unlikely that we hunted them to death.  But we might have out-competed them for resources.  Neanderthals have larger eye-sockets and probably better eye-sight than Sapiens.  This made them good hunters, but used up much of the frontal brain that Sapiens developed for social networking and more abstract thought.  So Sapiens became more cooperative, better at sharing and learning from each other.

Hmmm.  Maybe there’s something we can learn from our ancient ancestors.

Or we may inflict on ourselves the same fate that befell Homo Neanderthalis.

February 24, 2013

Tranquility vs transparency

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:25 pm

Today’s almost-instantaneous global communications systems are wonderful.  But they have their downsides, only one of which is this question of news.

Wherever one is on a political, economic, or religious spectrum, it is impossible to review an average day of news and commentary without feeling the impulse toward something between rage and despair.  I’m not the only one to be faced with the decision to tune out altogether or to find some way to come to terms with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

I’ve given myself endless sermons that I am not, cannot be, responsible for everything that happens in the world.  I even have enough self-knowledge to realize that, despite my obvious goodness and wisdom, I am unlikely to do a better job than most  of our leaders.  Why then, I have asked myself, bother?  Why flagellate myself when there is nothing I can do beyond my own very small patch?

But I think there is a reason we should keep worrying about what’s happening in the larger world beyond our personal circle.  It’s because transparency is one of the most powerful tools we as a human species have.  Closed, secret systems provide far more opportunities to cheat, lie, manipulate,and destroy.  Even the fear of exposure can help keep these universal impulses under control.  We know this is true for each of us as individuals.  Seeing what’s going on is just as true for systems.  We need them to be transparent.

So although my life might be more tranquil if I simply close the door on the world, I won’t be making my small contribution to a more transparent and honest one.

It’s not that any of us can see ourselves making much of a contribution to changing the world.  Even those proclaimed to be among the Great and the Good seem to make such small changes for a life-time of heroic effort.  But bit by bit, for better or for worse, we each do make a difference.

Like it or not, we’re all in this together.


January 31, 2013

Are we going to make it?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:54 pm

On my bad days, I don’t see how Homo sapiens is going to survive the twin assaults of environmental pollution and militarism.  Each is destructive enough on its own, but my fear is that they are each escalating factors for the other.  As food, water, and oil become more scarce, we ratchet up our determination to get enough of what we want, whatever the cost.  If the cost is bombs from drones or on the backs of suicide bombers, whether its nuclear or germ warfare, if  survival is the issue, I fear the restraints on our assaults on others who have what we need or think we need will decrease exponentially.  Globalization exacerbates the problem as well.  We can no longer hide away or walk away from peoples who disagree with us, or who have what we want.

But I do have good days as well, when I still have some hope that a combination of altruism and ingenuity will pull us through this.  Every once in a while I see reason to hope that enough of us around the world will recognize our common humanity.  With that comes a recognition that we all have human rights that go beyond our religious and ethnic differences.

And there are times too when our capacity for ingenuity and creativity almost make me dance.  Maybe after all we can do it. Maybe we can figure out how to preserve our planet and each other at the same time.

What if, for instance, we could figure out how to run all our cars on water?  Well, the Japanese have done it.  They have produced a car that will run on water – any kind of water.  It will run on rain water, ocean water, drinking water, even tea.  It will run at 80 kilometers an hour (about 50 mph) for an hour on a litre (about a quart) of water.  A couple of quarts of water can be carried as back up, to run another hundred miles or so.  The car works by generating hydrogen from the water, which in turn runs the car.

It’s difficult to estimate just how much a car like this might reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming because although the number of cars  being driven worldwide is increasing every year, so too is the efficiency of the cars.  My best guess is that cars produce about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t quote me.

The Japanese hope to start mass production.  No price has been set yet.

Wouldn’t you love to have one?

January 14, 2013

Mistakes are a goldmine

I spent my childhood obsessed with Right Answers.   Solutions to problems were divided exclusively into two categories – Right and Wrong, and I was bright enough to get a large percentage of the solutions in the Right category.  But that left me with an exaggerated fear of the humiliation of being wrong.  So I avoided problems that I was not confidant I could solve, or problems that involved “thinking out of the box.”  This narrow thinking  permeated every area of my life, and didn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation or creativity.   I followed directions, I cooked by strictly following the recipe.

I have gradually given up this faith in Right Answers.  Whether in matters of religion or of science, in personal or impersonal situations, I have learned just how liberating doubt can be.  How it opens up a whole new world of possibilities – ranging from the meals I cook to my thoughts about the meaning of life.

I have just finished reading the book Antifragile:  Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb , also the author of the Black Swan   He offers a fascinating view that suggests to me why this Right Answer approach is a deeply flawed philosophy for living.

Crises and stress, Taleb says, are unavoidable.  Not only that, but the potentially most catastrophic events happen so rarely that they are statistically unpredictable for all practical purposes.  Because crises – what he calls Black Swans – are going to happen, he argues that we are better off not trying to create systems in which mistakes can “never happen again.”  Rather we should create systems that can continually learn and benefit from mistakes and stresses and adjust, so that when the really big crisis arrives (ie – the unexpected “Black Swan” like the sub-prime banking catastrophe), the system is more apt to be able to deal with it without complete catastrophe.

He gives examples of what he means from a quite surprising variety of systems –  like evolution, or even our need to stress our muscles and impact our bones in order to strengthen them.   The entire universe and all the enduring systems within it are systems that have learned to change and adjust as a result of stress.  Survival depends on our ability to learn from our mistakes, rather than trying to avoid them altogether.

I think the idea underlies a wonderfully creative and daring attitude toward life.  I love it!

So I am now going into the kitchen and see what I can do with the herbs and spices and various seasonings we have hanging around to turn the frozen turkey leftover from our Christmas dinner into a meal that is a little more creative than the standard pot pie I’ve been putting together for years.

I hope it’s at least edible.  I really don’t need to learn from the stress of a starving household.


January 10, 2013

You can never go home

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:19 pm

I’ve just learned that Mars One, a not-for-profit organization in the Netherlands, is looking for applicants who are interested in taking a one-way voyage to Mars.  The hope is to interview them, and send them on their way amid great on-going media fanfare, a spectacle they think would pay for the cost of colonizing Mars.

Mars One is looking for four intelligent, resilient, adaptable, able to trust as well as communicate effectively, creative, and playful candidates.  They also must be at least 18 years old in 2013, so that all four immigrants would be at least 28 years old  when they leave their earthly home forever.

Whew!  Going to Mars with no expectation of ever being able to return makes Siberian exile look like winning the lottery.  Besides that, current plans are that new immigrants will arrive only once every two years.  So it could be a very lonely time for a very long time.
Unless other countries also join the colonizing masses, which I think they almost certainly would.

I wonder how much of the best and the worst of our human behaviors we would take with us.  Would we export what seems to be a universal tendency to treat newcomers as unwelcome foreigners?  Would the right to hold guns for self-protection against invaders still  be a constitutional right for Americans?   What about religious differences?

I can’t say I wish I were young enough to be going.  Assuming, of course, that I were “intelligent, resilient, adaptable, creative, and playful” enough in the first place.


November 25, 2012

Worry Wart of the Week Award

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:04 pm
Tags: ,

I’m nominating myself the Worry Wart of the Week Award.  I am invariably an inveterate optimist but I’ve just had a glimpse of the evangelical right in the United States.  I’m working hard to find an upside to the story.  Because the future of America doesn’t just matter to me as an American.  America is too big, and has held up ideals of democracy and freedom and the rule of law that are banners for people  all over the world. We aren’t the only ones who matter, of course.  But what happens in America has global import, and  these ideals have taken a serious battering in this new millennium.

I am still sitting here at my computer stunned by the discovery that in 2008 the state of Kentucky passed a law requiring all officers working for the state’s Homeland Security to acknowledge the “security provided by the Almighty God.”  And just to make sure that this law is not misunderstood as mere hope, the law states that anyone refusing to acknowledge this divine security is subject to serving 12 months in prison.

It gets worse.

An organization defending the civil rights of atheists brought a lawsuit against the law, which it won at the Circuit Court, but which was then overturned by the state Court of Appeals.  The state Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, which leaves the Appeals Court ruling the final one as of now.

Whether you believe in God or not, I cannot see how this is not a blatant violation of the separation of church and state, and a complete disregard for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the US Constitution.

If you want to read more – and can bear it – see Jail for Not Believing in God.

Personally, I’m trying to cheer myself up by bolstering my faith in human ingenuity.  A U.S. start-up company (the article doesn’t say, but it’s probably run by a couple of whiz kids who are considering dropping out of college) may have identified a revolutionary way of filling up bottles of water for the billion of people who do not have access to safe drinking water.

Namib Desert BeetleActually, it probably shouldn’t be called revolutionary.  It’s really evolutionary.  A beetle survives in the African Namib desert that gets an average annual rainfall of half an inch.  The beetle harvests moisture from the air by first getting it to condense on its back and then storing the water.   The evolutionary inventors think they can develop bottles using the same process that could store up to three litres (about 3 quarts) an hour.

That much water would be almost tantamount to a flood for the three billion people who live in water-scarce areas in the world today.

If it weren’t for Kentucky,  one might almost be tempted to call it a God-send.

November 8, 2012


Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:59 pm

I rarely have trouble find something to blog about.  Mostly because I’m not very fussy about whether what I’m writing is serious or important or terribly entertaining or interesting to anybody but me.

But right now every single thing I think to write about seems either irrelevant at best and completely out of touch and insensitive at worst.   I heard on the news today that another storm was due to hit the East Coast, and I’ve just learned that five inches of snow landed in New York, and the sea wall outside the village where my sister lives was destroyed by Sandy, leaving them vulnerable in ways unknown to this newest onslaught.

So how can I write about the election results or about the fiscal cliff tonight?  Wouldn’t a discussion about left-wing social engineering or the moral questions related to global warming feel rather distant next to a hysterical Mother Nature once more throwing a tantrum on the front door step?  Does anybody really want to know about exercise and dementia, or marijuana and IQ at this point?




So for what its worth, I send all of you, friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, and everyone facing the challenges of yet another storm, my commiserations and sympathy.

Be tough and hang in there.  There are people half way around the world who are thinking about you.  (And it’s not just me either.)

October 24, 2012

Updating the new decade

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:17 pm

About every ten years or so, I become aware that my energy level is just a little less than it used to be.  Up until now I haven’t had to take that too seriously, but recently I’ve been experimenting with the best ways to make my dwindling resources go further.  Here are five strategies I’ve been testing.

60-90 minute blocks:  I tried this out because it’s a good idea not to sit at a desk or computer screen uninterrupted for more than an hour and a half.  And it’s enough time to spend on a task, whether mental or physical, to actually make some headway.   I’m the kind of person who likes a schedule.  One of the things that never bothered me about convent life was the strict routine.  I knew when the bell was going to ring, how long I had for any activity, and what I would be doing next.

I’ve tried this strategy for several months with some success, but actually, it has morphed into something else.

Identify my next task:  This sounds so idiotically obvious I can’t believe that it is now the most significant strategy I’ve found for getting things done.  The 60-90 minute block, I found, still left too much time for me to procrastinate over short but essential tasks lasting less than fifteen minutes.  This is not a To Do List.  I’ve been making those for years and more often than not, find them unrealistic and overwhelming.  What does work for me is to identify quite specifically what I am going to do next, (by which I mean now)  even if it’s no more than read the morning news.

It gives me a day full of a sense of accomplishments.  And I’m much less tempted to engage in another time-waster – like a computer game – before I get started.

Making computer games inaccessible:  I suspected this wasn’t going to work because  I’ve never been someone who adapted well to the cold turkey method.  I gave up smoking gradually, reduced my alcohol consumption the same way.  I have found that replacing computer games with a clear, even short, task is a more effective way of weaning myself away from this neurotic activity I don’t usually enjoy anyway.


Nap instead of nibble:  I don’t need to make use of this strategy too often because my energy usually lasts out my waking hours.  But I have found that I do need to distinguish between being hungry and being tired, and not reach for the quick calorie fix when what I need is twenty-minutes flat out.


Exercise:  Ah, the queen of the strategies.  My osteoporosis has made a huge contribution to getting me moving, because the alternatives are so dire.  But exercise brings with it another huge unforeseen benefit that I haven’t ever heard experts talk about. I have found that putting on some music and going through my stretching, strengthening, and aerobic routines is amazingly creative.  Solutions to problems seem to appear unsought, creative ideas develop out of nowhere, the insightful reply to someone’s difficulty which has seemed to be stuck somewhere inaccessible, its existence unrecognized, blooms when I start exercising.

I hate exercising.  It invariably starts out as utterly boring.  But at the end of 30 minutes I’m on an endorphin high, feeling ten years younger, and ten IQ points smarter. (Well, okay, maybe not ten points smarter; but definitely more in control.)

October 21, 2012

We’re all in this …

I cannot think of a better expression of the Christian message than “We are all in this together.”

Yes, we are all individuals with individual responsibility.  But that does not mean we are not dependent on each other, it doesn’t mean that what happens to you has no effect on that happens to me.

Actually, I don’t think one must be a Christian at all to understand how interlinked we all are.  It’s the human condition.

So droughts in the midwest are affecting the price of food when I go to the supermarket.  Cures for cancer found in China are applied by doctors in England.  Polluted air or nuclear radiation from half way around the world can kill me.  Car bombs in Syria might be more significant than the recent threat to Wall Street.

In the good times when we don’t feel the need for help and support, it’s nice to think we each can take care of ourselves, and your troubles have nothing to do with me.  But they do.  Whether it’s SARS that started in China, or AIDS in Africa, germ warfare from Germany or nuclear weapons that started in America, whether it’s medical innovation or alternative energies or economic meltdowns, what happens to other people matters to me.

I may not be suffused with love for my fellow man.

But like it or not, we’re all in this together.

If I care what happens to me, even for selfish reasons, I need to care what happens to you.




That, by the way, is what I think the Tea Party doesn’t understand.

July 11, 2012

In gratitude for the great and the good

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:20 pm

I’ve been thinking about Barbara Sullivan’s grandparents who I wrote about in my post yesterday.  She credits them as one of the reasons why she is a survivor, able now to help rather than depend on others.

In that context, I’ve been thinking about my own mother who in her too-short life gave me the foundations of so much happiness and riches.  I sure didn’t think so at the time.  I was going to do something far more meaningful and important than having babies and cooking meals and playing cards with my children.  I was going to be one of the Great and the Good, and I really did mean Great.

But now on the other side of most of the years that are going to be given to me,  I think fame and fortune, even the saintly kind to which I aspired, is chimera.  We don’t know how what we do will resound, for better or worse, down the centuries after we are dead.  But I doubt very much it’s got much to do with fame.

I have no doubt that what we do does resound down the centuries.  I’m pretty sure it’s got something to do with love or lack of it, with being as fully human as we can possibly be.  But we cannot possibly know how what we do today might make a difference.

Barbara’s grandmother was saving boxes and bottles and cans for Barbara to open up a store under the kitchen table.  Oh my goodness, how superior I would have felt as a young teenager toward doing something so pathetically simple.

But if, like Barbara’s grandmother, there is someone two generations after me able to reach out a helping hand to the neglected and abused because of something I did half a century before, truly I would feel that I could enter the hall of the great and the good.

I am overwhelmingly grateful that there were those in my life who did not have to wait as long as I have to achieve this insight.

July 10, 2012

The Great and the Good

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:26 pm
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Early in my professional career as a psychologist, I was impressed with a piece of research looking at how some children survive abuse and neglect and grow up into functioning, loving adults.  There was one almost constant outstanding characteristic of “survivors.”  They almost all were able to describe some adult who showed them a different world than the abusive one in which they were living almost 24/7.

Sometimes it was only a glimmer.  But somehow it became a beacon that showed the child a way out of what so often must have felt like a black hole.

The significant adult varied.  Often it was a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle.  Sometimes it was a teacher, sometimes a neighbour, or a person like a Boy or Girl Scout leader.  Sometimes these relationships lasted for years.  But often they were fleeting.  One would hardly imagine it was enough time to make any difference at all.

I never lost my interest in the implications of this initial finding.  The last piece of research I did before I retired was an exploration of teachers whom adults remembered as having changed their lives.

But until now I have never heard a first-hand story of an abused or neglected child who had clearly been deprived of parental love and care, and has somehow not only survived but is now helping others in their struggle to find hope and self-worth.

I can’t tell the story any better than she told it to me, and so I am quoting it verbatim.  The blog written by this survivor is at

Early on–this must have been sub-three years old–I remember my father’s parents not only tolerating but welcoming my presence, which was a novelty. My grandmother used to save old cereal boxes, cans, bottles and what not so that when I came over, I could make a pretend store under her kitchen table. I remember her smiling at that, and also walking me several blocks to the shoe repair shop where my grandfather worked so that he could open the cash register and let me take as many pennies as my little hand would hold, with which we would go buy chocolate malt balls on the way home. These small things were absolutely miraculous to me.

 I sometimes stand in Westminster Cathedral in London looking at the memorials to the great and the good. And it is impossible to miss the achievements of today’s “celebrities.”

And yet how little we know about those who are truly the great and the good.  This little girl was moved away from her grandparents by the time she was four.  They must have felt that there was nothing they could do to help this child who was snatched from them for the rest of their lives.  How could they possibly have known that 60 years later, that child would remember them as one of the most formative influences of her life?

How can we possibly know who the great and the good truly are?  History rarely records those acts of kindness and love, perhaps of courage and tenacity, that may have changed the world.


May 14, 2012

The potential of tasty maggots

But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the worst and the best things that happen to us.   Creativity is not just the daughter of inventive minds;  it’s also the daughter of every living organism striving to stay alive.  For us humans, when it’s a question of feeding ourselves and those we love and of keeping a roof over their heads, it’s amazing what sometimes the most seemingly ordinary people think of doing. Between the recession and the challenge of global warming, people are coming up some of the extraordinary ideas.

On of my favorite stories is the maggots.

Jason Drew, an English Yorkshireman living on a farm in South Africa, was told by his doctors that if he wanted to live much longer after his second heart attack, he’d better take it easy.  In the process of lounging around, he discovered that one of his neighbours who raised chickens was feeding them fishmeal.  Fishmeal is a high-protein food used to feed animals.  One-third of all fish caught every year around the world go to make this kind of animal feed.

I don’t know how this idea came to him.  Perhaps he was a fisherman who used maggots as bait.  However it happened, Mr. Drew is now producing a high-protein animal feed called Magmeal.

Drew keeps a breeding stock of millions of flies, then harvests their larvae which he feeds with waste blood from abattoirs — who actually pay him to take it off their hands.  Within three days, fat, nutritious maggots are dried and processed as animal feed.

Every tonne of Magmeal he produces saves a tonne of fishmeal.

Maggots instead of fish:  I wish I’d thought of that.

And I hope Jason Drew lives a long life.  Though it doesn’t sound as if he’s exactly following his doctor’s order to slow down.

March 10, 2012

About the birds and the bees

I was watching the bees buzzing around our lavender bush this morning and I felt as if I’d gotten some clue about a problem that’s been nagging at me ever since I realized that, for whatever reason, I am not going to save the world after all.

I keep looking around at all the suffering and all the problems in the world, especially innocent suffering – like starving or abused children, or people bombed out of their homes or lives destroyed by natural or man-made events.  And of course, our global media makes it all so much more immediate.  I hear about the train crash in Poland that kills 30 people the morning it happens.  We practically can watch the bombs being dropped in Syria, and the children and mothers starving in the Sudan.

And I feel torn by guilt that I’m not doing anything to stop any of this.  Even worse, I often deliberately ignore it because I find the anguish so draining that it debilitates me.

As I was watching the bees, I was thinking how important they are to human life.  If they don’t pollinate the plants that feed our animals and feed us, we will starve.  We are absolutely dependent on them.  I doubt very much that the bees are aware of their importance in sustaining our lives.  Their task is to live as bees.  It is not their task to do all the other things we also need in order to survive.

I’m not supposed to save the world.  I’m a single limited human being in an enterprise is as gigantic next to me as the whole earth is next to that single busy bee.  What I am supposed to do is live a full loving human life to the best of my ability.

So I will try not to pass up the opportunities that come my way to be kind, to share what gifts and talents I may have.  It’s hubris to think I can do more than my small human life permits.

I am much more like a bee than like a god.

And I’ll be much happier and much less neurotic if I remember that.

February 22, 2012

It’s called Globalization

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:40 pm

Our new computer arrived today.  The parts were made in China, it was assembled in Poland, the sales office is in Ireland, it’s staffed by personnel from India.  The computer warranty and instructions are in eight different languages, and it was delivered here by an international delivery service whose head office is in America.

All the parts seem to have arrived in tact and so far it’s working.  So we’re hope we might not need to discover where the help line is located.

Seriously, isn’t it amazing? If we are going to live like this, we really are going to have to learn how to get along better.

February 19, 2012

Are we there yet?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

When I was very young, I used to pray that I would have the strength to be a martyr.  By the time I’d reached my teens, I’d adjusted the prayer that I would be strong enough to deal with whatever life sent me, which, dear God, I suggested, I hoped would not be martyrdom.  With increasing self-knowledge, I have considerably lengthened the list of things not to be included.

Anticipation seems to be a universal of all living things.  Cats wait outside the mouse-hole, squirrels bury nuts for the winter, birds build nests for the expected new arrivals.  We humans with our expanded mental abilities quite possibly are capable of more anticipation than any other living organism.  As children we count the almost-infinite number of days to Christmas, or the interminable hours spent in the back seat of the car until we’re finally there.

We don’t get over anticipating as we get older.  As our mental abilities mature we become capable of imagining more and more possibilities.  In fact, as most of us eventually realize that the only certainty is uncertainty, waiting for what is going to happen next is on some levels a permanent state.  That means more potential for planning but it also more potential for worry and anxiety.

Waiting to see what is going to happen might be for small everyday things:  will the roast be cooked yet?  will our guests be on time?  is it going to rain tomorrow? will this solve the (fill in whatever may be the preoccupation of the moment) problem?

But sometimes we are inevitably waiting for events that will change our lives.  And many of those events seem completely beyond our control.  Did I get the job?  Will s/he marry me?  Was my application accepted? And sometimes the most draining waiting of all in relation to medical concerns:  will he regain consciousness?  will she be able to walk again?  is it terminal?

Waiting uses up such a big chunk of time that if waiting is nothing more than empty space in between doing something meaningful, it uses up way too much of what is, by any measurements of even the most long-lived, a very short life.

There are obvious ways I don’t want to use waiting.  I don’t want to use it as an excuse not to do anything.  I don’t want to let it disable me with anxiety or distraction or disorienting hope.  I don’t want to let it turn me into a complainer or a whiner or to see myself as a heroic victim.

But I have seen people use waiting constructively.  I’ve seen them plan for contingencies, so that whatever happens they are better prepared:  “If this happens, I can…, but if this happens I will…”  I’ve seen people prepare others for what might happen.  That might be as simple as explaining why I may be late getting home tonight;  it might be as critical as making a will or, as my mother did, talking to her children about their lives after she died.

What I hope for myself is that I can use waiting so that I am better able to face whatever it is that life throws at me next.

Even if it is merely the discovery that my chocolate souffle has failed to rise to the heights I envisioned when I put it into the oven fifteen minutes ago.

January 1, 2012

Reverie for 2012

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:17 pm

This is the day of the year in which tradition suggests we look back and look forward, that we make our resolutions to live better lives, and wish all those we love a healthy, prosperous New Year.

Here is my 2012 version.

2011 was the year of the Arab spring,  and of economic polarization and political paralysis in both America and Europe.  It was a year for freedom and for trenchant stubbornness.

It was the year that has left us facing another year with the potential for greater global economic devastation than the world has faced for at least 80 years.  That, in turn, increases the chances for violence and abuse,  both domestic and international.  We face the potential for the emergence of an even more virulent H1N1 virus epidemic, for civil wars, for food, water, and energy shortages.  We face the possibility of bank collapse and another credit crunch we have no idea how to moderate.

It looks like a scary year to me.

But life is scary.  Life is filled with challenges,  some beyond our abilities to cope with, some that bring out some of the best human ingenuity and human generosity has ever produced.

So on this day I am returning to my mantra:

Faith, Hope, and Love, these three:

The greatest of these is Love. 

But the most courageous of these is Hope.

September 6, 2011

A pessimist in lamb’s clothing

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

My husband is not a natural optimist.

In fact, I think it would not be a distortion of the facts to say that he is a natural pessimist.

His argument for this stance is that he is surprised and delighted when he is wrong quite as often as  I am surprised and disappointed as a natural optimist when I am wrong.

I can’t argue with the math.

But once in a while he tries to put a sunny spin on developments.

Like this morning.  It is cold and windy and the rain is lashing down.  It feels like the kind of day you’d expect in November, not early September.  But we’ve had a summer like that.

Well, said Peter looking out the window, at least you can’t look at the weather anymore and say “And this is August.

Personally, I think he needs more practice.

But in the meantime, he does make me laugh.

September 4, 2011

An alternative approach to retirement planning

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:06 pm

A friend recently reminded me of the story published in the London Times several years ago about the attendant who collected fees seven days a week for twenty years at a local parking  lot owned by the local city council.  One day he didn’t show up.  After some investigation, it was discovered that nobody knew his name, he had not been employed by the city, and had apparently been pocketing the parking fees, untaxed and unrecorded, for twenty years.  The estimate is that he retired to Spain with as much as seven million pounds – or more than 10 million dollars.

Yesterday my husband reported that a similar acquisition plan seemed to be operating at the gentlemen’s pay toilet facilities in the train station.

A street person (I think that might be the politically correct euphemism for what we would have called a beggar or a bum) was standing by the entrance turnstile which usually required the deposit of a coin to open.

Instead, the helpful self-styled attendant was holding open the turnstile and holding out his hand for the coin.

Probably not the most efficient way to collect enough to retire on in Spain.  But enough to get a couple of drinks at the local.

June 23, 2011

Mother Nature’s mothering

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:39 pm

I doubt there are many women on this planet who are not acquainted with cystitis and its capacity for creating sheer panic.  Whether it is caused by a mild bladder infection, the results of pregnancy, or simply the aging process, the need to get to a bathroom within the next two minutes is an experience most of us share at one time or another.

Most of us,I suspect, have developed some kind of strategy or other to deal with this most human of conditions.  My grandmother drank barley water laced with lemon.  I learned what we Americans call Kegels and what here in England are called simply pelvic exercises.  Sheer survival instinct keeps me performing them for two minutes on a daily basis along with my morning and evening teeth-brushing routine.

About six weeks ago, however, I began to notice a worrying decrease in the effectiveness of these exercises.  Last week I barely escaped – without putting too fine a point on it – what felt like imminent catastrophe.

Cranberry Double Strength

That was when I finally put two and two back together.  Several months ago, I ran out of the cranberry supplements I usually take every day and did not bother replacing them.  I’ve taken them as a precaution for years against cystitis but didn’t take their effect too seriously.

Three days ago, I picked up a couple of bottles and started to take a tablet again with breakfast and another with dinner.

What is astonishing is the complete and almost immediate transformation.  For the first time in months I am not getting up in the night.  I am worry free for 4-5 hours during the day, and even then I have been saved the mad hysteria which I have personally begun to call “incontinence panic.”

I’m not a great believer in alternative medicine.  I’m one of those people who say what we call alternative medicines that work “medicine.”

But I will admit that I would view a global failure of cranberry crops on par with a blight of coffee beans.

Now that I think of it, I think I will put cranberries on my happiness list.

May 31, 2011

Life solutions for dummies

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:51 pm

One of the very earliest solutions I learned to solving computer problems was the advice to “Turn Off Computer and Reboot.”  I have found that it’s a kind of “System Restore Command  for Dummies.”

It’s a little late in life, but I have now discovered a similar solution for life’s problems:  Walk Away.  It is amazing the number of problems for which this works.  And it works for the most extraordinary number of different kinds of conundrums.  These days if  I don’t know how to respond to an email, how to get the ice-maker working, where to find my lost reading glasses, I walk away, and lo and behold, the answer just seems to emerge fully formed hours or days later.

It’s even working for figuring out my new-fangled cell phone.

I mean, it is a seriously useful Solution of Dummies.

March 10, 2011

Changing the meaning of time

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:22 pm

When I was about five years old, I remember trying to figure out how long a second was.  I didn’t begin to wonder until middle age, though, about how much time there was altogether since time started in the very beginning of the world.

When I retired from university teaching, I wrote The Big Bang to Now and am currently working on the second edition.  But right now I am less concerned about trying to understand how long thirteen and a half billions years is and where everything fits in that happened between then and now.

I am trying to turn waiting into something a little more positive than it currently feels like.  I have finally heard from the doctor’s office that the results of my bone density scan are in, and I have an appointment to discuss them with my GP next Monday morning.

At this moment, four days feels like what about four years usually feels like these days.  It’s more like what four days felt like when I was small and Mom would say that it’s only “four more days to Christmas.”  It sounded like about four centuries to me then.

Now my sense of time suggests that every moment is precious, we have so little of it even in a long life.

Which is why I’m trying to turn waiting into something positive, into actually doing something.  Waiting is a good time to prepare, of course, but I have thought about my decision to by-pass the advice of majority medical opinion until I have no more thoughts about it.  When I find out the results of the most recent scan and what my GP thinks, I’ll process my current situation then.

In the meantime, I will concentrate on living today.  Not just trying to skip the four days between now and next Monday.

March 5, 2011

Our little local war zone

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 8:43 pm

We were wakened this morning with a telephone call telling us that our village store – about a block away – had burned down.  Or rather, apparently had been burned down at about six am this morning.  Whether they did it or not, the police have several local youth in custody who have been causing trouble in the village for several weeks.

Until this morning, we assumed they were engaged in irresponsible, and potentially dangerous, pranks.  But they seemed like pranks  – like letting horses out of their pasture to roam the street or smashing hens’ eggs stolen from their nests.  Actually, most people are being officially quite careful about what happened or who did it, and I hope for their sakes as much as for the village that the boys didn’t start the fire deliberately.  Inevitably, some people are sure who did it and are already demanding that they be given prison sentences.

For my part, I cannot imagine the desperate emptiness of young lives that would drive them to be out on the street at six a.m. and burning down the local store.  Why?  It can’t have been for money or a drug fix.  Was it a desperate need for attention?  for revenge?  because the store is owned by an Asian?

The store, including a post office and part of a near-by house are completely burnt out.  A look through the open door shows nothing but blackened rubble and smashed shelves.  It is – well, was – a wonderful amenity in the village on which many older people depend for their groceries.

This afternoon, emails were sent out to the whole village offering rides to near-by stores and coordinating trips to the bank for those who depended on the post office to receive their pensions each week.

The email ended with the assurance that if any community can overcome a setback like this, “we can!”

And you know, I think we will.

February 23, 2011

The challenge of civilizations’ survival

I started asking the question after reading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago.  The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to lurk in my consciousness.

It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects.  Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of  disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.

There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago.  Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles.   And then the climate changes.  Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought.  Mayan cities were abandoned  in the 9th century after 200 years of drought.  So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.

But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change.  The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding.  An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.

The list goes on.

The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be.  In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan,  Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia.  Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.

The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace.  Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now.  It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.

Will we survive?  Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us?  Will we simply starve?

The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response.  Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.

But personally, I think we will survive.  Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.  I see  love and determination.  I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.

It is a challenge.  It is a great challenge.  In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily.  The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.

But I am hopeful that the end of Homo sapiens is not yet in sight.

January 24, 2011

Walking tall

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:25 pm

Most of us women have discovered that standing up straight instead of slouching can take ten pounds off one’s appearance.  Those of us who are old enough have also discovered that it can take ten years off one’s appearance as well.

Research has long demonstrated that taller people get an initial respect slouchers often have to earn.  Now research suggests another reason.  It makes people feel more confident, more in charge, more apt to take the initiative rather than waiting for someone else to step in.

Having read this article, I tried out a little mini-experiment on myself.  I have a weak back, and like many of my relatives, I tend to walk slightly bent forwards.  So I tried walking around for ten minutes consciously making sure I was standing up straight.

The effect, I must say, was quite surprising.   I felt the self-assurance I felt when I was 20 years younger.

The most surprising thing was that I felt like one of those older women whom I see occasionally who give the impression that there is nothing old fogey about them.  They are often kind and thoughtful, but they don’t walk around with a look that’s vaguely apologetic for no longer having a full grasp.  They don’t act as if they no longer are sure of themselves.

It was a great feeling, I’d recommend it to anyone over the age of 60.  It’s a great way to feel confidant about all that wisdom one has spent years accumulating.

I’m definitely going to incorporate it into my daily presentation of self to myself.

January 15, 2011

I wish Palin was the problem

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:55 pm

I was simply dumbfounded to learn last night that an average of 30,000 people are killed by guns every year in America.  This includes murders and suicides, but also accidents, often killing our children.

To put the same appalling statistic in another way, more Americans in the US were killed by guns between 1979 and 1997 than have died in all of our foreign wars since independence.  So this doesn’t include the Revolutionary  or Civil Wars, but it does include the First and Second World wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars.

I have thought for a long time that America was a much more violent country than many of us think of ourselves.  But frankly, I am gobsmacked at this number.

I’m not hopeful we’ll do anything about it.  Too many people think the answer is to get more guns into more places – like schools and churches.  There are already as many guns in America as there are American citizens, and the hope that bringing guns into the classroom and churches will reduce the problem seems ill-founded.

I’ve never been in favour of banning private ownership of guns.  I don’t trust governments enough to make them and criminals the only people who can shoot.   In any case, Americans are not going to give up the historic right to bear arms.

But surely we need some laws constraining who may legally own a gun, where and how they may use it, and putting some limitations on the kind of weapon just anybody can own.

Do we really need to legalize the use of automatic assault weapons by certifiably insane individuals?

I really don’t think it is too hysterical to suggest that we don’t.

December 19, 2010

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

Just as soon as the traffic is moving and the backlog of mail and Christmas packages have been delivered, I am going to buy a snow shovel.  

My only excuse for the fact that Peter and I spent 3 hours clearing our driveway of 5 inches of snow with a yard broom and garden shovel today is that the roof never leaks when it doesn’t rain.

But this time I’m going to get one.  I promise.  No, I’ll get two.  I probably will have to order it on line because local stores don’t stock them on a regular basis – it doesn’t snow often enough.

I thought when we moved here we’d get away with not having to buy a snow shovel, what with the promise of global warming and all.

It reminds me of when I said to my husband in about 1979 that I thought we could get through our professional lives without having to buy a computer.

That was at least a dozen computers ago.

November 6, 2010

Not just for Halloween

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:11 pm

Just take a look at this!  It is almost unbelievable.

October 29, 2010

Beginning with Mars

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:47 pm

Perhaps twenty years ago, I read an analysis of what scientists might do to make Mars a planet that is habitable for human life.  It included ideas like hanging giant solar-reflecting shields in space to increase the Martian temperature and growing plants to generate oxygen and food.

The estimate at that time was that humans could start to colonize  Mars in about a thousand years.

Yesterday, I read that NASA has begun funding plans to send astronauts on one-way trips to Mars or its moon to set up permanent human colonies there.

They estimate that the project would cost about ten billion dollars, and that it would begin about twenty years.

I think the idea is that about four men would be the initial colonizers and that gradually additional settlers would go out and the community would expand.

I’m gob-smacked.

And yet, psychologically I imagine such a trip to Mars in twenty years would be little different from the great ocean voyages barely more than 600 years ago.  The voyagers, then, were going into a great unknown. They had no idea how big earth was, when or if they would hit land and if they did, whether they would find food and water.  None of them could know if they would ever return and many of them didn’t.  They might not even have been absolutely sure the world wasn’t flat.

Actually, colonizers to Mars in twenty years might know more about their voyage and their destination than the men who set out on sea voyages and discovered America.  And the rest of the world.

September 24, 2010

The news isn’t all bad

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:15 pm

There are two stories in the news that made my day:

odd coupleThe first is about the friendship between a meerkat and a lion cub abandoned by his mother.

Cuddles: Zinzi and Bob enjoy nothing more than cuddling up together after a hard day of play on the farm. At 3-months-old, Zinzi dwarfs tiny Bob but takes good care of him, offering a protective embrace whilst they snooze

The second is about a very tenacious mother.

September 13, 2010

A donation worth its metal

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am not a great lover of any religious institution.  I’m not even a believer in any orthodox set of religious beliefs.

But I am a passionate believer in religious freedom, and the fundamental principles upon which the constitution of the United States are built.

And so I am simply thrilled to read that since yesterday, Michael Moore has received more than $50,000 donations toward the building of an Islamic Center several blocks from the site of 9/11.   I’m sending a donation.  I don’t care whose pocket it goes into, as long as it is clear that there are still Americans who will not throw away our religious freedoms because they are too fragile to consider an Islamic Center anywhere near the former World Trade Center.

Michael Moore says he thinks the Islamic Center should not be situated two blocks away from Ground Zero.  He says it should be on Ground Zero.  I take his point, although I fear the egos of too many Americans are too fragile to bear such a display of our vaunted religious freedom.

September 10, 2010

Gesture of good will

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:50 pm

Sometimes to maintain my sanity I need to concentrate on very very small things.  So this post is not about Pastor Jones or American intolerance.

It’s about a phone call I got from the electricity company who has not been supplying our electricity since last November when we switched to a cheaper supplier.  The company representative,  whose name was “Steve,” called at dinner time to say that we owed the company a back payment that was “seriously overdue,” and that if I didn’t pay it immediately the bailiff would be called in to collect it.

Since this was the first I’d heard of it, I said I did hope the company would first have the courtesy to send us a bill for the amount they thought was due.  “You owe,” the caller said “£20.02” (about $35).

The precise amount rang a bell.  Is it possible, I asked, that the company had charged that amount to my bank account in April under a different name?  Because not recognizing the name, I’d queried it with my bank who after six weeks of investigation, said the charge had been an error and they’d refunded the money.

Long silence from Steve.  In the meantime, I was keeping a distant eye on the lamb chops in the kitchen that were threatening to burn.

Finally, he said “I think there’s been an error on our part.”  He then apologized profusely and promised I would not be bothered with this again.

Two days later I got a letter from the same electricity company saying I owed them £20.02 and that the matter was scheduled to be turned over to a debt collection agency, etc.  So I phoned.

They insisted no error had been made and that I owed this amount.

By this point, I had no idea whether this was a legitimate charge or not.  But what I was sure about was that this was bullying behavior.  So I told them I was willing to pay the bill if they would send me a letter telling me that this amount was owed.  But that personally I thought as a gesture of good will they should forgive the debt.

No, the electricity company woman said, because the company had not make a mistake.  Then your representative was mistaken when we talked to me two nights ago, I asked?

I don’t have any record of that call, she said.

Oh, well, I said, then they do have a problem.  Someone was making calls in their company’s name who had access to the company’s records.

I’ll talk to the manager and get back to you, she said.

Thirty minutes later she called back and said that her manager did remember the call, and that in a gesture of good will they were forgiving the debt.  I said I very much appreciated it, and we hung up on mutually gracious terms.

But you know, I will now never know whether I actually owed them that £20.02, or whether they had made an error but decided that rather than admitting it, they would get credit instead for a “gesture of good will.”

To tell the truth, on reflection, I think I might have owed them the money.  But that somehow their records got messed up, and I didn’t have a record of it.

Still, it was a gesture of good will.

I wish Pastor Jones could come up with something half as good.

September 6, 2010

Mystery story

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:54 am

I like living.  I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

Agatha Christie

Me too.

August 29, 2010

Moderation in all things

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:45 pm

Climb every other mountain.

August 26, 2010

Backwards in small steps

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:42 pm

For years I have had the habit of turning on music and exercising for 20-30 minutes every day.  I do have opt outs – never on Sunday or any other day where I’ve walked for at least an hour or been working flat out physically for most of the day.

Somehow I’ve managed to convince myself that I’ve been working “flat out” every day for the last three weeks, and having thus smothered my conscience, missed both my exercise and my music.

I have been noticing that a certain tension has been building up.  I’m sure both my heart rate and blood pressure were abnormally high and I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

“Too much coffee,” I said to myself.  So I switched to decaf.  It didn’t seem to help.

“Ah ha!” I said to my receptive self.  “I think you should have a gin and tonic several times this week instead of waiting until Friday.”  “Oh good,” my receptive self said.  And so I did.

I should have known it would only make things worse.

Today, though, I actually snapped.  I’m not a person given to temper tantrums and when I’m rarely upset if I need to change my scheduled plans.

But a delivery was supposed to be made sometime two days ago for an item we badly need for the garden.  So we waited in all day.  It didn’t come.  I called the delivery service and they said it was due to arrive yesterday so we waited in all day again.  It still wasn’t delivered.  This morning they said it would be delivered about eleven am.  today.  So Peter and I both readjusted our plans.  At 11:30 I checked the mail and found a notice saying the delivery had been attempted.  I called the delivery service again and they said the delivery man had banged on the door but nobody answered.  Nor were any neighbours at home.  (Well, they were, and so were we, so I have my suspicions.)

But the vagaries of the delivery man isn’t really my problem.  My problem was that I reacted physically and psychologically with absolute shock.  I was afraid to drive the car for fear I would be too distracted by this terrible catastrophe which had befallen me.

Truly, my physical reaction would have been appropriate to being told that I had two weeks to live.

I kept telling myself it was ridiculous, but adrenalin was still sweeping through my system ringing every alarm bell it could find.

And it finally dawned on me.

I need my music.  And I need my exercise.  They aren’t optional extras in my days any more than food or drink or brushing my teeth.  And if I don’t get them, I might regress in small steps I don’t notice.

But backwards I go.

So I didn’t skip the music or the exercise today.  I can tell even without counting that my pulse rate is back in its normal range.

And I really do believe that the garden will manage to survive until the delivery arrives.  It’s promised for tomorrow.

August 14, 2010

Unlearned lessons

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:56 pm
A friend forwarded me these facts  I didn’t know.  They are included in a recent film, Iron-Jawed Angels, about the women who fought for women’s right to vote in the United States.
Women picketing the White House carrying signs asking for the vote were arrested and convicted of  ‘obstructing sidewalk traffic.’ Three were sent to prison for carrying a banner which said, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

A ‘Night of Terror’ unfolded on Nov. 15, 1917.  The warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there.   40 prison guards wielding clubs went  on a rampage against 33 women.

They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.  They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head  against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cell mate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.  Affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.  For weeks, the women’s only water came from an open pail. Their food was infested with worms.

President Woodrow Wilson tried to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.  The doctor refused. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn’t make her crazy. ‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity,’ he added.

In the light of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, I wonder how much has changed.  Sounds like similar methods:  just different people they’re trying to subdue.

Women got the vote in the United States in 1920.

July 29, 2010

Hug a grandmother

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

In the last five years or so, I have been hugged by the most unexpected people.  Unexpected because they are typically young men – in their 20’s or 30’s – whom I barely know and whom I will never see again.

The first hug in this category was from a young man who came to take photographs for our property in the Lake District we were putting on the market.  The real estate agent wanted a distance photograph taken from the fells so we hiked ten minutes or so into the hills to get a good shot.  On the way, he told me about several uncanny dreams he’d had which seemed to be psychic.

I listened carefully because I have a healthy respect for folklore and traditions.  Mixed in with some silly superstitions, I think people often know a lot of things they don’t know they know, and when it shows up in dreams or intuitions, think it is psychic.  His stories were interesting and I didn’t laugh at them.

After the photographs had been taken, we walked back to his car.  He stored his equipment, and got in.  Then, unexpectedly, he got back out, gave me a hug, and wished us luck.  I never saw him again.

It happened again in a hotel in France when all the guests had been required by the fire department to leave their rooms.  It was fairly late at night and we all sat around a table while the young hotel manager served coffee or tea and biscuits while he tried to answer our questions.  When we were finally permitted to return to our rooms, I thanked him for what I imagined was as unexpected a night for him and it was for us.  Why he gave me a hug I don’t know.  He didn’t hug any of the other guests.  I don’t know what my husband thought.  We were both tired, and by the next morning I forgot to ask.

I was hugged again last week.  One of the young men who were topping up the cavity insulation in our property walls found me kneeling on the floor where I was cleaning behind the furniture they had needed moving.  “Oh,” he said, “you’re taking advantage of having to move everything.”  I laughed and said yes.  And when I stood up, he gave me a hug.

I absolutely do not know why I was the recipient of this unsought and rather delightful show of affection.  Although I am of an age to be a grandmother, I have never actually thought of myself as the grandmotherly type.

Perhaps these young men had grandmothers whom they loved.

Image from

Whatever the reason, unsolicited hugs are not to be dismissed.  I would never have thought I would remember a hug I received five years ago from  someone I’d never seen before and whose name I don’t even remember.

But I do.

July 15, 2010

Civilized defense

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

The following is an email I received from a friend whose life history suggests the possession of a significant number of survival skills:

Wasp Spray is said to be as effective as pepper spray, and some self-defense teachers prefer it over guns and baseball bats.

Said to be easier to aim and the spray carries some 20 ft.  Aim for the eyes!  Another advantage: a can of wasp killer on a desk or night table does not attract as much attention as a gun would…  Or so the police say.

This sounds good but I must admit I have not tried it on an intruder.  It is very hard to get a volunteer to try it on.  If somebody tries it in a real situation  (or even on a volunteer)  and it works, please let me know!

Frankly, I think it would be useful to know especially if it doesn’t work.  And what happened next.  Leave a comment below with any useful information.

March 5, 2010

Yes we can!

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

I opened up the newspaper yesterday and next to all the bad news was a whole page of hope.  A lot of people might still think that global warming is a myth and that environmental destruction can therefore be dismissed along with it.

But there exists a significant number of people around the world who are convinced that there is a problem, and that we can solve it.  Apart from global warming, the significant problem arises from the fact that in the last fifty years, the human population has tripled.  This has already put a great strain on the natural resources so many of us have used like a bottomless well.

But there are those who are convinced that there is something we can do besides wring our hands.  Many of them believe that waiting for top/down solutions from governments is folly.  Solutions, they believe history suggest, are going to come from innovators, entrepeneurs, and from the ingenuity of people in general determined that we need to respect the world and its resources.

Hope Example I is Daniel Ishag who made millions of dollars during the dot-com era and now wants to help the environment.  He spent several years travelling around the world looking for ideas.  He found it in South Korea where they are using bacteria to clean waste water.   Many waste-water treatments already use bacteria, but the advantage of the Korean version is that the bacteria can be re-cycled and used again and again, and requires half the power of existing technology.  Ishag’s company, Bluewater Bio,  is negotiating with companies supplying domestic water, industrial and sewage plants, agricultural sites, food-processing companies, breweries, hospitals, and textile manufactures.

Hope Example II is sustainable palm oil.  Palm oil is used in everything from our margarine and chocolate to products for our washing machine and car.  The problem is that tropical plantations to meet our voracious thirst has led to rampant deforestation and terrible habitat destruction.   Now within months a single refinery in Liverpool expects to be providing 1/3 of Britain’s annual consumption of palm oil from sustainable sources.  Sustainable means no more deforestation, no more habitats destroyed.  If one refinery in Britain can do it for 1/3 of Britain’s needs, it can be done for the world.

Hope Example III is my favourite, and the one I’m hoping for the hardest.  It’s a new approach to low-carbon fuel-cell technology coming out of Bloom Energy in Silicon Valley, California.   They think they can ultimately manufacture at a reasonable price loaf-size boxes that could power an entire house.  I will confess that my hope is not scientifically convincing because I don’t really understand how it works.  It was featured on 60 Minutes recently, though that doesn’t necessarily move it from the Hope to the Accomplished category.

Sometimes I just despair of the narrow-minded greed and selfish concern of the human species.  But sometimes I just look at us and think what an incredible, what an amazing, fantastic species we are.

Yes we can!

February 27, 2010

Modern solutions

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:29 pm

I’ve just been reading a well being article in one of our papers asking if the winter blues have ” got you down.”  Are you asking, the author suggests helpfully “What’s the point?  Why are we here anyway?”

The solution to this existential malaise is to find your true purpose in life.

Is that too much like trying to catch a cloud?

Then what you need is — a priest?  a vacation?  sunlight?  membership in a gym?  better nutrition?  a job?  therapy?  prozac?

No, what you need is  — da da!  – a life coach.

February 12, 2010

Infinity might be hell

The concept of infinity – either the theological version used to describe God as basically indescribable, or the scientific version applied to time and space – has never overwhelmed me.

But I watched a BBC programme last night featuring some of today’s mathematical geniuses and I suddenly understood why science is so terrifying to so many people who believe in God.

These particular mathematicians see the entire universe in terms of mechanical probabilities.  That is in terms of random chance.  And they are brilliant.  They can think about numbers – huge vast numbers that lose all their intuitive meaning as they add on billions and billions of zeroes.  And they explain everything that has ever happened in the universe and everything that may evolve in this or other universes in terms of this stark probability.

It was the most ghastly view of the world that I have ever contemplated.   I guess contemplated is the operational word.  I am quite comfortable with the universe without any concept of God to which I have ever been introduced.  But I have always felt that there is some intrinsic meaning to existence.  It is certainly beyond my capacity to fully grasp, but I have always believed that life has meaning.

This view that all the universe is and will always be the result of random chance is utterly barren.  No wonder people who believe that the only other alternative to this bleak view is an autocratic God  choose to reject science.  It’s exactly why I think abused children so often become abusive parents – the alternative interpretation that they are not loved is even more terrifying than to accept that they deserved the punishments they received from a loving but stern father.

But I reject this view.

I don’t reject it because I believe in a supernatural force that is controlling what is happening in this natural world.

And I don’t – I think – reject it out of fear.

I don’t reject it because I have scientific proof to the contrary.  Although I do think there is a vector in the evolution of the universe that belies the view that everything happens randomly.

Ultimately I reject it because that isn’t what my experience seems to indicate.  Can I be wrong?  Of course.  But each of us looks at our lives and we must decide without conclusive evidence either way whether we think our lives in particular and all being in general has some meaning.

I know: maybe I think that because I have a goodly supply of those feel-good endorphins.  Or because I was loved as a child.  Or because I am loved as a woman.

But anyway, it’s my view.  And besides, not all mathematical geniuses take this bleak view.  So it’s not written in the numbers.

January 30, 2010

At last, salvation after all

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:26 pm

The London Sunday Times is running a Well Being Special with Ten Rules for gaining long-term health and happiness.  Most of them are pretty mundane, if sensible and hardly revolutionary.

But Rule Number Ten offers something new:  Find Your Purpose in Life.

Are you feeling down, suffering from a life crisis, struggling with anxiety and depression?  Are you sighing and asking hopelessly “What’s the point?  Why are we here anyway?”  Are you tempted to give up, to walk away from it all, or to hit out and destroy everything you love?

Humans have struggled with these feelings for as far back as the eye can see.  Solutions have included offerings to the gods, and in Christian times, repentance and penance.  We’ve tried alcohol and drugs, ancient and modern, legal and illegal.  We’ve tried fasting and exercise.  We’ve tried asylums and beatings and therapy.  Our gurus have been priests, witch doctors and ministers, psychiatrists, doctors, and psychotherapists.

But the Well Being Special offers a single solution  (you don’t want to miss this):   Life Coaches

Life Coaches are where to go to find Purpose in Life.

January 23, 2010

Success redefined

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:03 pm

Saints are just sinners who never stop trying. Willie Nelson

Or to put it another way:

Success is the ability to go cheerfully from one failure to another with no less enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

By this criteria, I think my entire life might be a stunning success.

At the very least, I’ve had a lot of practice.

January 21, 2010

An improved route to salvation

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

In my experience, people have often given up believing in God because of some misfortune that seems to make no sense.

St. Augustine of Hippo struggled with what philosophers call “the problem of evil,” and decided it must be our fault.  God Himself, he reasoned, could not revel in such mindless cruelty.  A thousand years later, the plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century undermined the authority of Roman Catholicism.  The plague took both the good and the bad, and there didn’t seem any advantages in following the strictures of this seemingly capricious God.  By the next century, Western Christianity was fractured.

So when I heard yesterday that a Voodoo priest was giving up his position to retrain as a Protestant minister, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Still, it doesn’t make sense to me.  I’m sure Protestants were affected just as badly by the quake as followers of Voodoo.

Unless it is the Protestants who are handing out food and medicine.

January 9, 2010

Bob the Builder

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:17 pm

Bob the Builder: R-Vee Playset With 2 Extra Figures and Tools **NEW**When the children’s game Bob the Builder hit the market, there was universal agreement among his sib that our brother Bob must have been the progenitor.

Bob isn’t a builder exactly – he’s a trained engineer who is now working as an accountant.  But he’s a problem-solver.  Whether it’s attic insulation, a wood burning stove, a leaking pipe, a stalled car, or a broken vacuüm cleaner, ask Bob.  He will have an idea.

My very best favourist idea that he ever had, though, he got talked out of.  In fact, as far as I can tell, I’m the only living person who thought the idea actually had possibilities that went beyond burning the house down.

Somehow he discovered that a nest of squirrels had made their home in his attic.  He thought that it would be best if they left, but preferred that they left voluntarily.  So putting poison out for them was dismissed as a potential solution.

What he was going to do until, as I say, he got talked out of it, was to take his barbecue grill into the attic and use it to smoke the squirrels out into the fresh air.

If you think that was a dangerous idea, you are in a majority of about 99.99%.

December 30, 2009

The dark side of the Spanish sun

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:51 pm

Three days before Christmas this year, a dozen British families who emigrated to Spain received a black Christmas present.  The police knocked on their doors and told them the building permission for their homes given by the local town hall was illegal, and that the homes would be bulldozed within months.

Peter and I read the article and looked at each other.  We know about that dark side of the Spanish sun.

When we bought our property on the mediterranean coast of Spain, we hired both an English and a Spanish lawyers to make sure that the deeds were in order and the process was totally within the law.  It didn’t matter.  We could not get proper electricity, water, a telephone line or mail delivery and couldn’t find out why.  The lawyers assured us that everything would be fine, and the real estate agents and builder kept insisting that we had to pay thousands of dollars more for “unspecified services.”

We had retired and paid for the Spanish house in full.  We knew that if we lost the house or could not sell it, we would be destitute.  It took us almost two years to find out the problem and another two to solve it.

We stumbled on the scam because the Spaniards made the mistake so many of us make.  Peter and I played a soft cop/hard cop duo, and because my Spanish was halting, they assumed I was stupid.  Friendly and nice, but stupid.  I finally tricked them into giving me the document in Spanish that revealed the source of our difficulty.

I remember going back to the car where Peter was waiting and sat there translating it out loud.   I remember to this day the choking realization as I came to the word “denuncia.”  Our house had been denounced as illegal.

That was why we could not get any services, and why we would not ever be able to sell our property.   Our lawyers knew, but they had been bribed.  The real estate agent knew but he had been bribed.

We discovered that we were not the only ex-pats in similar situations.  But there was one difference.  I was married to a “hard cop.”  Peter was not bluffed by advice to respect Spanish customs or cowed by suggestions that we were mere guests in a foreign country.  He began to put everything in writing.  He began to talk about contacting the newspapers in England  and explored the options of suing the real estate agencies in England and in Spain who had brokered the sale.

But it still took us another two years.  The papers delineating the denuncia mysteriously “disappeared” from the town hall.  We hired another Spanish lawyer who laughed.  “Ah yes,” he said.  “It is a Spanish custom.”  The papers were somehow found within 72 hours.

The builder showed up on our property one morning at dawn, and despite our explicit refusal to grant permission, cut down a giant tree in our front yard.  It was interfering with the sea view from the house he was building next door.

The town bulldozer arrived one day and lifted the street outside our drive by three feet, making it impossible for us to drive a vehicle off our property.  When we objected, the town hall said the next time we buy a house, we should make sure the road is finished first.  There was no other redress.

Two days before Christmas the builder showed up again demanding a payment of $1000 not to shut down the temporary electricity supply with which we had been living.  He took down the line.

We finally got the denuncia on the house lifted.  The property line was one foot closer to the house than the law permitted.  We got the extra foot by threatening a law suit and international publicity.

We eventually discovered that the denuncia had been made by one of our Spanish neighbours whose family had been feuding with the family of the Spanish builder for generations.

The wife of the Spanish estate agent left him when he was sent to prison.

The Spanish lawyer who had originally been hired to make sure the sale of the house was legal was still in business when we sold the property.

And they are still at it.  Million dollar homes are being demolished, and hundreds of ex-pats are being made homeless without recompense.

The Spanish sun doesn’t compensate for the irretrievable loss of a dream.  It rains more in England.

But I’ll live here a thousand times over.

December 14, 2009

A manageable problem

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:51 pm

The news tonight is that the Copenhagen meeting on climate change fell apart for about five hours today when the African nations walked out.  Things didn’t look good before, but now they look positively hopeless.

So I’m concentrating on a more manageable problem.  One, I agree, about which I am equally unable to do anything about.  But at least it does not tempt me to despair.

The manageable problem is this.  The Marquis of – Something or other, I don’t remember, but he’s very important and very rich – has just had his first son.  Or rather, his first sons.  They are twins and were born by Caesarean section.  Mother and babies doing fine and are healthy.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that the title of Marquis of Something-or-Other  and a considerable accompanying fortune is inherited by the first-born son.  Which is…?

Anyway, it’s a distraction from worrying about potentially catastrophic climate change.

August 18, 2009

Liberating a dragon*

Filed under: Food chains,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:33 pm

All day yesterday a dragonfly flitted around the ceiling of our sunroom.  It stayed stationery for long periods, but when it moved, it seemed agitated, banging itself repeatedly against the panes.  I opened the skylights and doors but unlike the bees and flies that get trapped, the dragonfly didn’t seem to have any sense that an escape route was sometimes inches away.

This morning it was still clinging to the ceiling in between bouts spent flinging itself at the panes, and I began to worry for its welfare.  How long can dragonflies live without food?  come to think of it, what qualifies as dragonfly food?

Dragonflies come in a wide variety, and I thought this one was particularly beautiful.



Dragon Fly IIISo I got our tall ladder from the workshop, and climbed close to the ceiling with a dustpan and broom.  My goal was to shepherd the dragonfly toward the open window, but it was unimpressed.  Everytime I got near, it swooped around the dustpan onto a higher perch.  We played this game for long enough for me to admit defeat.

Finally I moved the ladder directly under the dragonfly and climbed up as quietly as I could.  I managed to cup it in my hand, though this was with some primitive irrational fear that one or the other of us was going to get seriously hurt, and I wasn’t sure it was the dragonfly.

But I laboriously climbed back down and got it to the door and let it go.  It flew away in a flurry.  Whether in a wild flight of exuberant freedom or merely to escape from a crazy lady waving dustpans, I cannot say for sure.

But I dusted myself down feeling quite virtuous for accomplishing my good deed for the day.

Then I looked up in Wikipedia to find out what dragonflies eat.  Flies, insects, bees, mosquitoes.  Maybe it would have been well-fed living inside the sunroom after all.

*Okay, so it wasn’t a dragon.  But it felt like it.

June 16, 2009

The beleagured working class

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:59 pm

The parking lot attendant at Bristol Zoo didn’t show up for work recently, so eventually, the zoo management called the local council and asked for a replacement.

After a certain number of tense exchanges, it emerged that neither the zoo nor the local council had hired the attendant, and had never paid him.  But neither had they ever collected any of the money that had been paid by cars and buses using the parking lot for the last 25 years.

The estimate is that something like $7.6 million dollars is funding the retirement of a nameless parking lot attendant now living comfortably somewhere in Spain.

My first thought was that perhaps I should have become a parking lot attendant instead of a cognitive psychologist.  Then I remembered the bankers.  They made that kind of money in a week.  Only the working classes have to slog away for 25 years before they can retire in luxury.

Whoops! Snopes says this story is two years old and an urban myth.  Well, it’s a nice urban myth anyway.  If I sort of stretch my moral problems with stealing things.

June 15, 2009

A cool look at global warming

I’ve just come across what is looking like a fantastic book dealing with our energy use and the environment.  By sheer coincidence, it is written by David McKay, a professor here in Cambridge, England, who is a physicist who specializes in computational neuroscience, information theory and machine learning.  Despite these rather terrifying credentials, he talks in everyday English.

The book is Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, and is available to download for free on line at  There’s also a downloadable ten-page synopsis which is as far as I’ve gotten so far but I’m definitely going to read the whole thing.

It’s written in terms of Britain but a lot of the things are universally applicable.   Hydrogen-fuel cell cars, for instance, don’t compare in terms of energy efficiency with electric cars, which was something I didn’t know.

To put things in perspective, it is helpful to know that the population of Britain is 60 million.  The US population is about five times bigger at 300 million.  And “an area twice the size of Wales” is about 10 million acres.

I’m telling you this because I think the book is worth reading.  McKay does not have a political agenda, he didn’t start out deciding to build a case for the greens, or for nuclear energy, or for Obama’s energy policies.  What he wanted to do was to look at our current energy consumption in a developed country like Britain and ask whether Britain could, given the will, develop sufficient alternative energy to replace its dependence on fossil fuel.

In terms of current technology, the answer is unequivocally no.

Britain has enough sun to provide most of the hot water needs for a small family and an unusual reservoir of wave and wind resources that could potentially be harnessed for energy use.

I have not yet read the entire book, but I am already convinced that the conclusion is going to be the same for any developed country, including America, and increasingly so for countries like China, India, and Brazil.

I am eager to see what MacKay proposes.  Just how drastic must be the steps we take if the situation is not going to be wrenched out of our control and solved by an involuntary reduction in human population and quality of life?

As I indicated yesterday, the more I contemplate the frequency of human error, the more nuclear energy frightens me.  Can we develop new technologies fast enough to avoid Armageddon?

I’ll let you know what MacKay thinks as soon as I reach that chapter.

May 11, 2009

Flushed with success

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

My post yesterday was concerned with existential angst over whether I would be happier than I am now if I won the lottery jackpot.  Apart from the fact that the infinitesimal likelihood of winning a big lottery draw is made even smaller in my case since I do not buy lottery tickets, I want to restore my credentials for practicality.  Hence, the following toilet issues.

Ten days ago one of the toilets in our house would not stop running.  I understand the basic idea of how toilets work, but this one completely fluxomed me, and in the end, I stopped the constant run of water by tying up the float with an old shoe lace.  Today the plumber arrived.  Given its ten day rest, the toilet worked perfectly on the first flush.  And the second and third and fourth…

Under the circumstances I felt I should give the plumber some sense that he was needed nonetheless and I asked him if he was acquainted with the new sink/toilet arrangements where the grey water in the sink runs automatically into the toilet tank, thus saving water.

He hasn’t installed one yet.  He did say he’d read that one of England’s water companies is setting up a project to convert sewage sludge into pellet fuel power plants.  They are already using sewage gas to run 53 of their power generation units.

Apparently it’s been done before.  In the 1930’s, sewage gas powered the public transport systems in several German cities, including Munich.

Given all the ingenious ways people have thought of producing or saving energy and water, wouldn’t you think we could solve this global warming and pollution problem with a little more alacrity than we’ve show thus far?

But then, sometimes the old ways work best…

March 23, 2009

Did I really want to know this?

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:45 pm

I come from a family riveted by cancer, and its capacity to cut life short has marked every one of my mother’s ten children.  The cancer didn’t stop with my mother.  It struck down her father, brother, her husband, his parents, a daughter, and several first cousins.  Another one of my sisters is in remission.

We don’t seem to carry a specific cancer gene but are rather one of those many families who seem simply to be more vulnerable to a variety of different cancers.  So I tend to notice research reports about cancer, especially those suggesting ways of reducing its incidence.

So you would think I would be pleased to read the results of a the biggest study of women’s health in the world, which has been tracking the health and lifestyles of 1.3 million women over the age of 50, and which has just announced that it seems to have identified a key cancer agent.

It’s alcohol.

And it’s not just binge drinking.  Even drinking in moderation is linked to increased cancer.  For instance, one small drink a day is associated with a 1% increase of of breast cancer.  Three small drinks a day, and the incidence is increased over 3%.

As many as one out of every eight cases of breast, liver and oral cancers are associated with alcohol.

The authors of the research report are not telling women to give up drinking.  “The risk of one small drink a night is small,” they say. 

But if you are in a family at high risk for cancer, or if you want to clamp down on cancer risk in whatever ways are possible, not drinking at all isn’t a useless strategy.  ( 

My own decision is to stop at one drink a week, to keep my weight under control, and to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days.

But I’m going to die of something.  Whatever it is, I hope it’s fast.

And hopefully not too soon.

March 2, 2009

It’s not what we aren’t that counts

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:38 pm

Late last week the six year old son of Britain’s Tory leader died.   Ivan was rushed to hospital from home in the middle of the night and died several hours later.

The members of Parliament, the media, and the public have been deeply sympathetic, and it is evident that David Cameron, his wife, and two younger children are devastated.  Cameron has spoken before about how much his eldest son has meant to him, how much he enriched the whole family and brought it closer together, and it is impossible to believe that their grief is not profound.

Losing a child must almost always be terrible, whatever the circumstances.  What is so extraordinary in Ivan’s case was that he was severely disabled from birth.  He was never able to walk or talk.  And yet according to all reports he emanated love.  Cameron says that it has given him a profound appreciation of the value of the disabled to society, and first hand experience of the difficulties they face from those who think that the disabled are somehow lesser human beings.

Most of us assume most of the time, I think, that our worth and that of others springs from our gifts – whether they are of intelligence, wit, beauty, athletic ability, the ability and willingness to care for others.

But here is a child who lived a short six years, who never spoke so much as a word who has influenced public opinion by his sheer existence.  And whose value is beyond price.

February 27, 2009

Sputtering material

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:23 pm

Two days ago the Royal Bank of Scotland announced the biggest corporate loss in British history.  It was something like 24 billion pounds sterling which is equal to about 36 million US dollars – a number which for the average person on the street is so gargantuan as to be incomprehensible.

Not so incomprehensible, though, that the average person on the street is not outraged that the British government negotiated a pension for the outgoing chairman who is responsible for leading the bank into this catastrophic hole when the bank had to be bailed out two months ago.

“Fred the Shred,” as he was known because he cut so many jobs during his tenure at the bank, is 50 years old.  For creating this corporate black hole land mark, he has been awarded an annual pension of £700,000 beginning immediately.  That’s more than a million dollars a year to comfort him for having to step down.

Voters are furious, because as a result of the government’s bail out, his pension is now fundamentally being funded by the taxpayer.

The government is claiming (somewhat lamely) that they didn’t realize the pension arrangement was negotiable, and so entered into what seems to be a legally-binding obligation.  At the moment they are reduced to publicly asking Fred the Shred to “do what is right” and give the money back.

Not surprisingly, he says no.

I couldn’t make this up, could I?

February 18, 2009

What bees can teach us

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:34 pm

I have just read a review of research studying how bees find a new nesting site when their nest gets over-crowded. 

First, scouting bees leave the nest looking for new sites.  When each one finds a potential nest, it returns to the nest and communicates to the rest of the community through a waggle dance, indicating the scout’s opinion of the new possibility.  Then the scouts go out and inspect each other’s sites found and then again go back to the nest, where the assessments of the pros and cons of the site are communicated through a variety of waggles.  This process is repeated and eventually leads to a consensus among all the bees.  Then the swarm then moves home, leaving a smaller colony to continue residence in the original nest.

But does it work?  surprisingly, researchers have found that the best site is almost always the one that is selected – even when there have been only small differences between the “best” and the “almost best.”

The researchers also discovered that if a scout that is very good at finding nesting sites does not share its information with the bee community, the entire swam is at risk of becoming homeless and vulnerable.  

Conversely, if bees just follow a leader bee and do not check out the suggested new site themselves, the chances of choosing an inferior nesting site are greatly increased.  Following the party line is no better for the group than isolated independence.

In other words, the best option is to listen carefully to what other experts say, and then to check out the evidence for oneself before joining the group in reaching a consensus.

Apparently, when he was in the White House, George W Bush did not welcome the expression of opinions that he did not already share.  And several of the bankers whose banks are now more or less owned by the British taxpayer actually fired risk-assessors who told them the bank was taking risks that were dangerous.    

(So just in case the moral of the story isn’t embarrassingly obvious, it’s another reason why intolerance or refusing to listen to people who don’t already agree with us, is so risky.)

February 17, 2009

Born recyclers

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:56 pm

Recycling is considered responsible and virtuous these days, and I can compete with the best in not throwing things into the trash.  But I fear my recycling doesn’t spring from responsible virtue.

I have a sister and a brother who, like me, seem to be born recyclers.  It is important, here to make a distinction between recycling and collecting.  To the untutored eye, they may look suspiciously similar.  But the essence of recycling isn’t to let things lie dormant while they increase in size, if not in value.  The essence of recycling is to find another purpose for the presently defunct item.

It’s the challenge of finding another use for something that is perfectly sound but no longer needed in its present form.  So I have made waste baskets out of lamp shades and the bucket of a broken ice cream maker.  I have made a newspaper rack from an old log carrier, a wood box from an old tv stand, skirts from dresses that are no longer fashionable.  I’ve used wine corks to line plant pots, and egg trays to keep nails and screws in assorted groups.  Etc.  You get the idea.

I am not married to a natural recycler, and so I can’t just slap anything together and call it recycled.  It’s got to look good, fit into the decor, and somehow be useful.   I will admit that being married to Peter has definitely raised my game.

I used to think I was a recycler because I was trying to save money.  But that really isn’t it.  It’s the challenge that I can’t resist.

And as I think about Darwin and the theory of evolution, it does seem to me that quite possibly it is the recyclers who inherit the earth.  Birds build nests out of bits and pieces they pick up here and there.  Man made his first tools out of rocks he (or she) that were laying around, and caves – which weren’t sold in the first place as housing – were our first shelters.

Today recyclers are in great demand for turning our garbage into ev erything from energy to shopping bags, packaging, compressed shelving, and shipping crates.

They are even using recycled material to produce toilet paper.  Now there’s an achievement a born recycler can be proud of.

February 13, 2009

Birthday wishes of a different kind

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:29 pm

This week is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and of Charles Darwin.   They were each born exactly 200 years ago.

They might seem a strange pair but they have something significant in common.  Both championed the diversity of human society.

Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery.  We are born free, he said.  Superiority does not lie in the color of our skin.  The great strength of America is that we are all born with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice.  We don’t have to earn it.  We just have to protect it.

Charles Darwin said that if we are all the same, society cannot survive.  Our strength in the face of challenges and danger is our diversity.   If we are facing an epidemic, we will be stronger if we are not all vulnerable to the same attack.  If we are facing dangerous physical conditions, we are more apt to survive if we have a variety of different skills.  If we want to live in a society that prospers, we will prosper more if people share a variety of different skills, abilities, and insights with each other.

So happy birthday, Abe.  Happy birthday, Charles.  And best wishes to everybody who has the courage to be different.

February 6, 2009

For the hard times –

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:12 pm

“When life is very bad, two things make life worth living – Mozart and quantum mechanics.”   Victor Weisskopf, nuclear physicist,  1910-2002

I know what he meant.

February 5, 2009

Finding my bliss

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

Marshall McLuhan several decades ago had an insight that he encapsulated in the phrase “the medium is the message.”  He was saying is that communicating in painting cannot be translated word for word into a poem or a piece of music.  Or a novel can’t be translated into a film without making changes that often subtly change the meaning.

I think there is a corollary to McLuhan’s insight.  That is that each of us has a different medium to which we respond most profoundly.  For some people music can transport them to new worlds, while for others poetry or sculpture or novels are the most moving mediums.

A friend told me the story of a young man who grew up a farming community.  At the age of 35, he was invited to stay with some friends in New York City, and they visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He was transfixed, and for three hours walked around the museum overcome with what he was seeing.  He’d never had an art course in his life. 

The educational system rarely takes these individual differences into account, rarely encourages students to explore which mediums are best for them.  Instead, we are given the impression that if we are properly “educated” we will appreciate Beethoven and Shakespeare and Picasso equally, and will be able to discuss their “meaning” intelligently and analyze them coherently.

I like art, but the medium that is transformational for me is music.  It takes me places no other experience I have ever had has come near.

When I die, I hope those who love me will not weep.  I hope they will sing, because the song is where I hope to be.

January 14, 2009

“It’s good for you”

I grew up with the default setting that if something is good for me, I won’t like it.  And vice versa.  Dessert could be “earned” only by eating my vegetables first.  Forty days of Lent were required before Easter and four weeks of Advent before Christmas.  “Why do I have to?” was inevitably answered with “Because it’s good for you.”

And so it was with great delight that I read research which has been carried out in both America and Britain finding that listening to music for 30 minutes a day lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Even better, it improves mental capacities and helps in the process of physical training.

There is just one marvellous caveat.  The results are found only if a person is listening to music they like.  Not should like.  Or that the next generation up or down likes.  Or that ones partner or friends like.  In fact, listening to music I personally don’t like tends to cause stress, and has exactly the opposite effect of listening to music I do like.

Musical taste is intensely personal.  Even highly accomplished and educated musicians don’t all like the same kind of music.  So we shouldn’t be bullied by somebody else’s standards of excellence.

If you like it, it’s good for you.

January 9, 2009

Suli, the spider, and the mouse

One would be forgiven if, on meeting our guard dog, Suli, one concluded that she would be perfectly happy to annihilate everyone and everything that strayed into her orbit save for a very small number of people for whom she would lay down her life.

Her absolute, total, and unquestioning loyalty to us was humbling.  But there was another side to this independent dog.  One day Peter and I noticed her staring with fascination at the floor where she was lying in an upright position.  She was watching a spider crawl toward her and onto her paw.  She did not stir.  Then very carefully she lifted her other paw to pet it.

Unfortunately, although the spider was fairly large by spider standards, it was quite small compared to a Kuvasz paw.  Upon receiving Suli’s friendly overture, it curled up into a ball and remained frozen.  To reassure it, Suli very carefully pet it again.  I’m sorry to say it seemed to have killed it.  Whether the spider died of fright or of the dead weight of Suli’s embrace, I do not know.  Suli was crushed, and tried to lick it back to life.  But the attempt at resuscitation failed.

Some weeks later we were walking in deep winter snow, when Suli stopped, as was her wont,  began to dig, and uncovered a field mouse.  When she saw it, instead of attacking the mouse which seemed to be trying to back into the snow and disappear, Suli paused and then very carefully brushed the snow she’d displaced to re-cover the cowering mouse.  How the mouse felt is unrecorded, but Peter and I were quite astonished.

There is a theory called socio-biology that tries to explain apparently altruistic behavior as an expanded manifestation of survival of the fittest.  The theory is that the more genes two animals share, the more they will do to ensure the survival of the other, even if it means laying down their own lives in the process.  Which, the theory goes, is why a mother will so often be willing to lay down her life for her child.

Altruistic behavior shown by one species to another species, however, is not easy for socio-biologists to explain, since the genes held in common are very few.  Pure selfishness does not seem to operate here.  On the contrary, kindness seems to be its own reward.

It’s not all that easy for those who believe in original sin to explain either.  Man, born in sin, should not be prone to this kind of behavior, except among those who have been redeemed of their sins.

And yet it shows up among primitives and barbarians and all sort of people who, by one standard or another, have not been saved.

Personally, my hunch is that the theories are wrong, and that there is a deeper impulse to goodness and kindness and caring than they would have us believe.

January 2, 2009

My Christmas card alternative

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:31 pm

First of all, to all our friends who did not send us a Christmas card this year – thank you, thank you, thank you!  

To friends who did send us a card, also thank you.  Because I’ve discovered it’s not as easy as I thought to stop sending cards.  There are people with whom I communicate rarely, but who I still care about and with whom I don’t want to lose touch altogether.  

So I’ve decided that every year, some time between Thanksgiving and Valentines day, I will do my part to stay in touch by phone or email or letter.

Or – in rare cases – even a Christmas card.   

And who knows?  Maybe I will relieve some others from a burdensome obligation to send us a Christmas card too.

December 16, 2008

A story for Christmas

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

While we are reeling and weary with stories that the head of NASDAQ has for years been running a pyramid fund which has effectively stolen 50 billion dollars, and that the governor of Illinois has been trying to sell Obama’s now vacated Senate seat with the intention of enriching himself by millions of dollars, here is a story that suggests that there is still honour in the most unexpected places.

When Studs Terkel was quite old, he was sitting in his living room one evening with his very ill wife, when a burglar climbed in through the window.

“Give me your money,” he demanded.  Terkel reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.  “All I have in the house are these two twenties,” he said.  “Okay,” says burglar, “give them to me.”  So he did.

“But,” says Terkel, “tomorrow I have to take a cab to the pharmacy to get medicine for my wife.”  “How much will the cab cost?”  inquires Burglar.  “About twenty dollars,” says Terkel.  “Okay,” says Burglar, “take one of these twenties back.”  “Thank you,” says Terkel.  “Thank you,” says Burglar and he headed to make his departure out the window.

“Oh, you don’t have to leave by the window,” says Terkel.  “Use the front door.”

Which he did.  “Thank you,” Burglar said again.  And left.

December 10, 2008

How to write in nine languages

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:33 pm

Peter is filling out a government form which says it must filled out with a black ballpoint pen.  Forms written with any other writing utensil will be rejected.

So he bought a packet of black ballpoint pens at our local supermarket.

They came with directions.   Written in nine different languages.

I was so astonished at this font of information of which I have been ignorant for nigh on seven decades that I googled “directions for ballpoint pens.”   That didn’t produce any results, but there is a website featuring ballpoint pen techniques, with which I have not yet acquainted myself. 

But I bet everyone reading this now wants to know about all the other fascinating things I do with my time.

December 9, 2008

Listening is hard to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks, 2008

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

I can no other answer make

but thanks, and thanks,

and ever thanks.

Shakespeare:  Twelfth Night

I think it truly takes the audacity of hope to believe that millions of living creatures have much to be grateful for right now.  Global warming is threatening the sheer existence of every species from polar bears to shell fish, hundreds of thousands of people in Zimbabwe are starving and are now threatened with cholera, Darfur remains completely unresolved.

But I am among those who are immensely fortunate.  So I know it is easier for me to keep the faith and to believe, despite so many appearances to the contrary, that our existence has some meaning greater than what is evident to my naked eye.

Quite funny:, post Things are Amazing, November 25th.

Also just a little reminder to myself in face of temptation to grumble too loudly too often.

Note:  We’re changing internet servers tomorrow morning.  If I don’t reappear here in a timely fashion, the process was not the simple ten-minute switch-over-for-dummies that was promised.   

November 24, 2008

Beta test for financial rescue plan

The British government today announced what in the States would be called a huge bail-out plan for the economy.  Fundamentally it consists of cutting taxes, increasing hand-outs, and borrowing mind-boggling amounts of money that will ultimately equal at least 57% of GDP.  It’s a huge gamble.  It will be early next year before analysts can make an informed guess about how the dice are rolling.

It’s similar to what Obama and the Democrats are hoping to try with a $700 billion stimulus package, but it’s a greater risk for Britain because it’s a much smaller country, and the dollar is a world currency while the British pound isn’t.  If it works, the Labour government will be hailed as heroes.  If it fails, I strongly suspect I will be dead before the country recovers fiscally.  As it is, the government cannot foresee even beginning to pay down the debt in less than eight years, although taxes will begin to shoot up in 15 months time. 

To tell the truth, despite a lot of blustering, nobody really knows what will happen. 

I think in part it is simply a question of confidence.  If people believe things are getting better they will, because we will take risks rather than stuffing all our savings under the mattress. 

Alternatively, we can take the very very long view:  fishermen have just dragged a fossil out of the ocean on the coast of Britain.  It was the fossil of a turtle whose forebears had first left the ocean for life on land 215 million years ago.  50 million years later it returned home to live an acquatic life once again.

Well, I don’t think the changes we are facing in the world today are that drastic.

November 15, 2008

The Great Conflagration

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

The best term I’ve heard so far to describe our global financial meltdown is “The Great Conflagration,” a term thought up by the economist Thomas F. Cooley.

Okay, so we now have a good name for it.  How do we put the fire out?  or rather, I suppose, get it under control?  Cooley and another economist, Lee Ohanian from UCLA have a scary article in Newsweek ( about the effects of implementing the kind of populist approach we tried after the depression.

I can share the desire for justice and revenge with an urgency that drives me out onto the street with my placard and warm sweater for a night in a police cell.  But I do not think poverty will be reduced nor justice served by:

  • imposing heavy taxes on the rich and redistributing it to the poor.  Britain tried it for twenty years.  Their economy didn’t start growing against until they reversed the inevitable brain drain and lack of innovative motivation the policy stoked.
  • giving excessive powers to labor unions.  The US tried it during the depression and as a result kept unemployment above the 10% figure for a decade.  Only the labor shortages resulting from WWII finally increased the rate of employment
  • subsidizing some industries at the cost of others.  Our subsidies for farmers, and especially for growing corn, has both distorted the market and undercut profitability for farmers in the underdeveloped world, and has led to a huge increase of less healthy food in American supermarkets. 
  • imposing trade restrictions and self-serving tariffs.  India, a country rich in natural resources and abundant labor, tried it.  After 50 years of trying, they decided it wasn’t working, so they drastically reduced government controls.  The economy hasn’t stopped growing ever since and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted above the poverty level.

Well, I’m pretty sure I think I know what the wrong answers to The Great Conflagration are now.

I wish I were as sure about the right answers.  My back-up position is to hope that Obama knows what he’s doing.

November 9, 2008

Can Obama dig us out of this?

Far be it from me to tell Obama how to fix the global economy.  If he can do it, he can do it in whatever way that works.  But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what he said he would do, and wondering what I think about it.  I’m rather surprised to find myself thinking – in my amateur way –  that he might be proposing some surprising solutions.  From what I’ve been reading, here are five possibilities Obama might implement:

  • Provide universal health insurance.  Presently, health insurance is mostly provided by employers, and though it was big business that stopped Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, business is now staggering under health care costs that are rising faster than inflation.  GM says it adds about $4000 to the cost of each car it makes.   Universal health insurance regardless of employment will not only provide what has been a scandalous gap in our care for the poor.  It will free workers to change jobs without fear of losing their health insurance.  And it will help business.  Done right, it could be a win, win, win situation.
  • Repair our country’s infrastructure, including our roads and electricity grid.  Apparently our highways and bridges are in desperate need of repair.  Fixing them will not only be good for our transportation system.  It will provide urgently needed jobs.  The electricity grid is antiquated and lacks integration.  Updating it will also provide jobs, and just as importantly, make it possible to send green electricity to larger areas.  Electricity provided by wind, wave, and geothermal sources would reduce our dependence on oil as well as our carbon footprint.
  • Support property prices.  I’ve read three different proposals about how to do this.  One possibility is to legislate an automatic reduction in mortgage loans for any property that has dropped at least 20% in value so that mortgages are never higher than the real value of the property.  Lenders in turn would share in future price gains.  The benefit would be that owners would not be required to move when they dive into negative equity, and whole neighbourhoods would not be blighted as house after house is foreclosed for increasingly less values.  Banks would also find that fewer people default on their loans.
  • Increase state and local government aid.   This would help a lot of people through desperate circumstances and would help a lot of people keep their jobs doing all those things people need their local and state governments to keep doing.
  • Get out of Iran, and support the Middle East peace process between Israel and Palestine.  (The benefits here are too obvious to elaborate.)

 Okay, maybe it won’t work.  But to an economic neophyte like me, it sounds like it’s worth a try.

PS:  I read that some Democratic senators are talking about a $300 billion stimulus package.  I’d love to get a tax rebate, but in all fairness, I think it might be more effective to spend it on health insurance and mortgage relief.

I don’t, by nature, like big government.  But right now, I think some kinds of big government could help create the kind of world I would like to live in.

November 3, 2008

Thoughts on a precipice

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:01 pm
Tags: ,

Dark and cold we may be, but this

Is no Winter now.  The frozen misery

Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move.

The thunder is the thunder of the floes

The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

Thank God our time is NOW when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere

Never to leave us til we take

The longest stride of soul man ever took.

Affairs are now soul-size.

The enterprise

Is exploration into God.

Christopher Fry, English Playwright          1907-2005

As you can see, I’m not thinking about the election tomorrow at all.

October 28, 2008

Prayer facing the credit crunch

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:09 am

Now are the rough things smooth, and the smooth things stand in flickering slats, facing the slow tarnish of sun-fall.  Summer is over.  And therefore the green is not green anymore but yellow, beige, russet, rust;  all the darknesses are beginning to settle in. 

And therefore why pray to permanence,

why not pray to impermanence, change, whatever comes next.

Willingness is next to godliness.

Mary Oliver:  from a prose-poem



October 27, 2008

From here to eternity

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:56 pm
Tags: ,

As Woody Allen once said, “Eternity is a long time – especially toward the end.”

On the other hand, it’s only eight days to the US election.   We bought a pumpkin in the market yesterday, and today played with the idea of carving  “HOPE” and putting it in the window.  It would certainly stand out in this most English of villages.  If I can get an American flag and Obama wins, we will hang it out on inauguration day in January.

In the meantime, I woke up at 4:am this morning and thought “It’s midnight in New York, and the polls must be closed in California by now!  I’ll get up and see how the networks are projecting the election results.”  I wasn’t actually out of bed when I realized I’d been dreaming.

Well, thinking about the election distracts me from thinking about the global economic crisis.  Or should I say crises in the plural?  I still have hope for the outcome of the election anyway.

September 29, 2008

Sleeping thru it all

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:21 pm

I woke up again last night about 3 am and instead of going back to sleep, spent the next two hours worrying before finally getting up and going to my computer.  This is becoming a pattern, though when I start worrying about where to tell my husband to bury my ashes if I die before he does, I think things may be getting out of hand.  If this is the lengths to which I am going worrying about the current state of world affairs, it has got to stop.

Being a researcher at heart, I will test the following hypotheses to see if I can restore my usual 8-hours of uninterrupted sleep.  If none of them work, I might have to consider changing my citizenship to a remote island untouched by American influence.  Or is that going back to my ashes problem?

  • Hypothesis 1:  Stop drinking caffeinated coffee with lunch.  Difficulty rating:  Heroic
  • Hypothesis 2:  Limit my pre-dinner gin & tonic to one a week.  Difficulty rating:  Courageous
  • Hypothesis 3: Do not skip my four o’clock exercise routine more than once a week.  Difficulty rating:  Extreme
  • Hypothesis 4:  Take a 15 minute afernoon nap so I can stay up until midnight in at least a semi-coherent state.  Difficulty rating:  Superhuman.

Well, I’ll start with the easiest one first and work my way up.

September 17, 2008

Ignoring the purple elephant

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:41 pm

Many years ago I was told a story about a young American who travelled East in search of wisdom.  He talked to many people, and was told that for the greatest wisdom, he should see a wise monk who lived in a monastery in the mountains.  The young man travelled up the mountain with great effort, and when he got there, was granted a meeting with the Wise One.  He told the monk he was seeking wisdom, and asked what he did to become wise.  “I sit,” said the monk, “and I contemplate only on goodness, refusing to let any other thoughts distract me from my pursuit of goodness.”  The young man scoffed.  “I have come all this way, and all you can tell me to do is something as simple as to sit and think about goodness and nothing else?”  “If you think it is so easy,” replied the Wise Monk, “go stand in that corner for ten minutes and do not even once think about a purple elephant.”

I decided several days ago that I would not let the election in America, or the turmoil in the financial markets, or worries about global warming, or Zimbabwe or Pakistan or Afganistan or milk formula for babies in China drive me into a state of supressed hysteria.

Unfortunately, I haven’t given up a) watching the tv news, b) reading the papers, c) talking to family and friends, or d) email.

So I’m thinking about purple elephants rather more often than I would prefer. 

I think I’ll have to try a different strategy.

September 16, 2008

A perk of age

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:18 pm

A recent study found that for most people, marriage gets better as they got older.

It has for me.  Both of us seem to have grown up a little in the last 35 years or so, and neither of us get much of a buzz out of fighting.  Even being unnecessarily irritable doesn’t seem worth it.

Personally I’m not using this to recommend sticking around in a failed relationship with that hope in mind though.  What’s good might be better in two’s but what’s bad might be doubly bad.

September 8, 2008

Not dying isn’t the same as living

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

It’s amazing how fast one’s focus of attention can change.  Yesterday I was thinking about the end of the Roman Empire, and wondering with this election if America had reached a critical point which will ultimately decide whether America’s hegemony will end with the Barbarians at the gate.  Concomitantly I spent some energy cheering for Andy Murray at the U.S. Tennis Open, and celebrating birthdays of my niece and husband.

And then I perused my email this morning as I routinely do and flash!  My nephew has sent a message to the family list serve to say that my older brother Tom was in a hospital in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after he’d been air-lifted from the Grand Tetons where he’d been hiking.  Tom told me years ago that he hoped to die somewhere in Alaska while he was hiking, but I suspect today he feels this scenario at age 69 is a little premature.

It seems to have been a close call, and they are keeping him there for some time after emergency surgery.  He’s doubly lucky because it looks as if he is going to be okay.  But he’s known for years about a hernia which he was told could kill him and that he’s resolutely ignored.

It’s easy to say he should have had it fixed when the sun was shining.  But I have some sympathy for people who say they would prefer to die sooner rather than using up huge expenditures of anxiety and time and money asking the medical profession to make sure they don’t die.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet, but I’ll bet that even now Tom hasn’t changed his mind about doctors.  Though I dare say he’s grateful for their skill at this particular point in time.

September 6, 2008

Advice my mother never gave me

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:17 pm

A politician here recently gave the following advice for a successful career:  If at first you don’t succeed, wipe out all evidence that you ever tried.

Whatever else, I admire his candor.

September 4, 2008

Supermarket shake-up

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:53 pm

There is, for every living species in the world, a close connection between the amount of food that is available to that species and how it has thrived, or failed to thrive.  We humans are no exception.   Several million years ago, when Homo started to use stone tools to prepare and then hunt for food, his calorie intake increased, and with it, his/her brain capacity.  About the thousand years ago, Homo sapiens began to farm and to harness animals to work the fields, creating a more stable and productive food source than hunting and gathering had done for the previous two hundred thousand years.  The population surged.  And so it waxed and waned with droughts and rains and sunlight or lack of it for centuries.

In the 18th century, with the industrial revolution, farmers began to rotate crops which again increased productivity, and it increased again with the introduction of mechanization.  Increases in the population followed both advances. 

I have just come to realize that several revolutionary changes have also taken place in the last 100 years which have greatly increased mankind’s food production, which in turn has supported our unparalled population increases.  Until now, I thought the big change was in the development of genetically modified crops in the last fifty years.  I have been moderately in favour of organic food, but not vehemently opposed to GM foods because it has seemed to me that they may be the only way for the population on our planet today to grow enough food to prevent mass global starvation and the inevitable wars that would accompany it.

But I now think the question of how we feed ourselves goes far beyond a simple dichotomy between organic and GM foods.  The way we are growing our food may be destroying both our planet and our health.  And the question of the food we eat seems to be inextricably tied up with global warming and environmental change.

I am now half way through a book which is drastically re-organizing my view of our food production systems. I plan to summarize the main ideas in several posts here but it will take some time because, although very readable, the book which is responsible for this reorganization is dense with information I never suspected before.

If you want to read it for yourself – I recommend it with five stars – it’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  My brother Bob left it behind as a gift when he was here, and I am finding it absolutely mind-boggling.  Walking through the supermarket yesterday was like walking into an alien world.

August 31, 2008

High-minded thoughts

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:10 pm

I spent six hours on our roof yesterday finishing the cleaning job that hasn’t been done for decades.  Peter looked up at one point and said “I’m thinking about what I will say to the emergency services if you fall.”  Rather than concentrate on what an unmitigated disaster McCain’s running mate would be as a President, I concentrated on various options Peter would have should I fall from my elevated perch. 


  1. I told her not to do it but she insisted.  (Not exactly true.  He didn’t tell me not to do it because we have always agreed that my role as his wife does not include obedience, and he knew I was going to do it anyway.)
  2. I told her to be careful.  (True.  Repeatedly)
  3. Why is her neck twisted that way?
  4. You’d better come;  she’s just lying there not saying anything.
  5. She says she’s okay except for the broken back.

Well, it’s not a very entertaining list, I agree.  But it felt like the preferred option next to a McCain/Palin ticket.  Here in England, the papers are asking this morning if the choice was a brilliant move or a disastrous gamble.  I profoundly hope the latter.  She believes the world was created in seven days, is against abortion, for guns and the death penalty, and her political experience at home and abroad consists of 18 months as governor of Alaska after two terms as the mayor of Wasilla.

August 26, 2008

Favourite cards I didn’t send

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:17 am

My sister Dorothy and I have a tradition of sending birthday cards we really wish we could send to somebody else but don’t dare.  It’s a kind of negative-humour therapy mostly to deal with family relationships that are best not expressed directly to the principle protagonist.

One of my favourite cards, about which I have been thinking a lot lately, is

All the world’s a little crazy except thee and me.

August 18, 2008

The glories of garbage

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

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

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

August 1, 2008

Does it help to worry?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:44 pm

The Doha round of the world trade talks collapsed two days ago.  It barely made the TV evening news here, which decided that the increase in gas prices in Britain was much more important.  But I think the news is devastating.  

I think it will mean increased food prices, increased starvation, and a slower world-wide economy.  For the last 25 years, free trade has been the single most effective means of lifting people out of poverty.  It’s been far more effective than direct aid or the charitable activities of NGO’s – valuable as both of these have been, particularly in times of catostrophic crises like the tsunami or droughts or floods.

I fear the effects may be worst felt in Africa, where farmers will continue to be unable to sell their products, because they are being undermined by subsidized products from Europe and America.  It’s hard to convince people that subsidizing farmers in the developed world might be immoral, but I think that in today’s world it is.

I’m reading everything I can with the hope that someone will convince me that the Doha failure – which seems irrevocable – isn’t as terrible as it seems.  Meanwhile, I seem to be reduced to what seems to be highly ineffective worry.

July 28, 2008

Driving in the right direction

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:50 pm

Almost exactly a century ago this week, Henry Ford launched the first car priced to be affordable by people on aveage incomes.

I wonder if Ford had even an inkling of how the entire world was going to be transformed as a result.  No wonder Yogi Berra said he rarely made predictions – especially about the future. 

Speaking of cars, gas (as in petrol) consumption has dropped as of April, 2008 for seven consecutive months in the U.S.  That’s got to be good news, doesn’t it?

July 16, 2008

Making a good guess

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:06 pm

Psychologists discovered some time ago that the average answer to a problem produced by a number of people will almost always be more accurate than the answer of any single person.  For instance, if you are trying to estimate the number of years the Roman Empire was in existence, the average of the guesses from twenty people will be closer to the right answer than the answer from any single individual – unless, of course, you ask a professional historian who doesn’t have to guess at all, but who can probably provide you with the precise dates.  The same thing works with almost any question.  “How many airports are there in the U.S.?” works just as well as “What percentage of the population had earned a college degree in 1920?” which works just as well as “How many bees live in an average hive?”

Now, however, psychologists have discovered that the same pattern evolves even if it’s the same person who is making a series of guesses instead of just one.  Even second guesses made immediately after the first guess improved the average accuracy.  Second guesses made with some time in between were even better.  Multiple guesses from one person aren’t as good as multiple guesses from different people, but it’s better than just guessing once.

So it seems that “I’m just guessing” isn’t quite as bad a strategy for reaching a conclusion as we might think.  The next time I’m trying to decide how much wine we’ll need for Saturday’s party, or how long it will take to drive to San Francisco from home, I will make more than one estimate and ask Peter too.  Then I’ll put my money on the average of all the estimates as the best bet.

Keep guessing.  Things can only get better.

July 1, 2008

Switching off cancer genes

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:37 pm

The research I referred to in my post yesterday finding that a healthy lifestyle can switch off cancer genes was reported by Dr. Dean Ornish.  He’s the same doctor who presented convincing scientific support for the view that a low-fat vegetarian diet, a half hour daily exercise and no smoking can reverse coronary heart disease.  It’s also basically the same diet that both reverses heart disease and seems to stop the growth of cancer.

Ornish studied 30 men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and who decided to try the Ornish approach instead of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery for a year.  At the end of the year they were compared to a control group who had a similar diagnosis who had decided simply to delay treatment without changing their eating or exercise patterns.  Before the end of the year, xix of the control group had dropped out and opted for immediate treatment because the tumours had grown to sufficiently to make any further delay seem dangerous.  The cancer markers in the group who had changed their life styles had decreased.

Prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women often respond to the same variables.  So there is every reason to hope that research will now show that a low-fat mainly vegetarian diet and regular exercise will also reverse breast cancer.

It’s too late for my sister Mary who died from breast cancer twelve years ago.  But not too late for my other sisters.  Or me.  Or all the sisters in the world.

I’ve just found a recipe for kale, sultanas, and crushed almonds.  Sounds like a recipe for a multiple attack on cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease.  Hope I like it.  Just as important in real life, I hope my husband likes it.  I haven’t reached the point yet where I’m prepared to cook different meals for the two of us.

To see additional posts on osteoporosis, click on “Select Category” in the right-hand column, and select Osteoporosis.

June 29, 2008

Good news about cancer

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:34 pm

Even if one’s family tree is not, like mine, riddled with cancer deaths, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer are major killers in the developed world.  Several pieces of good news on this front feel particularly cheering. 

First, researchers have discovered that women whose breast cancer is discovered and treated at an early stage have the same life expectancy as women who have never had the disease at all.  I grew up believing that cancer was terminal 99.9% of the time.  The question was just how much time one had left to get one’s affairs in order.  But cancer isn’t always terminal anymore.

The second blast of good news is even more hopeful.  It looks as if a healthy lifestyle – nutrition and exercise – actually helps to turn off cancer genes in those carrying them.  So even if one has actually inherited a cancer gene, genetics is not destiny.  We ourselves can still have an impact on what happens to us.

I cannot find the article where I read this precious information but it was sometime in the last week.   I will chase it down and so anyone who wants to rknow more on this finding knows where to go.

June 16, 2008

Home-grown oil?

I have just read one of the most intriguing articles I’ve seen in years.  A group of young scientists in Silicon Valley, California, have produced bacteria that feed on agricultural waste and excrete crude oil.  No kidding.  Within the month they expect to be able to test their produce called “Oil 2.0″ ” on a real car.  Unlike oil pumped from the ground, this Oil 2.0 is carbon negative, putting less carbon into the air when it is used than the amount of carbon it sucks out of the atmosphere when it is being produced.

Even more astonishing – at least to me, is that the company plans to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010, and to have a commercial-scale plant open within a year after that.

Meanwhile, a scientist in Japan is working with an algae that excretes oil.  He is receiving massive government support and thinks he can create algae-filled fields producing enough oil to meet Japan’s current oil needs within five years, and within less than a decade enough oil to turn Japan, which today has to import every drop of oil it uses, into an oil-exporting country.

The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling this becomes.  I remember when I first read about AIDS in 1970’s, discussing with a colleague at the university where I was working that this was going to be a big thing.  I thought the same thing when BSE infected cattle.  But the potential for this kind of renewable petroleum to change the world in a positive direction dwarfs almost anything short of global warfare that I can think of.

Think about it.  If mankind has figured out how to produce oil without pollution and at an affordable price, the geopolitical landscape through the world will change dramatically.  Food shortages resulting from creating fuel from bio-mass will disappear.  Pollution will be drastically reduced, along with the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming.

And all of this potentially not in my life time, but in less than a decade.  It is so astonishing as to be almost unbelievable.

Well, perhaps it is unbelievable.  At least it’s not a sure thing.  There are some rather significant problems to be worked out before either plan becomes commercially viable.  But that’s what they used to say about putting a man on the moon.

June 8, 2008

The importance of the absurd

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Jonathan Routh died in Jamaica last week where he lived with his wife in a house without running water or electricity.  He spent his days painting, and his evenings in one of the local restaurants where he often paid for his meal with one of his paintings.  He was English, most well known to the British as the television presenter who made Candid Camera a success. 

His great gift to mankind was to make liberal use of an unsurpassed sense of the absurd.  He once sold a woman in a tea shop two “valuable left-handed teacups,” and organized a totally silent concert at Wigmore Hall (for those of you who are not familiar with Wigmore, it is one of London’s serious concert venues) by “Tomas Blod” at the piano performing “Transmorgrafications, Opus 37, by Sandal.”  Tomas sat at the piano without playing a single note.  Routh proclaimed it “a quiet success.”

I cannot produce the kind of absurdities Routh spent his life sharing with us all, which may be why I have a deep appreciation for his particular contribution to mankind.  Perhaps I can make a contribution to the absurd, though, by telling you that the single response I received to my blog posting yesterday was an advertisement for sunglasses.  I first spammed it, but on reconsideration, I’m going to approve it. 

It’s a testimony to my serious commitment to the Importance of the Absurd.

May 6, 2008

Hope at the cash machine

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:19 pm

When I was in New York City last week, I stopped to withdraw cash from a machine in the Bronx.  I withdrew the cash from the slot, pushed the icon saying I did not need a receipt, and walked away.  I was about to leave when a middle-aged Black woman said to me with the kind of authority that is possessed only by self-assured matriarchs, “You just left without signing out from your bank account.”  She grabbed my arm and marched me back to the ATM, telling me that what I did was extremely dangerous.

I’m not used to being spoken to as if I were in the first stages of senile dementia, but I have to admit this was a super-stupid thing for me to do, and I was both chastened and grateful.  I did as I was told, and then submitted to a further stern lecture about what the screen should look like before I step away from it in the future.

This is the kind of experience that gives me hope for mankind.  It’s not the kind of thing people do that ever makes the news.  And yet it happens.  It would not have been hard to understand if this woman had seen what I had done and taken advantage of making a further dip into my account.  After all, she could have reasoned, look at all the unjust things that have been done to her.  This is a chance to get just a little even.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she gave me a much needed talking to.

It’s the kind of thing that just might save the world after all. 

And I do not say that facetiously. 

March 29, 2008

About fathers and elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2008

Rice and words

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

I have a long-term friend in New York who speaks Spanish well enough to make a living as a translator.  For recreation, she has been learning Irish, and out of interest has now begun on Arabic.  I admire this endeavor but there is a disconnect between what I hear and what I see, so that I have to make a bigger effort than I usually want to make to comprehend most conversation in a foreign language.

So I’ve decided not to try to keep my brain functioning by expanding my small repertoire in Spanish or my embarrassingly garbled French.  I have found a coward’s alternative, however.

 My sister Dorothy sent me the address of a website that donates rice for every word (thankfully, in English) one recognizes correctly in a multiple choice format.  I log on once a day, play it until I’ve missed five words, which I then write down, and use in a sentence at least once before I log on again.  I’m finding it a rather fun method for increasing my vocabulary.  I dare say, it might even improve my scrabble score. 

Whether it will actually make me more intelligent or just less intelligible, I’m not sure.  My words to learn today, for instance, are keloid, claymore, oculus, collier, and sibilate

March 17, 2008

Life at 98

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

With the assurance that 68 really isn’t as old as I might think, a friend sent me the following from The Times for my birthday yesterday:

A 98 year old  woman in the UK wrote this to her bank in Britain. The bank manager thought  it amusing enough to have it published in the Times.  

Dear Sir,
I am writing to  thank you for bouncing my cheque with which I endeavoured to pay  my plumber last month. By my calculations, three ‘nanoseconds’  must have elapsed between his presenting the cheque and the  arrival in my account of the funds needed to honour it. I refer,  of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my Pension, an  arrangement, which, I admit, has been in place for only thirty  eight years. You are to be commended for seizing that brief window  of opportunity, and also for debiting my account £30 by way of  penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank.
My  thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has  caused me to rethink my errant financial ways. I noticed that  whereas I personally attend to your telephone calls and letters,  when I try to contact you, I am confronted by the impersonal,  overcharging, pre-recorded, faceless entity which your bank has  become. From now on, I, like you, choose only to deal with a  flesh-and-blood person.My mortgage and loan payments will  therefore and hereafter no longer be automatic, but will arrive at  your bank by cheque, addressed personally and confidentially to an  employee at your bank whom you must nominate. Be aware that it is  an offence under the Postal Act for any other person to open such  an envelope. Please find attached an Application Contact Status  which I require your chosen employee to complete. I am sorry it  runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or  her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative. Please  note that all copies of his or her medical history must be countersigned by a Solicitor, and the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets and liabilities) must  be accompanied by documented proof.In due course, I will  issue your employee with a PIN number which he/she must quote in  dealings with me. I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28  digits but, again, I have modelled it on the number of button presses required of me to access my account balance on your phone bank service. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of  flattery.

Let me level the playing field even further.  When you call me, press buttons as follows:

1 – To make an  appointment to see me.
2 – To query a missing payment.
3 –  To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there.
4 –  To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping.
5 –  To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to  nature.
6 – To transfer the call to my mobile phone if I am not  at home.
7 – To leave a message on my computer (a password to  access my computer is required. A password will be communicated to  you at a later date to the Authorised Contact.)
8 – To return  to the main menu and to listen to options 1 through to 8.
9 –  To make a general complaint or inquiry, the contact will then be  put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering  service. While this may, on occasion, involve a lengthy wait,  uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.  

Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also  levy an establishment fee to cover the setting up of this new  arrangement.

May I wish you a happy, if ever so slightly  less prosperous, New Year.

Your Humble  Client

My fantasy is that “Humble Client” wrote the above in collusion with her 12-year-old great grandson.  I haven’t a shred of evidence to support such a jolly collaboration, since I know nothing about the writer or her family.  It’s just that sometimes the very old and the very young often share a certain irreverence that delights me, and I like to think that was the case.

 PS:  Thank you, DJ, for the birthday wishes.  They worked.  It was a great birthday.  

March 16, 2008

Thoughts on another birthday

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:35 am

I turned 68 today.  Since I am well past the majority of birthdays that are going to be made available to me in total, I have been concentrating on enjoying them more.  I find it easier now than I used to.  There’s less angst about time speeding away as I frantically pursue what looks like a much lower standard of meaning than I’d planned.

Being 68 is an interesting experience.  I remember not long ago when I thought 68 was very old.  Dad died at 69, and he didn’t seem to me then to have died tragically young.  What surprises me is that I don’t feel old.  I haven’t so much  changed my view of what 68 is like, as I haven’t adopted a self-image in which I myself am 68.  I feel closer to 40.

This gross distortion of reality gives me pause when I see 70 year olds wearing blond shoulder-length hair,  skirts that are too short or make-up they should have binned at 35.  I myself highlight my hair to cover the grey, which doesn’t seem to be too tasteless.  But I still fit into some of the clothes I bought 30 years ago, and I’m not sure they remain suitable for someone in my age group. 

I keep trying to remind myself that my goal isn’t to look decades younger than I am, but to feel that way.  I have found the secret – I hate to tell you this – is daily serious exercise for at least 20 minutes.

March 15, 2008

Investment advice for the wary

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:19 pm

“October is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks.  Others are July, January, April, September, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.”      Mark Twain

This advice, of course, only applies to months in the future.  Months that are not dangerous can be identified by comparing the opening and closing values of your favourite index, such as the Dow Jones Average.  Months where closing values are greater than opening values are good months to invest.

This advice works 100% of the time.  Unfortunately, it can be applied only to months in which you are in full possession of both opening and closing values.

March 14, 2008

Blog assessment: why am I doing this?

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 6:06 pm

I started this blog just about a year ago, and have posted something about 3 days out of 4 about matters profound and trivial, personal and global ever since.  Mostly about whatever is concerning me at the time I sit down in front of my computer.

So it seems time to assess whether it’s worth doing.  Which begins for me with the question of why I keep writing it.  It’s unambiguously for myself, not to make money or get a readership that will rank my blog with the biggies.  I think by writing and I’m glad for the discipline of putting a few words into coherent form on most days.   It’s rather like keeping a diary. 

I’ve told very few people about it, but I am motivated to keep going by the knowledge that someone is reading it and by the occasional comments.   I’m not writing first and foremost to entertain but I do feel as if I have an unwritten contract with the reader.  I don’t feel I owe you, the reader, a relentlessly witty,  inevitably informative or  insightful posting.  I sort of feel an obligation not to be utterly boring too often though.  

And there are a few things about writing this blog that have given me pause.

As soon as I think about the reader, I tend to panic.  If I think about you too much, I lose contact with myself and start to pose, pretending to be in public something somewhat distant from what I authentically, and usually less glamourously, am.

I also panic that I may be disclosing what should remain private.  I’m particularly concerned about the privacy of other people who have shared their intimate lives with me and who may have different standards about what they want out there in the public domain.  When I read some of the things people have put into cyber-space, and which some of them certainly must wish they could get back, I am simply astonished.  I may be more blabby than many, but there is a line between public and private, and the bar is a lot higher for me than for many, especially among the younger generation, I suspect.  Still, there are occasions when I feel as if this entire enterprise is a gushing, unrestrained explosion of egocentric babble, and have several times been tempted to delete the entire thing from cyberspace never to orbit this planet again.

I have also discovered that I can only go rummaging around in the past for a limited time at a go.  It’s almost as if I have to come running for cover to the present.  I am the same way about going through old photographs or telling stories about “olden days.”  So on this blog, I will start telling a story and then stop, and then start again.  It represents some real psychological start-go process in myself but must make reading it a fairly disconnected experience, which I try to soften by using categories, which I think is only partly successful.  Still, that’s the way life is – jerking along in unpredictable episodes of the trivial and profound.  To confuse matters further, it’s usually not even possible to distinguish between them until they are long past.

All in all, I think the pluses outnumber the minuses so I have decided to keep up this scribbling for the foreseeable future.  Well, at least for another year.

March 8, 2008

How to save the world: let people work

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

I have just read the obituary of Baba Amte of whom I have never heard before but who died last month in India at the age of 93.  He was a Brahmin, which means he had the benefits of money, status, and education.  By his mid-thirties he was an accomplished criminal lawyer. 

One extraordinary day – and to the absolute horror of his family – he decided to find out what it was like to live the lives to which many of his clients were subjected.  He got a job cleaning latrines nine hours a day.  One day, as he was mucking through the dog shit and human excrement, something moved.  It was a dying leper whose eyes and nose were already gone.  Baba fled.

But he began to think about it.  Where there is fear, he said, there is not love.  And where there is not love, there is no meaning to our lives.  So he went back and brought the leper to his farm where he cared for him until he died.  Then he began training in leper clinics around the town, and finally set aside a piece of his own land for the handicapped and lepers.  They called it “Anandwan,” “grove of joy.” 

Okay, so far a pretty story of generous charity.  But the difference was that the lepers had to build Anandwan themselves from scratch.  They did, with a small selection of tools, and with stumps of hands and stunted legs.  They were not objects of charity.  They were worthwhile human beings doing something nobody thought they could possibly do.  Today 3000 people live there.

People like Baba is why I am in favour of free trade.  Free trade lets people make a living from the work they do.  It’s not Oxfam or NGOs or charitable hand outs which so often make the givers feel generous and heroic but too often make the recipients feel helpless and useless.  Free trade pays people for work they do and things they produce and the contributions they make.

And so I buy Fair Trade coffee.  And I buy strawberries from Kenya in February.

March 5, 2008

The problem of God

After yesterday’s post, I started to think about God again.   I don’t do that more than five or six times a week, so it’s not quite as important as deciding what to have for dinner each day.  But as I have gone through my life trying on every variety of belief on the subject, God’s existence or otherwise does impress me as a question that significantly influences my personal view of what in heaven’s name we are doing here on planet Earth.

Personally, I don’t know if there’s a God or not.  Nobody does, though what infuriates me to the point of speechlessness are people who are absolutely sure they do know and who are committed to imposing that certainty on everyone else.  I have met The Certains in a great variety of forms.  Some are committed atheists who rant that people who believe in God and even seriously practice their religious beliefs are ignorant, uneducated, frightened, or probably all of the above.  And then, of course, there are the committed Believers.  I have been told by some that I am on my way to hell.  The most fashionable fanatics these days will actually give up their own lives to eliminate not only anyone who disagree with them, but even those unfortunate enough to be in their presence when the suicide bomb detonates.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that these forms of either believing or unbelieving bigotry are modern inventions.  The most superficial review of history shows that these intolerant impulses have been with us for thousands of years.

But modern Western cultures have a special problem about God.  “I don’t believe in God,” wrote the author Julian Barnes, “but I miss him.”  That’s the problem.  Where does meaning come from without God?  Or hope? 

For myself, I think that not having a God does not pose a problem for goodness, for unselfishness, or altruism or morality.  All the evidence with which I am familiar is that these behaviors are intrinsically rewarding, and we, like many other animals, engage in them.  I gave back a ten dollar bill last week when the clerk accidentally gave me $9 extra change, and left feeling like a superior human being.  I don’t need God to explain that.

But what about dying?  what about the meaning of life?  what about destiny?  what about the fact that you and I and everybody and everything we love is destined for sheer, complete annihilation?

I will confess that I choose to believe in God.  Not the God that would in any way satisfy most religious believers whom I know.  But I simply cannot accept that the Universe is meaningless.  And if it has meaning, I personally can’t see where the meaning comes from without some concept – however incoherent – of some reality we call God. 

I can’t buy the whole package of most religious institutions.  But (and this is what I don’t even whisper out loud to committed Believers) I think we are all part of God, and we have a part in creating God and creating meaning.  Purpose isn’t out there in some Great Plan conceived by some All-Powerful All-Wise God.  We have to participate in giving meaning to existence.  So I don’t ask myself anymore when something (usually sad or bad) happens, “What is the meaning of this?  Why did God let this happen?” but “What meaning can I make of this?  How can I use it to bring about something worthwhile?”

As an heroic and very wise woman said recently after her gifted young son killed himself, the question isn’t “Porque?” but “Por qua?” 

Not “Why?” but “What for?”

March 2, 2008

In praise of small steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 29, 2008

On walking away from brain surgery

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:55 pm

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”  Winston Churchill

My brother Jack is home from hospital, and apart from the gash on his head, he seems completely unchanged as a result of his midnight brain surgery. 

Jack told me today that while he was in surgery, his son sat with his mother surfing the net on his mobile learning about the effects of sub-dural cranial haematoma.  He wouldn’t let his mother read what he was learning on the grounds that if her husband was not going to be able to walk or talk or think coherently, she didn’t at least have to envisage the prospect for the first time between one and six am in a hospital waiting room.

The euphoria is palpable.

February 26, 2008

Some mad woman on the phone

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:16 am

I have the dubious ability to hear the ring of a telephone at great distances.  I know when our neighbours’ phones are ringing, I hear them incessantly on the street, and in other people’s cars.  Today as we were arriving home from the supermarket, somebody’s phone was ringing.  I suddenly realized it was ours.

I could only think it was a call from the States and that Jack had taken a turn for the worse.  I rushed to the door with my key, and then dashed to the phone begging whoever it was at the other end not to hang up.  When I reached the phone, I picked it up and screeched “Hello!”   A small little voice at the other end said very politely “May I please speak with Phillip Schmidt?”  I took a deep breadth and tried to sound sane:  I think you must have the wrong number.

The caller apologized and hung up.  But I think she must have been relieved.  It must have sounded as if she had connected to a seriously disturbed wrong number.

February 25, 2008

Jack’s display: suddenly it’s all different

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:18 pm

The call came on Saturday out of the blue from my sister in Chicago.  Our brother Jack collapsed last night as he was helping clear the table after dinner, sending dishes, scraps of food and the family cat flying across the room before a final flourish during which he knocked over the table.  He didn’t lose consciousness, though, and said he was fine, an assurance belied two minutes later when he collapsed again on the stairs.  His wife Mimi refused to be convinced by his theory that his loss of balance was due to an ear infection, and called emergency.

At the hospital they diagnosed a haematoma in the brain, probably resulting from a fall some weeks before.  They prepared for immediate surgery.  But Jack was conscious and insisted on phoning his four children first.  He woke them up individually at about 1 am to tell them that this might be the last conversation that they would ever have together, that he loved them, and to take care of their babies – the various grandchildren who adore him in about the same proportion as he adores them.  Mimi says listening to the phone calls is something she will never forget.

He went into surgery at 3 am.  As I write this he is in intensive care, and says he expects to be back in the office by Wednesday.  The doctors say the best case scenario is that he is going to be in intensive care for quite some time, and will then almost certainly need physical therapy.  How much and what kind is still unclear.  Further surgery might even be required.  But at the moment the prognosis is a good deal more hopeful than it was at 1 am this morning.

I know he’s my brother, but I think it takes some bottle to call up your children in the middle of the night for what might be an ultimate farewell.  It must be something he’s thought about before, although he doesn’t go around talking about dying all the time.  I think it’s a legacy from our mom who talked to each of us quite explicitly when she knew she was dying.

His four children, in the meantime, are trying to come to terms with that midnight call, a once in a lifetime experience they hope never to repeat.  But will always, I am sure, treasure.  Even if their father lives for some good many years to basque in their delight.  We’re hoping he will.

January 25, 2008

Breakdown service

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 12:04 pm

We came to several conclusions about breakdown services while we were being extricated from the floods.

The first is that Yorkshire is a good place to break down.  Well, no place is a good place to break down, but when you’re in trouble and you’re looking for help rather than the adventure of a lifetime, Yorkshire can be highly recommended.  People there are as eager to help as New Yorkers in the middle of a black out or terrorist bomb.  The comparison arises from first hand experience.  We had offers of coffee, two emergency candy bars, hot soup, a complimentary hotel room reservation way before we knew how much we were going to appreciate it, a taxi, a dry towel, and a lot of solicitation.  And good crack, which is what they call talking up there.

We also had a first hand comparison of auto breakdown services.  The driver of the car stuck in the water in front of us sat next to us in the Little Chef.  His breakdown service, the RAC, had his car towed to a garage within two hours.  Our breakdown service, the AA, was unable to reach our car before the police finally had it towed five hours after our original call.  We were considering switching to the RAC but the garage running the towing service for the police told us that in their experience, the best breakdown service in England is Briannia Rescue.  Even on paper, their cover is superior to what we are getting from the AA, and a recommendation from the men at the cutting edge has a certain authenticity that seems worth taking seriously.

So we’re switching when our current cover runs out in two weeks.

January 23, 2008

Life: by John Lennon

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

It was John Lennon, I think, who said life is what happens when you are busy making plans to do something else.  By that definition, I have clearly been involved in living for the last three days.  It certainly is not what I’d planned.

It started out on schedule.  Peter and I drove north to the Lake District on Sunday for a quick visit to his dentist.  It’s a four hour trip, but Peter likes the dentist he has on the National Health Service there, so we make the occasional trip into a little excursion.  On this particular trip, we drove through the Yorkshire Dales with their wonderfully evocative names – Blubberhouse, Stump Cross, Beamsley Hill, Kettlewell, and my two favourites (I’m not making this up) Wigglesworth and Giggleswick. 

We stopped at a roadside coffee shop where I was reminded that we were in the north of England.  There is a north-south divide in England just as there is in the States, but the affluent half is in the south over here.  The north is where the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1850’s, and is the center of England’s coal mines.  Paradoxically, it has also been the home of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, artists like Henry Moore, and writers like D.H. Lawrence.  It has some of the most stunning beauty in England, great cities like Manchester, and there is a strength of character here that sometimes looks like mere stubbornness, sometimes like a capacity for survival that is awesome. 

There is also among some what looks like resentment at the lot life has dealt them.  The girl who served me the coffee in the Little Chef handed it to me with an expression that suggested it was an abuse of her human rights that she should actually be required to work in order to earn her pay check.  As we drove through the cold rain under the slate-grey sky, I thought about this self-defeating sulkiness that I have seen so often among communities that think themselves ill-used.

Coming south on the way home, we were in another Little Chef just a little north of our Sunday coffee stop.  How we ended up there for ten long hours is the story for tomorrow’s post.   But in the midst of our rescue from three feet of flood water that had stalled and possibly destroyed our car along with hundreds of others, we saw the best of northern hospitality, ingenuity, and kindness. 

January 14, 2008

Diet progress

Filed under: Diet,Life as a Nun,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:14 pm

For those not interested in the progress of my diet – which is probably everybody who is reading this – please look away now.

Since I began this diet caper several weeks before Christmas, I have lost three pounds.  Unfortunately, it’s the same pound which I’ve lost three times.  Obviously, I am not onto a winning strategy here.

So for the last three days I’ve lowered my sites with the hope I will actually reach my goal by going in smaller steps.  I have been concentrating on two things.  The first is on exercise – 30 minutes a day circuit training. 

My second concentration is an adaptation of religious practice.  At Maryknoll we said the Divine Office – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  In their strict observance, they have been recited for centuries by monks and nuns about every three hours throughout the day.  Similarly, the Muslim call to prayer occurs five times a day.  The psychology of these rituals is to keep the presence of God constantly in mind, and in both cases, the intervals between prayers is about three hours.  My goal, I fear, is a little less exalted, since what I am trying to do is keep in my consciousness why I am trying to stick to my diet.   But I think a specific reminder every three hours has a solid history of accomplishment to recommend it.  I am truly a reprobate, by almost any standard badly in need of reformation.  Between 5 and 8 pm is the worst which is invariably when I consume more calories than I can burn.  It’s when I eat out of nervous energy, and when I’m most apt to abandon even the semblance of reason.  I have even, on occasion, grabbed one of my favourite chocolate nut cookies saying to myself “I’ll think up a reason later about why I’m justified in eating this.” 

It’s so ridiculous I can’t believe I fall for it.

My new strategy is to put half-minute reminder breaks in every three hours during the day, with a double break at 5:00 when I concentrate on being calm.  I know these breaks are a mere 30 seconds, but they are so short it’s easy to overcome the temptation to skip them.  My back-up strategy is to walk out of the kitchen when I begin that inner dialogue with myself about those cookies. 

So far, so good.  Although do note that “so far” is thus far a mere three days.

I’ll keep you posted.  I’m sure you can’t wait.

January 9, 2008

Family survival strategy

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

I seem to have been involved in a lot of discussions over the holidays with different people about families.  Specifically, why families sometimes split up into angry little cabals, with brothers and sisters not speaking to each other, sometimes even losing contact altogether, living and dying in unforgiven isolation.

Why does it happen?  How is it that some families, often very close during childhood, become so angry that they cannot even speak to each other, while other families remain loving friends throughout their lives?

I’m not proposing an answer to this conundrum.  I do know that families, functional or dysfunctional, are terribly important to most of us.  We care more about the slights and hurts, the support and the love that we get from family members than probably any other single group of people.  Even close life-long friends often do not enter quite so closely into that inner sanctum of our psychological well-being.  And that is perhaps the context in which we should understand families – our own and everybody else’s.

My own family has its fault lines, some of which have approached the cataclysmic.  But without ever talking about it or ever developing it as an overt strategy, each of us seems to have hit upon the same partial solution when rupture threatens.  When a sib does or says something unbearable, or when the discussion threatens to overheat to the explosive point, we withdraw.  We don’t say we’re not speaking to each other.  But we tend to stop direct communication.  In my case in relation to my brother who is striving to be a saint, this mutual silence went on for years.  He told me I was married outside the church to a divorced man and on the road to hell, while I was appalled by his use of physical punishment to discipline his children.  Neither of us could see a bridge between the gulf that opened up between us.  But both of us avoided recriminations.  Well, both of us avoided shouting recriminations at each other across the miles that stretch between England and Mexico.  The advantage was that when we did meet at Aunt Mary’s funeral some years ago, we did not have to sweep up the ditritus of our angry words before actually exchanging a few civil words.  I doubt we will ever become close friends again.  But we are speaking, and I know we love each other.  Even if I think the distance between England and Mexico is none too great.

One of the advantages of a big family is that it is possible to do this kind of thing without losing contact completely.  There is usually someone in the family who can keep up with the other, sometimes who can intervene, or explain the other point of view.

Right now we are applying this strategy in what you might call the Question of the Premature Tombstone.  About which tomorrow.

PS:  I can’t find the results of who is winning the primaries in the straw poll being taken over here on the American presidential candidates.  The interest in election results, though, is probably as great here as it is over there.  Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory last night is the lead story in all the papers and TV news coverage today.

December 27, 2007

Christmas Lite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 24, 2007

Look at the bright side – things will get worse

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:58 pm

As a natural bio-chemical optimist, one of the survival mechanisms I have used successfully over the years when faced with unpalatable news is to look at how much worse it could have been.  Because however bad something is, I find that it could always have been worse.  My sister died of cancer in her mid-40s?  well, at least she died quickly and not hooked up to a bunch of machines in the hospital delaying the inevitable.  My mother died at 48 leaving behind ten children under the age of 19?  at least she had time to prepare and left a legacy that has supported each of us throughout our lives.  I might owe a huge unexpected tax bill?  well, at least I can still take that amount out of savings.  Etc.

All the evidence suggests, however, that Peter is not a born optimist.  He might even be a natural bio-chemical pessimist.  In any case, his reluctant attempts to apply my Things-Could-Be-Worse strategy lack a certain effectiveness.  Yesterday he said he didn’t like being 73.  But that at least it wasn’t as bad as being 74. 

Not quite the approach I would suggest.

November 20, 2007

How big is 25 million?

Filed under: Survival Strategies,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:07 pm

I was introduced to the Spanish Guardia on the day we moved into our house in an elegant little fishing village on the Mediterranean coast in 1986.  It was a hot February morning and the young men were moving everything we’d packed up from our lives in New York – furniture, clothes, pots, pans, computers, and thousands of books from our personal academic library – from the truck into the house, when the police vehicle wended its way up the hill.

Two Guardia officers got out.  The movers all disappeared into the back of the moving van, and quite suddenly, did speak a word of Spanish.  One officer came to the door, removed his hat and greeeted me – Buenas dias, Senora.  Peter speaks French, so it was left to me and my rusty Spanish learned in high school to stumble on.  What emerged was that the officers wanted to come into our house and open the boxes that were piling up there. 

I was well aware that in the U.S. or England, the police do not have the right to roll up and insist on coming into your house to search without a warrant.  They don’t have that right in Spain either, but when you are a foreigner and a police force with a ruthless reputation forged under the rule of the dictator Franco arrives, one is not inclined to choose a moment like this to make a point of law.  I invited them in.

The senior officer ripped open two of the boxes.  By chance, both of them were filled with books.  “Ah, libros!” he spat.  Then tipped his hat, and with many Gracias, Senora, departed.  We learned later that they were looking for a load of contraband machinery.  I might have resented their high-handedness but I’ve never wished in restrospect that I’d stood up to them.  I knew they had too much power, and even if we had done nothing wrong, they could cause us an immense amount of trouble for a very long time.  

I remembered this incident today when news broke that four weeks ago the HMRC (the treasury and tax-collection department in Britain) sent in unsecured mail two computer discs containing the names, social security numbers, addresses, birth dates, and bank details of 25 million UK citizens.  (If you wonder if 25 million is a large number, it might put it in perspective to know that it represents more than 4 out of every 10 people living in this country.)  The discs have been lost, and despite a furious search, have not been found.

The government has no choice but to admit this is a huge failure to protect its citizens from serious potential harm, especially identity theft.  But what is coming out is a story of systemic failure.  This is by no means the first security failure, and stories of incompetence on a huge scale are terrifying. 

This incompetence is why I was willing, at fairly substantial personal cost, to pay a UK accountant to stand between me and the HMRC should they ever decide to examine my tax liability. 

I fear arrogant incompetence far more than I fear the rule of law.

November 8, 2007

Losing it

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

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

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

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

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

November 7, 2007

About bones and taxes

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

I don’t usually indulge in a double gin and tonic.  I don’t usually indulge in more than one single gin and tonic a week.  But I did tonight.  Not sure about the delays of rush hour traffic I might run into, I arrived this morning at the doctor’s office (known as “surgery” here in the UK) at 8:30 for my 9:00 appointment.  Unfortunately, the receptionist had re-booked me for 4:30 but forgotten to tell me.  There was nothing to do but return eight hours later, which I did.  By then the doctor was running late, and I saw him at 5:30.

But I finally did find out the results of my latest bone density scan.  Basically they are inconclusive.  Things probably – probably – haven’t gotten worse, but there is a built-in error rate when different machines are used, a problem compounded by the fact that different measurements were also taken.  So I’m seeing a bone specialist after a blood test next week to find out if any more light can be shed on what is happening.  Possibly my bones are thinning at a normal rate which, unfortunately, started with my menopause which began 4-5 years earlier than average.

But the shock was to come home to the email from my tax accountant here who estimates that I probably owe several thousand dollars in back taxes, interest, and penalties for the last five years.  This will not drive us into the poor house.  It will not force us, even, to choose between heat and hunger.  But it will cost.  And I am not someone who doesn’t deliberately pay the tax I owe when it is due, so it is somewhat shattering.  I’m looking forward to receiving the forms tomorrow or Friday to see what went so drastically wrong in my calculations.

My survival strategy is not very profound, but it usually works.  Basically, it’s a version of “well, things could be worse.”  This doesn’t work for Peter at all, but I take consolation in telling myself that if I could choose between learning today that my back tax bill is much greater than I expected or that my bones had continued to deteriorate at a dangerous rate, I’d take what in fact I got.  So things could be worse.

On the other hand, I do have to agree with Peter that they could be better.  Well, who knows?  maybe they are.

To see additional posts on osteoporosis, click on “Select Category” in the right-hand column, and select Osteoporosis.

November 3, 2007

Cure for neurotic worry

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

After posting my worry blog yesterday, it finally became clear to me that the reason I couldn’t stop worrying about my UK tax situation was that I wasn’t confident I could defend the relevant figures in the event of an audit.  Having identified the problem, I sat down with my tax files and studied them in the light of everything I’ve learned in the last four months about the tax system here.  It helped a lot.  That nagging neurotic obsessive worry has disappeared, leaving merely a realistic desire to finish the process and hope that the final bill isn’t too far adrift from my expectations.

I did know there was something unrealistic about the way I was worrying, but I’m amazed the solution was so obvious.   It did, of course, take some studying on my part and I couldn’t have done it when I first started out on this learning escapade. 

But it confirms my philosophy.  Whether it’s worry or depression or illness or anxiety or loneliness or anger, it’s not just the event out there that explains how we feel.  We ourselves bring our own interpretations to events too.  It can change things completely. 

October 15, 2007

Buddha on wet feathers

Filed under: Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:05 pm

For a long time I have thought the Buddhist teaching that moving toward greater and truer consciousness might indeed be our highest goal in life.  I might, however, have been a little askew in my pursuit.

This morning Peter, who inevitably is up before I am, woke me with the urgent announcement that there was a problem (“disaster” might have been the actual word he used) spreading all over the floor of the utility room and kitchen.  Before I was even out of bed, I knew what happened.  Last night I’d set the laundry to run over night to wash a feather-stuffed pillow.  I can now tell you from personal observation that a wet feather can get into any space big enough to accommodate even the smallest amount of water.  Not only can it get into such a space.  It will.  In fact, feathers may possess a mysterious glue activated by water which insures they stick to whatever surface they encounter.

What I thought about, as I mopped up more feathers than could possibly have been in the original pillow, was human consciousness.  Or at least my human consciousness.  It seems to operate in concentric circles:  the closer in time and space an event is to me, the more energy I invest in it.  So today, the feathers, my sister’s accident in which she totalled her car last Friday, and the tragedy unfolding in Iraq each occupied just about an equal amount of my psychic energy.

Surely something is wrong here with my priorities.  Dorothy says this is the way our consciousness works, and that the important thing is to have the right orientation to what is nearest to oneself, and that it will spread out to things that are further away.

In that spirit, I can say that, although I spent several hours sponging up water across about ten square meters and several more on my back pulling wet feathers from the nooks, crannies, outlets and hoses of the washing machine, it did not ruin my day. 

I am not so advanced as to be able to say it was quite the very best possible day I’ve ever had.   But I do know it could have been worse.  I even got the washing machine working again.

October 12, 2007

“Thank you for your interest”

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

It sounds like a recorded telephone announcement:  “Thank you for your interest.”  But I mean it.

I know from looking at the pages that get hit in this blog that a lot of people are logging on to read about my life in the convent.  Unfortunately, I’m not a story teller, and I’m not writing this blog with the hope that it might turn into a bestseller.  I’m writing it to think about living.  So my forays into the past are in search of a better light on what I’m doing now.  I’m saying this because I am in danger of trying to keep you interested – to keep my blog numbers up, as it were.  But I can’t do it.

I find concentrating solely on the past is kind of suffocating.  This doesn’t make sense, because I believe the present can change the past, and the past certainly helps shape the present.  The family reunion last week was an example of this.  My mother died fifty years ago, and yet it was evident that the effects of her life are still vibrant.  It’s not because we talk about her much.  We don’t.  I in particular don’t talk about her a lot, because I don’t like to spend too much time in the past, and besides, at the time she died I was in a stage of teenage rebellion in which I found her annoying and needy and sentimental.  I don’t think that anymore,  In fact, I think she was an exceptionally brave, loving, and selfless woman.  On the other hand,  I don’t have a long list of syrupy memories about her either.

 Mostly what I write is sort of boring to everybody but myself.  And yet, it matters to me that you – my unknown reader – are there occasionally.  And I want to say thank you.  You’ll never know, but your interest helps me see things more clearly, live a marginally better life, to choose the less selfish road more often than I would if you weren’t there.

So thank you for your interest.  We don’t know each other, but I am glad you are there.

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